2004 SAMLA Panel
Roanoke, Virginia
12-14 November

Paul G. Beidler
Lenoir-Rhyne College

(En)Gendering/Desire: Introductory Remarks

Do not cite without permission of the author.

SAMLA 2004—Roanoke, VA

SCE panel: (En)Gendering/Desire: opening remarks

Paul Beidler, Panel Chair


Lacan showed in 1958, in “The Signification of the Phallus,” that “the phallus is a signifier” (Écrits 275).  Freud, in his 1927 essay on the “Fetishes,” interpreted the fetish as the phallus of the mother, which of course the child eventually discovers she does not have, and which therefore must be projected by some men onto some other object of, well, significance.  Lacan’s interpretation of the object of significance as signifier par excellence follows naturally from Freud’s observation.  The phallus, Lacan says, “is the signifier that is destined to designate meaning effects as a whole, insofar as the signifier conditions them by its presence as a signifier” (275).  What are “the effects of this presence” (275)?    And is Lacan talking about the effects of the presence of the phallus or the signifier?  The answer, of course, is both.  The main effect has to do with “the fact that he speaks”: “to the extent that his needs are subjected to demand, they come back to him in an alienated form” (275).  Because and to the extent that one can only be conscious of one’s needs by re-cognizing them, because only that of his needs which is iterable can become known to consciousness, which seems to be what Lacan means when he says “due to the fact that he speaks”—because of what Derrida in 1971 calls iterability, in other words, “his needs are subjected to demand”—“they come back to him in an alienated form” (275).  One simply needs, but one desires of another, so desire is inextricably both connected with and doubly tainted by communication—by the signifier.  Naturally, then, “What is thus alienated in needs,” i.e. the (supposed) initerable residue o fneed, “as it cannot, hypothetically, be articulated in demand,” “nevertheless appears in an offshoot that presents itself in man as desire” (275).

            Lacan wants to account structurally for, and to exalt, “the paradoxical, deviant, erratic, eccentric, and even scandalous nature of desire that distinguishes it from need” (276).  He says that psychoanalysis, especially since its “American transplantation” (273) and, one might suggest, its American castration,[1] has been ruled by “its ideal of theoretically and practically reducing desire to need” (276).  One simply needs, but one desires of another: “Demand already constitutes the Other as having the ‘privilege’ of satisfying needs” (276).  Demand is social—it is linguistic.  That which is demanded of the Other is not what it is, but a gift, and the gift is not what it is, but love.  So “demand annuls the particularity of everything that can be granted” (276).  This “particularity,” which one needs but which one’s demand annuls, must of course “reappear beyond demand” (276).  Just as in Freud, “The power of pure loss emerges from the residue of obliteration” (276), and so instead of demand, we have desire: “desire is neither the appetite for satisfaction nor the demand for love, but the difference that results from the subtraction of the first from the second, the very phenomenon of their splitting” (276).

            Judith Butler has lamented, in her recent collaboration with Laclau and ?i?ek, that Lacanians have persisted in erecting the phallus.[2]  But we should be careful about castrating psychoanalysis.  Lacan’s work is an important starting point for a discussion on desire.  He shows clearly that “it is not enough to be subjects of love—[we] must hold the place of the cause of desire” (my emphasis).  We must desire, and we must be desired—not so much directly because of our mother’s phallic endowment but because we use language.  Because of the signifier, of which the penis and clitoris happen to function admirably as metonyms.  They signify desire and also the desire for desire and thus signify what Lacan calls “the passion of the signifier”: “it is not only man who speaks, but in man and through man that it speaks; in that his nature becomes woven by effects in which the structure of the language of which he becomes the material can be refound” (274).  The antitheses of desire are love and ideals, and by ideals Lacan seems to mean traditional gender roles: “These ideals are strengthened by the demand they are capable of satisfying, which is always a demand for love, with the reduction of desire as its complement.  The result is “comedy,” and nothing under these circumstances is then more sickly  comic than “the act of copulation itself” (279).  In his 1957 article “The Instance of the Letter,” Lacan says that “the symptom is a metaphor” and that “desire is a metonymy” (Écrits 166).  Frankly, which would you rather have? 

            But I see two problems with Lacan’s engendering of desire.  First, in engendering desire, he also genders it.  It would seem that desire itself, unclouded by love, is gender-neutral, but when one succumbs to the need for love, the sexes diverge.  For women, he says, the result is frigidity.  Her need to be loved makes her the phallus, or significant object, of the other: “it is for what she is not that she expects to be desired as well as loved,” but she also desires the phallus of the other, and so “two things converge on the same object” (279).  When love and desire so converge, it seems, desire will be defeated by love, just as metaphor will always overpower metonymy.  With a man, on the other hand, the result is adultery: “his own desire for the phallus will make its signifier emerge in its residual divergence toward ‘another woman’ who may signify his phallus in various ways, either as a virgin or as a prostitute” (280).  She whom he loves he cannot desire, so he seeks substitutes, other women to fetishize.  All of this seems consistent, but one can’t help but wonder whether the relationship between the phallus and the signifier has changed by the end of the essay, where Lacan makes these remarks on gender.  Earlier, the phallus seems to function as merely the best metonym for the signifier Lacan can think of, and one has to admit, it works pretty well.  Also, earlier, the penis and the clitoris both seem to function as metonyms for the signifier.  But by the end, the clitoris has modestly disappeared behind her veil—there is only penis and lack.  Furthermore, now, instead of the penis being a metonym for the signifier, the signifier is a metaphor for the penis. 

