Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation
by Laura Kipnis
Metropolitan Books, 2014, 224 pp.
Midway through Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation, Laura Kipnis distinguishes between two different kinds of humor. She’s been reading a novel by the comic writer Patricia Marx, a parody of a former lover who happens to be Kipnis’s ex too. The ex in question is a sleazy romantic type, a graduate student turned shrink who likes to call his lovers “my peach” and cheats on them with his patients. He specializes in “ego studies.” But the female protagonist is no less pathetic. When her lover leaves her and marries, the protagonist moves into the apartment directly below the newlyweds; she resumes the relationship years later, despite the fact that her ex is still unavailable. The humor of the book, Kipnis explains, ultimately hinges not on his ridiculousness but on hers: the ex may be a fool, but it’s the protagonist’s behavior as a typical woman scorned that makes their relationship funny. The comedy depends not on the parody of the male lover but on the supposedly universal truth of female character on display.
“It struck me, while reading Marx’s book,” Kipnis writes:
. . . that the humor of painful recognition is an inherently conservative social form, especially when it comes to conventional gender behaviors, because it just further hardens such behaviors into “the way things are.” The laughter depends on our recognizing the world as it is, and leaving it the way we found it.
By contrast, she points to the humor of comedian Sarah Silverman, known for her provocative and often obscene jokes:
At her best, Silverman’s scalding humor, delivered in that faux-naïf girly voice, leaves exactly nothing the same. When she takes on female abjection—most famously, “I was raped by a doctor. Which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl”—clichés are defamiliarized and demolished; the world as it was is turned on its ear. The laughter isn’t the laughter of painful recognition, it’s the shock of sledgehammering feminine shame and smearing menstrual blood all over its covenants, not deferring to them with a chuckle.
“Sledgehammering feminine shame and smearing menstrual blood all over its covenants” isn’t a perfect description of what Kipnis has done with her writing, but it comes close. Her writing attacks social conventions and norms, exposing the contradictions and complications within them. In Bound and Gagged, she argued that anti-porn feminists were falsely blaming the genre for social ills; in fact “maybe we can learn a few things from [pornography’s] civil disobedience.” Marriage, and even monogamous relationships, as described in Against Love, aren’t the source of romantic happiness, they’re “domestic gulags.” In The Female Thing, she turned her focus to women themselves, looking at the “collaborator within,” who might be as responsible for a stall in progress toward equality as men.
All of this is done with writing that’s both chatty and biting, funny and mean. Like the humorists she admires, Kipnis rips open commonplaces and truisms to expose their tangled insides. On a young male author who advises women to go on sexual strike against male apathy, for example, she asks: “But . . . wouldn’t this be redundant?” Describing women’s sexual dissatisfaction in The Female Thing, she mentions the recent discovery of “emotional orgasms”—a feeling of closeness during sex. “There’s a name for someone who would call that an orgasm: female.” Her tone is easy, direct, inviting—until you realize where you’ve been led. “Adultery is one way of protesting the confines of coupled life,” she writes in Against Love. “Of course there’s always murder.” The best of Kipnis’s writing has the force of a shot slap—it goes down easy but it hits you hard.
Men, Kipnis’s sixth book, is a collection of portraits of lousy guys. Gropers, stalkers, cheaters—Kipnis, “like a dog picking up high-pitched whistles” has returned over and over to these disreputable characters in her writing.
Among these characters is “the scumbag” Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler. Kipnis first wrote about Hustler in the mid-1990s; a chapter on the magazine appears in her book on porn. What attracted her to the magazine, she describes, was how much it repelled her—Hustler’s imagery and humor is notoriously grotesque. Instead of the lush centerfolds with buxom babes featured in Playboy or Penthouse, “the Hustler body was a gaseous, fluid-emitting, embarrassing body forever defying social mores, and threatening to erupt at any moment.” Yet for Kipnis, the magazine was also upholding a “rabble rousing tradition of political pornography,” with a project linking “bourgeois bodily discretion to political and social hypocrisy.”
After writing on Hustler, Kipnis met Flynt in his Los Angeles emporium, as much “an assault on the senses” as the magazine itself. “It looked like armies of rival interior decorators had fought and died on the job.” There, she was pleased to find him charming, but surprised at how much he conformed to her expectations of how he might be. “I never lost the double consciousness of feeling I was accompanying a character sprung up from the recesses of my own fantasies.” Had Kipnis invented him? To a certain extent, she had. Flynt and his ghostwriter had admired her essay so much that parts of it were repeated in Flynt’s memoir verbatim, as if he had thought of them himself.
