A young man sits on the stairs of an unadorned house. The camera, presumably an iPhone, looks up to him. Young and conventionally handsome. A barefoot is kicked up at the camera’s gaze, such that the photo produced features his sole and toes. Lint is visible, or dust. He steadies himself with one arm, invisible, and holds up a flexed bicep with his other, or extends a middle-finger. His steady eyes hold the camera’s gaze. An unsteady smirk skirts at the mouth.
Encountering such an image, an analyst or critic might first wonder what the purpose for such an image might be? And who is this young man? Does he have a day job? Who, not me, is meant as the proper recipient of this middle finger, and of this barefoot? Who or what is this image meant to arouse? Is my present reaction the accurate or fitting “arousal”? The critic encounters the familiar slippage of improper interpolation and, as such, cycles through the performative motions of critique and inquiry. How are we to understand this genre of photography? How is a critical-outsider meant to understand this photo? What does it show us for whom the elicitation is not intended? What can it tell us about the inevitable relation between arousal, economy, and art?
The subculture of financial domination (findom) is marked by this genre of photography. A fetish practice generally recognized under the umbrella of Domination/submission (D/s), the mostly online community of findom is made up, on one hand, of people who get off on sending money to others over the internet and, on the other, those who get off on the receipt of said money. As in the propagation of other subcultures, titles, labels, and terms of address in financial domination are plenty and creative. For our purposes here, we will refer to those who send money as slaves or cashslaves. Receivers of money often refer to themselves by gendered honorifics (such as King, Queen, God, Goddess, Master, or Mistress); here in this essay we will refer to them broadly as masters or cashmasters.1
Due (in part) to popular representations of BDSM, and academe’s long histories of fetishizing fetishes, a critic can depend on peers and the general public to hold some understanding or competence of the cultural logics of BDSM, the acronym generally understood to stand for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism. The Cashmaster/cashslave dynamic, for example, is easily understood as replicating the roles of Master/slave. Where the comparative gears tend to grind is in attempts to incorporate the economic into our understandings of desire and its expression by fetishism. It is difficult for critics and social scientists to explain findom’s economic relations as transaction, purchase or work, because economics fails to capture the dynamism of the practice. Even more, a popular understanding of BDSM, which narrates desire’s experience as an individual and interior phenomenon, cannot wholly account for desire and fetishism run through by the economic and, instead, obfuscates the awareness of its own neoliberal tendencies (Weiss 2011).
This essay approaches the rich cultural terrain of financial domination through a particular subset of images emergent in findom photography and imagery. What I broadly term as “findom photography” is itself an emergent genre with great diversity and consistency. At the same time that it produces a genre through conventions of aesthetic, theme, and form, it also presents a wide range of bodies, racial identities, genders, desires, and aesthetic tastes. Despite the high variation in findom and its media, the scope of which extends beyond this present paper, formal conventions such as the camera’s gaze from below, and the prominence of the feet, are frequent compulsions seen across findom’s types and tastes. By no means a random sample, the photographs I have presented here are meant to attend to genre-constraints as they coalesce in findom. Rather than refer to the pictures for evidence or explanation, I refer to their apparent consensus to articulate a photographic performativity that includes masters, slaves, the pictures themselves and potentially the critic himself.
This character of the critic I have written into the essay as a kind of a third person (Serres 1997), meant to demarcate and narrate frequent observations and responses to findom. As an outsider to the intimate triangle between the characters of the picture, slave, and master, the critic voices the concerns and rationalizations that I see circulate in the study and critique of erotic economies. Trained in anthropology myself, I am frequently positioned to play this role of a critic amongst my interlocutors and communities of study. As anthropologists know, and as I show below, despite the critic’s exterior position, his being as character actually mediates encounters more than it enforces alterity. I offer the critic for my reader to inhabit as they see fit. Some of his concerns may resonate and some may not. At his best, like the images he seeks to understand, the critic is an analytical entryway, an invitation to think-along to performances to which we are not ordinarily privy.
The critic encounters the image as a disjuncture, as wanting something he can’t quite place or can’t quite give. Or that the image belongs somewhere he has never been. When W.J.T. Mitchell (2005) asked “What do pictures want?” the implication was not only that different pictures might want different things, but that they each have active roles in varied projects of “worldmaking”. This is one way that we can articulate a distinction between photographs which seek to witness, account, capture, and represent from photographs that seem intent on something else, or something more.
