Welcome to Lecture 10 of Alenka Zupančič’s What Is Sex? In this lecture we will be covering Part 2 of Chapter 3 – Contradictions That Matter. The title of the subsection is “Sexual Division, A Problem in Ontology”. We will be covering the paradoxes of the being or reality of sex. We will be doing that through a deep dive into the paradoxes identified by Freud and Lacan.
The main questions that Zupančič approaches when she opens this section is about trying to understand whether the difference we experience between the sexes in our relationships is a fundamental component of sexuality. Is it an essential component of sexuality? Do we need the difference? Or is it contingent, historical, and thus something that we could overcome? Then whether or not the difference is first or second. Going back to Plato’s ontology, Plato suggests we were a unified sexual being. In that ontology, unity is first, and difference is second. Zupancic is thus bringing up this old topic: is unity first, or is difference first? Finally, what is the status of sexual difference in Freudian psychoanalysis. Do we have anything to say or add to the conversation on sexual metaphysics after a century of Freudian psychoanalysis?
We are going to start with a quote directly from Freud where Zupancic claims Freud is unambiguous about this topic of sexual difference (1):
“Freud’s answer is unambiguous [regarding sexual difference]: “The sexual drive is in the first instance independent of its object; nor is its origin likely to be due to its object’s attractions”. This is why, “from the point of view of psychoanalysis, the exclusive sexual interest felt by men for women is also a problem that needs elucidating and is not a self-evident fact based upon an attraction that is ultimately of a chemical nature.” Moreover, he famously insists on the original nonexistence of any germ of two sexes (or two sexualities)[:] “The auto-erotic activity of the erotogenic zones is […] the same in both sexes, and owing to this uniformity there is no possibility of a distinction between the two sexes such as arises after puberty… Indeed, if we were able to give a more definite connotation to the concepts “masculine” and “feminine”, it would even be possible to maintain that libido is invariably and necessary of a masculine nature, whether it occurs in men or in women and irrespectively of whether its object is a man or a woman.”
That is both a complex and really important quote because it gives us a grounding into what Freud is identifying as the psychoanalytic object of the libido. The first interesting thing Freud’s saying about the sexual drive is that it functions irrespective of what it ends up attaching to when humans are adults. That is why Freud questions man’s attachment to woman. It is not self-evident. You cannot reduce this to a biochemical pathway. The libido is this free-floating polymorphous perversity. The other things is that this free-floating polymorphous perversity is one-thing, and this one-thing expresses itself in a way that has a masculine character more than a feminine character, perhaps because of the way it is attaching and moving. However, Freud makes an important qualification about this supposed “masculine” nature (2):
“In other words, at the level of the libido there are not two sexes. And if we were able to say what exactly is “masculine” and “feminine”, we would describe it as “masculine” — but we are precisely not able to say this, as Freud emphasizes in the footnote attached to this passage.”
In other words, Freud is not willing to say there are two sexes, he is rather saying that there is a primordial masculine character of the libido, but at the same time, he is not comfortable saying it is “masculine”. Masculine already implies a type of essentialization of man and masculinity, which is a signifier we are using to describe a very historically mediated concept. But, at the same time, Freud is kind of saying, that what becomes man or masculine, is kind of caused by this primordial libidinal energy. This energy is not a feminine energy.
Zupancic then emphasizes is that the spontaneous ideology of liberal progressivism, that gender is a spectrum not a binary, is kind of correct, in the sense that this binary does not appear primordially, at least in our psychologies. Indeed, gender is more of a gradient of how a human is relating to this energy, whether this relation is being expressed in a masculine pole or a feminine pole. Thus, it is true that there is this more nuanced way in which we can understand gender, but there are these strange paradoxes that the sexual energy is strongly on one side of a pole.
Here I want to call what Zupancic calls the “not-two”. She kind of suggests that what becomes of this sexual energy is a kind of relationship between a one and a missing other. There is this “one” of libidinal energy which gets expressed in infants as a polymorphous perversity, but then the relation that structures the relation between men and women, is a relation of a subject “with” this energy, and a subject “without” this energy, or as a receiver of this energy.