Flynt, meanwhile, had caught the eye of someone else eager to make a story out of his indiscretions. The Czech director Miloš Forman took Flynt’s attacks on decency as a parable of the power of free speech in America and in 1996 dramatized Flynt’s crusade in The People vs. Larry Flynt. Kipnis hates the film, describing how Forman sanitizes and ignores the provocations that make Hustler interesting. Forman even boasted he had never read the magazine, and to Kipnis, he had missed the crux of the story. “The hero,” according to Kipnis, “wasn’t the Supreme Court,” who upheld Hustler’s first amendment rights. “It’s been pornography that’s pushed the boundaries of political speech ever since the invention of print.”
But on a second visit to Flynt, it seems he’s taken Forman’s version of his life to heart. His new memoir is full of patriotic sentiment and dull pop psychology. Now, instead of quoting Kipnis, he quotes his character from the movie—Forman’s version of his character. Flynt had challenged Kipnis at her “corked-up core,” he’d been a firebrand and an inspiration. And yet he seems happy to let go of his more offensive traits and become a “sort of elder statesman-pornographer,” much closer to what Forman had imagined.
Where Hustler’s ridiculous obscenity contained unexpected political ideas, its founder, it turns out, is just as hard to peg. Flynt may be unusually vulgar and crude, but he’s also an aging man hoping for approval. Behind his stunts and provocations lie almost universal needs. One of the most hated men in America, it seems, really, really wants to be liked. As with much of Kipnis’s work, a simple first impression gives way to a much murkier picture.
Kipnis is drawn to the lewd and nasty; her writing on Hustler and Flynt reflect a larger interest in examining “lowbrow” subjects with a critical eye. Kipnis started out as a filmmaker, and her early films combine a thorough knowledge of Marxism and feminist theory with concerns verging on the obscene—dildos, porn magazines, phone sex. Each constantly disrupts the other on the screen. In Ecstasy Unlimited: The Interpenetrations of Sex and Capital, a narrator discusses the degradation of labor under late capitalism while men work an auto repair line; in the next scene, a masseuse compares her services to fast-food. In Marx: The Video, the thinker lies on his deathbed as a narrator recounts his life in the style of a bad educational documentary. Just when you’ve settled into the lull of the story, a chorus of drag queens pop into the frame to comment on the proceedings.
Kipnis’s books and essays tackle sex and smut, but they’re also political commentaries drawing on Marx and Freud. She praises porn magazines for their Rabelaisian humor and uses Jacques Lacan to illustrate Tiger Woods’s philandering. There’s a certain amount of provocation in this; you can imagine her planning a little jump in the reader when, in The Female Thing, she describes the infamous 1972 pornographic film Deep Throat almost innocently as a “fantasy of an alternative bodily universe where men and women get pleasure from doing the same things, in lieu of the erotically mismatched world we’ve inherited.”
If lurid sexual conduct jolts the reader into paying attention, it also offers ways to talk about social relations more explicitly than our current discourse permits. What interests Kipnis is how pornography’s transgressions and provocations push viewers to consider alternatives to current sexual arrangements. Some of this is aesthetic. Pornography presents the viewer with bodies that are fatter and older and weirder than the seventeen-year-old blondes we usually hold up as ideals of beauty, yet still erotic. Pornography is also a form of fantasy, and in that sense reflects desires for the present that can’t be conceived in more realistic forms—for a world with more pleasure, where sexuality can be indulged more freely but also where longings and needs can be expressed without deference to social norms. “Perhaps,” she writes in Bound and Gagged, “when issues of pleasure, plenitude, and freedom are articulated more frequently in places other than fantasy genres like pornography they won’t need to find their expression only in these coded and pornographic forms.” (Celebrity and political scandals, the subject of a more recent Kipnis book, similarly interest her because they allow certain conversations to take place publically that otherwise would not.)
The link between these sexual fantasies and political concerns is perhaps clearest in Against Love: A Polemic, Kipnis’s most well-known book. Kipnis begins by exploring the fantasy of adultery in both its imagined and practiced form. Cheating, in Kipnis’s baiting view, isn’t simply a form of betrayal or a sign of straying attention, it’s a “private utopian experiment” against the confines and libido-killing restrictions of marriage. The book is deliberately teasing, almost stridently so. In addition to its hit-you-over-the-head subtitle, there’s also a reader advisory: “Please fasten your seatbelts: we are about to encounter contradictions.”
But as the book unspools, it becomes a political argument as well. Unhappy spouses are told to work to make their relationships function, just as capitalism requires constant hours to grease the wheels. “Some of our gloomier thinkers,” Kipnis quips, as if forced to concede a point, “have argued that there is indeed a functional fit between such social purposes and modes of inner life.” The adulterer’s small protest against the confines of relationships may be the seed of something bigger. In fact, she notes, her scope once again widening, marriage contracts have often been thought of as representative of the social contract at large. Isn’t it interesting that many of those most famous for not being able to uphold their own marital contract are politicians themselves? Gradually, adultery becomes not a misguided fantasy but the desire for an alternative to the way things are—politically, economically, socially. “If other vows were up for examination, if social contracts could be renegotiated, what other areas of dissatisfaction would be next on the list?”
