by Paul Verhaeghe
Other Press, 2001
Review by Adrian Johnston, Ph.D. on Jan 20th 2002
As this volume's title suggests, Paul Verhaeghe's collection of
essays on various aspects of Freudo-Lacanian psychoanalysis is
unified by a basic, underlying thesis: psychoanalysis is not about
"sexuality," whether this term is construed in a narrow
or a wide sense. Strains of what could be called "crude"
or "vulgar" Freudianism (these strains include both
early, favorable, and naive receptions of Freud's "pan-sexualism"
as well as certain standard critical stances taken with respect
to Freud today) mindlessly set the complexities of cognition to
the monotonous refrain of "pee-pee, caca." Theoretically
more sophisticated readers of Freud, understandably finding such
a simplistically literal interpretation of a very selective sampling
of Freud's proclamations distasteful and untenable, seek to save
the master from the clumsy hands of those accepting a literal,
limited pan-sexualism by pursuing a defensive strategy whereby
it's conceded that Freud does indeed place sexuality at the center
of psychical life, but that what Freud means by "sexuality"
is much broader and conceptually richer than he is usually given
credit for by both his defenders and detractors. Many Lacanian
and "post-modern" interpreters of the Freudian legacy
pursue just such a strategy, transforming Lacan, in turn, into
a theorist obsessed with the (albeit non-existent) sexual relationship.
Thanks to a sort of general consensus around this position, doubts
about whether or not sexuality really is the dominant motif in
the unconscious are effectively stifled. The genuine merit of
Verhaeghe's book lies in his complete and total break with the
viewpoint that the psyche is organized around sexuality as its
central core. Verhaeghe rejects this obsession bewitching and
titillating the vast majority of psychoanalytic theorists in one
way or another, proceeding to clearly and unambiguously relegate
the "sexualized" formations of the unconscious to a
residual, secondary position. However, the crucial question naturally
arises at this point: According to Verhaeghe, what is sexuality
secondary to within psychical life?
Verhaeghe answers this query concerning the secondary status of
sexuality in several different ways. However, the foundation of
his approach resides in Lacan's "register theory" (i.e.,
the triad of the Real, the Symbolic, and the Imaginary). More
specifically, Verhaeghe's reconsideration of the role of sexuality
in psychoanalysis is executed vis-à-vis a series
of parallel variations on a theme, a set of terminological permutations
rooted in the Lacanian distinction between the Real and the Symbolic
(or, as Verhaeghe sometimes explains, between, on one side, the
Real, and, on the other side, both the Symbolic as well as the
Imaginary). For example, Verhaeghe shows how the late Lacan's
dichotomy between two types of jouissance-in the twentieth
seminar, Lacan distinguishes between "other jouissance"
and "phallic jouissance"-is a conceptual translation
of Freud's foundational, long-standing division between the primary
and secondary processes. But, this is a translation that leads
to an important shift away from what is typically associated with
traditional Freudian ideas: the other jouissance of the
primary processes is not "sexual" in any sense whatsoever.
All sexual meanings, aspects, and connotations connected with
the shifting, mobile distributions of libidinal cathexes/investments
is a result of the secondary processes channeling this primordial
jouissance through the imprinting representational defiles
of sexual (i.e., "phallic") symbolism (according to
Verhaeghe, this stamping of sexuality onto a pre-/non-sexual Real
is what Freud means by the process of "binding" [Bindung]).
After the fact of this binding of other jouissance, of
translating the primary processes into the "language"
of phallic sexuality (Lacan insists that human sexuality is phallic
insofar as both genders are defined and identified in terms of
having or not having a common denominator, namely, the phallus),
the pre-/non-sexual Real is retroactively distorted by being rendered
exclusively in the shape of sexuality as manifest at the level
of the registers of the Imaginary and the Symbolic.
Furthermore, Verhaeghe asserts that the principle feature of the
Real is not only that it's inappropriately portrayed within a
representational, interpretive scheme constructed around sexual
motifs, but that it's constitutively and intrinsically antithetical
to any form of representation whatsoever in its very essence.
