Bob Flanagan and Monsieur M.: Notes On Two Supermasochists

Uncertain if this functions strictly as a “paper,” I describe the following as a series of observations on the conjunctive and disjunctive relation between self-styled “supermasochist,” Bob Flanagan in the posthumous documentary Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (Kirby Dick, 1997), and of “Monsieur M.” in Michel de M’Uzan’s 1972 essay, “A Case of Masochistic Perversion and an Outline of a Theory.”

There is no ambiguity during Sick that Bob Flanagan considers his masochistic practices to be entirely indicative of an immense strength on his part. Certainly, we see great parallels here with Monsieur M. of M’Uzan’s analysis, whose own allusions and accounts of “the terrible tortures he had endured” were ultimately descriptions of his own seeming “omnipotence [told with] an immense pride.” (461)

Assuredly, M’Uzan’s interpretation of M.’s masochism feels not too dissimilar from such a case as Venus in Furs, in which “the sadistic partner [is] a person destined to be held in contempt, someone who is devalued as he is reduced to the role of being a specific instrument.” (461) However, there is an ambivalent, albeit extant, relation here to Deleuze’s introduction to the same. For Deleuze, the masochist aims, in being beaten, to embody his father, thus presenting his domineering super-ego avatar to be beaten and accordingly castrated. According to M’Uzan, M.’s desire to be beaten appears to be a desire to be beaten by his father, although also makes clear to us that M did discover his father’s own masochistic desire, whilst also, it seems, denigrating his male sadists all the while. Thus, although we may well surmise the performative embodiment of the father in the masochistic role in the case of M. just as much as in Deleuze’s own speculation, it is difficult to suggest that the function of castrating disavowal of the father is as active in the fantasy.  It is for similar reasons that M’Uzan proposes the category of masochistic perversion, contrasted to moral masochism and/or feminine masochism, due to a lack of concern regarding the super-ego in the case of M.’s desire. Nevertheless, M’Uzan and Deleuze would disagree on the form of concern the moral and/or feminine masochist show in their desire toward the super-ego, suggesting more an identification with the mother, rather than an invocation of her. (462) Accordingly, M’Uzan ultimately concludes that M.’s psychological domain of familial relation is an entirely other landscape:


He is like his wife, his wife is like him, she is his parent, he is like his parents, etc. These are not identifications in the active and differentiated sense in which we find them in neurotics, but are purely “duplications.” Under these conditions one must consider his personality as being essentially structured outside the Oedipal situation. (463)


Interestingly, when director Kirby Dick interviews Flanagan’s parents about his predilections, his father expresses a certain sympatico with his logic, if nothing else, whilst Flanagan’s mother repeats over and over that she asks herself “where was I?” Flanagan and his dominant long-time partner Sheree Rose express no doubt at all regarding the maternal associations with the dominatrix. Rose is entirely forthcoming in her assertion that to be a dominatrix is in many ways to be a strict mother, one whose consistent, if not constant, giving of punishment and care is reflective of the idealised oral mother. Flanagan’s statement that “I don’t get turned on by slamming my hand in a car door; I don’t get turned on by being treated badly… but I’d ask Sheree to be mean to me.” In this statement we conceive of a triangle, at its points: a hand slammed in a car door, “bad” treatment, and “mean” treatment. We may surmise from this triangle, that each point is roughly reflective of the three women of Masoch: the slamming of the car door is the untameably unpredictable hetaeric, with no regard for context; the potential for “bad” treatment is the castrating Oedipal, actively sadistic and dehumanising; “meanness,” by contrast, is indicative of a role that can be negotiated, even scripted: the oral ideal. The script becomes apparent, as we see a comedic video of Flanagan and Rose, the overhead narration being a letter written to a fictionalised Flanagan’s mother:

“Dear Mom…I fell in love. In some ways, she sort of reminds me of you. I don’t know if it was the clothes she wore, the sound in her voice, or the look in her eye, but I knew I was hooked for life.”


Of course, just as we understand the reaching toward the ideal oral mother as not simply being a stationary locus toward which the subject can journey and at which the subject can finally reside, but instead the median point in the perennial oscillation of the subject-as-pendulum, the harmony of Flanagan and Rose’s dynamic as a couple is likewise portrayed at points in flux. The masochist may indeed often operate as the one in control, but here we move from Venus in Furs’ representation of the sullen, aggrieved and resentful masochism of Severin, to seeing outtakes from Flanagan and Rose’s video art, in which he becomes the angry director. Contract signing away all agency of action, decision and sensation of Flanagan’s over to Rose or no, Flanagan expresses his discomfort and displeasure freely and forcefully, if hurt when unprepared, or beaten inaccurately. Flanagan asserts whilst interviewed for his MOMA installation Visiting Hours, “I’m more the mad scientist than the guinea pig.”

As the film chronologically progresses, and Flanagan’s struggles with cystic fibrosis become harder for him to endure, his receptiveness to Rose’s expressed desire to engage in BDSM severely wanes. Rose says to the camera, “I don’t think he’s even a masochist anymore; I think life has beaten him down too much.” Whilst there was no doubt that Flanagan’s masochistic practice was always connected to a sense of battle against his ultimately fatal disease, we now have it presented as him being in the middle between two “beatings.” A submission to one is a disavowal of the other and, accordingly, his ambivalence about his own longevity appears reflected by his portrayed ultimate ambivalence about his lifestyle.

