Principia Seductio

This article first appeared (modified) in the Gauntlet on Feb. 13, 2014.

If you’re out to spot a feminist or radical leftist the watchword is consent. The word traces the outlines of today’s sexual/political discussion to the point that no discourse is complete without it.

Consent as a sexual/political category — as a tool of personal and social interaction and decision making — is the product of laborious and courageous efforts from feminists and radicals (and let’s be serious, mostly through the efforts of female comrades). Its effectiveness in reducing harm to the disenfranchised and shaping sexual discourse cannot be denied. But consent has reached an impasse. Consent cannot be our only tool for establishing sexual dignity and autonomy.

Consent is a mainstay of the privileged: access to requisite knowledge and the will required for consensual decision making is fundamentally in the hands of a select slice of society. While consent has enabled many disenfranchised individuals to have dignity and autonomy in their lives, full access to the empowerment of consent comes with the trump card of privilege.

As the TerrorINC collective put it, consent has become a “tool for defending consensus reality.” Many feminists and radicals want to tell us that the language of consent hasn’t made its way into the larger social discussion. But the problem is actually the complete inverse: the language of consent has been incorporated into larger discussions, and has thus been compromised by its ensuing compartmentalization — stripped of its liberatory core. Consent has been integrated in such a way that we will never be able to ‘consent’ our way out of sexist, racist and classist domination. The gentrification of consent should suggest to us that, instead of connecting us to a radical emancipatory kernel, acceptance of consent ends up replicating oppressive conditions through our complicity.

We must reintroduce and reorganize a notion of seduction into our sexual/political discourse. Seduction as a sexual/political mechanism still retains a radical emancipatory core that other concepts do not.
Admittedly, the concept carries baggage. One’s mind immediately jumps to ideas of deception and manipulation when a word like seduction comes to the table. After all seduction was, as Jean Baudrillard reminds us, the “strategy of the devil, whether in the guise of witchcraft or love,” as well as the primary preoccupation of pre-industrial aristocracy. But this fear of seduction is profoundly misplaced. Yet if anything, the unsavory, risque heritage of traditional seduction would give it an edge should it re-enter social discourse, unlike our softer friend consent.

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Illustration by Bridgitte Badowich

Seduction cannot be divorced from desire. The two are inextricably entwined. Desire is the slippery, irreducible element that introduces the ecstatic “yes!” into our sexual and political decisions. Of course consent and desire can go hand-in-hand. But the two are not serious bedfellows. Consent can be mundane. Consent can be bureaucratic. If our goal is to create a society composed of autonomous people who live with dignity and make the most of their various capabilities, then that enthusiastic “yes!” is absolutely necessary for our discourse. It then follows that if desire is a necessary component in a better world, then the most effective route is to make the most of desire’s coupling with seduction. Thus our task is, as mentioned above, to reintroduce and reorganize seduction.

Our reappropriated notion of seduction contains many of the structural features that any traditional notion of seduction contained. An act of seduction is still a risk — a one-off shot at convincing another person of the value of your proposed sexual and political sphere of desire. An act of seduction may still fail — rejected at the outset as undesirable with a stalwart “No.” But what’s crucial to our reappropriation of seduction is that it bypasses the realm of the conventional forms of decision making. Additionally, our reappropriation refuses to see seducers as manipulators and those who are seduced as victims of manipulation. Instead, our robust notion of seduction sees seducers as people who are seeking to share a particular desire that is inaccessible given present boundaries. Our notion of seduction sees those who are seduced as people who have chosen to connect to a new and rewarding sphere of desire that had previously been beyond their boundaries of possibility.

