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"[...] being French does not
automatically entitle one to understand Lacan" (62). This quotation about
this French psychoanalyst makes clear one of the aims of Joan Copjec's recent
publication. And what is more, from reading her book, one could get the
impression that it is easier for non-French people to understand the written
and spoken texts of Lacan and to accept his ideas. He who believed himself to
be first and foremost interpreter of Freud has become famous besides his
psychoanalytic reception mainly for two reasons: his difficult and eccentric
form of presenting his ideas (and himself) and his provocative comments on
women. Copjec takes these preconditions seriously.
In a close and careful reading of
Lacan, Freud and a large number of texts from various other authors, including
Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Walter Benjamin, Leo Bersani, Mikkel
Borch-Jacobsen, Jonathan Crary, Gilles Deleuze, John Forrester, Imanuel Kant,
Philippe Lacoue-Labarthes, Jean Laplanche, Jean Luc Nancy, Pier Paolo Pasolini,
John Rawls, Guy Rosolato, Jean Paul Sartre, Elaine Scarry, and Kaja Silverman, Copjec
questions psychoanalytic issues related to the problem of woman's relationship
to ethics. In applying the late Lacan's view of femininity to some of his
remarks in his earlier seminars about ethics and the principles of
psychoanalysis, she manages to provide some new insights to this problematic. Like
in her preceding books (Read My Desire: Lacan against the
Historicists, 1994 and Radical Evil, 1996), her writings include a
lot of hints at contemporary discussions in cultural studies, allusions to
problems of political theory and examples taken from film and modern art. Her
attitude towards writing could remind one of a psychoanalytic session, because
it often seems to follow a flow of sudden associations. Although within her
rich text it seems at times her arguments are not easy to grasp, her way to
show the context of her notions can be very stimulating.
A new concept of the body
To give an impression of her style,
let us start with a close look at the first chapter. Copjec compares
Antigone's act of burying her guilty brother Polynices’ corpse to Creon's
action of burrying Antigone alive in a sepulchre. Following Lacan, she
critizises Hegel's reading of Sophocles in two respects. Firstly, Hegel fails
to see the importance of the body in regards to sexuality. Secondly, he reduces
death to a biological fact (19). Copjec will then introduce differing notions
of immortality. Feuerbach and Blumenberg separate immortality from posterity, while
this link is central for Lefort (23). He claims there has been a change in the
concept of immortality from a historical point of view. Before the French
Revolution, deeds and great works could not achieve enduring importance by
themselves. They were ascribed to persons whose names as a result became
immortal. Only after the classical era, the deeds themselves could become
This development has to be seen
close to a historical change in the concept of the body. As Agamben (and
before him Foucault) has pointed out, the fact of being alive, the bare life (Greek:
zoe), has became the only human quality of modern (bio)politics.
Copjec's suggestion at the end of the first chapter: Prefiguring the modern
sciences, Creon's attitude towards Polynices sticks to the idea of naked
Facing the life-sciences and the
several problems they currently produce, a new concept of the body is urgently
needed. Here Copjec points to Deleuze's and Guattari's idea of a body without
organs. The body of psychoanalysis, on the contrary, should be compared to a
body with a large number of mouths on the surface because it serves as a medium
of interaction (50).
Copjec considers Jonathan Crary's
approach to the subject of vision to be misguided because he misses the
importance of the corporeal relationship between the observer and the
represented world. Vanishing points which were important in Renaissance
paintings have to be seen as bodily inscriptions of the subject into the visual
field. This is the reason why the observer cannot remain autonomously outside
the represented, but is embodied in his position of view (189). This strut of
vision, the corporeal support of the subject, had forced Freud to turn his
interest from the ego to the drives (191).
Body and drive
In Copjec's approach, the body in
psychoanalysis is not supposed to be the "seat of death," but the
"seat of sex" (29) that belongs to the life-drives. But what about
the death-drives? Where do they belong? Copjec emphasizes every drive as
being "zielgehemmt", “goal-inhibited”. Like sublimation,
death-drives reach satisfaction by producing their own inhibition (30). In
this way, they can be integrated to a conception of the body.
Death-drives interfere with their
object "which brakes the drive and breaks it up (34)".
