Welcome to Lecture 2 of Alenka Zupančič’s What Is Sex? In this lecture we will focus on subsection 2 of Chapter 1: It’s Getting Strange In Here. In this subsection we approach the question of adult sexuality and its relation to infantile sexuality, attempting to elucidate the paradoxes of adult sexuality and its relationship to multiplicity and unity. In this exploration we hope to approach with nuance the consequences of interpretations of sexual ontology for philosophy and politics.
We start this episode by confronting the remarkable question: “Where Do Adults Come From?”. Of course, this question is a quick and witty commentary on the common or archetypal naive youthful question “Where Do Children Come From?” This reversal also involves the enigma or mystery of sexuality. When a child asks “Where Do Children Come From?” they are already unconsciously probing into the mysteries of sexuation and reproduction. They are unconsciously probing into the mysteries of adult sexuation. However, the mystery that concerns us here is the reverse, dealing with the controversial issue of infantile sexuality. In Freudian theory, human infants start out in a sexual mode which undergoes transformations in or towards adulthood. What characterizes these transformations and why do they come about?
Now let us analyze the crucial categorization scheme Freud developed in understanding infantile sexuality. We can approach these phenomena in two main points: the first was what initially caused so much hysteria when Freud initially suggested it, which was that children are indeed sexual, simply that a type of infantile sexuality exists in the first place. This was a scandalous observation to most people and still remains a contentious claim. What Freud means by this primordial existence of sexuality refers to a type orifice exploration, a type of excessive enjoyment organized in the repetitive enjoyment of partial drives.
The second, and in some sense more devastating and perplexing dimension, was that infantile sexuality had nothing to do with either biology or culture. In other words, infantile sexuality cannot be reduced to a type of genetic programming by nature, and it cannot be reduced to a type of social programming by the symbolic order. Infantile sexuality, in contrast, exists (or insists) in a strange ontological space that defies simple categorization but acts as an intermediary between the biological or natural, and the cultural or symbolic. Although Freud’s conclusions are paradoxically difficult on this point, his reasoning on was simple and straight forward: the biological or genetic functions of the sex organs are not developed in infants, and the cultural or symbolic functions of the mind are not yet developed in infants.
Thus, when we observe the manifestation of repetitive enjoyment of partial drives, this cannot be attributed to either function. This primordial infantile sexual function precedes biological and cultural programming in the existential development of the human, even if biological programming precedes the life history of our species, and even if cultural programming comes to determine the life trajectory of members of our species.
Now, in this identification Zupančič notes that there are two standard interpretations of why people find infantile sexuality disturbing, and these can be classified roughly as progressive liberal and politically incorrect. In the progressive liberal interpretation for the reason there is a tendency to find infantile sexuality disturbing is because adult sexuality matures out of this infantile sexuality. However, the politically incorrect interpretation for the reason there is a tendency to find infantile sexuality disturbing is because infantile sexuality persists even in adulthood, and adult sexuality is a constitutive failure. Let’s analyze this in greater depth, what does it mean that infantile sexuality persists into adulthood and adult sexuality fails?
In order to approach this Zupančič refers to psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche as coming the closest to approach the paradoxical status of the duality between infantile and adult sexuality. For Laplanche infantile sexuality can be described as a drive sexuality, and adult sexuality can be described as an instinctual sexuality. In drive sexuality we have the manifestation of a tendency that expresses itself and its satisfaction in partial drives; it is also, as we covered in the previous slide, free-floating, primordial, and substrate independent. This means that the domain we call infantile sexuality has the characteristics of a type of liberated flow of enjoyment that can playfully attach and detach to a multiplicity of surfaces and orifices.
However, in contrast to drive sexuality, instinctual sexuality, which is more associated with adult sexuality, is something that becomes hormonally or genetically regulated, preprogrammed by evolutionary history. In terms of action this form of sexuality expresses itself as object-based, as directed towards procreation, and as constitutive of gender formation. In other words, adult sexuality, through the maturation of the biological substrate and its cultural conditioning, starts to transform the free floating partial drives independent of any substrate and it directs them in a specific way in order to carry out the basic imperatives of the evolution of society.