Geoffrey Batchen’s Burning with Desire (1997) was platformed on a very similar dichotomy. Sidestepping historical debates of photography’s invention, Batchen addresses the convergence of sociocultural and technological conditions that made photography possible, in short, the conditions for a desire to represent. For Batchen, the constitution of representation as a “social imperative” is traceable as far as four decades prior to photography’s formal invention. The twist to this argument, however, is that photography is not only the will to produce similitude, but the means by which photo-makers and their subjects contest representation, as stakes in deconstruction. This is a significant departure from the narrative of photography as a technique of capture and account.
This apparent paradox in photography’s history is similarly echoed by what Mitchell describes as “the double consciousness about images [that] is a deep and abiding feature of human responses to representation.” Like Batchen’s interpretation of photography’s dichotomy as a project of representation versus deconstruction, Mitchell identifies the tension between, on one hand, the sense that pictures are themselves alive and have stakes of their own and, on the other, the sense that pictures are products of interpretation only. Batchen departs from photography as a project of exactitude while Mitchell identifies images as also being active in the ecologies and economies in which they circulate. By taking Batchen and Mitchell together, we are able to regard the image as committed to a “worldmaking” (Goodman 1978; Mitchell 2005) not by their claims towards verifiable representation, but by their claims toward fantasy and desire, themselves abstractions that require the consensus and contributions of other parties to have real effect.
Following Mitchell and many others, I suggest that by suspending our photographic projects as accounts of the real, that is, to not hold these images against the task of verisimilitude, we are able to engage them earnestly and honestly as like-actors in their own ecologies and economies. By centering the role of the picture, the critic is able to reserve a discursive space for the photo as apart yet aside its makers and viewers. The images of masters, in other words, exists beyond the master’s making and the slave’s viewing, two processes to which the critic is never entirely privy. In this sense, these images of masters serve as mediators between masters and slaves, and also as one of few available mediators between the critic and the findom world.
When the critic confronts the sense of disjuncture that these images assert, he must remember to account for the fact that they have been removed from their local contexts. As presented here, they have been extracted, perhaps vitally so, from their native circulations. Often accompanied by captions that proclaim the master’s superiority or charisma (“The Real King! The Only God! The Best Master!”), or the slave’s inferiority or pity (“you’ll never look like this”), these images circulate through findom on online forums, Twitter spheres, dedicated social media platforms, and porn blogs. The versions published here are only their partial selves.2 Reasonably engaging these images is to ask where they’ve been, and what they do there, and where they like to go; in short, the photographic performativities in which they are elsewhere engaged.
The photographic performance observed in findom, as a critic might glean in the photos provided, is one I describe as arousal. Based on what we understand about findom, that slaves pay and masters profit, it is easy to interpret these images as a genre of self-promotion or advertisement (Page 2006). Deploying economics here, however, glosses over the photographic performativity between the image and the slave (which in turn informs the relation of cashslave to cashmaster). Advertising photography, as a field of study and a genre of picture, has tended to center the actions of makers such as photographers or advertisers (Johnston 1997). In my view, this focus narrativizes the project of desire as conjured by advertisers (some critics might say “capitalists”) and thrust upon consumers (what nationalists might call a “citizenry”). As Laura Levin (2009) has similarly surveyed, stylizing; posing; and performing the body for the camera’s gaze have been central to photography’s development. Photographic performativity asks, as though in reply, for more dynamic accounts of the experience of viewership.
The concept of performativity, as referenced by gender and performance studies, follows J. L. Austin’s (1955) philosophy of language which sought to distinguish speech acts as “constative” or “performative”, in essence between utterances that “describe” or “account” versus utterances that have the effect of producing a social relation. The utterance of “I do” at your wedding is the iconic example of the latter. Echoing Mitchell’s suspicion that pictures themselves are mobile actors, photographic performativity reframes photographs as speech-acts, rather than as static aesthetic objects. The result is a model of co-subjectification that accounts for mutual desires between image and viewer, replacing the model of representation and consumption.
