The Impossibility of the Feminine and the Possibility of Freedom
Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. . . ."
According to Lacan, The Woman does not exist. She cannot be captured by the symbolic or the imaginary and, thereby, exists in the real—the order that limits the other orders. From the perspective of the masculine order of the symbolic, the feminine realm of the real appears to be the impossible—the limit of possibility and the barrier to the actualization of human freedom.
"For instance, now," she went on, . . . "there's the King's Messenger. He's in prison now, being punished; and the trial doesn't even begin till next Wednesday: and of course the crime comes last of all."
"Suppose he never commits the crime?" said Alice.
"That would be all the better, wouldn't it?" the Queen said. . . .
Alice felt there was no denying that. "Of course it would be all the better," she said: "but it wouldn't be all the better his being punished."
"You're wrong there, at any rate," said the Queen: "were you ever punished?"
"Only for faults," said Alice.
"And you were all the better for it, I know!" the Queen said triumphantly.
"Yes, but then I had done the things I was punished for," said Alice: "that makes all the difference."
"But, if you hadn't done them," the Queen said, "that would have been better still; better, and better, and better!" Her voice went higher with each "better," till it got quite to a squeak at last.
Alice was just beginning to say "There's a mistake somewhere—. . . ."
At first blush, the Lacanian universe sounds hopelessly bleak and repressive, bound by prohibitions that make immediate human relationships impossible by definition. But a second look reveals a much different picture. By being castrated, the Lacanian split subject becomes negative (like Hegel's subject explored in The Philosophy of Right ). But this means that subjectivity contains the capacity for freedom.
This is even more true from the feminine position which is the place of that which is lost in castration. The Woman does not exist. But this means that she is not bound by actuality but is pure potentiality. She does not exist—yet. The law of prohibition is an alchemy that enables humans to imagine and actualize freedom. In other words, woman does not exist, she insists —she denies our limits.
External reality is brute necessity. One cannot do certain things because they are literally impossible in the brute sense that "man cannot fly." But as conscious subjects, we do not have direct, immediate access to reality. The instant we realize we are experiencing reality, we are interpreting it—this is why jouissance is silent. The order of the real, therefore, is this interpreted concept of that which exists outside of our interpretation.
The psyche can only keep the realms of the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic separate through the law of prohibition—"Thou shall not merge with the real." What was impossible (merging with the world and
the others in immediate relationships) is now prohibited. One does not prohibit what cannot be. Consequently, the impossible is now reimagined as possible but not allowed! The real—"that which we can't speak"—now becomes "that which we mustn't say." "You cannot" becomes "Shut up!" This creates "the ought"—the desire, possibility, and necessity of going beyond a self-imposed limit.
Thereby we have already produced the formula of the mysterious of horror into bliss: by means of it, the impossible limit changes into the forbidden place . In other words, the logic of this reversal is that of the transmutation of Real into Symbolic: the impossible-real changes into an object of symbolic prohibition. The paradox (and perhaps the very function of the prohibition as such) consists of course in the fact that, as soon as it is conceived as prohibited, the real-impossible changes into something possible , i.e., into something that cannot be reached, not because of its inherent impossibility but simply because access to it is hindered by the external barrier of the prohibition.
The Lacanian Feminine is the negativity of subjectivity, but not in the sense of a simple negation of some masculine positivity. If she were, she would merely be the complement of Masculinity and the two sexes would together constitute a harmonious whole. The Masculine claims to have "it," but the Feminine denies that anyone still has "it," while predicting that we will obtain "it" yet. But such complementarity only exists in our fantasies, in the imaginary. That is, the Feminine is the "it" which the Masculine claims to have—the paradoxical moment of sublation which is logically impossible. The Feminine is the negative of the Masculine in the sense of a denial of the hegemony of the symbolic order and its limits. She is the "not-all" (pas tout ) in the sense of "not all things are phallic." This is why she cannot be described in the symbolic or captured in the masculinist fantasies of the imaginary. The Masculine—the speaking subject—is totally captured in the phallic order of the symbolic. The Fem-
inine is not. She is, therefore, the possibility of going beyond. The Feminine stands in the position of the negative subjectivity that is the condition of freedom.
