Lately I have been making a serious effort to understand why, nearly forty years after Girard’s Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque and twenty after my The Origin of Language, the mimetic triangle and its cultural implications remain so little known, while hundreds of academics continue to pay tribute to the Oedipus complex and its derivatives. In previous columns (see Chronicles 115 and 125) I have remarked on the contemporary propension to phallus-worship–a resentful idolatry whose believer delights in watching the organ deflate. But however defective the Freudian paradigm may be as originary anthropology, its heuristic value is demonstrated on a daily basis.
An example in my own academic field of nineteeth-century French is the highly respected study Figures of Ill Repute: Representing Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century France (Harvard, 1989; henceforth FIR) by Charles Bernheimer, who, sadly, died last year of pancreatic cancer. The commodification of female sexuality is associated throughout the century, from Parent-Duchâtelet (author of a groundbreaking 1836 study on Parisian prostitution) to Zola and Huysmans, with figures of decay and degeneration; the prostitute is viewed as a sanitary instrument of purgation and fantasized as a dangerous vessel of contamination. FIR shows how the exaltation of the masculine world of art depends on the degradation of female sexuality into a form of exchange-value. Although everyone knows that Balzac, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Zola, and others often wrote about prostitutes, Bernheimer reveals prostitution to be at the narrative core of their work. Contemporary feminism has sensitized him to expressions of dehumanizing contempt and fear of women, and of sexuality itself as associated with women, that scholars once simply took for granted.
In order to make these points, Bernheimer makes use of a double intellectual strategy, all the more significant for never being presented nor perhaps even reflected on as such. On one hand, the exchange of woman’s sexual favors is used as a discrediting “figure of ill repute” for market society (“capitalism”) itself. On the other, male attitudes toward women are explained by reference to Freud’s theory of sexuality, particularly fetishism and the “castration complex.”
FIR reveals, in other words, the living reality of the old alliance between Marx and Freud that writers like Herbert Marcuse once hoped to transform into a theoretical synthesis. The construction of this synthesis has been abandoned on the highest levels of “theory”–although the last few books of Fredric Jameson, the United States’ most eminent living Marxist, probably contain more Freudian (and Lacanian) vocabulary than Marxian. As FIR illustrates, however, this theoretical neglect simply reflects the fact that, on the level of “practical criticism,” the matter is tacitly taken as settled: Marxian-cum-Freudian deconstruction of the “phallic” bourgeois-patriarchal Subject is the critical lingua franca of our era. The theme of prostitution, a relation both sexual and commercial–the archetype of “commodity fetishism”–offers an exemplary validation of this alliance.
Movements like feminism, postcolonialism, gay studies, by resituating in the domains of gender, race, et. al. Marx’s binary opposition of capitalist and proletarian, tend not only to ignore the difference between individual and collective motivations but to obscure the more fundamental point of Marxism as a doctrine of revolution. The Marxist demystification of capitalist economic relations was intended to generate a revolutionary consciousness that would lead to the abolition of these relations. In contrast, post-Marxist modes of demystification operate wholly in the world of discourse, through innuendo; the mere exhibition of unequal relations that contravene what I would call the originary ethic of reciprocity suffices to condemn them. In books like FIR, the reader is presented with a series of discourses about woman in general and the prostitute in particular that we are obliged to denounce as “chauvinistic,” “patriarchal,” “misogynistic,” in association with a “bourgeois ideology” that we are consequently required to denounce in its turn. The reproachful condemnation of the fantasmatic pictures of commodified woman’s devouring sexuality, touching not merely decadents such as Huysmans but Freud’s teacher Charcot, is extended to commodities in general, just as the brothel client’s attitudes are assimilated to bourgeois ideology. Condemnation of prostitution becomes condemnation of bourgeois society in general. But the author is not content to condemn male power over women by analogy and in conjunction with the capitalist’s power over the proletariat: the ideology of the “patriarchy” is not understood as the expression of its will-to-power but as the male’s reaction to castration anxiety, which he projects in a sacrificial mode (the words “sacrifice” and “scapegoat,” but not the name Girard, figure in the book) onto the woman’s “castrated” genital organ.
