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Playing Dirty: Pervertible Practices and Kinky Anthropology Claire Dalmyn MA Condidate, Social Anthropology, York University, Toronto, ON



The Magic Store: A Prologue

This paper explores some lively infoldings of play and field at play in the multiple substantive and theoretical fields in which I am enmeshed in working with fellow practitioners of BDSM (bondage and discipline, domination and submission, sadomasochism), specifically in queer women’s kink or “leatherdyke” communities in Toronto. This paper focuses in particular on questioning mainstream perceptions of kink practice and culture by unpacking taken-for-granted understandings of dirt, pollution, and sexual alterity, using the “Scene” concept of pervertibles (items not specifically intended for kink used in play) to bridge theory and practice. This is precisely the sort of playful tactical gesture I wish to embody in using my situated subjectivity to not only to “work” kink with the “tools” of anthropology, but to “play” anthropology with theoretical and methodological “toys” of kink culture and practice.

here’s a magic store in Toronto that sells supplies and trick kits to hobbyists and performing magicians. They also sell cotton rope in a couple of different weights and a handful of bright colours. While acknowledging that just about every kind of rope has its relative advantages and its proponents among kink practitioners, I’ll admit that I’m a fan of magician’s rope. Besides being strong enough and holding knots well enough for most ground work (that is, bondage applications that do not involve the added tensions of partially or completely suspending the bound party off the ground), it is soft and easy to care for, and it is these things because, unlike ropes used in climbing, boating or industrial contexts, this rope is actually constructed for tying up people. It’s also fairly inexpensive and easy to obtain, two common advantages of pervertible materials. I learned about this store from a friend. I’m not sure how she heard about it. On her first visit, my friend told me, when she asked the sales assistant to measure and cut her some standard-for-bondage lengths of bold blue rope, the assistant asked if she was a professional magician. My friend reports taking a deep breath and weighing the virtues of lying to this smiling stranger, asking herself “What would Midori do?”1 “No,” my friend told the sales assistant, “I’m a pervert.” “Oh . . .” The older woman paused, blinked, then smiled again brightly. “You know we have costumes, too—tell your friends!” Messy, Sticky and Miasmal: Fertilizing Dirty Anthropologies Woody Guthrie carves a sign into his guitar saying “this machine kills fascists.”


I say, “here’s a monkey wrench; if you bop me on the head long enough, maybe I’ll wake up for a second.” Bern (1998)

BDSM, kink, play, pollution 1 A well-known and very charismatic kink educator and performance artist.

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Ani DiFranco says, “every tool is a weapon if you hold it right.”

‘Playing the Field’ Conference Proceedings | Social Anthropology | York University 2009

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The rhizome is a multiplicity, an eclectic and eccentric assemblage of heterogeneous elements (Deleuze and Guattari 1987). It grows, not like a tree, always-outwards according to strict hierarchal principles, but together and apart in every direction, jumping registers in every dimension. “The rhizome itself assumes very diverse forms, from ramified surface extension in all directions to concretion into bulbs and tubers. When rats swarm over each other. The rhizome includes the best and the worst: potato and couchgrass” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:6). As a mode of relating not to but in the world, the rhizome is connection incarnate, anything to everything. It is about links and leaks and lines of flight, plateaus of intensity, and we track it by mapping its breaks and flows rather than by tracing its external-internal divisions. Growing in rhizomes is a minor science, a nomad habit, like Levi-Strauss’ bricolage (1968) and de Certeau’s poaching (Jenkins 1992), a tactical practice of using what’s at hand. It is cobbling together an experiential world using whatever odds and ends you can lay claim to just long enough to recycle them and set them moving in new ways, new contexts. My hope in growing a paper around found objects—stories, tools, toys, art, which are not seeds but cuttings from other rhizomatic growths, snatched up and replanted—is that they will intensify affects and sensations without foreclosing possibility on what those intensifications will produce. This is dirty work! Growing potatoes and crabgrass, you cannot help getting mud under your nails while the rhizome “evolves by subterranean stems and flows, along river valleys or train tracks; it spreads like a patch of oil” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:7). The bricoleur and poacher too are sweaty, smeared with blood and engine grease and coughing up lungsful of sawdust. When I presented a version of this paper at the Playing the Field conference at York University in November 2009, I postulated that few attendees had likely thought to ask why is a paper about BDSM play practices was on the “Dirty Anthropologies” panel?2 One reason 2 The acronym BDSM is a composite of bondage and

discipline (B&D), domination/submission (D/s, D&S) and sadomasochism (SM, S/M, S&M).

