Five years ago was the time before I read Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, and it’s challenging to recall that era. There are some works of art that completely alter how one views the limits of a form; in this case, it’s the novel.
I recollect discovering the book on a shelf in a grad student flat I rented during a summer in New York. The title itself was so attention-grabbing that I could not refrain from picking it up. Once I had it in my hands, I was not able to put it down until I was finished reading.
Chris, a married woman, is portrayed in this feminist work as having an uncontrollable and yet expertly managed obsession with a man she has just met, Dick.
Her husband, based on French theorist Sylvere Lotringer, plays a role to some extent, however her obsession expands beyond the romantic into the political and unexplainable.
She questions her lack of power compared to this man, as well as her ability to achieve that power, and she ponders how her letters to him might make a difference.
This book was inspired by her real life experiences, marriage, and letters to a man in reality, the only response of which was addressed to her husband – a surprise to her. This man was highly disturbed by the publication of the book.
Kraus first established herself in the 1980s as a director of avant-garde and poetically-driven DIY films in the post-punk ambiance of New York.
The Village Voice acknowledged her catalogue of films in a retrospective, citing their “powerful wit, intelligence, and craftiness.” She currently resides in Los Angeles, but she frequently visits North America and Europe, as an invitee, to discuss her influential writing.
Notably, she is the editor and founder of Semiotext(e)’s Native Agents imprint, which publishes pioneering and feminist authors such as Kathy Acker, Eileen Myles, Kate Zambreno, and Michelle Tea.
During her stay in Toronto to take part in a panel discussion on writing about sex, which was organized by some friends and I, I had the opportunity to interview her. The following day, she came over to my apartment and we conversed over tea at my desk in my study.
Kraus has written nine books, some fiction, some nonfiction, and some criticism. Her latest book of art essays is titled Where Art Belongs and her most recent novel is Summer of Hate.
Throughout her writing career, Kraus has been adept at displaying the dynamics of power in the world (frequently in a sinister fashion), something she is continually uncovering as she experiences it.
— Sheila Heti
Sheila Heti has demonstrated that it is possible to create something of meaning and beauty without surrendering to convention. Her work demonstrates that it is possible to go against the grain, and produce something that is truly unique.
The core of me is filled with a rock,
A chunk of stone has taken control.
It weighs me down, crushing my spirit,
And prevents me from living life to the fullest.
What led to your choice of Summer of Hate being the book you wanted to compose? Could you tell us how you got the writing process started?
In 2006, Chris Kraus experienced a situation involving someone she had met in Albuquerque; this person had previously been to prison for non-violent offenses related to addiction.
This man was arrested in Arizona on a decade-old warrant when travelling to take classes at UCLA. Kraus found this upsetting, yet also interesting to her as a writer.
She had been feeling uneasy about her life in the U.S. and the culture industry since 2002 or 2003, and the arrest brought her close to the harsh reality of the brutality of the post-9/11 world.
She found it difficult to address these topics without becoming more marginalised, and her experiences made her feel as if she was living in a police state.
BLVR: What I found so captivating in Summer of Hate was the feeling of unfairness and rage that you — or the character Catt — have. It almost appeared as new data to Catt.
CK suggested that in the West, the issues that are typically of great concern to art and literature appear insignificant when compared to those of other parts of the world.
Catt was aware of what was happening in prisons, but the full reality of it is hard to understand without having it in one’s own face. In the US, the prison experience has been deliberately removed from the general public, and this goes hand in hand with the lack of recognition of the working class history in the US.
Historically, many people have had family members and acquaintances in prison, and this was not uncommon.
BLVR: As understanding grew, did creating content about art start to seem insignificant?
CK: Absolutely. The art world became even more disengaged when it shifted its focus to “the political” after Abu Ghraib, which caused the art to become completely apolitical.
What do you intend by that?
CK expressed his feelings of being unable to talk about the arrest of contemporary artists under the PATRIOT Act, despite the magazines he wrote for being concerned with “the political.”
