Thursday, July 12, 2007

toril moi against lacan

Toril Moi’s 2004 article in Signs, “From Femininity to Finitude” is a good counter-point to the Zizek. Her take on Lacan is quite different from Zizek’s, so I often found myself disagreeing with her.

For instance, she claims that Lacan has a ‘post-saussurian’ theory of language, in other words, she sees him as basically a poststructuralist. Of course in Sublime Object one of Zizek’s main goals was to do away with this idea. Moi, who counts herself among the ‘new wittgenstinians,’ and is much taken with Stanley Cavell, is fairly unmerciful towards what she sees as an outmoded, naive, and deeply flawed representationalist account of language. One can only agree that a (one understands here, saussurian) representationalist account of language is insufficient, but, even from reading the most famous Lacan texts (Mirror Stage, Agency of the Letter, Meaning of the Phallus...) it seems to me that there is room to argue that Lacan has no such view of language. At any rate, I don’t like it when people snidely cite Wittgenstein to prove other people are naive about language. It’s not wrong, it just rubs me the wrong way.

This, however, was tangential to the main thrust of her argument. The essential point is that psychoanalysts, especially Lacanian ones, use ‘castration’ as a concept signifying, in the end, Lack, and that this is unnecessary and destructive. That Lacanian feminists are deluding themselves when they eagerly point out as progressive the Lacanian principle that the Phallus is a signifier, and thus can be possessed by anyone, so that anyone may be symbolically castrated. To my mind, the crucial passage is:

“In Freudian and Lacanian theory, castration is used in three different senses, namely, (1) to signify lack as a general human condition, (2) to signify sexual difference or femininity, and (3) to signify the discovery of our own "one-sexedness," that is to say, the discovery that we can only ever be one sex, in the sense that we can only ever have one body. (Desire remains as polymorphous and infinite as it ever was, but it is now confronted with the traumatic discovery of sexual finitude. I shall return to this.) Meaning 1 encourages us to believe that as soon as something can be called "lack" it can also be theorized as castration. It is difficult to understand why this is considered a sign of theoretical sophistication. Meaning 2 is the clearly sexist theory of femininity this article has been concerned with. Meaning 3, however, is just fine, but probably not very successfully conveyed by the word castration.

The indiscriminate use of castration encourages us to roam freely between the three meanings, collapsing them into each other as we please. The resulting confusion of categories is responsible for a distinctly (hetero)sexist "oversexualizing" or "overgendering" of human existence.”

I can only agree with her, and could hardly defend Zizek—a quick perusal of Sublime Object verifies, as if it were required, that he does indeed use ‘castration’ in the ways to which Moi objects.

Now, the other part of Moi’s project in this article is to convince us that Freud is in fact better for feminists than Lacan. First she establishes that the two have, in the end, the same view of human sexuality—that it is ultimately contingent, made, but is certainly influenced by the body into which one is born. Moi regards this is basically the same as that argued for in The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir. Fine. Of course, both Freud and Lacan are sexist in various unsurprising ways. However, she says, because of Lacan’s ideas about language, he makes the phallus as signifier into a transcendental signifier—that around which meaning is organized, a metaphysical principle. In this way, Lacan makes out of Freud’s personal but empirically vulnerable sexism a metaphysical principle. If the phallus is the principle around which the symbolic world is organized, how can woman ever be anything but the other? Such is, I think, Moi’s point. In the terms she has set out, I have to agree.

However, I have few bones to pick none the less. First of all—and this, I understand, has everything to do with reading Zizek rather than Lacan—what can we do with the concept of point de capiton, the quilting-point? Zizek discusses this concept in terms of ideology—Freedom, for instance, is an empty signifier which none the less structures a whole ideological field. If I’ve understood Zizek right, it is in Lacanian terms a quilting-point for a whole symbolic order. Other theorists would call it a transcendental signifier. But part of the point of Zizek’s analysis of ideology is that there are many different potential ideological quilting-points. Is it possible that we can regard the symbolic sexual order as an ideology parallel, somehow, to these others, or anyway, homologous to them? This is a profoundly un-Freudian thing to do, I think.

Less speculatively, I also object to Moi’s formulation of ‘finitude,’ which she takes from Cavell. Moi proposes, sensibly, that we replace the blanket notion of castration with one of the discovery of finitude. This has the effect of de-sexualizing the psychoanalytic discourse around various sorts of experiences which are no doubt traumatic (such as the realization of one’s mortality), but seem to have little enough to do with sex. She says,

““Only those who have a sense of their own and other people's finitude can hope to create something like a human community,” Cavell writes. Lacan would perhaps have said that "only those who have taken up a position in relation to the phallus can enter into the symbolic order." My point is that the same fundamental idea is at stake in these two formulations, but that Lacan's formulation is sexist (and philosophically unclear) in a way that Cavell's is not.”

It seems to me that the same thing is indeed not at stake in these two formulations. Only if one believes, as I guess Moi does, that ‘symbolic order’ means the same thing for Lacan as Law, and that Law, in turn, means the same thing as human community. It is this last leap which seems unacceptable to me. Although I hate to use the word as a weapon, Moi seems to be putting forward, through Cavell (and I don’t know Cavell’s ideas here, I may be off) a deeply liberal view of social relations. That is, if one cannot live in community with others, it is because one is somehow psychologically immature, unprepared, bent—in need of psychoanalytical help discovering one’s own boundaries. I must say that Laclau and Mouffe’s agonistic model of social reality makes a great deal more sense to me than this kind of ‘if we disagree to the point of violence, you’re clearly still an adolescent.’ Such an approach seems more 19th than 21st century.

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