The Commerce of Peoples: Sadomasochism and African American Literature

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9780739167434: The Commerce of Peoples: Sadomasochism and African American Literature

Representations and coverage of S&M have become quite common nowadays, whether we see them in the fashion industry, commercials, the news, on television, film, the internet, and so on. But in the population at large and in the academic community, too, it is still persistently stigmatized. This marginalization, along with its ambivalently persecuted status, is a result, significantly, of a nineteenth century legacy. This legacy begins with Kraftt-Ebing’s designation of sadomasochism, along with gay and lesbian desire, as a perversion, and continues in the popular and expert (mis)understandings which prevail.

More generally, most people today will recognize that all human relations are power relations. Yet most people will also deny this and mask these power relations by invoking all sorts of things, like romantic love, sentimental attachment, companionate marriage, friendship, peace, non-violence, harmony, and the list goes on, ad nauseam. Not that these do not exist in a sadomasochistic relation, but sadomasochists are unflinching in their recognition that all of these are also permeated by power relations. It is not only impossible to purge these relations of power but for sadomasochists it is also undesirable to do so. It is not only more honest to acknowledge the power that saturates these relations but also more instructive in the sense that S&M provides a context in which one learns to exercise power and to submit to it in a responsible way.

Even in scholarly critical and theoretical discussions of S&M, the prevailing opinion is that the power exercised in sadomasochism is not “real.” It is of course not real in the sense that slavery and violence no longer has a legal status. But reality cannot of course be gauged or even approximated by its legal status alone. For most practitioners, it is hard to deny the reality of pain, of humiliation, of degradation, in the moment of its enactment. One can hardly deny the reality of bringing the whip down on someone’s back or of having it sear across one’s buttocks.

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About the Author:

Biman Basu is associate professor in the Department of English at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, upstate New York. His research and teaching interests include African American Literature, Globalization, postcolonial and diasporic studies. He has published articles in Callaloo, College Literature, African American Review, Diaspora, Ariel, Public Culture, and other journals.

He is interested in the nexus between power and desire, and he addresses this directly in a course on sadomasochism, "Power, Desire, Literature." More generally, he is interested in what he sees as an emergence of different continental and national styles of sadomasochism, in both the public and private spheres, in both the popular-cultural representations of S&M and its social and political implications.

Review:

The Commerce of Peoples provides an unflinching look at the multifaceted power relations enmeshed in the affective history of sadomasochism as it has emerged in practice over the past several decades. Basu boldly argues that, in order to understand the contemporary intertwining of domination, submission, and desire, we must recognize that its history bears the marks of both slavery and colonialism of the last three centuries and that its utopian effort seeks to unfetter that corporeality. His analysis shows that the most daring and illuminating portrayals of race, gender, and sadomasochism may be found in key texts of African American literature. (Lee Quinby, Macaulay Honors College, CUNY)

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