Essay from a talk given by Vanessa Sinclair at NGBK Berlin as part of the exhibition “Father Figures are Hard to Find”, Spring 2016. Link here.
The role of the father is controversial and especially problematic in the era of patriarchy and capitalism. To explore this journey from a psychoanalytic perspective, I take us back to the early theories of Freud and through a gross history of the development of the theories having to do with the father, whom I prefer to call the Third, as I feel this is a more accurate description of this position, especially today. Also bear in mind that when I refer to the m/Other, I am referring to the mother as well as the big Other to which we all relate constantly. Along those lines an/other refers to the other with a small o. For those of you familiar with Lacanian theory this other refers to the others that we identify with or put in the place of the object, usually of our desire.
But first let’s begin with the development of the subject, the individual. The identity/ ego is an illusion. The self is experienced as fragmented and a sense of cohesive identity is formed through fantasy. Some schools of psychoanalysis posit that we gain our sense of identity through the introjection of an identification with the m/Other that we then continue to modify via a series of identifications with other figures with which we come into contact throughout our lives. In this way, we may be seen as constantly adding to and reworking our identity/ego throughout our lifespan. Jacques Lacan, explores the formation of identity via his theory of the mirror stage. During this time, ages 6-18 months, the child experiences he/r self and body as fragmented, but when s/he sees he/r self in the mirror, the mirror image appears to be w/hole. As the child’s experience of he/r own body/ self is fragmented, there seems to be a disconnect between he/r experience of he/r self and the image in the mirror. This experience of disconnection continues throughout life. Through a similar process of identification, this time identification with he/r own mirror image, the child is able to internalize the cohesive sense of self that s/he imagines the mirror self/ image to have. This thusly forms the ego/ identity. We identify with what we imagine ourselves to perceive. The ego/ identity is therefore an identification with a fantasy. At the moment the child recognizes he/r self in the mirror image, s/he turns to the m/other sitting beside he/r to search for a signal that he/r perception is accurate – that indeed this w/hole person s/he sees in the mirror is in fact a reflection of he/r self. Once the m/other provides affirmation of this, the child turns he/r attention back to the mirror image, confirming that this perception is indeed he/r self, reifying he/r own identity.
The position of what would more accurately be considered to be the true self, what Lacan calls the subject, is not equivalent to the ego/ identity but rather is situated in the gap that exists between the self and the mirror image, consciousness and matter, the ego and the real of the body, perception and the unconscious, sexuality and death. Sigmund Freud states, the ego is first and foremost a body ego. It is the product of our fantasy as we attempt to produce an experience of a cohesive body/ self identification. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud likens the ego to a crust. One may think of it as a callous that is built up through repetition of experience. Or a scab that forms when the skin is cut. The ego is our symptom. It is the scaffolding. But we as subjects are not equivalent to this structure. We are situated in the gap, in the space between. And our identity is malleable. If identity can be understood as identification with a fantasy of what we imagine ourselves and/ or our m/Others to perceive us to be, which is then solidified by the repetition of similar experiences that validate this fantasy, then why couldn’t we choose to adjust that our experiences and those characteristics and mold our identity in a different way? In a way we choose rather than being products of the system into which we are born.
We can see the fantasy of cohesion break down in psychosis, for example, where the person is plagued by the experience of the fragmented body/ self and unable to pull he/r consciousness out of the real of the body and into the realm of the imaginary, which makes the experience of living more tolerable via fantasy. We also gain a glimpse of our real fragmented state in our dream lives where we often experience a state of anxiety accompanied by pieces of a puzzle, which we later string together upon retelling in an attempt to form a cohesive narrative. We actually perform a similar action in our waking lives as well, which is also a series of fragmented events that we string together with fantasy to create an experience of a cohesive narrative that we can then relate to ourselves and others. But as is well know in psychoanalysis, we can go back and change our perception and understanding of events in our lives to recreate our personal narrative.
