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Castration complex

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French: complexe de castration

Sigmund Freud

Sexual Difference

Freud first described the castration complex in 1908, arguing that the child - on discovering the anatomical difference between the sexes -- the presence or absence of the penis - makes the assumption that this difference is due to the female's penis having been cut off.[1] In his view, the castration complex is the moment when one "infantile theory" -- that every human being has a penis -- is replaced by a new one -- that females have been castrated. The consequences of this new infantile theory are different in the boy and in the girl. The boy fears that his own penis will be cut off by the father (castration anxiety), while the girl sees herself as already castrated (by the mother) and attempts to deny this or to compensate for it by seeking a child as a substitute for the penis. These unconscious representations, in phantasy, cover over the lack at the heart of being in the Other and allow the subject to imagine (feel) as though they are special or fulfilled (not lacking). Fear of psychic castration is thus met with a phantasy which positions the subject as not lacking which props up the ego as being of central importance.

Phallic Phase

The castration complex affects both sexes because its appearance is closely linked with the phallic phase, a moment of psychosexual development when the child, whether boy or girl, knows only one genital organ - the male one. This phase is also known as the infantile genital organisation because it is the first moment when the partial drives are unified under the primacy of the genital organs. It thus anticipates the genital organisation proper which arises at puberty, when the subject is aware of both the male and the female sexual organs.[2]

Oedipus Complex

Freud argued that the castration complex is closely linked to the Oedipus complex, but that its role in the Oedipus complex is different for the boy and the girl. In the case of the boy, the castration complex is the point of exit from the Oedipus complex, its terminal crisis; because of his fear of castration -- often aroused by a threat -- the boy renounces his desire for the mother and thus enters the latency period. In the case of the girl, the castration complex is the point of entry into the Oedipus complex; it is her resentment of the mother, whom she blames for depriving her of the penis, that causes her to redirect her libidinal desires away from the mother and onto the father. Because of this difference, in the case of the girl the Oedipus complex has no definitive terminal crisis comparable to the boy's.[3]

Jacques Lacan

Symbolic Lack of an Imaginary Object

It is not until the mid-1950s that the castration complex comes to play a prominent role in Lacan's teaching, primarily in the seminar of 1956-7. It is in this seminar that Lacan identifies castration as one of three forms of "lack of object", the others being frustration and privation. Unlike frustration -- which is an imaginary lack of a real object -- and privation -- which is a real lack of a symbolic object, castration is defined by Lacan as a symbolic lack of an imaginary object; castration does not bear on the penis as a real organ, but on the imaginary phallus.[4] Lacan's account of the castration complex is thus raised out of the dimension of simple biology or anatomy:

"It is insoluble by any reduction to biological givens."[5]

Oedipus Complex

Following Freud, Lacan argues that the castration complex is the pivot on which the whole Oedipus complex turns.[6] However, whereas Freud argues that these two complexes are articulated differently in boys and girls, Lacan argues that the castration complex always denotes the final moment of the Oedipus complex in both sexes.

Lacan divides the Oedipus complex into three "times".[7]

  1. In the first time, the child perceives that the mother desires something beyond the child himself - namely, the imaginary phallus -- and then tries to be the phallus for the mother (see preoedipal phase).
  2. In the second time, the imaginary father intervenes to deprive the mother of her object by promulgating the incest taboo; properly speaking, this is not castration but privation.
  3. Castration is only realized in the third and final time, which represents the "dissolution" of the Oedipus complex. It is then that the real father intervenes by showing that he really possesses the phallus, in such a way that the child is forced to abandon his attempts to be the phallus.[8]

The subject must renounce his attempts to be the phallus for the mother. In renouncing his attempts to be the object of the mother's desire, the subject gives up a certain jouissance which is never regained despite all attempts to do so:

"Castration means that jouissance must be refused so that it can be reached on the inverted ladder (l'èchelle renversè) of the Law of desire."[9]

This applies equally to boys and girls:

"[This] relationship to the phallus . . . is established without regard to the anatomical difference of the sexes."[10]

On a more fundamental level, the term castration may also refer not to an "operation" -- the result of an intervention by the imaginary or real father -- but to a state of lack which already exists in the mother prior to the subject's birth. This lack is evident in her own desire, which the subject perceives as a desire for the imaginary phallus. That is, the subject realises at a very early stage that the mother is not complete and self-sufficient in herself, nor fully satisfied with her child (the subject himself), but desires something else. This is the subject's first perception that the Other is not complete but lacking.

Clinical Structures

It is the refusal of castration that lies at the root of all psychopathological structures. However, since it is impossible to accept castration entirely, a completely "normal" position is never achieved. The closest to such a position is the neurotic structure, but even here the subject still defends himself against the lack in the Other by repressing awareness of castration. This prevents the neurotic from fully assuming his desire, since "it is the assumption of castration that creates the lack upon which desire is instituted."[11]

A more radical defense against castration than repression is disavowal, which is at the root of the perverse structure. The psychotic takes the most extreme path of all; he completely repudiates castration, as if it had never existed.[12] This repudiation of symbolic castration leads to the return of castration in the real, such as in the form of hallucinations of dismemberment (as in the case of the Wolf Man) or even self-mutilation of the real genital organs.

See Also


  1. Freud, Sigmund. "On the Sexual Theories of Children". 1908. SE IX. p. 207
  2. Freud, Sigmund. "The Infantile Genital Organization." 1923. SE XIX. p. 141
  3. Freud, Sigmund. "The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex," 1924. SE XIX p. 173
  4. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 219
  5. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 282
  6. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 216
  7. Lacan, Jacques. Les formations de l'inconscient. ('The Formations of the Unconscious.') 1957-8. Unpublished.; Seminar of 22 January 1958
  8. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 208-9, 227
  9. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 324
  10. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 282
  11. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p. 852
  12. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book I. Freud's Papers on Technique, 1953-54. Trans. John Forrester. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. p. 53