Jacques Lacan:Sexual Difference

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The most controversial and contested area of Lacanian psychoanalysis involves the conceptualization of feminine sexuality.

Lacan's thinking on feminine sexuality is distinguished by two main phases.

First, he was concerned to distinguish sexual difference on the basis of the phallus and here Lacan makes a significant innovation regarding Freudian thinking. For Freud the question of sexual differences revolved around the 'castration complex', that is, around whether or not someone 'has' or 'does not have' a penis.

For Lacan, on the other hand, castration is a symbolic process that invovles the cutting off, not of one's penis, but of one's jouissance and the recognition of lack. In order to represent this lack the subject has two possible alternatives - that of 'having' or 'being' the phallus.

According to Lacan, masculinity involves the posture or pretence of having the phallus, while femininity involve the masquerade of being the phallus.

The second phase of Lacan's thinking on sexual difference comes from a late seminar, seminar XX - Encoure: On Feminine Sexuality, The Limits of Love and Knowledge 1972-1973 - and concerns the 'structures of sexuation'. In this late phase Lacan continutes to develop masculinity and femininity as structures that are available to both men and women and not related to one's biology, but what now determines a masculine and feminine structure si the type of jouissance one is able to attain - what LAcan called phallic jouissance and Other jouissance.

We will explore thesehighly controversial ideas below.


Let us finally consider what is surely the most controversial and contested area of Lacanian psychoanalysis: the conceptualization of feminine sexuality. Lacan's provocative slogans, such as 'the woman does not exist' and 'there is no such thing as a sexual relationship', have been greeted with indignation and outrage as well as prolonged and passionate defence. Lacan's thinking on feminine sexuality is distinguished by two main phases: first, he was concerned to distinguish sexual difference on the basis of the phallus and here Lacan makes a significant innovation regarding Freudian thinking. For Freud the question of sexual difference revolved around the 'castration complex', that is, around whether or not someone 'has' or 'does not have' a penis. For Lacan, on the other hand, castration is a symbolic process that involves the cutting off, not of one's penis, but of one's jouissance and the recognition of lack. In order to represent this lack the subject has two possible alternatives - that of 'having' or 'being' the phallus (Adams 1966b). According to Lacan, masculinity involves the posture or pretence of having the phallus, while femininity involves the masquerade of being the phallus. The second phase of Lacan's thinking on sexual difference comes from a late seminar, seminar XX - Encore: On Feminine Sexuality, The Limits of Love and Knowledge 1972-1973 - and concerns the 'structures of sexuation'. In this late phase Lacan continues to develop masculinity and femininity as structures that are available to both men and women and not related to one's biology, but what now determines a masculine and feminine structure is the type of jouissance one is able to attain - what Lacan called phallic jouissance and Other jouissance. We will explore these highly controversial ideas below before presenting an example of what Lacan means by them in the form of the poetic tradition of courtly love.

Freud and the Enigma of Feminine Sexuality

Freud based his theory of the Oedipus complex and infantile sexuality on the experience of boys, and at first he thought that the same process could simply be transferred to girls but in reverse. Gradually Freud was forced to acknowledge, by the weight of his own clinical experience and the research of his colleagues, that this was an untenable position. Two factors came into play here. First, the realization that, in the final phase of the Oedipus complex, its dissolution, it is not the genitals themselves that are in question but the presence or absence of the male genital organ, the penis. Second, a number of Freud's followers began to look much more closely at the pre-Oedipal phase of an infant's life and in particular at the importance of the mother/child relationship. Freud came to accept the importance of this early pre-Oedipal phase of development, but this meant that he had to revise his early conception of the Oedipus complex. In the pre-Oedipal phase both sexes are equally attached to the mother as the first love object and what Freud needed to explain was how girls shift from their mother to their father as a love object for the Oedipus complex to even start.

The Oedipus complex remains fairly straightforward for boys; they initially see their mother as a love object but slowly realize that their mother is also the love object of their father. The father thus becomes a rival for the mother and the boy fears that the father will cut off his penis. The boy resolves this dilemma by giving up the mother as a love object and identifying with the father. As compensation for giving up on the mother the boy will be able to have other women as love objects in the future. For girls, however, the Oedipus complex has to account for the process whereby girls first give up their initial love-object (the mother). The Oedipus complex for girls, thus, involves an extra, earlier, step. The girl transfers her love from the mother to the father, because she realizes that neither she nor her mother has a penis, in a process that Freud called penis envy. The mother is then transformed from an object of love to a rival for the father's affections. At first the girl devalues the mother because she does not possess a penis and then resents her for making her the same. The problem for Freud was that he simply could not then explain why a girl should give up the father as love object and re-identify with the mother.

The castration complex marks the conclusion and resolution of the Oedipus complex for boys, that is to say, boys give up on the other as love object. For girls, on the other hand, it is the castration complex that leads up to the Oedipus complex and there is no satisfactory resolution of it. The girl must accept that she does not have the penis in order to transfer her desire to her father, but in doing so she does not accept this loss without some kind of compensation. Freud speculated that this compensation takes the form of desiring a baby from the father and the female Oedipus complex culminates, not in the threat of castration, but in the desire for the gift of a baby from the father. Thus girls never fully resolve their Oedipus complex because they can never completely give up on the other as love object. As we can see, the Oedipus complex for girls is a much more complex affair than for boys and it is also deeply unsatisfactory as a concept.

Freud's speculations on the female Oedipus complex led him to explore the nature of feminine sexuality but resulted only in a series of unanswered questions. Until the end of his life Freud was bewildered by the enigma of feminine sexuality. He described femininity as a 'dark continent' and never resolved the question 'what does woman want?' In the 1920s the failure of psychoanalysis to adequately account for the development of female sexuality gave rise to what has been called the first great debate on feminine sexuality. This debate was initiated through a paper by one of Freud's closest associates, Ernest Jones (1879-1958), which drew responses from many of the most prominent women psychoanalysts of the time, including Karen Horney (1885-1952), Melanie Klein (1882-1960) and Joan Riviere (1883-1962) (see Juliet Mitchell's introduction to Feminine Sexuality (Mitchell and Rose 1982) for an account of this debate). Lacan's work on feminine sexuality is a continuation of these debates from the 1920s and 1930s and subsequently gave rise to the 'second great debate' in the 1970s and 1980s (see Brennan 1989).

To Have or to Be the Phallus?

The feminist critique of psychoanalysis focused on two particularly problematic strands of Freud's thought. First, feminists saw psychoanalysis as propagating a form of biological essentialism in the sense that one's anatomy - whether or not one has or does not have a penis - determines one's sexual identity. And there is indeed more than a little truth in this. Marie Bonaparte (1882-1962), for example, went so far as to argue that 'biology is destiny' and the attempts to revise Freud's 'phallocentrism' by Jones, Bonaparte and Horney had paradoxically resulted in much more deterministic and essentialist theories of sexual development. The second critique advanced by feminism is that psychoanalysis always defines women negatively in relation to men. For Freud, men are seen as active agents while women are defined in terms of passivity. By the 1960s and early 1970s these two critiques were firmly established and widely accepted within feminism (see Kate Millet's classic feminist text Sexual Politics (1977 [1969]) for a clear statement of these criticisms), and consequently the psychoanalytic explanation of sexual difference was displaced through the study of gender as a social construct. It was within this context that Lacan's idiosyncratic formulations of sexual difference were received. Lacan's insistence that all notions of a stable fixed identity are a fiction rather than biologically given were seen to provide feminists with the possibility of a non-essentialist psychoanalytic theory of sexual difference.

