Too Much of Not Enough: An Interview with Alenka Zupančič

ALENKA ZUPANČIČ is professor of philosophy at The European Graduate School and at the University of Nova Gorica in Slovenia. She is a preeminent scholar in the Ljubljana School of psychoanalysis, founded in the late 1970s by Slavoj Žižek, Mladen Dolar, and others, which draws together Marxism, German idealism, and Lacanian psychoanalysis in order to facilitate — much like an analyst — a mode of “listening” to sociocultural phenomena. Members of the school deploy linguistic theory to cast light (and shadows) on history, politics, art, literature, and cinema.

In her early work, such as her 2000 book Ethics of the Real: Kant and Lacan, Zupančič sought to link trends in continental philosophy with the insights of contemporary psychoanalysis. In 2008, she published The Odd One In: On Comedy, which applies philosophical and psychoanalytic insights to the processes at work in the practice of comedy. She also draws together Kant, comedy, and psychoanalysis in her ambitious book Why Psychoanalysis?: Three Interventions (2008). Her critical project explores the relations between the sexual and the ontological, the comedic and the unconscious, the ethical and the political. 

I spoke with Zupančič about her new book, What IS Sex? (2017), in which she argues that sex is the place of meeting between epistemology and ontology, the messy net that spans the gap between knowing and being. (Her colleague Žižek’s own 2017 volume, Incontinence of the Void, is a response to her book.) What IS Sex? models for us a way to glimpse — and draw into the light — that hidden, obscure, and mysterious entity, the unconscious.


CASSANDRA B. SELTMAN: The aim of What IS Sex? is to return to and preserve the idea of sexuality as a subject of philosophical investigation. How do you understand the proliferation of new ontologies in “the times we live in”? Do you see this as a “return” to ontological questions?  

ALENKA ZUPANČIČ: I see this as a symptom. There are two levels or aspects of this question. On the one hand, there is a truth, or conceptual necessity, in what you rightfully call the return to ontology. Philosophy should not be ashamed of serious ontological inquiry, and the interrogation here is vital and needed. There is, however, something slightly comical when this need is asserted as an abstract or normative necessity — “one should do this,” and then everybody feels that he or she needs to have their own ontology. “I am John Doe, and here’s my ontology.” There is much arbitrariness here, rather than conceptual necessity and rigor. This is not how philosophy works.

Also, there is this rather bafflingly simplifying claim according to which Kant and the “transcendental turn” to epistemology was just a big mistake, error, diversion — which we have to dismiss and “return” to ontology, to talking about things as they are in themselves. Kant’s transcendental turn was an answer to a real impasse of philosophical ontology. We can agree that his answer is perhaps not the ultimate or philosophically the only viable answer, but this does not mean that the impasse or difficulty that it addresses was not real and that we can pretend it doesn’t exist.

My attempt to “return to” the idea of sexuality as a subject of ontological investigation is rooted in my conviction that psychoanalysis (i.e., Freud and Lacan) and its singular concept of the subject are of great pertinence for the impasse of ontology that Kant was tackling. So my claim is not simply that sexuality is important and should be taken seriously; in a sense, it is spectacularly more ambitious. My claim is that the Freudo-Lacanian theory of sexuality, in its inherent relation to the unconscious, dislocates and transposes the philosophical question of ontology and its impasse in a most interesting way. I’m not interested in sexuality as a case of “local ontology,” but as possibly providing some key conceptual elements for the ontological interrogation as such.

The relation of this ontological question to sexuality brings to mind the operations of the hysteric. Is the phenomenon of hysteria important to your project? 

In a sense hysteria lies at the very core of my project, so far as the hysteric is, so to say, the militant of the question mark, starting with What am I (for the Other)? Hysteria is all about the interrogation of the gap between knowledge and being, its exposure. Which is why the philosophical netting we throw over this gap is usually problematic for the hysteric, denounced by her as something false, like a false beard, hiding the truth that there is nothing there. And sometimes a hysteric sees herself as that which could fill in this gap.

In an example you give in the book, you note that Adam and Eve, when expelled from the Garden of Eden, are basically experiencing a constitutive psychic lack, and the immediate result is an affect — shame. So-called “affect theory” is very popular right now, and there is much sanctimony around affective intuition. What do you make of this situation?

The rise of the affect(s) and the sanctimony around affective intuition are very much related to some signifiers being out of our reach, and this often involves a gross ideological mystification. Valorization of affectivity and feelings appears at the precise point when some problem — injustice, say — would demand a more radical systemic revision as to its causes and perpetuation. This would also involve naming — not only some people but also social and economic inequalities that we long stopped naming and questioning.

