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 versus 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 apparently individuated 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 any 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.

13 May, 2009

06 May, 2009

Undignified Debate

I repost the following from Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman, published originally in the op-ed section of the Washington Post, October 28, 2006, and recently quoted by Robert Creamer in the Huffington Post as a part of the ongoing non-debate between "because we can" rationalizationists for government torture and the morally less-challenged. Dorfman, as it turns out, authored the play Death and the Maiden, the theme of which is very much aligned with this thread. My recent posting by the same title is probably one of the last pieces I've written not on this thread.

It still haunts me, the first time - it was in Chile, in October 1973 - that I met someone who'd been tortured. To save my life, I had sought refuge in the Argentine Embassy some weeks after the coup that toppled the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, a government for which I had worked. And then, suddenly, one afternoon, there he was. A large-boned man, gaunt and yet strangely flabby, with eyes like a child, eyes that could not stop blinking and a body that could not stop shivering.

That is what stays with me - that he was cold under the balmy afternoon sun of Santiago de Chile, trembling as though he would never be warm again, as though the electric current was still coursing through him. Still possessed, somehow still inhabited by his captors, still imprisoned in that cell and the National Stadium, his hands disobeying the orders from his brain to quell the shuddering, his body unable to forget what had been done to it just as, nearly 33 years later, I, too, cannot banish that devastated life from my memory.

It was his image, in fact, that swirled up from the past as I pondered the current political debate in the United States about the practicality of torture. Something in me must have needed to resurrect the victim, force my fellow citizens here to spend a few minutes with the eternal iciness that had settled into the man's heart and flesh, and demand that they take a good hard look at him before anyone dare maintain that, to save lives, it might be necessary to inflict unbearable pain on a fellow human being. Perhaps the optimist in me hoped that this damaged Argentine man could, all these decades later, help shatter the perverse innocence of contemporary Americans, just as he had burst the bubble of ignorance protecting the young Chilean I used to be, someone who back then had encountered torture mainly through books and movies and newspaper reports.

That is not, however, the only lesson that today's ruthless world can teach from the distant man condemned to shiver forever.

All those years ago, that torture victim kept moving his lips, trying to articulate an explanation, muttering the same words over and over. "It was a mistake," he repeated, and in the next few days I pieced together his sad and foolish tale. He was an Argentine revolutionary who fled his homeland and, as soon as he crossed the mountains into Chile, had begun to boast about what he would do to the military there if it staged a coup, about his expertise with arms of every sort, about his colossal stash of weapons. Bluster and braggadocio - and every word of it false.

But how could he convince those men who were beating him, hooking his penis to electric wires and waterboarding him? How could he prove to them that he had been lying, prancing in front of his Chilean comrades, just trying to impress the ladies with his fraudulent insurgent persona?

Of course, he couldn't. He confessed to anything and everything they wanted to drag from his hoarse, howling throat; he invented accomplices and addresses and culprits; and then, when it became apparent that all this was imaginary, he said he was subjected to further ordeals.

There was no escape.

That is the hideous predicament of the torture victim. It was always the same story, what I discovered in the ensuing years, as I became an unwilling expert on all manner of torments and degradations; my life and my writing overflowing with grief from every continent. Each of those mutilated spines and fractured lives - Chinese, Guatemalan, Egyptian, Indonesian, Iranian, Uzbek, need I go on? - all of them, men and women alike, surrendered the same story of essential asymmetry, where one man has all the power in the world and the other has nothing but pain, where one man can decree death at the flick of a wrist and the other can only pray that the wrist will be flicked soon.

It is a story that our species has listened to with mounting revulsion, a horror that has led almost every nation to sign treaties over the past decades declaring these abominations as crimes against humanity, transgressions interdicted all across the earth. That is the wisdom, national and international, it has taken us thousands of years of tribulation and shame to achieve. That is the wisdom we are being asked to throw away when we formulate the question - does torture work? - when we allow ourselves to ask whether we can afford to outlaw torture if we want to defeat terrorism.

I will leave others to claim that torture, in fact, does not work, that confessions obtained under duress - such as that extracted from the heaving body of that poor Argentine braggart in some Santiago cesspool in 1973 - are useless. Or to contend that the United States had better not do that to anyone in our custody lest someday another nation or entity or group decides to treat our prisoners the same way.

I find these arguments - and there are many more - to be irrefutable. But I cannot bring myself to use them, for fear of honoring the debate by participating in it.

Can't the United States see that when we allow someone to be tortured by our agents, it is not only the victim and perpetrator who are corrupted, not only the "intelligence" that is contaminated, but also everyone who looked away and said they did not know, everyone who consented tacitly to that outrage so they could sleep a little safer at night, all the citizens who did not march in the streets by the millions to demand the resignation of whoever suggested, even whispered, that torture is inevitable in our day and age, that we must embrace its darkness?

Are we so morally sick, so deaf and dumb and blind, that we do not understand this? Are we so fearful, so in love with our own security and steeped in our own pain, that we are really willing to let people be tortured in the name of America? Have we so lost our bearings that we do not realize that each of us could be the hapless Argentine who sat under the Santiago's sun, so possessed by the evil done to him that he could not stop shivering ?

