by EILEEN JOY
. . . sadomasochistix sex performs the dialectic of a quick-paced modernity and a slower ‘premodern,’ the latter indexed by any number of historical periods. Seen as a kind of erotic time machine, sadomasochism offers sexual metacommentary on the dual emergence of modernity and its others, on the entangled histories of race, nationhood, and imperialism as well as nationhood. Moreover, S/M does this work in simultaneously corporeal and symbolic ways, turning the queer body into a historiographic instrument: more than a cumulative effect of traumatic and/or insidious power relations, the body in sadomasochistic ritual becomes a means of addressing history in an idiom of pleasure.
—Elizabeth Freeman, “Turn the Beat Around: Sadomasochism, Temporality, History"
Sexual practices are banal, impoverished, doomed to repetition, and [in] this . . . disproportionate to the wonder of pleasure they afford.
—Roland Barthes, Preface to Renaud Camus, Tricks: 25 Encounters
History is just a load of stuff that already happened.
—Colin Farrell as Ray, In Bruges
Jeffrey has sent you his valentine and I now send you mine, and if you like a little sex with your violence or a little violence with your sex, then this letter is for you. Somewhat belatedly [although, how do we count time in the blogosphere?], I am returning to my ruminations on the thinking of Elizabeth Freeman on eroticism, temporality, and history, which I began here and here, in order to address her essay, “Turn the Beat Around: Sadomasochism, Temporality, History” [differences: a journal of feminist cultural studies 19.1 (2008): 32-70], which I find provocative and challenging. The essay is long [and forgive me, too, Elizabeth Freeman and anyone else for the omissions in my summary and responses, because there is simply so much!], and before settling into her primary argument [see epigraph above], Freeman first takes us on some related (de)tours that address:
1) the “slow” and retroactive time of sexual dissidence in modernity [which allows us to see that “sexual deviants . . . were unimaginable before the modern regime of ‘progress,’ a discourse even more totalizing than the ‘civilizing process’ championed by evolutionism”]
2) how, in Sade’s writings, S/M “shuttles” back and forth between the modern and the premodern [more pointedly, between the power relations of the Ancien Regime and the French Revolution], and thereby becomes “a form of writing history with the body in which the linearity of history may be called into question, but the past does not thereby cease to exist” [p. 36]
3) some of the history of the analysis of S/M by radical & lesbian feminist, critical race, and white gay male theorists, in order to show how there has been “somewhat of a schism in S/M theory . . . between a will to condemn sadomasochism’s historical trappings . . . and a will to ignore or trivialize them,” and to ask the question: “But are we truly locked into a choice of viewing sadomasochism as either an equivalent to the historical forces that oppress or the agent of their complete dematerialization and privatization into psychic drives?” [p. 38]; for Freeman, we need to continue trying to theorize S/M: “to historicize it theorizations, and, most urgently, to theorize its historicisms,” for, in Freeman’s mind, “S/M may bring out the historicity of bodily response itself,” not only “the conditioning of sexual response over time,” but also “the uses of physical sensation to break apart the present into fragments of time that may not be one’s ‘own’ or to feel one’s present world as both conditioned and contingent” [p. 38]
4) how some white lesbian feminist critics [such as Kathy Acker, Lynda Hart, and Ann Cvetkovich] offer different avenues toward a reconsideration of S/M as a form of temporally reorganizing personal trauma into a more positive [or “healing”], or even futural, experience; one insight here might be that “the masochist’s sensations seem to alter the flow of time so that there is an ‘after’ to violence appearing as its ‘before,’ a consensual might-have-been triumphing over a personal history of being victimized” [p. 39]; BUT, while these theorists importantly address S/M’s temporal registers in a sophisticated manner, they do so mainly within the realm of personal/family trauma, such as that occasioned by incest, which still leaves open the question of:
5) how S/M also indexes national and imperial pasts [genocide, slavery, the Inquisition, etc.], and “can also aim for a certain visceral fusion, a point of somatic contact between a single erotic body in the present tense and an experience coded as both public and past. . . . Here, the aim is not displacement, but a certain condensation of public and private, collective and individual subjectivities”; therefore, S/M “might be a way of feeling historical that exposes the limits of bourgeois-sentimental emotional reactions to historical events,” while at the same time “it also refuses to eschew feelings altogether as a mode of knowledge” [p. 40]