Seduction gives us access to a realm of decision making that consent cannot. One may be seduced into a particular sexual or political decision which they may have never consented to at the outset, and discover a sphere of desire previously denied to them. In one’s day-to-day life chances are that one may not feel the impulse to engage in a strange or new sexual activity or political experiment. But, critically, they can be seduced into it. And once seduced, they have, by extension, consented. If the right partner comes along in the right context, one may be seduced into trying sexual bondage, whereas your rational mind would never consent to it. And the same applies politically. Since consent limits our political discussion, we are unable to consent our way beyond the politics of domination. We must be seduced beyond.

Our friends in the TerrorINC collective give us the most parsimonious account of how seduction can work in the service of liberatory discourse:

“How does seduction work? We hypothesize that seduction unfolds via three processes: transformation, invitation, and contagion. We transform circumstances, creating space for new possibilities and thus new desires to flourish; we invite others to participate in these new situations, to experiment with different modes of action and desire; and we infect others with curiosity, an insatiable desire for freedom, and the means to experiment towards it.”

We must come to see seduction as way to consent ourselves into new spheres of experiences that have previously been off-limits but are, deep down, desirable. We must come to see seduction as a mechanism that enables our deepest dreams and passions to become livable experiments in radical sexual and political emancipation. And don’t forget, if a seduction presents you with a set of desires that are truly beyond your limits, just say “No!”

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Watching Wall Street burn

 This article appeared in the Gauntlet on September 20, 2012.

It was late Saturday night in Black Rock City, Nevada — site of the infamously intense Burning Man festival. As I relished in the comedown of another acid trip, I stood witness to the burning of “Wall Street,” which stood as five full-sized buildings, ironically beautiful representatives of capitalism’s financial vanguard: corporate banks. The fire that engulfed them was immense in size, ferocity and brightness, reducing the structures to smoldering coals atop the desert dust. Raw joy and satisfaction bubbled throughout my entire being, and then, as we gathered around the remaining ashes, a peaceful stillness set in.

While the entire week of Burning Man left me with countless thoughts each to be pondered in their own right, the question of the significance of Wall Street’s burning continued to linger as one of the heaviest issues. I wondered if anyone beyond the several thousand ‘burners,’ huddled together in a dusty corner of the desert, would be tripped-out by such a politically-charged artistic act. I wondered if anyone beyond we burners could care, or even ought to care. Yet surely such an intense act could not leave our hearts untouched, nor could it be ignored by mass media or those in power.

Courtesy Tim Vargas

However, when it came time to bring sage words to the question of the significance of mock Wall Street’s burning, I was initially silent, all my thoughts had become still, just as I had been as I stood before the buildings’ ashes. But, as it turns out, that is the point. That is the significance. A fire, incomparable to any other, occurred before me and I basked in its brilliance — neither thought nor action (and especially not words) were necessary. My eyes were open, as was my heart.

For those who have had the opportunity to immerse themselves in sport, there is a moment when thought and action unite, the distinction between them melts and performance becomes singular. Being ‘in the zone,’ as it were. I receive a pass, take a shot and score — neither thought nor action guided me, as it was mindless, a moment of ‘oneness.’ Our radicality, our dream of a better world, needs this same sensation of oneness.

The burning of mock Wall Street, the significance that can be drawn from it, lies in that ‘zone’ of which I speak. The fire was a figurative and literal melting of theory and practice. Practice informed theory, like the brilliance to construct and enact a mock burning of Wall Street. And theory emerged from practice, just as the flames that leapt out of Wall Street’s windows ignited a fire in our hearts and inspires us with new ideas and dreams, while also giving us the space to construct something new atop the ashes.

For those of us who dream of a better world — those of us who know a better world is possible — the burning of mock Wall Street is an incredible gift. Moving forward, my radicality is informed by the sensation of the becoming one with thought and action, of theory and practice, just like the stillness I felt in the face of the flames. That is to say, we are hopeless without theory and hopeless without action, but when the two meet and melt together — an occasion only feasible through the stillness born in opening our hearts, which sometimes takes a fire for us to feel — then our adventures, encounters and experiments begin, in their own right and on their own terms, to create a better world upon the ashes of the old.