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Reading Seminar XXReview - Reading Seminar XX
Lacan's Major Work on Love, Knowledge, and Feminine Sexuality
by Suzanne Barnard and Bruce Fink (editors)
State University of New York Press, 2002
Review by Adrian O. Johnston, Ph.D.
Nov 15th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 46)

            In 1995, the State University of New York Press published a collection of essays on Jacques Lacan’s famous eleventh seminar of 1964 (The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis) entitled Reading Seminar XI.  Shortly afterwards, in 1996, a larger volume, Reading Seminars I and II, also appeared.  Both of these collections are superlative scholarly resources, containing pieces by many of the most important Lacanians working today (especially those associated with Jacques-Alain Miller’s École de la cause freudienne and its specific orientation towards Lacan).  In addition, each of these volumes has, at the end, a previously un-translated excerpt from Lacan’s original 1966 Écrits:  “On Freud’s ‘Trieb’ and the Psychoanalyst’s Desire” in Reading Seminars I and II and the extremely rich essay “Position of the Unconscious” in Reading Seminar XI—both are translated by Bruce Fink.  The first English translation of the Écrits, Alan Sheridan’s 1977 rendition, is an abridged version of the French original, containing only about a third of the original’s content.  Bruce Fink has long been promising to provide an English version of the full nine hundred page French edition, and the two selections published at the end of Reading Seminars I and II and Reading Seminar XI were supposed to be tantalizing previews of this forthcoming complete translation.  But, alas, the just-published Fink edition of the Écrits (2002) is merely a re-translation of the abridged Sheridan selections from 1977 (regardless, it merits mentioning that Fink has indeed been able to skillfully resolve many of the problems with the earlier English version, and that he has provided a cornucopia of helpful translator’s footnotes accompanying Lacan’s essays).  However, without Fink’s 1998 translation of another classic Lacanian text, the twentieth seminar (Encore), there probably wouldn’t be a collection of essays in English entitled Reading Seminar XX.

            Reading Seminar XX is both shorter than its two sister volumes, consisting of nine essays totaling 192 pages in length, as well as not happening to include any previously un-translated texts by Lacan.  What’s more, two of the nine essays are duplications of previously published material:  Slavoj Žižek’s contribution (“The Real of Sexual Difference”) is a collage of textual snippets from some of his other recent publications, and Paul Verhaeghe’s “Lacan’s Answer to the Classical Mind/Body Deadlock” is a reprint of a chapter from his 2001 book Beyond Gender:  From Subject to Drive (Žižek and Verhaeghe are two of the clearest and cleverest Lacanian thinkers around, so, for those who haven’t read these specific texts by them before, it’s not as though their contributions aren’t extremely worthwhile).  Also, when contrasted with the other volumes, Jacques-Alain Miller’s name is conspicuously absent from the list of contributors.  Nonetheless, despite these shortcomings, the other seven pieces in this volume are, overall, of a high caliber; they manage to insightfully examine the broad swathe of issues broached by Lacan in his 1972-1973 seminar, issues ranging from the libidinal underpinnings of both love and sexuality to the philosophical fundaments of epistemology.  Suzanne Barnard’s introduction deftly sets the stage for the contributors, explaining both the historical significance of Lacan’s twentieth seminar (especially for feminism and the multiple incarnations of the sex-versus-gender debate) as well as its yet-to-be-exhausted potential for providing productive avenues of escape from the dead-ends of sterile, hackneyed contemporary arguments.

