Bob Flanagan and Monsieur M.: Notes On Two Supermasochists

Uncertain if this functions strictly as a “paper,” I describe the following as a series of observations on the conjunctive and disjunctive relation between self-styled “supermasochist,” Bob Flanagan in the posthumous documentary Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (Kirby Dick, 1997), and of “Monsieur M.” in Michel de M’Uzan’s 1972 essay, “A Case of Masochistic Perversion and an Outline of a Theory.”

There is no ambiguity during Sick that Bob Flanagan considers his masochistic practices to be entirely indicative of an immense strength on his part. Certainly, we see great parallels here with Monsieur M. of M’Uzan’s analysis, whose own allusions and accounts of “the terrible tortures he had endured” were ultimately descriptions of his own seeming “omnipotence [told with] an immense pride.” (461)

Assuredly, M’Uzan’s interpretation of M.’s masochism feels not too dissimilar from such a case as Venus in Furs, in which “the sadistic partner [is] a person destined to be held in contempt, someone who is devalued as he is reduced to the role of being a specific instrument.” (461) However, there is an ambivalent, albeit extant, relation here to Deleuze’s introduction to the same. For Deleuze, the masochist aims, in being beaten, to embody his father, thus presenting his domineering super-ego avatar to be beaten and accordingly castrated. According to M’Uzan, M.’s desire to be beaten appears to be a desire to be beaten by his father, although also makes clear to us that M did discover his father’s own masochistic desire, whilst also, it seems, denigrating his male sadists all the while. Thus, although we may well surmise the performative embodiment of the father in the masochistic role in the case of M. just as much as in Deleuze’s own speculation, it is difficult to suggest that the function of castrating disavowal of the father is as active in the fantasy.  It is for similar reasons that M’Uzan proposes the category of masochistic perversion, contrasted to moral masochism and/or feminine masochism, due to a lack of concern regarding the super-ego in the case of M.’s desire. Nevertheless, M’Uzan and Deleuze would disagree on the form of concern the moral and/or feminine masochist show in their desire toward the super-ego, suggesting more an identification with the mother, rather than an invocation of her. (462) Accordingly, M’Uzan ultimately concludes that M.’s psychological domain of familial relation is an entirely other landscape:


He is like his wife, his wife is like him, she is his parent, he is like his parents, etc. These are not identifications in the active and differentiated sense in which we find them in neurotics, but are purely “duplications.” Under these conditions one must consider his personality as being essentially structured outside the Oedipal situation. (463)


Interestingly, when director Kirby Dick interviews Flanagan’s parents about his predilections, his father expresses a certain sympatico with his logic, if nothing else, whilst Flanagan’s mother repeats over and over that she asks herself “where was I?” Flanagan and his dominant long-time partner Sheree Rose express no doubt at all regarding the maternal associations with the dominatrix. Rose is entirely forthcoming in her assertion that to be a dominatrix is in many ways to be a strict mother, one whose consistent, if not constant, giving of punishment and care is reflective of the idealised oral mother. Flanagan’s statement that “I don’t get turned on by slamming my hand in a car door; I don’t get turned on by being treated badly… but I’d ask Sheree to be mean to me.” In this statement we conceive of a triangle, at its points: a hand slammed in a car door, “bad” treatment, and “mean” treatment. We may surmise from this triangle, that each point is roughly reflective of the three women of Masoch: the slamming of the car door is the untameably unpredictable hetaeric, with no regard for context; the potential for “bad” treatment is the castrating Oedipal, actively sadistic and dehumanising; “meanness,” by contrast, is indicative of a role that can be negotiated, even scripted: the oral ideal. The script becomes apparent, as we see a comedic video of Flanagan and Rose, the overhead narration being a letter written to a fictionalised Flanagan’s mother:

“Dear Mom…I fell in love. In some ways, she sort of reminds me of you. I don’t know if it was the clothes she wore, the sound in her voice, or the look in her eye, but I knew I was hooked for life.”


