Moments in Laplanche’s Theory of Sexuality

Ruth Stein. Studies in Gender and Sexuality. Volume 8, Issue 2. Spring 2007.

The primal relationship is … established on a two-fold register: we have both a vital, open and reciprocal relationship, which can truly be said to be interactive, and a relationship which is implicitly sexual, where there is no interaction because the two partners are not equal … Here, we have seducer and seduced, perverter and perverted. Someone is moving away from the straight and narrow; we have here a “Traviata,” someone who has been led astray and seduced [Jean Laplanche, 1989, New Foundations for Psychoanalysis, p. 103].

Two summers ago, at a splendid resort in the Canary Islands, at the biannual gathering of “Journées Laplanche (“Laplanche’s Days”), a group of francophone analysts assisted at the first reading of Jean Laplanche’s (this issue) paper on Sexuality, Gender and “the Sexual,” a paper which has finally been translated by SGS and appears here in English for the first time.

Laplanche, considered “one of the most trenchant and expansive psychoanalytic thinkers of our time, and … arguably the most significant” (Butler, 1999, back cover) and as “the most original and philosophically informed psychoanalytic theorist of his day” (Fletcher and Osborne, 2002, p. 57), is no easy read. Not only is he profoundly embedded in French culture, he is a philosopher by training as well, and his writing resonates with philosophical concerns. Refracted by these different prisms, Laplanche’s thinking is a demanding blend of Freudian close reading and an incisive criticism of some of the most basic Freudian tenets. Such reading is linked to Laplanche’s serving as the official translator of Freud’s writings into French, but it also leads him to seek to amend those theoretical instances where, in his view, Freud “strayed” from his own radical “Copernican revolution.” Freud’s revolutionary turn consisted in minimizing the centrality of conscious self-engendered mental processes in favor of a view that decenters the self and prioritizes the other. Consistently and radically, Laplanche pursues the primacy of the other to the point of viewing the infant and child’s unconscious mind and drives as deriving from the adult other.

Beneath the Laplanchian thicket of complex arguments heavily resonating with philosophical debates and Freudian tenets lies, very often, a remarkable newness and limpidity of ideas. Out of these, I will draw a précis of a few key notions that will constitute the background to some of the points Laplanche is making in his present paper. Following this introduction, I shall discuss his paper briefly.

A Third Reality: The Message

Laplanche suggests that an elementary form of subjectivity is constituted when the small infant identifies with the “enigmatic signifiers” which are emitted by the mother’s or caretaker’s unconscious while taking care of infant’s bodily needs. The enigmatic signifier, later called by Laplanche the “enigmatic message” is a perplexing and impenetrable implicit communication that is overloaded with significance, not only for the child who is its receiver, but for the adult who is transmitting it as well. In the typical model of sucking/suckling, where such messages are emitted and received, writes Laplanche, there is a massive blend of “love and hate, appeasement and excitation, milk and breast, ‘containing’ breast and sexually excited breast.” These messages introduce themselves into the infant’s world through the most innocent and mundane daily gestures. They are signifying but they are also exciting and seductive, since they cannot be seized in their totality. Such messages implant themselves as foreign bodies, haunting questions, in the child’s psyche. Every message is both conscious and unconscious, it is “compromised” by the unconscious of the other, who exerts a profound, uncanny decentering influence on the young receiver.

The child’s way of dealing with this strangeness is to build its own ego, since it needs to create an “inside” that processes these messages. The first stage, that of implantation or intromission, is followed by a second stage, that of processing or “translating,” during which the ego comes into being. In a way, the ego is seduced to build itself. By taking the other as a starting point, Laplanche offers a highly original theory that reverses many of our accustomed notions of development, mental structures, and human relations. The emphasis on a strangeness that involves the reality of the other is a pregnant idea, particularly as the child’s unconscious is not simply made of the other implanted in it, but is formed by a complex process which Laplanche (following Freud) calls repression. Processing-repression is interposed between the first intervention of the other and the creation of the other thing within oneself. Otherness is the stuff the unconscious is made of, and it follows the impact of the other-person. Thus, there are two forms of otherness: the other person (in Freud’s language, der Andere) and the other thing (das Andere), the unconscious. The unconscious, in its radical alterity, is sustained through the seduction of the other person (der Andere). Here is the kernel of an important idea: on the one hand, the other implants something strange into us, but at the same time, the other enables us to face, hold, and maintain our foreign consciousness, which may be too traumatic to be sustained on its own. Laplanche articulates the otherness that constitutes the subject, yet he keeps insisting on the need for the other not to be reduced to the “subjectivity of the receptor,” but rather to be maintained in his strangeness. One’s inner strangeness is “held” by an outer strangeness, while that outer strangeness in turn is held by the enigmatic relation of the other to his own internal stranger.

