Thinking [about] kink.

What follows are my poorly organized thoughts on Catherine Scott’s Thinking Kink. I enjoyed the book immensely, but I also took issue with a number of passages.


At various points in the book, Scott’s analysis stops short of its potential and is replaced by frustration (at best) or subtle manipulation of the reader (at worst).

While discussing music videos in her introduction, for instance:

It saddens me that in a medium with such potential for originality, shaking female buttocks still seems to constitute the majority of what music video producers think viewers want to see. (6)

I doubt the racist undertones of this passage are intentional; elsewhere in her book, Scott is cognizant of racism in kink culture. But “shaking female buttocks” is quite obviously a reference to black women and twerking. Intentional or otherwise, her observation relies on a racist trope, and comes off as unexamined white discomfort with black women’s self-expression. The passage ostensibly points the finger at unimaginative producers (fair enough), but black women’s sexual and artistic agency becomes collateral damage. In later chapters, Scott criticizes this exact phenomenon.

Later (55-56), Scott celebrates Madonna as an empowered, authoritative figure whose music videos are sex-positive, kink-positive, and woman-centred. Meanwhile, she dismisses Rihanna’s video for “S&M” as a tasteless gimmick. Scott discusses Madonna’s creative control at length, but never Rihanna’s creative agency– only that of her director.

Madonna’s and Rihanna’s videos approach BDSM from different angles, and carry different messages as a result, but that contrast can only be discussed equitably by beginning with a level playing field. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, we should assume that both of these powerful, talented women have a say in the production of their music videos. Scott makes this point in a later chapter, but without referencing or analyzing her earlier examples:

To assume Ciara was merely told what to do by white men in suits when she walked into a studio betrays a perception of black women far more racist or sexist than any scenes of white male top / black female sub race play. (188-89)

As in the introduction, some kind of unexamined frustration seems to suspend analysis at an awkward mid-point. Indeed, it is racist to assume a black pop star has no creative control. And yes, it would be racist to assume a biracial couple’s private BDSM play is fundamentally oppressive or racist. But it is also casually racist to grant BDSM an unproblematic ethical victory in this situation. I take the author’s point about privacy and agency, but BDSM has a race problem. As does the music industry. As does white, western culture on the whole. There is little to be gained by carefully ranking the “slightly more racist” and “slightly less racist.” Such an exercise is more likely to be a potential distraction from the work of attending to racism, organizing against it, and so on.

I looked forward to Scott’s chapter on race and BDSM because racism is a problem for the scene that warrants pointed critique, and because I hoped Scott would clarify some of the puzzling and potentially problematic statements mentioned above. Unfortunately, the chapter occasionally succumbs to the defensive tone of so much writing by white people about racism (my own included, no doubt):

Why should we worry that someone is going to use this sculpture as an excuse for sexism or racism, unless we are already looking to do so ourselves? (192)

Why? Well:

  • Because we are all swimming in the same racist, sexist water.
  • Because it is not racist to notice racism or attempt to prevent racism. Rather, these are explicitly anti-racist activities.
  • Because colour blindness has gotten us nowhere. (I’m grateful that this point– made by countless racialized people for many years– is finally gaining traction. I hope this is a fair answer to the author’s implied rhetorical question about increased cultural / discursive sensitivity in present day, versus 25-30 years ago.)

The author goes on to say that she thinks Grace Jones avoids some forms of criticism due to her physical power/presence. But Jones’ unique station cannot be reduced to her physicality. Really, her physicality simply changes the focus of the criticism leveled against her.

Jones makes her artistic and creative agency jarringly clear. That approach is part of her aesthetic. Women performers with other [no less valid] aesthetic approaches and quieter/softer personalities will not be given the same benefit of the doubt. It becomes that much easier to make sexist assumptions about their lack of creativity or decisiveness, however false– and especially if they are non-white.

In her introduction to her chapter on racism and BDSM, Scott shares an anecdote from her work with Bitch magazine. She was asked by her editors to preface her blog post on race and BDSM with a note about her race and white privilege:

I found it odd the way Bitch only wanted me to apologize for this in one particular instance, and irritating that the commenter hadn’t bothered to see my post in the context of a holistic exploration of kink. (181)

A disclaimer or an acknowledgement isn’t tantamount to an apology. Conflating the two betrays immense unexamined privilege.

Perhaps the editors should have asked the writer to be more upfront about her identity and social position throughout the series. Perhaps that would have benefited people with other marginalized or minority identities who participate in the scene, or challenged a few more individuals with various types of privilege to reflect on their socioeconomic status.

