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From the Vault: Fetishism is the new tupperware

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In this column, published in Daily Review in February, Guy Rundle argues that the current framing of sex — in which it is more like food, its pleasure coming from a ceaseless variety — is the reverse of the deep bodily ethic that underlay the sexual revolution.

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We all knew something was up in Melbourne, when the Hellfire Club opened in the early 1990s. The brainchild of a bloke named Richard Wolstonecroft — I presume he is dead now, though I haven’t googled him — the Hellfire brought to an Anglo-Saxon city that was still yet to get its first hole-in-the-wall bar, the grand guignol of a Berlin-style S&M club, with kitsch 18th century references upstairs and a dungeon in the basement. It was at the old Angler’s Club in West Melbourne, which had become a sort of scratch bar, a scene coalescing spontaneously out of a desire to drink and try and get laid beneath an audience of gawping fish heads.

The opening of the club was the first irruption of commercial sado-masochism into the city, about a decade after S&M of any sort had returned to the wider mainstream of heterosexuality.

That seems impossible from our era, but so it was. S&M, venerable sexual subculture from the mid-19th century into the 20th, was pushed to the very margins by the sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s, not out of any disgust, but simply because the attitude to sex had wheeled around to such a degree — from pleasurably dirty to clean and healthy — that S&M became, for many, something of a dead language, a sort of erotic sanskrit.

Bettie Page, put back at the centre of 20th century culture by postmodernism, was essentially lost to memory, even though the postcards of her light bondage sessions photographed in curtained rooms above theatres, dusty dance studios and the like, were a staple of sexual consumption up to the great liberation of the 1960s.

Such S&M erotica was, in its literal form, an esample of what the German Frankfurt school philosopher Herbert Marcuse called ‘surplus repression’ — the capacity of modern, and especially American society, to generate forms of domination far in excess of what was needed to keep people reproducing capitalism and the general authoritarianism of modernity, without questioning its nature.

The pleasure of Page’s pictures was gendered of course, a way of resolving male anxieties about the new type of independent woman, liberated by World War II, and barely contained by the forced redomestication of the 1950s, But there was far more to it than that. It mirrored the domination felt by men in industrial work — Simone Weil, writing about the factory work she lived in the 1930s, noted that its dominant motif for men was humiliation, and unwanted feminisation by power, dealt with by hyperaggressiveness — but it also restaged the pelasures of being dominated and constrained.

Marcuse, like all the German Freudian Marxists who had come to exile in the US in WW2, had seen America’s fusion of mass production and mass consumption as a near-perfect trap, by which humanity’s life-creating drives — erotic, protean, creative — were diverted from fluid activity, to ego identity, to possession. From doing to being to having, as Erich Fromm put it, each step a deadening of life.

Such an analysis became a means by which escape could be found. Marcuse and Adorno were obscure figures in the 1950s, but their colleague Erich Fromm wasn’t. His popularised versions of this theory were best-sellers, part of what is overlooked about the decade — that everyone was furiously reading cultural critiques in an effort to find a way out of the trap. Fromm’s invitation was to take a step back from the life that was being sold to the young couples fomenting the baby-boom — the deadened Levittown suburbs, the glossy-advertised consumer durables, the high-finish popular culture, sealed and inviolate bodies –and to explore the possibility that life could be more sensuous, raw, spontaneous, creative, both at an individual level, and through systemic change.

Sex, seen as expressive, dynamic, creative, autonomous, an experience of depth, was part of that, and Fromm moved the view of sex on from that of Freud, who had talked about civilisation as being a state of ‘everyday unhappiness’ as if he rather relished the prospect. Fromm’s work in turn flowed into yet more popular works, such as the ’50s bestselling self-help book How To Live 365 Days a Year, which introduced the idea of illness created by emotional stress i.e repression, to millions.

