The ‘woman question’ revisited
I suggested at the top of this chapter that the configuration of the Narquette promised a utopian release from the determinations of gendered identity. But perhaps my drawing of this figure whose strength and attraction is indexed to her mastery of play and illusion still bears too close a resemblance to a reading of feminine sexuality as that which dances to the master’s tune. Of course, one could simply say that if libido is conceived as masculine then this subordinate positioning is unavoidable (which, incidentally, is one explanatory context for Lacan’s confounding insistence on the non-existence of the category ‘woman’). Nonetheless, I should like to justify my presentation of the Narquette as one which is not blithely unconcerned with the psychoanalytic tendency to make woman’s intelligibility a secondary order question, and to consolidate my provocation that in good narcissistic play substantive identity claims are suspended.
Perhaps the most obvious starting point would be to question whether there is anything that distinguishes the Narquette from the general category of the hysteric; a figure who relies on imitation and mimicry to perform her (non-)’identity’. And, further, we might ask whether the performative stance of hysteria is necessarily feminine?8 The hysteric’s very existence is established and sustained through fashioning herself as the object that would respond to the desire of the other – the consequence being that the contours of her own subjectivity diminish. Since Freud’s time of writing, psychoanalytic literature has been populated by (more or less hysterical) feminine figures that have extended the alignment of femininity with the language of fakery, sham and masquerade. It would seem that the sexual sociability that the Narquette embodies cannot escape these familiar coordinates for she too enacts a mode of self-reduction or self-objectification that coincides with her vanishing subjectivity (and the vanishing subjectivity of her interlocutor). We recall that, like Freud’s cat, the Narquette will look upon her interlocutor as she would any other object; she is indifferent to the subjectivity of the other so as to engender the free-moving play of form constitutive of good sociability. Furthermore, as much as the Narquette demands this of the other, so too does she demand it of herself: In the service of sociability she empties herself out, becomes less than herself. If, as I have maintained, such characteristics can be positively highlighted, then we need to stress how the profile of the Narquette that I have put forward differs from versions of pseudo-femininity that abound in the literature. We shall consider briefly three influential examples: Joan Riviere’s conception of womanliness as masquerade (1929); Helene Deutsch’s ‘as if’ personality (1942); and Enid Balint’s work on ‘being empty of oneself’ (1963).
Written in 1929, Joan Riviere’s paper ‘Womanliness as a Masquerade’ takes as its subject those women who ‘while mainly heterosexual in their development, plainly display strong features of the other sex’
(303) . Expressly following Ernest Jones’ work on female sexuality (1927), Riviere positions her patient type as an ‘intermediate’ type which poses a real ‘puzzle’ for classification. She proceeds with the thesis that ‘women who wish for masculinity may put on a mask of womanliness to avert anxiety and the retribution feared from men’ (303). The ‘masculinity’ that is both desired and in fact possessed by such women is manifest in their intellectual and practical prowess, their accomplishments in predominantly male fields, their management of public audiences, and, most generally, their capacity to stand – albeit temporarily – on equal terms with men (303-308). The reason such equal standing is curtailed, however, is because this female type will subsequently deploy as a covering strategy a ‘femininity’ that is characterised by flirtatious, coquettish, or perhaps flippant and jokey behaviour, and which is always driven by a need to ‘hide the possession of masculinity and to avert the reprisals expected if she was found to possess it’ (306). There is some ambiguity over the status of such women’s masculinity: is it a wished-for masculinity, or is it in some way actually possessed? Whilst Riviere suggests both, the latter prospect contains the stronger and more interesting thesis: namely that femininity becomes woman’s defence against man’s penis envy! This echoes a version of the paradox we saw above where, in Kofman’s words, woman ‘has preserved what man has lost’ (52).
