Introduction (What Is Sex?)

What Is Sex?

YouTube: Introduction (What Is Sex?) 

Welcome to Lecture 1 of Alenka Zupančič’s What Is Sex? In this first lecture we start with the forward and introduction of this book attempting to understand the fundamental ontology of sexuality. In this work we thus approach many very controversial topics that intersect with diverse fields in philosophy, religion, psychoanalysis and science.

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Here to bring the contradiction

Alenka Zupančič is a philosopher whose work centres on the work of Lacanian psychoanalysis and continental philosophy. In the past she has worked closely with philosophers Mladen Dolar and Slavoj Žižek in a tradition that can roughly simplified as circling around Plato, Democritus, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud, and of course, Lacan. If one is unfamiliar with her previous work she has published several books in these areas including: Ethics of the Real: Kant and Lacan; The Shortest Shadow: Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Two; and Why Psychoanalysis: Three Interventions. Her works is very much inspired by Lacan’s return to Freud and she consistently refers to core Freudian texts in her own commentary on contemporary issues. She regards the Freudian discovery of the unconscious as a thing that thinks and speaks as central to the future of philosophy and the future of humanity. If one is interested one can find more of her lectures on the European Graduate School (EGS) YouTube channel where one will quickly realize that her main focus is on the nature of the Lacanian Real.

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Where did the ground go?


The first thing I want to cover here is the properly speculative dimension of this analysis as a dangerous analysis. I want to emphasize, as I will reemphasize in a few slides that this book is not meant to necessarily teach you something new, to give you some new positive content, of course we all “know” in some sense about sexuality, but this book is meant to give you a totally different perspective on something we always already knew. In that sense we do dare to ask the naive question: WHAT IS SEX? Notice here if one has a copy of this book that on the cover of the book and on the first page the word “IS” is first bolded and then secondarily italicized. This is no mistake. One is reminded of some Heideggerian passages where the word “is” is deconstructed, where he takes some phenomenological distance from the things-in-themselves. Heidegger playfully notices how this seemingly simple and innocent word “is” infuses our language and gives a weight that obfuscates the obvious gap between our words and the things we are referring to. Zupančič, however, in a properly Hegelian move, does not opt for remaining within the Kantian-Heideggerian universe where the sphere of our knowing is in some sense playfully disconnected from the things-in-themselves; but rather directly inscribed into the things-in-themselves. In that sense, we ask again and again the naive question What IS Sex? The point is to short circuit our discourse, to take something that everyone thinks they know, to take some elementary dimension of our culture, and to flip it upside down. The feeling one should thus get when reading What Is Sex? is the feeling that one was once walking on a stable substantive ground, but then, all of a sudden, the ground disappears beneath your feet, and you look down, and we see only the abyss of our own insubstantial self-relation. This is the “anti-essence” of Hegelian totality.

Second, the reason we are covering this book is to ask the properly ontological question on the nature of sexuality and gender. Is it not the case now that social theory and humanist theory has been for decades now structured around the epistemological nature of sex and gender, of its social construction, of its relativity, of its historical contingency? To be very specific, we of course have the dominant Butlerian notions of gender performativity, of gender as an open construction project that is not tethered to any biological (“natural”), historical (“social”) or archetypal (“transcendental”) constraints. Gender is something that can be liberated, gender is something that can be utilized as an expression of freedom, gender is something that can be used as a political weapon to attack the foundations of patriarchal hetero-normativity, and so forth. But is this hegemonic understanding of gender really the horizon of sexuality and sexuation? Is this move not still remaining within the Kantian-Heideggerian horizon, of thinking that human knowledge is not inscribed into the thing-in-itself? In other words, is the idea of gender as a social construction not making the mistake of obfuscating the properly ontological dimension of sexuality?

Third, the reason we are covering this book is to approach the Lacanian paradoxes of free sexuality and anxiety. To give a quick side note, there was a telling discursive encounter that one can find on YouTube if one has the time and the inclination, between Slavoj Žižek and Will Self. In this discursive encounter Will Self is persistently frustrated with the very public persona of Slavoj Žižek, of the way in which he appears to evade direct questioning and refuses to be pinned down into any determinate discursive location. In an act of exasperation Will Self start to probe Žižek for an answer to why we should bother with all of this insane Hegelian and Freudian infused philosophy that grounds the Lacanian analysis? Žižek responds, quite precisely, that we should bother to re-read Lacan, and re-read Lacan in the light of our present problems, precisely because of the anxiety in our culture regarding the status of free sexuality. Is not the central paradoxes and political tensions of our time not primordially circling around the real of sexuation? Is not the central conversation of our time that we cannot talk precisely about the paradoxes and antagonisms and uncomfortable tensions located in the real of sexuation? Here I will quickly recall that Lacan often notes the antagonism at the heart of the symbolic vis-a-vis the real of sexuality, how one can only approach sexuality indirectly, and never directly, referring to it (unconsciously) in jokes and slips of the tongue, and so forth.

