Gender, Relation, and Difference in Psychoanalytic Perspective
Chodorow denies that there is an essential difference between women and men. Gender difference is not determined by biology and is not immutable. It must be understood as a “relational construction.” For Chodorow, the key to understanding gender difference is the process of “separation-individuation”—the process through which an infant who is cognitively and emotionally fused with its mother comes to understand itself as a distinct individual. Using a psychoanalytic approach to individual development—specifically, an object relations approach—Chodorow argues that one’s sense of identity, agency, and authenticity arises as a result of internalizing early nurturing relationships and does not require sharp selfother distinctions. But issues about individual differentiation and identity have become intertwined with issues about gender identity. Masculinity is linked to independence and individualism, whereas femininity is linked to intimacy and emotional ties to other people.
Unfortunately, masculine identity is less secure for boys and men than feminine identity is for girls and women. This asymmetry arises because mothers or other women are primarily responsible for childcare and, as a result, boys must gain their gender identity by negating femininity rather than by positively identifying with a masculine figure. Since men who are raised by women are defensive about their gender identity and have the power to define social norms, identity, agency, and authenticity have come to be equated with isolation from others and with individual control. In contrast, Chodorow advocates a relational account of identity, agency, and authenticity that would enable people to be more tolerant of difference.
Gender, Relation, and Difference in Psychoanalytic Perspective
I would go so far as to say that even before slavery or class domination existed, men built an approach to women that would serve one day to introduce differences among us all.
In both the nineteenth- and twentieth-century women’s movements, many feminists have argued that the degendering of society, so that gender and sex no longer determined social existence, would eliminate male dominance. This view assumes that gender differentiating characteristics are acquired. An alternate sexual politics and analysis of sexual inequality has tended toward an essentialist position, posing male-female difference as innate. Not the degendering of society, but its appropriation by woman, with women’s virtues, is seen as the solution to male dominance. These virtues are uniquely feminine, and usually thought to emerge from women’s biology, which is then seen as intrinsically connected to or entailing a particular psyche, a particular social role (such as mothering), a particular body image (more diffuse, holistic, nonphallocentric), or a particular sexuality (not centered on a particular organ; at times, lesbianism). In this view, women are intrinsically better than men and their virtues are not available to men. Proponents of the degendering model have sometimes also held that “female” virtues or qualities—nurturance, for instance—should be spread throughout society and replace aggression and competitiveness; but these virtues are nevertheless seen as acquired, a product of women’s development or social location, and acquirable by men, given appropriate development experience, and social
reorganization. (Others who argue for degendering have at times held that women need to acquire certain “male” characteristics and modes of action—autonomy, independence, assertiveness—again, assuming that such characteristics are acquired.)
This essay evaluates the essentialist view of difference and examines the contribution that psychoanalytic theory can make to understanding the question of sex or gender difference. It asks whether gender is best understood by focusing on differences between men and women and on the uniqueness of each and whether gender difference should be a central organizing concept for feminism. The concept of difference to which I refer here, and which is addressed by other writers in this volume, is abstract and irreducible.2
It assumes the existence of an essence of gender, so that differences between men and women are seen to establish and define each gender as a unique and absolute category.
I will not discuss differences among women. I think we have something else in mind when we speak of differences in this connection. Differences among women—of class, race, sexual preference, nationality, and ethnicity, between mothers and nonmothers—are all significant for feminist theory and practice, but these remain concrete differences, analyzable in terms of specific categories and modes of understanding. We can see how they are socially situated and how they grow from particular social relations and organization; how they may contain physiological elements (race and sexual preference, for example) yet only gain a specific meaning in particular historical contexts and social formations.
I suggest that gender difference is not absolute, abstract, or irreducible; it does not involve an essence of gender. Gender differences, and the experience of difference, like differences among women, are socially and psychologically created and situated. In addition, I want to suggest a relational notion of difference. Difference and gender difference do not exist as things in themselves; they are created relationally, that is, in relationship. We cannot understand difference apart from this relational construction.
