Petar Odak - We Will Never Know What Sex Is

Alenka Zupančič, What is Sex? (The MIT Press, 2017)


Petar Odak


Bionote: Petar Odak is a PhD Candidate of Gender Studies at Central European University and Utrecht University, working on the project that examines "The Affective Ghosts of Socialist Legacies in the Context of the Experience Economy." The project explores the affective, ghostly presences of state socialist pasts within the vast field of experience capitalism, the focus being on performative practices of historical reenactment, immersive museums and virtual reality. He employs theories and concepts developed within gender studies (affect theory and queer theory, embodiment and performance studies), as well as psychoanalysis. His research interests also include dark tourism and postsocialist studies.


Central European University/Utrecht University



This book announces itself with a very catchy, one might even say sexy, title: What is Sex? Indeed, the title is a very accurate summary of the book, not only because Zupančič deeply engages with the question of sex and sexuality, but because she posits this question at the very core of her understanding of psychoanalytic theory as such, and its implications for political philosophy in the widest sense. Moreover, and to be more precise, it is actually the very impossibility to ever really answer this question once and for all as to what motivates Zupančič’s argument and, it seems, what animates our social order as such (both its reproduction and those rare emancipatory moments of the interruption of this reproduction). We will get to this in more detail later. At this point, it might be useful to summarise this book in a less exciting and more prosaic, or more to the point way, in which it could be easily subtitled: “What can Lacanian psychoanalysis tell us about contemporary political issues?” In other words, Zupančič’s book comes as an attempt, possibly a very needed one, to reinvigorate Lacan’s theory in order to address some of the pressing political issues of today. Let us look at what these questions being addressed are.


Zupančič starts by reminding us that at the moment when some of the most fundamental philosophical concepts – such as truth, real, subject and object – were about to be discarded as metaphysical, and maybe even conservative and oppressive, Lacan offered us a very valuable lesson: it is not that these concepts in themselves are problematic; what is problematic is the tendency to erase the fundamental contradiction they imply. Already at this point we can see that Zupančič does not readily align herself with several of the most widespread assumptions within contemporary theory. Moreover, this is where the psychoanalytic perspective comes in as indispensable, together with one of its core concepts, sex; indeed, sex itself is one of the categories that signifies the contradiction inherent to our social reality. Moreover, this contradiction is directly involved in generating said social reality: sex and politics are intimately connected as they both rely on something that is elusive, contradictory and impossible to capture. This is what Lacan calls the Real: it is the moment that disturbs the symbolic order and is connected to the fundamental contradiction of this order, or our social reality. Sex is, then, “of ontological relevance: not as an ultimate reality, but as an inherent twist, or stumbling block, of reality” (3). This is the first fundamental claim of this book. The second one, as Zupančič herself announces in the opening pages, is that this inherent twist, or contradiction, is not of secondary relevance, but directly partakes in the structuring of reality from the get-go. In other words, the basic premise of this book is that the question of sex is not just another problem to be resolved, but it is a crucial philosophical problem that has to do with all of the ontological categories listed above (truth, real, subject, object, representation etc.). Why is it so? There is more than one way to go about this question.


First of all, one of the central claims that Zupančič puts forward in her book is that there is ‘something’ in sexuality that is always-already unconscious, in the sense of Freud’s Urverdrängung, a primal repression, and this something marks the subject, and, consequently, the social reality as such. This means that it is not that we first repress something about sexuality which then strikes back from the unconscious in the form of a symptom; rather, this something is constitutively unconscious. This is also why the question of What is Sex? will never be answered. Moreover, the unconscious itself is the unconscious of the other, i.e., it is not activated at the first moment we repress something; it precedes this moment because it belongs to the signifying order, or discursivity, or our social reality. Here we can detect the form that, as I see it, stands as the core structure of Zupančič’s argument: the triangle of sex – unconscious – politics, possibly best articulated through the concept of the non-relation.

