24-Hour Crisis Hotline: (877)SAFEGBC or (877)723-3422 Mental Health & Substance Abuse Issues

Navigation Link

Review of "Sexuation"

By Renata Salecl (editor)
Duke University Press, 2000
Review by Craig Smith on Feb 21st 2002

In reply to the question of how humans become sexed beings, it is now commonplace to hear the retort that this is either a process open to subjective positions where one enacts a gender identity, or, alternatively, one has imposed a gender identity through the matrix of social construction. In addition, these resulting gender identities are themselves marked by a fluidity beyond the familiar (and familial) couple of male/female. Positions such as transgendered, or intersexed are added to an expanding list of gender identities which already include the nomenclatures of gay, lesbian, or bisexual. And the point to stress is that these aren’t descriptions of sexual preferences or practices – rather they are to be taken as markers of both sexual identity and of sexual difference. 

Psychoanalysis in contrast, is often perceived as having been bypassed in regard to these sorts of debates, characterized as being too deterministic in it is findings, and oppressively conservative in its political outlook. Freud’s once daring Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality are now nearly 100 years old, and today, are generally regarded with either a deep antipathy or simply passed over in silence. Yet Freud’s insight that human sexuality is a “process” beyond that of biological imperatives, is the opening which made possible the question how humans are sexuated.

Sexuation is an outstanding collection of essays that signals an uncompromising return of psychoanalytic theory back to the centre of these debates concerning human sexuality. Its editor, Renata Salecl, has gathered together not quite the A-Z (it runs from Badiou to Zizek) of the big thinkers in a field that spans Cultural Studies, Philosophy, and Psychoanalysis. The silent partner of the collection, is of course, Jacques Lacan, and his seminar from 1972, translated as On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge, Book XX, Encore (for the uninitiated I suggest it be accompanied by Bruce Fink’s The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance). But Sexuation is more than yet another set of introductory essays to the difficult world of Lacan. Rather it sets to build on a number of Lacan’s provocative and at times puzzling axioms such as “There is no sexual relation” or  “The Woman does not exist”, to demonstrate that there are other ways of thinking through notions of sexual difference or sexual identity. What is key in the Lacanian account, is the idea that sexual difference is “…the name of the deadlock, of a trauma, of an open question, of something that resists every attempt at its symbolization.” (2). Sexuation is organised around four themes arising from this “deadlock” of sexuation  – sexual difference, paternal prohibition, feminine exception, and love. Salecl opens the collection with a clear and erudite introduction that goes some way in preparing the reader for what comes next. My only criticism centres on the brevity re Alain Badiou’s essay on Love, which I will say more in a moment. Jacque-Alain Miller’s “On Semblances in the Relation Between the Sexes” is the first essay in the section on sexual difference. Miller’s essay reads as though you’ve arrived late for the lecture. Why are we back “again” at semblances and why are men in the role of semblance? Miller’s essay, good as it is in elucidating Lacan’s axiom re “there is no sexual relation…”, could have done more to accommodate the generalist reader. In contrast, Colette Soler’s piece on the difference between sexuality and identification is more accessible without glossing the difficulties of the Lacanian formulas of sexuation. If one survives the opening salvo, the rest of the book, as they say, is a trip.

Exploring the matrix of sexuation further, the book moves from the deadlock of sexual difference, to the deadlock of paternal prohibition. It starts with a welcomed return of Eric Santner’s essay on Freud’s Moses, which among other things, focuses on the transgressive violence that underwrites the Father’s prohibition. Paul Verhaeghe’s contribution to this section one reads with a sense of relief and enjoyment – an essay grounded “somewhere” in the world outside nods to ancient Greek texts, opera or film. Verhaeghe wishes to trace the diminution of the father figure – a key factor in the Freudian account of sexuation as the agent of prohibition and the regulator of the access to sexual objects – across a century long, historical constellation, and while doing so, teases out both the contributions and differences between Freud’s version of the father and Lacan’s. Verhaeghe’s essay is also a powerful rejoinder to those who charge psychoanalysis of ahistoricism. Slavoj Zizek, who seems to produce another book every three months, reappears in the section on “Feminine Exception”, with his essay “The thing from inner space”. It is a hugely uneven piece, with the first part covering familiar terrain from other Zizekian works. Just when it one felt, finally, tired of Zizek’s cerebral pyrotechnics, he shifts gears to talk about the great, late Soviet auteur, Andrei Tarkovsky. Here Zizek shines as a sort of galloping gourmet, taking as his motif the notion of the feminine exception, to read the “impenetrable Other” at the heart of Tarkovsky’s film Solaris. The final deadlock of sexuation, Love, is dominated by Alain Badiou’s “What is Love?”. This is a dense and difficult mediation on love, on love and desire, and on Badiou’s other big themes – Humanity, Politics, the Event, and so on. Badiou’s essay marks a shift vis-à-vis the other essays. Here is a piece that departs from Lacan’s matrix, and this departure is discernable both in its intent and the language it employs. Unfortunately none of this is signalled in the introduction, where Badiou is introduced with an elementary one-liner – it’s the difference between love and desire, apropos Woody Allen on speed-reading War and Peace­ – it’s about Russia. Still, Sexuation is an excellent collection that does demonstrate the richness and depth of thought arising from Lacan’s original matrix qua the failures of sexed beings. As a collection it is fiercely combative, brushing aside charges of staidness, or conservatism with its presentation of another way to think through sexual difference, the No of the Father, femininity outside the phallic economy, and of course Love.

Re sex or gender? It’s sexuation, stupid! 


© 2002 Craig Smith


Craig Smith co-edited Female Sexuality: The Early Psychoanalytic Controversies (1999) and is currently completing his PhD at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia.