......• Kant with Califia
........ reading psychoanalysis and Califia's S/M fantasy in "The Calyx of Isis"
.........Yen-Ying Lai

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Pat(trick) Califia won her fame in the late 80s by advocating for lesbian S/M culture. Her short pieces of erotica that once spiced up the already heated debates in the "sex war" and continue to excite are now collected in Macho Sluts. [1] The short-story form is indeed most suited to an insatiable More!More! demand for more skins to whip on, more pains to take pleasure in. Furthermore, contrary to the attitude that "sadism demands a story" (title of Seaboyer) and that perversion must be a narrative of trauma, in story after story Califia writes about sadists and masochists who, as if born right into their sexual identities, simply enjoy their kinks right here and now, and neither parental problems nor a bad childhood can explain their fantasy away. This drive-like demand and politics is best represented in the third piece in Macho Sluts, "The Calyx of Isis".

"The Calyx of Isis" is a "big, red-brick warehouse" (84) renovated into a feminist amusement park that caters to all sorts of women, be they "bisexual, transsexual homosexual, heterosexual" or "try-sexual, as in 'I'll try anything'" (94). Drawn by the notoriety of the venue, Alex comes to ask its owner Tyre to produce an "erotic theater" (95) that should realize the "fantasy for a lot of bottoms" (97), in which Alex's lover Roxanne will be "abused" by a pack of top tops, or experienced sadists, and her love for Alex be tested and witnessed by the pack. Hence the story is made up by a slow-motion portrayal of specialized skills in torturing and pleasure-rendering demonstrated by each of the invited tops, and with an extra help: the chauffer of Tyre is asked to "stick around" (117), thanks to her strapped on, "phallic" cock.

After everyone is exhausted, Califia ends "The Calyx of Isis" with a narration that analyzes in Tyre's place. Pondering on "the fair-market value of that much love", Tyre asks Alex:

"Where can you go from here? Even this has got to run out of steam eventually."
Alex thought about it for a long time. "Sell her?" she said.
It was only half a joke. Tyre nodded, absorbed it. Would it be a permanent transfer of rights, or would there be a time limit? Would all privileges be sold, or simply a portion of them? Who would be able to afford such an exotic delight? (176)

First to note is the "reality check" that often pops out in Califia's pornographic world. It may be the appearance of a condom or a dental dam in the middle of a hot scene, serving as a caution of the AIDS threat. Here, while readers are playing with the idea: "Hm... perhaps I can organize something like that for my lovers, or for myself...", Califia interrupts: The erotic highlight is great, but that is not it - the circuit of the drive might seem self-contained in this one single fantasy, but it is not closed-off and can indeed run out of steam. You had better keep the drive always on the go, and make sure it is just as innovative in all the repetitions to come. Or, simply to sell your lover!

Mixing love with market value is not a standard trope in romances; however, borrowing monetary figures to explain the economy of circulation is a common practice among psychoanalytic theorists. In fact, money in "The Calyx of Isis" is itself part of the libidinal and "bindinal economy" (Derrida 389). The central scene, namely the primal fantasy for Alex and Roxanne, is built on trade: it is considered good business for the club - Alex pays dearly to make the dream come true and the other assisting sadists will be remunerated with favors in the future. On the other hand, once the money issue is set and no one is to gain or lose, everyone can be at ease and ready to kick ass; or, in order to have some off-balance libidinal fun, first the social link has to be set up, the exchange system settled. Can we therefore perceive the "exotic delight" that no one is able to afford (Macho Sluts 176) as an "unpayable debt" (Derrida 389), starting from Roxanne being an unreturnable loan of property from Alex? What we have is the logic of death drive: death drive qua jouissance that spins out of the circulation and yet is at the same time in excess of it - and is not sadomasochism exactly this objet a in the circle of psychoanalytic theory?

If Califia's S/M writing runs on such economy of excess, then perhaps it is from this vantage point that we can envisage why Lacan opens The Ethics of Psychoanalysis with the perversion of masochism:

[Upon the sign that] we haven't been able to create a new perversion, [then perhaps] we should give up the hope of any genuine innovation in the field of ethics. But it would be a definite sign that we have really arrived at the heart of the problem of existing perversion, if we managed to deepen our understanding of the economic role of masochism. (14-15)

Lacan is not saying masochism is ethical, but that a better comprehension of it will aid to the pursuit of ethics. In this attempt of pairing up psychoanalysis and Califia, I would like to examine how and to what degree this is so.

pleasure and pain

On the economic role that masochism designates, what first comes to mind is the impossible equation of pain and pleasure that Freud discusses in "The Economic Problem of Masochism". Measuring pain and pleasure in terms of the pleasure principle, Freud finds that they do not sit still on the scale where the decrease of pain would lead to the increase of pleasure, and vice versa; instead, the pleasure principle is exceeded, as enduring pain is itself pleasurable, pain itself is pleasure. This economic impossibility of two opposites inhabiting the same plane is but one of the possibilities that S/M people demonstrate and freely enjoy: pleasure pain, life death, domination submission. [2]

