by Chase Dimock
As I write, the French parliament is embroiled in a protracted debate over President François Hollande’s push to legalize gay marriage and adoption in France. The controversy regarding the bill has swept through French society and the regular cast of conservative political and cultural interests such as the Catholic Church and the xenophobic right-wing parties has emerged in demonstrations against it. Yet, one unlikely voice of support for the bill came out last month as Jacques-Alain Miller, representing the psychoanalytic community, authored an op-ed in Le Point titled, “Non, la psychanalyse n’est pas contre le mariage gay”. I say this is “unlikely” not because it would be unexpected for a psychoanalyst to support lgbt rights, but because it is uncommon for psychoanalysis to weigh in on current political issues. In this article, Miller (who is Jacques Lacan’s son-in-law and one of the most widely published analysts still active today) does not come out in explicit support of gay marriage, but instead lambastes the conservatives who have misrepresented and instrumentalized psychoanalytic research and theory in their campaign against gay marriage. As Miller promulgates, “we Psychoanalysts are obligated to declare that nothing in the Freudian experience will validate an anthropology that is authorized by the first chapter of Genesis.” (my translation)
While it is important in the context of the gay marriage debate for scholars to publicly dismantle the pseudo-scientific and unfounded sociological claims made by conservative interests, I find that Miller’s short, five paragraph article also makes a profound, if unintended, argument for how the basic concepts of psychoanalysis are congruent with research in Queer Theory. Miller’s article comes out against the abuses and misinterpretations of psychoanalytic concepts and practices that led the ill-informed to pathologize or inject moral approbation against homosexuality based on poor readings of Freud, Lacan, and other luminaries of psychoanalysis. Miller makes a bold statement against any kind of normative moralizing and instead stresses the fluidity of gender, sex, and desire as a guiding feature of psychoanalytic practice and research. The article serves a double purpose of both defending against socially regressive misuses of psychoanalysis and clarifying the basic concepts and practices for queer scholars and activists who have been mislead by pop-psychology or misinformed critics. Here, I have translated key elements of Miller’s text for an English-speaking audience because I believe his points brilliantly illustrate how psychoanalysis has granted me and other scholars of Queer Theory illuminating language and discourse for the study of queer identity and desire.
In his third paragraph, Miller explains that the gendered language of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis is metaphorical and not meant to cement specific gender roles based on sex:
If Jacques Lacan gave the Oedipal structure the form of a “paternal metaphor” involving the “Name of the Father”, the “desire of the mother”, and the phallus, this formalization was not meant to be an anthropological invariant. Its advances have led, on the contrary, to pluralize the function of name of the Father, then to relativize it, and finally turn it into a “sinthome” (an ancient form of the word “symptom”).
Regarding the gay marriage debate, Miller corrects those that would simplify the paternal metaphor of the oedpial structure and see it as evidence that a child must specifically have a heteronormative family with a female mother and a male father. Historically, this oversimplification of the oedipal structure has led some to assume that a “normal” family will produce “normal” children and that any disruption in the nuclear family dynamic would cause psychological damage. For example, in the 50s and 60s, some American psychologists performing studies under the name of “psychoanalysis” argued that an overbearing mother and a distant father (or sometimes an overly affectionate father) would lead to homosexuality. Miller dispels this notion, asserting that the terms “father” and “mother” in this usage are metaphorical and not tied to a specific gender or familial structure.
The Name of the Father does not correspond exclusively to the male, biological father of the child, but it can instead apply to any person or entity of any sex that has a position of authority over the subject and functions as the one that acculturates the child into acceptable behavior in society and regulates desire. The phallus has no correspondence to the anatomical penis, but it instead signifies a position of agency in the subject’s life, which is fluid, contextual, and can be held by (or simply be) anyone. For Miller, the job of the analyst is to pluralize and relativize the Name of the Father, meaning that they must help the subject understand who or what has that position of authority and what impact casting that entity as the law giver has on their pursuit of desire.
Further dispelling the idea of innate characteristics or roles for the sexes, Miller writes that relativizing the name of the Father,
is a basic concept. It guides us in our daily practice of psychoanalysis. At the level of the unconscious, unlike the imaginary conveyed by the mythologies and religions, the two sexes are in no way made for each other and are not bound by any originary complementarity; this expresses Lacan’s aphorism: “There is no such thing as a sexual relation.
