May 272009

Lively, Adam. Masks: Blackness, Race and the Imagination Oxford University Press, 2000. Link

The history of BDSM is not about straight lines. There is no one perfect point of “pure BDSM” from which everything else flows, no perfect authentic moment. Instead, there’s an endless series of mirrors, masks and myths. The persistent myth of the “ancient European slave training houses” is the sign of a yearning for certainty in a subculture that has always been about an aggregation of individual fantasies.

Lively’s book includes a couple of interesting historical anecdotes about the default color for fetish attire, black. Edmund Burke’s 1756 treatise on the beautiful and the sublime “equates darkness with the sublime (i.e. in the precise eigteenth-century use of the term, with that which induces the strongest emoitions of terror)” (Pg.18) John Locke thought the association of darkness with terror was cultural, but Burke thought it was universal, and tells a strange anecdote of a boy born blind who regained his sight, and was uneasy when he saw black objects, and terrified when he saw a black woman.

Blackness is also associated with dirtiness and sin, utilized by Martin Luther in anti-Catholic rhetoric.

Blackness is also associated with sexuality and symbolic limits.

… it is easy to see how the image of the phallus might attach itself to an outsider group, a group marked out physically as different. Their sexuality marks out the limits of what is permissible. Sexuality itself becomes the desire for order and boundaries. The phallus is a symbol both of that order and of the anarchy and otherness that threaten to destroy it.

So the important point about the association of blackness with sexuality in the European mind is that it is a transgressive sexuality. Hence the continuing mixture of fascination and taboo that surrounds the sexuality of black people in the white mind.

Pg. 19-20, emphasis in original

Lively shows how this association goes back to Genesis, and how Noah’s son Ham became associated both with the black race and with sexual transgression.

In more recent times, black were seen by whites as being closer to nature than whites. “Seen positively, they are more authentic and less emotionally inhibited than Europeans. Seen negatively, they are closer to some inherent evil, some heart of darkness, in human nature. Both views, the optimistic and the pessimistic, share the notion that blackness is truth-telling, that it reveals what human beings are really life when stripped of the conventions of culture and civilisation.” (Pg. 55)

Others saw in blackness an expresion of authenticity, of connection with natural feelings. This was the sentimental view of the African slave promoted by the abolitionists, who – in a twist characteristic of evangelical Christianity – exalted victimhood to a state of masochistic nobility.

The image of the black man as existential anti-hero, the bearer of rebellion and authenticity, ahs its origins in the sentimental aesthetic of abolitionism. While liberals are themselves written into the complex, antique melodrama of racial attitudes, and to understand the subconscious of modern white liberalism on must go back to the culture of anti-slavery and its picture of the suffering African.

Pg. 55-56

Slavery was a known and familiar topic, but it became a window dressing to standard melodramatic plots read or watched by people who didn’t give a damn about actual slaves.

The subject matter of Inkle and Yarico and Oroonoko – innocence betrayed and star-crossed lovers – was also that of the slavery literature of the late eighteenth century. The enormous actual gulf between European and enslaved African was bridged in the imagination by projecting on to slavery conventional melodramatic scenarios.

Pg. 61

Slaves were just one of the many types of victims – seduced and abandoned women, orhans, imprisoned debtors – used for sentimental purposes. The slavey was just the most extreme suffering body, and a touchstone for sympathetic connection. “The reader observes the slave-victim’s nerves quivering beneath the lash, and her own nerves tremble in harmony. She dissolves or ‘melts’ in tears….” (pg. 75)

The Marquis de Sade was publishing his novels at exactly this time, and a number of critics… have interpreted the gothic literature of sado-masochism as being but an alternative manifestation of sentimentalism. Indeed, the descriptions of the horrors of the slave trade in abolitionist literature have at times an almost pornographic quality.

Pg.75, ellipsis added

The slave’s physicality asserts itself through suffering; this body appears beneath the whip. The erotic content is reduced to a residual, sublimated sado-masochism.

Pg. 78

This shows up in works ike Guy de Maupassant’s “Alouma” (1889), in which the protagonist is obsessed with a half-breed woman in Africa, depicted as seductive and animalistic. “I would make her into a sort of slave mistress, hidden away in my house like the women in harems” (quoted on pg.146) Note the conjunction of Orientalist and Africanist fantasies. Another French novel, Pierre Loti’s Le Roman d’un spahi (1881) describes the protagonist’s encounter with another exotic African beauty as “passing over a deadly threshold, signing with this black race a fatal pact.” Blacks are, in the white mind, liminal, a gateway to other realms: the past, the spirit realm, the realm of the dead, the unconscious, the sensual, the authentic.

Genet, as discussed previously, was a perv, and identified with the lowly: the maids, the whores and pimps, the convicted murderers, and blacks, as seen in his Les Negres.

Genet’s Negres achieve their pride by becoming, in a ritualized context, the fears and projections of the white audience. They wear the masks. A similar argument as been put forward by the critic Henry Louis Gates to defend the verbal obscenity and violence of some rap music. Rap, according to Gaes, operates in a context of ‘signifying’, in which slurs, insults and stereotypes are rehearsed as parody, worn as masks. Other African-American commentators, such as Cornel West, take a less benign view of rap, seeing in it dangerous signs of a real ‘black nihilism’ produced by the social meltdown of America’s inner cities.


“ritualized context… fears and projections…. obscenity and violence… slurs, insults and stereotypes are rehearsed as parody…” and turning a real world atrocity into romantic primitive fantasy. Remind you of anything? Rap and BDSM both play in the same areas, and both are provocative challenges to liberalism. But in both cases what is real and authentic is unclear, and what’s left is mirrors and masks.

This brings us to the grand whitewashing of kink, and the chronic underrepresentation of people of color in BDSM. If BDSM can be traced back to the fantasies of colonizers, no wonder the colonized are reluctant to participate.

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>



This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.