The Lacanian Story of the Feminine
The gender types described by Lacan are at least superficially consistent with contemporary gender stereotypes—many of which are highly misogynist. I would hope that feminists and feminist fellow travelers do not dismiss his theories out of hand because of this. I find his account not merely provocative but evocative. In particular, I find that his typology of the Feminine and Masculine functions much more accurately fits my experience of myself and others than does the pop psychology of cultural feminists. Lacan does reveal a tragic, misogynist world. But to condemn him for doing so is to kill the messenger because of the message. A theory of misogyny is not necessarily a misogynist theory.
More important, Lacan is, probably unintentionally, subversive of the gender status quo. I will show throughout this book that Lacan's very propositions undermine his conclusions from within. The Masculine is supposed to be the position of subjectivity, and the Feminine that of objectivity. The Feminine symbolizes lack—she does not exist. But it is only this radical negativity of the Feminine which can represent the negative that is at the heart of the split Lacanian subject. It is only this negativity which opens up a space in human existence for desire, creation, and freedom. It is the denial of the Feminine in what Lacan called "castration" which transforms the impossible into the merely forbidden.
Paradoxically, then, it is this impossibility of the Lacanian Feminine which creates the possibility of Hegelian freedom. Consequently, Lacanian theory shows that the self-actualization of human freedom requires not only property rights but feminine emancipation. This latter requires the impossible task of going beyond the limits of castration and creating an affirmative speaking feminine subjectivity. This is the concept of Hegelian freedom as "the ought"—that which, according to sublative logic, is the always already and the not yet. But it is never the now.
But we run before our horse to market.
The Patriarchal Family
In reading Lacanian theory one needs to keep several things in mind. First and foremost, Lacan's theory does not "explain" patriarchy in a scientific or causative sense. Rather, it presupposes patriarchal family structures. Lacan's method was abduction—the logic of imagination.
Abduction is the logical process by which we try to imagine possible
explanations of initially surprising phenomena. As Julia Kristeva explains, she accepts Lacan's theory of castration as a working hypothesis because of its great explanatory power. She compares it to the "Big Bang" theory of the birth of the universe, which cannot be directly observed. Nevertheless, if we were to treat the story of the Phallus or the story of the Big Bang as though it were true, then so many initially surprising things we observe about human behavior, in the one case, or astrophysics, in the other, would no longer be surprising but would be a matter of course. It is a retroactive attempt at explaining the past, as opposed to a prospective prediction of the future. Consequently, Charles Sanders Peirce argued that abduction was better termed "retroduction."
In other words, Lacan did not merely observe infants acquiring language and deduce that conventional gender roles would inevitably develop. Rather, he observed the existence of the patriarchal family and tried to imagine a satisfying story which might make its existence seem understandable. This means that Lacan purports neither to show how patriarchy originally came into being as a historical matter nor to argue that patriarchy is inevitable. At most, it suggests the structures through which Western patriarchy, once in place, reproduces itself.
On the one hand, the theory holds out to feminists at least a theoretical possibility of change—a rewriting of gender roles. On the other hand, Lacan's retroactive account of patriarchy as a self-reproducing system takes seriously the crushing "reality" of the fiction of gender roles as lived. We cannot not merely wish away unhappiness and oppression.
The Artificiality of Sexuality
Lacan can be seen as retelling Hegel after Freud, or perhaps more accurately, as rewriting Freud through Hegel. Lacan's greatest contribution to Freudian psychoana-
lytic theory may be that he moved it away from the anatomical and natural. Freud himself wavered between naturalistic and fictional accounts of the psyche. In his theory of "penis envy," Freud at times came close to saying that the penis is so impressive that the mere sight of it arouses an actual desire in little girls to want one of their own; the primal sighting (or non-sighting) of the little girl's lack of a penis causes the little boy to fear physical castration. The psychological experience of loss is a retroactive reinterpretation of these primal events. The traditional Freudian theory of the oedipus complex risks becoming an assertion concerning biological lust which is supposedly experienced by children as an empirical, biological matter.
Sexuality . . . [on Lacan's rewriting of Freud] is not, in spite of popular conceptions, governed by nature, instincts or biology but by signification and meaning.
This signification is given by the man looking back at the child he once was. Penis envy and castration anxiety are retroactive, imaginary reinterpretations of earlier psychoanalytic experiences of loss, rather than the other way around.
Sexuality as Language
When Lacan speaks about "men" and "women," he is not speaking about empirically anatomical male and female human beings. He is, rather, referring to the "Masculine" and the "Feminine" as psychoanalytical, or linguistic, positions which human beings must take up to become speaking creatures. These positions are only generally associated with the biological sexes. That is:
For Lacan, men and women are only ever in language ("Men and women are signifiers bound to the common usage of language" . . . ). All speaking beings must line themselves up on one side or the other of this division, but anyone can cross over and inscribe themselves on the opposite side from that to which they are anatomically destined.
To say that Lacan sought to destroy any lingering biological determinism in Freud's theories while explaining how gender difference becomes mapped upon biological sexual difference is not to imply that biological sexual difference does not exist or is not important. Lacan's
point is that our experience of sexuality as speaking, conscious subjects can never be simply reduced to our biological sex for the same reason that property cannot be reduced to our sensuous relationship with physical things. Sexuality is artificial, and therefore authentic to man the artist. The sexual status quo is neither natural nor inevitable in the sense that anatomy is destiny. Nevertheless, Lacan hypothesizes a mechanism by which a sexual status quo—once in place—maintains its position.
Male superiority is neither biologically nor psychoanalytically true. Rather it is a fantasy. Yet it is a fantasy in which we live. If gender is a lie, it is a lie that we believe . We must adopt a sex in order to become adult subjects. As we shall see, the theory holds that identification of these psychological categories with biological analogues is practically inevitable in our society, even if it is erroneous. Anatomy is, therefore, hardly irrelevant.
[A]natomy is what figures in the account: for me "anatomy is not destiny," but that does not mean that anatomy does not "figure" . . . , but it only figures (it is a sham ).
That is, the fictional sex we "choose" and live tends to be correlated, more or less strongly, with our anatomical sex. Lacan captures this by using terms for his psychoanalytical concepts, like Phallus and castration, which suggest this conflation. Consequently, a Lacanian would deny the fashionable sex/gender distinction (which identifies the former with anatomical difference and the latter with social difference) precisely because it presupposes that we can tell the difference and achieve an immediate experience of the "real" of anatomy as distinct from our imaginary and symbolic interpretations.
Neither does my reading of Lacanian theory require a denial of the physical and anatomical concept of the brain, in favor of a psychic explanation of the mind. Nor is his linguistic theory necessarily incompatible
with theories that emphasize the physical capacity of the human brain for language. Lacan's idea is held by many philosophers of science. Human consciousness cannot experience the physical in an unmediated way. Human beings, as speaking subjects, do not have a direct unmediated relationship to our biological sexuality. We always filter our experience of the physical through the orders of the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic. The moment we are aware that we are experiencing a sensation, the second we are aware of ourselves as differentiated from an object or sensation, our mind has mediated the experience of the brain. The moment we think about our sexual experiences (let alone fantasize or speak about them), we have already interpreted them.