Laplanche strains for relational concepts and images to elaborate the subjective and intersubjective beginnings of mental life. He holds Freud to task for not theorizing the other who is linked to the process of nourishing and caretaking. Through detailed textual analyses of Freud’s theories, Laplanche shows that Freudian theory can work only by assuming the existence of so-called indices from the other, the object to the self. Such indices, or intersubjective signals, make it possible to link the experience of satisfaction and that of sexuality. The important point is that without the other, the transition from brute self-preservation (instinct) to the intersubjective sexual (drive) is not possible. The other is necessary not only in the early experiences of suckling but for Laplanche, even the primal scene should be conceived as an event with an enigmatic message, in which parents allow the child to see them and their doings. Laplanche criticizes Freud’s division of the primal scene into two separate worlds, that of the adult couple, and that of the witnessing child, without taking into account the parental act of enabling the child to witness the primal scene. The gestural, covertly communicative character of the primal scene precludes its ever being a purely objective fact. The primal scene is an exhibition, a message, a letting-see. Laplanche hardly misses an opportunity to point out that Freud’s theory lacks the dimension of the address, the messages, or the sign-that-signals, the signifier from the other to the self.

There is “reality of the message”; it is a kind of transitional reality that escapes the either/or of reality or pure fantasy, as well as the has been/has not been of the past and present. The “reality of the message” is an ongoing moment, or a series of successive moments, of intersubjective events that constitute neither an external occurrence, nor pure fantasy. Such unique reality entails a different and unusual perspective on the beginnings of human subjectivity. Rather than simple beginnings that become increasingly complex with development, human life begins with an intricate complexity that accrues from the gradient between the adult other and the child self. Such a gradient becomes simplified through decoding and “translation.” Obviously, the Laplanchian notion of a mother who normatively and regularly mystifies her child is quite different from the view on which the mother co-constructs a mutual choreography with it. Mother’s “idiom” (Bollas, 1987), her unique style and personal approach to herself and her infant is assumed by Laplanche to be experienced as that of a beckoning, meaning-dispatching, yet potentially alien and dispossessed caretaker. Such picture is far from a “harmonious mix-up” (Balint) or attunement-disruption-attunement moments (Stern). Furthermore, to the extent that there is an otherness that is pressing against the child, the beginning of psychic life is seen by Laplanche as in a sense violently colored. Laplanche puts it hyperbolically when he says that the beginnings are “attacks” (JEP, 1997, p. 42).

The adult transmits “otherness” at the same time as she/he effects a potential imaginative totalization of the child. “After being awakened in the child by the mother …the aspects of sexuality that have not been understood or assimilated, become repressed and add to the feeling of strangeness and mystery we have about sexuality” (Stein, 1998, p. 603).

The Birth of Sexuality

Laplanche gives us a picture how, from the body sensations aroused by the experience of being suckled and nurtured by mother, the traces of her being, her presence, her body smell, skin texture, posture, voice and softness, the infant concocts, prolongs, and continues the strong sensations s/he experiences. It also gives us a picture how, by being both stimulated by these sensations and intrigued by his mother’s “enigmatic message,” the sexual comes into being.

I spoke of the tension arc that spans the infant’s aroused body and sensitized skin, and of the object (the other) that is auto-erotically fantasmatized at the same time as it is lost. Sexuality, by its qualities of poignant pleasure, by its longing for the mysteriously enigmatic, and by its excess over the normal “measured,” adaptive, reasonable living, is a “perversion,” a transformation, of the normal, a setting apart of a remarkable experience that is powerful and opposed, or at least orthogonal, to everyday living.

The entrance of the adult into the child can be beneficial or toxic. Implantation denotes a common, everyday process, whereas intromission indicates a violent event that forecloses translation and resists metabolization. Using the body and its skin-envelope as well as the orifices of the body as metaphor, Laplanche (1999) writes: “Intromission relates principally to anality and orality, that is, to part-functions, whereas Implantation refers, rather, to the surface of the body as a whole, its perceptive periphery”(p. 137). Thus, enigmatic signifiers of the mother’s unconscious appear as “the intrusion of the adult sexual universe into the child’s world” (Laplanche, 1970, p. 48) or, alternatively, that of “an enhancing, developmentally normative influence, an encouragement to “deviate,” to “go astray” from the straight, direct line of the world of mere (nonerotic) self-preservation and gratification. At the time of its implantation, or inscription, before it is understood, the message is stored “under the thin layer of consciousness,” “under the skin.” At a later stage, it is revived from the interior and becomes mastered and integrated.

