Structure and Genealogy of Perversion in Contemporary Philosophy, Politics, and Art

fundamental research project
Basic Info


Perversion, in its popular image, is usually related to explicitly subjective, personal modes of enjoyment. According to this widespread image, the obscene acts or deeds that one can continuously observe in populist figures such as Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and many others, but also in the figure of Francis Underwood in the popular television series House of Cards, are mostly interpreted via the perpetrators’ personal pathology or individual features, which seemingly have nothing to do with structural causes. In short, they are understood as pure excesses that “derange” the supposedly normal functioning of power and democratic social order. Lacan’s psychoanalysis, however, has taught us that perversion is a much more ambiguous phenomenon and that it is based on a structural “non-personal” enjoyment. Usually a pervert assumes the role of an “executioner”, a “professional”, who carefully and meticulously executes his or her task and mission. In this sense, the figure of perversion can represent an interesting and productive entry for questioning the way in which contemporary power and the social bond actually work. We can see thereby how a critique of power that primarily points out its subjective “abuses” is too short and does not really address the systemic violence presupposed by the normal and professional functioning of power, as well as the systemic enjoyment generated by its own inner contradictions.

In opposition to the predominant a-structural thinking of perverse phenomena, the proposed project will intervene in the debate from a radically opposed perspective. By relying on a particularly rich heritage of contemporary philosophical treatments of perversion, which can be found in the works of Foucault, Deleuze, Bataille, Klossowski, Agamben, and, despite a completely different approach, also in Freud, Lacan, and Žižek, the project will try to show that the perversion in phenomena such as the obscenities of populist leaders, everyday voyeuristic or exhibitionist practices in social media, reality shows, etc., is definitively not reducible to some personal traits or styles, but primarily is 1) a structure, which 2) enables insight into the way power relations and the social bond work today. In doing so, the project will attempt to take a decisive and systematic step towards thinking of perversion as an immanent philosophical concept which is founded on its structural dimension.

For these purposes, the proposed project will take as its point of departure two key contemporary philosophical currents of thought or approaches to perversion. There are important differences between the two; however, they agree on the fundamental point in thinking perversion as a structure exceeding individual pathology. We will call the first approach epistemic; it departs from the broader Nietzschean genealogical perspective and can be found primarily in Foucault and Deleuze, but one can also find it in Giorgio Agamben. We will call the second approach diagnostic; it departs from Freud’s psychoanalysis and culminates in Lacan and Žižek.

One of the first novelties introduced by the proposed project in contemporary philosophical debates on perversion and analyses of power/the social bond is an emphasis on the complementarity of both approaches, while their irreconcilable differences will not be neglected, of course. The second novelty introduced by the proposed project is to broaden and further develop the very conceptualisation of perversion through 1) an analysis of the relation between perversion and power; 2) an analysis of logic, discursive structures, and manifestations of perversions in “pornologic art” and similar cultural rituals, which have been mostly neglected or overlooked; however, they are crucial for a  conceptualisation of perversion as a structure. In doing so, the project will systematically and in an original manner enrich the existing set of philosophical studies of perversion.

Project steps

The project brings together a team of established, experienced, and internationally recognised researchers with a strong track record of publications with international impact and completed research projects. This ensures the successful completion of the project and the high quality of the research outputs. All members of the research team are employed at the Institute of Philosophy (of the Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts – ZRC SAZU), which is internationally recognised as a venue specialised in the fields of modern and contemporary continental philosophy (especially Kant, Hegel, and post-war French philosophy), psychoanalysis (Freud and Lacan), post-Foucauldian biopolitical theory (especially Agamben, Negri, and Esposito), and modern aesthetics (especially Marxists currents, twentieth century avant-gardes, and twentieth century aesthetic theory – Heidegger, Adorno, and Ranciere, among others). All team members also hold regular positions at the ZRC SAZU Postgraduate School and visiting appointments at other national and foreign academic institutions, which ensures that the new knowledge produced by the research project will be transferred to a new generation of graduate and post-graduate students. The Institute of Philosophy also publishes an open-access AHCI journal, Filozofski vestnik, of which all members of the Institute serve as editorial board members, while Peter Klepec and Jelica Šumič Riha serve as the editor-in-chief and executive editor, respectively. Beside the project leader, Boštjan Nedoh, whose research focuses mainly on contemporary continental philosophy, Lacanian psychoanalysis, biopolitical theory, and political theology (a detailed presentation of the project leader is included in the electronic part of the application form in the section “CV of the project leader”), the research team will comprise the following researchers: Alenka Zupančič, Peter Klepec, Aleš Bunta, Jelica Šumič Riha, Tadej Troha, Rok Benčin, Marina Gržinić Mauhler and Rado Riha.

