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TRANSFINITO International Webzine

Sex and the Law

Marina de Carneri

The feminine comes closest to the essence of the law of signification which functions as pure articulation without content—it commands or demands nothing. As Kafka says in The Trial: “the court wants nothing from you. It receives you when you come and dismisses you when you go.”


Before the Law stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country who begs for admittance to the law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot admit the man at the moment. The man, on reflection, asks if he will be allowed, then, to enter later. ‘It is possible,’ answers the door-keeper, ‘but not at this moment.’

This is the beginning of the parable that the priest, in Kafka’s The Trial, tells K. in order to illustrate the nature of the Law. As we know, the man from the country will never be admitted to the presence of the Law and will wait all his life in front of the door. But before dying, he looks up at the door-keeper and asks one last question:

Everyone strives to attain the Law, … how does it come about, then, that in all these years no one has come seeking admittance, but me? The doorkeeper perceives that the man is nearing his end and his hearing is failing, so he bellows in his ear: “No one but you can gain admittance through this door, since this door was intended only for you. I am now going to shut it.” (214)

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We can take this story as an allegory of man’s imaginary relation to the law. No one can ignore it, and each one wonders about its ultimate content. I am not talking about the positive law of the state here, but rather about the Kantian law, that is, the moral law. The man from the country, like every good neurotic, like all of us, wants to act according to this law, but how can one obey a law that does not speak?

The obsessional neurotic’s solution, Freud tells us, is to clearly determine his duty by setting up a number of rules and codes of behavior that satisfy the Law’s will and appease its demands. This entity whose control no man escapes, and which functions as the representative of the law, is called by Freud the superego. Let’s recall, moreover, that according to Freud, women, because of the peculiar way in which they traverse the Oedipus complex, never develop a full superego. Their superego, he says, “cannot attain the strength and independence which give its cultural significance,” and feminists are not pleased when he points out to them the effects of this factor upon the “average feminine character” (161). The failed internalization of the superego has indeed crucial effects for psychoanalytic theory: women, it would appear, are less sensitive to the call of the law, which in a Democratic age based on the principle that no citizen can ignore it, constitutes no little embarrassment. Democracy by its very nature requires that the concept of equality under the law be extended to everyone, and these recalcitrant subjects will have sooner or later to be brought before the law as well. No doubt, this is why it is urgent that at a certain historical turn the enigma of femininity be solved. Freud writes:

Throughout history people have knocked their heads against the riddle of the nature of femininity. … Nor will you have escaped worrying over the problem – those of you who are men; to those of you who women this will not apply – you are yourself the problem. (141).

We could say that the sexual épistémè of modernity is defined by the fact that for the first time femininity is presented as a scientific question not only for men, but for women as well. Indeed, at the end of the nineteenth century, for the first time, women have started feeling that they have a problem, that in truth they are the problem and that their “nature” requires explanation. If women had previously failed to respond to the summons of the law, living, so to speak, a private life, they are answering now under the aegis of psychoanalysis and in the name of science, democracy and feminism.

Thus, while the theologians would say that women have no soul, Freud says—and his saying is more precious in that it is much closer to the form of our cultural imaginary—that women don’t have a superego. Let’s repeat what the superego is: an unconscious and imaginary instance that indicates to the (male) subject the presence and the requests of the law. According to Freud, by instituting the notion of the law, the superego drives man toward cultural accomplishments, that is, toward sublimation. But because women don’t have a firm superego in his account, they can never fully internalize the instance of the law, so they cannot really sublimate, that is, they cannot really express their sexuality through cultural creativity. Instead, women’s identity is founded on the unconscious perception of a lack—the lack of the penis. As a consequence, their actions are not driven by the desire to obey the law, but rather by resentment and by the demand for a special treatment due to them as a sort of compensation for their imaginary castration. Women, Freud concludes, function according to a different principle—not obedience, but envy.

The enigma of woman, then, results from the peculiar imaginary dimension that she inhabits—a creature that apparently knows no law and pursues no justice because she cares little for equality. Can such a creature be completely human after all, to the extent that we call “human” the being that is submitted to the moral law? The vicissitudes of femininity in our culture—its misery and its glory—derive from the incapacity to find a place for femininity in relation to the law, and within the logic of the imaginary—because the imaginary has a logic, which is the logic of the unconscious.