In that sense we could call “man” a type of “primordial drive” and “woman” a type of “absent other”. If a person is acting in the idealized form of the masculine energy, the man is acting in the form of a strong drive, a drive to achieve, excel, express on a high cultural level. If a person is embodying what we call an idealized woman or femininity, is a type of masquerade of being the perfect object of this primordial energy. We can think of this as dressing up, trying to be very attractive, caring, and supportive, for the man and his drive. These are ideal manifestations that tend to structure most relations (not all relationships, it is of course a spectrum).
The important point is that these forms are not tied to biochemical functions, as Freud notes above. A subject in a female body could act very masculine, and a subject in a male body could act very feminine. What Freud is identifying is the way in which a human subject is relating to this energy. For this lecture we are focusing on the “one” of a libidinal energy, and a “zero” of a missing other/object for this energy. This 1 and 0, something and nothing, is what Freud is calling sexual difference.
Here a quote from Zupancic where she tries to frame this sexual difference in a single formula (3):
“To express [sexual difference] in a single formula: What splits into two is the very nonexistence of the one (that is, of the one which, if it existed, would be the Other).”
I want to highlight this formula because it deserves our attention and reflection. What Zupancic is saying is that what becomes man and woman is the inexistence of a unity. This is flipping Plato on his head (inverting Plato). Plato is saying there is a unity and it breaks. What Zupančič is saying is that this is a memory of something (of the primordial libido) that never existed. Or maybe something stronger, there is this presence of an absence of absolute unity. The two of sexual difference both get structured around this presence-absence or with-without, with the man pretending he has the one (libidinal action), and the woman pretending she is the one (fulfilled other).
With this structure of sexual difference Zupančič is really clear (as she is clear throughout the book) that psychoanalysis is not saying that sex is a cultural construction. As we think of gender as a cultural construction, as discussed in lecture 9, we can think gender as a constructed performativity, but what psychoanalysis is identifying is sex as a type of metastructural feature of the symbolic order, as a constitutive feature of the symbolic order. There is this 0 and 1 which is not constructed but a built in feature of the symbolic order, something which may overdetermine our activity. Thus no matter what gender we construct and perform this 0 and 1 remains in an absolute sense.
Furthermore, there is an important topographical note, and conceptual note, that this sexual real is not something that we can think of as a substantive unity. If we think of the sex act itself, as two human beings trying to enter someone’s body or letting someone enter your body, or thinking of marriage as a higher ethical union, or Plato’s metaphysics of a perfect sphere. Zupančič is saying we should not think of sex in this way. She is saying we should think of sex as an internal limit of the symbolic. Where the symbolic is fundamentally limited, this perfect sphere emerges as an imaginary screen (we might say). This is a way for the symbolic order to mask its incompletion, or a way for the symbolic order to veil the absence. This is interesting if you think about the function of the veil and attraction in the feminine. Much of sexual attraction as constructively performed by very feminine subjectivity, is precisely to veil and cover herself, as if she is going to reveal absolute being itself. This is what Zupančič is identifying as the sexual real.
Here Zupancic gives a reference to Lacan, first the early and then the late Lacan. The difference between the two is important. In both the early and late Lacan we are dealing with the 1 and the 0, but in the early Lacan we are dealing with an evolutionary teleology. In the early Lacan we have a biological entity which has needs and instincts, as all other biological entity, but then when you have a biological entity where language evolves or emerges (and Lacan tends to the idea of language emerging like a creation out of nothing), what happens is the presence of signifiers create a new level of loss. This is what Lacan thinks of as desire.
These early Lacanian ideas are derived directly from being influenced by lectures on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit by Alexandre Kojève in France in the 1930s. This idea is that desire is a type of imaginary object, that a desire is something that does not exist in the world, but something we want to bring into existence. At its most extreme you could think of God or Utopia. We might desire God or Utopia but this is phenomenally not present to us, it is absent to us. Lacan is saying that it might be that in language our early biological needs get transformed into a transcendent desire due to the chain of signifiers.
