Perversion and Sacrifice (for Mark’s Workshop)

The Wikipedia article on “Perversion” says:
“Perversion is a concept describing those types of human behavior that deviate from that which is understood to be orthodox or normal. Although it can refer to a variety of forms of deviation, it is most often used to describe sexual behaviors that are considered particularly abnormal, repulsive or obsessive. ”

This is a commonly held opinion, and it is flatly wrong. It presupposes a normativity – either based in a sexual norm, a biological one, or a moral one – against which we compare the pervert, as if he were someone who occupies some ‘defective state of being’ or whose thinking is in some state of profound error, even sin, vis a vis some norm or ideal.

But, contra this view, in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Freud concludes that perversion, taken broadly, is a universal characteristic of infantile sexuality: ‘all humans are innately perverse,’ writes Freud. [7]

So, if Freud is right, we begin in perversion, but do we stay there? The commonly held view is that, except for a few, we do not. Against this view, however,some people like the ‘Millerian’ philosopher Slavoj Zizek maintain that the logos of modern Capitalism, the discourse that structures how we are as subjects today, is a perverse one, or, as the American Sociologist Christopher Lasch suggested in the seventies, a primitive Narcissistic one. Accordingly, even as adults, we cannot escape some relation to perversion in our everyday imaginary existence.

Another indication that we all are susceptible to perversion comes from the important French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan who differentiated perversion as a structure (a discourse)common to some and the sort of perverse fantasies which anyone can generate no matter whether their unconscious has a perverse, neurotic, or psychotic structure. This distinction is clinically important since it suggests that perverse fantasies can occur at any time in an analysis without having to deduce that that person has a perverse structure. Fantasies of beating and being beaten, or of sexually abusing the analyst, for example, occur during an analysis as a normal part of the transference dynamic. We can’t assume that because someone has a perverse fantasy, s/he is a pervert in the structural sense anymore than Freud believed reporting beating fantasies indicated a pervert in the structural sense.

We also should be aware of the changing connotation of the term perversion in the work of analysts which is connected in some way with the trauma of the war and Holocaust, a cultural decline of paternalism which had already begun in Freud’s lifetime, and the rise of a culture of narcissism (Christopher Lasch) and perversion (Joel Whitebook), often associated with the rise of American hegemony in the world after WWII.

To schematize these post-war changes in the theory of perversion, there is, first of all, the rise to dominance of the American, and in some cases British (Anna Freudian), ego psychologists in the IPA with their focus on perversion as a fixation of the drive (sexual) and on the regression of the ego – a failure to achieve gentility. Like the American ego psychologists grouped around Heinz Hartmann, Michael Balint, a leading figure of Ferenczi’s Hungarian school, who lived in England after the war and who was an important dissident figure in the IPA in the fifties and sixties and the exponent of the idea of the therapeutic alliance between the analysand’s healthy ego and the analyst’s ego – an idea which has had a lasting influence on the self, relational, and interpersonal schools emerging in American in the seventies and eighties – also believed that perversion occurs as a result of a fixation on pregenital sexuality

This discourse on perversion among the ego psychologists however was a victim of the mania for maturational models — and of full genitality -that dominated ego psychology after the war and well into the sixties. This model was unassailable in the IPA after the war. It was, as a rule, a way of thinking that labeled whatever was looked down upon in society as perverse (as due to a sexual fixation and unfinished ego development) and, as such, was a deeply conservative ideology bound to an ideal that a person was healthy when they were well-adjusted to modern life. The untenability of this became increasingly apparent in the seventies and eighties when social attitudes about sexuality began changing, and especially as a result of the influence of the gay rights movement among younger analysts in the IPA. Indeed, there is at this moment (the 1970s) a widespread desire by many to drop the drive fixation issue (especially as it concerns homosexuality).

One can verily call this rejection of the heterosexual ideal as an open court rebellion by a new generation of analyst; it was played out in conference meetings and in articles, and in the turning away from ego psychology by younger IPA analysts for a relational and self psychology – especially in America. In one article after another, either the temporal model of ego development is dropped altogether and replaced by models of relational self development etc or the ‘ego development and fixation’ frame is retained, but linked to the flourishing of pregenital narcissism and aggression a la the neo-Kleinians rather than to the ideal of complete genitality.

Thus, the French IPA psychoanalyst Chasseguet-Smirgel, who we can use as a representative of this cadre rebelling against the ego psychologists, postulates that perversion is a distortion of a basic human impulse to return to primitive states of fusion (The Ego Ideal p. 43). Moreover, writing in the early 1970s, she connected this basic human impulse to perverse pregenital fusion with states of confusion, metamorphosis, the mixing together of things, and the dissolution of difference, before going on and linking these to generational confusion and cultural revolution.

