A Note on Copjec’s Ontology

I’ve been returning to some of the early Lacanian books (c.1990s) on sexuation. This afternoon I spent a few moments reading the final chapter of Joan Copjec’s Read My Desire: Lacan Against the Historicist(1994). Copjec used this chapter to weigh in on a longstanding debate between the Lacanian gender theorists and the Deconstructivist gender theorists. It seems to me that this point is extremely important inasmuch as it was this debate that provided structure to the entirety of the chapter and to the direction of the arguments therein. For this reason, Copjec must have felt compelled to frame her arguments in very particular ways so that she might anticipate forthcoming responses. Of course, the prime instigator here was Judith Butler. All of this is to simply suggest that Copjec was reacting to Judith Butler’s characterization of Lacan’s understanding of sex and that this was absolutely essential to the claims that Copjec was making.

In fact, Copjec was reacting to all forms of scholarship that attempted to transform Lacan’s thinking about sex – or any thinking about sex for that matter – into an endorsement of some sort of linguistic determinism (p. 50-51). For what it is worth I do not intend to claim that Lacan was a linguistic determinist. However, I do want to claim that he refused any sustained thinking about things outside of language. Of course, this much seems obvious, and probably even seductive for many readers. But it is nonetheless worth point out. Perhaps the most critical intellectual task consists sometimes of merely asking the deconstructivist or cultural studies scholar if they believe that the glass in front of them on the table has any being to it whatsoever. In any case, it may seem as though these two claims that I am making are contradictory, but they are in fact not. I’ll repeat them in point form because the distinction is a rather subtle one: (1) Lacan is not a linguistic determinist, and (2) Lacan fails to elaborate a rigorous thinking about things outside of language. I’m sure that this still seems something like a contradiction to some readers, so let me try to explain a bit more about what I mean.

Copjec and I are actually in agreement with one another, but for entirely different reasons. Copjec’s position is that Judith Butler reduces sex to the performative and fleeting dimensions of language. For this reason Butler conflates existence with being. Those familiar with Alain Badiou’s philosophy are no doubt all too familiar with the distinction between existence and being. For our simple purposes here I think it is good enough to claim that being is the ontological stratum of the world while existence is the level of being’s appearance there in the world. It is a distinction between being and being-there. In any case, Copjec wrote that Butler confuses “the rule of language with a description of the [Kantian] Thing-in-itself, in this case with sex” (206-7). This mistake is all too familiar. A similar mistake occurs when readers criticize Badiou for reducing the world to multiplities. Of course, Badiou does not reduce the world to multiplicities, he merely reduces being qua being to multiplicities. When things appear in the world as multiplicities they are measured according to a law of identity within a world.

For what it is worth I am in absolute agreement with Copjec’s criticism of Butler. It is dead-on. However, where I depart from Copjec’s theory is where she herself reduced the Thing-in-itself to the correlate of existence. In other words, she tied the Thing-in-itself to the dimension of language and the human animal. She wrote:

We can follow Kant on this point only if we add the proviso that we understand the Thing-in-itself to mean nothing but the impossibility of thinking – articulating – it. When we speak of language’s failure with respect to sex, we speak not of its falling short of a pre-discursive object but of its falling into contradiction with itself […] [it is] a meaning that is incomplete, unstable. Or, the point is that sex is the structural incompleteness of language, not that sex is itself incomplete (206-7).

Copjec argued that Sex, for Lacan, was actually always sexuation. In other words, Sex always connotes an impossible relationship marked by a gap between and within the communicative spheres of existence. Sex is thereby an impossibility inherent to the symbolic formation of language. While Copjec’s position was certainly more persuasive than Butler’s position, it nonetheless operated according to a similar reduction. On the one hand, Butler reduces sex to the plasticity of citation practices. On the other hand, Copjec reduced sex to the gap within the symbolic. Copjec’s definition of sex was thus remarkably similar in effect to her definition of the Lacanian subject. Why? Precisely because Copjec’s subject was always sexed subject.

I make no claims that Copjec’s reading was a perversion of Lacan’s original thinking. On the contrary, I think it was a very powerful and important reading of Lacan’s thinking on sexuation. My claim is simply that she confined herself to a thinking which took as its point of departure a subject and, thereby, an object ever coupled with that subject. This unsettling marriage of subject and object marked the point of departure for much of good Kantian thought. In contrast to this point of departure, the truly interesting emergent systems of non-philosophy – Levi Bryant’s, Alain Badiou’s, Ian Bogust’s, among many others – begin with objects and displace the subject. In other words, the subject is put to the side for the moment rather than presupposed as the perfect partner for a lost object.

Copjec was operating at a remarkable level of nuance. Copjec was in agreement with Butler insofar as Copjec believed that one ought not “foolishly” reduce the feminine sex to that which inhabits that “dark continent, outside [of] language” (216). On the other hand, Copjec was in disagreement with Butler insofar as Copjec believed that sex was necessarily within language. Interestingly, it is the former critique which might be waged against Levi Bryant’s work on feminine sexuation insofar as it goes against his entire philosophical system to presume that feminine sexuation can be interpreted as the place outside of language. To be sure, Bryant is doing a clever trick: he replaces the interpretation of Phi with “withdrawal” in order to sabotage the original formulae from within. However, I have maintained elsewhere that this disrupts the system that Bryant is attempting to build. The appropriate response is not to change the content of the formulae of sexuation (i,e. the interpretation), it is to change its very form. This involves nothing less than adding an entirely new formulae for the sexuation of things.

Within the new chart of sexuation the entirety of the masculine and feminine formulae of sexuation can be reduced to a single column called human sexuation. This much is easy enough to do precisely because, as Copjec maintained, “man” and “woman” are “two sides of a mobius strip”. Man and Woman are both inscribed onto the mobius strip of humanity. All of this does not necessarily contradict Copjec’s claims but rather supplements them.

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One thought on “A Note on Copjec’s Ontology

  1. I’ve been reading L’entretein Infini (1969) by Maurice Blanchot. The chapter in that book on psychoanalysis is only a few pages, and is by far the shortest chapter in the book. Blanchot’s work was so close to Lacan, that there wasn’t much for him to say on that topic. And what he did say could be formulated concisely, and that message seems very similar to J.A. Miller.

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