Reading Feminine Ethics
Psychoanalysis challenges what feminists think we know about sexual difference, how we inhabit our own sexual difference, how social norms attach to and make up the experience of sexual difference, and how we might transform the social arrangements of sexuality. The approach that psychoanalysis takes to sexual difference is unique among social, psychological and philosophical approaches. For psychoanalytic theory, sexual difference is neither a biological fact, nor is it a set of historically contingent social rules and norms. Sexual difference for Jacques Lacan is a position one takes with respect to the universal human experience of lack or loss (a loss Freud referred to as castration and which is experienced by each subject regardless of sex) and the signifier which our culture offers to make up for that lackthe phallus. The psychoanalytic model of the subject is therefore not determined by either biology or society but responds to both. What we are in our very being is a response to an ontological lack. This understanding of the subject is the foundation for the ethics of psychoanalysis because it means that the subject is ultimately responsiblequite literally the one who responds. I will argue that this understanding of the subject and responsibility has radical implications for the theory and practice of feminism. In particular, I will suggest that the theory and ethics of psychoanalysis can help feminists consider the costs of aligning ourselves with either hysterical or masculine responses to the subjects ontological lack. I will argue that it is by taking up a feminine position beyond hysteria that feminists of any gender may finally take responsibility for ourselves and our world.
The masculine universal subject in the Western tradition has been exposed and criticized by feminist theorists from Simone de Beauvoir to Catherine MacKinnon. These feminists have asked, if all knowledge, all culture, perhaps even all language, is premised upon a masculine subject, what can be said about woman in her specificity? If this logic of the masculine universal is the basis of our thinking, then perhaps it is not wrong to assert, as Freud did, that phallocentrism is alive in the hearts and minds of all speaking subjects. Is there anything that we can say about women that is not defined by the masculine model? Is it possible to know anything about women or femininity in their specificitythat is, not defined as mans other or object of masculine desire? How might weas feminists, as women, as writersapproach the question What does a woman want? What do I want? Sigmund Freud was faced with this same question during his treatment of his women patients, many of whom were suffering from hysteria. It was also a question that he was never able to answer to his satisfaction (or the satisfaction of his women readers) until the end of his life.
The question, What Does a Woman Want? is also the title of a brilliant book by feminist literary critic Shoshana Felman. There Felman considers the stakes of Freuds question for women writers and women readers. She suggests that because the universal thinking and knowing subject is the masculine subject, women are dispossessed of the specificity of their experience even as they attempt to write it. In a brilliant reading of Balzacs Adieu, Felman argues that madness is one literary representation of feminine specificitythe sexual difference that confounds masculine discourse. She writes, What the narcissistic economy of the Masculine universal equivalent tries to eliminate, under the label madness, is nothing other than feminine difference (35). Hysteria, I will argue, is another way of thinking about feminine difference. Hysteria was the mysterious suffering Freud was faced with by his first patients, and which led him to the discovery of the unconscious and the theory and practice of psychoanalysis. Hysteria is an illness which confounds medical science for it lacks a physiological aetiology. What hysteria demonstrates is that there is more to illness than the body, and more to the mind than conscious thought. Hysteria has predominantly afflicted women, although today in the West we may be witnessing a democratization of hysteria whereby all postmodern subjects are afflicted by anxiously imagined health concerns.
In 1886 for financial reasons Freud gave up neurological research and entered private practice. To help Freud build his practice, other established doctors in the Viennese Jewish community passed over some of their patients to him. Inevitably these were some of their more troublesome patientswoman hysterics. Freud had studied with Charcot, the expert master and ringleader over les grands hysteries. Freud took a different position relative to his own patients, asking them to speak, first under hypnosis, and endeavouring to listen to their stories of trauma. Like many of the doctors preceding (and following) him, Freud was heir to the masculinism and paternalism of medical science, but unlike other doctors, Freud chose to listen to what his women patients had to say. As it would turn out, all of Freuds (masculine) medical knowledge failed in the face of these womens complaints as he was confronted by the problem of their mysterious physical symptoms and unspeakable feminine desires. This listening would yield both the content and technique of psychoanalysis.
Published in 1895, Studies in Hysteria is one of Freuds earliest psychoanalytic works. He had yet to discover the unconscious, however he was learning a great deal from his hysterical patients about the other scene of the psyche. In the Preliminary Statement he co-authored with colleague Joseph Breuer in 1893, they theorized that hysterical symptoms are caused by traumatic memories and could be treated through the cathartic method. These doctors experiences with treating such hysterics as Anna O., Frau Emmy von N, Katarina, and others, demonstrated time and again that when these women spoke of the memories associated with their symptoms, the symptoms would be relieved, if only temporarily. These clinical cases lead Freud and Breuer to conclude, hysterics suffer for the most part from reminiscences (11). Each symptom is related to memories either directly or symbolically and can be alleviated through speechby reactivating the memory and putting words to the trauma. Freud was starting to recognize that some memories are not available to conscious thought but can only be reactivated through hypnosis. Freud and Breuer explained that memories became repressed either because it was not possible to react to the trauma at the time of the event due to social or emotional factors, or because the experience occurred during a distressed mental state, making the event traumatic by association. While Freud and Breuer do not yet postulate an unconscious, they do suggest that there is a splitting of consciousness that occurs in all forms of hysteria, and that the hysterical attacks occur only in the presence of the hypnoid state, a state they compare to psychosis (14-15).