In S/M sex, pain is its own reward, not "the 'tax' payment for enjoyment" (Laplanche, Life and Death 104), not some kind of investment for pleasure or a trade-off for power in return. This is one feature that sets S/M apart from the Deleuzean aesthetics, in which the masochist "waits for pleasure as something that is bound to be late, and expects pain as the condition that will finally ensure (both psychically and morally) the advent of pleasure" (Deleuze 71). As Lacan clears up, what is at stake with ethics is pleasure and pain "as a single packet", not "pleasure or pain" (Ethics 189). The obscene S/M kernel of jouissance is then perhaps an even more radical case than the apologue of gallows in Kant's works that both Lacan and Zupancic refer to. The fellow who insists on spending one night with a lady while knowing he will be executed might be a "case of the moral law" (Zupancic 59); nevertheless, he still has to wait before the jouissance (here a form of suffering) is granted. And even when it may well be that the enjoyment resides exactly in knowing he is going to pay for it with his life, his act of conflating pleasure and death involves no one else but himself (What would the lady think?).

In contrast to that, on the S/M roller-coaster ride that simulates death - or rather, that plays with life death - the practitioners scream in fear, and jouissance, together with their partners. [3] They do not calculate gains and losses in an imaginary dimension: a master is at the same time the slave of his slave, and neither do they bargain with the law which both of them are subjected to - sadomasochists are not outside of law and are subjects of desire too. The pervert is "he who, in short circuit, more directly than any other, succeeds in his aim, by integrating in the most profound way his function as subject with his existence as desire" (Lacan, Four 206) - hence the circuit of drive. The aim of the drive is "the way taken" (179), and on this way taken there emerge subjects who short-circuit their desires and come face-to-face with jouissance.

Love Thy Neighbour

"[B]ecause it deals with jouissance", psychoanalysis "steps into the field of ethics at a point 'on which that morality turns': the point of the impossible, which was traditionally designated as the Evil" (Zupancic 44; Lacan qtd.). What Freud recognizes in "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" is "the invitation to share with one's neighbour something other than one's goods - namely one's jouissance" (42). As regards S/M, what we recognize is not only our own jouissance, but also the evil fact that a sadomasochist does accept such an invitation to share with his partner something other than one's goods and utterly enjoys it - and that is just irritating. This is why a sadomasochist, or the "conceptual sadomasochist" as his other [4] is this exemplary evil yet ethical neighbour who, on one hand, arouses in us hostility, disgust, and fascination, but on the other hand permits us entry to the field of ethics, which is both beyond the imaginary "human touch" and the symbolic "good manners" or political correctness (Zizek, Organs 177).

The reason that S/M practice is beyond an imaginary ethics is two-fold. First, as we have just seen, it does not involve calculation. Pain and suffering in the S/M relation is not something that is staked with self-interest, is not "what I want is the good of others in the image of my own" (Zupancic 42). Or put another way, there is no room for the human touch anyway, since cruelty and humiliation as part of the acts naturally rule out the pretence that "I don't like my neighbour, but it is beneficial for me to appear to like him - who knows if one day I may need his help". More importantly, S/M fantasy portrays both the glamorous side as well as the underside of a fantasy. To be sure, the primal fantasy that Roxanne and Alex hold on to - their love be tested and testified in the gang sex - is a silly dream about romance, too. But while the characters in Califia's stories may pursue their relationship as something that is "growthful", "trust building", "loving", "creative, spiritual, integrating, a development of inner power as strength", like many practitioners do in real life (Coming to Power qtd. in Restuccia), at the same time they also shamelessly admit that brutality and obscenity do turn them on. In other words, Califia's politics of surface refuses to "humanize" S/M acts with therapeutic effects or with a backdrop of lacking proper paternal function. Who does not have a traumatic story to tell? Is not the process of socialization always traumatizing? And are not other forms of sexuality such as vanilla sex between a man and a woman also capable of making us feel good and integrated?

While traditional ethics "helps the subject to stay away from his jouissance", S/M practice, just like psychoanalysis, "deals precisely with the ingress, the intrusion of jouissance into the subject's universe" (Zupancic 44). Without recognizing such an intrusion, moral imperatives are no more than empty words. Take the slogan "Respect the difference of the other" as an example: under the pressure of being politically-correct, one is willing to accept, say, homosexual people's right to be different, but only with a proviso: "I don't mind them - as long as they don't come too close to me". Such seemingly open-minded "tolerance" works as a safety net to jouissance, to the "hostility and intolerance that inevitably spring up in my encounter with the Other" (Zupancic 43), and leaves the real moral issue still in the closet. For, the truth is, no matter how we learn to respect the difference, or how much we do know that the Other is really just as normal as us, all the same, the teaching of a good manner does not stop us from believing in the fantasmatic images of the Other, that the "Jew" and the "sadomasochist" are obscene and "perverse".

