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Philosofisting – Peter Banki and the art of asking all the hard questions

Most interviews are – if you allow me the dirty metaphor – like brief affairs: you meet someone you fancy, you go through a nice, pleasant routine of discovering what the person is really about, you both say all the right things, and you leave satisfied and without remorse, a couple of pleasant memories richer. And then there are the other interviews. They are more like hard, tormented, kinky experiences that take a big while to muster the courage to dive into them and then, not unlike say a fisting session, force you to face your most hidden shadows. They are unsightly and messy beasts going against every common sense: they inevitably involve lots of truth and a probable modicum of pain – but they also reach into your soul as well, and leave you actually changed. This is one of the latter, which took one full year to happen.

I had first stumbled into Peter Banki at the 2017 Berlin Xplore, an experiential alternative sexualities festival which has since become one of my favorite haunts. He is an Australian philosopher with a sort of reputation for being “the bad boy of kink”, which he encouraged by holding a series of thinly menacing workshops titled Being Bad and Being Very Bad. What really struck me about him, however, was yet another lecture where he hit on a series of pretty loaded concepts that you usually don’t hear in sex-related talks: the intimate effects of neoliberalism, the failure of the sex-positivity movement and many further highbrow digressions I actually couldn’t really follow as aptly as some of the other audience members.
So I obviously wanted to pick his brain… but differently from everyone, Mr. Banki just sidestepped all my requests for an interview – until I cornered him as he was recovering from an especially intense workshop at this year’s Xplore, and he finally sat down with me for one of the most interesting conversations of my career as a kink explorer. Here it is.

 

Hello, Peter! I am so glad we have a bit of a pause from all the distractions of a giant kinky festival happening around us at last. I can’t wait to probe your mind about the subjects you touched upon in your seminars, but shall we maybe start with your introduction to our readers?

Well, I am trained in the humanities, particularly 18th and 20th-century European literature, and philosophy – mostly French and Chinese. I’ve been involved in sex-positivity, or in Xplore I should say, since 2004 and the association with Felix has been very fruitful. His space gave me the opportunity to express creative concepts that would have been unreachable otherwise, at least certainly not in my academic work. I had long been interested in sex-positive spaces, but at this festival I was able to somehow bring my philosophical interests in connection with the sort of more playful aspects that were explored here, to actually explore myself. I have a whole history of associations here: the space itself inspired some of my own workshops that I think were very important and innovative, then later I organized my own Xplore in Australia and now I’m also a professional festival producer. I do a Festival of Death and Dying in Sydney and Melbourne, which I want to bring to Europe, then a sex event called the Really Good Sex Festival. The latest one, based on a truly new concept, is called Creative Masculinities.

 

Last year in Berlin you held a series of lectures and workshops connecting philosophy, eroticism and sociology. Their common element seemed to be a will to challenge the status quo, even within the sex-positive scene and including yourself. Was this just due to your personal character, or is there a founding dissatisfaction – or anything else – behind this?

I believe that sexuality and philosophy have very much in common because they are, as you say, questioning the status quo – just think of Socrates – but it is not just that. The core of philosophy is asking: «do you really know what you are thinking of», and sexual stuff is powerful because it also puts you in this position. Once you think you got it, it just surprises you. Felix emphasizes it being about instability and in-security, something very destabilizing, uncomfortable, but also a possibility.
I thought about that and I realized it is this lack of security that does it for me. Good philosophy and powerful philosophers always kind of undo what you think you know about life, about being, and death, and so on – and so does sex. I like the edginess of it all, and I see myself as one of the most edgy people.

 

I guessed that much. In fact, why do you think there is such a lack of challenge, of questioning ourselves within the sex-positive scene?

We are mainstreaming ourselves, and I don’t think it’s bad: it’s actually good that we’re trying to get more social recognition, to be more public and that we’re trying to encourage more people to join our communities – but along with that kind of normalization you make a capitulation to society.

 

Do you think it is a conscious process, or does it come with the territory?

