Masochism, or The Cruel Mother in Maria Beatty’s Pornography.

by Katrien Jacobs

"You are dreaming," she cried. "Wake Up!" She grasped my arm with her marble hand. "Wake up" she repeated, this time, in a low, gruff voice.

Von Sacher-Masoch


Introduction: Performing Masochism

This essay proposes a theory of women’s sexuality and eroticism as conceived in masochistic screen performances. The essay will center around the work of Maria Beatty, an internationally renowned masochist performer and independent filmmaker who works at the edges of the New York porn industry, having been nurtured by an older generation of performance artists such as Carolee Schneemann and Annie Sprinkle, and as a professional submissive by the dominant school of New York dominatrixes. In this essay, the theory of masochism applies to performance and film aesthetics, and is primarily derived from recent analyses of Gilles Deleuze’s Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty, an introduction to Von Sacher-Masoch’s diaries which was originally published in 1967. Although Deleuze’s study has been developed into a comprehensive film theory for classical narrative film by Gaylyn Studlar in In The Realm of Pleasure: Von Sternberg, Dietrich and the Masochistic Aesthetic (1988), the aim of this essay is to examine such theory in light of a new generation of filmmakers and theorists, and the culture of lesbian pornographic short films and videos.

A central figure in Deleuze’s study is the ‘cruel mother’ as a larger than life archetype and proponent of anti-reason who participates in sexual politics by obsessively carving out new zones of the sexual body and bodily awareness. The essay will explain ‘masochism’ as a gradual surrender to such ‘feminine’ body sculpting, resulting in desire which isolates fragments of the body and networks fragments between shifting erotogenic zones. The slow and ritualized process of networking zones (through pain and pleasure rituals) is the subject of Beatty’s porn repertoire as she represents masochism through stylized, fetishistic film aesthetics. The mother figure also becomes a central trope in critiques of psycho-analytical theory such as Teresa de Lauretis’ study The Practice of Love (1994). De Lauretis shows that lesbianism is a sculpting of the body that does not rely on phallic imaginaries. ‘Mother’ functions as an absent figure who does not consolidate the young woman’s existing body but creates experimental deviations and alternate zones. This process of disassembling and reassembling the female body is shown in Beatty lesbian s/m film The Black Glove (1996) as a peculiarly dark and primeval impulse. Both Deleuze and de Lauretis believe that such forces may lead to new types of bodily imaging, perception or even sexual politics. De Lauretis posits that a renewal of the female body occurs through ‘lesbian desire’, a doubling of the lost maternal body in other female bodies (De Lauretis 1994:25). Female bodies do not awaken this loss as negativity, but as limitless desire or searching for zones of the body which seem lost, are conjured up temporarily, then lost again to fantasy. The essay will show that the body-visions of feminist and queer scholars such as Tereasa de Lauretis, Luce Irigaray, Elisabeth Grosz and Judith Butler are cinematically evoked in aspects of Maria Beatty’s pornography. As theorists have come up with structuralist definitions of the body which replace female gender and genitals with bodies as perverse textualities and sites of construction, Beatty’s movies show the ecstasies of pain and pleasure involved in exhibiting processes of construction --the raw somatic fragments and uncanny debris produced in private acts of erotic cruelty or societal dismemberment.

Current proponents of Deleuze’s study insist on his presentation of sadism and masochism as distinctive psychic modes of perversion and cultural practices. Masochism is no longer seen as a sexual strategy which leads to sadism, but as one which channels desire into consensual and formalized modes of performance. Deleuze brought a radical shift to Freudian pschyo-analytic theory as he viewed masochism as a sexual game and an erotic meditation on the flawed nature of gender inscription and authoritarian law and order. Deleuze challenged Freud’s essay ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, in which he claimed that sadism and masochism were complementary perversions operating in one psyche, whereby masochism’s tendency to self-destruction develops a tendency to enact sadistic brutalities against others. Freud also equated sadism with the emergence of a gendered masculine subject, which would be more natural development in the male. Deleuze critiqued Freud’s affirmation of a genital sexuality inherited from the father, and instead celebrated the masochist as a gender-fluid subject who desires an identification with the mother. Moreover, rather than enacting cruel compulsions onto others, the masochist develops introspective performance strategies for the renewal of his/her own sexual identity. Renewal occurs through an intense process of disorientation and bodily discomfort which Deleuze calls the "art of destruction". This art of destruction requires the subject to imagine an altered image of the autonomous body through formalized rituals of cruelty in which s/he expresses a wish for reconstruction through identification with the mother (Deleuze 1991: 57-69).

In her essay ‘The Birth of Sadomasochism’, Catherine Dale summarizes the general historical and political significance of Deleuze’s ‘masochising’ of sado-masochism:

The principles of contemporary practices of eroticised pain make sadism morally unlivable and as politically dubious as it was in the eighteenth century but with the cruelty exercised in two world wars the term sadist has been reserved for an intonation peculiar to the evil afoot exclusively in the twentieth century. Conversely, masochism has become increasingly for the twentieth-century, both formally, with regards to identification, and ethically, in its relations of power. The nominal arrival sadomasochism then coincides more accurately with its becoming ethically, politically, aesthetically and sexually masochism which ‘borrows’ the name sadism as an authentic addition to its fantastic cruelty (Dale s.d.: 6).