Of greatest import here is the fact that the coquettish mode, situated as central to the performance of womanliness under consideration in Riviere’s paper, shifts from being of particular interest to the study of an ‘intermediate type’ to being of general interest to the condition of woman. Anticipating the question of how one might ‘draw the line between genuine womanliness and the "masquerade"’, Riviere suggests that there is no such difference: ‘whether radical or superficial,’ she says, ‘they are the same thing’ (306). Perhaps the most striking implication of this position is that the apparatus of the mask is given a renewed ontological significance. In response to a version of the longstanding psychoanalytic question, ‘what is the essential nature of fully developed femininity?’ Riviere, in 1929, offers a ‘conception of womanliness as a mask’ (312-313). It is less the case, then, that the mask conceals a feminine essence, but rather a case of masks all the way down. What is compelling – and potentially subversive – about Riviere’s paper also marks its limitations. In grappling with the notion of a female masculinity the author becomes subject to the ‘puzzle’ she sought to resolve; as Stephen Heath puts it, ‘to be a woman is to dissimulate a fundamental masculinity, femininity is that dissimulation’ (Heath, 49).
Whilst Riviere’s curiosity regarding a female masculinity productively disturbs a vision of bounded and singular gender positions, it also reinforces a disavowal of psychical formations that do not conform to a presumed heteronormativity. By casting the masquerading woman as a ‘mainly heterosexual’ type, Riviere’s paper can no doubt be situated amongst the discursive accounts of gender in which libido is masculinised and desire conceptualised within a heterosexual matrix (Butler, 2006 ). As Butler puts it:
[… ] the donning of femininity as mask may reveal a refusal of a female homosexuality and, at the same time, the hyperbolic incorporation of that female Other who is refused – an odd form of preserving and protecting that love within the circle of the melancholic and negative narcissism that results from the psychic inculcation of compulsory heterosexuality. (72)
The implications of Riviere’s paper – not least its place in Lacan’s account of the feminine and the feminist engagements that followed – have been widely discussed. My concern here is only to put ‘womanliness as a masquerade’ in dialogue with my presentation of the Narquette. On reading Riviere’s account, one cannot fail to note that both the ‘feminine’ and the ‘masculine’ manifestations in her lead clinical vignette – read by many as autobiographical – are performance-based. The patient in question was engaged in work which ‘consisted principally in speaking and writing’ and, although her ‘success and ability’ was ‘unquestionable’, she would suffer considerable anxiety following her public performances
(304) . It was her habit to seek-out explicit reassurance from the men in her company, in the form both of compliments regarding the performance she had just given, and of attempts to ‘obtain sexual advances’
(305) . What was remarkable about her ‘flirting and coquetting [… ] in a more or less veiled manner’ was its ‘extraordinary incongruity [… ] with her highly impersonal and objective attitude during her intellectual performance, which it succeeded so rapidly in time’ (305, my emphasis). Performance, then, is certainly key to the case, however its gendered guise shifts: when ‘impersonal and objective’ it is masculine and successful, when flirtatious and veiling it is feminine and destructive. Whilst this is in keeping with Riviere’s contention that the feminine mask of the masquerade is put on as a compensatory measure to avert anxiety and ward off retribution, it nonetheless leaves us unsatisfied with the representations of gender available in this polarised form. Why is it, we are inclined to ask, that the patient’s mastery of her public audience is so much more compelling than her intimate seductions? And, more importantly, why is it that this display of strength has to be masculinised? On a large stage, as I imagine Riviere’s patient to be, it seems that this woman can peacock with the best of them, and she does so, we are told, with an attractive impersonality. But on Riviere’s reading, the mask in question is donned after this masculine performance, which leaves somewhat neglected the masquerade of the first performance: i. e. the mask adopted to permit the peacock – the exemplary male show – bird – to outshine the peahen. If Riviere were to have focussed here, then she might have approached an understanding of the freedom of the mask that Simmel made so central to his account.
