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Book Review: Against Love June 29, 2008

Posted by Onely in "Against Love"...?, book review, Food for Thought, Reviews.
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Kipnis, Laura. Against Love: A Polemic. New York: Pantheon, 2003.

As the title suggests, the book Against Love is meant to piss readers off, raise their hackles, question the previously unquestionable; Kipnis daringly tackles what she believes is the problem of our modern conceptions and (perhaps more importantly) expectations of love. In the pre-prologue (humorously entitled “Reader Advisory”), Kipnis asks, “To begin with, who would dream of being against love?” (3).

Indeed. Who would ask “why” about being in love? We exist as the living products of expressions of “love,” after all (how dare we question that which brought us into the world!); we grow up believing that the “happily ever after” is actually possible (after what, no one bothers to ask); we pursue relationships with the expectation that somehow another person can and/or actually will enable us to be individually happy; and in the now-infamous words of Jerry Maguire, we imagine that someday we might have the opportunity to declare: “You complete me.” With all these messages shaping us and our beliefs about the way the world should be, to ask “why” requires some truly subversive thinking.

It is this fact – that Kipnis dares to ask “why” – that makes me love (pun intended) Against Love. Her argument can be, for the unprepared, quite unsettling. But Kipnis is not necessarily against love in the most obvious sense – she makes this clear from the beginning: “Please note that ‘against’ is also a word with more than one meaning. Polemcs aren’t necessarily unconflicted … rhetoric and sentiment aren’t always identical twins. Thus, please read on in a conflicted and contradictory spirit. Such is the nature of our subject” (4). Rather, Kipnis wonders why we believe that “love” is meant to last forever, why we promote the resistance of desire as it manifests in its various forms (especially in adultery – more on this in a moment). Specifically, Kipnis is interested in why the rhetoric of labor is so frequently used in tandem with relationship-speak, and why we accept such rhetoric without question. “[W]hen,” Kipnis asks, “did the rhetoric of the factory become the default language of love?” (19). Consider, for example, the idea promoted so often in pop-culture psychology, of “working on your relationship” – about this, Kipnis dares to ask: why would we want to work on something that’s supposed to already be making us happy (22)?

From this point forward, Kipnis meanders through the dense forest of some of love’s challenges, including the rhetoric of the work ethic (“Love’s Labors”), the lack of freedom and oft-contradictory and somewhat impossible expectations involved with intimacy (“Domestic Gulags”), the problem/implications of adultery (“The Art of Love”), and love in the public/political sphere (“…And the Pursuit of Happiness”).

I particularly liked Chapter 2, entitled “Domestic Gulags,” because of the fantastic “brief sample of answers to the simple question: ‘What can’t you do because you’re in a couple?'” Here, Kipnis compiles 9 pages worth of stunningly astute responses to the question at hand, including “You can’t leave the house without saying where you’re going. You can’t not say what time you’ll return” (84); “You can’t leave the bathroom door open, it’s offensive. You can’t leave the bathroom door closed, they need to get in” (85); “You can’t be impulsive, self-absorbed, or distracted. You can’t take risks, unless they’re agreed-upon risks, which somewhat limits the concept of ‘risk'” (87). Further, this selection of tongue-in-cheek comments was ostensibly collected from friends and family; she claims that “This information is all absolutely true; nothing was invented. Nothing needed to be” (84). Recently, when I discussed this book with a friend of mine who is married, he told me that although disliked the book because he felt that Kipnis’s arguments (mostly about adultery – more on this in a moment) didn’t apply to him or his marriage, this particular section was the one that he felt definitely applied to him, and likely applied to anyone who has ever been in a committed relationship, no matter how happy and/or non-adulterous.

Like I said before, I love this book. But the one thing I don’t love – especially coming from a Onely perspective – is that Kipnis’s defense of being “against” love relies on the very couple-oriented framework that she is calling into question. In being “against” love, the primary evidence she uses to prove the ultimately dissatisfying/impossible nature of relationships is the desire for escape that manifests itself as adultery. The problem with this focus, as I see it, is that in arguing that long-term, monogamous relationships are rather unnatural, she uses as proof something that stems out of the “norm” of couple-hood instead of considering other kinds of evidence, alternatives that may exist outside of the norm – for example, people who choose to be alone (onelers unite!), and/or people who refuse to commit to serious relationships (but who are not necessarily single), and/or _____ (fill in the blank as you wish, ye creative-minded folk! and don’t ask me why I just used ye in that sentence!). In other words, in taking on the status quo, I expected Kipnis to illuminate positive/possible alternatives, like becoming the first hermit-monk to be ordained in 200 years (hey my great-uncle did it, why can’t we?).

So ultimately, my expectations weren’t completely fulfilled. But Kipnis’s book is so much fun, it only matters a little bit. It’s definitely a worthwhile, intelligent, and entertaining read for anyone identifying with the Onely perspective. And anyway, I suppose that the absences in the book work to highlight why this blog exists: to fill in the blanks when others don’t. — L


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