On Women and the Phallus
Pierre-Gilles Guéguen
Wangechi Mutu

Author’s Bio

Translation by Asunción Álvarez.

Among all semblances in the world, some operate in the psychoanalytic experience to deal with the relations between men and women. For there are Lacanian semblances, those that Lacan places on the level of concepts. Everything is but a semblance, even in vanities in art, for example, which make it clear that, with regard to the castration inflicted by time, life amounts only to a few things. Are we therefore the ridiculous puppets of a general relativism? Should we take literally Woody Allen’s motto-like title, “Whatever Works”? Lacan coined a term to say what psychoanalysis is. Neither nominalist nor materialist, or rather partaking of the one and the other, it is based on “moterialité” [a pun on mot, word, and materialité, materiality], as J-A Miller reminded us in his course. This is a practice of semblances, but in their relation to jouissance and sinthome, and thereby it touches the Real.

Among Lacanian semblances, the phallus plays a key role to the extent that Lacan surprisingly said: “The phallus is the organ inasmuch as it is, i.e., it is a matter of being, inasmuch as it is feminine jouissance.”

If the phallus could be reduced to the penis organ, I cannot see why women would be concerned or encumbered with it as they obviously don’t have one. It is this that made Lacan say that in women castration is, in a way, the origin, and made Freud say that women entered the Oedipus complex as if entering a harbor.

Freud truly brought the question of the phallus to the foreground with the famous “penis envy” which so shocked feminists. It cannot be said that the formulation was a very happy one, but it did signal an outcome in Freud’s doctrine and an attempt to punctuate the multiplicity of propositions made by his female students. He provides its substitutional logic in the text called “On the transpositions of drives” : “…” The 1932 conference closed with the statement that the fate of women is motherhood, and that the “pre-oedipal” is essential (according to the child=penis=feces equation established by Freud in 1915).

I will not trace the roots of the “phallus controversy” or the way in which the descriptions of the relations between men and women have been interwoven in psychoanalysis and its history.

I will only remind you that Lacan takes up the Freudian position where Freud had left it in his discussion with Jones, and that one of his main texts called “The signification of the phallus,” is based on this.

Thus it is, for his own part taking the father as his starting point and as a reaction against the object-relations school and the Kleinians, that Lacan takes up the question of sexuation – that is to say, on the basis of the phallic signification, which he approaches in its two values, Sinn and Bedutung, in reference to Frege’s paper “On Sense and Reference” (Sinn=sense, Bedeutung=meaning or reference). Thus the phallus is not an organ, but a signifier leading to a referent, which answers in the unconscious the question that every subject, man or woman, poses regarding his or her sexuated being.

Thus for Lacan, at the time of his teaching until Seminar 13, man and woman are represented by one single signifier. This is the elegant solution which he found to close and reinstate the debate on the phallus controversy. Let us point out that in this way he inscribes himself in Freud’s lineage while at the some time detaching himself from it.

He inscribes himself in Freud’s lineage in that he believes that feminine sexuality is ordained like men’s sexuality on the basis of the phallus: but whereas Freud based himself on a form of medical empiricism, Lacan plumbs the depths of the psychoanalytical experience in the field of speech and language.

Thus the phallus becomes a signifier: the Signifier of desire. That is why it is affected by such a lack as desire, and is written -. This is an essential point as it will provide the reason for Lacan’s permanent construction of feminine sexuation around a void.

Thus the phallus as a signifier serves for both sexes, but it indicates a special relation to desire and castration for each sex. And that is what separates Lacan from late Freud: women and men are parlêtres, beings of speech, and as such they have a relation to castration by the very fact that castration comes from language.

Hence castration itself, like the phallus, becomes the necessary semblance to indicate what is Real about subjects’ jouissance. Freud’s term, castration, prefigures what Lacan would call later on in his teaching, the sexual “non-relation”.

Two 1958 texts give Lacan’s position regarding femininity. They are often overlooked these days by comparison to Encore, and yet they contain the embryonic origin of many developments.

For the purposes of this talk, I will limit myself to commenting on two passages written by Lacan at this time. I would like at least to illustrate, if not to prove, why the phallus better corresponds to the concept of semblance than to that of signifier, which quickly proves insufficient for describing the matter at hand

1: In a first passage (p … of the Ecrits) Lacan describes feminine sexuation on the basis of fetishism, which is at first sight surprising:
“C’est pour être le phallus c’est à dire le signifiant du désir de l’Autre que la femme va rejeter une part essentielle de la féminité, nommément tous ses attributs, dans la mascarade. C’est pour ce qu’elle n’est pas qu’elle entend être désirée en même temps qu’aimée. Mais son désir à elle, elle en trouve le signifiant dans le corps de celui à qui s’adresse sa demande d’amour. Sans doute ne faut-il pas oublier que de cette fonction signifiante, l’organe qui en est revêtu , prend valeur de fétiche.”