22 April, 2009

Fine Art 105

Well, all right.

I've been on a bit of a tear about political miscrescence lately, and perhaps struggling a bit to bring these into line with the subject of this journal. This has been noted to me by more than one correspondent in recent weeks.
"...well and good, but I don't usually think to go to RSE as I read the Times, and it's good that you try but it doesn't work the other way round any better."
I appreciate that LS, so I'll stick scrupulously to rope this week. Well, that and maybe a dash of fine art.

Many people have commented over the months on the little image to the right of this post - "Puzzle Piece". That was a photo that was planned to happen with a particular photographer a lot sooner than it actually did, but what came into being in its stead are several excellent artistic and personal connections I now enjoy, including with my co-conspirator in "Puzzle Piece", the real subject of that image, of whom you see a little more than half (to guard her identity). However, the photographer, Michele Serchuk, and I had worked together before and come up with some beautiful and unlikely successes in unusually difficult locations. It seems the last thing Michele and I will ever do is shoot anything under well-controlled circumstances, but much good in my life has come of the initial impetus to get dirty in front of her lens.

I was already well-acquainted with Michele's work when I heard from a then-new friend I'd met at BondCon (back when that event was being held in NYC) and with whom I'd played several times, that Michele was interested in photographing us doing what we were still figuring out we liked to do together. The location would be a crumbling truck garage in the meatpacking district (now desperately chic, but then prelapsarian); suspension points would be what one could scrounge, and motor oil was guaranteed to be pretty much on everything. Several of these images have become calling cards of mine since, and this next one evinces especially well the spirit I like to bring to all such proceedings:

Michele shoots medium format on very high speed film (ASA 4000+) to get the splendid granular detailing (always poorly reproduced on the Web) using available light. The picture above was made with the help of a small clearstory admitting southern light - I could barely see anything myself and discovered thereby for the first time that tying in the dark is good fun.

The images below were made in a stairwell with what came in through a single skylight. There are many better examples available at her website. In the meantime, however, the following are shots from that first session for which I preserve some serious affinity.

With thanks to my dear LH.

14 April, 2009


Or maybe just loyal.

I light of the many and disturbing revelations being made these days under the general rubric of "torture," I feel increasingly compelled to point where I can to clear-headed accounts of what has been the neo-American position and tradition on torture in recent years, and its high distinction as a mode of interaction between people.

Consider this digest of the ICRC Report on the Treatment of Fourteen "High Value Detainees" in CIA Custody in last week's New York Review of Books (with thanks to John Wirenius for pointing it out). Also

One of the most obvious distinguishing characteristics of American-style torture is the ambivalence of its enablers. Seldom has so edifying and concrete a term been so cavalierly double-spoken by its practitioners. "Enhanced interrogation techniques", indeed. Nothing so sullies any act as shame, and nothing is quite so neo-American as absolving ourselves of our bad behavior by professing our self-loathing. In principle, however, this is less neo-American than a first-world updating of the old passive-aggressive Puritan two-step, known better to historically liberal sensibilities as moral cowardice.

What makes it moral is that it is an act of will; the will to purity. What makes it cowardice is that, while Puritans of all stripes love purity, Puritans generally dare not speak the name by which such love would be reified, namely the destruction of the impure ("Death to the infidel!" notwithstanding). Nietzsche ennobled the will to power ("Machtgelüst") in several of his works, and noted that it was as characteristic of enfeebled ascetic types as it was of robust, pro-creative types. Only one of the two could, however, be said to be an honest broker of their intentions.

In the present case our elected leaders have been too ashamed to call what they were directing what everyone already knew it was; as though it's not torture when we do it (and heaven forfend it should be looked upon as simple sadism). To give a moment's benefit of a teeny, tiny doubt, perhaps torture is such a definitionally gray area among those at the levers of power that other world leaders and international bodies were understandably cautious in their observations and condemnations of neo-American behavior. Is the nature of leadership power a contingent property of the threat of torture (the so-called "deterent effect" so beloved of penal-industrialists, gun nuts, drug warriors and sabbath gasbags)? Maybe, and maybe if you're a leader you have to deal with the possibility you'll have to use that threat someday. Maybe we've all been reminded lately that it's not just a threat, and that we should be careful about what we sign up for when pulling our own little levers, like on voting machines.

It's certainly no mistake nor should it be a surprise that clear reportage on torture is just now emerging - directly on the heels of the departed regime (the ICRC Report is dated early 2007, but was just released within the last month). Although it clearly advantages them to discredit the previous regime, I have been impressed by the new Obama administration's forthright use of the word "torture" to describe what has been going on, to permit open and transparent debate on the matter within its ranks, and to allow that it's going to take some time to clear it up. It's the antithesis of the earlier view, free of moral absolutism and capable of working the ground between the polarities of purity on both sides; the pro-"enhanced interrogationists" and the Human Rights Watch-ers. It's smart and utterly impure stuff, the first we've seen of its kind in a long while.

