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Turn the Beat Around: Sadomasochism, Temporality, History by Elizabeth Freeman

Turn the Beat Around: Sadomasochism, Temporality, History by Elizabeth Freeman

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Published by caz__

I want to focus on sadomasochism,an extremely marginalized sexual practice that I understand in predominantly temporal terms, as a deployment of bodily sensations through which the subject’s normative timing is disaggregated and denaturalized. As I will argue later in this essay through an analysis of Isaac Julien’s 1992short film The Attendant, sadomasochistic sex performs the dialectic of a quick-paced modernity and a slower “premodern,” the latter indexed by any number of historical periods. Seen as a kind of erotic time machine,sadomasochism offers sexual metacommentary on the dual emergence of modernity and its others, on the entangled histories of race, nationhood,and imperialism as well as sexuality. Moreover, s/m does this work in simultaneously corporeal and symbolic ways, turning the queer body into a historiographic instrument: more than a cumulative effect of traumatic and/or insidious power relations, the body in sadomasochistic ritual becomes a means of addressing history in an idiom of pleasure.

I want to focus on sadomasochism,an extremely marginalized sexual practice that I understand in predominantly temporal terms, as a deployment of bodily sensations through which the subject’s normative timing is disaggregated and denaturalized. As I will argue later in this essay through an analysis of Isaac Julien’s 1992short film The Attendant, sadomasochistic sex performs the dialectic of a quick-paced modernity and a slower “premodern,” the latter indexed by any number of historical periods. Seen as a kind of erotic time machine,sadomasochism offers sexual metacommentary on the dual emergence of modernity and its others, on the entangled histories of race, nationhood,and imperialism as well as sexuality. Moreover, s/m does this work in simultaneously corporeal and symbolic ways, turning the queer body into a historiographic instrument: more than a cumulative effect of traumatic and/or insidious power relations, the body in sadomasochistic ritual becomes a means of addressing history in an idiom of pleasure.

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Published by: caz__ on Jan 28, 2013
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 Volume 19, Number 1
doi
10.1215/10407391-2007-016© 2008 by Brown University and
d i f f e r e n c e
s
:
A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies
elizabeth freeman
Turn the Beat Around:Sadomasochism, Temporality, History
S
exual minorities have in many ways been produced by, orat least emerged in tandem with, a sense of “modern” temporality. By thisI mean to describe more than just the way that gay men, lesbians, andother “perverts” have served as figures of either civilization’s decline ora sublimely futuristic release from nature. Instead, I mean that far from
merely functioning as
analogies
for temporal catastrophe, dissident sexual
communities and the erotic practices defining them are
historically 
tiedto the emergence of a kind of time—slow time.
To historicize the correlation between a particular way of being
sexual in the world and a particular experience of time, it is helpful toremember that modern temporality engendered a new set of bodily sen-sations. Critics at least as far back as Walter Benjamin have recognizedthat modern time, whose emergence he locates in the latter half of thenineteenth century, is a kind of double-time, in which the quick pace of 
industry shocks a sensory system trained by the slow pace of older produc-
tion processes.
1
Arguably, of course, this slow temporality is a retroactiveformation, an experience of time felt as a lack in the present but imagined
 