According to Zupančič, one of the most valuable contributions of the psychoanalytic take on sex and sexuality is that it establishes a non-relation as the category which, ultimately, regulates all of our social relations, from sexual encounters and romantic love to political power. Non-relation is another take on the fundamental contradiction of sex, as “human sexuality is the point at which the impossibility (ontological negativity) pertaining to the sexual relation appears as such, “registers” in reality as its part” (16). In Lacanian terms, this contradiction is brought into the world with the originally non-existent signifier and the gap it implies, and it registers itself as the unconscious. What is crucial here is that the non-relation cannot be erased, it can only be denied – indeed, according to Lacan, every kind of social repression (we include here both traditional authoritarian political oppression and liberal capitalist social relations, but also patriarchy in all its historical forms) is based exactly on this simultaneous negation and exploitation of the non-relation. Therefore, the non-relation is the fundamental instability and asymmetry of any social encounter and of any political system, and to deny it is to exploit it. One example that Zupančič offers here, and that might help us understand better what this non-relation exactly stands for, is that of sexual difference: if we are to negate the fundamental sexual non-relation and claim that what regulates the sexual system is a symmetrical relation of the two, we also need to stabilize those entities that form the relation, we need to know exactly what female sex is and what male sex is. From this to the claim of the harmonious system which consists of these two complementary poles – masculine and feminine - is a very short and dangerous step. It is at this point that Zupančič enters into a polemic with some contemporary lines of thought in the field of gender studies.

Straight away she takes issue with the concept of female identity, claiming that the defining gesture of heteropatriarchy is not the exclusion of female identity, but, on the contrary, this oppressive system is built exactly on the mythology of femininity as something distinctive. According to Zupančič, to stay within the narrative of female identity is to remain on the pre-political level, the one that operates on the assumption of symmetrical difference; this is why any progressive politics needs first to face, as she puts it, “the loss of identity.” But the problem is deeper yet. The tendency of contemporary feminist and queer theory to replace the problematic category of sexual difference with the (seemingly less problematic) category of the multiplicity of gender difference effectively hides the problem, the immanent contradiction, the ontological negativity of sexual difference, instead of facing it; as Zupančič rightfully notices, “one is usually timid in asserting the existence of two genders, but when it goes on to the multitude this timidity disappears, and their existence is firmly asserted” (44). In other words, the problem remains because we do not think of genders as inherently problematic, as we should, and as we do when it comes to sexes.

Another theoretical perspective that Zupančič puts into conversation with her Lacanian critique is the wide and heterogeneous body of scholarly work that goes under the label of object-oriented ontology. She briefly discusses Meillasoux’s speculative realism and Malabou’s philosophical materialism, but her strongest interest is actually in the wider implications of Lacan’s take on science. Or, as she puts it, the most valuable contribution of what we call object-oriented ontology is that it puts the relationship of philosophy and science as one of the most pressing topics, asking “whether they are speaking about the same world (74). According to Lacan they do, as both psychoanalysis and science have interest in the Real, they just have different ways of assessing it. Zupančič argues that what modern science is doing is not simply articulating, or mediating nature or reality with its discourse, but rather creating a new reality. However, this is not done by way of a simple symbolical reduplication of nature, but it is added to it, because the discourse of science coincides with the object of science. What is crucial here is that the scientific discourse, with its explanations, speculations and formulas, participates in the Real because it has real consequences. This is why Zupančič claims that it is completely irrelevant if scientists working in hard sciences are driven by assumptions that could be dismissed as naïve realism – they might as well be, but what matters are the effects of their discourse, and these are undeniable and independent of their beliefs.