The issues I consider here are relevant both to feminist theory and to particular strands of feminist politics. In contrast to the beginning of the contemporary women’s movement, there is now a widespread view that gender differences are essential, that women are fundamentally different from men, and that these differences must be recognized, theorized, and maintained. This finds some political counterpart in notions that women’s special nature guarantees the emergence of a good society after the feminist revolution and legitimates female dominance, if not an exclusively female society. My conclusions lead me to reject those currents of contemporary feminism that would found a politics on essentialist conceptions of the feminine.
There is also a preoccupation among some women with psychological separateness and autonomy, with individuality as a necessary women’s goal. This preoccupation grows out of many women’s feelings of not having distinct autonomy as separate selves, in comparison, say, to men. This finds some political counterpart in equal rights arguments, ultimately based on notions of women exclusively as individuals rather than as part of a collectivity or social group. I suggest that we need to situate such a goal in an understanding of psychological development and to indicate the relationship between our culture’s individualism and gender differentiation.
Psychoanalysis clarifies for us many of the issues involved in questions of difference, by providing a developmental history of the emergence of separateness, differentiation, and the perception of difference in early childhood. Thus it provides a particularly useful arena in which to see the relational and situated construction of difference, and of gender difference. Moreover, psychoanalysis gives an account of these issues from a general psychological
perspective, as well as with specific relation to the question of gender. In this context, I will discuss two aspects of the general subject of separateness, differentiation, and perceptions of difference and their emergence. First, I will consider how separation-individuation occurs relationally in the first “me”—“not-me” division, in the development of the “I,” or self. I will suggest that we have to understand this separation-individuation in relation to other aspects of development, that it has particular implications for women, and that differentiation is not synonymous with difference or separateness. Second, I will talk about the ways that difference and gender difference are created distinctly, in different relational contexts, for girls and boys, and, hence, for women and men. The argument here advances a reading of psychoanalysis that stresses the relational ego. It contrasts with certain prevalent (Lacan-influenced) feminist readings of psychoanalysis, in particular with the views advanced by French theorists of difference like Luce Irigaray and with the Freudian orthodoxy of Juliet Mitchell.
Psychoanalysis talks of the process of “differentiation” or “separation-individuation.”3
A child of either gender is born originally with what is called a “narcissistic relation to reality”: cognitively and libidinally it experiences itself as merged and continuous with the world in general, and with its mother or caretaker in particular. Differentiation, or separation-individuation, means coming to perceive a demarcation between the self and the object world, coming to perceive the subject/self as distinct, or separate from, the object/other. An essential early task of infantile development, it involves the development of ego boundaries (a sense of personal psychological division from the rest of the world) and of a body ego (a sense of the permanence of one’s physical separateness and the predictable boundedness of one’s own body, of a distinction between inside and outside).
This differentiation requires physiological maturation (for instance, the ability to perceive object constancy), but such maturation is not enough. Differentiation happens in relation to the mother, or to the child’s primary caretaker. It develops through experiences of the mother’s departure and return and through frustration, which emphasizes the child’s separateness and the fact that it doesn’t control all its own experiences and gratifications. Some of these experiences and gratifications come from within, some from without. If it were not for these frustrations, these disruptions of the experience of primary oneness, total holding, and gratification, the child would not need to begin to perceive the other, the “outer world,” as separate, rather than as an extension of itself. Developing separateness thus involves, in particular, perceiving the mother or primary caretaker as separate and “not-me,” where once these were an undifferentiated symbiotic unity.
Separateness, then, is not simply given from birth, nor does it emerge from the individual alone. Rather, separateness is defined relationally; differentiation occurs in relationship: “I” am “not-you.” Moreover, “you,” or the other, is also distinguished. The child learns to see the particularity of the mother or primary caretaker in contrast to the rest of the world. Thus, as the self is differentiated from the object world, the object world is itself differentiated into its component parts.
Now, from a psychoanalytic perspective, learning to distinguish “me” and “not-me” is necessary for a person to grow into a functioning human being. It is also inevitable, since experiences of departure, of discontinuity in handling, feeding, where one sleeps, how one is picked up and by whom, of less than total relational and physical gratification, are unavoidable.
