zizek

zizek_reply


Sri Lanka Guardian Essays
October 8, 2016


[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ately I am getting used to attacks that not only render my position in a totally wrong way but also practice slander pure and simple, so that, at this level, any minimally rational debate becomes meaningless. Among many examples, suffice it to mention Hamid Dabashi, who begins his book Can Non-Europeans Think? with:

“‘Fuck you, Walter Mignolo!’ With those grandiloquent words and the gesture they must have occasioned and accompanied, the distinguished and renowned European philosopher Slavoj Žižek begins his response to a piece that Walter Mignolo wrote…”[i]

No wonder that no reference is given, since I never uttered the phrase “Fuck you, Walter Mignolo!”. In a public talk in which I responded to Mignolo’s attack on me, I did use the words “fuck you,” but they did not refer to Mignolo: his name was not mentioned in conjunction with them; they were a general exclamation addressed (if at anyone) at my public. From here, it is just one step to elevating my exclamation into “Slavoj Žižek’s famous ‘Fuck you, Walter Mignolo’,” as Dan Glazerbrook did.[ii]

Back to Dabashi’s book. On page 8, the comedy reaches its peak: a long quoted passage is attributed to me (it follows “Žižek claims:”), and after the quote the text goes on: “This is all fine and dandy – for Žižek. He can make any claim he wishes. All power to him. But the point is…” There is just one tiny problem: the passage quoted and attributed to me and then mocked as an example of my European racism and of my misreading of Fanon is from Fanon himself (again, no reference is given in Dabashi’s book – the quoted passage is from Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, New York: Grove Press 2008, p. 201-206.)

So, I thought we had reached the lowest point, although in a more recent contribution to Al-Jazeera, Dabashi puts me into the same line with Breivik, the Norwegian racist mass murderer.[iii] But the reactions to my “The Sexual Is Political” demonstrate that one can go even lower. Browsing through numerous tweets and email blogs, I searched in vain for a minimum of argumentation. The attackers mostly just make fun of a position, which is simply not mine.

Here is a relatively decent example:

“I know that this is difficult to understand, mostly because it draws from his big Daddy the contemptible Lacan. Really though, all Zizek is saying is that opposition to transgender people represents an anxiety which in his theory occurs because of sexual difference; i.e. transgender people disrupt the binaries we construct in order to place ourselves into discrete genders. What Zizek tries to say, he’s not a very good writer in English at least, is that the antagonism will exist even if we completely accept LGBT people as members of our community because they always exist as a threat to the binary. I don’t think that Zizek ultimately thinks social antagonism against LGBT people is something we can move beyond as long as the binary system exist. This is why he cites the story of Şalcı Bacı, to Zizek she represented an existential threat to people’s identities. In a sense you can say it is a right-wing concept, because it’s essentially saying that transgender people are indeed the threat to society they’re portrayed to be. The question would be, does Zizek approve of threats to society as the revolutionary he supposes himself to be?”[iv]

I have to admit that I couldn’t believe my eyes when I was reading these lines. Is it really so difficult to follow the thread of my argumentation? First claim: “all Zizek is saying is that opposition to transgender people represents an anxiety which in his theory occurs because of sexual difference; i.e. transgender people disrupt the binaries we construct in order to place ourselves into discrete genders…” No, I’m not saying that at all: I don’t talk about the anxiety experienced by heterosexuals when they confront transgender people. My starting point is the anxiety transgender people themselves experience when they confront a forced choice where they don’t recognize themselves in any of its exclusive terms (“man,” “woman”). And then I generalize this anxiety as a feature of every sexual identification. It is not transgender people who disrupt the heterosexual gender binaries; these binaries are always-already disrupted by the antagonistic nature of sexual difference itself. This is the basic distinction on which I repeatedly insist and which is ignored by my critics: in the human-symbolic universe, sexual difference/antagonism is not he same as the difference of gender roles. Transgender people are not traumatic for heterosexuals because they pose a threat to the established binary of gender roles but because they bring out the antagonistic tension which is constitutive of sexuality. Şalcı Bacı is not a threat to sexual difference; rather, she is this difference as irreducible to the opposition gender identities.

In short, transgender people are not simply marginals who disturb the hegemonic heterosexual gender norm; their message is universal, it concerns us all, they bring out the anxiety that underlies every sexual identification, its constructed/unstable character. This, of course, does not entail a cheap generalization which would cut the edge of the suffering of transgender people (“we all have anxieties and suffer in some way”); it is in transgender people that anxiety and antagonism, which otherwise remain mostly latent, break open. So, in the same way in which, for Marx, if one wants to understand the “normal” functioning of capitalism, one should take as a starting point economic crises, if one wants to analyze “normal” heterosexuality, one should begin with the anxieties that explode in transgender people.

