My point of departure will be a passage in Lacan's Encore
Seminar in which he unpacks the first "sentence" he had given his
audience, or rather written for them on the blackboard, during their
first meeting. Lacan had written: "Jouissance of the Other," of the
Other with a capital O, "of the body of the Other who symbolizes the
Other, the sign of love." A week later, Lacan returned to this dense
formula, adding that it suggests the notion of an "enjoying
substance". As Nestor Braunstein has shown , Lacan's main concept,
his real "signature" is less the invention of the objet petit a than
his bifurcated translation of Freud's Lust into plaisir on the one
hand and jouissance on the other. Here is the passage:
"Isn't it precisely what psychoanalytic experience presupposes?
-- the substance of the body, on the condition that it is defined
only as that which enjoys itself (se jouit). That is, no doubt, a
property of the living body, but we don't know what it means to be
alive except for the following fact, that a body is something that
enjoys itself. [or: can be enjoyed, cela se jouit].
It enjoys itself only by "corporizing" the body in a signifying
way. That implies something other than the partes extra partes of
extended substance. As is emphasized admirably by the kind of Kantian
that Sade was, one can only enjoy a part of the Other's body, for the
simple reason that one has never seen a body completely wrap itself
around the Other's body, to the point of surrounding and
phagocytizing it. That is why we must confine ourselves to simply
giving it a little squeeze, like that, taking a forearm or anything
else -- ouch!
Enjoying (jouir) has the fundamental property that it is,
ultimately, one person's body that enjoys a part of the Other's body.
//alternative translation offered by Fink in a footnote: "that is the
body of the one that enjoys a part of the body of the Other.//" (S
This passage poses several problems, among which the least is
not the surprising fact that Lacan seems to use the concept of the
Big Other as endowed with a body. As a baffled Fink notes p. 4, there
seems to be a typographical error in the writing of the first
"sentence" -- unless we understand how one body can symbolize the
Another problem is the tricky reflexive expression of "un corps
cela se jouit" meaning both "a body enjoys itself" and "a body is
there available for your enjoyment". We have thus moved rapidly from
auto-eroticism to the Sadian dogma of the availability of every body
for every body's limitless pleasure... It is interesting to see how
Lacan demonstrates the ambivalence by squeezing or pinching hard his
own forearm. His "ouch!" (ouille!) stands as the only verifiable
marker (a real Jakobsonian shifter, analogous to a personal pronoun)
that he has a body, a body alive and kicking because it is capable of
being enjoyed and of enjoying. It seems that it is crucial to grasp
what a paradoxical "Kantian" such as Sade had seen in order to
understand the fundamental issue of jouissance in its connection with
1. The Sadism of the Law.
My first aim will thus be to return to Lacan's famous "Kant
with Sade" essay with the idea of examining its philosophical
genealogy. A number of critics have recently noticed that "Kant with
Sade", written in 1963, owed a lot (although the debt was never
acknowledged) to Adorno's and Horkheimer's ground breaking parallel
between Kant and Sade in their jointly written Dialectic of
a) The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944).
The thesis of this essay jointly written in America by two
refugees from the Frankfurt school is relatively simple. Kantian
reason leads ineluctably to the calculating rationality of a
totalitarian order. Its counterpart is the systematic mechanization
of pleasures in Sade's perverse utopias. The Critique of Practical
Reason stresses the autonomy and self-determination of the moral
subject, and defines thereby the pure form of ethical action. This is
how the philosophy of Enlightenment meets global capitalism with a
vengeance: any human concern has to be ruled out, what matters is
merely the conformity of Reason with its own laws, a Reason that must
then appear abstract and devoid of any object. All "human" affects
are pushed further away from an independent and all powerful Reason.
Juliette is thus more logical than Kant when she draws the
conclusions that Kant denies: the bourgeois order of society
justifies crime, provided crime be regulated by a rationality that
controls all activities and pleasures. The famous Sadean "apathy"
functions thus like a good equivalent to Kantian "disinterestedness,"
both being underpinned by the "brutal efficiency" of the bourgeois
conquest of the world.
The "right to enjoyment" includes logically an absolute
extension of its field -- up to my right to enjoy the bodies of
others, and to do with them as I like.
b) If it is conceivable, nevertheless, that Lacan never read
Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), although he asserts in "Kant with
Sade" that the link between the two contemporary thinkers had never
been "noted, to our knowledge, as such" , he might then merely owe
his main insight to Freud's analysis of sadism and masochism. Freud's
thesis in "The economic problem of masochism" (1924) is well-known.
