The Lesbian Session
Slavoj Zizek

Author’s Bio

Can a Lacanian learn something from Ayn Rand?
Rand, who wrote the two absolute best-sellers of our century, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), was (deservedly) ignored and ridiculed as a philosopher: her fascination with male figures displaying absolute, unswayable determination of their Will, seems to offer the best imaginable confirmation of Sylvia Plath’s famous line, “…every woman adores a Fascist.” However, although it is easy to dismiss the very mention of Rand in a “serious” theoretical article as an obscene extravaganza—artistically, she is of course, worthless—the properly subversive dimension of her ideological procedure is not to be underestimated: Rand fits into the line of over-conformist authors who undermine the ruling ideological edifice by their very excessive identification with it.

Her over-orthodoxy was directed at capitalism itself, as the title of one of her books Capitalism, the Unknown Ideal tells us; according to her, the truly heretic thing today is to embrace the basic premise of capitalism without its communitarian, collectivist, welfare, etc., sugarcoating. So what Pascal and Racine were to Jansenism, what Kleist was to German nationalist militarism, what Brecht was to Communism, Rand is to American capitalism. It was perhaps her Russian origins and upbringing which enabled her to formulate directly the fantasmatic kernel of American capitalist ideology.

The elementary ideological axis of her work consists in the opposition between the prime movers, “men of mind,” and second handers, “mass men.” The Kantian opposition between ethical autonomy and heteronomy is here brought to extreme: the “mass man” is searching for recognition outside himself, his self-confidence and assurance depend on how he is perceived by others, while the prime mover is fully reconciled with himself, relying on his creativity, selfish in the sense that his satisfaction does not depend on getting recognition from others or on sacrificing himself, his innermost drives, for the benefit of others.

The prime mover is innocent, delivered from the fear of others, and for that reason without hatred even for his worst enemies (Roark, the “prime mover” in The Fountainhead, doesn’t actively hate Toohey, his great opponent, he simply doesn’t care about him.)
Here is the famous dialogue between the two:

—Mr. Roark, we’re alone here. Why don’t you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish. No one will hear us.
—But I don’t think of you.

On the basis of this opposition, Rand elaborates her radically atheist, life-assertive, “selfish” ethics: the “prime mover” is capable of the love for others, this love is even crucial for him since it does not express his contempt for himself, his self-denial, but on the contrary, the highest self-assertion-love for others is the highest form of the properly understood “selfishness,” i.e. of my capacity to realize through my relationship with others my own innermost drives. On the basis of this opposition, Atlas Shrugged constructs a purely fantasmatic scenario: John Galt, the novel’s mysterious hero, assembles all prime movers and organizes their strike—they withdraw from the collectivist oppression of the bureaucratized public life. As a result of their withdrawal, what social life loses is impetus, social services; from stores to railroads, no longer function, global disintegration sets in, and the desperate society calls the prime movers back—they accept it, but under their own terms…

John Currin

What we have here is the fantasy of a man finding the answer to the eternal question “What moves the world?”—the prime movers—and then being able to “stop the motor of the world” by organizing the prime movers’ retreat. John Galt succeeds in suspending the very circuit of the universe, the “run of things,” causing its symbolic death and the subsequent rebirth of the New World.

The ideological gain of this operation resides in the reversal of roles with regard to our everyday experience of strike: it is not workers but the capitalists who go on strike, thus proving that they are the truly productive members of society who do not need others to survive.[1] The hideout to which the prime movers retreat, a secret place in the midst of the Colorado mountains accessible only via a dangerous narrow passage, is a kind of negative version of Shangri-la, a “utopia of greed”: a small town in which unbridled market relations reign, in which the very word “help” is prohibited, in which every service has to be reimbursed by true (gold-covered) money, in which there is no need for pity and self-sacrifice for others.

The Fountainhead gives us a clue as to the matrix of intersubjective relations which sustain this myth of prime movers. Its four main male characters constitute a kind of Greimasian semiotic square: the architect Howard Roark is the autonomous creative hero; Wynand, the newspaper tycoon, is the failed hero, a man who could have been a “prime mover”—deeply akin to Roark, he got caught in the trap of crowd-manipulation (he was not aware of how his media manipulation of the crowd actually makes him a slave who follows the crowd’s whims); Keating is a simple conformist, a wholly externalized, “other-oriented” subject; Toohey, Roark’s true opponent, is the figure of diabolical Evil, a man who never could have been and who knows it—he turned his awareness of his worthlessness into the self-conscious hatred of prime movers, i.e. he becomes an Evil Master who feeds the crowd with this hatred.

