I’m reposting in response to my enigmatic statement on Facebook that “Masochism Builds Character.” This essay was originally delivered on Pacifica Radio as the first installment of my series, “How Do We Know When We Are Not Fascists?” [Added 3-24-10: This essay contains my inferences from the study of one particular collection of materials, and is not intended as a formula or a scientific law. But compare it to Peter Gay, The Cultivation of Hatred: The Bourgeois Experience Victoria to Freud (1993), chapter one on the German dueling societies and bourgeois adolescent aspirations to join an aristocracy. Gay sees adolescent homosexuality as a defense against terrifying relations with women (see Gorer on Sade, mocking romantic love as slavery). Also, materials from the Steadman Thompson collection are scattered throughout this website, particulary in the essays on Dr. Henry A. Murray of Harvard University, Director of the Harvard Clinic and a practicing S-M connoisseur.]
[excerpt from a fantasy by Steadman Thompson, middle-management at the Armstrong Cork Company, Akron, Pennsylvania, in the Sadomasochism Collection, UCLA, added 1/28/06:] “As I stood up, she came forward with the silver collar. I was aghast at what I had said and done but I stood still and let her fit the cold metal around my neck. As the lock clicked with an icy finality my misgivings rose to an apex.
“Now look, Vivienne,” I whined.
The wand whistled and struck stingingly before I could flinch. “Speak when spoken to, slave and address me as “Mistress” unless I give you another title to use. Now take a hold of the back of my robe.
As I timidly obeyed, she raised her wand and from the wand and the ball on her crown came a light so intense it washed away all our surroundings.”
EROS AND THE MIDDLE-MANAGER, KPFK, 9/89. [slightly revised 7-13-09, revised again 2-14-15]
Fascism may be seen as an attack on the Brain and the color Grey, that is, on the rationalism of the Enlightenment. It wants to restore or perpetuate the corporatism and militarism of the feudal world. Its targets are the newly literate, politicized, and partly emancipated groups of modernity: labor, women, non-whites, Jews: the rising groups of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who were using Universal Reason to discredit the claims of the old aristocracies. Trusting the evidence of their senses, they challenged the notion that élites were more intelligent, more socially responsible, more moral, more balanced than the “lower orders.” Their arts were realistic and naturalistic; their philosophy was materialism, [some of?] their anthropology suggested that “we are one”: “races” would soon be obsolete.
The technology made possible by science raised hopes for a world freed of unnecessary toil, of leisure that would give all people the opportunities for creativity and self-development that had been possible only for the very wealthy. Dispossessed or threatened élites counter-attacked with the ideology of “scientific racism”: there were imperishable differences between “races,” between all men and all women, geniuses and dolts. Blurring the boundaries, muddying distinctions led to degeneration and decay; the rationalists and materialists were un-natural, turning supple social organisms into machines; they were setting classes and genders against each other by insisting that there were conflicts of interest in the real world: theirs was a delusion caused by a foolish reliance on “the rebel senses.” Rebel senses created extremists. The good father, the Good King would restore a lost harmony to the mutinous and riven modern world; the Heart would conquer the wandering Mind. With a wave of his magic wand, pink and red children would see the old light. Only the Mind forg’d manacles. The Heart was the site of liberation.
The test of Freedom was easily comprehended but harder to enforce; the rebel senses kept coming back.
This is the Test: Iron collars, high-heels, corsets, all the iron cages, were not confining, as the naked eye would suggest. In the pastoral ruled by the Heart People, we were all frolicking lambs & skylarks, appearances notwithstanding. We were all artists and craftsmen: inventive, spontaneous, unchecked. Marx called these Heart People feudal socialists. Some of their mentors were Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, William Morris, Eric Gill, Lewis Mumford, and Carl Jung. After the rationalists of the 1930s were purged (while at the same time master race theories were in disgrace) the Heart People became ideologists of “democratic pluralism” (now called either ethnopluralism or multiculturalism, C.S. 7-13-2009): A pluralism without the classical liberal bourgeoisie, a pluralism that said all blacks or whites or reds or browns, whatever their social class or particular life experience, naturally cohered into ethnic or racial groups, each with its own distinct ideology, by definition mysterious to other ethnic or racial groups. Mental health, emotional maturity, physical well-being, and a blossoming individuality depended on acceptance of such natural facts.
