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Reply to My Critics, Part Two (re: The Sexual is Political)

Reply to My Critics, Part Two (re: The Sexual is Political)

Two general observations about my numerous critics seem pertinent to me. First, the large majority of attacks on my text follow the rules of the tweet culture with short snaps, retorts, sarcastic or outraged remarks, and with no space for the multiple steps of a line of argumentation. One passage (a sentence, or even a part of it) is cut out and reacted to. For example, many critics countered my analysis of the anti-Semitic figure of the Jew as a foreign intruder who disturbs social harmony by accusing me of anti-Semitism and totally ignoring the fact that the claim about “Jews as foreign intruders” is for me the very claim I reject as the exemplary ideological operation of obfuscating social antagonisms. They simply cut those words out of the line of argumentation and used them to attack me… Even the “annotated” reply to my text by Virgil Texas and Felix Biederman is just a collection of tweet snaps, and I have neither the time nor the will to join that game and reply with my own annotations to annotations.

The stance that sustains these tweet rejoinders is a mixture of self-righteous Political Correctness and brutal sarcasm: the moment anything that sounds problematic is perceived, a reply is automatically triggered—usually a PC commonplace. Although critics like to emphasize how they reject normativity (“the imposed heterosexual norm,” etc.), their stance itself is one of ruthless normativity, denouncing every minimal deviation from the PC dogma as “transphobia,” or “Fascism,” or whatever. Such a tweet culture, combining official tolerance and openness with extreme intolerance towards actually different views, simply renders critical thinking impossible. It is a true mirror image of the blind populist rage à la Donald Trump, and it is simultaneously one of the reasons why the Left is so often inefficient in confronting rightwing populism, especially in today’s Europe. If one just mentions that this populism draws a good part of its energy from the popular discontent of the exploited, one is immediately accused of “class essentialism”…

This brings me to the second observation. One of the problems at the center of my preoccupations—the link between the struggle for sexual liberation and what was traditionally designated a “class struggle” in all its diverse dimensions (not just the workers’ struggle but Third World crises, the plight of immigrants and refugees, etc.)—is more or less totally ignored by my opponents. I insist on this topic because one of the greatest tragedies of progressive struggles is, for me, the lack of contact (antagonism even) between the two. Nancy Fraser has shown how the predominant form of feminism in the US was basically co-opted by neoliberal politics. And while the exploding animosity of Third World countries towards gay struggles is widely known, the saddest thing is that they present their rejection of homosexuality as part of their anti-imperialist struggle. So, in the same way that the homophobia and anti-feminism of many Third World movements should make us suspicious about the level of their anti-imperialism, we should also at least wonder about the fact that individuals who personify the cutting edge of global capitalism, like Tim Cook, emphatically support LGBT+ rights. There is certainly nothing a priori bad in this fact, and there is a long history of big corporations acting against apartheid. In the old South Africa, foreign companies with factories based there, such as Mercedes, began paying black workers the same as they paid white ones and thus definitely contributed to the end of apartheid. True, one should listen to stories of how LGBT+ individuals are oppressed, victimized, etc., but one should nonetheless also note that they enjoy the full support of hegemonic political space and big business. This, of course, should not in any way problematize our full support for LGBT+, but it should make us aware of the politico-ideological background for the affair.

The Leftist call for justice tends to be combined with struggles for women’s and gay rights, for multiculturalism and against racism. The strategic aim of the Clinton consensus is clearly to dissociate all these struggles from the Leftist call for justice. The message from this consensus to Leftists is: You can get everything, but we just want to keep the essentials, namely the unencumbered functioning of the global capital. President Obama’s “Yes, we can!” acquires now a new meaning: Yes, we can concede to all your cultural demands… without endangering global market economy, and so there is no need for radical economic measures. Or, as Todd McGowan put it (in a private communication): “The consensus of ‘right-thinking people’ opposed to Trump is frightening. It is as if his excess licenses the real global capitalist consensus to emerge and to congratulate themselves on their openness.” That’s why I think it’s politically crucial to counteract this tendency and to fight for the solidarity of all our struggles. A truly radical gesture would have been, say, to get a Muslim lady, with her hair veiled even, to proclaim herself part of LGBT+. (Incidentally, for those hardline Muslims who insist that women should be covered, the question is how transgender individuals should be dressed since they belong to neither of the two hegemonic genders.)

