Lacan’s reinterpretation of Freud has had enormous influence on French intellectuals. While many French feminists are critical of Lacanian analysis, even those who are critical of Lacan have tended to locate their criticisms within his framework. Particular criticisms concern his position regarding the inevitability of paternal law and the way in which he links the privileging of the phallus to the child’s entry into the Symbolic and thus to language.

Grosz notes that Lacan’s work has generated a good deal of controversy in feminist circles. Many French feminists remain unswervingly loyal to his work, arguing that he presents one of the most astute analyses of patriarchal social requirements, and one of the most stringent criticisms of mainstream, logocentric, and phallocentric knowledges (e. g. Clement, Lemaire, Kristeva). Others, while taking his work seriously, remain highly critical, seeing it as a less obvious but equally insidious version of Freud’s phallocentrism.

(Grosz 1990a:78)

Despite the ambivalence shown towards Lacan by different branches of feminism, his work is relevant to contemporary feminist theory in a number of ways. Grosz (1990a:78) contends that Lacan’s reformulation of Freud in terms of language has made psychoanalysis more palatable for feminists. She maintains ‘It is no longer a biological account of women’s lack or castration, but a socio­historical analysis of the transmission of meanings and values across generations’ (ibid.). In this context Lacan elaborates the major role that language, metaphor and the play of signification exert in the formation of the unconscious and in the principles governing its interpretation. For Lacan, ‘unconscious, desire, and sexuality are not effects of nature, biology, or some human essence, but are consequences of the human subject’s constitution in and by the symbolic and the imaginary’ (ibid).

Lacan ‘decentres’ dominant notions of human subjectivity. Grosz (1990a:79) notes that Lacan ‘challenges the presumption of an autonomous, ready-made subject by elaborating his view that the subject is socio-linguistically constituted. The subject is constructed by its necessary dependence on others and on the Other.’ As she points out, this is significant for feminist theory for, on the one hand, it provides a critique of the notion of a pre-given or pre-social subject, common to both patriarchal and feminist theory. At the same time, it explains the construction of subjects as masculine/phallic or feminine/castrated, and the possibility for change in these positionings. In this context Lacan’s work has been used to provide an account of ‘the psychic components of social subjectivity’ (ibid.).

Grosz shows how Lacan’s account of sexuality highlights the crucial role language plays in the construction of personal identity. ‘Masculine and feminine identities are not “natural” but products of a rift in the natural order, a gap into which language insinuates itself. As the key signifier of the symbolic, the phallus marks male and female bodies and sexualities in different ways’ (ibid). The implications of this for feminist theory are important because, as Grosz notes, it highlights ‘the end of universalist, or “humanist”, sexually neutral models of subjectivity. Such models can be seen as phallocentric, exerting a power of representation and authority to male models’ (ibid). Some feminist writers, including Irigaray (1985b) and Gallop (1982), have maintained that Lacan is also representative of these characteristics. However, as Grosz (1990a:79) maintains, ‘his work is still useful for making clear that sexuality is not incidental or contingent, but necessary for the constitution of subjectivity’. Lacan’s emphasis is on ‘the question of language, law, and symbolic exchange as founding structures of society identities’, which, as Grosz notes, points to investments by patriarchal culture. It is this emphasis in Lacan’s work that feminists need to understand in order to be able to subvert.