Imagine There’s no Woman: Ethics and Sublimation (Book Review)

Author:  Copjec, Joan
Publisher: MIT Press
Reviewed By: Geneva Reynaga-Abiko, PsyD, Vol. 26 (3), pp. 71-72

Before commencing my review of this incredible text, I must confess that it is a humbling adventure to embark on such a journey. Unquestionably, Copjec has produced a body of work that is unlike any other, which can only be described as a masterpiece. She focuses on the critical analysis of several key concepts in psychoanalysis, using the arts and philosophy as support. Throughout the work, we are taken on a journey with Freud, Lacan, Kant, and various filmmakers as companions, only to leave them all behind in a synthesis of information that is uniquely Copjec’s own. She is completely unafraid to think critically about several commonly held tenets of psychoanalysis, providing the reader with a gift unlike that to be found in any recently published work.

Copjec begins with an introduction that immediately dives into a discussion of Lacan’s criticism of Kant, a theme that is woven throughout the rest of the book. Specifically, she writes,

Lacan does not argue that there are no universals, only particular things; rather, he maintains that universals are real. To limit one’s observation only to appearances, to particular things, is to overlook the existence of the real, which is precisely what makes an all of being impossible. In other words, if there are only appearances in their particularity, this is due to the fact that the real, a by-product or residue of thought, detaches itself from thought to form its internal limit. This limit has both a synthesizing function that universalizes by causing thought to revolve around it and a detotalizing function, since it subtracts itself from thought. (p. 4)

Copjec then makes the point that “ethics, like science, must be universal if it is to be worthy of its name” (p. 6), and that Lacan discusses a universal ethics in his Encore seminar, rather than a separate ethics of the feminine, though women safeguard the ethical act. Copjec explains that the relationship between femininity and ethics was misunderstood because “the superego was often mistaken for a measure of morality” (p. 8). She spends the first part of the book examining sublimation “for a means to connect the not-all of being to an ethics of the act” (p. 8). This is done in four seemingly separate, yet ultimately interconnected chapters, in which Copjec follows Lacan’s understanding of art. She discusses artistic sublimation in the work of four distinct artists in order to illustrate the relation of sublimation and purification, which is very different from the lack of attention Freud gave to such work. Copjec observes:

The ethics of psychoanalysis follows from its fundamental critique of ontology, from the theory of the drive and sublimation by which it displaces philosophical inquiries into the ontology of the subject. This ethics concerns the subject’s relation to these small pieces of being, not primarily its relation to other people or to the Other. (p. 9)

With Chapter 1, Copjec focuses on the Athenian tragedy Antigone, given that “…not only did the Athenians insert themselves into their tragic dramas… they also posed, through their tragedies, the juridical and ethical questions they were currently confronting in actuality” (p. 13). She chooses Antigone in the same way the German Idealists did, considering her “the paradigmatic figure of modern ethics” (p. 14). The Chapter discusses Lacan, Freud, Hegel, and Lefort, among others, in the quest to expound upon ethics, using Antigone and the various philosophical and psychoanalytic arguments that have been written about it. She makes clear that “through the psychoanalytic concept of sublimation… we will be able to clarify exactly how singularity is able to figure and not be effaced by the social bond” (p. 24), or “bridge the gap between singularity and sociality” (p. 24). She shows us how psychoanalysis is uniquely able to oppose the “regime of biopolitics” (p. 29) by giving us “the concept of an immortal individual body” (p. 30). Copjec weaves arguments of society, the political, and the psychoanalytic together in a style that few can achieve without losing the main thrust of the original argument. She is fearless in challenging common understandings of Antigone, ethics, the death drive, and sublimation. The first chapter could quite literally stand by itself as a profound challenge to much of what is commonly considered fact in the fields of psychoanalysis and philosophy. It is a deeply complex way to begin a book, though certainly a foreshadowing of things to come.

These topics are continued in Chapter 2, where Copjec discusses narcissism and the way in which Freud has been misunderstood on this topic. This ultimately continues our discussion of sublimation, as both concepts have been accused of “having no object” (p. 59). She illustrates this with untitled film stills from Cindy Sherman, powerfully showing us that “genuine love is never selfless—nor, for that matter, is sublimation” (p. 80). Copjec shows the wide range of her expertise, as she clarifies several aspects of psychoanalytic theories related to these terms that have been consistently misunderstood.