From a Lacanian perspective the unconscious is that which undermines any stable or fixed identity and that includes a stable sexual identity. For early Lacan, sexual difference is not a question of biology but of signification; masculinity and femininity are not anatomically given but are subject positions defined through their relationship to the phallus as signifier. As we saw previously, for Lacan, the phallus is a signifier that is related, but not directly equivalent, to the penis and, as Jacqueline Rose points out, the importance of the phallus as signifier is precisely 'that its status in the development of human sexuality is something which nature cannot account for' (1996a: 63). The phallus is the signifier of lack. The phallus functions initially as an imaginary object - an object presumed to satisfy the mother's desire. It then functions symbolically through the recognition that desire cannot be satisfied and that as an object it will remain beyond reach. The rupturing of the imaginary unity between mother and child inaugurates the movement of desire and simultaneously the process of signification. The phallus thus represents a moment of rupture or division that re-enacts the fundamental division of the subject. In this sense, the phallus represents lack for both boys and girls, as both sexes are symbolically castrated. Castration for Lacan is a very different process from that elaborated by Freud and involves a fundamental loss for both sexes, that is to say, the giving up of some part of one's jouissance. In order to come into being as desiring subjects we are forced to acknowledge the impossibility of the total fulfilment of our jouissance. Castration designates that fundamental loss for which the phallus is the signifier. What we need to keep in mind here, if we are not to confuse these terms and, more importantly, if we are not to confuse them with the actual physical organ, is that jouissance is related to the drive and the real, while the phallus is a signifier and is related to the symbolic. The 'difference' between a male and a female castration complex, therefore, is how the subject represents this primordial lack or loss, and it is here that the asymmetry of the Oedipus complex becomes apparent. Boys can 'pretend' to have the phallus, while girls must be the phallus. What does this mean? Having and being the phallus represents two modes of identification that cover over this primary lack. Through the Oedipus complex boys recognize the mother's desire and lack. They then identify her object of desire with the father, assuming that he has the phallus. In short, the boy shifts from the mother as a lacking other to the father as possessor of the phallus. Thus, boys pretend to have the object of desire for the Other (women). This is only 'pretence', however, because they never possessed the phallus in the first place; the phallus is always elsewhere.

Women, on the other hand, have to undergo the rather more complex procedure of giving up on the notion of 'having' the phallus before they can identify with the mother and thus become the object of desire for the Other (men). Lacan linked this process through which women must give up an essential part of themselves in order to be the phallus with the concept of masquerade:

Paradoxical as this formulation may seem, I am saying that it is in order to be the phallus, that is to say, the signifier of the desire of the Other, that a woman will reject an essential part of femininity, namely, all her attributes in the masquerade. It is for that which she is not that she wishes to be desired as well as loved. (Lacan 1977d [1958]: 289-90)

It is through the masquerade that a woman's 'not-having' the phallus is transformed into 'being' the phallus.

Femininity as Masquerade

Lacan developed the notion of masquerade from Joan Riviere's paper, 'Womanliness as Masquerade' (1986 [1929]). This was a response to an earlier paper by Ernest Jones entitled 'Early Development of Female Sexuality' (1927). Jones had distinguished between two types of female sexual development: so-called 'normal' heterosexual development and homosexual development, that is, women who sought male recognition for their masculinity. Riviere was concerned to introduce a new type of woman into psychoanalytic considerations of femininity - a particular character type that was much more resonant with contemporary woman than anything Freud or Jones had previously considered, that is, the 'intellectual woman'. For Riviere, this new type of woman raises the difficult issue of how to address the anxiety that they raise in men. Women who aspire to 'masculine' or intellectual pursuits arouse fear and anxiety in the very men they wish to be colleagues and collaborators with. Therefore, 'women who wish for masculinity may put on a mask of womanliness to avert anxiety and the retribution feared from men' (Riviere 1986 [1929]: 35). Riviere's suggestion that womanliness is worn as a mask appears to have much wider significance, however, than just in the case of intellectual women. She writes that womanliness 'could be assumed and worn as a mask, both to hide the possession of masculinity and to avert the reprisals expected if she was found to possess it' (1986 [1929]: 38), but if we are to ask what distinguishes genuine womanliness and womanliness as masquerade they appear to be the same thing. What is radical in Riviere's position, write Appignanesi and Forrester, 'is that for her mask and essence are one where womanliness is concerned' (1993:363).

