Deconstructing the Feminine
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Deconstructing the Feminine

Psychoanalysis, Gender and Theories of Complexity

Leticia Glocer Fiorini

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eBook - ePub

Deconstructing the Feminine

Psychoanalysis, Gender and Theories of Complexity

Leticia Glocer Fiorini

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The guiding thread of this theoretical review is the illumination of the impasses of binary thought and of the essentialist conceptions of women and the feminine. In this trajectory, the author's ongoing dialogue with Freud is connected with one aspect of his way of thinking: multicentred and complex. The text addresses questions relating to love, sexual desire, maternity, beauty and the passing of time and highlights current debates concerning women, the feminine, and sexual difference as well as some controversial topics that have been discussed throughout the history of the psychoanalytic movement. One of the most relevant subjects is the notion of 'feminine enigma' and the conceptions of the feminine as the negative of the masculine, which means going into the nature-nurture debate, as well as into considerations of the feminine seen as the other of the masculine. The author points out that the notion of 'feminine enigma' is a displacement of the enigmas inherent to the origins, to the finite time of life (the inevitability of death) and to sexual difference.

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Chapter One
The feminine position: a heterogeneous construction

The analysis of theoretical and clinical questions related to femininity and sexual difference led me to think in terms of models of thought based on theories of complexity. According to Edgar Morin (1977, 1990), the paradigm of complexity proposes neither unitary theory nor any first truth or master-concept as a key to accessing knowledge. It proposes a circular model of thought which, when dealing with a complex fact, refrains from reducing it to a simplified or mutilated principle. In this sense it sustains the association of two propositions recognized as being true but mutually refusing to make contact with each other; it upholds them as two sides of a complex truth, whose main reality is their relation of interdependence. It also involves an organizing principle of knowledge that assigns the same value to articulation and integration as it does to distinction and opposition of the elements under analysis.
Complex thought affirms the coexistence of two heterogeneous notions: order and disorder, as proposed by Balandier (1988). This author states that each order finds, at the limit of its organization, the disordering pressure of the functioning of another order which is foreign and different. In the same way, Castoriadis (1986) develops the concept of magma to describe the coexistence of fragments of multiple logical organizations which cannot be reduced to any one logical organization. For Castoriadis, the plurality of the psyche is not a system but a magma. He applies the concept of stratification to describe the coexistence of different psychic processes, none of which is either left out or integrated. These conceptualizations, responding to the context of crisis in one-dimensional thought, led me to distinguish heterogeneous orders in the structuring of the feminine position, and to formulate the idea that this configuration is a product of intersection (1994).

The Freud-Jones controversy

Since the origins of psychoanalysis, the feminine has appeared to block any expectation of coherence or integration of the psychoanalytic theory. In this sense, Freud’s “dark continent” (1925) expresses the unexplored, the enigmatic, but also, in our opinion, a complexity beyond the phallic register. Its exploration discovers other determinations not homologous to the phallic order. In phallic logic, femininity is interpreted as an enigma.
The debate as to whether there is a representation of the feminine is essential to the conceptualization of sexual difference as a key category for the access to subjectivity. This controversy starts at the beginnings of psychoanalysis with Freud’s ideas (1923) on a pre-eminent phallic order ruling access to sexual difference. This refers to a phase where only one genital organ can be represented psychically by both sexes: the masculine, the phallus. Consequently, there would be no primary femininity, and the opposition involved would be phallic versus castrated, as expressed by infantile sexual theories. In contrast, Jones (1927) inaugurates another theoretical line based on primary femininity with unconscious representation, which can be symbolized: in this case, the opposition would be masculine versus feminine. This debate continues today with aggregated categories, which increase its complexity.
Thus the question as to whether the sexual difference is established between two categories or between one and its lack determines different theoretical lines. These theories oppose and exclude each other mutually, since they involve two logics presented as incompatible. We will therefore examine the impact of the coexistence of these mutually exclusive and heterogeneous orders on the individual psyche as well as on psychoanalytic theory, since they determine a paradoxical condition in the structuring of the feminine position. We must add that any consideration of this question needs to include the relation between the subject which is constructing the theory and the theory itself, as well as factors of inertia in collective mythologies that promote a belief in the immutability of structures and theories.