In the same period an American-trained IPA psychoanalyst living in France, Joyce McDougal, also highlighted the pregenital states of confusion and mixing up in perversion, writing that perverts defend themselves against affective states of primary depression and psychosis by disavowing the primal scene and denying that intercourse involves ‘two people or different genders.’ While in America, the IPA psychoanalyst Robert Stoller focused on how accidental pregenital traumas produce an unconscious ego script that gets set and repeated for an entire life (without treatment), and this includes a hefty number of perverse sadomasochist fantasies. And, finally, the object relational psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg, who was raised in South America but practiced in White Plains for awhile and who built his developmental model of personality disorders on a distinction between pregenital narcissistic and borderline object relations, also worked on how perversion expressed pregenital aggression and object relations rather than oedipal ones.

Thus we can track how the normative developmental model which placed so much emphasis on sexual deviancy in its view of perversion and health was attacked on all sides – although much of this was already begun in the fifties, particularly by the French psychoanalyst Lacan and, for very different reasons, Kleinians and object relations theorists in England.

What is most compelling and interesting in all these shifts in the discourse of perversion after WWII, and especially after 1970, is how this shift seems to mark the effects of a retreat in the Symbolic order of the Law and the paternal signifier, and its replacement after WWII by a perverse, narcissist, one in which the mother-child relation seems to be paramount, and the fusional quality of experiences are highlighted.

Chasseguet-Smirgel puts her finger on what these changes amount to when she argues that:’the pervert is trying to free himself from the paternal universe and the constraints of the law’( 12, 1985). All of this suggests that, post WWII, the subject, qua perverse subjects, is trapped in a pregenital stage, believing that he does not have to identify any further with the paternal figure, stuck within his anal-stage idea that everything can be convertible (into a commodity), every object is available to his enjoyment, provided he can pay for it.

All this may suggest that, like Hegel’s owl who flies too late, post WWII psychoanalytic discourses on perversion merely records changes in the Symbolic that have already happened. But however compelling (and even self-congratulatory) this narrative may be, this is not the correct story. The replacement of the Law by a pregenital world of narcissism and perversion is just the illusion of the retreat of the Other (the Law). In fact, the Other is still there, hidden behind the pregenital mother, always present in language, since it cannot be totally erased; it is just that the pervert knows how to disavow what he knows – and so he can disavow the Other’s presence even as he submits to its command to enjoy!Indeed, this perverse mise en scene is precisely what Freud warns about already in the preface of Civilization and its Discontents in 1930.

Consider how Freud conceives of the fetishist, who we can take as a model pervert.1 Our fetishist is a person who is caught between times – in particular, he is a subject who remains caught between a time of trauma and castration and a time of satisfaction based on a disavowal of the said trauma. That is to say, he is a subject caught between an initial time of knowing and a later time of not knowing.

Thus, in a first moment, our poor fetishist is confronted by something of the real – a trauma. In that instance, he knows about castration, first in an alienated form as the other’s castration and then in the dawning realization of his own lack. Then, in a second instance, he recovers himself and denies that knowledge, he denies his own truth and lets himself be captured by an object that appears in the imaginary.

The mechanism at work here is identical with how the subject comes to relate to death. Our first traumatic awareness of death, says Freud, first occurs as an awareness of the lack (death) of the other. It is the other whom we love whose death first catches our breath. Then, secondarily, our ego forms an identification between this loss and ourselves, and we apprehend our own non-being.

Like in death, the fetishist’s reaction to lack first occurs as an ego distortion – as a knowledge of lack in the other. Then, secondarily, as an awareness of our own innate lack. Moreover, Freud says, the first object choice to replace the trauma is usually the first thing the child sees after the trauma. But, what is at first a purely accidental, even incidental, object choice is later replaced by other objects that are culturally selected, or can be put within a preexisting symbolic chain as a culturally important object of desire.

In fact, the scopic mechanism of seeing and the cognitive mechanism of knowing have both come under the domination of an object of desire whose primary purpose is to distort or cover up knowledge and the truth of what the subject saw, and all for a quota of pleasure. The very logic behind this logos (or structure) is the lie – or, better yet, it is a logos based on the screening off of the truth (which is unconscious) by a specious reality that we prefer because it allows subjects to have use of the object for their pleasure, at least to have use of it on the imaginary level. This is how the perverse subject maintains a tenuous link to truth: through the displacement of the real thing by the object of desire.

Thus, Freud says, a typical future fetishist is a young oedipal boy who, curiosity getting the better of him, sees the girl’s lack of a penis and, after drawing the right conclusion, draws back in horror. Make no mistake: the fact that the girl is missing an ‘organ’ possessed by the boy is not what matters. What matters is that this missing thing acquires a new meaning by being linked to the jouissance we all have lost (the object a), and so it reminds our young Oedipus of his own lack.

Where the hole or lack was before, an object of desire is now.