In this essay, in order to address the third type of masochism he
calls "moral masochism", Freud presents Kant's "categorical
imperative" as the best philosophical expression that can be given to
the concept the "cruelty" of the super-ego. Here is the genesis he
"This super-ego is in fact just as much a representative of the
id as of the outer world. It originated through the introjection into
the ego of the first objects of the libidinal impulses in the id,
namely, the two parents, by which process the relation to them was
desexualized, that is underwent a deflection from direct sexual aims.
Only in this way was it possible for the child to overcome the
Oedipus-complex. Now the super-ego has retained essential features of
the introjected persons, namely their power, their severity, their
tendency to watch over and to punish. (...) The super-ego, the
conscience at work in it, can then become harsh, cruel and inexorable
against the ego which is in its charge. The categorical imperative of
Kant is thus a direct inheritance from the Oedipus-complex."
A "perverse couple" is thus created: the sadism of the
super-ego and the masochism of the ego go hand in hand, as with these
"Russian character types" (is Freud thinking of the Wolfman, or of
Dostoievsky's characters here?) who multiply "sinful acts" in order
to be then punished by the sadistic conscience. Kant is thus clearly
designated by Freud as the accomplice of Sade, precisely because
their unlikely coupling poses all the problems associated with
civilization's way of dealing with aggression. Freud shows that it is
the renunciation to instinctual gratification that comes first, and
then creates morality, not the reverse as is often assumed.
c) Before Freud, Hegel's critique of Kant's version of morality
in "The Spirit of Christianity" (1798-99), provides an early negative
appraisal of Kantian morality. For Hegel, Kant appears as the modern
successor of Jewish law-givers like Abraham and Moses who "exercised
their dominion mercilessly with the most revolting and harshest
tyranny, (...) utterly extirpating all life; for it is only over
death that unity hovers". A real stranger to everything including
love, Abraham takes the whole world as his opposite, and he creates
the picture of a terrifying God who is also a merciless stranger and
the Master of a people he reduces to religious slavery. Hegel agrees
with Freud in that he sees Moses as more Egyptian than the Egyptians,
and the founder of an "oriental" system of absolute domination:
"Moses sealed his legislation with an oriental beautiful threat of
the loss of all pleasure and all fortune. He brought before the
slavish spirit the image of itself, namely, the terror of physical
force." Hegel's "Spirit of Christianity" thus sketches the
theological genesis of the castrating Father, anticipating on Moses
and Monotheism by some hundred and fifty years.
Similarly, Kant is accused by Hegel of importing a Jewish
formalism or "positivity" of the law into philosophy; For Hegel,
Kant's misinterprets the Christian commandment "Love God above
everything and thy neighbor as thyself" as a "command requiring
respect for a law which commands love". This "reduction" of "love" to
a "command" is a great perversion according to Hegel "because in love
all thought of duties vanish." In these early texts, Hegel extols
Jesus for being able to raise love above any type of morality. Jesus
does not praise reverence for the laws but announces a self-annulling
love, a love that "exhibits that which fulfills the law but annuls it
as law and so is something higher than obedience to law and makes law
superfluous." (p. 212)
Lacan systematically echoes this anti-Kantian feeling, and one
find traces as late as the "Etourdit" text of 1972, in which he talks
of "the inept topology that Kant bodied forth by establishing firmly
the bourgeois who cannot imagine anything but transcendence in
esthetics and dialectics." He adds that "as soon as meanings are
freed... Kant's statements lose theirs", confessing that Sade's
critique may not be much funnier than Kant's, but at least more
As soon as one superimposes this critique of an oriental and
Jewish slavery of the Spirit with Hegel's subsequent evocation of the
Terror during the French Revolution in the Phenomenology of Spirit,
the circle linking the universality of an absolute Law with Terror
and Death seen as the Absolute Master seems completed. Whether
inspired by Kojève's masterful neo-Marxist reconstruction of
Hegel's early system, or by Hyppolite's more balanced assessment
(Lacan owes Hyppolite's groundbreaking commentary on the
Phenonenology of Spirit the idea of Desire as "Desire of the Other"
), Lacan remains a Hegelian in his vision of morality. If Sade can
express what is hidden behind Kant's law, namely the cruelty of the
Other underpinning the Law, then what remains to be understood is the
jouissance of the Other when it forces the subject to go beyond
pleasure and the limits of the ego. Such a jouissance underlies
Sade's works and goes beyond anything Kant may have to say about
pleasure and displeasure in his second Critique.
