Lacan’s work is highly obscure and the ambiguity of his style reinforces the ambiguity of much of the content of his writing and strengthens his claim that unambiguous meaning in language is an illusion. Lacan’s style, as well as the content of his writing, has had a great influence on French feminist writing. By repositioning Freud within a new framework of linguistics, Lacan reestablished the case for psychoanalysis within feminism. The unconscious and sexuality are not seen by Lacan as natural or biological essences, but as a product of the constitution of the subject in language, i. e. within the imaginary and symbolic orders.

Within the Lacanian model, the child is not born a subject who then acquires appropriate social characteristics. Rather, it becomes a subject through social intervention. At one and the same time it becomes a ‘social and speaking subject’, i. e. it becomes a Symbolic or social subject only in the process of taking up a masculine or feminine position or identity. Thus, in contradistinction to Freud, the distinction between the sexes is not an effect of nature or anatomy but is a psychical question. The phallus in Lacan is not an organ but a signifier, ‘the key signifier of the Symbolic order’.

Lacan removes the question of sexual identity from the realm of biology to place it in the field of signification. In other words, the subject’s sexual identity is an effect of its position in the symbolic order. Grosz (1990a:72) describes the symbolic as ‘the domain constituting social law, language and exchange—the domain of the social order’. She goes on to note that this order is governed according to Lacan by ‘the Other’. As she states, ‘the Other is not a person but a place, a locus from which language emanates and is given meaning’. She further elaborates on the significance of ‘the Other’ for human experience and maintains that ‘the Other is incarnated in human experience in the figure of the Symbolic Father’s authority that real fathers invoke to institute the law’ (Grosz 1990a:73).

This law is fundamental to patriarchy and, as Grosz maintains, ‘the symbolic order is the social field regulated by the law of the father’ (ibid.).

The notion of the Oedipus complex, so fundamental to Freud, is reframed by Lacan in his notion of the Symbolic. In reworking Freud’s paper ‘On Narcissism: An Introduction’ (1914), where Freud outlines the genesis of the ego through the phenomenon of narcissism, Lacan maintains that the ‘ego is the result of the child’s narcissistic investment in its corporeal image’ (Grosz 1990a:73). However, like Freud, Lacan concentrates on the boy’s Symbolic development, while the complementary processes in the girl remain obscure. Lacan maintains that in abandoning her primary homosexual attachment and transferring her object of desire from the mother to the father, she comes to acquire the traits of femininity. Thus, while Lacan claims to be simply deciphering and interpreting Freud, Lacan’s interpretation is a departure from Freud. However, his understanding of femininity is more complex and sophisticated than Freud’s. For Lacan, femininity is always in an ambiguous relation to the phallus. As Rowley and Grosz note,

On the one hand, femininity is defined as the lack (of a phallus). The woman does not have the phallus for which she may compensate by attempting to become the phallus, making the whole of her body into the erotic object of men’s desire. Her sexuality and identity are capable of characterization only with reference to the phallic signifier.

(Rowley and Grosz 1990:187)

On the other hand, Lacan acknowledges that the phallus can in no way adequately contain and capture female sexuality. Lacan contends that there is something in female sexuality which is always outside of the boundaries of the phallus and he puts forward the idea of a feminine jouissance. The term la jouissance or jouissance— meaning orgasmic sexual pleasure, bliss or rapture—appears frequently in French feminist writing, is generally attributed to female pleasure and is represented as a different order of pleasure to that of male pleasure. As Marks and Courtivron (1981:36-37) note, ‘women’s jouissance carries with it a kind of potlatch in the world of orgasms, a giving, expending, dispensing of pleasure without concern about ends or closure’.