Sunteți pe pagina 1din 35

Sadism and Film: Freud and Resnais

Author(s): Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit

Source: Qui Parle, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Fall/Winter 1992), pp. 1-34
Published by: University of Nebraska Press
Stable URL: .
Accessed: 08/03/2011 10:33

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at . JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless
you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you
may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use.

Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at . .

Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed
page of such transmission.

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of
content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms
of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

University of Nebraska Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Qui Parle.
Sadism and Film:
Freud and Resnais

Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit

Is there a non-sadistic type of movement? Would we go toward

the world ifwe were not motivated by destructive impulses? This
question-which we will first treat theoretically and which we will
consider in the context of two films of Alain Resnais-is at once
raised and elided in Freud's 1915 essay "Instincts and Their Vicissi
tudes." Toward the end of that essay, in his discussion of the instinc
tual vicissitude consisting in a change of content (a vicissitude
"discerned in a single instance only-the transformation of love into
hate") Freud claims: "At the very beginning, it seems, the external
world, objects, and what is hated are identical."1 The infantile ego
must defend itself against the external stimuli by which it is bom
barded; "hatred" is at firsta self-preservative reflex. But this repudia
tion of the world-of all the difference that threatens the ego's sta
bility (indeed, at the beginning, its very constitution as a distinct iden
tity)-is by no means limited to infancy. The ego's protective mea
sures against a painful influx of stimuli from the external world
will, inBeyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), be hypostatized in the
"instinctual" need of all living organisms to return to the state of
inanimate matter. "As an expression of the unpleasure evoked by ob
jects," Freud writes in "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes," hate
"always remains in an intimate relation with the self-preservative in
stincts" (14:139; emphasis ours). Indeed, the 1915 essay begins with a
postulate thatFreud had been tryingout in various forms since 1893:
". .. the nervous system is an apparatus which has the function of get
ting rid of the stimuli that reach it, or of reducing them to the lowest
possible level; or which, if itwas feasible, would maintain itself in an
altogether unstimulated condition." It is thus assumed, as Freud goes

Qui Parle Vol. 6, No. 1, Fall/Winter, 1992

2 Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit

on to say, that the nervous system has "the task-speaking in general

terms-of mastering stimuli" (14:120).
The human organism learns very early that certain stimuli-those
coming from the external world-"can be avoided by muscular action
(flight)," while "no flight can avail against" others that impinge
"not from without but from within the organism" and that provide
"the evidence of instinctual needs" (14:119). Reflexes of flight, it is
implied, are irrelevant to "instinctual needs," the subject, precisely, of
the present essay, and yet when Freud discusses love and hate itbe
comes clear that instinctual behavior (or an innerdrive) can itselfbe a
response to external stimuli. This, however, runs counter to the bio
logical bias which leads Freud, early in the essay, to declare that ".. .
instincts are wholly determined by their origin in a somatic
source... .," and that the study of those sources therefore "lies outside
the scope of psychology" (14:123). What psychology can study are re
versals-or, more generally, vicissitudes-in the aims, the objects, and
the content of instincts,which is presumably what Freud does in this
1915 essay. The sequestering of instinctual sources within the organ
ism allows Freud to obscure the extent towhich his discussion of aims
and content is determined by a more fundamental and never entirely
explicit assumption about the "nervous system" itself: the assump
tion that our deepest drives or instincts, far from being stimuli against
which "no flight can avail," may in fact be a defensive development, a
form of flight from the external world more sophisticated than sim
ple muscular reflexes.
The possibility is raised, and then immediately dropped, in a single
sentence which speculatively pushes the derivation of our drives from
external stimuli back into the unrecoverable history of the very for
mation of the human as we know it: "There is naturally nothing to
prevent our supposing that the instincts themselves are, at least in
part, precipitates of the effects of external stimulation, which in the
course of phylogenesis have brought about modification in the living
substance" (14:120). Furthermore, it is suggested twice in the essay
that the notion of defence may be necessary to explain not only flight
from the external world but certain types of instinctual behavior it
self: once in the speculation that the vicissitudes "which consist in the
instincts being turned round upon the subject's own ego and undergo
ing reversal from activity to passivity are . . . attempts at defence"
(14:132), and, earlier in the essay, in the remark that repression and
sublimation (vicissitudes to be treated in other essays) can also be re
Sadism and Film 3

garded as "modes of defence against the instincts" (14:127). Finally,

the fact that "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes" is framed-in perhaps
more than one sense of theword-by those preliminary remarks about
the nervous system's task of mastering stimuli and the concluding
analysis of the primordial importance of hate inmental life suggests
that the essay may be, in obscure or unconfessed ways, continuously
concerned (and notmerely in itspassing reference to "muscular action
(flight)") with the ego's efforts to preserve its stability and its
boundaries and toward off external stimuli. That is, those effortsmay
be crucial to the behavior of the drives themselves. This study of the
vicissitudes of sexual instincts-since, Freud claims, we don't yet
know enough about ego-instincts to study their vicissitudes-may,
then, actually be a study of sexuality in the service of ego-preservation
(a service that,as we shall see, is also subversion). To have made that
study explicit would have meant taking a double risk: that of breaking
down the founding distinction itself between ego-instincts and sexual
instincts,and perhaps even more gravely, that of confirming the solip
sistic nature of sexuality, the irrelevance or at least the secondariness
of objects-of, ultimately, theworld-to sexual desire.
Object-love inevitably returns to the self-love at its origin. It is
not merely, for example, that hate, deriving from "the narcissistic
ego's primordial repudiation of the external world with its outpour
... always remains in an intimate relation with the self
ing of stimuli
preservative instincts." Rather, that repudiation appears to be inherent
in the sexual drive itself, a conclusion which, however, Freud resists.
The assertion of an "intimate relation" between the self-preservative
instinctsand the vicissitude of the sexual instincts consisting in the re
versal of love into hate is intended, rather curiously, to strengthen
rather than weaken the distinction between ego-instincts and sexual
instincts. As a result of that relation, Freud asserts, "... sexual and
ego-instincts can readily develop an antithesis which repeats that of
love and hate" (14:139). But such secure differences and.dualisms are
constantly collapsing. First of all, sexual satisfaction, at least in the
pre-genital stages, appears to depend on the elimination of the object.
"Love in the oral phase, for example-the phase inwhich sexual ex
citement is produced by fantasies of 'incorporating or devouring'-is
consistent with abolishing the object's separate existence. And at the
stage of sadistic anal organization, 'the striving for the object appears
in the form of urge formastery,' and while 'injury or annihilation of
the object,' Freud claims, 'is a matter of indifference' here, 'love in this
4 Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit

form and at this preliminary state is hardly to be distinguished from

hate in its attitude toward the object' (14:138-29)."2
In Freud's sexual teleology, the oral and anal stages are, it is true,
merely stages on the way to that climactic moment when the word
"love" can most appropriately be used-that is, "after therehas been a
synthesis of all the component instincts of sexuality under the pri
macy of the genitals and in the service of the reproductive function"
(14:138). Furthermore, the predominance of hate at the stage of sadis
tic-anal organization should perhaps be understood as a result of the
ego-instincts dominating the sexual function at this stage
(which may
itself be a consequence of what Freud calls elsewhere a chronologi
cal outstripping of libidinal development by ego development").3 But
"Instincts and Their Vicissitudes" also suggests-reluctantly, even
evasively-a more radical, and permanent, tendency in the sexual drive
toward the obliteration of objects. In order to illustrate the instinc
tual vicissitudes of "reversal into [an instinct's] opposite" and
"turning round upon the subject's own self," Freud outlines a three
step process for "two pairs of opposites: sadism-masochism and
scopophilia-exhibitionism." The first stage in each process is at first
presented as a relation with the external world: "the exercise of vio
lence or power upon some other person as object" (in what Freud calls
a non-sexual sadism), and, in scopophilia, "looking as an activity di
rected towards an extraneous object." But this scheme is startlingly
undermined with both pairs of presumed opposites. In the first case,
sadism (a drive with an authentic external object) remains, as itwere
officially, the first step in the transformational process, but by the end
of a two-page discussion of this process, ithas itself come to depend on
masochism. In order to account for themystery of sadistic sexuality
that is, how we can be sexually aroused by the suffering of others, as
distinct from the presumably easier question of why we wish to exer
cise power over others, "to humiliate and master" them-Freud sug
gests thatwhen sadism has been "reversed" intomasochism, the sub
ject discovers the pleasure in pain, first in his own pain, and then,
through identification, in the pain of others (14:126-29).
This suggestion is authorized by a definition of sexual pleasure
which goes back to the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality of
1905 and which Freud repeats in the sadism-masochism section of his
1915 study: ". .. we have every reason to believe that sensations of
pain, like other unpleasurable sensations, [spill over into] sexual exci
tation [auf die Sexualerregung Ubergreifen] and produce a pleasurable
Sadism and Film 5

