Adultery Finds Witty Champion, Domestic Coupledom Takes a Hit

Against Love: A Polemic , by Laura Kipnis. Pantheon, 224 pages, $24.

If scandals have their seasons, nothing suits summer like a steamy dose of adultery. This season we celebrate a cuckold, Hillary Clinton, whose top-dollar memoir renewed interest in the most delicious illicit affair of the 90’s. And we malign an adulterer (and accused rapist), Kobe Bryant, the basketball superstar whose stony-faced mug shot graces tabloids everywhere.

One imagines Laura Kipnis-a professor of television, radio and film at Northwestern University and the author of Against Love: A Polemic -rubbing her hands in glee as she contemplates Mr. Bryant and his wronged wife, sad and repentant, giving yet another press conference. Her glee stems not from Schadenfreude but from delight at her own prescience: According to Against Love , public adultery scandals remain staples of American culture because adulterers are what all of us-restless, bored and numbed by the humdrum of our stable relationships-secretly wish to be. The public “impalement” of adulterers, especially Presidential ones, is a crucifixion in which others suffer for the very sin that we guilt-ridden masses yearn to commit.

The sin, Ms. Kipnis continues-brace yourself now for the book’s clincher-that we ought to commit.

Ms. Kipnis has written a joyous, incisive tract in praise of adultery-and, as her title lays bare, against love. Why? For one, because no one else has. “Even sacred cows find their butchers. Except for love,” Ms. Kipnis writes. Everybody loves love: We all “prostrate ourselves at love’s portals, anxious for entry, like social strivers waiting at the ropeline outside some exclusive club.” So it’s easy to accuse Ms. Kipnis of playing the devil’s advocate. It’s easy to argue that Against Love plays switcheroo with totem and taboo just to give us a little thrill.

Easy, that is, until Ms. Kipnis-a witty and pliant thinker-wins you over. Against Love proves delightfully paradoxical: didactic and playful, intellectual and entertaining, high-brow yet eminently readable. The book is a polemic (“the prose equivalent of a small explosive device placed under your E-Z Boy lounger”), a word slapped on Against Love like a disclaimer. Polemics, often intentionally over the top, must be taken with a grain of salt. They’re not for everyone: “Feel free to leave,” Ms. Kipnis graciously proposes, “if this is not your story-you for whom long-term coupledom is a source of optimism and renewal, not emotional anesthesia.”

“Long-term coupledom”-Ms. Kipnis pens the phrase with one hand and holds her nose with the other. Against Love isn’t against love itself, but against love’s socially sanctioned incarnation, its “mandatory barracks”: domestic arrangements in which we pledge body and soul to each other forevermore. A more exact title would have been Against Domestic Coupledom , but Against Love makes the better bumper sticker.

Ms. Kipnis’ argument is clear and pointed. When it comes to relationships, the mantra is “Love takes work.” But when, she asks, “did the rhetoric of the factory become the default language of love”? Love, that thing of joy and leisure, has become more labor than pleasure, thus making Marx’s Capital the marriage manual of our time. Sex, that act of passion and spontaneity, is transformed by long-term relationships into mechanical procedure, performed on occasions when duty calls. “When monogamy becomes labor, when desire is organized contractually, with accounts kept and fidelity extracted like labor from employees,” Ms. Kipnis asks, “is this really what we mean by a Good Relationship?”

Only adultery-Ms. Kipnis’ superhero in the scarlet-lettered cape-saves us from emotional paralysis. Adultery resuscitates flaccid souls and comatose libidos: “Using love to escape love,” Ms. Kipnis calls it. “It’s kind of like smoking and wearing a nicotine patch at the same time.”

With Against Love , Ms. Kipnis-a video artist turned essayist and social critic-has written a follow-up to her last book, whose title also reveled in shock value. Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America argued against the criminalizing of fantasy in America and defended porn as a functional outlet for it; Against Love sets its claws on the social institution, marriage, that reins in our fantasies and unfettered desires. This dynamic-human desire repressed by social convention-ought to sound familiar: Ms. Kipnis is riffing off Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents , in which society’s handmaidens are sublimation and repression.