Lacan analyzed ethics in terms of Kant's dictate "You can, because you must." By this he seems to have meant that impossibility does not excuse one from one's ethical duty. But Lacan, like Hegel, went beyond Kant by recognizing that, paradoxically, impossibility creates the duty. The limit not only defines the ought, but the ought is itself the limit (i.e., the real to the symbolic).
"Man cannot fly" in the real becomes "man shalt not fly" in the symbolic. Mere physical impossibility becomes in the imaginary the Icarus myth whereby man is punished for daring to fly, as well as innumerable inspirational fantasy images of angels and other winged beings that haunt the art and legends of so many cultures. Man must not fly becomes man must fly. As a result, today we have in fact gone beyond this limit and do fly—but notably not in the actually impossible (real) way of flapping our arms and flying like birds, but in a uniquely human way of using the imaginary and symbolic to invent flying machines. That is, flying is artificial—in the literal sense of "made by art"—and is, therefore, authentic to human nature.
Consequently, Lacan must rewrite the Freudian concept of the superego. The superego, as every undergraduate thinks she knows, is supposed
to be the part of our psyche that internalizes the law of prohibition. But paradoxically, it is the superego, not the id, that constantly tells us "Enjoy!" It is our guilty conscience that constantly harps on us to obey. The law of the Father castrates us by forbidding our enjoyment. The symbolic—law and language—cannot exist without an order outside of the symbolic that serves as its limit. This is the real and jouissance . It is necessary, therefore, for the law to establish its own transgression. The only way for the superego to internalize the law is to force us to transgress the law.
We give up this enjoyment to assuage our guilt and expect to be compensated for this loss with the lesser pleasures allowed by the law—sexual maturity. But we continue to desire enjoyment which requires transgression of the law. The paradox is, of course, that it is only through the prohibition that we become subjects capable of desire, enjoyment and sin. Lacanian thought is retrospective. We conclude that the enjoyment of wholeness is forever lost because of our sin, when, in reality, it is the dream of the not yet.
Hegel makes this precise point in The Philosophy of Right when he argues that wrong is not merely implicit in, but required by, the notion of right.
I've Believed . . . Impossible Things . . .
He's dreaming now," said Tweedledee: "and what do you think he's dreaming about?"
Alice said "Nobody can guess that."
"Why, about you!" Tweedledee exclaimed, clapping his hands triumphantly. "And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you'd be?"
"Where I am now, of course," said Alice.
"Not you!" Tweedledee retorted contemptuously. "You'd be nowhere. Why, You're only a sort of thing in his dream!"
In Through the Looking Glass , Alice finds herself trapped in a symbolic order in the form of a chess game. She is placed in the position of a pawn—woman as commodity passively moved by others. When she has the conversation with the White Queen quoted throughout this chapter, Alice, like most empirical women, is still trying to live up to a fantasy of femininity. Alice insists that she is "real," but Tweedledee is correct in insisting that she is a mere figment of the sleeping Red King's dream—a fantasy projection in the masculine imaginary.
Through the dialectic we are able to reimagine the impossible as the prohibited, and therefore as the possible. Hegelian freedom is "the ought": the ethical and logical necessity of transcending the limit. According to sublative logic, it is always already and not yet. But it is never now. Alice saw the White Queen's paradox as the impossible and she couldn't believe it. The White Queen understood that it followed from "living backwards"—the retroactive logic of the dialectic. We can bear the deprivation of jam today only because of memories of jam yesterday (the "always already") and the self-confidence that we will win jam tomorrow (the "not yet"). Of course Alice is only a child; she sees the White Queen as befuddled. But it is precisely the White Queen's understanding of, and belief in, the impossible that makes her not just free but sovereign. She is a queen—The Woman who doesn't exist.
Why? What is the "not yet" of the failed encounter experienced in subjectivity and law? In Lacan, that which is in the real, which is beyond the limit, is feminine subjectivity. Castration is our imaginary memory of our always already of separation from the Feminine in the position of Mother-Other, and the hope of obtaining the not yet of the Feminine in the future.
