Philosophy Hammer
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36: Jacques Lacan part IV:
The Phallus and its Function in Human Relations

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         Human Relations
         People act in the world. Psychologically all our actions have imaginary, symbolic and real meanings. The imaginary meanings constitute what someone's ego has convince the subject to believe or imagine as the truth of what has happened. Imaginary meanings are personal meanings. Symbolic meanings build on the imaginary meanings by adding the meanings that come with the common shared culture of the subject's linguistic group. Finally this structure of meaning develops emphases that help protect the person from the trauma of the real. The phallus function and the castration complex are two of these emphasized meanings that have a special and pervasive significance for human relations (Q1).
         The Phallus and its Function
         The phallus is a signifier of apparently veiled power or movement but in actuality at a deeper level it is a signifier of the veiled desire of the other. Recall from part 1 that for Lacan signifiers speak to other signifiers through the medium of people; or in other words: it is words that use people; not people who use words (Q2).
         The signifier of the phallus communicates signification through two plays of language (through two rhetorical devices): metonymy (a thing or concept that is not called by its own name, but by the name of something intimately associated with that thing or concept) and metaphor (understanding one thing or concept in terms of another seemingly unrelated thing or concept) this is the source of puns, equivocation, innuendo and double entendre (Q3).
         The phallus is not a fantasy or an effect or an object or an organ; but anything can become invested with the phallus function though the processes of metonymy and/or metaphor. Thus a car can be phallic if at one level it is invested with signifiers of power and movement and at a deeper level it is invested with the desire of the other. (Note: if my car is embarrassing to me or not working properly and/or I do not seek the other's desire through it, then it may be part of my castration complex or unrelated to human relations.)
         The phallus' opposite is called castration. The unconscious castration complex functions as a knot: tying up or repressing the ideal movement/power/desire of the castrated subject. The mutual ebb and flow of the phallus function and the castration complex structures almost all the relations between the sexes.
         The Phallus and Human Relations
         Most human relations, desires, and fantasies revolve and can be explained around two concepts: BEING the phallus and HAVING the phallus.
         When we are born we identify our motherer with the phallus (the phallic mother); she has all the power over our sensations both pain and pleasure. We begin our life experiences as castrated subjects. This is recognized later in life as an ideal and simple time for which we all fantasize: to be loved and taken care of unconditionally (Q4).
         As we get older we discover that our motherer is not satisfied with us alone. There are others who take her away from us (for example: spouse, work, other siblings etc). We discover this when our demand for love is frustrated. We then turn our demand for the motherer's signs of love into desire for the motherer love. Our first desire is usually to be the phallus of the motherer: that is her source of jouissance: her desire.
         As we get older we discover that sometimes things are expected of us; that others demand or desire something from us: that we have the power to please: that we have the phallus. Many people can remember a successful childhood negotiation: having had and used the phallus; having gotten someone's desire and control over its satisfaction through ones own actions.
         In the course of our lives we play roles in which we seek our idealized love; our first fantasy: to be loved unconditionally. We seek out objects and tasks that have in the past proved more useful in having or being the phallus (in getting others to desire us). Since people want to have the other's desires lovers often become interested in the interests of their beloved (Q5).
         Gender Roles in Being and Having the Phallus
         In Lacan's experience women prefer to BE the phallus. And so stereotypical female behavior is seen as BEING the phallus. Men prefer to HAVE the phallus and stereotypical male behavior is indicative of HAVING the phallus. However gender specific stereotypical behavior is really human behavior. If, for example, it is true that women are more submissive than men it is because a majority of women have succeeded in finding the desire of others with a 'being the phallus' social strategy. But in all cases both men and women behave both as 'being the phallus' and as 'having the phallus' depending on the situation (Q6). Lacan seems to suggest that there is a biological influence to the creation of stereotypes but not a biological determination; therefore stereotypes can change over time and between cultures (Q7).
         Games of Seduction
         A great deal of human relations are games of seduction in which two phallus holders (usually a man who thinks he has the phallus and a woman who thinks she is a phallus) compete to take away the other's phallus (Q8). Seduction is a game in which one person issues a challenge and tries to castrate (tries to take the phallus of) the other through a joke, action, comment or innuendo. The target of the seduction must choose one of two courses of actions: 1) be castrated; lose the phallus – that is: fold and end the game or 2) raise the stakes – that is issue a counter challenge and keep the phallus (Q9).Each player try to castrate the other but actual wants to be castrated after the stakes have been raised to a level in which their goal has been achieved. Thus in a sexual game of seduction most men are happy to end the game (that is be castrated by the woman) after their orgasm.
         Q1 Is it conceivable that something can have a pervasive influence on human behavior? Some philosophers have believed that all human motivation can be reduced to one basic motivation (power, affirmation, glory etc.) others believe that there is a plurality of basic motivations and it is their mutual interaction that determines human relations. Which do you believe and why?
         Q2 There is a sense in which we do not consciously choose our words: normal everyday speech is fast and unconscious; we slow down significantly when we are consciously searching for the right words. In this sense the phallus as a signifier controls and uses us. When you have something to say, how often do you think through and chose the words you use? If our common everyday speech is not well thought out, is Lacan's claim that signifiers use people to communicate to other signifiers more believable?
         Q3 Language is supposed to communicate but we have devised intricate ways of turning lies into truth and truth into deception. “Saddam Hussein attack Kuwait in 1990.” this is a technically a false sentence but we all understand it as true thanks to metonymy. “Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?” We know there are not any real similarities between people and summer days but thanks to metaphor we understand that it is romantic. Do we as a species prefer lies; or do we prefer indeterminacy; or what do we prefer? Have we grown to accept untruth more readily than truth: Did Bill Clinton really have sex with Monica Lewinsky?
         Q4 Do you accept the notion of a castration complex? If so are we born in to it? If not what else?
         Q5 What do you understand as the difference between 'being the phallus' and 'having the phallus'?
         Q6 Some gender stereotypes: 1) Women can't drive, park or figure out how to read a map; 2) Men are slobs; 3) Women can't stop talking; 4) men can't multitask. Can you imagine how Being the phallus or having the phallus can explain these behaviors? Do these explanations sound convincing or unconvincing?
         Q7 Evolutionary biology claims that sperm production is cheap for a man and egg production is expensive for a woman therefore men will try to 'spread their seed' and women will try to catch and lock up her man. I believe Lacan would have thought this theory (to explain male proclivity to cheat and female proclivity to stay home) to be laughable because it is founded on biological determinism. Lacan's theory is based on psychological desire: one cheats because one HAS the phallus (the signifier of the other's desire). Which theory is more believable and why? Do you believe gender stereotypes are true; do you believe: Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus?
         Q8 Men (who have the phallus) are more likely to say “I'll show you ___”; women (who are the phallus) are more likely to say: “Oh yah, well then show me ______.” (– a counter challenge to put up or shut up). As stereotypical phrases that issue a challenge and then a counter challenge can you imagine several more? Where does the raising of stakes end?
         Q9 How many seduction do you start or end in a day? Lacan would say quite a lot – Yes or No?

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