Michael Kinnucan

Consent of the Governed: on Masochism as Inquiry

ISSUE 41 | INFAMY | JUN 2014

There’s a very funny moment toward the beginning of Ludwig von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel Venus in Furs: our hero, Severin, after considerable effort, has at last convinced his beloved Wanda to allow him to be her slave. Wanda warms to the idea, but she soon recognizes a problem:

“But what is all this?” She gazed into the distance, her chin in her hands. “A golden dream that will never come true.” She was overcome by a strange melancholy, a wistfulness that I had never seen in her before.

“And why should it not be feasible?” I began.

“Because slavery does not exist any more.”

There are no slaves. It’s a problem for her and it’s a problem for Severin too: he wants to be entirely in her power, but as a man of the 19th century he is endowed with certain inalienable rights, where “inalienable” means just that: he can’t give them away. He lamely suggests that they could go to “the Orient,” where apparently there are still slaves, but the facts impose themselves: whatever his protestations, he can leave whenever he wants. When he pleads with his lover not to whip him again, he’s pleading in bad faith: if he really wanted her to stop he could just say so, or fight back, or leave her, and that would be that. The sadomasochistic couple is in this sense a game: the bottom pretends not to want what he does in fact want, and the top pretends not to know he’s pretending.

This pretense is of course elaborately discussed in modern BDSM culture: the strictly enforced consent norms, the safeword by whose utterance the sub can end the “scene” at a moment’s notice. And what a complex joke about modern sexual mores the safeword is: In this context, “no” can’t mean “no,” that would ruin the fun. “No” often means “yes, please, more.” But something has to mean “no,” so another word is drafted: “red,” or “banana,” or “safeword” means “no.” We affirm as a culture that all and only that which is consensual is acceptable, and perhaps for that very reason, a surprising number of people of both genders dream of non-consent. Maybe because sexual desire always seeks out the transgressive, and in our fallen era the consent norm is the only thing left to transgress; maybe because sex is dreamt as an overwhelming, overpowering force, and in the scene one can overwhelm or be overpowered. And so at specific times and in designated places we agree that “no” shall not mean no, we play at the unconsenting. But something still means no, and so BDSM is a game.

The question is: what kind of game? One theory occasionally propounded is that it is a compromise between the demands of reality and those of desire: what the masochist and the sadist really want, sexually speaking, is actual slavery, actual rape—but such things are inconvenient in various ways (dangerous, illegal, frightening) and so they settle for half-measures and pretending. This is the sort of theory pushed by misogynists who claim that women with rape fantasizes “really” want to be raped, and by certain feminists who imagine that those who enjoy BDSM porn are rapists in training.

In fact the scene opens possibilities which would simply not exist if “real” power were at play. Wanda soon recognizes this in accepting Severin’s enslavement: when she writes up a contract to formalize his enslavement, he asks whether they really ought to make it official by going to Constantinople (They’d have to move fast, as Venus in Furs was published in 1870 and the slave trade was effectively banned in the Ottoman Empire in 1871...) where such a contract could have legal force. She replies:

“No. I have thought things over. What is the point of having a slave in a country where slavery is common practice? … If we live in cultivated, sensible, Philistine society, then you will belong to me, not by law, right, or power, but purely on account of my beauty and of my whole being. The idea is most exciting.”

What Wanda recognizes here—what Severin will learn only much more slowly—drives the plot of the rest of the novel: to “really,” legally, enslave Severin would be to deprive herself of most of the benefits of her “possession.” Severin’s abject devotion could no longer titillate her vanity, and he in turn would no longer be able to demonstrate his adoration through obedience and humiliation, since obedience would demonstrate nothing but a legal fact. Venus in Furs is interested not in domination and submission, humiliation and pride, as such, but in the will to be dominated, the will to humiliation—its sources, its nature, its limits. In a truly non-consensual relationship this will would not be at stake, and masochism as such could never manifest itself. To make Severin a real slave would not give Wanda “more” power but a qualitatively different kind of power—a kind which does not interest her, a kind which she does not want.

The consent of the dominated to his or her domination, the possibility that that consent might be withdrawn, opens within the BDSM scene stakes and possibilities which would be utterly inaccessible if the power involved were “real.” The phenomenon of the bottom’s desire to be dominated, beaten, humiliated, the second-order humiliation of wanting these things, and the third-order pride in withstanding them—and conversely the power the top can wield not simply by hurting, humiliating, causing to obey, but by provoking the desire to be humiliated, to be hurt, to obey—these would be impossible without the suspense between initial consent and possible safeword. The scene is not a pale image of real power but an entirely new way of taking pleasure and living power—one that becomes possible precisely insofar as there are now no slaves.

