26 November, 2008

Tie Me to the Ends of Love: Part 2

Say I have somewhat ruthlessly tied my partner in a position for which she was unprepared. Unprepared? Some might say that’s bad form for a top, and I would beg their momentary indulgence. So, my partner is working hard with this position and is possibly breaking down a little before long... sooner than she’d like... and in recognition of this I add a bit more challenge to the picture, something subtle that shifts the focus of discomfort just enough to take her out of the mind that’s saying “I… can’t… do this…” and put her back into the body that’s feeling more and more with each passing moment.

While I can afford to appear aloof about all this shifty energy, she’s anything but: it’s really uncomfortable now and ere long she might want out, might even get a little irate, but she’s not using her safe signal. In a little while she might get vocally angry, which is easily frustrated with a gag, about which she’d be humiliated on top of her aching for release. But in the meantime we’ll all keep aware for a safe signal, or panic, or, hopefully, fuller and fuller consciousness and presence as her options fall by the wayside.

I may give her a moment’s respite in the form of a glancing, gentle touch, brokering the continuation with a moment’s kindness, as it were, but I'm in close to her suffering, which is now acute and which she's resisting - I sense that she wants to be still in her bondage but it’s hard... she wants to be good but she’s unprepared to be good, to perform as she thinks I want her to perform, as she thinks I want her to be. Thinking about doing something “right” or “well”, or how she can manage the pain or the humiliation. Thinking… thinking… and thereby making the Cartesian blunder of being – cogito ergo sum, I think, therefore I am. But what? What am I? What’s assumed here? Well, first of all a self, a substantial, individuated entity apart from other selves and things. “I” is not only assumed, it's separate, and separate is, of course, anything but intimate. Separate is alienated.

So, now the suffering is more than physical; it’s existential. She’s in her head, figuring how to do what she’s being challenged by to avoid being with the challenge and thereby risking who she thinks she is. She’s the solidly proverbial human doing as opposed to the shifty, ephemeral and maybe chaotic human being. The primary question is now before her, brought by her dangerous lover, someone with whom she would be intimate if she could figure out how. If she could figure her way out of alienation. Always figuring. How to answer? Figuring out what the original question was in the first place… perhaps finally figuring not to figure.

The head, the mind, the brain, the center of ratiocination is the back office of intimacy, it’s where your claims get processed by unfeeling functionaries who insist on procedure and logic ahead of inconvenient and disorderly emotions. As any process-driven bureaucratic organization would do, thinking insists on not only its primacy but on the expansion of its control. Not surprisingly, many of the people I’ve met in the BDSM community are very bright, one might even say brainy. Good with their heads, and, maybe, in the community specifically looking to get out of those same heads a little more often.

So, perhaps rather than militate against intimacy, we simply fall back on familiar and culturally endorsed patterns of dealing with new information – we sort, we categorize, we try to figure it out, we think about things. Think about that; when’s the last time you had an ecstatic experience by thinking about anything?

Maybe some of you are familiar with Eckhardt Tolle’s Power of Now and his concept of the “unmanifested”. The manifested is the reality we think we know and the one we rely on to explain our existence. It’s a relative existence, one in which context is all important. It’s the heir to a long tradition of what I call separationist belief structures, starting with Plato’s ontological division of the world into extensional and ideal realms in the “Cave Analogy” to an interpretation of grace that includes a fall from it - Lucifer’s fall from heaven, man’s fall in the book of Genesis, and with the fall the eternal struggle to return to God’s good side.

Coming into the Enlightenment, this basic principles of separation and alienation are present and operant in Descartes and the worldview he organized so neatly and imparted to, for example, Issac Newton, which in turn gave us Newtonian physics and the calculus and their divvying up of reality into smaller and smaller quanta, ad infinitum.

Already pickled in a guiding existential principle of separation and duality, these leaps forward in human thought to this day look to most folks like unvarnished benefits. Notwithstanding important confirmations in high-energy physics (e.g., Heisenberg and the "Uncertainty Principle") of long-standing theories enunciated in metaphysics (e.g., Liebniz and his "Monadology"), both of which concern themselves with primary substance, and which together are beginning to point to resolution in a non-granular universe, the doctrine of duality continues to advance a world view where parsing thought, method and calculation is practically a religion, one where quality is least of all judged on refinement of feeling and mostly based on reproducibility of results. Not altogether a bad thing, I would say, for it made writing this essay using a word processor a great deal more fluid a project than it might otherwise have been.