Paradoxically, Toohey is the point of self-consciousness: he is the only one who knows it all, who, even more than Roark who simply follows his drive, is fully aware of the true state of things.

We have thus Roark as the being of pure drive in no need of symbolic recognition (and as such uncannily close to the Lacanian saint—only an invisible line of separation distinguishes them), and the three ways to compromise one’s drive: Wynand, Keating, Toohey. The underlying opposition is here that of desire and drive, as exemplified in the tense relationship between Roark and Dominique, his sexual partner. Roark displays the perfect indifference towards the Other characteristic of drive, while Dominique remains caught in the dialectic of desire which is the desire of the Other: she is gnawed by the Other’s gaze, i.e. by the fact that others, the common people totally insensitive to Roark’s achievement, are allowed to stare at it and thus spoil its sublime quality. The only way for her to break out of this deadlock of the Other’s desire is to destroy the sublime object in order to save it from becoming the object of the ignorant gaze of others:

You want a thing and it’s precious to you. Do you know who is standing ready to tear it out of your hands? You can’t know, it may be so involved and so far away, but someone is ready, and you’re afraid of them all… I never open again any great book I’ve read and loved. It hurts me to think of the other eyes that have read it and of what they were.[2]

These “other eyes” are the Evil Gaze at its purest which grounds the paradox of property: if, within a social field, I am to possess an object, this possession must be socially acknowledged, which means that the big Other who vouchsafes this possession of mine must in a way possess it in advance in order to let me have it. I thus never relate directly to the object of my desire: when I cast a desiring glance at the object, I am always—already gazed at by the Other (not only the imaginary other, the competitive-envious double, but primarily the big Other of the symbolic Institution which guarantees property), and this gaze of the Other which oversees me in my desiring capacity is in its very essence castrating, threatening.[3] Therein consists the elementary castrating matrix of the dialectics of possession: if I am truly to possess an object, I have first to lose it, i.e. to concede that its primordial owner is the big Other. In traditional monarchies, this place of the big Other is occupied by the King who in principle owns the entire land, so that whatever individual landowners possess was given, requested to them by the King; this castrative dialectic reaches its extreme in the case of the totalitarian Leader who, on the one hand, emphasizes again and again how he is nothing in himself, how he only embodies and expresses the will, creativity etc. of the people, but, on the other hand, he gives us everything we have, so we have to be grateful to him for everything we have, up to the meager daily bread and health.

At the level of drive, however, immediate possession is possible, one can dispose of the Other, in contrast to the everyday order of desire in which the only way to remain free is to sacrifice everything one cares for, to destroy it, to never have a job one wants and enjoys, to marry a man one absolutely despises… So, for Dominique, the greatest sacrilege is to throw pearls to swines: to create a precious object and then to expose it to the Other’s evil Gaze, i.e. to let it be shared with the crowd. And she treats herself in precisely the same way: she tries to resolve the deadlock of her position as a desired object by way of willingly embracing, even searching for, the utmost humiliation—she marries the person she most despises and tries to ruin the career of Roark, the true object of her love and admiration.[4] Roark, of course, is well aware of how her attempts to ruin him result from her desperate strategy to cope with her unconditional love for him, to inscribe this love in the field of the big Other; so, when she offers herself to him, he repeatedly rejects her and tells her that the time is not yet ripe for it: she will become his true partner only when her desire for him will no longer be bothered by the Other’s gaze—in short, when she will accomplish the shift from desire to drive. The (self-)destructive dialectics of Dominique, as well as of Wynand, bears witness to the fact that they are fully aware of the terrifying challenge of Roark’s position of pure drive: they want to break him down in order to deliver him from the clutches of his drive.

