David Davis 28, Part 2
on ruined orgasms
Last year’s release of Sianne Ngai’s Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalism Form produced a flurry of fun interviews with the American academic. It was COVID’s first autumn, the season leading into our dark winter, and I—like you all, I’m sure—was eager to be distracted.
The third book-length installment in Ngai’s body of work around the aesthetic features of contemporary capitalism, Theory of the Gimmick “tracks the gimmick through a number of guises,” as Charlie Tyson writes for the Chronicle of Higher Ed. “When we say something is a gimmick, we mean it is overrated and deceptive, that you would have to be a sucker to fall for it. Yet gimmicks exert a strange hold on us. As with a magic show, we can enjoy the gimmick even while we know we are being tricked.”
Considered something of a rock star in the field of affect theory—which is the analysis of the role of emotions and feeling in art, politics, and the constitution of the self—Ngai’s especial areas of focus are the “weak, morally unattractive feelings associated with situations of powerlessness.” She studies “negative” affects like envy and paranoia, as opposed to the more established, high-falutin’ types, like empathy, terror, and anger. There’s much to be said about those girls, to be sure, but Ngai’s quarry, as she writes in her first book, Ugly Feelings,
is the negative affects that read the predicaments posed by a general state of obstructed agency with respect to other human actors or to the social as such—a dilemma I take as charged with political meaning regardless of whether the obstruction is actual or fantasized, or whether the agency obstructed is individual or collective. These situations of passivity…can also be thought of as allegories for an autonomous or bourgeois art’s increasingly resigned and pessimistic understanding of its own relationship to political action.
Compared with alpha feelings, like the Kantian sublime, these beta affects—like awkwardness, or Ngai’s “animatedness” and “stuplimity”—may not be the feeling categories that we want but, given our roles as victim/minions of late capitalism, I suppose they’re the ones we deserve.
While following Theory of the Gimmick’s release last year1, it occurred to me that one could also include among this “bestiary of negative affects,” as Ngai puts it, a feeling that I don’t believe she’s gotten around to dissecting just yet. While cringe is used to both diagnose and express the sensations of witnessing a broad range of what tend to be mortifying, try-hard faux pas, it has a special frisson when used in connection with BDSM. Whether you object to aspects of leather (Florentine flogging, straight male doms2, ABDL) or to the whole enchilada (polyamorous fedora-jockeys who look like the cat-eared spawn of Burning Man and emo), you have likely used the word cringe to describe your displeasure with the subculture.
In part 1 of this series, I wrote about the way that the Fifty Shades of Grey film franchise has become a cipher for people who position BDSM as both dangerous and cringe while simultaneously “positioning that danger/cringe in opposition with an idealized version of BDSM that is both ‘safe’ AND not cringe.” Because isn’t it weird that a film that’s considered dangerous, a characteristic that usually lends mystique, and even sexiness, can also be considered cringe, which is the same quality that makes Twitter’s main character of the day so captivating? As I hope to have made clear, Fifty is a handy excuse for making contradictory, two-pronged attacks on non-normative sex, even though Fifty is neither representative of real leathersex nor exceptional in the problems of desire that it poses, which are not just endemic in heteronormativity but the bedrock of patriarchal sexual culture. Though it’s almost devoid of anything that most people would consider perverted, the bad of Fifty is still attributed to BDSM while the good is salvaged for straight, cis, white, accessed consumption. (This is part and parcel of the commodification of leather cultures, about which my leather associate, Daemonumx, often writes.)
If you know what you’re doing, BDSM can be a conduit for big, explosive, dramatic, world-changing feelings. Like sex, drugs, and other pursuits of embodied and communal pleasure, BDSM can also be bad, disappointing, and dangerous in ways we don’t want. Much like sex, BDSM seems to bring with it lofty expectations that seem to be more often fulfilled in the movies than in real life; but unlike sex, for some reason this chasm between expectation and reality is more likely to make us see BDSM, or rather, our failed attempts at manifesting it, as inherently corny, embarrassing, cringe.