For Diana Taylor (2003) performativity frames the analysis of photographic events such as those by las Madres de Plaza de Mayo and posters of the missing in New York City following attacks of September 11th. In both cases, performances activate photographs, not as what oft-quoted-Barthes calls the “having-been-there”, but as the index of disappearance that was disastrous and violent. In Argentina, coalitionary organizations and Las Madres campaigned for family members who disappeared, often appropriating Argentina’s state’s legitimacy by recreating expansions of their ID cards as protest posters. In New York City, the accumulation of missing posters and memorial tokens at ground zero beg to be viewed and be remembered by passersby. Loss becomes collective, sometimes even national.
Taylor’s mapping is important here because it reminds us that the image, however willful or desirous, cannot alone produce a social relation or a world. States of arousal are not ones to which humans (cashslaves or not) are wholly subject because the photograph is not the sole active party in the (world)making of arousal. Cashslaves activate the images of their masters through performative ritual. The prick up of ears that arousal is does not exist in a vacuum. Here, arousal is made up of mundane performances in relation to the image: Like, Retweet, save as JPEG, a lingering scroll, a message to master, masturbation. The image wants to be propagated and enjoyed, and seeks therefore to both arouse the slave, and seek out the slave’s arousal, a collaborative performance.
However, arousal as a quality is not revered for its own sake; the performance is incomplete. The image wants the slave to send, the master wants the slave to send, the slave themselves wants to send, yet no party can claim executive ownership of the desire to send. How, then, can the critic understand the arousal and desire to send money? For those of us who are not cashslaves, photographic performativity provides us one vital entry point. The implication of popular models of arousal is that desires are unearthed from internal realities, but performativity and findom make clear arguments for otherwise. Taylor, following Derrida, reminds us that performatives are empowered by their own reiterations. We can use this reading in two ways. First, we are able to understand the emergence of the genre presented here as activated, rather than demeaned, by their own self-referentiality. Despite the trope of cocked biceps and erect fingers, the images also “have legs”, as Mitchell would say. The pictures, though repetitive, are empowered by their own tautology. Second, by attending to the irreverent masculinity here displayed, an easily recognizable visual genre, the critic who is not a slave is able to note the referentiality of desire, however subcultural or seemingly novel.
The most Sisyphean task of analyzing desire and fetishism, a circularity I call a “fetish fetish”, is this dismantling of the novel. Models of fetishism are pressured to regard desire as internal experience despite the blatant references that fetishes both new or rare make to ordinary life. To the question of desire’s source, these images answer resoundingly “From other people!” These people can be in other pictures, in the world, or on the Internet. What critics observe as creative, an empowerment-quality preferred by liberal subjectivity over the alleged subjugations of repetition, is actually the byproduct of referentiality (Wong 2013). The so-called “creativity”, what performance scholars might call a “performative force”, are not qualities expressed by individual will but by co-conscious acts of reference. Arousals are states of propagation, not revelation.
The critic might ask: if financial domination involves a performativity which anticipates sending cash, then are masters not also slaves to this economy of desire? Isn’t the cashmaster’s elicitation of the slave’s arousal also just work? Here, we can look to porn studies for guidance. Relative to other fields of studying visuality, porn studies is less free to discount concepts of work, and sex work more precisely (Berg 2014; Lee and Sullivan 2016). This is especially true in recent years as sex work has become increasingly public as a site of political debate, a conventional source of income, and an object of securitization by the state (Halperin and Hoppe 2017). The case can (and has been) made that the popular visualities of sex as work in the present are irrevocably bound with the financial crises of the early millennium (Buckley 2018). Yet, it is not this attachment to work that makes porn studies helpful for understanding findom and its irreverent pictures. At its most capacious, porn studies is not concerned with obscenity as a legal or sociological issue. Rather, porn studies is more broadly concerned with porn (or what might be called “porn”) as cultural forms which make obscenity’s articulation and regulation discursively accessible (Williams 2004).
