November 2014

Nina Gibb


Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation by Laura Kipnis

Some essayists are better than others. Some are better in episodes and pall in collection when a shtick or production formula becomes over apparent. Even very interesting writers can fall prey to the moment when, in a showman's flourish, the veil is whipped off of an assemblage that has failed to cohere. Only occasionally is a collection actually the work of a fine essayist -- someone who makes small, tight narratives from the simplest base material, who is consistent with motifs, is engrossing and, critically, is working in pursuit of a theme. Someone, in short, with something to say.

Among the highlights of Laura Kipnis's new book Men: Notes From an Ongoing Investigation is the realization that as the author's motifs merge and become entangled they never become muddied. Themes are expanded upon rather than repeated, over multiple essays, until Kipnis's central subjects of knowing and un-knowing, repression and eruption, misadventure and balls-out fuckup begin to form a larger conversation, something like, What the hell do we think we are we doing? And why don't we know we are doing it?

At this point I have to admit that finding the appropriate critical distance necessary for a review is difficult. Kipnis is my kind of writer. I love her approach -- her ambiguity and tendency to question rather than provide neat answers. I love her themes, which reduce down to a sticky Freudian fascination with our inevitable condition of human messiness. She talks about doping, misrepresentation, being flattered and propelled into creative production by stalkers who we have taken as our muses, bald-faced and compulsive cheating, lying, withholding and hypocrisy -- themes that, if that popular publication "the Internet" is anything to go by, strike at our common heart.

A central element of Kipnis's style is a particularly appealing kind of intellectual delight: She takes down chauvinist reactionary Harvey Mansfield -- "the sole faculty member at Harvard to vote against a women's studies program" -- and his assertion that women have a responsibility to be moral corrective for men thus: "I'm under the impression that not many men are so on board with the hen-pecking plan," and then leads the alleged cultural theorist into a trap of his own making after he points to "the things we see on Desperate Housewives" as a place "where all the troubles of modern feminism are on view." Kipnis, "Laughing," responds: "Wait, are those women feminists? There's a certain slippage here between 'women' and 'feminists'."

My point is that Kipnis is funny, and that irreverence for even serious matters may not be so much a side note as a key to her work.

In the essay "Juicers," the author bemoans her own ability to find an adequately superior position from which to excoriate the texts she reviews. She says, "When it comes to moral turpitude and ethical lapses (which happen to be subjects I've written on frequently, perversely drawn to the topics likely to expose me at my most irresolute) -- it's like I'm shooting outrage blanks. There I sit, fingers poised on keyboard, one part of me (the ambitious, careerist part) itching to strike, but in my truest soul limply equivocal, particularly when it comes to the many lapses I suspect I'm capable of committing myself, from bad prose to adultery" and confesses that "once in a while, when I'm feeling especially jellylike, I've found myself loitering on the Internet in hopes of -- this is embarrassing -- cadging a bit of other people's moral outrage."

In Men, this propensity for moral relativism (downgraded by Kipnis even from that dignification to a soggy "moral wishy-washiness") is presented as a failing: a "job stopper" in the bygone manner of an unfortunate tattoo on the neck or hands -- a failing that the author cannot help but display because "like being a gimpy tango instructor or an acrophobic flight attendant" she has chosen a profession in which a colonial flag planted in the moral high ground is almost a prerequisite for employment. And yet this failing seems more like an asset: In her ambivalence, Kipnis appears less disingenuous, and more like she has taken her gammy leg and made it into an integral part of the tightrope act. If the career of a critic relies on having a position, then a genuinely rare kind of radical bemusement seems like a quiet blessing: a situation in which the author can identify the failings of her subjects and understand the position they occupy on the roll of public outrage, and dissect both with even precision. A precision gleaned from reporting from neither the "pro" nor the "con," but rather from the "interesting" column.

Men: Notes From an Ongoing Investigation is littered with allusions to Freud -- and especially with allusions to his "economic model" of the psyche with its famous triumvirate of id, ego, and superego. In one essay she quotes James Lasdun in what seems to be a neat summation of her own views about human ethical propriety and motivation:

A sexual overture, however firmly resisted, is registered in a part of the psyche that has no interest at all in propriety or fidelity... If the person making the overture is attractive and interesting, then that part of the psyche regards it as a matter of course that you will go ahead and sleep with them, and in fact regards it as a deeply unnatural act to choose not to.

