Sadomasochism in Everyday Life: The Dynamics of Power and Powerlessness.

Sadomasochism in Everyday Life: The Dynamics of Power and Powerlessness. – book reviews

Joel Kovel

Other animals may exhibit aggression and be ferocious, but no other species besides the human is cruel. Watching the cat play with her prey suggests cruelty, but the similarity with human sadism is superficial. Take the mouse away, and the cat will forget about it until the next mouse shows up. The cat has an instinct but no desire, no longing to cause another creature suffering for sufferings sake. The mouse releases the instinctual mechanism, but otherwise means nothing. Finally, it is unthinkable that a cat would ever assume the position of masochism, sadism’s subtle counterpart, and seek suffering for itself, as humans do. Cats are too smart for that, or not smart enough. It takes a really intelligent animal to be irrational.

We humans are the cruel species–cruel to others, as sadists, and to ourselves, as masochists–or, since the two are remarkably twinned, we are sadomasochists. Humans are the only animals to raise cruelty to a principle of fate. As flies to wanton boys, wrote Shakespeare in what was perhaps the grimmest moment in King Lear, so are we to the gods: They kill us for their sport. Dostoevsky used the cruel streak in humanity as an argument to confound the liberal aspirations of the nineteenth century; Freud did the same for the twentieth. How can we believe in progress, the inexorable march of reason and welfare, if humans evince so great a capacity to take pleasure in pain? Spite and perversity, the delight in going against self-interest, the affirmation that 2+2=5 simply for the sake of saying what one wanted–these were the facts invoked by Dostoevsky’s Underground Man against the believers in technical reason and progress. A half-century later, amid the rubble of World War I, Freud pronounced an even graver verdict: There was a kind of primary, essential masochism in us, product of the power of death itself, the drive to return to an inorganic state which, interacting with the drive to live, sets loose the forces of destruction.

If there was sufficient evidence at the beginning of the century to permit this line of reasoning, how much stronger do its claims seem as the century draws to a close. Torture, once rampant in medieval Europe, had more or less disappeared by 1900. Now torture, which is to say, sadism in the service of the state, has again become a quasi-official practice throughout much of the world. As the cruelties of Bosnia cap a century of mass murder, and the “New World Order” breaks up in tribal warfare, the dream of a better life dissolves into despair. Obviously, none of this can be reduced to an instinctual drive toward sadomasochism. Nonetheless, sadomasochism remains an all too obdurate factor. The expanded scale of destructivity of the twentieth century confounds liberal aspirations more effectively than the novels of a Dostoevsky.

Typically, progressives are nonplussed by the spectacle of human cruelty. The classical Freudian hypothesis rooting cruelty in an instinct has more or less had the intellectual field to itself. Yet, like all appeals to nature as the source of behavior, it remains politically unacceptable. Having no alternative critique of sadomasochism, progressives tend to finesse the subject altogether, thus leaving a major component of human existence out of their reckoning. Now, however, comes Lynn Chancer, a sociologist at Barnard, with just such an alternative critique, rooting sadomasochism in the dynamics of power rather than instinct.

In Sadomasochism in Everyday Life, Chancer widens the scale of sadomasochism far beyond the sexual sphere, i.e., of “S/M.” Freud himself admitted this, recognizing sadomasochism in forms other than the sexual. As he looked at the bigger picture, Freud saw masochism in the sphere of character, as with the self-pitying person who just loves to suffer, or, in a characteristically misogynistic maneuver, as a “normal” tendency of women. Chancer eschews the classical psychoanalytic putdown of women, but otherwise goes beyond Freud. She sees sadomasochism as a fundamental principle of everyday life, including work and family relationships; and she sees it, more important still, not primarily as a sexual matter at all, but as integral to power, dependence, and unfreedom. Sadomasochism happens whenever people are bound together unfreely, in relations of domination and submission; where they ritualize their interaction; where the relationship is dialectical and dynamic; and finally, where the position of power is buttressed materially, so that the submissive, masochistic person experiences severe sanctions against breaking loose from bondage. From this angle, the S/M paraphernalia that fill the sex shops, far from manifesting the pure form of sadomasochism, represent a weakened, watered-down version. Precisely inasmuch as it becomes consensual, S/M is only playing at sadomasochism; only when bondage is for real does the full picture come into focus, as the Marquis de Sade knew all too well. Hence the point of the joke in which the masochist asks the sadist to torture him and the latter refuses. Were the sadist to beat the masochist as demanded, he would be granting the latter power. The only way to preserve the sadistic position–especially in an era of mass-produced sex–is to not beat, thus truly tormenting the masochist.

In this view, sadomasochism is grounded in the realization that the self is built from the dialectics of recognition between self and other. The source now, however, is not Freud’s psychology but Hegel’s philosophy. In the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel had demonstrated how self-consciousness, perhaps the most fundamental aspect of being human, emerges out of a life-and-death struggle for recognition with another person. Significantly, Hegel chose as the metaphor for elaborating this concept the notion of “Master and Bondsman,” a

phrase which is linked to the phenomena of sadomasochism as well as those of social class. Rather than being reducible to the animal part of ourself, sadomasochism occurs precisely at the point when we become human. It is a function not of nature, but of humanity itself–humanity as it goes awry in specific social circumstances, when the master-bondsman dynamic is not overcome but petrifies into cruelty, domination, and submission. The Marquis de Sade, after all, was an aristocrat caught between the old order and the new, who expressed both the dominion of a dying class and the sense of power with which the emerging modern self was invested.

The current preoccupation with sadomasochism is a function of the increasing isolation of the modern self, and its reaching for power over the other in compensation for a false existence. Chancer makes an important contribution by depicting an expanded scale of social relations that have become contaminated by sadomasochism. These are witness not to the power of a sadomasochistic human essence, but to the failure of the twentieth century’s revolutionary projects whose time had come but could not be carried through. Antonio Gramsci, the Italian communist who died in Mussolini’s prison, put it best: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

Joel Kovel teaches Social Studies at Bard College. He is the author of the forthcoming Red Baiting in the Promised Land (Basic Books).

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