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.

16 thoughts on “High dudgeon in the dungeon

  1. Paglia is an ignorant, opinionated egoist, and that’s about as much as I can summon up the energy to say about her. You do a much better job of critiquing her dreadful “work” than I ever would. It says something rather unpleasant about the state of academia that she has tenure and back-to-back publishing contracts, though.

    • But Lisa misses the first and key point of Paglia’s essay, that BDSM has now become a subject and a ‘way of being’ amongst the ‘chattering classes’ and in the academic establishment. It’s not risque anymore. She’s bang on the money about that!

        • Oh. well I haven’t read the book and Paglia is often a bit loose with her referencing/acknowledging others! so point taken.

          I still love her though! I’d miss her if she wasn’t there.

      • Firstly, I’m not sure that BDSM is as bourgeois and tame as you suggest, not least because bourgeois and tame are questions of degree. Secondly, even if they were, why would it matter? the point is, Camille Paglia has written a weak review about good books because her opinions are, as always, based on the goal of self-aggrandisement rather than engagement with ideas.

        • I dont think that is fair on Paglia.

          She actually is not as ruthless ‘aggrandisement’ and ambitious as many academics.

          I saw her give a talk on women in Hitchcock films last year, she was marvellous!

          • With the greatest respect, if you’re a fan, you would say that. Unfortunately her work is at best sub-par. Its errors glare like the midday sun for all to see, there are times when she is out-and-out racist and sexist, and tries to excuse all of this by playing the populist anti-intellectual card. (And yes, I can flick through her back catalogue and give you a dozen examples of this without too much effort if you really want me to.) How the ever-loving fuck she was awarded a chair is a mystery to me, because however charismatic and talk-show-friendly she may be, she’s not that bright. But I’m glad you enjoyed her talk.

  2. So I really like what you have to say here, and reading this is refreshing in that I have a very limited facility with Foucault while you clearly engage with his thinking with much greater facility. I was a bit loose in talking about methodology, and your point about self-report is well-taken. I guess where I was going with that is this: neither Weiss nor Newmahr feel bound by the self-conceptions of their subjects, and Weiss in particular sort of takes the piss quite a bit. I don’t expect a scholar to ask us what we’re doing and say, “okay, here’s what they say.” But I am saying that you can only analyze what the data lets you see. Newmahr and Weiss can form an idea of what actual kinky people (those who participate in US major city public communities) do and talk about. They have the observations, not only of self-report but of a lot of actual behavior, and they can draw conclusions about it. Paglia is saying that the art and literature of BDSM is a better data set than the practitioners. Well, for some purposes, it is. If she were to say, for example, “Weiss and Newmahr have missed it, the really important thing is how the culture has reacted to this set of sexual practices and identities, here, let me walk you though the culture’s reaction” she would be working with the correct data. But she’s criticizing analysis of the actual people and practices by saying they failed to include the perspective not of the actual people and practices, but of the people reacting to the people and practices. It’s the difference between trying to explain the lives of race car drivers by studying the drivers and their lives and work, and by studying films and other media about racing — they are two related but very different things. If, on the other hand, Paglia wanted to analyze art and literature to talk about the actual people and practices, she could have worked from a data set that is how we document WIITWD and present ourselves: by us/for us erotica like Antoniou and Califia, Nitke’s photography, etc., some of which she is obviously familiar with. What she actually does is first ask the reader to make the long implicit leap that the way the wider culture sees and represents the people and practices _is_ “what it means.” And I think that’s just putting the rabbit in the hat.

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Thomas. All your points are well-taken. As a person trained in continental philosophy, I am incredibly allergic to the idea of confessional discourse as source of “truth” or “meaning” in much social sciences academia, but I can, of course, see the value of the kinds of self-representation you are describing. And I agree that if Paglia wanted to use artistic production as her data, she could have chosen a more appropriate corpus.

      • I think it would actually be terrific to see someone take as methodological approach the difference between a subculture’s representations of itself and outsiders’ representations of it. That’s probably true for any subculture, and it would certainly be enlightening anything to do with sexuality. Imagine a comparative media analysis of queer women’s erotica versus the mainstream genre of “lesbian” erotica, or queer women’s porn versus “girl on girl” mainstream porn. Of course those lines are a lot easier to draw on the sand table of theory than the messy terrain of the real world.

  3. CP made a name for herself with clever but blatant self promotion. Still, I have to fall in line and say that she’s immensely entertaining and thought provoking even when she’s being a pretentious windbag. Something I’m guilty of almost daily.
    Prof LD, I discovered your blog via a strange confluence of circumstances and seemingly random events, but damn if it’s not incredibly thought provoking.

      • Yikes! Talk about taking a long time to answer a simple question…
        I created a fictional character who got pulled into some people’s VR escapades. My initial interest came out of Terence McKenna’s enthusiasm for how VR was going to be a lot like a drug trip.
        I got a lot of that, but my natural curiosity led me into a squicky maelstrom of people’s uninhibited libidinous online fantasies that got me interested in these cultures, how widespread they actually are and what it all might mean, ontologically speaking.

  4. Pingback: Why I write about sex and work and sex work. – Alice in Chainz

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