Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Authority (not in the sense you think...)

On a mailing list I'm on, someone mentioned old school radical feminism and brought up Ti-Grace Atkinson on BDSM. I haven't read much of her on it, just whatever was in Against Sadomasochism, and eve there I don't remember what exactly she said as opposed to the others. But what the person brought up was her idea that BDSM exposes, lays bare, shows up in stark contrast the power dynamics under patriarchy.

And I was just thinking about that, about how at least among anti-BDSM feminists, statements and theories like those are assumed to be authoritative. They're assumed to tell the real truth about us and what we do and its meaning.

The curious thing is that they're assumed to do this even when we, people who actually do BDSM, say that's not so, or even claim the opposite.

What that means is that the voice of the theorist ("feminist theorist?" "radical feminist theorist?") gets privileged over the voice of the members of the community. The theorist's voice, the voice of Analysis and "Neutral" Examination, is taken to be a better representation of truth than the voices of the people within the particular subculture/doing the activities being examined.

And that strikes me as a real problem with a lot of theoretical analysis. People get so hung up on theory, on coming up with a theory, on Having An Explanation, that they never stop to consider whether their explanation at all hooks up with the lived experience of those they describe.

It happens all the time. I lurk in various body modification communities, and some people (not everyone) do a lot of things that others consider incomprehensibly painful or strange. Fleshhook suspension. Subdermal implants. Tongue splitting. Cutting and branding. Castration. Voluntary amputation. Even genital piercing is strange to some people.

And of course, the reaction of these people -- some of whom are professionals; just have a look at the random bad editorial articles written by shrinks in magazines -- is to look not at the people's explanation, but to assume that the people must be deluded or have false consciousness to do such strange and drastic things to their bodies. There's little or no attempt to square theory with practice.

And to me, well, yes, it is possible for someone to be deluded about whether something is good for her. Of course. We all are sometimes. But the idea that an entire cultural identity can be ignored and written off simply because a particular theory of false consciousness or social dynamics is internally coherent has always struck me as very odd, if not downright dangerous.

25 comments:

SnowdropExplodes said...

Sort of,

"to whom would you rather listen concerning the structure of the universe - Aristotle, or Galileo?" It's the same mismatch of pure philosophy versus science.

I have heard (I don't know how true this story is) that for centuries people believed that beetles only had four legs - because Aristotle said so, therefore it must be true. Nobody (or at least, nobody in the intellectual elite) stopped and counted the legs on a real beetle to find out if it really was! This is exactly the same problem as you describe.

pepomint said...

This is a general problem of authority in the culture - no matter what we're talking about, there is a tendency to privilege the opinions of "experts" on some subject affecting people's lives, when instead we should listening to the people affected. In terms of sexuality, "experts" historically were medical professionals, though as you've pointed out, academia can weigh in too.

There's a branch of queer/feminist theory that I call "standpoint theory" that basically boils down to:

"Don't write theory about a minority community that you are not a member of."

Which seems pretty obvious, but is almost never obeyed.

Of course, if a person is writing "theory" about their own community, it tends not to be theoretical at all, but rather practical, activist, and probably correct.

Anyways, this is why there's very little analysis writing on race or trans issues in my blog: because I Just Don't Know, given my life experience. And I tend to be very careful with feminist stuff for the same reason, and stick to the really obvious conclusions.

Trinity said...

"Don't write theory about a minority community that you are not a member of."

I'm not convinced of that. But I do think that in order to write theory about a minority community you need, at minimum, to be committed to engaging respectfully and productively with narratives from members of those communities.

So someone who wants to radfem it up about BDSM should be committed to looking up and closely examining narratives from within the community. Read Coming to Power at least (and preferably something newer as well). Quote them and use them in a way that honors the perspective they come from. If you think that perspective is wrong or misguided, be serious about recognizing that you're arguing against a voice that has authority by virtue of being authentic.

To me even THAT is a massive, massive step up.

EthylBenzene said...

Yes, just yes to everything said in the post and in the comments.

What is even more annoying is the absurd double standardness of it. Certainly in the radfem world a man does not have authority to speak to a woman's experience of the world, and (rightly) gets called out when they claim, f'rinstance, that sexism doesn't really exist, or women make up rape claims, or "why doesn't she just leave?" Because, obviously, no man has the same lens of viewing the world as any woman does.

But how does that understanding that "you over there do not know what I am thinking or how I am experiencing the world so shut up!" not translate to "I don't know what that person over there is experiencing, but maybe I should find out or shut up"???

Trinity said...