That is the way partial objects come into being. As breast, voice, gaze and
feces (and phallus), they represent a certain jouissance which is a part
of the real (in a Lacanian sense). This is the same real that Antigone aims
towards by her deed which in Lacan's eyes marks a definite break with the
community she lives in (39). What could her motivation be? Love, as she says
according to the Sophoclean text, because to her Polynices is irreplaceable as
a brother. For, she only can act the way she does because she has fixed
herself to the fundamental law of her own being (43).
It becomes clear here why Copjec is
heading for the problem of corporeality: Sublimation as a central feature of
ethical action cannot be understood without the psychoanalytical perspective on
the body because of the latter's fundamental sexual connotation. In discussing
Freud's conception of narcissism, Copjec shows the narcissistic background of
every object-love (62). This leads to another statement about sublimation:
Neither love for another person, nor sublimation are selfless because both
depend on Lacan's object a (80). As an "object with only a little
it bridges the gap between the self and the other.
In Freud and even stronger in Lacan,
women in general are characterized by a lack of a superegoic structure.
Instead of showing the problems of such a conception, Copjec (with Lacan)
stresses this difference between men and women to be a chance for women (127).
Creon's action is not ethical in a strict sense because it remains attached to
social prescriptions. Antigone, however, acts ethically because her action is
without (external) ground.
There are other women besides
Antigone on which Copjec comments under the aspect of ethics, namely, the
artists Cindy Sherman and Kara Walker, and the film-figure Stella Dallas. Walker's
black figures seem at first sight to emphasize racist prejudice. Again, Lacan's
conception of the real is referred to. He himself gives several definitions of
this term. He often mentions the real to be the impossible. In his first
seminar in the early fifties he takes the real to be something that resists symbolization.
This is a description to which Judith Butler refers at times. In one of his
late seminars in the seventies, Lacan says the real is writing (l'écriture).
Different authors underline different features of the concept. Zizek, for
instance, takes trauma and loss to open a privileged access to the real (see
his discussion with Butler concerning sexual difference and the real). Among
most authors, there seems to be a consensus about the following: The real marks
something within a symbolic field which cannot be negated, but eternally
In opposition to Butler, Copjec stresses the real to "guarantee . . . that
nothing escapes history" (93). Representing a (real) traumatic event, Walker's
silhouettes show (historical) differences which undermine the represented
(107). Walker allows the real of the antebellum past to turn up in her
figures, something that should not be mixed up with the return of stereotypes (ibid.).
With Sherman's untitled film stills
taken in the late seventies, Copjec refers to several discussions in film
theory about the woman being the bearer of the image (instead of the bearer of
the look) and the woman being a masquerade. While most texts about Sherman's
work mainly see the fundamental narcissism of her selfportraits, Copjec asks
the question of the relation between the woman and the surroundings in the
photographs (74). The facial expression of Sherman seems to be vague, which
reminds one of the so-called Kuleshovian nature of the pictures. According to
Deleuze, it allows the juxtaposition of faces to very different scenes (74).
Finally, for Copjec, the antinomic relation between the space and the gaze
described by Lacan (76) becomes the key to see the work of Sherman from a new
point of view.
Stella Dallas leads to problem of
the meaning of motherhood. She leaves her daughter because she is convinced
the child will be better off with her father and a woman he intends to marry.
She introduces a new couple which excludes herself. Instead of the well-known
maternal sacrifice towards her child, she performs the Lacanian idea of true
love: Giving nothing because there is nothing that can be given (127). Like
Antigone, Stella cannot refer to the well-established moral principles of her
An old concept of womanliness
The crucial question, of course, is
how to deal with the Lacanian concept of the woman. Copjec opts for a very
benevolent reading of the master. For this reason, her book cannot be
recommended to feminist readers. According to Copjec, Lacan's main goal is to
keep in mind the One of love (64). His provocative statement of the
non-existing sexual relationship is explained as another face of the
fundamental narcissistic character of erotic love (63). Being object a,
like the feces, turns the woman into the subject par excellence (67). From a
non-Lacanian point of view, this is as hard to grasp as the following. There
is Freud's well known sentence about a special type of women who had nothing
but "the logic of soup with dumplings for argument". To explain this
point, Copjec cites Lacan who maintained every woman lived in a "soup and
dumplings" world of immanence (101). In the same way, she points to
Lacan's statements about women as mothers being a void, a hollow, etc.
