Ethics and Sexual Difference in Lacan and Irigaray
In his theory of sexuality, Freud defines sexual difference in terms of the psychical consequences of the anatomical difference. Sexual difference is therefore interpreted in terms of having/not having the penis. The presence/absence of the penis has different psychical consequences for boys and girls: it produces effects of castration anxiety for boys and penis envy for girls. The entire development of human sexuality thus comes down to the primacy of the penis. This aspect of his theory has incurred vitriolic attack from the feminists who condemn Freud for reinstating patriarchal ideology. The indictment concerning Freud’s biologism and the difficulty he encountered in theorizing feminine sexuality is not without validity. Yet we should avoid those criticisms that capitalize on Freud’s theoretical impasse and dismiss his work in its entirety. Moreover, we should avoid confusing Lacan with Freud and treating Lacan’s return to Freud as nothing but a more sophisticated way of endorsing the same patriarchal bias.
Lacan’s return to Freud is a critical one, a return that does not spare criticism but acknowledge the difficulties Freud had encountered with feminine sexuality. Describing Lacan’s relation to Freud, Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen observes that Lacan’s faithfulness to Freud is reserved for the problem rather than the solution: “Sometimes you have to throw away your father to preserve his heritage. Sometimes you have to throw away the doctrine to find its ‘meaning.’ In the realm of thought, true faithfulness is not faithfulness to solution but to problems” (1994, 267-68). Lacan’s return to Freud is a return to the problematic of sexuality. Nevertheless, if the early Lacan still tried to tackle the Oedipal deadlock within the framework of identification, from the late Lacanian point of view, the focus has shifted from the narrative of identification to the real of sexual difference (Soler 2000, 40-41).
Freud’s notion of identification concerns how to bundle the pre-oedipal polymorphous drives by means of identification. In Lacanian parlance, this process ensures a submission of the real to the Name-of-the-Father. As Soler points out,
With the Oedipus complex and the different identification which it generates, Freud gave consistency to an Other of discourse. This Other connects its norms, models, obligations, and prohibitions with the original anatomical identity. It imposes a standard solution to the castration complex, a heterosexual solution, and rejects all other solutions as atypical or pathological (40).
However, from a Lacanian point of view, sexual difference cannot be explained solely from the perspective of identification. Lacan begins his Seminar Encore by assuming that we are “in bed” and he is going to stay in bed throughout the seminar because it is where jouissance is located (SXX, 2). The Law is found wanting with regard to jouissance and sexual identities imposed by the Law are not what Lacan has in mind when he talks about sexuation of man and woman. As Soler explains “[t]he term ‘sexuation’…identifies man and woman on the basis of their respective modes of jouissance. These formulas of sexuation attest to and make sense of what we experience every day, namely that the authority of the Other’s norms ends at the foot of the bed” (2000, 41).
A question immediately imposes itself on this contrast between Freud’s identification and Lacan’s sexuation. Isn’t the final moment of psychoanalytic treatment is to identify with one’s symptom? For example, Zizek argues that during the course of his teaching, Lacan gradually moves from distancing to identification, that is, from symbolic desire to the real of the drive:
up to the last stage of his teaching, the predominant ethical attitude of Lacanian psychoanalysis involves a kind of Brechtian gesture of distancing: first the distancing from imaginary fascination through the work of symbolic ‘mediation’; then the assumption of symbolic castration, of the lack constitutive of desire; then the ‘going through the fantasy’: the assumption of the inconsistency of the Other concealed by the fantasy-scenario…In his very last phase, however, Lacan outlines a reversal of perspective, unheard of as to its radicality: the concluding moment of the psychoanalytic cure is attained when the subject fully assumes his or her identification with the sinthome, when he or she unreservedly ‘yields’ to it, rejoins the place where ‘it was,’ giving up the false distance which defines our everyday life (1993, 60)
Given that the analysis ends with one’s identification with the sinthome, are we therefore to discredit Soler’s formulation of the contrast between Freud and Lacan? In fact, there is no conflict between Soler’s and Zizek’s versions on this point. Identification in opposition to jouissance must not be confused with identification with the sinthome that marks the end of analysis. When identification is opposed to jouissance, identification refers to interpellation of the Other (i.e. one’s identification with the symbolic mandate issued from the Other); identification with the sinthome, in contrast, is Lacan’s attempt to conceptualize a signifying formation of jouissance (or jouis-sense) that bestows on the subject a sense of being. In short, identification with the sinthome escapes the Other’s knowledge as it involves the question of being, whereas symbolic identification concerns one’s symbolic position vis-à-vis the Law. As Paul Verhaeghe points out, “[t]his identification [with the sinthome] is a special one, because it concerns an identification with the real of the symptom, and thus concerns an identification on the level of being” (1998a, 182). Hence, identification with one’s sinthome is different from identification with one’s symbolic title. Identification with one’s sinthome is the answer of the real, authorized solely by the self, whereas identification with the symbolic role is the answer from the Other. The implication for an ethical theory is profound: if the Other is the one that provides the answer to our enjoyment, the subject is untroubled by ethical responsibility. However, if the nature of the sinthome is singular, the subject is liable for his/her singular organization of jouissance. As a result, the subject cannot shirk his responsibility and hide behind the Other. Sinthome is strictly of our own making and sustains ourselves in the midst of the lack of consistency in the Other. As Verhaeghe suggests, “the subject has created its own symptom in the real and proceeds by identifying with it. In this way, the symptom takes the place of what is forever lacking. Finally it takes the place of the lacking sexual rapport and furnishes a self-made answer to it, instead of the previous, Other-made ones” (183).
