Lacan’s Concept of the Phallus
In this post, I want to discuss Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic concept of the phallus. This concept, like many of his other ones, can be very difficult to understand and I want to try to make it as intelligible as possible. Due to its level of difficulty, it will take some work to flesh out the phallus (sorry, I couldn’t resist). My understanding of this concept is owed to Todd McGowan. He recently made a incredibly helpful YouTube video introducing the concept of the phallus and he’s also written a great commentary on Lacan’s essay ‘The Signification of the Phallus’ which is contained in Reading Lacan’s Écrits. I’ve also learned a ton about Lacanian psychoanalysis from the podcast McGowan hosts with Ryan Engley called Why Theory. While I’m definitely taking my cue from McGowan’s exegetical insights, I’m going to be introducing this concept in my own words and providing as many examples as I can from religion, pop culture and everyday experience. From there, we’ll see how the phallus relates to politics, ideology and comedy. The phallus has a fundamental impact on our identities, desires, fantasies, etc., and this is why it’s so important to comprehend; especially if you’re engaging in ideology critique, cultural theory, gender studies, and so on. Before getting underway with my own reflections on the concept, I just want to share the link to McGowan’s video. I cannot overstate how helpful it has been to me (along with all his other YouTube videos).
The phallus was one of the primary concepts Lacan’s was developing during the years of his fourth and fifth seminars (roughly 1956–1958) and it was in this time period that he wrote ‘The Signification of the Phallus’, which has become one of the most influential essays in his Écrits. This concept plays an essential role in Lacan’s concepts of the castration and Oedipus complexes as well as in his early concept of sexual difference (the difference between men and women). Due to this and how Lacan’s specifically conceptualizes it, the phallus is very relevant to the study of gender, sex, etc. Lacan did, however, go on to emphasize the phallus less and less in his work. In fact, his later concept of objet petit a (object-cause of desire) came to occupy the main position in his theoretical architecture. Also, in Seminar XX, he would rethink the structure of sexual difference and the role the phallus plays in it, though the phallus does continue to play a role in sexuation. Here, I’ll be focusing on Lacan’s early theories of the phallus and sexual difference. Despite the fact that he would revise them later on, I still think there’s a lot he got right with his earlier formulations and that these insights can aid us in knowing how the world we live in functions.
First things first, the phallus is not the penis. The distinction between the phallus and the penis is one of Lacan’s most important contributions to the study of sexual difference and has major consequences for how we think about the relations between men and women. For Lacan, and this is his key insight, the phallus is a signifier. As he put:
The phallus can be better understood on the basis of its function here. In Freudian doctrine, the phallus is not a fantasy, if we are to view fantasy as an imaginary effect. Nor is it as such an object (part-, internal, good, bad, etc.) inasmuch as “object” tends to gauge the reality involved in a relationship. Still less is it the organ — penis or clitoris — that it symbolizes. And it is no accident that Freud adopted as a reference the simulacrum it represented to the Ancients. For the phallus is a signifier, a signifier whose function, in the intrasubjective economy of analysis, may lift the veil from the function it served in the mysteries. For it is the signifier that is destined to designate meaning effects as a whole, insofar as the signifier conditions them by its presence as signifier.
(‘The Signification of the Phallus’, Écrits, p. 578)
But what does all of this mean? What’s so important about it? In saying that “the phallus is a signifier”, in holding it to not be identical to the penis, Lacan is undermining the fundamental presupposition of patriarchy, i.e., that men intrinsically have a power, authority and superiority over women precisely and simply because they have penises. In making a distinction, a cut, between the phallus and the penis, Lacan is arguing that the higher position men have occupied in society is based on nothing more than a contingent simulation, on a bluff, on semiotic bullshit. As McGowan says, “By identifying the phallus as a signifier, it loses the aura of mystery that has always surrounded it. The phallus gains this aura of mystery because it is not just any signifier but the signifier that signifies signification itself. That is, the phallus brings the whole field of meaning into existence” (‘The Signification of the Phallus’, Reading Lacan’s Écrits, p. 12). This is what I want to explain throughout the rest of this blog post. I will be attempting to demystify the phallus by showing how it actually functions.
Let’s begin by clarifying what a “signifier” is, since Lacan and Lacanians use “signifier” ad nauseam. Now, it’s not the constant usage of this word that is annoying, but the fact that they use it all the time without ever bothering to properly explain it. Just saying that “the phallus is a signifier” isn’t all that helpful if we don’t really know what a signifier is. Lacan borrowed this term from the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who, in his Course on General Linguistics, defined a sign as a combination of a signifier and a signified. Let’s use Saussure’s famous example of the sign tree. For Saussure, a concept, a “signified”, was just one half of the binary structure of a sign, the other half being the word, i.e., the “signifier”, that represents the signified. The word “tree” represents the concept of a tree. When you see the signifier “tree” (also called its “sound-image”) or when you hear someone say it, you immediately think of the general concept you have of trees. Saussure provided a diagram of this twofold structure of the sign (arbor is the Latin for “tree”).
According to Saussure, a sign, therefore, is a relation between a signifier (the material mark) and a signified (a mental image). The signifier is a material mark insofar as you either see it or hear it, that is, the signifier is perceived through the senses, whereas the signified is imagistic content in the mind. But Lacan, while deeply influenced by Saussure, would problematize this one-to-one correspondence between the signifier and the signified. This is not to say that he totally rejected Saussure’s model of the sign, but he did revise it and limited its scope. Lacan knew that when we say the single signifier “tree” it brings the signified tree to mind, and, therefore, that there’s truth to Saussure’s concept of the sign, but he also knew that there was more to this semiotic process than meets the eye. Lacan would go on to argue for the primacy of the signifier. The Saussurean sign, the one-to-one correspondence of signifier and signified, is actually a product of signifiers themselves. Lacan thought that the signified or signification is fundamentally produced through the interactions of signifiers. The example I like to use to illustrate the primacy of the signifier is that of rubbing two sticks together in order to produce fire. In this analogy, the two sticks are two signifiers and the fire is the signified/signification. It’s only after we rub signifiers together that we get the flames of meaning (signified, signification).
Lacan often spoke of the point de capiton or “quilting point”. What this refers to is how a signifier retroactively determines the meaning of the signifiers that came before it. Let’s look at two different statements. Imagine someone looks at you and says, “I hope you have a happy life”. Now imagine that same person saying, “I hope you have a miserable life”. The ending of each statement retroactively determines the meaning of its beginning. We see that “happy life” and “miserable life” are two drastically different quilting points. They change the very meaning of the “I” in each statement. The “I” of the first statement is someone who cares deeply for you, whereas the “I” of the second one is a person who hates your guts. The meaning of the “I” wasn’t found in a one-to-one relation to its signified, but was actually in another signifier, i.e., either in “happy life” or “miserable life”. Molly Anne Rothenberg is very helpful with this concept of retroactivity or retroversion:
“Retroversion” is one of the most common but least acknowledged forces in human social relations. We encounter it in every use of language. When you read that “Carl smiled as he gently stroked the velvety skin of his lover,” you may find your initial picture of this apparent love scene altered irrevocably by the next phrase: “with the keen edge of a knife.” Using language means making constant adjustments as the field of meaning widens, narrows, and then circles back on itself. The opportunity and the need for such adjustment is ever-present but has unpredictable effects. One person may be jolted out of a chain of associations, forced to re-evaluate the beginning of that chain by a word that has no particular effect on another person. It is easy enough to imagine a reader who would not read the first phrase as a love scene but rather as the opening of a horror story: such a person may not be vulnerable to the kind of blunt retroversion that would otherwise strike at the mention of the knife. At the same time, we could imagine another reader for whom every word in the first clause works backward to warp or inflect the words that precede it, even before the knife makes its appearance. For example, the reader might at first imagine “velvety skin” to be referring to Carl’s own body, and would then re-work the whole scene — from auto-stimulation to interpersonal sexual relations — at the moment of encountering the word “lover.” But once the jolt occurs, the opening of the sentence, the opening that sets us up for the jolt down the line, will be transformed permanently in this retroversive movement. In a kind of Back to the Future scenario, the original causes — words such as “smile” and “stroked” — are altered in their significance by the effects they produce. Time seems to loop back on itself.
(The Excessive Subject, pp. 1–2)
The quilting point secures and anchors the signifiers that preceded it and, thereby, produces meaning, or, as Lacan put it, the quilting point is where “signified and signifier are knotted together” (Seminar III: The Psychoses, p. 268). It’s only after we’ve become extremely familiarized with a body of signifiers (for example, the English language) that we can talk of relative one-to-one correspondences between certain signifiers and signifieds. The point de capiton shows us that there are certain privileged signifiers in the field of signifiers that stabilize meaning and prevent it from sliding all over the place. As we’ll see, the phallus is an especially privileged signifier insofar as it is the signifier of meaning itself, but more on that in a minute.
Before we can see the importance of the phallus being a signifier, we need to get a fuller understanding of the three different types of relations that exist between the signifier and the signified. For this, we need to turn to the work of the American semiotician Charles Sanders Peirce. Saussure and Peirce were the founders of modern semiotics and while they had much in common, they also emphasized different aspects of the sign. Peirce, unlike Saussure, made many topologies of the sign and one of the most important of them is his threefold distinction between icon, index and symbol. A he said, “A sign is either an icon, an index, or a symbol” (‘Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs’, Philosophical Writings of Peirce, p. 104). These three different types of signs are defined by the specific way they refer to their objects.
An icon refers to its object, its referent, through likeness or resemblance, for example, a portrait refers to the actual person depicted in the painting through looking like that person. The semiotic relation between the sign and the referent is one of iconicity (likeness, resemblance, similarity, semblance, imitation, mimicry). An index has a different sort of relation to its referent. Here, the relation is one of a causal or real connection between the sign and its object, that is, an index indicates or points to its referent, e.g., smoke indicates fire, a symptom points to an illness. This is what is meant by indexicality. Lastly, a symbol is a sign that refers to its object by way of a conventional habit or an arbitrary law. The symbol refers to its referent solely because it has been set up to do so, e.g., the word “tree” designates actual trees only because the English language has established it to fulfill this function. The symbol “cat” does not refer to its object through iconicity (resemblance) or through indexicality (causal or real indication). Another example of a symbol is the American flag, since it neither looks like America nor stands in a natural or causal relation to it. Now that we have touched on the very basics of Peirce’s topology, let’s look at how Daniel Chandler helpfully summarizes them for the sake of clarification and expansion.
1. Symbol/symbolic: a mode in which the signifier does not resemble the signified but which is fundamentally arbitrary or purely conventional — so that this relationship must be agreed upon and learned: e.g. language in general (plus specific languages, alphabetical letters, punctuation marks, words, phrases and sentences), numbers, morse code, traffic lights, national flags.
2. Icon/iconic: a mode in which the signifier is perceived as resembling or imitating the signified (recognizably looking, sounding, feeling, tasting or smelling like it) — being similar in possessing some of its qualities: e.g. a portrait, a cartoon, a scale-model, onomatopoeia, metaphors, realistic sounds in ‘programme music’, sound effects in radio drama, a dubbed film soundtrack, imitative gestures.
3. Index/indexical: a mode in which the signifier is not arbitrary but is directly connected in some way (physically or causally) to the signified (regardless of intention) — this link can be observed or inferred: e.g. ‘natural signs’ (smoke, thunder, footprints, echoes, non-synthetic odours and flavours), medical symptoms (pain, a rash, pulse-rate), measuring instruments (weathercock, thermometer, clock, spirit-level), ‘signals’ (a knock on a door, a phone ringing), pointers (a pointing ‘index’ finger, a directional signpost), recordings (a photograph, a film, video or television shot, an audio-recorded voice), personal ‘trademarks’ (handwriting, catchphrases).
