Postmodernism and Heteroglossia, Part One



Texts and Textuality

The phenomenon that would be known by the 1980s as Postmodern theory or “theory” consisted of servings of a French Potée from the 1950s and 1960s, full of different ingredients, a stew of linguistic theory, psychology, anthropology, history, sociology, literary theory, feminist theory, that simmered and served up first Structuralism and then Post-Structuralism. Structuralism and Post-Structuralism are imprecise and inexact terms that roughly coincide with the equally imprecise divide between Modernism and Postmodernism. Although it is possible to roughly retrace the intellectual steps of all the French scholars who were together in Paris and knew each other, it is more difficult to sort out the ways and means in which their ideas were taken up, sliced and diced, renamed and redirected by the next generation of scholars. The journey of the concept of a term discussed by Marcel Mauss, mana, from the significance of the exchange of gifts in a culture to a “floating signifier” in the interpretations of Claude Lévi-Strauss denoting a surplus which is then transformed by Pierre Bourdieu into symbolic capital while Jacques Lacan would reimagine this sliding signifier as the machinations of language making itself while Roland Barthes found this kind of empty signifier in the myths of popular culture, all of which would inspire Slavoj Zizek to realize that politics was nothing more than a fabula of floating signifiers. It is no wonder that American critics would cut through all this interweavings of community influence, seeking a more simple and general definition of Postmodernism.

In American academic circles, the complex mixture of French (and German) ideas were boiled down or reduced to their essence. According to this coulis, Postmodernism acknowledged disillusionment with the supposed transcendent state of the revered art object. Modernism was frowned upon as an uneasy mixture of mystification of the art and the artist and a meta-position of objectivity from the critic/observer. Like “French theory,” Postmodern art was impure, less a method of making and more a mode of making through synthesis that was indulgent, excluding and denying nothing and was tolerant of everything. Unlike Modernism which maintained a cool position of elitism, Postmodern art was concerned with inclusive context, making the map or the overall picture the emblem of Postmodernism. There were territories beyond the surface of the artwork and outside of “art” that needed to be considered. Attempts at staking out boundaries are as futile as the limits are arbitrary and in order to expand the viewpoint it is necessary to have a flexible perspective. Any kind of system is but a superimposition upon vernacular and local formations.

According to Kim Levin in the 1980s article “Farewell to Modernism,” if the grid was the emblem of Modernism, then the grid had gone back to nature allowing the artist to roam free. In America, freedom was seen almost exclusively as the fight to break the grip of Modernism, as exemplified by abstract art, i.e. purity and Abstract Expressionism. In addition, the American version of Postmodernism was a neat modernist compare and contrast. If Modernist art was abstract, then Postmodern art returned to representation. If Modernism was about the future and the teleology of progress, then Postmodernism had to be about the past and began to devour the history of Modernism. Now freed or exempted from the confines of Modernism, artistic “wandering” resulted in an obsession with the past, as artists borrowed from high and popular art and copied and cross-referenced among images. Appropriation replaced (Modernist) creativity. While Modernism excluded this past from its consciousness, Postmodernism used the old as source for the “new,” recognizing the power of the past or what Karl Marx had called the “dead hand of history” or at least trying to use the “dead hand” to some advantage.

American artists of the Eighties, who began to appropriate Postmodern theory as the basis for their art, were playing at second-hand with decades-old ideas developed in the post-war period by a small group of Continental thinkers. These borrowed ideas were put in the service of a small group of New York art critics and art historians who were interested in establishing their own not-Modernist and not-Greenberg turf, and they established an intellectual hegemony over American-style Postmodernism in New York. Out of or derived from complicated ideas, they developed their own ideas, turning heteroglossia into something far more simple and manageable: “double coding,” a term popularized by architectural critic Charles Jencks. A subtle theory of the relationship between language and human consciousness became a use of motifs from history. Both Structuralism and Post-Structuralism were critiques of the human subject and of the sentimental notion that the subject is a free intellectual agent, eternal and unaffected by history or culture. Post-Structuralists wanted to deconstruct the human “reality,” which, after all, was only a convenient fiction, a product of cultural and changeable signifying activities. Even the unconscious mind, once thought to be unreachable was deemed constructed and culturally specific.

Structuralism and Post-Structuralism also critiqued the possibility of a fixed and frozen set of linguistic relations, even within a structure. Ferdinand de Saussure had emphasized the distinction between the signifier, or the “sound image,” and the signified, the concept and stated that their relationship was arbitrary. His analysis suggested that the structural relationship between sign and signifier was conventional, and that meaning is known through common usage rather than through pre-figured necessity. Instead, given the instability of signifiers, each signifier acquired semantic value due to its differential position within the structure of the language. In other words, signifiers have no meaning in and of themselves and “mean” or signify only in terms of their differences and distinctions. It was Saussure who literally illustrated this process of differentiation, drawing (a literal drawing) a current of (wiggling) signifiers flowing above a stream of the “signifieds” below. The slipping signifiers were repositioned by Jacques Lacan, who placed them in a dominant position, demoting the once determining signified by placing it below the signifier. This flipping of the position of the linguistic algorithm is also the flip from Structuralism to Post-Structuralism, where the signified is demoted and the signifier is dominant: floating signifiers that defied the signified.

The instability of the structure of the linguistic system designed by Saussure was quickly exploited. Just six years after Saussure’s death, in The Dialogical Imagination (1919), Mikhail Bakhtin put forward a theory of everyday language called “dialogism.” Living and working in the Soviet Union, Bakhtin subtly opposed the prevailing powers under the guise of analyzing Western literature. Understandably, he would consider language as ideological. Without being precisely political, Bakhtin opposed two modes of literature, the monologic and the dialogic. Monologic language was the language of authority, speaking in tones of “truth” with the expectation of being believed. For example, a scientist writes and publishes monologically and reflects the accepted and expected modes of discourse and assumes that the received practices will not be challenged. On the other side of the monological coin is poetry, the highest of high art, uttered by a poet under the illusion that she is writing in a standard literary format which is supposed as “pure” as the words of the scientist are “transparent.” In addition, this ideological homogenizing language holds language together in a centripetal or oppositional force.

Bakhtin, as might be expected, had little use for the illusions of high art and saw fiction as a dialogic mode. The scientist and the poet speak above or transcendently (or so they believe) but the fiction writer must address a specific reader and audience. Bakhtin preferred the low art of make believe because it reflected the ordinary language of everyday people. In fact, Bakhtin pointed out that monologic speech was impossible, and its concept of a unity or plenitude is actually an illusion, covering up the actuality of excess or lack of fixed meaning. People use specific modes of discourse in order to communicate with each other. Language is inherently dialogic: a speaker must make himself understood to the listener and the interchange between the two participants means that language must always be dialogic. However, there are difficulties if the speaker and the listener are from different paradigms. And this is where ideology comes into play. On one hand, the speaker must achieve competence in communicating, and on the other hand, the listener must have the same or similar competence. But since meaning is not fixed, words only appear to have pre-existing meanings–meanings that are “already ready”–in one social paradigm, that, when it is received in another social paradigm, are often alien to the speaker’s intentions.

The discourses are appropriated in order to make one’s intentions clear, however, there will be interference from two sources: the social slippage between speaker and listener and the linguistic slippage in the language itself. Bakhtin understood all legitimation to be relative and that the “crisis” of legitimation is nothing less than the destruction of traditional notions of “society” and the “social subject.” Uninvolved in any nostalgia for the concept of the “original subject” or individual and unique human being, he used a Medieval concept of carivari or the “carnivalesque” as his critical strategy. With his concept of the “dialogic” in which writers and/or speakers create or intensify “hetroglossia,” Bakhtin seems to have understood the idea of “intertextuality” before this way of reading became well-established. There is a “social heteroglossia,” or a kind of natural language or way of communicating in which words do not exist only in formalized dictionaries but are created in and out of people’s inventive and ever flexible mouths. Bakhtin emphasized the carnival or the power of laughter to destroy pre-established hierarchies, not just of language but also of discourses themselves. Laughter, for Bakhtin, was the most radical form of language. It is the carnival of language that makes dialogue possible in its quest to undermine power.

The carnival is a theater of the absurd which reveals the constructed nature of social restrictions. Produced through the activities of the carnival, scornful and subversive laughter serves no higher cause and supports no existing social structures, and operates on the unofficial margins of popular or lower class life, and unfolds in unofficial and unsanctioned practices, and thus cannot be codified or controlled or raised to a higher and fixed level. Bhaktin’s critique of literature through the carnival reveals that all relations are social and human relations arbitrary; and that, despite the iron grip of totalitarianism, alternative political structures are possible. The carnival in history has been allowed by authorities, parceling out moments of freedom and sanctioning a momentary lapse of what is considered the “norm.” These momentary reversals of power and prestige produce a sense of spectacle that is not only seen or exhibited but can also be lived and experienced as “revival and renewal” through the flipping of received wisdom and through showing the verso of power. Mocking the ruling powers, the carnival speaks in parody with a double-voiced and double-coded language that challenges the single-voiced utterances or approved speech and discourses from the higher authorities. Today, we can witness and enjoy parody thorough the “spectacle” of mass media, whether one is viewing Saturday Night Live or reading the blogs of outsiders who become the contemporary player in a carnivalesque undreamed of but predicted by Bhaktin. On late night talk shows, such as the Jon Stewart Show, nothing is sacred–no person, idea or government— and all is fair game, because it is open season on pretentions of wisdom or sagacity. The carnival has come to town.


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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Postmodernism and The Trail of the Floating Signifier


From Mauss to Lévi-Strauss to Lacan, the Signifier Floated

The search for origins are always futile but the process often turns up interesting moments in time. For example, when did Postmodernism begin? The answer depends upon the place one looks. If one looks at art, one might ask did Postmodernism or the challenges to to the hegemony of Modernism being with Marcel Duchamp? With Neo-Dada? With Architecture? On the other hand, if one simples the search and asks something much more simple: when was the term first used, then it is possible to locate, not an artificial “beginning” but a gradual dawning that a shift had taken place. An idea is being expressed, a discourse is being formed when a term is coined. In 1998 Perry Anderson pointed out in The Origins of Postmodernism that the word “postmodernism” was coined, not in the cafés of Paris but in Spain, which, as he said, was also the origin of the term “modernism.” As Anderson wrote,

We owe the the coinage of “modernism” as an aesthetic moment to a Nicaraguan poet, writing in a Guatemalan journal, of a literary encounter in Peru. Rubén Darío’s initiation in 1890 of a self-conscious current that took the name of modernismo drew on successive French schools–romantic, parnassian, symbolist–for a “declaration of cultural independence” from Spain that set in motion an emancipation from the past of Spanish letters themselves, inthe chhort of the 1890s…So too the idea of a “postmodernism” first surfaced in the Hispanic inter-world of the 1930s, a generation before its appearance in England or America. It was..Frederico de Onis, who struck off the term postmodernismo. He used it to describe a conservative reflux within modernism, itself: one which sought refuge from its formidable lyrical challenge in a muted perfectionism of detail and ironic humour, whose most original feature was the newly authentic expression it afforded women..

The interesting detail in Anderson’s book is that the Spanish postmodernism was a reaction against the voices of women, for one of the major critiques of Postmodernism was the way in which the intellectuals pulled away from confronting authority except in the erudite world of theory. The fact that Postmodernism surfaced in the scholarly world as a word and as a practice at the same time as a political backlash against women and people of color and a marginalization of gays and lesbians broke out in America is a confluence that was probably entirely coincidental. As was pointed out in several of the earlier posts, the French and German writings that became part of “Postmodernism” were translated into English and were dispersed in a random fashion, often twenty years behind the original publication. That said, the impact of Postmodernism was to stop the forward motion of the arts, a movement that might have benefited women and other groups pushed to the edges and to bring back the canon of the great white males. So to play on the famous statement by Audra Lorde (1934-1992) “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”, the master’s tools were used to redirect attention towards the master’s house.

The pluralism celebrated in Postmodernism is not the pluralism of cultural expressions that were non-canonical; instead the Postmodern pluralism was more a cacophony of white male precursors in the arts and philosophy. The plural reiteration of the canon was inevitable, for, in order for one’s quote or appropriation cannot be understood if the borrowed motif is not recognized. Pushed to the sidelines, the works of the Other were also sidelined and were ineffective tools to undermine the older generation. Therefore, the Postmodern system of challenge and its condition of belatedness was self-defined as acknowledging the precursors–they had already thought it all, said it all, made it all–and there is now, in this post time, nothing left but muteness. In fact, lacking the engines of progress, Postmodern was very passive and resigned and like the politics of the eighties looked backwards.

Resigned to the idea that there was no way out of the prevailing capitalist system, accustomed to the work of art as being a commodity, Postmodernism made peace with the world of commodity fetishism and commercialism. Because of its proximity to mass culture and its acceptance of so-called low art, Postmodernism was a bridge between high art and life. Postmodernism erased hierarchies, opening the way for an acceptance of street art at the same level as, for example Robert Rauschenberg, who married art to life. The new ideal in Postmodernism was not elitism but difference–the free-floating signifiers, signifiers emancipated from the tyranny of the referent, both the sign and the signified. Signifiers become unconditioned by their supposed “place” in the structure. This pure play of difference is, as the Postmodern theorist, Richard Wolin, expressed it in his 1984-85 article in Telos, “Modernism vs. Postmodernism,” a liberation from the ideal of a rational and coherent ego, existing at the expense of the Other which it suppresses. Like Julia Kristeva, Wolin was interested in one of the two major elements that destabilized language: the subverting power of the semiotic or the unauthorized incursion of Otherness into language. But there is another destabilizing aspect to difference and that is the mobilized signifier which floats and in its arbitrary journeys also destabilized the structure.

In returning to the impossibility of finding origins, it is interesting to try to track back on terms and to revisit the mindset that gave rise to new ideas. Like the suppressed Other, the floating signifier is defined in terms of excess or surplus. The term “floating signifier” surfaced early in the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) in his work on Marcel Mauss (1872-1950). Mauss had written a significant book Essay sur le don (1923–24) which was not translated into English until 1954 and this book became the site where Lévi-Strauss would begin to rethink his approach to anthropology. The trail of the “floating signifiers” went back to the first part of the 20th century, a time where the concept of “primitivism” flourished and there was an avant-garde fascination for the exotic and Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) used sociology to examine tribal societies. While the Surrealists followed this Eurocentric trail of the apparently “irrational,” the nephew of Durkheim, Marcel Mauss amassed an unsurpassed body of knowledge about non-Western societies and cultures.

