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Kant And Sade: The Ideal Couple

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Articles by Slavoj Žižek

Of all the couples in the history of modern thought (Freud and Lacan, Marx and Lenin...), Kant and Sade is perhaps the most problematic: the statement "Kant is Sade" is the "infinite judgement" of modern ethics, positing the sign of equation between the two radical opposites, i.e. asserting that the sublime disinterested ethical attitude is somehow identical to, or overlaps with, the unrestrained indulgence in pleasurable violence. A lot-everything, perhaps-is at stake here: is there a line from Kantian formalist ethics to the cold-blooded Auschwitz killing machine? Are concentration camps and killing as a neutral business the inherent outcome of the enlightened insistence on the autonomy of Reason? Is there at least a legitimate lineage from Sade to Fascist torturing, as is implied by Pasolini's film version of Saló, which transposes it into the dark days of Mussolini's Salo republic? Lacan developed this link first in his Seminar on The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (1958-59)1, and then in the Écrits "Kant with Sade" of 19632.


For Lacan, Sade consequently deployed the inherent potential of the Kantian philosophical revolution, in the precise sense that he honestly externalized the Voice of Conscience. The first association here is, of course: what's all the fuss about? Today, in our postidealist Freudian era, doesn't everybody know what the point of the "with" is-the truth of Kant's ethical rigorism is the sadism of the Law, i.e. the Kantian Law is a superego agency that sadistically enjoys the subject's deadlock, his inability to meet its inexorable demands, like the proverbial teacher who tortures pupils with impossible tasks and secretly savors their failings?

1. Lacan, Jacques, Le seminaire, Livre VII: L'éthique de la psychanalyse, Paris: Seuil, 1986, chap. VI. back up 2. Lacan, J., "Kant avec Sade," in Écrits, Paris: Seuil, 1966, p. 765-790. back up