Ideas of repression, parapraxis (the "Freudian slip"), "phantasy," and wish fulfillment riddle the text. The author appears not only to be a convert to the Freudian idea of the animal in the man -- a notion inexplicably rejected by anyone who persists in believing that humans possess genuine free will (see any tabloid scandal page for examples of the failure of that fallacy), but to be perplexed by the moral and social outrage her subjects almost inevitably stimulate. This is a position that lends itself to the comic, because what is more amusing than a clever articulation of the one thing no one can bear to say? (See: Fawlty Towers.)

Kipnis is a professor in the Department of Radio, Television, and Film at Northwestern University, as well as being a critically lauded essay-and-polemicist, but academic nous alone is insufficient endorsement for a writer -- there is an almost countless supply of other people with parallel qualifications publishing all kinds of ultimately forgettable things. What makes Kipnis so engaging is her ability to combine critically astute analysis of her subjects and a cultural theorist's fascination with the not-so-simple mechanics of ostensibly simple things -- and then to articulate the amalgam with sly and intoxicating wit. Kipnis is intellectually flexible enough to be able to at once condemn a subject and admit her identification with him. And then to crack a joke about it.

Which is not to say that Kipnis is unserious. Earlier works have dealt with the brutalizing effects of capitalism -- positing (via Hanna Rosin's The End of Men) that the movement of women into the workforce after wars and industrialization (and concurrently with feminism), has served to depress wages in the same way that sourcing labor from economically depressed countries has gutted the capacity of workers to demand a fair wage all over the world. Once women came into the workforce, the argument goes, undervalued "women's work" became the new standard for wages, and fair pay stagnated -- an idea Kipnis recalls in a formidably concise aside during another, longer meditation:

The dirty little economic secret of the last forty years is that the job market played women off against men to depress everyone's pay. Which is to say (though Rosin doesn't) that the real winners when it comes to the influx of women into the job market during this period have been our capitalist overlords.

Economics delivered with a pie-in-the-face turn of phrase.

Most strikingly, these articles largely seem to have started life modestly -- as reviews or interviews, and only later become meditations on larger social themes -- as though Kipnis finds loose corners in the carpeting of every subject with which she engages, and lifts them to examine the collective dirt beneath.

Men is not without its problems. Of James Lasdun's Give Me Everything You Have -- a memoir of being stalked -- she says:

Now, it's worth remarking, as regards this sort of protracted misery, that until fairly recently it's likely that no one but Lasdun's closest friends would have been privy to knowledge of it. But the New Man is no silent sufferer [...] no longer are today's male authors as inclined to sublimate their sufferings into the literary formulas associated with traditional masculinity, namely the Great American Novel. Increasing numbers are instead following emotive lady authors into the noisy wilds of the first-person confessional.

With those few words Kipnis appears to dismiss both the "emotive lady authors" and the whole project of "the personal as political" that saw the introduction of women's writing as a subject of interest to the academy. Which is not to ignore that we, the readers, are flooded with misery memoirs, or that there is something vaguely absurd about the gender-as-drag-show masculinity of the Great American Novel -- only that for a moment Kipnis's universalizing fails. Lasdun's misery memoir, even by Kipnis own accounting, is a significant and well-made framing of an unusual experience. Not so much an emotional addition to the "noisy wilds" of memoir, but an interesting twist in Lasdun's own novelistic oeuvre. Is one of the problems with having an ambiguous perspective that sometimes you can talk your way into corners you might not fully support, or even argue around in circles?

In other places her identification with the fallible and (arguably) harmlessly amoral parts of our nature lend new perspectives to well-known scandals. Kipnis discusses the disgrace James Frey visited on himself when he published A Million Little Pieces as a memoir and what is striking is her characteristic foregrounding of the fact that Frey initially pushed the book as a "loosely" autobiographical novel that publishers refused to option unless he allowed them to market it as life-writing. What she appears to be railing against seems not to be our collective fascination with Frey's failure and disgrace (the inevitability of which is, after all, among her central themes), but with the encouragement of bad writing for the purpose of feeding capitalism's readiness to exploit any market, no matter how seedy. "Why are individuals supposed to uphold some antiquated pre-capitalist code of honor when their employers and industries honor nothing in return?" she wonders. And I wonder with her.