Contrary to the more consistent consideration of heterosexual male masochism presented by Freud and Deleuze, in the case of Monsieur M., his wife was a fellow masochist, and they both relied on male lovers (the ones so contemptuously considered). Instrumentalising these seemingly nameless and faceless others, both masochists were able to dominate and be dominated by each other by proxy, whilst M. certainly also was able to construct and affirm a masochistic identity on the basis of the maleness of these proxies that allowed for nuanced if pragmatic negotiations of gender performance and expression (consider in particular the tattoos Je suis une putain, servez-vous de moi comme d’une femelle, vous jouirez bien and the more non-binary assertion Je ne suis ni homme ni femme, mais une salope, mais une putain, mais une chair à plaisir). Indeed, one possible reason for the contemptuous treatment of male lovers ostensibly afforded so much power as to be able to instruct M. to amputate body parts, is that – outside of the masochistic scene – M. expressed no particular homosexual desire. in fact, the ultimate waning of his masochistic inclinations appears directly connected to heterosexual loss and desire.

We know from M’Uzan’s account that, although it did start up again for some time later, M.’s relationship to masochistic perversion halted abruptly at the death of his wife, who succumbed to pulmonary tuberculosis – reportedly, “she endured such extreme torture and was dominated by such intense perverse needs that she wasted all her strength, dying at the age of 23.” (457) The chronology of M.’s sadomasochistic rituals and encounters is ambiguous (as it is, to some extent, with Flanagan – to this we shall return), but we can determine that M. initially disengaged from the masochistic lifestyle for a period of at least two years, following his wife’s death, thus presumably restarting at about age 35, and having ten years of somewhat less successful encounters and relationships, before his interest officially started to diminish, seemingly concurrent to a stark increase in vanilla heterosexual dreams about a “voluptuous woman with whom sexual relationships approached normal love making.” (458) Thus, the cessations to M.’s masochistic inclinations appear instigated by the death of one masochistic woman, and the spectral appearance of another, hetaeric figure. That the first cessation appears marked by a period of sympathetic contraction of the same disease that claimed the life of his young wife should not, I suggest, be considered insignificant. As with Freud’s description of the question of life’s prolongation arisen within the conflict between Eros and the death-drive, the question of death in this case functions as a unifying principle between masochistic parties that appears at once to be in conflict with masochistic desire, but also its ultimate apotheosis of expression.

As with so many other analyses of masochism, the function of suspension, as much as the act, appears central to these examples of masochistic practice. Flanagan recounts to an audience about his early childhood indulgences:


Every Friday night… I’d wait ‘til everybody went to sleep, and I’d start to play… I’d pour white glue over my body… Trussed up by these plant hooks… All these ropes, suspending me off the floor.


As much as we may interpret the masochistic scene’s close association with binding and suspension as the particular attempt to freeze a particular moment – namely the moment the dominating female partner reaches the apex of cold, oral ideal – we cannot help but first and foremost associate Flanagan’s suspension of time as being directly linked to a desire to prolong a life marked for early death. Indeed, Flanagan credited his masochistic practice for having just such a result, living far beyond his original prognosis. Nevertheless, he also sardonically announces, “I was promised an early death, but here I am forty years later, still waiting.”

As with M’Uzan’s case of M., Dick’s documentary of Flanagan can only be considered approximately chronological, so it is hard to determine what was the “last” masochistic ritual of Flanagan’s before his demise. However, the final we see in Sick, before his deterioration of health is as such that Rose posits that he is “no longer a masochist,” is the infamous video of him, hammering a nail through his penis, into a block of wood. There are perhaps three elements worthy of note when regarding this video: first – just as with those early experimentations – Flanagan is performing independent of Rose or any other dominatrix. Second, nailing his penis to a block of wood likely represents for the majority of us the logical conclusion to the masochistic emphasis on being tightly bound and constricted. Third, the undoing of this act, with the resultant blood streaming from Flanagan’s penis, operates as the final ejaculation, the suspension now lifted.

Given that we see Flanagan describing the scene to an audience just before the video itself (unless, of course, it was a repeated act), we may assume later modes of play. Nevertheless, the narratological effect of this portrayed as the final masochistic act before Bob’s ultimate succumbing to his cystic fibrosis speaks, I believe, to the enmeshment of the illness with his play: not simply as something disavowed by Bob’s assertion of his own corporeal agency through his choice to go through such extreme feats, but perhaps as the ultimate super-ego who may be bested through the ritualistic process, but in the Deleuzian sense that depends upon its participation. The bloody release represents not simply a willingness to let go of the suspension and accept death, but indicates the end of a session in which the illness itself may be embodied as the anal-sadistic father to be defensively castrated by the oral mother. Perhaps the spectrality of this illness with which Flanagan parodically aligns himself for this act dictates the necessity for such genital mutilation, but we as an audience to the film do see it work. Following his death, Rose shows the camera the fatal phlegm that was in his lungs: now trapped in a plastic container. In choosing to let go, in choosing to die (rhetoric employed both by the nurses and Rose at Flanagan’s deathbed), that ultimate super-ego is made manifest that it may be castrated and, indeed, bound.


