Sexual Difference : Joan Copjec

First question: Is it automatically the case that many are superior to two? Many are more numerous, granted, but one balks at this precipitous multiplication, which merely pushes aside questions that need to be asked. Doesn’t the proliferation of kinds of subjects (whereby each is her own kind) represent a retreat of thought rather than an advance? An analogy: Freud conceived the drives as fundamentally divided in two, though he was never quite satisfied with the way he defined their duality; his enthusiastic contemporaries, however, pitched in to “improve” on his theory by multiplying the drives such that every action in which a subject might engage was explained by the existence of a separate drive. But it was quickly evident that the question of what caused these actions was not answered by this ad hoc proliferation of drives; it was simply deferred.

The proliferation of genders repeats the same mistake; it multiplies rather than thinks. Why multiple rather than divided; why not multiple because divided? The former alternative shirks from thinking difference and simply adds another one to a previous one, indefinitely: 1+1+1 . . . and so on to infinity. A problem remains: the 1’s are wholes unto themselves and +’s signs that they are without relation.

Second question: From where do all these individual ones come? I frame this question out of deference to the one that inaugurates an important line of argument in The Ego and the Id: “Where are conscious ideas prior to their becoming conscious?” Rather than closing down the question, the answer — in the unconscious — opens a series of definitions of the unconscious and culminates in the unexpected assertion that “not all that is Ucs. is repressed.”4 That is, by posing his initial question, Freud is led to a momentous conclusion: there must be something more elementary than external perceptions, and more elementary, too, than the ego that emerges or differentiates itself from that prior instance. Undifferentiated and pre-individual, there must exist a reservoir of libido – of excitation or tension — that is never drained up by the differentiations of the ego that start out from it. Prior to the ego, this elemental instance cannot be repressed and thus can never “return” or express itself, as repressed unconscious material is wont to do.

My argument is this: Freud here implicitly eschews nominalism and declares himself a realist. Nominalists hold that there is no unity other than numerical unity, that whatever makes a subject this particular subject makes her so per se; they rigorously deny the existence of universals, which they regard as mere fabrications of mind, and insist that all there is is individual, concrete existence. Freud argues, contrarily, that there is “something” not concrete, differentiated, individual, or actual from which individual existence comes. He names this prior instance “id”– borrowing from Groddeck not only the German term (which is impersonal and general, as in “it rains” or “one assumes”) but also the conviction that the “ego behaves essentially passively” toward it, implying that the ego is able to undergo infinite modulation as long as it remains open to it/id.5

It is precisely this “latent,” impersonal or common dimension – which, as Freud himself notes, in being neither (actual) being nor nothing, in short, in being without a domain, is intolerable to philosophers6 — that is missing from gender theory, which is essentially nominalist in its assumptions. To phrase this all a bit differently, gender theory is indissociable from its insistence that gender and other differences simply are, they exist, without acknowledging any inexistent (or “latent”) part. The “latency of sexuality,” I want to argue, refers not simply to a temporal lag in the onset of sexuality but, more radically, to its status as non-being.

The One

It is impossible not to sympathize, to a point, with the flight into the multiple, with the desire to be rid of every overarching One in which differences would be included and reduced to local and minor variations of a class that unifies them. We are right to resist labels and markers of identity that would freeze us in essentialized forms of being or array us under abstract categories that have no real but only a conceptual existence. The problem is that the rejection of the universal, or the One, tout court, deprives us of the ability to think politically, that is: to think change and relation. Lacan therefore declares explicitly what is implicit in Freud, psychoanalysis’s advocacy of realism, in plainly political terms.

If we choose realism, he states, it is not “in the sense one was a realist in the Middle Ages, that is in the sense of a realism of universals,” but because we refuse to “renounce dialectical materialism,” which nominalism obliges us to do.”7 Now, if Lacan is able to link realism to dialectical materialism, it can only be through his notion of the real, that is, the radical impasse or cut that rends the symbolic, thus destroying the possibility of its constituting a harmonious whole. The One is divorced from the medieval universal and married to the cut that is its condition.8 We find the One just there where we meet with an irreconcilability, there where an older notion of the universal definitively falters.

4. Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id in The Standard Edition (vol. 19), 18.

5. Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id, 23.

6. Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id, 14.

7. Jacques Lacan, Le seminaire, livre XVI: D’un autre a l’Autre (Paris: Seuil, 2006), 28.

8. See Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), in which Gilles Deleuze similarly embraces and distances himself from the realist position of Duns Scotus’ realist position.

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