Sade’s Black Screen. Infinity Behind Demonstration

Autor: Egle Luksaite /

  1. The Role of the Invisible

We all know the magical power of a black bar in a nude photo. Aiming to conceal the over-sensitive information out of the ken, it actually succeeds to inflame the imagination of the spectator, and it inflames the picture itself, opening the black censor bar to an infinite spectrum of tastes and possibilities. The covered, concealed or erased part of the picture becomes the very center of attention and at the same time – it transfers the viewer to the field of plasticity open for change formed by desire. The figurative picture becomes a frame of the gate that liberates one from the figurative and over-suggestive field of representations. The black bar, framed by the picture itself becomes a completely personal shape-shifting and private port to the field of imponderability.

One finds it very difficult to read Sade – it exhausts the imagination, first of all, by its dense intensity so rich in triggers, that it becomes difficult to integrate it into already existing structures of imagination. Therefore, it takes force that uncontrollably stretches the fields of imagination filling it with morally unsupervised scenes so thick, that they bombard the existing structures and penetrate the virgin ones. The object that Sade repeatedly keeps penetrating with such high intensity is not only the bodies of virgin boys and girls in the novels, but as well the figurative imagination of the one who dares to read his texts. Sitting imprisoned in different institutions, with his body constrained, he challenges the borders that are supervise and frame the field of the imaginary that we permit ourselves (or the others) to figurate.

When in 1952 Guy Debord made an anti-film, called Hurlements en faveur de Sade (Howlings in Favour of De Sade), claiming that there is no film and the cinema is dead, he opened the white screen for the silent blackness. The white screen was only covered in sound – three voices reading different text fragments. Then the sound went off and the screen turned black. Altogether, the film consisted of one hour of blackness and total silence; there was not a single image during all of the film. First white – then black screen with the absence of pictures was the way of presenting the imagelessness. Giorgio Agamben commenting Debord’s films noted that:

There are two ways of showing this “imagelessness”, two ways of making visible the fact that there is nothing more to be seen. One is pornography and advertising, which act as though there were always something more to be seen, always more images behind the images; while the other way is to exhibit the image as image and thus to allow the appearance of “imagelessness,” which, as Benjamin said, is the refuge of all images (Agamben 2004: 319).One cannot object that Sade’s desire is to show the invisible, to point and penetrate it with words and precise demonstrations. Just the position we get in this process, directed by Sade, is the position marked with impotence in the presence of the spectacle. Timo Airaksinen in his book on Sade and his scheme writes: A victim gazes at a theater, which entails both her passive role and the unlimited creative possibilities of the hero. But the present arrangement is also unique because of the window. It is a symbol of the good, or a well-defined peep hole into nothingness (Airaksinen 1995: 162). Timo Airaksinen finds that it is the theatre of cruelty that resembles the nothingness most, but in my opinion, it is difficult to call something as over-represented as Sade’s ways of cruelty by the word “nothingness”. Nothingness is the immeasurable depth of the unknown and unpredictable, when Sade’s cruelty has very clear structure, direction and patterns with the depth and variety already nearly scooped out by Sade himself. The cruelty in Sade’s texts is surely uncontrollable, forcing the spectator and the victim into a position of a passive observer and receiver, but that is the aspect of power which is far from nothingness. Airaksinen often calls Sade’s writings the “black novels” and they are certainly dark and dense with scenes hard to digest, but it is not the vocalization and intensity of cruel scenes that actually make it black. In my eyes, the blackness of the black bar – a censor box is what marks the novels with blackness. The black bar is rebelliously moved to uncover the cruel side of human desire, but instead of being removed, it is actually only transferred and laid over the subjectivity of the Other, erasing it completely out of the picture.

The blackness of a censor box, concealing the depth of the Other, paradoxically turns into the screen, where an overload of figurative cruelty transcends one into the abstract fields of one’s immeasurable spaces of subjectivity. Exhausting the imagination, filling it with dense stimulation, where the sensory and moral disturbance of it is so overwhelming, that the imagination gets close to the limit of a blackout, Sade performs overstimulation, an overdose of intensity which instead of creating the field of pleasure and “true” cruel nature of desire, actually blocks the flow of the imaginary and transmits one to the rational field inspiring the desire, just not to abuse, but to understand. However imaginative the work of Sade is, the effect it creates is the rapid distance from the flow of imagination and a blockage of desire.