This is why it makes no sense to talk about “social antagonism against LGBT people” (incidentally, a symptomatically clumsy and weird expression: “antagonism against”?). Antagonism (or, as Lacan put it, the fact that “there is no sexual relationship”) is at work in the very core of normative heterosexuality, and it is what the violent imposition of gender norms endeavors to contain and obfuscate. It is here that my parallel with the anti-Semitic figure of the Jew enters. The (anti-Semitic figure of the) “Jew” as the threat to the organic order of a society, as the element which brings into it from the outside corruption and decay, is a fetish whose function is to mask the fact that antagonism does not come from the outside but is immanent to every class society. Anti-Semitism “reifies” (embodies in a particular group of people) the inherent social antagonism: it treats “Jews” as the Thing which, from outside, intrudes into the social body and disturbs its balance. What happens in the passage from the position of class struggle to Fascist anti-Semitism is not just the replacement of one figure of the enemy (bourgeoisie, the ruling class) with another (Jews); the logic of the struggle is totally different. In class struggle, the classes themselves are caught in the antagonism inherent to social structure, while the Jew is a foreign intruder who causes social antagonism, so that all we need in order to restore social harmony, according to Fascist anti-Semitism, is to annihilate Jews. This is the old standard Marxist thesis: when my critic writes about my line of thought “In a sense you can say it is a right-wing concept,” I would really like to know what precise sense he has in mind.

So, what is the anxiety I refer to about? For a brief moment, let me ignore my primitive critics and engage in a brief theoretical exercise. The underlying structure is here that of a failed interpellation (where “interpellation” refers to the basic ideological mechanism described by Louis Althusser). In the case of interpellation, Althusser’s own example contains more than his own theorization gets out of it. Althusser evokes an individual who, while carelessly walking down the street, is suddenly addressed by a policeman: “Hey, you there!” By answering the call—that is, by stopping and turning round towards the policeman—the individual recognizes-constitutes himself as the subject of Power, of the big Other-Subject. Ideology

“ ‘transforms’ the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: ‘Hey, you there!’.

Assuming that the theoretical scene I have imagined takes place in the street, the hailed individual will turn round. By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject. Why? Because he has recognized that the hail was ‘really’ addressed to him, and that ‘it was really him who was hailed’ (and not someone else). Experience shows that the practical transmission of hailings is such that they hardly ever miss their man: verbal call or whistle, the one hailed always recognizes that it is really him who is being hailed. And yet it is a strange phenomenon, and one which cannot be explained solely by ‘guilt feelings,’ despite the large numbers who ‘have something on their consciences.’

Naturally for the convenience and clarity of my little theoretical theatre I have had to present things in the form of a sequence, with a before and an after, and thus in the form of a temporal succession. There are individuals walking along. Somewhere (usually behind them) the hail rings out: ‘Hey, you there!’ One individual (nine times out of ten it is the right one) turns round, believing/suspecting/knowing that it is for him, i.e. recognizing that ‘it really is he’ who is meant by the hailing. But in reality these things happen without any succession. The existence of ideology and the hailing or interpellation of individuals as subjects are one and the same thing.”[v]

The first thing that strikes the eye in this passage is Althusser’s implicit reference to Lacan’s thesis on a letter that “always arrives at its destination”: the interpellative letter cannot miss its addressee since, on account of its “timeless” character, it is only the addressee’s recognition/acceptance that constitutes it as a letter. The crucial feature of the quoted passage, however, is the double denial at work in it: the denial of the explanation of interpellative recognition by means of a “guilt feeling,” as well as the denial of the temporality of the process of interpellation (strictly speaking, individuals do not “become” subjects, they “always-already” are subjects).[vi] This double denial is to be read as a Freudian denial: what the “timeless” character of interpellation renders invisible is a kind of atemporal sequentiality that is far more complex than the “theoretical theatre” staged by Althusser on behalf of a suspicious alibi of “convenience and clarity.” This “repressed” sequence concerns a “guilt feeling” of a purely formal, “non-pathological” (in the Kantian sense) nature, a guilt which, for that very reason, weighs most heavily upon those individuals who “have nothing on their consciences.” To ask differently: In what, precisely, does the individual’s first reaction to the policeman’s “Hey, you there!” consist? In an inconsistent mixture of two elements: (1) why me? what does the policeman want from me? I’m innocent, I was just minding my own business and strolling around…; however, this perplexed protestation of innocence is always accompanied by (2) an indeterminate Kafkaesque feeling of “abstract” guilt, a feeling that, in the eyes of Power, I am a priori terribly guilty of something, though it is not possible for me to know what precisely I am guilty of. And for that reason—since I don’t know what I am guilty of—I am even more guilty; or, more pointedly, it is in this very ignorance of mine that my true guilt consists.[vii]