The Anatomy of Truth
Lacan's truth about lies is a story told through metaphors of male anatomical experience. But this leaves open the question whether other different "true" stories—perhaps feminine stories—could be told to explain other aspects of ourselves.
This possibility, of course, is more than just a little problematical. As we shall discuss, Lacan posits that the subject is psychologically positioned as masculine. What then could it possibly mean to tell a feminine story if we always speak in a masculine voice? It would not be an answer merely
to attempt to tell the story of development through female anatomical metaphor. Mere negation or reversal is always a reinstatement, not a rejection, of hierarchy. In negation, the categories of the original hierarchy are accepted, and thereby strengthened and essentialized; one merely argues about the relative valorization of the categories. Lacan's point of the essential antinomy of sexuality remains. If the Feminine is the position of lack (radical negativity), then any attempt to identify positive content replicates the deluded masculine fantasy that we can tame and dominate the Feminine by defining her.
For example, as I shall discuss, Lacan's psychoanalytical term of art Phallus is the lost object of desire and the signifier of subjectivity. It does not designate the male organ. The identification of the Phallus with the male
organ and the female body is, like all identification, imaginary. Lacan intentionally uses this misleading term in order to reflect conflations retroactively made by the subject upon taking on sexual identity and subjectivity.
Several feminists such as Grosz, Cornell, and Irigaray have, however, challenged Lacan's claims to a neutral terminology. Is he in fact engaging in a conflation of the psychic and the anatomical even as he denies it? That is, by using terminology which invokes the anatomical male organ to describe the object of desire, Lacan might be making the error of describing the psyche through phallic (as opposed to Phallic ) metaphor. Lacan's very terminology may not merely reflect but actually predetermine the conclusions of his analysis. Lacan's claims of nonessentialism might degenerate into the essentialization of the Feminine as silence. Sexuality is not biological, but biological men and women usually take up the fantasy positions of psychic men and women: but if all is fantasy, then the fantasy we live is the only reality. Theoretically we might be able to live another fantasy—but not in the current world. Our current fantasy is the only reality we can know. Nevertheless, I believe Lacan's misogynist paradox, whereby sexuality is not inevitable but always already predetermined, precisely describes the structure of society and the impossible task facing feminism. Lacan's terminology is not neutral. But this is because society is not.
But this seeming predestination is the inevitable effect of a retroactive dialectic. Lacan's theory of sexuation posits its necessity only in the sense that, standing here today as adults in this society, this is the process which must have happened . It is not necessary in the sense that, from the standpoint of any empirical infant, this is the process that must happen in all societies in all times. Theoretically the child could undergo different forms of sexuation in different types of societies. In addition, as we shall see, the Lacanian alchemy allows us to transform the impossible into the merely forbidden. As I shall discuss, to the Lacanian and the Hegelian, the existence of prohibition contains within it not merely the possibility but the ethical imperative of its transgression. It is precisely by denying feminine subjectivity that Lacan requires it. Consequently, implicit in the Lacanian-Hegelian notion of necessity is the possibility of reform. But we will never know whether it is really possible until we actualize it.
The Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic
According to Lacan, we exist in the three orders of the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real.
[I]n the relation of the imaginary and the real, and in the constitution of the world such as results from it, everything depends on the position of the subject. And the position of the subject—you should know, I've been repeating it for long enough—is essentially characterized by its place in the symbolic world, in other words in the world of speech.
In one of Lacan's last seminars, he uses the metaphor of a "Borromean Knot" to describe the relationship between these orders. This "knot" consists of three rings that are not interlinked but are held together through overlapping. The metaphor points out that although each ring and each realm is distinct and does not interpenetrate any other, the whole of the knot and the psyche depends on the interrelationship between the three;
remove one, and the whole system collapses. The metaphor of the interlocking rings is also designed to counteract the tendency to hierarchize the three regimes—placing the symbolic realm above the imaginary, and the imaginary above the real. Another advantage of the metaphor of rings is that it offers an alternative to the common internal-external metaphors for human experience. A point within a ring can be described either as external to the ring or as internal to it. Because the three rings overlap, the metaphor illustrates how (as I shall discuss later) the object cause of desire, which Lacan calls the objet petit a , can exist in more than one order simultaneously.
The symbolic is the order of law and language. Since the Lacanian subject is the speaking subject, subjectivity is primarily in the symbolic—law, language, symbolization, and signification. In other words, the subject is not only the subject of language, it is also subject to language. The imaginary, as its name indicates, concerns the order of nonverbal imagery. It includes simple identification and differentiation of the
type of which animals are capable. Lacan's concept of the real is subtle and paradoxical. The real is our sense of the limit to the symbolic and the imaginary—that which cannot be captured in language or images. It is the world of impossibility, limitations, and necessity. The real is pure immediacy. It is the uterine unity that collapses all distinctions not only of people but of time and space. It is that which we feel we lose the moment we mediate our experience through imagery or language. To speak of or visualize the real is to lose touch with reality. Yet our sanity literally requires that we treat the real as though it were reality. We necessarily insist on a piece of the real in our symbolic and imaginary experience.
For some purposes it is useful, although admittedly simplistic, to say the real stands in for the physical or "object" world preexisting outside of human consciousness and language—that is, nature. Standing for the biological or natural, the real includes the realm of the infant before it
develops consciousness. Psychoanalytically, it also means all other forms of limitation of which we do not have direct experience, including the gods and death. It is the hard kernel that "exists when all . . . imaginary and symbolic factors are annihilated."
Before I give the plot of Lacan's Bildungsroman of sexuality, let me once again emphasize that the story I am about to tell is a retroactive re-creation of the development of the psyche. We will speak as though the infant actually, empirically passes through three orders of consciousness even though these orders are, in fact, mutually constituting. Lacan retroactively imagines the infant passing successively through these orders, but as he passes into the next order he never leaves the previous order.
This reflects the Hegelian dialectic in which each stage in the development of the subject is sublated into the next stage. All difference is not destroyed in sublation. An unsublated trace always remains. The "earlier" orders of psychic development, the real and the imaginary, do not totally disappear into the order of the symbolic to form consciousness.
Indeed, the two seemingly "earlier" orders do not, in fact, preexist the symbolic—the three are mutually constituting. Although we experience the real as that which preexists and binds the symbolic, in fact, the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic are mutually constituting. It is the ordering of the symbolic which walls off an outside called the real which retroactively serves as the impossible limit to the symbolic. The impossibility of a closed system has been familiar at least since Gödel proved that no mathematical system can be complete. Rather its closure always depends on assumptions imposed on the system from the outside. The real is logically required by the concept of the symbolic by
the same reasoning. We retroactively abduct the existence of the real from the traces or stains it seems to have left in the symbolic. As in Hegelian sublation, the creation of the symbolic reveals the necessary precondition of the real and the imaginary. That is, consciousness is a Borromean Knot of the three orders. The knot cannot exist unless there are at least three rings to overlap.
