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Imagine There's No WomanReview - Imagine There's No Woman
Ethics and Sublimation
by Joan Copjec
MIT Press, 2003
Review by Ulrike Kadi
Sep 18th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 38)

"[...] 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 famous (20).

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 existence (47).

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 otherness,"[1] 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.

Three women

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.[2]  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).[3]  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 returns.[4]  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 community.

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 passions" (67).

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.[5]  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),


[1]  Kaja Silverman (1988), The Acoustic Mirror. The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema. Bloomington and Indiana: Indiana University Press, p. 7.

[2]  Jacques Lacan, The Seminar Book I. Freud’s Writings on Technique. London: W.W. Norton 1991. Session on February, 17th 1954.

[3]  Jacques Lacan, Le Seminaire. Livre XXI. Les non-dupes errent (unpublished text). Session on May, 14th 1974.

[4]  See Jacques Lacan, The Seminar Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. London: W.W. Norton 1998. Session on February, 12th 1964.

[5]Cf. Leo Bersani (1986), The Freudian Body. Psychoanalysis and Art. New York: Columbia University Press.


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