On November 17, 2019, in Paris, during the 49th study day of the Ecole de la Cause Freudienne (ECF), Paul B. Preciado was invited to give a talk on women in psychoanalysis. This was particularly ironic if you take into consideration that he went from being Beatriz to becoming Paul.
His questioning of psychoanalysis on various issues which have become rather important in the past years in the Western world can be fruitful for psychoanalysis: the decline of patriarchy, already highlighted in 1968 by Lacan in his Note on the father published in The Lacanian Review n° 3, and the notion of choice of gender, anatomy and jouissance. TLR had published, in its second issue, a dialogue with Professor Jack Halberstam, a prominent queer theorist, on norms, gender and sex.
As a philosopher invested in feminism, gender and queer theory, I am sensitive to Preciado’s address urging psychoanalysts to rejoin the subjectivity of the time.
As a Lacanian, however, it is clear to me that Preciado’s theories are not strong enough to deliver a critique of the notion of sexual difference and of Lacanian psychoanalysis. First because there is no mention in his works of precise clinical data, with the exception of his own personal experience to be found in his best book Testo Junky. Secondly, because the notion of fluidity, signifier invented and applied to several fields by Zygmunt Bauman (as Éric Laurent notices it), is not strong enough to deal with the significant subjective and discursive changes we are facing.
This is why I would like to show, in this text, why the notion of sexual difference, far from grounding an opposition between biological men and women, is, for Lacan: 1) a way to talk about two distinct subjective positions with regards to the question of jouissance; and 2) a way to understand why every subject—regardless of his or her body—can potentially occupy the two positions, or inhabit them with a form of fluidity, as long as he or she or they know how to manage their jouissance.
1. The Two Sides of Jouissance
Let us start with the notion of jouissance. What does the word jouissance mean in Lacan’s teaching, and why is jouissance linked to the notion of sexual difference? The word jouissance appeared for the first time during the 15th century to designate the action of using something in order to obtain from it the kind of satisfaction that it was designed for. As such, the word had a juridical dimension and was linked to the word “usufruct,” which designates the right to use or to enjoy a thing possessed, directly or indirectly (from the Latin usus); or in the figurative sense (from the Latin fructus), the right to derive profit from a thing possessed. During the 16th century, the word received a new hedonistic twist, and became the synonym of pleasure, enjoyment, joy and voluptuousness. As such, one could say that the word jouissance has, from an etymological point of view, at least two important dimensions. The first one, which is generally remembered, is the one of pleasure and enjoyment, while the second, generally forgotten, is legal, and implies a connection between the law and the notion of usage. Finally, the word jouissance has a technical meaning in Lacan’s teaching. It designates the complex relation that each human being, as a speaking being, has with pleasure inasmuch as this relation is not only instinctual (and thus ruled exclusively by the pleasure principle), but also oriented by language (and all the excesses and distortions that language and culture can introduce in a living being). Language, by transforming needs into demands, splits the satisfaction of the speaking being into a satisfaction that is forbidden (the one that has to be repressed and that gives rise to desire), and a satisfaction that is socially authorized (the one that can be turned into a demand).
Lacan named the first one “the jouissance of the Other,” and the second one the “Phallic jouissance.” Lacan named the satisfaction that language forbids “the jouissance of the Other” in reference to Freud’s theory of the Urfather developed in Totem and Taboo.[ii] In this book Freud argued that prior to the creation of the human law, there existed a dominant male—a kind of Harvey Weinstein—who enjoyed all the women for himself. This primitive man, uncastrated, became then the symbol, once killed by the horde of brothers, of the dead father, which is to say the symbol of the one and only male who had access to a form of unlimited satisfaction. Likewise, Lacan named the satisfaction authorized by the law the “Phallic jouissance” in reference to the horde of brothers who, in Freud’s theory, killed the father and then decided to forbid to themselves the unlimited jouissance that the primitive father enjoyed. As such, one can clearly see why Freud and then Lacan have been accused by many feminist, gender and queer scholars of reducing their understanding of the notion of jouissance (and its necessary repression) to the experience of jouissance of a heterosexual men living in the context of a bourgeois society—leaving thus aside from their theory women and people of color alike.
2. Jouissance and Sexual Difference
In the scenario described by Freud in Totem and Taboo, it is, indeed, only the jouissance of the Urfather and the jouissance of the brothers that is at stake. It is only insofar as the brothers fear castration by the Urfather, or the castration by the Totem that represents it, that they accept renouncing a part of their jouissance. This is why, on the side of women, the question of jouissance becomes quite different. Women, indeed, in Freud’s text, are simply an object of exchange between the brothers. As such, one could say that women are literally absent from Freud’s theory, or rather that they only count as the objects of men’s jouissance, but not as a proper subject. This is why so many feminist, gender and queer scholars have accused Freud’s theory of sexual difference of being not only heteronormative, but also misogynist inasmuch as Freud reproduced in it all the clichés that surround women in our western societies. To put it simply, while Freud, on the one hand, radically de-naturalized genital sexuality in his Three Essays on Sexuality he, on the other hand, re-naturalized it in Totem and Taboo by turning certain social values into the kind of cultural fate that Paul B. Preciado is so rightly denouncing as representing a form of cultural naturalization of white heteronormative values and privileges.