Riviere saw the notion of masquerade as an important contribution to the theory of female sexual development, identifying it at work in the female Oedipus complex. She argues that both the mother and the father are the little girl's rivals and objects of her sadistic fury:

In this appalling predicament the girl's only safety lies in placating the mother and atoning for her crime [destroying the woman's body]. She must retire from rivalry with the mother and, if she can, endeavour to restore to her what she has stolen. As we know, she identifies herself with her father; and then uses the masculinity she thus obtains by putting it at the service of the mother. She becomes the father and takes his place; so she can 'restore' him to the mother. (1986 [1929]: 41)

The father, however, must be placated and appeased too and this can only be achieved by masquerading in a feminine guise for him, that is showing him her 'love' and guiltlessness towards him. According to Riviere, the little girl is caught in a double bind between appeasing her mother and appeasing her father, but this is by no means a symmetrical relationship: 'the task of guarding herself against the woman's retribution is harder than with the man; her efforts to placate and make reparation by restoring and using the penis in the mother's service were never enough' (1986 [1929]: 42). In terms of women's identity and sexual development, then, she must first identify with the father and only then with the mother. The problem for women, therefore, is not whether they put on the mask of femininity or not but how well it fits. In short, femininity is masquerade.

Riviere's notion of masquerade raises important and difficult questions in relation to feminine sexuality. The assumption of the mask implies that there is something hidden behind it. In other words, behind the artifice of the masquerade lies the genuine, authentic, woman. For Riviere, however, the appearance and the essence of feminine sexuality are one and the same. It is this dilemma, the conflation of genuine womanliness and masquerade, that Lacan elaborates. Lacan sees in the notion of masquerade 'the feminine sexual attitude' par excellence, that is to say, it is the mask or veil that 'is constitutive of the feminine libidinal structure' (Heath 1986:52). In other words, 'masquerade is a representation of femininity but then femininity is representation, the representation of the woman' (Heath 198 6:53). What the notion of masquerade foregrounds is not the essential identity of women but rather the constructed nature of that identity: 'The masquerade says that the woman exists at the same time that, as masquerade, it says she does not' (Heath 1986:54).

The Woman Does Not Exist

The idea that "Woman does not exist"[1] or that she is "not-whole" has often been seen as the most offensive of Lacan's formulations about feminine sexuality but, as with the notion of the phallus, this reading is based on a fundamental misreading of Lacan.

Just as the phallus is an 'empty' signifier - it is a signifier of lack and has no positive content - the sign 'woman' has no positive or empirical signified.

There is no universal category of women to which the sign "Woman" refers.

To appeal to the notion of women therefore as a homogeneous group is to appeal to an imaginary, and therefore illusory, identity.

Furthermore, when Lacan talks about existence, he is reerring to something at the level of the symbolic.

If the woman was to exist she would have to exist at the level of the symbolic and this has a number of implications.

First, as the symbolic is phallic by definition, it would subordiante feminity to the phallus in the same way that Freud saw femininity as defined by not having the penis.

Second, it would mean that femininity is wholly a discursive construct and that sexual identity is completely socially - symbolically - constructed.

Lacan, however, "leaves open the possibility of there being something - a feminine jouissance - that is unlocatable in experience, that cannot, then, be said to exist in the symbolic order."[2]

TO say that the woman is "not-whole" is not to say that she is in some way incomplete and lacking something that the man has, but rather that she is "defined as not wholly hemmed in. A woman is not split in the same way as a man; though alienated, she is not altogether subject to the symbolic order."[3]

Lacan puts this in a rather convoluted double negative, which has given rise to much of the misunderstanding about woman as "not-all":

"[A]nd this is the whole point, she has different ways of approachign that phallus and of keepign it for herself. It's not because she is notwholly in the phallic function that she is not there at all. She is not not at all there. She is there in full. BUt there is something more.[4]

It is precisely because the woman does not exist and that she is "not-whole" that she has access to somehting more (encore) than men.

