Review of Susanna Paasonen, Many Splendored Things: Thinking Sex and Play

Review of Susanna Paasonen, Many Splendored Things: Thinking Sex and Play (Goldsmiths Press, 2018), 176 pages, £20.
Book website: https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/many-splendored-things/

Reviewed by João Florêncio

There is a passage at the start of Marsilio Ficino’s 1496 commentary on Plato’s Parmenides in which the Italian Renaissance philosopher writes about Socrates’ use of wit as a way to disguise wisdom “beneath figures and veils” by “[jesting] in seriousness and [playing] in the greatest earnest” (2012: 33; also Allen 1986: 438). In her new book, Susanna Paasonen takes play–namely, sexual play–in a similarly serious and earnest manner as object of study. She advances an engaging account of sexual play as a set of practices of creative and improvisatory experimentation with our bodies, with our knowledge of them, and with what they can do. For Paasonen, “the openness of variations and options elementary to playfulness and play can help in thinking through the engrossing appeal of sex, the plasticity of desires, appetites, and orientations, as well as heir congealment in categories of sexual identity” (2018: 2). Sexual play, she argues, opens our bodies up to new “carnal horizons of possibility” (8).

Known for her work as a theorist who eschews psychoanalytic frameworks in favour of the language of affect when writing about sex and media, in Many Splendored Things Paasonen takes a similar methodological approach to her study of play. If, she argues, psychoanalysis and most psychoanalytically-informed theory seek to establish causal relations between developmental life events (oftentimes framed as traumatic) and sexual behaviour, focusing on play through the lens of affect allows us instead to rethink sex in a non-instrumental manner whereby the pursuit of pleasures known and yet unknown becomes an end in itself. Affect detaches sex from the psychoanalytical pursuit of causes and its probing of the idiosyncrasies of autobiography; it moves us away from the analytical couch, propelling us into future-orientated sexual playgrounds.

Two authors stand out in Paasonen’s toolbox for rethinking sexual play: Roger Caillois and Silvan Tomkins, the former with his 1958 taxonomy of modes of (non-sexual) play; the latter with his landmark studies of affect, namely, his introduction of the notion of affect amplification in the conceptualisation of sexual desire, a notion that Paasonen uses to rethink sexual play away from all psychoanalytical attempts to reduce it to object relations and the causal power of the drive. Instead, sexual play is advanced here as a form of creative modulation and amplification of the affective capacities and affordances of human bodies, a process that involves resonance between bodies and is often catalysed by audiovisual media.

To readers familiar with the author’s previous works, Paasonen’s usage of “resonance,” borrowed from fields like acoustics and musicology to frame her approach to affect, will come at no surprise for the term was amply discussed in her earlier book Carnal Resonance: Affect and Online Pornography. Using it to conceptualise the affective movements taking place between bodies in pornography and the bodies of porn viewers, Paasonen defines “resonance” as the attunement of two bodies to a shared affective frequency, thus moving beyond the dynamics of (mis)identification and (mis)recognition that mark psychoanalytic discourse (2011: 16). Building on that earlier definition, amplification and modulation appear here, respectively, as an increase in the amplitude and a change in the tonality of affects, both of which are facilitate by sexual play and thus responsible for providing bodies, in their pursuit and experiences of pleasure, with new and, at times, transformative “textures and qualities” (2018: 43).

