Welcome to Lecture 4 of Alenka Zupančič’s What Is Sex? In this lecture we will be completing Chapter 1 — It’s Getting Strange In Here… I hope after the first two lectures of this chapter everyone feels sufficiently strange. In the first subsection we covered the Freudian horizon of sexual theory; in the second subsection we covered the interrelation between infantile and adult sexuality; and, now, in the third subsection, we will be covering a religious interpretation of adult sexuality. So it is about to get even a little stranger in here…
This subsection starts with the title “Christianity and Polymorphous Perversity”. Consequently, in this subsection we move from attempting to understand the emergence of adult sexuality in relation to infantile sexuality, and seek to understand the ways in which the two forms of sexuality have expressed themselves historically and phenomenologically in the religious institutional context. Here we can see that what is being juxtaposed in Zupančič’s framing is the way in which Christianity expresses or supports infantile sexuality against the more common intuitive understanding that Christianity expresses or supports adult sexuality in terms of reproduction and marriage.
If we recall the central theme from the last episode, which separated and categorized infantile sexuality as a polymorphous drive and adult sexuality as a unifying normativity, we have the common belief that the infantile form of sexuality is repressed by culture, and the adult form is supported by culture. Of course, our culture, although more sexually expressive and open then in most or many historical contexts, is still ultimately a culture that we tend to think of as at least encouraging a normative unification towards the traditional family structure. In contrast, when we think about excessive sexual activity, open relationships, causal dating, and so forth, we still tend to think that this activity is going against the norm, that is in some sense subversive and counter-cultural. Of course the former tends towards unified order which orients temporality; whereas the latter tends towards a chaotic multiplicity which escapes any clear and consistent temporal orientation.
Here Zupančič wants us to question this tight distinction specifically in regards to what our culture supposedly represses and supports. If we think back on the past few decades of our societies culture, at least in the Western context, we can see that there is a counter-cultural trend which is specifically anti-institutional, and promotes a more free spiritual expression outside of institutional norms. This has led to a fairly precipitous decline in marriage, a rise in divorce, a decline in religious belief, a rise in secular materialism, a decline in nuclear family units, and a rise in single-parent or alternative family units. We also have a growing explosion of open sexuality and causal dating, mediated by virtual applications and internet culture, coupled with an extreme delay in confronting the traditional structures of adult life, like marriage and child rearing.
It is for this reason that Zupančič asks the naive question (1):
“But is this really so? Is it not possible that — beyond a very superficial level — this perception could be dramatically wrong?”
In order to approach this potential for our common sense to be dramatically wrong, she invokes the example of Christianity and specifically, a passage from Lacan which seems to point in an opposite interpretation.
Here quoting direction a passage from Lacan (2):
“Christ, even when resurrected from the dead, is valued for his body, and his body is the means by which communion in his presence is incorporation — oral drive — with which Christ’s wife, the Church as it is called, contents itself very well, having nothing to expect from copulation. In everything that followed from the effects of Christianity, particularly in πart… everything is exhibition of the body evoking jouissance — and you can lend credence to the testimony of someone who has just come back from an orgy of churches in Italy — but without copulation. If copulation isn’t present, it’s no accident. It’s just as much out of place there as it is in human reality, to which it nevertheless provides sustenance with the fantasies by which that reality is constituted.”
What does this complex quote represent in the context of our inquiry? The first thing to note is that, if infantile sexuality is conceived of as a polymorphous perversity of a multiplicity of drives which generate enjoyment in and for themselves; and if adult sexuality is conceived of as a unified normativity for reproduction; we can see that Lacan bringing our attention to the fact that the Church seems to emphasize in its phenomenal historical presentation the expression of the former, infantile sexuality. In other words, it may be that the Church promotes marriage and sex for reproduction, but this normative rule may be in place simply so that humans can stop focusing so much on biological sexuality, and instead direct their attention to the drive function of sexual enjoyment in its more direct expressions within the body of the Church itself. This is captured in the sentence which focuses on the oral drive, and the metaphorical reference to the Church as a Woman’s body, a bride, within which Christ (or singular forms of consciousness), enjoy.
