I will present material from an ongoing analysis of a “feminine” – not just a female – academic. My approach will not be theoretical. I want to show clinically what it means to occupy a feminine position in a culture (specifically, academia – but by extension, culture in general today) that claims a post-Oedipal turn, but that remains decisively committed to conservative, Oedipal values. Traditionally, and for reasons that are reflected in the material, clinical cases are introduced only after one has demonstrated a certain theoretical prowess. I want to proceed in a non-traditional (“feminine”) way by getting right to the story.
K is a 30-year-old graduate student in the humanities who is about to complete her degree and enter the academic job market. She initially sought treatment four years ago following the break up of a three-year relationship that, in retrospect, seemed to her very disturbing. She described a pervasive fear of conflict and a debilitating sense that, despite the considerable talent others tell her she possesses, she will never be successful in her field. She also said she suffered from a medical condition called “vulvadynia” – an excessive vaginal pain during penetration that makes intercourse unbearable. For the first two years I saw her, she was not sexually active.
Throughout this time, K brings in dreams that circle around two scenes: 1) she suddenly finds herself in a situation of romantic commitment (getting married, leaving on honeymoon) with men she does not recognize and with no idea as to why she’s doing what she’s doing; 2) she and a friend or family member are having a screaming fight, but neither can properly understand what the other is saying. She accepts the interpretations we arrive at, but the dreams never dissipate.
K’s father is a successful professor at an Ivy League university. Her parents met when her mother was a graduate student in the department where her father had just begun his career; they married and conceived K, causing her mother to abandon the program. After fifteen years as a homemaker, her mother found work as an archivist, specializing in medical texts. K says that her mother is far more intelligent than her father, but her depressive, self-defeating character has not allowed her to succeed in the way that everyone believes she could have. K’s mother never felt she belonged in academia; she viewed motherhood as “a way out.”
K describes her parents’ relationship as contentious. Her father takes care of all the household and parental duties. Her mother unleashes an unremitting barrage of apologies for her failures as a wife. This provokes her father to anger. K grew up trying to intervene in their arguments, defending her mother against her father. In the analysis, she encounters her parents as mortal human beings, rather than as placeholders in an eternal Oedipal economy. Forming more realistic images of her parents does nothing to temper the disappointment she feels in them, nor the anxieties she has about herself.
In the relationship from which she was recovering when she entered treatment, K had been involved with a man (M) to whom she was attracted neither sexually nor emotionally. M was a cocaine abuser who, when high, demanded she perform oral sex on him as they watched pornography together. K said she had accepted this arrangement because of her vulvadynia, which made her feel no man would want her. M was often psychologically cruel. He would beg for her forgiveness after his accusatory outbursts, and this would exacerbate the cruelty he masochistically visited upon himself. After their fights, M would stare at himself in the mirror, repetitively seething, “You look like a fucking worm!” No one understood why she remained in the relationship. K said she felt too guilty leaving someone so fragile, and she thought this was what she could expect in her romantic life.
K is among the most outstanding students in her program. She organizes conferences, attends all departmental functions, and translates work by her professors. She is considered a model candidate for academic success, but she is oblivious as to just how well she is doing. She contrasts herself with other students who, she imagines, spend all their time writing. K describes this fantasy in anal and urethral terms: these others (invariably male) sit in the basement of the library “cranking out” three or four publications a year; they are possessed of a “steady flow” with which she cannot compete; during one session, she spontaneously reports imagining a hole opening up above her from out of which a torrent of books fall. Her conflicts concern her relation to phallic modes of jouissance, expressed in typical obsessive fantasies of academic hyper-productivity.
In her research, K specializes in representations of childhood under fascism. She has not yet had the opportunity to teach this material, but she regularly teaches Romance languages. She struggles with the fact that she actually enjoys teaching languages, perhaps more than she would enjoy teaching theory. In the analysis, she increasingly finds that she enjoys teaching a great deal, but she conceals this enjoyment from her mentors, her colleagues, and her father: since everyone else seems to abhor teaching as an obstacle to “real” academic work, she worries that her enjoyment is a sign of her defectiveness. Whereas most academics covet prestigious university research positions, K says, she risks imagining that she might prefer a job at a small liberal arts college that values departmental service. Her professors groom her for a position at the top of her field – a position she initially feels she does not deserve, but over time that perhaps she does not want. She fears that if she were to disclose her feelings to her department, much less to her father, they might withdraw their support entirely. This is not simply a matter of disappointing paternal authority, but of revealing an intrinsic flaw in the nature of her desire that would make her an outcast.