Mauss seems to have been a brilliant hoarder and collector and teacher who knew much but published little. However, his short essay, “The Gift,” would, thanks to the analysis of Lévi-Strauss, echo throughout French thought. According to Patrick Wilcken in Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Father of Modern Anthropology, it was Mauss who, after the death of his uncle, established the Institut d’enthnologie in 1926. Although in its time, this Institute was ahead of its time, by the 1940s, when Lévi-Strauss was lecturing there, French anthropology was sadly out of date. But Lévi-Stauss began to create a circle of French intellectuals who were working to rebuilt French scholarship after the war. He met Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) who was trying to recover from years of not writing in protest the the occupation. It is well established that it was Lévi-Stauss who introduced Lacan to the ideas of Jakobson, enabling Lacan to “return to Freud” through Ferdinand de Saussure and Structuralism. But first, how did Lévi-Stauss in the early 1940s ever put together Freud, Structuralism and Marcel Mauss?

The scholarly work of Lévi-Strauss had been interrupted by the Second World War and, being Jewish, he found safety in New York City in 1941. With his dissertation, “The Elementary Structures of Kinship” still undefended, he began teaching at the New School of Social Research where he was undoubtedly a colleague of the much more established scholar Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). But it would not be Arendt who would impact his later work; that individual would be Roman Jakobson (1896-1982), also an émigré from Russia via the Prague School. Jakobson, a far more senior and well-established scholar, taught at Columbia during those exile years and his theories on the structural analysis of language would have a foundational impact on Lévi-Strauss.

When Lévi-Strauss returned to Paris and resumed his scholarly life, he was able to both defend and to publish “The Elementary Structures of Kinship” in 1949, but already he could see that the methods he used to study kinship–organizational charts–were too limited and had reached a dead end. However, the book was a landmark and Jean-Paul Sartre made sure that it was introduced to the French intellectual scene in his journal, Les temps modernes. Simone de Beauvoir reviewed Les Structures élémenataires, opening with the famous line, “For a long time French sociology has been slumbering; Lévi-Strauss’s book, which marks it dazzling awakening must be hailed as a major event.” Lévi-Strauss had hoped that a man he considered to be his predecessor in this field, Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) would be his advisor, but when he had returned to Paris after the war, Mauss did not recognize him. The old scholar would leave behind a pile of unpublished works and apparently Lévi-Strauss felt some obligation to the legacy of a man who had once occupied a chair in the History of the Religions of Uncivilized Peoples.

Clearly, the unfinished rendezvous with Mauss and the ideas of Jakobson on Structuralism were on his mind when Lévi-Strauss was given the same (renamed) chair once occupied by Mauss at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, and it is a this point that Lévi-Strauss moved away from the study of kinship to the study of religion as anthropology. In 1950 this change of direction was announced as it were with his publication of Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss. Lévi-Strauss re-read Mauss through the lens of Structuralism and in so doing laid out some of the basic concepts of Postmodernism. In this book Lévi-Strauss laid out three key points in introducing the writings of Mauss, explained by Christopher Johnson in his 2003 book, Claude-Lévi-Strauss: The Formative Years. According to Johnson, “structuralism seems to emerge as the logical point of conclusion of Mauss’s work.” Lévi-Strauss made three points: first that society was to be defined as symbolic systems, and second that these symbolic systems were modes of representations which existed at “deep-level” structures of the mind and this unconscious is revealed by structural linguistics. The third conclusion that Lévi-Strauss came to was an unexpected one: an idea of surplus of signification and a “floating signifier.”

The slippery term, “floating signifier,” was inspired by another slippery term used by Marcel Mauss, “mana.” In a gift society, the giving of the gift generates mana also called “hau” which indicate the power of the gift. Pierre Bourdieu would take this idea and translate it as “symbolic capital.” Mana is the excess or surplus meaning of the gift, which is not simply an object or service exchanged, it is part of a complete or total presentation, an expression of the entire culture. Therefore, by expressing the entire society, the gift, as part of a whole, functions metonymically. The giver, through the gift, has the power–through the surplus meaning of mana to move and change society due to the rich surplus symbolization of the gift. As Lévi-Strauss explained it, “The nature of society is to express itself symbolically in its customs and its institutions; normal modes of individual behavior are, on the contrary, never symbolic in themselves: they are the elements out of which a symbolic system, which can only be collective, builds itself.” In other words, symbolic systems are definitionally overdetermined.

This overdetermination comes from the way in which Lévi-Strauss conceived of the unconscious of language: if human beings have always been endowed with the a priori ability to symbolize, then as he explained, “..language can only have arisen all at once. Things cannot have begun to signify gradually..a shift occurred from a stage where nothing had meaning to another stage where everything had meaning…that radical change has no counterpart in the field of knowledge, which develops slowly and progressively…So there is a fundamental opposition, in the history of the human mind, between symbolism, which is characteristically discontinuous, and knowledge, characterized by continuity.”

Knowledge, as Lévi-Strauss explained it is able to keep signifiers and signifieds in check: “the work of equalizing of the signifier to fit the signified,” but symbolism is part of a “signifier-totality”..“he is at a loss to know how to allocate to a signified..There is always a non-equivalence or ‘inadequation’ between the two, a non-fit and over spill..So, in man’s efforts to understand the world, he always disposes of a surplus of signification..” Lévi-Strauss explains this surplus as “Supplementary ration” and links this surplus to “mana type” of symbolic thinking, which “represent nothing more or less than that floating signifier which is the disability of all finite thought “ to “staunch” or “control” it. He states that mana is the expression of a semantic function, whose role is to enable symbolic thinking “to operate despite the contradiction inherent in it.” Mana is structure in terms of antinomies–the gift is concrete but the system in which is operates is abstract. As a result, mana “is all of those things” because “it is none of those things” and therefore exists as “a symbol in its pure state,” meaning that “it would just be a zero symbolic value..a sign marking the necessity of a supplementary symbolic content over and above that which the signified already contains..”

Lévi-Strauss had an ambivalent attitude towards Les Structures élémenataires, much like an seasoned scholar would look back on the effort that formed a life’s work: with great affection but with a clear eye to its deficiencies. However, there was a key element in his analysis of kinship that inspired further interest in Sigmund Freud: his critique of Freud’s assertion of the incest taboo. It would be Jacques Derrida who would take up Lévi-Strauss’s discussion and find its inherent contradictions, but Lévi-Strauss approached Freud not so much in terms of his theories of a “cure” but in terms of his theories of the mind. In doing so, Lévi-Strauss combined anthropology and psychology and structuralism in an effort to make the symbolic actions of human beings make sense. The son of Ferdinand de Saussure, Raymond de Saussure (1894-1971) was a close associate. Saussure’s book La méthode psychanalytique had a preface written by Freud himself in 1922. Obviously, Saussure was the bridge between linguistics and psychology and Lévi-Strauss began to study the power of symbolic narratives told by shamans, using Freudian ideas of unconscious structures. This stage of Lévi-Strauss’s work would mature into his seminal work, Mythologies, but it would profoundly shape the ideas of Lacan in his own re-reading of Freud through structuralism: “The Mirror Stage.” In his article “Sociology before Linguistics: Lacan’s Debt to Durkheim,” Stephen Michelman, in the 1996 book, Disseminating Lacan, wrote,

“..I will maintain that the French tradition of sociology and social anthropology play the determinative role in the development of Lacan’s mature thought that it is not a theory of the sign but a new picture of the social that constitutes one of Lacan’s major contributions to analytic theory..” Michelman pointed out that Lacan seemed to have a general knowledge of the anthropological and sociological ideas of Dukheim, Malinowski, Frazer and Mauss, “ is not until Lévi-Strauss’s programatic Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss (1950) that Lacan is able to appreciate–and begin to appropriate–the full scope and ambitions of the anthropologist’s approach. His passage from an “imaginary” to a “symbolic” conception of psychoanalytic action thus involves less any clinical or technical discovery than a gradual but momentous shift in perspective in regard to already established material: rather than any precise doctrine, Lévi-Strauss provides Lacan with a sociological framework…it is Lévi-Strauss’s polemical Introduction to Mauss that makes a lasting impression on Lacan.”

Lacan was able to appropriate Lévi-Strauss’s idea of the floating signifier as being a repository for the yet unnamed and un articulated and suggest that the floating signifier becomes a way for the child to control the entry into the symbolic order. For Lacan, the floating signifier is the “pure signifier” and in displacing the idea of mana as a pure signifier or as symbolic thinking itself, he is using the concept to explain that the child becomes socialized or enters the social through using language symbolically. Lacan, apparently concerned about these freely floating elements, stated that, at some point, they would have to fix themselves at some given points de capition, or signifying sites. Jacques Derrida, as discussed in another post, will have none of this idea of points de capition, and Jean-François Lyotard will also critique Lacan’s approach to the signifier. Indeed, Lacan introduced the bar to separate the signifier and the signified, putting the signifier on top to demonstrate its ascendency over that which is signified. Lacan completely destabilized the careful architecture of Structuralism, replacing it with some kind of mad math or algorithms.

The signifier floats to another signifier as the signified, below the bar slips and slides and floats below while the signifiers flow above. There is an endless relay or a chain of signifiers but there is no conceivable end to the activity of language. If the signifier and the signified merge–the flow is stopped–metaphor (sense) emerges (from non-sense) and meaning is fixed. However, the signified is metonymy and in contrast to the wholeness of the metaphor is the annihilating part, because, as Lacan asserted, going back to Lévi-Strauss, the signifier means nothing. As Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen explained in his 1991 book on Lacan, The Absolute Master, this kind of signifier is the symptom or the dream, not the prefabricated signifier already ready already in use. In layering the signifier and the signified, Lacan was also indebted to Saussure’s idea of the floating kingdoms of ideas and sounds that lie one on top of the other and produce signs. For Lacan, the signifiers and the signifieds, float and slide, and always, as Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy explained in their 1973 book, The Title of the Letter: A Reading of Lacan, the signifier is the victim. Since the points de capition is only mythical, the endless movement becomes that of the making of language itself.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Roland Barthes: “The Pleasure of the Text”

ROLAND BARTHES (1915-1980)


The Pleasure of the Text (1973)

In his 1997 history of Structuralism, History of Structuralism: Volume One: The Rising Sign, 1945-1966, François Dosse described Roland Barthes in a number of ways–“the Mother Figure of Structuralism,” “one of structuralism’s best barometers,” “a weather vane for structuralism,” “a mythic figure of structuralism.” Most importantly and all in his opening paragraph on Barthes, Dosse described Barthes in terms of “his flexibility with regard to theories” quick to embrace them, Barthes was just as quick to disengage from them.” As Dosse summed up, in his early career, Barthes was writing in the midst of a post-war crisis in literature which had produced no notable writer since Marcel Proust. He wanted to get beyond this impasse of alienated writing, from political writing to academic writing to the direction suggested by Stéphane Mallarmé–the silence of writing that is the break from the expected or that which was required by the establishment, a state termed “white writing.”

According to Barthes, after 1848 and the breakdown of the social order into fragmented classes, serious writing began to reflect upon writing as writing and to write was to contend–self-consciously or self-reflexively with literature itself. This new approach to language as writing or literature about literature can be traced from Gustave Flaubert to Mallarmé to Proust to the Surrealists to writers of the era of Barthes whom he championed, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Albert Camus. At this last stage,the end of the fifties, according to Barthes, writing arrives at its end-point or what he called zero degree writing or “écriture blanche.” The “white” or neutral writer refuses commitment to either style of ideology and struggles against conventional literature, which Barthes called lisable or “readerly, in favor of writing that is scriptible or writerly, which questioned writing and literary conventions. As a critic who was “nauseated” by the old order, Barthes was particularly attentive to the new writes who, as artists, where also searching for a nouveau récit–a new way of writing–an new narration.

Barthes found an artist whose writings deserved his support, Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922-2008) whose first two novels The Erasers (1953) and The Voyeur (1955) had not exactly attracted critical acclaim. But when Barthes supported his third book, Jealousy (1957), the career of Robbe-Grillet was established, thanks to the reception of a voice very respected in literary circles. For Barthes, the novel was “objective” or a turn towards the object, but for Robbe-Grillet, the term became to rigid. That said, in 1956, he wrote an essay “For the New Novel” (which later named an entire literary movement) that stated,

Instead of this universe of “signification” (psychological, social, functional), we must try, then, to construct a world both more solid and more immediate. Let it be first of all by their presence that objects and gestures establish themselves, and let this presence continue to prevail over whatever explanation or theory that may try to enclose them in a system of references, whether emotional, sociological, freudian or metaphysical. In this future universe of the novel, gestures and objects will be there before being something..

In 1961, Robbe-Grillet–who got top billing–wrote one of the most innovative scripts for one of the most beautiful and innovative films of the late 20th century L’Année Dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad). Directed by Alain Renais with costumes by Coco Chanel and cinematography by Sacha Vierny, the film became a celebrated part of the French Wave of experimental films. The droning opening monologue was a description of the ornate architecture of a Versailles-like mansion, a lexicon of words that gave the visualized objects “presence.” Although he was slightly older than the New Novelist or the New Wave filmmakers, Barthes, as a literary critic, was part of this struggle against the art-for-art’s sake hermeticism. Barthes preferred awareness of time and place from writers and a rejection of the notion of universality.


Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

Indeed, like all post-war theoreticians, Barthes was a product of Marxist ideas, common among European intellectuals. The political and Marxist ideas of Brecht were incorporated into structuralism by Barthes who insisted upon the importance of discovering and characterizing structures–not to find “meaning”–but to understand how structures function and how meanings are engendered by a logic of symbols or to be more precise the logical order of their “arrangement” in a structure. In contrast to traditional Marxists, Barthes did not find oppression in social relations but in the order of signs or in the framework of language itself. The order of meanings in a lisable text forces the reader to participate in violence in that to name a meaning is an act of political and ideological force. This forcible naming or interpretation subjugates and subordinates other interpretations and other meanings and other voices. Social oppression was embedded in language and acted out in the level of language, which was why Barthes chose popular as his focus in his 1953 book, Mythologies.