(Semiotics: The Basics, pp. 36–7)
The phallus is a signifier. But what kind? Icon? Index? Symbol? In Peircean terms, I’m going to argue that the phallus functions as an “index” while actually failing to be one. I believe this is what Lacan had in mind but that Peirce can elucidate. The phallus is not an ordinary index, since it is built on a fundamental deception. More accurately, the phallus is a signifier that pretends to be an index, a simulation of indexicality, a semiotic fake. The phallus is secretly just an illusory “index” but one that is perceived with all of the causal naturalness of a true index. The phallus is an empty index. The phallus is an imposture. The phallus is a toupee. This all sounds rather abstract, but we’re going to make all of it clear as day in what follows.
For Lacan, “phallus” actually designates two things: (1) a signifier (2) that signifier’s “object”. In other words, “phallus” refers to a signifier and its “referent”. Lacan calls this signifier the “Symbolic phallus” and the “phallic signifier”, but its referent is usually called the “Imaginary phallus” or just “phallus”. This can be very confusing and perplexing, so let’s make a distinction between the Symbolic phallus (phallic signifier) and the “substantial” phallus (phallic “referent”). I’m going to be calling the Imaginary phallus the “substantial” phallus for reasons that will become clear. Now, we could simply call the connection between the Symbolic phallus and the “substantial” phallus “the phallus”, but that would also confuse things, so I’m going to employ the distinction from here on out.
Let’s get more specific about the two key meanings of “phallus”. The phallus is (1) the masculine signifier (mark, emblem, indicator, index) and (2) the masculine “substance” (signified, referent, indicated, pointed-to). However, the “substantial” phallus should not be confused with the real phallus (penis). What we have in mind here with the “substantial” phallus is the mythological and exceptional “substance” inside of a man that gives him extraordinary power. The “substantial” phallus is what makes a man into The Man, what guarantees his exceptional identity and status. The “substantial” phallus is in scare quotes for one significant reason: there is no such thing as the substantial phallus. There is no superpower inside of a man that ontologically separates from from women and all other men, but this “superpower” is what the Symbolic phallus, the phallic signifier, “indicates” or “refers to”. This “substantial” phallus, the “substance”, can also be thought of as supreme masculine virility, potency, fullness, vitality, endowment, plenitude, strength, protuberance, etc. Lacan said, “The phallus will become the signifier of power, the sceptre, and also owing to which virility can be assumed” (Seminar V: Formations of the Unconsious, p. 258). He, then, goes on to say that the phallic signifier “represents the rise of vital power” (Seminar V: Formations of the Unconscious, p. 440). The “substantial” phallus is masculine power. This is why I kept on putting the phallic signifier’s “referent” and “object” in scare quotes as well. The symbolic phallus is an empty index — it indicates something that is not there.
In the terminology of Jean Baudrillard, the phallus is a simulacrum or a simulation. McGowan himself uses this term to describe the phallus: “Lacan’s insistence that the phallus is a simulacrum rather than a substantial source of identity aligns him with the feminist project and not the patriarchal one” (‘The Signification of the Phallus’, Reading Lacan’s Écrits, p. 12). Baudrillard’s definition of what he called the “third-order” simulacrum sheds light on the semiotic workings of the phallus. He says “it masks the absence of a profound reality . . . it plays at being an appearance — it is of the order of sorcery” (Simulacra and Simulation, p. 6). This third-order simulacrum is like magic insofar as it makes you see things that aren’t even there, which is precisely what the phallic signifier (empty index) does. The Symbolic phallus actually “masks the absence of a profound reality”, which, in this case, is the substantial phallus. But the phallic signifier owes it “sorcery” to the sham indexicality it utilizes.
Perhaps the reason why Baudrillard weaponized the Otherness of femininity and its power of seduction was precisely because simulation itself is masculine and masculinity is simulatory. The phallic signifier simulates having a concrete and substantial referent (phallic power), but this is always a bluff. The order of simulation is a “society” that also indicates the substantial presence of “profound realties” where, in fact, they are missing. Seduction and femininity have a way of exposing the lack in the man/simulacrum. The true phallus is the phallic signifier itself, since there is no phallic substance. This signifier (index) only indicates a void, a negative object, since the true referent is an absence. The relation between smoke and fire is a true index, but what about the simulation of smoke? Do you know that smoke machines don’t actually have fires in them that produce the smoke? Most of them work by vaporizing proprietary water and glycol-based or glycerin-based fluids or through the atomization of mineral oil. The Symbolic phallus is a smoke machine. Baudrillard can aid us in understanding the essential role indexicality plays in the functioning of the phallic signifier:
The question returns to religion and the simulacrum of divinity: “I forbade that there be any simulacra in the temples because the divinity that animates nature can never be represented.” Indeed it can be. But what becomes of the divinity when it reveals itself in icons, when it is multiplied in simulacra? Does it remain the supreme power that is simply incarnated in images as a visible theology? Or does it volatilize itself in the simulacra that, alone, deploy their power and pomp of fascination — the visible machinery of icons substituted for the pure and intelligible Idea of God? This is precisely what was feared by Iconoclasts, whose millennial quarrel is still with us today. This is precisely because they predicted this omnipotence of simulacra, the faculty simulacra have of effacing God from the conscience of man, and the destructive, annihilating truth that they allow to appear — that deep down God never existed, that only the simulacrum ever existed, even that God himself was never anything but his own simulacrum — from this came their urge to destroy the images. If they could have believed that these images only obfuscated or masked the Platonic Idea of God, there would have been no reason to destroy them. One can live with the idea of distorted truth. But their metaphysical despair came from the idea that the image didn’t conceal anything at all, and that these images were in essence not images, such as an original model would have made them, but perfect simulacra, forever radiant with their own fascination. Thus this death of the divine referential must be exorcised at all costs.
(Simulacra and Simulation, pp. 4–5)
To sum up what Baudrillard just said, the idea is that the iconoclasts had a fundamental cognizance of the relation between iconicity, indexicality and simulation. The reason why Yahweh prohibited any depictions of himself is because they would actually serves as evidence against his existence. In Peircean terms, these depictions would have been icons (signs that refer to their object through resemblance, likeness, etc.). To produce an image of God, to make an icon of him, is to throw him into the order of appearances, that is, to put him on the same level of all perceptible objects, which is exactly what God is not. God is spirit and spirit cannot be represented — it can only be indicated. We could even say that this non-representability is one of God’s phallic signifiers. But this signifier is not an icon, but, rather, an index. We can also view the prophets and their signs and wonders as the phallic signifiers (indexes) of God’s phallus (divine power) insofar as they indicate God’s non-representable presence.
Yahweh was also very smart to forbid any graven images (representational icons) of himself, since the resemblance of God would only prove the absence of a divine referent. Icons of God produce atheists. Instead of the semiotics of the Peircean icon, Yahweh always opted for the index. The rainbow after the flood, the Ark of the Covenant, the Tabernacle and the Temple are all indexes — they indicate God without representing his likeness. These are technically phallic symbols because of their shape, structure and design, but not in an obvious way like a sword or an obelisk. Their elongation is horizontal and not vertical. The inconspicuous hint of the phallic shape is what actually makes them more phallic than standard phallic symbols. Also, what an index refers to can remain mysterious and hidden. You don’t have to see flames to know that smoke indicates them. Iconicity makes the referent present through resemblance. The indexicality of the phallic signifier compliments the simulatory “substantial” phallus because of how it can sustain the “reality” of its “referent” in a mysterious absence. The “substantial” phallus only works when veiled.
If the phallic signifier bestows a certain “power” on its bearer, then what kind is it? What is at stake in the phallic position? Here, we have to see the link between the Symbolic phallus and the primal father. For Lacan, Freud’s primal father is not a historical figure, someone who actually existed, but, instead, is a fantasmatic figure who structures masculinity, that is, masculine desire. In fact, the primal father will play a pivotal role in Lacan’s graph of sexuation in Seminar XX. Anyway, Freud presented his concept of the primal father in Totem and Taboo and, then, gave a short summary of it in Moses and Monotheism. Let’s now look at the latter:
The strong male was the master and father of the whole horde, unlimited in his power, which he used brutally. All females were his property, the wives and daughters in his own horde as well as perhaps also those stolen from other hordes. The fate of the sons was a hard one; if they excited their father’s jealousy they were killed or castrated or driven out. They were forced to live in small communities and to provide themselves with wives by stealing them from others. The one or the other son might succeed in attaining a situation similar to that of the father in the original horde. One favored position came about in a natural way: it was that of the youngest son, who, protected by his mother’s love, could profit by his father’s advancing years and replace him after his death. An echo of the expulsion of the eldest son, as well as of the favored position of the youngest, seems to linger in many myths and fairy-tales.
The next decisive step towards changing this first kind of “social” organization lies in the following suggestion: the brothers who had been driven out and lived together in a community clubbed together, overcame the father, and — according to the custom of those times — all partook on his body.
(Moses and Monotheism, pp. 102–3)
Simply put, the primal father “was” the leader of a primitive tribe or horde (again, we’re referring to a hypothetical and mythical father). The primal father possessed all the women in the tribe due to his singular “power”, which meant that his sons had no women for themselves. He also laid down the law all of the members of the tribe had to live by while, of course, being the one exception to his own law. He castrated all of his sons and, sometimes, this involved a literal castration but it always involved a libidinal castration, that is, limitations placed on their sexual enjoyment. The sons were forced to live sexually frustrated lives in constant fear of the primal father’s violent rage, so they decided to team up, kill him and eat him. However, they also ended up feeling guilty about murdering him, since they all secretly identified with him (wanted to be him), so they went on to establish a new Law, one that would allow each of them to have women of their own and mutually respect one another’s property. This Law was really the ghost of the primal father who the horde would go on to deify. In other words, they chose to impose a Law on themselves only because the primal father had first imposed his law on them. There is a fundamental ambivalence at play here, since the sons both loved and hated the primal father, both admired and despised him. The primal father became stronger through his death insofar as his law got institutionally established and reconfigured as the Law. The cannibalism, thus, carries symbolic weight, since they went on to internalize the father’s law (dead letter). The murder of the primal father is, thus, the “beginning” of society proper. Žižek writes:
Therein resides the lesson of the Freudian myth of the parricide, of the primordial father who, after his violent death, returns stronger than ever in the guise of his Name, as a symbolic authority. If a living, real father is to exert paternal symbolic authority, he must in a way die alive. It is his identification with the ‘dead letter’ of the symbolic mandate that bestows authority on his person; to paraphrase the old racist slogan: ‘The only good father is a dead father!’ Insofar as the phallus qua signifier designates the agency of symbolic authority, its crucial feature therefore resides in the fact that it is not ‘mine’, the organ of a living subject, but a place at which a foreign power intervenes and inscribes itself onto my body, a place at which the big Other acts through me. In short, the fact that phallus is a signifier means above all that it is structurally an organ without a body, somehow ‘detached’ from my body.
(Interrogating the Real, p. 251)
In Lacanian terms, the primal father had the phallus (“substantial” phallus). In the minds of all the tribe members, he possessed a unique power, a masculine substance, that separated him from all other men and served as the foundation of his unlimited authority. Because he was “naturally” and “ontologically” entitled to the phallic position, he, too, had a monopoly on jouissance (extreme enjoyment, intense excitation, pleasure to the point of pain). The primal father essentially says, “I have the power, therefore, I have the enjoyment! I will kill whoever I want whenever I want! I will rape whoever I want whenever I want! There is nothing you can do to me! Accept my law or die!” Of course, there was something his sons could do to him. The primal father wasn’t so phallic after all. He was bluffing. I mean, his sons did kill him and cannibalize him. If he really had the mythical power, then it wouldn’t have gone down that way. And this brings us to the contradiction of the phallic figure: he is characterized by both “omnipotence” and impotence (we could even form a neologism to capture his contradictory nature: omimpotence). The phallic figure appears to be omnipotent and uncastrated, but he is secretly just as impotent and castrated as the rest of us, since his power and authority essentially belong to him via the Law (Symbolic order, language, signifier). The relation between the primal father and the horde is not dyadic, since it is triadically mediated through an intermediary third party, i.e., the big Other.