To quote Zupančič’s own reference to a text by Laplanche (1):
“[Instinctual sexuality] arrives after prepuberty, that is, after drive or infantile sexuality. So that: “When it comes to sexuality, man is subject to the greatest of paradoxes: What is acquired through the drives precedes what is innate and instinctual, in such a way that, at the time it emerges, instinctual sexuality, which is adaptive, finds the seat already taken, as it were, by infantile drives, already and always present in the unconscious.”.”
This is an important quote to reflect on because it captures the paradoxical form of temporality that emerges in psychoanalysis which cannot be reduced to either the evolutionary paradigm or the social constructionist paradigm. When we are thinking about the nature of infantile sexuality we are dealing with a primordial behaviour that, in terms of evolutionary phylogeny, does not appear to exist elsewhere in nature, thus we can say that biologically programmed sexuality precedes drive sexuality in terms of evolutionary history; however, at the same time, in the individuated life history of members of our species, comes to overdetermine this biological programming. This is a strange reversal so it may be important to spend some time trying to think this in detail. The consequences of this claim is that there is no such thing as a pure biological sexuality in human beings, and not because of culture or social construction. There is no pure biological sexuality in humans because as soon as biological sexuality manifests it finds itself being grafted onto a form of sexual enjoyment that preceded it in the existential life history of the subject, as forming the subject.
This is the basic paradox elucidated in Freud’s classic essays focused on developing the foundations for a theory of sexuality. In Freud’s essays we have the attempt to argue that the specifically genital concentration of sexuality that we find as characterizing adult sexuality, is not the primordial location of infantile sexuality. Instead, the unified general organization what attempts to take control as one reaches puberty, is something grafted, in a sense, onto the primordially diffuse play of drives. This can manifest in drives such as looking, touching, sucking. Again this behaviour tends not to have anything to do with procreation and nothing to do, necessarily, with gender identity.
In some sense one can reflect on this strange relationship between infantile and adult sexuality as the crucial location as to why adults have a difficult time enjoying, or they wonder why they start to struggle with enjoyment. When we are in a state of infantile sexuality everything is in principle a source of libidinal enjoyment, our very modality for engaging with the world is libidinal. However, as we age, this diffuse experiential cloud of enjoyment starts to become monopolized by one function and one expression. Thus, when this one function and one expression seems so elusive and difficult, the rest of our life can feel grey and drab by contrast. We lose the ability to find the basic mechanics of looking, touching and sucking as inherently enjoyable as we once did. Instead, we dedicate most of our time and energy in terms of organizing our lives so that we can express the adult sexual function, living the rest of our lives in a type of enslavement to its domination.
Now, this brings us to adult sexuality proper, and why this transition from infantile to adult sexuality is so problematic for so many human beings. According to Freud’s theory there are two dimensions of adult sexuality which reveal its essential problematics. The first is that this diffuse primordial infantile sexuality and its adult concentration in genital organization is always an artificially forced unification, it is an attempt for biological and cultural forces to shape the primordial state into a oneness. Zupančič here attempts to differentiate this view from a teleological explanation where this unification in a concentration of genital organization is not seen as some inevitable determination, but as something that is itself a contingent product of our evolutionary history and our cultural matrix. The second is that this forced unification appears impossible, as an immanent deadlock constitutive of the nature of adult sexuality. We see here that the properly sexual over the reproductive and institutional functions of the sexual are never tamed or subdued by either nature or culture. The excess of the primordial enjoyment finds outlets in other self-perpetuating activities which can never be properly called unified.
Here you can see this represented on the slide in the transition from the image on the left to the image on the right. In the image on the left we see a realm of primordial drives that center into a oneness; and in the image on the right we see a oneness that cannot close itself, leaving cracks and gaps which open the space for the primordial multiplicity.
Now, although Zupančič subscribes the basic coordinates elucidated by the Freudian theory of sexuality, she is also insisting in this section of the chapter that we problematize this matrix with a little more critical thinking. The reason is not because the Freudian theory is incorrect, but because we now know that things are a little more complicated then simply a structure where a free chaotic multiplicity of drives become artificially unified; and simply where a drive sexuality independent of reproduction gives way to an instinctual sexuality that is mainly reproductive in its function.
