Fifty Shades of Subsecularism

I recently went to the cinema and watched the latest installment of the Fifty Shades films. I’ve now seen the first two (I watched the other on dvd as to get the full story before seeing the second film), and many people seem to be impressed, bewildered or intrigued by the fact that I’ve seen them (as the movie theatre was packed with 100 girls/women and four boys/men including myself). So, when people ask me: What is it about? I try to answer as honestly and briefly as I can: Two people who want different things from life.

People get hung up on the sex, but we could play with the notion that what Ana and Christian wants is not different ‘shades’ of sex, but have equally disparate life goals (one wants a puppy and a child in a London townhouse, the other a career in journalism and a beach house outside Tokyo). Furthermore, the way that the films portray BDSM ties a knot in your stomach, gives you quite an uneasy feeling. And so the negotiation of terms begin, between someone who has very specific ideas about what sex should be about, and one that opposes a lot of those ideas but merely has vague responses to what things should be like instead (Ana being a virgin when she meets Christian). There is a lot in the movies that puts across delicate problematic life-themes, in my view. I think it’s unfortunate that Christian has a backstory of psychological and physical abuse which ”explains” his ”abnormality”. Wouldn’t it simply have been better if he just met someone (other than Ana) who was equally into the power games and sadism he so enjoys? And Ana, handing Christian a Ben & Jerry’s vanilla with the phrase, ‘here you go, your new favourite flavour’, wouldn’t she be better off with someone who just wants similar things from a twosome relationship? The films (and I’m guessing the books) seems to put too much emphasis on what’s ”normal” and being in a relationship where you feel entitled to change/improve/redecorate the interior of the other person. But that – not BDSM – is the ultimate game of power; the notion that you are entitled to change the Other.

This is really the core notion behind my term ‘the subsecular’. My theologian friend Josef Gustafsson has said that he likes saying to atheists that their atheism isn’t atheistic enough. And I think he is right. A lot of thinking that has purged the ”irrational”, ”abnormal” or thoughts/references to ”the divine”, a ”higher power” or a ”higher purpose” still embody pretty much all these things. It’s as if atheism rests on the premise purge your beliefs from belief and as if that notion magically would make your higher purpose, or way of viewing the world, or your way of valuing something becomes transcendent through the act of specifically refuting some specific (usually labelled ”religious”) truth claims. Differently put: Atheism rests on refuting some specific truth claims (typically christian, jewish or muslims) and instead confessing a belief in certain tenets of what a good or meaningful life is/consists of, anchoring this in nothing. ”If you believe in certain secular modes of thinking, then we can allow you to also believe – less strongly – in other things, like your (stupid infantile naïve) god”. To point of this structuring of reality; where one mode of believing: secularistic thinking is legitimised and get to structure other ”sub-”beliefs such as religious or philosophical beliefs that cuts across usual secularist lines of thinking and reasoning.

So let’s go back to Ana and Christian and what the fuck their fuckery has to do with secularism, shall we? In their encounter with each other it becomes evident (at least from where I stand) that no one of them is right while the other is wrong. Christian has encountered several women that willingly submitted to his wishes – fine. Ana dreams of love and is saving herself for someone special – equally fine. But when one party wishes to dominate the other, it becomes a matter of negotiation. In this case with a party that wishes there had to be no negotiation at all (and just replace it all with ‘his new favourite flavour – vanilla’). Secularism today reigns supreme as a hegemonic political ideology in the West. But there is very little negotiation with the partners its bedding, and wants to dominate. There is very little consent to the act of domination. Does religious people want to be dominated by atheist ideology? Do they consent to the act of submission? I’d say, by and large; no.

The question is what we do to counter this? Whose responsibility is it to take other modes of thinking, believing, wanting, desiring seriously? I’d say that it’s the responsibility of the dominant party to listen to the submissive. When BDSM functions ”as it should” it’s the boundaries of the submissive that are the parameters. Like when Ana says ”strike out anal fisting” from the number of acts she is willing to be subjected to. I think it’s perhaps time for religious people (or people of any spiritual persuasion) to speak up and say that; you know Secularistian, we never agreed to this anal fisting that you are subjecting me to.

Yes, I use vulgar language. But I’m sure you don’t mind, seeing that a book turned movie with that exact point of negotiation is currently filling cinemas world wide. Let me be clear: I think the first order of business for those of the secularist persuasion is to get the consent of those it wants to subdue. Otherwise secularist visions of the good life and how to organise society (in one word: politics) is an act of dominance, rape even. But standing up for a secular ethos, a spiritually informed ethos, one where art is central to the human condition – or whatever it is you value most- doesn’t have to be an act of dominance. Politics needn’t be about domination of the Other. There is nothing inherent about secularist thinking having to be dominant or suppressive. On the contrary, what political philosopher William E Connolly suggests in the seminal ”Why I am Not a Secularist” is just that secularism need not be overthrown but augmented; first and foremost by admitting that putting any stock in ”reason”, ”secularism”, and/or ”atheism” are all acts or utterances of faith. I’m not saying that secularists have to favour vanilla as their favourite flavour. But they need to admit to the fact that politics must not be about domination, it can be consensual, it can be … vanilla, even.

What I’ve tried to show here is not that there is one ”right” contra one ”wrong” perspective (consensual BDSM or vanilla is equally consensual), but to simply illustrate the clash between visions of the good life as people who may not be right for each other … if they insist on maintaining their absolute boundaries and preferences on all accounts. And if we want to live together, like Christian and Ana attempts, then the negotiation needs to start from someplace that is radically equal, where some perspectives are not ”givens” that ”naturally” get to dominate the other and force other perspectives (and people really) into unwilling, automatic submission. But who knows, maybe that’s some crazy shit that pentecostals really crave in the end?

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