Encore: The Theory of Sexuation

In his early account of sexual difference Lacan had tried to free psychoanalysis from its essentialism and normative, heterosexual, bias by transposing the Freudian understanding of castration and penis envy on to the phallus as a signifier of lack. While the notion of masquerade has been extraordinarily productive in terms of analysing the representation of women (see 'After Lacan'), it still left completely unanswered the question of feminine desire. In 1972-3 Lacan returned to this issue - what can be said about feminine desire - in the seminar Encore. In this seminar Lacan further developed the idea that masculinity and femininity are not biologically given, but designate two 'sexed' subject positions that are available to both men and women. What is important in this seminar is that masculinity and femininity are defined not simply in relation to the phallus, but through the type of jouissance that is attainable in each position. Sexual difference, therefore, is determined not as a difference between two discrete sexes but as a result of one's position in relation to jouissance.

Encore is usually read as Lacan's final statement on feminine sexuality, but this is only part of the picture. Seminar XX presents a wide-ranging reflection on the nature of love, jouissance and the limits of knowledge. Sexual difference is important here because, from a psychoanalytic perspective, it is the ultimate limit of knowledge. Sexual difference is reducible to neither nature nor culture, but emerges at the point of their intersection. This does not mean that sexual identity is the sum of natural (biological) and cultural (signifying) elements, but rather that it is that which is left out of their unity. What Lacan is driving at here is that all structures, whether of the subject or the symbolic, are necessarily incomplete; there is always some contingent element that is left out, an exception to the rule. Thus, seminar XX should be read as a continuation of the project Lacan set out in seminar XI, when he began to elaborate the objet petit a as the left-over of the real. Encore is also, as we will see, a continuation of seminar VII and the discussion of courtly love that Lacan introduced there. Increasingly, in the late Lacan, the drive is associated with the exception and limit; it is the concept of the drive that means that the subject is not wholly determined by the symbolic and marks the limit of the signifier upon the subject. The drive is also the terrain upon which sex is played out.

Logic of Sexuation

In the seminar Encore, Lacan proposed what he called "formulas of sexuation" to set down the basic structures of male and female sexuality.

Sigmund Freud

In his book Totem and Taboo, Freud had argued that at the mythic origin of society lay a primal horde, in which a jealous and greedy father enjoyed all the women.

His sons were deprived of all intercourse with them. And so they rebelled and murdered their father to gain acess to the women. But then, in remorse, the sons forbade themselves the very women they had murdered for.

According to Freud, the first law of society was thus imposed by the sons on themselves as a result of their love and remorse for their murdered father.

If this law is understood as a prohibition of jouissance, it is based, at its origin, on a jouissance which is obscene, perverse and unregulated - that of the primal father.

Jacques Lacan

Lacan argues that the law of prohibition always supposes at its horizon an exception, someone who escapes the law. If all men are subject to a law, one man escapes.

This structure of constitutive of male sexuality. If all males are subject to prohibition, there is at least one who escapes.

If Freud's story in Totem and Taboo was a myth, Lacan tries to extract a logical structure from it and he gives notation for the sexuality.

Supplementary Jouissance

As Lacan pointed out there is no myth in the anlytic literature like that contained in Totem and Taboo about female sexuality.

According to Lacan, women participate in a logic very different from that of the man.

Not all subjects are subject to castration, even if there does not exist a subject who is not subject to castration.

THe jouissance of a speaking being may be phallic or it may be "supplementary", an enjoyment born out of the castration complex but not linked to the organ and its limits.

The idea is that once the castration complex has established a lack in one's life, this lack itself can take on a libidinal value.