Social valorization of affects basically means that we pay the plaintiff with her own money: oh, but your feelings are so precious, you are so precious! The more you feel, the more precious you are. This is a typical neoliberal maneuver, which transforms even our traumatic experiences into possible social capital. If we can capitalize on our affects, we will limit out protests to declarations of these affects — say, declarations of suffering — rather than becoming active agents of social change. I’m of course not saying that suffering shouldn’t be expressed and talked about, but that this should not “freeze” the subject into the figure of the victim. The revolt should be precisely about refusing to be a victim, rejecting the position of the victim on all possible levels.

How do you think we should respond to this kind of sanctimonious affect? It seems that, if one continues to validate the affect, it responds with a kind of growing insatiability. On the flip side, if it is questioned, the response is a kind of outrage that refuses to evolve into anything else.

I agree, and this bind derives precisely from the subjective gain or gratification that this positioning offers. (Moral) outrage is a particularly unproductive affect, yet it is one that offers considerable libidinal satisfaction. By “unproductive” I mean this: it gives us the satisfaction of feeling morally superior, the feeling that we are in the right and others are in the wrong. Now for this to work, things must not really change. We are much less interested in changing things than in proving, again and again, that we are in the right, or on the right side, the side of the good. Hegel invented a great name for this position: the “beautiful soul.” A “beautiful soul” sees evil and baseness all around it but fails to see to what extent it participates in the perpetuation of that same order of things. The point of course is not that the world isn’t really evil, the point is that we are part of this evil world.

The beautiful soul attitude finds a particularly fertile ground in what many call the “infantilization” of our societies. We are encouraged to behave as children: to act primarily upon how we “feel,” to demand — and rely on — constant protection against the “outer world,” its dangers and fights, or simply against the world of others, other human beings.

Perhaps something will make us see how those who offer to protect us beyond a certain age, or some immediate emergencies, are our worst enemies — that they, and not some outside brutal villains, are the social agents of domination. We have to politely turn them down, and start making, and standing behind, our decisions. Not alone, but together with those who think in a similar way. 

Since you mentioned infantilization, I’d like to ask you about the part of your book that discusses this developmental stage. You write about adult sexuality being not much different, as Freud scandalously argued, from infantile sexuality. Yet the latter exists in the absence of both biological (in terms of physical maturity) and symbolic frameworks. Furthermore, the existence of sexuality in children is usually fiercely denied. Is this denial damaging? If so, can you envision a way that we could acknowledge infantile sexuality symbolically?

What distinguishes children from adults is not that the latter are sexual beings whereas the former are not. What distinguishes them is that adults are supposed to be basically able to understand and handle intersubjective situations that involve sexuality. This means above all that the fact that children are, as Freud argued, very much sexual beings does not absolve adults when they want to involve them in their own sexual gratification. On the contrary, it makes their endeavors worse. There is a limit. To some extent, this limit is arbitrarily set — one could always say, why not two months earlier or later than the so-called “age of consent”? What is important is that there is a limit. This limit does not protect children against sexuality; rather, it protects their sexuality, making it so to say theirs and nobody else’s.

Sexuality does not begin with the maturation of our sexual organs, nor is it limited to these organs. This was Freud’s basic claim, which caused much scandal. Is this pan-sexualism? Is Freud saying that sex is everywhere? No, he is saying that sex is not where we expect to find it. This is his first and most significant point, often overlooked. We expect to find it in some original physical dwelling. Or put otherwise, we think that there is a “natural” site or place of sexuality, and that if we keep away from that place, we keep away from sexuality. Freud’s claim, however, was not something like: “No, sex is not only there, it is also elsewhere, it can be all over the place.” His claim was that sex is lacking from its home, that its “home” was the one place where sex is not to be found. Sex does not originate in the satisfaction of the desire to reproduce and have children. It starts as a secondary, surplus, collateral satisfaction produced in the process of satisfaction of biological needs (including the need to reproduce). This essentially collateral surplus satisfaction is what he conceptualized as the drive.

Here one can of course ask: But then, why call this polymorphous satisfaction “sexual”? Is this not tendentious? It would certainly be tendentious if the reply were: Because of its subsequent association with sexual organs as organs of reproduction. This, for example, is how Foucault reads Freud: for Foucault, the problems are not drives and their polymorphous perversity, but the allegedly normative (“biopolitical”) move that captures them under the heading of “sexuality.” For Foucault, sex is not the scandal, it is rather the end of the scandal, the end of the subversive aspect of pleasures. But as Laplanche and Lacan have argued, drive satisfaction is not sexual because of its link to the organs of sexual reproduction, but because of its link with the signifying structure, which is also the structure of the unconscious. Here is where things become really interesting, but also a bit more complicated. 