In the introduction to her new book, Paasonen signals her intention to move beyond the normative hierarchies of “good” or “bad” sexualities famously mapped out by Gayle Rubin. Instead, her aim is to consider play and playfulness as “dynamics central to sexuality more generally” (4) and as “pleasurable activities practised for their own sake” (9). To that end, she first starts by conducting a rich and thorough analysis of the ways in which spaces of play have usually been conceptualised as liminal spaces of transgression or “magic circles,” a term coined by Johan Huizinga to posit worlds of play as spatiotemporalities detached from the everyday thanks to their suspension of the norms and rules of ordinary life (18-19). Drawing from a wide breadth of sources including game theory, studies of kink and BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, Sadism and Masochism), behavioural studies of primates, sexual script theory, performativity, and, of course, Caillois and Tomkins, Paasonen rejects the geotemporalities of “magic circles” advanced by Huizinga and proposes, instead, to conceptualise play as “magical circuits [that] emerge and unfold across mundane spaces and locations, in all sorts of instances and occasions” (20). Rather than heterotopic spaces with their own internal rules separated from the spaces of everyday life, play conceived as a “magical circuit” allows for a better understanding of how, in its amplification and modulation of bodily affects and affordances, it can reorientate and open the geocorporealities of pleasure, providing bodies with new experiences of resonance both with one another and with the contingencies of their environments.

Paasonen’s argument is supported by a discussion of three case-studies mediated in novels, online fora, TV “shockumentaries,” and documentary films. In line with the cultural studies practice of using artefacts of popular culture as sources or springboards for the development of a wider cultural analysis, Paasonen’s chosen examples are E L James’s series of Fifty Shades novels, the sexual role-playing that took place on the Finnish version of the online community for girls goSupermodel, the world of ABDL (Adult Baby/Diaper Lovers) as depicted in TV shows like the Jeremy Kyle Show or TLC’s My Strange Attraction, and finally BDSM play as documented in the work of independent filmmaker Jan Soldat.

Both Fifty Shades of Grey and the depiction of adult baby play in tabloid TV shows are paradigmatic of the ways in which psychoanalytic theory has informed a certain folk psychologisation of kink seen in mainstream attempts to reduce it to effects of childhood trauma. While the sadistic traits of Christian in the Fifty Shades series are framed by his origin story of early trauma, shows like the Jeremy Kyle Show have mostly presented ABDL play in an utilitarian way, as desexualised solutions to problems raising from incontinence to anxiety. What the two examples also have in common, according to Paasonen, is that they both present play within the context of heterosexual monogamy and coupledom, thus relocating the supposedly “freaky” to the space of the “normal.” The issue, Paasonen argues, is that, in mostly being mediated in popular culture as utilitarian practices either of trauma play or of coping with life challenges and finding closure, such conceptualisation not only ignores the ways in which sex play may often be simply concerned with pleasures, their discovery and amplification, but it also adds to the age-old pathologisation of non-normative sexual practices (88-92, 106). By being depicted as somewhat “therapeutic,” adult play is seen to be a temporary practice that will stop once the participants find healing or closure, just like, in Fifty Shades, kink is eventually overcome by the power of heterosexual and monogamous love.  

Paasonen’s critical engagement with notions of sex and play also leads her to reflect on play itself as a category of activities that is normally associated with children. Separated by their differing degrees of seriousness, adulthood and childhood are often kept apart thanks to the boundary work that crafts ontological distinctions between adult sex and child play (73). However, the author argues, “play bleeds into work just as fantasy constantly tints and orients experiences of reality” (74), a point that becomes all the more tangible if we take into account how dynamics of play are increasingly being incorporated into contemporary corporate environments, spaces where computers and desks share open-plan rooms with ping-pong tables, sofas, and video game consoles. In order to focus on the space that has traditionally been seen to separate adults from children, the space between seriousness and play, Paasonen looks at the sexual play that used to take place on the Finnish version of the online community for girls goSupermodel. Known among that online community as “pervy role-play” (75), it often involved textual role-playing of a sexual nature. Just like earlier versions of child role-playing such as playing house or playing doctor, pervy role-play allowed young online communities to experiment with gender and sexuality in a reflexive manner, exploring different ways of embodying various forms of sexual citizenship (78) and learning what bodies can do (81), in ways that are not dissimilar to those of adult sex play. As Paasonen writes, the differences between child and adult play are differences in degree, not differences in kind (83), a claim that is supported by the author’s discussion of ABDL: play should never be approached as if it were a binary, either the domain of sexual adults or that of non-sexual children. Instead, one must consider its registers of affect and the ways in which play always “involves negotiation over the compatibility of desires, needs, forms of sensation and interaction” (95).

