Woman is One of the Names-of-the-Father

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Articles by Slavoj Žižek


The usual way of misreading Lacan's formulas of sexuation[1] is to reduce the difference of the masculine and the feminine side to the two formulas that define the masculine position, as if masculine is the universal phallic function and feminine the exception, the excess, the surplus that eludes the grasp of the phallic function. Such a reading completely misses Lacan's point, which is that this very position of the Woman as exception-say, in the guise of the Lady in courtly love-is a masculine fantasy par excellence. As the exemplary case of the exception constitutive of the phallic function, one usually mentions the fantasmatic, obscene figure of the primordial father-jouisseur who was not encumbered by any prohibition and was as such able fully to enjoy all women. Does, however, the figure of the Lady in courtly love not fully fit these determinations of the primordial father? Is she not also a capricious Master who wants it all, i.e., who, herself not bound by any Law, charges her knight-servant with arbitrary and outrageous ordeals?

In this precise sense, Woman is one of the names-of-the-father. The crucial details not to be missed here are the use of plural and the lack of capital letters: not Name-of-the-Father, but one of the names-of-the-father-one of the nominations of the excess called primordial father.[2] In the case of Woman-the mythical She, the Queen from Rider Haggard's novel of the same name for example-as well as in the case of the primordial father, we are dealing with an agency of power which is pre-symbolic, unbridled by the Law of castration; in both cases, the role of this fantasmatic agency is to fill out the vicious cycle of the symbolic order, the void of its origins: what the notion of Woman (or of the primordial father) provides is the mythical starting point of unbridled fullness whose "primordial repression" constitutes the symbolic order.

A second misreading consists in rendering obtuse the sting of the formulas of sexuation by way of introducing a semantic distinction between the two meanings of the quantifier "all": according to this misreading, in the case of the universal function, "all" (or "not-all") refers to a singular subject (x), and signals whether "all of it" is caught in the phallic function; whereas the particular exception "there is one..." refers to the set of subjects and signals, whether within this set "there is one" who is (or is not) entirely exempted from the phallic function. The feminine side of the formulas of sexuation thus allegedly bears witness to a cut that splits each woman from within: no woman is entirely exempted from the phallic function, and for that very reason, no woman is entirely submitted to it, i.e., there is something in each woman that resists the phallic function. In a symmetric way, on the masculine side, the asserted universality refers to a singular subject (each male subject is entirely submitted to the phallic function) and the exemption to the set of male subjects ('there is one' who is entirely exempted from the phallic function). In short, since one man is entirely exempted from the phallic function, all others are wholly submitted to it, and since no woman is entirely exempted from the phallic function, none of them is also wholly submitted to it. In the one case, the splitting is externalized: it stands for the line of separation that, within the set of "all men", distinguishes those who are caught in the phallic function from the 'one' who is exempted from it; in the other case, it is internalized: every singular woman is split from within, part of her is submitted to the phallic function and part of her exempted from it.

However, if we are to assume fully the true paradox of Lacan's formulas of sexuation, one has to read them far more literally: woman undermines the universality of the phallic function by the very fact that there is no exception in her, nothing that resists it. In other words, the paradox of the phallic function resides in a kind of short-circuit between the function and its meta-function: the phallic function coincides with its own self-limitation, with the setting up of a non-phallic exception. Such a reading is prefigured by the somewhat enigmatic mathemes that Lacan wrote under the formulas of sexuation and where woman (designated by the crossed-out _) is split between the capitalized Phi (of the phallus) and S(%), the signifier of the crossed-out Other that stands for the nonexistence/inconsistency of the Other, of the symbolic order. What one should not fail to notice here is the deep affinity between the Phi and S(%), the signifier of the lack in the Other, i.e., the crucial fact that the Phi, the signifier of the phallic power, phallus in its fascinating presence, merely gives body to the impotence/inconsistency of the Other.

