On Alternatives and Language

I'd like to riff off Andrea for a minute, if you don't mind. She's written a couple of posts lately that have gotten me thinking about language and subcultures.

As you can see in the comments of that first post, we got into a conversation about the accuracy of the word power in reference to a consensual relationship. In my lexicon, power and consent are to at least some extent mutually exclusive, so, while I can see using it in a scene context, where it's understood that it's make-believe, the word just doesn't work for me in the context of a 24/7-type relationship.

In the second above-linked post, Andrea talks about not wanting to use the word slave to describe her bois, while blithely referring to them as her property. I find this especially jarring to my lexicon because the conceptual distance between my (white, female, affluent, Western) life and the reality of slavery is much farther than the distance between my life and the reality of people-as-property. If one of those two words is going to be available for me to redefine away the cultural baggage, it ain't gonna be property. But Andrea's lexicon is different, and that's fine.

These two posts, though, got me to thinking. What's going on is that we have a set of phenomena (inflicting pain, subservience, the control of one person's life by another) that are for all but a vanishingly small proportion of the population thought of exclusively as non-consensual.1 What this is going to mean is that, for the majority of people, even people who experience these phenomena consensually on a regular basis, the words themselves are going to carry a lot of connotative baggage of non consensuality.

So what are you going to do about it?
It seems to me that there are three options available. First, you can always describe your relationships in multi-sentence terms, referring to your partner as "the person over whom I have been given authority in the matters of X, Y, and Z (and B to a lesser extent), always contingent, of course, on his consent and subject to renegotiation when desired by either of us." Some people will try this option, but it never lasts. Languages evolve not just over generations, but fairly quickly and repeatedly within one speaker's lifetime, and one of the selective forces on language is efficiency. People don't like using multiple sentences to express what they can say with one word. So people will look for a word. Which brings me to option two: neologism. You can just make up a word to describe the kind of power/authority that is contingent on consent. You can call it glogan, and have one partner be the gloganee, and the other the gloganer, or whatever. This eliminates the problem of efficiency found in solution 1, and the problem of connotation found in solution 3 (we'll get to that), but it brings with it its own host of problems. While it's true that languages evolve, they kind of resist deliberate change. People feel uncomfortable and awkward deliberately using invented words.

This leaves solution 3: reclaim, reinvent, and redefine. And this is what people are doing. It is easier for a speaker to take an existing word and alter its connotations slightly than to invent a new one, and the words people choose to apply in these new contexts will depend hugely on the individual's experiences with them, and the connotations they've acquired, and that's fine.

What this doesn't mean, however, is that people get to throw words around willy-nilly, uncritically redefining and re-redefining on a whim, without ever making their meanings explicit or acknowledging that the cultural consensus about what that word means is being violated. That sort of behaviour only leads to the post-modern bullshit known as philosophy, and makes intelligent conversation impossible. It's important, first of all, to have a sufficiently large vocabulary that, if a word already exists to describe whatever it is you're doing, you know about it and, second, if you do have to redefine, to do it explicitly and transparently so that people can still converse meaningfully with you.

What I guess I'm trying to say with this is that, contra Andrea, I think redefinition is a necessary and inevitable aspect of trying to talk about things like BDSM and, in fact, I think she's doing it.

1. Yes, I'm aware that pain and power play make it into the sex lives of many, if not most, people who would call themselves vanilla, but since they don't tend to think of their sex lives that way, my point stands. back