Three Essays in Psychoanalysis: Zizek, BDSM, and the Possibility of Sovereignty

This is the third of my series of essays in, rather than on, psychoanalysis. In preparing these pieces, I hope to provide for myself fertile ground from which to grow additional thoughts and reason through some of the evergreen problems in psychoanalysis and ethics. It is worth noting, also, that these three essays were written in the span of about sixty minutes.

In Zizek’s essay, “Love Thy Neighbor? No Thanks” he gets a number of things wrong. Particularly striking among his errors is the veneration of fascist art objects to which he credits the ability of a certain kind of insurgent potential to the system known as “ideology.” Where one can encounter his error most blatantly is in his rendering of sexual masochism in relation to torture. Zizek writes:

“What distinguishes the masochistic spectacle from a simple scene of torture is not merely the fact that in the masochistic spectacle, for the most part, violence is merely suggested; more crucial is the fact that the executioner himself acts as the servant’s servant.” (Zizek 71)

To expose the issue with this formulation, I will posit two suggestions. The first is Zizek’s fixation on the spectacle as distinct from the non-performed. This dichotomy isn’t particularly well established, even as he develops his reasoning with the band Laibach and the novel Dune. What is the difference between the “simple scene of torture” and the “spectacle” of sexual masochism? For Zizek, it is precisely that Laibach, Dune, and sexual masochism invite a “close reading” of ideology and power that undoes them.

Indeed, to a point, this is correct. The relationship between the sexual sadist and the sexual masochist is one of extreme complication that I can only begin to elucidate here. The sexual sadist experiences pleasure by inflicting pain by definition, but also potentially experiences pleasure by way of the knowledge that the pain inflicted is experienced by the sexual masochist as pleasure. To put this another way, there is a reason the sadist does not engage in “the simple scene of torture.” Often, the pleasure derived in a BDSM relationship is far more complicated than simply dominating the masochist, although transgressing limitations is a crucial aspect of this relationship.

But what is at issue here is Zizek’s schematic understanding of this relationship, particularly exposed by Zizek’s assertion of the mere suggestion of violence in BDSM sex. This is a theoretical weakness as a result of factual inaccuracy, because for many authentic violence is essential for gratification in BDSM sex, but this violence is bracketed by the mutual understanding of the pleasure of the sadist in inflicting pain and the pleasure of the masochist in experiencing pain.

Additionally, there is in the realm of conception a “simple scene of torture” where the subject of torture just so happens to be a masochist and experiences pleasure in a way that is non-relational, just as the torturer’s experience of pleasure is non-relational, in contrast to BDSM sex where pleasure can be experienced relationally. Why I defy the rules of Zizek’s thought experiment in this way is simply to make the point that the vexed power relation can still exist in the “simple scene of torture.” The torturer becomes the servant of the masochist if the torturer happens to encounter one, whether or not the torturer has knowledge of this fact or not.

Similarly, Dune and Laibach offer nothing unique in their depictions of totalitarianism. The reading of a reproduction of these processes, however spectacular, does not offer anything distinct from reading power in its “simple scene.” A totalitarian government offers all the identifiable contradictions and gaps that a spectacular reproduction of totalitarianism offers insofar as it is only a reproduction. For the spectacular to work as Zizek claims, it must expose those contradictions in a way that suggests a certain kind of reading — it must contain a polemical assertion — rather than simply offering the potential for the reading. Otherwise, all one can do is see the totalitarianism in fiction and say “this is bad, though the logic of the aesthetic object does not tell me so I know it to be true. Anyone who encounters this aesthetic object would feel as I do.” This is the performance of insurgency with no action. Power structures are rendered but remain uncriticized. Spectacle is no closer, no more detailed, no more insurgent of a rendering of a power relation than the actual power relation is in itself.

The other issue is drawn out by the work of Georges Bataille in The Accursed Share: Volume II & III. Earlier, I discussed BDSM sex as primarily relational. Certainly, it is, but not fundamentally relational as Zizek would claim. Bataille opens up a space for non-relational pleasure, a space in which the sexual sadist and the torturer are far more aligned in disposition than in Zizek’s formulation. Bataille writes:

“Anyone who believes in the worth of others is necessarily limited; he is restricted by this respect for others, which prevents him from knowing the meaning of the only aspiration that is not subordinated within him to the desire to increase his material or moral resources.” (Bataille 178)

This is the unrelationality that can underpin both BDSM sex and the “simple scene of torture.” To put in Bataille’s own terms, this is the description of the sovereign individual. Bataille goes on:

“The fact is that solidarity keeps man from occupying the place that is indicated by the word "sovereignty”: human beings’ respect for one another draws them into a cycle of servitude where subordinate moments are all that remains, and where in the end we betray that respect since we deprive man in general of his sovereign moments (of his most valuable asset).“ (Bataille 178-179)

Bataille, earlier in the piece, discusses the need for a disregard of the partner in a sexual exchange for sovereign erotic pleasure. For Bataille pleasure must always be sovereign or it is not pleasure. All of this is a roundabout way of suggesting that the distinction Zizek calls for between the "masochistic spectacle” and the “simple scene of torture” is wrong. While it is my belief that the kind of relational sexual pleasure in BDSM sex that is characterized by the complicated power relation Zizek describes, Bataille asserts that truly pleasure-generating eroticism is sovereign and requires disregard for the partner. This disregard would be the disposition of the sexual sadist or the torturer. My adjustment to Bataille is only that the disregard is always the subconscious specter (or jouissance) of colloquial (non-sovereign) pleasure even in the relational BDSM sexual exchange. The space opened up by the relational BDSM sex, where who exactly is the servant and who exactly is the master is unclear despite outward appearances, is the space for both the sadist and masochist to experience sovereign pleasure: that desubjectivizing pleasure that has been agreed to and yet can never be anticipated or that pleasure that comes as a surprise when the subject ceases relationality because the subject ceases entirely.

 
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