Feminism and Psychosis: Concerning the Delusion of Valerie Solanas
Who said psychoanalysis and feminism must oppose one another?
If, for Jacques Lacan, woman is “mystical,” for Valerie Solanas, woman is “SCUM”, meaning powerful, independent, and, most of all, complete, because she can live without men. However, this completeness is not that of an imaginary omnipotence: it’s the full, undivided, subject of psychosis. The SCUM Manifesto presents us with the possibility of enacting a passage from the neurotic position (relating to a dominant Other), to the psychotic position (relating to a persecutory Other). In the first case, the Other will persist in his endless endeavor of effacing the subject, and the neurotic will keep complaining and accusing him while at the same time submitting to him. In the schizophrenic relation, there is no possible compromise: for the sake of a better world that concerns us all, the other must be hunted down and eliminated. How can we think Valerie’s delusion concerning the extermination of men? Her psychosis offers a new way of devising feminism: Must one be “crazy” to be a feminist, wishing to overturn the hetero-patriarchal world? Our purpose is to show how Valerie Solanas’s delusion allows us to think the battles of women proceeding from the unconscious, along the specific tie that can emerge among women, a linkage based on a repressed sisterhood, which has been neglected far too long by mainstream psychoanalysis but not by its inventor, Sigmund Freud.
“A World Without Men”: What Does that Mean for Valerie (and for Us)?
The definition of femininity by way of the mystic comes from the greatest psychoanalyst to succeed Freud; a man, a psychiatrist, a genius author, an absolute master for several generations of psychoanalysts, indisputable intellectual figure and acclaimed by many philosophers, anthropologists, writers, filmmakers of his time and ours. His name is certainly known to you: Jacques Lacan.
The definition of femininity as SCUM comes from a schizophrenic woman, lesbian, criminal, a figure still relatively unknown outside feminist militant circles, a vagabond who lived in solitude and misery all her life. Her name may be unfamiliar to you, probably enigmatic, even repulsive: Valerie Solanas.
In opposing these two conceptions of woman, I am not trying to discover which of the two is closest to the truth, nor am I setting out to discern the ultimate essence of femininity. Concerning the notion of “woman”, I will focus on the way in which this term is opposed, not to another gender or sex, the “masculine”, but to a certain constituted order, an order we should perhaps call, with Jacques Derrida, phallogocentric, thereby referring to male domination (the “phallus”) and the western hegemony of a supposed rational thought (the “logos”). Both, Jacques Lacan and Valerie Solanas, suggest that being female is a form of resistance to this order. But does this resistance consist in the position of a radical exception of woman, as Jacques Lacan proposes, or is it due to an alliance between women, a desire to create a world in their own image, a world of sisters, as formulated by Valerie Solanas? This is my question.
At first glance, this match seems rather unbalanced. How can we even imagine following Valerie Solanas in her definition of “the female”—or in anything, for that matter? Doesn’t SCUM mean “Society For Cutting Up Men”, and isn’t the heart of Valerie’s SCUM Manifesto to eliminate, physically eliminate, men, all men? Yes. So, don’t we think that this is literally delusional? It certainly is. And, more than that, wasn’t this delusional statement given by a schizophrenic who, one day in June 1968, appears to have put her theory into practice by shooting a man with the intention of killing him, a certain Andy Warhol, who remained handicapped for the rest his life? Yes, it was. So, is this a joke, a provocation, a mockery, a simply irresponsible statement? No, not at all, I have never been more serious or precise.
Can we be satisfied with hearing Solanas’ delusion, “We must exterminate men!” in a way that is not literal? Or is there something in this discourse that forces us to transcend the alternative between literal and figurative meaning? One thing is certain: mad or psychotic, Solanas’ thinking deviates from the neurotic norm, from the “male norm” — “norme mâle”, as Lacan writes. This pun emphasizes the relationship between norm, neurosis and masculinity. The “male norm” passes through the phallus, the castration, the father, the master, God, etc. One of its stakes is to ward off every form of madness, considered as evil, for the subject and for society. Madness is unthinkable for the male norm, especially if it is the madness of a woman. Thus, by refusing to speak of schizophrenia out of fear of pathologizing everyone, we reproduce the gesture of this male rule: drive the madness out of the world. And that is very unfortunate. As Michel Foucault famously pointed out, rejecting madness means turning away from a certain paradoxical truth of being. This is also what psychoanalysis shows through the discovery of the unconscious. Lacan saw madness as an expression of the “truth of being” and considered it the “most faithful companion” of freedom. Therefore, the delusional element in Valerie Solanas’ speech must not to be treated as a detail, a mistake, a distraction, a nuisance: we must hear what the delusional says about our being, also insofar as it concerns our sexual being, and more precisely, our female being.
