Re-thinking Symbolic order : Psychoanalysis questioned by Queer Studies

par Caterina Rea

“Would psychoanalysis be the warden of symbolic Law?”[1], the psychoanalyst S. Prokhoris asks at the beginning of a stimulating and deep book questioning some of the sacred terms of dispositive analysis. Does psychoanalysis reveal the eternal and immutable functioning of human psychosexual life? Can it pretend to have an overhanging perspective on the main social changes of our time? A recent French debate has discussed these points concerning the possible political implications of analytical discourse and practice in great depth. Even if it concerns human subjectivity, psychoanalysis involves social and political consequences, which cannot be ignored. However, some psychoanalysts still prefer to affirm the eternal principles of metapsychology and refuse anything, which could shake up the transmission of the symbolic order.

The so-called “decline of Father”[2] and of his traditional authority and law worries those who defend the good functioning of the human psyche and the universal conditions of the process of subjectivation.


The French debate over the PACS (Civil Pact of Solidarity), the new form of civil union, which has brought about social changes, which affect the traditional familial and sexual order, reveals that psychoanalysis often took a conservative position defending the paternal function as the eternal origin of the Law. This Law is supposed to govern our psychical structure. According to some lacanian interpretations, the function of the Father is ontologized as an unavoidable condition of symbolic Law. From a critical position, the French psychoanalyst Michel Tort criticizes this metapsychological appeal to the paternal function as the product of a normalizing discourse, which tends to confound symbolic structure and historical dimension. “If we accepted to consider that actually the only reality of the supposed symbolic order is to correspond to the changing historical norms, we would not assist in this mix-up between eternity and history, to this way to get round historicity to let the timeless function to triumph”[3].

I intend to question the political reverse of psychoanalysis in order to show that, beyond the psychic singularity, its practice concerns and involves social institution. In this perspective, Michel Foucault underlines that psychoanalysis should be an emancipating and transgressive praxis and a critical capacity to question any established discourse and any given sense. Consequently, psychoanalysis should help us to recognize the historical dimension of our theoretical and practical positions, the relative and always questionable character of any device of power. In his fundamental text, Les mots et les choses, Foucault underlines the trangressive attitude of psychoanalysis as a “principle of worry (inquietude), of questioning, of critic and of contesting what could appear as acquired and definitive”[4].

I will particularly focus on Judith Butler’s critique of psychoanalysis in the lacanian version centered on the symbolic order as a relatively timeless dimension, as a non-mutable structure defining and regulating human sexuality and kinship relations.  This order, constituting the succession of generations and the relation between the sexes, seems to transcend the contingency and mutability of any social-historical expression. “Lacanian theorists for the most part insist that symbolic norms are not the same as social ones (…). The symbolic is defined as the realm of the Law that regulates desire in the Oedipus complex”[5], this one being considered as the universal principle of normalization of our psyche.

Butler’s strategy intends to subvert the permanence of this order and affirms that “not only the symbolic consists in the sedimentations of social practices, but that radical changes in kinship need a re-articulation of the structuralist presuppositions of psychoanalysis and also of contemporary gender and sexuality theory”. Butler interrogates the analytical device from a political point of view and confronts it to current social changes affecting the sexual and familial order.

In the same direction, the French sociologist E. Fassin argues that current sexual issues, (including gender approaches, rights of sexual minorities and the debate on kinship and changes in familial order) represent the last frontier in democratic and secular politics. He introduces the notion of sexual democracy (démocratie sexuelle) in order to underline the process of denaturalization of sexual questions placing them in the political and social space of deliberation. “Actually, democracy is the realm of politics without any transcendent or natural fundament. And sexual democracy plays an important role: if gender and sexuality are nowadays the most important stakes, it is that these questions incarnate the last extension of the realm of democracy. We thought and we still think they are natural, we discover that they are political”[6].  How can psychoanalysis assume such a challenge?