condition, for the sake of which the subject will even willingly expe
rience the unpleasure of pain." The masochist, shattered into sexuality
by the pain he at once suffers and enjoys, then adds, "retrogressively,"
"the sadistic aim of causing pains" to his original aim of achieving
mastery over another person, and he does this in order to prolong or to
renew his masochistic pleasure "through his identification of himself
with the suffering object" (14:128-29). But the sexualizing pain on
which this new sadism depends throws into question the original
sadism towhich, Freud argues, it is belatedly added. If, as Freud puts it
in theThree Essays, "all comparatively intense affective processes, in
cluding even terrifyingones [spill over into] sexuality," (7:203) is it
not likely, indeed inevitable, that the "unpleasure" caused to the ego
by the "outpouring of stimuli" from the external world had already
introduced the subject tomasochistic pleasures, without, as itwere, his
having first to go through the three-stage process of an instinctual vi
cissitude? In other words, the very drive to exercise mastery over the
world can only be conceived of as a response to thepleasurable pain of
having been overwhelmed by stimuli from the outside, a response that,
as we can now see, may be complicated by a sexual motive. If the sex
ual vicissitude of hate is originally, as we argued a moment ago, a self
preservative defence on the part of the ego, the self-preservative in
stinct itself is perhaps "tainted" by an erotic complicity with the very
threat to self-preservation.
There is, as itwere, no logical moment in the subject's life for the
non-sexual sadism of stage one. This naturally collapses Freud's cher
ished opposition between the ego instincts and the sexual instincts, an
opposition perhaps cherished for its capacity to obscure some danger
ous truths.For it turnsout, on the one hand, that self-preservationmay
not be as simple and as unambiguous an instinctas we tend to thinkof
it, and, on the other hand, that the "love" thatpresumably attaches us
to objects may not be so different from the self-preservative "hate"
thatwould eliminate objects. For the Freud faithful to his own nor
malizing sexual orthodoxy, love may be "hardly to be distinguished
from hate in its attitude toward the object" in the pre-genital stages,
but, happily, once "the genital organization is established," love fi
nally does "become the opposite of hate." He does, it is true, in the
paragraph following this assertion, remind us that love "frequently
manifests itself as 'ambivalent'-i.e., as accompanied by impulses of
hate against the same object." The explanation he gives for this is, in
terestingly enough, not only that the component of hate "is in part de
6 Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit

rived from the preliminary stages of loving which have not been
wholly surmounted"; he also refers to "reactions of repudiation by
the ego-instinct, which, in view of the frequent conflicts between the
interestsof the ego and those of love, can find grounds in real and con
temporarymotives. In both cases, therefore, the admitted hate has as
its source the self-preservative instincts" (14:139).
But even this extraordinary passage does not go far enough. For, in
implicitly collapsing the opposition between ego-instincts and the
sexual instincts, and in grounding that collapse in the sexualizing ef
fect of the "outpouring of stimuli" from the external world as well
as in the derivation of such sexual vicissitudes as sadism and ambiva
lent love from the ego's self-preservative efforts to get rid of objects,
the subtext of "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes" gives us a forbid
dingly dense rationale-we might almost say apology-for human de
structiveness. The admixture of hate and love in our object-relations is,
most profoundly, not the result of "the frequent conflicts between
the interests of the ego and those of love"; rather, such ambivalence is
in the ego's erotic interest. Shattered masochistically by the external
world's "outpouring of stimuli," the ego, in hating others, self-pro
tectively re-creates the passion of its own imminent disintegration.
The authentically self-preservative move is in the projection and the
identification: in sexual sadism, the ego ecstatically suffers at a dis
tance. In fact, the infliction of pain on those we love could be thought
of as a necessary deflection of the self-shatteringpleasure they give us,
as our resistance and surrender to the eroticizing stimuli with which
those we love bombard us. Hate allows us to be destroyed once again
by the world-or rather, this time to play at being destroyed
through our identification with the pain of those we would master.
In a sense, then, "instincts" have no "vicissitudes." Not only is
the dualism of ego-instincts and sexual instincts of dubious value;
such classificatory notions as "reversal into its opposite" and
"turning round upon the subject's own self' obscure the fact that we
merely stage differential repetitions of that original situation in
which an infant's fragile ego is at once nearly overwhelmed and born
into sexuality by stimuli it is not yet able to "contain." There is a
passing recognition of this fundamental identity of all the stages
throughwhich an instinct is said to pass when Freud notes that "the
only correct statement tomake about the scopophilic instinctwould
be that all the stages of its development, its auto-erotic, preliminary
stage as well as its final active or passive form, co-exist alongside of
Sadism and Film 7

one another; and the truthof this becomes obvious," he adds crypti
cally but profoundly, "if we base our opinions, not on the actions to
which the instinct leads, but on themechanism of its satisfaction"
Indeed, by the time scopophilia is discussed, themonotonous per
sistence of thatmechanism has become clear.With sadism-masochism,
a final paragraph subverted the original outline of a process leading
from sadism tomasochism by suggesting that sadism is a projected
masochism, although Freud persists in seeing thismasochism not as
originary but "retrogressively" affecting the sadism of stage one. "A
primarymasochism, not derived from sadism in themanner I have de
scribed, seems not to be met with." Only a footnote added in 1924 (and
no textual modification) informs the reader that "in later works (cf.
'The Economic Problem ofMasochism.' 1924c) relating to problems
of instinctual life I have expressed an opposite view" (14:128). In the
case of scopophilia and exhibitionism, it is immediately after outlin
ing a three-step process inwhich the first step is "looking as an activ
itydirected towards an extraneous object" thatFreud reverses himself
and announces, for the scopophilic instinct, "a yet earlier stage than
thatdescribed as (a). From the beginning of its activity the scopophilic
instinct is auto-erotic: ithas indeed an object, but thatobject is part of
the subject's own body." Not only is this preliminary stage
"interesting," as Freud notes, "because it is the source of both the situ
ations represented in the resulting pair of opposites" (just as both
sadistic and masochistic relations with others could be said to derive
from the originary masochism that allows us to survive, even to find
pleasure, in the imbalance between the ego and external stimuli); "the
mechanism of its satisfaction" is (again, as in sadism and masochism)
returned to in stage three,when the auto-erotic pleasure is given again,
this time by someone else's look (14:129-30). Sexuality, far from sus
taining the object-relations intowhich it inevitably draws us, continu
ously brings us back to the ego, to the auto-eroticism which others can
stimulate but to which they are essentially irrelevant. Others-more
generally, the external world-by impinging painfully on conscious
ness, initiate us to a solipsistic jouissance, and if our sexual life keeps
returning us to others, it is perhaps-and perhaps ideally-to coerce
them into providing us with a pleasure fromwhich their image can be
The middle section of "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes" should
alert us to the a-symmetry of the essay's beginning and concluding
8 Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit

pages. We have noted that thepiece is framed by two passages inwhich

Freud discusses the ego's self-preservative attempts tomaster stimuli
by either fleeing from or destroying their sources in the external
world. The instinctual vicissitude of hate, we have argued, would be
the ego's primordial defence against invasive objects. But if,as we have
also suggested, the self-preservative defence of hate is "tainted" by an
erotic complicity with the threat to self-preservation, then hate, as an
affect (what Freud calls a vicissitude of the sexual instinct),may not
necessarily have the aim of "getting rid of the stimuli that reach" the
ego and of maintaining the ego "in an altogether unstimulated condi
tion" (14:120). The beginning and the end of "Instincts and Their Vi
cissitudes" are, then, falsely symmetrical. The essay startswith a brief
discussion of what will be called, five years later in Beyond thePlea
sure Principle, the death instinct. From this perspective, objects are
hated because they prevent the organism from sinking into "an alto
gether unstimulated condition." But hate directed toward objects (and
here "hate" becomes seriously inadequate to describe what we have in
mind) can also be a function of desire. We see thatmost clearly in the
oral and the anal stages of sexual development; but we also see the
sexually productive nature of our effort tomaster others both in the
erotic stimulation of the effort itself and in our identification with
the other's suffering. In all these cases, the ego discovers itselfas the
source and the object of sexual excitement. In other terms, itdiscovers
sexuality as inherently narcissistic.
It is important to remember that Freud had published his essay
"On Narcissism" just a year before "Instincts and Their Vicissi
tudes," although Freud himself seems to remember this, as itwere, in a
diffuse and ambivalent fashion in his 1915 essay. There is, however, one
paragraph in the laterwork inwhich the centrality of narcissism in in
stinctual vicissitudes is explicitly stated. It is fairly obvious, as Freud
notes, that in "the preliminary stage of the scopophilic instinct"
(when the subject looks at his or her own body) and in the final passive
stage (exhibitionism: one displays oneself in order to be looked at by
someone else), the subject "holds fast to the narcissistic object."
Freud's next remark extends this simple logic to sadism and
masochism, an now the implications are actually quite startling:
"Similarly, the transformation of sadism intomasochism implies a re
turn to the narcissistic object" (14:132). Ifmasochism is a sexual vi
cissitude inwhich the instinct is turned round upon the subject's own
ego, how, indeed, could it not be "a return to the narcissistic ob
Sadism and Film 9

