Arrested Development

The Phallic Romantic Comedy – or Everyone Loses!

Desire is motivated by lack, and in the post-Oedipal logic that informs heterosexuality, each subject will experience that lack according to how the castration complex fixes his or her sexed identity. The male experiences the sense of lack as a threat of possible castration; the woman experiences it as a recognition of her having already been castrated. Each subject seeks compensation for this lack in the phallus, the transcendental signifier of desire; each must signify the phallus for the other. The woman, therefore, becomes the phallus for the man; the man in turn, „has“ the phallus for the woman (Lacan, „Meaning“ 83-84).

Here a quasi-Victorian couple are miming the Lacanian phallic comedy.
„I have the phallus,“ cries the man.
„Fiddlesticks!“ replies the woman.
„I AM the phallus! So there!

The woman’s „feminine“ narcissism
allows her the self-immersion to transform her body into the signifier of the male’s desire, while the man’s anaclitic object-choice as an „overestimation“ of the love object allows him to believe in her masquerade, and his socially enjoined „overestimation“ of the penis as phallus, allows him (indeed requires him) to believe in her misrecognition of his penis as phallus. Both roles in this comedy are played out in terms of male sexuality and for the purpose of stabilizing the male’s psychosexual identity. Although in a radically different idiom and describing a completely different sphere of subjectivity and intersubjectivity, the dynamics of Lacan’s psychic scenario resonate with those of the asymmetrical discursive achievements of gendered subject positions within the heterosexual relations extrapolated in Wendy Holloway’s study summarized here.

Freud’s object-choice model also elides female sexuality, since the woman’s „narcissism“ is not „a true object-choice“ and her participation in the relation neither expresses nor serves her desire as much as it accommodates the male’s desire; Lacan’s model emphasizes the woman’s role in meeting the male’s sexually articulated need to deny lack and allay anxiety.

The weird practicality of the heterosexual dynamic in Lacan’s description reveals the sexual politics served by the conflation, in Freud’s „On Narcissism,“ of the heterosexual male’s transformation of his primary narcissism into an overvaluation of the love object, with the self-preservative intentionality of anaclitic object-choice.

The socialization of young boys into normative heterosexuality depends largely on a terrorized discovery of sexual difference. Freud readily admits that the young boy’s first sight of female genitalia does not immediately stimulate the castration fear; this comes about subsequently, „when some threat of castration has obtained hold upon him“ („Some Psychical“ 252) – in other words, once he has been sufficiently indoctrinated to fear the absence of the penis, and to internalize the ideologically naturalized relation between women’s anatomical difference from men and the former’s disenfranchisement.

In emerging as a self-consciously gendered entity, the boy is faced with two alternatives in his attitude towards women: terror of her („horror of the mutilated creature“) or terroristic impulses toward her („triumphant contempt for her“). The successfully Oedipalized heterosexual male, therefore, reaches an impasse: in order to enter the symbolic position whose alternative is the castration the woman’s body has proven a possibility, he must desire that body which represents that very threat. This is why his anaclisis requires an overvaluation of the love object he also holds in contempt. He must desire it as the phallus, so that his possession of it will suffice to neutralize both his knowledge of sexual difference and the possibility of his own constitutional „lack“ (which desire is, in fact, predicated upon). In other words, male heterosexuality is „self-preservative“ because the female body is experienced as life-threatening. This threat is alternatively overcome by villification of the woman as castrated, or by fetishizing her as the Phallus whose irreducible absence is first incarnated in and then disavowed through her body.

When Freud uses the Medusa myth as an allegory for the male subject’s paradigmatic encounter with female genitalia, he inadvertently exposes the conflicting agendas within Oedipalized male heterosexuality:

The terror of Medusa is . . . a terror of castration. . . .
It occurs when a boy . . . catches sight of the female
genitals, probably those of an adult, surrounded by hair.
. . . The hair upon Medusa’s head is frequently represented
. . . [as] snakes, and these once again are derived from
the castration complex. . . . They serve actually as a mitigation
of the horror, for they replace the penis, the absence of which
is the cause of the horror. („Medusa’s Head“ 273)

Freud also interprets the paralytic effect of looking at the Medusa as another phallic comfort, the „stiffening“ of the body suggesting erection, thus reminding the male of the continued existence of his own penis. The erection is not only an internal comfort, but its display to the woman „has an apotropaic effect. To display the penis (or any of its surrogates) is to say: ‚I am not afraid of you. I defy you. I have a penis.‘ Here, then, is another way of intimidating the Evil Spirit“ (ibid. 274).i His sexual arousal is a means by which he exorcises the threat of sexual difference the woman represents. The erect penis is a weapon of both defense and offense, a talisman wielded in a sexual act that functions as preemptive aggression. His erection is „caused“ by the woman, but as a response it expresses sexual desire and murderous defensive hostility (or sexual desire as murderous defensive hostility).

Male heterosexual relations with women are determined to a great degree by the „successful“ resolution of the Oedipus through the castration anxiety of the phallic stage at which point „maleness exists but not femaleness“ (Freud, „Infantile Genital“ 145) – meaning that the principal binary is not male-female but male-castrated. Therefore, a male encounter with a female is an encounter with non-existence: both hers and the possibility of his. In the anaclitic subject, therefore, self-preservative instincts are not merely the models for adult object-choice, but they are thematized as self-preservative within that object-choice and that sexuality. Male heterosexuality is anaclitic because it is „attached“ to self-preservative instincts, but also because it is realized as a complex of self-preservative maneuvers against the life-threatening encounter with sexual difference.

From Earl Jackson, Jr., Strategies of Deviance (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995). Theories of Representation and Difference. Teresa de Lauretis, General Editor


i. This passage also underwrites the „logic“ of the use of „surrogates“ of the penis against this Other, which would conceivably include knives, guns, fists, baseball bats, papal bulls, camera lenses, etc.

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