Post-feminist studies and gender / queer studies have recently confronted psychoanalysis to these questions and concerns and have shaken their normative categories marking the field of sexuality and of corporeal materiality. As Foucault has already remarked, the discourse on sexuality is the point of tangency between psychoanalysis and politics. More precisely, sexual normativity places analytical discourse and practice within the political dimension.  My aim is to show that this sexual order functions as a ‘device of sexuality’, as a normalizing organization pre-orienting and pre-forming the supposed ‘mature and accomplished” realization of sexual functions. However, this power device can suffocate some lives and even prevent some human possibilities from developing. Sexual order, which Foucault refers to as a device of sexuality, tries to force, delimit and fix sexual identity in order to finally promote the eminent Charter of rights and duty concerning this definition. This order doesn’t want sexuality and human being to be paths, circulations, spaces of metaphors, risking the misshapen: something which is non-identified and not definitively certified once for all”[7].


1.The two souls of psychoanalysis

Psychoanalysis is much more complex than its version based on identity and eternal laws. S. Prokhoris underlines two souls of psychoanalysis, two different attitudes concerning the articulation between sexuality and norms. This paradox concerns the psychoanalytic discourse on sexuality, which seems finally to hide Freud’s discovery of a theory of sexuality as irreducible to a simple pre-formation or to a pre-structured universal sexual behavior. I mean the Freudian theory of drive (Trieb) as it is not oriented, as an instinct, by an object or by a pre-established finality. S. Prokhoris wonders if “a certain version of the psychoanalytical discourse on sexuality is hiding an important dimension of Freudian innovation which is deeply expressed by the theory of unconscious”[8]. Actually unconscious is not marked by fixed, determined identities and by sexual difference.


In his Three Essays on Sexual theory, Freud makes a de-construction of the popular conception of (sexual) drive as it is not comparable to a simple necessity such as hunger, as it is not a movement expecting to attain a pre-determined object. Drive does not contain in itself an already given object, since this one has a certain variability and contingency. “We are in condition to abandon in our thinking the relation between drive and its object. It is probable that sexual drive is above all independent from its object and that it is not determined by the attractions of this one”.


The ‘sexual’ (le sexuel) is thus coextensive of a corporality traversed by desire, infinitively excitable and capable of pleasure. It is the polymorphous, plastic and plural origin of our sexuality, preceding and crossing the difference of sexes. Thus indefinitely open to different figures and definitions, sexual drive and desire embody the strange and even queer core of psychoanalysis contesting any fixed and normative identity[9]. “The sexual, which means the set of erotic forces, forces of relation through the pleasure stream. The sexual which does not come from sexuation, but from the ‘perverse polymorphous disposition’ to get pleasure infinitively (…): the analytical device of care is not a matter of sexuation and of the so-called laws that this condition is supposed to transmit to thought, but the irreducible multiplicity of sexual aptitude: aptitude for transformation, we could say, through identifications, contaminations, contacts of any kind, opening to an indefinite sort of erotic identities”[10]. The sexual thus exceeds sexuation, S. Prokhoris affirms, and it shakes the presumed organization of sexed order. As an expression of the being out of phase of human sexuality as regard to itself, the multiform character of the ‘sexual’ embodies its excess from the bio-anatomic dimension. Here, the norm does not exist as an original truth which is naturally and universally part of our psyche and corporeal being.


So, where do sexual norms come from? Such a concept of sexuality (drive and desire) as irreducible to a natural essence opens the way to a social and historical understanding of it, in terms of a ‘regulatory ideal’ producing bodies’ materialization.

The question I want to ask in this context is why has Freud and psychoanalysis, having perceived the transgressive character of sexual drive, so quickly, submitted it to the fixed and pre-constituted order of immutable norms (natural or symbolic, but nonetheless quite essential). Why does psychoanalysis, that seemed to take distance from any permanent and definitive origin, from any universal and an-historical structure of our existence, finally go back to such essential explications in order to find the certainties of its own fundaments? More clearly, why does sexual theory become a sexual device?

