Prelude to an Ethics
of the Feminine
"That woman who makes people exclaim:
‘She’s made of steel!’
S he is simply ‘made of woman.’”
Colette, La Vagabonde
In the accelerated
anthropological transformation at the beginning of this third millennium, women
are at once an emerging force, on the
same level with its upheavals in values and identities, AND an irreducible otherness—object of
desire, fear, and envy, of oppression and exploitation, of abuse and exclusion.
Can psychoanalysis make itself heard (the epistemological question), must it make
itself heard (the ethical question) in this new phase of Civilization and Its Discontents [Unbehagen]?
It was necessary that a
woman be President of the IPA to seize this historic moment and take the risk
to adopt “THE FEMININE” as a congress theme.
I say “risk” because THE
FEMININE, like a “boson of the unconscious” (as we have a Higgs boson in
physics), is as radical as it is ungraspable a component of our psychosexual
identities; and though no longer an “enigma” (Freud), this vector relating the
soma and the psyche is no less of an “overflow” of existential and social
actings, as attested by the stunning polyphony of the program for this 51st Congress!
In thanking you for the
honor you do me, I venture to argue—if only to do justice to the women
who fight for their rights and to those who come looking for survival [sur-vie] on our couches—that the
feminine cannot be neutralized.
The instinctual/sexual disjunction
For the two thousand and
five hundred years that ethics has existed, the feminine has been rejected from
the sphere of ethics: it is not a subject,
at most it is an object (if that!).
Psychoanalysis has broken
this exclusion of the feminine by way of a new ethics that “puts in brackets,”
which is to say suspends judgment,
morality, and the world so as to better question them, by giving itself a direction (“Were Id was, Ego shall become”)
and two opposing principles (the pleasure principle and the reality principle).
Inscribed in this suspense, transference reveals in the
unconscious a drive-based sexuality (sexuel
pulsionnel) that, far from
expelling the organic (biological and anatomic), is denatured because it is disconnected from the organic instinctual by the primal
repression. An original disjunction constitutes the speaking being as a split
subject, a splitting or fading (Spaltung, refente) to which the analyst lends an ear, and it is this which breaks into normative morality.
Feminine fertility and
eroticism seem to manifest and disclose this disjunction, and as a result become the target of desire and
envy—to possess, to master, to destroy (as well!), for the benefit of a
masculine domination observed in all societies. The castration complex only
finds its full meaning if it is understood, for both sexes, as a traumatic displacement of the “trauma”
of sexual difference, which resonates
deeply with the original split/fading.
Two fables of hominization
Two fables on the
beginnings of hominization illustrate the violence that scars the discovery of
sexual difference and continues to frighten and enchant heterosexuality.
For Claude Lévi-Strauss,
the “psychic revolution”
of materiality, or denatured sexuality,
which displaces animal instinct in the henceforth and definitively double,
heterogeneous (energy-and-senses) drive thanks
to language, was originally… feminine. I cite: “Of all mammals, the human
animal is the only one […] that can make love in all seasons,” women “could
signal their moods with words”(!).
The first humans
decorated graves (350,000 BP), and parietal art gives us a zoomorphic
representation of drives: a giant vulva crowned by a buffalo head, which
appears to draw in the racing animals (Chauvet, 37,000 BP). Capable of
relieving the libido attached to their finitude through language and art, the
two sexes enter into culture and death as divided subjects. Heterosexuality
enacts and exhibits the splitting/fading
of being in human existence, regardless of the power of artificial
reproduction and elimination of guilt from homosexuality.
We still need to refine
how feminine psychosexuality, modulated by the socio-political upheavals of the
feminine condition, succeeds in transforming this inaugural and constitutive splitting.
And how it appears in symptoms in the “heterosexual comedy.”
Moving the needle
erupts, Freud assigns psychoanalysis, in two essays on the feminine,
a new task that consists (on the epistemological level) in “finding the
connection” between the “theory of bisexuality” and the “theory of drives”
task to which this Congress calls its participants; and (on an ethical level)
in bearing witness against the “frustration
of sexual life” (that is not pornography). And he expects—perhaps it
is a wager?—that “eternal Eros” “will make an
effort to assert himself in the struggle with his equally immortal adversary.”