But if the power at work in the sadomasochistic couple is neither real domination nor its representation, what is it exactly? In what sense is the person who chooses to be a slave in fact a slave? For this we turn to Kant.

Marriage Contract and Sadomasochistic Contract

Kant famously defined marriage as “the union of two persons of different sexes for lifelong possession of each other’s sexual attributes.” He justifies marriage in The Metaphysics of Morals as follows:

For the natural use that one makes of the other’s sexual organs is enjoyment, for which one gives itself up to the other. In this act a human being makes himself into a thing, which conflicts with the right of humanity in his own person. There is only one condition under which this is possible: that while one person is acquired by the other as if it were a thing, the one who is acquired acquires the other in turn; for in this way each reclaims itself and restores its personality.

The sexual relation poses a terrible threat to Kant’s concept of humanity; he goes so far as to say that “Apart from this condition [the marriage contract] carnal enjoyment is cannibalistic in principle (even if not always in its effect).” It’s worth noting that the most pressing risk is not that the ethical subject will treat the other as a mere thing, nor again that he will be treated as a thing, but rather that he will treat himself like a thing in surrendering himself to another’s pleasure. To be a pleasure to another is to be a thing to oneself. It is for this reason that marriage can, according to Kant, redeem sex: insofar as the person whom you allow to possess you as a thing is equally a thing who allows you as a person to possess her, the property relations cancel each other out according to an obscure logic which guarantees the personhood of everyone involved. Marriage is a contract in which each party appears twice: first as an object whose ownership is transferred by the contract, second as a person who comes to own an object by this very contract. (Consequently, the contract must be permanent, since a thing can never break the contract by which it is possessed, and monogamous, since while every person may own more than one thing, each thing can have only one possessor.)

Where is gender in the Kantian picture of marriage? After all, the legal doctrine of marriage in his time and indeed for generations afterward by no means met his criterion of absolute symmetry: husbands did not quite possess their wives as property, but they did of course possess an enormous amount of legal authority over their wives, to the extent that married women in much of Europe were scarcely legal subjects, could not own property independently, were subject to corporal punishment at the hands of their husbands, etc. Kant barely pauses to address the issue: he says simply that the law is justified in demanding that women obey their husbands because in any completely mutual partnership the naturally superior will naturally take the lead.

I do not mention this to point out that Kant was not a feminist (of course) but to note that a question is suspended here which would seem most pressing: how could a thing own its owner, what does it mean to possess property rights in something which in turn has property rights in you? On the level of moral philosophy, Kant knows that the thingly character that threatens humans the moment they enter into a sexual relationship can be justified only through reciprocal possession—but how does reciprocal possession work in practice? Doesn’t it amount to a paradox? What remains of the concept of property when the thing owned owns you back? Kant can brush this question aside by relying on a presumed natural hierarchy of the sexes, but is such a hierarchy borne of bodies at all compatible with his affirmation of the absolute freedom and dignity of the will in every human being? And if so, what happens to his doctrine of marriage? We will return to this question.

From Pathological Will to Perverse Will

It’s easy to dismiss Kant’s discussion of sexuality as prudery in metaphysical disguise—in fact it’s hard to suppress a smile when he reaches into his transcendental hat and draws out the rabbit of traditional Protestant sexual morality, written as it turns out into the very structure of our subjectivity. But we would do well to consider his terror of sex more closely: it’s not like sex doesn’t scare us too. (Perhaps his doctrine will gain greater resonance if I say that Kant’s concern is that sex is “objectifying,” and that to be objectified is beneath one’s dignity as a full human being.) And in any case, Kant’s apparatus for the redemption of sex provides a far more fruitful way of grasping the pleasures and desires involved in BDSM than does the anodyne libertarianism of our day.

What’s characteristically dangerous about sex, for Kant, is not that its fleshly temptations draw us away from the moral law—there are many other sensual and merely egotistical desires that do the same—but that sex puts us into relation to other human beings and to ourselves as something other than selves, as something other than beings with the shared capacity for freedom through reason: as things.

