Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Freud's "Femininity" and Irigaray's "This Sex Which Is Not One"

In conformity with its peculiar nature, psychoanalysis does not try to describe what a women is -- that would be a task it could scarcely perform -- but sets about enquiring how she comes into being, how a woman develops out of a child with a bisexual disposition (Freud, 1933, p. 116).
Freud immediately says that woman is other, both in the quote above and in the introduction to his lecture, when he says that only men think about "the problem of women" because women themselves "are the problem" (114). He then argues against such dichotomous thinking, saying that psychology proves variation of strict gender norms due to the existence of things like motherhood (active caretaking) and manners and social graces which temper male aggression (115). He, like many feminists, actually blames socially constructed ideology for stringent gendered associations: "You have decided in your own minds to make active coincide with masculine and passive with feminine. But I advise you against it. It seems to me to serve no useful purpose and adds nothing to our knowledge" (115). Despite this seemingly progressive statement, Freud continues to assert the otherness of woman in his insistence that female/female bonds must be subordinated to male/female bonds following puberty, in order for normal psychosexual development to occur (116-7). If the relationship that
is most important for a woman's growth is an oppositional one, it seems to me that binary thinking follows fairly logically behind.

The connection between the importance of the oppositional relationship between father and daughter and the concept of woman as lack comes in the form of the castration complex, which occurs, according to Freud, when girls first observe male genitalia and
[t]hey at once notice the difference and, it must be admitted, its significance too. They feel seriously wronged, often declare that they want to 'have something like it too,' and fall victim to 'envy for the penis,' which will leave ineradicable traces on their development and the formation of their character and which will not be surmounted in even the most favorable cases without a severe expenditure of psychical energy. (118)
Though the "severe expenditure of psychical energy" described here seems to go along with Freud's claim that female does not necessarily equal passive, I think there's a huge difference between unconscious action and conscious socialized behavior. If that unconscious action to possess a penis can only be accomplished by socially prescribed feminine passivity, then it seems to me that the unconscious action is subordinate and Freud's argument falls apart.

Freud ends by describing both femininity and his knowledge of it as "incomplete and fragmentary," mentioning that though his discussion has centered on " women insofar as their nature has been informed by their sexual function" and that "an individual woman may be a human being in other respects as well." An individual woman may be a human being in other respects as well. This says that women, as a group, are not human beings, and that individual women only have some chance of not being completely overcome by their sexuality. UGH.

Irigaray responds to the common psychoanalytic assertion that the feminine exists only insofar as it is a negation of the masculine (this sex which is not one) by saying that in its variance and multiplicity (this sex which is not one), femininity is deeper, richer, and more complex than masculinity. She frames this debate, as Freud does before her, in terms of sexual pleasure. In referring to the psychoanalytic practice of viewing the feminine as a lack, she says that " the vagina is valued for the 'lodging' it offers the male organ" and not on its own terms (cf. Inga Muscio) (1).

She ultimately argues that instead of characterizing female multiplicity as negative (women's eyes "false in rolling"Shakespeare's Sonnet 20, Spenser's Duessa, etc.), we should glory in it, realizing that, unlike male sexuality being located mainly in the phallus, women's entire bodies are erogenous zones and even their genitalia is not only multiple (see also her "Two Lips that Speak Together") but also constantly stimulating itself: "she touches herself in and of herself without any need for mediation[like men need women or hands], and before there is any way to distinguish [commonly male] activity from [commonly female] passivity (1). Thus, Irigaray sees the possibility of power in the position of the woman in the psychoanalytic model. Fellow French feminist Helene Cixous applies this notion of enjoying female deviation from a male norm to the concept of writing in her essay "The Laugh of the Medusa."

Irigaray clarifies that it's not enough to just flip the power binary: [Though] the powers of slaves are not negligible powers, the master is not necessarily well-served. Thus to reverse the relation, especially in the economy of sexuality, does not seem a desirable objective" (6). She concludes the essay by saying that, while consciousness of such patriarchal formations is necessary for liberation, alternative social constructions (like lesbian separatism) could ultimately cause "history to repeat itself" in the form of "phallocratism" if power structures become the ultimate goal (7).

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