Sol Wachtler destroyed his judicial career by mailing a condom in a greeting card to his ex-girlfriend’s teenage daughter. He called his ex and growled threats into a voice-altering device. He dressed as a cowboy and showed up at her new boyfriend’s apartment. All this from the chief justice of the New York State Court of Appeals, a man whose livelihood hinged on sound decision-making.
Almost two decades later Wachtler is mostly forgotten, but our public figures seem to keep finding even more spectacular ways to implode. Perhaps this is a symptom of modern celebrity—of digital celebrity—which includes a condition of such ubiquity that you can forget yourself amid the headlines and blog posts and YouTube snippets, wherein so many sources participate in narrating your life that it hardly feels as though any of these slick projections is traceable. The results are by now familiar: the fantastic hubris, the hermetic worldview, the grievously lapsed judgment.
To see the genteel Tiger Woods ensnared in one extramarital fling would have been scandalous. But Woods’s case was eye-popping: the endless plot developments that followed the crashed Escalade and the five-iron, the pageant of women sallying forth to shame him, the media teeming with testimonials and photos and text message transcripts. It seemed positively engineered for the web. And of course, the Internet—as Laura Kipnis says in her latest book—“is scandal’s new best friend.”
Kipnis is a media studies professor at Northwestern University and the author of Against Love, a smart-alecky polemic that rails against the unnaturalness of monogamy. Her other notable work, The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability, argues that women abet their own subjugation by embracing victimhood too readily. In How to Become a Scandal she is once again more prone to spectacle than to substance.
Kipnis purports to set forth a “theory of scandal,” though this feels like scholarly pretense to prop up her real intent, which is to tell salacious tales. Her invented nomenclature is not terribly helpful: a “blind spot” is the pocket of failed self-awareness that leads to social transgression; “split consciousness” is our capacity to both “know something and not know it at the same time.”
To illustrate this, she selects four protagonists and plots out their downfalls. First up is Lisa Nowak, the NASA astronaut who drove 950 miles across the country—allegedly wearing a diaper to avoid pit stops—to ambush her romantic rival, the girlfriend of another astronaut. Nowak, decked out in a wig and trench coat, doused the other woman with pepper spray. Her victim escaped. Nowak was arrested after dumping a duffel bag containing a mallet, rubber tubing, garbage bags, and a BB gun into a nearby trashcan. Judge Wachtler comes next. Then there is Linda Tripp, who has taken her place in the pantheon of “history’s great betrayers”; and finally we are given the ignominy of James Frey, which allows Kipnis to get all philosophical about the shiftiness of the memoir genre.
Kipnis sets some parameters for her definition of scandal. Reliable messes such as Lohan and Spears are dismissed as “trivial dreck and trumped-up gossip.” A real scandal “should have pathos and tragedy, it should have gravitas.” We should be awed at the sight of a life so wholly and publicly wrecked. Kipnis relishes the idea of the scandal as parable—the putative fact that we could all, at any given moment, succumb to the urge to patronize a prostitution ring or engineer a $50 billion Ponzi scheme or torpedo our professional golf careers with 121 adulterous romps. Her central admonition concerns our failure fully to manage or understand our own impulses. Since we are “self-sabotaging beings at some subterranean level,” we gape at others’ public foibles while “nervously pondering our own susceptibilities to life-wrecking inchoateness.” Kipnis labors to remind us that the propensity to self-immolate is an enduring and universal itch. “When has there been a scandal-free age? Never!” is her triumphant final chord.
The mechanics of scandal, of course, have radically changed. In 1991, in Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics, Suzanne Garment charged that both moral opposition to the Vietnam War and the post-Watergate ethics reform laws bred a climate of hypersensitivity to political misdeeds. The press grew more self-righteous and aggressive; newly powerful congressional investigating committees cropped up; public interest advocacy groups proliferated. Garment’s accounts of political imbroglios from the ’80s prompt nostalgia for the old linear logic of media revelation: “The Washington Post reported,” “it was charged in The Wall Street Journal that,” “CBS Evening News showed,” and so on. Her book hearkens back to the time when scandal evolved in daily blasts and journalists had to work to “keep the story going”—when big news outlets owned the task of ferreting out scandals and determining how to package them.
But if the old source of scandal was our “culture of mistrust,” now it is our “instantaneous cacophony of infotainment”—in the words of Mark Feldstein, the author of Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture. It was a Drudge Report headline that launched the first Internet scandal, on the fateful evening of January 17, 1998: “Newsweek kills story on White House intern.”
Kipnis dubs our age one of “compulsive unbosoming”; it is also one of compulsive nosiness. Accustomed to surveillance as entertainment—reality TV, live video blog feeds—we want our scandals graphically documented. The diaper detail in Nowak’s story, Kipnis points out, was a “brilliant piece of set design.” Cinematic scraps of imagery have always been scandal lifeblood: she wore a diaper, he kept his socks on, that cigar, that blue dress. And now these cinematic scraps are everywhere. Our new modes of documentation and dispersal add pixelation to titillation. We traffic in primary source material: mistresses hawking their saved emails, damning photos leaked to the press. Mark Sanford’s ode to the anatomy of his Argentinean girlfriend is still lodged in the popular imagination: “I love your tan lines...the curves of your hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent parts of yourself) in the faded glow of night’s light.” Something certainly has changed, and for the worse.
But besides a few dutiful references to our “fast-moving digitally driven times,” Kipnis does not devote much energy to defining this singularly scandalous age. She stresses the timelessness of the scandalizing impulse—the “gravitational pull toward confession and punishment [that] underlies the human emotions.” Each case that she outlines “represents a trouble spot in the social compact that no form of enlightenment or social progress seems likely to eradicate anytime soon.” Scandal that survives unchanged through “social progress,” however, is not what is most interesting here, nor what would have been this book’s most valuable contribution to our cultural understanding.
Why rehash scandals from the early ’90s when the past few years alone have yielded so much material? Kipnis claims to avoid “the glitziest cases, which tend to become too encrusted with opinion to yield surprises.” But there are no surprises here. The book is disappointing because it is clear that a funny, savvy mind is at work, one that might have been well-equipped to teach us a thing or two about our changing relationship to scandal, or about why our scandals seem to keep getting bigger and weirder. Instead, Kipnis sticks to familiar psychological turf about scapegoats and public shaming rituals and the pratfalls of self-delusion.
She riffs squirm-inducingly on Tripp’s ugliness (“the ways in which ugly things achieve their ugliness are completely diverse, and if ugliness can’t be reduced to the sum of its parts, how do we know it when we see it?”) and Oprah’s confessional essay in O magazine about her weight problems. Kipnis is a phrase-turner above all else: “the rock-hurling villagers, gnashing their teeth from the sidelines, savoring all the gory details of other people’s disgraces in a happy fizz of moral indignation.” That is nothing but typing. Most of the examples here feel less like analytical models and more like slapdash anecdotes selected so that Kipnis could pursue her rhetorical flourishes. Her arguments are not cumulative; we are pelted with ideas but handed no conclusions.
This book is an exact projection of what its author calls the “flamboyant ‘Look at me’” aspect of scandal. Much like contemporary scandal, it is puffed up with gossipy tidbits and ruthlessly sure of its own worth. But it sheds little light on the particular insanity of scandal today. Woods, mentioned only in a footnote, feels most paradigmatic—a star felled by his titanic ego and his sloppy handling of technology. And what better evidence of a psychic blind spot: to think that all those lusty text messages wouldn’t somehow explode on the web.
Laura Bennett is assistant literary editor of The New Republic.