The subject does not try to fill this lack - which would be phallic jouissance - but to give it a new value as lack, to produce jouissance through this absence.

Not all

Men and women are both subject to the imposition of the symbolic order and the networks of signifiers.

We aimto immerse ourselves fullyin this symbolic order, to accept and absorb the signifier as much as possible. Women instead not only know there sis more to the world than the signifier, but they try, often with the gfreatest determination, to make this something a part of their lives.

Hence Lacan can say that women are "not-all" in the field of the symbolic castration, even if the whole dynamic in question only exists owing to the initial presence of this symbolic dimension.


As we have seen throughout this introduction, the lesson of psychoanalysis, or what we can call the tragedy of psychoanalysis, is that the subject is inherently divided and can never be satisfied. Furthermore, our knowledge is always limited by that unknown we call the unconscious. We are plagued as subjects by the anxiety that our jouissance - our pleasure or enjoyment - is never enough. In other words, we are driven by an inherent dissatisfaction and sense of insufficiency. We constantly have the sense that there is something more; we do not know what this is, but we have the sense that it is there, and we want it. This is what Fink refers to as a 'paltry' jouissance (2002:36) and it is the form of jouissance that Lacan identifies as phallic jouissance. 'Phallic jouissance is the jouissance that fails us, that disappoints us. It is susceptible to failure, and fundamentally misses our partner' (Fink 2002:37).

Phallic jouissance is that form of enjoyment that most of us experience most of the time; that is to say, just when we think we possess our object of desire - be that another person, a new possession or even a difficult idea we have been struggling to get hold of - we are still dissatisfied; we are disappointed and have a sense that our desire has not been fully satisfied. This sense of (dis)satisfaction that always leaves something wanting is precisely what Lacan calls phallic jouissance and defines the masculine structure. A masculine structure is characterized by turning the Other into an objet a, and mistakenly thinking that the object can fully satisfy our desire. It is essential to keep in mind here, though, that phallic jouissance is not male in the sense that only men can experience it; it is experienced by both men and women and is defined as phallic insofar as it is characterized by failure.


A feminine structure, on the other hand, is defined by a different relationship to the Other and jouissance - what Lacan calls Other jouissance. The problem with talking about this Other jouissance, however, is that it cannot be spoken about. Speech is related to the symbolic order and is therefore phallic. If we could talk about this Other jouissance then it would, by definition, be phallic, as the symbolic order is phallic. Other jouissance is precisely something that one can experience but saynothing about and thusit is impossible to define. Now clearly this does not get us very far in an introduction to Lacan, so let us try to say what we can about this particular form of enjoyment. Fink points out that the notion of Other jouissance in Lacan is rather ambiguous and offers a number of possible readings: it could mean 'the jouissance the Other gets out of us', or 'our enjoyment of the Other', or 'our enjoyment as the Other' (2002:38). All are possible readings of Lacan's formula. Fink also remains unclear why this Other jouissance should be defined as feminine (2002:40).

The most well-known example of Other jouissance from seminar XX is of the statue 'The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa' by the Italian Baroque sculptor Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). This piece shows St Teresa swooning in ecstasy while pierced by an arrow from an angel poised above her. Lacan comments:

[I]t's like for Saint Teresa - you need but 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 know nothing of it. (1998 [1975]: 76)

This experience of unspeakable ecstasy is what Lacan calls Other or feminine jouissance. The idea of Other jouissance is seen to mark an advance over the phallocentrism of Freud, in that Other jouissance is 'more than' phallic jouissance; it is beyond the symbolic and the subject and therefore 'outside the unconscious' (Soler 2002:107). Both men and women can experience phallic, or Other, jouissance and what defines whether or not a person has a masculine or a feminine structure is the type of jouissance they experience. There is one crucial difference, according to Lacan, between men and women, however, and that is that women can experience both forms of jouissance while with men it is either one or the other (see Fink 2002:40-1). For Lacan, it is not the case that women are defined negatively in relation to men; a woman is not a man and therefore lacks something that men have - a penis. Rather, women have access to something more than men - a surplus jouissance.