As Freudian readings go, these are among the best; always sensitive to the nuance of individual texts or artworks, Bernheimer is not Flaubert’s Pécuchet for whom “everything became a (castrated?) phallus.” Yet, despite its insights, this is the criticism of Hegel’s “beautiful soul”: lacking a credible revolutionary utopia, Bernheimer condemns bourgeois society as immoral without proposing how things might have been different. As an extreme example, he reports (p. 236) in a vaguely indignant tone that it was proposed at one time to make it a crime to knowingly transmit a sexual disease, comparing this proposed law to similar laws today that forbid the knowing transmission of AIDS. Should such laws then be abolished? or is it merely that their “victimization” of AIDS sufferers marks them as deserving of our moral disapprobation.
In the alliance between “Marx” as the denouncer of capitalist exploitation and “Freud” as the demystifier of male pretensions to the phallus, the Marxian element condemns the bourgeois social order, presumably in terms of a historical dialectic, while the Freudian, by asserting the transhistorical permanence of male castration anxiety projected onto the female, guarantees the relevance of this condemnation even in the absence of such a dialectic.
Where the Marx-Freud alliance sexualizes the historical, we would do better to historicize the sexual. Is it not nascent consumer society rather than an eternal castration anxiety that generates the anxieties these authors express in images of castration? Isn’t the source of these horrific images of female sexuality more simply explained by the resentment of the desirer for the desired other, intensified in this era by its mediation through a “rationalized” exchange system that facilitated the purchase of sexual favors by upper-class males (and also allowed courtesans to acquire considerable wealth by manipulating their market position)? Instead of looking down one’s nose at the benighted and hypocritical nineteenth-century bourgeois, it would be a far more useful, if no doubt more difficult, enterprise to explain the sexual tensions of the era in terms of the conflicting demands of private family life, the public world of market production, and the ever more dynamic intermediate activity of consumption. For example, as Bernheimer notes following Alain Corbin, the common brothel of the early part of the century gives way, on the one hand, to specialized–high “value-added”–brothels for the rich, but on the other, to brasseries à femme where the purely commercial aspect of prostitution is mitigated by “romance.” In either case, the simple commodification of sexuality gives way to more highly mediated forms. But such mediations evolve in tandem with the phenomenon of conjugal love, the modern history of which also begins in this period.
The problems of constructing modern market society–the society from whose safety retroactive social critics express their facile indignation toward its forbears–cannot be understood in terms of the simplistic binarism of dominators and dominated, bad guys and good guys (or gals). Only when the resentful energy that still animates our cultural criticism–and Bernheimer’s book is one of the more distinguished achievements of this criticism–has been converted into a sympathetic curiosity toward our own social order will the really interesting questions about the interplay within it of public and private, commercial and sexual relations be asked and answered.
In the ten years that separate us from FIR’s date of publication–the USSR still existed then–gender relations have grown less strained, and a male writer about prostitution would probably not feel himself obliged, as Bernheimer does in his introduction, to agonize about his own complicity with the male fantasies that he studies as narrative mechanisms rather than reflections of a brutal patriarchal reality, nor constantly to repeat terms like “sexist,” “chauvinist,” “patriarchal” to forestall the reader from being seduced by these fantasies. But the Marx-Freud alliance is still alive and well.
Forgetting about Marx for the moment, what makes Freud’s theory of desire so much more attractive than Girard’s? FIR answers this question very simply: its sexual essentialism gives it a prefabricated semantics where Girard has only a syntax–a “nature” where Girard has only “culture.” Notions such as castration complex, fetishism, and voyeurism derive from a set of fantasies, as much Freud’s (and Bernheimer’s) as those of his patients, focused on the genitalia. The “natural” physical manifestation of sexual difference is substituted for the social reality of sexuality in its historical context. Were I not averse to victimary terminology, I would not hesitate to qualify the definition of women (and of men) in terms of the phallus and its castrated lack as “sexist.” Feminists have, needless to say, preceded me in this denunciation, but without ever entertaining the possibility of simply detaching the mimetic element of Freud’s theory of desire from its genital-centered essentialism. The function of this essentialism, in Bernheimer’s book as in many far less distinguished works, is to permit the denunciation of certain desires–those of the bourgeoisie, of consumer society in general–as perverse and unnatural by analogy with Freud’s distinction between normal genital desires and their “fetishistic” or “voyeuristic” perversions.
In a word, what Freud provides contemporary criticism is ultimately the same thing that, as we saw in last week’s Chronicle 164, Margaret Mead’s very un-Freudian picture of Samoa provided a simpler era: a guarantee of the romantic-revolutionary denunciation of market society as “unnatural.” Should we really be surprised that academic intellectuals prefer to theorize their resentment of the bourgeois social order rather than the mechanisms through which this resentment is generated–and subsidized?