Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Against Love

Laura Kipnis' catchily titled Against Love: A Polemic came out in 2003, but I've only just read it, so you're getting a review of it anyway.

Kipnis is the professor of media studies at Northwestern University, and has a back catalogue filled with the sort of stuff that sends most people fleeing to the hills. I've never seen her 1985 documentary Ecstasy Unlimited: The Interpenetrations of Sex and Capital, and with a title like that, I can't say I want to.

Against Love, however, is a rather more digestible proposition, at least if you heed the warning in the prologue about the nature of polemics. It's apparently a more populist version of material originally floated in a more academic format, but chances are you'd rather read it in this form. Despite the title, Against Love isn't an attack on love as such. Rather, it's an attack on love as presently conceived in modern society. Not that Kipnis wants to return to an imagined golden age - far from it. She's just not concerned about past errors when there are so many present ones to skewer.

It's a polemic, according to the prologue, because our notions of love are so fundamentally ingrained that nothing less is going to do the job. Labelling the book as a polemic gives Kipnis licence to go blissfully over the top, press arguments far beyond their logical stopping point, boldly assert the slightly dubious, and generally throw things out there because they're interesting ideas even if she doesn't necessarily believe them. It also means that you can still run with the book even when it lurches into its dodgier pet theories.

Nonetheless, the book is more than just an academic exercise in winding people up. It is, quite legitimately, a 200-page sustained broadside on our expectations of love, from the ground up.

Broadly speaking, and leaving aside all the curlicues and embellishments, Kipnis' central ideais quite straightforward. Our society has extremely strong ideas about the paradigm human relationship (gay or straight). You will find a partner. You will marry them, either legally, or de facto by staying with them for life. You will be faithful to one another. You will love each other for as long as you live. This relationship will be a source of joy, comfort and support to you. Crucially, this is perceived not merely as "the way we do things" but as a fundamental expression of human nature.

Kipnis' central challenge is to say that this isn't a fundamental expression of human nature at all. Cue citation of the high rates of divorce and separation, although Kipnis seems if anything to be more fascinated by the rates of adultery and unfaithfulness. If lifelong coupledom provides all that is claimed for it, why are people so keen to escape from it? Perhaps more to the point, why are so many people evidently unsatisfied with the supposed boons of marriage?

So far, so obvious. But Kipnis develops the theme in a more interesting way. The notion that this form of relationship - companionate marriage - represents the authentic expression of human nature is relatively recent, historically speaking. For the majority of human history, marriage was at least as much to do with property and family arrangements. In those countries where arranged marriage is prevalent, it still is. Only in recent centuries did we decide that people were supposed to marry for love (Romeo and Juliet, after all, is about lovers defying the social order) and that this relationship was supposed to deliver fundamental levels of happiness.

However, the idea has now become so ingrained that, no matter how plainly defective it may be, we seem to be incapable of approaching it in that way. Instead, our response to the obvious failure of so many relationships is to conclude that, since the idea is plainly correct, we must be carrying it out wrong. So the failure of "marry your first partner and stay faithful for life" simply leads to serial monogamy, which is merely the acknowledgement that you've maybe not found the right partner... yet. And the failure of a relationship to deliver the promised benefits is seen as evidence that relationships need work. Why?, asks Kipnis. Aren't they supposed to be fun? If you have to work that hard to hold them together.... well, why not just do something more entertaining with your time instead?

In fact, she argues, our current trend is to explain away the shortcomings of the whole concept by convincing ourselves that maybe our expectations were unrealistically high. But this doesn't lead us to abandon the idea - oh no. It leads us to resign ourselves to working hard to maintain irritating and unsatisfying relationships because... er, because it is, supposedly, human nature that we should be in them.

For all that Kipnis (deliberately) overstates her point, it's an interesting and worryingly persuasive argument. People will, after all, believe any old crap if it's a uniformly accepted social belief. We are healthily sceptical about politics, but opinions in this sphere are taken much less critically. The idea (which is linked to psychotherapy theories, though Kipnis doesn't get into this) that happiness and meaning is to be found primarily in our interpersonal relationships is something that we have come to accept as an axiom of human nature. The notion that this might be completely misguided is, in fact, a fundamental challenge not just to the way in which we organise our families but to the way we perceive ourselves.

All of this could be utterly tiresome and preachy if it was delivered straight, but fortunately Kipnis is a more interesting writer than that. Instead of quoting statistics, the book is written in freewheeling, cynically funny prose with a real rhythm to it. It's playfully effective as it sweeps you up in its momentum, bombards you with rhetorical questions, and occasionally spends a few pages gleefully battering a point to death. In one of the highlights, Kipnis solemnly lists all the responses she got to the question "What can't you do because you're in a couple?", piling up a ton of serious, trivial and wholly contradictory prohibitions from a mess of overlapping relationships:-

"You can't leave the house without saying where you're going. You can't not say what time you'll return. You can't stay out past midnight, or eleven, or ten, or dinnertime, or not come right home after work. You can't go out when the other person feels like staying home. You can't go to parties alone. You can't go out just to go out, because you can't not be considerate of the other person's worries about where you are, or their natural insecurities that you're not where you should be, or about where you could be instead. You can't make plans without consulting the other person, particularly not evenings and weekends, or make decisions about leisure time usage without a consultation.

You can't be a slob. You can't do less than 50% around the house, even if the other person wants to do 100 to 200% more housecleaning than you find necessary or even reasonable. You can't leave your (pick one) books, tissues, shoes, makeup, mail, underwear, work, sewing stuff or pornography lying around the house. You can't smoke, or you can't smoke in the house, or you can't leave cigarettes in cups. You can't amass more knickknacks than the other person finds tolerable - likewise sports paraphernalia, Fiestaware, or Daffy Duck collectibles."

This goes on for eight mindnumbing pages, after which no reader will ever want to talk to the opposite sex again. It'd make a great monologue for somebody.

Kipnis has no particular alternative in mind - that's not the remit of this book. It simply broadsides the way in which one very specific form of relationship has come to be seen as the absolute norm, and as something to which we should all aspire if we are not to be seen - and to see ourselves - as in some way being defective human beings. And at the core of its intentionally histrionic argument, there is a disturbingly good point being made.