But Fromm was far from the most radical of the sexual liberationists. That title went to Wilhelm Reich, inventor of SexPol, the idea that sexual repression — and particularly bad sex –was at the root of human domination. Reich, a German communist and psychoanalyst, reversed Freud’s notion that repression was necessary to civilisation, and argued that a genuine human society could only emerge once such repression was thrown off. But Reich wasn’t interested in the playful adultery a la Viennese which he saw as life-denying and repressed as monogamy.

For Reich, we had most people barely had sex at all — their bodies were so tightened and knotted by internalised repression that a full ego-annihilating orgasm had ceased to be possible. The ultimate result of such embodied repression was fascism, and its hard body cult — a body like Tony Abbott’s effectively — in which living flesh of varying textures and strengths had been trained to a deadened uniform hardness.

This musculature armour protected one from a world which threatened to crush you, but also from one which might stimulate you to feeling; it was a fortress inside which the self could be sovereign over its lonely, isolated domain. Connection was thus offered by collective automaton force, a goosestepping army, pleasure could come only through domination. Reciprocal pleasure or a radical equality was a contradiction in terms.

To counter this, Reich developed a sex therapy in which he, well, trained people to fuck better, to loosen their bodies and lose a refractive, repressive self-consciousness, such that they could achieve orgasms of such power as to dissolve the ego for a time, and clear its accumulated neuroses, its envy, sadism, ressentiment, all the deadened silting up of self that denied life and love.

The idea of sexpol was that once everyone was doing this, communism, a world of sensuous particularity and universal right, would be achieved because no-one could possibly want to dominate anyone else. Also, there was no way that communism could be achieved without it, and the failure to pursue a sexpol line, according to Reich, was one of the reasons that the Bolshevik revolution had turned into such a death-driven grotesque parody of the liberation it had promised.

Reich, well, can you not see why is he one of the most important figures of the century? He put full sexual realisation of self at the centre of contemporary life, opened out its meaning and being in a way that simply did not exist for hundreds of millions of people before his work (and that of the other Freudian Marxists, and Kinsey’s work) was popularised. Of course the idea of mindblowing sex pre-existed him — but it was not seen as a pivot point on which healthy subjectivity turned.

Today that is a given of every self-help book, of therapy and counselling, of book and film plots around. And, particularly, of every woman’s magazine. For though his work was criticised as masculinist — Reich’s orgasm was the male orgasm — the greatest carrier of his work came to be second-wave feminism, and Germaine Greer in particular. Despite its critical attitude to Freudian psychoanalysis, The Female Eunuch is one of the most Reichian books of the century.

Why isn’t Reich better known? Well having escaped from the Nazis, and Stalinists, to the US, he then fell foul of the FBI — whose cross-dressing racist boss was more or less the anti-Reich– and also went mad, deciding that sexual energy was really a subset of a wider stuff called ‘orgone energy’, a substance which happened to make the sky blue, and could be collected in insulated boxes. When you sat in an orgone box, you could come to a full-body orgasm, a combined physcial-spiritual experience. William Burroughs said he had one every time. It’s just possible there was a power of suggestion at work.

So there were no more Reichains — the following he had developed essentially went underground, in gestalt therapy, primal screaming etc — but Reichianism was everywhere, in that aspect of the ’60s/’70s known as the sexual revolution. This was an expression of modernity, not of postmodernity — the idea that there was good sex and bad sex, and that the latter tended to be associated with the trappings of civilisation, of old practices like courting, flirting, gender roles, fetishism, variation itself.

The current framing of sex — in which it is more like food, its pleasure coming from a ceaseless variety — is the reverse of the deep bodily ethic that underlay the sexual revolution. The idea that sex and love had to be coupled had been thrown away, but not the idea that it was some authentic encounter, and that that authenticity was embodied in contingent human flesh, its wetness, hairiness, fluidity of boundaries because of fat, and the like.