Dale then explains that masochism is generally presented as the "most attractive, palatable and livable of the two perversions." (Dale s.d.: 6). According to Deleuze, sadist performers act out the death instinct in demonstrative forms, by multiplying and condensing cruelty; whereas masochists use contemplative modes of perception and performance which enact and subvert law and authority. He describes the subversive nature of masochistic fantasies as follows :

We all know ways of twisting the law by excess of zeal. By scrupulously applying the law we are able to demonstrate its absurdity and provoke the very disorder that it is intended to prevent or conjure ... A close investigation of masochism reveals that while they bring into play the very strictest application of the law, the result in every case is the opposite of what might be accepted (thus whipping, far from punishing or preventing an erection, provokes and ensures it. It is a demonstration of the law’s absurdity). (1991: 88)

Deleuze’s distinction between sadism and masochism has implications for sketching performative modes of power exchange in s/m practice, for film and performance aesthetics, and for a feminist theory of sexuality.

Such areas of investigation are explored, for instance, in Leoni Knight’s video The Father is Nothing, which is an audio-visual experiment around Deleuze’s theory. The masochist’s longing for the mother in this video is shown and celebrated through water imagery and an encounter between a woman and a male-to-female transsexual. The father’s libidinal economy surfaces in blunt references to fascism; sounds of sirens, masses calling Sieg Heil, a cadence of goose-steps and leather boots. The polarized gender vision in this video is Deleuzian, but can also be explained in reference to Klaus Theweleit’s study Male Fantasies, which depicts the event of fascism as a historical consciousness which misrecognizes ‘feminine’ forces --the body, bodily waste and fluids, representing them as dangerously erupting masses. (Theweleit 1986) In The Father is Nothing, the reference to a history of fascism and patriarchal excess recedes in the background and becomes a faint memory-image which flashes by and sporadically interrupts the s/m encounter. This is a love story narrated from a masochistic perspective in that it reveals a theatricalized eroticism clearly distinct from the ‘sadist’ ego-libido.

Gaylyn Studlar explains the masochist’s longing for the mother as the desire to approach a dominant figure who is not a substitute for a hidden father, but a controlling agent and as such the perpetual object of the child’s curiosity. A romanticized depiction of such desire in a more recent lesbian video, would be Maria Beatty’s Let the Punishment Fit The Crime (1996), where Beatty appears as a naughty little girl in love with her mother. The girl steals her mother’s make-up kit and applies it to a hidden collection of dolls; painting the eyes and genitals with nail-polish, sticking hairpin needles into the bodies in preparation of a sacred offering. As the girl’s gaze turns to the mother in anticipation of punishment, the camera transforms the mother into a suave femme fatale and a desirable and voluptuous sexual partner. After a long series of repetitive spanking shots -the core of the pornographic content- we can see the mother caress her girl’s behind with a soft powder puff, and calmly smoke a cigarette. The mother becomes a good mother as she permeates the girl with love and desire, and carries her through the last stages of sexual climax.

In the s/m contract between the lesbian performers, it is stipulated that the submissive partner surrenders to the dominant female, who performs the role of a stern but attractive mother. Studlar believes that the mother/dominatrix directs the subject towards a pre-oedipal life, and "masochistic desire merges the plenitude of the mother with the subject’s need for suffering." (Studlar 1988: 15) In a search for a dual feminine role, the masochist fantasizes a good mother who assumes and appropriates bad mother traits. Studlar adds that the masochist’s gender is less important to the perversion’s basic dynamics, as performance revisits areas of sexual development which are reminiscent of an infantile bodily awareness and less dependent on gender identification. (Studlar 1988: 16) Through the subject’s identification with the mother and a disavowal of the father’s patriarchal role, gender identity becomes transmutative. Studlar explains: "As Deleuze remarks, the masochist believes it possible to become both sexes. Polymorphous, nonprocreative, nongenital sexuality undermines the fixed polarities of male and female as defined by the patriarchy’s obsession with presence/lack, active/passive, and phallic genitality." Deleuze’s treatise argues that cruelty is fantasized and sought in the construction of various mother/dominatrix archetypes, such as the hermaphrodite: "…who creates havoc in the patriarchal family, inspires the women of the household with the desire to dominate, subjugates the father, cuts the hair of the son in a curious ritual of baptism and causes everyone to dress in clothes of the opposite sex." (Deleuze 1991: 47-48)

As this essay will show, masochistic performativity is largely conceived of as a set of fantasy scenes which the subject holds in suspense and carefully merges with the actuality of private/public performances, art works and filmic reproduction. It is important to note that ‘the mother’ is not a rigid entity within the performance dynamic. The mother is rather viewed as an enabling and open-ended sign, an adaptable character within s/m practices, and a debatable role model within feminist theory. The mother-figure grew out of a 60s oppositional consciousness which questioned psycho-analytic theory and patriarchal sex education models, and which entered film theory to revise theories of eroticism and gendered agency within the film text and spectatorship. By investigating the work of recent lesbian pornographers, the essay hopes to modify and rethink Deleuze’s formulation of the masochist aesthetic, as it enters a world of new technologies, pornography debates, and feminist thinking.


The Stage Setup of Masochism: Dungeon/Dreamscreen

In masochistic performance, performers are engaged in the exchange of sexuality and eroticism. Sadomasochism’s aesthetic impulse, however, always works as a kind of anti-art. As Dale observes: "Leather, chains, masks and handcuffs, common equipment during war, political oppression and torture, become stylized and fetishized as does the choreographed performance of many s/m scenes." (Dale s.d.: 16-17) The dungeon is full of kitsch yet distinguishes itself precisely from a regular prostitution house in its simulation of stage environments (rather than bedrooms). The New York s/m house Pandora’s Box, for example, consists of a Medical Room, a Classroom, a Times Square room, a Dungeon, a Virtual Reality room, and a Versailles room. Inside Pandora’s Box, blue velvet-covered walls open and close like sliding doors and regulate an ongoing traffic of clients who decide to act out masochistic fantasies inside the different rooms. Visitors in the Versailles room can get sexual release in ostentatious aristocratic environments, furnished with fireplaces, marble statues, gilt frames, and brocaded thrones. To the uninformed outsider, Pandora’s box aspires to accommodate the codes of conduct of the upper-class. However, the dungeon also contains a protocol of subterfuge and enables clients to act out and reconstruct socially ingrained roles and responsibilities.

