Sadomasochism, Theology and Capitalism

There is a frustrating ambiguity to Jeremy R. Carrette, ‘Intense Exchange: Sadomasochism, Theology and the Politics of Late Capitalism’ (theotherjournal.com, An Intersection of Theology and Culture, April 2, 2006).  To some extent this is deliberate; Carrette wants to ‘refuse the either/or mentality of Christian binary epistemology and to recognise that in complex worlds we can at times both simultaneously abuse and liberate in the same action’. Ultimately, though, he is working within the framework of logical discussion, which is rooted in either/or distinctions; if sadomasochism and Christianity are connected, then ‘either Christianity was distorted and needs correcting, or … power lies at the heart of all intimacies, or … God is at [the] heart of all affliction’. Since he poses these alternatives the reader has some right to expect him to choose among them, or synthesize them in some way, but this he refuses to do.

The conclusion of Carrette’s paper is a rallying call to action; ‘our pleasures are all we have to free ourselves from the modes of alienation so prevalent in our world’, and Christian communities have for so long read sexual exchange as the surplus commodities of transcendence, to be claimed in another world, it is now time to realize the redemption of our pleasures in this world and free our gendered bodies from the market of global exploitation.

In order to understand what kind of action Carrette is talking about we need a clear statement of whether, in his view, sadomasochism is part of the problem or part of the solution, but this is where he refuses to commit; he is prepared to go no further than saying that S&M ‘can be both oppressive and liberating’, which doesn’t really make it clear whether it is a help or a hindrance in redeeming pleasures or freeing gendered bodies from global exploitation.

Part of the problem lies in the subject matter itself and in the tools Carrette chooses to work with. A set of practices that codifies personal relationships so absolutely in terms of power may reasonably be assumed to have a political dimension, but in his exploration of the issues Carrette goes a step further and asserts that, in order to understand the role of S&M in relation to Christianity, it is necessary to understand ‘the political ideology behind its varied manifestations’. To say that S&M has a political dimension and to say that it has a political ideology are very different things, and if Carrette fails to find a coherent underlying political ideology it is probably because there isn’t one.

On the one hand, S&M is right wing and conservative, rooted in contractual power arrangements that mirror all that Carrette feels is wrong with modern capitalist society; ‘S&M subcultures take images [from] WW2 Germany and flourish in the market economy of the USA’ and maintain ‘the power structures of hegemonic patriarchal sexuality’. On the other hand, S&M has a subversive side, seen in ‘the surrealist films of Artaud’, ‘the avant-garde novels of Klossowski and Bataille’, in ‘its forms of political resistance in the gay leather scene’, and (although he downplays the significance of this) ‘in the subversive and sensual tactics of theologians and writers delighting in the connection between S&M and the history of Christianity’.

A set of practices that is at once conservative and subversive is necessarily resistant to binary classification, and to that extent Carrette has little option but to conclude that S&M ‘functions … as both a site of resistance [to] and compliance with global capitalism’. But this leaves him in something of a quandary.

Similarly irreconcilable opposites pervade Carrette’s discussion of ‘The obvious links between the history of Christianity and S&M’. On the one hand, ‘at some level religious suffering and S&M may constitute a parallel event’, but on the other, ‘we must be wary of the association made between the erotic and spiritual, which more often than not turns to a kind of New Age fluff’, and ‘there are huge epistemological quandaries in understanding the erotic experience of S&M as religious or theological’. At the same time as asserting, following Mark Jordan, The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism (University of Chicago, 2000), that ‘Christian theology can learn from the contemporary site of S&M practice’, and S&M is ‘powerfully illuminating to theology’, he makes it plain that he has little time for so-called Christian sadomasochists ‘bizarrely sanctioning S&M through the biblical texts on submission’. If there is, as he insists, stable ground on which a spiritual understanding of the world may learn from and build on sadomasochistic practices, where is it to be found?

Part of the reason why Carrette appears unable to resolve the paradoxes he so cogently describes may lie in his refusal to see S&M as anything other than ‘a recent discourse’, a ‘modern invention’, dating back no further than Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (1886). I would query this on two counts. The first is that sadomasochism is both a discourse and a set of practices. The second is that it is much older, both as discourse and as a practice, than its codification in the nineteenth century. We know that, in the seventeenth century, there were ‘flogging cullies’ who achieved sexual arousal by being beaten, and Krafft-Ebing is building on earlier discourses, from Sacher-Masoch (1870) to Pico della Mirandola (1496). References to biting, scratching and slapping as ways of heightening sexual pleasure in the 2000-year-old Karma Sutra, and Jerome’s fourth-century tale (complete with erotic strangulation) of a Christian bound and aroused by a prostitute is just one of a number of texts suggesting that, while the term sadomasochism may date from the late nineteenth century, it defines something that has roots going back much further than that.

By denying or ignoring the historical (and, though it lies outside my scope, psychological) roots of sadomasochism Carrette allows no other context for it than that of late modern capitalist society. His insistence that it is a product of modern society forces the conclusion that it is susceptible to analysis only within the framework of that society. Would he apply this reasoning more generally, and insist that all discussion of sexual identities should begin with their taxonomy in the nineteenth century and be seen only in the context of late modern capitalism? This seems to me an unwarranted limitation of the subject matter, imposing a concomitant limitation on the kinds of enquiry that he considers legitimate, and leading to what, to me, feels like an unnecessary and rather unhelpful narrowness of interpretation.

Carrette’s other works – notably Religion and Culture, 1999, in which he critiques Foucault, and Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion, 2004, coauthored with Richard King – make it clear that he is pursuing a radical agenda, seeing religion primarily as prostituted in the service of capitalism by the political right, and his paper needs to be seen in the context of his general approach. He disparages Christian apologists for sadomasochism (he does not mention the infamous ‘Christian Domestic Discipline’ and ‘spanking for Jesus’ directly, but this is clearly the kind of thing he has in mind), because, in Gordon’s words, S&M is a ‘commodification of bodies and selves’, isolating ‘sacrifice, self-sacrifice and expressions of humility’ from their true roles as ‘part of veneration and worship of God, the Spirit’ (Bridges: Metaphor for Psychic Processes, Karnac Books, 1993, p. 274) – in other words, at this level, S&M is a part of the hijacking of religion by capitalism. At the same time, ‘Even in its sub-cultural commercialisation S&M can still be a site/sight of politic resistance’.

The emergence of proto-pornographic discourse in the seventeenth century is inextricably bound up with anti-religious polemic, not necessarily from an atheistic perspective, but as an attack on the supposed hypocrisy of particular denominations; the puritan minister who flagellates his maid – ‘he told me he must chastise me for the good of my soul’ – in Francis Kirkman’s The Presbyterian Lash (London, 1661, sig. B2v), or the Catholic priest for whom a mother and daughter strip and prostrate themselves in front of the altar in order for him to whip them – ‘She herself removes her underclothes to [bare] her loins, and goes down on her knees before the altar. Do not spare my impure flesh, holy man, she says’ – in Nicolas Chorier’s Satyra Sotadica (s.l., c. 1660, p. 202; my translation from the Latin) are satirical creations, specifically designed to ridicule a hypocritical asceticism. In order for them to work, there has to be recognition of the phenomenon of inflicting and undergoing pain for sexual pleasure.

Equally, as Melissa Sanchez ably demonstrates, the seventeenth century abounds in texts which discursively feminize the male political subject, and, of course, hagiography and the Petrarchan sonnet ‘both see suffering, not joy, as evidence of true love’ (Erotic Subjects, Oxford, 2011, p. 5). We can go back several hundred years and find proto-sadomasochistic discourse being used,
on the one hand, to subvert religious models and, on the other, to reinforce political ones, while, at the same time, the early modern flagellant who engages the services of a prostitute or maid to beat him into a state of sexual arousal (depicted a number of times in seventeenth-century prose and verse) is no more making a statement about religion or politics than his counterpart today.

Once one accepts that sadomasochistic practices and discourse both have a considerably longer pedigree than Carrette acknowledges, the need to separate the discursive functions of sadomasochism from the actual practices of the sadomasochist becomes much clearer. That, at least, is my take. Carrette’s might be different, but I feel his analysis could only be helped by a greater awareness of the genealogy of sadomasochistic practices and discourse.