However, for Lacan, the ideal, image or fantasy of the primal father structures the masculine position. As he put it, “it is through the phallic function that man as whole acquires his inscription with the proviso that this function is limited due to the existence of an x” (Seminar XX: Encore, p. 79). The “x”, of course, is the position of the exceptional man, the primal father, who lays down the law and limits other’s enjoyment while he himself escapes the “phallic function”, i.e., castration, which means he has the full enjoyment (jouissance) the rest of us lack. This is essentially the function of all fathers as we’ll see when we discuss the relations between the phallus, the castration complex and the Oedipus complex. According to Lacan, men are men precisely because they are not the primal father, because they do not occupy this position, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t aspire to it, that it isn’t their ideal. In one way or another, all men desire to be the primal father. And why do they want to be him? Because, from their perspective, he has the phallus (the power) that is desired by women.
It cannot be overstated that no one truly has the “substantial” phallus, no man possesses some superhuman power that separates him from all other human beings. The “substantial” phallus is really the mythological phallus. The primal father and his phallus are simulacra — the primal father did not take place. This phallic position is really just the effect of certain privileged signifiers (Symbolic phallus, name-of-the-father, etc.), but, still, it fundamentally shapes our world, our societies and our libidinal economies. In this sense, the primal father is more real (has more causal impact on our lives) than we are. Even though it’s impossible for a person to actually be the primal father, men still have him as their ideal. We need to think through the psychical consequences of this idealization of the phallic figure.
What exactly would the existence of the primal father be like? What would his ontology consist of? Is this not a paradoxical figure? On the one hand, he’s very much like the rest of us insofar as he’s a desiring subject. On the other, he also is in a constant state of unbearable jouissance. Now, anyone who knows the basics of Lacanian psychoanalysis, knows that desire and jouissance are mutually exclusive. We can even say that desire is a defense against jouissance. Desire arises out of lack and what is it the desiring subject lacks? Jouissance! And why must jouissance be absent in order for us to socially function? Because it is so intense, so all-consuming, that one cannot operate according to social protocols when filled with such intensity. And yet the primal father is both characterized by desire and jouissance, which has far greater consequences than is immediately apparent. This can be thought of as a Lacanian version of Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of the in-itself-for-itself:
Thus this perpetually absent being which haunts the for-itself is itself fixed in the in-itself. It is the impossible synthesis of the for-itself and the in-itself; it would be its own foundation not as nothingness but as being and would preserve within it the necessary translucency of consciousness along with the coincidence with itself of being-in-itself. It would preserve in it that turning back upon the self which conditions every necessity and every foundation. But this return to the self would be without distance; it would not be presence to itself, but identity with itself. In short, this being would be exactly the self which we have shown can exist only as a perpetually evanescent relation, but it would be this self as substantial being. Thus human reality arises as such in the presence of its own totality or self as a lack of that totality. And this totality can not be given by nature, since it combines in itself the incompatible characteristics of the in-itself and the for-itself.
(Being and Nothingness, p. 140)
What Sartre is getting at is a certain impossible desire human beings have. In his terminology, the “in-itself” refers to inanimate objects, whereas the “for-itself” designates the self-consciousness of human beings. Humans have a fundamentally different mode of existence than objects have precisely because human beings have to make themselves out of the choices they make. Humans are their radical freedom and this freedom is the result of their self-consciousness. Objects simply are what they are. A tree is a tree. A tree is identical to its fixed essence (identity). When it comes to the in-itself (object), essence precedes existence. It’s just the opposite with humans. For Sartre, we have no fixed essences. We must create our “essences” out of our free choices or existential projects. For the for-itself (subject), existence precedes essence. Human beings are always in a constant state of becoming; they never arrive at full and fixed identity in the way objects do. However, this lack of essence, of a plentiful being, is the cause of our existential issues. Things would be so much simpler if I could just be an object. Yet we are also repulsed by the thought of being a pure object. What we really want is to be the impossible object-subject, that is, an in-itself-for-itself. We desire to be subjects with fixed essences or identities. We desire the impossible. But this is essentially what the primal father “is” in his own way: pure desire and pure jouissance, pure subject and pure object. But who in our imaginations actually is this impossibility? Who is desire and jouissance, who is subject and object? None other than God himself. Therefore, to truly be the primal father is to be God.
The fundamental value which presides over this project is exactly the in-itself-for-itself; that is, the ideal of a consciousness which would be the foundation of its own being-in-itself by the pure consciousness which it would have of itself. It is this ideal which can be called God. Thus the best way to conceive of the fundamental project of human reality is to say that man is the being whose project is to be God. Whatever may be the myths and rites of the religion considered, God is first “sensible to the heart” of man as the one who identifies and defines him in his ultimate and fundamental project. If man possesses a pre-ontological comprehension of the being of God, it is not the great wonders of nature nor the power of society which have conferred it upon him. God, value and supreme end of transcendence, represents the permanent limit in terms of which man makes known to himself what he is. To be man means to reach toward being God. Or if you prefer, man fundamentally is the desire to be God.
(Being and Nothingness, pp. 723–4)
Is not Yahweh the phallic figure par excellence? Is he not the masculine ideal pushed to its full fantasmatic embodiment? Is he not what the full reality of the primal father would be? God is truly the exceptional One insofar as he existed before the universe did. He literally possesses the power (substantial phallus) to bring the universe into existence and to destroy it whenever he likes. God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, etc., he is fixed in his divine essence, in his sacred identity, and, still, he desires to create what he lacks and to be loved by others. He has the essence and fixity of an object while still having the desire and self-consciousness of a subject. He lays down the Law and simultaneously exists outside of it, which means he has full jouissance just like the primal father. This ideal is what men desire to be in their fantasies, since they believe this is what women desire them to be (desire is the desire of the Other). Men want to be the in-itself-for-itself, the primal father, God. All men want to be Yahweh.
Perhaps Ludwig Feuerbach’s words have never been so relevant: “The divine being is nothing else than the human being, or, rather, the human nature purified, freed from the limits of the individual man, made objective ― i.e., contemplated and revered as another, a distinct being. All the attributes of the divine nature are, therefore, the attributes of the human nature” (The Essence of Christianity, p. 14). Taken to its logical conclusion, having the phallus means literally being God. Is this not the secret mechanism at work behind so much of what we call “toxic masculinity”? Men are willing to kill and die over the phallus. The phallus is why men ashamed when they cry; it’s what makes us try not to cry; it’s what prevents us from being vulnerable and stops us us from asking for help. The phallic figure is the impossible ideal men get installed in their unconscious and the truth is that they deeply, deeply suffer because of it, as do women and society at large. It obviously goes without saying, but no flesh-and-blood man can actually live up to the impossible, ridiculous ideal of Creator of the universe, but, at the most fundamental level, this is the masculine ideal. Masculinity is a simulation.
Now that we have all this context, let’s turn our attention to how Lacan conceptualized the phallus and its functions in child development and sexual difference. In what follows, we’ll be briefly discussing Lacan’s concepts of the Oedipus and castration complexes. One thing must be said: the mother and the father, for Lacan, are not necessarily the biological parents nor are they necessarily heterosexual and cisgender. Any type of person can fulfill the maternal function or the paternal function, e.g., straight, gay, bi, lesbian, cis, trans, queer, etc. For example, a cis-lesbian couple can fulfill the two functions of the Oedipus complex. Both are women and both have vaginas, but one has the phallus and the other does not. According to Lacan, the mother is simply the child’s primary caregiver, whereas the father is the one who disrupts the unity between the mother and the child and stops it from continuing indefinitely. The two parents are two functions. Just keep his in mind when reading the words “mother” (“she”, “her”) and “father” (“he”, “him”) — these words, in this context, refer to structural positions.
In the early days of childhood, the child and the mother form a kind of libidinal symbiosis. The mother (primary caregiver) is always there. At first, she appears to be omnipotent (phallic, non-lacking, uncastrated). The baby’s body forms a perceived unity with the mother’s body, but time goes on and the baby isn’t tactilely unified with the mother as much and now finds unity with her through constantly being the object of her loving gaze, i.e., her desire. Even if the baby isn’t actually touching its mother, it maintains the feeling of unity by having the mother’s attention focused solely on it.
But time goes on and the baby comes to realize that its mother’s gaze isn’t always directed towards it. The baby is now aware of the intentionality or directedness of the mother’s consciousness/desire. As Edmund Husserl put it, “In perception something is perceived, in imagination, something imagined, in a statement something stated, in love sorting loved, in hate hated, in desire desired etc.” (Logical Investigations: Volume 2, p. 95). The baby is not always the object of the mother’s desire. For the child, its experiences of the absent object of the mother’s desire (intentionality toward this “object”) are Sartrean négatités, i.e., concrete negations or experiences of nothingnesses. We can even term the mother’s intentional desire or directed attention her “misintentionality”, since her actual intentionality causes the child the misperceive its missing “object”. This phenomenon causes the baby to start wondering about what it is that the mother desires and its answer, its guess, will be the single object that has the power to completely satisfy mother’s desire. The child, then, decides that it must be this object for the mother so as to maintain the child-mother unity. As Lacan said, “If the mother’s desire is for the phallus, the child wants to be the phallus in order to satisfy her desire” (‘The Signification of the Phallus’, Écrits, p. 582).
The baby starts “asking” itself about her absence: “Where does mommy go when she’s not here with me and why does she leave?” “What is it that mommy truly wants?” And, of course, the obvious answer in most cases is the father. This is the first answer the baby can grasp, since it cannot yet comprehend the concepts of “work”, “hobbies”, “duties”, “errands”, “interests”, “responsibilities”, etc. These concerns are not yet part of the child’s world, they’re still unintelligible to it, but the actual father, for the most part, is part of it, since the child can actually perceive the father or hears about him through what the mother says about him. This, in turn, is what makes the father the child’s first rival regardless of its sex. This is reinforced in the mother’s speech: “Mom and dad are going out to dinner tonight”, “Mommy and daddy are going to bed now”, etc. Thus, the child comes to associate the disappearance of the mother with the father. This leads the child to hypothesize the following: “Daddy must have the powerful object, the perfect thing, that I lack and has the power to satisfy the desire of my mother”. And this “object” of the mother’s desire is what Lacan called the “Imaginary phallus” (Lacan’s matheme or “mathematical” symbol for the Imaginary phallus is φ [lowercase phi]). This Imaginary phallus is what I’ve been referring to as the “substantial” phallus (a negative “substance” insofar as it does not really exist).
Long story short, Symbolic castration occurs in two steps. The child realizes that the mother is not omnipotent insofar as she herself lacks/desires something outside of the dyadic relation between herself and the child (she is missing something). The child posits the Imaginary phallus (perfect-powerful object) that satisfies the mother’s desire, which, then, the child wants to be. The second and most important moment of the castration complex, what brings the Oedipus complex to an end, is when the child accepts its own lack, that is, gives up trying to be the Imaginary phallus for the mother and realizes that the father is the one who has it. This realization is brought on by the installation of the privileged phallic signifier, that is, the Symbolic phallus (Lacan’s matheme for the Symbolic phallus is Φ [uppercase Phi]).
The Symbolic phallus (phallic signifier) indicates the Imaginary phallus (“substantial” power). We could actually say that the Symbolic phallus is the signifier (index, stand-in, representation) of the Imaginary phallus (the elusive x of the mother’s desire, i.e., what women want). The phallic signifier can be any number of things, e.g., a word, a look, a gesture, an object, etc. It’s some feature or thing associated with the father that indicates that he has the “substantial” phallus, that he has the power. I think it’s correct to say that this “power” indicated by the phallic signifier is precisely what gives the name-of-the-father its authority. It’s because the phallic figure “has” the phallus that his “No!” has authority. The “name-of-the-father” is what Lacan calls the prohibitory function of the father, that is, the “No!” of the father. The French term nom du père is what gets translated as the “name-of-the-father” but there’s more going on with it. Dylan Evans writes, “From the beginning Lacan plays on the homophony of le nom du père (the name of the father) and le ‘non’ du père (the ‘no’ of the father), to emphasise the legislative and prohibitive function of the symbolic father” (An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, p. 122).
