“Prohibition, Psychoanalysis and the Heterosexual Matrix” in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Gendered narratives and imaginary inflections

1If a text is only a text to the extent—beyond the act it undertakes and the aim it gives itself— that it questions its law, suspends judgment, puts different regimes of writing into play, and places some of its motifs in variation, then the chapter in Gender Trouble[1] entitled “Prohibition, Psychoanalysis and the Heterosexual Matrix” seems exemplary to me in that respect. More to the point, I would like to look at the way in which certain motifs circulate within the chapter, as well as the interplay they bring about in the rhetorical modes of polemics and of speculative discourse. I will focus on the motifs that reveal an insistent framework within the chapter, on the basis of the terms “fictions,” “narrative,” “drama,” “tragedy,” and “comedy”: terms that take into account a status and a shaping of experience. These motifs, taken in their metatextual unfoldings and their complex genealogies, share the characteristic of drawing on a tradition that we could call “poeticist,” as they are tied to forms of narrative, to the way these forms have of inscribing temporality, and to the place temporality holds within networks of meaning. My intent will be to follow the thread of this poeticist motif, as it surfaces in the crucial points of the text even as it pushes them to their limits by revealing the inflections of the imaginary.

The motif of myth

2The chapter starts with a critique of feminist theory, approached on the basis of some of its aspects but presented as homogeneous, a critique that constructs an agonistic scene. The initial gesture is in keeping with Derrida’s thinking, to the extent that the concept of origin is put into question, serving as a foundational act for the chapter even as the chapter, for this very reason, participates in a citationality. The critique that the text offers of feminist thinking decries the prevalence within it of a motif associating “origin” with “fiction”: the highlighting of a “prehistory” of the patriarchy, in the form of matriarchal or matrilineal cultural organizations, is faulted for being just so many “presuppositional fictions.” These “fictions” are not so much seen through the lens of the imagination as they are associated with the regime of error—due to their biased epistemic perspective—and that of power, operating through the injunctive force of the norm: “fictions that entail […] normative ideals.” The term “fiction” thus serves as a critical operator of the historiographic gesture or the anthropological impact of feminist theory. On the one hand, these fictions’ development of a “prepatriarchal scheme” contributes to the inscription of “the history of women’s oppression” in an “after,” such that the patriarchy bears the contingent mark of history and is thereby denaturalized. Nevertheless, the historiographical aim is criticized as coming under the register of “fiction.” The history of women’s oppression is thereby read through an imaginary filter, discrediting the claims to a historicizing perspective. An imaginarized, perhaps even a hystericized history: “[t]he feminist recourse to an imaginary past.” The critique expressed regarding this imaginarization is taken up again and presented as a matter of “reification”: this term is to be understood as the power to conceal other forms of domination, those associated with race and colonization, while claiming universality. So this conception of origins is not questioned in its relations to the imaginary, associating it with a fiction, a projection, in other words with a construction that fails to express or to establish an object, which it conceals through its fictionality. The question is rather the way in which the recourse to “an imaginary past” obstructs, seals off, or even forecloses the expression of other oppressions. Worse yet, Butler’s critical reading points out that, through a reversal of its effects, the “imaginary past” intending to historicize the patriarchy only ends up reproducing patriarchy’s strategies of legitimization. Instead of weakening the naturalizing discourses that the patriarchy is founded on, feminist critical thinking is then seen as operating as its double, creating a mirror image of its strategies, and participating in the justification of its law: “The story of origins is thus a strategic tactic within a narrative that, by telling a single, authoritative account about an irrecoverable past, makes the constitution of the law appear as a historical inevitability” (46). Doubt is cast on feminist theory: it is less speculative and historiographic than it is the narratorial go-between for this “history,” the authority for this “strategy.” The imaginary past enters into a narrative economy, which is presented as a hegemonic force, ascribing the characteristics of a fictional destiny (that only “appears” inevitable) – a Fatum – to its historical side instead of cultural-historical determinations, the destiny making this past’s “inevitability” all the more necessary. The matrilineal past is interpreted here as a nostalgic fiction of “the authentic feminine” (46) that feminist criticism, as presented in the chapter, offers up to the history of the patriarchy: the “imaginary past” is semiotized as “an irrecoverable past,” and this semic displacement converts the imaginary register into one of the myth of a lost golden age that, far from situating the patriarchy within contingent historical forms, serves to legitimize “the constitution of the law.” “The interruption of the myth” [2] of the patriarchy, as the feminist counter-history would denaturalize it, happens in such a way that this counter-history becomes the hostage of another myth, that of a pre-cultural anteriority of the feminine, one that references a matrilineal register. This other myth also serves as the ideal projection of a utopian emancipation. Butler’s critique of feminist theory leads to the conclusion that this theory fails in its critical efficacy. It is accused of being conservative in three ways, corresponding to the three temporal states indicating a linear grasp of cultural history: by evoking a nostalgic past associated with the “matrilineal” signifier devoid of epistemological value on a critical level; by colluding in the legitimization of the patriarchy via a transformation of the denaturalizing and therefore demythologizing historiographical intent into a fiction of legitimization through myth; and finally by establishing “a parochial ideal” that is “reified,” “a recovery of the body before the law which then emerges as the normative goal of feminist theory” (49). The ambiguity of “before the law,” between the temporal register and the spatial or intersubjective one (“before” as in “standing before”, but also meaning “with regard to”) translates what might be the very ambiguity of feminist theory: the transformation of its historicizing aims into the collusion of its fictions with the narrative associated with the exercise of a hegemonic power. In these three ways, this imaginary genealogy inscribes feminist theory within the confines of a tradition whose collusion with the norm is emphasized. The terms “fiction” and “narrative” are thus borrowed from the register of literary discourse, but without necessarily calling on the polymodality of their system of writing and their manners of capturing time: they are called upon more as speculative metaphors for the “fictional” nature of a presupposition, and for a totalizing regime serving the apparatuses of domination.

