But many feel that patriarchal ideology cannot convincingly be explained solely in terms of capitalism or any other particular socio-economic formation. The search for the roots of sexual oppression has seemed to necessitate a profound engagement with psychological theories. Among these, it is the work of Freud which has been most conducive, albeit quite indirectly, to radical thinking. In Britain, Juliet Mitchell made a plea for the serious consideration of Freud in her Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1974) on the basis of the rigour of his analysis, however unpalatable it might superficially appear. But she herself acknowledges the importance of Jacques Lacan in fostering a sympathetic reappraisal of Freud's work. The attraction of Lacan for theorists of gender, including feminists, can be epitomized in the crucial reorientation involved in his special use of the term 'phallus' instead of the Freudian 'penis'. This modification is intended to convey that the valuing of the penis represents a social consensus rather than a biological imperative. Nevertheless, this is a notoriously question-begging ruse; and feminist theorists in France have been happy to develop it in ways that make the consensus seem not at all normative or natural. At the same time they have developed another facet of Lacan's psychoanalytic thought: namely, his insistence on the linguistic basis of unconscious mental formations.

Lacan's use of the term 'phallus', and for that matter his concentration on language, is inseparable from his account of the central feature of the Freudian narrative, the Oedipus complex. Freud deduced that the first object of desire, for both boy and girl child, was the mother. In the Oedipal stage both children must consciously renounce this desire in deference to the prior claim of the father, a claim asserted and maintained by his possession of the penis desired by the mother. The boy must defer satisfaction of his desire until maturity permits him to be the father in another relationship; the girl must accept that, by virtue of her lack of the penis, her role will be to take the mother's place at maturity. These different paths taken by boy and girl child are both motivated by the sense of a figurative castration relative to the father. As we have seen, Lacan's development of this idea involved his use of the term 'phallus', to emphasize that the valuing of the penis was a social convention. But this symbolic status of the phallus is entirely bound up with the child's entry into the symbolic structures of language and culture, which occurs at the same moment as the Oedipal stage — which could indeed be seen as an aspect of the Oedipal stage. For Lacan, the phallus is the crucial signifier of difference, and in apprehending this, the child apprehends also the character of linguistic symbolism — which relies on substitution and deferral of meaning — and of the symbolic order of society, in which the role of the father is fundamental. This complex of ideas Lacan sometimes refers to as the Symbolic, or the Symbolic Order. It is to be contrasted with what he terms the Imaginary: the pre-Oedipal state in which the child enjoys an illusion of unity and plenitude which derives from its undisturbed relationship with the mother. The transition from Imaginary to Symbolic is also the moment when the unconscious is precipitated, for the child now has to repress its desire for the mother. Lacan's emphasis on linguistic phenomena in the unconscious registers the fact that the primal repression which inaugurates the unconscious is the same phenomenon as entry into the Symbolic.

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