For a provocateur, Laura Kipnis can be surprisingly sincere. The 49-year-old Northwestern University communications professor has made her reputation subverting conventional wisdom, wishes, faiths, and lies—especially about American sexuality. In her 1996 book Bound and Gagged she argued for the liberatory potential of smut; in Against Love: A Polemic (2003) she lit into widely cherished assumptions about monogamy. Her lively new book—The Female Thing, set for publication in October—launches a leftist critique of the present moment in American feminism, from the movement's deals with various devils to sentimental notions of femininity still tucked away in some progressive women's minds like a secret stash of chocolates. Kipnis claims her job is to demolish cultural catechisms, not replace them, but she harbors her own sentimental notion: an attachment to socialist/liberationist ideals of the 60s. This destroyer of worlds is also a utopian. But then, so was Jonathan Swift.
Tony Adler: You divide The Female Thing into four chapters, each one corresponding to a "region" in the "updated topography of the female psyche": Envy, Sex, Dirt (the household variety), and Vulnerability. How did you arrive at these particular elements?
Laura Kipnis: I was thinking about what the impasses seem to be, still, in gender progress, and when I started thinking about them they kind of grouped that way. It was an aha moment that got the book going. I had decided that I should write a book that was a follow-up to Against Love, dealing with gender. So then I spent about a year trying to put together an outline and think about whether there was anything I had to say about women and gender that hadn't been said.
TA: What is there to say about women and gender that hasn't been said?
LK: A lot of what's written about women strives very hard to be optimistic and say the good news. What isn't said, by feminists or progressives, is the bad news. This sense of impediment that comes from within as opposed to without. That there are elements of the psyche that are not progressive and that are aligned with conservatism—or worse, with some kind of love of authority or subjugation. So that was the challenge of this book, to say those things without also being conservative.
TA: You talk in the book about the feminine and the feminist—how both claim room in the female psyche, and how they can't coexist.
LK: They do coexist, but in conflict with each other. I think that part of what the book is about is, yeah, there are contradictions and ambivalences that probably aren't going to be resolved. But I think that's part of our condition. There are things that are unresolvable.
TA: You also argue against certain choices made, historically, by mainstream feminism, saying it distanced itself from the goals of the New Left and settled for getting a foothold in the system it was supposed to help overthrow.
LK: [The book is] a polemical account of a way in which feminism veered toward conservatism. There were trade-offs or decisions that were made that led to feminism breaking away from a political movement that might have actually posed some real challenges [and adopting] this kind of mushy careerism.
TA: What you say about the trajectory of feminism reminded me of the Irish Republican Army—how it became politically regressive.
LK: Yeah. That was something I was thinking about, the tendency toward authoritarianism and conservatism that crops up in the midst of the impulse toward social change. That was underpinning a lot of what I was thinking.
TA: And you have that refrain that goes through the book, "This was supposed to be a liberation movement."
LK: And I wonder if there's any stomach these days for that sentiment—that liberation isn't what you get when you buy a new stereo. I was wondering as I was writing that whether it would be made mockery of. It seems so old-fashioned now to use that word.
TA: At a certain point I thought you were getting ready to make a Marxist argument that the problem isn't gender after all, but class and capital.
LK: I have to tell you I did tone that down because it was a bit of a rant in the first version. When [the book] asks, Did feminists play the unwitting shills to the new global economy? I thought that was a pretty Marxist moment.
TA: It was, and I was hoping you'd go for it.
LK: I rewrote that section a lot. I wanted to make a critique of liberal feminism—what I've been calling careerist feminism. But I also didn't want to be like [Who Stole Feminism? author] Christina Hoff Sommers or someone like that. I didn't want it to be antifeminist.
TA: It would be easy to subvert the book by placing you in the company of antifeminists like Ann Coulter and Caitlin Flanagan.
LK: I think they would have a hard time doing that. Listen, when you write a book you are really aware of how easy it is to be misread or have people deliberately misread you in sometimes stupid ways. It's not like there isn't legitimate criticism, but there's also the willful misreading that goes on. I can't think that it can be read as an antifeminist book. It's a critique of feminism—but a serious critique. It takes feminism seriously. You can argue with my interpretations, but I don't think anybody could say I'm not serious about the history of feminism or feminist politics. I know that stuff pretty well.
TA: You can be very acid about family—and especially about children. Why?
LK: It's the impulse to debunk. Against Love was an ironic title. I'm not against love; I think I'm a big romantic. It's the sanctimony about the family and about children that's irksome and that I think people should contest.
TA: The hypocrisy.
LK: Yeah. The same thing with committed marriages or devotion to another person. I'm not against that in any way and don't think it's not a possible thing to attain. What I was writing about in Against Love were situations where people are attached to these conditions that are misery producing and stay in them and feel unable to get out of them.
TA: You seem to enjoy turning conventional narratives inside out.
LK: I do. In both these books I'm trying to reframe things and tell the story in a less conventional way. You know, the usual ways of talking about love and women are so tedious and so full of disavowal, it wasn't hard to reframe them.
TA: So should we see you as committed to a particular narrative, or as exploring narratives for their own sake?
LK: What do you stand for, Laura Kipnis? Gosh. The notion that you could have more freedom or more gratification than what you think you're entitled to, or what society says you're entitled to, at all levels, in personal life and materially in terms of a more equitable distribution of wealth—I would like to stand for that. Some sense of more possibilities in freedom.
TA: But much of The Female Thing is about the "more" we're manipulated into wanting. The more that's sold to us.
LK: Yeah, that's true. The old Marxist in me thinks, Well, that's why capitalism is so successful: it manages to substitute itself at every level for whatever else more could be.
TA: So what is the real more?
LK: The quality-of-life issues. That's the thing you see in how the mainstream talks about women's issues—that something got left behind. Some kind of notion of quality of life. This is a very hard, fundamental-principles question that I feel kind of stupid trying to answer, because whatever you say ends up being banal or simplistic. Underneath it all there is a utopianism—some kind of utopian socialism, really.
TA: The last sentence in The Female Thing says, "A full accounting of the female situation at the moment would need to start roughly here." I felt there was a sequel coming.
LK: What happened with Against Love was people tried to turn it into an advice book. It was very interesting. I write this book called Against Love and then they say, "But what should we do?" And I say, in a pleasant way, I feel like my job is to be the demolition guy and then somebody else has to come and build the new house. I feel like in both books I stretched to the limits of my ability to figure things out or to state a case, and I went as far as I can go.
TA: What would you want the leaders of the feminist movement to get from this book when they read it?
LK: To look less externally, at the external impediments, and more internally. The question of self-examination that the book raises is probably the best answer to what you just asked.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.