Welcome to Lecture 2 of Alenka Zupančič’s What Is Sex? In this first lecture we covered the forward and introduction and in this lecture we are going to be starting to dissect the first section of “Chapter 1 — It’s Getting Strange In Here…”. This episode will focus on an introduction to the Freudian theory of sexuality as well as an especially close focus on the strange cultural reaction to the Freudian theory of infantile sexuality.
Here we are going to take our time with each chapter of What Is Sex? and divide each chapter up in relation to the subsections. In Part 1 we will be covered the subsection “Did Somebody Say Sex?”
I think here I want to highlight Zupančič’s subtitles because they are usually very witty, clever and informative texts to reflect on in the context of the section as a whole. Here what Zupančič is doing is calling to our attention the peculiar relationship between the symbolic and sexuality. Sex is something that everyone thinks about, but something we rarely talk about so explicitly. We usually talk around sex, insinuating it, but never approaching it directly, especially when it comes to the full depth and extent of our sexuality. Indeed, I have noticed that many of the sexual activities that I engage in are almost modes of consciousness that I attempt to exclude from my normal day-to-day cognitive functioning, almost like compartmentalizing two versions of myself, in order to function properly in the world. Thus, when someone does mention sex explicitly, it grabs people’s attention, perhaps making their hairs stand on end, or switching people into a mode of extra alert. It is almost as if the temperature of the room rises as soon as the symbolic in any way approaches the topic of sexuality. Considering that Freud was quick to apply thermodynamic metaphors to the early development of psychoanalysis, perhaps we can risk reflecting on the possible connections between heat, density, pressure and the symbolic relationship to the sexual in teleodynamic terms.
From this opening the first phenomena that Zupančič calls to our attention towards is an old movie from the 1960s about Freud’s life called “The Secret Passion”. In this reference Zupančič highlights a particular scene in the film in which Freud is explaining to an academic audience his theory of infantile sexuality. In this scene, apparently, the men start to shout and spit in disapproval of Freud’s outrageous idea that infants express sexual tendencies in the oral, anal, and phallic stages of development. In this uproar the Chairman yells “Gentleman, we are not in a political meeting!”
From this anecdote Zupančič calls our attention to something very specific; that is, of the relationship between sexuality and politics. In the same way that people can get extremely upset and angry when they encounter a political viewpoint they don’t like (like, for example, when I uploaded a video about Jordan Peterson, some people did not react too kindly to it), people can also get extremely upset and angry when they encounter a sexual viewpoint they don’t like (and especially, according to Zupančič, the Freudian notions of infantile sexuality). In short, people start to act very strangely when it comes to the domain of politics and Freudian infantile sexuality, and Zupančič wants us to focus closely on this link. Why would adults act so aggressively when hearing that perhaps the libidinal drives are primordial and constitutive of subjectivity? There is a strange coincidence and understanding this strange coincidence better might help us to understand the contemporary sexual and the contemporary political landscape.
In this connection between politics and Freudian infantile sexuality Zupančič emphasizes that this outrage which Freud’s theory provoked cannot be reduced to the temporal political era that structured itself around “Victorian morals”. In short whatever cultural baggage of Victorian society coloured the first encounter with the raw real of Freudian sexuality was not the primary cause for the aggression. Zupančič claims this goes much deeper. If you recall from the first lecture of What Is Sex? we should read this book as a short circuit in the ideology of generic sexual interpretation today, and this is inclusive of contemporary psychoanalytic practitioners. In order to make this point clear Zupančič cites a recent study by psychoanalytic psychotherapist Kaveh Zamanian who noted that in contemporary therapy it was very common for therapists to try to avoid discussing sexuality with their clients and viewed the topic as intimidating and rude when patients would bring it up. It is as if there is a fundamental reflexive mechanism in the symbolic which prevents us from easily confronting sex.
Here a quote from Zupančič (1):
“Let us first stop at the outrage provoked by the Freudian notion of sexuality (and especially of infantile sexuality). It is very easy, from today’s point of view, to miss what is going on here, and to simply attribute this kind of violent reaction to the Victorian morals of Freud’s time. Since then — we tend to think — we have learned to be very tolerant and to talk about sexuality quite openly; we know that “sexuality is nothing to be ashamed of”, and that it is even good for our (mental and physical) health. […] So it might come as a big surprise that this is far from being the case.”
