Elizabeth Grosz and Thinking about Oedipus and Law

An interview (excerpt) with Elizabeth Grosz on Lacan and my addition and reply to it. Full interview can be found here: http://web.gc.cuny.edu/csctw/found_object/text/grosz.htm

Randal Certainly. I’m interested in particular in your turn away from Lacan. Can you talk about that in terms of the ways in which Lacan served you and the post-feminists so well. And why that isn’t the case for you, at least for the moment.

Elizabeth That’s a very good question too. And it’s one that I must admit I enacted more through gut-level feeling than through careful reflection. It is good to be given a chance to reflect on it now. Lacan was very important for me, but psychoanalysis has always been quite limited in its scope and relevance. This is something that Freud himself understood very well. The limit of psychoanalysis is that of Oedipus, as feminists have known for a long time. This is both its usefulness for feminism and its limit, the point beyond which feminism can’t go. As a bedrock of psychoanalytic theory, I don’t know how to get around Oedipus or, in Lacan’s formulation, the Name of the Father. There is no psychoanalysis without Oedipus. Lacan rendered it much more complicated, less biological, and more linguistic and cultural. But it ended up in the same dead end, the same intractability, which is as unmoving in the biological form as it is in lingustic formulations. The linguistic is as difficult to transform as the biological! There is no logic outside that which is given by the phallus; there is no identity other than that given by the phallus. In the long run, this is an unlivable position for both men and particularly women. I don’t disagree that patriarchal civilization is such that all subjects are phallic, oedipalized, structured by family logics, but psychoanalysis has no way of conceptualizing how this might ever change.

First let us examine what Lacan did a little different with the Oedipus of Freud.  First one of the things that Lacan aquired from Hegel is the idea that language is a system of negativity, in which things are understoood against there opposites, for instance mother is only understood against father (vice versa).  Hegel put it as the idea that identity must affirm itself against its difference, but also at the level of substance as an affirmative it must negate difference in order to be self determined entity in its own right.

Lacan’s Oedipus Complex is tied up with the phallus.  The phallus is an imaginary identification which we give up in order to enter the order of the symbolic, or in other words it is everything we give up in order to enter a society with normative rules.  Both sexes are symbolically castrated according to Lacan but of course experience this in different ways.

This is where Lacan’s idea of the Real is important because once we enter into the symbolic order we become disconnected to what he calls the Real.  This is simply the result of entering into the confines of language which results in how you determine your position in the world, and how that position determines you (i.e. entering into language helps to determine how you perceive the world around you).

Lacan stated that man can embody the symbolic phallus only after being castrated.  Again, castration for Lacan means to enter into a symbolic world where we give up on the Real and take a position based on the Other.  The Other in this sense is made up of language and signifiers.  This is exactly where Lacan’s idea of the metaphor enters, “The (symbolic) father is a metaphor”.  A metaphor is defined as “a substitution of one signifier for another which gives rise to an effect of signification”.

When understanding the Oedipus Complex from Lacan’s point of view it is important to understand that the child is asking a question of herself/himself; this question is, “What does her (mother) desire want (so I can be it)”.

This question is posed until it is shifted away from the mother’s desire and is substituted for what Lacan calls The Name of The Father or the Paternal Metaphor.  Lacan even states that this is the fundamental metaphor which all signification depends.  This is exactly where Grosz in the above interview states that all signification is phallic but I am not ready to get to this yet.

The father is responsible for moving the child away from desire and also for the idea of castration.  The father in this sense is the metaphor for the law, the law is the force that castrates the child, the symbolic identity in language which is backed up in the idea of normativity which is based on Judeo-Christian law.

In this sense the male child if he gives up the imaginary phallus (gives up the signifier desire of the mother) is able to be “not without” the symbolic phallus because of his position within the metaphor of our societal norms.  The interesting thing Lacan does and Zizek articulates it a bit more, is that women’s lack of the symbolization actually allows them to feel in possession of something.  For instance if you are an ex CIA director you have a symbolic mandate in that position to not follow your bliss, but instead you have expectations because you are an embodiment of nonsensical traditional mores, but if you are a gypsy you have something in the fact that you have no specific mandates.  Now think of the sexes within this framework.

Grosz declares that there is no identity without the phallus which is an interesting claim as you can understand that the capillaries of power relations run deep, not just in the juridical realm but also in the interpersonal one as well.  Also, Zizek stated that what we have now instead of this logic is the logic of the Primal anal father, the father who is no longer  able to accept the mandate of the Law, instead is seaching for his particular jouissance.

This post is long enough, but I think Donna Haraway’s ideas should be worked into this idea.  The idea of a cyborg ontology, but I also think Foucault’s idea in a wider scale deserve some attention to this Paternal Metaphor and thinking outside of this logic which is breaking down at the seams in our postmodern epoch.

About specularimage

Scott Maxwell is a cultural critic, social theorist and creative historian interested in : Psychoanalysis, Biopower and Biophilosophies, Romance philology, Religion and Theology, interested in living philosphers/thinkers Agamben, Zizek, Badiou, Malabou, Johnston. Past thinkers: Foucault, Heidegger, Marx, etc.
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