Against Love: a Polemic

by Laura Kipnis
ISBN: 0375421890

Post Your Opinion
A Review of: Against Love: a polemic
by Ron Stang

"To begin with, who would dream of being against love?" Laura Kipnis asks at the start of her 200-plus-page polemic Against Love. "No one," she answers. "Love is, as everyone knows, a mysterious and all-controlling force, with vast power over our thoughts and life decisions." But "love is boss, and a demanding one too: it demands our loyalty. We, in turn, freely comply-or as freely as the average subject in thrall to an all-powerful master, as freely as indentured servants."
Kipnis, a professor of media studies at Northwestern University and author of Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America and Ecstasy Unlimited: On Sex, Capital, Gender and Aesthetics, has placed a bombshell under perhaps the one last great unquestioned subject, that which everyone aspires to and venerates-romantic love. As she puts it: "Is this the one subject about which no disagreement will be entertained, about which one truth alone is permissible?"
Kipnis asks, what really is love? Glossed over by emotional flights and soul-stirring longings, enraptured by, and attracted to another, love at base is really about, take your pick-control, manipulation, the loss of freedom, of individuality, the surrender to a state-sanctioned institution, and subsequent consignment to psychological realms of ambivalence, boredom, feelings of sameness and angst.
Sound pretty awful? It is. For who cannot claim that once a romantic "pact" is entered into, spontaneity and the sense of having a choice somehow, somewhere, diminish or die out altogether? That no matter how much one professes her or his love for the other, underpinning the arrangement are established systems of behavioural control comparable to Orwellian Thought Police-wherein the police officer is one's significant other or marriage partner? Because, after all, no matter how much you may be "in love" with someone you can't spontaneously have a fling with that attractive stranger you pass on the street. To do so would constitute a challenge to that system of control, which in some cases is backed by the power of the state.
And hence Kipnis's concomitant meditation on that conduct which completely opposes all commonly-accepted values of love-adultery. Yes, the nasty adulterer, "playing around, breaking vows, causing havoc." Or, "maybe not just playing around." Adultery, Kipnis argues, may be the way love's dissenters or "refuseniks" act out against the "gulags" of coupledom and its ultimate goal, domesticity. Adultery therefore can be "a de facto referendum on the sustainability of monogamy," or a form of "utopianism" in its "sensations of desire, and fun, and play, in love, in transgression, in the rejection of drudgery and work (because) no one works at adultery, do they?" as they, alas, do at "relationships." Yet, within the closed circle of society's attitude towards love, even adultery is not without its paradoxes. What are these adulterers escaping to? "Well," says Kipnis in this wry and often delightfully sardonic book, "it appears that they're escaping to love."
If adultery is play and escape, then romantic love is its antithesis: the "salt mines." Thus another leitmotif of Kipnis's treatise-that companionate love or coupledom (and surely we all have been told this at one time or another) requires a certain amount of labour; as proclaimed in the familiar relationship counselling banner, "Good Marriages Take Work". This prompts Kipnis to ask, "Wouldn't a happy' state of monogamy be one you "don't have to work at maintaining? After all, doesn't the demand for fidelity beyond the duration of desire feel like work," indeed work as "currently configured by so many of us handmaidens to the global economy: alienated, routinized, deadening, and not something you would choose to do if you actually had a choice in the matter?" Yet as far as love goes, "trying is always trying too hard: work doesn't work. Erotically speaking, play is what works."
But love's dystopia not only requires work, it is toil within a ready-made imprisoning gestalt. At one time husbands may have controlled their wives but, says Kipnis, "modern gender relations rests on a system of mutual controlwe spouses belong to each other." Locked-in, we keep each other under surveillance. And for anyone who scoffs at the commitment-phobe's protestations of losing liberty upon entering a relationship, Kipnis sets out a nine-page, often-hilarious litany of what couples cannot do: "You can't leave the house without saying where you're goingYou can't be a slobYou can't leave the dishes for later, wash the dishes badly, not use soap, drink straight from the container, make crumbs without wiping them up (now, not later)You can't leave the bathroom door open, it's offensiveYou can't watch soap operas without getting made fun ofYou can't be impulsive, self-absorbed, or distractedYou can't eat what you want: goodbye marshmallow fluff, hello tofu meatballs." "Thus," plus a myriad other examples from the quotidian routine of coupledom, says Kipnis, "is love obtained."
The goal of relationships, the author concludes, is for each of the partners to reconcile the other to this system of control, and the fact that "virtually no aspect of everyday life is not subject to regulation and review, and that in modern love acceding to a mate's commands is what constitutes intimacy, and that the better' the couple the more the inhabitants have successfully internalized the operative local interdictions."
Sure, Kipnis agrees, domesticity has its rewards-companionship, shared living expenses, joint childrearing, and occasional sex. "But if modern love has power over us, domesticity is its enforcement wing: the iron dust mop in the velvet glove."
Since everyone accepts love, and since questioning it might be viewed as heretical, there is no effective way of addressing its inherent problems. Kipnis says adultery may be "acting out" on discontent, but why people are discontented is a question "simply never asked."
Of course, as with a totalitarian political system, love isn't without its cynics and satirists, so long as their critiques don't ultimately subvert the system. Hence popular culture and its anti-love films (from Double Indemnity to Sleeping with the Enemy), television sitcoms (Married With Children), and time-honoured stage comedians-"would stand-up comedy even exist without the figure of the spouse to aim jokes at?" But even in the greatest romantic films, after the final embrace fade-to-black must always be the signature shot. Because, says Kipnis, "If the camera kept rolling, who knows what horrors we'd see?"
With no avenues of dissent-free love of the Sixties having been dismissed as an anachronism and "even gays, once such paragons of unregulated sexuality, once so contemptuous of whitebread hetero lifestyles, now demanding state regulation too," and with those who individually express dissatisfaction with romance condemned as "unrealistic" or admonished to "grow up"-dissatisfaction with love is expressed through "cheating" or adultery. Whereas in the 19th Century social reformers like Paul Brown or William Godwin critiqued the role of marriage in town hall debates, and utopian communities advocated new forms of love and living arrangements, today scandal-hyped by the media-turns politicians' dalliances (Gary Hart, Bill Clinton, Gary Condit, et al) into the new forums for ethical debates. But unlike in town halls, "outrage substitutes for thought and vicariousness for social criticism, expos for principled discussion."
Love may indeed be the last great unquestioned institution. Still, is Kipnis's commentary not a little over the top? It's a polemic, she confesses, and "Polemics aren't measured, they don't tell both sides of the story,' they overstate the case." But can a commitment based on love be simply reduced to a series of controls? Doesn't one enter this kind of partnership voluntarily, agreeing to the trade-offs? Moreover, isn't this system of "mutual control" the flip side of "honouring" one another, as in a pledge between two individuals? And how different is it from the loss of freedom one has in, for example, a job or a business contract? The ultimate end result of Kipnis's seeming advocacy of carnal and emotional spontaneity might be anarchy and anomie, and its rather harrowing implications for societal cohesion and even the future of humanity.
Kipnis seems to recognize this on one level. "Polemics aren't necessarily unconflicted (not are the polemicists)," she says at the book's beginning. And at the end, "Maybe no one can be against love, but it's still possible to flirt with the idea."

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us