‘The Signification of the Phallus’ is the only one of Jacques Lacan’s Écrits originally written in German. For his collected writings, Lacan produced his own unaltered translation of the talk that he gave on May 9, 1958, to the Max Planck Society in Munich. The essay contains the original German title ‘Die Bedeutung des Phallus’ just under the French title at the top of the essay. It was given during the time of Lacan’s fifth seminar entitled Formations of the Unconscious and presents ideas developed in this seminar and in the three preceding ones. It continues Lacan’s preoccupation with signification and the symbolic order, as well as his polemics against those psychoanalysts who fail to take the signifier into account and thereby reduce psychoanalysis to a relationship of duality.
Like the Mirror Stage essay, ‘The Signification of the Phallus’ (abbreviated here as Signification) has had an impact on the reception of Jacques Lacan’s thought that far outstrips its importance for that thought. While Lacan discusses the constitutive role of the signifier in subjectivity and its impact on the emergence of desire, he develops these ideas in more detail in other writings. What does stand out about Signification is that it marks the first time in his written work that Lacan distinguishes phallus from penis. Even though this essay proffers a defense of Freud’s interpretation of sexuality against that of his followers, this distinction between phallus and penis is not one that Freud himself makes, and for many cultural theorists and feminists, it has the effect of creating a more politically palatable version of psychoanalysis, which is why the essay has the importance that it has on the cultural stage. The distinction between phallus and penis constitutes the essential contribution of the essay and contributes to the theory of the signifier that Lacan was developing at this stage of his teaching.
By insisting on the phallus as a signifier, Lacan offers an original interpretation of Freud’s theory of sexual difference and of the essays where he develops that theory—for example, ‘The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex
’ (Freud, 1924/1961), ‘Some Psychic Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes
’ (Freud, 1924/1961), and ‘Female Sexuality
’ (Freud, 1930/1964). Where Freud identifies the central role that the penis plays in the identity of both sexes, Lacan clarifies this role through understanding the penis as the phallus, which is to say, as a signifier rather than as an organ or an object. For those who think of Lacan primarily as the author of a structuralist reading of Freud, Signification
provides strong evidence in support of this claim. In this essay, the assertion of the centrality of the signifier in the constitution of the desiring subject comes to the fore again and again. Lacan attacks other psychoanalytic theorists for failing to recognize that the phallus has the importance that it has in the psychic economy of both sexes because of its status as a privileged signifier, not because of any natural privilege that the penis as a sexual organ enjoys or because of any cultural investment in the penis.
The phallus plays a fundamental role in the structure of the symbolic order and subjectivity. It is the one signifier that signifies meaning as such. In Seminar V, Lacan calls it “the signifier of the signified in general” (S5, 1957–1958: 240). In this sense, all meaning (or every signified) involves an implicit reference to the phallus. One signifier must play this role, and the phallus has, as a result of the variegations and contingencies of history, come to do so. But if we recognize that the phallus is not the penis and thus has no natural privilege, we can relate to its privilege as structural rather than ontological.
Furthermore, as Lacan’s analysis shows, the privilege of the phallus is illusory. If the phallus is just a signifier, its status is that of an imposter, and its bearer must have recourse to imposture in order to take on the position the phallus. If the phallus is ever forced to show itself, its imposture would become evident for everyone to see, which is why it can only play its role as the privileged signifier while veiled.
Imposture derives from the phallic signifier’s relationship to the signified. Because the phallus signifies meaning as such, it does not have its own signified. The phallus means at once everything and nothing. Its privilege as a signifier is intrinsically linked to its lack of a proper signified. In Signification, Lacan sees the phallus as the meaningless signifier that anchors all meaning. Every other signified implicitly refers to it, and this is the basis of its privilege.
Signification is not a critique of the phallus or of phallic privilege, nor is it a work justifying this privilege. It is rather a description of the effect of the phallus and an account of why the phallus has the status that it has. Lacan devotes much of his time in the essay to the distortion in subjectivity that the phallus signifies. Because the human animal is subjected to the signifier, a passion emerges that has nothing to do with the nature of this animal. The signifier rips the human animal out of its animality and creates a desiring subject.
There is, as Lacan shows in the essay, a fundamental distinction between need and desire, and demand is the pathway leading from one to the other. The signifier always carries with it a demand, and this demand uproots the speaking being from its needs. Because the demand operates through the signifier, it is always a demand for love or recognition. For Lacan, the signifier’s
primary function is to indicate recognition. We respond to the demand by meeting the needs of the other—when the child cries, the parent provides it with food, for instance—but the demand seeks love, not the fulfillment of its needs. The result of this impasse is the emergence of desire, the desire that the phallus signifies.