Of course, this amounts to a restatement of Lacan's famous tuché-automaton
distinction from the eleventh seminar (a distinction that Verhaeghe
tirelessly appeals to throughout his text): the Real cause (i.e.,
tuché) is the origin, catalyst, or impetus (a chance
occurrence, a random, unpredictable, and "traumatic"
event) for the Symbolically-articulated structures of the signifying
unconscious (i.e., the automaton of ideational representations)-but,
this quasi-noumenal cause cannot, in itself, be adequately rendered
or digested by the "signifiers" (in Freudian parlance,
the bound mnemic traces employed by the secondary processes of
the psyche) of the unconscious which it itself is, in large part,
responsible for shaping and setting in motion. The Real is, for
Lacan, the unrepresentable ground of representation, the necessarily
absent origin of the play of unconscious formations-it resides
in the "gaps" around which Lacan sees the unconscious
opening and closing in its "temporal pulsation." Verhaeghe
struggles to thoroughly think through the multiple psychoanalytic
and philosophical implications of this basic dynamic.
In the first chapter, entitled "The Riddle of Castration
Anxiety: Lacan beyond Freud," Verhaeghe asserts that, "the
idea of castration is in the first place a defense against anxiety,
and in that sense it is a secondary formation" (pg. 10).
Freud, in his 1937 piece "Analysis Terminable and Interminable,"
pessimistically concludes that castration is an immovable, un-analyzable
"rock," a deadlock against which analytic interpretation
runs aground with respect to both sexes. Thus, castration is some
type of irreducible kernel, an inexplicable atom that simply must
be recognized (but cannot be further decomposed) by the analyst.
Verhaeghe believes that Lacanian theory advances beyond the resignation
of this conclusion. The claim is that the Real of anxiety is not
originally linked to "castration" in any sense of the
term. Instead, the primordial kind of anxiety experienced by the
individual arises from the situation of being passive with respect
to the enigmatic, unpredictable desire of an Other.
Although this first essay is brief, with Verhaeghe letting a lot
of Lacanian vocabulary make his arguments for him, one can pretty
easily reverse engineer his reasoning here. The infant, in its
state of pre-maturational helplessness, is utterly and completely
dependent on others for the satisfaction of its basic needs and
wants; without this vital assistance, the infant is exposed both
to the increasing tension and displeasure arising from unmet somatic
demands/requirements as well as, ultimately, to the risk of death.
Since the maternal figure is usually the first, primary "Other"
responsible for the life-and-death matter of nurturing the child,
the young individual experiences a great deal of anxiety in trying
to figure out what this often mysterious and powerful Other desires
from him/her in order to guarantee protection from the suffering
connected with his/her corporeal condition. The anxiety associated
with this passive situation, a situation originally determined
by the design of the human organism itself, is tamed and domesticated
by being cast in the fixed mold of castration. In short, for Verhaeghe,
the "lack" of passive pre-maturational helplessness
is covered and concealed in being unconsciously interpreted by
the subject as the "lack" of the phallus, namely, the
non-possession of whatever represented objects or signifiers are
latched onto by the child as answers to the question of what the
(m)Other wants. The various symbolizations of castration, everything
linked to the Lacanian paternal function, operate to bind and
contain anxiety, rather than being the primordial source of this
negative affect (as sometimes suggested by Freud). Or, put differently,
one could describe this as the process whereby the indeterminate
anxiety of passivity is transformed into the determinate fear
of castration (which would mean that castration anxiety isn't
anxiety in the strictly psychoanalytic sense, but a form of fear
qua defense against anxiety).
