Love, Labor, Loss

Love in the Time of Contagion: A Diagnosis by Laura kipnis. new york: pantheon. 224 pages. $26.

The cover of Love in the Time of Contagion: A Diagnosis

EARLY ON, I WROTE A FACETIOUS POEM, a “Love-in-the-time-of-Corona” version of a Frank O’Hara classic and merrily posted it on Facebook. I know it began, “Having a Quarantine With You / is more fun than going to the supermarket or taking public transport,” but I can’t remember the rest because, not long after, I deleted it out of embarrassment. In a world where suddenly thousands were dying by the day, the vibe was seriously off. Much like the last squirt of Purell, whatever flimsy novelty the novel coronavirus offered evaporated pretty much instantaneously. If we were posting poetry, only elegies seemed acceptable. Still, as the situation continued to become more terrible in the world at large, what remained in my small and gigantically lucky life was the same sentiment that had prompted a silly rewriting of “Having a Coke with You.” For the contentedly coupled, didn’t lockdown—whisper it—present the fulfillment of a guilty fantasy, the bliss of not having to go anywhere or see anyone except your beloved?

Laura Kipnis, a professor emeritus at Northwestern University’s School of Communication and a feminist critic often described as a “provocateur,” would no doubt hoot with derision at this sentiment. Both the image of a rapturously sequestered couple, as well as the suggestion of “the world at large” and “my small life” as discrete spheres, clash loudly with her worldview. Kipnis’s most famous work remains 2003’s Against Love “a book-length diatribe” (her words) railing against the idea that monogamous coupledom is a condition worth striving for and working at. Most persuasive was that book’s sound refutation of romantic love as some transhistorical facet of human experience. Love is not some unchanging constant. To invoke a bit of hardheaded Didionism here, that’s just a story we tell ourselves in order to live, and it’s the sort of story that should be consigned to the dust-jacket bromides of middlebrow novels breathily declaring themselves timeless tales of love and loss. Knowing well that the sociopolitical sphere inflects the domestic one, Kipnis wrote: “The history of love is written differently by every historian who tackles the subject.” This was back in the ancient history of 2003, a time not just pre-pandemic and pre-#MeToo, but also three years before Twitter’s inception and twelve before gay marriage was made legal in the US. In this sense, Kipnis is herself a different historian now. As she insists in her new book, Love in the Time of Contagion: A Diagnosis, “It’s not just viruses that mutate, so do we.” The book offers itself—whether or not it intends to—as an older, wiser, and more assured companion to its nineteen-year-old predecessor.

In Against Love—a jeremiad composed of four essays that leavened critique with anecdote, everything well-peppered with gags—Kipnis argued that the “relationships take work” ethic of American culture both evinced and inculcated the kind of obedience we’re meant to display as compliant subjects of capital. In a persona somewhere between high-priestess of the church of adultery and stage-stalking stand-up comic, Kipnis posited that adulterers represented the “furtive breakaway factions periodically staging dangerous escape missions, scaling barbed-wire fences and tunneling for miles with sharpened spoons just to emancipate themselves.” The tone made it hard for the reader to differentiate between gleeful provocation and sincere proposition, between mere flirting and true feeling. There was much cracking of the fourth wall. She opened with this direct address from the pulpit: “Will all the adulterers in the room please stand up?” In spirit, the question seems to anticipate Kanye’s “Let’s have a toast for the douchebags / Let’s have a toast for the assholes” by seven years. (You’ll recall that while cataloguing his relationship-related dysfunction in 2010’s “Runaway”—intimacy issues, dick pics, etc.—the rapper counsels his girl to “run away as fast as you can.”) Both Kipnis and comrade Kanye are shouting out those who, at least in Kipnis’s assessment, constitute a kind of insurrectionary force against prevailing pieties concerning monogamy—those that, as she put forth with much verve and humor if not always the same degree of cogency, promulgated an extension of the drudgery of the workday into the homelife.

Against Love was not only addressed to the uneasily coupled, but also those in “Good Relationships”—“you for whom long-term coupledom is a source of optimism and renewal, not emotional anesthesia.” This betrayed something of Kipnis’s ambivalence. On the one hand, the phrase comes mockingly capitalized and in derisive quotation marks, yet Kipnis also seemed to acknowledge that “Good Relationships” exist. Nonetheless, she invited the contentedly coupled to stand up and leave. And take their daffy Frank O’Hara parodies with them, no doubt.

