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Number 13: Spring 2018

Bracha L. Ettinger, Jacques Lacan and Tiresias: The Other Sexual Difference

Sheila Cavanagh

This essay is about Tiresias, the blind Theban prophet in the Oedipal trilogy and how he11animates what Israeli feminist psychoanalyst Bracha L. Ettinger calls an Other sexual difference. This Other sexual difference must be distinguished from Oedipal (or phallic) sexual difference as theorized by Freud in terms of psychosexual development and later by Jacques Lacan, under the auspices of sexuation whereby there are two possible sexual positions—man and the Woman—demarcated by the phallic signifier. Tiresias appears in Greek mythology and plays an important role in Sophocles’ Antigone and in Oedipus the King as seer. Tiresias also appears in Homer’s Odyssey, in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, and in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, among other literary and dramatic works. In this paper, I consider the significance of Tiresias to Ettinger’s formulation of the Other (Feminine) sexual difference. The Other sexual difference is an unconscious time-space of emergence, fading and transformation. It involves an unconscious process whereby we are borderlinked to Others (whom Ettinger calls our non-I’s2((Ettinger refers to the non-I in the metramorphic encounter-event as a site of transmission to be distinguished from an Other as subject.))) in a matrixial web. The borderlinking is an encounter-event in the Real at the basis of what Ettinger calls Feminine sexual difference. As Griselda Pollock (2013) explains, the Other sexual difference “generates a specific proto-ethical dimension in all human subjectivity irrespective of later gender identifications as masculine or feminine subjects under the sign of the Phallus” (167). 

Although Tiresias is an ancient Greek shape-shifter and not transgender by contemporary definitions, his centrality to Ettinger’s writing on the transgression with-in-to the Feminine (Ettinger, 2000) is relevant to transgender cultural studies (Stryker and Zizura, 2013; Stryker and Whittle, 2006). Transgender cultural studies is based, in part, on a study of somatechnical (Murray, 2016) transformations, transsexual transitions, desire and diverse embodiments – some of which resonate with Tiresian mythology. As such, there is an important convergence between Ettinger’s feminist psychoanalytic theory and transgender studies that can be narrativized through the character of Tiresias. Ettinger is, to the best of my knowledge, the first post-Lacanian feminist scholar to address the central importance of Tiresias in the Oedipal-trilogy. Certainly, Judith Butler names Tiresias in her discussion of the Oedipal-trilogy in Antigone’s Claim and Hélène Cixous and Annette Kuhn mention the Theban prophet in their work on castration and decapitation (Cixous and Kuhn, 1981; Butler, 2000). But there is curious neglect of the character in the now substantive body of feminist psychoanalytic scholarship. Perhaps this is due to unacknowledged transphobia and the consequent neglect of trans-like characters in psychoanalytic studies of mythology. It may also be due to a reluctance to consider the interrelationship between feminist psychoanalytic theory and transgender studies.

  1. I am using the masculine pronoun to reference Tiresias because the prophet lives most of his life as a man.