Sexual Difference : Joan Copjec

The Return to Two

The two of sexual difference needs to be thought precisely in these terms. Not as two separate and opposed ones, not as “that binary partition one . . . spontaneously thinks of [as] sexual difference,” but as “predual,” as “more originary than the dyad” to which doxa always seems to reduce sexual difference. More originary than the dyad is the cut, the split, which is not a split into two “determinities [Bestimmtheiten],” or into two determinate one’s, nor even an intervention or cut in an originary One.20 For, in the end the One is, as we have repeatedly said, not so much that which is split, as that which is formed from a splitting. Thus formed, the One is paradoxical, it is from the start a severed One, detached from any unifying One and appearing only between the terms it separates rather encloses.

Derrida’s argument in “Geschlecht: Sexual Difference, Ontological Difference,” from which I have just been selectively quoting, is that Heidegger chose the seemingly neutral term Dasein for that form of being that places its own being in question, chose Dasein rather than man [Mensch], not in order to disavow the ontological status of sexual difference but to distinguish it from the commonplace understanding of it as a dyadic structure. This would make Heidegger’s position parallel to that of Freud, who adamantly maintained — against feminist protests – the paradoxical oneness of libido. This also draws Heidegger’s position close to that of Lacan, who besides conceptualizing woman as not-all, also spoke of feminine sexuality only in the future conditional. It would be misguided, I believe, to take the relation of femininity to futurity as the opening of a horizon on which one day there might appear another sexuality on a par with or superior to masculinity. The futurity of femininity is not merely something that may arrive, but something that in its not-yet-arriving, its futurity, insists, acts now to unground any ground that might be attributed to sexuality as such.

Finally, as long as Heidegger has been entered into the conversation, I will end by noting that Lacan once proffered the term “being-towards-sex,” clearly referencing Heidegger’s term “being-towards-death,” in order presumably to displace the latter. The coinage of the new term goes beyond a simple terminological substitution by seeming to call for a rethinking of the arguments that led up to the original term. Where Heidegger links anxiety to the encounter with death, for example, Lacan insists that we see anxiety as, instead, an encounter with jouissance. As Alenka Zupančič has noted, it would be an error to conclude that the naming of sex rather than death as the limit of the subject paints a rosier picture of that limit, given the psychoanalytic associations of sex with death.21

A reduction of the difference between the philosopher and the psychoanalyst to a matter of their respective levels of pessimism or optimism not only trivializes that difference but expends, once again, with the need for thinking through what is meant by the psychoanalytic claim that being is sexuated. The Phrase “being-towards-sex” challenges the proposition that sexual difference is, in fact, an ontological difference. The status of the unconscious, of which the sexual is the reality, is not ontological, but that which calls being into question and causes it to fail. We would rather say that the status of sexual difference is transcendental. Perhaps the most significant agenda behind Lacan’s gently mocking phrase is the forging of a new understanding of the common, one that in preserving the asymmetry of the different ways it is approached, preserves the common itself, that is, preserves it full stop. As radical impasse. Irreducible antagonism.


Joan Copjec teaches in the Department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University. She was for over two decades Director of the Center for the Study of Psychoanalysis and Culture at the University at Buffalo.


Published on November 3, 2014

20. Jacques Derrida, “Sexual Difference, Ontological Difference,” in A Derrida Reader, ed. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991); all quotations are from 386- 387.

21. In Why Psychoanalysis? Three Interventions, (Uppsala: NSU Press, 2008), Alenka Zupančič draws our attention to Lacan’s single use of the term, dated October 22, 1967.

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