It’s time to look closer into the nature of the law instantiated by the superego because we should not fall into the trap of assuming that the moral law and the ethical law coincide. The moral law, that is, the law of culture as Freud analyzes it in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego stands on the acceptance of certain fundamental principles by all and on the participation of all in certain tasks. Participation and obedience create equality: the equality of all in relation to their duties. Equality, however, is achieved at a cost—the positing of an imaginary place beyond the law, which is free from the law. Even though this place is imaginary and in the imaginary, its constitution is far from being accidental. If a human subject is defined by its obedience to the laws of a community, still these laws must have an origin and find a limit in the one who laid them down. The originator of the law cannot be submitted to it—it is a question of logic. At the point of enunciation of the law, then, stands a power that is greater than the law itself, which authorizes the law and against which the law is the only safeguard. That is to say that the law both acts as the evidence of the existence of this higher power and as a protection against it. So the threshold of the law opens onto another space inhabited by the infinitely good or the infinitely evil—the benevolent God of monotheism, but also the Primal Father described by Freud in Totem and Taboo. The problem is: does this place exist other than in the imaginary?

To admit the existence of a beyond-the-law would mean to accept the old ontological proof of the existence of God, namely, that the logical necessity of an idea implies the necessary existence of the thing represented by that idea. But what is logically necessary is not, for that reason, necessarily existent. The refutation of the idea of God has a long history in philosophy, but the ontological proof has a longer one. To begin with, it has been incorporated by Descartes in the notion of the Cogito, which could be reformulated as “I think, therefore God exists.” If we turn this into psychoanalytic terms, it will read: I obey the law, therefore the Primal Father exists.

The great contribution of psychoanalysis, if one knows how to read it, is to show how the constitution of the subject—but let’s not forget here Freud’s predicament about the question of femininity—is founded on the unconscious response to an imaginary Other that is placed at the point of enunciation of the law. In this sense, man’s existence is not the Darwinian struggle for survival of the fittest in a hostile environment; it is rather a struggle for the survival of the Other as the safeguard of the subject’s desire. This is the Lacanian rendition of the Kojevo-Hegelian formula “the desire of man is the desire of and for the other.” One needs only look at the biblical tribulations of the chosen people to verify how crucial it is that the belief in the Other of the law be maintained. It is only by positing the Other that the subject finds its place and its role in the community.

What is important to stress, in any case, is that the imaginary element lying at the basis of subjectivity is a logical effect, not a swerving away from logic. As I said earlier, the proof of the existence of God in the cogito is based on the preeminence of logic over existence—it is because I can produce the necessity of the idea of God that its existence must follow. In reality, a syllogism can be accurate only if the middle term is grounded in existence, that is, the existence of the middle term has first to be empirically verified in order for the logical operation to come to term. If it is not the case, logic becomes a chimera-producing machine, that is, it becomes imagination. In this sense, the imaginary is far from being the realm of randomness and hazard—it is logic itself that produces the imaginary, and it is the Cartesian subject that produces the Freudian subject as its reverse side.

Psychoanalysis’ domain of investigation—the unconscious—is the site of production of the imaginary, that is, the place where logical operations proliferate irrespective of any empirical evidence. Empirical evidence constitutes, in the spinning of reason, rather, the accident, the clog in the machine. Freud had an intuition of this when he said that there is no representation of death in the unconscious, death being that which in the real escapes the grasp of thought. It follows that a philosophy of the cogito is a philosophy in which the imaginary element intrinsic in any logical operation is disguised so that there is no longer any sign of the distinction between the imaginary and the real. As a result the subject can claim in all honesty with Hegel that “the real is the rational.” The non-distinction between essence (that which must logically be) and actual existence opens the way to what can only be called a form of delirium, that is, to madness as the veritable essence of reason.

What prevents madness from invading the whole field? Certainly not the resistance of the real—considered here in the Lacanian sense as the referent that can only be grasped through the mediation of the signifier—for any accident can always be interpreted as a faulty application of the law. An accident is something, which, strictly speaking, does not happen—if it does happen, then an explanation for it will be found retroactively. There is no room for the inexplicable in the philosophy of reason (that is, in philosophy as we know it). Nor there is one in modern culture: go tell somebody that the plane just crashed and that no reason was found, or that the patient died in spite of an ostensibly successful surgical operation. Death, in the discourse of modernity, is always premature and accidental (an accident is precisely that which should not have happened). So the accident does not limit the delirium of reason, but rather re-enforces it.