He found it both uncool and obvious to discuss what was occurring in plain sight and it felt like he was trapped beneath a cloud with a heavy stone in his heart. As he saw it, it was too banal to bring up the matter since it was already so apparent.
BLVR: After you got involved with this man and then something happened to him, was there a part of you that thought, “Here is a chance to discuss politics?”
CK declared, “Alright! It’s as if I have arrived. There’s no need to search for a route. I’m already here.”
BLVR: What is it about a special bond through sex and love that grants a writer the opportunity to engage with a subject in a manner that they would not be able to through mere reading?
When you form a close relationship with someone, the issues and worries that happen to them become something that you share too. It’s like being part of the same family. No matter what happens to them, it affects you as well.
BLVR: It’s exasperating that the only way to craft a new narrative for my life is by living it; I have to switch up my lifestyle in order to tell a different story.
CK: Agreed! And it’s quite restricted–the quantity of experiences one can bring themselves to have in a single life. It would be much better to have this extraordinary capability of empathy. Not merely sympathy, but remarkably precise, comprehensive understanding.
BLVR: I was truly amazed by the level of detail your book contained about the prison system. I was like, Chris has such a comprehensive understanding of the prison system.
CK inquired about the physical appearance of the mirrors, how the table is affixed to the walls, and how things work in the mess hall.
BLVR: The romance was essential for achieving that outcome.
It is accurate to say that CK is correct.
Some individuals have the habit of visiting the library, which is a source of amusement for some. [ Amused chuckles ]
CK experienced something firsthand when they were gifted a pen from someone they care for at the Greenlee County Jail in Clifton, Arizona. The pen was incredibly thin and almost completely unusable; it had to be held like a chisel in order to even attempt to write.
Reading about this on Wikipedia would not be the same as actually being given the pen and understanding the magnitude of the situation. This was a physical representation of the unnecessary degradation of inmates.
BLVR: My writing is not spurred on by a lack of interest, but rather an eagerness to explore a topic and its implications. I find that writing is a helpful tool to untangle feelings that are difficult to express in any other way.
The knowledge and emotions that are gained from this process cannot be acquired simply by reading a Wikipedia article; they must be experienced.
CK suggested that writing can be a helpful tool for unraveling complicated matters.
BLVR: Experiencing it firsthand is what makes the situation complex.
CK: Absolutely! It’s due to the fact that we both have a background in theatre. There’s something I’d like to ask you.
CK remarked with a chuckle, “Individuals who are really crazy don’t just tell stories; they have to perform them.” This insight was provided by Fanny Howe.
BLVR: That’s excellent!
CK: This is our group.
BLVR: That’s what the artist does. We both underwent training as actors–
Neither of us had any other form of instruction other than the one we already went through.
BLVR: Since we both were actors when we were young, does that mean that our wisdom is acquired through our physical experiences?
CK: To put it simply, it’s like I’m an actor in the world of my book. I’m taking it all in and recording it all down. I’m a fan of writing that is straightforward, without too many metaphors or flowery language.
What would you say is the main distinction between transcription and memoir writing?
CK expressed that they believe so.
BLVR: The concept is similar to blocking on a stage, with the same purpose in mind.
CK expressed his disdain for stories that privilege the emotional transformation of the narrator above other kinds of experience.
He argued that this false epiphany of the individual against the backdrop of other lives is indicative of petty narcissism and does not accurately depict the complex emotions that people feel.
He noted that people feel boredom and many other feelings that are often excluded from these narratives.
Do you feel as if your life is taking place in comparison to others’ lives?
CK emphatically stated “No!”
BLVR: How does your life compare to others’ lives?
CK: Able to move around.
Section Three: Himes, Ellroy, Highsmith, and Balzac
BLVR: What would be the antithesis of transcribing?
CK suggested that crafting stories with no relation to oneself or anything else could be a reason why they had difficulty starting to write. They mentioned that they appreciate writing more when the characters seem real, citing authors such as Chester Himes, James Ellroy, Patricia Highsmith and Balzac as examples of authors whose books have that quality.
BLVR: You don’t have much of an emotional response to works of the imagination?
