Saturday, July 4, 2015

BDSM and Intimacy

Gloria Brame, PhD, author of Different Loving, an excellent guide to the world of kink

This post was inspired by Gloria Brame’s request on Facebook for stories from her friends about emotional intimacy in BDSM relationships.  She asked for examples and in no time at all she had collected many personal testimonials to the intimacy of BDSM.  Clearly there are lots of these and that intimacy can be particularly intense in kinky relationships.  The impossibility of even establishing how many people are in kink organizations, vs independently pursuing kinky relationships vs pursuing vanilla relationships makes it impossible to issue pronouncements about whether kinky intimate relationships are more or less prevalent than vanilla ones, but a few things can be said about how such relationships are perceived that might explain why there is conventional thinking that kink and intimacy are somehow antagonistic concepts.  After all, why should Dr. Brame bother to ask?  Somewhere in the zeitgeist is the idea that kinky relationships may be hot and dirty, but are they intimate?  Conventional thinking suggests they might not be.  Where did that idea come from?

First is the transgressive strategy of kinksters themselves to describe sex as a higher priority in kinky life than in vanilla.  And on the face of it, this makes a kind of sense.  Conventionals hearing this are likely to believe that sex for its own sake is a higher priority for the kinky than for themselves.  This practice of staring down stigma for being ‘too sexy’ is easy for the fearful to believe.  And this is particularly true for those who only know BDSM from the face it shows on Porn Hub, where many go for a quick jerk off to spend as little time thinking about their shame as possible.  Aside from the obvious additional burdens that those pursuing alternate lifestyles undertake from the social stigma surrounding them, there just isn’t much decent data to suggest that kinky folk value sexuality more than conventional folk do.

The entire apparatus of stigmatizing variant sexuality certainly does not make sacrosanct ideas like emotional intimacy seem to fit the kinky sexual script.  After all, by various turns kinks are crazy, too sexy, too aggressive, and too emotional; only pursued by the selfish, by the addicted and by under-socialized men.  For years mental health professionals hypothesized that only men were kinky, leaving everyone puzzled as to where all the men found anyone to be kinky with!  Furthermore, despite the fact that sex is in conversation all the time ,and is constantly used to titillate and to sell all manner of goods and services imaginable, even this sexual conversation is considered suspect, illegitimate, and not subject of serious study, education, or thoughtful deconstruction.  We can talk about sex, but the consequence of that stigmatization is that we must cop to doing something shameful and selfish at the same time, and in this manner romantic concepts like intimacy are kept shinny and clean, and transgressive sexual ideas don’t stick to intimacy in the popular discourse.  Our professional career might remain unsullied if we claim to study intimacy, but suffer if we rally to the banner of sexuality.

Its obviously Batman!


So it is easy to imagine we know that kinky sex isn’t very intimate even when we seldom discuss and never observe how intimate sex is outside our own bedrooms.  The mere raising of this topic is treated like the old Rorschach inkblot test, where the patient is invited to project anything that comes to mind on the ambiguous social stimulus.  We imagine we know, and use that framework to defend what we are perceiving as if it is an obvious truth.  Conventional thinking reveals the next door neighbors, who also appear conventional, to be very intimate, even though we have no real idea what goes on in their bedroom, while we ‘know’ the kinky aren’t very intimate, even though we are only fantasizing about what goes on in their dungeons.  It’s obvious really!  Which sounds more emotionally intimate to you; a bedroom, where you relax all vigilance and fall into a trusting sleep; or a dungeon, where all manner of dark and coercive things happen?

