36: Laura Kipnis
cultural critic and essayist
Laura Kipnis is an American cultural critic and essayist. A feminist intellectual, her work focuses on sexual politics, gender issues, aesthetics, popular culture, and pornography. She began her career as a video artist, exploring similar themes in the form of video essays. She is professor of media studies at Northwestern University in the Department of Radio-TV-Film, where she teaches filmmaking.
Emma Noelle is a student and photographer who lives and works in New York City. Specializing in portraiture and documentary photography, Emma works with analog mediums to tell stories and evoke poetry through her images. Emma's work is largely influenced by her lifelong love for art, music, and literature. Through portraiture and documentary photography, she is able to unite her constant desire to return to the past with her ability to observe and engage with the world around her.
This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards on October 16, 2017, in Laura's Manhattan apartment. Emma Noelle photographed the conversation.
SOPHIA: Tell me about your experience of girlhood.
LAURA: I grew up in Chicago on the South Side. I suppose I was a loner. I don't think I had a particularly happy childhood. As a writer, that was probably a benefit later in life. I spent most of my childhood holed up in a room reading. It was a safer time, so I got to wander around the city by myself, and was also a bit of a tomboy. I rode my bike all over for hours and did daredevil things like have somebody pull me on roller skates from the back of a bike, which I remember because I nearly brained myself once going over a pothole. This was before the days of bike helmets. I was always jumping out of trees and off steps and that sort of thing. I had a lot of physical courage as a kid, which I didn’t retain into adult life. I seem to have developed more trepidation about things like heights, though maybe I’m a bit of a tomboy as a writer, at least.
My dad once told me that he had a philosophy that he and my mother should never tell me not to do something, and I should find my own limits. I think that that's probably shaped something about who I became. I remember there was this neighborhood bully who tormented me when I was in kindergarten or first-grade, and my dad took me into the back yard to tried to teach me to fight—how to keep up my guard and throw a punch. I don't think I ever punched this Nathan kid, but at least my dad was letting me know it was possible, despite my being a girl.
SOPHIA: Can you talk about how psychoanalysis has shaped your outlook on gender issues?
LAURA: One of my favorite books is Freud’s Dora case, which is also about the girlhood question. Dora is the patient who famously walked out on Freud. She was around fourteen or fifteen I think, and had been what we’d now call “sexually harassed” by a friend of her father’s, Herr K. Her father was having an affair with Herr K’s wife, so there were all sorts of complicated family sexual dynamics, to say the least.
But I think Freud makes a fascinating point, that when Dora complains to him about Herr K having kissed her by the lake, the real problem wasn't simply the attempted kiss, but that perhaps Dora was, in ways she declined to admit to herself, not just disgusted bur also intrigued. He’s trying to suggest that Dora wouldn't have been nearly so disturbed by the kiss if she hadn't, on some level, been turned on. Even if she was also grossed out, both things are possible simultaneously. In the Freudian view, the origin of trauma is the conflict between the two states, not the experience in itself.
I find Freud’s accounts of subjectivity, sexual difference, and even femininity—which he's routinely excoriated about—to be pretty compelling. It's not like I think he's correct all the time, but even when he's wrong, he gives you a lot to think about, in ways that complicate rather than reduce the questions.
SOPHIA: What has led you to do, and continue to do, work on gender? How do you find it illuminating as a lens? There's a way to view it that's like how some people view Deconstruction: you already know the answer before you start pursuing the question.
LAURA: I’m getting a little sick of the subject, to be honest. I was recently asked to review that horrible book by Ivanka Trump—
LAURA: —which was a turning point. I just thought, what's in it for me to trash a book that I know in advance is going to be idiotic? Though right at that moment, the gender conversation suddenly shifted in interesting ways. We're talking in the midst of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and watching one after another hugely powerful media titan crash to earth. I do get the sense that something’s shifting in the culture, in terms of male-female relations and the distribution of power, and I certainly do want to speculate about that in print.
SOPHIA: You ended The Female Thing, as I read it, with this really provocative claim that seems to say that the “female thing” is some kind of masochism. That was over ten years ago. Can you talk about how your thoughts about that masochism have developed between the writing of The Female Thing and Unwanted Advances?
LAURA: One of the themes of The Female Thing is the problem of emancipation. The closer women get to some condition of greater emancipation, the more we seem to flee from that and invent new forms of constraint. I folded that into ideas about female masochism and earlier psychoanalytic accounts of heterosexual femininity. I suppose I do think femininity is saddled, to varying degrees, with masochistic baggage. That’s a subtext of Unwanted Advances too—the speculation that there's something distressing about freedom for women. You have a generation of young women on college campuses demanding more protection, more paternalism, more regulation from administrators when it comes to sexuality, whereas previous generations were lobbying to escape those kinds of regulations. The issue of women’s emancipation seems incredibly under-considered in these conversations. Not to mention that sex and sexuality are increasingly seen as harms to women, in ways that are very different from how they were twenty years ago. I fear this ultimately means less freedom for women rather than more, that things are moving in the wrong direction. Regarding sex as a perpetual harm is not particularly in the service of women's emancipation, or human emancipation for that matter. These have been some of the ideas about gender swimming around in my brain for the last decade or so.
SOPHIA: In that same strain, you’ve written in The Female Thing about assault victims “preening for the cameras and flaunting their bruises, metaphorical or otherwise,” with sexual injury in particular as “the paradigmatic trauma of our time, with the concept now so elastic that everyone can get in on the action.” To rephrase that hyperbolically, it's like creating disaster porn with your own body. At a minimum, I think you feel like that behavior is uncritical, if not irresponsible. In response to that, and considering your recent work on campus sexual assault, I was wondering about your thoughts on the responsibilities of female victims of sexual assault.
