20 August, 2009

Shibari: An Art Problem, Pt. 2

The one means by which prestige may be said to be more objectively endowed is by way of skilled and acknowledged photographers who have chosen certain shibari stylists for the development of their own portfolios. Whether or not being photographed by a recognized photographer is in itself enough to merit elevation in the eyes of one’s peers is open to dispute. A photographer, whatever their skills may be with respect to their own art, may not have any good idea of what constitutes skill with rope. Many fine photographs have been taken of dangerously sloppy rope work. Still, to the discerning eye there is much available in the play between partners and rope. In Japan, while the title nawashi appears to be conferrable by those who already have it, a convenient means of discovering who might be a worthy heir to the title would be to stumble upon a photographic record of well-done rigging. Self-proclaimed nawashi proliferate in America and Europe where the term is perhaps better understood as a role designation than as a tribute. Still, any title would be useless in a vacuum; nawashi in the West entitle themselves most often with reference to splendidly detailed photos of their own work and are as often vigorous in defense of their titles, so much so that at times one could be persuaded that Nawashist is the title being defended.

Cheekiness aside, I want to note that this way of developing a naming system in an inchoate art form is not without precedent. ‘Nawashi’ is passing into the history of doing rope bondage in much the same way as ‘tea master’ came to be applied in Japan to adept practitioners of that ceremony. While it is possible to study tea in a classroom setting, the ‘art’ of tea is thought to inhere in the ceremony alone, and then only as executed by one exhaustively steeped in its refinements and subtleties by discipline and time with tea. I will return to ‘teaism’ further along as I consider its role in the Japanese aesthetic sensibility, but for now we might allow that in fairness nawashi are at the point tea masters were thirteen hundred years ago when, according to Kakuzo Okakura, the poet Lu Wu became the first ‘apostle’ of tea when he inscribed his C’ha Ching (The Holy Book of Tea) during the T’ang Dynasty in China.1

While there are innumerable volumes on the tying of knots, the working properties of rope, funicular physics and the like, there is no code, manifesto, convention, lexicon or other guide to the mystery of rope as an ancient aesthetic technology, as a metaphor for important aspects of human existence, or in its spiritual dimension as a means of sweetening the tragedy, noted throughout philosophy, of having been born. Throughout human history most ennobled pursuits have started out as commonplaces, often deemed vulgar, squalid or even misanthropic in the era of their origin. Societies naturally resist the valorization of the conventionally despised in the beginning stages of transformation from pariah to observance; everyone can think of a notion thought abhorrent in the past and a trifle today.2

There is quite a bit available to loosely support the idea that shibari is an aesthetic pursuit, but to the best of my knowledge no one has ever undertaken to account for shibari as legitimate art, meaning art qua art, or when we use ‘art’ to fairly describe anything. The acknowledgment of shibari as art even among some of its most passionate adherents is thin. The overwhelming number of lovers who employ some form of bondage regularly, rigorously or dilettantishly, using rope or some other means, think more of their perversity as a pleasantly distinguishing mark of their sexuality than as something they loosen upon their own sensibilities or that of the wider world with any sort of contemplative or socially redeeming value. I will be considering art generally as a contemplative pursuit later in this essay, as well as the possibility that contemplative occupations are primary to our conscious lives. Coming to a satisfactory accounting for shibari as art requires my explaining my position on art qua art, be it shibari or any other kind; I will, in other words, be outlining a general ontology of art not only merely to categorize shibari as such, but to tie in many another devalued cultural artifact left for dead by the artworld. The goal will be less to mold shibari into an ontology of art than to blow the ontology of art open and outward such that it engulfs shibari, to be inclusive in a totalizing way of shibari and the whole of the artifactual world.

1 Kakuzo Okakura, The Book of Tea (New York: Dover, 1964), p. 12.

2 Or perhaps a trifle in the past and abhorrent today; take, for example, the ancient custom among Greek men noted in Plato’s Symposium of taking on young boys as their protégées and lovers.