            In “Knowledge and Jouissance,” Bruce Fink’s contention is that Lacan’s fundamental task in the twentieth seminar is to demolish fantasies of harmonious, integrated wholeness (i.e., notions dealing with a motif Lacan labels “the One” [l’Un]) haunting nearly every corner of human reality.  One of Lacan’s most notorious one-liners comes from Encore:  Il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel” (“There is no sexual relationship”).  A key thesis of psychoanalysis is that all features of higher-order cognitive processes are, in one way or another, subliminatory, derivative permutations of libidinal mechanisms (for example, Freud claims that an adult’s passion for abstract knowledge is a modified form of childhood sexual curiosity à la a scopophilic drive).  This isn’t to devalue or besmirch the refined accomplishments of humanity—in the opening paragraph of his 1910 essay on Leonardo da Vinci, Freud cautions against misperceiving psychoanalytic investigations into culture as exercising a reverse Midas touch of sorts—but, rather, simply to claim that the originary causal factors lying at the base of human psychical development are libidinal in nature.  Thus, in denying the existence of any kind of unified fusion (exemplified in the enduring vision of the sexual relationship as one in which the amorous partners completely lose themselves in each other) via a merging of two into one—in the twentieth seminar, Lacan sneeringly refers to Hegel’s Aufhebung as “philosophy’s pretty little dream”—Lacan is also concomitantly denying that such oneness could be found in any of the transformed derivatives of human sexuality, including intellectual endeavors like science (chasing after an integrated “Theory of Everything”) and philosophy (mired for over two thousand years in the pursuit of an irrefutable, systematic, and wholly consistent “grand narrative” for reality at the most global of levels)—“The relation between knowledge and the world was consubstantial with a fantasy of copulation” (pg. 28).  Fink shows precisely how Lacan labors to rid psychoanalysis of the subtle and insidious vestiges of these pervasive fantasies of complete and closed wholeness.  For Lacanian psychoanalysis and its radicalization of Freud, human subjectivity is condemned to being perturbed by a series of irresolvable, constitutive antagonisms.  The desiring subject as the “barred S” ($) strives to obtain a full and absolute jouissance (i.e., a total and exhaustive enjoyment qua complete satisfaction) that simply doesn’t exist, and yet crops up again and again in the fantasmatic formations of the psyche—“it is the idea of a jouissance that never fails and that never fails to diminish still further the little jouissance we already have” (pg. 36).  Hence, through Fink’s contribution, one can discern that Lacan implores psychoanalysis to combat all the various denials, within both the conceptual framework of metapsychology and the concrete realm of the therapeutic clinic, of the sexual relationship’s non-existence.  Speaking of “the One that the age-old fantasy requires,” Fink notes, “Lacan’s goal is to eliminate all such fantasies from psychoanalytic theory and practice” (pg. 28).  As usual, Fink’s commentary on Lacan is lucid, well organized, and edifying.  He skillfully leads readers through various Lacanian themes and ideas without getting unduly mired in jargon and superfluous technical details (one of the all-time best summaries of Lacan’s complete oeuvre is still Fink’s 1995 study The Lacanian Subject:  Between Language and Jouissance).

            Colette Soler, a Lacanian analyst practicing in Paris, has two pieces featured in this volume:  “Hysteria in Scientific Discourse” and “What Does the Unconscious Know about Women?.”  The former addresses the connection between science and sexuality and the latter discusses Lacan’s perspective on feminine sexuality.  In “Hysteria in Scientific Discourse,” Soler highlights two trends against whose backdrop analysis and its parallel set of psychopathologies emerge:  on the one hand, with the historical rise of science (including medical science) as an “objective” discourse expunging all references to the particularities of human subjectivity, analysis arises as a means of addressing those psychical ailments that remain irreducible to science’s ontology by virtue of their ties to subjective structure; and, on the other hand, with the ever-increasing technological and economic “instrumentalization” of everyday life, analysis registers the protests of bodies that refuse to smoothly integrate themselves within the social machinery of production.  Hysteria, involving both an incessant interrogation of what Lacan calls the “discourse of the master”—science often speaks with this voice of mastery—as well as psychosomatic conversion symptoms, is thus the quintessential modern pathology (Soler reminds readers that Freud discovers psychoanalysis primarily through his early dealings with female hysterics).  Soler, at one point in “What Does the Unconscious Know about Women?,” provides a surprisingly common-sense explanation for the analytic contention that the feminine libidinal economy (in heterosexual cases, at least) is oriented in a somewhat passive/reactionary fashion around masculinity and its “phallus.”  She notes that a necessary precondition for lovemaking to take place is, obviously, the presence of an erection in the male.  Consequently, women must attempt to occupy the proper fantasy position within the masculine partner’s libidinal landscape, that is, women must try to be right sort of “thing” that triggers the appropriate physiological response in their partners.  However, despite this emphasis on the topic of feminine sexuality, Soler is careful to note that, for Lacan, both sexes are caught in the game of “masquerade,” that the manipulation of semblances in the displays of sexual identity are part of the human condition in general (although Soler also contends that the techniques of manipulation and the relation to the various “masks” of gender roles aren’t the same or symmetrical for the sexes).

            Another French Lacanian analyst, Geneviève Morel, continues along certain lines present in Soler’s contributions.  In her article “Feminine Conditions of Jouissance,” Morel focuses her attention on the problem of frigidity in women, and uses this issue as a means for delineating some of the vital preconditions for women achieving a relatively satisfying sexual life.  One of the reasons why Lacan proclaims the non-existence of the “rapport sexuel” is that he sees the partners involved as “relating” not so much to each other but, instead, to their own fantasies and partial-object fixations (this being part of what Lacan’s positioning, in the twentieth seminar, of objet petit a as a mediating barrier between sexual partners entails, as well as what’s conveyed by his earlier formulation in the eleventh seminar that, “I love something in you more than you”).  For Lacan, unconscious fantasies and the various incarnations of objet a are necessary possibility conditions for both men and women as regards entry into the sexual field;  physical attraction to another is, to a certain degree, catalyzed by subject-specific “triggers” (i.e., marks, features, qualities, etc.—Lacan’s “unary traits”), this being an aspect of one of Freud’s insights into the amorous affairs of humanity.  According to Morel, women are in an especially awkward position here:  they must don the accoutrements of certain roles for their different partners, and yet, if they over-identify with their partners’ fantasies or fall into excessive doubt about their position vis-à-vis these others’ desires, then (usually hysterical) symptoms develop, up to and including frigidity—“a woman must engage in the masquerade, which is phallic by its very nature, in order to be desired by a man, yet, if she alienates herself excessively in it, wanting too much to be a ‘phallus-girl,’ she risks losing all of her sexual satisfaction” (pg. 83).  Being a happy woman is, evidently, an excruciatingly delicate balancing act.