d i f f e r e n c e
s
33
as preceding the staccato pace of modernity—particularly as new genera-
tions of “moderns” have less and less access to older production processes.
But if we follow Benjamin’s important insight into how modernity
 feels
, we
can see another site where slow time seems to offer some kind of respite
from the emerging rhythms of mechanized life: the time of emotions
themselves.
Thus, in counterpoint to the time of factory life in the ante-
bellum United States, another set of sensations and corporeal forms
 were imagined, or even felt, as impediments to or bulwarks against therelentless movement of progress. As Dana Luciano argues, in the wake of 
industrialization in the United States, mourning was newly reconceptual-ized as an experience outside of ordinary time, as eternal, recurrent, even
sacred.
2
But so, I would argue, were any number of other affective modes.Mid-nineteenth-century writers figured maternal love, domestic bliss,romantic attachments, and even bachelorhood as havens from a heart-less world and, more importantly, as sensations that moved according totheir own beat.
3
This trope is different from the second-wave feministargument that domestic
labor 
was actually a precapitalist productionprocess. (In fact, household manuals from Catharine Beecher and Har-riet Beecher Stowe’s 1869
The American Woman’s Home
onward show that housework, too, was reorganized according to the principles of timemanagement and productivity, even if women remained outside of the wage system.) In contrast, the emerging
discourse
of domesticity, whichincluded but went beyond labor relations, validated and, in Foucaultian
terms, “implanted” a set of feelings—love, security, harmony, peace,
romance, sexual satisfaction, motherly instincts—in part by figuring them
as timeless, as primal, as a human condition located in and emanatingfrom the psyche’s interior.
In this sense, the nineteenth century’s celebrated sentimentalheart, experienced by its owner as the bearer of archaic or recalcitrantsensations, was the laboring body’s double, the flip side of the coin of industrialization. Mourning and romance, empathy and affection, even“family time,” were not segmented into clock time, and in this sense, theycountered “work time,” even if they were also a dialectical product of it.As Eli Zaretsky writes, “The family, attuned to the natural rhythms of eating, sleeping, and child care, can never be wholly synchronized with
the mechanized tempo of industrial capitalism” (33). Familial tempos are,
if not quite “natural,” less amenable to the speeding up and microman-agement that would later characterize the Taylorist system. It is not too
 
34Turn the Beat Around
much of a leap, I hope, to suggest that Freud’s concept of the unconsciouslater emerged as an even more unruly temporal zone. Appearing in thelate nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as the market put an evergreater premium on novelty, the Freudian unconscious refused to makean experience obsolete or to relegate it to the past. Within the Freudian
paradigm of 
 Nachträglichkeit 
, memory recorded the signs of an event when
the subject could not consciously process its meaning and preserved these
signs for future uses. Freud also reconfigured sexology’s perverts, formerly
understood as evolutionary throwbacks, as slaves to this unconscious.
Psychologizing what had once been biological paradigms, Freud identified
“perverse” sexual practices as a kind of stuck or frozen normal behavior:orality, anality, fetishism, and so on are, in the Freudian itinerary, placesto visit on the way to reproductive, genital heterosexuality, but not placesto stay for long. Henry Abelove and Paul Morrison have also described the way that as erotic life began to assume the contours of mechanized pro-ductivity, specific sexual practices came to be seen as “foreplay,” accept-
able en route to intercourse but not as a substitute for it.
4
If the denizens of 
domestic sentimentality resisted the production-time of industrial labor,then, we might say that perverts—melancholically attached to obsolete
erotic objects or fetishes they ought to have outgrown, or repeating unpro-
ductive bodily behaviors over and over—refused the commodity-time of speedy manufacture and planned obsolescence. What I want to emphasize here is that sexual deviants, now 
seen as creatures whose very minds had gone temporally awry, were
unimaginable before the modern regime of “progress,” a discourse even
more totalizing than the “civilizing process” championed by evolutionism.
 With these changes as background, I want to focus on sadomasochism,an extremely marginalized sexual practice that I understand in predomi-
nantly temporal terms, as a deployment of bodily sensations through which
the subject’s normative timing is disaggregated and denaturalized. As I will argue later in this essay through an analysis of Isaac Julien’s 1992short film
The Attendant 
, sadomasochistic sex performs the dialectic of aquick-paced modernity and a slower “premodern,” the latter indexed byany number of historical periods. Seen as a kind of erotic time machine,sadomasochism offers sexual metacommentary on the dual emergence of modernity and its others, on the entangled histories of race, nationhood,and imperialism as well as sexuality. Moreover,
s/m
does this work in
simultaneously corporeal and symbolic ways, turning the queer body into
a historiographic instrument: more than a cumulative effect of traumatic

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