Language, as Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) insisted, structures the unconscious. Although he attended the seminars of the psychologist, Bathes, however, never seemed to have been particularly interested in the gendered nature of language. As a student of Lacan, Barthes would have recognized the primal act of splitting the subject as psychologically oppressive and that this act would ally the subject with language—a primal oppression. He also understand that language, arranged in terms of opposites with one term subjugation the other, was essentially oppressive. In other words, there is no avoiding the connection between language and power, but Lacan’s approach to language was, like that of Ferdinand de Saussure, more abstract than social. But Barthes, under the influence of Julia Kristeva (1941-), came to understand that abstraction was a gesture of universality and that a way out of “transcendence” was to take note of the materiality of language.

Barthes responded to this literary spectacle of will to power by circumventing the power reader expectations and complicity through a realization that there discernible limits to this readable text and its predictable referential codes. The readerly text presented a repetition of familiar codes that, in their reliability, induced nausea and made the reader sick from experiencing the same narrative. To overcome nausea, the reader must learn how to re-write and learn of the plurality behind the codes which actually contain multiple meanings. From being a passive consumer, the active reader is able to shift to the performative mode and reading becomes a performance. When the reader performs writing, the issue of “authorship” is blurred and the “Text” is presented through a process of writing and making meaning. With the shift from what Barthes called the “Work” to the new performance, the “Text,” language becomes an open-ended structure, exerting its own linguistic force and the text becomes productive. When Barthes began to understand that by working agains the codes of social power and in finding the hidden plurality in language, he slipped from the strictures of Structuralism into its next stage, often called Post-Structuralism. “Working” on the language or turning language into performance forced a contrast between an authoritative reading and the new undecidability, which overflowed the boundaries of communication.

This move to textuality meant that barriers between texts were broken down through the linguistic system of references, meaning that there can be no text, or no textuality, without intertextuality or a movement among texts. The text, with Barthes, must be read not as a form of representation but as a sequence of allusions. Once the active reader learns how to move beyond the forced meanings and the expected narrative and into the realm of language itself, the reader experiences pleasure. Under the impact of Lacan, by the late 1960s, Barthes moved to the body as the place of evaluation. In Writing Degree Zero, Barthes had insisted that the body was the site of style, but with his 1973 book, The Pleasure of the Text, he moved beyond the personal or the personae of the artist/author to the text itself. It could be a criticism to say that the conventional or ‘readerly” text is always bound up with the pleasure of the reader and the pleasure of the text is the pleasure of passive consumption of the conventional. This kind of reading of this kind of writing is part of the consumer culture.

In comparison, reading the “writerly” text produces another kind of pleasure and Barthes opened the book with a distinction between “pleasure” and “bliss.” “The text you write must prove to me that it desire me. This proof exists: it is writing. Writing is: the science of the various blisses of language..” Only certain kinds of books can produce or induce bliss. To describe this “bliss,” the pleasure of the text that is jouissance, an intense, violent form of pleasure, an interruption of the consciousness, Barthes goes back to one of his essays in Mythologies, the strip tease. He wrote, “Is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes?” The effects of this kind of writing of the text is comparable to erotic pleasure, for during the process–whether that of reading/writing or sexual excitation–our sense as unified subjects is suspended. Therefore, as Barthes, explained,

Thus what I enjoy in a narrative is not directly its content or even its structure, but rather the abrasions I impose upon the fine surface: I read on, I skip, I look up, I dip in again..Whence two systems of reading: one goes straight to the articulations of the anecdote, it considers the extent of the text, it ignores the play of language..the other reading skips nothing; it weights, it sticks to the text, it reads, so to speak, with application and transport, grasps at every point in the text the asyndeton which cuts the various languages–and not the anecdote..

Because pleasure resists appropriation by those in power, pleasure has traditionally been suppressed and repressed by philosophy and ideology, but the right to pleasure is reaffirmed in literature to counter political (ideological) readings. Barthes makes a distinction between plaisir and jouissance when he wrote,“The pleasure of the text is that moment when my body pursues its own ideas–for my body does not have the same ideas I do.” The text de plaisir is the classical readable or lisable text, while the texte de jouissance resists language and becomes a threat. This latter, or avant-garde text works on two surfaces or plays between the two edges, which are the conformist narrative and the subversive écriture. The space between the expected and the subversive is a gap between the two and this gap, as Barthes pointed out, is erotic. Barthes considered the text to be “a fetish object and this fetish desires me..but in the text, in a way, I desire the author: I need his figure..”

Three years ago, Barthes “killed” the author, or to be more precise, he extended the possibilities of the text, but in his new erotic analysis of the text, he brought the author back. But now, what was the fate of the reader? With the body as a site of transgression, experiencing socially deviant bliss or transgression, Barthes shifted to discussing literature as desire. Under the influence of Lacan and Kristeva, Jouissance became a key concept for Barthes in his discussion of the play-text. Jouissance means “to die,” an orgasm, a death, a moment of self-oblivion at the height of sexual pleasure and thus, the texte de jouissance takes erotic pleasure in the death of the subject. “No significance (no bliss) can occur, I am convinced, in a mass culture (to be distinguished, like fire from water, form the culture of the masses), for the model of this culture is petit bourgeois..The asocial character if bliss: it is the abrupt loss of sociality, and yet there follows no recurrence to the subject (subjectivity), the person, solitude: everything is lost, integrally. Extremity of the clandestine, darkness of the motion picture theater.”

Active reading and re-writing dissects author or the cult of the writer and repeated or iterative canonical codes that dominate society. Writing becomes not theory but an actual practice or praxis and names codes and stereotypes, calling them out, in order to cut them down. The task of the critic is to call attention to pre-existing institutional languages as objects to be transformed. One of the main points Barthes made in previous writings was that the fabrication of meaning is more important than meaning. For years, Barthes had opposed two terms, the “subjective” or the Romanticism of writing and the author to “objective” or the materiality of language itself, but in The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes replaced the impossible notion of “neutral writing” or “zero degree” writing a “third term,” the notion of writing as play. The process of circulation through a play of codes defeats the structuralist goal of exhausting the meaning of the text. The circulation is activated by codes and is not another structure but new perspectives opened up in the text by the blessed-out reader.

It is at this point, that, having brought back the author through the force of desire, Barthes could now deal with the reader. Because Barthes doubted that there could be an aesthetic of mere pleasure, Le plaisir du texte promotes an aesthetic of a play-text through jouissance, the key concept of the play-text. Jouissance indicates “to die” in an orgasm, a moment of self-oblivion at the height of sexual pleasure. The texte de jouissance takes erotic pleasure in the death of the subject. Not only is the reader dead of pleasure, the texte also “kills” its topic, and the language is left in pieces and the culture, as a result, is also fragmented. As Barthes wrote, “Pleasure in pieces; language in pieces; culture in pieces.” Nothing can be reconstructed or recovered; the subject is obliterated and the writer is erased; all possible meanings are destroyed. Plaisir is a general term for reading pleasures generated by the excesses of the text. Barthes’s account of reading is materialistic in that he replaced mind with body and its materiality of signifiers and its source of pleasures. What comes from the body is deeper, truer, and more natural. “What I hid by my language, my body writes.” “There is a chance of avant-garde whenever it is the body and not ideology that writes.”

For Barthes, the enemy was always the establishment, always the ideology of the culture that was his target. However, in The Pleasure of the Text, he understood that ideology was the shadow of the text. “There are those,” he wrote, “who want a text (an art, a painting) without a shadow, without the ‘dominant ideology,’ but this is to want a text without fecundity, without productivity, a sterile text..the text needs its shadow: this shadow is a bit of ideology, a bit of representation, a bit of subject: ghosts, pockets, traces, necessary clouds: subversion must produce its own chiaroscuro.” Barthes abandoned the utopia of “white writing” for the atopia of the text of pleasure. This atopia allows the text to be outside of ideology and yet is activated by ideology its shadow. Another term for ideology would be history itself, the history from which writing can never escape. The writing of Barthes for the past twenty years had always struggled between opposing two terms, in this case, utopia and atopia, and, as always, he turned to the third term “shadow” to fill the gap–the favorite space of Barthes. It is the penchant for the in between that allowed Barthes to find a third term to place between “writing” and “style” and that term would be “voice,” the physical note which ends The Pleasure of the Text. “Writing aloud,” he wrote, (is) “the language lined with flesh, a text where we can hear the grain of the throat..the anonymous body of the actor in my ear: it granulates, it crackles, it caresses, it grates, it cuts, it comes: that is bliss.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Roland Barthes: “The Death of the Author”

ROLAND BARTHES (1915-1980)


“The Death of the Author” (1968)

“The Death of the Author,” written in 1967 and published in 1968, is a stance against the enclosure of Structuralism and the authority of formalism. While the essay by Roland Barthes makes sense in the context of the intellectual life of Paris, it has often been misinterpreted when it was removed from the transitional context of theory passing out of Structuralism into Post-Structuralism as a reaction to the events of May 1968. However, as was pointed out the date of writing predated the date of publication, but the “revolution” of the essay had been a long time in the making. As a product of Literature and the classical tradition in France, the “author” was part of a system of political and economic authority that Barthes began working to dismantle from the 1950s. As Barthes wrote, “The author is a modern character.” But more interestingly are the words he uses to describe the social condition of being an author: “..the author still reigns..” and “culture is tyrannically centered on the author..” In other words, by conflating the work and the author, the classical system of reading controls the interpretation to the authority of a single voice, that of the creator.

The “Death of the Author” is an extension of the end of the unified subject, and as such, Barthes was expressing the prevailing intellectual stance that was being written and would be expressed among that group of thinker who were attending the seminars of Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) in Paris. If the subject is dissolved into language, then so too is the fiction of the author or the independent creator of a work of art. Moreover, from a Marxist perspective, the “author” is a modern invention, derived from capitalist ideology that granted importance to the author’s person that was part of the wider system of ownership, property and privilege. “The Author” is part of a capitalist stress on control through authority: the authority of the writer him/herself or the authoritative interpretation of privileged interpreter. “The Author” is also part of the Enlightenment stress on individuality that inversely prioritized expertise and uniqueness. An explanation for the work of art would be sought in the person of the producer, his tastes, his history, his passions. In addition it is possible to locate an “origin” for the Romantic notion of the writer as creator, for the author is a historical entity, created by Romanticism and the stress on the significance of subjectivity.

This essay is very short, and indeed many of the texts of Barthes are quite brief, with “Myth Today” being uncharacteristically long. Part of the impact of Barthes is not just that he gave voice to ideas in circulation but also that he did so in a timely manner–short essays are easier to publish than long books which take years to write–and in a public language that was easily accessible. American writers would later find his writings difficult but that was only because they were reading them twenty years late and were not part of the conversation that generated them in the first place. When it was published in 1968, the anti-establishment tone of the essay hit the right note and fell into keeping with its own time. That said, because the essay predated much of contemporary Postmodern theory, subsequent Postmodern thinking has assumed that the point Barthes was making is that the author does not exist, or that the artist has been eradicated. However, the author was resurrected in The Pleasure of the Text in 1971, indicating that ending the role of the author was not the intent of Barthes.


Roland Barthes (1915-1980)

Barthes wanted only to extend the meaning and interpretation of the work of art to include the interaction of other texts and the responses of the reader. The German School of Constance will take up this notion of the active reader and develop the role of the reader into “reader-response” criticism and the impact of plural readings upon the act(s) of interpretation. The theoreticians of Constance developed Reception Theory to explain the interaction between the work and the audience as the “horizon of expectations,” but it is important to make a distinction: the scholars of Constance were motivated by the student movements of the late sixties. The ongoing battle fought by Roland Barthes was with the fortress of French Literature which was part of a network of ownership and control. Classical Marxism would necessitate the concept of property, but Structuralism, on the other hand, would understand writing, not as property, but as part of a linguistic system. From either or both perspectives, the aesthetic or the form of the text becomes irrelevant. “The Death of the Author” puts forward a series of ideas far more important than whether or not the Author is “dead.” It is here that Barthes would write of the concept of “intertextuality.”

In Writing Degree Zero (1953), the goal was a neutral and blank language that used words in a material and concrete manner that freed them from social codes. For Barthes, as he had mentioned several times before, it was the nineteenth century poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) who understood that language speaks, not the author. In his famous poem Un coup de dés, Mallarmé explained the importance of the gaps between the words that rattled across the white pages like a die rolling across a casino table: “..the ensuing words, laid out as they are, lead on to the last, with no novelty except the spacing of the text. The ‘blanks’ indeed take on importance, at first glance; the versification demands them, as a surrounding silence, to the extent that a fragment, lyrical or of a few beats, occupies, in its midst, a third of the space of paper: I do not transgress the measure, only disperse it..” In other words, Mallarmé equated words with silence or gaps, emphasizing the materiality of language and the performative nature of reading.

And then, several decades later, came Surrealism. Due to the use of psychological games, such as automatic writing, it was Surrealism, Barthes said, that “helped desacralize the image of the Author.” After a process of questioning and slow unraveling, from a Structuralist perspective, the author’s only tool is language itself and therefore trapped in language, authorship is never personal and the author is secondary to language. Compared to the strong pseudo “presence” of the Author, writing is neuter or “zero degree” or “white” and composite or plural, a site of the loss of the subject and of identity. Because, post-Enlightenment philosophy challenged the notion of the Cartesian subject, writing is the destruction of every voice and every origin. When one recounts/writes/represents, Barthes noted, a gap appears and the voice looses its “origin.”

