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Ernst Lubitsch, Censorship, and Political Correctness

Theodor Adorno turned around Benedetto Croce’s patronizing historicist question about “What is dead and what is alive in Hegel’s dialectic.” If Hegel is really alive as a thinker, then the question to be raised is the opposite one: “How do we today stand in the eyes of Hegel?” Exactly the same holds for Ernst Lubitsch. The question is not “What does an increasingly forgotten filmmaker have to say to us?” but rather, “How would our comedy of manners appear in the eyes of Lubitsch?”

Lubitsch would have been appalled to observe how the perverse pleasures of obscenity, and even irony, have moved to the Right, while the Left is more and more caught in a pathetic, ascetic, puritan moralism. While Lubitsch, of course, would have rejected populist neo-racism in disgust, he also would have immediately perceived the falsity of its opponent, politically correct moralism, and would have clearly seen their hidden complicity. In today’s political correctness, racist and sexist motifs are pushed below the bar of acceptability, but there they remain fully operative. Indeed, our official moralism relies upon their continued presence, and functions by making us feel guilty all the time.

Banal debates around liberal concepts such as rights or free speech inevitably fail to capture this phenomenon. Although censorship is alive and well in our post-Weinstein era, today’s hegemonic ideology does not maintain its dominance by prohibiting dissonant opinions. On the contrary, its incorporation of dissonance is what allows it to defeat any direct challenge. Recovering Lubitsch’s comic indirectness is thus required both to understand and to counteract the dominant ideological tendencies of the present.

The Predicament of Ideological Dissonance

In the “revolutionary” 1960s, it was fashionable to assert perversion against the compromise of hysteria: a pervert directly violates social norms—he does openly what an hysteric only dreams about or articulates ambiguously in his/her symptoms. The pervert, it was said, effectively moves beyond the master and his law, while the hysteric merely provokes the master in an ambiguous way, which can also be read as the demand for a more authentic master. Against this view, Freud and Lacan consistently emphasized that perversion, far from being subversive, is the hidden obverse of power: every power needs perversion—its inherent transgression—to sustain itself. In perversion, “everything is allowed”; a pervert openly actualizes all repressed content. Nonetheless, as Freud emphasized, nowhere is repression as strong as in perversion, a fact more than confirmed by our late capitalist reality, in which total sexual permissiveness causes anxiety and impotence or frigidity instead of liberation.

Although I am not a fan of Sex and the City, an interesting example of this phenomenon can be found in an episode where Miranda gets involved with a guy who likes to talk dirty during sex. Since she ordinarily prefers to keep silent while making love, he solicits her to say whatever dirty things pop up into her mind, with no restraint. First she resists, but then she also gets caught in this game. Things work well; their sex is intense and passionate, till . . . till she says something that really disturbs her lover, causing him to totally withdraw into himself and leading to the breakup of their relationship. In the middle of her babble, she mentions that she noticed how he enjoys when, while making love to her, he pushes her finger into his ass. Unknowingly, she thereby touches the exception: yes, talk about anything you want, spill out all the dirty images that pop up into your head, except that. The lesson of this incident is important: even the universality of talking freely is based on some exception. The prohibited detail is in itself a minor and rather innocent thing (and we can only surmise that the guy is so sensitive about it because the passive experience disturbs his masculine identification). The detail disturbed him not because it was simply too much for him. Rather, it disturbed him because it touched upon his innermost fantasmatic kernel, which he was unable to confront openly, a sinthome (constricting knot) of his enjoyment. We can imagine Miranda asking him what he wants her to do to him during their love-making, and we can be sure he would never be able to mention that—the thing he most desires. It is left to her to discover it while keeping silent about it.

Returning to Lubitsch: what if his famous indirectness is sustained by the same insight into how the perverse direct enactment of the repressed content equals the strongest repression? It is precisely when we appear to open ourselves up to the dirtiest fantasies of our mind that the truly traumatic point remains repressed.

It is sometimes argued that comic indirectness is inappropriate to political crisis. After the extent of the Nazi atrocities became known to the public, Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942), like Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), was criticized for downplaying the horrors of Nazism by making comedy out of it. Chaplin himself said that, had he known the horror of concentration camps, he would never have shot his film. Yet the situation is much more complex and ambiguous. In a tragedy, victims retain a minimum of dignity, and when horror crosses a certain line, to portray it as a tragedy is a blasphemous downplaying of its extent. In Auschwitz (or in a gulag camp), victims were deprived of their human dignity to such an extent that they could no longer be perceived as tragic figures. No wonder that some of the best films about concentration camps are comedies.