But are there not exceptions to this tweet culture? Sam Warren Miell‘s reaction to my text1 presents itself as such, challenging me to confront him who criticizes me from the Lacanian standpoint and reproaches me with misreading Lacan or at least with not keeping in touch with the new developments in Lacanian theory that are much more open to the LGBT+ topic and can enable us to grasp it in a new way. So what do we get there, apart from the standard, rather tasteless, puns on my account? Here enters the big surprise: quite a lot of his text sounds familiar, as it recapitulates the analyses by Joan Copjec and others, with which I fully agree. I’ve written literally hundreds of pages on how to read Lacan’s formulas of sexuation, so to preach to me how sexual difference is the point at which logos/reason breaks down sounds weird… Quite a lot, but not all. Referring mostly to the work of Tim Dean (whom I highly appreciate, by the way), he outlines a new approach to Lacan, which, so he claims, indicates that “Lacanian studies have decisively moved beyond Žižek and his generation. How appropriate that, in the field of psychoanalysis, we have killed the Father.”

Does it? Here enters the second surprise: the approach he advocates is based on—let’s call it, to simplify things to the utmost—the “from phallus to objet a” thesis. The idea is that the late Lacan, with his shift of accent from the Symbolic to the Real, also left behind the central role of the phallic signifier and of sexual difference, instead of which he asserted the central role of objet petit a (or surplus-enjoyment) as more primordial, as grounding the subject’s relation to enjoyment, and this object is, as Lacan wrote, “a-sexual.” From this premise, Dean deploys his impersonalist theory of desire, according to which we have sex not with others but with the Other. From this standpoint, of course, the phallus (the phallic signifier) has to appear as a kind of retrograde legacy: “Lacan’s most profound ideological and affective convictions sometimes run counter to his most brilliant critical and analytical insights.” The phallic signifier is part of these “convictions” and should be reduced to a “provisional concept because so many of its functions are taken over by other concepts, in particular that of objet a, which has no a priori relation to gender and, indeed, may be represented by objects gendered masculine, feminine, or neuter” (quotes from Dean’s Beyond Sexuality). (Incidentally, this is always a comfortable position: when you propose a reading that obviously has to ignore some of the interpreted author’s key theses, the easiest way to deal with it is to impute the inconsistency to the interpreted author him/herself.)

With regard to sexual difference itself, Dean evokes Freud’s “astonishing claim” that “the unconscious has no knowledge of sexual difference /…/ Lacan maintains that there is no signifier for sexual difference in the unconscious. Hence the phallus cannot be a signifier of sexual difference /…/If there is no signifier for sexual difference in the unconscious, then as far as the unconscious is concerned heterosexuality does not exist…. Sexual difference does not organize or determine sexual desire.” Miell sums up Dean’s position:

Our tendency to read sexual difference and sexuality in terms of each other, and to read sexual difference in terms of men and women, corresponds to a pre-Freudian, psychologistic understanding of sexuality. Worse, it endorses an identification of sexuality with the ego, with normative, idealizing results. /…/ The fact that the unconscious contains no signifier of sexual difference means that it is essentially bigendered/bisexual (as Freud himself already suggested), which is why Shanna T. Carlson has concluded that one way a transgendered person might be viewed in terms of psychoanalysis is as personifying ‘the human subject as such, the unconsciously bisexual subject for whom sexual difference is only ever an incomplete, unsatisfactory solution to the failure of the sexual relation.’

As expected, the line of thought concludes with a stab at me. Since sexual difference does not organize or determine sexual desire, “Žižek’s conflation of gender identities and sexualities is particularly surprising.” Really? I think this entire line of thought should be rejected as a pretty obvious misreading of Lacan. Not only do I not conflate gender and sex, I clearly distinguish the biological reality of males and females (though it remains a question if even here we are dealing with pure biology), gender identities (normative symbolic constructions of masculine, feminine, and other identities) and sexual difference (although Lacan never uses this term; he talks about masculine and feminine sides of his “formulas of sexuation”).

And this bring us to the crucial point. If we designate as “sexual difference” what Lacan renders with his formulas of sexuation, then, for Lacan, not only sexuality but human subjectivity as such is thoroughly “sexed” precisely in the sense of the trauma of sexual difference. The parallax gap between masculine and feminine positions, the two inconsistent ways to cope with—or, rather, to assume—the trauma of the impossibility of sexual relationship, is unconditional; there is no third way. Of course, our position is not determined by biology (a biological man can assume a feminine position) but the choice is unconditional: there is no “bisexuality” here; the gap is parallactic; one position excludes the other, which is why one precisely should not invoke “the human subject as such, the unconsciously bisexual subject for whom sexual difference is only ever an incomplete, unsatisfactory solution to the failure of the sexual relation.” Yes, every solution to the failure of sexual relationship is unsatisfactory and in this sense incomplete, but this does not mean that sexual difference is a secondary imposed frame which cannot even completely capture the wealth of the unconsciously bisexual subject. There is nothing outside this failure, for subject and language are themselves the outcomes of this primordial failure. As Lacan put it, the Real is an impasse of formalization, and this is to be taken literally: not that the Real is an external substantial domain that resists formalization (or symbolization, although they are not the same, of course), but that the Real is totally immanent to the Symbolic and is nothing but its immanent failure.

