Slavoj Žižek is wrong about stuff

Žižek’s latest article is bad. Really bad. A trainwreck. Almost every paragraph is – to a greater or lesser extent – wilfully ignorant, deliberately offensive, and ill-thought-through to the point of absolute redundancy. But no one needed me to tell them that; so why even bother responding to it? The first reason is personal. Žižek’s early books (The Sublime Object of Ideology, Looking Awry, etc.) were particularly influential on my academic development, and, like many, I was first exposed to Jacques Lacan through Žižek. I still believe he has done work which is sharp, insightful, and enlightening, and there are even some Žižekian turns of phrase that creep into my writing, owing to the amount of time I have spent reading him. So a particular pathos accompanies my reception of his recent interventions, to say the least. Secondly, as his most famous disciple, Žižek remains for many readers the predominant or even sole encounter with Lacan. It is profoundly unfortunate if the only Lacan a person comes across is Žižek’s, and even more so if this Lacan is seen as the support for ultimately reactionary conclusions on subjects as diverse as the refugee crisis and transgenderism. It falls on us as Lacanians to challenge Žižek’s (ab)use of the man’s theories, to reclaim Lacan on his own terms.

What this is not is a comprehensive, ‘line-by-line’ critique of Žižek’s article. Many of his arguments are essentially rehashes of familiar (homo/trans)phobic lines (“Why not even a marriage with animals?” is a sentence which actually appears therein, for example) and do not really warrant a response. Nor am I going to discuss Žižek’s baffling points about ethnic identity and class politics, or for that matter his conflation of transgenderism and postgenderism – again, I think every reader will see the shortcomings here without me having to highlight them. Besides, the famous political commentators Virgil Texas and Felix Biederman have already done this for us. Instead I would like to sketch some points about the (possible) relationship between psychoanalytic (and specifically, Lacanian) theory and transgenderism, and suggest that the framework Žižek has used to attack the latter can be turned in the opposite direction, against his conclusions.

Whenever we talk about psychoanalysis, what must not be passed over is its rejection of the apparent dichotomy between biological essentialism (gender as a biological fact synonymous with sex) and discursive constructionism (gender as a historico-social construction); faced with these two options, it chooses the third, so to speak. This is why it in fact seems to me that there is a certain congruence between psychoanalytic thought and the logic of transgenderism. Trans people are clearly not absolute constructivists – if they were, having acknowledged the historicism and contingency of ‘gender’ as such, they would not be so invested in carving out a place of possible identity within its framework, be it of the opposite gender to that corresponding to their biological sex (as in the case of trans men and women) or of a refusal of this binary altogether (as in the case of all that is gathered under the umbrella term ‘genderqueer’). They would simply dismiss the notion that anything related to gender had any fundamental bearing on their identity separate from performativity. Nor are they biological essentialists, as is evident from the separation of gender and biological sex inherent to transgenderism, and the mobility of gender therefore prescribed. What a trans person knows is that sex/gender cannot be reduced to biology, but also cannot be discarded altogether as purely rhetorical/performative. This is precisely Lacan’s own view, and why we can see the reasons Tim Dean has called Lacan “a queer theorist avant la lettre.”

Lacan was of the opinion that sex cannot be reduced to a discursive construction, because it is opposed to sense itself, occurring at (or as) the limit internal to signification: “Everything implied by the analytic engagement with human behaviour indicates not that meaning reflects the sexual, but that it makes up for it.” “Sex,” as Joan Copjec eloquently puts it, “is the stumbling block of sense.” This is what Lacanians mean when they say that sexual difference is ‘real’ – not that it maps onto a biological (prediscursive) reality, but that it designates the very failure of symbolisation itself. The symbolic is like a torus, structured around the hole of the real, which Lacan ingeniously described as “extimate” to it, and as such there is no signifier of sexual difference in the unconscious, only the phallus, which stands for this very impossibility. This is passed over by many gender theorists, who note that the symbolisation or discursive construction of sex is an ongoing process without end, but do not acknowledge that sex does not simply designate this discursive process, but rather the failure of this process altogether.

That there is no signifier of sexual difference in the unconscious means that, as Tim Dean writes, “sexual difference does not organize or determine sexual desire.” This is why Žižek’s conflation of gender identities and sexualities is particularly surprising; the Lacanian formula of the sexual relationship he quotes – “1+1+a” – has nothing to do, per se, with the genders of the people involved. Besides, the ‘third element’ he is so keen to centre his argument on, objet a, is radically unsexed, as Tim Dean has also pointed out: insofar as the subject’s relationship to the object operates via fantasy, no fantasy (cis- or transgendered, hetero- or homosexual) has any more claim to ‘authenticity’ or success than any other. In Lacanian theory, “masculine” and “feminine” describe not biological positions but rather positions assumed in relation to the deadlock of sex. As Lacan himself says, when explaining the graph of sexuation: “On the other side, you have the inscription of the woman portion of speaking beings. Any speaking being whatsoever, as is expressly formulated in Freudian theory, whether provided with the attributes of masculinity—attributes that remain to be determined—or not, is allowed to inscribe itself in this part.” A heterosexual male could very well be a feminine subject in terms of psychoanalysis, in a way which is crucially non-behaviourist. Insofar as they respond to a ‘real’ impossibility, both of these positions index a failure, and are bound to be equally (un)successful, albeit in asymmetrical ways.

