Summary (TLDR Version)

Less a history and more a compendium of images from alchemical texts, this book warrants a look for the way that its imagery can activate the imagination.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve already read this section this year, you can skip it; if you’ve read the previous years, I’ve updated it. Either way, it describes the aim of these book replies.

Three years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day and then write a book reply (not a review) for each one I finished (or gave up on).[1] These replies don’t amount to Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, &c., unless that struck me as somehow necessary. Rather, a book reply—as distinct from a reaction (review) or a response—focuses on what in these pieces I could not have said (or would not have known to say) except that the encounter of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I must at times necessarily say poorly informed stuff, &c. And while some people in the world may expect public speakers to possess omniscience so that they won’t bother to engage in a dialogue to uncover how to make the world a better place, then to the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or figure out what else we might do as part of that attempt to make our world better for us and everyone.

And someone won’t bother to take up their end of that bargain, that points blatantly to a central part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: A. Roob’s (1997)[2] Alchemy & Mysticism

This curious text on (the history of) alchemy has an even more curious blurb on the back of the book: “… a fast-food, high-energy fix on the topic at hand” (from the New York Times Book Review).

Whether apt or not, this hardly seems something you’d brag about on the back of your book. Meanwhile, Roob’s footprint in the book appears more as an editor and commentator. Supplying a brief introduction to summarise the 1,700 year history of European alchemy, with nods to Egyptian and Arabic moments, the book consists mostly of images from alchemical texts accompanied (presumably) by Roob’s remarks or quotations from (usually) unrelated alchemical texts. In several places, he “decodes” the alchemist’s deliberate obscurities: a reference to the application of “boy’s urine,” for instance (Roob tells us) “is a well-known code name for the mercurial water” (150).

But the main interest of the book consists simply in the visuals supplied on each page, which sometimes include images from Hindu, Jainist, and Tibetan traditions. Images include detailed sketches and full-on paintings, ranging over the whole history (sometimes anachronistically).

In an accidental way—since the material seems arranged thematically rather than in any order that the alchemists might have attempted to accomplish their Work—a basic sense of an “alchemical process” does manage come through; something that often remains thoroughly obscure, especially in books by alchemists themselves. Roob elects to include quotations that squarely centre this Work of alchemy on the development of inward, psychological processes, rather than any vulgar quest for literal gold. Having ploughed through Jung’s alchemical works, including his dense and appropriately mysterious (1956)[3] Mysterium Coniuntionis (see here), the inclusion of images from the texts Jung often referred to lends even more credence to his ground-breaking defence of the alchemical process as the process of psychological individuation. In particular, a series of images from a book by Robert Fludd in its circles and darknesses and emergences seems a virtually literal representation of the manifestation of material out of the Unconscious to the conscious mind.

But whatever support for Jung’s interpretation of alchemical texts these images entail, the main thing involves the way they themselves activate the imagination. Like mandalas, which Roob alludes to and which Jung stressed repeatedly, these images have the potential to elicit responses (or replies) from the Unconscious, to call up alien material.

In its own way, this may prove more valuable than reading the original alchemical texts, which made a fetish of obscurum per obscurius (“explaining the obscure with the more obscure”), or as Roob quotes, “Wherever we have spoken openly we have (actually) said nothing. But where we have written something in code and in pictures we have concealed the truth” (9).

If the goal of the alchemical process involves the transmutation of consciousness, the integration of “dross” thrown up (intentionally or accidentally) by the Unconscious, then the specific coded record of that by the alchemists, as a history of their individual experiences, may disclose less than to actually “plunge” into the process itself, but witnessing the “truth” of the images they have generated.

Endnotes

[1] I planned also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests. I haven’t followed through on this yet.

[2] Roob, A. (2005). Alchemy & Mysticism: The Hermetic Cabinet: Taschen, pp. 1–192.

[3] Jung, CG (1970). Mysterium coniunctionis: an inquiry into the separation and synthesis of psychic opposites in alchemy. (Vol. 14, Collected Works, 2nd ed., Trans. R.F.C. Hull) Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press

This, the fourth in a multipart post, reintroduces the theme of a public-collective rape fantasy centred on sexual assault in prisons and then surveys some of the elements typically included in that public rape-fantasy. See the first three parts of this study here, here., and here.

Introduction

In this paper, we analyse a public-collective rape fantasy centred on sexual assault in prison. We justify the use of the word fantasy for this in light of not only the wide disparity between an exaggerated public opinion regarding the actual frequency of sexual assault in prisons, even when presented with facts to the contrary, but also the public’s failure or reluctance to recognise both the actual character and typically consensual character of most inmate-on-inmate prison sex. The striking and awful fact that “society accepts inmate sexual assault as part of the price criminals pay for committing crimes” (Dumond & Dumond, 2002, pp. 74, emphasis added) points not simply to a prurience but perhaps also and actually vicious quality at work in cultural depictions of inmates in prison raping other inmates. Such depictions appear to serve in part to show raped human beings getting what, in the public’s imagination, they deserve.

This mismatch between recurrent narratives of prison rape in cultural productions—typically of white inmates, often white supremacists, sexually victimising weaker, non-protagonist, same-race inmates—runs explicitly contrary to the predominant state of sexual affairs and demographics in prisons. As a narrative that cultural discourse in the United States desires to repeat, its deviance from the facts of prison sexuality suggests something more akin to compulsive pornographic fantasy than to representational fiction per se. Leps (1992), surveying in considerable detail the interplay of literature’s “truth value” and the conceit of “objective knowledge” embodied in the popular press, demonstrates how (literary) fiction and ostensible non-fiction (in newspapers and other informational media) mutually reinforce one another and can swap places. Within a disciplinary society, then, a “fictional” depiction of prison rape becomes not only the “factual” basis for the public’s imagination about it but even provides a basis for academic studies and policy determinations about actual sexual assault in prison. As Leps notes, “the truth of a period corresponds not to the closest perception of a primary reality, but rather to the sets of information which, having been legitimized by institutions, organize the mode of being, the social arrangement, [and] the historic reality of people and product” (3).

We suggest that the carceral zone of prison, as one of the sites par excellence for the intersection of pleasure and danger, has become a place in the public imagination that positions us as either a “victim” or a “perpetrator” of prison rape, i.e., as either a consumer or producer of this variety of social pornography.[1] Moreover, we centre our analysis on male prison complexes and settings for three reasons. First, inasmuch as patriarchy frames rape (if not exclusively) as a male prerogative, then we should expect that culturally disseminated social pornography around rape in general will more permissively enable this narrative in a male setting; the vast number of cultural productions in this mode seems to bear this out. We may recognise, then, that the greater incidence of male prison rape fantasies arises not simply due to the greater number of male prisoners—facts in any case rarely dictate the course of a fantasy—but because such a setting better gratifies that fantasy, for reasons explored below. Second, the recurrent framing of the victim of sexual assault in prison as a “prison bitch” shines an especially illuminating spotlight on the several interconnecting issues of hierarchy, dominance, misogyny, violence, and racism that patriarchy thrives on. Social pornography, as something actively practiced in public view—in contrast to the private and generally hidden consumption of personal pornography—has an “in plain sight” aspect that we might readily overlook simply for being so obvious. Third, by analysing this strikingly “candid” representation of a collective rape fantasy in the (mostly) all-male setting of the prison, this then adds further to the tools and insights feminism brings both to efforts to dismantle patriarchy in general and to issues of sexual assault specifically. Moreover, by focusing on male prison rape in this way, we do not seek to re-centre perceived male-bodied individuals within a discourse rightly preoccupied with the more widespread cultural problem of sexual assault against perceived and actually female-bodied individuals; quite the contrary, we do in protest against a cultural discourse that fantasizes (both in its cultural productions and the public imagination) that male-on-male rape represents the most degrading form of punishment and is thus more heinous and serious than sexual assault against women.

Towards our goal to rupture the soap bubble of fantasy that surrounds cultural narratives of prison rape, we first summarise briefly in this paper a central tension between pleasure and danger that became especially acute during the “sex wars” and then introduce an analytic method for more fruitfully teasing out the contradictions and dilemmas that result from this pleasure/danger binary in the first place. Stated briefly in anticipation, a public (academic and narrative) discomfort over the intersection of pleasure and danger has engendered tangles in the public discourse about it that our analytic proposes to sort out. Next, by applying this analytic specifically to the historically troubling notion of personal (not collective) rape fantasies—as another site par excellence where pleasure and danger merge disturbingly—this helps to expose and de-scaffold the mythologies and discourses that inform the social pornography of collective prison rape fantasies in general. This not only portends to open a crack in the ostensibly monolithic and impenetrable walls of the carceral panopticon itself to disclose more factual narratives about prison sex generally, but also refocuses our attention, within the dominant narrative context of social pornography around prison rape itself, on the more prevalent perpetrator of such rape: the prison, not the inmates.

Possibilities for Prison Fantasies

At the heart of mass incarceration, most visibly in its opaque-walled prisons, we find the highest priority given to security and control (Simon, 2014). From Foucault (1977), we have the conceit of an omniscient panopticon that misses nothing in its gaze, while Alexander (2012) in The New Jim Crow notes of this carceral omnipotence that it falls these days preferentially upon people of colour, while embodying and articulating the most recent iteration of those systems of racial control that have vitiated US history from its beginning: first as the transatlantic slave trade, then as slavery per se, and then Jim Crow.

Despite this, even the merely demographic details of US prisons only rarely if ever with any accuracy appear in fictional productions about those sites (O’Sullivan, 2001). From the very outset, then, in our cultural imagining of prison narratives we see a divergence from the most elementary facts in several ways. Besides demographic inaccuracy, prison fictions permit us to see through the walls that otherwise block our view. They provide us a privileged, theoretically panoptic view of the space that actual panopticons themselves can only dream of achieving, especially in those scenes and settings given over to prison rape. And we see in those fictions a space often strikingly devoid of guards—suggesting a place where inmates alone inhabit and control the space.

This points to a key fictional lacuna. While Struckman-Johnson and Struckman-Johnson (2000) could report at the turn of the twenty-first century that 21% of inmates had experienced at least one incident of pressured or forced sexual contact, they found also that correctional staff accounted for 20% of these assaults. Following the tremendous acceleration of male incarceration with Reagan’s wide-scale implementation of the War on Drugs and the massive subsidies provided to seduce disinterested police precincts into pursuing it, populations within women’s prisons also later began to climb, and researchers there too reported sexual assaults by prison correctional staff (Alarid, 2000; Struckman‐Johnson & Struckman‐Johnson, 2002).

From the 1980s onward, then, a new urgency prompted research on sexual assault in prison (Anderson, 1982; Chonco, 1989; Dumond, 1992; Nacci & Kane, 1983; Porter, 1986), much of which ultimately contributed to the push for the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003. Almost always this research centred on inmate/inmate sexual assault, and if at times researchers took note of staff/inmate sexual assault, this factor has not entered as a dominant enough element in our culture’s collective prison rape fantasy to occur with any notable frequency. Notably, the reported occurrence of consensual inmate/staff sex (Smith, 2006) also goes unrepresented in fictions generally. It seems as if such narratives write authority and force of the prison itself largely if not entirely out of the picture.[2] Tellingly, correctional officers have been identified as perpetuating this myth: first-time inmates reported in interviews to Fleisher and Krienert (2006) “that staff said sexual violence was part of prison life [and that] sexual victimization was part of their punishment” (15); an assertion that echoes the public opinion cited by Dumond and Dumond (2002) above. One former inmate reported to me that staff told him, “the boys are going to love you” at the maximum security prison they were transferring him to (personal communication, 6 January 2002). The message in this and the narratives alike run the same: staff won’t protect you.

Perhaps from the beginning, the conjunction of sex and prison as a locus of pleasure and danger par excellence has been kinky. Fishman (1934) peered into the prison’s secret world with an eye on homosexuality, and years prior both Oscar Wilde’s warden, and later his biographer, went out of their way to note the smell of semen in their famous inmate’s cell (Ellmann, 2013). Wilde’s convicted sexual non-conformism may be wholly apposite here, since the public imagination knows unambiguously enough that prisons are overwhelming monosexual; so what, then, do all of those inmates do with that idle time on their hands? This question of sex or sexuality doesn’t bear only on the public imagination or the distant past of prison sex culture research (Fishman, 1934), but remains virtually a centrepiece of the field. Fleisher and Krienert (2006) conclude their survey of prison sex culture research by noting:

Since the 1930s prison research literature removed inmates’ conscious motivations for their choices of sexual behavior and replaced individual, conscious deliberation with unconscious forces compelled by sexual deprivation. Deprivation has its origin in the early 20th century as a psychological theory of homosexuality (Gay, 2002, p. 66). This concept diffused into prison research on homosexuality in the 1930s (see Footnotes 1 and 2). Nevertheless, deprivation still accounts for variation in inmates’ sexual behavior. Variation extends on a continuum from homosexuality to sexual violence to female surrogates (“queens”). If deprivation were removed from the calculus of prison homosexuality its absence would leave a hole in the theoretical landscape. The power of deprivation, researchers argue, imputes to prison culture power sufficient to cause straight inmates to become gay. However, without deprivation as a cause, what conditions compel men and women to homosexuality? What would cause straight inmates to become gay? (58, emphasis added).

Whatever prurient or titillating curiosity about homosexuality this reflects, while Alexander (2012) specifically identifies the incarcerated black male as the Other now most subjected to unqualified scorn and hatred, she generally elides that history of what Halpin (1989) calls a “scientific objectivity” that has at various times and in various ways identified black males as identical with children, animals, and women. Halpin (1989) critiques this “scientific objectivity” for the way it provides a “justification for the oppression and domination of ‘the other,’”(1), but for the collective fantasy of prison rape and the carceral spaces it stalks through, his point introduces additional dimensions of prurience or titillation as well. That is: as the place of confinement not only for the criminal homosexual, prisons serve also to quarantine those labelled as sexual deviants who would rape children, animals, or women as well, to say nothing of one another. This yoking together of child, woman, animal, and black in the criminal setting of the prison has important consequences, as will be shown further below.

First, in general, the data from Fleisher and Krienert (2006) demonstrates “that correctional, program, and administrative staff have a limited understanding of the cultural and social dynamics of inmate social [and sexual] life” (18). Thus, if those persons with the greatest daily access to people behind bars have an only limited understanding of their wards’ lived realities, then those without such access—unless they have the benefit of an informant who was previously incarcerated—will have an even more poorly informed sense of those realities, and likely one derived most from ill-informed cultural productions about prison. For people both in and out of prison—labouring under the impression that “the rates of actual victimization are less relevant than the fact [people] perceive the threat of violence to be widespread” (Eigenberg & Baro, 2003, p. 57), a most colloquial and brutal expression of this perceived threat of sexual violence emerges in the danger of being made “someone’s bitch”—a phrase that draws together not only a negative valuation of “animal” and “woman” simultaneously but may also co-opt in its use by white populations an orientalised sense of “bitch” from black slang.

We use the word “bitch” under protest and in solidarity with observations by Kleinman, Ezzell, and Frost (2009) about the social harms of it, even as the phrase “prison bitch” functions as a practically unavoidable and grievously applicable semiotic phrase from social discourse. Jarvis (2005), in his analysis of the socially ultra-pornographic TV series OZ, notes correctly that “the prison bitch is marginalized and yet occupies a central position in grounding the cult of masculinity” (1). In a policy studies on the adequacy of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, the authors casually mention the figure of the prison bitch while quoting song lyrics (DeBraux, 2006). Robertson (2002), in an otherwise dry law review, begins with nearly a full page of italicised and literal prison rape pornography depicting a man being made someone’s prison bitch —a seemingly unintended and complete vindication for what Wicke (1991) identifies as social pornography.

Once again, these examples seem to have their origin more in the discourse about sexual assault in prison—one source of which is the social pornography of prison rape itself—and less in direct interactions with prison realities. In their compendious listing of prison sexual slang gathered from inmates, Fleisher and Krienert (2006) do not actually list “prison bitch” as its own glossary item, but rather only “bitch,” which has “multiple meanings in a variety of contexts. Often used as an honorific term of reference or address to denote a trustworthy fag, or a man’s ‘wife’” (279). This positive sense might surprise laypeople and professional researchers alike. Moreover, while this honorific has no pejorative ring for homosexual inmates—its pejorative equivalent is “he-she”—those male inmates who identify as not homosexual will resist, sometimes violently, any designation as a “bitch.” Hence, the very existence of a non-pejorative use of this term already challenges the public stereotype of “prison bitch” as exclusively negative.[3]

When examining this place of maximum security and control as a quintessential locus for a social pornography around the intersection of pleasure and danger in prison, we might keep in mind the striking fact that, despite the racial demographics of actual prisons, one looks far and wide, and seemingly in vain, for cultural depictions of male prison rape involving people other than whites-on-whites. Studies devoted to analysing prison sexual violence specifically against blacks, by the same token, occur rarely as well (Rowell-Cunsolo, Harrison, & Haile, 2014). However, just as the current discourse within the United States insists on a colour-blind framing to persuade us that we now live in a post-racial milieu (Alexander, 2012), we should not overlook how decades of effort to identify black males as inherently criminal imparts the stigma branded upon black bodies to everyone confined to the space of prison. And just as blackface (Lott, 1992), jungle fever (Scott, 1994), King Kong (Dines, 1998), and a whole sub-industry of black-on-white sexual pornography points to an orientalising exoticisation of the black male without acknowledging it as such (Fanon, 2008), so also should we not permit ourselves to be deceived by the segregated, whites-only character of collective prison rape fantasies in general. In most prison rape narratives, it is typically nameless extras, often identified explicitly with neo-Nazism or white supremacy, who make a “bitch” of another white inmate. Typically, the victim himself is a side character not the protagonist; Kaye’s (1998) American History X provides a notable exception, as also in its more numerous incorporation of black people within the spaces of its depicted prison. Even in Beadle-Blair’s (2005) Bashment, written by a black English author and centred very much on the experiences of some black people in prison, a white side-character gets victimised by white-supremacist-identified extras.