The way Lacan conceptualizes the Freudian unconscious has important consequences for the theory of the signifying order, and not only for our understanding of the unconscious. “The unconscious is structured like speech” has become a well-known slogan of Lacanian psychoanalysis. Usually, this is taken to imply a move in one direction only: it tells us something about the unconscious; it tells us that the unconscious is not simply about our most intimate inner thoughts, repressed feelings and desires, but comes from the outside — it relates to the structure of language and of speech. But then, if the unconscious comes from the outside, if it is essentially “invasive” and not generated simply from within ourselves, what does this imply? If the unconscious does not start with the first thing we repress, that means that there is a dimension of repression already built into the signifying order as such. This is actually how Lacan reads the Freudian notion of “primal repression,” which precedes all repressions proper. Language as such already involves a “repression” (Verdrängung). We could perhaps say: Language/speech is structured like a repression and struggles with its own inherent impossibility. This is also what Lacan means when he says that repressive structures, such as family and society, do not simply impose or demand repression, but are themselves formations built from repression. This is an invaluable lesson for any kind of critical theory.

My reading or rendering of this is as follows: the signifying order emerges as already lacking one signifier, it appears with the lack of a signifier “built into it,” so to speak. In other words, it is not simply the presence of the signifier that induces the entire human and social “dialectics” and their contradictions, but rather an absence at the very heart of this presence — namely, a gap that appears together with the signifying order, built into it. This minus or gap is not simply nothing, it is a minus that materially affects the structure with which it appears. It is a non-being with serious consequences.

In this sense, the fact that there is the unconscious — together with the fact that the unconscious is not simply subjective but has an objective dimension to it, related to the structure of speech/language — tells us something about this structure itself. The very existence of subjective distortions tells us something “objective” about the structure involved in them. It tells us that this objective structure is ridden by a minus, asymmetry, contradiction. It is not simply neutral or indifferent. This is also an important epistemological point. There is an objective side to subjective distortions.

So there is this minus or gap, but there is also enjoyment?

Right. And here is the crucial point: this signifying minus is precisely the place where a surplus (enjoyment) is generated. This brings us back to what I said earlier. It explains why it is that a surplus, collateral satisfaction appears when we satisfy our organic needs. Because these needs are caught up in the signifying structure and, more importantly, in the very lack — or “minus one” — that comes with this structure. In other words, it is not enough to say that the signifier denaturalizes our needs because it implicates them into all kinds of symbolic relations and games. This would be the theory of desire and its irreducibility to the need, because of its “symbolic” character (“desire is always the desire of the Other”). The theory of the drives is something different. It implies that a surplus satisfaction appears at the very site of the signifying minus, and that this satisfaction is at the same time something real (not symbolic). We could also say: The emergence of the signifying order directly coincides with the non-emergence of one signifier, and this fact — this original minus-one — leaves its trace in a particular disturbance of the signifying system — enjoyment or surplus satisfaction.

Why are drive and desire structured so differently yet so easily confused in conscious thought?

The confusion of these two very different clinical and conceptual categories comes from the fact that they both “propel” us in an extraordinary way: the satisfaction they are after is not the satisfaction of our organic or biological needs. But beyond this, they are quite different.

Desire aims at what we didn’t get when our need, articulated in demand, was satisfied. It always aims at the other thing, beyond the thing at hand. Desire sustains itself through the difference between two kinds of satisfaction: satisfaction of the need or demand, and another satisfaction, the only support of which is negativity — That’s not It! I want that which I didn’t get. This is the symbolic frame through which objects appear as objects of desire. Drive, on the other hand, is not driven by what we didn’t get, but by the paradoxical surplus satisfaction that we got without even asking for it. We didn’t ask for it, yet it got unexpectedly attached to the satisfaction of the need. (The classic Freudian example is the oral pleasure produced during our satisfaction of the need for food.) Drive wants to repeat this satisfaction and precisely that satisfaction, again and again, often regardless of what “we” want. The motor of the drive is repetition of the unexpected real satisfaction, whereas the motor of desire is difference, which is why desire is in perpetual, “metonymic,” movement further.

You speak about the way that sexuality creates a “curving” or bias in discourse. Can you say more to what this looks like and where we can see it?

Let’s start with an example from Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Freud couldn’t recall the name (Signorelli) of the painter of the Orvieto frescoes and produced as substitutes the names of two other painters, Botticelli and Boltraffio. Freud’s analysis shows what associative processes had linked Signorelli to Botticelli and Boltraffio. I won’t go into this analysis here, but I just want to point out the configuration at stake, which is paradigmatic of repression. For some reason Freud repressed the word Signorelli. How do we know that? How do we know it was not simply a case of temporarily forgetting the name? We know it because two other names kept coming to Freud’s mind instead. We notice that something has been repressed not simply by noticing a blank, a hole, an empty space. No, we notice it because something appears at this place, imposes itself. The discursive or signifying chain is not necessarily interrupted, torn in any visible way; it continues to run, but in a peculiar way. It is from this peculiarity that we can deduce not only that something appeared instead of something else (and that therefore something has been repressed); we can also deduce that the repressed — or what is not there — very much dictates the logic and appearance of what is there.

