OEDIPUS AND ELECTRA: Jacques Lacan and the feminist perspective

"La femme n'existe pas"
- Key principle of Lacanian psychoanalysis.

As we have seen, Freud's work on female sexuality was considered even by the man himself to be "incomplete and fragmentary". In his own lifetime this provoked fierce comment and discussion from both female and male psychoanalysts; however it is later writers who have contributed most to the subject, most notably perhaps, the controversial and subversive Jacques Lacan (1901-81). Lacan was born in Paris, the eldest child of Alfred Lacan, a French wine merchant. Like Freud, he was both his mother's favourite and the son of a weak father. In the young Lacan's case, however, the family was overshadowed by a terrifying and tyrannical grandfather, making for an oppressive and unhappy home life.

According to only biography of Lacan yet published in English, he was a very unpleasant person - an arrogant and selfish womaniser who always put his own carnal desires before the feelings and needs of his family (1). Not surprisingly given his voracious sexual appetite, Lacan (who had been raised as a Catholic) was also an atheist (2). He studied medicine in his youth and specialised in psychiatry from 1926, becoming a pioneer of French psychoanalysis in the 1930's. Lacan advocated "a return to Freud", meaning a restoration of the original ethos of Freud's early works that had been watered down and "bastardised" by the second generation of analysts. The International Psychoanalytic Association (especially Marie Bonaparte and Anna Freud) took a dim view of Lacan's work and officially expelled him in 1953, citing his unorthodox analytic practice as the main reason. In his youth he was greatly influenced by Melanie Klein, though he later became one of her most prominent critics. Whilst his writings are difficult to understand (impossible, some say), we can distinguish some key concepts. His most important claim was that the unconscious was structured like a language, and he used a linguistic model in his work rather than just a sexual one as Freud had done.

Like his friend, the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, Lacan saw the Oedipal struggle as a symbolic conflict originating in the decline of the patriarchal hierarchy in Western society. His Oedipus complex primarily engages the Name-of-the-Father, an abstract paternal agency that serves to separate mother and child, rather than the biological father or father figure. Lacan claimed that a child is born into the Order of the Real, in which it feels itself to be completely at one with the mother and the environment. The child has no real power here since the order is pre-linguistic: it has no access to the word "I" which Lacan saw as defining its position in society. At some point between the ages of six and eighteen months, the child catches sight of itself in the mirror and realises that its body is separate from that of the mother; this "mirror phase" moves it into the specular realm of the Imaginary Order. The discovery that it is an individual being also causes the child (of either sex) to wish to bond with its mother sexually by attempting to recreate what Lacan referred to as the "phallus" - the object which the child believes the mother lacks and wishes to have.

At this point the father-agency intercedes and imposes the patriarchal law that forbids this union, indicating to the (male) child that the phallus is attainable only through him. If the boy obeys and represses his Oedipal desires, he becomes part of the law-giving Symbolic Order and is rewarded with the "I" of language and of patriarchal power. If he refuses to obey the Father he is left isolated in the Imaginary and becomes liable to psychosis as he can only win entry into society by co-operation: as Freud reminded us, the boy can never defeat the Oedipal Father. Therefore neurotics can be considered to be stuck in the Imaginary - they are tied to their infantile phase by the conflict between unconscious and conscious forces (or infantile and adult sexuality), which causes the neurosis.

Despite Lacan's apparent compliance in the myth of the male's innate superiority (the female cannot gain a secure place in the Symbolic Order since she has no real access to patriarchal language), and not forgetting his own selfish attitudes towards womankind, he has been very influential in the feminist sphere. Whilst she criticises certain of Lacan's formulations, Luce Irigaray has argued that the female's position does not have to be seen in a negative light: rather, she has the possibility of creating her own form of language in the Imaginary unhindered by oppressive male discourse (3).

Lacan has also been embraced by feminist film theorists, who argue that describing the unconscious as a language facilitates the discussion of "masculinity" and "femininity" as fluid social constructs rather than fixed biological ones (4); the woman for Lacan is not "castrated" as such but subordinated by male language. Many feminist writers believe that current social conditions are the key to explaining the apparent "passivity" of women, who are not biologically subservient but oppressed by a patriarchal hierarchy that is afraid of their potential power (5). It is the favourable position accorded to their male peers by society that women resent, rather than the masculine genital organ as such. For Adler this was the origin of the "masculine protest" in women, his counterpart to Freud's "penis envy" (6). It is after all women who ultimately control creation, leading perhaps to "womb envy" in men, as Karen Horney has suggested (7). Therefore, the male child's view of his mother as castrated is not a true picture but wishful thinking on his part as he fears her and wants to defeat her. This accords with the Kleinian and Lacanian belief that the very young child often experiences its mother as threatening and capable of castration.