Another interesting dimension of this quote can be found in Lacan’s reference to orgy without copulation; and moreover, Lacan’s reference to copulation being a disturbing and out-of-place activity, either within or without of the Church. What this captures is Zupančič’s central claim that sexuality is a fundamentally absent negativity which ultimately cannot be sustained as the ultimate horizon of our meaning, but which should be sublimated towards higher forms of sustainable collective enjoyment. In that perspective the Church appears, paradoxically and counter-intuitively, as a collective strategy for a totalizing jouissance that develops the best strategy it can for this aim given the historical coordinates of our life history. From this angle could it be that the past few decades which have been characterized by a dramatic negation of our central institutional foundations, do not require a totalizing negation, but rather a totalizing renovation? Although the scientific materialist worldview convincingly dismantles the absurdity of religious belief, is there not a disturbing excess in religious belief that seems to persist even after one has deconstructed religion on scientific materialist grounds? Could it be that this dimension of Freudian infantile sexuality is what is not properly understood by the scientific materialist critique of religion?
Indeed, to quote Zupančič on the meaning of this past Lacanian quote she identifies the emphasis on partial drives which are characteristic of infantile sexuality; and also the function of reproductive copulation as a disruptive excess which should be avoided (3):
“On the one hand, there is nothing necessarily asocial in partial drives: as autofocused as they may well be, they can nevertheless function as the glue of society, as the very stuff of communion. On the other hand, there seems to be something profoundly disruptive at stake in “copulation”. For the kind of (social) bond it proposes, Christianity does not need copulation, which functions as the superfluous element, something on top of what would be (ideally) needed, and hence as disturbing.”
This may be a different way for many people to think about Christianity. What Zupančič seems to be suggesting is that the very body of the Church is what supports the exploration of an infantile sexuality in adulthood; and also what supports a life praxis that attempts to de-emphasize the importance of adult sexuality, or at least controls it in such a way that it does not derail the human community for its main social functions. If we are to actually think this dimension seriously perhaps we can apply the progressive-spiritual and conservative-dogmatic religious distinctions which seems to have structured the past few decades of Western negation of the Christian tradition. In the past few decades Western peoples seem to be gravitating towards a progressive-spiritual view of religion that is critical of institutional belief systems that are perceived to be too conservative and dogmatic. What has occurred during this transition is a reduction in communal organizing power and an increase of heavy emphasis on adult sexuality as the central position of meaning in our life, even if it cannot stably hold this function across decades. In this phenomena perhaps it is time to reflect on the possible utility of a reversal which is capable of understanding the productive dimension of conservative or dogmatic institutional belief. This would not be a reversal that reasserts the old order, but on the contrary, rethinks how religious institutional order can be reinvented in a new way.
Now we have to take some time to concentrate on how Zupančič attempts to think the function of the Christian church and the doctrinal religious form in regards to sexuality because it is simultaneously essential and extremely difficult to conceptualize. First she brings up the common understanding of Christian doctrine which tends to refer to sexuality as “sinful”, even if it is a procreative mode of sexuality. For the intuitive understanding of Christian doctrine sexuality is the primordial sin, the primordial temptation, and knowledge is its punishment. Here we have the separation between the tree of life, where consciousness exists in the blissful present, and the tree of knowledge, where consciousness falls into temporality, of past and future, and has to deal with the consequences of being banished from the present. However, Zupančič notes that, as Thomas Aquinas knew, it is not sexuality which is the primordial sin, but rather the punishment for knowledge. In that sense it is not that human sexuality casts us out of the present and into knowledge; but rather knowledge which casts us out of the present and into sexuality as its punishment. To quote Zupančič directly (4):
“Sexuality is not the original sin (the latter refers to the original pair’s disobedience when eating from the tree of knowledge), but the punishment for it, and the locus of its perpetuation — it is subsequent addition to the original creation.”
In this context one can see why the Christian Church would de-emphasize copulation in any form and why Lacan would note that copulation is “out of place” whether it be in a Church or in normal human reality. If we are to ‘return’ to paradise, in the Christian sense of the term, there can be no sexual copulation in the strict sense of the notion since this is the precise location of the punishment for eating from the tree of knowledge.
How seriously are we to take this radical notion? Should we really be developing institutional strategies to reduce our tendency to place sexual copulation at the height of meaning and value? Should we really be developing institutional strategies to enhance the expression of infantile sexuality and its partial drives in order to combat the disturbing corrosive tendencies of unregulated sexual copulation? Although it is difficult to approach this topic it may be worth giving it deep reflection. I can add on a personal level that I found it interesting that when visiting a Buddhist temple I noticed that the temple’s community maintained itself through very strict institutional dogmas against all forms of biological copulation and a strict division of the sexes (monks and nuns) into different camps. Moreover, I noted on another personal level when visiting various Kibbutz organizations in Israel, that many people would tell me stories of how sexuality has a determining factor in the decline of the original communal order. On a more meta-level reflection one can easily see that as isolation and loneliness increases in our contemporary society, this can also be correlated with the unregulated explosion of free biological copulation. Is it possible for our culture to think of sexuality as the precise location of the perpetuation of a punishment? What would the consequences of thinking this dimension really lead towards?
In order to approach this question in its positive determination Zupančič suggests that the real treasure of the religious imaginary is not simply the absolute dogma against biological copulation or intercourse, but rather the elevation of partial objects to the level of the sacred. In order to demonstrate what she means, Zupančič refers to two famous religious paintings, one of Saint Agatha and one of Saint Lucy, which capture the strange fascination that the Christian imaginary has developed with partial objects. In the image of Saint Agatha we have the image of detached breasts and in the image of Saint Lucy we have the image of detached eyes. Both are partial objects in the sense that they are separated from the whole of the body and situated in a special or sacred location where the subject can focus its attention on them. For Zupančič it is cultivating a love of or even an attachment to partial objects in a non-sexual dimension which allows for the breaking of a cycle which would place sexual copulation at the height of meaning.
Here to quote Zupancic directly in regards this function as it pertains to Christianity (5):
“Viewed from this perspective, Christianity can indeed appear to be centered around the “jouissance of the body”. Partial drives and the passion or satisfaction they procure are abundantly present in many aspects of Christianity, and constitute an important part of its official imaginary. In this precise sense, one could even go so far as to say that in its libidinal aspect the Christian religion massively relies on what belongs to the register of “infantile sexuality” (defined by Freud as polymorphous perversity), that is, to the satisfaction and bonds derived from partial objects, with the exclusion of sexual coupling. Pure enjoyment, “enjoyment for the sake of enjoyment,” is not exactly what is banned here; what is banned, or repressed, is its link to sexuality.”
If we are to take seriously Zupančič’s conjectures here how are we to interpret the importance of the historical forms of Christianity? The standard new atheist approach to Christianity is to demonstrate Christianity’s total contingency, of the way in which Christianity played no role in the success of the Western culture we enjoy today, since this success can be totally attributed to science and reason. However, does not science and reason totally miss the dimension of phenomenal communal life? In what way does science or reason have anything significant to do with the real of phenomenal communal life? In what way have science and reason helped us to understand the meaning and purpose of history itself? Indeed, even for people who adhere to the most intense forms of scientism I doubt that any one would claim that science and reason have the answers to these questions.
In that sense can we not interpret the historicity of Christianity in a different way? Since Christianity was the very structural form that held Western communal life, acting as a social glue for the fabric of a society that experienced extraordinary success in the previous centuries, is it not possible that there is something inherent to Christianity which actually enabled the success of Western civilization? Could it be that the Christian emphasis on banning or repressing sexuality and cultivating an expression of infantile sexuality in adulthood, play some role in the strength of Western communities? Could it in that sense be seen as actually a necessary historical development that allowed Western culture to thrive and spread? Although perhaps too simplistic an analysis requiring much more sophisticated interpretation, I would posit that such thought is necessary to visit if we are to make sense the contemporary clash between Western civilization and Islam. In the clash between Western civilization and Islam we have the emergence of two competing forms of universality, one fundamentally secular and humanist, the other fundamentally supernatural and theological. However, is it not also too simplistic to see Islam as non-Western, as if it did not develop and form as a part of Western culture and as a co-generator of Europe and Christendom? In that sense could it be that Islam is gaining cultural strength precisely because it embodies crucial dimensions of communal life that Western culture has somehow forgotten or tended away from over the past few decades?
Let us then revisit the status of the relation between partial drives as expressed in a form of infantile sexuality; and copulation as expressed in a form of adult sexuality. Zupančič reiterates that we should perhaps interpret this crucial dimension of Christianity in the way in which it handles copulation and adult sexuality and the way in which it promotes partial drives and infantile sexuation or polymorphous perversity. However, what she then attempts to frame in a thought provoking way is not only the question as to why this can manifest in such a precise and rigid distinction; but more importantly, why the Christian tradition refuses to reflectively notice this sexual sublimation strategy. To quote Zupančič (6):
“it is clearly of paramount importance for the Christian religion not to acknowledge these polymorphous perverse satisfactions of the drives as sexual, while not banning them in themselves. But why exactly?”
According to Zupančič this is crucial for understanding enjoyment in the Lacanian sense of the term, as a mode of jouissance, sexual joy, which simultaneously requires and escapes the symbolic. She claims that Christianity is not the religion which suppresses sexual joy with harsh symbolic law but rather aims to separate sexual joy from “natural sexuality” or “copulation” via the symbolic law; but would at the same time never be able to conceive of this process as itself a sexual process via direct symbolization.