this question was not asked, I suggested, was that of course this is where kinky sex belongs—isn’t it? Here among the dirt and the danger and the hyped-up salaciousness. How could all that spanking and pinching and leather and latex be anything but dirty? I do not suggest that BDSM is not or cannot be dirty; it can, and that’s wonderful. I will argue, however, that there are problems with taking such a proposition for granted. In order to tackle these problems, we must first roll up our sleeves and question what we mean by “dirty.” The panel of which the first iteration of this paper was a part was titled “Dirty Anthropologies: Messy, Sticky and Miasmal.” This is a name worth savouring. Messy is smudged, unpolished, dishevelled, and a perhaps a little care-worn. It’s a work in progress. It is cluttered confusion, the blurring of boundaries, the tears, bleeds and leaks that play merry havoc with any effort at neat categories. Sticky is tangible and inescapably material, inescapable because it clings, trails after you in streamers. It spreads, grabs hold of new bodies and tangles them up in the web. It is the stains and traces that stay with you and advertise for others to see, at least if they know what to look for. Miasma is the smear, the congealing, the aura that hates to be ignored (Taussig 2004). It crawls up your nose like swamp vapour, or smoke, like clouds of ash and flies. It is the index, extending the event in space and time (Massumi 2005). This is rich dirt, fun to play in, and a fecund materialsemiotic field for dirty anthropology. But what does this dirt entail, where does it arise, and what gives it the power to compel and control? Pollution and Power: Playing with Perversion In discussing dirt and anthropology, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the debt owed to Mary Douglas for her classic exploration of the “is” and “does” of dirt in Purity and Danger (1966). Dirt, Douglas argues, “is essentially disorder. There is no absolute dirt” (1966: 2). Dirt is “the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements” (Douglas 1966:35). It is contextual (your bare

‘Playing the Field’ Conference Proceedings | Social Anthropology | York University 2009

Gayle Rubin, my predecessor in Leather anthropology, takes up resonant ideas around pollution and control with regard to sexualities in her fantastic essay “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” which plumbs the historical production of sexuality and sexual deviance (1984). In this work Rubin outlines a provisional hierarchy of “good” and “bad” sex. She illustrates two complementary spatial framings with graphic diagrams: the “charmed circle” of “Good, Normal, Natural, Blessed Sexuality” in the centre pushing “Bad, Abnormal, Unnatural, Damned Sexuality” to the marginal “outer limits” (Rubin 1984:281), and “the struggle over where to draw the line” on a slippery slope to arrest the easy slide into depravity (1984:282).According to Rubin’s analysis, hegemonically-sanctioned “good sex” takes place between monogamous married heterosexual pairs of human adults of the same generation, in private and without imbrication of manufactured objects, pornography or commercial transactions, while hegemonicallycensured “bad sex” deviates, in a compounding fashion, from this ideal. BDSM play is“bad”; vanilla fucking is “good” (the diagrams, interestingly, omit any explicit mention of consent). Rubin is less concerned in this article with why a particular practice, identity or subject position gets placed where it does than with how this order is maintained, and what a radical politics of sex needs to change it. As with the situations described by Douglas, it is the implosion of dirt and danger that lubricates the system’s gears,