Or, in other words, as this should have become obvious by now,
Lacan's 1963 essay cannot be reduced to a psychoanalytic or
philosophical critique of Kant's moral philosophy: the introduction
of jouissance signals a theoretical excess, that will force us to
return once more to Sade's parody of the Law.
2. Sade, sade, çade.
As Lacan recapitulates in Seminar XX, the main point of his
article on "Kant with Sade" was to prove that "morality admits that
it is Sade" (S XX, 87) -- which should not be heard just as in
English ("a sad thing indeed"), but mediated through a variety of
French idioms he details:
"You can write Sade however you like: either with a capital S,
to render homage to the poor idiot who gave us interminable writings
on that subject -- or with a lower-case s, for in the final analysis
that's morality's own way of being agreeable (...) -- or, still
better, you can write it as çade, since one must, after all,
say that morality ends at the level of the id (ça), which
doesn't go very far. Stated differently, the point is that love is
impossible and the sexual relationship drops into the abyss of
nonsense, which doesn't in any way diminish the interest we must have
in the Other." (S XX, 87)
Despite the rather off-hand dismissal of the "poor idiot" (a
term that ought to be carefully distinguished from la bêtise
Lacan was addressing at the beginning of his Seminar, since such
idiocy sends us back to the absolute "particularity" and insularity
of a person, thus to Sade's forced masturbatory isolation), I would
now like to try to assess Sade's impact on Lacan -- isn't he indeed
too careful to dissociate himself from the "idiot"? couldn't this
calculated aloofness be read as a trace of Lacan's own bêtise
(or blind spots)?
Following upon the suggestion of a writer and thinker Lacan
appreciated and quoted -- but to refute categorically his main thesis
-- Pierre Klossowski, we could try, once more, to characterize Sade
as "our neighbor" . Or we could follow Lacan's qualification: "But
that Sade, himself, refuses to be my neighbor, is what needs to be
recalled, not in order to refuse it to him in return, but in order to
recognize the meaning of this refusal." In his essay, Klossowski
stresses a point that tends to disappear too much from Lacan's essay
-- that Sade was not merely a "pervert" or a monster but above all a
writer. A boring and repetitive writer, for sure, but whose writings
allow us to understand the crucial link between fantasy, the perverse
imagination and the Law understood as the jouissance of the Other.
"The parallelism between the apathetic reiteration of acts and
Sade's descriptive reiteration again establishes that the image of
the act to be done is re-presented each time not only as though it
had never been performed but also as though it had never been
described. This reversibility of the same process inscribes the
presence of nonlanguage in language; it inscribes a foreclosure of
language by language." (SMN, p. 41). Sade's symptom is not "sadism"
-- it is his writing, a writing that hesitates between the repetitive
fantasy of outrage to a Mother Nature he abhors, and a literal
questioning of the function of the big Other's jouissance. One should
not, however, take Klossowski's concept of fore-closure as identical
with Lacan's translation of Freudian Verwerfung; Sade is not a
psychotic, he is not Schreber, although, like Schreber, he is above
all a Schreiber...
The foreclosed language of Sade's fictions opens up onto the
space of the outside in a curious and ironical pragmatism of fantasy.
Sade's well-known irony, so visible in his letters from the Bastille
to his wife, or better, his savage and disturbing humor, would thus
ultimately question the position of the super-ego in any type of
value-system. His writings cannot be reduced to mere fantasies since
they keep examining the way fantasy is determined from the Outside by
the Law. And, as a matter of fact, his sarcastic humor testifies to
the division of the subject in the name of the super-ego (as Freud
has pointed out very clearly in his book on Witz).
More recently, Monique David-Ménard has re-examined
Lacan's confrontation of Kant with Sade in a new light, showing how
Lacan misreads certain key elements of Kant's philosophy, erasing for
instance the difference between knowledge and thought that is central
to his Critiques. Lacan appears indeed as too Hegelian when he
conflates Kant's notion of the Thing-in-itself (equals X) with the
respect for the Law: both become unthinkable entities. She also
points out Lacan's difficulties when he needs the Law of desire for
Antigone and ultimately for the psychoanalyst. Like Klossowski, she
would also suggest that Sade's works are not just a blueprint for
male fantasy (the neurotic imagining himself as a pervert). Sade
cunningly points out the dark side of humanitarian ethics when he
posits the issue of man's universality in his relation to the
unconditionality of the Law (even through a caricature of the Law).
