I Love Dick (and TidyMe)
Thursday November 24, 2016
This is a picture of me on a perfect spring day eating organic chicken and reading Chris Kraus’s semi-fictional memoir I Love Dick.
While I lay on that grassy hill a friendly Chilean woman named Camilla cleaned my house. She's an independent contractor who uses a Sydney-based company called TidyMe to tee her up with jobs. We partnered up with TidyMe for this article. The idea was they'd organise someone to clean my house and I'd write about what I did with my freed-up time. I was supposed to choose activities that enrich my life.
While I lay there on that grassy hill, Hillary Clinton was still supposed to win the election.
Chicken from Super Tasty Rooster enriches my life for obvious reasons. So I’m going to spend most of this article talking about I Love Dick.
Most critics rejected I Love Dick when it was first published in 1997. But now it is considered one of the most significant books about gender politics in existence.
At the time of writing, Kraus was a 39-year-old artist with a failing career married to a famous academic named Sylvére Lotringer. One night they have dinner with Dick, a friendly acquaintance of Lotringer's who's also a famous intellectual. The weather threatens to get crazy so they end up spending the night at Dick's place. Dick and Kraus flirt and she develops an infatuation. The next day Kraus tells her husband she believes they all experienced a “Conceptual Fuck”. Turns out Lotringer and her are “no longer having sex” so “the two maintain their intimacy via deconstruction”. The couple start writing elaborate confessional letters to Dick and have fun debating about whether or not to send them. But what begins as an art project/game ends up getting very messy and real (even though parts of it are deliberately fictionalised).
It's a book about the supposed “arbitrariness of art careers”; about “who gets to speak and why”. It's a title people have been snickering at for nearly thirty years. It helps explain the state of the world better than a hot take.
There's never been a more important time for brogressives to just shut the hell up for a second and read it.
It's experimental and dense so it might make you work hard (I had to keep looking up words and references). But it's not a slog. The first section plays out like a hilarious married couple daring each other to prank call an enigma.
I think Kraus says she declares on page 191 that “reading delivers on the promise that sex raises but can hardly ever fulfil – getting larger 'cause you're entering another person's language, cadence, heart and mind”. So, following on from that definition, I Love Dick is A+ certified enrichment. And I am legitimately thankful that TidyMe has afforded me the extra time and space to write a long article about it.
But before I go on just want to flag that I know how this looks: here is a man, relaxing on his back, recommending Important Feminist Literature while a woman scrubs his toilet. I am officially the worst. And to be completely honest, I didn't really think this through before I agreed to it (which goes to show I only ever have to think about gender politics in the abstract). This is all tempered with the reality that if I don't start publishing more sponsored content for Three Thousand we'll probably go broke.
I'm flagging all this because I'm determined to be sincere (it's pretty much the best weapon we have left at this publication). So, in the spirit of sincerity, I want to give a quick testimonial about TidyMe (maybe think of it like an ad break?). I can genuinely say Camilla did a great job cleaning my house. But why would you take my word for it? I'm getting paid to write this. Instead, let's take a look at my bathroom before it was cleaned:
Now you get to see all the grime, soap scum and hair that accumulates in our sink (don't ask me why we have so many tubes of toothpaste at the moment).
This is how clean it looked after Camilla was done.
Above is an 'after' shot of my living room (the 'before' shot turned out a little too dark to use sorry). See how I have my records on display along the window? I want to listen to them sure. But I also obviously want people to flip through them so they know I'm a discerning record collector.
Turns out the Dick in I Love Dick likes to keep his records on display too. When Kraus, Lotringer and Dick first hang out, he's showing off one his Rolling Stones albums – “the propped up Some Girls album cover, the dusky walls” Kraus writes “how out of date and déclassé”.
She's probably making fun of him because in the artsy circles Kraus runs in, the Rolling Stones represented the failures of 60s free love and counterculture. By the 90s they were widely considered philandering, decadent assholes. In fact some of the pop culture icons on the Some Girls cover – Lucile Ball, Farrah Fawcett and Liza Minelli (representing her mum Judy Garland) threatened to sue because their images were used without permission (a fact that's never affected the album's status as an all-time classic).
This ode to the Stones is all part of the “cowboy”/intellectual image Dick likes to project. But it's say how literal real it is because, again, passages of the book were deliberately fictionalised. It seems Kraus wove in the fictional elements partly out of self-preservation. Dick's full name is never mentioned but New York Magazine revealed the Dick in question happens to be English cultural critic Dick Hebdige (who apparently tried to block the book's publication with a court order, claiming an invasion of privacy). And, to be fair, the book does portray Hebdige as, well, kind of a dick.
Kraus has always maintained Dick is a “blank screen onto which we project our fantasies”. Still when I found out about the Hebdige thing it blew my mind a bit. I've been thinking about his ideas for ages. At uni, his essay 'From Subculture: The Meaning of Style' had a very alluring title for an aspiring culture writer like me. It has influenced my writing ever since (I even referenced Hebdige in my review of the Meredith Music Festival last year).
The essay is about hegemony. Hegemony (just in case you're not an arts student or a pissed off and informed person) is the struggle for dominance at the level of social language. Kind of like another name for the culture war. It's about how brute power can only control populations for so long, so consent needs to be be clung onto through a combination of arguments, images, symbols and emotional appeals. (Here's a recent emotional appeal from The Australian: “it took Trump's victory to unmask the true character of the PC left. Socialists, Islamists, anarchists and black supremacists have mobbed US cities; some have threatened to murder people who dissent from the PC line.”)
