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Volume 21, Number 2 doi 10.1215/10407391-2010-003

© 2010 by Brown University and d i f f e r e n c e s: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies

shanna t. carlson

Transgender Subjectivity and the Logic of Sexual Difference

Perhaps it could be argued that gender studies and Lacanian
psychoanalysis read each other askew; indeed, they read each other,
and reach for each other, rather queerly. Provisionally defining gender
studies as the study of the stakes of sexual identity, sexuality, and their
multifarious disruptions, it is easy to see that Judith Butler, at least, one
of the foremost thinkers in the field, has a certain profound investment in
thinking through psychoanalytic claims about sex and sexuality.1 Her texts
Antigone’s Claim and Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex,
demonstrating a deconstructivist approach that takes seriously Gayatri
Chakravorty Spivak’s remark that “[t]he critique in deconstruction [. . .]
is the critique of something that is extremely useful, something without
which we cannot do anything” (qtd. in Bodies 27), deal with almost nothing
but the questions and vocabulary of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanaly-
sis. In this way, she enters into a reputable history of thoughtful feminist
and critical encounters with psychoanalysis, a list that includes the likes
of Simone de Beauvoir, Hélène Cixous, Jacques Derrida, and Luce Irigaray.


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d i f f e r e n c e s 47

Conversely, contemporary Lacanians from time to time return
gender studies’ attention: Butler’s texts in particular have stimulated
acute readings from writers such as Joan Copjec and Tim Dean. Yet these
responses are not precisely reciprocal; Copjec and Dean deal primarily in
psychoanalytic vocabulary without taking up the vocabulary proffered by
Butler (such as “the lesbian phallus” or “the morphological imaginary”)
and without sufficiently identifying or attending to the rationale, or the
desire, motivating Butler’s concerns. Rather, much of their responses could
be qualified as “corrective” readings of Butler’s readings of psychoanalysis.
Perhaps these correctives are warranted, given Butler’s own thoroughgo-
ing critiques of psychoanalysis, but more could be gained, politically and
psychically, if gender studies and Lacanian psychoanalysis integrated
their energies and their political and intellectual concerns less fractiously
but no less queerly, and with just as much desire. What do gender studies
and Lacanian psychoanalysis have to offer one another? Is it possible to
integrate the two domains, or do they, as Copjec charges2 and as Butler
herself seems to worry in Antigone’s Claim,3 represent fundamentally
incompatible approaches?

Gender studies and Lacanian psychoanalysis share a set of
common questions, including: What is a subject? What qualifies a human
as human? What is the role of sex in the production of subjectivity? What
is the role of sexuality in the production of subjectivity? What conceptual
differences separate the terrains of “sex” and “sexuality”? In spite of these
shared concerns, sexual difference, what it is and what it means, often
becomes a point of contention. This antagonism is perhaps most stringently
encapsulated in Kate Bornstein’s response to Lacanian psychoanalyst
Catherine Millot’s text on transsexuality, when the former writes, “Gender
terrorists are not the leather daddies or back-seat Betties. Gender terror-
ists are not the married men, shivering in the dark as they slip on their
wives’ panties. Gender terrorists are those who, like Ms. Millot, bang their
heads against a gender system which is real and natural; and who then
use gender to terrorize the rest of us. These are the real terrorists: the
Gender Defenders” (236). The discourses of gender studies and Lacanian
psychoanalysis collide to particularly spectacular effect around the ques-
tions of transsexuality and transgenderism. What remains to be seen is
whether or not these spectacular effects might be channeled into some
sort of understanding for a logic of sexual difference for present bodies as
well as “the holographic and moving contours of bodies to come, of bodies
as they might come” (Berger 64).


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58 Transgender Subjectivity

for the absence of the sexual relation. However, there is a fundamental
asymmetry at play in the making up for lost/fantasized complementarity,
for feminine and masculine subjects make up for the loss, in part, with
recourse to different types of others.

