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.

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

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Jacques Lacan: The Mirror Stage

JACQUES LACAN (1901 – 1981)


As the heir to early Modernist philosophy, Jacques Lacan sampled, in a pre-Postmodern fashion, a complex of philosophical ideas on how humans come into Being and how humans become socialized. Using combinations of Georg Hegel, Karl Marx, Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ferdinand de Saussure, Lacan “returned” to Sigmund Freud and reconsidered his canonical works from the oblique vantage point of language. Freudian philosophy was one of the last pure Enlightenment manifestations of self-actualization. But Lacan can be contrasted to Freud in respect to human autonomy, for Lacan denies autonomy and mastery and refutes the unity of consciousness and of the unconscious. The disunity or the splitting apart of the human subject happens through language. If, as Lacan insisted, language produces a Real which does not have any corresponding “reality,” then question is, when does the subject become alienated from him or herself and under what circumstances? According to Lacan, the structural foundation of speech emerges in what he called “the Function of the Mirror Stage.” Lacan delivered early version of this theory in 1936 and 1946 and the final and definitive version was published in 1966 in Écrits. By 1949 “stade du miroir” had become canonical to Lacan’s system, establishing a centrality to vision or to the specular that is reminiscent to the importance of the “gaze” in the work of his former teacher, Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault (1874-1932). The central role given to an act of seeing parallels Freud’s theory of the Oedipal complex, in which the male child “sees” that his mother does not possess the prized penis and is traumatized with fear that he, like his mother, will be castrated by his father. Vision or the ability to see oneself in a mirror is equally central to Lacan’s theory of the Mirror Stage.

Although it is possible that for Sigmund Freud the glimpsing of nude adults by impressionable children might have been possible—during his childhood, his family lived in one room—these acts of seeing whether in the flesh or in the mirror are best understood as allegorical. The development of a realization of the difference between the “inner world” and the “outer world” would be a better way to understand the Mirror Stage, as Lacan stated,

The function of the mirror stage thus turns out, in my view, to be a particular case of the function of imagos, which is to establish a relationship between an organism and its reality – or, as they say, between the Innenwelt and the Umwelt.

Under questioning of other philosophers who expressed concern over taking the idea of a “mirror” too literally, Lacan later shifted from “the mirror” to “mirroring behavior.” That said, Lacan based the idea of the Mirror Stage upon a number of pre-existing discourses (some of which involved an actual mirror) investigating the question of how one distinguishes between the self and the other and comes into consciousness or a full realization of the Self. The Mirror Stage, a term Lacan borrowed from Henri Wollen who in turn referred to the findings of Charles Darwin, occurs between six and eighteen months. Prior to that time, the infant has assumed a unified body image of itself to be found in the mother. Enjoying the jouissance of fusion, the infant assumes a Totality until the “infans” becomes the subject. The presence of the “mirror” implies narcissism or self-identification, which is self love and the beginning of ego. But ego more properly evolves out of the counter to narcissism which is Aggresssivity or the confrontational image of the other. The First Narcissism is called the Mirror Stage in which the subject begins to project its “ideal ego” (ichideal) or future ego, while the Second Narcissism gives the human subject its ego (“moi”) or sense of self within the Symbolic.

The primacy he ascribes to vision is reasserted when Lacan points out that the child who is born prematurely—relative to an animal—and is thus dependent upon adults. In his or her immobile state, the human child “looks out” and sees others moving about, walking and running, and is able (unlike an animal) project him or herself forward in time—anticipates. The dependency upon adults, the fusion between child and adult, is allegorized as “Mother.” The concept of “mother” as literal is as problematic as the concept of “mirror” and yet Lacan’s contemporaries did not point out that many children were raised by women who were family members and or servants and that the “mother” was but one of many adults. However, the mother/adult is the being from whom the child, now self-aware, must separate herself from. The separation is fraught with anxiety. The “I” is an imaginary recognition so that the “I” is essentially performative. The child is separated from a unifying image or the Mirror and finds integration only in the Symbolic field, the field of language. The Mirror Stage leads to the formation of a separate individual now separated (socialized) from the primary caregiver. This double splitting of the child from the mother and the child from its image or from others produces the I and the ideal ego which in turn produce the Imaginary and the ego ideal or the Other, the “autre Symbolic.”


The “whole” identity is sought in symbolic objects that symbolize the aim of desire, or objects petit a. Desire is aimed at the very lack it supports: the desire for something else. Metaphor and metonymy are related to knowledge and desire. The Metaphor (condensation or combination) is a typography of the unconscious, which is formed from the primal repression and is founded in the “emergence of signification.” Because the subject and knowledge are always barred from each other, the unconscious speaks through the Symptom or the Metaphor. Metonymy (substitution), on the other hand, represents Desire or another signifier always out of reach. What is the object of desire? Lacan had to rethink Freud’s Oedipal complex in ways that reconfigured the “family romance” and transformed this “romance” through language. However, with both philosophers, the journey towards differentiation is horrifying, full of violence, and completely androcentric. Women or the Mother, defined by Lack and inadequacy, is that which must be repudiated, left behind. It is the Oedipal realization or recognition that the child must break away that makes the subject capable of seeing itself in a formal or structural relation to others: “I and Thou.” To tell this tale of trauma, Lacan set up an (Marxist) Economy of Gain and Loss, and Exchange.

