Archaeology of Personalities: A Linguistic Approach to Erotic Rope Bondage; 2017; self-published.
I happened across this brief, fascinating book via a buy link the author posted on Facebook, proof that such methods can sell at least a few copies. Being interested in both linguistics and Kinbaku, or Japanese rope bondage (but a practitioner of neither), this definitely piqued my interest. Though not quite what I was expecting—although truthfully, I wasn’t sure what to expect—I am certainly glad to have found it, glad that someone out there with the knowledge to do so has written it.
It was a bit of an administrative conundrum, deciding how to categorize this review. I created the category “The Genre” when I realized some books I wanted to review weren’t erotic fiction themselves, but were about erotic fiction; this book, however, isn’t about erotic fiction at all—it’s about erotic practice. So, a new category—a specific area of non-fiction, relating not to writing kinky things, but to doing them: Practice.
While I am certainly not new to erotic restraint, the art and craft of Japanese rope bondage is a field that has always intimidated me. I’ll admit my ignorance: what is the difference between Kinbaku and Shibari, anyway? It all looks so fun, and beautiful, and the serious practitioners whose books I’ve read all praise its cathartic nature on both tied and tyer. Similarly, in relation to my fascination with Japanese S/M films, not a single movie goes by without more than one Kinbaku scene, often harsh but riveting. I’ve purchased a few how-to books but have used none; for various reasons it’s just unlikely to happen here at House Bey. I must remain an entranced observer.
While I love the ultimately fitting title of this book, Archeology of Personalities (more on this later), I initially couldn’t help but feel the subtitle, A Linguistic Approach to Erotic Rope Bondage, was perhaps a slight misnomer, although I ended up changing my mind about that. The book is indeed heavily influenced by Linguistics, but by the end of it, it felt like I had more accurately explored an entire philosophy of erotic rope bondage—which is not a complaint. Mr. Barkas, in addition to earning a PhD in Philosophy and History of Science and a Master’s in Mathematical Physics, is also a Master of Kinbaku, and a teacher and—performer? artist?—of rope bondage as well, giving demonstrations around the world.
Barkas knows his subject and his arguments very well, and this book, though short, is really a Master Class in the theory and practice of tying someone up—though not the practice you might be thinking of. His concern in this treatise is not the technical lessons of rope bondage—the knots, the safety—but communication.
There are plenty of excellent practical guides to Japanese rope bondage out there. Consider those the required readings for a Bachelor’s Degree; consider this slim volume a guided seminar for grad students. One not-too-positive review I read on this book said that it felt cold and analytic; Germanic more than Japanese, and perhaps a more useful, and poetic, approach could be done by someone who is Japanese. I would love to read such a book—but that is not (the German) Mr. Barkas’s goal. Where this book most succeeds, in my opinion, is in prompting thought.
It goes without saying that communication is critical in a practice with as much risk, both physical and emotional, as erotic rope bondage. Things can go so horribly wrong in so many ways—and often do, especially with beginners.
But the required communication within an activity that also involves serious power exchange—one person is tying the other up, after all; this isn’t vanilla cuddling—has unique qualities. It’s more, much more, than just checking on how the tied person is feeling through the scene.
Barkas repeatedly states that he is not one to believe in “essence,” the thing-in-itself of an object or activity. Like Postmodernist theorists who were themselves influenced by linguistics, he believes there are only relative points of view, no center or ultimate Truth concerning… anything. So in trying to define Kinbaku, he must try to narrow down what makes it unique—what we might colloquially call, despite the impossibility, its essence—even if that central core can only be made up of the experiences of its many practitioners, all of whom will have differing opinions of what makes it vital and important.
Of the four components that he narrows it down to, the first two, people and rope, are obvious, and he does not bother to discuss these in detail.
The next two facets are what this entire book is about: power, and communication. And these two qualities interact in very interesting, and potentially problematic ways, when it comes to one person binding and restricting another.