S/M people practice a "bad manner" instead: to the underside injunction "May Thy Neighbour be Evil as Thyself?" they simply answer "Of course!" It is not only that they recognize that the Other is naturally evil so as to have fun with it; rather, S/M practitioners do not shy away from the wicked sameness of the Real. They actively identify with the evil Other, identify with their own symptoms. "I want to be in her place and have her because I am like her": they know only too well that the evil neighbour does not only live next door but also "dwells within me" (Lacan, Ethics 186). In the 1dimension of the Real that S/M practice shows us, we realize that the effort of understanding the ideological edifice has to go beyond distinguishing what is a correct kind of ideology, or what sort of sexuality is more "transgressive". This is also to say that in order to traverse the symbolic fiction, it is not enough to just clear up the unjustified conflation on the metonymic slide by telling what a thing really is. And it is S/M which brings us right to the brim of the abyss of jouissance and lays bare that the reason a social fantasy has a hold on us is because it is knotted with our own desire, our obscene kernel. [5]

Kant with Sade

Kant ordains a moral law that is absolute and empty. "Do your duty!" is all you can do, even though you have no idea what that duty is until you act upon it. It is an unconditional imperative in that it cannot be affected by self-interests, nor should it uphold any particular agency of the Law. Such a moral universe has no objects: nothing is set to be achieved in the ethical act, and the act is done for no party's benefit, be it for God or for our beloved country. In other words, a Kantian moral being is stripped of both the imaginary concern and the symbolic identification, and hence left fact-to-face with the Real, endowed with (and burdened by) the transcendental freedom that Zizek calls "Monstrous" ("Kant" 294). In the field of the Real, just like in that of the unconscious, there are no set rules and contradictory opposites do co-exist - the possible interpretations of "Do your duty!" are countless, and unconstrained. Once crossing over the point of the impossible, the subject will have to follow her pure reason as well as discern what sort of evil is in her more than herself. Should she not give way on her desire and transgress all the moral standards, will she then become a wilful killer, or Don Giovanni? Will the consequence be damagingly evil, or disruptively so in breaking a new ground for the Good? [6] It is at this point that the "voice within" (Lacan, "Kant with Sade" 57) is inevitably conflated with jouissance, as both of them open up a space in which neither the traditional morality [7] nor the pleasure (or reality) principle can inform a rightful judgement.

Kant deems ethical acts to be impossible (Zupancic 52). Indeed, pure reason and "pure desire" seem quite unlikely to achieve, [8] and the instances of them, such as Antigone and Don Giovanni, are only fictive and also too particular. However, ethical acts do happen and happen a lot. One is never stripped of egotistic and social considerations in reality, yet these "impure" conditions are precisely where the moral pursuit shines through - pure reason does exist, but only exists as a form. The circular injunction "Do your duty!" ( Your duty is to do your duty) needs to be empty and formulaic so that it is made anew every time a subject emerges from it as ein neues Subjekt. [9] An ethical being is one "who is... born from the situation, who only emerges from it" (Zupancic 52). Does not this moral circuit remind us Lacan's orbit of drive? "The object of the drive is to be situated at the level of... a headless subjectification, a subjectification without subject [that is, "without subjective baggage and affects" (Zupancic 52)], a bone, a structure, an outline..." (Lacan, Four 184). This is why Lacan attempts to complete Kant's moral universe with Sade, by revealing something in Kant more than himself, namely, a "flavour of eroticism" that Sade shamelessly advertises ("Kant with Sade" 57), "officially" making an entry for jouissance to become as serious a matter of ethics as moral imperative.

The obscene demand "Enjoy!" is an empty one, too - what is to enjoy, or even what is enjoyable, is never told and perhaps not even important: you just have to want it. Implicitly Lacan is saying, "I am what I want" actually posits a stronger lesson on an authentic act than "I am what I do". [10] First of all, pure desire is definitely a lot more possible to accomplish: has not Lacan been telling us to check out the existing perversions such as masochism and sadism? Secondly, perversion is "purer" than pure reason, because it is more non-pathological (what can be as unselfish and "selfless" as being the instrument to render the other's jouissance?). It ignores pre-set moral guidelines that might prohibit illicit desires, and it clearly designates the objectless state of the circuit. Its goal is not to attain recognition and favor in return, not to fulfill social roles such as gender and oedipal identification, nor to be ideologically progressive (think of outrageous role-plays in S/M such as parent and child, as well as Nazi and Jew). Nevertheless, paradoxically it is also tougher to exercise pure desire than pure reason: the circuit of drive still has to conform to the moral imperative - no matter how indulgent you are with your jouissance, you have to keep your head clear and make sure what you want is also what is right.