Valerie says something that we can feel, more or less intensely: something of the male side is irretrievable, beyond recovery. Therefore a change of perspective is needed in order to define the world anew, this time from a female angle, so as to make it possible, and finally livable. We cannot go about this by simply making room for “females” in this world, by placing them alongside the “male(s)”. That is not enough. We are tired of asking men to give us a place in the sun, in their sun; we will now make our sun. An exclusively female world is not only a world in which men have been excluded; it is a world which does not need to refer to the men’s world. The call to “exterminate all men” is a call for establishing what women could be without referring to men — and this is precisely why Valerie Solanas is of interest for us (psychoanalysts). So how can we consider the subject of feminism (the subject of struggle), if femininity can be thought only through the language of sexual difference, or, from heterosexuality, which is precisely the system that oppresses women? How can we think femininity separated from its intrinsic complementary relation to the masculine? This is a dilemma.
Valerie’s answer is simple and powerful: we can define femininity by a special relational system, that of sisterhood. The idea of the extermination of men is strictly correlative to the idea of a community of women: for Solanas, a world based exclusively on women’s connection is possible and this would form a bond called “sisterhood”. She never actually utters this word in her text, an omission that is perhaps owed to its evocation of the church. As Chloé Delhome indicates in her introduction to the collective volume Sororité, the word “sisterhood”, in medieval Latin, refers to a “religious community of women”. But Valerie Solanas offers a considerable challenge to women: are we able to think, dream, create, laugh, desire, enjoy, suffer, without going through the male‘s symbols? A similar challenge is also launched to psychoanalysts, both men and women: can you conceive sexuation without centralizing it on the masculine element, the famous “phallus”?
The Nonexistence of the Woman and the Unthinkable of Sisterhood in Psychoanalysis
We know that Lacan also suggested that the “female” side of the human psyche had to be defined outside the “masculine” space, organized by the phallus, that is to say, by the (phantasmatic) problem of castration. Most of the psychoanalysts who follow Lacan believe that he laid grounds for a contemporary feminism, especially when it comes to the question of autonomy of femininity in relation to masculinity.
They are definitely too strong, these men: even the autonomy of femininity can still be thought best by a man! And it is true, we must recognize that Lacanian femininity is defined by the existence of a “not-all phallic” space. The “not-all phallic woman” is a woman who escapes the regulation of every experience by phallic problems, in other words, overdetermined by the fantasy of castration. The model of this kind of subjectivity or, more precisely, of such a habit of jouissance —because it is in terms of jouissance that Lacan establishes the difference between masculinity and femininity— is the mystic experience.  The mystic would therefore be this feminine element apart from any reference to the masculine, which is to say, the phallus.
There are, however, two problematic details about the theory of “sexuation” of Doctor Jacques Lacan that don’t convince us. Firstly, and contrary to whatever the psychoanalysts who follow Lacan might say, the phallus remains for him the determining element of gender difference. If a woman can be not-all phallic, it is because she is also phallic. The space outside the phallus is accessible only if you cross the phallic space. The mystic is defined as an exception to the male order — not, therefore, positively, through a relation with femininity itself. The female position, put into question in terms of both gender identity and sexual orientation, must always be arranged from its singular relation to the phallus, which remains the focus of Lacan’s sexuation.
