Fifty Shades of Slave.

by Regan Brown

I. From Freedom to Bondage in the Blink of an I.

” ‘Master thyself, then others shall thee beare/ 
Pull down thy vanity”.
—Ezra Pound “Canto 81”.

“I try to keep a lid/ On my crazy id/ I don’t know what I did/ Let go my ego!”
—Dead Milkmen, “Leggo My Ego”. (1993)

“ ‘This is mine,’ he whispers aggressively. ‘ All mine. Do you understand?’ He eases his finger in and out as he gazes down at me, gauging my reaction, his eyes burning.”
—Christian Grey, The Dominant from “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E.L. James. (2011).

“Sin? There is no sin. Man does how he pleases with his property.”
—Edwin Epps, A Slave Owner from “12 years a Slave”. (1853/ 2013).

“To complete this survey of the high summits of my personal obscenity, I must add a final connection…”
—Georges Bataille, “The Story of the Eye”. (1928).

Former “Young British” Video Artists cum Filmmakers Steve McQueen and Sam Taylor -Woods’ current projects make for some strange and oddly dissonant bedfellows at a distance, but up close share some voyeuristically interesting, even morbidly fascinating pillow talk. McQueen’s highly acclaimed “12 Years a Slave” and Woods’ forthcoming, and most likely to be universally panned film adaptation of “Fifty Shades of Grey” (Valentines’ Day, 2015), when considered, conflated or even coerced together in this case, tend to engender a veritable screeching English invasion of uncomfortable Victorian-tinged duplicitous ruminations, to say the least, much of it to do with the thinly veiled subtexts of the subject matter of the works themselves. If you’re unfamiliar with the basic story line of either, it goes something like this: the promise of commerce seduces a vulnerable and rather naive victim into a perverse human bondage characterized by a stripping, whipping and sexualized violation, driven by a primordial greed, power and lust. I’ll let you guess which story is the “consensual” one and which one has all the branded designer sex toy gear [1] and a relatively happy ending to boot, as it were, as we dear e-reader strip away the veneer of the somewhat surprising mass appeal of, on the one hand a kind of commodity fetishism, and on the other a very important visceral and cathartic impact on the I and Eye.

II. The Zer0rigins of Slavery.

“I-and-I build a cabin; I-and-I plant the corn. Didn’t my people before me slave for this country? Now you look at me with that scorn, then you eat up all my corn.”
—Bob Marley “Crazy Baldhead”.

“Brian Rotman has suggestively linked the invention of the Vanishing Point with the introduction of the Hindu number zero, vital for calculating mercantile trade, and the Renaissance invention of ‘imaginary money’ without any anterior referent in valuable metals like gold”
—Martin Jay,
“Downcast Eyes. The Denigration of Vision in 20th Century French Thought.”

“In retrospect this is now considered by many to be a dark period in a long, rich spiritual heritage of India (…) It was at this time that the concept of zero took on a new tangibility and presence. The result was that it achieved a specific name and symbol… ”
—Robert Lawlor, “Sacred Geometry”.

“In the central Middle Ages dark skin color was almost always negative, belonging to individuals located outside the social, moral or religious order. These individuals in one way or another maintained more or less direct relationships with the world of the devil or hell…”
—Michel Pastoureau, “Black: The History of a Color.”

“In a world of 1s and 0s… are you a zero, or The One?
—”The Matrix”.