The late Lacan makes a stronger claim, which is that the negative one (-1) is coextensive with the emergence of the symbolic order. What this means is that beings-in-language, self-conscious beings, are fundamentally flipping back and forth between 0 and 1. This is kind of as if humans feel this pure loss, and at the same time and place of this pure loss, there emerges a transcendental desire. The pure loss and transcendental desire are this overlapping and flipping “thing”. We might say that all our stories and mythologies are about this -1, this not-one.
If you think of history, specifically sexuality and politics, this not-one functions everywhere. On the level of sexuality this desire of two becomes on, between man and woman, structures a lot of our language. We could say that all of our stories are about this play of the two. On the level of politics you could say the state in all of its manifestations is a type of not-one. It is a unity, but a unity that is constantly dividing and splitting and changing its form. A lot of our stories of history are stories about this, stories about the not-one. This is the important shift from early to late Lacan.
Here a quote about the late Lacanian ontology (4):
“The human (hi)story begins not with the emergence of the signifier, but with the one signifier “gone missing”. […] From this perspective, speech itself is already a response to the missing signifier, which is not (there). Speech is not simply “composed of signifiers”, signifiers are not the (sufficient) condition of speech, the condition of speech as we know it is “one-signifier-less”. Humans are being roused from indifference and forced to speak […] by one signifier gone missing. This temporal way of putting it (“gone missing”) is an expression of what would be better formulated as the signifying structure emerging not simply without one signifier, but rather with-without one signifier — since this “hole” has consequences, and determines what gets structured around it.”
The end of this analysis focuses on this “hole” of the not-one. Zupancic is saying our speech gets structured around this hole. Again we can think of how, in politics, all of our speech gets structured around this not-one of the state. Now, it is true that if you focus on what is present in our world, you might shift your attention to a multiplicity of things relating like a network, but if you pay attention to the absence and void in things, attention gets shifted from the multiplicity of relations of present things, to a type of single absence, this type of absent unity which tends to shape us and determine us in a multiplicity of different ways. When you think of history in this way, and your life in this way, it is at first counter-intuitive (due to focusing on what is absent), but when this distinction is grasped things feel heavier because you can see the way in which people are structured by this absence, and you can see the way you are being structured by this absence.
In classic Zupančič fashion she tries to articulate this presence-absence, with a joke (5):
“A guy goes into a restaurant and says to the waiter: ‘Coffee without cream, please’. The waiter replies: ‘I’m sorry, sir, but we’re out of cream. Could it be without milk?'”
What she is trying to get at with this joke, is that in the symbolic order there is an absence that functions. Of course, if you are just thinking about things that are present, having coffee without cream or milk is still the same coffee, it should have no effect on the presence of the thing. But, what Zupančič is saying is that the particular fantasy or absence that is structuring your desire does in fact effect what is present. So whenever you are thinking about your life you can not just think about what is immediately present to your senses, but also that absent fantasy which is having an effect on you. In other words coffee without cream or coffee without milk does matter, in an intimate way.
Zupančič is emphasizing here that this evolution in Lacan’s evolution on the sexual real is precisely what we might call primal repression. This primal repression, this -1, this Thing, which we will not or can not talk about, is a type of atemporality of the symbolic order. Of course all of our identities and all of the things we observe and all of the physical order is constantly changing and evolving, all of our languages and cultures are changing and evolving over time. But this structure of the symbolic order does not seem to change. Zupancic is emphasizing that the symbolic order is this atemporal with-without, this presence-absence, which constitutes, simultaneously, a pure loss and a transcendental desire, at the same time.
This is important to understand because it is relevant to the history of psychoanalysis, and a crucial difference between Jung and Freud, which continues to effect our discourse in the popular sense. In terms of how this negative one is situated in this difference it is kind of a synthesis. For Jung the Absolute foundation of reality is a type of symmetry between masculine and feminine essences, the structure of the collective unconscious, they are complimentary essences, yin-yang, as primordial sexual principles. Of course, Jung thought this because he did not agree with Freud’s ideas about the libido and sexuality.
