Exploring Bludgeoned Subjectivity: Talking to Chris Kraus

Chris Kraus, author of I Love Dick, Aliens & Anorexia, Video Green, among other titles; writes novels, criticism, and essays fluently addressing a range of subjects from from film to philosophy. Her forthcoming novel Summer of Hate is a love story that investigates recent American history all too eager to be forgotten on its own. We talked about her new book, its relation to other facets of her work, and other ideas.

Giampaolo Bianconi: Let's begin by talking about the beginning of your new book, Summer of Hate. It’s very different in tone from the rest of the book, very thrilling in its combination of sex, money, and fear.

Chris Kraus: The first two chapters set up each character’s situation before they meet—first Catt and then Paul. Catt is immersed in terror and flight: sex, murder, and delusional thinking. She’s panicked, hysterical. When she finally lands in Albuquerque in the third chapter, she re-enters real life. The movement of time changes once she gets there.  The book settles into a more normal, real-life progression. She’s driven into the story by her delirium. Paul enters the story with remorse, fear and shame. When they meet, the story continues on a different plateau.

GB: In relation to their meeting, I was struck by the fact that before Paul meets Catt he’s totally lost. Their meeting is so unexpected, and he’s so isolated and his possibility of interaction and collision is so small—especially in terms of their class differences.

CK: Right, it’s so farfetched. But given where she’s coming from, is it any more farfetched than meeting these lunatics online? She takes herself out of this delusional world and lands someplace else, where pretty much anything can happen. For Paul their meeting is improbable, but he’s already so far off the grid. This happens in life all the time! When people take themselves out of their normal, expected routines, other things can happen, and that’s what happens to these two.

GB: In one of your previous books, I Love Dick, there’s some discussion of the creation of a hybrid form of fiction and cultural criticism. Summer of Hate is a novel, but it fills a void in contemporary discussion about the incarceration industry.

CK: Yes … In I Love Dick, Dick has been charged with creating a new MFA program along those lines.  “Hybridity” was one of the funding buzzwords at that time.  But really, that is the definition of literature. If you look back to the great texts over the centuries, they’re hybrid forms of fiction and criticism. The great adventure stories: Moby Dick, Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and then Balzac’s novels, the list goes on. The definition of literary fiction has become so incredibly narrow: domestic dramas based on the romantic and career ambitions within the upper middle class, but it wasn’t always that way. The agenda of fiction used to be to describe the whole world.

GB: The world that you describe in Summer of Hate is so regularly overlooked, not only in fiction but also in art and other forms of cultural production.

CK: It’s true; it’s not very sexy. Narrative hinges on subjectivity, and we’re accustomed to a certain kind of subjectivity. It’s usually very refined: an incredibly solipsistic I that knows how to talk about itself in relation to a limited culture. Grammar, composition, the art world, the intellectual world: it’s the upper-middle class Western I. So how to describe a subjectivity that’s been bludgeoned to the point of nonexistence? This is a very different project than early 20th century Socialist-realist-working class literature, writers like John Dos Passos and Jack London who advanced a more heroic proletariat protagonist. That certainly isn’t the case here.

Like all of my writing, Summer of Hate is based on experiences I’ve had. What struck me and nauseated me, what made me really confused and upset, was the degree of unself-awareness or consciousness of a larger world beyond Albuquerque. Education has become so contractive, culture has become so contractive, that beyond the culture offered by things like Twelve Step programs and Born Again Christianity, all based on a very behaviorist model, the I has no place outside itself to go. It’s just such a trapped and lonely I.

Catt trips on this a bit in the story: what would it be like to be someone who doesn’t have the process of association that comes from education? When experience has no external referents, it’s only ever itself.  Everything is reduced to temporal feeling. That’s the legacy of the last 20 or 30 years in the U.S. Public education has become robot education. True education is a privilege reserved for an increasingly small percentage of the population.  Regional working class culture has been replaced by media/mall-world.  Most of the characters in Albuquerque had to work two or three jobs before becoming homeless! There’s no leisure in which a culture could develop. Catt talks about this in her rants: the ban on smoking, the tiny amount of alcohol content that can get you arrested for drunk driving, things that softly discourage what was once a popular working class culture of meeting in public places to drink, talk, smoke, laugh. That been replaced by flatscreens and Walmarts and two or three staggered-shift service jobs.