LAURA: I'm not sure I said anything about people flaunting their bruises on television, at least I hope I haven’t—I've really tried to be as nuanced as I can about all this, and that sounds pretty crude. I mean yes, there’s certainly a sexual assault problem, but what's labeled assault on campus is, to a large extent, a debate about consent, and what is and isn’t consensual. For example, can drunken sex be consensual, and if not, is it invariably the man who’s responsible? But if someone’s physically bruised from a sexual assault, I hope I’d never mock the person. Of course, who knows what I’d say after a drink or two—but I can’t be held responsible for that!
One of the things we're seeing this week with the Harvey Weinstein accusations—followed by a thousand other accusations against everyone in town—is that distinctions collapse very quickly in the sexual realm. So a physical assault, someone you find unattractive coming on to you once, and someone making a lewd joke in a bar —all of those things start seeming like they're not just on a continuum, but are more or less identical. So following, we had the Shitty Men in Media list, where guys were excoriated for such things as flirty lunches or texts. As a writer, I'm in the business of distinction-making.
SOPHIA: In a Slate interview, you spoke about the encounter between Harold Bloom and Naomi Wolf, saying that “[Harold Bloom] didn’t really exercise [his power,] he just put his hand on her knee.” You also recently tweeted a conversation in which you wrote, “In the world I envision, no student would ever imagine a prof could force her to drink, because power wouldn't be so mystified. She'd laugh in his face.”
But I feel like the issue is that, if Harold Bloom decided to, he easily could have exercised whatever power he had over Naomi Wolf in that situation, and there's no way that she could have predicted his behavior, which may have prevented her from exercising the power that she does have to laugh at him. So I'm interested in how you imagine this demystification of power to take place.
LAURA: I was very interested to read her recent piece in The Guardian announcing that she’s brought a police complaint against Bloom, who’s in his late eighties now, for putting his hand on her knee thirty years ago. I should clarify that I think it was Bloom she’s talking about—she doesn't name him in the piece, though she’s has named him in the past. Here she just refers to him as an assailant that she’d previously pressed charges against at Yale.
But the way you’re posing the question, “What if he might retaliate against her?” is what I’ve called sexual melodrama. What if the male professoriate is a bastion of predators and retaliators, and if you turn them down they’ll get you ousted from academia? It assumes predation and misuse of power is the norm. If we assume that, we’re going to be walking around in a state of perpetual terror. Fearful to the point of incapacitation. Doing self-impeding things like stopping writing poetry (as Wolf said she had, because of the incident with Bloom) because you envision this pathetic figure as having some demonic, otherworldly power over you. My point is that conceptualizing these situations that way just seems deeply unhelpful, to say the least.
But that’s the default state of thinking at the moment. Male professors get prosecuted in campus tribunals because somebody imagines they might retaliate about something, with no evidence to support the notion. I think there’s a propensity lately to see male power as far more powerful than it is, and see institutional power as far more unlimited than it is. There actually are limits to institutional power, I say this as somebody who works at an institution. There are limits to the ways one might be able to retaliate against a student even if one wanted to. Of course if you wanted to, you'd be some kind of nut. It’s not that nuts don’t exist on campus, just as in the general population. The question once again though is whether it’s helpful for women to imagine that the professoriate is packed with men who would, given the chance, execute nefarious plots against their female students.
SOPHIA: That's interesting, because a good portion of the sexual assault cases you’ve studied appear to incorporate that exact nefarious energy, but it’s the students who are plotting against their professors.
SOPHIA: In The Female Thing, you wrote that, “Femininity, at least in its current incarnation, hinges on sustaining an underlying sense of female inadequacy.” Could you talk more about that? Are all performances of femininity irreconcilable with, I wouldn’t even say the mission of feminism, but the mission of human dignity or subjectivity?
LAURA: I suppose I was thinking more about the feminine style of older generations at the time, the endless seeking after physical betterment, if not perfection, that women have been perpetually engaged in. I think, at least I hope, there are generational differences in how femininity gets performed. There seems to be a tiny bit more bodily relaxation in younger women, young women walking around with muffin tops and cropped shirts. I admire that. It makes me wonder if the same sense of physical inadequacy is quite as “baked in” to this generation’s styles of femininity.
SOPHIA: Would you be able to identify anything you've changed your mind about in terms of your lived conception of womanhood?
LAURA: I'm actually constantly changing my mind, though as a writer, I suppose I tend to write in a more declarative or certain way than I can really sustain at a personal level. Stylistically, I veer toward the polemic, but that’s performative. I wouldn’t say I always hold all those convictions as firmly as the tone of the writing might suggest. People read Against Love and think that I actually live my life according to those tenants, when really it’s a polemic, and I’m testing out ideas. In my deepest being I'm far less certain about things than I seem on the page.
SOPHIA: What do you believe that women need or can do for each other presently?
LAURA: Well, in terms of what I was writing about in Unwanted Advances, when it comes to women students, I think there’s now, typically, a process of reconceptualization that takes place after the fact, regarding hookups and other sexual experiences. I don’t mean in cases of sexual assault, I mean more as far as normal bad sex. Like it might be something you consented to, or even initiated, but then didn't like. So you have to decide: was that miscommunication or was it an injury? What’s the scale of the injury? Was it an injury to my self-esteem, or my view of myself? Does it affect me on a long-term basis or is it something I can easily get over?
Title IX, which I suppose was supposed to clarify things, has made it all even more of a mess, because now you have officialdom stepping in with their own agendas. So as far as what women can do for each other, I guess it would be to not fan the flames of injury.
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