In queer studies, there is a long discourse about internalized homophobia:   the near impossibility that, after years of having been taught by the privileged to regard our sexuality as inferior, we are afraid of our own sexual identifications.  We have become identified with the opinions of some oppressor class.  This is an excellent example of just how insidiously Foucault’s concept of social control really works.  Only rarely can you round up specific examples of institutional oppressors preaching intolerance, while we internalize the intolerant messages ourselves.  So kinky and vanilla alike struggle against the tendency to define variant sexual expression as less intimate, and make such labelling part of our intimate histories which we only rarely share with others.  Our own shame becomes an obstacle to elevating those intimate experiences we have.  And when we share them, part of that intimacy is sharing shame and fear that come from the discoveries of our own desire.  We seek experiences that are carefully crafted to play with those fears just enough that we might overcome them, rescuing positive feelings of self from encounters with potential humiliation and judgment.  Intimate experience is achieved in the face of social shame, but also with its help imbedded in the context. 

Of course, the goal of kink is not always intimacy.  Sometimes it is intensity, mastering risk, escape from unwanted feelings, even escape from intimacy itself that is sought.  Esther Perel has shown how often we become willing to betray the intimacy of our closest relationships, which have in fact become not so very intimate because their routine satisfactions have become insufficiently comforting in the face of other fears:  loss of youth, of novelty, loss of the credibility of our fantasies that we might have more adventure and eroticism in our intimate lives.  These plagues fall upon the vanilla and the kinky alike. Kink sometimes functions in precisely as these affairs do.  We do not want to sully our most intimate relationship with dark and dirtier desires that turn us on.  We would rather do them with a pro dome or prostitute or discard-able partner who, having served as vessel to contain our unclean aggressive desires, can be discarded and carry away a part of our stigma.  We are keeping our intimacy clean through human sacrifice.  This can make for fun roll play, but unsafe intimacy.

Russell Stambaugh, blogger, Esther Perel, author, and Susan Wright NCSF spokesperson at AASECT 47th Annual Conference in Minneapolis


Perhaps you can think of ways that kink, like affairs, are both ways of turning away from some intimacies, and an attempt to find different ones.  For anyone who chooses to protect a primary partner from the painful risks of discussing dissatisfaction in an otherwise good relationship, is bidding to find new satisfactions for those concealed desires in a new relationship.  If a partner can be found who will accept those desires and share their eroticism, there is an excellent chance that will be experienced as intimacy.  This is why affairs persist.  Not only can partners be found, but needs might be met and concealed aspects of the self might feel accepted.  So can it be with kink. 

As much as we idealize intimacy and hold it aloft as a kind of cleanser for the dirtier aspects of sex, intimacy is not always desired in sexual relationships.  As pointed out above, this is not just a response to stigma from without but from our own judgments.  The games of creating a double life and pulling off a seductions have an allure of their own sometimes.  Can I make him like me?  Can I meet her needs?  Isn’t it fun to be in a world that is centered on sex and attraction and free of the quotidian demands of insurance, mortgage payments and housework?  We therapists are inclined to judge double lives on their obvious splitting of authenticity from the primary relationship.  But it is also interesting to ask about the risks of stripping the context of a sexual relationship from the mundane aspects of ordinary relationships.  How much intimacy can you have when you are preferring to play pirates or furries or video game characters who have highly circumscribed lives in the first place?  While it is easy to dismiss role paly as not intimate, we do confer that as a compliment to movies and stage productions in which actors, clearly playing scripted roles, convey ‘intimate’ performances.  The argument can and has been made that releasing one’s inner pirate constitutes an honest, insightful and more intimate and authentic self, despite one’s lack of experience executing letters of marque on the 17th century high seas.  Good intimacy, perhaps, but probably not very good maritime leadership.  Real world pirate lives made ‘nasty, brutish and short’ look good, and careers were often brief and violent, and only rarely touched by erotic self-fulfillment.   The social construction of authenticity is complicated.