All these things, you and I and anybody can read them. We know this. It’s a truism, a commonplace; countless theorists have described it. But it’s one thing to know it intellectually and another thing to actually be in this place and meet people as individuals. And in the book, I tried to capture the emotional knowledge of that: what that actually feels like, what the true experience is like. Theory has done a great job of describing the phenomena in external terms, but the job of literature is to describe what it feels like from the inside, and maybe that hasn’t happened so much yet.

GB: It’s interesting that in the book, what’s lost in the loneliness of the working class has an echo that the character Catt is somehow already experiencing in her life in Los Angeles.

CK: Yeah. My friend Kate Sennert, who read a draft of the book early on, what struck her was how everyone in the book, Catt and her art and intellectual friends in L.A. and the people in Albuquerque, were all gripped by the same anxiety.

GB: Another reason why Catt has to escape is her smothering relationship with technology. Her desire to flip houses is in some ways more about renovating them working with her hands.

CK: Yeah, how does anyone deal with that? I spend a period of time every summer with more limited Internet access, but that doesn’t change the fact that everything important transpires online. So there’s not much escape. The only thing we can do is try to step away. One of the great things about work is that you can be with people socially in a way that’s not contrived and phony.

GB: The lack of community is really palpable. Do you think the book has, or do you want the book to have, a certain relationship to a specific community even though it describes the lack of communities?

CK: I don’t think the book has any particular quote-unquote community quality, but I hope that it’s read by individuals who are motivated to get outside that circle of isolation in different ways. You can’t do anything about this with a book, that’s not the purpose, but I’ve been really interested in these questions, and exploring them in other parts of my life.

I co-organized a show last year with good friends from Mexicali, Mexico at Artists Space called Radical Localism: Art, Video, and Culture From Pueblo Nuevo’s Mexicali Rose. To me, that was another kind of action.  Rather than writing about lack of community, it was interesting to see how a genuine community can function and radiate outwards from its own place. The project was to bring Mexicali Rose to New York and share it with people there. That seemed more interesting than beating your chest about the lack of community in the U.S. Community art here is so stigmatized, and overrun with a non-profit mentality, people who talk as if they’re writing a grant. Community in Mexicali is less sanctimonious and creepy, it involves a much bigger bandwidth of people. And funnier, because there is still a real culture there.  Exporting it to New York was an example of something else that might be possible.

That’s what I’ve been writing about this summer.  My friend Stephanie Snyder asked me to write a monograph for her Companion Editions series at Reed College, and I’ve been expanding some of the ideas behind that exhibition, how I see that phenomenon being manifested in other parts of the art world.  This year’s Documenta was almost entirely participant art, and I’ve noticed, doing studio visits at MFA programs, that 70% of the student work is not really what you’d call art. 

They’re doing archiving, they’re doing geography, they’re doing community education projects, translations. You have to wonder why people would go to an MFA studio art program to become schoolteachers or small-business owners or translators. My conclusion is that these occupations have become so negligible and degraded within the culture that only under the banner of contemporary art, within that discourse, can we appear to have any cultural currency, and that seems to me something worth talking about.

GB: In relation to this cultural moment, I saw an interview with you the other day where you discussed the function of narrative as a capitalist form—how capitalism thrives off of narrative. What are you conscious of in your work with narrative and your efforts to pry it away from its association to capital? In Summer of Hate, Catt’s narrative is especially wound up with the thrill of money making.

CK: Who was it that said, “You can’t put three words together without making meaning?” Likewise, you can’t write a prose work without engaging with narrative. Prose is narrative. The question is what kind of narrative will it be. Narrative becomes conventional when it follows a conventional arc: what they teach you in script-writing. The narrative that I like best is the kind that pulls the rug our from under your feet.