For example, there is an episode of Seinfeld where George Castanza drives his date home after dinner, and his date says, “would you like to come up for coffee?” George responds, naively, “sorry I don’t drink coffee this late at night.” The woman, disappointed, leaves the car and walks up alone to her apartment. Then, once she closes the door, it clicks, coffee didn’t mean coffee, coffee meant sex. Here we see the elementary coordinates of sexuality, as something that can only be discussed indirectly, that can never be directly inscribed into the texture of the symbolic without becoming “too much”. In this sense, perhaps, when we attempt to think some of the sexual deadlocks and antagonisms of our current age, we should not be direct, but rather playfully indirect, inscribing jokes and slips of the tongue into the very texture of these deadlocks and antagonisms, in order to strengthen the mutual interdependence in the paradoxical sexual struggles of our age.

Finally, and I think this is something we will encounter again soon, and something that I would like to be constitutive of this blog, which is the formulation of a psychoanalytic philosophy. Indeed, the hegemonic structures of philosophy for decades now have been in some sense postmodern deconstructive philosophy which deploys notions of power dispotifs and ideological state apparatus as our historical horizon. Here we question the foundational concepts and structures of philosophy, from Parmenides and Plato onwards, as merely the linguistic games that became utilized by elites to control the marginalized, the slaves, the subaltern, the voiceless. However, Zupančič makes clear in the introduction that a psychoanalytic philosophy can make a new interpretation of our philosophical heritage. Instead of thinking of our philosophical heritage as revealed to us under the horizon of oppressive social power, perhaps we can think of our philosophical heritage as revealed to us under the horizon of sexual antagonism. Indeed, there are many passage in Lacan where we can find the idea that the fundamental distinctions of Plato and Aristotle were actually distinctions attempting to resolve the deadlocks and antagonisms of sexuality. In that sense, we find diving into Zupančič’s What Is Sex? as a necessary struggle to think in a new way about something we always already knew.

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Book Structure

Here we see the overall structure of What Is Sex? I am afraid to admit that to start this work we will once again have to focus on the ideas of Slavoj Žižek, it appears we cannot escape him even when we are focusing on the work of a different author. Zizek gives us a short forward, not only to What Is Sex? but to the Short Circuit series collectively edited by Mladen Dolar, Alenka Zupančič and Žižek (the self-appointed troika of the real). In this short circuit series we find other books by Žižek, Dolar, and Zupančič, as well as works by Henry Bond, Aaron Schuster, and Lorenzo Chiesa.

However, we will also be able to get directly to the work of Alenka Zupančič in this work, and cover directly her short Introduction to this book. If one takes the time to analyze the structure of the titles of this work one will find some interesting dimensions of her discourse. The first to notice is that Zupančič is calling attention to the strangeness of our contemporary sexual coordinates, but referring to the inside of sexuality, and the outside of sexuality. In some sense we can assume that this reference to the paradoxes of the inside and the outside may be brought together with the Lacanian notion of extimacy, the intimate inside experienced as an externality, as an essence concept to approach the real of sexuality. The second thing to notice is that Zupančič’s work is focused on contradiction, instead of a clear and consistent vision reconciling all contradictions, Zupančič inscribed contradiction into the heart of her discourse, not as a negative feature that should be cleared up, but as a positive feature, something that is a feature of the thing-in-itself. The third thing to notice is a little jab here at Graham Harman’s object-oriented ontology with the notion of an object-disoriented ontology. In the same way that contradiction, antagonism, and so forth are inscribed into the thing-in-itself, so is disorientation. The inability to get a clear and consistent view of objective reality, the inability to orient ourselves properly in history, is inscribed into the very heart of the thing-in-itself. Finally, we have a reference to the Bible, something that will be a common theme for Zupančič, and especially the reference to the Adam and Eve story that we all know. In that same way that we all know the Adam and Eve story, Zupančič wants us to reconsider this story in a new light, after we have attempted to understand the nature of sexuality and sexuation.

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Short Circuit Metaphor

So we start with Žižek. In Žižek’s series forward we here get an introduction to the point of the Short Circuit series and the metaphor that founds its discourse. The metaphor of the short circuit is meant to convey a productive disruption from the point of view of the critical and enlightened mind; and an annoying disruption from the point of view of the “network’s smooth functioning”. In that sense we get the picture of the social system as this clockwork machinery or computer program that operates according to rules and norms that the subject is not supposed to question; but instead supposed to integrate and incorporate so that the social system functions smoothly and perfectly. However, Žižek is here proposing, that a properly critical reading is supposed to disrupt this smooth functioning, that a properly critical reading allows us to see the dimensions of the machinery or programming as fundamentally flawed.

The first example he gives to demonstrate a short circuit are what happened to our understanding of philosophy and religion after the Marxist short circuit of reading these subjects from the point of view of political economy. In other words, what philosophy and religion ignored, disavowed, before Marx, was the properly political and economic dimensions of their own existence. However, after Marx, it no longer becomes possible to ignore the political and economic foundations of philosophy and religion, and thus, even if one does not agree with the Marxist foundations, we nonetheless must view this intervention as a short circuit that disrupts the smooth functioning of the system. Indeed, the Marxist intervention was a short circuit that disrupted the entire 20th century, throwing the world into a binary antagonism between capitalism and communism. The paradoxes of this short circuit, of course, is that the social machinery ended up absorbing the Marxist critique and transformed it into a new smooth functioning which then needed to be disrupted again by a different style of critical reading.

The second example he gives to demonstrate a short circuit is what happened to ethics and morality after the intervention of the Freudian libidinal economy which upended our notions of what the big Other thought was ethical and moral, we saw then, in the cracks and gaps of the Other, the ethical and moral real of the Freudian unconscious. Žižek here also gives proper credit to the pre-psychoanalytic Nietzchean intervention in philosophy, works that Freud explicitly admitted signalled the philosophical discovery of what was later formalized under psychoanalytic practice.

Short Circuiting Science

Now I will here take a liberty and offer two more examples from science that may be understood as historical short circuits. I would here first give the example of the Darwinian natural selection as a short circuit when considered from the perspective of the university discourse of pre-Darwinian biology; or even the university discourse of pre-Darwinian theology. There is no question that when Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was introduced it caused a total uproar from the perspective of the smooth functioning of the academic discourse. However, as with all good critical readings, the novel information or the novel frame of reference that allowed for a new understanding of the phenomena under question, the new presuppositions that allowed us to see new dimensions of reality, were integrated into the smooth functioning of the system.

In the same way I would also mention the Einsteinian discovery of curved spacetime as a fundamental short circuit in the smooth functioning of the machinery of pre-Einsteinian physics. As is well known, physicists now view Albert Einstein’s triad of nobel prize worthy publications in 1905 as his “miracle year”. However, this is a retroactive distortion of the real of Einstein’s 1905, where he struggled immensely due to the fact that his ideas were controversial and unable to fit within the paradigm of the real physics community of 1905. Thus, it is only retroactively that Einstein became “Einstein”, the greatest physicist of the 20th century, who ushered in a totally new paradigm for what would become general cosmology and macro physics. In this way we should always be aware that a real critical reading is to be engaged as a reading through the general discourse of the big Other, but with a perspectival distortion, which totally transforms the discourse of the big Other. This is a properly Hegelian dialectical shift where the distortion of the Thing is in fact part of the Thing-in-itself.

How to read What Is Sex?

Now, this is how Žižek is suggesting we read Zupančič’s What Is Sex? and also every other book in the Short Circuit series, as introducing a critical reading that get us to see the general field of discourse about a given topic in a new way. In this effort they privilege Lacanian psychoanalysis, and his return to Freud, as the properly short circuiting distortion that allows us to read the field of the Other in a new way. From this perspective, perhaps, we should read Zupančič’s ontological claims on sexuality, as allowing us to rethink the contemporary field of sexual and gender studies. This should be applied to the social science, the humanities and the natural sciences. Thus, how do we interpret the contemporary hegemony of the social construction of gender in the humanities; or the contemporary hegemony of the naturalist evolutionary psychology of gender in the sciences; after we read Zupančič’s short circuit introducing a discussion on the ontology of sexuation and sexuality?

This act is an act of revolution in the sense of employing the very foundations of Žižekian philosophy vis-a-vis the relation to the Other. For Žižek it is not only that “there is no big Other” but rather “there is a non-Other”. What this means is that the Other is a centering background for historical subjectivity, and in this context, the Other of the social construction of gender or the Other of the evolutionary psychology of gender, structure the very way in which we engage in sexual relations in the 21st century. However, in a critical reading, we challenge this very background. We are open to changing the very way in which we relate to this background, through a short-circuiting move. In order to achieve this we must first de-center ourselves, we must first be willing to critically and reflexively remove our background. This is by necessity an emotional process. This is by necessity something that will make us feel insecure and perhaps anxious. And as Lacan knew well, anxiety is an emotion that does not lie.

What do we get from enduring in this emotional anxiety? What we hopefully get is a better understanding of our own most intimate desires. These desires are not fully transparent to us. To be specific we get to unearth our unthought dimensions, our inhuman within dimensions, the dimensions of us that have become disavowed, unconscious, yet still effective in constituting our being. This after being disturbed by moving our very underground we may be free to think again, to think again, but in a new way. Hopefully, after reading What Is Sex? our very discourse about sex will be transformed.

Short Circuit Series

In that sense we may be willing to entertain the idea that what is going on in the Short Circuit series is a type of revolt against University Discourse, but not a revolt in a deconstructionists sense, where we simply demonstrate explicitly the holes and gaps in the Other. The short circuit is rather a hysterical provocation, not simply showing the holes and gaps in the Other, but by demonstrating that this inconsistency and incoherence must inscribe into its very core the hysterical provocation. Thus, whereas university discourse would seek to convince us that the “ordinary chain of signifiers” will align us with the objet petit a, the object cause of our desire; whereas the Master Signifier underlying the ordinary chain of signifiers remains unchallenged and the barred subjectivity vis-a-vis the cause of our desire remains obfuscates; the hysterics discourse would seek to assert that the Master Signifier of the Other does not cover the field and does not guarantee the utility of the ordinary chain of signifiers; whereas the cause of our desire is in fact to upend the current order and replace it with a truer order.

Zupančič starts her work with a quote from psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1):

“For the moment, I am not fucking, I am talking to you.  Well! I can have exactly the same satisfaction as if I were fucking.”

Indeed, when we think of the properly psychoanalytic concept of sublimation we tend to think of a repression. In other words, I remember back when I was in high school and I started to realize how excessive my libidinal energy really was, how this energy became diverted into other activities, like sports and academics. Of course, as Freud was quick to point out, all the while we are not having sex, we are actually thinking about sex, and perhaps wishing we were having sex. Thus this irreducible tension or gap between our excessive libidinal energy and the real of our sexual lives creates the need for a repression of sexual energy and a redirection of this energy into non-sexual activities.

The Lacanian short circuit here is that sublimation can produce a satisfaction that is equal to sexuality; thus re-directing its origins in a desire for a sexual act towards a non-sexual act with no repression. In this way one can conceive harnessing one’s libidinal energy in such a way that the same enjoyment one would desire from a sexual act becomes inscribed into the act of speaking, or any other creative linguistically mediated act, like writing, painting, praying.

Thus Zupančič notes that (2):

“The point that Lacanian psychoanalysis makes, however, is more paradoxical: the activity is different [than sexuality], but the satisfaction is the same. In other words, the point is not to explain the satisfaction in talking by referring to its “sexual origin”. The point is that the satisfaction in talking is itself “sexual”. And this is precisely what forces us to open the question to the very nature and status of sexuality in a radical way.”

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Paradoxical Reversal

Zupančič then quickly cites a passage from Marx: “human anatomy contains the key to the anatomy of the ape.” (3) I will be completely honest here that I have struggled for a long time with this passage from Marx, even though I see it referenced also throughout he work of Žižek. What could this possibly mean that human anatomy contains the key to the anatomy of the ape as opposed to the ape anatomy containing the key to the human anatomy? I think that what we can say with certainty is that what is being expressed here is a minimal difference at the ground level between standard evolutionary logic and the standard teleological logic. Although, of course, as with oppositional determination, there are nuances to both positions that perhaps allow for a meta-level synthesis of both forms of logic. Let us work slowly though, so that we can make sure we understand this crucial passage.

As is standard with evolutionary logic we interpret things in terms of cause and effect where the past causes the present. Why are there “endless forms most beautiful” to quote Darwin’s famous passage? Because of a long chain of cause and effect that stretches back to LUCA, the Last Universal Common Ancestor. In that sense the human form can be read in the paleoanthropological past. If we reconstruct the archaeological, primatological, and genetic history of our species then we will be able to understand why humans take the form that they do today. Here the “ape anatomy contains the key to the human anatomy”.

But Marx is saying that the “human anatomy contains the key to the anatomy of the ape.” How could this possibly be? In order to understand how we have to think first in terms of teleology and then secondarily in terms of psychoanalysis. What Marx is communicating is that there are universal forms (not necessarily Platonic) that structure the tendencies of a system. This can be conceived of in materialist terms as the formal shape of a vector space. In this sense the “human anatomy” is something that the “ape anatomy” was in-itself “striving to actualize” from the inside. On the level of psychoanalysis we can think of this in terms of the way in which the visionary virtual space possesses a futural causality that can retroactively transform the past. In that sense we can say that the ideal-real of the human form overdetermines the space of ape form.

