Against Love: A Polemic 

By Laura Kipnis (Pantheon, clothbound)

Rehabilitating adultery into an act of social protest might seem like a dubious goal, but that just goes to show how invested we all are in the idea of domestic bliss. So says Laura Kipnis, professor of media studies and author of "Against Love," a chatty, discursive look at cheating. Her premise is that two-timers wouldn't do what they do if coupledom weren't so darn restrictive: all those freedoms given up, all that day-to-day monotony. Is it any wonder that partners break under the pressure? Hence, adultery becomes "the sit-down strike of the love-takes-work ethic."

It all seems like another outlandish academic theory, but Kipnis is no dummy. She throws a bucketful of caveats and provisos into her opening, so that we can't accuse her of being truly serious about promoting adultery. After all, adulterers are seeking to escape love through love, so their actions don't always make much logical sense, and Kipnis knows that. Don't take me too seriously, she says with a wink, jabbing her skewers into coupledom like a magician running swords through the box that holds his comely assistant.

Once her stipulations are out of the way, Kipnis' closely reasoned arguments pick up considerably. She is at her best in the chapter "Domestic Gulags," when she turns her knives on relationship strictures. She devotes pages to a witty listing of all those unspoken rules couples have ("You can't use the wrong tone of voice, and you can't deny the wrong-tone-of-voice accusation when it's made"). She also develops for relationships the themes that philosopher Michel Foucault laid out for the prison system -- namely, that we are taught to monitor ourselves far more effectively than any musclebound jailer could. By the time Kipnis gets to the political sex scandals of the late 1990s, she's got us convinced: Adultery is everywhere, the dark twin of idealized love. Bitter singles will love it.

But still, if adultery is a nuanced form of social protest, it seems to derive from the same impulse that causes rioters to burn down their own neighborhoods. It may be protest, but it hardly yields desirable results. Why would so many willingly sign up for the domestic agenda if there weren't something deeply satisfying about committed love? Not that we expect Kipnis to give monogamy its due: She states from the outset that her polemic exists to overstate the case, to shake things up, to jar us out of our preconceived notions. At that, "Against Love" succeeds fiendishly well.


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