rebecca mead | love’s labour

25 04 2012

Illustration by Gerald Scarfe

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND  No. 214 (& Poetry Dispatch) | April 25, 2012



Monogamy, Marriage, and other menaces
Rebecca Mead

In 1643, John Milton published his “Doctrine & Discipline of Divorce,” an essay addressed to the members of the English Parliament, in which he de­plored matrimonial laws that impris­oned the unhappily married in “a droop­ing and disconsolate household captivity, without refuge or redemption.” But the “Doctrine of Divorce” is also the reverse of what its title suggests; in defending divorce, Milton offers a meditation on what a marriage worth the name might consist of. In his tenderest phrase, Mil­ton (whose own first, unhappy marriage must have been instructive in these mat­ters) writes, “In God’s intention, a meet and happy conversation is the chiefest and noblest end of marriage.” Milton would have understood “conversation” in a broader sense than we do now. The word derives from the Latin verb conversari, which means to live together, with connotations of habitual proximity and cooperation. Milton is not referring to marital chatter about school districts or visits to the in-laws or the follies of the Bush Administration, or even the familiar, forlorn spousal inquiry “What are you thinking about?” The conversa­tion of true marriage, he suggests, is an intimate, easy, fruitful intercourse: not talk but life itself.

In a droll, overstated new book, “Against Love: A Polemic” (Pantheon; $24), Laura Kipnis describes a different kind of marital conversation. “As is true of all human languages, the language of coupledom is governed by a finite set of rules that determine what can be verbal­ized and how,” she writes in a section ti­tled “Couple Linguistics 101.” “Close observation reveals that this is a language comprising one recurring unit of speech the interdiction.” Kipnis spends the next ten pages of her book enumerating some of those interdictions, “a catalogue of strictures, commands and punishment so unending that you will begin to wonder why no one has yet invoked the Geneva Convention when it comes to cou­ple relations”:

You 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), or load the dishwasher according to the method that seems most sensible to you…You can’t not make the bed. You can’t not express appreci­ation when the other person makes the bed even if you don’t care. You can’t sleep apart, you can’t go to bed at different times, you can’t fall asleep on the couch without getting woken up to go to bed. You can’t eat in bed. You can’t get out of bed right away after sex. You can’t have insomnia without being grilled about what’s really bothering you.

In Kipnis’s characterization, the do­mestic captivity that is marriage is com­plete and relentless, with surveillance, repression, and prohibition built into its very structure.

Kipnis teaches in the department of radio, television, and film at Northwest­ern University, and an earlier incarnation of “Against Love” appeared in 1998 in the journal Critical Inquiry. In Critical Inquiry, her lively prose was buttressed by footnotes invoking names familiar from the nation’s cultural-studies curric­ula: Herbert Marcuse, Jean Laplanche, Fredric Jameson, Julia Kristeva, and, of course, Marx and Engels. Those refer­ences have been considerably pruned in the book-length version, though the germ of their ideas still informs the text. The result is a deft indictment of the marital ideal, as well as a celebration of the dissent that constitutes adultery, de­livered in pointed daggers of prose. In a typical flourish, Chapter 2 begins, “Adultery is one wav of protesting the confines of coupled life; of course there’s always murder.” Reading Kipnis is rather like sitting next to an engagingly acerbic guest at a dinner party—great run for an evening, if somewhat curdling to the digestion.

Kipnis, alighting upon the psycho-therapeutic bromide that relationships take work, asks, “When did the rhetoric of the factory become the default lan­guage of love?” It’s an interesting ques­tion, but she doesn’t answer it. Instead, she takes the metaphor of work at its word, characterizing ours as an age “when monogamy becomes labor, when desire is organized contractually, with accounts kept and fidelity extracted like labor from employees, with marriage a domestic factory policed by means of rigid shop-floor discipline.”

And this, of course, is where Marx comes in: “If love is the latest form of alienated labor, would rereading ‘Capital’ as a marriage manual be the most ap­propriate response?” (One could charita­bly take that “rereading” to be a nice little joke about the preoccupations of cultural-studies academics, rather than an expression of it.) Pursuing the analogy of love and labor, Kipnis declares that marital fidelity inevitably evolves into what she calls, after Marx, “surplus mo­nogamy: enforced compliance rather than a free expression of desire.” Submitting to the repressive regime of marriage, then, is an enactment in miniature of a larger and more tragic social conformity.

