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'What Is Sex?'

Psychoanalytic theorist and philosopher Alenka Zupančič provides a brief, difficult, yet ultimately rewarding look at the "otherness" of sex as an act, as identity, as communication.

What Is Sex?
Alenka Zupančič

MIT Press

Sep 2017

Any desire to understand the perspective beneath this difficult but ultimately rewarding book requires the reader to have more than just a passing acquaintance with Lacanian Philosophy. Jacque Lacan was a French psychoanalyst who basically deconstructed Sigmund Freud by challenging mainstream hierarchies and accepted binary conceptions. This movement emerged largely in France during the '60s and featured what many have considered a not too subtle implicit commentary about Western culture excesses and overall depravity.
For Lacan, there was no link between psychoanalysis and social theory. Instead, any considerations of the unconscious were seen within the context that its existence was as a discourse of the 'other'. The passion humans have expressed with each other through sexual congress -- for Lacan and his followers (including What is Sex author Alenka Zupančič) -- was as much verbal intercourse as physical. Desire as expressed through sex is manifested through a careful, alchemical combination of verbal language, culture, and the physical distance between all of us, even in the most intimate of physical acts we share as a means to culminate expression of erotic desire or simply the primal instinct to reproduce.

In What is Sex?, a carefully yet at times almost brazenly difficult text to absorb, Slovenian psychoanalyst theorist and philosopher Zupančič tries to answer the title question by considering the act of sublimation. Conventionally understood as the means of long-term behavior enacted to substitute the thrill of immediate sexual satisfaction, Zupančič instead considers this natural coping mechanism as a means to enjoy satisfaction equivalent to the act of sexual intercourse. It's a purely Lacanian supposition that Zupančič wholeheartedly embraces. The argument is that even the act of talking can be sexual.

For this Lacanian philosopher, however, there is no simple answer to the title question. Sexuality comfortably exists and should be defined within that hazy middle ground between ontology and epistemology. The carnal primacy of sexual congress as seen through the sweaty immediacy of the act has no time for knowledge, or does it? What elements are shared between the act itself and thinking, rationalizing, contextualizing the act? Perhaps the uniting common bond is the unconscious, that link between knowledge and its absence, between "having" sex, being sexual, and finding an equivalent satisfaction in alternate forms of communication.

This is hardly an anti-sex text, a tract promoting Freud's notion that there's something fundamentally unsatisfying or unfinished about sex as the alpha and omega of existence. On the other hand, Zupančič does manage to effectively elucidate that "something". If we take for a given that the common understanding is that the principal theoretical terrain of psychoanalysis has always been sex, how has that changed since Freud's time? One can hardly think Freud could have foreseen complex gender theory and feminist perspectives in his field. That he dared to see sex as something deeper than a biological fact or essential act has always made him revolutionary. Today, sex is relegated to biological concerns and gender is cultural. It wasn't as clear, however, in Freud's time. In the opening pages of What is Sex?, Zupančič presents her argument:

"…in psychoanalysis, sex is above all a concept that formulates a persisting contradiction of reality… this contradiction cannot be circumscribed or reduced to a secondary level… sex is of ontological relevance; not as an ultimate reality but as an inherent twist… of reality."

In other words, the very act of sexual congress provides the greatest risk of letting go and losing control, of slipping through the cracks of composure that present themselves as our building blocks of reality. We understand the biological functions of the sexual act, what happens when parts are combined in endless variations to provide pleasure, pain, or transmission of fluids that can result in the literal conception of a new human being, or sickness. We know that the very fact of the act and what it can provide (within or beyond our control) takes us away from reality. Whatever thrills we get are short-lived. For Zupančič , the bigger concern is the role sex plays in our waking (reality) lives.

