2014: The Year of Political Masochism?

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I began 2014 exhausted online. As I believe I tweeted at some point last year, 2013 was a year in which my lingering case of what the Public Feelings Group would call “political depression” lifted, mostly out of anger over a host of interconnected issues whose constant blunder and heavy cost in the United States became too overwhelming to try and sublimate. Then there was also #MLA14. Although I did not attend the conference or the subcon in Chicago in person, I did follow it on Twitter, which did not disappoint in the volume and intensity of the angry fights over important issues around grad student and adjunct organizing and labor, as well as the extent to which MLA is symptomatic of the failures of the humanities to adapt to the crisis ordinariness of the post-2008 university.

At some point in the first week of January, in the aftermath of all of this, I joked that I should make 2014 a year of total political masochism online. And then a few days later I decided I needed to do just that.

The goal of this little project, then, has two components: a bit of textual homeopathy in reading up on masochism as a political strategy to rid online politics of reactivity; and an experiment in different ways of inhabiting the political online than the ones we have become accustomed to–a collective project to which I invite you to contribute on Twitter with #PoliticalMasochism14, as well as commenting here on the blog. I’ve noted with interest the seemingly increasing experiments of progressive and critical left scholars and activists taking to Twitter or other social media to vent, shame, point out inconsistencies, demystify ideologies, or otherwise generate buzz and virality around political issues as various as the representation of bodies of color in the media or film, or the deadlocked chicanery of an utterly neoliberal Congress over the economy.

These are all issues that are of material urgency, but I wonder if the ways that scholars (and I’m taking myself as my example here) use Twitter, in particular, to generate trending hashtags or to post facts and articles that seek to expose or demystify popular ideologies, are not also suffering from a nasty case of Nietzschean reactivity. Reactivity is the process through which an active force is separated from what it can do. As Deleuze puts it in his book on Nietzsche, “We are not merely noting the existence of reactive forces, we are noting the fact that everywhere they are triumphant. How do they triumph? Though the will to nothingness, thanks to the affinity between reaction and negation. What is negation? It is a quality of the will to power, the one which qualifies it as nihilism or will to nothingness” (64). Negation, opposition, rejection: the hallmarks of critical politics, including online, are all reactions saturated by nihilism. They lead to a form of digital ressentiment, where the de-bunking of ideology through the performance of counterknowledge is the last pleasure left of the reactive rationalist, if you will. The hegemonic is reasserted in its position of privilege through a constant reaction to it, rather than the active creation of new values that could effect the change nonetheless desired through critique. In so doing, per Nietzsche, we separate ourselves from what we can do politically, as well as technologically.  As I have written elsewhere on Ecology and Reverie about technicity, a technical politics of race or gender are immanently available in technical systems, but they demand a certain creative affirmation whose forces cannot survive becoming-reactive.

My gambit, then, is that given the pervasive reactivity masquerading as activity through critique, paranoid knowledge formations, opposition, demystification, or rejection of ideology online, an experiment in inhabiting the digital-political otherwise as a scholar requires the  affirmation of a very different kind of position. I propose masochism as that position, to try out for a year.

The phrase “political masochism” is colloquially derogatory, of course, and that pleases me. It usually refers to someone or a group that enjoys courting political humiliation and defeat. In the spirit of the Nietzschean transvaluation of values, I would like to see what a political masochism can do, actively–a very difficult political position to inhabit, given the seeming opposability of masochism and activity. My starting point will be Deleuze’s short volume on Masochism, Coldness and Cruelty, which rewrites the Freudian suturing of sadism and masochism and makes the case for the value of the latter as a distinct position. Sadism, whose symptomatology Deleuze maps through the works by Sade after which it was named, is structured for him by “the coldness of demonstrative reason,” the evocation and inhabitation of an Idea of pure violence through the proliferation of innumerable local descriptions of detached, rationalized violent scenes written from the point of view of the torturer (29). To borrow from Freud, sadism as a mode aims to cross the interval between destructive instincts and the Death Instinct as such–the purest plane of negativity and negation.

In the case of masochism, Deleuze focus on the postponement of pleasure in Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novels, the deferral accomplished through a mechanism of disavowal.  “The masochist,” Deleuze notes of Masoch’s The Divorced Woman, “is therefore able to deny the reality of pleasure at the very point of experiencing it” (33). The value of disavowal is that the suspension of reality (and its pleasure) is made in order to conjure a different order and organization of the world, a different form of values made directly out of the scene of submission and subjection, rather than in opposition to or rejection of it. This transvaluation is accomplished, moreover, without the violent imposition of the sadist’s methodology and programme.  “In every respect,” Deleuze puts it incisively, “the sadistic ‘instructor’ stands in contrast to the masochistic ‘educator'” (19).

It is the pedagogical orientation of the masochist that offers an opening onto a different mode of political narration and engagement, one that need not imagine the destruction of its opponents or take pleasure only in the availability of critique, paranoia, and negation in order to sustain itself through a reactive position. This is the case in so far as masochism “is a demonstration of the law’s absurdity” (88). As Deleuze elaborates in reference to Masoch’s male protagonists, in what read as one of his most Derridean moments: “The masochist regards the law as a punitive process and therefore begins by having the punishment inflicted upon himself; once he has undergone the punishment he feels that his allowed or indeed commanded to experience the pleasure that the law was supposed to forbid” (88). In the masochist’s contract with his torturer the self-referentiality of the Law, its constitutive violence, enjoins the torturer to the masochist’s ends, effecting a training or pedagogy that twists the law’s slave morality without the substitution of a new normative morality–it does not merely imitate what it seeks to destroy by pretending to reject it, but laughs through the law until it undergoes a mutation. What remains after punishment is neither pain nor guilt, as the Law would want it, but pleasure–the pleasure of the masochist, who has exceeded the Law without resentful revenge. “The masochist appears to be held by real chains,” Deleuze remarks, “but in fact he is bound by his word alone. The masochist contract implies not only the necessity of the victim’s consent, but his ability to persuade, and his pedagogical and judicial efforts to train his torturer” (79).

(There is an interesting feminist dimension to masochism upon which I might want to elaborate in a future post, one that is more complex than queer theory’s work on passivity and the masochistic sexual position as inverse of sadism–that is, queer theory’s adherence to Freud’s unity of sadomasochism. Deleuze’s amendment of Freud refutes the Oedipal narration of the inversion and dualism of aggressive and passive positions and notes that the masochist’s fantasy aims to abolish the position of the Father as Symbolic origin of Law, replacing it with the oral mother.  Hence, “there is no doubt that the masochist lives in the very depths of guilt; but far from feeling that he has sinned against the father, it is the father’s likeness in him that he experiences as a in which must be atoned for” [101]. It would be interesting to read this through Luce Irigaray’s work on the economy of phallocentrism in psychoanalysis, as well as the fantasy of return to the mother.)

Perhaps deferring the pleasure of proving ideology wrong or styling it as a ruse will offer something else, after normal politics as such are suspended. Such is my commitment to 2014 as a year of political masochism. I invite you to join the project and see what happens. A different pedagogy awaits.

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