REVIEW Charles Shepherdson: Vital Signs

(Routledge, 2000)

The fate of original and revolutionary thinkers is that their work is simplified and progressively distorted by their students, followers, and critics. The reception of Lacan in the United States in especial has often misrepresented psychoanalytic theory by weakening distinctions, isolating single parts of the large body of thought, and enlisting single elements in support of ideologies. The fundamental purpose of Charles Shepherdson’s important new book, Vital Signs, is to provide clarifications, to reestablish distinctions, complexities, and contexts in psychoanalytic theory. Shepherdson is seriously bothered by the repetitive, sterile debates between “essentialism” and “social construction” that currently dominate psychoanalytically infected discussions of the body, sexual difference, and the subject, particularly in the United States:

When readers seek to determine once and for all whether psychoanalysis is a theory of the ‘symbolic order,’ aimed at demonstrating the ‘social construction of gender,’ or whether it amounts to a return to ‘biological difference’ that is based on a natural anatomy, the entire theoretical orientation of psychoanalysis has already been lost, displaced by a more familiar paradigm. (3)

Shepherdson finds that such opposing positions are not only reductive but that they are not really alternatives, in that they “share a common horizon, insofar as they both have agreed in advance that the language of psychoanalysis (‘desire,’ ‘the body,’ ‘sexual difference,’ and so on) must first be translated into more familiar terms, before we can enjoy our disagreements” (184). The specificity of psychoanalysis is thereby foreclosed in much contemporary analysis, in as much as “it is precisely this opposition between “‘biology and history’, ‘nature and culture,’ ‘essentialism and historicism’ that psychoanalysis rejects” (94). Shepherdson has already developed the thesis that psychoanalysis is built precisely upon a refusal of binary oppositions between nature and culture in his article, “Human Diversity and the Sexual Relation,” in The Psychoanalysis of Race, edited by Christopher Lane, and Vital Signs now works the thesis with precision and complexity to read a wide range of theorists writing within or in reference to psychoanalysis.

Shepherdson’s project is to think the body and sexual difference in properly psycho-analytic terms, since he claims that this is the “great enigma, but also the theoretical interest of psycho-analysis: sexual difference is neither sex nor gender” and the body “is neither a natural fact, nor a cultural construction” (94). The book’s separate chapters relate Lacanian theory to contemporary French thought, and particularly to women writers, drawing on clinical material from Catherine Millot, Eugénie Lemoine-Luccioni, and Michèle Montrelay and reading Irigaray and Kristeva within a clinical context. The use of clinical material is a reminder that both Irigaray and Kristeva, whatever their differences from Lacan, are practicing analysts who must be thought through psychoanalytic theory. Shepherdson shows that their appropriation in feminist theory and cultural critique has been distorted by a neglect of that specifically psychoanalytic framework. Case histories are then the grounds for his theorization of transsexuality, the meanings of maternity, the mother, and the father; an analysis of anorexia is the means to grasping the objet a. Perhaps because Vital Signs is a collection of articles published over a five year period, the more abstract chapter on Foucault is not thoroughly integrated with the other chapters, but here too Shepherdson reads Foucault in parallel with psychoanalysis, correcting simplistic representations of historicism.

Insofar as it focuses on sexual difference and the body, Vital Signs is a valuable intervention in feminist theory. Shepherdson first approaches the question of woman and maternity through a case history of Lemoine-Luccioni to show how a particular woman’s symptomatic relation to her body must be understood through the signifier working on the organism; the symptom is a “symbolic inheritance . . . that is transmitted from one generation to another” (12) in the relations between mothers and daughters. The case is important in demon-strating in what ways the symbolic-which, Shepherdson insists, cannot be collapsed into particular historical forms or social organizations-is constitutive of the human, so that what is determining in any life is the “relation between the symbolic and the organism,” a relation formed in the family in an “intimate transmission of the signifier, inherited at the level of the flesh” (18). The symptom, in other words, is a product of a particular history that inscribes itself upon the body. Symptoms, like identifications, prove to be answers to a woman’s self-division, to the question of the body, the meaning of sexual difference and of woman. The mother is one answer to these questions, and celebrating an essential woman’s nature is another. But, as Shepherdson insists, the mother is not the woman, and the difference between woman and man is not the difference between father and mother-if these differences were parallel or symmetical, we would have not symptoms, nor even psychoanalysis, and psychologists like Nancy Chodorow would indeed be able to undo the social inequality of women by changing practices of child-rearing-and social or familial images for identification cannot answer the hysteric’s question: Am I a woman or a man?