What we thus have here is the entire Lacanian structure of the subject split between innocence and abstract, indeterminate guilt, confronted with a non-transparent call emanating from the Other (“Hey, you there!”), a call where it is not clear to the subject what the Other actually wants from him (“Che vuoi?”). In short, what we encounter here is interpellation prior to identification. Prior to the recognition in the call of the Other by means of which the individual constitutes himself as “always-already”-subject, we are obliged to acknowledge this “timeless” instant of the impasse, when innocence coincides with indeterminate guilt: the ideological identification by means of which I assume a symbolic mandate and recognize myself as the subject of Power takes place only as an answer to this impasse. So what remains “unthought” in Althusser’s theory of interpellation is the fact that prior to ideological recognition we have an intermediate moment of obscene, impenetrable interpellation without identification, a kind of vanishing mediator that has to become invisible if the subject is to achieve symbolic identity, i.e., to accomplish the gesture of subjectivization. In short, the “unthought” of Althusser is that there is already an uncanny subject preceding the gesture of subjectivization.

And the same goes in a much stronger way for sexual interpellation. My identification as “man” or “woman” is always a secondary reaction to the “castrative” anxiety of what I am. One—traditional—way to avoid this anxiety is to impose a heterosexual norm, which specifies the role of each gender, and the other is to advocate the overcoming of sexuality as such (the postgender position). As for the relationship between transgender and postgender, my point is simply that the universal fluidification of sexual identities unavoidably reaches its apogee in the cancellation of sex as such. In the same way as, for Marx, the only way to be a royalist in general is to be a republican, the only way to be sexualized in general is to be asexual. This ambiguity characterizes the conjunction of sexuality and freedom throughout the twentieth century: the more radical attempts to liberate sexuality get, the more they approximate their self-overcoming and turn into attempts to enact a liberation from sexuality, or, as Aaron Schuster put it (in personal communication):

If part of the twentieth century’s revolutionary program to create a radically new social relation and a New Man was the liberation of sexuality, this aspiration was marked by a fundamental ambiguity: Is it sexuality that is to be liberated, delivered from moral prejudices and legal prohibitions, so that the drives are allowed a more open and fluid expression, or is humanity to be liberated from sexuality, finally freed from its obscure dependencies and tyrannical constraints? Will the revolution bring an efflorescence of libidinal energy or, seeing it as a dangerous distraction to the arduous task of building a new world, demand its suppression? In a word, is sexuality the object of or the obstacle to emancipation?

The oscillation between these two extremes is clearly discernible already in the first decade after the October Revolution, when feminist calls for the liberation of sexuality were soon supplemented by the gnostic-cosmological calls for a New Man who would leave behind sexuality itself as the ultimate bourgeois trap. Today, with the rise of the “Internet of Things” and biogenetics, this perspective got a new boost. And, as a part of this new perspective, I predict that new demands for overcoming old limitations will emerge. Among them there will be demands for legalizing multiple marriages (which already existed, not only as polygamy but also as polyandry, especially in the Himalaya region), as well as demands for some kind of legalization of intense emotional ties with animals. I am not talking about sex with animals (although I remember from my youth, from the time of the late 1960s, the widespread tendency to practice sex with animals), even less about “bestiality,” but about a tendency to recognize some animals (say, a faithful dog) as legitimate partners. It’s not about “bestiality,” but about the “culturalization of animals, their elevation to a legal partner.

To recapitulate, not only do I fully support the struggle of transgender people against their legal segregation, but I am also deeply affected by their reports of their suffering, and I see them not as a marginal group, which should be “tolerated” but as a group whose message is radically universal: it concerns us all; it tells the truth about all of us as sexual beings. I differ from the predominant opinion in two interconnected points that concern theory: (1) I see the anxiety apropos sexual identities as a universal feature of human sexuality, not just as a specific effect of sexual exclusions and segregations, which is why one should not expect it to disappear with the progress of sexual desegregation; (2) I draw a strict distinction between sexual difference (as the antagonism constitutive of human sexuality) and the binary (or plurality) of genders. Both these points are, of course, totally misread or ignored by my critics.

Concerning my “class reductionism,” anyone minimally acquainted with my work knows that one of the problems I am dealing with is precisely how to bring the struggle of Third World people against neo-colonial oppression and the struggle for sexual emancipation (women and gay rights) in the developed West together. Some Leftists claim that we should focus on the universal anti-capitalist struggle, allowing each ethnic or religious group to retain its particular culture or “way of life.” I see a problem in this easy solution: one cannot distinguish in a direct way the universal dimension of the emancipatory project and the identity of a particular way of life, so that while we are all together engaged in a universal struggle, we simultaneously fully respect the right of each group to its particular way of life. One should never forget that, to a subject who lives a particular way of life, all universals appear “colored” by this way of life. Each identity (way of life) comprises also a specific way to relate to other ways of life. So, when we posit as a guideline that each group should be left to enact its particular identity, to practice its own way of life, the problem immediately arises: where do customs that form my identity stop and where does injustice begin? Are woman’s rights just our custom, or is the struggle for women’s rights also universal (and part of the emancipatory struggle, as it was in the entire Socialist tradition from Engels to Mao)? Is homophobia just a thing of a particular culture to be tolerated as a component of its identity? Should arranged marriages (which form the very core of the kinship structures of some societies) also be accepted as part of a particular identity? Etc.

