Sexual Difference in Freud

October 12, 2015

FreudFreud was supposed once to have said at a party, ‘What does a woman want?’ (in German, Was will das Weib).[1] Why should we think that women would know less what they want than men do? We might want to dismiss out of hand Freud’s remark as being sexist. Obviously there are many places in Freud’s work that one could find evidence for such a thing, and this would just be one more example out of many. I don’t want to defend Freud in this regard. I would think it would be very hard for someone at that time , from our point of view, not to be sexist, and Freud is hardly special concerning these matters. After we have made our accusations, however, there might be something more interesting to say. I am reminded of something that Adorno said about Freud that when he is his at most exaggerated that is when he is true.[2]

Why was it that most of Freud’s patients were women? Do we have to look at the answer to this question in some aspect of Freud’s personality? Is not the real answer that it is entirely unsurprising that if you were an educated women of the early 20th that you would not have been driven quite literally hysterical? The fact that Freud’s treatment room was full of women tells us nothing about women (that women are more susceptible to hysteria than men, for example), but tells us everything about the society they lived in at the time, which pretty much closed off every opportunity to them. Take for example, the patient at the heart of Freud’s first case study (though it was his friend Breuer’s patient), Anna O., whose real name was Bertha Pappenheim, who later became had a leading role in the development of German social work. Could we not say that her symptoms were caused by the world that she lived in? The real question, then, is why was this world more damaging to woman than men, and is it still so today? What then is the difference between men and women that one could be more damaged than the other? The answer to this question, I want to convince you, must be social rather than biological. There is nothing in the nature of women that would make them less equal than men.

In speaking, thinking and writing about sexual difference, you might imagine that the most important word in this expression is ‘sexual’ and not ‘difference’, since after all what we are interested in is sex. Yet, to understand the possibility of their being two kinds of sexes, one first of all has to know what kind of difference it is that you want, because this choice will determine completely how you understanding your own sexuality. There are two ways that we can think this difference. Either we think that it is real, or we think it is symbolic. In the first case, difference is determined by nature. This is a very old idea, even though today the new language of genes and evolutionary psychology might dress it up in apparent objective and neutral discourse. The difference between men and women, then, has been laid down in 250,000 year ago when the human species first emerged, and the whole search for equality and justice between the sexes is just liberal wish fulfilment. What might make us a little sceptical about this thesis is that the behaviour of our distant ancestors, which we know very little about, just happens to be exactly the same as the prejudices of our more traditional and conservative fellow citizens. In the symbolic universe, on the contrary, it is not nature that determines the difference between the sexes, but language; that is to say, sexual differences are symbolic, and if there is a biological element within sexuality, then it is moulded, shaped and transformed by social and individual pressures and forces that interpret and place a certain value on them. This is the line that Freud takes, but we might conclude that he does not take it far enough, because he still wants to look for something universal that determines the difference between the sexes, even though it is no longer natural. Or if we want to be more precise, it is not that he stills seeks for something universal that makes his interpretation of sexual difference finally inadequate, but that he finds it in the wrong place. This is why we’re going to end with Lacan (well at least Lacan as he is reinterpreted by Zizek).

It is to Freud that we must thank for the invention of the symbolic interpretation of sexual difference. It is in his Three Essays on Sexuality, where we first see a committed and resolute argument against a biological and natural interpretation of human sexuality, which only sees sexuality in teleological or utilitarian terms. We only have sex for the sake of something else, for procreation or serial monogamy. For Freud, on the contrary, human sexuality is highly complex and differentiated, and what we find sexuality expands well beyond any purpose or useful value, a general sexuality, which he called ‘polymorphous perversity’(Freud, 1991, p. 109). To understand, however, the meaning of this perversity, we have to go back to the genesis of human sexuality. How is it that the child becomes a man or a woman, and takes on sexual difference, which is something that we are born into rather than are?

First of all, this is not primarily a biological process, although biology, of course must come into it, but an accomplishment. You have to become a man or woman in the full sense of the terms. You aren’t just naturally a man or a woman. The key essay for us here is a much latter work of Freud’s, ‘Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes’(Freud, 1991, pp. 323–43). When we look at this essay in detail, we can see that there are two different series one for the girl and one for the boy. This series is not innate as such. This means that you have to live in a society, and society, as such, determines how this series works. Now Freud has a word for how this pressure of society works and it is the Phallus. It is very important not to confuse this with the penis. The phallus is not biological, but symbolic and as we have said above what characterises human sexuality is that it is symbolic.

Of course this does not mean that there are no biological elements in human sexuality, otherwise it might be hard to imagine how we could have ended up with the difference between the sexes, but this difference is not enough by itself to explain the complexity of our sexuality (what it is to be a man or a woman), however many chimpanzees one looks at. Our biology is always interpreted through a symbolic universe, which is given in advance and determines how we are going to interpret the fact we have a penis or we do not.

It is Freud’s absolute conviction that we live in a male society. Many people will say that he is sexist, and when I tell you about his theories about human sexual development you might agree with him, but I think he is quite correct about this. We do live in a male society.[3] It is certainly the case when Freud was writing (it is no surprise, as we said right at the beginning, that nearly all his cases where women) and I think it is still the case now, even though there might have been all kinds of advancements in the meantime in terms of the law and work. If we do live in a male society, then being born biologically a girl means that you are going to be seriously disadvantaged from the start and this drawback has nothing at all to do with biology, but how this biological destiny is interpreted. Or in Freud’s words, how the logic of the Phallus operates on one’s sexual development.

Let is then see how Freud himself explains how one becomes a boy or a girl; that is to say, how one ends up fulfilling one’s destiny and become what one already was. First of all let us take the series of the little boy. At the earliest stage of the child’s relation to the parents, which Freud calls the ‘phallic phase’, there is no distinction between the sexes. This is because what determines one’s sexual identity is the object of ones desire and it is clear that both the girl and the boy have the same object which is the mother (or more precisely the mother’s breast). For the little girl, however, to become a woman, she has to change her object of desire from her mother to her father. The explanation of this transformation is given by what Freud calls the ‘masculine ideal’. It is this ideal which gives to the physical differences of the sexes their negative and positive significance and explains the divergence in their development: from the phallic to the Oedipal phase to the castration complex and its dissolution for the little boy; from the phallic phase to penis envy to the Oedipal complex for the little girl. You might notice in these divergent series that the little girl never leaves the Oedipal complex.

What one has to understand, however, is that none of this makes sense without the masculine ideal being in operation from the very start. It is this ideal which ensures that the development of the two series is divergent, and at one end we end up with the little girl and at the other the little boy. For why would the little girl feel different in this way unless she did not measure herself against the masculine ideal? Now such an idealisation cannot be made sense of biologically. Sure there is a difference between the sexes, but that is not sufficient to explain why having a penis is a good thing and not having one is bad. The possibility of such a structure of idealisation is not to found in our bodies but in language, and how it already structures our experience of them, and how the little girl experiences her body as lacking something which then affects the rest of her psychological development.

It is Freud’s disciple Lacan who, following the teaching of the French linguist Saussure, who showed that this process of the sexual differentiation depended entirely on the structure of language and not on our biological fate alone. For Lacan, Saussure’s fundamental discovery was that language was divided between the function of the signifier and the signified. The signifier being the word itself and the signified what the word represented or signified. Such a difference is not important in itself, but the realisation that the signifier can operate without the signified. It is this separation of the two aspects of language that explains the possible existence of the ideal which can structure our experience. I am already immersed in language before I speak through the others who speak to me and the culture they bear in this speaking. These others name and place me in the division masculine/feminine. I will then constitute myself through this placing. I refuse or accept it. This is the law and I become a subject through it. Women have a different relation to the law, and this has ethical consequences. For, to some extent, if there if femininity exists, it is only because she escapes it, though this might only be expressed negatively, as it is in Freud’s text.[4]

No one more than the Slovenian philosophy Slavoj Zizêk has explained more clearly how this split works and the example he gives is the ordinary coke bottle (Zizek, 1989, p. 96). How is it that this object, when I look at it, somehow represents the ideal of America? Common sense tells us that the idea of America is first, and then this idea is somehow ‘symbolised’ by the coke bottle. This is to interpret the relation between the two elements however after the relation has been constructed. It is not an explanation of how it is created, for it is clear that it is the coke bottle, which is the origin of the idea of America and not the other way around by capturing something that is rather hazy and ill-defined into a definite object which then can pin this picture of the ideal of the American life down for us. It is not, of course, the properties of Coke which make it this symbol, for there is no reason that such a strange tasting liquid should do that; rather it is its formal function. In this instance, the coke bottle (and it does not have to this object, it could have been anything else), is operating as a pure signifier. It is a kind of like an empty box in which we can project our fantasy of what America is and which can then organise and consolidate this reality. It isn’t that the coke bottle signifies the American ideal, because it could not exist without it; rather it is the place through which this ideal is produced. It is precisely because it doesn’t mean anything, that it is ‘it’, as the advertisement goes, that it can act as the empty signifier through which the idea of America can be coalesced.

