Processes of Formalization in Pasolini’s Saló

Alex Villar

Two scenes that happen early into Saló, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film on the Marquis de Sade’s book 120 Days of Sodom, encapsulate a systematic process of formalization at work throughout the film.

The first of these scenes shows what appears to be the headmaster at an orphanage yelling at pupils that are loosely placed in a room. The resulting reaction by the group takes the form of a couple of lined rows stoically arranged in the space of the room. The empty space surrounding the tightly rearranged group then dominates the scene, conveying a sense of supreme obedience.

The next scene readily follows the first, and also involves a similar situation. Having arrived at their destination, the pupils hang out haphazardly in a large room. They have likely joined others who were arrested elsewhere. Once more, the group is subjected to yelling by someone who looks to be, judging by clothes and demeanor, from the security forces. Again, the group is reorganized into a row formation. This time there are three rows instead of two, confirming the perception that it comprises a larger group. The circular architecture of this second building reinforces, by contrast, the contrived compliancy of the young bodies occupying this large room of their prison-palace.

The formal device of contrasting positions is often repeated throughout the film. For instance, in one scene the kneeling in desperation of a young woman is met with standing arousal by the four men. In another scene, two standing groups are presented at contrasting vertical points: powerful men on the top balcony where politicians typically stand, while prisoners stay at the ground level, looking up in unavoidable acquiescence.

The violence that succeeds these scenes, and that continues until the very last ones, is so vigorous in arresting the viewer’s attention that one could easily lose sight of the role that formalizing procedures play in performing the systemic orientation of Sade’s work. As Simone de Beauvoir states in summary form what merits our attention in the Marquis de Sade’s work is not his literary abilities nor the originality of his perversions, but rather the fact that he turned the latter into a comprehensive system.

This system is comprised of a body of rules laid down in much the same way as in other domains where conduct requires a formal code of behavior. It essentially forms an ethical code of conduct. Never mind that the solipsistic morality that authorizes this code into law in Saló is of an aberrant type, because in its form it is still a law like any other. It is the protean characteristic of the law that Sade adopts as language and subverts in purpose.

Sade’s work by itself provides only a partial attempt to turn the law’s conservative imperatives against itself. That is why Deleuze studies Masoch: to also think the upheaval of the law from the side of the weak. While Sade appropriates and lays bare the language of power while relying on the assertion of property to convey authority, Masoch makes use of the form of the contract to exercise control over his submissive experiences. Both strategies seek to formalize behavior into a code of ethics. Both authors mimic while displacing established instruments of power. And in both cases, although they remain within the form of the law, what allows them to change the established registers of power are not given by law, but rather by language. That language can accomplish a performative displacement in the operative forms of the law which are so firmly established by usage is indicative of its transformative force.

The Nazi concentration camp actualizes what in Saló is represented as an exceptional state that coincides with the rule. That is to say that the extreme processes of formalization that were carried out in the camp were conducted under the guise of the law. To be included in the camp, its subjects needed to be dispossessed of citizenship. That much was accomplished by decree. But in order to be exterminated, one needed first to be disqualified as a human being. That task was accomplished by language.

The subhuman status can perhaps be best understood by contemplating an extreme example. In the camp, there was a provisional form of existence that situated life at the threshold point between the living and the dead. Those who embodied this abject condition were called Muselmann. This being for whom existence was reduced to a quasi-vegetative state, for whom notions of dignity no longer applied, was considered by Germans and Jews alike to be no longer human. The Muselmann was someone whose death was deemed meaningless because he was no longer a human being. And in ceasing to be human, or to qualify as human, one’s life could be discarded as if it were without value. The Muselmann is of course merely the most extreme example of a negative operation of language that is already at play in the figure of the Jew. Under the Nazi regime, the Jew was to the German what the Muselmann was to other Jews in the concentration camp, someone whose humanity was vacant.

If language can operate such powerful shifts in how we perceive what qualifies as human, a perception that can then be used to institute lawful, if perverse, regimes of governmentality, then what becomes clear is that we cannot merely rely on the same tools of formalization to do the undoing work. In other words, we cannot simply work through the law to move us beyond a constrictive horizon. We must probe the more fundamental ground in which ideas are first formulated, ideas that will shape the understanding of our world and the lives of the beings who inhabit it.

Presentation notes for seminar at Art Law Program, Fordham Law School, on April 21, 2015, from 6 to 9 pm.


  1. Agamben, Giorgio. “The Muselmann.” In Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, 41–86. New York: Zone Books, 2000.

  2. Beauvoir, Simone. “Must We Burn Sade?” In The Marquis De Sade: The 120 Days of Sodom, and Other Writings. New York: Grove Press, 1966.

  3. Deleuze, Gilles. “Humor, Irony and the Law” and “The Language of Sade and Masoch.” In Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty & Venus in Furs.

  4. Pasolini, Pier Paolo. Saló, Or, The 120 Days of Sodom. Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. 1975. Film.

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