The freedom any person had to stand up and leave, to run away from me, baby, was suddenly constrained, if not abolished, by the lockdowns of 2020. As Kipnis puts it in “Love and Extinction,” the first of Love in the Time of Contagion’s four lively essays, each a shotgun blend of cultural criticism and chatty anecdote: “When the music stopped we were all face-to-face with our romantic choices and compromises, like it or not.” Sartre’s famous line about hell being other people took on new resonance. More grimly apropos was that line’s provenance: with no escape routes possible, no chance to leave, skulk off to a new lover, or even flirt face-to-face with a stranger, we were basically all in a play called No Exit. As homes became bunkers, love’s problems were exacerbated no matter what your situation. The new paradigm was also characterized by a pall of existential concerns. Such as, “Will the cultural afterlife of COVID-19 be as enduring as the long afterlife of aids, which reshaped consciousness about sex, love, and bodily fluids for decades?” The question obviously can’t yet be answered; “Love and Extinction” remains more gestural and speculative than analytic.

In her second essay, which comes with the crackling, Waugh-meets-Freud title of “Vile Bodies: Heterosexuality and Its Discontents,” Kipnis delivers a line redolent of feminism’s most famous slogan, reminding us that “personal life isn’t just personal”—it’s also political. What she means, specifically, is that our romantic life is subject to cultural contamination, that “the afflictions of the social body bleed into our individual desires and disgusts.” The book, an effort to delineate the ways in which recent events have further complicated the already messy entanglement of love and work in America, is colored by this idea. With the social body so afflicted, coupledom continues to look highly suspect to Kipnis. Then again, maybe relationship misery isn’t even (unlike most things!) the fault of late capitalism. Or at least, not peculiar to it. Early in the book she drops this zinger: “I don’t want to get all ‘kumbaya,’ but maybe furtive coupled discontent is the one thing that truly unites us as a species.” The glibly totalizing rhetoric seems there to elicit a laugh, rather than to be taken seriously. This, however, can feel confusing, because elsewhere we find Kipnis in forensic, dialectic mode. Her swashbuckling style can distract from the serious and well-stocked mind at work beneath.

A world-altering global event has yielded its own truism: the pandemic, we’re often reminded, has “changed everything.” This new commonplace finds itself in a dynamic relationship with that older one mentioned above—that of love as some pure and fundamentally unchanging phenomenon. When it comes to this antinomy, Kipnis’s emphasis is less on what has transformed and more on what persists. Unsurprisingly, COVID has not made her some zealous convert to lifelong, dutiful monogamy. She writes cheerfully about lobbing objects at her romantic partner, aka her “cellmate,” whose lack of practical skills and “scattershot approach to the world . . . made me want to beat him with a stick.” (Kipnis doesn’t seem to notice the inconsistency in, on the one hand, complaining that love is too much like the workplace and, on the other, that her partner is effectively falling short as a worker.)

Love in the Time of Contagion does not refute Against Love so much as bicker with it, finish its sentences, and, like many a married couple, occasionally pass off the other’s thoughts as its own. In both books, Kipnis considers the scholar Ruth Perry’s argument that heterosexual female sexual disgust is a relatively recent occurrence, or as Kipnis puts it with a dash of jolly misandry, “a modern achievement.” To demonstrate a different, prior set of mores, Perry takes us to 1813’s Pride and Prejudice, in which Austen’s Charlotte Lucas pragmatically weds a man she considers unattractive. Strikingly, Charlotte displays no revulsion when talking things over with friends the morning after the marriage is consummated. In both of Kipnis’s books, poor old Mr. Collins is described as “the repellent.” And in both books, Kipnis writes that the “point is that sex didn’t have the same psychological resonance as it does for the contemporary psyche.” The existence, however, of this verbatim repetition between the two books might indicate that Kipnis believes sex does retain more or less the same psychological resonance in 2022 as it did in 2003. Which may be true in the abstract, but if so, it’s too much of an abstract to be meaningful.

Kipnis is more interesting when engaging with specific, newly established contradictions of American life, notably the way in which “disgust with male power and men’s bodies is being renegotiated in public lately, if in messy inconclusive ways.” When a sculpture of the president, a man more repellent than Mr. Collins could ever be, was unveiled in 2016, I experienced warring inner currents of glee and unease. Depicting a naked Trump, The Emperor Has No Balls invited us to jeer at the man’s pink flabbiness and over-spilling belly, but most of all, to squint, cackling, to discern the button-sized chode beneath his gut. Vulgarity begets vulgarity. Four years later, I felt more unease and less glee when, in a trial that would find Harvey Weinstein guilty of criminal sexual assault in the first degree and third-degree rape, the prosecution showed naked photos of the film executive and his reportedly “deformed” genitals to the jury. Weren’t his acts reprehensible enough? Why did his body, gross or otherwise, have to come into it?