Lacan’s famous aphorism has caused much confusion over the past several decades among scholars and (justifiably) befuddled readers. At it’s core, Lacan’s quote means that the concept that “male” and “female” are inherently or innately built for one another in a specific kind of relationship is a product of social construction. “Man”, “Woman”, “masculinity”, and “femininity” are products of the imaginary. They are culturally specific and are in a continual state of evolution as concepts. Therefore, the idea of natural complementarity between the sexes as an extension of the necessity of a biological male and female for sexual reproduction is a myth because what constitutes “man” and what constitutes “woman” is a product of culture and not innate essence. If man and woman are not inherently complimentary, then the claim that heterosexuality is optimal because it is “natural” and homosexuality is a mark of degeneracy because it is “unnatural” no longer has any merit. “There is no such thing as a sexual relation” means for Queer Theory that all sexual pairings are inherently “unnatural” regardless of the normality that social institutions grant them. Thus, psychoanalysis argues persuasively against the monolith of heteronormativity and its claim to natural superiority in the same terms as Queer Theory’s critique of all things “normal”.
In his final paragraph, Miller argues for the universal subjectivity of the individual’s desire by presenting the non-judgemental ethics of psychoanalysis:
It is up to each person to find ways of speaking of his desire, which are for each person twisted and marked with contingency and misadventures. Some people are aided by religious belief, for others it will simply happen: an analyst does not decide for them. However, the fact that the ideas and concepts from our practice are being called upon to give a moral backing to a debate that has stirred the nation required us to break the silence, to say stop to this misunderstanding.
It is the ethics of the psychoanalytic method that directs the tone of Miller’s intervention as not an endorsement of gay marriage, but as an interdiction against those who abuse psychoanalysis to campaign against it. It is not the analyst’s job to judge whether the individual’s thoughts and desires are “right” or “wrong” or dispense some Dr. Phil-esque commands on what they should do. Rather, it is the analyst’s job to help the individual navigate their relationships and desires through speech according to however the subject may conceive of them.
The only way to access the psyche of the individual is to proceed without judgment or moralistic interference, otherwise the subject will censor or repress themselves and the cause of their issues would never be accessed. This ethical stance is more complicated in America, because unlike in many other countries, American analysts are bound by law to report certain dangerous or criminal behaviors. In its purest form, the psychoanalytic method would not interject against homosexuality because the practice is not about “treating” it, but it is instead about exploring the subjective function of homosexual desire and attachments on the individual. For Queer Theory, this model of analysis is useful for the cultural study of non-normative desires, identities, and social practices because it refrains from the moralistic judgment that clouds objective study and forced these subjects and cultures to closet themselves in the first place. Psychoanalysis explores the contours of desire no matter how “twisted” one may subjectively find it.
Although Miller did not explicitly intend for his article to be a demonstration on how to use psychoanalysis for Queer Theory, the tone of his writing and his demolition of the normative, conservative values that would lead one to oppose gay marriage performs an inadvertent “queering” of this opposition by using basic psychoanalytic concepts as his tools. It is my hope that now that one of the top psychoanalysts in the world has implicitly recognized the common ground that psychoanalysis and Queer Theory has in studying and critiquing normative and repressive constructions of gender and sexuality, we can reconcile old prejudices stemming from the historical abuse and misuse of psychoanalysis against the lgbt community and further harness it as an empowering method of inquiry and critique.
About the Author
Chase Dimock is a PhD candidate in Comparative and World Literature at the University of Illinois. He specializes in 20th century American, French, and German literature with an emphasis in Queer Theory, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and Marxism. As a Graduate Assistant, he has taught courses on western literature spanning the ancients to the existentialists as well as courses on gender studies, queer literature, and representations of the Holocaust. His research is devoted to exploring interwar queer sexualities in the works of lost and forgotten American expatriate authors and how the established French canon of gay authors and French gay culture influenced the construction of an American queer subject. Chase Dimock is also a regular contributor to the arts and politics magazine As It Ought To Be and he writes reviews of Queer Studies publications for the Lambda Literary Review
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