In this Lacanian interpretation her hypothesis for why this may be is related to the possibility that sexuality reveals an abyssal negativity which would be too disturbing for a religion like Christianity to confront directly. Thus, for Zupančič, what sexuality covers is not unity with God, but the impossibility of such unity, of an abyssal negativity which structures natural sexuality. In that sense the normative dimension of sexuality helps to guard human beings from this abyssal negativity since it prevents human beings from fully exploring the depths of this negativity, allowing them to erect a horizon of ultimate meaning which protects them from a direct encounter of an empty in-itself. Perhaps this is why Nietzsche was so concerned with the death of God, if human beings lose the transcendent unity which structures the horizon of meaning, then what is to stop our entire civilization from directly confronting abyssal negativity?
From this hypothesis Zupančič then works towards a novel mind twisting understanding of the relationship between nature and culture. In standard modernist understandings the nature/culture divide structures much interpretation of the meaning of human existence and history; we think that human culture is the positive addition to nature which expresses a higher function separating us from the biological and physical worlds. And in the postmodern understandings, critical reflection attempts to deconstruction this difference as an artificial and unnecessary distinction which unconsciously privileges humans as something special in relation the natural world. Zupančič does not attempt to side with either the modernist or the postmodernist positions but instead seeks to reinvent this distinction with a psychoanalytically informed perspective of abyssal negativity.
For Zupančič, the question is about why there is culture at all, why does culture appear in nature? Her answer is not that culture is some additional positivity, but rather something which signals a lack or an abyss inherent to nature itself. In order for nature to appear to itself, it must lack something in-itself, there must be an incompletion inherent not only to our knowledge, but rather deeper ontological incompletion. To quote Zupančič directly (7):
“The problem is not simply that nature is “always already cultural”, but rather that nature lacks something in order to be Nature (our Other) in the first place. Culture is not something that mediates, splits, denatures natural sexuality (as supposedly present in animals, for instance); it is being generated at the very locus where something in nature (as sexual nature) is lacking.”
In reflecting on this hypothesis perhaps it is possible to get a deeper understanding of why Zupančič emphasizes that knowledge is sin and sexuality is its punishment. In order to have a cultural knowledge appear in nature we must assume that substantial positivity reached its ownmost failure or lack, where it could not longer hide its own incompletion from itself. In that sense the tree of life bifurcated and the tree of knowledge emerged as its re-doubled supplement. The reason why sexuality in this ontology, that is, specifically human sexuality, could be conceived of as punishment, is because human sexuality is never really biological, but always something that is a biological function mediated by psychical cultural forms. In other words, humans do not just have sex for biological copulation functions, but rather have sex as supported by a fantasy frame that sustains a desire for reconciling incompletion. The fact that sex never does the job, but only makes one feel all the more incomplete, is the location or perpetuation, then, of a punishment, a constant reminder that we are divided from the Absolute.
Or, to put it in the terms that Zupančič her self uses, we can frame knowledge as sin precisely because it is an insufficient vehicle for the transformation of sexuality into a mechanism to complete substance (8):
“one way of putting this would be to say that there is no sexual instinct, that is, no knowledge (“law”) inherent to sexuality which would be able to reliably guide it.”
This brings us again to attempting to understand Zupančič’s distinction between nature/culture which does not repeat or reproduce the modernist form, and at the same time does not fall for the trap of the postmodernist form. To repeat, if we were to interpret in the modernist form, we would tend to think of human sexuality as a deviation from nature, some addition to the biological animal world, something over and above the human world. However, what Zupančič is doing with her work is not suggesting that any difference between humans and nature should simply be deconstructed, but rather framed in the form of a fundamental negativity. The human form is not some extra substance but rather the way in which nature reveals to itself its own incompletion. To quote Zupančič (9):
“In this perspective, humanity is not an exception to Nature, a deviation from it, but the point of a specific articulation of Nature’s own inherent negativity.”
In this way it is true that animals are also a manifestation of natural incompletion and negativity, but with human beings this natural incompletion and negativity is itself conscious of its own incompletion and negativity. With humanity nature can no longer hide from itself, as it were. As Zupančič states, it is not that the difference between the human animal and animals proper is necessarily sexuality itself but rather the way in which the sexual impasse is articulated. In that sense logos or language could be seen as a new form for expressing the impossibility at the core of nature.
This is where Zupančič claims we should think the Freudian unconscious. The Freudian unconscious, which emerges as polymorphous perversity via partial objective attachment, a phenomenon that we have already covered is a paradoxical ontological entity which is neither nature, nor culture, which is substrate independent, which emerges after biological instinct phylogenetically and at the same time precedes biological instinct in human life history; is something that articulates a new layer of natural impossibility. To quote Zupančič (10):
“human sexuality is the point at which the impossibility (ontological negativity) pertaining to the sexual relation appears as such, “registers” in reality as its part.”
