Associate Professor of English Biman Basu authored a book, “The Commerce of People: Sadomasochism and African American Literature,” which was published in March. The book has been lauded for its perspective on power in relationships in the contexts of history, literature and mass media.
“The Commerce of Peoples provides an unflinching look at the multifaceted power relations enmeshed in the affective history of sadomasochism as it has emerged in practice over the past several decades,” says Lee Quinby, a distinguished lecturer at Macaulay Honors College, CUNY. Quinby served as the Donald R. Harter Chair in the Humanities Professor at HWS for more than 20 years. She adds, “Basu boldly argues that, in order to understand the contemporary intertwining of domination, submission, and desire, we must recognize that its history bears the marks of both slavery and colonialism of the last three centuries and that its utopian effort seeks to unfetter that corporeality. His analysis shows that the most daring and illuminating portrayals of race, gender, and sadomasochism may be found in key texts of African American literature.”
While sadomasochism has become a recurring theme in popular culture ranging from the fashion industry to the media and Internet, the book’s publisher Lexington Books notes in its description of the book, “In the population at large and in the academic community, too, it is still persistently stigmatized. This marginalization, along with its ambivalently persecuted status, is a result, significantly, of a nineteenth century legacy. This legacy begins with Kraftt-Ebing’s designation of sadomasochism, along with gay and lesbian desire, as a perversion, and continues in the popular and expert (mis)understandings which prevail.”
A play on the double meaning of the word “Commerce” of the title suggests the play of power in both the public and private lives of individuals. Basu asserts that all human relations are power relations, often masked by the pervasive ideas of romantic love, sentimental attachment, companionate marriage, friendship and so on. Though these do exist in sadomasochistic relations, sadomasochists are uncompromising in their claim that all of these are also charged with power relations.
In his book, Basu discusses how it is not only impossible to purge these relations of power, but for sadomasochists it is also undesirable to do so. He claims that sadomasochism provides a context in which people can learn about these power relations and, more specifically, how to exercise power and submit to it in a responsible way.
Basu’s research and teaching interests include African American literature, globalization, postcolonial and diasporic studies. He has published articles in Callaloo, College Literature, African American Review, Diaspora, Ariel, Public Culture, and other journals.
He is interested in the nexus between power and desire, and he addresses this directly in a course on sadomasochism, “Power, Desire, Literature.” More generally, he is interested in what he sees as an emergence of different continental and national styles of sadomasochism, in both the public and private spheres, in both the popular-cultural representations of S&M and its social and political implications.
Basu received his B.A. from Jadavpur University and his M.A. from North Carolina State University at Raleigh before earning his Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis. He joined the HWS faculty in 1998.