The withdrawal of the author, Barthes wrote, “utterly transforms the modern text” and time is also transformed. When the Author is “present,” there is the before and after writing time, when writing begins, the author enters into his/her own death. In order to write, one must utilize language, and language, as Lacan asserted, “speaks the subject.” The reader or “the scriptor is born at the same time as his text..and every text is written essentially here and now.” Therefore “writing” changed from an act of recording or representation to a performance or a speech-act, which Barthes christened as “performative.” The term “scriptor” is then linked to“a pure gesture of inscription” which “traces a field without origin..” Barthes elaborated when he stated that the text was “a multidimensional space in which are married and contested several writings, none of which is original: the text is a fabric of quotations, resulting from a thousand sources of culture.”Therefore, certain consequences occur: first, the “book itself is but a tissue of signs, endless imitation, infinitely postponed” and it is “futile” to attempt to “decipher” a text.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the idea of the unified subject came under question through Lacan’s re-reading of Freud through the filter of semiotics in the fifties, and in the sixties semiotics gave way to Structuralism with Roland Barthes as its major spokesperson. If language speaks the subject, then there can be no pure gesture of inscription. The character Barthes referred to as the “Modern Scriptor” buried the Romantic notion of the Author. The hand/writing has become detached from the voice and writes traces without origin. The result is a “Text” which is a multi-dimensional space, a fabric of quotations, activated from thousands of sources from modern culture. According to Barthes, “..the writer can only imitate an ever anterior, never original gesture; his sole power is to mingle writings..” A book is a woven cloth of signs, endless imitation, with meaning infinitely postponed.

To impose an Author upon a text is to impose a brake on interpretation, to give the work a final signified. Writing becomes closed. The “author” becomes a component of reading, a theoretical designation, a fiction employed for the sake of discursive convenience. In other words “Vincent van Gogh” is a capitalist invention suitable for selling art and Ernest Hemingway is a signifier of a particular genre of American writing. Over the years, Barthes built a case that work could be only of its own time but that in order to exist art was a composite. As he wrote,

..a text consists of multiple writings, proceeding from several cultures and entering into dialogue, into parody, into contestation: but there is a site where this multiplicity is collected, and this sie is not the author, as has hitherto been claimed but the reader; the reader is the very space in which are inscribed, without any of them being lost, all the citations out of which a writing is made; the unity of a text is not in its origin but in its destination, but this destination can no longer be personal: the reader is a man without history; without biography, without psychology, is is only that someone who holds collected into one and the same field all traces from which writing is constituted..

But as the end of the essay indicated, the death of the author does not mean the demise of the writer and points instead to the agency of the reader in bringing meanings to a text. The reader and the writer co-create a text that in itself cannot be singular or bounded as a “work,” but is inherently intertextual, (a term he borrowed from Julia Kristeva) that is, a “text” rather than a “work.” The total being of writing is multiple writings that are engaged in a dialogue. Writing is where multiplicity is collected, not by the author, but by the reader. The unity of the text is not its origin but its destination. According to Barthes, “The birth of the reader must be required by the death of the author”.

So the author must die in order to allow a space for the reader. It is the reader, after all, who makes meaning. The reader/critic can never get outside of the language any more than the writer/author be an original author and go beyond known language. Barthes took up the question of the breakdown of the boundaries of the “work” into the “text” which has no bounds in his 1971 essay, “From Work to Text.” At the time he was writing, the old disciplines were breaking down in favor of the trend towards the interdisciplinary, a mixing of fields and professions quite comfortable for Parisian intellectuals. Barthes refers to the breakdown of old disciplines as a “mutation” that is part of an “epistemological shift.” A new objectless object and a new language was formed, as “work” evolved into text, which is located at the intersection of author and reader. Barthes borrowed a distinction from Lacan: “reality” is shown, but the “real” is proved. Therefore the text must not be understood as “a computable object” but as “a methodological field.”

The Work is seen, “held in the hand,” while the text is demonstrated, “held in language” and exists only when caught up in language. Text is experienced only as an activity in production. The text is “constitutive movement” or a moment of construction or assemblage and cannot stop at “literature” which is formally interpreted. The text is plural and fulfills the plurality of meaning and depends upon dissemination which Barthes described as “traversal.” “Text is experienced only in an activity, in a production,” he emphasized. The author cannot be returned except as a guest because the text is a network, a combinative operation. The text is play, task, production and practices, meaning that reading and writing are linked together in the same signifying practice. The pleasure of the text is that the text is a social space where languages circulate, because “..the theory of the Text can coincide only with a practice of reading..”

Barthes criticized Structuralism for setting up a meta-language to critique language, claiming that a metalanguage is a linguistic impossibility, for one can never escape the effects of language. Post-Structuralism or a reconsideration of Structuralism admits that it can never be a theory, only an activity, because the post-Structuralist can never escape language. If reading was a performative activity, then the “Text..practices the infinite postponement of the signified..the Test is thus restored to language; like language, it is structured but decentered, without closure..Text is fulfills the very plurality of meaning..” Text depends upon “dissemination.”Although less well known that the predecessor essay, “The Death of the Author,” “From Work to Text” was quite well developed and Barthes developed a complex discussion of Text,which he capitalized. He wrote, ” ..the Text tries to place itself very exactly behind the limit of the doxa (is not general opinion — constitutive of our democratic societies and powerfully aided by mass communications — defined by its limits, the energy with which it excludes, itscensorship?). Taking the word literally, it may be said that the Text is always paradoxical..”

In explaining that the Text is “plural,” Barthes presented an early explanation of “intertextuality.” Intertexuality will be discussed in greater detail in another post, but the idea was introduced to the Parisian university community by Julia Kristeva (1941-) in 1966, but was disseminated and popularized by Barthes who defined intertextuality he wrote in his characteristic run-on fashion: The intertextual in which every text is held, it itself being the text-between of another text, is not to be confused with some origin of the text: to try to find the ‘sources’, the ‘influences’ of a work, is to fall in with the myth of filiation; the citations which go to make up a text are anonymous, untraceable, and yet already read: they are quotations without inverted commas. However due to ” a process of filiation, there is “an appropriation of the work to its author.” But, Barthes insisted, As for the Text, it reads without the inscription of the Father. Here again, the metaphor of the Text separates from that of the work: the latter refers to the image of anorganism which grows by vital expansion, by ‘development’ (a word which is significantly ambiguous, at once biological and rhetorical); the metaphor of the Text is that of the network; if the Text extends itself, it is as a result of a combinatory systematic (an image, moreover, close to current biological conceptions of the living being).”

For Barthes, as he frequently wrote, the consumable work or classical “book” produced more than mere boredom, it produced nausea. The solution is that the text be considered as pleasure: “ is bound to jouissance, that is to a pleasure without separation..” Barthes took the position of a politically engaged writer who combines Marxism with Structuralism to critique the bourgeois mythologies embedded in popular narratives. He was haunted, as were all Postmodern writers with the difficulty of using language to criticize language. Barthes and his fellow critics understood the critic as being trapped into the use of a meta-language that is as implicated in language as the language that is being examined. For the transitional writers, there is no way out of this dilemma but later writers will find a solution to the problem of language. Barthes was an important link between structuralism and post-structuralism because he understands that the use of language is tantamount to the use of power. The world is composed of language is is a logosphere composed of discourses that create their own truth by their internal force and their inner connections. The writer spent his career examining how the use of language and its structures construct “truths” that are accepted as “reality” instead of what these arguments actually are–writing or literature.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Julia Kristeva: Transgression and the Féminine


Transgression and the Feminine

The philosophy and theories generated by Julia Kristeva bear traces of her own personal marginality: a woman in a man’s world, an east European from Bulgaria in the heart of Parisian intellectual culture, and a philosopher trying to write her way out of the patriarchy while still maintaining a relationship with that power structure. When Kristeva slipped through a crack in the Iron Curtain, she arrived in Paris in 1965, the high point of Existentialism and of Lacanian theory. Years would pass before the intellectuals of Paris would rethink their politics and practice and a decade would go by before ideas on feminism would be articulated. Like all women caught in the liminal zone between the last of masculine domination and the first gestures of female defiance, Kristeva reflected the transition into feminism through a critique of the texts of male precursors.

Keeping in mind that Kristeva was an Eastern-European exile, who came to Paris before May 1968, it is clear that her intent is to involve art in politics through the avant-garde in art. When Kristeva arrived in France, the Hegelian lectures of Alexandre Kojève (1902-1968) had been the cutting edge of philosophy in Paris, setting an example for a way to rethink traditional philosophy as inherited from the late 18th and early 19th century. The real crises that forced theory towards a more modern position was the evident failure of yet another uprising of the working class by early June 1968 and the 1973 publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, which exposed the fraud of Communism. As a result of these disillusioning events, there was a return to a Kantian morality of disinterest and a sense of moral commitment to the public good, fueled by the Paris events. For Kristeva and her colleagues, French theory should be political: intellectuals were engagé, involved and took political stances, and opposed the establishment through their texts. Kristeva would propose the use of poetic language becomes a ethical function for art. Poetry (art) is the “carnival” to society, a subversive practice which is destructive and conducive to madness, becoming a refusal of the “flight into madness.”

Kristeva was part of the newly formed Tel quel group, organized around the famous journal of the same name, established in 1960. Her group was engaged but opposed to writing/speaking in a “transparent” fashion, inherited from Sartre. These intellectuals become materialist writers who followed the non-academic work of Philippe Sollers (1936-), her husband, who legitimated flamboyance, intensity, and excessiveness. After the events of 1968, Tel quel (“as is”) issued a manifesto and declared the new stance for the French intellectual. Along with her colleagues, Jean-Louis Bardry, Hubert Damish, Denis Hollier, Julia Kristeva gave her support to the following points, which read in part:

it thus seems indispensable to us to affirm that the recognition of a theoretical break and of the ensemble of irreducible differences in action — in praxis — that we support is of a kind to carry the social revolution to its real accomplishment in the order of its languages; consequently, the construction of a theory drawn from the textual practice that we must develop seems to us susceptible of avoiding the repetitive impasses of “engagé” discourse — the very model of a teleological-transcendental humanist and psychologist mystification, accomplice of the definitive obscurantism of the bourgeois state; in keeping with its complex mode of production of Marxist-Leninist theory, the only revolutionary theory of our time, this construction should be part of and be brought to bear on the critical integration of the most elaborated practices (philosophy, linguistics, semiology, psychoanalysis, “literature,” history of science); any ideological undertaking that doesn’t present itself today in an advanced theoretical form, and that contents itself with regrouping under eclectic or sentimental denominations individual activities that are barely political, appears to us to be counter-revolutionary insofar as it objectively fails to recognize the class struggle as something to pursue and reactivate.

Although Tel quel remained Marxist, its authors shifted towards the theory of language and Post-structuralism, Kristeva analyzed linguistic theory from the standpoint of psychoanalysis. As one of Jacques Lacan’s (1901-1981) students, Kristeva took up the issue of symbolic language and its hidden other side, as unspoken element to language that she developed and named semanalysis. Through “semanalysis” (the analysis of the semoitic as opposed to the Symbolic) Kristeva reasserted the buried and repressed theoretical Mother upon whose abjected body, the consciousness of the subject is formed. Her theory of semiotics investigated poetic language as a productivity of the text through which it is possible to speak about what used to be unspeakable: the prohibited language of the maternal material body. It is important to understand that Kristeva, much like Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) would later do with difference and différance, commandeers a familiar word: “semiotics” and alters it slightly to “the semiotic.”


Julia Kristeva (1941-)

As Mary Ann Caws in her 1973 discussion of the Tel quel group noted, the editors used the neutral term “text” in order to separate writing from a system of capitalist ownership and valorization of the individual. In “Tel quel: Text and Revolution,” Caws marked off some of the key words for the translingualistic take on language: “Materiality, Refusal, Transgression/The sign, whether painted or written, has become opaque and therefore visible, so that the interest formerly attaching to content now attaches to the language and the structure of the text or canvas.” Caws continued, “An activity disruptive and self-aware, a development of semiotic consciousness: this general description of the deliberate and unreadable action of the “revolutionary avant-garde” displays the recurring themes of protest, distance, cutting off, refusal and political commitment, visible behind the proliferation of technical vocabulary.” By “translinguistic,” Caws means that the study of language has moved beyond Saussure and is now “a productive process, operating within another space at once self-constituting and self-exhausting, an inscription traversing language..rather than enclosed within it.”

Although Kristeva, possibly due to her association with the French feminists, is often severed by later explicators of her work from Tel quel, the genesis and the development of her break into Poststructuralist intertextuality remained part of the development of a very small but very influential group of thinkers. Clearly, as a member of the Tel quel group, Julia Kristeva was part of a group that was rethinking the role of language in society, post revolution. In La Révolution du langue poétique, 1974/1984, her doctoral thesis, Kristeva introduced the concept of le sémiotique, which would articulate the realm of the pre-Symbolic, which is the basis of poetic language. Although “the semoiotic” can be located within the signifying process, one should image the pre-Symbolic as the Feminine coming back to live and erupting back into consciousness to disrupt the Name of the Father.

This feminine element is the chora or receptacle for poetic language. The chora is a place, a theoretical site for activity that underlies the Symbolic. The chora, a term borrowed from Plato, is unbridled energy and instinctive drives that are part of a dialectic of the positive and the negative, the creative and the destructive. The chora, defined by Kristeva as “the place where the subject is both generated and negated,” is therefore part of the Mother’s Body, which is the unrepresentable and belonging to the semiotic as the pre-Symbolic, meaning the materiality–the energy and the drive–that precedes the Symbolic. The semiotic is the Voice and the Body, compared to the immaterial Father who is Symbolic. In a dialectic with the Mother who is the chora or Non-Place or the Semiotic, the destination of the child, which is society belongs to the realm of the Symbolic or signification. As Kristeva wrote, ‘What we call significancethen, is precisely this unlimited and unbounded generating process, this unceasing operation of the drives toward, in, and through language.” Kristeva, using Hegelian dialectical thinking, opposes the semiotic to the symbolic, which are resolved in the “thetic,” which is the “threshold or the resolution between the two. But the thetic not only the place where the human being constitutes herself, it is also a crossing over between boundaries.

But Kristeva re-places that non-place and makes the chora into a Place that provides the materiality for the symbolic. If the Chora precedes the division between subject and object, then the “feminine” is located at language’s unrepresentable materiality, which is indeterminate and ephemeral. Kristeva questions all forms of formalism and Structuralism, which is based upon reason and rationality, which is inherently male, and in doing so opened the way to Post-Structuralism. In opposing the concept of the poetic to the rational in language and in gendering this “poetic” as female, Kristeva places the poetic on the side of the political in that it disrupts official (male) (establishment) language. Like many women of her generation, Kristeva takes the ideas of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Jacques Lacan and holds them up to the light of criticality, not with the intent of dismantling their ideas from the outside but from the standpoint of appropriating their theories from the inside.

