Welcome to Lecture 11 of Alenka Zupančič’s What Is Sex? focused on Part 4 of Chapter 3 Contradictions That Matter. This subsection is titled “Je Te M’athème… Moi Non Plus”. Zupančič starts this subsection by analysing a dialogue between Alain Badiou and Barbara Cassin. Badiou is taking the position of anti-sophistry, claiming that sophistry is anti-philosophical, where there is no “Truth” and just opinions. Cassin claims, in contrast, that sophistry is an important philosophical tool and weapon, and that it is misunderstood by some traditional Platonic philosophers. The basic divide here on the level of abstraction from Plato onwards is basically, philosophers are concerned with the Truth, some absolute Truth, some universal Truth; whereas sophists would be seen as in the realm of opinion, emphasising multiple opinions.
Here is a quote from Badiou and Cassin’s dialogue explaining the point of their engagement (1):
“These two studies, or readings, or ruptures, made by a woman and a man (this remark is important), turn around knowledge, contemplated by her from this perspective in its intimate relation to the matters of language, and by him from the perspective of what philosophy pretends to be able to say concerning the truth. And this is why in relation to Lacan’s “[The Stunned]”, to the modern theory of sexuation, to the paradoxes of language and of the unconscious, the philosopher at least finds it possible to say that what follows is a new confrontation, or a new dividing up, between the masculinity of Plato and the femininity of sophistry.”
Thus what Badiou and Cassin are trying to do is not only revive the points of old disagreement between philosophical truth and sophistic opinion, but saying that this discourse that emerges actually mirrors sexual difference, and that if we read these differences through Lacanian formulas of sexuation, we can have a new view or understanding on the contradiction between these views.
Cassin claims, for example, in relation to sophistry and multiple interpretations of the truth (2):
“The interpretation which — if it is not to be directive, has to be ambiguous or equivocal — is here in order to bore a hole […], in order to make waves…”
Whereas Badiou says:
“Formalization is our goal, our ideal.”
The divide here, and what the two are trying to argue, is on the sophistic side, the feminine side, there has to be room for multiple interpretations and opinions, because this is how we really make progress in our human reality, this is how we shake things up. If there is just universal formulas and a rubric under one mathematical abstraction, then we can’t make waves, we can’t disrupt things. Whereas Badiou is saying with formalization that we want a clear picture of our situation. We want a picture of the Truth in an absolute sense, and not just someone’s subjective opinion.
In regards to sexual difference Zupančič hints that we could frame this contradiction in relationship to the Lacanian formulas of sexuation with the barred subject ($) and the object petit a (a). The barred subject would be the subject trying to structure universal law of the symbolic order, where there is something that always escapes this universal law, its exception, the objet petit a, and this is the space of the equivocal expression.
Zupancic also brings up a paradox in Badiou, where Badiou is simultaneously interested in mathematical formalisation, which is often seen as the height of univocal, absolute Truth, and on the other hand also interested in romantic love, sexual love, which in order to actualize, you need precisely the opposite, equivocal expressions, like puns, word play, mystery. So this paradox is here identified in the very living subject of Alain Badiou.
Thus we can say that this relation between univocal and equivocal is a singular coincidence of the opposites. Zupančič asks us the straight forward question that points towards how she will interpret this singular coincidence between Badiou and Cassin (3):
“The question that will guide us is simply this: how are equivocity and formalization configured in Lacan, and what is the position of truth in this configuration?”
This question of equivocity and formalization is expressed in the very discourse that Lacan attempts to provide us. On the one hand, Lacan is radically equivocal in the sense that, in the analytic session, you are listening to the subjective opinions of the analysand. And on the other hand, Lacan’s main attempt throughout his career, is to formalize, universally, a type of understanding of the symbolic order, of the subject, of symptoms, of desire. What is the relationship between the equivocal, the multiple interpretations, and the univocal, the universal, in Lacan? How can we bring these two terms together? Ultimately, it is about enactment and embodiment. It is about the way universal abstractions become deployed locally in a concrete situation.
To quote Zupančič (4):
“Let us hear the words from Lacan himself, who this time spells out very clearly what is at stake: “If there is a principle law of psychoanalysis, it is that we shouldn’t be using words that make sense only for the analyst. I learn everything from my analysands; it is from them that I learn what psychoanalysis is about. I borrow my interventions from them, and not from my teaching — except if I know that they know exactly what something means. I replaced the word “word” by the word “signifier”; and this means that it lends itself to equivocity, to several possible meanings. And if you choose your words well — the words that will haunt the analysand — you will find the elected signifier, the one which will work.” […] This is a procedure, a method that is carefully thought out, and actually recalls Hegel’s warning, in the Preface of the Phenomenology of Spirit, against this kind of (philosophical) proceeding which concerns itself only with aims and results, with differentiating and passing out judgements on things. This kind of activity, says Hegel, instead of getting involved with the thing, is always-already beyond it.”
What Zupančič is trying to communicate with first a quote from Lacan and then a reference to Hegel’s Phenomenology, is a precise point that when Lacan is developing his universal theories, all of these are being produced from the raw material of the analysand, it is being produced from the raw material of the work of the subject, as the subject is working through their very pragmatic and concrete desires and symptoms, and so forth. This material becomes the structuring point for Lacan’s algebra. And the reference to Hegel’s Phenomenology is important because what Hegel is saying is that the subject, as soon as it has passed judgement on things outside of it, is already beyond them in its abstractions, because it is not identifying the twists and paradoxes in the becoming of substance. For Hegel you have to get involved in the twists and paradoxes of the becoming of substance in order to reach the state of absolute knowing.
Here is a representation of the difference between a first order univocal understanding versus a higher order univocal theory of understanding which is deeply informed from the Hegelian and Lacanian presuppositions of an entanglement with the Thing. It is not that we can reflectively pass judgement on the Thing and have a universal, formal abstraction which is complete and consistent and coherent, and just a perfect oneness. In order to develop a true univocal theory, a true universal theory, we have to understand that theory in its becoming, in its practice, in its local context, where there are multiple possible interpretations of the same thing. You will find the observer is entangled with the Thing, instead if just at a safe distance.
To quote Zupančič (5):
“A psychoanalyst is not an expert treating patients with her expertise, which she would apply to symptoms of a given concrete case. If one wants to shift something in the thing (in the unconscious structure), one has to allow it to speak, for it alone can come up with, produce, the word that eventually “works”, moves things. But one — in this case the analyst — should of course be able to recognize the “right word”. And this is not simply a practical (clinical) stance, but also a theoretical one.”
What Zupančič is saying is that the crucial thing is that the subject of the univocal who does not understand the importance of the equivocal will never understand the subject in-itself and the fundamental presupposition of psychoanalysis (at least in its Lacanian form) that the “unconscious is structured like a language”, and in order to bring this unconscious to the surface, to resolve a symptom for example, the subject itself has to speak through its own contradictions, and stumble upon the right word, to resolve the problem it is going through, and that cannot be done through an expertise or technocratic knowledge. The subject has to work it out on its own, the radical individuality of the universal truth. This is the ground material where psychoanalysis can develop a universal theoretical stance from equivocal symbolisations.
The first thing to note is that the coincidence of the equivocal and univocal is something that can be brought together if we have an enacted-embodied relation between theory and practice. It is always entangled, it is always subject and substance, in a circular twisted loop. Because of this, this is the causal location of why, stemming from Freud onwards, equivocal expressions can become a universal formula. A singular interpretation of a concrete situation can become part of a universal truth. For example, this is why Freud puts as the ground material for the unconscious on the level of jokes, slips of the tongue and dreams. Of course, these are equivocal expressions, but these expressions have access to a universal truth, which is the very way in which subjectivity can make progress in understanding its self, in its becoming, the meaning of its identity, and so forth.