All these unconscious processes are essentially sexual. Laplanche equates the unconscious with the sexual (or at least sees the unconscious as marked by the sexual), since the foundational gestures of the adult that build the infant’s unconscious are compromised by and suffused with the parent’s sexuality. The emission of opaque messages by the caretaking adult to the child whose body is handled is a sexual process of seduction:

The adult cares for her child with her whole personality, including her unconscious sexual mind. By nourishing her child, the mother gives it milk, she touches and arouses the child’s body parts which in this way become eroticized, so that the infant’s mind is aroused to respond to mother’s sexuality that is always present and somehow expressed without her being conscious of it (Stein, 1998, p. 599; see also Stein, 2003).

The Theory of Generalized Seduction

In earlier work (Stein, 1998a, 1998b), I wrote at length of the enigma mother harbors for child, as well as the various meanings of seduction, and how the psyche builds itself through the fantasized other’s unconscious. I described how, according to Freud and Laplanche, at the beginning of life,

the emergence of sexuality occurs when a given primordial nonsexual instinctual activity [such as feeding], which had been generating excitation, …loses its natural object [the milk, the breast] and becomes detached from it. This is an autoerotic moment [where] the ego is turned upon itself, where [the object] …is elaborated in a blend of perception and fantasy called “phantasmatization ….” The object has been replaced by a fantasy …  [This is] …the condition for the establishment of sexuality” [Stein, 1986b, p. 596].

Through theorizing an intense state of relatedness which later turns into “autoerotism” and fantasy-activity, Laplanche is able to claim that the autoerotic state of consciousness is not an objectless, non-relational state, but a state in which the (object of) “real” gratification (i.e., milk) is lost, and another displaced, derivative object, the object of the sexual drive (i.e., the breast/s), a fantasy-induced, “phantasmatic” sexual object, now occupies the scene. The difference between the sexual object and the “functional,” feeding and caretaking object from which it is derived, describes the melancholic situation in which the object one seeks to refind (through sexuality) is not the first object that was there at the beginning. The sexual object is a lost object, a fantastic replicate of an original irrecoverable object.

The object which has been lost is not the same as that which is to be rediscovered …Human sexuality is narrated by Laplanche in terms of object loss, object-displacement, and object refinding, which is eternally a refinding of an object other than the original [Stein, 1998b, p. 597].

Autoeroticism exemplifies Laplanche’s use of the third position, a position that is definitely not a solipsistic “no-object” state, neither is it a position that maintains a sexual object from the beginning. Although for Laplanche life begins with an object and sexuality is there from the beginning of life, at this stage it is still not about a real object. The real, initial object is lost, only to reappear as not itself, but as a presence that emerges when the baby turns back to itself autocratically, taking its body as an object of pleasure. At this point, the same object (“the breast”) becomes mysteriously other than itself, and transmutes into a sexual object, the object of the sexual drive. “Autoeroticism,” write Laplance and Pontalis (1986) is not “a stage of libidinal development” (pp. 24-25) but rather a mythical moment of disjunction between the pacification of need (Befriedigung) and the fulfillment of desire (Wunscherfüllung), between the two stages represented by real experience and its hallucinatory revival, between the object that satisfies [the real object, the milk] and the sign which describes both the object and its absence [the lost object, the breast]: a mythical moment at which hunger and sexuality meet in a common origin” (pp. 24-25). It is a moment “more abstract than definable in time, since it is always renewed,” a moment, a specific point in time, but also a significant stage, a movement, and a tendency to produce rotation, when sexuality, “disengaged from any natural object, moves into the field of fantasy and by that very fact becomes sexuality” (p. 25).

Clearly, Laplanche deals with varieties of what we might call transitional states. His stance is strongly anti-monadic, abiologistic, and anti-evolutionary. His position is basically a specific two-person view that insists on the external sources of drive and sexuality. For Freud, seduction is either a real historical event, or alternatively it is a fantasy, generated by the push of an inner biological drive. But most of us seem to have come away from the notorious “memory wars” with a strong sense of the indeterminacy and ambiguous complexity inherent in trying to plumb “primal” emotional occurrences; such sense of indeterminacy produces non-equivocation as to whether a traumatic/abusive event happened or did not happen, and it asks to what extent and with what significance it did. From early on, Laplanche rejected any simplified, either-or view regarding seduction, supplementing exclusivist attitudes of reality/fantasy with the pair [imaginary/real] versus [“that of the message”], a pair he considers to be the basic opposition in mental life.