Although Sade and his imperative "Enjoy!" do offer a valuable stance on ethics, there are unfortunately messy consequences - Califia would have made a better short cut to "score a point at halftime" for Lacanian ethicists. [11] This is because a sadomasochist, though not necessarily a moral being herself, tells a "story of O" by performing an outline for any wanna-be moral beings to step in, whereas a Sadian sadist is but a fake moral being who manipulates the empty formality of the imperative. To begin with, there is always an object in Sade's universe. On the first sight, Sade's principle of "do evil for evil's sake" seems as circular and pure as Kant's "do good for good's sake". However, it is rather "do evil for non-good's sake" - the goal to achieve is clear: to be against Good, to be opposed to all traditional ethics, which is just as a ready-made duty as a moral guideline like "Thou should not lie". On the symbolic level, when Sade is said to be "elevating the enjoying big Other into the agency of Law" (Zizek, Plagues 35), this seemingly audacious move is not any less conservative than defending the agency of Law, for both are upholding an "objectivized apparatus" ("Kant" 296), which may be the Name-of-the-Father, the Nation, or in this case Nature whose primary cause is to destroy ("Kant" 295; Deleuze 27). No matter how good or evil this agency is, sticking to it may lead to immorality: decent Christians should not lie so they should not be hiding persecuted Jews; I am proud of going to war and killing people, because they are the enemies of my country; my only duty is to enjoy, so other people's well-being is none of my business.

In this sense, it is doubtful if Kant really "walks on an edge where it is very difficult to maintain balance and not to slip back either to the 'traditional morality' or to the Sadian discourse", as Zupancic argues. We will examine later whether Kant falls back on the traditional or imaginary ethics; here, I want to stress that Kant does not make the Real "an object of the will" (Zupancic 45). Rather, what he does is to present to us the objectless and monstrous state of the Real wherein the subject's will-to-morality is exercised, unguided and unconstrained by any set rules. As mentioned before, pure desire amounts to the same thing as pure reason, for the Kantian will-to-jouissance ultimately coincides with the will to do what is right. In contrast to this absolute imperative of Kant, the Sadian libertine "hides behind the law" (49), as well as takes shelter in the Real by using jouissance as an excuse for his actions: "Didn't somebody say I should not give way on my desire?" The real purpose of his actions is his own satisfaction gained in killing, domination and violence - his seemingly "pure" desire is in fact "the upmost pathological singularity" (Zizek, "Kant" 291).

It is then the Lacanians who walk on the brim of the Sadian trap, especially when the Other in Lacan's "instrument of the Other's jouissance" (Lacan, Ecrits 308) is taken as the obscene big Other. Behind such an interpretation hide other "sadistic" figures such as "Stalinist pervert" and "executioner-torturer", [12] figures that are not quite what Lacan refers to as a sadistic pervert: "the sadist himself occupies the place of the object, but without knowing it, to the benefit of another, for whose jouissance he exercises his action as sadistic pervert" (Four 185) - it is for the Other subject's jouissance that a pervert, or a Califian sadomasochist, applies herself as an instrument. While utterly enjoying doing so, the S/M pervert does not hide behind anything. The Sadian subject "attributes to the (obscene big) Other... the surplus enjoyment that he finds in his actions" (Zupancic 49), whereas the S/M pervert frankly confesses her will to enjoyment. And while the "sadistic" executioner puts on an apathetic look and fakes being non-pathological (Zizek, "Kant" 298), the S/M pervert is thoroughly cold simply because she is too occupied in playing the objective part of a tool. However, one may wonder, is this S/M apathy really all that non-pathological? When she is not giving way on her desire, is not there a clear purpose too, which is her own satisfaction? Is S/M pure enough to be an ethical act?


Kant's moral imperative is a zero symbol; it has no set formula but nevertheless forms the ground for ethical acts. An act is inevitably a not-all, as it is an attempt to make sense of the impossible duty, which necessarily fails. In fact, the real challenge of "Do your duty!" is not so much that it is too formalistic or too empty, but that the duties are too realistic and too many, and that is why central scenarios for ethics are always those of double-bind. In the eighth film of Kieslowski's The Decalogue, the woman had rejected taking a Jewish little girl into shelter, fearing that saving this life may send other anti-Nazi activists in jeopardy. Given the circumstance, she had done the right thing: she chose to protect the activists who may possibly rescue more Jews. Nonetheless, she could not stop thinking perhaps her choice was not completely right after all, for the little girl abandoned by her may have been killed. "You should have sympathy for your fellowmen", "You should save lives" - it is not that there are no guidelines for her to make a decision; it is rather that between all these guidelines she falls into the gap of the Real in which none of them can help her decide whose life is more worthwhile protecting and whose life deserves to be sacrificed. She had tried her best, yet she still lived in guilt knowing that her ethical decision was a not-all, as her rejection of that girl was unethical. However, we will still deem it as an act, for she does strive towards her moral duty and bravely take the responsibility of it. Furthermore, it is through her not-all act that she makes explicit the gap behind the statements, revealing the incompleteness in objectivized laws and ready-made rules.