Exhausting the potential appears as a very important task for Sade. The repetition of scenes, aiming to exhaust the potential of Sade’s coercion, reaches for liberation, but, paradoxically, it is not the limitations criticized and ridiculed by Sade that it succeeds to liberate one from. But actually, it manages to liberate one from the strain of desire by exhausting it with repetitive scenes of its satisfaction. More than liberated to express and perform the rightful nature of one’s cruelty, one actually faces an interpassive exhaustion in the limits of the spectrum that Sade’s scenes offer. This is how, strangely for many, instead of invoking the cruel and unrestrained fantasies and desires, Sade’s writings tend to work turning the glove inside out, arousing and fortifying the potential and power of self-reflection and self-awareness, instead of liberating one from it.

The interlacement of distance and responsibility in a process of reading, when the reader is participating in an imaginary creation, can be liberating, thrilling and puzzling, depending on the level of identification, recognition and an interpassive pleasure extracted from the process. In one sense, the reader is being liberated from the duty of an action or from the responsibility for the pleasure of voyeuristically living out his/her own suppressed contents. But in another sense, the reader is forced to identify with the idea that has been imposed on him/her by the text. The struggle to identify with the ideas that one is reading can surely be experienced differently, depending on the level of conjunction with one’s desire, but looking at the process of reading and the role of hierarchical proportion, the author of several books on perversity – Supervert, when writing an introduction for L. von Sacher Masoch’s book Venus in Furs which he called Sadistic Introduction to a Masochistic Book noted on the submissive nature of an act of reading as such, saying that: 

“In your mind there is only one posture for reading — a posture of submission. When you read you are always on your knees, humbly accepting your lessons from the writer god. Every reader is a zombie, a slave, a robot who wants to be programmed and controlled. You set aside your own thoughts for mine” (Supervert 2008).

When you are reading a text, how much are you actually able to participate in it, what is it that you create, what is the space and the role, suggested and pre-formed for you by the text? Sade’s reader is so bombarded with cruel scenes that they threaten to develop a certain partial anaesthesia, by which in the philosophical rationalizing parts of his texts Sade claims he is aiming to liberate the mighty ones from fear. But, at the same time, the text is so saturated with cruelty that there appears to be no more space for a drop of any more of it. The intensity of liberated mightiness leaves no more space for the mightiness of the reader and the density of figurative fantasies floods and covers the distance that is necessary for an autonomous figuration, ironically leaving the reader with an inevitable reaction of rejection in order to preserve the field of imagination that is subordinate to their own autonomy.

It is difficult to receive Sade’s texts as non-ethical, non-didactic texts not only because of the moral system as the centre of it, but more importantly, because of the role that is left for the reader – the field of imagination is already so overfilled by Sade, that it leaves the reader only with the position of a vulnerable witness or a ridiculed moralist judge. The reader is forced to enjoy while being denied his/her own input of content – just like the virgins and other victims of his stories. The penetrating trap leaves no way out of the structure he formed so carefully. But does he really leave the reader no way out with his insisting figuration? One can look at Sade’s texts as ones that target the black censor bar that has been laid over the cruel nature of human desire, figurating the content of the concealed part of the human image. The blackness of a censor bar as a non-transparent density, protecting one’s eyes from over-sensitive or overly inviting figurative view, supposed to block the trigger of the figuration in order to control the outcoming effect of the visual information beneath it, signals the opposite of a tabula rasa, a message “nothing to do here” – a certain blockage of an invitation. The anxiety of a blank page reversed with the dense blackness of the mark – the imprint that has been already completed.

2. The Blackness

Black tends to represent the quality of something being beyond control, whether it would be the blackness of the soul, of the night or of cosmos itself, and more than the ungraspable, it signals fear and vulnerability. When Alan Badiou in his book Black. The Brilliance of a Non-color talks about the dialectics of black, he writes that “black is the absence of light and therefore the absence of any wavelength in the analysis of what black negates” (Badiou 2017: 33), but then follows the question “whether absence can be called a negation?”(Badiou 2017: 33) The question important to me is more how this absence of something is created and what we call light. Is it a condition that light is supposed to uncover things? Badiou goes on with the question and asks: “but is absence a negation? There’s no light, there’s no color, but does that mean that light is negated (Badiou 2017: 34)? We consider the blackness as something that usually represents the field of the unknown, something unpredictable and therefore, frightening, that it has a quality not only to cover the objects, but as well to have an immeasurable depth and gravity.

If blackness, according to Badiou, connotes impurity, and transparency – (the quality gained by knowledge) connotes purity, then what does the whiteness stand for, he asks giving an example of young girls and brides who are pure only insofar as they don’t know what darkness the soul is capable of (Badiou 2017: 38), according to Badiou, white is merely a phantom of ignorance (Badiou 2017: 39). Going back to the white screen presented by Debord, one is not presented with the answer to the dialectical difference between white and black. It appears that for Debord white and black are both imageless and the break that blackness marks is the loss of the representation at all. The crucial difference between the black and white screen appears to be the possibility of the representation in general. When facing a black bar or a black screen, instead of having a feeling that the image is absent, one is actually being forced to face the invisible and therefore is forced to charge the abstraction with their own plastic content – open to the change and diversity of the figuration.  Accepting the diversion towards the invisible marks the point of autonomy. The relation with the invisible repeals the domination of the platonic ideal of the representation, emancipating the imaginary field from the trap of submissive being of imagination.

Timo Airaksinen saw Sade’s texts as an aim for an Utopia, noting that in most of Sade’s stories the external world ceases to exist (Airaksinen 1995: 122) just not only the external, but as well – the internal world ceases to exist. The overall theater of Sade appears more like a puppet theatre, stripping characters of any depth and reducing them to two-dimensional units. Above the density of cruel and sexual scenes that Sade is most memorable for, his texts for me bare a question about the connection between the blackness and invisibility, and a great example of how the blackness of density is able to turn into a screen – a field that is open for the autonomous and abstract figuration, escaping the over-suggestiveness of a text. The space that Sade invites the reader into is always a very closed one, isolated from the world that surrounds it, one can almost feel suffocated, not just from the lack of alternative in a sense of space, but as well from the density of the text and triggers, emaciating one’s imagination by triggering and evoking too many spots one after another. When Sade depletes the sexual and cruel scenes, the question that emerges is how much does Sade care, how much attention and work does he put into exactly what he leaves out of the picture, what is the role of the invisible in the structure and scheme of Sade and what are the diversions towards the invisible that Sade leaves? Even when we talk of the intensities of our subjectivity, the distinctness appears as a symbol, representing the inverted invisibility, turning distinctness into a diversion, pointing to the field of invisibility.

What the overflooded imagination turns to when it’s over triggered by the intensive and detailed scenes of cruelty is the gap – the invisible and unrepresented. The reader  participates in a text by reading it, and the framing of the picture Sade presents is so strict with the picture is so intense, that one is almost forced to turn his/her eyes away, outside of the frame, searching for the invisible. The intensity of Sade’s texts is charged not just with the liberation of the darkest fantasies of “human nature”, but as well with the screaming absence of the Other.

The black screen/black bar of Sade – the strictly unrepresented and censored content of the scene, the erased subjectivity and depth of the Other presents to us the blackness, the unrepresentable field of Sade, the frightening depth of the Other.  Covering any possible depth of the Other with black density of materialism, Sade is choking not only the Other of the text, but as well the Other who is reading it.

The white, with its purity and vulnerable essence caused by the difficulty to preserve it, comes as the opposition to the thick blackness of a bar and to the ungraspability caused by its intense density. But what is the purity for Sade? Does his scheme actually reshape the representation of purity? Purity is an essential quality for the objects of Sade’s desire, young girls and boys, dominating the range of sexual objects in Sade’s texts share the quality of virginity – the mark of inexperience, purity and one could say – a tabula rasa that Sade desires to inscribe his marks onto. The question of difference between the purity and whiteness and the importance of distinction between the two emerges again.

It appears that the representation of purity is not being reshaped, but accepted as a suitable object, the thing that differs is the way the purity and its objects are treated. Male and female virgins stay highly valued as objects of desire and passion, only the intensity and nature of appreciation takes the nature of appreciating a ripe fruit, ready to be consumed.