But Laplanche not only rejects the binary existence or non-existence of seduction: he amplifies seduction into a categorically broader and therefore different phenomenon than our usual sense of seduction as an exploitative infliction and mental betrayal. Seduction in Laplanche’s sense is ubiquitous, even foundational. It goes on incessantly from parent to child by virtue of the elemental inequality and asymmetry between them. Seduction is what happens when a “small human” looks (up) at a “big human” who, it feels, “wants something” from it. The big human seems to be addressing messages to the child which the child is unable to make full sense of and therefore to comprehensively translate. What remains unfathomable following the child’s partial translation becomes repressed into an emerging unconscious. Laplanche talks about a “fundamental anthropological situation” of asymmetry between evolved adult and small child, who cannot grasp and encompass the adult messages in their totality. In the typical model of suckling, for instance, there is a massive blend of “love and hate, appeasement and excitation, milk and breast, “containing” breast and sexually excited breast. The infant has no innate codes to understand this, and “culture comes to his aid.”

The messages are essentially phantasmatic and sexual in the sense of infantile sexuality, a “sexuality linked to fantasy” that “seeks excitation” rather than discharge. In this sense, human infantile sexuality goes against biology. Laplanche here uses Lust, which Freud understood in its double sense of both pleasure and search for excitation, as well as desire (cf. also Dimen, 1999). Lust is a pleasure of charge, a pleasure of tension, rather than the pleasure of release and expulsion. It is an “attraction that feeds itself, that tends toward an ever greater charge” (Laplanche, 2006, p. 5). The pleasure of making the tension rise, the enjoyment of maintaining it without seeking discharge, makes Laplanche see it as a kind of reflexive masochism found in all forepleasures. Lust is the seeking of the other in order to increase tension.

On the whole, Laplanche consistently emphasizes the dark side of sexuality, which he claims Freud (1914) forgot with his “Introduction to Narcissism,” where he enrolled sexuality under the banner of totality and love (Eros). Laplanche makes us aware of the fact that Freud’s articulation of narcissism as the love of oneself as a totality and love of the other as a total object, important as it was, almost effaced the realization that sexuality cannot be totalized, that its parts never add up to a harmonious whole. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud (1920) redressed the onesidedness of totalizing Eros by elaborating a different structure than the reconciliability of Eros in “Narcissism:” he discovered an unbound, perverse, disruptive sexuality. This unbound libido is comparable to an uncontrollable force that sweeps away existing structures (Laplanche, 1976, 1981). Laplanche, who believes that libido, or sexual energy, rules all, calls this unbound libido the sexual death drive.

Laplanche sees Freud’s final drive dualism, Eros against the death drive, as being about radical desire. The sexual death drive is beyond the erotic pleasure principle. Laplanche and Pontalis (1973) comment that the death drive reaffirms what Freud had always held to be the very essence of the unconscious, namely its “indestructible and unreality aspects” (p. 242). The death drive is “the reassertion of the most radical part of unconscious desire” and it points toward a change in the ultimate function which Freud assigned to sexuality” (pp. 102-103). Clearly, Laplanche (1999) rejects the notion of an inherent destructive drive, and regards sexuality itself as traumatic:

the necessarily traumatic intervention of the other must entailmost often in a minor way, but sometimes in a major one-the effraction or breaking in characteristic of pain …the “drive” is to the ego what pain is to the body … the source-object of the drive is “stuck” in the envelope of the ego like a splinter in the skin …[p. 209].

Similar to what he does with the death drive, Laplanche productively normalizes and repatriates some key terms that have been reserved for extraordinary, pathological, or damaging experiences. The normalization of such terms as perversion, seduction, or trauma subverts the traditional psychoanalytic lexicon. Trauma in a Laplanchian framework is an uninterpretable intromission of untranslatable messages that deteriorate into sinister, garbled, “untranslatable” missives of the superego: it is characterized by messages that emerge from some psychotic persecutory enclave. Such a view alters the concept of trauma: trauma is no more a factual, lived experience with examinable data, but a moment that is both more diffuse and more structural than the former. In this view, trauma becomes more originary, and certainly more prevalent. Schematically speaking, we could say that trauma is an alteration in the sequence where the comprehensible part of enigmatic messages is implanted and “translated,” while the incomprehensible part is repressed. Trauma is the falling away, the blocking and destruction of the second moment that follows the first moment of implantation. Another way of describing trauma is to say that trauma amounts to “too much other.” Trauma is the return of too much of the mind of the other person, with its threat of ego colonization and destruction.