Of course, just as we understand the reaching toward the ideal oral mother as not simply being a stationary locus toward which the subject can journey and at which the subject can finally reside, but instead the median point in the perennial oscillation of the subject-as-pendulum, the harmony of Flanagan and Rose’s dynamic as a couple is likewise portrayed at points in flux. The masochist may indeed often operate as the one in control, but here we move from Venus in Furs’ representation of the sullen, aggrieved and resentful masochism of Severin, to seeing outtakes from Flanagan and Rose’s video art, in which he becomes the angry director. Contract signing away all agency of action, decision and sensation of Flanagan’s over to Rose or no, Flanagan expresses his discomfort and displeasure freely and forcefully, if hurt when unprepared, or beaten inaccurately. Flanagan asserts whilst interviewed for his MOMA installation Visiting Hours, “I’m more the mad scientist than the guinea pig.”

As the film chronologically progresses, and Flanagan’s struggles with cystic fibrosis become harder for him to endure, his receptiveness to Rose’s expressed desire to engage in BDSM severely wanes. Rose says to the camera, “I don’t think he’s even a masochist anymore; I think life has beaten him down too much.” Whilst there was no doubt that Flanagan’s masochistic practice was always connected to a sense of battle against his ultimately fatal disease, we now have it presented as him being in the middle between two “beatings.” A submission to one is a disavowal of the other and, accordingly, his ambivalence about his own longevity appears reflected by his portrayed ultimate ambivalence about his lifestyle.

Contrary to the more consistent consideration of heterosexual male masochism presented by Freud and Deleuze, in the case of Monsieur M., his wife was a fellow masochist, and they both relied on male lovers (the ones so contemptuously considered). Instrumentalising these seemingly nameless and faceless others, both masochists were able to dominate and be dominated by each other by proxy, whilst M. certainly also was able to construct and affirm a masochistic identity on the basis of the maleness of these proxies that allowed for nuanced if pragmatic negotiations of gender performance and expression (consider in particular the tattoos Je suis une putain, servez-vous de moi comme d’une femelle, vous jouirez bien and the more non-binary assertion Je ne suis ni homme ni femme, mais une salope, mais une putain, mais une chair à plaisir). Indeed, one possible reason for the contemptuous treatment of male lovers ostensibly afforded so much power as to be able to instruct M. to amputate body parts, is that – outside of the masochistic scene – M. expressed no particular homosexual desire. in fact, the ultimate waning of his masochistic inclinations appears directly connected to heterosexual loss and desire.

We know from M’Uzan’s account that, although it did start up again for some time later, M.’s relationship to masochistic perversion halted abruptly at the death of his wife, who succumbed to pulmonary tuberculosis – reportedly, “she endured such extreme torture and was dominated by such intense perverse needs that she wasted all her strength, dying at the age of 23.” (457) The chronology of M.’s sadomasochistic rituals and encounters is ambiguous (as it is, to some extent, with Flanagan – to this we shall return), but we can determine that M. initially disengaged from the masochistic lifestyle for a period of at least two years, following his wife’s death, thus presumably restarting at about age 35, and having ten years of somewhat less successful encounters and relationships, before his interest officially started to diminish, seemingly concurrent to a stark increase in vanilla heterosexual dreams about a “voluptuous woman with whom sexual relationships approached normal love making.” (458) Thus, the cessations to M.’s masochistic inclinations appear instigated by the death of one masochistic woman, and the spectral appearance of another, hetaeric figure. That the first cessation appears marked by a period of sympathetic contraction of the same disease that claimed the life of his young wife should not, I suggest, be considered insignificant. As with Freud’s description of the question of life’s prolongation arisen within the conflict between Eros and the death-drive, the question of death in this case functions as a unifying principle between masochistic parties that appears at once to be in conflict with masochistic desire, but also its ultimate apotheosis of expression.

As with so many other analyses of masochism, the function of suspension, as much as the act, appears central to these examples of masochistic practice. Flanagan recounts to an audience about his early childhood indulgences:


Every Friday night… I’d wait ‘til everybody went to sleep, and I’d start to play… I’d pour white glue over my body… Trussed up by these plant hooks… All these ropes, suspending me off the floor.


As much as we may interpret the masochistic scene’s close association with binding and suspension as the particular attempt to freeze a particular moment – namely the moment the dominating female partner reaches the apex of cold, oral ideal – we cannot help but first and foremost associate Flanagan’s suspension of time as being directly linked to a desire to prolong a life marked for early death. Indeed, Flanagan credited his masochistic practice for having just such a result, living far beyond his original prognosis. Nevertheless, he also sardonically announces, “I was promised an early death, but here I am forty years later, still waiting.”