It is unsurprising, given Indecent’s fundamental conceit of metatextuality, that content, theme and form would be as profoundly interwoven as they are, documenting, re-enacting and, in many respects salvaging the creation of Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance, its performance and re-writing, and all the social, romantic, juridical and political catalysiations and conflicts surrounding its various productions. 

As with the crucial logics of space in God of Vengeance itself, where questions of identity, responsibility, piety, vulgarity, faith, language and love are vainly delineated by evermore permeable architectural partitions, so too does Indecent reveal borders as containing both within themselves further points of separation, but also many points of access, however illegitimate. Alliances are forged and broken, identities and, indeed actors and roles, exchanged in a way that assuredly parallels Angels in America’s quasi-Hegelianism, but ultimately presents the cultural dialogue between Jewish and Christian, (but also Jewish conservative and Jewish liberal), Europe and the USA (but also Polish and German, Greenwich Village and Broadway) etc as being at least as much a process of recurrence as negation. 

The final lingering scene of queer exhaltation – the embattled “rain scene” – happens, untranslated, in its original Yiddish. Rather than the defiant futurity expressed by – and indeed owed to – of a 1990 man, living with AIDS, announcing the continuation of the Great Work in a post-Soviet world that “only spins forward,” Indecent defiantly looks back to a great work already present in the pre-Soviet world of 1906. Exhausted by all the controversies of translation and its unjust sacrificing in aid of an ultimately fruitless cause, God of Vengeance’s rain scene is celebrated as a moment of culturally specific, undiluted and unapologetically joyful exodus from the concerns of homophobic, antisemitic bias. And yet, it is above all within this moment of wilfully performative solipsism that the holistic phusis of queer love becomes most apparent. 

Indeed, our ever-growing suspicion (however sympathetic) of Asch’s role as author throughout Indecent, from his introductory eyeroll-inducing announcement that he would have no opposition to his wife revealing lesbian tendencies, dependent upon his permission to be an audience to them, to his unwillingness to support his cast as they are indicted for obscenity (crucially, he was not), to his refual to allow further productions of God of Vengeance in light of his pursuit by HUAC, may now indeed contribute to this feeling of liberation. It is by no mistake that the man who has played the various incarnations of Yekel plays the final incarnation of Asch, for Asch is the father of God of Vengeance who likewise similarly spurned his creation. Just as so many queers of so many cultures, colours and creeds have found themselves cast out of their families, Indecent’s presentation of history displays a wholly comprehensive ambivalence towards genealogy. The rain scene’s power at the end is entirely reflective of its parentless status, as indeed it was in God of Vengeance, also. As with the diasporic nature of Jewish and queer identity, to be wholly self-reflexive and wholly universal is by no means a self-defeating contradiction. Infused with the beauty of unrestrained queer love, existing despite a century of controversy, rejection and even genocide, is the declaration אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה. ’Ehyeh ’ăšer ’ehyeh. We remember that “I am what I am” is not only an iconic exclamation of queer self-acceptance, but it is also a name of God. 

Throughout God of Vengeance, there is a recurrent motif of the contractual relationship between a gendered understanding of innocence, and ethno-theocratic cultural identity. Certainly, in the introduction of queerness, in the depicted relationship between Manke and Rifkele – above all regarding its emancipatory logic as discussed between the two characters – one can see fit to apply both Emma Goldman’s and Gayle Rubin’s essays entitled “The Traffic in Women” as a means of understanding first the functional continuum between systems of marriage and the maligned representations of sex work (as with Goldman’s initial essay), as well as nods toward a broader structural understanding of the female subject position as delineated in such an economy of signification. Undoubtedly, the spatial architecture of the play’s proceedings speaks to the ultimately frustrated separation of patriarchal concepts of piety and castigated forms of female labour – easily interpretable as respective parallels to the Superego / Symbolic and Id / Real – consequently making the liberationist “rain scene” the fleetingly triumphant Ego / Imaginary. It is within reason to understand this scene as something of a dialectical synthesis between the innocence demanded by the “upstairs” society, and the unbridled disregard for respectability. Indeed, the sexual Aufheben from patriarchal rule we see in this moment, through queer relationality as praxis, occurs both through sublation and supplementation via Manke’s concurrent – indeed, contingent – adoption both of the roles of mother and of bridegroom. Accordingly, family dynamics – both intergenerational / parental and intragenerational / spousal – are at once disavowed in their prior mode of application, revealed as little more than dispositifs of performative function, and then repurposed as such for a new economy of same-gender affection.

Manke’s address to Rifkele, reliant as it is on aqueous imagery in its romance, feels pointedly reminiscent of the Song of Solomon aka Song of Songs, whose eroticism has throughout history resulted in its performance in taverns and brothels as well as by observant Jews during Pesach. Crucially, then, we can interpret an expressly spiritual dimension to this affair: invoking a “Holy of Holies” that nevertheless transcends borders of respectability and indeed, even in its official religious application, uses the language of desire to indicate an Exodus: first from Egypt, and now from Yekel.