Let’s start with our own vanishing point, one I don’t have to go backward or forward hundreds or thousands of years to cite. One that runs much along the gridlines of black and white, nature and nurture, science and art. It’s one literally right under our nose this very minute, casting a visual spell buried in the seemingly innocuous emissions and sterile 1s and 0s of this computer’s binary code from which you’re most likely reading this text generation, for as Derrida aptly claimed “there is nothing outside the text”. In the Red, Green and Blue (RGB) “additive” digital world of light (so called because it starts at black, and then color is added, something like when three RGB gelled theater lights go up on a darkened stage and are slowly overlapped into white), on the World Wide Web, color assignations can be made by plugging in a six figure “Hex” (Greek for Six/ “Sex” In Latin): two for the amount of Red, two for the amount of Green, and, you guessed it two for Blue. Different percentages of RGB play out all over your screens all the while and react with your eye, the moth to this light, like an endless hexagram fractal forever sexting itself, copulating with 1s and 0s unto pixilated infinitude as you surf upon the rainbow color kingdom of the www. Black for example, like the very color of this text you’re reading, is Hex #000000. But it doesn’t have to be. It could have easily been assigned some other number, say #111111. Nothing really has to be the way it is, I guess, especially in our present day cut and paste Tri-Colored Pixel Circus. There’s always the “undo” command way up here high on the flying digit-ease, which probably gives us a false sense of comfort in such a world as ours, so conflated by manipulated perceptions devoid of any real gravity. There’s no such safety net out here/ there in the real world, except maybe a heart felt sorry, the return of some stolen art, and some financial reparations. Nearly everything in our “post-nature”, culture bound space begins as a virtuality though, probably always has, except for that pesky mortality thing we think we can re-engineer if just given enough time before the environment collapses. An heroic some-one in a person vs. nature moment, ever more rapidly aided by some-thing in these days of a person-machine singularity, will make immortality a hard and cold reality, a synthetic skin pressed out on an assembly line to replace all your inefficient organs or churned out as fast as a slow-motion gunshot on a 3D printer. Hex code, the optical sheen of all this information you’re now receiving via the eye, was invented, by the by, at an IBM lab somewhere with, just taking a wild stab in the dark here, the ingenuity of I’ll say some white guys in those pristine lab coats, who eventually fired it off into cyberspace on a fantastic voyage, seemingly denuded of all it’s cultural baggage by the hard “truths” of science, like a whirling micro satellite drifting aimlessly into our hyper-connected present day world to take its rightful place at the soul of the beating RGB subconscious of our increasingly all-encompassing artificial intelligence generated and Technicolor Shangri-La. There’s probably some solid scientific substrate to designing the invisible Color DNA of an inanimate object with what seems to be some harmless cultural baggage. I guess higher physics has taught us though that nothing is really completely inconsequential. That everything is pregnant with energy and meaning. Even the black hole, a void in space, the fossil of a Mitochondrial Eve. There is nothing outside the text/ number. In the beginning there was #000000…

III. The Prophets Profit.
“Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.”
—Roy Batty, The Replicant Chief from “Blade Runner.”

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
—Nelson Mandela

“(The ban on slavery in Victorian England) took so long because the anti-slavery morality was pitted against powerful economic interests which claimed their businesses would be destroyed if they were not permitted to exploit slave labor.”
—from the “Victorian Morality” page on Wikipedia.

“The heart of racism was and is economic, though its roots and results are also deeply cultural, psychological, sexual, even religious, and, of course, political. Due to 200 years of brutal slavery and 100 more of legal segregation and discrimination, no area of the relationship between black and white people in the United States is free from the legacy of racism.”
—Jim Wallis from ‘Racism: America’s Original Sin”

“Pastoral scene of the gallant south/ The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth/ Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh/ Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.”
—Billy Holiday, lyrics from “Strange Fruit”.

