we can insist on aliveness.
radical love letter #65
Content note: This essay talks explicitly about kink practices. If anyone (hi mom & other family who reads this!) would not enjoy reading about kinky things I do, please skip this week. <3
While listening to an interview with a Lakota activist about how language can support more animistic ways of being in relationship with the world, I begin to think about kink. “What we do is describe the energy and then we describe the motion of the energy and that way it makes everything alive. So everything is alive to us, everything is sentient,” Tiokasin Ghosthorse says. He continues: “You see…that cup you're drinking your tea with, it's no longer a cup, it’s cupping. So everything starts coming alive once you start understanding the language of nouns. You…understand ‘I’ as a noun…But in Lakota, ‘I’ is a verb, you are a verb, you're vibrating, you're alive, you're moving.”
I am thinking of kink because it is a space where we explicitly give life to objects. And I think both indigenous and animist approaches to the world around us, and ways of being in relationship that emerge in BDSM and other kink practices, have a lot to offer us in terms of how we think about the role of identity in struggles for liberation.
The intersections of sex, spirituality, and social struggle are on my mind a lot, but they feel especially salient during Pride month when the usual discourses start making their rounds: should there be kink at Pride? Should there be cops at Pride? Are asexuals part of the queer umbrella? And so on. I’m not here to rehash any of these arguments (my thoughts on these happen to be: yes; no; yes), but I am interested in the way these debates – alongside horrific contemporary assaults on trans kids (and adults), and abortion access, and so on – compel us into a defensive stance of entrenching identity categories. We fall quickly into patterns of strategic essentialism that allow us to fight as some ostensibly unified front, but that also have the potential to turn us into the stagnant, siloed things Ghosthorse warns against. ‘Intersectionality’ is a trendy word these days, but one that continues to be used incorrectly as more of an additive diversity checklist than as something with which to acknowledge how multiple axes of being have unique relationships to power systems and to each other. Both the fight against “power” and the identities we use to do so become flattened, fixed, and total. I fear in some ways it takes the motion out of our movements.
I bring up kink because I like how those of us in the scene describe ourselves based on our actions, and specifically our actions in relationship to others. Certainly there are ways to claim noun-status (I am “a sub”) but more often we name a verb: “I am submissive.” The delightful queer irony of this is that part of the joy of the action of submission is taking on the role of an object. In scenes, I am a hole, a toy, a piece of meat. But here in these moments, too, I am alive, vibrating, euphorically sentient.
Another irony of objectification play in kink is the ways it allows for gender experiences completely outside the confines of any hegemonic, established categories. “I feel in my most ‘they-ness’ with a cock down my throat, or when I’m getting spanked into subspace,” I tell a transmasc friend who gets it. “There are so many ‘women’s issues’ that I’ve never resonated with-–including a hatred of objectification—and when I’m being consensually used, I feel so entirely free from any gender construct. I’m not a woman, I’m not nonbinary, I’m an instrument of the gods.”
“That makes total sense,” my friend responds. “My real gender is ‘Daddy’ – and in scenes, that’s so affirmed.”
Of course, there are holes (teehee) in this argument. A philosophy of the aliveness of all things, objects included, does not erase the ways in which white supremacy and patriarchy have used the practice of objectification for genocide and control. And certainly I would never suggest that anyone needs to be kinky to feel the freedom of identity-transcendence. But I am moved by these two practices – animistic or indigenous ways of seeing the world as entirely alive, and the relationality that is always already present in kink – that give us breathing examples of how we might approach identity-based struggles as actually about relationships and energy, not static monoliths hoping for a higher position in the status quo.
In a Twitter thread, cosima bee concordia (aka @bimbotheory) makes a similar argument, drawing on the hanky code as an example of verb-based multifaceted, temporal (anti-)identities:
When we try desperately to become uniformly intelligible, we inevitably open ourselves up to both more state surveillance and also, as concordia describes above, risk of mimicking the state. There are many reasons we charge ahead and form identity groups anyway (centuries of social struggle has relied on it), but it’s worth continually reminding ourselves of the perils of it.
In her canonical 1997 essay “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics,” Cathy Cohen pushes back against the burgeoning liberal recuperation of “identity politics.” In the era when gay identity was being funneled from a social movement struggle (and a radical version of identity politics articulated by the Combahee River Collective) into nonprofit work and commodified for the entertainment industry, Coehn argues for: “a politics where one’s relationship to power, and not some homogenized identity, is privileged in determining one’s political comrades.” I would take it a step further and argue that power is also not a homogenous thing, and that if we saw our relationship to everything as a potential site of struggle – and, importantly, a potential site of joy, pleasure, awe – we might find ourselves a little bit freer.
We have to grapple with the reality of mass structures of violence and repression. We cannot deviantly fuck or verbify our way into liberation. But we can reject frameworks that keep us entrenched in the same traps. We can move instead from spaces of reciprocity, relationality, shared modalities as they are informed (with ease or strain) by dominant systems of power. Maybe we can turn objectivity on its head and use it as a tool for breaking free from cooptation. We can insist on the holiness of objects. In an ecocidal, necropolitical society that wants us to retreat into the stagnancy of despair, we can insist on aliveness.
love & solidarity,