THE FRENCH INTELLECTUAL TRADITION AND FRENCH. FEMINIST DECONSTRUCTIVISTS
Feminism, sexuality and textuality: Derrida, ‘differance’ and
Feminist theory in the 1970s was strongly influenced by psychoanalytic models of sexuality and subjectivity, which were in turn influenced by Freud’s work and by the French psychoanalytic theoristJacques Lacan. As Weedon notes,
many feminists have attempted to make psychoanalytic theory the key to understanding the acquisition of gendered subjectivity, either by accepting the terms of Freudian discourse, or by advocating psychoanalytic theory as a way of understanding the structures of femininity and masculinity under
patriarchy, together with the social and cultural forms to which these structures give rise.
Psychoanalysis investigates the complex ways in which psychosexuality is bound up with unconscious processes. Freudian psychoanalysis can be divided into two related areas, the first a theory of the genesis and development of male and female sexuality and the second area an analysis of the operation of the unconscious. Rowley and Grosz (1990:177) note that
[Freud] never claimed expertise about the sexual life of women which he referred to as a ‘dark continent’ for psychology. He wrote only three major essays about women—all near the end of his life. They were ‘Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes’ (1925); ‘Female Sexuality’ (1931) and ‘Femininity’ (1933). The relationship between anatomical sex and the socio-cultural construction of gender was not a straightforward one in Freud’s work. He did not understand the concepts of masculine and feminine in anatomical terms, but understood them in terms of three sets of oppositions which included active and passive, subject and object and phallic and castrated.
(Rowley and Grosz 1990:178)
Whereas the masculine is equivalent to the first of these terms, the feminine is equivalent to the second. As Weedon comments, Freud developed a theory of gender acquisition which made the key to identity the notion of gendered subjectivity. For Freud the acquisition of feminine and masculine subjectivity was located in the origin of ‘psychic structures of sexual identity acquired in the early years of childhood’ (Weedon 1987:45).
Simone de Beauvoir in her critique of psychoanalytic theory in The Second Sex (1972; originally published in 1949) maintained that Freud’s vision was male – centred. She contends that Freud had set up ‘a masculine model of individual development and merely adapted this account with slight modification to women’ cited in (Rowley and Grosz 1990:181). Freud insisted that individuals were sexual beings from birth and he further claimed that infants were neither initially feminine nor masculine but were ‘polymorphously perverse’. The implication of this was that individuals were capable of developing either normal feminine or masculine identities, or neither. As Weedon (1987:45) notes, ‘the acquisition of psychic femininity or masculinity by the biological female or male involved the repression of those features of the child’s initial bisexuality which were incompatible with the sexual identity in question’. As Weedon contends, it is these aspects of Freudian theory, the stress on the initial bisexuality of the child and the precarious nature of the psychic (as opposed to biological) explanation of gender identity, which have interested feminists in their appropriation of psychoanalytic theory. She notes:
the insistence on the psycho-sexual rather than biological structuring of
gender identity and on gender acquisition as a precarious process, constantly threatened by the return of the repressed, means that gender identity is not fixed by psycho-analysis in the same way or to the same degree as it is in biological determinism.
Despite this, Freudian theory gives primacy to anatomical difference in sexual, psychic and symbolic terms. The centrality of the penis acts as a principal signifier of sexual difference, guarantees psychic difference and women’s inferiority and can be read in symbolic terms (as a patriarchal signifier). As Weedon (1987:51) maintains, ‘attempts to move away from the centrality of anatomical difference in the acquisition of psychic sexual identity in Freud have prompted some feminists to turn their attention to Jacques Lacan’.