Sexual Difference : Joan Copjec

2. Once More

One of the events igniting Anglo-American and French feminist interest in psychoanalysis in the 1970s was surely Lacan’s Encore seminar; and yet the enthusiastic reception of this seminar was mostly a false start. This is because the formulation for which it became famous, “There is no sexual relation,” was immediately trivialized, rendered unworthy of the attention it received. Accepted as an effort to expose the fact that sexual relations are inevitably freighted with compromise and disappointment and ultimately doomed to failure, this negative formulation was embraced as an incontrovertible, pessimistic truth and its admission of failure celebrated as sober political wisdom.

In truth, this statement never stood any chance of being understood inasmuch as it was taken in isolation from its neglected and much less easily cooptable companion: “There is (something, or a bit, of) One [Y a d’ l’Un].”9 This pre-numerical One is the same latent, impersonal One we have been attempting to bring into focus.

It is quite clear in Lacan’s seminar that this “something of One” does not encompass or constrain the subjects who enter into relation through its mediation; it is not an overarching or transcendent term that guarantees their harmonious union. The negation of the “there is” establishes precisely the impossibility of any such term; it disambiguates the sexual drive from instinct, from the latter’s preprogrammed relation to a specific object of satisfaction. Drive means in large part that there is no preordained object toward which sexual subjects strive. Yet this very lack, which makes inevitable a certain disharmony and dissatisfaction, is accompanied in Lacan’s seminar by the “something of One” that makes up for or supplements the lack, which is not to say that it removes it.

Suppleance, a term of eighteenth-century French rhetoric, is a synonym for catachresis, which designates the substitution not of one term for another but a term for a non-existing one. Lacan radicalizes this idea of pure metaphor, making suppleance name the operation that substitutes a little gain (that is to say: jouissance) for an absolute loss. The little gain retains, however, the negative value of the loss. Lacan defines jouissance, recall, as a “negative instance” not only because it cannot be titled to us but also because it is not something we want.

Before we can return to the question of sexual difference, it is critical that we pursue the red thread of our argument a bit further, that is, the thread that ties Freud’s fundamental insights on sexuality and sexual relations to the materialist theory of social relations propounded by Marx. As noted earlier, Freud was accused of talking too much about sexuality, of finding it everywhere. He is responsible, we could say, for discovering the promiscuity of sex, that is, for defining the nature of sex, and not a certain abuse of it, as promiscuous. We should be careful, however, to read this promiscuity not as an indiscriminate mingling but, rather, as a disrupting. That sexuality disrupts, divides, displaces is too often forgotten.

Freud had reason to be concerned about the facile acceptance of his theory, which rendered it anodyne by stripping it of its “negative instances.” It would be instructive, in this light, to read “On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement” — in which Freud, in high dudgeon, ridicules some of the sterilizing adaptations of his concepts – alongside Foucault’s History of Sexuality. Set side by side, the latter might appear to be doing some of Freud’s work for him by demonstrating how the rapid dispersion of psychoanalysis led to a betrayal and distortion of its concepts – were it not for the fact that Foucault failed to recognize the betrayal. That Victorian society was not reticent about sex, but talked endlessly about it does not mean that sex became suddenly ubiquitous – or, again, promiscuous – in Freud’s profound sense.

For all the endless discoursing about sex was pressed into the service of making it over into the ideal point of the subject’s cohesion, the elusive core of her identity. That this is a distortion of Freud’s notion of sex does not dawn on Foucault, who launches into a critique of Freud’s “repressive hypothesis” on the grounds that it sets up an invitation to transgressions that eventuate in the propping up of the very law they would transgress and tether us to the endless searching and safeguarding or our individual and group identities. But sex in the Freudian sense is not a matter of prohibition, of law and transgression; it is a matter of impossibility, of radical impasse. A matter of cannot rather than must not.

“Some obstacle is necessary,” Freud wrote, “in order to heighten to heighten libido.”10 Foucault would argue that the stated relation between obstacle and libido ends up creating the “perpetual spirals of power,” wherein “the pleasure that comes from exercising a power” and “the pleasure that kindles at having to evade this power” circle around and incite each other, rather than (as psychoanalysis assumed) erect impassable boundaries between themselves.11 Eager to put an end to negative notions of power, Foucault converts the “negative instance” of the obstacle into a kind of lure. Prohibition kindles desire for evasion and sexual excitement attaches itself to the exercise of power. And yet the “circular incitements” of this relation, the charming harmony of their two-step, can hardly disguise the dreary monotony of the bad infinity they represent. Sex, which Foucault regards as a “mirage,” perpetually recedes from grasp, which advantages power by perpetually expanding its territory.12 Limits are liquidated, there is always one more step to be taken, one more turn of the spiral, but nothing really changes.

9. Jacques Lacan, Encore, 6.

10. Sigmund Freud, “On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love,” in The Standard Edition (vol. 11), 187.

11. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Vol. 1, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon, 1978), 45.

12. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Vol. 1, 157.

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