The bulk of the rest of Freeman’s essay is taken up by an analysis of Issac Julien’s 1992 8-minute digital silent film The Attendant (originally made for the BBC series Time-Code), the bare plot of which can be summed up as follows: in a British museum, a white museum-goer and a black museum guard have a sexual encounter, one that takes place in relation to F.A. Baird’s 1833 painting of a slave market, Slaves on the West Coast of Africa, in which, in Freeman’s description, “a white, presumably a European man straddles a prone, presumably an African man, as other black and white men look on or continue their business. In the periphery of this scene, more white men whip, bind, inspect, and brand other black men” [p. 42]. When the black museum guard catches the eye of the white museum-goer, the painting in Julien’s film literally comes to life and “metamorphoses into a tableau vivant of an interracial sexual orgy, with participants posed exactly as they were on the canvas, only now wearing modern S/M gear” [p. 43]. Once the museum closes, “the Attendant and the Visitor consummate their lust by whipping one another in a room off the main gallery—or the Attendant may simply be imagining this happening; the film leaves this ambiguous” [p. 43]. It is important to note here that the scene of the visitor and guard whipping each other is presented as a series of frozen stances [first one on top, then the other, then both standing side by side, with only the sound of a whip cracking on the soundtrack]. The film has no dialogue or voiceover narration, but does have various sound and music effects, including a kind of sonic heartbeat that registers throughout. [I have not included all details of the film here, just its bare trajectory.]
According to Freeman, Julien’s film “brings out a certain formal dialectic within sadomasochism, one that hyperbolically clarifies the temporal aspects of power and domination and yet also offers new modes of temporal apprehension and historical consciousness” [p. 43]. One way in which the film does this is by exploring the relation between film and the more “still” arts, such as painting, such that it enacts “a striking meditation on the passive and active modes not only of sex, but also of perception: it explores the dialectic between contemplation and intervention as they inflect sadomasochistic scenes and then open these scenes into history” [p. 44]. Ultimately, Julien’s “innovation is to link the dynamics among film as a temporal medium, the temporalities of the cinema’s various narrative gestures, and the time of still art to sadomasochistic practice itself,” which relies on certain modes of passive inaction [stillness, waiting], pictorial representation, and “moving” bodily narratives that spatialize time. What conjoins Julien’s film to Sade is precisely the mode of tableau vivant, which is both a static and moving picture, and what The Attendant ultimately suggests is that “a large part of sadomasochism’s power lies less in pain itself than in the pause, which the film figures most insistently as the frozen moment of suspense between the crack of a moving whip and its contact with a body that will flinch.” Therefore, S/M “plays with and literalizes power as time” and also celebrates “Freud’s description of the perversions as a form of dallying along the way to heterosexuality” [pp. 49, 50]. Freeman asks us to consider S/M’s emphasis on the pause as a historicist mode that would provide an “antidote” to “the traditional historicist models of progress that Sade . . . repudiated and to the ‘revolutionary’ ideology of a complete break from the past that Sade celebrated” [p. 51]. Similar to Benjamin’s idea that times stands still within certain dialectical images, the pause “reveals the ligaments binding present and past” [p. 51].
The setting of Julien’s film in a museum was certainly purposeful, and Freeman suggests that, while “S/M cannot return its players to a prior historical moment any more than a museum can, it can remind us of what the museum itself represses: memory is not organic or natural at all, but depends on various prompts and even props” [p. 55]. More specifically, in Julien’s film, “the image of the whip travels,” and held by the Attendant, it “indexes the erotic energy that enslaved black men managed to preserve and transmit to their successors despite their sufferings” [p. 57]. It is noteworthy, in Freeman’s view, that “Julien reanimates the dead in sex scenes rather than in the scenes of revenge or fearmongering in which a classically Derridean ‘hauntology’ usually traffics,” and therefore Julien makes an important contribution to “a queer-of-color critique that would hold sensuality and historical accountability in productive tension” [p. 57]. Ultimately, in Julien’s film, “the register of touch can literally open up slavery’s historical baggage and distribute its contents differently” [p. 58].