The fact that the unconscious contains no signifier of sexual difference means that it is essentially bigendered/bisexual (as Freud himself already suggested), which is why Shanna T. Carlson has concluded that one way a transgendered person might be viewed in terms of psychoanalysis is as personifying “the human subject as such, the unconsciously bisexual subject for whom sexual difference is only ever an incomplete, unsatisfactory solution to the failure of the sexual relation.” Žižek (and, before him, Catherine Millot) obviously wants to argue that this solution is in fact a doomed attempt to escape the anxiety of castration. I do not understand why he comes to this conclusion. He seems to be suggesting, implicitly, that trans people fail to assume a position with regard to the phallus (‘having’ – masculine, or ‘being’ – feminine). But I see no reason to believe this once we understand that sexual position and gender identity are not synonymous in Lacanian theory. A heterosexual cisgendered man has no stronger claim or likelihood to have assumed his castration than anyone in any other sexual position, and indeed insofar as the only clinical structures available to the Lacanian subject are neurosis, perversion and psychosis, every subject comes to be defined by a complication or impasse with regard to the Other, that is, in relation to castration. It doesn’t make sense for Žižek to suggest that transgenderism is somehow a symptom which stands apart from all others. When Žizek writes that the “LGBT trend” to “deconstruct” sexual norms “reduces this tension to the fact that the plurality of sexual positions are forcefully narrowed down to the normative straightjacket of the binary opposition of masculine and feminine, with the idea that, if we get away from this straightjacket, we will get a full blossoming multiplicity of sexual positions (LGBT, etc.), each of them with its complete ontological consistency,” he makes an unwarranted leap, implying that trans people do not assume the same ontological lack as everyone else, even in spite of their gender identity, with as much or as little acknowledgement of this as is present in the cisgendered subject. Trans people have no illusions of being ‘more complete’ or fully realized sexually than their cisgendered counterparts. Žižek cannot simultaneously maintain that the “trend” he identifies attempts to both “de-ontologize” sex and provide the resulting sexual positions with “complete ontological consistency”. Indeed, Lacan – ‘anti-philosopher’ that he was – did not ascribe ontological consistency to sex at all, since, as we have already said, it marks the point at which logos itself fails. It seems that Žižek has found himself caught up in the same dated nature/culture dichotomy psychoanalysis exists to render obsolete.

The truth is, Lacan’s theory of sexual difference represents perhaps the most complex facet of his entire life’s work. I do not have space to do it justice here, and I am not even attempting to introduce Lacan’s graph of sexuation (which would indeed take a whole other essay). Lacan’s seminars on sexual difference contain many of his most notorious, provocative, and misunderstood statements: “There is no sexual relationship,” “Woman does not exist,” “Woman is a symptom of man”. This is part of the problem with Žižek’s article: he attempts to mount a Lacanian critique of transgenderism while only making vague gestures in the direction of what Lacan actually said. Too often, Lacan has become for Žižek a rhetorical flourish, or (in a case of sublime irony) a Big Other to appeal to for authenticity; the actual content of Lacan’s work is lost. In truth, Lacan has a lot to offer queer theory, and a genuinely Lacanian queer theory would be a large and fruitful undertaking, which can only take place if Lacanians are willing to listen (like actual analysts) to the accounts of trans people, instead of forcing them to conform to a pre-decided theoretical framework. If psychoanalysis cannot account for the existence of trans people without reducing them to a pathological version of the already-pathological cisgender human subject, it risks becoming the obsolete science its opponents claim it already is.

Further reading

I would point anyone who wants to read further on this subject to Shanna T. Carlson’s thoughtful essay, “Transgender Subjectivity and the Logic of Sexual Difference”. On Lacanian sexual difference, Sean Homer’s Jacques Lacan provides a good introduction, and Bruce Fink’s The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance is incredibly useful. Joan Copjec’s “Sex and the Euthanasia of Reason” is perhaps the definitive Lacanian response to Butlerian gender theory. And of course, Lacan should be read in his own words; in this case, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX: Encore, On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge, 1972-1973.

N.B. I have written a little more about this here, with further reading recommendations. 

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