The masculine ideal operates in exactly the same way as the coke bottle. There is nothing empirical about the male sex that would make it ideal. Rather masculinity has to go through a process of idealisation through which it can then be translated into a norm by which the status of the two sexes can be measured, the one as positive and the other as negative. Although there is something fixed about sexual differences there is nothing stable about the ideal which fixes our fantasies. One day the coke bottle could just be a container for a strange tasting brown liquid, and nothing else. And equally the male sex may no longer occupy the space of the ideal from which the development of the two sexes is measured. The ideal space is precisely empty. Anything can occupy it, so that one might imagine in the future, for example, a feminine ideal, where the little boy would experience himself as mutilated rather than the little girl. What then is universal is not the masculine ideal, as such, but the ideality which language make possible. Equally, even when an ideal works, it is never a total success. This is why the elevation of coke to an ideal strikes us as a bit corny and over the top. Surely reality just isn’t like that, and we only have to visit the real America to think that what is represents is a fantasy. In the same way, the reality of women is always escaping the masculine ideal all the time and in fact it is the men who are more under its power than her. Reality might be structured by language, but it is always being destabilized by it from within.

Works Cited

Adorno, T.W., 2010. Minima Moralia : Reflections on a Damaged Life, London: Verso.

Elms, A.C., 2001. Apocryphal Freud: Sigmund Freud’s Most Famous “Quotations.” In J. A. Winer et al., ed. Sigmund Freud and his Impact on the Modern World. New York: Routledge, pp. 83–104.

Freud, S., 1991. On Sexuality : Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Other Works A. Richards & J. Strachey, eds., London: Penguin Books.

Graeber, D., 2011. Debt : the First 5,000 Years, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Melville House.

Zizek, S., 1989. The Sublime Object of Ideology, London; New York: Verso.


[1] According to Freud’s biographer Ernst Jones, he was supposed to have said this to Marie Bonaparte who was a patient of his, though this phrase never appears in his work or his diaries (Elms, 2001, pp. 84–8).

[2] What he actually wrote is ‘In psychoanalysis nothing is true except the exaggerations’ (Adorno, 2010, p. 49).

[3] Anthropologists tell us that there have been examples of female societies in the past, but they have long since disappeared with the rise of agriculture and the state (Graeber, 2011, pp. 176–82).

[4] Freud writes, ‘I cannot evade the notion (though I hesitate to give it expression) that for women the level of what is ethically normal is different from what it is in men. Their super-ego is never so inexorable, so impersonal, so independent of its emotional origins as we require it to be in men. Character-traits which critics of every epoch have brought up against women – that they show less sense of justice than men, that they are less ready to submit to the great exigencies of life, that they are more often influenced in their judgements by feelings of affection or hostility – all these would be amply accounted for by the modification in the formation of their super-ego which we have inferred above.’ (Freud, 1991, p. 342)

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Humanities in Crisis in a University in Ruins

September 26, 2014

MoneyYou are a student in the school of humanities. You have come to study a particular subject. Some English, some History, some Philosophy, and so on. All of you, perhaps, have some idea what you subject is about. You might not know very much about your subject and hope to learn something about it, but you do have some idea how to get about it, so to speak, and where to begin. But humanities? What is that? Does anyone know anymore what that word means and why should anyone be interested in it at all? If I am English student, then I want to study English. Why should I learn anything about history or philosophy, let alone linguistics or creative writing. Aren’t those students who claim that knowing about the humanities isn’t relevant to their course right after all, and why should we criticise their lack of motivation?

It goes without saying that I do not think so, otherwise I wouldn’t be standing in front of you now introducing this course to you with a few words. First of all, I think the specialism of English education system is not beneficial. I think a student should know about these other subjects. Indeed, I think humanities students should know about science and science students should know about humanities, but that would be another story. But this isn’t the major reason why I think you ought to have some grasp of the humanities. To understand humanities is to understand what a university is and why it exists, though as we shall see this might not be such a happy story, because today I am going to tell you that the university is crisis and humanities is at the heart of it, not of course as its cause, but its symptom.

What it the history of the word humanities? The word comes from the Latin studia humanitatis that was linked to the rediscovery of the classical world in the Renaissance out of which grew literary and historical criticism (both of which are essential to discovery and preservation of ancient texts). What began, however, as a spiritual awakening soon became institutionalised in the university, and even became associated with a certain discipline of the mind that was necessary for particular professions (as though knowing Latin and Greek somehow made one a good civil servant). Perhaps the greatest influence of the ideal of humanities was the German philologist Wilhelm von Humboldt. He redesigned the curriculum of the university of Berlin which became the template of the modern university around the world, even here in England. Central to the idea of the university for Humboldt was Bildung. This word is usually translated as ‘culture’, but it means more than that. It comes from the verb bilden, which means to ‘form’, whose earlier form the English verb ‘build’ derives. Culture, in this context, means self-formation. To study the humanities is to be on a journey of self-discovery, not just to learn about something outside of oneself, but to discover oneself. This is the tension that is at the heart of humanities. It is not enough simply to know stuff. One has to form an opinion about them that is an expression of one’s own self-development. Somehow the study of humanities makes one a better person. It develops one’s character, and this development is expressly moral.

Humanities is just as much defined as what it is not as what it is. What it is not is science. As opposed to the humanities, the object of science is not the cultural production of humans themselves but the investigation of nature. And why also no-one can agreed a common method to the study of humanities, everyone is pretty certain what scientific method is. It is the study of facts through empirical means. Moreover, not only can everyone readily agree what science is, we can also see around us the fruits of its success. Science gives us IPhones and Google. What has the humanities ever done? Science produces wealth on which the humanities are parasitical, and even the humanities student is seen as a shirker and scrounger.

Of course one only has to investigate deeper underneath the headlines to know that this absurd (you can find numerous list on the internet of famous and successful people who have studied the humanities), but that is beside the point. The prejudice against the humanities is evidence of something very real, which for some time now there has be a real crisis in the humanities and this has to do with what we now think the function of a modern university is and which has little at all to do with how Humboldt imagined it when humanities was at its heart.

I think that Bill Readings is right to say that ‘it is no longer clear what the place of the University is within society nor what the exact nature of that society is’ (Readings 1996, p.2). This is because the university is no longer tied to the idea of culture (and a national culture at that), but is increasingly seen as a corporation, which is part of a trans-global network. Its function is to produce capital and capital of a particular kind: human capital. In this context, the student is more likely to see themselves as a consumer rather than some who is on a journey of self-discovery and the object of their study is less like to some national cultural artefact (why should studying George Eliot be in any better than studying the Simpsons?). If the purpose of the contemporary university is to produce technology (sciences) and training (professional and vocational subjects), what possible place is there for the humanities? You can hear people say that they offer great transferable skills, but why should they be better than any other training, and anyway to defend them in this way, is this not already to admit to defeat?

How, then, can we defend, if it is at all possible, humanities today on its own terms, if the cultural project of the university is now over? Reading again suggests a way forward for us. Rather than justifying national and cultural identity, whether at the individual or state level, the role of the university in the era of globalisation, and more specifically humanities, is to question what it is that we value. ‘Accountants,’ he writes, ‘are not the only people capable of understanding the horizon of contemporary society, nor even the most adept at the task’ (Readings 1996, p.18). Paradoxically the ruin or crisis of the humanities might be the very reason for its salvation, but if it continues to cling to the old ideas of culture and tradition, then it will be doomed.

So what is it that we can value today, and how might humanities be a part of this question? The modern university was a university of culture, Bill Readings explains. It both formed the basis of a national ideal that functioned both as a unity of knowledge and of citizens in a nation state. The university of culture was a national university. In the European university, philosophy had this function. In the English and American universities, it was literature. For the English, literature was defined as tradition, where Shakespeare stood as the pinnacle, whereas for America, literature was defined as a canon, since American had no tradition it had to define its own as the act of a republican will (‘we the people,…’).

