Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

03 October 2011

Masochism and Aesthetic Pleasure

I decided (finally) to look at Leo Bersani & Ulysse Dutoit's The Forms of Violence today. I am not sure why I felt compelled to do this, but, as it turns out, the topic of this book was exactly what I needed for the discussions I am trying to have in my Violence, Ethics & Representation class.

I have been trying to formulate a discussion of the ways in which aesthetics (or perhaps I mean narrativization) forestalls an ethical engagement with violence as such. To ask the students to engage with how aesthetics disallow or interfere with ethics. Well, as it turns out, it is precisely this topic with which Bersani and Dutoit are concerned in The Forms of Violence. Their approach is, understandably, through Freud (and masochism), and I am finding it absolutely fascinating.

B&D argue that:
The only psychologically intelligible explanation of the sadist's enjoyment of the suffering of others is this: that he is, precisely, enjoying that suffering. He has introjected the self projected into the suffering position of the other. 

If I understand this correctly, the argument is that the sadist enjoys the suffering of the person he harms because he experiences the suffering as his own. The pleasure of sadism is, to put it a different way, felt through identifying with the masochistic pleasure that he projects onto the victim.

The next phase of their argument is that:
The fantasy-identifications outlined by Freud may be crucial to all sympathetic responses to suffering. [...] "Sympathy" always includes a trace of sexual pleasure, and [...] this pleasure is, inescapably, masochistic. If this is the case, there is a certain risk in all sympathetic projections: the pleasure which accompanies them promotes a secret attachment to scenes of suffering or violence. The psychic mechanism which allows for what would rightly be called humane or morally liberal responses to scenes of suffering or violence is, intrinsically, somewhat dysfunctional.

They say this because to identify with a victim's suffering is, precisely, what the sadist does, deriving, as he does, pleasure from the suffering of a victim through introjection. Right?

Last bit from B&D:
The very operation of sympathy partially undermines the moral solidarity which we like to think of as its primary effect. Our views of the human capacity for empathetic representations of the world should therefore take into account the possibility that a mimetic relation to violence necessarily includes a sexually induced fascination with violence.

Bersani & Dutoit think that the reason we enjoy watching violence – even when we are moved to sympathy for the victims of that violence – is that we take a partial pleasure in that violence as sadists.