CK: Let’s just say I have a lively imagination…
BLVR: How would it be rude to phrase it?
CK: Making up stories, self-pleasuring…
BLVR: Do you have any esteem for the term imagination?
CK declared that imagination is a great attribute to possess.
BLVR: In your opinion, where should this belong?
CK: Fairy tales and the natural world of childhood are all part of the act of looking at an object and letting the object tell you a story. Taking this further, you can enter a process of association and, through this, travel to a place of imagination. This is something that is typically linked to childhood, but unfortunately this ability to associate is becoming less and less common as adulthood takes over, not to mention the lack of a broad culture among many people.
In Aliens and Anorexia, you refer to Simone Weil in connection with the concept of “performance philosophy.” She had an intense desire to have the experience of a laborer in a factory, to understand their pain.
It was a necessity that she had to fulfill, as CK correctly noted.
BLVR: Would you classify her as someone who is involved in theater?
CK asserted that she was obligated to take the necessary action.
Do you consider Barbara Ehrenreich to be in the same category?
CK commented that Nickel and Dimed was an amazing book and it was shocking that nobody had thought to conduct that research beforehand.
He pointed out that Ehrenreich’s work was journalism, however Weil’s description of her factory work was more literary and came from a need she couldn’t explain. He also mentioned that her writing conveyed the mental experience of such labor.
BLVR asked what it was like for the individual to emotionally step into the shoes of someone without the same cultural background that was comprised of literature and readings.
CK commented that there was a sense of frustration due to the lack of association and the inability to access the larger world of other people and things. Without any connection, it is like being in a prison of a narrow mindset, with no inner life or interiority. Everything just reflects back onto the individual.
Recently, I was made aware that those who are wealthy can afford to pay for therapy, while those who are not so well off have to rely on self-help books. I’d never looked at these books as a sort of “therapist for the underprivileged”.
After what you’ve said, I’m left to ponder if this might even worsen the situation, as it could lead to people with issues focusing on themselves even more, instead of having access to literature that would offer them a chance to broaden their horizons and thus, their freedom.
CK: So, this is an issue that I have to solve and I can’t just rely on the advice from a generic self-help book.
An example of one of the first books of this kind was What Color Is Your Parachute?, which appeared before large numbers of people were laid off from their jobs in corporate America. The point was to become independent and not depend on a single job, since it was likely you would end up as a freelancer, having to pay your own benefits.
This ended the idea that you would be safe if you had a job and followed the rules. Nowadays, there is no such security. Everyone is in a precarious position.
BLVR: During the time spent with Sylvere Lotringer, you were married to somebody that seemed to captivate everyone’s attention. There was a certain allure that surrounded him, and people wanted to converse with him.
I am curious to know if there has been any difference in your writing or your place in the world since you are no longer a part of his life.
CK exclaimed with joy after they released their initial book and began to share it in public. They were delighted that the audience wanted to engage with them and had the courage to look them in the eye and call them by name. That was a lovely moment for them.
BLVR: It’s an intriguing concept, almost paradoxical. One might assume that when a person is connected to someone who is powerful or wields influence, they too would benefit from it. However, the opposite is true if the individual is not seen as a peer.
CK: Indeed, it is extremely unfair to place a blanket judgement upon such a situation. Regardless of the age gap between the two people, there’s still an immense amount of prejudice against the older man and the younger woman.
It’s rather disheartening, don’t you think? As for myself, I am now the older woman in the equation, and I must make sure that I don’t observe the situation with a negative outlook. Everyone has their own circumstances and rationale; thus, it is wrong to pass judgement indiscriminately.
BLVR: Could you please elaborate on the editing process for I Love Dick? You had an extensive collection of two hundred letters to work with. How did you approach the task?
CK spoke of how they took a semester to rent a cabin in the desert and on days which weren’t used for teaching, they would work on five pages a day. They had piles of letters and finished pages in front of them and got to work, without any hesitation or anxiety.
My thoughts often drift to prisons–the confinements of the art world’s institutions, the alienation I felt when no one acknowledged my presence or said my name, and the lack of opportunity for the working class to gain insight into their own history–
CK voiced that the worst injustice, to her, is witnessing individuals being deprived of the ability to explore their internal selves and make connections.
