Jennifer Doyle: "Sex, Paranoia & the Workplace" – Response by Tim Dean

[On March 30, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “Sex, Paranoia & the Workplace” The speaker was Jennifer Doyle, Professor of English at UC-Riverside. Below is a response to the lecture from Tim Dean, Professor of English.]

Response to Jennifer Doyle’s “Sex, Paranoia & the Workplace”
by Tim Dean, Professor of English

Jennifer Doyle and I met for the very first time today; but I have admired her work for over a decade, and all the more so after reading her recent book, Campus Sex, Campus Security (published by Semiotext(e) in 2015).  One of the things I admire most is her capacity to keep the critical lens focused on sex, especially at a time when the field of Queer Studies has retreated from the difficulties of thinking sex in favor of other objects of study.  From her first book, titled Sex Objects: Art and the Dialectics of Desire (2006), Professor Doyle has focused on how libidinal energies and impasses shape the cultural and social fields.  This focus strikes me as deeply psychoanalytic, even when Doyle steers clear of particular psychoanalytic methods and vocabularies.  In my remarks today, I want to situate her reading of Freud’s “Case of Paranoia” in relation to her work as a whole, before opening the floor to discussion.  I would like to articulate a number of observations and questions, but I will try to be brief.

In both her reading of Freud’s case and her recent book, Doyle is interested in the desires, anxieties, and disavowals that structure the workplace—including our workplaces at public universities.  In her reading of Freud, she has an explanation for why the workplace has become intolerable for the woman in question.  And in her book Campus Sex, Campus Security, she has an explanation for why our working conditions at public universities have increasingly become intolerable.  But they are not the same explanation, even though both turn on “sex.”

In her reading of Freud’s case, Doyle raises the possibility of a non-pathological paranoia—what she calls “a healthy kind of paranoia.”[1]  When conditions are structured to prevent a certain possibility for a particular class of persons in the workplace (here, women), then something like a paranoid response appears reasonable.  Calling it “paranoia” is a way of de-legitimizing the response, a way of denying that what the woman has perceived is real.  It’s all in her head.  Doyle is right to claim that, no, it’s not all in her head, it’s structured into the conditions of her workplace by the gendered division of labor.  The woman in Freud’s case, quite apart from the “revenge porn” scenario she conjures avant la letter, is perceiving something that the professional men involved staunchly disavow, namely, the workplace as a sexual space.

But what exactly does it mean to describe the workplace as a sexualspace?  It means something different in Doyle’s reading of Freud than it does in her reading of public university campuses in the 21st century United States.  In her reading of Freud, Doyle draws on a particular Italian Marxist-feminist account of labor—associated with Silvia Federici and Leopoldina Fortunati—to argue that the woman in Freud’s case is caught in the contradictions that structure the capitalist division of labor between production (in the workplace) and reproduction (outside the workplace).  In this schema, sex is “not only administered as that which ‘happens’ outside the sphere of work; it is positioned as ‘the opposite’ of work.”[2]  There is thus no conceptual space for accommodating sex in the workplace and, indeed, no possibility of acknowledging sex as itself a form of work.  This is one way of explaining why our society cannot really think through the category of sex work—and why male sex work in particular seems to short-circuit rational thought.  To grasp how sex and work are not each other’s opposites likewise obliterates the distinction between pleasure and labor that organizes Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1930).

At the end of her reading of Freud, Doyle refers to “the collective disavowal of the fact that ‘work’ is always already sexed.”[3]  Here, I believe the term “sexed” means gendered—i.e., the workplace is structured by a gendered division of labor that uniquely disadvantages women.  I have no quarrel with that claim, but I worry about how the term “sex” has slid from meaning something libidinal—sex as in fucking—to meaning sexual difference, sex as a term European feminists use where we would be more likely to use the term gender.  The fact, as Doyle puts it, that “‘work’ is always already sexed” is not the same as saying that the workplace is a sexual space.

Another way of articulating my concern would be to say that the Marxist feminist critique of the gendered division of labor, valuable though it is, keeps in place a distinctly heterosexual paradigm for understanding sex.  That paradigm makes it harder to see how, for example, same-sexsexual harassment functions in the workplace or on campus.  When gender difference organizes your concept of sexuality, certain things become invisible, or much harder to perceive.  This is a problem with the intellectual tradition Doyle is drawing upon in her reading of Freud; but it’s a problem that does not appear in her book Campus Sex, Campus Security, where she uses the term “sex” differently.