Well, I think it’s somewhat conscious. Some people are very committed; they really believe in the sex-positive community, so they want to think that society is very ashamed, that people are and we have some kind of mission to liberate them. That’s not new: it goes all the way back to the 60s! I think that on one level it is conscious, but then what happens is that people need to feel safe and secure, that they need more rules and more ideology. Consent is a big ideology, like being good is a big ideology, and so is somehow to offer a good image, to show that we’re not bad people.

 

This actually segues very well into the lectures you held last year, which focused on the “bad”. Your sessions titles were about ‘really bad sex’, ‘being bad’ and even ‘being very bad’, for example. I wasn’t the only one to be fascinated by this: the latter workshop was packed, although the program wasn’t particularly clear on what it was to be about. It was like there was a kind of vibe, of people recognizing and responding to the very concept of badness. Is this just a case of the cliché of the villain being more interesting than the good guy, or is there something subtler at work?

I think you know taboos are one of the two topics which we are always dealing with in one way or another. I am just out of a workshop about drooling, which is a typical taboo: being bad is another taboo, so yes, it is attractive to people, but I must agree with you about the surprise! When I saw it was full, and as soon as I said we were going to be “very bad” everyone went ‘oooh’ and even more people came in. There is where I realized that I had unconsciously made the whole thing look attractive.

 

As a matter of fact, I remember you started the session by scaring people off: warning them «don’t stay; it is going to be terrible for you» and so on – and the more you did that, the more arrived… it was fascinating!

Also, I should say there was a political impetus behind this. Especially doing this here in Germany – I mean, as you know I wrote a book on the Holocaust  – and to bring up this topic of Evil surrounded by the German legacy was obviously an experiment, and it was challenging to people. I think it positively showed that they were up to the challenge, and they were not scared off by this Australian weird guy.

 

They weren’t at all. In fact, a most peculiar moment happened during the Being Very Bad session itself, when it became apparent that things weren’t working… because the participants were way too full of love – and at peace with their dark sides – to be able or interested in really give in to their Shadow and actually become “very bad” to each other. It clearly was a very uncommon audience, mostly composed of longtime explorers of their selves, but in a sense it was almost a failure.

You are right: it was!

 

I was especially surprised because I had been told that when you held the very same workshop in Paris it had turned into a very ugly experience. Were we “too” evolved? Has the sex-positive and kink education scene really forgotten how to be bad? Is it maybe too focused on a certain idea of positivity? One of your lectures discussed the concept of ‘scene failure’, both on the personal and general level. How we are not changing enough, not coming out enough, being very insular in bringing our ideology to the broader world. Could you elaborate on this?

The participants were at peace with themselves indeed – but I was also frightened to do it in Germany. I was not as aggressive, partly because the Germans are just physically bigger than the French! I think I was scared a little bit of them, and so I backed up a bit talking about Christian love and other nice concepts. Ironically it was good, but you know I fought it in. I had this idea of being “gracefully evil”, and in the end people came up to say it left the deepest impression with them: I think of it as a kind of beautiful failure.

Then of course I did it again a few times, and every time I tried to make it sort of more refined, sort of more controlled in a way, but it actually lost something compared to what happened in France. You needed the brutality: in Paris it was very interesting because we were next door to the Shoah Memorial – the Holocaust is always somehow working through with me, even when I am in Australia. I am also increasingly very interested in the Australian genocide of the Aboriginal people, and through a rather long personal journey I have learned that considering the Holocaust completely different from the violence of colonialism was a mistake – colonialism is actually connected to the same thing.

But let’s get back to the subject: I think it is very clever that you make that connection with the title of our movement, how we chose to call it ‘positive’. I did analyze this, and I see it already as a symptom of neoliberalism: it has to be positive, it has to be good… without realizing that positive is not always good. Maybe we have forgotten how to be bad, yes. Of course there was a great deal of erotic energy in that workshop: forbidden pleasures, you know, and the enticement of doing what you shouldn’t. I must say, to be honest, that this was always the thing that pushed me into BDSM.

 

I can relate – and I see that this year you’re holding a “being good” workshop after all. But talking about neoliberalism, a key concept in most of your sessions was how it introduced a weakness, or at least a critical point, in the culture of sex-positivity. First things first, what is neoliberalism in this context?

