Thursday, April 29, 2004

Laura Kipnis, Against Love: a Polemic, 2003.

This book, by Dr. Kipnis, is far from as exciting as its reviews and its cover suggest it might be. The book jacket says that the book "examines the meaning and cultural significance of adultery, arguing that perhaps the question concerns not only the private dilemma of whether or not to be faithful, but also the purpose of this much vaunted fidelity." Fair enough, as things go, but let's make it simpler: she says that while love is fun, it's for the short term--and, in most cases, can't be sustained over the long-term. She's quite forceful in her presentation--one might even say that she's polemical...

Her analysis follows in a Foucauldian mould, investigating structures that exist to exert control on a number of levels--the personal, societal, and so forth.

She begins by pointing out that since love, in its first and initial moments is so very fun, it's not something that should stoop to becoming "work," as marital therapists are so fond of arguing is necessary (there are some quite enjoyable moments of railing against just such therapists, too).

The second chapter suggests that binding monogamy is a type of prison: that it exists based on strictures that prevent, on injunctions, rather than being based on love itself.

In the last of the compelling sections--chapter three--Kipnis offers what feels like a fervid paean to adultery. The excitement, the perils, the fact that adultery is ultimately about stealing time for the new lover lead to new perils. What she's asking is why this excitement fades, and why this experience should be denigrated in the public eye when monogamy is a thing of the past (a point that she most carefully explores in this section).

The final chapter deals with fidelity and adultery as reflective of society. It looks at the changes from the unexamined infidelities of Kennedy to the over-examination now current in modern US political culture. Kipnis argues that the development of fidelity in love-based partnerships as a metaphor for trustworthiness in leadership and governance is a very recent development, and that it's not, ultimately, sustainable simply because of the lack of permanence in modern relationships. Her implied criticism--that would be much stronger if it were made explicit--is that a trope that is doomed to failure should be recognised as such by canny participants, who should essay a move beyond it instead of living within the status quo. Obviously, this chapter moves away from an investigation of the personal aspects of love and adultery, and paradoxically, this movement both succeeds and fails. While the final chapter of the book is intriguing, and while it is perhaps the best argued portion of Kipnis' thesis, it doesn't fit nearly as well with what has gone before. This discontinuity, combined with a negligible conclusion that makes no real effort to sum up her work left me disconcerted and unimpressed.

The book jacket asks "What is the trade-off between personal gratification and the renunciations society demands of us?"; the answer that Kipnis provides is that what we give up is not worth the price. Unfortunately, the book wasn't worth the surprisingly long time it took to read: the pacing forces the reader to slow down, and really, it's just not worth doing. Certainly finishing the book wasn't worth the 75 ¢ fine that I've incurred for returning the book three days late.

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