Verhaeghe's fourth essay, "Trauma and Psychopathology in
Freud and Lacan: Structural versus Accidental Trauma," presents
a case for rigorously distinguishing between a standard, default
definition of trauma as a haphazard occurrence that gratuitously
inflicts pain upon the person, that is, "accidental trauma,"
and trauma taken as a necessary feature invariably situated at
the origin of subjectivity proper, namely, "structural trauma"
(elsewhere, Dominick LaCapra, in his essay "Reflections on
Trauma, Absence, and Loss" in the collection Whose Freud?: The Place of Psychoanalysis in Contemporary Culture,
offers an almost identical argument in separating "absence"
as structurally necessary trauma from "loss" as contingent
suffering). Trauma understood in its former sense, as accidental
misfortune, requires little clarification. So, turning to the
less obvious aspect of the present discussion, what does Verhaeghe
view as the structural trauma lying at the root of the subject's
identity and unconscious? Once again, the tension between the
unrepresentable Real and the representational domains of Lacan's
other two registers is invoked: in particular, Verhaeghe advances
the idea that the unavoidable failure involved in trying to locate
suitable representatives for Trieb is precisely the trauma
which all individuals are pre-destined to undergo by virtue of
their metapsychological constitution. Structural trauma is an
effect of the impossibility of an Imaginary-Symbolic re-transcription
of the Real. This thesis is regularly reiterated throughout the
rest of the book. Given its centrality for Verhaeghe's thinking
in this text, in addition to its intellectually interesting character,
the idea of a necessary incompatibility between representation
and the unrepresentable in the libidinal economy deserves further
Apropos of two key concepts-drive and the Real-certain subtle
inconsistencies and vacillations can be detected on Verhaeghe's
part. As regards drive, Verhaeghe switches back and forth between
three claims that often sound almost identical, but that are,
in fact, significantly different from each other: one, drive itself
(i.e., each and every individual drive) is internally split between
the unrepresentable (i.e., the Real) and the represented (i.e.,
the Imaginary and the Symbolic); two, drive itself is the unrepresentable
Real (as the other jouissance of the primary processes)
impinging upon the secondary, representational orders of the Imaginary-Symbolic
axis (as the signifiers of the phallic jouissance of the
sexual field); three, drives are divided into two types/classes,
as per the Freudian notion, from the second topography, of a conflict
between Eros (conceived by Verhaeghe as phallically sexual)
and Todestrieb (as the "silent," "daemonic"
labor of an untamed, non-phallic set of compulsions incapable
of full psychical inscription). The second claim risks backsliding
into a vitalism-Verhaeghe is eager to show, at certain moments
in his exposition, that Lacan is not a vitalist of any stripe-dressed
up in slightly new terminological clothing, namely, a presentation
of Trieb as a mysterious force welling up from an embodied
source. The third claim isn't explored much by Verhaeghe, and
more work would be required to show how a renewed appeal to the
Eros-Todestrieb dichotomy of the second topography avoids
encountering all of the old problems and questions surrounding
this particularly difficult knot of concepts, metaphors, and extra-analytic
borrowings on Freud's part. That said, what about the first claim,
the assertion that each and every drive is internally divided?
Verhaeghe's talk of a divided drive is fully consistent with Freud's
1915 definition of drive in the metapsychological paper "Drives
and Their Vicissitudes" (as well as Lacan's description of
Trieb as a "montage" or "collage,"
a juxtaposition of different, distinct elements). Freud states
that all drives, by definition, consist of a "source,"
"pressure," "aim," and "object";
he also famously remarks there that drives lie on the frontier
"between soma and psyche"-the source and pressure are
closely associated with the somatic, corporeal forces of the libidinal
economy, while the aims and objects of drives are established
as ideational representations and mnemic traces operative within
a psychical system of inscriptions. Furthermore, in his metapsychological
essays, Freud stipulates that drives are known or encountered
only via their representatives within the psyche. Taking all of
this into account, it can now be seen that Verhaeghe's oscillation
between sometimes speaking of the drives as unrepresentable and,
at other times, referring to them as internally bifurcated is
not a trifling, unimportant detail, a matter for mere scholarly
nit picking. In the Freudian metapsychological system, drives
are not simply obscure undercurrents incapable of being represented.
On the contrary, Trieb as such doesn't exist (or, as Lacan
might put it, "ex-sist") outside of or external to its
representational mediators; in fact, such mediation is inscribed
in its very heart as part and parcel of its own architecture.
In Lacanian terms, portraying drives as purely unrepresentable,
as wholly and completely coextensive with the Real alone, is to
misrecognize their properly "extimate" character, the
fact that their "ontological" status is heterogeneous
(i.e., simultaneously Real, Imaginary, and Symbolic) rather than
homogenous. Thus, to say that drive (instead of a certain feature
or aspect of the drive's metapsychological anatomy, namely, its
source and pressure) is, in itself, opposed to being rendered
by representational structures is to miss the paradoxical, borderline
status that is one of the novel hallmarks of the psychoanalytic
concept of Trieb. What's more, Verhaeghe never really provides
an explanation for why the drives cannot be represented (a claim
that sounds contrary to Freud's position that drives operate in
the psyche and are recognizable by the observer exclusively through
the fashion in which they are intertwined with ideational representatives).
This is presented more as a dogmatic, axiomatic assertion than
as a theoretically deduced result or conclusion-a world of difference
exists between asserting a true theoretical position and actually
explaining why that position is true in the first place.