In the BDSM world view, what we do and our experience of it we call sadism, plainly. It's focused, directed energy between two people for an instant or an hour, it's intended to register as an unconventional sensation (conventionally called "pain") and to shift the recipient's frame of reference - psychic, emotional, corporeal. The rope bondage I love so much I consider to be especially capable in levering all of the above, through the surfeit of time required to do it, through the symbolic and actual connections, and through the symbolic and actual suffering of physical restraint. What happens in that space is unconditioned, and it's not always good, but the disposition toward its potentials has to be non-normative or what you've got is failure before the fact. In positive terms, one has to have a bit of a liberal world view to get what BDSM has to offer; to be honest of intent and to gladly suffer uncertainty of outcomes.

For all of a top's activity inside a scene, the benefits of the frame shift accrue equally (if not in greater measure) to the receiving party, and this, apropos my last post on the subject, is another characteristic marker of BDSM. It ain't BDSM if the lever you're using extracts power from the exchange.

That would be torture.

07 April, 2009

The American Menegele

In a chilling amplification of my previous post comes this article in today's New York Times.

It strikes me in the first place as pretty disturbing that American culture can foster the begetting of soulless functionaries capable of administering torture under the sponsorship of the state. But then we also have such a punitive cultural calibration that to suggest there's anything amiss in having the "free" world's largest prison population (5% of the world's population, 25% of the world's prisoners) is political suicide. As an aid to job creation for its security-industrial complex the same culture endorses inexpensive and unencumbered access to high-powered weaponry, paid for in part by rationing the medical necessities that often ensue from the proper and intended uses of this same weaponry.

Now we learn that there is a branch of our illustrious medical profession capable of repurposing the Hippocratic oath to finesse the maximum of suffering obtainable short of death (usually) in the name of... security. Now, I'm the first to point out the salutary uses of a little well-intended, soulful suffering - it's a tonic and the grist in the mill that gives creative impulses traction. But what kind of world view brooks the commodification of suffering? What kind of society rallies its wealth and genius to expand pain gratuitously, along with the anxiety that attends its anticipation? What kind of cultural spirit seeks to abjure the most basic of human virtues, such as robust health, educated senses and refinement of feeling, learning, the miracle of sex and its importance to the race?

Ours, it would appear. Punish, punish, punish... that's our big idea, our big contribution, pretty much since Jonathan Edwards and Cotton Mather.

We're good at it in the worst possible ways, and we're only getting better.

04 April, 2009

Is It Torture Yet?

Consider the ethical dilemma of meat-eating on page 310 of Michael Pollen's brilliant Omnivore's Dilemma :
"To (Benjamin Franklin's ) argument 'other animals eat meat', the animal rightist has a simple, devastating reply; Do you really want your moral code based on the natural order? Murder and rape are natural, too. Besides, we can choose: Humans don't need to kill other creatures in order to survive; carnivorous animals do."
To this I reply that a moral code based on the natural order is apt if for no other reason than our ability to conceive of rights is also natural. If we endorse the natural ability to choose as being in the order of things, but exclude choices based on selective observation of the natural order, then we have only deepened our dilemma.

Coming obliquely yet again to my point, I wish to observe that empathy is the determining ground of torture.

Think about it. Other animals kill outright, and if they don't kill outright they linger a bit over their prey's demise, perhaps to sustain the rush of the hunt, perhaps naively. As agonizing as that may make the death of the poor creature in a predator's clutches, ethically it does little more than make sport of the act, but not torture. I think it's safe to say that in as much as a motive may be imputed to any predator (other than humans) it has to do with getting the kill.

Humans do stalk, hunt and kill for sport, but we also do these things for utterly bureaucratic purposes as well, and then often with no intent to kill. Torture, the blandly procedural visiting of engineered suffering upon another person, serves an end but is seldom the end itself, various religious and political manias notwithstanding. Even in the case of an event such as the famous Inquisition during which the infliction of lethal suffering putatively served some ennobling end (say, salvation), it's fulfillment was contingent on the recipient's confession, renunciation, or what have you - the externalized criterion. I have to doubt that it's ever been recorded that any prelate who committed or suffered to be committed the laying of a lash on the hapless back of an innocent owned up to a simple will to be an agent of suffering; the mission of the priestly class (always a dangerous and uniquely religious confection) was, and still is, the legitimizing pretext.

When the visiting of pain is the end itself then what is happening is sadism, and the distinguishing mark of its humanity is empathy. Want of empathy mixed with externalized criteria (e.g., renouncing Satan / al Qaeda / le diable du jour) to which the engineered suffering is suborned is torture. While in the popular consciousness the space between sadist and torturer is ethically gray, and doubtless there is plenty of room for crossover, the unfriendly, oafish, often pathological, and as often statist, mode of hurting others favors the term "torture".

Sadism is an intimate act. To be sadistic is to stay close to the authentic feelings of one's partner in the act, and in an sado-masochistic context a sadist's partner would nominally be a masochist, but not always. Many are the partners with whom I've shared an intense experience who would never identify as masochistic. They have no fondness for the pain they experience as a product of my depredations, but they take it in and work out their ultimate triumph over it, often by absenting themselves from it, but, again, not always. Sometimes it ends up just being a long effort of endurance. It is often more difficult for me to be cruel to someone I know derives nothing of value from pain qua pain. Their psychic, emotional and physical machinations within our exchange are more complex, less scrutable to me, and thereby in a sense more demanding of my empathy, with which I often feel myself responding profligately, if not always evenly.