According to Freud, the
“two phases” of the female Oedipus (with change of object and always
“unresolved”—I prefer unfinished)
make apparent that the feminine is a
factor of the transformability of psychic
life considered not as an “apparatus” but as a “spirit life” or a “life of
Prefiguring some aspects
of “gender” theories, a polyphonic psychic bisexuality (more accentuated in women) appears in Freud, proving to be double for each sex: thus the “party” is
made four at least. Only to be modulated, in the end, to the singular or unique. It is a frightening, jubilatory freedom that is risked by
this choice, by this ethic whose “norms,” or even “identities” themselves
(man/woman), have become “dynamic concepts.” For better and
There remains the enigmatic question that
Freud asked Marie Bonaparte: “What does woman want?” (“Was will das Weib?”). He wonders not about desire (Wunsch) but want (Wollen), the pillar of choice in an ethical life. The elusive
(“what…want”) refers to the relationship of the feminine to the ideals of
life, and to life itself, inseparable
from cultural ideals.
Was Freud looking to
re-found ethics through the feminine?
The biopolitics of modernity force this question on us now more than ever.
I am going to attempt to
convince you—though you are convinced already because you are
psychoanalysts—that THE FEMININE conveyed by the Freudian discovery of
the unconscious is one, if not THE,
factor of this disquieting opening, due to its own transformability: the feminine is transformative. Neither innate nor acquired, but the tireless conquest of the two phases of the unfinished Oedipus, the vivacity of the FEMININE
either diversifies or it succumbs to the trials of merciless socio-historical
A confession, before we
continue. Like you, I hear THE FEMININE of woman (I will not deal with the
feminine of man here) in listening to my patients, in reading your work, in
talking with you. And often—perhaps like you?—I
am tired of these disruptive mysteries, these cosmetics of all sorts! To what
degree is the feminine in me? In you? No one knows, but the feminine that I embody,
in my way, is not an ideological artifact. I participate in its advent, always to come. Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote, “On ne naît pas femme, on le devient”—We
are not born, but rather, become women). I would say, rather, “We are (biologically) born female, but ‘I’
(psychosexual conscious-unconscious) become (or not) FEMININE.”
I propose to share with
you some stages of this becoming to which my clinical experience with the feminine has brought me, with
my debt to the many works that have guided me and which I would not know how to
begin to list.
2. The transformative feminine
The oedipal dyad
feminine is formed in the oedipal dyad—the primary Oedipus and the secondary Oedipus—and
in maternal reliance.
I call primary Oedipus the archaic period that goes from birth to what we call the
phallic phase (until age three and six). Far from the idyllic
“Minoan-Mycenaean” (Freud) and the serenity of “being” before “doing”
(Winnicott), projective identification (Melanie Klein) is fostered by
mother-daughter resemblance and by
the projection of maternal narcissism
and depression on the girl.
An interactive subjectivity is established by the early working out of an identificatory and introjective/projective bond with the loving-and-intrusive pre-object that is the mother (insofar as she
incorporates the feminine and relays the father’s desire).
Psychization of the bond
By introjection, the
excited cavity of the inner body turns into an internal representance of the external. This psychization of alterity is
immediately made problematic by the identification with the mother and by the girl’s reactivity as an agent (as well) of seduction-intrusion-frustration. The archaic
dependence prepares the status of feminine erotic object, which the woman will
ask to understand her as if it were… an imaginary mother: the feminine demand
seeking “authenticity” is inhabited by the persistent mirage of the primary Oedipus. But the primary
conflict immediately presents the “illusion” of this primary attachment,
awakening the vigilance that detects “imposture”
Beyond the two pitfalls
of narcissism and passivating masochism, the projective resemblance of the primary oedipal phase therefore establishes the psyche of the little girl as an altered sameness, as an integrated otherness. The self
outside the self, the outside-of-oneself in the self.
This psychosexuality of
interdependence is encoded in the sensorial flow, gestures, images, and
echolalia (the cathexis of pre-linguistic vocalizations: intensities,
frequencies, and rhythms), which I call a semiotic receptacle (chora), that already
have sense without having meaning, this latter developing with the
acquisition of symbolic rules (of
phonetics, grammar and logic).