However, in order not to fall into a strong teleological determinism, where the space of freedom remains open for true novelty, where the idea doesn’t just simply become what it always already was, perhaps we need to think in terms of teleiosis. The term teleiosis appears throughout Less Than Nothing and reflects much more the concept of a vector space in complex systems, where certain structural forms can become basins of attraction which will retroactively change the past.

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speech versus sexuality

Zupančič thus fully deploys this reversal of evolutionary logic into a psychoanalytic logic that allows us to think, not the repression of sexuality and the reluctant entrance into the domain of speech as an unfortunate supplement to the fact that we cannot get the sex we want. Indeed, for Zupančič, she attempts to conceive it the other way around. Perhaps it is that speech contains the key to sexuality, and it is simply our lack of self knowledge of how to navigate speech that prevents us from understanding the true domains of the power of the logos.

In this reversal one cannot help but recognize an interesting paradox of human sexuality, well recognized by comedian Woody Allen: that two people will get together to have an intellectual conversation only to have sex at the end of the conversation. In this identification, what is commonly associated with sapiosexuals, it is not that conversation is a mere detour for the real of sexuality, but rather it is the real of conversation which is a necessary addition to sexuality. In that sense, even if two people are physically attracted to each other, if there conversation is off, is there are no jokes, if there is no synergy in ideation, if there is no ability to feel one self reflected in the other, then there is no ability to have sex with that person.

Here I am tempted to offer my own reflection on the real of conversation when one is in agreement and when one is in disagreement with another. Could it be that when one is in agreement with the other we are in some sense engaged in a successful sexual encounter where we are interpenetrating the other? And could it be that in disagreement we become disgusted by the other, as if they are not even really an other worthy of our attention and respect (and definitely not worthy of our interpenetration!)? This is an interesting dimension to think vis-a-vis the Absolute and the Thing-in-itself, because, as Žižek notes several times, the Absolute has the quality of transforming from sublime to disgusting with only the addition or subtraction of a minimal difference. This is certainly true of sexuality, where a minimal difference can be the difference between finding someone overwhelmingly attractive and being repulsed or disgusted by the idea of having sex with the other; and the same in conversation, where a minimal difference is the difference between wanting to talk with them deep into the night, and wanting to leave as soon as possible and never wanting to talk to that other ever again.

And so this gives us a glimpse of Zupančič’s philosophical reversal of the problem of sexuality, and gives us also a clear separation with Zupančič’s work and anything we will find in evolutionary science and postmodern philosophy. What we see in Zupančič’s work is thus not a psychoanalysis of philosophy but rather an attempt to approach the site of psychoanalysis as a philosophical problem. This is a momentous and monstrous move by Zupančič. Indeed, she notes that it is psychoanalysis that has been over the past few decades an important philosophical reconstruction site, new genuine interpretations of philosophy have emerged, and the space for a real new qualitative horizon appears in view. In order to see whether this is really the case, Zupančič has her sites set on core philosophical concepts, including ontology, logic and subjectivity; to see the way in which philosophy can now step up to the challenge of psychoanalysis, and rethink the emergence of psychoanalysis as a reinvigorating challenge for philosophy. The main method she seeks to highlight in this venture is to combat the deconstructionist, textual analysis, or dispotif methodology that emerges in the postmodern turn. Instead of deconstructing the gaps in a philosophical concept, how it operates on a binary logic, or how it is trapped within a discursive language game, or how it is reproduced by a certain power structure; Zupančič teaches us that Lacan’s main teaching is that philosophical concepts must be interpreted in terms of their inner inherent contradictions. In this way we do not shy away from the “battlefield” of philosophy, and instead recognize that the tensions and struggles internal to philosophy are not a limiting character, but a meta-reflective attempt for us to understand the contradictions inherent in philosophical beings as such.

Here to quote Zupančič (4):

“At the moment when philosophy itself was just about ready to abandon some of its classical notions as belonging to its own metaphysical past, from which it was eager to escape, along came Lacan, and taught us an invaluable lesson: it is not these notions themselves that are problematic; what is problematic (in some ways of doing philosophy) is the disavowal or effacement of the inherent contradiction (or antagonism) they all imply, and are part of. That is why, by simply abandoning these notions, we are abandoning the battlefield, rather than winning any significant battles.”