3The interrelationship between “fiction” and “narrative” is also motivated by what the text develops as a temporal narrativity: the epistemic anchor of “sex” that feminist theory puts forward as a fiction of the “before” of the law that would precede the culturalist “constructedness of gender” is reformulated as obeying the temporality of a transition, which is itself reconsidered under the regime of a temporal narrativity: “sex is transformed into gender.” This conceptualization is then supported by the narrative schema of a psychogenesis, presupposing a transformation, but one according to the presuppositions of a continuity, indeed a consecutivity. The question this temporalization raises is expressed as an alternative presenting this narrativity as a matter of two possibilities: “Can it be found or merely imagined?” Presented in this fashion, the alternative fails, on the one hand, to take into account the mediation that the narrative’s chronology provides, and the different ways narrative inscribes itself within various discourses (literary, philosophical, psychoanalytical, anthropological or political). On the other hand, the alternative neglects other ways of conceiving temporality that undermine the very form of narrative, involving conflicting co-presences, the traces and imprints of drives, and paradoxical temporalities: so many forms of the trace and its effects that put the concept of writing, and what lies beyond it, more into play than the concept of narrative temporality.

4This chapter adds another critical issue to Judith Butler’s thinking on what constructs narratives in feminist thought. The emphasis on the woman as a figure of the history of oppression – with the subtext of an ideal of justice, while taking the motif of the Marxist paradigm and turning it against the patriarchy—is interpreted as contributing to a hegemonic and universalist narrative of oppression. Feminist historiography is no longer read as a counter-history that gives a voice to the other and undermines the foundations of the patriarchy’s political power: rather, it finds itself, as a hegemonic narrative on an imaginary stage, being given the role of the double of the naturalizing hegemonic narrative. When it allegorizes the figure of woman’s oppression in this way, obscuring other forms, feminist theory in this guise is no longer a factor of alterity: it becomes a figure of the universalist Other, implementing a normative hegemony.

5The “fictions” and “narratives” that Butler discusses play a twofold specular part in the polemical scenario of her writings: they simultaneously occupy the place of the same (since the notion of “the constructedness of gender” is developed within it) and the other (due to the mythifying expression of an anteriority, and the basis this gives to the hegemonic regime of its “narrative”). The interactions within this specular split give rise to the issues of displacement evoked in the subtitle of Gender Trouble, i.e. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.

The motif of generativity

6The Butlerian statement presents itself on the basis of modes that are more discursive than narrative, but that isn’t to say that this discursive regime does not incorporate spectral narrative motifs. These discursive modes are not without their paradoxes: in fact they rely upon a gesture that functions as a critical choice in the sense of krinein, in other words an “attitude that permits us to choose (krinein), and so to decide and to cut decisively in history and on the subject of history,” [3] even as this choice is exclusively one drawing on a certain concept of contingency: “Only when the mechanism of gender construction implies the contingency of that construction does ‘constructedness’ per se prove useful to the political project to enlarge the scope of possible gender configurations” (49). The italics and the quotes around “constructedness” emphasize the value as epistemic anchor of what, in the discursive regime, has the dimension and force of a postulate, whereas the utterance would only have the value of a hypothesis if it began with just “when,” or “if”: “only when” powerfully emphasizes the sentence’s status as postulate. These different marks act as traces of a genealogy in Foucault’s sense, a “reason of contingency” to the extent that the production of sexuality by the “mechanisms” of power “means that a power is not, as a precondition, repressive toward a preexisting reality, this thesis therefore [demonstrating] that there is no real before what a power produces.” [4]