even constitutes its whole machinery. We can see this implosion enacted in dense entanglements of contamination, contagion and the collapse of causality wherein trauma, disease, madness, immorality, weakness, crime, violence, ‘incorrect’ politics, treachery, and the ‘national security’ boogeyman of the age (communism when the essay was published, terrorism now) all at once precipitate and follow from sexual alterity (see also Puar 2007). Perversion spreads like a virus. The discovery of perverse inclinations is especially grave in people in positions of public influence, with the capacity to erode community morals. The greatest threat, in a cultural context which fears and treasures the ‘innocence’ and neuroplasticity of children, is sexual deviance on the part of parents, teachers or anyone with access to minors. Perversity leaves traces in the flesh, stains too stubborn to wash out but easy enough to camouflage, so that the hope of identifying the ‘bad guys’ and tagging us for rehabilitation or extermination remains always just over the horizon. Rubin’s call for a radical politics of sex begins with the recognition that this sexual hierarchy is not inevitable, that there is no “natural” or “correct” way of ordering: just as there is no absolute dirt, so too are there no absolute perversions. The ordering we live with is not random or arbitrary—it has a huge weight of authority on its side, all the inertia of history and power, powers to produce meaning and powers to enforce order—but neither is it immutable. Re-ordering, or even something like de-ordering the normative hierarchy to craft a theory and practice of benign sexual variation, is possible. This isn’t a goal we should work towards simply because we can, nor out of benevolent compassion for those people affected by it—because we are all affected by it. Donna Haraway says regarding “queering” as a radical political methodology that “queering specific normalized categories is not for the easy frisson of transgression but for the hope of livable worlds” (1994:60). Other configurations are possible; dirt and danger are situational, and the difference between compost and manure is whether you’re downwind. Nothing is inherently dirty or kinky or sexy (not even that).

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feet are clean on the sidewalk but dirty on the dining room table), relative, and also necessary because without disorder to order against, order would not work. Dirt and disorder entail anomaly and ambiguity, as Douglas eloquently demonstrates in connecting the power of dirt with its metamorphoses from recognizable “something” out of place, the unwanted leavings of its source, into a state of total disintegration, total non-differentiation: matter without form, raw creative potential (161-2). Disorder is not dangerous so long as it stays under control, in the place scripted for it by rules of pollution and purification, but slippery as a scale-less fish it keeps wriggling out of hand.

‘Playing the Field’ Conference Proceedings | Social Anthropology | York University 2009

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The corollary is that anything can be—anything that exists or has existed or will exist, I promise you that somewhere, someone has been turned on by it or will be turned on by it or is being turned on by it right now (and not necessarily in a linear temporal relation), while to someone else it’s the most abhorrent thing imaginable, or the most boring. It becomes redundant to say that we look for pleasures in strange places if we can recognize that all places, all pleasures, are strange to someone’s experience, and rejoice in how this recognition expands our capacity to engage more intensely with the world, to affect and be affected—that is, to live. What makes self-identified kink community participants special, I think, isn’t that we do anything very different from ‘vanilla’ (ostensibly non-kinky, mainstream) people in terms of concrete practices, but the way we approach what we do. For me, kink is a mode of engagement with the world, and the sensuality, sexiness and sexualization of the world in particular, more than any definable field of action. The radical potential of kink, even more than the obsession with consent, is another form of negotiation: the irreverent tactical creativity dramatized in naming BDSM practice as play. Play is about the power of doing differently. Haraway talks about cat’s cradle games as an alternative to dominant metaphors of war and competitive warlike games, a grassroots game whose play is enhanced by playing with more than one set of hands, whose goal is not winning but making more interesting and complex configurations, collaboratively. Thinking play need not deny the violence of the world or the consequences of hanging out at the bottom of the hierarchy; even peaceful games can have high stakes. Kink gives us a particularly helpful (fun) tool (toy) with which to play this tangle of context, collaboration and consequence, in the name of “pervertibles”. Pervertibles are objects used in play, with greater or lesser modification, which were not manufactured with play in mind, and they are all around you—among the items from my own toybag that I brought to the Playing the Field conference, as examples, were clothespins, candles, a riding crop, a wooden spoon, the same cotton magician’s rope discussed in the prologue,