There is No Such Thing as a Sexual Relationship

Before turning to the example of courtly love, let me say something about one of Lacan's most perversely scandalous remarks about sexuality: there is no such thing as a sexual relationship. This formulation by Lacan is often understood, incorrectly I should add, in a similar vein to that of ex-US President Bill Clinton's equally scandalous remark that he did 'not have sexual relations' with Monica Lewinsky, a remark that nearly brought down his presidency. Bill Clinton took 'sexual relations' in this context to apply in a completely limited and literal sense to genital sex and thus, fortuitously for him, to exclude any other form of sexual activity. Lacan is not talking about sexual relations in this sense and is not suggesting that people do not have sexual relations with each other, of whatever form. Lacan is referring to a much more fundamental relationship than this - to the impossibility of a perfect sexual union between two people. Perhaps one of the most pervasive cultural fantasies we have today is of finding our perfect partner and of having a completely harmonious and sexually fulfilling relationship with our 'other half'. Indeed, many of the psychotherapies today are driven by the desire to achieve harmony and balance within families, between people and above all between the sexes. For Lacan this is a pernicious fantasy and the role of psychoanalysis is to reveal how any harmonious relationship is fundamentally impossible. It is precisely because masculinity and femininity represent two non-complementary structures, defined by different relationships to the Other, that there can be no such thing as a sexual relationship. What we do in any relationship is either try to turn the other into what we think we desire or turn ourselves into that which we think the other desires, but this can never exactly map onto the other's desire. In other words, the 'major problem of male and female subjects is that they do not relate to what their partners relate to in them' (Salecl 2002:93). In a sense, we always miss what we aim at in the other and our desire remains unsatisfied. We can never be One, as Lacan says. It is this very asymmetry of masculinity and femininity in relation to the phallus and the objet a that means that there can be no such thing as a sexual relationship. According to Lacan, at least, masculine and feminine types of jouissance are irreconcilable. Let me now conclude this chapter with an example that Lacan takes from literature of the non-existence of women and the failure of the sexual relationship - that of the medieval tradition of courtly love poetry.

Courtly Love

Courtly love is a tradition of lyric poetry that developed in Provence, southern France, in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries and which spread throughout Western Europe in the Middle Ages. It embodies a whole philosophy of love and represents an elaborate code of behaviour which governs the relations between 'aristocratic' lovers, turning the more bodily and erotic aspects of love into a spiritual experience and the most elevated of passions. The courtly lover both idealizes and is idealized by his beloved and subjects himself entirely to her desires. However, there is an inherent impossibility, an obstacle to the fulfilment of love, in the very structure of courtly love. As it developed, courtly love often entailed the love between a single knight and a married woman. The most famous example of this in English literature is the love between Lancelot and Guinevere in King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. This love cannot be consummated in a physical sense and, if it is, disaster and death ensues. Courtly love therefore involves the agonies of unfulfilled love, but the lover remains true to his beloved, manifesting his honour and steadfastness in an unswerving adherence to the code of behaviour.

What Lacan finds of interest in these chivalric romances is, first, its symbolic aspect. Courtly love is 'a poetic exercise, a way of playing with a number of conventional, idealizing themes, which couldn't have any real concrete equivalent' (1992 [1986]: 148). Nevertheless, these symbolic conventions do have real concrete effects and even continue to organize 'contemporary man's sentimental attachments' (1992 [1986]: 148). First and foremost of these is 'the Lady', an impossibly idealized figure for which no real equivalent exists. Lacan writes:

The object involved, the feminine object, is introduced oddly enough through the door of privation or of inaccessibility. Whatever the social position of him who functions in the role, the inaccessibility of the object is posited as a point of departure.[5]

