Chris Kraus on the notions of “real life” and freedom in her new novel Summer of Hate.
I first met Chris Kraus in 2005, after I contacted her about her novel, I Love Dick. We began an email correspondence and I told Chris about a book I had just started writing, Beauty Talk & Monsters, my first. She asked me to send her the manuscript. Given that I’d been a life-long reader of Semiotext(e) titles, particularly Native Agents—Chris’s visionary imprint of experimental, first-person writing by women (an American equivalent of the Foreign Agents series launched with Cookie Mueller’s Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black)—publishing with Semiotext(e) and being part of this inspiring roster of titles, an anti-canon of New Narrative talent, was a dream come true.
I started sending the pages of my book to Chris literally as I was writing them. She was supportive and generous and would email me replies from the road, telling me she was reading the stories in her car. Her third novel Torpor, the end of a trilogy, was coming out, and she was just starting to write Summer of Hate. A parable and noir on border politics, poverty, and incarceration, Summer of Hate also takes place on the road, and depicts the everyday horrors, injustices, and banalities of the 21st century American landscape, specifically the Southwest, during the second Bush administration. I was introduced to Chris’s writing while writing my own first book, so ending with Summer of Hate while doing my first interview with her marks another important genealogy for me, one in which Chris continues to chart and track not just her own intellectual and creative biography, but the creative and intellectual biography of many women writers and thinkers.
Masha Tupitsyn In 2007, Semiotext(e) published my first book, Beauty Talk & Monsters, a cross-genre book I feel like people are only starting to understand now. You were my editor and publisher. Throughout the years, we’ve stayed in touch, done readings together, and you even teach at The European Graduate School, where I’m now doing my PhD. I continue to follow your work, and you have continued to read mine, so doing this interview seems like a natural thing to do.
Chris Kraus I think so too! I remember when you were working on Beauty Talk, the problems you had with people thinking the book had to be either criticism or fiction. But you persisted . . . and I think LACONIA: 1,200 Tweets on Film answers this question of genre so elegantly. It’s a personal essay, manifesto, confession, a critical investigation, all at the same time. Really this obsession with genre is a false question. All of these qualities are literary.
MT The issue or project in my work, from Beauty Talk & Monsters on, was never simply about genre for me because, as you say, it’s a false question. I’ve always been interested in placing multiple forms and content side by side because that’s the way we experience things in life. But how is Summer of Hate a departure from your trilogy of novels, I Love Dick, Aliens & Anorexia, and Torpor? How is it a continuation?
CK The biggest departure is that Summer Of Hate moves forward in chronological time. It’s more plotted, with fewer digressions. It unfolds more like a suspense genre book. But many of the concerns are the same. In I Love Dick I wrote about a “culture of poverty” as an observer. In Summer Of Hate, the female protagonist, Catt Dunlop, is dragged into it.
MT In the blurb for Summer of Hate, it states that Catt Dunlop tries to “re-engage with something approximating a ‘real’ life.” This notion of a “real life” is fundamentally gendered and political for me and makes me think about the historical relationship between having a personal life and having a writing life when it comes to women. I’m thinking about the way in which women are still told to choose between doing creative work and living their lives—something you wrote about in Torpor—and how writing about one’s life, which is often assumed to be trite and irrelevant if you’re a woman, becomes tied—one and the same—for this reason. Is it a way of resolving the problem of the “choice?”
CK Catt runs away from LA, and buys and rehabs the buildings in Albuquerque as a means of escaping the insular bubble of the culture industry that is her world in NY and LA. To her, “real life” isn’t especially gendered—her search for it means having contact with people like Titus and Sharon and Edgar, whose work doesn’t define them. People, be they real estate brokers or odd-jobs guys, who are just muddling through, living their lives, without these impossible grandiose dreams of art world fame. That said, I’ve always been attracted to writing that is this kind of writing one’s life—Dorothy Richardson, Christopher Isherwood, Eileen Myles, Chester Himes—I waited a long time to begin writing, but when I began, that’s what I set out to do.