This “mediation” of the universal with the particular (way of life) holds for all cultures, ours (Western) included, of course. The “universal” principles advocated by the West are also colored by the Western way of life, plus we should never forget the rise of religious-nationalist fundamentalism in countries like Poland, Hungary and Croatia. In the last decades, Poland was one of the few European definitive success stories. After the fall of Socialism, the per capita gross domestic product more than doubled, and, for the last couple of years, the moderate liberal-centrist government of Donald Tusk ruled. And then, almost out of nowhere, without any great corruption scandals as in Hungary, the extreme Right took over, and there is now a widespread movement to prohibit abortions even in the limit-cases of the mortal danger to the mother’s health, rape, and deformities of the foetus. A whole series of problems emerge here: what if equality among humans is in tension with equality among cultures (insofar as some cultures neglect equality)?

The task is thus to bring the struggle into every particular way of life. Each particular “way of life” is antagonistic, full of inner tensions and inconsistencies, and the only way to proceed is to work for an alliance of struggles in different cultures. From here I would like to return to the project of the alliance between progressive middle classes and nomad proletarians: In terms of a concrete problematic, this means that the politico-economic struggle against global capitalism and the struggle for women’s rights, etc. have to be conceived as two moments of the same emancipatory struggle for equality.

These two aspects—the imposition of Western values such as universal human rights, and respect for different cultures independently of the horrors that can be part of these cultures—are the two sides of the same ideological mystification. A lot has been written about how the universality of universal human rights is twisted, how they secretly give preference to Western cultural values and norms (the priority of the individual over his/her community, and so on). But we should add to this insight that the multiculturalist, anti-colonialist defence of the multiplicity of ways of life is also false: it covers up the antagonisms within each of these particular ways of life, justifying acts of brutality, sexism and racism as expressions of a particular culture that we have no right to judge by foreign Western values.

This aspect should in no way be dismissed as marginal. From Boko Haram and Mugabe to Putin, anti-colonialist critique of the West more and more appears as the rejection of Western “sexual” confusion and as the demand for returning to traditional sexual hierarchy. It is, of course, true that the immediate export of Western feminism and individual human rights can serve as a tool of ideological and economic neo-colonialism. (We all remember how some American feminists supported the US intervention in Iraq as a way to liberate women there, while the result is exactly the opposite). But one should nonetheless absolutely reject to draw from this the conclusion that Western Leftists should make here a “strategic compromise,” silently tolerating “customs” of humiliating women and gays on behalf of the “greater” anti-imperialist struggle.

The communist struggle for universal emancipation means a struggle which cuts into each particular identity, dividing it from within. When there is racism, when there is domination over women, it is always an integral part of a particular “way of life,” a barbarian integral underside of a particular culture. In the “developed” Western world, Communist struggle means a brutal and principled struggle against all ideological formations which, even if they present themselves as “progressive,” serve as an obstacle to universal emancipation (liberal feminism, etc.). It means not only attacking our own racist and religious fundamentalisms, but also demonstrating how they arouse out of the inconsistencies of the predominant liberalism. And in Muslim countries, Communist strategy should in no way be to endorse their traditional “way of life” which includes honor killings, etc.; it should not only collaborate with the forces in these countries which fight traditional patriarchy, but it should also make a crucial step forward and demonstrate how, far from serving as a point of resistance against global capitalism, such traditional ideology is a direct tool of imperialist neocolonialism.

Slavoj Žižek, slovenian philosopher in his flat in the center of Ljubljana
Slavoj Žižek, Sslovenian philosopher in his flat in the center of Ljubljana

***

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]wo general observations about my numerous critics seem pertinent to me. First, the large majority of attacks on my text follow the rules of the tweet culture with short snaps, retorts, sarcastic or outraged remarks, and with no space for the multiple steps of a line of argumentation. One passage (a sentence, or even a part of it) is cut out and reacted to. For example, many critics countered my analysis of the anti-Semitic figure of the Jew as a foreign intruder who disturbs social harmony by accusing me of anti-Semitism and totally ignoring the fact that the claim about “Jews as foreign intruders” is for me the very claim I reject as the exemplary ideological operation of obfuscating social antagonisms. They simply cut those words out of the line of argumentation and used them to attack me… Even the “annotated” reply to my text by Virgil Texas and Felix Biederman is just a collection of tweet snaps, and I have neither the time nor the will to join that game and reply with my own annotations to annotations.

