- Sexuality’s Failure: The Birth of History
In an interview familiar to English readers, “The Confession of the Flesh,” there is a terse exchange between Michel Foucault and Jacques-Alain Miller over the former’s history of sexuality. Miller doggedly insists that “There isn’t a history of sexuality in the way that there is a history of bread” (213). Foucault replies by likening the history of sexuality to that of madness, and the interview takes a different turn.1 It is a pity that Miller and Foucault should have allowed this particular point to drop, for it reveals the central conflict between psychoanalysis and the historicism exemplified by Foucault: psychoanalysis, specifically its Lacanian inflections, contends that historicism misrecognizes sexuality by turning it into an effect of discourse.2 This conflict has wide-ranging repercussions, touching on fundamental questions of identity, sexuality, power, representation, and the nature of history and historical change.
The year 2000 saw the publication of eagerly awaited collections by two of the most invigorating and provocative writers on psychoanalysis and historicism: Tim Dean’s Beyond Sexuality and Charles Shepherdson’s Vital Signs: Nature, Culture, Psychoanalysis. Dean and Shepherdson begin their books with statements of the same goal: to recapture the “theoretical specificity of Lacanian theory” in the face of an Anglo-American reception that has tended either to assimilate psychoanalysis with Foucault or to dismiss it as either essentialist and ahistorical, on the one hand, or as reducing everything to language, on the other (Shepherdson 8; for similar statements from Dean see 8, 15, and 22). One great merit of Beyond Sexuality and Vital Signs is the way they move debates over sexuality and identity beyond facile, sterile arguments between essentialism and constructionism—an opposition, Shepherdson points out, that plays out in postmodern clothes the nineteenth-century, and thus basically pre-Freudian, opposition between Geisteswissenschaften and Naturewissenschaften (15, 183).
Dean and Shepherdson start from the same place: the Lacanian proposition, derived from Freud, that sexuality represents a failure of identity constitutes the sharpest insight of psychoanalysis, one with ramifications that are still far from being understood. The Lacanian argument is profoundly antipsychological and anti-commonsensical, as Dean observes: “human sexuality involves persons only contingently.... We misconstrue sexuality’s functioning when we begin our analysis of it from the point of view of men and women, rather than from the perspective of language and its effects” (18). Shepherdson explains that, because Freud’s theory of sexuality binds the drives to representation, psychoanalysis fundamentally conceives of a sexuality constitutively opposed to nature, reproduction, or any other telos. In Dean’s lovely expression, “Language and the body are permanently out of synch, though not always in the same way” (59).
In addition to this attention to sexuality’s failure, the two books share other emphases, such as clarifying the differences between the Imaginary and the Symbolic (including between the image and the word), and most notably a sustained engagement with Catherine Millot’s work on transsexuality.3 As a consequence of their attempt to bring psychoanalysis into sharper relief, both writers are also somewhat polemical, digging through the reception history of Lacanian psychoanalysis and what is usually called French feminism in order to demonstrate how and why certain concepts have been obscured—or simply not understood. Despite their common interest in clarifying the theoretical stakes of Lacanian psychoanalysis, Dean and Shepherdson also have significantly divergent interests and methods. Dean’s Beyond Sexuality offers a radical rethinking of sexuality on impersonalist grounds, revealing the value of Lacan’s conception of the objet a to queer theory—and, splendidly, the extent to which the objet a deserves to supplant the phallus in Lacanian theory. Dean eloquently demonstrates the vitality of heterodox—or, perhaps more precisely, of original, non-acolytic—readings of Lacan, as well as the crucial importance of Lacanian analysis for social phenomena such as safe-sex education. Shepherdson’s disentangling of the three elements of his subtitle—nature, culture, psychoanalysis—works to defamiliarize French feminists such as Irigaray, Kristeva, Lemoine-Luccioni, and Millot...