Sex or Gender? (2) Chapter 3 – Contradictions That Matter (Part 2)

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Poking at the Hole

YouTube: SEX OR GENDER? (2) Contradictions That Matter (Part 2)

Welcome to Lecture 9 of Alenka Zupančič’s What Is Sex?. In this lecture we will be focused on Part 2 of Chapter 3 — Contradictions That Matter, but still exploring the first subsection “Sex or Gender?”.  If you are following along with the book you can find that we pick up this lecture towards the bottom of page 38 which ended with discussion of the new ontologies of philosophy. Here we will pick up with a discussion on the Freudo-Lacanian views on sexualized ontology.

In the last lecture we introduced the ways in which psychoanalytic theory problematizes the way in which we have traditionally thought about sexuality and also the way in which psychoanalytic theory problematizes other forms of knowledge which touch sexuality directly or indirectly, including traditional culture, science, gender theory and philosophy. In this second lecture on Sex or Gender? we will now dive into the specifics of psychoanalytic theory and the ways in which psychoanalysis would approach a sexualized theory of gender.

First we will affirm that psychoanalysis finds itself on the side of scientific naturalism over traditional culture when it comes to the ontological break which desexualizes the substance of sexual essence. In other words, not only does psychoanalysis, at least in its Freudo-Lacanian tradition, operate in a universe without sexual essence, psychoanalysis also, by doing this, avoids the deconstructive critiques of contemporary gender theory which attempts to keep this essentialism at a safe distance from serious credibility.

Here quoting a directly passage from Lacan himself with a bracketed reflection from Zupančič (1):

“[Psychoanalysis] proceeds from the same status as Science itself. It is engaged in the central lack in which the subject experiences itself as desire… It has nothing to forget [a reference, no doubt, to the Heideggerian “forgetting of Being”], for it implies no recognition of any substance on which it claims to operate, even that of sexuality.”

There are a few points here for reflection. First, Lacan is emphasizing here the break with traditional cultures ontologization of sexuality, and thus its alignment with the scientific tradition which desexualizes the universe.

Second, Lacan is emphasizing that the ‘psychoanalytic object’ is not a forgotten substantial being as in the fall from the One and return to the One in the mystical teleological conception.

Third, if psychoanalysis takes its location as the operator of the real, and if psychoanalysis takes this location to be related to sexuality, then this sexual real is not a substantialized essence, but rather a “central lack” or void where the subject experiences the real of desire.

In this sense we see that the Freudo-Lacanian tradition in no way imagines a return to traditional culture, but neither does it ignore the real of sexuality and desire (as science does), and it is capable of doing this by acknowledging the real of a void or absence at the heart of subjectivity. This is why we may ask ourselves whether science can ever really think nothing?

Here let us be clear in regards to the way in which Zupančič aligns herself in the psychoanalytic tradition, of course, with Freud and Lacan over the very popular substantialist New Age Jungian incarnation. The difference between the Jungian tradition and the Freudo-Lacanian tradition is a very sharp distinction and it is worth understanding it in clear detail if one is to proceed into the metaphysics of a sexual theory of gender. In the Jungian tradition it is clear that sexuality becomes culturally substantialized in the collective unconscious with recourse to the transcendental archetypes. The transcendental archetypes of the collective unconscious are the imagistic substructure of the human psyche where we will apparently find a sexualized polarity between feminine and masculine essence.

In contrast to this Jungian tradition the Freudo-Lacanian tradition identifies the sexual real as an insubstantial void or “X” that obfuscates or disorients subjectivity. This insubstantial void is not sexualized as substantial masculine or feminine essence but rather exists (or rather) fails to exist as a central void or hole in being itself. This is where being qua being fails and being qua real takes primacy. Being qua real is the location where a human being can no longer make logical sense of being, where its logical apparatus breaks down internal to its own operations or normal functioning.

Here to elaborate on this point let us visit some central claims which structure Lacan’s work on sexuality. We may first identify that for Lacan sexuality is not a substantial essence but rather an irreducible point in a field where being or ontology itself breaks down. In other words, for Lacan, where the subject can develop a clear logical relation to many things in being, the subject cannot (it appears) develop a clear logical relation to sexuality. This is why Lacan proposed the infamous axiom “there is no sexual relation”, and rather suggested that sexuality is experienced as an intimate “non-relationship”. In this sense, Lacan does not add a substantial sexualized metaphysical monstrosity (Jungian archetypes) but rather leaves the field radically open with a nothingness (not an ontology). Where there should be something (some transcendental Oneness) the subject finds nothing at all. And this is what disrupts the clear logical functioning of the subject launching it (via thought) into metaphysical speculations.

What must be strongly emphasized here is that this Lacanian approach to sexuality, one structured by ontological inconsistency and a non-relationship cannot be wedded or reduced to a cultural substantialism (pre-existing masculine-feminine essence) or cultural constructivism (free construction of masculine and feminine gender identity). Both ideas of a pre-existing sexual substance and a free creation of sexual substance fail to acknowledge the fundamental problem and antagonism (or split or division) at the core of sexuality. What happens when we either substantialize or constructivize sexuality is that we miss the singularity of the impossible-real which dictates to us the possible relations within which sexuality can be expressed or performed.

Thus a discussion on the possibility for gender performativity, logically, brings us into a confrontation with Judith Butler, who is perhaps the most famous feminist gender theorist. Zupančič is quick to praise Butler as a revolutionary thinker who radicalized discussions of gender with a focus on performativity. The notion of performativity gives the idea that humans are the world stage as actors and that we have a space of possibility within which we can construct and perform various identities that capture or express our desire. For Zupančič, the crucially important idea that she would like us to focus on vis-a-vis Butler’s theory of sexuality, is the idea that existence precedes essence. Or more specifically, the idea that the existential actions that we present to the world create essence. There is no essence which precedes this performance, the essence is created in the performance. What we get with this idea is that gendered essence is temporalized as opposed to eternalized. When we have a temporalized gendered essence we are capable of thinking the way in which the gendered roles of traditional culture were not there from all time but rather solidified in the socio-cultural matrix from discursive performances which were contextual to the historical becoming of our species.


When we think of gendered performativity as the temporal essentialization of sexuality we are thinking the strange twisted process whereby the intervention of logos in being not only models being but also actively creates being. Here to quote Zupančič (2):

“we are dealing with something like an internal dialectics of the One (the discursive) that not only models things but also creates the things it models […] Performativity is thus a kind of onto-logy to the discursive, responsible for both the logos and the being of things.”

We here see a theme that characterizes Zupančič’s and also Žižek’s work. This is the emphasis on an ontology that includes the logos, or our knowledge in language. This is what she means by “ontology of the discursive”. Moreover, we have also the reference to this twisted circularity where our ability to model being, or things-in-themselves, must also take into consideration the fact that our models also create and generate being or the things-in-themselves. This paradoxical reversal is also the reversal that happens between Kant and Hegel. In Kant our knowledge is at a distance from the thing-in-themselves; and in Hegel our knowledge and the things-in-themselves are conceived of as a twisted One.

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Real X

Nevertheless, Zupančič’s unity with Butler has a short lived temporal expression. She is quick to point out where the Lacanian understanding of sexuality goes beyond mere historicized gendered performativity, even if this gendered performativity is a necessary step that one must take to understand the temporalization of sexual essence. What must be “added”, from the Lacanian perspective, is the subtraction of the insubstantial Real, the “anti-ontological” impossibility at the heart of the discursive process. This impossibility overdetermines or parasitizes performativity. In other words, we are not dealing with a circle that is in any way smooth or complete or closed, but one that is internally riddled with contradiction. There is no straight clear orientation for the sexual real. There are only twists and turns and disorientations. There is no way for our logical apparatus to perform our gender independent of this impossible dimension. Any systematic logical closure (like marriage or exclusive relations in general) merely obfuscates this sexual real.