I can offer here two quick notes of importance. The first is a recent video I watched where Slavoj Žižek received a gold medal for his intellectual accomplishments. If one watches this video you will catch Žižek making an important reflective remark on the way in which we relate to the appearances of the Other; instead of making fun of the Other, instead of pointing out the ridiculousness of the Other, how award shows are silly and so forth, how gold medals don’t really matter; he notes how important it is to participate with a kind civility in these events nonetheless. Eppur si muove. This is for the simple reason that if one does not participate in the appearances, if one does not engage the battle, then the field is left open for the truly sinister and evil people. Is this not exactly what is happening now with the Left? In their refusal to take seriously the appearances of the Other (maybe I will not vote, why vote anyway they are just appearances), what emerges in its place is the reality show charade of Donald Trump, and so forth.

The second reflective point I will make is a personal one. When I started my PhD I compared and contrasted the way in which Richard Feynman and Jean Paul Sartre reacted to receiving the nobel prize, one for his scientific work in quantum field theory and the other for his literature work in existential philosophy. I noted that, both being geniuses, they reacted negatively in hearing that they received the award. They both felt that their accomplishments were in-itself enough, making advancements in quantum field theory or existential literature was the advancement, not the nobel prize. However, Feynman nevertheless attended the ceremony and enjoyed himself, making friends with the nobel prize committee and for all appearances he was just another human at the event, being in and with the Other. Sartre, in contrast, negated the award absolutely and never attended any ceremony, never gave the Other any time of day whatsoever. At the time I thought Sartre’s move was more mature and more radical; but what if, today, it was Feynman who was more mature and radical? What if what we gain in negating the Other is nothing in comparison to what we lose in the real of the non-Other? What if eppur si muove means that it is our duty to maintain the appearances? What if the consequences of traversing the fantasy and then leaving society is that society becomes overrun with evil and tyranny?

freud unconscious
Models for the Freudian Unconscious (5)

Here we move to Zupančič discussion on the structure of the Freudian discovery of the unconscious and its Lacanian formulation as a “thing” that “thinks and talks” in the form of “ingenious dreams, slips of the tongue, jokes, as well as many (other) highly spiritual forms and creations” (6). What I want to demonstrate here are two models of the Freudian unconscious that can be found in a text by Henri Ellenberger called The Discovery of the Unconscious. One will find these models in the section specifically focused on Freud’s contribution to the discovery of the unconscious. What we see in the first model is that idea that the subject is primordially in a realm of infantile sexuality and primordial trauma; in both of these structures we have dimensions of sex and trauma that we think only retroactively emerge in an adult after childhood development. However, the scandal of the Freudian unconscious is that he inscribes these dimensions of sexuality and trauma into the primordial ground of the subject. Thus, what the subject experiences as childhood trauma are actually only minor events that get retroactively inscribed as the cause of trauma; but in fact, it is the very nature of the subject to be traumatically separated, there would be no subject without failure, without a gap, without an antagonism. Thus, in this first model what is expressed in the form of an imaginary formation a specular image, or the ego is a symptomal formation of repressed unconscious trauma. This symptomal formation undergoes modifications as the subject develops; what was repressed becomes reflected; and what becomes reflected becomes enacted on the level of self-consciousness.

In the second model, we see that with the emergence of the ego we have a network of imaginary identifications that make up the subject’s chain of memories. These memory chains cover the primordial trauma of the subject’s emergence until some contingent external disturbance breaks down this protective barrier and the subject must confront the real of its own abyssal self-reflection. This is the ground of hysteria as a retroactive symbolic formation that attempts to cope with confrontation with this abyssal ground.

What is the point of showing these models? The point is that for Zupančič infantile sexuality and primordial trauma are central to her developing a theory of What Is Sex? and also to show that the Freudian breakthrough is of a primordial thinking and speaking ‘thing’ that is not substantial but abyssal, as an effacement of being.

Moreover, let us connect these models to what we have already discussed vis-a-vis the hysterical short circuit and the dimension of sublimation without repression. In the first model we can formulate our understanding of sublimation without repression. By bringing the primordial trauma to the surface we are able to integrate this trauma into our being and then the symptomal surface of our self-consciousness becomes non-different with our primordial trauma. In this sense our speech is capable of achieving a type of satisfaction that, maybe, is similar to the satisfaction of sexuality itself. In this mode there is no repressed trading of speech for sex; where we really want sex we speak; instead we enjoy the speech itself, we speak because we really want to speak.