Much of leathersex is heavily grounded in what we refer to as play; within this sense of fantasy and suspended disbelief is the co-creation of new spaces, temporalities, and energies. BDSM is active, living metaphor (although sometimes a foot is just a foot). But BDSM is also itself a metaphor. Like sex, it’s a way of understanding ourselves and our worlds with a system for the building, interpreting, and sharing of knowledge learned through sensation and psychodrama. If we adopt Ngai’s approach to affect theory as a study of how certain feelings—publicly negotiated, usually uncomfortable, and ugly, as she terms them—can be readings of our general state of obstructed or suspended agency under capitalism, then what can we learn from cringe?
I’m glad I can’t convey the physical beauty of Oliver Reed in Ken Russell’s almost-perfect The Devils (1971). You must see it to witness it, if you can stomach the violence. Like the Christ of my childhood, Reed is white and fauny with piercing blue eyes, but unlike the Christ of my childhood, he is also butch, sexy, sensual. He’s more goat than faun, now that I think about it—amorous, barrel-chested, concupiscent. Trade Christ.
A combined adaptation from the book and the stage, The Devils is based on the true story of the trial of Reed’s Urbain Grandier, a French Jesuit priest who was executed in 1634 on charges of witchcraft. Provocative and famously censored, Russell’s “only political movie,” as he put it, follows the downfall of Grandier, who when he becomes the subject of a horny Ursuline nun’s Freudian malevolence is scapegoated by Cardinal Richelieu and tortured to death by the church’s anime-looking exorcist-in-chief. Though it gave Derek Jarman props for his transcendent set design, the Vatican condemned Russell for “obscenity”—offering no comment regarding its past of Inquisition-type brutality to consolidate political power (which The Devils depicts at excruciating length), not to speak of literally everything else it has ever done.
“Satan is ever ready to seduce us with sensual delights,” sibilantly warns Sister Jeanne, perfectly played by Vanessa Redgrave, who as Grandier’s sorcery “victim” undergoes similar purgative tortures by the same exorcist. This pain he humbly withstands, whereas she takes a fervent, twisted pleasure in the whipping, the boiling enemas, the public humiliation. The slutty Grandier (whose crimes include violating the priesthood with marriage) is supposedly on trial for this sensuality, but he knows—and names—the lie until his romantic death at the stake. “If you wish to destroy me, then destroy me,” he roars. “Accuse me of exposing political chicanery and the evils of the state, and I will plead guilty! But who would not hold back some scraps to prove to himself, in his dotage, that he was once loved?”
Like Christ, Grandier suffers beautifully, especially while shorn and broken, denuded of power. While Sister Jeanne exposes suffering as the mirror image, and thus comparable sin, of pleasure, Grandier knows the binary is not to be found here on this earth, but rather in its contrast with heaven. “With love comes hate,” he explains as he forgives Sister Jeanne her sins against him. Though he may be passive, he is not helpless.
Like Christ, over the course of the The Devils Grandier casts out charlatans and calls out liars, offers succor to the sick and dying, takes confession, blesses bread, has his feet washed with a woman’s hair, climbs the mountain, and ultimately sacrifices himself. Surrounded by plague and avarice and chaos, offset by Jarman’s holy monochrome and basilican scale, he is the only good man. As much as I enjoyed The Devils’ voluptuousness, my emotions were most manipulated by the moral purity of Reed’s messiah. Despite what the Vatican had to say, some Jesuits thought The Devils was a good Catholic movie (Russell was a convert), and with them I agree. Inside me remains a somewhat-secret affinity for Christ, all these years after leaving a church where my “lifestyle” was considered a symptom of demonic possession. While watching, it occurred to me that the highs and lows, the protocol and pageantry, the order and structure, the dark and light of SM might be efforts to approximate the loss of a Protestantism that, while it can’t compare to Catholicism’s production budget or taste, is every bit as sadomasochistic.
The Devils, and Reed as Grandier in particular, made me miss the faith that rid itself of me. I won’t go back, and am, to be honest, disturbed by homosexuals who do, but this limited-edition nostalgia reopened like a wound inside me, needled by loss like the barbers’ wasps piercing plague buboes under orbs of glass. The wound felt big, explosive, dramatic, world-changing, like Christianity used to. Though there is much for which to adore The Devils, its ability to replicate the emotional volume of the time before god left me was key to the pleasure of my viewing. This conflicted sense of abjection and grandiosity dueling in the soul of someone who is, as we sang each week, nothing, less than nothing, even, yet whose every instinct and action could mark the difference between eternity and damnation, is heavy as the Leviathan. There is no high like seeing Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) in theaters and believing it.