A famous literary example of masochistic subterfuge would be Jean Genet’s play The Balcony (1958), which anticipated the s/m subculture’s growing desire to shatter myths of paternal authority. The satirical patriarchal stock characters such as the Judge, the Bishop, the General, and the Police, are juxtaposed with the more complex egalitarian character, the political revolutionary Roger. Roger’s masculinity exemplifies tension between a world of political activism and a sheltered world of erotic cruelty. In the final scene of the play, at the height of a Paris revolution, Roger undergoes an identity crisis and escapes from the streets of Paris into the s/m house to act out a Chief of Police in the vicinity of an obeying slave. After his clumsy performance, Roger castrates himself in a paradoxical attempt to impersonate and annihilate his desire for power. Roger is thrown out of the s/m house by the proprietress, Madame Irma, who disdains his lack of performative rigor and his lunatic gesture of self-mutilation which also stains her new carpets with blood. Roger’s tragedy is presented as the dramatic epiphany of a wavering masculine psyche in the modern era. A new dimensionality in his queer identity emerges through his simultaneous impersonation and castration of authority. However, even though his castration entails a rejection of an oppressive, genital-oriented culture, he fails to fully impersonate the masochistic ‘art of destruction’ and becomes a tragic character.

Masochism is similarly attained by male and female subjects, who develop performance strategies in a search for the mother. Not only does the masochist’s disavowal of phallic power calls for the suspension of orgasmic gratification and symbolic likeness to the father and his law, but such fantasy also enables a gender-fluid position of voyeurism and spectatorship in cinema. (Studlar 1988: 16) Studlar’s theory of subjectivity is ultimately a film theory which envisages a gender-fluid identity for the film spectator, and she questions feminist theory and queer theory which assumes a more rigid gender position for the viewer and the pleasures of film spectatorship. Studlar is thus one of the first feminist film theorists to have challenged the theoretical view which excludes the female from the structures of cinematic pleasure and libidinalized looking. (1988: 45) Studlar’s believes that the spectator is inventive and insurrectionary as s/he enters cinematic viewing strategies to question gender roles and patriarchal eroticism. Moreover, as Mary Conway shows in the recent essay ‘Spectatorship in Lesbian Porn,’ lesbian-produced porn more than any other type of porn imagines female viewers in ways of constructing cinematic pleasure (1997: 91-114).

Masochistic perception of sexuality is closely aligned with cinematic spectatorship in that the masochist constructs a virtual world through which s/he lives out fantasies which neutralize the real in the imaginative ideal. Studlar uses the concept of the 'dream-screen': " Through the dream screen - the formation of the cinematic apparatus as environment - the spectator is encouraged to play out the ambivalent oral stage conflict of union/differentiation with the fetishistic substitute for the mother. (1988: 25, 190) Studlar thus presents the masochistic stage as an environment which mediates between virtual ‘cinematic’ screens and material spaces. As will be shown in the last section of this essay, the masochistic stage as dream-screen is currently being reconstructed through new virtual technologies such as home video and Internet.


The Cruel Mother in Maria Beatty’s Pornography

In her study The Invention of Pornography, Lynn Hunt claims that pornography has since its emergence had a paradoxical relationship to democracy. It was invented in the period of modernity (1500-1800) in response to the perceived menace of the democratization of culture through forms of mass communication. Pornography emerged as a legal term denoting selected and censored publications "... in the context of the careful regulation of the consumption of the obscene so as to exclude the lower classes and women." (1993: 9-45) To the present day, it has been a challenge for women to have access to pornography and the masochistic stages.

Sexual flagellation as a masochistic practice, for instance, has for centuries been recognized by the industries of sex and medicine as a healthy instrument of erotic stimulation for male recipients. In the 17th century, German doctor Johan Heinrich Meibaum (1590-1655) wrote the first in a series of influential treatises about the medical benefits of sexual flagellation, indicating that it cured the adult male subject of madness, melancholy caused by unhappy love, erotic mania, skinniness, bodily weakness, but above all impotence. This idea became institutionalized in the flagellation house, where male patients would be sent out to be spanked or ‘cured’ by female dominants. Ian Gibson’s study The English Vice: Beating, Sex, Shame in Victorian England and After further documents spanking stories which featured regularly in the British newspapers as a form of hidden pornography. Needless to say that women, mostly portrayed as dominant characters within the fantasies, were actually discouraged from acting out erotic fantasies in newspapers or public s/m houses. Masochism was still mostly a male invention, although some authors indicated its potential to arouse female subjects. Take for instance John Cleland’s porn classic Memoirs of Fanny Hill (1749) which narrates an intense encounter between Fanny and the young, impotent Mr Barville. Cleland details the whipping session and conveys how Fanny herself gets pleasantly aroused during the session. After a mutual spanking and a nice dinner with Mr Barville, Fanny is suddenly overcome by "itching ardors" and "a prickly heat" which makes her shift and wriggle in her seat. Finally, Mr. Barville helps her get full satisfaction by means of spanking and full intercourse.

