Desire Is Surplus Energy: “I Love Dick” Between Text and TV
By Liz KinnamonSeptember 15, 2017
So of course I approached the woman in line — asked how she liked it, said I was a fan, and made a comment about the pleasure of the sighting itself. She was lukewarm about it. She was a film critic, and it had just been adapted for television; one of the characters was based on her friend and she wasn’t a fan of the way they were described. As she delivered this information from a position of expertise, it became clear she wasn’t curious about my perspective. She drifted when I spoke, and she kept talking to the guy accompanying me, who had never heard of the book much less the series. What had I done to suggest I didn’t have a contribution, an authority? Was it how I looked, how I carried myself? My enthusiasm?
If Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick has one overarching message, it is that what happens at the personal level is structural. And the irony of this interaction is that the critic was repeating the devaluation that Kraus politicizes in the novel, but it might have had little to do with me. Kraus’s occasion for writing was her self-proclaimed failure as a filmmaker; it was “more than anything an attempt to analyze the social conditions surrounding my personal failure.” In the book, the point at which Chris separates from her husband is after a fight in which she screams, “‘Who is Chris Kraus? […] She’s no one! She’s Sylvère Lotringer’s wife! She’s his Plus-One!’ No matter how many films she made or books she edited, she’d always keep being seen as no one.”
I Love Dick is about power, as Kraus says in a recent interview, but more specifically it is about value — how value is gauged, produced, and undermined. Kraus’s novel explores the effect of individual will on valuation, or the interplay between the personal and the structural, in a way that suggests the relationship is not always straightforward or guaranteed. Soloway’s adaptation takes up the connection between will and value as well, but differently. Examining the relay between the two versions illuminates the link between value, active female desire, and contemporary heterosexual masculinity in a crucial way.
A number of critics have expressed disappointment in Soloway’s adaptation for paling in comparison to the novel. Emily Nussbaum likens it to molecular gastronomy: “an ambitious transformation of the ingredients, producing something that’s not entirely meal-like.” Alexandra Schwartz and Ruth Curry criticize Hahn’s portrayal of Chris, Schwartz writing that “Hahn makes a winning klutz, stammering and bumping into things. The great disappointment of the show is that Chris never amounts to anything more.” Curry echoes Schwartz:
While the novel is propelled by Kraus's prickly, piercing, and deeply read intellect, the Chris of the show is a fumbler and a bumbler, a dropper of things, the one who always forgets to silence her cell phone, often lost for words — an impression that sticks despite Kathryn Hahn's charismatic performance. “You are a fascinating woman with a wild intelligence,” Sylvère (Griffin Dunne) says; unfortunately, there's little evidence of this on the screen.
It’s true that Soloway’s choices sometimes enhance the comedy of I Love Dick at the expense of intellectual substance. Chris of the book is tongue-in-cheek, somber, and cutting in her analysis; there is nothing quite as sharp-edged about Chris in the show. A premise of the book is that through writing Chris has the opportunity to demonstrate dexterity where it is otherwise passed over. This is where the adaptation could benefit from engaging with the textuality of her letters. The letters that make up Kraus’s novel only occasionally appear as block quotes against a red background — between scenes, as voice-overs, and as sheets of paper viewed from afar.
The entirety of a letter is only read aloud in the pilot episode, which makes for quite a strong scene: as Chris reads the first draft to Sylvère, the aurality of language carries the viewer through Chris’s fantasy version of the dinner that had taken place earlier that night. While we listen, we coast through a surreal visual landscape of uncooked rabbit, blindfolded women on dates with unblindfolded men, and Dick’s coarse hand grazing Chris’s thigh under the table. The interplay with text here accesses something unique about fantasy and capacity — and adaptation — that fades into the background as the series becomes less interested in the material text of Chris’s letters.
The foreplay of Kraus’s I Love Dick is theoretical. “Theory [is] an intrinsic part of the ‘plot,’” as Joan Hawkins writes in the 2006 afterword. The series, though, lacks much of this rigor. My impulse was to feel similar to Curry and Schwartz: Chris of the book is wry and lucid, and in the series, she’s so frenetic that Sylvère’s comment about how smart she is almost seems unwarranted. Her poor performance as a female artist who overtly references the plight of female artists — and who thus becomes a metonym for female art in general — combined with Soloway’s prominent placement of feminist art from the past century, threatens to affirm negative stereotypes rather than transform them. The historical references can seem like parodies rather than citations, the show’s half-hearted attempts to engage with theory can seem like half-hearted attempts to satirize it. But unlike Ruth Curry’s conclusion that “TV is a subpar medium for the transmission of ideas […] and I Love Dick is hobbled by it,” I’m not so quick to believe that the medium is the constraint. Rather, I think the possibility of discourse is foreclosed when someone decides for an audience what ideas they can and cannot “get.”