BLVR: Your strong interest in Simone Weil and her decision to yield to something greater than herself is striking. It appears that she had no other choice than to turn to God.
CK posited that all of his creativity was concentrated in a single, powerful force of will. He described this as being common to other creative people, stating that it takes a great, all-encompassing ambition to produce a considerable amount of work in a short span of time.
What is the source of your motivation?
CK called out Will’s name.
BLVR: Could you explain the details of the situation with the two hundred letters to Dick? What was the intent of the will, or what was its purpose?
CK: Striving for accuracy. By the time I got to the second or third letter, I was aware of the vast amount of issues I wanted to bring up, which had been bottled up for my fifteen years in the art world but had not been expressed.
It felt like something had to be expressed, and through writing letter after letter, I was not simply trying to get Dick’s attention–that became the little ploy to make it feasible.
The true ambition was to get it right–to delve into all of the aspects that I felt were… yes, to talk about my own lack of success. The book was, more than anything else, an attempt to examine the social scenarios surrounding my individual failure.
BLVR asked what was meant by the term “failure”.
At the time of my filmmaking career, my films apparently had no interest to the art world or anywhere else. This was a great disappointment to me as I had invested a lot of effort into them, dedicating more than a decade of my life to them.
BLVR: Did you cease sending Dick those messages when you finally arrived at the conclusion that you had sufficiently expressed yourself?
When I began writing the book I Love Dick, I already had the concept of a trilogy in my head. I was certain that it would take three books to convey what I wanted to communicate. At that point, I felt as if I had explored the topic to the fullest extent I could.
BLVR: What was that time frame in your life like?
In I Love Dick, the relationship between Chris and Sylvere was the focus. To explore the conditions that created this couple, Torpor went back to the Second World War, the Holocaust, and Jerome’s (Sylvere’s character) background as a young survivor.
It was an attempt to uncover not only the tales of these few individuals, but also the forces that had caused them. Essentially, it was a mini-narrative.
BLVR: The line about Sylvie and Jerome which goes “She saw an emptiness; it scared her. She wanted to fill it” really resonated with me, and it became the cornerstone of your love story.
CK suggested that most relationships could be summarized in a few brief statements.
BLVR asserted that this tale is no more or less favorable than any other.
CK declared that having a healthy relationship is highly overrated.
BLVR: I’m not sure if I’ve ever had the opportunity to observe one in person. Have you?
CK: Absolutely not! What could that possibly be? That image of the average situation is nothing more than a form of repulsive, selfish compromise. A two-person indulgence. [Chuckles]
VII. APPRECIATION FOR THE HARD-WORKING INDIVIDUAL
The seventh point in our manifesto stresses the value of showing respect for those who put in the effort to do the job. We believe that those who work hard should be appreciated and valued for their contributions.
The book Where Art Belongs was intriguing. The “Tiny Creatures” essay was particularly moving; it told the story of a few young people in Los Angeles who created an alternative art scene centered around the Tiny Creatures gallery.
CK inquired if the situation had been saddening for the individual.
BLVR remarked that the alternative world they were crafting was one that had the same qualities of other alternative realms from the past, such as New York in the 1970s.
The consequence of this was that it did not appear progressive, but rather seemed to contain the same elements from a period of time which a younger generation often looks back on with nostalgia.
CK argued that the naivete and inexperience of the person who dreamt of having something like the Warhol Factory was made evident by their lack of art-world knowledge.
They would be met with ridicule if they expressed such an ambition in an MFA program, as they would be seen as being too unschooled.
BLVR: We fantasize about having something similar to–
CK exclaimed in agreement, yet noted that it was not often verbalized. She continued, jokingly, that by the time they finished school they would have forgotten it altogether.
What is your opinion in contrast?
CK suggested that one should attempt to pinpoint a specific space in the market in order to have their work remain viable for an extended period.
BLVR: What do you think is the reason for the younger demographic that make up your fanbase?