To be specific, Zupančič would like to complicate this picture by insisting that there is an excessive dimension of the drive sexuality (the infantile sexuality) which persists in adulthood (a surplus pleasure) that is founding the overlap of adult sexuality proper. According to Zupančič, it is this location of an overlap between infantile sexuality and adult sexuality where we find the explosive reaction to the Freudian theory of infantile sexuality, where we have the strong resistance or defense at work in its most dangerous dimension. In this sense we may reflect again on the difference between the progressive liberal and the politically incorrect difference in interpretations of the uncomfortableness of Freudian theory of sexuality. In the progressive liberal account the uncomfortableness stems from the continuity of infantile and adult sexuality, but in the politically incorrect account the uncomfortableness stems precisely from their overlap, their proximity, their all-too-closeness. In that sense adult sexuality is never really about unification towards reproduction, but about the excessive dimension of sexuality that insists despite our submission to chains of natural and cultural functioning. Here we find a short circuit.
Now, let’s look at what Zupančič is trying to communicate with a little more focus. Remember, in the first section of this chapter, Zupančič wants us to pay close attention to the relationship between the sexual and the political, and indeed, she has written elsewhere about how the political is always sexual, and vice versa. In order to properly approach this issue we have to be willing to confront the dimensions of how our political projects may be unconsciously informed by our very underlying sexuation patterns. Indeed, if one spends enough time reflecting on the difference between the progressive liberal story of Freudian sexuation and the politically incorrect story of Freudian sexuation, one may see the difference between the failures of contemporary progressive liberalism and the necessary political dimension that we need to rethink for the 21st century.
In order to reiterate from the previous slide: the main difference between the two orientations to Freudian sexuality is the way in which they perceive the status of infantile sexuality in adulthood. In the progressive liberal account infantile sexuality is transformed without the gaps and cracks, infantile sexuality morphs into a closed and coherent adult sexuality, where there is no disturbing excess; what is disturbing is the origin. However, in the politically incorrect version, we never really have a closure or end to infantile sexuality, what is disturbing is its persistence and ubiquitous nature in adult sexuality; where adult sexuality as a unification can never really be understood independent of this primordial origin.
Now, on the one hand, we see that the progressive liberal interpretation posits a type of linear, deterministic and teleological development from one form to the other. We have already covered that Zupančič wants to distance herself from this linear, deterministic and teleological account. For Zupančič, we may say, the relation between infantile and adult sexuality is more paradoxical, more non-linear or circular, more something potentially subject to overdetermination, and something more inherently contingent or at least retroactive then a teleology would suggest. What does this mean? In order to be concrete we can say that this means that the political incorrect version of our understanding of infantile and adult sexuality must see the cut or intersection where adult sexuality is always retroactively rewritten by an unconscious repression inherent to the expression of infantile sexuality. Here we focus not on the developmental continuity between the two forms, but on their interaction in the present moment, in the way in which adult sexuality is always-already covered by infantile sexuality.
We can see this difference represented again in the images where we have a diffuse multiplicity transforming itself into a coherent unified one; and in the images where a negative one is always already cut from within by a diffuse multiplicity of drives, never fully closed in itself. The reason why this directly engages progressive liberal political philosophy, especially today in politically correct Marxist university discourse, is the idea of the perfect harmonious universality, the immanence of a political utopian project that will emerge from our chaotic historical tunnel. Instead of this naive Marxist utopianism we should instead think of the way in which universality is always cut from within, always structured by excesses which remain without the possibility for perfect integration. Here one may reflect on a Hegelian notion of totality that Žižek often brings up in public lectures, that the Hegelian totality is not a perfect circle but something that must be thought inclusive of its disturbances and imbalances.
Now, Zupančič makes another Hegelian connection, and I think this is done in an ingenious form which again calls our attention to the intersection between the sexual and the political. She quotes directly the Hegelian victim that “the secrets of the Egyptians were secrets for the Egyptians themselves” which I here represent as “The secrets of adult sexuality are secrets for the adults themselves”. What does this mean? What this captures is the negative one, the mysterious and enigmatic one which simultaneously, according to Zupančič, structures both infantile and adult sexuality. Thus, it is not that there is a deterministic teleological concentration of a multiplicity of free drives into a perfect unity; but that there is always already the negative one, an enigmatic and imperfect one. From the perspective of the infant this is expressed in the form of enigmatic signifiers from adults that signal a unity of sexuality; we can say this is where the naive question “Where Do Children Come From?” becomes situated in relation to. However, as we started in this section with the counter-intuitive question “Where Do Adults Come From?”, we can also say that the adults who performatively enact this unified signifier, this enigmatic signifier, they themselves do not understand this unity, this performativity is properly unconscious. In this way, Zupančič makes the paradoxical claim that what sexualizes the infantile drives is in fact the infant’s encounter with adult sexuality in its own infancy. Thus, we see that we can no hold a simple linear account of infant to adult sexuality since infant sexuality under this model is always already influenced by adult sexuality. This is a proper reversal of the standard politically correct approach to Freud.