The Real

Here what Zupančič wants us to focus on is the fact that there is not merely the sexualized body and the discursive space. What we must add is the Real. The Real is not a substantial higher world but a void or gap in being itself where the discursive emerges in the first place and thus constitutes the discursive as a paradoxical existential entity in the first place. This gap or hole in being, this out-of-jointness, according to Zupančič is what makes human sexuality sexual, and what differentiates human sexuality from mere biological reproduction. To quote Zupancic (3):

“[The Real] is the very space, or dimension, that sustains the “vital” phenomena […] (the libido or jouissance, the drive, the sexualized body) in their out-of-jointness with the symbolic.”

For this reason there is no way in which the symbolic can get a grasp on the sexual or orient the sexual. The symbolic may well be able to get a hold of other dimensions of being, but it encounters its ownmost otherness when it turns to the logical structuring of the sexual real. It is for this reason that there is no symbolical procedure humans can perform which would resolve and reconcile the underlying tension or division or antagonism at the core of the sexual real. Clear symbolic logical procedures can only delay or allow us to ignore this division or antagonism for a time.

To explore the totality of what Zupančič is adding with Lacanian psychoanalysis to the Butlerian performativity (4):

“So: the something produced by the signifier, in addition to what it produces as its field, magnetizes this field in a certain way. It is responsible for the fact that the symbolic field, or the field of the Other, is never neutral (or structured by pure differentiality), but conflictual, asymmetrical, “not-all,” ridden with a fundamental antagonism. In other words, the antagonism of the discursive field is not due to the fact that this field is always “composed” of multiple elements, or multiple multiples, competing among themselves and not properly unified; it refers to the very space in which these different multiples exist.”

In other words, gender identities (as understood in contemporary gender theory) are not merely a multiplicity of multiples existing in a free and open field of performativity. Instead, the multiple multiples (gender identities) exist within a singular real which is fundamentally conflictual, asymmetrical, or not-all; unable to be fully one with itself. This is what overdetermines or parasitizes any gendered performance, this is what cannot be “deconstructed” or “historicized”. Thus, Zupančič in no way regresses to an eternal substance in order to escape historicized deconstruction. She clearly demonstrates her allegiance to the temporalization and historicization of essence. However, she also identifies an emergent real which is not temporal or historical, but an atemporal and ahistorical real that, to re-quote Zupančič, is “the very space in which these different multiples exist.”


Here we adjust the representation of the not-one to “add” a type of virtual magnetism which emerges from the gap/hole of the real which constitutes the symbolic circular motion. This is necessary to conceptualize the way in which Zupančič is helping us to think the real as adding something which is not just the sexualized body or the symbolic discursive process. There is an extra layer, a fantasmatic layer, a layer which we may even call “less than nothing”.

However, the deeper point to focus on in this representation is the way in which Zupančič wants to us to conceptualize sexual difference. In order to draw an understanding of this difference she utilizes a reference to the Marxist understanding of class difference (5):

“Just as, for Marx, “class antagonism” is not simply conflict between different classes but the very principle of the constitution of class society, antagonism as such never simply exists between conflicting parties; it is the very structuring principle of this conflict, and of the elements involved in it.”

I attempt to represent this structuring principle by, at the top, capturing sexual difference as a difference between man and woman and economic difference as a difference between bourgeoisie and proletariat. In these conceptions we think that there are identities of men and identities of women and the absent real that prevents their merger. However, Zupančič is asking us to conceptualize sexual difference differently. She is asking us to conceptualize sexual difference as if humans, general humans, or general subjectivity, is on one side and the impossibility of the sexual real is on the other side. In this way all humans universally struggle with sexuality, not between constructions of men and women (which is a retroactive distortion of temporal identity) but between subjectivity and its own emergence.

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Lack in the Other

In this complexity Zupančič gets technical by introducing some crucial formalisms for understanding the way in which this field emerges and becomes constituted. For Zupančič, there is a paradoxical way in which the body in which the subject emerges is first constituted by a gap or lack, and then secondarily conditioned by a symbolic chain of signifiers. In this way the Real precedes the performativity of an identity. There would be no subjectivity if there was not first a gap or a lack or a hole for the subject to appear as a gendered identity. This is the meaning of the formalism S(A). The A is barred (A) because the Other is missing or lacking. In sexuality proper what is being explored is the dimensions of this lacking Other. We first assume that we can reclaim this Other, we can find and fill in this Other. We then, on further exploration, come to realize that the absence or gap is a fundamental constitution of being a subjectivity overdetermined by a symbolic chain.