Returning, however, to the question of space: if we hold with the notion of the upstairs apartment, downstairs brothel, and street outside as representing the various components of the Borromean knot, we might well accordingly interpret Rifkele’s exodus from the Symbolic patriarchal order as being also an exodus from language – not least of all the function of language to delineate the moral parameters of her position within the traffic of women, including and especially the piety so hypocritically demanded of her by her parents. Thus, Rifkele’s uncertainty how to respond to Yekel’s interrogation of her virginity is not merely reticence. Rather, the language of patriarchal order bears next to no meaning for queer discourse and, in kind, queer discourse appears untranslatable to the language of patriarchal order.

The dominant narrative within Venus in Furs – Severin’s autobiographical text-within-the-text – in its opening scene, presents Severin’s journey within a few pages from a devoted and seemingly public worship of the “cold, cruel” statue of Venus, to the far more clandestine fascination with a procured photograph of Titian’s Venus with a Mirror, to the immediately horrified response to seeing first the statue adorned with furs, and then Wanda, similarly attired. Certainly, the synthetic operation at play here is on one level an entirely uncomplicated function of the Hegelian dialectic that so influences Masoch’s personal philosophy. However, the intermingling of Severin’s horror and desire is what catalyses the parameters of this text’s analysis, from both a Freudian and Deleuzian perspective.

There is a stark immediacy in the fetishistic function within this scene, such that the instigating stimulus for the horrified reaction to the revelation of maternal castration is, in fact, the erotic object of the realisation’s disavowal, which is to say the furs. Accordingly, I am reminded in this encounter yet again of the “dangerous” supplementation of the Symbolic order, that which – through its imposition of language upon the Real which itself lacks nothing, establishes an absence that must now be healed. This horrific encounter soon follows Severin’s rumination, first on Samson and Delilah, and then on the Book of Judith. Interestingly enough, the two editions of Venus in Furs I possess have divertingly distinct translations regarding the beheading of Holofernes: one reads “The Lord hath smitten him by the hand of a woman,” whilst the other: “The almighty Lord hath struck him, and hath delivered him into the hands of a woman.” Accordingly, the uncertainty between these two positions of smiting and deliverance feel entirely borne out in the ambivalence of the encounter, and indeed the novel’s resolution.

Nevertheless, we can interpret in both accounts, a degree to which the role of woman can supplant the classically considered punishing patriarch and, in so doing, can render even capital punishment a source of jouissance for the masochist. From such a perspective, Deleuze’s assertion that the masochistic route toward pleasure is to portray his patriarchal superego, so that it may be castrated by the figure of the oral mother, having both defeated and acquired attributes of the hetaeric and oedipal mothers (whom we might understand as the overtly deistic / Titian-painted Venus, and the marble statue Venus, respectively), is affirmed. Indeed, Severin, speaking to himself so harshly during his flight response indicates the splitting mechanism upon which so much of this process is dependent.

Freud’s “The Theme of the Three Caskets,” which seems so overtly to influence Deleuze’s commentary, in all its cultural critique, makes central two plays of Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice, and King Lear. Assuredly, this scene in Venus in Furs is also highly indicative of a third: The Winter’s Tale. Freud tells us that, ultimately, the third mother is above all “the Mother Earth who receives [the subject] once more…the silent Goddess of Death will take him into her arms.” Yet again, smiting and deliverance are inextricably married. And yet, just as with The Winter’s Tale, here we see a statue come to life. Severin’s demanding fantasy necessitates that a figure of death become a figure of life. Within the vain folly of this prerequisite lies the source of the frustrated resentment that so permeates the relationship between Severin and Wanda.

The status – certainly the role – of language in Histoire d’O feels most of all defined by its sexual-anatomical reticence, above all in its at first disorienting substitution with ventre where most readers would expect to read con. Such a discursive technique has various affective and analytical consequences, some appearing at first to be mutually contradictory, others definitively intertwined:

  1. The demonstrative capacity for acts of sexual subjugation and punishment, free from vulgarity aligns the text with – as Bataille expresses in Eroticism, and Deleuze echoes in Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty – the language of the torturer, “the language of authority.” Just as torturers are “people who in real life could only have been silent,” (MCC, 17) Réage’s text is effectively “silent” in its reference to conventionally sexualised organs.
  2. To one degree, the notable absence of references to the vulva operates as a dual process of castration, which would thus affirm Deleuze’s assertion that “sadism stands for the active negation of the mother” (68). Indeed, even ignoring the body itself, the text’s introduction to O, simply through her clothing, already feels oddly defined by notable absence: “elle est vêtue comme elle l’est toujours… un blouse de soie, et pas du chapeau.”
  3. However, to another degree, the almost mutual reservation in alluding to the sexe of any male character, rather than queue, pine or bite, may be interpreted as a functional, fetishistic, disavowal of sexual difference – not least of all maternal castration.
  4. Disavowal as a system of repression which, in the Freudian sense, is not merely a quashing down of reality but a system of distorted or dishonest representation here might allow for – in the case of ventre – a diffusion of the gaze to this typically-understood-as-separate body part, which could thus be interpreted as a linguistic device in accordance with the overall theme of Deleuze’s interpretation of masochism as a desexualisation of sex, and an effective re-sexualisation of everything else.