All team members have expertise in research fields relevant to the project theme. More bio-bibliographical details regarding the research team can be found on the Institute’s website:

The project is organised and divided into the following work packages (WP):

WP 1 – The Structure of Perversion 1: Epistemic Approach (months 1-36): This work package, which is devoted to a conceptual analysis of the epistemic approach to perversion, will last all three years of the project. In the first year (months 1-12), the project will focus mainly on the influence of Nietzsche’s genealogical method and critique of morality especially on Deleuze’s and Foucault’s approaches to perversion. Milestone: 1-2 scientific article (month 12). In the second year (months 12-24), the research in this WP will further analyse the epistemological role of perversion, through both a macro-level analysis of the structure of modern power, and on the micro-level as regards knowledge about pleasure and enjoyment. Milestone: 1-2 scientific articles (month 24). In the last year (months 24-36), the project will move toward a final synthesis of the epistemic approach and provide a more thorough comparison with the diagnostic approach, adding to the prior research also more specific topics of Deleuze’s articulation of the differences between sadism and masochism. Milestone: 2 scientific articles or book chapters (month 36). The findings from this WP will also be included in a scientific monograph to be submitted at the end of the project (the schedule is described in more detail in WP 6 – dissemination). This WP will be led by Peter Klepec. Beside the WP leader, this WP will include the work of the following team members: Boštjan Nedoh, Aleš Bunta, Alenka Zupančič, and Rok Benčin.

WP 2 – The Structure of Perversion 2: Diagnostic Approach (Months 1-36): This WP, which is dedicated to study of the diagnostic approach to perversion, will especially complement WP 1 and will last three years. In the first year (months 1-12), the project will focus on the fundamental structural elements of perversion in Freud’s and Lacan’s psychoanalysis, especially on Freud’s introduction of polymorphous perversion and the distinction between the Oedipal and linguistic drives in Lacan. Milestone: 1 scientific article (month 12). In the second year (months 12-24), the research in this WP will further analyse the diagnostic approach and start considering the relation between affects and perversion in psychoanalysis, focusing especially on guilt and anxiety, but also on the wider problem of the “valorisation of affects” in today’s capitalism. Milestone: 1-2 scientific articles (month 24). In the last year (months 24-36), the project will move toward a final synthesis of the diagnostic approach, which will include a thorough comparison with the epistemic approach. It will add to prior research also the more specific topic of fiction in perversion. Milestone: 2 scientific articles or book chapters (month 36). The findings from this WP will also be included in the scientific monograph to be submitted at the end of the project (the schedule is described in more detail in WP 6 – dissemination). The leader of this WP will be Alenka Zupančič. Beside her, the following team members will be involved in research activities: Boštjan Nedoh, Peter Klepec, Tadej Troha, Jelica Šumič Riha and Rado Riha.

WP 3 – Perversion and Politics (months 1-36): The research in this WP aims at exploring the relation between perversion and power. In the first year (months 1-12), the project will develop the notion of systemic, non-personal enjoyment, which is central to the functioning of modern power, bureaucracy, and biopolitical institutions, and put the former also in the context of the discussion between Foucault and psychoanalysis regarding the economy of repression. Milestone: 1-2 scientific articles (month 12). In the second year, the project will extend the research to the more specific relation between perversion and Christianity, in the context of Agamben tracing back the origins of capitalist governmentality to the early Christian notion of the Trinity, and the context of Lacan’s comments on the same issue of the Trinity. Herein, we will extend this analysis also to the relation between perversion and evil. Milestone: 1-2 scientific articles (month 24). In the last year, the project will draw more systematic conclusions from the findings in years 1 and 2 and bring them into the discussion with the dominant view of perversion as a structure of the social bond in capitalism, which revolves around Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism. Milestone: 2 scientific articles (month 36). Some of the research from the last year will be also appear in the scientific monograph to be submitted at the end of the project. This WP will be led by the project leader Boštjan Nedoh and will involve also the work of other team members: Alenka Zupančič, Peter Klepec, Aleš Bunta, Jelica Šumič Riha, Tadej Troha, Rado Riha and Marina Gržinić Mauhler.