What limits it, instead, is the prohibition issued by the superego in the name of the Law. Of course, this time the Law is viewed from its flip side—it is not the positive law, but its higher instance and origin, God, or the idea of the Good. Why do accidents happen? Not because reason encounters a necessary limit in the real, as is actually the case, but because the law was not thoroughly discovered, or obeyed. Some actions should not be performed, or they should only be performed in a specific way, because they need to meet the demands and the approval of a higher and silent court—God, or the superego. In other words, the imaginary proliferation of logical operations can be contained and anchored onto the imaginary Other’s supposed desire or demand. Of course we need to distinguish two levels here: one is the level of the real other as the figure on whose desire the child anchors its subjectivation; the other level is that of the imaginary Other that is posited retroactively, preferably on the masculine side of subjectivation, as the condition and the guarantee of the universality of the Law. So there is the law with a small ‘l’ that is the law of the desire of the other as fellow human being, and then there is the Law (capital ‘l’) that is constituted as a response of the subject to the demands of the imaginary Other. This Law, insofar as it doesn’t simply regulate the possession of things, but primarily the relations of human beings among themselves and with the divinity, is the moral law.

The problem is that the content of the moral law, the law of the superego, can never be fixed. As Freud was able to show in Totem and Taboo by bringing out the myth of the primal father, the law’s content is its form itself—its compulsiveness—which is a function of the totem and the taboo. The tyrannical imaginary other in a democratic society can never be incarnated because the primal father has been killed exactly in order to prevent his return. But it can certainly be represented as a figure of worship—the taboo—and all commerce with it will be subjected to specific rules and prohibitions.

The dialectic of the totem and the taboo, far from being an example of “primitive mentality” has a very visible effect in a market economy, which is, of course, the fetishization of the merchandise. A fetish, from the Latin factitius, ‘fake,’ is no doubt the most effective piece of unconscious montage invented to materialize, appease and at the same time co-opt the desire of the imaginary Other. A fetish is factitius, fictitious, because it is not the real whole thing, that is, it is not an incarnation of the almighty plenitude that lies at the origin of the law. However, by virtue of its “magical” power that separates it from any other object, the fetish becomes a piece of the imaginary other. Through the constitution of the fetish, the prohibition concerning the re-incarnation of the primal father is respected and the same time transgressed. A fetish is a symbol in the most original sense of the term: in its Greek meaning it signifies a part of a whole that has been cut in two. The fetish is the symbolon of the imaginary other in that it is a piece of it. Through the fetish, the subject of the superego materializes its desire to gain access to the imaginary plenitude of the beyond-the-law. The symbolon does not represent the Other in the way of a metaphor, that is, through a signifier; as symbolon, the fetish veritably is the missing piece that will join the subject to the imaginary other.

You will recognize in this description the function of Lacan’s object a, but also the logic of sadism—for if through the fetish I accomplish the unification with the other, that is, I make a whole with the other, this other ceases to exist as separate and different from me. The pursuit of cruelty in the sadistic relation derives from the symbolic operation of the fetish through which the partner of the sadist, insofar as he or she is the bearer of the fetish, is himself or herself turned into an object and forced to adhere with all his or her being (that is, mentally and physically) to the body of the imaginary other so as re-materialize it. Insofar as the fetish is a piece carved out of the flesh of the imaginary other, it is in his or her flesh—through pain—that the Sadist’s partner will have to testify to the accomplishment of such re-union.

To return to Kafka’s parable, the Sadist, unlike the man from the country, will find a way to make the law speak by, say, torturing the doorkeeper in order to provoke its manifestation. A possibility that is contemplated by the parable itself and to which the doorkeeper replies: “If you are so strongly tempted, try to get in without my permission. But note that I am powerful. And I am only the lowest doorkeeper. From hall to hall, keepers stand at every door, one more powerful than the other” (213). The task of provoking the law is a consuming one for the transgressor because the imaginary other can never be met in person, but only by proxy, through the body of each sexual partner taken, one by one, endlessly. This, to point out that in the Lacanian elaboration of the object a (based on Freud’s attribution of an object to the drive in “Drives and their Vicissitudes”), there is nothing that structurally separates it from the fetish. Just like the object a is a part of the body that satisfies the aim of the drive, the fetish becomes a transubstantiation (that is, precisely not a metaphorical operation) of the imaginary plenitude of the body of the (m)other in some of its parts.