What I mean by this is that the attempt to categorize porn as porn only reenacts the regulation of obscenity, thereby failing the address what porn studies actually seek. Opening the collected volume Porn Studies, Linda Williams (2004) coins the term on/scenity in contradistinction to “obscenity.” For Williams and her contributors, porn participates in social life, not by its own absence (as the legislation of obscenity suggests), but by its blatant and prolific visual presence, its on-the-scene-ness of everyday life. When the critic asks “is findom work?”, what he seems really to be asking is “is findom porn?” Following my peers in porn studies, I would argue “no” to both questions because neither findom nor porn comply with the regulatory logics that “work” and “porn” imply. Neither “work” nor “porn” sufficiently explains financial domination just as the category of “porn” fails to capture the pornographic. The critic must account for the econo-erotic in other ways.
The case I am making is that the irreverent pictures themselves already tempt a performatic explanation. Upon encountering these pictures the critic asks, “What do these picture want from me?” And the pictures, for whom their subjects are also their makers, seem to ask in turn “what does my master want from me?” It is easy enough to suggest that “money” is what masters want. What the critic struggles to account for, but the picture already suggests, is the performance required of masters to collect their dues: cocked bicep; fingers erect.
Laura Levin (2009), as I’ve mentioned, provides a brief survey on the performative aspects in the history of photography and photo-making (Silverman 1995; Phelan 1993; Jones 2002). Levin uses this lineage as a contrast to the photographic performativity which centers the relation between viewer and image. If we take performativity’s request as one for more granular descriptions of social/media relation, that is, for explanations (more) free from the structuralisms of economy or sexuality, then we must describe photo-making processes as necessarily related to the arousal-performatives of photo-viewing. Maker, viewer, and image, then, are together involved in a cooperative performance. If we follow Levin and Taylor’s arguments for photographic performativity to their logical end (or is it beginning?), we arrive at Batchen and Mitchell’s interrogations of what pictures want, and what picture-makers want and claim to want.
Considerations of the master-image relation, then, must be more capacious then the rationales of making and intent. By regarding the master as involved in a greater ecology of performance, rather than as some inaugurator of economy, we produce a model in which master and slave encounter each other at the image, itself a medium that claims to represent neither masters nor slaves. This performative relation between master and image, of which the process of “picture-making” is only one, I call elicitation. As arousal’s logical counterpart, elicitation can be conventionalized as any number of actions, working out, smirking, removing your socks, taking the photo, uploading the photo, sharing the photo, curation, promotion, masturbation. The actual practices that produce the image actually do not matter all that much, much to the frustrations of the critic’s voyeuristic longings. The reason for this is because all three parties know that the subject of the irreverent picture is not a person or a self. Photographic performativity asserts that all performances are not their referents and, therefore, are not only contrived, but self-consciously so (which, notably, is a principal frame in the detection of porn and its “bad performances”). The collective acknowledgment of performative power subdues the need for “real accounts”, and the interrogations and litigations that tend to corrode social relation rather than affirm it.
The critic suspects findom photographs are contrived because they are. To prod once more at the framework of labor, contrivance is precisely “their job”. As Batchen similarly recounts, Hippolyte Bayard, upon being deprived of the recognition as one of photography’s principal inventors, produces Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man, not as an effort of verisimilitude or representation, but as an image intended to elicit pity or contempt. Neither self-portraits nor selfies, like Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man, findom photography makes minimal claims or accounts for self. Instead, the images prime us for deconstruction. Framed this way, elicitation is any performance of wanting to be wanted, desires for desire. Like arousal, which emerges from the commitment between the image and the slave, elicitation refers to the commitment between the image and the master, itself a relation which, simultaneously, anticipates desire as it sets to seek it out. Mastery in findom, then, is not located at the pinnacle of authority and command, but in the display of creativity over account, reiterative literacy over authenticity. Sociality depends on the transgression of the real and the promiscuity of replication, of propagation, of what other thinkers have identified as the erotic aesthetic of “leak” (Chun 2015; Sia 2019; 2020).
The critic, who is not a slave, might also describe the “leak” of representational excess as somewhat of a “misfire.” A misfire is the irksome sensibility that the images presented are not only not meant for me, and that I encounter their performative power, their erotic or economic forces, as a disjuncture. A less generous critic might go so far as leaning into this sense of “misfire” and argue that the images indeed do not “work”, “don’t have legs”, and have entirely failed their pursuit of power, mastery, and riches. This paper presents two primary responses to the strawman critic that I’ve eagerly ushered through this exhibit.