But we were not fascists. Harvard psychologists warned us of the dangers of scapegoating. Christians must stop scapegoating Jews, whites must stop scapegoating blacks, and labor must stop scapegoating business, as Gordon Allport insisted in 1948. The corporatist triumph was complete. Disputes that might be grounded in ideological differences were to be resolved through self-control. An emotionally mature person would beat down the rebel senses to use the social institutions that, properly manipulated, would bring rewards to the truly meritorious; would resolve all conflicts. Any stray rationalist who said it couldn’t be done was stamped with the label: outside agitator, melancholy baby, the secret agent bringing a grey conformity to a spotless black and white world. Greyness brought artificial enmity to the body politic; even dangerous illness. The remedy was the purge of this foreign body, only then there could be healing and a restoration of harmony and order.
A Quack Remedy. The outcome for rational self-defense in the face of real dangers was disastrous. Social problems that required rational deliberation, analysis, and social action to be solved were turned into questions of decorum: politeness, respectability and moderation meant identifying social irritants in order to purge and heal. We were a nation of muckrakers, each group identified its enemies as was naturally apparent: modern artists, homosexuals, feminists, pawnbrokers, polluters, media moguls, demagogues, Klansmen, Willie Horton, mobs, white supremacists, consumer society, Pharisees, psychiatrists, midwestern Protestants and fundamentalists, commie-Jews, technocrats, mad scientists, Palestinians, and Zionists. Respectability, success, sanity, realism and group acceptance were all linked. Groups cohered only around the identification of the source of the disease, not because of underlying unity in a shared humanity, a commitment to open-ended inquiry and creativity for all, or a clear-eyed view of institutions that hamper the growth of democracy and solidarity.
If your rebel senses told you that freedom was domination, that praise was humiliation, that community was only a definition imposed on warring fragments by bureaucrats, you were blessed by the magic wand/rod until greyness gave way to the blaze of pseudo-enlightenment, the halo of the moderate man. In such a condition you were qualified to manage the health and education of those below: humane, competent, and calm, you were the good mother, the labor bureaucrat, the schoolteacher, the historian. Our humanity, our competence, our serenity comes from the certainty that is the lesson of the beaten child: we are too weak to overthrow the illegitimate, hurtful authority that trained us. (See Terry Gilliam’s recent film, Brazil.) We patrol the boundaries that divide artist from non-artist, black from white, good from evil, male from female, professor from student, expert from amateur, parent from child, clean from dirty, rational from irrational.
In this context, sexuality (which may be intense) becomes a performance of, a metaphor for, irrational hierarchies, and is an occasion for punishment, not pleasure, intimacy, or mutuality. Sadomasochism expresses the power relations of the middle manager, who is masochistically submissive to her/his superiors, sadistic to those under her/his supervision–to the extent that human possibilities for growth, change, and cooperation are stifled by the imposition of learned helplessness and misrepresentations of ourselves, of other societies, and of world, group, and individual history. Whether or not we literally are tied-up and whipped, as “middle-management” we are no less in bondage than our explicitly histrionic brothers and sisters. It is this terrible resonance that has provoked, I believe, the furor over the art of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano.
Sources: besides the life and art of Herman Melville and his Anglo-American revivers, the collection of Steadman Thompson, an employee of the Armstrong Cork Company in Ohio and Pennsylvania, who later moved to San Francisco. He collected the Justice Weekly (a libertarian newspaper dedicated to the civil rights of the bizarre), the photographs and pamphlets manufactured by professional writers and illustrators catering to this trade; movie stills–all showing scenes of bondage and humiliation; scrapbooks which montaged his own drawings and compositions with typed excerpts from pulps, novels, and literary criticism, and newspaper clippings about transvestitism, the New Look, crinolines and girdles. The collection spans the mid 1940s-mid 1960s.
First impressions: 1. These lovers of the bizarre identify with the aristocracy against the grey world of the urban proletariat. The corset symbolizes superior self-control. 2. S-M is a purification ritual. Messy, impudent, uppity children are switched until they declare that the whip is a magic wand bringing transcendence. [I am not certain that they confuse pain and pleasure, perhaps they become one big scar.] 3. In the photos and stories, women torture other women; the observer is a respectable male, who identifies with the tormented victim. In some pictures, young men wear the clothes and make-up of middle-aged housewives, chained to a stove or sink or vacuum cleaner; frequently the victim is arranged as Christ on the cross. In some stories, the victim is assigned impossible tasks: wading through muck without spotting his/her shiny black and white uniform, carrying a dominatrix on his back. 4. The reward is a promotion, but not to a position of dominance: one aspires to be mistress of the manor, not the Lord; the servant hopes to displace the selfish and hard-hearted wife. 5. The transformations are sudden, but not stable. Slaves and masters merely change places at breakneck speed [this is not a foolish reading of much history, C.S.]. 6. The writers of the S-M material have contempt for the servility of others, i.e., the upwardly mobile person who enters the houses of torture, then complains about the beatings. “She asked for it,” says my man, the S-M artist and consumer. SHE wears red panties and is from the upper-classes, not the working-class or jobless poor. SHE is the parlor pink or swimming pool liberal; SHE is the mother demanding service both to God and Mammon, separation and dependency, self-interest and Christian charity. 7. The practitioners I have studied do not seek pain as such, rather the serenity and sense of family reunification that follows purification. Their sin is the perception that family relations are duplicitous, that demands cannot be met: such insights lead to dangerous and intolerable anxiety and divisions: the purging restores the child to the lap of benignant authority and family unity, however bogus, is restored.
The beating is not about poor self-control, reining in antisocial “instincts.” The crime is not resistance to socialization as such, some timeless conflict between the individual and society expressed in adolescent defiance, but double-binds specific to modernity and its constantly innovating science and technology which preserve the need for some cultural freedom while braking the momentum toward more broadly shared self-management.
Why are the victims tied up? Perhaps the bondage expresses the passivity and immobility of the so-called objective and independent creative professional and middle-manager, performing a masquerade of self-assertion. In the 1930s, our cultural freedom was used to distinguish democratic capitalism from its proposed alternative, democratic socialism (that went well, didn’t it?) Today we promote the resegregation of women and non-whites into ethnic studies departments. Our professionals, by contrast with their projected harnessed competitors, are frank, socially responsible, neutral, and disinterested: that is, pure. According to the corporatist, facts are group facts. But what if they are not? Then you may lose your job and be invited to step out into a hostile world, for independence may not lead to institutional adjustments; that is, structural change that does not simply co-opt dissidents or display tokens from below. But if such loyalty to old structures or authority figures is paramount, then science and rationalism are betrayed; the modern world, so rich in promise, turns into a death-trap.
What are the implications for artist and intellectuals who want to be “progressive?” We might understand how vanguard arts have been used to prop up the status quo, pleasing an élite clientele through: 1. Playing up to the “superior” by creating puzzles and enigmas to titillate bored would-be aristocrats. 2. By providing ritual rebellions: donning the primitivist mask to discharge tensions. 3. By equating social change with asceticism, sacrifice, and self-denial, symbolized in submission to the oppressed person with a whip; by equating social change with violent revolution and terror; using shock techniques and calling it advanced art: “Making it new” [Ezra Pound] does not have to mean killing it.
What to do now? We should call into question hard and fast distinctions between artists and non-artists; but separate art from life: art is a realm of fantasy, play, and experimentation, where no human experience or feeling is off-limits; but understand that veterans of authoritarian families will be scared of such art, possibly believing that their own violent fantasies are real, have killed others, caused divorces, etc. We should stop begging institutions to love our rebelliousness, but use contradictions within them to secure maximum autonomy, while building alternatives to prefigure a better society, staying alert, clear, appropriately angry at hypocrisy and unnecessary suffering, and desirous of the material preconditions that make a measure of egalitarian love and friendship possible.