SEX OR GENDER? (1) Chapter 3 – Contradictions That Matter (Part 1)

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YouTube: SEX OR GENDER? (1) Contradictions That Matter (Part 1)

Welcome to Lecture 8 of Alenka Zupančič’s What Is Sex? In this lecture we will be starting a new chapter, Chapter 3 — Contradictions That Matter. In this lecture we will be focused on the nature of the contemporary conversation about gender and sexuality.

The first section of Chapter 3 — Contradiction that Matter is titled “Sex or Gender?” as if Zupančič is here exploring an either/or choice. What is most important when it comes to our social lives or social performativity? What is most important when it comes to the Real? Sex? Or Gender? Of course, as most of you are probably aware, in contemporary social theory, we have seen the rise of “gender studies” which focuses almost exclusively on the construction and performance of gender as a historically contingent act or play in which various cultures manufacture certain social roles which could be totally other. In the subsection “Sex or Gender” (which we will cover in two parts), we will question this narrative and give a perspective which is informed by the Freudo-Lacanian psychoanalytic tradition which includes a focus on the relation between the symbolic and the real.

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Counter-intuitive psychoanalysis

First we have to consider the founding gesture of psychoanalysis, of course started by Sigmund Freud. The founding gesture of psychoanalysis is always a counter intuitive movement since it asks us to think about something we all always already know and adds a twist by injecting analysis of the unconscious. In this founding gesture Zupancic notes that Freud massively transformed the foundations of how we should think about human sexuality. Before Freudian psychoanalysis sexuality is largely seen as a moral problem, as evidenced by many of the spiritual and religious taboos and restrictions against its enaction. This is also understandable considering all of the dangers that come with sexuality, like pregnancy and disease. In either case, with psychoanalysis sexuality is instead perceived as an epistemological difficulty, not a moral problem. In other words, as Zupančič has claimed as central to the thesis of this book as a whole, sexuality is a short circuit between ontology and epistemology. This means that Zupančič is claiming that sex is a place where the symbolic (our knowledge) encounters a place in being or a real that it cannot reduce to clear logical operations, a place in being or a real where there are now rules or laws clearly governing its regulation.

Furthermore, before psychoanalysis sexuality is seen as ontologically irrelevant or peripheral. Indeed, many academic or intellectual traditions still see sexuality as mostly irrelevant or peripheral, reducing it to a minor activity to be understood through biological reductions. However, with psychoanalysis we again get a major transformation in our understanding, as sexuality all of a sudden becomes of extreme ontological importance, both immanent to human history and central to psychical analysis of subjectivity. In this sense we can already see why the Lacanian tradition would play with Hegel vis-a-vis the injection of the sexual unconscious Absolute knowledge of historical processes.

Finally, before psychoanalysis we have the idea that sexuality is what chained us (humans) to our animal heritage. In this view sexuality is something that regulates biological reproduction and expresses primal animal substance, but is something that we transcend in the human world towards a higher cultural appreciation of reality. However, once again, psychoanalysis throws us for a counter-intuitive loop because it problematizes this all-too-neat human-animal divide and instead identifies sexuality as something unique in the human world as the locus of a disorientation.

Thus, to summarize, with psychoanalysis we have the counter-intuitive view that what human sexuality is is first and foremost an epistemological difficulty, where our knowledge fails or short-circuits upon encountering the real; but that this epistemological difficulty is both immanent and central to human history which situates a paradoxical structure at the core of human becoming; and then finally, that this paradoxical structure of human sexuality is where we cannot get a clear orientation, it is a locus of a fundamental disorientation. This may bring to mind the idea that in sexuality, geometrically, we reach a type of non-orientable surface.

After that introduction to the psychoanalytic revolution we may also reflect on Freud’s own evolution on the status of sexuality. First, Freud developed the quite intuitive idea that sexuality as a hidden motive that functioned as the driving force behind all types of human sociocultural activities. In this view we can think that all the art, music, science, and high culture that characterizes the development of civilization is really all a sublimated attempt to express sexuality.

However, the later Freud changed his mind on this topic. In his later work Freud believed that sex was not a hidden motive or driving force, but rather a space where the human subject reaches an epistemological problem or limit that it cannot resolve in being. Furthermore, Freud posited that this epistemological problem or limit where the human subject cannot resolve being is what actually structured human civilization. In this sense we can think of human civilization as a construction or a performance that enacts the confusion and hysteria and madness that is the locus of the sexual-real.