In so carefully weighing the virtues of each version, these critics miss the way Soloway’s adaptation works with and against its source text. I read the gaps, divergences, and misfires between the show and the book as productive. They enhance each other: the adaptation makes visible the comedy of Kraus’s original work, and it also offers a more prefigurative dimension than the book’s comic realism. One of the most interesting transformations is precisely around value. In adapting I Love Dick for TV, Soloway goes against Kraus’s novel (which presented Chris’s intelligence as a potential bulwark against devaluation) and with it (by showing that devaluation is structural). No matter how smart Chris is in the book, she can still be devalued, though it is not guaranteed that she will be; Soloway skips the presentation of intelligence as a prerequisite to being valued in the first place.
One need not be a Lacanian to know that the double entendre of I Love Dick is more triple, the title not just referring to the singular person Dick or dick as in fucking, but the notion of phallus as value. Jill Soloway has this symbolism recur throughout the adaptation’s first season: “Dick’s brick,” or the brick that stands on a pedestal at the center of a gallery; the fact that after a queer character, Toby, accidentally breaks the brick during a chant that repeats “I want to be a female monster,” the very next frame is a flaccid penis from Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses; and the sex scene between Toby and Devon that takes place after the brick has been knocked off the pedestal, when they mutually produce Devon’s cock.
Soloway’s prismatic play with value is especially evident in episode two, when Chris makes a messy and unsuccessful attempt to be taken seriously by frantically pulling out her laptop, placing it on the ground of a gallery, and showing Dick one of her films on the spot. “It’s not my thing,” Dick says after giving it a reluctant and cursory view, dismissing a film that was without proper context for appreciation from the beginning. Her work amounts to nothing, this scene suggests, and she cannot make it matter. But at the same time, the viewer is likely to fault Chris’s haphazard mode of presentation. She should have carried herself differently, made herself more appealing, explained herself and her work so Dick could understand it. Does this sound familiar?
But Soloway’s team does something even more interesting and layered with this scene. When Chris gets home from that disastrous encounter, she delivers a monologue to the only person around: the Chican@ butch handyman, Devon. “I’m beginning to think there’s no such thing as a good woman filmmaker,” Chris rants, offering something of a code to viewing the series. “It’s like, how can you be if you just are, like, raised to be invisible, I mean visible, I mean looked at. I mean, it’s a wonder that any woman can think of herself as an artist.” In response Devon interjects, “Um, I’m an artist too, so,” as if to remind Chris of another subjectivity in the room. Chris makes just as little of Devon’s work as is made of hers, a move influenced by race and class no less than gender.
Meanwhile, a separate conversation — between Chris’s husband and Toby, who happens to be one of the fellows at Dick’s art institute — is taking place that gives us yet another angle on value. When Toby explains that her project concerns the formal elements of pornography, Sylvère responds by bringing the focus to her physical appearance: “They gave you a Guggenheim for that? You’re so young. Why are you obsessed with porn? I mean look at you. You’re so beautiful. So achingly beautiful.” Sylvère’s behavior while away from his wife doesn’t just reflect his perspective on Toby, but his relationship to Chris, too. In the space of a single episode, Soloway’s team shows how female valuation works: women devalue themselves, and women devalue each other, because they are devalued.
If the televisual Chris seems, as a friend pointed out, “written as how she sees herself in her worst times,” this is attributable to Soloway’s stated intention to film from within Chris’s subjective experience. This is both the central element of what Soloway describes as the “female gaze” and the show’s main representational problem. Nussbaum openly objects to what she deems as the female gaze’s “essentialist hint that women share one eye: a vision that is circular, mucky, menstrual, intimate, wise,” but this objection insinuates that Soloway’s “female gaze” is biological when it is in fact methodological. In her keynote lecture at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, she states that her “female gaze” is a direct response to Laura Mulvey’s vaunted concept of the “male gaze.” It is a reactive rather than a natural approach: a perspective gained by a mandated social position. And it is not merely a reversal of the male gaze. Its primary aims, Soloway states, are to “get inside the protagonist, particularly when they are not a cis male,” to show how it feels to be seen, and to have this protagonist claim subjectivity instead of acceding to objecthood.
