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Review of "Beyond Gender"

By Paul Verhaeghe
Other Press, 2001
Review by Adrian Johnston, Ph.D. on Jan 20th 2002
Beyond GenderAs this volume's title suggests, Paul Verhaeghe's collection of essays on various aspects of Freudo-Lacanian psychoanalysis is unified by a basic, underlying thesis: psychoanalysis is not about "sexuality," whether this term is construed in a narrow or a wide sense. Strains of what could be called "crude" or "vulgar" Freudianism (these strains include both early, favorable, and naive receptions of Freud's "pan-sexualism" as well as certain standard critical stances taken with respect to Freud today) mindlessly set the complexities of cognition to the monotonous refrain of "pee-pee, caca." Theoretically more sophisticated readers of Freud, understandably finding such a simplistically literal interpretation of a very selective sampling of Freud's proclamations distasteful and untenable, seek to save the master from the clumsy hands of those accepting a literal, limited pan-sexualism by pursuing a defensive strategy whereby it's conceded that Freud does indeed place sexuality at the center of psychical life, but that what Freud means by "sexuality" is much broader and conceptually richer than he is usually given credit for by both his defenders and detractors. Many Lacanian and "post-modern" interpreters of the Freudian legacy pursue just such a strategy, transforming Lacan, in turn, into a theorist obsessed with the (albeit non-existent) sexual relationship. Thanks to a sort of general consensus around this position, doubts about whether or not sexuality really is the dominant motif in the unconscious are effectively stifled. The genuine merit of Verhaeghe's book lies in his complete and total break with the viewpoint that the psyche is organized around sexuality as its central core. Verhaeghe rejects this obsession bewitching and titillating the vast majority of psychoanalytic theorists in one way or another, proceeding to clearly and unambiguously relegate the "sexualized" formations of the unconscious to a residual, secondary position. However, the crucial question naturally arises at this point: According to Verhaeghe, what is sexuality secondary to within psychical life?

Verhaeghe answers this query concerning the secondary status of sexuality in several different ways. However, the foundation of his approach resides in Lacan's "register theory" (i.e., the triad of the Real, the Symbolic, and the Imaginary). More specifically, Verhaeghe's reconsideration of the role of sexuality in psychoanalysis is executed vis-à-vis a series of parallel variations on a theme, a set of terminological permutations rooted in the Lacanian distinction between the Real and the Symbolic (or, as Verhaeghe sometimes explains, between, on one side, the Real, and, on the other side, both the Symbolic as well as the Imaginary). For example, Verhaeghe shows how the late Lacan's dichotomy between two types of jouissance-in the twentieth seminar, Lacan distinguishes between "other jouissance" and "phallic jouissance"-is a conceptual translation of Freud's foundational, long-standing division between the primary and secondary processes. But, this is a translation that leads to an important shift away from what is typically associated with traditional Freudian ideas: the other jouissance of the primary processes is not "sexual" in any sense whatsoever. All sexual meanings, aspects, and connotations connected with the shifting, mobile distributions of libidinal cathexes/investments is a result of the secondary processes channeling this primordial jouissance through the imprinting representational defiles of sexual (i.e., "phallic") symbolism (according to Verhaeghe, this stamping of sexuality onto a pre-/non-sexual Real is what Freud means by the process of "binding" [Bindung]). After the fact of this binding of other jouissance, of translating the primary processes into the "language" of phallic sexuality (Lacan insists that human sexuality is phallic insofar as both genders are defined and identified in terms of having or not having a common denominator, namely, the phallus), the pre-/non-sexual Real is retroactively distorted by being rendered exclusively in the shape of sexuality as manifest at the level of the registers of the Imaginary and the Symbolic.