On phallic logic

One of the firmest lines in Freudian thought considers the feminine in terms of negativity, corresponding to the binary opposition: phallic versus castrated. Infantile sexual theories are based on this opposition. Children conceive of only one genital: the phallus. Freudian theory contemplates no primary femininity, since it sees the girl’s sexuality as primarily masculine (Freud, 1923). These contributions on the one hand present a phallocentric signification, while at the same time generating the potential detachment of the access to sexual difference from any naturalistic determination. There is no obvious access to sexual difference; for Freud it is played out in the differential transit through the Oedipus and castration complexes, whose itineraries differ in girls and boys (1925).
The girl, guided by penis envy, is obliged to change object and erogenous zone, while her desire for a penis, generated by the castration complex, is converted into desire for a child: for Freud, it is the feminine desire par excellence. He considers it the aim of feminine desire (1933): if it fails to occur this way, the alternatives would be inhibition or the masculinity complex. Following this line of reasoning, we need to make it clear that the masculinity complex shares overlapping areas with the aim of femininity based on the equation penis = child, since both respond to the same logic. However, since these terms were insufficient, they demanded of Freud a new theoretical element: the pre-oedipal phase, which accentuated the asymmetry between the sexes, though always based on the girl’s original masculinity (1932).
At the same time another divergent element appeared in Freud’s works which further increased the complexity of the panorama. It is the coexistence of primary masculinity in the girl and the girl’s tender relationship with her mother, whom she takes as an archetype; this forms a decisive (pre-oedipal) layer in the oedipal mother-identification (1933). Also, in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), Freud already detaches sexual object-choice from what he calls the masculine or feminine sexual character, proposing that full virility is compatible with inversion. Thus he disconnects the circuit 13 of desire from identifications concerning masculinity or femininity, which may take opposite roads.
Lacan follows the Freudian line on phallic organization and sets it apart from the imaginary. The phallus is no longer the penis or even a symbol of the penis (power, potency), but only a signifier without a referent, a place to support desire.1 He conceptualizes the phallus as a third term (1958a) in oedipal intersubjectivity: the interplay centring on being or not being the phallus, having or not having it, in relation to which both sexes take positions as lacking it through symbolic castration (1958b). We see that in this perspective, sexual difference as such is erased.
However, in his writings Lacan holds to his position on the lack of symbolization of the feminine, accentuating its relation to concepts of emptiness, lack and negativity (1955–56, 1960, 1972–73). Later, he emphasizes the dis-symmetry and non-complementary character between both sexes, and proposes to mathematize it (1972–73). The “mathemes of sexuation” are attempts to formalize father, mother, man and woman positions, based on certain modified logical-mathematical formulations. On the masculine side he places the universal, the phallic function and the subject; on the feminine side the denied universal, contingency and the singular: “not all women say yes to castration”. In these texts, the feminine position is linked to the object a: cause and object of desire. Lacan’s formulation “The ‘barred’ woman does not exist” means that she cannot be placed in a register of universality. In view of these considerations, he concludes that “there is no sexual relation”, meaning that there is no complementary adjustment, the feminine position being defined beyond the pale of the phallic register.
Thus, for Lacan, the feminine is positioned beyond the signifying network, exceeding phallic organization. This road leads to feminine jouissance, supplementary to phallic jouissance, and tending towards the unlimited. This is included in his postulations on the order of the Real, and finally leads to jouissance par excellence, as an unreachable and impossible return to the original jouissance, to the Thing (das Ding): to what is truly real in the mother matheme (1959–60). He considers that women only enter the sexual relation quod matrem (as a mother) (1972–73). In my opinion, this accentuates the maternal version of the many paths of femininity. Lacan explains that every subject, man or woman, can be inscribed in any position, be it masculine or feminine. However, I consider that the question of the legislation that so firmly unites the place of subject to the masculine and that of object a, cause of desire, to the feminine is left open.
At the other end of the debate, English authors (Jones, 1927) (Klein, 1945) consider the opposition involved as masculine versus feminine. These authors argue against the position that the girl is originally a little boy as in the Freudian concept of the phallic phase. In contrast, they consider that there is a primary femininity, penis envy being a defensive formation in response to persecutory anxieties associated with body contents. For Klein, there is primordial knowledge of the vagina, and the desire to incorporate the penis has a receptive-feminine meaning; this leads to fantasies of retaliation by the mother. The concept of femininity becomes positive, but is based on a naturalistic determination: primary knowledge of the vagina. This means that sexual difference would be originally predetermined.
Cultural tendencies, for their part, maintain the masculine-feminine opposition, accentuating determinations provided by society and culture (Horney, 1924). Thus the child acquires a masculine or feminine imprint at birth, without mediation. Phallic organization in the girl would then be secondary and regressive.
Some of these latter currents categorize masculine-feminine polarity, with emphasis on the logic of equality and symmetry; others accentuate the difference itself. More recent gender studies examine the determinant roles of cultural discourse (Stoller, 1968). Other tendencies refer to sexed cues in discourse and search for a specificity of the feminine in relation to language and the body: “speaking in feminine” (Irigaray, 1977).
This summary review reveals several outstanding questions: Does the phallic order encompass the complexity of the feminine position? On the other hand and from the other side, can we maintain that the feminine position is structured only through the initial masculine-feminine opposition, either biological or cultural? How are the ideals referring to masculinity and femininity categorized? Does the process of accessing subjectivity and desire stop at phallic logic as the principal determinant of the sexual difference, or does it involve growing complexities, generating new parameters that we need to register? How do we include the diachronic aspect when analysing the structuring of the feminine position? Discussions of sexual difference mention the enigma of femininity, but is it femininity or the sexual difference that is enigmatic? If it is the latter, then how can we theorize the sexual difference?
In this context, I propose three orders where the question of the feminine position and the sexual difference is at stake: the field of the ideals, the field of desire and a field associated with the wordless, the archaic, referring to primitive experiences in the intersubjective space generated with the primary object. My intention is to show how these orders represent the diverse theoretical developments on sexual difference within the psychoanalytic field. This involves discussing their contradictory coexistence, also illuminating the areas of intersection between them. The hypothesis I intend to develop is that these fields also coexist, in spite of their heterogeneity, in the psyche itself, and that their coexistence determines the subject’s “constitution in collision”. These fields reveal the complexity of their structuring. Their modes of articulation involve a passage from one logical system to another. At the same time, since none of these fields is eternal or a-historical, their determinations need to be de-constructed.