The pure function of the Symbolic father is to be a “No!”, that is, to embody the pure prohibition. Sartre, once again, is helpful here: “It is as a Not that the slave first apprehends the master, or that the prisoner who is trying to escape sees the guard who is watching him. There are even men (e.g., caretakers, overseers, gaolers) whose social reality is uniquely that of the Not, who will live and die, having forever been only a Not upon the earth. Others so as to make the Not a part of their very subjectivity, establish their human personality as a perpetual negation” (Being and Nothingness, p. 87). But Sartre’s authority figures are only able to embody the “No!”, exercise their Symbolic power, because they are bearers of the Symbolic phallus (badge, uniform, gun, etc.). The embodied “Not”, the incarnated “No!”, first occurs in the Symbolic castration of the child via the Symbolic father. The Symbolic phallus and the name/no-of-the father form the assemblage of the father’s power and authority. Once the child has accepted its lack, once it has repressed its desire for the mother’s desire and substituted it with the father’s mandate (what Lacan calls the “paternal metaphor”), he or she has entered into the Symbolic order (Law) and become a desiring (neurotic) subject proper.
The Symbolic phallus may seem to be a flat-out oppressive mechanism, and it definitely creates problems when it comes to sexual difference, but it also has a liberatory dimension to it. Despite all the negative issues surrounding the phallic signifier, it still serves to free the child from the prison of the mother’s desire. We can also call the Symbolic phallus the signifier of freedom. Let’s have a look at two very important quotes from Lacan:
Don’t you know that it’s not longing for the maternal breast that provokes anxiety, but its imminence? What provokes anxiety is everything that announces to us, that lets us glimpse, that we’re going to be taken back onto the lap. It is not, contrary, to what is said, the rhythm of the mother’s alternating presence and absence. The proof of this is that the infant revels in repeating this game of presence and absence. The security of presence is the possibility of absence. The most anguishing thing for the infant is precisely the moment when the relationship upon which he’s established himself, of the lack that turns him into desire, is disrupted, and this relationship is most disrupted when there’s no possibility of any lack, when the mother is on his back all the while, and especially when she’s wiping his backside.
(Seminar X: Anxiety, pp. 53–4)
The mother’s role is the mother’s desire. That’s fundamental. The mother’s desire is not something that is bearable just like that, that you are indifferent to. It will always wreak havoc. A huge crocodile in whose jaws you are — that’s the mother. One never knows what might suddenly come over her and make her shut her trap. That’s what the mother’s desire is. Thus, I have tried to explain that there was something that was reassuring. I am telling you simple things, I am improvising, I have to say. There is a roller, made out of stone of course, which is there, potentially, at the level of her trap, and it acts as a restraint, as a wedge. It’s what is called the phallus. It’s the roller that shelters you, if, all of a sudden, she closes it.
(Seminar XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, p. 112)
While the young subject may retroactively and fantasmatically misremember the child-mother unity as a time of perfect enjoyment, the fact is that time is far from totally blissful. Sure, children often cling to their mother’s bodies. The maternal body is clearly a source of enjoyment. However, half the time, kids are trying to escape the suffocating presences of their mothers, trying to free themselves from their laps. The child’s attitude is one that says, “Geez, get off me! Go away! Leave me alone! Let me have some breathing room!” The kid desperately seeks to escape from the field of the mother’s desire but always ends up getting caught in her tractor beam. The Imaginary phallus opens up a crack in this field, that is, it clears a path outside of the mother’s desire. The Symbolic phallus takes this crack and explodes it. In other words, it takes the child into the wide open space of the Symbolic order (Otherness). For Lacan, the mother’s desire is like the mouth of a crocodile that snaps down on the child and won’t let it go, but the phallus (Imaginary and Symbolic phalluses) are like a rolling pin made of stone that the child can pry into the back of her jaws, which will keep her mouth open long enough for the child to break free. This liberation from the mother’s desire is of such fundamental importance that I can’t stressed it hard enough. Without the phallus, its power of Symbolic castration and the repression of the mother’s desire, the child would end up being trapped forever in psychosis. This is actually how Lacan defines the psychotic structure.
Before moving on to the topic of sexual difference and its relation to the phallus, let’s discuss all of the various ways Lacan and Lacanians talk about the Symbolic phallus. They say that the phallic signifier is: (1) the signifier without a signified, (2) the signifier of signification itself or the signified in general, (3) the signifier of castration, (4) the signifier of lack, (5) the signifier of desire, (6) the signifier of jouissance, (7) the signifier of power, (8) the signifier of sexual difference. This seems to make the phallic signifier incredibly complicated and overdetermined, but these different aspects of it make a lot of sense when compared side-by-side.
As for the first two, the Symbolic phallus, phenomenologically speaking, has no clear and specific signified, it indicates an elusive x, but it does signify signification in general, since it’s the first meaning insofar as a signifier stands in for a object. The phallic signifier has no signified in the sense of having no conventional signified attached to it. Again, the phallic signifier is an index of a negative object, but this still introduces the very structure of signification into the mind of the child. The child’s relation to the Imaginary phallus is an immediate one-to-one relation, that is, the child actually strives to be identical to the Imaginary phallus. The Symbolic phallus, however, introduces mediation into the mix — it is a third element. Now the relation to the Imaginary phallus is indirect; it is mediated by the phallic signifier (the present stand-in for the absent Imaginary phallus). I no longer have to be the phallus, but, instead, take up a relation to it via the phallic signifier just like the father does. In Lacan’s words, “The phallus is the privileged signifier of this mark in which the role [part] of Logos is wedded to the advent of desire” (‘The Signification of the Phallus’, Écrits, p. 581). That is to say, the phallic signifier brings meaning in general (Logos) into being for the child via castration and the production of desire. It’s through castration, giving up on being the Imaginary (“substantial”) phallus for the mother in order to maintain a “non-lacking unity”, that desire proper emerges in the subject. For the child, the emergence of desire coincides with its entrance into language (meaning, Logos) and the phallic signifier is the mechanism that can bring this castration about.
It is in this sense that the Symbolic phallus is the signifier of signification in general. It’s the first signifier that stands in for, refers to, represents, indicates, something else, something absent. The phallic signifier establishes and signifies the very mechanism of signification itself — this means that (this present signifier means that absent signified, this present word represents that absent object). The phallic signifier is a reflective signifier precisely because of how it refers to the very mechanism of signification. The Symbolic phallus is the signifier of what is missing, it indicates the absent or missing “substantial” phallus, but that is exactly what all signifiers do. Actual words stand in for absent objects. Their “magic” consists in making the absent become present while remaining absent. For example, the word “tree” makes trees present to me even though no trees are actually present within my current perception of the world. The signifier stands in (presence) for the missing object (absence). Hegelians and Lacanians like to say, “the word is the murder of the thing”. In what sense does the word murder the thing? In making the thing unnecessary for it to be present, that is, words make it where we don’t need things to actually be there for them to be present to us. This truth is what the phallic signifier conveys and installs in the young psyche. And, of course, the one who bears the phallic signifier “must” have what is missing or can supply it (but really cannot, since it doesn’t exist).
What about the Symbolic phallus being the signifier of castration, lack and desire? Well, these three go hand in hand. We desire because we lack and we lack because we have been castrated. Castration occurs when the child accepts it own lack, its inability to be the object that totally satisfies the mother, and begins to desire the “lost” jouissance it had to sacrifice in giving up the child-mother unity (this is not a real loss but simply the retroactive effect of language, Law, prohibition, etc.). We lack the power (Imaginary phallus) to satisfy mother’s desire and we lack the jouissance we “once had”. This “loss” of jouissance and its reification is what Lacan called objet petit a or the object-cause of desire. For the subject, it’s as if desire is caused precisely because it has actually lost some essential part of itself that filled it with excessive excitation (jouissance). “Regaining” this “lost” object would, therefore, “return” the subject to a state of libidinal bliss (again, a state the subject was never actually in). We can say that objet petit a (cause of desire) is produced by the castration imposed on us by the Symbolic phallus (along with the name-of-the-father). The phallic signifier, therefore, stands for the process of castration, the acceptance of one’s lack and the production of desire. We are castrated, we lack and we desire because of the Symbolic phallus. This leads us into the next aspect of the phallic signifier.
The Symbolic phallus is the signifier of jouissance (enjoyment). As we know, the phallic signifier is the first signifier or the signifier of the signified in general precisely because it signifies something absent (“substantial” phallus, Imaginary phallus, libidinal power), but it also signifies the absence of jouissance, of the subject’s enjoyment. It’s as if the phallic signifier literally confiscates our jouissance and locks it away inside of itself, that our “lost” enjoyment is actually contained inside of this signifier. A great way to think about this is through an analogy. The phallic signifier is like the puzzle box in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. This box has the power to open up a gateway to another dimension of reality filled with the most hellish, extreme and violent forms of jouissance. When opened, various torture devices appear along with four monstrous, sadomasochistic figures called the Cenobites. Frank, a man who opened the box, says of it, “It’s dangerous. It opens doors. . . . Doors to the pleasures of heaven or hell. I didn’t care which. I’d thought I’d gone to the limits. I hadn’t. The Cenobites gave me an experience beyond the limits. Pain in pleasure . . . indivisible.” The Lead Cenobite (named Pinhead in the sequels) says, “You solved the box. We came. Now you must come with us. Taste our pleasures!” Simply put, jouissance is in the puzzle box (phallic signifier). There is fundamental association we make at the unconscious level between the phallic signifier and objet petit a (the surplus of “lost” jouissance).
The Symbolic phallus is also the signifier of power. We already understand how this works, but I just want to make a few brief connections. The one who bears the phallic signifier is thought to have the power (“substantial” phallus). But if the phallic figure has the power and the phallic signifier, then he (or she) has a certain power over jouissance. The phallic figure has the power to give or take jouissance, which, in turn, means that this figure also has a power over our desire, that is, can easily manipulate our desire. This sort of manipulation occurs at the unconscious level and not so much at the conscious one. However, this is why the manipulation is so powerful. We can end up having incredibly extreme libidinal investments in the phallic figure, since he can be unconsciously viewed as the one who can give jouissance to us and can take it from our enemies. But we can also have an immense hatred of this figure and can intensely enjoy hating him, since he threatens our jouissance. We can be libidinally invested, both positively and negatively, in the phallic function itself, since it “contains” all of our “sacrificed” jouissance. The phallic function can be incarnated in an infinite number of different scenarios, but it’s the function itself that lures us and repulses us in relation to them.
The phallic signifier, the Symbolic phallus, is a reservoir of our “lost” jouissance (sacrifical surplus-jouissance). This is why we can have such a strong ambivalence towards it. On one hand, it castrates us, that is, it takes our enjoyment from us. On the other, since it possesses the surplus of enjoyment, it can also share it with us if we stand in the proper relation to it. This signifier is totally saturated with jouissance. Again, this is how we link the phallic (master) signifier to objet petit a. Another example of the Symbolic phallus is in Lord of the Flies. In this novel/film, the boys have a conch that functions as the phallic signifier. As Jennifer Lawrence puts it in Silver Linings Playbook, “I can tell you all about The Lord of the Flies. It’s about a bunch of boys on an island and they have a conch, they have a shell, and whoever has the conch has the power and they can talk, and if you don’t have the conch, then you don’t have the power. Then there’s a little chubby boy and they call him Piggy and they’re really mean, and, then, there’s a murder. I mean, humanity is just nasty and there’s no silver lining.”
That about says it all. The Symbolic order of the boys is structured around phallic-exceptional power (possession of the conch) and sadistic jouissance (the humiliation of the chubby boy). The boys reenact the dynamic between primal father and primal horde, but what binds them to one another is (1) they all get to be the phallic figure at some point, that is, they rotate who possesses the Symbolic phallus (conch) and (2) they collectively enjoy the cruelty they inflict on Piggy (this obscene enjoyment binds them together as a group). A group of boys will often single out the weakest one among them precisely because his lack reflects their lacks. They humiliate and punish this boy because he’s “guilty” of revealing all of their castrations. They justify it by finding him guilty of this fundamental transgression (“Thou shalt not reveal our lack”). Piggy made the “mistake” of revealing his lack to one of the other buys (he confessed that he had been called Piggy in the past and hated it). The connection between the power and jouissance involved in the phallic signifier is crucial to see.