Freuds On the Psychotherapy of Hysteria closes the Studies and presents a more fully developed theory of hysteria, one advancing on the work he had first undertaken with Breuer a few years earlier. In this work Freud more fully develops the idea of the psychical defences at work in hysteria. Freud writes, The hysterics not-knowing was, therefore, a more or less conscious not-wanting-to-know, and the therapists task consists in overcoming this resistance to association through psychical work (271). The patients were defending themselves against acknowledging the traumatic memory by repressing it, censoring it from conscious thought. But repression has a price, and this is the conversion symptom that would arise as an alternative expression of the traumatic memory. Freud writes, Precisely because it is repressed, the idea then becomes the cause of pathological symptoms, that is, it becomes pathogenic (287). And according to Freud, the only way to stop the symptom is to break through the defences, bring to mind the repressed memory and have the patient put it into words. He writes, The patient is, as it were, clearing it away by converting it into words (282). This revised theory enabled Freud to move away from relying on hypnosis in his treatment, discovering as he did that breaking through the resistance to remembering was part and parcel of the talking cure.
With the Freudian theory and treatment of hysteria, psychoanalysis was born. That Freud was led to discover the unconscious mind as a result of his treatment of women suffering from hysteria is significant for the theory and practice of psychoanalysis. It is also, I will argue, significant for feminism. In the expression of the hysterics symptoms Freud read the expression of something which confounded his medical and scientific knowledge, a psychical force which could cause illness with the malignancy of a cancer. Freuds theory of hysteria, which became the theory of the unconscious, opened up a whole new way of thinking about the human psyche and human suffering. Indeed, the idea that repression caused by social norms and prohibitions can lead to hysterical illness has had a significant influence on feminist thought. It is psychoanalytic theory which has led some feminists to suggest that hysterical symptoms are a form of feminist rebellion or protofeminism. This connection between repression and oppression, social norms and suffering, has long been drawn on by feminists as evidence for and representation of womens suffering under patriarchy. In fact it was the image of the hysterical housewife with which Betty Friedan began her 1963 feminist call to arms, The Feminine Mystique, the book widely crediting with launching the second wave of the feminist movement in America.
Feminine difference and hysteria were topics of great concern to many of the French feminist thinkers, trained in psychoanalysis, semiotics, structuralist and post-structuralist philosophy, during the 1970s and 1980s. Thinkers like Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, Catherine Clément, and Hélène Cixous were seeking to elaborate a feminist theory and politics grounded in feminine differencenot the feminine defined as mans other, but the feminine as that which is left out of the masculine universal. As philosopher turned psychoanalytic thinker, Charles Shepherdson has argued that these French feminists have historically been misunderstood by American audiences, largely because American thinkers have only just begun to understand their model of sexual difference and embodiment, which derives from Lacanian psychoanalysis and differs radically from the sex vs. gender model of North American social theory.
Sexual difference for Freud hinged upon castration. The girl
and her mother are always already castrated. But castration is
so much more than simply lacking, or being subject to a threat
of lacking, a penis. According to Lacans re-reading of
Freud, castration is the metaphysical limit and also cause of
the subject. It points to what we cannot experience (jouissance
or reunion with an original satisfaction of the drives), cannot
be (the object of the others desire) and cannot know (What
does the other want from me?). Castration is the limit of
knowledge, insofar as it means that the Other lacks or desires
but we cannot know what. It is part of the human condition to
seek a signifier for the Others desire while paradoxically
the Others desire is a limit to signification. That there
is no signifier for the lack in the Other, which Lacan writes
The subject must somehow come to terms with the radical uncertainty
at the core of his or her being, which, Lacan suggests, Freud
explained through the myth of the Oedipus complex. According
to Lacan, the castration complex is a universal human structure
while the Oedipus complex metaphorizes one culturally specific
way of dealing with castration (Subversion 695).
What both Freuds and Lacans writing on feminine desire
indicate is that at the level of the social there is a conflation
between the Other and the mother, or more generally, the Other
and woman, which is why the term castration already implies that
the phallus stands in as the signifier for the Others lack,
In other words, the subject must take a sexuated position with respect to the m/Other, and the phallus, master signifier for desire. The subject addresses the Other with the existential questions of his or her being. And the position the subject takes is an unconscious response to these questions; What am I?... What does the Other want me to be?... Am I a man or a woman? Lacan writes,
The symbolic provides a form into which the subject is inserted at the level of his being. Its on the basis of the signifier that the subject recognizes himself as being this or that. The chain of signifiers has a fundamental explanatory value, and the very notion of causality is nothing else. (Seminar III 179)
Where a psychoanalytic understanding of sex differs from almost any other is in viewing sexuation as a structure separate from the sociologically salient matrix of sex-gender-sexuality. Yes, the subject must take her place in the symbolic field of meaning, law and culture, but driving this symbolic identification is the trembling unconscious response to the fundamental lack in beingcastration, or the ontological and epistemological limits faced by the subject. And it is the after effects of castration, or more specifically the subjects position with respect to his or her constitutive lack and the phallic signifier that offers to fill that lack, that determines the sexuation of the subject.
