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In Praise of the Whip: A Cultural History of Arousal.

In Praise of the Whip: A Cultural Historial of Arousal. By Niklaus Largier. Translated by Graham Harman (New York: Zone Books, 2007. 558 pp.).

Niklaus Largier develops a model of flagellation as an ecstatic corporeality based in renuciation and mimesis by slowly and methodically basing flagellation in medieval religious practice. In doing so, Largier calls for a reexamination of psychoanalytical and sexological discussions of flagellation because putting sex at the heart of whipping trivializes it and limits the ways that people have experienced bodily arousal.

In Praise of the Whip is broken into three parts, though these parts are neither chronologically nor thematically self-contained. Part one focuses on medieval religious flagellation and what Largier calls the rituals of the atricalization. Part two examines the erotics of flagellation through two separate chapters-one on the Marquis de Sade and one on the "English Vice." Part three looks at the therapeutics of flagellation.

In the first part, Largier develops a model of flagellation based upon the emerging ideas of penitential discipline. He provides a person, Saint Pardulf, and a period, Lent, as markers for the emergence of flagellation as a practice based upon the voluntary mortification of the flesh. Flagellants joined martyrs, hermits, and mystics as religious figures who attempted to understand Christ through renunciation. Peter Damian (ca. 1006) popularized flagellation as a form of ritual purification and, as a result of Damian's writings, monasteries began to incorporate flagellation as a mimetic theater of repentance. By the fourteenth century, people mysteriously began to form flagellant processionals. These groups developed their own rituals of renuciation including processions, chants, and sermons based upon anti-hierarchal models that undercut the organization of the Church. Flagellation thus had roots in Church practice and theology at the same time that it countered Church hierarchy and Church traditions. No wonder that the Church renounced such practices and that the Inquisition began to pursue crypto-flagellants.

In part two, Largier assesses the sexualization of flagellation. Enlightenment conceptions of flagellation, he argues, took the theatricality of medieval flagellation and imbued it with new erotic meanings. Thus, in works like Therese philosophe and L' anti Therese, ou Juliette philosophe, writers used hagiographics of religious figures and sexualized iconography, then, aroused the flesh, imbued pain with meaning, and transported the self to a new plane of existence. In Enlightenment depictions, however, flagellation took on a eroticism whether it took place in the confessional or the bedroom. Enlightment conceptions of flagellation as innately sexual thus projected backwards onto the religious tradition even as they created new models for flagellant practices in the future.

In his last part, largier comments onflagellation as a medical practice. Although his therapeutics stand in the humoral system of medicine. Whipping falls into the ancient system of medicine as a way to realign the humors and force blood to regions of the body necessary for copulation. This medical model, however, as Largier demonstrates, develops in tandem with philosophical and erotic meanings.

Largier's analysis of flagellation as ritual theater does much to illuminate an understanding of medieval religious practice as a corporal worship of divinity, but his explanatory models do not follow historian's conventions. While written about changing conceptual models for flagellation, the volume does not engage a historian's methodologies or a historian's sensibilities. Ins-end, it reads more as a genealogy in the Foucaldian sense in which the author explores various relationships between practices, bocks, and meaning. Sentences leap over decades and centuries; books speak to each other across the ages; motifs reverberate from practice to idea and onto text without an explanation of the process of cultural transmission between these realms. The thematic organization dissolves even within the sections and chapters; for example, Largier interrupts his discussion of religious flagellation or a brief discussion of Pietro Arentino and the Ragion-amemi, one of the first works of modern pornography. Largier also ignores the chronological markers that historians use to organize their discussions. For example, Largier refers leflexively to the Marquis de Sade and H. S. Ashbee as Enlightenment figures. Many historians might have a hard time seeing Sade as a classical part of the Enlightenment but would be willing to accept that designation for the sake of argument, but Ashbee is another scory. H. S. Ashbee, born in 1334, made his fortunes through industrialised trade, and died in 1900, well after the Enlightenment ended. A sense of time, of place, of lived experience ton.;": to matter inure to historians than to Largier. Furthermore, Largier's work seems strangely disembodied for a topic so deeply concerned with embodiment. Sade as a person, rather than a writer, receives little notice. There is no wife, no prison, no physical encounters. There are only texts. Books speak to other books and names become designations rather than persons.

Since Largier's work maintains only a loose chronological framework, I would suggest that readers consider working backwards through the book and see it as peeling away the accretions of meaning onto the practice of flagellation. Thus, on page 440 Largier presents what I have come to view as the purpose of his organizational model. His thesis seems to be that we have flattened the meanings of flagellation to fit into a paltry and inadequate psychological model. "Yet the psychological explanation reduces the complexity of the flagellation rituals, subordinating them entirely to the functional context of the modern dispositif of sexuality. In this way, flagellation not only loses its possible spiritual significance (the specific theatrical function of imaginative and arousing bodily staging within a ritual context), but also loses the erotic-libertine dimension of liberated arousal." If we use that as the guiding principle to the work, the trajectory makes a good bit of sense. Historians can then see the important work being done in Largier's volume even if we have entered a foreign land to do so.

Lisa Z. Sigel

DePaul University
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Author:Sigel, Lisa Z.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2008
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