Switch

Allegories of Lordship and Bondage

2017

Excerpt  

1. Switching as Manifest Discrepancy

Within BDSM lexicon, a “switch” is defined as someone who does not solely identify with or enact either a Dominant or submissive role, and rather, switches fluidly between roles. The choice made to continually involve oneself in the negotiated and free exchange of power means that switches avoid the confines of a singular, strongly defined role; Yet, they do not attempt to extricate themselves entirely from power dynamics, which would be expected through a lens of meliorism. Within BDSM culture, switching exists as a marginal practice.

I am interested in allegorizing Hegel’s dialectic of Lordship and bondage and those BDSM participants who switch. Like Hegel, I will center the contradictions that exist within the relations of power in BDSM and deliver the switch as a figure who embraces the dialectical aspect of power exchange.  My subcultural inquiry borrows from the methodology of Tim Dean and his book Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking as I have allowed BDSM erotica, web forums and community groups, informal conversations with participants, and personal experience to guide the direction of this paper. This paper includes content from historical texts, literature, and contemporary film in order to historically position the switch.

The Phenomenology of Mind was published by a young Hegel in 1807. It has become a seminal text in the German idealism tradition. He finished the final draft of the book in 1806 during the height of the Napoleonic wars— the same year that France engaged Prussian troops in Jena, where Hegel held a teaching post. Notoriously challenging to read, the text ambitiously set out to amend Kant’s dualistic philosophy through developing the concept of phenomenology. Because of the vague nature of Hegel’s writing, the main theme or argument is widely contested. It is sometimes interpreted as a bildungsroman,which is a genre that focuses on the development of a protagonist. In this case, the protagonist is “Spirit” (sometimes translated into English as “Mind.”) In such an interpretation, the section dedicated to self-consciousness and the dialectic of Lordship and bondage reads as a speculative fictional account of the development of the human spirit through the dynamics of power. 

Hegel proposes that at a fundamental level, all concepts are pregnant with their own contradiction. He suggests that the relationship between Self and otherness is an artifact of primordial bodily needs such as eating, wherein survival depends on the ability of the Self to differentiate from and consume their other. Yet, this function threatens the integrity of the Self by integrating the other with the Self through the action of consuming. 

To complicate this further, Hegel posits that self-consciousness can only come about through a mutual recognition of another consciousness. He illustrates this by formulating an illuminating dialectical scenario in which a life-and-death struggle emerges between two consciousnesses as an attempt to be recognized by the other. The result of this struggle is the submission of the subject who fears death to the subject who does not. This resolution causes an imperfect set of conditions: the mutual recognition necessary for self-consciousness becomes stunted in an asymmetrical dynamic. Of this Hegel says: 

 
They cancel themselves and are sublated as terms or extremes seeking to have existence on their own account. [...] That of breaking up into extremes with opposite characteristics; and the middle term collapses into a lifeless unity which is broken up into lifeless extremes, merely existent and not opposed. And the two do not mutually give and receive one another back from each other through consciousness; they let one another go quite indifferently, like things. (Hegel 66)
 

The scenario resulting from this struggle is rife with contradiction. Although the Master does not recognize the slave as a consciousness, the Master’s self-consciousness depends entirely upon affirmation and recognition from the slave. The servant, while not receiving recognition, still experiences the development of an independent self-consciousness through their unalienated labour, which consists of restraining desire, and delaying rest. The slave becomes an object of their own consciousness as the medium of transformation of nature into objects. 

Hegel’s dialectic has been widely interpreted as a developmental account of history. In this formulation, the dialectic of Lordship and bondage suggests the emancipation of humans through the abolition of the dialectical relationship itself. I privilege a literary interpretation of Hegel’s dialectic over this teleological monism. As a allegorical model, the Master/slave dialectic demonstrates that self-consciousness and recognition necessitate struggle, and the resolution is never entirely closed. As all concepts contain their contradiction, the dialectical process continues as a becoming; the Master and slave are caught in the perpetual conflict of their imperfect conditions and neither is capable of becoming completely self-conscious through means of being recognized by another and recognizing another. 

Views of switches vary widely across kink communities. Many switches compare misunderstandings about their sexual preferences to those which contribute to bisexual erasure. These misconceptions range from the belief that a “real switch” must engage in 50/50 switching,  they are unable to uphold fidelity, or they are experimenting and will eventually commit to one role. A contributor to the Reddit forum r/BDSMcommunity gave an example of one such misconception, saying that they had heard the following sentiment: "’I could never bottom for a switch. I wouldn't be able to respect a Top/Dom who I've seen bottoming’" (xSighx). To this, someone replied, “that [...] is just scary because it also means they don't respect anyone they've seen bottoming.” (Dracotorix) These attitudes reveal essentialist beliefs about the nature of power dynamics, even amongst those whose sexual identities revolve around the ritualized exchange of power. 

Likely compounding misinformation surrounding switches, scarce resources exist that are specifically dedicated to practices of switching. One contributor on Reddit aired these concerns: 

 
I think people assume that since there are Dom resources and sub resources that switches must be covered. Not that they’re a unique thing with unique needs. As someone who just started switching (with the same partner, we’re both switches), I’ve wondered about what support is out there. I’m finding this really strange blend of simultaneous Dom and sub drop that’s not quite either of them. (prairie_girl)
 

The writer is concerned that regulatory information about proper conduct and responsibility in BDSM exists solely for those playing a role as a Dominant or submissive (or other D-type and s-type.) The same writer later posted:

 
My partner and I talked a lot about it yesterday and he thought that combination drop made sense; That when we’re done with a session my Dom side is too proud to go back to subbing and my sub side is exhausted from being in charge. Like I need to totally recalibrate between events. (prairie_girl)
 

This poster was able to take information about subdropping and Domdropping (I will discuss these terms in more detail later) and reason about how they are able to experience both simultaneously. The lack of discourse surrounding switches makes them unintelligible within their communities, yet extends a form of unrestrained freedom to explore power dynamics. Without much in the way of guidance, switches are required to enact a dialectical process in order to synthesize information and experience regarding their sexual practices. Switches manifest contradiction in their sexual lives, and this discrepancy challenges the notion that all people are destined to fulfill a singular role or identity. 

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