Copjec writing about women does not
at all transgress the logic of the Lacanian framework. It has to be admitted
that it is difficult to disprove most of Lacan's arguments as far as they are
merely taken as descriptive. They do not fail every reality check. Repeating
Lacan, Copjec describes the conditions of women as bad as or even worse than they
are. She does not seem to have a strong interest in a change for women in
general. Her goal is rather to show the Lacanian concept of femininity to
include advantages that have till now remained undiscovered; for example, how
the woman could be seen to indirectly appear as a "forger of new
There are different reactions
possible towards her attitude. If one has in mind the poor state the majority
of the world's women live in and if one is interested in a political change for
women, than one cannot help becoming angry. In this respect, Copjec's book
seems of no use. But such a view misses an important point: Copjec obviously
did not want to write a book on feminism. To ask for new insights in women's
liberation means to overcharge the text as if a cooking book from Scottland had
to include railway maps of the region.
The problem of the Other
Like a collection of modern art,
Copjec allows interesting insights into a lot of contemporary blueprints. It
is the question of the Other which seems to be the guideline of her remarks.
We learn about shame being connected to the perception of a lack in the Other
(128) and announcing the birth of the social (213). Long passages are devoted
to the theory of the gaze, from Sartre to Lacan, including critical remarks
about Silverman's proposal to take the gaze as a corporealization of a
preexisting cultural screen (209).
The psychological problem of the
difference between envy and jealousy makes up the starting point of another
journey for the author. While jealousy is a question of fear to lose something,
one who believes to possess envy is lead to the problem of a (primary) lack
(160). Copjec's discussion of the debate between Rawls and Forrester concerning
envy and its moral founding function (166) proves her ability to unravel dense
connections within the field of ethics. She deals in some detail with Kant's concept
of the radical evil (135 f.) where she confronts the philosopher's belief in
the essential goodness of will. Instead of carrying on a debate about the
difficulty to reconcile opposite tensions within the subject, she claims the
necessity of both. She, thus, obliquely approaches the question of the base of
our moral principles. Within the Kantian account, she stresses the subject's
freedom to discard once established moral standards (154). This fits within
the framework of her reading of Antigone's act.
Another well-known topic of
cultural studies certainly has to be included: perversion. Copjec unfolds the
theories about this central issue of Lacanian psychoanalysis from Octave
Mannoni (perversion understood as a structure of "I know, but") (222),
along with Max Horkheimer's and Theodor W. Adorno's argument that perversion is
a special form of objectification of the other, (223) up to the Deleuzian
concept, which as well as Rosolato's theory resembles the Lacanian view: In
perversion the relation to the Other is at stake. The pervert makes himself an
instrument of the Other (and of the law) without being servile and docile in
the neurotic sense (229). Since she cites him, one might have expected Copjec
to include Bersani's argument that sexuality in Freud was a special form of
perversion, namely masochism.
One might also add that Slavoj Zizek denies perversion to be a path to the
unconscious. Also Foucault's view of perversion would be worth being
discussed. However, Copjec merely decides to point to the perverse character
of Bill Clinton's intimate confessions in front of a camera (231).
Imagine there's no Joan Copjec. Reading
would be less satisfying. Even if we knew all the details she refers to, we
would not manage to find the elegant way in which she proposes to take us
through the jungle of so many different subjects.
© 2003 Ulrike Kadi
Ulrike Kadi (Vienna), Ulrike.Kadi@univie.ac.at
Kaja Silverman (1988), The Acoustic Mirror. The Female Voice in
Psychoanalysis and Cinema. Bloomington and Indiana: Indiana University
Press, p. 7.
Jacques Lacan, The Seminar Book I. Freud’s Writings on Technique.
London: W.W. Norton 1991. Session on February, 17th 1954.
 Jacques Lacan,
Le Seminaire. Livre XXI. Les non-dupes errent (unpublished text).
Session on May, 14th 1974.
 See Jacques Lacan, The Seminar
Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. London: W.W.
Norton 1998. Session on February, 12th 1964.
Cf. Leo Bersani
(1986), The Freudian Body. Psychoanalysis and Art. New York: Columbia University