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Grosz gives a critical overview of Lacan's work from a feminist perspective. Discussing previous attempts to give a feminist reading of his work, she argues for women's autonomy based on an indifference to the Lacanian phallus.
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Psychoanalysis and scandal
Since its inception, psychoanalysis has exerted a fascination for many women. It has relied on women’s desire and willingness to articulate their fantasies, wishes, and hopes. It is formed out of the ‘raw materials’ of women’s desire to talk and Freud’s desire to listen. The relation between them has been one of mutual fascination, but one that has not always enriched both parties. Relations between psychoanalysis and women have always been, and remain today, highly ambivalent and fraught with difficulties. Psychoanalysis exerts an appeal for women which can also be seen as a lure or trap, especially for those who want to challenge the social functions and values attributed to women and femininity in our culture (actively affirmed in psychoanalytic theory). Freud’s insights owe more than he can acknowledge to the loquacious brilliance of his first patients, female hysterics. His conception of psychoanalytic method remained, even to the end of his life, remarkably close to that ‘talking cure’ Anna 0. so astutely described. And if Freud is indebted to a vocal if hysterical femininity, so too Lacan’s earliest researches in psychoanalysis relied on the fascinating discourse of ‘madwomen’ – psychotics, paranoiacs, hysterics, mystics. ‘The whole cast of characters in his early work consists of women … Not a single man is present. [He was a] man who never stopped talking about women’ (Clbment 1983: 61).
‘Fascination’ may well be an appropriate term to use in the context of relations between psychoanalysis and feminism, for its etymology involves two antithetical meanings: ‘to attract, irresistibly enchant, charm’; or ‘to deprive victim of the powers of escape or resistance by look or by presence’ (OED). To fascinate is to entice and trap, seduce and contain, a relation similar to that between the snake and the snake-charmer, in which each charms, and traps, the other. Mutual fascination is always a risky business. Lacan suggests that it is the consequence of an imaginary identification in which the self strives to incorporate the other in an act as aggressive as it is loving. It is never clear who, snake or snake-charmer, is mesmerized by whom.
Women’s fascination with psychoanalysis has enabled psychoanalysis to be used to help provide an explanation, or the beginnings of one, of women’s social and psychical positions within patriarchal cultures. Yet, at the same time, it has also contributed to women’s increasing hystericization and their subsumption under male norms. In other words, psychoanalysis is an effect of women’s narcissistic identifications with its promise of wholeness and self-knowledge. However, women are not simply passively assimilated by the theory, for, as feminists, they can actively intervene into it or utilize some of its methods and insights in order to understand women’s construction in and by culture. Both a mode of analysing women, and a mode of analysis available for women’s use in understanding patriarchal domination, psychoanalysis always exists in an uneasy, ambivalent relation to feminism. Since its earliest formulations, psychoanalysis has relied on the feminisms of its hysterical patients for its self-conceptions.
Correlatively, the role played by psychoanalysis in validating prevalent conceptions of masculinity and femininity has meant that feminists have generally remained critical about and distant from its central presuppositions. While it relies on certain conceptions of femininity and of women’s social and sexual functions (even if it disavows this dependence), it is also amenable to transformations and upheavals in its operations. This involves challenging its central terms, assumptions, and, above all, its unspoken masculine perspectives and interests. But because of this unspoken reliance on particular notions of femininity, major changes in its notions of femininity will necessarily transform psychoanalysis, which has assumed women’s ‘castration’ and passivity as one of its fundamental principles. It is thus prone to far-reaching feminist questioning.
If we are to examine patriarchal power relations and forms of feminist resistance and tactics of struggle, it is necessary to maintain a balance between the tendency to a dangerous ensnarement and the lulling, pleasurable seductive appeal psychoanalytic theory exerts for feminists; we need to acknowledge the active engagement of many feminists in psychoanalytic theory, how women are culturally constructed by negative definitions, which psychoanalysis articulates. We must also place psychoanalysis in the context of a history of misogyny where feminists may be able to subvert and/or harness strategically what is useful without being committed to its more problematic ontological, political, and moral commitments.
