Laura Kipnis and a Theory of Scandal


At Work

Laura Kipnis is not a scandalous person. The Northwestern Professor of media studies has written five books, received fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, and is a contributor to Harper’s, Slate, and The New York Times. In her latest book, How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior, she develops a “theory of scandal.” The book does not include the latest tabloid gossip; rather, Kipnis takes an academic approach in understanding the psychology behind stories of people like Linda Tripp and James Frey. I recently interviewed Kipnis in her New York apartment (where I was happy to see a set of The Paris Review interview series on her shelves).

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of writing on the “theory of scandal.” What kind of research did you do for this book?

There’s a currently little-read psychoanalyst named Theodor Reik, a student of Freud’s, who wrote on what he called social masochism, which involves people using society as an instrument of self-punishment, acting things out in public in a way that guarantees some kind of social retribution. I found this incredibly fascinating and useful, since the big question of the book ends up being about self-destruction, about people organizing their own downfalls. Reik isn’t very in fashion anymore, I don’t know why. He’s also written a lot of very counterintuitive stuff on guilt and revenge, which I draw on in a number of the chapters. René Girard’s book on scapegoats was also helpful in thinking about the social dynamics of scandal. What I didn’t find was much on scandal itself that was particularly useful, but that’s also exciting as a writer: You get to invent the terrain.

Were you ever involved in a scandal?

I admit that I’m weirdly drawn to bad behavior, at least I seem to have written about it repeatedly, between porn, adultery, and now scandal. So yes, I’ve been thinking about exactly this question: How close have I myself come? Or might potentially come? One of the closest scrapes I can think of—or that I’m willing to describe publicly—was being about to publish something once that did have something of a vindictive element, and then being stopped by an editor who said, “Don’t publish that.” It’s hard to predict how scandalous it would have been; it involved revealing things that might have been potentially humiliating. Of course, it might have gone unnoticed. But it’s made me think about the function of editors for writers—they’re like auxiliary super-egos, at least a decent editor is. This can be a mixed blessing, of course.

People tend to label you as a writer targeting women’s issues, and even the cover of How to Become a Scandal has a feminine pink title. But your writing doesn’t come off as gender-specific. Why do people want to classify you this way?

I do find the gender categorizing frustrating, for all the usual reasons. I once wrote a book—Against Love—that has absolutely no gendered pronouns in it, no he or she, and doesn’t talk about gender at all, and I still hear people, on occasion, referring to it as a feminist book. I wrote another book that was explicitly about women—The Female Thing—that I think got taken less intellectually seriously than anything I’ve written, even though it was probably the most intellectually serious thing I’ve written. One of the things that could be a strike against me is that I tend to write about low cultural subjects—femininity being one of these, scandal another, and of course an earlier book on pornography. I suspect that “low” gets confused with intellectually unserious, and then being a woman on top of it doesn’t exactly help. Though I should add that whenever my work has been trivialized and dismissed by reviewers, it’s always been by other women. The vast levels of competitiveness among women—well let’s just say it isn’t pretty.

Do you think the digital culture is contributing to the growth of scandal?

One question I get asked a lot, and don’t have a great answer for, is: What about these people who are using scandal to get themselves into the limelight and promote their careers? The Paris Hiltons and Kardashians … Who seem to have propelled themselves into something of an elevated cultural position by being scandalous. But they’re not really all that scandalous, are they? Releasing soft porn videos isn’t actually violating a major social taboo.

It’s interesting that people want to project themselves into the public eye like that.

I do think our society is becoming increasingly narcissistic, and a contributing factor is the fact that everyone has such instant access to the media. There used to be the cliché about fifteen minutes of fame. Now it’s about living your entire life in public. For certain personality types apparently, this is utterly gratifying—or, more likely, we’re being transformed into the personality types that find it gratifying. Of course, what gets forgotten is that the limelight isn’t always so forgiving. The public sphere can turn on you and be incredibly sadistic. Linda Tripp, the subject of chapter 3 (“The Whistleblower”) is an example: someone who propelled herself into the middle of a major scandal—or instigated a major scandal, in fact—creating a massive feeding frenzy with herself as the raw meat. She didn’t come out of it exactly unscathed.

So, you see publicity as potentially harmful rather than beneficial? How does that work out for a writer?

There’s such a shift in the public-private divide, it’s so up for grabs at the moment, and I don’t think anyone quite knows what to make of it or where things will end up. As a writer, especially someone who writes on subjects like love or scandal, you sometimes end up feeling like no question about your personal life is off limits—people seem surprised if you don’t want to talk about your personal life publicly. Obviously, memoir is such an ascendant form, the premise ends up being that what writers do for a living is reveal intensely private things about themselves in print. It’s not that my work isn’t personal, but what’s personal about it maybe isn’t sitting on the surface in quite such a transparent way. Sometimes I think I’m just an anomalously private person living in the age of diminishing privacy.

What would be your ideal scandal if you had to be involved in one?

Well, I did feel a certain connection to the first two scandals in the book, I confess, both of which have to do with love and injury. Basically, they’re cases of people not getting over blows to their egos and then taking some kind of crazed action to rectify the situation. That’s certainly the backstory of the Lisa Nowak case, the astronaut who drove across the country to confront her old boyfriend’s new girlfriend … It’s not so hard to understand the imperative to cushion the blow by leaping into action, though maybe not the precise specifics. The pepper spray probably wasn’t a great idea, and it’s not very clear what she thought she’d accomplish. But the idea that you could do something dramatic that would change someone’s mind, that would set things right, would win back the beloved—I don’t find it so difficult to understand the impulse.