Issue #131: Sexuation Revisited

The unthinkable happened: my laptop broke. If you are a Macbook wizard, please let me know. The computer boots and works well enough when connected to an external monitor, so the issue seems to be with the laptop screen itself. This frustrating scenario significantly impeded my ability to be productive today. Half the day was spent troubleshooting and the other half deciding what to do given that none of the troubleshooting worked.

I was hoping to write something about the legendary Yoshinori Ono, long time producer of the Street Fighter series who expressed his intention to leave Capcom before the end of the summer. But I’ll just say here, Ono is responsible for the fortunes of an entire generation of professional fighting game players. For even more of us, he turned a stagnant community into a growing one. In the late 2000s, he burned every bit of capital he had accumulated at Capcom to get Street Fighter IV made. He didn’t have to do that. But his passion for the genre far exceeded any careerist ambitions. If you are involved in fighting games, you owe him gratitude.

Sexuation Revisited: A Crisis of Jouissance


As should be evident from last week's newsletter, Lacan's theory of sexuation remains one of the most confounding and complex pieces of his oeuvre. Recently, there have been various attempts to clearly make an account of sexuation and Lacan's notion of sexual difference or sexual dehiscence. Todd McGowan gives a brief overview of the idea in a youtube video from April of this year and Calum Neill engages with the premise of the perceived 'crisis of masculinity' in "Masculinity in crisis: Myth, fantasy and the promise of the raw" (2020). But there are still aspects of Lacan's thought on the issue of sex that sustain further analysis.

McGowan's lecture involves the example of John Wayne as the masculine ideal and an analysis of how George Stevens' Shane (1953) depicts the absolute impossibility of achieving this idea. This reading of Shane is the prevailing understanding of Lacan's formulation of the phallus. Neill also uses Shane as an example, echoing McGowan's claim and citing the "exemplary fashion" in which Stevens' film shows the impossibility of masculine embodiment (11).

McGowan's reading of sexuation also entails a dimension that seems to implicitly respond to some of the feminist critiques of Lacan. Lacan's notion of masculinity and his dictum "woman does not exist" are read as, at least in part, social functions. McGowan contends that what Lacan means is that while masculinity is defined by one discrete ideal, women suffer because the ideals of femininity are not uniform but rather diametrically opposed — precisely what Freud claimed in advancing the notion of the "Madonna-whore complex." But this complex has been frequently cited as a social ill by mainstream feminists, including Naomi Wolf, who argued in Promiscuities (1997) that Freud's idea is more relevant than ever.

One might be surprised to hear Lacan read making such explicit social commentary or anticipating an idea that is well understood when it comes to misogyny's contemporary expressions. But, Lacan was certainly thinking in these terms, as he claims in ...or Worse, his 1971-72 seminar:

Un homme, a man. I didn't say l'homme. It's rather funny, though, how the signifier gets used. People say to the lad, Be a man. They don't say, Be man. Why is that? What is curious is that you don't hear Be a woman very often. On the other hand, people speak of la femme, with a definite article, the woman. (23)

The implication becomes clear when put in context of "la femme n'existe pas" and McGowan's analysis — one reason, at least, why "the woman" does not exist is because there is no uniform feminine ideal.

Despite this sociological savviness, conventional feminist criticisms of Lacan are not entirely unfounded as Neill notes. He writes:

Lacan's point is that within the particular context of this discussion, and structurally speaking, the fact of two positions is what is available. Not because these two positions are naturally what there is, but rather because the positions available are defined in relation to a single term. (9)

That term, of course, is the phallus. Thus, Lacan's formula of sexuation is just as "phallocentric" as detractors might claim, but this "phallocentrism" does not necessarily support the conclusion of those detractors. Indeed, the phallus's centrality has more to do with a concrete ideal within the cultural imaginary. The men who measure themselves against this ideal will always fail, in the same way the phallus as a signifier (rather than any particular anatomical part) will fail to confer any special status.

Following this failure of the phallus, Neill's argument is that masculinity is always already in crisis. Thus, the reactionary pearl-clutching about masculinity's waning prospects are only wrong about the fact that this phenomenon is new. Neill writes, "It has always been difficult to be a man, insofar as the ideal of masculinity is precisely that: an ideal" (11). Lacan describes a form of masculinity that is found on the crisis of its impossibility.

And yet, masculine identity and "manliness" afford an individual concrete social advantage, something that those envisioning a temporally finite "crisis" would dispute. Furthermore, Lacan's crisis is not one of simply masculinity — but of sex as a whole.

Credit for this meme goes to me.