There remains, however, a danger in identifying the Narquette as a successful representative of female masculinity. Namely, that in doing so we overlook the fact – borrowed wholesale from Simmel’s coquette – that, as a figure, the Narquette emphasises form at the expense of content. The Narquette promises – and at the same time delights in the peculiar imaginary of the promise – a relief from content, whether this is the content of gender politics, or identity politics more broadly. We can turn now to two concepts that describe in psychopathological terms the absence of content – or modes of emptiness – and ask whether they can be re-imagined to support the thesis represented by the Narquette.
Helene Deutsch’s well-known concept of the ‘as if’ personality (1942) and Enid Balint’s notion of ‘being empty of oneself’ (1963) are prominent examples of the aforementioned alignment of femininity with an (hysterical) empty subjectivity.9 The ‘as if’ of Deutsch’s terminology immediately brings to mind the capacity for play and illusion that we have seen to be of central importance to the Narquette’s sociability. For Deutsch, however, this character-type is not typified by such positive aptitudes but rather by ‘a relationship to life [… ] which is lacking in genuineness and yet outwardly runs along "as if" it were complete’ (302). The ‘as if’ individual exhibits an often extremely functional ‘pseudo affectivity’ correspondent with ‘a highly plastic readiness to pick up signals from the outer world and to mold oneself and one’s behaviour accordingly’ (312; 304). Reminiscent of the labile identifications of the hysteric, the ‘as if’ personality’s capacity to mirror allows her to make a first impression of ‘complete normality’, and yet her successful mimicry can only take her so far. It is in the field of artistic endeavours or related pursuits where a degree of flair or originality is expected that her emptiness is exposed. The ‘as if’ individual will be able to ‘construct, in form, a good piece of work but it is always a spasmodic, if skilled, repetition of a prototype without the slightest trace of originality’; likewise in emotional life, ‘expressions of emotion are formal, [and] inner experience is completely excluded’ (303, my emphasis). The ‘as if’ personality’s incapacity to generate her own content or emotional reality is of a piece with her ‘formal’ talents. Of the five cases reported in Deutsch’s paper, one is a case of manifest homosexuality in a seventeen-year-old boy which sits slightly to the side of the ‘as if’ personality-proper; the other four are women.
Enid Balint states early on in her paper ‘On Being Empty of Oneself’ that clinical experience leads her to the conclusion that ‘the feeling of being empty or of "being empty of herself" is more frequently found in women than in men’ (472). In keeping with Deutsch’s position that the ‘as if’ personality is produced by the failure of object cathexes, Balint regards the state of being empty of oneself as coming from a basic ‘disturbance in the [subject’s] relationship both to the self and to the environment’ (471). She describes her work with a severe case, Sarah, a twenty-four-year-old woman whose six-year analysis included periods of hospitalisation. Sarah’s feelings of emptiness are configured by Balint through the lens of recognition, or rather the failure thereof.
A predictable though unavoidable focus is given to the patient’s early maternal environment in which the child needs to find an ‘Echo’ of himself. For Sarah, maternal recognition was severely flawed, and the mother could not play Echo to the infant’s Narcissus:
[M]othering was an enveloping manipulating activity, where the infant herself had no potential, but was a kind of empty object in which she [the mother] could or even must put herself, so as to gain satisfaction and reassurance; she could not see her child as an independent person in her own right. (478)
Clearly, such mothering defies what Winnicott calls ‘good enough’. This vision of the infant as an empty object, a container to be filled up by her environment, is without question rather terrifying. As per Deutsch’s presentation of the ‘as if’ individual, the capacity to generate emotional content – the filling in of the contours of subjectivity – is atrophied in the case Balint describes.
