Phallus

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Sigmund Freud

Phallus and Penis

Freud's work abounds in references to the penis. Freud argues that children of both sexes set great value on the penis, and that their discovery that some human beings do not possess a penis leads to important psychical consequences. However, the term "phallus" rarely appears in Freud's work, and when it does it is used as a synonym of "penis".

Sexual Difference

Freud does use the adjective "phallic" more frequently, such as in the expression the "phallic phase", but again this implies no rigorous distinction between the terms "phallus" and "penis", since the phallic phase denotes a stage in development in which the child (boy or girl) knows only one genital organ - the penis.

Jacques Lacan

Lacan generally prefers to use the term "phallus" rather than "penis" in order to emphasize the fact that what concerns psychoanalytic theory is not the male genital organ in its biological reality but the role that this organ plays in fantasy. Hence Lacan usually reserves the term "penis" for the biological organ, and the term "phallus" for the imaginary and symbolic functions of this organ.


Lacan's Work

Although not prominent in Lacan's work before the mid-1950s, the term "phallus" occupies an ever more important place in his discourse thereafter. The phallus plays a central role in both the Oedipus complex and in the theory of sexual difference.

For Lacan, the importance of Freud's insight into infantile sexuality was not whether or not girls have a penis and boys fear that theirs will be cut off, but the function of the phallus as a signifier of lack and sexual difference.

The phallus in Lacanian theory should not be confused with the male genital organ, although it clearly carries those connotations. The phallus is first and foremost a signifier and in Lacan's system a particularly privileged signifier.

The phallus operates in all three of Lacan's registers - the imaginary, the symbolic and the real - and as his system develops it becomes the one single indivisible signifier that anchors the chain of signification. Indeed, it is a particularly privileged signifier because it inaugurates the process of signification itself.


Oedipus complex

The phallus is one of the three elements in the imaginary triangle that constitutes the preoedipal phase. It is an imaginary object which circulates between the other two elements, the mother and the child.[1] The mother desires this object and the child seeks to satisfy her desire by identifying with the phallus or with the phallic mother. In the Oedipus complex the father intervenes as a fourth term in this imaginary triangle by castrating the child; that is, he makes it impossible for the child to identify with the imaginary phallus. The child is then faced with the choice of accepting his castration (accepting that he cannot be the mother's phallus) or rejecting it. ((For Lacan, the phallus is not to be equated with the penis, and as a signifier it performs a different function in each of the three orders: the imaginary, the symbolic and the real. ))

Sexual Difference

Lacan argues that both boys and girls must assume their castration, in the sense that every child must renounce the possibility of being the phallus for the mother; this "relationship to the phallus . . . is established without regard to the anatomical difference of the sexes."[2] The renunciation by both sexes of identification with the imaginary phallus paves the way for a relationship with the symbolic phallus which is different for the sexes; the man has the symbolic phallus (or, more precisely, "he is not without having it" [il n'est pas sans l'avoir]), but the woman does not. This is complicated by the fact that the man can only lay claim to the symbolic phallus on condition that he has assumed his own castration (has given up being the imaginary phallus), and by the fact that the woman's lack of the symbolic phallus is also a kind of possession.[3]

The status of the phallus: real, imaginary or symbolic? Lacan speaks of the real phallus, the imaginary phallus and the symbolic phallus:

The Real Phallus

As has already been observed, Lacan usually uses the term "penis" to denote the real biological organ and reserves the term "phallus" to denote the imaginary and symbolic functions of this organ. However, he does not always maintain this usage, occasionally using the term "real phallus" to denote the biological organ, or using the terms "symbolic phallus" and "symbolic penis" as if they were synonymous.[4] This apparent confusion and semantic slippage has led some commentators to argue that the supposed distinction between the phallus and the penis is in fact highly unstable and that "the phallus concept is the site of a regression towards the biological organ."[5]

While the imaginary phallus and the symbolic phallus are discussed more extensively by Lacan than the real phallus, he does not entirely ignore the latter. On the contrary, the real penis has an important role to play in the Oedipus complex of the little boy, for it is precisely via this organ that his sexuality makes itself felt in infantile masturbation; this intrusion of the real in the imaginary preoedipal triangle is what transforms the triangle from something pleasurable to something which provokes anxiety.[6] The question posed in the Oedipus complex is that of where the real phallus is located; the answer required for the resolution of this complex is that it is located in the real father.[7] The real phallus is written Π in Lacanian algebra.

The Imaginary Phallus

When Lacan first introduces the distinction between penis and phallus, the phallus refers to an imaginary object.[8] This is the "image of the penis",[9] the penis imagined as a part-object which may be detached from the body by castration,[10] the "phallic image".[11] The imaginary phallus is perceived by the child in the preoedipal phase as the object of the mother's desire, as that which she desires beyond the child; the child thus seeks to identify with this object. The Oedipus complex and the Castration complex involve the renunciation of this attempt to be the imaginary phallus. The imaginary phallus is written φ (lower-case phi) in Lacanian algebra, which also represents phallic signification. Castration is written -φ (minus lower-case phi).