Psychoanalytic enquiries into the nature of female identity, libido, sexuality, and development are of major significance to feminism. In spite of whatever problems it may exhibit, psychoanalysis is still by far the most complex, well-developed, and useful psychological theory at hand. It retains an ‘honesty’ or at least an openness about its attitude to women and femininity that is rarely visible in and yet is highly symptomatic of a more general patriarchal, cultural framework. For this reason alone it is difficult to abandon; without viable theoretical alternatives, psychoanalysis still remains the system which says what others simply presume or cover over. Freud has opened up a new discursive field, to borrow Michel Foucault’s description.1 Yet women must have the ability to speak about themselves – and to be heard – on questions that concern them. Only then will the tension between psychoanalytic and feminist modes of explanation remain productive. Women must be able to use psychoanalytic methods and insights, not merely to understand themselves personally, psychologically, or therapeutically (for this amounts, in effect, to an acceptance of its basic presuppositions) but also our social world, its forms of self-generation through the family structure, the ‘socialization’ or enculturation of children, and even the production and evaluation of knowledges. Psychoanalysis needs to be taken beyond its usual terms of reference in order to stretch or transgress its limits and become relevant in the construction of viable, autonomous representations of women and femininity.
Before proceeding, we need to consider which version or form of psychoanalysis we will examine. This is particularly necessary, given the variability of terms, concepts, perspectives, and meanings lumped together under the general label of psychoanalysis. The psychoanalysis on which I will concentrate will in the first instance be that of Freud. We will examine the core presumptions of his understanding of sexuality, the unconscious, and their manifestations; and especially those elements of Freud’s work undigested by Freudian orthodoxy. Yet to say that our object is Freudian analysis still does not help to specify which Freud we will utilize, and which of the competing models, methods, and conclusions that abound in his work will be preferred. Where, for example, the majority of analysts emphasize a concept of the ego as a rational mediator between the id and reality (the ‘realist ego’ Freud develops in The Ego and the Id 1923) Freud himself also developed an alternative account of the ego using a narcissistic model (‘On Narcissism. An Introduction’ 1914a). I will attempt to develop as consistent a view of the social production of human/social subjectivity as Freud’s texts allow, given their contradictory nature.
My more or less ‘literal’ reading of Freud will be at some variance with the stresses and emphases developed in the works of more mainstream contemporary Neo-Freudian or Freudian revisionists. This is the liberty we are granted with a body of writing as heterogeneous and variable as Freud’s. Freud, however, will serve as a point of departure for a more intensive focus on the work of French analyst and enfant terrible, Jacques Lacan. Lacan’s work occupies the centre of this text because his reading of Freud stresses Freud’s originality and subversiveness and helps to vindicate psychoanalysis in feminist terms, enabling it to be used as an explanatory model for social and political relations. Lacan can be utilized to explain such notorious concepts as women’s ‘castration’ or ‘penis envy’ in socio-historical and linguistic terms, that is, in terms more politically palatable than Freud’s biologism. And, perhaps most significantly for our purposes here, Lacan has succeeded, where many before him failed, in signalling the importance of Freud’s work to disciplines outside of psychology (narrowly conceived), making it relevant to all the social sciences and humanities which take subjectivity as their object of investigation (including linguistics, literary theory, philosophy, politics, semiotics, social theory, and anthropology, as well as feminism).
To understand even the rudiments of Lacan’s work, it is essential to have a working knowledge of a number of Freudian texts and terms. Freud establishes the field within and across which Lacan’s work must be situated. Lacan’s work is far from a dutiful commentary or secondary text on Freud’s primary texts. Lacan’s work is not parasitic on Freud’s, for it produces a certain Freud, a Freud perhaps more bold and threatening than the cautious Viennese analyst. Lacan succeeded in reinvigorating and re-energizing the scandalous quality of psychoanalysis that so thwarted Freud’s earliest ambitions for respectability and intellectual acceptance. Lacan affirms the more notorious, unpalatable components of Freud’s work – those very components purged, removed, silenced, or left unarticulated by the Neo- and revisionist Freudians. Lacan may have been more ‘constitutionally’ oriented to notoriety than the systematic, patient, even plodding Freud.