Lockwood (1980) has specifically noted the frequent racial overtones of sexual aggression in prison—racial overtones that seem to vanish in white-on-white sexual assault, but which have only been displaced since the “prison bitch” thus victimised—as woman, child, animal, black—occupies in the discourse a bottom or inferior position both literally and narratively. Whether we consider either the plausibility of real inmate’s fears about sexual assault or the exaggerated inevitability of the experience in cultural depictions of it, the term “prison bitch” functions—like the term “welfare queen” in social pornography about poor black mothers—as a lightning rod that focuses the discourse. It operates like as a symbol in the Jungian sense that “stands for something which can be presented in no other way and whose meaning transcends all specifics and includes many seeming opposites” (Nichols, 1980, p. 7).

Symbols in this sense have a numinous and fascinating quality, which results precisely from the seeming irreconcilability of opposites they embody. Thus, as the image of the “welfare queen” simultaneously invokes images of abject poverty and aristocratic royalty in the same person, the figure of the “prison bitch” simultaneously yokes together the seemingly irreconcilable categories of male and female (or more precisely, male turned “female”), of straight and gay (or more precisely, tacitly straight turned involuntarily “gay”), of perpetrator and victim (or more precisely, a perpetrator turned victim), and of white and “black” (or more precisely, white made inferior by the exercise of inferiorization by white supremacists).

Moreover, we witness the appearance of this symbol the “prison bitch” in a place where what we should not be able to see has been made visible, in a setting where the “injustice” of the rape is negated by the justice of the victim getting what he deserves, and in a head-space where the narrative not only encourages us to identify with the perpetrator but also at a minimum to aesthetically enjoy rape if not simply enjoy it outright. As such, along every axis of a culturally normative white, heterosexual, and vanilla construction of sexuality, the figure of the “prison bitch” appears symbolically in its numinous and fascinating guise as a totally abject negation of those norms.

References

Alarid, L. F. (2000). Sexual assault and coercion among incarcerated women prisoners: Excerpts from prison letters. The Prison Journal, 80(4), 391-406.

Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness: The New Press.

Anderson, C. L. (1982). Males as sexual assault victims: Multiple levels of trauma. Journal of Homosexuality, 7(2-3), 145-162.

Beadle-Blair, R. (2005). Bashment: Oberon Books Limited.

Chonco, N. R. (1989). Sexual assaults among male inmates: A descriptive study. The Prison Journal, 69(1), 72-82.

DeBraux, J. L. (2006). Prison Rape: Have We Done Enough-A Deep Look into the Adequacy of the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Howard LJ, 50, 203.

Dines, G. (1998). King Kong and the white woman hustler magazine and the demonization of black masculinity. Violence Against Women, 4(3), 291-307.

Dumond, R. W. (1992). The sexual assault of male inmates in incarcerated settings. International Journal of the Sociology of Law, 20(2), 135-157.

Dumond, R. W., & Dumond, D. A. (2002). The treatment of sexual assault victims. Prison sex: Practice and policy, 67-87.

Eigenberg, H., & Baro, A. (2003). If you drop the soap in the shower you are on your own: Images of male rape in selected prison movies. Sexuality & Culture, 7(4), 56-89.

Ellmann, R. (2013). Oscar wilde: Random House LLC.

Fanon, F. (2008). Black skin, white masks: Grove press.

Fishman, J. F. (1934). Sex in prison. The Culture of Prison Sexual Violence, 27.

Fleisher, M. S., & Krienert, J. L. (2006). The culture of prison sexual violence. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1979). A History of Sexuality.

Halpin, Z. T. (1989). Scientific objectivity and the concept of “the other”. Paper presented at the Women’s Studies International Forum.

Jarvis, B. (2005). The violence of images: Inside the prison TV drama Oz. Captured by the Media, 154-171.

Kleinman, S., Ezzell, M., & Frost, C. (2009). Reclaiming critical analysis: The social harms of “bitch”. Sociological Analysis, 3(1), 46-68.

Leps, M.-C. (1992). Apprehending the criminal: The production of deviance in nineteenth-century discourse: Duke University Press.

Lockwood, D. (1980). Prison sexual violence: Elsevier North Holland New York.

Lott, E. (1992). Love and theft: The racial unconscious of blackface minstrelsy. Representations, 23-50.

McKenna, D., Dudley, A., & Kaye, T. (1998). American History X: New Line Cinema.

Nacci, P. L., & Kane, T. R. (1983). Incidence of Sex and Sexual Aggression in Federal Prisons, The. Fed. Probation, 47, 31.

O’Sullivan, S. (2001). Representations of prison in nineties Hollywood cinema: from Con Air to The Shawshank Redemption. The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, 40(4), 317-334.

Porter, E. (1986). Treating the Young Male Victim of Sexual Assault-Issues and Intervention: Syracuse, NY: Safer Society Press.

Robertson, J. E. (2002). Clean Heart and an Empty Head: The Supreme Court and Sexual Terrorism in Prison, A. NCL Rev., 81, 433.

Rowell-Cunsolo, T. L., Harrison, R. J., & Haile, R. (2014). Exposure to Prison Sexual Assault among Incarcerated Black Men. Journal of African American Studies, 18(1), 54-62.

Scott, D. (1994). Jungle Fever?: Black Gay Identity Politics, White Dick, and the Utopian Bedroom. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 1(3), 299-321.

Simon, J. (2014). Mass Incarceration on Trial: A Remarkable Court Decision and the Future of Prisons in America: The New Press.

Smith, B. V. (2006). Rethinking prison sex: Self-expression and safety. Colum. J. Gender & L., 15, 185.

Struckman-Johnson, C., & Struckman-Johnson, D. (2000). Sexual coercion rates in seven Midwestern prison facilities for men. The Prison Journal, 80(4), 379-390.

Struckman‐Johnson, C., & Struckman‐Johnson, D. (2002). Sexual coercion reported by women in three Midwestern prisons. Journal of Sex Research, 39(3), 217-227.

Wicke, J. (1991). Through a gaze darkly: pornography’s academic market. Transition, 54, 68-89.

Endnotes

[1] Throughout, we generally follow Wicke’s (1991) articulation of social pornography (discussed below), but this provides ultimately simply a staging ground for our definition of a public pornography that contrasts with the social variety.

[2] Often, the prison’s warden offers the only dramatization of an authority figure, and then principally in narratives where an innocent finds himself wrongly incarcerated; the warden then stands in as the evil, Power-abusing figure who maintains oppressive force on the inmate. Where episodes of prison rape occur, however, wardens seem never to figure. Even in the ultra-violent, ultra-melodramatic HBO TV series Oz, a prison drama that ran for 56 episodes, the relatively higher visibility and dramatization of correctional officer figures pales by comparison to the inmate-initiated mayhem.

[3] More precisely, use of the phrase “prison bitch” in a prison setting becomes gratuitous and incoherent. Since fantasy offers idealised representations of reality, rather than reality itself, we see how collective rape-fantasies that hinge on someone becoming an inmate’s “prison bitch” has no necessary correspondence with any prison actuality.

Summary (TLDR Version)

Such a waste of time, it might waste too much time even to reply to it.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve already read this section this year, you can skip it; if you’ve read the previous years, I’ve updated it. Either way, it describes the aim of these book replies.

Three years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day and then write a book reply (not a review) for each one I finished (or gave up on).[1] These replies don’t amount to Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, &c., unless that struck me as somehow necessary. Rather, a book reply—as distinct from a reaction (review) or a response—focuses on what in these pieces I could not have said (or would not have known to say) except that the encounter of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I must at times necessarily say poorly informed stuff, &c. And while some people in the world may expect public speakers to possess omniscience so that they won’t bother to engage in a dialogue to uncover how to make the world a better place, then to the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or figure out what else we might do as part of that attempt to make our world better for us and everyone.

And someone won’t bother to take up their end of that bargain, that points blatantly to a central part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: R. French’s (2014)[2] Baby Bjornstrand

The more I wade through multiple books, the more often I find myself irked or scratching my head at the claims for those books found on dust jackets. I feel like I ought to get a Ph.D. in discourse analysis and take as my subject the disingenuous ad-text used to seduce readers into wasting their time on vacuities.

Having lately read three of Jim Woodring’s books (replied to here, here, and here), which one may certainly accuse often of seemingly aimless or random narrative and imagery even though Woodring (almost certainly) intends something extremely explicit in what he draws, my tolerance for actually impenetrable imagery—generosity makes me call it impenetrable; authorially non-intentional or vacuous might better express the matter—has dropped considerably, especially since the effort in the imagery also seems at a minimum. Put another way, few graphic novels over the past two years have made me feel so completely the sense of time wasted reading them.

Of course, splendid graphics or art (as a spectacle) can take the place of narrative interest. Dave McKean’s art often rescues Gaiman’s slack texts from themselves. Or Vaughn-James’ (1975)[3] The Cage, which seems to have as much narrative density as Woodring’s work but with much less hope of ever “deciphering” it, provides a world of mirrors, wires, knotted sheets, fences, and other objects to allow a reader/viewer to marvel at the visuals.

Not so here. The very short 21 chapters present very sparsely, both visually and narratively. So let’s consider the hyperbole on the book back. Warren Ellis, “author of Gun Machine, Red, Transmetropolitan” informs us of this graphic ‘novel’, “Like watching David Lynch and Samuel Beckett get mean-drunk: a demented comedy from one of the medium’s authentic geniuses.”

Presumably this means the David Lynch of Eraserhead (i.e., foggy black and white and strange imagery) and the particular imagining of a Samuel Beckett that never existed who gets taken by many talentless epigones as an excuse to deploy “meaninglessness” in a text. This imparts, supposedly, a sense of existential angst—you know: the notion that life “is” meaningless, hollow, empty. Rather like Derrida’s deconstruction, which made a kind of sense as an attack against the institutionally monolithic assertion of absolute meaning that French academia insisted upon at the time but which becomes not only incoherent but actually reactionary in a US setting where having multiple points of view (deconstruction as only one amongst them) turns out instead to politically neutralise rather than empower people, this reflexive transplantation of an imaginary Beckett to our current milieu not only fails in its project but simply represents a gesture of quietism and submission to the current social order.[4] If Beckett, at the time, challenged or wrote against a kind of monolithic culture of meaning (in theatre), his ironic gestures of negation no longer have the same meaning now, in a world where ironic gestures of negation have become the dominant norm. In a similar way, if you would think to accuse Eraserhead of meaning “nothing” (whatever Lynch did, does, or did not intend), then you might foolishly think to connect this book with that film-maker.[5]

Meanwhile, under Warren Ellis—who many might not know—a bigger name appears, Guillermo del Toro. He declares, “Baby Bjornstrand is both beautiful and brutal, warm and indifferent. Like all of Renee French’s art it hints at the innocent and the profane without missing a beat. A creature after my own heart.”

To arrive at “beautiful and brutal, warm and indifferent” would require narrative work within the book that French does not supply, accomplish, or even attempt, it seems. Random elements appear in the book instead: the characters wear masks and one has a small tail. And the situations lean so heavily on whatever “archetypal” significance they can get that the reader alone supplies all of the meaning. The reader supplies all of the art, in that sense.

Yes, yes—something of this happens in all texts, but it remains both naïve and wilfully ignorant to pretend that hundreds and hundreds of years of graphic composition studies have no bearing or import anymore on visual art. Rembrandt and other bozos like him did just flop paint on the canvass; a whole phenomenology of viewing came to bear when they painted, and even if most scribblers these days have little knowledge of, and even less ability to deploy that knowledge if known, those compositional rules and tricks, it remains the case that putting an image on a page cannot entirely excuse, erase, or disappear the scribbler’s presence. Pretending it all remains in the reader/viewer’s lap remains an untenable position, though it certainly helps to encourage readers to jack themselves off while giving the “artist” credit for their pleasure.

One can only imagine what del Toro would do with this book if he filmed it; he’d start by rewriting it, most likely.

I offer a challenge to someone. Determine in what way French has created an allegory of the 21 major arcana from the Tarot in the 21 chapters of this. The cover of the book represents chapter 0, card Zero, the Fool, of course.

Go.

Endnotes

[1] I planned also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests. I haven’t followed through on this yet.

[2] French, R. (2013). Baby Bjornstrand. Koyama Press, pp. 1–130.

[3] Vaughn-James, M. (2012). The cage. Toronto: Coach House Books

[4] What a long sentence.

[5] And, by the way, I say this as no great admirer of Lynch’s work. But at least one finds an indisputable effort and intention in Eraserhead; it seems hardly fair to such work to liken this book to it.

This, the third in a multipart post, reintroduces the theme of a public-collective rape fantasy centred on sexual assault in prisons and then examines the problems of conducting research on sex in prison. See the first two parts of this study here and here.

Introduction

In this paper, we analyse a public-collective rape fantasy centred on sexual assault in prison. We justify the use of the word fantasy for this in light of not only the wide disparity between an exaggerated public opinion regarding the actual frequency of sexual assault in prisons, even when presented with facts to the contrary, but also the public’s failure or reluctance to recognise both the actual character and typically consensual character of most inmate-on-inmate prison sex. The striking and awful fact that “society accepts inmate sexual assault as part of the price criminals pay for committing crimes” (Dumond & Dumond, 2002, pp. 74, emphasis added) points not simply to a prurience but perhaps also and actually vicious quality at work in cultural depictions of inmates in prison raping other inmates. Such depictions appear to serve in part to show raped human beings getting what, in the public’s imagination, they deserve.

This mismatch between recurrent narratives of prison rape in cultural productions—typically of white inmates, often white supremacists, sexually victimising weaker, non-protagonist, same-race inmates—runs explicitly contrary to the predominant state of sexual affairs and demographics in prisons. As a narrative that cultural discourse in the United States desires to repeat, its deviance from the facts of prison sexuality suggests something more akin to compulsive pornographic fantasy than to representational fiction per se. Leps (1992), surveying in considerable detail the interplay of literature’s “truth value” and the conceit of “objective knowledge” embodied in the popular press, demonstrates how (literary) fiction and ostensible non-fiction (in newspapers and other informational media) mutually reinforce one another and can swap places. Within a disciplinary society, then, a “fictional” depiction of prison rape becomes not only the “factual” basis for the public’s imagination about it but even provides a basis for academic studies and policy determinations about actual sexual assault in prison. As Leps notes, “the truth of a period corresponds not to the closest perception of a primary reality, but rather to the sets of information which, having been legitimized by institutions, organize the mode of being, the social arrangement, [and] the historic reality of people and product” (3).

We suggest that the carceral zone of prison, as one of the sites par excellence for the intersection of pleasure and danger, has become a place in the public imagination that positions us as either a “victim” or a “perpetrator” of prison rape, i.e., as either a consumer or producer of this variety of social pornography.[1] Moreover, we centre our analysis on male prison complexes and settings for three reasons. First, inasmuch as patriarchy frames rape (if not exclusively) as a male prerogative, then we should expect that culturally disseminated social pornography around rape in general will more permissively enable this narrative in a male setting; the vast number of cultural productions in this mode seems to bear this out. We may recognise, then, that the greater incidence of male prison rape fantasies arises not simply due to the greater number of male prisoners—facts in any case rarely dictate the course of a fantasy—but because such a setting better gratifies that fantasy, for reasons explored below. Second, the recurrent framing of the victim of sexual assault in prison as a “prison bitch” shines an especially illuminating spotlight on the several interconnecting issues of hierarchy, dominance, misogyny, violence, and racism that patriarchy thrives on. Social pornography, as something actively practiced in public view—in contrast to the private and generally hidden consumption of personal pornography—has an “in plain sight” aspect that we might readily overlook simply for being so obvious. Third, by analysing this strikingly “candid” representation of a collective rape fantasy in the (mostly) all-male setting of the prison, this then adds further to the tools and insights feminism brings both to efforts to dismantle patriarchy in general and to issues of sexual assault specifically. Moreover, by focusing on male prison rape in this way, we do not seek to re-centre perceived male-bodied individuals within a discourse rightly preoccupied with the more widespread cultural problem of sexual assault against perceived and actually female-bodied individuals; quite the contrary, we do in protest against a cultural discourse that fantasizes (both in its cultural productions and the public imagination) that male-on-male rape represents the most degrading form of punishment and is thus more heinous and serious than sexual assault against women.

Towards our goal to rupture the soap bubble of fantasy that surrounds cultural narratives of prison rape, we first summarise briefly in this paper a central tension between pleasure and danger that became especially acute during the “sex wars” and then introduce an analytic method for more fruitfully teasing out the contradictions and dilemmas that result from this pleasure/danger binary in the first place. Stated briefly in anticipation, a public (academic and narrative) discomfort over the intersection of pleasure and danger has engendered tangles in the public discourse about it that our analytic proposes to sort out. Next, by applying this analytic specifically to the historically troubling notion of personal (not collective) rape fantasies—as another site par excellence where pleasure and danger merge disturbingly—this helps to expose and de-scaffold the mythologies and discourses that inform the social pornography of collective prison rape fantasies in general. This not only portends to open a crack in the ostensibly monolithic and impenetrable walls of the carceral panopticon itself to disclose more factual narratives about prison sex generally, but also refocuses our attention, within the dominant narrative context of social pornography around prison rape itself, on the more prevalent perpetrator of such rape: the prison, not the inmates.

