Sexual Difference : Joan Copjec

To understand sex, we have to take seriously the obstacle that Freud defines as “necessary” for libido’s emergence. This implies that sexuality is a phenomenon not of the “one more” but of its exhaustion; it is a phenomenon of the “no more” or: of the limit. It was to hold onto the necessity of this obstacle, to prevent its confusion with the notion of a violable prohibition, that Lacan invented the concept of the real as impossible, through which he not only preserved Freud’s theory of sexuality but also its connection to dialectical materialism. Or perhaps it would be better to say (since the simple term “dialectical materialism” can cover a multitude of interpretive errors) that Lacan underlines the way in which Freud’s theory of sexuality contributed to an appreciation of the fundamental antagonism, or irreconcilable difference, which sustains sociality. To be brief, the real is the limit both of the subject and the social and the point where they “gear into” each other.

A moment ago I described the obstacle to which Freud refers as a “negative instance,” not, however, to suggest an equivalency between this obstacle or limit and the “negative instance” of jouissance, but to mark the intimacy of their relation. How we arrive at this limit is theoretically obscure. On the one hand, it clearly comes from without; we meet it by accident. On the other, drive renders the subject accident-prone; it pushes us toward the limit of the real, to the point we described as the “no more.” What does this mean? Our designation of it as a point of exhaustion, along with Freud’s decision to call it “death drive,” tempt us to conceive the limit as a terminal point. We have noticed, however, that in The Ego and the Id, the limit appears not as the terminal point of death but as an instance of pure priority. The limit is clearly the origin, located, however, not chronologically but within the subject. Now, if we push back all the way to the beginning, to the origin of the causal chain from which the subject emerges, what do we find? Nothing.

Well, more or less. We find no far shore, no outside where might reside a final cause that could operate within us to remotely guide our actions. But what we do find, instead, is a “breaking off of our roots,” a splitting or displacement through which we become elusive to ourselves.13 Lacan is illuminating here the the notion of “unconscious affect” in Freud and thus the argument in The Ego and the Id where Freud distinguished the repressed unconscious, to which ideas may be consigned, and the non-repressed unconscious where the id dwells. This breaking off, splitting, displacement is the origin of the subject, which lies precisely here in ego’s abandonment of its pretense of autonomy in favor of the re-adoption of its relation of radical passivity, of passionate openness to the anonymous instance of id.

The encounter with the negative instance of the obstacle, the impossible, presents us with the finality of the absence of final cause. This swells the tide of jouissance, described by Lacan as a “negative instance” because it emerges as a “heightened” pleasure only at this point of impasse; it is otherwise vigorously shunned. If the paradoxical one that we were hoping to elucidate seems to have been lost in this account, it is because we associate the real and jouissance with the shattering or splitting of the subject’s unity.

But the paradoxical one at issue for us is not the one of this unity shattered by the traumatic encounter but, on the contrary, the one constituted by the shattering. For, the shattering does not divide the subject into two distinct parts, but into the differentiated ego and an undifferentiated surplus, id, which can be neither subjectivized (that is, assumed by ego) nor objectivized (and thus completely separated from it). If there is “some One” it is that of the intimate relation that links the subject indissolubly to its own otherness.

To say that the subject is sexed by definition is to reference this intimate relation as the condition of subjectivity. Fixated, however, on the “repressive hypothesis” of Freud, and thus on the permeable limit between the repressed unconscious and the conscious, Foucault remains oblivious to the Freudian logic of the non-repressed unconscious and the absolute, impermeable limit that separates id from ego. Because it is the latter limit that is at stake in the Freudian definition of sexuality, the argument of Foucault, based as it is on the former, strikes out at a paper tiger, a “mirage” of his own making.

13. Jacques Lacan, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis (Seminar XVII), ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Russell Grigg (New York: Norton, 2007), 144.

« Previous // Next »