As with any text concerned with the intersection between psychoanalysis and philosophy, What Is Sex can be a risky proposition. It's deeply rooted in both Lacanian philosophy and Freudian perspectives of sex. Zupančič is not doing herself any favors when she notes, again in the first chapter, "…that something concerning sexuality is constitutively unconscious…something that registers in reality only in the form of repression… the relation between the unconscious and sexuality is not between some content and container; sexuality pertains to the very being-there of the unconscious, in its very ontological uncertainty." What does this mean? Though on its surface an apparently brief and user-friendly text, What Is Sex? proves frustrating in such moments where it seems the author is surrendering to the inevitable, that this quest to find the truth about the "why" of sex is impenetrable, that she will dance around various conclusions and never settle for a single one, and that the reader will be left unsatisfied (perhaps in a way comparable to sex that's not mutually beneficial). Zupančič does tend to alienate herself the deeper she hides beneath the psycho-philosophical verbiage, but any reader willing to get through these stubborn stylistic quirks will be rewarded.

Why is sexuality strange? Perhaps it's due to the pervasive nature of sex as both a means to an end, and simply a means to get from here to there. For Zupančič , it's always going to be deeper. The strangeness of sexuality strips the act (and the condition) of the sensational and asks basic questions about gender and identity sand politics. For Zupančič, "Sexuality is not some being that exists beyond the symbolic; it exists solely as the contradiction of the symbolic space that appears because of the constitutively missing signifier and what appears in its place (enjoyment.)" Zupančič goes off in this chapter on an extensive riff about Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 film Rear Window that nicely illustrates her argument about how even imagining possibilities about the "other", let alone pursuing them, could provide an equivalent subliminal satisfaction as sex. In the film, a wheelchair-bound James Stewart convinces his girlfriend Grace Kelly to investigate mysterious happenings in the apartment house across the alley:

"…Stewart behaves as if he were seeing Grace Kelly for the first time; she captures his full attention… he can no longer take his eyes off her. Without a word being exchanged between them, we-as spectators-can see it all. Now he very much desires her. She has quite literally entered the 'window of his fantasy' and started to function as his object of desire…"

In her conclusion, "From Adam's Navel to Dream's Navel", Zupančič makes connections between Freud's idea that sexuality and passion and the drive for knowledge were (and remain) intermingled. There are no absolutely delineated dividing lines between pleasure and pain, ignorance and enlightenment, sex and abstinence. It's all about "being", and anything else (the "other") is non-being (death.) Our lives are been dominated by social, cultural, and religious leadership working sometimes together and sometimes in separate venues to cover up sexuality. Sexuality is defined, regulated, controlled, legalized, shamed, "normalized" but rarely celebrated. Zupančič argues that it has always been easy to cover what is there (the organs, the means of pleasure that are also the means of releasing bodily fluids) but it also serves a deeper purpose:

"…it never covers up simply what is there… it also covers up some fundamental ambiguity… a metaphysical order… the more we try to think the sexual as sexual… the quicker we find ourselves in the element of pure and profound metaphysics."

There's nothing surface or trivial in What Is Sex? Those looking for something deep yet functional, utilitarian in the ways it puts sexuality in philosophical context, may be frustrated. This is a stubborn, rooted book admirable in its audaciousness, its willingness to tackle the very nature of how sexuality has defined, undermined, confused, and driven us as a human race:

"Contradiction is fundamental in that it is persistent and repeating… Contradiction… can become… the source of emancipation from the very logic dictated by this contradiction."

Even the most generous reader, those of us who operate under the impression that we understand or can at least partially find our way inside most any philosophical considerations, will be forgiven if we see such a sentence as a snake eating its own tail. When ideas devour themselves, nothing is accomplished. In Zupančič's What Is Sex? the question is never answered but that is not the objective of this text. Sex is a biological imperative, the key to identity politics, a source of pleasure, a method of perverse punishment, and the most basic means of communication. This can be a ponderous text, sometimes annoying in its stubborn insistence to seemingly circle around ideas and never reach a concrete conclusions, but perhaps implicit in that fact is a clear answer to her title's question: sex is a paradoxical mess, and life would be empty without it.


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