2. Symbolic Law and materialization

Butler’s criticism of the lacanian notion of the symbolic order analyses the normative aspect of analytical discourse. She argues that Lacan’s strategy consists in reformulating the fixed imperatives of sexual order in a non-naturalistic version. “Over and against those who argued that sex is a simple question of anatomy, Lacan maintained that sex is a symbolic position, that one assumes under the threat of punishment, that is, a position one is constrained to assume, where those constraints are operative in the very structure of language and, hence, in the constitutive relations of cultural life”[11]. Butler’s approach consists, on this point, in questioning the status of this symbolic Law that produces the process of materialization of body and sexuality. This law defines the fundamental structures of the difference of sexes and of generations and pretends to guarantee the right functioning of psychosexual life. Therefore, it also operates as a “site of power”[12].

The symbolic has the character of an organizing law and of a normalizing function funding the supposed immutable equilibrium of the sexual order; thus the mark of sexuation appears as the effect of the symbolic implying the permanent setting of sexual positions. “It is insofar as the function of ‘man’ and of ‘woman’ is symbolized, insofar as it is literary pulled out of the realm of imaginary in order to be situated in the realm of the symbolic, that a normal and accomplished sexual position appears. It is to symbolization, as en essential requirement, that the genital realization is submitted – that man becomes more masculine and woman really accepts the feminine function”[13].


Lacan’s reference to the fundamental character of the symbolic actually makes possible a non ontological and immediately naturalistic version of human sexuality. Even if he states that sexual positions do not precede the symbolic that thus produces and creates them, “nothing different from such differentiated order is understandable” and “lacanian psychoanalysis reproduces like structural anthropology a naturalization of gender through the consideration of an a-temporal structure”[14]. More precisely, as the anthropologist G. Rubin argues, the symbolic seems to express an autonomous system preceding the very historicity of social life and Lacan seems not to take sufficiently into account the social organization of the symbolic order. Rubin actually denounces any “sexual essentialism”[15] pretending that sexuality is independent from social life and historical institutions.  Here we have the impression that the understanding of what Lacan calls ‘normal’ appears as a closed identity defining and constituting marked and non-modifiable borders between sexual functions under the operation of the only heterosexual norm. Prokhoris critically emphasizes such a construction of a device of sexuality “consisting not only in prescribing sex and in affirming urbi et orbi which kind of sexuality is valuable – normal and achieved – and which is not, or not completely, but also who it is convenient to love and in which manner”[16].
G. Rubin has questioned in-depth what she calls an “ideal sexuality” which is supposed to conform to a unique model. The hierarchy between different forms of sexuality is often defined according to a naturalistic or paradigmatic definition, thus presented as immutable and eternal. “For religion, the ideal is procreative marriage. For psychology, it is mature and responsible heterosexuality”[17]. Thus, such a model affirms the “necessity to fix imaginary frontiers between good sex and bad sex”[18] and. G. Rubin specifies that “this frontier seems to isolate order from chaos”[19].

This idea of a normative construction of heterosexuality as the only intelligible and viable possibility is also the central point in Butler’s critique. This normative recurrence is a “regulatory ideal”[20] historically produced and itself producing, constituting some corporeal possibilities. All Butler’s work tends to underline that “the regulatory norms of ‘sex’ work in a performative fashion to constitute the materiality of bodies and, more specifically, to materialize the body’s sex, to materialize sexual difference in the service of the consolidation of the heterosexual imperative”[21].

The Symbolic is what makes of us human beings (the permanent linguistic and ‘Cultural’ roles) and what limits human possibilities and excludes certain of them. As Butler says, every occurrence of the law is characterized by the shadow of those who fail as regard to it, shadows of lives haunting the law from outside the frames it defines. Thus, bodies always appear as produced in and through a process of materialization by the norms, formed and constituted by them as viable or unlivable according to the fact that they are conformed to their imperatives. However, the Symbolic producing materialization is not an in-temporal structure preceding its historical reworking, its instituting repetition. This situation opens the way to the possibility of a new resignification of the law through those who seemed to fail and not to incorporate it correctly.


3. Norms and subversion


The question here is not to fantasize about a condition without norms, an outside of the normative realm. This is not the point for Prokhoris, who identifies the norms of existence within the sites of subjectivation, neither is it the purpose for Butler who repeats that constraints are unavoidable conditions for the performative construction of sexual, subjective and social positions.  Power, law and sexuality are deeply linked. “How are we to think through the notion of performativity as it relates to prohibitions that effectively generate sanctioned and unsanctioned sexual practices and arrangements? In particular, how do we pursue, the question of sexuality and the law, where the law is not only that which represses sexuality, but a prohibition that generates sexuality or, at least, compels its directionality?”[22].