Impossibilities for Prison Actualities

Again, Leps (1992) notes:

the truth of a period corresponds not to the closest perception of a primary reality, but rather to the sets of information which, having been legitimized by institutions, organize the mode of being, the social arrangement, [and] the historic reality of people and products (3).

The socio-dynamic operations of this truth in a period manifests as discourse, while the term “truth” itself points not merely to whatever a given society in a period deems recognisable but also specifically to the regulatory or disciplinary structures that mediate that recognition. In the present case, this involves academic discourse around the subject and the culture industry’s production of prison rape narratives, visual and otherwise.

The generation and mediation of this “truth” rarely occurs flawlessly—for all that the panopticon claims omniscience, its subjects may find gaps, blind spots, and even silences to hide in; Eagleton (1976) specifically notes, citing Macherey’s (1970) Pour Une Théorie de la Production Littéraire, “It is in the significance silences of a text, in its gaps and absences, that the presence of ideology can be most positively felt” (34–5). To examine the “truth” of prison sex culture, then, will principally disclose only the discourse about it.

Since “power and knowledge directly imply one another” (Foucault, 1977, p. 27), we may then fairly speak of the myth or fantasy—or with less of an ironic whiff, the discourse—that resulted, consciously or not, from efforts by researchers to penetrate the concealing walls of the prison in their effort to know the “criminal”. Nonetheless, to generalise about more than eighty years of research into the actualities of sex culture in prisons permits admits of only two stably recurring, and noticeably obvious, loci of attention: homosexuality, or more simply homosexual sexual behaviour, and criminals, or more simply people accused of criminal behaviour. Notably, whether we consider the earliest studies in the United States by Fishman (1934) or Clemmer (1940) with their emphasis on homosexual behaviour per se or any of the vast wealth of more recent studies focussed expressly on sexual assault (Davis, 1968; Fleisher & Krienert, 2006; Lockwood, 1980), the trend overall is to make what the researchers view as deviant behaviour (criminality, homosexuality, sexual assault) the centre of attention. For the criminal, homosexual, and rapist alike, whether researchers took a compassionate view of their subject or not, investigations of prisons have subsequently generated a vast body of social pornography that now functions as a myth-discourse about sexual culture in prison, as our truth of the period.

Contrary to the sort of self-reflexivity pioneered by and now standard in the discipline of anthropology, as a methodological check when presuming to describe an Other (Watson, 1987), one finds little to none of this self-reflexivity in the bulk prison sex culture research, much of which remains rooted in the at-best dubiously scientific field of criminology (Leps, 1992). In much the same way as the voices or words of homosexuals in the early part of the twentieth century appeared as social pornography within the psychology journals of the day, surrounded entirely by an either condemning or compassionate commentary by some psychological expert (Brill, 1913; Ellis, 1915; Ferenczi & Jones, 1916), so also do the homosexual and criminal subjects of prison sex culture research similarly appear in this quoted, but selectively edited and circumscribed, form (Fleisher & Krienert, 2006).

If anthropology established as proper methodology, at least in principal, the setting aside of a researcher’s “mixture of fear and fascination confirmed by scientific conceptions” (Leps, 1992, p. 8) when gazing at the “native” Other, the history of much prison sex culture research seems unabashedly run aground on this fear/fascination shoal, another pleasure/danger itself. As “anthropologists have long recognized the importance of language as a means of controlling behaviour and expressing ideas” (Kuper, 1966, p. 5), a researcher’s mastery of the local dialect thus supplies a precondition for breaking through “the fence of noncommunication” (5) and entering into the actual and lived discourse of those gazed upon. Fleisher and Krienert (2006) make this an explicit aim of their ethnographic research; “This project was a cultural study that would yield prison inmates’ worldview, or their ways of interpreting, of prison sexual behavior and sexual violence” (59).

In addition to this problem of disciplinary framing, methodological challenges make data collection in prisons difficult (Jenness, Maxson, Sumner, & Matsuda, 2010). Not only must one obtain permission to gain access to people in prisons in the first place—usually in an only limited or highly circumscribed way—external criteria may apply as well. Researchers with a history of contact with the judicial system, however slight, may automatically be denied access by the prison authority. From this, we may understand that all prison sex culture research that has relied on access to inmates directly has done so to date with the tacit or grudging approval of the prison authority itself. Further threats to the validity of research arise also not only from the risk of self-selection on the part of inmates who would choose to participate in the research but also simply in any vetting by the prison administration of which inmates get approved for participation.

Fleisher and Krienert (2006) state in considerable detail how they secured participation from different prison sites:

Given the sensitivity of research on prison rape, the Principal Investigators and NIJ [National Institute of Justice] knew that without explicit consent from the American Correctional Association (ACA), state corrections directors would not likely respond positively to requests to conduct prison rape interviews. Therefore, NIJ and the advisory panel determined at the outset that research would proceed with consent of the ACA and the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA). An agreement of anonymity that applied to regions, states, institutions, and institution staff was achieved with input from both associations (69).

Not insignificantly, this study immediately makes clear that it did not have as a goal to “gather rape prevalence or incidence data” (59), but rather “to understand prison rape as a cultural concept, a culture artifact, which inmates may know something about even if they’d never been raped or threatened or intimidated by a physical or sexual threat” (59). This orientation, presumably already more agreeable to prison authorities as a topic of study, shows again a securing of the tacit approval of prison authorities for prison sex culture research. Methodologically, rather than asking, “Does this prison keep you safe,” the researchers would ask a question like, “Can an agency keep you safe” (81)? And both the ACA and ASCA played major roles in determining the actual methodology of the study, including ruling out several types of established research sampling while also placing limitations on who could be interviewed. The authors elected to draw participants only from the general prison population and state that “each institutional liaison [at a prison] provided researchers with an inmate general population roster” (85). They do not indicate, however, any method to confirm if this list actually reflected the entire general population. They do acknowledge, however, that the entire population of a prison does not consist only of general population inmates:

Special inmate populations including inmates in administrative detention; disciplinary segregation; hospitalized inmates; inmates in residential substance abuse units; inmates in mental heath [sic] residential units; protective custody; non-sentenced inmates; inmates in transit units; and INS detainees or deportees were not included (86).

In terms of data validity, one finds little methodological reason excluding special inmate populations from the study. It seems, rather, motivated a desire to avoid any inconvenience or security risk, real or imagined, for prison officials. Moreover, for this study, the validity risk of self-selection takes an interesting form:

Sampled inmates on call-out arrived at the interview location knowing they had been selected for a research project. Inmates refused to be interview about twice per institution. They refused when they heard the interview was about prison rape. Either they said they had not raped anyone on the street or in prison, or knew nothing about rape in either place. In any case, refusals didn’t want to be associated with the term rape. Some refused when they learned they wouldn’t receive a letter of cooperation to place in their file to help at parole time (87).

If a typical research project hazards the risk of self-selection by putting out a call to the general public for participants, the authors here give no sign if pressure from prison officials or if their own lack of consideration of such an approach ruled it out. It seems striking that inmates had no idea in advance what the study sought to do but that they were simply called-out to the interview office. Notably, even in the randomization of numbers used to pick inmate names from the general population roster, members of the prison staff were included; “A staff member was asked to pick a number …. This number was applied to the roster to find the first interviewee” (86). Whatever justification we might imagine for this inclusion of staff in even the very randomness of the process of selection, it points to the degree of intimacy with the surveillance mechanisms this research allowed—or required—with the prison system itself.

It is hard not to be struck by the considerable number of hoops the researchers are at pains to demonstrate they jumped through on the side of prison officials, despite being a Federally funded study. By contrast, and despite the fieldwork they did in advance with formerly incarcerated people in order to develop their interview instrument for use in the prison setting, the authors seem not to have foreseen the social consequences that inmates might imagine when “surprised” in the interview room by an announcement that the study they’d been selected for concerned rape. Imagine receiving an announcement in the mail and a mandatory requirement to appear for a study without being told anything about it in advance to get a sense of how imbalanced the ratio of “surveying power” and “the subject studied” seems in this setting. From the refusals by selected inmates, one readily discerns that participation would either pose a threat for the sense of their reputation amongst the general population or offer no meaningful benefit to them, e.g., as a letter in their file for the parole board.

The distortion of typical research protocols that arise from doing work in a prison setting comes out sharply in the handling of one of the most elementary gestures of humanistic research, the informed consent form:

The research team provided as much protection as possible for inmates and correctional agencies. We had to guarantee to corrections agencies, institutions, and inmates confidentially for their participation. To achieve confidentiality we did not give interviewed inmates a copy of the informed consent form. Once an informed consent form was in inmates’ possession we couldn’t control what happened to it, who saw it, how it might be used against inmates or corrections agencies, or in legal proceedings when inmates allege they were co-opted or forced to participate or threatened by officials that non-cooperation would end up in their parole file or that they would be given an incident report for failure to program or something similar. Further we didn’t want this study broadcast in the media, thus violating confidentiality, if an informed consent statement ended up in a newsroom or courtroom in a lawsuit against a specific correctional agency as identified by a released inmate (87–8, emphasis added).

We detail these methodological challenges to debunk not the basis of this research or research similarly situated but only the idea that researching a site like the prison can ever involve something less than a hyper-mediated construct. Unlike in other spaces within culture, here the discourse—or the myth or the fantasy—travels in much narrower channels. Discourse analysis, if not plain literary sense alone, for instance, can hardly overlook the nervous, ungrammatical logorrhoea of the astonishing run-on sentence from above:

Once an informed consent form was in inmates’ possession we couldn’t control what happened to it, who saw it, how it might be used against inmates or corrections agencies, or in legal proceedings when inmates allege they were co-opted or forced to participate or threatened by officials that non-cooperation would end up in their parole file or that they would be given an incident report for failure to program or something similar (88).

The “or something similar” at the end seems simultaneously not only an almost tragi-comically exhausted collapse but also an echo of the kind of verbally exhaustive language of the Law employed when attempting to list in concrete specifics every imaginable possibility.

The above should make clear that any talk of “truth” in any objective sense where research into prison sex culture occurs remains extremely problematic. Both the mediated character of social pornography generally and its even more hyper-mediated forms that arise when gazing into the site of the panopticon remove over the horizon any good prospect for a view of the actuality of prisons, but it does not end there. Like the previously pathological category of homosexual and the currently pathologised category of mentally ill, the very status of the term criminal and the perception of criminals as such, whether sympathetic or not, has shaped the interpretation of data drawn from the prison site both past and present (Carroll, 1977; Davis, 1968; Dawson, 2014; Gardner, 1975; Listwan, Daigle, Hartman, & Guastaferro, 2014; Moss, 1979).

While the State in its criminal proceedings often shows no hesitation whatsoever to use paid, criminal informants to secure prosecutions, the sort of legal bias against credibility directed at the testimony of prisoners for the defence can enter into interpretations of prisoner reports as well. That is, whatever the credibility of an inmate’s report or not, the dominant discourse readily allows the questioning of the validity of that report simply by virtue of the pejorative label criminal applied to the one giving the report (Cheung, 1990; Leps, 1992; Wexler, 2014). As simply the obverse of this tendency, a too-sympathetic researcher may credulously accept less ingenuous reports by inmates; more precisely, the dominant discourse permits a critic to suggest as much of a researcher. The mere fact of a person’s criminality, then, can serve to render his or her report open to no end of doubt.

Sometimes researchers invoke those demographic characteristics—long identified with the “criminal”—rather than criminality itself to disqualify or problematize statements by incarcerated people. Fleisher and Krienert (2006) reported that “Standard English vocabulary was sometimes too complex. Some questions exceeded inmates’ education level to give answers” (75).[2] Alarid (2000), studying women’s prisons, suggested that the low incidence of sexual assault among women studied resulted from those women failing to recognise what had happened to them as sexual assault in the first place. Even in Fleischer and Krienert’s (2006) shift away from collecting data on the prevalence or incidence of rape in prison to an exploration of inmate awareness about the cultural artefact of prison rape makes their findings legally hearsay, i.e., simply a rumour drawn from amongst a historically discredited class.

The extremity of the epistemological situation involved in trying to establish the “actuality” of prison sexual violence may explain why a meta-analysis of studies on the topic cites rates of incidence ranging from 1.9% to 41% of all inmates (Gaes & Goldberg, 2004). Researchers adduce factors such as an unwillingness to report sexual assaults (Fowler, Blackburn, Marquart, & Mullings, 2010), including “embarrassment, fear of harassment, and retaliation from the perpetrator” (Levan Miller, 2010, p. 1), institution-wide misogyny, transphobia, and homophobia (Erni, 2013; Kupers, 2010), the (perception of) disinclination on the part of prison officials to prosecute sexual assault in prison (Capers, 2011), and the perception of reporting as snitching to low-incidence numbers (Garland & Wilson, 2013), while a tendency to refer in studies to the “myth” of male or prison rape, even while acknowledging the occurrence of, seems positioned to deny the problem exists (Fleisher & Krienert, 2009; Saum, Surratt, Inciardi, & Bennett, 1995; Turchik & Edwards, 2012). Since this locution of “myth” has appeared more often following the Federal Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (Rowell-Cunsolo, Harrison, & Haile, 2014), attempts to minimize liability exposure or simply to reduce the presence of researchers in prison may inform this assertion of “myth”.

While Smith and Batiuk (1989) indulged in overstatement when they asserted that “the threat of sexual violence dominates the prison environment and structures much of the everyday interactions that goes on among the inmates” (30, emphasis added), they nevertheless concluded more in that spirit identified fourteen years later in Eigenberg and Baro (2003), who noted how the body of research on sexual assault in prison “contends that the rates of actual victimization are less relevant than the fact that inmates perceive the threat of violence to be widespread” (57). From the most extensive study to date, which relied explicitly on interviews and perceptions of inmates regarding sexual violence in prison, Fleisher and Krienert (2006) report that 21.3 present of men and 9.0 present of women “reported some worry or sense of threat caused by a potential rape” (12); more specifically, “inmates reported they did not fear imminent rape. However, they acknowledged that such behaviour may occur” (12). By the mid-1990s, as researchers began to explicitly consider the myths and realities of prison sex and sexual assault (Saum et al., 1995), Lockwood (1994) could write that inmates and researchers alike “have been perpetuating certain ideas about prison sexual violence that are not supported by systematic research on the topic” (98). In all of this, we see a subtle or overt shift away from any actuality of prison sexual assault and more toward the discourse around sexual assault in prisons.

Given all of this contradictory material, which seems to gain rather than lose in obscurity from widening the field of view to include women’s prisons and international settings (Alarid, 2000; Chen, Lai, & Lin, 2013; Kuo, Cuvelier, & Huang, 2014; Pardue, Arrigo, & Murphy, 2011; Richters et al., 2012; Schneider et al., 2011), rather than decry a methodological failure to establish any actual truth about prison sexual assault—or to continue to insist that we can, despite the difficulties, arrive at such a truth (Jenness et al., 2010)—we might better understand this confusion as an emergent property and authentic function of the prison itself. In other words, the prison embodies a site par excellence where discourse can emerge in its most disembodied form as a myth in the sense of a fiction or a falsehood, i.e., as a place that generates discourse least connected to any ostensible “facts” and thus most distantly removed from objective verification except in the most trivial of demographic details.[3] In this sense, as a hothouse for fantasy, the prison, perhaps uniquely, supplies a crucial element both in the production of and our understanding about the current collective-public rape fantasy set in it.

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Smith, N. E., & Batiuk, M. E. (1989). Sexual victimization and inmate social interaction. The Prison Journal, 69(2), 29-38.

Turchik, J. A., & Edwards, K. M. (2012). Myths about male rape: A literature review. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 13(2), 211.

Watson, G. (1987). Make me reflexive, but not yet: Strategies for managing essential reflexivity in ethnographic discourse. Journal of Anthropological Research, 29-41.

Wexler, D. B. (2014). That’s What Friends Are For: Mentors, Lawyers Assistance Program (LAP) Lawyers, Therapeutic Jurisprudence, and Clients with Mental Illness Justice, Conflict and Wellbeing (pp. 177-193): Springer.

Wicke, J. (1991). Through a gaze darkly: pornography’s academic market. Transition, 54, 68-89.

Endnotes

[1] Throughout, we generally follow Wicke’s (1991) articulation of social pornography (discussed below), but this provides ultimately simply a staging ground for our definition of a public pornography that contrasts with the social variety.

[2] One might remember, as a context for this claim, that the researchers had worked on the streets with formerly incarcerated people in order to develop their interview instrument.

[3] While the mental asylum may share this distinction, the “wilful perversity” of inmates stands in contrast to the “helplessness” of the “insane”. This simultaneously makes the insane less recognizably “human” and thus subject to more pity, especially under the now dominant patronizing that marks psychiatric practice, while the “committed maliciousness” of the criminal also makes her or him not just a threat but an especially dangerous one.

Summary (TLDR Version)

Allegory as Fascism: if fascism means a system that maintains itself at the expense of its members, then allegory (as a narrative structure) maintains itself at the expense of its readers.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve already read this section this year, you can skip it; if you’ve read the previous years, I’ve updated it. Either way, it describes the aim of these book replies.

Three years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day and then write a book reply (not a review) for each one I finished (or gave up on).[1] These replies don’t amount to Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, &c., unless that struck me as somehow necessary. Rather, a book reply—as distinct from a reaction (review) or a response—focuses on what in these pieces I could not have said (or would not have known to say) except that the encounter of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I must at times necessarily say poorly informed stuff, &c. And while some people in the world may expect public speakers to possess omniscience so that they won’t bother to engage in a dialogue to uncover how to make the world a better place, then to the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or figure out what else we might do as part of that attempt to make our world better for us and everyone.

