- Žižek with French Feminism: Enjoyment and the Feminine Logic of the “Not-All”1
Slavoj Žižek’s dialogue with French feminism is rather limited. Aside from his occasional disparaging comments about Julia Kristeva’s anti-revolutionary sentiments,2 Žižek has for the most part avoided serious discussion with Kristeva, Hélène Cixous or Luce Irigaray.3 Though actively, but not uncritically, working within a Lacanian framework, as Žižek does, these “French feminists” (as they are typically grouped) must have seemed too compromised by their association with Derrida and deconstruction. Rather than engaging with what French feminism’s Lacanianism might have to offer the Left, Žižek perceives these thinkers as unhelpfully belaboring Freud/Lacan’s phallogocentric predilections, and appealing to a deceptive version of the “eternal feminine.”
Žižek’s indifference is all the more regrettable since he and the French feminists alike share a deep commitment to sexual difference. Each also seeks to make a place for the question of sexual difference—and more specifically, for the question of (female) jouissance—within a philosophy that, from Descartes’s cogito to Heidegger’s Dasein, has remained largely blind to it. Like Lacan, who questioned the primacy of cognition in Western philosophy—philosophy’s axiomatic insistence on self-knowledge as an expression of self-mastery—Kristeva professes her own kind of “antiphilosophy,”4 affirming the deep interconnection between thought and desire, if not the identification of thought with desire (jouissance): “The knowing subject is also a desiring subject, and the paths of desire ensnarl the paths of knowledge” (307). In other words, the desiring subject for Kristeva (as well as for Irigaray and Cixous) is decidedly a psychoanalytical one: “Desidero is the Freudian cogito” (Lacan, Écrits 154).5 Žižek echoes his French feminist counterparts when he points out philosophy’s willful neglect of sexual difference and argues for psychoanalysis’s implicit role as a necessary supplement:
[T]he crucial difference between psychoanalysis and philosophy concern[s] the status of sexual difference: for philosophy, the subject is not inherently sexualized, sexualization only occurs at the contingent, empirical level, whereas psychoanalysis raises sexuation into a kind of formal a priori condition for the very emergence of the subject. We should thus defend the claim that what philosophy cannot think is sexual difference in its philosophical (ontological) dimension.(Žižek, Less Than Nothing 747).
What Žižek shares with his feminist counterparts is a certain appeal to, or concern with feminine jouissance (enjoyment), as a site of contestation, as an alternative economy of [End Page 109] enjoyment—one that stands in opposition to masculine phallic enjoyment. Yet what each means by sexual difference, and how each construes jouissance’s oppositional force, is precisely the subject of their disagreements. In this essay, I want to explore what a dialogue between Žižek and French feminist thought might look like. In particular, I will focus on Žižek’s and French feminists’ divergent accounts of sexual difference, and the implications of these for an understanding of the sexed self and the rhetorical enactment of feminine alterity.
“Woman does not exist”: Ontologies of Difference
The primacy of sexual difference has long been a contested issue within feminism and among feminists. Accusations of biologism or essentialism plague contemporary theoretical debates, which are marked, particularly in the Anglo-American context, by a predominant investment in matters of “gender” over those framed around “sex” and sexuality (the shift from Women’s Studies to Gender Studies departments in the U.S. points for instance to this trend). The most famous articulation of this key distinction between sex and gender, and one that generated much contemporary debate over sexual difference, is Simone de Beauvoir’s assertion in The Second Sex that “one is not born, but rather becomes, woman [on ne naît pas femme: on le devient]” (283). In other words, while an individual may be born a female (anatomically speaking), she becomes woman; she becomes her gender—a gendered subject—through the process of socialization.
Yet what gets lost in this common gloss of Beauvoir’s position is that far from denying the insights of biology, Beauvoir readily accepts biological differences...