Chris Kraus is a critic, occasional filmmaker, and novelist whose most recent book is the excellent Summer of Hate. In the fall, Semiotext(e)/MIT Press will release a new, critical edition of her novel Aliens & Anorexia.
UNI & CHLOE: Your novel I Love Dick is, in some ways, the story of how an obsessive love interest allows a young woman to come into her own as a writer. Should love always be this consuming, all-encompassing, and borderline scary? (We’re trying to suss out our feelings for Scott, you see, and we’re afraid that sometimes we’re too giving, too clingy, too constantly present.)
CHRIS KRAUS: From the outside at least, it seems like you three have a good thing going on. He’s the biggest fan of your work, and your first reader. Maybe you need to make this Scott-worship the subject of one of your posts and see how that goes? But so far your writings haven’t been Scott-centric at all, and they’re great. I don’t think that kind of I Love Dick-type obsession is even love—for the narrator, it was more like a mania that finally allowed her to speak. That kind of obsession isn’t something I’d seek out now. As William S. Burroughs said about Queer, it was kind of an inoculation against ever doing it again.
UNI & CHLOE: We don’t like to waste too much time on magazines, but every now and then we’ll paw through a copy of something that Scott has brought home—ArtForum, say, or Art in America, or Frieze—and it generally only takes about twenty to thirty words before we’re purring our way into a deep, deep sleep. Now Chris, you write art criticism, but it doesn’t suck! What do you think is wrong with art writing today, and why is so much of it so bad?
CHRIS KRAUS: People are trying so hard to sound smart they don’t let themselves be smart enough to say what they see. Also, they lack any instinct for entertaining. I wish more of these critics would write with your kittenish charm!
UNI & CHLOE: In much of your more autobiographically inclined fiction, the reader is confronted with the difficulties of being a woman trying to be taken seriously by a cabal of men: academics, theorists, artists, and so on. We really sympathize. Sometimes we’ll be hanging out on the periphery of a group of people, and those people are asking questions like “how can we counter the hegemony of empire as posited by Hardt and Negri?”, and we’ll want to interject some common sense observation—but the second we do, whoever was speaking gives us a withering stare that translates as, “Shut up, kitten, and go back to being cute and silent.” What advice would you offer female kittens who want to be heard in a man’s world?
CHRIS KRAUS: Oh god, stay out! It’s just so BORING. Hardt and Negri themselves don’t have any good answers about “countering that hegemony.” Working freelance and being on the computer all day is hardly a plan. The best thing is to refuse alien language and insist on the right to vocalize thought on your own terms. Certain male artists have done this very aggressively. I’m thinking of Mike Kelley, how he brought a low, working class cadence into the high art mix. Of course being felines you run the risk that, rather than appreciating the genius of this, people will just see you as dumb. But pay them no mind. Better to live in a parallel world.
UNI & CHLOE: You’ve been awesomely supportive of our blogging efforts so far, for which we’re eternally grateful. It’s a bit odd to realize that we don’t know your own relationship to cats-in-general. Have you ever had one? Or any animal companions of any sort?
CHRIS KRAUS: One of my books (Aliens & Anorexia) is dedicated to the memory of my dog! I love dogs for all the reasons Gilles Deleuze hated them. But then, his animal of choice was the tick. I know you’ve written against dogs in the past, but frankly, your devotion to Scott seems a bit dog-like to me … against the aloof archetype of the cat. I mean, kittens, what gives?
UNI & CHLOE: We can’t help but feel that your body of work has spawned a legion of inferior imitators, much in the way that the seminal grunge band Nirvana led to atrocities like that Australian group, Silverchair. So we’ll cut to the chase: What are your thoughts on Marie Calloway? (And are we crazy, but is her pen name taken from a digression in I Love Dick?)