            In her rather short contribution “Love Anxieties,” Renata Salecl, following Lacan, portrays male-female relationships as instances of the proverbial two ships passing in the night—“The major problem of male and female subjects is that they do not relate to what their partners relate to in them” (pg. 93).  That is to say, sexual (non-)relationships are based on the interweaving of two-way misunderstandings.  The reasons for this have already been briefly touched upon above.  In her concluding paragraph, Salecl argues that both men and women have a tendency to “split” their love objects, à la Freud’s examples of what he describes as a masculine libidinal strategy of polarizing women into two diametrically opposed categories:  women are either pure virgins or dirty whores, and certain men often find themselves in a state of, on the one hand, desexualized, Platonic love with the former and, on the other hand, carnal lust for the latter (what’s more, these men usually remain stuck in this inconvenient position, unable to unify these two split poles in the form of a single woman for whom they have both amorous affection and physical attraction).  Salecl claims that men partition love and lust in this manner so as to avoid being consumed by objects of desire that “horrify” them (for obsessional neurotic reasons), whereas women multiply their actual and/or fantasized partners in an effort to discern exactly what they are as objects of desire for their significant other(s) (for hysterical reasons).

            Andrew Cutrofello, author of the excellent 1997 book Imagining Otherwise:  Metapsychology and the Analytic A Posteriori (a study primarily of the link between Kant’s theoretical philosophy and Lacanian metapsychology), offers an extended philosophical discussion regarding “The Ontological Status of Lacan’s Mathematical Paradigms.”  Although several volumes on the Lacanian appropriation of mathematics already exist in French, the English-language secondary literature on Lacan has only just recently begun grappling with questions concerning the various functions of mathematical models in Lacan’s work.  Perhaps Alan Sokal’s venomous indictment of this aspect of Lacanian theory as charlatanism has stimulated this sort of scholarly research in the American reception of Lacan.  Cutrofello does an elegant job not only of explaining why Lacan decides to lay a certain amount of emphasis upon mathematics, but also in showing how this focus is utterly central to the Lacanian theory of subjectivity.

Lacan, following the French historian of science Alexandre Koyré, views mathematics as playing an irreducibly important role in the shift from pre-modern, Aristotelian science (wherein knowledge of reality is ultimately conditioned by and grounded upon perceptual observation) to modern, post-Galilean science (wherein scientific knowledge is submitted to numerical systems involving elements of thought devoid of direct reference to a perceived/perceivable reality).  Comparing Kantian epistemology to, for example, quantum physics as epitomizing the cutting edge of contemporary science helps clarify matters here.  In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant proceeds first from a “transcendental aesthetic” and then to a “transcendental dialectic”—he begins by discussing how legitimate forms of knowledge involve the relations between sensible intuitions and the concepts of the understanding (i.e., the legitimacy of knowledge is contingent upon thought remaining within the “limits of possible experience”), and then subsequently endeavors to show that the employment of the ideas of reason beyond the bounds of experience invariably leads to intellectual deadlocks, impasses, and contradictions.  For both Lacan and Cutrofello, even though Kant writes in the wake of the dawn of modern science, his epistemology doesn’t yet grasp its full import (if only because Kant doesn’t live to see modern scientific developments coming to full fruition in the twentieth century).  If a quantum physicist were today to write a sequel to the first Critique, it would be a mirror-image inversion of Kant’s masterpiece.  Undergraduate majors in physics are typically told, when taking their first course in quantum physics, not to bother trying to imagine for themselves the objects supposedly referred to by the quantum equations; the professors warn them to simply “stick to the mathematics,” since their efforts at conjuring up a mental image of sub-atomic particles merely results in misleading or outright contradictory depictions (for instance, objects that can be in two places at once, or objects that are both waves and particles, and so on).  Instead of, as with Kant, a dialectics of pure reason, one gets a dialectics of intuition.  The anti-Kantian message of quantum physics is simply this:  pure mathematical formulas provide unmediated access to the brute material real of things themselves as they really are (in Kant’s language, numerical ideas of reason furnish a direct embodiment of things in themselves qua the ultimate substance of material reality); however, any attempt to translate this mathematized real into perceptual constructs (in Kant’s language, imaginable and/or perceivable objects of macro-level experience) produces untenable antinomies for human thought.  Cutrofello notes that, “The fact that nothing in reality corresponds to negative, complex, or transfinite numbers, that I cannot intuit Lobachevskian or Riemannian or n-dimensional space, does not in the least compromise the truths I can grasp by thinking such objects” (pg. 156).  He goes on to observe that, “there is a radical disjunction between the order of the mathematical and the order of perception—or, to invoke Lacan’s dispute with phenomenology, that the order of the signifier is radically other than the order of ‘lived experience’” (pg. 156-157).  Inspired by such advances in the history of ideas, Lacan sees a great deal of promise in portraying the subject of the unconscious not as analogous to perceivable entities in the domain of experiential reality (i.e., a pre-modern, phenomenological strategy), but as a “reality” (or, more precisely, a real) akin to the mathematical functions governing the universe of modern science—“a subject belongs first and foremost to something like a space of intersubjectivity—a space, however, whose character can be conceived of only in numerical, not geometrical, terms.  Such a space might be conceived of as a network of signifiers, and the way to propose a mathematization of the subject would be to seek a model for understanding the advent of subjectivity in the linking of signifiers” (pg. 162-163).  Cutrofello draws the correct conclusion from this:  in Lacanian theory, a phenomenology of the Imaginary (i.e., an investigation into the perceived, experiential features of first-person, lived reality) is conditioned by and subordinate to a structural delineation of the Symbolic (that is to say, the subject [sujet] of the formal signifier determines the constitution of the phenomenal contents subsisting within the dialectic between ego [moi] and reality).