Because the film ends with the Attendant, in a kind of dream sequence, singing Dido’s “remember me” aria from a theater balcony to a frozen discotheque crowd below him [played by the same men who inhabited the painting], which aria is from Henry Purcell’s 1698 opera Dido and Aeneas, whose librettist Nahum Tate reworked Vergil’s Aeneid in relation to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, thereby conjoining the classical epic to British nationalist strivings, Freeman asks, “What does it mean that The Attendant ends with a black man apparently suffused with homoerotic and sadomasochistic desire inhabiting the role of a diasporic queen as written by a celebrant of British imperialism?” [p. 60]. In Freeman’s view, the Attendant’s inhabitation of Dido’s lament “obliquely illuminates the role of sexuality in the cultural memory of a conquered people,” and Dido’s lament itself “raises its own dead, even as her words frame the story of England’s rise on the backs of dead and dying African slaves” [p. 61]. Time, in Julien’s film, becomes a “modality of power rather than a neutral substance,” and the body becomes, perhaps, “an inadvertent conduit for effaced histories of pleasure rather than a figure for some ahistorical essence or a mere mannequin upon which icons of oppression are scandalously hung for fun” [p. 62]. Further, S/M “is not merely drag: it reorganizes the senses and, when it uses icons and equipment from traumatic pasts, reorganizes the relationships among emotion, sensation, and historical understanding. Its clash of temporalities ignites historical possibilities other than the ones frozen into the ‘fate’ of official histories” [p. 63].
By way of concluding, Freeman asks that we consider S/M as a “critical technique or mode of analysis enacted with the body erotic” that “offers up temporal means for reconfiguring the possible: the ‘slow time’ that is at once modernity’s double and its undoing, the sensation that discombobulates normative temporal conditionings, the deviant pause that adds a codicil of pleasure to a legacy of suffering.” She adds that these “are not, to be sure, reparations for past damages (as if perfect redress were possible) or the means of transcending all limitations. They are, however, ways of knowing history to which queers might make fierce claim” [p. 63].
First, I just want to say how abbreviated my summation of Freeman’s essay and argument is—there is much I have left out [for example, her analysis of what Julien is doing with race/color/skin in his film, and with sound and rhythm], but I wanted to mainly focus on issues that have already been long-discussed on our blog, especially with regard to the relations between temporality, sexuality, affect, and history. Indeed, history is the term I naturally want to linger on here, for while I find Freeman’s thinking on the relations in S/M between sex and temporality utterly fascinating and convincing, I feel a bit more fuzzy-headed on the history side of her triumvirate, which is not to say that I do not understand what is obviously the most critical part of her project—the importance of the queer body as “historiographical instrument” as well as her call for queer theorists to better theorize S/M’s historical dimensions, and also, following the more broad claims of her erotohistoriography spelled out in other writings, such as “Time Binds,” to formulate how “the bodily enjoyments that travel under the sign of queer sex [might] be thought of as temporal practices, even as portals to historical thinking.” Those of us who are interested in the subjects of the body, embodiment, gender, sex, and sexuality in studies of late antiquity and the Middle Ages are lucky, I think, to have a contemporary theorist such as Freeman who is pushing queer theory to take better account of the historical and the pull of the past on subjectivity, identity, sexuality/sex practices, sociality, and the like. More pointedly, with respect to Freeman’s most recent thinking on S/M as an “erotic time machine,” since there have been some excellent books recently published in premodern studies that address S/M [primarily within hagiographical contexts—e.g. Robert Mills’s Suspended Animation: Pain, Pleasure, and Punishment in Medieval Culture and Virginia Burrus’s The Sex Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography and her even more recent Saving Shame: Martyrs, Saints, and Other Abject Subjects], as well as books such as Karmen MacKendrick’s Counterpleasures, which includes premodern hagiography and medieval spiritual practices in its longue duree cultural history of “odd-seeming” and transgressive pleasures, the time seems ripe for a productive conversation across disciplines and fields with regard to the queer body as an historiograpical instrument that time-travels [an idea given one important launch in our own field by Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval]. It would be important, too, at some point, to bring into this conversation new work that is being done by contemporary theorists on affect, sensation, and touch that also takes up what I would broadly call “movements” in time [e.g. Erin Manning’s The Politics of Touch: Sense, Movement, Sovereignty and Brian Massumi’s Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation], and also, given the importance of medieval spirituality to the history of this conversation, the recent thinking by John Caputo [inspired by Deleuze] on a “theology of the flesh” seems apropos as well, but we’ll save that thought for another day [but wouldn’t that be a cool symposium, too?].