From the masculine position, the Feminine and the Phallus look as
though they have always and already been lost in castration. But from the feminine position we see that the Feminine has only been prohibited and, therefore, is not yet. Being beyond the limit, the dream of unmediated relationships that is feminine subjectivity is the ought, not merely an aspirational goal but a logical and ethical dictate. If the Feminine is forbidden, then she must be possible. But we cannot know whether she is in fact possible until she is actualized. This means that, paradoxically, for the Masculine to exist it must both repress the Feminine and call her into being. This is what Lacan means when he says that the superego both prohibits enjoyment and commands us to enjoy.
Although the Masculine (the law) represses the Feminine as the always already lost of castration and condemns her to nonexistence, the Masculine simultaneously creates the possibility of the sublated Feminine as the not yet of freedom. As the Masculine claims to be the actuality of having the Phallus , it presupposes the Feminine potentiality of being and enjoying it.
The Feminine as both the always already and the not yet are terrifying as well as inspiring to the Masculine. Because the Masculine claims to have "it," the formula of masculinity is "All are subject to the symbolic order (the Phallus )." This position is one of desperate, chronic anxiety which Freud called castration fear. The masculine position like the male organ seeks to be firm, but is fragile. This is because the simple negation of the masculine position is "There is one who escapes." It can be falsified by one counterexample.
But the Feminine is not the simple negation of the Masculine. Its formula is "Not all are subject to the symbolic order (the Phallus )." Although logicians might argue that this is mathematically equivalent to the sim-
Jacques Lacan, A Love Letter (Une lettre d'âmour) [hereinafter Lacan, Love Letter ], in Jacques Lacan and the école freudienne, Feminine Sexuality 149, 150 (Juliet Mitchell & Jacqueline Rose eds. & Jacqueline Rose trans., 1982) [hereinafter Lacan, Feminine Sexuality]. The masculine formula reads "all x are submitted to the function F." The simple (masculine) negation of this is "there is at least one x which is not submitted to the function F." The feminine formula reads "not all x are submitted to the function F," which implies the simple negation "there is no x which could be exempted from the function F." Zizek,[*] Tarrying with the Negative, supra note 47, at 56. The function F is, of course, castration. Id . at 250 n.10.
ple negation of the Masculine, psychoanalytically they are totally diverse. This is because the negation of the feminine formula is "No one ever escapes." Consequently, although the feminine position can never be verified, it can never be falsified. This is, of course, the classic problem of induction. No matter how much evidence we gather showing that every person who has ever lived has been subject to the symbolic order, there is always the logical possibility that the next example will escape. This weakness of the claims of the symbolic order is the dread of the Masculine and the hope of the Feminine. As a result, the masculine symbolic order reacts in terror and forbids the Feminine. The anxiety of the Masculine is desperate because the falsifying datum—the Feminine—is always present. As Zizek[*] says, "the trouble with jouissance is not that it is unattainable, that it always eludes our grasp, but, rather, that one can never get rid of it . . . ." Now that she is forbidden, she is not longer impossible, but possible. And as potential, she seeks to be actualized. As Lacan said, the Masculine (claims to) exist, but the Feminine insists!
Because the Masculine denies castration, it can never get beyond castration but is frozen by anxiety, trapped within the symbolic order. The feminine acceptance of castration is the realization that that which is lost is gone forever but this means that we can mourn its passing and then can go forward and create something new . The Feminine is the ability to say goodbye. The Feminine insists that we will never be complete but means that there is always room to grow . We will always desire because we will never be fulfilled. This is the criterion of freedom and creativity. The Masculine is the fantasy of present wholeness which is necessary for us to act and speak now. The Feminine, as the inevitable realization that this position is a lie, threatens to also freeze us into impotence as we mourn for a wholeness lost in the past. But the Feminine is also the position that the Masculine is a lie also in the sense that castration is a lie. The reason that we are not whole now is not that we were once whole in the past. The real seems unattainable because we experience it as though it preceded the imaginary and the real. But the truth is that the real was only created instantaneously with the imaginary and the symbolic. The three orders are mutually constituting. As a consequence, it is only the sense of loss of wholeness that we call castration which enables us even to imagine what wholeness might be. The Feminine, therefore, is the dream of a future wholeness.