2: In a second passage (p of the Ecrits), he deals with the veil on which this fetish is inscribed.
” Pourquoi ne pas admettre en effet que s’il n’est pas de virilité que la castration ne consacre, c’est un amant châtré ou un homme mort (voire les deux en un), qui pour la femme se cache derrière le voile pour y appeler son adoration — soit du même lieu au delà du semblable maternel d’où lui est venue la menace de castration qui ne la concerne pas réellement.”

I. The organ takes the value of a fetish

This indicates:

1 – That a woman is not the phallus but desires to be the phallus for an Other as a signifier of his desire. Here appears the theme of woman’s otherness with regard to herself: she turns herself into the signifier of the Other’s desire. For the Other desires the phallus. The phallus or the object?

Thus femininity is based on a lack. She is not the lack; rather, she desires to become the lack for an other. That is to say, she turns herself into a symptom. A woman turns herself into a symptom for a man as she incarnates for the man the phallus that the mother lacks and which for the man denies maternal castration. Thus a woman serves as a screen in man’s relation to castration, and that is why she is a symptom. But she is not the phallus, even if she takes on the semblance of being the phallus. It is by way of this “lie” that she manages to arouse desire. Thus a woman is from the start a social individual. But on the basis of this fact Lacan is also able to refer to a “duplicity” concerning femininity, thus a doubling, but also, as the dictionary says, “the character of a feigning person”.

“Après quoi s’ouvre la question de savoir si le pénis réel, d’appartenir à son partenaire sexuel voue la femme à un attachement sans duplicité…” A woman is sensitive to this “lie” that divides her. This fundamental duplicity of the feminine subject is painful for her.

I will give as an example a case that was presented at the ECF conference, and which I will briefly sum up here:

The subject is a woman whose father had not received much of an education. She soon discovered an intense satisfaction in providing her father with “the word he lacked.” Thus she sustained her father’s desire by becoming in childhood and then in her own education, “the one who speaks well.” Then she chose her interlocutors among her teachers: mean who have a superior access to speech (like the father but in an ideal version). With them she came to have high-level verbal jousting, but when she had to teach, she soon came up against the anxiety-inducing feeling that she herself was not in the words she was using. She feels that she is in the dimension of feigning and describes this by means of the term “the thief.” In this case, thus, the “projection surface” for masculine identification both completes the father so that he becomes equal with the ideal father and his failing is masked, while presenting herself as armed with what he lacks, which leads immediately to the anxiety-inducing feeling of being “the thief.” Hence the “golden tongue” is also “the thief.” Which leads us next to the following phase:

2 – She rejects an essential part of her femininity in the attributes of the masquerade:
The masquerade is built on this primordial lack in being. What is the essential part of her femininity that is rejected? Let us say it in a first approach: it is the sexual organ. She veils the sexual organ (the anatomical gap), whereas she displays other parts of her body.

This leads nowhere, and Courbet’s painting, “The origin of the world”, however scandalous it may have been also leads nowhere, as the painting itself, the painted surface with the artifice of perspective, constitutes the veil that Lacan talks about in Seminar 11. A woman makes the phallus ex-ist (here sense corresponds to the ensemble as well as to reference: the Bedeutung is the phallus, but the mother’s phallus, the one that does not exist). Thus she makes what does not exist exist, but at the same time as she turns herself into an object for man (Lacan designates women by means of the formula the appellants of sex), she fetishizes it on the surface of the veil, the ensemble, the parade of the parlêtre.

But the hysteric does not consent to this internal doubling that is constitutive of femininity: he or she experiences it as his or her symptom. The hysteric subject thus proves to be appended to truth, but also as supported by refusal and in the rule as supremely divided between man and woman.

3 – C’est pour ce qu’elle n’est pas qu’elle entend être désirée en même temps qu’aimée.
She believes that she is desired as well as loved because she is the Phallus. But she only is the Phallus in the parade for men. In a way, “it’s fake,” it is a semblance. Why does she believee that she is loved as well as desired? Because love is addressed to the One: Lacanian love as the dream of the One. Love covers the duplicity that desire arouses. Let us remember here Freud’s description of the feminine “object choice” as the convergence of love and desire and of the masculine “object choice” as their divergence: Lacan takes it up in “The Signification of the Phallus.” But I will stress the phrase “being loved.” “Being loved” signals an erotomaniac variety of feminine love. Loving in order to be loved might be women’s motto (let us remember here the feminine sensitivity to abandonment, which Freud so finely noted, which can lead to the partner’s becoming devastating for a woman).

