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In this essay I bring together a work, Jacques-Louis David’s Leonidas at Thermopylae (1799–1814), with a problematic, that of the manifestations of the Law and the possibilities of its derogation. It is possible, I presume, to examine these two radically distinct sets of materials through each other. The visual disposition – or homoerotic enchainment – of bodies in David’s image may illuminate the workings of the Law; while the discourse on the Law, or social order, may open out the significance of the work of art, and in particular what I will describe as the possibility of its ‘critical perversity’. To link David with Sade, as if by contamination, will open out a space within which to elaborate the notion of a perverse enchainment of bodies in post-revolutionary France. If the productive corrolary of this historical moment of crisis – in politics, philosophy – was the emergence of the aesthetic and a radically redefined Kantian subject, how might we now think of David as a Kantian subject-in-crisis – one whose ineffable political jouissance may be located in the perverse metonymic displacements which alone compensate for the formal incoherence of the image, Leonidas?

Document Type: Original Article


Affiliations: University College, London

Publication date: September 1, 2000


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