Alenka Zupancic, "What is Sex?" (MIT Press, 2017)


Alenka Zupancic has done the unthinkable. She has managed to write a fun and exciting book about sex with only cursory mention of things naughty. What is Sex? (MIT Press, 2017) avoids fluff, heterosexual intercourse, and the gender binary (and gender altogether) and instead cogently explains sexual difference, the elusive "beyond" of the pleasure principle, infantile sexuality, the materiality of signifiers, the hole in being, the non-coincidence of truth and knowledge, primal repression, passion, the event, and the political importance of psychoanalysis. Sex for Zupancic is an ontological problem, co-extensive with a disturbance in reality, a signifying gap and structural impediment. Sex is attached to that which cannot be fully known or embodied and is therefore directly related to the unconscious. Subjectivity emerges from within the fault entailed in signification, as does surplus enjoyment. Important here, too, is the well-worn notion, but with a twist, that there is no reality prior or external to discourse. Zupancic reminds us that nature is not a pure and full presence before the arrival of the human but an object produced by and for science. The Real is an effect of language: the signifier invades the signified and alters it from within. Finally, and perhaps most mind-blowingly, the human in her formulation is not that which is merely in excess of the animal (dressing it up in language and culture, let's say) but, rather, an unfinished and dysfunctional dimension: humanity as a veil that simultaneously points and gives form to animals' ontological incompleteness. We cover these complex ideas in the interview, as well as other pressing matters: the disappearance of the hysteric, the desert of the post-oedipal (the only one who managed to escape the Oedipus Complex, Lacan noted, was Oedipus himself), and the status of love at the end of analysis.
Anna Fishzon, PhD, is Senior Research Associate at the University of Bristol, UK. She is a candidate at the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research (IPTAR) and author of Fandom, Authenticity, and Opera: Mad Acts and Letter Scenes in Fin-de-siecle Russia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). She can be reached at

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