Sunday, March 22, 2009
Lacanian phallacies posted by Richard Seymour
"Following Freud, Lacan proclaims 'the absence in women of fetishism.' What is the logic of this second disavowal? In Lacan's texts, women are doomed to inhabit the tongueless zone of the Imaginary. We are forbidden citizenship in the Symbolic, exiled from the archives and encyclopedias, the sacred texts and algebras, the alphas and omegas of history. If women speak at all, it is with male tongues, as ventriloquists of phallic desire. If we look, it is with a male gaze. In this way, Lacan's vision bears an uneasy affinity to the nineteenth-century discourse on degeneration, which figured women as bereft of language, exiled from reason and properly inhabiting the prehistory of the race. For Lacan, as for the discourse on degeneration, women's difference is figured as a chronological one; we inhabit an earlier space in the linear, temporal history of the (male) symbolic self. Pre-oedipal space (the space of domesticity) is naturalized by figuring it as anachronistic space: out of time and prior to symbolic history. Women's historically gendered relation to power is represented as a formally different relation to time: the imperial gesture itself.
"According to Lacan, women do not inhabit history proper. We bear a prepositional relation to history. We are pre-Oedipal and pre-Symbolic, permanently threatening the male Symbolic with our painted faces and unruly hair. Yet in this theory we are incapable of ever really disrupting anything. Just as, in imperial discourse, white men were the sole heirs to the grand narrative of historical progress, so in Lacanian discourse, men are the sole heirs to the Symbolic. While the discourse on degeneration invented imperial nature top underwrite racial, class and gender difference, Lacan invents the ineffable majesty of the 'phallic signifier' governing all social difference, a structural universal, unchanging and inevitable.
"Women in Lacan's schema are assigned the position of victim, cipher, empty set - disempowered, tongueless, unsexed. Identified inevitably with the realm of the Other, women are the bearers and custodians of difference but are never the agents and inventors of social possibility. For precisely this reason, we can be the objects of fetishism but never the subjects. To remain in the Imaginary is to become psychotic, the condition of the madwoman, hair wild. But if woman is Other, how does one begin to talk (as a woman) of different power relations between women, not to mention those between socially empowered women and disempowered men? When we speak and act as different women, the Self/Other dichotomy begins to totter and relations with the Other become relations with others.
"Lacan shares with imperial discourse the image of woman as riddle. All too often, colonials represented the colonized landscape as feminine, unknowable and unrepresentable. So too in Lacanian theory the feminine is an unrepresentable absence effected by a phallic desire that grounds the signifying economy through exclusion. Women become the Dark Continent, the riddle of the Sphinx - exoticized and implicitly racist images drawn from an Africanist iconography. Constructing women and colonized people as a riddle ("the Woman Question", "the Native Question") allows privileged European men to answer the riddle in terms of their own interests." (Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest, Routledge, 1995, pp. 192-3).