In any case, coming at Freeman’s thinking on S/M as a form of historical writing on and with the body from the longer perspective of the Middle Ages, we can first ask how Freeman’s idea that “sadomasochistic sex performs the dialectic of a quick-paced modernity and a slower ‘premodern,’ the latter indexed by any number of historical periods” might travel into medieval contexts such as flagellant communities or medieval schools where enthusiastic whippings were a central part of the pedagogy [the former being obviously more self-willed than the latter, although there were ample illustrations and writings related to the latter that certainly opened the possibility of the practice developing queer sexual valences]? And in what manner might depictions of violent martyrdom, in both the literature and the visual arts of the Middle Ages, perform the dialectic of a “quick-paced” now and a slower then? Or, is this question evacuated from the very start because Freeman’s attention is definitively upon S/M as it is habituated within a post-Sadean modernity [indeed, is possibly even produced within modernity as a type of sexual opposition, albeit an opposition that is historically loaded and saturated with premodern “scenes”], and to speak of S/M within medieval contexts would mean to take account of a different type of shuttling between times, a shuttling that might have more to do with fusion than with opposition, but which nevertheless might involve the suspension or pause that Freeman describes as so essential to S/M’s time scheme. As Bob Mills puts it in Suspended Animation, with reference to the late medieval painting by Gerard David, Christ Nailed to the Cross [see image above],
the representation of [the] protagonist [Christ] looking out from the painting toward the viewer gives rise to a suspension of time, since as soon as we, the beholders, are required to participate in the visual narrative, the illusion that Christ’s passion was an historical event located at a particular chronological juncture is shattered. We too become implicated in the scene, laying the image open to the possibilities of victim identification and (imaginary) corporeal sensation. Motifs of this sort contribute to the process by which sensations transfer, imaginatively, from one body to the other . . . . The medieval principle of imitatio Christi encapsulates the fantasy that pain is transferable and that it can be shared—that worshippers are able to fuse mentally and even physically with Christ’s body. [p. 162]There are obvious parallels here with how Julien’s film The Attendant negotiates a relationship between the figures in the slave market painting and the two men who participate in the painting’s traumatic scene, while also recuperating [or making more utopic and futural] its dark energies by sexualizing them, and the ways in which medieval depictions of scenes of martyrdom, in Mills’ view, asked beholders “to view pain not simply as a destructive force but also as a phenomenon that produces bliss” [p. 163]. At the same time, the medieval painting, in Freeman’s phrasing, “rings some changes” on historical consciousness by “reanimat[ing] the erotic dimension of affect that is both solicited and repressed in sentiments like nostalgia, patriotism, or pride in one’s heritage,” and here we might substitute: love of or faith in Christ/Christianity.