Should we then be surprised at one of the jokes from Sarajevo, when the city was under siege (and, due to Serbian bombing, the supply of gas was often cut off)? “What’s the difference between Auschwitz and Sarajevo? In Auschwitz, they at least never run out of gas.” Or what about the cruel joke popular among the survivors of the Srebrenica massacre? (To understand this joke, one has to remember that, decades ago, butchers usually asked customers whether they wanted beef “with bones or without.”) After the war, a refugee returns from Germany to Srebrenica and wants to buy a piece of land to build a house there, so he asks a friend about the price of land, and the friend answers: “It depends—do you want it with bones or without?” This is how we deal with trauma that cannot yet be properly mourned and symbolized—by turning it into a joke. There is nothing disrespectful in this. On the contrary, such jokes imply an awareness that the memory is still too hot for the ordinary process of mourning.

Thus Lubitsch’s approach has a deep ontological foundation. In one of the most efficient jokes in his absolute masterpiece To Be or Not to Be, the Polish actor Josef Tura impersonates Colonel Ehrhardt of the Gestapo in a conversation with a high-level Polish collaborator. In (what we took as) a ridiculously exaggerated way, he comments on rumors about himself—“So they call me Concentration Camp Erhardt?”—and accompanies his words with a vulgar laughter. A little bit later, Tura has to escape, and the real Ehrhardt arrives. When the conversation again turns to rumors about him, he reacts in exactly the same ridiculously exaggerated way as his impersonator. The message is clear: Even Erhardt himself is not immediately himself. He also imitates his own copy or, more precisely, the ridiculous idea of himself. While Tura acts Erhardt, Erhardt acts himself.

Could we not say exactly the same for Donald Trump, who acts the part of himself? Or indeed most political actors, who increasingly look to imitate (and are often rewarded for imitating) the most extreme caricatures of themselves?

But, again, does this fact not point to the limit of Lubitsch’s approach for us today? More and more we experience how what was a joke for Lubitsch is now simply enacted in real (political and ideological) life. Recall Erhardt’s legendary quip, “We do the concentrating; Poles do the camping.” Couldn’t today’s pro-austerity manager say something similar? “We do the politics; ordinary people do the austerity.” Or perhaps Lubitsch’s type of jokes only work when we still have liberal hypocrisy left to mock. But what about our era, when power increasingly exerts itself brutally, dropping the liberal-humanitarian-democratic mask? One is almost tempted to say: bring back this hypocritical mask! Lubitsch, however, would have been aware that a direct “dropping of the mask” is always fake.

A seemingly trivial incident may provide the best metaphor for this aspect of our ideological predicament. In a hotel in Skopje, Macedonia, where I recently stayed, my companion inquired if smoking was permitted in our room, and the answer she got from the receptionist was revealing: “Of course not, it is prohibited by the law. But you have ashtrays in the room, so this is not a problem.” The contradiction (between prohibition and permission) was openly assumed and thereby canceled, treated as nonexistent. The message was “It’s prohibited, and here is how you do it.”

I remember a similar incident from my military service. One morning, the first class was on international military law. Among other rules, the officer informed us that shooting at parachuters while they are still in the air (before they touch the ground) is prohibited. In a happy coincidence, our next class was about rifle shooting, and the same officer taught us how to target a parachuter in the air (how, while aiming, one should take into account the velocity of his descent and the direction of the wind, etc.). When one of the soldiers asked the officer about the contradiction between this lesson and what we had learned just an hour before (the prohibition against shooting at parachuters in the air), the officer snapped back with cynical laughter: “How can you be so stupid? Don’t you understand how life works?”

Today, such dissonance is openly admitted and for that reason treated as irrelevant, like the provision of an ashtray coupled with the prohibition of smoking. Recall the debates on torture: was the stance of the U.S. authorities not something like “torture is prohibited, and here is how you do a waterboarding”? Thus the paradox is that, at present, there is less apparent deception than in the more traditional functioning of ideology. Everyone merely imitates the ridiculous idea of himself.

At this point we reach the supreme irony of how ideology functions today. It appears precisely as its opposite, as a radical critique of ideological utopias. The predominant ideology today is not a positive vision of some utopian future but a cynical resignation, an acceptance of how “the world really is,” accompanied by a warning that if we want to change it (too much), only a totalitarian horror can ensue. Every vision of another world is thereby dismissed. Alain Badiou put it in a wonderful and precise way: the main function of today’s ideological censorship is not to crush actual resistance—this is the job of repressive state apparatuses—but to crush hope, to immediately denounce every critical project as opening a path at the end of which is something like a gulag.