Viewing the phallus as a signifier enables Lacan to avoid what he sees as the two basic psychoanalytic heresies. He denounces both in this essay. The first heresy understands the subject as a biological entity through and through and reduces the subject’s desires to animal needs. The privileged role that the phallus plays in the subject’s desire reveals the falsity of this position. The human animal’s subjection to the signifier produces a distortion in human needs so that they cannot find direct satisfaction in an object. The fact that human animals don’t directly pursue their needs gives the lie to the biological interpretation of subjectivity. The second heresy is what Lacan refers to as a culturalist position, a position that he associates with Karen Horney. The culturalist sees desire purely as the result of social forces and attempts to account for the privilege of the phallus in these terms. The culturalist that Lacan criticizes anticipates today’s social constructionist—someone like Judith Butler (1990). Again, it is the distorting effects that the signifier has on the subject that renders this position untenable. One cannot trace an uninterrupted through-line from the dictates of the social order to the desires of individual subjects. Though Lacan doesn’t mention him, one might say that this is the mistake that Michel Foucault makes in his critique of psychoanalysis in the first volume of the History of Sexuality (1976/1978). Desire emerges not directly through an ideological imperative given by culture but through the distorting effect that demand has on the human animal’s needs. By theorizing the phallus as a signifier, Lacan can guide his thought between the Scylla of biologism and the Charybdis of culturalism. This strategy animates his conception of psychoanalysis from beginning to end, but it finds one of its most concise expressions in ‘The Signification of the Phallus.’
The place that the phallus has in Lacan’s thought evolves during the course of his intellectual trajectory. Its importance is never greater than when Lacan writes Signification
. The essay represents the summary or culmination of one period of his thought, and soon after he writes it, his thought moves in another direction, even though he doesn’t abandon the central insights that he comes to here. In the years following the writing of this essay, Lacan’s seminars and writings place less emphasis on the phallus. It has no role in the development of an ethics based on desire in Seminar VII
(1959–1960), and Lacan makes only brief mentions of the phallus in his explanation of psychoanalysis to a general audience in his landmark Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis
(1964). In Signification
, the phallus explains the structure of desire. In Seminar XI
and subsequent seminars, it is the object a
that takes on this function. Lacan arrives at the insight that the object a
is the object-cause of desire and thus has more importance in the
structure of desire than the phallus, which takes on a more secondary role in Lacan’s thinking about desire. Lacan continues to view the phallus as the signifier of desire, but its importance for explaining desire diminishes. In sections of Signification
, the phallus functions not just as the signifier of desire but also of what is desired. This function would soon disappear entirely, and the phallus would be restricted to being the signifier of desire. Toward the end of his intellectual trajectory, at the time of Seminar XX
(1972–1973), the importance of the phallus returns to some extent as Lacan theorizes sexuation according to formulas that make use of both the phallus as a signifier and the phallic function as the mark of castration.
The formulations in Signification allow us to distinguish between the sexes in terms of two fundamental positions that they adopt relative to the signifier—masculine imposture and feminine masquerade. Lacan never mentions the term ‘imposture’ in the essay, but he does allude to it when he points out that the phallus “can play its role only when veiled” (581). This indicates that the phallus must hide itself through imposture in order to sustain its privileged position. There is a direct reference to masquerade, which Lacan associates with femininity. The distinction between imposture and masquerade is crucial for grasping how the phallus functions in sexual difference. Imposture involves feigning as if one has something that one doesn’t have, while masquerade involves acting like what one is not. The imposter hides what he has because he doesn’t have the secret power that he pretends to have, whereas the masquerading woman puts a secret on display so that she will be loved for it even though it has nothing to do with her. Imposture hides through hiding, and masquerade hides through showing, which is, as Lacan illustrates in his analysis of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Purloined Letter, a more effective strategy.
Throughout Lacan’s seminars and writings, he makes a distinction between the symbolic and imaginary phallus that he doesn’t make in Signification. The symbolic phallus is the phallus as the privileged signifier, whereas the imaginary phallus is the object lost in symbolic castration. In his Seminar IV (1956–1957), Lacan provides his most detailed description of the imaginary phallus, and he links it to castration in order to indicate that castration involves the subject losing what it never had (which is why its object is imaginary and not real). This distinction between the symbolic and imaginary phallus does not appear in Signification because Lacan’s concern in this essay is not so much an account of the forms of the phallus but the distortions created by signification. This absence itself signifies Lacan’s aim here.