The point to retain here is that the production of the fetish in its erotic and cultural value is a consequence of the logic of the superego. It remains to be shown why the superego marks the privileged route to masculine subjectivation and why the fetish has a necessary connection to male anatomy. If this sounds too much like essentialism, let’s not forget that when Freud claims that anatomy is destiny, he doesn’t mean to say that the human body is marked from the start by a feminine or a masculine essence, but rather that the signifying effects that make a child assume its sex are determined by a relation to the specificity of the body. In other words, sex is not intrinsic to the body, but is the articulation of meaning to the body. This body, to begin with, is not the subject’s body, but the body of the other.

In order to understand the fetish as a specifically masculine formation it is necessary to go through the steps of the Oedipal logic. It is best to forget all about the mythic and dramatic dimension of the story and reduce it to its logical, but no less imaginary passages. The baby boy sooner or later must snap out of what Freud, indulging his fantasies and ours, calls “the most perfect, the most free from ambivalence of all human relationships”— the relationship with his mother (165). Let’s pause here to point out that for Freud the relation between mother and daughter, instead, is never considered perfect and self-sustaining because of the mother’s penis envy and the daughter’s lack of the organ. In any case, the boy’s relation to his mother must fall from grace because he realizes at one point that he is not the only object of desire of the mother. He has to share her attention with somebody else who goes under the name of the father. Those who see in psychoanalysis the re-enforcement patriarchy and of the traditional family are right in pointing this out—psychoanalysis has only recently put into question its own unconscious and well-meaning phallocentrism, and Lacan himself (as he shows most notably in his seminars The Object Relations and Formations of the Unconscious) is certainly not exempt from it, even though he argues that the father is first and foremost what the mother indicates as such—that is, a name, a signifier that covers the absences of the mother and that is the site of all sorts of unconscious and imaginary formations on the part of the child. In this sense, for the later Lacan, the father is not a real person; it is the signifier denoting a person, but eventually it becomes the signifier as such. The problem is, as we are going to see more closely, that for Lacan, the signifier as such is always a phallic signifier. In the meanwhile, let’s stress the fact that the coming and going of the mother is always accompanied and regulated by language. Language is from the very start that which the child must identify with in order to understand and respond to the desire of the mother. So the primary form of identification is not yet sexed, but symbolic, that is, it is an identification to language as such.[i] Because there is no moment in which the child is not surrounded by language, the mother/child relation is never perfect and full, but it is only retroactively fantasized as such.

Thus, the lack of the mother can be understood in two ways: the lack of the mother to the child, but also the lack that defines the mother herself insofar as the child is not and cannot be her exclusive source of satisfaction. So what detaches the child from the mother is not the name of the father in one of its permutations, but language itself. Language comes to be in the place of the lack between mother and child only secondarily as a means of communication and information. Primarily, language is creation—it is the product of an act of sublimation, that is, the result of an operation through which the body is transformed into a signifying substance, the voice, which is put in circulation as a signifier of love. Language at the level of primary identification is an act of sublimation because it makes a signifier, the voice, independent of the signified by turning the phonic substance into its own object. We can therefore define sublimation as the foregrounding of the materiality of the signifier, and not, as in the case of the fetish, as the sealing of the signifier and the signified in the form of a magical object.

This, in passing, is also the very definition of music. Kristeva, for example, calls this moment the semiotic and the symbiosis that it institutes between mother and child she names the chora. Kristeva describes the semiotic in the following way:

Discrete quantities of energy traverse the body of that which later will be a subject and along the way they adjust themselves to the limitations imposed to this body – always already semiotic – by the familial and social structures. As quanta of energy and as psychic marks, the drives articulate in this way what we call a chora: a non-expressive totality constituted by these drives and by their stasis in a regulated motility. … Let’s insist on this regulation: we are here in a mode of signification in which the linguistic sign is not yet articulated as the absence of the object and as distinction between the real and the symbolic. (23, 25)

While for Lacan—because of the ineradicable lack of and in the mother—the child is always already moving within the symbolic dimension, for Kristeva there actually is a temporal moment before subjectivation in which signification is purely material, that is, in which the signifier and the signified are fused. This moment is lost during the process of subjectivation because of social and familial constraints, and as a consequence, every subsequent signifying act is primarily driven by the impulse to reach back to this early stage. Kristeva here builds upon a certain Freud, namely the Freud of Civilization and its Discontents, who sees the law of culture as being inescapably repressive.

