OVERRIDE

Laura Kipnis

Laura Kipnis

Laura Kipnis is the author of How to Become a Scandal, Against Love, and The Female Thing. A professor in the Department of Radio/TV/Film at Northwestern University, she has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the NEA. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, Slate, and Bookforum, among others. She lives in New York and Chicago.

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Q & A

Q&A With Laura Kipnis on How to Become a Scandal
 
What Is Scandal?
 
Basically, something hidden and preferably shameful has to be exposed, some social taboo has to be breached. Through some blend of inadvertency, compulsion or recklessness, some horrible misjudgment comes to light. But scandals aren't just fiascoes other people get themselves embroiled in while the rest of us go innocently about our business. The crucial element is us, the scandal audience. If we stopped paying attention, say goodbye to scandal.
 
What Is The Difference Between Celebrity Gossip And Scandal?
 
A real scandal has an element of tragedy: shattered lives, downfall, disgrace and ruin, the rage of the community directed at its transgressors. When I talk about scandal I don't just mean celebutante DUIs and icky talk show apologies. A great scandal jars our sense of social tidiness, it raises unanswerable questions about the ongoing conflict between the messiness of our desires and the larger moral compact. It reminds us of something a little anarchic and ungovernable lodged in the human core.
 
Why Are Some People So Compelled To Act Out Their Psychodramas On The Public Stage?
 
As Freud says, "No mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore." We're leaky vessels, unfortunately, driven to publicize our secret desires to the world, and usually regardless of our own best interests. Self-knowledge is a faulty instrument; we're riddled with blind spots. Which is why we're fascinated by other people's blind spots, obviously, because we're so incapable of seeing our own.
 
How Does The General Public Play A Role?
 
Think of it as an unspoken sadomasochistic pact: scandalizers act out their convoluted psychodramas and furtive desires in public—possibly even soliciting punishment—and the rest of us willingly deliver it, like a big collective superego. They screw up their lives in showy, provocative ways, and we hurl throw stones, awash in the warm glow of imaginary imperviousness that other people's life-destroying stupidities invariably provide. Clearly we need them as much as they need us.
 
Why Is The Public Continually Shocked By Scandal?
 
The truth is that scandal invariably exposes open secrets, and things we all already know: power corrupts, spouses cheat, celebrities are narcissistic and insecure. Still, I remember that during the Spitzer scandal you kept hearing this one cliché over and over: "It was a "jaw-dropping fall from grace." "The sound of jaws hitting the floor could be heard." And I thought: What form of collective amnesia is this? What about Bill Clinton and the dozen other politician-adulterers of the last decade? So here you have the scandal dynamic in a nutshell: scandalizers keep "forgetting" about social consequences, and scandal audiences keep "forgetting" about how routine such lapses are. The ability to both know something and not know it at the same time is the trait that unites us all.
 
What Are The Common Themes Of Scandal?
 
Lust has always been scandal's greatest pal, given that funny way it has of occluding rational thought, especially when it comes to risk-assessment.  Hypocrisy is also excellent scandal material—scandal loves unmasking a fake. The appearance-essence distinction is crucial; after all, everyone's hiding something. Greed, revenge, jealousy and envy are perennial motifs, but also far more ordinary stumbling blocks like love and attachment. In fact, these are my favorite scandals—two of the chapters in the book involve people simply unable to recover from lost love.
 
Why Is Scandal Necessary For Our Culture? 
 
Scandal is a social purification ritual: socially non-compliant citizens are branded and expelled, which allows society to both cleanse itself and re-assert its muscle. Remember that communities are enclaves of shared norms, meaning that scandals are effectively what defines a community. So these aren't marginal events, they're central to collective life. The media may whip things up for motives of its own, but it's the collective's standards that have to be breeched.
 
Why Do You Think There's Been So Little Commentary On The Social Dynamics Of Scandal?
 
Because it raises too many uncomfortable questions. For instance: is there some buried propensity for self-destruction afflicting otherwise normal social beings? And what role does unconsciousness play in any of our daily lives? If scandalizers are unconsciously setting themselves up for social punishment, it confounds our most cherished beliefs, that we're creatures who struggle to survive, since apparently we're also creatures who are capable of extreme self-sabotage.
 
Can Anyone Become A Scandal Or Do You Have To Be Famous?
 
Social position certainly plays a role: the higher placed you are on the social ladder the longer the fall, and the more likely the media will be camped out on your lawn when you land. But anyone can become a scandal, especially these days when every misstep can be beamed to computer and cell phone screens across the planet in a matter of seconds. But there have been plenty of previous unknowns who managed to propel themselves into national scandals—castrating your sleeping husband is usually good for a headline or two.
 
Why Did You Choose To Study The Theory Of Scandal?
 
I confess to being a major scandal fan myself. I love the voyeuristic glimpses into other people's lives, the weird plot twists and lurid details...  As someone deeply shame-prone, the spectacle of someone else being put through the public shame machine is horribly gripping—I imagine it's similar for other scandal aficionados.
 
Will Americans Ever Tire Of Scandal?
 
I doubt it! Scandals are too useful, not to mention pleasurable. We get to bask in a temporary sense of superiority and moral self-congratulation. They make us feel better about ourselves. Additionally they're mini life-lessons: handy illustrated manuals in how not to wreck your life.
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BOOKS BY THE AUTHOR

Men

Laura Kipnis

From the notoriously contrarian author of Against Love, a witty and probing  examination of why badly behaved men have been her lifelong fascination, on and off the pageIt’s...

Available 11/18/2014Pre-Order

A New York Times Book Review Editors’ ChoiceWe all relish a good scandal. Why do people feel compelled to act out their tangled psychodramas on the national stage, and why do...

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