Shadow Play and the Frozen Tableau

| August 9, 2012

I just came across this old interview with Victor I. Stoichita in Cabinet Magazine. He’s discussing his fascinating, shall we say illuminating book, A Short History of the Shadow. But I am struck again with his characterization of Plato’s Cave Allegory as a Sadistic tale. Not because I want to come to its defense—Plato is clearly up to no good—but because I think we have a confusion of diagnosis that makes it difficult to understand the effect.

Stoichita’s diagnosis:

It seemed to me that it was unnecessarily cruel to imagine, as he did, the people in the cave as bound, their legs and necks fastened. They were unable to move, forced to stare only at the projection of the world on the cave walls. It seemed to me that the philosopher was being blatantly sadistic. He has the perverse vision of a philosopher who enjoys the spectacle of ignorance as much as he enjoys the quest for knowledge.

Although the story coils around and repeats itself, it is precisely not personal, but nor does it have the feel of the pure mathematician, the sadist removing himself from the equation in order for the (dis)order of things to be etched into flesh. Should we not think, instead, of the masochist’s frozen tableaus?

Deleuze, decoupling the Sado-Masochist pair, writes:

In every respect […] the sadistic ‘instructor’ stands in contrast to the masochistic ‘educator.’ […] In the work of Masoch there is a similar transcendence of the imperative and the descriptive toward a higher function. But in this case it is all persuasion and education. We are no longer in the presence of a torturer seizing upon a victim and enjoying her all the more because she is unconsenting and unpersuaded. We are dealing instead with a victim in search of a torturer and who needs to educate, persuade and conclude an alliance with the torturer in order to realize the strangest of schemes. […] It is essential to the masochist that he should fashion the woman into a despot, that he should persuade her to cooperate and get her to ‘sign.’ He is essentially an educator and thus runs the risk inherent in educational undertakings.” [emphasis added] The risk, or we should say, the unavoidable ambiguity, is evident in the Socratic dialogues as well: as much as the other may be persuaded, doubt pervades the scene: they are asked to sign on to a role for which they will prove inadequate, “either by overplaying or by falling short of expectations.”

When we recall Socrates’ own proactive positioning of his own death, we cannot help but imagine a kind of masochistic contract: this is what you will do to me, and this is what it will entail. In stark contrast to the (non)violence of the fixed bodies of the cave, the looming threat of violence and murder is in fact projected towards the “educator” as the impending possibility that these frozen bodies will start moving, grasping, pulling in and rending the well meaning teacher. This distinction between the sadist and masochist effect is critical if we are to understand the ways in which it is put in play in educational practice, and in particular if we are to understand the specificity of the violence entailed in its frozen scenes.

Plato has Socrates introduce the allegory as a story of “education and the lack of education.” Stoichita is right to call out this backhanded gesture. When Glaucon remarks on how strange the story is, Socrates reassures him: they are like us. A well known tale. But, we might insist, the more we are used to its workings, this now ancient educational scene, the more strange the shadows it casts.