But what is most important to point out about Kristeva’s position is its fetishistic logic. The chora is posited as the place at the origin of the law of language that the subject constantly strives to reach, but that it could achieve only by renouncing its very existence as a subject, in madness. Reading Kristeva’s literary criticism, one notices that her analysis—be it Celine, Joyce, Aragon, or Sartre—always goes in the direction of showing how the destruction of any given literary code is the result to the titanic struggle of the author in question to break out of the strictures of the law of signification and produce the text (and his life as a text) as the jouissance of a never completely achievable re-union with the chora. In this theory of écriture as writing of the semiotic body, sublimation and fetishization are conflated: the aim of the process of writing is not a re-shaping of the system of signification, but an attempt to disrupt it altogether in order to bring about a regression to the pre-symbolic stage. Before leaving Kristeva, I would like to point out that in spite of her emphasis on the “maternal” character of the chora, she considers women, insofar as they take up a feminine position, to be at a disadvantage when it comes to the work of écriture because their incomplete separation from the mother prevents them from having a firm grasp on the law of signification. Read: they cannot reach back to the semiotic because they never really left it behind. Since their subjectivation has not been completed, they are enslaved more than men to the law of signification and cannot afford to subvert it without an all too real risk of a psychotic break (34). Here, again, Kristeva rejoins the orthodox Freudian position in concluding that the essence of femininity is envy.

With the question of sexual difference, let’s go back to Lacan and to the meaning of the phallus. There is no doubt that Lacan names “phallus” the signifier of the desire of the other because he clearly theorizes sexual difference starting from a masculine perspective. The question is to see whether this point of enunciation excludes or hinders the possibility to theorize the structure of femininity. It’s important to stress the fact that, at the level of primary identification, signifiance, i.e. ‘the voice,’ is not yet the phallus. The phallus takes up its place only in the second round of the identification process when the signifier of the desire of the other is anchored on the penis, that is, when the body of the mother becomes fetishized into the part of the body that most visibly exhibits the difference of the sexes. It is at this point that the psychic destinies of the two sexes start to diverge: he has it, she doesn’t.

By virtue of the materiality, visibility and accessibility of the organ, man would inscribe the signifier of the other’s desire directly on his own body and eroticize it as a prerogative of his own sex, and this independently of any homosexual or heterosexual preference. This state of affairs, of course, seems to leave woman completely without resources. Indeed, starting with Ernst Jones and ending with Luce Irigaray, there has been a rush to aid femininity in an effort to show that it is not a case of incomplete and imperfect masculinity, but that femininity is something just as primary, but so far culturally repressed. This has brought about in the public discourse a veritable obsession with the vagina—G spot and other amenities—in the attempt to detect and measure the unfathomable vaginal orgasm that would give certifiable substance to femininity.

The crux of the whole debate within psychoanalysis has been very matter-of-fact: is there or is there not a perception of the vaginal organ in the little girl? The point, however, is not to have or not vaginal sensations, but to be able to symbolize them as marked by the desire of the other. Because of the invisibility of the feminine organ, the symbolization of the feminine body with a positive trait that would define the signifier “woman” independently from that of “mother” does not occur in the imaginary, that is, in the unconscious, and this out of purely accidental morphological reasons. This means that both from the masculine and the feminine points of view, the encounter with a femininity that is not simply a figure of motherhood cannot happen if not on the basis of sublimation, that is, through the production of a sign as the signifier of love.

What is to be done with a subject who lacks the means to symbolize her sex? The history of feminist movements is a constant attempt to negotiate this impasse. Either femininity is identified with motherhood and celebrated as a more primary and fuller form of identity, or the logical predicament lying at the basis of the notion of femininity, and exposed by Freud, is bypassed at a purely cultural level through the injunction to compete with man in all fields in an effort of over-compensation for an obviously deeply felt sense of inferiority. On a theoretical ground, we find somebody like Luce Irigaray caught in the double bind of having to call for a messianic renewal of femininity to be located out of the symbolic in an infinitely regressing future: because if femininity was indeed symbolized, it would immediately fall into a masculine libidinal economy that she rightfully diagnoses as homo-erotic and homo-sexual. Sharing the same Marxist inspiration as Kristeva, Irigaray also relies on the same notion of écriture as an act of terrorism, that is, as deconstruction of the law of signification in order to activate, this time not the semiotic, but the suppressed feminine:

What is to be done? For the “meaningful” words that can be used only out of mimicry are inapt to translate all that pulsates, shouts and floats indistinctly within the cryptic trajectories of the hysteric’s latent suffering. Thus [we must] turn everything upside down and inside out. Distort it and bring back into it all those crises that constitute the body of which she suffers insofar as she is incapable of saying what is the matter. … [We must] disrupt the syntax by suspending its teleological order, by interrupting its thread as if through a power cut or a breakdown of the coordinating and subordinating conjunctions, or through the inversion of the circuits, the modification of the in-put, of its rhythm, frequency and intensity. (176-177)

Irigaray’s solution shows the nature of the problem that Freud has bequeathed to psychoanalysis and to feminism. It can be formulated as follows: are the symbolic law (the law of the signifier), the law of subjectivation, and the law of sexuation one and the same law? If yes, then woman is condemned to a position of inferiority as an inescapably “malformed” subject, and it is not clear how any “revolutionary” attempt to “disrupt the syntax” could change this state of things other than by building again on the illusion of a yet-to-come, beyond-the-law state of grace. But why do we have to accept the coincidence of these three functions of the law? Note that this coincidence has been assumed by all theories of femininity including the most radical, and most valuable, as Irigaray’s work shows.

In reality, the great scandal in the feminine route to subjectivation is that a woman does not easily fetishize because nothing compels her to elect a single part of her body as the object of the desire of the other. The extent to which this happens is variable depending on all sorts of cultural and personal circumstances. This brings us to Lacan’s formulas of sexuation and to his conclusion that La femme n’existe pas, that is, that women cannot be formally referred to a feminine universal (the Woman, capital ‘w’), but always have to be counted one by one in their singularity. Since the question of the possibility of a feminine universal is complex, it deserves closer attention. Let’s see what exactly Lacan’s formulas of sexuation say. I will re-write them here in their propositional form:

Masculine way to subjectivation

1. There is one who is not subjected to the phallic function

2. All human beings are submitted to the phallic funcion

Feminine way to subekctivation

1. There is not one who is not subjected to the phallic function

2. Not all human beings are subjected to the phallic question, or not the whole of a human being is subjected to the phallic function

As we have seen, the masculine side illustrates the logic of the superego: the phallic function here indicates the process of identification of the penis with the phallus. I have already explained how the production of the fetish as a part of the body of the imaginary other creates the illusion of the existence of a big Other, the primal father, who has unlimited power of jouissance over the subject. The primal father, being the origin of the fetish, is not submitted to its logic, which is the logic of the part for the whole, but rather he is the whole and has the whole of the jouissance for himself. From the feminine point of view, however, the process of fetishization is possible, but not necessary because there is no organ that immediately offers itself as term of identification with the phallus. There are two consequences to this. First, on the feminine side (and not all women necessarily fall on the feminine side) sexual pleasure will not necessarily take the form of “organ pleasure,” that is, it won’t be constituted on the jouissance of a fetishized body part. Second, a woman will not necessarily measure her jouissance on the approximation to the imaginary jouissance of the no less imaginary big Other of the Law. Lacan explains this using the example of Achilles and the turtle. Achilles stakes everything on running as fast as possible so as to reach the turtle, but as the paradox shows, he will never rejoin it because space is infinitely divisible and absolute jouissance is a logical chimera, not a reality.

As a consequence, Lacan says, “phallic jouissance is the obstacle that prevents man from enjoying a woman’s body, precisely because what he attains is the jouissance of his organ” (13). Woman, like the turtle (or more specifically, Briseis, in Lacan’s comparison), however, goes her own way, nor is she in a hurry because she has no final destination to reach—her jouissance is not phallic, but what is it then? Is a non-phallic jouissance still a “sexual” jouissance? Lacan, heir of a long masculine tradition cannot disguise his pique when he confronts the issue:

This leaves an opening to what I propose, namely that of this jouissance, woman knows nothing. After all the time we have been begging them, begging them on our knees – I was talking last time of women psychoanalysts – to make an effort and tell us … well, not a word! We have never been able to get anything out of them. So we do what we can and call this jouissance “vaginal” and we talk about the rear side of the uterus and all that bullshit, let me tell you. And what if, this jouissance, she felt it without knowing it? This would allow casting some real doubt on the famous frigidity. (69)

One must give Lacan credit because his intuition works even while he is completely mystified. In this case, his intuition that feminine jouissance is not phallic does not completely manage to put into question the notion of orgasm. If women seem not to peep a word about the “other jouissance,” it is because men will take the notion of orgasm as organ pleasure as the only possible answer. In absence of this piece of evidence (a typically “feminine” orgasm), Lacan prefers to conclude, not that orgasm is an essentially male response to the imaginary big Other, but that women have orgasms without knowing it. Since the necessity of orgasm cannot be put into question, he has to posit that women’s jouissance of the phallus as the masculine sexual organ is unconscious: it happens, but in a negative mode.