Not of course that being a thing is such a terrible thing: on the contrary, things (non-humans) are morally neutral. What is terrible and reprehensible is to be a human who chooses to make himself into a thing, who uses his absolute freedom to make himself thingly. And here we encounter the paradoxical point which is Kant’s most lasting contribution to moral philosophy:1 it is repugnant to be a thingly human because it is impossible to be a human thing. If a human could ever genuinely transcend the absolute gap between the free will and the world of natural causality, she would of course cease to be subject to the moral law, cease to be human at all; but short of death this can never happen. To determine oneself according to pathological desire is in an important sense just as much an exercise of absolute freedom as is obedience to the categorical imperative; it is the free will’s violation of itself, its self-contradiction, a violation which can last a lifetime and reach any degree of brutality without for an instant erasing the freedom which is its source. By the same token, the human’s giving-himself-as-a-thing in sex is not wrong because the human in so doing becomes a thing but because the fall of the human toward thinglyness (a fall which never ceases to occur, never “hits the bottom,” is renewed in every moment) violates the ever-renewed humanity with which it is freely chosen.

It is here that Kant offers an insight into sadomasochism: the sadomasochistic scene dramatizes the becoming-thingly of the human. Sex, in its very structure, poses an ontological threat to the human: that one might take pleasure in making oneself the object of another’s pleasure. What else is masochism than the desire for this very pleasure, what else is sadism than the desire to make another experience himself as a thing? (Beneath the desire to cause pain always lurks the desire to humiliate: the indignity of not being able to stop oneself from crying out, in pleasure just as much as in pain, the indignity of bearing the marks of another on one’s body, the indignity of wanting to be the one who undergoes these things.) A possibility immanent in the sexual relation, the possibility which Kant seeks to exorcise through symmetry, BDSM develops toward the most radical asymmetry: the person who takes pleasure, who “owns,” and the person who gives himself up to another’s pleasure, who is “owned.” And yet beneath this asymmetry the shared fascinating in the limits of humanity, in what lies beyond the limits of personhood.

Sadomasochism is a 19th-century phenomenon; the writers whose names it bears, whose works permitted its clinical isolation, were politically active men of the left: the Marquis de Sade was (as “Citizen Sade”) a member of the revolutionary National Convention and a proud republican, while Sacher-Masoch was an advocate of national rights in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a philosemite and radical feminist. The affirmation of the radical freedom and dignity of all humans equally, the founding of every relationship on the consent of the contracting parties, is the condition under which the question “how, within what limits, in what ways, can a human being give himself away as a thing?” attains its fascination.

Sade, against Property in our bodies

Contained in Sade’s witty pornographic novel Philosophy in the Bedroom there is a brief pamphlet of political philosophy entitled “One More Effort, Frenchmen, if You Would Be Republicans,” in which Sade asks himself: what system of laws, what morality, is appropriate to a republic of free men? The full scope of this strange work is beyond us here, but his comments on property relations are of great significance. Sade asks himself: ought theft to be illegal in a true republic? The answer is obvious: the republic justifies itself as a contract among all citizens for mutual advantage, but a law against theft can benefit only those who own property and does nothing but harm to the poor. The poor can be compelled to obey such a law, to be sure, but how could they give it their free assent, how could they respect it? No: the egotistical attempt of the rich to maintain an unnatural monopoly on their goods must be done away with.2

So far, Sade reads like a socialist avant la lettre, but he presses his inferences to a conclusion that perhaps no later thinker would follow. What of the marriage bond, what of feminine modesty, he asks himself? So many attempts to erect property in other bodies or one’s own: men wishing to possess women out of egoism, women wishing to guarantee their upkeep out of selfishness, both sexes attempting to negotiate rights over one another by playing hard to get. Such impulses have no place in a republic. Not only are marriage vows (property in each other’s bodies) to be abandoned, but even the attempt to establish a property right to one’s own body is condemned: Sade suggests that brothels be erected at public expense at which all citizens shall be required to appear and grant their favors to anyone who asks, without exception. A body, he says, is like a spring at the side of the road: anyone ought to be free to drink its water to quench her thirst, but no one should attempt to dominate it and exclude her fellows.

If certain theorists have traced property rights back to every person’s natural right in his or her body, its possibilities and pleasures, Sade extends the doctrine that “property is theft” back to the same source, attacking its last bastion: to deny the world access to one’s body is to rob the community of its rights. The absolute sovereignty of each person over his body is the last unconstitutional monarchy; here too we must cut off the head of the king. This proposal provokes deep anxiety, but after all it is no more than the Kantian marriage contract extended: we are justified in treating others as things, as sources of pleasure, only insofar as we give ourselves up to be so treated in turn. Absolute freedom (none of the bodies we see before us are to be off limits) corresponds to absolute domination (our own bodies are subject to the whims of one and all); the “thing-ness” of the person and the personality of the thing, absolutized, become identical.

Sacher-Masoch 1: Impossibility of the Sexual Relation

If Sade destroys the Kantian redemption of sex by referring above it to its principles, Sacher-Masoch levels a far more limited attack on the ground of its consequences. For Sacher-Masoch, the Kantian marital symmetry is an inherently unstable equilibrium: it requires a perfect balance of loves, which can last a while but never indefinitely. To the extent that one party comes to love the other more than she is loved, the more beloved attains power while the less beloved becomes pathetic, weak. This process feeds on itself: the one who is more loved becomes ever more fascinating as his power increases, while the one who loves more becomes ever more pathetic in her abject devotion to an increasingly cold and uninterested partner and hence less lovable. Symmetrical love is a sensitive scale delicately balanced; the least imbalance provokes an accelerating rise on one side and fall on the other, to the point at which finally one party is solely beloved and absolute master, the other the sole lover and adoring slave. In Severin’s words, “in matters of love there can be no equality.” One party becomes a bored person, the other a miserable thing.

What hope is there, then? In answer to this question Venus in Furs offers a whole philosophy of the history of love. When Severin first meets the beautiful and wealthy young widow Wanda, she announces to him that her principles are pagan: she will give herself to whatever man wants her, for as long as she wants him, and her loves will be as delicious and fleeting as pleasure. She will be like a Greek god, offering herself to a shepherd boy in a pastoral paradise and then vanishing without a trace. She dreams of a time when sexual desire granted happiness, instead of jealousy, desperate wanting and endless tears. Severin, a passionate romantic, cannot accept this: he proposes marriage, he cannot dream of love without monogamy and eternity and a church. This is why Wanda is Venus “in furs”: her doctrine of love is native to a (strictly notional) pagan South, and cannot maintain itself in the cold Germanic air of Christianity.

Thus at the beginning of the novel one solution to the love-problem is suggested, consigned to the distant past; and at its end, Severin suggests another:

The moral is that woman, as Nature created her and as man up to now has found her attractive, is man’s enemy; she can be his slave or his mistress but never his companion. This she can only be when she has the same rights as he and is his equal in education and work. For the time being there is only one choice: to be the hammer or to be the anvil.

There is hope for the Kantian project of complete mutuality after all—in a more liberal, more enlightened future, men and women will confront each other as equal subjects, a perfect balance will be achieved. Thus the inaugural work of masochistic erotica becomes the first to argue that the victory of feminism will put paid to masochistic erotica—to be sure, without explaining how or why. But what about the novel’s present? What form of love can be lasting here?

Wanda suggests it herself, in refusing Severin’s proposal:

“I can indeed imagine belonging to one man for life, but he would have to be a real man who commands my respect and enslaves me by his innate power. Do you understand? And I know from experience that as soon as a man falls in love he becomes weak, pliable and ridiculous; he surrenders to the woman and goes down on his knees to her. And I could only love a man before whom I myself should have to kneel. However, I have become so fond of you that I am willing to give you a trial.”

I threw myself at her feet.

“My goodness, you are already on your knees! A promising beginning.”

It is here that the self-consciously comic dimension of the novel opens up: Wanda, destined to be the master, herself wishes to be the slave—and that, really, is the novel’s organizing conflict: not “only one can rule,” but “only one can obey.”

In the background of her words lies the traditional settlement of the problem of power asymmetry in love: the natural difference of the sexes. It is obviously impossible to enter into a relation of mutual domination, and so a struggle on the issue threatens to radically destabilize the couple, but fortunately women are naturally predisposed to obey, men to rule, and so no conflict is necessary. It is worth noting that a relation of dominance organized on the basis of natural dominance is vastly less humiliating to the ruled than one which takes as its presupposition the universality of human dignity, for the simple reason that it is not chosen: there is honor in fulfilling a role which is not the highest, and fulfilling it well, but what honor can there be in casting off the higher role one could well attain and desiring to be the lowest? This is the humiliation specific to masochism, and it answers two questions about the cultural status of Venus in Furs.

First, why was the novel which gave masochism its name written by a man, and why is its hero a male sub? There are, to be sure, many 19th-century novels about abused, humiliated and long-suffering women, and no doubt they provided many a titillating pleasure. But to be dominated and abused was for woman a fate, not a desire; it is only through the gender reversal of Sacher-Masoch that the will to obey can announce itself as independent of the obligation to obey. Even today, a great deal of entertainment whose chief pleasure lies in masochistic identification (Lifetime movies about battered women, sex-slave panics, scenes in movies where the villain we’re supposed to hate has the woman tied up and we’re all supposed to be horrified, etc.) manages to disown its pornographic content because it seems all too natural and realistic for women to be abused.

Second, why was the original piece of masochistic erotica written by an avowed and active feminist? The answer here is quite simple: it’s only with the advent of feminism that the power-relations of the heterosexual couple, separated from their roots in nature, can become the stakes of an erotic game, a space of desire instead of a given. The question buried in Kant’s marriage-contract becomes impossible to suppress: in a relation of mutual possession, who in fact rules? Masoch’s depiction of a male desire to submit reveals in an inverted mirror the perverse and erotic core of feminine submissiveness—power becomes a source of pleasure only when it ceases to be a fact of nature. The question of feminism vs. BDSM that opened the “feminist sex wars” (the case of WAVPM vs. Samois, San Francisco, 1978) and that is still with us today (Roiphe etc.) misses an important historical dimension: without feminism there is no BDSM.

Sacher-Masoch 2: Art of the Contract, a Game of the Law

Of the three possible solutions to the problem of power and love, one is lost to the inaccessible past, one hoped for in a distant future; the third, gender difference, Severin cannot accept: he is too idealistic to despise where he loves. “In matters of love there is no equality… If I were faced with the choice of dominating or being dominated, I would choose the latter. It would be far more satisfying to be the slave.” For him, passion is the privilege of the powerless, the ecstasies of love are accessible only to he who worships what is far above him—and the trouble is that he and Wanda quite agree on this point. Wanda has no real interest in being the master; not only that, but it frankly scares her. The thought of hurting someone who loves her so much strikes her as repulsive; the first time she hits Severin, she is filled with shame and begs him to forget all about it. And she deeply suspects Severin’s sincerity: to suffer in his feverish dreams is one thing, but will he really enjoy his abasement when it arrives? She resists his pleas, she even offers to try out marriage to get out of mastery, but he is insistent, her vanity is titillated, and at length she accepts: “I do not know if I am strong enough, but for you I will try it.”

Her “trying” takes a fascinating form. Wanda writes a contract and requires Severin to sign it; the terms of the contract grant her every right, even the right to kill him, and offer him none whatsoever. It is of indefinite duration. If contracts formalize the rights and obligations of equal parties agreeing to a limited form of association, this contract is a limit-case and a parody: it has, to all appearances, no function at all. Nothing Wanda could do would violate the contract (her rights are after all without limit) and the contract does not grant her any further power over Severin than his word would (since it is legally unenforceable, it is guaranteed only by his word). What, then, is its function?

Gilles Deleuze has observed that in many respects Sacher-Masoch’s sexual contract mirrors Rousseau’s social contract, which mediates man’s transition from being born free to existing everywhere in chains: the contract grants the state unlimited rights over the citizen, even to the point of death, it lasts forever, its enforcement depends not upon a higher authority but on the will of one of the contracting parties. The function of the social contract is to mediate man’s transition from the freedom with which he is born to the chains in which he lives, and to demonstrate how these chains are themselves the product of a free choice. And this in fact is the function of Severin’s contract with Wanda: it does not mediate the compromise between two free wills but memorializes one party’s free choice of servitude. Wanda is so little involved that she does not even sign it.

The Limits of Consent

The book darkens the moment the contract is signed. The couple leaves for Italy, with Severin dressed and treated as Wanda’s servant; he is privately beaten and publicly humiliated, Wanda refuses to see him in private, their intimacy is forgotten. She buys a mansion and hires three Moorish maids who assist her in ritually tormenting him. The tortures become ever more intense, until it seems possible that our hero really may be killed. Severin is made miserable—and driven mad with passion, too, of course.

But in the end, after subjecting him to an increasingly terrifying series of torments and humiliations, Wanda meets another man, a mysterious and virile Greek, who at least gives her what she wants: he conquers her. She ties Severin up and offers him to her man, who beats him thoroughly as Wanda looks on. This humiliation is a bridge too far for Severin: his contract was not so unconditional as it seemed, and at last he abandons Wanda to her fate. Eventually she writes him a letter explaining her actions:

Now that three years have elapsed since that night in Florence, I can admit that I loved you deeply. But it was you who stifled my feelings with your romantic devotion and insane passion. From the moment that you became my slave, I felt that it would be impossible for you ever to be my husband; but I found it exciting to realize your ideal and while I amused myself pleasantly, perhaps to cure you. ...I hope that my whip has cured you, that the treatment, cruel though it was, has proved effective.