What Doyle describes as a collective disavowal of the libidinal dimension of the workplace takes an historically specific, neoliberal form on contemporary college campuses.  In my view, that disavowal helps to explain how queer theory, once it became institutionalized in the university, stopped paying attention to sex.  In the mid-1980s, Gayle Rubin announced—in an article (“Thinking Sex”) that inaugurated the field—that “The time has come to think about sex.”  But by the end of the millennium, queer theorists had simply decided they would prefer not to.  Jennifer Doyle represents a notable exception to that institutional retrenchment, and I am profoundly grateful for the searching brilliance of her latest book. 

One of the things Campus Sex, Campus Security makes evident is how “sex” has become what renders the campus and its administrators insecure.  The most acceptable campus discourse about sex is how to stop it from happening.  In the latest incarnation of a Foucaultian nightmare, sex has become something that must be, above all, administered.[4]  Outside of biology labs, there is virtually no space on campus for actually thinking sex.  There are plenty of campus spaces for thinking about how to getsex.  And every campus has multiple sites for engaging intellectually with questions of gender (even though those sites tend to be under-resourced and under attack).  But if you’re searching for a place on campus to theorize human sexuality apart from a biological model, you are basically out of luck.   

Sex is not supposed to contaminate the campus as a workplace.  Now, when I went to college in the 1980s, it was precisely in order to have sex (and perhaps secondarily to reflect on what that meant).  All my undergraduate feminist friends talked incessantly about which professors they wanted to shag; as students we speculated endlessly, and in minute detail, about what various faculty members would be like in bed.  I’m not sure how much has changed since then (you tell me); but what has changed is the growth of a large and complex bureaucracy to administer sexual complaints.  At universities such as the ones Doyle describes in her book, the campus bureaucracy has become increasingly militarized, not to mention paranoid about securing boundaries in a way that deserves to be diagnosed as pathological.  (We are not talking here about “a healthy kind of paranoia.”)

When my college friends and I generated a discourse whose sole object was our professors’ sex lives, we did so as a result of the phenomenon that Freud named transference.  “He whom I suppose to know, I love.”  Transference is a psychoanalytic term for describing the libidinal energies that pervade relationships structured hierarchically.  Transference is the engine that drives psychoanalysis in a clinical setting and it permeates hierarchical institutions such as schools.  It’s a way of talking about the libidinal component of our relationship to authority.  I would argue that sex haunts the workplace in large part because transference goes unrecognized and unacknowledged.  Freud said that the essence of psychoanalysis lay in handling the transference.  One might say that the essence of teaching lies similarly in handling the transference that permeates pedagogical relationships.  When a teacher or a student fail to recognize that what’s happening between them is transferential, that’s when they are most likely to end up having sex.  And by now we have a pretty good idea of how that story ends.

Let me redescribe what I’m trying to get at here.  In the Marxist-feminist critique of the division of labor that Doyle invokes, there is a division between production and reproduction that creates an impasse for women in the workplace and fails to acknowledge certain kind of labor as labor.  Partly in response to this impasse, Italian Marxist philosophers such as Maurizio Lazzarato and Antonio Negri have developed the concept of immaterial laborto describe “labor that produces an immaterial good, such as a service, a cultural product, knowledge or communication.”[5]  In my own research on sex work, I’ve been using the idea of immaterial labor to think through forms of affective labor, aesthetic labor, and glamourlabor.  What psychoanalysis adds to this account of immaterial labor is the crucial idea of unconscious labor—the work that our minds do, in the service of pleasure, unbeknownst to us.  (Freud uses the term arbeit, the basic German word for work, to describe this mental labor)  We might say that the unconscious is the ideal laborer of capitalism because our minds continue working even when we’re asleep.  What they produce is a called a dream—an immaterial product if ever there were one.

Transference is a way of talking about the unconscious component of all human relationships that are structured hierarchically.  It acknowledges that there is another kind of work going on, work that is intentional but eclipsed by consciousness.  The workplace is a sexual space because every human being who occupies that space is accompanied by a ghost, namely, their unconscious.


[1]Jennifer Doyle, “Rethinking a Case of Paranoia as a Workplace Complaint,” Studies in Gender and Sexuality, vol.18, no.1 (2017), 10.
[2]  Doyle, “Rethinking,” 11.
[3]  Doyle, “Rethinking,” 12.
[4]  Here Doyle’s account recalls political anthropologist David Graber’s brilliant critique of contemporary bureaucracy in The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (2015).
[5]  Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Harvard University Press, 2000), 290.
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