Monday, December 06, 2010

Towards A Theory Of Scandal; Or, How To Become Client 9

On The Good Wife, actress Julianna Margulies
assumes an iconic stance as Alicia Florrick.

Laura Kipnis, How to Become A Scandal:  Adventures in Bad Behavior. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010. 208 pp. Bibliography, no index. Illustrations.

Client 9:  The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (Alex Gibney: 2010).  Now in general release, and available on some cable systems.

One of our favorite shows chez Radical is The Good Wife (Tuesday nights at 10 EST on your local CBS affiliate or online.) I have always liked Julianna Margulies:  I liked her last series, Canterbury's Law, which got canceled after six episodes in 2008 because of the writer's strike.  She appears to have emerged from that complex show having found her niche as a TV attorney. Margulies' fundamental interiority as an actress is a perfect comment on some of the dilemmas of modern heterosexuality, marriage and parenting for professional women.  By this I mean that every move she makes on The Good Wife is a negotiation between Alicia Florrick the person, Alicia Florrick the mother, and Alicia Florrick, the "good wife" who needs to remain married to her ruthless, sexy pol of a husband until and unless she decides to leave him on her own terms.  Reflecting a theme of contemporary political culture, the husband is disgraced Illinois State's Attorney Peter Florrick, who has been derailed and jailed in a corruption scandal (perhaps a frame-up) that came to light because he had taken to visiting prostitutes.   Debuting on September 22, 2009, The Good Wife followed as closely as was humanly possible on the March 2008 resignation of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, whose arrangements with the ladies managed by the Emperor's Club VIP, a high-end call service, had also been uncovered as part of a routine federal investigation of money transfers.

Whoa. "Routine?"  If you believe that, implies Alex Gibney, producer of Client 9, a documentary about the Spitzer case, there is a bridge in Brooklyn waiting under your Christmas tree.  Gibney's side of the story is that it was Wall Street that went after Eliot Spitzer.  Powerful financial interests wanted revenge for prior investigations that had uncovered the tip of the iceberg of what we now know was a plan to drain as much money out of the economy and into their own pockets that they could.  The prostitutes are a detail.

Routine? The prostitutes a mere detail? Please. Can you hear Laura Kipnis, the media scholar and author of How To Become A Scandal, laughing?  It's sex scandals that are routine, and politics are the detail.  Strangely, in her newest book, Kipnis features a picture of Spitzer and his wife Silda Wall Spitzer (striking the Margulies pose) in the introduction, refers to him, but never names him, as if it isn't even necessary to do so.  Politicians who scandalize us are routine because we are them, and they are us:  what fills in the space between us is that we all know that the only difference between us and them is that "we" haven't been uncovered yet.

Well, some of we, anyway.  I've been a scandal at least twice, and the only reason more of you don't know about these colorful episodes is that I occupy quite a small stage in the theater of the world.  But that is Kipnis's point:  we are all a scandal waiting to happen.  There's no difference between the ordinary, run of the mill folk who are out there pointing and judging and the ones who are up at the podium with cameras flashing in their puffed, weepy faces (Spitzer's "good wife" didn't weep but looked like she had literally vacated her body some hours prior to the press conference.)  Such unexpected events as the uptight Eliot, a close political ally for a variety of feminist groups dedicated to ending commercial sex, turning out to be an afficianado of pay to play occur in a changed cultural atmosphere in which  "our internal cringe meters... shrill more and more frequently these days, given people’s predilection for confessing their grubby secrets to passing strangers or even complete strangers….it’s like a national compulsion.” Ordinary as it is, watching Spitzer’s press conference was “like watching someone swallow a hand grenade in real time, which obviously didn’t impede anyone’s enjoyment of the event,” Kipnis writes. (3-5) 

Yes.  But that same well-crafted phrase --"swallowing a hand grenade in real time" -- might have also accurately described my experience as a child watching Edward Kennedy's post-Chappaquiddick press conference in July 1969. Two critical differences in these scandals stand out.  In the Spitzer case, although he had broken the law by paying for sex and violating the Mann Act, no one died; and in the Kennedy case, no one resigned from office -- even though somebody died, and died a pretty gruesome death. So what was the big deal about Spitzer? Client 9 answers this question by arguing that exposing Spitzer could only have been the handiwork of powerful capitalists Ken Langone, the Director of the New York Stock Exchange, and Hank Greenberg, president of the insurance giant AIG. Both of these men had been in prolonged litigation with New York State over how they did business while Spitzer was Attorney General and had sworn revenge.

Worse than the investigations was Spitzer's refusal to kowtow to the financial industry, and its vision of what the economic rules should be.  According interviews with Langone and Greenberg, had Spitzer not interfered, the great economic crash would never have happened.  According to Spitzer, who was also interviewed for the film, and others who worked for him, these men selfishly destroyed the world of finance for their personal gain and went after Spitzer for trying to stop them.  The addition of Joe Bruno, the powerful Republican State Assembly leader, adds an important emphasis to this:  in addition to being Dudley Doright, Spitzer was aggressive, nasty, uncompromising, rude and completely undeferential to men who were accustomed to receiving deference at all times.

