Ian "Marvin" Graye's Reviews > Lacan and Postfeminism

Lacan and Postfeminism by Elizabeth Wright
Rate this book
Clear rating

by
5022264
's review

really liked it
bookshelves: cul-poli-phil-art, frogs, lacan, read-2014, reviews, reviews-4-stars, freud-and-jung

A Taste of Lacan

I read this book out of a dual interest in Lacan and Postfeminism.

This is part of a broader reading project for which I've been reading Hegel in preparation for more reading of contemporary Continental Philosophy, especially Zizek, who has been greatly influenced by both Hegel and Lacan.

I needed a break from Hegelian non-fiction, so I thought I'd dip my toes into a little Lacan. This was a perfect taster, though I can't claim that I understood it all or that I have conveyed it accurately below.

The total book is only about 80 pages long, although the body of the main essay is less than 60 pages. An additional eight pages are devoted to very helpful definitions of key terms used by Lacan.

I gather that the main essay is a slightly edited version of a chapter called "Feminist Psychoanalytic Criticism" in Wright's book, "Psychoanalytic Criticism", which was published two years before her death in 2000.

The Instability of Identity

In a nutshell, Wright endeavours to locate Postfeminism within Poststructuralism.

Her starting point is that there is no positive and stable identity, in particular there is no stable concept of what a woman is.

One of her goals is to write a critique based on the ideological constructions of "discourse" (what happens in dialogue, as opposed to language, which is in the dictionary).

Wright argues against Saussure and for Lacan, who gives primacy to the "signifier" in the sign, on the basis that "the 'signified' [the meaning] is an effect of the play of signifiers over the continuum of experience." She argues that this returns speech to its proper place in the construction of language. It redresses Saussure's foregrounding of the social at the expense of the individual human beings who speak. She argues that this correction creates the foundation for poststructuralist "deconstruction" and its critique of the text.

The Instability of Womanhood

Wright then asks what role the postmodern notion of "the dispersed unstable subject" might have in postfeminism.

In order to answer this question, she has recourse to the psychoanalysis of both Freud and Lacan, whom she believes have been misrepresented and have been wrongly neglected by feminism and postfeminism.

In Wright's opinion, Lacan's greatest contribution to this debate is his concept of "sexuation", which is the process by which we subconsciously "choose" our mode of being as either feminine or masculine.

While Freud might have analysed anatomical differences in terms of their psychic consequences, Lacan defines us all as "speaking beings" who seek a place in the social as "sexed subjects".

The social is characterised by language and speech. Lacan believes that language and speech limit or castrate all of us, because they tend to deny the body's motivation (or [Freudian] drive) full satisfaction. This splits a subject of any sex between its symbolic identity and its body.

Wright believes that the phallus or what Lacan calls "the phallic function" (the limitation of "jouissance" or satisfaction of the drive) is simply a symbol of this limitation, that it is not intended to mean only the penis, and that it is a suitable descriptor for a limitation or lack felt by any sex. She argues that the reliance on the word and connotations of the phallus is not itself an example of phallocentrism.

This argument probably requires a leap of faith. However, once it is made, it opens up a lot of possibilities for a better understanding of the Subject.

This Masquerade

The limitation of "jouissance" is felt by men and women alike, when they enter the symbolic realm of language and identification.

Lacan argues that it is, however, felt differently. The male identifies with the phallus, and fears castration or loss of "jouissance". Man feels this as a lack or alienation, and seeks a fantasy in a woman (or a man) to overcome it.

Lacan believes that the female does not have an equivalent definition of her own sex like a male does. She lacks a signifier of her own. Instead, she identifies with and masquerades as the desire of the man in his fantasy. Similarly, Man cannot discover Woman. She is hidden behind a veil. She is a mystery. He can only invent her. She remains the stuff of his fantasies. Yet, she, too, has the opportunity to create or construct an identity for herself.

It's almost as if, for a woman, in the words of Simone de Beauvoir, "the body is a situation" in which she finds herself, and perhaps even more significantly a situation in which she might find herself.

Gender Choices

Lacan also asserts that how a speaking being experiences sexuality on the level of the psyche has nothing to do with biological sex. Our genitals do not necessarily dictate the gender of our psyche. There could conceivably be more than two genders from which to choose.

Lacan argues that there is a division between the organism and the subject. Speaking beings can inscribe themselves on the side of their own choice (male or female), although it is possible that their choice has been influenced or imposed by "the history of the subject's unconscious".

Redeeming Freud and Lacan

Wright ends with a plea for postfeminists to reconsider Freud and Lacan:

"In Freud's onging questioning of what a woman wants, and Lacan's misunderstood sexuation theory, there is the insight that the feminine is not entirely determined by the phallic and that therefore woman is more a subject than man.

"What lived experience is about is the struggle to make something of 'the body as a situation'."
16 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Lacan and Postfeminism.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

September 9, 2012 – Shelved as: cul-poli-phil-art
September 9, 2012 – Shelved
September 9, 2012 – Shelved as: frogs
July 1, 2014 – Started Reading
July 2, 2014 – Shelved as: lacan
July 2, 2014 – Shelved as: read-2014
July 2, 2014 – Shelved as: reviews
July 2, 2014 – Shelved as: reviews-4-stars
July 2, 2014 – Shelved as: freud-and-jung
July 2, 2014 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-14 of 14 (14 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Excellent. There are, I think, some helpful insights to be found in these approaches, and Lacan is right to state that genitals do not equal gender (as any trans person can attest). The problem with the influence of Freud in this area for me is that there is too much conflation between sex as it relates to the body and the actions of the body (whether or not these are transformed in the psyche) and sex as it relates to gender identity and the internal experience of Being.