Men is more circumscribed than Kipnis’s previous work, and in some ways less explicitly political. This is partly a circumstance of the book’s form. Based on short profiles and essays Kipnis wrote for places like Slate and Bookforum, the book is loosely linked by an interest in the male psyche today, but it lacks the kind of overreaching arguments The Female Thing had about women.
This may annoy some of Kipnis’s critics, who often complain that she stops short of drawing conclusions from her jabs and insights. “Where, oh where, is the great lady pundit of our age?” Emily Nussbaum asked in her review of The Female Thing, before concluding that if there was one, it definitely wouldn’t be Kipnis. It’s true that Kipnis doesn’t end her books with three-point plans. She presents no paths to utopia, no political agendas. (The end of The Female Thing, after about 250 pages of analysis and digs: “A full accounting of the female situation at the moment would need to start roughly here.”) But this is a deliberate choice, not a failure of the imagination. Her work serves to keep you on your toes, not to tell you where to run.
In fact, if there’s anyone who comes across badly in Kipnis’s work, it isn’t the gropers and the cheaters, but the moralizers and the pontificators—especially when they haven’t bothered to examine their own behavior. In Men, for example, she takes on Naomi Wolf for the way she wrote about Yale literature celebrity Harold Bloom’s sexual advances. Wolf describes how she was terrorized, and still is twenty years later, by the “heavy, boneless hand” that appeared on her knee during an intimate study session in college. But her account, Kipnis writes, is too simple. It ignores both her own conflicted wishes and the dynamics of the situation. Yes, Kipnis writes, Bloom had power over the young Wolf, but in part because she was “in thrall” to his power. Bloom’s advances may have been unwanted, she says, but to a certain extent, his attention was not. Kipnis cites Wolf’s own admission that she was “sick with excitement” at the idea of Bloom reading her poems. Kipnis isn’t trying to blame Wolf for her professor’s actions, but she resists Wolf’s unequivocal description of what occurred. Behind what Wolf presents as a scenario of pure aggression and rapaciousness, Kipnis suggests, may be more complicated needs and wants that Wolf should examine more thoroughly.
But is it ever really possible to know what one desires? Of Kipnis’s wry essays from this book, the one that stays most in my mind is among the more forgiving. In her essay on “Self-Deceivers” Kipnis looks at a series of videos John Edwards made during his presidential campaign including one on the subject of “authenticity.” Edwards stares straight at the camera and delivers lines like “I actually want the country to see who I am, who I really am”—startling statements from a man revealed to have been hiding his affair from the public. Was Edwards hubristic, deliberately acting badly and believing that he would never get caught? Or is it possible that he was compartmentalizing his different desires, that “he both knew what he was doing, and didn’t”?
Kipnis is clearly in the compartmentalization camp, but rather than push her point, she leads the reader through a discussion of what it might mean to knowingly or unknowingly lie to oneself. She examines Jean-Paul Sartre’s notion of “bad faith,” the idea that self-deception is always a conscious decision. As an example of this behavior, Sartre would point to a scenario in which a woman being seduced by a man pretends not to notice his advances because she would rather not acknowledge what is going on. But isn’t it possible that Sartre himself, a notoriously unsuccessful womanizer, was deceiving himself about the nature of such situations? “When Sartre proclaims that this woman is free then rebukes her for refusing the possibilities of her own freedom . . . you feel the narrator is desperate to persuade you that if she were fully conscious of her freedom she’d jump on her companion and start humping away.” And what should Kipnis make of the time she found herself similarly muddled, dismissed by an older Marxist for not returning his affections, only to be told later that over the course of the evening she had led him to her bed? How could she have such a clear idea of what had happened, and yet not remember this crucial episode?
A duller writer might have labored over a definite conclusion from these questions, but Kipnis lets the haziness sit. “Other people’s failures of self-comprehension make such tempting targets,” she writes. “You get to forget all similar occlusions of your own, while luxuriating in the warm bath of imaginary self-awareness.” She knows that in this time of constant change—possibly post-feminist, certainly pre-liberation—facing our own confusions might be the most difficult thing of all. But, as she writes at the end of her book, “what pushes against your boundaries, what destabilizes—maybe even chafes—can also remind you that you’re alive.”
Madeleine Schwartz lives in New York. She last wrote for Dissent about polygamous families.