But for our understanding of “difference” in this connection, the concept of differentiation and the processes that characterize it need elaboration.
First, in most psychoanalytic formulations, and in prevalent understandings of development, the mother, or the outside world, is depicted simply as the other, not-me, one who does or does not fulfill an expectation. This perception arises originally from the infant’s cognitive inability to differentiate self and world; the infant does not distinguish between its desires for love and satisfaction and those of its primary love object and object identification. The self here is the infant or growing child, and psychoanalytic accounts take the viewpoint of this child.
However, adequate separation, or differentiation, involves not merely perceiving the separateness, or otherness, of the other. It involves perceiving the person’s subjectivity and selfhood as well. Differentiation, separation, and disruption of the narcissistic relation to reality are developed through learning that the mother is a separate being with separate interests and activities that do not always coincide with just what the infant wants at the time. They involve the ability to experience and perceive the object/other (the mother) in aspects apart from its sole relation to the ability to gratify the infant’s/subject’s needs and wants; they involve seeing the object as separate from the self and
from the self’s needs.4
The infant must change here from a “relationship to a subjectively conceived object to a relationship to an object objectively perceived.”5
In infantile development this change requires cognitive sophistication, the growing ability to integrate various images and experiences of the mother that comes with the development of ego capacities. But these capacities are not enough. The ability to perceive the other as a self, finally, requires an emotional shift and a form of emotional growth. The adult self not only experiences the other as distinct and separate. It also does not experience the other solely in terms of its own needs for gratification and its own desires.
This interpretation implies that true differentiation, true separateness, cannot be simply a perception and experience of self-other, of presence-absence. It must precisely involve two selves, two presences, two subjects. Recognizing the other as a subject is possible only to the extent that one is not dominated by felt need and one’s own exclusive subjectivity. Such recognition permits appreciation and perception of many aspects of the other person, of her or his existence apart from the child’s/the self’s. Thus, how we understand differentiation—only from the viewpoint of the infant as a self, or from the viewpoint of two interacting selves—has consequences for what we think of as a mature self. If the mature self grows only out of the infant as a self, the other need never be accorded her or his own selfhood.
The view that adequate separation-individuation, or differentiation, involves not simply perceiving the otherness of the other, but her or his selfhood/subjectivity as well, has important consequences, not only for an understanding of the development of selfhood, but also for perceptions of women. Hence, it seems to me absolutely essential to a feminist appropriation of psychoanalytic conceptions of differentiation. Since women, as mothers, are the primary caretakers of infants, if the child (or the psychoanalytic account) only takes the viewpoint of the infant as a (developing) self, then the mother will be perceived (or depicted) only as an object. But, from a feminist perspective, perceiving the particularity of the mother must involve according the mother her own selfhood. This is a necessary part of the developmental process, though it is also often resisted and experienced only conflictually and partially. Throughout life, perceptions of the mother fluctuate between perceiving her particularity and selfhood and perceiving her as a narcissistic extension, a not-separate other whose sole reason for existence is to gratify one’s own wants and needs.
Few accounts recognize the import of this particular stance toward the mother. Alice Balint’s marvelous proto-feminist account is the best I know of the infantile origins of adult perceptions of mother as object:
Most men (and women)—even when otherwise quite normal and capable of an “adult,” altruistic form of love which acknowledges the interests of the partner—retain towards their own mothers this naive egoistic attitude throughout their lives. For all of us it remains self-evident that the interests of mother and child are identical, and it is the generally acknowledged measure of the goodness or badness of the mother how far she really feels this identity of interests.6
Now, these perceptions, as a product of infantile development, are somewhat inevitable as long as women have nearly exclusive maternal responsibilities, and they are one major reason why I advocate equal parenting as a necessary basis of sexual equality. But I think that, even within the ongoing context of women’s mothering, as women we can and must liberate ourselves from such perceptions in our personal emotional lives as much as possible, and certainly in our theorizing and politics.7
A second elaboration of psychoanalytic accounts of differentiation concerns the affective ...