Suffice to recall a political leader-what is the ultimate support of his charisma? The domain of politics is by definition incalculable, unpredictable; a person stirs up passionate reactions without knowing why; the logic of transference cannot be mastered, so one usually refers to the magic touch, to an unfathomable je ne sais quoi which cannot be reduced to any of the leader's actual features-it seems as if the charismatic leader dominates this (x), as if he pulls the strings where the Other of the symbolic order is incapacitated. The situation is here homologous to the common notion of God as a person criticized by Spinoza: in their endeavour to understand the world around them by way of formulating the network of causal connections between events and objects, people sooner or later arrive at the point at which their understanding fails, encounter a limit, and God (conceived as an old bearded wiseman, etc.) merely gives body to this limit-we project into the personalized notion of God the hidden, unfathomable cause of all that cannot be understood and explained via a clear causal connection.

The first operation of the critique of ideology is therefore to recognize in the fascinating presence of God the filler of the gaps in the structure of our knowledge, i.e., the element in the guise of which the lack in our positive knowledge acquires positive presence. And our point is that it is somewhat homologous with the feminine "not-all": this not-all does not mean that woman is not entirely submitted to the Phallus; it rather signals that she sees through the fascinating presence of the Phallus, that she is able to discern in it the filler of the inconsistency of the Other. Yet another way to put it would be to say that the passage from S(%) to the Phi is the passage from impossibility to prohibition: S(%) stands for the impossibility of the signifier of the Other, for the fact that there is no "Other of Other", that the field of the Other is inherently inconsistent, and the Phi reifies this impossibility into the exception, into a sacred, prohibited/unattainable agent who avoids castration and is thus able really to enjoy (the primordial Father, the Lady in courtly love).[3]

One can see now, how the logic of the formulas of sexuation ultimately coincides with that of public power and its inherent transgression:[4] in both cases, the crucial feature is that the subject is effectively 'in' (caught in the phallic function, in the web of power) only and precisely insofar as he does not fully identify with it but maintains a kind of distance towards it (posits an exception to the universal phallic function; indulges in the inherent transgression of the public Law), and, on the other side, the system (of public Law, of phallic economy) is effectively undermined by the very unreserved identification with it.[5] Stephen King's Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption tackles with all stringency this problem apropos of the paradoxes of prison life. The commonplace about prison life is that I am effectively integrated into it, ruined by it, when my accommodation to it is so overwhelming that I can no longer stand or even imagine freedom, life outside prison; so that my release brings about a total psychic breakdown, or at least gives rise to a longing for the lost safety of prison life. The actual dialectic of prison life, however, is somewhat more refined. Prison effectively destroys me, attains a total hold over me, precisely when I do not fully consent to the fact that I am in prison but maintain a kind of inner distance towards it, stick to the illusion that real life is elsewhere, and all the time indulge in daydreaming about life outside, about nice things that are waiting for me after my release or escape. I thereby get caught in the vicious cycle of fantasy, so that when eventually I am released, the grotesque discord between fantasy and reality breaks me down. The only true solution is therefore fully to accept the rules of prison life and then, within the universe governed by these rules, to work on a way to beat them. In short, inner distance and daydreaming about life elsewhere effectively enchains me to prison, whereas full acceptance of the fact that I am really there, bound by the prison rules, opens up a space for true hope.[6]

The paradox of the phallic function (which symmetrically inverts the paradox of the feminine not-all) is therefore that the phallic function acts as its own self-limitation, that it posits its own exception.[7] And insofar as the phallic function, i.e., the phallic signifier, is the quasi-transcendental signifier, the signifier of the symbolic order as such, one can say that it merely reveals the fundamental feature of the symbolic order at its purest, a certain short-circuit of different levels that pertains to the domain of modal logic. In order to illustrate this a priori possibility of the short-circuit between different levels that pertains to the symbolic order qua order of symbolic mandates-titles, let us recall the opposition of father/uncle: father qua severe authority versus uncle qua good fellow who spoils us. The seemingly meaningless, contradictory title of father-uncle can be nonetheless justified as the designation of a father who is not fully ready to exert his paternal authority, but instead spoils his offspring. (To avoid misunderstanding: far from being a kind of eccentric exception, father-uncle is simply the normal everyday father who maintains a distance towards his symbolic mandate, i.e., who, while fully taking advantage of his authority, at the same time affects camaraderie and gives an occasional wink to his son, letting him know that, after all, he is also merely human ...) We are dealing here with the same short-circuit as that found in The History of VKP(B), the holy text of Stalinism, where-among other numerous flashes of the logic of the signifier-one can read that, at a Party congress, "... the resolution was unanimously adopted by a large majority". If the resolution was adopted unanimously, where is the(however tiny) minority opposed to the large majority?