In the title of his twentieth seminar, Lacan gives an answer to Freuds question What does a woman want? with the simple demand: Encore (more/again). The subtitle of the seminar, On the Limits of Love and Knowledge, spells out the stakes of the path Freud was led down by first listening to, and then trying to understand, his women patients. Lacan asserts, analytic discourse is premised solely on the statement that there is no such thing, that it is impossible to found (poser) a sexual relationship (Seminar XX 9). He does not mean that in reality people do not have sex or fall in love, but rather that there is a failure or gap at the heart of sexuality. The stories we tell about sexual difference and love attempt to make up for this failure. In this sense they have a phallic function, to answer the question of the Others desire. But the sexual relationship is always a fantasy which fails due to castrationthe estrangement of the speaking being from their jouissance, as well as from each other. The two sexuated positions that the subject takes with respect to castration and its signifier, the phallus, each have their own ways of ensuring that the sexual relationship will fail.
Like gender, sexuation is not contingent upon sex, but neither should sexuation be confused with gender. All representations of sexual difference function as fantasies that promise the success of the sexual relationship. Put another way, we represent sexual difference in order to make up for the impossibility at the heart of sexuality. It is for this reason that any symbolic, cultural, linguistic, or ideological representation of sex and gender, whether it is the ideal of courtly love, the romance of cinema, the wedding vows, biological theories of the perpetuation of the species, or social constructivist feminist theories, is always a phantasmic support. Lacan writes, what is at stake for us is to take language as that which functions in order to make up for the absence of the sole part of the real that cannot manage to be formed from beingnamely, the sexual relationship (Seminar XX 48). Language and culture do this by providing the symbolic phallus as master signifier for the m/Others desire. The phallus is the quintessential support for the sexual relationship, by providing the difference in sexual difference.
Lacans model of sexuation, the differentiation between
masculine and feminine desire, is premised upon the different
ways each one has of living with castrationthat is, lack
under the phallic function. What defines the masculine subject
is that he is fully invested in the phallic signifier and the
fantasy of sexual fulfilment promised by the sexual relationship.
This includes the mistaken belief that he is not castrated. The
feminine subject is not so convinced. Because women are culturally
positioned as the castrated object of mens desires, to
take up the feminine position is to be not entirely convinced
by the phallic signifier. Lacan explains, when any speaking
being whatsoever situates itself under the banner women,
it is on the basis of the followingthat it grounds itself
as being pas-toute [not-whole/all] in situating itself
in the phallic function (Seminar XX 72). The French
word tout(e) means both all and whole.
Lacan is playing off both meanings in this seminar, and one or
the other translation does not tell the whole story. Lacan writes,
Its not because she is not-[whole/all] in the phallic
function that she is not there at all. She is not not
at all there. She is there in full. But there is something more
(en plus) (Seminar XX 74). Put slightly differently,
What does a woman want? if it is something other than what masculine discourse says she wants? How can we know what she wants if our modes of knowing take the masculine as universal subject? This is what leads Lacan to make the scandalous claim, La Femme nexiste pas (7). The Woman doesnt exist because there is no totality of women that the universal label Woman could encapsulate. Woman is an infinite set precisely because there is no master signifier for Woman that is equivalent to the phallus, which is why nothing can be said of her as a whole. In other words, there is no positive feminine characteristic that could describe all women, no signifier for sexual difference. Without the definitional constraints of a totalizing signifier, the feminine is infinite, not whole, not totalizable. Because there is no signifier for feminine jouissance, there is no way of universalizing it in the way that masculine jouissance is universalized by the phallic function. Because it escapes the phallic function, feminine jouissance or the Other jouissance, is singular. This Other jouissance, called feminine because it is not phallic, is real, it resists signification and we cannot know anything about it. It is also beyond the bounds of pleasure and unpleasure, quite literally beyond the pleasure principle.
In 1908 Freud published a short essay entitled Hysterical Phantasies and their Relation to Bisexuality. Here Freud put forth a number of seemingly contradictory statements about hysteria, painting the picture of hysteria as the result of three interrelated conflicts. Freud no longer believed that it was simply memories that hysterics suffer from, but also wishes and especially fantasies. Freud postulated that underlying hysteria are fantasies that are both unconscious and sexual, and which, by a process of repression, are tied to the sexual fantasies of childhood. He wrote, Hysterical symptoms correspond to the return of a means of sexual satisfaction that was real in infant life and has since been repressed (313). However, and seemingly in contradiction, Freud still maintained that hysteria is tied to past traumatic experiences, writing Hysterical symptoms are substitutes, engendered by conversion, for the associative return of these traumatic experiences (312-13). Hence the first conflict, that hysterical fantasies reactivate a past experience that is both pleasurable and traumatic. The second conflict is located between the urge to express a wish and the urge to repress it. Freud wrote, Hysterical symptoms arise as a compromise between two opposing stirrings of the affects or of the drives, one of which endeavours to express a partial drive or a component of the sexual constitution and the other to suppress it (313). Finally, according to Freud, hysterical fantasies are always a compromise between a masculine and a feminine sexual impulse. Freud wrote A hysterical symptom is the expression, on the one hand, of an unconscious sexual phantasy that is masculine and, on the other hand, of one that is feminine (314).