In the writings of Sigmund Freud, the woman is the “dark continent,” for Jacques Lacan, she does not exist, and it is the self-imposed task for Kristeva to recover the long lost body of the Mother and to reinstate the “feminine” in language. In Totem and Taboo, Freud’s version of the origin of Law in the Killing of the Father by the sons in order to possess the wives of the father is one the many grim tales of male-made violence. Freud places this act of fratricide at the heart of the incest taboo. The sons suffer remorse and melancholia (the refusal or inability to mourn) and renounce their claims on the father’s women (The Mother) in the name of the father. The primal Oedipal drama was the struggle between father and sons over the body of the murder, resulting in the shame of murder, which is the name for the repressed memory of the time before imposition of the Law. The original transgression, the murder of the Father in order to possess the Mother, becomes the foundation of the Law. Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) would point out that the beginning of organized society and the advent of the symbolic was based, in Freudian and Marxist terms, upon the exchange of women. Lacan’s version of this primal trauma is somewhat different. The Sacrifice (of the Mother), made by all children who must be ushered into the social, is a re-enactment of this Founding Death, initiates the Symbolic at the moment in which the pre-Symbolic is divided from the Symbolic.

Here in this primal repression: the renunciation of the Mother, and this interdiction against incest, is an end to jouissance. Jouissance is a word that translates, badly, into the English word, “pleasure,” which in inadequate for the full meaning intended by French writers. The most succinct definition comes from Jane Gallop in Thinking Through the Body. As Gallop explained that “..Barthes distinguishes between plaisir, which is comfortable, ego-assuring, recognized, and legitimated by culture, and jouissance which is shocking, ego-disruptive, an d in conflict with the canons of culture..” Roland Barthes (1915-1980) and Julia Kristeva were close colleagues and there were several topics in which both were interested, including intertextuality. The act of writing or the performativity of the text was the other side of (traditional) writing and Kristeva examined jouissance, the disruptive act of forbidden or unacknowledged “pleasure,” as the subject of serious philosophical attention. Joy is unnameable, the other side of reality, which taps into the unthinkable or the female, beyond tradition and history, drives thought beyond itself, to its own limits. Here new thought is possible or to put it another way “thought is again possible.” Writing becomes experience and engenders jouissance and pleasure and perversion. She echoes Luce Irigaray (1930-) in pointing out that the Law of the Father is predicated on the Murder of the Mother.

But for later generations of feminists, such as Judith Butler, Kristeva’s revision of phallic theory was too cautious and too wrapped up in language. Indeed, Butler called for a greater emphasis on the “materiality” of the female body, rather than allowing the woman to vanish into the theoretical materiality of language. Although Kristeva never broke with the ideas of Jacques Lacan, in her 1993 article, “Trans-Positions and Difference: Kristeva and Difference,” Tilottama Rajan argues that it is important for her to remain within the precincts of Lacan in order to retrieve “the materiality” that Freud left behind, even if it means staying in the patriarchal family. But Rajan suggests that Kristeva took an intertextual position in order to attack male theory from within as an act of a “transgression of the symbolic.” Indeed, Kristeva’s writings build upon the ideas of others and these ideas are not explained, leaving the texts opaque to the uninitiated reader and drawing the reader in the know into an extended conversation among generational writers.

By the eighties, Kristeva could be linked to key terms–all linked to the feminine: the semiotic, jouissance, abjection and transgression. “Transgression,” as described by Suzanne Guerlac in her 1996 article (later part of her book), “Bataille in Theory: Afterimages (Lascaux)” “If there is a single term poststructuralism could not live without-at least within the intellectual circles associated with the review Tel quel-it is “transgression,”inherited from Bataille” and transmitted from the Surrealist writer to the Tel quel group via Michel Foucault (1926-1984). As Guerlac explained,

Foucault defined transgression as”a gesture concerning the limit.” He presented it as a flash of lightning, an image that not only figures transgression but also emblematizes the move into what will become the philosophical register of poststructuralism. It traces a line, a line that figures the Heideggerian ontology of limitation, the coming into being (or appearance)of beings on the horizon of Being; it suggests the limit of the ontological difference between Being and beings.

Within French theory, “transgression” would be meaningless without “interdiction,” or that which is prohibited, that which is taboo: the limits that can be transgressed. In her 1997 book, Literary Polemics, Guerlac continued her discussion of transgression which is linked to art through Breton and revolution through Sartre and to language through Mallarmé, all of which became reconciled, as she put it, through Georges Bataille (1897-1962). Thinking once again of intertextuality working through Kristeva, it can be seen that she takes over these disjointed but joined ideas and re-pieces them together for her own purposes: to make a case for avant-garde (poetry) as a form of artistic revolution. Poetic language, rather than the logical language of exposition and knowledge, is the language of transgression, through the process of rejection and negation.

In returning to the semiotic and the material, art is both a revolution in that it is subversive of the received order and is also transgressive in the Surrealist sense. As Kristeva stated, “It is in the so-called art practices that the semiotic condition of the symbolic, also reveals it self to be its destroyer.” However, in linking art and revolution, Kristeva marks the text with both its contradiction and the formation of the contradiction, or rejection which can also contain discourse. Thus jouissance and its opposite returns under the guise of transgression and its opposite, meaning. Transgression or the defiance of a “sacred” law is bound up in both art and religion. Religion ritualizes and enshrines prohibition and taboo and enmeshes the sacred with its opposite the profane. Art is the expression of transgression which, as was noted, part of the feminine, the suppressed, the murdered. As Ceceila Sjoholm stated in her 2005 book, Kristeva and the Political,

The conflict between the semiotic and the symbolic is not just to be interpreted in terms of poetic versus normative language. It is intertwined with the processes of history, ideology and religious where woman introjected as the threatening fantasmatic inside is recast and projected as a fearful and contaminating outside.

The next post will discuss abjection, the contamination of the repressed Mother, and the alter ego of transgression.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Écriture Féminine: Luce Irigaray




Women are outside all systems; they are stranded in the “eternal,” the “natural,” or the “essential.” Outside of history and beyond the reach of progress, women exist as the contradiction to the Enlightenment, which, for half the world, has not lived up to its emancipatory promises. Or perhaps one could say more accurately, if women and people of color are Othered, then the Enlightenment does not consider them as worthy of consideration. The Enlightenment and all its philosophies is white and male and European. The emancipatory discourses of the modern are gendered male and modernism is the discourse of the male subject. One has only to leaf through the pages of an art history text or wander down the corridors of a museum of modern art in order to see the “natural” female, usually nude, displayed and framed into powerlessness by the modernist male artist. The inevitable conclusion is that bourgeois modern men manifest their social and cultural powers on the supine and helpless body of the objectified female to exhibit social prowess.

Such exclusionary practices which keep the woman outside of culture extend across the entire social spectrum, which has been carefully policed and constantly patrolled by the ever-vigilant male. Ruled by their wombs, women are unreasoning beings. Reason is exclusively male. As a result, the culture of the west is monosexual, therefore, the only reasonable way to resist sexual difference is for women to assert sexual difference. The task of écriture féminine, like that of Marxism, is to demonstrate that there is nothing natural or universal. If it can be convincingly demonstrated, using the methods of logic, that the presence of women has not been acknowledged, then insisting on including women in the discourse causes a crisis in knowledge and a problem of the legitimization of the entire discursive system. If male philosophers are the only speaking subjects and if the subject of philosophy is the male, and if women are silenced, then how can philosophy be universal or transcendent if half the human race has been left out and rendered mute? The only way male philosophy can claim universality or transcendence is to write out women, but once women insert (note how phallic the language is) themselves and insist upon making themselves known as human beings, the whole system is in crisis, because, according to this system and its rules, the Feminine is a sign of unrepresentability.

As Dani Caravallaro pointed out in her excellent 2003 book French Feminist Theory: An Introduction, French feminism, like feminism in America was divided into different camps or opinions as to how to solve the problem of male dominance and to re-place women into Western philosophy. As Cavallaro wrote in her “Introduction,” “materialist feminism” critiqued the “fashioning” of gender and sexuality by the patriarchy, “linguistic feminism” examined the psychological impact of symbolic representations of the “fashioning” upon the psyche. These twin impulses are but the sides of the same coin and both of these two movements in French feminism are dedicated to exposing the cultural construction of the “natural” which renders the body as a text, written by the patriarchy. The French feminist writer and psychologist Lucy Irigaray practices “linguistic” feminism and her playful and subversive language must be read as a mode of expression of the female body which re-writes male texts.

Male discourse, in suppressing the feminine, is an inherently political institution and its acts of attempting to silence women are acts of political suppression. In America, the watchword was “the personal is political,” meaning that the private lives of women, long announced to be outside of the realms of serious speech acts, had to be understood as part of a strategy of oppression. In fact, the life of Luce Irigaray underscores the fate of women who dare to speak out. Note that the American and British feminists either selected their points of assault on male edifices carefully or approached the power source of male institutions more obliquely than the French feminists. But Irigaray directly challenged the heart of male oppression, the very site of silencing women: Enlightenment philosophy. Even more confrontationally, she posed a theoretical challenge to both Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan on the topic of women. Although she had been a student of Lacan and was a practicing psychoanalyst, when Speculum of the Other Woman was published in 1964, she lost her teaching position at Vincennes and was expelled from Lacan’s Ecole freudienne de Paris. Her opposition to the Enlightenment “Othering” of women and her exposure of the male bias in her field revealed that psychoanalysis is historically determined and impacts upon the social attitude towards women.

The theory and the practice of psychoanalysis is phallocentrically biased with the symbolic male organ being elevated (more phallic language) to the universal order. But in order to elevate the male, the female must be extinguished. The psychoanalytic social order rests on the unacknowledged and unincorporated body of the mother. Irigaray, like Mulvey, used male theories against men. If the “feminine” is a sign of unrepresentability, then the “imaginary body” must be male. The female body is not symbolic for reasons articulated by Lacan who stated that the “masculine” is a structure of specularization. The eradication of the female renders her invisible, and the visualization of the male is based on a buried act or matricide, the death of the Mother. After this ritual murder, the “woman” is the victim who haunts this Phallic structure. The male projects his ego onto the world but this narcissistic act is, as Laura Mulvey noted, only a mirror of his own reflection. According to Irigaray, since men possess the reflective side of the mirror, then women are the repressed tain of the mirror. They are the the lack of reflection, the inability to reflect; they are the back of the reflection, the dark coating that allows the transparent glass to become a mirror.

Freud’s “fort-da” game, for example, portrays the absent mother as an object (the child’s toy). Even worse, the object of this game is to substitute a toy for the real mother, teaching the masculine subject that women and objects are equivalent and that women are, therefore, unnecessary. It is Irigaray’s hope to uncover the buried mother. Within the masculine system, woman is natural, outside of history, indeed, outside of life. She is nothing but a Hole without symbolism; she is homeless, unrecognizable residue. Women need a “house of language” where she can live and speak. To parler-femme is to speak (as) woman, to bring her body into language and to refuse the mastery of the patriarchy. Irigaray proposes a feminist strategy of “rétour et retouche,” which is a healing metaphor. In this poetics of the female body, the two lips indicate auto-affection: women loving themselves and refusing the male by replacing the male monological speech with a plurality of voices.Women need to rethink the cultural imaginary and to create a female imaginary which is fluid and mobile and indifferent to logic. The female auto-affection is a counterpart to the oppressive man-to-man as the universal “I” and means to love oneself.

I am completely ready to abandon this word, (feminism) namely because it is formed on the same model as the other great words of the culture that oppresses us.

Luce Irigaray wanted to reclaim feminism and to redefine it as the struggle of women and their “plural and polymorphous character…” She does not tell us what a woman is for this is something women have to create and invent. “Woman” as a concept is already implicated in the male/female opposition of patriarchal metaphysics, because “woman” is automatically not a man. The danger lies in attempting to undermine the concept of “woman,” because by merely entering into the terrain of male discourse, if only to combat it, one risks becoming complicit with that which one is trying to subvert.

Speaking (as) woman is not speaking of women. It is not a matter of producing a discourse of which women would be the object or the subject.

According to Irigaray, representation is both masculine and self-reflexive and specular. Anticipating the publication of Irigaray’s first book by two years, Ways of Seeing by English author John Berger called attention to the way in which women are watched by males and how they then internalize the watching and watch themselves. Thinking of Lacan and of the constant social surveillance over women, Irigaray also noted that women are looked at by men but do not look back at men. Men possess the “gaze,” the power to look, which personifies male power over women. By this non-exchange of the “gaze,” women are rendered “different” from men in terms of negation—what they are not relative to men. Women are the negative; men are the positive. Women are defined in terms of what they cannot do: they cannot look; what they cannot have: the Phallus. They have no positive place in society. The “difference” between men and women that elevates the male and devours the female has been structured into the unconscious of the social, political, and cultural hierarchy.


Luce Irigaray (1930-)

One of the most valuable contributions of feminism, both in America and France is the revelation that “femininity” is a male construction, a role and an image, a value imposed upon women by the narcissistic and misogynistic logic of masculine systems. How is the “feminine” determined–meaning fixed and rendered unmoving–by male discourse? The Marxist concept of social determination transforms into anatomical destiny when the feminine is “determined” as Lack or Error or as an Inverted reproduction of the masculine subject, solely on the basis of the absence of a specific form of genitalia. Without a Phallus, the female Lacks symbolism, and because, the male exists as the lone signifier solely because of a primal matricide, repression is the only place of the feminine. The woman has been repressed, squeezed out of culture and society and confined to a speechless and inert body.

How can a woman enter into a discourse that is hostile to her presence? Women have access to language only through systems of representation that are masculine. The binary oppositions that support language work against women who have been historically assigned a negative role, a “not.” Therefore, women must mimic the “feminine.” Within the text—and there is no outside the text—women can only act out their roles. Irigaray defines écriture féminine as the writing style of women that emphasizes the tactile, the simultaneous, and the fluid, the kind of writing, capable of, as she explained in 1975, “.. jamming the theoretical machinery itself, of suspending its pretension to the production of a truth and of a meaning that are excessively univocal. Which presupposes that women do not aspire simply to be men’s equals in knowledge.” That being said, the concept of a writing “style” for women is unimaginable within the existing male order, the inherited “grids” of masculinity. Writing within and outside of the masculine style of linear logic, the female writing signifies excess or deranging power–the disrupting otherness of women.

