Many Splen­dored Things: Think­ing Sex and Play

By Su­sanna Paa­so­nen MIT Press, 208pp, £20.00 ISBN 9781906897826 Pub­lished 16 Oc­to­ber 2018

THE (Times Higher Education) - - BOOKS - Kather­ine An­gel is a lec­turer in cre­ative writ­ing at Birk­beck, Univer­sity of Lon­don.

Su­sanna Paa­so­nen’s new book aims to re­con­sider sex through the lens of play. It draws to­gether col­lab­o­ra­tive work on girls’ on­line prac­tices of sex­ual mes­sag­ing; an in­ter­est in Jan Sol­dat’s doc­u­men­tary films on Ger­man kink com­mu­ni­ties; re­flec­tions on Fifty Shades of Grey; and the role-play­ing phe­nom­e­non of adult ba­bies.

The au­thor’s work comes out of af­fect the­ory, in which schol­ars in a wide range of dis­ci­plines have looked to psy­chol­o­gist Sil­van Tomkins’ work to un­der­score af­fect as a pre­cog­ni­tive com­po­nent of emo­tion, and a non­lin­guis­tic bod­ily sen­sa­tion – the sen­sa­tion be­fore it is in­ter­preted as emo­tion. The “turn to af­fect” in the hu­man­i­ties re-em­pha­sised sen­sa­tions and bod­ily re­sponses, in a turn against what it saw as an ex­ces­sive em­pha­sis on lan­guage in pre­vi­ous decades.

Paa­so­nen has used af­fect the­ory to im­por­tant ends in her work. In Car­nal Res­o­nance: Af­fect and On­line Pornog­ra­phy (2011), she cap­tured phe­nom­ena re­lat­ing to the af­fects and ef­fects of watch­ing pornog­ra­phy, while re­fus­ing to en­dorse pre-es­tab­lished ways of dis­cussing it. This en­abled her to side­step and defuse some of the more en­trenched dis­cur­sive po­si­tions around pornog­ra­phy, by in­tro­duc­ing more de­tail and nu­ance into what it is to be af­fected and moved by the genre.

This at­ten­tion to tex­ture is ev­i­dent here too. Paa­so­nen is re­cep­tive to the mul­ti­ple res­o­nances of play – games, the­atre, per­for­mance, pre­tence, recre­ation and light­ness, among oth­ers. She con­cedes that the rubric of play, with its con­no­ta­tions of fun and spon­tane­ity, might risk down­play­ing the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties and anx­i­eties in­volved in sex, and is at pains to point out that play is not nec­es­sar­ily “fully free, vol­un­tary, egal­i­tar­ian, and ex­clu­sively con­nected to pos­i­tive af­fect”. It can, she writes, be “asym­met­ri­cal, risky, hurtful, vi­o­lent and dam­ag­ing”.

Yet Paa­so­nen glosses rather lightly over the trou­bling co­er­cive el­e­ments that can be part of sex as play, par­tic­u­larly play un­der­stood as a game, in which dis­re­gard for the bound­aries of a play­ing part­ner can be in­her­ent, as can be co­er­cive means jus­ti­fy­ing the ends (for ex­am­ple, in the logic of male pick-up artists).

She also uses the con­cepts of play and play­ful­ness to erode some of the norms and du­alisms through which sex­ual lives are of­ten un­der­stood: straight/queer, child­hood/adult­hood, nor­mal­ity/ de­viancy, fan­tasy/re­al­ity. She writes com­pellingly about how pay­ing at­ten­tion to sex as play “pushes the bound­aries of pre­vi­ously de­fined or rec­og­nized sex­ual tastes and pref­er­ences”. In fact, some of the most in­ter­est­ing ma­te­rial here is on how at­ten­tion to “bod­ily po­ten­tial­i­ties” – the af­fects of sex – might un­der­mine ways of un­der­stand­ing sex­u­al­ity through mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive cat­e­gories, whether of sex­ual tastes, de­sires or gen­der iden­ti­ties. Play has im­por­tant things to teach us about the cat­e­gories of iden­tity.

Play as a phe­nom­e­non in Paa­so­nen’s hands, how­ever, can be pretty much any­thing; and when some­thing can be any­thing, it risks be­ing noth­ing. In lend­ing it­self to so many con­cerns, agen­das and realms, play risks tip­ping the book from sug­ges­tive com­plex­ity to clut­tered empti­ness. The au­thor’s skill in evok­ing the “phys­i­cal in­ten­si­ties of arousal and plea­sure”, the “thick ma­te­ri­al­ity and hum­ming de­sires of bod­ies, their car­nal ca­pac­i­ties and po­ten­tial­i­ties”, be­comes, cu­ri­ously, both the book’s virtue and its flaw. As such, it show­cases what can be both com­pelling and frus­trat­ing about af­fect the­ory; in try­ing to say so much, Paa­so­nen has writ­ten a book that says strangely lit­tle.

"Paa­so­nen glosses lightly over the trou­bling co­er­cive el­e­ments that can be part of sex as play, par­tic­u­larly play un­der­stood as a game, in which dis­re­gard for the bound­aries of a play­ing part­ner can be in­her­ent"

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