In contrast, Freud, as we covered above, although he thought of the libido as one (‘masculine’) thing, he thought about it as expressing itself as a multiplicity. This is where polymorphous perversity comes in. So with Freud you have this Absolute foundation as a pure difference, and what become ‘man’ and ‘woman’ (the biocultural binary) is what transforms this sexual ‘essence’ in two ways, but they are not fundamental. What is fundamental is this polymorphous perversity.
In Lacan you have a synthesis between these two options. Whereas Jung has the fundamental as the two essences of the archetypally masculine and feminine, and Freud is saying that what is fundamental is this polymorphous perversity of the drive, what Lacan is suggesting is that the fundamental is the absolute inexistence of the not-one. You could here situate both Jungian and Freudian perspectives in relation to the not-one. You could say what gets inscribed into the not-one is this polymorphous perversity of drives which get asymmetrical structured as a biocultural binary in history. The important dimension of the binary is that they are never fully reconciled, never balanced and symmetrical. This is where both Freud and Lacan would disagree with Jung. For both Freud and Lacan the binary is a contradictory two, a one present and a one lacking or absent.
Thus what Lacan is saying with the absolute as the not-one is that there is a universal phallic function. This universal phallic function operating on primal repression, operates on a this or that, a with or without. Let us get into details of this operates (6):
“As Guy Le Gaufey insists with great persistence, Lacan’s formulas of sexuation are not his attempt to “find a pertinent feature differentiating man and woman”. Or, in another poignant formulation, “perhaps the difference which keeps apart one [sex] from the other belongs neither to the one nor to the other”. This was Joan Copjec’s profound intuition when she discussed the formulas of sexuation in relation to the Kantian antinomies of reason: difference or contradiction of the signifying order itself, which they logically decline in different ways (each one reproducing the fundamental contradiction in its own way).”
What is really interesting about this difficult passage is that it really individualizes our relationship to sexuality. We should not view things necessarily as the battle between man and woman, but rather the way in which an individual identity comes to structure its individual antagonism with this energy. Thus where you think about your self on a gender spectrum is the way in which you are embodying a contradiction. As we will get to in a future lecture, the way in which you may own this contradiction should not be owned in a victimhood status mode, as we may see both men and women doing in various cultural movements, but rather, embodying this contradiction and owning it completely. In other words “yes, I have chosen this strategy to walk the earth, and I know it is contradictory, but this is the way I embody the absolute” you might say.
Here is another quote in relation to the phallic function, this with-without, this picking a contradictory position (7):
“What puts these two configurations in a (non-)relation is that they share the same function (φx), yet at these same time this very fact prevents any kind of symmetry or complementarity between them. From a differentiating feature (based on the opposition presence/absence: some have it, some do not), Lacan makes the phallus the signifier of the difference as such.”
The most important thing that stick out to me in this quote, and the really reflectively important moment, is this way of conceptualizing man and woman in relation to the phallic function, as some have it, some do not. This some not having the phallus is just as powerful effect as having it. In other words, the archetypal man would have the phallus, and the archetypal woman would not have the phallus, but she would still be absolutely effected by the phallus in its absence. In that sense the phallic function is universal. Now we can start to see the way in which this difference manifests in identity.