The interplay of signs and signals—the feedback, the evolving procession—between the two participants of a tying scene is the language that the book’s subtitle refers to. All languages are learned by their participants, whether an actual spoken and written language, or that of any activity that has its own set of signs. I think of the medals and decorations on military uniforms: to the uninitiated and unknowledgeable, seeing the rows of ribbons and medals on the chest of a general means almost nothing beyond perhaps the relative number of them compared to the officer standing next to him or her. We do not know what each multi-colored band means, signifies. To the initiated, however, those who know how to “read” military decorations, there is insightful information there regarding the general’s entire career.
Or consider a cocktail party with wealthy guests, all the men wearing gray suits, a stark and boring contrast to the women’s clothing. To an outsider, they look remarkably similar—yet those in the know see pertinent information in their dealings with the other guests, if they recognize this Armani, that Hugo Boss, and that Men’s Warehouse over in the corner, no one bothering to talk to him.
It’s that way within any group— jargon, postures, signals: these are the vocabularies and grammars that we learn to read and “speak” to gain status, to show concern, to help, to hinder, in any group of humans. (Don’t get me started on small-group politics in academia.)
Kinbaku has its own language as well, and this book is an exploration of how that language works, and why the proper understanding of it is so incredibly vital to its practice—and why, it seems to me, this ends up being more of a philosophical tract than merely an exploration of its linguistics proper. This book has a point to make; it is an ethical system.
A Kinbaku scene is a conversation, and Barkas uses the metaphor of an interview to illustrate how this conversation proceeds. Because of the power dynamics inherent in rope bondage—the application of control and restraint from one human being onto another—a scene cannot be depicted as a balanced and equal two-way conversation, especially during the tying scene. While the person tying must be attentive to the tied’s condition, the “topping from below” that would occur if the two engaged in a totally balanced dialogue would cause interruptions, and ruin the fun for everyone.
Nor can this conversation be a pure monologue. A total monologue would mean a non-consensual activity imposed without conferring on the tied person’s desires and limits—not a cool thing. And while such a thing might be a nice fantasy, or fictional story, for either person, in real life you can’t just tie someone up without consultation and consent. Of course, such a monologue could be an agreed-upon (beforehand), activity, a spelling out during pre-scene negotiations between two people who trust each other, but then it’s really not a true monologue, is it?
One of Barkas’s points is that there is a constant communication across the three stages of a scene—before (negotiations); during (one person tying the other up); and after, or aftercare as it’s commonly called. In Barkas’s eyes, there are not three separated units of communication, but one long one—though it does of course go through different stages. All three phases are crucial, and all three can be as memorable to the participants as the actual tying—consider the sense of anticipation in the pre-scene talk of wants and limits!
Back to the concept of the interview: In most “real world” types of interviews, non-erotic ones, one person is leading that conversation—a job interview, a police interview with a witness, a historian or sociologist interviewing subjects for a study. It’s a two-way conversation, yes, but not as equals just chatting or exchanging information. One person is leading—taking information, and the other giving it, and the interviewer guides the course of the talk by taking cues from previous answers, which also alter the course.
This is how the Kinbaku scene progresses, in all three of its phases. In the initial negotiations, limits are discussed; preferences, desires. It is, after all, an erotic activity for both people—though quite possibly not an overtly sexual one. People are not always naked while being tied up, and sexual intercourse may well not be the eventual goal—though if there is no erotic component to it, you’ve got something besides Kinbaku going on.
But it is up to the tying person to guide this sequence, with lots of input from the future tied’s side, because it is the tyer who will be making the decisions of how things will go once things get started, once he/she knows the subject’s wants. That’s the fun of this, for most people—either topping, or bottoming. Only one can be in charge, but, like all BDSM-related activities, only within the limits set by the bottom.
During the actual scene itself, this language gets even more interesting. It relies less on words, on conventional spoken language. It relies on signals, often very subtle, usually unspoken. The stiffening of posture in reaction to a tie. The curling of toes. Breathing, slowing down or speeding up. Resistance to a guided motion, or perhaps too much acquiescence, which can be a form of taking control, topping from below (“Do this!”). The tying person here is, usually, a Top at heart; the tied is usually a sub at some level. (Though not necessarily a “submissive”—the same as a masochist who enjoys a good whipping might not be the least bit submissive, yet still yields during the scene. This is perhaps another discussion.)