This familial analogy to economics occurs within the family structure: Mother, Father and Child. The child becomes aware of the Phallus, the first pure signifier, which establishes the position of the Father in the psychic structure of the child. If the Oedipal complex is the process or evolution of the substitution of the father for the mother, or the separation of the child from the mother, then the Name-of-the-Father symbolizes (the) prohibition (of the Mother). The Mother, the original object of Desire, is forbidden by the Law of the Father. The Mother, according to Lacan, was always conceived of by the child as “lacking” or needing him. In desiring her, the child imagines himself as the object of her desire to fulfill her essential lack. If the child feels fused with or at one with the Mother, then logically she is what he needs and he is what she lacks: Mother and child complete one another. Sadly, the Oedipal complex has a terminus: the child must experience Loss (of the Mother) in order to Gain admission into the order of language. The Exchange of Loss and Gain results in selfhood or socialization which is enforced by castration, the threat hanging over the (male) child who must always renounce the Mother who now characterized by her unredeemable Lack will always remain the child’s original and primal and unobtainable object of Desire. The separation of the child from the mother results in individuation. The child has perceived of himself as the phallus to the mother, but the Father will not permit this relationship and moves to separate the child of its mother and the mother from the child or phallic object.

As Joël Dor points out in his well-known Introduction to the Reading of Lacan: the Unconscious Structured Like a Language, the father forbids and frustrates and deprives the child. The object of frustration is the penis–the mother does not have one, the little girl does not have one, and from the child’s perspective, the mother’s lack of a penis is frustrating. Frustration can never be assuaged. The child is deprived by the intervening father who is now understood as representing “the law.” The castration complex results when the child realizes that he is not and cannot be the phallic object of the mother’s desire. Not only does he have to give up the Mother but he also must consider the Law or the Name-of-the-Father. The Oedipal complex wanes when the child grasps the concept of the symbolic—the phallus is symbolic, the Law is symbolic, the Name-of-the-Father is symbolic. The passage from the Mirror Stage through the Oedipus complex is the primal repression which results in a Loss, but there is a Gain due to a new sense of a separate and unified body realized through the image of the Other in the Mirror. The result of the sacrifice (of the mother, of fusion with her) is the ability to communicate as a human being through language which is the symbolic power to manipulate reality.

Human beings who must appease and/or augment the desire for totalizing images must communicate in their highly mediated fashion through a metonymic chain of signifiers that substitutions and displacements. The child becomes a speaking subject (the human being is submitted to language). Language and Sexuality, then, are fused through the symbolic Castration, which is a mediation, or a substitution, of desire (for the mother) through a metaphor which mediates the Law. The child is now a human subject who must submit to word play—you are being (played) spoken. The child must incorporate language on two levels. First, language is symbolic, it is a substitute for something than can never be known: the real. Second, language is not only a substitute it also symbolizes and is therefore an activity of double symbolization. The Oedipal stage is allegorical of a child’s passage into adulthood through socialization as he is initiated into language. Lacan makes it clear that grasping the symbolic logic of language is an arduous task that must be enforced by Order or the Phallus. As with Freud’s penis, Lacan’s phallus should not be taken literally. Being male, the philosophers selected this anatomical appendage to be the signifier of social order, which manifests itself through language. As a metaphor (the Phallus is the Social), the Phallus is central to Lacan and is central to the formation of the Symbolic. The Phallus is a parental metaphor, the symbol for authority. The Name-of-the-Father is also a metaphor, signifying paternity and that which comes between the mother and child, separating this unity. The child must accept that the mother does not have the father’s authority or Phallus.

The child experiences a double loss: the loss of the Phallus and the loss of the Mother. This loss is Castration, which ushers in an unavoidable acceptance of alienation into language and submission to the ultimate authority of Law. Law resides in the Place of the Name-of-the-Father and Desire resides in the place of the M/Other, producing a conflict between Desire and Law. “Desire” indicates a fundamental Lack and this lack is language or the process of speaking language, which produces a gap between saying and meaning. Lacan retold Freud’s account of a game his nephew played when his mother was not in the room, the “fort-da” game which is built on a Lack, a Loss and want of Being (the Mother). By saying “fort” (here) (pulling a ball to himself) and then “da” (there) (pushing the ball away), symbolizing “here” (mother was here) and “there” (mother is not here), the child makes the absence of the mother present or understandable to himself through symbolization. The child has made an important discovery: one can create a Symbolic mediation to express and explain the actual event. This fantasy of here and there covers the loss of the mother and the desire for her return is externalized through language. Because it is built upon a loss or a lack that goes back to the original loss or lack, the separation from the mother, Desire is never fully satisfied.

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

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

[email protected]