The way to solve the riddle of this 'something that counts as nothing' is, perhaps, to read the quoted statement as the condensation of two levels: the delegates resolved by a large majority that their resolution is to count as unanimous... The link with the Lacanian logic of the signifier is here unmistakable-the minority which mysteriously disappears in this enigmatic/absurd overlapping between majority and unanimity is none other than the exception which constitutes the universal order of unanimity.[8] The feminine position, on the contrary, is defined by the rejection of this short-circuit-how? Let us take as our starting point the properly Hegelian paradox of coincidentia oppositorum that characterizes the standard notion of women: woman is simultaneously a representation, a spectacle par excellence, an image intended to fascinate, to attract the gaze, while still an enigma, the unrepresentable, that which a priori eludes the gaze. She is all surface, lacking any depth, and the unfathomable abyss.

In order to elucidate this paradox, suffice it to reflect on the implications of a discontent that pertains to a certain kind of feminist critique which persistently denounces every description of femininity as male cliché, as something violently imposed onto women. The question that instantly pops up is: what is, then, the feminine "in itself", obfuscated by male clichés? The problem is that all answers (from the traditional eternally feminine, to Kristeva and Irigaray) can again be discredited as male clichés. Carol Gilligan, for example,[9] opposes to the male values of autonomy, competitiveness, etc., the feminine values of intimacy, attachment, interdependence, care and concern, responsibility and self-sacrifice, etc. Are these authentic feminine features or male clichés about women, features imposed on women in the patriarchal society? The matter is undecidable, so that the only possible answer is, both at the same time.[10] The issue thus has to be reformulated in purely topological terms: with regard to the positive content, the male representation of woman is the same as woman in herself; the difference concerns only the place, the purely formal modality of the comprehension of the same content (in the first case this content is conceived as it is 'for the other', in the second case, as it is "in itself"). This purely formal shift in modality, however, is crucial. In other words, the fact that every positive determination of what woman is "in herself" brings us back to what she is "for the other" (for man), in no way compels us to the male-chauvinist conclusion that woman is what she is only for the other, for man: what remains is the topological cut, the purely formal difference between the "for the other" and "for herself".

Here, one should recall the passage from consciousness to self-consciousness in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit: what one encounters in the suprasensible Beyond is, as to its positive content, the same as our terrestrial everyday world; this same content is merely transposed to a different modality. Hegel's point, however, is that it would be false to conclude from this identity of content that there is no difference between the terrestrial reality and its Beyond: in its original dimension, Beyond is not some positive content but an empty place, a kind of screen onto which one can project any positive content whatsoever-and this empty p ace is the subject. Once we become aware of it, we pass from Substance to Subject, i.e., from consciousness to self-consciousness.[11] In this precise sense, woman is the subject par excellence. The same point could be made also in Schelling's terms, i.e., in terms of the difference between the subject qua original void, deprived of any further positive qualifications (in Lacan's mathemes:, $), and the features that this subject assumes, puts on, and which are ultimately always artificial, contingent.[12] It is precisely insofar as woman is characterized by an original masquerade, insofar as all her features are artificially put on, that she is more subject than man-since according to Schelling, what ultimately characterizes the subject is this very radical contingency and artificiality of her ever positive feature, i.e., the fact that she in herself is a pure void that cannot be identified with any of these features.