This effect of contemporary ideology is perhaps best illustrated by the drug culture it has created. As Laurent de Sutter discusses in his Narcocapitalism: Life in the Age of Anaesthesia,1 pharmaceuticals (of various kinds) play an ever more prominent role in our societies. Large aspects of our lives are characterized by the management of our emotions by drugs, from the everyday use of sleeping pills and antidepressants to hard narcotics. We are not only controlled by impenetrable social powers; our very emotions are “outsourced” to chemical stimulation.

The stakes of this chemical intervention are double and contradictory: we use drugs to keep external excitement (shocks, anxieties, etc.) under control, to desensitize ourselves to them, as well as to generate artificial excitement if we are depressed or lack desire. Drugs thus react to the two opposed threats in our daily lives—overexcitement and depression—and it is crucial to notice how these two uses of drugs relate to the pairing of private and public. In the developed Western countries, our public lives more and more lack collective excitement (provided by a genuine political engagement), while drugs supplant this lack with private (or, rather, intimate) forms of excitement. Drugs perform the anesthesia of public life and the artificial excitement of private life.

Censorship and Indirectness

Contrast the above with earlier modes of ideological control, represented in American cinema by the Hays Code. One might argue that Lubitsch’s indirectness was simply conditioned by Hays Code censorship. On the other hand, Adorno wrote that a really good film could follow all the rules of the Hays Code, although not in order to obey the law but out of an immanent necessity. This is what Lubitsch was doing.

An exemplary case of how these rules work is found in a well-known scene three-quarters into Casablanca. Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) comes to Rick Blaine’s (Humphrey Bogart’s) room to try to obtain the letters of transit that will allow her and her husband, resistance leader Victor Laszlo, to escape Casablanca. After she breaks down and says, “If you knew how much I loved you, how much I still love you,” they embrace in a close-up, which then dissolves into a three-and-a-half-second shot of the airport tower at night, its searchlight circling, and then dissolves back to a shot from outside the window of Rick’s room, where he is standing, looking out, and smoking a cigarette. He turns into the room and says, “And then?” She resumes her story. The question that immediately pops up here is, of course, what happened in between, during the three-and-a-half-second shot of the airport? Did they do it or not?

The film is not simply ambiguous; it rather generates two very clear, although mutually exclusive, meanings—they did it, and they didn’t do it. It gives a series of codified signals that they did do it, and that the three-and-a-half-second shot stands for a longer period of time (the dissolving of the couple in a passionate embrace after the fade-out usually signals the act; the cigarette afterwards is also the standard signal of relaxation after the act, along with the vulgar phallic connotation of the tower). Meanwhile, a parallel series of signals indicates that they did not do it, and that the three-and-a-halfsecond shot of the airport tower corresponds to the real diegetic time (the bed in the background is undisturbed; the same conversation seems to go on without a break). While, on the surface, the film can be constructed by the spectator as obeying the strictest moral codes, it simultaneously offers to the sophisticated enough clues to construct an alternative, sexually more daring narrative line. This is how ideology works in classic Hollywood: nothing is totally repressed, and everything can be unambiguously signaled in a codified way (if someone remarks that a guy smells of perfume, it means he is gay, etc.).

In later Hollywood, this game of inherent transgression got much more complex. Recall what is arguably the most powerful scene of The Sound of Music: After Maria escapes from the von Trapp family back to the monastery, unable to deal with her sexual attraction towards Baron von Trapp, she cannot find peace there, since she is still longing for the baron. In a memorable scene, the mother superior advises her to return to the von Trapp family and to sort out her relationship with the baron. She delivers this message through a weird song entitled “Climb Every Mountain,” the surprising motif of which is: Do it! Take the risk and try everything your heart wants! Do not allow petty considerations to stand in your way! The very person whom one would expect to preach abstinence and renunciation turns out to be the advocate of fidelity to one’s desire.

Significantly, when The Sound of Music was shown in (still Socialist) Yugoslavia in the late 1960s, this scene—the three minutes of this song—was the only part of the film which the censors cut. The anonymous Socialist censor thereby displayed his profound sense for the truly dangerous power of Catholic ideology. Far from being the religion of sacrifice, of renunciation of earthly pleasures (in contrast to the pagan affirmation of the life of passions), Christianity offers a devious stratagem to indulge in our desires without having to pay the price for them, to enjoy life without the fear of decay and debilitating pain awaiting us at the end of the day.2

Lubitsch, however, does not do this. His indirectness does not amount to these rather primitive games where precise codes signal what happens behind the closed door (a sexual act or something similar). Lubitsch is well aware that such stratagems enact the perverse game of supplementing the law with its obscene underside. He is clearly doing something else—but what?

In Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant from 1931 (just prior to the imposition of the Hays Code), this obscene excess is brought to the extreme.3 The first five minutes of the film enact the passage from indirectness (the basic operation of the “Lubitsch touch”) to excess (its immanent obverse). It begins with a short scene of indirectness: a formally dressed person climbs up the stairs, stops in front of an apartment door, pulls a document out of his briefcase (a bill for expensive clothes), and rings the bell. Nobody answers, so he knocks on the door, but, again, nobody answers, and he leaves. Immediately after his departure, a young lady comes up the stairs and also knocks on the door, but this time her knocks follow an obviously coded pattern; the door opens and she enters. After an interlude signaled by the lights turning off, she exits the door, full of joy. In this indirect way, we learn all the essentials about the inhabitant of the apartment without even seeing him: he is Niki, an officer of the imperial Austrian army (as the plate near the door informs us) who likes to dress expensively and to enjoy life, and who serially seduces women.

But now comes the countermovement: Immediately after the girl leaves, we cut to the interior of the apartment and see Niki (played by Maurice Chevalier) in a nightgown. Also satisfied, he stands up, confronts us (spectators) and sings an extremely obscene and embarrassing song praising the army life. The song is based on the parallel between military exercises (following orders, attacking, shooting) and love-making. It describes the officer’s duty as that of “shooting down” girls, and Niki enacts it with the obscenely emphasized words “ratatataa.” What adds to the obscenity is that Chevalier’s performance is also done with his French accent, full of French words, mobilizing the common popular culture image of the sophisticatedly seductive and promiscuous Frenchman (and totally inconsistent with the fact his character is an Austrian officer). The parallel between military and sexual activity also emphasizes the point that, in copulating, a man is serving/servicing a woman, obeying her orders. This is why, early in the film, after his marriage to the princess, Niki deliberately pretends not to understand her sexual invitations, a refusal that should also be read as an act of rebellion by a worker refusing to serve his master.

A series of comical reversals follows, and at the film’s end, after Niki allows himself to be seduced by his wife (the princess), he (again) exits the bedroom door and addresses us with the same song, just with slightly changed words (praising not mere passing affairs but marital sex), ending again with the obscene “ratatataa.” When he opens the bedroom door, we hear from inside the voice of his wife repeating the same obscene “ratatataa.” “The thing” (the sexual act) still happens behind the door, so that, at a formal level, indirectness remains, but the obscenity of what goes on in front of the door (the song with its “ratatataa” of shooting at—ejaculating into—a woman) is in some sense much more embarrassing and “dirty” than a direct depiction of what went on behind the closed door. Back to Miranda from Sex and the City: “ratatataa” plays exactly the same role as “sticking the finger into the asshole,” that of a detail which should have remained unspoken, hidden. Only here the exception can be stated, precisely because it is expressed indirectly.


Lubitsch was acutely aware of how far indirectness reaches in sexual matters. Ultimately, it means that the couple is never alone in sex, that there is always a third moment implied, even if it is just the hypothetical gaze of an imagined witness. The clearest case is his One Hour with You (1932), where a woman and a man, each married to another, accidentally find themselves in the same taxi. Their affair is set in motion by the fact that, for an imagined external observer, it seems as if they are lovers. Although they are just sitting in the privacy of a car, the appearance of this scene is incriminating, and its effects cannot be erased.

The topic of a decentered fantasy which sustains a sexual relationship takes a weird turn in Broken Lullaby (1932), a film often dismissed as a failure but which brings out this feature of Lubitsch’s work at its purest. Here is the outline of the story: Haunted by the memory of Walter Holderlin (!), a soldier he killed during World War I, the French musician Paul Renard travels to Germany to find his family. Dr. Holderlin initially refuses to welcome Paul into his home, but changes his mind when his son’s fiancée, Elsa, identifies him as the man who has been leaving flowers on Walter’s grave. Rather than reveal the real connection between them, Paul tells the Holderlin family that he was a friend of their son who attended the same musical conservatory he did. Although the hostile townspeople and local gossips disapprove, the Holderlins befriend Paul, who falls in love with Elsa. After some vacillation, he tells her the truth about killing Walter. She convinces him not to confess to Walter’s parents, who have embraced him as their second son, and Paul agrees to forgo easing his conscience and stays with his adopted family. Dr. Holderlin presents Walter’s violin to Paul and, in the film’s final scene, Paul plays the violin while Elsa accompanies him on the piano, both observed by the loving gazes of the parental couple.

