I’ve received some off-blog questions about Lacan’s graphs of sexuation, so I thought I’d devote a few words to how the graphs are to be understood. One of the more illuminating discussions I’ve come across is in Fink’s Lacan to the Letter: Reading Ecrits Closely, entitled “Hors Texte- Knowledge and Jouissance”. It should be recalled that sexuation is not about biological sex, but about the sort of jouissance one is able to obtain (Fink, 158). I personally find that the term “jouissance” is highly polysemous. Not only are there different types of jouissance according to Lacan (phallic jouissance, surplus-jouissance, Other-jouissance), but the term cannot strictly be translated as “pleasure”. Where pleasure is produced through a decrease in tension, according to Freud, jouissance can be thought as an increase in tension that is often experienced as painful. Translating the term as “enjoyment” can thus be misleading. The term is also sometimes used to refer to any sort of affect, such as anxiety, sadness, depression, joy, etc. In my estimation, Fink has a tendency to reduce jouissance to pleasure, which has the advantage of rendering Lacan more accessible, but which makes it difficult to see how he might deal with Lacanian claims such as the idea that desire is a defense against jouissance or Lacan’s occasional tendency to identify jouissance and anxiety.

It’s extremely important to note that biological men and women can occupy either side of the graph of sexuation. That is, there can be women who are organized according to the masculine form of jouissance and men who are organized according to the feminine form of jouissance. This begs the question as to why Lacan sees fit to refer to these two positions as masculine or feminine at all. As Fink puts it, “I cannot say why Lacan associates this Other jouissance specifically with women, apart from the oft-repeated point that many women seem to enjoy talking more than men do” (162). This would hold for the male side as well.

One of the more innovative aspects of Fink’s reading is his suggestion that we understand the variable “x” in the graphs of sexuation as standing for jouissance. Unfortunately I am unable to figure out how to produce the logical notation here, so I will use “E” to stand for the existential quantifier, “V” to stand for the universal quantifier, and “Phi” to stand for the phallic function. The phallic function should be taken to denote castration or a limitation of jouissance. Lacan is pretty clear that the phallus and phallic function should not be associated with the organ of the penis, but is a particular signifier signifying the desire or lack in the Other. Existential quantifiers are used in logic to denote finite collections and can be read as “there exists”. For instance, if I write (Ex)Dy, this can be read as “there exists at least one entity such that that entity is a duck”. By contrast, “V” denotes universal quantifiers. So if I write (Vx)(Lx –> Cx), this could be read as “All lawyers are liars”.

On the male side of the graph we have the following:

(Ex)~Phix which can be read as “there is a form of jouissance that is not subject to castration”.

In Freud’s myth of the primal father in Totem and Taboo, the primal father exemplifies this proposition as he has no limits on his sexual enjoyment. That is, not only can the primal father enjoy all the women of the tribe, he can enjoy his own mother and daughters as well. There are no limitations on his enjoyment. Whenever we say that God is omnipotent we are also saying that God exemplifies this proposition, as omnipotence implies no restriction to power and enjoyment. Similarly, some think of the extremely wealthy or rock stars or porn stars as exemplifying this function. Roughly, whenever we imagine that there’s someone who’s completely satisfied, we’re in the domain of this first line. Hegel’s philosophical dream of absolute knowledge would exemplify this function as well, insofar as it would be a knowledge that is not limited, broken, or fissured in any way, but complete. I recall, when on a Hegel kick during the course of my analysis, and was going on and on about how I don’t understand why I’m so fascinated by Hegel’s Greater Logic, Fink remarked “you’d like to deny the unconscious” (I’m not sure whether this remark was a question or a statement). This would be an example of wanting to overcome one’s division.

Next we have:

(Vx)Phix which can be read as “All of a man’s jouissance is phallic jouissance. Every single one of his satisfactions may come up short” (Fink, 160).

The idea here is that all jouissance is mediated in the symbolic such that it is experienced as coming up short or lacking in some way. Every time I get a bit of recognition, every time I get a new honor, every time I get an article or a book published, every time I get a new car, buy a new book, engage in some new sex act I’ve been dreaming of, I experience this satisfaction as less than expected or as coming up short. The jouissance I actually obtain is less than the jouissance I actually expected. As Fink writes, “There is a barrier between my desire for something as formulated or articulated in signifiers (S) and what can satisfy me. Thus, the satisfaction I take in realizing my desire is always disappointing. This satisfaction, subject to the bar between the signifier and the signified, fails to fulfill me– it always leaves something more to be desired. That is phallic jouissance. Just as one cannot take the lack out of Lacan, one cannot take the failure out of the phallus” (160). Fink’s point here evokes Hegel’s old joke about how you cannot buy “fruit”. There’s no such think as “fruit”, only oranges, apples, grapes, etc. Fruit is a signifier that cannot be had. The abstractness of the signifier– if that’s a good way of putting it –is always in conflict with the concreteness of jouissance, such that each concrete jouissance we obtain is experienced as not being it. More fundamentally, I experience myself as limited or lacking, as constitutively incomplete. Like the character of Schmidt in About Schmidt, one can have phallic gratifications such as recognition from ones peers, a beautiful house, nice trinkets, etc., and still experience a profound dissatisfaction and discontent with life.