We are us dealing with a kind of convoluted, curved space, as in the story about Achilles and the tortoise: the male representations (which articulate what woman is "for the other") endlessly approach the woman-tortoise, yet the moment the man leaps over, overtakes the woman-tortoise, he finds himself again where he already was, within the male representations about what woman is "in herself"-woman's "in itself" is always already "for the other". Woman an never be caught, one can never come up with her, one can either endlessly approach her or overtake her, for the very reason that "woman in herself" designates no substantial content but just a purely formal cut, a limit that is always missed-this purely formal cut is the subject qua $. One is thus tempted to paraphrase Hegel again: everything hinges on our conceiving woman not merely as Substance but also as Subject, i.e., on accomplishing a shift from the notion of woman as a substantial content beyond male representations to the notion of woman qua pure topological cut that forever separates the "for the other" from the "in itself".

The asymmetry of the sexual difference resides in the fact that in the case of man we are not dealing with the same cut, we do not distinguish in the same way between what he is "in himself" and what he is 'for the other' qua masquerade. True, the so-called modern man is also caught in the split between what (it seems to him that) the other (woman or social environment in general) expects from him (to be a strong macho type, etc.), and between what he effectively is in himself (weak, uncertain of himself, etc.). This split, however, is of a fundamentally different nature: the macho-image is not experienced as a delusive masquerade but as the ideal-ego one is striving to become. Behind the macho-image of a man there is no secret, just a weak ordinary person that can never live up to his ideal; whereas the trick of the feminine masquerade is to present itself as a mask that conceals the feminine secret. In other words, in opposition to man, who simply tries to live up to his image, i.e., to give the impression that he really is what he pretends to be, woman deceives by means of deception itself; she offers the mask as mask, as false pretence, in order to give rise to the search for the secret behind the mask.[13]

This problematic of femininity qua masquerade also enables us to approach in a new way Lacan's earlier attempt (from the late '50s in "The signification of the phallus") to conceptualize sexual difference as internal to the phallic economy, as the difference between "having" and "being" (man has the phallus, woman is the phallus). A reproach that immediately arises here concerns the reliance of this difference on Freud's naïve anthropologist evolutionism whose premise is that the primitive savage doesn't have an unconscious since he is (our, civilized man's) unconscious. Does the attempt to conceptualize sexual difference by means of the opposition of being and having not imply woman's subordination to man, i.e., the notion of woman as a lower, less reflected, more immediate stage, somewhat in the sense of Schelling's notion of progression as the passage from being to having? That is to say, in Schelling's philosophy, (what previously was) a Being becomes a predicate of a higher Being; (what previously was) a Subject becomes an object of a higher Subject: an animal, for example, is immediately its own Subject, it is its living body, whereas man cannot be said to be his body, he merely has a body which is thus degraded to his predicate...

As a close reading of Lacan's text instantly attests however, the opposition we are dealing with is not that of being versus having, but rather the opposition of to have/to appear: woman is not the phallus, she merely appears to be to be phallus, and this appearing (which of course is identical with femininity qua masquerade) points towards a logic of lure and deception. Phallus can perform its function only as veiled-the moment it is unveiled, it is no longer phallus; what the mask of femininity conceals is therefore not directly the phallus but rather the fact that there is nothing behind the mask. In a word, phallus is a pure semblance, a mystery which resides in the mask as such. On that account, Lacan can claim that a woman wants to be loved for what she is not, not for what she truly is: she offers herself to man not as herself, but in the guise of a mask.[14] Or, to put it in Hegelian terms: phallus does not stand for an immediate Being but for a Being which is only insofar as it is "for the other", i.e., for a pure appearing. On that account, the Freudian primitive is not immediately the unconscious, he is merely unconscious for us, for our external gaze: the spectacle of his unconscious (primitive passions, exotic rituals) is his masquerade by means of which like the woman with her masquerade, he fascinates the other's (our) desire.

Man wants to be loved for what he truly is; which is why the archetypal male scenario of the trial of woman's love is that of the prince from a fairy tale who first approaches his beloved under the guise of a poor servant, in order to insure that the woman will fall in love with him for himself, not for his princely title. This, however, is precisely what a woman doesn't want-and is this not yet another confirmation of the fact that woman is more subject than man? A man stupidly believes that, beyond his symbolic title, there is deep in himself some substantial content, some hidden treasure which makes him worthy of love, whereas a woman knows that there is nothing beneath the mask-her strategy is precisely to preserve this 'nothing' of her freedom, out of reach of man's possessive love...