Hysteria is therefore the product of psychical conflict, described
by Freud alternatively as between pleasure and trauma, expression
and repression, masculine and feminine. This is precisely the
position of the
During the 1970s, feminist students of Lacan picked up on the idea of hysteria and feminine jouissance as potential sites for feminist rebellion, as well as possible ways of asserting feminine difference to counter the universality of the masculine subject. Building upon Lacans emphasis on the dominance of the phallic signifier and the resulting structuring of phallic jouissance, feminist thinkers such as Hélène Cixous, Catherine Clément and Luce Irigaray sought to challenge the dominance of the phallic signifier by writing feminine difference into culture, and to challenge the domination of sexuality by phallic jouissance with the specificity of a feminine jouissance expressed through writing.
The hysteric was an important figure for these French feminists. In La Jeune Nee (The Newly Born Woman), Cixous and Clément debate whether the hysteric is ultimately the vanguard of feminism or could remain only ever the victim of the patriarchal culture, impotently suffering from her inwardly directed rage. It is Cléments position that while the hysteric is a rebel, her protests remain inert, invested within and enclosed by the imaginary of the family romance. Cixous, on the other hand, lauds the hysteric for bearing the force of feminine jouissance and using it against the patriarchal masters. She writes, Those wonderful hysterics, who subjected Freud to so many voluptuous moments too shameful to mention, bombarding his mosaic statue/law [statute] of Moses with their carnal, passionate body words (95). For Cixous, then, the hysterics body speaks a feminist challenge to Freud and the other agents of patriarchy. The hysterics symptomatic body challenges them not at the level of the signifier but on a libidinal level with a libidinal surplus, or surplus jouissance, that the patriarchal signifiers could not contain. For Irigaray as well, the hysterics bodily symptoms speak the challenge of the womans libidinal economy which is haunted by her pre-Oedipal relation to her mother. This pre-Oedipal relation is repressed through the Oedipus complex by which woman is initiated into patriarchy and by which, Irigaray argues, patriarchy suppresses womens jouissance.
Cixous feminist writing brought together the insights of the burgeoning fields of French psychoanalysis and deconstruction. Following deconstruction, she located the root of the subordination of woman and the feminine in the binary opposition man/woman, wherein woman was defined solely in opposition to the universal man. For Cixous, feminisms aim had to begin with the confirmation of womans absolute difference from man in order that women could begin to claim some specificity. She argued that it is feminine jouissance that differentiates woman from man in a way that does not subordinate her desire to his own. She writes, [sexual] difference, in my opinion, becomes most clearly perceived on the level of jouissance, inasmuch as a womans instinctual economy cannot be identified by a man or referred to the masculine economy (82).
Like Cixous, Irigarays feminist critique is centred upon the sexual indifference she finds at the heart of western social organization and discourse (69). Irigaray, too, is influenced by deconstruction and psychoanalysis, as well as semiotics, Marxism, and existentialism. Irigaray more directly takes critical aim at psychoanalysis, arguing that sexual indifference is masterfully elaborated in the phallocentrism of psychoanalytic theory. In response to the psychoanalytic equation of woman with lack, Irigarays work seeks to fill in this lack with a specifically feminine sexuality. In other words, Irigaray wants to assert the radical alterity of the feminine by recuperating womens experience of their bodies and pleasures (31). Irigaray blames what she calls the masculine sexual imaginary for dispossessing her of her feminine pleasures. The goal of feminism, for both Irigaray and Cixous, is to make a place for feminine jouissance, rooted in the sensual experience of the body and the maternal bond, in the social scene. Both Irigaray and Cixous refer to a feminine imaginary as the place opened up in the social world for the expression of feminine jouissance. Where they differ is in their understanding of this feminine imaginary and the role which feminine jouissance plays therein.
Cixous argues that feminine jouissance, which has been repressed by the phallocentrism of the social order, could become the basis of the new feminine libidinal economy of a feminine imaginary. It is important to note that while Cixous understands feminine jouissance to be rooted in womens bodies, she does not locate the difference between phallic jouissance and feminine jouissance in the different bodies of men and women, but instead in their libidinal economiesthe ways in which pleasures circulate (or do not circulate) throughout the body. The masculine economy, she argues, is monosexual, centred on the penis/phallus, thus erasing the possibility of feminine difference. The feminine economy is more fluid, written across the body and not focused on a single body part or erogenous zone. Unbound with respect to either sex or otherness, Cixous defines feminine sexuality as bisexual incorporating difference and otherness as parts of the self. Feminine sexuality is the multiplication of the effects of desires inscription on every part of the body and the other body (85).