Now here’s the key point: The upper level and lower level of the masculine graph of sexuation must be read together to signify a particular deadlock within the masculine form of relating to jouissance. Let the upper portion of the graph be a specifically masculine fantasy of complete or total jouissance. It is because a man believes either that a) total jouissance is possible through some action or object, or b) that some other person or being has total jouissance, that he comes to find all the jouissance that is available in his day to day life insufficient. Take the following passage from Descartes’ third meditation:

And I must not imagine that I do not apprehend the infinite by a true idea, but only by the negation of the finite, in the same way that I comprehend repose and darkness by the negation of motion and light: since, on the contrary, I clearly perceive that there is more reality in the infinite substance than in the finite, and therefore that in some way I possess the perception (notion) of the infinite before that of the finite, that is, the perception of God before that of myself, for how could I know that I doubt, desire, or that something is wanting to me, and that I am not wholly perfect, if I possessed no idea of a being more perfect than myself, by comparison of which I knew the deficiencies of my nature ?

Descartes is here arguing that we cannot arrive at the idea of the infinite or perfection simply by negating the finite. Indeed, his whole point is that my very ability to see myself and entities in the world as imperfect is because I already have the idea of perfection. But since this idea of perfection is a necessary condition for seeing things as imperfect, I could not have learned this idea from experience. Therefore, says Descartes, only a perfect being could have put this idea in me. Descartes’ point, then, is that the idea of God, of an uncastrated being, is the very condition of my desire insofar as I desire to move from a less perfect to more perfect state. This passage exemplifies masculine sexuality perfectly.

As one can sense palpably in the clinic, those subjects that occupy the “masculine” position with respect to jouissance, are tormented by the unconscious belief that somewhere, somehow, an uncastrated or complete form of jouissance is possible. As a result, all jouissance that is actually available to these subjects turns to shit or loses its ability to satisfy. The result is that masculine sexuated subjects will often concoct fantasies of how to acheive this jouissance and then do everything in their power to prevent actually acting on their fantasies (as they would then be disappointed once again). As Lacan puts it in the context of courtly love, “It is a highly refined way of making up for the absence of the sexual relationship, by feigning that we are the ones who erect an obstacle thereto” (69). In courtly love the man admires the woman from afar, while the woman pretends to ignore the man. Generally the woman is married or perhaps a nun, so the two are prevented from ever consummating their love. Perhaps they send pages and pages of beautiful correspondance to one another, bemoaning their inability to consummate their passion, but the whole point is to avoid passing to the act so as to sustain the belief that complete jouissance exists and discovering, once again, the disappointment of phallic jouissance.

The female side of the graph of sexuation is far more difficult. Like the male side, it expresses a fundamental deadlock within female sexuality itself that serves as the motor of drive.

The upper portion of the graph reads:

~(Ex)~(Phix) which Fink translates as, “There is not any jouissance that is not phallic jouissance, the emphasis going on the first ‘is.’ All the jouissance that do exist are phallic (in order to exist, according to Lacan, something must be articulable within our signifying system determined by the phallic signifier); but that does not mean that there cannot be some jouissance that are not phallic. It is just that they do not exist; instead, they ex-sist. The Other jouissances can only ex-sist, it cannot exist, for to exist it would have to be spoken, articulated, symbolized” (161).

The concept of ex-sistence is complicated. While initially it might sound absurd to say that something must be formulable within language in order to say that it exists, all that is here being said is that anything in the symbolic is subject to a rule for or of its construction. We can say what it is and give its defining features. To say that something ex-sists is to say that it is outside language and not subject to a rule that can be expressed in language. For instance, sometimes people say that love is unspeakable or say that we can’t know certain experiences without trying them for ourselves. By way of example, I can’t explain what tuna steak tastes like to someone who’s never had it. The first half of the graph is thus saying that there is no jouissance, for speaking beings, that is outside of language. Or put otherwise, all speaking-beings are subject to the phallic function of castration (subordination to the signifier).

