The psychoanalytic discourse is a very powerful tool as it may be used to deconstruct other discourses, analyse its formulations and to revise social categories and its political implications. It can also provide the framework to explain the genesis and structure of human subjectivity. But far from being a unified field, the theoretical body discovered by Freud has developed into different schools with their own views and particular conceptualizations. Most of the psychoanalytical approaches might be useful to analyse other theories and social categories, as they seem to share a similar logic of thought. Also, they enable us to find alternatives to explanations based on a unilateral point of view. However when considering their views on human subjectivity and the way it is structured, they might differ significantly or even be contradictory which can lead to erroneous conceptualizations. Throughout the history of the feminist movement many intellectuals have tried to analyze the issue of "being a woman", its essence and the specificity of her desire taking into account the development of psychoanalytical ideas from different traditions and readings of Freud. I will try to summarize some of them and point out their implications, and finally will try to outline some concepts - more specifically Lacan's theorization - that may give a tentative answer to the question: what is the essence of woman?
The feminist discourse or the discourse of femininity:
How do some of the most important feminists describe the specificity of woman? Most of the theorizations are a reaction to Freud's ideas of a single libido which is necessarily of a masculine nature but would be able to account for human sexuality in both sexes, and to the concept of "penis envy" to explain for the girl, the turning from the mother as a love object to the father in search of a penis (or its substitute) in the Oedipus complex. According to Freud the little girl begins as "little man", and only becomes feminine when she makes this passage.
In 1949 Simone de Beauvoir described woman functions as man's primary other, his opposite. She explains that a woman cannot escape to the consequences of this position and she insist that this limitation does not reflect woman's essence but it is a result of ideas and historical forces. Her statement 'one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman', places the cultural factor as the most important to explain female sexual identity. She's the point of departure for the developments of contemporary feminism that will criticize the way patriarchal society highlights an unequal distribution of gender expectations.
Juliet Mitchell was one of the first feminists to recognize Freud's ideas. She argues that 'rejection of psychoanalysis and of Freud's work is fatal for feminism' as she considers that his elucidations are extremely important for the explanation of woman's essence. She analyzes Freud conceptualizations and agrees with the idea of the phallus as an organizer of human desire. Her work is important as she shows how the reactions to Freud's ideas are based on misunderstanding of the unconscious. As an example of this we have Jessica Benjamin. In her book "The Bonds of Love" She expresses her disagreement with the classical Freudian explanation of woman's femininity and will argue that woman's perceived lack of desire is a result of cross over identifications that have their point of departure in the preoedipal identification with an extremely powerful mother, and where the role of the father with his phallus is to represent freedom from the dependency on her. Benjamin's argument is very interesting as it highlights the importance of this preoedipal phase and its dissymmetry for boys and girls: according to her boys will have to make a double passage in their identificatory process. She discusses the consequences of this primitive moment for human subjectivity and more specifically for woman. However, her explanation of identificatory (and according to her "disidentificatory") processes are particularly problematic and - in my opinion - her analysis of the oedipal triangle is based on misreading of Freud's ideas which leads to a not very convincing conclusion and to what it seems an attempt to erase gender differences.
For many of these authors Freudian references remain linked to their biological implication (e.g. equating the phallus to the penis) or are used to account for sociological aspects but ignoring the outreach of unconscious dimension in human behaviour.
Lacan's conceptualizations can bring clarity to the essence of femininity. In 1960, in "The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectics of Desire," based on the theory of Ferdinand de Saussure of the linguistic sign , he defined the relationship of the subject and the signifier: 'a signifier is what represents a subject for another signifier'. In this approach "signifier" and "subject" are merely elements of a structure. It has no essence or "being" so it is radically different from the "individual" (biological and social) or the ego. The subject is presupposed in the structure of language, but by definition remains outside of it. According to Lacan this is the subject of desire discovered by Freud and it is linked to a symbolization of the difference of the sexes depending on castration and subject to the laws of language. He also redefines the phallus as a logical precondition concerning this division of the sexes. He calls it 'the phallic function' which will determine how men and women relate to castration.
In his Seminar XX "Encore", he describes the particularities of women using a formalized code called "sexuation formulas". According to Lacan, the formulas are useful to try to avoid the imaginary effects of the categories to account for male and female human beings. The specificity of femininity is the specificity of the speaking beings that occupies the feminine side in his formula and do not refer to biological or anatomical characters. The real asymmetry between the masculine and the feminine side resides in the way they relate to 'jouissance'. He discovered that while men have a relation with phallic jouissance, there is another jouissance (a "supplementary" jouissance) which women relate to as a result of being not all under the phallic function. There is no such thing as Woman because, in her essence she is not-all. Here the term not-all means that if the speaking beings are allowed to inscribe themselves on the feminine side they will allow no universality (i.e. can't be thought as belonging to a distinctive group of human beings) and must be acknowledged one by one, with their particularities. 'Furthermore, she is incorrectly called the woman, since. . . the the of the woman is formulated by means of a not all...'
In my opinion the starting point of all the conceptualizations about woman reside on the unspeakable of their essence, the enigma and the unknown of their jouissance which cease not to inscribe itself. The attempts to explain something about it depend on language and therefore are limited as language can't account for the specificity of feminine jouissance. 'There is a jouissance of the body which is (...) beyond the phallus. (...) There is a jouissance proper to her and of which she herself may know nothing, except that she experiences it - That much she does know' Mother, femme fatal, virgin... the signifiers multiply themselves but appear inadequate to describe her as what is specific about women goes beyond the barriers of the definition to which they're confined. The feminist tried to analyze this categories present in our culture and reconsider the positions to which women are sometimes forced to occupy in society. 'the conflict of the neurotic subject is precisely to reconcile its desire with what the social Other offers . . .to reconcile its "own good" with the moral of the times'. Mirta Vasquez considers that it is possible to "regionalize" women, and to determine the different "images of woman" present in a particular society at a specific time and this can provide a framework to analyze socio-political implications. On the other hand I believe that discoveries on any discipline are relevant if they're based on strong and detailed conceptualization.. The concepts in psychoanalytical bibliography must be revised and redefined. Lacan's formulations contain the key to locate the limits of the symbolic, the impossibility to 'say it all' about this jouissance, but the possibility to investigate its implications. Women can't say exactly what it is but they can feel it and that's the reason why they will keep on talking about it.
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de Beauvoir, S., Le Deuxième Sexe (1949, The Second Sex, trans. H. M. Parshley, 1953, reprint, 1989) p254
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Essential concept in Lacanian theorization. For details see Seminar XX 1972-73, 'Encore' Lacan,J. Feminine Sexuality. p151. One of Lacan's definitions of the 'real'. Excluded from the symbolic, impossible to name. Lacan, J 'Feminine Sexuality' p145 Vazquez, M. La mujer como síntoma. My translation.