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10 December, 2009

A Brief Interlude

I've been amused lately by checking out how and whence people come to visit this blog. I'm pleased with the exposure I'm getting, given that I haven't really worked on it: I'm not sure how or why folks from Bucharest and San Paolo would make their way here or how I get direct views from Delhi and Porto Alegre, but that's the glory of the interwebs and I love it! My favorite data, though, is the search terms that bring people here. People string together the most marvelous phrases - things like "serotonin girlfriend" (which would make a great name for a rock band). Recent searches that have brought people to my blog include:

what is polyamory kissing

polyamory bunnies

yay serotonin

avoid monogamy

polyamory pornography

rhythms ringo brain chemistry

Yes, that's right: "rhythms ringo brain chemistry". I am, of course, the first Google result for that oh-so-frequent search. Speaking personally, I'd also love to have a few polyamory bunnies hopping around in the backyard. No doubt that surfer was seeking this facebook group (or maybe midgets?). Giving me almost as much amusement, this blog is in the first page of Google results for "polyrhythms". Yes, I'm somehow even in front of the blog that snatched the hyphen-free version of the URL. The text preview only shows the sidebar explaining the blog name; those poor music majors won't know what hit them! By the way, if we have any repeat customers here: did you find what you were looking for? If not, feel free to request a post. I'm always looking for an excuse to write things here (or at least for time to do so).

Anyway, this is just to say that I love you all forever.

03 December, 2009

Polyamory seems to thrive at the intersection of several subcultures. I do mean polyamory, specifically: the celebration of non-monogamous love and, often, fidelity, as opposed to the more sex-based side of nonmonogamy (like swinging, sometimes set up against poly in the dark twin role). Poly is tied in pretty thoroughly with geek culture, and there's also an association with modern Paganism, enough so that there's a Livejournal community devoted to the intersection of bisexuals, polyamourists, Pagans and geeks with about 1500 members. And they have a guild.

I'm curious: why would modern Paganism correlate with an interest in polyamory? The geek connection seems normal to me, probably just because I am a geek. Geekiness kind of makes sense: the engineer contingent likes to take things apart and see how they work, while the analytic demographic (hi, me!) is always questioning rules and social structures. We also love science fiction and fantasy; in other words, we're familiar with changing the premises. SciFi is especially known for playing with hypothetical social & sexual relationship structures. People who like to use their minds as playthings are just generally more likely to question and to enjoy novel solutions, so it's no surprise that openness to social change might correlate with those who care about intellect. If anyone's going to try it, it'll be the geeks. But why does today's Pagan culture start to overlap with polyamory?

If one is Pagan in this country (that's the U.S.A., in case you're just tuning in), that also bespeaks a willingness to step out of the expected lines and open a different kind of social discourse. By the capital P in "Pagan", let me be clear, I mean to denote not the category of polytheistic religion in general but the specific, modern trend toward nature-based spiritual practices (often syncretically self-sculpted) of which Wicca is the exemplar. So, they have that much in common with my intuitive sense of why poly folk are often geeky. But is a willingness to seek novel social arrangements the only thing linking these two groups? If you're surprised to hear me claim "no", you probably haven't read many essays. I've got a theory. And yes, it does involve bunnies.

The theory in question is "Terror Management Theory". A professor introduced me to it this semester with a paper called "I Am NOT An Animal: Mortality Salience, Disgust, and the Denial of Human Creatureliness", by one Goldenberg & company. TMT1 is a larger topic than I care to deal with in full, but the critical element is that it regards our fear of death. Mortality salience comes into play as things around us remind us of death; when we have death on our minds, humans change their behavior in predictable directions, typically doing things like retreating to the trenches of one's own culture, especially religion. It's often a subtle effect. It comes into play with little events like seeing roadkill or grand ones like the country's political shift following the World Trade Center attack of 2001. The theory was inspired by the observation that when faced with the thought of death, people were more likely to espouse transcendent beliefs - a belief in one's immortal soul, for instance. The effect is tied closely with religion and spiritual beliefs, but it extends to many cultural elements, especially on the conservative side of things.

The gist of this specific paper is its evidence regarding disgust responses to animals and their relationship to mortality salience. The authors claim (and neatly support through experiment) that when humans are disgusted by animals, or by acting against culture - acting "like an animal" - the reason it disgusts us is that it reminds us of our own animal bodies, the very things that doom us, ultimately, to death.