And someone won’t bother to take up their end of that bargain, that points blatantly to a central part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Jim Woodrings’s (2013)[2] Fran

NOTE: just for clarity in advance, I do not insist in the following that Woodring intends something fascist by his book; rather, the literary form of the allegory embodies a fascist form. Whether or not Woodring desires this remains a separate question not addressed here.

Having found Woodring’s (2011)[3] Congress of the Animals intriguing, it seemed worthwhile to explore more of his graphic novels, i.e., not only this, but his (2010)[4] Weathercraft as well. [5] And though Scott McCloud on the back of Weathercraft declares (with whatever authority he possesses) that “Jim Woodring may be the most important cartoonist of his generation,” while this may simply damn Woodring’s generation, we can also see in the arc from (2010)’s Weathercraft to (2011)’s Congress of the Animals to (2013)’s Fran, the waning of Woodring’s importance. Or simply the decline of the significance of his work.

To see this arc requires looking back at the two books before this. As noted previously, Weathercraft (as a total book, dust jacket and all) seems like a first attempt at a narrative structure that Woodring (or his publishers) got more right in Congress of Animals (and less right all over again with Fran); this, because Woodring (or his publishers) much more cleverly use the dust jacket of Congress to add and subtract meaning to and from the text (and try much less completely on the dust jacket of Fran). In Weathercraft, we have a series of more or less authoritative—or authoritatively evasive—gestures on the dust jacket so that the main impression one gets about how to read Weathercraft makes it merely an esoteric or hermetically sealed puzzle-allegory that one might, in theory, decipher. Congress seems far more shot-through with possibilities more suggestive than merely a one-to-one correspondence of allegory. And with Fran, we return merely to the “secret” allegory.

I do not mean by this that one can’t enjoy deciphering the allegory; the genre of the allegory since its first invention has thriven on its puzzle aspect, and has sometimes served as public, hidden messages to those “in the know” or functioned to protect certain messages or discourses from cultural elites in positions of Power who would attack or exterminate those message-senders; in Europe, a largest body of this type shows in the alchemists, and there certainly seem times in Woodring’s books where alchemy creeps in both visually and thematically.

But what allegory does mean not only boils the text down to a single meaning, it typically seems to assume that texts can only have a single meaning. In one of the most famous Occidental allegories, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, I doubt that he would have received well any alternative interpretation to any point of his “secret” (allegorical) depiction of the (Christian) progress of the soul toward salvation.

In this respect, allegory may provide—or at least give a sense to—an author a ground or guarantee that a reader will have no justification for alternatively reading the meaning of her text. Allegory presumes—some might even say it supports the argument for—any readers’ interpretations of the text that do not agree with the author’s intention count as misreadings.

Of course, the extent to which Power (or an author) can enforce this remains socially contested. If the biblical book of Revelations constitutes an allegory—i.e., a text in which every symbol and image corresponds, more or less, to a single, underlying narrative—then various forces over the years have found ways to decipher that code. Thus, William Miller could invent a means for deciphering Revelations to reveal when the Apocalypse would happen, thus giving birth to several end-times churches in the process.[6]

In this respect, allegory differs explicitly from symbols in a text. Again, whatever meaning the surface story presents, it corresponds, more or less in an explicitly one-to-one way, with an underlying narrative. Mind you, that underlying narrative might have as much ambiguity and potential interpretable contestation as any typical narrative; in Congress of the Animals, Woodring (or his publishers) offer as an interpretation of one image: “obstinate dubiousness personified.”

So the point doesn’t boil down that allegory must point to a simple or unambiguous underlying narrative; rather, it functions more like a software “skin”. Its defining aspect—at least at this point in the discussion—hinges on its unambiguous relationship between the surface story and the underlying one. At least on the face of things, one could object: why bother with all of the folderol of this “skin,” why not just tell the story as is. But if we think about why we would “skin” the appearance of an application, we see one answer boils down to “aesthetic delight”; it looks cool. One may certainly say that Woodring’s work often has this quality of aesthetic delight. But the more principal reason for allegory seems, again, for the sake of Power: either to hide a message from those in Power who might otherwise object to the message, or to hide in plain sight a secret of Power not intended for the masses: just as Jesus claims when he explains that he speaks in parables (riddles) because he has one message for the elite (his disciples) and another message for everyone else (the masses).

Symbols, by contrast—at least as Jung construes them—always have a contradictory or ambivalent character; they never boil down to this one-to-one correspondence that seems essential to allegory. Nichols (1980)[7] summarises it this way.

Jung often stressed the difference between a symbol and a sign. A sign, he said, denotes a specific object or idea which can be translated into words (e.g., a striped pole means barber shop; an X means railroad crossing). A symbol stands for something which can be presented in no other way and whose meaning transcends all specifics and includes many seeming opposites (7).

So the extra layer of “skinning” serves as a gatekeeper to narrative interpretation. Readers will tend to find “symbols” aplenty in the surface text of Woodring’s book(s), precisely because visually he does, in fact, seem to draw symbols in Jung’s sense. But your right, as a reader, to interpret them as you will—or, even more basically, in your confrontation with the literally contradictory aspect that symbols present—gets forestalled by the allegorical intent of the book. In general, you must guess (educated or not—education here consisting as much of general knowledge as of having read other books by Woodring) what a symbol means, and whether you get it right or not depends upon the authoritative sanction or confirmation of “those in the know” (probably, in this case, the author or his friends he has disclosed the whole Unifactor structure to).

Fascism especially means a (socio-political) system that maintains itself at the expense of its members. Allegory, then, crucially deploys and participates in a fascist structure, since the field of its interpretation maintains itself by discounting any non-authorized readings while seeming to reward any authorized readings. Those who read wrong get dismissed; those who read right get praised as members of the “cool kids” club. I say “seeming to reward” because the reward doesn’t go to the individual per se but to his or her willingness to perform a particular interpretive act (i.e., reading the book in a certain way or not). Perhaps they “stumbled across” a correct reading simply by being clever, in which case the “reward” of entering the inner circle of those in the know has a very personal feel to it, but one may also enter the inner circle simply by enacting the proper reading, whether you believe it or not.

So, whether you accidentally or deliberately read the book “correctly,” what remains at stake does not involve you or your intelligence in deciphering the book but, rather, your obedience to the demand of the book to read it in a given way. Of course, those who misread the book enact disobedience, and they may proudly and defiantly stand to the side, denouncing the conceits and presumption of Power, which insists that the books means this, but this gesture of disobedience simply marks the flip side of the obedient gesture.

As such, the identity of the individual (as an interpretive being) disappears from the picture and gets sacrificed to the demand of obedience (or its counter-gesture of disobedience, which the inner circle does not acknowledge as real). Thus, the system of the book (as an interpretive field) maintains itself at the expense of its readers.

Endnotes

[1] I planned also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests. I haven’t followed through on this yet.

[2] Woodring, J. (2013). Fran. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, pp. 1–100.

[3] Woodring, J. (2011). The congress of animals, Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, (replied to here, here, and here).

[4] Woodring, J. (2013). Fran. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books.

[5] Replied to here.

[6] Which continue, of course, to knock about, after those end-time predictions proved, more than once, wrong.

[7] Nichols, S. (1980). Jung and Tarot: an archetypal journey. New York: S. Weiser.

This, the second in a multipart post, reintroduces the theme of a public-collective rape fantasy centred on sexual assault in prison and then examines a problem of method in the use of binaries to analyze phenomena (like pleasure and danger). See the first part of this study here.

Introduction

In this paper, we analyse a public-collective rape fantasy centred on sexual assault in prison. We justify the use of the word fantasy for this in light of not only the wide disparity between an exaggerated public opinion regarding the actual frequency of sexual assault in prisons, even when presented with facts to the contrary, but also the public’s failure or reluctance to recognise both the actual character and typically consensual character of most inmate-on-inmate prison sex. The striking and awful fact that “society accepts inmate sexual assault as part of the price criminals pay for committing crimes” (Dumond & Dumond, 2002, pp. 74, emphasis added) points not simply to a prurience but perhaps also and actually vicious quality at work in cultural depictions of inmates in prison raping other inmates. Such depictions appear to serve in part to show raped human beings getting what, in the public’s imagination, they deserve.

This mismatch between recurrent narratives of prison rape in cultural productions—typically of white inmates, often white supremacists, sexually victimising weaker, non-protagonist, same-race inmates—runs explicitly contrary to the predominant state of sexual affairs and demographics in prisons. As a narrative that cultural discourse in the United States desires to repeat, its deviance from the facts of prison sexuality suggests something more akin to compulsive pornographic fantasy than to representational fiction per se. Leps (1992), surveying in considerable detail the interplay of literature’s “truth value” and the conceit of “objective knowledge” embodied in the popular press, demonstrates how (literary) fiction and ostensible non-fiction (in newspapers and other informational media) mutually reinforce one another and can swap places. Within a disciplinary society, then, a “fictional” depiction of prison rape becomes not only the “factual” basis for the public’s imagination about it but even provides a basis for academic studies and policy determinations about actual sexual assault in prison. As Leps notes, “the truth of a period corresponds not to the closest perception of a primary reality, but rather to the sets of information which, having been legitimized by institutions, organize the mode of being, the social arrangement, [and] the historic reality of people and product” (3).

We suggest that the carceral zone of prison, as one of the sites par excellence for the intersection of pleasure and danger, has become a place in the public imagination that positions us as either a “victim” or a “perpetrator” of prison rape, i.e., as either a consumer or producer of this variety of social pornography.[1] Moreover, we centre our analysis on male prison complexes and settings for three reasons. First, inasmuch as patriarchy frames rape (if not exclusively) as a male prerogative, then we should expect that culturally disseminated social pornography around rape in general will more permissively enable this narrative in a male setting; the vast number of cultural productions in this mode seems to bear this out. We may recognise, then, that the greater incidence of male prison rape fantasies arises not simply due to the greater number of male prisoners—facts in any case rarely dictate the course of a fantasy—but because such a setting better gratifies that fantasy, for reasons explored below. Second, the recurrent framing of the victim of sexual assault in prison as a “prison bitch” shines an especially illuminating spotlight on the several interconnecting issues of hierarchy, dominance, misogyny, violence, and racism that patriarchy thrives on. Social pornography, as something actively practiced in public view—in contrast to the private and generally hidden consumption of personal pornography—has an “in plain sight” aspect that we might readily overlook simply for being so obvious. Third, by analysing this strikingly “candid” representation of a collective rape fantasy in the (mostly) all-male setting of the prison, this then adds further to the tools and insights feminism brings both to efforts to dismantle patriarchy in general and to issues of sexual assault specifically. Moreover, by focusing on male prison rape in this way, we do not seek to re-centre perceived male-bodied individuals within a discourse rightly preoccupied with the more widespread cultural problem of sexual assault against perceived and actually female-bodied individuals; quite the contrary, we do in protest against a cultural discourse that fantasizes (both in its cultural productions and the public imagination) that male-on-male rape represents the most degrading form of punishment and is thus more heinous and serious than sexual assault against women.

Towards our goal to rupture the soap bubble of fantasy that surrounds cultural narratives of prison rape, we first summarise briefly in this paper a central tension between pleasure and danger that became especially acute during the “sex wars” and then introduce an analytic method for more fruitfully teasing out the contradictions and dilemmas that result from this pleasure/danger binary in the first place. Stated briefly in anticipation, a public (academic and narrative) discomfort over the intersection of pleasure and danger has engendered tangles in the public discourse about it that our analytic proposes to sort out. Next, by applying this analytic specifically to the historically troubling notion of personal (not collective) rape fantasies—as another site par excellence where pleasure and danger merge disturbingly—this helps to expose and de-scaffold the mythologies and discourses that inform the social pornography of collective prison rape fantasies in general. This not only portends to open a crack in the ostensibly monolithic and impenetrable walls of the carceral panopticon itself to disclose more factual narratives about prison sex generally, but also refocuses our attention, within the dominant narrative context of social pornography around prison rape itself, on the more prevalent perpetrator of such rape: the prison, not the inmates.

Gaping the Pleasure/Danger Binary

Contrary to standard assumptions and procedures, every dichotomous binary (like pleasure/danger) deploys four, not two, analytical categories.

For the pleasure/danger binary, this entails that in addition to the two “openly” defined and acknowledged categories of pleasure and danger, the binary also invokes two “unspoken” (sometimes “unspeakable”) categories as well: danger-pleasure (or the pleasure of danger) and pleasure-danger (or the danger of pleasure). To provide only a briefest example simply to make more clear what this means, even the most elementary dichotomous binary true/false includes in it the two unspoken categories of false-true and true-false, i.e., that which remains false even within truth, and that which is true even within what is taken as false, respectively.

To understand the analytical and political function of these unspoken categories becomes crucial and helpful for untangling some of the difficulties that the uncomfortable intersection of pleasure and danger have engendered in public discourse about it. This, because these unspoken categories point not only to the unspeakable per se, but also to those issues or people that the dominant discourse either would prefer not to have speak or participate in public discourse in the first place or, barring that, would frame (compassionately or not, patronisingly or not) as deviant, mentally ill, criminal, taboo, interdicted, marginal, non-real, unrecognisable, &c.

At times, these unspeakable categories persist as open secrets—as, for example, in the historical social norm that had plantation owners in the US south keeping an octaroon mistress as a necessary accoutrement of their wealth, or at that moment in Forster, Addica, and Rokos’ (2001) Monster’s Ball when Peter Boyle’s character offers a more contemporaneous iteration of this notion, telling his son that a man’s not really a (white) man until he’s had sex with a (black) woman . At other times, social knowledge in principal requires these unspeakable categories to remain silenced or unheard; cases include the expulsion of NAMBLA from national gay liberation efforts (Thorstad, 1991), the initially ungraceful receptions of lesbian BDSM practitioners by a then-dominant feminist discourse (Rubin, 1975), exclusion of transsexuals from women’s music festivals (Rowe, 2014), denunciations of mixed-race critics by proponents of “one-drop rule” politics (Byrd, 2007), and so forth. In general, where the dominant discourse cannot enforce the “limits of the sayable” (Leps, 1992) within public discourse through outright silencing or a marginalization equivalent to silencing, then the interdicted topic at issue may or will appear in discourse pre-eminently in the form of social pornography.[2]

Thus, in a discourse where “pleasure” and “danger” supply our categories for looking—and no one suggests by this that these must be the only two ways to look—we may readily expect, and even predict, that those who favourably avow fantasies about rape—as one of the unspeakable intersections of pleasure and danger—will find themselves either as targets for repression or marginalization or labelled in social pornography as deviant. In terms of the binary “pleasure” or “danger,” this unspeakable claim for a danger-pleasure leaves critics, with methodologically only two available categories to choose from , little choice but to stigmatise it as a “danger” precisely since the fantasists has troublingly named it a “pleasure.” Such an expression of desire, the dominating discourse will tend to insist, clearly cannot or must not be permitted to occupy or stake a claim in that that region of culture and discourse delimited as “pleasure”.

Of course, this stigmatisation need not always be ill-intentioned or moralistic. While some cultural commentators will indignantly dismiss rape fantasies as inherently deviant, nonetheless even a less bigoted critic, trying to engage the issue, will be faced with choosing—if they accept the pleasure/danger binary as legitimate in the first place—between either “pleasure” or “danger” as the category for making sense of a claim for the erotic validity in rape fantasies. Some will find naming it a “pleasure” simply untenable and so, by nothing more than a logical consequence of the binary whether they desire it or not, the commentator must then file away this erotic claim as a “danger”. In this way, under a pleasure/danger binary, the dominant discourse enforces a sort of tacit or pseudo-consensus that must either ignore/marginalize or problematize/pathologise this kind of danger-pleasure and others like it. This latter pathologising gesture, of course, opens up those who espouse such pleasures of danger as vulnerable to calls by the dominating discourse to quarantine them, whether in the prison for the criminal, in the mental asylum for the deviant, at the margin for the unrecognisable or taboo or interdicted, or within the social pornography of academic discourse as a problem-issue.

The above makes clear that rape fantasies, as well as other forms of sexual non-conformism,[3] will not fit properly into only the category of “pleasure” or “danger” alone but require, even presuppose, a hybridity of these otherwise treated-as-separate categories. As such, to espouse out loud the unspeakable category of danger-pleasure entails that the unsettling or disturbing quality of this utterance in public discourse prompts the dominating discourse to respond to it as a “danger”, i.e., (1) as an open secret, (2) as something requiring repression, marginalisation, or silencing, or, barring that, (3) a reframing as social pornography subject to mass-cultural dissemination and public discussion, often in opposition to it (Wicke, 1991). And while the public face of this labelling employs the category of “danger” to interdict it, in fact the gesture involves the other unspeakable category, pleasure-danger.

In identifying danger-pleasures as dangerous pleasures that require hemming in and enclosure, if not actual confinement to an institution, this gesture not only runs contrary to whatever justification or (largely unexamined) rationale given that underlies all of the socially sanctioned varieties of “pleasure”—why, for instance, heteronormativity could warrant normative status in the first place—but also to the premise of sexual license in general. That is, acknowledging that the expression of sexuality has often, in human cultures, provided a site of at times radical or violent contestation, nonetheless in the individualist milieu that has accreted with the rise of industrial capitalism, any attempted limitation of freedom in its broadest or most generic sense now gets typically viewed askance as an illegitimate imposition. In sexual terms, this appears in the slogan: “if it’s not hurting anyone, how is it any of your business” or “who cares what goes on behind closed doors” and the like. Given that 31 to 57 per cent of women studied report having rape fantasies, with 9 to 17 per cent reporting them as frequent or their favourite variety (Critelli & Bivona, 2008), then a rather tortured analytical apparatus seems required to argue that a rape fantasy harms anyone (c.f., Barker, 2014; Corne, Briere, & Esses, 1992; Kanin, 1982; Malamuth, 1981). Moreover, summarising research on the topic, Critelli and Bivona (2008) examine theories that “explain rape fantasies in terms of masochism, sexual blame avoidance, openness to sexuality, sexual desirability, male rape culture, biological predisposition to surrender, sympathetic physiological activation, and adversary transformation” (1), little of which speaks “positively” to this behavioural fantasy.