Few things have generated more hilarity from the mid-’80s onwards than the line illustrations for that sexpol manual par excellence The Joy of Sex, with its illustrations of a naked brunette, who could do with a few pilates classes trying out moves with a bearded polytechnic lecturer (or possibly Gerry Adams) — and that is a measure of how quickly the underlying culture changed. And, how brief was the victory of the dissident culture of the 20 century, before the more repressive standard model returned to power.

When it did it came back with a vengeance. The sexual revolution, and its attendent notions of jealousy-free promiscuity, had started to peter out by the late 1970s, and was put paid to further by the outbreak of two STDs: herpes, which exploded in 1979-80, and was terrifying enough at the time, before GRID/AIDS came to public attention in 1982-83.

The focus within feminism also shifted, with a critical account of the secxual revolution’s implicit idea that sexual energy was just a pre-gendered life force that tended to follow the reasonably transhistorical path of male appetite for promiscuity and rapidity. Principally however, notions of the ‘deep natural’ that had powered the counterculture of which the sexual revolution was a part, simply collapsed because they had failed to deliver the transcendental experience of full humanity that they promised.

The notion of the shaped and finished body – styled, sealed, polished — returned with the broader developments of the Reagan-Thatcher revolution. Hair and clothes became not only more conservative again, but more edged and defined. The suit became a fetish, and later, an equivalent for women, complete with shoulderpads as a form of imitation masculine body musculature. The notion of a body as an economic unit, engaged in commerce with its surroundings became prominent once more, while the fluid, fuzzy-boundaried, porous body of the revolution era, reverted to a notion of simple scruffiness.

As goes the clothes, so go the hos. Though the content of pre-’60s sexuality did not return — marriage, church, virginity etc — the form of it did, with the refusion of sex and love, or sex and propriety, the latter relabelled as ‘commitment’. From the ’80s into the late ’90s, the re-authorised form of sexual life was ‘serial monogamy’, an enormous cultural transformation across classes whose sweep has probably been underestimated since it was travelling in two ways — making the cosmopolitan new class less promiscuous than they had been, and making remnant conservative working and middle classes more so. By the ’80s, everyone pretty much accepted that people had a number of sustained sexual relationships over a period of their youth, and then fixed on one.

Within those relationships the Reichian ideal of deeply meaningful sex persisted. But by now it was in service to something else, not to a revolutionary explosion of the internal-external order, but of the relationship itself, as a complex self-managing system. Sexual fulfilment had been repointed to the end –we’ll just take all the puns as read, shall we — of stability of self, society and political/economic order.

The spark of modernity, the imagination of radical liberation, had died. Postmodernism had replaced it on one hand, kitsch and pastiche, and the dredging of past popular culture for motifs coming to the fore. On the other, the idea of a wild and spontaneous nature to be released as part of liberation, had been replaced by the rise of ‘sociobiology’ (Edward Wilson’s book of the title was published in 1976), and an explanation of social life in terms of a hidden natural order, which mirrored the individualist capitalism of the Reagan-Thatcher period.

The legitimacy of power and domination had returned as an ideal — and that was followed by the idea of the pleasure of it. And it is thus, through the late 1980s, that S&M, and bondage and discipline, wrapped up into the catch-all BDSM, gradually returned to the mainstream. True, it had always remained there on the edges — such as the revelation of Cynthai Payne’s spanking brothel of Tory MPs in London in the ’70s, or the Al Pacino movie Cruising, set in the hardcore New York S & M scene — but there seems no (non-comic) presence of it  in popular culture from the ’80s into the ’90s, and very little inclusion in the standard sexual repertoire.

It returns however in the kitsch popular culture of the time, the enormous tide of pre-’60s popular culture of ‘high repression’. The Re/Search publishers rentroduced Bettie Page, Taschen the art of Eric Stanton (pictured above) and John Willie’s Bizarre  — higher stick mags bought by mail order or on the way to the train station of an evening now canonised in complete editions.