There is something disturbing in the film, a weird oscillation between poetic melodrama and obscene humor. The couple (the girl and the killer of her previous fiancé) are happily united, under the protective gaze of her former fiancé’s parents—it is this gaze that provides the fantasy frame for their relationship. The obvious question is: do they really do it just for the sake of the parents, or is this gaze the excuse which grants permission for them to engage in sex? This obvious question is, of course, a false one, because it doesn’t matter which of the alternatives is true. Even if the parents’ gaze is just an excuse for sex, it is still a necessary excuse.

Sometimes real life catches up with Lubitsch, staging his plot in a way that pushes things a little bit further. The basic situation of The Shop around the Corner (1940) really occurred in Sarajevo (of all places) during the mid-1990s, just after the siege of the city. A young married couple was in a crisis. The husband and wife had grown bored with each other, and in order to revitalize their emotional life, each of them began engaging in internet flirting with an anonymous partner, exchanging dreams with him or her, etc. Since, in both cases, it appeared to each of the two that they had found an ideal partner, they both decided to meet their online paramour in reality. When they meet in a cafeteria, they are shocked to discover that they had been flirting with each other, husband and wife, all along. So what is the lesson of this coincidence? Did it lead them to discover the inner harmony of their dreams and make them stay together with a deeper understanding? I think Lubitsch would be more inclined to see such a proximity of inner dreams as a bad omen, and would predict that they would run away from each other in horror.

This is why Lubitsch would have been horrified by the idea of sexual contracts which is popping up all around in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, from the United States and the United Kingdom to Sweden. The declared goal, of course, is to exclude elements of violence and domination in sexual contacts. The idea is that, before doing it, both partners should sign a document stating their identity, their consent to engage in sexual intercourse, as well as the conditions and limitations of their activity (the inviolable right of each partner to step back and interrupt the act at any moment, to inform his/her partner about health issues, religion, etc.). Sounds good, but a series of problems and ambiguities arises immediately.

What problems? In the West, at least, we are becoming glaringly aware of the extent of coercion and exploitation in sexual relations. Nevertheless, we should also bear in mind the (no less glaring) fact that millions of people, on a daily basis, flirt and play the game of seduction with the clear aim of getting a partner for making love. In modern Western culture, both sexes are expected to play an active role in this game. When women dress provocatively to attract the male gaze, when they “objectify” themselves to seduce men, they don’t do it offering themselves as passive objects—they are the active agents of their own “objectification,” manipulating men and playing ambiguous games, including the full right to step out of the game at any moment even if, to the male gaze, this appears to contradict previous “signals.” This active role of women is the freedom which bothers all kinds of fundamentalists, from Muslim clerics who recently prohibited women from touching and playing with bananas to our own ordinary male chauvinist who explodes in violence against a woman who first “provokes” him and then rejects his advances. Feminine sexual liberation is not just a puritan withdrawal from being “objectivized” (as a sexual object for men), but the right to actively play with self-objectivization, offering oneself and withdrawing at will.

Yes, sex is traversed by power games, violent obscenities, etc., but the difficult thing to admit is that these things are immanent to it. The problem is that sexuality, power, and violence are much more intimately intertwined than we may expect, so that elements of what is considered brutality can also be sexualized or libidinally invested—after all, sadism and masochism are forms of sexual activity. Sexuality purified of violence and power games can well end up becoming desexualized.

Will it be still possible to discuss these simple facts, or will the politically correct pressure compel us to accompany all these games with some formal-legal proclamation? Some perspicuous observers have already noticed how the only form of sexual relation that fully meets the politically correct criteria would be a contract drawn between sadomasochist partners. The rise of political correctness and the rise of violence are thus two sides of the same coin. Insofar as the basic premise of political correctness is the reduction of sexuality to contractual consent, Jean-Claude Milner was right to point out how the sexual liberation movement unavoidably reaches its climax in contracts which stipulate extreme forms of violent sex (treating a person like a dog on a collar, slave trading, torture, up to consented killing). In such forms of consensual slavery, the market freedom of contract negates itself—the slave trade becomes the ultimate assertion of freedom. It is as if the motif of “Kant with Sade” becomes reality in an unexpected way.

Furthermore, the scene described again and again by the #MeToo partisans is that of a predatory man threatening to rape a woman (or at least coerce her into sex). But what about the many women who (like many men) desire to have sex but are ignored for not being attractive enough? Can one imagine their suffering, especially in our PC times, when “a beautiful woman” is more and more considered a male-predatory phrase that objectivizes women—even while the changing connation of the phrase reinforces, at an unspoken level, the perception that some women are beautiful and attractive?