Thus, we can say that for Freud the association of perversion with abnormality is dubious because perversion is really one of any number of possible effects of language, especially the gap between truth and knowledge that the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan emphasized as a central structural element in the what makes us speaking beings (we already have touched on this above when we discussed how the pervert relies on not knowing what he knows to be true, at least in the unconscious system). And, rather than being some form of deviancy, some fall, perversion is an expression of the human’s experience of himself caught in the snares of language.

Perversion is a sort of pere-version, en français: comment s’acommoder du ‘non’ du nom-du-père.

Interestingly, the etymology of the word perversion is associated to religious signifiers before anything else. That is, the pere in question is at first the pere in the sky and, secondarily, the pere of the Christian soul.

Thus, perversion appears in the middle 14c., where it conveys something like an: “action of turning aside from truth, corruption, distortion” (originally of religious beliefs), from Latin perversionem (nominative perversio) “a turning about,” noun of action from past participle stem of pervertere (see pervert (v.)).2

In the chaos of the 15th century, perversion assumes a more general meaning of the ups and downs of Lady fortune, such as in: “This lady [Fortune] willfull and rechles As she that is froward and perusers. It carries a meaning:”Of things or events: adverse or unpropitious” 1440. By the middle 1440s, social referents about a fall from accepted behavior and norms become more common such as when perverse means:  “untoward, froward [sic]; disposed to go counter to what is reasonable or required; hence, wayward, petulant, cross-grained, ill-tempered, peevish” 1412-20.

By the later 16th century, perverse refers to the newly emerging sense of self taking on meanings like:”obstinate, stubborn” in the 1570s. 3

Thus, we see a gradual shifting from religious meanings to meanings of deviations from social rules, especially rules of proper behavior (of people stepping out of their station). 4 And, with the religious wars, these two registers unite as in Norton’s translation of Calvin’s “Institutes,” 1561: “Our owne ignorance … weakness, perversenesse, and corruption.” Second use, Milton, “Judgem. Bucer” 1644 iv 388 “To enforce the innocent and faulties to endure the pain and miseries of anothers perversenes.”

Finally, to jump way ahead, by the 19th century the focus of the breaking of a rule (not respecting social station or authority) appears in the use of perversion to mean “a verdict: against the weight of the evidence or the direction of a judge 1854″. Sexual and scientific usage have clearly also appeared by then.

Given the etymological associations to religious deviation, apostasy, we can draw out some of the links between the fetish object and the totem, especially as it relates to the gap inscribed in language between truth (repressed and singular) and knowledge, and reach rather different place vis a vis the subject of the Law and castration.

Freud mentions in Totem and Taboo (1913) that the totem and the taboo are both signifiers that link to different but overlapping chains, the totem marking the link (always contradictory and full of gaps) between members and a god, an Other. The totem is the signifier of an ambivalent bond to something transcendent and outside that cements the social bonds by allowing group members (within reason) to put aside their murderous imaginary; by forming a common identification, the totem creates a space for a separation between the desires of the group and their god – a god who signifies their own Real jouissance (excessive jouissance beyond the law).

The totem signifier then is analogous to the ideal ego behind which lies the devouring force of real jouissance, something that we find expressed in other signifiers like manna associated with the totem. Manna of the totem, or someone or thing associated with it, will normally kill when touched. Totem animal for example can only be devoured and eaten on certain occasions, otherwise their manna kills. This is where the other signifier, the taboo, enters the picture — the taboos are the development or articulations of commandments associated with the superego of the group. They are the rules that maintain the barrier between the group and real jouissance erected by the totem-signifier.

What gives all of this coherence is that we are really speaking about the rules of language and the effect displacement and condensation plays in regulating and cementing group cohesion. Thus even if the exact nature of totemism is not what Freud said it was (what his contemporaries believed it was) something like this does occur in the structure we know of as perversion.

Thus, we can see both are efforts to describe ways of organizing via language the effects of trauma, of minimizing these effects, and of bringing the trauma, either individually or collectively, under the control of a law, a logos and a discourse, that disconceals and conceals this wild jouissance circulating within a group, lying in wait behind an ego ideal, a fetish object of desire, or a totem.

cropped-392121_1691364699737_1593962168_n.jpg Sacrifice-of-Isaac-(Sacrificio-di-Isacco)

Fast forward to the Bible and look at Caravaggio’s ‘Sacrifice of Issac’. This painting was the center-piece of a presentation given by Lacan called “On the Name of the Father” in 1968. What is most striking in the painting is the horror that Issac displays – a horror of his being sacrificed to the jouissance of the Real God – something that cannot but recall Totem and Taboo, except that this is not a God of that sort, but a God of the Word, one inhabiting and inhabited by language. Language functions here like a password (symbol, code) that affirms at some level that one is a part of a group: specifically, that one is a kind of subject who experiences loss (of the ‘object a’) as a mark or trace (a la circumcision) of a pact: that one has foresworn (by force of prohibition) the pleasure of “metaphysical/ sexual rites which, during festivals, unite the community with God’s jouissance.” (nb– we are speaking of murderous jouissance whose immediacy is such that it captures and blinds the subject!).