Eric2WEB-Stanton---Pleasure-Bound-2---Bizarre-Comics---Volume-13_Page_06_Image_0001

Fetishism itself, of pre-’60s objects — from angora sweaters to film noir to slick pop music — began to pile up. This all came to a focus with David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, an early and comprehensive refutation of all the ‘llife-energy’ notions of  ’60s sexuality. This story of psychotic sado-masochism, faux-incest, shagpile carpet, crooner records, and oxygen masks, had been written by Lynch in the mid-1970s (he’d never drunk the ’60s Kool-aid), but he’d been unable to get it produced by studios now run by the ’60s generation, who found it repellant and incomprehensible.

By 1990 it had been joined by Tie Me Up Tie Me Down, Body of Evidence, Basic Instinct, Bound, the video stylings of Madonna. What had occasionally appeared as bodily sexual play of restrainy earlier, was now crossed with the fetishism of objects. The past was mined for the technology and accountrements of S&M. Riding crops, bedsteads, velvet etc, began to appear.

Sexuality as something of subjects, as the unique feel of embodied flesh, became augmented by that of objects, whose various textures were alive only by their retro-cultural meaning. By the ’90s, the popular culture return of such had been accompanied by its widening as part of a still risque, but more widely available than hitherto, set of sexual possibilities. By the later ’90s, it was making its way into the standard ‘27 ways to spice up your love life’ articles in Cosmo, and in the UK BDSM paraphernalia came on sale in the Ann Summers high street lingerie chain. The cycle came full circle with the 2006 movie The Notorious Bettie Page, in which the famous/notorious mid-century fetish pin-up girl became a feminist heroine of sorts.

There were various ways to read the representation of such in these new movies. Was it a critique of female subjugation, or a glorying in the new erotics of power, which was now sweeping feminist gains under? The debate went back and forth. Then Fifty Shades of Grey came along, and blew it out of the water.

There’s no point recounting the story of its rise at any length; that has become as much a part of the story as the antics of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele. Written by a TV producer, initially intended as fanfic for Twilight, published by a Sydney-based e-book publisher, the book took off from screen to screen, and, when taken up by Vintage, from city to city, by the shipload.

In Foyle’s in London, at its height, they did not even bother to unload — simply cut the plastic wrap and sold it off the wooden pallets it came on. Its advance had a touch of the pandemic about it, exponential. It had soon outpaced the Da Vinci Code to sell one hundred million copies, meaning about 200 million readers, at least 70% of them female.

That success was a problem since it was clear that the book did not fit in with the notion of S&M as either empowerment or critique. The domination it featured was not the domination within a game, but meta-domination, in which the fabulously powerful sadist Grey imposed the ‘choice’ of BDSM on the virginal, uptight English grad student Steele with a combination of charm, bullying, stalking and general mindfuckery.

The book’s plot suggested that women liked not merely physical domination, but total control. The book’s sales appeared to all but confirm it, at least as fantasy. Thus a lot of attention was turned towards the writing, and how bad it was. Collette it wasn’t, but it wasnt nearly as bad as it was made out to be. It was the story of a young woman’s awakening after all, which is what 90 per cent of novels tend to be about, but this one had a driving plot, and a compelling development.

Much of the criticism appeared to be an anxiety in the face of its unerring ability to bind together numerous compelling and unauthorised fantasies. 50 Shades succeeds because it is doing multiple and contradictory things at the same time, which is how S&M works in the first place. The book is both an upmarket version of the black lace paperbacks of sub-Emmanuelle exotic erotica, but it is also a reversion to classic romance, via a neat trick.

For decades, Mills and Boon style romance has been stuck with a cultural conundrum —  if the heroine is a virgin and remains so right to the end of the story, then it’s all a bit old-fashioned, and she herself repressed. If the relationship is consummated, then the romance is gone. Twilight solved that by making the sex something that had to be avoided, to spare Bella from becoming a vampire — thus building to a pitch of near unbearable intensity.

