Saturday, November 28, 2009

Against Judith Butler (4)

Slavoj Žižek, from Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, by Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 2000), pp. 308-310:

Perhaps the ultimate object of contention in our debate is the status of the (Lacanian) Real--so let me begin by reiterating what I perceive to be the core of the problem. Butler's critique relies on the opposition between the (hypostatized, proto-transcendental, pre-historical and pre-social) 'symbolic order', that is, the 'big Other', and 'society' as the field of contingent socio-symbolic struggles: all her main points against Laclau or me can be reduced to this matrix: to the basic criticism that we hypostatize some historically contingent formation (even if it is the Lack itself) into a proto-transcendental pre-social formal a priori. For example, when I write 'on the lack that inaugurates and defines, negatively, human social reality', I allegedly posit 'a transcultural structure to social reality that presupposes a sociality based in fictive and idealized kinship positions that presume the heterosexual family as constituting the defining social bond for all humans' (JB, pp. 141-2). If we formulate the dilemma in these terms, then, of course,

[blockquote from Butler] the disagreement seems inevitable. Do we want to affirm that there is an ideal big Other, or an ideal small other, which is more fundamental than any of its social formulations? Or do we want to question whether any ideality that pertains to sexual difference is ever not constituted by actively reproduced gender norms that pass their ideality off as essential to a pre-social and ineffable sexual difference? (JB, p. 144)

This critical line of reasoning, however, only works if the (Lacanian) Real is silently reduced to a pre-historical a priori symbolic norm, as is clear from the following formulation: 'The formal character of this originary, pre-social sexual difference in its ostensible emptiness is accomplished precisely through the reification by which a certain idealized and necessary dimorphism takes hold' (JB, p. 145). If, then, sexual difference is elevated into an ideal prescriptive norm--if all concrete variations of sexual life are 'constrained by this non-thematizable normative condition' (JB, p. 147), Butler's conclusion is, of course, inevitable: 'as a transcendental claim, sexual difference should be rigorously opposed by anyone who wants to guard against a theory that would prescribe in advance what kinds of sexual arrangements will and will not be permitted in intelligible culture' (JB, p. 148). Butler is, of course, aware how Lacan's il n'y a pas de rapport sexuel means that, precisely, any 'actual' sexual relationship is always tainted by failure; however, she interprets this failure as the failure of the contingent historical reality of sexual life to actualize the symbolic norm. Consequently, she can claim that, for Lacanians, 'sexual difference has a transcendental status even when sexed bodies emerge that do not fit squarely within ideal gender dimorphism'. In this way, I 'could nevertheless explain intersexuality by claiming that the ideal is still there, but the bodies in question--contingent, historically formed--do not conform to the ideal' (JB, p. 145; emphasis added).

I am tempted to say that, in order to get close to what Lacan aims at with his il n'y a pas de rapport sexuel, one should begin by replacing even when in the above quote with because: 'sexual difference has a transcendental status because sexed bodies emerge that do not fit squarely within ideal gender dimorphism'. That is to say, far from serving as an implicit symbolic norm that reality can never reach, sexual difference as real/impossible means precisely that there is no such norm: sexual difference is that 'rock of impossibility' on which every 'formalization' of sexual difference founders. In the sense in which Butler speaks of 'competing universalities', one can thus speak of competing symbolizations/normativizations of sexual difference: if sexual difference may be said to be 'formal', it is certainly a strange form--a form whose main result is precisely that it undermines every universal form which attempts to capture it. If one insists on referring to the opposition between the universal and the particular, between the transcendental and the contingent/pathological, then one should say that sexual difference is the paradox of the particular that is more universal than universality itself--a contingent difference, an indivisible remainder of the 'pathological' sphere (in the Kantian sense of the term) which always somehow derails, throws off balance, normative ideality itself. Far from being normative, sexual difference is therefore pathological in the most radical sense of the term: a contingent stain that all symbolic fictions of symmetrical kinship positions try in vain to obliterate. Far from constraining the variety of sexual arrangements in advance, the Real of sexual difference is the traumatic cause which sets their contingent proliferation in motion.

No comments:

Post a Comment