It is also useful to view waking and dream states not as a binary of awake-asleep but rather a continuum of wakefulness-sleep/conscious-unconscious. In this way, we recognize that when we are asleep we oftentimes have “one eye open” and are able to perceive that which is happening in our environment. Often our dreams are a way to encourage ourselves to remain asleep. What we call our censor decides not only what will be allowed from the unconscious into the conscious mind – however altered it is in representation to veil its true meaning – but also masks stimuli from the environment, frequently incorporating it into the dream work (i.e. when an alarm clock becomes a fire alarm in our dream and we suddenly need to evacuate the building). Similarly, when we are “wide awake” our unconscious mind is still active and is more or less present in daydreams, fantasies, imagination, etc. This concept of the ratio or continuum in a state of flux can be applied not only to dream-wake states and conscious-unconscious but also to aspects of identity such as gender and sexuality.
We are born into a story, an already existing narrative. Even before we are born, our parents, family and society have ideas of who we will be, what we will do, how we will succeed, and what trials we may face, all before we have even left our m/Others’ body. We are subjugated in utero. Our identity is prescribed, and not with us in mind. It is mapped out for us, structured, put into play, and is largely based on gender. The first question asked of us, “Is it a boy or a girl?” leaves no room for ambiguity – boys have penises, girls do not. We are all well aware of the atrocities that have taken place in the early assignment of gender to children born intersex and what catastrophic repercussions this often has. Yet rather than exalt the androgyne, as has been done in times past, we continue to force people into categories we’ve deemed socially acceptable. The system is built on dichotomy: male/female, active/passive, 1/0, master/slave. But what happens when we begin to break down this system, push boundaries, surpass borderlines and transgress limits?
As we know, gender and sexuality are not determined by biology. Judith Butler revolutionized the academic discourse surrounding gender and gender identity in 1990 with her book Gender Troublein which she introduces the idea of gender as performative. Taking this a step further, not only could gender be considered a performance but our entire identity could be seen in this way. So if gender and overall identity is a performance, or at least has a heavy performative aspect, it should be essentially malleable, not only varying from person to person but evolving over an individual’s life span, from situation to situation or even from day to day if one so desires.
Freud (1923) stated our ego is first and foremost a body-ego. We learn about ourselves and the world via our bodies, especially through our orifices as these are the spaces where we exchange inside and out, ingest and discharge, are penetrated and expel. These sites are holes, openings, gaps, but also limits, boundaries and surfaces; the rim of the mouth, anus, urethra, vagina, nostrils, eyes and ears. What is the difference between those that seal versus those that remain open or rather, unable to close? Even consider the pores of the skin are countless numbers of orifices, tiny mouths opening and closing more quickly or slowly depending on our state, mood, level of stimulation or relaxation.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, Freud released his seminal work, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), in which he introduced his theory of childhood sexuality outlining the oral, anal and genital stages for the first time, claiming we are all born bisexual and intrinsically polymorphously perverse. The expert on sexuality and perversions at the time was Richard von Kraft-Ebbing, who believed – as did society at large – that sex is solely for procreation and any sexual act falling outside of the reproductive intention was considered to be perverse. Freud actually agreed with this definition of perversion but stated that perversion is our natural inclination and is the norm, even precedes the norm. Humans are sexual beings. Children are sexual beings. We are all perverse, and the entire body is sexual, not just the genitals and erogenous zones. Any part of the body can become eroticized, as can the gaze, smell or voice.
The drive as Freud posits it lies somewhere between the body and the mind, on the boarder. Drives are always partial and there is a difference between sexual object and sexual aim. The drive never works on the whole body or whole subject and therefore is always focused on fragments or individual activities together with a quality of being active or passive. In assuming one position, one may slide metonymically into the position of the other, and again into the position of the third, thereby assuming each and all positions. A catalog of drives is impossible because everyone develops their own variations. In Freud’s time, he posited that the ultimate goal was genital primacy but this has since been found to be a ridiculous notion as each and every path that a drive takes is equally valid as any other.