Given this differentiation between two levels of identification, we can claim that Lacan’s later conceptualization of sexual difference is no longer articulated in terms of (symbolic) identification. In Lacan’s later teaching, the status of the Law is radically altered: the subject is not ensnared in Law, i.e., being spoken by language, but escape into Law. The subject does not passively accept the role imposed by the Law, but actively seeks symbolic identification in order to avoid the abyss of the Other’s desire (Che Vuoi?). In this precise sense, identification is of a defensive and precipitate nature, a secondary formation in response to the preceding uncertainty. Now we are in a better position to evaluate the significance of Lacan’s return to Freud. If Lacan is faithful to the Freudian problematic, it is not in the sense that he finds a new solution to the old problem. Rather, Lacan’s gesture – by transposing the problem from epistemology to ontology – is to make the problem worse. If in Freud, the feminine is a “dark continent” that eludes our conceptual grasp, Lacan reflects the limit of the notion to the notion itself. In this sense, the notion (or the reality in general since it is perceptible only with the help of cognitive mapping) is inherently barred, that is, ontologically incomplete. Or to put it in yet another way, identification is a symbolic gesture formed precipitately as a defensive formation against the non-identity at the core of being as well as of the Other. Since ontology of the lack is the foundation of Lacanian psychoanalysis, the lack digs an irreparable hole forever gaping in the realm of identification. This hole is manifested in the lapses of the symbolic consistency and is referred to by Lacan as the realm of the real. Zizek is perhaps the most formidable proponent of Lacan’s notion of the real as the impossible. The Lacanian real, for him, is not substantial but spectral. One of the catchwords of his Hegelian formulation of Lacanian psychoanalysis is to conceive of the real “not only as substance, but also as subject.” The primordial substance is constitutively lost and then retroactively brought into existence through the fantasy narrative. Zizek’s point is that aside from the illusion of a substantial Beyond (the noumenal Thing-in-itself) the real, more importantly, is the gap in the order of phenomenon. The phenomenal reality is not the appearance juxtaposed against the real Thing. The temporal precedence of the Thing over appearance is severely questioned in psychoanalysis. In psychoanalysis, it is the appearance that is prioritized over the Thing. To put it differently, the Thing has no autonomous existence. Instead, it is appearance qua appearance or the minimal difference between two phenomena/copies; the corollary is that the supposed essence is retroactively posited. Furthermore, the ontological rupture at the heart of reality is the place where the Lacanian subject is located. The subject is the void which is subsequently filled by the object in order to hide the lack of the Other. In this sense, the subject and object a are structurally correlated. In light of the dual structural dimension of the Lacanian subject as the void and the object, we can also claim that the subject is the answer of the real to the question of the Other. Since woman designates the position of what Zizek refers to as the “ontological scandal” of reality, we can therefore understand why woman is said to be the Lacanian subject par excellence (1993, 61).
If ontology of the lack informs Lacanian theory, doesn’t it confirm Irigaray’s criticism that Lacan’s theory is incapable of conceptualizing an embodied notion of subjectivity? After all, anything embodied or substantial is constitutively lacking, what is left in psychoanalytic teaching is to accept this tragic human condition. In this view, the psychoanalytic ethics becomes simply a sermon on the heroism of the lack. Is it true that the lack as an ontological category in psychoanalysis serves no purpose except as a negative reminder of the price human beings have to pay by inhabiting language? Is jouissance forever out of reach because language mortifies jouissance and condemns us to an eternal search for the lost object without ever attaining it? What is conveyed in the incommensurability between language and jouissance is actually the logic of desire: language makes the Thing impossible but we must hold on to this Object (by not giving up our desire) and remain forever unsatisfied with its phenomenal replacements (i.e. the replacement is never that). While it is true that the logic of desire constitutes one of the fundamentals of psychoanalysis, we should inquire whether it is the only fundamental. That is to say, aside from recognizing that desire is unrealizable and is always the desire of/for the Other, we should also ask does Lacan in Seminar XX theorize sexual difference merely on the level of desire? Is Lacan merely a philosopher of language? Is Lacan another (post)structuralist, as many are wont to believe? Does language constitute the ultimate horizon of his vision? If Lacanian psychoanalysis is to be distinguished from the two predominant ethical discourses (post-structuralist and Irigarayan) today, where do we situate Lacan vis-à-vis Irigaray and Butler? In what ways does Lacan intervene in the debate between the Irigaryan embodied subject and the poststructuarlist multiple dispersal of the subjective positions? Is it possible to argue that Lacan affirms language’s mortifying effect on jouissance and yet at the same time believes that jouissance is everywhere? To put it more paradoxically, is it possible to argue that language is indeed the ultimate horizon but it does not have to be the only horizon? Is there only one way to understand jouissance? Does this only substance recognized in psychoanalysis must be understood as the primordial Thing? How does the status of jouissance undergo transformation in the course of Lacan’s teaching? What is the impact of these changes on his notion of the ethical subject? These are the questions I hope to address in this chapter and these questions will be explored from the following thematic concerns: (1) the relation between the signifier and the body; (2) the dialectic of whole and not-whole and (3) the notion of universality.
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