This dialectics provides the key to what is perhaps the crucial scene in The Fountainhead: Dominique, while riding a horse, encounters on a lone country road Roark, working as a simple stonecutter in her father’s mine; unable to endure the insolent way he looks back at her, the look which attests his awareness of her inability to resist being attracted to him, Dominique furiously whips him (in the film version, this violent encounter is rendered as the archetypal scene of the mighty landlord’s lady or daughter secretly observing the attractive slave: unable to admit to herself that she is irresistibly attracted to him, she acts out her embarrassment in a furious whipping of the slave). She whips him, she is his Master confronting a slave, but her whipping is an act of despair, an awareness of HIS hold over her, of her inability to resist him—as such, it’s already an invitation to brutal rape. So the first act of love between Dominique and Roark is a brutal rape done with no compassion:

He did it as an act of scorn. Not as love, but as defilement. And this made her lie still and submit. One gesture of tenderness from him-and she would have remained cold, untouched by the thing done to her body. But the act of a master taking shameful, contemptuous possession of her was the kind of rapture she had wanted.[5]

This scorn is paralleled by Dominique’s unconditional willingness to destroy Roark—the willingness which is the strongest expression of her love for him; the following quote bears witness to the fact that Rand is effectively a kind of feminine version of Otto Weininger:

I’m going to fight you—and I’m going to destroy you—and I tell you this as calmly as I told you that I’m a begging animal. I’m going to pray that you can’t be destroyed—I tell you this, too—even though I believe in nothing and have nothing to pray to. But I will fight to block every step you take. I will fight to tear away every chance you want away from you. I will hurt you through the only thing that can hurt you—through your work. I will fight to starve you, to strangle you on the things you won’t be able to reach. I have done it to you today—and that is why I shall sleep with you tonight. /…/ I’ll come to you whenever I have beaten you—whenever I know that I have hurt you—and I’ll let you own me. I want to be owned, not by a lover, but by an adversary who will destroy my victory over him, not with honorable blows, but with the tough of his body on mine.[6]

The woman strives to destroy the precious agalma which is what she doesn’t possess in her beloved man, the spark of his excessive autonomous creativity: she is aware that only in this way, by destroying his agalma (or, rather, by making him renounce it), she will own him, only in this way will the two of them form an ordinary couple; yet she is also aware that in this way, he will become worthless—therein resides her tragic predicament. Is then, in ultima analysis, the scenario of The Fountainhead not that of Wagner’s Parsifal? Roark is Parsifal the saint, the being of pure drive; Dominique is Kundry in search of her delivery; Gail is Amfortas, the failed saint; Toohey is Klingsor, the impotent evil magician.

Like Dominique, Kundry wants to destroy Parsifal, since she has a foreboding of his purity; like Dominique, Kundry simultaneously wants Parsifal not to give way, to endure the ordeal, since she is aware that her only chance of redemption resides in Parsifal’s resistance to her seductive charms. The true conflict in the universe of Rand’s two novels is thus not between the prime movers and the crowd of second-handers who parasitize on the prime movers’ productive genius, with the tension between the prime mover and his feminine sexual partner being a mere secondary subplot of this principal conflict. The true conflict runs within the prime movers themselves: it resides in the (sexualized) tension between the prime mover, the being of pure drive, and his hysterical partner, the potential prime mover who remains caught in the deadly self-destructive dialectic (between Roark and Dominique in The Fountainhead, between John Galt and Dagny in Atlas Shrugged). When, in Atlas Shrugged, one of the prime mover figures tells Dagny, who unconditionally wants to pursue her work and keep the transcontinental railroad company running, that the prime movers’ true enemy is not the crowd of second-handers, but herself, this is to be taken literally. Dagny herself is aware of it: when prime movers start to disappear from public productive life, she suspects a dark conspiracy, a “destroyer” who forces them to withdraw and thus gradually brings the entire social life to a standstill; what she does not yet see is that the figure of “destroyer” that she identifies as the ultimate enemy, is the figure of her true Redeemer.

The solution occurs when the hysterical subject finally gets rid of her enslavement and recognizes in the figure of the “destroyer” her Savior—why? Second-handers possess no ontological consistency of their own, which is why the key to solution is not to break them, but to break the chain which forces the creative prime movers to work for them—when this chain is broken, the second handers’ power will dissolve by itself. The chain which links a prime mover to the perverted existing order is none other than her attachment to her productive genius: a prime mover is ready to pay any price, up to the utter humiliation of feeding on the very force which works against him, i.e. which parasitizes on the activity he officially endeavors to suppress, just to be able to continue to create.