Similarly, when invoking the Lacanian category of the Real, Verhaeghe
occasionally sounds caught in a state of indecision, a state that
many interpreters of the Lacanian Real find themselves in today.
On the one hand, the Real is treated as anterior or external to
the Symbolic; the Real is a foreign (non-)presence that disturbs
and upsets the smooth running of the structural machinery of subjectivity.
On the other hand, due to worries that such a description risks
reducing Lacan to a kind of developmental vitalist, Verhaeghe
occasionally insists that the Real is strictly internal to the
Symbolic; the Real doesn't pre-exist the Symbolic or have an independent
status as something subsisting outside of the symbolic order (instead,
the Real is produced immanently out of the internal contradictions
and impasses of the symbolic order-this should lead to some skepticism
about the notion of the Real being utterly unrepresentable). Given
just how heavily Verhaeghe relies upon this particular Lacanian
register for explanatory purposes, one might imagine that sorting
out its status, grappling with and thereby synthesizing its various
conceptual roles, would be a pre-requisite for this text.
The fifth and sixth essays ("Subject and Body: Lacan's Struggle
with the Real" and "Mind your Body: Lacan's Answer to
a Classical Deadlock") seek to shed light on a Lacanian theory
of embodiment. What is the status of the body in Lacan's thought?
What shifts and changes does his conceptualization of corporeality
undergo throughout his intellectual itinerary? "Subject and
Body" does a nice job of charting the course of Lacan's engagement
with the notion of embodiment as it evolves over the course of
his teaching. Verhaeghe demonstrates that some surprising consistencies
connect the early period of the "mirror stage" (the
1930s and 1940s) and the later seminars of the 1970s. In "Mind
your Body," Verhaeghe wants to argue that the late Lacan
(especially in the twentieth seminar) aims at overcoming Descartes,
at superseding the dualism between thinking and extended substance
characteristic of the Cogito qua epitome of the
modern subject. Verhaeghe basically claims that Lacan dispenses
with all forms of dualism or binary oppositions. Although containing
many interesting flashes of insight, this sixth essay is a bit
disappointing in two ways. First of all, it pays no attention
whatsoever to the myriad references in Lacan's work to Descartes.
Verhaeghe is silent as regards Lacan's sustained and detailed
examination of the (often positive) relation between the Cogito
and his own theory of subjectivity (Lacan devotes a great deal
of time to the Cartesian subject in seminars nine, eleven, thirteen,
and fourteen, just to name a few places). Secondly, isn't the
fundamental opposition (even if it's a dialecticized one) between
the Real and the Symbolic a binary opposition of sorts? Verhaeghe,
while maintaining that a properly Lacanian stance precludes reliance
upon dualistic models, doesn't clearly explain why his own arguments
in this text aren't themselves reliant upon just such models.
Isn't psychoanalysis, at the most general of levels, a binaristic
view of human nature? Isn't its thematic emphasis on "conflict"
at odds with the anti-dualistic rhetoric of typical variants of
Overall, in terms of style and presentation, this book could have
done with a lot more editing. Verhaeghe's English is awkward at
times, and the text is rife with grammatical errors and misspellings.
Also, parts of it are repetitive. For example, the second essay
("From Impossibility to Inability: Lacan's Theory of the
Four Discourses") reduplicates almost verbatim a discussion
already contained in one of Verhaeghe's earlier books (Does the Woman Exist?: From Freud's Hysteric to Lacan's Feminine).
Another symptom of repetitiveness manifests itself in the fact
that, from essay to essay, Verhaeghe cites the same few passages
from Lacan's work over and over again (particularly passages excerpted
from seminars eleven and twenty).
Nonetheless, Verhaeghe obviously has an impressive mastery of
the entire span of Lacan's texts. The footnotes especially are
a rich source of references for those interested in pursuing various
themes and ideas contained in the seminars. Furthermore, as noted
above in the opening paragraph, Verhaeghe deserves to be praised
for the boldness and cogency of his departure from the hackneyed
and questionable appeal to sexuality as the inexplicable substratum
of the unconscious. Beyond Gender is definitely representative
of the current state of the art in Lacanian theory.
© 2002 Adrian Johnston
recently completed a Ph.D. in Philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook. His dissertation
was Time Driven: Metapsychology and the Splitting of the Drive.