Finally, the Symbolic phallus is the signifier of sexual difference. In other words, the stance the child takes towards the phallic signifier will determine its sexuation, which sexed position it adopts. The masculine structure and the feminine structure are determined by how one relates oneself to the Symbolic phallus. Lacanians make a distinction between having the phallus (the masculine position) and being the phallus (the feminine position). This means that men have to actively possess the Symbolic phallus, whereas women have to adopt an objectifying passivity in order to be it. Simply put, a man has to become a super-subject (like the primal father) through possessing the Symbolic phallus and a woman can only gain phallic power in society through becoming a beautiful, sexualized object. In traditional-patriarchal society, a woman could only get power, the Symbolic power of her husband, by being the “object” (phallic signifier) that indicates that her husband actually has the “substantial” phallus (masculine power, authority, virility, etc., which is actually a mythological object, a fake, a bluff, a lack). The fact that he has a beautiful women indicates his power (masculine superiority). She literally has to reduce herself to the status of a phallic signifier (index of masculine power) in order to have any power at all.
Even today, we still have the concept of the “trophy wife”, which, to me, seems to perfectly express what it means to “be the phallus” (a pretty object that designates the “greatness” of its possessor). The man is a “real man” precisely because he has a beautiful woman (phallic signifier). For the early Lacan, sexual difference is the essentially the difference between having the index of masculine power and being the index of it. Remember, Lacan is not praising this. He’s not defending or celebrating this dynamic. He’s simply saying that this is what his clinical experience has shown him. He is being descriptive and not normative.
This difference between the two subjective positions structured by their relations to the Symbolic phallus also produces two different types of desire. Darian Leader provides some good examples of this in his 1996 book Why Do Women Write More Letters Than They Send? and Derek Hook wonderfully summarizes them in his paper ‘The Meaning of the Phallus’ (by the way, this essay does a fantastic job of explaining the role of the phallus in the Oedipus complex). Let’s take a minute and read Hook’s summary of one of Leader’s best examples:
If all of this sounds hopelessly abstract, then it helps to provide a few examples of potentially ‘being’ or ‘having’ the phallic signifier. How do we respond to castration, to the fact that the phallus is lost to us, to the fact that we have a lack at the centre of our being that needs to be covered over? We do this by taking on one of two possible relations of potentiality to the phallus; or put differently, by being positioned in a particular relation to our desire. Leader (1996) provides some interesting examples in this regard. A man is sitting at a café and sees a couple walk past. He finds the female attractive and watches her. What is the typical masculine relation to desire we see epitomised here? He fixes his interest on her and wants to ‘have’ her. A woman in the same situation may well do something different, observes Leader. She may be attracted to the man, but will nonetheless spend more time looking at the woman who is with him. Why so? Her relation to desire is different; it is not the wish simply to possess the desired object, but of wanting to know what makes this woman desirable for the man. Her relation to desire is about being like a signifier of his desire, of enacting this signifier of his desire in this way. . . . A women’s interest is not simply in having one man or woman (in possessing a phallic signifier), but rather in understanding a desiring relation, in being able to enact something desired in being a phallic signifier); this is her route to desire. While this may sound uncomfortably generalising, and a rather essentialist way of distinguishing between men and women, it is worth pointing out that what is being described here are two structured relations to desire. Not all subjects who ‘fit the bill’ anatomically speaking, as women, may desire in the way outlined above. However, if Lacan is right, all people who take up a sexed position as feminine, who sexually identify as women — a group which of course may include those who anatomically we would identify as men — take on such a structured relation to desire.
(‘The Meaning of the Phallus’, The Gender of Psychology, p. 81)
This example shows how one’s relation to the Symbolic phallus (phallic signifier), one’s sexed position, shapes the fundamental structure of one’s desire. This distinction between having the phallus and being the phallus is essential, so I want to flesh it out with my own examples from pop culture. I think the opening theme songs from He-Man and She-Ra perfectly capture Lacan’s insights on the phallus, that is, they are Lacan’s early theory of sexuation in a nutshell. Let’s watch both of them and, then, break them down.
Adam, prince of Eternia, is just a man, but he becomes He-Man when he puts on the Symbolic phallus (picks up the power sword). This phallic signifier, an actual phallic symbol, transforms its bearer from an ordinary person into He-Man, into the most powerful man in the universe, into The Man, the one who has the phallus, that is, it produces the phallic figure (the “uncastrated” Law giver who retains full jouissance, absolute power and masculine virility while castrating all others). What does He-Man scream? He shouts, “I have the power!”, that is, “I have the phallus!” In this opening, Castle Greyskull represents the phallic Symbolic order itself, which the Symbolic father embodies with his “No!” (name-of-the-father). The power sword (index of the phallus, phallic signifier) signifies Castle Greyskull (Symbolic order, universe of meaning). The power sword (phallus), He-Man (bearer of the phallus, phallic figure, super-subject) and Castle Greyskull (Symbolic order) all stand united against Skeletor and his evil forces (evil = jouissance). As Lacan said, “Jouissance is evil” (Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, p. 184). And yet it is precisely through the gap between Adam and He-Man that we perceive his own castration. It’s because Adam lacks that he has to pick up the power sword (phallic signifier) and transform into He-Man. Here’s how Žižek explains it:
Symbolic castration is the price to be paid for the exercise of power. How, precisely? One should begin by conceiving of phallus as a signifier — which means what? From the traditional rituals of investiture, we know the objects which not only ‘symbolize’ power, but put the subject who acquires them into the position of effectively exercising power — if a king holds in his hands the sceptre and wears the crown, his words will be taken as the words of a king. Such insignia are external, not part of my nature: I don them; I wear them in order to exert power. As such, they ‘castrate’ me: they introduce a gap between what I immediately am and the function that I exercise (i.e. I am never fully at the level of my function). This is what the infamous ‘symbolic castration’ means: not ‘castration as symbolic, as just symbolically enacted’ (in the sense in which we say that, when I am deprived of something, I am ‘symbolically castrated’), but the castration which occurs by the very fact of me being caught in the symbolic order, assuming a symbolic mandate. Castration is the very gap between what I immediately am and the symbolic mandate which confers on me this ‘authority’. In this precise sense, far from being the opposite of power, it is synonymous with power; it is that which confers power on me. And one has to think of the phallus not as the organ which immediately expresses the vital force of my being, my virility, and so on, but, precisely, as such an insignia, as a mask which I put on in the same way a king or judge puts on his insignia — phallus is an ‘organ without a body’ which I put on, which gets attached to my body, without ever becoming its ‘organic part’, namely, forever sticking out as its incoherent, excessive supplement.
(Disparities, pp. 259–60)
What about She-Ra being the phallus? She-Ra screams something else. She says, “I am She-Ra”, that is, “I am the phallus” or “I be the phallus”. In picking up the phallus (sword, phallic symbol), Adora goes from a woman into being She-Ra, a hyper-sexualized object. Her cleavage is now showing, she has on a short dress and her hair is now enticingly flowing in the wind (the wind never blows through He-Man’s hair). Notice that she defines herself in relation to a man (He-Man): “I am Adora, He-Man’s twin sister.” Her status is derived from a Man’s status. Her power lies in being a sex object (beautiful women). Beauty is the only phallus a woman can have in the phallic Symbolic order (patriarchy, misogyny). The only power is the power to effect men’s desire. Also notice that she gains her power from Castle Greyskull (the phallic, masculine Symbolic order) and not from some other feminine Symbolic order. Even though she lives in a different place (Etheria), a different castle (Crystal Castle), the only Castle (Symbolic order) is Castle Greyskull. She-Ra is a woman but one occupying the phallic position. There is no feminine ideal to aspire to, that is, there is no feminine counterpart to the primal father. This is why She-Ra really just copies He-Man. Her opening theme just parallels his. It’s not like She-Ra presents a radical alternative to the masculine ideal, since she is the “princess of power” — she just occupies it and that’s what was exciting about her.
She-Ra actually shows that there is no alternative image of power for women (phallic women are also modeled on the primal father). She-Ra occupies the same Symbolic position (and fantasmatic ideal) as He-Man. She-Ra, like He-Man, wants to have the phallus (magical power). For a woman to have power in patriarchal society, she must go with the masculine model. She copies He-Man, she brandishes the sword (phallic symbol) and holds it up, and this is how she undergoes a Symbolic transformation which bestows on her a position of power — she becomes the bearer of the phallus. Here’s the trick: it’s very subtle, but we must see that the actual phallic signifier is She-Ra sexualized appearance. The sword is not the actual phallic signifier in this case. It’s She-Ra herself — sexualizing herself as a beautiful object.
The apparent message of that opening is this: “Yes, in our modern times, a woman can also have the phallus. See, look, She-Ra gains phallic power through holding up the sword, wielding the phallic signifier, just like He-Man.” But not so fast. The real message is this: “All this talk of the woman having phallic power is a bluff, since what still gives her power is being beautiful, being a sexualized object.” (’80s and ’90s pop culture, in particular, is filled with this contradictory message concerning a woman’s relation to the phallus: “You, too, can have the phallus . . . but not really — now show some skin.”) This is what the semiotics actually whisper to us. The sword is there only to disguise, to serve as misdirection for, the fact that She-Ra herself is the phallus. She gets her power by putting on a sexy little dress, showing her cleavage and having the wind seductively blow through her hair like a Playboy model. And the biggest indicator of all this is that she says, “I am She-Ra”. She doesn’t say, like He-Man, that she has the power. No. She is the power. We know this precisely because of how this opening is in dialogue with He-Man’s (they must be interpreted side by side). The very moment She-Ra ought to declare that she has the power, she, instead, makes an ontologico-substantial declaration about herself. To say “I am She-Ra” is to say “I am the power (phallus)”. The strong symmetry, the blatant isomorphism, between the two opening theme songs only make the points of their dissymmetry all the more noticeable to someone paying attention.
Is this not what a trophy wife does? A trophy wife is a pretty object that indicates that her husband is not just a man but The Man. Think about it: a man cannot be a trophy husband (though a man can be a trophy wife). To be a trophy wife is to reduce yourself to the substantial mode of being of an object, that is, you sacrifice your subjectivity (trophy wives don’t have meaningful opinions, individualistic passions, thoughts, desires, goals, aspirations). The trophy wife is just very beautiful and sexy. Reducing herself to her beauty is how she comes to be the phallus. She also embodies her husband’s phallic “power” insofar as he has “castrated” all other men from enjoying her. She becomes the signifier (index) that indicates that he has the “substantial” phallus (reservoir of power). She becomes the Symbolic phallus itself and signifies (indicates) his power. For the woman to have the phallus she has to be the phallus for a man (she has the phallus in the simulatory sense insofar as her marriage means that she can wield whatever actual power the husband has). She has the phallus so long as she is (be) the phallus (being the beautiful object that indicates his exceptional substance).
The man has the phallus because he remains an active agent insofar as he lays down the Law, restricts the enjoyment of others, imposes his will on others, etc. He has the phallus while remaining a subject (this is what makes him the super-subject). The woman must be a beautiful object to have power within the strictures of our patriarchal Symbolic order. Of course, this is only true within the confines of patriarchy or, in Judith Butler’s terms, “the heteronormative matrix of intelligibility”. Lacan’s concept of the phallus is not a normative one; he’s not merely celebrating it and the Symbolic order it establishes. In fact, he’s critiquing it by showing how arbitrary it really is — nobody actually has or is the phallus! Generally speaking, this makes so much sense out of our social space and how the sexes relate to each other in it. We need this concept in order to describe the workings of the world as it actually is and has been.