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-1 as Other

Here we see a representation of this circular structure of the symbolic. First there is a void where a unified signifier should be (represented as a -1). This missing signifier is the primordial void where a chain of signifiers attempts to represent the gap or the hole that is the subject. All attempts to unify or close this hole are attempts of the subject to correct the deviation which is the condition for its very existence.

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location of sex

This is why Zupančič states that sexuality is co-extensive with the signifying gap as opposed to some substantial metaphysical beyond like God or the transcendental archetypes. Sexuality is co-extensive with this gap because it is sexuality where the subject most fiercely comes to explore a geometry of unification or unity or merger with the other. All other such attempts at unification or unity or merger are secondary epiphenomenal excesses that mask the primordial sexual trauma and problem.

To quote Zupancic (6):

“human sexuality is the placeholder of the missing signifier”

In this sense we can never think of sexuality as just about the body, or just about the symbolic performance of identity. We also have to think about sexuality as the Real of a gap or a hole in the fabric of being itself. Sexuality is thus radically unregulated and not captured by any law that would hold it and make it unproblematic. Sexuality is the place where being itself is lacking.

Here Zupančič elaborates on this idea for Lacanian theorists (7):

“I believe [there] is a crucial reversal of the common perception that we need to make: the messiness of our sexuality is not a consequence or result of there being no sexual relation, it is not that our sexuality is messy because it is without a clear signifying rule; it emerges only from, and at the place of, this lack, and attempts to deal with it. Sexuality is not ravaged by, or disturbed, because of a gap cutting deep into its “tissue,” it is, rather, the messy sewing up of this gap. […] In other words, sex is messy because it appears at the point of the breaking down of the signifying consistency, or logic (its point of impossibility), not because it is in itself illogical and messy: its messiness is the result of the attempt to invent a logic at the very point of the impasse of such logic. Its “irrationality” is the summit of its efforts to establish a sexual “rationale”.”

Thus this reversal attempts to capture the idea, almost a positivist notion, that sexuality in trying to sew up the primordial gap is only messy or problematic or illogical when it cannot properly function in this gap. This seems to suggest that temporal rationales are possible but probably unstable or likely to break down and fail at some other points in the circular repetition of the symbolic chain. What Zupančič does not do is suggest whether this reversal of logic where we are trying to epistemologically deal or cope with this lack is something that points towards a different meta-structural orientation for our sexual lives beyond the traditional conceptions. In the traditional world there were clear rules or logics for sexuality and no other forms of knowledge have really been able to suggest any alternative rules or logics. Many people resort to traditional normative structures simply because they don’t know what else is metastructurally available to them.

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Logical Formulas

Here Zupančič states that this is indeed how Lacan viewed sexuality. Sexuality is an absent impossible real that humans could develop logical formulas or rationales to approach a deeper understanding of its nature. If one wants to develop a deeper understanding of Lacan’s formulas of sexuation one can find a description on the website NoSubject. This page has a good overview of the structure as well as links to deeper readings. For now, I will say that this above representation attempts to capture a common representation of the relation structured by sexual difference between masculine and feminine identities where the masculine identity is in a mode of not-having and the feminine identity is in a mode of not-being. For the masculine identity he directs his gaze and voice towards the partial object of woman who precisely does not exist as the other. Whereas the woman who does not exist as the other situates her self in relation to the phallic signifying function which the actual human man is at a distance from or de-centered from.

Importantly we can now bring this exploration of Lacanian theory back around to the contemporary field of gender studies which emphasizes construction and performativity. While it is true that sexuality has a dimension of social construction and performance, it is also true that this dimension is occurring under the domain of an absent real which cannot be properly formalized or logically organized by the subject. In this sense we lack a connection between social construction and performativity and a symbolic logic that would help us to navigate this real which is in some sense fundamentally problematic.