This does not mean that we should endorse the French letter signed by Catherine Deneuve and others, which criticizes the “excesses” of #MeToo “puritanism” and defends traditional forms of gallantry and seduction. The problem is not that #MeToo goes too far and that more moderation and understanding are needed; rather, the problem lies in the way #MeToo addresses the issue. In downplaying the complexity of sexual interaction, #MeToo not only blurs the line between lewd misconduct and criminal violence, but also ignores the extreme psychological violence that can be masked as politeness and respect.

In replying to those who saw a difference between Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K., #MeToo activists claimed that those who made such a distinction have no idea about how male violence is experienced. They argued that masturbation in front of women can be experienced as something no less violent than physical imposition. Although there is an element of truth in these claims, one should nonetheless pose a clear limit to the logic that sustains this argumentation. What one feels cannot be the ultimate measure of authenticity, since feelings can also lie. If we deny this, we simply deny the Freudian unconscious. Incidentally, this reference to feeling as the ultimate criterion of authenticity faithfully reproduces the old anti-feminist prejudice (elaborated, among others, by Descartes and the early rationalists) about women as beings who are totally determined by their emotions and cannot rise above them through reflection.

Again, to avoid any misunderstanding: the #MeToo claim against the ongoing oppression of women should be fully endorsed, but one should be very precise in locating it. There is an obvious pop-cultural reply to the thesis concerning the ongoing male oppression of and domination over women: E. L. James’s mega-bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey, a novel written by a woman about a woman who enjoys her sexual submission to a man; a novel which (so the media told us) was wildly popular among women. In answering this critical point, one should, of course, avoid fast pseudo-psychoanalytic counterclaims in the style of “James’s novel makes it clear that even women who appear to demand emancipation from male power are effectively in the thrall of a profound unconscious masochist desire to be dominated by men.” Likewise, the feminist claim—that women engaged in masochist fantasies represent a case of identifying with the enemy and the internalization of the patriarchal stance—fares no better. The first thing to do is to take a closer look at what Fifty Shades of Grey does: it does not imply the enjoyment of actual subordination but rather of a fantasy of subordination, which is certainly not the same and should in no way be interpreted as a call for actual subordination. One of the basic lessons of psychoanalysis is that, when our innermost fantasies are imposed on us from outside, the experience is utterly devastating. From the psychoanalytic perspective, to put it bluntly, when a person who secretly dreams about being treated roughly during sex is raped, the effect is more brutal than in the case of a rape not prefigured by such fantasies.

A further point to be made (and which was amply developed by Deleuze) is that there is no symmetry between masochism and sadism. While a sadist brutally mistreats his victim in order to humiliate him/her, masochism relies on a contract which stipulates the exact terms of the interplay, including the limits of violence (which is as a rule theatrically staged). Is this not what also happened in Fifty Shades? The two partners conclude a contract out of which they are free to step out at any moment, and the violence enacted is very gentle—no comparison is possible here with the actual misery of women terrorized by their partners. (There is, of course, a different kind of actual feminine masochism, but this is emphatically not what Fifty Shades deals with.)

In some sense, one could even claim that such a masochist contract presents a case of feminine empowerment: it is the woman who installs a man into the theatrical role of her master and defines the terms of their interaction. This is what Lacan meant by his answer to Freud’s question, “What does a woman want?”—a master, but a master whom she can dominate and manipulate.

The standard form of the masochist contract—recall Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs (1870)—has the male partner in the position of the “victim,” who contractually installs a woman as his domina and enjoins her in precise terms what to do to him (whip him, step on him, humiliate him with vulgar words, etc.). If we are to believe reports in the media, such contracts are popular among top managers who supplement their brutal exercise of administrative authority with the enactment of masochist fantasies. Significantly, this entire affair in no way diminishes their actual social power; it just functions as its obscene supplement. Is not the fact that women in Fifty Shades (not just the novel’s heroine but also the writer and the vast feminine public) take over this role, therefore, a twisted sign of the decline of patriarchy? One of the definitions of a master is precisely “the one who has the right to enact his/her fantasies.”

