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Number 13: Spring 2018

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

Sheila Cavanagh

Bracha Ettinger 

Ettinger began to publish her writings on the Feminine and the matrixial borderspace inspired by her art and her psychoanalytic work with patients in the 1990s. The corpus of her theory is inspired by the writings of Wilfred Bion, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Emmanual Levinas, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and Donald Winnicot (among others). Her theories of the matrixial, along with her painting and art notebooks, have been written about by Griselda Pollock, Catherine de Zegher, Jean-François Lyotard, Christine Buci-Glucksmann and Brian Massumi. She is now a professor at the European Graduate School in Switzerland, a practising artist and analyst. Her oeuvre is offered as a supplement to and extension of Lacan’s writing on feminine sexuality and subjectivity. Like other feminist psychoanalytic theorists including, but not limited to, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous, Ettinger contends that there is a discourse and aesthetics particular to the Feminine that is submerged in Lacanian psychoanalysis and in modernity more generally.3 ((Ettinger (2006) offers her theorization of the Other sexual difference as an alternative to the formulation of the semiotic and the Chora (which means womb and uterus) developed by Julia Kristeva. Although both the Chora and the Matrix are anchored to maternal encounters, Ettinger contends that the Chora cannot be symbolized in Kristeva’s theory. The Chora is, for Kristeva, a precondition for the semiotic and ultimately a basis for language but is, for Ettinger, confined to psychotic discourse or to poetic discourse. ))Ettinger’s writing on the matrixial borderspace (2006) is designed to give theoretical form to a missing discourse and aesthetics of the Feminine. 

For Ettinger, the Feminine operates through affective and aesthetic fields. Building upon Lévinas, Ettinger explains that the Feminine is the “irreducible difference inside subjectivity: precisely what makes it human” (2006: 190). The matrixial borderspace is a Feminine sub-stratum that coexists alongside what she refers to as the phallic (Symbolic) stratum theorized by Lacan.4 ((Ettinger refers to the Other (Feminine) axis of difference as a sub-stratum that coexists alongside what she calls the phallic axis of difference. The phallic axis of difference is the stratum whereby identity, intersubjectivity and sexual positioning (as man or as Woman) make sense. In the Feminine sub-stratum we are all trans-subjective because we are moored by Others and non-I’s, partners in difference particular to a given matrixial web. ))The Other axis of sexual difference is foreclosed by the phallic signifier, but signifiable in an expanded sub-symbolic where (and when) we are attuned to Others and non-I’s in the matrixial web (Ettinger, 2006). The Other sexual difference in the matrixial is not about the One (and its binary oppositions between object and subject), but about “thinking transmissivity and co-affectivity” (Ettinger, 2006: 183). It is about the unthought time-space of borderlinking in the matrixial that is trans-subjective (as distinct from transgender to be discussed below). This dimension of difference is, for Ettinger, primordial, occurring before, alongside, and after Oedipal sex difference but irreducible to it. The Feminine axis of difference is not based on phallic cuts, splits and severance but, rather, severality. The Ettingerian Feminine is thus not reducible to male or female, masculinity or femininity in a sociological sense. The Other sexual difference is based on trans-connectivity and trace connections to Others known and unknown in familial and extra-familial matrixes. In the Feminine dimension, the subject is more than one and bound to others in asymmetrical difference. This is why she refers to partial-subjects, as opposed to individual subjects. Ettinger does not theorize individual subjects who can be said to relate in the terms offered-up by object relations theory. Her focus is on partial-subjects who exist in relation to Others and non-I’s in a non-conscious matrixial borderspace.5 ((The I and the non-I are names for the partial-subject and its Other. “The I is a pulsating pole of co-poiesis. The I and non-I are pulsating poles of co-poiesis along a shared psychic string” (2006: 193). Together, these fields with their multiple I’s and non-I’s form matrixial webs. ))

Although Ettinger uses the metaphor of the mother-to-be and the subject-to-be in the pre-birth encounter as a model to think about the matrixial borderspace, the matrix should not be used as a synonym for maternity. Indeed, the matrixial is an axis of difference that transcends conception, gestation, and birth. The female bodily specificity that Ettinger refers to in her writing on the matrixial involves corporeality but is not reducible to it. The matrixial is “the site, physically, imaginatively, and symbolically, where a feminine difference emerges, and through which a ‘woman’ is interlaced as a figure that is not confined to one-body, but is rather a hybrid ‘webbing’ of links between several subjectivities, who by virtue of that webbing become partial” (Ettinger, 2006:141). As Griselda Pollock notes, the matrix is a signifier of “transformative transferential potentialities in a shareable resonance sphere” (Ettinger, as quoted by Pollock, 2006: 21). We are always with Others in “reciprocity without symmetry, creating joint compassionate and eroticized aerials, to be further shaped by following traces of their further affective irradiation” (Ettinger 2000: 199). What Ettinger calls erotic aerials intercept aesthetic traces relevant to a shared matrixial web. In other words, a transgression with-in-to the Feminine is aesthetic and leaves trace-like imprints linking several partial-subjects in a shared web. It is the transformative capacities of the matrixial that the character Tiresias helps us to understand. By focusing on Tiresias and Ettinger’s feminist psychoanalytic theory of the matrixial, I am not suggesting that those who are transgender, by contemporary standards, are ultimately ‘women’ or ‘feminine’ (although some are). Those who are transgender, like those of us who are not transgender, are all differently gendered in what Ettinger calls the phallic landscape. As Ettinger explains, access to the Feminine dimension of experience is open to everyone regardless of gender or sexual positioning in the phallic stratum of difference theorized by Lacan. 

Tiresias animates, and helps us to understand, the trans-subjective elements of human experience explicated by Ettinger. While the linguistic similarity between ‘transgender’ (or ‘transsexuality’) and ‘trans-subjectivity’ in Ettinger’s theorization is significant, they are, in fact, different concepts. Transgender usually refers to those who dis-identify with their sex assignment at birth and/or to those who are gender variant. Transsexuality often refers to those who undergo social and/or medically assisted transitions which may involve gender confirming surgeries, hormone therapies, hormone blockers, etc. In Ettinger’s formulation, ‘trans-subjectivity’ does not have anything to do with gender. Nor does it refer to transpeople. Rather, trans-subjectivity refers to our status as partial-subjects in the matrixial web. In essence, the trans-subjective is used by Ettinger to account for the matrixial elements of the partial-subject in the Feminine sub-stratum (defined below). Trans-subjectivity should also not be confused with intersubjectivity because intersubjectivity depends upon singular subjects (in the phallic landscape) who can relate to one another in conscious ways. We are not singular subjects in matrixial terms but, as stated above, partial-subjects. Ettinger defines the partial-subject as several (more than One) and also refers to ‘subjectivity-as-encounter’ in the matrixial order of things. In the trans-subjective weave, partial-subjects are co-affected by Others in non-symmetrical ways and thus partners in difference. Trans-subjectivity also involves ‘co-emergence’ and ‘co-fading’ in/through/by metramorphosis (defined below). It thus contains transformative potentiality which is relevant to transgender studies.