Permeating Histoire d’O is an economy of supplementation, at the level of content and form: René demonstrates his capacity to supplement any number of slaves at Roissy for O, and is himself supplemented by various masters and mistresses. Indeed, even the events themselves are revealed at multiple junctures to be possessed of an ontological uncertainty: the introduction is immediately countered with an alternative version, whilst there are small indications that neither passage may be entirely correct. Indeed, by the end of the novel, several variations are presented that leave the reader uncertain as to whether O is even alive or not.

That such a literary device may appear absurd is not, to my mind, particularly far from Réage’s intent, if we consider absurdism through temporal non-coincidence the manifestation of the humour Deleuze locates at the centre of the masochistic contract, and its enactment’s relation to law: “To imagine that a contract or quasi contract is at the origin of society is to invoke conditions which are necessarily invalidated as soon as the law comes into being. For the law, once established, violates the contract in that it can apply to a third party, is valid for an indeterminate period and recognizes no inalienable rights.” (92) And, indeed, several pages before, Deleuze states: “A close examination of masochistic fantasies or rites reveals that while they bring into play the very strictest application of the law, the result in every case is the opposite of what might be expected (thus whipping, far from punishing or preventing an erection, provokes and ensures it). It is a demonstration of the law’s absurdity.” (88)

Accordingly, we ask: what is the law, here? My interpretation, both of Histoire d’O and, indeed, Venus in Furs, is that it is love. In both cases, the masochistic contract is presented as a condition of, or for, love. In both cases, the tensions are revealed between love and the contract at the introduction of additional parties, even when such additions are stipulated as permissible within the contract itself. René’s characterisation throughout Histoire d’O is remarkably inactive, indeed impotent – he appears to be more of a voyeur of O’s subjugations than an agent, and yet does engage in one repetitive behaviour akin to the continuous repetition required of the sadist to appropriate the Ego of his victims, and that is his repeated declarations of love. That they evoke such feelings of repugnance is, I believe no mistake on part of the author, but a revelation of the logic of masochistic contempt. Rather, just as the logic of linguistic supplementation is invoked through discovery of a lack that, non-existent within the Real, must be a product of the linguistic Symbolic imposition, revealing a recurrence of failure through différance, there exists just such a phenomenon within the romance novel whose structure is predicated on a romance whose meaningful signification is forever deferred through an inherent vice of volatile supplementation.

Lacan’s approach to the function of law, as understood in such a way that might be relatively easily bifurcated into the (predominantly) implicit – incest prohibition – and functionally explicit – the ten commandments – is presented in relation to the reality principle: the  seemingly necessary repression of the id with, or in, the aim of optimising the subject’s ability to function in accordance with the demands of society.

Unsurprisingly, Lacan indicates the Oedipal relation – desire for the Mother, rebuffed by the nom / non of the Father – as the birth of the reality principle, and accordingly presents the fundamental “demand” of society within the parameters of a negative imperative. The instigation of this economy of disavowal is the introduction of (to?) the Symbolic order, consequently and crucially speech itself and, in such an introduction, demarcates the un/representable.  The un-sayable, within a linguistic structure so fundamentally reliant upon (e.g RE: the ten commandments) the saying of “no.”)

It is for such a reason that Lacan states the ten commandments do not explicitly ban incest: the incest prohibition as the sine qua non of speech itself, is seemingly implicit in the commandments, simply for their ability to be said at all. Accordingly, the explicit negatives in the commandments operate as secondary repressions of that primary repression: the listed crimes might be understood as figures in a masquerade of tension between the subject and the primary, problematically (certainly oxymoronically) indicating and alienating.

It is this troublesome masquerade that parallels Derrida’s account of the supplement: the Mother is rendered the Thing, which is represented through various nominally rejected  means.  Such a process of representation and repression feels indicative of the supplementary failure of the signifying function of speech: always in absence or excess of its referent of desire.

Thus, this problematic chain of signification embodied in the cultural/legal process of supplementary disavowal speaks to the problem of repression, as that which makes us aware, without being conscious, operating as the natural inverted reflection of perversion’s desire to represent that which seemingly cannot be successfully, wholly, transmitted.

Essay Review: “Necropolitics” (Achille Mbembe, 2003)


Achille Mbembe’s inquiry into his conception of “necropolitics” is one that expands upon the political-philosophical notion of biopolitics, to account for both the phenomenology and ontology of power when experienced within areas and subjects not typically considered within the demographic of the Western global north. Mbembe’s position contends with Michel Foucault’s own that contemporary expressions of power can be largely understood as control through techniques of making and maintaining life. However, this is not to suggest that Mbembe is arguing instead that the earlier model of the sovereign, who rules over the State “by the sword” is still in existence, unchanged. Rather, that there are areas of seemingly expanding territory – from the camp, to the colony, to the warzone, in which traditionally definable subjectivities / subject positions are now considerably more ephemeral, perhaps other than when regarding their respective relations to death. Such ecologies of spatialized terror produce death-worlds, in which populations take on a perpetual state of living death.