Rather than taking Chris’s inadequacy at face value, I think the show asks us to examine the process by which inadequacy is made. Incoherence, flailing, and becoming the caricature — these are responses to devaluation. Chris’s character is a disappointment because she doesn’t defy the conditions under which femininity is placed. But as a single person it takes a lot of energy to be a walking devotion to refutation. One lesson of Kraus’s I Love Dick is that it doesn’t matter what you do, because patriarchy — even or especially in the context of a crush — can always undermine you with force or indifference. As if to say, “Dear Reader: It’s not you, it’s structure.” But in another sense, it’s structure and it’s you: Soloway hovers over the circumstances of subjection for longer, while Kraus suggests from the outset that how one interacts with structure might make a difference.
While some critics have been skeptical of Soloway’s adaptation, others claim that the series is “revolutionary.” Soloway herself touts the show as a “matriarchal revolution,” and others champion its embrace of abjection and female loserdom as markers of freedom or progress. Maxine Swann likens Chris to Jean Rhys’s female characters in that they are older, childless women whose utility to men has expired, but instead of miring in tragedy, they “elude the role of victims by failing on their own merits, messing things up, over and over again. If the men are behaving badly, they’re behaving just as badly, if not worse.” One implication of Swann’s review is that the female loser marks progress because she gets to be as comically abject — or “as bad” — as her male counterpart. Freedom is measured according to equality with men rather than liberation from foundational strictures or a transformation of standards.
I am not so quick to conflate abjection and freedom. It is possible to appreciate the incredible comedy of the book and the series while simultaneously taking seriously the political reasons that make them funny. Comedy is often a response to a dead end, and here I would caution against making virtue of necessity. “Marching boldly into self-abasement” is in part what the feminine role does when it runs up against the dead end of heterosexual masculinity. I Love Dick is so resonant because it performs and makes explicit what happens when feminist subjectivity collides with heterosexual masculinity in its contemporary form.
“[P]ost-war masculinity,” Masha Tupitsyn writes, “has failed to interrogate and reimagine itself alongside other social justice movements.” Along these lines, I Love Dick illustrates the status of female desire when it dares to take an active form in the contemporary US context — a time after Women’s Liberation but amid ongoing feminist movements, where gender inequality persists in morphed and subtle forms. For what advances have been made regarding feminism and gender, heterosexual courtship still demands adherence to the laws of active and passive. Women are told they’re equal to men but still punished for assuming subjectivity, which often means that female activity is rendered illegible as such. An active woman gets taken for being too available, a mere sex object, sloppy, or insane. In the book, Chris knew exactly what would happen if she were to land a visit with Dick as a result of pursuing him:
You asked me questions, held up my desire to the light as if it were a strange and mutant thing. As if it were a symptom of my uniquely troubled character. And how was I to answer? I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to fuck. Your questions made me feel ashamed. When I turned them back on you, you answered bored and noncommittally. Because you patronize me and refuse to see the possible reversibility of our situations it is impossible for me to state my love for you as totally as I feel it.
Female desire is cornered into passive receptivity, and Chris is aware that this is the form her desire should take. Instead of expressing her own she should be inducing Dick to activity for the sake of her reception, which is just activity disguised as passivity. Chris knows this, so she lays claim to it and hyperbolizes it because what else is left? Play by the rules when she loses either way? Or make a project of it and see who’s game?
This is where the real opportunity comes in. I Love Dick’s project is the mischievous and enticing question, “Are you game?” The challenge is whether Dick can recognize it’s rigged and make a project out of doing something different. But no, he’s just a loser. Soloway’s female gaze lays bare the overvaluation of both Dick and the phallus in the same way that it shows feminine devaluation. “I wonder what your bed looks like,” Chris fantasizes in an early episode, right before cutting to Dick’s bedside table liquor in the next frame. When he finally allows her access to him, he serves spaghetti with sauce from a jar. In the final episode, he rolls a cigarette poorly and wrongly explains astronomy to Chris, both areas where Chris has more expertise. She takes charge of the cigarette and corrects him about Orion’s Belt, and suddenly the balance shifts. It is no coincidence that this scene is the first time he desires Chris, prompting him to kiss her: his weak spots are exposed for what they are and this clears the way for her confidence. He likes when she has value. Masculine overvaluation is the open secret of heterosexuality, and the moments when the playing field is leveled are the ones that make straight life worth living.
But I do mean “moments,” and I don’t really mean worth living. When Chris fantasizes about their first touch, Dick’s eyes are softer and more loving than anywhere else in the season, but when the opportunity for intimacy arises in real life he is cold and even hostile. He arrives at her hotel room, plops down in a chair, and says, “I’m here to give you what you want,” with an icy, self-satisfied entitlement. She feels weird and can’t proceed because Dick crudely construes what “what she wanted” as straightforward sex. An earlier fantasy showed Dick carrying a sheep over his shoulders, which he set down on the ground not to slaughter but to gently shear. It was a fantasy about what masculinity does with strength, the upshot of which is not undiscerning application but paradox and hot choices.