Also, of course, as a staunch anti-essentialist, I find any attempts to speak of "Man" and "Woman" rather a waste of everyone's time….


message 2: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Thanks, Jonathan. If I understand your last comment, then let a thousand flowers bloom. As for Freud, I've always had the same doubt, but got caught up in the metaphorical power of his language. If philosophy can be relatively ungendered in the way it approaches related issues, you have to ask why can't psychoanalysis?


message 3: by Gregsamsa (new)

Gregsamsa Jonathan wrote: "Also, of course, as a staunch anti-essentialist, I find any attempts to speak of "Man" and "Woman" rather a waste of everyone's time…."

Hear hear!


message 4: by Warwick (new)

Warwick Is any evidence put forward to support the idea that everyone undergoes subconscious ‘sexuation’ and fears ‘jouissance’, or are these just assertions?


message 5: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Their problem is this obsession with attempting to state things as universal, which are quite obviously not. I am sure there are many human beings for whom the statement that they undergo subconscious ‘sexuation’ and fear ‘jouissance' would be correct, but certainly not all (and likely far from all), and it is certainly not a fundamental truth about our species.


message 6: by Warwick (new)

Warwick Well sure. But I'm interested in the idea, even if it's only true for some people in some situations. I just want to know what the theory is based on – diaries? psychoanalytic records? social trends? historical data of some kind? Just give me something!! (as I frequently yell at philosophy books)

Without that, I admit I find it hard to take these semantic games very seriously.


message 7: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Warwick wrote: "Is any evidence put forward to support the idea that everyone undergoes subconscious ‘sexuation’ and fears ‘jouissance’, or are these just assertions?"

There isn't any clinical evidence in this essay. I don't know how much evidence Lacan generated during his lifetime. Wright was an academic as well as a practising psychoanalyst. However, this essay is essentially polemical.


message 8: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Warwick, I've also wondered whether we should ask philosophers for evidence or clinical data for their assertions!


message 9: by Warwick (new)

Warwick Yes I feel a bit churlish always bringing it up because I know to an extent it's the nature of the discipline – but while I do often get a lot out of philosophy, I must admit that when I turn to sociological or historical studies I sense a sudden difference in…ah…intellectual rigor. Even if the thinkers are not as good, the conventions of the discipline impose on them a certain need to justify their arguments that I relate to, whereas philosophy by its nature often forces me to go along with various argumental premisses that I'm not really convinced of.


message 10: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye When it comes to the mind, I suspect we're blindfolded or in the dark, and we're trying to describe what we feel when we try to grasp it with our hands.

With Freud, I tend to think of him as an early cartographer trying to map the human heart and psyche. His early maps are more impressionistic, approximate and metaphorical, but they have hopefully helped his successors fill in the gaps.


message 11: by Michael (last edited Jul 02, 2014 03:56PM) (new)

Michael Ian wrote: "Warwick, I've also wondered whether we should ask philosophers for evidence or clinical data for their assertions!"

I see little sign that anyone takes him seriously any more, but I was fascinated by the developmental perspective Piaget brought to the table with his Structuralism. You have these structured forms and polarities in language and in behavior both for gender identity and sexual orientation, which can be dissociated from each other. But they don't come out of nothing, and it will have a developmental history emerging from precursors influenced by social factors as well as hormones. The science on life trajectories indicates that sexual identity milestones tend to precede same-sex behaviors, events that both occur in childhood or adolescence for a large majority, even in older Baby Boomers who might have been more repressed by cultural norms than later generations. Maybe 25% of LGB identifiers experienced their milestones later, after 20, women perhaps a couple of years later than men. That many people have same-sex behaviors without identifying as an LGB minority is not really understood "scientifically."

With such early setting of gender and sexual orientation, it kind of undercuts Lacan's blend of "choice" and Freudian aspects : Speaking beings can inscribe themselves on the side of their own choice (male or female), although it is possible that their choice has been influenced or imposed by "the history of the subject's unconscious".


message 12: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Thanks, Michael. I haven't read any Piaget recently, and will investigate. The life trajectories link is very worthwhile. It was interesting for me to learn that bi often emerged at an earlier milestone than lesbian and gay sexuality. However, the survey didn't seek to measure fluidity. If early interest in bi sexuality leads to either lesbian or gay or hetero sexuality, then I'd argue that there is an element of choice or free will. Obviously, it takes courage to flout convention though. I am only saying these things from the point of view of suggesting/hoping that sexuality is a construct in which the individual might have a conscious role. Hence, let a thousand flowers bloom.


message 13: by Michael (new)

Michael Ian wrote: "...suggesting/hoping that sexuality is a construct in which the individual might have a conscious role. Hence, let a thousand flowers bloom.
..."

I do too. That was why it was refreshing for me to read in Pinker's How the Mind Works how either biological or environmental determinism provide poor arguments that gays should be free to love as they do or women be free from rape and coercion. As Lacan's profession was helping people achieve mental health, it is important to find a path to throw off the chains. I can't wait to see where you explorations take you.

The exploration of jouissance is fascinating to me as a reach for what is it humans are after "beyond the pleasure principle". What I read now on Wiki about the incorporation of its polar opposite of pain reminds me of how my first neuroscience research project concerned the wiring of the brain in opponent systems. We were looking for the roots of a theory from psychology, Solomon's The Opponent-Process Theory of Acquired Motivation.


message 14: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Thanks, Michael. These are early days on my journey, but it's mostly pleasure, if a little painful. But you know what they say, no pain, no gain (so pleasure is a loss and pain a gain?). I'll check out that article shortly. I'm interested in how philosophy and psychology intersect.


back to top