Oliver Vonnegut, Tufts undergrad, wins top prize in Cornell journal

Sophia Gottfried ’25 and Ethan Kovnat ’24 were a little flummoxed when one of the 101 submissions for Logos, Cornell’s undergraduate philosophy journal, mentioned BDSM (bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism) in its first sentence.

“Who am I going to assign to read this paper?” Kovnat remembers thinking.

But after reading it, they were no longer surprised, only impressed, as the paper offered “a nuanced examination of why people relinquish control.” They awarded it the top prize in this year’s journal, which will come out this summer and includes five papers. 

Kovnat knew that the submission came from Oliver Vonnegut, a rising senior at Tufts, but he didn’t know that Oliver was the grandson of the famous author Kurt Vonnegut. And the other Logos editors didn’t even know Vonnegut’s name, as author names are removed from papers before they’re passed along to the editors, who are undergraduate members of the philosophy club. Cornell students are not eligible to submit papers to the journal.

Vonnegut’s essay, “I Do Not Want to Choose the Restaurant, Honey,” explores the dynamic between being a subject or an object in the context of BDSM and fascism. Its first line is this: “BDSM is the cure to fascism.”

“This paper embodies the philosophical values of clarity and argumentation, while also being an accessible read,” Logos editors note in their forward to this year’s journal edition. “It takes on the assumption in the wide philosophical canon that the most morally important part of being a good human being is to be a subject, and the will to objecthood is either perverted or just fundamentally not part of the human experience.”

Vonnegut said he wrote the paper after reading a host of philosophers, including Hannah Arendt, Friedrich Nietzsche, Simone de Beauvoir, Georg Hegel, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Søren Kierkegaard. 

The paper isn’t really about BDSM or fascism, he said, but he uses those as tools to explain his thoughts. “I started noticing that a lot of philosophical theories really do focus on power and control, on humans who want power or have power,” he said, but he knew from research and his own personal experiences that sometimes people like to be told what to do. 

“It seems to me that at some point in life, everyone has wished to be smaller, less important — to disappear, even,” Vonnegut writes. “Everyone has made a mistake and wished for freedom from the consequences their autonomy elicited. Everyone has wished someone had stopped them from making that choice.”

His conclusion: “The characteristics of BDSM make it a space to express the will to object-hood while ultimately validating subject-hood, whereas the characteristics of fascism make it alluring to the will to object-hood, but ultimately self-sabotaging and ungratifying, analogous to an addiction.”

Along with Vonnegut’s arguments, Logos editors were also taken by the style of his writing.

“It was very tame and academic, but it was well written, it engaged with Beauvoir, it was entertaining and risqué enough to draw people in,” Gottfried said.

Vonnegut likes to engage with readers in a personal way, he said, and he likes to have fun, as evidenced by lines like these from the paper:

  • “Look, look—just hear me out on this one. Okay, I know that it’s actually strong community ties and support [that are the cures to fascism]; but BDSM can at least help.”
  • “When I speak about my theories and it seems as though I am saying, ‘The world is this way,’ please understand me as saying what I truly mean to, which is, ‘It helps me understand the world if I think of it as being this way’ … If this approach means my perspective only resonates with a few people, so be it. If it only resonates with me, well… won’t I feel special.”
  • “Yes, it is finally time to talk about BDSM. My apologies to those of you who have been waiting patiently for the exciting bit.”

With much philosophical writing, Vonnegut said “it’s always a wrestling match trying to understand what’s being said.” He didn’t want this paper to be another example of that.

“If this paper is to have a point, let it be this: pay attention to yourself,” he writes. “We cannot just be one thing or another, we must always be a jumbled mess of subject and object. So be it! Just be careful, because the drive behind those pushes outward and inward is strong, and it can take you anywhere.”

Vonnegut said he didn’t really know his grandfather, who passed away in 2007 when he was 4 years old, but he’s read some of his work and heard stories from his father, Mark, who is Vonnegut’s son and has published three memoirs of his own.

“There’s tons of philosophical examination in his work,” he said of his grandfather, who studied at Cornell from 1940-43, but was drafted into World War II and never finished his degree. 

Vonnegut was honored that his paper was selected for the top spot in Logos.

“Philosophy has always been deeply personal to me,” he said. “I’ve always been very confused by a lot of things and never satisfied by the answers. I wanted to know why things work the way they do and philosophy seemed the most tolerant way to go about doing that.”

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