In that sense the “knowledge” that structures the self-conscious identity of human beings are all so many ways of protecting oneself from ontological negativity. This is why psychoanalysis is very careful with the identity of any human subject; although the appearances of reality are in some sense a semblance, an illusion, they are at the same time all we have. Once one deconstructs one’s own identity structure, one does not get a liberation but a dissolution into the void of self-relating negativity. The question here is how one rides the turbulent waters of a world that is structured around an ontological negativity? We never learn how to properly confront this dimension of existence, probably in part because it requires a lot of subjective self-reflection, and probably in part because our education is dominated by a scientific ontology which is structured on the assumption of an underlying positive substantial existence.
Now let us focus on the ontological system that Zupančič does propose, an ontology that is distinct from both modernist and postmodernist forms. In its properly psychoanalytic dimension, we can think of the human form as distinct from animals in the form of a new type of absence. For animals the universe produces forms where natural law is absent. This does not mean that animals break the natural laws of physics, but it means that they are not totally subordinated and regulated by natural laws of physics, in the way that planets and stars are. In contrast to animals, the human form gains a loss, which manifests in the knowledge structure of a self-conscious identity form.
Another way of framing this difference is the difference in terms of self-consciousness and knowledge. In the animal world we can say that they too are lacking in sexuality; but this lacking in sexuality, this inability of natural law to regulate sexuality, is not a knowledge that any animal is actually conscious of, it simply is a brutal fact. However, with the human, we are all too aware that there is a mystery at the heart of nature that we cannot reconcile or resolve. Indeed, the totality of religion may be just such a defensive screen against this absence. In other words, humans know very well that they do not know.
To quote Zupančič (11):
“The right way of putting it would be to say that they [humans] are “unconscious of it” (which is not the same as saying that we are not conscious of it).”
What this means is that what structures the human universe is not some positive knowledge of content, say of the cosmos or life, but rather a knowledge of a lack or an absence. Zupančič here quotes Lacan who defined “unconscious knowledge” as “a knowledge that does not know itself”. When we think of religion, again, can we not think of religion as precisely taking the form of the unconscious? Is not the minimal difference between the scientist and the theologian the minimal difference between a subject that knows its content and a subject that knows that it does not know its content? The question is whether our culture can hold this difference in a sophisticated relation. Can we structure a discussion about the difference between science and religion in a psychoanalytically mature form?
Here to re-quote certain passages related to these crucial distinctions that are essential for understanding the Freudian revolution (12):
“The unconscious (in its very form) is the “positive” way in which the ontological negativity of a given reality registers in this reality itself, and it registers in a way which does not rely on the simple opposition between knowing and not knowing, between being or not being aware of something. And the reason is that what is at stake is precisely not “something” (some thing, some fact that we could be aware of or not) but a negativity that is itself perceptible only through its own negation. To be “unconscious of something” does not mean simply that one does not know it; rather, it implies a paradoxical redoublement, and is itself twofold or split: it involves not knowing that we know (… that we don’t know). This is one of the best definitions of the unconscious. As Lacan put it, unconscious knowledge is a knowledge that does not know itself.”
As a side note, this fact of the unconscious is why Lacan is often critical of the history of philosophy. In philosophy we often get axioms about self-knowledge and certainty, about a knowledge that is too self-assured of itself. One can easily here think of Plato or Descartes or Hegel, frequent references in Lacan’s primary texts, as forms of philosophy where a self-assured knowledge takes the center stage. In this way we can make sense of Lacan’s perspective when he refers to complete and consistent self-knowledge as the ultimate impossibility, the self is fundamentally structured by an ontological negativity, a knowledge that does not know itself.
In this way we can hold in one slide the core principles of the Freudian discovery and easily see why psychoanalysis often provokes so much of an antagonism with science. The first dimension of the Freudian discovery is that the unconscious is a precisely defined and singular field with consequences for all other forms of human knowledge, including science and religion and art and philosophy. This means that, after Freud, we can no longer think in terms of a naive scientific materialism, nor a naive pre-modern theology, nor in a naive intuitive artistic expressionism, nor in a self-assured philosophical knowledge. After the intervention of the understanding of the unconscious we must come to think of discursivity, of logos, as structured around an absent knowledge that does not know itself.