Of course, the danger in divorcing concepts from their original clinical frame is that we risk undermining the particular conditions that gave rise to their development, and, in this case, distorting the suffering that accompanied the types of emptiness that both Deutsch and Balint describe. The goal here, however, is to acknowledge that these clinical testimonies demonstrate the ways in which things can go wrong when what we are calling ‘content’ fails to be instantiated, without foreclosing the possibility that ‘as if-ness’ and ‘being empty of oneself’ can be read rather differently when taken beyond their particular clinical contexts. For obvious reasons, Deutsch and Balint are not disposed to see the possible pleasures of a version of selfhood emptied of content; the Narquette, however, has allowed us to look in that very direction. Georg Simmel, the most important of the modernist sociologists to ground an aesthetic sociology, was critical to our discussion above because of the obvious turn to form that he invites us to take with his appreciation of flirtation as a pure mode of sociability. Critically, this formal turn moves us away from a specifically gendered reading of the Narquette and enacts a break from the conflation of ’emptiness’ with the ‘special psychology of women’ (Balint, 472).
In his late paper on ‘Femininity’ (1933), Freud warns the analyst that he may rightly be frightened by the ‘rigidity’ that a woman will display in the consulting room: ‘Her libido has taken up final positions and seems incapable of exchanging them for others. There are no paths open to further development; it is as though the whole process had already run its course and remains thenceforward insusceptible to influence’ (135, my emphasis). There is a surface contradiction, here, between Freud’s depiction of feminine rigidity and those mobile characteristics of feminine pathology identified in the works of Riviere, Deutsch and Balint – such as unconvincing mimicry, masquerade, and the space of an empty subjectivity. The mobility of these latter characteristics, though seemingly at odds with the alarming ‘unchangeability’ of the women on Freud’s couch, shares its premise with Freud’s idea that the psychology of women is finally insusceptible to influence. What for Freud is ‘unchangeability’ (134), and for Deutsch ‘passive plasticity’ and ‘pseudo affectivity’ (304; 312), is a woman’s fundamental failure to offer an account of herself. However, we have seen throughout this chapter that the narcissist’s ‘inaccessibility’ – her illusions of self-sufficiency – is also the source of her attraction, and that which provokes envy in the onlooker. In the 1914 paper the ‘narcissistic attitude’ which determines ‘the limits to [the patient’s] susceptibility to influence’ (just as per the 1933 lecture on femininity), is continuous with the ‘charm and self-contentment’ of all those unfathomable figures, such as children, certain animals, and literary criminals, that merit Freud’s admiration (73; 89). It may be, then, that what Freud regards as the weakness of woman’s social interests (1933, 134) also points to the indirect accomplishment of narcissistic sociability.
There is no doubt that Freud displays his partial blindness when it comes to woman’s disengagement from the public sphere – which runs in parallel to her resistance on the couch. For Freud, female rigidity is a moral consequence attributable to an underdeveloped ‘sense of justice and the predominance of envy in [… ] mental life’ (134). This moralising attitude is recapitulated by Deutsch when she suggests that, because of her ’emptiness’ and ‘lack of individuality’, the ‘as if’ character fails to develop her own autonomous moral convictions, and reflects instead only the positions of others (305). In this chapter I have sought to suggest – via Salome, Simmel and Bersani – how the apparent failure of object-love, of social binding, and even of moral accountability, can reveal new (albeit incongruous) possibilities for social relations. Here, then, an identifiable feminine pathology veils a more general and trans – gendered social form. Specifically this involves the suspension of the subject’s private interests, and indeed the suspension of the demand for full and content-ed subjectivity, in deference to the form of the social relation itself. For Simmel, the impersonal form of social participation derived from the rhythmic movement between consent and refusal. Of flirtation, he writes, ‘[…] the unwillingness to submit oneself that could be an indirect way to self-surrender; the surrender of the self behind which the withdrawal of the self stands as a background, a possibility, and a threat’ (1984, 135-136). It is significant that the play of social form here contains both a possibility and a threat. In flirtation, the self confronts not a complementary other, nor a directly interrelating subject, but an other whose consistent refusal to reciprocate, or return recognition, can only, in the end, reflect and exacerbate a privation in the self. The threat glimpsed through such social erotics is the obliteration of selfhood. This is what we saw Bersani to emphasise with reference to the self-shattering implied within the excitement of the flirtatious relation. Every social relation infers the possibility of non-relation, and affirms the precariousness of any amenable environment.