This is the difference between having the phallus and being the phallus. Both are simulations: the man simulates being a super-subject and the woman simulates being an object. In truth, both of them are just subjects of lack. Masculinity is the simulation of substantial subjectivity (subjectivity with no lack) and phallic femininity is a simulation as well, since it makes a subject seem to be reducible to an object. Both are bullshit! Both are versions of Sartrean bad faith. In truth, all of us are desiring subjects, subjects of lack. Whereas masculinity (having the phallus) and the objectified “femininity” (being the phallus) it desires are always phallic, authentic femininity (there is no phallus) is never phallic — it fully embraces human subjectivity in all its lack, negativity, vulnerability, incompleteness, castration and desire. In both cases, having and being the phallus, the real feminine truth of all of our subjectivities is covered over.
This is why femininity, true femininity, is actually true subjectivity. Phallic identity simulates a substantial subjectivity (S), but femininity proper affirms true subjectivity in all its lack ($). The woman is the human. McGowan nailed it in his video on the phallus when he said, “The position of femininity is the position attached to recognition of lack beneath — what’s not beneath. Whereas masculinity is built upon the deception that there is some secure substance beneath. So masculinity is a belief in the substance of one’s identity whereas femininity is a belief in one’s subjectivity. You might say femininity is the choice of absence rather than presence, whereas masculinity is an investment in the lie of presence. So femininity is the point of absence within the symbolic structure.” True femininity does not say, “I have the power” or “I am the power”, but, instead, “I do not have the power and I am not the power, since there is no power to have or to be”. This is its freedom. The phallus is a phallacy!
Is not negative (lacking) subjectivity what Descartes couldn’t bring himself to accept? In Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes arrives at pure subjectivity, the negative self, the subjective void. In the second meditation, he calls this lack the cogito. However, he immediately goes on to substantialize this subjective negativity. It’s as if he, as a man, could not bring himself to embrace the lack at the core of his being, that is, his feminine truth. Instead, he covers over this lack by turning the cogito into a thinking substance or a substantial identity (res cogitans). This insistence on substantializing his self is the masculine maneuver par excellence. Descartes turns thought itself into the phallic signifier: “I think, therefore, I am . . . the phallus”. “I think” means Symbolic phallus and “I am” means the “substantial” phallus. Lacan and Žižek, however, both defend Descartes and credit him with discovery of the pure subject (negative subjectivity, the desiring/lacking subject), but both of them are aware that he corrupts his own discovery by reifying it.
I now want to spend some time providing more examples of the various ways in which the phallus effects men and women. Consider how the damsel in distress is a basic phallic fantasy. The woman is in state of radical lack, whereas the man is overflowing with a surplus of being (ontological plenitude). He has so much power, being, presence, that he can fill in the lack in the woman. He’s not only complete — he’s ultra-complete due to his surplus-power. This means that he has power (fullness) to spare. This fantasy, therefore, is centered around the phallus regardless of whether it is a man or a woman who’s fantasizing it. If a man is having this fantasy, then he desires to have the phallus in order to satisfy the women’s desire. If the woman is fantasizing this scenario, then she wants to be the damsel in distress because saving her (having her) is what the man desires. Lacan pointed out how a fantasy always is an answer to the question Che vuoi?, that is, What do you want from me? In Žižek words:
One should always bear in mind that the desire ‘realized’ (staged) in fantasy is not the subject’s own, but the other’s desire: fantasy, phantasmic formation, is an answer to the enigma of ‘Che vuoi?’ — ‘You’re saying this, but what do you really mean by saying it?’ — which established the subject’s primordial, constitutive position. The original question of desire is not directly ‘What do I want?, but ‘What do others want from me? What do they see in me? What am I to others?’ A small child is embedded in a complex network of relations; he serves as a kind of catalyst and battlefield for the desires of those around him: his father, mother, brothers and sisters, and so on, fight their battles around him, the mother sending a message to the father through her care for the son. While he is well aware of this role, the child cannot fathom what object, precisely, he is to others, what the exact nature of the games they are playing with him is, and fantasy provides an answer to this enigma: at its most fundamental, fantasy tells me what I am to my others.
(The Plague of Fantasies, p. 9)
Here’s another instance of the phallus at play in fantasy. Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir, is a phallic signifier. What’s so fantasmatically satisfying at the end of Thor: Ragnarok is that Thor realizes that he actually has the power in and of himself. His hammer, phallic signifier, was destroyed at the start of the film by his evil sister. Thor gets his revenge on this “castrating” woman by realizing that the substantial phallus has been in him all along. And, of course, Thor wants to be the phallic figure so as to satisfy the Other (save the people of Asgard). This is the ultimate masculine fantasy: possession of the substantial phallus without the Symbolic phallus. Thor: Ragnarok actually serves as the ultimate masculine fantasy precisely because Thor ends up being identical to the phallus (power). One could say that Thor has unresolved castration issues.
One reason this is such a strong fantasy with men is how it makes the power (phallus) inseparable from the man. It’s impossible to lose this power if it’s actually inside you and not reliant upon the mediation of the phallic signifier. Perhaps the single greatest example of losing the phallus (castration) is, of course, found in the biblical story of Samson. In this case, Samson’s hair is the phallic signifier that indicates the “substantial” phallus (the superhuman strength God has given him). However, the power is actually in the hair itself (just like the cop’s actual power is the badge/uniform). For Samson to lose his hair is for him to lose his (God’s) phallic power. Delilah, the castrating woman, seduces Samson into revealing the source of his power and, then, betrays him by letting his enemies cut his hair.
And it came to pass, when she pressed him daily with her words, and urged him, so that his soul was vexed unto death; That he told her all his heart, and said unto her, There hath not come a razor upon mine head; for I have been a Nazarite unto God from my mother’s womb: if I be shaven, then my strength will go from me, and I shall become weak, and be like any other man. And when Delilah saw that he had told her all his heart, she sent and called for the lords of the Philistines, saying, Come up this once, for he hath shewed me all his heart. Then the lords of the Philistines came up unto her, and brought money in their hand. And she made him sleep upon her knees; and she called for a man, and she caused him to shave off the seven locks of his head; and she began to afflict him, and his strength went from him.
(Judges 16: 16–19)
This image of the seductress that brings about a man’s castration is a nightmarish figure to many men. I think this is because of how the image itself reveals that they are always-already lacking. If you can lose your power, then you don’t really have it in the fullest sense of the word.
Another example from the MCU is Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet. The actual phallic power (substantial phallus) is in the Infinity Stones in the Infinity Gauntlet. The six Stones each have their own power, but to be united they must be anchored by something else. The power really lies in how the Gauntlet, phallic signifier, quilts the Stones like the point de capiton. The bearer qua person does not immediately possess the power; he or she only has it so long has they actually bear the phallus. The Infinity Gauntlet actually does contain what we would call the Real phallus, the substantial power to do anything you want. However, the power, again, is in the Gauntlet itself and not in Thanos. The reason why its so great to see Ironman trick Thanos and steal the Infinity Stones from him is because there is an immediate loss of phallic power. Ironman forces Thanos to face his lack, his fundamental castration.
The tale of two phalluses: On an early episode of The Big Bang Theory, there is a battle between two phallic signifiers. At Penny’s Halloween party, Leonard gets into a confrontation with Kurt, Penny’s muscle-bound boyfriend. The boyfriend tries to castrate Leonard, expose his lack, through typical tough guy bullshit (physical intimidation). Leonard, however, responds by attempting to castrate the other guy by showing his lack (revealing how stupid and caveman-like he is). For the boyfriend, the phallic signifier is his physical strength, and, for Leonard, the phallic signifier is his intelligence. The two phallic signifiers indicates two variations on the substantial phallus (the former indicates the power to master the natural environment while the latter indicates power over the cultural one). This is a classic trope. We’ve seen this in Saved By the Bell with Screech and in The Revenge of the Nerds. Men desire the phallus only because women desire it — desire is the desire of the Other. Penny desires the phallus, so the two guys fight over who truly has it.
Typical male bounding in its truest form is when men enter into an agreement to share their lacks with one another while promising to simulate their absence when in the presence of other people. “I lack and you know what I lack. You lack and I know what you lack. We don’t have to pretend to be The Man when we are together. We can let the truth of our lacks show. But here’s the catch: we will both go to great lengths to conceal each other’s lack when in the person of other people.” This is the essential function of a “wingman”. A guy’s best friend is the one who knows of his lack and actively helps him cover it in the eyes of other people (especially women). They both aid in the simulation of the other’s “phallacy” with the full knowledge of its absence. True male bonding doesn’t occur simply through helping to simulate the other’s phallacy. No. There must be a confession of lack involved. Men are only ever true friends when they can trust each other with the “secret” of their lack. There is a symbolic exchange (Baudrillard) of an empty gesture (Žižek), that is, they give each other the gifts of their own lacks (nothingnesses). Because both men acknowledged each other’s lack, they move outside of the Imaginary dynamic of mirroring that occurs between egos — they embrace the Real lack in the Other. Yet they become guilty of a collusion insofar as they simulate each other’s phallic being in front of other people. This collusion makes them both guilty and this shared “crime” seals the bond. This collaborative simulation, this double deception, forges the bond of their friendship (mutual recognition via shared transgression).
Let’s now turn to an example from the world of pro-wrestling. The WWE, formerly the WWF, has long had extreme sexism operative in its storylines (known as “angles” in the industry). In no period was this more so than in the “Attitude Era” (1997–2002). The women, for example, had to compete in bra-and-panty matches and that’s far from the worst of the sexism that occurred. They were never permitted to become real pro-wrestlers, that is, talented in-ring performers with developed characters and interesting angles. Anyway, starting in 2015, WWE decided to let the women wrestlers have a serious and major role in the programming (they first branded this shift as the “Divas Revolution” and, then, as the “Women’s Evolution). This leads us to Becky Lynch who, for the last couple of years, has been the biggest draw (most popular wrestler) in the company.
Here’s what’s relevant to our discussion of the phallus. Becky Lynch calls herself The Man. In this case, “The Man” actually functions as the phallic signifier. Becky has the power precisely because she has donned the term that designates the position of the most powerful man in the WWE. It’s this signifier itself that indicates her phallic power. To the best of my knowledge, Ric Flair established “The Man” as the signifier of the top man in wrestling when he famously said in a promo, “To be the Man, you gotta to beat the Man”. At one time or another, the phallic position was occupied by Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, The Ultimate Warrior, Ric Flair, The Undertaker, Yokozuna, Bret “Hitman” Hart, Diesel, Shawn Michaels, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Brock Lesnar, Triple H, Chris Jericho, John Cena, Randy Orton, CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, etc.
By donning the signifier “The Man”, Becky Lynch is signifying that she, as a woman, has the power all of these men have had. But not just that. She has more power than all of them combined precisely because she has this power while being a woman. It’s like how Wonder Woman, by being a woman, appears to have a surplus of phallic power that Superman, Batman, and the rest of them, cannot possess (it’s as if both Wonder Woman and Becky Lynch had to have an extra power that enabled them as woman to attain the phallic power men “have”). It’s worth noting that Becky never presents herself in an objectifying or hyper-sexualizing manner. She is a woman who has the phallus, who is the super-subject — not an object. Becky never tries to be the phallus — she has it. Becky’s relation to the phallus is what has made her in-ring presence so enjoyable, so captivating. On the one hand, it’s exhilarating to she a woman occupy the phallic position prohibited to her by patriarchy, but on the other, it also serves to keep us invested in the logic of the phallus, in the phallus’ game, in the phallus itself, which is exactly what we need to combat. (It’s also worth noting that we cannot imagine Stone Cold Steve Austin, for example, ever calling himself The Woman — it makes no sense when reversed.)
We actually find the dynamics of the “game” of the phallus described in Kenny Loggins’ song ‘Playing with the Boys’. Let’s read through some of the lyrics:
Said it was the wrong thing
For me to do
I said it’s just a boys’ game
But girls play too
My heart is working overtime
In this kind of game
People get hurt
I’m thinking that the people is me
If you wanna find me I’ll be
Playing, playing with the boys
Staying, playing with the boys
“Playing with the boys” can be taken to mean “playing the game of the phallus” (competing for the phallic position) and it’s the “wrong thing for me to do”, since I end up hurting myself and others in my pursuit of the phallus. “Girls play too” insofar as there’s only one game to play, that is, there’s only the phallic Symbolic order. Women get caught up in the dominant masculine “logic”, desire and fantasy the phallus imposes on them. “My heart is working overtime time”, i.e., it take’s a lot of effort to try to be The Man and to maintain the phallic simulation/imposture once achieved. “People get hurt”: men and women literally get killed over the phallus. The phallus can cause violent outbursts, domestic abuse, suicide, etc. “I’m thinking that the people is me”: here, the man admits that he himself is hurt by “playing with the boys” — men torture themselves over this game. He, then, immediately goes right back to “playing with the boys (the phallus game). Why? Because the Exception, the position of the primal father, fundamentally shapes his fantasy, desire and subjectivity. There’s seems to be no escape. He’s staying with the game of the phallus — no other options exist for him.