I found this portion of the book absolutely captivating—we finally get a look into the practicalities of tying, of how the communication, the language of which Barkas writes, is put to use—how, on some level, it feels. As a Top, and one more likely to do the tying if I could just talk my partner into this, this was fascinating to me. It’s not all body language—and there are different types of yes’s, different types of no’s.
But it was also why I felt that subtitle was just the slightest bit misleading, initially: I wanted more of this. I wanted a deeper exploration of the signs that are often used, or, because Barkas is very hesitant to label his experiences of doing things as the “right” way, at least to look into some of the more common practices of this exchange of signs, this transmitting of desires and how it travels both ways. I wanted a grammar, more vocabulary. Syntax, Pragmatics. I wanted, though knew I wouldn’t get it (because he explicitly says so), a primer, a handy conversational guide to this language—a phrasebook!
But of course this was not the goal of this book. In fact, Mr. Barkas accurately states that an over-reliance on such an approach could be dangerous—a “How to Speak Kinbaku” could be misused so easily and often that misunderstandings could proliferate, and truly, nothing good could come of that. He is insistent that there are so many varied experiences within the field of tying that to try to expound one “proper” way of doing it would be morally wrong, as well as intellectually and factually incorrect. And, he is right. As with any language, one can begin by learning from books—and hopefully a teacher—but to become fluent, one must practice.
Toward the end of the book, Barkas does give us bits of this experiential detail that I so wanted throughout, and in this final section the true value of this book’s existence is shown.
In the section titled “Application of Ropes” he explains the concept of “directed touch,” as opposed to the “retro-reflexive touch.” It’s simple in concept, though perhaps more complex in practice: retro-reflexive could perhaps also be called “self-reflective,” in that when the tyer touches the tied in this way, it is purely for his or her own pleasure—nearly groping, in other words. Not non-consensual groping, the distinction is important—but wanting to merely feel this person you are tying up for your own satisfaction. I mean, who wouldn’t? And it is not necessarily unwelcome. This can be done in varying levels of interpersonalism or objectification; that is, wanting to feel this particular person, or wanting to feel this body in front of you, whoever it happens to be. And indeed, there is not necessarily anything wrong with that—as long as it’s made clear that objectification is desired by both parties (which does happen).
However, far more effective as a means of communication, and usually more satisfying to both the tied person and the Top’s instinct within the tyer, is the directed touch. He explains:
I touch them with my fingertip in the region of the lower back when I want them to straighten up in a sitting position. I touch their inner knee when I want them to spread the legs, or I touch their neck when I want them to show their face etc.
I consciously say touch and not pull or push[,] not by using physical force to make them move in a certain way but by hinting at a movement and supporting its performance. … The touch’s direction needs to be toward the tied person and must not be reflected at the border between me and my partner. …I have to touch them for their understanding, and not for my pleasure.
And, as any responsible Top knows, that is where the pleasure lies. He goes on:
The directed touch is the one, according to my experience, that gives the tied person the feeling of being in focus, of being important. It is also the directed touch that makes it possible to move a whole body with a fingertip, simply because the touched person understands much more easily, the message behind the touch. The retro-reflexive touch remains selfish.
Now that, my friends, is topping. And hot. Not to mention efficient, which, in the technically complex procedures of Kinbaku, does matter. Nothing can ruin a scene, technically nor emotionally, more than poor communication. And that is the point of this book.
There are other treats near the end. Barkas gives examples of sub-practices of Kinbaku, namely Ranboo, literally “stormy” or “overwhelming,” or, simply, rough rope bondage. But not so simply: obviously something that both parties must want, it’s not just an onslaught of aggressive tying. To be done properly, there must be a sense of timing, of crescendos and restraint, of drama—understanding the perfect moment for the next move, whether it be an intensification of activity or a backing off; part of which is to keep the tied person in a state of anticipation and uncertainty, which heightens the experience.