In another essay "Gropers" -- apparently published originally as a cover story in New York Magazine and reworked in her meta-entendre-titled book The Female Thing -- Kipnis analyzes the state of the feminist union by considering the difference between offense and assault. Invoking an episode related (repeatedly) by Naomi Wolf, in which Wolf alleged that she was permanently affected by a "groping" by literary iconoclast Harold Bloom, Kipnis wonders how feminism's declaration of freedom from harassment became a reactionary and brittle situation in which the distinction between offense and harm has decayed. Her essay expands into provoking and often comic territory by asking the obvious but hitherto unphrased questions: In a wonderful anecdote about attending a workshop on sexual harassment and unwanted sexual advances, Kipnis asks:

"But how do you know they're unwanted until you try?" Our leader, David, seemed oddly flummoxed by the question, and began frantically jangling the change in his pants pocket. "Do you really want me to answer that?" he finally responded, trying to make a joke out of it. I did want him to answer, but also didn't want to be seen by my colleagues as a troublemaker. There was an awkward pause in the proceedings while he stared me down. Another person piped up helpfully, "What about smoldering glances?"

At which point the conference room full of PhDs collapses into tittering and (after a particularly amusing Freudian analysis of the team leader), Kipnis augments her argument with the brilliantly understated observation: "Let's face it: other people's sexuality is often just weird and creepy."

Kipnis's refusal to provide answers for the conundrums she so elegantly proposes has been reported elsewhere (by Emily Nussbaum in New York Magazine) as a failure of... well... perhaps of a kind of ethical responsibility -- Nussbaum's argument goes that a formidably intelligent cultural critic should be providing her readers with a blueprint for the next, feminist "great leap forward," but perhaps this misses the point? Perhaps the next great leap forward is not orthodoxy, but an intelligent and lively debate. Perhaps a new model for radicalism and progress has some of Kipnis's qualities -- her cheeky sophist's ability to debate without wanting to knife her opponent, or the good grace to able to concede a well-made argument with a "bravo, excellently done." After decades of "humorless feminist" jokes, perhaps the feminists are finally here to unmaster the patriarchy with wisecracks.

Kipnis, though she is dealing explicitly with the mine-littered wastelands of gender relations, is dealing also with something larger. She is interested in the human psyche and especially with manifestations of its failures, and she seems to be asking how we can turn these failings to our advantage. There is a quality of delight in Men in the broken, transient and make-do about her attitudes -- a position the Japanese recognize as a valuable aesthetic quality called wabi-sabi. Of Tiger Woods she wonders, "Why would anyone think a talent for hitting a small ball into a hole with a long stick correlates with honesty or self-knowledge?" But she also seems to wonder if Woods is any different from you or I and then to conclude that if he isn't, then how deliciously out of control we all are. Why bog down an essay in moralism when you could stretch the material into wild places? The essay on "Cheaters" and Woods into a rumination on gender relations that seemed trivial until Kipnis reminded me that they are, after all, the bedrock of social policy, industrial relations and much domestic (dis)harmony. An essay about a philanderer becomes a meditation on the role of gender in wage depression, while another piece on the impact of feminism on corporate behavior guidelines becomes a time to ruminate about how we ever really know what the objects of our desire, desire?

Of all the essays in the book, the most arresting is Kipnis's characteristically brilliant reading of Lasdun's stalking memoir, Give Me Everything You Have. In her wide ranging analysis Kipnis manages both to turn a book review into a compelling parable of Dostoevskian doubling and the eruption of the repressed, and to perform a reading of her subject that is at the same time cynical, good-naturedly irreverent, and revealing of Kipnis's own human failings and weakness -- the failings and weaknesses of us all. This is Kipnis talent for universalizing the specific into the more broadly "human" at play. Her take on Give Me Everything You Have makes me want to go out and read Lasdun's work -- the mark of an engaging and critically believable reviewer -- but it also makes me uneasily aware that her review might have set me up for disappointment, because I wonder if I will find that the Kipnis's version of Lasdun is the Lasdun that was most interesting all along.

Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation by Laura Kipnis
Metropolitan Books
ISBN: 978-1627791878
224 pages