Sadism, Schadenfreude, and Cruelty


  • Peter Klepec ZRC SAZU, Filozofski inštitut, Ljubljana



sadism, Sade, sadomasochism, Freud, Adorno, Deleuze, Lacan, schadenfreude, cruelty


The article starts from the question of where the theses that we are ruled by sadists today come from, both in conspiracy theories and in explanations of the prevalence of violence and cruelty in modern society. The article first highlights some important recent changes in politics, economics, and society (the fall of the Berlin Wall; victimisation; the crisis of politics and the rise of neoliberalism; the changing dynamics of capitalism, which appropriates and valorises affect and favours the bizarre; the new social media; the shift of obscenity from the margins to the centre; the paradoxes of the “end of history” and historical stagnation; the pandemic; the change in the general mood from anxiety to nightmare, in which the main problem is the enjoyment of the Other). The article then looks at the historical changes in the term “sadism”, which in the 19th and 20th centuries reduced Sade’s work to a clinical category, defined the meaning of “sadism” as the pleasure of torturing others, and constructed the term “sadomasochism” in Freud, the Freudians, and the Frankfurt School. The latter was used to analyse Nazism, and was later rightly criticised by Deleuze as something that had nothing to do with Sade and Masoch. War propaganda, clichés, and other processes play a special role in this process of forming the general conception of sadism; they are also responsible for the fact that “sadomasochism” as a sexual practice and as a fashion has recently become something socially acceptable, although, on the other hand, it has played a part in the “pornification” of society and in the recent enforcement of extremely violent forms of pornography. Notwithstanding all these distortions of sadism and notwithstanding the uselessness of sadomasochism in a concrete analysis of the functioning of modern social bonds, a certain form of sadism in general, especially in the face of all the social and political changes mentioned above (trolls, haters), retains its power over society. To analyse this in more detail, one must include the ubiquitous but little analysed phenomenon of schadenfreude, especially on the part of the public, and cruelty as a phenomenon to which society is both distanced and fascinated. The third step is to explain what schadenfreude and cruelty are and how they relate to Lacan’s concept of objet petit a.


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2021-12-31 — Updated on 2022-04-06


How to Cite

Klepec, P. (2022). Sadism, Schadenfreude, and Cruelty. Filozofski Vestnik, 42(3). (Original work published December 31, 2021)