26 July, 2009

Shibari: An Art Problem, Pt. 1

Exerpted from a much longer essay concerning problems of art-making. Because bondage is a convenient foil for my aesthetic explorations, it's often convenient for me to post bits of my perambulations here to see what sticks. I wish I could say that they will be in some sort of order (as though this time were any different form any other), but like the thoughts underlying them they are more likely to partial, discontinuous and maybe a bit scattered. I find working ideas out in a semi-public forum to be a tonic to the process, and when the time comes that all these fragments gain a sense of cohesion, readers of whatever monograph emerges then will be as appreciative of your patience as I am now, maybe even more so.

I lift the text straight out of MS Word, so the diacritics, footnoting, and other formatting elements translate only half well to this blog editor, but at least the information is complete. Again, apologies.

Critical comments are, as always, welcome.


Rope bondage in the Japanese style is popularly thought of by its practitioners in Japan and elsewhere as an art form, but as such it is practically unknown by the artworld, meaning bondage has never been defined or validated by some agency appointed the task of positioning creative cultural artifacts. People who “do rope” often go by unusual titles (such as nawashi, dorei etc.) intended to confer some manner of special virtue in the creation of the living tableaus that characterize the forms and practice, and which appear (in the West at least) to imply the existence of a dedicated and objective critical cadre charged with assigning such titles. In Zen Buddhist Japan, entitlement is franchised within the iemoto system, a traditional way of controlling access to intellectual information and cultural endowment.1 Entitlement designating skill with rope is something that can neither be claimed nor striven for; the term nawashi (or kinbakushi, or whatever the latest terminal designation may be) is like a one-word Zen koan, its meaning a product of intuition rather than reason.

I use the term living tableaus above because a case is sometimes made for bondage referring to the tying of inanimate objects (e.g., Barbie dolls, boutique display windows, etc.). I will be limiting my appreciation of bondage in this essay as signifying rope applied to sentient persons, specifically consenting adult sentient persons. Whether or not such adults themselves are doing the describing, Japanese bondage scenes employ a unique vocabulary to describe their forms and elements, and while these appear to be largely and uncritically accepted by rope connoisseurs in practice, thoughtful observers allow that most of the jargon is precisely that, jargon, being often of dubious provenance or etymology, in either Japanese or other languages. This aesthetic obscurantism not only advances the material interests of the iemoto but preserves the mystique of Japanese bondage, imbuing it with an ineffable quality that should be properly viewed as consistent with Zen predicates and teleology, and desirable in and of itself.

Shibari has become the de facto term denoting rope restraint in the Japanese style. Interestingly, according to well-informed sources working in Japan, erotic and artistic application of rope to a body for purposes of restraint goes as often by the English "bondage" as by shibari (or any of its variations).2 The naming issue gets loopier still when we look at the etymology of the English "bondage". In its erotic (and as well for our present purpose, artistic) calibration bondage is a popular appropriation of a term referring to ‘serfdom’ or ‘slavery’ according to Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. Only very lately has it come to be associated with sadomasochistic technique, specifically physical restraint. Etymologically the word is closer at its root to duty or obligation, rather than anything having to do with art or eroticism. Thus does Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage have more to do with social restraint than the other kind (although problems of art-making are the leit motif of that book, and at the thematic core of the author's The Moon and Sixpence. Maugham had a thing for the Siamese-twinning of beauty and restraint). While many of the foremost Japanese exponents of shibari use the term liberally, it has only sketchy currency in Japan, and then perhaps as mostly a marketing hook by which to attract westerners keen to believe that their fancy has a bit of the exotic about it.3 There are no qualified critical corps, organized schools of thought nor a collecting public by which one might objectively measure one’s advance to the rank of nawashi. As in the case of other aspects of the ancient iemoto system, it’s enough that an owner of the title grant it to another to give it meaning.