The second problem of the Lacanian position is that he defines femininity in a way that women cannot really be women (or, more generally a person occupying a feminine position) unless they isolate themselves from any social bond, as social bonds can only be established qua the phallus: we are “women” only one by one, and never together. The Lacanian woman can live “beyond” the Phallus, but at the price of definitively excluding herself from the social world, defined as the world of men, actually, the world as such. That’s why Lacan’s women are mystical: they look “beyond”. Even better: they are silent; their words fail; they are outside of language. Hence, even if the exceptional position in which Lacan installs femininity is certainly eminent, women’s words cannot be considered, women don’t speak, don’t protest, don’t cry: these scattered women, molecular, singular, they make no noise, neither in the analytic community, nor anywhere else; they shut up. In Lacan’s eyes, all sexuation necessarily passes through the phallus; some women can certainly escape this “law”, but only partially; and partially escaping the phallic law also means, for Lacan, to be excluded from the social bond, because the function of the phallus enables one to posit human beings “fraternally” among themselves: a society that is not phallic doesn’t exist for Lacan.
So, how can a woman (who assumes this “external” position) meet other women, or more precisely, her sisters? Is there a place for sisters in this universe governed by phallic law, where women exist only as exceptions? How can we think the collective movements of women’s emancipation from a psychic organization where everything passes (totally or partially) through the phallus? I believe that this Lacanian construction excludes the dimension of sisterhood from human experience in general, and we have some reason to think that literally, in a psychoanalytic way, this particular construction directly represses sisterhood.
This is undeniable: the Lacanian woman, distant and discreet, has nothing to do with the feminist protesting in the street, nor with the one who, behind the hashtag #MeToo, denounces, on social networks the violence that she and other women have suffered and continue to suffer. In a certain psychoanalytic phallogocentric perspective, women who meet with or support each other in order to challenge sexual and social norms (put in place by men) are subjects ravaged by their masculinity complex, their penis envy, their desire for parricide (a desire shared with their brothers, by the way). Thus, we find it difficult to believe that Lacan lays the ground for thinking a new feminism…
This is all the more puzzling since the destiny of psychoanalysis is intrinsically linked to the wish of speaking and to subjective subversion. Why should psychoanalysts then be appalled when such a subversion is collectively realized? Why couldn’t a singular subversion include a collective dimension? Thinking about sisterhood therefore always forces us to think about the question of the relationship between politics and the unconscious. What, then, is the place, in a psychoanalytic sense, of this other woman, the feminist woman, the sister woman, engaged in a collective fight against the phallogocentric order? Is the feminist, from the point of view of the unconscious, still a woman, or must she “register” on the side of men? If a woman denounces and fights the world of men, is she necessarily “phallic”?
Sisterhood and the Shared Symptom
At this point, I think it is worth attending the school of Valerie Solanas. The SCUM woman exists only by standing with other women to overthrow the entire system (because men are the epicenter not only of women’s submission, but also of social inequalities, of the destruction of the planet, of war, of death, etc.). Sisterhood is another sort of “federation”: it is not fraternal (the fraternal bond implies the murder of the father), it is not driven by the ideal of empowerment and identification with the all-powerful leader. A community of sisters is not organized like a community of brothers. To change gender means here to change form or even to change logic. So, what is a sororal bond from the unconscious point of view? How does it work?
To answer these questions, let’s return to Freud, in particular to his famous passage in “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego” where he explains the mechanism of symptom formation. Freud gives us an astonishing proposal on a particular mechanism of symptom formation which not only implies a shared symptom, but also sisterhood as an unconscious cause of this symptom.
There is a third particularly frequent and important case of symptom formation, in which the identification leaves entirely out of account any object-relation to the person who is being copied. Supposing, for instance, that one of the girls in a boarding school has had a letter from someone with whom she is secretly in love which arouses her jealousy, and that she reacts to it with a fit of hysterics; then some of her friends who know about it will catch the fit, as we say, by mental infection. The mechanism is that of identification based upon the possibility or desire of putting oneself in the same situation. The other girls would like to have a secret love affair too, and under the influence of a sense of guilt they also accept the suffering involved in it. It would be wrong to suppose that they take on the symptom out of sympathy. On the contrary, the sympathy only arises out of the identification, and this is proved by the fact that infection or imitation of this kind takes place in circumstances where even less pre-existing sympathy is to be assumed than usually exists between friends in a girls’ school. One ego has perceived a significant analogy with another upon one point —in our example upon openness to a similar emotion; an identification is thereupon constructed on this point, and, under the influence of the pathogenic situation, is displaced on to the symptom which the one ego has produced. The identification by means of the symptom has thus become the mark of a point of coincidence between the two egos which has to be kept repressed.
