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How do we feel free in a body with limits? How do we withstand psychical states of excruciating ambivalence? How can we depend on others, when what we depend on is disappointing, desirous, and unpredictable?
These are the questions brought into the consulting room of a psychoanalyst. Often these questions are posed first as symptoms—dizziness, unbearable longing, emotional numbness, stomach pain, addiction, crushing fatigue. These symptoms continue to repeat until they have been spoken within the analytic relationship. As our technological and sexual landscape changes, our original questions of meaning, dependency, and pleasure still insist—yet the mode of reply is transformed by our material conditions, ushering waves of new and usual symptoms into the psychoanalyst’s (now virtual) office.
Danielle Knafo, psychoanalyst and writer, suggests that twenty-first century psychoanalysis must continue to interrogate these questions, not by “updating” its practices, but by returning to the fundamental concerns of psychoanalysis—sex, aggression, and the unconscious mind. The field of psychoanalysis concerns itself with observing the presence of meaning, wherever it may be placed. “Sex is not simply what we do; it is what we mean,” Knafo writes.
I spoke with Knafo about her new book, The New Sexual Landscape and Contemporary Psychoanalysis, which is constituted much like a landscape painting, surveying with panoramic scope the ‘ins and outs’ of contemporary trends in technology, sex and gender from a psychoanalytic perspective. Her book bridges our disparate thinking on the sexual and technological instinct—we fashion machines in an attempt to transcend limitation. Just like sex, “we use technology to cope with threat, lack, and mortality itself, and to provide us with stimulation, novelty, and pleasure.”
Readers of this book need not be psychoanalysts: it reads more like a sociological study than a psychoanalytic textbook, presenting phenomena simply and directly through pop culture, statistical data, and clinical illustrations. Knafo surveys the technological paraphernalia of our sex lives, from the steam-powered vibrator of the Victorian era to the 10,000 dollar RealDoll available today. Her writing looks toward the future, and gives us an idea of what she believes we should expect—for instance, the prediction that marriage to robots will be legal by the middle of the century.
The New Sexual Landscape and Contemporary Psychoanalysisdiscusses perversion in relation to pornography, robotics, dolls, devices, and even celibacy. There are a number of ways that the perverse structure is defined clinically. Lacanians, for instance, understand perversion as a disavowal of castration, with the unconscious belief that desire is not caused by lack but by presence (of the fetish object). What is your working definition of perversion in this book? Must all perversion include a fetish object?
Lacan’s definition of perversion is similar to Freud’s, in that it refers primarily to fetishism. Yet, not all perversion involves a fetish object. Rather, fetishism is a specific type of perversion. Fetishism goes beyond perversion because the tendency to endow objects with some degree of magical properties is universal. And now we have technological devices that actually mimic magic and enhance our fetishizing propensities. We talk to Alexa; we argue with our navigation system; we ogle our phones all day long. We fetishize our devices and these habits increase as they become more sophisticated and we become more dependent on them.
We believe that with advanced technology, we are facing a new type of perversion. Rather than the disavowal of castration, we are seeing the disavowal of the human––the vulnerable, mortal, conscious animal. For example, men who develop intimate relationships with dolls and robots are not merely disavowing castration but disavowing the assumption of the need for human-to-human contact. The intimate relationship with the machine or object reflects back the agent’s object quality. As this process of mechanization bleeds deeply into the social and cultural spheres, the boundary between the machine and the human becomes further blurred.
What is interesting here, though far outside the scope of this interview, is how this adaptation intersects with Lacan’s hermeneutic of the inherent failure of intimacy. We may find that we get along better with machines, especially intelligent machines, than we do with each other.
In perversion, the person spins a magical illusion that masks an underlying stalemate: for example, a man who has sex with a corpse but is convinced it is a live partner; an adult who has sex with a child and is convinced the sex is consensual. Yet doesn’t all sex involve some degree of magic?
We expand the definition of perversion to include the social domain. Thus, perversion can be found in any social system whose aim, purpose or meaning is –by the very operation of that system—reversed, undermined, violated, or destroyed. Social perversions contain many of the elements identified in psychoanalytic writings on sexual perversion: splitting, disavowal, illusion, means-end reversal, dehumanization, and delight in exploitation. Therefore, perversion can exist in the boardroom as much as it can in the bedroom.