Furthermore, Verhaeghe asserts that the principle feature of the Real is not only that it's inappropriately portrayed within a representational, interpretive scheme constructed around sexual motifs, but that it's constitutively and intrinsically antithetical to any form of representation whatsoever in its very essence. Of course, this amounts to a restatement of Lacan's famous tuché-automaton distinction from the eleventh seminar (a distinction that Verhaeghe tirelessly appeals to throughout his text): the Real cause (i.e., tuché) is the origin, catalyst, or impetus (a chance occurrence, a random, unpredictable, and "traumatic" event) for the Symbolically-articulated structures of the signifying unconscious (i.e., the automaton of ideational representations)-but, this quasi-noumenal cause cannot, in itself, be adequately rendered or digested by the "signifiers" (in Freudian parlance, the bound mnemic traces employed by the secondary processes of the psyche) of the unconscious which it itself is, in large part, responsible for shaping and setting in motion. The Real is, for Lacan, the unrepresentable ground of representation, the necessarily absent origin of the play of unconscious formations-it resides in the "gaps" around which Lacan sees the unconscious opening and closing in its "temporal pulsation." Verhaeghe struggles to thoroughly think through the multiple psychoanalytic and philosophical implications of this basic dynamic.

In the first chapter, entitled "The Riddle of Castration Anxiety: Lacan beyond Freud," Verhaeghe asserts that, "the idea of castration is in the first place a defense against anxiety, and in that sense it is a secondary formation" (pg. 10). Freud, in his 1937 piece "Analysis Terminable and Interminable," pessimistically concludes that castration is an immovable, un-analyzable "rock," a deadlock against which analytic interpretation runs aground with respect to both sexes. Thus, castration is some type of irreducible kernel, an inexplicable atom that simply must be recognized (but cannot be further decomposed) by the analyst. Verhaeghe believes that Lacanian theory advances beyond the resignation of this conclusion. The claim is that the Real of anxiety is not originally linked to "castration" in any sense of the term. Instead, the primordial kind of anxiety experienced by the individual arises from the situation of being passive with respect to the enigmatic, unpredictable desire of an Other.

Although this first essay is brief, with Verhaeghe letting a lot of Lacanian vocabulary make his arguments for him, one can pretty easily reverse engineer his reasoning here. The infant, in its state of pre-maturational helplessness, is utterly and completely dependent on others for the satisfaction of its basic needs and wants; without this vital assistance, the infant is exposed both to the increasing tension and displeasure arising from unmet somatic demands/requirements as well as, ultimately, to the risk of death. Since the maternal figure is usually the first, primary "Other" responsible for the life-and-death matter of nurturing the child, the young individual experiences a great deal of anxiety in trying to figure out what this often mysterious and powerful Other desires from him/her in order to guarantee protection from the suffering connected with his/her corporeal condition. The anxiety associated with this passive situation, a situation originally determined by the design of the human organism itself, is tamed and domesticated by being cast in the fixed mold of castration. In short, for Verhaeghe, the "lack" of passive pre-maturational helplessness is covered and concealed in being unconsciously interpreted by the subject as the "lack" of the phallus, namely, the non-possession of whatever represented objects or signifiers are latched onto by the child as answers to the question of what the (m)Other wants. The various symbolizations of castration, everything linked to the Lacanian paternal function, operate to bind and contain anxiety, rather than being the primordial source of this negative affect (as sometimes suggested by Freud). Or, put differently, one could describe this as the process whereby the indeterminate anxiety of passivity is transformed into the determinate fear of castration (which would mean that castration anxiety isn't anxiety in the strictly psychoanalytic sense, but a form of fear qua defense against anxiety).

Verhaeghe's fourth essay, "Trauma and Psychopathology in Freud and Lacan: Structural versus Accidental Trauma," presents a case for rigorously distinguishing between a standard, default definition of trauma as a haphazard occurrence that gratuitously inflicts pain upon the person, that is, "accidental trauma," and trauma taken as a necessary feature invariably situated at the origin of subjectivity proper, namely, "structural trauma" (elsewhere, Dominick LaCapra, in his essay "Reflections on Trauma, Absence, and Loss" in the collection Whose Freud?: The Place of Psychoanalysis in Contemporary Culture, offers an almost identical argument in separating "absence" as structurally necessary trauma from "loss" as contingent suffering). Trauma understood in its former sense, as accidental misfortune, requires little clarification. So, turning to the less obvious aspect of the present discussion, what does Verhaeghe view as the structural trauma lying at the root of the subject's identity and unconscious? Once again, the tension between the unrepresentable Real and the representational domains of Lacan's other two registers is invoked: in particular, Verhaeghe advances the idea that the unavoidable failure involved in trying to locate suitable representatives for Trieb is precisely the trauma which all individuals are pre-destined to undergo by virtue of their metapsychological constitution. Structural trauma is an effect of the impossibility of an Imaginary-Symbolic re-transcription of the Real. This thesis is regularly reiterated throughout the rest of the book. Given its centrality for Verhaeghe's thinking in this text, in addition to its intellectually interesting character, the idea of a necessary incompatibility between representation and the unrepresentable in the libidinal economy deserves further scrutiny.

