Sexual Difference : Joan Copjec

Artist / Title
Thomas Bangsted / Nordland

Sexual Difference : Joan Copjec

1. A Numbers Game

In the mid-1970s a global warming began to melt the icy resistance of feminists to psychoanalysis. Yet only a decade later signs of another climate change in the relations between feminism and psychoanalysis were already apparent. Teresa de Lauretis, in her ground-breaking book, Technologies of Gender, articulated the slogan under which the reverse winds would effectively uncouple the two discourses, breaking apart their short-lived alliance: “A feminist theory of gender [she argued] points to a conception of the subject as multiple, rather than divided.”1 Suddenly “the end goal of the feminist revolution” — at least as Shulamith Firestone had defined it: “not just the elimination of male privilege, but of the sex distinction itself” – seemed finally within reach.2 For, from the mid-1980s on, the psychoanalytic category of sexual difference was deemed suspect and largely forsaken in favor of the neutered category of gender. Yes, neutered, I will insist on this; for it was specifically the sex of sexual difference that dropped out when this fundamental psychoanalytic term was replaced by gender.

Gender theory should thus be viewed as having performed one major feat: it removed sexuality from sexual difference. While gender theorists continued to speak of sexual practices, they ceased to inquire into what constituted the sexual; no longer the subject of theoretical inquiry, sex thus reverted to being what it is in common parlance: a secondary characteristic (when applied to the subject) or (when applied to acts) limited to a highly restricted – and naughty – sub-set. In short, gender theory reduces sex by turning it into a predicate and confining it to a specific domain of life. Some of us, however, rebelled against this feminist rebellion. What follow are some of the reasons why:

1) The turn away from the Freudian theory of sexuality and sexual difference meant that many important questions it posed would also come to seem outdated, evaporated of their urgency. Take, for example, the antiquated criticism of Freud’s “pan-sexualism.” This charge, that Freud over-rated the importance of sex, found it everywhere, the ubiquitous cause of everything, is stunning in its obtuseness. Noting, correctly, that Freud was intent on thinking sex and cause together, his accusers neglected to consider that this reconceptualization of the two in light of each other would leave neither untouched, but would, on the contrary, alter our commonsense notions of both. It never occurred to these detractors that if sex has a way of showing up everywhere, this was because it has no proper domain. Sex cannot be located either in the biological or cultural domain, nor does it have a separate domain of its own; rather, it is manifested exclusively in parasitic, negative phenomena: lapses and interruptions where there occurs a discontinuity or jamming of what is known as “the causal chain,” that chain which, like a noose, tethers us to something that falls outside it. If this negative definition of sex sounds like a definition of the unconscious, this is because the reality of the unconscious is sexual.

2) The flight into the multiple, conceived as discrete instances, had of course several other adverse consequences for the theory of sexuality. If sexual difference became problematic for gender theory this is because the former was presumed to be heterosexist. It divided subjects into two species and implied a necessary and/or natural relation between them. Why — gender theory asks — must there be only two sexes, rather than an infinite number of them? I think of this as the Oprah-Winfrey distribution of sex: “You get a sex and you get a sex and you get a sex,” in which sex is distributed to each and can be owned like a car or some other piece of property. But property, Proudhon taught us, is theft and so we would not be going too far if we accused gender theorists of stealing sex from us by converting it into gender. To say that the subject is sexuated is to say that she is not enclosed within herself but intimately close to herself. Sex expropriates the subject from herself, de-sequesters her interiority by linking it to the common, that is to say: to jouissance.

Jouissance? Here is what Lacan says about it in the Encore seminar: jouissance is a “negative instance” that opposes itself to division, distribution, or reattribution. The word is derived from an old legal term, usufruct, which grants one the use of one’s means, permits one to enjoy them, but not to acquire legal title to them nor use them up.3 In order to prevent, then, any further squandering of this common dimension, which we as subjects enjoy, let us look more closely at some of gender theory’s basic assumptions.

1. Teresa de Lauretis, Technologies of Gender: Essays in Theory, Film and Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), x.

2. Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex (New York: Bantam, 1972), 10 -11.

3. Jacques Lacan, Encore (Seminar XX), ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: Norton, 1988), 3.

Next »