QUANDARY OF THE RELATION. Chapter 2 – …And Even Stranger Out There (Part 1)

part 1
Enter Other

YouTube video: …And Even Stranger Out There (Part 1)

Welcome to Lecture 5 of Alenka Zupančič’s What Is Sex? In this lecture we start a new chapter, Chapter 2: … And Even Stranger Out There. As the title of the chapter suggests we are moving from the inside of sexuality to its outside, and specifically to the sexual coincidence with politics.

In our contemporary academic universe the notion of relationality has become primary. From the world of physics, to the world of complex systems and social sciences, the relation is seen as the primary unit or element in structuring being. However, as we will learn in this lecture, what psychoanalysis adds (or subtracts) from these worlds is the paradoxical status of the relation in the human universe. Zupančič here refers to this as the ‘quandary of the relation’.

Zupančič starts the chapter by inviting us to recall her reference to John Huston’s movie Freud: The Secret Passion (1962), and specifically the scene in which a room of academics react violently the Freud’s introduction of his theory of infantile sexuality, which calls on the chairman to yell “Gentlemen, we are not in a political meeting!”. What this scene demonstrates, Zupančič claims, is the coincidence between the Freudian theory of sexuality and politics. Indeed, Zupančič notes, as will be essential for this lecture, that the specific location of this coincidence is in the dimension of the social antagonism; the fact that neither sex nor politics are actually organized around an ideal unity, but rather on a fundamental rupture or break or cut in the social order; a rupture or break or cut that structures the real of sexual difference (and political difference as well). This is why Freud’s theory of sexuality caused so much political turmoil; not only did it introduce us to the deadlocks and antagonisms of sexual difference, but it also made conscious the mediation of a new political difference, one that we can still find in the humanities gender theory programs, or in the desexualized mathematized sciences. Both discourses still tend to be enraged by the presuppositions of Freud, so much so, that when we bring Freud up in an academic setting we may have to yell: “People, we are not in a political meeting!”

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The Politics of Psychoanalysis

However, Zupančič’s main concern, as is evident from the first chapter, is not the violent political reaction to psychoanalytic sexual theory, but with the the politics of sexuality internal to psychoanalysis itself.  Here she claims that there are two main positions that can be situated on the level of ignoring sexuality, and on the level of claiming that sexuality is ‘something’.  In the position that ignores sexuality we see that there is an emphasis on standard and important Lacanian topics such as the barred Other, surplus-enjoyment, four discourses, and the critique of ideology; but the possibility that all of these topics require situating the centrality of sexuality in order to understand them is repressed.  In the position that posits sexuality as ‘something’ we get a constellation of politics of moral liberalism, where the free liberation of sexuality is promoted as long as it does not hurt anyone; and political conservatism, where we consciously or unconsciously support the repetition of the status quo, the normative order.

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Politics of Psychoanalysis (inclusive of the sexual-political Real)

According to Zupančič what both of these positions miss is the precise location of what Lacan referred to as the Real as an anti-being or a non-being which nonetheless exerts an efficacy in its impossibility.  For Zupančič this level of the Real is the location of both sexuality and politics, which circulate around the impossibility of an ‘inherent impasse’.  In other words, when we ignore sexuality, or when we posit sexuality as something, what we miss is the centrality of a negativity that we cannot deconstruct nor affirm, but something which overdetermines our space of (sexual and political) possibility.

To quote Zupančič (1):

“Politics is by definition the politics of the impossible (relation).  What relates sexuality to politics is that they are not simple ontological categories but essentially imply, depend on, and deploy something which is not of the order of being, and which Lacan refers to as the Real.  The Real is precisely not being, but its inherent impasse. [..] The Lacanian concept of the sexual is not one that provides the best description so far of a certain reality (called sexuality); what it does is develop a unique mode of thinking a fundamental non-relationship as dictating the conditions of different kinds of ties (including social ties, or “discourses”).  For this is what the Lacanian concept of sexuality is primarily about.  It conceptualizes the way in which a fundamental impasse of being is at work in its structuring (as being).”

If one reflects even for a moment on the real of one’s own sexual and political engagement one will quickly be able to relate to this notion that the status of both sexuality and politics occupy a strange level of being, even a level of anti-being, where an impossible relation comes to determine the space of possibilities for self-determination.  When one runs into the real of sexuality and politics one is overwhelmed, one can become disoriented, precisely because it appears impossible to wrap one’s mind around the situation and to articulate a clear way forward.  And at the same time, how we experience being appears to require that we deal with the impasses of sexuality and politics in some way if we are to experience being at all.