One should note that the only “function” operative in these formulas of sexuation is the phallic function. As Lacan emphasizes, what is “primordially repressed,” what is constitutively absent even from the unconscious, is (not the signifier of sexual difference but) the “binary signifier,” the signifier that would serve as the feminine counterpart to the phallic function in the way premodern sexualized cosmology talks about masculine and feminine “principles,” such as Yin and Yang. (To avoid any misunderstanding, this primordial repression of the binary signifier not only does not put women in a subordinate position; if anything, it elevates them into exemplary cases of subjectivity, since subjectivity is for Lacan defined by the missing signifier—this is how one should read Lacan’s mark for the subject, $, barred S, signifier.) Because the binary signifier is primordially repressed, there is no sexual relationship; sexual antagonism cannot be symbolized in a pair of opposed symbolic/differential features.

However, the fact that there is no sexual relationship in no way implies that “there is no sexual difference in the unconscious,” that the unconscious is beyond or beneath sexual difference, a fluid domain of partial drives that defy sexuation. One can even say that the unconscious is thoroughly and only about sexual difference in the sense of an antagonism that is impossible to symbolize and that haunts the symbolic order. The impossibility of sexual relationship does not mean that sexual relationship is simply absent from the unconscious. It means that the very impossibility of sexual relationship is the traumatic point of failure which structures the entire symbolic space, or, as Lacan put it in his Seminar XX, “we take language as that which functions as a supplement for the absence of the only part of the real that cannot manage to be formed in being, namely, the sexual relationship.” That’s why objet a as a-sexual is not prior to the deadlock of sexual relationship but is already mediated by it, an object which fills in the lack/void sustained by this deadlock/impossibility. There is objet a because there is no sexual relationship. To put it in yet another way: yes, as Miell repeats, sexual difference is the point of failure of logos, of the Symbolic, but this failure absolutely does not mean that there is a domain of sexuality prior to (or outside of) sexual difference and its deadlock. Sexual difference/antagonism is not just the point at which logos/reason fails; it is nothing but the effect of this failure. For this reason, if I may quote myself, partial drives, through which the subject relates to objet a, 

are not simply happy self-enclosed circular movements which generate enjoyment; their circular movement is a repeated failure, a repeated attempt to encircle some central void. What this means is that drive is not a primordial fact, that it has to be deduced from a previous constellation: what logically precedes drive is the ontological failure—the thwarted movement towards a goal, i.e., some form of radical ontological negativity/failure—, and the basic operation of drive is to find enjoyment in the very failure to reach full enjoyment. We should thus distinguish between drives with their partial satisfactions (oral, anal, scopic), and the disruptive negativity this circular movement of drives tries to cope with.2

And, again, Lacan’s name for this negativity is the impossibility of sexual relationship, the impossibility formalized in his formulas of sexuation. For this reason, I also don’t think that the idea to conceive transgender identity as a “sinthom” in Lacan’s sense is of great use: it is either too general or too narrow. On the one hand, the sinthom is for (late) Lacan the most elementary “formula” of enjoyment, and, as such, provides the minimum of consistency to every human being. On the other hand, apropos Joyce-the-sinthom, Lacan reads Joyce’s work—his literary texts—as a sinthom, a synthetic formation, which allowed him to avoid psychosis, i.e., which served as a formation that supplemented for the missing Name-of-the-Father. But I don’t see transgender individuals as potential psychotics who avoided psychosis by creating a sinthom… I think that the ethical greatness of transgender subjects resides precisely in the fact that they reject “depersonalization” and remain subjects, assuming the deadlock of subjectivity even more radically than other more “normalized” subjects. If all this sounds abstract and crazy, well, that’s how Lacan is usually perceived. So, to conclude, I will shamelessly quote a long passage from my Absolute Recoil where I formulate the critical edge of my reading:

One should reject the predominant view according to which hegemonic ideology in all its aspects (social, legal, economic, ethical, religious) privileges ‘natural’ sexuality (the standard reproductive copulation) and tries to repress or suppress the polymorphously-perverse sexuality of partial drives which is considered asocial and dangerous, and is tolerated only as a subordinate preparatory moment of the ‘normal’ sexual (fondling and kissing as a foreplay, etc.). The best argument against this predominant view is the history of its greatest advocate, of Christianity:

‘Christ, even when resurrected from the dead, is valued for his body, and his body is the means by which communion in his presence is incorporation – oral drive – with which Christ’s wife, the Church as it is called, contents itself very well, having nothing to expect from copulation. In everything that followed from the effects of Christianity, particularly in art – and it’s in this respect that I coincide with the ‘baroquism’ with which I accept to be clothed – everything is exhibition of the body evoking jouissance – and you can lend credence to the testimony of someone who has just come back from an orgy of churches in Italy – but without copulation.’3

