REVIEW. Shuli Barzilai: Lacan and the Matter of Origins (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999)

The title of Shuli Barzilai’s Lacan and the Matter of Origins is a rich condensation that points to several arguments. The matter is first of all mater, the mother, and the book’s central concern is to trace the role of the mother in Lacan’s theories of the constitution of the subject. The thesis is clearly defined and mapped: “the basic itinerary of the mother in Lacan’s work” is that the other is first conceived of as fully present, than as almost absent, and finallyÑafter a period of occlusionÑshe returns under the aegis of the phallus. Nevertheless, the formidable imago of the first period continues to haunt his later work” (2) so that “the Ômaternal theme’ is amply, albeit, varyingly, present throughout his writings” (3). “Origins,” in this thesis, signifies both the mother as origin and the genesis, the origin, of the subject.

In order to demonstrate the thesis, Barzilai concentrates on a thorough reading of Lacan’s (1938 entry in the Encyclopédie françaiseLes complexes familiaux dans la formation de l’individu (published in French by Navarin in 1984 and in part in Critical Texts in 1988 in English translation). In this early work, Lacan’s “discussion of the three complexes of early childhood is largely, although not exclusively developmental” (56): The “child’s formative experiences within the family group” (21) develops in three stagesÑthe weaning complex, the intrusion complex, and the Oedipal complex. Since the loss of the breast is reactivated in all subsequent experiences of bodily fragmentation and dismemberment, the weaning complex, or the loss of the mother, is at the origins of castration; as well, it is at the origin of ambivalence, expressed in oral eroticism and destruction. Therefore, “the weaning process constitutes the determining factor in individual and cultural development and, consequently in clinical treatment. In other words, Ôthe mother is father to the man’” (22). In short, the mother is at the origin of Lacan’s theorization of the origin of the subject. Barzilai explores the effects of ambivalence towards the maternal imago in provocative discussions of such diverse topics as responses to the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood and in folk practices of spitting. But the book as a whole follows the changing emphasis of Lacan’s thought, arguing that the mother is eliminated in the account of origins in the mirror stage and maligned in the repression that constitutes the paternal metaphor, that is, in Lacan’s rereading of the Oedipus complex.

What was treated in Les complexes familiaux as the intrusion complex, then, is elaborated in the mid 40’s and early 50’s as the mirror stage. In the developing theorization, origin now becomes autogenesis, as the “function of the I” emerges from the reflected form of the body and in identification and rivalry with the spectral other. The role of the mother disappears in this “new myth of genesis” that eliminates “any parental identification”. . In Lacan’s view, the mirror is the mother of the ego. But the mother is not in the mirror” (88). Barzilai’s elegant formulation provides a powerful corrective for some contemporary appropriations of Lacan in feminist writing and object-relations theory by demonstrating that the formation of the ego is independent of the mother. However, the formulation ignores the ego-ideal, which Barzilai does not treat and which does depend upon the infant’s response to the mother’s gaze at the mirror image; in this sense, the mother induces the ego into the Symbolic and thereby lays the ground for the superego.

Finally, when Lacan elaborates the Oedipus complex through the function of the paternal metaphor, the mother’s role is again central for the formation of the child, but it is restructured. The Name-of-the-Father substitutes for the desire of the mother that is directed at “the imaginary phallus with which the infant identifies in the preoedipal situation. The intrusion of this rival detaches the infant from the psychical dangers of fusional identification, from wanting to be the mother’s phallus, from striving to fill completely the place of her lack” (201). So “the mother as Ômatrix’ in Lacan’s l938 essay on the family evolves into the mother as Ômediatrix’ in the mid 1950’sÑunless she is otherwise intent or, more precisely, bent on becoming a tigress” (203). Here again Barzilai corrects overly simplified readings of Lacan by emphasizing that the dual mother-child relation is a triad from the start that includes the imaginary phallus, so that the “Oedipal is itself quadrangle” (201) that reconfigures the phallus. But Barzilai’s heart, and the heart of the exposition, is with the “tigress,” and she examines two case histories from Lacan and Serge Leclaire to demonstrate the “formidable power [that] is relegated to the mother as well as an endless responsibility for the (mal)formation of her child (203). Responding to “the motif of mother-blame” (204), to the misogyny in the several treatments of the mother-child relation, Barzilai cries out in exasperation: “Please, give me another story” (206).