WP 4 – Perversion and art and culture (months 1-36): Work package 4 – Perversion and Art and Culture (months 1-36): This WP is divided into two sections (i.e. the logic, discursive structure, and forms of appearances of perversions; the genealogy of perversion). The research in both sections will be conducted simultaneously throughout the whole duration of the project. In the first year (months 1-12), the research will cover the topics of Sade’s and Masoch’s respective literary discourses and some canonical studies on their respective works. It will also start exploring pornological comics and Foucault’s concept of the grotesque (section 1) and the role of perversion in the period of the early Roman Empire (section 2), which is central for Foucault. Milestone: 1-2 scientific articles (month 12). In the second year (months 12-24), the project will proceed to an analysis of the genre of parody and compare it with the study of the grotesque, while it will also start considering the role of perversion in the development of post-WW II film genres (section 1). Simultaneously, the project will also focus on perversion within the wider context of Christian morality, art, and religious rituals, as well as on the inherent perversion of selected punishing phenomena and on perversion in the context of new technologies and control societies (section 2). Milestone: 2-3 scientific articles (month 24). In the last year (months 24-36), the research will mainly aim at continuing and completing the analyses from the second year, while also synthesising the findings from all three years. Milestone: 2 scientific articles or book chapters (month 36). Again, part of the research in this WP will also appear in the monograph to be submitted at the end of the project. WP 4 will be led by Aleš Bunta. Beside WP leader, the following members will be active in this WP: Boštjan Nedoh, Jelica Šumič Riha, Peter Klepec, Tadej Troha, Rok Benčin and Marina Gržinić Mauhler

WP 5 – Management (months 1-36): Project management will include coordination of the research work and the regular exchange of findings among the members of the research team. Project meetings are planned monthly. Milestones: short management reports (1 page) describing the overall progression of the project (months 6, 12, 18, 24, 30) and the final report (2 pages) at the end of the project (month 36). This WP will be led by project leader Boštjan Nedoh. All team members will participate in the activities in this WP.

WP 6 – Dissemination (months 1-36): Dissemination of the results will continue throughout the duration of the project. Scientific articles will be published in high-quality domestic and international journals (target journals: Problemi and Filozofski vestnik, domestically, and Angelaki, Continental Philosophy Review, Journal for Cultural Research, Textual Practice, Crisis and Critique, and Parallax, internationally). In choosing the submission outlet, we will devote special attention to targeting as wide a readership as possible. In addition to the scientific articles, at the end of the project a scientific monograph will be submitted to a high-quality academic publisher (target presses: Edinburgh University Press, The University of Minnesota Press, MIT Press, Rowman and Littlefield International, and Northwestern University Press). Milestones: the submission of the monograph proposal (month 20); the submission of the final manuscript (month 36). Besides the scientific articles and scientific monograph, the project will be supported by its own website, institutional Twitter account, and Facebook profile, which will be used to promptly communicate all important news about the project. A workshop will also be organised as part of the dissemination efforts (between months 18 and 24), where the initial research findings will be presented to the public. The international scientific conference at the conclusion of the project (months 33-36) will include a presentation of the research findings, as a video of the conference, which will be held in English, will be made available on-line. If this project is awarded funding, its ambition is definitely to continue the research also after its conclusion. In this respect, it is meant to be the beginning of a more longitudinal systematic research study that will try to spread beyond the national boundaries by strengthening international collaboration in order to raise the prospect of success in future national and international funding calls. The leader of this WP will be Boštjan Nedoh, while all members of the project team will be active in this WP.

contemporary philosophy