Here to quote Zupančič on how this Freudian psychoanalytic tradition developed regarding discussion of sexuality (1):

“Sexuality is the paradigm of research and exploration, not in the sense of the reduction to the last instance but, on the contrary, because it brutally introduces us to the lack of the last instance. It is precisely this lack of the last instance that becomes the place of thought, including the most speculative (metaphysical) thinking. And it is no coincidence that the discussion of sexual difference in psychoanalysis, in its most venerable tradition, often sounds or reads like “high mathematics”: formulas, logical paradoxes, complicated formulations, and counterintuitive theses. Theses concerning sexuality are in fact the most speculative (or “philosophical”) part of psychoanalytic theory.”

This remarkable quote suggests a few things. First, psychoanalysis does not claim to have resolved this epistemological deadlock, but identifies that one of its central problems is precisely that where we demand a “last instance” we encounter not such “last instance”. All such attempts to cover up this fact (in exclusive romantic relationships, for example) masks or obfuscates the continuation of libidinal energy and the unresolved deadlock at the core of the energy expressed therein.

Second, Zupančič is suggesting that it is when we find ourselves at this epistemological limit or deadlock that we start to engage in the real of metaphysical thinking. In other words, where we would otherwise be happy creatures in relation to the world, encountering the brutal deadlocks of sexuality, its “lack of the last instance”, forces us into “speculative metaphysical thinking”. In that sense, and if this is true, all high philosophy could in principle be analyzed as the consequence of a brutal encounter with the sexual real, the way in which the unconscious attempts to resolve its own epistemological failure in relation to being itself.

Third, and perhaps most interestingly, when it comes to the best psychoanalytic attempts to understand the sexual, and specifically sexual difference as such (in its purest form), what we get is a type of knowledge that reads like complex mathematics. What this suggests is that there is something of a formal geometry or surface that we encounter in sexuality, perhaps like a curved manifold, which we (suprasensibly) detect as structuring the space of our understanding of this real. Moreover, this geometry or surface is not something that we can intuitively use to orient ourselves in the world, it is instead something that forces us to think in counterintuitive ways, something that befuddles and confuses even (perhaps especially) the brightest human minds.

Now in this context Zupančič dives headfirst into contemporary sexual-gender politics which is, of course, dominated by feminist rhetoric and theory. Here to quote Zupančič (2):

“True feminism depends on positing sexual difference as a political problem, and hence on situating it in the context of social antagonism and of emancipatory struggle. Feminism did not start from trying to affirm some other, female identity (and its rights), but from the fact that roughly half of the human race, referred to as “women”, was nonexistent in a political sense.”

This passage is interesting, what is Zupančič here suggesting regarding “true feminism” (which, we may think, suggests that there are “false feminisms”). What she seems to be suggesting is that feminism falls whenever it attempts to elevate something like a feminine essence or a feminine identity as something that is equal or superior to a masculine essence or identity. Instead, Zupančič is stating that true feminism, as opposed to essentialization, instead affirms the division or gap that is internal to the sexual sphere. The consequence of this division or gap is that roughly half of the human race become labelled (retroactively) as “women” and that this leads to a systematic exclusion on the political stage. Thus, for Zupančič, a true feminism would not elevate the category of “woman”, but instead push behind these gender categorizations altogether, perhaps, for a type of universal or general human expression which accepts the division that structures sexuality as such.

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sexual sphere(s)

Here let us meditate on a representation of this divide. Of course, in the traditional world, and for most if not all traditional cultures, there is a sexual sphere of man and a sexual sphere of woman. In the sexual sphere of man there is a clear identity and essence, and in the sexual sphere of woman there is a clear identity and essence. These spheres exist as interdependent but disconnected and clearly separate spheres or worlds that regulate traditional existence.

However, with the introduction of modernity and feminist emancipatory struggle we have the assertion that there is only one sphere which is internally divided within itself. In this sense the two clear and orientable spheres of man and woman is replaced with an internally cut or divided sphere that is structured around a pure difference. In this sense we no longer have man and woman but a singular sexual real which prevents a type of harmonious relation between the two (man and woman).

Here to quote Zupančič (3):

“The traditional division between masculine and feminine worlds (domains, spheres: for example, public/private) actually does not see sexual difference as difference, but as a question belonging to two separate worlds, which are “different” from a neutral bird’s-eye description, but otherwise coexist as integral parts in the hierarchy of a higher cosmic order, the wholeness and unity of which is in no way threatened by this “difference”. These are parts that “know their place”. And feminism (as a political movement) puts in question, and breaks, precisely this unity of the world, based on massive suppression, subordination, and exclusion. Once again: this exclusion is not an exclusion of female identity; on the contrary, the mythology of female identity is precisely what has made this exclusion possible, and what sustains it. The theme of “female identity” sustains the difference and exclusion on the pre political level., on the level of belonging to two different worlds.”

