Un pauvre diable d’homme, qui a eu ce qu’on appelle une bonne fortune, est souvent bien infortuné, surtout s’il a le malheur de voir sa maîtresse tous les jours. Il y a une certaine amabilité qu’il est fort malaisé d’avoir à l’heure fixe … Dire: J’aime, est beaucoup moins pénible que de le prouver, avec cela que chaque preuve que l’on en donne rend la suivante plus difficile.
A poor devil of a man who has had what we call a “good fortune” is often very unfortunate, especially if he is unhappy enough to see his mistress every day. There is a certain friendly gesture that it is very difficult to make at a fixed time… To say “I love you” is much less unpleasant than to prove it, and on top of that, each proof you give makes the next one more difficult.
Théophile Gautier, Les Jeunes-France, “Celle-ci et celle-là”
Anciennement, les tours, les pyramides, les cierges, les bornes de routes, et même des arbres avaient la signification de phallus, et pour Bouvard et Pécuchet, tout devint phallus. … Quand on venait les voir, ils demandaient : “A quoi trouvez-vous que cela ressemble?” puis confiaient le mystère, et, si l’on se récriait, ils levaient de pitié les épaules.
In the old days, towers, pyramids, church tapers, road markers, and even trees had a phallic meaning, and for Bouvard and Pécuchet, everything became a phallus… When someone came to see them, they would ask, “What do you think this looks like?” and then revealed the secret, and if anyone protested, they shrugged their shoulders in pity.
Gustave Flaubert, Bouvard et Pécuchet, ch. IV
It is one of the stranger features of late twentieth academia that it has made Phallus its preferred term for Being. To redefine the originary human invention/discovery of transcendence through the sign as phallus worship is a feat only a master mystifier like Lacan could pull off. But if you dare take the word “phallus” literally as designating a specific state of the male anatomy, you will be derided for the category error of associating the transcendent with the immanent. The secret is to understand it as exemplifying the paradoxical triumph of the Signifier; the Phallus has no referential meaning, it is the ultimate Subject/Object of desire in the universe of language. The non-identity of the Phallus with its anatomical counterpart is a colorful if misleading way of figuring the relation of sacred and profane, sign and referent, word and thing that is the constitutive opposition of the human. The Phallus is a scandalous means of revealing the paradoxical generation of transcendence from immanence–something GA does much more quietly and efficiently.
Seen as the “master trope” of a theory of signification that is ultimately a universal anthropology, the Phallus confuses the mind as it stimulates the imagination. The phenomenon might be called a textbook demonstration of the virtues of generative minimalism, although the textbooks are much more likely to refer to phallogocentrism than to the originary hypothesis. For only once we understand what is really at stake in the generation of the transcendent from the immanent–the origin of the human–are we ready to attend to the specific sense in which the Phallus may be said to embody the transcendent. The more one makes the Phallus the synonym of transcendental Being, the less one is likely to recall what a phallus is, or why phalli were ever worshiped either for themselves or in ithyphallic representations of gods.
From an originary perspective, the source of the Phallus’ potential sacrality is clear. We need not attribute to phallus-worshipers any reflection on fertility. If GA has taught us anything, it is that phenomena of nature become culturally significant through the dangers they pose to human interaction. Men do not worship the phallus because it produces children; they sacralize it because it incarnates the dangerous state of aroused desire that risks unleashing the destructive force of mimetic aggression, protection from which is the sine qua non of culture.
In the originary scene, it is not unreasonable to assume that the male participants, excited by the central object yet assured of peace by the deferral of its appropriation through the sign, were ithyphallic. (This provides unexpected support for the apparently extreme “queer theory” position that homosexual desire–which we must distinguish from appetite–is more primal than heterosexual–the theoretical justification of the term “homophobia.”) But from an originary perspective, male sexual arousal is of less interest as sexual than as arousal, that is, arousal of desire. No doubt there is a link between the male position in sexual intercourse and male aggressivity, but the fetishization of the sexual not only lends itself to feminist deconstruction, it loses sight of the essential function of culture, which is to prevent the destruction of the community through the violence of mimetic desire.
In the real world, “having” or “being” a phallus is not a yes-or-no proposition, nor is the phallic relation a zero-sum game. The state of male sexual arousal is an obvious metaphor for significance because it is akin to the situation that generated significance in the first place. But the fact that sexual pleasure and its reproductive consequences are subordinate to the need for survival contribute to the comi-tragic fragility of this state. Whence the value of the phallic model in the domain of esthetic culture.