Irigaray takes Lacans concept of feminine jouissance slightly differently, as indicating that women experience a jouissance that is qualitatively different from mens phallic jouissance but that has no place in the masculine sexual economy. Unlike Cixous, Irigaray grounds feminine jouissance in the distinct morphology of the female body. According to Irigaray, feminine sexuality is autoerotic, multiple and sensual as opposed to masculine sexuality which is instrumental, unitary and specular. In the masculine sexual economy women are relegated to dependencybeing a lacking receptacle for mens pleasure. According to Irigaray, establishing a feminine imaginary would give voice to feminine jouissance and transform the phallocentric social world. Irigaray writes,
Thus what [women] desire is precisely nothing, and at the same time everything. Always something more and something else besides that onesexual organ, for examplethat you give them, attribute to them. Their desire is often interpreted, and feared, as a sort of insatiable hunger, a voracity that will swallow you whole. Whereas it really[womans desire] involves a different economy more than anything else, one that upsets the linearity of a project, undermines the goal-object of a desire, diffuses the polarization toward a single pleasure, disconcerts fidelity to a single discourse (29-30)
This embodied sexuality comes through, Irigaray suggests, in the decentred and fluid nature of womens language. Like Cixous, Irigaray attempts to enact this difference in her poetic and disruptive writing style, miming the rupturing quality of the hysterics symptom. Irigarays argument for the distinction of feminine jouissance is grounded on the morphological specificity of women. But one of the key differences between Cixous and Irigaray is that while Cixous in certain moments grounds feminine difference in morphology, her emphasis is not so much on feminine sexuality, as the feminine libidinal economy, what we might consider to be the configuration of the partial drives not under the sway of the genital drive.
Cixous most famous feminist intervention was her development of the notion of lécriture féminine, or feminine writing, as a way of giving voice to the experience of feminine jouissance. In writing, Cixous hopes we might empower this experience of the feminine libidinal economy, bring it into being in language. She writes, writing is the passageway, the entrance, the exit, the dwelling place of the other in methe other that I am not, that I dont know how to be, but that I feel passing, that makes me livethat tears me apart, disturbs me, changes me (86). And further It is in writing, from woman and toward woman, and in accepting the challenge of the discourse controlled by the phallus, that woman will affirm woman somewhere other than in silence, the place reserved for her in and through the Symbolic (93).
Thus, through feminine writing Cixous seeks to make a place for feminine jouissance in the social world, a world dominated by masculine discourse and a phallocentric libidinal economy. She recognizes that masculine language makes no place for feminine jouissance, so she looks for the other ways that this jouissance could enter the social scene. One way is through the voicethe rhythm of the breath and the voice reverberating in writing. And she suggests that what reverberates in the voice is the legacy of the mothers love. She writes, The Voice sings from a time before law, before the Symbolic took ones breath away and reappropriated it into language under its authority of separation. The deepest, the oldest, the loveliest Visitation. Within each woman the first, nameless love is singing (93). In this passage Cixous evokes the jouissance of a time before language and a time before separation from the m/other. In writing she hopes that woman might give voice to this experience. Cixous hopes that the revolutionary potential of giving voice to feminine jouissance will have the power to destroy the phallocracy of the masculine Law. She writes Now, Iwoman am going to blow up the Law: a possible and inescapable explosion from now on; let it happen, right now, in language (95).
There is much to be learned from the politics of Cixous and
Irigaray, grounded as their work is in the psychical effects
of patriarchy. They offer necessary critiques of phallogocentrism
and the universality of the masculine subject in psychoanalytic
and philosophical thought. In some important ways, the work of
Cixous and Irigaray parallels that of early second wave American
feminist Betty Friedan and the Australian feminist Germaine Greer.
Friedan and Greer were concerned with politicizing the
problem that has no name also called housewifes
syndrome from which they saw white suburban housewives
suffering and which they suggested needed to be cured
not by physicians but by feminism. And in other ways their projects
are profoundly different. It is significant that both the French
feminists and the American feminists were listening to what womens
bodies were expressing, an Other jouissance, libidinal
economy or dissatisfaction which lacked a signifier in the patriarchal
social scene. They were all locating the hysterical symptom as
the symptom of patriarchy and attempting to mobilize women on
the basis of this other experience, as a kind of drive
out of complicity and towards a cure promised by feminist political
action and discourse. Where the French and American feminists
differed was in the solution each offered to women. American
feminists like Friedan sought the liberal program of equal access
to education and employment, attempting to do away with the relevance
of sexual difference. Irigaray and Cixous, by contrast, seek
to speak feminine difference against the patriarchal domination
of the phallic signifier and write the
It is unfortunate that the translation of feminist texts by
Cixous and Irigaray into English preceded the translation of
Lacans seminars. American feminists for the most part lacked
the theoretical lens through which to understand the work of
the French feminists. It is Shepherdsons contention, in
his book Vital Signs, that the American feminist theoretical
investment in the distinction between sex and gender, nature
and culture, was responsible for the American misreading of feminists
like Cixous and Irigaray as essentialist. I, too, disagree that
their theories are completely essentialist; however, at times
they fail to fully disaggregate feminine jouissance from
feminine morphology. Perhaps this was a political move which
stems from the social positioning of men and women in France
during the 1970s. Today, in North America, gender roles have
changed to such a degree that it is certainly not only women
who can be considered to be in the feminine position with respect
to the phallic signifier and the Other jouissance. As
women have gained more access to phallic power, both women and
men are also increasingly subject to a profound social alienation
and the concomitant hysterical symptoms. The biggest problem
I have with the work of both Irigaray and Cixous is that they
insist upon inscribing feminine difference into the social scene,
either through a feminine imaginary or a feminine libidinal economy.
