Sexual position and intersectional feminism: a Lacanian reading of the current tensions in Spanish feminism

Alicia Valdés

The tensions within the different feminist currents present in the Spanish state are not unknown to the public. From the clear rupture between trans-inclusive and trans-excluding feminism, a rupture that goes beyond the purely social to disrupt the pact between Unidas Podemos and the PSOE through the creation, repeatedly blocked by the PSOE, of the Trans Law—going through the rupture between abolitionist feminism and that which advocates for the labour and fundamental rights of sex workers. A rupture increasingly visible and violent after the acceptance of the new law of ‘Only yes is yes’ that removes the ability to consent to sex workers. This article seeks to shed light on how Lacan can help us articulate an intersectional theory by introducing the idea of sexual position when articulating the political subject of feminism.

Introduction

More than three decades ago, Elizabeth Grosz pointed out the importance that Lacan could have for the feminist movement when she stated that “[f]eminists interested in questions of subjectivity, knowledge, and desire can afford to ignore Lacan’s work at their peril” (Grosz, 1990).  Many Lacanian feminists who have developed the articulation between Lacanian theory and feminism have done so around the notion of the Lacanian Symbolic. For Teresa Brennan, the Symbolic can be defined as what

[…] places human beings in relation to others, and gives them a sense of their place in the world, and the ability to speak and be understood by others. It does this by enabling them to distinguish themselves from others, and through establishing a relation to language (1989, p. 2).

The use of language as a link is what Lacan defines as discourse, for Lacan, discourse is 

[…] a link between those who speak. You can immediately see where we are headed—It’s not just anyone who speaks, of course; it’s beings, beings we are used to qualify as “living”, and it would, perhaps, be rather difficult to exclude the dimension of life from those who speak (1998, p. 30).

Following Lacan, we could then affirm that the capacity to speak does not guarantee entry into discourse, but rather that it is the condition of ‘living’ that guarantees the speaking subject the ability to enter into the bond that discourse presupposes. This small point leads us to observe a profound ontological difference that stems from the subject’s status around discourse. Judith Butler has developed extensively in her work the difference between living and livable lives and those that are not (Butler, 2004, 2009). Following her logic of argumentation, we could affirm that specific lives, not being qualified as living or livable, fall outside the link established by discourse. However, what is the reason for this expulsion of non-livable lives from the discourse? We could answer this question by means of the well-known maxim Caesar dominus et supra grammaticam, which leads us to understand that the production of discourse is purely relational and takes place between unequal power relations. These power relations unequally distribute ontological statuses between those lives worth living and mourning once they are over and those that are not. Nevertheless, who has the power in the production of discourse? 

If we return to the analysis of the Symbolic, we find that language comes marked by a Master Signifier (MS) that intervenes in a battery of signifiers producing knowledge and meaning in what Lacan defined as the Master’s Discourse(Lacan, 1998). The feminist approach to this analysis would be to understand that the MS that structures the intervention is masculine. This intervention produces the appearance of a patriarchal Symbolic. However, as Teresa Brennan reminds us, “[…] one can conceive of a symbolic that is not patriarchal. The real problem is that the symbolic in Lacan makes it seem that patriarchy is inevitable” (1989, p. 3). Brennan claims that the patriarchal nature of the Symbolic lies in the social value that men acquire. 

In short, the symbolic’s patriarchal nature relies in part on the coincident meeting of two intervening “third terms”: language, and the structural position of third party, currently occupied by a man. The man occupies this position in an arrangement where women take primary care of children. But he also occupies it in a social context in which men are valorized (1989, p. 3).

Following Brennan’s logic, we could affirm that if a woman occupied the structural position of the third party, we would find ourselves before a feminine Symbolic. That is to say, if the MS intervening in the battery of signifiers were the feminine signifier, we could subvert the patriarchal nature of the Symbolic. However, what is woman? What is feminine? Could a feminine Symbolic generate a discourse in which all lives are livable? 