In the second model, we see the hysterical provocation of the short circuit series. In this provocation the contingent external intrusion is the university discourse and the smooth functioning of the machinic or computational social system that wants us to fit within a certain symbolic coordinate without deviating, without revealing our true speech. Thus, on confrontation with an objective externality that wants us to continue repressing our speech, we break out, we short-circuit, we deviate from the rules, and we start to enjoy our symptom. This is why Zupančič insists on the Freudian dimension of the unconscious that is “so intellectual”. To quote Zupančič directly (7):

“In this precise sense, to say that the satisfaction in talking (or any kind of intellectual activity) is “sexual” is not simply about abasement of intellectual activities, it is at least as much about elevating sexuality to a surprisingly intellectual activity…”

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Oppositional determination

On this point Zupančič moves to an interesting divide or oppositional determination that she identifies between non-psychoanalytic philosophy and Lacanian clinical analysts. On the one hand she notes that philosophers feel they have rediscovered the pure philosophy of universal ontology, no doubt referencing the object-oriented philosophy of people like Graham Harman, or the mathematized absolute of Quentin Meillassoux. In this region of intellectual activity philosophers feel they are correct to dismiss psychoanalysis as a regional theory with little reason to suspect that it has anything to do with a universal ontology, and thus something that they can dismiss as peripheral. On the other hand, there are Lacanian clinical analysts who feel that the conceptual apparatus supplied by Lacanian theory is universally applicable to all subjectivity; thus making the real of the clinic the real the ultimate real. Here psychoanalysis is not seen as a peripheral regional theory but the ultimate theory of everything where subjectivity is itself properly inscribed into the Absolute. Zupančič uses this oppositional determination to then situate her own perspective or “double conviction” that led her to write this book.

This brings us to Zupančič’s attempt to engage (or provoke) both sides of this divide, between non-psychoanalytic philosophy and clinical Lacanian analysts. Her claims, which structure What Is Sex?, are as simple as they are mind bending and profound. Her first claim is that sex in psychoanalysis must be defined not as a substantial positivity but as a formal twist or rupture or gap in the fabric of being. This is to say that sex represents for psychoanalysis a persisting contradiction that is inherent to reality itself. The second claim is that, with contradiction being primary (and not secondary), the very nature of entities/beings is to be contradictory. From this premise she argues that sex is not an ultimate reality or an ultimate ontology but rather some type of spatial distortion or twist, perhaps like that of the structure of a Mobius strip or band, a structure that appears frequently in Lacanian psychical topology and Žižekian philosophy.

Double Conviction:

1. sex is above all a concept formulating a persisting contradiction of reality

2. contradiction is primary (not secondary) in structuring entities/beings; sex is not an ultimate reality but an inherent twist of reality.

The way in which this double conviction attempts to restructure the field of both non-psychoanalytic philosophy and clinical analysis is two-fold. On the one had we cannot think of a “pure philosophy” or a “real universal ontology” devoid of the subject’s own perspectival distortion or twist or contradiction, since the subject is in its very being a contradiction or a twist in the fabric of being. On the other hand we cannot think of the Lacanian Real as a Holy Grail or a full substantial Thing, but rather as nothing but a formal state space in a material matrix of being that becomes twisted and contorted by the presence of subjectivity, or rather the presence of the absence of the full thing which the subject introduces into the Real.

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Here Zupančič is quick to pull out the Lacan of philosophy, the philosopher who takes psychoanalysis as a problem of philosophy; as opposed to the Lacan of psychoanalysis who saw philosophy as the game of the Master. In making this move she is quick to remind us that, for Lacan, the idea of a pure philosophy or a universal ontology, is for Lacan the game of the Master. To quote (8): “Ontology implies “being at someone’s heel,” “being at someone’s beck and call”.” To be specific when we are thinking of a philosophy that pretends it can move forward without taking psychoanalysis serious as a universal theory, we get a philosophy that recoils back into the position of the Master, we get a philosophy that reforms just as if psychoanalysis had never happened at all. In that sense philosophy goes back to pretending that sexuality doesn’t exist, we get a philosophy that goes back to conceiving sexuality as non-existent, as opposed to conceiving of sexuality as the fundamental non-relation.

On the other hand, for clinical psychoanalysis, we cannot forget that there is also a formula for the analysts discourse, that of embodying the objet petit a, the object cause of desire vis-a-vis the barred subjectivity. Perhaps this is why Zupančič claims that contemporary clinical analysts speak of the Real as the Holy Grail, as the ultimate Real, as if it were some full substance, as opposed to the immanent torsion, twist, distortion internal to being itself. In this way she then moves to separate “sex” from “ontology”. As she clearly states (9):

“exactly because of this, it seems imperative to posit the question of “sex and ontology”. It is here, I claim, that the destiny of the encounter between philosophy and psychoanalysis is being decided and played out.”