As I have emphasized throughout this book, Lacan is notorious for
insisting that the Masculine is the position of subjectivity. But Lacan is much too subtle, and subversive, to be taken at his literal word. Lacan reveals his method in one of his most influential works, his Seminar on Edgar Allan Poe's The Purloined Letter . As is well known, in this story the blackmailing minister succeeds in hiding the eponymous letter from the police by altering its appearance and then displaying it in full sight, in the most obvious place—sticking out of a letter folder hanging from the fireplace mantle in the minister's office. By retelling this story, Lacan is also revealing that he has a secret, disguised but hidden in full sight. Indeed, he gives a further, explicit clue. According to Lacan, Poe's protagonist, Dupin, succeeds in finding the letter by imagining the room as an enormous woman, awaiting his embrace.
How precisely does Lacan describe his "masculine" subject? "He" is split, "he" has a space within, a space that permits intersubjectivity, love, and creation of the new. The metaphor of the cloven, receptive, and fertile body is so obvious that we refuse to see it, so that we insist the answer does not exist. The subject isThe Woman (i.e., the Feminine)—the radical negativity that is the capacity for human freedom.
And so, Alice eventually gives way to her desire and goes beyond the limit to achieve a radical feminine subjectivity. At the end of Through the Looking Glass she achieves the impossible of both being and having the Phallic Mother. She reaches the end of the chessboard, is "queened," takes the Red Queen, and wins the chess game. At this moment, just as Lacan predicted, the fantasy comes to an end. Alice transcends the symbolic and enters the real.
The Necessary Loss of Virginity
Property reflects separation. But to love, we must first be separate people who can desire and cherish the feminine hope of reunion. The psychoanalytic function we call the Feminine cannot be filled by the passive, silent object of desire of which Hegel and Lacan speak. To actu-
alize human freedom, empirical woman must actualize her potential freedom and become an active mediatrix who sets the chain of desire and intersubjectivity in motion.
We must envision a feminine integrity that is not solely dependent for its recognition on the Masculine. The Feminine insists that we are not totally captured by the symbolic order. No doubt, submission to the regime of market exchange is related to the commodification of women in some deep and fundamental way. Nevertheless, the Radinian person who chastely tries to protect the integrity of her personhood from commodification by preserving her virgin property from market intercourse immures herself beyond the reach of community. By seeking to protect herself from the alienation and loneliness of commodification, she instead separates herself. Trying to avoid objectification, she so identifies herself with her objects that she re-creates herself in the image of the traditional masculine fantasy of woman as passive object who does not actively engage in society as a subject.
The ancient image of the Great Goddess is reduced to the Christian image of Mary—a mediatrix to be sure, but forever Virgin, stripped of her godhood, and dependent on the divinity of her Son. One of Mary's most evocative titles is "Alone of All Her Sex." This explicitly reflects the fact that by virtue of her great privilege of having been immaculately conceived she escaped the disjunction of body and soul, the pains of sexual desire, and the indignity of violation suffered by other women. But we can now understand the double meaning which makes this title so resonant. Such a perfect virgin is so sadly alone.
Lacan was finally able to answer the question that so perplexed Freud: "Was will das Weib? (What does woman want?)" She just wants . When we stand in the feminine position, we experience ourselves as wanting in both senses of the term. Moreover, in our masculine aspect we live in despair and terror of the castration we secretly know has always already occurred. Women are left wanting because it is men who are wanting the thing we all want. Men need to insist that they have the Phallus , not despite their castration but just because of their castration.
Hegelian theory can enrich feminist legal theory because it insists
that society can never meet the minimum demands of right until every person—including women acting proudly as women and not as the reflected image of masculine fantasy—are recognized as full subjects whose recognition is worthy of desire. Lacanian theory can enrich feminist property theory by reminding us that the Feminine cannot avoid, but is dependent on, the symbolic regime of exchange that creates subjectivity. Rather than fearfully avoiding the market because it can lead to objectification that threatens the self, or grudgingly accepting limited market relations as a necessary evil, feminist theory needs to recognize that subjectivity and community—love, dignity, and justice—require the person to risk her very self in order to see herself reflected in the eyes of the Other.