The first recalls my earlier caution that these images should be understood as having been removed from their native circulations. This warning is really just a rearticulation of my broader claim that these images participate in a wider photographic performativity that includes both masters and slaves, all parties of which are self-conscious of their contributions to the performance and (like the critic) at least somewhat conscious of the contributions of others. Queer criticism is particularly familiar with this circuitous collaboration between art, its makers, and its viewers, a particular subset of whom experience art as a site of social or legislative regulation (Bright 1997). The late and dearly missed José Esteban Muñoz was always particularly adept at tracing desire as it moved and manifested in various performative participants, queer or not. In “Rough boy trade: Queer desire/straight identity in the photography of Larry Clark” (1997), Muñoz centers Clark’s heterosexual proclamations that collections like Tulsa (1971) and Teenage Lust (1983) signaled the desire “to be” and not “to have” the young men presented. Clark’s clarifications are, of course, null within the performatics of viewership in which the images have been already incorporated (replicate, masturbate, and legislate). The triangular model of photographic performativity that I’ve offered here, Muñoz exemplifies with Clark’s images of adolescent eroticism which, however masculine or irreverent, cannot reject (or be rejected by) desire’s wider iterations.
The critic’s suspicion that the image has failed to do what it set out to do hangs on the dyadic model of photographic performativity between image and viewer. The accusation, in other words, presumes that the image fails to elicit the anticipated response from me. This privileges the experience between picture and viewer over other relations, including but not limited to the relations between picture-and-maker and maker-and-viewer. Even more dubious, the dyadic formula of image and viewer replicates the dichotomy between master and slave that we seek to interrogate. The case for inefficaciousness, in other words, presumes the image’s entrapments from which the critical viewer is free. This is particularly salient in encounters with findom where the viewer is asked not only to view, but to send. The impulsion for seeking freedom, in this case, reinforces the compulsion to “be free”, itself a narrative trope with which viewers and critics are overeager to comply. A critique that assumes a two-party game, where the viewer is the winner, occludes the performative contributions of other parties, and only reenacts the dominative power of trope and genre, thus bringing me to my second point.
Despite the failure of these images to produce originality or authenticity, it is their reiterations of trope and genre that afford the “free” critic the visual footing to access them, to regard the pictures for what pictures want. Exhibits of masculine irreverence, as Muñoz has shown, are particularly good examples of this paradox. Tropes, like masculinity, are activated in their own failed authenticities. Here, the massive recognizability of masculine irreverence welcomes, at the presumable cost of genuineness, the critic into a field of semiosis. This field of semiosis is one in which desire is a collaborative project, where the slave desires the master, the master desires desire, and the image calls out as the nexus of this encounter. The various subjugations that seem to appear in the photo (to desire, genre, or economy) are produced where arousal and elicitation are met, performed, and stitched together. What the critic perceives as power’s interrogation, where paradoxically the master is really the slave and the slave is really the master, is actually just the byproduct of a collective commitment to a bit (Chu 2019).
Framed this way, the power struggle that findom photography presents is actually just a hook, and the images do exactly what they set out to do. The free critic, by critiquing masculinity’s repetition and contrivance, is recruited into the performative duty of sustaining the eroto-economy. The critique of repetition, in which the critic argues that “power is really here, not there”, is the same deferral of power and desire that arousal and elicitation are already doing. The only real difference between critics and slaves is that slaves are conscious of the performance which concludes (or begins?) when they send.
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- The logic of titles and referent in financial domination largely follows those documented in studies of BDSM. Findom is site of its own creative diminutives and honorifics. Pig, faggot, loser, human ATM, and cow (such as ones that you would “milk” for resources) are some outstanding terms for submissives. Depending on gender, dominants might refer to themselves as King, Queen, Alpha, Princess, Mistress. Linguistic practices in financial domination lie outside of the scope of this article. For more approaches to names and titles in BDSM subcultures see Weiss, Barrett.
- The images presented in this paper are their partial selves, and also only a subset to broader genre of findom photography and media which includes various presentations of genders, bodies, racial identities, desires, and aesthetics. Such variation in financial domination and its media extend beyond the scope of this essay, it is worth noting that the convention of photography from below, and the focus of the feet, appear universal across findom’s various types.