Irish Artists of the Great War, Part One

Irish Artists at War

Part One

John Lavery (1856-1941)

Apparently Sigmund Freud never said of the Irish, “This is one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever,” but the idea that it is pointless to attempt to fathom “the Irish” has implanted itself in popular culture. But true or not, the not-quote by Freud begs the question: who are “the Irish?” The indigenous Irish, who were left strictly alone by the Roman Empire and overlords of England, were Celts from Iberia, an origin that distinguished them from the Celts of southern England who were Germanic. Only marginally disturbed by visiting Danes, the wild Irish tribes were “civilized,” i.e. Christianized, by Saint Patrick, but they continued their warlike contentious habits, going to battle in a perilous state of nudity. However, internecine conflicts among contending kings left the dis-united territory ripe for conquest from the neighbor across the sea. Under Henry II, the Normans colonized Ireland in 1171 and established rule over a territory called the English Pale, a rather small chunk on the Western edge which encompassed Dublin. For centuries, following the Plantagenet practices, the English rulers rewarded their vessels with Irish land, giving away large dominions that were often neglected by the absentee landlords.

Under Elizabeth I, the Irish were also expected to forego their Catholic beliefs and become Protestant, like those who lived in the English section of Ireland. Once converted by Saint Patrick, the Irish would not be reconverted, and became, in the eyes of the English rulers, enemies who would align themselves with Catholic powers. Four hundred years of religious persecution followed. Having firmly rejected the Anglican faith, the Irish were inspired by the American Revolution and dreamed of throwing off British dominance. For the British, the Irish were inferior savages and the colonizers created terms for the Irish that became the bedrock for racist language that would be transferred to America. As late as 1988, a member of the British parliament referred to the Protestants in Ireland as the “white people.” In 1910, on the eve of the Great War, Irish were thought to be “excitable,” emotional, lazy drunks, good with music and dance, but angry people, who “got their Irish up.” They were “Paddies,” a reference to Saint Patrick and they were also the weak “feminine” to the “masculinity” of the the overlords. The English had such contempt for this inferior race, they allowed the Irish to starve during the devastating years of the Irish Potato Famine. The lucky ones were able to immigrate to America where they were met by imported English prejudices. Those who somehow survived the famine stayed behind to repeatedly rebel agains the hated colonizers.

Literally days before the declarations of war in August of 1914, the Third Home Rule bill seemed poised to allow the Irish to govern themselves, if only under the umbrella of Great Britain. But the War put Home Rule on hold once again and it is with the current cloud of bad feelings that the English attempted to convince the Irish, Catholics and Protestants alike, to enlist in the conflict against the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. To be Irish and to be at war in 1914 meant serving with the British and supporting the English cause against the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. To be Irish means to be in a divided nation, torn between Catholics, the colonized inhabitants of Ireland, and the colonizers, the English Protestants. But over 100,000 Irish men volunteered to serve their country or Great Britain or to prove their worthiness for home rule. The leader of the Irish Party and Minister of Parliament, John Redmond stated that, “The interests of Ireland – of the whole of Ireland – are at stake in this war.” Some wanted adventure. A future leader of the Irish Republican Army, Tom Barry, said that he enlisted “for no other reason than to see what war was like, to get a gun, to see new countries and to feel like a grown man.” Other men, living in poverty, simply needed the money. By all accounts the Irish fought bravely. In fact the London Irish Rifles became national heroes at the Battle of Loos in 1915 when Sargent Frank Edwards led a group of Irish soldiers who kicked a soccer ball over No-Man’s Land to the enemy trenches. Although there are doubters who think the episode has become more myth than reality, the football still exists (or so they claim) and there are accounts written at the time:

Suddenly the officer in command gave the signal, “Over you go, lads.” With that the whole line sprang up as one man, some with a prayer, not a few making the sign of the Cross. But the footballers, they chucked the ball over and went after it just as cool as if on the field, passing it from one to the other, though the bullets were flying thick as hail, crying, “On the ball, London Irish,” just as they might have done at Forest Hill. I believe that they actually kicked it right into the enemy’s trench with the cry, “Goal!” though not before some of them had been picked up on the way.

