Zizek and “sexual difference”

I’ve long found Zizek’s development of the Lacanian opposition between the logic of the master signifier or constitutive exception and the logic of the non-all (or non-whole, as I wish he would translate the Lacanian pas-tout) to be a compelling and useful schema. At the same time, I’ve never really understood why he is so insistent on referring to this opposition as “sexual difference” or why it is necessary to refer to the master signifier and non-all as masculine and feminine, respectively. He uses many other examples that follow the same logic — in Less Than Nothing, the relationship between bourgeoisie and proletariat is explained in these same terms — and it’s not clear to me why the gendered language should be privileged.

The best explanation I can come up with is his loyalty to the psychoanalytic tradition, where “sexuality” comes to name the fundamental derangement of the human animal (as opposed to any notion of a “natural” procedure of reproduction, etc.). And it’s possible that I’m being an overly squeamish feminist and not following my own rule that generalizations refer fundamentally to social forces rather than to the idea that “they’re all like that.” But still.

Any thoughts?

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21 Responses to “Zizek and “sexual difference””

  1. beatrice marovich Says:

    You don’t think it’s possible that this can all just be chalked up to his “thrilling romance” with orthodoxy? That he’s maintaining the masculine as the master signifier (and the feminine as the quasi-void non-all) simply because that’s the orthodox thing to do? I’m sure that there is a lot of fancy footwork he could do, to invent principled or logical reasons for doing this. But it’s always just struck me as a kind of provocative anti-feminist maneuver.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Perhaps it really is just a matter of maintaining the Lacanian orthodoxy, of remaining faithful to the site where this dual logic ultimately emerged from (clinical psychoanalytic practice). The “French feminists” (who lean heavily on Lacan) wind up in much the same place, after all.

  3. Emily Says:

    You yourself note that in the bourgeoisie/proletariat opposition he places the proletariat on the feminine side. Doesn’t this suggest that the reason is ultimately political? And profoundly feminist?

  4. inthesaltmine Says:

    I think the importance for Zizek is that he, like Badiou, wants to begin with “the Two”.

    Insofar as a formalization is concerned, he’s trying to let it be made clear that there are two not-Alls. Zizek, on one hand, is awfully careful to ensure that the “masculine” and the “feminine” are treated equally, i.e. one bad reading is that the feminine jouissance comes because “Woman” is not fully in the Symbolic. Zizek rightly says to the contrary, they are in the Symbolic just as much as the masculine, it’s just a different kind of jouissance, etc.

    But, on the other hand, that sort of narrative that Zizek gives is absolutely unwarranted, as the feminine jouissance (even in Lacan) always seems to be an after-thought to the dominant masculine conceptions. Morever, the insistance that feminine not-All is just a different kind of not-All goes to show a sort of de facto priviliging of masculine – much like arguments from multiculturalism where “oh they’re the same, but different” quickly turns into imperialism.

    As was mentioned, Kristeva and the French feminists obviously had a huge influence on Lacan, and made him do all kinds of theoretical somersaults in his later seminars. I think this sort of “putting Lacan/Zizek on the defensive” is a natural outgrowth of these categories, and only serves to undermine their legitimacy. I think you’re right: we need to get rid of this gendered language, not only because it doesn’t really add anything to the toolkit that we didn’t have already, but moreso because it also is easily misunderstood and appropriated in the wrong ways.

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    inthesaltmines: I think you are misreading his use of sexual difference. First of all, there is no notion of a “masculine” non-All. He says that the masculine/master-signifier is secondary to the underlying feminine/non-all nature of reality — it’s an attempt to cover it over. There’s also no equality between the two poles — he always privileges the feminine as the truer, more subversive, more politically necessary side. It’s always asymmetrical, and the masculine side is always on the side of the ideological structures he wants to undo. He constantly rejects every attempt to equalize the two as obscurantist New Age Jungian fascism, etc.

    This is where I’m inclined to agree with Emily, though I’m nervous to give that position full-throated support.