ject"?-even though this self-evident truth suggests a dizzying col

lapse of classificatory distinctions and may lead us to postulate the
identity of masochism and narcissism. In the realm of the sexual, self
love is self-shattering.
A certain form of destructiveness is, therefore, intrinsic to love
(or "hate") of others and to narcissistic love, but this is quite differ
ent from a death instinct thatwould bring us to a state inwhich the
self, far from being ecstatically shattered, would be reduced to the
quiescence of inanimatematter. Between the firstand the second dis
cussions of the ego's repudiation of the external world, the analysis of
sadism and masochism and, to a lesser degree, of scopophilia and exhi
bitionism has taught us that a destabilizing threat to the ego can be
erotically stimulating. If the flight from excessive stimuli is obvi
ously self-protective to a certain degree, itmay also include theproject
of a re-staging of masochistic stimulation. The middle section of
"Instincts and Their Vicissitudes" is the disguised symptomatic ex
pression of an argument the essay otherwise "represses": the ego's
self-preservative strategies renew the very threats they seem designed
toward off.And this renewal is not fortuitous; it is desired by an ego
that remembers the pain of excessive stimuli as a narcissistic stimula
In "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes," hate is still ambiguously
classified. In describing it as deriving from "the narcissistic ego's pri
mordial repudiation of the external world with its outpouring of
stimuli," Freud simultaneously underlines the self-preservative func
tion of hate (ideally, itwould reduce the ego to "an altogether un
stimulated condition") and reminds us of its erotic character (the nar
cissistic ego is, by definition, the eroticized ego, an ego for which
"sensation of pain, like other unpleasurable sensations [spill over into]
sexual excitation and produce a pleasurable condition.") This ambigu
itywill be "resolved" in Beyond the Pleasure Principle by the dual
ism of the life instincts and the death instincts: now sexuality (at
least "mature" sexuality) is wholly on the side of a unifying, life
promoting Eros, and sadism as well as thewish to return to "an alto
gether unstimulated condition" are safely relegated to the side of the
death instinct.However somber that analysis of the human drive to re
turn to the state of inanimate matter may appear, it has nonetheless
saved sexuality frombeing contaminated by destructiveness. The death
instinct is, apparently, less threatening to the analytic ego than the no
tion of sexuality (on which the life of the species depends) as intrinsi
10 Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit

cally linked to aggression against the self and against others.With the
Freudian death instinct, the fragile analytic fantasy of a nonsexual
sadism (step one of the three-step process described in "Instincts and
Their Vicissitudes") benefits from a fantastic promotion to the status
of a biological inheritance. Throughout his laterwork Freud will con
tinue to insist on what he calls in Civilization and Its Discontents "the
ubiquity of non-erotic aggressiveness," even though, in that 1930
work, he is forced to recognize that the satisfaction of aggressive in
stincts "is accompanied by an extraordinarily high degree of narcissis
tic enjoyment" (21:121). Can we repudiate, or destroy, objects outside
of a relation-a relation of passion-to them?

Perhaps themost fundamental question raised by "Instincts and

Their Vicissitudes"-a question thatwill bring us to film- is one
that the essay almost fails to address at all: what is an object? Al
most: the status of objects is briefly considered (and radically prob
lematized) when Freud refers to the oral "phase of incorporating or
devouring-a type of love which is consistent with abolishing the ob
ject's separate existence and which may therefore be described as am
bivalent" (14:138). In this primitive form of loving there is, then, no
distinction between subject and object; to desire the object is to fanta
size its disappearance within the desiring subject. The object hardly
fares any better in themore complex phenomenon of identification. In
"Mourning and Melancholia" (another of themetapsychological pa
pers written in 1915), Freud speaks of the regression to identification
("a preliminary stage of object-choice") when an object relationship is
shattered. Instead of a withdrawal of libido from the lost object and
its displacement onto a new one, the object is "withdrawn into the
ego" (14:249). Freud's emphasis in "Mourning and Melancholia" is
on the split within the ego that results from this identification. The
self-reproaches characteristic of melancholia are really reproaches
against the loved one, more exactly, that part of the ego thathas been
altered by identification with the lost object of love. "The loss of a
love-object," Freud adds, "is an excellent opportunity for the ambiva
lence in love-relationships tomake itself effective and come into the
open." It is, then, as if the hatred for the object had always been there.
It is this hatred that "comes into operation" on the now internalized
object, "abusing it,debasing it,making it suffer and desiring sadistic
Sadism and Film 11

satisfaction from its suffering" (14:250-51). But if "love-relation

ships" are, in varying degrees, ambivalent from the start, then this
"satisfaction" must always have been present and must always have
been constitutive of the pleasure of loving. Ambivalence is not an af
fective contradiction (although it can obviously be felt as a conflict):
hate for the loved object may provide precisely thatexcessive stimula
tion, that over-burdening of the organism (either through the internal
presence of the incorporated love-object or through a masochistic iden
tificationwith its suffering) perhaps necessary for the sexualizing of
To put this in another way: the sexualizing of our ties to others
depends on a blurring of the distinction between others and the ego.
Following a suggestion made to him by Otto Rank, Freud speculates in
"Mourning and Melancholia" that although "a strong fixation to the
object must have been present [in the process leading tomelancho
lia], the object-cathexis must have had little power of resistance."
Melancholia may occur when "the object-choice has been effected on a
narcissistic basis," that is, when there had been from the very begin
ning a certain amount of confusion between the loved one and the ego.
The blurring of boundaries between the self and the other is no longer
merely "a preliminary [oral] stage of object-choice"; it can character
ize the way we love throughout our lives (14:249). Indeed, in the
ground-breaking essay "On Narcissism" of 1914, Freud had suggested
the centrality of a narcissistic object-choice to all forms of human

"'People whose libidinal development has suffered some distur

bance,' he writes, 'such as perverts and homosexuals . . . have taken as a

model not theirmother but their own selves.' Most women, according
to Freud, love narcissistically. And object love in heterosexual men is
partially motivated by a nostalgia for the narcissism they have pre
sumably given up. Strongly narcissistic women (similar in this to chil
dren, great criminals in literature, 'cats and the large beasts of prey')
'have the greatest fascination formen . . . as ifwe envied them for
maintaining a blissful state of mind-an unassailable libidinal posi
tion which we ourselves have since abandoned' (14:89). Thus in the
very best of cases (which, inFreudian terms,would mean cases of post
Oedipal genital heterosexuality), the sexual always involves a turning
away from the other."4
But this turningaway from is equivalent to an erotic concentration
on the object. It is as if any strong interest in others inevitably in
12 Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit

volved a movement of identification. And this movement is by no

means inconsistent with the continued presence of the object. Identifi
cation is not limited either to oral fantasies of incorporation or to
cases inwhich the object has been lost, nor even to ambivalent attach
ments (in which a destructive desire to devour may be a significant
component of the attachment). Indeed, instead of saying, as Freud does,
that ambivalence in a love-relationship favors the identifications of
melancholia if the object is lost,we suggest that identification is a pre
condition for loving, a pre-condition thatmakes ambivalence in
In the chapter on identification in Group Psychology and the
Analysis of the Ego, Freud speaks of the little boy's identification
with his father as becoming ambivalent as a result of the boy's notic
ing "that his father stands in his way with his mother." But he then
corrects himself: as a "derivative of the first,oral phase of the libido,"
"identification, in fact, is ambivalent from the very first; it can turn
into an expression of tenderness as easily as into a wish for someone's
removal" (18:105). But is there any psychoanalytic point inmaking
this distinction? In "Mourning and Melancholia," identification is
presented as "a satisfaction of trends of sadism and hate which relate
to an object" (14:251); in Group Psychology and theAnalysis of the
Ego, identification involves the sacrifice of the ego to the personality
of the leader. There should, itwould seem, be an important difference
between an identification that eliminates the other and one in which
the ego effaces itself.Actually, we seem to be dealing with threequite
distinct situations: (1) the identifications of melancholia which are in
large part a pretext for expressing hate toward the lost object and
making it suffer; (2) identifications (such as the little boy's pre-Oedi
pal, presumably non-ambivalent one with his father) inwhich "the ego
has enriched itselfwith the properties of the object," and (3) cases of
"fascination" or "bondage" inwhich the ego "is impoverished, it has
surrendered itself to the object, it has substituted the object for its
most important constituent." The last configuration is Freud's de
scription, inGroup Psychology, of what he calls the bondage of love,
inwhich "the object has, so to speak, consumed the ego," and it is also
relevant, if not exactly identical, to the sacrifice of the ego to the
leader inmass psychology (18:11l3).5 Identification can aim at destroy
ing the other or at sacrificing the self; it can take the other as a model
to be imitated or as an ideal towhich the ego is sacrificed, or as a hated
object to be devoured and destroyed.
Sadism and Film 13