The formulas on the left hand column are the formulas for the “masculine” position. The formulas on the right hand column are the formulas for the “feminine” position. Now let us take an in-depth look at how Zupančič comes to conceptualize the way we should understand the formula on the left and right. Then we will try to get a comprehensive understanding of what it means to embody one or the other contradiction, the with or the without. First let us start with the man (8):
“The masculine (left) side posits that there exists One that is not castrated (and has access to full enjoyment: the primordial Father, the Woman): Ǝx φx. The exclusion of this One — that is, positing it as an exception, or exempting it — is the way in which the subject emerging on this side appropriates, frames, the minus involved in the signifying order. The exception (of a non-castrated One) functions as constitutive, that is, as the negative reference point, or the limit that permits everything else to be constituted as such, that is, to appear as everything else, or as a whole: all x are φx, all x are subject to the function of castration (∀x φx). […] The logic at stake here is nicely summed up by the following joke: “There are no cannibals here, we ate the last one yesterday”: the condition of “all of us” being “civilized” (non-cannibal) is the act of exemption that makes us “all”. This is also what is at stake in the Freudian myth of the killing of the primordial Father (as possessor of all women), followed by everyone giving up the claim to an “unlimited enjoyment” represented by the figure of the primordial Father. The exception (the “killing”) of the One frames the renunciation common to all. This basically means: everyone has to give up what they never had, and what is represented by the mythical figure of the primordial Father. The primordial Father is mythical in the precise sense that it is a necessary presupposition (and retrospective image) of the very notion of renunciation. Everyone has to give up what they never had — yet the form of giving it up is nonetheless essential. This is perhaps also the best definition of castration: to give up what one ever had, that is to say, to transform the “minus one” which comes with the signifying order into something that we have renounced; to transform what we never had into something lost. In this kind of “framing” the negativity, the “negative quantity”, of the signifier order acquires a signifying form, a privileged signifier; the lack of the signifier gets a signifier, and this signifier is called Phallus. This brings us to the lower part of the left side of the formulas of sexuation. What we see here is precisely that man assumes castration by relying on its signifier (φ or the master-signifier, S1 — Lacan explicitly makes this connection) as the support of this subjective position, that is, as the support of “masculine” subjectivization. [/] This “assuming” it by means of the master-signifier — that is, by means of giving a signifying frame to the lack in the Other — equals assuming it by repressing it. One puts one’s faith in the hands of the signifier, but one does not want to know anything about what takes place in this swap (namely, “castration”). The subject thus relies on the signifying support of castration, φ (we can say: he doesn’t need to know anything about castration because the signifier “knows” it for him), and establishes a relation to the Other in the guise of the small a on the right-hand side of the formulas. What does this mean, or imply? The mythical One of exception (the One which, by being “cut out”, so to speak, provides the signifying frame of the inaugural minus) also constitutes the frame or the “window of fantasy”, as Lacan puts it, through which the other can appear as desirable (as object-cause of desire). In other words: the “formal” structure that provides the signifying frame for the lack of the signifier, combined with the particular circumstances in which this “swap” takes place for a subject, determines the concrete conditions under which (and only under which) the Other appears desirable. Here Lacan’s statement that man “never deals with anything by way of a partner but object a inscribed on the other side of the bar. He is unable to attain his sexual partner, who is the Other, except inasmuch as his partner is the cause of his desire”.”
Now I am going to summarize that quote into four points. It captures the totality of how a man becomes a man. The first thing to emphasize is that the man has to go through a primordial renunciation of something he never had, the primordial Father who has all the women. You can see this in the hunter-gatherer fantasy of the alpha male who has all the women; or the first emperors and kings of civilization who had concubines or who just slept with hundreds of women. This is the primordial fantasy, wanting to have what you never had. But what Zupančič is saying is that in order to become a man you have to renounce this. You need to retroactively create this image and then renounce it. This renouncing of it, transforming pure loss and transcendental desire, opens up the space for the Master Signifier (S1).
The man can embody this master signifier and function in the world with it, as his primary identity, and become civilized, on the basis of this process. What this signifier allows for the man, is that this primordial repression is known now by the unconscious, you can be a civilized self-consciousness constituting your self under the Master Signifier, and the unconscious will save this repression for you. Through this process of embodying the Master Signifier, the fundamental process is to separate the subject from the not-one, but the barring of this Master Signifier is the necessary structure for the framing of the object petit a, or the fantasy frame of the man in relation to the part object, which becomes his Other, fundamentally (usually a woman, but not necessarily). Now the closing of this loop is the “masculine” subject.