But could we not rather conclude that women have a type of jouissance that is otherwise than phallic? And in that case, would we still call it jouissance at all? Given that, as Freud points out, there is just one jouissance, which is the same for both sexes:

It would be surprising if it were to turn out that each sexuality had its own special libido appropriate to it, so that one sort of libido would pursue the aims of a masculine sexual life and another sort those of a feminine one. But nothing of the kind is true. There is only one libido, which serves both the masculine and the feminine functions. To it we cannot assign any sex. (163)

Lacan re-enforces this point since when it comes to his formulas of sexuation, we find that the drive is either fetishistic—that is, aiming either at the object a (on the masculine side) or at the phallus (on the feminine side)—or it is not, that is, it is in a negative form. In fact, in the Lacanian reading that which is not, is not because no words can be found to symbolize it [Lacan writes this as S (A), i.e. the signifier of the lack in the other]; however, this does not mean that it does not exist outside symbolization because that which cannot be said, that is, signified, can still be postulated, i.e. written in its logical form. In the same way, feminine jouissance can be postulated, but it cannot be localized in the symbolic.

In this way, Lacan rejoins Kant’s conception of the thing-in-itself as noumenon – the noumenon being the topos, the place beyond language (but not before it) that functions as the cause of all representation. I would like to stress that this formulation of the notion of das Ding is at this point far removed from Heidegger’s—to whom Lacan often refers—who in the essay with the same title insists, against Kant, on the materiality of the thing and its character as founding event. On the philosophical viability of the hypothesis of a topological dimension beyond the law of signification, I suspend my judgement for the moment. Suffice it to recall that at the beginning of this essay, I have warned against the conflation of the categories of logical and of actual existence, of which this seems to me to be an instance.

What I can say with greater assurance is that, when it comes to sexual difference a jouissance which is non-phallic is not for that reason beyond the phallus, but could simply be beside it. This does not mean to relapse into pre-established categories of feminine and masculine libido. Let’s recall that Lacan hinges his argument on what can be said and what can only be written on the assumption that feminine jouissance takes the form of an unconscious unsymbolized jouissance. As a result, non-phallic jouissance indicates a negative form of phallic jouissance which is defined as beyond the phallus because it is cast by it as its shadow. Insofar as it is negative, it is supplementary to it, that is, it can never be made present as an object of discourse, but can only be logically postulated. As a result, jouissance is either phallic, or negative, and the phallus in its fetishistic value remains the only signifier of the desire of the other and the sign of a plenitude suspended and haunted by its negative.

La femme n’est pas toute, repeatedly says Lacan—meaning by this that she is not all, not completely within the phallic function:

Que tout tourne autour de la jouissance phallique, c’est précisément ce dont l’expérience analytique témoigne, et témoigne en ceci que la femme se définit d’une position que j’ai pointée du pas-tout à l’endroit de la jouissance phallique. (13)

“Everything revolves around phallic jouissance,” says Lacan, and “this is exactly what analytical experience demonstrates; it shows that woman is defined by a position that I have marked as being not wholly within phallic jouissance.” Everything revolves around phallic jouissance because no one, man or woman, can escape it. Note that this is not the same as saying that not all women respond to the phallic function, a reading that the notation of the formulas of sexuality also allows and that would be much less problematic. In Lacan’s reading to the extent to which woman is not-whole and by virtue of her supplementary jouissance, she belongs to the noumenal reign of the cause, that is, she is at least partially in the (Lacanian) Real and consequently she is the truth – here you have another of Lacan’s famous statements. Insofar as she is the truth, woman cannot say the truth because the truth is beyond symbolization: she experiences her jouissance not as a presence, but as an absence—and of that which is not, she obviously cannot talk. Thus, to the extent in which she is the truth, woman doesn’t exist.