Freud and Marx, with his analysis of labor’s psychological effects, belong to Ms. Kipnis’ holy trinity of theorists; the third is Foucault, who famously explored society’s subtle means of policing its citizens. What is marriage, Ms. Kipnis asks, but the ultimate in state-sponsored social control, leaving us tamed, bored, repressed-in short, easily manipulated and passive citizens? Domestic coupledom-like soma in Huxley’s Brave New World -is “boot camp for compliant citizenship”; adultery, on the other hand, turns us “from upstanding citizen to crafty embezzler: siphoning off ever-larger increments of this precious commodity, time, from its rightful owners-mate, job, children, housepets.”

This is fairly radical stuff, and Ms. Kipnis seems aware that many would dismiss it as hyper-intellectual cant. So she has a strategy for making believers of us: She mostly avoids high-brow name-dropping, skips elaborate argument and historical exegesis-but dazzles us with a barrage of metaphor.

Adultery is “the municipal dumpster for coupled life’s toxic waste of strife and unhappiness.” It turns us from laborers to “amateur collagists” or “scavengers and improvisers, constructing odd assemblages out of detritus and leftovers: a few scraps of time and some dormant emotions are stuck together to create something unforeseen, to have new experiences.”

Domestic love, on the other hand, is “denture adhesive. Yes, it’s supposed to hold things in place; yes, it’s awkward for everyone when it doesn’t; but unfortunately there are some things that glue just won’t glue.” Coupledom’s “enforcement wing” is self-help culture and therapy-the “world’s most expensive lubricant,” because therapy tries to get it out of us, that thing we’ve been bottling up and which needs to be released. Therapy absurdly informs us that the solution to the problem of marriage feeling like work is to work harder at marriage.

Tolstoy claimed that “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Ms. Kipnis would strenuously disagree. She sets forth a Chomskian universal “grammar” for unhappy coupledom: It includes the “You always/I never routine”; its euphemisms are “compromise” or “getting along”; its basic unit of speech is the interdiction, which produces a long list of what you, you poor coupled sap, can’t do (a gem: “you can’t be simplistic, even when things are simple”).

Against Love goes national with a trip to the White House: Monicagate, for Ms. Kipnis, is a prime example of “spousal politics,” in which a politician’s worth is measured by his qualities as a husband. Bill Clinton’s highly charged infidelity hearings were a “national bloodletting” in which, Ms. Kipnis observes, a nation of would-be adulterers failed to ask the most profound question of all: Why, for heaven’s sake, was our President “risking so much for so little”?

We didn’t ask because the answer is too unsettling. Grappling with Mr. Clinton’s motives (the source lies somewhere in his “other” head) would mean grappling with the fact that good sense, good logic and “good” marriages only take us so far. Desire, on the other hand, reigns supreme; hence Ms. Kipnis’ paean to it.

But here’s a pressing question: Ought desire to reign? Ms. Kipnis’ clever metaphors and shrewd analyses are a pleasure, but they leave us vacillating between extremes. Is there only the misery of domestic coupledom or the ephemeral joy of adulterous lust, Kevin Spacey in American Beauty or Diane Lane in Unfaithful ? It’s rather fitting that a book about the insatiability of desire left me mildly unsatisfied, hungry for some solution to the problem Ms. Kipnis wisely lays out.

To be fair, I was warned: Against Love is a polemic, and polemics hardly ever offer middle-of-the-road solutions. “Maybe no one can be against love, but it’s still possible to flirt with the idea,” Ms. Kipnis says in closing. And intellectual flirtations, like polemics, “oscillate between affirming and denying the genuineness of their positions.” This is not cop-out, but cunning strategy: If Ms. Kipnis blazes forth with fire, brimstone and academic gravitas against love and marriage, she’ll be dismissed as an extremist or-heavens no!-a radical feminist. Flirtations, however, make us smile, not retreat.

Flirtations titillate, but they’re doomed to end. And so we return, hot and bothered, to the mundane shelter of our daily lives. When we cool down, we remember the other word for a flirt: a tease.

Baz Dreisinger, an adjunct professor at CUNY, is working on her first book.