Irigaray was concerned that women would fall back into a language of the male social organization that exiles and excludes women, and she wished to promote and encourage the development of a social form specific to women. Paralleling similar movements in America in the seventies, Irigaray proposed that separation of women from men is an effective short-term strategy. Women need to learn to love each other and themselves, a revelation that is an indispensable step towards autonomy. Without the preliminary step of reclaiming the woman and her body, the females cannot become full and complete human beings. The real danger is accepting the terms of a system that forces women to become men. The real challenge is to confront the foundation of the social and cultural order for equality but such a challenge should not mean becoming “men” or man-like. Difference has always been used against women, and if women are assimilated to the world of men, they will have nothing to contribute as women. One must fight for human rights rather than for women’s rights and to intervene into an unjust system as a woman.

In This Sex Which is not One of 1977, Irigaray refused to consider power as anything but a male obsession, something women are against.Women should resist hierarchy and orthodoxy and recognize a multiplicity of strategies. The female strategy par excellence is to appropriate the role given to her by the male and to make the role her own. This appropriation is what she meant by mimicry. To mimic as a writer is to mimic the male fears of the uncontrollable fluidity that is the female. Irigaray attempted to theorize female specificity as a radical difference, which could be a serious threat to the hegemony male sex. The protective masquerade proposed by Joan Rivière in 1929 could be transformed into rebellious mimicry or an exaggeration of “womanliness” and a new appreciation of the feminine.

One must assume the feminine role deliberately to invert a form of subordination into an affirmation, and thus begin to toward it. To play with mimesis is thus, for a woman, to try to recover the place of her exploitation by discourse.

The old mimesis was the masquerade, which is only parroting the master’s discourse, in order to protect oneself, as Riviérè pointed out. Within French Feminism, female mimicry becomes a parodic mode of feminine discourse to deconstruct the discourse of masculinity. As American theorist, Mary Ann Doane, stated the goal is, “ enact a defamiliarized version of femininity…” In other words to reassert the woman by making the feminine seem strange again. Mimesis is a “canny”–strange–mimicry, projecting difference as a positive. Embracing female difference, Irigaray associated women’s writing and speech with female fluidity rather than with male rigidity. Women have a special relationship with fluids–breast milk, menstrual blood, afterbirth–and historically, because of its relationship with women, fluid has been abandoned to the feminine.

In embracing the fluid and the plural, Irigaray abandons the binaries of Structuralism by deconstructing the paired opposites to demonstrate that within the polar system, women are always disadvantaged. The male side of the contrast is valorized at the expense of women and herein lies the act of deconstruction: if men need the negated women to carry the burden of his power, then without the woman to signify powerlessness, the male can have no independent status. The dualism must be interdependent, men and women are entangled together and it is the task of the feminist to untie the knot. Irigaray wrote,

…to play with mimesis is thus, for a woman, to try to recover the place of her exploitation by discourse, without allowing herself to be simply reduced to it. It means to resubmit herself–inasmuch as she is on the side of the “perceptible,” of “matter”–to “ideas,” In particular to ideas about herself, that are elaborated in/by masculine logic, but so as to make “visible,” by and effect of playful repetition, what was supposed to remain invisible: the cover-up of a possible operation of the feminine in language. It also means “to unveil” the fact that, if women are such good mimics, it is because they are no simply resorbed in this function. They must remain elsewhere: another case of the persistence of “matter,” but also of “sexual pleasure.”


If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]


Écriture Féminine: Laura Mulvey


PART TWO: Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema

LAURA MULVEY (1941 – )

One of the most famous essays critiquing the structures of masculine oppression comes not from France and not from America but from the genteel shores of the British Isles: “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” by Laura Mulvey. Re-published in her book of film and cultural criticism, Visual and Other Pleasures, this ground-breaking article was written in 1973 and published in Screen in 1975. Her position was that psychoanalytic theory, a feminist take on Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) by way of Jacques Lacan (1901-1981), whose philosophies had been used as a weapon against women. Those psychoanalytic theories were, in their own way, expressions of the prevailing social norms that through the complex fulcrum of philosophy reinforced male control of the female. Mulvey was conversant with Lacan years long before the entirety of his work was translated into English. Indeed, she was present as Lacan, himself, was re-writing his own ideas on women during the seventies. Her article on the unconsciousness of film was so groundbreaking because, first, she used Lacan against himself or his own theories, but, second, she also provided a cutting-edged subversive analyses of male art forms to feminist theory. Given that Hollywood cinema is a delivery system of pleasure to men, Mulvey’s goal was to analyze this male pleasure and to destroy that pleasure.

If we extend psychoanalysis from the individual to the culture that produced the person, then the culture itself has embedded and buried its own unconscious which expresses itself through “dream-work.” Without being fully aware of what it is doing, male-made popular culture reproduces and reinforces male dominance in society, not in obvious ways but within a visual and verbal language that reveals, not will to power but a deep male anxiety about women. Mulvey analyzes cinema, an advanced representative system, which rests upon an unconscious that has been formed by the dominant order. The power of her texts is that she carefully re-looks at the familiar, films that most people have seen, perhaps the most insidious instruments of social manipulation, and makes these movies unfamiliar. Both men and women watch popular movies and are moved and shaped by what they see. One can debate as the “importance” of the feminist target–is it more effective to directly challenge Jacques Lacan, read by thousands or to dissect a mode of communication that involves millions of watchers?

Mulvey’s article established an entire field of film criticism for feminists and for critical theorists, such as Slavoj Zizek (1949-). Given the late date of the translation of Lacan’s writings, Mulvey must have read some of his work in the original and, thus, she acted as a transmitter of phallocentric ideas from this author to a wide audience, especially the audience of women who would make of this text a tool kit for critique. Mulvey worked with a concept that will prove a fruitful one: “The Political Unconscious,” which Frederic Jameson (1934-) would later combine Marx and Freud and join Mulvey in analyzing popular culture as revealing of the unsaid in culture. Because it was written in English and hence would have wider circulation, Mulvey’s signature essay is better known than the work of her French counterparts here in America. Her writing is more accessible and she sidesteps the temptation to take on Freud and Lacan in order to refute them. The article does not require the audience to have an understanding, first of Freud and second of Lacan, at the same level of detail that is needed to read French feminism; all “Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema” demands is a passing knowledge of familiar films. Mulvey assumed, however, that the reader grasps the basic idea that society is phallocentric, that is male dominated, as she wrote,

The paradox of phallocentrism in aIl its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world. An idea of woman stands as lynch pin to the system: it is her lack that produces the phallus as a symbolic presence, it is her desire to make good the lack that the phallus signifies.

According to Mulvey, mainstream film has been coded into the language of the erotics of the dominant (male) order and these erotics give pleasure (designed for male needs) to the male. Although there is no doubt that females also receive pleasure from popular movies but this pleasure demands that she incorporate her own objectification. It is the intention of Mulvey to analyze this pleasure in order to destroy it, to break with “normal” pleasures and expectations–which are male pleasures at the expense of women. Mulvey’s article focused on the films of Alfred Hitchcock (1889-1980), the ultimate voyeur-as-director. In the 21st century, Hitchcock is understood through post-feminist eyes as somewhat unbalanced when it came to women, but it would be more precise to state that the English director was in a unique position to express very powerfully the feelings that men (at that time) had about women. Indeed, today, we view his films as less than archaeologies of sixties male culture but more as frank assertions of male needs, hiding in plain sight in the sixties. Whether Hitchcock can be positioned as a director of a group of late film noir movies or as being in an idiosyncratic class by himself, it can be said that he foregrounded one of the favorite noir characters, the femme fatale who became the focus of the auteur’s dissecting eye on the eve of a series of Civil Rights movements, including feminism.


Rear Window (1954)

In his classically neurotic film noirs of the late fifties and early sixties, from Psycho to Rear Window to Vertigo to Marnie to The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock featured strong blond women who, according to Mulvey, were, like all women in all male-made movies, were symbolic and “speaks to castration and nothing else.” Echoing Lacan who insisted that women did not exit, Mulvey said their role in visual culture was only as a sign:

Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.

Wittingly or unwittingly, film is a form of scopophilia, the rather perverted sexual pleasure obtained through looking–largely a male proclivity–a form of passive voyeurism that is inherently voyeuristic. Film is a function of the specular. Film theorists had long compared the darkness of a movie theater and the passive inertness of the audience to sleeping and experiencing dreams. The “narrative conventions” of this “magically unfolding” experience” allow the viewer to spy on a drama unfolding before their eyes. Like the voyeur who takes pleasure in watching, the filmgoers also receive ritual pleasure. Mulvey explained that the screen is a mirror, much like the Lacanian “mirror” which reflected a magnified image of the ego back to itself. The ego “misrecognizes” the image and receives pleasure from this “ego ideal.” This identification is the source of the “fascination” of film and its hold on its rapt audience who gazes upon the ego ideal, the male protagonist on the silver screen.

Because the narrative of film is constructed out of the split between the active male and the passive female, the ego ideal is that of the male and can never be that of the female. But male identification with the male must be constructed not on sexuality but on the dominance of the male protagonist who pushes the story forward. As Mulvey expressed it, “…the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. Man is reluctant to gaze at his exhibitionist like.” Regardless of the gender of the spectator, s/he identifies with the male on the screen. In contrast to the male, the female character is passive; she exists to be gazed upon, to be looked at. She is on display as a Sign of male sexuality and of male desire. But the active display of the passive female as an object to be seen by the viewers causes a problem for the male who will experience acute anxiety at the sight of this Other who does not possess the most important and prized possession: the Phallus. Mulvey wrote,

…the woman as icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men, the active controllers of the look, always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified. The male unconscious has two avenues of escape from this castration anxiety: preoccupation with the re-enactment of the original trauma (investigating the woman, demystifying her mystery), counterbalanced by the devaluation, punishment or saving of the guilty object (an avenue typified by the concerns of the film noir); or else complete disavowal of castration by the substitution of a fetish object or turning the represented figure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous (hence over-valuation, the cult of the female star).

Alfred Hitchcock masterfully played with the conventions of movies by foregrounding the perversions of scopophilila and the sadism of fetishistic fascination. In Rear Window (1954), the male protagonist is already suggestively castrated by his broken leg, his immobilization, and his infantile state as an invalid. His emasculation is further heightened by his active and sexually assertive girlfriend who controls and order his now-homebound life. Even the large extended phallic lens of his heavy camera, a survival of his career as a photojournalist, cannot compensate for his supine state. The anxieties of the male audience would be aroused in the extreme: a helpless male and a demanding female. As Mulvey pointed out, this hero is as trapped in his seat as the audience in the theater and the narrative worked quickly to ally fears. As soon as she appears, “Jeffries” orders “Lisa” to display herself to the audience, and as she swirls and twirls her bouffant skirts, she is belittled and degraded by the sarcastic male.

As in Vertigo, the male must be seemingly placed on the side of the Law of the Father. But Hitchcock’s saving grace is that he undermines these self-rightsous males: “Jeffries” is an irresponsible voyeur who snoops on his neighbors and cravenly sends “Lisa” into danger, and in Vertigo, “Scottie” is maniacal and obsessive and is responsible for the death of the woman he loves, “Madeline.” On its surface, Vertigo (1958), like Rear Window, is a murder mystery, but the so-called mystery is an Hitchcock MacGuffin, an excuse to explore the unhealthy romance between an ineffectual male and a powerful woman who must be destroyed and re-made into a fetish fashioned for male control. As in Psycho and Marnie, Hitchcock’s women were displayed to the men in the audience, made visually available to them, so that men, identifying with the male protagonist, could interrogate and investigate these women and then either master or kill the women, or both, in order to alleviate the castration anxiety of the male audience. According to Mulvey’s “Summary,”

The argument returns again to the psychoanalytic background in that woman as representation signifies castration, inducing voyeuristic or fetishistic mechanisms to circumvent her threat. None of these interacting Iayers is intrinsic to film, but it is only in the film form that they can reach a perfect and beautiful contradiction, thanks to the possibility in the cinema of shifting the emphasis of the look. It is the place of the look that defines cinema, the possibility of varying it and exposing it. This is what makes cinema quite different in its voyeuristic potential from, say, strip-tease, theatre, shows, etc. Going far beyond highlighting a woman’s to-be-looked-at-ness, cinema builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself.

According to Mulvey’s critique, many films have a male-orientated sub-text that must be located in order to reveal the constant workings of the patriarchal culture to silence and to extinguish women, but the fact that she focused on Hitchcock films, the work of an acknowledge auteur raises several questions. First, Hitchcock was a director of the sixties and second, Mulvey was a writer of the seventies, therefore is this essay still viable? It has been forty years since Mulvey attempted to subvert the male pleasure of cinema, but from the opening credits of television shows, such as the Miami Vice and Burn Notice, the camera, the consummate instrument of voyeurism, par excellence, gloms onto women’s breasts and buttocks, untroubled by feminism, whether First or Second Wave or post. Clearly, we still need Mulvey. If any progress has been made, it can be seen that voyeurism has become equal opportunity: now male torsos have become fetish objects. But over the half century, we have witnessed the evolution of strong female protagonists in movies and in television. While there is no doubt that the Male Gaze reigns supreme, it is not unchallenged, as female filmmakers gradually remake and rewrite the political unconscious of film.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Jacques Lacan and Women

JACQUES LACAN (1901 – 1981)


Throughout this series on the teachings of Jacques Lacan, I have noted several times that his terms must not be taken literally. The Masculine Order does not signify “men” or “males,” but the Symbolic Order or language and the Feminine, likewise, is not “women” or “females,” but the inarticulateness of the real. The Phallus is likewise a signifier that both joins the masculine and the feminine and acts as a function of difference or becomes the mask of sexual difference. But the Phallus is not merely or only abstract,the Phallus is also part of the physical and is linked to sexual jouissance. The linking can take place because sexuality and sexual desire is deeply rooted in fantasies of desire (for the Mother) that have faded and have become lost over time and are unrecoverable, except symbolically as signified by the Phallus.