This is another remarkable quote from Zupančič and there is a lot to unpack here. The first thing to note is that the traditional culture exists on the presupposition that we can clearly differentiate the sexes into two genders and that these two genders are “objectively describable” from a neutral stance (as opposed to fundamentally biased or curved). In some sense traditional culture requires that this difference between the two genders exists because as soon as this clear difference is ruptured the whole edifice of traditional culture dissolves. In other words, if men and women do not “know their place” then the traditional world has nothing to stand on.

Second, Zupančič is fiercely adamant that the answer to this situation is not to elevate femininity as essential identity but rather sees that elevation of femininity as essential identity as the very ground of the traditional worldview, the mythology which sustains and reproduces it. In other words, if you take “the woman” away from the traditional world then everything else falls apart. Thus, for Zupančič, truly radical emancipatory struggle would be found in asserting the pure gap or difference as such internal to a singularly divided field.

Here let us again meditate on this structural transition which is increasingly important to think today. From Zupančič (4):

“Preachers of traditional values usually propagate the political exclusion of women precisely by evoking their (specific) identity. They believe that the Woman exists, and they need Her to exist. Is the right response to this to fill the “Woman” up with different content and to promote her as the Other voice, the voice of alterity, which also needs to be heard and affirmed?

“No: the political explosiveness of “the woman question” does not lie in any specificity or positive characteristics of women, but in its capacity to inscribe the problem of division and difference into the world of homogeneity of which it is based on exclusion. This exclusion — and this point is absolutely crucial — is not simply the exclusion of the other side, or half, but above all the exclusion (“repression”) of the split (social antagonism) as such; it is the erasing of a social antagonism. Its reappearance (in the form of feminist struggle) is the appearance of the social division in the pure state, and this is what makes it political, and politically explosive.”

Here is it possible for us to think this division or split in a “constructive” or “performative” way? If we can no longer think in terms of clearly differentiated spheres of “man” and “woman” which “know their place” then what does it mean to think “the real” as a “division” or “split” which structures an antagonistic social edifice? How would we conceive of sexuality and social life differently if we were to focus on this division or split as something that all humans have to struggle and contend with. I think that this is, as Zupancic suggests, “absolutely crucial”, precisely because we can develop a type of general-universal sympathy with all humans in their struggle to understand how to structure themselves in relation to sex or the sexual real. This is a division that, we may say, cuts across all of our hearts with a fierce intensity unlike anything else in the phenomenal universe.

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absolute difference

Thus, if we think sex as opposed to gender we are thinking about a radical singularity, a pure difference or absolute difference which structures gender identities. In that sense the specific focus shifts from the multiplicity of possible gender categories towards the singular sexual real around which these gender identities circulate. The point is that any gender category is a retroactive construction or performance to deal with a fundamental deadlock or antagonism which we all confront, universally. In that sense we all of a sudden of a strange unification of cultural wars between conservative and progressive ideologies regarding the constitution of gender. The conservative camp would affirm the two genders as absolute categories; whereas the progressive camp would affirm a multiplicity of genders freed from traditional categorization. What unites both of these camps is the singular real around which they circulate. What unites these camps is a different temperament or emotional issue of how one feels they can relate to the sexual deadlock that structures their own heart.

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not-one v multiplicity

Here is another possible representation to consider the difference between the psychoanalytic level of the sexual as “not-one” (in other words, the sexual structured around a division or antagonism), and the contemporary gender studies programs structured around gender multiplicity. In the gender studies representation we have a network or rhizomatic view of the sexual as a open-field of identities, a multiplicity of multiplicities. In this field there is no center or universal structure outside of the universality of multiplicity. In contrast, for psychoanalysis, we have a universality that cuts across all of us as a singular sexual disorientation, a singular real that is the cause of all of our gender identities. In that sense it is gender which is peripheral and secondary, and sexuality that is a singular unavoidable and central real. Of course, in Lacanian theory this real is seen as the location of the impossible. Thus, no matter what your gender identity, what one is asked to think in Lacanian theory is the sexual impossibility which structures your identity as such.