It is this university of culture that has disappeared because of the weakness of the nation state in relation to global capital. It is corporations who have captured the state, not the state global capital (which explains the decrease in political participation across democracies). What has replaced the university of culture, Bill Readings tells us, is the university of excellence.

Now every university has excellence as its highest goal. A paradoxical goal, because it does not tell us anything, since anything could be excellent. You could be an excellent charity worker, but also there could be an excellent tyrant or murderer. This explains our rather cynical attitude to many of the statement of universities, since their prospectuses are increasingly becoming like company brochures promising us excellence in everything: excellent in teaching; excellence in research; excellence in student experience. The last excellence also show us that students themselves are no longer to see themselves as subjects of culture, but as consumers.

So what, we might say to ourselves. Perhaps it is better to be a consumer rather than subject of culture. That might be the case, but if you really did think like that that it is hard to understand how you are going to be motivated to do a humanities subject, because whatever you might think at them, or whatever subject you are doing, you cannot consume them. Why? Because you are bound to, at some point (and you should expect this) in your university career, to be asked to read, learn something, or even write or produce something, you might find difficult, boring and even, at the time, pointless. No why would you consume that? It would be strange to go into a McDonald’s to ask for a burger that was dry, tasteless and overcooked, pay for the experience and be happy with it. Secondly, and this is perhaps more important, apart from filling you up, the burger is not going to change you as a person, and I for one certainly hope that my students, who are studying philosophy and religion, would be changed by their education as individuals, and might think about themselves and the world differently through the process and stay of their education.

For all that, however, the university of excellence, with its obsession with human capital, is here to stay. There is no way we could get back to the university of culture, where humanities was at the heart of the university, even if we wanted to. So what place can humanities have? I believe the point of humanities is to offer a different kind of accounting. In a world that is dominated by money, where the only value is the profit line, and the only purpose of any activity is the accumulation of capital, it can offer us other values, for what is humanities except the question what does it mean to be human? Ecolinguistics, for example, which you will study here, asks whether language itself effects the way we think about nature and our place in it; history, how our past shapes our present, but also how there have alternative histories than our main narrative; literature, how there have been both major and minor literatures and not just one dominate literature, each showing us alternative ways of living; philosophy, how there have always been other values and we should never accept there only being one; religion, that human practices have never been just about the material but also the spiritual and ethical; and finally creative writing, which is about the creativity at the heart of every human being to produce for the sake of the art itself, and not for some extrinsic worth. In a world increasingly dominated, if not wholly so, by global corporations and financial capital, where we might think the relation of the individual to itself, to others, to nature, and to God, if one believes in such a being, is damaged, then humanities will continue to have a place. If we do not think so, nor do we think there are any other values than the value of the accumulation of capital, then humanities will be increasingly irrelevant and they will finally disappear. For if the only reason you have to study philosophy, religious studies and religion, literature, history, creative writing and linguistics is to get a better job, then that is no reason at all.

Bibliography

Readings, B., 1996. The university in ruins, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.


Subjective Atheism

April 16, 2014

Abraham and Issac2I am writing this lecture in response to Martin’s lecture on atheism the week before last. In one sense, Martin and I stand in the same corner, we are both atheists, but in other sense, we are, to mix a metaphor, poles apart. If I were to describe Martin (and of course in the end he must speak for himself), I would say that he is an objective atheist, whereas I would say I am an subjective atheist. This difference between an objective atheist and subjective one is mirrored in those who have a religious belief (mentioning that word that Martin did not want to be mentioned, ‘religion’). There are those, I think, who believe objectively and those who do so subjectively. Because of this cross-over, I think, strangely enough, that there is more in common with subjective believers and subjective atheists, than there is between objective and subjective atheists, and thereby more in common with objective atheists and objective believers. What subjective atheists and subjective believers have in common is uncertainty and doubt (what I would call faith). Whereas, what objective atheists and objective believers have in common is certainty and conviction (what I would call fundamentalism). This is why when you listen to a fundamentalist religious believer and a fundamentalist atheist (like Richard Dawkins, or Christopher Hitchens), they sound, to me at least, the same.

What is at the heart of objective atheism is a certain conviction about science. That science, as Martin, tells us is what is real. The opposite side of this conviction is that religion is a falsehood, because religion tells us that there are fairies at the end of the garden, when clearly there are not, or that Santa Claus exists, when clearly he does not. There are two ways to respond to this accusation. Firstly, this is a very positivist view of science. Positivism is the assertion that there are only true facts about the world are empirical, that science is the only method that can investigate these facts, and as science progresses we are getting closer and closer to what reality is. There are no doubt many people who believe this, and indeed there are many scientists who do (Brian Cox being currently the most famous of its adherents). This would mean that art, literature (which is what Martin does), philosophy and all the other activities that human beings engage in that are not science, would have nothing true to say about the world at all, which would be rather extraordinary. Yet what most people don’t notice about the assertion ‘only science can tell us what reality is’, is that it is not in fact a scientific statement at all (how would you empirically prove this?), but a matter of belief. To believe that only science can tell you what is true is not science but scientism, and scientism is a conviction, a fundamental belief. Scientific theories themselves, like quantum mechanics or evolution, are remarkable open and uncertain (that is they allow for anomalies that cannot be explained), otherwise they would not be able to function as theories that set the boundaries for what we see as normal science. Scientism is in fact normal science raised to the status of objective belief and that is why objective atheists tend to become indiscernible from objective believers. They both believe that they have an iron grasp of what truth and certainty might be. One of course sees it in their equations and the other in their sacred texts.

Secondly, however, and even if Martin were right to think that science tells us what reality is (and I don’t think he is), this should not make a difference to anyone who has a religious belief (I am pretty certain that no one who entered the lecture hall with a religious belief came out of it suddenly having lost it). This is because I do think there is any conflict between science and religion because they are totally different discourses. Even though I am sceptical that science could ever come up with a definite answer to the question about what the nature of reality is (which would be pretty bad for science anyway since it would have come to an end), I still think that it is about the external world. If I wanted to know what a tree is, then I would ask a scientist. Religion, on the contrary is not about the external world but the internal one. If I want to know about my internal world, then it would be better to ask a priest, and if I don’t like priests, then it would be better to ask an artist, like for example Camus, who Martin actually quotes (who I would say is a subjective atheist like me, and not an objective one like Martin).

I know that the clever ones amongst you will say to me that science surely can now tell us about our internal world and we don’t need religion and art anymore. Does not neuroscience tell us how our brains work, and aren’t our brains just who we are? I think the claims that some neuroscientists make are pretty absurd, and if you talk to any of the serious ones, they will tell you that we hardly know anything about how the brain works, but even if we did, nothing that science says externally about the function of the brain, allows one to make the jump from an objective description to the meaning of subjective experience (and ‘meaning’ is the key word here). Sometimes you here people speaking about how their brain does this and that . Their brain opens the door, their brain drives their car, their brain loves their children, and so on and so on. But of course a brain does not do any of those things. It would be pretty messy if it did. We know really that it is a metaphor when someone speaks of their brain opening a door, but this metaphor hides a lot of metaphysics that gets surreptitiously sneaked in so we don’t have to think about it. Someone who thinks that brains open doors, drives cars, kisses children on the forehead, is like someone who thinks that programme that they are watching on the TV or the book they are reading in their hand is to be explained by the objective description of the TV (the wires and electronics that make it up) or the book (the paper, ink and binding), which of course doesn’t. What explains the programme or the book is the subjective meaning and not the objective description.

So having said that what is common to a subjective atheist and subjective believer is uncertainty and faith, I am now going to say something categorical: there can never be an objective description of a subjective meaning, not because we lack knowledge, but what is subjective is never open to an objective description. This is why I would say that if you want to know what the meaning of love is then read literature. Knowing which part of your brain ‘lights up’ when you are in love is not going to tell anything at all, even though it might be objectively true and in itself very interesting.

