The (Queer) Science: Nietzsche, the Theatre of Sadomasochism, and Dionysian Eternal Recurrence

(Given at the second Queer Modernism(s) conference: “Intersectional Identities,” University of Oxford, 12th April 2018)



The plural – Queer Modernism(s) – has forever struck me as indicative of the paradoxicality of today’s exercise. The generally considered postmodernist phenomenon of queer theory’s inquiry into the modernist realm, despite documentation of queer experience, however thickly veiled, stretching far into the shades of antiquity. Similarly may we consider the figure of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose idealised form of modernism appears so rooted in classical paganism, but whose image and reputation as a philosopher only truly flourished in its reification at the hands of poststructuralist philosophers, most crucially in this essay Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault. Clearly, then, a discussion of Nietzschean thought within the context of a queer modernist conference is dependent on various strands of nontraditional temporal inquiry, the most prevalent of which I shall call a Deleuzo-Nietzschean philosophy of time, originating in Nietzsche’s introduction to his concept of eternal recurrence in The Gay Science:

What if some day or night a demon were to…say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more”…Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine”… How well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

In Deleuze’s expansion of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, return of the same becomes – at first seemingly paradoxically – the return of difference. This self-similar recurrence is not the same as merely an endless loop as the demon proposes in The Gay Science; “it is not being that returns but rather the returning itself that constitutes being…It is not some one thing which returns but rather returning itself is the one thing which is affirmed of diversity or multiplicity.” Michael Hardt: “what Deleuze is working to develop…is an autonomous conception of difference and its constant proliferation in a creative process of becoming.” This is affirmed by Deleuze’s focus on what he (and he argues Nietzsche too) sees as the self-evidently non-identical nature of the return as being cosmologically inherent due to the absence of an already-attained position of equilibrium. For, if we accept eternal recurrence as cosmologically sound, we presuppose infinite pasts and therefore infinite variations already come to pass. Thus, were a terminal equilibrium state to be attained, it would have already have been reached: “the present moment, as the passing moment, proves that it is not attained and therefore that an equilibrium of forces is not possible.” This absence of equilibrium – and thus one would argue aufheben – is understood by postmodern disciples of Nietzsche as evidence of an ultimately anti-Hegelian position, to which we shall return.

Identity formation is undoubtedly, from a Deleuzeo-Nietzschean perspective, a repetitive process of development, from a state of difference. Indeed, Deleuze clearly asserts “repetition is…the only identity.” The process of absorbing myriad heterogenous values and drives on a psycho-physiological level is called by Nietzsche, “incorporation,” or “embodiment,” which on its basic process of enactment, repetition and performance, bears a strikingly prefigurative similarity to Judith Butler’s account of performativity in relation to gender. Accordingly, Butler understands Nietzschean perspective on identity as wholly compatible with queer theory:

The challenge for rethinking gender categories outside of the metaphysics of substance will have to consider the relevance of Nietzsche’s claim in On the Genealogy of Morals that “there is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed – the deed is everything…There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results.

Deleuze asserts that “in every respect, repetition is a transgression.” As part of a Deleuzian lexicon, repetition relates specifically to a re-actualisation or re-enactment of a unique event, unlike the cyclical and substitutive nature of generality. Repetition, rather, deals in an economy of “reflections, doubles, echoes and souls.” Elaine Gan: “With every repetition, differentiation returns not as the same, but as an excess that can intensify, allowing possibilities for new encounters and coordinations. Every repetition, through excess, introduces a possibility for differences to cohere or take place, vary, and then cohere again.” In the vein of the aforementioned Gender Trouble, gender and sexuality may be understood as becomings of repetition, routinely subjected to laws of generality. In just such a way, heightened consciousness in repetition becomes the mode through which power relations inscribed on and in the body, may achieve effective resistance through self-creation.

Affirmation of the self as repetition in the face of institutions and dispositifs of generality is described by Nietzsche, too, not as an act of transcendence but one of immanence, in which an event of realisation/actualisation is dependent on the same for all things and time conventionally perceived as “outside” the self, too: “If we affirm one single moment, we thus affirm not only ourselves but all existence…and if our soul has trembled with happiness and sounded like a harp string just once, all eternity was needed to produce this one event – and in this single moment of affirmation, all eternity was called good, redeemed, justified, and affirmed.” This assertion appears to be a development on the hypothesis of recurrence by Nietzsche himself, leaning toward an eternalist concept of time, in which eternity is invoked in such a sense that distinctions between past, present and future appear compromised, if not redundant. For, if all eternity were needed to produce one event, the future’s productive capability seems just as ontologically implicated in the present moment as the past.  Queer eternalist praxis of temporal folding/distortion thus appears contingent on a destabilisation of conventional cause-effect linearity – such destabilisation is understood by Elizabeth Freeman as a founding principle of the sadomasochistic encounter, thereby revealing corporeal ontology as the locus of recurrent power relations:

Various techniques of visual distanciation, which in contemporary S/M culture might also include the blindfold, the strobe light, or hallucinogenic drugs, produce a temporal noncoincidence between action and result that, in turn, makes possible the awareness of the body of object…Thus in sadomasochism the historical asynchrony achieved by sexually allegorizing a lost form of imperial power…meets the temporal asynchrony achieved through prying apart impulse and action…Sadean sex, in its very insistence on reanimating historically specific social roles, in the historically specific elements of its theatrical language, and in using the body as an instrument to rearrange time, becomes a kind of écriture historique. S/M becomes a form of writing history with the body in which the linearity of history itself may be called into question, but, crucially, the past does not thereby cease to exist.

Sadomasochistic re-/enactments of (above all else) corporal punishment and confinement as utilised by dispositifs of the State in penal, educational, ecclesiastical, medical, confessional or inquisitorial scenarios reveal the opportunities for abstracted repetitive pleasure within a cyclical recurrence of kyriarchal generality: “S/M may bring out the historicity of bodily response…the uses of physical sensation to break apart the present into a fragment of times that may not be one’s ‘own,’ or to feel one’s present world as both conditioned and contingent.” 

Foucault’s stance on the eternal freedom of man on the basis of power relations’ potential for reversal is all the more intensified with regard to the “always fluid” nature of power relations as expressed in the sadomasochistic roleplay scene. By contrast, Foucault acknowledges the relative severity with which “mobility in power relations is limited” in the sphere of social power, so that he would not suggest the scene “is a reproduction, inside the erotic relationship, of the structures of power. It is an acting-out of power structures by a strategic game that is able to give sexual pleasure or bodily pleasure.” That it is not a reproduction of power structures speaks to its non-generality; it is rather a repetition and an adaptation – both in the dramatic and biological senses of the term – re-enacting an encounter between the subject and the State within a recontextualised frame of contemporaneity and eroticism, which thus seemingly translates the power itself from one of suppression to one of creation.

For Nietzsche, one of the main media of autopoiesis and affirmation is, of course, dance. In Horst Hutter’s analysis, “dance and other ecstatic [Dionysian] practices” – the “confrontation of passional chaos” – paradoxically permit the subject to avoid catastrophic return of the Dionysian repressed. Dionysian praxis and aesthetic is, for Susan Jones, undeniably expressed in the modernist ballet era of the first few decades of the twentieth century:

In certain forms of dance in this period, the primitive element and the search for an “original unity” were compatible with Nietzsche’s outline of the [Dyonisian] aesthetic. Indeed, Loïe Fuller’s subsumption of the body, her disappearance within a whirling spiral of material, engenders in part a “dionysian” frenzy, and Mallarmé’s sense of her dance as illustrating both choreographic and poetic practices resonates with Nietzsche’s ideas of embodiment. The emphasis on the “primitive” is present in almost all forms of innovative choreography in the period: [e.g] the animal force of Nijinsky, [Fokine’s interest in the ritual, the expressionism of Mary Wigman’s Witch Dance]…arguably illustrates Nietzsche’s references to an “embodied” expression of the sublime [as invoked by his “Dyonisan forces”], a striving for the “noumenal” realm that Kant indicated was unreachable.


This sublime ritualistic subsummation of the incorporated subject marks a significant shift in the medium of corporeal expression of discourse, not least of all on account of its invocation of the noumenal – felt at the level of the body in the context of sadomasochism as jouissance or limit-experience. For Foucault, “the idea of a limit-experience that wrenches the subject from itself… was important to…[his] reading of Nietzsche…of seeing that the subject is no longer itself, or that it is brought to its annihilation or its destruction.” The question of limit-experience with regards Nietzsche influenced Foucault’s own genealogy and epistemology: a historical investigation of knowledge which, freed from phenomenological assumption, may be understood to frame power as holding sensational, yet still ultimately noumenal qualities. 