7But does this mean that this epistemic decision would elude any narrative gesture? In its performative force, or even in the reiteration of the Foucaultian critical decision, wouldn’t it be a discursive act of self-foundation? This epistemic anchor is coupled with a spatiotemporal one, as it is subject to politico-historical determinations bearing an unusually interpellative force: “the contemporary demand to formulate an account of gender as a complex cultural construction” (47), reworded later as “the concrete terms of contemporary […] struggle” (49). The terms of this struggle are those opposing a subjection to the norms whose place of action is later represented as the sociopolitical site known as the Western home: “this drama holds for Western, late capitalist household dwellers” (71). The term “demand” transforms the polemical scenario into the expression of a force and a legitimacy presupposing immediate recognition. It also carries with it an implicit reference to justice, as one of the expressions most often associated with the word “demand” in English is “demand for justice.” Butler’s writings thus conjoin philosophical discourse, political efficacy and ethical responsibility. The reference to the domain of a “contemporary demand” brings the gesture within that realm of the “now” that, as Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida have emphasized, is both temporal and modal, in other words the realm of ethics. We may then understand “demand” paradoxically: less as the way in which a discursive act institutes its own founding as an a priori withdrawn from the debate, than as an act that establishes itself in the sense that it cannot extract itself from an ethical obligation, whose aporetic seal it bears, as Derrida suggests: “For aporia, the aporia of ethics, does not take the formalized or formalizable route of a definition for Derrida but must be indefinable, it must be lacking to itself to a certain degree, it must remain so singular and strange, foreign to itself.” [5] “The definition of responsibility,” Derrida declares, “is not a theoretical act: responsibility is not something defined theoretically, it is something taken, slowly, at length, indefinitely, incessantly—I mean to say, constantly.” [6] The instance in question is not the voice of the categorical imperative stating its demands, nor is it an egological instance, finding its representation in the theatre of “me”: it is a figure that is both always already there and always to come. It is a spectral figure of a wrong that constrains thought in several ways, through the place where it engenders itself on the grounds of an obligation that is “lacking to itself to a certain degree.”

8This subjection of thought to the decision to respond to a now is not without genealogical resonances in the history of American philosophy. The Butlerian statement pours a large number of Foucaultian concepts into the melting pot of American philosophy where the self-founding gesture plays its part, as Isabelle Alfandary stresses in her approach to Emerson’s thinking: an “invention of American philosophy” that is inseparable from an “invention of self.” [7] American philosophy comes out of a discursive gesture that involves a “founding without foundation,” whose horizon is the present, the current: “The sun shines today also.” The contemporary demand that intends to bring unprecedented experiences of subjectivation out from the shadows and lead them to the light of the intelligible, to give them a voice according to the mode of their game of masks, has a certain relationship to a conception of self-invention as “subjectivity inseparable from its reiterated performance.” [8] The concept of performativity cannot be reduced to that of performance, but it participates in an American philosophical genealogy.

9The Butlerian statement, grounded in a “demand” that establishes its validity, finds its bearings in and from a finality presented as a political project. But this is not really teleological, and even less eschatological: it presents itself more as an opening of the domain of language, as the invention of the possible. In this it borrows from the rhetoric of revolutionary and/or poetic movements that base themselves on a regenerativity of language. The vocabulary is one of opening the forms of potential being, of the proliferation of the possible, of “enlarg[ing] the scope of possible gender configurations” (49), of the supplementarity of the terms of sexual difference, in what would be the open play of differences modulated by these possibles: “the operative and limitless différance of language, rendering all referentiality into a potentially limitless displacement” (51). This linguistic engendering of the possibles of identity is depicted along two lines. In the first case, the discourses of the human sciences that construct taboos, and consequently their effects as norms, deconstruct themselves in their contradictions, revealing an unsuspected phantasmatic that haunts them. The second presents identity as a site where it sustains itself through performance. The two pathways of thought bear the mark of the modalizer “inadvertently.” The impact of that adverb’s meaning is not inconsequential: its Latin etymology advertere means “to turn oneself towards,” i.e. the semes of an object relation. The privative prefix can be associated with different modalities: lack of attention, contradiction with intention, or counterproductivity. “Inadvertently” thus modalizes, on the one hand, the effects of the letter of juridico-symbolic texts that, having escaped intention, smuggle in other modalities of object relations. Contingent effects of the letter, of the phantasmatic web it weaves, reversals of its symbolic efficacy: Butler’s reading serves as a midwife for all of these, as in her rereading of the structures of exchange in Lévi-Strauss’s work. On the other hand, “inadvertently” engenders possibles that are the condition for a displacement of what, in the law, functions as “generativity”: “[D]oes [this notion of the law] create the possibility of its own […] displacement? […] [Does it] performatively contradict itself and spawn alternatives in its place?” (49) The scene of the interpellation of symbolic instances is expressed in terms of the recognition of other inflections besides the fixity of a distribution between feminine and masculine, and places itself under the register of an instability, an ambiguity asserted as productive, a “cultural reformulation in more plastic forms” (72).