I would argue that this insistence on writing the
It is crucial that we do not take feminine jouissance
as some positive content, as some other sexuality.
As soon as a form of the Other jouissance becomes socially
acceptable, it is reabsorbed by the patriarchal social symbolic,
becoming phallic jouissance. Feminists have tried to make
the diffuse, multiple, bisexual, and other directed qualities
of feminine sexuality part of the social scene in womens
only spaces like womens centres, womens communes,
and womens festivals. But this feminine imaginary never
escapes being structured by the phallic signifier. What is overlooked
is that sexuality itself is what divides us into
men and women, masculine and feminine and produces the qualities
attributed to the sexes/sexualities. Sexuality is phallic, it
cannot be separated from the phallic signifier, for it is the
result of the phallic signifier; it is the pleasure taken in
those partial drives which is made allowable by the social scene.
Feminine jouissance is not some other way of being sexual.
Feminine jouissance must instead be understood as an experience
of jouissance that is not captured by our sex/gender/sexuality
system; it is Real and escapes symbolization entirely. Sexuality
is phallic; there is no separating the two. Which means that
man is the subject of sexual desire and
Because of the historical fact of patriarchy, women have been more likely than men to suffer from hysteria and to have an experience of the Other jouissance as that which disrupts their egos day to day. Feminists therefore must address this other jouissance. But when one makes this other jouissance sexual, it comes under the sway of the phallic signifier and the pleasure principle. When one ties this jouissance to the experience of particular bodies, it becomes essentialized and particularized. Sexual jouissance is phallic jouissance is pleasure. The Other jouissance is beyond the realm of pleasure/unpleasure. It is the experience of the rupture of ones being in the face of the insufficiency of the signifier. If there is anything that we can learn from the hysteric it is that the experience of the Other jouissance is anything but pleasant. It is a rupture in the natural logic of the organism as well as the egos social narrative. The question remains: can feminism take up this Other jouissance and mobilize the force of the Real towards feminist ends? If the Other jouissance cannot become the basis for an alternative feminine imaginary or an alternative feminine libidinal economy, can it nevertheless challenge the domination of the patriarchal signifier? In what follows I propose that the profound challenge of feminine difference is the challenge of the singularity of the subject against the universalism imposed by the phallic signifier.
In Imagine Theres no Woman, Joan Copjec takes
Thus Lacans feminine metaphysics redefines universality from the realm of totality to the realm of the infinite. As Copjec puts it, Lacan does not argue that there are no universals, only particular things; rather, he maintains that universals are real (4). As we saw in the logic of feminine being, Lacans logic does not lapse into a particularism, where a universal is impossible due to the particularity of all things. As Copjec puts it, if there are only appearances in their particularity, this is due to the fact that the real, a by-product or residue of thought, detaches itself from thought to form its internal limit (4). This is the logic of the lack-in-being, the logic of castration, and the logic of the (feminine) Lacanian subject. There is an internal limit to the human being that structures being by its absence.
I would like to also point out that this is precisely the basis and justification of Lacans structuralism. The psychical structures which he describes (such as the diagrams and formulas of sexuation, the three registers, the formulas and mathemes for discourse, fantasy, drive etc.) are posited as universal, that is, they describe the structure of all human thought and action. However, they are also Real, meaning that they lack any positive content, they defy signification. So while Lacan will argue that no human can escape being positioned on one side or the other of his sexuation formulas, nevertheless the way in which any person lives this position can be nothing but utterly singular. The singularity of the subject is ensured by the universality of lack or castration, and the singularity of the response of the subject to that lack. We may refer to this as the singularity of each persons jouissance, which can be thought of as an experience of the body beyond language, or a singular remainder of the traumatic breaking in of the mOthers castrated desire on the homeostasis of the child. Jouissance is the beings response. No amount of description, no precision in or proliferation of signifiers, can do justice to the experience of the jouissance of the drive. Lacan writes, There is something radically unassimilable to the signifier. Its quite simply the subjects singular existence (Seminar III 179). To take up a feminine position is to take up a singular position relative to a jouissance which transcends the signifiers generalizing function.
According to Aristotelian logic, universality is opposed to particularity because universals are negated by particular cases. But according to Lacanian logic, universality and singularity go hand in hand, as both are a consequence of the Real. The Real refers to the realm of human experience that defies signification but also has a universal structure. Which is why Lacan uses mathemes and diagrams to demonstrate the structural logic of psychoanalysis. These structures are the logic of the human subject. Because humans are endowed with a capacity for abstraction we can imagine things beyond the reality of what is. Each of us is in the first and the last instance alone with our own lack, which is why for Lacan the symbolic lack mirrors the lack in the subject. It is up to each singular subject to configure our desire out of the infinite possible combination of signifiers, to go on living after the trauma of castration. What makes us human is our capacity to imagine our own solution, just as the infant must hallucinate her first satisfactions once the breast is taken away. That an infant hallucinates is a universal, but the content of the hallucination, if it can even be thought of as content, is realindescribable and utterly singular. The name that Lacan gives to the configuration of the subjects desire around the object a, product of castration, is the fundamental fantasy ($Êa).