As such, this attempt to interdict a fantasy as deviant falls within the unspeakable category of a pleasure-danger itself, since such a gesture represents a blatant exception to and suspension of an otherwise official broad-mindedness about—or perhaps simply a helplessness in the face of the logistical difficulty of policing—what goes on behind closed doors, much less inside of someone’s head. In other words, while this gesture rationalises the fantasy as a “danger” and encloses it within an official field of social pornography, if it discusses the topic at all, it does so on the basis of a position that technically and culturally we disallow, i.e., opposition to certain kinds of harmless pleasures construed as dangerous. Again, though, to be clear: it is not that forces in culture can never contest or condemn varieties of (sexual) pleasure, but that this particular form of pleasure, a fantasy, does not fall under the typical behavioural prohibitions that more frequently act as moral constraints on individuals within culture.

In a culture that officially valorises freedom—especially freedom of thought—to make an exception for the freedom of thought to have rape fantasies, or fantasies about other interdicted danger-pleasures, makes for a striking gesture at the very least. Given the context of Power and sexuality involved, it takes little effort to imagine this gesture of prohibition as bad, deviant, perverted, depraved, and so forth as dovetailing neatly, if not completely, with the act of rape itself. Thus, just as pornography in general induces and presupposes a sexual release, social pornography then similarly induces and presupposes some kind of social discharge about the topic at hand.

To provide a specific, concrete example of the operation of dichotomous binaries, we examine the love/fear binary deployed messily and extensively in psychoanalytic discourse. Here, “love” (as a variety of attraction) represents one form of “pleasure” while “fear” (as variety of repulsion) represents one of the form of “danger”. Along with love and fear, then, the binary invokes love-fear (or a fear of love) and fear-love (or a love of fear) as well. And while the former has more than its fair share of commentators (Nykänen, 2014), we would focus here on the latter, which has an even more extensive literature via the topic of masochism, often referred to explicitly in terms of a love of fear, though never in any positive sense (Besdine, 1969; Nykänen, 2014; Tridon, 1922). Characteristically, this locution fear of love appears in the discourse labelled as a paradox, something confusing; speaking of erotic rape fantasies, Critelli and Bivona (2008) state bluntly, “Erotic rape fantasies are paradoxical: they do not appear to make sense” (1). In this way, we see how social pornography within the dominating discourse can at times at least partially acknowledge the inadequacy of its binary categories; i.e., it may take note of a phenomena like an apparent “love of fear” but not without retaining the socially pornographic designation of that phenomena as a “problem” or “issue.”

The “love” of “fear” seemingly courted by masochism—the claim by its practitioners to find a pleasure in danger—presents to psychiatric discourse as an anomalous and contradictory datum in light of its love/fear binary. Confronted by the dilemma of having to decide if masochism constituted an expression of “love” or “fear,” since such “deviant” behaviour when first studied was at the time unspeakable as mentally healthy, much less socially desirable, psychiatric discourse therefore had little choice—if also no inclination—but to categorise this anomalous datum as inherently neurotic and thus some form of unhealthy “fear,” a part of the death instinct (Benjamin, 2013; Maleson, 1984).[4] In this, we see not only how experiential reports by sexually non-conformist Others were normalised but also how even self-descriptions of their experiences become dismissed, labelled, or diagnosed as deviant: as a self-destructive impulse (Nykänen, 2014), a perversion of surrender (Ghent, 1990), or “a perversion that originates in early traumatic events involving a mixture of prohibition, seduction, and reassurance” (Loewenstein, 1957, p. 1), and so forth. The very construction—in this case of masochism—as a “problem” or “issue” entails that even when the dominating discourse half-acknowledges the inadequacy of its binaries—in this case the “paradoxical” or “insensible” phenomenon of a “love of fear”—it still shunts the framing of this problem to the “fear” side of the binary, not the “love” side.

To gain access to a less “confused” or “paradoxical” official framing of any such fear-love—sticking still with this binary for the time being—then we might simply consult the self-reports of people who identify their experience of the intersection of pleasure and danger in positive terms in order to get a better description of the head-space that their desires and experience occupy. However, even then we will only most often find the most socially validated forms of these reports—those truths of the period that correspond “to the sets of information … legitimized by institutions” (Leps, 1992, p. 3)— in social pornography.[5]

For instance, Baumeister (2014), while re-approaching the topic of masochism through a lens of selfhood, nevertheless still describes it as a contradiction, as a denial of self and “paradoxical behaviour pattern” (x) within a framework that privileges selfhood ; “masochism thus emerged as an escapist response to the problematic nature of selfhood” (v, emphasis added). Whatever the intentional or unintentional resonance Baumeister means here in the pejorative term ‘escapist’ that makes selfhood ‘problematic’ for the masochist, one may already imagine masochists objecting to the description.[6]

In his declaration of method and summary of findings, we may see also that partial acknowledgment of categorical inadequacy that social pornography sometimes exhibits in his finding of a second element that can accompany masochism’s denial of self: namely, that masochism not only can “take the self apart but also, to some extent, puts together a new set of meanings in place of the deconstructed one” (x, emphasis added). It may seem an overstatement at this point to call the admission in “to some extent” grudging, but similar forms of hedging appear elsewhere. While summarising the possible audience for his book, Baumeister ends with, “Finally, this book may offer some reassurance and self-insight to actual masochists. Past psychological works have generally taken a dismal or alarmist view of the masochist, probably unfairly” (x, emphasis added). What reassurance a masochist should take from a researcher who signals his unwillingness or inability to dismiss fully all previous dismal and alarmist views of masochism remains unclear. This hedging appears methodologically as well:

Given my background in empirical research, I felt it necessary not only to propose theories but to examine all possible sources of evidence about them. This book integrates past research evidence, current findings, cross-cultural and historical comparisons, and some original data on the masochistic imagination as evidenced in anonymous scripts of fantasies and favorite experiences written by a large sample of masochists (and some of their partners) (x, emphasis added).

Discourse analysis in general suggests that we may take seriously how someone says something as much as what they say (Bakhtin, 1981; Williams, 2014; Wodak & Fairclough, 2004), so we would pause briefly to consider the curiously laboured phrase “and some original data on the masochistic imagination as evidenced in anonymous scripts of fantasies and favorite experiences written by a large sample of masochists (and some of their partners)” as pointing to the kind of hesitation sometimes present when social pornography attempts to negotiate its categorical inadequacies.

For one, we note the curious juxtaposition of only “some original data” from amongst “a large sample”; a some/many contrast that seems echoed in contrast of the de-personalized anonymity of the fantasy-producers who nevertheless (at least in some cases) are humanly non-anonymous enough to have partners. The anonymity of the fantasies itself—besides a standard requirement in this kind of research—nevertheless seems perverse in a study that makes selfhood central. And in fact, rather than people having fantasies, Baumeister refers instead to “the masochistic imagination.” If he undertook any interviews with actual masochists, he neglects to mention those here. Instead, the inclusion of “some original data on the masochistic imagination” by actual masochists—albeit in the mediated form of written fantasies—occurs within a larger methodological context that includes past research, current findings, and even some rather gratuitous “cross-cultural and historical comparisons,” so that the presence or footprint of actual masochists appears only in a heavily mediate form. The degree of this mediation goes so far that at times we “see” masochists only through the lens of another, i.e., their partners.

As such, one all but overlooks that Baumeister methodologically offers “original data on the masochistic imagination” through fantasies, rather than direct self-reports about the experience of masochism. If we have dwelt in some detail on this example, it nonetheless well characterises a similar kind of pattern of ironies or avoidances that also emerge when researchers attempt to study the problematic category of “criminal” within prisons as well, with or without the added element of sexual assault. Specifically, the study by Fleisher and Krienert (2006), at the time the most extensive study of sexual assault in prison, explicitly did not solicit any reports from inmates about their experiences of sexual assault, but focused only on inmate perceptions of the issue; while the data collected here did not arise in the sort of mediated form found in Baumeister’s study, we indulge no inaccuracy to say that Fleisher and Krienert supply only some original data on the criminal imagination of prison rape, rather than an direct self-reports of the experience of it.

All of the foregoing considers the pleasure/danger binary principally from the position of authorized Power. In other words, it demonstrates how dichotomous binaries like pleasure/danger allow cultural commentators to obscure, shunt aside, or otherwise account for unwanted or anomalous cultural data, and in particular to miscategorise or shoehorn such anomalous data—like rape fantasies—into one or the other category of the two openly acknowledged ones in a binary. Consequently, whatever validity for masochism or rape fantasies that someone asserts, a (psychological or cultural) commentator remains at liberty to dismiss it not as a “pleasure” but a “danger” (whether for the one having the fantasy/experience, or for society generally, or both). From this label of “danger,” further articulations of such desires as mentally unhealthy, deviant, criminal, and so forth may then proceed apace. Thus, not only lived experience of the masochist but even the fantasy life of the rape-fantasist within a context of pleasure-danger gets converted by social pornography into an unqualified “danger” (conceived sympathetically or not). By this, we see then how the general non-acknowledgment of unspoken categories in any binary permits and thus analogises precisely with those gestures of Power that manifest socially as marginalization, otherization, orientalising, demonization, displacement, and the like.

However, we may also examine how such binaries function from a practitioner’s point of view. By this, we do not suggest or insist that anyone must assent to the binary; in principal, at least, one remains at liberty to assent to and take up a binary or not. Situationally, however, this remains contentious. Because we arise in a patriarchally organised milieu, where any difference from the straight-white-male norm unintentionally lays a groundwork for deviance if someone enthusiastically, perversely as it seems, takes up any negative valence of non-straight, non-white, or non-male from the dominating discourse. This “taking up,” however, does not always happen willingly or deliberately. Thus, the delightful abjection one might experience in masochism, rape fantasies, or BDSM may remain awful, degrading, or anything but delightful when not willed or chosen.

Whatever a specific individual’s experience, outside the locus of social pornography’s official framing and control, the unspeakable category of a love of fear (as one of the pleasures of danger) can point positively to those erotopias (i.e., those idealized sexual spaces) that court danger for the sake of arousal: i.e., the eros of risky sexual behaviour of all sorts, of sex in public, exhibitionism, taboo-breaking in general, and activities that risk or involve physical or psychological harm. While we may feel quick to decry as public dangers any actual acting out of these desires, their erotic authenticity within the realm of sexual fantasy remains closed to critique, no matter how much such a fantasy disturbs us or not.

Similarly, the other unspoken category, a fear of love—in official discourse often taken in an off-hand way as unwillingness on someone’s part to accept intimacy (Knox, 2007; Rokach, 1989)—in its more radical guise points to a rejection, and therefore a critique, of the forms of love, sexual expression, and identity available or acknowledged as valid by a given culture. This kind of critique might centre on number (i.e., polyamory or promiscuity), on who or what constitutes a valid subject or object of sexual desire (i.e., so-called paraphilias of all sorts), on who or what constitutes a valid centre for sexual identity (i.e., various sexualities both now recognized or condemned), and above all on who or what constitutes an authority for framing the discourse on these matters in the first place.

To pick a garish and perhaps too difficult example: when conservatives attacked the notion of marriage equality by claiming that if same-sex people could marry, then others would next want to marry their dogs. Since a consequence of dichotomous binaries involves reframing the negative or interdicted half of a given binary in the form of social pornography—as mass-culturally disseminated public conversation generally for the sake of anti-pornography (Wicke, 1991)—then this conservative framing of sexual desire along the lines of a human/animal binary made visible a social pornography for at least the idea bestiality, i.e., a desire for sexual congress with animals.

In contrast to the overt and intentional labelling of bestiality as deviant and something eminently worthy of public mockery, we may instead read out the unspoken category of human desire for animals in the human/animal binary as a critique of anthropocentric assumptions about what constitutes a valid subject or centre for one’s sexual desires or identity in the first place. While assertions of a pathologising diagnosis of a fear of love at the root of bestiality exist—Jenkins and Thomas (2004) resort to hyperbole to describe it as an “act of extreme deviance” (1, emphasis added)—we may just as well understand any such fear of love as a radical critique of current social sexual norms that deny any validity to an attraction for non-human sexual contact; the currently emergent distinction between the term bestiality as an extreme deviance or unequivocal grounds for criminal prosecution (Beirne, 1997) and the term zoophilia, then, acknowledges albeit still within a socially pornographic context the zoophile’s claim that “an emotional bond to the animal plays a key role besides the sexual aspect” (Beetz & Podberscek, 2005, p. 1).

Once again, however unnerved or revolted we might feel that anyone would actually and socially practice any such sexual non-conformism or identity within the precincts of our culture, the erotic authenticity of those fantasies as fantasies must remain closed to critique. We may see, then, that any desire to interdict or marginalize as a sign of deviance certain forms of non-conformist sexual fantasies thus permits cultural or psychological commentators to misconstrue or misread the potentially radical critique raised by a fear of love, as something occurring the public discourse (viewed as a danger of a pleasure) that requires repression, marginalization, or reframing as social pornography by the dominating discourse. Social pornography then not only targets non-conformists to “study” them but also serves to channel and neutralise critiques that the unspeakable categories propose.

The history of the sex wars seems marked at times precisely by gestures of this type , where naming the “dangers” of certain “pleasures” served not only to declare as pathological various sexual non-conformists who questioned the then-prevailing socio-sexual norms but also to bracket out who and what kind of sexual contact could or should be treated as speakable or unspeakable, especially in light of patriarchal norms. This resembles, perhaps perfectly, the normalising and disciplinary mechanism that Leps (1992), by way of Foucault (1977), identifies in the advent of the discourse of popular press and literature from the eighteenth century onward—or more broadly still, the straight-white-bourgeois-male public sphere at its most general (Eagleton, 1984). In a word, we may identify knotted intersection of gender, race, sexuality, and class simply as “polite” society.

None of the above presupposes an aetiology or mechanism to explain the origins of sexual desire. We regard as non sequitur for the purposes of this paper, for example, whether cultural taboos drive or inhibit a fixing of sexual desire. Our discussion of the pleasure/danger binary, rather, aims more to illuminate the dynamics of discourse that have and still surround the intersection of pleasure and danger. Specifically, we would point to a tension and hesitation in all social pornography—especially more in its patronising than condemnatory modes. For our culture’s collective prison rape fantasies in particular, while the dominant discourse will at times generate cultural academic products depicting prison rape, ostensibly in order to oppose or condemn it (Wicke, 1991), these gestures issue from context of discourse that can only acknowledge that depiction as either a “pleasure” or “danger”.

Just as the discourse of the sex wars often seemed to turn on the question whether one should experience, much less could enjoy, rape fantasies or other interdicted desires, while in the same breath trying to explain or explain away as undesirable how they might come about in the first place, so too in the case of collective prison rape fantasies might we become similarly mired in examining whether such fantasies constitute a social “pleasure” or a “danger” in themselves, while in the same breath trying to explain or explain away as undesirable how they originate. Rejecting any (hegemonic) framing of (collective) rape fantasies as merely (socially) neurotic, we proceed instead by listening to the voice of the unspeakable category of the pleasure in danger to disclose any socio-erotic necessity for this collective fantasy as it informs the functioning of patriarchy.

References

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Barker, M. (2014). The ‘problem’of sexual fantasies. Porn Studies, 1(1-2), 143-160.

Baumeister, R. F. (2014). Masochism and the self: Psychology Press.

Beetz, A. M., & Podberscek, A. (2005). New insights into bestiality and zoophilia. Bestiality and zoophilia: sexual relations with animals, 98-119.

Beirne, P. (1997). Rethinking bestiality: Towards a concept of interspecies sexual assault. Theoretical Criminology, 1(3), 317-340.

Benjamin, J. (2013). The bonds of love: Psychoanalysis, feminism, & the problem of domination: Random House LLC.

Besdine, M. (1969). The Jocasta complex, mothering and genius: II. Psychoanalytic Review.

Byrd, C. M. (2007). The Bhagavad-Gita in Black and White: From Mulatto Pride to Krishna Consciousness: Backintyme.

Carr, J. (2003). Child abuse, child pornography and the internet: NCH London.

Corne, S., Briere, J., & Esses, L. M. (1992). Women’s attitudes and fantasies about rape as a function of early exposure to pornography. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 7(4), 454-461.

Critelli, J. W., & Bivona, J. M. (2008). Women’s erotic rape fantasies: An evaluation of theory and research. Journal of Sex Research, 45(1), 57-70.

Dumond, R. W., & Dumond, D. A. (2002). The treatment of sexual assault victims. Prison sex: Practice and policy, 67-87.

Eagleton, T. (1984). The Function of Criticism: From “The Spectator” to Post-Struturalism: London: Verso.

Ex-Prosecutor Indicted On Pornography Charges. (1997). New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1997/05/10/us/ex-prosecutor-indicted-on-pornography-charges.html

Fleisher, M. S., & Krienert, J. L. (2006). The culture of prison sexual violence. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice.

Forster, M., Addica, M., & Rokos, W. (Writers). (2001). Monster’s Ball: Lionsgate Media.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1979). A History of Sexuality.

Ghent, E. (1990). Masochism, submission, surrender: Masochism as a perversion of surrender. Contemporary psychoanalysis, 26(1), 108-136.

Jenkins, R. E., & Thomas, A. R. (2004). Deviance online: Portrayals of bestiality on the Internet. Abgefragt, 18, 2009.

Kanin, E. J. (1982). Female rape fantasies: A victimization study. Victimology.