Like Freud, my co-author and I believe the tendency to perversion is universal and derives from our polymorphous perverse beginnings. Therefore, perversion is not pathological, per se, and there is no need for a moral or judgmental stance toward it. We see perversion as rooted in the need to transcend limits, challenge boundaries, and battle death.
Perversity is the existential rebellion inherent in the mind of an acutely self-conscious animal who, at different times and places, rails against the natural or original course of things. However much one aspires, however much one accomplishes, however much good one does, one knows one is doomed, cast out towards death in a cosmos free of meaning. Classical psychoanalysis links perversion to trauma and in clinical practice we see this is the case time and again. But personal history is also ungirded by the traumatic context of human life. Small wonder that both sexual and social perversion involve a greater or lesser degree of domination and submission.
You provide a clear inventory of possible gender expressions, with clinical and cultural examples. The seemingly infinite plasticity of gender emerges as a liberation: we can untether ourselves from our biological sexes, celebrate all gender expression, and have in each of us the best of both sexes. At the same time this brings to mind Lacan’s statement about the moment anxiety begins—when “the lack is lacking” (Lacan, 1962), as well as the phrase “when loss is lost” (Stephan Hartman, 2011).
What psychical challenges accompany our new sense of sexual freedom?
Yes, there is a new sense of liberation when it comes to gender expression. Facebook offers 60 gender options to its users; Tinder offers 40. People choose their gender or even choose not to be gendered. Diane Ehrensaft calls this “gender creativity.” Indeed, gender fluidity is a wonderful illustration of the protest of human subjectivity against factors outside of the self that defined one. An important challenge to gender fluidity refers to the attitude of rejecting limits in general.
The mind may always contemplate far more possibilities than the body can realize. Until the time comes when we do away with bodies, or make them fully replaceable and vastly alterable, this will remain true. Orlan, a multimedia French artist who has modified her body in the name of art, has said, “the body is no longer adequate for the current situation.”
In the “old days,” we used to assess peoples’ ability to test reality, to know the difference between what is inside and outside. We judged psychological maturation according to how well people accepted the limits of their gender and their age—how well they adapted to what we thought of as reality. The classical Oedipal situation provided the perfect example. Could a child grow to accept that there are differences between the sexes and between generations? Could the (male) child accept that he is not his mother’s partner and grow instead to identify with his father rather than compete with him?
Navigating this conundrum was believed to determine a healthy outcome to a challenging developmental situation. Obviously, this view was limited in scope and inaccurate in many respects, though it provided a way of conceptualizing and discussing human development, triadic relationships, sexual fantasy, and conflict. It proved much more helpful when seen as a useful but incomplete theory than it did as a fixed dogma.
In today’s postmodern world, with its beautiful dream of total inclusion and possibility, distinctions between objective and subjective reality have been challenged. Acceptance of reality, however we define it, is no longer considered the hallmark of mental health or successful development. Yet, if we eliminate all limits to how we define or see ourselves, then we live with the illusion that we can be anything or do anything. Nike’s Just do it logo comes to mind, as does the Adidas slogan, Impossible is Nothing.
Just doing it can mean failing miserably at doing it, though you will never see that in a commercial. And though the impossible is a kind of nothing, it is one whose ways of being is vastly greater than what is possible. Not everyone can just be Michael Jordan or Serena Williams simply because they buy an athletic shoe. We need to accept some barriers to our desires because limits are built into life; limits to resources, to space, to time, to knowledge, to connection, to everything that matters. We are never what we wish to be, and we never get what we wish—this is embedded in Lacan’s concept of jouissance. Limits and loss are there when we age, fall ill, and die. Rebelling against such limits is a way we rebel not only against gender categories; it is a way we rebel against our mortality.
Of course, we continue to challenge limits and transgress against “natural” boundaries–as we must. This is inherent to the life of a self-conscious, mobile, dexterous animal, an animal troubled with the burden of an identity, however varied or fluid. In this way we advance a kind of progress and in this we truly have no choice. It takes us to new places that we only begin to recognize long after we get there.