As the complexity of the meaning of the “Phallus” implies, Lacan’s thinking on the organ/not-organ evolved over decades—as was his habit—and is marked with traces of his struggle to wrest the Phallus from Freudian biology and to place it, in all its erectile glory, in the abstract symbolic. The centrality of the Phallus is not just a problem for Lacan, for his interpreters, it is also a problem for the 21st century woman, who following the women who read Lacan in the 2oth century, can only wonder, if the Phallus is symbolic of the Symbolic Order, why must the Symbolic Order or Language be represented by an über-penis? why is Desire ordered and organized around this phallic entity? As Lacanian scholar Luce Irigaray wondered, if the Mother is/was the origin of all Desire and the unspoken real, why not the vagina or why not an Economy of the breast? The simple answer is that Lacan spent his lifetime re-telling the tales of the patriarchy as re-told by Freud.

In reading Lacan, it is striking how phallic and aggressive his word choice is, indeed, his entire analysis of the socialization of the human subject is not a story of loving nurturance but one of sexual jealously and dramatic renunciation. Lacan combined Ferdinand de Saussure with Sigmund Freud or language and sexuality with ideas of being and existence, an interesting intellectual game, but, whatever the intent, the effect is to privilege the male and male violence and to write off the female by placing the Feminine in the realm of the non-speaking. The result of the Lacanian “family romance,” while stripped of its Freudian biological roots, is still the same and mirrors the actual male dominance over the female in actual society and has the effect of reinforcing the genderization of the Master/Slave dialectic.

Within the Lacanian system, Woman cannot be; she cannot exist. Within Lacanian thinking, women are merely the sign of difference, and if women are merely the relation of difference, they are excluded from subjectness or subjecthood. While speaking against “mastery,” Lacan not only masters Woman/women but renders them as the Other or the always-already Other which exists for the masculine subject. But this Otherness of women is a minor one and is less than the status of the Symbolic Other to the Symbolic One or the (non)subject. Women cannot even exist as the Other, as Simone de Beauvoir asserted in The Second Sex,

…she is simply what man decrees; thus she is called ‘the sex’, by which is meant that she appears essentially to the male as a sexual being. For him she is sex – absolute sex, no less. She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.’

The category of the Other is as primordial as consciousness itself. In the most primitive societies, in the most ancient mythologies, one finds the expression of a duality – that of the Self and the Other. This duality was not originally attached to the division of the sexes; it was not dependent upon any empirical facts. However, like Freudian thought, Lacanian theory eliminates women, real women, from meaningful participation in society. The theory of Lacan by way of Freud, according to feminists, is nothing more than a ruse for a male voiced or “monologic” “elaboration” of the masculine. The feminine is silenced as the site of plurality, multiplicity, and subversion of the Masculine order, part of the real that resists symbolization. Women, as Difference, have always been excluded from universality, which is always the male who are assumed to transcend the local.


Jacques Lacan as a Young Man

As Lacan explained, the “male way” of jouissance or pleasure precluded any relationship with the female. The male subject is everything: l’homme comme tout. What the male desires is not the specific female but the objet a or the original missing love object that can never be recovered but is identified by Slavoj Zizek as the “Mother-Thing.” Feminist philosopher, Monique Wittig called for the destruction of “sex”or gender differentiation so that women could assume the status of the universal being. Feminist scholars point out that Lacan, like Freud, privileged vision and created a specular system or a system that is deeply scopophilic and voyeuristic. The (boy) child discovers his mother’s (Freudian) castration or (Lacanian) Lack through vision, through looking. He sees that, because the mother does not have the penis which is the appendage necessary to carry authority, therefore, the mother is less than the male. Without definition or meaning in her own right, she is defined by her Lack of a phallus/penis/power. The (child’s) eye has mastered/seen the Mother/object and has reduced her to insignificance.

Notice that the child has already learned–or the male theorist has already assumed–that the female must be “seen” only “in relation” or in comparison to the male. For Lacan, they eyes are the source of the scopic drive, the access through which the libido explores the world by projecting itself on the world. Love reduces the beloved to an object for the sake of possessing and controlling the object. Male/female relationships are organized around the inevitable sadism of Displaced desire in which the Other is reduced to a submissive non-entity and the masochism in which one offers oneself as an object for the other. For Lacan, sexuality, based upon a differential structure, is an assignment and is confined within the structure of the language. To illustrate the ” assignment,” Lacan produced his famous image of restroom doors, one labeled: “Ladies” and the other “Gentlemen.” Just as the doors are labeled, human beings are also labeled or differentiated, their social identities imposed from the outside, assigned to them through the operation of the Law which is Symbolic. Gender may exist as a biological effect, but sex is a social construct and an effect of dominance and subordination and sadism and masochism.

Although the Phallus is put forward as the supreme signifier, its supremacy is fraudulent, it is a mask. The Phallus depends upon its power only through the subjection of the other. But, in truth, we are all castrated. Our place in the patriarchal system is secured at the price of a Loss and our adult life is one of deferred consequences of the repressions instituted by the rule of symbolic patriarchal law. Women might well ask, why not an economy of loss and gain based upon the vagina? But if one follows the logic of Lacan, a vaginal economy would be impossible. Lacan based his psychology on the specular, on the sight of the woman’s “lack” of the Phallus/penis. The vagina exists but cannot be seen. Therefore, the specular order functions only in terms of the seen or visuality. It is not that women don’t possess sexual organs; it is that the organ is not “present” in the sense of being “present/ed” to the viewer.

For years Courbet was in possession of a painting thought lost, Origin of the World by Gustave Courbet. This famous painting was kept hidden and shrouded by a wooden sliding door (decorated with a outline carving of the painting by André Masson), which was pulled aside when the doctor “presented” the painting of a woman’s genitalia to the viewer (male or theoretically female). As Courbet’s painting Origin of the World suggested, the vagina was to be presented under ceremonial circumstances. The viewpoint of the female genitalia is purely that of the spectator: the woman who presumably owns or possesses the organs cannot see that which define her. She is blind to her own sex. The painting of the female vagina by a male, whether by Courbet of anyone else, is an act of not only claiming and defining but also one of radical voyeuristic visualization of the terrifying mystery of Lack. In addition to the literal concealment during Lacan’s ownership, there is the veil of pubic hair which frames the labia, which in turn covers the feared “hole,” that Lacanian theory defined as the Lack.

In contrast to the unseeable Lack, the penis/Phallus is easily located, readily regarded, and is always available to view. The man can see his organ without difficulty. From the standpoint of visual culture, the absence of the woman’s present organ explains the intense male curiosity about the female “sex.” Given the supposed cultural power of the Phallus, it is curious that the penis, its signifier, perhaps in order to preserve its mystique, is kept socially hidden from view. The culture gives the penis a discourse of variety: large, small, long, short, fat, thin, dark, light and so on. To the contrary, the culture seems to assume a “universal” vagina, as though all vaginas are the same, unified by their Lack. Oddly enough, the endless variation of penises is spoken but rarely seen outside of pornography, while the female body is constantly on view while being constantly subjected to uniformity through surgical engineering to ensure sameness. Within this specular system, the woman is denied individuality and must correspond to an abstract vision of herself or be cast out of the visual culture. As Lacan said,

Besides, it isn’t the penis, but the Phallus, that is to say, something whose symbolic usage is possible because it can be seen, because it is erected. There can by no possible symbolic use for what is not seen, for what is hidden…Strictly speaking, there is no symbolization of the woman’s sexual organ as such..The feminine sexual organ has the character of an absence, a void, a hole…

The Phallus is the only theorizable sexual organ, therefore, according to Lacan, the Phallus is only “trivially masculine.” The Phallus is the theory of what is given, what one has, what exists, while the vagina symbolizes what one does not have, a Lack, a Loss or that which does not exist or lies outside of theory. However, Lack and Loss are the very reasons for Desire. Men are energized by the threat of castration (Lack) and live uneasily within a phallocentric message that intimidates men and forces them to enter into rivalry with those who seem to possess more Phallus/power. As for women, Lacan’s theories canceled out women. “Woman” is merely an endless sequence of projections and fabrications emanating from the male discourse. Lacan displayed wonder that the female orgasm even existed and that the woman’s ability to orgasm is situated beyond the Phallus.

For Lacan, there is never a sexual “relationship,” because in their inequality, men and women cannot relate. Each partner plays the role of Subject to the other’s Object. There is never symmetry or reciprocity. The female body scarcely exists (except as Lack). Women have little to do and nothing to say. They can “become equal” only to men, because only men exist. If women do not exist, then who or what is that we see? Lacan, who readily incorporated the the ideas of others, stated that the woman is a masquerade. The idea of “womanliness as a masquerade” was not Lacan’s idea, but that of Joan Riviérè who wrote her famous essay in 1929 in response to a 1927 paper by Freudian follower, Ernest Jones. According to Sean Homer in his book, Jacques Lacan, Riviérè wanted to present a woman more modern, an intellectual woman, into a world of male psychoanalysts who had not considered such a being. The result was her 1929 essay, “Womanliness as a Masquerade.”

According to Riviérè, women who possess intellectual abilities and aspirations must, in the early 20th century, be aspiring to “masculinity,” and such a Promethean act would arouse anxiety within the male. This disruption of male dominance would be so great that men would resort to retribution against the offender. Therefore, women wish for masculinity but wear a mask of womanliness as an expression of the resolution of aggression and conflict. The masquerade averts anxiety and retribution from men. The fear that women have of men can be traced back to the family–her fantasy of taking the place of a man, the Father. For Lacan, the woman is a sign-object, a item of exchange, and, for Riviérè, when a woman speaks in public, acting as a lecturer or in any public way, she feels fear. Not only do men not welcome the voice of a woman, she is also but a castrated subject within the language.

The solution to this fear and the possible retribution from the male is the Masquerade. Riviérè draws an analogy between the woman and the homosexual, both of whom are required to wear masks: an exaggeration of “femininity” is a masquerade for women who wish for masculinity as their identification and the “masculinity” of a homosexual hides from others his “femininity” by an exaggeration of masculinity. The masquerade is central to the creation of a womanliness that men will accept. Ironically it is this art form of disguise through mimicry that authenticates this inauthentic womanliness. Because the entire discourse of sexuality circulates around the needs of the male, femininity is a mask for men. The reassuring mask resolves the crisis of masculine identification by allowing men to define themselves in relation to what they are not: women. In fact, as Lacan stated, “Woman does not exist.” To express the non-existence of an element that must, nevertheless, be spoken of, woman, like Being is put under sous rature. The Woman does not exist.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Jacques Lacan: The Formation of the Subject

JACQUES LACAN (1901 – 1981)


Anyone who has read the writings of Jacques Lacan came to the humbling realization that in any meaningful way s/he simply didn’t exist. Having gone through the boot camp of the Oedipal Order, the socialized (non)person emerges as an emotional cripple who will spend the rest of her life lying prone on a Freudian couch. Whatever shards of primal authenticity that might have been present at birth have been pummeled and buried under the threats of the Law of the Father who has Forbidden all manner of delights to a child who is stunned into submission. What is left behind after what appears to be two years of indoctrination, is not a shell, not a shadow of a former self, but a false impression of something called “ego,” a presumption to which one clings. It was the prime directive of Jacques Lacan to expose the false notion of the Cartesian self and to reveal the empty mask of a masquerading persona. From an emotional standpoint, the student must reject both Lacan’s enterprise and his conclusions, but from an intellectual perspective, Lacan’s position makes perfect sense.

Because the human subject is forged through the acquisition of language, the (faux)ego is an assumption—in that one assumes an ego as one dons a mask. Separated from “reality” which cannot be realized, Language is inherently and necessarily Symbolic. Lacan maintains that in order to achieve social personhood (persona), the child must submit to or accept the inevitability of the Symbolic. If language is split from reality, then when the subject acquires symbolic language, s/he becomes symbolized: the language speaks the subject. In order to be spoken, the subject must experience Loss (of the Forbidden Mother) and Gains entry into the social order. An Exchange, based upon Lack, has been made, the bargain has been struck and the ego or the subject does not and cannot exist.

But Lacan discussed the subject, which he asserted does not exist, at great length, so how are we to think of this non-existent “subject” of which so much is written? It is possible to resolve the dilemma by approaching it sideways. First, the subject does not exist and yet we must speak of it, or to put it more precisely, it seems as if we can, are able, to speak of subject (or ego). It is possible to speak of something that does not exist: we speak of ghosts, witches, zombies and vampires, and these are creatures of the imagination that do not exist. If you are Anne Rice, the non-existence of vampires does not trouble you, but if you are a philosopher, speaking of objects that are not objects or of the non-existent is troubling, especially when, unlike Anne Rice, you are compelled to address the non-addressable.

The solution was suggested by Gottlob Frege (1848-1925) who designated these troubling non-objects as “concepts,” and then proceeded on with the discussion. Another solution was proposed by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951): silence. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) confronted the problem of how to write about the non-existent by accepting the idea of “concept” from Frege, but, in the base of Being, Heidegger put Being sous rature or “under erasure,” by allowing “Being” to be written but also written out by deliberately crossing over the word with a large X. Although he does not resort to the ploy employed by Martin Heidegger, Lacan who was very aware of Frege and Heidegger can be seen as following their lead: “subject” is a concept, but that is all it is—an idea.

Repudiating the Cartesian notion of self or what Lacan called a “false being,” and the Freudian insistence on the ego of the conscious mind, Lacan wanted to disrupt the notion of the unified subject and the idea of presence through inversion. For Lacan, the subject is split and it is the unconscious that must supersede the conscious mind, as in U/c, meaning that the conscious mind is always overridden by the forces beneath, so to speak. In fact as Bruce Fink pointed out in The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance, “the subject is nothing but his split.” The “splitting of the I,” means that the subject is split when s/he is inserted into the Symbolic Order. The insertion, which is always forced, necessarily results in alienation of self from self and repression by the Law of the self.


Jacques Lacan (1901-81)

The split subject is mediated and can be understood only by being mediated through discourse, but this mediation, also a forcing event, creates a hidden structure: the unconscious. In Freudian terms, the end result of the “family romance” mans that the child is traumatized and the primal wound gives rise to the unconscious, where all that is not to be thought of is buried. But, in its raw state, the split create division and in order for the human being to function, if the (“social”) wound cannot be healed, the gap must be closed. Between the subject, which does not exist but thinks it does, and the world, which does exist but cannot be uttered, there must be a Third Order, referred to as the Suture. Think of the suture as a shunt or as a form of “stitching” the subject into society. But the Suture also represents the tear or splitting, which can only be mended but always leaves a scar–the trauma–behind.