On this point, citing Lacan's claim that "there is no sexual relation [rapport sexuel]," Neill writes:

It is not simply that there is no rapport between the sexes, that the two sides of the binary do not complement each other. It is also that there is no rapport within any one side. If the phallus is that in relation to which sexual identity is forged or adopted, the lack of rapport here is also the failure of that identity. (15) [emphasis added]

Thus, we must bring together these two disparate crises, one endlessly ongoing in which "sex is the stumbling block of sense" (Copjec, Read My Desire, 204) and another of a finite temporal nature. The reactionary idea of a “crisis of masculinity” takes as supporting evidence the declining appropriateness of open prejudice against women, transgender people, and queer people. The possibility of blatant and explicit prejudice as a barometer for masculinity, in turn, suggests that insight into the nature of prejudice itself can demystify Lacan's nonrelation. In some ways, prejudice is simple. It is a collective tendency to prefer the like to the unlike. And yet, our understanding quickly grows complicated when one considers "internalized" forms of prejudice and "false consciousness." What about when the prejudice applies to the like? Or when the unlike is purely fantasmatic — that, in fact, the trait one identifies as distinctive in another doesn't exist or applies to oneself as well.

Under this scrutiny, and with the fundamental identities by which one indexes their prejudice thrown into question, the prohibition against the various -isms transforms into so much gibberish. Sex is, after all, the stumbling block of sense.

"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

The crisis at hand is not one of masculinity, but a crisis of jouissance. We only need to venture to ...or Worse, Lacan's seminar following the publication of "L'Étourdit," to see the immediate relevance to the situation today.

There is a social factor of jouissance, one that Sheldon George describes in Trauma and Race (2016). George writes of the case on November 23, 2012, where teenager Jordan Davis was brutally murdered by the virulent racist Michael Dunn:

In evading direct reference to racial difference through a focus upon the boys’ “behavior” and the rap music they enjoy, Dunn simultaneously divulges a hatred of the other that extends beyond race toward what Jacques Lacan calls the other’s jouissance, or enjoyment, the very core around which, I suggest, otherness articulates itself to constitute racial difference. It is against this jouissance that Dunn’s actions must be read, and it is this jouissance that explains the possibility for hatred in contemporary America to address itself at racial difference without need of acknowledging this difference. (13)

Others have theorized that the imagined jouissance of the other fuels many kinds of prejudice, not just the malevolent and deadly racism George references here. The least privileged and most disadvantaged are imagined by beneficiaries of white supremacist hegemony to have special access to a kind of enjoyment that is beyond the reach of those who are otherwise socially advantaged. And, despite this being completely untrue, it fuels repression and oppression that, in turn, offers up a facsimile of jouissance to the oppressors. This is also true in the case of misogyny. The inability to repress means the anxiety of the other's jouissance accompanies the relinquishing of one's own appalling superegoic substitute jouissance that is produced by, in part, nakedly demonstrating one's prejudices.

This 'social factor' of jouissance is alluded to in Lacan's claim, "From the moment we take jouissance as the starting point, this means very precisely that the body is not on its own, that there is another one" (201). Lacan goes on to express a sentiment anticipatory of George's claim, "you should know that what is on the rise, the ultimate consequences of which we have still not seen, and which is rooted in the body, in the fraternity of bodies, is racism" (211). The shifting terrain regarding how one might receive their jouissance is responsible for the reactionary claim about masculinity in crisis, as well as claims about the precarious situation for whiteness or whatever other advantaged group or identity.

I have called the socially evident supposed 'crisis' a crisis of jouissance, but I want to be clear that this crisis is not about a divestiture of jouissance. True, blatant displays of prejudice of any kind face a greater degree of social censure today. But jouissance being what it is, why would this censure cause enjoyment’s prohibition? It only changes the mechanism by which it occurs. One might argue that the ability to imagine oneself as marginalized and oppressed whilst enjoying the concrete advantages of privilege as a result of being heterosexual, cisgender, white, and male provides another sort of jouissance. The need to maintain that charge fuels the crisis. These reactionary commentators happily trade one jouissance for another, changing their posture from socially advantaged to disadvantaged despite no change whatsoever in their material conditions.

We may arrange the terms, identities, and structures into whatever relation we would like. But no arrangement, not even Lacan's graph of sexuation, will move us past one fundamental point — "we don't know what man and woman are" (...or Worse 28). Lacan's idea of sexuation is to draw our attention to that difficulty. We may be able to explain what circuits of jouissance govern social organization, but why particular individuals partake of different kinds of enjoyment is not nearly as obvious. The constant return to Lacan's formulas is a result of the intractability of the ontological impasse.

