I first came across the writer Annie Le Brun while looking for literature on Aimé Césaire. In her books Pour Aimé Césaire (1994) and Statue Cou Coupé (1996), she defends her fellow surrealist author’s work from being taken off the French core curriculum, to be replaced by créolité literature – a movement which criticises and tries to move beyond racial essentalism. Le Brun effectively dismisses this literary movement as postmodern levelling (she really does not like post structuralism), employed to disguise racism. The fact that she is a white woman intervening in a debate between ‘négre’ and ‘créole’ identifying writers leaves her in a difficult position, and often her accusations feel out of place, even when her observations are appropriate in places (some are definitely problematic). While I appreciate some of her provocations, including the insults hurled towards academics, I end up disagreeing with her on many points, including her disdain for identity politics, religion/spirituality, technology, or pretty much anything she considers post-modern. Although she would probably hate this comparison (as well as the medium of the internet-based blog), my experience of reading her is very much like reading Hannah Arendt: both authors share a hatred of anything ‘mass’, often resulting in a problematic ‘genius worship’, which often borders on elitism and disregards ordinary acts of resistance. Despite their drawbacks, in my view, I appreciate both writers for their sharp examinations of ideology, especially fascism.
So far, only two of Le Brun’s many books have been translated into English, ‘Reality Overload’ (a rather unimaginative critique of technology and gender relations) and ‘Sade – A Sudden Abyss’. I do recommend the book on D.A.F. de Sade as a useful set of provocations to well-meaning materialists, both of the historical/dialectical and the new materialist kind. In my reading on materialism, I keep coming across de Sade references, whether through the work of Georges Bataille or Maurice Blanchot. While most people primarily (and probably rightfully) associate de Sade with misogyny and authoritarianism (interestingly, Le Brun insists that de Sade celebrates the ‘futurity of the female form in characters such as Léonore and Justine’!), scatological obsession and bad taste, I also get the attraction to philosophers. However, approaching the original texts can take some effort, not even so much in terms of feminist and aesthetic sensibilities, but in terms of pure tediousness: they are literally a crap read. All of the sexual clichés are present, united in incredibly bad writing – although apparently not without deeper meaning. It feels a lot like slogging through François Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel (the book that was brilliantly used against Stalin’s dialectical materialist doctrine by Mikhail Bakhtin). Annie Le Brun would probably say that postmodernism cynicism and relativism has robbed me of the ability to sense the genius of de Sade’s writing, although she herself admits about The 120 Days of Sodom (1785): “Here we have a book which begins with all the pomp of a historical novel, and which ends with the laconic formulas of simple subtraction.”
I guess, more so than de Sade’s work itself, what I do appreciate is the diverse ways in which writers and artists who have felt an affinity with de Sade have used his work. In his film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, Pier Paolo Pasolini stages de Sade’s casual and excessive abuse as a metaphor for capitalism. Georges Bataille, by contrast, draws on de Sade’s methods in his accusations against materialism: that no materialist has used materialism to its full potential. Maurice Blanchot sees in de Sade the simultaneous desire and impossibility to destroy nature – while God is easy to denounce – and even regards de Sade as the perfect writer, since his prolific output drowns out his overall message to such a degree that the reader primarily ends up experiencing the materiality of language. Blanchot considers this a liberation of thought from value. Amusingly, all of these people are dismissed throughout Le Brun’s book. I don’t think Le Brun even mentions Simone de Beauvoir who wrote the introduction to one of the editions to The 120 Days of Sodom – an author she already panned as a ‘feminist imposter’ in texts such as Lâchez tout. Le Brun basically ends up criticising other authors for not going far enough – or misunderstanding de Sade altogether. In her opinion, de Sade has been misjudged as an annoying, but provocative mad person, or as a simple attacker of sexual morals. She further finds that de Sade neither rages against nature, nor cares about ‘noble’ projects such as opposing capitalism. So what, according to Le Brun, is de Sade actually about?
The short answer: liberating nihilism (the title is a bit of a give-away). Le Brun and de Sade both deeply despise hypocrisy, especially from people who consider themselves virtuous. For them, this desire links to the projection of ideology onto the material world – whether these are fascist appeals to ‘natural law’, or religious ideas of the cosmos as a model for vice or virtue. Camille Naish, in the foreword to Sade – A Sudden Abyss, refers to this practice as ‘ideological ‘stripping’’. Indeed, Le Brun appreciates de Sade for taking both atheism and materialism to what she considers their only appropriate conclusions: as radical tools against ideology, including supposedly utopian socialist ideas (at some point, she calls this de Sade’s ‘atheist machine’). As de Sade himself puts it: “Nature, who is stranger than the moralists portray her, is constantly cascading through the dams their policies prescribe for her…” Le Brun even finds that,“from a strictly spectacular point of view, Sade’s humour corresponds to a theatrical depiction of the utter collapse of any form of representation.” This is interesting, as the collapse of representation or utter immediacy is often associated with totalitarian and, in particular, fascist ambitions, such as large scale mobilisations of affect or appeals to dumb forms of ‘natural law’. This is what the writer Bertolt Brecht tried to act against, yet Le Brun describes his attempts at “distancing” as “replacing one system of representation by another”. Here, Le Brun argues that fascists actually don’t do away with representation, but use it to run away from a reality they are not ready to face. This way, they always fail to adopt de Sade, despite his obvious appeal.
What is also not entirely clear is how de Sade makes nature both an object of intense rage and an almost non-existent object. On the one hand you have statement such as this one:
‘In all that we do, there are only offended idols and creatures, but Nature is not one of them, and Nature is the one I really want to outrage; I would like to upset its plans, to foil its proceedings, to stop the orbit of the stars, to disrupt the planets that float in space, to destroy all that serves it, to protect all that harms it, in a word, to insult the core of Nature; and I am incapable of this.’
But you also have statements such as the following one:
“Nothing is born, nothing essentially perishes, everything is but an action or reaction of matter; there are the waves of the sea which rise and fall within the mass of waters; there is perpetual motion, which has been and always will be, and whose principal agents we become, without ever suspecting it, by reason of our virtues and our vices. It is an infinite variety; thousands upon thousands of different bits of substances, appearing in all kinds of forms, annihilating themselves before becoming manifest in other forms, subsequently to dissolve and form again.”
Indeed, Le Brun starts off by pointing to de Sade’s obsession with nature as a ‘physical immensity’, while maintaining that he, in the end, ‘does not grant it any value whatsoever’. As she puts it: “the idea of nature is already neutralised before it has even been formulated, by the vigour of the motion which precedes and exceeds it.” This view maps onto both Le Brun and de Sade’s preoccupation with nothingness. In fact, the book ends with (apologies for spoilers!):
“Wandering about Paris, the whole day long, I experienced an intense feeling of having no more limits, of not being in this world, of actually being the world or rather, of sinking into everything that I was not.” (…) “How could I not be grateful to him for having shown me that within every forceful thought lies and intense way to be nothing?”
This seems to solve the odd connection between power and nothingness: one mode is the flip side of the other. Throughout the book, there are some fascinating passages which seem to prefigure, if I may draw the comparison, “new materialism”: “an ensemble where everything is representative, people and places alike, objects and words, even Aline’s little spaniel, Folichon…” (…) “the ‘assemblage of movements’ which constitute life, according to Sade.” Everything is united by the same matter-energy set-up.
To me, what is actually more interesting is the theme of “the banality of evil”. Almost sounding like Hannah Arendt again, Le Brun notes how the “continuing fascination exercised by Sade” lies in the location of his work in the “indeterminate region between monstrosity and banality.” To me, as a geographer, the arguments that Le Brun makes about this sound a lot like a critique of environmental determinism and related dodgy forms of organicism.
“It is certainly because he refuses, with all his might, the traditional allegiance of the organic and the spiritual that Sade simultaneously allows himself the redoubtable privilege of conceiving what goes on inside him in terms of earthquakes, the orbit of the sun, volcanic eruptions or continental drifts. Nothing could be more monstrous, since humanity is thereby confused with a possible form of energy, and since man becomes one mere probability of being, no better than another. But also, by the same token, nothing could be more banal: even if we have forgotten it, wasn’t everybody’s childhood haunted by a violent impression of physical dominion on a universal scale?”