50 Shades does that by simply construing ‘sex’ as meaning BDSM. Thus standard ‘vanilla’ sex isn’t sex at all has no sin attached. Thus, it is not that Christian seduces Anastasia –when he finds out she is a virgin, he breaks his own rule and has vanilla sex with her, as a chivalrous/romantic gesture to her. Sex — the vanilla sex in the book goes for pages and at great length — is thus sex and not-sex at the same time, a state of both innocence and experience. To a degree, all the S&M that follows is as a pretext for that winningly romantic moment. It’s one of the few innovations in romance to have occurred.

Yet of course, even in the film — pretty second-rate and doomed to be embarrassingly funny in record time; I’d give it about 18  months — it’s the S&M we stick around for. It’s doled out pretty sparingly; what passes for the ‘hard’ stuff would barely pass muster at the office parties the Helffire clubs used to run as a cash sideline, when the mystique began to pall.

There’s nothing like the loving detail that is lavished on it in the book. But it’s alluringly shot (the director was a vastly overrated high-art photographer before becoming a Hollywood hack) and it reveals another truth: that S&M, with its externality, its particularity, is one way of actually portraying straight sex in a visual register. The rush of tactile and sensual complexity that is the internality of loving sex, is never captured on screen where it’s just pumping bums (porn is quite different, flesh ballet). S&M, the slow swish of a whip, becomes an analogue to the multiplicity of feeling in a single thrust, for both parties. So in one register the S&M disappears entirely, and the film finds a way to represent embodied intimacy.

And one suspects that that is what is really alarming to many, because the most simultneously radical and reactionary moment of  50 Shades might be its implicit argument that female masochism and desire for submission is bottomless, so to speak. If you take the S&M as an analogue of straight sex, then the relationship between Christian, the rich provider and controller, and Anastasia, the first bemused and then playful submissive, is not that a fetish game, but simply a version of marriage in a pre-’60s mode, in which the woman exercises her power by gamine guerrilla action within the confine of a relationship, giving and withholding submission, acquiescing to gifts then cutting up rough and so on.

As Helen Razer notes in her review, the movie foregorunds the idea that the greatest pleasure may be to have no choice — and for a woman to want that is to have a desire authorised by neither Right nor Left. The latter want a certain way of being autonomous to dictate the limits of the type of pleasure that women will seek; the Right want freedom and atomised choice to be the same thing, for freedom to be nothing other than a series of choices.

Both of these visions are an enforced ethic, drawing their energy from the superego, and it is that burden of duty that poor Anastasia carries around with her before the whuppin’ begins. She’s a recognisable character, the grad student who hasn’t yet ‘got’ it, what it’s all about, and lives her life wreathed by codes of conduct — university safety codes, appropriate touching by men, public drunkenness by women etc etc.

In the movie Dakota Johnson has the perfect pastiness and mild bloating of the type — you just know that her character believes herself to be gluten intolerant. The awakening, when it comes — and what is 50 Shades but yet another version of Kate Chopin’s novel? —  appears to combine both our grim love of power as an erotic force, the dead world of black and grey cars, buildings, suits (Christian is in some ways a less amusing version of Neil Patrick Harris’s Barney from How I Met Your Mother) and some vestigial cultural memory of the Reichian celebration of life force and the full-body orgasm.

The scene that Razer conjured up in her review — that of earnest young women in ‘doo-rags’ protesting the film by a woman of a book by a woman that women were buying like catnip — was a telling image. For a doo-rag’s about as utilitarian an item as you could wear, whatever its cultural motifs. In the movie, no item of clothing is anything other than a fetish, a sign, a metaphor. To dress without wanting to signify is something out of the pre neo-fetish era, the Reichian one, imbued with the idea tha attraction, desire and jouissance would flow from life itself, from its pure presence.