Lacan, for his part, did not completely “return to Freud” when he proposed a new logical approach to sexual difference in his Seminar XIX … Or Worse (1971-1972)[iii], and then a new definition of the feminine in his Seminar XX, Encore (1972-1973)[iv]. First, Lacan rewrote Freud’s theory about masculinity in logical terms by saying “all men are subordinated to castration, except the Urfather,” By doing so, Lacan emphasized that the masculine position, in Freud’s theory, implies the existence of a fantasy—the one of the Urfather—that stands for the exception that grounds the universal rule “all men are subordinated to castration,” and that returns in the unconscious of the brothers in the form of wasted object, the abject object a, or in the form of an idealized object such as the fantasy of The Woman. And it is precisely this object that has risen to the zenith of our neo-liberal mode of consumption / addiction.[v] The masculine position is thus, if one connects it to the capitalist discourse, the one that defines the genderless and fluid position of the addicted consumer, trapped in the logic of its own fantasy. In sum, by describing in logical terms the masculine position, Lacan de-essentialized Freud’s male side of sexuation and turned it into a universal function capable of including in its logic men and women alike (since castration is related to language for Lacan, not to anatomy). Then Lacan argued that if one was to extract in the same manner what is specific to the logic of the feminine side of sexuation, one would realize that what Freud considered “feminine” was in fact what he should have rather described as the logic of the singular and not, as the logic of the universal. If one follows what Freud has said about women, one quickly realizes that it is not possible to write the universal proposition “all women are subordinated to castration” since, to do so, one would need first to be able to establish the existence of The Woman (i.e. the existence of the exception without which the universal function “all the women” cannot be written). But to do so would simply amount to either turn women into men, or to enslave women in the fantasy of men, and each time to miss what is specific about the “feminine side” of sexuation.
Femininity as the Future of Sexual Difference
For Lacan, what is specific to the “feminine side” of sexuation is that “not-all” women (in the double sense of not all of them, and not all of their jouissance) are subordinated to castration, which means that not all of the them are caught in the logic of a masculine fantasy, nor occupying themselves a masculine position. But that some of them are also experiencing another form of jouissance. And this other form of jouissance, called by Lacan feminine (a word, I agree, that could be changed since feminine jouissance can be experienced by a male body) is a form of jouissance that goes beyond the Phallic one, while not being the equivalent of the excessive and aggressive jouissance of the Other (the Urfather), nor the masochistic jouissance of the wasted object. And it is this third jouissance—open to men and women alike—that Lacan describes in his Seminar XX Encore and about which he found the best example in the ecstatic love shown on the sculpted face of Saint Theresa of Avila; or in the devotion of a man like Saint John of the Cross. And if I were to update a little bit Lacan’s examples, I could mention all the acts of care, and love, and support and attention that are currently studied under the name of the Ethics of Care.[vi]
Thus, to speak about sexual difference is, for Lacan, not so much a question of gender, nor of sexuality, but of jouissance. And through jouissance, what is indirectly at stake is our current relationship to neo-liberal values, and perhaps even more, to science and technology as they push “all of us” to place ourselves on the universal “masculine side” of sexuation (ruled by the fantasy of an absolute satisfaction) rather than on the “feminine side” of sexuation (which, in some cases, goes through this fantasy and may potentially revolutionize our relationship to jouissance, and thus to ourselves). By saying this, I am not implying that Paul B. Preciado doesn’t make room, in his writings, for such kind of jouissance; nor am I suggesting that he is not right to call our attention to the use of the words men and women in this context, but rather I am arguing that Lacan’s later teaching, which takes the “not-all” of the feminine as its new point of departure, and the three registers of the Real, the Symbolic and the Imaginary as its compass, resonates with Preciado’s subversive intent more than he thinks, and that the clinical use of the Borromean knots, exclusively oriented by the question of jouissance, is clearly the kind of psychoanalysis that Preciado (even though he does not yet realize it ) is calling for.
[i] Jouissance and Sexual Difference is the fourth part of a series of articles on Lacan and the Post-Human. The first three texts are accessible on the website of the Lacanian Review Online.
[ii] Freud, Sigmund, and James Strachey. Totem and Taboo and Other Works: (1913-1914). London: Vintage, 2001. Print.
[iii] Lacan, Jacques. … or Worse. Trans. A. Price, Medford, Polity Press 2018.
[iv] Lacan, Jacques, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book XX, Edited by J.-A., Miller. Trans. B. Fink. New York, Norton & Company, 2007.
[v] See, in particular, Miller, Jacques-Alain. A Fantasy. The article is accessible at the following address: https://londonsociety-nls.org.uk/The-Laboratory-for-Lacanian-Politics/Some-Research-Resources/Miller_A-Fantasy.pdf
[vi] See, in particular, the work of Carol Gilligan, and her book In a Different Voice, in which she argued that ethics should not be reduced to a consequentialist, nor a deontological approach, which emphasize the universality of generalizable standards and impartiality, but rather on interpersonal relationship, and care and benevolence as a virtue. From such standpoint, the consequences of people’s choices and actions only matter in proportion to the vulnerability of the people it affects (and not at a universal and abstract level).