Thus it is not that we are in a sophistic universe in the typical sense where there is no absolute truth, and we are all in a different universe of relativized meaning; but it is that you can get a precise absolute meaning from an equivocal expression, from a joke, from a slip of the tongue, from a dream. This is basically the key of understanding the importance of the unification between what we might call the “tree of knowledge” and the “tree of life”, of a “living language”, languages that are alive, constantly moving, constantly being generated, created. This would be opposed to a mathematical language which is often times disembodied, frozen, and static in order to reach its universal. The function of bringing these two levels together, you can really make waves and bore holes in reality. That is the radical power of understanding the coincidence between the two.
Now moving into how this is used in a psychoanalytic sense, you have here the subject who is struggling with a symptom, a symptom of identity. This symptom of identity is blocking or masking a contradiction. The subject is maybe not aware of the contradiction structuring its identity, as a consequence there is an unconscious symptom. This unconscious symptom is the way in which it is relating to social others and upholding a certain normative order of social life. You can see in the representation on the top right hand side, that the social others are happy, but the subject is struggling with its symptom. Then with the analytic intervention, if the analyst-analysand relationship can bring this symptom to the surface, to make the subject realise that its identity is structured by a certain contradiction, then the symptom can be released into the symbolic order, the unconscious social matrix with others. This will be disturbing for the others because this symptom will change the way in which they perceive this subject, but this subject in the end will get stronger, will get better, because it will have relieved itself of a certain unconscious symptom by bringing to light a certain contradiction in analysis.
This process is described by Zupančič as a symptomal torsion where the forcing out of a contradiction for consciousness allows a certain relief and a new horizon of becoming. This can be achieved through a synthesis of univocal and equivocal. It is univocal because this process is proposed to be a universal process, but it is equivocal because the unconscious of that subject has to speak, has to bring this to consciousness, it cannot be done through a formal subject who knows, a big Other (6):
“What is a symptom that one “brings” to analysis? It is always a subjective solution to some contradiction or impasse. And it is a solution that usually makes one’s life very complicated; it comes with some degree of suffering. Yet it is a solution, and it involves serious subjective investment. The work of analysis consists in forcing out the contradiction “solved” by the symptom, in relating the symptom to the singular contradiction of which it is a solution. Psychoanalysis does not solve the contradiction; rather, it solves its solution (given by the symptom). It bores a hole where the symptom has built a dense net of significations. And the subject needs to “reconstruct” herself as part of this contradiction, as directly implied in it. […] The contradiction that affects an individual is intrinsically social — others, are our relation to them, as well as social relations more generally, are implied in it.”
That quote expresses that what is happening in an analysis, in a relationship between univocal and equivocal, and the coincidence between the two, is always about the subject’s identity being a symptomal formation which is an unconscious solution to a certain contradiction. Then in an analysis the subject will hopefully through its own subjective work bring out the contradiction that structures the symptom. And at the same time this bores a hole in the unconscious social reality because social relations will have to change, be re-organized, because they are built on a contradictory symptomal level. This does not get rid of contradiction, but changes the nature of the subject’s identity in a fundamental way.
Here you see the work of an analytic intervention (7):
“This is why the key in psychoanalysis is not a key to a hidden meaning, but the key that “unlocks” this form itself (makes what has been associated to compose the hidden meaning dissociate). And this is what “the right word” does.”
You will see in this representation that against the popular pre-psychoanalytic view of the unconscious there isn’t a deep hidden meaning which one will discover and then understand one’s true identity; it is rather that one brings to the surface a certain impasse, a certain struggle, a certain conflict, which was seen as irreconcilable, which was repressed, basically. The unconscious holds on to this form. That is why Zupančič says “unlocks this form itself”, the contradiction. This is done through dream work, through free association. The analyst is just there as a void background for the analysand to work through its unconscious contradiction signification structure and then in that process get a new meaning for its symptom, and be able to work through and eventually get beyond this certain impasse that it is struggling with.
