Shibari in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

I suppose I should start out by explaining to those of you here hoping for a rope-and-steampunk post that this is not it. The title rather refers to a rather overquoted but nonetheless pivotal essay by Walter Benjamin called “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

It’s a fascinating article in its own way, if you are one of those who likes wanking off in discussions about what is or is not art. I’ve found that the newer you are to this theory, the more eager you are to discuss it; having been through decades of such things, I usually just roll my eyes a little and fall back on Chief Justice Potter Stewart’s 1964 definition in Jacobellis vs. Ohio: “I’ll know it when I see it.”

However, I recently allowed myself to become embroiled in just such a discussion on FetLife, and while it wasn’t pleasant, it did give some food for thought. Among other things, it was amusing that I found myself defending the idea that kinbaku is an art form, requiring years of practice to do it well – much like playing a musical instrument. The OP (Original Poster) got quite frustrated by the fact that his post had not been about the whole art-vs-not-art debate at all; his original post had been about a person online who, looking for guidance, had wanted to know if there were tutorials online.

I was one of the first respondents in that thread, and had pointed out the tutorials at BeKnotty and Twisted Monk and of course Jack Elfrink’s stuff. I also noted, as a responsible citizen journalist of the rope world, that “there is a school of thought that one cannot learn shibari online.”

To my mind, that is different than saying “one cannot learn shibari online.” Because frankly, I don’t necessarily believe that some people can learn it one-on-one, either. I’ve tried with a few people who have studied and taught in that way, and found it frustrating.

More to the point, it doesn’t fucking matter.

Forget What You Think

Getting away from the “what is art” argument and to the original point: that person looking for tutorials wanted something. For the sake of argument, let’s say that he saw a picture like this online:

The Fabulous Ms. Berlin & Derrick Pierce

…and he wanted to put his submissive in a similar situation.

Why did he want to do that? Was it because he wanted to get into the wildly lucrative world of bondage porn?* Was it because he was a passionate photographer, and wanted to exactly re-create this amazingly composed photo?**

Perhaps. I don’t think so, though. I think it’s more likely that he didn’t want to duplicate the picture at all. He wanted the results. He wanted to make his sub feel the way Ms. Berlin feels in the picture. Or he wanted to feel the way Derrick feels in the picture. And that’s where the whole “mechanical reproduction” thing comes into play.

See, I did that tie. I took that picture, because this was a shoot that I was directing. So I know exactly what was happening on that set, on that day, in that place. And let me tell you, the orgasmic bliss that Ms. Berlin is conveying in that pic is far more a tribute to her acting ability than any skill on my (or even Derrick’s) part.

Probably more of what was going on in her head was along the lines of:

Who the fuck is this no-talent rigger/director thinks he can tie me in this RIDICULOUS suspension? Jeez this is killing my lumbar vertebrae. Going to have to do some hot tub relaxing today. Wonder if Cherry’s up for coffee after the shoot? At least I have a good PA here to help out. Oh, here comes Derrick’s cock. He’s such a great guy, too bad he’s gotta work with this midwest hack too…”

That’s not to say that I know that was her inner monologue-Berlin and I are friends, but this was the first time we met and I was a hack, as this was my very first professional bondage shoot.

But I doubt that the FetLife poster was hoping to have his submissive thinking those kinds of thoughts when he reproduced the tie. No, he didn’t want his sub to feel the way the people in the picture felt.

He wanted his sub to feel the way he thought the people in the picture felt.

And that’s the crux of it. The proper response to that FetLife poster should not have been me listing the tutorials; those are just ways of duplicating the images. Nor was the proper response to say “You can’t do that; it’s art, and reserved for the Worthy.” It certainly wasn’t helpful to say, “Oh, that? Anybody can do that. It’s no big deal.

What ends up happening, time and again, is that he takes either track – saves up the money, goes to Japan and studies, or just decides to “reverse engineer” the ties using things online, and gets to the point where she and he are in exactly the same position…and suddenly they realize: this doesn’t feel the way I thought it would.

Nouns Don’t Matter

To my mind, the most important question to ask, whether you’re an experienced rigger or a novice knotter, is not “What do you want to do?” but rather “How do you want to feel?” That determines the tools you use, the frame of mind, the setting, the technique – everything else. What is the tone of the rope bondage? I personally believe that with that as your goal, it doesn’t matter if you’re doing a one-column tie or a takate-reallyfuckinghawtakote with a side of hashirodokai sauce.

Most of the time when I do rope for enjoyment (as opposed to for performance, education, or photography, in which case fun is by-product rather than the objective) I don’t have a big idea of a complicated tie. I tend to go in and start working with the rope and the body and the way it changes over time, and at the end, if you want to call it smut or art or craft, it really doesn’t matter to me. What matters to me are the adjectives, not the nouns. Was it good? Was it fun? Was it beautiful?

We can re-create images in 3-d and record the steps on hi-def video and break them down into loop A over bight B around Nipple C. But as far as I know, there’s no way to accurately recreate the feelings involved – even between the same two people with the same rope.

I love that ephemerality. I love that “unique and special snowflake”-ness of it. And that’s why I’ll see you in the dungeon.

*Quit laughing, Ten

** Quit laughing, SmutCraft/Monkeyfetish/MMayhem

3 thoughts on “Shibari in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

  • OK, you can’t cite Benjamin without writing the word “aura” at least once. It is true, I talked to Sam Weber about it and he confirmed this as factual.

    You know that is an essay about Nazi’s, right? It is interesting that you talk about someone named “Berlin” in the post. I’ve see pictures of you recently in uniform.

    Do I need to be worried?

    FWIW, I think there is an even more important point about the politicization of aesthetics in the rope world. And when people respond to the question “What is art?” by saying “who cares” I think Benjamin has a pretty good answer. We actually should care more than we do.

  • While I agree with all the points you raise, Gray; I can’t help but consider the theory of *Shuhari*

    Aikido master Endō Seishirō shin says:

    “It is known that, when we learn or train in something, we pass through the stages of shu, ha, and ri. These stages are explained as follows. In shu, we repeat the forms and discipline ourselves so that our bodies absorb the forms that our forebearers created. We remain faithful to the forms with no deviation. Next, in the stage of ha, once we have disciplined ourselves to acquire the forms and movements, we make innovations. In this process the forms may be broken and discarded. Finally, in ri, we completely depart from the forms, open the door to creative technique, and arrive in a place where we act in accordance with what our heart/mind desires, unhindered while not overstepping laws.”

    Please, before I continue to dig a larger hole for myself, let me say this; I DO agree with you! You raised some intriguing points which I have and will continue to give further consideration but Gray, you are at *Ri* or *Nawashi* or however else one might choose to label your craft, surley the context of your argument is void as the OP is *Shu*?

    As I’ve mentioned before; “If one can’t tie their own shoes, how can they expect to make it out the door?” By this, I mean: many of the points you raise while *agreeable* are subject to assumptions… 

    Assumptions that say, tieing a tie for example is secondary to tone (and one day, when I aspire to *Ri* it will be) but for all my fellow *Shu’s* out there I’m asking for you to show a little *consideration* – right word, wrong tone >.~

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