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The Irish artists who responded the war included the poet W. B. Yeats (1865–1939), who wrote “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death.”

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
Despite the prophetic nature of the poem, at the time of its writing, Yeats was not an airman, he was at mid-life and feeling his age. The poem needs to be read as an expression of the Anglo-Irish poet’s Irish nationalism and as part of his decades-long attempt to revive and incorporate the Gaelic rhythms of a Celtic language fading into memory. Like Yeats, the great illustrator of the Royal Navy during the Great War, Sir John Lavery had a mixed ethnic background, incorporating the Irish, Scottish and English cultures. While Yeats had fought all his adult life as a creative artist to promote all things Irish, Lavery had been a successful society artist, painting fashionable portraits of the English rich and powerful in an appealing post-Impressionist style. The Great War was a call to arms for the Irish artist who, although, like Yeats, was middle-aged, and determined to record the conflict on the Western Front. His plans to join his friend and fellow artist, William Orpen, in France were literally blown apart when a Zeppelin dropped a bomb on London, causing his automobile to wreck. Injured, Lavary was no longer able to work safely in a combat zone. Appointed an Official War artist in 1917, the sixty-two artist had what the National Galleries of Scotland describe as “a roving brief to depict naval bases around Britain.”
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Sir John Lavery. A Misty Day, the Firth of Forth (1917)
Although Lavery worked on the South Coast of England, recording the activities of the Royal Navy, his most famous paintings were done on the freezing north coast in the ports of Scotland. The German fleet challenged the British in the North Sea and the Imperial Navy surrendered on the Firth of Forth in 1918. Lavery was in place to depict that significant event, completing the humiliation of Germany at the hands of the English.
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Sir John Lavery. The End: The Surrender of the German Fleet, 16 November 1918 (1918)
Ironically, having been the victim of a bombing, Lavery did one of his most dramatic paintings from the cabin of a British airship, floating quietly above a convoy traversing the North Sea. The airships, the British version of the German Zeppelin, were used to search for signs of a lurking submarine and were safe enough to allow the artist to go along for the ride. However, unlike Christopher Nevinson and Paul Nash, for example, Lavery’s assignment kept him at a distance from the War itself. In part, the choice of panoramic views of naval installations, was due to censorship. The Chief Naval Censor gave him special permits which allowed him to do what were essentially landscape paintings which gave away no essential information to the enemy.
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Sir John Lavery, A Convoy, North Sea (1918)
In 1919, Lavery, recovering from his exhausting war work, had donated his substantial body of his paintings to the Imperial War Museum and visited the vast cemetery at Étaples. Near Boulogne, this small town on the Paris-Boulogne railroad line was home to a complex of reinforcement camps, a dozen Red Cross hospitals, and a conversant depot, still occupied by the wounded when Lavery visited the cemetery continuing over ten thousand graves. He showed the endless lines of graves, marked by crosses, which did not distinguish between Catholic and Protestant, tended by small groups of women in black dresses. Beyond the freshly turned earth, the land is green in the distance, a peace penetrated by a long black train, puffing white smoke.
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Sir John Lavery. The Cemetery at Étaples (1919)
A year ago, trains had arrived from the front four times a day, bearing wounded to this territory, lodged between a fishing village and the railroad. Lavery was suddenly confronted with the reality of the war, a conflict he had viewed from afar and on high. He had extensively illustrated the important war work done by women in factories and in hospitals. And yet he had somehow missed the War itself. He explained his reaction to the buried lives of thousands of young men who had died for their country: (I) “felt nothing of the stark reality, losing sight of my fellow men being blown to pieces in submarines or slowly choking to death in mud. I saw only new beauties of colour and design as seen from above.” He later brushed aside his wartime art as “dull as ditchwater.”
And yet, Lavery was an interesting character, who, like Yeats, was a strong supporter of the Irish cause, thanks to his second wife, Hazel, a beautiful Irish-American patriot and painter in her own right. Educated at the Académie Julian in Paris, he had a strong foothold with the rich and the powerful of England, where he used his neutral and uncontroversial style to depict the well-born at their leisure. Although he was close friends with James Whistler, his pre-war art is more akin to James Tissot. After the War, without missing a beat, Lavery resumed his studies of the upper classes, as if the catastrophe never happened.
