07 August, 2008

Ring Around the Collar

The cards and letters keep coming...
I am having trouble figuring out BDSM culture... I'm very interested in collaring and wonder if you've ever collared a partner or participated in the ceremony, or can tell me more about the symbolism and so forth. I don't even know what I would wear with a collar! How for example did collaring become special in BDSM? Also, do you have anything you can say about wearing a collar in mainstream society? Obviously I know you don't wear one, but maybe you know people who do.
This from someone who stumbled into kink through association with an artist friend we have in common. I've not heard of what progress she's made in her experiments, but elaborating on my reply to her for posting here has been interesting.

I understand that as a novice the norms and mores of the "culture" should be of exceptional interest, but what I think I know on this front is likely of very small value to someone for whom the interest is keen. Many years of exposure to and participation in (to varying degrees) the club, porn, house, Internet, fine art and political BDSM scene has lead me to surmise the following with respect to norms in BDSM and that which, within the framework of an interpretive apparatus, would identify it as a distinct culture: they are the very norms that identify the larger culture from which they emerge, merely amplified.

Let's consider the example of collaring. When two people avow to one another that between them a commitment to one another obtains, it is customary in the West for this oath to be materially symbolized somehow. In my business I use contracts - legally defensible though they may be, they are in fact merely betokenings of a common understanding. In trade, value is expressed via money, which, like a spoken word, has no intrinsic value other than that ascribed to it by the receiving party; even gold fluctuates daily with respect to the perception of its worth.

In marriage, we use rings, a convention which, as I understand it, emerged from Egypt and is symbolically derivative of the Uroboros, the serpent consuming its own tail and symbolizing the pelastrational nature of integration and assimilation (see Mysterium Coniunctionis by C.G. Jung). Moving forward a couple of millennia, the Romans had culturally calibrated the ring symbol as representative of value, and employed expensively tooled rings of precious metals as trade goods in marriage - the wedding band was regarded as a legal agreement expressing ownership of its wearer, i.e., the woman. Arguably, we preserve more of our current cultural, civic, intellectual and social cues from the Greco-Roman tradition than have persisted from the high era of the Pharaohs.

Even in our modern age we speak of "taking" a mate, and wedding bands are looked to as symbols of "goods" that are "spoken for". I never remove my band, and it is frequently a topic of conversation with partners who are eager to plumb the meaning of the ring as I've perverted it. Even among long-time kinky people there is often the residuum of cultural conditioning regarding possession and its symbols. One learns about one's kink on the tricky terrain of intimacy - through vulnerability, openness and the making of mistakes, false assumptions, or sometimes going 'round in circles (or, if you're lucky, in the making of circles, such as dear A. below - ed.).

In that accelerated world, the lessons come more quickly, more clearly and often more extensibly. This is how it is, I think, that kinky folk tend toward the somewhat more polite and decorous end of the spectrum in the broader cross-section of society. Again, not different so much as simply amplified.

A collar is, to my thinking, merely a variation on the same theme, albeit amplified to an unambiguous degree, whereas the ancient meaning of the wedding band has been diluted by years and the general principle of democratization. Collaring is something we do with our pets, a factor in our lives our laws tell us we "own" and for which we are responsible. I expect the pervy world to keep pace with whatever most clearly and most subversively represents unambiguous commitments (which, of course, are every bit as fragile over the long haul as any commitment expressed elsewhere in society), be it collars or something else. That it be openly defiant or contrary to convention is definitionally its perversity.

Personally, I find collaring symbolically facile. In far more recent times metal collars and chains were expressive of ownership and were also punitive instruments, as they are still. Yet, today, the wearing of metal chains about the neck is not merely fashionable, it's practically uniform. The more bombastic and aware of the Gangsta community here in Brooklyn openly declare the wearing of heavy metal chains about their necks as the subversion and appropriation of a potent symbol from the habit of their historic white oppressors. It is apt, therefore, that proper white society should look upon black "bling" with distaste and discomfort, for it is emblematic of pain white visited upon the body of black on these shores. In much the same spirit the word "nigga" is now exclusively the dominion of black-on-black communication. There is no white person still standing who does not appear a knuckle-dragging cracker should the word escape his lips with any sense of conviction.

Given that most kinky folk come from solidly middle class circumstances and would not be thought "oppressed" in any conventional sense of the term, one wonders about the subversive value of the collar, or what exactly is being defused through reappropriation. This is true for all symbolic expression in kink. The psycho-historical aspect to kinky expression may not be as labyrinthine as Gangsta culture, but then again, perhaps it is. Another way of looking at the issue may be to follow the path backward to what the dominant culture identifies and endorses as normal, and see how behaviors someone such as myself (a scion of middle class comfort if ever there was one) practice (and even call sacred) emerge from that so-called normalcy. In the end, all subcultures end up being commentaries on that of which they are derivative.

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