Lacan is very clear here: one should reject the endlessly repeated ‘critical’ thesis that the Catholic sexual morality imposes ‘normative heterosexuality’ on the subversive and destabilizing ‘polymorphous sexuality’ of humans. In contrast to the idea that partial drives are masturbatory, asocial, etc., while genital sexuality grounds social link (family as elementary social form), one should insist that there is nothing necessarily a-social in partial drives: they function as the glue of society, the very stuff of communion, in contrast to the heterosexual couple which is – as Freud emphasizes in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego – effectively asocial, isolating itself from its community, and is therefore distrusted by church and army, Freud’s two models of social link – or, to quote the concise comment of these lines by Alenka Zupančič:

‘So there is something profoundly disruptive at stake in copulation. For the kind of (social) bond it proposes, Christianity doesn’t need the latter, which functions as the superfluous element, something on top of what would be (ideally) needed, and hence as disturbing. Indeed, ‘natural’ copulation is utterly banned from the religious imaginary, whereas the latter doesn’t recede from, for example, images of canonized saints eating the excrements of another person. If looked at from this perspective, Christianity is indeed all about ‘jouissance of the body,’ about the body (of God) as constituting another person’s jouissance. Partial drives and the satisfaction they procure are rather abundantly present, and in this sense one would be justified in claiming that in its libidinal aspect the Christian religion massively relies on what belongs to the register of ‘infantile sexuality’: satisfaction and bonding by way of partial objects, with the exclusion of sexual coupling. The pure enjoyment, ‘enjoyment for the sake of enjoyment’ is not exactly what is banned here; what is banned, or repressed, is its link with sexuality, particularly in the form of ‘copulation’.’4

Christianity thus acknowledges the polymorphous-perverse satisfactions of drives, but it desexualizes them, it desexualizes the pleasures they provide. Pleasures as such are not problematic: Christian literature abounds with the descriptions of ecstatic heavenly pleasures provided by meditations, prayers and rituals, but it cuts them off thoroughly from sexuality. The irony here is that Christianity does exactly the same as the greatest analyst and critic of the Christian mode of subjectivization, Michel Foucault, who also endeavors to assert pleasures outside the domain of sexuality.5

Again, as far as I can see, transgender subjects in no way follow this path of subtracting their space of enjoyment from intersubjectivity and asserting the search for enjoyment in direct dealings with objects. Their anxieties seem to concern precisely their position in social space. And, on the contrary, today’s consumerist capitalism does this subtraction quite well: instead of sex with persons, we have more and more sex with what Lacan calls lathouses, technologically created partial objects, all the “things that did not exist” prior to the scientific intervention into the Real, from mobile phones to remote-controlled toys, from air conditioners to artificial hearts:

The world is increasingly populated by lathouses. Since you seem to find that amusing, I am going to show you how it is written. Notice that I could have called it lathousies. That would have gone better with ousia, it is open to all sorts of ambiguity. /…/ And for the tiny little a-objects that you are going to encounter when you leave, on the pavement at every street corner, behind every shop window, in the superabundance of these objects designed to cause your desire in so far as it is now science that governs it, think of them as lathouses.6

As such, a lathouse is to be opposed to a symptom in the precise Freudian sense of the term: lathouse is knowledge embodied in a new “unnatural” object. Now we can see why, apropos lathouses, we have to include capitalism. After all, we are dealing with a whole chain of surpluses: scientific technology with its surplus-knowledge (a knowledge beyond mere connaissance of already existing reality, a knowledge which gets embodied in new objects); the capitalist surplus-value (the commodification of this surplus-knowledge in the overflow of gadgets); and, last but not least, the surplus-enjoyment (gadgets as forms of objet a) which accounts for the libidinal economy of the hold lathouses have over us. No wonder that, in Lacan’s formulas of sexuation, such a direct link between the subject and partial objects is located on the masculine side: although it bypasses the phallic signifier, it is no way outside sexual difference.

[Appeared in The Philosophical Salon on August 14th 2016]

Footnotes

  1. https://differentcolouredhats.wordpress.com/2016/08/03/slavoj-zizek-is-wrong-about-stuff/.
  2. Op.cit., p. 206.
  3. Jacques Lacan, On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge (Seminar XX), New York: Norton 1999, p. 113.
  4. Alenka Zupančič, “Die Sexualitaet innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft” (unpublished manuscript).
  5. Slavoj Žižek, Absolute Recoil, London: Verso Books 2014, pp. 200-201.
  6. Jacques Lacan, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, New York: Norton 2007, p. 62.

Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, and a senior researcher at the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books; his latest are Against the Double Blackmail and Disparities. This account is not monitored and is only maintained to give appropriate credit.

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