Interrogating the père’s version: a response to Slavoj Žižek

You are looking for a master. You will surely find one.

– Jacques Lacan, 1968

I was pleased to read Slavoj Žižek’s response to my piece(s), published at The Philosophical Salon yesterday. The first thing that strikes me here is the way in which Žižek has increasingly tempered his attitude towards transgender identity in his written work. In this newest piece, he refers to the “ethical greatness” of trans people; indeed, he seems now to want to portray them as a kind of human subject par excellence, a concentrated expression of the sexual antagonism which befalls the human subject as such – a point which, of course, strikes a similar note to my original observations vis-a-vis trans identity as congruent with psychoanalytic notions of sex. For comparison, when I first heard Žižek speak on ‘transgenderism’, at the LSE a few months ago, his pithy verdict was a lot more direct: “I am against it.”

So the difference now comes in our subsequent conclusions regarding how Lacanian theory is to respond to trans people’s expression of this antagonism – namely, the identification with the opposite sex to that assigned at birth, or the complete rejection of a binary sexual configuration as applicable to one’s gender identity. Though he never explicitly states this, we would have to assume that Žižek, if he does indeed remain “against” transgenderism, believes that trans people ought to – or at least, would do just as well to – remain as they are, irreducibly subjected to the symbolic castration that assails all of us, without recourse to a modified sexual identification. If he does not believe this, it is hard to see what has motivated his interventions.

By contrast, I suggest that the identificatory decision made by trans people is – both manifestly and in a manner consistent with psychoanalytic theory – a potential source of positive resolution. Although Lacan famously denied that analytic discourse would have an inherently therapeutic function, it seems to me somewhat limiting for Lacanians to become so wrapped up in the impossibilities and aporias of sex as to reject the idea of any positive or beneficial sexual resolution. This is what draws me to work like Alain Badiou’s supplementations of Lacan in his essays on love: Badiou provides something affirmative to Lacan’s often alienating (and I choose this word cognisant of its connotations) theories of desire, and shows that there is something in sex beyond mere failure, even for the Lacanian, which we might call “love”.

Žižek zeroes in on the often-contested distinction between the symbolic and the real in Lacan, accusing both me and Tim Dean of misusing the Lacanian thesis of a ‘lack of a sexual relationship’ in the symbolic to minimize the (real) predominance of sexual difference in the unconscious. The difficulty arises because Lacan both stated that “the unconscious is the discourse of the Other” (the Other referring in one sense to the symbolic order itself) and suggested that sexual difference, which is not symbolic but real, is the very antagonistic condition ‘underlying’ the speaking subject. I might emphasize that I am under no illusions of the real being anything other than the index of a failure immanent to the symbolic, as I have repeatedly made clear. But, contrary to Žižek’s criticisms of me and Dean, we can certainly speak of a ‘cut’ in Lacan’s teaching, namely in 1959, which precipitated the increased emphasis on the real and its concomitant attributes (I speak of course of objet a) in his subsequent seminars, in (supplementary) opposition to the phallic signifier. As Jacques-Alain Miller, the editor of Lacan’s seminars, has said, “the whole development of his teaching from the cut introduced by Seminar VI onwards goes in the direction of the dismantling, of the deconstruction of the paternal metaphor.” Once Lacan has proclaimed that “there is no Other of the Other”, the inconsistency of the symbolic order becomes what conditions the very direction of analysis. This is why we might remark on, in Miller’s words, “the permanence, as object petit a, of a jouissance which does not derive its meaning from the paternal metaphor,” as an immanent challenge to the supremacy of the symbolic law, and this is what Dean and I mean when we refer to the lack of a signifier. For, as Miller goes on to write:

“… the solution is not located at the level of the paternal metaphor. For, at this level, all that the subject encounters is the lack of a signifier, the lack of the signifier that would designate his being in designating the law of this being. […] It is a question of elements or rather of substances that produce jouissance and which are outsides of the signification of the phallus, let us say an infringement in relation to castration.”

It seems clear to me that it is this orientation which Lacan’s teaching took on in the 1960s onwards that opens up the possibility of a subjective position, with regard to the Other, precisely like trans identity, as an ‘infringing’ relation to castration which can serve as a possible direction of analysis, or, more broadly speaking, of the self-preservation of the subject. Let us not forget that in Seminar XX Lacan formulated a mode of jouissance that was ‘Other’, “beyond the phallus”.

Moreover, I reiterate my belief that Žižek conflates sexuality and gender in his first piece. As others have pointed out, there seems to be an odd slippage in terms; see, for example, a phrase like, “the multiplicity of gender positions (male, female, gay, lesbian, bigender, transgender, …)”. It only muddies the water further to fail to distinguish between two separate (although obviously interrelated) domains. Indeed, a lack of nuance harms Žižek’s thesis, because it imposes an ideological homogeneity on the entirety of that portion of the population which identifies itself as “transgendered”, which is unsustainable once we recognize the multiplicity of ideas – sometimes mutually-exclusive – held by the people being discussed, and I do not speak here simply of a multiplicity of identities, but of that which sustains any sexual identity itself. I myself, I should add, have been accused of using too broad strokes in this regard.

