28 March 2017

Month of May


The issues did not always find the right players for them. Someone full of rage at existing conditions often seeks to join the protest movement around at the time—which since 1970 has often meant an environmental movement—and in some situations will even vent their rage against fellow-campaigners. Ideally, environmentalism needed people with ties in their family and locality, and with a keen sense of responsibility for future generations, who felt bound by certain rules and values and, when appropriate, viewed the state as a positive force for order. But such people are often not prepared for confrontation with the state, or have no time for a new commitment. After 1970, then, it was typically ’68ers who, having failed in their previous objectives, could be mobilized to campaign against environmental scandals: single people without children, for whom homeland, family, standards and laws were deeply suspect. What counted tor them above everything was their spontaneous impulses, and they liked nothing more than travelling around the world. This did not necessarily mean that they ended up doing nothing for environmentalism. The history of the eco-age provides material for success stories as well as tragedies, but also quite a lot of material for comedies.

—Joachim Radkau, The Age of Ecology

25 March 2017


I have made every effort to locate the precise origin of the term vanilla. It appears in italics in a 1985 issue of Outrageous Women, one of the first magazines devoted to lesbian s/m. The italics here may signify that it was a fairly new term among lesbians at the time, or it may simply refer to the particular writer’s desire to signal that she means it in a special sense, though what that special sense is is not possible for me to verify. In Different Loving, the term is glossed as “conventional relations, or any intimate relations that do not include D&S or S/M sexuality” (49). This definition marks the term as an absolute “other,” while obviously there are elements of “vanilla" in s/m and vice versa. Such definitions erect a very rigid binary, a dualism that is bound to lead to tension and sometimes hostility. 

Larry Townsend uses the term as early as 1972: “Knowing the scene as I do, I feel it is important not to deflate someone else’s bag, simply because it isn’t mine. For this reason, you will find a good many comments wherein I will preface my remarks by saying, ‘It’s my opinion that . . . .’ I do not feel that there is any mutually agreeable activity, regardless of the number of people involved, that is intrinsically ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ or ‘evil.’ I don’t happen to like vanilla ice cream, but it is not for me to tell someone else he won’t enjoy it. It is a matter of taste, and the way a thing tastes is sometimes difficult to describe. In an attempt to overcome this hurdle, l have included a number of vignettes to depict the particular action I am discussing. If some of these grab you, even just a little, I will have enabled you to sample the flavor” (The Leatherman’s Handbook, 1st ed. (New York: Affiliated with Olympia Press and Traveler’s Companion, 1972). (I wish to thank Gayle Rubin for providing me with this citation).

I cannot establish that this was the first use of the term, but it does establish the referential context as existing at that time. The question of the origin of the term is not, in my view, as significant as the way in which it came to take on a rigid oppositional connotation during the sex wars of the 1980s between lesbian feminists who were antiporn, anti-s/m and pro-sex, pro-s/m lesbians and their supporters. Obviously in the context in which Townsend is using it, he means to signify a range of possible sexual practices (a variety of “flavors”), none of which are subjected to judgment or censure in his mind. Sexual practices, as he states quite clearly, are a matter of “taste”—hence the analogy with ice cream. While on the one hand the ice cream analogy is an obvious one—signifying bland, ordinary, and pure—it also strikes me as interesting that vanilla would be lifted out of this context and come to signify non-s/m sexualities. It seems quite likely that the term began in the gay leather community, since Townsend uses it here as vanilla ice cream (my inference being that had it been current at the time he would simply have said “vanilla,” not that Townsend was the originator of the term).

Risking that this is the worst sort of overreading, the kind that literary critics and theorists are often accused of performing like the sending up of hot air balloons, I can nonetheless not resist wondering how or if vanilla signifies white in the Western collective unconscious? Freud’s depiction of women’s sexuality as the “dark continent” has been picked up by a number of writers and discussed as a racialized term (see Doane and Kofman). Both outside and within various s/m communities, sexual practices that deviate even slightly from normative, reproductive, heterosexuality are often referred to as the “darker side” of one’s desires. In Fatal Women, I pointed out that Havelock Ellis relegates the women who really do it primarily to his footnotes (the underside of the text). And that there we find that it is the women of color in other (“othered”) countries who are the ones that hold the place of the “real” in Ellis’s representation.