I think that’s what I’ve tried to do since my third novel, Torpor.  It was my first time using the third person. I was consciously working with tense and leading up towards a breathless ending. Same thing with this book. It ends in a very different way: it ends badly, but you’re left hanging.

I remember a play that I made before I started writing novels, Readings From The Diaries of Hugo Ball, about Zurich dada.  All the words came from his diaries, which were published as a book called Flight Out of Time. The Zurich Dadaists were always moving. There’s a scene at the end of the play where the characters are having a leisurely picnic.  Ball suddenly says, “We’re moving to Germany,” and someone pulls out the tablecloth.  That’s what I like to do with a novel: set something up, and then pull the rug out at the very end.

GB: I really like how that device becomes unmoored from its relationship to popular genre. The book ends with a cliffhanger, but also mundane action.

CK: That’s the energy; it’s more like real life.

GB: You mentioned your move away from the first person voice in your writing. Do you think if this book had been written in the first person, it would have had a different relationship to the cultural and political injustices it explores? Would it have been harder or less authoritative to talk about them that way?

CK:  When I wrote I Love Dick, I was a complete outsider, so it was a very reckless, wild I.  Now that my work has been more widely circulated, to continue to write from that outsider position would be false. It seemed easier to convey Catt Dunlop’s vortex through the third person. 

I figured that out when I wrote Torpor. In a way Torpor is the prequel to I Love Dick: how could the characters have come to this insane point where, as a couple, they’re writing love letters to this third person? The story of how that happens is the story of his background as a child survivor of the Holocaust, their marriage, her abortions. In order to tell that story truthfully I had to be ruthless with the characters and sometimes turn them into clowns. You can’t really do that with the first person: you can’t turn the I into a clown, particularly if you’re a woman. People will say: “Oh my God, she hates herself, I feel so sorry for her, she should get therapy.” The only way you can turn your female I into a clown is to make her a third person character. The material in Torpor was really more personal—I Love Dick was all shtick, people say it was confession, but it was all shtick, a stand up routine. Torpor was a much more personal book, and in order for it to be personal and psychological to that degree, I needed the freedom to move those characters around, as you can do in the third person.

Photo by Daniel Marlos

GB: The process of taking events from your life and turning them into a third person narrative seems almost like the process of translation. You really transform the experience into something else.

CK: I just finished reading Proust this summer, and I can’t remember if it was Proust or somebody talking about him who said, “All autobiography is fiction,” and some fiction, probably the fiction we like best, is autobiographical. What happens is composition: what period of time will be covered, how will the characters appear, what are the colors of the story? For me the hardest part of starting the book was to find a relatable way of conveying Catt Dunlop’s dilemma. It seems so crazy. She’s about to give all her money away to a stranger she met online, now she thinks he’s going to knife her or shoot her, and meanwhile she’s buying and selling real estate over the phone. It’s completely hysterical and crazy. How can you possibly make that dilemma relatable while also tying it to its moment in time?

Part of its moment in time was the dread and unease and self-loathing that I felt during those years, ’05 and ’06, as a culture producer waking up every morning during the Bush years. There was a psychically paramilitary atmosphere.  You could not turn around without seeing TV anchors with American flag lapel pins.  Every city and town was draped with American flags and billboards that said “We Support Our Troops And Our President,” “God Bless Our Troops and Our President.”  It’s so easily forgotten, but everywhere you turned, there was this shit.

And the art world was completely outside it. Situationism was enjoying a big revival, and what Situationism has to do with the situation in the United States in 2005 I really don’t know. Meanwhile, Steve Kurtz was being prosecuted. That was largely ignored within the high art world. It wasn’t covered: it was a non-event. All this makes Catt feel very polluted and queasy and confused, and as she says in the book, like a Nazi collaborator. So one’s environment and one’s psychic malaise cannot be separated.