In Chapter 3, we meander along an illuminating path of Kara Walker’s work of the antebellum South and the impossibility of erasing the past (p. 93). Like everything else discussed thus far, Copjec dispels many myths and misunderstandings related to these figures, instead showing us their profound psychoanalytic significance. We come to understand that, “Ordinarily the question is asked how one group—blacks, say—differ from others; Walker asks how, given the differences among them, its members can be counted as belonging to the same group” (p. 84), just as Freud did (p. 91-2). Copjec clarifies the position of women while also discussing the purpose of race as a construction (p. 104-5). This is an amazing chapter that many will find of interest, including psychoanalysts, art critics, feminists, and maybe even sociologists.

With Chapter 4, Copjec discusses crying as an invention of the 18th century and all of the implications thereof, including “a fundamental shift in representation itself, which abandoned its former ‘theatricality’ to embrace a new strategy of ‘absorption’” (p. 110). She gives melodrama as an example, to make clear the point that

The hidden or misunderstood virtue so dear to melodrama is not best approached as that of a passive victim of forces the characters cannot control but of an active manipulation designed to sustain the illusion that there can be an existence that evades inclusion in social space. (p. 121)

And, as abruptly as we jumped into these complex topics of the first section, it ends, completing our discussion of The Feminine Act of Sublimation.

The second part of the book discusses “the superegoic underside of ethics” (p. 9) by focusing on Kant’s tenet of radical evil, evil as it relates to equality and justice, and the difference between sublimation and perversion. Copjec again uses artistic films, but also uses the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination and various philosophical texts as illustrations of her arguments. This makes the second part of the book seem quite different from the first, but ultimately it continues to examine ethics in Copjec’s profound and revolutionary fashion.

In Chapter 5, Copjec discusses radical evil, showing that “we cannot fail to be struck by the utter barbarity with which civilized nations cling fast to fundamental principles they refuse under any circumstances to abandon” (p. 135). She uses Kant’s Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone as a base for the chapter, ultimately discussing power, politics, and religion. Copjec argues that her discussion of grace is not confined to a Christian perspective (p. 154), but I disagree and find that the entire chapter requires at least cursory familiarity with the Judeo-Christian perspective.

Chapter 6 focuses on religious and ethnic tensions of various cities, continuing what was started with the previous Chapter. Copjec gives the film noir Laura as illustration of her points regarding hostility and envy, continually tying in explanations of the ethical. In Chapter 7, we turn to the American interest in the body, as Copjec asks, “What is a body?” (p. 180). This includes conversations about duality, empiricism and God, continuing in the intelligent and innovative style we have now come to expect of Copjec. The final chapter discusses Zapruder’s 8mm film of the Kennedy assassination, specifically the remarks by Pier Paolo Pasolini about the film. This quickly becomes a discussion of “the long take versus montage debate that once seemed so pressing to theorists of cinema” (p. 199) and eventually comes full circle to a discussion of Antigone. She ends the book in a very political fashion, with deep psychoanalytic thought just below the surface of every word.

This text is not typical among psychoanalytic literature, with ideas presented in linear form followed by illustrative case examples. This text is not linear at all, actually, and the reader must pay close attention in order to follow the arguments that flow throughout the body of the work. Copjec ends the book simply, without any conclusion, without any summary of the points offered in the previous chapters. If one desires a clear conclusion, one is directed to the introduction, which may act as a metaphor for the interconnectedness of the type of knowledge she discusses. This text requires complete engagement, and will undoubtedly lead the astute reader to finish every chapter with a sense of wonder as to how one author can possess such a deep understanding of so many fields of thought.

With this work, Copjec has produced a masterpiece. It is incredibly complex, revolutionary, profound, and personal. While it sometimes seems that we are being taken on a ride through a variety of unrelated topics, Copjec inevitably brings us back to her fascinating reconceptualizations regarding ethics and sublimation. It is a complex yet worthwhile journey to which few have devoted such careful attention. While I certainly do not profess to fully understand the nuances of her form and function, it is clear that this text stands above the shoulders of many giants, fully delivering on the promise of accomplishing a goal to produce an intelligent and fresh text. I will close with Copjec’s own words, as they seem the only ones fitting to close this humble review of her phenomenal work:

To approach the question of ethics from the perspective of psychoanalysis may strike some as a narrowing of the issue and a needless confinement of the debate to the terms of a special language. My arguments here are premised on the belief that psychoanalysis is the mother tongue of our modernity and that the important issues of our time are scarcely articulable outside the concepts it has forged. While some blasé souls argue that we are already beyond psychoanalysis, the truth is that we have not yet caught up with its most revolutionary insights. (p. 10)

Reviewer Note

Geneva Reynaga-Abiko

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