From here, Zupančič goes on to psychoanalytically explore the relationship between the human and the animal, in a way entering into another trending theoretical perspective, the post-humanist one, which, to summarize it crudely, attempts both to emphasize the non-human actors and to simultaneously problematize the very humanist distinction between the human and the animal (or the object more generally). The latter is what interests Zupančič the most. From a Lacanian perspective, if there is something that still stands as the demarcation line between the human and the animal, it is jouissance, an enjoyment that splits the natural sexual need from the inside. In other words, sexuality as such is inconsistent and marked by a contradiction – this goes both for human and animal sexuality, therefore it is not a point that would differentiate us. What does differentiate us is the way in which this negativity occurs in the symbolic order, with the logic of the signifier. As Zupančič puts it, “the speaking being is neither part of (organic) nature, nor its exception (nor something in between), but its Real (the point of its own impossibility, impasse)” (93). Therefore, we could say that Zupančič insists on the difference between the human and the animal, but not in a way which would elevate the human above nature, but rather, it seems, in a way that discards the very distinction between nature and culture themselves. Because what a human is, in its final instance, is nothing but an articulation of the contradiction that is inherent in nature as such. No doubt that the posthumanist perspective would dismiss this argument as just another slightly camouflaged humanist assumption; however, I see it as a necessary and useful intervention that complicates the sometimes overly simplistic take on the human/animal non-distinction that often inadvertently reinforces the very binary which it is trying to reject.

One of the most influential philosophers that inspired both object-oriented ontology and, to some extent, posthumanist theories is Deleuze, and his work is the next stop in Zupančič’s book. She carefully investigates the moments where Lacan and Deleuze somewhat converge (above all, they both reject the idea that the pleasure principle holds primacy), as well as those in which they remain strongly incommensurable. Out of her extensive and meticulous analysis, what I think is important to single out here are the political implications of their differences, because this is where the specificity of what we can possibly term Lacanian politics comes out most clearly.

The Lacanian psychoanalytic perspective differentiates between the fundamental lack and the surplus enjoyment that is born at the place of this lack in order to replace it, whereas for Deleuze this surplus is nothing but a direct product of the repetition of this lack. It is here that Deleuze situates any possible emancipatory political moment: everything that happens, happens as this repetition, a repetition that is intrinsically tied to the death drive (this is why it is the death drive, rather than the pleasure principle, that Deleuze sees as the fundamental engine). This, in its final consequence, also means that “the whole series of the Deleuzian positive predicates is inscribed in the force of repetition itself” (124). The problem here, as Zupančič argues, is that this repetition is indiscriminate, therefore “there is absolutely no guarantee that, left to itself, the death drive will expel the right (that is, the wrong) things, as Deleuze seems to maintain” (128). In other words, the repetition cannot warrant us political change. What we actually need, Lacanian psychoanalysis teaches us, is a new signifier, as only this can replace the negativity (negativity that can be equated with the repetition and the death drive). This is the goal in psychotherapeutic work and should be seen as the goal in any political project if it is to be successful. This is, to re-iterate, the only way to produce the effects in the Real.

This approach also has repercussions for the, currently very infamous, category of subject. Deleuze, and the vast number of scholars from different disciplines that build upon his work, as well as large parts of progressive academia in general, tend to reject the subject as a problematic category that still strongly resonates with the violence of Enlightenment thinking. Instead of calling for de-subjectivation, Lacan, on the other hand, insists on the subject as the instance of the Real, that which articulates the twist in reality, and that which is our only option to generate political change. In a fashion similar to her discussion of the human/animal non-difference, Zupančič claims that, fundamentally, the subject is an articulation of the immanent contradiction in discourse, and to erase it is to lose the possibility of facing the contradiction; we can only temporarily hide it from our eyes. Moreover, as she sharply concludes, there is a paradox at the very heart of this attack on the subject: if we are to posit the subject as nothing but another, not at all specific, point in our universe, we have to accept that one of the consequences of this gesture is, practically, giving up on the position that allowed us to detect injustice, the position from which we started to think about a new, more egalitarian ontological project that would aim to de-throne the subject as such.