I think it’s the submission of all practices – of practices that we normally didn’t consider to be profit-making or market practices – to a logic of market metrics. It is about quantifying things. When you make an event whose underlying philosophy is not about making money but maybe about changing the world, or about changing ourselves, it’s nonetheless the case that to produce this event you have to learn a lot about Google Analytics, about how to function in a quantified society.

 

And how exactly do you think this is influencing kink, or sexuality in general?

Deeply, because all the ideology that today we have in our communities is related to this. It influences for example the kinds of workshops that tend to be presented, how they are sold to people, how they are made attractive to people… This is conforming very much to the way that anything else is made attractive to people: «it’s good for you; it’s going to make your life better; it’s going to empower you»! Oh god, if I see another fucking sexuality workshop about self-empowerment I am going to be sick, I am just going to get crazy. You know, how they construe kink being about therapy, about healing…

A friend of mine wrote a book called Family values that links the rise of neoliberalism with the rise of neoconservatism, especially in the United States. She makes a very strong argument that for capitalism to actually exist you need the family, because the family is the way that capital moves from one generation to the next. This is why when the sexual liberation happened in the Sixties there was such fear and resistance from the mainstream culture – particularly from the capitalist culture. They were concerned about the family, something that is structurally necessary for the capitalist system to function. So there is this kind of unholy alliance that at first sight doesn’t make sense: neoliberalism is about breaking down everything that is supposedly stable, while the neoconservatives want to keep things as they always were, or reinvent things as they “should” be.
She traces it through the removal of welfare payments, whose justification is that the family would take care of people. And there’s the actual situation we have right now: there is a very good health system but no state support for unemployment or anything, so people under 40 are actually dependent onto their families and thus tethered to them. That’s going to limit you very very deeply in terms of the kinds of decisions you can make. The same goes for the student loans in the United States, which keep educated people dependent: they have to borrow from their families and they remain tethered. This is also why gay marriage became the dominant push within the LGBT community.

I think the financial question, in terms of creating or having the spaces to do the work we want to do, is really essential. There is one seemingly quite successful group within the sex-positive world called the International School of Temple Arts. They are a Californian nice thing, with a training program to guide educators to make a living through sex-positivity: it works, but then again you have to take a side. Do you want to grow up as a person, or be financially successful? In the end, honesty is the key to everything we do.

 

As a matter of fact, exploration and good sex education in general is about deconstruction, isnt’it? To me, it looks like It’s about disrupting stuff.

You used the word ‘deconstruction’, which for me is a special word because I studied its exponents. I love it that you mentioned that word in this context because I actually do agree: I believe there is a very powerful effect of deconstruction in sexuality. I think that Xplore is welcoming, inviting such deconstruction at so many levels. The theatricality, the not-promising people to do good for them… Even though Felix does believe, deeply, that he is doing good and I’m not so sure… at least there is a space to ask a lot of questions that are generally ignored or repressed. He very much has a humanities, an artistic thinking about what he’s doing, which is not same as a neoliberal thinking.

 

It is amazing how all things turn to philosophy in the end. I guess this comes with the job for you, or was it always about philosophy? I recall the stellar level of the philosophical discussion during and following your lectures. For a field where it is sometimes difficult even just to elevate the tone from the primal «TITS!» level, I was amazed by the insightful participation of many attendees. Is it always like this with you, or was this occasion especially lucky? What do you think of the general audience’s reception of the sex-positive message?

I think it’s not an accident that philosophy blossomed here in Germany. I think that there’s a special… let’s say openness or interest in this approach – a much bigger welcome to this than in any other part of the world. Which is surprising, because I don’t truly master the German language, and yet the availability to discuss is greater than in other countries. It’s very lovely, and yes, this happens when you bring art to sexuality: bringing philosophy to sexuality actually lifts it up. You are lifting up the human.

 

I don’t know whether it’s maybe just  Italy especially challenged in that regard, but my experience is that it is so fucking hard to make people stop and think for a moment about what they are doing, particularly when it comes to sex. This brings us to yet another key point that arose from your talk. That is how most sex educators and sex-positive people seem to be convinced of making a revolution that however doesn’t look to be really happening in the world at large. I recently reviewed a book that even went to the length of considering a possible social conspiracy that basically goes: «the powers that be allow kinksters to be deviant in their nicely closed communities, so they won’t disturb proper citizens». My own take is that maybe we are just part of a kinda lazy community who is more contented with circle jerking than with facing the efforts and conflicts which arise when you try to bring the message to a mainstream audience. What do you think of this issue?