If this is how repression works for speaking subjects, then my thesis, based on a certain reading of Freud and on some explicit statements of Lacan, is the following: the space of discourse already involves a “repression.” The hypothesis is that what Freud called “primal repression” is not simply a first repression — it is a gap that appears together with the discursive structure as such. Primal repression in this sense is not a repression that anybody makes, it doesn’t have a subject — it is a feature of the discursive (symbolic) order that appears with a gap already built into in it. This gap, this lack of the “binary signifier” — or of the signifier of the sexual relation, as Lacan calls it — is not visible in the discursive space directly as lack. It can only be deduced from the logic of its functioning, from its contradictions, from the surplus investments (affects, enjoyment) that take place in it. And this is what I call a “curving” of the discursive space. The latter is not simply neutral, it is biased, yet not in a subjective way. It is biased in an “objective” or systemic way. And subjects and their symptoms are always also a response to this systemic torsion.

Usually, when we speak about the signifying or discursive order, we imply that this is a “space” determined by the signifier, its logic and its rules. I want to suggest something more — namely that the rule of the signifier is itself (over)determined by something. This “something” is not something external to it: it is a missing element of its own reality, a missing element that determines the very structuring and appearance of this reality. Or, put more simply: The discursive order is not neutral, because it is constantly struggling with its own point of impossibility.

This brings us to the famous dictum by Lacan: “There is no (signifier of) sexual relation.” Obviously this doesn’t mean that there are no sexual relationships. The absence of the relation, or its signifier, does not appear simply as an absence of relationships, but rather as that which affects their logics and appearance. As Lacan himself puts it, “the absence of the relation does of course not prevent the tie (la liaison), far from it — it dictates its conditions.” The non-relation gives, dictates the conditions of what ties us — which is to say that it is not a simple, indifferent absence, but an absence that curves and determines the structure with which it appears. The non-relation is not the opposite of the relationship, it is the inherent (il)logic of the relationships that are possible and existing.

If we understand sexuality not just as a problem one “has,” but as something constitutive of the subject, must one always encounter a sense of disillusionment or loss at the heart of any analysis, clinical or otherwise? I used to have a pin that said, “since I gave up hope I feel much better.” Is analysis a process of giving up a kind of hope? 

Yes. And no. One has to be very precise here, so as not to preach any kind of resigned cynical wisdom. The negativity that one encounters and traverses in analysis is supposed to affect not simply our knowledge about being, but our very being. It is supposed to shift something there. And implications of “hope” change in the process. There is disillusionment, but not simply in the sense that we now know better than to nourish certain hopes and that we now acknowledge certain things to be impossible. We change.

Let’s take a literary example, Marcel Proust’s Swann in Love. The hero here is desperately in love with Odette, who herself no longer loves him. In his terrible suffering he at first believes that what he really wants is to cease to be in love with her, so as to escape from his suffering. But then, upon more careful analysis of his feelings, he realizes that this is not so. Instead he wants his suffering to end while he himself remains in love, because his experience of the pleasure of love depends on this latter condition. Here’s where he is hooked, so to say. The problem is that, although he knows that his suffering would end if he were to cease being in love with Odette, if he were to be “cured” of his love for her, this is what he least wants to happen, since “in the depths of his morbid condition he feared death itself no more than such a recovery, which would in fact amount to the death of all that he now was.” In other words, cured of his condition he would no longer be the same subject and so would no longer find either pleasure in Odette’s love or pain in her indifference and infidelity. We could say that this is precisely where analysis leads at some point — to the “death” of many things that we are when we start it. And this is why we sometimes hang on to our pathologies even if they involve a lot of suffering. But if, in this precise sense, at the end we are not the same subject as before, “disillusionment” is perhaps not the best word. It is not so much giving up hope that relieves us, as it is a certain relief — a shift in the moorings of our being — that delivers us of hope.

We don’t expect, or desire, certain things anymore. But we do expect something; we can even expect, want, demand a lot. In relation to this Lacan says something very interesting in the Ethics of Psychoanalysis. He speaks of the tragedy of Oedipus, of what happens to him in the two plays (Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus), and how this resonates with what happens at the end of analysis. We can certainly say that Oedipus is disillusioned and not hopeful subject, but at the same time Lacan very much insists upon the fact that “he is shown to be unyielding right to the end, demanding everything, giving up nothing, absolutely unreconciled.” Giving up hope does not mean reconciling oneself with what is — and trying to get the best out of it. On the contrary, it can be a condition in which we are able to engage with the world, and not simply with our personal hopes and expectations about it. Perhaps this is my philosophical (and political) bias, but my understanding of analysis is that, to some extent at least, it replaces hope with courage. The courage to fight.


Cassandra B. Seltman is a writer, psychotherapist, and psychoanalytic fellow at New York University.