A second meaning of “origins” in Barzilai’s own story refers to Lacan’s predecessors and precursors, to the acknowledged and unacknowledged sources Lacan draws on from philosophy, theology, psychoanalysis, and especially to his appropriation and transformation of Freud that is always framed as a loyal “rereading.” Barzilai’s ambivalence, which she freely admits to, is most marked here: While she praises Lacan’s vast erudition, she argues that he conceals his origins, in Ferenczi, Klein, and Wallon in especial, in a mode of appropriation she signifies “Lacannibalism.” Barzilai is very good at pulling out the Christian sources and resonances of Lacan’s writings, linking the “passion of the signifier” to the “passion of the Cross,” for example, and returning in several contexts to Augustine’s biography, to Augustine’s relation to his mother, Monica, and to his nursing brother, to show the repressed mother returning to haunt the mirror stage. Less convincing, I think, is the discussion of Prudentius’s Psychomachia, a fifth century allegorical poem, in analogy to the mirror phase as a kind of allegorical “topography of conflict,” less convincing because, as Barzilai indeed recognizes, the logical notion of an internal exteriority in the specular other (or as the Thing or the object) has a very different structure from that of allegorical representation figuring internal impulses or moral qualities as dramatic characters in conflict with one another. While rivalry with the other may be a kind of conflict, like that of Christian allegory, the child’s relation to the image of the body and the other is structured in a dialectic, which is a logical operation different from conflict. It is because the I is dialectically, not conflictually, related to the mirror image that the ego is a form of alienation, and the earliest relation to the other is one of transitivism. The ego “see-saws” with the image and the other, so that the ego disappears in the other and the other in the ego. Thinking the mirror phase through conflict produces a more stable ego than Lacan’s dialectic allows.

Still another meaning of “origins” in Barzilai’s account is the autobiography latent in Lacan’s theory. The mirror stage repeats, is something like an allegory of, Lacan’s relation to his brother. The repression of his excision of the mother in his developing theorization compares to Lacan’s relations to the mothers of his daughters. His occluded ownership and display of Courbet’s painting, The Origins of the World, Barzilai unpacks, in a dazzling investigation, as a symptom of Lacan’s desire for mastery.

“Origins” in yet another sense points to Lacan’s revision and reformulation of his own work. Barzilai argues that Lacan consistently engaged in smoothing over his development, insisting on a continuity that belies and conceals radical transformation. For Barzilai such an effort at revisionary rewriting is especially apparent in the treatment of the mother and in the later, deliberate misrepresentation of the early developmental theory, in which the formation of the subject follows progressive stages, as always already a structural or logical explanation. Lacan, in other words, engages in a retroactive self-correction, applying the function of Nachträglichkeit to distort change as well as borrowings from others, particularly from Freud. Lacan’s ambition is “to be fatherless, or rather, the father of himselfÉ to father himself and his father, to transform his precursor into his own progeny; and breaking the revisionary mode, to let go of the burden of self-creation, or self-fashioning, and yield himself up to an exalted surrogate father’s name and providence” (143).
Origins are always retroactive constructions; they are a function of Nachträglichkeit. The origin founds the story that accounts for the ideology, the politics, the reality, the desire, in brief, the enunciative position operating in the present. Barzilai writes as a feminist. She emphasizes Les complexes familiaux because she wants to show the “presence of the mother” in Lacan’s work, and this text emphasizes the mother’s role. But why should this text be so significant? It was not available as a separate publication in French until 1984, and it has not yet been fully translated into English.

Reception of Lacan has been determined by what followed this essayÑand this may be just Barzilai’s point: to highlight a different Lacan. Still, what makes Lacan Lacan is precisely that he is not an object-relations theorist; he did not rest with this early work. What is dismissed in wanting a Lacan who is true to his origins is just the excitement of reading Lacan’s work, and the Seminars in particular, for the revisions, extensions, modifications, in short, the growth of a teaching. Indeed, from the perspective of the work that followed, Les complexes familiaux might be read otherwise than through the mother as emphasizing the position of the father and as introducing or anticipating what will become the symbolic register. Lacan designates the complexes to point to a cultural formation of the subject that replaces any natural, instinctual development; the signifier “complex” denotes the cultural factors dominating the subject’s relations to the object, emotional organization, and lived experience. In other words, already here in Les complexes familiaux a concern for family structure, genealogy, and language acquisition directs the exposition of the subject’s formation. A different feminist emphasis would find that it is Lacan’s concern with the decline of the paternal image, rather than with the mother, with the effects on the father and the family of what he signifies as economic concentration, political catastrophe, social demands, and cultural progress that dominates Les complexes familiaux.

