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Review: What IS Sex? by Alenka Zupančič

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The Lacanian philosopher Alenka Zupančič’ new book What IS Sex? (2017) is Zupančič at her absolute finest. Zupančič compellingly destabilizes any notion you might have of a sound ontological foothold in the world. One does not simply be with Zupančič.

Rather than reject human sexuality as something for the meanderings of sexologists or scoffingly dismissed from philosophical/academic discourse, Zupančič finds in sexuality a highly productive philosophical core from which emancipatory thought can take root. What IS Sex? is above all an exciting book despite being heavily loaded with Lacanian theory and philosophical jargon. Zupančič returns to the old psychoanalytical hunting grounds of sexuality to uncover a set of intriguing and powerful conceptual tools that not only shed light on the ontological nature of sex and sexuality, but have immediate political value. It is not that what goes on in the bedroom can be conceived of as exemplary political struggles but, as she writes, because there is, in the weirdness of sexuality, an emancipatory political potential in the way sexuality exposes how we produce relations.

As Lacan says somewhere, “For the moment, I am not fucking, I am talking to you. Well! I can have exactly the same satisfaction as if I were fucking.”

But first why is sexuality weird? The answer may lie in its ubiquitous state. Think of all the sexy commercials, bourgeoisie ideas of perversity or the inexhaustible list of sexual innuendos hidden in everyday objects or structures (every tall structure is a phallus and so on). Sexuality, it seems, is amorphous. However this is not Zupančič’ point. She does not argue that sexuality is everywhere but, more powerfully, she states precisely the opposite: the problem is that sexuality is nowhere. Following Lacan, Zupančič holds that sexuality, seen in this ‘nowhere’ light, has a paradoxical position. At the same time sexuality is devoid of meaning, fully impenetrable and lacking while also being the point of excess—hence its ubiquity. It is in this conception of lack producing excess that for Lacan always points towards a strange surplus satisfaction at work. For example, the human animal doesn’t have sex only for reproductive purposes but also for pleasure, a surplus satisfaction is produced by the ‘reproductive’ act. However, this surplus is not limited to sexuality. This surplus stains the human condition as such. As Lacan says somewhere, “For the moment, I am not fucking, I am talking to you. Well! I can have exactly the same satisfaction as if I were fucking.” The act of talking is not contained within a set of informative clauses but is stained by surplus enjoyment (of talking).

The truth about sexuality lies not in a certain sexual ‘content’ but rather how the missing sexual-truth-content shows a different truth namely truth as form: with-without sexuality.

Having located an ontological negativity in the heart of being via sexuality, Zupančič continues to depict how this thinking applies to a multitude of other fields (class-theory, capitalism, speculative realism and so on). Yet it is not merely that something, the truth about sexuality, is missing, but instead that the very sexual relation between two is always already structured with an impossibility: relations hold within themselves a non-relation. As Zupančič brilliantly puts it, sexual relations are structured with-without sexuality; which is Zupančič’ answer to What IS Sex?: the form of sexuality holds the truth rather than the content. This line of thinking could also, for example, apply to class theory: instead of thinking of an antagonism between classes one could think of them as structured with antagonisms; hereby shifting the entire perspective of this field of inquiry. This relation qua non-relation or the with-without structure is one of the many fruits of Zupančič’ discussion of sexuality showing how the with-without structure bends the very nature of our symbolic reality.

Put simply, what is fascinating about What IS Sex? is how Zupančič uses Lacan, not to form ready-made psychoanalytical claims but to harvest from Lacan’s theories a set of conceptual tools that are not limited to the clinic. What this study of sexuality reveals has nothing whatsoever to do with the ‘truth’ of sexual encounters or the ontological categories of the sexes but rather exposes a paradox of obfuscation and surplus satisfaction which is in the driving seat of producing all relations. The truth about sexuality lies not in a certain sexual ‘content’ but rather how the missing sexual-truth-content shows a different truth namely truth as form: with-without sexuality. It is in this vein that Zupančič frees questions of sexuality as only questions regarding sexuality. At once, the strange pivot upon which the sexual turns shows itself to be an unfolding of questions concerning the necessary paradoxes of being itself.

Alexander is currently completing his Master’s in Comparative Literature at the University of Copenhagen. Here he spends days desperately attempting to avoid literary theory classes in order to take courses in philosophy and Lacanian psychoanalysis. He is ostensibly a volunteer at Ark Books, but no one can remember the last time he took a shift. For the Ark Review he will be writing various analysis of literary things with Lacan as the theoretical spearhead. A deceivingly brilliant field to pick of course, because no one understands Lacan, and thus Alexander comes off as smart. He asks for all complaints or disagreements concerning his articles be addressed to the big Other.

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