Published in the 1920s in Victorian England, Havelock Ellis’s case-study "Florrie," narrates the life of a suffragette who pursued feminism in public life and begged for chastisement and confinement in private life. Ellis as an early emancipated psycho-analyst taught Florrie how to accept her fantasies and gradually encouraged her to have her first orgasm through flagellation. A fully self-authored and persistent spanking fanatic was Edith Cadivec who wrote her memoirs in Confessions and Experiences and Eros: the Meaning of My Life (1920-1924). Cadivec gave an explicit account of her masochism and explained it as a cry for the intense physical touch and affection of her mother who passed away when she was nine years old.

A recent wave of s/m videos such as Maria Beatty’s cast a new light on the sexual nature of female masochism. In a stage setup which resembles a bourgeois parlor, Beatty and her partner Rosemary Delain conceived of their debut film, The Elegant Spanking (1995). Like most of her other short films, The Elegant Spanking portrays a childhood memory and longing for mother-daughter gratification. The film is shot in black and white, uses a classical spanking setting, and builds towards the gradual display of naked buttocks, meticulous and repetitive spankings carried out by the stern mistress’s hand, and the submissive’s sexual climax. Beatty is dressed up like a servant girl ‘Kitty,’ who is naughty as she fantasizes contact with the mistress’s bodily fluids. In a dissolving dream sequence scene, we can see how Kitty steals the mistress’s pearls which the mistress used for masturbation purposes. The stark black and white contrast in the opening shots of the video brings to mind a film aesthetic prevalent in silent, expressionist movies. The repetition of nicely framed eye-shots indicates that Kitty is a voyeur, who carefully watches her mistress’s body and begs for her attention.

Although Kitty is submissive in the s/m scenario, her point of view shot represents the unseen director of the masochistic performance and film text. In a daringly explored tension between nostalgic film composition reminiscent of the silent film, and an assertive lesbian bodily display, The Elegant Spanking subverts the point of view shot of commercial s/m pornography. The stylized mise-en-scène makes reference to older experiments in photography and film art. Beatty’s well crafted ‘buttocks’ compositions in particular, harken back to underground pornography and the birth of audiovisual technology in the 19th century. A catalogue of Nazarieff’s collection Jeux de Dames Cruelles Photographies 1850-1960 (1992) shows lesbian spanking scenes which have been integral to the institution of photography since the mid-19th century. Most pictures zoom in on the submissive’s naked and girlish butt cheeks as fetishized body parts. The two glaring cheeks surrounded by black stockings and white lace petticoats are an expressionistic black and white contrast which features strongly in The Elegant Spanking. The oldest classroom punishment scenes mostly depict the dominatrix participant as an older, uptight woman, while the submissive is a younger woman. The staging of age difference between the dominant and submissive partners accentuates the trompe l'oeil character of the flagellation scenes and hides their sexual intent. Browsing through Nazarieff’s collection, one can see a break-down of illusionism and the emergence of desire and pleasure in the more recent photographs. Beatty’s nostalgic films revisit the old-day punishment scenes, yet also admit to masochism’s subversive function and show how partners have intimate physical contact, and reach mutual satisfaction and orgasm.

Beatty’s masochism constructs an actual/virtual stage for enacting scenarios of dominance and submission. Studlar shows that a formalized masquerade aims to control and delay the moment of consummation:

Providing characters with a transformational visual mode of self-definition, masquerade functions as a performance that controls the enticement of desire. Through the temporality of masquerade, gratification is delayed and masochistic suspense is formalized. (1988:70)

Joseph Von Sternberg’s films for instance, who are the main focus of Studlar’s analysis, often portray female characters engaged in role-switching. Studlar’s main thesis is that the multiple female roles, stereotypes, and mothering images allure to the (female and male) spectator’s masochistic imagination.

Maria Beatty shows a range of female voyeurs and divas in her short films. In the film The Black Glove (1996), she moves her voyeuristic submissive persona inside a secluded space and writes a solipsistic narrative which leads to the dominatrix’s torture of her breasts and vagina. The film opens with a stylized slow motion sequence showing lady-like stiletto heels tapping into a polished floor. Beatty, tied up from head to heel, is then delivered to the dominatrix’s room inside a soft velvet wrapping. The dream-screen of The Black Glove still resembles The Elegant Spanking, as the infantile longing for maternal touch is translated and aestheticized into consensual lesbian role-play. However, The Black Glove shows more clearly how the voyeur brackets the other into the realm of the private consciousness.

The bodily worship of The Elegant Spanking has been replaced by a stainless steel fetish, a shining pinwheel and surgeon’s hemostats which are slowly applied to Beatty’s submissive body. Before she deprives herself of all sensory perception by donning a black mask, black lace panties (her own) are stuffed into her mouth. The camera then zooms into her vagina, and her white labia are slowly pulled apart by means of other shining instruments, then to be covered with black candle wax. Towards the very end of the film, a woman’s hand with black velvet glove enters the picture and tempers the cruelty. This absent third player appears as a shadow on the submissive’s body, and her voice fills the soundtrack with siren-like humming and orgasmic sounds. The contrast between soothing nature sounds and imagery, and candid portrayals of bodily torture, is crucial to Beatty’s works. It is explained by the artist as an attempt to show a painful state of bliss, or the bodily ecstasy following sexual climax (little death).