I find myself wishing that Scott had used the chapter as a vehicle for coming to terms with the singularity of racism and the subtle power of racist discourse, especially in countries marked by the transatlantic industrial slave trade. The singular significance of racism is particularly important to understand in the US context, due to the role of cotton plantations and slave labour in the country’s wealth, power, and mythology. But it is likewise relevant throughout the Americas, as well as in the UK– where Scott is from.

By singularity, I mean that there is no equivalent to racism and the history of racially justified industrial slavery. Well-intended white people often approach racism bewildered and wringing their hands, because white supremacy and racism are so powerful and so seductive that we often cannot see them clearly. The author’s irritation at her editors’ and readers’ attempt to cut through the fog show the extent to which she is mired in it as well.

I was heartened to see the extent to which the author championed black participants as the appropriate arbiters and brokers of their own fantasies (to hell with white discomfort), but her opening anecdote about this disclaimer reveals Scott’s lingering discomfort. Her discomfort is understandable, racism is huge, brutal, and inhumane. But it is also something that white people everywhere must practice confronting if we are to be of any use at all to the cause of anti-racism.


Now, a few poorly articulated thoughts on sex positivity and the male gaze:

“I’m a goddess to my slaves; I wouldn’t stoop to having sex with them.” (17)

These are the words of a pro domme. Scott uses this domme’s comments to illustrate the [fairly common, somewhat complicated] assumption that being physically intimate with a man is always a kind of surrender– always some degree of power relinquished.

But I do not see a domme threatened by the possibility of losing power through touch or embrace. I read this comment as a window into the type of scenes she likes to run with her subs: a comment on her status, their [willing] humiliation, their worship of her.

A few paragraphs later, Scott acknowledges that the top/bottom dynamic is more of a mutual exchange than it appears to be, but she extends this analysis only to aesthetics; she doe not include physical distance in her analysis.

And even in the aesthetic context, Scott’s analysis stops short of reflexivity. Describing a domme:

Her clothes still seem intended for the pleasure of the male voyeur. (23)

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the male gaze is our assumption that for a woman, it is utterly inescapable; that all her aesthetic choices must pass through it and be subject to it; that she can’t possibly enjoy traditionally feminine styles or fetish ware’ that by wearing anything that straight or bi men happen to find attractive, a domme cannot possibly be exercising her autonomy, or domination over her own physical self; she must be deliberately appealing to her male submissives through her aesthetic choices.

Simply by existing, lesbian femmes do an efficient job of toppling these assumptions about the infinite reach of the male gaze. We all live in the shadow of patriarchy and sexism; so, too, are we complex subjects.

Later in the book, I continued to have trouble with the author’s use of the male gaze. Scott continues to paint any aesthetics that happen to resemble the feminine ideals of the patriarchal status quo as of / for / serving the patriarchal status quo. This erases the sexual and aesthetic agency of the women making these apparel and style choices.

Later still, Scott states quite clearly that “femme-phobia is not a solution to the erasure of butch women” (153). True, but neither is “femme” a rough equivalent to “the male gaze.” Each may culturally inform the other, but neither completely relies on the other for its cultural significance.

Further, feminine /= femme. Sexual and gender minorities, especially lesbians, should continue to have some stewardship over this term, since it originates in their communities. Analytical convenience is not an excuse for lesbian erasure.


Chapter 6 makes a number of strong points regarding objectification and consent:

The dogma that all instances of objectification are wrong and misogynistic appears to demand that sexual desire always be cerebral, profound, and pure. In her essay “A Cock of One’s Own: Getting a Firm Grip on Feminist Sexual power,” Sarah Smith bemoans the idea “that there must be a way to have sex that is ‘feminist,'” feeling that it results in a “laundry list of must-nots that would hold our libidos hostage.” (113)

The language of choice will only take any of us so far, when we are aware that a level playing field (pun perhaps intended) is impossible to find in a society still a long way from dismantling the hierarchy that places the straight, white, cisgender male at the top. As “Paul,” a white male top said to Margot Weiss, “I think people in the scene are much too fast to… say ‘Well, you know as long as everybody consents… then it’s all OK….’ I think it’s just crazy for people to try and pretend that sexuality is this magical realm that is somehow natural and is unaffected by anything social, economic, or political.” The neoliberal belief that choice renders any scenario unproblematic often functions to reinforce a status quo which keeps the privileged in their position. (121)

The above quotations nicely reinforce the discussion of consent from Chapter 5:

Taking the line that the absence of a safe word = blanket consent seemed unnervingly close to the standard excuse for vanilla sexual coercion, i.e., the belief that the absence of a no = a yes. In her essay “Beyond Yes or No: Consent as Sexual Process,” Rachel Kramer Bussel writes, “It’s not enough to just assume that if she (or he) doesn’t say no, they want it…. The burden is not on the woman to say no, but on the person pursuing the sexual act to get an active yes.” Bussell was referring to the tiresome concept of “grey rape,” where sexual violence is excused via the apparent failure of the victim to make their resistance clear, but her rebuttal applies to BDSM too. (91)

Choice is a problematic word in this book. But how could it not be? A number of people continue to believe that kink is coercion, full stop. And even in this book, even for the sake of defending both women and safe/consensual BDSM, choice is re-formed and re-framed according to the needs of the argument in question.