I think that at a deep level you’re right. Indeed what we do in the scene doesn’t bother the status quo as much as people think. What really worries the status quo, the people who really get up its nose are those like Julian Assange or Chelsea Manning – they are just the first two that come to my mind – because they’re revealing something about power that the status quo really doesn’t want to make public, or seen.

 

I believe that even in our small environment we are peeking behind the curtain anyway, but it doesn’t seem to be as effective. Going full circle, wouldn’t it be that to make a proper revolution you have to be bad?

Oh, what a question! I would be careful to say that. Firstly I would, as a philosopher, interrogate what you mean by proper revolution: you have to revolutionize in part the confidence that we have in the concept of the Proper. I mean, because there is always the proper idea of propriety – it is actually the object of deconstruction in Derrida. It’s right there when he talks about presence and the deconstruction of presence, and when he also talks about the deconstruction of the proper. I think of course then you have some people who will label a revolution as proper or improper – but whenever there was a major revolution it was both proper and improper.

 

All right, so let me rephrase that: how do you fight neoliberalism in sexuality, and what is your recipe for a sexual revolution?

OK, that’s a great question. What I say is that I, in all honesty, capitulate and submit to neoliberal demands in many ways. I do so somewhat consciously, and I feel that one is making these very tricky negotiations all the time between what’s necessary to make something like this function in the culture that we currently live in, and on the other hand producing something that I believe has genuine value for people. If I look at my own history, my own trajectory, I can see that I’ve become more actively political than I would have been if I had no access to these communities –  so I believe that they can help to liberate people and to make people more conscious, but I do not think that all the events of this type do that.

I try to do it as much as I can, but I also fear that maybe I could be concentrating my energies to something else that might actually do much more good – that’s the question. The other people in my industry don’t talk like that: particularly in Australia it’s always about the positive. They would never express these self doubts, and that for me is part of the ethics, where the deeper change can come from. It’s all in the Derridean legacy, because he wrote about the undecidable, about being stuck in the aporia. He said that dealing with impasses is the only chance things have to be ethical, the chance to move in the right direction. That’s when you are not self-certain, not actually self-aware that you’re doing the good. What I hear from all my colleagues is self-certainty that they’re doing good and they’re not questioning of their own practices, so if I would distinguish myself from them. What I feel I should fucking teach them is to be less sure of themselves but keep going. Keep going, challenge yourself and ask yourself if we can talk about what we’re doing in a new way, or in other ways that are more recognizable within the neoliberal context in which we operate.

Question armband

Oh, and Peter… I have one last question for you. You made quite a splash sporting an unsettling “question mark” latex armband. Would you tell us the story behind it?

There is actually a good one. I originally wanted to have the swastika armband: we went to a BDSM shop in Schöneberg called the Butcherei, meaning ‘the butcher shop’, which is quite shocking for me. I told them that I wanted that and the guy wouldn’t do it. It was not a legal matter, but a much deeper resistance: he is a gay man and of course gay people were also the victims of the Nazi. He explained how he doesn’t like even when he sees such symbols at kinky parties, and I learned something from this encounter and the discussion we had. Then the woman who actually makes their gear came in and she just said: «why don’t you put a question mark there?». I had explained my concept for the Being Bad workshop and what I wanted to explore, and he agreed that it would actually be more in line with what I wanted. After that there was this whole moment when all of us just breathed out and finally relaxed – and it is more artistic and maybe even more powerful like that.

The interesting part is that there is a colleague that works in Austria, which is a country that hasn’t worked through its war past to the same degree Germany did, even if most of the SS actually came from there – and she does use the symbol of the Swastica in order to raise people’s awareness. I felt we took a political step forward by approaching the question but then transforming it in another way. I actually gave that armband to two of my lovers: it is my gift to the people who are most important to me.

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