Throughout, the ends served are uniquely contained within the exchange between partners, whether pain is intended, or at all the object of the proceedings. As often as not, a partner will tell me that their objective was to witness how much I pack into my love, and how unconventional I can make its expression. To quote a recent email from a lover of many years past, speaking to her perceptions of my approach:
"One thing it's definitely not is ordinary - you're like an anti-Valentine. Your affection was always tailor-made to me, however fucked-up it looked to anyone else (and it did and still does), and it sucked sometimes, it hurt so much, but it was pure and I always thought it was my own. It's unforgettable because it's unimaginable."
That was long enough ago for me to blush at what she was referring to and my own ineptitude at that time. Then I was not clear that what I was doing was not torture in the most venal meaning of the word, and this lover would not turn out to be masochistic in the end, although she was working on figuring that out through our play, much as I was figuring my way through my conflicts about being mean with someone I love. What I like to believe she is pointing out above is less so the depravity of our erotic interest in each other and more the closeness and intimacy borne of the difficulty of what we were doing - me naively throwing (nylon!) rope, her asking for it, both of us aroused by our respective uncertainties. I hurt her not quite knowing what I was doing (incompetence plus nylon equals rope burns every time). She got off not on the pain, but on the intensity of my approach and that I would risk any of it on her.

What I understand with the passing of time and the patient teaching of my partners is that what I do with rope, my hands, my cock or any other part of me is far less important than what and how much I'm willing to offer to the space we would fill between us, which in the natural order of things may be the essential import of human eroticism. It's a choice as to how we do who we are, and the choices are pretty much unlimited in the erotic realm, but what they all have in common in order to preserve them as erotic is empathy, no matter the mode of their expression. My expression happens to induce an eruption in the range of human feeling usually given a wide path under most circumstances. Absent empathy what I chronicle in these pages would be torture. With empathy, the adhesive media of human expression that can transform a victim into a participant, there is the possibility of transcendence.

With thanks to Spain, for doing the right thing, and to A. for keeping her old emails.

25 March, 2009

Little Face

Sometimes it takes another species to humanize us.

It's one of those weird paradoxes of my fondness for binding lovely lasses that I must be exceedingly fond of them in the first place to motivate the degeneracy I would ever consider visiting upon them. The act of restraining someone is necessarily reductive - the person presenting love to me and receiving love from me becomes with a few meters of ligature a fabulous distortion of a person - I amputate at this joint, efface that feature, make of my lover less a one and more an all. I'm often tempted to call it objectification, but it's not quite. When my machinations work, the broad humanity of my lover becomes much more evident than her specific individuality.

There are times, however, it's not quite working, when I lose track of what my friend D might call the transformation, when I fret a bit over what I'm doing, worry about her humanity and wonder about my own, my civility, the barbarism of my instincts and their disquieting manifestations. At such moments it has for years been a comfort to me when someone like Conor pads into the scene to rework my perspective, to check in on his first love, his mistress, and to affirm to all present that God is in his heaven and everything is as it should be.

Intelligent, instinctual fellow that he was for all the 14 years of his life, Conor is likely no less so for having died this past weekend. His rare ability persists in, for example, the words emerging into this essay, shaping this moment much as he did when his mistress would lay suffering helplessly on the floor, down at his level. He would make his casual but subtle entreaties to her inert form and remind everyone that, to his delicate and refined sensibilities, the woman whose limbs were normally available to hold him, whose voice normally cooed his name (or the even more affectionate "Little Face"), whose eyes would meet his, and who in this moment could do none of those things, was still very much a person he loved, and in his estimation very much at peace in her present dishabille. Having contented himself that everyone seemed happy enough with the general proceedings, he would take up him accustomed position on the living room couch to quietly observe the elegant violence among the humans.

Perhaps he sensed (as his mistress and I often have done) that all the drama was one big field of manic loving energy, and that his mistress was implicate in it... somewhere amidst the endless coils and coverings and laminations and loud eruptions. I flatter myself to think that Conor came to love me in part as a function of the affectionate brutality I visited on the provider of his evening provender, cleaner of his litter box and stroker of his ears. I was not known to him for those things (well, maybe I did stroke his little head a bit and opened a can of cat food once or twice - the litter box, however, was sacrosanct between him and his mistress), but Conor would receive me as though I belonged, comfort me when I wondered about my own humanity, drift by me as indifferently as any other member of the household in good standing, and insist upon attention only when the human drama to which I was party had quieted. He knew very well that it was all about love, and he himself loved being discretely in its midst, not wanting to interrupt, seemingly delighted to have it go on in all its sweaty and lurid spectacle. Even in his passing on he waited gracefully until a weekend when his mistress would be least inconvenienced and was for the moment in full possession of her limbs and voice, so that she might hold him in those final moments and coo into his ear.