So what is common to an objective atheist and an objective believer is both of them reject subjective experience, though they do so in very different ways. Now I don’t think it is very difficult to understand why an objective atheist might do so, since the positivist image of science would impel then to do so, even though I think they are wrong, but what is difficult to see is how anyone religious has managed to get themselves in the confusion that their religion is objectively true and needs to be so, when everything that we know about the world tells us that it cannot be so. Why would anyone think, for example, that there is a conflict between a belief in God and evolution? One is subjective and the other objective. Why would anyone think that what is written in a sacred text like the bible is literally true since these are historical documents written by people like us with subjective experiences shaped by the societies they lived in? This does not mean that these documents still cannot speaks to us, but so does Shakespeare, but we do not have to think that these are literally true. The answer to these questions are probably political, and that as usual, fundamentalism is all about power and control. What better way to dominate others that to get them to deny the reality of their subjective experience through objective ideologies? But such a fundamentalism is just as possible in science as it is in religion, and no more true of religion than it is of science.

I am going to end this lecture with a writer who I have been reading for some time, Soren Kierkegaard. He is someone perhaps some of you have heard of. He is said to have been the inventor of the philosophy that Martin himself mentioned last week, existentialism, but that is not of course, how he would have seen himself. He saw himself as a religious writer, indeed a deeply troubled and uncertain one. No doubt what he had to say about religion affected other more philosophical writers (like Heidegger, for example), but that is not what would have interested him. What mattered to him was what it meant to become a Christian, and it is important that it was becoming a Christian that concerned him, because religion is a philosophical abstraction, whereas, he would argue, becoming a Christian is not.

So the key question for Kierkegaard is how does one become a Christian (or even how does one not become one). Whatever one’s answer to this question might be, he was certain that at the heart of it was the issue of what it means to be a self. In other words, there is no objective answer to this question (including whether God exists objectively or not). To exist as a self is an accomplishment and a task and not something that one simply is. It is possible to describe one’s existence objectively, and this is what science does. In that way, you and I do not exist any differently than a stone or the Big Bang that began the universe. This is why some people worry whether God is necessary for such an existence, or some that he is not, and to suggest so is to be superstitious. But this is not where Kierkegaard thinks the absence or presence of God is.

How can we say that the matter of my existence is different from that of a stone? Because I can lose it. Again you might reply, the stone too can lose its existence. It can be annihilated by the hammer as I can by the bullet. But that is not the loss that Kierkegaard is talking about. He says that we can lose our existence simply by not being ourselves, by thinking and acting in the same way as everyone else. To be objectively is actually quite easy; one simply is. But to be subjectively, now that is really very hard indeed. Becoming or not becoming a Christian has to do with that. How one decides to live one’s life. Now of course, this is a very difficult decision, so we like falling back onto objective reasons why we should or should not be a Christian. The fundamentalist falls back onto his sacred texts or culture and history, the objective atheist onto science and logic. Yet these are objective answers to a subjective question, and so miss what is stake completely.

Why is the subjective question more difficult than the objective one? It is not because it requires more or less knowledge, but rather the opposite. It is because it can only be answered in uncertainty. At the very moment that I think that I am being most true to myself, I could be betraying myself, and vice versa. Nothing objective could make you become a Christian as a matter of faith. No-one becomes a Christian through the proofs of the existence of God, even if these arguments were truly objectively. On the contrary faith is not a matter of reason for Kierkegaard but a subjective decision and it would be an ontological error to measure the latter by the former (as though faith were irrational in relation to the rationality of reason). An ‘objective acceptance of Christianity,’ Kierkegaard writes, ‘is paganism or thoughtlessness’ (Kierkegaard 2009, p.108). What is ‘thoughtless’ here is not that one has made an objective mistake, but one has confused the subjective with the objective.

The objective justifies itself in the face of the universal (rules, reasons, and axioms – what Martin calls science), but the subjective in the face of the absolute. This mistake is to think that the absolute and the universal are one and the same, but they are not. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard retells the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. From the outside, he is either a murderer or a man of faith, but if he is a man of faith, then what he does makes no sense at all (one might imagine Martin standing at the bottom of the mountain berating Abraham for his foolishness and superstition). No judgement from the outside can compare with the inner anguish and torment of Abraham’s acceptance of God’s command to sacrifice his son and his long journey up the mountain. Our judgement of him would pale in comparison. For he knows that there is no reason to listen to this voice, no scientific, no logical, indeed not even religious, in the objective sense, and yet he does. How would he know if what he was doing was right or not? He could not be certain. His faith could only be subjective. You might reply to me. Haven’t religious people always done terrible things in the name of a God that speaks to them? But they do so through certainty, and not through a subjective God that they do not even know exists. Even Jesus, Kierkegaard says, doubted whether God existed or not, how much more so should a Christian live in doubt. But even if they think they are acting objectively they are wrong. They are doing so subjectively. Every certainty has its roots in a uncertainty that it forgets and represses. What I am saying in hold onto the uncertainty subjectively, whether you are an atheist or a believer.

Abraham acts the way he does because he believes in God. From the outside this does not make any sense at all. We should be appalled by it, and Kierkegaard wants to us to be horrified by it and worst still would be disgusted by those who would use this story objectively to prove the existence in God. From the inside, the whole story changes. He acts because he believes in God. His trial is not to commit the act, but not not to commit it. Objectively God might not exist, and then he is a murderer. Or objectively God might exist (though this makes no sense to Kierkegaard), then he is a man of faith, but subjectively this makes no difference. He acts because he believes.

I do not believe, but I do not do so objectively like Martin does, but anxiously in the face of the absolute whose absence I feel with a passion. To me there is something banal about filling in this absence with facts about chimpanzees and super novae, however wonderful both may be. I want to face the terror of the absence of God with the same horror that must have seized Abraham when he thought he heard the voice of God tell him to sacrifice his son. If some feel the subjective need for God, then they already in a relation with God. Nothing that anyone says objectively about God is going to make any difference at all. Of course, you can also feel the subjective absence of God, but I do not think that this is an objective decision. That would be to confuse what is at stake here. An atheist who comes to their atheism objectively is not really an atheist at all (or perhaps it is better to say that they are confused about their atheism, for anything that matters to us, even scientific understanding of the universe, is subjective, for without subjectivity there is no passion). But equally, anyone who thinks there are objective grounds to be religious, whether in the universe, or in their sacred texts, is at best stupid, and at worse dangerous.


Sexual Difference

October 23, 2013

Freud was supposed once to have said at a party, ‘What does a woman want?’ (in German, Was will das Weib).[1] Why should we think that women would know less what they want than men do? We might want to dismiss out of hand Freud’s remark as being sexist. Obviously there are many places in Freud’s work that one could find evidence for such a thing, and this would just be one more example out of many. I don’t want to defend Freud in this regard. I would think it would be very hard for someone at that time not to be sexist, and Freud is hardly special concerning these matters. After we have made our accusations, however, there might be something more interesting to say. I am reminded of something that Adorno said about Freud that when he is his at most exaggerated that is when he is true.[2]

Why was it that most of Freud’s patients were women? Do we have to look at the answer to this question in some aspect of Freud’s personality? Is not the real answer that it is entirely unsurprising that if you were an educated women of the early 20th that you would not have been driven quite literally hysterical? The fact that Freud’s treatment room was full of women tells us nothing about women (that women are more susceptible to hysteria than men, for example), but tells us everything about the society that they lived in at the time, which pretty much closed off every opportunity to them. Take for example, the patient at the heart of Freud’s first case study (though it was his friend Breuer’s patient), Anna O., whose real name was Bertha Pappenheim, who later became had a leading role in the development of German social work. Could we not say that her symptoms were caused by the world that she lived in? The real question, then, is why was this world more damaging to woman than men, and is it still so today? What then is the difference between men and women that one could be more damaged than the other? The answer to this question, I want to convince you, must be social rather than biological. There is nothing in the nature of women that would make them less equal than men.

In speaking, thinking and writing about sexual difference, you might imagine that the most important word in this expression is ‘sexual’ and not ‘difference’, since after all what we are interested in is sex. Yet, to understand the possibility of their being two kinds of sexes, one first of all has to know what kind of difference it is that you want, because this choice will determine completely how you understanding your own sexuality. There are two ways that we can think this difference. Either we think that it is real, or we think that it is symbolic. In the first case, difference is determined by nature. This is a very old idea, even though today the new language of genes and evolutionary psychology might dress it up in apparent objective and neutral discourse. The difference between men and women, then, has been laid down in 250,000 year ago when the human species first emerged, and the whole search for equality and justice between the sexes is just liberal wish fulfilment. What might make us a little sceptical about this thesis is that the behaviour of our distant ancestors, which we know very little about, just happens to be exactly the same as the prejudices of our more traditional and conservative fellow citizens. In the symbolic universe, on the contrary, it is not nature that determines the difference between the sexes, but language; that is to say, sexual differences are cultural, and if there is a biological element within sexuality, then it is moulded, shaped and transformed by social pressures and forces that interpret and place a certain value on them. This is the line that Freud takes, but we might conclude that he does not take it far enough, because he still wants to look for something universal that determines the difference between the sexes, even though it is no longer natural. Or if we want to be more precise, it is not that he stills seeks for something universal that makes his interpretation of sexual difference finally inadequate, but that he finds it in the wrong place. This is why we’re going to end with Lacan (well at least Lacan as he is reinterpreted by Zizek).