In order to echo the strange mystery that Zupančič is trying to bring to our awareness, I have to say that in my own psychotherapeutic sessions, which I engaged in a few years ago regarding personal romantic relationship issues, sexuality was never discussed directly. Indeed, the relationship between me and my therapist was something similar to the description in the quote deployed on pages 5 and 6 where intimate relationships and romantic relationships are imagined in discourse to be asexual or non-sexual. It truly is a bizarre phenomenon. Even in discussion with most of my friends and family about relationships, the issue of sexuality itself, although of course a pervasive and central issue in any romantic intimate relationship, if not the most central issue in any romantic intimate relationship, is never directly discussed.
Here to quote Zupančič again on Freud’s one and only rule of a psychoanalytic session, the (2):
“one and only rule or imperative involved in psychoanalytic treatment, which is to say absolutely anything that comes to our mind, however unimportant or improper it may seem to us.”
Thus, one can see the wisdom in why Freud would make this the one and only rule of a psychoanalytic session. The point of psychoanalysis is to understand the psyche of humankind. The point of psychoanalysis is to attempt as best as we can to understand our own self given that we are no where near as self-transparent to ourselves as we once thought we were. If one reads Plato or if one reads Hegel (as one should!) then one will find out that both Plato and Hegel define “man” or “humanity” as “self-consciousness”. Both Plato and Hegel saw self-consciousness as our defining feature, what separated us from the rest of nature. In this context one can see the true extent and scope of the Freudian revolution. If most of our consciousness is unconscious then we have no real clue about how we work and the extent of our own minds. Thus it makes perfect sense that Freud would make as a rule that we should speak about anything and everything that pops into our mind. The fact that in modern psychotherapeutic sessions talking about sex is still seen as a taboo, is absurd. I know that my unconscious produces a very healthy amount of sexual imaginary and thoughts throughout the day. Sexuality is so constitutive of my psyche that it would be absurd if a psychoanalytic session didn’t purposefully revolve around that specifically and exclusively. What are we as a society attempting to avoid here?
Zupančič claims that the situation in the contemporary psychoanalytic psychotherapy session, where talking openly about sexuality is perceived to be some sort of professional harassment, can hold and be echoed throughout our society as a whole. Even if sexuality is everywhere in our media, performatively structuring movies, music, books, and other mediums, these constructive performances are merely spectral presences that very rarely confront the real of sexuality in the symbolic. Consider the archetypal situation in a movie where the viewer is shown basically everything except for the sex act itself. When it comes to the sex at itself the scene cuts away and you are left to imagine the real action. Thus, Zupančič is attempting to bring to our attention something like a formal structural relation here between the epistemology of a gendered performance and the ontology of a certain impossibility, a certain absence, which in some sense gives unconscious body to the epistemological constructions. We can think of this as if sex itself is like a black hole in the human symbolic universe; all of our constructive performativity revolves around it, but it in-itself is mysteriously non-visible, or only visible in the way in which it distorts the symbolic movement.
To quote Zupančič (3):
“For Freud sexuality was the “deeper and more difficult issue” behind different sexual practices, innuendos and meanings — that it was something inherently problematic, disruptive, rather than constructive, of identities. Sexual activity appeared to Freud as redoubled by its own inherent impasse and difficulty, and as such it called for serious, ontological inquiry. […] To the Victorians screaming “Sex is dirty”, Freud did not answer something like “No, it is not dirty, it is only natural,” but rather something like: “What is this ‘sex’ that you are talking about.”
How should we interpret this very intriguing passage? The first thing to note is that, against the contemporary mantra of gender construction, Zupančič notes the opposite point: sexuality is destructive and problematic, not constructive and liberating. Does this logic not run in the face of the contemporary wisdoms we hear about sexual liberation and freedom? Does this logic not run in the face of the contemporary wisdoms we hear about sexual openness and casualness. Sex is something that derails and destroys identities, not something that builds up and forms identities.
The second thing we should note is that Zupančič is making the point that Freud is in no way reducing sex to an evolutionary adaptation, like an evolutionary biology or an evolutionary psychology model would tend towards. Sex is not something situating us closer to the animal world, the form of sex that humans engage in has little to do with actual reproduction, a type of “animal copulation”. In contrast to this idea, human sexuality is a type of ontological void, an ontological mystery. What Zupančič means by the idea that sex is “redoubled” is that sex is something like a void attempting to fill itself in, that there is a primary negativity and this negativity attempts to resolve or reconcile itself, thus redoubling itself.