Behavior that isn't condoned by one's mother culture can fall into that category. When humans act like animals, it upsets many of us. The participants in these particular experiments, when reminded of their own oncoming deaths, were less forgiving than the control group was of an essay arguing for a materialist, evolutionary account of humanity and more accepting of an essay praising humans as special, unique, above animals (and I use "animals" in opposition to "humans" purposefully). The U.S. is home to pretty solid trends toward both materialism and Christianity, each of which are vulnerable to animal-triggered disgust. Animals can remind Christians of our dying human bodies, the thought of which (as in the research inspiring TMT) sends them back to the comforting thought of the immortal soul and the meaningful nature of all life in the context of a loving creator. For materialists, the situation is even more distressing, as we have no such reassurance. We atheists have similar retreats, though. I know I, for one, still use the Godspell soundtrack as comfort music.

So, what the fuck does this have to do with today's putative topic? Funny you should ask! Unlike the prevailing opinion of animals in the U.S., which puts them both practically and symbolically in roles that are starkly divided from humans and clearly place them below us (or on our plates), a Pagan view of the world holds all natural things in the category of the sacred. Modern Paganism, to quote one website created as a waystation for individuals interested but without local resources, is a "nature-centered spirituality"; animals, along with everything else in the world, are part of a transcendent system of meaning. "It may not seem like a spiritual exercise," writes the site's author, "but every time you do something to help animals, or for that matter any part of our environment, you are engaging in a spiritual action." If the natural is conceived of as a sacred category, then actions seen as in keeping with nature can acquire a sense of sacredness. And, hey, is there anything more natural than fucking like animals?

Not exactly bunnies, but you get the idea.

It's important, though, that polyamory isn't just about getting your end off. In poly culture, there's an emphasis on multiple loving relationships. Nature red in tooth and claw might happily hop from one person to another, but a transcendent, sacred account of nature tends to emphasize sublime beauty and the perfection of the natural. As a casual example, take this page made by a Pagan circle in Leeds; they quote many people who've spoken on the beauty of nature but none who speak of predation or starvation. The dangerous elements of nature could be held as sacred and have been, by other groups, but they are not the centrally emphasized element here. Instead, the chosen emphasis is on beauty, playfulness, and the universal - or rather undifferentiated - availability of a worldly joy in that which surrounds us. Polyamorists, similarly, sometimes chose to draw a sharp line between poly and swinging: the one concerned with intimacy and love, the other concerned with physical satisfaction. At other times, poly folk acknowledge the indistinct line separating the two, but - what a shock - usually follow that acknowledgement with a restatement of polyamory's interest in "real intimacy" (and note that when I went searching for an example, the one I found was from a group of Christian polyamorists). That is, the discussion of swingers tends to lead polyamorists to reiterate the system of meaning and values that motivates their behavior. I think I see a touch of TMT at work here, don't you? I'm aware of exceptions, such as this little essay, but take note of its date: 1995. As far as the history of "polyamory" goes, that's awfully early; the definition was still taking shape. Make of that what you will.

This is more or less what ran through my head when I learned about terror management theory. Finally, I had figured out one reason polyamory and Paganism have overlapping appeal! If the natural, as today's Paganism creates the category, is sacred, and sex is natural, then it's not as large a leap to consider sharing that sacred sexuality with more than one other human animal. Animals and animal-like behavior (and let's face it, sex is not the most flatteringly cultured activity) have been reframed in the Pagan worldview: instead of reminders of our own death, they're reminders of our own natural sacredness. Pagan nonmonogamy is like a little prayer circle. It's true, this is no great empirical work - consider it a theory paper - but it seems to make a kind of sense, and I hope I've described terror management theory sufficiently for it to seem sensible to you, too. It also leaves me with a fonder attitude toward modern Paganism than I used to have. And, if nothing else, the dangers exposed by terror management theory are worth keeping in mind. Don't let death play the peer pressure game with you. Our bodies are the best toys out there; so what if they'll kill us? We might as well enjoy them first!

Now to figure out whether I'll send this essay to that professor. Probably not.

1Which looks temptingly like TMNT, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles".

02 December, 2009

In the Grim Darkness of Nonmonogamy, There is Only Communication

In the grim darkness of the setting for the tabletop miniature game Warhammer: 40K, there is only war. Nonetheless, it holds some lessons relevant to our own daily lives.

