Sex is Surface
Ontology and the Play of Signification
Jared Russell

Genital organizations

Recently I witnessed the following incident. The “Contemporary Freudian” institute where I train holds a rotating case seminar for advanced candidates doing control work. A new member had recently joined our group, having transferred in from another training institute, well known for its more “Classical” bent. When it came time for this new member to present a case, he quite courageously chose one that had been carried under supervisors from the previous institute. The patient was a female professional in her mid-thirties who complained of chronic disappointment in her relationships with men. The details of the case are unimportant, save to say that this was a very thoughtful analyst working under supervisors whose orientation had emphasized sexuality and aggression as things for which to be on the lookout. Everyone involved had generally agreed that the patient was a hysteric, and would therefore make an outstanding analysand.

As the transference developed, the patient brought in more and more sexualized material. She spent her sessions bemoaning her love life and relating dreams whose sexual content was readily interpretable. The supervisors saw this as evidence of analytic progress based on accurate interpretations, of which the candidate clearly was proud. So obvious was the sexual content of the patient’s dreams, however, that as the details of the treatment emerged, the instructor running our case seminar, and following him several students, began to smile knowingly, and then to laugh, goodheartedly but not without a certain sense of self-satisfaction: the analyst had been duped! Here was a hapless candidate, victim of his supervisors’ biases, thinking he was dealing with a hysteric. Since that was what the analyst was looking for, our instructor explained, that was what the patient provided him with – but this was not at all what was really going on. The group then approached the case as one in which the analyst’s desire to please his supervisors had led to an “intellectualized pseudo-analysis” with a patient who, on closer inspection, clearly had difficulties integrating self and object representations; who struggled to contain primitive anxieties; and who evinced a general level of character pathology that spoke to deeply pre-Oedipal issues. In other words, the patient was not hysteric at all, she was merely complying with her analyst’s wish to be treating such a case.

From a Lacanian perspective, the irony is frustratingly obvious: of course the patient was giving the analyst what he wanted to hear. This does not cancel the diagnosis of hysteria, but rather confirms it. That the patient imitates the symptoms of hysteria is precisely what makes her a hysteric. This was the lesson Freud took with him from his work with Charcot at Salpêtrière: it is the very extent to which the hysteric presents herself as a compliant malingerer that demonstrates she is not a compliant malingerer. Where the analyst misses this, the treatment will eventually be abandoned as yet another manifestation of how it is not the patient’s wishes, but those of everyone around her, that are at fault. One can imagine this patient’s jouissance had she witnessed the supervisors’ excitement over the sexualized material she so eagerly provided, not to mention the scene in which the analyst found himself in a group of her surrogates, laughing at his ignorance over the nature of his own desire.

Given the obverse situation, where a case supervised under a “contemporary” orientation were presented to a “classical” audience, much the same thing likely would have occurred: the instructor and group members pointing out how the analyst missed the obvious drive derivatives, criticizing his preoccupation with the dynamics of the object relationship. It is not that either of these positions is wrong, rather they are identical: both seek after something fundamental to the nature and constitution of the patient’s experience. Such essentialism in psychoanalysis today is based in a complete misunderstanding of how sexuality is to be situated with respect to the clinical field. Hysteria led Freud to the discovery of transference as an effort at seduction: the patient is always trying to seduce the analyst into offering what cannot be given (a brand new past, new parents, happiness) so that this can be refused and the analyst’s impotence unmasked. Where transference is understood not as passively repetitive, but as actively seductive, sexuality describes something more than what simply motivates transferential dynamics. Rather, the clinical surface across which the analytic relationship gets played out is itself sexually contrived. That is, transference does not describe how sexuality encroaches upon the clinical relationship; transference reveals sexuality as the very possibility of an interpretive framework.

Instead of disrupting the analytic work, the hysteric’s compliance is precisely what makes possible an interpretive clinical approach. This is why Lacan insisted that the opening phase of work with obsessional patients must consist in a “hysterization” of the patient’s discourse. Of course hysterical compliance is defensive, but there is nothing behind this posture that would indicate the patient’s true underlying conflicts and difficulties. My colleague’s analysand had managed happily to collude with the structures of more than one analytic training program. The “classical” supervisors were working with an understanding of sexuality that was too narrow (too genital) for this to be appreciated. But the new, “contemporary” environment was just as limited, in that sexuality was considered solely as a behavioral phenomenon – not “deep enough.” The reversibility of these attitudes is due to the fact that both reduce sexuality to the content of an intersubjective relationship. For Lacan, as for Freud, sexuality is a much broader field: sexuality is not just some activity in which the subject engages, it is the raw material from out of which the possibility of subjective experience emerges.

Neurotic strategy

The unconscious conceived as a container of buried psychic truths is a pre-Freudian unconscious – it is the “subconscious” of Janet, and of all descriptive accounts of the unconscious as a site of potential consciousness that simply has yet to be realized. Freud’s dynamic unconscious describes what is by definition unavailable to awareness. The dynamic unconscious is not “outside” awareness, capable eventually of being assimilated to conscious self-knowledge; it is the very form of awareness itself, and as such it cannot be taken up as an object of reflection. This inscrutable “structure” defines the Lacanian notion of subject, as what makes self-awareness possible by relating the ego to itself in the element of reflection. Rather than being a more primordial or authentic version of the self, the subject is instead that space or opening which gives rise to the capacity for reflective, narcissistic self-containment. What Freud ultimately called “death drive” describes consciousness (which arises “instead of a memory-trace,” (S.E. XVIII, p. 24)) as the subject’s effort to close its space down by relating to itself alone, in defiant opposition to the Other. It is this openness – “structured like a language,” like the infinite substitutability of signifiers that makes meaning possible – structured, that is, in such a way that the classical opposition of structure and process breaks down – that neurosis figures as castration.

A patient complains that I tell her nothing about myself, that I am so “clinical,” so cold. She goes on the internet and discovers my email address, which indicates that my middle initial is “k.” Announcing her discovery at first triumphantly, eventually she says that knowing this only makes things worse. What does “k” stand for? This becomes a question that weaves in and out of several sessions. What name could possibly begin with “k”? There are so few, yet at the same time too many to decide. And most importantly, why don’t I just tell her what my middle name is? Why do I torture her by telling her nothing about myself? She protests my not volunteering simple details about my life, while she continues to divulge her most intimate secrets. Of course, in all the haranguing about what a terrible sadist I am, the one question she never poses is: what is your middle name? Had she asked this, I may have answered, since my middle name in and of itself has nothing at all to do with the analytic work. What was important was not my withholding information, but that the patient never actually formulated the question. Instead, she insisted on her lack of knowledge as evidence of my refusal.

The hysteric says, “I tell you everything, yet I know nothing about you!” For the ego, this complaint communicates information about the experience of neurotic suffering. For the unconscious subject, it is designed to discover desire in the analyst. Lacan understood that neurosis consisted in the extent to which the simple question, “Tell me doctor, what is wrong with me?” could actually mean: “Tell me doctor, what makes you believe you are who you are, and me who I am?” – in other words, “What do you want from me?” The hysteric dramatizes this question, while the obsessive poses it in earnest. The hysteric insists, “It’s not me, it’s the world I live in – everyone else!” The obsessive worries, “Am I really connected to anything beyond myself?” What binds these two experiences of self and world together is the ideality of the phallic object. Neurosis is defined by the eagerness with which the question, “What is it you desire?” is answered: the phallus. Hysteria and obsession are strategies for obtaining possession of the phallus as the object-cause of the desire of the Other. The hysteric, in her effort to be the phallus, embodies absolute self-certainty; the obsessive, whose concern is over having the phallus, embodies pervasive self-doubt. By “neurosis,” Lacan understands the intrinsic complicity of these positions.

What mattered to my patient was not my middle name, but that I might wish to speak it, to “let her know.” By soliciting me to speak about myself, she sought to transform the analytic relationship into a power struggle over the fate of the process of signification, by converting a particular signifier (“k”) into a phallic object. This would impose upon the transference a clearly defined structure of opposition (knowing/not-knowing, having/not-having, subject/object, etc.). “What does k signify?” This is not at all the question raised by the unconscious subject. As subject rather than as ego, the patient’s question is always: “How am I to figure out what you are after?” By substituting the first kind of question for the second, the patient works to draw the analyst’s attention away from the play of signifiers that constitutes the transferential relationship as a stage dedicated to realizing the impasse that sustains desire. Neurosis consists precisely in the effort to distract from this, to seek instead after something allegedly “deep” and “hidden.” The patient’s ego speaks of suffering and wanting to know what the letter “k” represents. The subject of the unconscious is not interested in what “k” represents, but that “k” represents, and how this might be appropriated in such a way that would stabilize the play of signification.

The facticity of castration

Why do others invariably intervene in our experience of sexuality? Or, rather, how does sexuality make the investigation of otherness and difference an intrinsically clinical project? For Lacan, it is by filling the void of the lost little a that the Other rendered as object becomes our support by telling us about our being, about what we are. The “who” of the subject is determined by the “what” that essentially belongs to the Other – “who I am” is never something “I have,” but always something received. What allows the neurotic subject to be structured as an openness within the Symbolic order is the fact that the mother always seems to desire something else, something beyond the simplicity of the child’s being. The phallus is the fantastically ideal object – the object by means of which ideality receives its determination – with which the child imagines it might gain such absolute self-possession as to be able to give its being over to its mother and in doing so satisfy her completely.

A colleague describes an obsessional patient who contemplates leaving analysis for the refuge of a more “proactive,” “results-oriented” treatment. For months the patient collects brochures about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (“CBT”). He promises that termination is imminent, and that he may not be able to give more than a moment’s notice. The analyst all the while is able to maintain a neutral, interpretive stance, consistently demonstrating her desire that the patient keep talking about how he may stop talking and leave treatment altogether. Eventually, with exasperation the patient concludes: “I’m so messed up, I probably need CBT just to go to CBT in the first place! So I might as well stay in analysis…” This is a perfect example of what sustains analytic work even at its most difficult moments. The patient will stay – indeed, he comes in the first place – as an enactment of the very refusal that any change might occur: “I might as well stay in analysis, since it isn’t giving me what I need like CBT would, which I would need in order to be in CBT to begin with.” Staying in analysis as if by default, this patient says, “I need what I lack in order to get what I need” – that is, “I am so terribly castrated that I must already have the phallus in order to be able to receive it in the first place. Do you see how impossible my life is? I am completely powerless!”

This patient insists that he lacks something the Other withholds, and that his lack is an effect of the Other’s refusal. The transference here consists in the patient’s effort to render performatively his conviction as to the fact of his castration, so that the Other can be reduced to an object, whose giving and withholding can potentially be controlled. This is the sense in which, for Lacan, transference is the enactment of unconscious psychic reality (Sem. XI, p. 149), and as such has nothing to do with the repetition of an actual developmental past. Dynamically conceived, transference is not the passive repetition of past events; transference is the active insistence that truth resides in an original, fantastically unmediated relationship with the caretaking world. Such a relationship is, of course, purely imaginary, never having taken place, yet it determines absolutely the way the patient comports himself both in the treatment and in his life. To work clinically with transference then is to understand that the symptom is not something the patient has, but how the patient is. This is what the Lacanian “return to Freud” had always aimed at recovering: that the symptom is not a manifestation of the psychological, but of the ontological. Despite the fact that it exchanges a philosophical for a medical vocabulary, Freud’s “metapsychology” demonstrates an ontological sensibility with respect to clinical phenomena. It is in these terms that “sexuality,” again dynamically conceived, translates into a clinical register what Heidegger, in Being and Time, intended by the term “facticity”: not what we are, but how we are, in confrontation with the fact that we are.


From a “classical Freudian” perspective, conflicts around sexuality are the cause of the symptom. From a “contemporary Freudian” perspective, sexuality manifests itself symptomatically in terms of one’s position vis a vis the object world. Lacan emphasizes sexuality as neither an intrapsychic nor an intersubjective problem, but as the very condition according to which any distinction between the two might be drawn. In opposition to clinical approaches that would interpret sexual demands, a Lacanian orientation tends to desire as it appears in the particularities these demands attempt to gloss over in addressing themselves to objects. Desire has no object, only a singular cause: desire desires its own cause in order ever to perpetuate itself. The ego experiences desire in the form of psychological contents (“wishes”). The subject of the unconscious does not have desire – it is desire. This is what is witnessed clinically as transference.

To the ego, the symptom appears as an external object, an incomprehensible “foreign body” intruding upon the unique individual one imagines oneself to be. For the subject of the unconscious, the symptom constitutes a modality of being. The Lacanian effort to distinguish the ego from the subject in terms of the relationship to desire is an insistence that sexuality is not the content of the unconscious, but the very structure of reflexive self-relation. Sexuality is that structure or process according to which consciousness is diverted from the phenomenological surface of experience. Unconscious fantasy in this way constitutes the unobservable truth or “material” support of self-experience, as is consistently revealed by the dynamic process that is the structure of the signifier or symptom. Put more succinctly: the play of signification is the articulation of human being as constitutively sexual.

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