Apropos of two key concepts-drive and the Real-certain subtle inconsistencies and vacillations can be detected on Verhaeghe's part. As regards drive, Verhaeghe switches back and forth between three claims that often sound almost identical, but that are, in fact, significantly different from each other: one, drive itself (i.e., each and every individual drive) is internally split between the unrepresentable (i.e., the Real) and the represented (i.e., the Imaginary and the Symbolic); two, drive itself is the unrepresentable Real (as the other jouissance of the primary processes) impinging upon the secondary, representational orders of the Imaginary-Symbolic axis (as the signifiers of the phallic jouissance of the sexual field); three, drives are divided into two types/classes, as per the Freudian notion, from the second topography, of a conflict between Eros (conceived by Verhaeghe as phallically sexual) and Todestrieb (as the "silent," "daemonic" labor of an untamed, non-phallic set of compulsions incapable of full psychical inscription). The second claim risks backsliding into a vitalism-Verhaeghe is eager to show, at certain moments in his exposition, that Lacan is not a vitalist of any stripe-dressed up in slightly new terminological clothing, namely, a presentation of Trieb as a mysterious force welling up from an embodied source. The third claim isn't explored much by Verhaeghe, and more work would be required to show how a renewed appeal to the Eros-Todestrieb dichotomy of the second topography avoids encountering all of the old problems and questions surrounding this particularly difficult knot of concepts, metaphors, and extra-analytic borrowings on Freud's part. That said, what about the first claim, the assertion that each and every drive is internally divided?

Verhaeghe's talk of a divided drive is fully consistent with Freud's 1915 definition of drive in the metapsychological paper "Drives and Their Vicissitudes" (as well as Lacan's description of Trieb as a "montage" or "collage," a juxtaposition of different, distinct elements). Freud states that all drives, by definition, consist of a "source," "pressure," "aim," and "object"; he also famously remarks there that drives lie on the frontier "between soma and psyche"-the source and pressure are closely associated with the somatic, corporeal forces of the libidinal economy, while the aims and objects of drives are established as ideational representations and mnemic traces operative within a psychical system of inscriptions. Furthermore, in his metapsychological essays, Freud stipulates that drives are known or encountered only via their representatives within the psyche. Taking all of this into account, it can now be seen that Verhaeghe's oscillation between sometimes speaking of the drives as unrepresentable and, at other times, referring to them as internally bifurcated is not a trifling, unimportant detail, a matter for mere scholarly nit picking. In the Freudian metapsychological system, drives are not simply obscure undercurrents incapable of being represented. On the contrary, Trieb as such doesn't exist (or, as Lacan might put it, "ex-sist") outside of or external to its representational mediators; in fact, such mediation is inscribed in its very heart as part and parcel of its own architecture. In Lacanian terms, portraying drives as purely unrepresentable, as wholly and completely coextensive with the Real alone, is to misrecognize their properly "extimate" character, the fact that their "ontological" status is heterogeneous (i.e., simultaneously Real, Imaginary, and Symbolic) rather than homogenous. Thus, to say that drive (instead of a certain feature or aspect of the drive's metapsychological anatomy, namely, its source and pressure) is, in itself, opposed to being rendered by representational structures is to miss the paradoxical, borderline status that is one of the novel hallmarks of the psychoanalytic concept of Trieb. What's more, Verhaeghe never really provides an explanation for why the drives cannot be represented (a claim that sounds contrary to Freud's position that drives operate in the psyche and are recognizable by the observer exclusively through the fashion in which they are intertwined with ideational representatives). This is presented more as a dogmatic, axiomatic assertion than as a theoretically deduced result or conclusion-a world of difference exists between asserting a true theoretical position and actually explaining why that position is true in the first place.

