A dialogue with Jack Halberstam and Marie-Hélène Brousse

There seems to be an enduring missed encounter between gender/queer studies and psychoanalysis. In the dialogue TLR asked Professor Jack Halberstam, a prominent queer theorist, to speak with Marie-Hélène Brousse about norms, gender, sex and the phallus.
The Lacanian Review–The theme of this issue of The Lacanian Review is “Sex all over the place”. Obviously, this can invoke the idea of a hyper-sexualisation of all aspects of everyday life, but also that of an absence of coordinates for sex and sexuality. On the latter idea in particular, what, for you, are the most significant contemporary signs of the collapse of traditional heterosexual norms?
Jack Halberstam – Sex is definitely all over the place and no place as a consequence. This seems right as a description of our own moment of what Sylvère Lotringer called “overexposure” nearly 30 years ago. Perhaps, however, this is precisely one of the functions of the “repressive hypothesis” – the distribution of sex across many different networks of meaning, experience and representation. The more sex becomes the language or frame for affective intensity, consumer desire, deferred satisfaction, connection and so on, the more it disappears as a bodily expression or as a mode of intimacy.
Traditional heterosexual norms cordoned sex off from certain activities and spheres and tethered it to specific places and bodies. Sex happened in the bedroom, between man and wife, it was absent from childhood, expressed real love etc., etc. These tidy stories never could contain the disorder of desire and as soon as they were established, they began to erode. In our era, we see the collapse of marriage, the rise of divorce, the dominance of fetishes over relationships; we notice that people choose to be single over being coupled, gender roles break down and children themselves remodel the meaning of the categories they inherit.
Marie-Hélène Brousse – I like the term “repressive hypothesis” and its definition. In the Lacanian orientation we use the term “master’s discourse”, defining it as the matrix of any social bond. We are made of that language which was there before we could speak and will remain after we die, even if we believe – as our ego obliges us to – that we are masters of our “own” thought and speech. This master’s discourse is a discourse of domination and it uses the crystal of language, which is to say the chains of words or signifiers from which speech is made. They seem to go by twos, S1– S2 and so on. But there is no difference between S1 and S2. The link is given by a third element: substitution. The master’s discourse relies on the fact that S1 – “Men” for example – and S2 – “Women” for example (although in English you can hear “men” in the signifier “women”) – appear to be a binary so that you cannot think men without referring to women, or the other way round. This has been the basis of the belief in the sexual relation between men and women, whereas clinical observation has always denied it. The traditional master signifiers are one of a binary, as in “alive or dead”, “day and night”, etc. It uses terms to classify, organise, and rule the social bond between speaking beings. At one and the same time, the master’s discourse both implies segregation and orders a unique mode of sexual satisfaction. Lacan uses an equivocation to emphasise the link between the master’s discourse and identification: “signifiant maître/signifiant m’être”. Our identifications therefore vary over historical changes deposited in the discourse. Ever since science changed the traditional reference of sex to nature, which had related perceptible bodily differences to reproduction rather than to sexual satisfaction, it has ceased to be possible to maintain “man” and “woman” as master signifiers. Our analysands testify to this all the time.
Even if Freud was, like all of us, hostage to the discourse of his time, he was nonetheless impelled by what he heard from his patients to write in his essay on infantile sexuality that children are “polymorphous perverts”. We know about the scandal this caused, and about the repeated attempts of his followers to continue dreaming of an adult state, genitally unified, despite no one ever encountering it! In fact, from a Lacanian perspective sexuality has never been ruled by nature as far as speaking beings are concerned. Rather, it is ruled by a language device, which is fantasy (always “perverted” at some point), or by love, which raises the recurrent, but not unanswerable, question: “When you come, do you love me?” Sexuality, then, was never ruled by a unique gender identification.
JH – I do not dispute this account of what you call “the master’s discourse” and I like the economical way you describe how we are both subject to linguistically imposed orders of sense making and predisposed to imagine ourselves as sovereign beings. But, as so many scholars from Judith Butler to Fred Moten have shown, language is also made up of gaps, absences, excess, mistakes, slips and failures. It tethers us to a system like gender binarism but it also guarantees multiple modes of being that will exceed the binary. And no, sexuality was never “ruled” by gender identification but gender identification is embedded in an ideological matrix too, and it collides with desire in ways that can be both stifling and potentially liberating.
On Language
Jack Halberstam, you have been deliberately non-dogmatic about which gendered pronoun, “he” or “she”, you invite people to refer to you with. What has been your experience of the effect of this linguistic ambiguity on social interactions? Does it have a particular politics for you? Similarly, you’ve gone by the name of Judith but more recently Jack. Does this relate to different spheres of your life? For example, the professional and the personal (if we can really separate these)? Does the fact that you’ve chosen Jack as the author of your latest book cause you any difficulties as an academic?