Choice is complicated by racism, capitalism, sexism– but not extinguished. Scott criticizes the idea that ‘choice is unassailable’ as a slippery neoliberal construct (indeed!). But she resurrects that same idea of unassailable choice to excuse complicity, especially re: racism. In a number of instances, Scott suggests (without intending to do so, ironically) that the only conscious, malicious racism warrants critique– despite the fact that much racism is unconscious and / or systemic.


On 25, the author calls Stalinism a type of fascism. No, it’s not. That’s impossible, actually.


And on p. 193, the author mixes up Uncle Sam and Uncle Tom. (Unpropitious, in a book that devotes so much space to discussing racism.)


One last thing: and this one’s on the publisher, not the author. This is one of the most poorly proofed, typo-riddled books I’ve ever read.

 

The particulars of your pleasure and your consolation.

My local classic hits station plays a ’70s Top 40 countdown show Sunday mornings. Any time my partner and I listen to an episode, we have the same reaction: Good grief, the melodrama, the schmaltz! It’s one sappy ballad after another — a phenomenon that spans genres. Pop & rock ballads, disco ballads, soul ballads, girded by the DJ’s personalized dedications to long-lost loves and ailing grandparents. No wonder punk had to happen, my partner said one day. All I did was nod in agreement.

Mitchell Morris’ The Persistence of Sentiment: Display and Feeling in Popular Music of the 1970s is helping to alleviate my bafflement and see 1970s pop in a new light — and that’s just the introduction. The section “Kitsch, or the Economically Abject” (22-29) introduces social change (& arguably social justice) as a dominant force that shaped the 1970s pop aesthetic, and discusses the role that privilege and power play in the critical dismissal (mea culpa) of these popular forms.

First, he unpacks kitsch to ensure his readers are on the same page:

We think of the kitsch artifact as “too pretty”; it has been described as “beauty with the ugly taken out.” The world it portrays has only positive moments, and the glib idealization of the content represented through the object allow those of us who appreciate the object to pretend that everything is, simply, “nice.” (23)

Morris then narrows in on the way kitsch is deployed (or carelessly lobbed) within rock-centric music criticism:

[A music writer critical of Barry Manilow for his safe, soothing, nostalgic music] is devoted to pop music ideals of high seriousness, so he cannot entertain the possibility that “safe” might be a worthwhile musical quality in some situations, for some audiences. (23)

So what’s the opposite of safe, in musical terms? What makes “safe” pejorative? For a bit of perspective on this, Morris widens his frame to discuss mass production and originality (though, strangely [to me], without referring to Walter Benjamin):

It is worth noting that the frameworks within which these notions of kitsch can function are profoundly structured by the specific problems of modernity, especially the troublesome centrality of mass production and conventionality. If we suppose that “high art” is that which is one-of-a-kind and embodies some kind of extraordinary labour (such as talent) that is to be apprehended in an aesthetically fastidious manner, then the proliferation of inexpensive copies of such high art is kitsch. (24)

The philosophy of rock holds that [prescribed types of] originality = challenging = not safe = rebellious = good. So, as far as these critics are concerned, safety & salve are anathema to good music. Safety is bad because originality is good, and originality is not safe. (Feeling dizzy yet?) It’s at this point in Morris’ intro that I began to reflect on how I may be complicit in — and indeed perpetuate — this narrow, circuitous critical lens; I carry a bit of this challenging originality = good ethos into my evaluation of all the musical genres I enjoy.

Rock and its various descendants are supposed to be the eternal, earnest cri de coeur of disenfranchised youth, but of course, by the 1970s, rock had become hugely expensive to produce and promote. Enter the socioeconomic angle, stage left:

Why would someone buy a copy, though? The blindingly obvious answer would be that they like the object but cannot afford the original. The modernist detestation of kitsch depends upon an enormous investment in the concepts of originality, difficulty, and truth, to be sure. But since not everyone can afford the same kinds or degrees of investment, questions of class cannot be disentangled from these values. (24)

By the 1970s, originality became a mighty costly aim in rock. This wasn’t the decade that spawned prog rock by accident:

With music, the problem of original versus copy is also articulated through technological developments of modernism. [A] significant aspect of the threat comes from the possibility of a relentlessly leveling superabundance. (24)

The music industry in the 1970s was expensive, but utterly huge all the same, in terms of pervasiveness: radio, records, concerts, you name it. With hugely profitable music conglomerates looking to deploy lush production and an endless stream of technically talented musicians in order to cash in on their version of the next big thing (whatever that happened to be)… whither the scrappy, the rebellious, the hardscrabble, the unencumbered original?