Leaving aside the genocide of the Original Americans for the moment, who are tragically irrelevant to most of the US anyway, some have called slavery “America’s Original Sin”. Others ask, since we have a Black President Resident in the “Shining City on the Hill”, decked out with something branded by an Apple Logo on his lap no doubt, whether we don’t live in a “post-racial” society? “Aren’t we past all that already?” some would venture, without even wanting to concede to something as radical as a “post-gender” society. The first of many powerful shot sequences in “12 Years A Slave” that is pregnant with this question happens early in the film as the camera guides our eye from a dungeon window, to a D.C. Street, (where there might now very well be a ghetto), to a long shot of a distant White House far in the background, while we hear all along the frantic voice of former “Free Man” Solomon Northrup, (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) who has just found himself drugged, kidnapped, and beaten into enslavement, calling out fruitlessly from his cell for help to the “spectators” outside, keeping their heads down. The passersby in life. There are many such “spectators ” in this story, and not all of them who you might suspect. Moreover, there are many well shaded ambiguities in McQueen’s retelling of this autobiography, a story that has so often been pitted in Black and White, many of the subtleties of average human beings trying to make the best among a lot of horrible choices in order to survive what you hope at least some of them, who have never known anything else, innately feel is an insanity driven by fear and hatred and something else seemingly unspeakable that I’ll speak about in a bit, in the name of that freedom of speech that sometimes leads into that rather radical, even hard to stomach, freedom of action.

The second powerful sequence concerning these so-called “spectators” involves Northrup being very nearly lynched after refusing to strip down for a lashing by a not too bright junior overseer he’s shown up over some more efficient ways of moving lumber through the swamps, all in the name of winning the favor, and thereby surviving, his first and relatively “good” owner. In revenge, the junior overseer and his buddies attempt to hang Northrup in broad daylight for this transgression, but are run-off midway by the main overseer who then leaves Northrup tiptoeing in the mud at the end of a rope, for literally hours on end, while everyone, including the slaves and their children at play, and of course we the audience, go about their fearful business, (picking cotton or munching popcorn) until his “good” Master finally comes home and decides to cut him down under the cover of darkness, only to quickly sell him off at a steal to the real “slave breaker”, known as Edwin Epps, a violent and crazy redheaded drunk (played by Michael Fassbender) who runs a rather more shoddy Plantation just down the road.

The third and final sequence along this pyrrhic descent into a hellish spectatorship designed oh so well by us humans, involves a bit of “property” who this “slave breaker” repeatedly rapes until his “passion” incurs the wrath of his wife (played by Sarah Paulson) to such a degree that she forces her husband to whip, while she watches, the object of his affections into utter defeat and disfigurement. So Master Epps, being the man he is, turns around and hands the whip to his Slave Northrup and forces him to beat his owner’s chattel, also known as Patsey (played by Lupita Nyong’o), which he fails to do hard enough. So Master finishes the job himself, to the relish of every spectators’ horror or satisfaction, as the case may be. It’s a gruesome, long and realistic scene of rented flesh (no soft focus Mel Gibsonesque slow-mo relish here), with no right choices for the righteous, bolstered by the hypocritical and hopelessly antiquated (till Pat Robertson tweets it next week sometime) Slave Master’s reeling off of such justifying biblical quotes as: “ ‘And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.’ Luke 12:47. Some would say that Master got that Bible quote all twisted and out of context, that it’s jarring to use the “good book” to justify such inhumanity. The twisted sickness of all of these scenes are in fact comparable, maybe even rival, anything portrayed of Christ’s “Passion” lashings in the last hundred or so years of film production or in the centuries of Christian religious painting previous to that. This is most likely due to the hard reality film can sometimes lend itself to, but more likely because, in McQueen’s hands, these images lack the morbid fascination for violence that has been churned out by Church adherents over the eons, those endless depictions of crucifixions and brutalized martyrs holding up various parts of their bodies that have been hacked off by a endless plethora of dark complexioned heathens. After this most brutal of scenes, Northrup, a trained musician, left at wit’s end by such horrific behavior, smashes in utter despair his beloved violin his “good” Master had provided him with and which had helped him to survive to some degree, playing for his oppressors’ entertainment in much the same way some Jews managed to survive the Holocaust, or like how some ghetto kids today survive by that one in a million shot at sports or rap music glory. Well maybe that comparison is a stretch since I guess they could very well work as wage slaves at a McDonald’s the rest of their lives, or live quite well in the prison industrial complex. O how far shall we have overcome!? There are exceptions the US holds up as examples of course, the Oprah’s and Obama’s of America, but if American Democracy’s only success is to create success for the exceptional of the previously oppressed, well that seems to me to be a recipe for furthering only an oppression by the exceptional. A Meritocracy of the Moneyed as it were, where the successful people of color can afford to buy, right along-side the throngs of resentful white people, their very own time-shares on a Hilton Head Plantation.