Hermione, a young, beautiful, and passionate woman “is seeing” Oreste, who it seems must “remain” as until now she has only had brief and tempestuous affairs arising from her dissatisfaction. She envisages having a stable relationship with this young man. But, particularly on the mornings after certain nights when Oreste proves gallant and Hermione experiences sexual satisfaction, she must quarrel with her lover at all costs. She cannot help herself. Oreste, stunned by what is incomprehensible to him and the reproaches made to him from the very moment he wakes up, sulks. In the face of this feminine “senselessness”, he waits for Hermione to apologize. And thus he makes a mistake.

For Hermione arrives to her session angry and complaining about him: he hasn’t called her since yesterday, he has not made any gestures towards her, he has let her down, she cannot rely on him. I point out to her that she herself does not understand the reasons for her morning rage, and that thus Oreste may be finding it hard to call her. She agrees. Encouraged, I cautiously suggest to her that she might take the first step herself, via text message, for instance. She absolutely refuses. Even if she was wrong, it is up to him to provide proof – proof that, in addition to desiring her, he loves her (even when she does everything to be detested)… Thus she understands “being loved as well as desired”, and verifies it by all means.

4 – Mais son désir à elle, elle en trouve le signifiant dans le corps de celui à qui s’adresse sa demande d’amour.
Sans doute ne faut-il pas oublier que de cette fonction signifiante, l’organe qui en est revêtu , prend valeur de fétiche.”

There are two points in this sentences which I find essential:

She finds the signifier of her desire in the body of the Other to whom she addresses her demand for love. Wanting to be loved – no doubt to be opposed to man’s jouissance of his organ, which is always largely autistic. His desire and his love are linked. The organ suddenly takes on the value of the fetish if we assume that the fetish, an element that is detached from the partner’s body, is the condition that arouses desire.

This note on the fetish and feminine sexuality is surprising as we do not have the notion that fetishism is a particularly feminine activity.

There are two aspects to this move described by Lacan: a demand for love, “Love me!” which can go so far as to become an imperious demand. And there is also a tendency to appropriate a symbolic and imaginary mixture of the organ as a fetish (that is to say, that which makes it possible to approach the other sex and serves as a denial of the maternal Other’s castration). From Freud’s example of fetishism (glance at the nose), we know that the fetish is first a signifier and then a material condition that is imaginarized in reality. The nose, shiny with sweat that serves as an index to select the partner, has replaced the “glance at the nose” that was the term associated by the subject since childhood to sexual frolics. Lacan refers to this text when he talks about the partner’s organ, which acquires the value of a fetish by metonymic substitution. On rereading him, we can grasp the great complexity of this. In particular, it is because fetishism takes a wide range of values for Freud from the absolute denial of the mother’s castration to a redoubled admissión of a rejection of castration (in the case of the man who cut plaits off). The text leads to a generalization of fetishist perversion.

A woman reports a dream in which she is talking to her analyst. She tells herself that he is wearing a dazzling jacket, which contrasts with the darkness that reigns everywhere else. He takes off his jacket. She is afraid. He moves one leg aside, and she cannot see anything at first. Then his anatomy appears: a Y-shaped scar runs from the thigh to the pubis.

The dreamer makes the following associations: it is very nice work. The scar reminds her of a scar on her mother’s legs. Its shape, the Y, makes her think of the male chromosome. She tells herself that she is dealing with a man who deals well with castration.

Then it seems to her that she is not responsible for his castration: “it’s linked to anatomy.” She then perceives that this dream relieves her of a death wish which she had held against her brother (who died soon afterward in an accident).

This analysis sequence shows how a woman finds the signifier of her desire on the body of the Other to whom her demand for love is addressed. It also shows how what is in question is the penis as a signifier and thus the organ that is not there, which introduces the second text from the Écrits, “Propos directifs pour un congrès sur la sexualité féminine.”

Ii. The Veil

Lacan had introduced the function of the veil in Seminar 4 (The Object Relation). In page … he turns this singular notion into an ancestor of the semblance: “Sur le voile- dit-il- peut s’imager c’est-à-dire s’instaurer comme capture imaginaire et place du désir, la relation à un au-delà, qui est fondamentale dans toute instauration de la relation symbolique.”