But we still might ask, if the late medieval painting, or earlier medieval hagiographic narrative, such as Ælfric’s tenth-century Life of Agatha, performs a dialectic between two times, how might we describe in more historical detail those two times and the ways in which they are in productive [but also, possibly, destructive] tension with each other [and why only two times]? What times are these, more specifically? We might tentatively acknowledge that, at least in the narratives of martyrs, there is always the zero-time of Christ’s passion which the martyr is always attempting to return to and fuse with, albeit belatedly if ecstatically [with the mode of exstasis standing in as the time portal]. There is still the question of the real historic occasions and places that were particularly conducive to what might be called the “return” and “repetition with a difference” of the iconography and narrative of Christ’s martyrdom with a particular force [which is also to ask: were martyr narratives equally palpably present in medieval culture in all times and places? I doubt it], a force that could even be called radical and subversive and queer—after all, after the Benedictine Reform, those religious who sought out the most extreme, ascetic forms of a solitary life were viewed with more suspicion. We also have to acknowledge that martyr-saints are never really there in any time at all [“there’s no there there,” as Gertrude Stein might say] because they exist primarily in a cultural [and also political] imagination that gives rise, in particular times and places, to certain texts and pictorial art: they are always being appropriated after the supposed facts of their existence, which is largely invented [also, in some respects, all martyrs are the same martyr: repetitions and mimicries, but again, with a difference]. Whereas the buyers and slaves in the West African market depicted in F.A. Baird’s painting [in Julien’s film] have a somewhat palpable historical reality—i.e., slave markets really existed [and the painting itself can be said to participate in the beginnings of naturalism]—the medieval narrative or pictorial depiction of the martyr-saint does not have behind it a real martyr-saint, only a mis-en-abyme of images of martyr-saints who are all, in one fashion or another, copies of Christ, and often, transgressive copies [because more excessively violent and abject]. [I know that, over time, real persons have been tortured and also executed for their beliefs, but medieval hagiography, in my mind, is very much a type of generic heroic-romance literature.]
It may be that Freeman’s definitions of and insistence upon the categories of a “quick-paced modernity” and the supposedly “slower premodern” would break down entirely within medieval “scenes” of sadomasochism, and yet, Virginia Burrus’s chapter on “Hybrid Desire: Empire, Sadism, and the Soldier Saint” in her book The Sex Lives of Saints, might demonstrate otherwise [but with a twist]. Focusing in this chapter on Sulpicius Severus’s fourth-century Life of Martin, which Burrus typifies as hypernatural science-fiction, Burrus detects in Severus’s portrait of Martin a “precursor to Donna Haraway’s cyborg figures—‘densely packed condensations of worlds, shocked into being from the force of implosion of the natural and the artificial, nature and culture, subject and object, . . . narrative and reality” [p. 93]. At the same time, Burrus also carefully delineates the historical and political contexts of Severus’s writings on Martin in order to reveal Martin as a sort of post-colonial figure as well [i.e., “post-colonial” within the context of late Roman imperialism]. In this sense, Severus’s Martin, especially as he is rendered in various scenes of domination and submission, acts as a sort of switching-station for the negotiation of different times: the zero-time of Christ’s passion, the post-colonial time of late imperial, pan-Mediterranean Rome, the time of Severus’s own love/need for Martin [which is also the time of writing], and the futural time of the cyborg. Believe me when I say I am not even beginning to do justice to this chapter of Burrus’s, but I mainly want to draw our attention to the important question of what it might mean—vis-à-vis Freeman’s work—to consider S/M [now or before the modern] as a practice in which the past drags upon the present and yet out of which a certain modernity is always emerging in dual time with its others [historical others, sexual others, cultural others, etc.]. For Burrus, the very genre of hagiography emerges in late antiquity at a time that is partly charged by the present we currently inhabit and vice versa:
