30 March 2007

The Joys of Cruelty

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 10:17 am

Here’s a Nietzschean deconstruction of justice from The Genealogy of Morals (1887). Nietzsche begins with the widespread assumption that legal justice is a way of balancing the scales: the one who breaks the law becomes indebted to society and must make recompense in proportion to the severity of the violation. But when you look at it you have to wonder why, for example, a set duration of jail time should be deemed a just repayment for burglary or fraud. Nietzsche wondered too:

The pat and seemingly natural notion (so natural that it has often been used to account for the notion of justice itself) that the criminal deserves to be punished because he could have acted otherwise, is in fact a very late and refined form of human reasoning; whoever thinks it can be found in archaic law grossly misconstrues the morality of uncivilized man. For an unconscionably long time culprits were not punished because they were felt to be responsible for their actions; not, that is, on the assumption that only the guilty were to be punished; rather, they were punished the way parents still punish their children, out of rage at some damage suffered, which the doer must pay for. Yet this rage was both moderated and modified by the notion that for every damage there could somehow be found an equivalent, by which that damage might be compensated — if necessary in the pain of the doer.

Nietzsche’s book is genealogical: here he attributes the origins of an economic calculus equating violation and pain to the beginnings of contractual relationships between creditor and debtor. In the olden days people hadn’t yet built selves that conformed to the nature of contractual arrangements. Mostly what’s required is memory: the debtor has to remember that he owes, that he has made a promise to repay his debt. To create memory where there previously had been none, severe measures were required. These measures took the form of potential pain.

In order to inspire the creditor with confidence in his ability to repay, to give a guarantee for the stringency of the promise, but also to enjoin on his own conscience the duty of repayment, the debtor pledged by contract that in case of non-payment he would offer another of his possessions, such as his body, or his wife, or his freedom, or even his life (or, in certain theologically oriented cultures, even his salvation or the sanctity of his tomb, as in Egypt, where the debtor’s corpse was not immune from his creditor even in the grave). The creditor, moreover, had the right to inflict all manner of indignity and pain on the body of the debtor. For example, he could cut out an amount of flesh proportionate to the amount of the debt, and we find, very early, quite detailed legal assessments of the value of individual parts of the body…

Let us try to understand the logic of this entire method of compensations; it is strange enough. An equivalence is provided by the creditor’s receiving, in place of material compensation such as money, land, or other possessions, a kind of pleasure. That pleasure is induced by his being able to exercise his power freely upon one who is powerless, by the pleasure of faire le mal pour le plaisir de le faire [inflict pain for the pleasure of doing it], the pleasure of rape. That pleasure will be increased in proportion to the lowliness of the creditor’s own station; it will appear to him as a delicious morsel, a foretaste of a higher rank. In “punishing” the debtor, the creditor shares a seignorial right. For once he is given the chance to bask in the glorious feeling of treating another human being as lower than himself — or, in case the actual punitive power has passed on to a legal “authority,” of seeing him despised or mistreated. Thus compensation consists in a legal warrant entitling one man to exercise his cruelty on another…

It was then that the sinister knitting together of the two ideas guilt and pain first occurred, which by now have become quite inextricable. Let me ask once more: in what sense could pain constitute repayment of a debt? In the sense that to make someone suffer was a supreme pleasure.

Could this be true? Does Nietzsche believe what he’s saying here?

I am merely throwing this out as a suggestion, for it is difficult, and embarrassing as well, to get to the bottom of such underground developments… The delicacy — even more, the tartuferie [hypocrisy] — of domestic animals like ourselves shrinks from imagining clearly to what extent cruelty constituted the collective delight of older mankind, how much it was an ingredient in all their joys, or how naively they manifested their cruelty, how they considered disinterested malevolence a normal trait, something to which one’s conscience could assent heartily… To behold suffering gives pleasure, but to cause another to suffer affords an even greater pleasure. This severe statement expresses an old, powerful, human, all too human sentiment — though the monkeys too might endorse it, for it is reported that they heralded and preluded man in the devising of bizarre cruelties. There is no feast without cruelty, as man’s entire history attests. Punishment, too, has its festive features.

And so on. You can imagine the blasphemies to follow, where gods get to enjoy all the pointless sufferings of the world, invisible beings who could also see in the dark, and who would not readily let pass unseen any interesting spectacle of suffering. Free will guarantees that men will continually and frequently inflict cruelties on one another — an enjoyable enough spectacle to witness in its own right and an opportunity for the gods to double their pleasure by punishing the guilty perpetrators of violence.

All sorts of interesting ideas spin out of this little discourse. Foucault based his Discipline and Punish on Nietzsche’s argument here. And, in light of recent posts and discussions of Deleuze and Guattari, we’re confronted with the possibility of cruelty as a primal desire which, when freely expressed, is an occasion for joy. Maybe deconstruction, systematically inverting the existing logical order of a text or a human institution, is itself an act of subtle cruelty — that’s what makes it so much fun.



  1. Good gosh. Uumm…too deep, maybe. Jeez. Ha ha. No, really…my mind goes to the sons of – Jacob, I think – who went and like raped and killed a whole village of folk because a couple dudes raped their sister. Or God’s COMMANDS to the Isrealites to do the things they did…it does very much seem to be an issue of power and identity, and not just a carrying out of some mechanical motions because someone told us to do it. But…as mentioned…in that situation it was because those holding the land at the time had essentially forefeited their right to the land with their lives…which they were then to loose, miserably. And Revelations doesn’t exactly hold back in taking pleasure in destruction…in similar ways you say deconstruction might.

    BTW, interestingly, with Deconstruction…I was just having a conversation with Johnathan about Deconstruction and the PRIMACY of the resurrection. The Isrealites in their command to destroy the other people of the land were to take it over and LIVE there.