With The Black Glove, Beatty sinks deeper into the masochistic model of filmmaking, because desire is also portrayed as a state of mind rather than a physical condition. The submissive’s ‘other’ is no longer a living partner but an abstract formal entity. While Beatty still entertains the mysterious countenance of the mistresses, the film no longer presents the living women’s aura and relationship pangs, as did The Elegant Spanking. In order to trace Beatty’s development from spanking fanaticism in the Elegant Spanking to internalized masochism in The Black Glove, it is helpful to recall Deleuze’s ideas on coldness and cruelty. Following Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Deleuze explains that masochism, death or destructive instincts are exhibited in the unconscious in conjunction with life instincts. Destruction, and the negative at work in destruction, always manifests itself as the other face of construction and unification as governed by the pleasure-principle. (Deleuze: 30) Deleuze believes that the ‘negative’ impulse in masochism strives towards a ‘positive’ outlet or a redeeming cycle. Redemption is established through an intense physical ordeal which intensifies sense-perceptions and transforms them into distorted formal entities - the art of destruction. In this respect, the masochistic voyeur envisions a de-humanized sexual experience, or at least explores the tension between bodily sensations and the body as representation. Deleuze concludes that there is a fundamentally cruel aesthetic perception process in masochism in its disavowal and freeze-framing of aspects of reality.

Reading the diaries of Von Sacher-Masoch, Deleuze takes notice of the baron’s austere sense perceptions, and how they infringe law and order upon the living environment:

It has been said that the senses become "theoreticians" and that the eye, for example, becomes a human eye when its object itself has been transformed into a human or cultural object, fashioned by and intended solely for man. Animal nature is profoundly hurt when this transformation of its organs from the animal to the human takes place, and it is this painful process that the art of Masoch came to represent. (1991: 69)

Before Masoch pledges to surrender his life and luxury to the whims of a Russian mistress, he reclines in a comfortable chair and exposes the senses as ‘cruel theoreticians’ to objects of the decadent environment. Masoch dissects the environment and tries to give up the distinction between his bodily sensations and the body as representation. He calls this cultural state of transmuted sensualism, ‘super-sensualism,’ and he finds in inanimate works of art the reflection of his love for women who resemble cold, marble statues or paintings in darkened rooms. Although Masoch falls in love eventually and expects to be utterly emotionally hurt by his mistress Wanda, he makes a first cruel leap between physical s/m personas and their disembodied reflections. Materially speaking, Masoch gives up his estate to become a servant, laborer, and slave to Wanda’s court; only to be further mistreated, humiliated and finally dumped by the Russian empress.

Through a process of disavowal of living, organic aspects of sexuality; masochists aestheticize physicality and create two-dimensional images as fetishes. As Deleuze writes:

The fetish is therefore not a symbol at all, but as it were a frozen, arrested, two-dimensional image, a photograph to which one returns repeatedly to exorcise the dangerous consequences of movement, the harmful discoveries that result from exploration. (1991: 52)

Here the most obvious connection between Masoch and Beatty can be seen - the construction of a fetish which initiates the process of desire and becomes the ultimate incarnation of a formal aesthetic experience.

The luring voice and soft fabric (black glove) of the absent woman play an important role in The Black Glove, as mistresses Morgana and TV Sabrina apply inanimate and cold instruments to Beatty’s body - hemostats, and the rubber mask. According to Deleuze, the coldness of masochistic art is not the negation of feeling altogether, but the disavowal of sensuality. Through disavowal, the sexual experience is turned into a state of waiting and suspense, representing a dormant fusion of the ideal and real in the masochist’s fantasy. Waiting divides into two currents: "... the first represents what is awaited, always late and always postponed, the second something that is expected and on which depends the speeding up of the awaited object." (1991: 71) In the Black Glove, Beatty waits for the absent woman to torture the vagina. There is a tension delicately maintained between the cold, impersonal application of instruments by Sabrina and Morgana, and the hot, searing pain of candle wax, the substitute for sensuality, the reward following suspense.

Masochism is read by Deleuze as the desire to formally repeat and reconstruct a regeneration rite. The deeper the process of desexualization, the more powerful and extensive could be the process of resexualization. As we have seen before, the latter upward movement is suggested in The Black Glove by means of the sounds and the absent third player, whose voice and softness recall an earth goddess or maternal type. She typifies Beatty’s lost childhood and is idealized in the process of waiting, as the other mistresses prepare her for her candle wax ritual. If a fetish can be defined as the last object that a child sees before the awareness of the castrated mother, The Black Glove portrays the maternal glove as fetish. The black candle, which is shaped like a phallus, is the symbol of the process of castration (this is an ironic joke of course). (1991: 31)

Whereas Deleuze views the death drive as an inherently aesthetic and tragic faculty of erotic sense perception, Jacques Lacan presents it as a formation of the ego which is not unique to masochism itself. New Lacanian theorists have focused on the symbolic nature the death drive and contradicted clinical psychologists who consider s/m as a painful repetition of a traumatic experience. Lacan views the subconscious as a form of reason, logic, and pleasure, governed by signification rather than natural instincts. According to Richard Boothby in Death and Desire: Psychoanalytic Theory in Lacan’s Return to Freud (1991), Lacan theorizes the death drive as a primordial force of exclusion, a process of alienation which splits the subject from itself and from the external world through language and symbols. In the transition from libido to ego, imaginary Gestalts (shapes) act as a buffer or filter which refuses the transmission of energy.

Following Lacan, we can approach Beatty’s cinematography as the fragmented language which documents the gap between the unconscious and signification. Her masochistic and solipsistic dream imagery thus becomes symbolic of the act of communication itself, narrating a process of separation between parent and child and asserting the primacy of language in the development of life/art. One could say that Beatty reaches conscious expression only by means of disguise, distortion and displacement and she replaces the original lost object of desire with a substitute - the fetish.(Boothby 1991: 202, 80) The next section of the essay will investigate how masochism’s tendency towards fetishism can be understood within a feminist framework.