How do we understand this sea change in sexual identity and gender expression in the context of the ‘everything is permitted’ polymorphous pleasures of late capitalism? Simply put, what does our sexuality have to do with the economy?
Mass capitalism exploits everything, even the titans that drive it. In this vision of life, the self is both an agent and an object of commodification. We understand this socio-economic system as an embodied structure that fosters the illusion of complete and satisfying objectification: the correct object or set of objects will satisfy desire and eliminate the dissatisfaction and unease inherent to human existence. Capitalism manufactures and answers desire in a never-ending cycle of more and never enough. Consumers are simultaneously rendered blind to the problem of desire while being exploited by it, coopted by a system that consumes them as they run the Treadmill of Acquisition until death. The covert dogma of capitalism: you will have but you will never enjoy; be assimilated or be eliminated.
Like so much of what modern civilization does, this system blatantly denies ageing and death––even when it sells skin cremes that remove wrinkles or hurricane-proof burial vaults. Naturally, this structure of exploitation transfers to the sexual sphere, an area that was never short on exploitation. Sex in the capitalist framework is also a commodity and so objects of consumption are best marketed through their erotization. Sex sells. Sexy, half-clad women are placed next to objects that have nothing to do with sex, sending a subliminal message: if you buy this car/vacuum/stove, your sex life will improve.
The new technology is also used to enhance and augment sexuality by making promises it cannot keep: easy and fulfilling sex, no strings attached, full refund if not satisfied, and, most importantly, endless supplies—what Lacan called the attempt to attain the “impossible object.” In 2019, there were over 42 billion visits to Pornhub. Many visitors tire of one video, move on to the next, and so on. They live with the omnipotent illusion that there are no limits to the objects that can satisfy their desires. In the presence of such an endless stream of products, the inner space becomes an abyss that swallows objects into its black hole. Even when the sex is great, the love is terrible. In short capitalism, especially the predatory type so popular today, is not a friend of intimacy––intimacy, that feeling and belief that two people are sharing something truly private, important, and meaningful––that most sacred of all imaginative creations.
I appreciate your re-sexualizing of psychoanalysis. I think this book communicates well the attitude— it’s not that “everything is actually about sex” but that sex is an inherently enigmatic space in which psychical crises become symbolized. You list three primary reasons for the turn away from sexuality in psychoanalysis: inherent discomfort; reactions stirred up by HIV/AIDS; an explosion of sexual harassment lawsuits.
Two of these seem unlikely to change anytime soon. What do you see as the future of sexuality in American psychoanalysis?
I want to point out that the French have never desexualized psychoanalysis. In our book, we describe several additional reasons for the turn away from sexuality, particularly in psychoanalysis. As we’ve moved away from biology, we’ve also moved away from drives, even though cognitive neuroscience has confirmed Freud’s thinking about the existence of sex and aggressive drives. Many analysts have begun showing greater interest in object relations; they have become preoccupied with pre-oedipal relations and early attachment behaviors. Leaving out the oedipal complex, the time when passions and jealousies abound, has unfortunately contributed to a desexualized theory.
We hope that writing about sex in psychoanalysis will make some small contribution to a return to this central human issue. We also believe that the technologization of sex, which is still in its infancy, will hasten that return. The problem is and has always been the body–– its gory genitals, its hungry heart, its fragile flesh. To ignore or minimize sex when speaking of the human condition is to marginalize human evolution and dismiss the unconscious mind.
From Hikkikomori in Japan to apps and hook-up culture, how does the mediation of screens impact the desire for in-person encounters? Has Covid-19 accelerated a shift already occurring in our collective sex lives?
Technology has been the biggest game changer with regard to human life in general and human sexuality in particular. People are increasingly living their lives online rather than in person. Sex, too, is happening more and more online as a result. Sexting, online pornography, and cybersex are all proliferating. Many young people are introduced to sex online by age 11 and this ends up shaping their sexuality for years to come. Some learn that they cannot have relations with humans after becoming accustomed to the rapid, changing illusion of new multiple sex partners with the click of a mouse.
The screen has definitely turned us away from each other, especially in regard to areas where person-to-person interaction may feel uncomfortable. It has also introduced an additional and profound level of virtualization to our lives. Of course, Covid-19 has greatly facilitated further virtualization. The pandemic has vastly increased online sex as well as online everything. We are currently doing nearly everything online that we used to do in person, in work and in play. The need to do things online will further drive the progress of communication technology.