1 Leonard Koren summarizes the iemoto concept beautifully and concisely in his Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers (Stonebridge, Berkeley, 1994): “Primary text sources, artifacts and other materials needed for scholarly research are often controlled by iemoto families who, as in Zen Buddhism, insist that such essential information be shared only with those of their choosing... a vital part of iemoto proprietary intellectual property was not to be elucidated – given away – unless in exchange for money of favors.”

2In the 1974 Masaru Konuma film Wife to be Sacrificed , screenwriter Yôzô Tanaka has the eponymous wife (Tani Naomi) utter “shibatte” in begging her lover to tie her up. Shibari is an appropriated noun form of the verb shibaru (see www.asanawa.com).

3Midori, a Japanese-American lecturer and presenter on bondage theory and technique, has suggested that the mania among western rope bondage connoisseurs for Japanese rope bondage is similar to the Orientalism of the Victorian era with its fascination for the ‘otherness’ of eastern cultures.

19 July, 2009

Separated at Birth? (Pt. 3)

The eastern tradition, being steeped in its own myth systems and of a more contemplative orientation generally (as opposed to idealized (in the Platonic sense) or rule-driven, like in the west of at least the last several millennia), does not deviate, I think, from the general outline I’ve given thus far. In the east submission is essentially a feminine, Dionysian narrative, but the tradition in bondage in the east proceeds less from an intuition of sex as a biological imperative and more as a means of transcendence. We may look to the Kama Sutra for a conspectus of the eastern belief in the mystical virtue of the erotic, but erotic bondage gives us a unique kind of on-demand system for inducing transcendent states. The Japanese in particular have developed an architectonic for bondage that is observant of several eastern modes of mystical attainment - notably yoga, the hatha variation of which imparts several asanas to the standard kinbaku kamae. I won’t go so far as to insist that Japanese bondage is single-mindedly about seeking communion with the godhead, but I do believe that impulse to be one of the foundational stimuli for its emergence from the contemplatively derived martial disciplines preceding it, and one of its principle distinctions from western bondage.

One observes in stock kinbaku imagery a manner of submission, a going into the experience, as it were, that is far less characteristic of the western idiom, which itself traditionally emphasizes the resistance of the person being tied. The western “damsel’s” situation is being imposed from without; the agency of her helplessness is external and she usually goes along only reluctantly. She is, in a broader narrative sense, not responsible for her tribulations - she is a victim. One need not go far into either ancient or modern myth systems in the west to see the subjugation of the mortal individual to willful cosmic forces, often personified, which act pointedly on mortal posterity. The problem of predestination verses free will comes up so reliably in the west because we insist upon thinking of our existence as individuated selves, free agents in other words. There is very little impetus to endorse willing submission in western thought systems; it defies a long and acculturated tradition of separation - from God and from each other. Submission in the west is, I would suggest, a radical and even subversive act. If you’re going to give in, best not to be too obvious about it.

The idea of the monad, or the unbroken continuity between phenomena is axiomatic to Buddhist thought since at least the time of Bodhidharma (about 500AD), and well developed in other eastern traditions. Consider the Hindu idea of the veil of Maya, before which we labor with the problem of duality. Behind the veil, there is no separation and duality is revealed to be an illusion. Whereas the separation from ultimate principles (the “fall from grace”) is believed to be a fact in western ontologies, eastern disciplines stress only the illusion of separation overlaying the fact of unity. To the eastern mind, the same energy flows through all apparently individuated things, as, for example, revealed in the meridian systems of oriental medicine. Open, boxy, and irregular kinbaku architecture intentionally plays with these meridians, with the crossing and rearrangement of energies and the possibility thereby of a look into ultimate principles. That it becomes in the making highly erotic only compounds its force and potentials. The classic M-jo in the Japanese tradition thus goes quite willingly into her restraint and, while not necessarily embracing her suffering, accepts it as consistent with the pain of illusion such as we know on this side of the veil. Although the Shinto tradition wedded to Zen does not say much about the antecedent Hindu concept of Maya, it does predicate satori as the endpoint of suffering wherein the truth of unity is made manifest to the spirit.