Knox, J. (2007). The fear of love: the denial of self in relationship. Journal of Analytical Psychology, 52(5), 543-563.

Leps, M.-C. (1992). Apprehending the criminal: The production of deviance in nineteenth-century discourse: Duke University Press.

Loewenstein, R. M. (1957). A contribution to the psychoanalytic theory of masochism. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association.

Malamuth, N. M. (1981). Rape fantasies as a function of exposure to violent sexual stimuli. Archives of sexual behavior, 10(1), 33-47.

Maleson, F. G. (1984). The multiple meanings of masochism in psychoanalytic discourse. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association.

Nykänen, H. (2014). Conscience and collective pressure. Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, 21(1), 51-65.

Ost, S. (2009). Child pornography and sexual grooming: Legal and societal responses: Cambridge University Press.

Pack, L. (2014). Son of Butler County prosecutor arrested on child porn charges. Dayton Daily News. http://www.daytondailynews.com/news/news/crime-law/son-of-butler-county-prosecutor-arrested-on-child-/nhmPq/

Rizzi, N. (2014). Staten Island NYPD Officer Arrested for Having Child Porn, Prosecutors Say. DNAinfo. Retrieved from DNAinfo website: http://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20141126/willowbrook/staten-island-nypd-officer-arrested-for-having-child-porn-prosecutors-say

Robertson, J. E. (2002). Clean Heart and an Empty Head: The Supreme Court and Sexual Terrorism in Prison, A. NCL Rev., 81, 433.

Rokach, A. (1989). Antecedents of loneliness: A factorial analysis. The Journal of Psychology, 123(4), 369-384.

Rowe, C. J. (2014). Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival: place making and the queer persistence of feminism.

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Taylor, M., & Quayle, E. (2003). Child pornography: An internet crime: Psychology Press.

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Wicke, J. (1991). Through a gaze darkly: pornography’s academic market. Transition, 54, 68-89.

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Wodak, R., & Fairclough, N. (2004). Critical discourse analysis. Sage, London, 197-213.

Endnotes

[1] Throughout, we generally follow Wicke’s (1991) articulation of social pornography (discussed below), but this provides ultimately simply a staging ground for our definition of a public pornography that contrasts with the social variety.

[2] Or, as we will demonstrate further, openly unmediated public pornography. However, a consequence of this circumstance in general entails that authorized bodies have privileged access to such interdicted material. Robertson (2002) opens his law review of the topic with nearly a page of unmitigated homosexual prison rape pornography. Safe (i.e., non-illegal) access to child pornography becomes available to researchers and other variously authorized bodies—though sometimes these, whether a police officer (Rizzi, 2014), a District Attorney (“Ex-Prosecutor Indicted On Pornography Charges,” 1997), or a prosecutor’s son (Pack, 2014), get caught as interdicted consumers themselves—while formal work on the topic may serve as potential erotica for those reading about such research (Carr, 2003; Ost, 2009; Taylor & Quayle, 2003), simply the discussion of the matter having an erotic or titillating aspect. Our point of emphasis here does not involve any outrage or surprise that empowered individuals would abuse that power for sexually interdicted purposes but simply to note that social spaces exist where legal, but qualified, access to interdicted material exists; such spaces denote and delimit zones of social pornography, as Wicke (1991) identifies it.

[3] We use the term non-conformism here and elsewhere to point to those practices by individuals that fall outside of any ostensible consensus about cultural behaviour. We specifically do not mean to suggest by this that all non-conformists wilfully, deliberately, or perversely flout cultural norms, though some of course do. In other words, this use of non-conformism takes the framework of a dominating culture that insists on seeing some given behaviour as impermissible. We take this view, which in one sense gives too much authority to Power, because a great deal of human liberatory work has proceeded by engaging a dominating discourse that perceived people as non-conformists in order to change that discourse (e.g., an emphasis on the humanity of women, people of colour, homosexuals, &c).

[4] If this seems too much to oversimplify the volumes of psychoanalytic discourse that attended this question, the persistence of the psychiatric label “masochism” in its discourse already points to a basic non-recognition of the validity of claims to a pleasure of danger in the first place.

[5] In an age of the Internet, we have far more extensive access to self-reports and fantasies, but these documents lack the imprimatur—more precisely, are generally refused the imprimatur—of official knowledge for not passing through the validating institutions that (Leps, 1992) points to.

[6] One may also imagine masochists who agreed with or who even offered the locution ‘escapist’ or ‘escape from selfhood’ initially. Just as in prison rape studies, where researchers could find inmates who would affirm implausibly high incidence numbers for sexual assault, one may always find human beings willing for different reasons—including sometimes telling the truth—to confirm a researcher’s premises. And while research into human experience itself remains fraught with doubt at every turn, the negative construction of masochism as a denial of self (considered paradoxically or not) has ample contradiction in the wide wealth of self-generated fantasies an narratives about masochism we now have available. If Baumeister narrowed his claim—to describe only a particular type of masochist—this threat to validity might evaporate.

Summary (TLDR Version)

While this book remains less well “dialled-in” than Woodring’s subsequent Congress of the Animals, it does show several of the “structural” features the author deploys more felicitously in his following book.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve already read this section this year, you can skip it; if you’ve read the previous years, I’ve updated it. Either way, it describes the aim of these book replies.

Three years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day and then write a book reply (not a review) for each one I finished (or gave up on).[1] These replies don’t amount to Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, &c., unless that struck me as somehow necessary. Rather, a book reply—as distinct from a reaction (review) or a response—focuses on what in these pieces I could not have said (or would not have known to say) except that the encounter of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I must at times necessarily say poorly informed stuff, &c. And while some people in the world may expect public speakers to possess omniscience so that they won’t bother to engage in a dialogue to uncover how to make the world a better place, then to the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or figure out what else we might do as part of that attempt to make our world better for us and everyone.

And someone won’t bother to take up their end of that bargain, that points blatantly to a central part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Jim Woodrings’s (2010)[2] Weathercraft

Having found Woodring’s (2011)[3] Congress of the Animals (replied to here, here, and here) intriguing, it seemed worthwhile to explore more of his graphic novels, i.e., not only this, but his (2013)[4] Fran as well (replied to in the coming days). And though Scott McCloud on the back of Weathercraft declares (with whatever authority he possesses) that “Jim Woodring may be the most important cartoonist of his generation,” perhaps this simply damns Woodring’s generation, but I propose we can see in the arc from (2010)’s Weathercraft to (2011)’s Congress of the Animals to (2013)’s Fran, the waning of Woodring’s importance. Or at least the decline of his significance as far as what he offers as work.

Undoubtedly, this book remains less “dialled-in” than Congress, but it does show several of the “structural” features Woodring deploys more felicitously in his following book.

The most obvious case of this involves the various texts on the overleaves of the book. Where Congress offers a playfully indirect, perhaps even wrong or misleading summary of the action in the book, so that the relationship between “commentary” and (wordless) “text” becomes interestingly problematic, here the overleaf provides much more unambiguously factual commentary, i.e., a list of the characters, several commendations by supposed authorities, and no interpretation of the text but simply the absolutist claim that the book “delves deeper than any previous story of its type into the fabric of the dense internal logic that governs the seemingly inexplicable events that occur in Jim Woodring’s alternate universe, the Unifactor.” Along with this, however and at least, the inner flaps do provide what one might call a contentious “reading” of the text itself, while the back flap includes a “Frequently Asked Questions” section with answers. For example, one runs:

Q: What is the significance of the disgusting object below the drunken Jerry Chicken in the fifth panel of Manhog’s series of expository visions?

A: To put it as delicately as I can, the Jerry Chickens are all bachelors.

Most of the questions, in fact, run much more explanatory. For example:

Q: What is that awful creature that Whim ties Manhog’s tail to? Is it one of the beasts of the Apocalypse?

A: That is the well-known two-mouthed fear cow, and has no religious significance whatsoever.

The spoof of this question of course involves calling the two-mouthed fear cow well-known, since the wordless text gives us no reason to know this. Moreover, while we might not simply naively accept this denial of any religious significance (from, presumably, the author of this book and these answers), nonetheless the quality of the answer here at least has the conceit of definitively establishing the two-mouthed fear cow has nothing to do with the (Christian) Apocalypse or religion at all.

This definitive quality—serving as an intended answer to a particular question—differs from the sort of slant or non-answers found in the narrative summary of Congress of the Animals. There, we get any number of details stated as fact, but we also find possible errors (or at least divergences from the action in the story itself), deliberately or accidentally misspelled words, made up phrases we cannot contextualize, and so forth.

The summary here, which explicitly says, “I don’t want to give away the whole show here on the inside dust jacket,”[5] remains more succinct and terse than in the later book; it also seems far more anchored in the actual events of the book, even if we cannot quite parse what events the dust jacket describes. In fact, only in two details does any doubt seem deliberately let into the picture. When the dust jacket says, “The nameless itinerant crones who give the story its title with their subjective manipulation of the unseen forces that govern the Unifactor,” this links the otherwise inexplicable title to events in the book; apparently the crones practice weathercraft, whatever that amounts to. Similarly, the dust leaf declares, “No effort has been spared to load the scaffolding of this wordless* tale of misery …”; the * points to a footnote reading “*almost” below—and (assuming I’ve not simply spaced it out), one searches in vain in the book for any word whatsoever.

More precisely, at the very end, Frank sits reading a magazine or a book that has something like a script across the top, presumably a title, and thus presumably words, although not in Roman script and likely not in English.[6] All of this matters solely for the reason that in Congress of the Animals, more effort (if not entirely intentionally) goes into less clumsily generating narrative uncertainty about the status of the commentary provided on the text. Whatever authority of commentary gets established there remains far more tenuous than here, where the book has numerous gestures that establish, unambiguously, that it has an esoteric meaning, if only you can decipher it. All of this might merely amount to a ruse, of course, a red herring, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Favourable reviews by established names, authoritative (if confusing) answers seemingly by the author, explicit references to not “giving away the show,” and other like gestures do not completely annihilate the possibility of a spoof, but the narrative weight of these cumulative gestures make far more tenuous than in Congress of the Animals that a reader should decipher the one correct meaning of the text.

As such, the apparent lie, that one may find (almost) words in the this text, at least opens a window on the possibility of something wilier going on with respect to the relationship between the commentary surrounding the text on the overleaves and the wordless frames themselves. All the same—as already noted—the weight of these many gestures points much more in the direction that a reader should decipher in one particular way the script at the top of the book that Frank reads at the end.

In all, this makes Weathercraftless interesting to engage. It positions itself as an esoteric or hermetic secret that one might or might not decipher with enough attention, but the more boring part of this involves that it all likely boils down to only one, single meaning. Allegories typically have this problem, while more typically rewarding poems, novels, and the like seem capable of carrying multiple, sometimes contradictory, stories at the same time. Weathercraft seems to offer a puzzle, which once you solve it, you have nothing more to do.

Significantly, then, the back flap assures the reader that “Weathercraft is a book that rewards successive readings with an unfolding structure of meaning that will enrich your waking and dreaming lives with a full, salutary compliment of “the furniture that glows without an echo.” Like the obscuring remarks attached to Congress of the Animals, the incomprehensible linguistic phrase the furniture that glows without an echo serves to defeat the expected or conventional end of this sentence. However, rather than being relentlessly strange or de-centering, as seems to happen more frequently in Congress of the Animals, while one certainly has little idea what such furniture must consist of—and nothing of the sort seems to appear in the book, of course—nonetheless, such furniture amounts merely to a thing, an object (a mysterious object). If I tell you that you will benefit from this magical talisman, you will have little idea how or why, but you shall remain on sure ground as to what this all involves, because the “discourse” of magic remains familiar to us all.

This kind of obviousness, as also the authoritative gestures on the dust leaves of the book, all over and over point to one, single meaning for the book. Although perhaps Woodring (or his publishers) want it to act more like a poem, novel, or work of art that carries multiple interpretations at once. By this, I do not mean that readers cannot dispute what the book means (i.e., that readers cannot advance multiple interpretations). Readers always allow themselves this conceit, but they do not need to refer to the text to justify this. We can all come up with multiple readings of “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” but the song itself gives us little to no reason to believe that its composer intended multiple levels of meaning all at once. So whatever the full, salutary compliment of the furniture that glows without an echo might consist of, it seems just as uni-interpretable as the entire text itself.

Bummer.[7]

Endnotes

[1] I planned also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests. I haven’t followed through on this yet.

[2] Woodring, J. (2010). Weathercraft. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, pp. 1–100.

[3] Woodring, J. (2011). The congress of animals, Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books.

[4] Woodring, J. (2013). Fran. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books.

[5] In the Frequently Asked Questions section, the commentator once again explicitly refuses to explain something. Whereas in Congress, whether the book really even reads as an allegory remains better suspended in mid-air; here, one has an unshaking sense that the entire thing involves an elaborate code (“the dense internal logic that governs the seemingly inexplicable events that occur in Jim Woodring’s alternate universe, the Unifactor”) which has a one-to-one deciphering.

[6] The last panel also has “J.W.” in the lower right corner, but I doubt that the “almost wordless” points to this signature.

[7] And perhaps you will have noticed the (perhaps?) incorrect or ambiguous usage of the word “compliment” in the phrase “fully, salutary compliment of ‘the furniture that glows without an echo’”. In Congress of the Animals, a misspelling occurs that seems deliberate, or at least fits in with a much better-deployed ambiguity within the text commentary itself. Here, this seems more like simply a mistake—that we should receive a complement of the furniture, rather than a compliment from the furniture, whatever that might consist of. I would very much like to make a great deal of this, and to insist that this word-usage amounts to a (perhaps too subtle) hint that the author offered the commentary advanced on the leaves of this book in a wily way that makes its relationship to the text ambiguous and more interesting, but I don’t find enough here to justify such an assertion. If the case, then Woodring does a much better job of the same gesture in Congress of the Animals. But, of course, the greater clumsiness here suggests that reading the overleaves of Congress of the Animals in an ambiguous way amounts to a misreading of those texts. As I said in my other reply: why does this matter? And the answer boils down to the fact that Woodring must assuredly intends something deliberate with his books; we don’t have here random images too deeply dissociated from a reader’s ability to decipher them (at least in theory) to simply rest on our laurels and arrogantly (as readers) insist, “Well, however I read it is all that matters.” False. An artist creates with an intention, and we readers may always license ourselves to disregard those intentions—and we critics may say the artists didn’t even understand their own intentions or motivations sufficiently—but neither of those affordances justify any claim to completely deny authorial intention totally, even if we have no way to recover what that intention might amount to.

This, the first of a multipart post, introduces the theme of a public-collective rape fantasy centred on sexual assault in prisons and then situates that as part of the “sex wars” raging on and off since the 1980s.

Introduction

In this study, we analyse a public-collective rape fantasy centred on sexual assault in prison. We justify the use of the word fantasy for this in light of not only the wide disparity between an exaggerated public opinion regarding the actual frequency of sexual assault in prisons, even when presented with facts to the contrary, but also the public’s failure or reluctance to recognise both the actual character and typically consensual character of most inmate-on-inmate prison sex. The striking and awful fact that “society accepts inmate sexual assault as part of the price criminals pay for committing crimes” (Dumond & Dumond, 2002, pp. 74, emphasis added) points not simply to a prurience but perhaps also and actually vicious quality at work in cultural depictions of inmates in prison raping other inmates. Such depictions appear to serve in part to show raped human beings getting what, in the public’s imagination, they deserve.

This mismatch between recurrent narratives of prison rape in cultural productions—typically of white inmates, often white supremacists, sexually victimising weaker, non-protagonist, same-race inmates—runs explicitly contrary to the predominant state of sexual affairs and demographics in prisons. As a narrative that cultural discourse in the United States desires to repeat, its deviance from the facts of prison sexuality suggests something more akin to compulsive pornographic fantasy than to representational fiction per se. Leps (1992), surveying in considerable detail the interplay of literature’s “truth value” and the conceit of “objective knowledge” embodied in the popular press, demonstrates how (literary) fiction and ostensible non-fiction (in newspapers and other informational media) mutually reinforce one another and can swap places. Within a disciplinary society, then, a “fictional” depiction of prison rape becomes not only the “factual” basis for the public’s imagination about it but even provides a basis for academic studies and policy determinations about actual sexual assault in prison. As Leps notes, “the truth of a period corresponds not to the closest perception of a primary reality, but rather to the sets of information which, having been legitimized by institutions, organize the mode of being, the social arrangement, [and] the historic reality of people and product” (3).

We suggest that the carceral zone of prison, as one of the sites par excellence for the intersection of pleasure and danger, has become a place in the public imagination that positions us as either a “victim” or a “perpetrator” of prison rape, i.e., as either a consumer or producer of this variety of social pornography.[1] Moreover, we centre our analysis on male prison complexes and settings for three reasons. First, inasmuch as patriarchy frames rape (if not exclusively) as a male prerogative, then we should expect that culturally disseminated social pornography around rape in general will more permissively enable this narrative in a male setting; the vast number of cultural productions in this mode seems to bear this out. We may recognise, then, that the greater incidence of male prison rape fantasies arises not simply due to the greater number of male prisoners—facts in any case rarely dictate the course of a fantasy—but because such a setting better gratifies that fantasy, for reasons explored below. Second, the recurrent framing of the victim of sexual assault in prison as a “prison bitch” shines an especially illuminating spotlight on the several interconnecting issues of hierarchy, dominance, misogyny, violence, and racism that patriarchy thrives on. Social pornography, as something actively practiced in public view—in contrast to the private and generally hidden consumption of personal pornography—has an “in plain sight” aspect that we might readily overlook simply for being so obvious. Third, by analysing this strikingly “candid” representation of a collective rape fantasy in the (mostly) all-male setting of the prison, this then adds further to the tools and insights feminism brings both to efforts to dismantle patriarchy in general and to issues of sexual assault specifically. Moreover, by focusing on male prison rape in this way, we do not seek to re-centre perceived male-bodied individuals within a discourse rightly preoccupied with the more widespread cultural problem of sexual assault against perceived and actually female-bodied individuals; quite the contrary, we do in protest against a cultural discourse that fantasizes (both in its cultural productions and the public imagination) that male-on-male rape represents the most degrading form of punishment and is thus more heinous and serious than sexual assault against women.