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Viewing his art is rather like visiting Downton Abbey, and, as with the multi-year television series, we are able to be witnesses to the changing lifestyles and fashions of the ruling class. But there is another side of this artist. Lavery, now “Sir,” and his wife were important fixtures on the London social scene, navigating the treacherous waters between the Irish and the Anglo sides. Hazel taught Winston Churchill, a close friend, to paint, and the British government, represented by the judge Sir Charles John Darling, trusted Lavery enough to commission a painting of a very controversial trial of an Irish advocate for a rebellion against England, Roger Casement.
Roger Casement had turned to the German government for support of the Irish Nationalist rebellion in Dublin in the Easter uprisings of 1916. Casement had actually been knighted in 1911 for his services in the cause of human rights in the colonies, but his trip to Berlin with the aim of freeing Irish prisoners so that they could participate in the planned revolt ended in his being taken prisoner off the coast of Kerry. Stripped of his knighthood, Casement was imprisoned in the Tower of London under the charge of high treason. There were those who were inclined to be sympathetic to a political prisoner until the government published his private diaries, which revealed that Casement was a homosexual. Every day Lavery attended his trial, sketching on a concealed notebook the courtroom scene that contained over three dozen portraits. Some accounts of his life suggest that Lavery had pro-German sympathies or that this painting was courageous, but the painting looks and functions as a mainstream commission, possibly a co-option by the government of a prominent Irish couple known to be interested in Home Rule. In a long speech he gave before he was hanged, Casement said,
“Loyalty is a sentiment, not a law. It rests on Love, not on restraint. The government of Ireland by England rests on restraint and not on law; and, since it demands no love, it can evoke no loyalty. Judicial assassination today is reserved only for one race of the King’s subjects, for Irishmen; for those who cannot forget their allegiance to the realm of Ireland.”
There is every reason to believe that this trial, a painful episode in the midst of an unsettling war, had a profound effect upon Lavery. The judges and their mission to mete out justice are not the focal point, but the defense and Casement himself, considered today by many to be a martyr. According to Fintan O’Toole, writing for the Irish Times,
Roger Casement wrote to his family, asking, “Who was the painter in the jury box?” Yet, as Casement noted, the painter “came perilously near aiding and comforting” the prisoner in the way he “eyed Mr Justice Darling’s delivery” of the verdict confirming the death sentence. Casement also noted that Lavery’s wife, Hazel, looked “very sad” at the same moment.
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Sir John Lavery. High Treason: The Appeal of Roger Casement (1916)
The painting itself, measuring seven by ten feet, apparently did not please Darling. There is some suggestion that perhaps the judge had not even commissioned the group portrait, but it is unlikely that the artist would have been allowed in the courtroom if that were not the case. That said, the painting seems to be have been painful for both the artist and England. Perhaps interrupted by his duties as War Artist, Lavery did not complete the work until 1931, by which time no English institution would accept the painting. Neither the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Courts of Justice were prepared to exhibit it. For years it hung in an office of the Gallery until it was transferred to the Honorable Society of King’s Inns in Dublin on an indefinite loan. The painting was not put on public display in England until 2003.
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Sir John Lavery. Michael Collins Lying in State. Love of Ireland (1922)
But it is Hazel, born in Chicago, who is best remembered by the Irish for her tireless work in reconciling the Irish and the British. Half her husband’s age, she persuaded him to paint prominent Irish politicians and even had affairs with more than a few of them, including, or so they said, the famous patriot, Michael Collins (1890 – 1922), who supposedly died with a letter from her in his pocket and a miniature of her portrait hanging from his neck. The two may have grown too close when the Lavers had lent their London home to the Irish delegation during the negotiations for the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921. For the Irish Republican Army the treaty was nothing short of a betrayal and arranged for an ambush assassination of their former leader in his homeland in County Cork. Although Lady Hazel attend his funeral draped in black, signifying widowhood, her husband, Sir John painted the fatally wounded Collins on his deathbed. Although the IRA was suspicious of her sentiments, Hazel survived to serve as the face of Ireland on an Irish banknote for the new Irish Free State. The image is based upon a portrait of her as “Cathleen ni Houlihan,” a character in a play by her friend William Butler Yeats, painted by her husband.
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Until the 1970s, Hazel Lavery, Irish-American hero, as depicted by her husband, Sir John Lavery, former Official War Artist, famous portraitist to the powerful, smiled out from the face of the Irish bank note, as the allegory of the spirit of Ireland itself.

