Brian Robertson – On the Twisted Structure of Sadomasochism in Lacan’s Anxiety Seminar

THE LETTER 51 Autumn 2012, pages 45-68.

As early as his Three Essays, Freud accounted for sadism and masochism in terms of two, mirrored (or dialectically opposed) articulations of the self-same aggressive drives. More recently, attention has been drawn to various elements at work in the two perversions that fail to fit within Freud’s dialectical model. Gilles Deleuze, for example, has criticized Freud’s conception of sado-masochism as an artificial clinical entity and has insisted upon introducing a strict dissociation between the two perversions. This paper aims to rearticulate the relation between the two perversions by means of a close reading of Lacan’s Anxiety Seminar. Instead of dismissing Freud’s account, or attempting to move beyond it, this paper shows how Lacan returns to Freud in order to reformulate a more comprehensive, structuralist reading of sado-masochism. As the paper demonstrates, it is only when sadism and masochism are taken together that they allow us to seize hold of the ‘twisted’ knot of anguished enjoyment that inhabits the heart of human desire. The paper also offers a detailed account of the ‘zig-zag’ schemas of sadism and masochism that Lacan elaborates both in his Anxiety Seminar and in his article Kant avec Sade.

Keywords: volonté de jouissance, anxiety, law, fetishism, perverse velleity

In the Three Essays, Freud accounts for sadism and masochism in relation to an element of physical and moral aggressivity at work in sexual desire, or what he refers to as ‘an intimate connection between cruelty and the sexual instinct’.  While sadism, as he claims, consists in a desire to subjugate and control the sexual object, overcoming the resistance of the [latter] by means other than the process of wooing’, masochism thrives off of suffering physical pain and humiliation at the hands of the sexual object.  The basic idea underlying Freud’s account is the notion that the sadist’s desire for cruelty offers a mirrored (or dialectical) reflectionof the masochist’s desire for pain

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