This sentiment is also echoed in de Sade’s character Léonore’s exclamation: “Let us study nature; let us follow her to her furthermost boundaries; let us even work to place them further still; but never let us prescribe boundaries to nature.” In both quotations, the many claims to biological support for ideologies, most brilliantly analysed by Donna V. Jones in her book The Racial Discourses of Life Philosophy, appear to be refuted by describing humans as unstable, inorganic matter-energy infrastructure. At the same time, such statements are not without problems. While such argumentation may work against dodgy vitalist claims, it also sets up a problematic mutual exclusion of the spiritual with materialism. As Erica Lagalisse writes in her new book on Occult Features of Anarchism, this apparent incommensurability is often used to relegate the spiritual outside of the “West” or “modernity” or usually both. And it is not just racialised but gendered. In fact, Le Brun makes many problematic claims about universality that would horrify postcolonial scholars (interestingly, as she writes in Statue Cou Coupé, Le Brun sees Sadean materialism embodied in the figure and actions of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture!).
Somewhat surprisingly, towards the end of the book, Le Brun suggests that de Sade, whom most people consider the absolute opposite of ethics, in fact puts forward an ‘ethics of perturbation’. By this, she means that de Sade, in his dissatisfaction with “discover[ing] man on the very brink of what negates him”. His characters “acquire, rather, a passion for momentum which suggests a perturbation of the subject, a perturbation on which the subject is actually based.” She further argues that “only perturbation permits transition to another speed. But which speed? The speed we never stop losing, the speed of the imagination, which gives man an accurate idea of time and space he has a right to claim for his desires. And that is the beginning of a moral.” Again, this may strike us as rather odd: self-assured assertion of time and space as an ethics. More modestly, she phrases it as “the relative degree of consciousness which allows one to join, or not join, in the workings of the world, and to participate in it.” She stresses that this is impossible without “some violence being done to the order of things, for only thus will we understand it”. So, how do we participate in the world with a ‘relative degree of consciousness’ without representation? And: isn’t this how we are participating in the world anyway?
What I have taken away from this book so far is that it is a fascinating ‘devil’s advocate’ position that tries to push against exuberant, but empty revolutionary claims and dumb appeals to morals. By taking an extreme position, however, it not only risks using caricatures, but, worse, fails to remain sensitive to how certain ideologies such as secularity (see the work of Erica Lagalisse and Claire Blencowe) have become so naturalised that they become false ‘neutral’ foundations or extremes. As pointed out earlier, the book is full of contradictions, some of which temporarily become resolved, only to reassert themselves later. In some ways, I find these contradictions productive, even if I have to keep cringing (including over constant referring to ‘man’ instead of ‘human, thought this may be a translation issue). For example, take this quote: “By means of this passkey of commotion, Sade brings the different world into communication and returns us to the moment of the universe. At the same time, he suggests the one means of not letting ourselves not get carried away by it.” As de Sade’s character Léonore goes on to describe this ‘means’: “as long as we submit nature to our pretty views, as long as we chain her to our loathsome prejudices, confusing them with her own voice, we shall never learn to know her: who knows if we should not run ahead of her to hear what she is trying to say?”
To me this resonates with both problematic and positive connotations. Problematic, because implies that all forms of representation conceal some sort of natural ‘truth’, and positive, because it tries to move against moralising appeals to nature that keep getting hurled, for example, against ‘queer’ people all over the world. To appreciate some of these double edged ‘means’ does not mean that I agree with them or stop being critical of them or that I think that you always need to take ‘the good with the bad’. Rather, examples such as this book help me think about my own blindspots in my theorisations, especially when it comes to ‘solutions’ that initially seem like a good ‘antidote’ to something or other. In this sense, Le Brun’s ‘ideological stripping’ works: it does less so for the dismantling of an ideology to show how fake it is. Instead, it works as a reality check for their own ‘noble’ ideas.
It also works, in my opinion, to draw attention to the key issue within materialism: the fine line between deindividuation – the main strategy of materialism – and dehumanisation. As many critics, from Sylvia Wynter to Juanita Sundberg, have pointed out, both “old” and “new” materialisms often fail to remain sensitive to human inequality or needs in their quest for better models of society. The work of D.A.F. de Sade is perhaps the best illustration of radical materialism without attention to dehumanisation. Current experimentation with materialism and ‘inhumanism’ is exploring exactly this tension right now, and taking Le Brun’s ‘Sadean materialism’ less as a model, but as a problem could be useful in terms of evaluating our own provocations. Since many recent materialist experiments have been disconcertingly appreciated and attacked across the political/theoretical spectrum (see, for example, the Paul Kingsnorth/Arcadia controversy), it is important to develop a sensitivity to the many dimensions of our experimentation, and, especially, to how they might translate into material enactments down the line.