Epistemological concussion and masochism

We, people, observe particular knowledges even when our experiences falsify that knowledge. What we say is different to what we do, and different again, to what we believe.

Interesting writing seeks out our sites of epistemological concussion because, therein, is usually something worth saying in words.

Our epistemological concussion at the sites of pain and pleasure are a distinctly deep knowledge/experience trauma. So much of what we claim to know about pain fails to correlate to our first-person experience. For this reason, sadism and masochism are interesting settings of epistemological concussion worthy of words.

The word, ‘masochism’ has been likened to a wound (see, for example, Eugenie Brinkema drawing from Lacan and Nancy (but regrettably not Derrida)). In this metaphor, the wound of/from masochism is a result of a lack of definition. For masochism (pleasure in pain) to be what it is, pain cannot mean what it means and pleasure cannot mean what it means.

While a literary treatment of masochism is blessedly refreshing compared to the usual psychological and medical stodge, such an approach tends towards a performative narcissism at the expense of the topic at hand. The first responder to any knowing/living epistemological concussion is best chosen from ordinary language. That is what it means to write hard and clear.

Masochism as a wound—a gaping split, a leaking suture, a sore slash, a wet gash, a weeping wound—with these words we begin to find our living pain knowledge.


Why did we hurt sadism?

This post condemns emotional, physical, verbal, etc. violence upon non-consenting creatures, things and persons. Transgression without permission is law-breaking criminality and should not be confused with the art of sadism.

Most people, even those who claim to be learned, parrot predictable narratives about the function and meaning of a thing called ‘sadism.’ Sadism lurks in the realm of the sexual, the perverted, the immoral and the violent. Sadism is, a typical parroted narrative claims, a disorder in which sexual gratification is achieved through the infliction of pain.

Most texts on sadism will trudge through the accepted historical emergence from the chronicles of Sade to the delousing of Deleuze. As this has all been done to the point of boredom and it will not be repeated here. The accepted history of sadism is a cliché, i.e. a concept drained of any genuine meaning. Moreover, it is a lazy history. Does anyone truly believe that up until the novel Justine no one explored the dimensions of being alive?

Turning anything into an ‘–ism’ is a way of killing our ability to see the thing itself. Once an ‘-ism’ is consigned to a thing it becomes forced to bear the burden of moral consensus and is, therefore, subject to policing. A person who participates in an ‘-ism’ is usually labelled and ‘-ist’.

Imagine something that is not an ‘-ism’, e.g. a deep love and commitment to dogs. Of all the mammals, four-footed things and living creatures, our Dogist practices Dogism in her choices because it gives her pleasure. (This notion, of desiring a thing because it has a consequence, a result, or an end goal, of personal pleasure, is another unfounded and oft repeated fiction in the realm of sadism.)

She is naturally wired (another parroted narrative) to prefer the experience of dogs. Dogs are part of her cognitive pleasure structure.  She prefers to pat dogs, to walk them, to groom them, to throw a stick and see the dog leap with joy and energy. She once patted a budgie but it did nothing for her.

Some texts speculate that when she was a young girl she had a negative experience that shaped her towards being a dogist. Some significant adult figure was either overbearing or absent, cruel or neglectful, and in those early experiences her dogism seed was planted.

We study her and try to ‘explain’ why she is different. We begin to call her difference a perversion, and she, therefore, a pervert. She has a condition, a disorder.

We need to medicalise her condition. Psychoanalysis, hypnosis, behaviour therapy, cognitive therapy, drug therapy, exorcism, and a transition to synthetic dogs. Dogism, however, presents treatment challenges, because it is often concealed, and is often associated with guilt and shame. (Another cart-before-the-horse parroted narrative; shame is result of dominant cultural values, not individual biological processes.)

The Kennel Club argues that behind closed doors consenting, mature adults should be allowed to keep and care for dogs. We once had a robust licencing system and dog-friendly public spaces but they have fallen away. As the medicalisation of dogism as a disorder grew, we began to forget the art of ourselves as being alive and capable of diverse and beautiful experiences.

We have confused dogism and few of us bother to remember when things were different to today. We have polluted dogism with the crimes of people who are cruel and violent to dogs. Those people are not dogists, that much is obvious. The spaces that accepted dogists have become both shameful in mainstream life and commercialised as a role-driven industry.

Our dogist, our heroine, tries to fight on all these fronts, to remain true to the practice of living as she knows it. She is not a dogist at all; she is a person with a timeless love and infinite care for dogs because they are dogs.

Feeling-into art: Einfühlung as reading

Often, in a gallery, I am struck by the stupidity of what gets hung on a wall or housed in a cabinet. Many works seem absent of driving ideas and show no execution of process or skill. These attempts at art, warrant a shrug and the asking, “Why?” They force me to pursue the more harsh enquiry, “Would the world be any different if this did not exist?”

Shitty contemporary artworks are often culpable in this failure. But there is also a responsibility in us as readers of art. We are, historically speaking, diminished in our capacities to ‘see’ with more than our ocular capacities. We are blind to our ocularcentrism. We are numb to conscious-reading with more than eyes as we carry a corrupted picture of ourselves as an anatomy of eyes, nerves and brain.

German aesthetics of the 19th century were rich with the exploration of the idea of Einfühlung, literally an ‘in-going-feeling’. The inspiration in Einfühlung emerged from a proposition that the human and poetic nature of a work will reveal itself to a reader who is absorbed by ‘feeling-into’. As a process of criticism and epistemological investigation, Einfühlung is a significantly embodied, rather than cognitive, inquiry.

The idea and practice of Einfühlung befell inelegant translation and insipid psychologisation; it is now often likened to what we currently call ‘empathy’. Yet, if we can imagine ourselves back to ‘feeling-into’, and perhaps animate Goethe’s diary entries, where his looking into an artwork is a ‘groping around’ (umtastet), looking for the looking that will let him engage with Einfühlung, we may be able to understand the reason and life behind many impenetrable artworks created today.

We tend to read artwork with a handful of familiar and mild methods.  For example, we read a work as a product or outcome of a process: to illustrate, we read some instances of paint that have been poured, dripped, and flung as evidence of Jackson Pollock’s mood and corporeal movement. Another method of reading is to comprehend a work as a narrative; summon the story around Picasso and his blue period. The blue period, we narrate as reflecting his journey across both Spain and personal grief. For some works, however, our familiar methods of reading are inadequate. We must stretch into discomfort, perhaps engaging with processes such as feeling-into, to be able to enter the work.

A practice of Einfühlung demands an exchange of our standard reading habits for a range of more difficult, unfamiliar reading processes; we must stretch into discomfort and grasp for an embodied form of reading that may shun our languages of word and concept. As an art-doing—the work of the work—we must abandon the typical structure of standing outside the world of the work and peering in with a critical eye. In this atmosphere we are both (reader and work) subject to the dynamic process of being written upon.


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