The second dimension is that with the unconscious we are dealing precisely with a not-knowing as a form of knowing. If one takes a moment to think about one’s desire then this should become clear. If one think of one’s desire it is not clear that we really know what we want. Indeed, as Žižek has stated in several public lectures, if psychoanalysis teaches us anything, it is that we don’t really want what we think it is that we want. This is because our desires are unconscious, our desires are not fully self-transparent, and when we actualize a desire that we think we really wanted, the desired object tends to lose its original shine.
The third dimension is that what psychology must contend with in psychoanalysis is not some pre-reflexive intuition, as is commonly asserted in New Age or spiritualist circles. The intuition is something fundamental to the human psyche, but when Freud discovered the unconscious, what was discovered was not some intuitive sense of positive order in things, but rather the way in which the human psyche is organized around a not-knowing, a form of internal negativity. Here to quote Zupančič (13):
“I am not talking about some kind of pre reflective intuition — the latter may well exist, but it has nothing to do with the unconscious and its structure. The unconscious is the very form of existence of an ontological negativity pertaining to sexuality.”
This brings Zupančič back to the issue of normalized sexuality. If one recalls from the previous lecture, the dimension of normalized sexuality is something that Zupančič feels we need to understand better today. She is specifically concerned with the all-too-simple critical deconstruction of this norm in favour of a primordial chaotic multiplicity. Although Zupančič is well aware that this norm has provoked extreme violence and caused extreme psychosocial pain in the past, and in some ways there is a deep logic in negating this imposed norm as the only way in which one can express oneself in adulthood; however, at the same time, there is something of an insistence in this normative dimension. Consider, for a moment, the new wave phenomenon of the red pill culture and the general new forms of conservatism sweeping across the Western world at the moment. If one takes a moment to actually learn about the axiomatic foundations of the main thinkers of the red pill culture, one finds that what is common to all of them is the insistence on the return to the nuclear family, and an insistence on a return to marriage as the foundation of Western civilization. How are we, or how is progressive culture, to make sense of this insistence? How are we to articulate an alternative to this persistent unifying force?
The question is not so simple and Zupančič does not exactly offer a clear answer. On the contrary, Zupancic tends to complicate the issue by proposing that what the enforced norm of marriage (what she refers to as “purely reproductive coupling”) attempts to block or shield us from, is a fundamental ontological negativity at the core of nature. To quote Zupančič (14):
“What is being banned or veiled by this norm? It seems to concern precisely the ontological negativity of sexuation and sexuality as such.”
Perhaps this is why the contemporary progressive culture is so fundamentally nihilistic and negative in relation to its view of the world and society. Contemporary progressives in all of their various modes have negated and deconstructed the form of traditional adulthood that stabilized civilization and now they have opened their identity structure up to the force of negativity which underlies the existential structure of our world. What this means is that sexuality without regulation by any symbolic law directly transmits a knowledge that is extremely difficult to hold in consciousness, and perhaps, for many people, a form of knowledge that they would prefer not to confront in existence.
This brings us back to the model of the unconscious which I have attempted to modify throughout the course of this analysis. Here I want to use this model in order to analyze the triadic dialectical structure of sexuation according to Zupančič’s application of Lacan’s theoretical edifice. In our analysis the subject emerges, is co-extensive with, a form of absolute negativity that we can refer to as the “Other” on the level of the unconscious. This unconscious Otherness is what opens up the space of signification, for knowledge, and also for the properly human dimension of sexuality. The first mode of engagement with this dimension of sexuality is to think that our symbolic knowledge is capable of reconciling the Other, since at this stage we are not aware that reconciling the Other is impossible, since it would equal self-erasure. In this first stage we can deploy the axioms “There is sexual relation” which does in fact manifest on the level of phenomenal historical appearances, often in the form of a marriage ceremony. In the marriage ceremony the sexual relation is presented to history as reconciled, where the Master Signifier forms a perfect circle and brings sexual division into a harmony.
Of course, on the second level, things are more complicated. We know from the infamous Lacanian formula for subjectivity that the subject in relation to its desire is barred, thwarted, fundamentally, that there is no Signifier that will reconcile the sexual division. In this mode we can deploy the axiom “There is no sexual relation” and note that this non-relation is experienced as a lack in the Other that cannot be reconciled with any symbolic intervention. It is here where we can see the manifestation of this fact in the frequent repetition of divorce and romantic break up. Whenever a couple first attempts to form a harmonious unity, the couple is never at first thinking of the immanent dissolution of this unity, they naively think that their closure will hold in a circle. However, the holes and cracks in this circle become obvious in the temporal deployment of the idea of unity. In this way the lack in the Other becomes unbearable and the primacy of division appears indestructible.