When it is seen that the S/s (Signifier/signified) has a visible bar–the split/suture—is also the wound that causes the alienation of the subject within language. Because the subject is within language, as in caught or trapped inside, the subject is condemned to speak indirectly, through the assemblage piecemeal action of constructive collage, or through the animal-like mimicry of mimesis, and (self) representation. The subject, therefore, embedded in this indirectness, can never be an ego, in the Freudian sense, and can be only a persona. As as pointed out above, the self, the ego, the subject is formed as the result of Lack, which, in its turn, engenders need, desire, demand. Need, Desire, Demand—this is the the Triad of Lacan, replacing the Triad of Hegel: thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis. In the Hegelian sense, the conflict or the dialectic between Desire and Law produces drives, named by Lacan using Freudian terms: “eros” and “thantos.” These binary drives are the engines of the “subject.” Love and Death become opposites or polarities at war within the subject. The paradox of the death wish is that wishing for Death is also wishing for completion.

The completion can come about only when one is re-fused with the original Forbidden object, the Mother, or a substitution for the Mother. Eros must be displaced elsewhere and a substitution must be found, and these mechanisms of “displacement” and “substitution” are also functions of language, as Metaphor and Metonymy. In order to illustrate the process of becoming, as Freud would have it, “civilized,” Lacan sets up the family (Freud’s “family romance”) as a symbolic structure which is social or cultural and is thus contrasted to the natural world of animal promiscuity. It is important to note that the family, as posited by Lacan, is tripartite. The “family” beings with two terms: the Mother and the Child.” The third term is the Father who must act, who must intervene and split or separate the dyad of Mother and Child. The triangulated family—the father and child fighting for ownership of the mother—is the transcendence of order and culture, which rises above of the instinctive and the natural. The family becomes a proper “family” only when it comes into being through the Forbidden and the force used to establish the cultural/symbolic order by Forbidding the Forbidden. Force assumes sacrifice (loss) on the part of the child who has no power and who will never grasp the depth of the loss and the extent of the trauma and may be unable to grasp the Gain.

Lacan seemed to assume that “natural” is also “profane” and that culture is superior, but even without assuming a hierarchy, it is possible to state that humans become humans, rise above the animal, through language or the capacity to symbolize. Unlike Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), Lacan does not accept language or langue as an inherently human capacity and leave it there. Lacan envisions an Oedipal narrative of punishment for desiring the forbidden–the blinding of Oedipus (his self-sacrifice and self-punishment) is the equivalent of the subject’s inability to “see” or to articulate the world. The “blinding” is also the Sacrifice of sexual relations with parents or siblings. The Sacrifice of Incest corresponds to Repression, the crushing down of the Forbidden Desires. The Sacrifice which is the precondition for transition to symbolic order, results in a Splitting (Spaltung) of the subject due to his/her forcible entry into society and into the symbolic order of language. Ultimately, the subject is alienated in language, and, like Oedipus, bears a social wound.

The ego/subject, which is a fabrication, comes from a system of translation from the unconscious to the conscious by means of symbolization which is a process of substitution, displacement, condensation and referentially. Thus language is the precondition for the act of becoming and social wound introduces the subject into a symbolizing language. But to state that the subject is alienated through language is to invite an interrogation of language itself. As was pointed out in previous posts, the logic is clear: if the subject is split, then the source of the split must be within language itself. (S/s) means that Language is alienated from itself. Just as there is no authenticity of self, there is no authenticity in language. The artificiality of language or the arbitrary (dis)connection between the sign and the signifier or the object and the word is the profound insight of Saussure. However, Lacan’s de-stabalized alienated language is very different from Saussure’s stabilized language.

Saussure created an elegant architectonic structure for the sign, the signifier, and the signified and his system assumed a fixed position from which meaning is constructed. For the purposes of establishing and explaining the system, it was necessary for Saussure to assume immobility. But, as art historian Erwin Panofsky quickly found out, the “Signified” as culture is a huge field and a constantly shifting one. Rather than attempting to fix the diachronic, Lacan addressed the problem by demoting the Signified (diachronic level) and elevated the Signifier, allowing it to float freely. As the Signifier floats, it shifts its position to another site, and if the Signifier can shift and move, then the Signified becomes less significant. Claude Lévi-Strauss also spoke of the signifier as a “zero symbol,” floating without clinging to the signified. A close reader of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, Lacan, in turn, wrote of the impossibility of a one-to-one correspondence between the “tide” of signifiers and the “tide” of the signifieds that “float” one past another. Meaning becomes mobilized as the signifiers “cascade” down the signifying chain, or as Wittgenstein suggested “meaning is in the use.”

There can be no metalanguage.

What becomes important as a result of this line of reasoning is that the nature of the connections among the elements and not the elements themselves is most interesting. In other words, representation is not the equivalent of the thing itself, and, as Saussure pointed out, the nexus between words and things is broken. What is left behind is the in-between space in which writing is born of alienated language. The followers of Lacan took his ideas on language and extended them into writing that becomes materialized through the sounds and rhythms of language. Language and its floating signifiers is freed to revel in a plurality of meanings. The act of writing becomes an act of lived experience. Writing as jouissance or pure pleasure does not produce anything but is reminiscent of those deeply repressed but strongly remembered time of fusion with the original love object of desire.

Jouissance splits writing from itself and alienated already alienated language. A literature of experience is unreadable literature or limit-literature. In other words the writer accepts the alienated identity of language and reconfigures language into de-naturalized words, creating a new form of non-transparent writing called by Roland Barthes, écriture. Thus écriture transcends the instrumentality of language, or écrivance. The assumption that language is instrumental–can articulate or is transparent–écrivance—is broken. Breaking the assumed mask of the false and none-existent slink between language and thing is possible because language-as-message, communication to a receiver, is based already upon the “objectness” or the “object hood” or separateness of words which are homeless–floating signifiers. Thanks to Lacan,language is a representation of a representation. For Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Julia Kristeva, writing is not transparent but opaque. To write is not to reveal but to be performative and not informative. Jouissance is the experience of the limits of language and writing against the limits becomes a field, not of knowledge, but of enjoyment.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Jacques Lacan: Through the Mirror Stage

JACQUES LACAN (1901 – 1981)


Although Jacques Lacan can be characterized as a philosopher because his life work was based on reinterpreting the canonical writings of a philosopher, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). However, Lacan was a medical doctor, a psychoanalyst who had a practice, and, most of all, he was a teacher who lectured to large and illustrious audiences on Freudian theory. As a result his published works, like those of the late work of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), are transcripts of his public talks. There is a quaint folksiness in the tone, as Lacan addresses his “dear friends” and refers to notes make on the chalkboard made in a previous class. Like Wittgenstein’s posthumous texts, the reader has an insight to how Lacan developed a topic. While Wittgenstein tended to think in discrete paragraphs that often presented different takes on the same point, Lacan worked in layers and would visit and revisit an aspect of Freud for decades, building a train of thought over time. Because Lacan was a scavenger who not only used canonical authors was also quickly picking up on the trends in European philosophy, it is necessary to read through his texts with a heightened awareness of the source of the ideas. A layered reading of the layers allows one to appreciate how Lacan re-interpreted his precursors.

Jacques Lacan echoed Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud in his search for the foundation of society. For Marx, the formation of social relations was based upon the Mode of Production, for Sigmund Freud, the determining factor was human (male) sexuality, and for Lacan, the sexualization (Freud) of language becomes the mode (means) of producing human relations. The Marxist system of Exchange, Loss and Gain orders the movement through the Oedipal order: the child loses the mother but gains entry into society in exchange by accepting the Law of the Father who informs the child what society forbids.This primal repression (desire for the mother) initiates the child into the precincts of language. Even though Lacan, like Freud, views society through the prism of sexuality, his work can be read as a socialization process in which the subject, the child, is disciplined and indoctrinated into the “tribe.” That said, there is a severity and a violence to the process that highlights the extent to which mental force must be brought to bear in shaping a “prematurely born” human being to the manner demanded by the culture.

By 1953, Lacan has presented “The Rome Discourse” or “The Function and Field of Speech and Language inPsychoanalysis,” which asserted that the speaking subject is determined by language. Subjects are formed through participation in the discourse of others. The accession to the Symbolic Order can occur only through the Oedipus trauma in which the father intervenes and deprives the child of the primal object of desire—the mother, and deprives the mother of the phallic object—the child. The Forbidden has spoken through the Law of the Father and the subject must now identify with the Father, the Law. The Father symbolically “castrates” the mother by taking the child away and, which the child recognizes that incest is forbidden, and the Law is internalized. The procession through the Oedipal complex is linked to accession to culture and accession to language and the subject withdraws from immediacy of lived experience (fusion with the mother) and learns to accept a mediated life. Lacan asserted, “What is social is always a wound.”

In later writings, such as Ecrits of 1966, Lacan continued his disruption of the prestige of Presence or Self. In asserting that subjectivity is possible only through language, Lacan denied the transcendental ego (the Self) and relocated the ego in the social and traced the painful initiation of the child into the symbolic order. Thus, the subject is not a thing or a measurable entity, but an ongoing process. Language is the medium of exchange for the subject. Given that the subject is constituted by language, the ego must be a text, a fiction that is fixed by narcissistic fictions of self-love that provide faux unity. The ego is constituted from the Other through projection: I project my gaze towards you and determine that you are the not-me. Certain points Lacan was making about language bear repeating. If his assertions are to be taken to their logical conclusions, then a particular conclusion will be reached.

First, Lacan sets up the Symbolic Order as the Third Order between the subject and the real world and this relation is called the “Suture.” meaning a “mending” or a “fixing” of a “split.” As Jacques-Alain Miller, the outstanding Lacanian scholar and translator, expressed it, “…the signifying chain is structure of the structure…” The Suture names the subject’s relationship with the chain of discourse. Miller explained, “…subject is anterior to signifier and that signifier is anterior to subject – but only appears as such after the introduction of the signifier. The retroaction consists essentially of this: the birth of linear time. We must hold together the definitions which make the subject the effect of the signifier and the signifier the representative of the subject: it is a circular, though non-reciprocal, relation…”

Being fashioned in society involves collage, mimesis, and representation, but that which remains after submission is the most truthful and revealing of the system of socialization (and de-sexualization) and the most important remainder which is the underside of the mask, or that which has been repressed. The mask is a social form that is also a reflection of the “true being” or the traces of an authentic person. Therefore the ego is not the person, the “true” or “authentic” person, but the “persona,” the appearance, as in the sense of costume, that is generated by an act of imagination and is therefore positioned or situated on the side of the imaginary. To return to the concept of “splitting,” discussed in the previous post, the infans is cleaved between the ego which is always the Other to the (true) Self, because the action of splitting masks the Subject from the Self and the Self can be captured only in its mirror reflection.

As the result of the splitting of the primal person into a public persona, for Lacan, “subject” is a fictive construction, who is produced by the law that prohibits incest. The Subject is a fiction that is forged as the child transfers his or her Desire away from the primary love object, the Mother, who is now forbidden, to appropriate objects. Notice that Lacan’s theories, like those of Freud, have little reference to the homosexual and the law forces displacement of (only) heterosexualizing Desire. But as in much of Lacan, these concepts are theoretical or allegorical. For example, the “woman” is never the mark of subject and not an attribute of gender, for “femininity” of only a signification of Lack, and this signification signifies mainly for the male. In this instance, “woman” does not have Being.

“Being” is the Phallus or Having the Phallus: to be the Phallus is to be the signifier of the Desire of the Other. The Phallus appears as the signifier, which is to be the object that represents and reflects masculine heterosexualized Desire for the benefit of the Other. The Masculine Subject has the Phallus and the Other must confirm this possession. Women can only reflect the autonomous power of masculine subject/signifiers. Women appear as the Phallus through a masquerade of femininity and because she is the Lack, woman is in need of unmasking. This masquerade-as-Phallus is not just the denial of feminine desire, it is also the denial of the dependency of the female, who has no signifier, upon the Masculine order.

In what feminist scholars would declare to be a matricide, the aim of the Law is to refuse the Mother-as-Other by producing a third symbol, which imposes the possibility of alienation or Death of the Subject who denies authority. As has been stated before, Lacanian ideas on how the child moves through the Mirror Stage is fraught with violence and the Law exists on the side of Thantos (or Death), not Eros (or Life), and the drive to subjectivity is always the drive towards Death. Coming from Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) by way of Georg Hegel (1771-1831), the idea that subjectivity or self-consciousness is the result of the human’s acceptance that Being is Death or that to be is to die was one of the founding concepts for Lacan. Under the pain and threat of death, the ego must not lose itself in the loved one but regain itself in the loss by submitting to the Symbolic, which is the Law, the Father.

In this Freudian and Lacanian universe of Loss and Gain, human subjectivity is formed through the agencies of power an domination. The subject will be driven by socially imposed guilt and anxiety and will become servile, cringing under the authority of the Law (of the Father) and dreading castration (further loss of power). As a result of this terrifying process, we, the victims, must wear the mask as a social form or conforming behavior. As we enter into the symbolic order of language we are fashioned by the order which installs masquerade and are marked by it as signified by the mask of custom and competency with language. Lacan makes the point that just as the human being is inauthentic—mask-waring–language is also split from the real. The symbolism of language can be only an indirect expression of “reality” in that it is not what it represents. Symbolization is a reference to, and not a reflection of, the self. The human tragedy is that life can be made only through language, which is never direct or immediate. Life is mediated and is filtered through language and thus is de-natured or de-naturalized and is split, severed, like the subject from that which cannot be symbolized.

Submission to the process separates each human from his or her “authentic” sexual self. Sexual desire consists, not of feelings or instincts, which are basic, primal and must be contained and governed, but of symbols, laws, concepts and ideologies—all of which are arbitrary and formalize individual experience but bring these strong needs under social control. Strangely, from a female perspective, sexuality is organized around the Phallus, which for a woman, is the symbol of Lack and speaks to the idea of the woman being castrated. Male-female elationships are always organized around the possession and non-possession of the Phallus, which due to its erectile form, defines the Lack. Without inquiring as to why or how the Phallus must be always erect it can be said that Lack is a chronic state of self-insufficiency born from the foundation of the Law or to put it in another way, the penis, in the normal course of its day, is only occasionally erect.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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