Monica Lewinsky recently said that she stands by her 2014 comment that her relationship with President Bill Clinton was consensual, but she also raised the issue of the “vast power differentials” that existed between the two. Ms. Lewinsky says she had a “limited understanding of the consequences” at the time, and regrets the affair daily. “The dictionary definition of ‘consent’? To give permission for something to happen,” she wrote. “And yet what did the ‘something’ mean in this instance, given the power dynamics, his position, and my age? . . . He was my boss. He was the most powerful man on the planet. He was 27 years my senior, with enough life experience to know better.”4

True, but she did not just consent, she directly initiated sexual contact; it was also Clinton who “consented,” and the “vast power differential” was probably a key part of his attraction for her. As for her claim that since he was an older, experienced man, he should have “known better” and rejected her advances, is there not something hypocritical in this self-ascribed role of an inexperienced victim? Do we not find ourselves here at the exact, almost symmetrical opposite of the Islamic fundamentalist view according to which a man who raped a woman was secretly seduced (provoked) by her into doing it?

Such a reading of male rape as the result of woman’s provocation is often reported by the media. In 2006, Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali, Australia’s most senior Muslim cleric, caused a scandal when, after a group of Muslim men had been jailed for gang rape, he said, “If you take uncovered meat and place it outside on the street . . . and the cats come and eat it . . . whose fault is it—the cats’ or the uncovered meat? The uncovered meat is the problem.”5 The explosively scandalous nature of this comparison between a woman who is not veiled and raw, uncovered meat distracted attention from another, much more surprising premise underlying al-Hilali’s argument: if women are held responsible for the sexual conduct of men, does this not imply that men are totally helpless when faced with what they perceive as a sexual provocation? That they are simply unable to resist it, and that they are totally enslaved to their sexual hunger, precisely like a cat when it sees raw meat? In contrast to this presumption of the complete lack of male responsibility for their own sexual conduct, the emphasis on public female eroticism in the West relies on the premise that men are capable of sexual restraint, that they are not blind slaves of their sexual drives.

This total responsibility of the woman for the sexual act strangely mirrors the Lewinsky view that, although she took the initiative, the responsibility was fully Clinton’s. In the Muslim fundamentalist view, men are helpless victims of woman’s perfidious seduction even if they commit a brutal rape. In the Lewinsky case, she was a victim even if she provocatively initiated the affair. The symmetry between the two cases is flawed, of course, since in both of them men are in the actual position of social power and domination. Playing the card of a helpless victim in such a case as Lewinsky’s, however, is a self-humiliating spectacle, which in no way helps women’s emancipation and merely confirms man as the master.

One should also bear in mind that patriarchal domination corrupts both of its poles, including its victims; or, to quote Arthur Koestler, “If power corrupts, the reverse is also true; persecution corrupts the victims, though perhaps in subtler and more tragic ways.” Consequently, one should also talk about feminine manipulation and emotional brutality (ultimately as a desperate reply to male domination)—women fight back any way they can. And one should admit that, in many parts of our society where traditional patriarchy is to a large extent eliminated, men are no less under pressure. So the proper strategy should be to address male anxieties as well, and to strive for a pact between women’s struggle for emancipation and male concerns. Male violence against women is to a large extent a panicky reaction to the fact that their traditional authority has been undermined, and part of the struggle for emancipation should be to demonstrate to men how accepting emancipated women will release them from their anxieties and enable them to lead more satisfied lives.

Yes, Yes, Yes

A further complication: even when sexual contact is desired by both parties, there can be an element of violence in initiating it, specifically the violence of initiating contact in a direct way. The reason is simply that sexual desire never fits the image of one’s self—it is always experienced as a violent intrusion. No contracts help here. Demanding a contract can be in itself a form of violence (which, in special circumstances, can again become part of a masochist sexual game). And this is what complicates any direct attempt to regulate these matters.

Those who admit the existence of so-called grey zones (between the two extremes of mutually desired sexual interplay and clear violent imposition) too often miss their changing status within one and the same sexual interplay. Especially today, in our politically correct times, a seduction process always involves the risky move of “making a pass.” At this potentially dangerous moment, one exposes oneself, intruding into another person’s intimate space. The danger resides in the fact that, if my pass is rejected, it will appear as a politically incorrect act of harassment. So there is an obstacle I have to overcome. Here, however, a subtle asymmetry enters: if my pass is accepted, it is not that I have successfully overcome the obstacle. What happens is that, retroactively, I learn that there never was an obstacle to be overcome.