Laplanche also deconstructs and “humanizes” the drive. He reminds us that the English speaking world assimilated the drive-a psychoanalytic concept-into the biological concept of instinct. Sexual drives are supported by (“lean on”) the biological instincts, but are different from them. In contrast to fixed biological needs (“instincts”), sexual drives can become repressed, sublimated, reversed into their opposite, and more. Drives undergo vicissitudes, they intermingle and combine, and their aim and object are contingent and flexible, rather than pre-programmed, as are the “aim” and “object” of instinctual behavior. In contrast to the endogenous instinct, the drive is a product of language and culture, its source is not completely located in the physical body, since it is produced as a response to the excitation and seduction of the other; drive is the awakening of desire via the other’s electrifying, mystifying messages. Developing such a concept of drive allows the expansion of a space and an explanation of driven behavior, such as sexuality, that is tightly linked to the other and to the body, yet is far more meaningful than prewired bodily needs.

Gender, Sex, and “le Sexual”

Laplanche’s present essay addresses three interrelated terms, gender, sex, and “the sexual” (in French, “Ie sexual” differs from the correct “sexuel” and therefore sounds outlandish, and it is meant to sound so). Basically, Laplanche gives the name of “le sexual” to what he calls elsewhere “infantile sexuality.”

The pithy statement with which the paper begins is memorable and easy to understand: gender is plural, sex is dual, and “Ie sexual” (infantile sexuality) is multiple and polymorphous. These assertions are in alignment with contemporary views of the plurality of gender that contrasts with dual, male/female, egg/sperm sex. They also reaffirm the multiplicity of infantile sexuality, or “le sexual.” But what is “the sexual?” What does it mean to say that “le sexual” is “multiple?” And what does it mean to propose that “the sexual is the unconscious residue of the repression-symbolization of gender by sex?”

First, a few words about “le sexual”: Laplanche puts great stakes in differentiating “le sexual” from the couple sex/gender (particularly as it is used in English-speaking countries). “Le sexual” is what Freud (1905) writes about in the Three Essays, and amounts to what has come to be known as “infantile sexuality” (cf. Laplanche, 2000, 2002; Stein, 2003, 2005; Wildlocher, 2003). The assumption of infantile sexuality may seem implausible at best, and at worst, the concoction of a perverse mind, writes Laplanche. It has accordingly been banished from psychoanalytic discourse. At the same time we have to bear in mind that infantile sexuality is not endogenous; it is not produced insularly in one’s body. Since the infant does not have hormonal sexual activators, it cannot generate sexual fantasies of its own: these have to come from the adult. The human sexual unconscious is made of infantile residues constructed from unconsciously sexual messages of caretakers. Further, as we said, it “leans on”and simulates a “functional” body activity. The prototype of sexuality is not the act of sucking, that is, satisfying bodily needs, but “the enjoyment of going through the motions of sucking” (p. 132): thus, the non-functional, self-stimulating, virtual simulation of a “functional” body activity comes to carry its own unique pleasure. Infantile sexuality differs from adult sexuality by being more autoertoic than otherwise, that is, by being connected to fantasy more than to the object, and, importantly, that it is basically governed by the unconscious. Infantile sexuality is everywhere, it antedates sexual difference, and is polymorphously perverse, as discussed in the Three Essays, where Freud assumes that every adult’s so-called normal sexuality encompasses perverse aspects, whether through the means chosen to find pleasure, in forepleasure, and/or in the sexual fantasies that are played out during the sexual experience.

We are dealing with an elusive, yet highly evocative conception, Laplanche notes that Freud himself, who formulated the concept of infantile sexuality as the autoerotic bodily pleasure procured in infancy, constantly reverts to comparing it to something else. He compares it to what it is not (it is not a seeking an endpoint, or a “discharge”), to what it is like (it is like the blissful smile of the sated infant, or orgasmic pleasure), or to what it is akin to (it has affinity to foreplay and to perversions). The elusiveness of this concept, and its marginalization by adults resonates with the empirical findings adduced by Peter Fonagy (2006), that show how the sexual manifestations and communications of children are the least mirrored and mentalized of all other aspects of children’s “messages” that want to be heard and attuned to. Fonagy found that infantile sexuality is the most unmirrored activity between mothers and infants (cf. also Davies, 2003).

