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The Impossibility Of The Sexual Act

The Letter, Issue 15, Spring 1999, Pages 51 - 60


(Some thoughts on perversion and obsessional neurosis)

Patricia McCarthy


This does not sound like a title that makes sense, and clearly it doesn't make sense at the level of what we, ordinarily, take the sexual act to be, that is, at the social or human level. However at the level of the subject, the sexual act is silence. There is a syncopation of signifiers when it comes to dealing with what is involved in sex. To syncopate a word is to shorten it by dropping out an interior letter or syllable, for instance the word 'never' becoming 'ne'er'. The structural syncopation in meaning at the level of the unconscious, is already a consequence of a logic that sets the subject up. Can such a lofty theorisation have clinical relevance? To define the subject in terms of the difficulty of the sexual act is, hopefully, to allow us pinpoint more clearly, where on the path of difficulty, the neurotic or perverse subject places himself. Over all of this, the status of the analytic act hangs suspended ...


In crime thrillers, the serial killer often turns out to be someone who is at the heart of the investigative team and more often still is someone of whom it is later remarked 'Of course it had to be him! Look at the way he always straightened up the telephone directories or how neatly he arranged the files on his desk!' In this escapist scenario, we don't readily have to recognise aspects of ourselves in the investigator/serial killer. In relation to an unwitting individual who comes to see him, and who pays him with florins that have been previously laundered, Freud is quick to locate the displacement, from hands dirty from handling young girls' genitals to hands which handle only clean money. The individual in question, of course, fled - and understandably so. Who of us wants to be told the truth about ourselves? The point of this strange overlapping between perverse and obsessional activity is that it might allow us grapple with an impossible title about a so-called impossible act - the sexual act.

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