I doubt that academic humanism’s current obsession with Freudian vocabulary will redound to its credit in future generations. The substitution of “Phallus” for “Being” in presumably respectable scholarly discourse will surely strike our heirs as aberrant. Everyone quotes Lacan’s line that “the unconscious is structured like a language” but, in truth, our theoreticians act as though the unconscious were structured like a religion–a religion of phallus-worship inherent in the human psyche. Chassez l’inconscient collectif, il revient au galop. [If you chase away the collective unconscious, it just comes galloping back.]
But this religion is uniformly practiced in denial. The “phallogocentric” West is the bogey-man of the world, and feminist thinkers from Luce Irigaray to Jane Gallop make reputations from the resentful deconstruction of Lacanian phallicity–it being apparently unthinkable that some feminine thinker might simply abandon the whole androcentric system of psychoanalysis and start afresh.
Yet the news over the past few weeks has been something of a revelation: far from being, as I had thought, an academic deviation, phallus-worship is alive and well in the “real world,” in Washington, D.C. and beyond. With the news of his alleged affair, the President’s approval rating has risen, particularly among women who have reacted far more favorably than men. Tut-tutting aside, Clinton’s part in the Lewinsky affair is one of phallic virility. As Stacey Meeker pointed out to me, had we been reading that, like Proust’s Baron Charlus, Clinton let his intern whip him while chained to a bed, or that, like Marv Albert, he lost his toupee to her in the heat of passion, public reaction would be very different. But oral sex under the alleged conditions is a secularized form of phallus-worship; the presidential kneepads are instruments of piety.
We cannot separate the resentful phallus-worship practiced in the obscurity of our literature departments from the more affirmative kind manifested in the White House. But they need not be seen as signs of the “moral decline” that a certain kind of conservative thinker enjoys–and profits from–bemoaning. In my corner of the world, at least, there is little evidence that we are reliving the fate of Sodom & Gomorrah. Young couples today appear more rather than less inclined to fidelity than those of my generation. Certainly among UCLA graduate students–the next generation’s secret trend-setters–the prevalence of long-term over short-term sexual relationships has risen dramatically over the past twenty years.
Let me attempt a different explanation. The two most significant historical developments of the past half century are (1) the failure of socialism, including “national socialism,” and (2) the end of total war. On the one hand, the utopian alternatives to the market system have been shown to be without value; on the other, the chief means by which societies have always competed has been rendered unusable.
Can it be a coincidence that these two components of the “end of history” have occurred in tandem? We arrive at the one “final” social system just at the moment when it is no longer possible to contest a war between two competing systems. Just when it appeared that the Cold War would last forever and that neither capitalism nor socialism would ever be able to demonstrate its superiority, the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union dissolved. The coincidence of phallic theory in the academy and phallic practice in the White House help us to understand this conjunction.
1. Why is theory today so bound up with phallic mythology? What we call “theory” is the final avatar of Enlightenment rationalism. Theory expresses the intellectual’s resentment against a social order dominated by “irrational” forces, whether those of religion or those of the market, that his mastery of discursive rationality–of “metaphysics”–does not permit him to control.
Freud was no leftist, nor Lacan either, but however justified the repression of infantile sexuality by the needs of “civilization,” however inevitable the passage from the “imaginary” to the “symbolic,” psychoanalysis can be read as telling a story of desire that was once “natural” and has subsequently been repressed. Lacan’s notion of mediated desire is not all that far from Girard’s and may even be considered one of its sources; yet the ontogenetic definition of a prelinguistic “imaginary” stage on which language is imposed in the form of paternal interdiction inverts the phylogenetic model in which human desire first comes into being mediated by the sign. The positing of a prepaternal stage of desire where the mother “has” the phallus creates a space for the contestation of the “phallogocentric” paternalism of the symbolic order–and for the Lacanian-feminist phallic antireligion.
Nostalgia for a repressed true self is the psychological counterpart of utopia. Now that the bankruptcy of our century’s political utopias has thrown us back on the mercies of the hated market system, “theory” clings to the psychoanalytic utopia as the only one available.
2. The end of war means the end of the most significant public testing ground of virility. Human mimetic violence is exercised principally by males, whose competition is unrestrained by the need to bear and nurture children. Male aggressivity provides the minimal impetus for language; the male potential for violence can only be restrained by culture, “the deferral of violence through representation.” But in the absence of warfare, virility becomes exclusively sexual. It is often held against President Clinton that he evaded the Vietnam draft. But this is no reason to take him for a coward. From Achilles to George Bush, (the youngest American pilot in WW II, I believe) our leaders proved themselves, really or symbolically, on the field of battle. By the time of the Vietnam war, whatever the individual motivations of those who served and those who managed not to, the age of battlefield heroism was at an end. Clinton is the first president from the post-World War II generation, the first world leader of a new era in which “heroic” masculinity best expresses itself through submission on presidential kneepads.
The postmodern era is one in which the great competitions are no more. We will have neither the “final conflict” on the battlefield nor the undecidable conflict of the Cold War. The voices of opposition have not been silenced; they are more voluble than ever. But they are voices of resentment that seek to undermine a system on which they admit their dependency. Within modern market society, the chief model for oppositional activity is no longer war but “love,” the “battle of the sexes.” As our central authority figure becomes an object of phallus worship, those who would contest authority are driven to the feminist rewriting of the phallocentric myths of Freud and Lacan.
Under these circumstances, GA’s emphasis on violence in human etiology might seem old-fashioned. But just as it is the excess of our means of violence that makes war impossible, so it is the excess of our means for the deferral of violence that makes “socialism” impossible. We have weapons too powerful to use and a system of consumption too elaborate to abandon; in either case, the outcome would be chaos. Nuclear devastation is easy to imagine; but think of the violence in our cities if our supermarkets were stocked like those in the old USSR. The common element of violence, potential and deferred, links the two conditions of postmodernity and the two versions of postmodern sexuality.
That we can now turn from the battlefield to the far less bloody battle of the sexes is good news indeed. But let us not forget that humanity remains, as it probably always will, the primary threat to its own survival.