But the truths of vanilla and kinky relationships alike is that intimacy is not always desired in our fantasies of great sex. Peggy Kleinplatz and Dana Menard asked this question.in their report Components of Optimal Sexual Experiences in The Encyclopedia of Quality of Life and Well-Being Research (2014) pp 1148-52.  Indeed the concept sexual peak sexual experiences as interpreted by a mostly middle aged sample of respondents of highly mixed orientations, and intimacy was not the most common factor they identified, but it did make the list of attributes of sexually experienced people’s ideas about their peak sexual experiences.  According to the researchers codings of peak sexual experiences, the following factors, listed here in order of greatest to least frequently mentioned, were identified:
Being present, focused and embodied in the moment.
Feeling connected, aligned, and in synch with partner(s)
Deep sexual and erotic intimacy.
Extraordinary connection and heightened empathy.
Feeling authentic, genuine, uninhibited and transparent.
Feelings of transcendence, bliss, peace, transformation and healing.
Feelings of exploration, adventure, interpersonal risk-taking and fun.
Feelings of vulnerability and surrender.

Not listed, but potentially in play are: mastering of various fears and prior losses, avoidance of negative feelings, statements about social elevation of peak personal performance, changes in social status, material benefits of sexual relations, wished for conception, personal safety and freedom from disease and many other feelings that might attend successful sexual intercourse.  We may do sex for these reasons, but we do not describe peak experience very often in such terms.
Even in less extraordinary kinky experiences, intimacy may be ardently desired and achieved.  Finding someone who is excited by one’s own outlier excitement can feel intensely validating and intimate.  Submissives desire ardent and unselfish tops who can know just how far to push them.  Tops desire submissives who are genuinely eager to serve.  Finding someone who compliments your desire after a long search feels like intimacy.  Everyone suffers that acute pangs of broken attachment, but it is commonly understood how painful the loss of one’s first great BDSM attachment is.  Do these sufferings reflect special intimacy?  Often the answer is yes.  We may not be able to make evidence-based arguments about what kinds of sexual behaviors hold out the easiest promise of emotional intimacy, but stories of intimacy abound across the wide spectrum of sexual variation even as we struggle to find measures with which to compare them.


Resisting the stigmatization of sexuality means confronting the fact that intimacy does not redeem sexual discourse, and recognizing that intimacy may not even be a very important dimension of many encounters, none the less requires recognition that intimacy is a very important dimension of many encounters, is valued by many of the kinky and conventional alike, and is an important part of many successful kinky encounters.  Intimacy is important in therapy, but it is not the sole proper goal of sexual intercourse, and may be as common on the edge as it is in the mainstream.   And an important therapeutic take away in these discussions is not just how much intimacy the partners wish to have, but questions about what intimacy is desired.  Is intimacy about acceptance, about shared risk, about the yearned for perfect match between desire and action?  Or is it about acceptance of loss, surrender, or giving the perfect emotional gift?  Like sexuality itself, intimacy is a great deal more varied in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophies, Horatio!  And more common than we imagine, as well.

Monday, June 22, 2015

50 Shades of... Reform?

What if I told you that a marginalized genre fiction writer penned an indifferent serialized story that became an overnight best seller and helped change the world, you would probably think I was hyperbolizing the achievements of the 50 Shades series author E. L. James.   That fan fiction is its own ghetto, and romance novels are primarily a marginalized female genre would be easy to concede.  The critical response to 50 Shade of Grey has been indifferent at best and often scathing.  There is no arguing with the huge numbers (over 125 million copies sold in various formats) James has put up in an ever shrinking literary market where, according to Pew Research, less than half of Americans will read 12 books for pleasure in the next year.  That the commercial success of the 50 Shades series might change the social acceptance of kink might seem a stretch.  But I am not talking about E L James, or at least, not only about James.  In 1851-2, a very similar feat was accomplished by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)

In the early part of the 19th century American Protestantism underwent a great renaissance, the Great Awakening, with a rise in evangelism, many new denominations, and increased church attendance.  This revolution was not just about new doctrine, but also social reform movements.  Chief among these were abolitionism, and temperance.  Ironically, many of the present debates about hypersexuality and ‘sex addiction’ can be traced to religious social activism that began at this time, but this essay will focus on the pivotal work of the abolition movement, Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.


