Thoughts on life after the PhD
Reading a book called Against Love: A Polemic only a few weeks before I’m about to move in with someone probably isn’t very wise. But Laura Kipnis isn’t really hating on “love,” though she argues repeatedly that she is. Rather, the book is a vicious critique of a particular KIND of love–specifically, the society-sanctioned, rule-laden, strictly monogamous realm of domestic couplehood. And regardless of how wonderful your own relationship might be, regardless of the beauty and peace you might find in the idea of domestic bliss, “Against Love” will force plenty of those ideas through a meat grinder, with occasionally painful–but usually enlightening and funny–results.
I’m tempted to just say read the book–everyone who’s one half of a couple or plans to be should be required to read it. It’s academic but accessible, bringing in Foucault and Freud and Marx but using a limited amount of academic jargon. Still, I know that time is precious, so I’ll just go over some of the key points.
Against Love begins by questioning its own premise–how, the author wonders, could anyone possibly be against love? She reminds us that it’s a polemic, meaning that we’re only going to hear one side of the story–yes, we know that love and domesticity have a lot of good points, but that’s not the purpose of this book. Kipnis is entertaining a concept that modern society seems afraid to touch: the idea that our view of love–of what it means to be in a relationship, of the compromises that must be made to be part of a couple, of what constitutes monogamy–is fundamentally flawed.
For starters, she argues that the current “love model”–a monogamous relationship between two people (married or not, hetero or not)–was, all romantic notions aside, essentially promoted during the beginning of the twentieth century to create a more productive labor force. We may have convinced ourselves that it’s “natural,” and that anyone who doesn’t desire to be in a committed, monogamous relationship has “intimacy issues” or a host of other emotional problems, but Kipnis argues that the idea of an eternal, monogamous love emerging out of domestic couplehood is a decidedly new invention:
“The history of love is written differently by every historian who tackles the subject; without becoming mired in their internecine debates, we can still say with certainty that nothing in the historical or the anthropological record indicates that our amorous predecessors were ‘working on their relationships.’ Nor until relatively recently was marriage the expected venue for Eros or romantic love, nor was the presumptive object of romantic love your own husband or wife (more likely someone else’s), nor did anyone expect it to endure a lifetime: when practiced, it tended to be practiced episodically and largely outside the domicile” (25-26).
Kipnis wonders why we’re all so convinced that love has to be hard work, and why it has to be confined by a seemingly endless list of rules and regulations:
“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 designed to keep the wives and husbands and domestic partners of the world choke-chained to the status quo machinery–is this really what we mean by a ‘good relationship’?” (19)
The motto of the adulterer, she argues, could be “f–k work,” because of course love affairs aren’t about work at all. This is where Kipnis is going to make a lot of people angry, and some might claim that she’s promoting a hedonistic, selfish society where we all bonk ourselves silly without any regard for the feelings of others. Again, I don’t think so. She’s not promoting adultery, she’s criticizing a system that compels so many people to see adultery as their only chance for excitement and passion. If the system weren’t so rigid–if we didn’t all feel compelled to exist in living arrangements that even under the best of circumstances can make us feel stifled and sexually apathetic–adultery would be a lot less frequent.
The book’s piece de resistance is an eight-page response to a simple question: “What can you not do now that you’re part of a couple?” As the list goes on (and on, and on) you begin to realize that yes, these are compromises and rules that we all take for granted, and many of them are downright silly:
“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 have insomnia without being grilled about what’s REALLY bothering you. You can’t watch soap operas without getting made fun of. You can’t watch porn. You can’t leave CNN on as background. You can’t listen to Bob Dylan or other excesses of your youth. You can’t smoke pot. You can’t work when you’re supposed to be relaxing. You can’t have e-mail flirtations, even if innocent. You can’t be impulsive, self-absorbed, or distracted. You can’t make major purchases alone, or spend money on things the other person considers excesses, you can’t blow money just because you’re in a really bad mood, and you can’t be in a bad mood without being required to explain it. You can’t have secrets–about money or anything else.”
And so on.
In the end, though Kipnis’s book could be viewed as a 200-page rant, I came away feeling refreshed and surprisingly positive. Whether Against Love makes you defensive and angry or re-affirms your belief in non-conformism, everyone’s views on relationships could use a bit of deconstructing. As I move closer to living with someone for the first time in nearly ten years, it’s comforting to know that all the “rules” of relationships don’t necessarily have to apply to mine. Or anyone else’s.
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