But what stands out in Laplanche’s paper no less than “Ie sexual” is the use of the term “gender” by a French psychoanalyst (who in the Vocabulaire he wrote with J.B. Pontalis, has no such entry). By addressing gender, Laplanche acknowledges contemporary American thinking as he enlists the concept of gender to enrich and reaffirm its “intimate enemy,” namely, infantile sexuality, “le sexual.” Laplanche sees the couple sex/gender as a “formidable tool against the Freudian discovery.” Gender is formidable in that it too, like the psychoanalytic concept of infantile sexuality, resists and destroys the clear-cut biological/anatomical “destiny” of sex. Gender, like “le sexual” pertains to the cultural, the acquired or constructed aspect of sexuality. It is fantasmatic, and subverts sexual role divisions. However, Laplanche also theorizes that gender is “organized by”-shaped by, hence possibly subordinate to-sex. His strategy is to acknowledge gender yet at the same time make it dependent on sexuality and thereby “downgrade” it in favor of the inarticulate, perverse, subversive, “wild” untameable aspect of human sexuality, “le sexual,” infantile sexuality, which remains outside and in excess of gender. Infantile sexuality is what remains after gender has been “organized,” or repressed (repression is a kind of organization) by sex. It is the unending residue that escapes regulatory cultural discourse.

Gender and “le Sexual”

Whereas the English-speaking world contrasts sexuality with gender, Laplanche contrasts sexuality with “le sexual.” The French focus on the difference between adult, functional sex, including sexual difference, and aleatory, polymorphously perverse “infantile sexuality.” But Laplanche’s intellectual integrity does not allow him to ignore gender, as many French analysts still do. At the same time, it is plausible to assume that in bringing in gender as a third term, he would be enabled to neutralize gender’s subversive power over psychoanalytic theory and demarcate it from infantile sexuality. I leave it to the readers to form their own opinion whether this strategy, further developed, will fulfill its promise. In any case, the thrust of Laplanche’s idea here is that gender, “normalized,” that is, regulated, by sex, is socioculturally “normal,” even as it is ambiguous, unstable, and potentially plural to begin with. In the last resort, what remains un-normalized is infantile sexuality, and the critical axis for Laplanche remains the faultline between “adult” and “infantile” sexuality, rather than between sexual identity and gender identity or between sex and gender.

Laplanche traces a chronological sequence, moving between adult and child: gender, sex, le sexual. Gender comes first, it precedes sexuality: the social for him unequivocally precedes the biological, in a sense. Laplanche opposes the view that “biological sex is intimately perceived, apprehended, and experienced in any fashion by the subject in the earliest months.” He quotes Person and Oversey (1983), and Roiphe and Galenson (1972) who likewise believe that gender comes first in time and in awareness, and begins to stabilize toward the end of the first year.

Gender comes first because it is assigned by the other. “Assignment emphasizes the primacy of the other, who declares the gender of the newborn …in the town hall, the church, or some other official place” (this issue). Like Butler who talks about “girling,” Laplanche sees gender assignment not as a single act, but as an ongoing process in which unconscious, “prescriptive” messages are sent to the child. Although he agrees with Person and Oversey (1983) that gender comes before sex, Laplanche (1983) maintains that gender “organizes” sexuality, rather than being organized by it, as they claim (p. 221). Gender comes before sex, but is organized by sex, which entails binary sexual difference: plural gender is organized and repressed by dual sex. The recognition of sexual difference impacts on gender later, in the second year of life, in Roiphe and Galenson’s (1972) so-called “early genital phase.”

“Dual sex,” the kind that represses and reduces plural gender is then deconstructed. Laplanche bases himself on an interesting observation to dismantle dual sex by using visual-imaginary (“perceptual”) anatomy, which has nothing to do with the biological and physiological male/female difference, according to this anatomy, the male has genitals while the female does not. Contrary to animals who have two visible sexes, male and female, human bipeds lost the sight of the external feminine genital organs when they assumed the upright stance. Laplanche suggests that the visual inaccessibility of the feminine organs has been elevated to the rank of a major, universal signifier of presence/absence through what Laplanche calls “phallic logic.” This visually-dependent, concretized anatomical difference operates as a rigid code that is structured by the law of the excluded middle: it allows only zero or one, that is, having a penis or not having one, being intact or being castrated. The rigid binary code of castration, the phallic logic of yes/no, have/have not, erases or “represses” infantile sexuality, itself indifferent to sexual difference or to any other divisions. Thus, sex(uality), and its accompaniment, the castration complex, tend to repress, and thereby create, the infantile sexual. Against this exclusive logic, Laplanche raises the urgent need to find “models of symbolization that are more flexible, more multiple, more ambivalent,” thereby echoing contemporary interrogation.