Towards a non-patriarchal Symbolic

The battle for the imposition of the MS intervening in the battery is the ultimate example of the battle for hegemony. Through this intervention, the MS comes to govern the structure of the Master’s Discourse and allows the emergence of the subject since, as Lacan says, it is precisely through this discourse that the barred subject appears (2007, p. 15). If hegemony is, as Mouffe and Laclau (2001) assert, the imposition of a particularity as universal, the battle for the MS of the Master’s Discourse is the battle for the hegemony that establishes which subjects can be political subjects. However, for intersectional feminism, which does not place gender as the central axis of oppression in the intricate system of oppressions that patriarchy entails, the struggle for the establishment of the MS implies a contradiction. As María Liliana Ottaviano rightly points out in her article ‘Women: political subjects in the Lacanian left’[i] the feminism that is symptomatic of politics is a ‘[f]eminism that does not claim to be a universal but is willing to accommodate all diversity and dissent in terms of sex, gender and decisions’ (Ottaviano, 2019). In other words, to be a symptom of the political, to make visible the malaise and the constant contradiction of neoliberalism with life, feminism must not place itself in the struggle for hegemony but hold a different battle. For hegemony entails the creation of new frameworks of understanding. These frames, as Laclau explains, possess non-neutral limits that imply the appearance of antagonistic relations between those who reside outside the frames (they) and who inhabits those frames (we), which implies the appearance of the Schmittian friend/enemy relation (Schmitt, 2007). As I have argued in other articles, the creation of antagonisms based on the principle of differentia specifica Schimittana (Fishel et al., 2021; Valdés, 2021) negates the logic of care on which feminist political-economic theory relies (Pérez Orozco, 2017; Valdés, 2019). 

Some of the clearest tensions within the feminist movement in the Spanish state are caused precisely by the definition of woman and the hegemonic battle for the concept of the feminine. One of the clearest tensions that we find at this moment is the one provoked between trans-inclusive and trans-exclusive positionings. In 2021, the battle between these positionings within the Spanish government has allowed us to observe precisely how the production of the feminine MS radically conditioned the emergence or appearance, in this case, of the political subject of feminism. The transinclusive position of Unidas Podemos won this battle. This MS recognized the existence of trans and intersex people as political subjects of feminism. However, is the demarcated MS enough to cover all subjects in need of this legislation? The answer is no. The MS, in this case, happens to group trans and intersex people but leaves aside other subjects crossed by various axes of oppression. A clear example is that people in irregular administrative situations will continue to live institutional LGTBiphobia due to axes of oppression not recognized by the MS that comes to intervene in the battery of signifiers. Migrants who are not in regular administrative situations will not emerge as political subjects of institutional feminism, just as non-binary people cannot do so because they are not reflected in this law. 

Another clear example of how the intervention of the MS involves the erasure of specific subjects and involves creating an antagonism can be seen in the law of sexual liberties, also known as the ‘Only Yes is Yes’ law. This law, which initially aimed at renewing the criminalization of sexual offences through a feminist lens, has meant the expulsion of sex workers as political subjects of feminism through its overtly abolitionist character while lowering the ontological status of these people through the denial of their capacity to give consent. 

Summing up, in the case of these two key legislations, we see the hegemonic struggle for the imposition of the MS that will intervene in the Master’s Discourse of feminism and thus condition the emergence of specific subjects as political subjects of feminism. In the case of the trans law, Unidas Podemos wins this struggle and achieves the inclusion of trans people within the political subject of feminism. However, the MS they impose does not include those not previously recognized as political subjects due to their bureaucratic-administrative situation. In the case of the ‘Only yes is yes’ law, PSOE and UP shape the MS by converging their abolitionist positions. The political subject of feminism that emerges excludes sex workers from the bonds of discourse by imposing an MS that assumes that the feminine cannot encompass the figure of sex work. Their lives are denied as livable through the denial of sex workers’ consent. Another clear consequence of the imposition of MS through the struggle for hegemony is the formation of new relations of antagonism against alterity. In these cases, we can see different antagonistic relationships between cis women and trans women, we against they in pursuit of finding the true definition of woman, and a new antagonism between women who do sex work and those who do not. These antagonisms illustrate the creation of a supposed collective and homogeneous subject delimited by a framework of understanding that classifies those lives considered subjects of feminism and those that are not.

Moreover, in both cases, we see that the imposed MS does not guarantee the transformation of people in irregular administrative status, non-binary people or sex workers into political subjects of feminism. This is because the sine qua non condition for a subject to become a political subject of feminism is their adherence to the institutional bureaucracy, which is characterized by a racist and class oppression that also borders on the biopolitical through the denial of sex work as a labour activity or dissidence against binarity. This tells us two things; on the one hand, entry into the ontic level (politics) is conditioned by ontological recognition (the political). On the other hand, creating a Symbolic governed by a feminine MS does not guarantee the emergence of every non-androcentric subject as a political subject of feminism.

That is to say, returning to the Butlerian idea of livable lives, for Spanish institutional feminism, only livable lives, understood as those lives recognized by states through administrative procedures, are worthy of being lived and therefore recognized as such. This framework of the livable thus conditions the intervention of the MS in the Discourse of the Master, as the latter acts on an ontic plane (of politics) without managing to dislocate the ontological plane (of the political). 