Much of die book consists of an ar­gument against companionate coupledom, the condition to which—or so popular culture, legal systems, and reli­gious institutions insist—we all aspire. “Domestic couplceom [is] modern love’s mandatory barracks,” Kipnis says. “Do­mestic coupledom is the boot camp for compliant citizenship.” In support of her case, she cites the familiar divorce statis­tics showing that half of all American marriages end in divorce; the resigned verdicts passed upon the institution of matrimony by such authorities as Sigmund Freud (“One does not venture to declare aloud and openly that marriage is not an arrangement calculated to satisfy a man’s sexuality, unless one is driven to do so perhaps by the love of truth and eagerness for reform”); and the well-rehearsed argument that romantic love as the foundation of an enduring mar­riage is an invention of modernity, un­known to ancient Greeks, courtly lovers, or the centuries’ worth of marriageable sons and daughters who served as cur­rency in parental property transactions.

The structure of contemporary marriage, with its expectations of lifetime fidelity, belongs to the apparatus of state control. A population that willingly polices itself through the interdictions of married life, Kipnis argues, has given up any revolutionary strivings, and will submit to other repressive social orders— capitalism, say—without protest. “Let’s imagine that to achieve consensus and continuity, any society is required to pro­duce the kinds of character structures and personality types it needs to achieve its objective,” she writes.” What mysteri­ous force or mind-altering substance could compel an entire population into such total social integration without them even noticing it happening, or ut­tering the tiniest peep of protest? What if it could be accomplished through love?

The hero of Kipnis’s story is adultery. Conducting an adulterous affair amounts to a courageous insurrection against an inhuman social order. “Adultery is the sit-down strike of the love-takes-work ethic,” she says; it is, in fact, the “anarcho-syndicalism of private life.” And she has the revolutionary’s disdain for ameliorist measures. Addressing marital dissatis­faction through divorce and remarriage amounts, in her view, to a submission to cultural norms: serial monogamy, the ap­proved cultural therapy for the failure of monogamy proper, is “liberal reformism writ familial’1—the participant? change, but the institution survives intact. Kip­nis, who, unfortunately, feels the need to preface her book with the explanation that a polemic is inherently extremist and not to be taken entirely seriously, sug­gests that the structure of marriage might be rethought. “It’s generally understood that falling in love means committing to commitment,” she writes. “Different social norms could entail something en­tirely different: yearly renewable con­tracts, for example.”

Given the census data on divorce, Kipnis suggests, the reasonable thing to do would be to factor the likely de­mise of half of American marriages into policy decisions. Instead, the public has been subject to lectures on marital recti­tude by politicians like Newt Gingrich and Bob Livingston, who have either transgressed their own nuptial vows or vowed marital fidelity successively to dif­ferent women. Kipnis devotes much of her book to the way that adultery, in the nineteen-nineties, burst out of the pri­vate sphere and into the political, cre­ating a new political style, which she describes ‘as spousal: “Would you want to be married to this politician?” Bill Clinton was hardly the first adulterous United States President, but his trans­gressions, she suggests, occurred at a mo­ment when the self-deception upon which the concept of monogamy is founded could no longer be sustained. The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal pro­vided an arena for the national ambivalence about marriage: “If there were a Starr Report on every American mar­riage, the institution would instantly crumble, never to recover.”

Kipnis is disappointed in Clinton for failing to embrace his inner adulterer and for capitulating to the ruling mari­tal order with his denials, apologies, and efforts to patch things up with his wife, ” now Senator Clinton. (Yes, he would want to be married to this politician.) A better role model, she thinks, is Steven R, Johnson, the ranking Republican in the Indiana state senate. When he was found to have committed “inappropriate” rela­tions with one of his interns, he ad­mitted to the affair, expressed regret, was removed from his committee chair­manship, and was ultimately separated from his wife. In the midst of all that, he issued a public statement saying that, “in a very strange sense,” he had been given “an opportunity to start my life again.”

Kipnis considers this quickening newness to be adultery’s highest good; “It is at least a reliable way of proving to ourselves that we’re not quite in the ground yet.” She is extremely funny on the allures of extramarital romance, de­scribing the overdetermined encounter at the academic conference (“You slowly become aware of a muffled but not com­pletely unfamiliar feeling stirring deep within, a distant rumbling getting louder and louder, like a herd of elephants massing on the bushveld…. Oh, God, it’s your libido, once a well-known free­dom fighter, now a sorry, shriveled thing, from swaggering outlaw to model citi­zen, Janis Joplin to Barry Manilow in just a few short decades”) which leads to the secret phone calls, the elaborately concealed meetings, and the flushed ex­changes. She’s gimlet-eyed about the myriad self-deceptions of adultery—the conviction that one’s lover has the pow­ers of understanding of Socrates, the sexual technique of Casanova, and the capacity for sympathy of Mother Te­resa—and about the arrangement’s nar­cissistic rewards. “What really keeps you glued to the phone till all hours of the night—conversations sparkling with soulfulness and depth you hadn’t known you possessed, exchanging those search­ing whispered intimacies—is a very dif­ferent new love-object: yourself. The new beloved mirrors this fascinating new self back to you, and admit it, you’re madly in. love with both of them.” Though Kipnis is aware that adultery has its own con­tradictions (it couldn’t exist without mar­riage, for starters), she is won over by what it offers: a rekindling of sexual desire.