10The metaphors that the Butlerian statement calls upon make use (or make light) of a sense of unease when they borrow a naturalizing seme (“spawn”) to designate the task of bringing gendered positions and object relations into the realm of cultural and symbolic intelligibility from which they had been excluded. In this realm, thought represents its effects, its efficacy, through the metaphor of a fertilization, an engendering that subverts cultural norms through their own contradictions, “[their] powers of inadvertent and self-defeating generativity.” Norms are understood as being norms only on condition of being haunted by their other, from which they shield themselves, and the displacement of the “generativity” at the heart of the symbolic’s performativity consists in bringing the ambiguizing play of sexuation “before the law.” Similarly, in referring to “the production of the heterosexual matrix,” the metaphor of the matrix makes use/light of a form of “crossgendering.” The trope of the matrix emphasizes the naturalization of heterosexual incest in Lévi-Strauss’s structural anthropology, and its value as a basis both for the cultural order, and for the norm of heterosexual desire:


For Lévi-Strauss, the taboo against the act of heterosexual incest between son and mother as well as that incestuous fantasy are instated as universal truths of culture. How is incestuous heterosexuality constituted as the ostensibly natural and pre-artificial matrix for desire, and how is desire established as a heterosexual male prerogative?

12The metaphor of the matrix contributes to the critical performativity of the text: a significant displacement takes place within it, as it becomes a critical operator in terms of the effects of exclusion and violence that the norms may “engender.” The displacement is occasionally accompanied by a twofold affectual accent that, on the one hand, links the term “matrix” to another, “inevitably” (71), associated with effects of violence or a cultural stasis destined to occur. On the other hand, as a result of a tendency to see the symbolic Law as “prohibitive” or caught in the web of “binary restrictions” rather than “generative,” Butler’s critique becomes a resource of possibles capable of presenting themselves “before the law,” extending or indeed reengendering their field of action.

The motif of tragedy

13The chapter is centered on two key displacements in relation to Foucaultian thought: while Foucault highlights how discourses, knowledge and institutions determine sexuality alongside other forms of subjectivation, Judith Butler’s comments in this chapter emphasize the way in which the theories connected with structuralism present sexual difference considered via the signifier of heterosexuality as the norm in the experience of desire. The other displacement is less a shift in focus than what could be presented as a reversal: whereas Foucault calls the repressive hypothesis into question, instead offering the notion of a “discursive ferment,” with constrictive apparatuses producing discourses and knowledge on sex “in a manner that was not determined by the division between licit and illicit,” [9] Judith Butler returns to the repressive hypothesis and foregrounds it when she emphasizes to what extent the establishment of heterosexuality as norm serves to exclude or even foreclose other forms of sexuality. But this is not so much a reversal as it is a different starting point. The question that constitutes the primal scene, the way in which the theoretical texts are summoned to appear, and the point toward which the text is addressed, [10] are all both political and ethical: “To what extent do identitarian logical systems always require the construction of socially impossible identities to occupy an unnamed, excluded, but presuppositional relation subsequently concealed by the logic itself?” (51) At the start, we find this motif where forms of life are stamped with several markers of negation even as their presupposition is encrypted in discourses whose constraining force is emphasized (“always require”). The oxymoron “socially impossible identities,” dramatizing an exclusionary relationship within an inclusionary one, may sound like a violation of the Kantian categorical imperative: “Act so that you use humanity, as much in your own person as in the person of every other […].” In the chapter it introduces the concept of identity as something produced from within an exclusion, which will become both the yardstick and the centerpiece of the chapter given the emphasis placed on the congruence between representation—i.e. intelligibility—and existence. With “always require,” it dramatizes a constraining condition that functions as a destiny.