The parallels drawn so starkly in McQueen’s film between Concentration Camp and Plantation are striking though, and something most American’s allergies to history won’t tolerate well, or will be pigeonholed as just “liberal self-flagellation”. The WHY of the perpetration of these horrors has often been rather pedantically written off to economics: it was simple supply and demand. The Bottom Line. There’s nothing outside the numbers. This of course takes away having to face the “darker” impulse our language and selves have embedded in every strand of the Social and Genetic Engineering Imperia previously known as “Western Culture”. I might say, going out on a limb here, that McQueen’s current film suggests, especially paired with the themes of his first two feature films, (also starring Michael Fassbender), “Hunger” (about an IRA Hunger Strike), and “Shame” (about an emotionally disconnected sex addict) that the culture he portrays so beautifully (both literally and figuratively) is all a strange fruit grown from the root of an ancient seed now barely grasped or seen behind a clean well-lit servitude. What does “freedom” look like in a present society built on the backs of a race and gender slavery? Is it enacted on modern day BDSM “Plantation Retreats” [2] where people of all races go to “consensually” indulge their psychosexual proclivities for dominance and submission in what’s deemed “race play” and then go off together for a locker room shower and some dinner later? Will it be what I’m sure is going to become, in the hands of Director Sam Taylor-Woods, a beautifully rendered “Red Room”, that secret hideaway dungeon where that super-rich rogue Christian “50 Shades” Grey whisks away and cuffs his beautiful flowing haired submissive, roughly titillating her with his expensive selection of designer “Vibro Tease” anal plugs and “Sweet Sting” riding crops, endorsed by the author E.L. James herself. I’m sure the film will at the very least set off another wave of frenzied “mommy porn” binge buying at your very own Pure Romance “In-Home Sex Toy Party for Women”[3] the Contemporary equivalent of your mom’s or grandma’s Tupperware get together back in the 50’s. “Leave it to Beaver” takes on a whole new meaning in this context: not only has Babylon Capitalism found a way not to pay its slaves, it’s turned around and found a way for its slaves to pay the US for their own bondage, right through the nose, ass, or any other orifice with which you’d like to fantasize. Only in America you could say…that is till it’s packaged, branded and marketed worldwide.

IV. Bringing Home the Francis Bacon.
“How can such visual pleasure communicate existential misery?”
—A.O.Scott in a Review of Steve McQueen’s “Shame”.

“…a dashing 30-year-old … He owned an infamous cottage in the Thames valley, where Francis would spend much of his time – often, according to him, in bondage”.
—John Richardson from “Bacon Agonistes”. The New York Review of Books.

“But now the art historian John Richardson…has argued that the best of Bacon’s art stemmed precisely from his sadomasochistic sexual relationships at their most intense…”
—Charlotte Higgins from “Sado-masochism and Stolen Shoe Polish”. The Guardian.

When every year now there seems to be a new “most expensive painting ever sold at auction”, it’s always fun to speculate on the WHY? This year’s flavor was Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud”, a depiction of his friend and rival painter. Bacon’s “private” life was notoriously riotous, decadent and even tortured: in a rather formative occasion his father caught him in his mother’s underwear and beat the living daylights out of him. This led to all sorts of re-enactments of the trauma, most notably the story of when Bacon’s lover Peter Lacy “In a state of alcoholic dementia, (…) hurled Bacon through a plate glass window. His face was so damaged that his right eye had to be sewn back into place. Bacon loved Lacy even more.” [ 4 ] What’s more interesting here, at least in the context of this article, than this particular triptych’s sale, or even Bacon’s life, is the subject matter of the piece that really launched his career in 1944: “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion”, a biomorphic interpretation of our kind “that is part side of beef, part worm, part human” [5] and begs the question of how a coercive centuries long meditation on this particular pinnacle of human suffering and transcendence has produced a certain “grapes of wrath” in our psyche and forthwith in our society. As a Native American friend of mine once told me about the first time he saw a crucifixion: ” I just wondered what kind of fucked up and violent society worshipped some bloodied-up guy nailed to a couple boards”.