He was an awfully good boy.

17 March, 2009

In BDSM We Trust

Silly me.

I have always thought in my anthropologically Pollyannaish way that the possibility of such a cunning and competitive creature as homo sapiens making it this far without exterminating itself speaks to some deeply rooted cooperative impulse. Imagine my surprise in finding out that the received wisdom among evolutionary anthropologists is that social skills and cooperative behaviors developed to better compete with other humans.

Huh? So, the ability to wage war and ultimately to obliterate all life on our home planet is an adaptive improvement on the behaviors of Paleolithic hominidae? Who knew? And how about a species that can completely encode such a trait in but a few thousand years (i.e., a blink of the evolutionary eye)? Despite the credit due our species under this view for collectively mutating faster than A-Rod, the grimness of the entailments I can scarcely imagine (how about this one - North Korea wins).

Who can blame AIG for trying to reverse-hedge the insurance business?

While I would not question the position that competitive pressures within the BDSM social milieu exist and are indeed intense, the success of BDSM as practice once a partner relationship has been established is predicated on something rather less zero-sum, a trait that is apparently being looked upon as theoretically radical, possibly even heretical, among anthropologists.

In a recent New York Times article there is reported a recent shift toward a new direction among careful thinkers in such matters. In a recent monograph, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding, primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy observes that human babies are uniquely expert in eliciting from their adults deeply suborned evolutionary adaptations, the net effect of which evince to us our own capacity to trust.

The great apes get their progeny up and running on their own much faster than humans; among mammals human infants are unusually helpless for an unusually long period of time. This extended span of rearing is, understandably, rather a lot for any human mother to bear. Thus among the many ways humans cooperate in rearing children is, according to Hrdy, chief among beneficial adaptations. By their wily ways of keeping adults not merely entertained, but largely empathetic to their helplessness, infants provoke and reinforce the expression of the trust trait. This is true for apes, but apes will not generally ask for or offer assistance in the rearing of their young. Humans do, and we generally get a positive (read: non-infanticidal) response from our fellow adults because, well, we all find the little blobs of gristle pretty adorable.

Perhaps we are able on a sub-conscious level to recall our own helplessness as infants, and thereby file our responses to little ones under "empathetic", but according to Hdry we were "nice before we were smart." Even so, we were smarter than other cooperative animals (such as certain birds, wolves, etc. - it's how we managed not to become dinner) before we became fully homo sapiens spaiens some 12,000 years ago. But that's what makes the problem interesting. We had brains that were already cunning, territorial and selfish, and there is much about our behavior even today that augers against evolutionary success, but we seem to have evolved more profitably in the area of trust. Babies express it reflexively, parents recognize the trust their babies show toward (certain, not all necessarily) other adults, and trust the other adults to aid in the rearing of the children.

Of course, as soon as we entered the neolithic era, developed agriculture and settlements, we came up with the idea of territory and, concomitantly, war to enforce its boundaries. The selfish genes entered their ascendancy, but the extant traits for trusting were able to keep pace, and the time spent rearing our offspring has not gotten any briefer in the intervening millennia. As an adaptive trait trust and the sharing of pooled resources is still pretty novel.

In light of all this it's a bit startling to learn that the assumption of anthropologists, sociologists and political theorists has been for generations that humans are primarily competitive, and social adaptations are largely in service of that dominant impulse. Perhaps my rosey colored views can be attributed to my long experience at play in the fields of trust. Loving just one person takes a great deal of trust, and also faith that their love is genuine. The pains of loving fully and well are profound, and faith is required because the pain can so easily be taken personally. Loving many takes an expansion of faith, and the vectors of trust become much more densely interwoven. My wife trusts and loves my partners proceeding purely on the love and trust she sees in me for them (much as I believe Professor Hdry suggests obtains in other loving contexts), and I do likewise with her partners. Trust does much to ameliorate competitive impulses (which have their place in the evolutionary scheme of things once trust has been violated, I suspect).

I think most would agree that it's difficult to trust in just one relationship, much less many. With more than one or in several relationships conscious trust becomes something to which one has to surrender since there is no such thing as stage-managing it. What exactly is it were asking to trust anyway? That we not get hurt? If we're unwilling to hurt then we're unwilling to love. If we submit to trust (to quote the great Peter Gabriel line) we get love, and we get the inevitable pain of love too, but we take it, gladly.

I don't need to spell out the value in metaphor of BDSM play to the case supporting Professor Hdry's theory - I think many readers of this column understand the virtues of trust, of cooperation, of loving profligately and wastefully, and of electing to suffer in love. The demands on, and challenges to, trust in BDSM play are always formidable, and within that sphere I've elaborated on an infantile impulse my conscious mind surrendered over 40 years ago, but which may also be a key trait in shoring-up mankind's evolutionary prospects against its own prodigious inclination for self-immolation.

28 February, 2009

Death and the Maiden

I'm up in New England again doing a bit of work, tending the shop really. Nothing too strenuous - a new roof on one of the commercial spaces (installed during what has been a very cold and snowy winter) needs approving, some tax issues need reviewing, mostly I needed a little rural recharging.