Lacan claims that Freud’s work is in danger of itself being repressed. He encourages us to read Freud as if ‘reading’ a dream or symptom, that is, according to Freud’s own interpretative methods, with an ear to what underlies or is implicit in his texts. In opposition to the bulk of contemporary psychoanalysts and therapists, Lacan argued that Freud knew exactly what he was doing. His work is not in need of revision or correction in the light of new psychological ‘discoveries’: on the contrary, Freudian psychoanalysis provides a series of techniques by which other social and intellectual norms can be examined as symptomatic of social relations. Lacan preserves the radical edge of Freud’s writing by drawing out its implications for different theoretical disciplines and paradigms, its resonances with, and connections to other knowledges.
By sticking to the letter of Freud’s texts, Lacan showed that they can be deciphered as radical interrogations of received conceptions of human reason and knowledge. For example, his postulation of an unconscious and infantile sekuality are not explicable as inversions, opposites, or doubles of consciousness and adult genital sexuality respectively. The unconscious is not a submerged, second order consciousness; infantile sexuality is not a premature or anticipatory version of adult, heterosexual genitality. There is a rift, an unmastered gap or discontinuity between consciousness and the unconscious, and infantile and adult sexualities. The unconscious is not a submerged consciousness, a rational system that is somehow invisible; it is an entirely other form of reason, logic, and pleasure, one not reducible to those available to consciousness. It undermines the subject’s conscious aspirations by its symptomatic intrusions in behaviour which are uncontrolled by, and may be even unknown to. consciousness. Lacan resists attempts to neutralize and absorb Freud’s ‘Copernican’ upheaval. He siresses the neglected, unrepresented, or undiscussed elements of Freud’s work – those which generated psychical or intellectual resistances on the part of psychoanalysts themselves.
Wherever its implications were grasped, psychoanalysis has had scandalous effects. The publication of The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) and The Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905) caused major disquiet in medical circles. After a number of years of obscurity and ridicule in Vienna and throughout Europe, Freud was as alarmed as he was pleased to be invited to present a series of lectures in the United States in 1909 (Jones 1961: 265–7). While delighted to find a willing and open-minded audience at Clark University, he worried that the radical implications of his work were being disavowed or ignored, not taken seriously, or misunderstood. He felt as if only a few of his colleagues and soon-to-be-former-colleagues understood him – Fliess, Abraham, Jung, and Adler. On his journey by ship to the United States Freud exclaimed to Jung, his travelling companion, ‘They don’t realize we’re bringing them the plague’ (cited in Lacan 1977a: 116; Turkle 1978: 4; and Gallop 1985: 58).
While he was pleased with the American response to psychoanalysis, within five years he had grown wary and suspicious of too easy an acceptance. Acceptance of ‘offensive’ ideas was, he believed, a form of psychical negation (1925b). Some resistance is a sign of taking an idea or proposition seriously. It may have been for this reason that he claimed: ‘the final decisive battle will be played out where the greatest resistance has been displayed’ (Freud, quoted in Turkle 1978: 5; see also Roazen 1976: 720–32). Psychoanalysis provoked outrage and shock, not because Freud attributed sexual motives to apparently non-sexual behaviour, nor simply because of his supposition of an infantile origin for all adult sexual practices. What was and is most unacceptable is the hypothesis of unconscious motives, motives not accessible to the subject’s waking consciousness and moral sensibility. From his earliest fascination with hysteria, awakened by his studies with Charcot in 1885, and his first reports on the topic in 1886 (Jones 1961: 151), he faced a wave of hostility from peers and colleagues that ranged from benign tolerance to ridicule and wild accusations.
He described his first ten years of analytic/therapeutic research as a period of ‘splendid isolation’ (Jones 1961: 239). During this period, he worked with a few sympathetic individuals – Breuer (at times) and particularly Fliess (Freud’s letters to Fliess, Masson 1985: 182–5 are revealing). The ‘misery’ of lone exploration, as Freud saw it, ended only gradually, with the publication of some of his major works (1893–5; 1900), and from acquiring a number of converts and sympathizers who themselves risked isolation by committing themselves to psychoanalytic precepts. However, in spite of his growing circle of admirers and followers, he was to face bitter disappointments time and again. His expectations of an analytic milieu, an ongoing collectivity of analysts, while fulfilled, had turned nightmarish! His most favoured followers were those very colleagues who, one by one, would betray him or his work. Each in his own way was to refuse Freud the affirmation and recognition he so craved. Each, sooner or later, ‘deviated’ from his fundamental insights – whether from his understanding of the unconscious, the sexual aetiology of the neuroses, or the postulate of a perverse infantile sexuality. In other words, even for those sympathetic to or active within analysis itself, Freud’s position remained intolerable. Even analysts, it seems, are victims of resistance and repression. The theory of repression is itself in constant danger of being repressed.