14Different rhetorical modes contribute to this dramatization and its tragic drift. Sometimes this plays out in the displacement from one seme to another, as in her reading of The Elementary Structures of Kinship, where the passage from “symbolic” to “ritualistic” is not insignificant. Where Lévi-Strauss’s text refers to “that solemn collection of manifestations” [11] in order to then strongly emphasize how omnipresent the law of exogamy is, the Butlerian statement translates the symbolic issue of relations based on exchange and gifts in terms of an exclusion or a reification with a ritual character: “Patrilineality is secured through the ritualistic expulsion of women and, reciprocally, the ritualistic importation of women” (50). Similarly, the structural place as the condition of the circulation of exchange is read in terms of the erasure of identity, in line with a mode that emphasizes the imaginary dimension: “She reflects masculine identity precisely through being the site of its absence” (50). The stress placed on the absence of identity, on reification, on the erasure of the name (“unnamed, excluded”), shifts from the order of structural relations to that of forms of life (“socially impossible identities”) seen negatively, as excluded from everyday life, from the power to be, from the realm of language. The negation is predicated as the potentiality of social death and psychic suffering, encapsulated in the motif of foreclosure. The motif of ritualization presents the frames and constraints of the symbolic order as the application of a violence that seems to belong to a mythic realm; this application of violence is itself contained within the tragic form, as Walter Benjamin points out. [12]

15The inflections borrowing from a dramatic regime also function through the emphasis placed on the concept of identity. The questioning of the effects of normativity associated with sexual difference and what is considered its fixity in psychoanalytical theory borrows from a rhetoric where the concept of identity is in a way projected onto a theoretical corpus. The critique of psychoanalytical theory, by way of one of Lacan’s texts in particular, “The Signification of the Phallus,” [13] involves something of a translation of that theory along dramaturgical lines: this translation goes through an inflection of the different modes whose subjective positions “refer” to the phallus, in terms of “ontological characterization.” The concept of identity thus invoked and projected is one of an instance that, in “referring” to the symbolic law, would find within it a “posture” of grounding and autonomy: “the subject comes into being—that is, begins to posture as a self-grounding signifier within language […]” (57); “His seemingly self-grounded autonomy attempts to conceal the repression which is both its ground and the perpetual possibility of its own ungrounding” (57). Where “the instating of the subject by the signifier,” [14] as an effect of symbolic castration, always already involves a subversion of the concepts of autonomy and grounding, Butler’s reading reintroduces concepts that have a processual meaning in Hegelian thought. Within the corpus of Lacanian theory, “The Signification of the Phallus” is representative of some of the most metaphysical overtones with which Lacan’s thought is identified (“the ‘being’ of the Phallus”) and the circulation of Hegelian concepts introduces an alternative mediation leading to the conception of identity in different terms. The inflections function by way of a drift from the problematic of self-consciousness and recognition, inherent in the Hegelian intertext, to that of the alienation from the desire of the Other; these problematics intertwine, encountering each other in their shared aspect of drama (“Lacan casts the drama”) that Butler’s reading places on the imaginary axis: “In other words, it is to be the object, the Other of a (heterosexualized) masculine desire, but also to represent or reflect that desire” (56). By way of “drama,” the question of sexuation is therefore mainly translated in terms of the dialectic of the constitution of the ego, at a point where Lacanian thought is closest to Hegel and yet radically separate from him. The term of identity then plays a pivotal role in imaginary alienation, with a drift between the “position” and the “identity” of a subject: “Hence, ‘being’ the Phallus is always a ‘being for’ a masculine subject who seeks to reconfirm and augment his identity through the recognition of that ‘being for’” (58). The emphasis on the question of the imaginary does not take into account several nuances, ambiguities and interpellative effects of the dialectic of the circulation of the phallic signifier, which all interact with the positions involved in sexual difference, nor does it reckon with their implication in symbolic castration.

16Moreover, the reading / writing of the drama is at the same time inflected as a scene of power where the constraints of norms, within the intelligibility of heterosexuality, would maintain the positions within sexual identities regulated by the difference between a “feminine position” and a “masculine subject”: “Lacan clearly suggests that power is wielded by this feminine position of not-having, that the masculine subject who ‘has’ the Phallus requires this Other to confirm and, hence, be the Phallus in its ‘extended’ sense” (56). Similarly, the non-reciprocity of sexual positions is transposed into the terms of the Hegelian drama of the unexpected dependence of the master’s conscience on that of the slave. And so, by way of the term “drama,” a regime of epistemological ambiguization is set in motion that conjoins the metaphysical scene of an ontologization of the signifier “phallus” with the imaginary scene of the alienation of the ego and the scene of power where the semes “master” and “slave” oscillate between, on the one hand, the abstract figuration of intersubjective alienation in relation to two consciousnesses and, on the other, the juridico-political valences of a relationship based on domination. The effect is as though the motif of the tragic aspect of subjection won out over the dialectic of alienation and the trajectories or displacements of objects that may determine themselves through it.