Suzanne Barnard gets the last word in this volume with her closing essay “Tongues of Angels:  Feminine Structure and Other Jouissance.”  Barnard examines the consequences of Lacan’s shift, starting in the eleventh seminar, from the Imaginary-Symbolic domain of desire to the Real of the drive.  Whereas Soler and Morel devote themselves to discussing the relevance of Lacan’s twentieth seminar to the topic of feminine sexuality, Barnard spends some of her time exploring the status of the masculine libidinal economy in light of later Lacanian notions—“Within masculine structure, the drive remains haunted by the image of phallic presence, despite the fact that the masculine subject’s place in the symbolic is fixed by its exclusion  he must remain at a certain distance from the object of his desire in order to maintain his sexual position” (pg. 180).  In Lacan’s terminology from the twentieth seminar, masculine subjects cling to the structure of desire qua “phallic jouissance,” in which they forever strive after a jouissance supposedly possessed by some mysterious, non-castrated Other without ever obtaining precisely “it,” in order to defend themselves from being overwhelmed by the Real of the drive qua “other jouissance”—“This is what Lacan refers to as the risk of annihilation that the masculine subject takes in approaching the object” (pg. 180).  Men cling to their “castration” (i.e., their deprivation of the libidinal “Real Thing”), since their very masculinity, according to this analysis, is predicated upon it.  Juxtaposing Morel and Barnard’s pieces (and some of Salecl’s remarks too), one gains insight into a Lacanian conception of the psychoanalytic difference between the sexes:  the sexual life of the feminine (hysterical) subject is jeopardized by becoming too perfect an object of desire for the masculine other (Morel), whereas the sexual life of the masculine (obsessional) subject is jeopardized by becoming too able to obtain the supposedly ideal object of desire (Barnard).  Given this pathological “mutually assured destruction” resulting from too “perfect” a fit between partners, is it any wonder that Lacan insists upon the non-existence of sexual relationships?  A certain degree of mismatched dysfunctionality is necessary so as to sustain the quotidian reality of a tolerable form of amorous bond.

Lacan’s twentieth seminar is, as the standard refrain about his work so often goes, “notoriously difficult.”  Like Reading Seminar XX, Encore itself is a relatively condensed and extremely complex presentation of a wide range of material.  However, unlike Encore, Reading Seminar XX will be accessible not only for those already initiated into the intricacies of Lacanian theory, but also for those simply seeking a bit of clarity apropos of a more obscure period of Lacan’s teaching (without a doubt, the seminars of the mid-1970s are far from easy to comprehend, even when one has read a great deal of Lacanian texts).  And, a really valuable service rendered by this volume is to show how the predominant feminist reception of Lacan has consistently treated Encore as, to use Barnard’s phrase, a “straw text” (pg. 2), namely, a “phallogocentric” caricature fit only for self-promoting, self-righteous derision.  Reading Seminar XX is a productive and highly readable contribution to the growing body of English-language scholarship on the late Lacan.


© 2002 Adrian Johnston


Adrian Johnston, Ph.D. holds a position as interdisciplinary research fellow in psychoanalysis at Emory University.


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