Sexual position

If a Symbolic governed by the ‘feminine’ MS does not guarantee the conformation of an inclusive feminist subject – that is, it does not guarantee a framework in which all life is livable and put at the centre as advocated by different feminist theorists (Agenjo-Calderón & Gálvez-Muñoz, 2019; Pérez Orozco, 2017; Valdés, 2019) – then what alternative is left for us? We have to analyze the failure in generating MS based on concepts such as ‘feminine’ to answer this question.

The shaping of the feminist subject in the Spanish state is carried out from what I call a biased intersectional stance. This position admits Crenshaw’s theory when he states that a subject can be crossed by several axes of oppression (Crenshaw, 1994), but it is biased, since, on the one hand, although it includes the idea of multiple oppressions, it excludes the ‘privilege’ dimension within its analysis. It includes the cis heterosexual, white, upper-class woman per se within the political subject of feminism because of gender oppression. However, this feminist analysis is not extrapolable to class or racial situations because it does not analyze the dimension of whiteness or cisgenderism from the dimension of privilege. This bias is due to two main reasons. The first reason is that the analysis of oppression is generated around the gender axis—this axis being transformable according to the conception of gender held by the feminist current in question. The second reason is that identity, and therefore intersectionality, is thought of statically. It is not understood that an oppressed person in one context can be an oppressor in another.  At this juncture, I argue that the Lacanian concept of sexual position can shed light on new strategies for feminist politics (Valdés, Forthcoming).

Lacan introduced the concept of sexual position in his Seminar XX (1998a). This concept completely problematizes and raises fundamental questions for political feminism and functions as a central element to understand intersectional identities as situated. That is, not as static, but as dynamic. As Evans states in his Lacanian dictionary 

For Lacan, masculinity and femininity are not biological essences, but symbolic positions, and the assumption of one of these two positions is fundamental to the construction of subjectivity; the subject is essentially a sexed subject. “Man” and “woman” are signifiers that stand for these two subjective positions (S20, 34) (Evans, 1996, p. 181).

Thus, identification with masculinity or femininity depends on the subject’s relation to the Symbolic (Lacan, 1998a). If the European Symbolic involves specific systems of oppression such as racism, classism, cisgenderism, sexism, ageism and ableism, the sexual position of the subjects, their femininity or masculinity, derives from their position vis-à-vis this intricate network of oppressive structures. Thus, from a situated theory of intersectionality that assesses both oppression and privilege, an urban upper-class cis-hetero white woman possesses a masculine sexual position when she physically or verbally assaults or denies a livable life to a black and gay refugee who occupies the female sexual position within the European Symbolic. In this sense, gender or assigned sex does not define vulnerability or life as livable, but the sexual position someone possesses concerning a symbolic order. The sexual position depends on how subjects’ identities fit or adjust to the symbolic in different contexts.

Conclusions

The intersectional critiques of the positionings of Spanish institutional feminism can be read in the following way from a Lacanian perspective. Different feminist currents struggle for the hegemony of the MS that intervenes in the battery of signifiers and conditions the emergence of the feminist political subject. However, these hegemonic struggles do not imply a radical change within the Symbolic. Changes, expansions, or reductions of the framework shape the feminist subject, but these changes occur only within the already imposed discourse. In other words, the hegemonic struggle for the MS takes place only at the ontic level of politics, without focusing directly on the ontological level. This absence of intervention at the ontological level blocks any intervention and dislocation in the frames of which Butler (2004, 2009) speaks or in the chains of signifiers of which Laclau (2007) speaks.

To break with the logic of hegemony that constantly produces antagonistic relations between ‘we’ and ‘they’ that re-categorizes specific lives as unlivable, feminism has to go a step further by articulating feminism that includes the idea of sexual position. Feminism cannot attain hegemony as a political horizon because this implies the imposition of a particularity as universal, imposing, again, a framework that entails non-neutral limits that generate otherness and the creation of unlivable lives. The introduction of sexual position allows us to observe subjectivity as contingent, conditioned to context and, above all, dynamic.

The tensions within the feminist movement demonstrate then that the dichotomous scheme of us (women) versus them (men) that follows the Schmittian friend/enemy logic that governs liberal democracies falls short of the plurality of subjects and political agents that feminism must embrace. It demonstrates a contradiction since, starting from the particularism of women in a regular situation, monogamous, non-dissident of desire and body, it takes the form of universality, thus forgetting that feminism must be a symptom of the political and embrace all that is dissidence from patriarchal androcentrism.


[i] My own translation of the title and the quote

Referencias

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Valdés, A. (Forthcoming). Toward a Feminist Lacanian Left. Psychoanalytical Theory and Intersectional Politics. Routledge.


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