The Impenetrable Power of the Phallic Matron
(Published in Libération, September 25, 2008)
For Better or for Worse
The twenty-first century will be a century for women : for better or for worse ? The third wave of feminism, in the wake of May 68 (after the combat of suffragettes and Simone de Beauvoir), is taking on a veritable anthropological revolution, which begs the question as to whether the mothers of humanity have a singular, different brand of genius. Might they make a specific contribution to civilization in the realm of writing, by inventing sexual and social bonds, or by establishing more direct forms of democracy etc.? What would become of our species if birth, freedom and the control of the society of the spectacle were in the hands of women? Libertarians are beginning to dream about this, while terrified by the prospect, obscurants, fundamentalists and Puritans are the first to be up in arms against the possibility. Economic and ecological crises, terrorism and the subprime disaster: a new freeze on social bonds and individual freedoms now goes hand in hand with the real advances of globalization. Women are not just submitting: brought to the foreground (proof that “feminism” is following its course), the new actresses of history are taking part in the dead-ends and failures, in the archaisms and stalemate situations that mark the current technico-political craze, and in our difficulty to move from a politics of management to a politics of civilization.
Is this because women, traditionally devoted to the survival of the species, find themselves more exposed to fundamental ethical dilemmas? Is this because the feminist break-through more or less neglected the weight of unconscious desires and biological constraints, considered archaic and conservative? Is it because we believed secularization could resolve psycho-social conflicts by settling for democratizing legislation and institutions, while reducing “culture” to a decorative fetish, moving away from ethics to the point of forgetting it, and compromising ourselves with political “management” and its tendency toward corruption?
The fact remains that by aiming the projectors on women emerging in all fields of social, political and cultural life, the social body in its entirety is confronted more radically than ever with fundamental, ethical and civilization related problems denied by this necessarily consensual “body,” and which the body and psyche of women, on the contrary, manifest in full light against the omnipresent backdrop of the empire of the spectacle.
Thus, when feminism goes into reverse, in a rush towards surrogate mothers, and when the unbridled desire to procreate at all cost is accompanied by the macabre series of frozen babies and “forgotten,” “abandoned,” or “abused” children, will we be able to see we are the only civilization that lacks a discourse on the maternal vocation? Modern psychoanalysis, in the wake of Freud and Winnicott, has conducted exemplary research on the precocious relationship between mother and child, thus completing the picture of the unavoidable “paternal function” problematic. But whose problem is it when excessive medical intervention affects “mental health?” Our scientific and medical knowledge is unable to come to the help of feminine distress effectively, a distress that can even lead to maternal madness, and which does not only affect marginalized women. The necessity « to have » a baby by way of an aided “immaculate conception” functions today as an anti-depressant like any other. And why not? But only on condition that its risks, advantages and consequences are elucidated.
In a symmetrical reversal, the sex war has triggered a deluge of memoires wherein the superwoman’s erotomania rivals the exploits of yesteryear’s Don Juan, before she resigns herself to suffer for the good of her rival, the other woman, this tireless maternal ghost who haunts poets and is the psychoanalysts’ windfall. And because the United States is still our third Rome, though we expect it to collapse beneath the weight of its own emptiness thanks to the irresistible growth of liberalized Confucianism, it comes as little surprise that the most marked symptom emerges from its presidential campaign. The Palin “phenomenon” puts women at the heart of the vote. Not because women are tempted to vote for or against one of their own and that all voters are going to choose or not, for the first time in the history of the country, a vice president of the opposite sex. But because the profile and the message of this Republican running mate incarnates a vision of civilization which, based on neo-conservative values, advocating traditional “good sense,” yet carried out by a modern, dynamic woman, clearly shows the dead-end of a certain America. And perhaps of the West more globally.
