The Master-slave dialectic and the 'sado-masochistic entity': Some Objections

Hegel’s famous analyses of the ‘master-slave dialectic’, and the more general struggle for recognition which it is a part of, have been remarkably influential throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Bound up with the dominance of this idea, however, has been a corresponding treatment of sadism and masochism as complicit projects that are mutually necessary for one another in a manner that is structurally isomorphic with the way in which master and slave depend on one another. In clinical diagnoses it is almost invariably asserted that sadism and masochism are causally connected, with one of these ‘pathologies’ being seen to derive from an inversion or displacement of the other. Deleuze, however, in Difference and Repetition, ‘Coldness and Cruelty’, and elsewhere, rejects the primacy of the master-slave dialectic for understanding social relations, at least insofar as it relies upon the themes of negativity, contradiction, opposition, and he also rejects the resultant treatment of sadism and masochism. Moreover, if his symptomatology of the latter (especially masochism) convinces us that the master-slave dialectic not only does not understand these ways of existing, but necessarily could not, then we are faced with an important challenge to any conception of social relations that is too closely tied to the dialectic of lordship and bondage as it is sometimes known. This paper, then, is composed of four sections: 1. an exposition of Hegel’s treatment of the master-slave dialectic; 2. a selective account of later understandings of social relations that are indebted to it; 3. a recital of Deleuze’s objections to the master-slave dialectic and its reliance upon three key components: contradiction, opposition, and negativity; and 4. an argument, extending Deleuze’s work, for the manner in which the master-slave dialectic has also been bound up with, and made possible, the belief in a ‘sado-masochistic’ unity (i.e. the way in which they are envisaged as complementary opposites, or as causally connected symptoms).
Keywords master-slave dialectic  inter-subjectivity  Hegel  Deleuze  de Beauvoir  Sartre  psychoanalysis  masochism  sadism
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DOI 10.1080/09697250903407492
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