Towards our goal to rupture the soap bubble of fantasy that surrounds cultural narratives of prison rape, we first summarise briefly in this study a central tension between pleasure and danger that became especially acute during the “sex wars” and then introduce an analytic method for more fruitfully teasing out the contradictions and dilemmas that result from this pleasure/danger binary in the first place. Stated briefly in anticipation, a public (academic and narrative) discomfort over the intersection of pleasure and danger has engendered tangles in the public discourse about it that our analytic proposes to sort out. Next, by applying this analytic specifically to the historically troubling notion of personal (not collective) rape fantasies—as another site par excellence where pleasure and danger merge disturbingly—this helps to expose and de-scaffold the mythologies and discourses that inform the social pornography of collective prison rape fantasies in general. This not only portends to open a crack in the ostensibly monolithic and impenetrable walls of the carceral panopticon itself to disclose more factual narratives about prison sex generally, but also refocuses our attention, within the dominant narrative context of social pornography around prison rape itself, on the more prevalent perpetrator of such rape: the prison, not the inmates.

Pleasure & Danger: the Sex Wars

A central disclosure of the sex wars, along with the volatile and on-going controversies that accompanied it, turned on the myriad contestations of a then-assumed white, heteronormative, and vanilla construction of sexuality—especially female sexuality—through Otherings of whiteness, queerings of heteronormativity, and wide-ranging defamiliarizations or “making strange” of vanilla and presumptively “normal” or “non-deviant” sexual behaviour and identity. During that period, a then-burgeoning feminism, perhaps unsure what to do with itself after the high-watermarks of the 1970s, found itself confronted on all sides by demands, amongst other things, for the recognition of (1) an erotic validity for rape fantasies, (2) the legitimacy of economic rationales for pornography and sex work, and especially (3) a recurring insistence on non-conformist sexual impulses and identities as non-deviant—a confrontation that itself played a central role in helping to unleash en masse those countless voices of the Other not until that time given any wide publicity or much of a platform within dominant feminist discourse.

Along every axis of this white, heteronormative, and vanilla construction of sexuality, erotic pleasure and identity made its contrary claims. Against the sentimentality of monogamy, bodies expressed desires for plurality, polyamory, & promiscuity. Against cis-gendered constructions of a (heterosexually conceived) Other, voices described pleasures in objects, in other species and age-groups, and in still more unsettled or multiplying or fluid genders generally, if any at all. Against prevailing filmic aesthetics of beauty, critics exposed the kink of orientalization and laid bare the racist roots of a taste for the exotic. And against every presumptively healthy and often relentlessly vanilla psychosexual urge, a whole pantheon of desires rose up to throw off the label deviant and revel either positively in a self-designation as perverse or to insist that it embodied nothing more, and nothing less, than a deviation, not a deviance, from some otherwise wholly imaginary norm.

At times—sometimes explicitly, as an open sore or hotspot, but more often only implicitly—there lurked near the heart of these visceral debates an unsettling and disturbing intersection of some variety of pleasure and some one of the many different varieties of danger, whether in the forms of violence and domination per se or in the shape of fear, taboo-breaking , or, most unsettling of all perhaps, perpetration. To the extent that feminism to date had grounded itself on a thoroughgoing analysis and rejection of coercive and abusive (patriarchal) Power, while it found itself on one front facing from suddenly numerous voices the groundless historical conceits of its white privilege, it found itself also pinched by a rear-guard action—at times seemingly a rebellion if not a betrayal outright. In that rear-guard attack, other voices, bodies, and desires—best known or most widely publicised at the time perhaps via advocates within the lesbian BDSM community (c.f., Rubin, 1975)—declared as specifically legitimate and desirable the erotic exercise and experience of dominance, submission, and Power generally.

Only slowly—and to date still not always everywhere—there arose something of a grudging acknowledgement of a distinction between consensual domination (at least in the sexual sphere) and non-consensual oppression (in the political sphere).[2] Meanwhile, other controversies followed, often turning fundamentally on questions of identity, but the rapprochement of pleasure and danger remained something more akin to a truce than an armistice. In psychosocial terms, we might say that a then-dominating (not simply dominant) discourse sought to control or repress an emerging visibility around this intersection of pleasure and danger, sometimes by marginalizing or attempting to drive it back underground into a collective unconscious, or by reframing its most uncontrollable forms in that tentatively acceptable public guise that Wicke (1991) termed social pornography, i.e.:

[those] pornographic fantasies the society collectively engenders and then mass-culturally disseminates, usually in the cause of anti-pornography. The past decade’s fascination with explicit and imaginary child sexual abuse is the best example, although there are many others, not the least of which is the public discussion of pornography, which allows for pornographic enactment in the most explicit if mediated forms (54).

Given the informal and formal public’s “fascination with explicit and imaginary [prison] sexual abuse”—as well as the virtually ubiquitous “pornographic enactment [of it] in the most explicit if mediated forms” that we find in narratives set in male prisons and studies about them—in order to further analyse and rupture the eros of this social pornography, we must first dig into and thus dissect more completely the dichotomous pleasure/danger binary of it that lurks at its heart or, rather, in its groin.

References

Dumond, R. W., & Dumond, D. A. (2002). The treatment of sexual assault victims. Prison sex: Practice and policy, 67-87.

Leps, M.-C. (1992). Apprehending the criminal: The production of deviance in nineteenth-century discourse: Duke University Press.

Rubin, G. (1975). The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex. In R. Rapp (Ed.), Towards an Anthropology of Women (pp. 157-210). New York: Monthly Review Press.

Wicke, J. (1991). Through a gaze darkly: pornography’s academic market. Transition, 54, 68-89.

Endnotes

[1] Throughout, we generally follow Wicke’s (1991) articulation of social pornography (discussed below), but this provides ultimately simply a staging ground for our definition of a public pornography that contrasts with the social variety.

[2] The perverse utilization of the arch-sexists Freud and Lacan to ground this avowal seems much in the spirit of the times.

Summary (TLDR Version)

Socially centred identity: try it, you might like it.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve already read this section this year, you can skip it; if you’ve read the previous years, I’ve updated it. Either way, it describes the aim of these book replies.

Three years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day and then write a book reply (not a review) for each one I finished (or gave up on).[1] These replies don’t amount to Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, &c., unless that struck me as somehow necessary. Rather, a book reply—as distinct from a reaction (review) or a response—focuses on what in these pieces I could not have said (or would not have known to say) except that the encounter of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I must at times necessarily say poorly informed stuff, &c. And while some people in the world may expect public speakers to possess omniscience so that they won’t bother to engage in a dialogue to uncover how to make the world a better place, then to the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or figure out what else we might do as part of that attempt to make our world better for us and everyone.

And someone won’t bother to take up their end of that bargain, that points blatantly to a central part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Dasgupta & Neelabh’s (2009)[2] Indian by Choice

A summary for this graphic novel runs:

This book tackles the complex theme of identity; it is a journey of self-discovery through the myriad human relationships that help us to see things in perspective and in context. Written in the form of a graphic novel, it tells the story of Mandy — a second generation Indian born and brought up in Chicago. He is as American as they come — hot dogs, French fries, baseball and a love of all things American. He is, of course, no different from his clones who are in several other parts of the world — England and Australia, the Netherlands and Canada. They blend with their surroundings by assimilating the culture of their adopted home and denying their Indian roots and heritage. In the case of the hero of the book — he has even changed his name from Mandeep to Mandy. The goes on to capture his metamorphosis during a forced trip to India, at the end of which he chooses to be an Indian by choice.

The laboured or redundant quality of that last phrase “he chooses to be an Indian by choice” nicely captures the basic awkwardness of this book. Written by an Indian diplomat[3] particularly for his younger relatives who might, like the book’s main character, reject his Indian heritage on some various ground or another, it gently indulges in polemic on behalf of India, continuously negating Mandy’s various objections, &c., until Mandy (inevitably) changes his point of view.

I have to say, though: narrative inevitability does not necessarily work against the affective moment of that inevitable realisation. No one doubts at the beginning of a romantic comedy that the boy will get the girl—and in theory the genre rests on the notion that we can entertain ourselves with all of the complications, deferrals, and delays of that final culmination—but whether those machinations entertained us or not, we still have the opportunity to experience the rush of satisfaction when the boy simply does get the girl.

Of course, we quickly become critics of these things. Some will remark—no matter how well-done the ending—that it lacks sufficient motivation or comes about too easily. Queer folks will rail against the presumed heternormativity upon which the whole mess depends. Others may note that a sheer lack of talent—in the writing or in the acting—my simply ruin the moment no matter how earnestly we try to take it as meant. Yes. But these technical questions nonetheless all accept the premise that the payoff of a narrative inevitability has (or can have) affective validity, can come off as convincing.

Thus, despite the too often intrusively non-deft laying out of material and arguments and narrative arc here, it still manages to ring as a moment in this book that Mandy introduces himself to some strangers as Mandeep.

Reading the book in one way, the author comes from a historical position that understands the Indian émigré experience to the United States as ultimately an unsatisfying one for many who took that course. He underscores, in an essay afterwards, how US racism has subtly (or sometimes not so subtly) placed a cap on Indian achievement in the United States, embodying one of the most culturally successful immigrant groups. So, in light of that real, historical experience (for some) he sees aspirations toward or admiration of the Unite States as a kind of trap. Conversely, he underscores many Indian traditions—arguing even for arranged marriage—and rather pointedly ignores depicting cultural problems in India. People discuss these issues, but Dasgupta doesn’t show them to us. However persuasive or not, both of these gestures point to the question of Indian identity: i.e., if India doesn’t “work” for you, the United States, though tempting, does not really provide an answer and, in any case, India does have an answer, or at least the possibility of developing an answer, if we give it a chance. In the whole mix of these issues, it never really comes clear what exactly Mandy attaches to as a ground for asserting his Indianness by choice. Nonetheless, because the book establishes at the beginning Mandy’s absolute refusal to call himself Mandeep, simply on the level of narrative mechanics alone his choice to call himself Mandeep at the end resonates. Why he elects for this change remains obscure, but in a sense this doesn’t matter for the reader again, because, the sheer narrative inevitably of the arc sets up the reader’s response, whether that response actually happens (per the author’s desires) or not.

Obviously, the author intends this gesture on Mandy/Mandeep’s part as an embracing of an Indian identity, but most simply it points to a moment of human transformation. It points to a moment when a mind has changed away from a chauvinistic attitude. One can argue if this amounts to little more than the swapping of one cultural chauvinism (a US-centred one) to another (an India-centred one), and we would have to cull carefully the non-polemic aspects of Dasgupta’s text to see if the points of view presented by the various spokespeople of an in India show more breadth of feeling, thinking, and spirit than Mandy (as essentially the only extensive representative of a US-centric worldview). One could look closely at the overlaps and dissimilarities between US and Indian acknowledgments of their social problems and the basic attitudes taken toward those problems. &c.

Whatever might result from that, it remains not explicitly clear why Mandy/Mandeep changes his mind, why he becomes willing to introduce himself with an Indian name. Obviously, the positive experiences he has disabuse him of his pre-existing prejudices against India, but the fact that he goes from expecting to have a hideous time in India to actually enjoy himself doesn’t suffice to explain a transformation of identity. One would expect, if he begins not simply by knowing little about India but actively putting up walls in his imagination about what India “means”, then what experiences depicted in the book break down those walls?

Again, it seems as if Dasgupta takes the shift from “expecting to have a terrible time” to “having a great time” as somehow very key. This happens on a rather extended trip to Goa that only involves people Mandy’s age, as well as some European activists who Dasgupta makes serve as spokespeople both for India’s way of doing things and against the Eurocentric paradigm. Whether or not this Eurocentric speaking exercises some greater authority over Mandeep’s imagination remains unclear. Dasgupta does not give us a moment where Mandy says, “Wow, I never realised that” or the like after hearing something from white people.[4]

This episode doesn’t dispense with the prevailing polemic elsewhere in the book, of course. The main difference consists in the fact that Mandy has the voices of age-peers (from a diversity of ethnicities) ringing in his ears, rather than a typically older and Indian-only point of view. This itself seems a slight on Dasgupta’s assertion about the value in India of importance placed on (extended) family. Of course, by then, Mandy has become more accustomed to India, but his shift to “having a good time” comes explicitly (1) during a vacation away from his most immediate relatives and (2) in a setting most removed from his obligatory reason for going to India in the first place, to attend a family wedding.

Certainly a respite from family responsibilities can often foster more a sense of “having a good time” than meeting the demand (and burden) of performing familial roles, but this point or argument seems directly contrary to the value of familial obligation espoused by several Indians in the book, most of all by the man and woman who agree to an arranged marriage. As such, by design or by accident, it seems as if Dasgupta uses an extra-cultural illustration to ground how Mandy (and thus the reader) may change their mind about “having a good time” in India.[5]

More briefly, Dasgupta simply resorts to the “argument” that “you can have a good time with friends in India,” which hardly could function as a ground for a shift in identity.[6] When Mandy returns from the trip, his emails home gush what a great time he had but I recall no emphasis whatsoever that he, for instance, feels a strangely stronger kinship or closeness with people, a certain je ne sais quois he can’t put his finger on that makes his interactions with age-peers in India qualitatively different than back at home.

Dasgupta also incorporates a love interest into the story,[7] but provides a “heart-wrenching”[8] denouement by making Mandy part without having that love-interest arc fulfilled. Strategically, this sets up that Mandy will have to return to India, even if he had not already had a change of heart about visiting the place. By the end, he states he originally could not have believed he’d ever want to come back, but now does. Having a love interest waiting only makes that that much easier for him.

But does it provide a ground for a change in self-identity? Insofar as she habitually calls him nothing but Mandeep, then his change of name plays along with or makes itself amenable to the point of view of the person he finds himself romantically attached to.[9] So, if simply his grandparents and family in general adding them to their family as Mandeep doesn’t prove enough to motivate him to adopt, even outwardly, a change of identity, and if the social unit of age-peers also cannot motivate that change, then the calling and self-interest of romantic love, from a woman he finds attractive, seems to do the trick.

Again, if Dasgupta’s earlier feint “you can have a good time with friends in India” frames a most banal or basic way to put it, then here he similar resorts to something equally banal and basic: “you can fall in love in India” (or, more specifically, find a spouse). But here again, just as the shift from expecting to have a terrible time to having a great time in India involves only that and no necessary linking of identity, here also a shift from having no interest in getting married to falling in love and finding someone who tempts you to consider it does not in any way automatically involve some shift in ethnic self-identity.

Earlier, when Dasgupta resorts to “going on a vacation with friends,” he (unintentionally) undermines the Indian valuation placed on familial obedience, and does so (unintentionally) in his attempt to appeal to a non-Indian readership (particularly the younger generations). The same occurs here with the love interest. The notion of marriage, breached already and defended in its arranged character, gets distinctly set aside in this moment of not-yet-met love for Mandy. If he decided to come back and propose marriage, (1) what familial forces will intervene if someone had prearranged something for Mandy’s love interest,[10] but, much more probably, (2) what sort of obligations will Mandy find placed on him, not just by his Indian family but also by his India bride, when he proposes marriage. Just as he might start calling himself Mandeep to assent to his would-be-bride’s point of view, he might very well go through the motions of the obligations of an “Indian” marriage.

But since none of this comes to the forefront of the text, Dasgupta’s deployment of “love interest” in his argument to a change of self-identity seems pretty disingenuous. Of course, in India itself what constitutes a “real” Indian marriage remains open to cultural debate—or at least it gets debated in some circles. The issue doesn’t boil down to Mandy conforming to some dogmatically correct notion of identity, and Dasgupta generally goes out of his way to eschew dogmatisms—admittedly dogmatically so. &c. The issue, rather, hinges on in what way “having a good time with friends” or “finding a spouse (falling in love)” qualitatively differs in an Indian setting compared to elsewhere. Dasgupta, like a wily diplomat, appears to use “local dialect” (an appeal to friends and to romantic love) to motivate an adoption of identity that in general very radically differs what “having a good time with friends” or the forms of “romantic love” mean in an Indian settings.

That he does this at least a little semi-consciously seems arguable, since he specifically contrasts the destruction of the value of the Hindu undivided (extended) family with the sort of familial arrangements that money permits (more stand-alone nuclear families). If we take this contrast as between a socially oriented sense of self compared to an individually oriented self of self, then what it means to “have a good time with friends” or to “find a spouse (fall in love)” mean very different things. The difference between a love-marriage and arranged-marriage makes this contrast in the starkest possible way.

Of course, if we imagine socially centred identity in contrast to individually centred identity, then we may readily and immediately see that the former category has the broader conceptual reach; i.e., within a socially oriented family structure, the “unregenerate egotist” who insists on an individually centred identity remains a member of the socially centred family nonetheless—the son who goes against the wishes of his parents to marry the woman they have selected for him remains their son nonetheless.[11]

So behind the appeals Dasgupta deploys (i.e., “being with an extended family,” “having a good time with friends,” and “finding a spouse/falling in love”), he depicts the inclusivity of a socially centred family and identity structure as it “deals with” his individually centred self-identity. If Dasgupta’s feints or attempted arguments hinge on “being with an extended family,” “having a good time with friends,” and “finding a spouse/falling in love,” then the master-feint overall for the entire book boils down to: “try it, you might like it.”