A recent English publicity spot for a beer renders perfectly what Lacan aims at with his notion that "... there is no sexual relation". Its first part stages the well-known fairy tale anecdote: a girl walks along a stream, sees a frog, takes it gently into her lap, kisses it, and of course, the ugly frog miraculously turns into a beautiful young man. However, the story isn't over yet: the young man casts a covetous glance at the girl, draws her towards himself, kisses her, and she turns into a bottle of beer the man triumphantly holds in his hand... For the woman, the point is that her love and affection (signalled by the kiss) turn a frog into a beautiful man, a full phallic presence (in Lacan's mathemes, Phi); for the man, it is to reduce the woman to a partial object, the cause of his desire (in Lacan's mathemes, the objet petit a). On account of this asymmetry the relationship is impossible: we have either a woman with the frog or a man with the bottle of beer; what we can never obtain is the natural couple of the beautiful woman and man... To conclude, two clichés are to be avoided apropos of the hysterical nature of feminine subjectivity:

-on the one hand, the dismissive treatment of the (feminine) hysterical subject as a confused babbler unable to confront reality, and therefore taking refuge in impotent theatrical gestures (an example from the domain of political discourse: from Lenin onwards, Bolsheviks regularly stigmatized their liberal political opponents as hysterics who "do not know what they effectively want");

-on the other hand, the false elevation of hysteria to a protest, through woman's body language, against male domination: by means of hysterical symptoms, the (feminine) subject signals her refusal to act as the empty screen or medium for the male monologue.

Hysteria has to be comprehended in the complexity of its strategy as a radically ambiguous protest against Master's interpolation which simultaneously bears witness to the fact that the hysterical subject needs a Master, that she cannot do without a Master, so that there is no simple and direct way out. For that reason, one should also avoid the historicist pitfall of rejecting the notion of hysteria as belonging to a bygone era, i.e., the notion that today borderline disturbances, not hysteria, are the predominant form of "discontent" in our civilization: borderline is the contemporary form of hysteria, i.e., of the subject's refusal to accept the predominant mode of interpolation whose agent is no longer the traditional Master but the expert-knowledge of the discourse of Science. In short, the shift from the classic form of hysteria to borderline disturbances is strictly correlative with the shift from the traditional Master to the form of Power legitimized by Knowledge.

A more than sufficient reason for maintaining the notion of hysteria is that the status of the subject as such is ultimately hysterical. That is to say, when Lacan asserts that the most succinct definition of the subject is 'that which is not an object', the apparent banality of this claim should not deceive us: the subject-in the precise psychoanalytic sense of the subject of desire-only exists insofar as the question remains open of how much of an object she is for the Other, i.e., I am a subject insofar as the radical perplexity persists as to the Other's desire, as to what the Other sees (and finds worthy of desire) in me. In other words, when Lacan claims that there is no desire without an object-cause, this does not amount to the banality according to which every desire is attached to its objective correlative: the 'lost object' which sets in motion my desire is ultimately the subject herself, and the lack in question concerns her uncertainty as to her status for the Other's desire. In this precise sense, desire is always desire of the Other: the subject's desire is the desire to ascertain her status as the object of the Other's desire.