This bring Zupančič to her categorical perspective on the level at which philosophy should consider the emergence of the psychoanalytic object. For Zupančič psychoanalysis is not ultimately about human psychology, what she refers to as ““psychologized” human-intreat philosophy” (4), and of course psychoanalysis is not about our biological substance, even though many of Freud’s metaphors do derive from biology. Instead, psychoanalysis is about the “operator of the inhuman” (5). In order to think this dimension we can say that evolutionary sciences in their biological, psychological and cultural forms usually approach humanity from the perspective of our animality and the natural selection pressures that historically shaped our form. In contrast, the sciences of the mind, like cognitive science or neuroscience, tend towards approaching humanity from the perspective of our consciousness, of our phenomenal perception and self-relation, which is still something poorly situated within a meta-scientific paradigm like evolutionary theory.
However, psychoanalysis does not exist at either level, it exists on the level of an internal obstacle or antagonism that the “human animal” (to use Badiou’s term) perceives as a derailment and disorientation its motion. In other words, psychoanalysis is not interested in a “substantial” or even “historicist” view of the subject, but rather the way in which what is human is always internally problematic and unresolved, it is an identity that is constantly thwarted from within by partial drives that seem to prevent any straight and stable motion. For psychoanalysis the human animal is constitutively disturbed, curved, wobbly, unable to ever right itself because it is in-itself a deviation. Thus the “anchor point” for psychoanalysis is a type of ontological de-centering. One may even picture here the total mass of human cognition as if circling some dark inhuman within which ensures our becoming will always be unconscious.
Now we may consider this psychoanalytic ontology in a precise categorical form. Zupančič is here attempting to formalize the very horizon of the philosophy of psychoanalysis. The main point around which everything else follows, is that sexuality is central to psychoanalysis, thus making any analytic session which avoids the relation between sex and the symbolic as in some sense pointless. The point of psychoanalysis is precisely to approach the most real dimensions of the subject, and this, it is claimed, is something we experience in sexuality.
If we consider the totality of human sexuality as the “horizon” of something inhuman, something pointing beyond humanity, as has been noted by philosophy going back at least as far as Plato, then we have to understand the structure of this horizon. The first thing Zupančič affirms is that it is a horizon of radical disorientation. There is no smooth sailing, as it were, in the horizon of sexuality, there is no straight path, it is constitutively curved. In other words, the human condition and sexuality is an inherently strange relation where one’s motion cannot be free of disruption. When I reflect on my own sexual path through life it is nothing but a strange territory of ups and downs and lefts and rights; crazy sleepless nights, passionate heartbreak, irrational longings and desires, immense frustration, foolish errors, immoral decision making, and so forth.
The second dimension that is crucial for psychoanalysis is the fact that the horizon of human sexuality is structured by partial drives. In Lacanian jargon these partial drives are associated with the objet petit a, the object cause of desire. The most important thing to reflect on in regards the object cause of desire is that the human being does not experience sexuality in terms of the whole of the person, but rather a fixation on a partial dimension of the other. This could be the breast, the butt, the penis, the vagina, or some other part that the subject tends to fixate on, circle around, as it were. From asserting the primacy of the partial in relation to a hole in the subject, the psychoanalytic universality is fundamentally different from humanist universalities which attempt to demonstrate the irreducible interconnected wholeness of the cosmos. The properly psychoanalytic response to this humanist cosmic romanticism is the fact that of all the objects in the universe, only one part object can make all the other objects disappear in a sexual repetition.
The third dimension of this sexual horizon is the possibility to think the in-itself of the subject. For psychoanalysis the person or the individual that we tend to think about in society has nothing or at least very little to do with the dimension of the subject. When psychoanalysis thinks of the subject it is thinking about the very in-itself of dreams, and desires, and fantasies, and hallucinations, and so forth. When we think of a person or an individual we are, in contrast, thinking about the coherent and consistent peoples who populate our intersubjective landscape in waking life. Of course, the subject in its totality is very different then this. There are so many norms and rules structuring our day-to-day interactions both within and without that it is very easy to forget just how radically different our subjectivity is in our ownmost privacy and in our unconscious fantasms. When we think of the psychoanalytic universality, however, we have to be able to think the totality of this horizon.
Finally, and this is something we will have a lot of time to cover throughout this book, the universal inhuman is something that, as mentioned, is located in the domain of the sexual. For Freud, this universal inhuman as connected to the domain of the sexual is what is “coextensive with the emergence of the subject” (6). Thus, one can see already the outline of Freud’s theory of infantile sexuality and unconscious drives. In many crucial passages from Lacan, this is what he refers to as the “lamella” as a type of virtual-real entity which is the non-totalizable and irreducible otherness of the subject. When one is deeply in love or when one is fully in the sexual act, one is being dangled by the alien force of the lamella.