"But how does that understanding that "you over there do not know what I am thinking or how I am experiencing the world so shut up!" not translate to "I don't know what that person over there is experiencing, but maybe I should find out or shut up"???"

I think that's "just" because the theory supposedly "explains" the experience.

They know better than to explain being oppressed on an axis they're not without experience, but if BDSMers are not truly oppressed, then it's just an interesting phenomenon that they can Discuss.

Which y'know -- no. Good ethnographers wouldn't do that. Why should they not be held to a similar standard?

Myca said...

I had this exact same conversation with Bean some while back over on Alas, and upon being asked why on Earth she would think it's okay to theorize and intellectualize about a community, identity, and experiences that she has no part of, her response was something along the lines of "Rawr! Porn! Rape! Abuse!"

So yeah.

In my experience, there's not really a good answer.

Renegade Evolution said...

this applies to soooo many things. good one trinity

Dw3t-Hthr said...

I run into "My theory explains exactly why you disagree with my theory. You have to have ..." rather a lot.

My favorite example is the person who figured that the only reason I wasn't interested in casual sex was some sort of trauma, and the way to deal with that was clearly desensitisation therapy, because if I had a bunch of casual sex I'd learn I liked it like the theory said I ought to. (Rough translation: become enlightened! Fuck meeeee!)

But, y'know, the guy who was so "feminist" he would berate and abuse women who didn't conform to his delicate sensibilities (which were of course how women should be, at least if they were truly enlightened and liberated: monogamous and vanilla is Twoo Womanhood in the State of Nature). Or the "you're delusded by Satan, that's why you won't come to Jesus!" crowd. Or ....

We know the theory is true because it's the theory. Disagreement is explained within the theory as a defect in the other people, because the theory is Truth.

Meh.

Myca said...

Great points, Dw3t-Hthr.

It all comes back to my mantra: "Bad things happen when ideas become more important than people."

Your ('your' in this case meaning anyone and everyone) theory is not (ever) more important than an actual person. It's just not.

figleaf said...

I've been reading a ton of old-school radical feminists lately (Shulamith Firestone, Kate Millett, Andrea Dworkin, Germaine Greer) and... This could be a possible total brain fart here but I think one of the problems with trying to match theory of 40 years ago with BDSM as practiced today is that when they were writing there was no legal or philosophical basis for sexual consent.

And it makes me think about Trinity's meditations on "unacknowledged sadomasochism" in her not-a-magnifying-glass post: when they were writing there classics for the most part there was no such thing as dominance or submission, there was just "the way it is."

Now I happen to think that the work those early writers did, particularly the extraordinarily brusque (and possibly sexually submissive) Dworkin, to make "no means no" real (against resistance that's still, unbelievably, got a little life in it.) And I also happen to think that previously unheard of possibility that no could mean no, created, well, the safe spaces for the total explosion of conscious BDSM and other forms of kink we're able to practice today.

But! Because their work launched our contemporary understanding of the meaning of consent then by definition the classics can't really address the post-consent environment. To understand the new order we sort of have to look at newer, not-yet-classic radicals.

figleaf

Trinity said...

"when they were writing there classics for the most part there was no such thing as dominance or submission, there was just "the way it is."

Hmm. Yeah, I think they were some of the first people to *call* it that... though I do wonder what the BDSM-y things were being called in leather circles prior to that. I think maybe people said "sadist and masochist" or "Sir and boy" or "master and slave" more often than "dominant and submissive", but I don't know.

"to make "no means no" real (against resistance that's still, unbelievably, got a little life in it.)"

Oh, yeah, I do think that's what they were up to, and I think it was necessary, good work. I just don't like how they got stuck there. Or how it was all supposedly about pornography as a propaganda tool. I just don't think sexuality is that malleable.

"created, well, the safe spaces for the total explosion of conscious BDSM and other forms of kink we're able to practice today."

You may well be right.

Anonymous said...

"My favorite example is the person who figured that the only reason I wasn't interested in casual sex was some sort of trauma, and the way to deal with that was clearly desensitisation therapy, because if I had a bunch of casual sex I'd learn I liked it like the theory said I ought to. (Rough translation: become enlightened! Fuck meeeee!)"

Ugh. Sounds like a huge number of the poly men I know, Dw3t-Hthr.

Figleaf - I think there's something to this idea of many of the classic works coming from a very different context surrounding consent.

I think a hard-line standpoint theory isn't a great idea - one learns a lot from an outsider's comments - but refusing to engage and listen to what is said by people in the community in question is just bad practice.

--victor

--victor

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