As mentioned, gender in American theory and “le sexual” in French theory-the terms that one culture has and the other does not-fulfill an analogous function: they both subvert conventional, dual, “genital” sexuality. Jessica Benjamin (1998), Muriel Dimen (1991), Virginia Goldner (1991), Adrienne Harris (1991), and others, provided complex insights about the non-transparency, dense weave, ambiguity, and paradoxality of gender, as well as the dangers of its binary, divisive distributions. Gender identity, although heavily criticized as essentializing the fluid, non-identical psychic state of gender, has also been recognized as denoting “the psychological and social dimensions of the biological category of sex, and as fulfilling a complex role as both conserving sexual difference and as demarcating what the self (or the sense of self) preserves and all that it must lose” (Dimen, 2003, pp. 58, 179). As Goldner (2003) notes, after deconstructing gender, it is being re-assembled and reviewed as a resource and tool. Other American analysts (e.g., Person, Fast) value the solidity of gender as an organizer (of self, and particularly of sexuality). Gender identity, as Fast sees it, evolves from “gender differentiation” to “overinclusiveness” and peaks into gender identity. Clearly within this frame, gender is viewed as a major correlate of ones’ subjectivity. At the same time as the distinction between sexuality and gender is elaborated, no effective distinction is made between “functional” sexuality and infantile sexuality. French psychoanalytic thinking, by contrast, does not distinguish between sex and gender, the latter being traditionally covered, at least partially, by the term sexual difference (and “sexuation”), viewed as a symbolic marker of reality testing (non-acceptance of sexual difference in French psychoanalysis amounts to psychosis; cf. Chasseguet-Smirgel, 1985; Schaeffer, 1997). Schematically speaking, French discourse on sexual difference is more symbolic, and is done less in terms of identity, self states and roles, and more in terms of the formative power of desire, fantasy, perversion, and drives.

Some Comparisons

While noting these differences, we also recognize an interesting affinity between Jean Laplanche and Judith Butler, who both give an analogous place in their accounts of the inarticulate, impermissible, repudiated dimension of sexuality, whether as the basis of gender (Butler, 1997), or as the feature of infantile sexuality (Laplanche, 2003). Both Laplanche and Butler speak of a non-normative, polymorphous (“multiple”) desire that subverts the normative-biological sexuality. This counter-normative sexual register is based on loss. Butler (1997) sees in gender what “remains inarticulate in sexuality” (p. 140), whereas Laplanche confers this role on infantile sexuality, which he sees as the residue of, the repression of gender by sexuality, that is what remains inarticulate after gender has been organized by the sexuality of sexual difference.

Loss is the foundation of gender for Butler and the first stage of infantile sexuality for Laplanche. Gender melancholy is the “loss” of homosexual love through culture’s prohibitions, which makes masculinity and femininity into the traces of an ungrieved and ungrievable love. Loss is constitutive of the subject in Butler’s network of melancholia, negation, foreclosure and loss of same-sex attachment; and melancholic identification is crucial to the gendering of the ego. Laplanche too, talks about the moment where autoerotism and unconscious sexuality are born as the moment of the loss of the object, and its replacement by fantasy formation (fantasmatization). For Laplanche, the loss of the feeding and nurturing object generates fantasy activity, which creates sexuality and the baby’s nascent otherness within, its subjectivity.