Back to Badiou and univocal formalization, we will take a closer look at what separates Lacan and Badiou. For Lacan, truth is always partial, and it is never about a whole substance, like a typical univocal expression, say about general relativity or evolutionary theory. Truth is about the Real that cannot be spoken, that is why a symptom forms. The symptom forms because there is a certain Real that the unconscious signification structure of language struggles and battles with. In that sense the Real is no substance or whole, but an equivocal impasse, a formal twist or a formal contortion or problem internal to signification itself. This is why psychoanalysis is hyper-self-reflective and self-referential.
In contrast to this Badiou is saying that formalization of the whole truth as real is the goal-aim of philosophy. Thus you can see why Lacan would be framed here as an anti-philosopher, because his whole program goes against this philosophical presupposition about what philosophy’s aim is about. It is not about developing a pure mathematical metalanguage as Badiou would try to develop, but rather the living language that is working through the Real as an impasse. This should bring new attention to what we can and can’t say about reality.
To go deeper into this topic we can reference the famous philosophical axiom proposed by Wittgenstein “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” This philosophical axiom can be situated in the difference of the real between Badiou and Lacan. What Wittgenstein is trying to say is that if we start with thoughts (as philosophers), then you can move to linguistic truth, which is a certain logical coherence-consistency on a universal level, and then when you think of getting to reality in-itself, this is an impossible task. Here you may recall the famous Kantian noumenal that we cannot speak of the thing-in-itself. Where we cannot speak of the Thing, we must remain silent. From a Hegelian standpoint this is a mystical stance.
However, for Badiou, he is saying that thoughts can move to mathematical truth which gives us access to a more universal level of truth, and this can correspond to a reality in-itself susceptible to mathematization and so we can get a sense of the whole of the world through mathematicization. So instead of speaking we can mathematise. Whereas Wittgenstein would stay in silent mysticism, a subtractive move with language, Badiou would move us from language to mathematization of reality.
Now for Lacan, in regards to truth as partial, we go from thoughts to linguistic truth to a living language, to the Real internal to living language as a contradictory web of significations. Here is a quote from Lacan (8):
“go on, speak about anything whatsoever, and with a little luck and help you will
sooner or later stumble against the Real, and get to formalize (write) it.”
In this sense what Lacan is saying is that if you work with the internal contradictions of language, if you work with your impasse, you are at the level of the absolute truth, and working with this, will help you to formalize this problem. The impossibility becomes a ground for real knowledge. This isn’t a regression into mysticism, neither is it a movement from living language to mathematization, but rather it is the power of living language to work through problems of subjective identity in the Real (9):
“The Real is not some realm or substance to be talked about, it is the inherent contradiction of speech, twisting its tongue, so to speak. And this is precisely why there is truth, and why, at the same time, it is not possible to say it all: “…one needs to accept that we speak of truth as a fundamental position, even though we don’t know it all, since I define it with the fact that it is only possible to half say it.”
Here you will see that the Real is not a substance out there but a problem in here internal to our significations. It is not a Thing so much as it is a space where significations fail and break down and become unable to express. Here another quote, this time from Zupančič (10):
“A matheme is not simply a formalization of some reality; rather […] it is the formalization of the impasse of formalization. […] The structure that
attempts to articulate the Real is determined in its foundation by the Real it attempts to formulate.”
Thus we have a twisted causal loop. It is not a loop between thought and substance but a loop between linguistic thought and the Real, as a problem internal to linguistic structure. You might say that Parmenidean being is an imaginary cover of the Real. Instead of basing signification on an absolute substance, we are basing all signification on an absolute failure of signification that is inherent to it.
To build on that idea further, the psychoanalytic univocal formalisations that are being developed from that Real are ways we can relate universal symbolic formalization to concrete equivocal situations, as in a love relationship. Each love relationship is different, there as many interpretations for a love relationship as there are subjects in the relationship, and at the same time, it is possible to develop a univocal expression for these equivocal situations through this sort of understanding of the internal signification structures of language.
If we return to formalisation between the analyst and analysand we could reach a psychoanalytic realism. We are not talking about substance but rather we are talking about what symbolism comes to structure as rational, as truth, is in fact grounded in a paradox of the Real, a pre-ontological gap or rupture of tangled signification. This means that in opening the space of truth there is a link between discourse and the Real, this is where we find Truth. The Truth is found in the expression between a subject’s discourse and its own problems of formalization.