On the third level we have the domain of Freudian ontological negativity in-itself, we have the Other in its direct otherness as a negative one. Where there should be a transcendent positivity there is a paradoxical nothingness which exerts historical efficacy. Here we can deploy the axiom “There is a non-Other’ which expresses this fact that “minus one is not nothing” but rather an overdetermining absence that structures necessary historical appearances. If one simply negates the historical appearances and runs away from history one also does not solve the problems of existence, but rather runs away from the real challenge of existence. The only answer to this conundrum from a Lacanian perspective is to confront the ontological negativity at the core of being head on, as it were. Not to run away from this hole, but to enter the mode of the drive, where the lack is seen in its positive determination.
Now in regards sexuality itself, this is where we must ask ourself seriously if causal sex and in general treating sex as if it is not a serious issue, is something that our culture needs to fundamentally reinvent if it is to better understand the underlying psychical structure of history. This is because it is unregulated and unlawful sex which directly transmits the knowledge of the lack, according to Zupančič. Here to quote directly (15):
“what is being banned is not the Signifier of the sexual (or its Image), but rather the (unconscious) knowledge of the nonexistence of such a Signifier. Sexuality is regulated in all kinds of ways not because of its debauchery, but insofar as it implies (and “transmits”) the knowledge of this ontological negativity.”
From this interpretation we can return to Zupančič’s attempt to rethink Adam and Eve and the emergence of the tree of knowledge in the form of the symbolic order. What Zupančič posits is that the story of Adam and Eve is a narrativized attempt to capture the form of sexual difference that characterizes the structure of the symbolic order and also attempts to capture the stabilization of the symbolic order itself. It is in this story where we are forced to confront the fundamental link between sexuality and knowledge, of the way in which, when humans acquired the knowledge which defines their existence (what we can call the symbolic order itself, the signifying chain), we also fell into the qualitative level of human sexuality, which, as we covered, is characterized by a knowledge of lack, that is, which is characterized by what Freud discovered with the unconscious. In this way we get again a deeper reading of the matrix of knowledge as sin and sexuality as punishment, since every sexual act is an attempt to close the gap that opened up with the introduction of the symbolic order.
Now, in this crucial conceding section of the chapter, Zupančič quickly refers to something which, in my view, requires much more attention and may be one of the most profound dimensions of this opening chapter. Here I am referring to the fact that Zupančič makes the claim that it is this dimension of unconscious knowledge, what is repressed in scientific materialism, which is the precise difference between information or data. For anyone that is aware of the current scientific literature on information or data, we can say that, increasingly, science is becoming aware of the fundamentally informational nature of reality, of the way in which nature is not necessarily dense materiality, but rather patterns of information. Furthermore, if one quickly thinks back to the foundations of cybernetics, a topic to which Lacan pays close attention in a few crucial texts, one also finds that cyberneticians have no trouble making sense of information, but do have trouble making sense of meaning. The best example of this is in the formulation of so-called “Shannon information” which structured much of the telecommunication and computer revolutions of the late 20th century. With Shannon information we can make sense of data processing, but we cannot make sense of the meaning of information. Thus, when Zupančič claims that what separates knowledge from information or data is the unconscious, perhaps we are close to being able to think the precise space where psychoanalysis differs from cybernetics in a crucial way; the difference between the real of human subjectivity, and the real of machinic information processing.
If this is a useful theoretical point, we can say that the deepest real, a real which psychoanalysis does identify, is the real of confronting the ontological void in being, the real of an intimate nothingness that is the primordial site of human subjectivity. Here to quote Zupančič on Adam and Eve (16):
“What was transmitted to them [Adam and Eve] was precisely the gap of the [primal repression] as constitutive of knowledge.” (p. 17).
In that way, perhaps, what science cannot think is nothingness itself. This is, in fact, not a novel claim, but something recently identified by theorist Terence Deacon in his book Incomplete Nature. However, what Deacon himself fails to note or resolve, is the nature of this nothingness, leaving the field open for psychoanalysis to make a deeper connection between its practices and other forms of human knowledge.
After these speculations let us consider what science certainly cannot confront: the phenomenal real of the sexual act itself. What happens in the phenomenal real of the sexual act itself? What does it mean to “know the other”? What is exactly going on when we enter or are entered, sexually, by an other? Here to quote Zupančič and her direct reference to Lacan (17):
“All we can see in representations of sexuality is bodies enjoying parts of other bodies. In Lacan’s words: “As emphasized admirably by the kind of Kantian that Sade was, one can only enjoy a part of the Other’s body, for the simple reason that one has never seen a body completely wrap itself around the Other’s body, to the point of surrounding and phagocytizing it. That is why we must confine ourselves to simply giving it a little squeeze, like that, taking a forearm or anything else — ouch!””