JH – Actually, it is true that over the past few years, I have become less legible rather than more. Many people transition and then pass in their chosen gender. I have shifted to Jack, or occasionally Jude, and then I had top surgery this summer to create a male chest. But I do not take hormones, I do not pass as a man but I am often assumed to be one. I use the women’s restroom and changing room and my voice regularly gives me away as being “female.” This definitely creates some areas of discomfort for me and for people who interact with me but, as Butler put it so well, gender trouble is necessary because the real problem is not with misidentification but with the idea that some people really are male or female… We could call this myth-identification, the mythical belief in real genders. We really do live in a mixed-up world right now in terms of gendered identification but the new modes of inhabiting a gendered body are not simply transgressive or radical – they need to be located alongside the break-up of other forms of knowledge in order to signify as transformative.
MHB – I do not have your experience, first because in French we do not use the term male or female for human beings, except if we want to emphasise the continuity between the species of living beings. We use feminine or masculine in relation to social organisation. But at a much smaller level, I can understand some of your experience. As a smoker, my voice, very high-pitched when I was young, is now very low, so that on the phone I am generally addressed as “Sir”. When, wickedly, I interrupt them saying, “No, Madam”, they sound very embarrassed and apologise deeply. They feel sorry for storing me in the wrong drawer! It proves that gender is still predominantly organised in the master’s discourse by the power of imaginary markers, allied with the symbolic order. It has nothing to do with what I would call, after Lacan, the real. Still, a majority continue to define gender that way, thereby taking reality, a mixture of imaginary and symbolic elements, for real. But the only access to sex as real is given by biology on the one hand, which concerns only sexual organs, such as cells might possess to reproduce, not human speaking beings per se; and on the other hand, positions of jouissance as linked to fantasy where the subject is simultaneously the agent, the object and the spectator of the scene.
On the Bathroom Problem and Heteronormativity
You have spoken of the “bathroom problem” with reference to the simplistic binarism of “male” and “female”, and the legal as well as social policing that shores up that binarism. It is said that the White House now has a gender-neutral bath- room. Does this mean the bathroom problem no longer applies?
JH – The bathroom problem is not about the bathroom per se. Rather, bathrooms and the sorting of bodies creates rather than resolves problems for the interaction of strangers in public places precisely because they assume the naturalness of a set of classifications that they actively produce. I was recently at a fantastic event in Athens, Greece, hosted by gender theorist Paul Preciado for Documenta 14. The space was divided in all kinds of unconventional ways in order to upset people’s expectations about the production and reception of knowledge. In keeping with the unconventional division of space, the restrooms were labelled “Trans” and “Feminist”. These labels forced everybody in the space to actively make a decision about who they were, who they wanted to be and what that division meant.
MHB – When I discovered, in the US, the various attempts to escape from the usual segregations ruling the use of the bathroom, it surprised me. I took photographs because I was due to give a seminar on contemporary identities and identifications. I find them witty, just like the example you give of “Trans” and “Feminist”. They make fun, sometimes without knowing it, of the classifications of the master’s discourse, of the labels, as you say, that are meaningless with regard to the subject of unconscious desire. But I must say I am just as puzzled when I have to fill the form for entering the US and choose a “race” from a long and various list (White, Black, Native American etc…). This leads me to say that gender, though often considered as an identity, a “Je suis…” in French or an “I am…”, is better considered as related to a moment of utterance than to a supposed and evanescent being. In the Lacanian world, we prefer to speak of “lack of being” or “want to be/want of being” in the case of the subject of the unconscious.
“Trans” seems like an open and powerful signifier around which some identities and practices today cohere, as well, perhaps, as a lot of questions and experiments in how to live differently. Why do you think it has “taken”, and do you find it useful yourself?
JH – For me, the term “trans*” is a much better and more open signifier because it does not presume in advance what constitutes the transitivity claimed by the body. It also uses the diacritical mark, *, to hold open the space created by the challenge to binary formations. I use this term about myself.
MHB – “Trans” does seem to be a powerful word. We can now read papers on a “trans species” movement. As a term, it is more appropriate to continuity, to a fluidity that characterises our times, as Zygmunt Bauman has shown, than the binary oppositions implying discontinuity. We could say that an analytic experience participates in both: as far as free association is concerned, it relies on fluidity and desire is “trans”-signifiers, but we also manage to extract some of them, separating them from the binaries they belong to.
A different but also related question… Virtual identity is increasingly a part of our “actual” identity today. Thus, it seems not unimportant that Facebook now offers no less than 58 gender options in setting up a profile in the US (strangely, in the UK it is even more, at 71). Does this simply reflect a successful “queering” of heteronormativity and an important gain in freedom, or do you see it (simultaneously, perhaps) as the potential source of disorientation and anxiety?