The problem of singularity was the problem that Freud hit
his head against when he tried to theorize a content for the
Copjec gives us a way of thinking about the difference between
the feminine and hysterical positions. While both are confronted
by the lack in the Other, the ungroundedness of a
world without ideals or limits, the hysteric seeks to impose
imaginary limits. Copjec writes, Confronted with the very
real inadequacies of phallic jouissance
takes the reins of the world by constructing imaginary resolutions
(123). She may even impose herself as limit by embodying the
exception. Copjec writes, the hysteric makes herself
the limit of the world she brings into beingand she
does so precisely by withdrawing from it (124). Both the
hysteric and the
The hysterics solution resembles the masculine solution in so far as both look outside themselves for a limit to their own lack. The hysterical subject refutes the law because she knows it is empty; instead, she looks to her others to limit her lack or identifies herself as the castrating lack in the other. The masculine subject, on the other hand, identifies himself with the symbolic law and so is caught up in fantasies of prohibition and transgression. In fact, the masculine logic of the exception is the logic of the juridical law. Any law is based upon the possibility of its transgression; there is no other justification for it. The masculine position is one which is fully invested in the laws of the social world, whose investment comes on the condition that the law may always be transgressed. Just as the masculine subject accedes to castration only on the condition that there is one who proves that jouissance is possible. The masculine investment in the law is simultaneously an investment in the fantasy of transgressing it. Whether enjoyment comes from following the law or violating it (in reality or in fantasy), the masculine subject does not challenge the power of the law.
The feminine logic of the infinite universal, the not-all
of being, the fact that she is the exception to the universal
masculine law, means that she knows that the law
is incomplete, it lacks grounding. If, as Copjec suggests, woman
is the keeper of the not-all of being, we dont see this
any clearer than in the psychoanalytic emphasis on the mothers
What the absence of a signifier for womans jouissance
means for women is something completely different than it means
for men. For men,
Second wave feminism offered women another sort of cure, a
new ideology by which to explain their experiences and their
suffering, another way of expressing the problem that has
no name. But so far feminists have not been able to displace
the phallic signifier, reliant as we are on the social meanings
of sex, gender and sexuality which it structures. Feminist thinkers
have often taken either the masculine position, relying on a
messianic fantasy of phallic power to come, or the hysterics
position, blaming others for what they lack. However, what feminism
needs to contend with is that the question What does a woman
want? has no universal answer because the
The unsymbolized nature of womens sex should not be mistaken for unsymbolizablity. It is important to recognize that (sexed) being is necessarily singular. Each one of us has a singular position with respect to our jouissance. The masculine position takes solace in the fantasies of the social scene, in which the romance of cinema, courtly love, the marriage vows (including gay marriage vows), or feminist ideology all function to make an Other responsible for being that which we lack, and support the insistence of the phallic signifier in the social scene. This can include feminist fantasies which are invested in the possibility that if only woman were free and equal, she would have unbridled enjoyment. The insistence of the phallic signifier, and the concomitant reliance on fantasy, have a symptomthe Other jouissancethat the social symbolic cannot account for. Those who are disillusioned with the social scene and phallic jouissance, regardless of gender, are in the feminine position. To inhabit the feminine position is to have an experience of the Other jouissance that ruptures both the fantasies of the social scene and the homeostasis of the organism. This experience takes one form in the hysterics symptoms, but what if the Other jouissance could find other modes of expression? What if Irigaray and Cixous were right, and the force of the Other jouissance could be turned against the social scene, not as a way of introducing an alternative feminine libidinal economy, but as a way of inciting each of us to find an idiosyncratic expression of our singularity? One which might serve for other women as a provocation to seek the truth of the Other jouissance that is at work in their bodies and in their lives but which is somehow stifled or subdued by the promises of pleasure and fulfillment offered on the social scene.
In many ways, Shoshana Felmans What does a Woman Want? Reading and Sexual Difference takes off from the work of the French feminists. While Felman does not explicitly reference Cixous, I cannot help but read Felmans beautiful book as a response to Cixous notion of lécriture feminine. Only in place of a revolutionary writing practice, Felman suggests a revolutionary reading practice. This shift from writing to reading is, I will argue, nothing less than an ethical interventiona way of approaching feminine difference as a rupture within the narratives of other women which mirrors the readers own internal difference. While Felman places the emphasis on reading, we cannot forget that this reading practice requires women writers to first write their lives.
As I already described, the thrust behind Cixous écriture feminine is that writing can enable women to become the metaphysical subjects of a new feminine discourse. For Felman too, feminine writing, whether literature, autobiography, theory, or all three, is vital for women and the feminist struggle; however, it is also fraught. Felman points out that patriarchal domination means not only that women have not had the time and space to write, but that women are fully inculcated into a masculine symbolic and, thereby, as Felman puts it, possessed by the male mind (5). Women cannot write as Woman because, in Lacans terms, the Woman does not exist, she is the gap in the phallic symbolic, signifier for humanitys lack. Felman recognizes and deliberately resists the trap of a hysterical identification with the missing signifier Woman. She resists the dogmatic and legislating by-products of feminisms attempts to define the Woman into existence by finding some substance through which to represent sexual difference. Instead, the Woman functions in Felmans discourse as missing, displaced by the masculinization of thought and knowledge, but also as the very insecurity of a differential movement, which no ideology can fix and of which no institutional affiliation can redeem the radical anxiety (10).
