Dany Nobus: Writing as an Instrument of Torture – An Exploration of Sade’s Practical Reason via Lacan’s “Kant with Sade”

Dany Nobus: Writing as an Instrument of Torture – An Exploration of Sade’s Practical Reason via Lacan’s “Kant with Sade”

Of the twenty-eight substantial papers and six shorter contributions that make up Lacan’s Écrits, “Kant with Sade” is generally regarded as one of the toughest nuts to crack, and this opinion is shared by some of the most eminent and knowledgeable commentators on Lacan’s work. In this seminar, I will unpack one of the crucial lines of Lacan’s argument in “Kant with Sade”, notably that the contents of Sade’s libertine novels, which he also designated as “the Sadean fantasy”, i.e. the fantasy Sade articulated as a literary text within the space of his creative imagination, cannot be mapped directly onto the author’s life. Although it is the ‘sadistic’ fantasy of Sade’s libertine heroes that tends to dominate within the Sadean fantasy—whose full spectrum also includes the more ‘masochistic’ side of the victims, as epitomized by the perennially virtuous Justine—this does not, for Lacan, demonstrate that sadism is also the type of ‘practical reason’ that would have presided over his daily routines, outside the fictional space of the literary narrative. Although Sade’s incessant articulation of the libertines’ brutal fantasy inevitably plays a crucial part in his own Weltanschauung, for Lacan the latter was much more constructed around the author’s relationship to his own act of writing, and to the specific function he wanted to accord to his libertine novels, rather than to the personal realization of the ‘sadistic’ fantasy of his fictional heroes. As such, this seminar explores the function of writing for Sade, and more specifically its significance for the articulation of desire, fantasy and the law, in a dialogue with Foucault’s comments on Sade in his lectures at the State University of New York, Buffalo in March 1970.

Click here to listen to Dany Nobus’s Das Unbehagen Lecture

Post-show highlights from the Unbehagen SalOon listserv

Evan Malater proposes “Nobus avec Zizek”:

As supplementary reading to Dany Nobus’ talk, let’s consider Slavoj Zizek’s discussion of Lacan’s “Kant with Sade”:

Click here to read Zizek’s article “Kant and Sade: The Ideal Couple” published in Lacanian Ink 13, 1998

I found this important for a couple of reasons. In the end of the talk, there was a discussion about the annihilation of God, Nature and eventually self in the libertine. Nobus’ talk culminates by claiming that Sade the writer is to be distinguished from the libertine he writes about in any of its dimensions and that the significant emphasis in the paper is ultimately one of writing itself. He emphasized how Sade was said to want his writings to leave no trace, he didn’t sign his key works etc. Nobus wants to counter the now standard take on this paper which is that Sade is the truth of Kant.

However, Zizek doesn’t really seem to make this simplified point either.  Zizek writes:
“Lacan does not try to make the usual ‘reductionist’ point that every ethical act, as pure and disinterested as it may appear, is always grounded in some ‘pathological’ motivation (the agent’s own long-term interest, the admiration of his peers, up to the ‘negative’ satisfaction provided by the suffering and extortion often demanded by ethical acts); the focus of Lacan’s interest rather resides in the paradoxical reversal by means of which desire itself (i.e. acting upon one’s desire, not compromising it) can no longer be grounded in any ‘pathological’ interests or motivations and thus meets the criteria of the Kantian ethical act, so that ‘following one’s desire’ overlaps with ‘doing one’s duty’.”

For Zizek, this leads to a crisis about what doing your duty can mean and how following desire can mean something other than simply dictating the universal template in a way that allows for the situation of an Eichmann who says he was just following orders.

Zizek unites Kant and Sade by showing that the universal choice in regards to responsibility is not prewritten but rather must be written in each contingent situation. Here is Zizek:

“The unique strength of Kant’s ethics resides in this very formal indeterminacy: moral Law does not tell me what my duty is, it merely tells me that I should accomplish my duty, i.e. it is not possible to derive the concrete norms I have to follow in my specific situation from the moral Law itself-which means that the subject himself has to assume the responsibility of “translating” the abstract injunction of the moral Law into a series of concrete obligations.