17Another tragic inflection functions via temporal markers that tend to narrativize the psychogenesis of sexual identification by asserting an anteriority for the exclusion of homosexual desire, such that this exclusion becomes the other that haunts the construction of identities “within the heterosexual frame.” But there is a difference to be made between mentioning the modes of primordial attachment to the mother (which Freud, Lacan, and Stoller do not express in the same terms) and saying that that attachment, for a female subject, takes the form of a homosexual object choice and, because of that determination, asserting the exclusion of that object choice as a precondition to the modes of identification: “exclusion operates prior to repression” (71). The way in which norms function through exclusions that resemble defense mechanisms borrows dispositifs of knowledge and power from Foucault’s legacy and is treated here as similar, indeed identical to a matter of psychic causality. Even if the two domains may meet within a problematic of effects on what Judith Butler calls “identity formation,” the intrication of determining factors between historical contingencies upon a subjectivity is not the same as the intrication of factors that functions in the life of a subject as the structural effect of their desire. Thinking in terms of an initial prohibition that would intervene in the subject’s identification, and placing this identification under the effect of an exclusion that would give its experience the mark of an implacable destiny, is something of a causalist approach with tragic undertones that the Butlerian statement attributes to Lacanian thought, whose text is homogenized into “Lacanian narrative” (72). This approach sustains itself through a narrative and temporal schema of a different nature than the tangle of signifying networks through which, within a subject and by a subject, the Oedipal dialectic— involving the four terms of father, mother, child and phallus, as well as the issues and pathways of identification that hesitate and inscribe themselves in and around them—is established. The constraining effects of norms, the contingency of their historical determinations, and the web constituting what Freud often called psychic causation rather than causality, cannot be associated with the notion of “identity formation,” and a causalist approach to this notion, without epistemological repercussions.

18However, there is a passage in this chapter where features of a “tragedy” appear with echoes of myth, as these features are associated with religious motifs. Here, an imaginary overdetermination of a set of elements is played out. The symbolic Law, taken in its entirety to be a normative force, is represented as functioning within the vise-like grip of a twofold contradiction. As an injunctive force, it would be impossible not to submit to it, but as it proves “impossible to perform” (72), it would be impossible not to fail in doing so. What the Butlerian statement calls “the dialectic between a juridical imperative that cannot be fulfilled and an inevitable failure ’before the law” (72) would appear to be an unavoidable performative contradiction (“always leads to failure” (72)) resembling a double bind whose pathogenic effects would take the form of “the various dramas of identificatory failures” (72). This imaginary overdetermination functions through the indistinction of two domains: the juridico-political domain, confronting the power of norms as “hegemonic intelligibility” with the question of the legality of sexualities; and the domain of psychoanalytical thought (via the corpus referenced in the chapter) in its approach to sexual difference. The tragic inflections consist in transforming the condition of the impossible—as another name for the dialectic of lack in the psychoanalytical approach to the structure of desire—into an injunction to the impossible whose harmful effects are attributed to an authority possessed of deceptive if not perverse power: “the Symbolic guarantees the failure of the tasks it commands” (72), “the construction of the law that guarantees failure” (73).

19In the field of psychoanalysis, the idea that the symbolic Law could be associated with a dimension of “failure” may make sense, but in various ways, and especially according to a radical reversal of valence, as one thing is not at stake: the phantasm of a subjective realization that would be “a viable accomplishment” of a sexual identity, one whose echo is heard in the Butlerian statement through a denial: “the alternative is not to suggest that identification should become a viable accomplishment” (72). What is interpreted as failure is, on the one hand, that the symbolic Law does not always function according to plan. The neurotic symptoms leaving traces of painful nostalgias and arduous journeys in the Oedipal dialectic between the phallic identification with the mother’s desire and the various forms of assuming castration are another point of failure. Yet another is the dimension of the impossible that interrelates the positions of jouissance to the phallic function, and phantasms to drive facilitations—a dimension that is the very condition of the lack with which these two pairs of elements sustain themselves. The operativity of the symbolic Law therefore comprises that dialectization of an impossible as the structural condition of a possible, but which is never seen in terms of a “realization of identity” (72) (keeping in mind the ambiguity of that expression), due to the split that marks what is understood as the “subject.” And yet the syntagma “realization of identity” could serve as an invitation to take the various modes of the relationship between imaginary identifications and their “materialization” in the subjects’ experiences of desire, and put them into action. Such an approach would undoubtedly deconstruct the binarism between “failure” and “realization.”

