For many French people, the spring of 2022 calls to mind the forthcoming presidential elections and the threat posed by certain political movements that claim to ensure the reign of homogeneity of jouissances. Beyond France and the springtime it is preparing for, this threat now hangs over the entire democratic world. And I would like the title of our next WAP congress to be a hole in the horizon of the spring to come.
Woman does not exist. What precisely does this statement by Lacan tell us? And in what way does it pierce the horizon? This is what we will see here by questioning each of the terms of this minimal proposition.
Firstly, let’s note that just as negative theology apprehends God from what he is not, so it seems a priori easier to say what the feminine is not than what it is. The feminine is thus a matter of a jouissance that is beyond meaning, unlimited, unspeakable. It is situated in excess of phallic jouissance and makes a hole in semblances. The feminine is thus neither sensible, nor limited, nor sayable; it does not proceed from phallic jouissance and is not a semblance. But the feminine is not reducible to femininity either – an abstract notion in which every woman is supposed to participate unless she is not yet or no longer a woman. If femininity thus designates the essence of the woman, that is to say what existent women participate in, or those that have existed, or are only likely to exist, the feminine designates rather the reality of a jouissance that exists, without being able to be attributed to any essence.
The woman does not exist, Lacan tells us. Where everyone has their own more or less private version of what a woman is, Lacan exhibits a deletion covering the The of ‘the woman’. This erasure points out that the definite article the, is not appropriate in front of the word Woman, because, as its status as a definite article indicates, The is supposed to introduce a definition, itself dependent on an essence of the woman. However, there is precisely no relation between the diversity of existent women on theone hand, and on the other, a definition of which they would be susceptible, neither all together, nor even one by one.
This does not mean that one cannot distinguish a woman from a man, or a little girl, nor a fortiori, from a panther, a flower or a stone (even a precious one). This means that what is revealed about a woman in the analytic discourse – since this is what Lacan is giving an account of – what is most essential is precisely not susceptible to any essentialisation, and therefore, to any collectivisation. If there is no more definition of woman than there is essence of woman, it is because women, at this point where the feminine inhabits them, do not coincide with themselves. What would they therefore have in common with other women? Perhaps only this: they are all irremediably singular and this to the point that any attempt to determine their essence is in vain.
There is no essence of woman, then, because there is no woman who is all woman, no woman who coincides completely with herself, each of the existent women testifies more to her difference than to any participation in Femininity. From then on, what we call “feminine” is precisely this non-coincidence between a subject and the raw and real jouissance that inhabits her.
This being said, several questions immediately arise. Let us consider two of them. This proposal, Woman does not exist, concerns women, of course. What [quid] then about men? The question arises all the more because, if Lacan discovers feminine or Other jouissance with women, Jacques-Alain Miller indicates that he will soon make it the regime of jouissance as such. Woman does not exist can therefore also be expressed in these terms: The Man does not exist, at least insofar as men are also concerned by this hiatus, between what they are and outside-of-meaning jouissance with which they are dealing.
This being the case, taking the proposition ‘Woman does not exist’ seriously, and taking it in its original sense – with The Woman in the place of a grammatical subject – maintains a crucial reference to the clinic and to the role that women – not all of them, by the way – have played in the Lacanian theory of jouissance. This theory clearly owes a lot to women since it is with them that Other jouissance first appears to Lacan. Is it not because they bear witness to it more and better than others? And if not, why would Lacan have first qualified it as ‘feminine’, even if only transitorily? In fact, women occupy an eminent place in the history of psychoanalysis: Freud discovered the unconscious by listening to women and Lacan discovered Other jouissance by also listening to women. This gives us an indication of the case that both made of the speech of women at a time when it was not so common. But is it by chance that it is with women that the former discovers the unconscious, when it is also with them that the latter discovers Other jouissance? Nothing is less certain.
We may be told that the world has changed since the 1970s. And that is a fact. But what women testified to 50 years ago, do men and women testify in the same way today? With the passage of time, will it be discovered that men are finally women like any other? Not certain either.
Among the most sensitive mutations of our time, let us mention these gendered identities which are perhaps all the more affirmed by some (and others), as they are also more labile than they ever were. So what do those who call themselves women tell us, whatever essence they assume the woman to be? Don’t cis people, but also trans people, as well as those who feel themselves to be neither male nor female, or alternately one and the other, or both at the same time, indicate to us that since woman does not exist, there is nothing to prevent her from finding a correlate in being?
Does not exist
Hence the second of the two questions that impose: is it not precisely because Woman does not exist that she aspires to being? In fact, each one has their own idea of what a woman is in the register of being: a housewife for some, a woman of power for others, feminine or virile, blonde or brunette, married, a mother, single, independent or submissive, intelligent or foolish, cultured or ignorant, beautiful or rebellious, the bearer of a discreet or immediately identifiable trait – the list could be endless – such is the femininity of a woman. Each person can therefore define woman as he or she pleases in the register of being, and from there, claim to embody it, aspire to embody it or, on the contrary, refuse to do so. But this essence does not actually refer to anything that exists. What exists, rather, is the feminine jouissance that makes each woman not-all, Other forever in her jouissance, and in this way irreducible to this or that specific trait of her person and her supposed identity.
In order to grasp the profundity of the proposition that is the theme of our next Congress, we are undoubtedly invited to distinguish between the registers of existence and of being – a distinction that Jacques-Alain Miller’s 2010-2011 Course allows us to precisely make. From the perspective he gives us, Woman does not exist can be read by detaching each of the five terms of the proposition, allowing us to trace the contours of an inexistence.
Woman does not exist – this assertion is opposed to identity claims of all kinds. It is opposed to these normative groups proliferating nowadays and which assert themselves in order to better compete with and oppose each other; it is also opposed to these historical ideological groups, purporting to impose themselves on the greatest number of people in order to take a single step towards the unification of modes of jouissance on a national scale. Where rigid groups claim to reign on a more or less large scale, their only destiny is to be more or less radically opposed to that which is excluded from them. The contemporary promotion of the alls thus forces us to consider the feminine or not-all as more subversive than ever, and in this way necessary. Woman does not exist – this proposition is related to the object it addresses: it makes a hole, especially in totalitarian discourses. In doing so, it lights a lamp for us that extends to the horizon of spring 2022, and beyond.
Translation by Raphael Montague