Shepherdson wants to keep the question of woman open, precisely as a question. To claim to know what woman is, even to ask what does a woman want, is to foreclose woman. And Shepherdson makes a convincing case that Irigaray too writes to keep open the question of woman, so that she cannot be read to advance “a ‘return to the female body,’ or an’expression of the feminine imaginary,’ or a ‘dangerous essentialism'” (52). Irigaray, he argues, analyzes the history of patriarchal structures and discourses, because whatever woman can be said to be is already conditioned in those inherited discourses and representations; the language that repeatedly determines woman makes woman something like a symptom of man, a construction that answers to patriarchal desires and power. At the same time, if Irigaray claims that woman is in excess of language, a woman does not have access to an immediate experience of femininity or to some primordial, organic realm that would precede the symbolic, because there is not an “already available subject named ‘woman'” (42). Woman is in excess of language, but since there is no woman who is not subject to castration, to the phallic function, woman is subject to language. Shepherdson works within the specifically psychoanalytic valences here, by distinguishing “between the particular historical forms that a given culture may institute for sexuality”-no essentialism-” and that inevitability of symbolic inscription that is constitutive of the human animal” (34)-no historicism. He shows that Irigaray insists on these distinction when she attempts “to provide a place for the ‘other’ as feminine by ‘speaking (as) woman'” (quoted 45) while critiquing and refusing to adopt inherited, patriarchal discourses.

It is less clear whether Shepherdson’s analysis of Kristeva is a faithful return to or a correction of her conceptions of the “semiotic” and “maternal.” Kristeva certainly often writes as if the “semiotic” were an original language expressing bodily rhythms and pleasures that precedes the formation of the symbolic and is linked to a maternal presence, which she signifies as “mother” without qualification. In thinking through Kristeva’s categories, Shepherdson carefully unpacks Lacan’s schema R to argue that the feminine cannot be identified with the “semiotic”:

For when we speak of the “mother,” when we speak of the “maternal” in terms of this semiotic or pre-Oedipal region, we must recognize that sexual difference does not appear there, and that in this sense, the pre-Oedipal mother is not only distinct from the woman, but also not sexual marked, whenever she is viewed as belonging to the semiotic domain. (61)
The pre-Oedipal mother is a retroactive construction that appears only after the prohibition of Oedipus. Coming before sexual difference, the archaic mother is in the imaginary in the place of the phallus in schema R, whereas the mother appears only in the symbolic.

Certainly it is more clear in Lacan that lalangue, in some senses very close to Kristeva’s “semiotic” as a pre-symbolic stratum of inscribed letters suffused with jouissance, is not linked to the mother, since language is set down at the edge of the Thing whose absent place the mother occupies. And Shepherdson continually underscores that the subject is formed in the symbolic: How could woman or the feminine, or even the “semiotic,” which is just the rhythms, sounds, and textures of language, be given outside language? Why would a woman even want to be identified with a pre-symbolic body or return to a traditional binary, split between body and spirit, pre-verbal expressivity and language, intuition and reason, that determines her as inferior? Simply to change the evaluation of the oppositions-to celebrate the body or pre-verbal intuition-does not go beyond the inherited structure. Such a move would repeat what Irigaray exposes as a repetition of the Same or Kristeva as a conjunctive, as distinct from disjunctive, logic.