Steve McQueen, like many other post-war British Artists, may have turned to some of this Francis Bacon styled inspiration in his seminal work entitled “Bear” that also launched his career back in 1993. The short looped film meant for gallery installation “shows a wrestling match between two men who alternate ambiguous relations and gestures of aggression and erotic attraction. The film’s protagonists, one of them McQueen, are both black, but issues of race, he has said, do not take priority in his work. Like all McQueen’s early films, ‘Bear’ is black-and-white.” [6] This lack of race and color seems to no longer be the case after “12 years a Slave” of course, but the ongoing attention to the subject matter Bacon thrust in the faces of a British public attempting desperately to remain staid even after the Second World War, remains an impetus to many contemporary artists. McQueen’s 2D figurative studies for “Bear” look shockingly similar to Bacon’s work [See Figure 1], especially his “Two Figures”, which like the “Bear” video, depicts a pair of men locked in a frenzied sexual struggle and were in turn based on Photographic studies of nude wrestlers published by Eadweard Muybridge, (all in the name of study, the scientifically staid Victorian Eadweard would suggest, but really all too weird to be entirely so), who many consider to be the father of the sequential photography that became the foundation of film.

McQueen, in this spirit of thrusting in the public’s face what it would rather not see, was quoted during an interview, while still in the pre-production phase of “12 Years a Slave” as saying, “It’s about another subject which has been swept under the carpet. Slavery in America – hardly any films have been made about this subject. I have no idea why.” [7] That’s an easy WHY to answer, Mr. McQueen, and it’s a slogan someone may well hold up on a sign for you while you stand there on the Red Carpet double fisting your well-deserved Oscar for Best Picture and Director. “There’s not a big market for hard truths in America” and/ or “The further people get up the elite food chain, no matter where they started from, the less they seem to care”. A lot of the US people here and elsewhere, as we rapidly export this attitude abroad via the Information Superhighway to be translated onto billions of LED Billboards Worldwide no less, would rather just stick their heads up their asses, pushed up even further with their vibrating anal plugs I guess, because we want to just feel good, however or over whoever’s dead end and bounded existence we have to step on to get there, trickling down all the way, hey, hey, hey… WHY? Because we’re the pinnacle of humanity right now, the ones immortalized in those Francis Bacon paintings being horded by drug dealers trying to clean some dirty money through the Wasteland Museum and Bank out here at the End of History…

V. Post Scriptum
Oh damn, I forgot to discuss that whole “50 Shades of Grey” thing in any detail didn’t I? Well in all honesty and in full disclosure, I haven’t read a single goddamn sentence of that whole Trinity of books except in online summaries and hey, I don’t intend to, really. I have great respect for Director Sam Taylor-Woods’ previous work though, so I probably will return to this subject sometime around Valentine’s Day 2015, where I hope, dear e-readers, you’ll be waiting for me with baited breath, or panting puffs as the case may be, as I beg, on my hands and knees no less, that eternal question and our little secret safe word: WHY?



Regan Brown ( has advanced degrees in both Creative Writing/ Journalism (B.A. Miami Oxford, 1991) and Fine Arts (MFA, Electronic Arts, DAAP 2009). That noticeable gap is not a typo, but represents a long stint spent living and working in Post-Soviet Central Europe as a journalist, woodwind multi-instrumentalist, professor and audio/ video producer. He currently teaches Film and Video at The Art Academy of Cincinnati and has several in progress projects.

[1] sexy?gclid=CPG68YjdwLsCFcY7MgodP1MAmQ

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