[A footnote, recently composed as part of my seminar paper on Judith Butler. The topic of the paper as a whole remains secret.]
As one whose understanding of Lacan has primarily been mediated through Slavoj Žižek and other members of the Slovenian Lacanian school, I was initially baffled by Butler’s critiques of Lacan in Gender Trouble, as well as the critique of Žižek in Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993) and of Dolar in Psychic Life of Power. A crucial difference between Butler and the Slovenian school is not so much their interpretation of Lacan as such as their decision of “which” Lacan to privilege as the interpretative key for his widely variegated body of work—for the Slovenians, it is the “late” Lacan of the 1970s and 80s, whereas for Butler it is the “middle” or structuralist Lacan appropriated by American scholars (particularly feminists).
The Slovenian approach to sexual difference is based on the famous saying that “there is no sexual relationship [il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel].” It is not that there is some positive model that every concrete expression of sexual difference somehow fails to attain, but rather that every concrete expression is an attempt to cover over the fact that no particular instantiation of sexual difference can “work”—it is impossible to find some kind of ideal “complementary” relationship between the sexes, despite our attempt to define “gender roles” and stereotypical qualities, etc. This insight seems to me to be compatible with Butler’s overall project, and indeed, in his chapter “Judith Butler as a Reader of Freud” in The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Center of Political Ontology (New York: Verso, 1999), and in many other places, Žižek shows himself to be deeply sympathetic with Butler’s work.
The deadlock for Butler, which for me renders her critiques of Žižek and Dolar finally unconvincing, is that when she reads talk of “sexual difference” in these authors, she understands it to mean the immutable structuralist law of sexual difference that she (rightly) rejects as both implausible and damaging, whereas they understand it to mean a fundamental impossibility rendering every concrete instantiation of sexual difference illegitimate. Thus I would fault Butler for taking her own “structuralist” reading of Lacan for granted as an interpretative key for the Slovenian authors, especially given that Žižek has presented himself as “correcting” false impressions of Lacan (including, above all, the reception of Lacan among “postmodern” American academics) since The Sublime Object of Ideology (New York: Verso, 1989).
But in the last analysis, it may be more appropriate to attribute this non-encounter to the fact that il n’y a pas de théorie lacanienne—any reference to a unitary “Lacan” is marked by a constitutive failure.