Žižek on Women: Lack or the Logic of the “Not-All”?

Having read my first Žižek book, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity, this past semester in a faculty/student reading group, I have to say that, among other things, I am not quite sure what to make of his reading of the “feminine” or “femininity.” Likewise, and this is my caveat  prefatory disclaimer, my knowledge of Freud and Lacan is limited, both of which seem fundamental to Žižek’s reading of women.  With that said, here are a few of the questions that arose as I read chapter 3 of the aforementioned book.  On the one hand, in this work generally speaking, Žižek seems to manifest (problematic) dichotomizing tendencies such as the following:  Judaism verses Christianity, masculinity verses femininity, the “male” religion of Judaism verses the “female” orientation of Christianity—for example, the Pharisees have a “male” approach to the Law and the world, whereas Jesus’ attitude toward the Law expresses a “female” sensitivity. Also, I wonder whether for Žižek, female or femininity ultimately translates into a lack?  What does it mean that Žižek situates woman on the side of the “real” and men on the side of the “symbolic”?  Does it mean that womens’ material existence must ultimately be negated, extinguished?  He seems to suggest that desire is always focused on loss and thus has an intimate relation with the death drive.  If this is the case, why should we accept that claim?Zizek on Toilet

If lack always equals loss for Žižek, then I wonder whether this “loss-logic” is part of his misread of Christ’s cry of dereliction on the Cross (von Balthasar writes an entire book on the positive theological meaning of the Godforsakeness of God, viz. Mysterium Paschale)?  Contra Žižek, couldn’t Jesus’ cry of “desire” for the Father arise out of a plenitude rather than a lack—a love that is willing even to go to hell in order to stand in solidarity with humans who have freely rejected God?

Also, the Catholic Christian tradition holds that materiality is ultimately redeemable because of its “connection” to the divine.  We see this is the sacrament of the Eucharist, which occurs again and again—the material revealing the divine which can never be exhausted.  Here the material (including the female body) has value then because of this connection with divine plenitude.  If I am not mistaken, I believe that John Milbank offers a critique of Žižek along these lines:  he cannot be a consistent materialist because matter ultimately has value only by virtue of participation in the divine.

On the other hand, perhaps Žižek could be read, following Lacan, as saying something along these lines. In Žižek:  A Very Critical Introduction, Marcus Pound, having commented on the un-representability of feminine sexuality, goes on to explain, “there is no objectifying trait that defines woman as a whole in the way that castration defines men as a whole” (107); this is the meaning of Lacan’s claim, “The woman does not exist” (107).  The idea is that men share a common identity as “castrated,” whereas women have no such common unitary trait. Theirs is the logic of the “Not-All.” Thus, they cannot be reduced to mothers or simply the “other set” to men.  Rather, they are the “open-set” (108-9).  If this is Žižek’s point, then I find it much more appealing and worthy of further development, as it navigates around a dichotomizing and ultimately subject-less view of women and avoids some of the problems noted above.

However, I must say that generally speaking Žižek’s work has a—how shall I put it—rather phallocentric aura about it.  At the end of the day, I’m with Foucault and find these psychoanalytic Freudian hand-me-down-ism-inspired theories to be misguided and part of the social construction of a particularly modern subject seeking in a supposed “hidden, repressed” sexuality the ultimate meaning of life.  Nonsense.  There’s no doubt about it, though– Žižek is quite entertaining.  Let me end my musings in the “spirit” of Žižek-ese:  could it be that “women” in fact do share a “unitary trait,” namely, menstruation?  If so, then is Pound’s more positive reading of Žižek’s view on women negated?  There you have it, the “orthodox fox” deconstructs the Slovenian “rock star” philosopher.

7 thoughts on “Žižek on Women: Lack or the Logic of the “Not-All”?”

  1. I think the key to understand the dichotomy of masculinity vs feminitiy is to understand Lacan’s graphs of sexuation in Seminar XX. First off, what’s more important is to understand that the masculine side is associated with the obessional neurotic whereas the feminine side is associated with the hysteric. Zizek continually praises the hysteric. However, males and females can inhabit either side of the graph, i.e. there is no biological constraints here. It’s just that historically women presented histrionically and males obsessively especially in Vienna in the early 1900’s.

    [At the end of the day, I’m with Foucault and find these psychoanalytic Freudian hand-me-down-ism-inspired theories to be misguided and part of the social construction of a particularly modern subject seeking in a supposed “hidden, repressed” sexuality the ultimate meaning of life]

    As someone studying psychoanalysis, I can only say that this idea is ultimately absurd and does nothing to represent psychoanalysis accurately. In fact, Lacan’s entire idea of the cure is for the subject to be divested of any fantasmatic support wherein which the subject relies on some ultimate structure (i.e. the Big Other) to give meaning to her life. Foucault never really understood psychoanalysis, and I always thought his critique was lame. Not to mention so many of these critiques rest of the assumption that psychoanalysis has not evolved since Freud. There are so many analysts who have worked on intersubjective/postmodern theories that completely rethink and revision psychoanalysis’s relationship to gender and sexuality (which, of course was at times blinded by phallocentrism. Simultaneously though, Freud was one of the first to allow women to talk about sexuality, and there are aspects of his work that can be appropriated by thinkers wanting to challenge any sort of essentialism, e.g. polymorphous perversity).

