On Sex Without Identity: Feminist Politics and Sexual Difference




ALENKA ZUPANČIČ IS a Lacanian philosopher and social theorist. As part of the “Ljubljana school of psychoanalysis,” she combines Marxist and psychoanalytic perspectives on a large range of topics, such as comedy, sexuality, and the Lacanian notion of the Real, as well as thinkers — most notably Kant and Nietzsche. She works at the Institute of Philosophy at the Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts as well as The European Graduate School.

In her last book, What IS Sex? (2017), she explores the relation between sexuality, ontology, and the unconscious, outlining a Freudian understanding of sexuality as something profoundly unsettling which cannot be defined in fixed terms. This, Zupančič argues, points to a non-reducible ontological inconsistency  and the possible political stake of sex.

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BERNADETTE GRUBNER AND ISABEL ORTIZ: In your work, you posit the relevance of both Lacanian psychoanalysis and Marxist theory to feminist struggles today. How do you understand the connection of these theories to feminism?

ALENKA ZUPANČIČ: I’m convinced that there is a very strong affinity if one understands feminism as something that is not reducible to the struggle between two sexes or genders — like men and women — but as the movement and the theory that brings out and insists on tectonic points which structure this and other social struggles. Feminism is a social movement. It cannot be reduced to a description of different kinds of discrimination. It should always bring in the question: What is it that makes and sustains this kind of discrimination and division, say, into hierarchical genders? What purpose does it serve? To say that it serves the purpose of subjecting and subduing women would be a tautological answer. Feminism is also not simply about the psychology of the sexes. It insists that there is something in the social structure itself which sustains and generates this division. This is what characterizes emancipatory struggles in general, and why they should, whenever possible, combine and support each other instead of fighting their own feuds. If they are truly emancipatory, they use and activate these world-structuring points of negativity, rather than focus on questions of identity.

Your last book, What IS Sex?, revolves around this notion of negativity, which is at the heart of the psychoanalytic theory of sexuality. Can you elaborate on negativity as a concept? How can we theorize sexuality outside of a framework of identity?

The term “sexual” or “sexuality” has always been a core notion of psychoanalysis. A core notion which was not at all about naming something which we might describe by way of sexual activities that cohere into identities. This positivist notion of sexuality — that we all know what it is — dominates today. But for Freud, sexuality is not, as is sometimes said, at the bottom of every other problem, but something that, in and of itself, constitutes a problem. A problem for every subject to grapple with, that every subject is divided by. It is a negative core of any identity, not its positive foundation.

This is why there are no direct, immediate sexual identities. Even when one identifies with one’s anatomy, this is already an identification, there is nothing immediate about it. Sex involves much more than anatomy, even when it coincides with our anatomy. The popular opposition between genders as biological or else socially constructed is a false opposition: there is no “biological gender” in the sense of identity, because identity is by definition never immediate, “biological” in this sense. Biology, anatomy is obviously a factor; it is far from insignificant. But a sexed subject does not simply emerge out of this or that anatomy, but out of its symbolization, including its rejection. Biological versus social is a misleading opposition in this respect, if we take “social” simply to refer to an alternative, non-biological positivity and forget that the social is predicated upon a fundamental non-immediacy — this is what I call negativity. Social is not simply the opposite, or the other of biological. It involves a relationship to the biological. And the term relationship as such testifies to a constitutive gap, interval, non-immediacy. I am what I am, but never simply directly. One always becomes what one is, and this is to be taken quite literally. It does not mean that at the end of some long and painstaking formative process we finally become what we are: it means that even our most “immediate” identity already involves a becoming in the sense of what one could call with Kant a “transcendental decision” or transcendental choice of character.

I believe psychoanalysis was the first theory to articulate that there was no such thing as a natural sexual identity. This is what Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality were all about. Freud constantly emphasized that there was nothing spontaneous or directly self-evident in the sexual identities that we tend to adopt, let’s say at the age of puberty, if not before. This is why he looked closely into so-called infantile sexuality, for which he was very much scorned. There is in fact a whole process of identification, of repression, of desire, and of course, of elected ways of enjoyment that occurs in order for sexuation to take hold. But even when it takes hold, it does not simply do away with these polymorphously perverse drives that for Freud were characteristic of infantile sexuality. They do not simply disappear when we become sexually mature. Yet I don’t see this polymorphous perversity as constituting, in itself, the disruptive or “emancipatory” element of human sexuality. Far from being simply disruptive, it rather functions as a glue in the patchwork of our sexual identity, compensating, as it were, for the absence of both biologically and symbolically pre-established or guaranteed “sexual relation,” to use the Lacanian formula. It is the latter — the nonexistence of an immediate, “guaranteed” sexual relation — that constitutes the disruptive and disorienting element of sexuality.

To sum up, psychoanalytic theory conceives of sexuality as something which fundamentally disorients the human being, not as something which provides him or her with a solid identity. If the notion that sexuality is at the basis of identity has any meaning, it can only have it in this sense: it is at the basis of any identity because it uproots the subject from the immediacy of her being. And this uprooting, this non-immediacy, is the condition of any symbolic identity. In fact, we can use psychoanalysis in order to interrogate identity itself, both conceptually and as a meeting ground for social struggle. 