Whilst Freud did recognise women's downtrodden state as a contributory factor in their "weakness", he rarely made this explicit in his work (8). He was clearly unwilling to commit such opinions to public view, perhaps as he was afraid of women's hidden power; his somewhat unnatural dependence on his own (tyrannical) mother certainly indicates that this was indeed the case. It is also apparent, of course, that Freud himself contributed to this oppression. His own treatment of women betrayed his inner misogyny, especially apparent in his cruelty towards female patients such as Emma Eckstein and Dora, a young hysteric. In as far as psychoanalysis is bound up with the person of Freud, then, we must conclude that it is an inherently gender biased discipline. However, as Juliet Mitchell points out, it is a product of a patriarchal society not a recommendation for one. Paradoxically, therein lies its value for feminists - it illustrates precisely what is wrong with our world and provides a starting point from which to alter it (9).


1) See Roudinesco, Elisabeth (trans. Barbara Bray) ([1994] 1999) Jacques Lacan (second edition), Polity Press, New York.

2) Religion and sexual promiscuity, however, are hardly mutually incompatible: Jung, who once commented that "the prerequisite for a good marriage, it seems to me, is the licence to be unfaithful" (see Freud, Sigmund and Carl Gustav Jung (ed. William McGuire; trans. Ralph Manheim and R. F. C. Hull) ([various dates] 1974) The Freud/Jung Letters, Hogarth Press and Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, London, p.289), seduced at least two of his female patients.

3) See Irigaray, Luce (trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burne) ([1977]1985) This Sex Which Is Not One, Cornell University Press, New York.

4) See Hayward, Susan (1996) Key Concepts in Cinema Studies, Routledge, London. As previously noted, Freud's own position here is somewhat paradoxical. His notion (following Fliess) that we are all "bisexual" (that is, contain both female and male characteristics) appears to acknowledge environmental factors since he claimed than the proportional display of these characteristics varies according to the culture in which we live, and he frequently stressed the importance of social relationships with relatives and contemporaries in the shaping of the personality. At the same time, however (due perhaps to the prevailing scientific trends of the time), his work also retained a strong biological emphasis. He believed that the psychological differences between the sexes were largely determined genitally ("anatomy is destiny"). His insistence on the complete superiority of the penis meant that he was never able to create a favourable position for the female subject. The debate over the relative importance of biological and social factors in Freud's work has served to split his posthumous followers into two groups: the (predominantly English) libido school of the Kleinians versus the (mostly American based) non-libido schools of the neo-Freudians Karen Horney, Erich Fromm and Harry Stack Sullivan.

5) Historical evidence in fact suggests that many societies were originally matriarchal, and that male dominance was only achieved after a long struggle. This was most famously expressed in the writings of J. J. Bachofen. See Bachofen, J. J. (trans. Ralph Manheim) ([various dates] 1992) Myth, Religion and Mother Right: Selected Writings, Princeton University Press, New Jersey.

6) See, for example, Adler, Alfred (ed. Colin Brett) ([1938] 1998) Social Interest, Oneworld, Oxford, p.172.

7) See Horney, Karen ([1939] 1980) New Ways in Psychoanalysis, W. W. Norton, London.

8) Although "Civilised" Sexual Morality and Modern Nervousness of 1908 (Standard Edition IX) and Femininity of 1933 (Standard Edition XXII) both refer briefly to this oppression, a full discussion is notably absent from Freud's huge collection of writings.

9) See Mitchell, Juliet ([1974] 1980) Psychoanalysis and Feminism, Penguin, London, p.xv. It is, however, important to remember that some feminists have remained resolutely hostile to psychoanalysis. One possible explanation for this is the fact that the difficulties experienced by women and particularly children in getting authorities to take seriously their claims of sexual abuse up to the 1970's can be attributed at least in part to the influence of Oedipal theory. See Webster, Richard (1996) Why Freud Was Wrong (revised edition), HarperCollins Publishers, London. Perhaps there is after all something to be said for J.M. Masson's claims (see above).


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ã Robin Tamblyn, 2000.

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