As with M’Uzan’s case of M., Dick’s documentary of Flanagan can only be considered approximately chronological, so it is hard to determine what was the “last” masochistic ritual of Flanagan’s before his demise. However, the final we see in Sick, before his deterioration of health is as such that Rose posits that he is “no longer a masochist,” is the infamous video of him, hammering a nail through his penis, into a block of wood. There are perhaps three elements worthy of note when regarding this video: first – just as with those early experimentations – Flanagan is performing independent of Rose or any other dominatrix. Second, nailing his penis to a block of wood likely represents for the majority of us the logical conclusion to the masochistic emphasis on being tightly bound and constricted. Third, the undoing of this act, with the resultant blood streaming from Flanagan’s penis, operates as the final ejaculation, the suspension now lifted.

Given that we see Flanagan describing the scene to an audience just before the video itself (unless, of course, it was a repeated act), we may assume later modes of play. Nevertheless, the narratological effect of this portrayed as the final masochistic act before Bob’s ultimate succumbing to his cystic fibrosis speaks, I believe, to the enmeshment of the illness with his play: not simply as something disavowed by Bob’s assertion of his own corporeal agency through his choice to go through such extreme feats, but perhaps as the ultimate super-ego who may be bested through the ritualistic process, but in the Deleuzian sense that depends upon its participation. The bloody release represents not simply a willingness to let go of the suspension and accept death, but indicates the end of a session in which the illness itself may be embodied as the anal-sadistic father to be defensively castrated by the oral mother. Perhaps the spectrality of this illness with which Flanagan parodically aligns himself for this act dictates the necessity for such genital mutilation, but we as an audience to the film do see it work. Following his death, Rose shows the camera the fatal phlegm that was in his lungs: now trapped in a plastic container. In choosing to let go, in choosing to die (rhetoric employed both by the nurses and Rose at Flanagan’s deathbed), that ultimate super-ego is made manifest that it may be castrated and, indeed, bound.


Sodomized and tired: sexual ambivalence and nihilism in gothic rock, post-punk and deathrock

(given at the 2018 Punk Scholars Network / International Society of Metal Music Studies conference – “Doing Metal, Being Punk, Doing Punk, Being Metal: Hybridity, Crossover and Difference in Punk and Metal Subcultures,” De Montfort University, Leicester 14/12/18)


Goth morbidity arose in part from a Schopenhauerian scorn for organic life: from Goth’s perspective, death was the truth of sexuality. Sexuality was what the ceaseless cycle of birth-reproduction-death (as icily surveyed by Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Circle Line”) needed in order to perpetuate itself. Death was simultaneously outside this circuit and what it was really about. Affirming sexuality meant affirming the world, whereas Goth set itself…against the world and against life…Goth suspected that rock was always and essentially a death trip.”

– Mark Fisher, k-punk, “It Doesn’t Matter if We All Die”

Of the predominant counter-cultural phenomena found within youth culture, Goth is perhaps the most associated with a ubiquitous sexuality, after the Hippie “free love” movement. Nevertheless, an encounter with the lyrical and sonic content of the most explicit gothic rock compositions, for all the darkly naïve romantic aestheticism one might associate with the genre, reveals a stark reflection of the neoliberal Thatcherite/Reaganite era: where love was not already dead, it most certainly was no longer free.

I came upon your room
It stuck into my head
We leapt into the bed,
Degrading even lice,
You took delight in taking down my shielded pride

Until exposed became my darker side

The imagery of sex and sex work in “Dark Entries” holds a position of self-consciously counter-intuitive dual functionality in Bauhaus’ psychogeographical tour through a red-light district: offering an escape from a grim capitalist mundanity, but only via an even darker transactional relationship with desire: “well-meaning upper class prey” rendered “walking money cheques, possessing holes”. This is not, however, to say goth sexuality as displayed in “Dark Entries” is “the same but more somehow;” there is, as briefly referenced by Mark Fisher, a queering of the normative sexual dynamic, in as much as the male/female subject/object relation is rendered in Gothic discourse an abject/object relation, instead. Mulveyan gaze theory historically bifurcates the experiences of male visual pleasure in transfixing the female object between positions of either fetishistic scopophilia or voyeurism: either holding the object up to the imaginary ideal – the cold, distant, inhuman partner of phallic desire, or revelling in the violent and lustful invasion and degradation of the object, scornfully rendered subhuman. In either case, this process is to affirm the integrity of the male subject, threatened by the castration represented by the image of the woman. However, the “protagonist” of the song’s psychotically close relationship with the jouissance-associated Real loses himself within this unconscious realm, to an extent where pronouns, both in the sense of gender, and in the sense of first/second/third person become notably interchangeable – “Dark Entries” begins from the perspective of “I”, referencing a second party, to whom the former appears to be sexually submissive: “in a hovel of a bed / I will scream in vain / oh please Miss Lane / leave me with some pain” – moves to an exchange between the singer and partner for whom the listener is avatar: “I came upon your room” – and then finally lands on a third-person-omniscient perspective on a cruising hustler: “he’s soliciting in his tan brown brogues, gyrating through some loathsome devil’s row.”Accordingly, aside from the traditional dynamic of sexual difference that affirms male subjectivity, here that subjectivity is entirely atomized.

Of course, the most obvious statement one can make is that, the ambiguity of gender past the first stanza queers the sexual dynamic inherently, simply through being almost certainly an exercise in non-heterosexual representation, and yet the ambiguity is not one of celebration; simply the result of an apathetic economy of sexual discourse. I phrase it thus, rather than indicating an economy of desire for, as Foucault’s history of sexuality notes, the evolution of society towards modern ethical concerns, reflected first in confessional religious practices, then later in psychoanalytical and psychological ones, is a shift from questions of “limitations of pleasure” to the “deciphering of desire as hermeneutics of self.” There is a greatly apparent ambivalence toward this latter position: desire itself is never acknowledged, and the self as a fixed enough concept to warrant hermeneutical investigation is called highly into question. And yet, such deciphering does occur, through the actions of another in a manner we would associate with the most voyeuristic dynamics established by Mulvey. This revelation of self within a frame of jouissance is, predictably, unutterable and horrific. Until exposed became my darker side.

Accordingly, the abject/object position of gothic sexual economy, leaving no subjectivity affirmed, has a consciously troubled relationship with integrity – particularly the sort of integrity one might expect to hear insisted upon in punk lyrics.. Simon Reynolds and Joy Press’s description of Siouxsie Sioux’s unmistakable image as “towards a glacial exteriority of the objet d’art’ evinced through ‘a shunning of the moist, pulsing fecundity of organic life” speaks to a universality of disgust: rejecting societal normality, in all its hypocrisy; not for something more profound, but for more illusion. The goth feminine opposition to normative commercial beauty standards is not on account of the falsity, but of the duplicity – makeup, painstakingly applied in such a way as to imply an absence of makeup, constraining itself to the regime of the natural. Meanwhile, as Fisher remarks, “The Siouxsie Look is, in effect, a replicable cosmetic mask – a literal effacement of the organic expressivity of the face by a geometric pattern, all hard angles and harsh contrasts between white and black.” Beneath the mask, we may expect to find nothing, but it is not comparative; it is not a “nothing” that may in contrast affirm “something” else – it is the nothing of mortality. Though ersatz, it is effective, inasmuch as the idealised inhuman feminine object is the catalysing avatar for abject male self-destruction: as Siouxsie sings in “She’s a Carnival,” “she’s a portrait of a poison for you to quench your thirst.”

Indeed, the opener to Christian Death’s seminal debut, Only Theatre of Pain attests to this sentiment:

Let’s skirt the issue
Of discipline
Let’s start an illusion
With hand and pen
Re-read the words
And start again
Accept the gift of sin

It is not my intention in this essay or, indeed, any other to speculate on the trauma of others as artifacts for philosophizing or cultural theory. Suffice to say, surviving friends, bandmates and lovers of Rozz Williams have in interviews directly quoted him as describing Only Theatre of Pain as being “autobiographical” – accordingly, I shall endeavour to allow the lyrics that combine dark manifestations of Christian ritual and sexual abuse – not least of all of children – to speak for themselves at a most fundamental level.

Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that every aspect of an immediate impression of his performance advertised a disregard for Nietzsche’s old adage: in battling demons, Rozz Williams displayed extreme comfort with becoming one, himself. However, the ubiquity – at least in the Theatre era of Christian Death – of symbolism associated with Satanism cannot be divorced from the reality that to hold an upside down cross is still to hold a cross; to say the Lord’s Prayer backwards is still to say the Lord’s Prayer. The sadomasochistic content of Christian Death’s music and imagery being rooted so firmly in a dystopian Christian world should not so naïvely be read as adolescent subversion, seeking to offend chaste, or at least vanilla, straight-laced churchgoers. Rather, it may be interpreted as a distinctly alternative, but nonetheless sincere, investigation of fundamental truths – not just hypocrisies – of the spiritual position, which undoubtedly include feelings of loneliness, confusion and ambivalence, perhaps best illustrated in the chorus to “Stairs – Uncertain Journey”:

Be Satan
Be Satan
Be Satan
Satan be gone

Indeed, sacrilegious as it may assuredly be, the subject position most often paralleled in the album’s lyrics is that of martyrdom: including and especially that of Jesus himself: “spiritual cramp coming for my ribs / those gangsters toting guns are shooting spikes through my wrist”. In this regard, Rozz Williams’ ethos reflects that of Joan Didion’s famous espousal of the philosophy of one of the first rock bands to be described as “gothic” – The Doors – whose music “insisted that love was sex, and sex was death, and therein lay salvation.” In essence, Eros becomes the binding agent between Agape and Thanatos that can justify such messianic sacrifice as the passion of Christ, through an overtly queered and feminized position:

Ritual mockery
Rectified doubt
I’m holding with arms open wide
Sleeping endless sleep on a bed of nails
Wake me up with your kiss

It is in moments of Christ-like endurance of torture / reception of sexual advances that Rozz takes on the cold, inhuman object position, himself, but it still maintains human frailty – the “salvation” sought after here seems to be, more often than not, salvation from profound isolation:

To hell with your excuses
What do you know
Of desperation?
You people never feel the pain
Of dark-eyed angels
In a desperate hell

Certainly, this is most clear, returning to the opening track “Cavity – First Communion,” whose final stanza addresses the notion of communion, a spiritual togetherness, catalyzed and congealed in what can only be sadomasochistic congress to remedy a loneliness that seems intertwined with any concept of a discrete subjectivity, again dissolving the fixity of pronouns. Perhaps most interestingly is the manner in which this song mirrors – possibly intentionally – James Kirkup’s controversial, banned poem The Love That Dares to Speak its Name, a first person account of a Roman centurion, having sex with the corpse of Jesus, following the crucifixion It is of note, however, that once again Rozz takes the passive position – the most direct action sounding withdrawn and masturbatory, until this also results in a diffusion of identity:

Three shots ring out a scream
Who wants to play Roman soldier
That lives inside of me?

My secret fear of being alone
I sit and hold hands with myself
I sit and make love to myself
I’ve got blood on my hands
I’ve got blood on your hands

Blood on our hands

This unappetisingly surrealistic state of queer sanguineous unity in isolation does, of course, take on a greater poignancy in the face of the goth scene’s notable concurrence with the HIV/AIDS crisis in the UK and USA. In his infamous reflection on homosex and the masculine ideal at the time of the crisis, “Is the Rectum a Grave?” Leo Bersani opens with the provocative first line: “There is a big secret about sex: most people don’t like it.” Though it would be supremely ambitious, this late in my paper, to try and précis for anyone unfamiliar with Bersani’s work all the avenues down which he travels, I shall simply summarise the final concluding paragraphs: the tragedy of the HIV/AIDS crisis was its literalisation of the self-annihilation represented in the “feminising” position of being fucked in the ass, and in doing so one may demolish one’s own “perhaps otherwise uncontrollable identification with a murderous judgment against him…[one] grounded in the sacrosanct value of selfhood.” He ends, reflecting on the almost spiritual ritualism of shattering the self through queer sex as “propos[ing]… jouissance as a mode of ascesis.” The “I” dissolves again, and becomes a position of “we” through untenable congress: blood on our hands, blood on our hands, blood on our hands.

In discussing Rozz Williams’ lyrics within the context of self-annihilation, one cannot avoid the fact that, on April 1st 1998, he took his own life. Such a fact makes difficult any reading of Rozz’s work that would doubt his sincerity. And yet, earlier in this paper, we discussed the issues surrounding this concept within the gothic context. Accordingly, I wish to propose that, through the inversions and subversions of hegemonic psychic structures of knowledge production through sexual difference, the gothic position is to be sincere about one thing: nothing.