The Palin Symptom
Pretty, active, entrepreneurial, former model, telegenic, mother of a large family (including a Down’s syndrome child who she triumphantly exhibits, to shame those afraid of birth defects), Sarah Palin cuts taxes by aggressively exploiting Alaska’s gas and petrol reserves: what more can you ask for? Convinced that the Iraq War is “just” and ordained “by God’s will” and a ferocious proponent of the NRA, the formidable huntress joyfully sends her son to Iraq: if it happens that he loses his life, God forbid, the Lord will give her other sons! She asserts there is no global warming, sets helicopters out to shoot polar bears and other rare species, tries to prohibit the Wassila Public Library from carrying the works of Anthony Burgess, William Faulkner, Geoffrey Chaucer, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Arthur Miller, Boccaccio, John Steinbeck, J.K. Rowling (as a mom, I know what I’m talking about !), Mark Twain, D.H.Lawrence (Axis of evil?), William Golding, Aristophanes (now, who is that again ?), George Eliot and of course, Shakespeare (while we’re at it) – and threatens to fire the librarians if they don’t oblige!
Blogs and other feminist and Democrat sites are spilling forth facts, both exemplary and absurd, about the vice-presidential candidate who nevertheless continues to appeal to the average American; her pregnant high school daughter, her opposition to abortion for white, but not black women, because the white race is threatened with extinction; her opposition to sex education, to welfare, to maternity leave, to universal health coverage… Obama supporters have been quick to react. I’ve read their rebuttal, watched the funny clips. I approve of Gloria Steinem’s anger and the biting humor of Ellen Goodman aimed at the scourge of evangelical fundamentalism poisoning America and threatening to gain the head of state. And I leave my friends with a feeling of growing malaise: we are not up to par with the Palin symptom.
The social and juridical measures envisioned to counter it, as necessary as they are, not only risk to melt under the sun of foreseeable budgetary restrictions (the famous “French social model” itself is already reduced to une peau de chagrin) : by definition the “measures” blanket the anthropological and moral causes of the phenomenon. We are missing a political vision that integrates alternative ethical objectives capable of opposing security and identity obsessed conservatisms with a contemporary philosophy of sexual difference, reproduction, family, and freedom (including its risks); in short, a philosophy of individual and collective “well-being” which was once Aristotle’s preoccupation.
Is this too much to ask of an electoral campaign ? Of course. Is it too late? Obviously. But the exhibition of this fundamentalist management of femininity and maternity in the American presidential elections concerns all of us in the long run. Whether we see this as the banality of evil or a tragic caricature, can this strangulation of women’s liberation in a satirized conservatism protecting one identity to the detriment of others, favoring one community over others, in a context of aggravated insecurity, be reversed? Might it set off an alarm, and in this sense be considered a boon?
It might very well help us to see that the belonging to a “community of women,” or to any other form of supposedly providential community (the bourgeois, the proletariat, the third world…) does not grant freedom to any individual member of the group. For freedom conjugates in the singular, and a woman can contribute to its cause on condition that she appropriates her biological and social determinants in order to transcend them. It is a demanding and long-term adventure. The contradictions and aporia of feminism, up to the current evangelical backlash, insinuate that the cult of Woman will have only been a “trick of History” in the West. While shaking up the binary sexual system with the experience of new “recomposed” sexualities, this “trick” ends up also including women in the universality of the general interest. In our globalized context, this puts each woman to the test and asks her to question her thought, her language, her beliefs, her tendencies toward uniformity and absolutism, in an effort to respect diversity.
The innovative and courageous actions of numerous women belonging to diverse political parties – from Michelle Bachelet to Angela Merkel and Tsipi Livni, as well as France’s women politicians - whose realism and probity often restore the credibility of national and international debate, are up to this challenge. Various observers of Africa have recognized that the tradition and education of African women empower them to combat the corruption of the political class and to lead the way to sustainable development. In protest against the barbarity of the Taliban which few dare to contradict, Afghan women immolate themselves: why does it take us so long to heal their burns, to help the survivors find a better place for themselves? All the while, rebels like Taslima Nasreen and Ayan Hirsi Ali, who risk their lives to denounce Islamic fundamentalists, open the thorny path of the “second sex” in emerging countries under religious control.
