Summer of Hate
(Semiotext(e)/Native Agents, 2012)
Over the past two decades, Chris Kraus has channeled the clichéd advice to “write what you know” into high formal and philosophical stakes: a radical subjectivity that jettisons the fiction of critical distance to embody the feminist ethos “the personal is the political.” In the early 1990s Kraus established Native Agents, a branch of the radical publishing house Semiotext(e) founded by her philosopher husband Sylvère Lotringer, to champion this experimental confessional mode. The imprint has since published writers like Kathy Acker, Eileen Myles, Bruce Benderson, and Kraus herself. Like those writers’ efforts, Kraus’s genre-bending works blend intellectual, political, and sexual concerns with wit and a confrontational literary persona. Her semi-fictional texts extend the feminist project past the essentialist ghetto of positive representation, weaving thorny associative webs of history, theory, pop culture, and the diaristic with punk rock attitude and critical insight.
Kraus’s latest release, Summer of Hate,simmers with an erotically charged nihilism first embraced in her 1997 semi-autobiographical epistolary novel I Love Dick. Initially framed as a series of love letters between Kraus, subcultural theorist Dick Hebdige, and Lotringer, I Love Dick evolves into a meditation on desire and theory that moves effortlessly between art criticism, fiction, and memoir. Summer of Hate strategicallyinhabits the conventions of the romance novel to explore issues of prison injustice, cultural value, class warfare, and sexual power dynamics. Kraus narrates the star-crossed love story between Los Angeles-based cultural critic Catt Dunlop—a thinly veiled fictional version of herself—and Paul Garcia, an ex-con living in Albuquerque. Their tumultuous relationship allegorizes how the neoliberal fantasy of exponential business growth undermines the American dream with complex systems of class-based discrimination and bureaucratic roadblocks that reinforce educational and financial inequalities.
The novel opens in early 2005 with Catt’s breathless escape to New Mexico. She is fleeing from a psychopath she met on a B.D.S.M. website who asked for control of her financial assets. (This awakening from her “delirium” occurs shortly after the re-election of President George W. Bush, a significant detail.) A successful amateur real estate entrepreneur, Catt decides to move some of her assets from the bloated L.A. market to cheap, undervalued properties in New Mexico. Meanwhile, Paul is released from a moderate-security prison in Farmington, New Mexico, where he served a two-year sentence for defrauding his former employee Halliburton of $875 during an alcoholic binge. He does not seem aware of the famed company’s war crimes, but rather deeply ashamed, particularly in light of his newfound Christianity and sobriety. After a brief and disastrous stint working for a former prison buddy, Paul moves to Albuquerque where Catt is seeking a property manager.
Catt hires Paul on little more than gut instinct and a frisson of sexual tension. While rehabilitating the apartments with a small but devoted crew—a labor Catt rhapsodizes while overlooking the neighborhood’s obvious destitution—the pair initiates an intense romance. Soon Catt finds herself embroiled in not only the drama of property ownership in a struggling area, but also in providing financial and emotional support to a recently sober parolee. Catt overcomes massive financial and administrative hurdles to clear Paul’s debts, help him enroll him in the University of New Mexico’s psychology program, and introduce him to her friends and associates—including her semi-estranged philosopher husband Michel, a character who resembles Lotringer. Despite Catt and Paul’s best intentions, the honeymoon period quickly ends. Catt grows frustrated with Paul’s seeming irresponsibility and immaturity (“What’s it like to be so intelligent but to have no information?”); Paul grows disenchanted with Catt’s “dream world” of intellectual life.
Months later, Paul is arrested on a nine-year-old bench warrant near Phoenix on his way to attend summer classes at U.C.L.A. Catt ignores the growing fissures in their complicated relationship to rescue him from the draconian prison system in Arizona. In the end, Paul and Catt’s relationship withers away, and Paul’s role can be understood as that of a projection screen. Much like Dick in I Love Dick, who became a cipher to express Kraus’s longing for a certain intellectual prestige, Paul offers Kraus a way to discuss the political without resorting to pure theory or the abstract politics of representation. Kraus paces her drama with straightforward figures of Paul’s mounting financial trouble: parole dues, interest payments, and monthly fees for a D.U.I.-convicted driver interlock ignition device. Paul’s final arrest in Maricopa County, Arizona, the jurisdiction of the notoriously conservative sheriff Joe Arpaio (a key supporter of the anti-illegal immigration act SB1070 and perpetrator of unconstitutional jail conditions) throws the dangers of political fearmongering and Middle America’s blind “patriotism” into relief. In constructing an earnest narrative without resorting to truisms or abject sensationalism, Kraus examines her class privilege in the process.
This is not to say that Kraus’s interpretation of a romance between an ex-con and a professor is untroubled. Her incisive barbs against the art world and Catt’s (read: Kraus’s) marginalized position within it do not always evoke sympathy. In the first chapter, for instance, she narrates Catt’s frustration with her audience through pointed blows at her readers:
She saw no boundaries between feeling and thought, sex and philosophy. Hence, her writing was read almost exclusively in the art world, where she attracted a small core of devoted fans: Asperger’s boys, girls who’d been hospitalized for mental illness, assistant professors who would not be receiving their tenure, lap dancers, cutters and whores.
Catt’s worries about her professional precarity—“A reviewer of her last book accused her of giving him ‘blue balls.’ If only she’d attended an Ivy League school, her work might have been read as serious cultural criticism, not the punch line of the last dirty joke in the world”—seem downright vulgar when set in relief against Paul’s financial hardships. Kraus counters Catt’s unlikeability, however, with her vulnerability. That Catt has to risk both being overshadowed by her philosopher husband Michel’s academic reputation and falling into disrepute by staying with Paul illustrates a persistent heteronormative double standard for female professionals.
It is Kraus’s fearless casting of the female protagonist as an ambivalent savior and financial crutch that places Summer of Hate at the forefront of feminist thought. The personal lives of female artists continue to be subject to greater scrutiny than that of their male counterparts. When writers like Kraus commit to a subjective stance—biographical or not—they become easy targets for critics quick to dismiss the work as indulgent, aggressive, or victimizing. Summer of Hate is commendable for not only taking up the mantle of sexualized female subjectivity, but for its narrative of exploration the real psychic underbelly of the elite art world: the experience of the disenfranchised and the incarcerated, and the limits of a social system that imposes ever greater disparities between classes.
WENDY VOGEL is a critic, editor, and independent curator based in New York. She has contributed to Artforum.com, Art Lies, Flash Art International, and Modern Painters, among other publications. She was a Critical Fellow in the Core Residency Program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and holds an MA from the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College.