Of course, all of this is available to the western bondage practitioner too, and it could easily be said that the rope top is performing a kind of priestly function in either case. The overwhelming emphasis on resistance to being restrained in the popular conception of bondage in the west, as opposed to ready yielding characterizing the eastern conception, is, I think, consistent with much larger mytho-poetic, and hence social constructs inhering in both. It may be difficult to describe what the salient differences are between eastern and western traditions in bondage (I mean, hands get tied behind the back in both cases), but it becomes easier when we couch our interest more broadly in the two world views.

09 July, 2009

Separated at Birth? (Pt. 2)

I mimicked the Klaw style (there being no real technique) for a little while before stumbling upon John “Willie” Coutts and his Gwendolyn drawings. In Willie I think western bondage finds its first true prophet. Willie’s style was not only founded on the same sort of artfully sculpted 40s - 50s Monroe curves as Klaw, but he laced those curves impossibly tightly, drawing in the waist, pulling back the elbows, pushing out the breast, lifting and separating, as it were, and elongating with stiff, angular posing and sky-high heels. In addition, Willie was shameless in his use of overwhelming and distorting gags, which displace visual and aural cues to the wearer’s personality revealed in facial and verbal gesture. I see this as enhancing the quality of mystery associated with woman, the mystery of creation, of begetting, and the messy business of generating life (a thesis elaborated here). Willie’s work was all about the reduction of the individual, particular woman, and the elevation of capital W Woman. In the pages of his Bizarre magazine, he was wont to allow occasionally that the imposition of vigorous, calculated bondage was the only cure for that hopeless intimidation felt by modern man confronted with the withering power of Woman. If he were read in philosophy (and I doubt he was – he was first an intuitive and second a drunk), Willie would probably have agreed with Nietzsche’s association of woman with the chaotic, fecund and creative Greek god Dionysus, who was balanced by the tempering, masculine-associated regulatory and managerial Apollo.

There are many theories on how and why bondage, and in particular its identifiable stylings, both eastern and western, gains formal status in the 20th century. Some posit that while photography played a large role in the break out into popular consciousness, binding for erotic effect has a far older history. The consensus view among aficionados seems to be that the Japanese vernacular, emerging from 15th century martial hojojitsu into what we in the west call shibari or kinbaku today, dates in its erotic manifestation to the early 19th century, but there evidence to this effect is largely apocryphal. Following Itoh Seiyu's drawings from SM-inflected kabuki dramas, the form seems fairly well-evolved when erotic kinbaku images start showing up in Japan around the late 1920s and early 1930s, right about the same time the delicate SM drawings of Carlo, Herric and Rene Giffey that influenced Willie came out in the Parisian pulps of the era. Willie may also have stumbled upon Japanese bondage imagery while exiled in Australia, but his letters tell us that in 1937 it was Carlo’s work that first came to his attention while living in Sydney†.

I’d like to speculate here that the emergence of bondage as erotic on a wider scale in both east and west inheres in the culturally parallel rush to modernity. Europe and America were already deeply involved in the shrinking of distance and the building of metropolises by the turn of the 20th c., and the Japanese had mounted their own juggernaut into modernity upon Commodore Matthew Perry’s 1853 appearance in Edo (now Tokyo) Bay and the concomitant demise of the Shogunate. With the primary evils of death, pestilence and even discomfort in retreat, humans are no less biological despite the Apollonian lever being applied to capricious Dionysian nature; taming her, predicting her behaviors, defending against her unceasing demand that humans reproduce themselves - one of the greatest practical and metaphorical examples of this overcoming of nature is the birth control pill. Besieged, our essential biology adopts a guerrilla strategy (perversity) since the civilized, sanitary and organized world legislates only a meager freedom to the biological idea of nature. My western mind sees bondage as I think Willie got it, as a splendid and artful presentation to the several senses of Woman, capital W woman, the principle of creation, available and vulnerable, but also revealed in utterly unambiguous mythic form, and emphasizing mythic tensions. That’s the power of myth to my thinking: it gets us to perform on our biological imperatives.

To be continued.

