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Chris Kraus Looks Toward the Margins in New Book ’Social Practices’

The US writer and filmmaker has created new paths for arts writing and critical thinking, not from wielding a cudgel but by exposing our bruises

I wish we didn’t have to read Chris Kraus, and this week I read her aloud to my students, quoting passages on Kate Newby, Henry Taylor and Channa Horwitz, all from her new book Social Practices (Semiotext(e) 2018)Kraus’s criticism is generous and warm. But, it is written from a world I wish we didn’t live in.

Cobbled from interviews and monographs, obituaries and essays, the book is born of failures: her marriage, meritocracies, the humanities – and the larger failure that seems all too apparent now in the US. Kraus’s response lies in plumbing society’s margins and sidelines. She finds common cause with her dentist in Tijuana and borderlands art spaces working to build a community. She writes too of being a stripper and in another piece seeks comfort in an old blanket. In that essay, ‘Blanket’, she moves from the blanket she brought to America to women artists using blankets, Marx and immanence and the idea that objects have power, as well as her dog’s favourite toy. Her own failures are also on view, including her rejected Guggenheim grant application, where she planned to run a store in rural Minnesota.

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Chris Kraus, Social Practices, 2018. Courtesy: Semiotext(e)

Despite the idea of store-as-art and the book’s title, the collection isn’t a ringing endorsement of social practice or relational aesthetics with their strategy of soups and parks or tree houses in housing estates with artists, writers and philosophers quoting theory. Instead she seeks the social itself. In ‘Kelly Lake Store and Other Stories’, she elaborates on her reasons to run the store in the small community in Minnesota where she lives part-time. She quotes depressing statistics on rural populations and doesn’t say she wants to change or edify that community, not bring them ‘art’, just fit a basic need – something I understand. I live in just such a place in upstate New York and serve on my volunteer fire department, because the VFD is the most basic civic institution here, and others are willing to wake at 3am to save my and my neighbours’ lives. I feel a responsibility to participate in my small town. So, does Kraus, and now as more and more artists leave unaffordable cities and migrate from the centers of the art world, this kind of participation could be edifying for everyone and break down partisan divides. That’s not the goal, however, or at least not mine and not Kraus’s.

Finding a unitary theme in an anthology culled from such diverse sources is tricky, so too in her novels, but she often positions the edges as a strategy for dealing with white male power. In her introduction, she describes Yayoi Kusama’s decision to live in a mental hospital after grappling with the art world. In ‘Kate Newby’s Bones’, she weaves together stories of friends – all women – who died young. Newby, who I’ve written about and collaborated with, limns out small details that might seem insubstantial, making puddles and pebbles and drawing on carpet in chalk. She brings attention to elements we could easily ignore, and Kraus marries that ‘slightness’ to those marginalized women, drawing an analogy between them and the subtle power of Newby’s work and the attention it demands. 

In her obituary for the American artist Channa Horwitz, Kraus quotes a male teacher who’d exhorted Horwitz, ‘Be as free as you can … throw paint’ and her response: ‘If I wanted to experience freedom, I needed to reduce all my choices down to the least amount.’ So too Kraus, who fixates on a lost coffee scoop and Walter Benjamin, who could himself take what had been seen in his time as marginal – kids’ toys, advertising, shopping and the cinema – and render it monumental. He also embraced writing in aphorisms, a form that can read as small and fragmentary and whose approach anticipates Kraus’s. 

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Kelly Lake Store, Kelly Lake, Minnesota, 2011. Courtesy: Chris Kraus and n+1 magazine

Kraus’s language is so clear, so straightforward, it is incandescent, and in class two weeks ago we had to pivot from her words to those used in the Senate chamber. Brett Kavanaugh yelled about being a ‘victim’ and Christine Blasey Ford testified about his attack but never used the word victim. White male privilege was on show for all to see, and Blasey Ford would ask her interrogators, ‘Is this good?’ She’d say, ‘I’m a congenial person.’ 

What if we didn’t make such accommodations? What if Kraus didn’t have to embrace finding freedom from the margins? We are in a moment not simply where a frat-boy binge-drinker seeks and finds absolution on the public stage, but also where, on the other side, millions clamor for change. We have the rise of Democratic Socialists, Black Lives Matter and Me Too all of whom are fighting for distributed, egalitarian power with broad definitions and intersections. 

