Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

54: Slavoj Žižek part IV:
There Is No Sexual Relationship

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         We saw last time that women, or more precisely people of the type 'woman,' who internalizes the invasion of the ethical on the phallic economy, do not exist except as the fantasy projection of men. In his essay “Courtly Love, or Woman as Thing,” Žižek continues his analysis of male projection fantasies concerning women specificity in the notion of courtly love.
         While today courtly love is considered out of date, the fact is that the logic of courtly love is still very much in vogue (Q1). Žižek views courtly love as a lover (the subject) raising the beloved (the object) to the level of a universal ideal while at the same time taking away all substance from him or her. Some examples are the knight with his lady, a masochist with his dominatrix, a Christian with Jesus, a Catholic with the Virgin Mary, and a standard modern husband working for his wife (or family). (Q2). What is the benefit (sinthome: the unconscious pleasure) of this type of relationship? The beloved stands for the Thing (an incestuous maternal object) which is too horrible to deal with. The beloved is a fetish that tames the power of the Thing in our lives and gives the lover the feeling of (and sometimes actual) control of the situation (Q3). Žižek claims, “...the elevation of woman to the sublime object of love equals her debasement into the passive stuff or screen for the narcissistic projection of the male ego-ideal...” (Q4). The two down sides for Žižek are that 1) the woman type (only woman types can fulfill the beloved role in courtly love) are provided with all the cues, actions, and reactions of a purported femininity that is not her own but rather the fantasy of men (Q5). 2) the tendency in the modern world to view relationships as voluntary contracts between equals makes the differences and inequalities Real: this results in reintroducing inequality by contract: a more oppressive and legitimized form (Q6).
         In his essay “There is No Sexual Relationship,” Žižek further explains his notion of a fundamental unbridgeable Real gap in the relations of men and women and how we deal with it. Humans experience the greatest fulfillment in their lives at a very early age: in the Garden of Eden like first year of life while being breast fed. Many, but not all experiences, during this time are associated with the greatest and happiest of sensations. Partial objects (the child has not yet learned to associate the parts) become attached to good and happy feelings. Among these are breasts, faeces etc. but most important the voice and the gaze (Q7).
         These partial objects and all other fetishes are originally pleasurably experienced as simple and disembodied objects resulting in the continued wish, the continued fantasy, for that simpler time (Q8). However these partial objects are attached to real people who are also engaged in the same wishes and fantasies resulting in an unbridgeable gap between all people. If you accept the existence of this unbridgeable gap, the result according to Lacan and Žižek is continual strife with attempts at domination and demands for sacrifice (Q9).
         Žižek then use Kierkegaard's three stages of existence (the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious) to elucidate the three ways sexual (and by extension all types of) relationships must fail to be fulfilling. In the first, the aesthetic stage, the Casanova, one is gallivanting around in the spontaneous pursuit of delights (Q10). In the second, the ethical stage, the married person, sacrifices the unbridled pursuit of spontaneous delights by submitting to a universal rule and the restriction to seek delights only with the rules that come with the universal rule's duty (Q11). In the final stage, the religious stage, one gives up all the delights of physical contact in exchange for the freedom to avoid all the pit falls and negatives that come with that kind of relationship (Q12).
         These three stages come with different mixes of conscious and unconscious pleasure. Conscious pleasure decrease as you move from the first to the last but unconscious pleasure increases. I think Žižek believes that the ethical stage is the most likely to bring us closest to fulfillment but it never will.
         Q1 What do you understand by the term “courtly love”?
         Q2 Central to courtly love is the strict performance of tasks set up (often unconsciously) by the lover to prevent him from getting any closer to (or intimate with) the beloved. Is the tasks and the distance really set up by the lover? A knight is not supposed to sleep with his beloved nor a masochist with his domme. Christians of all kinds happily believe that they will not have to actually meet their beloved (courtly lover) until after death (if at all). Is courtly love really about avoiding intimacy as one example of the Thing?
         Q3 Is the lover, who follows the orders of his beloved, really in control? Is there really a joy and pleasure in following the arbitrary commands of another? Does Žižek's explanation really explain chivalry, masochism and religious devotions?
         Q4 Is having distant but devoted lover who treats you like a god or goddess and hangs on every word you say really a debasement? Do you want to be in such a position? What is the down side?
         Q5 Do women have more social pressure to be feminine than man have to be masculine? Do women accept men's judgments about themselves more than men accept women's judgments about men? It is easy to say what masculinity is about without reference to women; but what would a woman's femininity (a femininity uninfluenced by male fantasy) be like?
         Q6 There are differences between all people; especially between men and women, but in the modern world it is often unfashionable to point out the differences. Is it true that some differences are unspeakable? Then when we demand contract equality between unequals (such as in strength requirements for being a soldier or fireman) we discriminate against women; or when we demand that unequals be treated equally (as in affirmative action) we institutionalize injustice. Žižek claims that most of us enjoy this state of affairs because it allows us to avoid dwelling on the Real differences between men and women. Do we get a certain pleasure in saying things like: “those are the rules,” or “that's the law,” in spite of any injustice and inequality that may be perpetrated?
         Q7 Are people really fascinated with breasts (men obviously but women too as the popularity of breast augmentation surgery suggests), faeces (consider the hilarious popularity of bathroom humor), making eye contact, a sexy voice due to the earliest of associations? Or does evolutionary biology provide a better explanation?
         Q8 We often objectify people. Even our language does it (for example: someone may ask 'How many hands are on the job?' or 'How many minds are on the problem?'). It does make life simpler but Lacan and Žižek point out that we often make things more complex and more difficult for ourselves (as most psychological symptoms demonstrate); so simplification can not be the best explanation. In cases where simplification seems to be the motive it is in fact pleasure. Does this explanation fit with your understanding or do you believe in the simplification thesis? Is there a better explanation?
         Q9 Do you believe there is an unbridgeable gap between everyone in all things resulting from the differences that arise from the projected fantasies of each person? Or can there ever really be perfect understanding, communication, love etc.? Are we doomed to a life of continual strife, disagreements and misunderstandings – or is this an exciting idea?
         Q10 Is a life spent seeking spontaneous pleasure fulfilling? Why or why not?
         Q11 Married life is often a goal of people but with it comes a certain loss of opportunity – an opportunity for a potentially more fulfilling life. It is often thought that everything has trade offs. If this is the case then fulfillment is impossible and all we actually strive for is the best combinations of trade offs for ourselves. Is it possible to be fulfilled (as opposed to content with “the best” trade off in a situation) by giving something up? Žižek claims that belief in a possible fulfillment, it is just your little fantasy. What if he is right?
         Q12 Is the renunciation of a part of life ever fulfilling. A martyr, a hermit or a celibate has made this renunciation. Are they really fulfilled or is is their renunciation of cardinal pleasure the best trade off in their case?
         Q13 Do you think marriage is the best option for most people – or is that his fantasy?

© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren