Alain Badiou – “Sex in Crisis” in The Century

Against Subjectivation and Signification: Alain Badiou’s “Sex in Crisis”

In the book, The Century, in which this article “Sex in Crisis” is included, Alain Badiou analyzes the twentieth century by asking whether the past century has reached to the historical stage where our essential values and ideas such as humanity and freedom are fully developed and progressed and how that century has encountered and resisted the previous century’s ideologies, producing and posing its own questions and problems. From this perspective, this article begins by asking “whether, in the twentieth century, one has touched on sex”(68). Badiou thinks that psychoanalysis can “tell us what has happened to us in terms of sex,” because it is claimed that “human sexuality has been thought and transformed in such a way that a new promise of existence opens up before”(68) through the lens of psychoanalysis. Thus Badiou wants to diagnose the way through which psychoanalysis encountered the sexual and then narrated the new forms of subjectivity, by commenting on Freud’s four case histories.

What can Dora’s hysteria case give us in thinking about the sexuality in the twentieth century? First of all, it is Frued’s courage and audacity to confront the sexual as such or the real of the sexual that should be acknowledged: “The singularity of Freud’s approach is that the face-to-face with the sexual is not of the order of knowledge, but of the order of naming or intervention – to ‘be discussed with all possible frankness’”(71). The novelty of psychoanalysis lies in the fact that it directly – vis-à-vis – encounters with the sexual without any interference of knowledge. Moreover, by the objective naming and by claiming to have “a more modest role than that of the gynaecologist”(72), Freud heralded the “autonomy of feminine sexuality.” Female hysteric and neurosis is no longer regarded as a witch or the result of sorcery but as an independent subject who narrates her own story. In the case of Dora, we can witness how a young and intellectual woman seeks to liberate herself from the repressive social convention and familial structure and even to resists against Freud’s interpretation.

While the Dora’s case history and Freud’s psychoanalysis of hysteria was a symptomatic event through which woman could be registered as an emerging subjectivity in the early twentieth century, the case of Little Hans, who suffered from the animal phobia, might be an example of how children’s subjectivity was constituted by asserting the existence of their sexuality. That is to say, Freud finds the “polymorphous perversity” in the infantile neurosis and regards it as an evidence that “childhood is the scene of the constitution of the subject in and by desire, in and by the exercise of the pleasure linked to the representations of object”(75). According to this logic, childhood is not an innocent and angelic period but “a golden age for sexual experimentation in all its forms”(75). Thus today we universally recognize the rights of the child and decree that the child has the same rights as a man. However, it is not to say that the child’s sexuality and its complicity with adult’s sexual exploitation are permissible or should be punished. Rather, Badiou points out that the child’s sexuality is in danger not only from the pedophiles but also from the “pathogenic structure of the family”(76). Although we contemporaries think that we know all about the childhood and child’s sexual desire, we even cannot explain how its fantasy is constructed in the familial system. As Freud understands Little Hans’s phobic symptom through the mechanisms of displacement and externalization of his castration anxiety, we can just glimpse of the partial economy of desire.

In the similar respect, as Freud sees in Judge Schreber’s paranoia, “homosexuality is only one of components of generic sexuality”(76). The object of desire is not naturally determined but “the result of a long and fortuitous construction” in the process of acculturation. How can we find the cause of Schreber’s fantasy of “conquering the place of the Father’s woman” or “becoming the sexual object of God”(77) at all? As Freud already knew and Deleuze and Guattari have once noted, “desire is a machine, and the object of desire is another machine connected to it”(AO 26). That is to say, there is no fixed object of desire and also there is no direct link between the homosexual fantasy and madness as our predecessors thought. But can we say that we are liberated from the universal reduction of desire and “the resistances of ‘normality’” (77) against the liberation of desire?

From the case of the Wolf-Man, Badiou extracts Freud’s encounter with “a second wave of resistance to psychoanalysis”(78). Freud felt that there was the attempt to spiritualize the direct confrontation with the sexual, making it only a cultural phenomenon. Above all, it was the “hermeneutic ploy” that tried to articulate “desire and its object back to a meaning that is pre-constituted in culture, mythology, or religion”(78). According to Badiou, Freud fought against the idea that dynamic of desire could be interpreted as and reduced into the cultural archetypes. This desire’s struggle against the signification process was also that against religion – religion which spiritualized the sexual relation by “forcing it to signify”(79). There is no relation between sexual discourse and morality, and there is no sexual relation, as Lacan once said.

In this new century, is sex still in crisis, anyway? As Freudian psychoanalysis was based on the sexual crisis and struggled against every attempt to reincorporate desire into the process of acculturation, though we do not need to be courageous to keep struggling, at least we should realize that the sexual is nothing but what subsists in crisis. Today we have an impression as if all kinds of “new modalities of sexualized subjectivation”(79) is possible, but as Badiou thinks, we should see something is behind this “mandatory enjoyment.” Moreover, as Freud’s case histories show, it is not matter of whether the subject of desire is a woman or a child. What we have to learn from the Freudian revolution in the twentieth century is the importance of the process of de-subjectivation in which sex can be freed from pre-established meanings and imperative enjoyment, provided by commercialism and manufactured hedonism in the twenty-first century. Let sex be in crisis!

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