“Necropolitics”’ central thesis is founded upon conditions of paradox, which can be understood as reflected in the format of the text itself: its opening sentence is indeed an invocation of Foucault’s model of the original notion of sovereignty, whose “ultimate expression…resides, to a large degree, in the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die.” However, he immediately introduces a long list of questions, relating not simply to the implementation of this sovereign power, but also crucially to the socio-political concerns: not merely the ramifications, but even the implications necessary already for this power to be exerted. He ends this list with: “what place is given to life, death, and the human body (in particular the wounded or slain body)? How are they inscribed in the order of power?” In other words, what does the political involvement in the question of life and death do to the question of life and death? Noting that much political theory has remained focused on notions of democracy and, stemming from it, the relations between reason and freedom, Mbembe instead declares interest in opening discursive areas of political inquiry focused on implementations and experiences of human destruction, founded initially on the tensions between Hegel and Bataille on the place of death within life. Hegelian dialectics find the subject defined in relation to death, thus defining politics in its control over human life as being interpretable as an instrumentalization of death’s shadow, whilst Bataille understands death (correlated with sexuality and sovereignty itself) in a sense that transgresses the Cartesian boundaries of subject-object distinction upon which Hegel extrapolates. Accordingly, within this tension, Mbembe finds his thesis: that politics – even and especially the politics of sovereignty – are defined as a deathly violation of prohibition, a thanatological bypassing of boundaries.

Mbembe thus approaches a series of examples of what would typically be considered extremely boundaried environments, ones in which “the state of exception and the relation of enmity have become the normative basis of the right to kill.” Addressing the Nazi death camp as a site of the materialisation of Foucault’s definition of racism as a technology to catalyse “that old sovereign right of death,” Mbembe acknowledges it as a conflation of war and politics to a level of indistinguishability, but denies this phenomenon as having any particular specificity to the walls of Auschwitz-Birkenau or Treblinka. Rather, there are multiple historical examples of the interrelation between political technologies of death, and discursive economies of “reason” that have ensured the political category of Populus transfers from a material to rhetorical plane that allows for greater malleability, both at the symbolic and imaginary orders. Such malleability allows for the “triple loss” of the slave condition: loss of home, loss of rights over their own body, and loss of political status as ensuring ultimately an “expulsion from humanity altogether.” Such a status of non-humanity places the slave within the horrific liminal state of one with no considered intrinsic value, and yet a prized recognised ability to have value extracted, resulting in being kept in a state of injury, that may logically necessitate cruelty as manifestation of the existential violence already caused. Thus, for Mbembe, “slave life…is a form of death-in-life.”

Such forms of existential degradation have now expanded in contemporary modes of colonisation and coercion, as seen in Palestine, Kosovo and African countries Mbembe declines to name specifically. For all the importance of borders and barricades, Mbembe notes many ways in which definitions and categories become less defined: he acknowledges the ways in which the power of necropower is increasingly other than that of the State. Indeed, the State becomes an ever-hazier category in itself: through an absence of distinction between combatants and noncombatants, or law-abiders and criminals (laws becoming ever more fractured) people can no longer even “respect each other” as enemies. Rather, the conscious destruction of infrastructure confers onto all inhabitants a status of “survivor”-dom which feels much like a nightmarish translation of Hegel’s subject: “one who, having stood in the path of death…standing in the midst of the fallen, is still alive…each enemy killed makes the survivor feel more secure.” But, of course, the “enemy” can here be anyone. Life and death may now be the only parameters of subjectivity, and even the barriers between these concepts erode for political purposes, as Mbembe notes in his discussion of the suicide bomber, perhaps the ultimate figure of the walking-dead. Thus, what may have begun as (and is still produced in the Western global north as) State power over citizen subjects produces in these death-worlds no discernible state, no citizens, and no subjectivity.

Mbembe’s “Necropolitics” provide a crucial alternative perspective on the development and experience of power, and a much needed-antidote to the practice of political philosophers to speak in predominantly universal terms about the experience of sovereignty, with cursory acknowledgements of what might be accused of ethnocentric myopia, remaining ultimately unaddressed. “Necropolitics” introduces necessary caveats to the “productive” nature of power, and where the remainders of this production may be felt. It may also be a particularly useful model for theoretical critique, for its ability to criticize earlier works of political theory, predominantly through the form of expanding upon them, rather than engaging overly in a system of disavowal: the concept of biopoltiics has not been thrown out by this essay, rather its flaws have been addressed, answered and, I would suggest, rectified. Accordingly, as much as “Necropolitics” is an invaluable contribution to post/de-colonial theory, I also posit “Necropolitics” as a particularly beneficial academic text, to see how one can respond to and contradict previous inquiries into a subject.

Book Review: “Eros and Civilization: a Philosophical Inquiry Into Freud” (Herbert Marcuse, 1955)


Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization is, albeit not the first, one of the most significant contributions to the Marxist psychoanalytical canon. However, while one who attempts such a theoretical or philosophical synthesis would typically self-identify with (or at least warrant) the prefix “neo,” be it either neo-Marxist, neo-Freudian, or indeed both, Marcuse appears anxious to disavow such specification, making consistent critical reference to the latter. Indeed, what appears to be central to Marcuse’s thesis is rather that, even though Freud himself affirms what he considers to be the necessity of repression, namely the ego and super-ego’s repression of the id, one may still interpret (in, what Marcuse would seem to insist, is an ultimately traditionalist manner) Freud’s analyses with a liberationist intent.