Now Zupančič moves on to what this means for the relationship between psychoanalysis and science. Of course the scientific subject would be aligned with Badiou’s universal mathematization or expression, whereas the psychoanalytic subject is much more trying to unify the univocal with the equivocal. This would be as we started the feminine sophistic side of things. In relation to this, psychoanalysis does not side with science, is not partial to science over other knowledges, but is interested in the way science as a discourse, a form of language, is wrestling with certain paradoxes. Psychoanalysis would pay attention to the paradoxes internal to science, the problems of universal theory, the way universal theory is always thwarted from within. In that sense there is a way in which analysis could on a meta-level approach a psychoanalysis of science itself. As Lacan would often reference, the interesting question about science, is what is the desire of science? We do not have that mystery solved.
However, as Lacan moved towards the end of his career, what he stated to do was verbalize these knots or impasses in the Real with discourse. This he would claim has universal meaning and significance. Thus Lacan was not against univocity, but he is saying, in order to have a univocal theory, you have to include all the equivocal expressions and their possible relations as they are working throughout their contradictory signification structures. In that sense, against Wittgenstein’s mysticism and Badiou’s mathematization, Lacan is saying we work towards a coincidence between univocal and equivocal, where each subject will be able to express and verbalize their own knots and contradictions. This allows one to escape the hold that one’s mother tongue has on one’s identity, and move into alien abstractions that may be very different or foreign to one’s identity. By moving through all one’s contradictory symptoms, one becomes a different type of human being or subject.
Ultimately this brings us to a pragmatic dimension of our personal lives. What do we do with our own inner knots? The elegant solution Zupančič brings to our attention is that it is not that we are going into the depths of our psychology to find the truth of our being, but rather the truth of our being is on the contradictory surface of the appearances themselves. This is another feature of the coincidence between Hegel and Lacan. The Truth is here right now as a synthesis between the absolute and the appearances. If we give ourselves to the contradictions of our social appearances and we work through these with bravery, this is the way to become a more real subject, a subject of the Real. This is why Zupancic suggests that we do not accept contradiction, but rather use, embody and speak contradiction and you will get more Real, more universal (11):
“It is not about accepting the contradiction, but about taking one’s place in it. This is what the “position of truth” could be understood to amount to. […] When I talk about a “fundamental contradiction” I am not referring to some contradiction buried deep down in the foundation of things, and influencing them from there. Contradiction is “fundamental” in the sense that it is persistent, and repeating — yet always in concrete situations, on the surface of things and in the present. It is by engaging with it in these concrete situations that we work with the “fundamental contradiction.” [/] Contradiction […] can become, and be “used” as, the source of emancipation from the very logic dictated by this contradiction. This is what analysis ideally leads to: contradiction does not simply disappear, but the way it functions in the discourse structuring our reality changes radically. And this happens as a result of our fully and actively engaging in the contradiction, taking our place in it.”
For Zupančič you might say that the absolute reality is the most intimate contradiction you are working through in living language, your battle with the Real. The totality of all these battles is the becoming of the absolute. This is why Hegel says the absolute is at war with itself because it is in a contradictory becoming.
And that brings us to the end of Lecture 11 focused on Part 4 of Chapter 3 — Contradictions That Matter. Here we covered the difference between philosophy and sophistry, how this difference manifests in univocal and equivocal theory, the way analytic theory is built from the synthesis of these different forms of theory, and finally, how we can start to verbalize our contradictory knots to truly embody the becoming of the absolute in living language.
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(1) Zupančič, A. 2017. Chapter 3: Contradictions That Matter. In: What Is Sex? p. 63.
(3) ibid. p. 64.
(4) ibid. p. 64-5.
(5) ibid. p. 65.
(6) ibid. p. 66.
(7) ibid. p. 68.
(8) ibid. p. 68-9.
(9) ibid. p. 69.
(11) ibid. p. 72.