Similarly, when invoking the Lacanian category of the Real, Verhaeghe occasionally sounds caught in a state of indecision, a state that many interpreters of the Lacanian Real find themselves in today. On the one hand, the Real is treated as anterior or external to the Symbolic; the Real is a foreign (non-)presence that disturbs and upsets the smooth running of the structural machinery of subjectivity. On the other hand, due to worries that such a description risks reducing Lacan to a kind of developmental vitalist, Verhaeghe occasionally insists that the Real is strictly internal to the Symbolic; the Real doesn't pre-exist the Symbolic or have an independent status as something subsisting outside of the symbolic order (instead, the Real is produced immanently out of the internal contradictions and impasses of the symbolic order-this should lead to some skepticism about the notion of the Real being utterly unrepresentable). Given just how heavily Verhaeghe relies upon this particular Lacanian register for explanatory purposes, one might imagine that sorting out its status, grappling with and thereby synthesizing its various conceptual roles, would be a pre-requisite for this text.

The fifth and sixth essays ("Subject and Body: Lacan's Struggle with the Real" and "Mind your Body: Lacan's Answer to a Classical Deadlock") seek to shed light on a Lacanian theory of embodiment. What is the status of the body in Lacan's thought? What shifts and changes does his conceptualization of corporeality undergo throughout his intellectual itinerary? "Subject and Body" does a nice job of charting the course of Lacan's engagement with the notion of embodiment as it evolves over the course of his teaching. Verhaeghe demonstrates that some surprising consistencies connect the early period of the "mirror stage" (the 1930s and 1940s) and the later seminars of the 1970s. In "Mind your Body," Verhaeghe wants to argue that the late Lacan (especially in the twentieth seminar) aims at overcoming Descartes, at superseding the dualism between thinking and extended substance characteristic of the Cogito qua epitome of the modern subject. Verhaeghe basically claims that Lacan dispenses with all forms of dualism or binary oppositions. Although containing many interesting flashes of insight, this sixth essay is a bit disappointing in two ways. First of all, it pays no attention whatsoever to the myriad references in Lacan's work to Descartes. Verhaeghe is silent as regards Lacan's sustained and detailed examination of the (often positive) relation between the Cogito and his own theory of subjectivity (Lacan devotes a great deal of time to the Cartesian subject in seminars nine, eleven, thirteen, and fourteen, just to name a few places). Secondly, isn't the fundamental opposition (even if it's a dialecticized one) between the Real and the Symbolic a binary opposition of sorts? Verhaeghe, while maintaining that a properly Lacanian stance precludes reliance upon dualistic models, doesn't clearly explain why his own arguments in this text aren't themselves reliant upon just such models. Isn't psychoanalysis, at the most general of levels, a binaristic view of human nature? Isn't its thematic emphasis on "conflict" at odds with the anti-dualistic rhetoric of typical variants of Descartes bashing?

Overall, in terms of style and presentation, this book could have done with a lot more editing. Verhaeghe's English is awkward at times, and the text is rife with grammatical errors and misspellings. Also, parts of it are repetitive. For example, the second essay ("From Impossibility to Inability: Lacan's Theory of the Four Discourses") reduplicates almost verbatim a discussion already contained in one of Verhaeghe's earlier books (Does the Woman Exist?: From Freud's Hysteric to Lacan's Feminine). Another symptom of repetitiveness manifests itself in the fact that, from essay to essay, Verhaeghe cites the same few passages from Lacan's work over and over again (particularly passages excerpted from seminars eleven and twenty).

Nonetheless, Verhaeghe obviously has an impressive mastery of the entire span of Lacan's texts. The footnotes especially are a rich source of references for those interested in pursuing various themes and ideas contained in the seminars. Furthermore, as noted above in the opening paragraph, Verhaeghe deserves to be praised for the boldness and cogency of his departure from the hackneyed and questionable appeal to sexuality as the inexplicable substratum of the unconscious. Beyond Gender is definitely representative of the current state of the art in Lacanian theory.

© 2002 Adrian Johnston

Adrian Johnston recently completed a Ph.D. in Philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook. His dissertation was Time Driven: Metapsychology and the Splitting of the Drive.