To reinsert the mother in the symbolic is to insist on woman’s desire, on the fundamental function of the desire of the mother in inducing the child into sexual difference, and therefore on the differences between the mother, the woman, and the feminine. Shepherdson’s chapter on Kristeva expands on these differences as it unpacks Lacan’s diagram of sexuation, a schema that formulates positions around the unrepresentable real of sexual difference. The masquerade and maternity are answers and erotomania and masochism answers in the form of symptoms to the question of woman. In concluding the discussion with these alternatives (which he takes from Marie-Hélène Brousse), Shepherdson leaves open less traditional possibilities for women that might emerge from a specifically feminine, Other jouissance. The attempt to found a feminine writing on feminine jouissance, the project of écriture feminine, would be one such possibility for a place for woman within the symbolic.

If Shepherdson bypasses feminine jouissance, he is nevertheless increasingly interested in the real as the book advances, and as he moves beyond the question of woman. Starting from Catherine Millot’s treatments of transsexuals, he differentiates the “role” of gender from the “imperative” of sex, forcefully to reject the “repressive hypothesis” that the sexuality of some natural organism is repressed in the constitution of the subject. Science and technology give in to the demand of the transsexual to be The Woman, to take up, through surgical alteration of the body, what Millot shows in many cases to be the position of the primal father before castration that is altogether outside of sex. By answering to the transsexual’s demand, science provides an answer to the real that the analyst must keep open to the transsexual. The transvestite, in contrast, performs sexual difference as if it were only a social construction and thereby likewise avoids accounting for the real, specifically the real of castration.

Turning to the function of the father and the paternal metaphor, Shepherdson works through the differences between Freud’s myth of Oedipus and his mythic reconstruction of history in Totem and Taboo to distinguish, first, the symbolic father, who holds the place of the law, from the imaginary father as rival, and then the dead father, whose death establishes law, from the primal father, whose death introduces an excess of jouissance out of the incest prohibition. The symbolic father allows for the ego-ideal; in contrast, the primal, real father produces guilt and the superego. Shepherdson shows that it is a contradiction in the law itself that produces both law and jouissance. Accounting for this kind of structural contradiction produces what Shepherdson calls the temporality of the subject, the logic that produces a constitutive structure, rather than the chronological time of a story of development that posits an originary, unregulated enjoyment the law would interfere with, as in the “repressive hypothesis.” This logical structure, whereby law and jouissance emerge simultaneously, is the basis of much contemporary political theory, notably in Slavoj éiûek and Yannis Stavrakakis, while Shepherdson is more interested in using the paradox to align Foucault with psychoanalysis.

Foucault’s replacement of genetic, chronological narratives with genealogy likewise constitutes transgression simultaneously with law as it traces the perverse, productive force of power. As Foucault argues that the state apparatus produces the social other, the criminal, the mad, the poor, Lacan gave Kant with Sade, the imperative of law with jouissance. Shepherdson relates several elements of Foucault’s thought to Lacan’s: First “its status as a ‘history of the present’ (as opposed to knowledge about the past)” foregrounds what in Lacan is the subject’s position of enunciation, imbricated in any discourse; second, “its interest in the ‘limits of formalization'” touches on the real; and third, “its explicitly ‘fictional’ character” (181) works as a praxis, like an analyst’s intervention, as an action intended to change the real.

In an interview in the Afterword, Shepherdson reveals, particularly in his discussion of anorexia, just how different a Lacanian thinker is from any psychologist or object relations theorist. Shepherdson ends his outstanding study with the happy thought that insofar as contemporary theory continues to neglect and history psychoanalysis by remaining stuck in repetitive, simplified debates and postures, “it means, of course, that psychoanalysis has a future.” Vital Signs is the beginning of that future.

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European Journal of Psychoanalysis