Uses of Masochism
Why masochism? Why do humans crave physical pain, seek it out, inflict it upon ourselves? In some sense, it seems, the subject becomes whole and self-aware in the moment of corporeal transcendence brought on by the physiological experience of intense and/or prolonged pain, to an extent that is possible only through this experience. What knowledge can be gleaned from this elusive space of ineffability that humans seem to need? And, rather than being weak, self-destructive, decadent, or pathological, in what ways is masochism—the drive to obtain this space—socially and culturally useful; how might it even contain revolutionary or at least subversive political potential? Who “gets” to use masochism in this way—why does the process of constituting subjectivity through chosen, self-inflicted pain seem to adhere to society’s marginalized? When masochism is an act of making or consuming culture, where does generalized metaphor end and the inscription of specific identity begin; and, then, where does the social allegory of masochism end and the ineffability of the visceral experience of pain, or pain-as-pleasure, or pain-as-transcendence, begin? Or, are all these contradictions necessarily bound up, always mutually constitutive, in masochistic practice?
This thesis examines masochism as a social, cultural, and psychic force—as manifest in both the production and reception of contemporary filmic and performative visual culture, such as the work of Catherine Opie. Presupposing that there is some unique and important relationship between masochism and marginal subjectivities, I focus on work that either probes or emanates from queer, subcultural, or otherwise marginalized social standpoints. These standpoints are a point of origin for an interrogation of the psychic potency of the ineffable as sought and sometimes attained through self-inflicted pain. This thesis begins in, but quickly extends beyond, exploring individual desires for extreme sensual experience, transcendence, contact with some version of the sacred, and testing the borders of the self, to the ways in which social or cultural utility can be gleaned from masochistic practice.
Kathryn Rosenfeld earned a BA from Antioch College and an MA from the University of Cincinnati. She is most proud of serving on the last editorial staff of the late New Art Examiner, offering Roosevelt University’s first course on pornography, and spending the night in jail following last year’s antiwar protests.
Thesis Advisor: Kymberly Pinder, Associate Professor, Director of MAAH Program; Art History, Theory, and Criticism
Thesis Reader: James Elkins, Professor; Art History, Theory, and Criticism; Visual and Critical Studies
Laura Kipnis, Professor, Radio/Television/Film, Northwestern University