This invitation presupposes a great deal: most of all one’s welcoming into a (socially centred) family structure in India but also a degree of economic well-being not at all guaranteed amongst all families in India.[12] Nonetheless, Mandy’s change of name signals his acknowledgment of the socially centred family he experienced being a part of. Occidental individualism supplies no end of unpleasant sounding phrases for this, e.g., Mandy assents to the refusal of his extended family to call him by the name he wants for himself. He gives in to them, to their gentle, relentless pressure. The trade-off for that means he gets steeped in the depths of his family, perhaps in a way he has not experienced in his own smaller nuclear family. At root, his shift in identity hinges on his accepting his family’s naming of him over his own.

Obviously, billions of people have found this arrangement agreeable enough, but Dasgupta does leave out of the picture the very real, and still socially unsolved, problem of social (or familial) nonconformism, where by nonconformism I mean an individual insistence on some mode of social (familial) expression that the family will not or cannot accommodate non-destructively. Perhaps the two most recurrent types of this involve homosexuality and elopement, i.e., cases of children not marrying as parentally or socially desired.[13]

So even if your socially centred socio-familial structure can support your individually centred self-identity, the practice of your individualism will forever mean something different to the socially centred world you enact that in, even when you do nothing disagreeable. If you ever cross the line, however, the disjunction between what you “mean” and what the world says “it” means can have devastating consequence. This does not argue in favour of individually centred identity, of course—Dr Patch Adams calls the nuclear family humanity’s most destructive invention (the radiation at the heart of the nuclear metaphor should, indeed, have given us pause). Jung (1921),[14] in a different vein, declares Occidental individualism flatly inimical to healthy social life:

It is obvious that a social group consisting of stunted individuals cannot be a healthy and viable institution: only a society that can preserve its internal cohesion an collective values, while at the same time granting the individual the greatest possible freedom, has any prospect of enduring vitality. As the individual is not just a single, separate being, but by his very existence presupposes a collective relationship, it follows that the process of individuation must lead to more intense and broader collective relationships and not to isolation (¶758).

A [social] norm serves no purpose when it possesses absolute validity. A real conflict with the collective norm arises only when an individual way is raised to a norm, which is the actual aim of extreme individualism. Naturally this aim is pathological and inimical to life. It has, accordingly, nothing to do with individuation, which, though it may strike out on an individual bypath, precisely on that accounts needs the norm for its orientation[15] to society and for the vitally necessary relationship of the individual to society. Individuation, therefore, leads to a natural esteem for the collective norm, but if the orientation is exclusively collective the norm becomes increasingly superfluous and morality goes to pieces. The more a man’s life is shaped by the collective norm, the greater is his individual immorality (¶761).

Or, from yet another example, Achebe (1980)[16] noted with respect to the African understanding of “individual” and “community”:

For me it’s not a question of [community] imposing its will [on the individual]; it’s a question of finding a balance which I think is important and which seems to be lost in the Western conception of man and his destiny.

In this balance the individual is important, but his importance is not so overriding that it is the only thing worth considering. This uniqueness and importance of the individual is limited by importance and the will of the community. It’s a question of balancing rather than one dominating the other. For instance, I don’t want to give the impression that the individual is unimportant in Ibo society. I don’t know of any culture which gives the individual a greater uniqueness than the Ibo culture.

Among the Ibo, the individual is so important that he is assigned a distinct creative agency. Every single person is made by his own “chi,” it’s not just one God making everybody in his image. Among the Ibos the individual’s uniqueness is really pushed to the absolute limits as far as I am concerned, so nobody can teach the Ibos about uniqueness of the individual. And you find it manifested in their political system and their social organizations. Heir concept of separate creators makes the Ibos difficult to govern because very man has a clear notion of his own destiny and does not rely on his neighbours for any kind of justification.

Yet this concept of the worth of the individual is always limited by another concept, the concept of the voice of the community. For instance, Okonkwo’s extreme individualism [the Things Fall Apart] leads to working against the will of the people and to self-destruction. And anybody who wanders off beyond what is accepted as appropriate for the individual, or a person who sets himself in opposition, quite often is heading for destruction. At the same time, I have to say that sometimes it’s in the interest of the community itself than an individual set himself in opposition. Because there is trouble, difficulty or pain, does not mean that this should never be done. Because sometimes you find that the only reason why society can move is that one individual comes out and suffers and the community gains by his experience (122–3).

From the above, we see no argument for merely socially centred realities as well, even without remembering that we may call fascist any social system that maintains itself at the expense of its members. Jung, in a passage nearby to the one cited above, denounces mere collectivism as well, and Achebe (perhaps too favourably) speaks of those times when “it’s in the interest of the community itself than an individual set himself in opposition”; sometimes a society must destroy an individual thread in the social fabric to realise its own excessive narrowness; “because sometimes you find that the only reason why society can move is that one individual comes out and suffers and the community gains by his experience”.

Whatever real necessity this involves, its ritualization—through exiling, scapegoating, and both literal and figurative (human) sacrifice—becomes a social problem simply in its habitual character. The very real confrontation Achebe argues for never temporalizes in an expected way but, more or less by definition, recurs unexpectedly. Whatever wards or techniques a culture has to deal with their periodic self-exposures, to make them pre-emptive and regularised makes them subject to mechanical repetition and institutionalisation, and hence ties them precisely and ironically to the very power structures that self-exposure (or individual nonconformism) puts in the public sphere.

Endnotes

[1] I planned also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests. I haven’t followed through on this yet.

[2] Dasgupta, A., & Neelabh. (2009). Indian by choice. New Delhi: Wisdom Tree, pp. 1–136.

[3] “Amit Dasgupta is a serving Indian diplomat, whose professional work has taken him to several countries where he has had the opportunity to meet and interact with a number of persons of Indian origin. He is an Indian by birth and by choice; his hobbies range from cooking to photography and chess to writing”

[4] Rather unnervingly, it seems that the artist, Neelabh, used Brad Pitt as the model for the white male in this episode.

[5] One cannot completely ignore that Mandy’s family seems fairly well-to-do as well, if portions of them may simply bail out on vacations to distant places at the drop of a hat. On the other hand, Dasgupta doesn’t direct his text to people not in a pronouncedly middle-class status.

[6] One would have to depict a qualitative difference in what “having a good time with friends” means interpersonally for people in India compared to people in the United States (or elsewhere) to start to make this a ground for a change in identity.

[7] At the risk of getting it grossly wrong, it seems that Dasgupta deploys this love interest in a much more delicate and circumspect way than a US romantic comedy would. In other words, he writes it as one would in India, not in the United States, despite the fact that his male protagonist in this case comes from the United States. This shows up simply in the total misdirection and obliqueness that the story takes; generally, US readers will not even track the details, I’d venture, except to know (like Mandy’s profession of his name as Mandeep at the end) that of course the boy will get the girl in the end. The circumspectness of all of this more resembles the kind of evasiveness found in a Jane Austen novel, while most of the signals (to the reader) that the romance occurs at all comes out in the (traditional) teasing directed at Mandy.

[8] I have to put this in quotation marks. The author means for this parting to have emotional resonance—and maybe it will for certain readers. Similarly, the gesture should sell itself as an inevitability—and maybe it does. Still, the very conventionality of it makes it not deserve the adjective “heart-wrenching”. When the gesture succeeds in reaching its aim, then the word heart-wrenching (without quotation makes will apply, but only then.

[9] Dasgupta goes out of his way to show Mandeep professing his name to white people on a plane, i.e., to people who have no relationship whatsoever to Mandy’s experience of India. It suggests that his change doesn’t rest simply on gratifying the point of view of the woman he finds himself romantically attached to.

[10] Narratively speaking, if Dasgupta were to consider this possibility, the romance never would have germinated at all in the book. A family member would have stepped forward to inform Mandy in no uncertain terms, “You will have to look elsewhere, cousin. Someone has spoken for her.” We might then get a Romeo and Juliet Kerala-style, but Dasgupta does not at all sent out to tackle this question. One can hardly fault a reader who wonders about its threat, however.

[11] Unless disowned or otherwise denied access to family life in some way.

[12] The basically secular quality of the family depicted also could play a huge role in more orthodox settings.

[13] The breaking of any serious taboo becomes ground for a social/familial nonconformism necessarily punished by a society/family. Impurity represents the most widespread form of this, with violations of food taboos as perhaps the most recurrent version of will impurity. (Violations of taboos against menstrual blood would seem less often deliberate.)

[14] Jung, CG (1976). Psychological types. A revision / Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

[15] In Jung’s text, he italicizes orientation and indicates with “(q.v.)” its cross-reference in the glossary.

[16] Egejuru, PA (1980) Towards African literary independence: a dialogue with contemporary African writers. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

OUTLINE & TERMINOLOGY:

  1. A decision signals the onset of activities to support a choice, as a given course of action to solve a problem.
  2. This choice embodies a person’s or a group of people’s commitment to act in one particular way to solve the problem as distinct from a range of possible alternative other courses of action.
  3. This range of alternatives encompasses the warranted arguments[1] for that choice as a solution to a problem.
  4. A problem frames the current state of affairs such that finding a solution becomes desired, possible, and perhaps also necessary.
  5. The current state of affairs reflects the consequences of previous decisions.

NON-CHOICE, PSEUDO-CHOICE, & CHOICE

Non-Choice: We understand that we have no choice where only one alternative exists. If I hold out one hand and tell you: choose, you might obey or you might invent another alternative for yourself on the spot and tell me no. But a “choice” of one offers only an illusion or parody of choice and points, rather, to some manipulative or coercive Power enforcing the situation, even if that is sometimes only the cop in one’s head.

Pseudo-Choice: In a less manipulative or coercive setting or a situation where we more “freely” make determinations for ourselves, when we consider a single alternative we frequently do so with the understanding also that we might not go with that one alternative at all. This gives an appearance of an either/or (two) alternatives as well: either I want the one alternative available and I select it, or I do not. This circumstance differs from non-choice only in the fact that no concrete Power specifically extorts one’s complicity in a “choice”; this does not mean that spectral or imagined Powers do not impinge on one’s consciousness with respect to choosing (or not choosing) more or less freely.

Choice: a circumstance of authentic choice requires at least two distinct alternatives, no matter how trivial, e.g., whether one will have spaghetti or pizza for dinner. In general, we rarely find ourselves helplessly constrained to only two alternatives, [2] but in the event that social forces, our limited imaginations, or the Powers of the status quo can enforce that we must choose between only the two alternatives offered, then we still have the following four orientations toward choice:

  1. I may choose one alternative voluntarily (without protest) because I want it.[3]
  2. I may choose one alternative involuntarily (under protest) because I see the other as insufficient or untenable.[4]
  3. I may choose one alternative voluntarily (without protest) to avoid having to choose the other.[5]
  4. I may choose one alternative involuntarily (under protest) because while I find it untenable, I find it less untenable than the other.[6]

The four orientations of choice characterise wanting at the four distinct steps involved in designing solutions.[7]

FURTHER COMMENTS:

When I frame the prevailing state of affairs in the world so that finding a solution becomes desired, possible, and perhaps also necessary, I do so by choosing one alternative voluntarily (to see the current state of affairs as a problem) in order to avoid having to choose the other alternative (of allowing the current state of affairs to continue). Thus, I willingly take a problem upon myself.

Then, when I characterise a range of alternatives that encompass the warranted arguments for identifying a solution to the problem I have willingly taken upon myself, I do so by choosing an alternative involuntarily (not only to recognise the necessity of doing the hard work to discover such a range of alternatives but also to have to live now in an awareness of a problem I did not previously have) because the alternative (to remain ignorant and complacent) is no longer tenable. I would sooner not shoulder the demands of this work or live in the knowledge it brings, but the alternative (not to do so) no longer seems palatable or tenable.

When from this range of alternatives I embody my commitment to act in a choice to support one of the many possible alternative courses of action to solve the problem, I do so by choosing that alternative voluntarily (without protest) because I want it. Thus I commit myself to implementing a solution to the problem.

And once the onset of activities to support that course of action have begun, I do so by choosing that alternative involuntarily (because the decision to act is now in the past even while remaining binding on everyone who works to implement our decided upon course of action) because the other alternative (to change our course of action) seems less tenable. We stay the course (over and above our wanting and doing) because changing course at this point is an even less tenable idea.

Of course, at any moment, we might re-visit our course of action and change it, but this would require consultation toward enacting a new decision.

In merging the four kinds of choosing and four steps of designing solutions, the last step may seem the most bizarre. Insofar as the fourth orientation to choice may be characterised at times as choosing the lesser of two evils, how can “staying the course” seem this lesser if all agree it was the best course in the first place?

Partly this is a problem of an example upstaging the idea, but it points also to a critique of typical decision implementation, which congratulates itself in advance for its wisdom and foresight and then finds someone to blame when the plan runs aground. By contrast, to keep in mind in advance that any plan is a lesser of two evils spares us the planner’s arrogance and also makes us potentially more ready to be alert for needed changes.

On the deeper level, the emphasis falls on the involuntary part. For example, when one agrees to a group venture, individual volition gets attached more or exclusively to the goal (of the group) an less if at all to any “narrow” or “personal” goal. This does not mean, of course, that no benefit accrues to individuals for group activity—money, fame, prestige, a portion of the hunt, &c will be allotted accordingly. But imagine a circumstance where one hunter in a group is asked to stand in a certain spot and frighten game away from himself and in a certain direction. As an individual action, this amounts to the most ineffective hunting technique ever—it fails completely to serve any “personal” goal toward a successful (individual) hunt. But this same behaviour proves crucial for the success of the group hunt. Thus, to the extent that such behaviour is group-beneficial and not personally beneficial, then the performance of the act involves a non-voluntary element, since it is not for the self. One may say in this case that is “the group” (not the individual) who acts. This inheres for all instances of cooperative action (by hunter-gatherers or office workers).

Endnotes

[1] By warranted arguments, I mean the culturally recognised justifications for action. The school student who wants to do drugs at his friend’s house frames his request to his parents to go to his friend’s house in terms of doing homework, because doing homework is a warrantable justification for visiting friends on a school night. All of us, to a greater or lesser degree, have some skill in representing our wants in terms of warrantable arguments, even if that means disingenuously advancing alternative rationales besides “I want to” (just as the high school student did). A problem of culture arises from the fact that certain warrants do not exist. And, in fact, very often we suspect (sometime rightly) that “I want to” will not be recognised as a warrantable argument for whatever it is we lobby for, socially or personally. A part of social activism, then, requires the invention of new warrants and a debunking of old ones, such as those that warrant State executions, corporate personhood mass incarceration, and the like.

[2] NOTE: Again, rarely do we face a choice only of two alternatives. Between choosing spaghetti or pizza, I might well protest and demand further choices, &c. To find ourselves seemingly limited to such an either/or circumstance, then, points to some structure of power that artificially limits our range of alternatives choosable. This lurking shadow of Power notwithstanding, when it comes to the moment to decide, we do face an either/or: either to go forward with the course of action as framed or not to. Of course, nothing necessarily constrains our ability to immediately revisit the decision upon choosing. Suppose our wagon train comes to a fork in the road. If we elect to go left, nothing prevents us from immediately reconsidering that decision: we might (1) go back and take the right fork, (2) cut across the intervening space between the left and right forks to take the right fork, (3) decide to stay on the left fork after all, (4) blaze a new trail entirely, (5) return back the way we came an go home, or (6) if we live in a magical universe, levitate our wagon train an continue. Of course, some choices made might preclude such re-visitation; if we elect to drive off a cliff, we will not have recourse to go back and take another alternative. Moreover, the ability to reconsider decisions might be artificially inhibited or suppressed by those interested in seeing no change in the decision.

[3] (Between spaghetti or pizza, I want pizza and I choose to get some.)

[4] (Between spaghetti or pizza, while I’d rather choose pizza I choose spaghetti because the pizza is mouldy. A more affective example: the person who chooses suicide because life has become an untenable prospect.)

[5] (Between spaghetti or pizza, I choose pizza because I’ll be caught dead before I’d ever pick spaghetti. A more familiar example: those people who are Republicans because they’d be caught dead first before being a Democrat, or vice versa; or those who are Protestants so as not to be Catholics, and vice versa.)

[6] (Between spaghetti or pizza, I choose pizza because it’s the less awful choice between the two. In a more familiar vein, this is choosing the lesser of two evils.)

[7] Two caveats. (1) Self-evidently, one may still at any moment deny the constraining either/or of the examples above and insist on refusing to accept the two alternatives as presented. Yes. Yet at the same time, one encounters people every day who seem trapped—sometimes happily so—in these kinds of opposed dyads. Moreover, even this “opting out” will often resemble one of the four options above. The person who says, “I’m not play your game with those two alternatives” who nevertheless offers no alternative stance resembles the third type above (like the person who is less a Democrat and more pointedly not a Republican). And (2), while I insist that “a circumstance of authentic choice requires at least two distinct alternatives,” very often how we construct these alternatives seems still a lot like one alternative rather than two. But this, in part, occurs because simply to propose a distinction brings with it not just two but four categories. Consider the distinction attraction; this implies also not attraction (or repulsion). If we substitute the more common psychological terms for these, to position the distinction love seems to automatically bring with it fear. But along with this dyadic pair, we also have the categories love of fear and fear of love, neither of which may adequate be accounted for by either love or fear themselves. More might be written here, but let it suffice to say that the strength and necessity of the contrast in any of the choices noted above plays an important role—e.g., compare the strength of contrast and non-necessity of pizza or spaghetti to the contrast and seeming inevitability of Republican or Democrat (or Catholic or Protestant).