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An Interview with Chris Kraus

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Here we are, over thirty incredibly hospitable emails later, reporting on an interview with Chris Kraus. Neither of us are journalists, so interviewing famous authors, even more so those we respect, still comes with a feeling of trepidation. And, while we can both hold our own in a theoretically sophisticated conversation, there is no doubt that we would be found wanting by jaded capital-I intellectuals in the pages of respected, bourgeois, newspapers. We had tried to do some preparation in the days leading up to the interview; working with questions that were so abstract and theoretical that we could barely even phrase them, and other questions that were misguided attempts at being fun, quirky interviewers. By the time we had arrived at the festival, however, we had started to realise that our role here was not to be the greatest interlocutors Kraus had ever met but to use this incredibly fortuitous situation—meeting a writer and a thinker we both greatly admire—to make something of some value, that hopefully others can get something out of too.

This solved the technical problem of what we would actually say but did little to address the gnawing angst. We had agreed to 5pm for the interview and somehow had to get through each minute until then. To cope with this, we divided the day into chunks. Arrival, Holten, Practical matters, Interview.

Macon & Giovanna; faces of necessary day drinking.

Arrival was comfortable enough but it was a period of time that, by its very nature, seemed to be fleeting. We had decided to see the conversation between Kraus and the feminist activist and critic Emma Holten, both for the the concrete reason of not wanting to ask the same questions as had been asked in the most prominent interview of the day, and the more ephemeral reason of wanting to shake that initial seeing-them-in-the-flesh feeling that can really get in the way of a good conversation. With this plan in mind, we thought the best course of action would be to lean-in to fan-girl/-boy identity and queue for front-row tickets. Queueing has the added advantage of giving you the impression that you are engaged in positive action, while you are actually standing very still.  

Seeing the Holten interview had the desired effect. It humanised Kraus for us—who admittedly, as a writer, has already done a great deal to humanise herself—and the range of topics and tones that Holten and Kraus covered, and the ease with which they conversed, gave us a great deal more confidence. But not all the confidence we would have liked, so we acquired the rest in the traditional Danish manner of light-to-middling day drinking. As our allotted time approached we made contact with Kraus’ representative from Gyldendal publishing house who told us they would be along in about 20 minutes and that we should find a quiet location as Kraus doesn’t hear so well. Grateful for another time-killing task, and with the help of a few of the other Ark Books volunteers, we cleared out and claimed a secluded corner of the restaurant’s patio area; glaring at parties of elderly patrons on neighbouring tables nursing their last sips of coffee, until they moved on. With everything set up, Chris Kraus arrived and, before we could really take stock of the situation, the interview had already begun. We started out by asking Chris (we switch now to first names because maintaining the formality seems false) the only I Love Dick related question we had allowed ourselves;

Ark Books: Much is made in the discussion surrounding the book, and arguably in Aliens and Anorexia too, of the notion of female desire. But what constitutes such a concept? Is it to be opposed to male desire?

Chris Kraus: I feel like the desire that manifests in both of those books is more of an ambition desire than a sexual desire. The character in the books is just longing to appear, to be present to other people in the cultural world. Yes, it’s about a sexual obsession, but people talk about the book as if it’s so sexual and yet there is hardly any sex in the book. I mean it’s like 315 pages about a single sexual encounter that’s told in one paragraph. It’s like Henry James in that way. There is a secret fuck somewhere in “The Golden Bowl” but there is like 550 pages about consciousness, but there is an energy to this desire, to this infatuation and that energy is only partly a sexual longing energy. It’s just as much a desire, you know, desire as a surplus energy and it’s a desire to appear.

…now it’s like if the love affair doesn’t go on forever, it’s a failure. It’s ridiculous.

Ark Books: So it is not to be understood as a purely sexual energy. That makes sense especially because you have said that your work is more about class than gender, especially as you put it in terms of debasement. That whether you desire something sexually, or for some kind of status, you end up beneath what you desire in some way?

Chris: That’s a really good point. It always surprises me when people use the word debasement in relation to I Love Dick, I think I use it in passing in the book: “people say that women debase themselves if we expose the conditions of our own debasement” because what’s debasing? or what’s embarrassing? These are all really basic human experiences that are being talked about, you know, you love someone, they don’t love you back. I mean, how common is that? I went off on this whole jack years ago in my book Video Green, there is a long essay where I’m talking about these Cole Porter-songs, you know these old songs that used to be in 30s and 40s movies and they seem so adult because they were about unrequited love and accepting the fact of the finitude of the love affair. You know, the love affair won’t last forever, but while we have it… and that seemed an incredibly mature point of view and one that we’ve lost because now it’s like if the love affair doesn’t go on forever, it’s a failure. It’s ridiculous.

Ark Books: Perhaps we could say that the love affair has been commodified? That it has become a piece of cultural capital used to define one’s identity?

