Photo by Mary Henebry

When Against Love was published in 2003, a minor brushfire ensued. Laura Kipnis' keenly worded polemic addressed a big topic — the one that started the Trojan War, and, lest we forget, almost brought down an American president.

Few of us are indifferent about love and the power it wields. When Kipnis took on that sacred institution, with her provocative blend of psychosocial theorizing and anecdotal reality-check, the critical response was hardly tepid.

Rebecca Mead, in the New Yorker, called Against Love "a deft indictment of the marital ideal, as well as a celebration of the dissent that constitutes adultery, delivered in pointed daggers of prose."

In the New York Observer Baz Dreisinger wrote, "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?"

Meanwhile, Kipnis made a steady stream of media appearances, facing curious and sometimes contentious interviewers. She also received "flame mail." Now more than ever, love is a hot-button issue.

The divorce rate in this country hovers around 50 percent. Yet the romantic ideal persists. Enter Kipnis, with a devilishly witty, muckraking masterwork that equates marriages with "domestic gulags" and questions the efficacy of the contemporary concept of "working on a relationship," as if the 40-hour workweek didn't sap enough of our psychic energy. Even romance extracts its pound of flesh, it would seem, and the road to (and from) love is littered with disillusionment.

Adultery — "the sit-down strike of the love-takes-work ethic" — is practically an inevitability, to hear Kipnis tell it. There are so many do's and don'ts that go into the relationship game that it's only a matter of time before passion fades. The shrinks benefit, of course, and millions of couples in extremis seek answers and equilibrium, but most of all, satisfaction.

We can probably thank Bill Clinton and other Capitol Hill philanderers of the '90s for their oh-so-public lesson in what apparently ails us. Things are so bad that the Bush administration's faith-based initiatives include proposals for the government to, in essence, go into the "marriage business." Which means that Kipnis is definitely on to something here. Yet she stands in the middle of the controversy not to offer prescriptives. That's not the way Kipnis works. She is, above all, a provocateur.

For more than 20 years, Kipnis, Northwestern professor of media studies in the Department of Radio/Television/Film, has journeyed on a somewhat maverick professional path that first stopped at painting, lingered at video art and then blossomed full force through academia and an increasingly successful writing career.

Kipnis has published three distinctive books that push the envelope of cultural critique — Ecstasy Unlimited: On Sex, Capital, Gender and Aesthetics (University of Minnesota Press, 1993); Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America (Grove Press, 1996); and Against Love: A Polemic (Pantheon, 2003). Another volume, Scandalous Americans, is in the works. Anything but dry academic treatises, Kipnis' books, infused with her lively yet erudite style, have found favor with more mainstream presses.

"Her project appears to be to use her academic training in a way that speaks to a wider audience," says David Shumway, professor of English and literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University and the author of Modern Love: Romance, Intimacy and the Marriage Crisis (New York University Press, 2003). "Her desire reflects a very familiar ambition that academics feel: We tend to write for a small audience and feel frustrated by that. Laura is one who's decided to stop writing in an academic manner and to try to adapt her work to a new kind of rhetoric. Some people might object that she's abandoning traditional academic research, but these days a lot of academics recognize that we need to make our work more accessible."

"Laura's work is at the cutting edge of cultural criticism," says Jules Law, Northwestern associate professor of English and former head of the University's Comparative Literary Studies Program. "It is theoretically sophisticated — drawing on psychoanalysis, feminism and Marxism — while at the same time affirming popular culture and people's responses to it in decidedly nonacademic, nonabstract ways. She asks what are the hopes, fears, desires and curiosities that make people watch TV, go on a diet or fall in love. Her work is extraordinarily eclectic and always bears a stamp of originality and audacity."

"You never know how a book is going to do," says Kipnis from the high-ceilinged living room of her North Side Chicago home, ensconced in a neighborhood that appears to have avoided the Windy City's ever-widening gentrification schemes. Dark-haired and arty, Kipnis exudes an earthy ease. She's just received a shipment of Against Love in its German translation; in all, the book will be published in seven other languages.

"I was interested in thinking about how to write about adultery in a different way," Kipnis says. "Through the '90s it was such a central social issue, and the line between private and public shifted. The last chapter of the book is about how marital fidelity became a political metaphor — how faithfulness to a wife on the part of a male politician was put into analogy with the faithfulness of the politician to the citizenry. I wanted to puncture some of the hypocrisy about that, but from the standpoint of a theorist, rather than dispensing marital advice. I don't want to tell people what to do; it's more like: Here are these big questions, now please go think about it."