In this field Zupančič makes some important claims regarding the status of psychoanalytic “objectivity”, namely its inherent distance from any form of scientific objectivity. If one recalls from the start of this lecture when I was analyzing Žižek’s examples of short circuits with Marxist political economy and Freudian libidinal economy; and then gave other examples of Darwinian natural selection and Einstein’s curved spacetime. In this situation, Zupančič is making the claim that the difference between Marxist political economy and Freudian libidinal economy, and Darwinian natural selection and Einstein’s curved spacetime; is that Marxist political economy and Freudian libidinal economy are inscribed into the very field of the struggle they are analyzing. In other words, they are irreducibly higher order, they are irreducibly systems that include the totality of subjectivity. Thus, one can easily discuss natural selection and curved spacetime dispassionately, one can easily discuss evolutionary biology and general relativity without becoming concerned with the fate of the historical process. However, when one jumps into the real of Marxist struggle and psychoanalytic struggle one can no longer discuss these things without including the struggle of subjectivity, the struggle for freedom in one’s own economic and libidinal coordinates.

This means that we must think of the Hegelian totality, a totality where objectivity moves through the particular, and where the Absolute is not only substance, but also subject. In this sense we get a field where truth is irreducibly partial, partial to the limited form of subjectivity that is engaging in a process. From this perspective the only neutrality is that of the social system, the only neutrality is that of the big Other, the only neutrality is that of which we are trying to short circuit, to throw out of balance with the radical real of the truth. In that sense we can make sense of the difference between Marx and Freud, and Darwin and Einstein, for example, in the difference between Spinoza and Hegel in terms of the Absolute. In Spinoza we can conceive of a perfect symmetrical substance, and we can talk about this perfect symmetrical substance as if we are not there at all, as if we are not taking about it. However, in Hegel, we cannot conceive of a perfect symmetrical substance because we are inscribed as a part of the Absolute, thus introducing an irreducible asymmetry, introducing an irreducible insubstantial temporality, a virtuality, a conceptuality, that is mediating the substantial becoming of the Absolute. In that sense upon externalizing and returning to our self we must take a stand, take a position and fight for the becoming of the Absolute itself.

Here to quote Zupančič (10):

“In this sense, the objectivity is linked here to the very capacity of being “partial” or “partisan”. As Althusser puts it: when dealing with a conflictual reality (which is the case for both Marxism and psychoanalysis) one cannot see everything from everywhere; some positions dissimulate this conflict, and some reveal it. One can thus discover the essence of this conflictual reality only by occupying certain positions, and not others, in this very conflict. What this book aims to show and argue is that sex, or the sexual, is precisely such a “position”, or point of view, in psychoanalysis. Not because of its (“dirty” or controversial) contents, but because of the singular form of contradiction that it forces us to see, to think, and to engage with.”

Thus, we see that there is no symmetry in the real of politics or the real of sexuality. There is no ability to neatly balance right and left, they are fundamentally antagonistic; there is no ability to neatly balance man and woman, they are fundamentally antagonistic. This is not a situation where we bring Men from Mars and Women from Venus into an Earthly paradise; this is not a situation where yin and yang are in harmony. This is a naive misrecognition of the One, this is a misrecognition of the Hegelian absolute as irreducibly partial, as irreducibly a becoming that is incomplete and open towards the abyss of freedom.

Before concluding her introduction, Zupančič makes two recommendations for supplementary material that was essential for her own writing of What Is Sex?: Aaron Schuster’s The Trouble with Pleasure and Lorenzo Chiesa’s The Not-Two. In Schuster’s The Trouble with Pleasure we have an analysis that situates itself between Deleuze and psychoanalysis on the limits of pleasure and the beyond of the pleasure principle; and in Chiesa’s The Not-Two we have the analysis of logic and God in the work of Lacan with an understanding of the ontological meaning of the division between the sexes. Thus, from Zupančič’s own recommendation, although these works will not turn up in What Is Sex? they may be essential reading to understand What Is Sex? in its full depth. She refers to both as “parallel works”.

This brings us to a conclusion of the opening of Zupančič’s What Is Sex? I hope that this gives you a deeper understanding of how Zupančič is going to approach this topic, and also gives you a ground to either start the book yourself, or to continue along following this lecture series.

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Works Cited:

(1) Zupančič, A.  2017.  Introduction.  In: What Is Sex?  p. 1.

(2) ibid.

(3) ibid.

(4) ibid.  p. 2.

(5) Ellenberger, H. 1970. The Discovery of the Unconscious. p. 489, 497.

(6) Zupančič, A.  2017.  Introduction.  In: What Is Sex?  p. 2.

(7) ibid.  p. 2-3.

(8) ibid.  p. 3.

(9) ibid.  p. 4.


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