MT Much of Summer of Hate, as with your other books, concerns itself with what constitutes a “real” life and real freedom in the 21st century, and, by the same token, real sex, real love, real work, real money, real place. For Catt Dunlop—and all your heroines—the placelessness and lifeless solipsism of corporate capitalism and digital culture are not only at the center of that question, but are the dead end of being, political despair, and class consciousness.
CK That’s true! Catt definitely wants to get off the computer. That’s why she’s buying and rehabbing apartments. But also, the things I’ve written about more journalistically—like that alternative gallery, Tiny Creatures, in Where Art Belongs, and the community gallery Mexicali Rose whose work comprised the Radical Localism show—involve people doing things together in real time. I’m very attracted to that.
MT You’ve written a lot about your interest in the radical possibilities of real-time community, which also interests me a great deal. This summer at EGS school, which consists of summer sessions, I felt completely liberated by the community of friends I had. Not just the time we spent together, but the actual role that time played in our group dynamic. We literally shared a clock—real-time—classes, meals, housing, nightlife, in an age where everyone’s time is highly individualized, restricted, and compartmentalized. It briefly returned us to a kind of dynamic closeness, receptivity, and presence, and, as a result, joy, that’s simply not possible in highly work-driven and money-oriented cities like New York and LA. While I was with people with whom I shared intellectual/creative common ground, none of my friends were relating to each other from a “professional” angle. We weren’t networking. Your Breton quote from Nadja in Summer of Hate made me think of this—“On one of those afternoons we knew so well how to waste . . . ”
CK I feel that way about it too! There’s no greater pleasure than being around people who are passionately involved with ideas, without any concern for immediate gain. The friends I make at EGS are people I stay in touch with throughout the year. There is a real bond, and that’s rare.
MT In Summer of Hate, the noir and crime novel are updated. Catt’s death wish is not actually about a supposedly female, masochistic romance with death, but the predicament of modern life—its “bottomless loss”—itself, and the desire to liquidate it in order “to find something to live for again.” Summer of Hate has all these registers of American reinvention and self-determination. Both Catt and Paul want to start a new life by killing off old ones. Can you talk about how the philosophical trope of killing, dying, and rebirth functions in the novel and in your conception of noir?
CK In the novel, Catt is confounded by what she describes as her “death wish.” I mean, she meets someone online, and as part of a BDSM game he asks her to “Surrender control of her finances” to him. And she really wants to do this! And she doesn’t know why. So part of the trajectory, for her, is to figure out just what this “death wish” is and how it began. Paul, on the other hand, needs to start a new life because his old one—as an alcoholic and drug addict—is so clearly killing him. It’s already led to homelessness and incarceration. Committing to AA’s twelve steps is his rebirth. At least in some ways. As Catt realizes, the “killing” involved in a death wish is very abstract . . . until suddenly, if it’s actually realized, it’s not. The seduction of death is much sexier than any actual death that would involve gristle and blood.
MT Both Catt and Paul are terrified, running from something—a classic noir motif. This makes me think about the way fear works as a catalyst for Catt and Paul in the novel. Fear is a way out of numbness, boredom, and poverty in “Prison America,” as well as a return to material form and radical presence, which reminds me of what Alain Badiou recently said in one of my graduate classes about the dialectics of anxiety. “Anxiety,” he says, “is when we must know something we do not know. There is no creation without anxiety. There is always anxiety. Anxiety is the sign of the new Real. A Real, which is an excess of Real. Anxiety indicates that there is really something new for the subject.” Is there a new Real in Summer of Hate? If so, what is it?
CK The anxiety Badiou describes is a wonderful thing, like apprehension—when you’re poised at the brink of something. The anxiety gripping everyone in Summer Of Hate is a toxic dread—something that robs the present of itself. A paramilitary atmosphere in which nothing is ever enough and everyone’s living in low-grade fear. This really was my experience of living in the US during ’05 and ’06. The “new Real” described in this book is a present that can’t be described because our dislocation and powerlessness have become such old, boring news. The Occupy movement was a fantastic reaction against this.