The Art of John Willie; Sophisticated Bondage. Monograph, edited by Stefano Piselli, Eric Stanton, et al. Glittering Images, 1989.

02 July, 2009

Separated at Birth?

(Excerpted from a 2002 public lecture / demonstration)

Thank you all for coming, and thanks also to A. for the invitation to speak tonight, and for the request months ago to get her up off the ground.

A. and I have been playing on and off with rope for several years, and have only recently made the move into suspension. We hope to show you a little trick we’ve practiced later on - a single leg inverted suspension - among the more difficult suspended poses to both rig safely and to hold for even a small length of time. I’ll make a few points in so doing about safely managing the technical aspects of such a scene, but frankly, suspended bondage, like rock climbing, is a high risk activity under the best of circumstances, so I’m obliged to apply a disclaimer here and say that I don’t intend to teach you a thing about tying somebody and hanging them up. Not a thing. Suspension bondage is best learned slowly and steadily over time with a tough, understanding partner and competent instruction; not, in my opinion, by means of public demonstrations such as you are to see here tonight.

My intent is to show you what’s possible and perhaps what you can do with what’s possible, rather than impart specific information on how it’s possible. The technique and dynamic between A. and myself are, as you might imagine, unique to us, and in any case, we may not pull off what we intend tonight, so anything you see here is very likely completely useless to the success of your own rope scenes. That said, please don’t hesitate to ask questions afterward about what you will have seen me do (or not do) tonight. Also, I’d be happy to talk later about the little précis I’d like to present now.

This presentation is about to take a philosophical turn, perhaps for the worse, and I’ll be interested to see how many are standing at the end of it. At the very least you’re about to learn that I’m kinky for more than just rope. Suspension, while not unique to eastern bondage and its aesthetic, is highly identified with it. The working properties of hemp and jute rope, which are common in eastern practice, facilitate picking partners up in order to enhance their helplessness. None of those considerations preclude enacting the delicate airborne forms common to Japanese-style bondage in the western style, but such crossover is seldom seen, a factor in leading observers to speak of wide differences between east and west. I’d like to take the first part of this presentation to put across a few ideas I have about that difference.

There is quite a lot of discussion of how or if east meets west on various online groups where rope geeks like myself hang out, and I’ll be drawing a bit here from other’s ruminations on the subject, but the upshot of what I’m about to say is pretty much my own and I’m by no means done thinking about it. If you disagree, and I hope you’ll be critical, I would appreciate hearing about it.

Foregoing even a cursory consideration of gender identity and its attendant politics, I make the following observations from the standpoint of the one identity about which I can speak with any authority, that being my own. All of the assertions that I’m about to make proceed from that basic prejudice, and I hope you’ll all forgive where I run afoul of any other prejudices in the room.

Having played with gender queer, classic queer and straight partners of both genders, my central orientation has consistently sought out an essential straight feminine trait; that which is hormonally responsive to me as a straight male and unconditioned by orientation or gender. Of course, on many occasions that hormonal energy has been absent, but such vacancies do not necessarily result in disappointing scenes, and often only further affirm my own proclivity. I like to recall that even among those people I’ve tied who were not necessarily kinky, who were perhaps just doing a modeling job, or in a transitional phase into which rope fit or helped, that expressions of that “eternal feminine” which captivates me could (and often did) come out.

I began my formal explorations in bondage well over twenty years ago with the person who is still my primary partner and my wife. I recall quite clearly the early compulsion to envelop and overwhelm her, and to have the result of that be the emphasizing of her sexual availability. Although I backed away from the impulse initially, it was not too long after those inchoate stirrings that rope entered our lives. Even in my first crude and ineffectual efforts to get her restrained, I saw her in a wholly new light, wherein her curves revealed themselves ever more fully and her yielding was ever more apparent. That I was at times somewhat oblivious to the yielding part may have helped me concentrate on pure technique with greater alacrity, but suffice it say that the actual application of rope was all about visually dramatizing the soft, giving, ovoid and fleshly charms that make her to me woman with a capital W.