The (Queer) Science: Nietzsche, the Theatre of Sadomasochism, and Dionysian Eternal Recurrence

(Given at the second Queer Modernism(s) conference: “Intersectional Identities,” University of Oxford, 12th April 2018)



The plural – Queer Modernism(s) – has forever struck me as indicative of the paradoxicality of today’s exercise. The generally considered postmodernist phenomenon of queer theory’s inquiry into the modernist realm, despite documentation of queer experience, however thickly veiled, stretching far into the shades of antiquity. Similarly may we consider the figure of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose idealised form of modernism appears so rooted in classical paganism, but whose image and reputation as a philosopher only truly flourished in its reification at the hands of poststructuralist philosophers, most crucially in this essay Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault. Clearly, then, a discussion of Nietzschean thought within the context of a queer modernist conference is dependent on various strands of nontraditional temporal inquiry, the most prevalent of which I shall call a Deleuzo-Nietzschean philosophy of time, originating in Nietzsche’s introduction to his concept of eternal recurrence in The Gay Science:

What if some day or night a demon were to…say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more”…Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine”… How well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

In Deleuze’s expansion of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, return of the same becomes – at first seemingly paradoxically – the return of difference. This self-similar recurrence is not the same as merely an endless loop as the demon proposes in The Gay Science; “it is not being that returns but rather the returning itself that constitutes being…It is not some one thing which returns but rather returning itself is the one thing which is affirmed of diversity or multiplicity.” Michael Hardt: “what Deleuze is working to develop…is an autonomous conception of difference and its constant proliferation in a creative process of becoming.” This is affirmed by Deleuze’s focus on what he (and he argues Nietzsche too) sees as the self-evidently non-identical nature of the return as being cosmologically inherent due to the absence of an already-attained position of equilibrium. For, if we accept eternal recurrence as cosmologically sound, we presuppose infinite pasts and therefore infinite variations already come to pass. Thus, were a terminal equilibrium state to be attained, it would have already have been reached: “the present moment, as the passing moment, proves that it is not attained and therefore that an equilibrium of forces is not possible.” This absence of equilibrium – and thus one would argue aufheben – is understood by postmodern disciples of Nietzsche as evidence of an ultimately anti-Hegelian position, to which we shall return.

Identity formation is undoubtedly, from a Deleuzeo-Nietzschean perspective, a repetitive process of development, from a state of difference. Indeed, Deleuze clearly asserts “repetition is…the only identity.” The process of absorbing myriad heterogenous values and drives on a psycho-physiological level is called by Nietzsche, “incorporation,” or “embodiment,” which on its basic process of enactment, repetition and performance, bears a strikingly prefigurative similarity to Judith Butler’s account of performativity in relation to gender. Accordingly, Butler understands Nietzschean perspective on identity as wholly compatible with queer theory:

The challenge for rethinking gender categories outside of the metaphysics of substance will have to consider the relevance of Nietzsche’s claim in On the Genealogy of Morals that “there is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed – the deed is everything…There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results.

Deleuze asserts that “in every respect, repetition is a transgression.” As part of a Deleuzian lexicon, repetition relates specifically to a re-actualisation or re-enactment of a unique event, unlike the cyclical and substitutive nature of generality. Repetition, rather, deals in an economy of “reflections, doubles, echoes and souls.” Elaine Gan: “With every repetition, differentiation returns not as the same, but as an excess that can intensify, allowing possibilities for new encounters and coordinations. Every repetition, through excess, introduces a possibility for differences to cohere or take place, vary, and then cohere again.” In the vein of the aforementioned Gender Trouble, gender and sexuality may be understood as becomings of repetition, routinely subjected to laws of generality. In just such a way, heightened consciousness in repetition becomes the mode through which power relations inscribed on and in the body, may achieve effective resistance through self-creation.

Affirmation of the self as repetition in the face of institutions and dispositifs of generality is described by Nietzsche, too, not as an act of transcendence but one of immanence, in which an event of realisation/actualisation is dependent on the same for all things and time conventionally perceived as “outside” the self, too: “If we affirm one single moment, we thus affirm not only ourselves but all existence…and if our soul has trembled with happiness and sounded like a harp string just once, all eternity was needed to produce this one event – and in this single moment of affirmation, all eternity was called good, redeemed, justified, and affirmed.” This assertion appears to be a development on the hypothesis of recurrence by Nietzsche himself, leaning toward an eternalist concept of time, in which eternity is invoked in such a sense that distinctions between past, present and future appear compromised, if not redundant. For, if all eternity were needed to produce one event, the future’s productive capability seems just as ontologically implicated in the present moment as the past.  Queer eternalist praxis of temporal folding/distortion thus appears contingent on a destabilisation of conventional cause-effect linearity – such destabilisation is understood by Elizabeth Freeman as a founding principle of the sadomasochistic encounter, thereby revealing corporeal ontology as the locus of recurrent power relations:

Various techniques of visual distanciation, which in contemporary S/M culture might also include the blindfold, the strobe light, or hallucinogenic drugs, produce a temporal noncoincidence between action and result that, in turn, makes possible the awareness of the body of object…Thus in sadomasochism the historical asynchrony achieved by sexually allegorizing a lost form of imperial power…meets the temporal asynchrony achieved through prying apart impulse and action…Sadean sex, in its very insistence on reanimating historically specific social roles, in the historically specific elements of its theatrical language, and in using the body as an instrument to rearrange time, becomes a kind of écriture historique. S/M becomes a form of writing history with the body in which the linearity of history itself may be called into question, but, crucially, the past does not thereby cease to exist.

Sadomasochistic re-/enactments of (above all else) corporal punishment and confinement as utilised by dispositifs of the State in penal, educational, ecclesiastical, medical, confessional or inquisitorial scenarios reveal the opportunities for abstracted repetitive pleasure within a cyclical recurrence of kyriarchal generality: “S/M may bring out the historicity of bodily response…the uses of physical sensation to break apart the present into a fragment of times that may not be one’s ‘own,’ or to feel one’s present world as both conditioned and contingent.” 

Foucault’s stance on the eternal freedom of man on the basis of power relations’ potential for reversal is all the more intensified with regard to the “always fluid” nature of power relations as expressed in the sadomasochistic roleplay scene. By contrast, Foucault acknowledges the relative severity with which “mobility in power relations is limited” in the sphere of social power, so that he would not suggest the scene “is a reproduction, inside the erotic relationship, of the structures of power. It is an acting-out of power structures by a strategic game that is able to give sexual pleasure or bodily pleasure.” That it is not a reproduction of power structures speaks to its non-generality; it is rather a repetition and an adaptation – both in the dramatic and biological senses of the term – re-enacting an encounter between the subject and the State within a recontextualised frame of contemporaneity and eroticism, which thus seemingly translates the power itself from one of suppression to one of creation.

For Nietzsche, one of the main media of autopoiesis and affirmation is, of course, dance. In Horst Hutter’s analysis, “dance and other ecstatic [Dionysian] practices” – the “confrontation of passional chaos” – paradoxically permit the subject to avoid catastrophic return of the Dionysian repressed. Dionysian praxis and aesthetic is, for Susan Jones, undeniably expressed in the modernist ballet era of the first few decades of the twentieth century:

In certain forms of dance in this period, the primitive element and the search for an “original unity” were compatible with Nietzsche’s outline of the [Dyonisian] aesthetic. Indeed, Loïe Fuller’s subsumption of the body, her disappearance within a whirling spiral of material, engenders in part a “dionysian” frenzy, and Mallarmé’s sense of her dance as illustrating both choreographic and poetic practices resonates with Nietzsche’s ideas of embodiment. The emphasis on the “primitive” is present in almost all forms of innovative choreography in the period: [e.g] the animal force of Nijinsky, [Fokine’s interest in the ritual, the expressionism of Mary Wigman’s Witch Dance]…arguably illustrates Nietzsche’s references to an “embodied” expression of the sublime [as invoked by his “Dyonisan forces”], a striving for the “noumenal” realm that Kant indicated was unreachable.


This sublime ritualistic subsummation of the incorporated subject marks a significant shift in the medium of corporeal expression of discourse, not least of all on account of its invocation of the noumenal – felt at the level of the body in the context of sadomasochism as jouissance or limit-experience. For Foucault, “the idea of a limit-experience that wrenches the subject from itself… was important to…[his] reading of Nietzsche…of seeing that the subject is no longer itself, or that it is brought to its annihilation or its destruction.” The question of limit-experience with regards Nietzsche influenced Foucault’s own genealogy and epistemology: a historical investigation of knowledge which, freed from phenomenological assumption, may be understood to frame power as holding sensational, yet still ultimately noumenal qualities. 