One of the tax issues has to do with a case of fraud (for which I was the mark) wherein the culprit made off with a few tens of thousands deposited on an excavation job. He cashed the check, bolted, and promptly bought a spendy ride (fully chopped custom bike) to propel an intoxicated romp across Maritime Canada.

So it goes sometimes.

Being a good American I sued, and after a year or so (during which the defendant reliably failed to answer subpoenas) I won, which of course means nothing if the defendant's address, income and assets are now part of his cell chemistry (the expensive ride was wrecked in northern Maine, I believe - the subject of somebody else's suit. This is a popular guy). So I'm figuring out how to deduct the losses from the company taxes - this one of my companies is in a fortunate position given the state of the economy; we're making money so some deductions are not altogether unwelcome, but I can think of better ways to come by them. As I sat running numbers I ruminated on what quantity of recreational pharmaceuticals such numbers might buy. The amount I arrived at was considerable.

Still, getting thoroughly fucked up is not altogether an ignoble pursuit. Maybe grand larceny, fraud, vehicular mayhem and treble damages are all worth it.

I was reminded that Plato was want to wander the hills over Athens for days on end in springtime with his philosophical confrères in search of ergot, a mycorrhizal fungus that favors certain early grasses and contains the chemical analogs to LSD. They took a lot of trouble, those ancients, to get high. My defrauder committed a great deal of energy to his mood alteration as well, and if things work out the way Colchester deputies think they should, he will continue to expend energy for a long time in memory of his Bacchanalia.

I do not have Plato's philosophical consciousness, a hustler's lack of it, or the devout interest of either to alter its contours dramatically. I'm more of a plodding voluptuary, and my greatest pleasures can be the smallest - especially if they're elastic or show up with some regularity. I'm with Plato on the fungus, however. It's about this time of year that I start to look forward to the snows thinning and the pines lifting and the chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius) popping up. It's too early yet, but I took a hike upland with Ben to have a look for likely new prospecting areas, to check the old favorite and secret sites, and to see if I could remember my favorite recipes, such as Pfifferlingen in Rahmsauce - the Germans treat the arrival of der Pfifferling with a kind of reverence reserved otherwise for the likes of Elvis and David Hasselhof.

Last year I wrote of the morel hunt out in Oregon's piney woods. This year I'll be sticking close to the North Country oaks and focusing my vision softly for the tell-tale venting of the decoupaged and decaying ground cover where chanterelles and other root-bound symbionts do their work with the dead.

It was late afternoon as I walked, like Plato, in the hills, my thoughts full of fungus. The shadows were already long and I considered that the deer would be coming out soon - always an issue with Ben. Still, the low-angled light, the brittleness of the air and the bracing effect of climbing through north woods in winter had me in an excellent mood.

As I wandered among the oaks, maples, hickories and beeches, beneath my feet invisible tendrils of massive, acre-wide organisms pulsed with purpose, intent on inserting their fruiting bodies into my realm in coming months. Their purpose, biological or otherwise, apparently no one really knows; the fruiting body of the chanterelle is extraneous to its position in the great chain of being. The business of mushrooms takes place in mystery - to attempt to look at it is to destroy it. The part of any mushroom we can see, and the part of certain mushrooms we treasure, is the potentially lethal part of the ones we don't. It takes strong medicine to disassemble nature's complexity into discrete and again-useful elements, and some of it would just as soon dissolve your liver as it does deer spoor.

The working body of a wild mushroom is the mycelia that interdigitate with the roots of trees as symbionts, issuing a variety of nutrients as byproducts of metabolizing dead stuff and receiving sugars the tree produces from photosynthesizing. The whole arrangement is an exemplary shorthand for the cycle of carbon, indeed, the cycle of life. The tree reaches for and gathers to itself the energy of the sun, with it elaborating carbohydrates for acres of subterranean organisms which do the dark work of breaking apart dead tissues into useful molecules for the living. Too much light and a mushroom withers, dig it up and it tears apart. Thus are their chthonian powers associated with night and the moon, and, not incidentally, with lunacy, for among the many powers assigned to the kingdom Fungi, the many fancy alkaloid compounds they pack can have a profound effect on humans who ingest them; profound to the point of death.

Andrew Weil, in his trippy and rollicking The Marriage of the Sun and Moon: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Consciousness suggests that mushrooms collect and concentrate the powers of the moon in much the way the plant kingdom collects and concentrates the power of the sun, and the animal kingdom collects and concentrates the power of the other two, only in the end to be molecularly returned to the use of both. I like this idea as it has about it the whiff of a certain mystical sophistication, comports itself well to symmetry (justice?) and thereby gross scientific understanding, while in the same move thumbing its nose at problems of method. Perhaps Weil would say other kingdoms have other methods inscrutable to the animal mind, but there is about the whole flow-and-concentration-of-powers-idea something analogous to SM and therefore to me intuitively agreeable.

