The Social Instance of the Woman

The Woman does not exist” Lacan professes, but women exist, that is why one can say they are countable and not innumerable. They have less to do with the homogeneous crowd than with the singular ex-sistence of each one. But, if one supposes a universal of The Woman, would the symbolic function of language not fall back upon a purely signifying binarism and a reduction to an imaginary idealisation of the man and the woman, each with its capital letter? Is it not, strictly speaking, a path that would lead to a form of racism, due to the separating power of the difference between male and female bodies in the animal kingdom? In an attempt to erase this reduction, some, such as Judith Butler have introduced the notion of “gender identity” by which sex is apparently transcended and chosen. In this elaboration, sex is conceived as being an object of an a posteriori appropriation, “a gendered metaphor”. Thus, there would be between sexed beings, contrary to the hazardous laws of nature, an infinite declension of possibilities left to the choice of each. The latter, by virtue of a logic of contiguity, would secure each difference which from then on becomes identity. Thus, what could have been experienced, until then, by some transsexuals as a “mistake of nature” is refuted, since there is no longer, in terms of sex, anything of nature at all. For this same reason whoever is not trans is classified cis: sex in this case does not make, it no longer makes, a hole in the symbolic and tends to produce the sexual relation, of which there is not. In fact, a social transformation of mores is on the move. This movement of resignification of the world arose against the backdrop of the “rising to the social zenith of the object […] a[1]” and the fall of ideals and began in “Californian gay and lesbian circles”.

We are thus led to question this movement, in its metonymic, unlimited, dimension, starting from feminine jouissance.

With Lacan, sexual difference is reduced neither to anatomy nor to legal construction, it is a matter of the mode of jouissance that exceeds them because of the subject of the unconscious, of the parlêtre. Hysteria demonstrates a certain relation to the phallus and man is not excluded from the feminine We will not speak here of feminisation in psychosis, which is of another order. Thus, Lacan characterises feminine jouissance as being not outside the phallus but exceeding it, as supplementary. It is supplementary because a woman does not inscribe herself entirely, she is not all, in the phallic norm and because of this fact modifies the phallic measure.  Is this not what Lacan says, as if in passing? – that woman enjoys a greater relation to freedom: “If I had to locate the idea of freedom somewhere, it would obviously be in a woman that I would embody it”. Is this not what brings her closer to the act? – “more at ease in the place of the unconscious”, that in which the position of the analyst is on the feminine side, the act being freed up therein. Lacan could say as well that women are the best psychoanalysts and also the worst. One can easily guess why: they are so on the one hand whenever they ‘play’ the man or the law; and on the other hand, when the freedom which has not yet passed through castration reinforces its mastery, since they do it even more, in body [plus encore, en corps].

As early as the sixties, Lacan had interrogated, by way of feminine sexuality, the question of surpassing the limits, particularly the limits of the intimate, to the extent that this marks society: “Lastly, why does the social instance of woman remain transcendent to the contractual order propagated by labor? And in particular is the status of marriage maintained by its effect, despite the decline of paternalism?”[2] From the outset, Lacan does not invoke the retreat of a nostalgic regression but a surpassing. The word to remember here, the pivot of the sentence, is undoubtedly the reference to transcendence, which already implies a beyond of self [un au-delà de soi]. Is it not this transcendence that has led from the so-called marriage of reason to the marriage of love right up to the marriage for all, beyond its traditionally heterosexual conception?

In this text, Lacan does not yet have the formulae of sexuation that will allow him to identify, in Seminar XX in particular, feminine jouissance. It is by way of a journey through homosexuality – understood in a broad sense, where sexual practice is contingent – that he seeks and traces the path of this jouissance. So, he begins by examining and differentiating male homosexuality from female homosexuality, based on the difference in their modes of jouissance. In relation to male homosexuality, Lacan takes the example of Catharism, a heretical movement that developed in France in the Middle Ages. Community life was governed by so-called pure laws which, in order to avoid procreation, required their members to go about in same-sex pairs (based on the principle of master/disciple), hence the homosexual coloration of their bonds. Lacan detects in these ascetic behaviours, circumscribed, prescribed and defined, the putting into play of “a kind of entropy exerting itself towards the community degradation”.[3]