Kipnis plunges into both these moments with gusto, wondering whether loudly voiced revulsion with male bodies may be “an effective idiom for disgust with malevolently racist and kleptocratic political institutions.” In which case, “it helps if the male bodies in the news are objectively disgusting.” There’s something morally troubling about weaponizing body-shaming, that deplorable tactic of our enemies. As Kipnis writes, what with women “having been subject to the brutality of appearance rankings our entire lives, shouldn’t we refrain from imposing them on others?” This good question seems like a missed opportunity for Kipnis to go further in interrogating a mode of (putative) feminism, one proceeding from the fallacy that masculine modes of aggression somehow become salutary when deployed by women.

In any case, elsewhere in the same essay Kipnis is excellent and funny on a different “scrambled dialectic,” the fact of women “toiling to bring men down” while “a rather significant number also still desired them for sex and romantic purposes.” She centers on two of the contenders for 2018’s “word of the year”: “toxic,” which, post-Weinstein et al., needs little explanation; and thrillingly antithetical in spirit, the phrase “Big Dick Energy,” a term of approbation used of people who may or may not have dicks big or otherwise, but do exude a winning blend of confidence and humility. Kipnis wonders: “Was BDE an Owl of Minerva thing—were we celebrating it because somewhere deep in the collective unconscious it was end times for patriarchy, and the phallus was losing its symbolic currency?”

Against Love was not much concerned with gender relations; love was a problem no matter who you were with. Nearly twenty years on, following the revelations of #MeToo, as well as the trauma of a misogynistic presidency, we’re far more attentive to the injuries endured by straight women. At the same time, the extremities of this sexual climate have made us more uneasy with the idea of ambivalence itself. Accordingly, Kipnis suggests that for many women, heterosexuality now amounts to a state of “neurotic self-contradiction.”

But there’s something even more alarming than the body politic impinging on our love lives, and it’s the fact that so many of us have voluntarily done away with the private part of “private life.” We even put our love poems on Facebook! In Against Love, Kipnis proposed that the prime agent of oppression was compulsory coupledom. Adducing psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, she wrote, “the only social purpose of compulsory marriage for life is to produce the submissive personality types that mass society requires.” But “Love and Chaos,” the last essay of Love in the Time of Contagion, implies that coupledom has been supplanted by a new instrument of subjugation, one that also happens to wreak havoc upon our romantic relationships. Taking a deep dive into the dizzyingly complicated love life of a younger acquaintance (“Zelda,” who gave Kipnis free rein with her story, “as long as she got a cool pseudonym”), we see relationship drama play out in baroque detail over social media accounts. Considering the way in which “we’re compelled at this point in history to continually externalize our most private selves,” Kipnis laments that “between the post-9/11 surveillance state and the stepped-up monetization of inner life known as digital capitalism, privacy is little more than a fading memory.” Jeremy Bentham, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century social theorist and daddy of utilitarianism, might weep with awe: now our panopticon is a digital one and its surveillance entered into voluntarily.

Kipnis recounts Zelda’s tribulations with the bemused fascination of a kindly elder (“Zelda being queer, Black, and very online, and me being none of those things”). Despite their different identity categories, sixty-five-year-old Kipnis and her young friend do share the same cultural habitat—one that encourages and entrenches polarization. A prime feature of that habitat is social media, whose forms are particularly ill-suited to reflecting the ambiguities of love. The algorithm rewards bowdlerized extremes, encouraging users to strike poses from which they broadcast, say, perfect romantic happiness or vengeful disavowal, but little in between. Even the “Instagram versus Reality” trend overdramatizes the bathos or abjection of“reality” as compared to curated, processed perfection. This problem is not peculiar to the kids of Gen Z. The grown-up polemicist, too, is encouraged to take an extreme stance. For Kipnis, that stance equates to something like “let’s get real!” She is, however, realer than she knows—not so much an anti-love warrior as an accidental bard of ambivalence. “I love reading defenses of ambivalence,” she writes simply in an essay ostensibly about codependency.

Kipnis is right, of course, that couplehood is not always a bower of bliss, but nor is it a prison camp to be tunneled out of with a sharpened spoon. Sometimes a bare and soulful question rings out from Love in the Time of Contagion, made all the more arresting for the prevailing tone of jocularity. Like this glimmer of uncertainty: “How do you stay in love with the world amid so much loss?” Or, indeed, this: “Could the pandemic turn out to be a reset, a chance to wipe the bogeyman and -woman from the social imagination, invent wilder, more magnanimous ways of living and loving as we go forward into whatever comes next?” What a romantic question. Behold the doggedly hardheaded scourge of love invoking wildness and magnanimity! It’s possible, after all, to be softhearted and hardheaded at the same time.

Hermione Hoby is the author of the novel Virtue(Riverhead, 2021).