Hélène Cixous’ essay “Castration or Decapitation?” discusses the binary construction of sexuality and society, and how the feminine is defined by the negative: a woman is not a man because she lacks a penis. This “lack” keeps the female subject to definition by the male, as it is seen that because she is the “negative” pole to the man’s “positive”, the woman is concomitantly un-informed, and that therefore it is the position of the man to inform the woman. This imposed silence is what decapitates the feminine metaphorically, precluding her from speaking anything of meaning.
The following is an excerpt from this brilliant essay, translated by Annette Kuhn and published in Signs, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Autumn, 1981), pp. 41-55 (University of Chicago Press) – read the full essay HERE.
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… It’s hard to imagine a more perfect example of a particular relationship between two economies: a masculine economy and a feminine economy, in which the masculine is governed by a rule that keeps time with two beats, three beats, four beats, with pipe and drum, exactly as it should be. An order that works by inculcation, by education. It’s always a question of education: an education that consists of trying to make a soldier of the feminine by force, the force history keeps reserved for woman, the “capital” force that is effectively decapitation. Women have no choice other than to be decapitated. The moral is that if they don’t actually lose their heads by the sword, they only keep them on condition that they lose them – lose them, that is, to complete silence, turned into automatons.
It’s a question of submitting feminine disorder, its laughter, its inability to take the drumbeats seriously, to the threat of decapitation. If man operates under the threat of castration, if masculinity is culturally ordered by the castration complex, it might be said that the backlash, the return, on women of this castration anxiety is its displacement as decapitation, execution, of woman, as loss of her head.
We are led to pose the woman question to history in quite elementary forms like, “Where is she? Is there any such thing as woman?” At worst, many women wonder whether they even exist. They feel they don’t exist and wonder if there has ever been a place for them. I am speaking of woman’s place,from woman’s place, if she takes (a) place.
In La Jeune Née I made use of a story that seemed to me particularly expressive of woman’s place: the story of Sleeping Beauty. Woman, if you look for her, has a strong chance of always being found in one position: in bed. In bed and asleep-“laid (out).” She is always to be found on or in a bed: Sleeping Beauty is lifted from her bed by a man because, as we all know, women don’t wake up by themselves: man has to intervene, you understand. She is lifted up by the man who will lay her in her next bed so that she may be confined to bed ever after, just as the fairy tales say.
And so her trajectory is from bed to bed: one bed to another, where she can dream all the more. There are some extraordinary analyses by Kierkegaard on women’s “existence”- or that part of it set aside for her by culture-in which he says he sees her as sleeper. She sleeps, he says, and first love dreams her and then she dreams of love. From dream to dream, and always in second position. In some stories, though, she can be found standing up, but not for long.
Take Little Red Riding Hood as an example: it will not, I imagine, be lost on you that the “red riding hood” in question is a little clitoris. Little Red Riding Hood basically gets up to some mischief: she’s the little female sex that tries to play a bit and sets out with her little pot of butter and her little jar of honey. What is interesting is that it’s her mother who gives them to her and sends her on an excursion that’s tempting precisely because it’s forbidden: Little Red Riding Hood leaves one house, mommy’s house, not to go out into the big wide world but to go from one house to another by the shortest route possible: to make haste, in other words, from the mother to the other.
The other in this case is grandmother, whom we might imagine as taking the place of the “Great Mother,” because there are great men but no great women: there are Grand-Mothers instead. And grandmothers are always wicked: she is the bad mother who always shuts the daughter in whenever the daughter might by chance want to live or take pleasure. So she’ll always be carrying her little pot of butter and her little jar of honey to grandmother, who is there as jealousy … the jealousy of the woman who can’t let her daughter go.
But in spite of all this Little Red Riding Hood makes her little detour, does what women should never do, travels through her own forest. She allows herself the forbidden … and pays dearly for it: she goes back to bed, in grandmother’s stomach. The Wolf is grandmother, and all women recognize the Big Bad Wolf! We know that always lying in wait for us somewhere in some big bed is a Big Bad Wolf.
The Big Bad Wolf represents, with his big teeth, his big eyes, and his grandmother’s looks, that great Superego that threatens all the little female red riding hoods who try to go out and explore their forest without the psychoanalyst’s permission. So, between two houses, between two beds, she is laid, ever caught in her chain of metaphors, metaphors that organize culture . . . ever her moon to the masculine sun, nature to culture, concavity to masculine convexity, matter to form, immobility/inertia to the march of progress, terrain trod by the masculine footstep, vessel… While man is obviously the active, the upright, the productive… and besides, that’s how it happens in History.
This opposition to woman cuts endlessly across all the oppositions that order culture. It’s the classic opposition, dualist and hierarchical. Man/Woman automatically means great/small, superior/inferior… means high or low, means Nature/History, means transformation/inertia. In fact, every theory of culture, every theory of society, the whole conglomeration of symbolic systems-everything, that is, that’s spoken, everything that’s organized as discourse, art, religion, the family, language, everything that seizes us, everything that acts on us – it is all ordered around hierarchical oppositions that come back to the man/ woman opposition, an opposition that can only be sustained by means of a difference posed by cultural discourse as “natural,” the difference between activity and passivity. It always works this way, and the opposition is founded in the couple [binary]. A couple posed in opposition, in tension, in conflict… a couple engaged in a kind of war in which death is always at work – and I keep emphasizing the importance of the opposition as couple, because all this isn’t just about one word; rather everything turns on the Word: everything is the Word and only the Word. To be aware of the couple, that it’s the couple that makes it all work, is also to point to the fact that it’s on the couple that we have to work if we are to deconstruct and transform culture. The couple as terrain, as space of cultural struggle, but also as terrain, as space demanding, insisting on, a complete transformation in the relation of one to the other. And so work still has to be done on the couple … on the question, for example, of what a completely different couple relationship would be like, what a love that was more than merely a cover for, a veil of, war would be like.
I said it turns on the Word: we must take culture at its word, as it takes us into its Word, into its tongue. You’ll understand why I think that no political reflection can dispense with reflection on language, with work on language. For as soon as we exist, we are born into language and language speaks (to) us, dictates its law, a law of death: it lays down its familial model, lays down its conjugal model, and even at the moment of uttering a sentence, admitting a notion of “being,” a question of being, an ontology, we are already seized by a certain kind of masculine desire, the desire that mobilizes philosophical discourse. As soon as the question “What is it?” is posed, from the moment a question is put, as soon as a reply is sought, we are already caught up in masculine interrogation. I say “masculine interrogation”: as we say so-and-so was interrogated by the police. And this interrogation precisely involves the work of signification: “What is it? Where is it?” A work of meaning, “This means that,” the predicative distribution that always at the same time orders the constitution of meaning. And while meaning is being constituted, it only gets constituted in a movement in which one of the terms of the couple is destroyed in favor of the other.
“Look for the lady,” as they say in the stories… “Cherchez la femme”– we always know that means: you’ll find her in bed. Another question that’s posed in History, rather a strange question, a typical male question, is: “What do women want?” The Freudian question, of course. In his work on desire, Freud asks somewhere, or rather doesn’t ask, leaves hanging in the air, the question “What do women want?” Let’s talk a bit about this desire and about why/how the question “What do women want?” gets put, how it’s both posed and left hanging in the air by philosophical discourse, by analytic discourse (analytic discourse being only one province of philosophical discourse), and how it is posed, let us say, by the Big Bad Wolf and the Grand-Mother.
“What does she want?” Little Red Riding Hood knew quite well what she wanted, but Freud’s question is not what it seems: it’s a rhetorical question. To pose the question “What do women want?” is to pose it already as answer, as from a man who isn’t expecting any answer, because the answer is “She wants nothing.” … “What does she want? … Nothing!” Nothing because she is passive. The only thing man can do is offer the question “What could she want, she who wants nothing?” Or in other words: “Without me, what could she want?”
Old Lacan takes up the slogan “What does she want?” when he says, “A woman cannot speak of her pleasure.” Most interesting! It’s all there, a woman cannot, is unable, hasn’t the power. Not to mention “speaking”: it’s exactly this that she’s forever deprived of. Unable to speak of pleasure = no pleasure, no desire: power, desire, speaking, pleasure, none of these is for woman. And as a quick reminder of how this works in theoretical discourse, one question: you are aware, of course, that for Freud/Lacan, woman is said to be “outside the Symbolic”: outside the Symbolic, that is outside language, the place of the Law, excluded from any possible relationship with culture and the cultural order. And she is outside the Symbolic because she lacks any relation to the phallus, because she does not enjoy what orders masculinity – the castration complex.
Woman does not have the advantage of the castration complex – it’s reserved solely for the little boy. The phallus, in Lacanian parlance also called the “transcendental signifier,” transcendental precisely as primary organizer of the structure of subjectivity, is what, for psychoanalysis, inscribes its effects, its effects of castration and resistance to castration and hence the very organization of language, as unconscious relations, and so it is the phallus that is said to constitute the a priori condition of all symbolic functioning. This has important implications as far as the body is concerned: the body is not sexed, does not recognize itself as, say, female or male without having gone through the castration complex.
What psychoanalysis points to as defining woman is that she lacks lack. She lacks lack? Curious to put it in so contradictory, so extremely paradoxical, a manner: she lacks lack. To say she lacks lack is also, after all, to say she doesn’t miss lack … since she doesn’t miss the lack of lack. Yes, they say, but the point is “she lacks The Lack,” The Lack, lack of the Phallus. And so, supposedly, she misses the great lack, so that without man she would be indefinite, indefinable, nonsexed, unable to recognize herself: outside the Symbolic. But fortunately there is man: he who comes … Prince Charming. And it’s man who teaches woman (because man is always the Master as well), who teaches her to be aware of lack, to be aware of absence, aware of death. It’s man who will finally order woman, “set her to rights,” by teaching her that without man she could “misrecognize.” He will teach her the Law of the Father. Something of the order of: “Without me, without me-the Absolute-Father (the father is always that much more absolute the more he is improbable, dubious)-without me you wouldn’t exist, I’ll show you.” Without him she’d remain in a state of distressing and distressed undifferentiation, unbordered, unorganized, “unpoliced” by the phallus… incoherent, chaotic, and embedded in the Imaginary in her ignorance of the Law of the Signifier. Without him she would in all probability not be contained by the threat of death, might even, perhaps, believe herself eternal, immortal. Without him she would be deprived of sexuality. And it might be said that man works very actively to produce “his woman.” Take for example Marguerite Duras’ Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein, and you will witness the moment when man can finally say “his” woman, “my” woman. It is that moment when he has taught her to be aware of Death. So man makes, he makes (up) his woman, not without being himself seized up and drawn into the dialectical movement that this sort of thing sets in play. We might say that the Absolute Woman, in culture, the woman who really represents femininity most effectively… who is closest to femininity as prey to masculinity, is actually the hysteric…. he makes her image for her!
The hysteric is a divine spirit that is always at the edge, the turning point, of making. She is one who does not make herself… she does not make herself but she does make the other. It is said that the hysteric “makes-believe” the father, plays the father, “makes-believe” the master. Plays, makes up, makes-believe: she makes-believe she is a woman, unmakes-believe too … plays at desire, plays the father… turns herself into him, unmakes him at the same time. Anyway, without the hysteric, there’s no father… without the hysteric, no master, no analyst, no analysis! She’s the unorganizable feminine construct, whose power of producing the other is a power that never returns to her. She is really a wellspring nourishing the other for eternity, yet not drawing back from the other … not recognizing herself in the images the other may or may not give her. She is given images that don’t belong to her, and she forces herself, as we’ve all done, to resemble them.
And so in the face of this person who lacks lack, who does not miss lack of lack, we have the construct that is infinitely easier to analyze, to put in place-manhood, flaunting its metaphors like banners through history. You know those metaphors: they are most effective. It’s always clearly a question of war, of battle. If there is no battle, it’s replaced by the stake of battle: strategy. Man is strategy, is reckoning . . . “how to win” with the least possible loss, at the lowest possible cost. Throughout literature masculine figures all say the same thing: “I’m reckoning” what to do to win. Take Don Juan and you have the whole masculine economy getting together to “give women just what it takes to keep them in bed” then swiftly taking back the investment, then reinvesting, etc., so that nothing ever gets given, everything gets taken back, while in the process the greatest possible dividend of pleasure is taken. Consumption without payment, of course.