In Jones’ musical analysis, “Nietzsche shifts music from the realm of the beautiful towards a modernist sublime…[showing] the tendency of contemporary music to move away from harmony through chromaticism (where notes in a melodic progression are raised or lowered by accidentals, without changing the key of the passage), towards dissonance…opening up the possibility of an aesthetics premised on jarring contrasts of style and content.” We may expand the process of chromatic harmony into a model representative of the reproductive futurism denounced by Lee Edelman. Aggressively linear in its temporality, political futurity establishes a conservative affirmation of structures maintained with the capital-C Child in mind, who “remains the perpetual horizon of every acknowledged politics, the fantasmatic beneficiary of every political intervention.” Real-life progeny are the accidentals, whose dischord is repressed through generality’s chromo-chrono-normative drive toward harmonic resolution which, paradoxically (or at least, duplicitously) re-authenticates perpetual continuation through a system of equivalent exchange, despite apparent progression. One of the best socio-political examples of this is described by Gayle Rubin, as “in 1976, Los Angeles police used an obscure nineteenth-century anti-slavery statue to raid a ‘slave auction’ held in a gay bathhouse.” Here we see generality and repetition in conflict: the sadomasochistic-theatrical reproduction of the slave auction conjuring for disruption and parody sensuous echoes of the force of the old law effectively enough as to be considered a transgression and provocation of the new law to replicate old violence, via ostensibly new means and measures. An unintentionally astute performance of the genealogy of morals.

For the queer semi-Deleuzian post-anarchist, discourse on the nature of the Apollonian and the Dionysian “dualities” in “opposition” bears an unsavoury resemblance to an overly-arboreal dialectical prescriptivism. Nevertheless, that Nietzsche ultimately advocated for a “resolution” or “reconciliation” of these forces, rather than a “synthesis” is crucial to our understanding of Nietzsche’s affirmationist positioning, for there is, as Rogério de Almeida notes, “a certain hesitation or refusal on [his] part to characterise either one of these two drives in an exclusive way, or to oppose them too simply.” Thus, the re-emergence of the Apollonian in modern ballet, catalysed most of all by George Balanchine’s Apollon musagète (whose multiple developments and revisions between 1928 and 1979, including Balanchine’s migration to the USA illustrate for Jones “the way in which a dialogue between Dionysian and Apollonian aesthetics was produced during transatlantic exchanges of modernism”). Though it remains for Nietzsche “tragic art, [it is] the reconciliation of Apollo and Dionysus. Dionysus imparts the most profound meaning to appearance, and that appearance can nevertheless be denied with sensual pleasure. This is directed, like the tragic vision of the world, against the [nihilist] doctrine of resignation.”

Within this philosophy of recurrently combative and reconcilatory, self- and mutually devouring, (in a Foucauldian sense, sadomasochistic) states of fluctuating ontography, tectonics of sensuous Dionysian wisdom and the “beautiful illusion” of Apollonian visibility, that admits tragedy but refuses resignation, I want to reflect briefly on the drag balls of Paris is Burning. Competitive drag performance, with its emphasis on maquillage, accoutrement, poise, performance, and attitude – dependence on both the Apollonian plastic and Dionysian non-plastic arts – with the aim of establishing qualitative degrees of “realness.” A realness whose only established requirement is that same realness’ contention within cis-heterosexist hegemonic discourse, outside the venue of the ball. Accordingly, the performers are judged not by how they self-identify, but by their judged verisimilitude, which alerts we the spectators to the assemblage that constitutes the queer body, in and around which the components of identity, embodiment, expression and legibility are unstable, at times  as we would desire; at times the opposite, with catastrophic implications. In particular male at-birth-assignation establishes the entrypoint to accolades of “realness” with regard femininity, undone in other contexts by the self-same body’s perceived ontology, but whose legibility as something other than traditionally-perceived-as-male invites both admiring and violent response, including and often from the same sources. For all the dispassionate control we try and exert over it, we still do not yet know fully what a body can do, or what it can invoke. Nietzsche: “The Apollonian illusion reveals itself as what it really is – the veiling during the performance of the tragedy of the real Dionysian effect; but the latter is so powerful that it ends by forcing the Apollonian drama itself into a sphere where it begins to speak with Dionysian wisdom and even denies itself and its Apollonian visibility.”

Accordingly, though queer subjectivity may still be ultimately subsumed within a sublime tragedy, it can discover affirmation in its negation, engaging with an aesthetics that need not look ever forward for progression, but instead invoke the asynchrony of time, as experienced through queer bodies. Where praxis is to be discovered, it shall be discovered within the paradox.