The search for origins gives preference to the chronologically prior. Barzilai therefore focuses on Les complexes familiaux. Likewise, discussion of the mirror phase generally, not only in Barzilai, gives far greater attention to “Aggressivity in Psychoanalysis” from 1948 and “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I,” from 1949 than to the treatment in Seminar I from 1954, because those articles are earlier. A foregrounding of the Imaginary and the ego is thereby fixed. In Seminar I, in contrast, the mirror phase is developed in the context of a refutation of American ego psychology; not the subject but the ego is constructed in the mirror. Lacan teaches analysis in opposition to the dual-relation of ego psychology; the point is that the ego is an alienating construction, not given naturally. Seminar I distinguishes the ego from the subject, and later Lacan will think the subject in three registersÑthe Imaginary, Symbolic, and RealÑbut already in 1954 he shows the formation of the ego is separate from the formation of the unconscious and from the subject in the Symbolic. Moreover, the mirror phase is introduced in Seminar I in answer to the economic problem that comes of Freud’s distinction between ego drives and libidinal drives: If the ego can take itself as an object in narcissism, and if therefore ego drives are libidinal, how does the subject ever take an other as an object? Among animals, the image instinctively triggers sexual behavior, but the human libidinizes the image of the other in an extension of primary narcissism; in secondary narcissism, the image of the other takes the place of the image of the ego. The mirror phase maps how the other can be an object for the narcissistic ego. The mirror phase might then be understood as the origin of desire. Neither the early nor later discussions are more correct; any reading of the mirror phase implicates a question or a context that determines reading.

The broader issue at stake in Lacan and the Matter of Origins is what is to be gained for the feminist commitment that so passionately and honestly motivates Bazilai in her desire for origins in the mother. That feminist commitment supports her impatience with Lacan’s characterization of the mother as a tigress or a crocodile whose jaws need to be kept propped open by the phallus. It leads her to offer comparable stories of devouring fathers, fathers the devouring mother is supposed to repress or protect against. Lacan does not neglect such myths of the father, however. The real father, the father of Totem and Taboo, is just such a devouring father, outside castration and the regulation of symbolic law, and the phallic mother is another form of this real father. The real father shows up in case histories of psychotics, in, for example, the Seminar III discussion of Schreber, where the real father is identified with the law, as a judge in this case, rather than as holding the symbolic place of law. For both the real father and the real, phallic mother, jouisssance is unlimited, and both may induce the child into psychosis.

Another reading of the institution of the Name-of-the-Father could show that the operation of metaphor on the mother’s desire drives a wedge between the mother and woman, between mothering and feminine sexuality. It is because he does allow such a differentiation that Lacan remains important to feminists. Barzilai gives almost no attention to feminine sexuality; she is interested after all in the mother. She does not develop the idea that it is the castration of the mother, her lack, that opens the possibility of desire to the child and thereby brings the subject into a human being. This would be a different story about origins. Nor does she foreground Lacan’s emphasis that it is the subject’s recognition that the mother does not have the phallus that opens up entry into sexual difference. Lacan allows us to think feminine sexuality separately from the mother; feminist thought is thereby enabled to escape repressive stereotypes of womanhood and contemporary ideologies of the nuclear family that fix woman’s place.

Shuli Barzilai finishes her careful, thoughtful, provocative book with a demand, hungry for a place at the “brother’s table.” The book earns that place for her, by giving a fresh approach to an unfamiliar Lacan and calling attention to material readers have ignored. In acknowledging her ambivalent relation to Kristeva in the final chapter, Barzilai describes herself in the end not as “sister but as daughter; both daughter and sister”((246). Add: not as sister or daughter but as a woman, speaking and writing, not all in the family romance.

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