MT As someone who has just spent a year writing a multimedia book about love, Love Dog, I was especially moved by the radical possibilities—the Event of love—that Catt experiences in the second half of the novel with Paul, after their worlds have collided, and how at that same moment there is this realization during a speaking engagement in LA: “For the past several years, while she built her career, Catt sensed that cultural dialogue was really a cipher for something else, a means of obscuring the thick toxic cloud under which we were all living.” Is the romance between Catt and Paul the antidote to this cultural ciphering and professional haze?
CK The romance shakes her up, gets her out of her world. That’s one of the great possibilities of love. This approach of two strangers where senses are heightened because they can’t assume anything about each other’s worlds. Like the Sex Magazine interview you just did, where you ended up being interviewed by someone who said that he admired your work on his OK Cupid profile—I thought that was a fantastic text because nothing could be presumed, but there was a lot of goodwill on both sides that brought you together.
MT I’m interested in the problem of writing and reading in the present. Time often has to go by before we can write about something, but it also seems to be true that we don’t always know how to read a book in the present. If culture defines genre and content—readability and value—what is the difference between how people read I Love Dick when it first came out and how people read it now? How does time change a book? How do a writer’s later books explain and contextualize the books that came before?
CK You know, I just have no idea. People talk about I Love Dick as if it were written last week. I think it’s because the culture has such an endless appetite for “coming of age.” Lately the fashion has turned towards young female culterati coming of age, works that entail dealing with sex in a (happily) more blunt, realistic way. Having sex AND talking about it, and I think I Love Dick gives a fairly contemporary model of that. Which was never really my aim, but I’m glad people are still reading the book.
MT I find that I’m still talking about my first book as if it were written last week, too. I still have to create the links and explain the breaks about my work all the time. How has your first book, or first books in general, overshadowed the progression and reception of your later work about class consciousness, the underclass, and border politics? How is Summer of Hate still dogged by I Love Dick, for example?
CK It’s true that that’s happened. People had such a virulent, polarized response to I Love Dick when it was published, and that’s colored a lot of response to work I’ve done subsequently. The whole question of memoir vs. fiction, of privacy and naming, is so boring! And our era isn’t the first to obsess with it. The recent 100th anniversary of Mary McCarthy’s birth reprised some of the responses to her early work, which elicited attacks around some of these very issues. People love gossip, and they love to talk about sex. But these topics are expected to remain within a certain ghetto. For a woman to deal with political or theoretical topics and also talk about sexuality in an immediate way is to invite ridicule. It’s no coincidence that Laura Kipnis avoided the first person in her book Monogamy. But the freedom to move between “high” and “low” culture remains off-limits to women. And that’s totally fucked.
MT On the phone you talked about the relation between the question of ethics and the 12-step program Paul Garcia uses to rebuild his life after imprisonment in Summer of Hate—imprisonment being one of the dominant themes of the book. You are critical of what you call the “behaviorist model” of AA because it negates interiority. I think a lot of self-help models also resist any acknowledgment of social reality. Both the inside and the outside are destroyed. Everything that happens to you is your fault. In your early work you talked a lot about the cultural determination of success and failure. In Summer of Hate you link that determination with the underclass. How does this, on the one hand, a-politicization, and on the other, negation of interiority, work together? And where does this leave ethics and the question of social responsibility?
CK In the book, Paul Garcia, once he’s reformed and sober, is completely unable to engage with the fact that he hurt someone in a hit and run accident while he was drunk ten years ago. The injury becomes a charge that must be beaten. AA tells him to “never regret the past” because “it’s brought us to where we are now.” No doubt 12-step programs have been very effective for helping all kinds of people, but Paul’s embrace of the steps leads to an amoral solipsism. Nothing has really replaced the working class culture that disappeared in the US in the last century, and without it, a person is really alone. The lack of knowledge, associations, creates an interiority that is just moment-to-moment reactive. And without a self, how can there be ethics?
MT The question of what is ethics without interiority is an important question, particularly in the second half of Summer of Hate, as Paul tries to apply this behaviorist model to his new life. On this subject, “Socio-graphics” is a pivotal chapter because it makes clear the following: for the poor, non-white, and incarcerated, the system is programmed for failure, so how do you get out of poverty when it ensures that you stay poor? In the book, Paul is filled with a constant feeling of dread, the sense that things could go wrong at any moment, but that is the reality for someone like him. Positive thinking is simply not enough, especially in a Post-9/11, Terror Alert world. And, as you say, we’ve lost any socio-political structure for change. So this really puts the whole illusory and apolitical notion of “positive thinking” under a critical lens. There is Catt’s noir and there is Paul’s noir. Paul’s noir is poverty.
CK No doubt. That’s one of the jokes in the book—the people most unlikely to benefit from “positive thinking” are the ones who embrace it the most. There is a cycle of poverty that’s almost impossible to overcome. Out of jail, Paul’s debts—the bad checks, the fines and the court fees, the unpaid student loans—total about $40,000. How does anyone pay back a debt like this working for little more than minimum wage? Paul can’t enroll in a state university until the old loans are repaid; he’s barred from all kinds of jobs because of the felonies. Catt bails him out, and expects him to see things her way, that is, politically—that his bad situation is exemplary. But he can’t. There’s too much shame.
MT Exactly, and that shame leads to evasion. The immorality and hypocrisy of positive thinking rears its ugly head at the end of the novel when we learn about Paul’s hit and run accident eight years before. Paul doesn’t want to take responsibility for what he did to Judd Mason Platz because he knows that he will pay for that tragic crime with his life. Without Catt’s help, there is no end to the cycle of poverty and incarceration. I think the repetition of Lynndie England’s famous explanation for her actions in Abu Grahib throughout Summer of Hate—“I didn’t know my actions were wrong”—sounds the alarm bell for the loss of interiority, and with it, ethics. How do you know what is ethical without an infrastructure and community of ethics? And, how can you afford to be ethical when you can’t afford it?
CK I don’t think you can. Lynndie England’s mistake in confessing, “I didn’t know my actions were wrong” threw the whole show-trial into relief. They needed a repentant scapegoat, not a stunned zombie. Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure shows this moral chasm among the National Guard enlistees who ended up in Abu Ghraib in the most brilliant and oblique way. Most of them had no frame of reference outside their immediate situation—no experience that could give an intuitive sense of right or wrong. In Paul’s situation, the legal retribution is so great, he can’t afford, even psychically, to empathize with his victim. He just needs to beat the charge.
MT In a recent Bookforum review of Summer of Hate your work was attacked in a way that felt personal for many people. Christine Smallwood takes issue with a number of things in your writing, one of them being what you wrote in I Love Dick about women being debased for writing about their debasement. Does Smallwood’s review participate in the very female debasement you’ve tried to expose in your work?
CK I don’t know—I just found it strange, the hostility so disproportionate. My writing circulates outside the mainstream literature world. Surely they have better targets for these attacks? Smallwood was ostensibly reviewing Summer Of Hate, but beyond challenging my credentials to write about underclass life, she has nothing to say. Instead, she dredges up this old discourse about female debasement from a book I published fifteen years ago.
MT What are you working on now?
CK I’ve just finished an essay, “Kelly Lake Store and Other Stories,” about “participant” art and the romance of regionalism that will come out as a small book from Companion Editions in Portland.
Chris Kraus is the author of I Love Dick (1997), Aliens & Anorexia, and Torpor (2006). Her essay collections, Video Green (2004) and Where Art Belongs (2011) examine the possibilities and limits of visual art. Translated into five languages, her first three novels have been praised for their sharp and intimate insights into the art and intellectual worlds in New York, LA and Europe. In Summer of Hate, she turns her attention to the parched expanses of Southwest US during the Bush years.
Masha Tupitsyn is the author of LACONIA: 1,200 Tweets on Film (ZerO Books, 2011), Beauty Talk & Monsters, a collection of film-based stories (Semiotext(e) Press, 2007), and co-editor of the anthology Life As We Show It: Writing on Film (City Lights, 2009). Her forthcoming multi-media book, Love Dog, a blog project, is being published by Penny-Ante Editions in 2013.