JH – Good question. But, because it is Facebook, we should be somewhat suspicious about this new interest in gender flexibility. Since Facebook wants to locate its members firmly in relation to market dynamics, the 58 gender options are a version of niche marketing. Similarly, in the US, big business has declared its interest in the rights of transgender people to use the bathrooms in which they feel most comfortable. This is not simply benevolence and tolerance – it is also a desire to safeguard a potential market for future transactions.
MHB – I totally agree. As Lacan said, the capitalist discourse can adapt itself to any change. It is indestructible, like religion. It transforms any innovation into a business, just as religion can give a meaning to any event.
On the Relationship Between Queer Theory and Psychoanalysis
Queer theory has had a complex relationship with psychoanalytic theory, finding it oppressively heteronormative as well as potentially emancipatory. Likewise, some versions of psychoanalysis have been slow in engaging with queer theory and gender studies. In the consulting room, however, practising analysts now encounter many subjects who have urgent questions about their sexual “identity” or “orientation”, and sometimes use the discourse of “queer” or “trans” to try to articulate their experience. What do you think the two fields can learn from one another?
JH – Well, so much queer theory has drawn from psychoanalysis that it would be impossible to chart what the fields learn from each other. Most of Butler’s early work derived from complex and detailed interactions with the work of Freud and Lacan, and Eve Sedgwick wrote extensively about the work of Melanie Klein. More recently, David Eng and others have built upon the work of Frantz Fanon to ask about how race is managed in relation to what Butler calls “the psychic life of power”. That said, some theo- rists, like Paul Preciado for example, certainly see psychoanalysis as a limited frame for the analysis of contemporary dynamics of power and desire. Preciado’s term – the “pharmaco-pornographic” – draws attention to the way that the body is inscribed, manipulated and enhanced by pharmaceutical supplements that literally transact power relations at the level of the molecular. And so masculinity becomes the effect of Viagra; birth control pills and reproductive technologies rewrite the meaning of womanhood and maternity; hormones re-territorialise the gendered body and so on. And of course, these pharmaceutical interventions are part of a dynamic of bio and necro political power. So I think I for one am somewhat convinced that we may be at the very limit of the psychoanalytic frame and we may well need other symbolic languages for power, embodiment, danger, precarity, loss, life and death.
MHB – Well, psychoanalysis is certainly not forever! But first I would not use the term “frame” to describe what is a lived experience, at least in the clinical setting, one much nearer to a performance in modern art than an explanatory framework. When an analytic session begins, you cannot know beforehand what is going to be said, and on the analyst’s side, you cannot know what interpretation will arise from words you cannot predict. Therefore it has to do with oriented improvisation, and not explanation by means of a previous standardised theoretical frame. Secondly, as analysts our mate- rial is what people say, in the common, everyday language that people speak. Consequently we are connected to all the innovations produced in culture as people are living them. We listen to the effects that those novel- ties, introduced by what you call “the dynamic of bio and necro political power”, are having on people’s subjectivities and what kinds of solutions and decisions they come to invent. Lacan once wrote: “Let whoever cannot meet at its horizon the subjectivity of his time give it up then […] Let him be well acquainted with the whorl into which his era draws him in the ongoing enterprise of Babel.”(1) It is truer than ever.
Areas of Possible Debate?
One of the areas of disagreement between psychoanalysis and gender studies has been the concept of the phallus. Feminists have decried the “phallocentrism” of psychoanalysis, while Lacanian psychoanalysts would tend to suggest that such critiques conflate the phallus as signifier with the biological organ of the penis. Do you have a position on this debate, and does your own statement, that “the ‘real’ penis is just a dildo, the only difference being that one cannot buy it or make it oneself ” add a different perspective?
JH – Again, like Preciado, I understand desire and embodiment as primarily prosthetic. The penis and the dildo are both prostheses and both are measured against exacting standards of authenticity. Current emphasis in the popular imagination falls upon “size” and makes size into the signifier of truth and into an indexical symbol of power. But of course, not many bodies born male can fulfil the expectations we have now created around size and so the dildo answers the call better than the flesh and blood penis. In general, the phallus was only ever a part of a grammar of power that had been mapped onto bodies. It worked well as a shorthand for a primary division of body types that conveyed information to the child but the penis/phallus division has serious limits.
MHB – Yes, the phallus was and still is “a part of a grammar of power”. I am not sure it has been “mapped onto bodies”. If it is grammar, it implies language and speech, then it belongs to representation. Of what? Of value, therefore it is a loss, whereas the penis or breast, for example, which are images, are not.