Here we see this paradox represented again with a specific adjustment to the status of infantile and adult sexuality in both situations. In the first linear teleological account we see that the status of infantile sexuality is of a pure lack of understanding of sexual unity, since the genetic and cultural functions have yet to center the subject around a clear and coherent project to integration; and we see that the status of adult sexuality is conceived of as a positive necessity where being is in some sense fulfilled by the maturation of the infantile drives.
However, in this retroactive modification that Zupančič elucidates where something of a one is always already present with the multiplicity of drives, we have to focus on the overlap or point of encounter. Thus, when we reflect on the dictum that “The secrets of adult sexuality are secrets for the adults themselves” we are talking about two specific consequences for infantile and adult sexuality. For infantile sexuality we are talking about a point of encounter with a lack in the Other (where the child asks: “Where Do Children Come From?”). And for adult sexuality we are talking about a negative or subtractive unity of knowledge, as opposed to its positive manifestation. In other words, the positive knowledge of unity is never achieved, but only present in its absence, exerting an efficacy through its own most impossibility. In that sense we should inscribe the question “Where Do Adults Come From?” To quote from Zupančič (2):
“what makes the enjoyment related to the drives sexual is its relation to the unconscious (in its very ontological negativity) and not, for example, its entanglement and contamination with sexuality in the narrower sense of the term (relating to sexual organs and sexual intercourse).”
What this means is that the reason why drive sexuality maintains its excessive enjoyment status is because it is always operating against the background of an absolute negativity, of an impossibility to be fully one.
Now, if you recall from the previous lectures, I introduced a model of Freudian sexuality derived from Henry Ellenberger work The Discovery of the Unconscious. Now, if one pays close attention to the paragraphs where Zupančič inserts her emphasis on the “minus one” we will modify this model with the introduction of specifically Lacanian dimensions emphasized by Zupančič. The first is that with the emergence of the subject we have a co-extensive emergence of the unconscious Other; or to quote Zupančič directly: “the unconscious thus enters our horizon as the unconscious of the Other” (3). What is paradoxical in thinking this is that the unconscious in this formulation is not the underground of our consciousness but its precise externalization of an impossibility.
This is connected to a type of Žižekian impossibilism where the mysteries of consciousness are not in its positive properties, but precisely on consciousness impossibilities, what it (consciousness) cannot do. In this situation, we are thinking that consciousness cannot unify itself, it is always already an impossible unification, the unconscious of the Other. What happens with this emergence of the Other is the opening for the subject and the chain of signification which circles in a rotary motion this Other, in its extimate de-centering. Here one may want to think in terms of rotation about the complex plane where the -1 is its ownmost point of imaginary real reference. In this situation Zupančič reminds us that Freud was not just interested in the way in which the subject represses its ownmost unity, but the way in which the repressed unity also exerts an attractive force. To quote Zupančič directly again in her reference to Freud (4):
“Freud emphasizes that it is a mistake to focus the discussion of repression solely on “the repulsion which operates from the direction of conscious upon what is to be repressed; quite as important is the attraction exercised by what is primally repressed upon everything with which it can establish a connection.”
Now Zupančič introduces us to one of the core claims of this work (5):
“And it is in this perspective that we should understand one of the key emphases of this book: that something concerning sexuality is constitutively unconscious. That is to say: unconscious even when it first occurs, and not simply due to a subsequent repression. There is something about sexuality that appears only as repressed, something that registers in reality only in the form of repression (and not as something that first is, and is then repressed). And it is this something (and not some positive feature) that makes sexuality “sexual” in the strong meaning of the word. This is to say that the relation between the unconscious and sexuality is not that between some content and its container; sexuality pertains to the very being-there of the unconscious, in its very ontological uncertainty.”