At the same time, psychoanalysis still elaborates a concept of “sexual difference,” which is far from unequivocal. In everyday language, people usually think of it in terms of “difference between man and woman.” But Lacanian psychoanalysis understands it quite differently, as a “split” crossing the subject.

On the abstract or philosophical level, this singular notion of difference is not something radically new or unique. We find it in the history of philosophy, and Deleuze, for example, appropriates it with his distinction between individual differences and individuating difference. Simply put, this would be the distinction between differences that exist between individual entities, and a more radical difference that is involved in generating these individual entities as individual entities, or such as they are. What is unique in psychoanalysis is how it develops this [latter] distinction out of its findings concerning human sexuality and sexuation.

Sexual difference is not simply difference between sexes as individual entities but, more fundamentally, the difference — negativity — involved in the constitution of these individual entities. The problem that many people today have with psychoanalysis arises not simply with this distinction, but with the fact that it stops at two (or at “not (fully)-two,” yet somehow two-related). Why not multiplicity? At the level of logic, the answer is very simple: when dealing with multiplicity you only see individual differences, that is differences between individual entities. You don’t see the negativity or impasse that (possibly) generates and determines them. Whereas with sexual difference you get to see it, in a way: sexuation is the way in which this negativity or difference (the difference that makes a difference, so to say) is inscribed into positive entities by way of one of them not constituting an entity in the same way as the other. Otherwise you’d be back to difference as difference between individual, positive entities.

Obviously, both sexes are part of this sexual antagonism or antagonism of the sexual, but they are not situated at the same level. Feminine position embodies — not in any substantial sense, of course — the very contradiction of sexuality as such. In this sense, it is a difference that creates difference.

And this is also where many objections to psychoanalysis come in. The theory insists on a certain asymmetry of the sexes, and grants emancipatory potential to sexual difference because it brings out this asymmetry as a stumbling block of the symbolic order itself. I’m not speaking about inequality, I’m speaking about the asymmetry of the symbolic, social order, a certain inconsistency that the order struggles with. As it struggles, it produces all kinds of positive images and roles of men and especially of women — what women are, what they should do, how they should behave, et cetera — in order to cope with what is not there, the point of negativity of the symbolic order itself.

You said there was emancipatory potential in this asymmetry of the sexes. What would feminist struggles understood in this way actually look like? What can feminism do with this?

Feminism as social struggle had, and hopefully still has, the capacity to confront the seemingly smooth functioning of the social order with its hidden presuppositions and exclusions. Today we talk a lot about violence (against women, minorities), mostly in terms of specific acts of violence (rape, sexual blackmail), but we talk much less of the so-called systemic violence: the violence involved in, and required for the ordinary peaceful functioning of the given social order. Invisibility of this violence usually springs from the fact that it is engaged in framing injustice as something else than injustice, for example as a natural division of the social space. To fight this, it is not enough to expose this framing as an ideological smoke screen behind which we can see things as they really are. There is not “behind”; the frame is right there for everybody to see. But we don’t see it, because it only frames the picture in a negative way, for example by telling you where it starts. So you need to make this framing appear within the picture itself and problematize it.

And feminist struggle did this. When it started to occur as a political movement, it focused on inscribing the split, as a division between different worlds (public and private, masculine and feminine, et cetera), into one and the same world. Society is not composed of man and women; it is split, and this split is repressed. This is not the same as to say that women are repressed. Women were, are, oppressed, but this is not the same as repression, in the psychoanalytical sense of Verdrängung, of the split inherent in the structuring and curving of social space. Without making this split of negativity part of the picture, significant shifts in the structure cannot really occur. This is what feminism is about; it is not primarily about neutralizing social differences, but about bringing them to light, and attempting to affect the very structuring of the social space. To do something to/with this divide, and not simply to try to climb to the right side of it.

There is still this prevalent liberal picture of the social space: all fundamental social problems have been solved, there are just some remaining pockets of inequality that remain, and we can deal with them by means of identity politics and political correctness. But I think it is quite clear that some fundamental social problems are far from being solved, and we witness growth in the scale of social differences. As a social movement, feminism has to ask the question: on what side does it want to fight its struggles?

Are there other attempts to theorize struggle in terms of this negativity of social space that you describe?

Well, of course, the concept of the Marxian proletariat! It functions in the same way because the notion of the proletariat does not simply refer to people who work in factories. The proletariat is a class that has no class in this sense, but presents the negativity that structures the social antagonism of the class society. If it were just one of the classes, you would have a world which is divided into classes and those on the bottom struggle to get somewhere higher. But this is a very simplified version of Marxism. No, the Marxian point is that social space is divided in an antagonistic way: it is not simply composed of classes as positive entities, struggling between themselves, but involves a fundamental negativity or divide that structures the very space in which classes appear as different classes. For Marx, the proletariat is not simply one of the classes: as a class that has no class, it embodies the very point of social antagonism; it is the symptom of this social order. Not only does it have some kind of empirical consistency, but it is also located at the very point that reveals the structural inconsistency of an inequality that can be empirically apprehended. It’s precisely there where things can be shifted.

