Castration complex

From No Subject - Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis
Revision as of 01:15, 26 April 2006 by Riot Hero (talk | contribs)
(diff) ← Older revision | Latest revision (diff) | Newer revision → (diff)
Jump to: navigation, search

castration complex (complexe de castration) 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 (Freud, 1908c). The castration complex is thus the moment

when one infantile theory (everyone has a penis) is replaced by a new one

(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 (penis envy).

     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 (see Freud, 1923e).

     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 (Freud, 1924d).

     Freud came to see the castration complex as a universal phenomenon, one

which is rooted in a basic 'rejection of femininity' (Ablehnung der Weiblich-

keit). It is encountered in every subject, and represents the ultimate limit

beyond which psychoanalytic treatment cannot go (Freud, 1937c).

     Lacan, who talks more often about 'castration' than 'the castration com-

plex', does not discuss the castration complex very much in his early work. He

dedicates a few paragraphs to it in his article on the family, where he follows

Freud in stating that castration is first and foremost a fantasy of the mutilation

of the penis. Lacan links this fantasy with a whole series of fantasies of bodily

dismemberment which originate in the image of the fragmented body; this

image is contemporary with the mirror stage (six to eighteen months), and it is

only much later that these fantasies of dismemberment coalesce around the

specific fantasy of castration (Lacan, 1938: 44).

     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 (see LACK). 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 (S4, 219). 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' (E, 282).
     Following Freud, Lacan argues that the castration complex is the pivot on

which the whole Oedipus complex turns (S4, 216). 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' (Lacan, 1957-8: seminar of 22 January 1958). 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). 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. Castration is

only realised 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 posesses the phallus, in such a way that the child is forced to

abandon his attempts to be the phallus (S4, 208-9, 227).

     From this account of the Oedipus complex, it is clear that Lacan uses the
 term 'castration' to refer to two different operations:


 e     Castration of the mother       In the first time of the Oedipus complex, 'the

mother is considered, by both sexes, as possessing the phallus, as the phallic

mother' (E, 282). By promulgating the incest taboo in the second time, the

imaginary father is seen to deprive her of this phallus. Lacan argues that

properly speaking, this is not castration but privation. However, Lacan

himself often uses these terms interchangeably, speaking both of the privation

of the mother and of her castration.


 e    Castration of the subject        This is castration proper, in the sense of being
  a symbolic act which bears on an imaginary object. Whereas the castration/

privation of the mother which comes about in the second time of the Oedipus

complex negates the verb 'to have' (the mother does not have the phallus), the

castration of the subject in the third time of the Oedipus complex negates the

verb 'to be' (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 renversÈe) of the Law of

desire' (E, 324). This applies equally to boys and girls: this 'relationship to the

phallus . . . is established without regard to the anatomical difference of the

sexes' (E, 282).

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.

   Both forms of castration (of the mother and of the subject) present the

subject with a choice: to accept castration or to deny it. Lacan argues that it

is only by accepting (or 'assuming') castration that the subject can reach a

degree of psychic normality. In other words, the assumption of castration has a

'normalising effect'. This normalising effect is to be understood in terms of

both psychopathology (clinical structures and symptoms) and sexual identity.


e Castration and 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' (Ec, 852). A more radical defence 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 (Sl, 53). 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; see Sl, 58-

9) or even self-mutilation of the real genital organs.


ï Castration and sexual identity It is only by assuming castration (in both

senses) that the subject can take up a sexual position as a man or a woman (see

SEXUAL DIFFERENCE). The different modalities of refusing castration find expres-

sion in the various forms of perversion.