The problem with this theory of sexual difference is that the inscription of the feminine in the negative has created a specific mystique of femininity that accompanies most recent feminist theory. The consequences that can be and have been drawn from this diagnosis are multiple: because the feminine is in the “truth,” it is closer to madness, or closer to mysticism, to melancholia or to depression, intrinsically subversive or essentially enslaved.

Could it be, however, that the diagnosis is misplaced? That the logic is faulty? If we return to the idea that not all women respond to the phallic function, rather than building on the logic of the not-whole, we can conclude that what distinguishes the feminine is not the participation into a non-representable negative jouissance (that is, the impossibility to extract the phallic signifier from the unconscious), but more simply the non-participation to the logic of the fetish, that is, the non-conflation of penis and phallus.[ii] As a result, the notations beneath Lacan’s formulas of sexuation should be inverted. There is no negative jouissance [S (A)], and it is on the masculine side that the object a is always phallicized, i.e. fetishized. On the feminine side, we find the object a not as phallus, but as the material signifier of love. In other words, the object to which woman responds is not the phallus as representative of the penis, but the signifier of the other’s desire as the object of signifiance materialized at the moment of primary identification (the identification with language) – as such it is sexual (in so far as it denotes a relation to the other), but not phallic. Phallic is the sealing of meaning to an object that becomes in this way a universal according to which everything else is measured: in this sense, the phallus is the “transcendental signifier of desire.” But what happens if desire, rather than pursuing the universal, dwells in the singular? What if the Kantian Thing becomes the Heideggerian Ding?

When this happens, the signifier, because of its very materiality becomes the object of a creation, a poetics of love and the result of a practice of sublimation, a practice of transformation, which is distinctive of the feminine way to sexuation. As such it guarantees no results, much less a jouissance beyond the law or beyond the phallus: its degree and its value depend on the genius and the inclination of each one.

We are now in the position to articulate more clearly what is woman’s relation to the law. Because the moment of subjectivation and that of sexuation, on the feminine side, are separated by the non-coincidence of penis and phallus, the feminine is not subjected to the imperative of the superego without for that reason having to pay the price of a flawed subjective structure or a loose internalization of language. On the other hand, the lack of such an unconscious imaginary formation (the production of the fetish) may create a culturally induced “want” for the Law, the famous envy that is at the basis of hysteria and that indeed constitutes the quintessential feminine complaint. Feminine jouissance is supplementary, i.e. negative, unconscious and non-symbolizable only when it is measured from the point of view of the hysteric and through the phallic standard. The hysteric falls into the trap of believing that desire can only be the desire for the universal, that is, for the fetish. However, a “feminine” desire is the desire for the singular, for that which can only be counted by one, and each time as a plus one, as something that is each time produced as something rather than nothing. That’s why femininity proceeds at the turtle’s pace, going nowhere, but remaining anchored to the law of her own jouissance, a poetic practice of signification that pre-empts the logic of the superego and its drive toward transgression.

In this sense, the feminine comes closest to the essence of the law of signification which functions as pure articulation without content—it commands or demands nothing. As Kafka says in The Trial: “the court wants nothing from you. It receives you when you come and dismisses you when you go.”

[i] For a nice and more extensive discussion of primary identification, see Charles Shepherdson, “From Oedipus Rex to Totem and Taboo,” Vital Signs: Nature, Culture, Psychoanalysis (New York: Routledge, 2000). 115-152.

[ii] For an enlightening discussion of the separation between penis and phallus and its relation to the question of a feminine universal, see Monique David-Menard, Les constructions de l’universel (Paris: PUF, 1997).

Works Cited

David-Menard, Monique. Les constructions de l’universel. Paris: PUF, 1997.

Freud, Sigmund. “Femininity.” New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. New York: Norton, 1989. 139-168.

Irigaray Luce., Spéculum de l’autre femme. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1974.

Kafka, Franz. The Trail. Trans. Muir, Edwin and Willa Muir. New York: Schocken, 1995.

Kristeva, Julia. Des Chinoises. Paris: Editions des Femmes, 1974.

Kristeva, Julia. La Révolution du langage poétique. Paris: Seuil, 1974.

Lacan, Jacques. Encore—Le Séminaire, livre XX. Paris: Seuil, 1975.

Shepherdson, Charles. “From Oedipus Rex to Totem and Taboo.” Vital Signs: Nature, Culture, Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge, 2000. 115-152.

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