JH – I definitely understand what you are saying here about the clash between grammar and mapping but maybe we need both an understanding of linguistic logic and a sense of topology in order to articulate how gendered forms of power work.
Could you say something about your long-standing interest in female masculinity and the category of “butch”? How does “butch” relate to embodiment and – an important term in certain strands of feminist and gender theory, of course – to “performativity”? As you know, the later Lacan describes a non- phallic jouissance he associates with “feminine” structure, but which, he is clear, is irreducible to biological sex. Have you – or have others in your field – found this a useful reference for queer theory?
JH – I think that the category of butchness has been enormously useful to the project of denaturalising power and gender. By providing examples of how and where masculinity might not coincide with white male embodiment, but also might not simply represent abjection, it has stood as a repudiation of natural gender for over two hundred years now. Butch is at the heart of the schema of performativity – Butler’s book Gender Trouble basically recast female masculinity at the heart of a disruption of both conventional notions of feminism and universal notions of “man”. By making the butch body the protagonist in her enormously influential theories of power, Butler made it possible to rethink feminism and queerness together. As for non-phallic jouissance… hmmm… I think it is a case of more of the same for Lacan – a way to suggest that men have one route to jouissance and women another. As in other formulations that seem to de-essentialise the gendered body in his work, this one assumes the very binary formation it pretends to upend.
A better question nowadays might be about gay male jouissance and the ways in which gay men on Grindr and other social media, and in the wake of new prophylactic medication to prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS, have turned sex into a vector for capital. While butch masculinity remains separate from the market in many ways (as I wrote about in The Queer Art of Failure), gay male masculinity is one of the market’s most effective delivery systems!
MHB – I disagree on this “more of the same” point. Lacan does not suggest that men have one route to jouissance and women another. He says the contrary very specifically and clearly in Seminar XX, Encore. He starts with the set of “speaking beings”. All of them – i.e. those “said to be men and said to be women”, which means that they are so-called, or call themselves – are on the phallic side as they speak within and are defined by a discourse, but among them, some – not all – find access to another kind of jouissance, not alternative, but supplementary: “en plus”. In fact he takes as an example of feminine jouissance a man, San Juan de la Cruz. Each man or woman is free to situate themselves only on one side, or on both at once. On the masculine side you find fetishism as well as maternity, and in general it is a jouissance by means of a fantasy linked to an object. No one escapes it. But some can add to it another experience of jouissance, one implying a localisation neither in an organ nor an object. This is a jouissance of the order of rapture. I think Lacan is generally misunderstood on this point because he gets out of the binary opposition which, despite their efforts, seemingly continues to organise sexuality in much gender studies and feminist theory. From the point of view of psychoanalysis, gender has nothing to do with sexual jouissance. Fucking has nothing to do with identity. Jouissance does not require, does not care about, and may even be opposed to a “choice of gender”, be it assigned, as in traditional society, by domination, or, in our own society, by an individual choice (by a mark or by a will). But, in both cases, desire and pleasure are not to be taken for granted! And each – L, G, B, T and others – manages to invent his, her, or “its” own way.
I would like to recall this sentence by Lacan in relation to psychoanalysis as an other discourse:
“There are four discourses. Each one thinks it is the truth. The only excep- tion is the analytic discourse. We would be better off if it did dominate, people will conclude, but in point of fact this discourse excludes domination; in other words it teaches nothing. There is nothing universal about it, which is precisely why it cannot be taught.”(2)
No wonder that misunderstanding is its fate!
JH – Thank you, Marie-Hélène! Not only for asking some fantastic questions but also for bringing this virtual dialogue to an end by using the portal of misunderstanding. I think we can both agree that gender, desire and identity, within and beyond Lacan, are all inevitably inscribed by misunderstanding, misrecognition, failure and, why not, rapture nonetheless.

Jack Halberstam is Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity, Gender Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California. Halberstam is the author of five books, including Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (Duke University Press, 1995), Female Masculinity (Duke University Press, 1998), In a Queer Time and Space (New York University Press, 2005), The Queer Art of Failure (Duke University Press, 2011) and Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender and the End of Normal (Beacon Press, 2012). Marie-Hélène Brousse is Analyst Member of the School (AMS), ECF (France), EOL (Argentina) and NLS.
(1) 1. Lacan, J., “The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis”, Écrits, transl. B. Fink, Norton, New York/London, 2006, p. 264.
(2) “Lacan pour Vincennes”, Ornicar?, Nos. 17/18, 1979, p. 278. Translated as “There are four discourses”, Culture/Clinic, No. 1, University of Minnesota Press, 2013, p. 3.

PUBLISHED IN THE LACANIAN REVIEW #2 / “Sex All Over the Place” 2016