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Reviewed by:
  • Between the Body and the Flesh: Performing Sadomasochism, and: Taking it Like a Man: White Masculinity, Masochism, and Contemporary American Culture
  • Heath A. Diehl
Between the Body and the Flesh: Performing Sadomasochism. By Lynda Hart. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998; pp. xiii + 269. $49.50 cloth, $17.50 paper.
Taking it Like a Man: White Masculinity, Masochism, and Contemporary American Culture. By David Savran. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998; pp. ix + 382. $65 cloth, $19.95 paper.

Lynda Hart’s Between the Body and the Flesh and David Savran’s Taking It Like A Man both engage with the multiple discourses and practices of (sado)masochism, yet they do so in different ways. Hart’s study examines performances of lesbian s/m as a “counterdiscourse to the erotophobic voices in contemporary cultural debates” around such issues as arts censorship and the “fetishization of sexual paraphernalia” (book cover); Savran’s study explores the ways in which cultural tropes of American masculinity historically have been embedded within masochistic discourses. Taken together, these two books demonstrate rigorous intellect, meticulous research, and fresh methodologies which undoubtedly will prove compelling and influential reading.

Taking It Like A Man draws on a wide range of cultural artifacts (including popular film, avant-garde performance, and canonical literatures) to trace the “ascendancy of a new and powerful figure in U.S. culture: the white male as victim” (4). The study is divided into two parts, each of which includes three chapters. In the first part of the book, Savran “constructs a broad historical narrative (from [Norman] Mailer’s ‘white Negro’ to Timothy McVeigh) that maps the production of both normative and deviant white masculinities in relation to the primary social, political, and economic struggles of the past fifty years” (37). In the second part of the book, Savran “analyze[s] and evaluate[s] those strategies—sexual liberation, nationalism, and religion—that have become increasingly popular and widespread in this country since the ‘60s as ways of imagining a solution to the ‘problem’ of masochism, which is to say, of conceiving a white masculinity less destructive (and self-destructive) than its antecedents” (38).

Savran’s assertion that the mythologies of white-man-as-victim are predicated on unstable identifications (with blackness, with femininity, and with homosexuality) is central to both sections. Moreover, Savran contends that these identifications work at once to locate the white man in a place of subjection, abuse, and torture and to disavow the real histories of victimization and oppression which underwrite the subjectivities of African Americans, women, and gay men and lesbians. The result is a carefully nuanced inquiry into the ways in which culturally specific and historically contingent tropes of masculinity have evolved over the past five decades in America.

Unlike Savran’s book, which is structurally unified by the author’s narrative linking various and varied deployments of white masculinity, Hart connects the five chapters and epilogue of her book primarily by association. The structure of Between the Body and the Flesh, like the masochist’s desires, longs for “interrupted, incomplete moments, repetitions that overlap, interchange, and reverse but never necessarily coalesce into a conventional narrative” (70). The parts of the book thus freely circulate among Hart’s selections of “interrupted, incomplete moments,” which include cultural and literary texts exploring: “‘the problem’ of women’s masochistic fantasies” (chapter 1); the question of “why lesbian s/m has become the marginal center” (4) of a series of discourses which adamantly demonize and repudiate its very existence, namely, the “sex and culture wars” of the 1980s (chapter 2); the elision and impossibility of articulating lesbian subjectivities within traditional masochistic [End Page 91] discourses (chapter 3); queer performance artists whose work stages “an unarticulated—perhaps mostly unconscious—link between the desire to demarcate the boundaries of fantasy and reality and entrenched cultural presumptions about the very constitution of queer sexualities” (5) (chapter 4); and the politics of assuming a position of spectator-as-witness to expose and expunge the “truth” of “passionate identifications” (especially in relation to childhood sexual abuse) (chapter 5).

Both Savran and Hart invite readers into their arguments by providing them with illustrations from a multifarious collection of cultural texts...

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