In the ’90s, women rappers faced a big problem in hip hop. They all had to have a very phallic disposition. Da Brat, The Lady of Rage, Lil Kim, Foxy Brown, Trina, etc., all had phallic desires, drives, sexualities, etc. Some dressed like men and others dressed very feminine, but they all acted phallically. They had to rap like the boys, fuck like the boys, desire like the boys, be the “Boss” like the boys, etc. I’m not saying they should feel ashamed of this if this is truly what they wanted to do, but the music industry itself was problematic for limiting the scope of the images women rappers could have at the time. Eve went back and forth with it, but Lauren Hill was the noticeable exception to this and you have to wonder, just maybe, if that has something to do with her being considered the greatest female MC of all time by so many serious rap fans. Traditional feminine traits were off the table for women rappers in the ’90s, e.g., sensitivity, tenderness, softness, compassion, etc. And this is still true with Nicki Minaj and Cardi B. It’s also interesting that Tupac is regarded as the greatest rapper (or one of the greatest) ever and he could be incredibly tender and vulnerable. Think, for example, of songs like ‘Brenda’s Got a Baby’, ‘Keep Ya Head Up’ and ‘Dear Mama’. Pac would actually share his lack, at times, with his listeners, while, at other times, he would be as phallic as possible.
Moving on. There’s a strange relation between having the phallus and unattractiveness. Guys who are unattractive can actually appear more phallic than attractive ones (pretty boys like Brad Pitt). James Gandolfini, the actor who famously played Tony Soprano on The Sopranos, was overweight and balding but still became a sex symbols during the height of the show’s popularity. Tony was a very phallic character who did not fit the standard image of masculine attractiveness but simultaneously carried himself with extreme confidence. The combination of a certain unattractiveness and strong confidence serves as a very powerful phallic signifier. “He’s not that good-looking but still exudes confidence! He must have it!” And the “it” here can be money, criminal power, good in bed, etc., but it works all the more effectively while remaining indeterminate. We find another good example in ’90s hip hop. The Notorious B.I.G., like James Gandolfini, was also an unlikely sex symbol but nevertheless became one. Biggie was heavyset and had a lazy eye but was loved by women. I mean, they called him “Big Poppa” for a reason. This is all perfectly summed up by Biggie in the remix of ‘One More Chance’:
Heart-throb? Never! Black and ugly as ever!
However, I stay Coogi down to the socks.
Rings and watch filled with rocks.
And my jam knock in your Mitsubishi.
Girls pee-pee when they see me.
Navajos creep me in they teepee.
As I lay down laws like Alan Kopit.
Stop it — if you think they gonna make a profit.
Don’t see my ones, don’t see my guns — get it?
Now tell ya friends Poppa hit it, then split it.
Biggie’s acknowledgement of his lack (unattractiveness), “Heart-throb? Never! Black and ugly as ever!”, and his immediate assertion of his success and confidence, actually serves a phallic signifier. “I’m so phallic that I can admit my own lack.” The fact that he can acknowledge it and still be confident indicates that he actually has more phallic power than pretty boys do. I want to draw your attention to the fact that he goes on to describe the phallic figure: he possesses all of the coolest belongings: “However, I stay Coogi down to the socks. Rings and watch filled with rocks. And my jam knock in your Mitsubishi.” He, then, states how he gets all the women: “Girls pee-pee when they see me. Navajos creep me in they teepee.” Next, he establishes himself as the lawgiver and the violence one will suffer for breaking his law: “As I lay down laws like Alan Kopit. Stop it — if you think they gonna make a profit. Don’t see my ones, don’t see my guns — get it?” Finally, he concludes by affirming the the power of his phallus: “Now tell ya friends Poppa hit it, then split it.”
A great example of the neutralization of the phallus is found in the classic scene of The Silence of the Lambs where Hannibal Lector and Clarice Starling meet for the very first time. Hannibal possesses a “high-powered perception” and uses it to psychologically toy with Clarice by accurately describing and summarizing her whole life history and the idiosyncrasies of her desire while just having met her two minutes beforehand. This is utterly humiliating because it suggests that you are so simple and so transparent that processing your entire life is as easy as understanding 1 + 1 = 2. There’s no doubt that Hannibal is brilliant and has an incredibly powerful skill, but this does not mean that he, in fact, has the mythic phallus. However, the display of his remarkable talent is his phallic signifier, it’s what he uses to signify to Clarice that he has all the power in the situation. She is clearly taken aback by what he is capable of doing, but, then, responds in the most perfect way imaginable. She fully acknowledges his actual psychological power but, then, asks Hannibal if he is strong enough to use this razor-sharp discernment on himself. She follows this up with asking him if he’s afraid to engage in this serious sort of self-examination. Considering he’s a cannibalistic serial killer with total disregard for other human beings (despite his love of politeness), you’d think that he’d use this analytic skill to dissect his own actions, desires, drives, shortcomings, etc., but Clarice’s question visibly upsets him. He was not expecting such a keen and clever response. In truth, he is afraid to analyze his own desire with such piercing scrutiny.
With that single question, she revealed his lack, his castration, his weakness, and, therefore, undermined his phallic power. Hannibal never had the strength and courage to analyze himself and is now forced to take a more defensive and violent approach with his rhetorical comeback. This is where he says his famous line: “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” While this is hauntingly disturbing, the simple fact that he had to resort to this brutal comment discloses that he was compensating for the lack in himself which Clarice had exposed and made him feel deep inside. This was his last-ditch effort to conceal his lack and prove that he has the phallus. Despite this shocking statement and its unnerving effect on Clarice, she still won. She neutralized (castrated) his weaponized phallus. Trying to prove you have the phallus is how you disprove it. Hannibal’s failure to realize this profound truth about the phallus is just another one of his lacks.
Next, I want to discuss this important aspect of the phallus. The phallus must be veiled! In other words, the “substantial” phallus can only work when it remains unactualized, concealed, unexposed, out of sight, merely alluded to, etc. The phallus only works when unworked. Why? Because there is no “substantial” phallus, no superpower, to brandish. It doesn’t really exist and that’s why it can only maintain its effectivity in its absence. However, the Symbolic phallus must also remain veiled in a certain sense. The mechanism comprised of both phallic “power” (Imaginary phallus) and its signifier (Symbolic phallus) must remain veiled. If the workings of the phallus become registered at the conscious level, then they cease to function. They only work while unconscious or preconscious. To bring the simulatory structure of the phallus to the light of consciousness is to throw a monkey-wrench into its gears. This is what makes the masculine position that of an imposture. As McGowan says, “Furthermore, as Lacan’s analysis shows, the privilege of the phallus is illusory. If the phallus is just a signifier, its status is that of an imposter, and its bearer must have recourse to imposture in order to take on the position the phallus. If the phallus is ever forced to show itself, its imposture would become evident for everyone to see, which is why it can only play its role as the privileged signifier while veiled” (‘The Signification of the Phallus’, Reading Lacan’s Écrits, p. 2).
In Heideggerian terms, the phallus (phallic signifier) must remain withdrawn in order to be ready-to-hand (usable, effective, instrumental). The moment that its bearer makes it present-at-hand it becomes unready-to-hand. The phallus only impacts us when the bearer makes nothing of it. The second he attempts to prove that it has it, he has already lost it. If he says something like, “Hey, I’m the fucking man! I’m tough as fuck! I’ll beat your ass! I’ll fuck you up, bro!”, then the simulation is destroyed and he appears to us in all his castration (weakness, impotence, lack of the phallus). The phallus is always a bluff. If it truly had the power it seems to have, then its bearer would never have to explode in violent outbursts. Violence is not the manifestation of phallic power, but, rather, the last attempt to preserve its simulation. The bully beats up kids to simulate phallic power, that is, to cover over its absence (insecurity, weakness, vulnerability, i.e., lack). Men literally are willing to kill and be killed over nothing. Having to prove that you have the phallus is ironically how you prove that you do not have it. Women always say that “confidence” is the most attractive trait in a man. Well, all this refers to is a man who operates with total certainty and assurance that he, in fact, has the phallus — he has nothing to prove. Confidence means acting as though you have the phallus whether or not anyone recognizes that you have it (of course, this still depends on the Other). When it comes to the phallus, proof is disproof. Proving the phallus is disproving the phallus. Check out how Žižek describes the phallus and its necessary virtuality:
The supreme example of symbolic virtuality, of course, is that of (the psychoanalytic notion of) castration: the feature which distinguishes symbolic castration from the ‘real’ kind is precisely its virtual character. That is to say: Freud’s notion of castration anxiety has any meaning at all only if we suppose that the threat of castration (the prospect of castration, the ‘virtual’ castration) already produces real ‘castrating’ effects. This actuality of the virtual, which defines symbolic castration as opposed to the ‘real’ kind, has to be connected to the basic paradox of power, which is that symbolic power is by definition virtual, power-in-reserve, the threat of its full use which never actually occurs (when a father loses his temper and explodes, this is by definition a sign of his impotence, painful as it may be). The consequence of this conflation of actual with virtual is a kind of transubstantiation: every actual activity appears as a ‘form of appearance’ of another ‘invisible’ power whose status is purely virtual — the ‘real’ penis turns into the form of appearance of (the virtual) phallus, and so on. That is the paradox of castration: whatever I do in reality, with my ‘real’ penis, is just redoubling, following as a shadow, another virtual penis whose existence is purely symbolic — that is, phallus as a signifier. Let us recall the example of a judge who, in ‘real life’, is a weak and corrupt person, but the moment he puts on the insignia of his symbolic mandate, it is the big Other of the symbolic institution which is speaking through him: without the prosthesis of his symbolic title, his ‘real power’ would instantly disintegrate. And Lacan’s point apropos of the phallus as signifier is that the same ‘institutional’ logic is at work already in the most intimate domain of male sexuality: just as a judge needs his symbolic crutches, his insignia, in order to exert his authority, a man needs a reference to the absent-virtual Phallus if his penis is to exert its potency.
(The Plague of Fantasies, pp. 193–4)
Let’s take a look at the “phallic” bully and his attempt to expose someone else’s lack. What turns a woman off is when a guy (Man 1) is trying to expose the lack/castration in another guy (Man 2). Or when a guy tries to expose lack in general (this action itself is a turn off). In trying to expose another’s lack, the guy is trying to conceal his own lack and prove he “has the power”. This action is his “Symbolic phallus”, i.e., the indicator of his masculine power (superiority, authority), etc. In doing this, he is making the phallus highly conscious to all those involved. This is precisely what highlights his own lack and this is why the figure of the bully is so humorous. The irony is that the very action (signifier) he’s using to indicate his “substantial” masculinity is precisely what reveals its absence. The guy is a joke precisely because he doesn’t get how he is making himself into a joke. In trying to prove his exceptional status, he proves just how unexceptional he really is.
This situation is a movie trope. You have a bad guy (Man 1) who’s an asshole and a bully, a typical ’80s goon, and he starts picking on a different guy (Man 2) who’s usually less aggressive, less physically intimidating and more effeminate. This bullying turns the woman off who it’s intended to impress (unless she’s a goon, too), so Man 1 amps up his humiliation of Man 2 as this increase will sufficiently “prove” that he has the phallus. Hilarious! There is an inverse ratio at work here that he’s too stupid to see: the more he tries to prove that he has the phallus by showing the lack in the other guy, the more the woman is repulsed by his own lack. It totally decreases her attraction to him but he keeps it going. But, then, a third guy (Man 3) steps in and puts an end to the bullying. What’s happening here? Man 3 steps in and puts an end to Man 1 attempting to have the phallus by exposing the lack in Man 2. As it turns out, Man 3, by stopping the bullying, is precisely the one who ends up seeming to have the phallus. The effortlessness with which he neutralizes the bully is what makes it seem as though he really has the phallus.