While crunching through the old snow, I found myself presently in the throes of a small reverie concerning the eerie parallels between the beautiful, mysterious, inscrutable, earthy, meaty, delicious and potentially deadly mushroom and that other great betokening of lunar wisdom, capital-W Woman. That Woman is associated with the cyclicality of the moon seems almost trivial in comparison to a moment's reckoning with her deeper mysteries, the collective genius of which governs the subtle substructures of all apparent being, penetrates all things and delivers the most refined products of its endeavors invisibly to striving humanity, mostly quietly, sometimes dramatically, all for the low, low price of being Dionysus' emmisary (Dionysus, the god of altered states, whose priests claimed sole rights to the hallucinogenic scarlet mushroom amanita muscaria, by means of which they communed with their master) and romping in the messy and necessary fields of destruction so that life may cycle through yet again.

I broke out of the Mile Around Wood onto a pasture in the far corner of which Ben was nose down to the frozen earth, blowing powdery snow up around his face and pawing excitedly. I was a good 25 yards from him. As I stopped to enjoy his pique a rabbit leaped in a small explosion of frost out of the ground not more than 20 feet from Ben, racing immediately toward the center of the field. Ben was after it before his nose was entirely out of the hole.

The rabbit, apparently realizing the error of its first trajectory, abruptly changed course 90 degrees for the cover of Bucket Wood opposite where I was emerging onto the scene. By that time Ben was very close and the rabbit's instinct to make for cover was its undoing. With a very small tack Ben placed his maul right in the rabbit's new path and with a plowing of snow and a quick jerk of the head it was all over. In all not more than 5 seconds had elapsed.

The rabbit was limp - clearly dead, but I called to Ben sternly just the same. Ideally he's not supposed to kill things on his constitutionals. When he gets a quarry in his sights often he remembers his shock collar and the situation is defused before it gets started. This time there was blood on the snow before my hand got anywhere near the sending unit. He stood a moment like a trophied show dog, head high, square of shoulder and absolutely at attention, ready to be judged by anyone who dared. As my voice faded into the woods he relaxed and sat down in the snow, pointedly not dropping his prize, defiant of my challenge to the taste of blood on his tongue.

I crossed the pocketed tundra intent to make my point with him, but, despite my thoughtful intentions, proud of his canine skill. His tail told me that he was wise to my ambivalence and he suffered no misgivings that I was either going to punish him or deprive him of his spoils. He looked very pleased with himself, tail twitching expectedly, and even put his prey gently down as I got close. His eyes were more twinkly than wild when I patted his shoulders and said "go ahead".

Ben picked up the rabbit, bounded about with it a few times, then put a paw on its broken back and tore a conservative rend in its middle, managing the gore with his tongue. Once the rabbit was splintered open he quartered it with Jacques Pepin - like flourish and made a clean job of devouring every bit, bloodied snow and all. I watched him relish his essential nature and worried only a moment about the possibility for worms, deciding that was simply not going to happen (just because) and thought finally that in a few hours, perhaps on the walk before bedtime, this rabbit, only a few minutes ago hibernating underground unmolested by either mycelia or Ben, would be transformed into to the sort of organic matter any mushroom would probably find useful.

I looked around to see if any oaks were nearby.

22 February, 2009

Onesies and Twosies

When, in the 19th century, William James considered the question of how the world must look to a newborn infant he said it could only be "one great blooming, buzzing confusion." Thus could an infant have nothing like a world view, however rudimentarily formed - it was one of the very earliest arguments concerning what we now call the "nature verses nurture" debate. As The Economist reports recently, one thing that appears natural to newborns even less than a day old is the concept of number.

Discerning changes in the world is among our principle means of learning about it, and a key signal of change is numerical distinction. When an infant perceives the status of a thing changing from one to two, apparently a cascade of interesting mental functions are taking place, including rudimentary forms of addition and multiplication.

The experiments recounted in The Economist have been going on for decades and have been replicated widely enough for researchers to now say with confidence that people are born with an innate sense of relatively how many items are in small collections. The basic experiment puts a card with one or two dots on it before the eyes of a newborn until she fixes her gaze on it. The card is then replaced with the dot or dots repositioned; their spacial relation changes, but the number is unchanged. Quickly the infant looses interest. When the card is numerically changed (one dot becomes two, two dots become three, etc.) her interest is rekindled. In some experiments it has been demonstrated that babies take note of the removal of one or more dots, which is the beginning of an understanding of negative numbers. This effect is just as reliable between senses, with groupings of three sounds becoming interesting upon loss of interest in two.

We humans are not unique in this way. There are animals that also perceive and understand small numbers. Ravens, for example, can be observed recognizing numerical signifiers to determine which container holds food, and chimpanzees are able to match numerically identical groupings of dissimilar items in anticipation of a food reward. While these effects are trained responses indicating ability, lions in the wild apparently can understand the numerical superiority or inferiority of their pride verses a maurauding group by counting the roars from a distance of the advancing pride. They will stand their ground or retreat based on this rudimentary calculation.