Now we are going to do the same with the feminine mode of subjectivity (9):
Let us now look on the other, feminine (right) side of the formulas of sexuation. Here the minus one that comes with the signifying order (constituting its real) configures differently: castration, as the signifying operator of the minus, does not rely for the feminine subject on the exclusion (exception) of the non-castrated Other. We start with negation of a possible exception, Ex φx: there is no x which does not fall under the phallic function (that is, under the function of castration). Castration allows for no exception. And it is precisely this that makes any universal statement impossible, as we read in the second line of the “feminine” formulas: not all are φx. We cannot speak of “all” women or, simply, of the woman. Why is the possibility of an exception excluded on this, the feminine side? What does it mean or simply? It is the logical writing of the juncture of the following two claims. First, woman is “the Other, in the most radical sense, in the sexual relationship”. And second, “there is no Other of the Other.” If woman is the Other of man, man is not the Other of woman. There is no Other of the Other — the Other is included in the Other (as the Other sex). This is what is expressed by the following paradoxical formulation: Being the Other…, woman is that which has a relationship to that Other”. In other words, the relationship to the Other is, so to speak, included in the Other; it is “part” of the Other. Whereas a man can think of the Other as the exception to the rule, to his rule, on the basis of which he relates to women, a woman cannot think of the Other as the exception to her rule, but as part of the rule, as included in the rule. This affects significantly the nature of this rule, making it “non-all”. The nonexistence of the Other is itself inscribed into the Other. And this is precisely what the concept of the unconscious is about: the point where the nonexistence of the Other is itself inscribed into the Other. And, as suggested by the concept of the “unconscious, this is not a point of self-reflective transparency, but that of a signifying gap constitutive of knowledge. This further implies that the infamous Lacanian “barred Other” is not simply an inconsistent, Lacking Other, but the Other the inconsistency of which is inscribed in it, and has itself a marker in it: Lacan writes it as S(
A), signifier of the Other as barred. But what is this signifier? Here Lacan makes a most surprising connection: “By S( A) I designate nothing other than woman’s jouissance”. The signifier at stake is thus a most peculiar one. In order to understand what precisely is at stake here, we can relate it directly to the following crucial claim, made above: the emergence of the signifying order directly coincides with the non-emergence of one signifier, and at a place of this gap appears enjoyment as the heterogenous element pertaining to the signifying structure, yet irreducible to it. In this precise sense, the enjoyment at stake essentially belongs to the unconscious (and to its “gap”): not as “repressed, but as the very substance of the missing signifier which, as missing, gives its form to the unconscious. This also explains Lacan’s emphasis on the question of knowledge and its “limits”: Can one know — and say — anything about this other, non-phallic enjoyment? The answer is no: […], this other enjoyment cannot be an object of knowledge, because it is a placeholder for the knowledge which does not exist. This enjoyment appears at the place of the lack in knowledge, it appears because there is nothing to know there. […] What this implies is that the infamous “feminine jouissance” is not an obstacle to the sexual relation, but a symptom (or marker) of its nonexistence.”
We are going to summarize this passage in another four crucial steps. The first thing to emphasize is that the feminine subject is an exception under castration in the sense that every subject is subject to castration but castration does not use or embody the feminine subject in the same way that it embodies the masculine subject. It is rather that the feminine subject becomes the “without” in the with-without, so she is “without the phallus”, the exception under the phallus. This is where Lacan tries to deploy the concept of the “non-all”. The man as embodying the phallus is the universal rule, and the woman is the necessary exception to this rule, the non-all of this rule, she is within it, but non-totalized by it.
