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Hiding Out or Moving On?

Hiding Out or Moving On?

Feminism in Psychoanalysis
‘Why are we all here?’, Juliet Mitchell asks her audience,
rhetorically. She is opening a conference in London held in
May to mark the twentieth anniversary of the publication of
her book Psychoanalysis and Feminism. ‘Why are we all
here, and not there – as feminists, that is – in the world, in
the field? What is the attraction of psychoanalysis?’ But is
she serious? None of the speakers, or the audience, really
seemed to think so. The answer was all too obvious. We
were ‘here’ – part of the ever more self-enclosed and
politically detached intellectual culture of British feminism
– because we did not want to be out ‘there’, in a defensive
struggle to fight off further erosions in the living standards
of the bulk of women. In these unpropitious times, who
would?

Mitchell went on to explain that her book was written
from neither a clinical nor a directly theoretical need, but
rather with the strictly political aim of assessing the
limitations of Marxism for understanding the situation of
women. When it came to explaining the depth of patriarchy
and the difficulty of eroding it, there seemed to be some
absolute difference – more entrenched than any other social
division – which only psychoanalysis could address through
its account of the unconscious construction of sexual
difference. Other speakers, while pointing to some of the
limitations of psychoanalysis (especially in its pathologising
approach to lesbians and gay men), all agreed on one thing:

that the theoretical promise of psychoanalysis for feminism
lay in its challenge to any proclaimed certainties, any
normative theorising, about what it means to be a ‘woman’.

Margot Waddell even felt able to declare: ‘To think
psychoanalytically is, in my view, to think as a feminist
too.’

As if in instant mockery of this promise, however,
certainties and normativities returned like the repressed in
the very next session – ushered back in by the feminist
appropriation of ‘object-relations’ theory. Carol Gilligan’s
clinical work led her to conclude that all girls face a
‘relational crisis’ as they enter adolescence, recognising
that they must suppress their former, deeply internalised
‘feminine’ and nurturing concerns and instead assert more
autonomous selves. Speakers from the floor relaxed back
into a familiar therapeutic knowingness: ‘girls always have
problems outside caring relationships’; ‘it is rare to find a
man who embodies the feminine ethic of care’, etc, etc.

Similar generalisations were offered by Susie Orbach
and Luise Eichenbaum, who provided a social analysis of
the intra-psychic. Their female patients apparently share a

Radical Philosophy 68, Autumn 1994

deep shame over signs of dependency and the desire for
relationships. Needing, wanting and able to care for others,
they are themselves unnurtured and bereft of self. Indeed,
with a few refreshing exceptions, those feminists most
engaged with the clinical seemed most blind to the
complexities which challenge received gender orthodoxies.

Old tensions between theory and practice were replayed, as
the promise of fluidity and uncertainty retreated before
gender cliche.

So, I was led to wonder, what has been the contribution
of psychoanalysis to the politics of feminism? Is there really
some’ absolute’ form of sexual difference which privileges
psychoanalysis over other ways of understanding the
situation of women?

The most striking thing about both of the two main
tendencies of psychoanalytic feminism – object-relations
theory and Lacanianism – is that, for all their differences of
approach, they share a positive answer to this second
question. The Lacanian tendency, which Mitchell’ s book
helped to launch, has always displayed a strong preference
for a relatively self-sufficient form of theoretical analysis
over therapeutic practice. Yet the rush to Lacan in academic
feminism from the late 1970s onwards has not served to
introduce any new ways of challenging received ideas of
sexual difference. Nor has it encouraged any new feminist
strategies for empowering women. Since, according to
Lacan, an individual can only develop into a human subject
by entering the symbolic order of language, where the
‘phallus’ is both the mark of sexual division and the privileged
signifier, we are positioned within a seemingly perennial
patriarchal order, unaffected by either personal biography
and bodily encounter, or the specificities of historical and
cultural context. ‘No sexual revolution will shift these lines
of division,’ Lacan’s follower, Lemoine-Luccioni, has
affirmed. The marginalisation of issues affecting women’s
lives other than sexual difference, and the reduction of that
difference to phallic difference, means that Lacanian
feminism stabilises, rather than contests, a language which
repudiates all bodily experiences, interactions and pleasures
apart from phallic possession or lack. This has led, among
other things, to a focus on literary studies. In the recent
critical dictionary edited by Elizabeth Wright, Feminism
and Psychoanalysis, there are no entries for ‘love’, ‘hate’,
‘aggression’ or ‘violence’ , and a mere page on ‘identification’

– but eight pages on ‘art’ and twelve on ‘literary criticism’.

Instead of developing strategies which utilise
psychoanalysis critically, alongside other conceptual tools

for addressing the issues defined by feminist politics, the
search for academic respectability has allowed
psychoanalytic theory to define sexual difference as the
problem for feminism. The irony is that neither objectrelations (which stresses the significance of pre-Oedipal
attachment), nor Lacanianism (which analyses the alienated
and illusory dynamics of subjectivity), were originally
primarily concerned with questions of sexual difference at
all.