and a flogger I made from parachute cord. Many players praise pervertibles for their accessibility, because they are so readily available and because it is cheaper to fill a toybag with things we find or make with stuff found around the house and the hardware or dollar store than buying only from kink-oriented manufacturers. Pervertibles also often have the advantage of stealth or ‘plausible deniability’, because of their innocuousness or their association with other activities, a valuable consideration for participants who want to avoid the stigma of being called out as kinky in front of strangers or their children, parents, employers, or even, alas, their partners. Indeed, the absence of items like spoons, hairbrushes and belts from someone’s home sounds stranger than their presence, and none of these items would raise many eyebrows on an airport baggage scan. Many popular kink activities such as bootblacking and temporary piercing depend entirely on materials produced for non-kink purposes, and many do-it-yourself– oriented kinky people are thrilled to show off our latest inspirations, bargain finds, or successful experiments. There is a pleasure in subversion, in creativity, in playing arts and crafts, and in giving new life to objects that would seem to have reached the end of their functional careers, as there is in expanding the materialsemiotic potential for experience in the world farther than the “wild pleasures” shelf at your local sex store. The creative and enthusiastic can find treasure in grocery stores, pet shops, army surplus retailers, thrift stores, medical supply depots, tack shops and sock drawers. These treasures need not be material, either: look for games, fantasies, roles, narratives, melodies, bits of language. Any substance or medium can be dirt for your playful assemblages. Pervertible play is about feeling around the world with all senses and finding new potential in tools and weapons by turning them into toys (because every tool is a toy if you hold it right). Pervertibles highlight the nomadic principles of poaching and bricolage, tactics of inventively using whatever is on hand, as well as the creative ingenuity of asking of an object not “what is it for?” but “what can it do?” “Pervert” comes from Latin roots meaning “to turn away” from something; if we shake off

‘Playing the Field’ Conference Proceedings | Social Anthropology | York University 2009

References Bern, Dan 1998 One Dance. On Fifty Eggs [CD]. New York: Work Records. Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari 1987 A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Brian Massumi, trans. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Douglas, Mary 1966 Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Ark.

Haraway, Donna 1994 A Game of Cat’s Cradle: Science Studies, Feminist Theory, Cultural Studies. Configurations 2(1):59-71. Jenkins, Henry 1992 Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge. Levi-Strauss, Claude 1968 The Savage Mind. John Weightman and Doreen Weightman, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Massumi, Brian 2005 The Future Birth of the Affective Fact. Conference Proceedings: Genealogies of Biopolitics. collected/massumi.pdf [accessed February 1 2010]. Puar, Jasbir K. 2007 Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Rubin, Gayle 1984 Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality. In Pleaasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. Carole S. Vance, ed. Pp. 267-319. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Taussig, Michael 2004 My Cocaine Museum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Claire Dalmyn

is currently completing her MA in Social Anthropology at York University. She viewed this conference as an opportunity to question power relations in anthropological fieldwork and entanglements of these relationships with the ecstasies and agonies of working (in) the field, attending especially to where her practice does and does not enact alternatives.

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the stigma of the word’s history of connoting first religious and later sexual corruption, ‘perversion’ is just another name for redirecting, reterritorializing, transplanting or transforming. A case could be made that many, possibly all, kink practices can be thought of as pervertible or as having perverted qualities, in the sense that even the most staple and archetypal kink images incorporate objects and icons which have different meanings in other contexts, and in most cases originated with very different purposes. Kink, as a mode of engagement with the world and as a form of serious play, routinely takes germs of ideas from one situation and uses them to grew something new and different in a fresh context. It is exemplary in this respect, as a magpie methodology, but far from unique. We take and twist in similar ways in many other contexts as well, though we often fail to recognize it. The gift of the pervertible, and a key lesson for crafting kinky anthropology, is an awakening to the radical potential of the everyday. When we cobble our worlds together using what’s on hand, whatever we can reach, not indiscriminately but inventively; when we flout expectations and ignore functional fixedness; and when we respect that anything may be someone’s passion, we learn to cultivate a practice of attention, alertness, arousal. This skill may be of great use in the work towards a world where sexual difference is no longer so cruelly stratified—should we dare to pervert it so far.

Playing Dirty: Pervertible Practices and Kinky Anthropology