About two years into the analysis, K recalled that, when she was a child, her mother had been an avid reader of true crime novels. She remembered these books being strewn about the house, and how she would sneak glances at their glossy, lurid crime scene photos. Over the course of several sessions she discovered the degree to which this had been traumatically overstimulating. The way she remembered this, it seemed as if these books were on display at the same time that, many years later, her mother was involved in archiving medieval medical texts containing graphic illustrations of primitive surgical procedures. The juxtaposition of these two scenes made no sense to her chronologically, but their intrinsic connection in her mind was irreducible. Following this strange reconstruction, K began to consider her mother quite differently. She no longer saw her mother as depressive and prone to victimization, but as frighteningly crazy and destructive. She also began to see her father as a tragic figure who had been baited into endless fights in the context of the family drama, to which she had contributed, and who could not positively enjoy the full extent of his professional achievements.
Not long after this, K met and fell in love with another man (L). Unlike M, L had no connection whatsoever to academia. From the beginning, K worried that she might frighten L away. She told me about their going out together, drinking too much, and finding herself crying that if he “really knew her,” he would hasten to leave. L demonstrated that he was genuinely in love, but this only made the problem worse. K could not believe that she was involved with someone who could care about her so much. No sooner did she begin to accept this than she started to worry that her career would ruin their relationship should she have to take a job in a provincial region where L could not find work. Still, she couldn’t deny that – for the first time in her life – the sex was great.
Last year, K made a foray into the academic job market. Much to her surprise, she got an interview for an assistant professorship at a highly prominent university. In the weeks leading up to the interview, her anxieties were barely manageable. She did not know how to prepare; she worried that she would be exposed as a fraud, that she would be asked questions for which she had no answers. Despite how unlikely it was given her field, she actually fretted, “What if they ask me about Žižek? Or Hegel? I don’t understand any of that stuff!” Anticipating the absolute worst, she pieced together a scene straight out of Dante: she would be “flayed,” “eviscerated,” “torn to pieces” by her interrogators. In the end, she did quite well and was one of two final candidates for the position. She was relieved when she was passed over – because, she was told, she was “not conservative enough” for that particular institution.
This year, as she prepares to return to the job market, K’s anxieties are more contained, but still powerful. Recently, however, she related the following dream: she had scratched her face and was bleeding into her eyes and mouth. She went to a mirror to see what she looked like. The mirror was turned around backwards and she stared at its dull, unreflective surface, terrified that she herself was not there. When she looked away from the mirror, she understood that it could not function properly and that she was fine, but when she looked directly at the mirror, she forgot her understanding and became convinced that she was confronting the fact that she did not exist. Each time she turned away before returning, the scratch healed just a little bit more.
Since time is limited, I will offer only a few reflections. K’s presenting problem is figured by the most traditional Oedipal demands: should she become a successful academic, exceeding the expectations of paternal authority while denigrating her mother in the process? This would mean becoming the ideal phallic woman her mother had failed at being, thereby confirming her father’s priority. Fascinated by phallic modes of enjoyment (as in her fantasies about her colleagues’ productivity, and in her connection to M – the “fucking worm” – who embodied the failure intrinsic to phallic enjoyment), K could not at first make sense of the enjoyment she found in the shared, communal experience provided by the classroom. Though she continues to conceal this, she is beginning to envision a successful teaching career, becoming a capable mother, and maybe publishing two or three admirable books. This is a clear instance of “feminine” enjoyment, which cannot be reduced to the pleasures of competition, production, or consumption, but that can be located in socially liminal experiences – like love, pedagogy, and analysis – where jouissance is made both accessible and inaccessible at the same time.
Outside a Lacanian orientation, it would be tempting to try and force K into the position occupied by her father, turning her into the person her familial dynamics insists her mother should have been. This was what supervisors with whom I consulted early on implicitly suggested; K has benefitted tremendously from my decision to ignore them. To encourage her to want academic “success” would be to ask her to give up not just on her desire in favor of a masculine ideal, but on the drive that propels her successfully to distinguish herself in a culture that operates within a phallicly overdetermined framework. In the analysis, K discovers a different way of being. What she considered the “failure” of her preference for teaching gradually emerges as a strength that sets her apart. This further facilitates a capacity to find enjoyment in her relationships (she and L recently married). Her mother continues to live out a classical hysterical protest in relation to her father’s ordinary paternalism. In our work together, K invents a new future for herself beyond any opposition of “success” and “failure” Oedipally conceived. This helps her come to terms with an enjoyment that the Symbolic order is still only beginning to recognize today.