In Jones’ musical analysis, “Nietzsche shifts music from the realm of the beautiful towards a modernist sublime…[showing] the tendency of contemporary music to move away from harmony through chromaticism (where notes in a melodic progression are raised or lowered by accidentals, without changing the key of the passage), towards dissonance…opening up the possibility of an aesthetics premised on jarring contrasts of style and content.” We may expand the process of chromatic harmony into a model representative of the reproductive futurism denounced by Lee Edelman. Aggressively linear in its temporality, political futurity establishes a conservative affirmation of structures maintained with the capital-C Child in mind, who “remains the perpetual horizon of every acknowledged politics, the fantasmatic beneficiary of every political intervention.” Real-life progeny are the accidentals, whose dischord is repressed through generality’s chromo-chrono-normative drive toward harmonic resolution which, paradoxically (or at least, duplicitously) re-authenticates perpetual continuation through a system of equivalent exchange, despite apparent progression. One of the best socio-political examples of this is described by Gayle Rubin, as “in 1976, Los Angeles police used an obscure nineteenth-century anti-slavery statue to raid a ‘slave auction’ held in a gay bathhouse.” Here we see generality and repetition in conflict: the sadomasochistic-theatrical reproduction of the slave auction conjuring for disruption and parody sensuous echoes of the force of the old law effectively enough as to be considered a transgression and provocation of the new law to replicate old violence, via ostensibly new means and measures. An unintentionally astute performance of the genealogy of morals.

For the queer semi-Deleuzian post-anarchist, discourse on the nature of the Apollonian and the Dionysian “dualities” in “opposition” bears an unsavoury resemblance to an overly-arboreal dialectical prescriptivism. Nevertheless, that Nietzsche ultimately advocated for a “resolution” or “reconciliation” of these forces, rather than a “synthesis” is crucial to our understanding of Nietzsche’s affirmationist positioning, for there is, as Rogério de Almeida notes, “a certain hesitation or refusal on [his] part to characterise either one of these two drives in an exclusive way, or to oppose them too simply.” Thus, the re-emergence of the Apollonian in modern ballet, catalysed most of all by George Balanchine’s Apollon musagète (whose multiple developments and revisions between 1928 and 1979, including Balanchine’s migration to the USA illustrate for Jones “the way in which a dialogue between Dionysian and Apollonian aesthetics was produced during transatlantic exchanges of modernism”). Though it remains for Nietzsche “tragic art, [it is] the reconciliation of Apollo and Dionysus. Dionysus imparts the most profound meaning to appearance, and that appearance can nevertheless be denied with sensual pleasure. This is directed, like the tragic vision of the world, against the [nihilist] doctrine of resignation.”

Within this philosophy of recurrently combative and reconcilatory, self- and mutually devouring, (in a Foucauldian sense, sadomasochistic) states of fluctuating ontography, tectonics of sensuous Dionysian wisdom and the “beautiful illusion” of Apollonian visibility, that admits tragedy but refuses resignation, I want to reflect briefly on the drag balls of Paris is Burning. Competitive drag performance, with its emphasis on maquillage, accoutrement, poise, performance, and attitude – dependence on both the Apollonian plastic and Dionysian non-plastic arts – with the aim of establishing qualitative degrees of “realness.” A realness whose only established requirement is that same realness’ contention within cis-heterosexist hegemonic discourse, outside the venue of the ball. Accordingly, the performers are judged not by how they self-identify, but by their judged verisimilitude, which alerts we the spectators to the assemblage that constitutes the queer body, in and around which the components of identity, embodiment, expression and legibility are unstable, at times  as we would desire; at times the opposite, with catastrophic implications. In particular male at-birth-assignation establishes the entrypoint to accolades of “realness” with regard femininity, undone in other contexts by the self-same body’s perceived ontology, but whose legibility as something other than traditionally-perceived-as-male invites both admiring and violent response, including and often from the same sources. For all the dispassionate control we try and exert over it, we still do not yet know fully what a body can do, or what it can invoke. Nietzsche: “The Apollonian illusion reveals itself as what it really is – the veiling during the performance of the tragedy of the real Dionysian effect; but the latter is so powerful that it ends by forcing the Apollonian drama itself into a sphere where it begins to speak with Dionysian wisdom and even denies itself and its Apollonian visibility.”

Accordingly, though queer subjectivity may still be ultimately subsumed within a sublime tragedy, it can discover affirmation in its negation, engaging with an aesthetics that need not look ever forward for progression, but instead invoke the asynchrony of time, as experienced through queer bodies. Where praxis is to be discovered, it shall be discovered within the paradox.