Although good manners and ideologies do instruct moral conducts, there is no bottom line as to what is the right thing to do, for guidelines are not always consistent, and when they actually contradict each other, the subject has to come up with something right there and then and live with its consequences. A moral being therefore is not nobly stripped of emotions; quite the opposite, she is one who is deeply stuck in her personal interests and symbolic identifications but is still able to make a non-pathological judgement in the given situation. Hence, an act is what discloses the split between the enunciated and the enunciation (Zupancic 62), not an exception unbound by the law or traditional ethics. That is, we do need "traditional morality" - strongly arguing for the empty formality of Kant's moral law, as she is, is not Zupancic's concept that one should be "responsible for what he refers to as his duty" (57) a moral cliché after all? It is just that we should not take any of the conducts as the absolute, for none should be granted with pre-decided priority. Let us consider the following double-bind scenario that Kant and Constant debate over. Should we "lie to a murderer who asked whether our friend who is pursued by him had taken refuge in our house" (Constant qtd. in Zupancic 48)? Anyone with a right mind would immediately answer "Of course", which is an ethical judgement too, because between the equally important guidelines "Thou shall not lie" and "Have sympathy for your fellowmen", the latter weighs more in this circumstance as the former is compromised by the vicious intention of the murderer.

While managing through different duties and concerns, it usually takes more courage to yield personal interests to a bigger cause such as family value or patriotism, and it is especially admirable when one does not concede to one's jouissance, even at the cost of being condemned by the symbolic law - it almost seems that the Real is more "transcendental" than the Symbolic, and the Symbolic the Imaginary. However, in the field of the ethics, there is no set hierarchy between the three orders, as the register alone does not determine the moral priority. "Go to war for your country" should not matter more than "Have sympathy for your semblance", especially when we do have a fairly good understanding of the obscenity hiding behind the symbolic command. As regards Antigone, the figure of death drive, even though her disruptive act seems to work towards creating a new order (a proper burial is one of the most symbolic rituals), that does not mean an ethical circuit is not being constituted, and that she does not, in so doing, make present a not-all in the old order.

The above examples are just some of the numerous ethical scenarios, most of which we encounter on a daily basis, though less drastically. "Should I leave work earlier in order to be home with my children (Be a good father), or should I stay a little longer and help out my confused new colleague (Working ethics)?" Either way, it will be pathological but still a possible right decision, insomuch as the subject does not objectivize the moral rules, nor uses them as an excuse for his self-interest or surplus enjoyment: "To be a good father is to be a man, and a man's real duty is his job"; "if I go home and help my children finish homework, I can send them to bed before my favourite TV show starts..."; or, "I think my new colleague really deserves some attention because he is quite attractive..." By the same token, "Don't give way on your desire" under the injunction "Enjoy!" should not exceed the imaginary concern for our fellowmen, as to authorize the right to torture or kill - do we really need to peruse Zizek or Zupancic in order to see that Sadian libertines are just a bunch of bastards?

For this reason, another definition for the ethics of the Real may well be the ethics of the Imaginary-Symbolic-Real: together the three orders form a Borromean knot, and taking any one of them out of the intertwined relationship will mean dissolution of all three. One way to understand this is through that optical illusion of "two faces or a vase". "Each totalizes the field without exception, leaving us nothing else to see; but only because of the other. Each means that the other is 'not-all'" (Butler 119, exemplifying Zizek) - except that in the ethics of I-S-R, we should picture this double-bind here like a triple-bind, as each of the three orders is at the same time triangulated, rendered not all by the other two, and a true ethical being is one who juggles between them with a pure desire and does not give way on her not-all act.

the spectral analysis

As Butler argues, an act is not outside of the master-signifier; an act is what "allows us to think that this master-signifier is not all". An act of the Real is not opposed to the system, for "it could only be that 'inherent transgression' that allows it, but that is the system" (96-97; Zizek qtd.). In fact, it is not only the symbolic economy which has an internal transgression; the same goes with the other two orders as well. And sadomasochism, the sublime object best suited for a "spectral analysis" that renders three dimensions visible and anamorphically in one, is in turn the perfect lens through which we can look awry and exercise the spectral analysis onto all three orders, spectralizing each of them as a not-all. [13]