It is to Freud that we must thank for the invention of the symbolic interpretation of sexual difference. It is in his Three Essays on Sexuality, where we first see a committed and resolute argument against a biological and natural interpretation of human sexuality, which only sees sexuality in teleological or utilitarian terms. We only have sex for the sake of something else, for procreation or serial monogamy. For Freud, on the contrary, human sexuality is highly complex and differentiated, and what we find sexuality expands well beyond any purpose or useful value, a general sexuality, which he called ‘polymorphous perversity’(Freud 1991, p.109). To understand, however, the meaning of this perversity, we have to go back to the genesis of human sexuality. How is it that the child becomes a man or a woman, and takes on sexual difference, which is something that we are born into rather than are?

First of all, this is not primarily a biological process, although biology, of course must come into it, but an accomplishment. You have to become a man or woman in the full sense of the terms. You aren’t just naturally a man or a woman. The key essay for us here is a much latter work of Freud’s, ‘Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes’(Freud 1991, pp.323–43). When we look at this essay in detail, we can see that there are two different series one for the girl and one for the boy. This series is not innate as such. This means that you have to live in a society, and society, as such, determines how this series works. Now Freud has a word for how this pressure of society works and it is the Phallus. It is very important not to confuse this with the Penis. The phallus is not biological, but symbolic and as we have said above what characterises human sexuality is that it is symbolic.

Of course this does not mean that there are no biological elements in human sexuality, otherwise it might be hard to imagine how we could have ended up with the difference between the sexes, but this difference is not enough by itself to explain the complexity of our sexuality (what it is to be a man or a woman), however many chimpanzees one looks at. Our biology is always interpreted through a symbolic universe which is given in advance and determines how we are going to interpret the fact that we have a penis or we do not.

It is Freud’s absolute conviction that we live in a male society. Many people will say that he is sexist, and when I tell you about his theories about human sexual development you might agree with him, but I think he is quite correct about this. We do live in a male society.[3] It is certainly the case when Freud was writing (it is no surprise, as we said right at the beginning, that nearly all his cases where women) and I think it is still the case now, even though there might have been all kinds of advancements in the meantime in terms of the law and work. If we do live in a male society, then being born biologically a girl means that you are going to be seriously disadvantaged from the start and this drawback has nothing at all to do with biology, but how this biological destiny is interpreted. Or in Freud’s words, how the logic of the Phallus operates on one’s sexual development.

Let is then see how Freud himself explains how one becomes a boy or a girl; that is to say, how one ends up fulfilling one’s destiny and become what one already was. First of all let us take the series of the little boy. At the earliest stage of the child’s relation to the parents, which Freud calls the ‘phallic phase’, there is no distinction between the sexes. This is because what determines one’s sexual identity is the object of ones desire and it is clear that both the girl and the boy have the same object which is the mother (or more precisely the mother’s breast). For the little girl, however, to become a woman, she has to change her object of desire from her mother to her father. The explanation of this transformation is given by what Freud calls the ‘masculine ideal’. It is this ideal which gives to the physical differences of the sexes their negative and positive significance and explains the divergence in their development: from the phallic to the Oedipal phase to the castration complex and its dissolution for the little boy; from the phallic phase to penis envy to the Oedipal complex for the little girl. You might notice in these divergent series that the little girl never leaves the Oedipal complex.

What one has to understand, however, is that none of this makes sense without the masculine ideal being in operation from the very start. It is this ideal which ensures that the development of the two series is divergent, and at one end we end up with the little girl and at the other the little boy. For why would the little girl feel different in this way unless she did not measure herself against the masculine ideal? Now such an idealisation cannot be made sense of biologically. Sure there is a difference between the sexes, but that is not sufficient to explain why having a penis is a good thing and not having one is bad. The possibility of such a structure of idealisation is not to found in our bodies but in language, and how it already structures our experience of them, and how the little girl experiences her body as lacking something which then affects the rest of her psychological development.

It is Freud’s disciple Lacan who, following the teaching of the French linguist Saussure, who showed that this process of the sexual differentiation depended entirely on the structure of language and not on our biological fate alone. For Lacan, Saussure’s fundamental discovery was that language was divided between the function of the signifier and the signified. The signifier being the word itself and the signified what the word represented or signified. Such a difference is not important in itself, but the realisation that the signifier can operate without the signified. It is this separation of the two aspects of language that explains the possible existence of the ideal which can structure our experience.

No one more than the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizêk has explained more clearly how this split works and the example he gives is the ordinary coke bottle (Zizek 1989, p.96). How is it that this object, when I look at it, somehow represents the ideal of America? Common sense tells us that the idea of America is first, and then this idea is somehow ‘symbolised’ by the coke bottle. This is to interpret the relation between the two elements however after the relation has been constructed. It is not an explanation of how it is created, for it is clear that it is the coke bottle, which is the origin of the idea of America and not the other way around by capturing something that is rather hazy and ill-defined into a definite object which then can pin this picture of the ideal of the American life down for us. It is not, of course, the properties of Coke which make it this symbol, for there is no reason that such a strange tasting liquid should do that; rather it is its formal function. In this instance, the coke bottle (and it does not have to this object, it could have been anything else), is operating as a pure signifier. It is a kind of like an empty box in which we can project our fantasy of what America is and which can then organise and consolidate this reality. It isn’t that the coke bottle signifies the American ideal, because it could not exist without it; rather it is the place through which this ideal is produced. It is precisely because it doesn’t mean anything, that it is ‘it’, as the advertisement goes, that it can act as the empty signifier through which the idea of America can be coalesced.

The masculine ideal operates in exactly the same way as the coke bottle. There is nothing empirical about the male sex that would make it ideal. Rather masculinity has to go through a process of idealisation through which it can then be translated into a norm by which the status of the two sexes can be measured, the one as positive and the other as negative. Although there is something fixed about sexual differences there is nothing stable about the ideal which fixes our fantasies. One day the coke bottle could just be a container for a strange tasting brown liquid, and nothing else. And equally the male sex may no longer occupy the space of the ideal from which the development of the two sexes is measured. The ideal space is precisely empty. Anything can occupy it, so that one might imagine in the future, for example, a feminine ideal, where the little boy would experience himself as mutilated rather than the little girl. What then is universal is not the masculine ideal, as such, but the ideality which language make possible. Equally, even when an ideal works, it is never a total success. This is why the elevation of coke to an ideal strikes us as a bit corny and over the top. Surely reality just isn’t like that, and we only have to visit the real America to think that what is represents is a fantasy. In the same way, the reality of women is always escaping the masculine ideal all the time and in fact it is the men who are more under its power than her. Reality might be structured by language, but it is always being destabilized by it from within.

Works Cited

Adorno, T.W., 2010. Minima Moralia : Reflections on a Damaged Life, London: Verso.

Elms, A.C., 2001. Apocryphal Freud: Sigmund Freud’s Most Famous “Quotations.” In J. A. Winer et al., ed. Sigmund Freud and his Impact on the Modern World. New York: Routledge, pp. 83–104.

Freud, S., 1991. On Sexuality : Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Other Works A. Richards & J. Strachey, eds., London: Penguin Books.

Graeber, D., 2011. Debt : the First 5,000 Years, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Melville House.

Zizek, S., 1989. The Sublime Object of Ideology, London; New York: Verso.


[1] According to Freud’s biographer Ernst Jones, he was supposed to have said this to Marie Bonaparte who was a patient of his, though this phrase never appears in his work or his diaries (Elms 2001, pp.84–8).

[2] What he actually wrote is ‘In psychoanalysis nothing is true except the exaggerations’ (Adorno 2010, p.49).

[3] Anthropologists tell us that there have been examples of female societies in the past, but they have long since disappeared with the rise of agriculture and the state (Graeber 2011, pp.176–82).