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Thank you.

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Jacques Derrida and “Différance”

Différance (1968)

Différance and Deferral

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) was a prolific writer who had the disconcerting ability to use a thousand words when one or two would do. Différance is typical of his poetic excess and opens with

I will speak, therefore, of a letter. Of the first letter, if the alphabet, and most of the speculations whig have ventured into it, are to be believed. I will speak of the letter a, this initial letter which it apparently has been necessary to insinuate, here and there, into the writing of the word difference; and to do so in the course of a writing on writing, and also of a writing within writhing, whose different trajectories thereby find themselves, at certain very determined points, intersecting with a kind of gross spelling mistake, a lapse in the discipline and law which regulate writing and keep it seemly.

This remarkable beginning sets out the philosopher’s entire enterprise, his desire to write about the writing of philosophy and to examine philosophy as writing. Derrida also had the gift of seizing on detail and spinning out his observations into thoughts and thoughts into positions. This essay, given first as a talk at the Socieété française de philosophie in January of 1968, was published in the summer of the same year in Théorie d’ensemble, a Tel Quel enterprise. The late sixties and early seventies were marked by a series of career-making articles in which Derrida systematically and laboriously re-read and reinterpreted European philosophy. Delivered a year after his interrogation of Claude Lévi-Strauss in “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences,” Différance marks his precise engagement with the father of Structuralism, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) with side forays into the philosophy of Hegel and Heidegger and Nietzche and even Freud.

The bulk of Derrida’s writing is about language, his entry point into philosophy. He regarded the anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) as being mistaken in his attitude towards writing and accused him of being both logocentric and ethnocentric for his naïve theme of “lost innocence.” The Biblical notion of the Fall is a frequent one in the studies of Lévi-Strauss as if “primitive” people were long lost Adams and Eves being driven from the Garden by the acquisition of writing, the fruit of all culture. For Lévi-Strauss, writing was an instrument of oppression, colonizing the “primitive” mind (nature) with culture,and for him structuralism for was nothing less than a search for the universal structures of human intelligence. This structure is a set of unconscious rules that both structures a culture and expresses the infrastructure of speech (and writing) through a language system. Lévi-Strauss’s Mythologies (1964-1971) consisted of four volumes, containing eight hundred myths, which showed “how myths operate in the minds of a culture without the people being aware of the fact..” In a proposition that would impact a new generation of French thinkers, Lévi-Strauss suggested that the unconscious precedes, comes before, the thinking subject and provides order for human subjectivity through its imposed structures upon human thought.