So the question is not so much which strategies we should adopt, what type of demands we should formulate, who our allies should be. The point might be: Whatever we do, we have to be the sting in the flesh, that which points to the inherent problem of the whole that thinks itself to be whole without differences, without the split. Is that what you are proposing?

Very much so, although the two do not contradict each other. Strategies and alliances are important. Here, I am perhaps not so orthodox in the psychoanalytic sense. I am deeply Marxian or Marxist insofar as I think that feminism really is a political struggle, and as you said, emancipatory struggles are always about putting pressure on the very symptomatic points of the structure. But often it is not so much that we look for these points and then try to decide if this is the way to go. Usually certain symptoms simply emerge at these precise points: what we need to do is recognize them and ally with the struggles in which they become visible.

Feminism is facing the dilemma of whether it wants to recognize — and I think it should — the points where feminist issues are at stake for the most vulnerable layers of the population. One salient example would be care work. It’s precisely here, in the way this work is organized and systemically processed, that discrimination against women is still massively perpetuated.

Or, if you think of #MeToo, it gets more interesting when it’s not simply about Hollywood actresses putting a stop to certain sexual behaviors, but when it is combined with all kinds of social injustices which are all the more there because women are at stake. Then the claim acquires a different texture. Several months ago, I read that McDonald’s workers had a #MeToo movement coming out. When this happens, the struggles get articulated in a way that is much closer to this acute point because it relates to other inequalities and pressures — in this case economic pressures. But I’m afraid I’m not aware if anything more consequential came out of this case.

To put it more simply, the question on the table for every emancipatory struggle is: Do we think that we live in more or less the only possible world, that there are just some pockets of injustice and discrimination still left, and all we have to do is take care of them? Or do we think that these pockets are symptoms of some deeper problem, an asymmetry or antagonism that will not go away even if we manage to do something else? Of course social inequality won’t simply go away. I’m not saying that we should not engage in these, as it sounds, more cosmetic adjustments such as anti-discrimination policies. I don’t say that we have to stop everything and make a global revolution. This would be a rather empty claim.

But I believe that even while we do whatever we do within these particular struggles we must keep this more general horizon open. Thinking in terms of the split can be a good way of orienting us within concrete struggles to determine which ones are worth fighting for and which ones — even if their demands are small — are, perhaps, connected to something that can shift, that can become explosive and necessitates some kind of a considerable restructuring of space. This, I think, is the big question also on the left.

So if #MeToo is being taken up by McDonald’s workers it reveals that what is being articulated by celebrities as rather privileged women is not unique to the Hollywood film industry. When it comes to women who work under interlocking constraints, we are more likely to understand sexual violence as ubiquitous, as a world-making phenomenon that renews the social order itself? 

Yes, this is basically what I wanted to say. Well, I think we probably all agree that most things that were exposed through #MeToo in Hollywood were simply wrong. And I think that an important shift did take place and now certain kinds of conduct are no longer acceptable in the sense of being tolerated as part of the business. But at the same time, if we perceive the problem as originating in, say, “toxic masculinity” this is also very problematic. It reorients the whole social question in terms of a “war of the sexes,” and we lose precisely the feminist part. The problems do not simply originate in the fact that men are predators, and socially encouraged to be such. This is a gross oversimplification, with possible quite catastrophic consequences for emancipatory movements.

The other problem is that the position of victimhood cannot be constitutive of the movement that emerges from it. If this happens, there is no real emancipation taking place. You need something much more affirmative and articulated in order to create a struggle, not just the assertion that you were also a victim. The way things stand now, this kind of assertion comes with a certain social capital, and this tends to stop emancipatory movements before they even start to develop their emancipatory potential.

So you’re saying that feminism must interrogate its commitments to liberal progress in order to move forward?

Yes, definitely. We have to ask ourselves: Is the liberal frame provided by capitalist democracies the ultimate frame that we have and within which we can make some further ameliorations? Or perhaps even more modestly, does it still work at all? It is not accidental that in certain ways, capitalist democracy was very much in favor of, and a very good equalizer of cultural differences, as well as sexual difference. There is a certain way in which we and our differences are all good market niches so that this kind of plurality has in fact been encouraged and has worked against discriminatory politics on many levels. There were some liberatory effects related to liberal democracy and capitalism. But particularly economic inequalities did not go away, but rather amplified and shifted to different places. And within them, other kinds of discriminations could be perpetuated without being directly visible as such. Moreover, the social and ecological problems that we are facing today bear witness to a serious crisis of this system. It seems that it has reached its limit and will need to revolutionize itself, as it already did in the past. This “revolution” can take very different paths, including very catastrophic ones, particularly if we refuse to see our part as agents of social change. This is why we have to think about it: politically, strategically, globally.

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Bernadette Grubner works as assistant professor of German Literature at the Free University of Berlin.

Isabel Ortiz is a PhD student in American Studies at Yale University.


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