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Niklaus Largier's In Praise of the Whip: A Cultural History of Arousal is a compendious history of practices of flagellation that traces the uses (but not the abuses) of whipping from medieval ascetic writings to modern libertine and therapeutic literature. The book is meticulously researched and also doubles as a repository (or sourcebook, in Largier's terms) of texts devoted to the performance of whipping. Its compelling patchwork is assembled in order to contest the psychoanalytic tendency to pathologize the application of the whip, cord, rod, or scourge to the flesh, whether for spiritual or sexual arousal. Largier does not seek to explain why people subject themselves to the pain of flagellation, but rather gives readers a window onto an ambiguous practice that is at once the affirmation of the carnal and the eternal, the libidinous and the divine, the passionate and the penitent.
The book's method is "phenomenological" and "genealogical," which means that Largier displays the form and function of the whip through long textual citations and detailed commentary, but then links these stagings with the corresponding spiritual, pornographic, medical discourses that lend them their specific cultural resonance. This way, he disengages the reader from the lens of the Enlightenment and the discourse of psychopathology, choosing instead to catalogue the long series of fascinations with the whip and the surface effects it has solicited from the body and the imagination. By concentrating on the performative dimension of flagellation, Largier is able to unearth a number of cultural sites that share a preoccupation with the utility of the aroused body--Largier's prime object. Each of these sites charges the body with historically defined discursive formations and imagine it to be accomplishing a particular kind of work. Because these discourses tend to be elided for the modern reader, Largier's task is to reconstitute their specificity. He admirably accomplishes this while guiding readers on a tour of the complex historical nature of the aroused body, in particular the images that enact and emerge from such arousal.
Largier insists upon the theatrical character of flagellation, and the body of the flagellant as a stage or site of arousal. Fortunately for the reader of In Praise of the Whip, whipping is not a univocal performance. Arousal is perhaps the most prominent and most ambiguous component of self-flagellation, and it is this ambiguity that allows the whip to be conscripted by both the hermetic desert Christian and the modern libertine, presumably for antithetical purposes. Largier challenges and complicates this presumption by exploring the intersection of the religious and the erotic, which is what makes his book so wickedly fascinating. He concentrates his efforts on exposing the "theatre of arousal" as a site where imagination, fantasy, sensuality, and emotion convene. It is here that self-flagellation "finds its basis and its full significance in the actuality of the performance and the gaze of the spectator--and nowhere else" (14).
The first section of the book ("Ascesis") investigates the ascetic and mimetic aspects of ritual flagellation in the medieval period. It argues that the staging of ritualistic flagellation which arose in the early Middle Ages is best considered as the theatrical reproduction of the suffering of Christ. But this mimetic act is shown to go beyond mere symbolism and representation, and to aim at the immediate embodiment of the Passion: the exemplary ascetic act does not simply mirror the ordeal of Christ, but literally suffers Christ's pain. In this, the tension between the soul of the ascetic and his/her body is collapsed and the flagellant tastes the immortality of God. We find in the eleventh century the Benedictine hermit Peter Damian defending the sanctity of this monastic practice and working to popularize its spiritual value. Writing from within the hagiographic tradition, Damian defends the self-inflicted pain of flagellation as "part of an eschatological drama performed within human life and aiming at the bodily presence of the suffering of Christ" (79). Largier emphasizes that the body of the flagellant is not renounced here, but is instead made essential to this imitatio Christi; the whipping of the body comes to be imagined as the "ritual embodiment of redemption" (123).
Largier locates a shift around 1700, when flagellation comes to be charged with a sexual motivation and the chaste exemplarity of the flagellant falls under suspicion. A treatise by Jacques Boileau acts as segue between the medieval and modern periods of the whip's history. Boileau lends a degree of continuity between the ascetic and erotic modes of flagellation, thus thickening Largier's history by scandalizing ascetic flogging practices. The second part of In Praise of the Whip ("Erotics") illustrates how the suspicion of the ascetic's whip is informed by the physiological, psychological, and medical discourses emergent in the early modern period. The desire behind self-flagellation comes to be seen as libidinous and the eroticism of the whip driven by sadomasochistic images and affects. This explains the rise of an anti-clerical polemical literature which appears in the fifteenth century and continues into the twentieth.
The suspicious, polemical literature is congruent with the critical edge of the writings of libertines like the Marquis de Sade, who confiscate the ascetic use of flagellation and deliberately stage its pornographic valence, thereby exploiting the ambiguity of the body of the ascetic at the mercy of the scourge. "Libertine culture is distinguished from spiritual culture through at least this difference: its self-conscious use of theatrical elements" (299). The libertine has exposed the voluptuous side of the ascetic's whip and cultivates this for its own sake, while the priest has now become the potentially perverse voyeur--at least, that's how he is imagined.
The questions "What is being staged?" and "Who is in the audience?" run like red threads through Largier's book. This enables an historical narrative that might otherwise be lacking given the method he has chosen to adopt, which nevertheless gives the book a mosaic quality without failing to focus the reader's attention.
Largier explores the modern literature on the therapeutic value of flagellation in the third section of his text ("Therapeutics"). He closes with an epilogue which defines his determined attempt to have linked the imagination to the life of images, to have shown the principle of the imagination to be the historical unfolding of the image with all of its attendant desires, affects, and arousals. With a gesture back to and beyond Foucault's History of Sexuality, Largier provocatively suggests that "the spirit of libertinage is a permanent deconstruction of the promise of the modern world--the promise that truth, happiness, and self-experience could be regarded as the actualization of a 'natural and liberated' sexuality ordered by the provisions of reason, medicine, and psychology" (450). Largier's history is one of neither sexuality nor spirituality, but of the "uncircumventible principle" (455) of imagination and the link it provides between the carnal impulses which individualize us and our insatiable desire to move beyond ourselves.
© 2007 Tom Sparrow
Tom Sparrow is a doctoral student in the philosophy department at Duquesne University.
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