Lacan called the process of entering the symbolic (i.e., becoming a human subject who is capable of speech) "castration." It is the understanding that we only exist as subjects within law and language, yet law and language are external to, and imposed on, our subjectivity. It is reflected in our sense of being separated from a mythical, imaginary sense of unity with the Other (associated, of course, with the uterine union with the Mother). Castration is the loss of the mythical object of desire which is called the "Phallus" —the symbol of subjectivity. This separation is the creation of law which is always the law of prohibition: Thou shall not merge back into unconscious union with the world. In the imaginary, this union is the utopian mother-child dyad. Consequently, in modern West-
ern society this law of prohibition takes the form of the incest taboo. That is, the command, "Thou shalt not merge with the real" becomes "Thou shalt not identify with the Feminine" and, finally, "Thou shalt not sleep with your mother." Paradoxically, it is law's prohibition and its maiming of subjectivity in castration which create not only the possibility of but also the conditions for human growth, love, and freedom. "[L]ove is a mirage that fills over the void of the impossibility" of the relationship between the two sexes.
The Opening Chapters of the Psyche's Bildungsroman
Just as Hegel "started" his analysis of property with an account of the abstract will, so Lacan "started" with the infant. When viewed retroactively, the infant seems to exist wholly in the order of the real. In the real, the infant has no consciousness. Its relation to the world is immediate; it experiences itself as one with the object world, including its "Mother." Most specifically, it has no awareness of the separation of itself and the rest of the world. As Hegel stated, the infant has being-in-itself, mere implicit being. At this point the infant experiences itself and its Mother as one.
Or more precisely, it has no sense of itself as a self, and no sense of its mother as a person. It is, therefore, misleading to say that the infant
"experiences" union with the Mother because as soon as it starts becoming aware of experience, it begins to be aware of itself as distinct from the Mother. Awareness is not experience but the interpretation of experience. It is entering the mirror stage that will bring it into Lacan's next order of existence, the imaginary.
The imaginary is the order of the image and, therefore, of identity and difference. It is the order of meaning, of captivation and ensnarement. Based on mirror images, the imaginary sees difference in terms of simple negation—the sexes are imagined to complement each other perfectly as yin and yang, active and passive, autonomous and connected, individualistic and nurturing, and so on. In this mirror stage, the child starts becoming aware of itself as separate through the mediating function of sexuality. This is the beginning of the subject/object distinction. The infant becomes aware of the Mother as Other—as radical alterity.
Note that the term "Mother" means the person initially recognized by the infant as the other, rather than his female parent. Consequently, it is sometimes written as "(M)other" by English-speaking Lacanians. In a patriarchal family structure, this person is also usually the child's mother in the usual sense, or a person socially recognized as a mother surrogate (i.e., nanny, nurse, guardian, widower, or whatever), hence the choice of terminology. The fact that the other, as second term, is identified with
(m)other in our society (and that, as we shall see, the third term will be identified with father) will determine the positions of sexuality.
Lacan's punning and metaphoric terminology is intentional. The infant sees its mirror —thereby enters the image -inary—in the mirror stage . It recognizes itself by seeing itself reflected in Mother who functions as its mirror. The experience of recognition is primarily one of vision—it sees the Mother, it sees its hand and begins to recognize parts of its body.
This concept of the Feminine as alterity has been misunderstood by so-called different-voice feminist legal scholars, such as Robin West, who are strongly influenced by the works of Carol Gilligan and other object-relations psychologists. On the basis of the assertion that most empirical psychological studies of childhood have concentrated on boys, they conclude that theories that claim to explain the development of personality, generally, are, in fact, accounts of masculine personality, specifically. They presume from this that since mainstream theory asserts that personality (i.e., masculinity) originates in a recognition of difference from the Mother, then feminine personality must originate in a recognition of similarity to the mother. From this they conclude that although men (whose development is characterized by separation) may be the autonomous individuals of liberal philosophy, women (whose development is characterized by connection) are more interrelated, following an ethic of care rather than justice. This vision of an affirmative Feminine which is the simple negation or mirror image of the Masculine is, as well shall see, not merely imaginary, but a masculine fantasy. Moreover, this particular conclusion is a non sequitur which springs from a fundamental confusion about the level of differentiation on which the theory relies.
The initial differentiation which is the starting point of Lacanian per-
sonality is the awareness that I and the Mother are not literally the same person—that is, the ability to formulate the third person pronoun (which precedes the development of the first person, let alone the second person). This cognitive step of recognizing the existence of another person as different must take place before the ability to identify, let alone evaluate, similarities to and differences from that other person. The former—mere imaginary identification of identity and nonidentity—is purely dual in nature and must be the same for both the girl and the boy in the mirror stage. That is, in the mirror stage, all children, male and female, both identify with the Mother yet recognize their difference from the Mother.
Indeed, for the different-voice feminist to posit that the girl child initially recognizes her similarity to the Mother and the boy initially recognizes his difference prior to the oedipal stage is to presuppose a natural or biological sexual difference which does not explain the psychoanalytic and social significance of sexuality. The two-party mother-child dyad is an imaginary relationship. In the imaginary, one can identify "meaning," in the sense that one can identify that X is like or not like Y, but all meanings (i.e., differences and similarities) have the same valorization because there is no external standard of comparison. For example, the blue-eyed little boy would see himself as like his mother in that she has blue eyes and different from her in that she lacks a penis, and the brown-eyed girl may see herself different from her blue-eyed mother despite their similarity in genitalia. But neither specific difference nor similarity could have precedence over the other.
Signification is not imaginary but symbolic. In order for a child to learn to privilege a specific anatomic difference, he must identify a third term to serve as the basis of comparison—what Lacan will call the Father. Consequently, the creation of sexual differentiation cannot take place in the mirror stage but must wait until the oedipal stage.
In other words, although both different-voice feminists and Lacanians agree that femininity is identification with the Mother and masculinity is identification away from the Mother, their respective interpretations of
this phenomenon are wildly disparate. Different-voice feminists believe that children identify with or away from their mother on the basis of their pre-given (i.e., natural) sexuality and that this difference causes gender characteristics. In contradistinction, Lacanians believe that sexuality is itself the decision to identify with or away from the mother. This decision can only be made when the child enters into the symbolic. Accordingly, one's sexuality is not necessarily correlated with one's biology.
Consequently, although the mirror stage is the child's first awareness of self, at this point it can only experience itself as that which it is not. It is not the "Other"—Lacan's term for radical alterity, which is identified with the role of the Mother, the unconscious, and the symbolic order.
The infant is not yet a subject, and to say the same thing, it does not yet recognize the Mother as another subject. She is just Other. Infant and other are merely negatives, oppositions. It is not an individual, it is not-Mother. It can now conceive of mother in the third person as "she" (or, perhaps at this stage, "it") but cannot yet think of itself as "I," let alone recognize "you."
The infant during the mirror stage, existing only in the real and the imaginary, resembles the Hegelian abstract personality—pure negativity. The mirror stage is consequently both a stage of great gain—the experience of self—and incalculable loss and violence. Since the child has no memory of alterity prior to the mirror stage, in the imaginary the in-
fant retroactively imagines that it had once been one with Mother before the mirror stage (as opposed to having been merely unaware of alterity). Consequently, as we shall see, when the child enters the symbolic, he will identify his subjectivity (castration) as loss or denial of the Feminine.