The co-presence of
“sames” (mother-daughter), and meticulous sensorial adjustment of their
harmonies/disharmonies, runs through utilitarian care and is filtered into the feminine
realm of the sublimated senses that is beauty. I hold
that while it appears in the maternal gaze for the newborn, regardless of the sex, and before mobilizing to protect from
castration or lack, beauty magnetizes
the differentiated mother-daughter sameness, the excitement and tenderness of all their attuned semiotic senses.
It is a beauty that
coexists with the desire to expel
expulsion. The first pre-symbolic gestures are colored with rejection: attraction and repulsion, fascination and disgust, neither “subject” nor
“object,” ab-jection is more violent
between mother and daughter than between mother and idealized son. Add to this the adolescent’s hatred of the castrated woman, the
object of the paternal penis. It is a hatred without
Orestian remorse. Contrary to patricide, matricide for the daughter remains a hazy unconscious complex, a continuous background
noise that will accompany her throughout her endless settling of scores with
her mother and her representatives.
Unthought and unthinkable, matricide dispossesses
her of herself.
THE FEMININE, potential
hostage of the pre-objectal maternal, of the Thing;
first working out of the infans’ phobias, without which the adolescent, panicked and suicidal to the point of
“no longer being able to stand him or herself,” tries to escape into anorexia,
the non-sexual, or even sex change; THE FEMININE, reserved and repressed by the
later accession to the phallic.
Is it not precisely this
altered feminine position—as absolute as it is refused, and taking shape
as early as the primary oedipal
phase—that underlies the fact that the feminine is “more inaccessible,”
as Freud said, for both sexes? Inaccessible due to fear of passivation, fear of
narcissistic and masochistic regression, of the loss of visible markers of
identity by a sensorial engulfment that risks dispersing the subject into an
endogenous or even pathological autism.
A barely repressed
continent, let us say: when maintained, the altered
feminine of the primary Oedipus
is masked by reactive femininity and
its parades of embellishment or narcissistic reparation, with which the woman’s
later phallicism reacts to the castration complex. And it is over the course of
the phallic phase—which, between the ages of three and five, positions
the subject in the oedipal triangulation—that
the female subject undertakes psychic transformations by which the choice of sexual identity will (or will not) be
Foreign to the phallus
Two moments mark the
positioning in the secondary oedipal phase. The phallic stage becomes the central
organizer of the co-presence of sexuality and thought in both sexes; it is a “phallic kairos,” in the Greek sense of a
mythic “encounter” AND/OR a fateful “severing.” An
equivalence emerges between, on the one hand, the pleasure of the
phallic organ, visible and valued in androcentric society, and on the other
hand, the access to language, to the function of speech and thought.
The entry into the secondary oedipal phase (where the father replaces the mother as the aim of desire) adjoins a
decisive moment in the construction of feminine subjectivity: the cathexis (Besetzung) of what Freud calls “the father of individual
sexual differentiation “is secured,” it is only an “empathy” (Einfühlung), a “direct and immediate
identification” with the father: not yet as “object,” but already a third AND identificatory party who, by bringing
together the characteristics of both parents, “leads us back to the origin of
the ego ideal.” I insist on the “bisexuality” (father and mother) that permeates this originary thirdness. And I maintain
that the “mother” part of this “imaginary father” can only promote the transition of the feminine primary Oedipus into the secondary Oedipus, and thereby support
this bisexuality that Freud stipulates “comes to the fore much more clearly in
women than in men.”
As a third, separating and regulating figure of the sensorial
mother-child dyad, the father must definitively assume the place of symbolic father, the figure of interdiction and law, reason, power, and moral codes. The penis becoming, for speaking sexes, the phallus—signifier of privation, of lack, and thereby of
desire: desire to copulate, to signify, to sublimate, and to create.
The boy enters the primary oedipal phase under the regime of patricide and castration, and “resolves” them through
the superego. The girl enters the secondary oedipal phase favored by THE FEMININE of the “father
of prehistory,” who, on the contrary, distresses the boy by referring him back
to castration and passivity. She idealizes this bivalent thirdness and its
values; but, magnetized by the maternal sameness-intimacy of the primary Oedipus, she adheres to the
phallic order as a stranger to the
phallus, perceiving her sensoriality and her clitoral excitability as less visible and less remarkable, even and especially if she ventures to defend herself
against them by taking up a phallic posture. She becomes an untiring
communicator, an inflexible militant who fills screens with inevitably paternal
causes, and who mediatic-political power (always avid to recover the
spectacular latencies of her combative language) easily exploits.