Femininity in the order of the ideals

The concept of femininity turns upon identifying ideals situated in the ideal ego-ego ideal line. We note that this differs from female sexuality, which is played out in the field of desire. Also, both femininity and female sexuality differ from anatomical sex (male or female), since their relation to it is neither direct nor obvious. These terms are not always mutually concordant and their divergence is a constitutive condition, both in theory and in experience. We therefore consider that the feminine position should be understood as a complex position structured on the basis of three orders, one of which concerns to the identifying ideals that support the sense of belonging to the masculine or the feminine field.
For Freud (1925), masculine/feminine is an opposition with uncertain contents, which follows and contains others (subject/object, active/passive, phallic/castrated) (1923). He thinks that this opposition, reached in puberty, is determined by different orders: biological, psychoanalytic and sociological (1905), which exceed the purely psychoanalytic. We consider that what Freud considers “uncertain” refers, in another sense, to present theories of complexity. It is important to underscore that Freud includes this opposition in “The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman” (1920), when he remarks on the disparity between the sexual object-choice and the psychic attitude, masculine or feminine, a distinction already noted in “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality” (1905).
From this we can infer that the sense of belonging to a gender, masculine or feminine, implies a “knowledge” about it. But what difference is there between Dora (Freud, 1905), who “knows” she is a woman even though her desire follows a more complex circuit, and Schreber (Freud, 1911), who also believes he “knows” he is a woman? Or between male homosexuals, who have no doubt that they are men, and transsexuals, whose conviction regarding their belonging to the feminine gender is absolute?
If we analyse the orders of determination at work in this dissociation, the first question will be: what is the place of masculine-feminine opposition in theory, and then, can the feminine be symbolized? For this analysis we will discuss the sense of belonging to a gender, basing it on the system of the subject’s narcissistic ideals: the ideal ego/ego ideal axis (Dio Bleichmar, 1985). The masculine-feminine opposition operates since the child is identified by its parents, who intervene in the formation of ideals. The narcissistic system of ideals certainly does not derive directly from anatomy or from any kind of mechanical transmission of fixed or immutable emblems by the ideals of culture, which vary with the social imaginary. Nor is there a pre-existing subject that acquires these ideals; instead, they are constituted into an ideal ego based on the parental discourse and ideals which the subject later adopts and regulates as a post-oedipal ego ideal.
On another plane, the constitution of masculine or feminine ideals, as the sense of belonging to a gender, far from being precarious or fragile, is decidedly firm. However, this is no guarantee of this particular identity, just as a subject’s heterosexuality is not guaranteed, although the direction of desire is far from precarious. This point brings up several issues that need to be considered:
  1. The complexity of the articulations between the cultural discourse, with its mythical conception of sexual difference, its inscription in the system of parental ideals and the relation to the structuring of the child’s ideal ego-ego ideal system.
  2. The topic of the symbolic dimension of femininity in this series of articulations.
  3. The symbolic implication of the ego ideal as a line that al...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Deconstructing the Feminine
APA 6 Citation
Fiorini, L. G. (2018). Deconstructing the Feminine (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2018)
Chicago Citation
Fiorini, Leticia Glocer. (2018) 2018. Deconstructing the Feminine. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Fiorini, L. G. (2018) Deconstructing the Feminine. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Fiorini, Leticia Glocer. Deconstructing the Feminine. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2018. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.