Thus, as a side note, one can here see also the way in which psychoanalysis differs from science in terms of its conception of the alien. For science the alien is somewhere external and outside of humanity, often conceived of as some mirror of what we know on earth, i.e. some simple biological life on a distant planet; or some higher intelligence with a sophisticated technological civilization. However, in psychoanalysis, the alien is within, in an extimate space of meanings that structures the human horizon universally. One may even say that psychoanalysis is a formal practice that emerged in the 20th century to understand the fact that there is an alien dimension of our own consciousness, the unconscious, which structures or overdetermines the human symbolic order. Perhaps this is why Lacan was able to formulate an ontology where the truth of reality (what is studied in scientific materialism) and the truth of the real (what is studied in a proper psychoanalytic session), diverged.
In this way it is clear that psychoanalysis leaves us with a very strange universal horizon: one riddled with phenomenal disorientation, developmental vicissitudes, a subjectivity constituted by sexual relation, and an alien inhuman within.
This situation gets even stranger when we take the time to analyze the nuances of the psychoanalytic perspective on the consequences of our sexual life. The first thing to note is that in no way are psychoanalysts suggesting that sexuality is the answer to every problem. Sexuality is not the be-all-and-end-all of human existence and it cannot bring you the complete satisfaction that is often dreamed about in unconscious visions and fantasies.
The second thing to note, and in contrast to the first negation, is that psychoanalysis also does not suggest that sexuality is in some ways overrated and epiphenomenal. Sexuality is a serious human phenomenon that we do not often take seriously enough. Thus, any analytic session which thinks it can avoid discussing sexuality is not really an analytic session at all. There is really no such thing as a sexual relation or intimate-romantic relation where sexuality as central can be avoided.
Third, and in a positive dimension, psychoanalysis is saying that the important discovery of unconscious sexual drives is that sexuality is located in the ontology of the impossible. This is not because of any external factors. For example, even if one were fully able to actualize one’s sexual fantasies, against all social moralizing forces, as is often dreamed about in Marquis de Sade, sexuality would still be impossible, and sexuality would still be a disturbing derailment producing developmental vicissitudes. There is no way in which one can “solve” sexuality, as it were; there is no way in which one can “right the sexual ship” on a straight smooth course of action. Sexuality is inherently and fundamentally an antagonistic division producing vicissitudes. This is consequently an internal problem, not an external problem. In other words, any sexual trouble a subject is having with sex has less to do with what is going on “out there” and much more to do with what is going on “in here” so to speak. And that is precisely why psychoanalysis is so important, because it turns the problem back on the subject, and forces the subject to confront its own internal contradictions against the background of the Other (played by a good analysand).
To quote Zupančič (7):
“We simply need to bear in mind how Freud was led to his theory of the sexual as constitutively problematic. He was not led to it simply by discovering and deciphering the sexual meaning “behind” symptoms and different formations of the unconscious; rather, the opposite: he was led to it by stumbling against the “therapeutic failure” of the ultimate revelation of sexual meaning. Sexual meanings were revealed, connections leading to it established and reconstructed; yet the problem/symptom persisted.”
What does this mean? What it means is that Freud’s discovery of the sexual as impossible was not something that was discovered through any “depth psychology” methods where the true in-itself of the subject was revealed as problematic. What Freud discovered was that even when the depths of the subject were unearthed and brought to the light of day, there was no final reconciliation for sexuality. Sexuality remains problematic even after one has, to use Lacan’s terminology, traversed the fantasy. Sexuality is something that may be masking something, but it is not the true self in the depths of the subject, it is a fundamental encounter with the real of historical action.
I my self relate to his when I reflect on a recent trip I took to mediate with Buddhist monks. When speaking with the monks about the logic of their lifestyle, the reasons for living a life like this, and how they feel about the possibility of rejoining the human world, one dimension persistently repeated: the problem of the sexual. The sexual drove them to the monastery, its impossibilities and problematics, and the sexual was still disturbing, even after years or sometimes decades of meditation.
To quote Zupančič (8):
“it is as if sexual meaning, so generously produced by the unconscious, were here to mask the reality of a more fundamental negativity at work in sexuality, to separate us from it by a screen that derives its efficacy from the fact that it is itself a means of satisfaction[.]”