That is, unless she
purifies her primary Oedipus through revolt
and willfulness, through the “eternal irony of the community” (as Hegel puts
it), through the insatiable curiosity of the researcher.
Women’s fabulous social
adaptability—an obstinate scar—covers this constitutive
dissociation that expresses itself as foreign to the phallic order. On the one hand, there is an intense cathexis in the
underlying bond and alterity, a psychosexual movement that reveals itself in
the need to believe (in the maternal
envelope, in the imaginary father). On the other hand, this belief—disparaged by sexism and
swallowed up by the primary Oedipus—as well as every identity,
is experienced in the register of the illusory: it is a game, “I’m in it but
I’m pretending.” Deluded, the feminine is equally disillusioned, disappointed—with
a radical disappointment, more intractable than melancholy, because the subject
is not confronted with the nonsense of being, but with the absence of being. When she rejects suicide, the feminine assumes this ab-sense and lives
again with it in a daunting region where strength (to live) abuts indifference.
The repressed, mistreated
feminine, entrenched in its strangeness and its absence, allows itself to be
consoled and instrumentalized by religiosities, both sectarian and
fundamentalist; mystics and the devout abound, but the disillusioned feminine
also produces the most hardened of atheists.
Apparent feminine realism
supports itself with this chimera: women do not stop doing, and doing
everything, because they do not fully believe in it—they believe that it
is an illusion… to be remade.
The feminine hateloving (hainamoration) of the phallus does not come to an end, however. The
feminine knows how to combat the maternal hold of the primary Oedipus as well as the father of the superego in the secondary Oedipus. But the feminine
internalization of this psychosexual panoply—which I have sketched in
broad strokes—, in the preserve of intimacy,
which flees itself, also facilitates the intrapsychic contact between the
feminine and the death drive. Before
and without externalizing in sadism, the originary masochism is only one
melancholic version of this destructiveness that sculpts the living and
“naturally” (so to speak) kneads feminine life (think here of little Sigmund
watching as his mother kneads Knödels). Freud stipulated that “the pleasure principle seems actually to serve the death instincts.” Yet for
a woman, Sabina Spielrein (1885-1942), who had theorized it in
1912—before Freud—it is the inverse: “the need for destruction is
inherent in sexual impulses” and destruction is (simply) “the condition of
coming into being.”
Moreover, alongside the
hateloving of the phallus, a second psychic posture, initiated in the primary oedipal phase, is only completed
in the secondary oedipal phase: as a
speaking being, the feminine subject accesses the social symbolic order as a
foreigner to the phallic; but being feminine, she desires to have a child with
the father from the mother’s position.
Thus from primary Oedipus to secondary Oedipus, the transformative feminine is a multiverse (to borrow from contemporary
astrophysics) that the amorous encounter awakens and reconstructs. Unless this
multilayered structure is compressed through frigidity and explodes in
hysterical attacks or conversions—a cascade of co-present sensorialities,
mnesic traces, fantasies, and ideals sweep the pleasure of organs into feminine jouissance. “All my skin has a soul,”
writes Colette. Let me add: all my flesh has a soul. Detotalized completeness
and eclipse of the self: absolute vitality and crossed mortalities of the two
The maternal experience,
which I call a reliance,
is another component of the transformative feminine. It is an eroticism in the
psychoanalytic sense, understanding Eros as that which, “by bringing about a
more and more far-reaching combination of the particles into which living
substance is dispersed, aims at complicating life and at the same time, of
course, at preserving it.”
Originally a biopsychic
experience, reliance—for both
women and men—may be refused as such, or transposed into the professions
of education and care, or in various social commitments. But it reverses into mère-version
(a pun on the French père-version, as
père means father and mère means mother) when the female lover’s libido
turns her unsatisfied drives on the child.
Before it becomes a
“holding environment,” from which the creation of psychic bonds will detach, maternal eroticism is a state: a “state of emergency in life,”
a quality of vital energy that is always already psycho-somatic, given and
received to “be at the level required to conserve life.”