Lyman Beecher (1775-1863)  Started The American Temperance Society,
and ran Lane Theological Seminary until it failed in 1852

Harriet Beecher Stowe was the daughter of a Lyman Beecher, the 7th of his 13 children several of which went on to become influential clergy.  He was the founder of the early temperance movement and a divisive figure in Protestantism, eventually splitting the Presbyterian Church.  In the 1830’s he moved west from Connecticut to Lane Theological Seminary near Cincinnati, then a thriving bastion of the westward expansion.  His daughter would spend many of her developing years at Lane Seminary educated to typically male standards prevailing there, and eventually became a prolific writer.  From her location right on the Ohio River, and through her family’s work in a seminary right at the border between the North and South, Harriet was able to learn of the realities of slavery. 

Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887), Stowe's brother.   Ardent abolitionist, unionist, and womanizer, he later ran afoul of Victoria Woodhull leading to a hugely publicized adultery trial.

When the War Between the States began, Kentucky would not actually join the Confederacy, and from the bluffs on the north bank of the Ohio River, Stowe could not see slaves out toiling in the fields.  Both Kentucky and Southern Ohio were culturally similar to the South, but the land was not suitable for cotton cultivation and typically smaller farms, horse pastures and mountain tobacco plots did not lead themselves easily to plantation economics.  Stowe mainly learned from the southern coreligionists seeking Presbyterian ordination at Lane.  The river that flowed by her door was the closest thing our nation had at the time to a superhighway and it did flow through ideal cotton country through portions of Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana on its way to New Orleans, the Southern United States largest and most active port.  So Harriet Beecher Stowe did have a window on plantation slavery that most northern abolitionists lacked, though she was still not researching her novel touring actual plantations.

Eli Whitney's cotton gin, eventually patented in 1807.  Whitney made scant money from this revolutionary invention, far less than Stowe earned from her novel!  It was easy to make and essential to the labor intensive problem of  getting seeds out of the cotton bols and thus ready raw cotton to be turned into fiber.  It greatly facilitated the growth of plantation culture and slavery.


Whitney's cotton gin and expanding European textile production greatly accelerated plantation culture.
Note the lack of cultivation in Kentucky, but the Ohio was a navigable tributary of the Mississippi, which flowed through the heart of cotton country.  Rivers made for easy transportation of the cotton.

Although her father was by no means an abolitionist, Harriet was greatly moved by the plight of escaped slaves.  The success of the Underground Railroad spurred developing US law that protected property rights of slaveholders and this escalated the conflicts.  In 1851 she began serializing Uncle Tom’s Cabin in a newspaper.  It ran from June of 1851 to April of 1852, and was followed in book form.  The first edition run of 5000 quickly sold out, and became a runaway bestseller, eventually becoming the second best seller in the US in the entire 19th century, behind the Holy Bible.  While Stowe did not become super wealthy as rapidly or dramatically as E. L. James, this was plenty of money for comfortable life.  But what of her purposes as a reformer?

One of the many editions of Uncle Tom's Cabin


Considering its huge popularity, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not an immediate critical success.  It was written in the then popular sentimentalist tradition, a marginalized genre of fiction in which female writers wrote works that were read by a primarily female audience.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin was criticized as maudlin, melodramatic and emotionally sloppy, and not just by Southern literary critics who recognized the book’s potential power to mobilize Northern opposition to slavery, but by critics who demanded more elevated non-genre fare.   Today it would surely be viewed as manipulative.  Its impact was nevertheless profound.
Whatever its critical demerits, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had tremendous social power.  Many northerners who opposed slavery on religious grounds had no direct experience with slaves.  Even in the south, only a tiny percentage of the land-holding white population held sufficient property to have direct contact with the kind of plantation slavery Stowe depicted.  With only print mass media, scant photography, and little recreational travel on an American railroad system that was still building out rapidly, a great many people were to learn more of slavery through Uncle Tom’s Cabin than could ever encounter it directly.  And the narrative it provided, that slaves were dehumanized by being treated as property, rather than being civilized happy and productive because of the structure provided by the owners, had great resonance.