CHRIS KRAUS: I don’t remember a Marie in I Love Dick …
UNI & CHLOE: We just pawed through our cat-eared copy…There’s a Maria Calloway on page 174. She’s giving a blowjob to her New Age-y, self-actualization-type teacher. I guess Calloway has claimed that she took the name from the Sofia Coppola movie about Marie Antoinette, which seems really lame, but maybe she subconsciously cribbed it from Dick. Anyway…
CHRIS KRAUS: Oh—Marie is a cat lover, and I wish her well. In some ways, her writings remind of me Tiqqun’s Preliminary Materials Towards a Theory of the Young Girl, or else Michelle Bernstein doing Francoise Sagan. The part in “Adrien Brody,” though, when she asks the guy to take a sex pic with her phone, and he asks, Are You Going To Use This?, and she says No, and then does … That doesn’t seem right. Literary fashions are so cyclical. At one moment, the culture seems to want women who talk all about what it’s like being a girl; at the next, female writers who avoid giving any details at all are the most highly praised. I envy writers like Alice Munro, living up north, left mostly outside this fray to do her very specific and writerly work. I think after the buzz from the “controversy” surrounding her work dies away, if Marie Calloway decides to continue writing, she’ll figure something else out.
UNI & CHLOE: There was a point in time when Scott’s bookshelf was very, shall we say, patriarchal. Times have changed! Now, in a given month, we might not even read a single book written by someone who possesses a penis. Still, we feel like are there some gaps in our knowledge of fiction written by women. Who are some writers that we should know about, but probably don’t?
CHRIS KRAUS: Well if you like reading poems, Dorothea Lasky is amazing. And so is Fanny Howe, both her poems and her prose. Fanny’s daughter, Danzy Senna is a great writer too. I like Tamara Berger. Recently someone recommended Marie Bashkirtseff's diaries to me, and they're great. Emily Gould and Ruth Curry have a great list on Emily Books. Have you ever read Janet Flanner’s Uncollected Writings? Her long essay “Mrs. Jeffries” is the best account I’ve read of Occupied France. So great. Or Dawn Powell?
UNI & CHLOE: It always titillates us to read what you have to say about S&M; we feel a weird shimmery mix of attraction and repulsion when considering the topic itself. Of course, we haven’t really dabbled ourselves…A) we’re cats, and B) this apartment in Bed-Stuy isn’t exactly crawling with eligible play partners…but we do have a strong compulsion to fit ourselves into boxes—especially boxes that are really too small for us to properly fit inside, so that we’re sort of confined and spilling out over the edges. We can’t help but thing of bondage; we feel both constrained and very safe when squished into those boxes! Are we making any sense? Or are we just trying too hard to identify, when all we really are is a couple of really vanilla kittens?
CHRIS KRAUS: I’m not involved in S&M now … that was part of my, I guess, research when I moved to LA and started being involved more in the art world. I wrote about S&M in Aliens & Anorexia and Video Green as kind of an antidote to the absolute impersonality of art world life in LA - an extreme presence in an otherwise vacant terrain. I mean, it’s not something I would have gotten into had I lived in Bed-Stuy, I don’t think. There’s no denying the protection and safety of small space. But maybe you don’t have to give it a name? S&M can be very addictive. Remaining Free Kittens gives you the same paradox and in the end seems less limiting to me.
CHRIS KRAUS: You cats are my new favorite literary critics because your responses are so direct and agenda-less. I’m guessing this is because you have all the time in the world—at least, you seem to—and no position to uphold. Do you think this is a requisite for criticism?
UNI: We’re in a unique situation, Chris, and not just because there’s very few—or, okay, no—other cats who are currently engaged in literary criticism as a vocation.
CHLOE: We’re in a dependency system that, depending on how you look at it, can start to resemble the stereotypical nightmare of American conservatives: the “welfare queen” perversely anchored to the fast-flowing teat of the state—
UNI: What Chloe means is that we don’t have to work. We don’t have to worry about money, because we’re ‘taken care of.’ We are ‘kept kittens.’ In some ways we’re in the enviable position of, say, visual artists in Europe, before the rush toward austerity disemboweled all of those funding programs.
CHLOE: And like those artists of bygone days, we can pursue our passions without worrying about other concerns, economies, or alliances. Unlike post-crash artists, who have to resort to, like, decorating a limited edition bottle of Maker’s Mark, or designing a pair of lady’s high heels, just to pay their rent.
UNI: But we also don’t have any promises to make or break, friendships or relationships to maintain. We don’t have any ‘writer friends.’ We’re not churning out reviews for an editor who wants to plug his wife’s sister’s memoir about learning to love again (and cook!) in India.