In order to account for these different cases, Freud postulates divi

sions within the ego. Thus in the "enriching" type of identification,
the object has been "introjected" (originally Ferenczi's term) into the
ego, while in sexual idealizations and inwhat Freud calls the libidinal
constitution of groups the object has been put in the place of the sub
ject's ego ideal. Freud's attempts tomaintain these distinctions, and
the distinctions themselves, are convoluted and frequently strained.
The difficulties increase, although the reasons for them become more
evident, as identification becomes more and more important for the
psychoanalytic theory of self-constitution. The different internal
agencies described in The Ego and the Id are, so to speak, sediments of
object relationships. The ego and the super-ego in particular could be
thought of as allegorical constructs that allow Freud to organize the
subject's multiple identificatory acts into the design (in both a struc
tural and an intentional sense) of a personality. The point that is im
plied all along, without ever quite being made, is thatan object-rela
tionship may be an identification that undermines the very possibility
of a relation. The differences between love and hate for an object, or be
tween the intention to emulate and the intention to destroy, are merely
anecdotal; underlying such "vicissitudes" is a self-recognition that
problematizes the very locations of subject and object. In object-rela
tions,we recognize ourselves at a distance. The specific identifications
among which Freud so scrupulously differentiates are perhaps all
derivatives of a primary self-identification in the object.
What Lacan designates as themirror stage would of course be rele
vant to this view of object-relations. The infant,a fragmented and un
coordinated subject, anticipates with "jubilation" its future physical
coordination and unity in the specular "mirage" of itself as a totalized
and coordinated form.Momentarily immobilized in front of a mirror
"by some support, human or artificial (what in France we call a
'trotte-bibi')," the infant, "in contrast with the turbulentmovements
that the subject feels are animating him," mis-recognizes itself in an
image which is its firstexperience of a coherent identity.Mis-recog
nizes because that identity is out there, alien to the infant,whose first
experience or confirmation of self is thereby inseparable from a phe
nomenon of division or splitting.6A consequence of this is, as Jacque
line Rose puts it in commenting on Lacan' s remark that the desirabil
ity of an object is thatwhich "'leads to its confusion with the image
we carrywithin us, diversely, and more or less, structured,' . . .. access
to the object is only ever possible through an act of (self-) identifica
14 Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit

tion."We don't "move beyond" themirror stage; its self-misrecogni

tions are the pre-conditions of all object relations. Desire for the other
depends on mis-recognition of the self in the other. And, as Rose also
notes, the fact that "the subject finds or recognizes itself through an
object which simultaneously alienates it, and, hence, potentially, con
fronts it," introduces into the narcissistic love for objects a strong
dose of aggressivity toward the alien force that contains us.7 Self
recognition inevitably sets off a process of appropriation. That process
is the activity of identification. Thus we return to the idea that the de
struction of the object is narcissistically stimulating. Desire for the
other is initiated by self-(mis)recognition, and can perhaps never en
tirely abandon the aim of eliminating the other in order to return to
the solipsistic pleasure which the perception of the other originally
Neither the self nor the other can be possessed as an object. We
mis-represent the other as the self, and the self with which we seek to
identify is in fact an alienated "object." The fading away of both the
subject and the object in relations of desire is, however, not simply the
result of an epistemological misapprehension. We wish to suggest that
this double disappearance is within the relation of desire itself.That is,
itdepends-perhaps primordially depends-on the narcissistic subjec
t's erotic aim of shattering the very totality it seeks to appropriate in
the object. The self-protective and self-preservative ego of the Laca
nian Imaginary, we are suggesting, should not be conceptualized as in
trinsically distinct from the simultaneously self-shattering and self
constitutive ego of primary narcissism. The specular illusion is sus
tained by the promise of the image being shattered. Identification is
sexualized by the ecstatic loss of the appropriated identity.The con
frontational nature of object-relations is perhaps less the result of the
subject's insanely blaming the object for its own inescapable self
alienation, than the pre-condition for thatmasochistic "sympathy" in
which the subject will re-create thejouissance of self-loss.
Film, as others have pointed out, makes a seductive epistemologi
cal promise: the camera, we are led to believe, has "procured" scenes
from the real for our voyeuristic pleasure. The fulfillment of this
promise depends on the cinema's maintaining a distinction between the
viewing subjects and the objects they see. But the aesthetically un
precedented aptitude for realistic representation which theorists such
as Bazin and Kracauer saw as the special glory of film, far from guar
anteeing the distinct object's inviolability, makes it all themore ap
Sadism and Film 15

propriable. It is our inviolability that film protects in assuring us that

we can approach, know, even take possession of the real by an act of
pure apprehension inwhich we need not be implicated. Here is an ap
propriation of objects in which the subject remains untouched-an
ideal aptly figured by the protective darkness surrounding the unseen
spectator in the movie house. From this perspective, the aesthetic
medium of film would almost miraculously realize the analytic fan
tasy of a nonerotic sadism, the sadism of an affectless mastery of the
world. Film would thus allow us to repeat the ego's self-preservative
hatred of objects in the sublimated form of an epistemological con
quest. The real has been framed so thatwe may take itsmeasure; ob
jects are deployed within a field from which the viewing subject
safely outside-has been removed.
The success of this remarkable enterprise of course depends on the
control of any moves of identification, on the part of the spectator,
with the images within that sequestered field. It is not, however, a
question of doing away with identification altogether; within the pro
ject of appropriation just discussed, the trick is to have us identify
with the camera. And thismeans identifyingwith an object we do not
see-a crucial necessity if the identification is to remain affectively
neutral. Or we might identifywith a character who is a surrogate for
the camera, someone who manages to suggest that he is there not to be
looked at himself but to awaken and direct elsewhere our visual ap
petites.8 This is, however, always a risky business: can the impulse to
have ever be wholly uncontaminated by the impulse to be? Porno
graphic cinema illustrates how much can be at stake in that confusion.
How is the heterosexual male viewer to "take" the spectacle of the
woman's jouissance? His pleasure in,precisely, taking her (identifying
with the actor within the filmwho has presumably brought her to this
jouissance) can only be qualified-but perhaps also secretly intensi
fied-by the temptation of having that jouissance himself. Can the
wish to be in her body, to penetrate her, be prevented from sliding into
thewish to be otherwise by being in her body (to know what it is like
to be penetrated by himself)? Even if itwere possible to forestall all
such eroticizing identifications, there is probably, at a fundamental
evolutionary level, a kind of species-identification with other human
beings. We can never simplymove toward and possess thosemagnified
human presences on the screen. They already belong to our identity,
separating us in unmistakable ways from other forms in nature. Fur
thermore, the ideal of affectless possession can't help but be threat
16 Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit

ened by what we have described as the erotically stimulating effect of

the possessive act itself.The epistemological ambitions of cinematic
realism are open to the same criticism as the notion of a human subject
unmoved by the spectacle of the object ithas mastered. The very appeal
of those ambitions depends on our experience of an unmastered world
outside of cinema, and ifmastery of the real in film is a sublimated
triumph of the self-preservative ego against an invasive world, it is
perhaps also an opportunity to re-live, this time through identifica
tion, thejouissance of having been invaded.
Film-makers seem always to have understood this, for the vast
majority of films-at least in the tradition of narrative realism-al
low us to enjoy that identification even while implicitly assuring us
that the invaded object is not where we are. And this assurance is not
given through reminders thatwhat we are seeing are images of the real
and not the real itself-that is, through reminders that identification
in the cinema is doubly imaginary, at once theprojection of an image on
the part of the viewing subject and the reception or lodging of that im
age not within a body but within another image. Rather, cinema pro
tects us from becoming fixed inmasochistic identifications by themo
bility of points of view. Thrillers are of course especially good at this.
If they allow us to share the victim's terrified anticipation of attack,
our position is fundamentally that of the approaching attacker. We
can't, after all, see the victim unless we move away from his or her
point of view; we are the invisible and approaching camera which can
not help but metonymically "catch" the identity of the attacker. The
two positions of victim and attacker are condensed into a single
(particularly troubling and particularly satisfying) identification
when the victim whose perspective we are invited to share is, unlike us,
unaware thathe or she is about to become a victim. The viewer's terror
is then nowhere in the film except as the effect of an act that has not
yet taken place (an effectwhich may itself never take place if, for ex
ample, the victim passes without transition from happy ignorance to
death.) Here we are feeling along with the character what the character
is in fact not feeling, and our gratuitous terrorcould be thought of as
themasochistic displacement of the attacker's sadistic certainty that
his blow will soon be delivered.
But we are almost never condemned to a single point of view, and
the episodes of affective turbulence throughwhich we pass in viewing
films are neutralized by a more fundamental identification with the
Neutralizedbecause thereis nothingbehind that
filmingeye itself.
Sadism and Film 17