Ultimately every human being could be described as perverse. Perverse in Freud’s original psychoanalytic definition is sexual activity without the aim of reproduction. We all have varying combinations of partial drives. Why don’t we remain “perverse”? Because we all go through some sort of process of normalization via socialization in childhood. This normalization process is the so called Oedipus complex. The Oedipal complex is the process through which everyone goes in order to move from two to three elements, that is, to break away from a mirror relationship with another person who is the same and take the steps towards a third person, another other.
A characteristic of human desire is that it can never be wholly fulfilled and therefore leads to constant momentum or movement. Our desire always goes through that of an/other starting with that of our parents and finishing with that of the latest object of our love. To follow one’s own desire is an impossible task. Every desire relates to someone else. It is only when you don’t care that you don’t desire. My desire always goes through the desire of another person, therefore the field of desire becomes the ultimate field of identification. I identify with the desire I perceive in the other person in order to be desired by he/r. Desire works both ways and can therefore result in identification both ways. I identify with he/r desire and therefore abandon a previous desire that is a prior identification and then s/he identifies with my desire and so on and so forth. The structure of our psyche is such that my desire will always be indebted to that of an/other. The goal of desire is to go on desiring.
In the sexual relation, no matter if it is overtly sadomasochistic or not, there is always an inevitable element of dominance and submission. Even in the sexual relation with oneself, in masturbation, we are the one doing the beating as well as the one being beaten. We are performing the act on ourselves and therefore occupy both positions – dominant and submissive. We gain pleasure engaging in this activity, which is nonetheless an aggressive action. Furthermore, we may take the position of observer as well, witnessing the act being done by ourselves to ourselves, thereby entering a third position also, the witness. So, no matter if an action is auto-erotic, homosexual, heterosexual, trans, queer, top/bottom, S/M, Dominant/ submissive, poly, oral, anal, vaginal, and/or anything in between – no matter in which position we might be, we may concurrently slide into the stance of the other(s) as well, and therefore occupy both (and all) positions at once. We are voyeur and exhibitionist. We are being seen while concurrently enacting and observing the scene, exposing ourselves as we bear witness to the exposure.The position of the Third allows for this metonymy. Otherwise the pair may be trapped in a mirror relation.
As, we explore the evolution of the role of the Third in Freud’s theory from his case of Little Hans (Analysis of a Phobia in a 5 year old Boy) through Totem and Taboo to Moses and Monotheism, we see the shifts in Freud’s position on the subject. In the first, Freud’s theory theory describes the child’s fear of castration stemming from a relation with a powerful domineering and avenging father, while in the case study, the m/Other is clearly the one threatening castration, quite overtly, while the father is dominated by her. In Freud’s Totem and Taboo, the hoard of sons tire of the father’s reign and band together to overthrow and kill him, securing the women for themselves. According to the myth, the murder is followed by an acute sense of guilt that forms the foundation both for the prohibition of killing and for the prohibition of incest. Later, in Moses and Monotheism,the relationship between patriarchy and matriarchy is more clearly delineated. In this case, the murder of the primal father leads to a matriarchal structure taking hold wherein we see polytheism and mother goddesses flourishing until they is subsumed and overtaken by another patriarchal structure, this time in the form of monotheism.
With the establishment of the patriarchy comes the delineation of gender. What makes a man? And what makes a woman? The patriarchy establishes an entire system of culture created to perpetuate itself. It continually enforces and reinforces it’s own system, which it created. Patriarchy defines masculine characteristics in positive terms while the feminine is negative. Patriarchy also establishes and enforces the binary, with everything also defined in pairs of opposites – men are strong, women are weak, men are active, women are passive and so on and so forth. The resulting effect is male superiority and female inferiority, which was established in the original argument and is continually operated and reinforced by the system it created. The question now is what happens when such a patriarchal system begins to be put into question. When its structure of gender and prescribed role patterns begin to crumble. Historically, during times of instability when the patriarchal structure was put into question there was merely an exchange of one primal father for another. Take down a king and replace him with another king. The system that takes down the previous system ends up being structurally the same underneath. One revolution replaces another and then becomes the ruler.
In the current situation, hopefully, the system is being deconstructed and there is a real fight against maintaining the status quo.