In this precise sense, one is tempted to risk a parallel with Kant’s Critique of Judgement: the concrete formulation of a determinate ethical obligation has the structure of aesthetic judgement, i.e. of a judgement by which, instead of simply applying a universal category to a particular object or of subsuming this object under an already given universal determination, I as it were invent its universal-necessary-obligatory dimension and thereby elevate this particular-contingent object (act) to the dignity of the ethical Thing.”

To conclude, I would say that rather than Nobus being opposed to the Zizekian reading we might try Nobus avec Zizek. This would further extend Zizek’s point in which the need to sublimate via elevating the “particular-contingent object to the dignity of the ethical thing” is another form of writing itself. Writing is the act of facing the pure indeterminacy which nevertheless asserts the Kantian universal imperative but through the Sadian terms of following desire. These points taken together would seem to allow writing to be seen as a form of self disappearance consistent with Zizek’s emphasis on the contingent and undetermined.

Other supplementary reading might include Bruce Fink’s chapter, “An Introduction to Lacan’s ‘Kant with Sade’” in Against Understanding, Volume 2: Cases and Commentary in a Lacanian Key as well as the Alenka Zupancic’s book Ethics and the Real: Kant and Sade, which Dany mentioned.

Jamieson Webster considers the ethical resistance of writing into disappearance:

I just want add to Evan’s description that there was a fascinating moment in the discussion where as a group we went back on Dany’s pronouncement that Lacan was not interested in doing psycho-biography or even psychosexual psychopathology, and that this refusal is key to the displacement onto the question of Sade as writer and the implementation through writing of both his desire to disappear and an ethical resistance, one that landed him in jail, and in psychiatric wards, both before and after the revolution. Indeed, everyone began to ponder the meaning of sewing one’s mother’s shut and to muse on whether Sade masturbated while writing or wanted other people to…

Steven Reisner pointed out that the refusal of meaning, the refusal to find something good or human in the Libertines or their victims, the making meaningful or pathological of sadism or masochism, is what Sade was writing into disappearance, taking it to the limit, and we clearly couldn’t go that far.

All in all, I was fascinated by what the Sadean dream in Dany’s talk outlined about the analytic position.

Evan Malater critiques the conflation of refusal and resistance:

1) Steven Reisner offers the idea that Sade’s refusal to sign his work and his wish that it would disappear should be seen as an ultimate ‘resistance.’ Jamieson says that in contrast, we in our discussion seem to find it hard to reach this level of resistance and end up falling back into the old boring meaningful psychobiography, for example, did Sade jerk off to his writing.

2) I think however, that the idea that in our discussion we cannot go far enough and that we are falling short of a sort of pure resistance only begs the question of what it means to go far enough, what resistance is as well as the question of what is being resisted and who or what resists.

3) Nobus wants to go against the idea that the libertine resists authority, that Kant goes against Sade, in order to say that the writer goes against himself. But again, this begs the question of who is the writer? This seems to bring us to the notion of the writer who writes to and from the Other. Writing is a writing of an otherness that is not pathological but is a primordial other that is at the same time self and the erasure of the self. Resistance is then not the boring resistance of the knee jerk rebel but as a condition of writing which faces the disappearance of the self through the painful call of the Other that is written.

4) Otherwise resistance is all too easily institutionalized as in Charlie Hebdo as a beloved institution that no one reads anymore but is revered for its willingness to ‘say anything’ like an old grandpa that makes fart jokes at the holiday dinner. This in fact was noted as a problem – Sade is in fact now read in French High School classes Nobus said.

5) This by the way is a notion that occasionally is held against Unbehagen – that by signifying a group under the signifier of discontent, resistance is reified into a brand. This of course is a misreading since the title Das Unbehagen in der Kultur translates to something more like The Nausea in Culture. There is no fully transparent self knowing resisting identity that claims to be the one that is discontent or resisting there is simply resistance, nausea and discontent – there are no people claiming to embody or identify with discontent or resistance.

6) I wouldn’t say that we can’t go far enough or that we fall into psychobiography by asking if Sade gets off on his writing, rather I think that this shows that we can’t get rid of the contingent question of why the writer does what he does. Even Reisner’s claim that he seeks a pure form of resistance falls into a sort of speculative psychobiography by claiming purity of resistance when in fact, it could as easily be claimed that writing masturbatory vignettes is more resistant to standard demands to be noble and meaningful. The fact is that the excess element always is the desire of the Other and it isn’t that we can’t go far enough, but that we are always thrown into thinking about this – not because of Sade’s psychological quirks but as the real of desire and writing.

