Sensational Flesh: Race, Masochism, and Power was a lot of fun to read. It’s a survey of what’s been said about masochism over the years by psychoanalysts, philosophers, and activists:
Masochism is a powerful diagnotic tool. Usually understood as the desire to abdicate control in exchange for sensation–pleasure, pain, or a combination thereof–it is a site where bodies, power, and society come together in multiple ways. It can signal powerlessness, domination, or ambivalence depending on one’s point of view. As such, masochism allows us to probe different ways of experiencing power.
It’s essentially a book about masochism and “intersectionality.” The relationship between domination inside and outside the bedroom is different for different categories of people. Is the submission really domination in disguise? Is enjoying real submission a form of false consciousness?
In the late 1800s, when the term “masochism” was coined, “female masochism” was redundant and male masochism was subversive:
Masculine submission threatened to upend established social order by placing women in positions of power. Against a backdrop of fears of feminism, lesbianism, and female empowerment, the masochist became a visible symbol of the declining state of manliness and masculinity.
Foucault agreed that masochism was subversive, but that was a good thing from his point of view:
Beyond thinking about it solely as a practice of the self, Foucault regards it as a type of collectivity, a subculture. As a subculture, S&M is part of dominant society, but it offers a space for difference and possibilities for resistance and freedom by illuminating forms of organization outside the heterosexual norm. Here, we must remember that Foucault understands S&M as an emergent sexual subculture, which arose as an alternative to 1950s homophile societies as a place for gay men to assert and play with their masculinity.
Incidentally, Thomas Millar disagrees:
The Scene is the community of BDSMers in major cities oriented around heterosexual men, and heterosexual, heteroflexible and bisexual women. Overlap, particularly in play environments, between gay men’s and lesbian scenes and The Scene is limited, and while queer men and lesbian women are not excluded, they’re marginal within these spaces. Anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something.
In his telling, submissive men face the same ill-treatment from dominant heterosexual men inside and outside the “BDSM community,” which is basically reactionary when it comes to gender relations. There’s also the issue of race:
Walker’s disgust with S&M has to do both with the perceived continuum between the institution of slavery and sadomasochism and with the residual trauma of slavery. She cannot separate the idea of the slave from its history of racism, especially when embodied by a black woman who submits to a white woman.
Molena Williams has an answer to this:
Williams argues that race play serves a therapeutic function. In this way, we can read it as another version of Freud’s repetition compulsion in which people are compelled to repeat the trauma of the past in order to come to terms with it. She says, “It is not blasphemy to want to touch that wound. You can’t heal something in your soul by letting it remain in its original state of pain. It HAS to be touched. Otherwise it will never heal.”
For Fanon, masochism was a white guilt thing:
The masochism Fanon describes is a complex psychic formulation. In accounting for it, he argues that it is born from white America’s initial “sadistic” aggression toward the black man, which is swiftly “followed by a guilt complex because of the sanction against such behavior by the democratic culture of the country in question,” given that overt discrimination is recognized to be incoherent with the ideals of democracy.
Fanon wasn’t really writing about America, speaking of assumptions and privileges :-).
What about the masochistic fantasy of getting raped by a big black cock?
Fanon argues that this conflation of the black man with his penis is one of the main qualities of Negrophobia, which manifests as sexual panic that takes the form of fear and desire. The myth of the large black penis only serves to emasculate the black man.
The Negro’s impotence is further signaled by his inability to actually substitute for the punishing father of Freud’s narrative. Though the menacing black penis offers the possibility of physical pain, the Negro does not serve as a superego for the woman. The woman’s punishment for her desire to be raped occurs, not at the hands of the Negro, but within the realm of the white psyche. The fantasy is formed in anticipation of harsh societal judgment against her desires, which represent the persistent paranoid fear of white femininity being violated by black men. The woman voices what Fanon imagines to be the deepest fear/desire of white patriarchy. The woman will not actually be punished for this fantasy, but its effects are especially real to the black man, resulting in the social castration of black men. As Diana Fuss writes, “Fanon’s deconstruction of this fantasy takes place in an historical context when fabricated charges of rape were used as powerful colonial instruments of fear and intimidation.”