Feminists need psychoanalytic reflection (in versions
which do justice to the complexity of Freud’ s own thought),
since it provides the fullest account we have of the psychic
tensions and difficulties of assuming a sexed identity. But
to make full use of it, we must refuse its disdain for historical
and social specificity. In particular, pychoanalysis has
ignored the cultural and political sources of phallic
symbolism, or fixed them in Lacanian absolutism. Either
way, as Judith Butler recently suggested in this journal (RP
67), by failing to question -let alone seeking to subvert – the
cultural production of phallic order and authority as the sole
means of distributing sexual positions, psychoanalysis can
itself become part of the problem.

If we are to dethrone the phallus from its position in
conferring anxiety upon men (who can never match up to its
transcendental authority), and resentment upon women
(who are positioned as lacking), we have first to acknowledge
the diverse formations of men’s power, for so long condensed
into phallic symbolism. Some feminists, like Butler, have
tried to do this through subjecting psychoanalytic
perspectives to some kind of Foucauldian genealogy:

observing how the body has been constructed and
experienced through a normalising heterosexual matrix,
enshrining masculine/feminine, active/passive oppositions,
which recognise only potentially reproductive encounters
as sexual, and denying meaning to – or pathologising – all
other bodily pleasures. But such attempts have so far proved
less than satisfactory. For Foucault’s anonymous and
ubiquitous technologies of power not only ignore the distinct
and shifting collectivities which affirm or resist women’s
subordination to men, they negate the significance of
indi vidual biographical narratives – whether pieced together
from consciously or unconsciously manifested behaviour.

Psychoanalysis is useful for feminism in illuminating
how firmly, and painfully, women internalise the highly
charged meanings of ‘womanhood’ . Politically, it is crucial
for understanding the dynamics of fantasy; for seeing how
readily, for example, social crises are displaced onto sexual
panics -especially about women and gay men. But whatever
its conceptual potential, psychoanalysis on its own was
never a suitable project for feminism. For if feminist thought
and action are to relate to the women who need them most,
feminism must grapple with axes of power outside those of
sexual difference. This means attending to what women
share, but also to what divides us, in a world where the
differences in women’s personal access to power and
privilege have dramatically deepened in the decades of
second-wave feminism, along the age-old furrows of class,
region and race.

At a strictly personal level, both the therapeutic and the
political can greatly enrich our lives. The former can recreate

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our personal past in ways which help liberate us from its
most destructive residues. The latter can give us the power
and confidence of a shared sense of agency, which releases
us from that ‘gloomy tyrant the self’ through feelings of
solidarity with, and responsibilities for, others – particularl y
at times of confident and creative collective action, so
unlike the fearful and defensive politics necessary today.

Whatever the temptations to collapse the two, however, the
one can never substitute for the other.

The conference on Psychoanalysis and Feminism closed
with a member of the audience asking, hopefully, whether
we can now ‘eliminate the “and”‘, making our politics
identical with our psychoanalytic reflections. In a way, this
was the answer to Mitchell’s opening question, ‘Why are
we all here, and not there – in the world, in the field?’:

because the ‘and’ can be eliminated, and many feminists
have done so. But once we do, we retire from feminism as
a broad-based movement, into the more comfortable spaces
of the academy and the clinic. Here we can lay aside the
frustration of having to form alliances to combat deepening
social inequalities – inequalities which have allowed many
middle-class women to move into more lucrative and
prestigious careers, as the number of women living in
poverty (particularly those raising children on their own)
has grown. Prioritisation of sexual difference over other
social divisions creates a feminism which conceals rather
than explores many of the forces impoverishing the lives of
women today.

Surprisingly, even the radical challenge which might
have developed out of Freud’s thinking on sexuality is
largely absent from feminist appropriations of
psychoanalytic scholarship. As Lacanians abandon the study
of bodily pleasures for the symbolic reign of the fraudulent
phallus, and object-relations theorists eschew explorations
of the polymorphously perverse for blander narratives of
the gender-differentiating effects of maternal attachments,
sexuality is displaced from the centre of the psychoanalytic
stage.

Despite the ubiquity of perverse fantasies and activities
at the core of Freud’s writing, confounding our ideas of
what it means to be ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’, the failure of
his legacy is that it still mostly follows his lead in preserving
these two dubious concepts and making them the foundation
of its work. If psychoanalysis is to serve rather than master
feminism, it needs to abandon the bedrock of an oppositional
sexual difference. It may, or may not, take longer to liberate
actual women and men from the ambivalence, confusion
and pain of living out the effects of cultural myths of
difference. But while our sexuality is formed in the shadow
of the phallus, the increasing visibility of its actual
heterogeneity, detached from either genitals or gender,
shows that, whatever panics this may induce, there exists no
eternal writ that it must always be so formed.

If we are to resume the project of Mitchell’ s book,
feminism cannot afford to retreat into psychoanalysis. Is it
not time, instead, to place psychoanalysis in feminism, and
use the heterogeneity of sexuality to displace the simple
duality of sexual difference? And from there, move on.

Lynne Segal

Radical Philosophy 68, Autumn 1994

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