20But overlaying the problematic of norms onto the psychoanalytical approach to sexual difference submits itself, as a result of the urgency in “doing justice” [15] in the sociopolitical realm, to a representation of the modes of the symbolic Law, with shades of mythic violence, that the text expresses in terms of a “structure of religious tragedy in Lacanian theory” that “makes the Lacanian narrative ideologically suspect.” (72) What characteristics drive the mytho-narrative mode of a “religious tragedy” and the dramaturgy of its manifestations? Firstly, there is the reference to a divine figure associated with an all-powerful regime whose effects are apparently those of a subjection to a force of the superego that is internalized on the basis of a masochistic economy: “the tortured relationship between the God of the Old Testament and those humiliated servants who offer their obedience without reward.” (72) The symbolic function is thus mediated in imaginary terms and the instances “humiliated servants” and “human subjects” reveal a sociopolitical scene of domination and servitude that is given more focus than the formulation of a psychoanalytical problematic of the dialectics between alienation and identification. The traces of the imaginary running through the chapter’s speculative and polemical discourse are more noticeable here. The symbolic function is interpreted in terms of a deus absconditus, “the inaccessible but all-determining deity,” and the dynamics of lack in both the non-reciprocity of sexual identities and their positions of jouissance are presented as embodying a “religious impulse” (72), where the desire of the Other’s desire is likened to the ideality of a transcendental signifier. Where Lacan’s text emphasizes the “paradoxical, deviant, erratic, eccentric, and even scandalous nature” [16] of desire, through which it will always already bear the mark of an excess in relation to the object of need, Butler’s text relates that excess to “a kind of ecstatic transcendence that eclipses sexuality altogether” (72). Moreover, in Butler’s view, the function of this transcendental signifier is itself only a mask for a sacrificial requirement with mythic overtones, as it only functions through “obedience and suffering to enforce the ‘subject’s’ sense of limitation ‘before the law’” (72). In a way the tropes of dramaturgy construct a mise-en-abyme for the issues connected with the multiple meanings of “before the law.” In their imaginary register, they bear witness to a realm that is just this side of the symbolic Law, from where that Law is challenged by being rewritten as a confrontation between an all-powerful force and a masochistic state of servitude. There, alienation is in fact mediated in Hegelian terms of a relationship to the absolute, as if the Hegelian absolute and the Lacanian desire of the Other were interchangeable, whereas this other is such “insofar as he himself is a subject divided by the signifying Spaltung.” [17] In The Title of the Letter, subtitled A Reading of Lacan, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy already noted the presence of metaphysical echoes in the Lacanian approach to the letter, relating its wide-open nature, “the edge of the hole in knowledge,” to a “negative atheology.” [18] This is not the road taken by the metaphysical inflections in Butler’s text, which pay more attention to a footnote on the same page [19] where the authors look into the assignation of “the place of God-the-Father” in the question of the “Name-of-the-Father,” a question that will undergo various displacements within Lacanian theory as the modes of instantiation of the phallic function become more specific and more profuse. In “Prohibition, Psychoanalysis, and the Heterosexual Matrix,” the echoes of metaphysics become intertwined with the critical and ironic motif of tragedy.

21The ironic treatment that the chapter offers of tragedy ultimately lends it an importance that allows it to incorporate its opposite, comedy. The motif of comedy is introduced in the chapter through Lacan’s exploration of the issue of masquerade in sexual difference. This reference to masquerade appears in order to give a name to the imaginary mode of “appearing,” of the “mask,” that finds a way to interrelate with the dialectic of “being” and “having” such as it comes into play in identifications, and in particular in what Lacan emphasizes as being the idealization of those identifications. In the chapter in Butler’s book, the comic aspect seems to fulfill a twofold role. On the one hand, it enables the reiteration of how an ontologization of sexual identity is conceived within the Lacanian conception of deconstruction, which Butler’s text takes up in its approach to the ambiguous nature of gender: the dialectic of being and having in relation to the desire of the Other’s desire, such as masquerade dramatizes it, is retranslated there as the ambiguity of gender identities. But on the other hand, this same masquerade that is greeted as a resource for thought, as critical efficacy, splits in two when it is modalized, as though it were obvious, into a burlesque dramatization of “the realization of identity”: “There is, of course, the comic side to this drama that is revealed through the disclosure of the permanent impossibility of the realization of identity” (72). The dialectical fluttering fades away; “failure” (a term that is reiterated while being held at a remove through the use of quotation marks) is classified as a romanticized ideal of the impossible quest (“a religious idealization of ‘failure’”) or as a practice with moralizing echoes of humility; identity conceives of, or is conceived in terms of, its “realization.” Moreover, the scene of this drama finds itself with a shading that slips from the comic to the burlesque when it offers the vision of puppets in thrall to an almighty force conceived in terms of the prohibition that it exerts upon any Promethean rebellion: “an enslavement to the God that it claims to be unable to overcome” (72), where the political genealogy of the verb “to enslave” emphasizes its strategic stakes. This extends into the following statement, into this statement’s epistemic mode, and into its slippage from the philosophical to the political register in its approach to the power of norms: “Lacanian theory must be understood as a kind of ‘slave morality’” (72).