7) Finally, it should be noted that Lacan himself shifted in his writing on transgression from the Ethics seminar to the Other Side of Psychoanalysis ad the four discourses. While in his seminar on Antigone, jouissance as transgression is emphasized, later jouissance is seen as immanent to symbolization and he is less interested in transgression and maybe even a bit fed up with the notion. This latter seminar has him confronted by radical students who he famously tells, “you want a master and you will find one.”

Cecilia Wu considers the idiom “it goes without saying” as an act of saying into disappearance:

Does anything go without saying? Is to write oneself into disappearance to say without going? Is the saying then a kind of staying? Is staying the standing again of resistance? Is this miserly? Ethical? A need to insist on the persistence of a rut as fossilized testimony of the antimatter antiparticle, which nonetheless mimics the mass of its corresponding particle, under threat of annihilation? I have mass, but I don’t matter in the way you do. I’m entangled, and yet I stand in spite of and because of the collapse of your tide. I’m tidy, I hoard the status of my standing. Can one go without the feet of saying? Would footless stepping leave a trace? Would the minimal empathy of entangled sinew betray the disappearing act, and wound the sadean condom or masturbatory hand against the libertines?

Evan Malater responds to Cecilia Wu’s staying of saying:

Cecilia says, “Does anything go without saying? Is to write oneself into disappearance to say without going? Is the saying then a kind of staying? Is staying the standing again of resistance? Is this miserly? Ethical?”

This evokes a crucial aspect of “Kant with Sade” which is (precisely) the question of who speaks either as the categorical imperative asserting the cruel necessity to follow the law or as the figure of the libertine that embodies the voice of faceless desire. In fact the faceless desire seems to be embodied for Sade as executioner, who as we know, keeps his face covered.

Zizek writes:
“…Lacan introduces the difference between the “subject of the enunciation” (the subject who utters a statement) and the “subject of the enunciated (statement)” (the symbolic identity the subject assumes within and via his statement) Kant does not address the question of who is the “subject of the enunciation” of the moral Law, the agent enunciating the unconditional ethical injunction-from within his horizon, this question itself is meaningless, since the moral Law is an impersonal command “coming from nowhere,” i.e. it is ultimately self-posited, autonomously assumed by the subject himself).

…and it is Sade who renders it visible in the figure of the “sadist” executioner-torturer-this executioner is the enunciator of the moral Law, the agent who finds pleasure in our (the moral subject’s) pain and humiliation.”
This brings in the figure of the Other in saying, writing or wishing to resist any necessity for saying or staying.

Fink begins his “Introduction to ‘Kant with Sade'” in Against Understanding, Volume 2 with this quote of Lacan:
“The Other is absolutely essential, and this is what I wanted to articulate when I gave my seminar on The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, in relating Sade to Kant, and in showing you that the essential interrogation of the Other by Sade goes so far as to simulate the requirements of the moral law, and not just accidentally.” – Lacan, 2004, p. 193

And for Cecilia the Other provokes these words:

“I have mass, but I don’t matter in the way you do. I’m entangled, and yet I stand in spite of and because of the collapse of your tide. I’m tidy, I hoard the status of my standing.”

The intimate extimate Other is resisted but also irresistible. As Cecilia shows, saying might necessarily be a kind of staying. Saying of any enunciation makes a mark that is indifferent to whether the speaking or speaker seem to be saying he wants to stay forever or leave at once. It stays and it stains.

Orna Shachar offers the poem “Who is a Poet” by Polish poet Tadeusz Różewicz in response to the complex question of who is a writer:

by Tadeusz Różewicz

a poet is one who writes verses
and one who does not write verses

a poet is one who throws off fetters
and one who puts fetters on himself

a poet is one who believes
and one who cannot bring himself to believe

a poet is one who has told lies
and one who has been told lies

one who has been inclined to fall
and one who raises himself

a poet is one who tries to leave
and one who cannot leave

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