This hostility, in the first instance, was directed towards Freud’s use of hypnosis or suggestion to induce, remove, or transform hysterical or neurotic symptoms. Hypnosis demonstrated that hysteria could be treated by psychological and verbal techniques. By means of the ‘talking cure’ the most painful and distressing symptoms – paralyses, migraines, choking, neurasthenia, depression, anxiety, etc. – were alleviated. Abandoning the hypnotic method in 1889, Freud developed the first of his (proto-)psycho-analytic techniques on 1 May of that year. He came to replace hypnosis and suggestion with a more loosely conceived ‘cathartic method’, which anticipated the techniques of ‘free association’ characterizing psychoanalysis proper. By applying pressure to the patient’s forehead he would induce her to remember and verbalize memories and associations connected to the symptom.2
The unconscious implies a pleasure the subject seeks but cannot experience, a knowledge which cannot be known by it, and forms of representation which are themselves unrepresentable in consciousness. What seems intolerable in his ‘discovery’ of the interpretive technique of free association, and the key to reversing the synthesizing functions of dream or symptom formation, is an analytic procedure that seeks out the processes of production invisible in symptoms. His reversal of the illogical ‘logic’ the unconscious uses to express itself in consciousness, shows that this ‘logic’ nevertheless exhibits its own precise and decipherable rules. The verbal meanderings and recollections comprising the techniques of free association seem to come aimlessly out of the analysand’s mouth: yet, if one listens to what is said with an ‘even-handed attention’, they form a tightly structured pattern or web of images, wishes, thoughts, memories, of which the analysand has no conscious awareness. The unconscious, in other words, is what is subversive in psychoanalysis.
If the contentious issues of psychoanalysis are those associated with sexuality, sexual aetiology, and interpretation, what is at issue in all of them is the idea of the unconscious. Sexuality is not in itself contentious; nor is the sexual aetiology of neuroses (if anything, these ‘topics’ lead to an increasing interest, for both professional and lay audiences, in psychoanalysis). The processes of deciphering or interpreting symptoms and dreams had a long history pre-dating Freud. What is unpalatable is Freud’s presumption that sexuality functions unconsciously, that sexuality is the effect of the unconscious. What is troublesome about dream interpretation is the ‘logic of the unconscious’ it reveals.
Sexuality, on Freud’s understanding is not, in spite of popular conceptions, governed by nature, instincts, or biology but by signification and meaning. Dream-interpretation is threatening, not because of the use of ‘symbolism’ or symbolic explanation,3 but because there is a wish, a proposition, a discourse, at work in dreams that is not heard or understood by consciousness. What distinguishes his descriptions of libido, the death drive, ego-, and object-libido, etc. is his refusal to ascribe to them a natural or a priori, instinctual status, a biologically preformed and unalterable path or telos for sexuality. For him, sexuality is the consequence of the interaction of the material inscription of desire on and with the child’s body.
Freud claims that there is a proposition that could not be said, or known, by the subject: ‘The ego is no longer master of its own house’ (1917b: 141–3). Contra Descartes, Freud posits a subject that is radically incapable of knowing itself. The subject, understood as consciousness, cannot understand the subject, understood as the creator of symptoms, dreams, and distorted messages.
Freud, when he doubts, for they are his dreams, and it is he who, at the outset, doubts – is assured that a t...
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Citation styles for Jacques Lacan
APA 6 Citation
Grosz, E. (2002). Jacques Lacan (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1620222/jacques-lacan-a-feminist-introduction-pdf (Original work published 2002)
Grosz, Elizabeth. (2002) 2002. Jacques Lacan. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis. https://www.perlego.com/book/1620222/jacques-lacan-a-feminist-introduction-pdf.
Grosz, E. (2002) Jacques Lacan. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1620222/jacques-lacan-a-feminist-introduction-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Grosz, Elizabeth. Jacques Lacan. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2002. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.