One of my astute sons has been trying to persuade me that the current idea of progress is actually regress; we seem to moving away from civilized behavior to get back to our roots or something, forgetting the long slog of mankind away from them to gain something better and cleaner for human beings. What some people say comes naturally leads to behaviors some of us others are likely to call unnatural.
Carl Scott notes “The Higher Education Scandal” by Harvey Mansfield and reading that essay I came upon “Political correctness, the study points out, brings necessary unity to the otherwise incoherent notion of diversity. For how else than by political fiat can one bring together, or be ‘inclusive’ of, subjects defined not by essences but only by their mutually exclusive ‘otherness’?” This brought to mind another essay I read this morning by Camille Paglia, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Scholars in Bondage: Dogma dominates studies of kink.”
Once confined to the murky shadows of the sexual underworld, sadomasochism and its recreational correlate, bondage and domination, have emerged into startling visibility and mainstream acceptance in books, movies, and merchandising. Two years ago, E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, a British trilogy that began as a reworking of the popular Twilight series of vampire novels and films, became a worldwide best seller that addicted its mostly women readers to graphic fantasies of erotic masochism. Last December, Harvard University granted official campus status to an undergraduate bondage and domination club. In January, Kink, a documentary produced by the actor James Franco about a successful San Francisco-based company specializing in online “fetish entertainment,” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
Paglia looks at three university press publications on formerly taboo sexual subjects. Margot Weiss’s Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality, Staci Newmahr’s Playing on the Edge: Sadomasochism, Risk, and Intimacy and Danielle J. Lindemann’s Dominatrix: Gender, Eroticism, and Control in the Dungeon. Her review is not for the faint of heart. I am stunned imagining what the courses those women teach are like. A good part of Paglia’s criticism is that these women have no knowledge of the past. In their great effort at what passes for sophistication these days, the great hope not to seem to have been born yesterday, they really do seem to have been intellectually born just the other day.
These three authors have not been trained to be alert to historical content or implications. For example, they never notice the medieval connotations of the word “dungeon” or reflect on the Victorian associations of corsets and French maids (lauded even by Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell). It never dawns on Weiss to ask why a San Francisco slave auction is called a “Byzantine Bazaar,” nor does Newmahr wonder why the lumber to which she is cuffed for flogging is called a “St. Andrew’s cross.”
Given that it is Paglia writing, this is what bothers her the most, that these women do not really know the history of what they are writing about. As if ’twere done well, all could be excused. Well, she is also upset that the salaciousness of the subject is connected somehow to capitalism — therefore we can presume that BDSM, which is short for bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sadomasochism, is the fault of capitalism (and therefore conservatives?). Gee whiz. Paglia comes to this:
What is to be done about the low scholarly standards in the analysis of sex? A map of reform is desperately needed. Current discourse in gender theory is amateurishly shot through with the logical fallacy of the appeal to authority, as if we have been flung back to medieval theology. For all their putative leftism, gender theorists routinely mimic and flatter academic power with the unctuous obsequiousness of flunkies in the Vatican Curia.
First of all, every gender studies curriculum must build biology into its program; without knowledge of biology, gender studies slides into propaganda. Second, the study of ancient tribal and agrarian cultures is crucial to end the present narrow focus on modern capitalist society. Third, the cynical disdain for religion that permeates high-level academe must end. (I am speaking as an atheist.) It is precisely the blindness to spiritual quest patterns that has most disabled the three books under review.
When I was in college I had to take some elective not in my field and chose a course that remains titled in my mind as “The Roots of All Evil.” That might been a philosophy course. Much of the course was about much of the literature that Paglia refers to, though there was more; the Bible, for example, was also part of the course. Note that the subject matter was called, at a major university, probably in 1975, evil. Now, apparently, the only way to call BDSM evil is to connect it to the capitalist impulse. That’s the modern university for you.
But Paglia’s third point, about the disdain of academia for religion and the spiritual quest that can be life an essential part of life most fulfilling, that is the great pity. We are here now, in the midst of the sexual revolution that has gone beyond progress: a regression to the base, an embrace of diversity without discrimination, or rather with a discrimination against the discriminating.