What about the fantasies of black masochist women, though? You like what you like…
Williams takes pleasure, not in her blackness, but rather in the seductive aspects of whiteness and debasement. She describes how as a child watching Roots, the television miniseries on slavery, she began to fantasize about the master: “I wondered if, possibly…just maybe…it wouldn’t be so bad if your master was…nice…And if he was handsome, then that would be kind of neat, too!” This admiration of the Other manifests itself in her other fantasies as well, yet it is always mixed with bad feelings on her part.
Fanon resents this sort of thing, in Black Skin, White Masks. The races keep stealing each other’s women!:
The behavior of the educated mulatto girl, especially the student, is doubly ambiguous. “I don’t like the black man,” she says, “because he’s a savage. Not savage in the cannibal sense, but because he lacks refinement.” An abstract point of view. And when we point out that some Blacks might be superior to her in this respect, she objects to their ugliness. A factitious point of view.
It’s cool when he does it, though. So cool…like, the best.
I want to be recognized not as Black, but as White.
But–and this is the form of recognition that Hegel never described–who better than the white woman to bring this about? By loving me, she proves to me that I am worthy of white love. I am loved like a white man.
I am a white man.
Her love opens the illustrious path that leads to total fulfillment…
I espouse white culture, white beauty, white whiteness.
Between these white breasts that my wandering hands fondle, white civilization and worthiness become mine.
Thirty years ago, a black man of the darkest hues, in full coitus with a vivacious blonde, exclaimed at the moment of orgasm: “Long live Schoelcher!” When we recall that it was Schoelcher who had the Third Republic vote for the abolition of slavery, we realize that we need to dwell somewhat on the likely relations between the black man and the white woman.
This desire for recognition and approval is at the heart of masochism for Simone de Beauvoir:
…Beauvoir argues that the process starts in childhood. Young girls are trained to think of themselves as beautiful objects, which leads to narcissism (and subsequently opens the door for masochism). While the girl learns to take pleasure in being an object for others, as she gets older she begins to realize that she is doing so at the cost of her individuality. She believes she has value only as an object and blames herself for her objectification. This self-blame leads to guilt, shame, and ultimately masochism because the young woman “considers herself to blame for submitting her ego to others, and she punishes herself for it by voluntarily redoubling her humiliation and slavishness.”
This inner conflict leads to a certain frigidity, which gets connected with “cold dominatrix” imagery in Venus in Furs:
The main characteristic of the dominant, however, is coldness: “The trinity of the masochistic dream is summed up in the words: cold–maternal–severe, icy–sentimental–cruel.” This coldness is not apathy but, according to Deleuze, the disavowal of sensuality. Sensuality still exists, but it is protected through the mechanism of disavowal: “The coldness is both protective milieu, cocoon, and vehicle: it protects supersensual sentimentality as inner life, and expresses it as external order, as wrath and severity.”…It is the result of an affective detachment; the aesthetic dimension camouflages the inner vulnerability. Here, we return to Beauvoir’s territory. As with Beauvoir’s masochists, coldness acts as a sensation to distance the Ideal Mistress from her authentic emotions. Unlike Beauvoir’s masochists, who experience this as pain, Deleuze’s Ideal Mistress uses this detachment to fixate further on the realm of the aesthetic.
In support of the idea that men are topping from the bottom, Wanda in Venus in Furs is described as Slavic.
Masochism HURTS, though. What about masochism as a display of masculine strength?
In Sick: Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, the documentary about Flanagan’s final years, he reflects on finding strength through masochism: “The stereotype of the masochist is sniveling and weak and it’s actually not true. The masochist has to know his or her own body perfectly well and be in full control of their body in order to give control to somebody else or to give control to pain so the masochist is actually a very strong person and I think some of that strength is some of what I use to combat the illness.” In pitting masochism and cystic fibrosis against each other, Flanagan is describing a binary between activity and passivity. He privileges the active pain of masochism because it signifies knowledge, control, and white masculinity. It is active because it comes from a place of deep corporeal intimacy and self-knowledge. It testifies to his status as a survivor.
Flanagan was troubled by his illness, but Deleuze was able to find peace and meaning in his own experience of tuberculosis:
Instead, Deleuze argues that illness brings a certain type of freedom because it allows one to “listen” to life. This “listening to life,” Deleuze argues, “facilitates thought because the state of illness, of feeling fragile and overwhelmed, amplifies life’s situations by illuminating and augmenting the impressions, sensations, and affects that they produce…Slowness is a way of being that is grounded in the real, in what really happened, in how one is experiencing every moment; it is a state of vigilance and attention.”