Returning to Juliet Mitchell’s own rereading of her account of sexual difference, this article takes up the question of how structures of kinship—along with the laws of sexual difference that constitute them—are transmitted. According to Mitchell, the construction of sexual difference is characterized by a certain degree of conservatism in that, despite efforts to effect social change, certain normative ways of organizing sexuality manage to persist and to be conveyed across generations. She stresses that this transmission, if it is in fact one, is not necessarily a conscious operation. As such, it is difficult to locate within a precise topography and may require us to rethink the conditions of address and reception at work in the notions of “acquisition” or “transmission.” This essay analyzes two of the examples that Mitchell offers for understanding the historical acquisition of unconscious ideas related to sexual difference, namely, the case of transgenerational guilt and that of the child who emerges into heterosexuality despite being raised by two parents of the same sex. Acknowledging Mitchell’s suggestion that sexual difference is marked by recalcitrance, but refusing the way in which she binds sexual difference to the semantic opposition between masculine and feminine, this essay offers an understanding of kinship that, first, recognizes the inadequacy of mimetic accounts of sexuality that treat parents as “models” for the formation of sexual desire and, second, argues that “invariant” laws of sexual difference, which are not merely reproduced from one generation to the next, do not persist without alteration. The trajectory of psychic contents is not unwavering, and what is relayed into the present is only communicated with translations, transpositions, and deviations that leave what is passed on changed and never fully predictable.
Judith Butler; Rethinking Sexual Difference and Kinship in Juliet Mitchell’s Psychoanalysis and Feminism. differences 1 September 2012; 23 (2): 1–19. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10407391-1629794
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