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Jeremy. I’m sure that you know the subtleties of psychoanalytic theory better than I. Still, if Zizek’s appropriation of the Lacan and psychoanalytic readings of male-female interactions, relations etc. strikes me as falling within those aspects of critique of the modern subject/subjectivity that Foucault highlights in _History of Sexuality, vol. 1. Whether Foucault has presented a reductionistic view of psychoanalysic theory, I cannot say; however, with him, I reject as a modern myth the idea that my ultimate meaning is found in some hidden yet repressed sexual lack. Moreover, the Oedipal-hermeneutic-lens is phallocentric through and through and Zizek seems to enjoy those “glasses.”

    Best wishes, Cynthia

  3. I’ve read Focault’s work as well (and yes, it’s most certainly reductionistic), and I can only say that I don’t think the idea of the repressed sexual lack is the ultimate meaning of psychoanalysis. Not to mention, Lacan grew further and further skeptical of the entire Oedipal myth entirely. I think Zizek probably doesn have some phallocentric tendencies, but I don’t think that means the entire psychoanalytic corpus is also infected by this bias.

    The lack and the Oedipal complex is something Deleuze was especially critical of, but as someone who’s studied Foucault I’m sure your familiar with his works especially Diff and Rep and Anti-Oedpius.

    Here are two links on something I’ve discussed on my blog:

    1) Zizek’s critique of Foucault’s position: http://jridenour.wordpress.com/2009/10/29/foucaults-misunderstanding-of-repression/
    2) A critique I’ve made of Milbank’s criticisms of psychoanalysis: http://jridenour.wordpress.com/2010/04/03/milbank-on-psychoanalysis/

    Thanks for the conversation
    Sorry, for the self-promotion, but it’s direclty relevant to this discussion.

  4. Hi Jeremy,

    Your statement, “I can only say that I don’t think the idea of the repressed sexual lack is the ultimate meaning of psychoanalysis,” makes sense to me, and I find your description of the more “new and improved” versions of psychoanalysis to be hopeful. (For the record, though my post might suggest otherwise–in part because of the humorous, slightly sarcastic “tone” of the piece–I haven’t totally written off psychoanalysis. In fact, I very much appreciate Frantz Fanon’s work, which was of course inspired by Lacan.

    Also, is Lacan became increasingly skeptical of the entire Oedipal myth entirely, then I’d say that is a major improvement in the “tradition.”

    Thanks also for your posts! I look forward to reading them. (I don’t see it at all as self-promotion; in fact, I had hoped to grow in my understanding of Lacan and current (less-Oedipal) expressions and appropriations of his work!)

    Best wishes,

  5. I enjoy reading Žižek because he pulls me outside of my box. Once I’m outside my box he strikes me as playful, which I think is more needed in today’s more serious discussions. Thanks for your post.

    I discovered you through Faith and Theology.

    Although I am not orthodox nor a fox, can we put each other on our blogrolls, if you dare?


  6. I’ve just recently got to know Zizek’s books and find them very interesting (the last I read was “Ticklish Subject”).

    You write, “[Zizek] cannot be a consistent materialist because matter ultimately has value only by virtue of participation in the divine.”

    I think such an approach is too theological since value of matter can evidently also be absolutely *negative* value. To put it precise, when “bad things” happen to a subject there might be found relieve in god but chances are there can’t (the christian mode of “test of one’s true believe” could become a perverse cruelty.)

    Well, but another thought arose in me, namely that a female subjectivy as “not-all” is ultimately the product of “male” dominant behaviour which would turn the whole scheme around if the “female” position got the dominating role – may menstruation be the new formerly disawowed master-signifier ..

    This may sound offensive but as I typed it I meant it serious – doesn’t this paradox shed a light on current power relations of the sexes? While it’s easy to write whole books on “phallic functions” it seems revolutionary to me to declare a new order of “menstruational function” as master signifier of a feminine symbolic law.

    As a side note, in Zizek’s book “Die Pest der Phantasmen” he begins his very introduction with the key “disavowed excess” notion, giving a comparison of american/french/german toilets .. it’s quite curious why the particularly “female” excess didn’t ever occur to him.

    Maybe the whole naming of the two concepts as “female” or “male” is an historicsm which should better get new abstract names, in order to better get the notion that they can be found in (biologically) male or female subjects alike.

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