The cure has indeed proven effective: recognizing that his choice is between the hammer and the anvil, Severin has at last become the hammer, and now with other women he holds the whip. A strange moral: a BDSM pedagogy which transmutes the mad devotion of the slave into the icy cruelty of the master. Severin gave himself up to be a thing, but the secret of his thinghood was a far-from-thingly devotion; the limit beyond which he could not go was the sacrifice even of this love-relation to his subjection.

Not every sub is as dainty as the one depicted in Venus in Furs: in the darker (and vastly better) French novel of the 1950s The Story of O, the heroine begins where Severin left off: the very first thing her master does to her is bring her to a house where she is raped and beaten by several men she does not know. She goes much farther, her pride systematically destroyed, her body branded, twisted and pierced, her pleasure explored and exploited; she is passed from man to man like an object. Like Sacher-Masoch’s book, The Story of O pursues a logic of ever-increasing intensity toward a limit; in this case, however, it is not the slave’s limit but the master’s. In the strange last scene of the novel, O is taken to a party where she is made to stand amid the revelers, naked and leased, her genitals pierced, her body branded, wearing a strange mask. She makes no objection, but to her audience she has become uncanny, an object of horror: no one can bear to look her in the eyes. She has passed the limit of the erotic toward its inhuman beyond.

* * *

The series Kant-Masoch-Sade might be regarded as a series of attempts to develop lasting institutional forms adequate to contain and stabilize the sexual relationship as Kant formulates it, as offering-oneself-as-an-object-to. Contracts, essentially; different kinds of contracts. Kant does his best to lock sex into the moral order of autonomy, Sade imagines a political order bent on sex, Masoch attempts a willed and entire acceptance of non-autonomy, life as a martyrdom to sex. Kant is naive or lying, Sade unbearable, Masoch unsustainable. So what’s left to do?

Susan Sontag makes this point in her essay “The Pornographic Imagination”:

Human sexuality is, quite apart from Christian repressions, a highly questionable phenomenon, and belongs, at least potentially, among the extreme rather than ordinary experiences of humanity.  Tamed as it may be, sexuality remains one of the demonic forces in human consciousness—pushing us at intervals close to taboo and dangerous desires, which range from the impulse to commit sudden arbitrary violence upon another person to the voluptuous yearning for the extinction of one’s consciousness, for death itself.  Even on the level of simple physical sensation and mood, making love surely resembles having an epileptic fit at least as much, if not more, than it does eating a meal or conversing with someone…

The Story of O, with its project for completely transcending personality, entirely presumes this dark and complex vision of sexuality so far removed from the hopeful view sponsored by American Freudianism and liberal culture. The woman who is given no other name than O progresses simultaneously towards her own extinction as a human being and her fulfillment as a sexual being. It’s hard to imagine how anyone would ascertain whether there exists truly, empirically, anything in “nature” or human consciousness that supports such a split. But it seems understandable that the possibility has always haunted man, as accustomed as he is to decrying such a split...

Here it becomes clear why the “scene” must exclude “real” power, “real” enslavement: what interests both members of the S-M couple is not a human body, considered as a thing, but a human consciousness, relating to itself as to a thing. It is of course possible to treat humans as things (to dominate them entirely independent of their will through mere physical force, as one moves ordinary things), but this has little to do with the perversions we are discussing because here there is none of the autoperversion of the Kantian will with which the free subject transcends and casts off her freedom.

1 Kant derives morality from the ontological structure of the human; the human is free and capable of reason and his sole obligation is to live freely and according to reason; to sin is to fail to be what you are. Thinkers as different from one another and from Kant as Nietzsche, Heidegger and Levinas will follow him to the letter on this point.

2 Sade’s argument here is of course an ironic appeal to Rousseauist principles, a reductio ad absurdum demonstrating that the pretensions of the revolutionary republic to freedom and equality are unrealizable, or at any rate realizable only on a basis that none of Sade’s contemporaries could contemplate without horror—but to make Rousseau the butt of Sade’s joke would be to mistake Rousseau’s own irony. The Social Contract states clearly that a true republic can exist only where the distribution of wealth is at least relatively equal, that otherwise the capacity of the wealthy to accumulate power and the constant unrest of the poor will tear it apart, and Rousseau certainly knew that this made a just republic in France impossible, whatever his followers may have believed.

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