Feminism and Masochism

About seven years ago, in her article ‘Daughter of the Movements: The psychodynamics of Lesbian s/m fantasy’, Julia Creet asked herself to what degree feminism as an intellectual and activist movement had lost its credibility with a younger generation of women in search of new definitions of sexuality. Due to feminism’s lack of recognition of masochism as a sexual identity, Creet pronounced a rebellion against feminist modes of public culture: "The symbolic Mother has come to be the repository of the prohibitions of feminism ... feminism itself has become a source of approval or disapproval." (1991: 144) As a supervising symbolic mother, American anti-pornography feminism in particular, has often denounced womens’ public sex work and/or pornographic artwork, thus supporting an alliance with right-wing censoring organs.

In Bad Girls and Sick Boys, Linda Kauffman demonstrates how the 1986 Meese Commission on Pornography appropriated the extremist anti-porn arguments of feminists Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin to issue extremist measures against pornographic film and photography. MacKinnon and Dworkin had negatively defined pornography as "the sexually explicit subordination of women, graphically or in words." (Kauffman s.d.: 233-243) In the early 1990s, the Christian fundamentalist Jesse Helm’s infamous amendment to the American Senate proposed to censor ‘indecent’ art depicting "sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the exploitation of children and individuals engaged in sex acts." Helm’s amendment reflected a moral panic in religious and in feminist circles around pornography, a political development which has had a disastrous effect on public exhibitions of queer and s/m sexuality. Gayle Rubin predicted this development in the mid 80s in her seminal essay ‘Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical theory of the Politics of Sexuality.’ Rubin wrote:

It is always risky to prophesy. But it does not take much prescience to detect potential moral panics in two current developments: the attacks on sadomasochists by a segment of the feminist movement, and the Right’s increasing use of AIDS to incite virulent homophobia. (in Kauffman 1993: 33)

Rubin then suggested that sexually radical communities and their pornographic works be discussed outside the institutions and discourses of feminism in order to prevent the construction of a class of women ‘perverts.’ Nearly a decade later, in Presence and Desire: Essays on Gender, Sexuality and Performance, Jill Dolan reiterates that a prevailing feminist anti-pornography rhetoric ultimately censors deeply layered erotic lesbian imagery. Dolan wrote: "The Jesse Helmses of the United States aren’t the only ones legislating representation from ideologically, morally, and ethically righteous positions." (1993: 179) A contemporary writer, sex educator, and porn star, Carol Queen summarizes ‘feminism’s false analysis’ of pornography in the British magazine Skin Two:

[Feminism] has made the mistake of overestimating its area of expertise, assuming that because it does a good job in cultural and political analysis of gender, economics, and power, it can proceed to analyze everything, including sex ... Some women are deeply damaged by this absence of support. Others are simply turned off by feminism. For of course most of us do not eroticize spanking and other pervy joys out of any lack of self-worth ... How on earth can feminist (and others) imply our desire for pleasure is a source of weakness or worse? (1996: 87)

Masochism’s positive aura within contemporary women’s movements and film cultures is shown in Sasha Water’s Whipped (1997), a documentary which features three ‘life-style’ dominatrixes and owners of major New York dungeons; Carrie Coakley, Ava Taurel, and Sonya Blaze. Whipped focuses on the relationship between the dominatrixes and their male slaves and highlights their everyday politics and feminist activism. In one of the most endearing scenes of this documentary, Ava Taurel introduces a class of women apprentices to the principles of female domination, a set of coded performance practices which can be applied to private sex practices or public sex work. The film shows the entire class break out in laughter when one apprentice hesitantly whips a male submissive in front of the camera. Taurel’s workshop teaches women to gradually accept and embody the role of the mother/dominatrix, to interpret and act out the role in front of diverse clients, to acquire the technical skills of bondage and the discourse of humiliation, and to endorse the fantasy as a material practice in the dungeon and/or in the private imagination.

More provocative scenes in Whipped highlight the intricate relationship between Ava Taurel and her black slave Girard. Whereas Taurel explains Girard’s submission as an extravagant craving for affection resulting from early childhood trauma and brain damage Girard himself shows his discomfort and dissatisfaction being cast in this role. The film shows that Taurel and Girard respect and love each other, but are also caught up in a very rigid masochistic scenario. Whipped then follows the younger dominatrix Carrie Coakley during her pregnancy and marriage, and points to her necessity to embody fluctuating feminine roles and responsibilities. Carrie is shown as a strong woman torn between her radical sex activism such as leadership in New York City’s organization ‘lesbian s/m mafia,’ and a more traditional engagement with her family. Whipped poses ethical and feminist questions around the practices of dominatrixes by showing their complex search for a sexual identity within supportive activist women’s networks.

In order to locate a theoretical framework which can locate the feminist impulse in s/m sexuality, I will start with the ideas of the French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray. Irigaray argues that assertive female sexuality has been erased or misrepresented in the western philosophical tradition due to its being rooted in a Platonic illusionistic ‘stage setup.’ Irigaray imagines the prisoners in Plato’s cave as physically and mentally immobile and unable to envision the bodily, dark space, the womb from which they came: "Heads forward, eyes front, genitals aligned, fixed in a straight direction and always straining forwards, in a straight line." (1985: 245) The cave as metaphor has emptied itself from any relation to the body, as she writes:

... man’s attributes figure only insofar as they have been made into statues, immortalized in deathly copies. Any reference that might have been made to it --if one could only turn around - is from the outset a formal one. The potency of the enchanter has always already been captured, made into a corpse by morphology. (1985: 355)

Gillian Rose explains in ‘Masculinist Theory and Feminist Masquerade’, that Irigaray describes juxtaposes the masculine morphology as ‘corpse’ with a feminine morphology as ‘masquerade.’ Femininity does not reverse masculinity, but functions as a series of refusals of and deviations from masculinity. Speculum of Another Woman investigates the feminine masquerade as a new bodily discourse. Metaphorically speaking, the subject has to pass through a looking-glass (speculum) into a new territory of her own self-representation. The speculum differs from the Platonic mirror in that the subject is able to ‘self-touch’ and to mime modes of femininity. Irigaray imagines a mother-child environment which gets displaced at the moment of birth, when the child takes exile from the womb, and the mother is symbolically reconstructed as a space of absence and transformation. This space becomes an immense space, and keeps challenging traditional perceptions of gender and the body.

