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  • Subversion Without Limits:From Secretary's Transgressive S/M to Exquisite Corpse's Subversive Sadomasochism
  • Susan E. Cook (bio)

To speak of S/M is to evoke a subcultural practice that is both heavily commodified and politically self-aware.1 The black leather, whips, and handcuffs stereotypical of S/M—shorthand for sadomasochism—ritualize and commercialize the relationship between its two components in a theatrical recovery of a practice that has been, from Richard von Krafft-Ebing's writings in the 1890s, cast as pathologically perverse. S/M parodies normative heterosexual relations, performing traditionally gendered roles to hyperbolic excess. Yet in her 1991 "Maid to Order: Commercial S/M and Gender Power," Anne McClintock observes that S/M's parodic critique is unsatisfying: commercial S/M's "theater of risk inhabits the perilous borders of transgression," she writes, but caught between mimesis and catharsis, S/M works by "neither replicating social power nor finally subverting it."2 McClintock's claim is that commercial S/M can, through its parodic treatment of gender roles, transgressively cross or unsettle the regulating limits established by the social order, but that it ultimately fails to alter the power relations [End Page 121] it critiques. McClintock suggests that S/M aspires towards subversive change; what it achieves is transgressive play.

This essay examines—in the wake of McClintock's critique of commercial S/M—the subversive potential of masochism, sadism, and sadomasochism. I begin my analysis with Steven Shainberg's 2002 film Secretary, which follows the masochistic secretary Lee through a marriage plot structure to S/M fulfillment with her boss Edward. I then read the film against Poppy Z. Brite's 1996 novel Exquisite Corpse, which graphically depicts the sadistic love story of Andrew and Jay, two homosexual serial killers, and the victims they have sex with, torture, and cannibalize.3 The conclusion of Brite's novel imagines a movement from pure sadism to a more thoroughly sadomasochistic relation. Shainberg's film and Brite's novel reveal a continuum from transgressive, limit crossing commercial S/M at the start of Secretary to subversive, internally critical sadomasochism by the end of Exquisite Corpse.4 As representations of psychic structures made over into social practice through the languages of sadism and masochism, these two texts move towards articulating a politics grounded not in the other, but in the other's psychic and—in Exquisite Corpse—physical implication in the self.5

The commercial S/M of Secretary and the initial sadism of Exquisite Corpse offer two distinct and yet related ways to conceptualize pain, pleasure, and the threat that pleasurable pain poses—or fails to pose—to the social order. Sadism deploys an institutional control and is very much invested in physical pain, whereas theatrical, commercial S/M parodies normativity with a system of contractually controlled and fetishistically displaced representations of physical pain—essentially, this S/M is mainstream masochism and not sadomasochism "proper."6 In Masochism, Gilles Deleuze takes pains to separate sadism from masochism, debunking what he calls "the spurious sadomasochistic unity" on the grounds that "a genuine sadist could never tolerate a masochistic victim" and vice versa. According to Deleuze, the sadist and the masochist inhabit two separate worlds. Each has a complement, but Deleuze is clear that the complement to sadism is not exactly masochism, and the complement to masochism is not exactly sadism. Deleuze grounds his critique of sadomasochism in the difference between the Marquis de Sade's and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's language, attributing to Sade the language of description and imperative, institutional demand (such as the category of the law, which is delineated and enforced unilaterally, from the top down), and to Masoch the language of dialectical and persuasive contract (such as a written agreement established between two consensual parties). These two discourses are, for Deleuze, incommensurable.7 [End Page 122]

Secretary and Exquisite Corpse offer two very different investigations of pleasure and pain. Realized in different mediums, these texts illustrate the wide spectrum this conversation occupies. At the same time, both texts are critical of the subtle and not-so-subtle violence of heteronormativity, and both were marketed as crossover, artistic renditions of subject matter more characteristic...


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