He takes it up as an essential element, of the same kind as the fetishism that characterizes the feminine position in the paragraph taken from “Propos directifs pour un congrès sur la sexualité féminine” that we have chosen as the object of our commentary:
“Pourquoi ne pas admettre en effet que s’il n’est pas de virilité que la castration ne consacre, c’est un amant châtré ou un homme mort (voire les deux en un), qui pour la femme se cache derrière le voile pour y appeler son adoration — soit du même lieu au delà du semblable maternel d’où lui est venue la menace de castration qui ne la concerne pas réellement.”

Four elements are to be distinguished:

1. Il n’est pas de virilité que la castration ne consacre. Castration on man’s side has the value of an ordeal: What man does is surmount castration anxiety, which makes him capable of a sexual relationship with a woman and of facing the father’s threat. On the woman’s side: the partner she chooses must prove his virility and surmount castration (in the sense of Freud’s paper on Medusa’s Head). It is not unusual in the clinic for an accentuation of this condition to turn a woman’s partner not only into a symptom, but into something devastating (for example, in the case of the choice of a partner who has not submitted to castration).

2. C’est un amant châtré ou un homme mort qui pour la femme se cache derrière le voile. Castrated or dead: one cannot be any more virile.

In his course, Eric Laurent located the “Dead Father” in this place. At the beginning of the course “On the nature of semblances,” JAM highlights that the dead father is the father of the Name: from which he deduces that the name-of-the-father is a semblance that protects one from the Real father. In the same way, what Lacan calls the feminine fetish is a semblance that supports a père-version [a pun on père, father, version, and perversion], a version of the father. Behind this semblance lies the void, the hole of the Real, to which the feminine subject is particularly sensitive. When man’s relay is missing, this leads woman to the side of what Lacan called “feminine madness” that he explored throughout his teaching: Aimée in his thesis, but also Antigone or Cygne de Coûfontaine or even Medea or Madeleine Gide serve as examples of what the lack of a phallic limit in women can produce as regards panic, namely the passage to the act.

3. Pour y appeler son adoration

A man is for a woman always a straw man, as Lacan reminded us. He is never up to the standards of the ideal man, the man who would have vanquished the castration threat. For it is to him that her love is addressed. Lacan reminds us of this in Seminar 20 — in love, it is not a matter of sex (which does not mean that love for a person of the opposite sex — or even of the same sex — does not exist), but love places no limit (this is what is illustrated by the mystics of whom Lacan talks in Encore: they are dealing with an enjoying God who does not mediatize the symptom procured by the human partner.

4. Au delà du semblable maternel d’où lui est venu une menace de castration qui ne la concerne pas réellement.

Does this not amount to signaling that the phallus which the mother lacks is not subjectivized by the daughter? In a recent article in a weekly publication, J-A Miller argued that a new race of women, particularly incarnated in politics by Sarah Palin or Hilary Clinton, was a good illustration of the kind of women who are not attained by castration (both of them are by far women most admired by Americans, if polls are to be believed).

A dream had by an analysand after many years of analysis translated exactly what Lacan is here indicating with regard to the feminine position:

There was a shop which only sold things for women. There were many floors filled with products, but the most desirable products (perfumes, jewelry) were on the top floors, and I couldn’t see how to get up there. In the center of the shop there was a void, a huge hole. In order to make their purchases, women had to go through a secret passage which only other women knew about.

One of them asks me to go behind. I follow her.

In the middle of a long corridor, there is a window. Through this window I can see a huge bull, a prehistoric beast. He is held by a chain. The patient describes in full detail the obscene aspect of the bull. She calls all her girlfriends on her cell phone and recommends them not to miss the show when the bull is taken to the bullfighting ring in the afternoon.

A woman leads her down the secret passage, but she finds herself up against the void: she wakes up. She can’t tell whether she crossed the void. She claims to be stunned to have a dream that questions her femininity. She adds that one can only access femininity through the mediation of an initiatory revelation that only concerns women. For confidentiality reasons, I will not comment further on this dream. I will only note that it has the structure of what Lacan describes in the paragraph that is the object of my commentary:

On the other side of the window (the veil), there is the castrated lover or a dead man: the bull that must die. The beast is chained (a castration trait). He is the object of her adoration (she calls all her girlfriends). She thinks that access to the attributes of femininity can only be had through other women. Let us finally remark that the entire scene revolves around a void.

There is no doubt that this is not a dream of passage, but it certainly is a dream of crossing. It seems to correspond to a remark made by Freud in his 1927 paper on fetishism: there are cases in which the fetish is more or less well dealt with by the subject and cases in which the fetish is disliked, and this corresponds to a partial or rather a “cleaved” acknowledgement of maternal castration: the subject holds the father responsible for the mother’s castration, claims Freud. What we are dealing with here is this latter case.


Art: Wangechi Mutu, Intertwined, 2003.

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