What does this mean? What Zupančič is saying here is that there is no form of sexuality that fully knows itself, as in a naive form of absolute knowledge. In this situation absolute knowledge is the very recognition that there is a dimension of sexuality that is constitutively unconscious. When one labours under the fantasy that one can fully realize oneself in sexuality, as a type of fully self-consciously integrated being, one has not yet traversed the fantasy, one has not yet dissolved the big Other, one has not yet realized that the very inscription unconsciousness must be how we think of the One, this is why it is a “minus one”. What this means, consequently, is that the content or the drives of sexuality can never be fully contained and closed around by the actions of self-consciousness; self-consciousness is an effect of the minus One, self-consciousness or subjectivity is something that coincides with the subtraction of unity, and at the same time, this subtracted unity attracts it, exerts a force on it.
Consequently, Zupančič here points towards the connection between modern philosophy with Kant and the Freudo-Lacanian school of psychoanalysis with Lacan. In Lacan’s engagement with Sade and Kant, as Žižek has noted, Lacan’s interest is always with Kant. When Kant emphasizes the importance of “negative quantities”, Lacan is quick to make the connection that “minus one is not zero”. What this means in psychoanalytic terms is that the absence of sexuality, its impossibility, its failed unity, is not nothing, it is a nothing with a unifying efficacy. History is in some sense the slave of impossible unification, in Hegelian terms. What Lacan adds to the Hegelian historicity is the proper dimension of the drive in relation to the absent Other; what Lacan does in this move is redouble the ontological negativity, emphasizing that we can look at sexuality from the perspective of an external absence, or we can look at sexuality from the perspective of its redoubling, its extimate positivity.
If one wants to understand the meaning of the axiom introduced in the introduction of Less Than Nothing: “division between division and non-division”, this axiom applies right here at the ground of sexual redoubling. In sexual redoubling we think of the unconscious historicity of the void, of its constitutive structuring of the motion of subjectivity. What this unconscious historicity of the void means is that self-consciousness is always dealing with a negativity that is uncontrollable and uncertain; there is no possibility for human self-consciousness to create through science and technology a world where everything can be controlled with certainty. An uncontrollable and uncertain unconscious horizon is our fate, and understanding this is the true form of absolute knowing.
Thus, when we think outside of the contours of either a chaotic multiplicity (as is often the case in Deleuzian philosophy), or outside of the contours of a positive oneness (as is often the case in pre-modern philosophy), and we attempt to think the negative logic of the minus one, we may have a way to break some of the contradictions of the Freudian theory of sexuality, and think the positivity of this absolute negativity. To quote Zupančič (6):
“[There is a] much too simple opposition between the “subversive” chaotic multiplicity of the drives and “normative sexuality”. It is beyond question that a lot of violence has always been done in the name of the alleged norm, but the question remains as to what is it that binds this norm to such violence: is it simply fear of the “untamed” multiplicity of the drives, or is it something else?”
The question in this quote is essential. In our postmodern condition our philosophy emphasizes or even dogmatically affirms the chaotic multiplicity of the infantile sexual drives; and dogmatically negates the premodern emphasis on necessary oneness. In this way we have the, perhaps childish, negation of marriage and long-term commitment and family life, in favour of a prolonged childhood. As Zupančič recognizes, its not that there has been no harm done by this violent normativity, like enforced monogamy and so forth, but still, we have to ask ourselves what is at stake when we think the ontological negativity of the minus one. Is it simply that our historical norms are afraid to confront an open multiplicity or is it that we are dealing with a more paradoxical ‘one’ then we are currently capable of thinking?
This brings us to the conclusion of the third lecture of What Is Sex? and Part 2 of Chapter 1: It’s getting Strange In Here. In this lecture we focused on the sexual emergence of the adult under the counter-intuitive question “Where Do Adults Come From?” In this quest we discussed the difference between infantile and adult sexuality according to Freud, the difference between drive and instinctual sexuality according to Laplanche, we attempted to locate the paradoxes and interconnections between infantile and adult sexuality, and we started to approach the logic of the negative unity, which brings together Kantian philosophy and Lacanian psychoanalysis. Moving forward, we will conclude Chapter 1 in the next lecture with our focus on the subsection which deals with Christianity and institutional relations to the partial drives. In that chapter we will think through some of the paradoxes of adult sexuality as they have been expressed in history and specifically in religion.
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(1) Zupančič, A. 2017. Chapter 1 – It’s Getting Strange In Here… In: What Is Sex? p. 9.
(2) ibid. p. 11.
(5) ibid. p. 11-12.
(6) ibid. p. 12.