Such observation has led thinkers on the subject to postulate that the human brain is hardwired for numbers, with dedicated brain circuits that can work with small groups of things. From this basic ability to deal with one, two, then maybe one and two to make three, we have a base from which to elaborate a very complex but consistently testable tool for parsing the world and creating from James' "blooming, buzzing confusion" catagories and an orderly universe. As soon as we're able, we establish other bases upon which to perform increasingly complex arithmetic operations, such as base-10 (apparent by our fingers), base-20 (fingers and toes), bases -12, 24 and 60 (time functions, which have a richer factor set than base-10), and so forth. Known uses of positive integers predates an understanding of zero, which is numerically an abstraction (the absence of number).

As always, it's fair to ask of what interest this may be on a blog ostensibly dedicated to bondage and other of the BDSM arts. As I've noted before, binding and being bound are their own forms of signifier, and I've made cases for their utility in revisiting known precincts in experience and memory that have about them the noetic qualities of mystical consciousness. Being bound resembles nothing so much as the restriction of the womb, and in the womb, as I've noted, 1 is the only quantity intelligible to inchoate consciousness.

As noted in The Economist article, the history of philosophy and anthropology is shot through with theories of how humans are induced to count. One of the oldest is the use of two arms. Even the word for a single number, digit, is derivative of base-10 calculating as it refers to a finger (and, in meaning any single number designating any quantity, say, a single instance of the number 374, digit is already a meta-signifier, a very complex mental leap). Some researchers, having observed that babies move easily to three from two (adding one) have assumed that innate brain circuits pattern after at least the number two based on an innate feeling for the presence of two arms, or two legs. The brain wires itself with respect to our bilateral symmetry and thus we emerge into the world with at least an arithmetic 2-base.

Returning to the womb I don't doubt that during our tenancy there our brains align by lobe and hemisphere and structure, which often enough are bifurcated across a medial line. But many important brain structures are limited to one occurrence, such as the structures that interface between discrete brain bodies, for instance the corpus callosum. As far as bilateral symmetry is concerned, 1 is structurally and numerically just as important as 2.

Even if consciousness had the ability to "construct" (a la Jean Piaget) the number two out of some dim perception of two arms or legs, there is no enframing device in which to perform any function to distinguish the number two from the number one. Furthermore there is no basis to believe that non- or pre-arithmetic abilities, such as a crude logic, endow us with the ability to predicate "and" of the womb situation. We do not see "this hand" and "this hand" any more than a goose counts two "sides" to the sky while flying. Stereoptic vision, even unfocused, provides us with a unique singular vector along which depth is given to perception, thus furthering the case for perception in the womb being more of a fusion field than an environment where elements are intelligible as discrete.

It's clear that brand-newborns get the difference between numbers and that the structures of the brain align themselves bilaterally in gestation. What's also clear is that we have no basis for assuming that, just because babies can differentiate numbers within an hour of having been born, the same proclivity exists in them a priori. The case for understanding number is divided across the birth event, for within the womb the number two is beyond "irrational", it's non-rational - it does not come up in consciousness.

The event precipitating babies' performing the big leap into numerical complexity is birth. From the monad of the womb, the trip down the birth canal into bright light, cold air and near instant hunger is the bringing of, first, a simple logical predicate, and (as in, this and then this - before and after - which is the touching down of an anchor into a linear concept of time, itself arithmetic). In a very short instant we are thrust from one state (and a state of oneness) into something completely different. Time and number begin.

It has often been said to me by people - partners - whose experience I have witnessed and whose ability to speak of their feelings is liberal and intelligent, that being bound is to step out of time. A long stretch can pass, an entire afternoon of rigorous restraint, and it will be recounted to me as if a dream (or sometimes the timeless feeling is recounted as more real than the realm of time in which the feeling is being described). In any event, the moment of being loosened from bondage is often likened to the re-nascence of normal, conceptual time and space, something in which one touches down, in which one gets up and walks around, which one puzzles over and figures out.

Out of the womb and into the head.

Time and number are very useful for either navigating a world or constructing a world view, but they are also the crystallization of the many stones that will accrete to drag on us as we pass this life. The effects of time are additive, numerically and ontologically, while the number one remains factorable by only itself; it is, in other words, ontologically self-referential - monadic. Even with the onset of number, time, and the passing of life across various arithmetic bases by which we would detail its splendor, we always return to the idea and the feeling of one -ness. As I have written here on numerous occasions, the forgetting of differentiation is the impetus to intimacy and its very sweet function. The number one is what we know before 2 and 10 and 24 and primes and irrationals and all the other divisions become apparent, and this we never forget - because it's what we are.

I will further suggest that we have a suspicion about elaborated numbers in the same way we wonder whether the apparent world is not just a mask, "einer Welt vor der Welt", the veil of Maya, as it were. We trust integrity, we suspect duplicity. We have formed mass social movements around peoples' innate trust of the principle of unity and called them religions. We have formed tiny social movements around peoples' innate trust of the principle of unity and called it love. The former, while motivated from exactly the same precondition as the latter, proceeds on the faulty assumption that the apparent is real, that the number two is innate, and that thereby man can be ontologically distinguished from God. The latter proceeds from the logically and arithmetically tenable assumption that the number one is, despite the infinite calculability of the apparent world, still the primary and only ontologically meaningful factor.