Black-ish’s Lost Episode is Shockingly Unoffensive

Shelved 'Black-ish' Episode, "Please, Baby, Please" to Air on Hulu |  Hollywood Reporter

Today, August 10th, the unthinkable happened — the 'lost episode' of Kenya Barris's Black-ish, unceremoniously pulled from the series' fourth season, was made available on Hulu. The episode is remarkable if only for how unremarkable it is. I was haunted by this episode, hoping to see whatever controversial statements would result in Disney prohibiting the completed episode from airing. Whatever I could have imagined is far better than what I received, and the episode feels dated in light of the events of 2020. But, there are some points of fascination.

The episode, "Please, Baby, Please," is named after a 2002 board book written by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee. Spike has a brief cameo in the episode as a voice-over reading the text of his book after Andre (Anthony Anderson) dismisses Goodnight Moon (1947) as "some white shit." Clearly, though, disparagement of beloved playwright Margaret Wise Brown is not what Disney believed to be salacious enough to pull the episode. No, the episode deals with a laundry list of social and environmental ills — explicitly critiquing Trump (who had, at the time, only been in office for a year), addressing anxiety about climate change, and examining the U.S.'s failings regarding gun control. If anything, the episode bites off a little too much. Dre muses on police brutality, Junior (Marcus Scribner) worries whether or not he agrees with the then-current protests of Colin Kaepernick, and Jack (Miles Brown) and Diane (Marsai Martin) pledge to confront climate change as they get older.

When Dre chats with his father Earl (Laurence Fishburne), the two lament the rising tide of avowed white supremacy cross-cut with footage of the Charlottesville "Unite the Right rally" (doesn't it feel more accurate to call this an act of racist terror rather than a 'rally'?). For the Johnson patriarchs, they preferred their racists with at least a little bit of shame.

Dre also waxes nostalgic about the Obama presidency, which makes perfect sense given the Johnson family's petite bourgeoisie circumstances. In a fond recollection of Obama's various achievements, Dre also mentions "remote control fighter jets" in a manner that I can't quite figure out. Did Black-ish mean to critique one of the most shameful elements of Obama's legacy, his drone program, or perversely endeavor to paint drones as one of his great achievements and a contribution of U.S. history? The line is delivered without a hint of irony, in any case.

Even though I have long abandoned Black-ish, I checked out after the second season, I still prefer this version of primetime comedy to whatever predominantly white alternative studio execs might cook up. And Barris, regardless of any personal foibles or political naiveté, is an exceptional writer. His strength, and Anderson's great performance, is evident in one of the episode's early lines, “Isn't that what life is? The things that happen in between the margins. The things we don’t see coming that make us who we are.”

"Please, Baby, Please" isn't nearly as impactful or startling as season two's "Hope," but it would have been a good capstone to what I imagine was an adequate season of television. Watching it now, though, it's hard to understand what precisely scared Disney and ABC executives so much. Dre does fire off some bleeped curses midway through the episode — but that couldn't have been it, could it? Either way, the episode is out in the world now. There are worse ways to spend twenty-three minutes, but you aren't going to find anything groundbreaking here.

Weekly Reading List — If you’d like to learn more about Yoshinori Ono, who I mentioned in my introduction, you can read this wonderful interview from Eurogamer. There are plenty of choice quotations from Ono here:

I was in the Street Fighter 3: Third Strike team when we disbanded and the series was laid to rest for a whole decade. As a result I've always had it in me - some feeling of regret that I was a part of ending the legacy of Street Fighter. A guilty conscience, I guess you could say.

It was this guilty conscience that inspired Ono to write a design document for a fourth entry to the Street Fighter series immediately after he was promoted to producer. "I was working on Onimusha 4 and during that time I repeatedly submitted my proposal for a new Street Fighter," he says. "The company kept telling me: 'It's a dead franchise. It doesn't make any money. We have series that make money like Resident Evil and Onimusha. Why bother with a dead franchise?'"

"What fuels my passion is the community. In my philosophy, Street Fighter is a game, but really it's a tool. It's like playing cards or chess or tennis: it's really about the people. Once you know the rules it's up to the players to put themselves in the game, to choose the nuance of how they play and express themselves. I think fighting games flourish because it was this social game. If it had been a purely single-player thing, it would never have grown so popular.”

I want to support the next generation of fighting game. It's my job. It's my calling.

Thanks again, Ono.

Here’s a newly surfaced Insted video, posted at the beginning of the month. Wow.

Until next time.