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  • Edmund Burke, Gilles Deleuze, and the Subversive Masochism of the Image
  • Peter Cosgrove


The category of the sublime has not escaped the suspicion of concealing a sadistic component, though the category of the beautiful, tied to the sublime as a complement and an antithesis ever since Burke’s decisive intervention in the history of aesthetics, has never been considered in the light of the masochistic. These hidden links are what the following paper sets out to explore through the medium of Gilles Deleuze’s remarkable philosophical meditation on masochism, “Le Froid et le Cruel.” 1 While my larger goal is to speculate broadly on the ties of these aesthetic and psychological categories to each other and to the social imaginary of Western culture over the past two centuries, a careful analysis of Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, seemed to be the first priority for two reasons. Burke was the first to introduce the lexicon of terror into definitions of the sublime, and though the sublime has since gone through numerous permutations, it has never quite thrown off the taint of association with the worst excesses of state power. And second, the prominence in Burke’s theory of the effects of pain and pleasure on the body looks forward as no other version of the sublime does to psychoanalytic classification. Furthermore, a certain structural affinity links the eighteenth- and twentieth-century thinkers: Burke’s decisive gesture in separating the sublime from the beautiful is repeated in Deleuze’s equally daring uncoupling of masochism from sadism. These surgical operations at the interior of bodies of thought that try to preserve the integrity and even the identity of the concepts leave a wound in the history of ideas that we might almost call achronic. With Burke’s essay as a pretext, then, we can venture further afield than the eighteenth century and explore the twin paradoxes of the suffering of the beautiful and the violence of the sublime in our own time.

My analysis will impinge on two modes of thought, history and psychoanalysis. In the first section, I will approach the repudiation of [End Page 405] the image in Burke’s treatise through the role of masochism in the construction of male subjectivity. To superimpose the topography of this perversion on Burke’s inquiry, rather than attempt to reorient Burke’s theory in the history of ideas, is to apply a heuristic model to the notable gendering of the examples and metaphors that envelop his differentiation of the sublime and the beautiful. While Burke’s stress on the aesthetic importance of terror for the experience of the sublime might lend credence to the supposition that the sublime is the site of a masochistic formation, the opposite is the case. The source of his anxiety is not the principle he advocates, the sublime, but the principle he rejects, the beautiful. Following Deleuze’s view that male masochism occupies a site of contestation between the ideal realm of a dominant mother and the actual realm of patriarchal domination, I shall argue that Burke’s aesthetic system can be described in terms of a tension between male and female heterocosms, or alternate worlds, the patriarchal symbolically indicated by the sublime and the matriarchal by the beautiful.

In the second section I shall examine the repudiation of beauty in terms of Foucault’s history of the paradigm shift in the techniques of the state apparatus from the spectacle to “the docile body.” Burke’s redirection of aesthetic power away from the visual order of the image to the abstract order of the sublime is consonant with the thesis of Discipline and Punish. 2 As the aristocracy ceded power in the early nineteenth century to the bourgeoisie, according to Foucault, the representation of state control changed from public theater—processions and ritual public executions—to the imposition of repetitive tasks on the body of the subject, what he calls “exercise.” The spectacle, then, I suggest, and those elements of representation on which it depends, fantasy and image, freed from the constraints of domination, became available for a variety of new meanings. One of these new meanings...

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pp. 405-437
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