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Sexuality as Absence of Perfect Form

Here we can try to think what the structure of what Zupančič is attempting to articulate with the formation of identity around a point of impossibility.  The impossibility takes the place of a non-relation, or a mysterious “X” around which identity forms itself.  However, importantly, the status of this “X” is not itself a form or identity but the opposite of form or identity.  It is a pure or absolute difference or anti-form around which forms and identities emerge and structure themselves in an oppositional determination.  In that sense when we think about man-woman as oppositional determination, or left-right as oppositional determination, we should remember that the place of the absolute is on neither side, but rather in the pre-ontological space, the singular space that precedes given being.

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Ancient Sexual Theory v Psychoanalytic Sexual Theory

Thus, it may by worth while to consider the location of Lacanian sexuality as an inversion of the Platonic theory of sexuality.  In Plato we have the theory that two unites into one.  We have the theory that humans were cut in half at the dawn of time and that we will spend the rest of our lives searching for our other half, our soul mate, that would allow us to be whole again.  In the Platonic metaphysics, of course, we have the idea that this space of wholeness is the realm of the eternal Ideas, the realm of the perfect unity as the light of truth.  However, for Lacan we should take this eternal realm of Ideal form and transform it into the precise absence of such an entity.  The absence of such an entity, the eternal realm of Ideal form, is how both sexuality and politics gain their possible structures.

To quote Zupančič (2):

“The point is that beyond all sexual content and practices the sexual is not a pure form, but refers instead to the absence of this form as that which curves and defines the space of the sexual.  In other words, this is an “absence” or a negativity that has important consequences for the field structured around it.  How do we understand this?”

In order to answer Zupančič’s query we may entertain an idea that appears often in Zizek’s work, the idea that there is some homologous connection between psychoanalysis and physics.  Zupančič’s description of sexuality and politics brings a very strong connection to the possibility that sexuality and politics in the human universe are structured in a homologous way to the way in which matter and energy in the physical universe are structured around black holes.  As is common knowledge our universe is filled with billions upon billions of galaxies, and at the heart of each and every one of these galaxies exists a supermassive black hole that structures the rotation of matter and energy in its spacetime region.  In this way the curvature of spacetime that is represented by the matter-energy of galactic rotation, is structured around an absence or an impossibility, the black hole.  Here Zupančič’s analysis of sex and politics is basically identical.  When we think of sexuality and politics from a Lacanian perspective, we are thus invited to think of a human universe that is attempting to orbit its ownmost perfect form as an absent impossibility.  The various sexual and political practices and content are the matter-energy or identity of form that are capable of stabilizing a rotation across time.

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Paradox of Form

In order to think this paradox of sexuality where different forms of identity circulate around an absence, Zupančič claims that we can think of this as the opposite of the problem of unicorns (or, say, big foot or the loch ness monster). When we think of fantasy creatures we know that they are empirically absent in the sense that we cannot observe them in the physical world. However, we do know exactly what they would look like if we were to find one in the wild. If we were walking in the forrest and encountered a unicorn or big foot, we would know immediate that it was a unicorn or big foot. The form is clear. But Zupančič is claiming that this is precisely the opposite case for sexuality. In contrast to fantasy creatures like unicorns, sex is empirically present (and increasingly so) in movies and music and literature and advertising and fashion and so forth. Despite this omnipresence of sexuality its form is not so clear. We can’t really put our finger on what sex is and what sex is not, where it begins and where it ends. Indeed, many sexual theorists have noted that the main problem with studying sexuality is that it is hard to define and pin down, so to speak. We do not know sexual form. Zupančič’s claim is that we do not know sexual form because it has no form, it is an anti-form, it is the absence of perfect form.

To quote Zupančič (3):

“The cause of embarrassment in sexuality is not simply something which is there, on display on it, but on the contrary, something that is not there — something which, if it existed, would determine what sex actually is, and name what is “sexual” about sex.  Sex is all around, but we don’t seem to know what exactly it is.  We could perhaps go so far as to say: when — in the human realm — we come across something and have absolutely no clue what it is, we can be pretty certain that it “has to do with sex”.  This formula is not meant to be ironic[:] there is sex only in something that does not work.”

