High dudgeon in the dungeon

So, Camille Paglia wrote a piece reviewing three anthropological works about BDSM: Margot Weiss’s Techniques of Pleasure (2011), Staci Newmahr’s Playing on the Edge (2011), and Danielle Lindemann’s Dominatrix (2012). I know all of these books and, while I may not agree with every point their respective authors make, I respect them. I’ve referenced Newmahr’s work in my own writing. I reviewed Lindemann’s book recently in the Times Higher Education* and my review of Weiss’s title should appear soon in New Formations.

Paglia’s position boils down to the following: gender studies methodology, which she summarises as an “insular dogma with its own priesthood and god (Michel Foucault),” fails these academic writers. By trying to make their empirical observations fit the orthodoxy, they do not do justice to the complexity of the material they find.  But boiling something down never yields an accurate enough account of it. It ignores the grittiness of all the constituent bits that went to make up the reduction. And, in this case, those “bits” are nothing more than nuggets of ad hominem vilification and a fair quantity of bile leveled against both the poor, misguided authors, forced by “political correctness” and evil academic orthodoxy to “bang the drum of a pretentious theorizing,” and Judith Butler, whose oft-quoted status in gender studies texts Paglia seems to feel is monstrously unfair. (Presumably she should be the default go-to authority?)

Many of Paglia’s critiques of the continental theorists she abhors are over-simplifications or instances of inaccuracy too. “Foucauldian analysis is based on Saussurean linguistics,” she writes. In fact Saussure is only one of numerous thinkers Foucault reacts to — and against — mainly in his earlier work. His later work on the history of sexuality, which Butler adapts, is in fact much more indebted to Nietzsche’s critique of historical method.  (And Foucault borrows from and builds on Nietzsche, rather than attempting “to rival” him, as Paglia bizarrely suggests later in her article.) Too, Paglia insists that the context of twenty-first-century late capitalism is a red herring  in trying to understand contemporary  sexual subcultural practices. “Poststructuralism is myopically obsessed with modern bourgeois society,” Paglia states. “It is hopelessly ignorant of prehistoric or agrarian cultures, where tribal rituals monitored and invoked the primitive forces of nature.” So, for her, the meanings of eroticized acts and practices are not dependent upon the historical and situational contexts they are located in, but are transcendental, ahistorical, spiritual experiences? This kind of  ahistoricism is wholly incompatible with the way I understand human subjectivity and communities as shaped by cultural change. But it also sits strangely in an article that elsewhere decries poststructuralism for paying insufficient attention to the material reality of history.

Over at Yes Means Yes, Thomas responded with an impassioned piece opposing Paglia’s article, which I enjoyed reading enormously. He writes: “Come again, Camille?  Am I to understand that everything you’ve concluded about us … no, let me personalize it. Everything you’ve concluded about ME and how I practice MY sexuality and what it means to ME, you’ve concluded without actually talking to any of us, or watching us do what it is that we do?”  His position, however, is not my position. I am firmly in the Foucauldian tradition of being suspicious of confessional discourse and the value of self-disclosure. I have never bought into the idea that drawing on people’s reports of their individual experience stamps research with a mark of authenticity. This idea presupposes subjects capable of transparently reproducing absolute truth in discourse. It is a model of communication which can too easily discount the role of cultural forces and influences on individuals, the power disparity between interviewer and interviewee, the inaccuracy of memory, the desire we have to represent the best versions of ourselves, and the workings of the unconscious.

Moreover, anthropologically studying non-normative sexual subcultures and practitioners isn’t my own particular academic bag either. I have devoted my more recent years to scrutinizing instead the norm, or more precisely normative reactions to the perceived “abnormal.” What interests me is not getting to the heart of “the truth of the BDSM experience” (or of any sexual experience), but rather asking why — in the service of whose interests — certain types of sexual practice and subject are stigmatized, pathologized, or disproportionately prodded to reveal truths. Forensically dissecting the rectitude of mainstream discourses is my own, self-appointed sex-critical task. And yet, somehow, the fact that I do not do quite the same kind of work as Weiss, Newmahr and Lindemann does not mean that I feel compelled to argue in public that they are misguided dupes. I respect a number of disciplinary and methodological principles and practices that diverge from those I use myself. I may engage in debate on points of critical and methodological difference, but I refrain from accusing academic peers of suffering from brainwashing and bad faith.  And I wonder why everyone, especially well-known, senior figures, with prominent public platforms, cannot exercise the same kind of ethical restraint.

*My review contains an editorial inaccuracy. Newmahr’s fieldwork was not carried out in San Francisco.

Some thoughts on words and power, prompted by recent debates in print and social media

“Words – so innocent and powerless as they are, […] how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.” ~ Nathaniel Hawthorne

Writing is an inherently ethically charged act. Words are never neutral. Each time we exercise the force of our polemic and employ rhetoric to argue, persuade, or provoke, we have a responsibility to ask ourselves: what are the effects of our words likely to be, and who will be served by them? Of course there can be unintended outcomes. People read and interpret differently. Someone will always be offended. The meaning of words does not reside wholly with their producer. And yet, some effects are wholly predictable, aren’t they?

It is all too easy to use words against the marginalized and vulnerable (even if we occupy the position of the marginalized and vulnerable ourselves). The fact is that we all internalize the prejudices of the world in which we live. Slurs can be unthinkingly repeated by those of us who would rationally challenge the beliefs upon which they rest.* But the effects of slurs, whether intended or not, whether explicitly and maliciously written or carelessly and casually insinuated, can only be to perpetuate the status quo. Unless we are really happy with the system in which we live—a late-capitalistic hetero-patriarchy—we might want to think very carefully about any words we put out into the world that can have the net effect of shoring it up while pitting potential allies in discontent against each other. Context matters too. When a profit-making publication is paying a person to produce words, and when more money will be made out of perceived outrages committed, the onus on the critical writer to act ethically and deliver a message of social commentary without repeating society’s bigotry is all the more urgent. Yet even on our own blogs, on Twitter, in the free media that is the World Wide Web, how much more efficacious activism would be if we applied these ethical considerations to all our words.

Too often, sight of a potential common political goal is lost. Groups, self-defining along the lines of identity politics, engage in the much-discussed “oppression Olympics”, misdirecting righteous anger at each other rather than at the systems that produce and maintain the conditions of their shared oppression. A concerted effort on the part of a marginalized group, motivated by the passion of injustice felt, can be tremendously potent and have effects that are devastating. But what a waste of effort if such resistant, transformative zeal is misdirected, not at the institutions that perpetuate iniquity, but rather at a member of another group also urging change but using unwise words carelessly or angrily.

Writers interested in social justice need to think about strategies for promoting resistance and commonality. We need to avoid further dividing those who share an investment in challenging normativity, but whose approaches issue from (at once entrenched and precarious) exclusionary identitarian positions. A question to ask ourselves, before putting down words on paper or a screen, has to be: am I speaking truth to power or am I attacking those who are already disadvantaged by the system? This is not a matter of “political correctness”. It is, rather, both an expedient political strategy and a commitment to the ethic of avoiding causing harm to others. For, make no mistake, words can do harm.

*In cases where we are unintentional mouthpieces for a bigotry we do not believe in, but that is so prevalent in our culture that we soak in it and unwittingly reproduce it, we can respond responsibly and graciously when criticized. And we can learn from such criticisms in order to become better writers and readers. I try to do this. I will go on trying to do this.