This is why Lacan says that the phallus must remain veiled in order to be effective. Man 3 is not trying to show his own phallus, but simply trying to conceal the lack in Man 2 that Man 1 is highlighting. Man 3 exposes the lack in Man 1, but not because he (Man 3) is trying to prove that he has the phallus. He shows that he “has” the phallus by having the power to stop Man 1 from exposing the lack in Man 2. For men to appear as though they have the phallus, they actually have to respect one another. Not being threatened by another man often functions as the Symbolic phallus, that is, men who allow the simulation of masculinity to function for other men indicate that they have the true phallus. The guy who breaks the cooperative simulation among men is precisely the one with the biggest lack. The man who truly has the phallus is the one who helps other men appear to have the phallus. The woman is attracted to Man 3 because he’s doing what’s he’s doing to cover the lack in Man 2 and not the lack in himself (like Man 1 does). This gesture indicates having the phallus. Why? Because Man 3 is basically indicating that he has a surplus of masculinity. He has so much that he can share it with Man 2 in order to provide him with the appearance of respectable masculinity. It’s in sharing his “surplus” of the phallus (power, virility, etc.) that he truly signifies that he has the phallus. The sharing itself is the phallic signifier that indicates the phallic “substance” and it never tries to highlight itself — that’s why it works so well. Man 3 never wants credit for helping Man 2. He always tries to get people to stop applauding and cheering for him. He veils the phallus, he attempts to not have it be conspicuous, and this is what makes him seem to have it. In other words, the “true” bearer of the phallus helps to conceal the lack in other men (this indicates a surplus of the phallic “substance”) and never tries to cover his own lack by exposing theirs. When the real tough guy (Man 3) puts the bully in his place by explicitly showing his lack and thereby showing he lacks more than the guy he’s bullying, women are immediately attracted to him. “Now, there’s a real man!”
Here’s the important truth: none of these men actually have the phallus! There is no super-masculine substance that a man can literally possess. There is no phallus! Yes, some guys are physically stronger, better in a fight, faster, better in bed, have bigger penises, more intelligent, have more money, etc., than other men, but no one actually has a ontologico-substantial surplus of power and virility that separates him from all other men. There is no Exception (primal father) at the ontological level — only at the level of signifiers (indexes). There are only signifiers that simulate its reality through bogus indexicality. All three men in the situation are equally castrated at the ontological level of subjectivity. Masculinity is always a game of simulation. Some men are simply better at playing the game than others are. The way to have the phallus is to never attempt to prove that one has it. The King’s crown only works when it’s withdrawn. Imagine a King getting all mad, waiving his crown around and shouting, “I’m a King, goddamnit! Do you see this fucking crown? It means that I’m the fucking King! Treat me like The Man, you peasants! I have this crown!” This image is totally laughable. All the King accomplishes with this outburst is proving he’s not a true King. Lord Farquaad in Shrek also serves as a good example of this sort of thing. Not trying to prove one has the phallus is how one proves one has it. This shit is so weird. There is a certain artistry, skill or even craftsmanship involved in wielding the phallic signifier. One can be exceptionally talented at manipulating this phallic illusion or one can be embarrassingly bad at it. An example of a laughable attempt to wield the phallus is presented in Pineapple Express:
The simulation of the phallic “substance” is aided by the phallic signifier being a physical object. Why? Because the substantiality, the physical density, of the actual object simulates the same thing in the “substantial” phallus. It’s has if the “substantial” phallus borrows the substantiality of the actual object (phallic signifier). My own family history provides an example of this. Whenever my grandfather would punish my mom, aunt and uncle for misbehaving, he would be make them go outside and pick a switch (little branch) from off a tree. They’d take it to him and, then, he’d spank them with it. This was actually a very common thing back in the 1950s. Anyway, the density of the switch “indicated” the density of the phallic “power”. This also explains why phallic symbols are usually made of stone or metal. George Carling made the connection between military weaponry and the phallus:
The phallus occupies a privileged position when it comes to comedy. In fact, Lacan said, “”Comedy embraces, gathers and takes enjoyment from the relationship with an effect that has a fundamental relation to the signifying order, namely the appearance of this signified called the phallus.” (Seminar V: Formations of the Unconscious, p. 246). He’d say later, “This confirms what I told you was essential to the mainspring of comedy, which is always, in the end, a reference to the phallus” (Seminar: VIII: Transference, p. 94). In her book on comedy, Alenka Zupančič devotes many pages to the relation between comedy and phallus. She writes, “One could say that it is the destiny of the phallus in comedy that it can appear only as a comic object, that is to say, an object that materializes in itself the very contradictions of the Symbolic that produces it. Comedy thrives on these impasses as the very stuff of which the social fabric is made” (The Odd One In: On Comedy, p. 216). Now, it would take too long to unpack all of the connections between comedy and the phallus, but I want to point out one comedic example related to the phallic figure.
Jordan Peterson’s current illness is relevant here. When viewing Peterson as a fellow human being, I in no way find enjoyment in his suffering. Yes, I totally disagree with him philosophically, politically, etc., but I don’t like that he’s going through hard times. But he has also marketed himself, branded himself, as a phallic figure — a real man’s man. And it is funny to see him qua phallic figure in a state of such obvious lack. It’s humorously enjoyable to see the position of the phallic figure be conspicuously lacking precisely because the one who occupies this position is by definition the one who has no lack. If I make a gestalt shift between the two Petersons (Peterson-as-person and Peterson-as-phallic-figure), then the situation goes from unfunny to being quite laughable. Žižek says, “This is what the infamous “symbolic castration” means. Not “castration as symbolic, as just symbolically enacted” (in the sense in which we say that, when I am deprived of something, I am “symbolically castrated”), but the castration that occurs by the very fact of my being caught in the symbolic order, assuming a symbolic mandate. Castration is the very gap between what I immediately am and the symbolic mandate that confers on me this “authority.”” (Organs without Bodies, p. 87).
And here’s Žižek insight at play: the very fact that I can distinguish between the two Petersons in and of itself reveals his actual lack, that he, like the rest of us, is a castrated subject. The highlighting of the spilt itself, the split between his Symbolic persona and him as a flesh-and-blood human being, is what shows that he is just a human being. This split is proof that he is not The Man precisely because The Man (this mythologico-fantasmatic figure) is himself immediately identical to the substantial phallus, since he does not require a phallic signifier (Symbolic phallus) to indicate his power. He is immediately and fully this power itself — the substantial phallus personified. The Man has no split between his Symbolic position (one granted by possessing the phallic signifier) and his normal personhood — the two are identical in his case. In other words, you cannot separate the social positionality of The Man from who he actually is. His phallic essence is his exceptional social position. This is why it’s so funny to see an actual man fail to live up to the image of The Man. The slightest glimpse of a man’s lack is hilarious when he is doing everything he can to appear lackless. I guess you just can’t 12-rule your way to truly being The Man who can turn all of life’s Chaos into his little bitch. In the words of Kendrick Lamar, “Be humble.”
This leads me to the last series of connections I want to make concerning the phallus. We need to conclude by briefly examining how the phallus functions in ideology and politics. Starting with The Sublime Object of Ideology, Žižek has always emphasized the role of jouissance in politics — enjoyment as a political factor. For example, the phenomenon of scapegoating an ethnic minority has everything to do with the way their relation to jouissance (objet petit a) is perceived. Whenever things are going bad in a society, whenever a multitude of structural problems are destabilizing the social order, people often find a specific group to blame for all the troubles of the moment. The scapegoat group is either viewed as having stolen everyone else’s jouissance or as having access to some extreme form of it that the rest do not have. What tends to happen in these situations is the reassertion of the master in the shape of authoritarian political figures. In other words, when capitalism enters into a crises we see fascism kick in like clockwork. Capitalism will utilize fascistic strategies such as racism and scapegoating precisely to conceal the structural contradictions intrinsic to the capitalist order that actually caused the social crisis. As the saying goes, fascism is capitalism in decay.
How does the phallus relate to this scenario? People become libidinally invested in the master because he has the “power” to restore things to their former glory, that is, he can take back the jouissance the scapegoat group has “stolen”. This is how the phallus relates to objet petit a: the phallic master is the one who can step in, overpower the scapegoat group and take the jouissance back. This, of course, is why Trump became so popular with so many Americans. But just like the primal father, there is great ambivalence towards Trump. You either love him or hate him. You either see him as the one who can Make America Great Again (restore the jouissance white people feel has been stolen from them by minorities) or you see him as the one who is going to steal your jouissance from you (make America even worse than it already is). If you identify with him, then it is a fundamental identification and the same goes with a disidentification with him. Libidinally speaking, there is a sharp parallax or gestalt shift when it comes to Trump as phallic figure. You either see him as an incredibly powerful and capable super-subject or you see him in all his utter lack/castration (his stupidity, immaturity, dishonesty, corruption, inexperience, etc.).
And what is Trump’s Symbolic phallus? His phallic signifier? There are different signifiers we could see as fulfilling this function, but I think the primary one is his enjoyment in transgressing the Law of the “libtards” (the ones who “stole” the Trumpers’ enjoyment). This is his phallic signifier, the index of his “power” (“substantial” phallus). He says and does things that are totally forbidden by the liberals and, still, he gets away with it — this indicates his “power”. The main attraction to Trump is his perceived power to hurt those who have hurt white Americans. It actually doesn’t matter if he ends up hurting whites so long as he hurts the minorities even more. In fact, the whites can even enjoy further hardship (loss of jouissance and pleasure) so long as Trump makes life even harder for the scapegoat groups. I’m reminded of one of Žižek’s jokes, the one about “the simple lesson of a tale about a Slovene peasant who is told by a good witch: ‘I will do to you whatever you want, but I warn you, I will do it to your neighbour twice!’ The peasant thinks fast, then smiles a cunning smile and tells her: ‘Take one of my eyes!’”(How to Read Lacan, p. 36).
In his Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Freud presented his concept of the einziger Zug, which Lacanians call the “unary trait”. For Freud, a group is held together through identifying with this single binding element. In the case of Trumpers, the unary trait they base their identities on is the his phallic signifier. This means that each time he transgresses the liberal Law he also reaffirms his supporter’s shared identity. This is the point at which identity, power and jouissance intermix. Trump’s supporters also want to be phallic figures in the image of Trump. Their identification with him enables them to share in his power and jouissance. In Lacanian terms, this all appeals to the ego (Imaginary) due to how the phallus “promises” to make one whole and complete. It “guarantees” that your desire will be satisfied, jouissance will be restored and national identity will be full. And, of course, this is all ideological bullshit. This entire dynamic is a simulation. The phallic figure does not have the power. There is no mythological jouissance to be restored. Identity can never be perfected. This is an ideological fantasy that conceals the structural antagonisms built into capitalism itself. The fascistic constellation of the “theft” of jouissance, the “power” of the phallus and the “glory” of national identity is ideology at its worst.
To conclude, colloquially speaking, none of us call the Symbolic-”substantial” phallus the “phallus”. We know when we’re in its presence, but we cannot explicitly state what’s going on. This post has been the attempt to turn the indexical phallus into a Peircean symbol, that is, I’ve tried to theoretically interpret the phallus qua index in a way that enables us to turn it into a symbol (attach a conventional signified/concept to it). The symbolization (becoming-symbol) of the phallus is precisely what helps us to demystify it. We now have a very clear and distinct concept of the phallus. I hope to develop this post into an actual book. What I’ve presented here is just 1/3 of what I’ve written on the phallus. There is still so much more to say about it and how it effects our lives at the most elementary level. I want to expand on what I’ve already said about it and explore how it relates to the four discourses, Lacan’s later theory of sexuation, etc. Anyway, I hope this has been of some help.