In The Subject and Power, Michel Foucault summarizes the goal of his work. He states, “My objective…has been to create a history of the different modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects” (Foucault, 1). This indicates that the subject is not an existential given. After all, to say that the subject is the living body simply drags us into the discursive realm of biology. Foucault implicitly states that a subject is constituted by a relation to something else: economics relates beings to productive powers, linguistics relates beings to speech, and even self-knowledge requires relationality, which Foucault sees in, “how men have learned to recognize themselves as subjects of ‘sexuality’” (Foucault, 2). None of these domains — productive powers, speech, or sexuality— captures an essence of human experience. Stated positively, they are lenses through which we become certain kinds of subjects: subjects of economics, of linguistics, of sexuality, and so on.
We become subjects of violence— and this violence threatens or affirms what we assume to be the core of our identity, thereby highlighting the instability of identity. And it is not merely that violence that affects us from the outside. Rather, as we see in Pier Passolini’s Salò, along with the novella Moderato Cantabile, violence penetrates us, and seduces or coerces us into becoming new kinds of beings. Although this process is usually terrifying, it initiates a becoming-subject that is either invigorating or debilitating. The oeuvres, furthermore, show that we are all subjects of violence, and that a person unaffected by violence, whether it is in the form of silence, art, ritual, or brute force, is merely an abstraction.
The Loud Violence of Legality, Morality, and Art
It would be stupid to say that the sadists in Salò are merely depraved, degenerate, or uncivilized people. It’s clear, after all, that they’re working within the coordinates of a familiar social order. They only begin after crafting and signing a constitution; they create and enforce strict rules; they use storytelling to stir the imagination; and, of course, they use brute military force. None of this — legal frameworks, art, or military force— is unfamiliar to anybody living in a modern nation-state. Hence Foucault’s statement that fascism is, “not quite original. They [the fascists] used and extended mechanisms already present in most other societies” (Foucault, 3). Legal, moral, and aesthetic frameworks are all opportunities for the sadists in Salò to construct their violent identities.
Salò begins with scenes associated with governance and legality, which are critical to the elites’ project. They do not begin as sadists, which is why one character states, “true anarchy is power,” which requires setting-up specific power dynamics and relationalities (Salò, 30:28). What’s significant is that the sadists here suggest that they only operate under precise conditions— and that these conditions must be created. We should not be thrown-off by the fact that the Duke tells the prisoners that they are outside the reach of legality. It’s clear that he’s only referring to the legality of the outside, bourgeois world: immediately after, he presents them with a constitution that will govern their lives. After elaborating these rules, which include meeting times, dress code, mandatory submissiveness, and so on, he says, “Any debauchery will be permitted” (Salò, 21:00). The contrast between the strict regulation of behavior and the extreme permissivity should cause us to think critically about their relationship. The sadists are not outside or before civilization. Instead, by drafting their own constitution and living in a compound far-removed from other social norms, they create a civil universe that is conducive to their desires. This construction is synonymous with constructing themselves as subjects of violence— as violent actors.
They are not amoral, either. This civilization, with its necessary aesthetics, paper work, and force, gives way to a set of ethics. While drinking wine, the sadists find themselves wrapped-up in a debate about Nietzsche and his Genealogy of Morals. Despite their inability to attribute their ideas to the proper writer, they conclude that, “wherever men are equal, without difference, there can be no happiness,” and so there must be masters and slaves (Salò, 50:48). This simultaneously produces the actors and recipients of violence. Another moral truism they construct is that, “All things are good when taken to excess” (Salò, 4:08). Hence it is not that they have studied ‘normal’ morality and then transgressed. Rather, they construct a moral universe in which their actions are good. Furthermore, their actions are in good taste: they surround themselves with expensive art, live in an extravagant, well-located compound, and are incredibly picky about the people they subject to their violence— as if some people are not worthy of space within their civilization.
Art, too, specifically story-telling, has an important relationship to the creation of subjects of violence. Before every graphic, violent scene, the viewer listens and watches as a woman tells sexually obscene stories to the crowd of slaves and masters. We are told that, “the aim of these stories is to inflame the imagination,” but, even more than that, this inflammation of the imagination is critical for the sadists to perform their acts (Salò, 20:47). During the first story-telling event, the President complains that he cannot go-on unless he knows more details about the, “size of the Professor’s penis, [and] the consistency of his emission;” he reminds her not to omit any detail, “otherwise [her] stories will not arouse [them] sufficiently” (Salò, 25:24). Without such details, the sadists themselves become impotent.
It is as if story-telling lubricates social performance— and, as Moderato Cantabile, shows us, this is not only the case in perverse situations. In that novella, the characters, Chauvin and Anne, seduce each other by telling the story of a passionate love that ends with murder. Their story-telling sparks a mutual interest in the possibility of a fatal passion, and they attempt to re-create it. They want to discover, as Anne phrases it, if, “it’s possible for anyone to reach such a… state,” of passion, “except through despair” (Duras, 73). When the same character re-imagines the screams of the murder, she tells Chauvin that, “I must have screamed something like that once, yes, when I had the child,” thereby suggesting that there is positive potential in annihilation (Duras, 79). The painful surrenders of self, be it through passionate love or childbirth, can create a space in which something new is experienced. The instable, transitory nature of these feelings does not undermine their existence.