This is to say that the Palin symptom and actions by women which point to the current malaise of civilization stem less from some “feminine essence” than from an hysterical crisis as destructive as it is salutary in the short term. With its borderline drifts of a maternal, sexual and divine All Powerfulness, this posture distorts the complex experience of the maternal by freezing it in the impenetrable power of the phallic mother, fantasized as a substitute prosthesis of weak, castrated males. But she is chosen, encouraged and valued as a counterweight to the flat techniques of politicians, to plaster the cracks of our ambient nihilism. And because “that” appeals to men and women lacking reference points, might it be a deep logic of the human condition that is thus revealing itself, a secret explosive that no “rights of man” risks confronting as such?
For this very reason, and although the Wall Street crash might overshadow – without really eradicating – the trouble caused by the “Palin phenomenon,” the United States resituates the historical stakes at the formidable intersection where politics meets religion. The challenge is to maintain the separation of these two universes, while questioning their entourage and how they interfere with one another. With Woman, the promised land of this crossing, we find ourselves in the heart of another current topic: the benefits and limits of secularization. The French Republic, which has long practiced a type secularism completely foreign to its American counterparts, seems paradoxically better positioned to confront the problem, for it has long admitted that there is one. While the United States, with its ubiquitous « In God we trust » on the Holy Dollar, doesn’t seem to think there is a problem at all. Before becoming “positive,” and without necessarily being “negative,” does not French style secularism offer a propitious terrain wherein the human sciences, psychoanalysis, feminist thought, and of course, arts and letters with their fabulous insolence, can uninhibitedly explore both the reassuring hold of the need to believe and the liberating attraction of the desire to know? This goes without saying in the country of Villon, Rabelais, Diderot, Colette, Proust, Bataille…
Am I moving away from women, the presidential campaign, current politics? Not really if we admit that in light of the mounting conservative arrogance likely to dig its claws into the summit of the world’s greatest power, a profound malaise of civilization is in the process of invading the planet on the eve of the American elections, differently and more surreptitiously than the financial crisis and the permanent threat of terrorism. And that the “American phenomenon” calls in turn for a micro-politics – at the interface of psychoanalysis and the history of religions – that neither economizes on sexual differences and dead-ends nor ignores the hold of beliefs on individuals and on the masses.
Rupture and Anamnesis
Faced with a loss of « values », and to avoid having to choose between those of the academic and those of the religious, in 2004, the Norwegian Parliament launched a new idea: as the human sciences are clarifying our mysteries today, and yet have been strangely overlooked by the Nobel committee, Norway has created the annual Holberg Prize to award “innovate work in all fields of the arts and humanities, the social sciences, law and theology.” Along with Jürgen Habermas (Germany), Shmuel N. Eisenstadt (Israel) and Ronald Dworkin (USA), I have had the honor of receiving this prize. Historian, theologian, and writer, often referred to as the “Nordic Molière,” Baron Ludwig Holberg (1684-1754) is considered the first feminist, as one of his characters, traveling to the center of the earth discovers Utopia, a country governed by women.
Today, this utopia is in the process of becoming a reality and women, more than ever, occupy the center of our globalized earth where politics meets theology. Yet because “nothing is more maligned in this netherworld than God and the eighteenth century” (Balzac), we are still awaiting the philosophical ambition laced with humor that enlivened The Enlightenment.
More radically than any other human science, psychoanalysis, playing close attention to the unconscious, allows us to think about transcendence as an alterity immanent to the human being, anchored in sexuality at the frontier of biology and meaning. On both sides of the Atlantic, different branches of feminist inspired philosophy continue to explore the specificity of the second sex, with the concern of questioning monotheist onto-theology. Neither a nihilistic denial of religious experiences which constitute our human patrimony, nor dogmatic adherents of absolute “Truths”, numerous, emergent philosophies are attentive to Nietzsche’s desire to punctuate thought with “a big question mark” casting a shadow of heavy seriousness. And it is perhaps not the least consequence of the American presidential elections to introduce these preoccupations in the political forum: not because the “unthought” dimension of the religious comes from an external terrorism, but because it explodes right at the heart of a supposedly dynamic, innovative, feminine, if not feminist, modernity.