In the postmodern arts scene, feminist performance artists have responded to such ideas when they started to appropriate and parade the mythic functions and living properties of the body and sexuality in experimental performance works. For instance, Carolee Schneemann in Interior Scroll (1975) pulled a scroll out of her vagina and read aloud a text attacking a structuralist thinker who misread her body works. In 1991, Annie Sprinkle douched on stage in preparation of her ‘public cervix announcement’ in which, aided by speculum and flashlight, she allowed audience members to look at her cervix. Feminist theory and performance art has been crucial to the development of s/m masquerades in lesbian s/m videos.

In recent years, Elizabeth Grosz has reinvestigated Irigaray’s theory to formulate a new phenomenological view on the body. Grosz rejects the Platonic idea that the body is a brute, or passive entity, but sees the body itself as constitutive of systems of meaning. In Volatile Bodies, she redefines the body using Deleuze’s post-oedipal framework of the ‘Desiring Machine.’ The body becomes a desiring machine when it de-humanizes the object of desire and dissolves into surrounding environments. The subject becomes one with the machine-like apparatus and senses its merging components as changing, segmented and discontinuous waves, flows, and intensities.

Instead of aligning desire with the realm of fantasy and opposing it to the real, the machine stands for positive actualizations of the body within new technological environments.

Grosz refines her theory of the body in the essay ‘Animal Sex: Libido as Desire and Death.’ She argues that desire exhibits a logic of its own and always insists on a certain formlessness and indeterminacy. Grosz refers to the work of Alfonso Lingis and points to a merging of corporeal and erotic desire within the body as desiring machine. Lingis distinguishes between corporeal need and erotic desire, and explains that the latter craves strategies of ‘pleasurable torment’ in order to prolong and extend beyond physiological needs. Desire fragments and dissolves the unity and utility of the organic body and breaks up the teleological plans and tasks to perform. The body constantly interrupts the subject’s goal-oriented sexuality, rewriting it as an open-ended and performative category. Following Lingis, Grosz explains that the ‘other’ as object of desire deranges the physical order, harmony and industry of the subject. The body gets thoroughly confused as it is approached through diverse organs, zones, surfaces which are jealous of one another and want to get aroused "... not simply by pleasure, through caresses, but also through the force and energy of pain. Pain is as capable, perhaps more so, of inscribing bodies as pleasure. We cannot readily differentiate the processes by which pleasurable intensities are engendered from those by which painful intensity is produced." (1995: 289) For Grosz, erotogenic zones are not necessarily nostalgic reminiscences of a pre-oedipal, infantile bodily organization; but they are sites-in-construction" ... in the process of being produced, renewed, transformed through experimentation, practices, innovations, the accidents or contingencies of life itself, the coming together of surfaces, incisive practices, inscriptions. (1995: 289) Grosz argues that in order to accept the machinic body as a powerful category of inscription and intensification, the Freudian ‘hydraulic’ model of sexual release, and the internally interlinked faculties of pleasure and death, need to be revised. The needs and functions of machinic body merge actuality/corporeality with virtuality/signification and are thus different from the Freudian and Lacanian model.


Electronic s/m

Merging the body with machinic environments, filmmakers and spectators are rewriting masochism inside the culture of lesbian s/m porn, which is accessed by a growing community of home video and Internet spectators, sex workers, artists and critics. Writers such as Pat Califia, for instance, successfully promote the masochistic body as a new setting for auto-ethnography and female pleasure. In Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex (1995) Pat Califia comments on new technological constructions of sex and fetishism in our culture: "The latex fetish is an excellent example of the way human culture (especially technology) alters human sexuality." (1994: 195)

Masochism as a psychic mode and cinematic viewing pleasure implies that the original fantasy of mother-child union remains unconscious and unremembered, and that gratification is forever postponed, even if reconstructed in the moment of spectatorship. (Studlar 1988: 21-25) Do lesbian porn films and Internet sites offer less sublimated narratives for the spectator? They encourage the spectator to produce and receive pleasure in the making of masochistic portraits - a new type of cinema and literature which is constructed in the process of exchanging and discussing private and public desires. In the introduction to Bodies That Matter, Butler defines the body as a "process of materialization that stabilizes over time to produce the effect of boundary, fixity, and surface we call matter". (Italics in original) (1993: 9) The masochist body can be seen as an artificial boundary which is produced in an open-ended type of communication, a process of materialization which renders new meanings in different user contexts, such as e.g. the cacophony of Internet chatting.

Artists such as Maria Beatty and Pat Califia have modified the masochist aesthetic through subcultural production and Internet exchange of porn videos, by encouraging performance participation in live and Internet communities. Deleuze’s theory of masochism precedes his formulation of the desiring machine and presupposes a separation between the spectator and his/her projected plane of illusions. This aspect of Deleuze’s theory of masochism was explored by Gaylyn Studlar in her theory of classical narrative cinema, which envisioned an intensity of experience and imagined role reversal in the act of constructing eroticism in dark movie theatres. In this precise moment when conservative censorship is struggling to extend its surveillance mechanisms from arthouse cinemas to Internet sites, the sexuality and theory of the masochist body is rewritten by artists and theorists and rescued from the dark within the less sublimated feminist and queer screen cultures.