On this point, Dean offers a compelling criticism of Lacan,
suggesting that, in placing object a on the side of the feminine subject in
his sexuation graph (found on page 78 of Encore), Lacan betrays a hetero-
sexist impulse that is contested by his actual explanation of the “birth”
and function of object a: “Although his axiom ‘there is no sexual relation’
counters the heterosexist assumption of complementarity between the
sexes, Lacan’s explanations of this axiom are nevertheless invariably
couched in terms of male and female failures to relate to each other,
rather than in terms of relationality’s failure as such, regardless of gen-
der” (“Homosexuality” 137). Identifying these explanations as instances
of heterosexism at odds with Lacan’s own theory, Dean asserts again that
Lacan’s theory of object a involves “a making other to myself of my own
corporeal jouissance” such that “there is no way that desire can be, in the
first instance, heterosexual” (137).7

Perhaps the position of object a in Lacan’s depiction is a little
deceiving. The sexuation graph seems to imply that feminine subjects lose
all connection to object a, but we could read this instead to suggest that
the feminine subject simply is not as invested in object a insofar as she
might be overwhelmed with interrogating the phallic signifier and with
a certain queer, inscrutable relation with the barred, lacking Other. To
my knowledge, Lacan does not anywhere specify that feminine subjects
lose all connection with object a; rather, he writes simply that “something
other than object a is at stake in what comes to make up for (suppléer) the
sexual relationship that does not exist” (Encore 63). Of importance here
is that one consequence of sexual difference is that while the masculine
subject becomes principally invested in object a—wherever he may locate
it/them—as one compensation for the lack of the sexual relation, the femi-
nine subject “is ‘twice’ related to the Other” (Barnard, “Tongues” 172). I
take this to mean that the feminine subject is related both to object a (autre,
or other) as that “scrap of the real” lost through sexed reproduction and
to the Other conceived of as the lacking Other.

Dean’s reading of Lacan’s representation of sexual difference
suggests there may be something to Butler’s critique that the Lacanian
notion of sexual difference enjoins compulsory heterosexuality, if not in
the formulas themselves, then at least in one way of reading the sexuation


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d i f f e r e n c e s 59

graph representation. In both Bodies That Matter and Antigone’s Claim,
Butler performs readings of the subject’s entry into the symbolic via sexual
differentiation, and two of her principal charges are that Lacan’s symbolic
is normative and that the assumption of a sexed position enjoins compul-
sory heterosexuality. In Antigone’s Claim, Butler turns from matters of
discourse and materiality to the scene of kinship in order to explore how
psychoanalysis might both/either compel and/or inhibit the forging of new
kinds of community ties, ties that Butler subsumes under the promising
header “radical kinship.” Since this text provides a deeper reading of the
Oedipal scene that she found so troublingly heterosexist in, particularly,
chapter 3 of Bodies That Matter, I will concentrate my response on this
somewhat more recent text.

Butler’s investment in the possibility of imagining new forms
of kinship ties has a strong affective and political attraction, which she
wields to good end, for example, in her listing of the ways that “kinship
has become fragile, porous, and expansive” (Antigone’s 22). Butler cites
the mobility of children who, because of migration, exile, refugee status,
or situations of divorce or remarriage, “move from one family to another,
move from a family to no family, move from no family to a family, or live,
psychically, at the crossroads of the family, or in multiply layered family
situations” (22). She points to the blending of straight and gay families, to
gay nuclear families, and to straight or gay families where a child may have
no mother or no father, or two mothers or two fathers, or half-brothers as
friends (22–23), asking: “What has Oedipus engendered? [. . .] What will
the legacy of Oedipus be for those who are formed in these situations,
where positions are hardly clear, where the place of the father is dispersed,
where the place of the mother is multiply occupied or displaced, where the
symbolic in its stasis no longer holds?” (22–23). No doubt this is a time of
potentially unprecedented familial mobility. Some would evaluate these
realities as the sign of a crisis in “family values”; others would celebrate the
more positive effects of the new types of ties and encounters. In this text,
though, Butler is also taking aim at a particular strain of psychoanalysis
that would seem unexpectedly to ally itself on some levels with defend-
ers of the heterosexual nuclear family. Butler references such positions
as she has encountered them, including psychoanalysts opposed to or at
least worried about gay adoption as a possible source of psychosis for the
adopted children, Jacques-Alain Miller’s alleged opposition to male homo-
sexual marriage on account of its likely infidelity, and others’ suggestion
that autism can be traceable to lesbian parenting (70). Butler concludes,


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