The blackness of sight when one covers his/her eyes works as well as the creation of a space – the non-suggestive field without the trigger of visual figuration, the creation of space – the personal framing. The reflex to cover one’s eyes when facing a shattering scene, supposed to protect or distance us from an overwhelming disturbance, gets a different content and meaning when we face a black bar in a visual, sonic or sensory scene. We take it differently when it is done for us in an act of evaluating our abilities to face the content, we deal differently. The blackness of hiding becomes the blackness of possibilities and abilities taken away from us, just like the ones that Supervert beautifully considered in the Sadistic Introduction to a Masochistic Book, stating that when you read you are always on your knees, humbly accepting your lessons from the writer god (Supervert 2008). That is where the question about the power of the black or white screen turns about the ability to represent the infinitude and how does it manifests itself, when the intensive effort to represent something and to crop out the rest opens the eternal dense blackness of possibilities – the moving and changing projections on the black screen.

Even though Sade’s aim was to liberate the desire and, most importantly, to realize or at least to dare to dream of realizing it, his texts cannot be seen as guidance, mainly because there is just way too much of supervision and precision in them. One has to be quite advanced in masochism to follow the detailed instructions in general. The liberation that is promised in the end of the hard path of instructed tasks reminds more of a scheme and structure of salvation than of the liberation of desire and imagination when it is put in action. The over-figuration by Sade is overwhelming because of his tyrannical way of management of the reader’s thoughts and shapes formed by the imagination. My question is about the autonomy of a black bar, a censor box, holding the infinity of imaginary representations. The demonstrations presented in the texts by Sade and usually unspoken power of what is concealed and erased in his detailed maps are very important. What could we call this silence of the Other in Sade’s texts? Does it stand like a black screen of immeasurable depth, a white one of a tabula rasa, or a transparent purity of ungraspable transcendence? The usual opposition between black and white is not helpful here, because the black bar censoring a certain part of a picture is actually able to create an effect of tabula rasa, opening the space for the receiver to charge it with content of their own.


The scheme of Sade’s texts surely thrives on inversion, vocalizing the scandalous and the immoral, the dark unexplored side of “human nature”, the actual opposition of his vocalized darkness – the rainbow of colors and any possible depth of the Other is wiped out. By imposing an overdose of intensity, Sade performs a tyrannical way of management of the reader’s thoughts and shapes formed by their imagination. Instead of creating a field for pleasure and a “true” cruel nature of desire, he actually blocks the flow of imagination and transmits one to the rational field, striving to understand it. The blackness of a censor box, concealing the depth of the Other paradoxically turns into the screen, where an overload of figurative cruelty transcends one into the abstract fields of one’s immeasurable spaces of subjectivity. Instead of liberation to express and perform the rightful nature of one’s cruelty, Sade’s texts exhaust the desire and suffocate it with repetitive scenes of its satisfaction. Fortifying the potential and power of self-reflection and self-awareness, instead of liberating from it, one is actually facing an interpassive exhaustion in the limits of the spectrum that Sade’s scenes offer. The density of figurative fantasies floods and covers the distance that is necessary for an autonomous figuration, ironically leaving the reader with an inevitable reaction of rejection. Covering any possible depth of the Other with black density of materialism, Sade is choking not only the Other of the text, but as well the Other who reads it. The reader is forced to enjoy while being denied his/her own input of content – the reader is left with no way out. By filling the inside of the frame with black density, Sade is forcing one to accept the diversion towards the invisible. And the question Sade’s texts bare is the one of the connection between the blackness and the invisibility, offering a great example of how the blackness of density is able to turn into a black screen – the field that is open for the autonomous and abstract figuration. The paradoxical effect that Sade’s texts have is a confrontation that is difficult to handle. Instead of capturing the reader in the scheme so carefully constructed by Sade, it actually succeeds to lift off from the density of intense triggering, and submerge into the blackness of the Other. What is the black screen of a black censor bar and what does it contain, or rather – where does it have the power to teleport or abandon us to is actually the ever-white and plastic tabula rasa, but free from the stripping light, open for change and free from stiffness of figuration.


Agamben G., 2004. Difference and Repetition: On Guy Debord’s Films. In: Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents, ed. Tom McDonough. An October book, 313-321.

Airaksinen T., 1995. The Philosophy of the Marquis de Sade, London: Routledge.

Badiou A., 2017. Black. The brilliance of a non-color, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Supervert. (2008). Sadistic Introduction to a Masochistic Book. [2018 August 10]. Retrieved from:

Image: Duccio Di Buoninsegna – Temptation on the Temple, detail of the Maesta Altarpiece. Between 1308 and 1311.