In other words, when something works, it takes a form that approaches or approximates the ideal of a form.  But Zupančič is claiming that sex can only be defined against the background of its inability to function or work.  Sex is our name for a constitutive deadlock or antagonism of jouissance (enjoyment), something that structures our attempts to either grasp it or to be it, or to somehow be in its presence.  But every grasping every being, is a missed encounter, something which seems to make is fall or something which seems to leave us confused and disoriented.  In this sense the moral impulse to cover sexuality up and not talk about it, is, perhaps, an unconscious defense mechanism, a way that we avoid confronting the fact that sexuality is in fact an epistemological obstacle.  Or as Zupančič notes (4):

“the ‘traditional’ cultural ban on sexuality […] should be explained by an ontological lapse involved in the sexual as sexual.”

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Mask/Veil and Anti-Form

To once again make reference to the symbolism of the black hole we can here think of the symbolic as the matter-energy of the human universe circulating around the void or absence of sexuality. Zupančič notes that this symbolic mask or veil represents a stand-in for an impossibility, an identity that forms against the background of the non-relation. What she aims to communicate here which is essential, is a corrective to the idea that sexuality is what drives or motivates action in civilization. On the contrary, Zupančič is claiming that what this simple idea misses is the sexual as negativity, which means that the symbolic practices of civilization are rather appearances against the background of non-relation.

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Common Wisdoms versus Lacan

This brings us to the infamous Lacanian axiom of “there is no sexual relation”.  In the axiom “there is no sexual relation” we should make the point of comparing it to the common wisdoms regarding sexuality that emerged throughout many different traditions.  These common wisdoms include statements like:

  • “(lasting) true love is impossible”,
  • “love is mostly unhappy”,
  • “men are from mars, women are from venus”,
  • “relationships don’t work”,
  • “there are only a series of missed encounters”,
  • “there are only atomized particles”

and so forth.  How does “there is no sexual relation” differ from these common wisdoms?

The difference can be found in ontologizing the non-relation, in inscribing a negativity as a positivity. “There is no sexual relation” is not inscribing a positivity, but rather identifying the fundamental negativity at work in the sexual. In contrast, the common wisdoms often ontologize sexual difference as a positive fact, as a fact of being, as opposed to the intrusion of an anti-being that allows for the constitution of being. Paradoxically, when we leave the axiom of “there is no sexual relation” as an de-ontological category, we do not explain the whole of reality, but rather approach the way in which reality is overdetermined by an absence that is still bursting with interpretive possibility.

Here to quote Zupančič (5):

“In this way the non-relation is thus (wrongly) understood as the ultimate truth, the ultimate code or formula of reality.  This truth is admittedly not very pleasant, but that is how it is, and at least we can understand why things are as they are.  And it seems to make a lot of sense — compared to, for example, the formula produced by the super powerful computer in Douglas Adam’s famous novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  After thousands of years of processing the question ‘What is the meaning of life?,’ the computer finally comes up with the answer, which is: 42.  So — compared with this, Lacan’s formula is literally bursting with sense or, more precisely, with the capacity to make sense of our miseries.”

In this way Zupančič wants us to avoid interpreting “there is no sexual relation” as a grand unified theory of reality. This would again miss Lacan’s point in the sense that it would again represent a obfuscation of the lack at the core of our sexual-poetical experience, giving us the impression that we had ‘solved it all’.

How can we think this in a simpler way? When we think in the negative logic offered by Lacan in “there is no sexual relation” we are invited not to think this impossibility as merely the cause of our difficulties in relationships; but rather, as the necessary opening for all relationships. What does this mean? This means that if the One were full and possible, if the sexual relation were present, if the sexual form existed, then we would not be here. We are only here because the sexual relation is not. In that sense we can think of all our relationships as being made possible by its absence. To quote Lacan directly (6):

“the absence of the relation does of course not prevent the tie, far from it — it dictates its conditions”

This shift in perspective, a perspectival shift, can be extremely helpful when thinking about our failures and troubles in relationships. There is an enormous beauty in these failures and troubles. There is a real beauty in the struggle and a pleasure in the pain. We grow from the difficulties and the impossibilities at work in our relations. It is the reason, perhaps, why our sexual and political struggles are so meaningful, colouring the horizon of our world with emotional energy that is beyond symbolic description. When we are so overwhelmed with emotions that we cannot put words to it, when we are confronting intellectual territory that absolutely resists our ability to understand, we are in the presence of the dictates of the non-relation.