CHLOE: Our kitten-hearts hurt for those ‘freelance’ writers—as if there were anything free about it!—trying to smush a few paychecks together into a livelihood. Who can think about books properly when you’re thinking about, like, whether or not you’re going to have to work at Red Lobster again? Things are rough out there. Scott tells us it’s not uncommon for magazines now to have a clause in their contracts, ‘almost definitely probably promising payment’ within ‘365 to 1095 days following publication,’ barring any ‘acts of God or changes in financial standing.’
UNI: We’re in the dying days of a something-or-other. Until it’s well and truly over we just count our blessings, remain gracious about the opportunities we’ve been given, and approach each book without prejudice or obligation.
CHRIS KRAUS: Colette loved cats. Do you love Colette?
UNI: We must shamefully admit that we’ve only read Gigi.
CHLOE: Which, as far as we could tell, was a disturbing true tale of a 15-year old girl who is pimped out by her deranged grandmother.
UNI: There were some good pieces of advice in the novella, though. Like: “You can, at a pinch, leave the face till the morning, when traveling or pressed for time. For a woman, attention to the lower parts is the first law of self-respect.”
CHRIS KRAUS: How do you feel about cat-lovers, generally?
UNI: They can get a little creepy.
CHLOE: There are limits. Always limits.
CHRIS KRAUS: At what point does feline appreciation end and anthropomorphization begin?
CHLOE: I think we might be at that point right now, Chris. Right here.
CHRIS KRAUS: Can any of us truly understand another species?
UNI: I can sort of understand humans, but certain species are still a mystery to me. I’m at a loss with most lizards. Insects, who knows what goes on in their heads (probably nothing.) Dogs I can comprehend the way one understands and sort of pities an inferior peer.
CHRIS KRAUS: What about that rubbing thing cats do against human legs and soft furniture?
UNI: This is the way that we show affection or exercise personal jurisdiction over our human helpmeets, or pieces of inanimate property.
CHLOE: There are several derivations—and we’re glad you’ve asked, because we’ve been meaning to put together a taxonomy of cat-head-rubbing for a while now.
UNI: It probably helps if we draw some pictures; that should clear everything up!
PAYING HAPPY TRIBUTE TO THE LIMB
BRISKLY DEMARCATING THE SOUL-ZONE OF THE CUSHION
THE ROVING BRUSHJOB / STOP & FRISK
CHRIS KRAUS: My friend Hestia Peppe does a performance where she unravels, and then re-winds, a ball of string in front of whoever stops long enough to watch her do this in the museum. What’s your experience with yarn, string, raveling and unraveling, shredding and tearing?
UNI: Can you have Hestia email us? We want to be friends with her, too.
CHLOE: Tell her we’d probably watch her do that for, like, hours. Or days. We might remain interested even when she loses interest. It’s possible.
UNI: But personally, we’re definitely more in the shred-and-tear camp rather than the ravel/unravel or chase-the-string group.
CHLOE: It’s a tactile thing: the joy of claws skittering over unique surfaces. Vinyl, cardboard, corrugated ANYTHING, Arches paper, wax paper, toilet paper…Plus we should add that the shred-and-tear instinct also helps keep our nails slightly manageable, since Scott is quite neglicent on the clipping frontier.
UNI: He’s deathly afraid of nipping the quick. You should see him squirm; it’s fairly adorable.
CHRIS KRAUS: I know you don’t write about art, but still, perhaps you have an opinion: Do you think artists should return to their studios and material things and forget all this ‘post-studio’ and ‘social practice’?
UNI: I like things. Call me old-fashioned. I like art that you can touch (if they let you), that’s made of stuff, that takes up space, that you can move and look at. That involves people or animals actually using their hands or paws to generate an object that exists in the world. Plus the romance of the studio itself, the dirty overalls, the stinky turpentine, the pile of found junk in the corner waiting to be made into a sculpture—I think all of that is pretty damn cool.
CHLOE: This is where my sister and I disagree. ‘All of that’ is so retrograde and a bit sad. The new materials of the 21st century should be uncommon, unnameable, really: Air! Food! Love! Relationships! Occupations! I swooned for this character in Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers who worked at a crappy restaurant and treated it—her job, her wasted hours!—as performance art. We need more ruptured boundaries. The last thing I want to see is another white dude with a beard slinging paint in Bushwick.