The stance that sustains these tweet rejoinders is a mixture of self-righteous Political Correctness and brutal sarcasm: the moment anything that sounds problematic is perceived, a reply is automatically triggered—usually a PC commonplace. Although critics like to emphasize how they reject normativity (“the imposed heterosexual norm,” etc.), their stance itself is one of ruthless normativity, denouncing every minimal deviation from the PC dogma as “transphobia,” or “Fascism,” or whatever. Such a tweet culture, combining official tolerance and openness with extreme intolerance towards actually different views, simply renders critical thinking impossible. It is a true mirror image of the blind populist rage à la Donald Trump, and it is simultaneously one of the reasons why the Left is so often inefficient in confronting rightwing populism, especially in today’s Europe. If one just mentions that this populism draws a good part of its energy from the popular discontent of the exploited, one is immediately accused of “class essentialism”…

This brings me to the second observation. One of the problems at the center of my preoccupations—the link between the struggle for sexual liberation and what was traditionally designated a “class struggle” in all its diverse dimensions (not just the workers’ struggle but Third World crises, the plight of immigrants and refugees, etc.)—is more or less totally ignored by my opponents. I insist on this topic because one of the greatest tragedies of progressive struggles is, for me, the lack of contact (antagonism even) between the two. Nancy Fraser has shown how the predominant form of feminism in the US was basically co-opted by neoliberal politics. And while the exploding animosity of Third World countries towards gay struggles is widely known, the saddest thing is that they present their rejection of homosexuality as part of their anti-imperialist struggle. So, in the same way that the homophobia and anti-feminism of many Third World movements should make us suspicious about the level of their anti-imperialism, we should also at least wonder about the fact that individuals who personify the cutting edge of global capitalism, like Tim Cook, emphatically support LGBT+ rights. There is certainly nothing a priori bad in this fact, and there is a long history of big corporations acting against apartheid. In the old South Africa, foreign companies with factories based there, such as Mercedes, began paying black workers the same as they paid white ones and thus definitely contributed to the end of apartheid. True, one should listen to stories of how LGBT+ individuals are oppressed, victimized, etc., but one should nonetheless also note that they enjoy the full support of hegemonic political space and big business. This, of course, should not in any way problematize our full support for LGBT+, but it should make us aware of the politico-ideological background for the affair.

The Leftist call for justice tends to be combined with struggles for women’s and gay rights, for multiculturalism and against racism. The strategic aim of the Clinton consensus is clearly to dissociate all these struggles from the Leftist call for justice. The message from this consensus to Leftists is: You can get everything, but we just want to keep the essentials, namely the unencumbered functioning of the global capital. President Obama’s “Yes, we can!” acquires now a new meaning: Yes, we can concede to all your cultural demands… without endangering global market economy, and so there is no need for radical economic measures. Or, as Todd McGowan put it (in a private communication): “The consensus of ‘right-thinking people’ opposed to Trump is frightening. It is as if his excess licenses the real global capitalist consensus to emerge and to congratulate themselves on their openness.” That’s why I think it’s politically crucial to counteract this tendency and to fight for the solidarity of all our struggles. A truly radical gesture would have been, say, to get a Muslim lady, with her hair veiled even, to proclaim herself part of LGBT+. (Incidentally, for those hardline Muslims who insist that women should be covered, the question is how transgender individuals should be dressed since they belong to neither of the two hegemonic genders.)

But are there not exceptions to this tweet culture? Sam Warren Miell‘s reaction to my text[viii] presents itself as such, challenging me to confront him who criticizes me from the Lacanian standpoint and reproaches me with misreading Lacan or at least with not keeping in touch with the new developments in Lacanian theory that are much more open to the LGBT+ topic and can enable us to grasp it in a new way. So what do we get there, apart from the standard, rather tasteless, puns on my account? Here enters the big surprise: quite a lot of his text sounds familiar, as it recapitulates the analyses by Joan Copjec and others, with which I fully agree. I’ve written literally hundreds of pages on how to read Lacan’s formulas of sexuation, so to preach to me how sexual difference is the point at which logos/reason breaks down sounds weird… Quite a lot, but not all. Referring mostly to the work of Tim Dean (whom I highly appreciate, by the way), he outlines a new approach to Lacan, which, so he claims, indicates that “Lacanian studies have decisively moved beyond Žižek and his generation. How appropriate that, in the field of psychoanalysis, we have killed the Father.”

Does it? Here enters the second surprise: the approach he advocates is based on—let’s call it, to simplify things to the utmost—the “from phallus to objet a” thesis. The idea is that the late Lacan, with his shift of accent from the Symbolic to the Real, also left behind the central role of the phallic signifier and of sexual difference, instead of which he asserted the central role of objet petit a (or surplus-enjoyment) as more primordial, as grounding the subject’s relation to enjoyment, and this object is, as Lacan wrote, “a-sexual.” From this premise, Dean deploys his impersonalist theory of desire, according to which we have sex not with others but with the Other. From this standpoint, of course, the phallus (the phallic signifier) has to appear as a kind of retrograde legacy: “Lacan’s most profound ideological and affective convictions sometimes run counter to his most brilliant critical and analytical insights.” The phallic signifier is part of these “convictions” and should be reduced to a “provisional concept because so many of its functions are taken over by other concepts, in particular that of objet a, which has no a priori relation to gender and, indeed, may be represented by objects gendered masculine, feminine, or neuter” (quotes from Dean’s Beyond Sexuality). (Incidentally, this is always a comfortable position: when you propose a reading that obviously has to ignore some of the interpreted author’s key theses, the easiest way to deal with it is to impute the inconsistency to the interpreted author him/herself.)