Here to quote Zupančič (5):

“Sexual difference is a singular kind of difference, because it starts out not as difference between different identities, but as an ontological impossibility (implied in sexuality) which only opens up the space of the social (where identities are also generated). This ontologically determinative negativity involved in the concept of sexual difference is precisely what is lost with the replacement of this concept with that of “gender differences”. As Joan Copjec forcefully put it:

“The psychoanalytic category of sexual difference was from this date [the mid-1980s] deemed suspect and largely forsaken in favour of the neutered category of gender. Yes, neutered. I insist on this because it is specifically the sex of sexual difference that dropped out when this term was replaced by gender. Gender theory performed one major feat: it removed the sex from sex. For while gender theorists continued to speak of sexual practices, they ceased to question what sex or sexuality is; in brief, sex was no longer the subject of an ontological inquiry and reverted instead to being what it was in common parlance: some vague sort of distinction, but basically a secondary characteristic (when applied to the subject), a qualifier added to others, or (when applied to an act) something a bit naughty.””

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traditional culture and science

But the problem runs deeper then contemporary gender studies theory (although we will once again revisit the basic claims of gender studies theory). First, if we are going to approach the sexual real as a theoretical problem let’s do a proper overview of all of the different epistemological structures that have attempted to deal with (or avoid) sexuality. The first epistemological structure we may encounter is traditional culture generally. For traditional culture, as we have discussed, sexual difference is an ontological question, a question of fundamental being. For traditional culture, there are “masculine” and “feminine” essences that structure being itself. In these universes the universe is itself sexual, with sexual principles that regulate its emergence and constitution. Thus all ancient knowledge, we may say following Lacan, is a type of sexual technique, an attempt to understand the balance and motion of the cosmos as yin-yang; water-fire; earth-sun; matter-form; active-passive. We may even add metaphysical notions like Father Time and Mother Earth, as archetypal representations that substantialize the sexual difference in a cosmic setting.

Second, we have modern science. Of course, modern science may be conceived as a total break from the traditional ancient knowledge or wisdoms. What happens with modern science has shaped the epistemological structures of almost everything in the past 500 years, and, as Lacan knew, was a necessary precondition for the emergence of psychoanalysis. In science, we have a type of revolution where we specifically break from traditional ontology and cosmology which sexualizes the universe. In science, reality itself becomes desexualized and abandons sexual difference as such. What is obfuscated in this scientific break from the sexual as an ontological problem is that society itself, the historical motion of society, still struggles with and deals with the sexual as an organizing principle. In this sense, science fundamentally represses the division that structures or cuts through the social historical edifice.

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gender studies and philosophy

Third, we may situate the emergence of gender studies. In gender studies we have a fundamental deconstruction and critique of the sexual difference which would seek an ontological grounding as in traditional essentialism. We may say something like, in gender studies, existence precedes essence. In gender studies we do not claim that there are pre-existing cosmic essences, the masculine and feminine, which make men “men” and make women “women”. Instead the gender studies theory focuses in ensuring that this traditional divide is abandoned because it offers all-too-simple ready made normative divisions which we should fit in as if there was no conscious choice in the process. Furthermore, gender theory critiques the traditional culture as an oppressive machine for unreflectively producing masculine-feminine essences. The downfall of this view, as already stated, is that gender theory can only do this by “de-sexualizing” its theory, and thus “neutering” itself from the real of historical sexuation.

Fourth, we have modern philosophy, which may take the same path, or at least a similar path to science in terms of abandoning or repressing the ontological issue of the sexual. For modern philosophy, we have a fundamental break with classical ontology. If you are following the lecture series on Less Than Nothing you will already know that this classical break from ontology happens most strongly with the Kantian assertion that we cannot know the “things-in-themselves”, the noumenal realm. In this assertion we lose any conversation of Being qua Being, and thus cannot think about things like a “Father Time” or a “Mother Earth”. However, Zupančič notes that there is a contemporary revival in some philosophical circles to speak again about pre-modern ontology, perhaps notable in the works of Quintin Meillassoux and Graham Harman, for example. In these works what is precisely avoided, however, and once again, is the issue of the sexual. From this perspective, even if there is a proliferation of new ontologies, these new ontologies are nevertheless united by the fact that they ignore sexual difference.

This brings us to the end of Part 1 of Chapter 3 — Contradictions That Matter, and Part 1 of the subsection “Sex or Gender?”. In Part 2 of “Sex or Gender?” we will once again take up this issue of the sexual as an epistemological difficulty or impossibility vis-a-vis the symbolic and the real, picking up where we left off with the structure of the contemporary theoretical field of knowing.

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Works Cited:

(1) Zupančič, A. 2017. Chapter 3: Contradictions That Matter. In: What Is Sex? p. 35-36.

(2) ibid.  p. 36.

(3) ibid.

(4) ibid. p. 37.

(5) ibid.


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