A Lacanian Perspective on Sexual Difference
Freudian theory laid the foundation for a felicitous engagement of psychoanalysis with transgender experience. Building on the work of sexologists, Freud not only posited a universal bisexuality, thereby implying that we are all transgender in our unconscious, but also indexed something in sexuality that exceeds our grasp. His most controversial claim, perhaps, was that human sexuality itself is faulty and symptomatic — that our confrontation with the enigma and overproximity of parental desire never leads to a resolution but rather to the formation of mediating fantasies. Freud instructed his colleagues to listen attentively to these fantasies and to be open to sexuality in all its manifestations and vicissitudes: desire and the drives, the problem of sexual difference, and the mortality of the sexed body. It was precisely these ethics, this Freud, to which Lacan urged a return and from which he believed psychoanalysis had strayed. Disturbed by ego psychologists’ focus on adaptation to prevailing sociocultural norms, Lacan instead emphasized and elaborated upon the traumatic aspect of sexuality — the difficulties of assuming a sexed body and of regulating jouissance. He stressed listening to what analysands actually say, as opposed to what they mean, in order to approach the locus from which an unbearable truth speaks.
Yet, historically, psychoanalysts and institutional psychoanalysis have been tone-deaf to transgender desire. Freudians have linked transsexuality to perversion and borderline disorders. Lacanians have deemed transgender expression an indicator of psychosis. Such pathologization has failed transgender subjects, asserts Patricia Gherovici, in her brilliant and provocative Transgender Psychoanalysis: A Lacanian Perspective on Sexual Difference (Routledge, 2017). Despite availing themselves of various forms of talk therapy, trans patients remain wary of psychoanalytic treatments and the suicide attempt rate in the trans population is astonishingly high.
Gherovici argues persuasively that psychoanalysis and the trans community have much to offer one another and that Lacan’s sinthome and sexuation formulae serve as especially productive, nonpathologizing frameworks for such a dialogue. She demonstrates how transgender discourse intervenes in and transforms key Lacanian concepts and maintains that psychoanalytic listening can alleviate the anguish felt by transgender subjects, helping them to live. When I press her on this point, inquiring how analysts might attend to the singularity of each case and still manage to generalize about the category of transgender experience, Gherovici, in an adroit dialectical maneuver, finds the universal in the particular. Transgender expression, she explains, offers novel ways of thinking about subjects not wholly dependent on phallic signification and disrupts the binary logic imposed by the phallus as universal signifier. Trans patients’ particular struggles with gendered embodiment and the symbolization of sex bring to light the trouble inherent in taking ownership of the body for all speaking beings. Covering a vast conceptual and evidentiary terrain, Gherovici moves from the public sphere to the clinic to show how increasing transgender visibility and activism paradoxically subvert identitarian claims, making explicit the constitutive elements and continual failures of Man and Woman.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.