Chris: Yeah. I mean, I’ve also started to think just looking at the lives of, say, I have Sylvère’s daughter, my stepdaughter from that marriage, her and her friends, their white weddings and all these things that I would never have contemplated in a million years in my life, but I see how alienating and frightening the world is for them and how they really do not expect any kind of self-realization in their work life and so the family becomes everything again, you know the source of all fulfillment, the source of all security, the source of all self-realization and that’s really sad but I think it’s also true, they all work for corporations, I mean they are all totally expendable within the corporation, no one expects to work at the same place all their lives, so no one really expects to realize themselves through work. For people of Sylvère generation or mine, it was all about becoming yourself through work in culture, that was the greatest thrill, but not so much for the younger people. They are more realistic.

Ark Books: So the counter-culture has kick-started a kind of neo-conservatism? Not just a backlash but a new active desire for such a culture?

Chris: Yes.

I’ve totally had it with democracy, I think democracy sucks.

Ark Books: You reference in your novel Torpor Deleuze’s remark about how those of Jerome’s generation (Sylvere’s pseudonym in the novel) were the last generation for whom things really mattered. And, as you said before in your conversation with Emma Holten, and in your discussion with Jarett Kobek, that you find transgression incredibly banal today. It seems almost as if we have transgressed so much because things don’t really matter anymore. So, what do you think is the next kind of action we should be engaging in?

Chris: Well, obviously we need to have a beneficent theocracy. That’s the next thing. People are so lost and there seem to be no rules and no structure and I was reading about this guy, there is a profile on him in the New Yorker, he is an Evangelical Christian but not a right-wing. An Evangelical Christian talking about Christianity as a way of giving people a new sense of social order and purpose and meaning in their lives. People are starved for meaning in their lives and people seem to like leaders, so maybe we could do a lot worse than go back to a theocracy because democracy certainly isn’t working.

Ark Books: Is it democracy that isn’t working or is it democracy when it’s injected into capitalism?

The sun setting on a quiet corner of Louisiana

Chris: Well, democracy requires an informed group of citizens who identify themselves as citizens and not consumers and never in my lifetime has that existed. You know, the individual as a consumer, who is marketed to, a passive consumer and it has only gotten more so and people have gotten stupider and stupider and more and more blunted and really incapable of making any informed choice. Routinely, the media goes and asks people before the American election who they are voting for and the reason that people give for their picks of candidates is completely insane: “I didn’t like the way he talked to her wife”, “I didn’t like how he showed disrespect”. I mean, they act as if these are real people in their lives, these media puppets. And there is no decision-making going on in electoral politics and it’s round the clock coverage spectacle, online, in print, on tv, everywhere, to the exclusion of really worthwhile interesting things that are happening in the world. So I’ve totally had it with democracy, I think democracy sucks.

Ark Books: That’s really interesting because it’s almost as if our entire notion of democracy has always been insufficient if it was always about individuals coming to a consensus because they were always already separated. Is there something that we have been fundamentally missing when we talk about democracy?

Chris: Well, that part doesn’t bother me. I really like that consensus idea, it’s like a Quaker meeting but it takes a lot of work, they can sit there for 6 or 7 hours to reach a consensus and that means that all the talks need to be talked and everything needs to come out and it’s where thought and feelings need to be exchanged amongst people to what they call the feeling of the meeting in Quaker culture. For that consensus to be reached, that’s a big commitment.

Ark Books: We are really looking forwards to your biography of Kathy Acker. Some of us started reading her work earlier this year with her novel Great Expectations, which seemed like a difficult place to start. So, we were wondering, what should readers start out with if they want to get into her authorship?

Chris: I think “The Childlike Life Of The Black Tarantula”. That was her serial novel. She published it as 6 zines that she sent to a list of people and she would produce with doing three months work and then three months off. She was totally working with self-imposed deadlines when she was doing this project and they are short and she has a different formal agenda for each of the six. They are also a lot funnier than her later work and there is always like a formal imposition, a formal constraint that she is imposing but it’s not so forward, it’s more accessible and it’s funnier.

Ark Books: One last question: for all these people that felt they had their eyes opened by “I Love Dick” and felt a boost of wow, what should they read afterwards, where to go?

Chris: Well, if they wanna read about feminism, then they should definitely read Firestone: The Dialectics of Sex, that’s a really brilliant book and I think they should read Nina Power and then I think they should read Lauren Berlant.

Well, obviously we need to have beneficent theocracy. That’s the next thing.

At this point, we decided to quit while we were ahead. Which is to say, continuing would mean going off-book. And neither of us have the improvisation credentials from a sufficiently esteemed institute for higher learning to be considered even remotely qualified to do this. So we moved to the escape strategy, and handed over a token of our appreciation; a copy of Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by the Danish author Dorthe Nors. We thought it would make sense as Kobek is a mutual friend. Chris replied, “I need a book, thank you”.

After Chris had returned to the author/press area of the festival, and as the day faded into dusk and the slight lift of day-tipsiness faded into its predictable but disappointing fug (in one of the few places in this country it is too expensive to get another round), we left the museum and drove into the city, not quite believing what had happened.

A couple of days later we received an email from Chris thanking us for the Dorthe Nors book, saying she had loved it.

Some of the text of the interview has been edited for clarity and to make the interviewers seem more appropriately qualified to speak to Chris Kraus. You can also read the alternate/Danish version of this text on Atlas. You will be able to hear some highlights from this interview on an upcoming episode of the Ark Audio Review.

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