eye; itsmovements are motivated by the teleology of the eye. From

this teleological perspective, visuality, far from being problematized
by the projections, the frictions, the correspondences that blur the
boundaries between the seer and what is seen, is the inescapable destiny
of the entire visible field. The governing myth of film (a myth which
particular films naturally can and do contest) is the simple but radical
proposition that theworld can be seen. If theworld is there,we might
almost say, it is in order to allow us to see it.To identifywith the
camera is to transcend all the other identifications which the camera
has led us tomake, for it is to identifywith an agency of untroubled
appropriation, an agency constituted by nothing but its aptitude for
registering the visible. And the easy mobility of the camera rescues us
from those eroticizing self-identifications that thwart projects of
mastery over theworld. The distinction between subject and object is
reinforced by the reduction of the subject to an optical identity.9The
insentient camera is the ideal subject (perhaps the only conceivable
subject) of the affectless sadism of step one in the process outlined in
"Instincts and Their Vicissitudes": it can be shattered neither by ex
cessive stimuli from the external world nor by its own identifications
with the agitated movements it records.
Why might a filmmaker choose to abrogate this extraordinary
privilege? To do so would be almost like rejecting his medium. He
would be refusing that confident moving toward the world which
movies generally invite us to enjoy. Such a refusal would naturally
bring the viewer into a different relation to film from those we have
just been describing. Itwould not be a question of the filmmaker com
ing down on the side of either identification (and a blurring of the
boundaries between subject and object) or affectlessmastery (and a re
inforcement of those boundaries), and somehow eliminating the other
of these two terms from the viewer's response. For they are, as we have
suggested, complementary responses: affectless sadism is the fantas
matic (and to a certain degree, self-preservative) repudiation of the
subject's masochistic complicity with its self-dispersing and self
shattering identification with objects. If identification and self
(mis)recognition are inescapable elements in the subject's responses to
the external world, the interestingquestion arises of whether a type of
identification can be imagined which would not be reducible to either a
sexualizing shattering of the ego or the self-alienating illusions of the
Lacanian Imaginary. To ask this question is also to speculate about the
possibilityof identifications
unaccountedfor by psychoanalysis
18 Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit

(which has been themost important source for our thinking about the
identificatoryprocess). And more specifically, might therebe a type of
narcissistic identification in our responses to art for which neither
psychoanalytic theories of narcissism nor psychoanalytic approaches to
art have been wholly able to account?

We will try to propose some answers to these questions by look

ing, firstat Alain Resnais' 1955 documentary Night and Fog, and then
at his 1976 filmProvidence. The very notion of a documentary takes
for granted, and implicitly promotes, themyth of a distance between
the viewing subject and the documented subject. To make a documen
tary film on a political theme is to obey both an educational and a
moral imperative: thework will at once inform an uninformed public
and, it is hoped, raise itsmoral consciousness. Given these imperatives,
towork on a documentary of past events is, of necessity, to engage in
archival work. For the spectator to have that accurate view of the past

which, it is assumed, is necessary for informed choices in the present,

the filmmaker must get the facts right and, ideally, will present as
comprehensive a view of the documented field as possible. Objectivity
in the documentary would be a form of political passion: in "speaking
for themselves," the scrupulously researched facts will inspire intense
political interest on the part of the viewer. The latter's neutrality and
distance from the subject are primary assumptions governing thedocu
mentary form; and, it is furtherassumed, only by aesthetically dupli
cating that neutrality and distance will the filmmaker somehow re
veal his own, and give birth to the viewer's, politically committed

These imperatives would appear to be served, inNight and Fog, by

Resnais' clear demarcations between thepresent and thepast. Black and
white clips fromWorld War II photographic and film archives alter
nate with images in color of abandoned concentration campsites today.
Thus a perspective on thepast is inscribed within the film itself;Night
and Fog is constantly reminding us, in visual terms,of the point from
which we are looking back at these now fairly remote documents of
past terror.But there are moments in the filmwhen we can't be sure of
whether we are being given a sequence from the archives or whether
Resnais has filmically reconstructed (instead of simply re-composing
already filmed)moments from thepast. We are thinkingof such scenes
Sadism and Film 19

as the arrival, in a dense night fog, of a trainload of prisoners at a con

centration camp, as well as the secret departures of trucks from the
camp in the middle of the night, scenes filmed in a sepia-like
"compromise" between color and black-and-white, and whose photo
graphic texture is closer to thatof the present-day scene than to thatof
the documents. The documentary temptation is of course to find out
when and how such scenes were filmed, but such informationwould be
irrelevant to our experience of them, the experience of a temporal in
determinacy. We are no longer certain of where the past stops and the
viewing present begins. The very distinction presumably meant to
serve documentary clarity can, then, be used in order to put into ques
tion the distinctness of the past.
Furthermore, if at timeswe are thusmade towonder what it is we
are looking at (a film clip from the archives or a scene filmed by Res
nais), Night and Fog, for all the smoothness of its visual presentation,
is constantly setting up obstacles to undisturbed vision. The relation
among the film's three constitutive elements-the images, theman's
voice narrating the film, and themusic-are especially complex and
disorienting. There are discrepancies between what we see and what we
hear, unemphatic discrepancies thatnonetheless have the cumulative ef
fect of irritatingour senses. The film begins with a left-to-righttrack
ing shot of a field with a village in the background. During thismove
ment the voice begins an enumeration of all the ordinary things you
might expect to find in such a tranquil landscape (a prairie with crops,
a road traveled by peasants and by couples, a church tower), with the
assertion thateven such a landscape "can lead quite simply to a concen
tration camp." But we arrive there just before the enumeration ends:
the voice is still describing "un paysage tranquille" when the camera
reaches the camp's barbed wire fences and, in thebackground, one of its
watchtowers. A momentary discrepancy, and yet also a raccord: the
church tower and thewatch-tower have a roughly similar form.
Later on, a forward tracking shot takes us along the railroad tracks
(as they are today) along which trains carried prisoners to the camps.
The movement is smooth and uninterrupted, while the voice follows a
more jaggedrhythm:
itstops,beginsagain,all thewhiledescribingthe
violent agitation in those dark crowded wagons, the bodies thrown
from the train along theway. The next scene evokes the arrival of the
trains at the camp, but Resnais' mise en sc?ne (and there is one: the
choice is between Nazi theatrics and Night and Fog's theatricality,not
between theater and something more "natural") hardly evokes that
20 Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit

scene: we see no human presences, and the camp's buildings are

glimpsed, almost bucolically, through trees. More generally, in the
first half of the film, smoothly executed tracking shots of empty
fields or of dormitories no longer in use stand in contrast to a narra
tive of past violence; toward the end ofNight and Fog, the discrepancy
is reversed and also becomes even more shocking. A light, almost en
gaging music accompanies (although no word could be less appropri
ate) such scenes as a trayof severed heads or thedumping of emaciated
corpses-as if theywere municipal garbage or smashed car fenders
into an enormous ditch.
What should we be concentrating on? The images, the voice, and
themusic are frequently sending us disparate messages, pulling us in
different directions. If the bouncy music doesn't make what we see any
less unbearable, it does disorient our seeing by calling attention to it
self.We are in danger of becoming as conscious of the different direc
tions inwhich voice and image, or image and music, are pulling us as we
are of what the voice is saying or what the image is showing us. Typi
cally, for example, right after the first tracking shot from left to
rightwhich "should" end with a view of the camp thatgives the lie to
an ordinary, peaceful landscape, we move to a scene of soldiers march
ing from right to left. It is as if the image of the camp, after all, didn't
really require thatwe stop at it. Indeed, it risks becoming merely one
of the end points in a double movement (left to right, right to left), in
a kind of dance with which the filmmaker at once charms and exasper
ates us.

In Night and Fog, the brilliant montage for which Resnais is

rightly famous becomes politically suspect. What are we to make of
such ingenious transitions as the one just mentioned, or the sequence,
early in the film, of the remark, "Plus aucun pas" (no one walks in
these camps anymore, literally: no longer any step here), a few bars of
drumbeats on the sound track, and an image of marching German sol
diers? Such raccords are clever, but do we want to be thataware of the
filmmaker's cleverness (should we be aware of it?) in a documentary
about Nazi concentration camps?
There may, however, be another way of looking at all this. Some
thing is being inhibited in our viewing, something we naturally expect
to get from a film, and especially from a documentary film. Ifwe are
so often being turned away or distracted from the image, how can we
learn anything about the film's subject? We are sensitized toResnais'
compositional talents, but that is obviously not the same thing as be
Sadism and Film 21