Screens facilitate sexual encounters for some. They give people courage to try out things they might not in person. They provide like-minded spaces. No matter how strange or unconventional one’s desires are, there is a community online that shares these desires and promises to gratify them. Screens accelerate the migration of atypical sexual perspectives and behaviors. They circumvent the awkwardness of forging traditional forms of intimacy. It may introduce new forms of intimacy as well.
And, contrary to what many believe, this is not without danger. People put themselves out there, thinking they have found a safe space, but there are many predators online who can present themselves as other than who they are (catfishing) and who can use what people present against them (rape porn). These are only two of many examples of ways online sex can be used to deceive, exploit and harm.
Let’s talk about digisexuality: robots, teledildonics, haptic devices, VR, cybersex. You write a bit about the way technology changes our experiences of the subject/object divide. Can you say more about what happens to the subject-object relation on conscious and unconscious levels when engaging in these practices?
First wave digisexuals use technology to mediate connection with a human partner. Second wave digisexuals are increasingly immersed with activity in which no human partner is present or, if they are, their presence is dispensible. Novel technologies, like robotics, teledildonics, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and haptic devices, extend the experience and form of the subject, creating a strong sense of detachment from its singular biological locus. Immersion in such technologies alter one’s sense of self, softening the boundary between self and non-self, inside and outside.
Virtual reality simulation creates a person’s experience of themselves as both subject and object: the technology user adopts a godlike position—being within and outside of oneself simultaneously. Defying the laws of physics, one can be in two places at once.
Once sex is added, the godlike intensity of the experience can make up for the vagueness of its virtuality. Emblematic of cybersex and the digital age is the avatar—the red-hot thread running through the uncanny domain of cyber. VR can enable one to experience situations not available to ordinary embodiment. In the future, this kind of experience might be used to bring one into more direct contact with what it is like to be someone or something else.
Repetition of such activities and the impressions and experiences they create seep into unconscious minds. Reflect for a moment that all the figures of our dreams are really expressions of the self. Perhaps the unconscious effects these technologies will enable consists in a facile mobility in shape- and self-shifting. We see benefits to these technologies as well as dangers. The softening of boundaries between self and other may create an egoistic instability, making one more vulnerable to irrational and hallucinogenic qualities of the unconscious mind.
When reflecting on the rise of digisexuality and the possibility of the ‘singularity’ (the erasure between machine and human) you write, “These constraints [limits of helplessness, conflict, trauma, knowledge, death, and the human responses to them, will provide the basis for a psychoanalytic critique of the culture that ultimately aims at saving human reality.”
This made me wonder, should psychoanalysis only be invested in maintaining the human-ness of reality, as opposed to the uncanny?
The possible answers to this question depend on how we define the human and the value we assign to that definition. To be human means first and foremost to always be adapting to new situations and struggling against limitations. In using science and technology to create advantages for ourselves, we ward off the external threats of nature and the environment, and physical threats from within due to aging, sickness, and death, altering what it means to be human throughout our history in non-trivial ways.
To be human in, say, medieval Europe meant expecting to live to be 30 or 40 years old; today (living in first world countries) it means expecting to live between 80 and 90. A 10-day journey by horse during medieval times can now be accomplished in 5 hours by car. These differences are not merely differences in life expectancy and travel possibilities; they alter one’s very way of being. They make being human different. With our very first fire to warm ourselves and cook meat, we changed what it meant to be who and what we are.
Now, however, we are considering unprecedented changes in what it means to be human beings. Erasing the boundary between the human and the machine (e.g., downloading a mind into a computer, being fitted with an android body, using cryopreservation to freeze a dead body in the hopes of future revival, and so on) signifies changes of many orders of magnitude. It is one thing to double the life span and another to live for thousands of years.
And so what is the uncanny in this context but the normal?
Danielle Knafo is a psychoanalyst, psychologist, and professor in the clinical psychology
doctoral program at Long Island University and faculty and supervisor at NYU’s Postdoctoral Program.
Cassandra B. Seltman is a psychoanalyst and writer.