20 November, 2008

Tie Me to the Ends of Love: Part 1

This is the text of a lecture I delivered for TES in NYC recently. It is only slightly modified to suit this forum. First the teaser:

Join Mac for a riff on Leonard Cohen of which the poet himself would approve. The ends of love have known many means: chocolate, diamonds, war... bondage? Well, maybe not so much. Until now. From ancient myth to modern neuroses Mac explores what love might have in store for us and how rope helps pin it down. Carve into your desire to bind or be bound and what it means to your ideas of yourself, your partner, your intimacy and the ends of your being. Go straight to the top to get to the bottom of some pretty big issues, expect the usual big words, a little Q&A, maybe a few gratuitous visual aids, and maybe to leave with some new ideas.

Thank you all for having me again, and especially to Lolita for her raw determination in getting a date together. I can well imagine that she often gets her partners to stretch and do the sorts of things they might not otherwise, and about which, afterward, they’re grateful.

I’d like to open tonight with a quote from the blog of someone who appreciates many of the same things I do about art, culture, daring, polemic and especially Japanese aesthetics. His name is Tatsuya Ishida, and he’s the author of Sinfest. Here you go:

“Whenever I peel an orange, I save the stem end for last. There's something about pulling out the spine that is very satisfying. Texture-wise, visually, the little plucky squirty sensation, it's a fun little operation to cap the peeling process. That's sort of my modus operandi when it comes to food. I try to leave the best for last. When I have a chicken pot pie, for example, I eat all the carrots and peas first, and leave a stash of chicken for the big finish. When I have a sandwich I work my way around the crust to the middle. I have this shit down to a science. Sometimes, though, it's not so smooth. Things can get complicated. Like, when I'm eating a pancake breakfast with hash browns, bacon, and eggs, I can't decide what my favorite thing is. I panic a little in my heart because I don't know how it's going to end. But that's what life is all about. Thrills, man. Thrills. I start out all confident that I'll end with a bite of bacon but then, the sweet syrupy pancakes start to win me over. Then the hash browns, that unassuming dark horse, make a comeback. And then the eggs are like, "Hey, we're the pure unblemished souls of chickens! Recognize!" At that point, all bets are off. It's anybody's game. I might go with bacon. I might not. Nothing's set in stone. Anything can happen. I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, ‘Tat, you crazy fool! You HAVE to have the last bite planned out AT ALL TIMES!’ But I like to live on the edge, Jack. I take chances. I flirt with danger. That's how I roll.”

Flirting with danger, that’s certainly one way to roll, and, I’m going to submit here that it’s not only a great way to roll but a great way to come to the timeless moment when danger, uncertainty, and the strangeness they engender roll into fusion between oneself and what, until that timeless moment, was another person. This is what I call intimacy.

A big part of success in anything has to do with allowing yourself to be surprised, indeed, being grateful for the leavening and spice of life's surprises, big and small. This is never more true than in relationships, but in principle yielding to surprise solves for what appears to be a host of life's more intractable problems while creating very few new problems of its own. Often events are just surprising and nothing else - not really problems at all if one can accommodate having not expected them.

I’ve been chatting about this idea with friends for a while to see what views I could glean that are different from my own. Rather than definite answers to the question of “what is intimacy?” or “how do you arrive at intimacy?” I have, for the obvious reasons, been interested in the question of whether suffering and displacement are legitimate access points to the realm of intimacy, and, concomitantly, what is that militates against immediate immersion into intimacy if suffering and displacement are indeed effective?

In the BDSM community we’re all familiar with the terms “intimacy averse” or “intimacy challenged”, and if I may presume to narrow these concepts down to something we can work with in the short time we have, let me suggest that they mean something like the inclination to run away, to withhold, or to give the impression of withholding, and, perhaps most importantly, to react with trepidation to a partner’s fullness of feeling in love, be it ecstatic or despairing.

To go into what I mean by “love” is a subject for another day – I’ll allow, however, that love in any universalizable sense of the word, must include an opening of self to the other, a revelation, if you will, where at least in some measure we expose the better, and the worse, angels of our natures to another person. I know that I will develop an intense and poignantly suasive feeling when I am coming unfurled before a companion, and never more so than when I am freely, profligately and perhaps even recklessly reducing their physical representation to me – who they look like, feel like, who they like to think they are. Rope is pretty good for this.

But, coming unfurled in this instance refers to the way in which I become completely honest about who I am in the moment, which is often neither pleasant nor attractive. But it’s authentic and it’s there, and it is fully expressive, and it fronts for me if it is welcome. If it’s unwelcome, it’s still there but there are other aspects of my character that may step to the fore at such times, no less honest, and which may be called upon to broker a continuation of the opening and the revelation.

Let me give you an example... (Besu and I teamed here to provide a visual aid similar to what we did a while back for photographer Jack Montgomery, a riff on Nobuyoshi Araki, right...)