Coldness and cruelty, violence and politics; Or: masochism and democracy

[Note: The following post essentially consists of some notes toward an interpretation of Deleuze’s text; one that I hope to develop further and, obviously, in more detail. I don’t claim that it is an “analysis” or “summary” of that text and ask that it not be taken as such.]

The conjunction of masochism and democracy presupposes, of course, the extension of the sexual field into politics.* Deleuze’s structuralism—and Coldness and Cruelty is most certainly “structural” in several senses of the word, not only for its insistence on the formal analysis of psychic phenomena but also for its commitment to the logic of the sign—provides us with a precise point of intersection of these two fields without collapsing the field of politics into that of sexuality or vice versa; this analysis also avoids the naïveté of pop psychology that would look for our “psychological motivations” for political action. The link between masochism and democracy, therefore, is not one of the sort that would permit us to claim that “a democrat must be a masochist” or the converse, since these types of propositions reduce the two fields into the same level of discourse without preserving, as Deleuze does, the necessity of a reference to a third: what Deleuze calls “symptomatology” or what might otherwise simply be called “formal analysis”.

*One has the suspicion, however, that this speculation on Deleuze’s text is caught in the bind of being either obvious or illegitimate (at least, however, it cannot be both). Deleuze never mentions political philosophy in the text, and it would be an obvious instance of equivocation to equate his discussion of the law in psychoanalysis with the law in politics. Nor should the law in politics be taken as a special instance of the law in psychoanalysis (including the “law of the father” simply writ large).

The name of democracy is uniquely a modern phenomenon and the primary site of the theologico-political problem, which manifests in a dual aspect: 1) the originary, impossible moment of violence articulated by Hobbes in the one who must covenant to form the State. This is the radically free decision, ex nihilo, of the libertine who, “while engaged in reasoning, is caught in the hermetic circle of his own solitude and uniqueness—even if the argumentation is the same for all the libertines” (Deleuze). 2) This is the impulse (both Hobbes and Hume are in agreement here) that sets itself the task of submission to a force greater than itself. The alternatives for this task are set out several times in Deleuze’s text under the names of sadism and masochism:

“In Sade the imperative and descriptive function of language transcends itself toward a pure demonstrative, instituting function [fascism], and in Masoch toward a dialectical, mythical and persuasive function [democracy]. These two transcendent functions essentially characterize the two perversions, they are twin ways in which the monstrous exhibits itself in reflection [emphasis added].”

And again: “the specific impulse underlying the contract [masochism] is toward the creation of a law, even if in the end the law should take over and impose its authority upon the contract itself; whereas the corresponding impulse at work in the case of institution [fascism] is toward the degradation of all laws and the establishment of a superior power that sets itself above them”.*

*It is, incidentally, precisely this threat that is identified in a different way by Rancière when he claims that democracy occurs at the moment when a discontinuity between law and nature occurs and, à la Critchley, that democracy is nothing other than the maintenance of an “interstitial distance” (Critchley’s term) or “an-archic” moment (both Rancière and Critchley) of immanent critique.

But, the perversion leads us from contract to ritual: “the masochist is led back into the impersonal realm of fate, which finds expression in the myth [and ritual] … The situation that the masochist establishes by contract, at a specific moment and for a specific period, is already fully contained timelessly and ritually in the symbolic order of masochism”. But this is a transformed, monstrous, law (the “law of the mother”), a parody of law whose mode of expression is not discourse (the symbolic order of the father) but laughter (when Severin returns to Wanda to satisfy his contractual obligations, her response is simply to laugh—is this not almost precisely what Cixous means by the laugh of the medusa?).

What is remarkable is that the trajectory of masochism does not revert into fascism (myth, destiny) but rather into the Übermensch? In Deleuze’s words: “in the work of Masoch, imperatives and descriptions also achieve a transcendental function, but it is of a mythical and dialectical order. It rests on universal disavowal as a reactive process and on universal suspension as an Ideal of pure imagination … [emphasis added]”. Dialectics reverts into an aesthetics of truth—of the “supersensualist” who conceives the truth through his naked body.

This is a reactive process insofar as the masochist performs a simultaneous involution and doubling of the superego—as the one who signs the contract and as the one who submits to, in Severin’s favorite description of his mistress, a “beautiful tyrant” (recall that tyrants are appointed or elected, often reservedly so; cf. Deleuze: “Sade’s hatred of tyranny, his demonstration that the law enables the tyrant to exist, form the essence of his thinking”). This would be the ultimate catharsis if only there were anything tragic about masochism. Rather, the masochist is the one who performs the most ascetic, radical purgation as a propaedeutic to become a subject (in being subjected). One is never a masochistic subject—masochism is a continuous process of subjectification. When, then, “the rosy mist of supersensuality has lifted”, Severin claims that “no one will ever make me believe that the sacred wenches of Benares or Plato’s rooster are the images of God”.

Although Deleuze would never say this, whither the masochist except again to the theologico-political origins of democracy (and not, of course, to the corrupted democracy of procedural justice that masks itself under the slogan of the “rule of law”)? Without such a return, Nietzsche under the whip of Salomé is the only real alternative to the problem of modern democracy, which has been described with no more powerful language than in the Genealogy: the name of democracy rests on the continuous verification of an-archy; it is those sites where the real encroaches on the virtual that we witness the violence of politics.


2 thoughts on “Coldness and cruelty, violence and politics; Or: masochism and democracy

  1. Thank you for sending this to me–I’m so glad you read the book! It is a strange text, but I am beginning to understand that all Deleuze’s texts are strange, and maybe this one not even particularly so among them.I’ve only read this post once (well, twice, but only really once) so I don’t have anything terribly intelligent to say about it just yet, but I definitely think you’re onto something here. It’s something I’m sort of surprised I didn’t see before (i.e., the link between democracy and masochism), but, well, you’re smarter than me. 😉….Aaaand then I fell asleep. But I swear I will write something real soon!

  2. I’m glad you prompted me to read it! It’s something I’ve been meaning to read for a while (particularly since it’s one of the few D texts I hadn’t looked at yet) and it reminded me why I love him so much.Well, see, this is why I’m afraid this might be illegitimate, because it seems so obvious that there must be something wrong with it. So the whole smartness thing is just smoke and mirrors. 😉Can’t wait to see you soon!

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