Humanities in a University in Ruins

October 2, 2013

You are a student in the school of humanities. You have come to study a particular subject. Some English, some History, some Philosophy, and so on. All of you, perhaps, have some idea what you subject is about. You might not know very much about your subject and hope to learn something about it, but you do have some idea how to get about it and where to begin, so to speak. But humanities? What is that? Does anyone know anymore what that word means and why should anyone be interested in that at all? If I am English student, then I want to study English. Why should I learn anything about history or philosophy, let alone linguistics or creative writing. Aren’t those students who claim that knowing about the humanities isn’t relevant to their course right after all?

It goes without saying that I do not think so, otherwise I wouldn’t be standing in front of you now introducing this course to you with a few words. First of all, I think the specialism of English education system is not beneficial. I think a student should know about these other subjects. Indeed, I think humanities students should now about science and science students should know about humanities, but that would be another story. But this isn’t the major reason why I think you ought to have some grasp of the humanities. To understand humanities is to understand what a university is and why it exists, though as we shall see this might not be such a happy story.

What it the history of the word humanities? The word comes from the Latin studia humanitatis that was linked to the rediscovery of the classical world in the Renaissance out of which grew literary and historical criticism (both of which are essential to discovery and preservation of ancient texts. What began, however, as a spiritual awakening soon became institutionalised in the university, and even became associated with a certain discipline of the mind that was necessary for particular professions (as though knowing Latin and Greek somehow made one a good civil servant). Perhaps the greatest influence of the ideal of humanities was the German philologist Wilhelm von Humboldt. He redesigned the curriculum of the university of Berlin which became the template of the modern university around the world, even here in England. Central to the idea of the university for Humboldt was Bildung. This word is usually translated as ‘culture’, but it means more than that. It comes from the verb bilden, which means to ‘form’, whose earlier form the English verb ‘build’ derives. Culture, in this context, means self-formation. To study the humanities is to be on a journey of self-discovery, not just to learn about something outside of oneself, but to discover oneself. This is the tension that is at the heart of humanities. It is not enough simply to know stuff. One has to form an opinion about them that is an expression of one’s own self-development. Somehow the study of humanities makes one a better person. It develops one’s character, and this development is expressly moral.

Humanities is just as much defined as what it is not as what it is. What it is not is science. As opposed to the humanities, the object of science is not the cultural production of humans themselves but the investigation of nature. And why as no-one can agreed a common method to the study of humanities, everyone is pretty certain what scientific method is. It is the study of facts through empirical means. Moreover, not only can everyone readily agree what science is, we can also see around us the fruits of its success. Science gives us IPhones and Google. What has the humanities ever done? Science produces wealth on which the humanities are parasitical, and even the humanities student is seen as a shirker and scrounger.

Of course one only has to investigate deeper underneath the headlines to know that this absurd (you can find numerous list on the internet of famous and successful people who have studied the humanities), but that is beside the point. The prejudice against the humanities is evidence of something very real, which for some time now there has be a real crisis in the humanities and this has to do with what we now think the function of a modern university is and which has little at all to do with how Humboldt imagined it when humanities was at its heart.

I think that Bill Reading is right to say that ‘it is no longer clear what the place of the University is within society nor what the exact nature of that society is’ (Readings 1996, p.2). This is because the university is no longer tied to the idea of culture (and a national culture at that), but is increasingly seen as a corporation that is part of a trans-global network. It’s function is to produce capital and capital of a particular kind: human capital. In this context, the student is more likely to see themselves as a consumer rather than some who is on a journey of self-discovery and the object of their study is less like to some national cultural artefact (why should studying George Eliot be in any better than studying the Simpsons?). If the purpose of the contemporary university is to produce technology (sciences) and training (professional and vocational subjects), what possible place is there for the humanities? You can hear people say that they offer great transferable skills, but why should they be better than any other training, and anyway to defend them in this way, is this not already to admit to defeat?

How, then, can we defend, if it is at all possible, humanities today on its own terms, if the cultural project of the university is now over? Reading again suggests a way forward for us. Rather than justifying national and cultural identity, whether at the individual or state level, the role of the university in the era of globalisation, and more specifically humanities, is to question what it is that we value. ‘Accountants,’ he writes, ‘are not the only people capable of understanding the horizon of contemporary society, nor even the most adept at the task’ (Readings 1996, p.18). Paradoxically the ruin or crisis of the humanities might be the very reason for its salvation, but if it continues to cling to the old ideas of culture and tradition, then it will be doomed.

Bibliography

Readings, B., 1996. The university in ruins, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.


What is So Great about Work Anyway? Lecture 2

December 7, 2012

I want to start first of all with the distinction between work as a value and work as a reality. Of course all of us, unless we are independently wealthy and can live of rent, have to work to pay for our needs. We might argue what our needs might be, but without the money that we earn from our work we would have no food, no shelter, indeed no life at all.  But the reality of work is not the same as the value of work. Today work is not only seen as a reality but as the very reason for living. I do not work in order to live, but I live in order to work, and it is not sufficient simply to turn up to work and do one’s job as well as one can, but one has to believe in it, as if working were a philosophy in itself. One has to fit one’s ethics to one’s job. Work is promoted as though it were a life style rather than a necessity.

Such an valuation of work has not always been a constant in human history. The ancient Greeks, for example believed that working for others was the same as being a slave.[1] Aristotle argued that a true citizen would not work at all, but devote themselves to the practice of politics:

A state with an ideal constitution – a state which has for its members  men who are absolutely just, and not men who are merely just in relation to some particular standard  – cannot have its citizens living the life of mechanics or shopkeepers, which is ignoble and inimical to goodness. Nor can it have them engaged in farming; leisure is a necessity both for growth in goodness and for the pursuit of political activity. [Politics 1328b37-1329a.2]

The argument is not whether this is a better view of work than ours, but that it is different. This means that our view of work as a necessity for ‘growth in goodness and for the pursuit of political activity’ is equally a consequence of the society in which we live, rather than intrinsic or natural property of what is means to be human (unlike the necessity of work, which of course is), as was the ancient Greek view that work was a curse that everyone would avoid if they could.

Such a change in the value of work (that work is valued in itself and rather than just a necessity) can be seen in the role and  justification of education. Education is not seen as a process of the development of the individual, but as an investment for the sake of future earnings. Thus, employability, which is a general designation of an individual’s worth, is no longer linked to specific skills that one might learn at work or in training to work, but to education as a whole. The difference between academic and vocational abilities has been elided, not because every subject in the university has to be academic, but that every academic subject has to be vocational. This has led to a crisis in the conception of the humanities, which used to be seen as the bedrock of the university, but which now, if it is allowed to exist at all, has to defend itself as supplying skills for future employment. The idea that one would study a subject at university for its own sake is seen as laughably anachronistic.

When history repeats itself the second time it is always a farce, as Marx famously remarked about Louis Napoleon.[2] So there is no point thinking, even if we wanted to, that we could return to a time when work was not seen as the ultimate value of existence, or universities were not factories of employment. However, this does mean, from within our own time, our own reality, we simply have to accept the status quo and accept whatever value is imposed upon us. It is perfectly possible for us to rethink, for example, what a university might be for us, rather than returning to some medieval fantasy.

Noam Chomsky, in an interview, argues that there are two concepts of education (Learning without Frontiers 2012). One, what he calls the Enlightenment view, that education was a process of self-transformation, and the other, indoctrination, where the purpose of education is to instruct students in certain values that they are not meant to question or criticise. In the first case, the student is an active learner, and in the second, passive. What is particularly interesting about his comments, however, is that he places the dominant view that universities should be primarily, and for the majority, vocational on the side of indoctrination and not enlightenment. This has both a subjective and objective side. Subjectively, the student is meant to think that the only purpose of university is to get a job, and objectively, that one has to get a job to pay off the debts one has incurred by going to university in the first place (a strange kind of vicious circle that everyone takes to be commonplace).

The opposite of a vocational university, therefore is, a critical questioning university. A university whose staff and students together refuse to accept received opinion and authority. A university, like ours, which places the highest value on employment, cannot be such a university. It might allow at its margins, a different conversation or dialogue (perhaps because it has a faint memory of what another university might be), but its indulgence is precisely proof of its indifference. How else can only explain the axiom that every student, even a humanities one, must have ‘employability’ embedded in their curriculum without question or debate? As Chomsky remarks, human knowledge would not be possible without openness. So we are now faced with the paradox that our university’s primary function is not to open but to close minds, which is the very opposite of knowledge.