In other words, the relation between the infant and the object world, like the relationship between the will and the object of property in possession and enjoyment, is ostensibly dual. Because the relationship between the infant and the Mother is not yet mediated by a third term, the infant can only imagine union as absorption and destruction of separate personhood. This binary system is unstable and looks forward toward, and presupposes, its own overthrow. The self in the imaginary is contradictory in the same way as property before exchange—the infant is now both separate from and dependent on the defining Other. This can only be resolved by the addition of a third term. Or, more accurately (as we are looking backward over our shoulders), the third term is not added but is revealed as being always already there. The very act of recognizing the third term is simultaneously the creation of the imaginary binary mother-child opposition in the mirror stage and the real mother-child union prior to the mirror stage, as necessary preconditions to the tertiary symbolic relationship of adult sexuality.
Longing in the Three Orders
Before discussing the third term, it is helpful to consider the categories of longing which correspond to the orders of the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic: "need," "demand," and "desire," respectively. In the first stage, the infant experiences the real longing of need. Needs are particular by definition. If one can be satisfied by a substitute, then one didn't need the missing ob-
ject, one only wanted it. For example, if one is dying of thirst, only drink will do. Need is always full in the sense that it is either fulfilled or not. That is, either you need something or you don't.
We have seen that, in the mirror stage, the realization that the Mother is Other—radical alterity—is the start of the infant's realization of self. As a result, it not only has needs. It also recognizes that it lacks —it demands of the (M)other.
Demand takes the form of the statement, "I want . . . " or the command "Give me . . . ". In Lacan's understanding, the demand is always transitive for it is always directed to an other (usually the mother). By being articulated in language, a language always derived and learned from the (m)other, demand is always tied to otherness.
Demand is not yet conscious language. It is the call to the Other. Unlike need, demand is not full. The infant can and does demand because it is aware that it wants something, and that there is someone else who has something which it does not have. "Ask yourselves what the call represents in the field of speech. Well, it's the possibility of refusal." As a result, unlike need, demand is general. "From this point on, the particularity of his need can only be abolished in demand, a demand which can never be satisfied, since it is always the demand for something else." That is, even if the Mother gives us everything we ask for, we are never satisfied because we really want her love and our demand is for an irrefutable proof
of the love. This, of course, is the inherent anxiety of deductive reasoning. No amount of positive evidence provided by the mother can ever verify the hypothesis that "Mommy loves baby" while every instance in which a demand is not instantly satisfied threatens to falsify it.
The infant desperately wants and demands to reexperience union with the lost Mother. This is a terrible, violent, and frightening demand. If it and the Mother become one again, then they will no longer be two. One must disappear. The new infantile self is terrified that it is the infant who will disappear. After all it is the Mother who is all-powerful, who has been the source of fulfillment of its needs, and who is now the object of its demands. But if it is the Mother who disappears, then the infant will no longer have a mirror. If the infant has no mirror in which to see itself, will the infant disappear? In the binary Mother-child relationship, the infant is like the abstract person in enjoyment—totally dependent on the object as other: a Mother-addict.
When the third term is added, the child enters the symbolic and becomes a subject, who, like a Hegelian subject, desires. Desire is what is left when need is separated from demand. "[T]he particularity of need . . . resurface[s] in the desire which develops on the edge of demand." Desire is sexual in that it is the creation of the linguistic categories of sexuality, but it is a conflation to identify it with anatomical sexual urge. Lacan is talking about the desperate Hegelian drive for recognition. "[D]esire is intrinsically inter-subjective. Consciousness desires the desire of another to constitute it as self-consciousness. . . . [D]esire is thus a movement, an energy that is always transpersonal, directed to others." For the subject, desire is the symbolic experiential counterpart of need and demand
in the real and imaginary. Like demand, and unlike need, desire is always incomplete.
Desire is a fundamental lack, a hole in being that can satisfied only by one "thing"—another('s) desire. Each self-conscious subject desires the desire of the other as its object. Its desire is to be desired by the other, its counterpart.
any satisfaction that might subsequently be attained will always contain this loss within it. Lacan refers to this dimension as "desire". The baby's need can be met, its demand responded to, but its desire only exists because of the initial failure of satisfaction. Desire persists as an effect of a primordial absence and it therefore indicates that, in this area, there is something fundamentally impossible about satisfaction itself. It is this process that, to Lacan, lies behind Freud's statement that "We must reckon with the possibility that something in the nature of the sexual instinct itself is unfavorable to the realization of complete satisfaction."
Just as the Hegelian abstract person desired recognition from another subject, the child now desires that the Mother desire him. As the Hegelian person sought to possess objects so that he could be recognized by other subjects, the Lacanian seeks to identify and possess whatever object it is that the Mother desires.
Adding the Third Term:
The Oedipal Romance
Enter the Father
It is in his search for the Mother that the child encounters Father. Once again, this is not the actual male parent but a symbolic father.
To Freud [i.e., as reinterpreted by Lacan], if psychoanalysis is phallocentric, it is because the human social order that it perceives refracted through the individual human subject is patro-centric. To date, the father stands in the position of the third term that must break the asocial dyadic unit of mother and child.
Consequently, Lacan often calls him the Name-of-the-Father. Nevertheless, empirically the role is usually filled by the male parent in the pa-
triarchal family. The sexuated positions are not the result of the actual biography of a specific child located in an empirical family, but the signification given by society to the roles played by family members. That is, even if one's primary caretaker is one's biological male parent, the child will understand that our society considers him to be taking on the role of mothering. The symbolic Father is the lawgiver, who, as the Mother's lover, must possess the object of desire. With the recognition of the Father, the child recognizes that the world is not divided into the duality of infant-M(O)ther. The Father is the child's rival. The law imposed in the Name-of-the-Father is prohibition—the incest taboo. The child may not
regain union with the Mother and may not murder the Father (i.e., the child must identify away from the Feminine and toward the Masculine). This separation from the Mother is experienced as the psychoanalytic concept of "castration" or permanent loss of the Phallic Mother. As recompense for the loss of the (M)Other, the child is promised access to other women and entrance into the society of Fathers through exchange. In order to form the fasces of property and to write the fas of law, the virgo must become virga —bound and carried by men.
Once a third term is introduced, the Mother is no longer merely the child's mirror, its negation. Nor is the Father. This allows the child to start to experience himself as an individual rather than merely not-Mother. The infant realizes that he is not the Mother's entire life. He has a rival; she desires the Father. The child imagines that he was once whole, in union with the Mother. Now that they are separated, by necessity, they must both be incomplete. The Mother's incompleteness or castration is confirmed when the child observes that his mother desires his father (or other persons filling the Father's role). He now realizes that Mother is not the all-powerful, self-sufficient, totally Other. If she were, she wouldn't desire.
If she desires Father, Father must be greater than she, he must have whatever object she desires. The psychological term for this object of desire is the "Phallus." The Phallus is one of the Names-of-the-Father; that is, it is the universal signifier of subjectivity. The incest taboo creates the symbolic by prohibiting the child from reuniting with the Phallic Mother. Law as prohibition is, therefore, the denial of the Feminine.