Respect or blasphemy both address the same underpinning of fantasy by
the Law of Desire seen negatively as just the obscene jouissance of
I would like to suggest that one paradoxical consequence of
Sade's subversion of the subject is that it ultimately opens up a new
realm that can be identified with the domain of Ethics -- at least in
the sense given to the term by Levinas. When Levinas discusses the
thought of Martin Buber, he provides us with a short-hand
recapitulation of the main themes he has been associated with. He
stresses the need for an ethical leap out of metaphysics.
"In my own analyses, the approach to others is not originally
in my speaking out to the other, but in my responsibility for him or
her. That is the ethical relation. That responsibility is elicited,
brought about by the face of the other person, described as a
breaking of the plastic forms of the phenomenality of appearance;
straightforwardness of the exposure to death, and an order issued to
me not to abandon the other.... Responsibility for the other person,
a responsibility neither conditioned nor measured by any free acts of
which it would be the consequence. Gratuitous responsibility
resembling that of a hostage, and going as far as taking the other's
place, without requiring reciprocity. Foundation of the idea of
fraternity and expiation for the other man. Here, then, contrary to
Buber's I-Thou, there is no initial equality. (...) Ethical
inequality: subordination to the other, original diacony: the "first
person accusative" and not "nominative". Hence the profound truth of
Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov, often quoted: "We are all guilty of
everything and everyone, towards everyone, and I more than all the
Levinas had already talked of such an "original diacony" -- in
the sense of "being the servant of the other" in En découvrant
l'existence avec Husserl et Heidegger . We may note that the Greek
term of Diakonos means both "servant", "attendant" but also
"messenger", "ambassador", in fact anyone who "serves" in a public
function. Like Sade, but with a radically ethical emphasis, Levinas
teaches us that we are all "Hostages of the Other".
Levinas's non-metaphysical system of ethics stresses the
primacy of the Other -- a capitalized Other that appears in the world
through any "face" I happen to see and address. Isn't this congruent
with the first ambiguity I had pointed out in Seminar XX, between the
Other and the other, in the name of what the other's body can
symbolize of the big Other? If Lacan is indeed collapsing the
distinction between the other (as my neighbor) and the big Other (as
Levinas does all the time), what repercussions will this have about
the issue of the body on the one hand and about Ethics on the other?
Sade could allow us to criticize a certain type of ethical
innocence in Levinas; after all, even a face can still be dissociated
into teeth and a tongue that can be pulled out, a nose or ears that
can be cut away, eyes that can be pierced, and so on! The Levinassian
Face cannot blissfully ignore an always recurrent threat of
dismemberment and disfiguring. On the other hand, Levinas could help
us retrieve Adorno's point and expose in Sadism the perverted
epistemophilia it hides. The Sadian libertine pretends to have
reached a degree of impassability beyond horror because the subject
believes he or she knows the truth about jouissance. However, as
Levinas would suggest, the issue is not to know but to desire, or any
knowledge of jouissance merely reproduces the illusions of the
"non-dupes" who nevertheless err: Les non-dupes errent ... In spite
of a vaunted knowledge of jouissance , we can now see the Libertine
as just another Hostage of the Other. The perverse subject has to
give himself or herself up completely in the name of the Other's
jouissance, and is thus all the more the slave of this absolute
jouissance -- ironically, just as the moment he or she thinks he is
the Absolute Master. Desire seems to provide the only way out by
preferring the darker (or more obscure, rather) path of ethical
un-knowing as Levinas's Totality and Infinity shows through its
"Phenomenology of Eros" and its detailed and compelling analyses of
"jouissance and representation." These finally lead to the formula:
"No knowledge, no power either" ("Ni savoir, ni pouvoir"). Is
absolute passivity the best access to a truth of desire?