Let us start from the incongruity between the S/M desire and the Sadian atrocity that are both drive-like. Lacan complains that Kant's emphasis on the sympathy for our fellowman is to "reintroduce, 'through the back door', the imaginary dimension" (Zupancic 45); indeed, the imaginary dimension is often considered as the weakest link in the Borromean knot. Nevertheless, I want to point out that the banal claim "The sex is consensual! We're not hurting anybody!" is the clear sign that S/M people do not "do evil for evil's sake" and are not falling into the Sadian trap. For the appeal for consensuality is what binds and unbinds the aggressive kernel, as together they form an impossible scenario wherein "not harming others' well-being" inhabits the same plane with "not conceding to one's desire" - while jouissance totalizes without exception, it is so only because of the sympathy for the follow being. But have we not already witnessed a similar scenario between the real and the symbolic orders? Running on the economy of excess, death drive qua jouissance is like the unpayable debt that cannot be distributed without a monetary circulation - the dimension of the Real is not all, is possible only because of the symbolic circuit and the imaginary emotion.

Furthermore, in terms of the imaginary relationship between the fellowmen, the S/M fantasy is just as much an illusion as the heterosexual one, but there is also more to it. Alex in "The Calyx of Isis" dreams about a perfect world for two: "Maybe romance and S/M don't mix, but I want a woman of my own who will stick by my side, somebody who really needs and likes what I do" (97). She is not alone, as most Califia's stories are based on a tightly bounded two-some relationship. However, it takes more than two to tango. The other side of this beatific fantasy is the obscene appetite for domination and suffering, and the coupleship is based on something that is the least imaginary: "the rivalrous and competitive ground" is in "all relations to others". [14] That is to say, a perfect match by definition is a competitive match and when you cannot decide on your own if she is really the one, you can simply hand her down to a pack of sadist women like Alex does to Roxanne. Either S/M or romance, it has to be first baptized in the erotic theater, in the "electrical circuit" of the gang; [15] the dream of two is constrained and constituted in a discursive or social link.

What is rendered most spectral by S/M, however, is the symbolic Other. If what the S/M electric circuit provokes is "the Master-Signifier (i.e., the unconscious sinthome), the cipher of enjoyment, to which the subject was unknowingly subjected" (Zizek, "Four Subjects" 80), then the symbolic circuit is just as sinthomic - it is through our analysis on sadomasochism that we realize that the Symbolic is triangulated by the other two aspects. As a bearer of jouis-sense, the Symbolic is also anchored around an imaginary fantasy, that is, the fantasy that the society or the sexuality is a whole, and this fantasy in turn is the defence against the traumatic kernel that such is never possible. [16] Therefore, sadomasochism is neither conforming nor transgressive; it is simply an "acting-out of power structures" (Foucault qtd in Restuccia), faithfully materializing the obscene underside of the big Other in its fantasmatic and spectral imagery, telling us again and again the story of "I know well, but all the same" - I know well that the Symbolic is all there is, since it totalizes the field without exception, leaving us nothing else to see, but all the same, it is so only because of the other. [17] For this reason, it is debatable if "perversion is the disavowal of the Law" (Copjec 221), or that the pervert lives in a fatherless universe which stops him from becoming a full-fledged subject (Fink 52). As Laplanche rightly puts, "like most perverts", the sadomasochist "hardly ever consulted the psychoanalyst" ("Masochism" 201-202). She does not require treatment because while knowing perversion is prohibited, she somehow disavows this prohibition and is capable of enjoying the off-balance fun: she is one "who gets off on extreme things but who still has jobs, apartments, bills to pay, and lovers to argue with and fuck" (Califia, Speaking Sex 351), just like most of us.

Perhaps what really irritates us about the sadomasochists is not so much their access to jouissance but how they can "have it all", for they also profess in making the best of normal sexuality. According to Freud, before reaching normal and mature sexuality, one has to go through a series of erotogenic stages: the genital stage only comes after the oral (cannibalistic) and the anal (sadistic) ones. And as the individual is fully grown, the non-genital and perverse behaviours become preliminary; they are now "fore-pleasures" which serve the purpose of attaining the final satisfaction of coital sex - genital pleasure is the "end-pleasure" that a well-developed sexual being should desire (Three Essays 197-99), and it is in such normal sexuality that the phallus is taken to be the key symbol, the master-signifier. In Califia's "The Calyx of Isis", however, fore-pleasures do meet with genital pleasure, and they do so in quite a "phallic" way: via a strapped-on cock. May this fake phallus be the incarnation of the "maternal phallus", that imaginary object which exists only in little boys and girls' childish belief? [18] Freud later names this belief "phallic" and adds a new stage on to the previous developmental series: oral-anal-(phallic)-genital (199 fn. 2). Introduced in a footnote, the phallic stage is there and yet not quite there, but nevertheless has become the key object for theories such as disavowal and fetishism - interesting enough, in-between Roxanne and her eight sadist lovers, it is the fake phallus that kicks off the fantasy theater, circulating like a fetish object or an all-sharing gift in the exchange system, which ends up occupying the status of the master-signifier in this social link and becomes as "real" as a phallus - perhaps any erected phallicentric system is but as "phallic" and as "unreal"? In one word, not only are S/M practitioners subjected to the oedipal law just like you and me, in their subjection to the law they also make explicit the "phallic" nature, the virtuality of the Symbolic, and thus portray the Moebius dialectic of all and not-all.