The intimacy between sexuality and law that traverses and constitutes corporeality is the basis of any possibility of subversion. Butler affirms that there is neither sexuality without power nor a paradise out of the realm of norms and that we have to renounce to the illusions of a body, which is not produced by the law. In this way, “it is necessary to take into account the fully complexity and subtlety of the law and to cure ourselves of the illusion of a true body beyond the law. If subversion is possible, it will be subversion from within the terms of the law, through the possibilities that emerge when the law turns against itself and spawns unexpected permutations of itself”[23].


Therefore, if there is neither sexuality nor body without a relationship to norms, if the formation of bodies is “the result of normative constraints exerted in the time, in a repetitive manner”[24], how is it possible to break the device of sexuality and change the process of reiteration and the rigidity of the frames which have become humiliating and stifling for certain lives marked by failure and exclusion?


Concerning this function of psychoanalysis, Butler’s strategy consists in the attempt to re-appropriate some of its contents and of its regulatory practices as a possibility to be questioned and redefined according to historical and modifiable criteria.

4. Inaccessible origin and historical re-signification of the Symbolic


Butler’ strategy thus implies placing the supposed immutable laws of the Symbolic, concerning the assumption of sex as a regulatory function, within the dimension of social and political production and of institution of the norms. Butler underlines that the norm of sexual order acts as a norm and as a constraint only because it is reiterated, produced and so instituted as a law. This means that the presumed eternal and fixed order do not precede the process of its own institution. If sex is assumed under the same conditions as a law is assumed, through the act of its instituting repetition, “then ‘the law of sex’ is repeatedly fortified and idealized as the law only to the extent that it is reiterated as the law, produced as the law, the anterior and inapproximable ideal, by the very citations it is said to command. (…)”[25]. Therefore, we can no t identify the point of a meta-historical origin overhanging the dynamism of materialization that the reiteration makes possible. Moreover, the origin is this dynamism of production, the creative reworking that forms and institutes the realm of human and sexual norms. Thus the symbolic law governing the assumption of sex has not a different ontological status as independent from the practices of its assumption and of its institution producing the series of materializations and of instituted sedimentations of normative constraints.


The question of this translation of the symbolic and sexual order from a historical existence standpoint and of the political debate is one of the central points of the articulation between psychoanalysis and gender / queertheories. It is thus important to underline the instituted dimension and the logics of power sedimented in it. Moreover, it is important to re-think such an order as contingent, questionable and mutable according to more human norms of recognition, to think it through the social and historical variability. It is important to make it open to changes and new social and familial equilibriums. I emphasize this aspect as the very challenge of psychoanalysis implying its tangency with political dimension and with institution. “To recast the symbolic as capable of this kind of resignification, it will be necessary to think of the symbolic as the temporalized regulation of signification, and not as a quasi-permanent structure”[26]. We have to understand it as a series of injunctions and laws that embody and represent certain equilibriums of power. The terms of institution and of performativity seem to be the more apt in order to take into account the ineludible articulation between the transformation of the instituted order and the frame of normatively and of power inside which only any strategy of subversion is possible.



Through Butlers’ analysis, it is possible to re-think the norms of sexuation, the frames of the so-called symbolic order, that Lacan had presented in structural terms, as inscribed in the dynamisms of institutions and of historicity. To think the historical aspect of norms means, as Prokhoris underlines, to think, “what makes of them a contingent given”[27].

To conceive the symbolic order as modifiable, and not as the irremovable frontier of the human whose exceeding would imply the danger of a psychic dissolution or destabilization, allows to imagine other possibilities, other forms of life and of human relations than those who are established by the presumed eternity of the structure. Butler invites us to conceive that what was only failure in the light of the symbolic could be a strategy of resistance and of subversion of its constraints and limits determining a criterion of binarity.