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Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)

In considering how human beings develop ideas or discourses, Lévi-Strauss imagined or proposed the creation of culture through a cultural character inspired by his own father, a bricoleur, a handy person, an engineer, a fabricator, who used everything at hand to create structures–myths, stories, accounts–to explain events. Notice that Lévi-Strauss is thinking of language and not actual making of an object but of a process of how a discourse is constructed through found words, already-ready concepts that are reshaped linguistically within the logic of the structure. Although the bricoleur is a hunter-gatherer of cultural ideas, one should not confuse the hunting activity with an allegorical assemblage with multiple parts. Lévi-Strauss always considered the structure of culture as bi-polar, that is, one element had to be off set and contrasted to its other.

Lévi-Strauss based his structural anthropology upon Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics (1913) and considered that this structure of the mind operated in terms of opposition that, he thought, was necessary for any culture in order to make the world comprehensible. His extensive study of myths implied that the bi-polar myth was universal, a rather Kantian operation of a storytelling a priori. These ideas of a hidden unconscious will be taken up by other writers and it is clear that the philosopher attended the famous lectures of Lacan who stated that the unconscious was structured like a language. Like Lévi-Strauss, Lacan was attached to the notion of an “origin” for human consciousness, found in the “split” that creates the social subject. But Derrida parted company with what he considered to be a nostalgic fixation on mythic origins. For Derrida, there is no “pure” authenticity, and, according to this citizen of Algeria, sensitive to magical thinking, this sentimental theme of purity is but a Romantic illusion, yet another example of Western ethnocentrism.

In this essay, Derrida dealt with the consequences of the bi-polar or opposing signs. Opposition of signs can be maintained only if one term is believed to be final, but because the terms are paired in difference, there can never be a final term, only be an endless play of signification. As Saussure noted, “..in language there are only differences.” Derrida stated that these differences play a role in language and have distinct effects. As he said,

Retaining at least the schema, if not the content, of the demand formulated by Saussure, we shall designate by the term différance the movement by which language, or any code, any system of reference in general, becomes “historically” constituted as a fabric of differences.

Derrida found “play” or oscillation between terms to be of great importance. In a reversal of Lévi-Strauss, he insisted that writing is a precondition of speech, that not only does writing or the idea of writing exist prior to speech, writing makes speech possible. Writing (écriture) is the name of the structure, which is already inhabited by the “trace.” This notion of the “trace” was a concept borrowed from Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), who wrote in “Note on the Mystic Writing Pad” (1925) that writing was a metaphor for workings of the psyche (or what Lévi-Strauss regarded as the unconscious structure of the mind), which an ever-receptive surface for thought that could retain a permanent trace of experiences (writing). The “surface” of the human mind is the unconscious, once a virgin surface, which retains permanent traces, or memory which can be energized into consciousness and affect the thinking subject.

The trace or what Derrida called the “arche-trace” is the formation of writing and of the difference that takes place in the sign. Therefore, writing is the most primordial activity of differentiation, a pre-vocal process that operates to inaugurate language, bestows consciousness and institutes being through speech. Ever fond of reversals, Derrida proposed that writing, a non-being, emerges out of silence, a necessary non-being that precedes being. Of course, “being” is a term indebted to Heidegger, a necessary but metaphysical word that, in Derrida, is always sous rature or under erasure, always crossed out, including all variations of the verb “to be.” Because writing precedes being, then, it must come before language. Consequently, Derrida reversed “the crucial pair” of language, the signifier and the signified into the signified and the signifier. It other words, that which is to be signified (meant, expressed) must precede that a which is the signifier. Logically, this reversal introduces the trace which exists as a force and formation of writing: the trace as an already-there precondition that precedes. “Difference” is the term that Derrida selected to re-formulate the relationship of being and non-being in the context of écriture or writing. “The pure trace itself does not exist,” Derrida said, because the trace institutes the possibility of the sign–precedes the sign, is necessary for the sign. Thus, for Derrida, the sign marks an absent presence, because rather than present the object, we employ the sign whose meaning is always deferred because the thing represented is always absent.