So as not to give into these murderous impulses, one foreswears to separate this (extreme) jouissance (the killing jouissance, that captures the subject and that Freud mythologically described as the jouissance of the Real Father) from desire. And, in this way, one becomes a member of a group – of a separate and stubborn race – who sustains the gap (difference) between jouissance and desire. And one affirms oneself as a sort of subject for whom the symbol and the gap – and not the image where desire and jouissance are liable to become mixed up again — is alive.

The image depicted by Caravaggio, therefore, records what we can only see as a revolution in cultural history (in the vicissitude of the Symbolic): the moment when the Word appears to sustain the gap (difference) between jouissance and desire. There are certainly many, many counter examples of sacrifices fusing a real jouissance and a symbol. But, as I said, this is not what is being depicted in the Caravaggio painting. Instead, we see a sacrifice of real jouissance to the Word. The covenant depicted is one in which the original time of the sacrifice is interrupted by a mark, or punctuation, which puts into place a new order: one based on a separation of the signifier and jouissance.

It is not insignificant that Lacan and his followers, like Eric Porge and Gerard Haddad, keep reminding us that among the Nazi’s first acts after 1933 was to burn books (even before). And, in a similar vein, the Nazi’s also initiated an official policy of gleichschaultung – a coordination of all private and public sectors with the Nazi party. The aim of the coordination was to build an organic Germany and to make this organic union and the Party One. No foreign elements would remain to spoil the ideal of a harmonious and whole Reich. In this way, Nazism tried to erode all difference and replace it with an organic ideal of wholeness where everyone would be fused or destroyed (difference would be destroyed or subordinated to the Whole). That is, in the ideology of fascism, there would be no distance between jouissance and the symbol — a new barbarism.

What we need to worry about today however is that this fascist ideal lives on in the perverse fantasm of Capitalism, having been grafted onto it by ideology.


1 Let us for the time being consider this pervert is someone who is not yet existing in relation with a perverted logos (we will get there, but not yet). For the time, all of that can be bracketed off.

1 The first uses of perversion are linked to corruption of religious beliefs, something we can see is not too far from apostasy or heresy. But for these reasons, it could also be turned on its head against orthodoxy that has lost its authenticity. Speaking out against the fat cats ecclesia, Wycliff could refer to clergy engaging in: “the act of perverting or condition of being perverted; turning the wrong way; turning aside from truth or right; diversion to an improper use; corruption, distortion; spec. change to error in religious belief (Opp. of conversion)–is Wycliff, 1388, “Prol.” 45: “If the speche of holi writ seeme to commaunde peruersion of soule… it is figuratijf speche.” In one set of meanings from the fourteenth century perverse becomes: “A figure or image in which the right or left directions of the original are reversed: such are the impression taken from any figured surface, and the image seen in any plane mirror.” And then 2d listing, 1st meaning: “turned the wrong way, awry, perverse.” And then to submeanings with first uses: “Turned away from the right way or from what is right or good; perverted; wicked” (Chaucer uses it in that sense; 1369);
Chaucer, 1369, “Dethe Blaunche” 813: “The false trayterousse peruerse [v.r. pervuers]. In the OED we find: perverse: mid-14c., “wicked,” from Old French pervers “unnatural, degenerate; perverse, contrary” (12c.) and directly from Latin perversus “turned away, contrary, askew,” figuratively, “turned away from what is right, wrong, malicious, spiteful,” past participle of pervertere “to corrupt” (seepervert (v.)). The Latin word is glossed in Old English by forcerred, from past participle of forcyrran “to avoid,” from cierran “to turn, return.
Lydg. “De Guil. Pilgr.” 19003 “An hunte [Satan] stoode with his horne Off chere and looke ryght perverse. For example, 1412-20 Lydg. “Chron. Troy” ii. x. [1555] “This lady [Fortune] willfull and rechles As she that is froward and perusers. “Of things or events: adverse or unpropitious” 1440. Or, again, Its meaning expands to refer to the newly emerging sense of self by the later 16th century when perversion acquires the sense of “obstinate, stubborn” in the 1570s. Perversion as something that is: “wrong, not in accord with what is accepted” in 1560s. “Not in accordance with the accepted standard or practice; incorrect; wrong” 1568;  “obstinate or persistent in what is wrong; self-willed or stubborn (in error)” 1579
3 “The quality of being perverse; the disposition or tendency to act in a manner contrary to what is right or reasonable; obstinate wrongheadedness; refractoriness; corruption, wickedness.” 1st use T.