Although I was aware of bondage porn by that time, I prissily steered a wide path around it for years despite its ready availability close to home. Thus, the only information I had to go on at that time (or, really, wished to go on), this being the early 1980s, were Irving Klaw’s extraordinary pictures of Bettie Page and her cohort often ineptly tied for his Movie Star News. My wife will remember the pilgrimage she and I took to the tatty storefront, meeting Irving’s sister Paula, who ran the shop at that time, and our coming away with a catalog of the tiny images which MSN would sell to customers as prints. Having turned my nose up at Bondage Life, Lyden, HOM and the other image peddlers, those vague, tiny Klaw images were my first tutorial in tying up comely lasses.

12 June, 2009

Amer-al Qaeda

With apologies for my absence, I offer this forthright observation by Paul Krugman from this morning's NYTimes on the culture wars. As is abundantly clear to anyone in our United States, when cultural conservatives are out of power, the culture war becomes a shooting war. This has, quite naturally, got me thinking about my own little sub-corner of the larger culture.

At its most expressive, SM is a peak experience of self-responsibility, something grievance-minded individuals abhor, notwithstanding their contradictory rhetorical posturing. The having of grievances or the blaming of others for unhappiness is definitionally a repudiation of responsibility. The taking of action, the assumption of risks that attend such actions, and the constitutional strength to abide the outcomes of having taken the risk, without deflecting any part of it, is the operant principle of SM, morally and practically. It is also the definition of responsibility. SM is a context within which grievance does not function, for causality is unmediated and apparent to its participants. Thus the top who does not check and test the reliability of a club's suspension points cannot blame the club if they fail. Anyone for whom a scene fails is implicate in its failure for having freely consented to it; both top and bottom share responsibility.

When we feel upset and assign blame outside ourselves this I call personal irresponsibility. That right-wing fanatics should emerge now to terrorize their fellow citizens is indicative of not only their lack of common cause with the basic tenets of democracy which brought progressive voices to the executive and legislative branches of government and legitimized them, but it also betrays an understanding of the nature of action that begins and ends somewhere other than within. The "terrorist" is not a self-responsible actor; he or she nominates some conveniently external factor (political view, lifestyle, race, God-name, etc.) to inform their grievance, and then appeals to external authorities to legitimize prejudicial action, with the actions thereafter generally focused against an objectified form of the grievance, i.e., the target to be terrorized and/or purged. The pointedly amoral version of such terrorism calculatedly appropriates the mantle of free speech (or "common sense" or "spin-free") as the Trojan Horse by which it breeches the wall of personal responsibility.

The traditional fulminate to such action is religion, which advances its claims and power on the supposition of exteriority, individuation and otherness. Its value system is essentially negative in that some seminal lapse is its ontological starting point, and often the capricious enmity of non-immanent forces require appeasement (if it's God) or defeat (if it's the heathen infidel). Lapsarianism is a principle of resistance and victimization; cowardice articulated as salvation to a fevered, often homicidal, degree. In this regard, the supposition of exteriority in the context of religious belief may be viewed as a conventionalized form of insanity.

What little harm the principle of SM may be said to visit upon the world is mostly self-contained, meaning practitioners and believers hurt themselves (but take responsibility for doing it). As extreme as their proclivities might be they do not show up in public places and indiscriminately seek to harm others. Anyone who does is something other than a sado-masochist, and is doing something other than SM. Sado-masochists are, in other words, functional members of society, making their lives, enjoying their liberty, providing for their happiness.

People who do show up at churches to kill doctors, invade museums to slaughter Jews, erase hundreds by detonating truck bombs near government installations, or who use torture to gain an advantage over their presumed enemies, are not unlike an infection for which our body politic has yet to evolve antibodies, a social pathogen, with about as much regard for their fellow man as swine flu.

Religion pimps righteousness, while taking life, trampling liberty, and indulging grievance. Faith believes in one's fellow as one believes in oneself, and responsibly abides the entailments of so doing.