A brief further note on Žižek, Lacan, and transsexuality

This will be short, because I’m just about to leave on holiday, but since I will likely be without internet for the next two weeks I wanted to put something up, at least, this morning.

Firstly, I’d like to thank everyone who has read, shared and discussed my critique of Žižek’s remarks on transgenderism. Most things I write on here receive numbers in the low hundreds, so the popularity of this piece has been a pleasant surprise.

I was disappointed to see that, instead of engaging with my Lacanian critique, Žižek chose to respond to a single Reddit comment about his article, so that he could dishonestly claim that he has “searched in vain for a minimum of argumentation,” only to find that “[t]he attackers mostly just make fun of a position, which is simply not mine.” While he has retreated somewhat from some of his previous arguments, I still find many problems with this newest article, though I cannot really respond to him until he is willing to reply to those who pose a challenge to his conclusions on their own terms. Yes, Slavoj, one can understand what you are saying and disagree with you.

Since I published my first response, it has occurred to me to conceptualise trans identity in relation to Lacan’s concept of ‘sinthome’, that is, the identification with the symptom – without recourse to ‘belief’ in the symptom – through which one is able to (at least partially) individuate the lack in the Symbolic (Other) that characterizes jouissance (in this sense, ‘jouis-sans’, as Lorenzo Chiesa has named it, whom I follow on this theoretical point). In essence, the notion of ‘sinthome’ allows Lacan, at the end of his career, to conceptualise the goal of analysis as an act of creation on the part of the analysand by which she is able to come to terms with the lack of a final signifier (i.e. the lack of an absolute answer to the hysteric’s question, “Who am I?”) and the concomitant fact that desire can never be fully satisfied. As a matter of fact, this is particularly timely, since Lacan’s seminar on the ‘sinthome’ is being published in translation next month by Polity.

As is often the case, I discovered that more learned men and women had already explored this idea. In the past couple of days, several people have pointed me toward’s Oren Gozlan’s recently-published Transsexuality and the Art of Transitioning, which is by all accounts a thoughtful and intelligent discussion of transsexuality in a Lacanian register, and indeed contains a discussion of ‘Transsexuality as sinthome’. I very much look forward to reading this book when I get the chance! Even more recent is Sheila L. Cavanagh’s excellent “Transsexuality as Sinthome: Braccha L. Ettinger and the Other (Feminine) Sexual Difference”, which can be read as a (pre-emptive) response to Žižek, and is much more detailed and sophisticated than anything I would be capable of. In fact, I will quote the abstract in full:

“This article uses Bracha L. Ettinger’s theory of the matrixial borderspace in relation to Jacques Lacan’s analytic of sexuation to argue that transsexuality isn’t reducible to psychosis. Rather, transsexuality taps into an Other (feminine) sexual difference that is subjectifying and can be understood in relation to Ettinger’s conception of metramorphosis and the matrixial. Transsexuality involves the somatization of the Other sexual difference and the creative use of this difference as sinthome. The sinthome of transsexuality can enable the subject to negotiate the aporia of sexual difference. I establish parallels between the (neurotic) hysteric and the transsexual to argue that transsexuality can be a subset of neurosis. The transsexual transition (which often involves Sex Reassignment Surgery) can be understood as a metramorphical becoming, a borderlinking enabling separation and distance in proximity. It is not as Catherine Millot (1990) contends an attempt to abolish the “nature” of the Real but rather a means to achieve a sinthomatic reknotting of the 3 Registers such that one’s relation to a parental image and to an Other’s primordial traces can be reconfigured.”

This way of thinking transsexuality and trans identity (and indeed, the interrelation and differences between these terms, as well as further designations like genderqueer, genderfluid, bigender, pangender and agender, is a challenge to which psychoanalysis must rise, and which Žižek utterly fails to appreciate) offers Lacanian psychoanalysis a useful avenue of both academic thought and clinical treatment. The recent proliferation of considered interventions, which challenge earlier psychoanalytic doxa on transsexuality as a problematic attempt to “abolish” the real, perhaps indicate that Lacanian studies have decisively moved beyond Žižek and his generation. How appropriate that, in the field of psychoanalysis, we have killed the Father.

