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What Consequences Does Freud’s Argument in Femininity Have for Political Theory?

So the reading of Freud as a theorist of culture is now well established. Both religion and gender are central aspects of culture in his thought; seeing them as such makes my question about the critical weight of his theory of gender possibility. Therefore the essay will deal with the following questions: What consequences does Freud’s argument in Femininity have for political theory? And In what way ought political theory to respond?

My argument here should not be taken as a wholesale criticism of Freud’s concept of the castration complex. I am concerned with how the articulated castration and the social-political categories of gender and sexuality, especially in the theme of penis envy. Far-reaching reexaminations of the Oedipus complex, castration, and femininity have recently been undertaken by analysis in the Lacanian tradition.  For example, looking at Paul Verhaeghe’s words, Does Woman Exist?  From a clinical as well as theoretical perspective, Verhaeghe reworks the whole Freud’s reflections on castration in order to show that when he interpreted the opposition between having-a-penis and not-having-a-penis as the fixed insignia of sexual difference he mistook a fantasy for reality (Jacobsen, 125). Castration enters psychic life as a multivalent fantasy.

The idea of castration, as it arises in the infant’s world, is first of all an interpretation of the female genitals, one that makes them disappear in such a way that they are never seen. The castration complex covers the mystery of femininity. In the ordeal of separation, that is, in the child’s crooked path toward pursuing its own desires and sensing its own autonomy, this idea of castration becomes a kind of defensive protection or bar against dependence on maternal omnipotence, against being swept up in, in Lacanian terminology, the enjoyment of the other. The threat of castration- which is also a fantasy, indeed a derivative of the previous ones, shifts the primordial anxiety. In her “Female Fetishism,” Naomi Schor observes the recurrence of a fetishistic scenario in the novels of George Sand, the eroticization of wounds. Interestingly, in view of my own terms arguments, Schor also remarks on “the mobility of the fetish, its aptitude to press into service any wound inflicted on the female body.”

Although the subjects of fetishistic desire are embodied in male characters, her argument that they represent a female form of fetishism is built on the reading of authorial desire. “The fact that the female fetish par excellence in Sand should be a wound is not insignificant, for wounds per se are not generally feteshized by men” (Butler, 366); and, of course, the masculine signature of the author only thinly disguises a woman writer, if one notorious for her masquerades- a woman writer, I might add, of whom lesbian literary historians have been eager to note “the pronounced masculinity of her always semi-autobiographical heroines” (Derrida, 127) as well as her own often masculine dress, feminist views, and unconventional behavior with both male lovers and female “friends” (263-264).

Schor explains both the masquerade of masculinity and female fetishism in Sand’s fiction as a textual strategy of “perverse oscillation” and names it bisexuality after Sarah Kofman’s thesis of feminine bisexuality: “What is pertinent to women in fetishism is the paradigm of undecidability that it offers. By appropriating of castration, women can effectively counter any move to reduce their bisexuality to a single one of its poles “(Foucault, 368). This interpretation is elegant but not convincing. For if bisexuality is a possible, perhaps even a probable, account with regard to Sand, nevertheless the argument for female fetishism must rest on the meaning of castration. Regrettably, Schor’s reliance on Kofman’s  Derridian reading of fetishism does not allow her to go very far either in subverting Freudian orthodoxy or in the specification of a female fetishism; moreover, it brings her to align herself, albeit reluctantly, with what I call the discourse of sexual (in)difference: “the wounds inflicted on the female protagonist’s body as a prelude to her  sexual initiation by a man are the stigmata… of a refusal firmly to anchor woman-but also man-on either side of the axis of castration” (Lacan, 369).

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What is at issue, to be sure, is not the fact that the characters inflicting the wound and eroticizing it as a fetish are men, since the point of Schor’s argument is authorial desire. What is at issue is the theoretical perspective in which the latter is read: that is, first, Kofman’s view of bisexuality or “feminine oscillation” as, on the one hand, the constitutive feature of femininity and, on the other, a feminine? Feminist strategy; second, and on that basis, her “feminization” of fetishism-the rhetorical troping or metaphoric extension of a specific psychic process into a feminine but sexually indifferent “generalized fetishism” (Lear, 117-118). Schor’s insistence on female instead of feminine suggests, already in the title of her essay, certain unease with Kofman’s theory and a doubt about its validity.

That doubt is stated explicitly at the end of the essay when Schor, suddenly putting into question her own speculation on the nature of female fetishism, concludes: “To forge a new word adequate to the notion of female fetishism, what we need now is……….. A new language” (Lacan, 371). Were I to offer an account of the wound as female fetish in Sand, I would likely argue away from the theoretical placebo of bisexuality and more in the direction I have been pursuing here. For it seems to me that to postulate female (bi) sexuality as an oscillation of desire or sexual identity between the “poles” of masculinity and femininity does not call into question the fulcrum of that “axis castration” on which is balanced the seesaw of such a subjectivity, that is to say, the paternal phallus.

Thus Kofman’s generalization, or feminization, of fetishism does not spell “the end of the privileged phallus” (Moi, 133), but rather confirms it as the master term par excellence. Indeed Schor herself wonders, at the close of her paper, Sand is not in fact “the latest and most subtle form of penis-envy?” (Lacan, 317). This possibility, which would account for Sand’s masculine masquerades in the most classic of terms, the masculinity complex, is perfectly consistent not only with the theory of “oscillation” but also with the conceptual frame in which the feminine is predicated on the masculine, and oscillation on a phallic axis. In remarking that troubling complicity, Schor’s doubt-her own critical habit of Kofman’s theory like a house of cards, cautioning against facile or voluntaristic appropriations of sexual differences whether by women or by men. While the notion of oscillation is gaining currency in the theorizing of heterosexual female subjectivity and my argument, for some of us, women and men, subjects of perverse desire, more castration is better than less castration.

We need not just to refuse to anchor ourselves firmly on one or the other side of the paternal phallus, but to loosen ourselves from it altogether, and to really follow through the idea of a mobility of fetishistic or perverse desire by giving up the convenience of notions such as oscillation and undecidability. As for the relations of fetishism to masquerade, just as there are many fetishism- that is, different ways of conceptualizing and using the term fetishism- so are there several masquerades. Which kind of masquerades Sand’s may have been depends on how one reads her fetishism, and vice versa. The connection between (male) fetishism and (female) masquerade was first suggested by Joan Riviere in “Womanless as a masquerade” and subsequently reformulated by Lacan. For Riviere, the masquerade of femininity is an exaggerated, compulsive display of womanly behavior, the flirting and coquetting with men in social intercourse serves to disguise the heterosexual woman’s masculinity complex and her competitiveness with men.

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Since her achievement in a masculine profession is tantamount to stealing the penis from the father, she must propitiate all “father-figures” by wooing their favor and offering herself sexually to them after each one of her intellectual performances. Following the doctorial positions of Jones and Klein, who have both been her analyst, Riviere’s analysis of one patient is typically based on the credo of penis envy and sadistic-aggressive impulses toward the mother.  On a cue from Jones’s “The Early Development of Female Sexuality”, Riviere surmises in her patient a latent or unconscious homosexuality as envious contempt of men, but insists on her successful performance in heterosexual intercourse as the determination to surpass the mother and to prove herself the equal of men in sexual potency: “In effect, sexual enjoyment was full and frequent, with complete orgasm; but the fact emerged that gratification it brought was of the nature of a reassurance and restitution of something lost, and not ultimately pure enjoyment.

Thus, for Riviere, narcissism is central to the woman’s masquerade of femininity, while fetishism is the province of its analogue in men, the man’s masquerade of femininity, as in her male homosexual patient who could attain sexual gratification only when cross dressed as his sister (Moi, 39-40). For Lacan, on the other hand, the fetish id=s the specific value conferred upon woman by the masquerade, because her purpose in masquerading is to be the phallus:

“Paradoxical as this formulation my seem, I am saying that it is in order to be the phallus, that is to say, the signifier of the desire of the other, that a woman will reject an essential part of femininity, namely, all her attributes in the masquerade. It is for that which she is not that she wishes to be desired as well as loved. But she finds the signifier of her own desire in the body of him to whom she addresses her demand for love. Perhaps it should not be forgotten that the organ that assumes this signifying function, takes on the value of fetish,” (Moi, 289-290).

Referring to Jones, but not mentioning Riviere, Lacan nonetheless takes from her the notion of mask, and uses it pointedly in “The Signification of the Phallus” in the context of an incidental remark on female homosexuality:

 “Male homosexuality, in accordance with the phallic mark that constitutes desire, is constituted on the side of desire, while female homosexuality, on the other hand, as observation shows, is orientated on a disappointment that reinforces the side of the demand for love. . . . The function of the mask. .  . Dominates the identifications in which refusals of demand are resolved” (Moi, 290-91).

