Laura Kipnis: Notes on a provocateur

Author Laura Kipnis, listening to a comment during the Q&A after a reading at BookCourt, in Brooklyn. (Photography by me.)

Author Laura Kipnis, listening to a comment during the Q&A after a reading at BookCourt, in Brooklyn. (Photograph by me.)

I discovered Laura Kipnis in a 2003 New Yorker review of a book called Against Love: A Polemic. A line that stuck in my mind was this:

Kipnis, alighting upon the psychotherapeutic bromide that relationships take work, asks, “When did the rhetoric of the factory become the default language of love?”

I didn’t care that, as reviewer Rebecca Mead pointed out, Kipnis doesn’t answer the question. What really resonated was Kipnis’s questioning of the whole situation of love and marriage. George Bernard Shaw had done something of the kind in Man and Superman, such as here (this is Don Juan talking, in the “Don Juan in Hell” section):

Those who talk most about the blessings of marriage and the constancy of its vows are the very people who declare that if the chain were broken and the prisoners left free to choose, the whole social fabric would fly asunder. You cannot have the argument both ways. If the prisoner is happy, why lock him in? If he is not, why pretend that he is?

It seems to me, in the cold light of morning, that there may be something of Don Quixote and of Sisyphus in her work. She’s tilting at real targets, not mere windmills, and they keep rising up before her. The impossible dream, for her as for Shaw, and for a long line of satirists before him, would be for people to wise up. Naturally, they never do, so she keeps writing.

In a summer 2012 review-essay for Bookforum, she looked at how figures such as Ron Galella, R. Crumb, and Larry Flynt go from being reviled to revered. The trenchant question here is this one: “What is this salvage process that hoists professional vulgarians who sprout a few gray hairs up the cultural rungs into respectability, rebranding them as benign and lovable figures?” The essay includes a delicious report on talking to Flynt about Milos Forman’s biopic, The People vs. Larry Flynt:

When we spoke again, which was after Forman’s film was released, I asked if he thought the movie had cleaned him up too much. He agreed, but added earnestly, “If the First Amendment can protect even a scumbag like me, then it will protect all of you, because I’m the worst.” It was a noble sentiment, but it was also a line directly from the movie­—apparently he’d started believing the whitewash. I recall thinking darkly at the time: “That’s how they get you.” If even Larry Flynt could be seduced into spouting such high-minded blather, then no one was safe from the enfeebling effects of cultural respect.

I don’t know about you, but this is the sort of tonic that helps me face the world.

This week, a new book by Kipnis was published, called Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation. The title doesn’t have the alluring effrontery of Against Love, but the target is just as clear. On Tuesday night, BookCourt, a warm and friendly shop near me in Brooklyn, hosted Kipnis for a reading from the book followed by a Q&A session. I’ll leave it to reviewers to describe the book, though I can’t resist quoting one of Kipnis’s pithy summations of the times we live in: “Everything is personal, and nothing is private.”

The discussion was, if anything, livelier than the reading. Herewith, a few notes, not exactly as they happened but as I recall them: A woman in the audience questioned all the talk brought on by the recent catcalling video; her basic response was, “This is news? It happens all the time.” Kipnis used that as the occasion to suggest that by repeatedly sharing such incidents we may be simply confirming an assumption of women’s vulnerability. She also questioned the need for a response to every provocation. Sometimes, she suggested, the thing to do is just to let it pass. Most surprising (and even entertaining, considering the self-questioning way it was presented) was a confession from another woman present. A man she was assigned to work for had a reputation for dalliances; by the time she moved on to another position, he had slept with every woman in the vicinity but had made no approaches to her, which left her feeling reprieved but also doubting her attractiveness.

That reminded me of something from a Kirkus review of Kipnis’s book:

Unafraid of offending the cause of political correctness, Kipnis is the kind of unfettered, freethinking observer who even questioned the nature of “unwanted sexual advances” at her school’s harassment workshop: “But how do you know they’re unwanted until you try?”

[Update, 11/22/14: Laura Miller wrote a thorough review of Men for Salon. You can find it here.]

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