Sunday, May 26, 2013

Seventy-One: Archaeology

There was a review article at Chronicle of Higher Education not so very long ago by Camille Paglia about academic treatment of BDSM. I dislike Paglia, and I want to be clear about that. She's the last person I'd choose to review books on BDSM, and in truth the article devolved into one of her usual rants against critical theory in general and against Foucault in particular. The only good thing about the article was that she included a patronising review of Staci Newmahr's "Playing on the Edge", and I'm having the library get a copy for me. "Playing on the Edge" is an account of the darker edges of BDSM by a writer who immersed herself in that world for a couple of years as both observer and participant. I'll be reading it for the darkness and the more highly-sexual passages--- reading it the way I'd read a novel. That at least came from Paglia's article.

As for the rest of it...well, the only thing I dug out of her rant was that she was annoyed that the authors she was reviewing didn't think BDSM had a history. Okay, yes--- it does have a history. Everything, every set of ideas and beliefs, has its own archaeology...though that may be too much like Foucault for Paglia to admit. If you look at BDSM as a set of specialised sexualised activities, you can trace it back through all those Victorian brothels that dealt in flagellation and back through Sade into the eighteenth century. You can probably trace the idea of the whip as a sexual accessory back to Restoration libertines. Before that, though, I'd think it gets a bit iffy. I'm not sure that what we think of as BDSM really crops up in Tudor or Renaissance times.  Is there anything in Aretino? And medieval That's something different. If you're whipping yourself or being whipped to actually mortify the flesh for serious religious reasons, that's something altogether different. BDSM abstracts the idea of ritually mortifying the flesh--- this is why BDSM draws so heavily on Catholic imagery ---but empties out the religious content.  There's nothing ironic in medieval flagellants, and BDSM, even (or especially) in its most ritualised forms, is deeply ironic.

I've always been at least intellectually attracted to BDSM--- or to the idea of it. Blindfolds and riding crops and candle wax are accessories to stories, and they have a literary pedigree. They're markers for something, too. Like the double-diamond on ski slope warning signs, those things are markers for a certain kind of literary girl that she's doing sexual things that are beyond just the basic. Blindfolds and silk scarves and candle wax and riding whips are markers for advanced sex, for a kind of postgraduate-level sex. That's always something one can offer to a certain kind of young companion: not just sex, but the idea of sex that's more advanced, more complex, more literary than just fumblings in a backseat or in a residence hall bed.

I've said before that I came across BDSM by discovering books like "Story of O"  when I was very young. And there's no question that much of what I liked in literary BDSM was the idea of class.  Hidden chateaux, elegant townhouses, expensive fittings, beautiful people in distant cities. There's a traditional association of BDSM with wealth, after all. The men who could pay Victorian prostitutes in specialised brothels to whip them had to be at least upper middle-class; it takes money to afford the rent and upkeep at Roissy. Oh, I liked the idea of ritual and accoutrements; I liked the idea of the literary references. But what I think first intrigued me was the idea of beautiful people in expensive settings in distant places doing forbidden things that only made sense in that context. Roissy is a kind of literary idyll. Doing the same things in a tract home in Terre Haute is...well...part of a breaking crime story on cable news.

Paglia's review article never quite gets to the idea of a change in class markers for BDSM over the last thirty years or so, but it's there. In the age of FetLife and fairly open BDSM social organisations, in an era when BDSM clubs have "munches"--- potluck dinners, really ---there's been a kind of embourgeoisement of BDSM. I suspect that at FetLife  or other BDSM organisation dinners in Silicon Valley, people exchange business cards. There are BDSM workshops with credentialed facilitators. That's all so very American educated middle-class, so...respectable. Paglia argues in some kind of Golden Bough way that BDSM is about a kind of chthonic need for order and redemption and a contact with the animal self. But I think she's missing a sea-change in how BDSM presents itself, and what its class markers are.

I've always been a solitary type. I'm not sure my own attraction to BDSM could survive a potluck dinner or a workshop. A single young companion who shares a need to live inside books: that's more what I want for a partner for ritual games. It's always been ritual that I admire in so many things: the formal steps, the symbolic acts, the framework that carries you along step by step. And since I take no pleasure in things--- no physical pleasure, anyway ---that isn't mediated through books, I need a partner and a set of games that carry a literary pedigree.

So, then--- Interlibrary Loan is getting me a copy of "Playing on the Edge". With luck, it'll be like a very dark and powerful erotic tale with critical theory woven through it. Newmahr didn't go to gated chateaux outside Paris; I know that. But I'm hoping that her stories are stylish and dangerous and cleverly told.

There's a history to BDSM. An archaeology, in Foucault's terms. There's a literary heritage, too, and a set of aesthetics. I haven't much use for Camille Paglia, and I'd never trust her on aesthetics or style. I'm just as sure that I'd never quite find anything attractive in a version of BDSM that in that American middle-class way that has "facilitators" and workshops and justifies itself in psychological terms.  BDSM was always the intellectuals' fetish, Andrew Holleran once wrote, because it's something people come to through books. Whatever attraction I've had to it is about style and class markers and books. Whatever games I've played with lovely young companions, the point has always been about books and living inside books. I'm not sure at all that my attractions could survive in a word where the games were justified, or where they only about sex or the physical. And once companions can only and ever be girls who live through books and ideas rather than flesh and the concrete world around them.


ms.gylcerides wilde ride said...

It's really not about sex more about intellectual attraction. When I share a BDSM fantasy with a partner it's like a small test---can this person handle this? Do they know how to proceed? Finding a compatible partner is half the battle. It's also hard to get around the fact that certain fetishes are pathologized so it's hard to hard to be open about them without people thinking you are crazy or something is wrong with you. I read an article today that points to studies saying that those who have kinky sex are healthier then those who don't.

Mighty Fast Pig said...

There is indeed a history, an archaeology, of BDSM. I am documenting it on my blog at, and I'm working towards a book on the subject.

Interesting thoughts on BDSM becoming increasingly middle-class of late.