To go back to the cartoon in Bad Attitude, it is interesting that the s/m couple is depicted as interracial, while the other two couples are white. What was once called “miscegenation” was threatening for all sorts of reasons, but basic to the fear of interracial mixing was the threat to white supremacy and simply (or not so simply) the basic idea of “mixing” (of any kind) in and of itself. That is, “mixing" as a confusion or recombination of categories, the breaking down of boundaries. S/m communities have achieved this kind of mixing not only in terms of making affiliations between and among people who are otherwise kept separate by identity categories (bisexual, trans-sexual,’ lesbian, etc., etc.) but also along racial, ethnic, and class categories. These communities are held together, however sometimes uneasily, not by identity categories but by theoretical and and political affiliations. As Gayle Rubin has written: “There is a lot of separation between the straight, gay, and lesbian S/M communities. But there is also pan-S/M consciousness. As one wise woman who has been doing this for years has said,  ‘Leather is thicker than blood’ ” (“Leather Menace," 218-219). That is not, by any means, the way in which racial categories are held together by the dominant culture. The “white” race holds onto its “purity’ and psychic coherence by trying to guarantee the exclusion of all others. As James Baldwin put it in “The Price of the Ticket,”: “white people are not white: part of the price of the white ticket is to delude themselves into believing they are” (xiv).

I am not saying that vanilla = white, but I am suggesting that it is an interesting choice of words that conjures certain racial associations. For I think that part of the threat to the dominant culture of s/m communities is that they have achieved an intellectual, spiritual, and political bonding in ways that precisely contradict the dominant culture’s notion of maintaining order through disciplining categories. It is the dominant culture that is really “into discipline.” The “discipline” within s/m is inclusive and heterogeneous, though certainly not without its tensions and fears arising from racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual practice/preference differences. If white is the term that oversees the discipline and regulation of Western cultural orders, then it is a clever and apt (if unconscious) political move for s/m cultures to disidentify themselves from this particular “flavor.”

The etymologies of the word vanilla complicate this term further. The Oxford English Dictionary gives us entries that tell us “Vanilla” was an “Indian Nectar” ( 1662), which was “mingle[d] with Cacao to make Chocolate” (1673); it is of the “climbing orchid variety. . . which, like the ivy, grows to the trees it meets with” (1783); the pod-like capsules of the plant produce an “aromatic substance [which] is the succulent fruit of a climbing West Indian plant of the order [Orchid] ” (1830). If vanilla has come to signify plain or old-fashioned in the latter half of the twentieth century (“go to Schrath’s for a plain vanilla” [1955] and “old-fashioned vanilla sundae” [1984]), in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries it was an exotic import from Panama, Brazil, Jamaica, and Granada.

Furthermore; bizarrely enough, its etymology is linked to the word vagina“. “Vanilla dim. of vaina (:-L. vagina) sheath.” The vanilloes are “long flattish pods, containing a reddish pulp, with small shining black seeds” (1812); hence, I presume, lts association with vagina-from the Latin sheath.

—Lynda Hart, Between the Body and the Flesh

28 February 2017

The Haliburton School

“THIS FIRST QUESTION IMMEDIATELY leads to a second, which concerns the “neutrality” of the public space and the presence at its heart of marks of identity, and thus marks of social, cultural, and more fundamentally anthropological difference. Here again, allegedly self-evident and natural thresholds turn out upon examination to be wholly conventional, which also means shot through with strategies and norms, with relations of forces among groups, subjectivities, and powers, dictating the very meaning of the categories “public” and “private.” This is why we should not be surprised by the rise of discussions about the length (and very existence) of beards, nor by the comparison of the problems of propriety raised by the veil and the thong, nor by proposals to reestablish uniforms, nostalgically evoking the republican school of the nineteenth century and classic utopian models for representing the citizen—the unity of the two coming from the fact that the school has always furnished the privileged place for implementing utopias of citizenship. And we should not be surprised that, in the sudden emergence of trouble in the relations between representation and publicity, religion (belief, communitarianism, subjectivation) and sexuality (the ultimate but “obscene” anchoring point of controls and the school (particularly the public school, detached from the family and reattached to the state, above parties and governments) is essentially a place of transition between the space of private existence and the existence of public space—but one legally situated within the public space itself. This imposes contradictory imperatives between which it must negotiate. The school must be a closed space, but one in which information and representatives from the outside circulate. The school must prepare (and thus anticipate, simulate) the relativization of social belonging, beliefs, and ideologies in order to facilitate individuals’ entrance into the political sphere, citizenship; it thus has to virtually detach individuals from their primary identities (which is in fact a very violent process—a sort of dismemberment, a separation from their identities, that then ideally allows them to reclaim these identities, but from the distance implied by the primacy of the second, common political identity). But the school must also give individuals the means to represent their ideologies and belongings in political life, though without itself being political, that is, without speaking the language of politics except indirectly and metaphorically (through history, literature, philosophy). Holding these contradictory imperatives together, and a fortiori “holding them together in an egalitarian way, would evidently require highly favorable circumstances. It can be expected that practice approaches them only very incompletely, or attains them only at the price of successive conflicts (which it is just what is happening at the moment). What is demanded of the school is not that it simply be “neutral” like the state, but that it carry out a neutralization or constitute an additional neutrality between two non-neutral spaces—what we call “private” and “public”—in a way that avoids confusing them.”
—√Čtienne Balibar “Equaliberty: Political Essays