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Rainer Geissler, MA, MFT | Article

The Other Within or Enemy Mine (Part I) - by Rainer Geissler, MA, LMFT (C) 2003

“No one conquers who doesn’t fight, but will always be defeated”
-From a Chinese fortune cookie-

I. Sense and nonsense of the subjective other in the shadow of feminist revolt

From our privileged position at the beginning of the 21st century with its putative sexual freedom we tend too easily to ignore the different social climate of the Victorian era at the end of the 19th century, as the background on which Freud’s work comes into being. Freud’s reality features conventions and prudery he grows up with and lives in. It is this reality that inspired him and against which he writes his oeuvre. The birth of the 21st century is marked by pseudo-freedom, pseudo-individuality, pseudo-independence and a relentless feminist effort to expose Freud’s sexism. Feminist criticism concentrates on penis-envy and the feminist experience of the Oedipal castration complex as constructed solely from a male perspective and ignoring female sexuality. In so doing feminist critics turn the focus from psychic development –with which Freud was concerned- to the social mechanisms Freud described as both the source of female repression and the basis of the inequality between the sexes. Feminist criticism of Freud often fails to address that “For Freud, the absence of the penis in women is significant only in that it makes meaningful the father’s prohibition on incestuous desires.” and that “…the actual body of the child on its own was irrelevant to the castration complex.” (Mitchell, week VII, p17) It seems as if the concern of some of the feminist critics is “…less with the construction of sexual difference than it is with the nature of female sexuality.” (Mitchell, week VII, p20)
From our point of view a 100 years later we easily underestimate the courage Freud showed in contextualizing the development of the human being as a concept of sexuality centered around the castration complex and unconscious drives and to present it as the dynamic concept of psychoanalyses. We often fail to acknowledge that Freud only “…made [the castration complex] the focal point of the acquisition of culture…” because it “…operates as a law whereby men and women assume their humanity and, inextricably bound up with this, it gives the human meaning of the distinction of the sexes.” (Mitchell, week VII, p13) Freud reminds us that the human subject cannot be set apart from society because we are raised, constructed and defined according to the rules of engagement created by society’s definition of what is and what is not supposed to be normal and morally acceptable. In this process of socialization, the human being is deprived of its subjectivity and objectified so that it fits the needs of the other but never his/her own. Freud and his contemporary feminist critics, despite the latter's opposition to the former, both attempt to make us aware of the precondition for social change: “…where objects where, subjects must be” (where ‘It’ is, ‘I’ must be) (Benjamin, week V, p108) It is successful castration by the (law of the) father thru which we become subjects. All our experiences, interactions with, and perceptions of the other derive their meaning from this law. Only thru castration, we become able to give past and future losses (castrations) their meaning: “The castration complex is the instance of the humanization of the child in its sexual difference. Certainly, it rejoins other severances, in fact it gives them their meaning. If the specific mark of the phallus, the repression of which is the institution of the law, is repudiated, then there only can be psychosis.” (Mitchell, week VII, p19)
It is successful castration what divides the sexes and makes “…the human being human.” (Mitchell, week VII, p18) Men underestimate the crucial role they have in this process meanwhile feminist criticism sees it as the foundation of suppression: “… it is the father who already possesses the mother, who metaphorically says ‘no’ to the child’s desires.” (Mitchell, week VII, p16) This is crucial because it is this ‘No’ and the pain it inflicts on the child that forces the child to deal with the lack created by the father’s castration: “…pain and lack of satisfaction are the point, the triggers that evoke desire.” (Mitchell, week VII, p25) There is no desire without the lack that makes us aware of it. The father’s prohibition becomes meaningful to the child “…because there are people –females- who have been castrated in the particular sense that they are without the phallus.” (Mitchell, week VII, p16) Male and female are dependent on each other in order to end the Oedipus complex as successfully castrated beings because only as such they can become successful and responsible adults. The ‘Oedipus-Castration-Complex’ structures our psyche in that he makes us aware that not every desire we have can omnipotently expected to be fulfilled; it reminds us of our boundaries, makes us aware that the other is in the same right as we are. The ‘law of the father’, symbolizing the phallus, comes into being thru language, the fathers ‘No’.
It is the predicament of much of the feminist criticism (and of any criticism) that the very action of putting one’s criticism into words as well secures the survival of the criticized: “The human animal is born into language and it is within the terms of language that the human subject is constructed. Language does not arise from within the individual, it is always out there in the world outside. Language always belongs to another person. The human subject is created from a general law that comes to it from outside itself and through the speech of other people.” (Mitchell, week VII, p5) In other words, criticizing suppression, sexism, discrimination, racism etc, also conceptualizes that what is criticized. Just as the ‘No’ of the father, meant to prohibit the fulfillment of our desire, in fact conceptualizes our desire and with it ourselves. The ‘No’ of the father positions his desire in which our opposing desire is mirrored. The father is symbolizes the other whom we cannot ignore due to the existing power difference. We can try to ignore him, try to fulfill our desire anyway rather than dealing with the lack created by our unsatisfied desire. It is important to understand that this is the crossroads for the Oedipus where he must make a decision that will determine all his life. To not become an Oedipus we need a father who is ‘selfish enough’ to prohibit the satisfaction we long for. Only if the father successfully prohibits our incestuous wish to possess the (m)other he furthers our successful castration and only than we receive the phallus as symbol for the other’s invested interest in us. Only than we know that we are worthy for and equal to the other, only than we do not have to face the faith of the Oedipal Victor. The Oedipal Victor does not receive the phallus, because he, like Oedipus, takes the fathers place on his mothers’ side. He defeated the father (or the father invested no interest in keeping his place), however, to the price of omnipotence and psychosis: “For Freud, contained within the very notion of the castration complex is the theory that other experiences and perceptions only take their meaning from the law for which it stands.” (Mitchell, week VII, p16) Female criticism of this process also often seems to ignore the equally important role of the (m)other in the mirror stage. It is the mother standing behind the child, who puts the child into language when she says: ‘This is you [… and you are…..]’. It is she, the (m)other, who first defines (what is) us and she thru whom we learn to define and judge ourselves, to love or not to love ourselves, to respect or to disrespect ourselves, etc. It is she who can prevent successful castration and consolidate the incestuous relationship of mother and child that brings about the Oedipal Victor.
Castration is not something that has been or could be done to a boy or a girl in the real. It is the threat of castration –present whenever a desire is on the crossroads of being or not being fulfilled-- what makes the girl a girl and the boy a boy, which is merely a division of the sexes and not a division of labeling one as superior and the other as inferior. Castration psychically enables girl and boy to recognize each other as being outside of and different from themselves. Successful castration is crucial for both the girl and the boy as it is the final step in the transformation from being an object to becoming a subject, a process in which: “The father stands in the position of the third term that must break the asocial dyadic unit of mother and child. … Lacan [argues] that the relation of mother and child cannot be viewed outside the structure established by the position of the father. … There can be nothing human that pre-exists or exists outside the law represented by the father; there is only either its denial or the fortunes and misfortunes of its term.” (Mitchell, week VII, p23)