It is scarcely an accident that the incitement to hagiographical discourse arises within the charges and contested transculturalism of a late Roman empire perched at the edge of antiquity. Nor is it an accident that interest in hagiographical erotics reemerges within our own similarly “multicultural,” ambiguously “postcolonial,” even possibly “postmodern” context. We too are perched at a temporal edge (or so we imagine it), awash in an ocean of heteroglossia (in the academy and well beyond), sharply aware of the complex and mobile relations of power that infuse all of our practices (literary, erotic, and otherwise). Hagiography is a historical product, a queer, late version of the ancient novel, emerging at the intersections of romance with biography, historiography, panygeric, martyrology—a statement that does not so much define its genre as announce its persistent subversions of genre, its promiscuous borrowings, its polyphonous multiplication of contesting (and thus always compromised) voices, its subtle and ever-shifting resistances within power, its layered remappings of place and replottings of time, its repeated traversals of the boundaries of history and fiction, truth and lies, the realms of the sacred and the profane. [p. 18]This also raises the “yet another” question of whether or not, as Freeman argues, sexual minorities “have in many ways been produced by, or at least emerged in tandem with, a sense of ‘modern’ temporality,” or if sexual deviants were “unimaginable before the modern regime of ‘progress’” [“Turn the Beat Around,” pp. 32, 34]. We already have a somewhat thick body of scholarship in medieval studies that has called into question whether or not such terms as homosexuality, heterosexuality, “perverse,” and “abnormal” could have had any force in medieval life in the same way they do now [e.g. Glenn Burger’s Chaucer’s Queer Nation, Karma Lochrie’s Heterosyncracies: Female Sexuality Before Normal Wasn’t, and James Schulz’s Courtly Love, the Love of Courtliness, and the History of Sexuality]; nevertheless, how modern, really, are certain “minoritarian” sexual practices, such as S/M [and for that matter, how might “progress” be defined/described in certain premodern periods—certainly, there were notions of progress, but what were they, more specifically, and how did they change the pace of particular temporalities in the way, say, the invention of factory assembly lines changed the temporality of labor]? We might think a bit more about the idea of emergence, which can call up linear notions of time, but doesn’t have to [here, I am thinking especially how emergence is defined in the sciences as “the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems”]. It may be that sexual minorities are always produced by or emerging, in different times and places, “in tandem with” whatever “sense” of temporality is dominant/official in any given moment, but then we have to also do the work of delineating what those different senses of temporality are [in different places] and how sexual practices are either figured by or become more visible and legible in or alongside those temporalities. We will also have to start shifting and sorting out historical and more aesthetic temporalities: the arts create their own time, and this is directly relevant to some of my further thoughts on Freeman’s work, SO:
This also leads me to want to further consider what “history” signifies, exactly, in Freeman’s thought, especially with regard to S/M as a kind of time machine. Is history some kind of actual past in this scenario, or is it only ever a retroactively-posited representation of a particular [overly self-invested] memory or image of history [or even, of a dream of an image of history, or of something that is behind/anterior]? Further, if S/M is a “hyperbolically historical, even metahistorical way of having sex” [p. 42], is S/M then helplessly, perhaps even laughably, anachronistically clichéd [in the way a bad Renaissance Fair is anachronistically clichéd—this also raises the issue of how S/M inscribes on bodies what I would call an unreflective historical nostalgia]? My questions arise out of the tension I detect between two statements Freeman makes in her essay—first, that S/M “gestures toward the possibility of encountering specific historical moments viscerally, thereby refusing these moments the closure of pastness” [p. 42], and second, that it brings the body “to a kind of somatized historical knowledge, one that does not demand or produce correct information about or an original experience of past events, or even engender legibly cognitive understandings of one’s place in a historically specific structure” [p. 62]. So, while S/M might gesture toward the possibility of encountering a real history [and thereby “faces” history, as it were, and bends toward it], it does not demand or produce “correct information” about the past—okay, fair enough [I mean, this is like . . . common sense], BUT: I worry about the ethical slipperiness that is created in the gap between the reaching toward the possibility of viscerally encountering the past [which is never really “over”—I couldn’t agree more] and the admission that the “historical knowledge” produced in the body in S/M ritual does not necessarily correspond to anything historically “legible.” Here we brush up against the idea of historical knowledge embodied in certain postures and sensations as maybe spiritual or mystical [at the very least, mystified—it is Virginia Burrus, we might recall, who asks if eroticism is nearer to theology than to anything