Indeed, for someone with such a skep­tical eye for the supposed eternal ver­ities, Kipnis gives lust a free ride. “We’re inherently desiring creatures,” she says. “And sometimes desire just won’t take no for an answer.” For all her insistence on the historical specificity of our no­tions of romantic love, Kipnis treats the kind of sexual desire that surfaces during academic conferences as if it were trans-historical and transcultural, rather than being conditional upon the ready avail­ability of a range of alternative partners and effective contraception, both of which are historical novelties, particu­larly for women. Kipnis is at her most incisive when writing about what she considers to be the desire-free zone of a long-term marriage. “Embarrassing, isn’t it, how long you can go without it, if you don’t remember to have it, and how much more inviting a good night’s sleep can seem compared to those over-rehearsed acts,” she writes. “Even though it used to be pretty good—if memory serves—before there was all that sar­casm. Or disappointment. Or children. Or history.”

“Against Love” Invariably depicts the diminishing of sexual desire as a loss, and although it is a taboo of contempo­rary culture to admit to feeling other­wise, this was not always the case: it isn’t hard to see why women exhausted by years of dangerous childbearing might happily have greeted the ebbing of sex­ual desire, particularly that of their part­ner. Kipnis does pay lip service to the functions of marriage beyond the sex­ual—”Companionship, shared housing costs, childrearing convenience, reassur­ing predictability, occasional sex, insur­ance against the destabilizing effects of non-domestic desire”—but her enumer­ation seems delivered in the spirit of those legally required disclosures of pharmaceutical side effects. Unfettered sexual desire, for her, trumps all other inclinations. That view, as it happens, puts her in the company of the con­servative churchmen against whom Mil­ton railed in his divorce tract, since just about the only ground on which a divorce could be granted in the mid-seventeenth century was that of adultery. To Milton, this amounted to a sacrile­gious reduction of marriage to nothing bur avenue for sexual relations: “What is this but secretly to instruct us, that how­ever many grave reasons are pretended to the married life, yet that nothing indeed is thought worth regard therein but the prescribed satisfaction of an irrational heat?” Kipnis’s celebration of this irra­tional heat leaves no room for the notion that the first achings of desire might evolve within marriage into less thermal satisfactions.

Falling in love is the nearest most of us come to glimpsing Utopia in our life­times (with sex and drugs as fallbacks),” .she writes. But what if Utopia was not merely glimpsed in the heady, vanishing moment of falling in love but was actu­ally the project of enduring love? What if the expression of that love was the ongo­ing construction of a better world in do­mestic microcosm—of Milton’s meet and happy conversation? Rather than seeing each individual marriage as a cog in a tyrannical industrial machine that manufactures large-scale social docility, we might re-reread Marx to come up with an alternative understanding of how the language of work might relate to the language of love. Perhaps love isn’t nec­essarily the alienated labor of the factory floor. Perhaps it can be the kind of work mat Marx argued was displaced by the inhuman character of industrialization: the meaningful, satisfying work of the farmer or the artisan who remained or­ganically connected to the fruits of his labor, and who was ennobled by this ef­fort. Conducted with imagination, the labor of this love might be so gratifying as to be indistinguishable from play.

[from: THE NEW YORKER, August 11, 2003]

Hoy No Tengo Tiempo | Painting by Norbert Blei



5 responses

25 04 2012
steve fortney

the meaningful, satisfying work of the farmer or the artisan who remained or­ganically connected to the fruits of his labor, and who was ennobled by this ef­fort. Conducted with imagination, the labor of this love might be so gratifying as to be indistinguishable from play.
Teaching and writing.
I annoy people of the protestant work ethic when I say I never worked a day in my life. Teaching was for me play. Not to say that I didn’t play strenuously and hard. I did. But it was play never the less.
As for writing: pure fun. Little or no agony. Just fun.
And then there’s fishing, gardening, family. Especially the last…..

25 04 2012
John Bennett

Norb … I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — I love your paintings and sketches…great stuff …

25 04 2012
Alice D'Alessio

I think that lady has a bur in her britches. Seems like she hasn’t enjoyed gratifying and rewarding marital – or any kind of – love. I’ll bet she wouldn’t be fun to live with.

A 2003 New Yorker ! Well, things haven’t changed so much in 9 years, I guess. Thanks for a chance to run downstairs and smooch my captive marital partner.

26 04 2012

I’m with Alice!!!!!!

26 04 2012
Kris Thacher

I got a lot out of the first paragraph. The rest, a lot of background noise in the cafe. Back to work.

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