I tried to set up a situation where Catt’s psychic panic could be somewhat understood through these background events. I mean everybody’s crazy, it’s a hard thing to convey in a novel, but the greatest thing fiction can do is let us see and acknowledge our craziness. Everybody has moments of absolute craziness, but they’re rarely conveyed in literary fiction.

A mysterious billboard erected last year outside Wyoming, MN.

GB: Another thing I wanted to touch on was the fact of your writing about such recent history. I think culturally there’s a bias against recent history: things can’t be talked about too soon; it has to be in a historical sweet spot. Were you conscious about this in your writing about recent history in Summer of Hate?

CK: I think that’s very sad. People who I respect say that you can only really deal with politics and situations after a passage of time, but I don’t agree. I think that if we don’t try and process, both for ourselves and publically, what’s happening in the present, it’s a very great loss. Because that is the archival material of the future. I think there’s a way of understanding things in the present that is impossible to ever understand in retrospect. So much gets lost. Usually it’s the ordinariness, and the pettiness, and the banality that gets lost.

GB: That’s especially interesting with the years you talk about in Summer of Hate, the height of the Bush era. That’s something that no one wants to remember, and Bush himself has totally retreated from public life. It’s like everyone has come together to cover this up.

CK: Yeah, that’s right. Not even consciously, as they have in Lebanon, or with Latin America’s Dirty Wars…a political decision to reconstruct. But for us, there’s just this kind of amnesia. The amnesia and the anxiety go hand and hand, because everybody is spinning their wheels so fast just to stay in the place that they’re in. There really isn’t much opportunity for reflection.

GB: Other than Bush, the figure that haunts the book is the Sheriff Joe Arpaio. There are a lot of details about him and his practices, his inhumanities.

CK: This moment, as we speak, he’s on the witness stand. It does look like he’s coming down in this federal class action suit against the racial profiling. Finally, this guy is 80 years old, he has the flu, and he’s losing it on the witness stand.  It looks as if the guy is finally coming down. I was in Phoenix, just like the character Catt when Paul is arrested and extradited to jail in Maricopa County. I experienced that, and it was appalling. In the same way that it was when I first moved to L.A. from New York and I would see dozens of immigrant men outside the Home Depot, going up to your truck begging for work. I really wasn’t used to that coming from New York. At first it would make my cry, then of course you get used to it. It was the same thing sitting in the court in Maricopa and realizing that because I had paid for his lawyer, Paul was the only person on the calendar that day that was not shackled to the bench in his prison garb. Everyone else was in Joe Arpaio’s leg chains and arm chains. All those people were waiting for jail sentences for petty, nonviolent crimes: writing bad checks, receiving stolen property, drunken driving even. The crimes of the poor. It was wrenching to sit there with Paul in his nice suit and our expensive lawyer and see these other poor unfortunates before the judge with the overworked public defender.

As I wrote in the book, the spectacle of Joe Arpaio’s cruelty serves a purpose in the bigger picture. It’s so grotesque, a Grand Guignol that raises the bar on forms of oppression that are normalized. It raises our threshold of tolerance for sadism and cruelty towards the poor in other parts of the culture. While Arpaio stages a spectacle, marching people through the streets of Phoenix in pink underwear, other slightly lesser forms of cruelty can be practiced on a daily basis much less spectacularly throughout the prison system of the U.S. That’s his real function.

GB: On a different note, did you ever think that the images and ideas in Summer of Hate could have been served well in a film? Do you ever miss making films?

CK: Oh, I don’t miss making films at all. I love watching films and I would love it if someone would like to make a film of this book, but it will not be me. Writing, as opposed to making films, is so much less unwieldy. All it really takes: here I am, I’m talking to you and I’m sitting in my truck outside a cabin in northern Minnesota where I come every summer to write. It costs me eight hundred dollars a month. That’s all you need to write a book. To make a film: forget about it! You need vast resources, hundreds of thousands of dollars… it’s so much easier to be here and write a book.