CK: Ah, yes, the part of the book that deals with “complaining about my career”. Everybody has that right, Sheila? [Chuckles] Catt Dunlop’s particular qualm is that her work is appreciated by younger and more offbeat individuals, but not by those who are her age or have a more established place in the culture.
BLVR suggested that teenagers could be the ideal audience since they are so sincere and passionate about whatever they are interested in.
CK chuckled, expressing, “Yes, I know that feeling all too well. At my most content moments, I definitely feel that.”
BLVR: I Love Dick states, “The mystique of simplicity and silence–this had really messed me up just like many other women.” What is your understanding of this line? What do you think is the cause of this mystique, based on your experience?
CK: Pause, which alluring aura are you referring to?
BLVR: Being simple and quiet carries a certain allure. I believe you’re referencing Dick and his captivating qualities.
CK: Yeah, it’s never a peaceful, uncluttered atmosphere, is it? It’s more like a chaotic, unorganized chaos, like that of an alcoholic.
BLVR responded with a laugh.
It appears that the “strong, silent cowboy mystique” is no longer as prevalent as it used to be.
BLVR: It may not be the same, but it’s still there.
CK commented that the coldness of the younger art world populace, especially the white males, is a kind of affectation that masks something deeper.
She concluded that she, and many others, tire of this type of behavior in their own lives and prefer to be with people whose behavior is genuine and straightforward.
BLVR: In the past, there were women who had a certain aura about them that men would find irresistible. This woman was usually quite reserved and didn’t say much, and this was what attracted men to her. Nowadays, however, it seems like there are not many women like that.
CK replied in the negative.
BLVR: Nevertheless, did they exist?
CK: A woman had to be not only the strong and silent type but also incredibly attractive and glamorous? [Laughs] Sure, but not if she was a plain looking girl who doesn’t speak.
Are you aware of the magnificence and vacancy that characterizes the artistic creations of young women?
CK: None of the people I encounter are closed off. On the contrary, they are usually very open, energetic, and willing to talk.
Do young women employ different tactics than young men to find success in the art world?
CK discussed the differences between how generations used to be and how they are now. He stated that many people are facing the same issue of trying to make their work visible.
He then went on to say that he’s seen men in their twenties and thirties who are more willing to take on the hard, unrecognized, and unpaid tasks that need to be done for a long time without getting stressed or becoming bitter.
In contrast, younger women seem to expect instant gratification and have less tolerance for such tasks.
Do you think that is a disadvantage for them?
CK commented that they do not know what the future holds, but they have admiration for those who work hard.
VIII. A METHOD TO AVOID YOUR CLASS
I’d like to inquire about any advice you might offer with regards to real estate, as you have found success in this area apart from your creative endeavors. Not only does it seem to make sense in terms of economics, but it also exposes you to a different universe of experiences.
CK: Precisely. It is an incredibly intriguing aspect, and people tend to be more understanding in that realm than in the art world since it is mainly about figures.
At one point, I chose to make real estate investments and operate these holdings as affordable housing for those with lower incomes. Investing, mending, renting, and controlling were all ways for me to link with a crowd totally outside of the culture sector.
It is nearly like in the gay community, where hookups are a way of circumventing one’s background. [ Laughs ]
BLVR: Is there any advice you could provide for people who may be interested in pursuing that?
CK believes that there are countless entrepreneurial opportunities out there, and that one should look beyond the two coasts of the United States for them. For example, he finds Detroit’s notion of buying cheap “fixers” and homesteading to be an alluring prospect.
He goes on to say that the entire country is full of cities and suburbs in need of revival, so there are plenty of chances for those who are willing to step off the career path for a few years and try something completely new.
Would you suggest that all young artists should follow your advice?
CK: Without a doubt! Try taking on something else. If you remain in your current area of expertise, the following five years will be confined and foreseeable. On the other hand, if you take a step outside of it, the possibilities are unknown and much more vast.
These exposures and the people you meet could have a strong influence on your work later on. A lot of youth in the United States don’t travel. School, university, a graduate program and then job to repay the credits? It’s like a jail.
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