            And second, there is the challenge of deconstruction.  As I have tried to show, Lacan’s notion of the signifier seems to be that it alienates us from our needs by making them social.  One simply needs, but one desires of another.  One’s particular needs become general demands, and as one thus splits apart from oneself, and winds up demanding love instead of satisfying need, desire is engendered.  But Lacan seems to assume that the alienation splits off the iterable, communicable, and social from what I have called an initerable residue, which then reappears “beyond” itself as the object of desire, just as Freud said it would.  But Derrida clearly shows in “Signature Event Context” that there is no initerable residue.  That which is, is iterable—the rest is superstition.  In Freud and Lacan, the phallus is not so fully severed—dangling by a thread, as it were, it reappears, “beyond.”  In Derrida, though, there is an “essential drift bearing on writing as an iterative structure, cut off from all absolute responsibility, from consciousness as the ultimate authority, orphaned and separated at birth from the assistance of its father” (8).  Nothing is prior to iterability, of which everything that is is a consequence.  So two questions: first, what is it, then, exactly, that reappears as the object of desire, and second, if the answer is that nothing does, why would one then desire deconstruction? 

            Price McMurray teaches American literature at Texas Wesleyan University.  His paper, “‘Malicious Agencies’: Gender and Desire in T.C. Boyle’s ‘A Women’s Restaurant,’” explores how, paradoxically, “desire . . . becomes the quixotic pursuit of a gender identity that will, in turn, ground desire” (p. 2). 

            Michael Holko is a graduate student in English at SUNY Stony Brook.  His paper, “The Passion of Desire in James Thomson (B.V.)’s “The City of Dreadful Night,” revolves around Schopenhauer’s notion that “The passage of time transforms desire into lack, happiness into sorrow, and hope into hopelessness.

            Kate Cartwright is a graduate student in English at Lehigh University.   Her paper, on Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, concludes with an application of Lacan’s ideas on the mirror phases.  In it she claims that masturbation in Genet “seems not to function merely as a tool of alienation . . but also as a healing agent” (p. 6).

            All three papers could be said to describe topologies of desire mediated by castration—they deal with passion, but also alienation.


[1] “”When Lacan came to speak at MIT, he purposely scandalized the audience by asking why for such big animals, elephants leave such small turds.  He then proceeded to give a lecture no one could follow.”  (Rapaport 94)

[2] She writes:

. . . why is there all that talk about the place of the Father and the Phallus?  One can, through definitional fiat, proclaim that the symbolic commits one to no particular notion of kinship or perhaps, more generally, to a fully empty and generalized conception of kinship, but then it is hard to know why the 'positions' in this symbolic always revolve around an idealized notion of heterosexual parenting.  Just as Jungians never did supply a satisfactory answer for why the term 'feminine' was used when anyone of any gender could be the bearer of that principle, so Lacanians are hard-pressed to justify the recirculation of the patriarchal kin positions as the capitalized 'Law' at the same time as they attempt to define such socially saturated terms in ways that immunize them from all sociality or, worse, render them as the pre-social (quasi-) transcendental condition of sociality as such.  The fact that my friends Slavoj and Earnesto claim that the term 'Phallus' can be definitionally separated from phallogocentrism constitutes a neologistic accomplishment before which I am in awe.  I fear that their statement rhetorically refutes its own propositional content, but I shall say no more.  (Butler, Laclau, and ?i?ek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left 152-53)

But does it?  I don't know.  I think I see her point—taking the phallus as an algorithm for the signifier may seem to be reinstating a patriarchal power structure that it is the whole point of the academy (from a certain point of view) to replace.  But while one can object to separating the phallus from phallogocentrism, one can also object to separating Lacanian psychoanalysis from the notion of the phallus, which Butler seems to want to do.  And it's rhetorical castration either way, which is interesting.   Why all this worry about the separation of the phallus?  Ouch.  And are we separating it from psychoanalysis because attendant on the concept, inevitably, are the notions of envy and lack?  Something's awry here. 

Butler is at least frank about what she is willing to give up:

Thus, as a transcendental claim, sexual difference should be rigorously opposed by anyone who wants to guard against a theory that would prescribe in advance what kinds of sexual arrangements will and will not be permitted in intelligible culture.  The inevitable vacillation between the transcendental and social functioning of the term makes its prescriptive function inevitable.  (148)

The link between sex and gender is itself oppressive, she seems to argue, and therefore sexual difference (at least qua transcendental sexual difference)  should be given up: hence the notion (Gender Trouble) that gender is performative (i.e. not transcendental).  But I'm not sure Lacan would share Butler's assumption that theory should not entail gender politics but be entailed by it.


Works Cited:

Butler, Judith, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj ?i?ek.  Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left.  London: Verso, 2000.

Derrida, Jacques.  Limited Inc, ed. Gerald Graff.  Trans. Samual Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman.  Evaston: Northwestern University Press, 1988.

Rapaport, Herman.  The Theory Mess: Deconstruction in Eclipse.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Lacan, Jacques.  Écrits: A Selection.  Trans. Bruce Fink.  New York: W. W. Norton, 2002.