As the sociologist E. Fassin argues this denaturalization and historicisation of sexual and gender norms promotes a process of democratization implying a more dynamic perception of the established order. However, this possibility to call order into question “does not mean that our societies are free from sexual norms, but that their control is different when they are considered (…) not as natural laws (…), but as conventional and temporary orders, being the product of history and of balance of power, open to changes and negotiations: there is nowadays a trouble in norms”[28].

We are now also in the condition to re-define the difference between the normal and the a-normal. Normal is not here what is submitted and conformed to the pretended immutable norms, but what is incessantly able to institute new norms, to invent new conditions of life and to imagine new possibilities. Normal is not, according to Prokhoris, a formatted and identical universal that reproduces the order without any possibility to reply, but everything the subject can create to live and make relations with the others in a more humane way. “Normal is not at all what is submitted to an accomplishment. Normal: that means capacity to struggle, inevitably, in and against the device of sexuality such that it doesn’t get on”[29].

It is this constant challenge of new possibilities and of openness to invent and to create which is the unavoidable message that gender and queerstudies address to psychoanalysis. C.R.


[1] S. Prokhoris, Le sexe prescrit. La différence des sexes en question, Flammarion, 2000, p. 11

[2] M. Tort, La fin du dogme paternel, Flammarion, Aubier, Paris, 2005

[3] Ibidem, p. 301.

[4] M. Foucault, Les mots et les choses, Gallimard, Paris, 1966, p.  385.

[5] J. Butler, Antigone’s Claim. Kinship between Life and Death, Columbia, University Press, 2000, p. 18.

[6] E. Fassin, “Les frontières sexuelles de l’Etat”, in Vacarme, n. 34, 2006.

[7] S. Prokhoris, le sexe prescrit. La différence des sexes en questionop. cit. p. 20.

[8] Ibidem, p. 79.

[9] Cfr. T. Dean, « Lacan and queer theory”, in The Cambridge Companion to Lacan,Cambridge University Press, 2003.

[10] S. ProkhorisS, Le sexe prescrit. La différence des sexes en questionop. cit. p. 111.

[11] J. Butler, Bodies that matter. On the discursive limits of sex,  Routledge, New-York-London, 1993, p. 96.

[12] Ibidem, p. 105.

[13] J. Lacan, Séminaire III. Les psychoses, Seuil, Paris, 1981, p. 200.

[14] M. David-Ménard, « L’institution des corps vivants selon Judith Butler », inSexualités, genres et mélancolie, Campagne Première, 2009, pp. 197-212, p. 200.

[15] G. Rubin, “Thinking Sex : Notes for a Radical Theory of Politics of Sexuality”, inPleasure and danger: exploring Female Sexuality, Routledge and Keagan Paul, 1984, French translation, in G. Rubin – J. Butler, Marché au sexe, EPEL, Paris, 2001, p. 79.

[16] S. Prokhoris, Le sexe prescrit ; La différence des sexes en questionop. cit. p. 189-190.

[17] G. Rubin, “Thinking sex: Notes for a radical theory of the Politics of sexuality” in Carol S. Vance, Pleasure and Danger. Exploring Female Sexualityop. cit. p. 90.

[18] Ibidem, p.88.

[19] Ibidem, p. 89.

[20] J. Butler, Bodies that matter. On the discursive limits of sexop. cit p. 1.

[21] Ibidem, p. 2.

[22] Ibidem, p. 95.

[23] J. Butler, Gender trouble, Routledge, Ney York – London, 1990, p. 127.

[24] M. David-Ménard, “L’institution du corps vivant selon Judith Butler”, inSexualités, genres et mélancolieop. cit. p. 204.

[25] J. Butler, Bodies that matter. On the discursive limits of sexop. cit p. 14.

[26] Ibidem, p. 22.

[27] S. Prokhoris, Le sexe prescrit. La différence des sexes en questionop. cit. p. 67

[28] E. Fassin, La démocratie sexuelle et le conflit des civilisations, in  Multitudes, n. 26, 2006, electronic version.

[29] PROKHORIS, Le sexe prescrit. La différence des sexes en questionop. cit. p. 278.


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