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  • Postmodern Pleasure and Perversity: Scientism and Sadism
  • Paul McCarthy



This study traces the nature and consequences of the circulation of desire in a postmodern order of things (an order implicitly modelled on a repressed archetype of the new physics’ fluid particle flows), and it reveals a complicity between scientism, which underpins the postmodern condition, and the sadism of incessant deconstruction, which heightens the intensity of the pleasure-seeking moment in postmodernism. This complicity raises disturbing questions about the credentials of postmodernism, and it has the dehumanising effect of obscuring the individual and putting an end to praxis. In addition, the unbounded play of difference in this order of things tends to dissolve restraints to sadism and barbarism, giving desire and capital free rein in the fluid play of market signifiers.

The analytical procedures of deconstruction are a key component of postmodern thought: Derrida and Deleuze and Guattari engage structures through breaking them into their component parts. Deconstruction’s notion of the “structurality of structure” is grounded in the history of atomising thought which begins with the relations of Dionysus and Apollo, in which desire is contained by the atomistic concept. Deconstruction sets forth a de-centered and unbounded horizon in Derrida: “Differance is the systematic play of differences, of the traces of differences, of the spacing by which elements are related to each other” (1981: 27). Deleuze and Guattari’s atomistic “multiplicity” is also evident in Derrida’s “irreducible and generative multiplicity” (1981: 45).

The relations of capitalism and atomising thought, particularly as they manifest themselves in science and instrumental reason, are mutually supportive. Horkheimer and Adorno (1972) trace these relations (demonstrated in de Sade’s Juliette) as a pre-condition for the turn of enlightenment thought into barbarism. Adorno’s non-reductive stance refuses to collapse subject and object or “other.” This distinguishes his project from deconstruction and postmodernism generally. From this stand-point, atomising thought engenders the free play of desire, signifiers, and capital which characterises postmodernism.

The complicity of postmodern form and atomising thought in the commodification of culture and intellect is also suggested by Lefebvre’s conditions for the production of space. Lefebvre questions “the multiplicity of these descriptions and sectionings” (1991: 8). The same complicity is also pointed out in Jameson’s definition of postmodernism as “the cultural logic of late capitalism” (1984). Here, the accumulation of capital by multinationals is furthered by the discontinuous forms of postmodern architecture. This problem is illustrated by Liggett’s distress, in stepping around young men asleep on the sidewalk, in transit to the restored Biltmore in Los Angeles for a planning convention. Liggett attributes the circumstances of the homeless to the “theoretical, administrative and economic ‘space’ of contemporary urban forms which are organised to facilitate global exchange” (1991: 66).

The deconstructing moment of postmodernism molecularises the complex texture of existence into an order conducive to positivist categorisation: culture is rendered into a particle form amenable to numericisation, and, through the device of probability, the random number machine orchestrates difference. The postmodern order of things assumes its own legitimacy, thereby revealing itself as the quasi-transcendental projection of an idealised world view. This view instates a new mysticism and a new form of pleasure-seeking, acted out through the unrestrained dance of capital and desire in the social. The social, in turn, is implicitly conceptualised in terms of atomised, deconstructed elements which constitute a neo-positivist play of particles and desire. The patterns revealed in sketching out these circuits of desire also reveal the turbulent and fateful grounding of a survivalist neo- conservatism which grows within and in reaction to the arbitrariness of the postmodern order of things. Such underpinnings short-circuit the critical force of deconstruction into affirmation.

There is reason for concern when unresolved “antinomies of culture” such as “consciousness and experience” are collapsed (Rose, 1984: 212), let alone when the categories of postmodernism recapitulate those of post-structuralism in “commencing from a starting point outside of human experience” (Harland, 1987: 75). In these circumstances, there is wisdom in Priest’s “dialethism” (1987), a no-reduction logic of dialectic. This perspective is compatible with Rose’s suspension of the history of philosophy and the philosophy...

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