A certain “psychic contagion” between the girls allows them to locate in the other person an “affective availability”, notes Freud. The girls are inclined to identify with one of them, because this identification allows them to express their affect, affect being all that remains, on a conscious level, of their own unconscious trauma. Through the identification, the girls seek (unconsciously of course) to relive their trauma. If there is something similar between these traumas, it can only be expressed in terms of fantasy and the way the fantasy captures trauma, a trauma that remains —and this is very important— singular, unspeakable, inexpressible. Therefore, this fantasy does not protect against the point of lack-of-knowing (non savoir) of each singular traumatic experience.
We should not be so quick as to accuse Freud of phallogocentrism. He does not say that the girls are traumatized because, really, they desire boys, despite their guilt. This desire is a fantasy, its true cause lies elsewhere. This fantasy only works —and even exists— because it reactivates an emotional dynamic that is connected to the trauma. The trauma remains unconscious, absolutely inaccessible. Besides, if those secret little love stories were not overdetermined by trauma, they would not develop such emotional power. The fact that a boy is interested in a girl —or humiliates a girl— would not generate any affect without an unconscious trauma driving it. The only thing that is shared is the fantasy which allows a person to engender a certain “affective availability“.
Then comes identification. Psychoanalytic theory generally argues that identification occurs via taking up a particular trait. We never identify with a person or an object “as a whole”, but with a “unary trait” (einem einzigen Zug). The originality of the mechanism of “psychic contagion” and the very particular form of hysteria that it generates, is that this trait is itself a hysterical symptom: cries, tears, paralysis, whatever. But the great insight of Freud’s text is that this shared symptom is only possible because it is actually a symptom, that is to say, a mode of return of a repressed element. What is the repressed element here? The identification itself, or, more precisely, the link between the girls, the fact that they share a common condition (the condition of girls who desire guys in secret, a certain position in the fantasy).
This “place of coincidence” between subjects —the “two selves”, writes Freud, in this case, two girls— must remain unconscious, repressed, to allow the reactivation of the traumatic experience specific to everyone. But what is this repressed “place of coincidence” if it is not exactly what we call the sororal link?
This repressed trait comes back through the identification with the symptom, the shared symptom which expresses the uncontrolled affect: in short, the hysterical crisis. This is evident in the symptom which is always correlated to the unconscious traumatic sign (Vorstellungs-Repräsentanz) of each girl. If the singular trauma remains unconscious and is not shareable, there is also something unconscious that is shared: the sororal coincidence itself. Sisterhood comes back from the unconscious through the collective crisis, the “pathogenic situation” according to Freud, in other words, the symptom. The hysterical crisis is the result of psychic contagion, and it is a sororal symptom, and on the opposite, sisterhood is the unconscious element coming back from the subjective trauma.
The symptom must be shared to allow everyone to live again with their own trauma. We thus understand how a social phenomenon can be saturated with the psychic dimension. We also see that from a psychoanalytic point of view it wouldn’t make any sense sending each of these girls back to their traumatic singularity, as if it were necessary to undo the political illusion so as to refocus them on their own personal stories. The repressed element is itself part of the social order: the element is sisterhood, the one having something in common with the others. If women didn’t fantasize about their common conditions and simultaneously so, they didn’t suppress this common element, they would not form any symptoms of this kind and thus wouldn’t be able to relive their trauma in a tinkered, inventive, rebellious form. Thus Freud gives in his description of psychic contagion a formal theory of a certain kind of symptom formation, one that we can now call the sororal symptom.
The symptom allows the boarding school girls, as it does anyone who “enters” a shared symptom, to express their desire. But once again, this desire is at its root permeated by the social. This helps us understand that, without renouncing the founding thesis of the unstoppable, unspeakable character of trauma, we can think of a process that has a social dimension which appears at the same time as its principle (repressed sisterhood) and its result (the sororal symptom). The psychic contagion allows us to grasp that something like a traumatic social link (which is not the same as a “collective trauma”, a pure ideological fiction which crushes everything that is subtle and interesting about the complex games between psyche and politics). Politics is a traumatic social link and Valerie Solanas has paved the way for us to recognize this.