As we saw above, the child slowly comes to realise that it is not identical to, or the sole object of, the mother's desire, as her desire is directed elsewhere. He/she will therefore attempt to once again become the object of her desire and return to the initial state of blissful union. The simple dyadic relationship between the mother and child is thus turned into a triangular relationship between the child, the mother and the object of her desire. The child attempts to seduce the mother by becoming that object of desire. Lacan calls this third term the imaginary phallus. The imaginary phallus is what the child assumes someone must have in order for them to be the object of the mother's desire and, as her desire is usually directed towards the father, it is assumed that he possesses the phallus. Through trying to satisfy the mother's desire, the child identifies with the object that it presumes she has lost and attempts to become that object for her. The phallus is imaginary in the sense that it is associated in the child's mind with an actual object that has been lost and can be recovered. The Oedipus complex, for Lacan, involves the process of giving up the identification with this imaginary phallus, and recognizing that it is a signifier and as such was never there in the first place. What Freud called castration, therefore, is a symbolic process that involves the infant's recognition of themselves as 'lacking' something - the phallus. For Lacan, castration involves the process whereby boys accept that they can symbolically 'have' the phallus only by accepting that they can never actually have it 'in reality' and girls can accept 'not-having' the phallus once they give up on their 'phallic' identification with their mothers (we will discuss this very complicated idea in more detail in the chapter on sexual difference). This is the function of the Oedipus complex in Lacan.

The Symbolic Phallus

The imaginary phallus which circulates between mother and child serves to institute the first dialectic in the child's life, which, although it is an imaginary dialectic, already paves the way towards the symbolic, since an imaginary element is circulated in much the same way a signifier (the phallus becomes an "imaginary signifier"). Thus Lacan's formulations on the imaginary phallus in the seminar of 1956-7 are accompanied by statements that the phallus is also a symbolic object[12] and that the phallus is a signifier.[13] The idea that the phallus is a signifier is taken up again and further developed in the 1957-8 seminar and becomes the principle element of Lacan's theory of the phallus thereafter; the phallus is described as "the signifier of the desire of the Other",[14] and the signifier of jouissance.[15]

These arguments are stated in their most definitive form in Lacan's paper on "The Signification of the Phallus".[16]

The phallus is not a fantasy, if by that we mean an Imaginary effect. Nor is it as such an object (part-, internal, good, bad, etc.). It is even less the organ, penis or clitoris, that it symbolises. . . . The phallus is a signifier. . . . It is the signifier intended to designate as a whole the effects of the signified.[17]

Whereas the Castration complex and the Oedipus complex revolve around the imaginary phallus, the question of sexual difference revolves around symbolic phallus. The phallus has no corresponding female signifier; "the phallus is a symbol to which there is no correspondent, no equivalent. It's a matter of a dissymmetry in the signifier.'"[18] Both male and female subjects assume their sex via the symbolic phallus.

Unlike the imaginary phallus, the symbolic phallus cannot be negated, for on the symbolic plane an absence is just as much a positive entity as a presence.[19] Thus even the woman, who lacks the symbolic phallus in one way, can also be said to possess it, since not having it the symbolic is itself a form of having.[20] Conversely, the assumption of the symbolic phallus by the man is only possible on the basis of the prior assumption of his own castration. Lacan goes on in 1961 to state that the symbolic phallus is that which appears in the place of the lack of the signifier in the Other.[21] It is no ordinary signifier but the real presence of desire itself.[22] In 1973 he states that the symbolic phallus is "the signifier which does not have a signified".[23]

The symbolic phallus is written ф in Lacanian algebra. However, Lacan warns his students that the complexity of this symbol might be missed if they simply identify it with the symbolic phallus.[24] The symbol is more correctly understood as designating the "phallic function."[25] In the early 1970s Lacan incorporates this symbol of the phallic function in his formulae of sexuation. Using predicate logic to articulate the problems of sexual difference, Lacan devises two formulae for the masculine position and two formulae for the feminine position. All four formulae revolve around the phallic function, which is here equivalent with the function of castration.


desire and signification. It is desire that drives the process of symbolization. The phallus is the ultimate object of desire that we have lost and always search for but never had in the first place.


To summarize, before we explore this complex idea further, the phallus stands for that moment of rupture when the child is forced to recognize the desire of the other; of the mother. 'The mother is refused to the child in so far as a prohibition falls on the child's desire to be what the mother desires' (Rose 1996a: 61). The phallus, therefore, always belongs somewhere else; it breaks the mother/child dyad and initiates the order of symbolic exchange. In this sense the phallus is both imaginary and symbolic. It is imaginary in that it represents the object presumed to satisfy the mother's desire; at the same time, it is symbolic in that it stands in for the recognition that desire cannot be satisfied. By breaking the imaginary couple 'the phallus represents a moment of division [that “lack-in-being”] which re-enacts the fundamental splitting of the subject itself' (Rose 1996a: 63). As a presence in absence, a 'seeming' value, the phallus is a fraud .