What’s at issue in I Love Dick is not a trite takeaway about the general difference between fantasy and reality, but the specifically female dimension of a crush. Chris fantasizes because she wants something real, not because she wants something unreal — masculinity is inadequate to her desire for it. Crushes are about potentiality, and in this case she willingly imbues him with qualities he doesn’t have, as if to say, “You’re so bad I had to make you up.”
Soloway deals with value, active female desire, and heteromasculinity in two scenes that envision how things could be and not just what they are. In episode six, Dick and Sylvére are discussing Chris’s behavior at a dinner table and rating exes on a scale of crazy, “’cause Chris isn’t the craziest,” and all this is in line with what one might expect from a typical conversation between men. But then it veers in an unusual direction. Sylvère accuses Dick of seducing Chris with his indifference and enjoying her obsession, and Dick’s response is uncanny:
Dick: Ha! Enjoying it? She stole my name, she has violated my privacy, she is writing pornography and using me as the object.
Sylvère: Yeah but the writing—it’s really good, right? I mean it’s fucking good you can’t deny that.
Dick: So what? It’s still fucked up. Fucked up.
Sylvère: Then it’s only fair, ‘cause men have been doing that with women for centuries. Using them as the source of their creativity. What’s the matter, you don’t like being a muse?
Dick: Can I tell you the truth? It’s humiliating.
What is fascinating about this conversation is that it raises the plausibility of it ever occurring in real life. Dick’s reference to himself as an object already contains decades of feminist theory that made it possible to think about the politics of objectification, and Sylvère’s cavalier acknowledgment of this history and the possibility of it being flipped is a level of prefigurativity that is shocking to digest. Soloway’s all-woman script team ventriloquizes this exchange between two straight men in a way that forces viewers — and specifically men — to contend with it as if it were possible, like a Yes Men stunt. “Identity correction” is a signature move by the culture jam group the Yes Men. Using this tactic, they speak on behalf of powerful entities who have wronged others and force them to publicly choose not to do the right thing. “I’m sorry,” a Yes Men actor told the BBC on the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, acting as a representative of Dow Chemical. The Yes Men spokesperson promised $12 billion in reparations to the victims of the oil spills. Within hours, Dow was forced to publicly deny that they made these promises. Like Dow, men watching I Love Dick are faced with what they could but won’t take responsibility for.
At the end of season one, Chris is rejected by Dick but she doesn’t sit under the same weight as the Chris of the novel. Instead, she has the last word. When she and Dick finally move toward sex in episode eight, he slips his fingers into her and says, “You’re so wet,” before realizing she’s on her period. He pulls up his hand and examines it stiffly, like it is barely part of his body. She is embarrassed only because of his reaction, but at the same time reckons with the blood as mundane: “What day is it? Am I late or am I early?” For Dick, all of this is an imposition. Visibly queasy, he excuses himself for the bathroom, and her reflex is to appease him with understanding. But after a few seconds, she sees what is happening with more lucidity. In his absence she becomes alienated from herself as seen through his eyes. She looks around, puts on his boots, plucks his cowboy hat off the table, and righteously walks out, free bleeding down the highway at dawn.
One of the most influential works of cultural theory in the past decade — Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism — is based on Freud’s statement that “people never willingly abandon a libidinal position, not even, indeed, when a substitute is already beckoning to them.” What Soloway presents at the end of season one is a female protagonist who not only abandons her libidinal position, but who also might be seen as abandoning a libidinal position in relation to patriarchy. It doesn’t suggest that her individual choice will change structure, but it does foreground choice in response to the deadlock that masculinity refuses to work its way out of. While the second season is still to come, for the time being, Chris says I don’t want this because it doesn’t satisfy me, because it isn’t adequate to my needs or desires, because it’s not good enough. The masculine demand for passive receptivity is protection against the knowledge that what is offered isn’t good enough; by becoming active, Chris engages a process of self-valuation.
When Nussbaum objects to “the notion that the camera lens, which has been trained to ogle and dominate, can change, in female hands, launching a radical new aesthetic,” perhaps she is right. I think what Soloway attempts with I Love Dick is TV that is against merely looking; she doesn’t achieve a new aesthetic but something we might feel ambivalent enough about to analyze. By filming from within the characters’ messy emotions, it becomes possible to feel value as a process: a series of complex choices and performative effects that are anything but immutable. It prompts alternative visions for how we might respond to female desire in an active form, and how one might respond to patriarchy when it is intransigent — until it decides to become something else.
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