Finally, although the implications of sex as non-relation, as we have seen, are treated as fundamentally political throughout her argument, towards the end of the book, in its concluding chapter, Zupančič emphasizes the political implications of the Lacanian perspective once more, briefly examining it alongside Badiou’s political philosophy, namely his concept of the Event, which she juxtaposes with Lacan’s Real. One of the crucial differences between these two is that Badiou starts with the excess as that which defines being and is then interrupted by the Event, a moment that will allow for a proper political change; Lacan, on the other hand, treats this excess as already a result of the fundamental negativity in being, or the already existing lack that is co-existent with discourse. Suffice it to say, Zupančič aligns herself with the Lacanian model, so the most important takeaway here is that politics always necessarily implies a reactivation of the gap that exists in the unconscious (again, there is no politics if there is no accounting for the non-relation). In other words, because the subject, also the political subject, is tied to the unconscious, it emerges very rarely and fleetingly – as a slip, a dream, a joke. For Lacan, the Event would have to capture these moments of eruption of the subject. Again, this is done with a signifier that will affect the Real, a signifier that comes where the gap of the sexual non-relation is. However, it does not come to stitch this gap up, but to politically weaponize it. As Zupančič puts it in her concluding remarks: “We have not lost the Real (which we never “had”), we are losing the capacity of naming that can have real effects, because it “hits” the right spot” (139). This is what we should be aiming for.

As I announced at the beginning, what we can take out of Zupančič’s text is a needed psychoanalytic intervention into contemporary theory as well as some of the hot political topics this theory puts forward as important and urgent. As such, this book is almost impeccable: provocative and deeply engaging, but always careful and nuanced while developing its argument. It is also very dense, so the review of this type can only attempt to flag some of its most crucial moments. If there is an objection to be raised here, it has to do more with what is left out, rather than what is inside of its covers (although these two are always somehow mutually implicated): what strongly catches one’s attention is the complete absence of the “trans question.” For sure, What is Sex? came out a couple of years ago, but trans*, in many of its forms, had by then already penetrated both popular culture and high theory. Patricia Gherovici had published several articles on the topic of trans* and psychoanalysis from a Lacanian perspective by that time[1] (and her book Transgender Psychoanalysis: A Lacanian Perspective on Sexual Difference came out in 2017); there were some other authors as well. Therefore, to have a book that deals with sex and sexual difference in 2017 without even mentioning trans* and trans* studies and addressing the ways these might complicate sexual difference even further, comes out as somewhat surprising, maybe even symptomatic. I am not suggesting here that Zupančič purposefully omitted trans* because it would put into question some of the central claims of her argument, as I do not believe this would be the case at all. Still, this absence cannot pass unnoticed and it comes, at least to this reader, not as a silence, but as a screaming gap in the text.


Finally, a few necessary words about the style: although the book is organized in a clear structure, the argument is not developed in a linear manner, but somewhat fragmentary. Or, better yet, the text is offered as a net of arguments and claims that connect in a series of different arrangements, with conclusions scattered around the text rather than being offered in the book’s closure. However, if for this reason Zupančič’s writing occasionally comes out as evasive, this is most likely because the very topics she engages with (the Real, unconscious, non-relation, sex as contradiction) are at least somewhat evasive themselves. Moreover, and as I already stated, the answer to the very question that drives this book – What is Sex? – is destined to remain fundamentally evasive. In this sense, not only does her writing faithfully mirror her argument, but it actually offers the only consistent, or (if we accept the fundamental premise of this book), even the only possible way to write about sex. This is not to say that her complex theoretical argument comes in an abstract, broad-brush way; on the contrary, it is offered in a very meticulous manner, often accompanied by vivid examples. Yet, there always seems to be something left unsaid about sex, something vibrating in the text but never fully coming to the fore. This might frustrate some readers, or it might convince them, once more, that there really is something deeply contradictory, or even something fundamentally irresolvable about sex. This is, finally, also the point from which I would like to defend the potential ambiguity of this review. My attempt was to critically summarize Zupančič’s argument, and my success is at least partly conditioned by the evasiveness of the topics served.


[1] For example: “The Psychoanalytic Wager and the Democratization of Transgenderism” in The Ethics of the Analytic Treatment, Formations Cliniques du Champ Lacanien, Research Group Lacan in English, Paris: Documents des Formations du Champ Lacanien, 2007.

“The Transsexual Body Written: Writing as Sinthome” in The Literary Lacan, edited by Santanu Biswas, pp.259-290. Seagull Books: London, New York and, Calcutta and Chicago University Press, 2013.