Philosophy as Sadism

In “The Language of Sade and Masoch,” Gilles Deleuze discusses the differences and similarities between the writings of The Marquis du Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. “The Libertine may put on an act of trying to convince and persuade; he may even proselytize and gain new recruits (as in Philosophy in the Bedroom). But the intention to convince is merely apparent, for nothing is in fact more alien to the sadist than the wish to convince, to persuade, in short to educate. He is interested in something quite different, namely to demonstrate that reasoning itself is a form of violence, and that he is on the side of violence, however calm and logical he may be. He is not even attempting to prove anything to anyone, but to perform a demonstration related essentially to the solitude and omnipotence of its author” (19).

This small insight caught my attention. Aside from concisely elaborating post-68’ French theory’s critique of “rationality-as-given” in whatever form it comes, it also reminds me of my work in comparative philosophy and the history of Asian thought. The story of colonialism was a story of the West claiming a “rationality” over and against the irrationality of the other that justified, after the fact, colony and control. Justify might be too forceful a word. Perhaps it might be better conceived as an ideological apothecary to relieve the unpleasant symptoms of a bald grab for control. Having perused the great thinkers, the marginal thinkers, a wide variety of thought from the three most influential civilizations in the world, I am not yet convinced that there is a single universal rationality. Nor am I convinced that there isn’t. What I do know, is that the discourse of rationality has been used in the past to help legitimize power. Indeed, all rationality is the veneer that covers over brute will with flowery language. We desire, we feel, we intuit and then we talk, we rationalize it afterwards. Nietzsche pointed this out, and I have a hunch that this is what Heidegger misses in saying Nietzsche’s will to power is a further metaphysics. It seems to me that Heidegger himself falls into Nietzsche’s trap as much as he struggled against it.

But, all of the “greats” of western metaphysics have been deeply aligned with power, colony, imagined communities, justifications, rationalization after the fact for desire and will. Marx saw this, to some degree. But to bring back Sade into the discussion, reason and rationality are an intermission, a segue between the movement of forces. Or, more appropriately, rationality is the movement of force relations. Rationality is the show of violence. It is the ability of those with leisure enough to learn it, power enough to bend it, and sadism enough to use it. No matter what culture, with some exceptions who only reify the illusion that it is not the case, rationality and “great thought” is the violence of elites working through language. Even the most noble, ethical, pacifist, turn-the-other-cheek, satyagraha thinking can only happen in a language build from the productive power of a socio-political-economic system that is their opposite. In other words, the violent sadism of rationality is subtle enough to allow for it to be an opiate too (to use a Marxist analogy).

But, this is amplified in the work of philosophy and the academy in the 20th century. The life of privilege and wealth that allowed thinking was brought under control in the form of the discipline. Modern philosophy is a zoo, regulated to produce in small spurts the opium and violence needed. Philosophers are often the most violent and most caged of the show. They want to let loose their sadism, they want to be freely sadistic. And yet, they know they are impotent. The impotence of the academy expresses itself as a more vile and petty sadism of little feuds and petty ideas only because it cannot unleash its own yearning to be a true libertine, in the Sadian sense. The older academy of apprentice and master, a pedagogy of taking care to gently ween new scholars into the Chateau has been replaced by the machine of jagged edges that culls and tears, small minutiae of pains and pleasures. The cogs—the tenured, the doctored, the post-doc, the grad student—they all tear little pieces of each other here and there. To what end? Ask Marx. Ask Nietzsche. Ask Foucault.

Philosophy as a discipline (that the irony of this word in this context has not been noticed shows how much I may be correct here) is the petty, violent sadism of last men who want to lord over the belief that they have already perfected knowledge, meanwhile convincing themselves that they are searching for it. Constructing knowledge when one thinks one has all the answers already (at the very least, the answers are all predetermined by the questions—questions, as Heidegger points out, that have nothing to do with thought—which is even more insidious) is exactly the solipsistic, omniscient sadism of a libertine.


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