With regard to sexual difference itself, Dean evokes Freud’s “astonishing claim” that “the unconscious has no knowledge of sexual difference /…/ Lacan maintains that there is no signifier for sexual difference in the unconscious. Hence the phallus cannot be a signifier of sexual difference /…/If there is no signifier for sexual difference in the unconscious, then as far as the unconscious is concerned heterosexuality does not exist…. Sexual difference does not organize or determine sexual desire.” Miell sums up Dean’s position:

“Our tendency to read sexual difference and sexuality in terms of each other, and to read sexual difference in terms of men and women, corresponds to a pre-Freudian, psychologistic understanding of sexuality. Worse, it endorses an identification of sexuality with the ego, with normative, idealizing results. /…/ The fact that the unconscious contains no signifier of sexual difference means that it is essentially bigendered/bisexual (as Freud himself already suggested), which is why Shanna T. Carlson has concluded that one way a transgendered person might be viewed in terms of psychoanalysis is as personifying ‘the human subject as such, the unconsciously bisexual subject for whom sexual difference is only ever an incomplete, unsatisfactory solution to the failure of the sexual relation.’”

slavoj_zizek_illustration_by_tudy

Yes, every solution to the failure of sexual relationship is unsatisfactory and in this sense incomplete, but this does not mean that sexual difference is a secondary imposed frame which cannot even completely capture the wealth of the unconsciously bisexual subject. There is nothing outside this failure, for subject and language are themselves the outcomes of this primordial failure.


As expected, the line of thought concludes with a stab at me. Since sexual difference does not organize or determine sexual desire, “Žižek’s conflation of gender identities and sexualities is particularly surprising.” Really? I think this entire line of thought should be rejected as a pretty obvious misreading of Lacan. Not only do I not conflate gender and sex, I clearly distinguish the biological reality of males and females (though it remains a question if even here we are dealing with pure biology), gender identities (normative symbolic constructions of masculine, feminine, and other identities) and sexual difference (although Lacan never uses this term; he talks about masculine and feminine sides of his “formulas of sexuation”).

And this bring us to the crucial point. If we designate as “sexual difference” what Lacan renders with his formulas of sexuation, then, for Lacan, not only sexuality but human subjectivity as such is thoroughly “sexed” precisely in the sense of the trauma of sexual difference. The parallax gap between masculine and feminine positions, the two inconsistent ways to cope with—or, rather, to assume—the trauma of the impossibility of sexual relationship, is unconditional; there is no third way. Of course, our position is not determined by biology (a biological man can assume a feminine position) but the choice is unconditional: there is no “bisexuality” here; the gap is parallactic; one position excludes the other, which is why one precisely should not invoke “the human subject as such, the unconsciously bisexual subject for whom sexual difference is only ever an incomplete, unsatisfactory solution to the failure of the sexual relation.” Yes, every solution to the failure of sexual relationship is unsatisfactory and in this sense incomplete, but this does not mean that sexual difference is a secondary imposed frame which cannot even completely capture the wealth of the unconsciously bisexual subject. There is nothing outside this failure, for subject and language are themselves the outcomes of this primordial failure. As Lacan put it, the Real is an impasse of formalization, and this is to be taken literally: not that the Real is an external substantial domain that resists formalization (or symbolization, although they are not the same, of course), but that the Real is totally immanent to the Symbolic and is nothing but its immanent failure.

One should note that the only “function” operative in these formulas of sexuation is the phallic function. As Lacan emphasizes, what is “primordially repressed,” what is constitutively absent even from the unconscious, is (not the signifier of sexual difference but) the “binary signifier,” the signifier that would serve as the feminine counterpart to the phallic function in the way premodern sexualized cosmology talks about masculine and feminine “principles,” such as Yin and Yang. (To avoid any misunderstanding, this primordial repression of the binary signifier not only does not put women in a subordinate position; if anything, it elevates them into exemplary cases of subjectivity, since subjectivity is for Lacan defined by the missing signifier—this is how one should read Lacan’s mark for the subject, $, barred S, signifier.) Because the binary signifier is primordially repressed, there is no sexual relationship; sexual antagonism cannot be symbolized in a pair of opposed symbolic/differential features.