  1. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan XX: On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge, 1972-73 (Encore), New York: W.W. Norton, 1998.
  2. In the domain of politics, populist rhetoric offers a case of the exception which grounds universality: whenever the opinion prevails that politics as such is corrupted etc., one can be sure that there is always one politician to promulgate this universal distrust and thereby offer himself as the one to be trusted, the neutral/apolitical representative of the people's true interests...
  3. The transsexual subject, by way of installing Woman at the place of the Name-of-the-Father, disavows castration. If one adopts the usual feminist-deconstructionist commonplace, according to which the notion of castration implies that woman, not man, is castrated, one would expect that when Woman occupies the place of symbolic authority this place will be branded by castration; if however, we take into account that both Woman and the primordial father are uncastratable, the mystery immediately disappears.
  4. See Slavoj Zizek, Metastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Woman and Causality, New York: Verso, 1994.
  5. Since, in patriarchal societies, male predominance is inscribed into the symbolic order itself, does the assertion that women are integrated into it without exception-in a sense more fully than men-not run counter to their subordinate position within this order? Is it not more logical to ascribe the subordinate position to those who are not fully integrated into the symbolic order? What one must challenge here is the underlying premise according to which Power belongs to those who are more fully within the symbolic order. The exercise of Power, on the contrary, always involves a residue of the non-symbolized real (in the guise of the unfathomable je ne sais quoi which is supposed to account for the Master's charisma, for example). It is not accidental that both our examples of the constitutive exception, of the element non-integrated into the symbolic order (primordial father, Lady in courtly love), involve the figure of an extremely cruel Master not bound by any Law.
  6. This paradox points towards the delusion which is the proper object of psychoanalysis-the delusion more refined than a simple mistaking of a false appearance for the thing itself. When, for example, I daydream about sexual prowess and conquests, I am, of course, all the time aware of the illusory character of my fantasizing-I know very well that, in reality, I'll never effectively do it, that I am 'not really like that'. The delusion resides elsewhere: this daydreaming is a screen which provides a misleading image of myself, not only of my capacities but also of my true desires-if, in reality, I were to find myself in a position to realize my daydreaming, I would surely retreat from it in panic. At an even more complex level (in the case of indulging in sadistic fantasies, for example), the very soothing awareness of how I merely daydream, of how "I am not really like that", can well conceal the extent to which my desire is determined by these fantasies...
  7. Insofar as the symbolic constitutes itself by way of positing some element as the traumatic non-symbolizable Thing, as its constitutive exception, then the symbolic gesture par excellence is the drawing of a line of separation between symbolic and real; the real on the contrary, is not external to the symbolic as some kind of substance resisting symbolization-the real is the symbolic itself qua "not-all", i.e., insofar as it lacks the constitutive exception.
  8. It would be productive to elaborate the link between the totalitarian leader and the art of the comic absurd, in which figures of the capricious Master, à la Jarry's roi Ubu, abound: i.e., to read Lewis Carroll with Samuel Goldwyn, Marx Brothers with Stalin, etc.
  9. See Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982. Such a feminine substantialism (this word is probably more appropriate than the usual essentialism) often serves as the hidden presupposition of feminist argumentation. Suffice it to recall the standard claim that a woman who actively participates in patriarchal repression (by way of following the male ideals of feminine beauty, focusing her life on raising the children, etc.) is eo ipso a victim of male manipulation and plays a role imposed on her. This logic is homologous to the old orthodox Marxist claim: the working class is, as to its objective social position, progressive. So that when workers engage in the anti-Semitic, right-wing populism, they are being manipulated by the ruling class and its ideology: in both cases, one has to assert that there is no substantial guarantee of the progressive nature of women or of the working class-the situation is irreducibly antagonistic and open, the terrain of an undecidable ideological and political struggle.
  10. This ambiguity pertains already to the commonplace notion of femininity, which, in line with Gilligan, associates women with intimacy, identification, spontaneity, as opposed to male distance, reflectivity, calculation; but at the same time, also with masquerade, affected feigning, as opposed to male authentic inwardness-woman is simultaneously more spontaneous and more artificial than man.
  11. See G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Oxford: OUP, 1977
  12. See F.W.J. von Schelling, On the History of Modern Philosophy, Cambridge: CUP, 1994.
  13. We can see now how the notion of femininity qua masquerade is strictly co-dependent with the position of woman as "not-all": supposed to conceal something beneath itself, the mask is not all; so, since there is nothing-no hidden truth beneath the mask-there is also no positive, substantial element exempted from the masquerade, which is not a mask. The name for this void which is in itself nothing, but nonetheless makes the domain of masks not-all, of course, is the subject qua void (_).
  14. "It is for what she is not that she expects to be desired as well as loved". Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, New York: W.W. Norton, 2002.