The irony, of course, is that the child turns to the Father solely out of desire for the Mother. The imaginary trinity of the relationship of wholeness is not Child-Mother-Father but Child-Mother-Phallus . In the symbolic, the Father is recognized solely in order to hold the Phallus for the other two. But "sexual difference is constructed at a price." The price the Father demands for holding the Phallus is castration—the permanent loss of the Mother. This has to be the case; if it is the Father who is holding the Phallus /Mother, obviously the child cannot also hold it/her. The turn to the Father is, therefore, a père-version . Consequently, adult sexuality is, in fact, quadratic. The imaginary trinity is replaced with the symbolic trinity of Child-Mother-Father which is haunted by the ghostly Phallus that resists sublation in the symbolic and is exiled into the real.
In order to learn what the Phallus is, the child wants to learn what the Name-of-the-Father is in order determine what it has that the (M)other
lacks yet desires. Unfortunately, the Name-of-the-Father, the (M)other, and the Phallus are linguistic concepts which cannot literally be seen. All the child can actually do is look at biological fathers and see how they differ anatomically from biological mothers. In a vain attempt to capture the real Phallus , in the imaginary the subject identifies the (real) Phallus with something that only seems real—that is, a physical object. He conflates the penis with the Phallus . Being a subject—a person who has the Phallus and is therefore desired as a subject by another—is confused with the empirical status of being a biologically male human being—a person who has a penis who inspires anatomical lust in biologically female human beings like his mother.
And yet, as we shall see, paradoxically, men do not escape castration. Lacan insisted on the "universality of the process of castration as the unique path of access to desire and sexual normativisation. . . ." Castration anxiety and penis envy are merely the masculine and feminine response to the universal initiation right of subjectivity.
As I discuss in more detail later, the Phallus thus becomes the signifier of subjectivity. But the subject did not exist until it recognized the Phallus as signifier. That is, the Phallus is a signifier with-
out a signified. The subject is nothing, a zero, which exists only because it is signified. Signification—that is, the symbolic order of language—brings the fiction of subjectivity into being by the trick of making zero count as one. Subjectivity is created when the subject claims to have the Phallus as the signifier of subjectivity.
The child retroactively insists that the Name-of-the-Father imposes law as prohibition against the child. Castration is the "Big Bang" of subjectivity—the originary moment when our primeval unity exploded to create the expanding universe of our split subjectivity. Because we nostalgically long for this lost sense of wholeness which we locate in the real, we want to reverse this process and collapse the three orders of the psyche. We retroactively try to recapture the real by collapsing the symbolic back into it. We do this by conflating symbolic and real concepts, by imaginary identification of physical (i.e., seemingly real) objects with the lost objects of desire. As a result, the law of prohibition (thou shalt not merge with the real but enter the symbolic, thou shalt deny the Feminine and identify with the Masculine) is reimagined as the incest taboo (thou shalt neither sleep with thy mother nor murder thy father, lest thou be castrated). The Mother is the Father's object of desire, the child may not have her. We insist that it is the Father who castrates the child by forever separating him from his Phallus .
But this is not the case. Like the eunuch priests of the great mother goddess Cybele, we castrate ourselves in a failed attempt to identify with and worship the Feminine. But without the Phallus , we can never join with her. The symbolic (i.e., law as prohibition, language, and sexuality) is necessary for desire to be created and to function. Desire is that which by definition cannot be filled. The law, which separates the subject from
its object of desire, makes desire possible. Language itself is the barrier which separates us from the imaginary and the real. And so we see, just as with Hegel, the moment of the creation of law is the moment of creation of the subject: subjectivity and law are mutually constituted.
Possession, Exchange, and Sexuality
The first element of the masculine position of subjectivity is the same as Hegel's first element of property—possession. The first masculine response to the universal condition of castration is simple denial. The Masculine lies and claims not to be castrated, to still have the Phallus . The "proof" of this is that he has a penis. In the masculine imaginary, therefore, only anatomically male persons are recognized as being full persons. This masculine strategy is obviously untenable. Deep in one's heart, everyone feels one is castrated. Consequently, the Masculine adopts a second fallback position.
The other element of the masculine position is the third Hegelian element of alienation through exchange. From the masculine position, the origin of law and of subjectivity as intersubjectivity is created by an attempted exchange of the object of desire.
Since the Child imagines that he once had the Phallus (i.e., wholeness, union with the Mother) prior to the mirror stage, he must retroactively explain its loss, but in a way that can deny his loss. He tells himself that the Father threatened to take away the Phallus which the male child conflates with his penis. The Father and son reached an agreement that if the son submitted to castration (the Law-of-the-Father), the Name-of-the-Father will recompense him by allowing him to adopt the Father's name and marry another woman. The son would then be recognized as a speaking subject, a member of the symbolic community, and thereby regain his wholeness. As in Hegel, the son sees himself and the Father as being mutually constituted as subjects through the exchange of the object of desire. Each recognizes the other as a subject objectified through objects of desire, yet not dependent on any specific object of desire. Through this symbolic exchange of the Phallic Woman, the community of subjects is created, just as the actual exchange of property constitutes abstract right, the first stage in the eventual development of the community of the state.
Of course, a typical initial reaction to this theory is that this story seems less satisfactory for girls than for boys.
For her, the oedipus complex involves no rewards, no authority, no compensation for her abandonment of the mother; rather, it entails her acceptance of her subordination. It involves the "discovery" that what the boy has been threatened with—castration—has already taken place in the girl. He believes that she and the mother are castrated. In her "recognition" of her narcissistic inadequacy, the girl abandons the mother as a love-object, and focuses her libidinal drives on the father now recognized as "properly" phallic. The girl has quickly learned that she does not have the phallus, nor the power it signifies. She comes to accept, not without resistance, her socially designated role as subordinate to the possessor of the phallus, and through her acceptance, she comes to occupy the passive, dependent position expected of women in patriarchy.
Didn't Lacan admit that there is "something insurmountable, something unacceptable in the fact [that woman is] placed as an object [of exchange] in a symbolic order to which, at the same time, she is subjected just as much as the man"?
Because of the conflation of gender and sex, the female child, insofar as she takes on the position of "woman," tends to identify with her mother, as the castrated self. She can never fully join the community of castrating Fathers because she, and they, conflate her lack of the penis with the inability to have the Phallus . She, therefore, can only aspire to be the Phallus , to be the object of desire for men. As a woman she is forever barred
from the intersubjective regime which creates subjectivity because she is the object of that regime.
As a result, women experience Peniseid (penis envy) not in the literal sense of wanting an actual penis but in the sense of a depressive nostalgic longing for an imaginary lost state of wholeness —of a subjectivity and community she is denied insofar as she is positioned as a "woman." The desire to have the Phallus is forever thwarted because the symbolic order names the Phallus as that which is possessed and exchanged only between those positioned as "men." Insofar as she is recognized as a "woman," she is a person without a Phallus —she is castrated. Castration is, therefore, denial of an affirmative femininity.