But while the female lover’s libido is dominated by the satisfaction of drives, maternal eroticism deploys its libidinal
thrust as tenderness; beyond expulsion, abjection, and separation, tenderness is the basic affect of reliance.
appears to us as a cathexis of the instinctual “double reversal” at all levels of the psychic structure,
and it thereby constitutes an essential condition for the mutability of the
psychic structure of both mother and child.
Two factors internal to
maternal intersubjectivity promote this metabolism of destructive passion into reliant
dispassionateness: the woman’s re-experienced and rearranged oedipal dyad in the new parental couple, and the maternal
relationship to language.
A veritable sublimatory cycle
is built on these two pillars in the child’s acquisition of language. To those
who claim that the feminine lacks humor, let us recall the economy of this
sublimatory cycle, which is literally the same one Freud observed in the
discharge and reception of witticism: surprised and ensnared, the interlocutor
is incited to recreate the story; the child, too.
RELIANCE, then. After having highlighted separation
and transitionality, with Winnicott,
and maternal madness, with A. Green,
I believe it important to insist now on this maternal aspect that MAINTAINS the
cathexis and anti-cathexis of binding and unbinding in psychosomatic bonds so
that they remain open, in order to be identified and recreated. I call this
specific eroticism that maintains the emergency in life, to the limits of life, a reliance.
A spiraled and rebounding time follows: maternal time as beginning and beginning again.
Herethic of love
Women want to be free to
decide whether or not to be mothers. Some of them eagerly turn to assisted
motherhoods without prejudice: is this because the pre-subjective aspect of
feminine eroticism familiarizes them with this possession-dispossession of the self that modern
science imposes on us down to our most intimate depths? At the same time, the
transformative feminine is not free of dogmas and norms, but can be able to
modulate them into dynamic concepts.
And joins this unsettled ethic that
points to… psychoanalysis itself.
Listening to the
sexuality of the female lover, it is up to psychoanalysis to continue creating
new metapsychological concepts in order to develop an elucidation and
accompaniment of maternal eroticism in its specificity. Without this, the
liberation of the feminine subject is destined to be nothing more than an
unethical cog in the automation of the human race. If
love is (as Spinoza says) the intimate face of ethics, then the feminine is
neither an ideology nor a morality, but appears as a “herethic” of love.
The thresholds of this transformability are pitfalls on which
the feminine future may stumble or run aground, in suffering or pathological
symptoms on the one hand or in complicity with conformist or social
totalitarianism on the other. But when it succeeds in evading them—by
banding together with the masculine of a companion, by relying on a partner’s
complicity or a community’s support, by crossing through solitude and conflict,
and with the help of psychoanalysis, for example…—, the feminine radiates a maturity that the
infantile macho, hiding in the shadow of masculine power and seduction, seems
to be missing. Until the feminine of man reinstates
3. Singularities and metamorphoses of parenthood
Understood thusly, I
invite you to consider that the feminine—as a detotalized “open
structure”—participates in the current overcoming and legitimization of
sexed AND gendered identities, in their singular/unique and shareable future. The third millennium will be the epoch of individual, which
is to say singular, opportunities. Or
it will not,
allows itself to be swallowed up in banalized similarities and likes by
the transhumanist automation that is in the midst of establishing the binary
domination of “the haves” over “the have-nots.”
The “trauma” of sexual
difference, which Freud continued to contemplate up to his Outline (1939-1940), gets covered over if it does not “disappear”
in the multiplication of genders that call for impassioned subversive
confrontations. Yet, the liberating reach of gender destabilizes the “psychic sex” itself and reveals traumatic
zones of subjectivity where this primordial bond to life that is sexuation
tends to fissure. Without succumbing to the split but brushing against it,
castration anxiety and emptiness anxiety, as well as the phallic parade, can
create symptoms that, far from eroticizing the feminine (J. Butler), disunite (désensemble) the subject and force it to
withdraw from the other and from bonds. Or even condemn it to that dreadful giddiness of being which seeks to
“change bodies” by hormonal or genetic means. The analyst (be they man or
woman) is thus brought to recreate the feminine (in the sense of transformability and reliance) through his/her listening so
as to accompany the symptoms of these “beings
otherwise” (êtres autrement)
Among these symptoms, I
could mention: incurable fatigue; debilitating tension; inability to choose oneself; being overwhelmed between
masculine and feminine postures and objects of desire; implacable jealousy of
“the other woman” (a sign of the refusal to accept one’s sexed or gendered
femininity, which turns from hatred to tenderness in transference with a female
analyst); the unbridled compulsion to do so as not to be—to eliminate
oneself through doing (which leads to
a hallucinatory narration, challenging the feminine of the male analyst); or
the fundamentalist radicalization of an adolescent who calls herself a feminist
because she “hates men,” but who is ready to “have kids for Allah”…
These observations lead
me to a subject that is as normative as it is a burning issue: heterosexuality. Where do we stand in regard to the "heterosexual comedie"?