Like Jones and Riviere, Lacan also believes that female homosexuality derives from the disappointment of the subject’s oedipal love for the father, and like them he speaks of female homosexuality and heterosexuality without solution of continuity. Quite appropriately, therefore, Judith Butler glosses this passage with a question, “Is it the mask of the female homosexual that is ‘observed’?” (Moi, 49). Indeed, who is refusing whom? It is not clear whether Lacan is saying that homosexual women refuses the man, as Butler suggests, or whether he is saying that women is homosexual, or identifies with the male phallus, because her demand for the father’s love has been refused, and she has resolved his refusal by identifying with him. In either case, however, the feminine woman, too, identifies with the phallus in order to be loved, which neatly ties up the theorem of the phallus: woman can either try to have it or try to be it. There are inner links between these two parts of Freud’s theory of culture – gender – and religion – which scholars of Freud have not liked at together, links which become visible when gender asymmetry is explicitly treated as one of Freud’s basic claims about culture.

My understanding of the relationships between the theory of gender, as found throughout Freud’s texts but particularly in several papers on the Oedipus complex in girls and boys, and this theory of religion, as found primarily in The Future of an Illusion and Moses Monotheism, is indebted both to Rieff’s study of Freud’s moralizing mind and my study of his analysis of femininity. Rieff examines Freud’s misogyny to explain that “the pejorative image of women serves as a measure of the general critical component” in Freud’s mix of romantic and rationalist presuppositions. Rieff’s refers to Freud’s “misogyny,” but the term often connotes personal animosity of the disposable sort rather than a critical principle. Herein, references are, instead, to the “asymmetrical positions” of the genders in Freud’s oedipal theory and to the “asymmetrical positions” of masculinity and femininity in Freud’s thought in general.

The notion of sexual, or gender, asymmetry is current in cultural anthropology of a structuralist bent. I prefer to speak of gender rather than sexual asymmetry because, as I will argue, there is an implicit but important distinction between sex and gender in Freud’s texts. Juliet Mitchell’s Psychoanalysis and Feminism focuses on the asymmetrical relationships of the sexes to each other and to the father figure in Freud’s theories. Mitchell treats this asymmetry as an endorsement for the accuracy of Freud’s analysis, over against theories which presuppose a complementarity between the genders which does not in fact exist in society. She explains: “if we live a patriarchal society in which, from whatever your political standpoint, the sexes are treated at least differently . . .  . Then is it not highly unlikely that the psychological development of the sexes should be one of parity? Psychology must reflect the social at least as much as the biological background. . . . .  In her reading, Freud’s theories of oedipal development are analyses of how “the human animal with a bisexual psychological disposition becomes the sexed social creature – the man or the woman.” (Parker, 65).  

Freud in discovering the laws of the unconscious is a concept of mankind’s transmission and inheritance of this social laws, . . . a primary aspect of the law is that we live according to our sexed identity, our ever imperfect ‘masculinity and femininity as asymmetrical and attributes it to their concrete asymmetrical positions in culture. In my argument, a disparaging view of women which functions critically does so not in Freud’s theory alone, or in theory alone, but in actual unconscious individual and cultural processes.

I am more willing than Rieff to accept this frequently disavowed part of Freud’s thought his psychology of women, as descriptive truth; Rieff limits himself to claim its consistency with Freud’s critical message and with the messages of other nineteenth-century irrationalist thinkers. The irony that a feminist scholar should take my position is only apparent, for the severer critique of femininity which one finds in Freud agrees in its severity with the feminist diagnosis of the sociohistorical situation which has been imposed on and accepted by women. But Rieff, too, is attracted by the severity of Freud’s diagnoses. He emphasizes that Freud’s critique of femininity for its usefulness in her critique of patriarchy.  In very different ways, both are its usefulness in her critique of patriarchy. In very different ways, both are interested in the problem of legitimate authority and, therefore, in Freud’s view of authority as necessary paternal. In fact, for Rieff, the nature of authority is Freud’s basic concept (Moitra, 321).

In What Way Ought Political Theory To Respond?

Freud contributed to social theory by extending his analyses of the individual to groups and by interpreting his findings in ways that emphasized cultural factors in modeling personality. Totem and Taboo Civilization and Its Discontents with their themes of oedipal conflict, incest, totems, and gods replacing all-powerful but deposed fathers depict the emergence of authority figures and situate human aggression.  Freud offers a social theory where guilt and unhappiness are part of all social life and it is in the debates with Freud on this point that we find some of the most important writings in contemporary social theory. The Mermaid and the Minotaur is an excellent starting point for an examination of contemporary ideas on motherhood and on the sexual relationships that accompany the kind of childrearing arrangements that proceed from that social institution.