But in fact, the girl's situation only seems less satisfactory than the boy's at first blush. Lacan's description of the woman as object of exchange comes from one of his earliest seminars, and, even then, he recognized that men as well as women were subjected. As his ideas developed, it became clear that the apparent exchange between those who are positioned as "men" cannot be truly satisfactory, because it is not real. It is a lie. Indeed, the Masculine failed strategy for dealing with castration is, in fact, the simultaneous adoption of two mutually inconsistent strategies. First, the Masculine merely denied castration, he claimed that he still does have the Phallus . Second, when he was forced to recognize that he has lost the Phallic Mother, he claimed that he narrowly escaped castration in the sense of the involuntary taking of the Phallus by his retroactive consent in exchange for a promise for a replacement in the future. "For whereas in the earlier texts the emphasis was on the circulation of the phallus in the process of sexual exchange, in these texts it is effectively stated that if it is the phallus that circulates then there is no exchange (or relation)." Desire can never be satisfied. The son exchanges something he does not have (access to the Phallic Mother, identity with the Feminine) for something that does not exist (the Phallus , access to the Feminine) in order to achieve something with no content (subjectivity).
Castration is universal. Those who are positioned as men dread the loss of their subjectivity through the loss of its signifier, the Phallus , precisely because it is always already lost—it is exiled into the real. Men are trying to deny the horrible truth. Men experience castration fear not in the literal sense of fearing genital mutilation but in the sense of a morbid dread of confronting the "fact" of their symbolic castration. In other words, men are every bit as castrated as women are, but the masculine strategy is different from the feminine strategy. Men identify with the Name-of-the-Father who bears the Phallus . They try to assert their paternal wholeness by projecting their lack onto Woman as the symbol of lack. They do this by the imaginary identification of the Phallus , which everyone lacks, with the one organ that men have but women lack. In this sense, Woman is the symptom of man.
Although this formulation makes it sound as if femininity is subordinated to masculinity, one can read it to mean the opposite. Women are in the arguably more successful psychic position in that they are not self-deluded in quite the way that men (always unsuccessfully) try to be. It is not Woman who is a mutilated man, as men claim. Rather, men are failed women—vir is incomplete virgo .
The real is, therefore, not the threat of castration, it is the fact of a castration which has always already occurred. There is a hole, a lie, and a
fiction at the heart of subjectivity. The subject is nothing. There are no sexual relations, only failed attempts because all human relations must be mediated and mediation is impossible. This leads to love—the impossible relation of seeing in someone more than she is and in giving back more than one has in order to fill in the hole of subjectivity. Love is seeing the lost kernel of the real in the other.
As is so often the case, this truth is reflected in classical mythology. The personification of the perfect sexual relationship—marriage—is the god Hymen. The god also personifies the female organ which prevents sexual union and bears his name to this day. As a result, any attempt to actualize Hymen necessarily destroys Hymen. As Lacanian theory insists, the promise of sexual union is only established by its very impossibility.
This perhaps explains the morbid fascination of many traditional societies with the physical virginity of women. Although we seek immediate relations, there is always a ghostly third mediating sexuality. In the imaginary, this third is identified with the seducer whose presence is abducted from the scar of defloration. Men dream that if they can just keep the virgin intact, perhaps union can be achieved.
The Phallus, Castration, and the Imaginary Collapse of the Symbolic into the Real
Let me explain in greater detail how the sexual roles described in the previous section become mapped onto anatomical sexuality. According to Lacan, in the imaginary we conflate the symbolic concept of the Phallus with seemingly real—but actually physical—analogues. Why? Let us stop briefly and reconsider the location of the Phallus . Sex-
uality is created by law—the symbolic. The Phallus would, therefore, seem to be a symbolic object. But in the symbolic, we are castrated from the Phallus . Since the Phallus is the signifier of subjectivity, it is that which cannot itself be signified. In other words, we cannot achieve the Phallus in the symbolic—it is defined as that which cannot be captured in language. This means that the Phallus must be in the order of the real. Although sexuality is created in the symbolic, sexual relationship is impossible in the symbolic.
Like differentiation, the achievement of subjectivity is a moment of pain and loss, as well as gain. According to both Hegel and Lacan, in order to be a speaking subject we must experience ourselves as individuated subjects separate from other individuals and the world. All relations are mediated through the symbolic exchange of the object of desire. Subjectivity is intersubjectivity mediated through objectivity. Consequently, when we experience ourselves as speaking beings, we lose our sense of being one with the world which we imagine we must have had as infants. This sense of loss is castration .
And yet we long for immediate relations and union with the Other. In order to achieve this, we want to destroy mediation and reduce the symbolic back to the real. By doing so we engage in the fantasy that if we can acquire the "real" object that we imagine is the cause of our desire, then we will achieve our desire. So we imagine that the real Phallus , created by the symbolic, is actually a real object. This doomed operation is the "masculine metaphor of property" which is the subject of the second chapter of this book. The imaginary, being the realm of mirror images, meaning, and negation, is a fantasy of perfect sexual fit. It is the fantasy that we can find an object which will plug the hole left by castration.
This operation is doomed for two reasons which I shall discuss in greater detail later. First, the real cannot be reduced to reality. The acquisition of any real object can never satisfy our desire. Second, and more important, if one were actually to achieve immediate relationships, one
would necessarily lose subjectivity, freedom, and sanity. Castration—the creation of the real and the loss of the Phallus —is the erection of the wall that binds and delineates the symbolic. If we regained the Phallus and entered the real, both the real and the symbolic would cease to exist by definition. Those who fail to maintain these walls are psychotics. Consequently, in order to preserve our subjectivity, we impose upon ourselves an injunction not to merge with the Other, despite our desire to do so. This is the incest taboo —law as prohibition. We tell ourselves that the law has been imposed upon us by the Father, but in fact we can only impose it on ourselves.
As we have seen, we retroactively identify the symbolic Phallus with something we imagine to be real that one of the anatomical sexes physically has and that the other physically is. Two possible positions that an individual can take with respect to the Phallus are that of having the Phallus and that of being the Phallus . This is reflected in European languages that divide all predicate forms into having and being. It is a (psychoanalytically) unexplained historical fact that in masculinist societies, such as our own, the Masculine is the dominant sex and the Feminine the subordinate. We identify the seemingly "superior" position of subjectivity—having and exchanging the Phallus —with the Masculine, and the "inferior" position of objectivity—being and enjoying the Phallus —with the Feminine. The penis (what males have) and the female body (what females are) are identified in the imaginary as the real correlates to the Phallus . The symbolic—that is, legal and linguistic—concepts of sexuality are imagined as anatomy. Paradoxically, the Phallus is the signifier of both male subjectivity and the Feminine.
It is easy to see how the Phallus in the role of what women are becomes identified with the female body. But the mere fact that we need to erect a part of the male anatomy to stand in for the Phallus in the role of what men have does not in and of itself explain why the penis is chosen as the privileged organ. Why not the beard, or the deep voice? The penis is chosen not because of its impressiveness but because of its fragility. The Phallus is not merely the object of desire, it is the lost object of desire. Its standin, therefore, must be something which suggests the possibility of loss.
The penis can play this role not only because of its failure to appear on women but also because of its disappearance on men. The penis stands in for the Phallus because of its unpredictable failure to stand up.