Word of thanks

I would like to thank Michelle Siciliano and Hélène Frichot for reading and editing the text. Joseph S. Schaub for ample feedback from the outset of the masochist project. Herbert Blau and Kathleen Woodward at the Center for Twentieth Century Studies for their enthusiasm and encouragement. Joseph Slade and Ruth Bradley for comments on an earlier version of the text, published in Wide Angle, July 1997.



i Among those dominatrixes are Ava Taurel and Carrie Coakley. Maria BeattyÕs reputation as film producer and director began with documentaries about performance art: the anthology Sphinxes Without Secrets: Women Performance Artists Speak Out (1991); The Sluts and Goddesses Video Workshop or How to Be A Sex Goddess in 101 Easy Steps (1992) in co-production with Annie Sprinkle; and Imaging Her Erotics (1994) in CO-production with Carolee Schneemann. The performance art documentary Sphinxes Without Secrets was produced in response to the National Endowment of the Arts backlash against sexually explicit art. It brought together several performance artists such as Lenora Champagne, Ellie Covan, Diamanda Galas, Holly Hughes, and Laurie Anderson and intended to narrate a womenÕs history of performance art to counter-act restrictive legislation and censorship. Beatty was appointed director of this project, which was made possible with major grants from New York State Council on the Arts, Art Matters, Inc., and DCTV. BeattyÕs interest in Sphinxes Without Secrets was to produce (rather than debate) sexual politics and to participate in culture wars against the American conservative climate. Beatty later started to produce s/m videos which she decided to finance through her private sexwork rather than the more censored path of government funding.

ii This study meticulously dissects pre-war German pop icons, propaganda, private documents in their repression of the Ôred massesÕ who were associated with engulfing women, bodily forces, illnesses, and earth spiritualism. Theweleit explains fascist military rituals as the culmination of elite male fantasies erected in order to circumscribe a fear of social dissolution.

iii In Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty, Deleuze distinguishes three ÔmotherÕ archetypes in Von Sacher-Masoch diaries; an Aphrodite who is dedicated to love and beauty. She generates disorder and stands up for the equality of women by attacking patriarchal institutions. The second is a sadistic type who enjoys hurting and torturing others but is liable to become a manÕs victim. The third woman represents an ideal mixture of both, and represents coldness as a disavowal or the intense and nurturing transformation of sensuality, 52.

iv Studlar, In the Realm of Pleasure, 32. Studlar also mentions that Deleuze and Guattari further critique Freudian gender identification in the evocation of post-gender ÔDesiring machinesÕ in Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.

v A. Norman O.Brown inspired reading of The Balcony is further outlined by Lewis T.Cetta in Profane Play, Ritual and Jean Genet (p. 41-54). Cetta believes that the castration scene evokes the conflict of the desire of the immortal child for pure, polymorphous play; and the reality principle which imposes genital organization.

vi Studlar refers to Laura MulveyÕs seminal essay, ÔVisual Pleasure and Narrative CinemaÕ.

vii Although The Elegant Spanking grew out of a collaboration between Maria Beatty and Rosemary Delain, Beatty was in charge of most aesthetic aspects of the film making process, imposing composition and editing styles onto the spanking narrative. Once The Elegant Spanking was launched into the New York s/m scene and gay and lesbian film festival circuits, it caused exaltation, raving successes and emotional turbulence in the life of the producers.

viii Studlar, In the Realm of Pleasure, 70.

ix See for instance Louise KaplanÕs Female Perversions: The Temptations of Madame Bovary for an example of humanist clinical psychology which denounces cold fetishistic tendencies in the masochist.

x Gillian Rose, ÔMasculinist Theory and Feminist MasqueradeÕ, In Nancy Duncan ed., Body Space : Destabilizing Geographies of Gender and Sexuality (London and New York, Routledge, 1996) 56-75.

xi See Elizabeth GroszÕs on the ideas of Irigaray, in Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction, and Judith Butler in Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex, 37.

xii See Gillian Rose, ÔMasculinist Theory and Feminist MasqueradeÕ, In Nancy Duncan ed., Body Space: Destabilizing Geographies of Gender and Sexuality, 67-69.

xiii For a description of SprinkleÕs performance, See Chris Straayer, Deviant Eyes: Deviant Bodies, Sexual Reorientation in Film and Video, 235.

xiv Reflecting on the role of the masochist aesthetic in postmodern arts and filmmaking, I also refer to Noel BurchÕs lecture ÔThe Sadeian AestheticÕ, which he delivered at the Rotterdam Arts Festival of 1998. According to Burch, the cult of de Sade has made an alliance with high modernist abstract formalist art and avant-garde filmmaking as it encourages the spectator to enjoy the "optical and formal aggressions which the medium makes possible, a disinterested, aestheticized approach to the representation of violence." The cult of de Sade establishes a "particular eroticization of ethics and politics" in abstract art and writing which stems from the cult of a self-engendered genius artist who transformed the world and matter into the fetish artwork. In contradiction to sadism, masochism professes a different approach to the representation of erotic cruelty and enables the viewer to identify with the subject matter. Although Burch believes that such experience can be found in the more "populist" experience of watching classical narrative cinema, one could also see applications of the masochist aesthetic in the sensual of femininity and the body in performance art and lesbian pornography.

xv See Volatile Bodies : Toward a Corporeal Feminism, 17-18. Judith Butler similarly rejects the naive "constructionist" corrections of "essentialism" in the introduction to Bodies That Matter: On The Discursive Limits of Sex, 1-23.

xvi For a discussion of Deleuze and GuattariÕs desiring machines as a new feminist model, see Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism, 160-186.



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