“I dread pain,” admits Grandier to his interlocutors, not long before they break his kneecaps. As with Christ, his is a passivity to which we can at once relate and strive toward.
“Well, perhaps the judges will think it unnecessary,” is the response. “Or perhaps, as one who has sustained so much pleasure, you will take to pain, its ugly sister, without the usual noises of complaint.”
Russell uses Renaissance France to explore contemporary political power and religious hypocrisy to great effect, a reminder that anachronism can be a great artistic tool. And who doesn’t love a sexy gay nun movie set in the 17th c? The period film is juxtapositionally fertile, though it can also offer an out for those who would rather not delve too deeply into the present—we’re well aware that Hollywood’s penchant for the sapphic period film is less about showcasing our queer ancestors, or whatever, and more about avoiding the problems posed by the dykes of today that love is love doesn’t resolve.
Just as our modern sexual identities, like “homosexual” and “leathersex,” did not exist in Grandier’s time, neither did the contemporary phenomenon of cringe. The agrarian feudalism of The Devils is more than a few worlds away from our late capitalist consumer economies. Many of the same erotics and activities that you will find enjoyed or emulated in BDSM today yearn toward that bigness of alpha affects past, and indeed are its inheritors, as the self-flagellating Sister Jeanne, whose pain is indistinguishable from her orgasms, reminds us.
But here, in the 21st c, we are overwhelmed by our beta affects, our expressions of systemic impotence. Ngai identifies that while feelings like cringe are unproductive of action, they are productive of diagnosis of an “ambient condition.” Cringe—like that other pseudo-neologism that makes me want to pull my eyes out, comfy—speaks to the nettling distractions that at once precipitate and stave off deadly neoliberal attrition.
From our position all these centuries later, have we have lost access to the powerful feelings of earlier times and conditions? Can we replicate their cathartic powers through art or the fuck, or can we only approximate them (until revolution, anyway)? Is BDSM, as we know it right now, an unconscious effort to turn these lesser feelings into something more powerful—a purgative, a therapy, an adaptive intimacy? In the vein of Corbusier, is the BDSM of the 21st c a machine for remembering? If so, it becomes a beacon of hope, rather than an aspirational goad, the carrot/stick combo that individualism, social media, and celebrity culture have wrought. How corny, like a Ren Faire. How grand, like a religion.
In Theory of the Gimmick, Ngai zooms in on the gimmicks of contemporary life as simulacra of contemporary life itself, a thing saturated with the affective whiplash of precarity, austerity, and the merging of emotional and physical drudgery. It sucks to be here, but we can’t even benefit from the catharsis of that suck’s fallout, as those witness to Grandier’s tragedy can. Unlike its alpha, shame, cringe is not just a type of embarrassed disgust, but a symptom of stalled purpose and unfulfilled desire. We might compare it with the ruined orgasm, to use the parlance of BDSM: a momentary disappointment punctuating a longer-term bad desire. The sexy passivity of the martyr is reduced to the resignation of the exploited retail drone, in the imperial core, anyway.
Ngai calls these negative affects, which are unable to bring about catharsis, “politically ambiguous.” When will we reach the point when they can no longer be borne, and so must become politically determined? Does a BDSM practice bring that day closer, or does it numb us to our true desires? Or maybe it’s just something we do to kill the time?
I hope I haven’t lost you with this one. I won’t argue that there aren’t aspects of BDSM that are embarrassing—and not by design—or that there aren’t practices and subcultures that don’t align with my tastes. But I think that cringe as a blanket response to BDSM speaks to bigger things than BDSM, just as BDSM itself does. There’s a something there, I think. Next time, I’ll be getting into that with the inter- and intra-communal tensions of cringe, the vanilla vs. kinky portion of the series. I expect that one to be a little closer to earth. Until then.
David tweets at @k8bushofficial.
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I should be clear that I have not read her books, only excerpts, interviews, and papers by other academics! I have neither the time nor the money to go deeper. Anyone want to pay me to quit my day job?
Okay but for real though, lol.