It is not enough, of course, to say one ought to be critical, one has to practice it as well. So what does it mean to be critical of the value of work? First of all, work, for the vast majority of people in our society, is not a form of self-expression but the opposite, and they know this in their daily lives. Again, as with education one can explain this subjectively and objectively. Subjectively, work is experienced as alienation, objectively as exploitation. When I work for another, I am selling my labour time to them as a commodity in so doing I increasingly see myself, and others see me, as a commodity that can be bought and sold. I therefore become alienated from myself as a living, breathing and complete human being who is not just a thing that has an economic price attached to their existence. This separation is everyday by the vast majority as the boredom, cynicism and anxiety of work. I am bored because work does not express my existence, I am cynical because to succeed at work means to exploit and alienate others, I am anxious because alienated from myself I feel that I have no control over my life, and the division between life and work has become increasingly blurred.

Objectively work is exploitation. This is because when working for another, I do not own the product that I produce. In a capitalist society, it is the capitalist not the worker who owns the means of production. I sell my labour time to produce the things that the capitalist sells to produce a profit. Marx argues that there are two kinds of capital, fixed and variable. Fixed (or constant) capital is the machinery and the technology, whereas variable capital is labour. The capitalist produces profit, according to Marx, through surplus value. They must pay the worker less than the product’s value in order to make a profit. The contradiction at the heart of capitalism, as the financial collapse in 2008 demonstrated, is that those who work do not have enough money to buy the products to produce the necessary level of profit except on credit that they cannot pay back.[3]

What I have just described is the classic Marxist theory of labour value. One might criticise it in terms of economic theory (Keen 2011, pp.277–99), but even it is were right economically, one might wonder whether capitalism has developed in such a way that it quite fits this model of the opposition between the worker, on one side, and the capitalist on the other. Or we might put it this way. Modern capitalism has become increasingly subjective. Rather than seeing myself as alienated and exploited by capital, I have to see myself as capital, as human capital. We can see precisely how this works in the example of education. The purpose of education is to increase my earning power. I invest in myself (either directly by paying for my education, and indirectly by forgoing earnings during the period of my education) in order than in the future I would earn a higher salary. All of us, then, to some extent, have come to see ourselves as little enterprises. We are self-entrepreneurs. The aim of society, then, is how to increase human capital, for it is only through this investment that innovation and creativity will increase and thus profits (which in turn are meant to be invested back into the accumulation of human capital). At this point, there is no division between life and capital, for any investment in life, is seen as an investment in human capital.[4]

Well if I did want to resist all this, how would I begin? One of the pressures of an ideology, if not the dominant one, is to present itself as the only reality. ‘There is no alternative’ is the refrain that we hear on many people’s lips these days, which should precisely make us be suspicious of it. One reason why we might think that this is not true is that even if capital and life have become increasingly synonymous, nonetheless capitalism or work is still parasitical on human creativity and solidarity. What we might call, following Graeber, ‘baseline communism’ (Graeber 2011, pp.94–102). Of course when we think of communism we tend to think of it the former USSR or the current China, but this isn’t what Graeber means by the word. First of all these states, even on their own terms, are not communist but socialist (indeed some might argue that they were and are not even that, but state capitalist).[5] Secondly what is at the heart of this ideological communism is a myth of the ‘common ownership and common management of collective resources’. Rather than a communism of the past that might exist again in some ideal future, Graeber argues that there is a communism that exists right now, and to some degree, we are all already communists.[6] Such a communism does not begin with the principle of collective property, but ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’. We all act of this principle, Graeber asserts, if we are involved in some ‘common project’. If we are fixing, to use his example, a broken water pipe, If I ask you to pass the wrench, then you are unlikely to ask me what you will get from it if you do so. We allocate tasks and activities by ability and need. The everyday co-operative basis of work is communist. Without co-operation and communication, how would work work? The opposite of this is the bureaucratic managerialism that stifles creativity and innovation, but even this is parasitic on what little co-operation it allows to survive.

‘Communism,’ Graeber writes, ‘is the foundation of all human sociability. It is what makes society possible’ (2011, p.96). Mostly we help each other and strangers, because we see someone in need and we have the ability to do something about it. Society pretty much has to be the edge of collapse for that not to be the case. Of course different societies have different levels of what Graeber calls ‘baseline communism’. So in an impersonal city, getting directions from a stranger might be as much as one can assume, whereas as in more personal societies, feeding and accommodating strangers would be seen as a norm. What is common to all these ‘communisms’ is that no account is taken. It would be very strange to ask for payment for opening a door for someone, or giving directions, as it would to pay for a meal amongst the Nuer (Nilotic pastoralists of southern Sudan, which Graeber uses as an example of a less impersonal society than ours), but any kind of accounting, any kind of exchange or market relation is dependent on this fundamental hospitality to the other, even though it obscures or even actively attempts to destroy it, as a virus might destroy a body that it needs to survive.

Works Cited

Applebaum, H.A., 1992. The Concept of Work: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, Albany: SUNY Press.

Desai, M., 2004. Marx’s Revenge: The Resurgence of Capitalism and the Death of Statist Socialism, Verso.

Foucault, M., 2008. The Birth of Biopolitics : Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-79, Basingstoke [England]; New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Graeber, D., 2011. Debt : the First 5,000 Years, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Melville House.

Keen, S., 2011. Debunking Economics – Revised and Expanded Edition: The Naked Emperor Dethroned? Second Revised & enlarged., London: Zed Books Ltd.

Learning without Frontiers, 2012. Noam Chomsky – The Purpose of Education, Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DdNAUJWJN08&feature=youtube_gdata_player [Accessed November 28, 2012].

Marx, K. & Engels, F., 1950. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. In Selected Works : in Two Volumes. Moscow: Foreign Languages Pub. House.

May, T., 1994. The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism, University Park, Pa: Penn State Press.


[1] ‘The artisan’s work is considered to be service to others, a form of slavery, and an activity unworthy of the truly free man.’ (Applebaum 1992, p.31)

[2] ‘Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.’ (Marx & Engels 1950, p.247)

[3] As Desai writes, ‘The truth is no capitalist will employ a worker who doesn’t produce more value than the cost of hiring him or her.’ (2004, p.65)

[4] For an account of this historical transformation of capitalism and the importance of the notion of human capital, see Foucault’s lectures The Birth of Biopolitics (Foucault 2008, pp.216–38).

[5] I am thinking here of the critique of USSR by Castoriadis who described it as ‘bureaucratic state capitalism’. Todd May, in The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism, writes a good short overview of his work (1994, pp.38–43).

[6] He also points out that there is a ‘communism of the rich’ (Graeber 2011, p.326).


Sexual Difference – Lecture 1

October 12, 2012

Freud was supposed once to have said at a party, ‘What does a woman want?’ (in German, Was will das Weib).[1] Why should we think that women would know less what they want than men do? We might want to dismiss out of hand Freud’s remark as being sexist. Obviously there are many places in Freud’s work that one could find evidence for such a thing, and this would just be one more example out of many. I don’t want to defend Freud in this regard. I would think it would be very hard for someone at that time not to be sexist, and Freud is hardly special concerning these matters. After we have made our accusations, however, there might be something more interesting to say. I am reminded of something that Adorno said about Freud that when he is his at most exaggerated that is when he is true.[2]

Why was it that most of Freud’s patients were women? Do we have to look at the answer to this question in some aspect of Freud’s personality? Is not the real answer that it is entirely unsurprising that if you were a educated women of the early 20th that you would not have been driven hysterical quite literally? The fact that Freud’s treatment room was full of women tells us nothing about women (that women are more susceptible to hysteria than men, for example), but tells us everything about the society that they lived at the time, which pretty much closed off every opportunity to them. Take for example, the patient at the heart of Freud’s first case study (though it was his friend Breuer’s patient), Anna O., whose real name was Bertha Pappenheim, who later became had a leading role in the development of German social work. Could we not say that her symptoms were caused by the world that she lived in? The real question, then, is why was this world more damaging to woman than men, and is it still so today? What then is the difference between men and women that one could be more damaged than the other?