Also mentioned is Newaza, a more poetic approach that emphasizes the beauty of the tied person, but it is that person’s image of their own beauty that is most important to the tyer. Barkas again uses the metaphor of the interview, by imagining a person made to talk about subjects that bore them, then are given the chance to talk about their true passions—the body language will change, their attitude will soar. Capturing that in rope is the goal of Newaza. How does the tying person bring that out in this conversation that is the Kinbaku scene?
Barkas ponders how his linguistic approach could be applied to other erotic activities, what facets of language, of communication, are used in other kinky practices, and how they could be studied and thus enhanced. I have to admit my mind went straight to the potentials of the possible languages of impact play. Whipping, flogging, caning—these are where my heart lies. What are the subtle differences, not only between implements, but in the grip, the attitude/talking, the amount of force, the negotiations, the feedback, the aftercare—and aftercare following impact play is a vast topic. My mind reeled with the possible essays, though while I’ve been whipping and occasionally being whipped for decades now, I’m not sure I’m qualified to write such a survey.
Similarly, Barkas’s linguistic approach, which did in many ways end up being a wider philosophical approach, got me thinking about ways to examine the practices of various BDSM activities from the points of view of other philosophical methodologies: how about a phenomenology of restraint, of whipping? Detailed descriptions of the mental/physiological experience, from someone trained in the tradition (eschewed as it seems to be in academic circles, replaced by the steamroller of postmodernism)? Again, my mind gets all kinds of cranked up.
I do have minor quibbles about the print version of this book. I am old school, and prefer holding paper, writing in margins, folding down corners of pertinent pages to which I intend to return and consult (I only do this to my own books, and only to my non-fiction books). While I like the cover art and design, the book’s interior design is lacking. It’s as if it were not designed at all, but the eBook file simply uploaded into Amazon’s KDP Print format without any subsequent checking or adjustments. Chapter and section titles often start on the last line of the right-hand page, after a blank page or two beforehand, and then the text of that section will start on the next page. It ends up looking very disjointed and hurried.
However, do NOT let this stop you from investigating this book, if this kind of thing interests you! The content itself, if it is what you are looking for—a deeper examination into the structure of the practice of erotic rope bondage—is excellent. My minor complaints with the print format are a simple and fast fix, and I hope the author takes the time to make the physical object worthy of the information within.
As for the title of the book, Archeology of Personalities, near the end Barkas gives us what is the most personally meaningful statement in the whole book, and the reason I’m so glad I’ve found it.
The reason his title is so lovely is that it concisely sums up what Mr. Barkas is after in his devotion to Kinbaku, his pursuit not just of the craft (and the fun!) but of its far deeper meanings. It isn’t about the ropes themselves, nor, necessarily, the skin beneath them. It’s a concern with learning about that particular person that he is tying, as an individual, through the shared experience of one personality, with her or his own history of life experiences, letting another tie them up.
I want to call tying a past-directed practice as it is something that uncovers the past, both of the person tying and the person tied. The tying person asks questions. The questions being asked, with the placements of the ropes, with different tensions, different distances, different exposures and so on […] aim for answers which are created in and through the past of the person in ropes. In that sense, I see erotic rope bondage as an archaeology of personalities and the tying person as the archaeologist, who digs sometimes with a shovel and sometimes with a fine brush in the different layers of the tied person.
The answers I get change the way my partner sees their own past and this is what adds a, if not the, most interesting dynamic to erotic rope bondage. The answers I get are learning experiences for me and hence each of them changes the way I see my own past. Kinbaku, as a mostly nonverbal practice, offers a chance to interact, to communicate, in a way that leads deeper into one’s history than anything else I have personally experienced so far.
I am well aware of the transformative potential of many BDSM practices, the myriad possibilities for self-exploration. Unfamiliar as I am with Kinbaku, on a personal level at least, I found this short book fascinating, both in its intellectual approach, and in what it all leads to, boils down to: the emotional experience. This book fills a unique and much-needed niche.