Although Lacan is again extremely complex and difficult, there is a reward from attempting to understand what he is saying. The first thing we can say is that Lacan is giving us a picture here of the fact that sexuality is organized around the partial drives, that even if we want to consume the totality of the other in sex, we can never do this, we can only enjoy one part at a time, and tend to get stimulated only by a fixation on a part object that sticks out on the other. Thus we have a contradiction that appears at the site of the phenomenal sex act itself. Where we want to consume the other, swallowing them or being swallowed whole, we are left to be satisfied only with a partial engagement, and this is irreducible.
That is why, after the quote by Lacan, Zupančič claims that the normative dimension of sexuality is what appears to shield us from this contradiction; that the normative dimension of sexuality is taking the place of the non-relation, of the absent unity. In this sense the most fundamental point in regards to normative sexuality is not to deconstruct the contingency of a particular normative dimension of historical being, like marriage, but rather to understand the way in which a contingent normative dimension of historical being is standing in for a real that remains the same in every symbolic universe whatsoever, the gap or lack that constitutes the symbolic order as such. To put it in another way, because we cannot completely wrap ourselves around the other of our desire, we erect an image that attempts to capture what we cannot achieve, this image is a stand in for an impossibility. We cannot simply deconstruct this image, but we can recognize the openness of this image, the way in which we can constitute and stabilize this fantasy. This is the dimension of Lacanian psychoanalysis that can be expressed as the “traversing the fantasy”. When one has traversed the fantasy one does not leave fantasy for reality, but rather, one sees in fantasy the way in which one can overdetermine the fantasy space due to the positive lack of the Other.
In thinking about this “non-relation” as the “most fundamental real” of the subject, we can recognize this real in the modes in which we engage in intense enjoyment with partial objects. From our side of the equation there are imaginary partial objects, and from its (the unconscious) side of the equation, there is the negative one. To quote Zupančič (18):
“non-relation is not simply an absence of relation, but is itself a real, even the Real.”
In this way partial objects do not represent a compromise, where we are satisfied with partial objects because we cannot have the whole, but rather, these partial objects are where the hole of the Real comes to constitute itself in a human form.
To quote Zupančič (19):
“What psychoanalysis teaches us is not that, because of this non-relation, we have access to only partial and fleeting pleasures and satisfactions (“squeezing” here and there). The claim is stronger: these partial pleasures and satisfactions are already (in-)formed by the negativity implied by the non-relation. They do not exist independently of it, so that we could have recourse to them, for lack of anything better. They are essentially and intrinsically constituted by “the lack of anything better”: they are the way in which the lack of anything better (the lack of sexual substance or signifier) exists in reality. It is not — to put it simply — that we have, on the one hand, the pure positivity of the drives and their satisfactions and, on the other, this (catastrophic) idea that we need something else or more, namely, for them to form or represent a relation. And since this does not happen, we feel bad and erect the fantasy of the relation. The fantasy (and imperative) of the relation comes from (within) the very structuring of the drives.”
What we can conclude regarding the normative dimension of sexuality is that, in its various manifestations, it attempts as best as it can to frame desire within the symbolic law given our historical constellation. What this means is that, if over the past few decades we have deconstructed normative sexuality, we should not just simply fall into a temporal disorientation of a chaotic multiplicity, but rather seek to figure out a new symbolic law that is charged with the real of historical spirit. In the dualism between progressive spirituality and conservative dogmatism, it is the side of progressive spirituality that must once again structure itself in a new coherent and consistent form in order to void the trap of returning to the old structure propped up by conservative dogmatism. In other words, perhaps the answer to our current postmodern age is not a conservative revival, as is happening now throughout the Western world, but rather a brave and courageous rethinking of what we can save in marriage and religion that was actually essential for our thriving as a civilization.
This brings us to the conclusion of Lecture 4 and the conclusion of Chapter 1 of What Is Sex? Throughout this video we have covered the nature of sexuality from the Christian perspective, and specifically analyzed the role of Christianity in structuring adult sexual experience and orientation. Throughout this exploration we have also attempted to unpack Zupančič’s perspective on the ontology of sexuality and what it can tell us about the religious institutional relationship to sexuality.
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(1) Zupančič, A. 2017. Chapter 1: It’s Getting Strange In Here… In: What Is Sex? p. 12.
(3) ibid. p. 12-13.
(4) ibid. p. 13.
(5) ibid. p. 14.
(6) ibid. p. 15.
(10) ibid. p. 16.
(15) ibid. p. 17.
(17) ibid. p. 18.
(19) ibid. p. 18-19.