Of all Lacan’s essays, none has been more important for feminism than ‘The Signification of the Phallus
.’ By separating the phallus from the penis, Lacan makes a decisive intervention against any patriarchal privilege. This is undoubtedly why when they constructed the first volume of Lacan’s writing on female sexuality for the Anglophone world, Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose (1982) decided to include a translation of ‘The Signification of the Phallus
’ (which Rose translated as The Meaning of the Phallus
collection, entitled Female Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the école freudienne
, asserts that both psychoanalysis in general and Lacan in specific have a vital role to play in feminist theorizing.
Both Mitchell and Rose write introductions to this collection in which they justify the idea of Lacan as a fellow traveler of feminist theory. Mitchell (1982) describes Lacan’s insistence on sexual difference as the indication of the failure of ideological interpellation and thus the basis for any political activity. For Rose, Lacan’s conception of the phallus as a signifier marks his most important contribution to feminism. This conception enables us to see that “the phallus stands at its own expense and any male privilege erected upon it is an imposture” (Rose, 1982: 44). As Lacan makes clear in this essay, the phallus is the privileged signifier, the signifier of all the signifieds, but this privilege doesn’t betoken any ontological privilege for its bearer. The bearer of the phallus is always an imposter, and psychoanalysis exposes this imposture of the phallic signifier. For both Mitchell and Rose, Signification is a pillar in the assault on patriarchal society.
For some feminist critics of Lacan, however, the replacement of penis with phallus and the interpretation of the phallus as a signifier don’t go far enough in combating the sexism inherent in Freud’s account of subjectivity. The most prominent of these critics is Judith Butler, who claims in Gender Trouble that the physical organ functions as a hidden support for the authority of the phallic signifier. She writes, “the Phallus, though clearly not identical with the penis, nevertheless deploys the penis as its naturalized instrument and sign” (Butler, 1990: 106). Butler’s critique of Lacan follows from her larger critique of sexual difference and its constitutive role within psychoanalytic theorizing. Claims about sexual identity, according to Butler, illicitly utilize biology even when they claim not to be doing so. Every discussion about sex is really a subterfuge in which gender characteristics are smuggled in. According to Butler, this is the case with Lacan: even when he insists that the phallus is just a signifier, his retention of the association with the bodily organ has the effect of giving a hidden authority to the phallus.
Followers of Lacan have vigorously stepped up to his defense against Butler’s critique and other related feminist attacks on Lacan’s supposed sexism. Joan Copjec (1994) offers the definitive response to Butler in the final chapter of Read My Desire: Lacan Against the Historicists entitled ‘Sex and the Euthanasia of Reason.’ Contra Butler and following Lacan, Copjec insists that sexual difference is not a simple cultural construction but rather real. That is, sexual difference exists because cultural constructions fail to produce symbolic identities and because the symbolic order necessarily contradicts itself when it attempts to signify a whole. The phallus is the mark of this contradiction, and sexual difference is its result. According to Copjec, Butler’s rejection of the phallic signifier and sexual difference indicates an abandonment or obscuring of contradiction rather than an argument against the inherent sexism of psychoanalysis and Lacan.
The most far-reaching development of the feminist implications inherent in Lacan’s interpretation of the phallus appears buried in Alenka Zupančič’s book on comedy, Odd One In
(2008). In the midst of her discussion of the role that the phallus plays in ancient comedy, Zupančič includes an excursus on psychoanalysis, the phallus, and feminism. She argues that far from upholding the privilege of the phallus that undergirds patriarchal society, the project of psychoanalysis exposes the ultimate contingency of this privilege. According to Zupančič,
By unpacking the mystery surrounding the phallus and revealing its essential contingency as a signifier, Lacan, though he never mounted the feminist barricades, contributes to the feminist effort to undermine the privilege of the phallus.
‘The Signification of the Phallus’ fully justifies Zupančič’s claim that psychoanalysis works to unravel the mystery of the phallus rather than strengthen it. Toward the middle of the essay, Lacan makes clear that observing how the phallus functions in psychoanalysis may ultimately “lift the veil from the function it served in the mysteries” (579). If the phallus can only function while veiled, lifting the veil will undermine its privilege. But it is not a matter for Lacan of undermining the privilege of the phallus in order to replace it with another signifier of privilege.
There will always be one signifier that functions in the way that the phallus does, one signifier that signifies all meaning or all signifieds. Replacing this signifier would have no political effect at all be...