In both cases, fiction leads not to falsehood but towards new possibilities for real life. The difference between the oeuvres is that, in Salò, story-telling creates people who want to enact violence onto others; in Moderato Cantabile, the story invokes interest in the reception of violence as a method of productive self-annihilation.
To argue, for Salò, that art, legality, and morality all conspire to successfully create violent subjects, it should suffice to enumerate some of their acts. They leash and chain people like dogs, whip them, force them to eat cake embedded with nails, sodomize them, brand them, cut-out eyeballs, burn alive, and hang their victims. None of this would have been possible without the underlying features of their civilization, which is to say that they are integral to forming violent subjects.
What to say about the captives? Obviously, they react with disgust and outrage. They run away from whippings, resist groping, and so on. It’s easy to see the movie as filled with the anguish of their unwillingness. The clearest example occurs in the first story-telling scene, when one woman tries to flee in order to get herself killed. We know nothing about her individual psychology, but it’s clear that her identity could not incorporate the looming violence; she rejected becoming a subject of violence. This evidences that some bodies are entirely unable to receive violence or negotiate with it, but the film contains more nuanced reactions.
Regardless of their (in)ability to find pleasure in their pain, the rest of the captives allow the violence to structure their lives. For them, becoming a subject of violence first begins with a certain porousness of being that enables penetration by violence. Certainly, for many of them, their sobs, tears, and looks of anguish suggest that they do not like what’s happening to them. Yet they submit to the violence that structures the possibilities of their lives. Certain acts are punishable by death (trying to flee or ‘any religious act’), which means they always have a fatal escape that they do not seize. It is this ground level violence that gives them their subjecthood. Their actions are always re-actions, often of disgust at the meals of shit, the whippings, and so on, but, with respect to the objectively violent circumstances of their lives, they eventually become docile. They accommodate what happens to them in general, which suggests a psychological ability to appropriate violence.
We find evidence of this in their patient poses as they wait for the story-telling that initiates the violence against them. Their poised, relaxed bodies in the non-surveilled rooms point towards the same truth. To be these kinds of subjects of violence is not to translate pain to pleasure, but rather to produce pleasure in the Other. Take, for instance, the girl who howls at the memory of her deceased mother; the sounds of her sobs and the sights of her tears excite the Duke. This simultaneity — of her (psychic) pain and his pleasure, of her slave status and his master status—creates the circuit of pain-pleasure. Many of the victims are Nietzschean slaves in the precise sense that a slave is someone who accepts his/her position as a slave. Although they belong to the opposite pole in the dyad, they inhabit the same civil universe as their masters.
There are, furthermore, instances where the slave position is not merely accepted, but learned to be loved. Towards the end of the film, after the marriages, we see one man sleeping with one of the elites. There is nothing to suggest that the sex act was forced, especially when we take into consideration his looks of rapture. They mutually enjoy the sex, which reflects an ability to translate the reception of objective violence into pleasure.
So far, we’ve seen three responses to receiving violence: rejection, accommodation, and enjoyment. Aside from the first example, these show that the participants see themselves in the same moral universe as their masters; they do not fight against the morality that keeps them as slaves. Until the near-end of the film, we do not see how they could rebel against their masters, which would require more than re-actions to their circumstances. Spoken in the language of pain and violence, this would require reproducing the pain inflicted unto them— and directing it towards others. This would allow them to be the master of another. We view such a rebellious frenzy when one male, under the threat of punishment, tells the President that Graziella has a forbidden photograph under her pillow, which initiates a progression of threats and ratting-outs that climaxes with the murder of a male and female guilty of heterosexual sex. None of the particulars are important in analyzing how this effects the chain of master-slave relationships. In each case, when someone is confronted with receiving violence, he/she acts in such a way that directs violence to another person. As such, they become initiators of violence.
But it’s not as if the master position, here synonymous with the sadistic inflictor of violence, is desirable. An elite describes the ultimate satisfaction as being, “at once the executioner and the victim,” which would return oneself to a state free of the heinous desire to mutilate others (Salo, 1:16:21). But, in the final, climactic scene, we watch as an executioner screams incessantly, for apparently no other reason than his inability to quell his urges: the gouging of eyes, branding of skin, scalping of heads, noosing of necks, and cutting of tongues cannot satisfy his violent impulse. Not even murder achieves this. Looking backwards, this makes sense, as we remember a scene where the men elect to not kill a boy who won the best ass competition — which should have earned him the award of death. Instead of killing him, they tell him, “Don’t you see we want to kill you a thousand times, to the limits of eternity, if eternity could have limits?” Therein lies the problematic: the sadistic subject of violence has a desire that extends towards infinity and therefore cannot be satisfied. Paradoxically, then, the masters’ anguished faces match the expressions on their victims, and it is unclear if anybody is actually better off than anyone else.Ultimately, then, Salò suggests that neither pole of the slave-master relation allows for a non-frustrated, non-pained relationship to violence. Moderato Cantabile, on the other hand, shows how violence might be seductive precisely for its ability to produce something new; in that case, violence is not so much what locks a person into a position, but allows one to experience the new. Both artworks depict highly visible and recognizable forms of violence, but there are for more subtle, insidious ways that we become subjects of violence.