This fundamental problematic can be formulated in Lacanian terms as a difference between Being and the Real. Whereas Being qua Being is the old philosophical topic which structured most of metaphysics, Being qua Real identifies the way in which psychoanalysis identifies the point in the field of discourse where being itself breaks down or convulses. For Lacan this convulsion is what happens to logic on its impact or encounter with the sexual. Logic can well make sense of many dimensions of being, but logic cannot make sense of the sexual. This is somewhat analogous then to the way in which our logic can make sense of observable being up until contact with singularities like black holes and the big bang. Upon contact with these singularities all formulas break down and we can only engage in intense metaphysical speculation as to what occurs in these domains. In the same way, sexuality presents to us a real-impossibility of understanding how to structure our knowledge of navigating our orienting ourselves in this territory.

Here to quote Zupančič in her reference to Copjec, whom she seems to identify as the rightful intellectual successor to a future conversation on sexualized gender (8):

“As Joan Copjec put it in her seminal text on these questions: “When we speak of language’s failure with respect to sex, we speak not of its falling short of a pre discursive object but of its falling into contradiction with itself. Sex coincides with this failure, this inevitable contradiction. Sex is, then, the impossibility of completing meaning, not (as Butler’s historicist/deconstructionist argument would have it) a meaning that is incomplete, instable. Or, the point is that sex is the structural incompleteness of language, not that sex is itself incomplete”.”

The important points that stick out in this quote are related to the paradoxes of self-relation. The problem we identify in the other is always already a self-contradiction, where a discursive object falls into contradiction with itself. Thus instead of incessantly blaming the other for the deadlock at the core of our sexual experience we need to do a better job of understanding our own discursive space, of watching very closely our own discursive space and how it is constructing and performing. If we watch this space very closely we may well be able to get a better understanding of the real which is informing the possibilities of construction and performance.

On that note let us end this subsection, as Zupančič does, with a meditation on the Real. The Real in psychoanalysis is not Being and it is not historical. The Real is, precisely, an impossibility or contradiction of being introduced by the functioning of the symbolic order. In order to make future progress in gender theory we will have to be able to discuss and make coherent an understanding of gender qua this Real. If we do not include discussions of this Real then we obfuscate the raw experience of our gendered performativity and construction, and most importantly, we talk about gender performance and construction as if it is not fundamentally problematic, as if it is not fundamentally something missing, something disorienting.

In terms of concrete proposals we can say that psychoanalytic theory offers a clear alternative to the common understandings of gender. Here we can say that contemporary conservatives articulate the idea that there are two clear gender norms and rules that make sense for structuring life in civilization; whereas contemporary progressives emphasize the idea that we can construct and perform a multiplicity of gender identities and that the emphasis on two genders is a historical contingent structure that can be deconstructed. What psychoanalysis points towards unifies both of these historical theories of gender with the emphasis on a Real negative one. The negative one is what precedes the emergence of the subject. The subject emerges in the hole or the gap in the discursive chain. It is unification and merger with this hole or gap that the subject is looking for in its epistemological construction of a gender identity. Thus any construction or performance of a gender identity should be thought of or conceived as a positivized relation or a non-relation to this fundamental negativity. If we are capable of seeing this space more clearly perhaps we can define a new discourse about gender. To quote Zupančič: (9)

“One does not remove the problem [of sex], but the means of seeing it, and of seeing the way it operates.”

This brings us to the end of Lecture 9 focused on Chapter 3 — Contradictions that Matter. In this lecture we finished part 2 of subsection 1 Sex or Gender? which brings us up to page 44. We attempted to articulate a way forward to a psychoanalytic understanding of sexual difference. In the next lecture we will continue this theme by moving on to the subsection titled “Sexual Division, A Problem in Ontology”.

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Works Cited:

(1) Zupančič, A. 2017. Chapter 3: Contradictions That Matter. In: What Is Sex?  p. 39.

(2) ibid.  p. 40.

(3) ibid.  p. 41.

(4) ibid.

(5) ibid.

(6) ibid.  p. 42.

(7) ibid.  p. 42-43.

(8) ibid.  p. 43.

(9) ibid.  p. 44.


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