Throughout the first several chapters of Eros and Civilization, Marcuse illustrates Freud’s fundamental theories about the psychological formation of the subject, and proffers such theories’ application to social theory, although he makes it clear that such social critique is not dependent on an adherence to Freud’s writing as psychoanalysis, but rather as something more akin to philosophy. The main thrust of the argument is as such: civilisation and culture (Marcuse indicates uncritically Freud’s equivocation of the two) constrain the subject’s libidinal urges, countermanding and displacing the pleasure principle with instead the reality principle: the result of the id’s containment in the face of exogenous responsibilities and expectations, to allow for artificial and productive pursuit of satiation: “The reality principle supersedes the pleasure principle: man learns to give up momentary, uncertain, and destructive pleasure for delayed, restrained, but ‘assured’ pleasure.” Thus, although Eros and Civilization is unquestionably founded upon a repressive hypothesis, it is one that not simply allows for some pleasure to be experienced by the subject, but is instead dependent upon it, although what seems to be satiated is by no means a desire for happiness; rather, it is a sense of freedom, albeit with the firm caveat that it is a “freedom in civilization,” (p.19) which Marcuse would – and indeed does – argue constitutes an objective unfreedom.

One significant reason Marcuse gives for the opposition of this “freedom in civilization” to a state of happiness is, in reference to Totem and Taboo, the genealogical (and, indeed, generative) guilt, descendant from the cannibalistic patricide of the “primal crime.” This guilt is a phenomenon upon which Marcuse’s conception of civilization is wholly dependent. Accordingly, “the progress of civilization” is enacted via reproduction and reaffirmation of a reality principle which, through affect of guilt and ideological dispositifs of delayed-gratification sublimates libidinal drives toward a plane of increasing unfreedom.

In the second half of Eros and Civilization, Marcuse naturally notes the hypocrisy in such ideology, certainly inasmuch as the excess of productivity of this system – what the entrepreneur would call profit, and what the Marxist would describe in terms of variable capital and surplus-value – is itself indicative of how much is done that need not be done, and thus is indicative of the manner in which contemporary civilization does indeed operate not through necessity brought about by the “struggle for existence,” but rather operates to prolong this struggle (130-1). Indeed, such an ideology of progress is indicative enough of a foundation of Hegelian positivism (or, indeed, materialism) that wrapped up in the process in “the vision of a higher form of reason which is the very negation of these features” – an aufheben that would itself undo these technologies: from sublimation to sublation. Accordingly, with this excess of productivity already lies an excess of libidinal energy: a repressed to return. Thus, for Marcuse, the solution to the problem lies in the problem. Just as, for traditional Marxism, it is the most alienated who upon whom we can most rely for revolution, it is for Marcuse that which is most displaced (phantasy, the unconscious, the aesthetic, the id), which prefigures organisation upon which we may locate the potential for a non-repressive civilization.

Although Eros and Civilization is compellingly (if repetitiously) written, Marcuse’s assertions are often too emphatically made: he makes various significant departures from classically Freudian thought, including a historically-unwarranted optimism regarding the unconscious, whilst insisting upon a classically Freudian approach, but also undermining this by arguing against its validity for its originally intended purpose. In many ways, Marcuse’s actual placement of “civilization” within his analysis of the psychological parallels of sublimation to it is woolly, whilst his liberationist invocation lacks the prerequisite materialism for a traditionally Marxist theory, and yet remains too dialectical in approach to fit neatly within a poststructuralist or postmodernist tradition. Nevertheless, within Eros and Civilization is a span of ideas that have proven crucial to neo-Marxist, poststructuralist and postmodernist thought, even if only at the stage of embryonic propositions, in the works of Lyotard, Bataille, Foucault and Deleuze & Guattari. There is certainly value to this text, if predominantly as a conceptual milestone in the development of social theory.

The Body and the Uniform

Throughout his chapter on racism and biopolitics in Habeas Viscus, Alexander Weheliye illustrates the notable absence of an overt and encompassing racial theory in the work of Foucault and Agamben, on various levels. One is the suspect nature of Agamben’s insistence on the figure of the Muselmann in the Nazi death camps as being one that is both conceptually and practically transcendent of a traditional understanding of race, inherently due to its own racialisation of psycho-physically oppressive body horror. Foucault, Weheliye allows, is at least willing to discuss overtly racism in Society Must Be Defended, but only racism as he conceives it as extant, after (or, at most, concurrent with) the constitution of the biopolitical form of power. Foucault indeed acknowledges racism’s pre-existence, but its presumably different operations, outside Europe, supposedly lack “the magical aura of conceptual value” (p57). From such a perspective, Foucault holds that there are two forms of racism: “ethnic” and “biological,” which may be described as “on the one hand, an ‘ordinary racism…that takes the traditional form of mutual contempt or hatred between races’ and, on the other, racism as an ‘ideological operation that allows States, or a class, to displace the hostility that is directed toward them…onto a mythical adversary.’” (p.58-9).