When commentators try to summarize the results of the ongoing new wave of women’s emancipation, one of their conclusions is that “no means no” is not sufficient for a “happy sex life” since it still leaves the space open for more subtle forms of coercion. Here is an exemplary case of this line of argumentation:

Badgering someone into queasy submission might technically be within the law, but it is not the road to a happy sex life and it may no longer protect a man from public censure. What young men should look for . . . is not the potentially ambiguous absence of “no,” but the enthusiastic presence of a “yes, yes, yes” or affirmative consent. “In 2018, ‘no means no’ is totally antiquated. It puts all the pressure on the person in the most vulnerable position, that if someone doesn’t have the capacity or the confidence to speak up, then they’re going to be violated. . . . If somebody isn’t an enthusiastic yes, if they’re hesitating, if they’re like: ‘Uh, I don’t know’—at this point in time, that equals no.”6

One cannot but agree with all the critical points in this passage: how a weak “yes” under pressure equals “no,” and so forth. What is problematic is “the enthusiastic presence of a ‘yes, yes, yes.’” It is easy to imagine how this condition can also put a woman into a humiliating position. A woman who, to put it bluntly (and why not?), passionately wants to get laid by a man—basically, she has to perform the equivalent of publicly stating, “Please fuck me!” Are there not more subtle (but nonetheless unambiguously clear) ways to do this? Furthermore, if one looks for “the road to a happy sex life,” one looks for it in vain, for the simple reason that there is no such thing. In sex, things always go wrong in some way for immanent reasons, and the only chance of a relatively “happy sex life” is to find a way to make these failures work against themselves. Directly searching for “the road to a happy sex life” is the safest way to ruin things, and the imagined scene of both partners enthusiastically shouting “yes, yes, yes” is in real life as close as one can get to hell.

Things get even more complex with the right to withdraw from sexual interaction at any moment. One rarely mentions how this right opens up new modes of violence. What if the woman, after seeing her partner naked with an erect penis, begins to mock him and tells him to leave? What if the man does the same to her? Can one imagine a more humiliating situation? An extreme case of the violence of such withdrawal is the painful scene from David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990), in which Bobby Peru (played by Willem Dafoe) violently imposes himself on Lula (Laura Dern), intruding into her space and obscenely whispering and shouting at her, “Say fuck me!” When, after painful pressure, she concedes and whispers “Fuck me” (in an ambiguous way where coercion is inextricably mixed with inner arousal), he steps back and tells her with a smile: “Someday honey, I will, but I’ve got to get going!” The effect is so humiliating for her that, in some sense, the symbolic violence of this withdrawal, of rejecting the enforced offer, is worse than if he were to accept her offer and actually fuck her. Clearly, one can find an appropriate way to resolve such impasses only through manners and sensitivity, which by definition cannot be legislated. If one wants to prevent violence and brutality by adding new clauses to the contract, one loses a central feature of sexual interplay which is precisely the delicate balance between what is said and what is not said. Sexual interplay is full of such exceptions: where silent understanding and tact offer the only ways to proceed; when one wants things done but not explicitly spoken about; when extreme emotional brutality can be enacted in the guise of politeness; and when moderate violence itself can get sexualized. If we go to the end of this path, we have to conclude that even an enthusiastic “yes, yes, yes” can effectively function as a mask of violence and domination.

The cunning of (neo)liberal ideology resides in its claim that the “yes, yes, yes” of contractual consent frees us from domination and guilt—and that the statement of the exception can remove the state of exception. But as Lubitsch so well understood, the apparent dropping of the masks is often the most deceptive. When fully under the power of ideology, we “act ourselves” because this ostensible directness represses that which can be expressed only indirectly.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume II, Number 3 (Fall 2018): 78–97.


Portions of this essay are drawn from the author’s previously published works, including, “The Actuality of Ernst Lubitsch,” The Philosophical Salon, Feb. 12, 2018; “Sex, Contracts, and Manners,” The Philosophical Salon, Jan. 22, 2018; and “Sex in the Modern World: Can Even a ‘Yes, Yes, Yes’ Actually Mean ‘No?,’” RT, March 4, 2018.

1 Laurent de Sutter and Barnaby Norman, Narcocapitalism: Life in the Age of Anaesthesia (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018).

2 For an alternative reading, see Richard Williamson, “The Film ‘The Sound of Music,’” Leofec Network.

3 In what follows, I rely on Yuval Kremnitzer’s outstanding intervention at the Lubitsch colloquium in Kino Babylon, Berlin: “‘Delicacy is the Banana Peel Under Truth’: Lubitsch’s Comical Naturalism,” paper presented at Lubitsch from Berlin Conference, Berlin, January 2018.

4Monica Lewinsky: Bill Clinton Affair a Gross Abuse of Power,” BBC, February 27, 2018.

5 Mark Tran, “Australian Muslim Leader Compares Uncovered Woman to Dog Meat,” Guardian, October 26, 2006.

6 Gaby Hinsliff, “Carnality and Consent: How to Navigate Sex in the Modern World,” Guardian, February 14, 2018.

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