The germ for Against Love was an essay called "Adultery," originally published in the journal Critical Inquiry in 1998 and later excerpted in Harper's. "Then I had agents and editors pursuing me to write a book on the subject," Kipnis says. "At that point I wasn't interested, but a few years later I decided to go back to the subject, kind of on a whim."

Even before Against Love Kipnis had growing credentials as a top-rank contributing journalist. She has written for the New York Times, the Nation and the Village Voice, among other influential publications.

Jeffrey Masten, Northwestern associate professor of English and gender studies, believes that Kipnis brings together things often considered to be at odds in academic writing: wit and rigor, edginess and precision. "I remember very clearly the day I read an early piece of what became Against Love," he says. "I don't think I've ever read anything as simultaneously hilarious, brilliant, topical and radical in its implications. So much writing by academics attempting to be mainstream tends to lose its analytical edge, but Laura's work instead is the best of what I'd call stealth theory or even deconstructive comedy."

So marriage, or what Kipnis more broadly dubs "companionate coupledom," remains a supreme modern challenge. Yet the author, 47, is not married, a fact that tends to make interviewers understandably inquisitive about her personal life. When pressed, she quietly expresses a preference for committed relationships. "People want permanence and stability and security, yet often people also want the possibility of something different happening, of novelty or passion. It's a perpetual conflict."

Kipnis never writes in the first person. She claims her interest lies in removing herself and seeking answers. "Sure, I have a personal relation to love," she says. "Who doesn't? That might be the impetus, but it's not what I write about. I confess that I've gotten pretty tired of hearing everyone's personal story. I'm much more interested in the theory of something than in the first-person accounts, which seem very limited to me. I get personally absorbed in the topic, but at the same time I think I step back from it. I'm analytical but also attempting to be playful."

Masten concurs. "Just when everyone — gay and straight — is getting on, or staying on, the marriage bandwagon," he states, "Laura's work is asking, for all of us, 'What kind of a wagon is this? Are those really wheels? Who's driving? Who's in the band, and what are they playing?'"

Kipnis hails from Chicago's South Side. Perhaps as a harbinger of the road-less-traveled career ahead of her, she dropped out of high school. She drove a cab and waited tables for a while and eventually made her way back to school at Chicago's Roosevelt University. Then she enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute, from which she received her bachelor of fine arts degree in 1978.

"I went to art school originally because I was good at drawing," says Kipnis. "But then I discovered that painting was 'dead,' and there was an explosion of alternative arts forms. I had this career that somehow shaped itself out of my interests." Her conceptual work encompassed slide and audiotape pieces; then in grad school Kipnis started working in the form of video essays. After attending the Whitney Museum of American Art Studio Program in New York City in 1978-79, Kipnis went on to receive her master of fine arts degree in 1982 from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University in Halifax.

Then followed a period of eight years in which Kipnis produced her best-known videos: Marx: The Video (1990), A Man's Woman (1988), Ecstasy Unlimited: The Interpenetrations of Sex and Capital (1985) and Your Money or Your Life (1982). These analytic essays, characterized by the melding of documentary, music, dance, parody and other pop forms, each has won various awards, including citations at the Chicago Film Festival and the Athens Video Festival. Her work has been screened from Brussels to Vancouver.

"Her videos are politically engaged," says Shumway. "Ecstasy Unlimited is a Marxist-based critique of the sex industry. Marx: A Video investigates the character of Marx himself. I would say in some ways Against Love is doing the same work as her videos. It's not surprising that her books would take political positions."

In yet another change of direction, Kipnis left filmmaking. "I haven't done a videotape since 1990," she says. "I felt like I didn't have anything else to say in that medium."

In the meantime, Kipnis had begun contributing cultural essays and social critiques to various books and literary journals as well as presenting papers to symposiums and conference panels revolving around gender studies, sexual politics, art theory, mass culture, censorship, iconography and the avant-garde. "With writing," she continues, "I had more control over [my material], and I eventually also started writing in wider contexts. It more came about in more of an organic than a planned way."

Kipnis was hired by Northwestern as a video artist and theorist. "My job was on the production side of the program," she says, "though I've always taught on the theoretical side of the program as well."

Her teaching career began with a fellowship at the University of Michigan, where she taught core courses from 1985 to 1988. Her first tenure-track position was at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the department of communication arts, where she served until 1991. She's been at Northwestern 13 years. Full professorship was granted in 2000.