It is through the intervention of the Name-of-the-Father that the imaginary unity between child and mother is broken. The father is assumed to possess something that the child lacks and it is this that the mother desires. It is important here though not to confuse the Name-of-the-Father with the actual father. The Name-of-the-Father is a symbolic function that intrudes into the illusory world of the child andbreaks the imaginary dyad of the mother and child. The child assumes that the father is one that satisfies the mother's desire and possesses the phallus. In this sense, argues Lacan, the Oedipus complex involves an element of substitution, that is to say, the substitution of one signifier, the desire of the mother, for another, the Name-of-the-Father. It is through this initial act of substitution that the process of signification begins and child enters the symbolic order as a subject of lack. It is also for this reason that Lacan describes the process of symbolization itself as 'phallic'. It is through the Name-of-the-Father that the phallus is installed as the central organizing signifier of the unconscious. The phallus is the 'original' lost object, but only insofar as no one possessed it in the first place. The phallus, therefore, is not like any other signifier, it is the signifier of absence and does not 'exist' in its own right as a thing, an object or a bodily organ. Let us look at this more closely.


Lacan equates the process of giving up the imaginary phallus with Freud's account of castration anxiety, but he argues that the process of castration in Freud is more complicated than people generally think. Castration involves not just an anxiety about losing one's penis but simultaneously the recognition of lack or absence . The child is concerned about losing its own penis and simultaneously recognizes that the mother does not have a penis. The idea of the penis, therefore, becomes metonymically linked to the recognition of lack . It is in this sense that Lacan argues that the phallus is not simply the penis; it is the penis plus the recognition of absence or lack . Castration is not the fear that one has already lost, in the case of girls, or will lose, in the case of boys, one's penis but rather the symbolic process of giving up the idea that one can be the phallus for the mother. The intervention of the father distances the child from the mother and also places the phallus forever beyond its reach. If the symbolic father is seen to possess the phallus, then the child can only become a subject itself in the symbolic order by renouncing the imaginary phallus. The problem for Lacan is how does one symbolically represent 'lack' - something that by definition is not there? His solution is the idea of the 'veil'. The presence of the veil suggests that there is an object behind it, which the veil covers over, although this is only a presumption on the part of the subject. In this way the veil enables the perpetuation of the idea that the object exists. Thus, both boys and girls can have a relationship to the phallus on the basis that it always remains veiled and out of reach. The phallus provides the vital link between

Criticisms of Lacan

Of all Lacan's ideas, his concept of the phallus is perhaps the one which has given rise to most controversy. Objections to Lacan's concept fall into two main groups.

Firstly, some feminist writers have argued that the privileged position Lacan accords to the phallus means that he merely repeats the patriarchal gestures of Freud (e.g. Grosz, 1990). Other feminists have defended Lacan, arguing that his distinction between the phallus and the penis provides a way of accounting for sexual difference which is irreducible to biology (e.g. Mitchell and Rose, 1982).

The second main objection to Lacan's concept of the phallus is that put forward by Jacques Derrida.[26] and echoed by others. Derrida argues that, despite Lacan's protestations of anti-transcendentalism, the phallus operates as a transcendental element which acts as an ideal guarantee of meaning. How can there be such a thing as a "privileged signifier", asks Derrida, given that every signifier is defined only by its differences from other signifiers? The phallus, in other words, reintroduces the metaphysics of presence which Derrida denominates as logocentrism, and thus Derrida concludes that, by articulating this with phallocentrism, Lacan has created a phallogocentric system of thought.

See Also

References
  1. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. p. 319
  2. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 282
  3. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 153
  4. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 153
  5. Macey, David. (1988) Lacan in Contexts. London and New York: Verso. 1988: 191
  6. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 225-6; Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 341
  7. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 281
  8. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 31
  9. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 319
  10. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 315
  11. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 320
  12. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 152
  13. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 191
  14. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 290
  15. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 320
  16. Lacan, Jacques. "La signification du phallus." Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966 [1958c]: 685-95 ["The signification of the phallus". Trans. Alan Sheridan Écrits: A Selection. London: Tavistock, 1977; New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1977: 281-91].
  17. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 285
  18. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. p. 176
  19. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 320
  20. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 153
  21. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre VIII. Le transfert, 1960-61. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 278-81
  22. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre VIII. Le transfert, 1960-61. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 290
  23. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre XX. Encore, 1972-73. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1975. p. 75
  24. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre VIII. Le transfert, 1960-61. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 296
  25. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre VIII. Le transfert, 1960-61. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 298
  26. Derrida, Jacques. (1975) "Le facteur de la vérité." The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond. Trans. Alan Bass, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1987 [1975]: 413-96