ing sensitized to the horrors of Nazism. But the more fundamental

question is:What is Nazism, or, more relevantly, how can what we
call Nazism be represented? Night and Fog suggests that theremay be
no "object" of representation-by which we do not mean that it ever
puts into question the existence of the camps and themass murders,
but rather that it suggests thatwanting a documentary knowledge of
Nazism may be a way of refusing to confront our implication in it.10
If this is the case, then the filmmaker's obligation-his moral and
political obligation-is to prevent the viewer from giving an account
of the subject being "documented." All of Resnais' compositional, or
aestheticizing, strategies are designed to inhibit any account-giving, or
any story-making, on the part of the spectator. Even the smoothmobil
ity of Resnais' expert tracking techniques works in this direction.
While, for example, in a lateral trackingmovement the camera appears
to float down the aisle between the crowded rows of empty bunks in
one of the camp's dormitories, the narrator tells us about the sleepless
nights in these dormitories, the sudden intrusions by S.S. officers.
There is almost something soothing about themovement, and yet its
very uninterruptedness deprives us of the leisure of visually recon
structing the narrative we are listening to.We are, in other words, be
ing deprived of the time we would need to provide the spoken text
with its visual complement, to complete or immobilize its sense. And
themovement never stops. There is the false promise at the end of the
dormitory aisle of a point of rest: we see part of thewall as a pinkish
figure, doubling the screen's frame, toward which the camera appears
to be leading us. But before we get there, the tracking gives way to a
pan to the rightwhich scans the air vents before leaving the dormitory.
Resnais' techniquemakes us into cinematic deportees.
But ifNazism can't be contained, or even located, within a story,
where is it?And what is this historical "object"? Everything thatwe
have been discussing so far-the blurring of past and present, the dis
crepancies between what we see and hear, the ingenuities of Resnais'
montage, the failure of the camera's trackingmovements to organize
the visual field into a narrativizable totality-changes the nature of
cinematic absorption. We are being asked to replace our interest and
pleasure in looking with an interest, and possibly a pleasure, in the
procedures by which our looking is being disoriented. By not allowing
us to become absorbed in its images, Night and Fog draws our attention
to its own making, an attention which is necessarily an absorption in
the vicissitudes of our seeing and our hearing. To watch this film is, in
22 Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit

largemeasure, to be turned away from it, or at least turned away from

its narrativizable content and toward its aestheticizing procedures.
And this displacement is identical to the film's political morality.
Unable to dissociate what we see from an acute and troubled sense of
how our seeing is being disoriented, we are, unexpectedly, in theNazi
past. We are no longer the viewing subject conscious ofmaking an ef
fort to see and to grasp (both to understand and to take possession of)
the filmic object. The images, the narrative, and themusic ofNight and
Fog have become part of our perceptual movement, of our perceptual
being, now. Far from having towarn us, in order tomake his political
message effective, thatwe may have the same impulses as theNazis
(and that this document is therefore relevant to our own societies),
Resnais has made the images of Nazism an active part of our contempo
raneity.We move within them easily. These images, we might say, fig
ure theNazi past without exactly representing it.That past is already
being repeated within our sensory collaboration with this film, a col
laboration which Resnais encourages us to feel as a kind of self-identi
fication, and, consequently, as an inescapable complicity.
We can't escape from our complicity with that past by claiming,
perhaps rightly, thatwe will never build those camps, forNight and
Fog teaches us how easy it is to circulate within images of terror.Res
nais' film is characterized by a sensual formalism which is itspolitical
seriousness. It answers the falsely naive question: How could they
have acted so monstrously, so inhumanely? by suggesting that the
monstrous is not that difficult a move for humans tomake, that it is
not separated from the human by a gap (incomprehensibly crossed at
certain moments in history), thatwe can perhaps even glide into it
with the ease of an aesthetic displacement. And it is precisely because
of the ease that there can be no end to the horror. The horror has no ra
tional or temporal boundaries; its images are always being found again
in other "scenes" of human experience; it is, so to speak, one of themo
tifs in a universal montage with no beginning and no ending. (And the
word 'fin"-it's a small but important decision on Resnais' part-is
absent from the end ofNight and Fog.)
The enormous shock delivered byNight and Fog is, then, identical
to its playful formalism. We are caught off guard by the inaccurate
replications of Resnais' raccords. The mention of the church-tower in
a tranquil landscape makes the concentration camp watch-tower dis
turbinglyfamiliar; the ominous steps of German soldiers echo an inof
fensive musical beat. The very frivolity of the couplings is the film's
Sadism and Film 23

warning. The realities of Nazism, like all other realities, participate in

the universal communication of forms and sounds. To assent to them
may, at least in part, involve nothing more sinister than letting our
selves be carried along by pleasurable mobilities. But what could be
more dangerous? Night and Fog awakens a profound shame in its view
ers, not because they "took part" in these atrocities, but because it
makes them see their vulnerability to the disguised similarities in the
most irreducible differences. What we morally abhor is not always as
fundamentally different, for the experience of our senses, as what we
judge to be morally acceptable. Nothing could be more different from
the complicitous raccords of Leni Riefenstahl in Triumph of theWill.
Her visual linkages-between, for example, the unfurling of flags and
the "unfurling" of flames from torches held in the air-have none of
the discordant or jarring quality of Resnais' differential repetitions. In
Resnais, the sameness within difference is politically and morally
traumatizing; in Riefenstahl, differences are smoothed over and the
camera seduces us into a sensual fascination with repetition, thus sug
gesting-to calm our fears-that Nazism is everywhere. In Resnais,
that suggestion shocks us; inRiefenstahl, itpacifies us. The inaccuracy
ofNight and Fog's replications have an ironywholly absent from Tri
umph of theWill. To live ironically alert to the abhorrent reappear
ances of images and sounds we otherwise have no reason to resist is,
Resnais suggests, an effective mode of political consciousness. For it
may initiate us into forms of resistance (still to be elaborated) no
longer based on the comforting and politically defeating denial of our
complicity in that which we must resist. To see our complicity in
Nazism is not to find Nazism more tolerable. On the contrary. It
should, firstof all, make the struggle against such death-worshipping
impulses seem all the more imperative. Even more importantly, it
may, at last, teach us that to destroy the other is not to extirpate from
ourselves the evil thathas-or so we like to claim-made of the other
the object of our own appetite fordestruction.

Unable to dominate what we are seeing and hearing, we are, in

viewing a Resnais film, compelled to repeat its compositional mobil
ity. In another brilliant work, Providence (1976)-Resnais' only film
inEnglish, with a scenario by David Mercer-Resnais views thismo
bility from the point of view of the composing artist. In a sense, Prov
24 Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit

idence, while wholly devoid of any aesthetic pronouncements or dis

cussions, is Resnais' most important theoretical statement on his own
cinematic achievement. The film is a work of great violence, a violence
not mitigated by the fact that its anecdotal violence ismerely part of
the fiction being composed, during the night of great physical suffer
ing, by its principle character, Clive Langham. The dying Langham
(played by John Gielgud) is constructing a scenario based largely on
the imagined attempt of his sympathetic daughter-in-law to escape

Alain Resnais, Providence

from the psychological tyranny of her icily logical lawyer husband

(Claude, Clive's son). The main chance for Sonya's escape is Kevin
Woodford (Ellen Burstyn and David Warner), whom Claude (Dirk
Bogarde) has just unsuccessfully prosecuted for themurder of an old
man, who seemed, in a mysterious forest scene inwhich several sol
diers appeared to be hunting him down, to be turning into a werewolf
and who had begged Kevin to shoot him. Sonya is drawn to Kevin,
whose mildness is hardly ruffled by Claude's sarcastic attacks, al
Sadism and Film 25

though he and Sonya never quite begin an affair. This trio becomes a
quartet with the arrival of Helen Wiener (Elaine Stritch), presumably
a former lover of Claude. From the very beginning of the film, it is
hardly any secret thateverything is being invented by Clive. The whole
thing is frequently presented as a first draft, with scenes that are
erased just after having begun, or re-played to get a more satisfactory
version. Gielgud's off-voice provides a running commentary on his in
ventions, which also include largely unexplained scenes of collective
violence. There are explosions that are apparently manifestations of
some terroristviolence in the city, and we see the police rounding up
people and herding them into an enormous stadium. The fictive nature
of all these events is underlined by such things as the cardboard back
drop of beach and sea in scenes thatare meant to suggest a terrace over
looking the sea in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, a terrace the characters enter
and leave through a door on the other side of which is a house in a
(probably European) city. Characters also enter a building with a neo
classical facade and an International Style interior. In one scene, it is
even Clive's voice that comes out of Sonya's mouth for a moment.
When Helen firstopens the door of her hotel room, it leads directly to
a corridor; when she opens it to let inClaude, there is, to our surprise, a
staircase leading down to the door. Kevin's brother, a famous foot
baller, jogs through several scenes, including the one inHelen's hotel

And yet, in spite of all these signs of a storybeing improvised as it

is being presented to us, we may be somewhat surprised,when we move
to the "real" lives of these characters inAct III, at the discrepancies
between those lives and Clive's fictions. Clive's scriptmay be a very
rough, as yet unwritten firstdraft, and yet, for all its jagged edges and
improbabilities, the relations among the characters are filmed with a
realistic intensity obviously designed tomake us believe in them and
see them as recomposed but accurate images of Clive's family. The fi
nal long sequence takes place the next day on Clive's estate; it is his
78th birthday, and his children (Claude and Sonya, and his illegitimate
son Kevin who is an astrophysicist living inGeneva) have come to cel
ebrate itwith him. Some of the tensions suggested in the fiction are
discernible, but, on the surface at any rate,Sonya and Claude's conjugal
happiness is unclouded, and there is no hint of anything going on, or
even having gone on, between Sonya and Kevin. After a night of
slightly delirious novelizing, Clive is returned to his real family. Or
26 Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit

The answer seems to be that itdoesn't make any difference. Res

nais goes out of his way to discourage us from structuring the film as a
contrast between Clive's fiction and the presumed reality of the final
act. The birthday party stays within the bounds of verisimilitude in a
way the rest of the film has not, and yet its heavily cliched nature
points to its fictitiousness. This "step into reality," with its syrupy,
almost postcard effect of a beautifully luxuriant nature (birds sing,
dogs romp on the grounds of this gorgeous estate, the camera moves
slowly along masses of excruciatingly beautiful trees in bloom) is
obviously as "constructed" as everything that has preceded it. Sonya,
tripping across the lawn in her incongruous heels, Claude in his Lib
erty-print shirtand cardigan, the unruffled sweetness of all three chil
dren hardly constitutes a convincing "reality effect"; they-like the
benign nature surrounding them-just seem to be part of another sce
nario. How could it, in any case, be otherwise? Resnais' emphasis on the
cliches of nature and psychology in the final act of Providence is a way
of demystifying any claims his own cinematic fiction might be
thought to be making to distinguish between fiction and reality. That
distinction, in art, is irrelevant. Much more interesting is the film's
implicit speculative interest in its own fictionalizing process. The
principal question thatProvidence raises about those processes is: to
what extent does, and can, the artist contain his inventions?
Providence is under great pressure, both centrifugally and cen
tripetally. Clive, who presents himself as the free-wheeling
(unpredictable, heavy drinking, womanizing) opposite of his cold prim
son, nevertheless writes a script of extraordinary tightness. His fre
quent loss of control over that script shouldn't blind us to theClaude
like nature of its language. There is hardly any dialogue inProvidence;
characters come together in order to deliver, more or less at each other,
sententious aphoristic monologues. The aphoristic speech in Provi
dence is itself a form of violence, a violence in which, Resnais sug
gests, art is always, necessarily, complicit. In a sense, Claude, whom
Clive remembers as having searched for a moral language thatwould
be "as absolute in itsway as a logical proposition," merely provides
the psychological anecdote that heightens the visibility of this reso
lute control over language, a control manifestly designed in his case to
dominate others (more generally, to dominate the real) by containing
or imprisoning them (or it)within his speech. But Sonya and Helen are
equally sententious, and they are of course all a novelist's creatures.
The appealing side of theGielgud character is deceptive, for through
Sadism and Film 27

him Resnais appears to be indicting art itself-and more particularly,

film-for encouraging us to feel that the real can be contained within a
form,measured, and controlled. Itwould of course endanger this pro
ject of containment were the characters to address one another, thus
risking the frictions and fragmenting interruptions of dialogue. Their
safety lies in their unmoved speech, speech through which, ideally,
they-and through them the artist-would enjoy thatmastery over
the real aimed for by the affectless sadism described in "Instincts and
Their Vicissitudes."
But something else is also happening. Because Clive is dying, the
aphoristic mode could be thoughtof as his defence against self-dissolu
tion.Death inProvidence is imagined as an explosive dispersal, a terri
fying breaking out of the "frame" of the self, a centrifugal blast into
nature, perhaps into the cosmos. Indeed, in many frequently ironic
ways the film is "about" a return to nature. The old man growing
tufts of hair on his palms and his nose-about whom, significantly,
Clive never speaks although he too is of course his invention-is per
haps becoming a werewolf, transgressing species boundaries,
"returning" to a state of indistinct boundaries between the human and
the non-human. There is a good deal of talk about astronauts inProvi
dence, and Clive, during one of his attacks of excruciating pain, half
jokingly admonishes his dead wife Molly, if she is "out there in the
cosmic dark somewhere," not to wait for him (he is, he half-heartedly
asserts, "not coming.") The dark and foreboding forest throughwhich
we move at the beginning is balanced by the colorful profusion of veg
etation on Clive's estate in the final sequence, but the camera's linger
ing over thatpeaceful luxuriance can obviously not erase our memory
of all themore sinister versions of a return to nature throughout the
film. Providence sets the elegant art of a formulaic speech against the
threatof a biological dissolution, of a kind of personal, social and even
cosmic apocalypse thatwould bring the person, theworld and the uni
verse back to an untraceable, boundary-free storm of undifferentiated
There is, however, a milder version of this centrifugal mobility,
one inwhich themovement away from a dominating and immobilizing
center is narcissistically vivifying rather thatmerely self-destructive.
The aphoristic speech of Providence, the somewhat cloying, Holly
wood-type music intended, itwould seem, tomake us "stick" to that
speech, the camera's elegantly designed pans and tracking through
forests,down city streets, and around Clive's estate are countered by a
28 Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit

whole series of bad fits. These are frequently comical; it is as ifwe

were watching a sudden failure or stumbling on the part of an
exquisitely if self-consciously coordinated body. We have mentioned
some of the bad fits as signals of Clive's compositional activity.
Resnais manages simultaneously to give to his characters the kind of
psychological and moral plausibility theymight have in a very differ
ent kind of film, and to remind us continuously that they are nothing
more than a dying writer's fictions. These reminders draw us into the
novelistic process, if only to correct Clive's "mistakes." The film
subtly, and somewhat treacherously, gives us an enormous amount of
work to do. The outside and inside of a building don't match. The
travel agent sitting at her desk opposite Claude and Kevin is speaking
to Claude, but the eye-match is off: she is looking not at him but just
to his right. The visually soothing tracking movements along city
streets that accompany Claude's drive to Helen's hotel are actually
composed of bits and pieces from different cities: Brussels, Antwerp,
Louvain, Albany, Providence, Rhode Island. And Sonya shouldn't
speak inClive's voice, just as Kevin, sitting alongside Sonya on a park
bench, shouldn't, as itwere, be saddled with Clive's erection. All of
Providence's "off' scenes do a kind of violence to the film's verbal
and visual smoothness, but they also modulate and even provide some
comic relief to the biological, social and cosmic violence that threatens
to obliterate not only smooth speech, but the very frames and bound
aries-in the person, in society, and in the universe-that are the origi
nal conditions of possibility for the very emergence of speech and of
visuality themselves.
Between, then, the immobilizing violence of an affectless sadism
being practiced by the characters, the camera, and the viewer, and the
prospect of the literal destruction of all those self-contained subjects,
there is an opportunity for corrective play. But of course nothing can
really be corrected. The film ismade, and permanently struckwith
or blessed with?-its bad fits.Resnais' apparently self-sacrificial ges
ture of incorporating directorial "mistakes" into his film and thereby
encouraging us to become a new site of production coexists with the
film's unmovable resistance to all our remedial efforts.But, unable to
re-do Clive's bad fits (which are Resnais' final choices), we should be
led to question the validity of the good fit itself. If the characters'
controlled self-containment is belied by their stumbling into the
wrong speech or thewrong building or thewrong city, our failure to
rescue them from these blunders may inspire us to explore other forms
Sadism and Film 29

of intelligibility which the film may also be proposing. It is as if

Resnais had calculated certain failures of connection in order to reform
our sense of what constitutes a connection.
Clive's failures at narrative construction, for example, should
make us listen to his character's speech not as a more or less accurate
hold on what is taking place, but rather for its harmonic relationality.
No longer an index of truth,speech can be listened to for itsmusical
play. Resnais has spoken of his fascination with the voices of the play
ers he chose forProvidence: he felt he had at his disposal "a quintet in
which Ellen Burstyn would be the violin, Dirk Bogarde the piano,
David Warner the viola, Gielgud the cello and Elaine Stritch the con
tra-bass."11 Resnais' complex orchestration of his characters' voices
and his especially inventive use of a non-narrativemontage are implic
itly theorized inProvidence as the aesthetic benefit of death. About to
end his own life story,Clive Langham both starts a story and sends all
story-telling to the devil. For his suffering body keeps interrupting
the narrative, and the unexpected consequence of these agonizing inter
ruptions is that thewriter takes on a uniquely aesthetic identity and,
perhaps for the first time, enters art. The transition from a phenomenal
self to an aesthetic self is at once shattering and comical. Or, perhaps
more exactly, such a transition somewhat undermines the seriousness
of death itself. Having moved from a world of personalities to the
universe of formal correspondences, the decidedly non-mystical Clive
Langham, thanks to the coercive grace of Resnais' filmic translation of
his new and last fiction, is himself trans-lated.He ismoved beyond the
boundaries of his body and his all too familiar autobiography to the
mobile, depersonalizing, always provisional definitions of cinematic
harmonies and raccords. Let's even imagine that the outbursts of
laughter thatpunctuate Clive's groans of pain express the narcissistic
pleasure of being born, at themoment of death, as an impersonal self,
as nothing more than the intersectionwhere the harmonies and images
generated by his fictionmeet. And Resnais, by both awakening and
frustrating our impulse to correct Clive's faulty narrative sequences,
also offers us, at least for the duration of his film, the pleasures of a
self-absorption inwhich the self is erased.
Providence's absorption in its own making, and the spectator's
participation in thatprocess, suggest an answer to a question we raised
earlier. Our reconstruction of the compositional work of a Resnais
film-a reconstruction nearly all his work compels us to engage in
30 Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit

creates a type of identification reducible to neither the self-alienating

identifications of theLacanian Imaginary nor the self-shattering iden
tifications pointed to in certain Freudian texts.More exactly, the self
alienation and self-dispersal inherent in Freudian and Lacanian rela
tions of desire are inaccurately replicated in our participation as view
ers in Resnais' compositional work. The identificatory process that
blocks epistemological mastery is "raised" above the purely sexual
identifications outlined in "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes." But, far
from transcending the sexual, the sublimating process continues to be
invested with sexual energies, although these energies are now de
tached from sexual desires. We take the sign of that investment to be
the dual nature of the viewer's participation in the film-at once self
reflexive and self-shattering.The unified ego thatmight have mastered
the film is now scattered within the film, and the ego is reduced to (or
ennobled by ... ) a consciousness of itself as themoves of a cinematic
composition. It has become nothing more personal, nothing more au
thoritative, than a reflexive (and perhaps reflective) awareness of an
aestheticizing self-displacement. Given thismutation in the nature of
the ego, the question of sadism becomes, if only provisionally, some
what irrelevant. For what we have discovered, in answering the very
firstquestion posed in this essay, is that sadism itself is a form of mo
bility, one that is far from exhausting the human subject's possibili
ties of movement within theworld.
As a result of the self-displacements performed in our watching a
Resnais film,we are also led to re-enact what might be called our ex
tensive identity in theworld, an identity forgotten or repressed by the
authoritative self intenton reinforcing its boundaries in order to know
better thatwhich lies beyond them. Self-absorption inResnais is an ac
tivitywhich re-places us in the world. There is a moment in Provi
dence unnoticed, so to speak, by Clive, but which appears to be
Resnais' way of signaling to us what Clive has become in his produc
tive dying, and, more importantly,what we are. When he arrives at
Helen's hotel, Claude pulls down his car window half-way, and for a
second or two we see part of Claude's body transformed into the
branches of a nearby tree reflected in the car's window. But it is like an
x-ray: perhaps because of the suddenness with which the tree's reflec
tion replaces Claude, its branches also appear to be his network of
veins and arteries. That reflection, then, opens him up-both as if he
was abruptly cut open (as in the scene involuntarily, obsessively
Sadism and Film 31

evoked by Clive of an old man's emaciated corpse being dissected) and

as ifhe were joined once again-ripped away from his self-imprisoning
aphorisms-to the world. That is the identitywe re-live in actively
collaborating with Resnais' elaborate system of cinematic linkages. In
that identity,we belong once again to nature, having retreated from
our nameable rich selves to our shifting positions within an untrace
able network of forms in communication.
Clive Langham's life is already written. The text is full, there is
almost no time or space for anything else to be added-somewhat in
the same way as a Resnais film can seem almost smotheringly dense
with the signs of its creator's compositional intentions.What could be
stranger, then, than Clive's assertion at the end of Providence (an as
sertion that echoes words said by one of Trotsky's young admirers in
Stavisky) that "nothing is written"? After all, it has been written and
it is all over: Clive's life,Resnais' film. And yet to have written the
story, to have come to its ending or toknow, with Beckettian dejection,
that all human stories are from the very start closed books, may have
very little to do with the traces we make as we follow the script. For
at any moment thatwindow may drop, and the veins so carefully pro
tected by our skin are, once again, as in a sense they always were, out
there, circulating.

1 The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of

Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey, 24 vols. (London: Hogarth
Press, 1953-1974) 14:133. Further volume and page references to
Freud in the Standard Edition are given in the text.
2 Bersani, The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1986), 87-88.
3 In 1913 Freud spoke of this "precocity" as part of "the disposi
tion to obsessional neurosis," while also recognizing that "some
degree of this precocity of ego development [is] typical of human
nature." Freud, "The Disposition to Obsessional Neurosis," The
Standard Edition, 12:325.
4 Bersani, The Culture of Redemption (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard
University Press, 1990), 40.
5 Not identical because the ego is not "consumed" inmass psychol
ogy; rather, in what Freud calls a "primary group," ".. .. a num
ber of individuals .. . have put one and the same object in the
place of their ego ideal and have consequently identified them
32 Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit

selves with one another in their ego" (Standard Edition, 18:116;

emphasis in original).
6 Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, tr.Alan Sheridan (New York:
W.W. Norton and Company, 1977), 1-2.
7. Jacqueline Rose, Sexuality in theField of Vision (London: Verso,
1986), 174.
8 Christian Metz analyzed, in structuralist-psychoanalytic terms,
the viewing subject's identification with the camera and conse
quent delusion of perceptual mastery in an article first published
in French in 1975 and translated into English in The Imaginary
Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema, tr. Celia Britton
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982). For a concise and
telling critique of thismuch quoted essay, see Rose, Sexuality in
the Field of Vision, 194-97, as well as Chapter 8. Feminist criti
cism has pointed out how regularly the surrogate for the camera is
a man, and the reality to be appropriated is a woman's body.
9. For a brief history of the development of these filmic techniques
that reinforced an "ideology of the visible," see Jean-Louis Co
molli, "Machines of the Visible," in The Cinematic Apparatus,
ed. Teresa de Lauretis and Stephen Heath (London: The Macmillan
Press, 1980), 121-42.
In a forthcoming, important and original investigation, Ros
alind Krauss (The Optical Unconscious, to be published by the
MIT Press), studies works by, among others, Picasso and Marcel
Duchamp that contest modernism's construction of a field of
clearly delineated and rational visuality (with itsmyth of the vi
sual as transparent to itself). Perhaps Krauss' most interesting
move is to locate the threat to the self-sufficiency and trans
parency of vision from within vision itself, from a "place" where
there is a "force transgressive of those very notions of
'distinctions' upon which a modernist optical logic depends."
Duchamp's Large Glass, for example, may take us to "the thresh
old of desire in vision itselfwithin the opacity of the organs and
the invisibility of the unconscious." Finally, Lacan attacks the il
lusion thatperception can be the basis of a scientific knowledge
and appropriation of objects in space. "What is at issue in geomet
rical perspective is simply themapping of space, not sight." For
Lacan, "the dialectic of desire" disorganizes the perceptual field.
Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, ed.
Jacques-Alain Miller, tr.Alan Sheridan (New York: W.W. Nor
ton and Company, 1981), 86 and 89. The entire section "Of the
Gaze as Objet Petit a" would be relevant here.
Sadism and Film 33

a The questions raised in this paragraph?questions to which we

propose some tentative answers in our discussions of Night and
Fog and, in the forthcoming book from which this essay is taken,
ofMuriel?have been frequently raised in recent years. Particu
larly in the context of the "historians' debate" in Germany, the
following issues have been extensively addressed: Can we make
historical narratives around Nazism? Can the memory of the
Holocaust be salvaged? Was Nazism absolutely unique, or can it
be compared to other historical events? For a good history of this
debate, see Charles S. Maier, The Unmasterable Past: History,
Holocaust, and German National Identity (Cambridge, Mass. and
London: Harvard University Press, 1988.) Also, Saul Friedlander
has recently edited an interesting collection of essays on these
questions: Probing theLimits of Representation: Nazism and the
"Final Solution" (Cambridge, Mass.and London: Harvard Univer
sity Press, 1992.) Against the various efforts somehow to pre
serve conceptual thinking when evoking Auschwitz, to make
Nazism discursively intelligible, Jean-Fran?ois Lyotard has been
the strongest voice arguing for Nazism as a "dismantling of the
bastion of signification," and forAuschwitz as thatwhich "is not
presentable under the rules of knowledge." (Lyotard, Driftworks
(New York: Semiotexte, 1984), 36, and The Diff?rend, tr.G. Van
Den Abbeele (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
1988.), 57 But it should perhaps be a question neither of "saving
the concepts" nor of proclaiming the "unrepresentability" of the
Nazi horrors. The latter are in fact sufficiently representable;
they are, we will argue, always being figured and re-figured, but
not as a story or within a discourse. The Nazi concentration camps
(and, inMuriel, the atrocities of theAlgerian War) continuously
reappear in themost banal aspects of daily life. Furthermore, Eric
Santner has recently spoken of a mode ofmemory analogous to the
productively inaccurate memories envisaged by Resnais in such
films as Mon Oncle d'Am?rique and Muriel. Santner sees this
memory as an occasion for postwar generations tomourn "lost
opportunities" inNazi history, to discover "traces of another his
tory, another past, thatmight have been but was not" and that
"still remains available as a sort of energy potential that contin
ues to dwell in history." (Santner, Stranded Objects: Mourning,
Memory, and Film inPostwar Germany (Ithaca and London: Cor
nell University Press, 1990), 152-53.
34 Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit

11 An interview on Providence, inRobert Benayoun, Alain Resnais

arpenteur de Vimaginaire: De Hiroshima ? M?lo (Paris: Stock,
1980), 243.