[Kitsch] rapidly became domesticated for widespread use by writers who were less interested in condemning popular culture wholesale than in making qualitative distinctions among its materials. (25)

This is where the circuitous original = rebellious = good critical lens of rock winds itself literally in knots, because by and large, it wasn’t really willing to look outward to other genres, or when it did, it did so without sufficiently reading for context. Other types of fans want & need other types of things (besides originality / rebellion & the resulting moral superiority) from their preferred music:

Perhaps this set of values works well enough when dealing with rock musicians and their audiences. But what of artists and audiences for whom music serves other purposes? Most of the artists I discuss came from or performed on behalf of audiences who occupied marginal social positions before the 1970s: African Americans; women; gay men and lesbians; poor; mostly rural (and especially southern) white people. The rock paradigm has rarely served such groups well because they historically have found authenticity too expensive to maintain and, in any case, lived lives in which there were perhaps greater need of consolation. But it is the peculiar property of the 1970s as a historical decade that such groups began to think of themselves as able to insist that their social positions be renegotiated. (25)

Whew.

See, there’s the other thing about rock: it was born from poor black folks’ blues tradition and poor white folks’ country & folk, but it was very quickly claimed by middle-class white guys. And for the most part, in their quest for originality and rebellion, they’d do anything but actually venture off this (ironically very safe!) territory they’d claimed for themselves. It’s probably just as well, as that left other genres open to the desires, needs, and tastes of other demographics. And when did many marginalized groups’ struggles for agency and rights come to bear fruit simultaneously? Why, in the 1970s, of course:

What matters in the context of kitsch is that all these groups favoured music that was not a part of rock. They liked older styles. Softer styles. More sentimental styles. (26)

I have often said, “I want music to leave me feeling damaged.” How safe I must be, really, to have it as a personal goal to seek out music that is emotionally devastating & unsettling. This same music offers me catharsis and empathy in trying times, but those difficulties are still the difficulties of a middle-income white woman raised to hold up rock’s originality imperative as a kind of scripture.

Whew.

I wasn’t surprised to see Morris pull in good ol’ Adorno, whose views on music I recall resenting in school:

Kitsch offers consolation, not so as to change anything but to make the anything of the here and now slightly more tolerable. (Adorno, qtd. in Morris 28)

My first reaction to that Adorno quotation was to defend Morris’ aforementioned marginalized demographics, the ones that began to command a bit more attention from the music industry in the 1970s. But then the clouds parted: this only looks to be the kin of  rock’s originality ethos / criticism — it ain’t. Adorno probably would have spun the mirror around on rock critics who deigned to make discursive moves similar to his own. Who do you think you are, safe within your culturally sanctioned decades-old temple of guitars, drum kits, and power chords, to point to disco and cry “kitsch”? Bit the pot calling the kettle black, ain’t it?

Morris beat me to it, of course, with eloquence and empathy for the material & social realities of the marginalized demographics whose tastes come to the fore in 1970s Top 40:

Surely Adorno thought that it is necessary to insist upon such an ascetic goal, however, because musical pleasure seems, if not self-evident, at least more immediate. But if you occupy a social position in which the shape and the very nature of pleasure (in consequence, desire– and in consequence, agency) are precisely what is in question, then the particulars of your pleasure and your consolation are not trivial at all. (29)

No wonder punk had to happen, right? Not so fast. For all the marvelously sardonic, saucy gifts that punk and its descendants have bestowed on popular music since the late 1970s, we can’t pretend that its popularity was not, to some extent, the means by which white guys — a more politically powerful demographic than disco’s fanbase, certainly — could reclaim the narrative of popular music. Like rock before it, punk was born of a rebellious ethos and very quickly co-opted to re-entrench the status quo.

It is the rare introduction that leaves me feeling primed to take on a new and challenging scholarly text in a field I have never studied. Morris succeeds here in spades.

Whew.

Full-blooded acknowledgement.

Where the hell was this idea when I was dropping out of an MA in the humanities?

For [Dave] Hickey, writing near the beginning of the nineties, only a full-blooded acknowledgement of the pleasure and sociality that intersect in disputatious experiences of beauty could rescue the academic art world from its arid purism. (2)

From Mitchell Morris’ The Persistence of Sentiment.