The being of
This is precisely the bind which feministsas women writers who address other womenfind ourselves in. While fully knowing that particular women transcend the phallic definition of Woman (passive, nurturing, emotional, etc.), feminists also have not been able to come up with any description of femininity that does not draw upon those very same qualities. Feminist writers, women writers, either find ourselves trapped in a critical address towards patriarchal discourses, or else we attempt to use those same discourses to say something about women; both strategies remain invested in the phallic signifier. Felman suggests a direction for feminism out of this bind between hysteria and the masculine position, and that is for feminism to become an ethical reading practice rather than an ideology or a set of theories. Feminist knowledge becomes, for Felman, the enabling inspiration for an ethics centred on the practice of reading, reading our own stories through the stories of others (8). This ethics of interpretation involves reading in the texts of others that which exceeds the narrative, the sexual difference which is only present as rupture, as what Lacan calls the Real. Felman writes,
Trained to see ourselves as objects and to be positioned as the Other, estranged to ourselves, we have a story that by definition cannot be self-present to us, a story that, in other words, is not a story, but must become a story. And it cannot become a story except through the bond of reading, that is, through the story of the Other (the story read by other women, the story of women told by others), insofar as this story of the Other, as our own autobiography, has as yet precisely to be owned. (14)
What is so important for me about Felmans intervention is that feminism becomes not only a practice, but an ethical practice, one which engenders a new kind of social bond. Felman calls this bond the bond of reading, which she compares to bearing witness allowing oneself to be surprised by what one discovers about oneself through an encounter with a text written by another (133). The bond of reading is a connection between the subject and herself, but it is social to the extent that it enables an experience of herself as an effect of the social world. Through reading, the feminine subject finds a place for an experience of the singularity of the Other jouissance in the social scene. What the woman, or feminine reader encounters in the text is the singular experience of being. The sexed being of the psychoanalytic subject always eludes signification but is paradoxically also an effect of signification, and so can be experienced through the encounter with the enigmatic rupture of the other. The feminine reader encounters herself in the enigma of another feminine desire, never quite elaborated in the writing of other women, yet always present. Reading enables a social bond to form between the subject and her world, which creates a feminist bond not premised upon an investment in a certain patriarchal definition of woman. Felmans ethical reading practice would not be possible without what I might suggest is a love for womens writing and the feminist project more generallywhich she refers to as her enabling inspiration.
Psychoanalysis since Freud has opened up the possibility of an entirely different relationship to the question of womens desire and womens suffering. Freud developed the theory of the unconscious as a way of thinking about that aspect of human experience which eludes human knowledge. In Freuds patriarchal culture, the femininewomans own desirewas one way of naming this limit. Feminine desire is the limit of masculinist knowledge as well as the limit of masculine desire. The feminine and the unconscious are both signifiers for that which cannot be represented. Though we all suffer from the impossibility of the signifiers of the social scene to do justice to our experiences, the hysteric manifests this injustice in her bodily symptoms, her mode of relating to others, and her modes of writing. Felmans ethical reading practice suggests that in the revolutionary shift from writing to reading, feminists may escape the deadlocks of the hysterical or masculine positions and take responsibility for the being they are as a result of their ontological lack. By occupying the feminine position, the subject may take her place fully implicated in her social world.
Cixous, Hélène, and Catherine Clément. The Newly Born Woman. La jeune née. Trans. Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1986.
Copjec, Joan. Imagine There's No Woman: Ethics and Sublimation. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004.
Felman, Shoshana. What Does a Woman Want? Reading and Sexual Difference. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.
Freud, Sigmund, and Joseph Breuer. Studies in Hysteria. Trans. Nicola Luckhurst. London: Penguin, 2004.
Freud, Sigmund. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Penguin Freud Library Vol 7: On Sexuality. Trans. James Strachey. London: Penguin, 1991, 31-169.
Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Dell, 1984.
Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. London: Flamingo, 1993.
Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1985.
Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Bruce Fink. New York: Norton, 2004.
---. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1981.
---. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book III: The Psychoses, 1955-1956. Trans. Russell Grigg. New York: Norton, 1993.
---. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX: Encore On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge, 1972-1973. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1998.
Rose, Jacqueline. Dora: Fragment of an Analysis. Eds. Charles Bernheimer and Claire Kahane. Doras Case: FreudHysteriaFeminism. New York: Columbia UP, 1990. 128-48.
Shepherdson, Charles. Vital Signs: Nature, Culture, Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Verhaeghe, Paul. Does the Woman Exist? From Freud's Hysteric to Lacan's Feminine. Trans. Marc du Ry. New York: Other, 1999.
Kristine Klement is ABD in the Social and Political Thought Programme at York University. She is currently completing her dissertation, entitled What Does a Feminist Want? Hysteria, Psychoanalysis, Feminism and is also the author of a number of articles, including Dangerous Desires: Hysteria, Sexuality and Discourse in Todd Haynes film Safe in Anything But Safe: Sex, Sexuality and Gender.