Unlike ritual, art must provide pleasure; where ritual is presumed efficacious in itself, art’s efficacy is always questionable. The success of the imaginary enchantment of an artwork is analogous to the maintenance of arousal required to bring the sexual act to a successful conclusion. This does not mean that the artwork need provoke the tension-release pattern of sexual intercourse; Ravel’s Bolero is the exception rather than the rule. But the phallic analogy gains interest when it is mirrored by a sexual theme in the work itself. The narrative of a love affair, for example, will be “sexier” according as it maintains its “phallic” tension.
Hard-core pornography makes reductive use of this narrative analogy by constructing the “plot” of each narrative segment as the creation, maintenance, and discharge of an erection. A more culturally significant example is Théophile Gautier’s novella “Celle-ci et celle-là” [“This Woman and That”] in Les Jeunes-France (1833), where the “romantic” protagonist is less concerned to win the love of his beloved than to make her conquest as much like a romantic melodrama as possible. The ironic ease with which he achieves his ostensible objective makes the love-affair both valueless in itself and ineffective as a plot-mechanism. The inviability of the plot structure of seduction-as-conquest that had provided the basis for Clarissa and the later Liaisons dangereuses reflects the disappearance of sexual initiation–generally of a young woman–as a cultural value. The eighteenth-century “surprise of love” is now a prolonged adolescence that must be filled by “passion” rather than the punctual satisfaction of seduction. In Gautier’s ironic tale, “phallic” tension cannot be maintained in the drama of love because neither character can play his or her role in unawareness of its mimetic nature. Desire for the abstract figure of desire, “falling in love with love,” is subjected to what might be called a “phallocritique”: the character’s as well as the narrative’s “erection” is lost when the state of arousal itself takes the woman’s place as the object of male desire.
Like the archetypal pragmatic paradox of the mother telling her child to “be spontaneous,” the phallic state cannot be sought directly. What is “sexy” is roughly predictable, but the nuance that guarantees success cannot be preordained. (Thus in Gautier’s story, the woman is expected to be a dark beauty of “Spanish or Italian” origin, supposedly more passionate than the cold beauties of the North. Finding a woman who fits this description provokes desire at first, but is not sufficient to maintain it.) Our use of the word “sexy” to describe consumer products makes the paradoxical generation of phallicity the measure of exchange-value.
Although sexiness is not limited to the male sex, the phallic metaphor is not arbitrary. In our age of self-conscious mimeticism, the phallus offers a rare visible proof of our success in proceeding from desire to appetite. The current obsession with it is, as the logic of the supplement suggests, the sign not of its presence but of its lack. Yet the inversion is not simple, for this lack must be remedied; desire must be generated even as we know its mediated arbitrariness. To equate the Phallus with Being is at the same time to expose postritual culture’s sense of loss of contact between the transcendental and the everyday and to express each man’s secret claim to rival the phallic god. To bowdlerize the Phallus by emphasizing its abstract role as the signifier of desire only contributes to the male organ’s prestige. In the paradise of signification, the choice of a specific signifier to represent desired Being cannot by definition be “innocent.”
The “phallogocentric” exists to be denounced by those who seek a space for utopian eschatology in an era that has increasingly shown it to be discredited. The physiological guarantee of desire is ironically glorified as the sole “real” in a world of simulation and at the same instant denounced as corruptible flesh masquerading as transcendence. But if the violence of masculine desire that is deferred by the sign is not primarily sexual, the sexualization of late twentieth-century thought of which Lacanianism is the most egregious symptom is the result of a development diametrically opposed to masculine violence: that of the personalization of desire and the rise of the sexual, albeit not necessarily heterosexual, couple as the privileged generating force of meaning in individual lives. (Such phenomena as the rise of the “men’s movement” and the Promise Keepers reflect the reaffirmation and renegotiation in this new “feminine” context of the deferral of masculine violence that is the originary basis of culture.)
Derrida, to whom we owe the term, knows we cannot abolish phallogocentrism, for it is the human itself. But the deconstructors and their heirs fail to see that the phallic etymon in this word is a fetish, the mythical and therefore sacrificial exaltation of a physiological metaphor of the Being of the desired Other. Sexy is ultimately just another word for lovable, the designation of an independent being who shares my capacity for experiencing and manipulating desire, for joining me in an act of love where neither party is subordinate.
When we understand that the resentful term “phallogocentrism” reflects no more and no less than the originary urgency of deferring masculine violence, we will abandon the victimary structure of sexual and metaphysical binarism for a more self-aware and self-respecting mode of thought. This hope may appear distant today, but it is not utopian, for it proposes no final solution to resentment, merely its liberation from the straitjacket of sexual stereotypes.