When Local Knowledge Means Autonomy


“An aerial view of a town built during the Middle Ages or the oldest quarters (medina) of a Middle Eastern city that has not been greatly tampered with has a particular look. It is the look of disorder. Or, to put it more precisely, the town conforms to no overall abstract form…

The fact that the layout of the city, having developed without any overall design, lacks a consistent geometric logic does not mean that it was at all confusing to its inhabitants. One imagines that many of its cobbled streets were nothing more than surfaced footpaths traced by repeated use. For those who grew up in its various quarters, Bruges would have been perfectly familiar, perfectly legible. Its very alleys and lanes would have closely approximated the most common daily movements. For a stranger or trader arriving for the first time, however, the town was almost certainly confusing, simply because it lacked a repetitive, abstract logic that would allow a newcomer to orient herself.

The cityscape of Bruges in 1500 could be said to privilege local knowledge over outside knowledge, including that of external political authorities. It functioned spatially in much the same way a difficult or unintelligible dialect  would  function linguistically. As a semipermeable membrane, it facilitated communication within the city while remaining stubbornly unfamiliar to those who had not grown up speaking this special geographic dialect.

Historically, the relative illegibility to outsiders of some urban neighborhoods (or of their rural analogues, such as hills, marshes, and forests) has provided a vital margin of  political safety from control by outside elites. A simple way of determining whether this margin exists is to ask if  an outsider would have needed a local guide (a native tracker) in order to find her way successfully. If the answer is yes, then the community or terrain in question enjoys at least a small measure of insulation from outside intrusion. Coupled with patterns of  local solidarity, this insulation has proven politically valuable in such disparate contexts as eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century urban riots over bread
prices in Europe, the Front de Liberation Nationale’s tenacious resistance to the French in the Casbah of Algeria and the politics of the bazaar that helped to bring down the Shah of Iran. Illegibility, then, has been and remains a reliable resource for political autonomy.” – James C. Scott, Seeing Like A State

Preliminary Study For a Political Masochism

Considering Sade and Masoch

The question Deleuze poses, in order to prompt our concern with these two authors is the following: “What is the meaning of the meeting of violence and sexuality in such excessive and abundant language as that of Sade and Masoch? How are we to account for the violent language linked with eroticism?”( Coldness and Cruelty, 17)  The concern with these authors, one as instructor and the other as educator, is a concern with a study of power relations; how the powerless come to have power, and how those in positions of power actualize their domination. That is, the upshot of Deleuze’s analysis is not merely sexual but also legal (contracts in Masoch), ethical, and political. Before pointing out the differences, and ultimately the reasons why we cannot consider Sade and Masoch to be complimentary authors, Deleuze mentions that at work within both writers is a certain type of ‘imperative:’ “Imperatives abound in the work of Sade and Masoch; they are issued by the cruel libertine or by despotic woman.”(CC, 17) Thus, we will have to constantly remind ourselves that the way in which ‘imperatives’ are articulated in Sade and Masoch remain incommensurable. How they remain that way, is Deleuze’s burden to show.

The Instructor and The Educator

“In every respect,” writes Deleuze, “the sadistic “instructor” stands in contrast to the masochistic “educator.””(CC, 19) The two figures, of instructor and educator, will be helpful images to come to an understanding of the abyss that separates Sade and Masoch. What is the power of the instructor? Demonstration. The instructor uses descriptions to actualize this power of demonstration. As Deleuze writes, “He [instructor] is interested in something quite different, namely, to demonstrate that reasoning itself is a form of violence, and that he is on the side of violence, however calm and logical he may be. He is not even attempting to prove anything to anyone, but to perform a demonstration related essentially to the solitude and omnipotence of its author. The point of the exercise is to show that the demonstration is identical to violence.” (CC, 18-19) The instructor shows the impersonal [pure Idea of reason] through his actions. He acts in accordance with totalizing reason; where nothing escapes the logic of the Idea.  “I have demonstrated it theoretically…let us now put it to the test of practice.”(CC, 19, Sade’s character Noirceuli)

Thus Deleuze develops the two kinds of violence at work in the sadist: personal and impersonal. Personal violence relates to the desires and tastes of the individual sadist. Impersonal violence is the Idea of pure reason which is demonstrated and described, rigorously, and subordinates the personal elements to itself. At times, the personal element can even get lost in the impersonal Idea. Deleuze quotes Krafft-Ebing on this point: “In certain cases the personal element is almost entirely absent. The subject gets sexual enjoyment from beating boys and girls, but the purely impersonal element of his perversion is much more in evidence…”(CC, 20)

Regarding Masoch, the transcendence does not take place toward the Idea of pure reason, but rather concludes in the actualization of ‘role-reversal.’ As Deleuze writes, “In the work of Masoch…we are dealing instead with a victim in search of a torturer and who needs to educate, persuade and conclude an alliance with the torturer in order to realize the strangest of schemes.”(CC, 20) That is, if it a question of ‘who is being given voice?’, for Masoch is the tortured and for Sade it is the torturer. The cleverness of masochism lies in the fact that, through the negotiation, education, and persuasion of the despotic woman, the dominated body actualizes its power. Thus Deleuze writes: “…the masochistic hero appears to be educated and fashioned by the authoritarian woman whereas basically it is he who forms her, dresses her for the part and prompts the harsh words she addresses to him. It is the victim who speaks through the mouth of his torturer, without sparing himself.”(CC, 22)

Preliminary Sketch for a Political Masochism

In a certain sense, Deleuze gifts his readers with a political dualism: sadism on the one hand, and masochism on the other, the politics of the instructor and the politics of the educator. However, Sade’s political achievement, while providing the uncanny mirror for fascism, merely reproduces the fascism it conveys. At best it’s a moralizing weapon against fascism; critique conceived in terms of a negative project. Masoch’s political achievement would be the complete enactment of critique – both a disavowal of fascism and the positive project of conceiving of power in non-disciplinary, non-repressive terms (revolutionary-desire). The political question of the libertine is concerned with bridging the gap between the personal and impersonal, between partial negation and pure, absolute, negation: “under what conditions “a particular pain, B” produced in secondary nature (personal tastes and desires) would necessarily reverberate and reproduce itself ad infinitum in primary nature (Idea of pure reason).”(CC, 28) Libertine politics is approached from the position of power exerted unilaterally, with the aim of it’s totality. Masochistic politics, on the other hand, begins from the position of the powerless, whose guiding question is, “under what conditions, negotiation (Masoch’s contracts), and persuasion can a dominated body actualize its power?” That is to say, sadism and masochism are not two sides of the same coin, but rather two images of critique with sadism being critique conceived in the fullness and richness of negative projects, while masochism is critiqued conceived in the positive sense; a disavowal and suspension of existing norms in order to enact a true transvaluation of values.