  6. beatrice marovich Says:

    I think Emily makes a good point. But I think it would be erroneous to call Zizek, or any of his intellectual maneuvers, “profoundly” feminist. Surprisingly feminist, or paradoxically feminist, perhaps. But this is, I think, often the case with orthodoxies. They can be turned back on themselves and can be “exposed” as somehow operating against their own declared intentions. This is, sometimes, a fun exercise. And it can, in some contexts, be liberating, revealing, etc… But I still think it’s good to ask whether its worth perpetuating the given orthodoxy.

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    He sometimes dares to claim that he’s more feminist than the feminists themselves, which is obviously problematic.

    But I wonder if an analogy might be for me — as a straight cis-man — to have deep misgivings about the path that LGBT politics has gone (for instance, the one-sided emphasis on gay marriage), driven by a concern that queer politics isn’t being queer enough, that it’s losing the truly revolutionary kernel and turning into something that winds up reinforcing conformism, etc. Of course, my “credentials” as being pro-LGBT are much stronger than Zizek’s pro-feminist “credentials” (going to CTS, sometimes called “Gay Theological Seminary,” working as an RA on Ted Jennings’ project on the history of homophobia, 2/3 of my committee members were queer, etc.). And of course I don’t make a habit of goading queer activists. But it’s still an awkward position, and I would assume that there are a lot of queer people who, for very good reasons, wouldn’t hear my nuance and my good intentions.

  8. inthesaltmine Says:

    What do you mean there is no notion of a “masculine” not-All? This is the more “set theoretical” approach which reads “There is one which is not”, upon which Badiou founds Being and Event. I’m also vaguely thinking of this chart here: https://larvalsubjects.files.wordpress.com/2010/06/ziz3.jpg

    I quote from A. Kiarina Kordell’s “$urplus: Spinoza, Lacan”, page 103:

    >”As for set theory’s resemblance to the mathematic antinomy, a proper conceptual distinction between the two kinds of the not-all (infinite regression and set theory) sheds light to a common confusion or, at least, linkage between femininity and the issue of ethics. Copjec herself bears testimony to this tendency, stating that “if it is woman who is privileged in Lacan’s analysis this is because she is the one “who is guardian of the not-all of being” (2002, 7). Woman only appears to “remain closer to the truth of being,” insofar as this truth is representation’s own self-referentiality, but woman sees not
    this not-all but the not-all of the infinite regress.”

  9. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Neither Badiou, nor Levi Bryant, nor Kordell is Zizek.

  10. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Zizek never refers to the infinite regress that the Master Signifier cuts off as the “non-All” — in his usage, the term “non-All” always only refers to the feminine side of whichever Lacanian diagram is in question here.

  11. jos Says:

    I feel like your comparison, Adam, between your relation to lgbtq politics and Zizek/feminism is a good one. There may be a “radical” point somewhere to Zizek’s sexual difference jargon, but his position forecloses it from being much more than a strategic power grab (as is obvious by the phrase “more feminist”). It reduces the discussion to one of morality/authenticity between equal agents rather than one of power and positionality. The treatment of the “feminine” as non-All reeks of pedestal misogyny (“I only deny you these things because I love you so much” etc); if we could detach the speech itself it might be “nice” speech but the action is entirely about authenticating *this* (“masculine”) speaking subject. Following your example, it would be like if you went around in a state-sanctioned marriage (with all the social and political benefits that garners) and told queer peeps the more radically queer action is marriage abolition. As long as you are literally accruing material benefits from your stance, I don’t really care what the “argument” consists of. For Zizek to choose these terms is, I think, blatantly strategic–he retains his privilege while at the same time “authenticating” himself as *morally* feminist. Of course the *materially* feminist thing for him to do would be, you know, quote women, reference women, offer one of his many lecturing engagements to women, and basically just let women speak for themselves, rather than build them a discursive pedestal so they don’t hurt their oh so soft feet.

  12. Adam Kotsko Says:

    That’s the double-bind, though, because what you’re saying implies that the most feminist thing to do would be never to talk about women and gender and to just leave that to the women!

  13. jos Says:

    No, that’s not what I mean–it would be to have a commitment first and foremost to propagating the words of women about women (and cite them) over that of his “own” words as a man. It’s a recognition that when approaching some discussions you are a guest. It’s very clear Zizek is quite comfortable assuming this is discourse/politics for him to do with what he wants, going so far as to define who is or isn’t feminist ‘enough’. It’s not that he can’t talk about feminism, it’s a recognition that it’s not *his*. The way you approached talking about marriage equality was very guest-like for instance–acknowledging your own limitations without shying away from arguments others have made you found convincing. I would love to see Zizek talk about feminism with this kind of respect.

