Sex and Cause

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Ever since the famous claim “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” by Beauvoir, the sex/gender dichotomy becomes the foundation of all gender studies. Sex was seen as fixed by biology, and gender was seen as historically and socially variable. (But in the following article, instead of using “gender,” allow me to stick with the conventional term “sex.”) Some hold the opinion that there is no sexual difference, and thus all social differences are due to the patriarchal oppression and should be eliminated, while some other feminists set out to theorize some non-patriarchal female essences which hopefully do not fall into determinism.

In Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, all dogmatisms that remain attaching themselves to our understanding of sexual identity are shaken off. But instead of falling into skepticism about sex, what Butler seems to provoke here is confident voluntarism. Sex is defined as a “performatively enacted signification,” which allows for “the parodic proliferation and subversive play of gendered meaning”. In other words, there is nothing constant and invariable about sexual differences, and the discourses are historically constructed, which we should intervene for creating subversion of sexual identities. What remains untouched here is that if sex is made up, it should also be unmade. The question we are concerned with here is the cause of this step-back-and-forth about the essence of sex. Perceiving sex as a cultural constitution, why are we seemingly unable to discard the idea of sex as such for good?

Master Signifier

The paradox is that on the one hand, sex seems to be objective insofar as people continue to treat sex as if it exists; sex, on the other hand, is considered to be culturally constructed and thus totally subjective. To better grasp this paradox, I want to change the topic to elucidate my point. When we say “I believe in… (freedom, feminism, and so on),” the message emerged here is the relationship between the subject and the Cause (e.g., “I act all for freedom”). What is behind this message is that I am not alone; others exist who believe in the same Cause. What it indicates is that what I believe in is the belief (of others), some objective entity external to me. To dig deeper into this topic, here is a passage from Hegel’s Phenomenology(1977, p.391):

…the absolute being of faith is essentially not the abstract being, the Beyond of believing consciousness. Rather it is the Geist of the community, the unity of the abstract being and self-consciousness. That this Geist is the Geist of the community depends essentially on the doing of the community… At the same time, the being [of faith] exists in and for itself.

The paradox here is that on the one hand, the entire being of faith is posited by the subjects as an embodiment of collective values; on the other hand, the being of faith is posited entirely as an object, an existence in and for itself, which continues to exist notwithstanding the subjects. However, what is crucial here is that we cannot brutally reduce the Cause to our subjective positing. God, for example, can be understood as the embodiment of human values (love, kindness, honesty, etc.), and yet God cannot be replaced by humanist values for it to function. In other words, God must exist as the transcendent Beyond, something ultimately inhuman.

Suffice to recall the psychoanalytic understanding of trauma. In the case of the Wolf Man, Freud’s most famous patient, the Cause was the traumatic scene of the parental coitus. This cause, however, only exerted its efficiency after a time lag: when the Wolf Man, at the age of two, witnessed the coitus, nothing traumatic marked this scene. The scene acquired traumatic features only in retrospect, with the later development of the child’s infantile sexual theories (assimilation of culture and language, symbolization). Therefore, the trauma is not the meaningless factum brutum of the parental coitus, but only through the development of subjective symbolization, the fact retroactively becomes the Cause. Herein lies the trauma’s ex post facto cycle: trauma is the Cause which perturbs the smooth engine of symbolization and throws it off balance. It gives rise to an indelible inconsistency in the symbolic field. However, it has no existence of its own prior to symbolization. In other words, it is the structural necessity of the inconsistency of the symbolic field that gives rise to the trauma.

Therefore, neither assigning some substantial essence to sex (purely objective) nor reducing it to a cultural constitution (purely subjective) can resolve the conundrum of sex. For the former, Freud has long illustrated that ego, what we refer to as “true self,” is merely a made-up, an imaginary self. There never exists a true self of women (and men, for that matter) to be repressed by the patriarchal culture in the first place. (To be noted, this in no way indicates that there is no repression.) For the latter, what cannot be ignored is that the trauma qua Cause, the Freudian Unconscious, designates the effect out of which the subject emerges. However, the understanding needs to avoided here that the unconscious is the thing that determines us. How do they differentiate from each other?

What is this trauma if it is external to and yet dependent on symbolization? The trauma is the kernel which resists symbolization and thus only reveals itself as the failure of symbolization. In Freudian psychoanalysis, the trauma is only accessible under the guise of disturbances within the symbolic order. Suffice it to recall slips of the tongue when the sentence, the signifying chain, is disrupted by the intervention of some traumatic memory. The trauma qua Cause reveals itself indirectly via the dysfunction of symbolic structure. For its very inaccessibility, the Cause cannot be said to be something that decides us. As the unconscious remains un-conscious, unsymbolized, the Cause remains inarticulate.

Back to the being of faith, don’t we see it function as a placeholder, a signifier of nothing? Instead of saying God is the embodiment of values, God functions as a pure name. Imagine a nationalist saying, “We need to act now. The Nation is at stake!”, in which “the Nation” is the empty word that sets the ground of justification for whatever actions following. Or an anti-Socialist cynical witticism would elucidate this point better: “True, we don’t have enough food, electricity, flats, books, freedom, but what does it matter in the end, since we do have Socialism!” Here we see how Socialism becomes that empty signifier, which is no longer a simple abbreviation of a series of markers (food, electricity, flats, and so on), but the Cause that supports their political identity and actions. This empty signifier is called “master signifier” in Lacanian psychoanalysis, which guarantees the consistency of the Other (an over-simplified understanding can be that the Other is the domain in which you are to affirm your subjectivity; this field is opened up to you by believing in God, Nation, and so on).

Sexual Difference

Sexual difference is thought of as an opposite, symmetrical, and complementary relationship. In Plato’s Symposium, man is considered to be cut into two parts, a female part and a male part, and the two sexes thus desire to be reunited as a whole. What does Lacan’s proposition, in contrast, that “there’s no such thing as a sexual relationship” mean? The concept of “zero-institution” may be of some help by Claude Levi-Strauss in Structural Anthropology. He asked two subgroups of the same tribe to draw the ground plan of the village, which resulted in two totally different perceptions. Strauss’s understanding, instead of cultural relativism that the perception varies depending on the observer, is that the very splitting of two perceptions is a hidden constant. This constant is a traumatic kernel, a fundamental antagonism that the village inhabitants were unable to symbolize and internalize.

Suffice it to recall the splitting of the left and the right. They not only occupy different places with the political space; each of them perceives different the disposition of the political space—a leftist as the field that is split by fundamental antagonism, a rightist as the unity of community disturbed by foreign intruders. Strauss’s point is that since the two subgroups nonetheless form one and the same tribe, this antagonism split also has to be symbolically inscribed. Here is where the master signifier comes in: a signifier, which, by its shared existence, marks the presence of the social institution, yet cannot be assigned with any positive and determinate meaning by its antagonism nature.

The argument I want to present here is that sex is one of the master signifiers. In “The Insistence of the Letter in the Unconscious,” Lacan produces an image of two identical doors with the two words “ladies” and “gentlemen” above them. At the level of the imaginary referent, there is no difference. However, two doors have to be perceived as different due to their symbolic attribution. The sexual difference here is a pure difference, a difference before any content or identity. No matter the doors are identical or not, the split has to be there first. It is in this sense that sex can never be thought of as harmony. Any attempt to establish a complementary relationship is doomed to fail.