Ultimately, I must come back to the fundamental problem. Žižek and I agree on the theoretical fundamentals, because we both agree with Lacan (and here I must refute the charge of “preaching” to Žižek, when I was rather laying out the theory in order to make a response on the shared ground of Lacanianism). And it is precisely because of this agreement that I am bemused by Žižek’s anti-transgender conclusions. It is a question of an inescapable real… and then what? A question of how to deal with this impasse in the behaviour and identifications we choose for ourselves. So, why is there a leap from the affirmation of a sexual deadlock to an actual critique of trans identity itself? If Žižek wanted simply to critique the ever-multiplying proliferation of sexual labels, or the deconstruction of sex in toto, this would not in fact amount to the same thing as criticising trans identity or the decision to transition. The two must be separated. 

Žižek goes on to invoke the unconditionality of the sexual “choice” between the mutually-exclusive, “parallactic” masculine and feminine sexuated positions. Okay. But what of the consequences of this choice? Can the ‘real-ly’ feminine male subject assume a feminine identity? If not, why not? And what of those who refuse to affirm this choice? What is the explanation for this? Are they suppressing the real sexual choice? Is the problem, then, one for the psychoanalytic clinic? What is Žižek trying to say, exactly, about these people? It would benefit the discussion for him to clarify these points, I think.

Objet a is indeed, as Žižek says, the object that fills the lack in the Other, and not the residue of some presymbolic polymorphic sexual jouissance – I have certainly never claimed otherwise. The point is that the object will always be a ‘mythical’ supplement by which the subject (and that is any kind of subject, with any kind of sexual identity) can navigate the lack of a sexual relationship, the lack of an answer in the Other. I quite simply do not understand why transgender identity poses a case which must be specifically criticized, when we all cope with lack through some kind of fantasmic supplementation: why is trans identity not simply one case among many? Why is it illegitimate to relate to lack in this particular individualised manner (the sort of relation which is precisely what I believe the notion of the sinthome to evoke)? This is what the discussion really turns on.

Before Žižek published his response to me, I was in the early stages of drafting an article on Lacanian discourse theory, and the fundamental failure of communication inscribed therein. I think Žižek would agree with Deleuze, that debate is a format which is not, finally, suited to philosophical discourse, a discourse filled with self-doubt and antithetical to the clear, boldly-proclaimed oppositions of a parliament or a debate club. I have the feeling that Žižek did not really respond to me, and that I have not really responded to him. As Lacanians, we both know that there is something that will forever elude our discourse. We can even perhaps speak of a “narcissism of small differences”, animating a dispute between two people who, in the end, share an affinity for this obscure, much-derided theorist. Does our correspondence confirm our master’s theories that the truth will always remain, at best, ‘half-said’? And if Lacan is indeed our master, what are we to say of the surplus-jouissance he produces, the jouissance which is precisely the truth of my discourse when I ‘hysterically’ question the master Lacanian, Žižek? The impossibility/impotence here is unavoidable. If we are, as speaking subjects, inescapably doomed to failures of communication, failures of sexuality, failures of identity, if we are, in the final analysis, subjected to such a fate, well, I am in no hurry to deconstruct someone’s desire to use a certain toilet. We all have our symptom.

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7 thoughts on “Interrogating the père’s version: a response to Slavoj Žižek

  1. Here’s what I see in this discussion, though I’d welcome being corrected. You propose that: “the identificatory decision made by trans people is – both manifestly and in a manner consistent with psychoanalytic theory – a potential source of positive resolution.” It seems to me that the heart of zizek’s argument is that there is no positive resolution of the modern construction of gender under capitalism for anyone, or at least no fully positive resolution. Meanwhile, I can read into your argument the claim (though posed in the negative) that trans people through taking recourse to a “modified sexual identification” can escape being “irreducibly subjected to the symbolic castration that assails all of us.”

    So you then pose that: “I quite simply do not understand why transgender identity poses a case which must be specifically criticized, when we all cope with lack through some kind of fantasmic supplementation: why is trans identity not simply one case among many?”

    And my answer would be — it appears that Zizek addresses this specifically in response to claims such as yours, that the adoption of a transgender identity (forgive the clumsy formulation there) _uniquely_ poses some aspect of escape from the (ahem) problematics of binary gendered society at large. That is to say he is a proponent of trans rights, and of people dressing and identifying as they please, but wishes to criticize shall we say irrational exuberance in the generally emancipatory potential therein.

    Do you think this is a valid reading, or is there something else in this dispute that I’m missing?

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    1. There is no full resolution to the lack of a sexual relationship in Lacan. But this doesn’t mean that all subjects merely stop there; filling in for the lack, although destined to be a kind of failure, is not a bad thing, and not something Lacan would advise against (see his discussions of Courtly Love). Lacan talks about (with some humour intended) the ‘male’ and ‘female’ ways to “botch the sexual relationship”. What I am suggesting is that trans identification is merely equally liable to failure, it’s not something that needs to be criticised separately, because there is no reason it is any less ‘legitimate’ than any other identity (since all symbolisations are failures). Symbolic identity can’t be collapsed back into the primacy of sexual difference as an argument against a certain identity, because there is a yawning gap between the two already. You can see this when Lacan says things like: “what I will abbreviate by calling them man and woman”.

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