Sexual Difference : Joan Copjec

The Other Sex

Only at this point can we return, finally, to the topic of sexual difference, which is a question that emerges rather late in Freud and not as a matter of the biological/anatomical differences between men and women, but as a difference within the field of sexuality. The theory of sexuality (of the way the subject lives the relation between meaning and jouissance) comes first, has to be thought first, before the question of sexual difference is raised. To not make this clear at the beginning is to increase the chances of missing this further point: the two of sexual difference is not a duality; it is pre-dual. That is, the tension that constitutes sexual difference is not pushed all the way to contradiction.

Let us thus consider another point in his theory where Freud refused to give up entirely on the one, preferring to hold to it firmly, despite the fury with which feminists – not exclusively, but mainly — greeted his refusal. I am thinking of the period in the 1920s when heated debates erupted over Freud’s theory of castration, which is in his view the event from which the splitting or sexuation of the subject results. What many in the fledgling field of psychoanalysis – including Ernest Jones, Helene Deutsch, Melanie Klein, and Karen Horney, among others – found unpalatable was the universality of castration, its indifference to the anatomy of the subjects it was supposed to bring into being. If castration aims at the phallus and the little girl has none, so the reasoning went, then the theory does not do her justice and must be modified to take account of her anatomical and biological differences from the boy. Juliet Mitchell summarized these early debates in the following way:

The opposition to Freud saw the concept of the castration complex as derogatory to women . . . Women, so to speak, had to have something of their own. The issue subtly shifts from what distinguishes the sexes to what has each sex got of value that belongs to it alone. In this context, and in absence of the determining role of the castration complex, it is inevitable that there is a return to the very biological explanation from which Freud deliberately took his departure.17

The first thing to note is that this early opposition to the Freudian theory of sexuality was aimed specifically at what one could call his mono-centric conception of sexuality, his thesis that sex and sexual difference could only be thought on the basis of the one. There is only one libido, Freud insisted time and again, and it is male. Abandoning this counter-intuitive thesis like the plague it was, his opponents ended up reducing sexual difference to the pre-linguistic, brute difference between the sexual organs of boys and girls which psychoanalysis, a difference to which psychoanalysis seemed doggedly indifferent. The second thing to note is that the shift from sexual difference to gender which took place in the 1980s resulted in a symmetrical error.

The elimination of sexual difference in favor of a study of the social technologies of gender construction left biology behind altogether and produced paper subjects without any verdure, without bodies or, more precisely, without sexual organs (that is: organs in the psychoanalytic rather than the biological sense). Allow me to restate my argument thus far: Freud located sexuality neither in the biological nor in the cultural domain but posed it as a deviation effecting both, that which separated each domain from itself; he did not, however, go so far as to assign sexuality a domain of its own.

One can clearly see that in the feminist resistances to Freud, in the 20s and again in the 80s, something was lost when sexuality ceased to be linked to the deviation affecting both biology and culture and thus to that supplement which Lacan in his Encore seminar baptizes enjoying substance: jouissance.18 What remains when this supplement or surplus is discounted in both cases is a purely abstract contradiction in which one of the terms – either biology or culture – cancels out, takes over, the other. Sexuality gets completely absorbed by one of the terms term or the other and is effectively lost. Paraphrasing Badiou one could say that Freud would be the first to admit that there is only biology and culture, except there is also surplus enjoyment. This is, in fact, the explicit argument of the Encore seminar.

17. Juliet Mitchell, “Introduction I,” in Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the Ecole Freudienne, ed. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose (New York: Norton, 1982), 20.

18. Lacan, Encore, 23.

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