Lacan's theory of castration subtly echoes St. Augustine's theory of sexuality, which has so greatly influenced traditional Christian teaching. St. Augustine, like Lacan, insisted that human beings are irreparably split. Adam's sin sundered the prelapsarian harmony between man and God, man and woman, and soul and body. God literally inscribed Adam's Fall into the male body as a constant reminder of Original Sin. Before the Fall, the penis was a limb subject to the conscious control of the soul like an arm and a leg. As soon as Adam and Eve ate of the Forbidden Fruit, they "knew that they were naked." St. Augustine interpreted this as meaning that Adam had the first involuntary erection. The loss of control of the penis is, therefore, the holy symbol of the debased and split nature of man in the state of sin—in Augustine's words, man's desire "is divided against itself." Although this can be seen in the embarrassing masculinity of inopportune tumescence, it is even more forcefully shown by the humiliating failure of impotence. What was once limb is now limp.
Consequently, the penis can stand for the lost Phallus because it is already partly gone. It is what men think of simultaneously as being most themselves yet not themselves. It seems to have a mind of its own. How can men have the Phallus when they do not even control the penis?
The facts that the Phallus is the symbol of the Feminine and that the Phallus is exiled into the real means that the Phallic Mother (i.e., the ideal
of the Feminine) does not exist. She is beyond the discourse and interpretation of the symbolic realm of language and beyond the imagery of the imaginary. She is at least partly in the real in this technical sense—that which serves as the limit and the impossible. We are speaking subjects, however, who only exist in discourse.
As I have already emphasized, the fact that Lacanian theory helps us understand that our psyches contain delusional aspects does not imply that we can simply choose not to believe our delusions. We experience ourselves as our lies and live our lies. Our lies are our truth. We cannot leave the lies of the symbolic without giving up the language which is created in the symbolic. We cannot reverse repression without becoming babbling infants.
Many feminisms envision woman's freedom as lying just around the corner. Freedoms will readily be won, for example, by our changing language lest language—itself the mask of patriarchy—appropriate woman's voice. . . . But such one-dimensional terms do little to address the larger questions attached to women's and men's issues. In Lacan's clinical work, he came to understand that any dismantling of ego, language, or desire placed the analysand at the risk of death. The "self" may only be imagined, but individuals live from such "necessary fictions."
That is, repression is not a mental disease. We need language and repression to function and speak. Repression is not the suppression of desire, it is the creation of desire. Lacan believes he is telling truth about lies, because lies are the only truth we are capable of.
Moreover, as we have seen, the community of subjects is constituted
through the symbolic exchange of the Phallus between Father and son. Unfortunately for those of us who are positioned as women, the Phallic object of desire, which is identified with the Feminine, is conflated not only with the phallic male organ but with actual women. For this linguistic system to work, those who position themselves as men (who tend to be those who are also biologically male) must objectify women. The feminist cliché that men treat women as sex objects takes on new meaning in Lacan. The theory gives essential significance to empirically familiar phenomena. Many men identify themselves with, and through, social groups which are characterized primarily through their exclusion of women—fraternities, private "business clubs," the priesthood, and until very recently the military, academia, and government. We continue to try to lead our lives this way even though it doesn't and can't work. In order to experience themselves as subjects, men need to seek to experience women as objects. To deny castration, men project their own lack onto the Feminine. Man requires Woman as his symptom. Feminine aggressiveness is destructive of masculinity because it gives the lie to the femininity of lack. If man recognizes feminine positivity, then he also confronts his own negativity and castration which his sexual position requires him to deny.
Lacan particularly notes that the institution of patriarchal marriage requires the exchange of women as objects. Giving women property rights, therefore, threatens the very structure of our society. This is because Lacan, as a good Hegelian, agrees that allowing a woman to own and exchange property with subjects must lead to the recognition of her as a subject. If she becomes a subject, she can no longer serve her function as object. And so a Lacanian feminist would agree with the rhetoric of the American religious right—feminine emancipation is a threat to traditional family values.
I have argued elsewhere that both American cultural and radical feminist jurisprudes are implicitly and imminently conservative in that they
accept and reinstate, rather than effectively critique, the masculinist status quo. This is because they accept the traditional American stereotype of masculinity and femininity, although they disagree as to what women's response to these stereotypes should be (i.e., different-voice feminists celebrate the feminine stereotype, while radical feminists denigrate it and encourage women to adopt behavior more similar to the masculine stereotype). That is, both schools accept the characterization (associated with Carol Gilligan) that men tend to be more separate, individualistic, concerned with right and justice. This liberal ideal is treated as an empirically accurate description of men. Women, who in this view are the negative of men, are declared to be (either essentially or as a result of social conditioning) more relational and communitarian, concerned with needs and care. This, of course, is the imaginary view of sexuality in which the sexes are mirror images and, therefore, perfect complements. Different-voice feminism's insistence that girls never separate from their mothers in the way that boys do, that women are fundamentally and essentially connected to other human beings and its simplistic view of spontaneous, immediate relationship of self and other, reflects the masculine strategy of denying castration and imagining that one still has union with the
Feminine. The true Feminine, in contradistinction, is the acceptance of castration and the resulting need for mediation in relationship. Consequently, different-voice feminism, like all attempts to give positive content to the radical negativity of the Feminine, is merely another masculine fantasy.
As we shall see in chapter 2, where I explore masculine phallic metaphors for property, the simple, immediate, one-to-one relationship privileged by cultural feminism as being characteristically feminine reflects the psychoanalytically masculine strategy of denying castration. In contradistinction, the feminine position is the acceptance of castration as the impossibility of binary relationship and the insistence on the necessity of mediation.
Many read Lacan as saying that women should take on the traditional masculine fantasy roles—such as the mother-whore dichotomy—so that masculinity can be maintained. The man known as Jacques Lacan may or may not have actually drawn the misogynist normative conclusion that women should submit to masculine fantasies of femininity in order to support the norm of masculine subjectivity. Nevertheless, his theories, intentionally or not, actually subvert the gender hierarchy. It is the Masculine which is the key to community. The masculine subject is not individualistic, because the subject is an intersubjective linguistic concept totally dependent on the exchange of Phalluses with other men.
"Woman Does Not Exist"
The assertion that "Woman does not exist" is perhaps the most notorious and most misunderstood catchphrase associated with Lacan. We can now explore what this means in greater detail.
During the mirror stage, the infant experienced the tragedy of separation from the Mother/(m)other and demanded that she come back. Now he sees himself as a separate subject and desires the Mother. The Mother is the object of his desire. Mother is his Phallus .
The problem, of course, is that the subject can never again reunite with the Mother because of the incest taboo. Or, more accurately, it is castration from the Phallus pursuant to the law as prohibition which creates subjectivity. If the subject regained the Phallus , it would cease to be a subject. He can never again have the Phallic Mother. The Phallic Mother as the Feminine represents the dream of an unmediated relationship with the other. This utopian relationship exists in the real.
If we understand the nostalgia resulting from the discovery of the mother's castration in this way, then the discovery that the mother does not have the phallus means that the subject can never return to the womb. Somehow the fact that the mother is not phallic means that the mother as mother is lost forever, that the mother as womb, homeland, source, and grounding for the subject is irretrievably past. The subject is hence in a foreign land, alienated.
"Woman, as a result, is identified by her lack of the phallus. She is difference from the phallus" even as she also "is" the Phallus —but the Phallus which is always desired and never obtained. The Feminine is therefore projected as "lack." She does not exist as "not-all" in the sense of "not all subjects are phallic."
