Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today,
I wish, I wish he’d go away…
(from Antigonish, by Hugh Mearns)
I’m still struggling with a way to interpret Lacan’s famous statement ‘la femme n’existe pas‘ (Seminar XX: Encore). This, of course, is the fun of Lacan, one of the glass bead games that a lot of his later work proposed. Fertile ground for anyone interested in how we construct eroticism and how it ends up constituting us.
Lacanians have bent over backwards to put a positive spin on this statement because it is so controversial. Unfortunately, because Lacan never abandoned many of Freud’s most male-centric, heteronormative language (he shifts and destabilizes its original meaning instead), they tend to dig even deeper holes for themselves with non-Lacanians in trying to explain why it’s not a misogynistic statement. If you feel challenged, here is one example of this by Adrian Johnston (Non-Existence and Sexual Identity: Some Brief Remarks on Meinong and Lacan). Or, for another abbreviated taster of a defense, here’s Zizek, paraphrased, on the issue:
Woman doesn’t exist”, la femme n’existe pas, which Lacan rephrases as “there is no such a thing as Woman”, il n’y a pas La femme. Lacan questions not the noun “woman”, but the definite article which precedes it. For the definite article indicates universality, and this is the characteristic that woman lacks: “woman does not lend herself to generalisation, even to phallocentric generalisation.” He also speaks of her as “not-all”, pas toute; unlike masculinity – a universal function founded upon the phallic exception (castration), woman is a non-universal which admits no exception. “Woman as a symptom” (Seminar RSI) means that a woman is a symptom of a man, in the sense that a woman can only ever enter the psychic economy of men as a fantasy object, the cause of their desire.”
For Zizek, woman is what sustains the consistency of man; woman non-existence actually represents the radical negativity which constitutes all subjects. The terms “man” and “woman” do not refer to a biological distinction or gender roles, but rather two modes of the failure of Symbolization. It is this failure which means that “there is no sexual rapport”.
He offers a much longer apologia for it here: Woman is One of the Names-of-the-Father, or How Not to Misread Lacan’s Formulas of Sexuation.
The key to the statement lies in the concept of what we mean by ‘woman’ when we speak about women, when men say they like ‘women,’ when we talk about ‘women’s clothes’, or a ‘woman’s wiles’. This idea of ‘the woman,’ a woman, and not someone named Pam or Anne or Mary. Woman as a nonspecific. There is no real THING that is woman underlying the word. It’s a fantasy, a projection of what men desire. A phantasm. Even when the word is used by women, it is supposedly used to signify the ideal feminine, the universal object of male desire, the thing we want to be. There is, Lacan insists (and I agree) no universal Woman.
I need to warn you here that, by necessity, I’ve truncated all the arguments given for what Lacan meant and why it’s valid. I’m doing this so your eyes don’t roll up into the back of your head.
The big problem, as I see it, is that clever men are still ‘men’ (see? see what I’m doing here? *Cackles*) and the more they insist the Symbolic order to be entirely phallic, and insuperable, the more they get stuck in the rut of their own sense of being and are, understandably, unwilling to write themselves, as a group, out of existence – even when they insist that it might be a backhanded compliment. Nothing divests one of one’s subjectivity more than being theorized into a mystery.
One single extra line might have cleared it all up. One reflection. L’homme n’existe pas non plus.
Because, from the point of view of any particular woman, all the arguments that support Lacan’s statement equally apply to ‘men’ and probably more so for being a signifier that is that much more complicated by all its history, all its privileges and all its expectations in the Symbolic order.
There is no universal Man, and the more we insist there is, the more philosophers, politicians, biologists or psychoanalysts address this issue of ‘him’, the more I offer this as proof of his impossibility, his incompleteness, his unwholeness. One has only to witness the serial failure of all those worthy fields of study to satisfactorily answer even the most basic questions of our existence to put paid to the truth. Man does not exist; not for Aristotle or Kant, Marx or Nietzsche, Lacan or me.
If ‘man’ wants to possess the phallus, and ‘woman’ is the phallus, but the phallus isn’t anywhere or always elsewhere, then the formula is as easily reversed. (For those of you who are unfamiliar with Lacan, the phallus is not a physical penis. It’s not even a symbolic one. It’s whatever the mother wants that the infant cannot provide, a mythic thing that draws her away. The unattainable object of desire.)
Admittedly, I’m not an expert on Lacan. I can’t read French and, although I’ve read Ecrits and all the available seminars translated into English, as well as a number of his interpreters, I acknowledge that I haven’t spent years immersed in his writings. But from all that I’ve read, including some prominent Feminist Lacanians, I haven’t come across anything that would lead me to believe that Lacan had a firm understanding how women think or what they desire, as a group or individually.
I don’t think he was the misogynist some people accuse him of being. I think he made the unforgivable mistake of many well-meaning men of his era. He put them on a pedestal and made mysteries of them because the reality of them might disappoint him. Lacan should have read more romance novels. Women project the same impossible desires onto men. We render them equally phantasmatic, and they end up being equally not quite what we wanted.
The narrative of the symbolic castration and entry into the Symbolic order is always told through the POV of the child, but I’d ask you to consider this. The phallus, the thing that draws the mother away from the child, is always ultimately an unsatisfying betrayal.
From the point of view of the wayward, wandering mother, we’re always left to smack our foreheads afterwards and say, “Damn, I could have had a V8.”