As this is a real question, it will have to remain without an
answer. The pre-condition for a provisional answer might indeed be
found in Kant's articulation of his three Critiques. Or a last caveat
might be useful at this point, provided by a rare moment of humor in
Kant, quoted by Freud. Freud reminds us in his discussion of the
Schreber case that Kant remains a good model for any theoretical
elaboration. He asserts that only a "genetic" approach capable of
understanding Schreber's "feminine attitude towards God" will make
sense of Schreber's belief that he has to become a woman who will
then be sexually abused by God and become the slave of God's
jouissance. Before beginning his "Attempts at Interpretation" Freud
concludes his first chapter by quoting Kant's famous Irish bull (a
Viennese goat, in fact): "Or else our attempts at elucidating
Schreber's delusions will leave us in the absurd position described
in Kant's famous simile in the Critique of Pure Reason: -- we shall
be like a man holding a sieve under a he-goat (Bock) while some one
else milks it."
Freud refers to Kant's "On the Division of General Logic into
analytic and dialectic" -- a section that opens with the momentous
question: "What is truth?" As Kant shows, such a question is absurd,
since it presupposes the universality of criteria of knowledge by
which one could answer it. He adds:
"For if the question is in itself absurd and demands answers
that are unnecessary, then it not only embarrasses the person raising
it, but sometimes has the further disadvantage of misleading the
incautious listener: it may prompt him to give absurd answers and to
provide us with the ridiculous spectacle where (as the ancients said)
one person milks the ram while the other holds a sieve underneath."
If indeed Freud has "succeed(ed) where the paranoiac had
failed" by rewriting Schreber's system in a more coherent way, he may
have failed where Kant's and Sade's systems have partly succeeded --
in their absurd and irrational praise of rationality. While it might
be tempting to over-value Sade's testimony as that of a scape-goat of
jouissance, the ancient simile used by Kant could also suggest that
we too, post-Freudians that we are, grown all too wise to the
universal function of phallic symbols, have milked the same ram or
he-goat, while someone else, God, or maybe just our next-door
neighbor, has been copulating with him -- but through a different
1. Jacques Lacan, Seminar XX On Feminine Sexuality. The limits
>and Knowledge 1972-1973, tr. Bruce Fink, (New York: Norton,
1998) p. 4.
>Henceforth S.XX followed by the page number.
>2. Nestor Braunstein, La Jouissance: Un Concept lacanien,
>Hors Ligne, 1992) p. 7-51..
>3. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dailectid of
>J. Cumming, (New York: Continuum, 1987).
>4. Jacques Lacan, "Kant with Sade", tr. James Swenson,
October n°51, p. 55.
>5. S. Freud "The Economic problem in Masochism" (1924) in
>Psychological Theory, (New York: Colliers, 1963) p.
>6. ibid, p. 200-201.
>7. G. W. F. Hegel, "The Spirit of Christianity", in Early
>Writings, tr. Knox, (Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press, 1971)
>8. ibid., p. 195.
>9. ibid., p. 213.
>10. Jacques Lacan, "L'Etourdit", in Scilicet (Paris, 1973)
n°4, p. 36.
>11. ibid., p. 37.
>12. See Jean Hyppolite, Genèse et Structure de la
>l'Esprit (Paris: Aubier, 1945) p. 156-162 about the issue
of" Alterity in
>13. Pierre Klossowski, Sade My Neighbor tr. Alphonse Lingis
>Northwestern U.P., 1991).
>14. "Kant with Sade", October n°51, p. 74.
>15. Monique David-Ménard, La Folie dans la Raison
Pure (Paris: Vrin,
>1990), p. 179-245, and Monique David-Ménard,Les
>l'Universel (Paris: PUF, 1997).
>16. Emmanual Levinas, "Apropos of Buber: Some Notes", in
>Subject tr. Michael B. Smith, (Stanford: Stanford U.P.,
1993), p. 43-44.
>17. Paris: Vrin, 2nd, 1988, p. 194-97.
>18. Emmanuel Levinas, Totalité et Infini (La Haye:
>19. Freud "Psychoanalytic Notes Upon an Autobiographical
Account of a
>case of Paranoia" (Schreber)" in Three Case Histories, (New
>Colliers, 1963) p.132. For a good philosophical reading of
>of madness in Kant's Reason, see Monique
David-Ménard, La Folie dans la
>Raison Pure (Paris: Vrin, 1990). See also Slavoj Zizek,
"Kant and Sade:
>The Ideal Couple, " in Lacanina Ink n° 13, 1998, p.
>20. I. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason tr. W. S. Pluhar
>(Indiannapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 1996) p. 112. The usual
>Kant's original editions is A 58- B 83.