This is related to the fact that the woman is herself her own Other. This is related back to the origin of the libido. What becomes man happens directly in relation to the woman, the woman is necessary in some sense for his identity. But in the sexual relationship the woman is more in relationship to herself, and the man is simply ‘there’. This is what Zupancic is trying to suggest with her articulation of the nested relationship of the Other, in this space outside of the law, outside of the man. In this strange space, the woman needs the law, the symbolic order, but she is an “outside-inside” the symbolic law. She is the dimension of the symbolic law which can never be totally captured. This is the location of where the man’s knowledge, or the symbolic order’s knowledge breaks down. This is the mysterious feminine jouissance. And finally, she identifies this feminine jouissance as the non-relation, as the absolute, as what the man can never know, as what man will forever want to find but never can (because there is nothing to see). Zupančič is saying that woman’s sexual enjoyment is this very location, the non-phallic enjoyment.
These two structures, these metastructures, the primordial drive which goes from phi, to the barred signifier, to the objet petit a, and to the missing Other, we might say is the essencing of man, or the gender essencing of the primordial drive. On the other hand, we have the barred signifier, to the barred Other, to the objet petit a, to the missing phi, which frames the missing one, or the not-one. This could be seen as the gender essencing of the woman or the absent other. And again you see the summary of the masculine and feminine sides above.
In terms of their ontological status, Zupančič spends far more time talking about the imaginary status of the woman, but she does also say that the man’s status is imaginary. For woman she is very clear that the performativity of the absent other in history (although the sexual experience might be totally authentic), the embodied performativity is a masquerade. The woman masquerades as the complete other, as the other that will fulfill all the man’s desires. You can think of the woman who dresses up sexually and put on a show for the man, to be the perfect other for the man. This is a functional masquerade. For the man it is more like a simulacrum, this image of an image of substance. Where the man pretends to have substance there really is no substance. You can think of the archetypal man as the hero, with courage, trying to conquer the world with knowledge, or who has the woman. Zupančič is saying this is a simulacrum, that the man is also putting on a show, where you would assume substance, there is really a void, that both are playing a game (10):
“Nobody has it (namely, the missing signifier), men no more so than women; what they both have is a way of dealing with this ontological minus by dealing with its marker (phallic function as the function of castration).”
That is a really clear and easy way of conceptualizing the knots of the primordial drive and the absent other, are two ways of dealing with the contradictions of sexual identity and our sexual energy, and in our historical performativity. You could generate a simulacrum of masculine substance or a masquerade of feminine substance. Both of these are related to the not-one.
Importantly, this is where Zupančič identifies the core of emotional anxiety. For anyone who has read Lacan you will know that he spends a lot of time focused on anxiety and its relation to the object of desire. I think it is important to focus on how Zupančič focuses on the ontology of anxiety here. The truth for an identity that has created a simulacrum of masculinity or a masquerade of femininity, both will experience extreme affects, anxiety, as the truth of their identity, and the truth of the virtual imaginary status of their identity in relation to the hole of the other. The man will experience incredible affective anxiety when he confronts a beautiful other, the woman. You might think of a man breaking down after a divorce or split from a woman, or the anxiety of being rejected by the woman he wants. For the woman it is in relation to the man that embodies the phallus. The courageous, heroic man, the alpha male man. She will experience incredible affective anxiety if this man does not want her, if this man does not want her as the other.
The man and the woman are these epistemological constructions which are both trying to deal with this not-one in opposite and contradictory ways. Again I want to re-quote the important quote about sexual difference and ontological negativity (11):
“To express [sexual division] in a single formula: What splits into two is the nonexistence of the one (that is, of the one which, if it existed, would be the Other).”
The reason I re-quote this passage is because the way in which this not-one becomes two, and the way in which this two starts to perform and essence in history, brings us to an important conversation about our contemporary culture, specifically about gender deconstruction. Should we basically continue constructively performing man and woman. Are these gender essences that make sense? We can be helped when we think about Lacan’s theory of the relation between the signifier and the signified. You can see in the representation above the signifier the big “S” and the signified the small “s”. The early Lacan might affirm a type of deconstruction because he is saying that the signifier sustains the illusion of the represented signified. In other words, the signifier does not correspond to some positive object, like the signifier tree with a physical tree. He is saying that the signifier tree is sustaining the illusion of a physical tree. We are interacting with a fantasy of a tree, or the fantasy of a man (simulacrum) or a woman (masquerade).
