The Whip

Von Iris Därmann
18 May 2015 | Johann Jacobs Museum

The whip is an ancient instrument of command, submission and chastisement. Its sharp crack is a reminder that neither man nor beast can withdraw its involuntary labour or service for another human being without painful consequences.

Today, slavery has been at least legally abolished and corporal punishment no longer has a place in most penal law systems. Mortification of the flesh has lost its religious significance, while agriculture and transport are now motorized. As a result, the whip and practices associated with it are outdated and have entered into the eerie state that Edward B. Tylor identified as survivals. Today, the whip is associated with the fulfilment of certain desires and has assumed the role of a bizarre prop symbolizing the enjoyment of domination and suffering. In terms of submission and pain, it appears to have found a symmetrically opposed sense of purpose and lust.

The question is whether abandonment of the whip’s earlier use could be linked to the addition of a concealed historic significance and is thus symptomatic in some way. Not in terms of its current role as an object of sexual subservience so much as the use to which it was formerly put. What role could taking sadistic pleasure in the cruelty and the spectacle of flogging scenes play in the asymmetrical relationship between master and slaves – both male and female – of mediaeval Europe, particularly in Italy and the modern era. Following the decline in the significance of slavery in Europe, It may well turn out that sadistic sexuality appears has established its own raison d’être and structurally disconnected itself from the notion of forced labour. Nevertheless, like the masochistic desire for religious chastisement, it would still have to be seen as a constituent element in the master/slave relationship. At the same time, without the sadistic use of the whip, the despotic milieu could not have been party to excessive cruelty or have achieved its level of sustainability.


Iris Därmann is Professor of Kulturwissenschaftliche Ästhetik at the Institute for Cultural History and Theory, Humboldt University Berlin. She studied Philosophy, Sociology and Social Psychology at the Ruhr-University Bochum, where she also wrote her doctoral thesis in 1993. As a Visiting Fellow at the International Research Centre for Cultural Studies Vienna and as Guest Lecturer at the Leibniz Prize Research Centre “Cultural Theory and Political Theory of the Imaginary” of the University of Konstanz, she analyzed the cultural margins and conditions of political philosophy, ranging from antiquity to the present. As a Fellow at the Centre of Excellence “Cultural Foundations of Integration” of the University of Konstanz, she worked on developing an ordinary-culture-theory on the basis of The Gift by Marcel Mauss and its reception in France.


The lecture is given on occasion of the current exhibition Ines Doujak: Follow The Leader/ Not Dressed for Conquering.

Title image: View from an old colonial complex in Salvador (Bahia) towards the Atlantic, with the pier on which the slaves arrived.