Culture on the Edge

by Kiko Matsing

Marlene Dietrich as Lola Lola in The Blue Angel, 1930

[Sadomasochism] is an archaic ritual form that descends from prehistoric nature cults and that erupts in sophisticated “late” phases of culture, when a civilization has become too large and diffuse and is starting to weaken or decline. I state in Sexual Personae that “sex is a far darker power than feminism has admitted,” and that its “primitive urges” have never been fully tamed: “My theory is that whenever sexual freedom is sought or achieved, sadomasochism will not be far behind.”

Sadomasochism’s punitive hierarchical structure is ultimately a religious longing for order, marked by ceremonies of penance and absolution. Its rhythmic abuse of the body, which can indeed become pathological if pushed to excess, is paradoxically a reinvigoration, a trancelike magical realignment with natural energies. Hence the symbolic use of leather—primitive animal hide—for whips and fetish clothing. By redefining the boundaries of the body, SM limits and disciplines the overexpanded consciousness of “late” phases, which are plagued by free-floating doubts and anxieties.

(from Scholars in Bondage, Camille Paglia)

It’s interesting how Paglia relates a culture’s decadent phase with the rise therein of sadomasochism. When religious repressions have finally been done away with, they return with vengeance in the form of ritual discipline in BDSM.

Cruelty in decadent culture is elevated to a form of aesthetic experience–in the fetish costumes, elaborate paraphernalia, and theatrical staging. In this sense, Tinto Brass’ pornographic biography of Caligula (1979), universally panned by critics, is perhaps the best evocation of decadent Rome, just as Pier Paolo Passolini’s Salò (1975) was for fascist Italy.

Cover art for White Women

Dressed to ride and to be ridden

Ritual discipline of the body

Monica Bellucci: S&M as decadent theater.

Not a welt on that smooth skin. Helmut Newton brings Weimar Berlin decadence to fashion photography. It is not surprising that fashion–the most whimsical of the applied arts–is a cultural vanguard when it comes to S&M fantasy, a signal for Paglia of a culture in its late phase. The drama of aggression and humiliation is presented in beautiful, sheen surfaces–desirable and pleasing to the eye.

Not only when what was once transgressive has been aestheticized and intellectualized–absorbed into so-called “high culture”–but also when the masses have become blasé to it that you know the culture has began to ebb.

S&M-lite for soccer moms: Trailer for the upcoming Fifty Shades of Grey

Billed as “the world’s largest pansexual BDSM event of the year,” the Black Rose conference was to include a 24-hour dungeon, a “slave auction,” a “kinky clown” carnival, a “Free to be Bound” banquet and show, burlesque acts and more than 100 workshops on a variety of bondage, domination and sadomasochism, or BDSM, topics, according to local news reports…

Spokeswoman Susan Wright of the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom told the newspaper Black Rose is an educational group.

“It’s going to be a lot of sitting in chairs and people lecturing on how to better your relationship,” she explained. “… We’re teaching people how to engage in alternative sexual expression safely. We teach how to communicate what you want and spice up your sex life.” She estimated the event would have generated at least $250,000 for hotels and other beach businesses.

(from S&M-Event Organizers Whipped in Maryland, 17 Oct 2003)

When a BDSM outfit has become an “educational group” on how to inflict and receive sexual abuse “safely,” and when such endeavors are deemed welcome in otherwise suburban, middle-class neighborhoods (to drum up business!), it’s time for a reactionary backlash.

Good Friday penitents in San Fernando, Pampanga, Philippines:
We take our ritual penance seriously.

Paglia is correct in grounding sadomasochism in religious “ceremonies of penance and absolution” as opposed to being symptomatic of that vague, catch-all (i.e., meaningless) blame-term “late capitalism” in critical theory.

[Margot Weiss, author of Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality] is lured by the reflex Marxism of current academe into reducing everything to economics: “With its endless paraphernalia, BDSM is a prime example of late-capitalist sexuality”; BDSM is “a paradigmatic consumer sexuality.” Or this mind-boggling assertion: “Late capitalism itself produces the transgressiveness of sex­—its fantasized location as outside of or compensatory for alienated labor.” Sex was never transgressive before capitalism? Tell that to the Hebrew captives in Babylon or to Roman moralists during the early Empire!

(from Scholars in Bondage, Camille Paglia)

This Medieval Catholic practice of self-flagellation is played out every year in San Fernando, Pampanga in the Philippines. It culminates in the actual crucifixion of penitents on Good Friday. Both men and women submit themselves to absolution on the cross. (Hey, we are equal opportunity feminists!) It’s a way, as Paglia observes, to re-equilibrate the relationship with God or the cosmos. I can see this self-inflicted punishment as form of taming carnal nature extending to the idea of limiting the body in BDSM in decadent culture. There’s certainly nothing “late-capitalist” about it.

This shows how insular gender studies and academic feminism have become–a result of hallow theorizing without the rigor of fieldwork. It is easy to get seduced by the pseudo-technical lingo of critical theory, especially if it comes with the imprimatur of Ivy League schools. But Paglia blows through their cobweb of sophistry and clunky diction.