In speaking, thinking and writing about sexual difference, you might imagine that the most important word in this expression is ‘sexual’ and not ‘difference’, since after all what we are interested in is sex. Yet, to understand the possibility of their being two kinds of sexes, one first of all has to know what kind of difference it is that you want, because this choice will determine completely how you understanding your own sexuality. There are two ways that we can think this difference. Either we think that it is real, or we think that it is symbolic. In the first case, difference is determined by nature. This is a very old idea, even though today the new language of genes and evolutionary psychology might dress it up in apparent objective and neutral discourse. The difference between men and women, then, has been laid down in 250,000 year ago when the human species first emerged, and the whole search for equality and justice between the sexes is just liberal wish fulfilment. What might make us a little sceptical about this thesis is that the behaviour of our distant ancestors, which we know very little about, just happens to be exactly the same as the prejudices of our more traditional and conservative fellow citizens. In the symbolic universe, on the contrary, it is not nature that determines the difference between the sexes, but language; that is to say, sexual differences are cultural, and if there is a biological element within sexuality, then it is moulded, shaped and transformed by social pressures and forces. This is the line that Freud takes, but we might conclude that he does not take it far enough, because he still wants to look for something universal that determines the difference between the sexes, even though it is no longer natural. Or if we want to be more precise, it is not that he stills seeks for something universal that makes his interpretation of sexual difference finally inadequate, but that he finds it in the wrong place. This is why we’re going to end with Lacan (well at least Lacan as he is reinterpreted by Zizek).

It is to Freud that we must thanks for the invention of the symbolic interpretation of sexual difference. It is in his Three Essays on Sexuality, where we first see a committed and resolute argument against a biological and natural interpretation of human sexuality, which only sees sexuality in teleological or utilitarian terms. We only have sex for the sake of something else, for procreation or serial monogamy. For Freud, on the contrary, human sexuality is highly complex and differentiated, and what we find sexuality expands well beyond any purpose or useful value, a general sexuality, which he called ‘polymorphous perversity’ (Freud 1991, p.109). To understand, however, the meaning of this perversity, we have to go back to the genesis of human sexuality. How is it that the child becomes a man or a woman, and takes on sexual difference, which is something that we are born into rather than are?

First of all, this is not primarily a biological process, although biology, of course must come into it, but an accomplishment. The key essay for us here is a much latter work of Freud’s, ‘Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes’(Freud 1991, pp.323–43). When we look at this essay in detail, we can see that there are two different series one for the girl and one for the boy. This series is not innate as such. One is not born a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’, rather one has to become one. This means that you have to live in a society, and society, as such, determines how this series works. Now Freud has a word for how this pressure of society works and it is the Phallus. It is very important not to confuse this with the Penis. The phallus is not biological, but symbolic and as we have said above what characterises human sexuality is that it is symbolic.

Of course this does not mean that there are no biological elements in human sexuality, otherwise it might be hard to imagine how we could have ended up with the difference between the sexes, but this difference is not enough by itself to explain the complexity of our sexuality (what it is to be a man or a woman), however many chimpanzees one looks at. Our biology is always interpreted through a symbolic universe which is given in advance and determines how we are going to interpret the fact that we have a penis or we do not.

It is Freud’s absolute conviction that we live in a male society. Many people will say that he is sexist, and when I tell you about his theories about human sexual development you might agree with him, but I think he is quite correct about this. We do live in a male society.[3] It is certainly the case when Freud was writing (it is no surprise, as we said right at the beginning, that nearly all his cases where women) and I think it is still the case now, even though there might have been all kinds of advancements in the meantime  in terms of the law and work. If we do live in a male society, then being born biologically a girl means that you are going to be seriously disadvantaged from the start and this drawback has nothing at all to do with biology, but how this biological destiny is interpreted. Or in Freud’s words, how the logic of the Phallus operates on ones sexual development.

Let is then see how Freud himself explains how one becomes a boy or a girl; that is to say, how one ends up fulfilling one’s destiny and become what one already was. First of all let us take the series of the little boy. At the earliest stage of the child’s relation to the parents, which Freud calls the ‘phallic phase’, there is no distinction between the sexes. This is because what determines one’s sexual identity is the object of ones desire and it is clear that both the girl and the boy have the same object which is the mother (or more precisely the mother’s breast). For the little girl, however, to become a woman, she has to change her object of desire from her mother to her father. The explanation of this transformation is given by what Freud calls the ‘masculine ideal’. It is this ideal which gives to the physical differences of the sexes their negative and positive significance and explains the divergence in their development: from the phallic to the Oedipal phase to the castration complex and its dissolution for the little boy; from the phallic phase to penis envy to the Oedipal complex for the little girl.

What one has to understand, however, is that none of this makes sense without the masculine ideal being in operation from the very start. It is this ideal which ensures that the development of the two series is divergent, and at one end we end up with the little girl and at the other the little boy. For why would the little girl feel different in this way unless she did not measure herself against the masculine ideal? Now such an idealisation cannot be made sense of biologically. Sure there is a difference between the sexes, but that is not sufficient to explain why having a penis is a good thing and not having one is bad. The possibility of such a structure of idealisation is not to found in our bodies but in language, and how it structures already our experience of them, and how the little girl experiences her body as lacking something which then affects the rest of her psychological development.

It is Freud’s disciple Lacan who, following the teaching of the French linguist Saussure, who showed that this process of the sexual differentiation depended entirely on the structure of language and not on biological fate. For Lacan, Saussure’s fundamental discovery was that language was divided between the function of the signifier and the signified. The signifier being the word itself and the signified what the word represented or signified. Such a difference is not important in itself, but the realisation that the signifier can operate without the signified. It is this separation of the two aspects of language that explains the possible existence of the ideal which can structure our experience.

No one more than the Slovenian philosophy Slavoj Zizêk has explained more clearly how this split works and the example he gives is the ordinary coke bottle (Zizek 1989, p.96). How is it that this object, when I look at it, somehow represents the ideal of America? Common sense tells us that the idea of America is first, and then this idea is somehow ‘symbolised’ by the coke bottle. This is to interpret the relation between the two elements however after the relation has been constructed. It is not an explanation of how it is created, for it is clear that it is the coke bottle, which is the origin of the idea of America and not the other way around by capturing something that is rather hazy and ill-defined into a definite object which then can pin this picture of the ideal of the American life down for us. It is not, of course, the properties of Coke which make it this symbol, for there is no reason that such a strange tasting liquid should do that; rather it is its formal function. In this instance, the coke bottle (and it does not have to this object, it could have been anything else), is operating as a pure signifier. It is a kind of like an empty box in which we can project our fantasy of what America is and which can then organise and consolidate this reality. It isn’t that the coke bottle signifies the American ideal, because it could not exist without it; rather it is the place through which this ideal is produced. It is precisely because it doesn’t mean anything, that it is ‘it’, as the advertisement goes, that it can act as the empty signifier through which the idea of America can be coalesced.

The masculine ideal operates in exactly the same way as the coke bottle. There is nothing empirical about the male sex that would make it ideal. Rather masculinity has to go through a process of idealisation through which it can then be translated into a norm by which the status of the two sexes can be measured, the one as positive and the other as negative. Although there is something fixed about sexual differences there is nothing stable about the ideal which fixes our fantasies. One day the coke bottle could just be a container for a strange tasting brown liquid, and nothing else. And equally the male sex may no longer occupy the space of the ideal from which the development of the two sexes is measured. The ideal space is precisely empty. Anything can occupy it, so that one might imagine in the future, for example, a feminine ideal, where the little boy would experience himself as mutilated rather than the little girl. What then is universal is not the masculine ideal, as such, but the ideality which language make possible.

Works Cited

Adorno, T.W., 2010. Minima Moralia : Reflections on a Damaged Life, London: Verso.

Elms, A.C., 2001. Apocryphal Freud: Sigmund Freud’s Most Famous “Quotations.” In J. A. Winer et al., ed. Sigmund Freud and his Impact on the Modern World. New York: Routledge, pp. 83–104.

Freud, S., 1991. On Sexuality : Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Other Works A. Richards & J. Strachey, eds., London: Penguin Books.

Graeber, D., 2011. Debt : the First 5,000 Years, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Melville House.

Zizek, S., 1989. The Sublime Object of Ideology, London; New York: Verso.


[1] According to Freud’s biographer Ernst Jones, he was supposed to have said this to Marie Bonaparte who was a patient of his, though this phrase never appears in his work or his diaries (Elms 2001, pp.84–8).

[2] What he actually wrote is ‘In psychoanalysis nothing is true except the exaggerations’ (Adorno 2010, p.49).

[3] Anthropologists tell us that there have been examples of female societies in the past, but they have long since disappeared with the rise of agriculture and the state (Graeber 2011, pp.176–82).