Both Client 9 and How To Become A Scandal argue that there is something far more important going on here than the public's response to people who shtup out of schul, or any one politician getting caught in an illegal sex act.  As Kipnis notes, scandals represent a form of knowledge production that has been surprisingly resistant to complex analysis:  although watching the humiliation of others “may be our national spectator sport…we lack any real theory of scandal.” (7)   She doesn't exactly give us a theory in the end:  instead, we get a series of delightful stories about ordinary people who become celebrities (and vice-versa) as they enter their names into the Book of Humiliation.  In “The Lovelorn Astronaut,” we are reminded of the NASA love triangle in which an accomplished female officer drove over 900 miles in a diaper to kidnap, and perhaps kill, another astronaut's new squeeze.  Here we see Kipnis at her finest, asking the questions you wish you had thought of and published:  "what’s an adult in diapers but someone whose self-management skills have critically failed?” and "how can you possibly know in advance what lengths you are capable of, in extremis or otherwise?”  Here, we get close to what a theory of scandal might look like:  “In short," she argues, "simply having a body is the first step on the road to being a scandal.” (35-41)

The other essays, the last of which is on the uncanny resemblance between Oprah Winfrey and fake-o memoirist James Frey (unnecessarily underlined when Kipnis points out that the last syllable of Oprah's last name in "-frey") are less well focused, demonstrating not that Kipnis herself is failing, but simply that some scandals are more fun than others.  No one, in the other essays, offers the opportunities for analyzing the centrality of pee and poo to national culture that the great little detail of the astronaut's soiled diapers permits.  The Linda Tripp essay is a slightly expanded version of an earlier piece that appeared in Lisa Duggan and Lauren Berlant's 2001 collection on the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal:  if you haven't read it, it's worth a look.  Perhaps the best part about these essays is that they continue a series of themes originally explored in her masterpiece (in my view) Against Love:  A Polemic  (2003), where Kipnis argues that love -- or the illusion of love -- ultimately degrades and humiliates all of us and, through its single-minded obsessions, produces a crazy, alternate reality that catches up with all of its victims someday.

Photo Cred
Client 9 is not about love at all -- it is about hate, money, and fucking.  It is about being good and being stupid. It is about how two understandable human impulses came together in one (not as) powerful (as he needed to be) man:  the desire to do good and the desire to get down and dirty with women he didn't know who had very large racks.  What the movie doesn't tell you is that really, both impulses were the same. Eliot Spitzer had a deep need to act out his persona as a Big Swinging Dick, both in public and in private.  Both led to his downfall.

This causes me to wonder whether we don't need two theories of scandal:  one that is expressly political and feminist (in which the wife the politician needs to challenge him intellectually is not the "wife" that offers parallel opportunities for dominance in the sack); and one that is still feminist, but  for ordinary folks like the rest of us.  This latter theory might call on the political, but not rely on the political arena for its significance.  This would point us to one explanation of why we don't see political women confessing to various private misdeeds while a sedated hubby watches from stage left; and how it is that so many non-celebrities are so confused about what they have done when their secret betrayals become public entertainment.  Kipnis provides a promising theory for the political -- that scandal "is a way of organizing the collectivity's hatred"(195) -- but for the latter she leaves only a set of impressions that we are left to organize on our own.

In turn, Client 9 runs the conspiracy theory in a way that left me impatient about the amount of evidence left on the table that doesn't get any analysis.  My favorite quote of the film is a giggly woman who served jail time for running and profiting from the Emperor's Club VIP:  "When you are sending a girl for $30,000 overnight, it doesn't feel like prostitution!" she burbles, putting visual scare quotes around the final word.  No, I guess it doesn't: just like securitizing bad mortgages didn't feel like theft! These portions of the film made me want much more from it:  since what Emperor's Club was doing was, in fact, prostitution, I'm curious as to what activity it did feel like to the people who were involved with it.

Similarly, Spitzer, who was interviewed for the documentary, is open and lively when talking about his Wall Street investigations; he becomes shut down and wooden when we get to the sex scandal.  Why does Spitzer think he risked everything in an obsession for expensive prostitutes?  Why does he think he did not know he was risking everything?  The Luv Guv has little to say about this except that he was bad, it was wrong, he deserved what he got (I sense a really nasty couples' therapist lurking in the background.)  This makes the business of high-end prostitution a tantalizing theme from another angle. It provides a tangible link between Spitzer and Wall Street (several procurers who are interviewed for the film claim that it was the vast amount of money in the go-go bull market that made their own businesses possible) and reveals Spitzer as the same, in at least one respect, as the financiers he despises.  One even imagines Spitzer's and Greenberg's wicks dipping in the same well.  It could have happened!

Me, I'm turning to The Good Wife for theory.  Sometimes I think that only fiction allows us to imagine what happens after the scandal to the people who didn't do anything but have to live with it anyway:  to the wife who stays, to the children who have to live the story that their parents and the political handlers have written for them, and to everyone who picks up the pieces.  Kipnis and Gibney aren't really interested in this, and who can blame them?  But if there is a theory of scandal, it includes the bit players as well as the stars.

1 comment:

Dorothy Potter Snyder said...

Great writing! First, it is clear that YOU should have written the Theory of Scandal book (perhaps you still can). Second, your comments about expensive whoring not "feeling like prostitution" screams for a smart analysis of how our (American, puritan) sense of right and wrong flattens out for both men and women, power brokers and their servants, when Big Money is involved. The very fact that illegal wick-dipping is still such a way of life for men in the financial industry, even post crash, shows the industry's intractable resistance to ever admitting us wickless women into the power club. Apparently you've got to dominate people physically (and pay big money for it) to prove you have the right stuff for Wall Street. Spitzer became the thing he hated. Oh for the good old Sophoclean days when tragic heroes were the unconscious victims of the eternal Gods! Oedipus was a scandal, but at least we could have sympathy for him.