- to borrow a phrase from Jacques Lacan grim humour.
Heterosexuality is the problem
Heterosexuality (in the
sense of the psychization of genitality and of sexual difference, including
bisexuality, and in the sense of their inclusion in the social pact) is a
fragile, late acquisition in the history of human cultures and still remains
the problematic par excellence for
each of us: in parenting, and more broadly in the social bond itself.
Heterosexuality is no
longer seen as the surest (and only) means of giving life and guaranteeing
future generations. But whatever the variants of the “heterosexual norm” in
each individual’s psychosexuality, and the acceptance or rejection of variously
composed couples, the mirage of the “primal scene” (as original fantasy that
structures the unconscious of each individual) inevitably links the diversity
of eroticisms to “the zenith of procreation,” as Georges Bataille puts it.
And heterosexuality conceals both the extreme intensity and the unbearable
fragility that inhabit the fury of the primal scene: fusion and confusion of
man and woman, exuberant loss of energies and identities, affinity of life with
death. Heterosexuality is thus not
only a discontinuity (“I am other, alone facing the other”), normalized by
continuity (fusion to “give” life): heterosexuality is a transgression of identities and codes that does not issue from dread, but
rather from anxiety and desire for death, carried by the promise of life beyond
death. But at the height of expenditure, pleasure rewards castration, fear of
death rises into jouissance and
nullifies it: by taking shape in the probable conception of a new being,
strange and ephemeral.
Such is the sense of the primal scene. And of all the eroticisms that lead to
it, up to the lovesickness that
haunts our imaginations.
The heterosexual couple is fragile:
because women’s liberation accentuates the singular feminine of mothers and
female lovers, and disturbs men who feel with them a “danger of homosexuality”
(Colette), either masculine or feminine (?). Unless that is
We search in vain to find
where “humanist values” have gone. But what if the heterosexual couple and its family were the focus rather than the
“value” (which shows itself to be a concern for alleviating solitude, extending
and transmitting our species)? Reproductive biotechnology and same-sex marriage
don’t change any of this: our fantasies unconsciously converge on this archaic
legacy of parenthood.
The married heterosexual
couple continues to fascinate. Not only does the institution of marriage
normalize it, but the cinema—from Hollywood to
Bollywood—imposes it on us as a model ad
nauseam. The Couple: enigmatic, scandalous, detestable and therefore
desirable. Heterosexuality is and will continue to be the problem. From
that point on, beginning from and with the singular transformative feminine,
the metamorphoses of parenthood (which psychoanalysis is preparing to
accompany) are and shall be infinite.
Madam President, women do
not own the transformative and always becoming FEMININE, which participates,
with the masculine, in the psychosexuality of speaking and imagining beings.
Since Freud and continuing in today’s socio-historical mutations, the feminine
appears to us at the heart of the psychoanalytic experience. Might
psychoanalysis be one of the feminine’s possible (or even ultimate)
For the clinician that
you are, “psychoanalytic listening” is alert to the “presence of change in
certain dimensions of psychic functioning”—from the sensorial to the linguistic (from the “semiotic” to the “symbolic”) and capable of inducing the patient “to
collaborate with the task of transforming [these] elements.” And you warn: only
“an improvement on the attachment to the analyst and her capacity to receive
and contain his anxieties make this transformation possible.”
As President of the IPA,
your plasticity is and will surely continue to be greatly solicited, always
discreet, and effective! “Rebirth has never been beyond my powers,” wrote
Colette (1873-1954), one of those “transformative” feminine geniuses whose
works revitalize us. May that phrase stay with you.
Keep up the good work,
and good luck!
London 24/07/19, The International Psychoanalytical Association's 51st International Congress and The International Psychoanalytical Studies Organization’s 25th Conference.