I met Chris when I was not much older than my students and studying with her ex-husband Sylvère Lotringer and struggling with art history. She was the first to tell me I was a writer, before she herself was writing. She was making films and editing books (books she writes about here) mostly by women, all first-person. They could be messy, with questions of sex and power, and Kraus quotes novelist and publisher Emily Gould:

Why do women who aren’t afraid to humiliate themselves appall us so much, and why do we rush to find superficial reasons to dismiss them (‘she’s crazy’ ‘she’s a narcissist’ she’s young’ ‘she’s a famewhore’)? I think in part because they pose a threat to the social order which relies on women’s embarrassment to keep them either silent or writing in socially acceptable modes.

It took me a long time to appreciate that position. It scared me. Chris’s novels at first scared me. They felt claustrophobic and dizzying as if I was shoved in too close and my own raw, red sides were exposed. 

When I dropped out of grad school, heavy, theoretical language was wielded like a cudgel. We were deep in the October moment, and I thought success demanded that women be monsters. (I was also a stripper and would joke that stripping was more honest than academia). I was floundering. Right now, though, we’re in a different moment, one where women are called out too for being monsters when they cross the same lines as male aggressors, and Kraus is caught up in the storm. She defended Avital Ronell who did act like a monster.    

A predator is a predator, whether it’s a teenaged drunk or a professor and her grad student. That wasa world where women had to find their own strength as negotiated against male power. I don’t want my students to inherit that realm. The options there are too binary: top or bottom, monster or victim. 

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Chris Kraus, 2018. 

In her introduction Kraus writes, ‘Like everything else, art will always be transactional.’ I used to believe this, but I don’t want everything to be transactional; I want a greater possibility for idealism, for utopias, for living without limits. In the failures of the humanities, art has become, she writes, the place of last resort where disciplines like writing – and often experimental writing – can flourish. Art welcomes refugees from those fields. It certainly has me. And Kraus has led the way creating new paths for arts writing and critical thinking, not from wielding a cudgel but exposing our bruises, from being bruised herself and willing to show it.

But, what if … What if Channa Horwitz hadn’t found freedom in two shapes and two colours? What if Henry Taylor didn’t have to paint his grandfather shot by white men and know that this could be, as he says in later interviews, him too? What if I hadn’t found stripping a way out of the monsterhood I saw in grad school? What if our systems weren’t transactional, what if Kraus’s writing could be appreciated as great literature from a moment long passed? Don’t get me wrong, I love her writing. I love her visions of the communal and social as a solution. 

Socialist anarchist Emma Goldman wrote of love and power in 1906: If partial emancipation is to become a complete and true emancipation of woman, it will have to do away with the ridiculous notion that to be loved, to be sweetheart and mother, is synonymous with being slave or subordinate. It will have to do away with the absurd notion of the dualism of the sexes, or that man and woman represent two antagonistic worlds.

Pettiness separates; breadth unites. Let us be broad and big. Let us not overlook vital things because of the bulk of trifles confronting us. A true conception of the relation of the sexes will not admit of conqueror and conquered; it knows of but one great thing: to give of one’s self boundlessly, in order to find one’s self richer, deeper, better. That alone can fill the emptiness, and transform the tragedy of woman’s emancipation into joy, limitless joy.

Until then I have Chris Kraus, writing about blankets and comfort, immanence and Marx. Or her lost coffee scoop, weaving it in with a letter written in 1936 by an anonymous woman:

At some point one must ask at what point is it better to devote one’s mental focus to simply getting over the plastic scoop and as they say, ‘moving on’? Asking yourself this question is like asking what’s real. Can you notice the daylight stretching out? How do we accommodate loss, how do we live alongside it?

Main image: Henry Taylor, THE TIMES THAY AINT A CHANGING, FAST ENOUGH!, 2017, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy: the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo; photograph: Cooper Dodds

Jennifer Kabat is a writer based in upstate New York, USA. She teaches at New York University and the New School and is working on a book of essays titled Growing Up Modern.

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