The movie seems to want to find that, as did the book, but both can only do so by picking their way through a world of objects. Like most moments that symboluse an era, 50 Shades already seems to be on the way to something else. One woud hope so, because there’s two more films on the way, and this one managed to make the loving swaich of leather on quivering young female buttocks about as enticing as the bowls at Moama — or as anti-enticing as the Hellfire Club eventually became, a decadent’s Disneyland, on the place where people had once drank and argued and danced and loved as themselves and no other, seeking out the life force, the orgone energy.

12 responses to “From the Vault: Fetishism is the new tupperware

  1. I don’t wish to question your hypotheses Guy. I wish merely to salute the man who came up with this gem….” a sort of erotic Sanskrit.”

  2. You’re behind the times with Mills & Boon, Guy. These days it’s almost mandatory to have at least two thoroughly described sex scenes, often going on for pages, per book.

  3. “Reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated”. Apart from the misspelling of my name by Mr Guy Rundle it’s nice to be credited with being one of the key local figure’s who (re) launched S&M in to the local consciousness back in the early 90’s. I founded and ran the Melbourne and Sydney Hellfire Clubs (and a few others around Oz) for about ten wild years – until I founded The Melbourne Underground Film Festival in 2000 and got back in to the movie and cinema side of things that had always been my main passion. I had made the feature Bloodlust with Jon Hewitt before I started Hellfire at Dream Nightclub in 1992. It’s an interesting article by Mr Rundle, allow me to muse on it overnight and share my further views tomorrow. Suffice to say I’m a semi 50 Shades of Grey fan (book and film) – and am alive and well, only in his early forties and MUFF (The Melbourne Underground Film Festival) turns 16 years this year! And, oh, I am seriously contemplating bringing The Hellfire Club in Melbourne BACK for some fun, frolics, smacks and laughs. So Stay Tuned. Best Regards Richard Wolstencroft aka Richard Masters.

  4. At last, someone who seems to agree with me – Fifty Shades of Grey is really a story of romance. The vanilla sex is where the story’s kernel is to be found; this aspect of the novel is exemplified by and in counterpoint to the S&M. From a male view Christian Grey seems to have it all; his predilection for S&M is merely a way in which we can criticise him without disowning his other possessions – material and sexual. There is enough about Anastasia Steele that prevents a mere male from being too afraid of her. She is sufficiently wieldy to be attractive, but feminine and vulnerable enough to permit the hope of her acquisition and compliance by those of us who consider ourselves to be just normal. E.L. James has more insight that she has generally been given credit for. The trilogy is worth another read, even before movies 2 and 3 arrive.

  5. The Hellfire Club in Melbourne did as much to damage the reputation of s&m play in the 90’s as 50 Shades of Grey is doing now. A professional Dominatrix friend visited from Sydney and was horrified. Drunk, shirtless punters getting their backs whipped. Barely trained ‘Mistresses’ doing the whipping. Much worse, those doing the whipping were given free drinks and their aim got progressively worse as the night wore on. A head Mistress asked my friend I’d she would like a drink before whipping someone. She declined politely, saying alcohol and bdsm are recipe for disaster in this environment. She then quietly left the premises. Fortunately new clubs were formed. One called Bound was run properly. People were respectful and a community flourished. I was curious to see Richard Wolstencroft make a brief appearance on Eddie McGuire’s ‘Millionaire’. Gone before there was a chance to spruik. Perhaps Eddie was forewarned that this was the guy who wanted to show Holocaust denier David Irving’s propagnada film in Melbourne.

  6. Misread the title – thought it was “Feminism is the NewTupperware” – and was intrigued to see the metaphorical connections. A second article?

  7. Excellent piece. Strangely in the 70s, my father and mother were great fans of Reich. My old man took great pleasure in shocking my far more conservative aunties and uncles with his ‘crazy communist and sex’ talk. Great stuff. I still have his Reich books in Greek. In fact not too strangely many Hellenes still hold fast to Reich’s and even have conferences about his and preserving his theories http://www.wilhelmreichtrust.org/safeguarding_reichs_legacy-2010_03_13.html

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