The game simulates war in distant planets between various human and alien factions. It is a setting of crushing despair and little hope, in which humanity's only savior has been approximately dead for millennia and only keeps a pulse by eating the souls of hundreds of psychics every day. It's lovely. In the game itself, one commands a small army of metal and plastic figurines representing one of the many factions.

During a typical player's turn in Warhammer, each group of figures on the battlefield gets to run through several phases. First, one moves the troops. Then one can either fire on the enemy or, if one is close enough, engage them in combat: the Assault phase. Depending on how that goes, many things can result. You can force your opponents to flee, if they have taken heavy casualties. If they stand their ground, you may take a consolidation move; those of your models that are not in immediate contact with enemy models may move up to three inches (where a normal Move Phase allows six inches' movement). If you destroy the enemy unit, you move the unit forward a number of inches equal to one roll on a six-sided die. If you overwhelm the enemy, you may attempt to force them to break and run in a Sweeping Advance. If the advance succeeds, you instantly wipe out the rest of that troop. You then get the same 3" consolidation move that you would if they'd stood their ground. At the end of consolidation, if I recall correctly, any models not within 2" of another member of their unit are removed from the game, undoubtedly eaten by a grue.

This is not merely the recounting of an arcane and monetarily draining pasttime. No; there is a deeper lesson to be gleaned from the grim troop movements of the 41st millennium. It is the value of consolidation.

When my space orks slaughter a squadron of Imperial guardsmen, they do not simply bathe in the enemy's blood and raise skulls as goblets. Drippy, drippy goblets. Not in the least! They pause, collect themselves, and make certain that they haven't lost anyone needlessly in the scuffle. If anyone is more than 5" away from the nearest model, I can move the flank out to catch the poor boy. If my troops are packed so tightly that they'd be destroyed by a single shot from the Guardsmen's devastating Basilisk cannon, I can spread them apart. But, spread the troops too thin and I risk losing some to the attrition of the 2" rule in the next combat.

What I'm getting at here is resource management. Yes, I love crushing my foes in battle as much as the next fellow - even more, if we're operating on a metaphorical level here - but I know that there's more than just battle at play here. I have to maintain the cohesion of my unit, and if I let the thrill of battle motivate my every move, I can end up spreading my troops so wide, hoping to engage more of the enemy, that my offensive line breaks and I lose sight of my stalwart ork minions. I must keep the longterm health of the group in mind when I commit to any given action.

Likewise in nonmonogamous relationships. One has a finite amount of resources to commit, any one of which may prove to be a limiting factor; for me, that factor did not come from the sector I'd expected. Time, I thought, was the greatest of my romantic limitations. Recently, however, I have drawn a different conclusion. I've had great fun this semester, engaging in a variety of hand to hand encounters, and they've all been great fun. In this blog, I've been shying away from the term "polyamory" because it seems like I'm tending more toward the swinging side of things, pursuing more or less casual sex without making longterm commitments outside of the sexual realm, beyond the central commitment I've been holding for some time now. Suddenly I realize, though, that if I engage with many more troops, I will be spread to thin to enjoy it. The limiting factor isn't my time resources but my emotional resources. Every combat encounter will begin to seem the same: move phase, assault phase, resolution, and then consolidation, withdrawal or advance. I don't simply want to sweep through every unit in my path. I want to draw out the engagements, make them last, savor them. And (I begin to suspect), if I encounter too many more units, the savor will out.

I have a new strategy: consolidation. The troops have already engaged; the initial hand-to-hand stage is resolved. What's left is to think small: take those three inches1 of movement and see to the unit as a whole. Are all models within 2", maintaining group cohesion? Are they densely packed, inviting area attacks? Are they within assault range of another enemy troop; could they edge out of the way? Do I really know all the people I'm sleeping with, and isn't it worth pursuing those relationships in more depth before trying to ... um ... close with more ... enemy units? In other words, I'm on the downswing from quantity and moving back toward quality and depth of relationships. Oddly enough, this actually seems to have been sparked by my interaction with a young woman who, just as I did, explicitly declared her interest in a relationship predicated on getting it on and not worrying about the traditional courtship portion. Getting together went so well, though, that it got me questioning my actual wants ... and a pleasant evening spent with another friend of mine brought me some awareness of my own sexual saturation. I have enough partners; I just don't see enough of them. Time to consolidate.

1 And don't even think about a size joke, because you and I know exactly how irrelevant that is.2

2Actually, three inches is pretty frighteningly large when a marine is one inch tall.3

3Well, there's an image I didn't need in my mind.