Another parallel between Laplanche and Butler runs in their accounts of the formation of the subject. Laplanche, who disagrees with Lacan on fundamental issues, nonetheless carries Lacan’s impress regarding the otherness and fantasy-activity as creating subjectivity (with the difference that for Laplanche it is the concrete, flesh and blood other, rather than a Lacanian other that is an abstract, cultural-symbolic order). The other in Laplanche infuses, encompasses and seduces the child to create its folds of subjectivity and inwardness through mystifying human contact. The little human is assigned gender and is thereby captured by familial and cultural codes. Similarly to Laplanche, Butler (1993) too, sees the subject “hailed into” or “appellated” into gender from the outside, an outside, an other, that imposes a restrictive social code on a multiplicity of possibilities. “[I]n the naming the girl is ‘girled’“, Butler writes, “brought into the domain of language and kinship through the interpellation of gender” (p. 7). “This ‘girling’ of the girl …is reiterated over time so that the ‘naturalized effect’ of sex and gender is reinforced and/or contested.” Cultural codes, which are Laplanche’s version of “primal fantasies,” fulfill for him the role appellation serves for Butler. What Freud called primary identification with the “father of personal pre-history,” or what Lacan calls primary symbolic identification, is for Laplanche not identification with an other, but an identification by the other: it is the other who identifies me.

Although the theoretical context is different, it is still interesting to link these ideas with Fonagy’s (2006) “alien self” which he sees as a foreign body within oneself, that is created by grossly inaccurate and self-centered mirroring by the mother/caretaker. Peter Fonagy is an example of someone who finds great use in notions of an internalized, imposed and/or introjected other, at the same time as he (like Laplanche) talks about potential unbearability of such an introjected (“implanted,” and worse, “intromissioned”) other. But, in contrast to Laplanche who talks about intromission and implantation that require translation by infant or defy such efforts, Fonagy talks about the need to reproject such an “alien self” into another. Fonagy takes the otherness that has come to inhabit one’s self further and assumes that it needs to be projected back into another for psychic integration to take place. When the “alien self” is created through mother’s tantalizing “off” mirroring, because of her own excitement or perplexity, a good mode to later externalize the “alien self” is sexuality, with its yield of pleasure and excitement.

The concept of gender has been enormously useful in clearing up a conceptual space that has served feminism and helped enhance the perception and notation of issues of women as well as those of men under patriarchal/male domination. Later, sexuality came into ascendance, particularly in queer theory (which is often regarded as the next stage of feminism). Some parts of queer studies/culture not only strive to completely separate sex from gender, but tend to focus on sexuality (e.g., in researching prostitution, pornography, the “unsaid” in sexuality, and so on). Queer studies, writes Catherine Simpson, contributed to our understanding about human sexuality. Queer theorists too, were led to add a “third term” in describing sexuality, arguing for the need to differentiate among biologic sex, gender identity, and “the multiple possibilities of sexual desire” (Stimpson, 1996). “The multiple possibilities of desire” finally rendered binary distinctions such as heterosexuality and homosexuality; masculinity and femininity; and normality and perversion no longer valid or useful. The similarity with Laplanche’s thrust is unmistakable, and the rapproachement between Laplanche and queer theory is remarkable.


Laplanche does not address the complex and ongoing processes of gender role identity with its conflicts, but remains at the level of assignment. The concept of gender in his work is (still) skeletal-no use is made of further developments of gender, and its defensive and resourceful uses. Although Laplanche speaks of “plural” gender, there is still no treatment of the “rich variations in the way it is experienced and performed within each sex,” and there is some unclarity about what shapes gender. Further, there may be a slippage between what Laplanche earlier saw as unconscious, and what he now says is unconscious, which becomes evident when he contends that he never said that the enigmatic message is unconscious. The distinction between body-related messages that create infantile sexuality and the mini-social messages that transmit gender is evocative, but it easily succumbs to an overlap: the body-related messages also transmit cultural freights. Such role is not exclusive to the social messages that assign gender. The paper abounds with the fuzzy edges of newly-hatched concepts. However Laplanche’s positing of gender as a viable and important part of the equation of sexual life, including its simultaneous deconstruction, is a crucial moment in French thinking, making him join the ranks of postmodern psychoanalytic feminism that seeks to use and simultaneously deconstruct gender. Whereas the latter deconstruct gender as being based on and supported by other binary oppositions, for example, those of race (black/white) and sexuality (gay/straight), Laplanche unpacks gender as tamed by sexuality and as giving in to infantile sexuality, “le sexual.” At the same time, and no less importantly, Laplanche effects a shift from the static and prescriptive concept of sexual difference toward a more relational-even if asymmetrically-relational dynamic concept of gender.

A lot of work remains to be done, many implications need to be sorted out, many thoughts thought. The interplay of such related and fuzzily differentiated concepts needs more extensive experiential and clinical elaboration to escape reification and abstraction. However, it does not escape our attention that, in the end, when all has been said and done here, we see how Laplanche adopts and incorporates “gender” from us into this theory, but then we also become aware how he has implanted “le sexual,” that is, infantile sexuality in us …