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American Literary History 14.2 (2002) 389-411

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Masochism in America

Michael Uebel

Counterpleasures By Karmen MacKendrick State University of New York Press, 1999
Contract with the Skin: Masochism, Performance Art, and the 1970s By Kathy O'Dell University of Minnesota Press, 1998
Taking It Like a Man: White Masculinity, Masochism, and Contemporary American Culture By David Savran Princeton University Press, 1998
Between the Body and the Flesh: Performing Sadomasochism By Lynda Hart Columbia University Press, 1998

Le vice ame´ricain: to judge by the profound intellectual, if not libidinal, interest in masochism nowadays, it would seem that, despite the claims of classical sexology, this so-called vice is no longer the supreme cultural property of the British. Iwan Bloch's outrageous (or is it?) remark in Sex Life in England (1901) that "in no land has the passion for the rod been as systematically developed and cultivated as in England" (191) has undergone translation into a contemporary, and distinctly, American academic idiom: in no land has the passion for the rod been as systematically examined and theorized as in America. Doubtless the very positing of national forms of masochism tells us little about masochism as an unmistakable set of bodily practices. Instead the utility of imagining something like an American masochism is tied to the way it signals the existence of historically conditioned fantasies, all of which in turn structure the libidinal attraction and psychic reward of a wide range of corporeal acts, from asceticism to pain to bondage. What I wish to consider here are the ethical and political fantasies supporting not only the culture of masochism in America but also the very study of masochism. Two questions then: Why, to ask along with the authors under review, does masochism appear as a prevalent cultural fantasy at some times rather than at others? And, thinking self-reflexively through the authors, what makes masochism such a compelling object of study now?

Study of the rod and of the passionate uses to which it is put reveals above all that the genealogy of masochism in America is an exquisite register of cultural anxieties, particularly sensitive to the frequently reactionary manner in which sex and politics interanimate. The label "masochist" is never neutral, politically or morally, whether applied to women or to men, whether framed within or outside of clinical discourse. And although no study of masochism could ever be objective, that is to say descriptively pure, it is striking just how politically charged most studies are. The study of masochism functions as the nodal point at which the political fantasies, intellectual interests, and libidinal investments of the investigator all coalesce and are given forceful expression. The fifties and sixties are exemplary decades when theories of sexual [End Page 389] and social masochism masked political agendas. Whereas detecting the ideological bent of the massive attention paid to masochism by psychoanalysis, an interest peaking in immediate postwar America, is rather complex work—involving, for instance, assessment of the theoretical and therapeutic advances in psychiatric war medicine and analysis of their political agendas 1 —it is relatively easy, say, to identify the slant of mass-market sleaze fiction, in its heyday roughly from the late fifties to the early seventies, a body of literature more often than not purporting to offer "psychosexual" case studies of the phenomenon. Sleaze fiction, at least by comparison, seems ideologically transparent since it is a genre so clearly fixated upon threats to traditional white masculinity.

Studies of masochism in the sixties appear to have responded to a quite specific anxiety—the fear of sexually liberated women. A pseudoacademic interest in forms of male masochism then prevailed, with dozens of mass-market paperbacks offering titillating "case histories" (the genre's buzzword) of the dominant female, a figure, judging by her frequent appearance on the covers of popular men's magazines (see Figs. 1 and 2), otherwise consigned to the fantasmic realms of exoticism and militarism. 2 Sleaze with a scientific veneer, these mass-market paperbacks attempted to address men roughly between the ages of 18 and 45 in order to warn of the consequences...


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