else]. Oddly, I find myself in this gap recalling Pierre Nora’s statement that “[w]hat looms on the horizon of every historical society . . . is presumably a final, definitive disenchantment,” and I reflect that Julien’s film stages a sort of re-enchantment of history in which a certain traumatic history’s pores, in the words of poet Spencer Reese, literally “ooze with the brine of discotheques.” But I must also confess that I find myself a bit stuck here—I don’t know, exactly [yet], what to make of this gap or slippage between these two statements and would only say here [for now] that they create an intriguing crux in Freeman’s overall argument, one that we might return to and ruminate more collectively. At the very least, the presence of this gap leads me to also ask:
What is the relation between history and art/artifice, both in Julien’s film and in Freeman’s erotohistoriography? As indicated above in my summary of Freeman’s analysis of Julien’s film, Freeman does pay very close attention to the ways in which Julien’s film negotiates still and moving pictures, sound effects, and the tableau vivant, in relation to “a certain formal dialectic within sadomasochism, one that hyperbolically clarifies the temporal aspects of power and domination and yet also offers new modes of temporal apprehension and historical consciousness,” such as the Benjaminian-historicist mode encoded in the pause so critical to S/M sex. But I am concerned, too, to at least wonder at the relation, both in Julien’s film and in Freeman’s erotohistoriography, between history and its representation in art/writing as an event—an event, moreover, that is re-played, however inaccurately, in S/M sex [which itself becomes in the process its own event], but also in the art form that purports to perform and “act” such sex and in the criticism that describes that performance, and here I would also say, of Freeman’s criticism, cadging from Carol Jacobs writing on Benjamin’s thought, that “it is already in the work of art as its potential” [In The Language of Walter Benjamin, p. 7]. [This also raises the issue, which I can’t fully explore here, of whether or not S/M as a sex practice is as historically saturated and temporally aware as Freeman makes it out to be, or rather, if it is primarily within the realm of art and of the criticism that illuminates that art that such historical consciousness within S/M sex is drawn and performed—I just don’t think most practitioners of S/M sex are as sophisticated or as hyperbolically historically aware as an Isaac Julien or other artists in their appropriations of and encounters with historic scenes vis-à-vis sadomasochism.] Even if we stick with the Benjaminian historicist mode that Freeman purposefully invokes [and perhaps precisely because of it], we have to interrogate a bit further what of the historical inheres in the shock of the past or now-time [Benjamin’s jestzeit] that results from the constellation of past and present objects and images assembled by Julien in his film.
Might we start, first, with the premise that the historical was never itself to begin with [and that narrativization, which is about meaning, always comes later]? And also, that history cannot be thought outside of presentation and re-presentation? And yet, there is always the ethical imperative to not completely elide what of the pre-symbolic Real sticks, as it were, to all of this, and how. I think this is something Freeman is actually attending to when she suggests that Julien’s film offers “a queer-of-color historiography grounded in bodily memories of a nonorginary pleasure—one perhaps never experienced ‘as such’” [p. 63], and yet, isn’t something of those supposedly originary bodily memories dragged forward somehow, albeit only as phantasms, but still, as a result of this, does anything still linger/haunt once the film ends, insisting on its own always-fugitive presence and perhaps even saying, noli me tangere? At the same time, because Julien’s film is set in an art museum and begins with a painting coming to life and ends with a drag performance where the black museum guard sings Dido’s lament from Purcell’s opera [a scene that also serves as a repetition of that lament since it also appears earlier in the film when the painting comes to life], which is itself a hybrid appropriation of Vergil and Geoffrey of Monmouth, the film would seem to highlight the idea that the only real access to history is through these performances and re-framings of history-as-art, and the bodily memories evoked in the film exist only in a series of traces and relays between artworks which possess their own history and embodiment as artworks. And I would say, too, that the utopic energies that Freeman locates in S/M’s temporal promiscuities [through which painful collective histories are re-charged with futural pleasures] are not realizable outside the realm of the aesthetic. S/M itself is an artwork, for which history is one prop among others. Is history really encountered through S/M, or do we just keep meeting up [again] with a certain collective [Western] dream of a violent historical romance?
