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Mennel, Barbara. The Representation of Masochism and Queer Desire in Film and Literature.

Mennel, Barbara. The Representation of Masochism and Queer Desire in Film and Literature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 208 pp. $65.00 hardcover.

In this book, Barbara Mennel focuses on two components of masochism: fetishism and masquerade. She examines how they shape masochistic literary narratives and play into contemporary theoretical and cinematic articulations of queer desire. Her goal is to examine how contemporary feminist and queer theory and cinema at once actively endeavor to rewrite masochism and masochistic performance, yet often remain unable to dispense completely with the specter of an essentialized femininity. The book can serve as an introduction, corrective, and welcome addition to the appropriation of masochistic aesthetics by recent feminist and queer theory and cinema.

In her first chapter, Mennel returns to the discursive origins of masochism in the 19th-century writings of Sacher-Masoch and Krafft-Ebing, as well as in Freud's 1924 essay "Das Okonomische Problem des Masochismus," tracing its establishment as a naturally occurring phenomenon in women and a pathological condition in men. She takes on Deleuze's famous and foundational essay "Coldness and Cruelty" (1967) in a productive manner, indicating how his predominantly psychoanalytic approach naturalizes gender and colonial politics. Reading John K. Noyes's seminal essay "The Importance of the Historical Perspective in the Works of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch" as a contrastive interpretation, she reveals how his emphasis on the historical context undermines the literariness of masochism by sometimes conflating Sacher-Masoch with his text. Thus, she argues, although both Deleuze and Noyes have made crucial contributions to the academic discourse on masochism, they both fail to adequately theorize masochistic aesthetics. Anne McClintock's Imperial Leather, on the other hand, becomes a model study in which psychoanalysis, history, and aesthetics are all combined in the presentation of a complex and nuanced account of masochistic aesthetics that sets the stage for Mennel's own work. Pointing to the important role of the frame narrative as a containing force, Mennel discusses limits to the political efficacy of masochistic aesthetics: in Sacher-Masoch's Venus im Pelz, the masochistic fantasy is ultimately overcome and men and women are returned to their places in bourgeois marriage and patriarchal imperialism. Thus this work provides "a window onto an alternative" but does not represent the apotheosis of subversion (72).

In chapters two through five, Mennel pairs texts across centuries: Sacher-Masoch's Venus im Pelz (1870) with Monika Treut's and Elfi Mikesch's Verfuhrung: die grausame Frau (1985) and Sacher-Masoch's Die Liebe des Plato (1870) with Kutlug Ataman's Lola und Bilidikid (1999). In the first pairing of texts, she focuses on the fetish and elucidates how Treut and Mikesch "retell the history of perversion from a feminist perspective," turning Wanda into an agent--the educator and narrator rather than the educated and narrated--fetishizing the male masochist, and thus rewriting the gendered structures of exchange in Venus im Pelz (74). The second pairing revolves around masquerade. Here, Mennel follows in Katrin Sieg's footsteps (Ethnic Drag, 2002) by underscoring how masquerade/cross-dressing/drag treads a thin line between the subversion and the reproduction of the status quo. Although both Die Liebe des Plato and Lola und Bilidikid manage to destabilize heterosexuality as the dominant and original contour of desire, they also both evoke traditional gender hierarchies. Both "share the conflicting politics of subversion and reification of gender and sexuality that are produced by masochistic aesthetics" (140). Demonstrating clearly how neither fetish nor masquerade function as single signs with a series of definitive associations, Mennel questions queer theory's overarching tendency to cast them as subversive tropes. In this context, her desire to reject one-to-one correspondences is refreshing. She acknowledges how both Verfuhrung: die grausame Frau and Lola und Bilidikid successfully challenge heterosexual, gender, racial, and aesthetic norms, but she nonetheless calls our attention to the limitations of subversion imposed by a gender essentialism that appears to be fundamental to masochistic aesthetics.

Interweaving literature and film, readership and spectatorship, theory and practice, and the 19th and 20th centuries, Barbara Mennel adeptly negotiates between close readings and theoretical ruminations. Her book differentiates positions within queer studies and modalities of queer desire and refuses to reduce masochistic aesthetics to something that has "a singularly liberating potential" (10). The Representation of Masochism and Queer Desire in Film and Literature is an excellent and essential read for anyone interested in German literature and film, as well as for anyone involved in Queer Studies in any field. While the objects of Mennel's close readings are German texts and films, the arguments she makes and the conclusions she reaches are relevant and important across a wide variety of disciplines.


University of West Georgia
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Author:Cormican, Muriel
Publication:The German Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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