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4 thoughts on “A brief further note on Žižek, Lacan, and transsexuality

  1. Sinthome as trans covered thoroughly in Ghorevici’s book.

    As a trans woman, it’s getting wearying watching non trans people upping their page views or public notoriety on rhetorically juggling jargon to determine our abstract ontological significance. Really wearying. Contrast Zizek’s call to dyadic sex with Pope Francis’s ‘natural law’ attack recently. Getting harder to tell them apart.

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  2. If that is the case – that trans may be conceptualized with recourse to the Sinthome – then why are “we” in the midst of a struggle for ‘proper’ or ‘true’ gendering? Why did that immense cultural moment – made news everywhere – occur between Janet Mock and Piers Morgan when he had her on his show, was polite the entire time, used proper/desired pronouns (of her choice!, no matter what he thought of the matter and which he did not make apparent; which is a good thing) only then to be assigned the career-ending (at least in the US) label of Transphobe because he mentioned at the return from the commercial break that she was born a male?! “No! I was assigned!…etc.” Same with Caitlyn Jenner at the ESPYs. If there is a detection that “bruce” is going to come out of one’s mouth, even when referring to the Olympics when Caitlyn did not yet… you get the point… one is immediately upbraided in a manner extremely terse and vicious even.

    If you’re even remotely fair dealing, how dare you say that this conundrum is “without recourse to ‘belief’ in the symptom” when the fundamental gesture of transfolk today is to demand – in the Lacanian sense of the term – that all individuated subjects, that all people operating w/in the symbolic and imaginary registers of ‘good’, ‘non-bigoted’, ‘non-hate-filled’ people (implicitly euro-americans/”westerners”), “liberal”, “progressives” accede to complete compliance and not just for the sake of politeness but for the sake of metaphysical correctness (at this point the harshest rebuke awaits someone who has another ontological conception of ‘sex’ beyond Butlerian social constructionist performativity or simply middle-Foucauldian discursive regimes). Germaine Greer has had her entire reputation destroyed and has had her accomplishments, her struggles, her achievements (which furthered the lives of others) minimized and marginalized.

    If it really is of the sinthome, is sinthomic, then it would be exactly as Zizek says apropos the bathroom question: “Why, when they find themselves in front of gendered toilets, don’t they act with heroic indifference – “I am transgender, a bit of this and that…so I can well choose whatever door I want!” Why not? If it is the enjoyment of the symptom, created in the sense of being self-affirmed & created in the sense of a being of another’s order (“I am created: I did not make myself; but I am also created, ‘I’, exist apart from that order which made me”), if it is sinthome, then why, simply why, does the current movement entirely subsist in the typical neurotic attempt at (social) recognition? We know what that entails: the dialectic of misrecognition and in a liberal order, a settlement to create the space for tolerance, cessation of the hostility between master-bondsperson, followed by either (half-measured) “defeat” or “victory” of opposing forces (yay! marriage equality… boo! pinkwashing!). We know that this process doesn’t involve the enjoyment of the symptom (the conflict itself; the unsettled state-of-affairs themselves which is symptomatic); or the call to radically re-situate ourselves (also can be symptomatic). What’s absolutely hilarious but very telling is that you admit this dynamic yourself: “I establish parallels between the (neurotic) hysteric and the transsexual to argue that transsexuality can be a subset of neurosis.” This is what he’s critiquing. Hello!

    Frankly, it’s false to cast him as conservative or reactionary. Given the dynamic of the impossibility of relations (sexual, etc), he appears to be arguing for a generalized hystericiziation so that the ‘cis-gendered, hetero-normative white, masculine-of-center presenting, assigned-male patriarch’ can have “empathy” and “relate” to others who are gender nonconforming because the “he himself” (of the cis-white-dude-bro) is not fully co-incidental with “himself”; that simply and in other words, there’s a surplus that accompanies him too as he seeks to ‘figure’ himself ‘out’ in this world. But this form of empathy, perhaps we are “over” empathy (because that would involve recognition) but at the very least, this form of human uncanniness that one senses in oneself (no, I am not a “cis-white scum”, but more than that… also by the way, the person writing this reply isn’t ciswhiteheterosexual; I’m black SGL so don’t try me with that) can be extended to others… it must go all ways however. That does entail that the logic of who’s on the margins and who isn’t will have to be rethought. Yes. So what? It doesn’t mean you deny suffering; but responses at the socio-politico-economic have to be rethought. Maybe then, lines of solidaristic flight can be established and we can – I don’t know! – have a materially decent society so that people can live their symbolic-imaginary-real lives or at least try to. But nope, y’all keep playing this game; play that game and talk about intersectionality some more, and see how improbable it will become to ever, ever have a modicum of socio-economic materially re-distributed political economy; to have any-thing in ‘common’.