On the side of feminine homosexuality, what is illustrated, according to Lacan, by the movement of the Précieuses, is feminine jouissance as infinitised, that which is “non-localisable” and which presents itself “according to an erotomaniac mode”. Feminine jouissance has, beyond the screen of fantasy, a relation to A, thus directly to the barred A. That freedom of which Lacan speaks is attached to it and grants it affinity to the sinthome. From then on, this jouissance goes further than its properly sexualised, or simply sublimated, dimension; it touches the whole of society where its function is manifested in act, a function which Lacan “has generalized to the point of making it the regime of jouissance […] as such”.[4] All those who, exceeding the limits, touch upon language, upon civilization, and modify them are not therefore without being marked by femininity. We can see – Lacan points this out in this chapter – that this feminine jouissance goes in a direction opposite to that of community entropy, as “the movement of the Précieuses”[5]demonstrates. This movement, the party of a few aristocratic women who also wanted to improve mores, established rules, but rules of discourse, those of a new discourse on love. A love purified, idealised, elaborated in language. Thus was it expressed, in the rooms of these ladies or in the intimacy of the alleyways, through those poetic metaphors, invented and reinvented unceasingly, where beauty served tenderness and distanced the trivial, the common. Each one makes herself heard without aiming at the all. On the contrary, it is a fireworks display of singular finds. The phallus that centres jouissance on the object is indefinitely pushed back to the horizon in favour of language modifications. “They are not likely to take the phallus for a signifier” that they defy or replace: “O fie, fie, fie! O fie, phi, signi-Φ !” it is “the Ecce homo”.[6] “It is only by breaking up the signifier at the level of its letter that one gets to the bottom of it with its final term.”[7] But they don’t see this jouissance, that’s what puts an end to this very personalised movement that constitutes neither a school nor an institution, even if a very large number of their expressions have infiltrated the language, have enriched it and still persist. Their extremely colourful formulae, detaching the letter from the imaginary, have merged into our daily speech, the word escapes me [le mot me manque], to have wit [avoir de l’esprit], or when one is surprised, les bras m’en tombent[8]. They have also contributed to the simplification of spelling. Finally, the first modern novel, The Princess of Cleves with its value of introspection, the theme of love, written by Madame de La Fayette, plunges its roots into préciosité.

The transcendance of which Lacan speaks finds its place in this gap, in this refusal of arrangements, conventions, semblants, in this reference to something Other. This is to say that women do not confuse the father and the Other to which they aspire according to the fantasy of the hysteric. The latter distinguishes herself from the woman through inscribing on the horizon the signifier that  nevertheless falls short in saying it, signifier of The Woman who thenceforth becomes a myth, a myth to come. But a myth has no temporality. A myth then, which is jouissance of an Other order, starting from which the world is susceptible to be remodelled. A jouissance this time “not interdicting” with its part not “taken up in the interdiction/recuperation system”.[9]

Jacques-Alain Miller indicates this: “It is situated in relation to something other than the limit of the masculine universal that the function of the father is”. A question then emerges: what is the involvement of the status of belief in this regime of jouissance? This beyond of feminine jouissance, although it is a matter of singularity, does not fall into cynicism or epicureanism, but contributes to maintain a function of creative value, no less civilising [civilisatrice] without prejudging its positive or negative value. This jouissance, even if she cannot say anything about it, a woman experiences it, she lives it and therefore she believes in it, she testifies to it; on occasion, this gives her a certain pragmatism, a being there [être là]. The Lacanian equivocation makes itself heard: “all woman are mad” but “not all, that’s to say, not all mad”.[10]

The philosophy of “gender identity” initiated by Judith Butler does not contradict this definition. Although it deals with the body, with individual feeling, it goes beyond, in its civilizational aim, as soon as it penetrates the language that it wants to be inclusive. But it postulates that alleach of the existing lives should be included in a systematic exhaustion where, desubjectivised, it is fragmented. This infinitised progression goes against the desired aim and brings it back to the discourse of the master, “to the inflexible sociologism”, tending towards the worst and not beyond the father, the dimension that it works to destroy by designating patriarchy. Therefore, this movement remains “completely blind […] to what is involved in feminine jouissance[11]” starting from which it nevertheless began in the name of a love and of a desire for universal recognition in a madness of the All.

Translation by Joanne Conway and Samya Seth


[1] Lacan J., Radiophonie, Scilicet 2/3, Paris. Seuil, 1970, pp. 55.99. First published as « Radiophonie », Autres écrits, Paris, Seuil, 2001, p. 414. 

[2] Lacan J., Guiding remarks for a Convention on female sexuality, ÉcritsThe First Complete Edition in English, tr. B. Fink, Norton & Co., 2006, p. 620.

[3] Ibid

[4] Miller J.-A., « La jouissance féminine n’est-elle pas la jouissance comme telle ? », Quarto, n°122, juillet 2019, p. 11.

[5] Lacan J., Guiding remarks for a Convention on female sexuality, op. cit., p. 620.

[6] Lacan J., The Seminar, book XIX, … or Worse. Tr. A.R. Price, Polity Press, 2018, p. 9.

[7] Ibid.

[8] [TN]: To be so astounded as to have one’s arms fall off, i.e. to be momentarily unable to act.

[9] Miller J.-A., « Progrès en psychanalyse assez lents », La Cause freudienne, n°78, June, 2011, p. 205.

[10] Lacan J., Television. A Challenge to the Psychoanalytic Establishment, ed. Joan Copjec, Norton, 1990, p. 40 (translation modified). 

[11] Lacan J., The Seminar, book XIX, or Worse,  op. cit., p. 17.