So disturbing to the southern landowner class was “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” that southern writers almost immediately created counter-propagandistic accounts of the loving, stable, patriarchal and solicitous  concern of slave owners for their slaves to counter the wicked overseer Simon Legree in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  But an effusion of books could not diminish Harriet Beecher Stowe’s influence, or counter the economic or political cascade towards intensifying conflict over slavery.  But such was the power of this discourse that the myth arose that Abraham Lincoln first met Stowe early in the Civil War, he said ‘So here’s the little lady that started this great war!’  While this quote is probably apocryphal, Uncle Tom’s Cabin did bring some sense of slavery to the large percentage of the US population that had little real contact with the institution, and amplified the sermons of the abolitionist preachers.  The US Civil War may have been determined by material, economic and political causes I have pictured, but Uncle Tom’s Cabin definitely shaped the discourse.

This contribution was not accomplished without a price.  Whether through the over-drawn caricature of the sadistic overseer, the creation of the social stereotype of the conflict avoidant and protective Uncle Tom, or the depiction of Negroes in need of protection that was as patriarchal at its core as the ideological defenders of slavery, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s depiction of antebellum southern life traded in stereotypes that have persisted ever since.  Some of us are old enough to remember charges within the civil rights movement of ‘Uncle Tom-ism.’  However, neither is it obvious that racial equality would have been effected had Stowe matched Jane Austen in her psychological sophistication.

E L James, 50 Shades of Grey, and leather pants


But the critical discourse over Uncle Tom’s Cabin might place some of the criticism of Fifty Shades of Grey in a different context.  If being ghettoized, marginalized, imitated and counter-propagandized didn’t prevent Uncle Tom’s Cabin from having a large social impact, perhaps the timing and commercial success of E. L. James’s works will be more influential in the de-stigmatization of kink than we expect.  Stowe’s case study is a perfect illustration of how we can expect reform not from the heart of the dominant culture, but from its borders.  Social research has long shown that women harbor submissive sexual fantasies that are not politically correct.  We have known this since Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden, (1973) that women’s actual fantasies do not correspond very well to conventional mythology.  So it should not surprise us that some measure of kink discussion and acceptance came from the literary hinterlands of fan fiction where themes of power, sexuality and transgression are commonly discussed. To be transformative, a work need not be mainstream, possess revolutionary intent, or accepted aesthetic depth.  It is the discussion the work provokes, not just its intrinsic attributes that do the work of reform.  Fan fiction is a place where that discussion regularly happens.

If you find 50 Shades hard to read, it could be a lot worse:  the original manuscript of de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, written in blood and feces and rescued from its hiding place in prison.

But before you dismiss the 50 shades series as bad books inspiring a bad movie that depict the world of kink badly, it is worth asking the question of whether this somehow constitutes a poster case of the aphorism that there is no such thing as bad publicity.  A great deal of this discourse about BDSM is not very favorable, and not very informed, and certainly isn’t directly in the interests of the kink community, or even the explicit de-stigmatization of variant sexuality.  BDSM interest is handled unrealistically and melodramatically in the series.  Nevertheless it has provoked increased interest in BDSM social groups and many new people showing up and asking questions about kink.  And the discourse, while hardly kink-friendly, is more open than it was two years ago before the publication of the series. 
50 Shades may be poor BDSM, but then so again are the works of Pauline Reage, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, and the Marquis de Sade dangerous depictions of kinky life.  Many readers note that that danger is inseparable form their power to arouse. No safewords; character and context are sometimes dispensed with, and other times wooden and stereotypical.  Even when psychologically sophisticated they are incomplete and provide poor context for constructing a satisfying kinky life.  They share many of the defects of porn in their destructive assumptions of a happy contextless sex life.  Yet works by these authors had much greater impact on the world of ideas than their content had on BDSM practices.  50 Shades is like Uncle Tom’s Cabin in that it provoked discourse that has moved people’s attitudes without being a very accurate depiction of its subject.