    At some point I’m really beginning to doubt whether or not y’all (you and those who have responded positively to your “clapback which is really more of a clawback) are even on the damn level because Zizek’s never once argued for a return to past symbolic relations (a reversal of the decline of symbolic efficiency – which would actually, by the way, make him a conservative) or even the establishing of new symbolic relations à la Juliet Flower McCannell vis-a-vis the questions of ‘womanhood’ and the call of Love (which is a sign not a signifier recall) around the Thing figured as Lady which Lacan addresses in his remarks on Courtly Love and which for him may have entailed an alternative, “better”, relation between the sexes since it is obvious that “our” socio-historical dissatisfaction regarding the neurotic (and now perverse) forms of the sexual relationship have led us (non-all) to where we are today. The irony of his descent into the stereotyped “evil” white hetero-“brosocialist” is that y’all are pushing away one of those figures in the contemporary intellectual landscape that can actually do work at increasing forms of solidarity between divergent peoples. But fine, when the alt right takes over… oh then his name will “rehabilitated” I’m sure (too late of course).

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    1. Firstly, calm down. I don’t believe it helps anybody to rant and rave in this way. I think you misunderstand the nature of the sinthome and what the difference between belief and identification are, psychoanalytically. I will quote Verhaeghe and Declercq, who are helpful here:

      ‘We have to stress the fact that this identification with the symptom does not come down to surrendering. On the contrary, to surrender is an expression of impotence and thus characterizes the attitude of belief in the symptom. The personal failure is considered to be isolated and individual, while the conviction still exists that other people, the Other, succeed in realizing The Relationship. This is not the case for a subject who has identified with his symptom and who has verified, during his analysis, that the failure of the sexual relationship is not a matter of individual impotence, but of a structural impossibility. The analysis has made clear that the essence of the subject – son être du sujet – is situated at the place of the lack of the Other, the place where the Other does not provide us with an answer. The analysand has experienced the fact that the subject is “an answer of the Real” and not “an answer of the Other”.’

      The endpoint of Lacanian logic is that – since sexual difference cannot be determined by recourse to either biology or history – the transgender claim to sexual identity is equally as (in)authentic as the cisgender. It is not at all the case that trans people conceptualise themselves as “a bit of this and that”, and I think this claim betrays Žižek’s fundamental lack of understanding here. You also forget – ironically, considering all the bluster about solidarity – that trans people have very real stakes in things like the bathroom issue; in this case, not being arrested for going to the toilet! It does not seem very reasonable to ask why trans people for social recognition; the answer is self-evident. In fact your argument reminds me of old lines on homosexuality as a ‘fringe lifestyle’.

      Enjoyment of the symptom is not a zero-sum game. Lacan did not believe that identification would lead to a state in which one would ‘escape’ neurosis (itself impossible) and convert sexual conflict into a mere matter of enjoyment. And such is the case with trans people: the identification allows them to lead a more stable and satisfying life, but of course conflict over sex and its attendant aporias is not eliminated. Insofar as the neurotic is the closest thing to a ‘healthy’ subject, we are arguing that trans people can be identified as neurotic (and not psychotic).

      I do not believe Žižek is a conservative or a reactionary, and never once said such a thing. I said that his arguments end up repeating reactionary lines, and that this can very well be seen as a problem, no matter how different his route in getting there.

      I simply do not understand how you get from the trans issue to these wider political points. I am not a liberal, I am a Marxist, and I am a fervent universalist. I myself have been accused of being a ‘brocialist’ and certainly align myself with many others who have. I too believe that material, and not symbolic, gains are the proper goal of leftist politics. But this does not mean we abandon the idea of symbolic recognition altogether. Solidarity between the left and trans people is very important to me, and it cannot be won through this absurd problematization of the transgendered.

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