Attentive to its Greek antecedents and its Jewish foundation, humanism long denied its conflicting ties with the Christian tradition. In order to keep this repressed content from returning and locking a fundamentalist liberalism into place on the political scene, and to keep it from tightening up into a reactive fundamentalism affecting people’s behavior, a new attitude is needed from now on. It is essential to recognize what we owe the religious continent including its philosophy, its ethics and its esthetics. Our break with it is its rebellious heir, and anamnesis is its duty. No other tradition has engendered the unheard of freedom claimed by European Enlightenment and the Rights of Man. Why? How? Let us stop complaining that civilizations are mortal, and desperately searching substitute interdictions and beliefs. The transvaluation of religions is an historiale task : let’s not be afraid to think it is an urgent one to undertake.
Examples ? Law (biblical) and love (Christic) instead of technical « deals » and murderous « oukazes » : the diffuse needs of spirituality call out for them. A baroque revolution of meaning and languages, a precursor to Enlightenment, can today offer a counterweight to Puritanical repression and its twin brother, the industry of hard-core sex. It is said there are no more reference points, that the world lacks Authority. What if there was no other Authority than to recognize the mortality at work in the speaking-subject – as does the Christic passion to the point of making God die, - and that Freud invites us to analyze by driving out the death instinct doubling as eroticism on which the fans of the media spectacle feed?
The need to believe – both a carrier net a strangling knot – is, to my understanding, both a pre-religious and pre-political anthropological necessity. “I believed and therefore I spoke” said Saint Paul quoting the psalms; and the analysts couch has taught me that this “believing wait” of the father, mother and child is the precondition for access to language and thought. I have discovered also that the illusion of eternal life can attenuate a fear of death and turn a Carmelite named Saint Teresa of Avila into a ecstatic writer who self-analyzed: « Look for yourself in me », the Eternal other was to have said to her – then into a “business woman” who shook up the politics of the Church. I hear that the Marian myth dresses the wounds of the sexual jungle, so that the brutality of rape is transformed into immaculate renaissance; and I notice, still on the couch, that the fable of the virginal conception denies fantasies of the primitive scene yet, by making the unbearable a mystery, prepares it for becoming analyzable. Present and past history teach me that the promise of absolute love lavished by an Ideal God the Father soothes the sadomasochistic rivalries of brothers…when it doesn’t sharpen them to death. And I question myself. Because secularization alone was able to “cut the course of tradition,” we can finally reflect on all traditions, without ecumenism, by putting them into perspective and hearing how they resonate. This is the advantage we have; our ambition is great.
As for Mrs. Palin, do I dare suggest she learn a few foreign languages, perhaps European tongues ? Does she know any? After the Second World War, the Jesuits of Georgetown University in Washington had foreseen a subtle response to counter any potential return to Totalitarianism: to teach young people as many foreign languages as possible. They then created the department of languages and comparative literature. Our fragile, improbable European Union with its twenty-five languages and the challenge of a translatable multilingualism is trying to create a new global inhabitant: the European citizen as a kaleidoscopic polyglot. And this experience of plural identity perhaps opens for us the only real alternative to the clashes between dogmatic certitudes: a plural identity. We are accused of lacking “meaning,” of having lost essential “ties.” Yet is not what makes sense today this diversity of singularities, when it resists being flattened by automation? And is not the famous “tie” the sharing and possible translatability of our diverse languages, sensibilities, histories, nations, sexualities and identities? Multilingualism being the laboratory of this shareable diversity, it is precisely here that I would seek to set down the foundations of a civilization and a secularization that can stand up to the clash of religious. When the governor of Alaska edges up to Europe, which, if it didn’t exist, would have to be invented…then…
The electoral psychodrama will have, for a time, ripped off the band-aid of managerial politics, to bring to the surface of the political debate fundamental telluric movements which condition the life and death of civilization. Before the maneuvers of the future winners bury them in the sand, let us try to shed light on these profound logics.
(Translated by Anne Marsella)
Latest published work : THERESE MON AMOUR, Fayard, 2008