At this level, the feminine position is indistinguishable from the position of the castrated male. For instance, we might think of Reese Witherspoon’s character in Legally Blonde. With an exception that I’ll explore in a bit, all of her jouissance appears to be phallic in nature– the clothing she buys, her car, her decorating, her desire to become a lawyer, etc. As such, it can be said that her character is indistinguishable from that of a masculine sexuated being in relation to jouissance. The difference between the masculine and feminine position can here only be detected in terms of the specific conflict or deadlock that organizes the feminine position’s relation to jouissance, or its object choice of desire. Looking back at the graphs we see that there’s an arrow underneath pointing from the “barred woman” to the symbol for the Phallus. Here we’re no longer talking about the phallic function or castration, but signifiers of power such as wealth, prestige, strength, intelligence, political power, etc. The only suggestion that Witherspoon’s character is sexuated as feminine lies in the men she chooses as her love objects. All of these men embody phallic signifiers such as family prestige, wealth, or intelligence. In contrast, if it were some particular fetish that evoked the desire of Witherspoon’s character, it could be said that she is sexuated on the masculine side of the graph. For instance, it is not clear to me that Vivian Wu’s character in The Pillowbook is sexuated in a feminine way, due to her fetishistic relation to writing. What is important to her is not that the men she desires embody phallic signifiers, but that they are able to produce beautiful calligraphy.

The lower portion of the graph for feminine sexuation reads:

~(Vx)Phix which Fink translates as “Not all of a woman’s jouissance is phallic jouissance” (161).

In short, Lacan hypothesizes a form of jouissance that is outside of language, or which cannot be expressed in language. He associates this jouissance with experiences described by mystics, such as Saint Teresa or John of the Cross, which often describe their experiences as ec-static or beyond finite limitations, knowing no ordinary earthly limits. Often mystics claim that they disappear entirely as a subject in these sorts of experiences, and claim that they cannot describe the nature of these experiences. Plotinus, for instance, describes disappearing in relation to the One. In relation to the mystical experiences of Saint Teresa, Lacan remarks that, “…it’s like for Saint Teresa– you need to go to Rome and see the statue by Bernini to immediately understand that she’s coming. There’s no doubt about it. What is she getting off on? It is clear that the essential testimony of the mystics consists in saying that they experience it, but don’t know anything about it” (Seminar 20, 76). One might be inclined to be skeptical as to whether this sort of jouissance outside the symbolic actually occurs, but given the diversity of cultures in which these experiences are asserted, there seems to be evidence that it does, in fact, occur.

More modestly, this Other jouissance need not be thought of solely in terms of something so grand as mystical experiences, but might also be thought in terms of a certain relationship to the body such as the experience biological women have of their body in terms of menstration or carrying children. Lacan also seems to entertain the possibility that this jouissance might not be a jouissance outside of language at all, but a certain way of enjoying speaking itself (masculine sexuated speech being goal directed or always aimed at a specific point, feminine sexuated speech, like Joyce’s writing, taking pleasure in the act of speaking itself even if it’s about nothing at all). Lacan describes this enjoyment as a certain satisfaction taken in speech itself (Seminar 20, 72), where signification (“making a point”/conveying information), loses its importance.

Unlike the masculine side of the graph where the masculine sexuated subject struggles with a fantasy of total jouissance that transforms all existing jouissance into something dissatisfying, the deadlock or conflict of the feminine side of the graph of sexuation would be that of how to navigate between this mysterious Other jouissance that is outside of language and which disturbs language, and the fact that “there is no jouissance that isn’t phallic jouissance or governed by the law of castration”. That is, here the subject has to navigate her subordination to the symbolic while also encountering a jouissance that ex-sists with regard to the symbolic. Great mystics such as Plotinus, for instance, devoted their life to finding a way to mediate the relationship between finite things (the world of castration) and the One that perturbs and abolishes these distinctions.

Philosophically and politically what is important in Lacan’s graph is the way it facilitates schematizing certain ways of relating to the law and what lies outside the law or what cannot be inscribed in the law. If the feminine side of the graph is so interesting, then this is because it allows us to conceptualize an order that’s completely subordinated to the law of language (as is argued by reigning linguistic constructivists) and claim that this order is not-all. Badiou’s entire ontology, for instance, can be seen as thematizing a way of saying that all situations are subordinated to the phallic function or the law of castration (the symbolic order of knowledge) while nonetheless explaining how an aleatory event can come to rupture and supplement a situation (i.e., that the situation is not-all). What is here even more promising is that such a supplementation is not the way of the mystic.