The Lady is the objet a (or das Ding, as Lacan calls it in this seminar) - that impossible object cause of desire that inaugurates the movement of desire itself. Crucially, then, she is not only unattainable but never existed in the first place; she is an idealized image for which there is no real equivalent. In The Metastases of Enjoyment Žižek points out that Lacan is careful here not to elevate the Lady to the status of a 'sublime' spiritualized object; she is rather an 'abstract character' - 'a cold, distanced, inhuman partner' who functions like an automaton or machine: '[T]he Lady is thus as far as possible from any kind of purified spirituality: she functions as an inhuman partner in the sense of radical Otherness which is wholly incommensurable with our needs and desires' (1994:90).

If the Lady of courtly love can be said to act as a mirror upon which the male lovers project their idealized images and fantasies, then this can only take place if the mirror is there already. This surface, the Lady, 'functions as a kind of black hole in reality, as a limit whose Beyond is inaccessible' (Žižek1994:91). In other words, she is exactly the kind of figure that one can have no empathetic relationship with whatsoever. She is that traumatic Otherness that Lacan designates as the Thing or the Real.

This is the structure of courtly love that continues to resonate with contemporary audiences and Žižek gives as an example of this Neil Jordan's 1993 film The Crying Game. The Crying Game centres on the 'love' affair between a member of the IRA, Fergus, on the run in London, and a beautiful hairdresser, Dil. While Fergus falls in love with Dil, she 'maintains an ambiguous ironic, sovereign distance towards him' (1994:103). Eventually Dil gives way to Fergus's advances, but before they make love Dil retires to another room and changes into a semi-transparent nightgown. As the camera slowly follows Fergus's gaze and covetously moves down Dil's body, in one of the most startling moments in recent cinema, we suddenly see 'her' penis. Dil is a transvestite. Repulsed, Fergus pushes her away and throws up. After this failed sexual encounter their relationship is reversed and Dil becomes obsessively in love with Fergus, while he remains distant towards her. What we see here, therefore, is precisely the asymmetry that Lacan describes in all sexual relationships between 'what the lover sees in the loved one and what the loved one knows himself to be' (1994:103). This is the inescapable deadlock of all sexual relationships, according to Lacan. Dil's love for Fergus is so absolute and unconditional that Fergus slowly overcomes his aversion to her. As the IRA tries to draw Fergus back into its activities, Dil shoots and kills Fergus's ex-lover and IRA operative, Jude. Fergus assumes responsibility for the killing and is imprisoned. The film ends with Dil visiting Fergus in prison, dressed once again as a provocatively seductive woman. They are now separated by the glass partition denying them any physical contact. For Žižek, this scenario encapsulates the impossibility of the sexual relationship.

We will present an example of what Lacan means by the terms phallic jouissance and Other jouissance in the form of the poetic tradition of courtly love.


The issue of sexual difference is probably the most complicated and contested area of Lacanian theory. Lacan's thinking around sexual difference can be divided into two main phases. The first defines sexual difference in relation to the phallus: masculinity is defined in terms of having the phallus, while femininity is defined in terms of being the phallus. What is important in relation to this position is that the phallus is a 'fraud'; men cannot have the phallus any more than women can be the phallus. In the second phase of Lacan's work he concentrates much more on masculinity and femininity as structures that are open to both men and women. In this sense he moves away from the 'phallocentrism' of the earlier theory and explicitly attempts to account for women's desire. Thus, in late Lacan, masculinity and femininity are defined in relation to the type of jouissance one is able to attain. Masculinity is defined by a phallic jouissance that always fails, while femininity is defined by access to an Other unspeakable jouissance beyond phallic jouissance. In the section 'After Lacan' we will see how these ideas have been taken up within feminism and women's studies as well as the extensive criticisms against them.

  1. Lacan 1998(1975): 7
  2. Copjec 1994a: 224
  3. Fink 1995: 107
  4. 1998(1975):74
  5. 1992 [1986]: 149