To quote Zupančič (7):

“The non-relation gives, dictates the conditions of, what ties us, which is to say that it is not a simple, indifferent absence, but an absence that curves and determines the structure with which it appears.  The non-relation is not the opposite of the relationship, it is the inherent (il)logic (a fundamental “antagonism”) of the relationships that are possible and existing.”

In other words, the non-relation is something to be worked with. In the binary between avoiding relationships because of their impossibility or in trying to force the perfect relation against the background of its impossibility, the properly Lacanian approach is to walk the dialectical line by recognizing the impossibility at work in every relation and using it to understand what is possible and what is not possible in a given constellation of activity. In this way, far from being a depressing fact that we will never be One, the understanding of the overdetermination of impossibility is the very opening that enables us to be more creative with the way we relate, more creative with the space of possibilities that are always already there for us to explore.

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object-disoriented philosophy

Now we can revisit the metaphor of the black hole and the symbolic space with the application of Lacan’s fundamental formula of subjectivity as barred ‘S’ and objet petit a, the subject constituted by the symbolic chain and its partial object counterpart that structures its drive and identity.  In this representation the masks or veils of subjectivity are the barred subject; and the objet petit a is the impossible singular unity, the object that represents the absolute non-relation in the drive of the subject.

What Zupančič claims, or re-affirms, is the status of the objet petit a as ‘a-sexual’ in the sense that it is not in-itself sexual, since the sexual only exists in its oppositional determination; but rather, it is the singular a-sexual real that prevents the sexual relation, that is the absence of sexual form.  In this way the a-sexual objet petit a is a formless form, it can take any form.  Here Zupančič claims that, against the ‘pure philosophy’ of object oriented philosophy, the objet petit a suggests an ‘object-disoriented philosophy’, a philosophy of the wobbly subject, of the subject that can never form a straight path, but is inherently walking a path that is curved, without clear orientation.

This brings us, finally, to the status of the Freudo-Lacanian revolution. In a theoretical landscape that emphasizes strongly the relationality of reality, the Freudo-Lacanian tradition adds (or subtracts) the real of the non-relation, of the way in which a relational being appears due to an impasse or antagonism at the absolute heart or core of its appearance. This means that all our social discursive psychological reality is not simply a realm of relations, but of relations that are constantly being informed by a gap or crack in being; not just forms and identities, but forms and identities that are informed, being formed, by a fundamental negativity. Perhaps this is why our dominant social-discursive processes have such a hard time making sense of sexuality and politics; perhaps it is because sexuality and politics are inherently non-sense, an excess of sense that can never be observed directly, which never assume a determinate form and identity.

When we move onto the next lecture we will try to build on the start of this subsection.  In order to do that we should keep in mind the idea that sexuality and politics are linked in the Freudian theory of sexuality, and that this link manifests in a paradoxical ontology.  This paradoxical ontology, reinventing the traditional ontology of the Ancient Greeks, is not ‘being qua being’ but rather ‘being qua real’ as a gap or crack in being, what informs the formation of determinate identities.  To give an example of how we can explore the strange coincidence of sexuality and politics Zupančič alludes to “The Anti-Sexus” by Andrei Platonov, who is a Russian Marxist author who attempted to resolve the deadlocks and antagonisms of sexuality with a technological solution.  Here we will perhaps be able to reflect on the way in which psychoanalysis can help us to understand the failure of Marxism and also can help us to think what emancipatory politics means in the 21st century.

This brings us to the end of the first subsection of Chapter 2 …And Even Stranger Out There.  In this subsection focused on ‘the quandary of the relation’ we approached the status of the non-relation in Lacanian psychoanalysis and its status as an inherent impossibility that structures the sexual and political spaces of our discursive reality.  In the next lecture we will move onto the subsection ‘the anti-sexus’ in order to see the way in which this impossibility is at work in politics.

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part 1
The Outside of Sex

Works Cited:

(1) Zupančič, A. 2017. Chapter 2: …And Even Stranger Out There.  In: What Is Sex? p. 22.

(2) ibid.

(3) ibid.  p. 23.

(4) ibid.

(5) ibid.

(6) ibid.  p. 24.

(7) ibid.


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