Doing their best to make a contextless BDSM life look shinny:  Nina Hartley and friend.


Fifty Shades has greatly increased the discussion of kink, and not all of it was red meat for socially conservative talk show audiences to devour.  The book has linked sexual submission with sexual heat for many readers, and that has generated much curiosity that goes beyond mere fantasy.  Those of us who are used talking about sex recognize that fantasy and experience are very different sex modalities, but discussion around the books does provide for communication about this that does not often occur in heteronormative sex discussion.  Even in books that reflect the rather atypical story of a man who is into kink primarily to resolve intense childhood dynamics of abuse, the volume of increased discussion of contracting, the importance of consent, and Anastasia Steale’s eventual insistence on withholding consent constitutes sex positive context for those discussions.   While there is poor empirical validation of how many American’s ever visit BDSM social clubs, there is strong anecdotal evidence from all over the country that curious new members are coming in.  All of this suggests a modest level of de-stigmatization of kink has been accomplished by the novels that transcends their literary merits.  Even where BDSM is pathologized, and Anastasia must struggle with Christian’s villainous abuser, Christian is not rejected for his kink preferences.  This acceptance, and the open embracing of readers’ fantasies, creates an accepting meta-context that transcends the poorly constructed melodrama around struggling to free Christian from his dark past.

What if this prediction that 50 Shades has really made it possible for many people to explore kink who were interested but dared not open themselves to it before proves true?  I caution that all these potential benefits of The 50 Shades works does not suddenly constitute the final victory in the social acceptance of kink.  The kinds of genre-based conventions that make 50 Shades appealing make it a flawed basis for evaluating one’s readiness to opt for a kinky lifestyle.  The world of kink is much more diverse, more polyamorous, more exhibitionist and voyeuristic than 50 Shades.  Pain feels differently in the flesh than in fantasy.  The social conventions and norms of scene participation are poorly communicated in the novels, and the learning curve can be steep.  But motivating people to communicate about these, whether in their relationship or with kink educators, is a powerful source of improved self-knowledge and this can only improve people’s chances of achieving greater satisfaction relative to reading curled up in the bed after their partner has fallen asleep.  Perhaps 50 Shades is a powerful example of the alternative to slut shaming in that Anastasia can try some sexual experiments, some of them not especially smart, and learn what she desires without becoming labelled.  That message is more important than the whether the kink is properly safe sane and consensual.

All of which poses a challenge for kink and for advocates of sexual freedom.  If, like porn, a romantic novel sparks considerable interest and waves of young new adherents present at kink groups, these people will change the culture.  This happened to the psychedelic drug culture, which started with genius members of the intelligentsia like Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (later, Babba Ram Dass) who took drugs for existential exploration and quasi therapeutic purposes.  They were followed by college intellectuals and Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, who craved intensity of experience as much or more than self-knowledge.  As drug use became even more widespread, eventually many young people were taking them for escape and a burnout culture arose that was mainly one of disaffection and hedonism, think Beavis and Butthead.  While all of organized BDSM is not bound to go the way of Cheech and Chong simply because of James’ novels, the influx of new members does threaten to challenge kink's conventions, and as kink becomes less marginalized, some meanings become co-opted and culturally expropriated.  Even before 50 Shades was published, there was much discussion in kink theory about whether there had ever been an Old Guard tradition and whether its demise and resurrection were a good or bad thing.  Such discussion is likely to be repeated. 

The Merry Prankster's psychedelic bus.  If Tom Wolfe is to be believed, the Pranksters were risk takers trying to see how high they could get.  Is this a good model for kink?  Doesn't sound very SSC!