"Laura's had a life as an accomplished artist," says Michelle Citron, director of Northwestern's Center for Interdisciplinary Research in the Arts and a professor of radio/television/film who has team-taught with Kipnis. "She teaches students to be honest about their own work. She gives sharp critiques, getting students to really look at what they're doing. She's a tough teacher, and I mean that as a compliment."

Within radio/television/film, Kipnis teaches graduate courses that are more aesthetic oriented as opposed to technical. Topical thrust might focus on film as it relates to psychoanalysis or cultural criticism. "My work falls between disciplines," she says. "For the most part academia is organized around these basic disciplines — sociology or psychology or political science. But those are fairly arbitrary distinctions, because all those fields also overlap, and sometimes the most interesting work emerges in those interstices. So what department you're in doesn't always predict what kind of scholarship you'll produce."

Kipnis enjoys teaching, and her satisfaction coincides with an upswing in her confidence, attributed in part to radio/television/film's flexibility in offering its professors autonomy in the organization of their courses. "You can organize a course to teach things you know about, or things you don't know about," she says. "More and more I've tried to teach courses about things I have some grasp of but [about which] I'm learning at the same time, which I think is the most exciting kind of teaching."

"First and foremost, Laura doesn't let her ego get in the way," says Mike Graziano, a second-year doctoral student in Northwestern's School of Communication. "She's OK with being wrong, and she can admit when she's not sure about something. She's good at 'unpacking' things, that is, she can make material accessible, even if she's talking about a more general subset of Marxist thinking."

Anna McCarthy (GC91, 95), another former Kipnis student and now associate professor and director of graduate studies in the department of cinema studies at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, called Kipnis a great mentor. "She was a godsend for the developing writer," McCarthy says. "She paid careful attention to my prose, challenging every cliché, and she made me think about how to mount — and sustain — an argument."

Kipnis' sharp opinions don't stop at love. Or pornography. Artist, filmmaker, essayist, journalist, cultural critic — she also renders some provocative thought about the state of higher learning and the future of the university.

"My worry about the undergrads in radio/TV/film is we get students who don't want to read," she states. "The ones who want to read books go into the English department, and the ones who want to watch TV go into radio/TV/film. You get some smart students, but there can be a real anti-intellectualism among them. I don't know if it's typical of our students, or if it's a particular kind of trend."

Equally troubling for Kipnis is the modern student's focus on pragmatism.

"Traditional liberal arts education is this time of enrichment in which one becomes a wider person," she says. "I think that becomes deemphasized as the university gets more technocratic and run more like a corporation. You see that reflected in our students, who often have a kind of singlemindedness about jobs, which is understandable given the economy, but which can detract from their willingness to speculate or learn new things or open their minds up to knowledge that seems unfamiliar to them. Radio/TV/film isn't a trade school, meaning we're not just teaching technical skills, but we still frequently get students who only want to learn how to operate cameras and break into Hollywood, so that's a big issue in our department."

Kipnis further believes the current era is a dangerous one for university culture in general. "Universities were always places that subsidized an intellectual culture that was separate from the market," she says. "Now they're becoming increasingly market driven, and I think that's a bad thing. Research universities like Northwestern are the last gasp of a genuine intellectual culture in the country that's not entirely bottom-line driven. I've been a beneficiary of this system, where you're not only teaching but are also expected to produce original scholarship or artistic work."

Kipnis has received assistance through the years via various grants, including Rockefeller and Guggenheim fellowships and, more recently, the 2002-03 Van Zelst Research Chair in Communication from Northwestern, which was converted into a sabbatical year allowing her to spend this year in New York City, where she'll continue working on her forthcoming book and also do some freelancing for the MSN online magazine Slate.

"I have a different background coming out of the arts," Kipnis says. "The things I've written might be considered risky, especially since some of my more controversial work came out before I had tenure. It's definitely not traditional scholarship. But I've been lucky in that I've had a good academic career and been able to do what I wanted. I haven't particularly played by the rules, yet I feel like, for the most part, my work's been taken seriously, and I've gotten good support from the universities I've taught at. All in all I feel like I've had a pretty lucky time of it in academia, minus the occasional bump of course, and haven't suffered too much for not playing it safe."

Martin Brady is a freelance writer based in Nashville, where he is also the theater critic for Nashville Scene. He is a regular contributor to the review magazine BookPage.

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