Here we are getting closer to the metaphysics that Zupančič so carefully and so precisely works towards in the logic of her analysis. What Zupančič is doing, in her philosophy of psychoanalysis, is bringing to our conscious reflection the fact that the most intense sexual meanings “so generously produced by the unconscious” are not in themselves what we want. As Žižek’s public persona has stated many times, if psychoanalysis teaches us anything, it is that “we don’t want what we think it is that we want”, and this is essential for understanding the psychoanalysis of sexuality. When we imagine our most intense and meaningful sexual realization, we want this at a distance, in our fantasies, if we were to actually get it, it would be a nightmare. One can relate to this personally and in many ways, since there is obviously a multiplicity of intense and ultimate sexual fantasies that the subject can hold. The crucial dimension however, is that these fantasies are often conceived of as the pinnacle or the height of the subject. But what Zupančič is claiming is that behind these images, there is not the true realization of the subject, but a confrontation the subject must make with a force of absolute negativity.
To quote Zupančič, again (9):
“Paradoxical as this might sound, one of the primary tasks of psychoanalysis is to slowly but thoroughly deactivate the path of this satisfaction, to render it useless. To produce sex as absolutely and intrinsically meaningless, not as the ultimate horizon of all humanly produced meaning.”
Here we may have a harder time understanding Zupančič’s paradoxical meaning here, but it is nonetheless crucial and essential. What Zupančič is saying is that the fundamental fantasy as structured by sexuality is something that is on the level of the fundamental fantasy only once one has not fully traversed the fantasy. Perhaps it is the hardest fantasy to traverse, to do away with, to “deconstruct”, in a sense, or perhaps more accurately, to disintegrate or dissolve. What one finds behind this screen is simply an absolute negativity. What the sexual fantasy was hiding from the subject was the abyssal nothingness at the core of the subject. This is ultimately chilling when one considers the 72 virgins fantasy so often expressed as the driver of Islamic suicide bombers, for example. What this ultimate fantasy conceals, this fantasy of a true union of the self with a harem of beautiful virgins in an eternal paradise, is nothing, the abyss of death, a fundamental negativity. And surely, the subjects who blow themselves up for a virgin fantasy, are no doubt confronting such an abyssal nothingness. However, it is one thing to confront this horizon in a mad self-destructive implosion, and quite another to reach this horizon in the calm and peaceful privacy of an analytic session. Perhaps the biggest fear here is what one is to do with one self once the fundamental sexual fantasy has been dissolved. What is a subject to do with itself when it has nothing but the destiny of tarrying with an absolute negativity? (10):
“If we accept [the] thesis that at stake in contemporary psychotherapeutic practices is a “defense” against something involved in the Freudian theory of sexuality, what exactly is this something? For one thing is sure: we must resist the temptation to take the defense against sexuality as self-explanatory; it is not “sex” that can explain that defense; rather, it is the defense that could shed some light on something inherently problematic about the nature of sexuality — something which repeatedly, and as if inevitably, puts us on the track of deeply metaphysical issues.”
This tantalizing quote sets us up for the rest of Chapter 1. What Zupančič is claiming is that the location of the terror of sexuality and the fundamental nature of the sexual fantasy, is the unconscious defense against it that emerges before the subject is properly sexualized in a realm of infantile sexual drives. What this defense shields us from is some metaphysical issues regarding the status of the subject, and thus we may here have a clue as to why human beings have such a difficult time discussing sexuality directly. If the subject confronts sexuality too directly its self-consciousness is made aware of the absolute negativity at the core of its being. It is best to keep this repressed, to keep this hidden in order to preserve normal day-to-day cognitive functioning.
In any case, as noted, this notion sets us on the course for understanding the next sections of Chapter 1, which will allow us to approach the differences between infantile and adult sexuality; and also some of the paradoxes of Christian or religious notions of sexuality.
This brings us to the end of Part 1 of Chapter 1 of What Is Sex? Here we covered the strange moral reaction to Freudian infantile sexuality, the aversion of the symbolic to confront sexuality (even in psychotherapeutic sessions), the ontology of the Freudian sexual horizon, and the defences that human mind erects to shield itself from the absolute negativity beneath the ultimate sexual fantasy. In the next lecture we will continue with Chapter 1 and focus on the differences between infantile and adult sexuality.
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(1) Zupančič, A. 2017. Chapter 1 – It’s Getting Strange In Here… In: What Is Sex? p. 5.
(2) ibid. p. 6.
(3) ibid. p. 6-7.
(4) ibid. p. 7.
(7) ibid. p. 8.