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 30 March 2007 @ 5:21 pm

  2. For a slightly more humorous take…check out 01 Samuel, Chapters 5 and 6. (to try a link now…see if it works)


    See if it worked…


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 30 March 2007 @ 5:50 pm

  3. Dude, that’s a weird Bible story. I think you should start designing chests of God and molds for gold tumors.

    As for Nietzsche, what can you say? I think he just has fun messing with ideas. I read this story as a warning against the innate goodness of the natural man. You never know quite where Nietzsche stands, but he does work hard at making you unsure of your footing.


    Comment by ktismatics — 30 March 2007 @ 9:06 pm

  4. I’m not too sure that Nietsche’s right in his analysis for one type of archetypal punishment is intended to instil fear, especially of noncompliance in contracts. The other type of punishment is for crime that results in social disruption and here the norm in older civilisations is to make the criminal incapable of repeating the criminal behaviour so a thief might have a hand cut off or even both hands. There is no inherent cruelty in the punishment in either case …


    Comment by samlcarr — 30 March 2007 @ 9:12 pm

  5. Like Nietzsche says, he’s merely throwing it out as a suggestion. In this book he throws out a whole bunch of suggestions, many of which directly contradict each other. Still, I think in this case Nietzsche would say that cutting off the hand has a triple benefit as a punishment: it prevents repeat offense (as you say), it’s fun to chop off hands, and it permanently marks the offender as a social outcast, thereby lowering his status relative to the person he robbed. Chopping off hands is certainly regarded as inherently cruel in our modern cultures, which is why it’s no longer practiced. Maybe it’s just the squeamishness of the modern civilized man that regards such punishment as more cruel than depriving the criminal of his freedom by imprisoning him.


    Comment by ktismatics — 30 March 2007 @ 10:12 pm

  6. “Maybe it’s just the squeamishness of the modern civilized man that regards such punishment as more cruel than depriving the criminal of his freedom by imprisoning him.” Its about the body, man. As I’ve said, modern man fears bodily harm far worse than non-bodily harm. It was the opposite before. “Formal cause,” dude.


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 30 March 2007 @ 11:12 pm

  7. Chopping off the hand implies that it’s the hand’s fault, that the hand is in control of itself, that removing the hand removes the violation. This is closer to a world that Deleuze and Guattari envision, a world of body parts loosely assembled into a coalition rather than an integrated self that commands its body like a lieutenant commanding a corps of soldiers. The hand offends? Cut it off. The eye offends? Gouge it out.

    For D&G the hand is animated by a desire flowing out of the substrate, the numen, what they usually call the “body without organs.” Cutting off hands is one very permanent way of reterritorializing the flow of desire. Imprisonment is an external apparatus for territorializing whole bodies. The presumption is that, through some sort of osmosis, the external territorialization will penetrate through the body of the incarcerated, building an internal prison that keeps the organs of the body marching in line even after they’ve been let out of the gates and back into the world.


    Comment by ktismatics — 31 March 2007 @ 5:41 am

  8. See…that hand thing. It gets at what I like about these postmodern characters…a decentered self. But we see different “forces” as what it is that does have some sort of unity. I can’t really say different “forces”, though, because I don’t even really see it as a “force”. The hypostasis, dude…personhood.


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 31 March 2007 @ 8:27 am

  9. Nietzsche, like Deleuze and Guattari, thinks the cult of the self blocks the flows of desire coming up from underneath. I am many says Nietzche. He sees the grotesquely large self as symptomatic of obstructed flows, of an enslavement that drives the desires inward. He sees Judeo-Christianity as a slave religion, reinforcing the obstructions, driving them inward, obsessing on good and evil (morality in the self) rather than good and bad (excellence of creation in the world). Nietzsche offers various correctives to self-absorbed moral obsession. And he offers correctives to the modern rational self-obsession that begins with Descartes’ formula that grounds everything in the thinking I. Nietzsche is saying that we don’t really know that much about ourselves, that our ground isn’t all that rational, and it might not even be all that personal.

    Personhood is an interface between the subpersonal and the superpersonal, between the forces moving through the body and brain and the forces moving through the world. Personhood is the core and ground of being. Which of these understandings of selfhood is true? Perhaps this is another of those gap questions. Recall that in my reading Genesis 1 contains the story of man coming to conscious awareness of the world and of himself. Man and elohim are both singular and plural in Gen 1: they can be seen as individuals and as collectives. A man and a god can also be seen as a “groupuscule” — a congeries of multiple forces united in a single interface for understanding, creating, coming together…



    Comment by ktismatics — 31 March 2007 @ 11:47 am

  10. Interace between subpersonal forces of the brain and superpersonal forces of the world…or the very core ground of being? How and why would it not be both, if the “Person” of the Ground is 2 sided – hidden and revealed? You seem to indicate as much in your own view…sort of.

    Very good question(s), b.t.w.!

    And what I’ve been learning is that Jesus doesn’t drive my desires inward (I do that, really…or other people), but that…uummm…hard to explain. That’s definitely how I used to think of it, when I was myself essentially “turned in” (so this is part of my personal story).

    Now I think of it more like the following. My desires are a radiation of the Image in which I am made. My desires are ordered (“territorialized”, perhaps…or perhaps “converged” properly with the desires of others) by Him. Basic point of that last sentence is the primacy of “construction” (or making), of the Resurrection, rather than the Cross, or sacrafice, or deconstruction, or whatever.


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 31 March 2007 @ 6:59 pm

  11. Both for me too. We are mostly monkeys, but that which separates us from the monkeys is profound.


    Comment by ktismatics — 1 April 2007 @ 12:22 am

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