22And yet the imputation of a tragic dimension to Lacan’s body of work (as represented by “The Signification of the Phallus”) resonates with some of its aspects: the dimension of agon, a crucial element of tragedy, is emphasized from the outset through the reference to the antinomy connecting the problematic of the subject to that of a “threat”: “There is an antinomy here that is internal to the assumption [assomption] by man (Mensch) of his sex: why must he assume the attributes of that sex only through a threat […]?” [20] This antinomy is even heightened by the inability of this form of negativity either to supersede itself through a reversal that would take on the appearance of a happy denouement, or to integrate itself into whatever does supersede it: it is an aporia, one that “cannot be solved by reducing things to biological data.” [21] In a way, sexual difference borrows from comedy its game of masks and the destabilization of identity, while encountering tragedy in Lacanian theory: in Freudian thought as well, but probably in a different way, less like an agon between instances or a causalist arrangement and more like a structural condition.


  • [1]
    Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York / London: Routledge, 1999). The page references are indicated between parentheses.
  • [2]
    I borrow this expression from Jean-Luc Nancy’s La Communauté désœuvrée (Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1999) [The Inoperative Community, trans. Peter Connor (Minneapolis / London: University of Minnesota Press, 2012)].
  • [3]
    Jacques Derrida, Force de loi (Paris: Galilée, 1994), p. 127 [“Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority’,” trans. Mary Quaintance, Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, ed. Drucilla Cornell, Michel Rosenfeld, David Gray Carlson (New York / London: Routledge, 1992), p. 54].
  • [4]
    Monique David-Ménard (ed.), Sexualités, genres et mélancolie (Paris: Campagne Première, 2009), p. 199.
  • [5]
    Ginette Michaud, “(Ir)responsabilité de la littérature,” strassdelaphilosophie.blogspot.com, n.p., 6 October 2014, Web, 2 September 2019.
  • [6]
    Jacques Derrida, La Conférence de Heidelberg, ed. Mireille Calle-Gruber (Paris: Lignes/IMEC, 2014), p. 102 [Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics: The Heidelberg Conference, trans. Jeff Fort (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016), p. 49].
  • [7]
    Isabelle Alfandary, “L’invention de la philosophie américaine comme invention de soi,” www.ruedescartes.org, Collège international de philosophie, n.a., Web, 2 September 2019.
  • [8]
    Isabelle Alfandary, “L’invention de la philosophie américaine comme invention de soi.”
  • [9]
    Michel Foucault, Histoire de la sexualité, vol. I: La Volonté de savoir (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), p. 26, p. 34 [The History of Sexuality, vol. I: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), p. 18, p. 24].
  • [10]
    See Branka Parmentier, “Judith Butler ou de l’intuition philosophique à l’adresse fantasmatique: un trajet féminin-singulier,” in Sexualités, genres, et mélancolie.
  • [11]
    Claude Lévi-Strauss, Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté (Berlin / New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2002), p. 551 [The Elementary Structures of Kinship, trans. James Harle Bell, John Richard von Sturmer, and Rodney Needham (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), p. 480-481].
  • [12]
    See Antonia Birnbaum, “Variations du destin,” preface to Walter Benjamin, Critique de la violence et autres essais, trans. Nicole Casanova (Paris: Payot, 2012), p. 7-51 [“Variations of Fate,” trans. Carlo Salzani and Brendan Moran, Towards the Critique of Violence: Walter Benjamin and Giorgio Agamben, ed. Brendan Moran and Carlo Salzani (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), p. 91-105].
  • [13]
    Jacques Lacan, “La signification du phallus,” Écrits (Paris: Gallimard, 1966), p. 685-696 [“The Signification of the Phallus,” Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink (New York / London: W.W. Norton, 2002), p. 575-584].
  • [14]
    Lacan, “La signification du phallus,” p. 692 [“The Signification of the Phallus,” p. 581].
  • [15]
    See Butler, “Doing Justice to Someone: Sex Reassignment and Allegories of Transsexuality,” in Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 57-74.
  • [16]
    Lacan, “La signification du phallus,” p. 690 [“The Signification of the Phallus,” p. 579].
  • [17]
    Lacan, “La signification du phallus,” p. 693 [“The Signification of the Phallus,” p. 582].
  • [18]
    Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, Le Titre de la lettre (Paris: Galilée, 1973), p. 131 [The Title of the Letter: A Reading of Lacan, trans. David Pettigrew and François Raffoul (Albany: SUNY Press, 1992), p. 126-127].
  • [19]
    Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy, Le Titre de la lettre, p. 131 [The Title of the Letter, p. 127].
  • [20]
    Lacan, “La signification du phallus,” p. 685 [“The Signification of the Phallus,” p. 575].
  • [21]
    Lacan, “La signification du phallus,” p. 686 [“The Signification of the Phallus,” p. 575]