The challenge of de-stigmatization lies in shaping the discourse in even more accepting ways.  But it is powerful to remember that a group of romance novels notably lacking in any effort to reform, got the conversation started in many new places.  Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the timing was right for change for 50 Shades of Grey.  We cannot easily see the evidence of its help to our efforts until the results are receding in the review mirror.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Serious Play

“I’ll have grounds more relative than this.

The play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”  Hamlet Act II, Scene ii


“Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster.

And if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”  Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche as quoted in Alan Moore’s The Watchmen


William Shakespeare (1564-1616)  At least as far as we can tell, we have few contemporary depictions of Hamlet's author.
 
While completing my post on the medieval period, I was contemplating the difference between the use of the religious devices designed for penance for their intended purposes, and for BDSM.  While the physiological capacity to enter altered states of consciousness is available for lustful and spiritual purposes, and it is only in St Augustine’s wake that we take for granted they must be mutually exclusive, there is no clear boundary between spirituality and carnality that we do not draw for ourselves.  The deadly seriousness of self-inflicted suffering in pursuit of a divine ideal is notably lacking in modern concepts of irony.  Does that make any difference in how we know psychopathological behavior when we see it?  I would be sorely tempted to diagnose religiously self-abusive behavior, despite the very considerable scaffolding of Western religious philosophy undergirding penance.  The guiltier it was, and the less realistic I thought the guilt to be, the more I’d be inclined to diagnose a mental health condition.  The doctrine of original sin just doesn’t persuade me that self-inflicted injury is a condign and effective response.  The more I thought self-punishment led to ecstatic states, the less I’d be inclined to diagnose it.  But that reflects a value judgment of mine that is not client-centered, which is another of my values. 
 

The matter of the relevance of irony reflects a clinical observation of long standing, that clients with good senses of humor are generally more amenable to treatment than those without.  And this observation makes sense to me clinically despite the countless examples in the consulting room when I have had to confront clients with interpretations that they were using humor defensively to distance themselves from the uncomfortable emotional significance of some clinical material.  But somewhere in the upcoming Renaissance, we are going to exchange the fabulous demonic representations of Grunewald and the folksy humor of Breughel and Bosch for the insightful irony of Shakespeare, and the modern sensibility is marked by that distinction.  In this way, Shakespeare is modern despite the archaic language and iambic pentameter.   Hamlet means to discover the ‘real’ truth about the apparition he met on Elsinore’s battlements with a ‘fake’ play that reflects the alleged circumstances of his father’s death.


The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.  F Scott Fitzgerald


 Why humor is positively correlated with therapeutic outcome is, in part, a reflection of the clinical utility of being able to hold two feelings in mind at the same time and cross-ruff between them, creating a more nuanced appreciation of the problem under consideration. Apparently, it takes ambivalence to deconstruct ambivalence.  Absolutists do not take readily to the kind of insight-oriented work that is the foundation of modern psychotherapy.  I am inclined to view absolutism as a sign of intolerance of some feelings.  And therefore I may be ready to put those who cling too tightly to The Great Chain of Being on the couch, which may well be indistinguishable to them from the rack.  I wonder how many individual flagellants would have stopped following their cults if I interpreted their self-punishment as an attempt to control by displacement the frightening events in the chaotic world around them?  Did the Holy Inquisition narrowly miss a golden opportunity to invent psychoanalysis 400 years early?

The Pythons do the Inquisition.  Not wholy unexpected!
 

Lest one assume that modern notions of ambivalence and irony are a mere construction of Renaissance interest in internal human experience, it is worth looking at play.  We define play as activity done for its own sake; that is inherently not utilitarian.  A cat is playing with a ball of string, but we are inclined to think similar behavior with a mouse is predation, until the cat starts to show evidence of being more than single-mindedly devoted to killing it to eat.  Tom and Jerry are not practicing their species-specific survival behaviors, they are just friends playing with each other.  This example from the place where cartoon sadomasochism and ethology meet is intended to show that lots of behaviors are adaptive that do not immediately serve utilitarian functions.  Cat’s play not because they are friends with the mouse, but because such behaviors have evolved to simultaneously serve long term evolutionary functions, and to provide short-term satisfactions.   The adoption of a serious and non-ironic Medieval mindset was itself a social adaptation.  There are plenty of tribal cultures with ironic wit, and the Dark ages were not dark because humor went entirely out of them. 