To take note of this space of deferral or absence, Derrida created the term “différance,” (mis)spelling the word with an “a” to signify that the “différance” that could not be heard only seen graphically or in writing. The “a” is silent in speech, and, according to Derrida, silent like a tomb. “Tomb” (oikēsis) in Greek is linked to “house” (oikos)which in turn is linked to “economy” in what he called an “economy of death.” The “a” exists in an intermediary zone, neither speech nor writing, because this letter, this non-sound cannot be represented (spoken/heard) through the senses. That said, différence exists in what Derrida called temporization or suspended in time or temporization and in space, meaning the to express this suspension between the “becoming time of space” and the “becoming space of time.” The “a” compensates, as he said, for the resulting loss of meaning and that this compensation is “economical.” Différence, within the structure of paired opposites, is to differ, to be the other to a term, and therefore the difference is to defer, to delay, to postpone what is an endlessly deferring meaning.

To that end, Derrida pointed out that différence/différance has several meanings. First, to “differ” is to be unlike, second, “differe” (Latin) is “to scatter, to disperse,” and third “to defer” is to delay and postpone. To “disperse” is a spatial operation, to “defer” is temporal, a pair of operations that is compensated for by the “a.” Therefore, différAnce is productive, constituting causality–cause and effect–différance is neither word or a concept. As Derrida explained,

Essentially and lawfully, every concept is inscribed to a chain or in a systematic play of differences. Such a play, difference, which is not a concept, is not simply a word, that is, what is generally represented as the calm, present, and self-referential unity of concept and phonic material..The difference of which Saussure speaks is itself, therefore, neither a concept nor a word among others..In a language, in the system of languages, there are only differences.

Derrida likened the deferral of difference to the “structure of delay” present in Freudian theory, a delay (Nachträglichkeit), explaining that the concept of the “trace” forbids retention (memory) because its past is always present. Therefore like Being, the trace must be placed sous rature. For Derrida the play of difference made it impossible to separate speech and writing. He argued that because language uses codes (signs) there is always a play of forms which assumes differences which are retained as traces. This play of differences preexist language itself which has no origin. Likewise différance is non-cognitive and has no real presence in itself; its function is to solicit or to shake language. Saussure’s notion of différence as a spatial one–terms are laid out in a system, positioned as opposites and pairs, but Derrida deployed the “a” to make the point that différance is temporal because each sign carries within it the trace of other other. Meaning as a result is always endlessly deferred because there can be no final resting place for the sign which moves along a chain of signifiers. With no possibility of locating a transcendental signifier or point of origin or end, Derrida has deconstructed Saussure’s system of language.

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Postmodernism and The Trail of the Floating Signifier

THEORIES OF THE POSTMODERN

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, “..it 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.

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Julia Kristeva: Transgression and the Féminine

JULIA KRISTEVA (1941 – )

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.”

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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.

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

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Écriture Féminine: Luce Irigaray

ÉCRITURE FEMININE

PART THREE: THE TAIN OF THE MIRROR

LUCE IRIGARAY (1930 – )

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.

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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, “..to 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.”

 

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Écriture Féminine: Laura Mulvey

ÉCRITURE FEMININE

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.

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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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Jacques Lacan and Women

JACQUES LACAN (1901 – 1981)

PART SIX: LACAN AND WOMEN

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.

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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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Jacques Lacan: The Formation of the Subject

JACQUES LACAN (1901 – 1981)

PART FIVE: THE FORMATION OF THE SUBJECT

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_030

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.

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Jacques Lacan: Through the Mirror Stage

JACQUES LACAN (1901 – 1981)

PART FOUR: THE MIRROR STAGE, CONTINUED

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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Jacques Lacan: The Mirror Stage

JACQUES LACAN (1901 – 1981)

PART THREE: THE MIRROR STAGE

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.”

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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.

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