What the hystericized prime mover must accept is thus the fundamental existential indifference: she must no longer be willing to remain the hostage of the second-handers’ blackmail “We will let you work and realize your creative potential, on condition that you accept our terms,” she must be ready to give up the very kernel of her being, that which means everything to her, and to accept the “end of the world,” the (temporary) suspension of the very flow of energy which keeps the world running. In order to gain everything, she must be ready to go through the zero-point of losing everything. And far from signalling the “end of subjectivity,” this act of assuming existential indifference is perhaps the very gesture of absolute negativity which gives birth to the subject.

What Lacan calls “subjective destitution” is thus, paradoxically, another name for the subject itself, i.e. for the void beyond the theatre of hysterical subjectivizations. Rand’s work thus contains two radically different narratives which are not to be confused: the standard masculine narrative of the struggle between the exceptional One (Master, Creator) and the “crowd” which follows the universal norm, as well as the feminine narrative of the shift from desire to drive, i.e. from the hysteric’s entanglement in the deadlocks of the Other’s desire to the fundamental indifference of the desubjectivized being of drive. For that reason, the Randian hero is not “phallocratic”—phallocratic is rather the figure of the failed Master (Wynand in The Fountainhead, Stadler in Atlas Shrugged): paradoxical as it may sound, with regard to the formulas of sexuation, the being of pure drive which emerges once the subject “goes through the fantasy” and assumes the attitude of indifference towards the enigma of the Other’s desire is a feminine figure.

What Rand was not aware of was that the upright, uncompromising masculine figures with a will of steel that she was so fascinated with, are, effectively, figures of the feminine subject liberated from the deadlocks of hysteria.[7] It is thus a thin, almost imperceptible line which separates Rand’s ideological and literary trash from the ultimate feminist insight.

Such a reading also enables us to draw a crucial theoretical conclusion about the limits of subjectivity: hysteria is not the limit of subjectivity—there is a subject beyond hysteria. What we get after “traversing the fantasy,” i.e. the pure being of drive which emerges after the subject undergoes “subjective destitution,” is not a kind of subjectless loop of the repetitive movement of drive, but, on the contrary, the subject at its purest; one is almost tempted to say: the subject “as such.” Saying “Yes!” to the drive, i.e. precisely to that which can never be subjectivized, freely assuming the inevitable (the drive’s radical closure), is the highest gesture of subjectivity. It is thus only after assuming a fundamental indifference towards the Other’s desire, getting rid of the hysterical game of subjectivization, after suspending the intersubjective game of mutual (mis)recognition, that the pure subject emerges…

One can see, now, in what precise sense, the struggle between the hysterical feminine heroine and the persistent male hero, which forms the center of Rand’s both great novels, can be conceived as a barely concealed presentation of a lesbian (psychoanalytic) session: of the painful process in the course of which the feminine analysand traverses her fantasy and thus overcomes her hysterical position.


The Lesbian Session appeared in print in lacanian ink 12, 2000.


[1] Rand’s ideological limitation is here clearly perceptible: in spite of the new impetus that the myth of the “prime movers” got from the digital industry (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates), individual capitalists are today, in our era of multinationals, definitely not its “prime movers.” In other words, what Rand “represses” is the fact that the rule of the crowd” is the inherent outcome of the dynamic of capitalism itself.
[2] Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, New York: Signet 1992, p.143-144.
[3] See Paul-Laurent Assoun, La voix et le regard, Paris: Anthropos, 1995, Vol. 2, p. 35-36.
[4] Atlas Shrugged contains a whole series of such hysterical inversions of desire—suffice it to quote from the blurb on the cover of the pocket edition: “Why does /John Galt/ fight his hardest battle against the woman he loves? … why a productive genius became a worthless playboy. Why a great steel industrialist was working for his own destruction… why a composer gave up his career on the night of his triumph … why a beautiful woman who ran a transcontinental railroad fell in love with the man she had sworn to kill.”
[5] Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, New York: Signet 1992, p. 217.
[6] ibid, p. 272-273.
[7] It is well known that a thwarted (disavowed) homosexual libidinal economy forms the basis of military community—it is for that very reason that the Army opposes so adamantly the admission of gays in its ranks. Mutatis mutandis, Rand’s ridiculously exaggerated adoration of strong male figures betrays the underlying disavowed lesbian economy, i.e. the fact that Dominique and Roark, or Dagny and Galt, are effectively lesbian couples.


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