37. I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus

17 Oct

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So, this is a ’90s feminist classic that’s half confessional and half art-and-gender theory. The book is told in a series of letters and journal entries in which Chris Kraus, a not-very-successful maker of experimental art films, falls in unrequited love/obsession with “Dick,” a celebrity lecturer/ media theorist. Chris is married to Sylvere Lotringer, another academic celebrity. (Both of these people are real. Sylvere is, among other things, a founder of Semiotext(e), and Dick, according to Wikipedia, is Dick Hebdige, writer of academic punk-rock books such as Subculture: The Meaning of Style and Cut N Mix.)

The affair may or may not have been real too, but either way it’s mostly in Chris’s head. She tags along for drinks with Sylvere and Dick, who are colleagues, and is struck with lust/obsession for Dick. She and Sylvere start writing him unsent letters together and in just a few days have over 50 pages of material. When they tell Dick about this, he is freaked out. Eventually Chris and Sylvere do show Dick the letters, but it’s not clear if he reads them. Chris and Sylvere split up. Chris and Dick have sex. It doesn’t go well, but that doesn’t end Chris’s obsession.

The engine of the book is the parallel between Chris’s self-diagnosed weakness and humiliation when it comes to Dick—she’s fully aware of how pathetic the endless unrequited letters are—and her position as a woman in the art/intellectual world.

As an artist/intellectual, Chris is a less successful than either Dick or Sylvere.There’s a great passage where she shows up at some hot art party at the same time as another woman, and both are on the list not by name but as a man’s “plus one.” It’s an embarrassing, telling moment. Chris thinks her secondary position is not because she’s less skilled than Sylvere and Dick, but because as a woman she’s…left out. I Love Dick echoes this exclusion in the “relationship” with Dick, which is one of ongoing stonewalling and rejection.

Here’s a representative passage, in which Chris writes to “Dick”:

“Right now Sylvere is in Los Angeles at your school making $2500 for talking about James Clifford. Later on tonight you’ll have a drink and he’ll drive you to the plane, because you’re about to speak in Europe. Did anybody ask me my ideas about Kitaj? Does it matter what they are? It’s not like I’ve been invited, paid, to speak. There isn’t much that I take seriously and since I’m frivolous and female most people think I’m pretty dumb. … WHO GETS TO SPEAK AND WHY? I wrote last week, IS THE ONLY QUESTION.”

Chris thinks that it’s her gender that’s keeping her out of the bad-boy art/intellectual circles. And perhaps she’s right. This is one way that the title has nice resonance. I Love Dick can mean that Chris loves Dick, the person. It can mean that Chris loves a guy who’s a dick. And it can stretch to mean that Chris loves dick itself, a ‘dick’ that stands-in for the entire male-dominated art and academic world. Chris loves this generalized Dick and wants to be a part of it, but dick does not love her back.

As a woman in the art world, what Chris is expected to do—how she is allowed to participate—is by making women’s art. In a long section about the conceptual artist Hannah Wilke, who did things like make vaginas out of dryer-lint balls (! I always knew there must be a use for dryer lint!), Kraus writes:

“At a certain point, perhaps the early 70s, her work began addressing the following question: If women have failed to make ‘universal’ art because we’re trapped within the ‘personal,’ why not universalize the ‘personal’ and make it the subject of our art?

Kraus’s combination of theory and memoir does just that. And its feminist joy is that the ploy works. Though Dick isn’t listening Chris continues to speak and since she publishes the letters she is eventually heard. Even her unwanted thoughts about Kitaj make a cameo. Moreover, on the eve of 2017, I Love Dick has been optioned by Jill Soloway as an Amazon series. Kraus may soon be better known and more loved than either of the two men she felt inferior to.

I liked the book, though I think there’s a serious flaw that undermines the argument: Chris doesn’t love Dick. She has seized Dick, against his stated wishes and mostly at random, for the purposes of her art. At no point is there a personal connection between these two people, or an emotional connection, or even much of a sexual connection. So does the metaphor hold? How true can the book be if that part’s not?

Moreover in the logic of the book Chris is the excluded and rejected party but I think there’s a more compelling sense in which she’s an aggressor. She violates Dick’s privacy, harasses him, publicly humiliates him. Repeatedly, he is quoted telling both Chris and Sylvere that he is uncomfortable with the attention. And though he does have sex with Chris (somewhat inexplicably), the next morning he’s quoted saying:

“But you don’t know me! We’ve had two or three evenings! Talked on the phone once or twice! And you project this shit all over me, you kidnap me, you stalk me, you invade me with your games, and I don’t want it! I never asked for it! I think you’re evil and psychotic.”

It’s an uncomfortable point that the book does not resolve.

 

 

2 Responses to “37. I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus”

  1. fiftywordsdaily October 17, 2016 at 5:54 pm #

    What a fine, balanced review of an intriguing book. Many thanks, N

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