Sorry, that kind of implies hegemony is some kind of right wing conspiracy. That's not what it's about. It's not just what's in the news or who's in power. It's about an “equilibrium” of power that shifts to meet challenges. It involves even the most “mundane areas of everyday life” – which is where Hebdige's ideas about “style” come in.
Most people understand style as a statement. Hebdige's big contribution was arguing that subcultural style (i.e. slang, fashion, music and dance) can reject mainstream values, but that the opposition is kind of toothless unless it's combined with a “larger understanding of the social field”.
The big example he uses is punk. In 1979, when he wrote the essay, punk was happening all around him. He saw young people taking safety pins meant for a baby's diaper (from the 'happy nuclear family' punks were rejecting) and “symbolically repossessing” them by sticking them through their ears. But the more he researched, the more he found that “the objections [to the dominant culture] are lodged, the contradictions displayed (and as we can see 'magically resolved') at the profoundly superficial level of appearance: that is, the level of signs”.Anyone who's spent enough time at punk gigs will know the guy has a point.
But one of the big criticisms lodged at Hebdige is that he's a bit arrogant – he kind of assumed the youth need some intellectual to help them transform style into something truly political and disruptive. If it sounded arrogant in the late 70s, it sounds even crazier now. Since the late 70s, technological advances have given so many people a greater 'understanding of the social field' than ever before.
So it's interesting how you can see a lot of similarities between Hebdige's arguments and those getting lodged at 'clictivism' – how Facebook posts kind of symbolically resolve political issues without contributing to any 'real' or 'meaningful' change. After all, social media is one of the most powerful avatars of personal style we have at our disposal these days. It’s algorithmically massaged to be just as insular as a local punk scene.
A few months ago I asked local musician and feminist activist Evelyn Ida Morris about whether or not they think subculture can resist on a symbolic level. They told me me they think it's important to keep feminism fluid – for it to be “about interchangeable ideas as opposed to patterns and systems”. When I asked about entrepreneurs commercialising the message they said that “in some ways, if that data gets co-opted then it's almost like feminism becomes a more global narrative, which is kind of a good thing.” Everyone just had to “be careful that it doesn't become watered down by that process and turned into something that's soulless – like trying to sell us shit”.
Point is, the biggest criticism lodged at Hebdige is he never gives us a clear way to measure the difference between “symbolic” and “real” change. Styles, movements and activism (online and otherwise) clearly all matter, but how can we really tell how far “equilibrium” is shifting?
This is a question that's always really got to me. I see the arts scene constantly celebrate empty acts of “symbolic resistance”. And we clearly have to be more wary than ever of subversive signs masquerading as action.
But it took reading I Love Dick (combined with a shock Trump win, which I thought my girlfriend was foolish for predicting) to see that Hebdige is kinda full of shit – that he can only write with such authority and finesse about the toothlessness of “symbolic resistance” because he doesn't have enough at stake. That, despite the authority and finesse with which he writes, he's just another progressive philosobro who'll lecture about structural inequality in the afternoon and talk over a woman at a party later that night.
He's “skeptical of irony” (especially punk irony) so he lives out on the edge of the desert listening to the Rolling Stones, trying to find a way to live authentically. He'll fuck Chris Kraus and act like it never happened. Yet his ideas about hegemony are cemented in all the theory books as gospel.
Sure Hebdige's dickishness might be semi-fictional but, as Joan Hawkins points out in the book's afterword, I Love Dick is partly about how “even critical texts can be/should be seen as fiction”. If this is the post-truth world we live in, it's who controls the conversation that counts – “who gets to speak and why”.
You can control the conversation by being well-informed, patient and receptive. You can sit at the big boy table and wait your turn. But, as Ellena Savage says, “the problem with respectability politics is they do not work”.
“And isn't sincerity just the denial of complexity?”
This quote comes from Kraus (who's an ex-kiwi) recounting the time American filmmaker Nick Zedd and her were both interviewed on television. “Everyone in New Zealand who saw the show told me how they liked Nick better 'cause he was more sincere. Nick was just one thing, a straight clear line: Whoregasm, East Village gore'n'porn, and I was several. And-and-and. And isn't sincerity just the denial of complexity?”
Take a look at Hillary's Twitter bio: she's a “wife, mom, grandma, women+kids advocate, FLOTUS, Senator, hair icon, pantsuit aficionado, 2016 presidential candidate.” (And-and-and). Now look at Trump's: “President-elect of the United States” (a clear straight line).
For progressive men, it's a hard pill to swallow – this idea that women are perceived differently in terms of trustworthiness. I still don't fully believe it myself. It's much easier to believe this is all about elite neoliberalism bouncing around the urban leftist echo chamber. Or about how people saw Hillary as beholden to the political establishment that failed the middle America.
No doubt those were contributing factors. But it's been amazing how fast the conversation has shifted to an indictment of PC Left's arrogance – those elitist enemies of free speech. You gotta wonder why they're so worried about who gets to control the conversation.
It comes back down to this question of the difference between “symbolic” and “real” change. Hillary in the oval office, that's obviously a huge “equilibrium shift” symbolically. So what if she would've spent her term bogged down in establishment politics? A symbol that powerful was always going to facilitate “real” change.
Fact is, we're currently living in a world where the first female US presidential candidate is being painted as a symbol of the political status quo. While a a billionaire businessman and alleged rapist is an anti-establishment maverick.
Oh, and we're all supposed to give poor Steve Price a chance? Really?
Shut up and read a Dick.
And book TidyME.