This brings me, finally, and again, to Dido’s lament. It fascinates me that Julien ends his film with an aria that connects his narrative, and also us as his audience, to one of the penultimate moments conjoining love and death in the Western experience [while, obviously, it also connects the Africa of Baird’s painting to the Africa of Vergilian epic]. Yes, as Freeman points out, I understand that, on one level, Julien’s appropriation of this operatic moment undermines “the British empire’s monumentalizing history of itself” [p. 63], and also, because its refrain is, essentially, “remember me, but forget my fate,” it is well-suited to carry, as Freeman argues, an “historical memory of pleasures that exceed the parameters of [Dido’s] own lifetime, her individual love affair, her geopolitical location, and her death” [p. 61]. But in what ways also, does Dido’s lament, especially situated as a drag performance in the fin-de-siecle present of Julien’s film, remind us of what Jonathan Goldberg has called that “strange dynamic which, in Western culture, binds death into desire,” and which “is not the product of a marginal pathological imagination, but crucial in the formation of that culture” [Death, Desire and Loss in Western Culture, p. xii]? And if Sade has anything to do with it—with S/M sex practice in general but also with its artistic representation in Julien’s film—can we really relegate to the background all of the cut and carved and dead bodies that serve as such exquisite corpses in Sade’s oeuvre [granted, on one level, it’s all a hyperbolic joke at the expense of a certain society’s supposed mores and politics]? Likewise, how does the lament, situated in Julien’s film, and regardless of the subversive nature of its placement there, function as just one of an endless series of performed fantasies of sacrificial desire that, as Simon Gaunt has recently shown, have functioned as the “insidious lure[s] of a symbolic order” that has been crucial to the evolution of Western European thinking about love—thinking about love, moreover, that, although often located in secular poetic registers, relies heavily upon the religious language of ascesis and martyrdom [Love and Death in Medieval French Occitan Culture, p. 210]?
In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit that I was partly troubled by Freeman’s essay because there is a part of me that does not want to hear how S/M, as a sex practice [never mind as an historical-aesthetic temporal practice], can utopically re-charge, and thereby partly recuperate and re-encode, traumatic histories of violence. I sadly admit my terminal unhipness by disclosing here that I am one of those persons who, until I read Freeman’s essay at least [I’m all for positive, affective readings of anything, so she mainly has me], had decided that S/M, wittingly or unwittingly, simply repeats or participates in various histories of violence [past and present] and is thereby ethically unsound, or unbearably sad, or both. And sometimes, it even makes me laugh . . . nervously, because I know that sex and violence have intertwined histories and it is likely almost impossible to think one outside the other. Further, the relation of pain and pleasure is similarly intertwined [perhaps they are even co-dependent, as MacKendrick’s book Counrterpleaures amply demonstrates], and it may be, too, as Leo Bersani has famously written, that all sexuality is “ontologically grounded in masochism” or is a “tautology for masochism” [The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art, pp. 39, 89]. All relations, sexual and otherwise, are in some respect relations of force, and as Hent de Vries has suggested, violence may be “the inescapable horizon or inherent potentiality of any act, or of any refraining from action” [Violence, Identity, and Self-Determination, p. 18]. And if it’s ethics I’m really worried about, I could recall Derrida’s insight that there is no ethics “without the presence of an other, but also, and consequently, without absence, dissimulation, detour, difference, writing. A violent opening” [Of Grammatology, p. 139]. Perhaps, in one sense, S/M is just putting one’s cards on the table [if in highly stylized and hyperbolically dramatized fashion], although I will continue to worry about our love affair, at least in the West, with the annihilation of the self and with desire as death. And I would not be lying if I told you that, although I devote a good portion of every day thinking and writing about the past, there are days when I would like to see it obliterated.