Whilst Fifty Shades and depictions of ABDL in television reduce play to traumatic origin stories and thus to therapy, chapter 5 of the book focuses on a very different kind of representation. Centred on the documentary films of German filmmaker Jan Soldat, the chapter offers a careful analysis of the ways in which Soldat produced alternative depictions of fringe fetish communities. Refusing to frame kink as trauma play, Soldat’s gaze carries what Passonen describes as “an ethical edge in its detachment from the dynamics of cause and effect, harm and remedy connected to BDSM play” (107). Characterised by long and medium, wide and unhurried shots that do not differentiate between scenes of play and scenes of everyday life, films like The Incomplete, Law and Order, or Prison System 4614 do not attempt to find the origins of the kink preferences of the people they depict. Instead, they show kink as “a world of mundane, unspectacular outness” (113).

Given that Soldat’s works cannot usually be seen outside film festivals, Paasonen’s attentive engagement with them is most welcome and needed. And it is here, through her discussion of his films and their ethics, that the book is most successful, in its analysis of the ethics and aesthetics of Soldat’s films to claim that sexual play is porous with everyday life and primarily driven by the pursuit and modulation of pleasures. What we learn from Soldat is how to ask the right question. That is, “how” people play rather than “why” they play (125). In so doing, we move beyond discourses of identity to focus instead on forms of sexuality understood as sets of practices and pleasures (128). Approaching sex as play, as an activity that has the pursuit of pleasure as its end, “opens up bodily horizons of possibility” (132) and causes ripples across identities, sending bodies into “an openness of becoming” (133). Through the improvisation, creativity and uncertainty that lie at its core, play lays out circuits of affects and intensities that have the potential to move and transform—that is, to queer—bodies (150-151).

Paasonen’s argument is alluring and convincing, even for this reviewer who often has a penchant for psychoanalytic theory. It is exactly there, in its refusal to reduce sexual play to origin stories, reading it instead as a set of practices driven by the pursuit of pleasures that can open up bodies to new horizons of possibility, that Many Splendored Things has its splendored shine. Of course, in eschewing psychoanalysis, Paasonen has also chosen to think sex and play outside of the discourses of biopolitics that often accompany academic discussions of sex. With exception of a short passage where the author notes the increasing commodification and spectacularisation of kink, the book willfully rejects the tendency to read sex and play through a lens of power, either as a reassertion or a transgression of the latter. Such an approach can be seen as either the book’s highest achievement or its most evident limitation. But that will be up for its readers to decide. Whichever way, Paasonen’s new book makes an important contribution to our understanding of sex and play in a media-saturated culture.

References

Allen M (1986) The Second Ficino-Pico Controversy: Parmenidean Poetry, Eristic, and the One. In: Garfagnini GC (ed) Marsilio Ficino e il Ritorno di Platone: Studi e Documenti. Florence: Leo S Olschki Editore.

Ficino M (2012) Commentaries on Plato, Vol. 2, Pt. I. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Paasonen S (2011) Carnal Resonance: Affect and Online Pornography. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Paasonen S (2018) Many Splendored Things: Thinking Sex and Play. London: Goldsmiths Press.

João Florêncio is a lecturer in History of Modern and Contemporary Art and Visual Culture at the University of Exeter. His interdisciplinary research navigates the intersections of visual culture and performance studies with queer theory, philosophy, medical humanities and posthumanism, in an attempt to probe the porous boundaries of the body and to think inhuman forms of embodiment, desire, ethics, and community. Between 2019 and 2021, he is a Fellow of the AHRC with his project “Masculinity and the Ethics of Porosity in ‘Post-AIDS’ Gay Porn.” Email: J.Florencio@Exeter.ac.uk. Twitter: @NoisyBits.