However, the fact that there is no sexual relationship in no way implies that “there is no sexual difference in the unconscious,” that the unconscious is beyond or beneath sexual difference, a fluid domain of partial drives that defy sexuation. One can even say that the unconscious is thoroughly and only about sexual difference in the sense of an antagonism that is impossible to symbolize and that haunts the symbolic order. The impossibility of sexual relationship does not mean that sexual relationship is simply absent from the unconscious. It means that the very impossibility of sexual relationship is the traumatic point of failure which structures the entire symbolic space, or, as Lacan put it in his Seminar XX, “we take language as that which functions as a supplement for the absence of the only part of the real that cannot manage to be formed in being, namely, the sexual relationship.” That’s why objet a as a-sexual is not prior to the deadlock of sexual relationship but is already mediated by it, an object which fills in the lack/void sustained by this deadlock/impossibility. There is objet a because there is no sexual relationship. To put it in yet another way: yes, as Miell repeats, sexual difference is the point of failure of logos, of the Symbolic, but this failure absolutely does not mean that there is a domain of sexuality prior to (or outside of) sexual difference and its deadlock. Sexual difference/antagonism is not just the point at which logos/reason fails; it is nothing but the effect of this failure. For this reason, if I may quote myself, partial drives, through which the subject relates to objet a,

“are not simply happy self-enclosed circular movements which generate enjoyment; their circular movement is a repeated failure, a repeated attempt to encircle some central void. What this means is that drive is not a primordial fact, that it has to be deduced from a previous constellation: what logically precedes drive is the ontological failure—the thwarted movement towards a goal, i.e., some form of radical ontological negativity/failure—, and the basic operation of drive is to find enjoyment in the very failure to reach full enjoyment. We should thus distinguish between drives with their partial satisfactions (oral, anal, scopic), and the disruptive negativity this circular movement of drives tries to cope with.”[ix]

And, again, Lacan’s name for this negativity is the impossibility of sexual relationship, the impossibility formalized in his formulas of sexuation. For this reason, I also don’t think that the idea to conceive transgender identity as a “sinthom” in Lacan’s sense is of great use: it is either too general or too narrow. On the one hand, the sinthom is for (late) Lacan the most elementary “formula” of enjoyment, and, as such, provides the minimum of consistency to every human being. On the other hand, apropos Joyce-the-sinthom, Lacan reads Joyce’s work—his literary texts—as a sinthom, a synthetic formation, which allowed him to avoid psychosis, i.e., which served as a formation that supplemented for the missing Name-of-the-Father. But I don’t see transgender individuals as potential psychotics who avoided psychosis by creating a sinthom… I think that the ethical greatness of transgender subjects resides precisely in the fact that they reject “depersonalization” and remain subjects, assuming the deadlock of subjectivity even more radically than other more “normalized” subjects. If all this sounds abstract and crazy, well, that’s how Lacan is usually perceived. So, to conclude, I will shamelessly quote a long passage from my Absolute Recoil where I formulate the critical edge of my reading:

“One should reject the predominant view according to which hegemonic ideology in all its aspects (social, legal, economic, ethical, religious) privileges ‘natural’ sexuality (the standard reproductive copulation) and tries to repress or suppress the polymorphously-perverse sexuality of partial drives which is considered asocial and dangerous, and is tolerated only as a subordinate preparatory moment of the ‘normal’ sexual (fondling and kissing as a foreplay, etc.). The best argument against this predominant view is the history of its greatest advocate, of Christianity:

‘Christ, even when resurrected from the dead, is valued for his body, and his body is the means by which communion in his presence is incorporation – oral drive – with which Christ’s wife, the Church as it is called, contents itself very well, having nothing to expect from copulation. In everything that followed from the effects of Christianity, particularly in art – and it’s in this respect that I coincide with the ‘baroquism’ with which I accept to be clothed – everything is exhibition of the body evoking jouissance – and you can lend credence to the testimony of someone who has just come back from an orgy of churches in Italy – but without copulation.’[x]

Lacan is very clear here: one should reject the endlessly repeated ‘critical’ thesis that the Catholic sexual morality imposes ‘normative heterosexuality’ on the subversive and destabilizing ‘polymorphous sexuality’ of humans. In contrast to the idea that partial drives are masturbatory, asocial, etc., while genital sexuality grounds social link (family as elementary social form), one should insist that there is nothing necessarily a-social in partial drives: they function as the glue of society, the very stuff of communion, in contrast to the heterosexual couple which is – as Freud emphasizes in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego – effectively asocial, isolating itself from its community, and is therefore distrusted by church and army, Freud’s two models of social link – or, to quote the concise comment of these lines by Alenka Zupančič:

‘So there is something profoundly disruptive at stake in copulation. For the kind of (social) bond it proposes, Christianity doesn’t need the latter, which functions as the superfluous element, something on top of what would be (ideally) needed, and hence as disturbing. Indeed, ‘natural’ copulation is utterly banned from the religious imaginary, whereas the latter doesn’t recede from, for example, images of canonized saints eating the excrements of another person. If looked at from this perspective, Christianity is indeed all about ‘jouissance of the body,’ about the body (of God) as constituting another person’s jouissance. Partial drives and the satisfaction they procure are rather abundantly present, and in this sense one would be justified in claiming that in its libidinal aspect the Christian religion massively relies on what belongs to the register of ‘infantile sexuality’: satisfaction and bonding by way of partial objects, with the exclusion of sexual coupling. The pure enjoyment, ‘enjoyment for the sake of enjoyment’ is not exactly what is banned here; what is banned, or repressed, is its link with sexuality, particularly in the form of ‘copulation’.’[xi]

Christianity thus acknowledges the polymorphous-perverse satisfactions of drives, but it desexualizes them, it desexualizes the pleasures they provide. Pleasures as such are not problematic: Christian literature abounds with the descriptions of ecstatic heavenly pleasures provided by meditations, prayers and rituals, but it cuts them off thoroughly from sexuality. The irony here is that Christianity does exactly the same as the greatest analyst and critic of the Christian mode of subjectivization, Michel Foucault, who also endeavors to assert pleasures outside the domain of sexuality.”[xii]

Again, as far as I can see, transgender subjects in no way follow this path of subtracting their space of enjoyment from intersubjectivity and asserting the search for enjoyment in direct dealings with objects. Their anxieties seem to concern precisely their position in social space. And, on the contrary, today’s consumerist capitalism does this subtraction quite well: instead of sex with persons, we have more and more sex with what Lacan calls lathouses, technologically created partial objects, all the “things that did not exist” prior to the scientific intervention into the Real, from mobile phones to remote-controlled toys, from air conditioners to artificial hearts:

“The world is increasingly populated by lathouses. Since you seem to find that amusing, I am going to show you how it is written. Notice that I could have called it lathousies. That would have gone better with ousia, it is open to all sorts of ambiguity. /…/ And for the tiny little a-objects that you are going to encounter when you leave, on the pavement at every street corner, behind every shop window, in the superabundance of these objects designed to cause your desire in so far as it is now science that governs it, think of them as lathouses.”[xiii]

As such, a lathouse is to be opposed to a symptom in the precise Freudian sense of the term: lathouse is knowledge embodied in a new “unnatural” object. Now we can see why, apropos lathouses, we have to include capitalism. After all, we are dealing with a whole chain of surpluses: scientific technology with its surplus-knowledge (a knowledge beyond mere connaissance of already existing reality, a knowledge which gets embodied in new objects); the capitalist surplus-value (the commodification of this surplus-knowledge in the overflow of gadgets); and, last but not least, the surplus-enjoyment (gadgets as forms of objet a) which accounts for the libidinal economy of the hold lathouses have over us. No wonder that, in Lacan’s formulas of sexuation, such a direct link between the subject and partial objects is located on the masculine side: although it bypasses the phallic signifier, it is no way outside sexual difference.

[i]  Hamid Dabashi, Can Non-Europeans Think?, London: Zed Books 2015, p. 1.

[ii] Quoted from http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/03/16/with-enemies-like-this-imperialism-doesnt-need-friends/ .

[iii] See http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2016/06/europe-creation-world-160613063926420.html.

[iv] Quoted from: https://m.reddit.com/r/GamerGhazi/comments/4vxmfk/philosopher_slavoj_zizek_knows_next_to_nothing/.

[v] Louis Althusser, »Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,«  in Essays in Ideology, London: Verso 1984, p. 163.

[vi] I resume here a more detailed critical reading of Althusser’s notion of ideology from Chapter 3 of Slavoj žižek, The Metastases of Enjoyment, London: Verso Books, 2006.

[vii]Here I follow the perspicacious observations of Henry Krips. See his excellent unpublished manuscript »The Subject of Althusser and Lacan.«

[viii]https://differentcolouredhats.wordpress.com/2016/08/03/slavoj-zizek-is-wrong-about-stuff/.

[ix] Op.cit., p. 206.

[x] Jacques Lacan, On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge (Seminar XX), New York: Norton 1999, p. 113.

[xi] Alenka Zupančič, “Die Sexualitaet innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft” (unpublished manuscript).

[xii]Slavoj Žižek, Absolute Recoil, London: Verso Books 2014, pp. 200-201.

[xiii] Jacques Lacan, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, New York: Norton 2007, p. 62.


THE AUTHOR : The Slovenian Marxist philosopher and cultural critic is one of the most distinguished thinkers of our time. Žižek achieved international recognition as a social theorist after the 1989 publication of his first book in English, “The Sublime Object of Ideology“. He is a regular contributor to newspapers like “The Guardian”, “Die Zeit” or “The New York Times“. He has been labelled by some the “Elvis of cultural theory“ and is the subject of numerous documentaries and books.