chapter  4
17 Pages

Sexuality, complexity, anxiety: the encounter between psychoanalysis, feminism and postmodernism

Is the repressed unconscious, in some sense or another, the key to unlocking gender oppression? The question is, of course, at the heart of the feminist debate over Freud. Many, including such authors as Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer and Kate Millet, have given an answer in the negative. Always it was the phallocentrism of Freudian psychoanalysis that doomed it to failure in the eyes of such feminists. Freud’s theories were seen as conceptually legitimating woman’s social subordination. Indeed, Freud’s accounts of ‘penis envy’ and his account of feminine sexuality as supplementary and derivative (the little girl as castrated and stunted) were upheld as definitive both of Freud’s private fear of women, and the reactionary nature of psychoanalytic theory. Sometime later, feminists adapted Freud’s ideas to radical political ends. Juliet Mitchell’s bold claim in 1974 that ‘a rejection of psychoanalysis and of Freud’s works is fatal for feminism’ signalled this sea-change. A sharp division subsequently developed between the work of feminists influenced by Jacques Lacan’s ‘return to Freud’, and those more committed to object-relational or Kleinian approaches. This division in psychoanalytic feminism remains important. However, the rise of post-

structuralism and postmodernism in universities throughout the West has led to an explosion of interest in Lacan’s Freud within feminist circles. My purpose in this chapter is not to map the engagements with, and attacks on, Freud in feminist theory. Rather, I shall restrict myself to a consideration of some of the more theoretically reflective claims of contemporary feminism, which will direct us further to the theories of post-structuralism and post-modernism. I want to use these current theoretical controversies as a foil against which to examine, and thus elucidate, some of the functions of Freud in the frame of feminism. Given the two-way traffic between psychoanalysis and politics, I want to consider some discursive paths opened by these discourses in contemporary theoretical debate. This is less a matter of trying to judge how well, and in what ways, psychoanalysis has been linked to feminism than it is a matter of deploying Freud to think the advances and deadlocks of new feminist discourses. Needless to say, this necessarily involves using Freud to assess the limits of what psychoanalysis both permits and prohibits in terms of political critique itself.