The late Lacan makes an important distinction which is absolutely crucial. It is not simply that the signifier simply sustains the illusion of the signified, and it is not that the signifier corresponds to some signified, it is rather that the signifier falls into some signified. It is that the signifier becomes materiality. Now Zupančič is quite clear that the simulacrum of the man comes into existence through the function of the belief, and that the woman comes into existence through pretence. If we think about man and woman as signifiers falling into the signified, we do not need to think of these as illusions that we can deconstruct, but rather illusory contradictions that we should own if we feel that they are contradictions that are true to us in history. Its kind of as if once you realize that masculinity is a simulacrum, or that femininity is a masquerade, you can either deconstruct it or own it totally.
This is a higher level of freedom to really make masculinity what you want to make masculinity, or to make femininity what you want to make femininity. But Zupancic does emphasize that this not-one and splitting into two creates a type of split reality that is fundamental and can never be unified and only understood as a pure difference (12):
“Gentleman and Ladies will henceforth be two homelands towards which each of their souls will take flight on divergent wings, and regarding which it will be all the more impossible for them to reach an agreement since, being in fact the same homeland, neither can give ground regarding the one’s unsurpassed excellence without detracting from the other’s glory.” […] This is the difference that has no ground: it does not spring from two different grounds, which would allow it to settle as difference between two “homelands” (which could then sign an agreement, and establish a “relation”). Their homeland is one and the same: yet this oneness and sameness is the oneness and sameness of pure difference.”
That is a really fantastic quote and gets at this idea that it is not like the old saying goes: ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ and they should come to Earth in an agreement as “one”. What Lacan is saying is that reality is one but split into two. Men and women are both from Earth but Earth is split into two fundamentally. We just have to engage a parallax shift and that sexual difference is fundamental. The unity is in the difference. We are home in the difference between the two. In other words, nothing changes and everything changes at the same time.
In this way, to conclude, we can offer a gender beyond deconstruction, because we have to question when it comes to libidinal energy whether we are the cause and source of our own self. And if we think we are the cause and source of our own self, we may get further away (not closer) from our own truth. This is the meaning of the unconscious. We did not come into existence on our own autonomy. We are not our own cause and source. We were born and exist as we do independent of our freedom and will. To come to understand our own unconscious excess and the way we engage a contradictory appearance in history, is to really believe you are a man, or to really pretend you are a woman. When we do this, we allow the signifier to gain a materiality, we allow the signifier to become the signified and to use the Lacanian jargon of the not-one, the signifier becomes something that is “not immaterial”. Lacan is imagining this ideality of the man and woman not as a perfect sphere, but as a formal twist, a knot, a strange topology.
This brings us to the end of Lecture 10 focused on Chapter 3 — Contradictions That Matter. In this lecture we finished subsection 2 titled “Sexual Division, A Problem in Ontology”. We attempted to articulate the nature of sexual difference from a Freudo-Lacanian point of view.
Now, if you are still with me, and you benefitted from this work, please consider the following simple ways in which you can help me continue to build my work into the future:
- Share this work with a friend interested in philosophy!
- Share this work with a philosophy department interested in better understanding the structure of psychoanalysis!
- Subscribe to this blog (there is a button on the right hand bar)
- Subscribe to this YouTube channel (and hit the bell for notifications)
- Leave a comment, like the video, or email me (any questions / comments / feedback are always welcome and I will definitely attempt to respond )
- And if you really appreciate this work please consider becoming a Patreon (even $1 per month is very much appreciated)
(1) Zupančič, A. 2017. Chapter 3: Contradictions That Matter. In: What Is Sex? p. 44-45.
(2) ibid. p. 45.
(3) ibid. p. 46.
(4) ibid. p. 47.
(5) ibid. p. 48.
(6) ibid. p. 50.
(8) ibid. p. 51-52.
(9) ibid. p. 52-54.
(10) ibid. p. 55.
(11) ibid. p. 46.
(12) ibid. p. 60-61.