My intent is not only to raise questions about the social ways in which children are reared and the consequences of these arrangements but also to suggest that these arrangements affect how the human planet is administered (Jacobsen, 312). She argues that these patterns have brought humanity to the point of nuclear annihilation and, yet, it is the social nature of these rules that allow us to move out of this historic morass. I reject a conservative reading of Freud for examining how social structures affect the dialectical relationship between the biological and the psychological self. The main human presence for the young child’s female; but this unarguably historical given can be read and assessed in a variety of ways. Traditional sexual arrangements can be altered by humans who can create a new set of arrangements, replacing mothering with parenting and motherhood with parenthood. Implicit in her argument is that historically this is on its way.

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Technology continues to affect childcare arrangements: first, women’s nurturing relationship to children is altered; second, birth control allows us to even have children; and, third, we are redefining public and private realms in ways that affect mothering and motherhood. If we end the female domination of childrearing, men will be able to accept women on more equitable terms, will themselves be able to parent, and women will be able to bring their nurturing capacity into the public realm. Let me explicate this further. Dinnerstein asks that we recognize that sex roles rest on the fact that women are the primary caretakers of children. This arrangement has certain consequences, most especially of psychological dependency type; that is, this female monopoly of early childcare means a very early dependency on and tie to women by both boys and girls, each of whom will resolve this tie in different ways. These arrangements need to be changed; but before this task can be undertaken, we have to see how the society continues these arrangements and how they are legitimated by psychic factors that grow out of them and are so deep – seated - they are “buried foundations” – that we assume that they must be continued.  We are understandably cautious about any efforts to change or restructure them (Foucault, 214). These forms have a tenacity that all humans need that is at issue, but the specific forms of bonding those women-raised children have.

It is a specific or exclusive kind of tie that I want to critique – the mother-child bond especially as it is manifested in the pre-Oedipal stage. The attachment of persons for others is not to be repressed but, on the contrary is, owing to its beneficence, to become the model for other human relationships. It is the dualistic arrangements of mother as private nurturer and father as public authority that she wishes to transform. We can recognize certain continuities and differences with the world of animals; hence, there is a literary fascination with mermaids and parentage that allows women to know who their children are in a way not granted to men. The girl, being of the same sex as the mother, has a grater burden than does the boy of transferring sexual allegiances away from the mother and to the father; for as she has to learn to transfer her homoerotic love – a form of love on which there are social bans – she feels unfaithful in a way that the boy does not. Heterosexual relations in adult are played out differently by men and women, with women becoming the mothers they once had to give up and men becoming secure and less dependent upon the mothers they had to give up. Women are also more prepared to mute or play down their sexual wants so as to keep from remembering what the giving up of mother for father seemed to them to be – an act of betrayal of one like oneself. I therefore argue that the bond between women and children is so strong and so exclusive that it allows children to grow up to act as if mermaids and Minotaurs really exist. The bonds between mothers and infants are too strong and those between fathers and infants too fragile. We make too much of one and too little of the other.

In conclusion, it is obvious, then, that the problems of gender and religion might be related within a theory of culture which defines civilization a patriarchal. The key to the relationship is that Freud understands both religious belief and psychical gender as mental relationships to fathers and their substitutes. Whether one should locate consistencies between Freud’s critiques of gender and religion in his accuracy about the deep structure of mental life in culture or in Freud’s own critical consistency is not an issue which this study decides. It remains internal to Freud’s writings, carving passages between many parts of his texts in order to arrive at a formulation of Freud’s gender theory in which his notions of femininity and masculinity are visible as measure of physical and sociocultural value. Thus, although Freud did understand religion as a cultural system, in the sense that religion was part of the psychoanalytically explicable history of human civilization, he did not consider its function to be only consolatory.  I therefore argue that Freud does not speak of God, but of god and the gods of men; what is involved is not the truth of the foundation of religious ideas but their function in balancing the renunciations and satisfactions through which man tries to make his harsh life tolerable.  Freud’s critical themes of wish fulfillment, or illusion, and instinctual renunciation guide his psychoanalytic studies of religion and correspond to his evaluative understandings of femininity and masculinity as asymmetrical in structure.

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