  14. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I agree that that would be the ideal practice.

  15. Will Says:

    I think the reasons are multivalent but the primary reason, for me, is similar to your other post a couple of weeks (months?) ago regarding Z’s apparent racism. Dominant liberal discourse gender roles have become slippery, more relative, touchy feely men, competitive hard women etc… A lot of the secondary Lacanian literature is replete with this, footnotes that hasten to add that there can be male hysterics too, mother and father re-named first Other second Other, the nuclear family refers to a by-gone age which we have surpassed etc…

    Therefore Zizek’s apparent conservatism cuts against this current but also,in short, demonstrates the necessity of women’s subordination. Not because of some innate characteristic that makes her inferior, but is terms of master-slave dialectic in which the necessity of her contingency is the truth of the mascaline and that’s her final laugh.

    So I would argue that Zizek reinforces male privilege alongside the process of a formal shift in perspective that recognizes masculine dependency on the feminine. Zizek’s critics perhaps emphasize the former over the latter.

  16. Jesse Newberg Says:

    If phallus is not penis but signifier for the lack of a signifier or whatever, isn’t the question more why, in the first place, Lacan equates the real (non-rapport) with sexuality at all? or more generally how philosophical abstractions have any purchase on the empirical whatsoever? Like, what do sets really have to do with anything? Or worse, everything.

    In seminar XX, we get, “…everything having to do with relations between men and women, what is called collectivity, it’s not working out.” (32) This adds credence to the idea of a fundamental derangement, but also that the “sexual” is immediately invested in the “collective,” that is, the “relationship between bourgeoisie and proletariat.”

    I think this question might hint at the sort of larger problem of philosophical “mixtures” of transcendental or a priori conditions and their empirical or transcendent correlates–the arbitrariness of it all.

    Laruelle FTW

  17. Adam Kotsko Says:

    But is not the very arbitrarity of the phallus a sign of its conceptual power as the short-circuit where the transcendent “falls into” the empirical, etc., etc.?

  18. Jesse Newberg Says:

    “Arbitrary” was probably the wrong term (arbitrariness, certainly the wrong word); bullshit would have been better. Of course you’re right, the arbitrarity (thank you) of S1 is where he gets all his short-circuiting power, i.e. the charisma of the cruel Master/Leader (or the courtly Lady, Woman is one of the names-of-the-Father after all). And if Woman as not-whole has no positive content whatsoever (being simply the modal cut or bar, the pure mask), then even the assignation of clinical categories like hysteria or borderline to mainly feminine subjects becomes largely circular. But if you’re unwilling to accept that male and female subjects are produced discursively rather than biologically, I’m afraid all you’re left with is the statistical correlation of the obsessive’s complaint with penises or of vaginas with hysteria. Then again, there’s always the developmental fairy tales about brothers and sisters in bathtubs.

  19. Joe Says:

    Have you heard of the Against Equality collective, Adam? Most of the criticism of dominant gay-rights organizing, whether marriage or in the military, is coming from the queer community. Can white hetero-CIS dudes do it for the wrong reasons? Sure, but I don’t see any reason to say they typify the conversation. That said, I am not as generous with Zizek and sexual difference. I think it scares the bejesus out of him not because he wants to, say, eradicate queers, but because the queering of psychoanalysis and political discourse requires him to assume a different orientation as a public intellectual. He is still very much what Grasmsci would called a traditional intellectual, as opposed to the organic intellectuals (cue Zizek’s kneejerk hate of “organic”). Zizek may equate the proletariat with the feminine side of some Lacanian political ontology, but he is also quick and eager to say he thinks most people are idiots or else unrespectable. Without getting into an argument over whether he’s right about that, I think it’s an important consideration when assessing his claims about sex, gender and power.

  20. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I have not heard of that particular group, but I’m aware that my concerns are also present among segments of the queer community — indeed, I’d be surprised if there were very many hetero-cis dudes who shared my view of the matter.

    What do you think of the quote I just posted on the main page?


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