It is perhaps unsurprising, thus, that both Foucault and Agamben after him would choose as the sole illustrative model of the latter formation of racism the Nazi regime’s genocide of those perceived as untermenschen, inasmuch as such people might well be considered otherwise white (and certainly in some cases – political prisoners, anarchists, communists, homosexuals – Caucasian). However, Weheliye rightly bemoans, Foucault falls short of pursuing this to an analysis of the construction of racial categorisation through bio(-ideo)logical means, ultimately “leaving the door open for the naturalization of racial categories and the existence of a biological sphere that is not always already subject to ethnic racism…it appears as if Foucault can only authenticate the uniqueness and novelty of European biopolitical racism by conjuring the antithetical spirits of racisms always already situated in a primitive elsewhere” (59-60).

What is most damning here, certainly, is (as Weheliye invokes) the lacuna of this analysis in Foucault’s work, as it has been undeniably influenced by George Jackson and Angela Davis. It is notable in its absence, because the ghost of its presence remains: indeed, this is why his work is so easy to invoke in terms of studies of the marginalised body, because it already carries the traces of such marginalised bodies’ struggles.

Later in this essay, Weheliye’s discussion of the music video (or indeed short film) to M.I.A.’s Born Free engages overtly in some of the points of analysis missing both from Foucault and Agamben’s brief respective touching upon race. The representation of a SWAT team, renditioning and summarily executing a group of “gingers” has been attacked – even banned – in some areas, on account of a reading of this piece as a potentially “revanchist [or]…metaphoric substitution” (p67), though this is assuredly a misreading for various reasons, but it is a misreading worthy perhaps of analysis in and of itself. Indeed, within such a reaction is a deeply entrenched perspective on which bodies can be expected to be black-bagged and forced to run across minefields, to such an extent that the presentation of white bodies in that position is dissonant enough to be read solely as an attack or visual manifesto. Of course, enabling such a perspective, as Weheliye indicates, a denial of “the nimble mutability of racial taxonomies.” Such mutability is expressly indicated in the fact that the chromatic distinction between victims and perpetrators is only defined through the uniforms of the latter. Biology, as the word’s suffix indicates, is a manner of reading in and of itself. “Biological racism” is indeed the reading, interpreting, and translating of bodies. All that may be needed for such distinctions is a great enough emphasis on the uniform – whether worn by the oppressors, or forced on the oppressed. Nevertheless, these uniforms are themselves mimetic of a process of a weaponized logos that neither we, nor Foucault and Agamben, can afford to take for granted.

Marcuse and Returning to Returning to Freud

During a talk at Goldsmiths, University of London, on the then just-released fourth volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality series, Les Aveux de la Chair, Stuart Elden referenced Foucault’s proclamation “I have never been a Freudian, I have never been a Marxist, and I have never been a structuralist,” indicating that, whilst it was certainly true that he was not those things by the time of his death, one could well make the argument that all three statements were, indeed, a lie. Whilst History of Sexuality vol.1: The Will to Knowledge takes considerable pains to quash the “repressive hypothesis” upon which Marcuse’s Freudian, Marxist, structuralist critique is certainly based, I believe there remains just enough of a (for want of a better term)  proto-poststructuralist insight in Eros and Civilization that some influence must be extant.

Indeed, to borrow from a passing joke made by Negri that, at some point in his career, Marx must have read some Foucault, I myself suggest that, when we read Marcuse discussing the “sub-individual and pre-individual factors which (largely unconscious to the ego) actually make the individual, [revealing] the power of the universal in and over the individuals” (p.58), or his appeal to the potentially liberationist pursuit of making, or indeed returning the human body to the status of “an instrument of pleasure rather than labour [or, indeed, ‘desire?’]” (p. xvi) that Marcuse as early as 1955 must have attended some of Foucault’s 1980s lectures in which he calls for the undoing of the psychoanalytical obsession with desire, and instead for a turn to an analysis and activation of pleasure.

It is certainly interesting when reading “What is an Author?” to see the firmly anti-psychiatry Foucault indicate both Marx and Freud as “instigators [or founders] of discursivity,” and then proceed to discuss the latter in such a way as to provide philosophical justification for his rival Lacan’s own “return to Freud” (returning in this case meaning not “setting our watches back to,” but rather “engaging with, reinterpreting and repurposing where necessary”). This exact passage might similarly provide justification for Marcuse’s own pursuit, only Marcuse would likely refuse the notion that his “return” is anything akin to Lacan’s, disparaging as he does so routinely the “neo-Freudian schools.”

Marcuse’s invocation of the libidinal drives of the subject, and their imbrication in various discourses and technologies of civilization, may to a certain degree also prefigure Jean-François Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy, although in many ways it is rather more timid in its analysis, largely due to its fairly singular emphasis on repression, rather than dissimulation through channelling. Similarly, Marcuse’s emphasis on the performance principle’s relation to the deathly Nirvana principle, contrasted to many of the concepts of libidinal excess, as discussed by Lyotard, jouissance as imagined by Lacan, or limit-experience as pursued by Bataille, does still allow for desire to maintain a productive capacity (not a position I would immediately associate with a traditionalist or anti-neo-Freudian – or, indeed, Foucauldian -model) that it might have been a significant contribution to the more postmodern analyses of Deleuze and Guattari. And yet, when Marcuse’s name is briefly and sporadically mentioned in Anti-Oedipus, it is with an air of polite disappointment that he “touched too lightly.”

It is perhaps most of all within its status as sociological ur-text that Eros and Civilization‘s shortcomings lie.