Nevertheless, Hegelian theory insists that the very logic of property means that there must be some minimal objects of property that cannot rightfully be alienated in the market. Lacanian theory insists that the Feminine can never be reduced to the role imposed on her by the symbolic regime—feminine jouissance remains uncaptured. There must, therefore, be a place in our law for object relations, the feminine position, that are not subjected to the Phallic order of the market. But this does not require a disparagement of the market and traditional property, for even to analyze these object relations in terms of "property" is to subject them to the order of the market. Rather, we must consider the development of an alternate regime that would neither negate nor complement but would supplement the law of property—perhaps a jurisprudence of expanded bodily integrity. The Lacanian Feminine must, however, resist the imaginary temptations of the masculine fantasy of Aphrodite who had a lover every night but awoke a virgin every morning.
The Feminine of sublation cannot be a return to the original unity of the lost Feminine. The price of marriage is the bleeding hymen. This is because the primordial Feminine never in fact preexisted its loss. Rather, she is retroactively posited as that which must have been lost in the real when the symbolic order was established. As reflected in so many traditional marriage customs, the bride's virginity is only established the
morning after by the stain of its loss on the marriage bed sheets.
Sublation is not a simple restoration. "[H]armony is restored, but this 'new harmony' has nothing whatsoever to do with the restitution of the lost original harmony—in the new harmony, the loss of the original harmony is consummated ." Once virginity is lost, it can never be restored, only mourned. But now that we have tasted the autonomy of subjectivity and glimpsed the possibility of freedom, we should not long to return to the unconscious organic unity of the lost Feminine. Rather, we seek a chosen, conscious moment of unity between free individuals. And so, we must seek not restoration but transfiguration. The sublated Feminine must cast off her Vestal livery and cherish the scar of her defloration as a remainder and reminder of that which must be sacrificed for love.
The Greek myth of Persephone illustrates the Lacanian Feminine. It often seems paradoxical to us moderns that she was both the goddess of spring and the queen of the dead. From a Lacanian perspective, however, these two roles necessarily and inevitably go together. They are feminine enjoyment as not yet, and always already gone.
Once Persephone was called "Core," which is not a name but merely
the generic term for "maiden." She was the virgin daughter of Demeter, the goddess of the harvest. Demeter is the Phallic Mother as ripeness or completion. Hades, the lord of the dead, abducted and raped Core so that she would rule beside him on his infernal throne. Demeter refused to allow anything to grow until her Core was returned to her. In light of this threat, Zeus was forced to intervene and ordered Hades to return Core.
This was impossible. Core had eaten of the food of the dead. She was no longer a core . The moment she was recalled to life in the world, she was immediately dying and leaving her mother's embrace to return to Hades. Her rapist husband tried to hold her in his icy grasp, but she was always slipping away to return to life and the warmth of her mother's arms. Like the Hegelian subject she was now both blessed and damned to divinity.
But she used this pain to buy herself an inestimable present—subjectivity. Before her violation (or what Lacan would call castration) she had her virgin integrity and was as one with the Phallic Mother in the perfect harmony of immediate relationship. But this meant that she had no separate existence and did not even have a name. Like the imaginary femininity posited by different-voice feminism, as Core, she never fully separated from her mother. Now she is Persephone, an individual speaking person. She is no longer overshadowed by her mother, nor is she passively raped by her husband. Indeed, she is a queen, but by necessity a queen of death. Her perfection is the fleeting momentary enjoyment or ripeness—union with her Phallic Mother. But the moment she merges back with Mother-ripeness, she no longer exists because she once again loses her personality. She is, therefore, even more dead when she is with the goddess of life who wishes to subsume her than she is in the land of the dead, where she is merely imprisoned and can dream of escape. Neither Demeter nor Hades succeeds in embracing her, but they now worship her simultaneously as both the goddess of spring—the future ripeness which is promised—and death—the past ripeness which is mourned.
Death seeks life, and life seeks death in the eternal, iterative sterility of the fort-da game. Hades, the god of death, experiences his desire for Persephone in the masculine form of Eros . He seeks to cure his castration in the imaginary by finding a perfect mate who will make him whole by perfectly filling his hole. Demeter, the goddess of life, experiences her desire for Persephone in the feminine form of Thanatos (the death wish).
She seeks to retreat back to a time before her violation in the real by merging with Persephone into an undifferentiated, impersonal integrity—turning Persephone back into Core. From the standpoint of Demeter and Hades, Persephone is like Eurydice, the Feminine twice lost. But from Persephone's own impossible position, she is feminine subjectivity finally found.