Is S/M ethical?

S/M sex stops at fatality in its own antagonistic way and to parallel sadomasochists with either Sadian figures or fascistic politics requires a more subtle, or more spectral rigor that makes visible imaginary, symbolic and real aspects all at the same time. The S/M aggressiveness is bounded by sympathy for others; hence the equation of death drive and destruction will not work. The death drive is indeed an effective and popular trope standing for evil and destructive urges in theoretical as well as cultural texts; however, as Derrida argues, the better name for it might be "life death" (285), as the most deadly is actually extremely full of life. And, the unique "as a single packet" economy that sadomasochism runs on should manifest its incongruity with the ideological apparatuses: while the latter dictates only at the cost of the suffering of the dominated parties, the sadist dominates by submitting to the bottom. Domination is at the same time submission in the S/M dynamics, which is in a very different order from the atrocities of the social power, or the "sadistic savagery" of the big Other that some theorists presume. [19]

Nevertheless, it will be naïve to think that joining an S/M club will necessarily make one an ethical being - "it's not that easy, sweetheart" (Califia, intro to Macho Sluts 21). Although the S/M kinks are indeed so extreme as to open up the field of the Real, the sex act alone does not offer any more clues to the sadomasochist should she be faced with situations that traditional morality turn away from. It may be that S/M resembles an authentic act in its form of headless circuit and subjective destitution, but that is simply the economic role it plays. In addition, how can we look away from the dangerous liaison the S/M fantasy has with the "brutal empirical realism" of sexual abuse and social violence? [20] So, to what degree can a sadomasochistic act be seen as an ethical act? Are S/M people being metaphorized into yet another "conceptual pervert", a sort of "ethical figure" utilized by psychoanalysts like an instrument? Once more, we are caught up in contradictions, contradictions that are so typical of any ethical discourse.

There is indeed a similarity between an enjoyable sexual cruelty and a violence that is not "accompanied by sexual satisfaction" (Laplanche and Pontalis 401), for what conflates the sadism proper with the "sadistic" obscene Law is exactly the abyss of jouissance, the evil neighbour dwelling within us. However, since the Symbolic is structured like fiction (Lacan, Écrits 294), the equivocal link between fantasy and reality is exactly why Califia's S/M writing is the best site to display the transparency of ideological edifice. If sadomasochism is an acting-out of symbolic structures, it mimics not only the power that anchors desire, forbids illicit pleasures and punishes, but also its inner transgression that says "Enjoy!" Unlike Sade who audaciously erects the obscenity right in the middle of the Law, Califia, like that innocent child who yells out "the king is naked", simply cuts to the chase and tells us the Law is always so. Her stories tell us that "there is only ever the exception", and the only difference between the masculine and feminine logics is that on the feminine side the "masculine exception is taken to its limit, in an attempt always to find that enunciation behind any enunciated. It is this that is drive...: not the final sublation of difference but the perpetual striving towards it" (Butler 115). It is in this insatiable "More! More!" fashion that Califia "takes the place of what doesn't exist as a fixed formula" (Miller 313-14) and endlessly invents ways and stories of being on the circuit of ethics that is both empty and prolific.

Califia's pursuit is also our pursuit. Just as "working for love is love" and "striving for freedom is freedom" (Butler 115), S/M is not necessarily ethical, but thinking it as ethical, is. And since sadomasochism is by definition antagonistic and indeterminate, we might as well mimic it and take the parallax stance that Zizek suggests. We will always read Califia's stories not so much as the instrument of revealing some truth about psychoanalysis, but rather as an act that renders the truth forever not all, and vice versa, as each is possible only because of the other. Between fantasy and reality, between theory and S/M fiction, it is left to us to "face the reality that is exposed through difference", to be the objet petit a, the pure antagonism that forever "asserts the antinomy as irreducible" (Zizek, Interrogating 232).


[1] According to some, Califia is a he now; but for others, since Califia once fought so hard as a lesbian, a female identity is preferred. I address her as a female merely out of long years' habit.

[2] Pleasure pain, domination submission are my coinages adapted from Derrida's "life death" (285).