Consequently, the quotation about Woman ascribed to Lacan can be misleading. Indeed, it is a misquotation. The more accurate translation is "The Woman does not exist":
[T]he woman can only be written with The crossed through. There is no such thing as The woman, where the definite article stands for the universal. There is no such thing as The woman since of her essence—having already risked the term, why think twice about it?—of her essence, is not all.
As negative to the man, woman becomes a total object of fantasy (or an object of total fantasy) elevated into the place of the Other and made to stand for its truth. Since the place of the Other is also the place of God, this is the ultimate form of mystification.
As we shall explore, this insistence that the Feminine has no positive content increases, rather than destroys, her presence. She is the potential moment of negativity as radical freedom which is the heart of subjectivity.
The Woman, Property, and Jouissance
The Phallic Mother, like property, constitutes the subject through signification. My analogy is still, however, incomplete. I have shown that our masculine subject lies to himself in saying that he possesses the Phallic Mother. He seeks self-recognition through the fiction that he engages in the alienation and exchange of the Phallic Mother with other male subjects through submission to the incest taboo and initiation into the symbolic. But, Hegel argued, there are three necessary elements of a full property necessary for the formation of a subject. It is not enough to possess and alienate the desired object of property. One must also have the ability to enjoy the object. Our split masculine subject cannot achieve his desire and enjoy the Feminine. If he did so, he would no longer be the masculine subject. We have seen that, by definition, language is the bar to enjoyment which makes desire possible. But that does not mean that enjoyment cannot occur. Not everyone is always positioned as masculine speaking subjects totally trapped in the symbolic. Consequently, we must now approach subjectivity from the feminine position of being and enjoying the Phallus .
It is fairly simple to see how the Lacanian idea of having and exchanging
the Phallus (which is conflated with having a penis) recalls the elements of possession and alienation of property. Lacan's concept of feminine jouissance is more complex. But it captures Hegel's critique of the solipsistic, addicted side of enjoyment which requires the additional element of alienation or castration.
The French word "jouissance ," which can be literally translated as "enjoyment," includes both the legal concept of quiet enjoyment of property and sexual orgasm. In jouissance the subject takes on the feminine position of being the object of desire and submerges into the real. Being and enjoying the Phallus become one and the same. This is like the Hegelian subject who becomes so identified with the object of enjoyment that she cannot reach out to others. Nevertheless, even as Hegel showed that enjoyment standing alone is inadequate, he insisted that it is indispensable to the logic of subjectivity.
The order of the real is that which is beyond, and therefore limits, the symbolic realm of language and law. Consequently, by submerging with the real, the subject loses her subjectivity in the sense of losing her place in the symbolic. She cannot speak to others and achieve the intersubjective recognition which is the condition of subjectivity while standing in the feminine position of jouissance . This is because the moment she tries to describe her experience of jouissance , she is no longer in an unmediated relationship with the real. To speak is to interpret experience in the symbolic. To picture it is to interpret it in the imaginary. In order to attain subjectivity, therefore, she must reject her enjoyment and submit herself to the symbolic. This is why the speaking subject is not merely the subject of the symbolic, he is always also subject to the symbolic.
This parallels Hegel's argument that to obtain subjectivity the person cannot lose herself in enjoyment but must become indifferent to the objects of desire and turn to others. This causes a paradox. If one abandons the object of desire in order to escape the trap of enjoyment, one loses the recognizability which is the purpose of property. Castration creates the potential for desire while simultaneously making desire impossible to satisfy.
But this in turn makes jouissance , like Hegelian enjoyment, necessary to subjectivity, even though it is inadequate. Subjectivity is only created by the incest taboo which walls off the real from the symbolic. But one cannot forbid what is impossible. Jouissance —the momentary achievement of the Feminine as merger with the real—is the transgression of the incest taboo which proves that what was once impossible is now merely forbidden.
Because the symbolic is linguistic, women, in a curious way, can never "speak" in a feminine voice. Anatomically female persons must always in a way take on the masculine position in order to speak. That is, language is Phallic in that the Phallus is the universal signifier of the speaking subject. In order to be heard, one must take the position of the one who has the Phallus . To have the Phallus is to be symbolically masculine. People who are positioned as women must somehow take on the position of, or mime, the Masculine to act as a speaking subject. The Feminine is silenced because she is the object of the symbolic exchange between subjects. To form the fas/fasces the virgo/virga is not merely bound, she is gagged. The Feminine is defined as that which is not Phallic . The Feminine is that which cannot be captured in language (enjoyed in the symbolic order of consciousness). In the words of Drucilla Cornell:
Although both genders are cut off from the repressed Mother, and, theoretically, have access to the position of the other, only men, to the degree they become traditional, heterosexual men, are fundamentally "connected" to one another in the order of the symbolic. Without this connection, there would be no ground for masculine identity.
Women, insofar as they are identified with the Feminine, are isolated from community. It is only by taking on the masculine role of subjectivity that they have access to community. In Cornell's words, "to enter into the masculine world, women must take up the masculine position."
But slippage always occurs. The gag temporarily falls from the virgin's mouth. In this slippage we glimpse the real. Access to the real cannot come directly through words but through that which is beyond words, what Lacan calls the jouissance or enjoyment of and by the Feminine. But we only glimpse her; the Feminine remains "Eurydice twice lost."
Consequently, Lacan posits that woman experiences an enjoyment which is beyond the Phallic . Those who are positioned as men, of course, also experience enjoyment in the sense of the nonverbal access to the unconscious, but the enjoyment of women is posited as something different, something more.
There is woman only as excluded by the nature of things which is the nature of words, and it has to be said that if there is one thing they themselves are complaining about enough at the moment, it is well and truly that—only they don't know what they are saying, which is all the difference between them and me.
It none the less remains that if she is excluded by the nature of things, it is precisely that in being not all, she has, in relation to what the phallic function designates of jouissance , a supplementary jouissance .
In other words, jouissance as access to the real is that which is beyond speech, and therefore not symbolic and not Phallic . It is consequently associated with women. Men, who define their sexuality as not women, need
to reject enjoyment . Being non-Phallic , the experience of enjoyment is by definition beyond discourse. Even to think it, let alone speak it, is to enter the Phallic world of the symbolic and lose jouissance . But without enjoyment of the Feminine, how can we be complete?
Is this theory misogynist? On the one hand, Lacan might argue that it "accords women the possibility of refusing a pleasure and desire that is not theirs." On the other hand, he not does permit them to claim "one that is there." This leads Elizabeth Grosz to ask:
If phallic jouissance is "the jouissance of the idiot," what is a jouissance beyond the phallus? Women can't know and won't say. It is not clear from Lacan's discussion whether it is because this jouissance is in itself unknowable; or simply that women can't know it.
Should we see jouissance as an empowering, ecstatic possibility through
which women can glimpse the psychological goal of union with the Feminine, or a rationalization for the traditional infantile, idiotic, and silent role of women?
It is both. Lacanianism is a misogynist theory only in the sense that it is an account of misogyny. As such, it opens up the possibility of moving beyond misogyny. The Feminine is the silent Phallic Mother who is always already lost in castration. But she is also the freedom of not being bound by the law of castration which has not yet been achieved.