Tom and Jerry playing

But the cat’s play, and the BDSM’s scene’s multi-layered use of the term ‘play’ have in common a kind of seriousness that goes beyond immediate gratification.  In BDSM play, real wounds get inflicted, disobedience has real consequences, real body fluids get exchanged, and real a trauma can result from failed scenes and misunderstandings. Altered states of consciousness are only sometimes evoked.  More often, people play in altered social states.  In that sense, even with its ‘as-if’ qualities, BDSM play can be every bit as capable of discharging unconscious guilt as cold-blooded self-administration of a cilice.  Play is serious, and seriousness may or may not be required for the enactment.  This explains the chronicity of complaints about ‘smart-ass masochists.’  Despite a strong prevailing ideology in kink that masochists should be submissive, many are persistently provocative.  They are playing with the seriousness of the scene and its ironic contexts, and tops struggle to decide how much control they surrender when they let masochists ‘top from the bottom’ by provoking them as a means of controlling their punishment it is the tops’ prerogative to mete out.    Flagellants experienced a lack of agency, and were punished by the Church for trying to get more by illicit means.  Smart-ass masochists are also blamed for trying to seize agency that is rightfully administered through intermediaries: tops!  So are these situations analogous or different?  What has changed so dramatically in 600 years is the language and voice we use to discuss and understand them.  The play was always the thing, whether we recognized its seriousness or not at the time.

Hamlet, Act III scene iii.  Hamlet (David Tennant) considers killing the kneeling Claudius (Patrick Stewart)

One final irony:  In Hamlet, the strategy of the play-within-a-play is effective.  Claudius freaks out and immediately rushes to his chapel to repent and pray.  But Hamlet, brilliant as he may be, is a tragic hero, and his faith in empiricism betrays him.  When he comes upon Claudius, seemingly in prayer, Hamlet’s direct observation misleads him.  He assumes that Claudius is confessing and in repentance for his sins.  But such is Hamlet’s hate that he will only be satisfied if Claudius is damned, and he dare not risk killing the vulnerable usurper if his soul might go to heaven, forgiven for his crimes.  If Hamlet was a smart as we think he is, he’d have recalled from his studies that there can be no absolution for Claudius while he still has all the benefits he committed his murder to obtain.  All would have ended in condign revenge if Hamlet had only trusted to his faith, not reason and direct observation, and killed Claudius while he had the chance!

"My Words fly up, my thoughts remain below,
Words without thoughts never, to Heaven, go."   Claudius


© Russell J Stambaugh, PhD, July 2013, Ann Arbor MI.  All rights reserved.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Under Construction



Generally, when the term 'construction' is used here, it means social construction.  But just this once, it means the construction of this blog itself, which will cease for the next three weeks while the writer vacations.  

Read closely!  It means what it says!
 
When works resumes, I'm planning essays on the multiple meanings of 'play', the work of Erving Goffman, and further history of sexual deviance setting the stage for the entries on Charles Darwin, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, and Sigmund Freud into the western discourse on sexual variation, and kink. 

Geochelone Elephantopus as Darwin might have seen him.  He's going fast for him!  Alas, the man from Hindoostan who tired to know this elephant would find him nearly extinct.

Later in the fall your intrepid reporter will make the ultimate sacrifice and travel to the Folsom Street Fair and CARAS and TASHRA meetings scheduled around it.  I guess if I am going to write about these things, it is necessary to attend them.  That kind of thinking, that you might know something better by direct observation, became all the rage during The Enlightenment, which will be an immediately forthcoming post, too!  And with any luck, the Art Department will get us a new title page and frontispiece.