[3] Patrick Hopkins draws analogy to the roller coaster experience to defend the simulative nature of S/M. He states that S/M practitioners imitate death, which is not the same as wanting to die (191).

[4] Zizek always marks out the "Jew" or the "conceptual Jew" with quotations when referring to a kind of understanding of Jewish people that is not quite that. In this article I would like to display a similar insistence, hence the "conceptual sadomasochist".

[5] Here I will enter briefly into the still heated debate concerning whether S/M dynamics is a form of transgression or conformity, especially within feminisms. Contradictions often trouble political activism. Instead of fully assuming a parallax view in which the difference is irreducible, the usual claim is caught between subjectivization or objectification, as in the case of S/M: it is problematic to either be the pro-sadism or the pro-masochist apologists. The pro-masochist side is more popular, and both male and female can be the bottom. The masochist is said to be "really running the show", except that her enjoyment in pain will have to be rationalised as a kind of trade-off, so that she is not obscene, not really enjoying the suffering - which we know is not the case. On the sadist side, it can only be a female sadist. The dominatrix is indeed an empowering image of woman, but a male master intensifies the fear of the "sadistic" patriarchal system. Still, the brutality and coldness of the dominatrix will have to be avoided. As Califia points out, "We have not put nearly as much emphasis on making sure tops get what they are looking for in a scene...; we are still afraid to ask what it is that sadists... are looking for, what makes them tick" (Speaking 376).

[6] For the concept of Evil opening up Good, see Zizek, Interrogating 154-56.

[7] Ibid

[8] Zizek regards Lacan's theory on Sade a "critique of pure desire" ("Kant" 299). Also see footnote 7 in "Four Discourses" (109).

[9] This argument that the ethical imperative has to be "formal" comes from Zupancic; see especially page 56. As for ein neues Subjekt, it is the German for "the new subject" in Freud's "Instincts and their Vicissitudes". Lacan retraces Freud's concepts on drive as such: in the three movements of a sadomasochist drive, apart from "to see and to be seen" or "to torment and to be tormented", there has to be a reversion of making oneself seen and tormented by another subject, in which the circuit is closed up, the subjectivity of the agent sanctioned, along with "the appearance of ein neues Subjekt (Four 178).

[10] "I am what I do" is one instance of the act that Zizek mentions in "The Act and its Vicissitudes".

[11] Lacan proudly declares: "We score a point at halftime, professor" to Kant after he takes a short cut through Sadian fantasy to explicate his views on law and ethics ("Kant with Sade" 68).

[12] See Zizek, Interrogating 129; "Kant" 290.

[13] It is Zizek who comes up with the idea of a "spectral analysis": "The topic of the 'other' must be submitted to a kind of spectral analysis that renders visible its imaginary, symbolic and real aspects" (Interrogating 347).

[14] Lacan, Psychoses 39; see also Écrits 8. Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen demonstrates this imaginary competitive match, which he calls "primary identification", perfectly in The Freudian Subject.

[15] "Electric circuit" is used by Califia in Hard Men (277).

[16] See Zizek, "Between Symbolic Fiction and Fantasmatic Spectre: Towards a Lacanian Theory of Ideology" in Interrogating. When Zizek exemplifies the dialectic between the "symbolic fiction" and its "fantasmatic spectre", the imaginary dimension, though not quite mentioned, is there too. Think of those two ground-plans drawn by the two groups of villagers in Lévi-Strauss's "anthropological" village that Zizek resorts to: one is a circle, the other a circle with a split - either the "conservative-corporatist" or the "revolutionary-antagonistic" camp holds on to the fantasy that the society is a circle, a totality (264).

[17] See other instances of "fetishistic split" in Octave Mannoni's "I Know Well, but All the Same..."

[18] Freud later elaborates on this "maternal phallus" in "Fetishism". Note that the term "maternal phallus", though not used in Freud's work, is widely accepted since Mannoni brings it up in "I Know Well, but All the Same..."

[19] The terms "sadistic savagery" is used by Seaboyer (958), whose argument follows up Laura Mulvey's male, "sadistic" narrative in "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema".

[20] Zizek summarises Freud's theory on seduction as one that is caught in the antimony between reality and fantasy. "On the one hand, there is the brutal empirical realism of the parental seduction...; on the other hand, there is the (in)famous reduction of the seduction scene to the patient's fantasy" (Interrogating 231-32). I think the deadlock that theorists on politics of pleasure encounter is similar to this impasse. On the one hand, there is the "brutal empirical realism", the "sadistic" political slavery and sexual violence; on the other hand, there is the reduction of sadomasochistic scene to one person's fantasy. The latter is seen in radical feminists' appeal for absolute sexual freedom, that sex is for sex's sake and needs not justification, which not only fails to recognize the symbolic interference in sex, but also as a result turns down socio-ideological analyses - a political claim ends up being de-politicized.


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