Juliet Mitchell: ‘Siblings’
Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 2003

           Juliet Mitchell’s Psychoanalysis and Feminism revolutionized Anglo-Saxonfeminism in 1974 by developing a feminist theory working through Freud, showing that an account of feminine subjectivity needed to emerge from an encounter with psych-analysis.  The publication in 1982 of Feminine Sexuality:  Jacques Lacan and the école freudienne, which Mitchell edited with Jacqueline Rose, initiated a further transformation of feminist work in English by making available texts by Lacan and his students and by elucidating a theory of sexual difference that was unfamiliar especially to feminism in the United States (and where it still remains generally unwelcome).  With the publication of Siblings, Mitchell turns to new directions, defining and elaborating an original contribution to psychoanalytic theory that emphasizes the importance of siblings in subject formation and opening a place for siblings within a psychoanalytic model of the family based upon intergenerational, parent-child dynamics.  The exploration of sibling relations has important implications for the practice of psychoanalysis and surprising consequences for feminist theory.

           The thesis of the book is that psychoanalysis, by concentrating exclusively on Oedipal relations, has ignored the significance of siblings.  Taking account of lateral, sibling relations within a vertical, Oedipal frame, Mitchell realigns the processes of subject formation.  She describes the coming of a new baby into the infant’s world as a trauma, an “annihilation” of a developing self:



the adored sibling, who is loved with all the urgency of the child’s narcissism, is also loathed as its replacement—the baby it can never again be, or the pre-existing older brother or sister that it will never be.  The sibling is par excellence someone who threatens the subject’s uniqueness.  The ecstasy of loving one who is like oneself is experienced at the same time as the trauma of being annihilated by one who stands in one’s place. (p. 10).


The trauma of a sibling’s birth is layered over an original traumatic helplessness experienced upon the subject’s birth, the trauma of an “excess of stimulation” felt as “a blasting out, an annihilation of the proto-subject, a gap in its existence. . . .  The trauma becomes ‘death’, a nodule or nucleus of death within” (p. 42).  Mitchell thereby accounts for Freud’s death drive (with a description that sounds very much like Jean Laplanche’s treatment of primary masochism in Life and Death in Psychoanalysis), and, as well, for the origins of aggression and violence:  the fusion of a “drive-to-live with the death drive within will manifest as destructiveness and aggression—a turning out of the passive experience of the violence done to the proto-subject. . . . Hatred is the first expression of this turning outwards of the experience of death” (p. 43).  The advent of the sibling—who may be a peer, a schoolmate or playmate, like a sister or brother—is, then, the “next stage” in early childhood development, challenging the child’s narcissism and identity with  “the realization that one is not unique, that someone stands exactly in the same place as oneself and that though one has found a friend, this loss of uniqueness is, at least temporarily, equivalent to annihilation” (p. 43). This “second trauma” is a kind of death, the destruction of the self by an other, and it is answered with violence:  “The experience is as if the other sibling, by seeming to stand in my place, has killed me.  The initial response is to kill first” (p. 29).

While this explanation of the trauma of sibling displacement takes up features of Lacan’s mirror phase, Mitchell’s emphasis explicitly challenges Freudian and Lacanian premises.  First, working with the notion that any representation depends upon absence, Mitchell argues that what matters to the child’s perception is not the presence or absence of the phallus but the presence or absence of the self:  “The crucial absence here, then, is not the absent phallus (the castration complex) but the absent self” (p. 29).  This claim will bear on a developing argument about gender and sexual difference.  Second, Mitchell derives the emergence of thinking, the birth of the “philosophical mind,” from the sibling’s displacement of the subject, rather than from a curiosity about reproduction,  


from a desperate response to the threat of displacement and through this

                       displacement to the possibility of the emergent ego’s nonexistence—being

could become nothingness. . . . The desperate plight that underlies this situation necessitates thinking and advances the way the mind separates out from the body, of which it is a part, in order to think the questions: ‘where am I now someone else is me?’ and ‘where was I when someone who is not the same as me [a child of my mother] was there and I was not?’ (p. 69)


The consequence, third, is to redefine the role of the mother in the subject’s development, as the mother introduces a recognition of differences.

           Mitchell formulates a “law of the mother” in obvious contrast to Lacan’s “law of the father.”  The mother’s role is, in the first place, to introduce seriality, which differentiates between siblings and so relieves the child of the threat of destruction entailed by sameness:  “before they are equal in their sameness to each other for their father, children must be equal in their difference from each other for their mother.  This will be the crucial first vertical relation for siblings” (p. 11).  Such differentiation, “of numeracy not literacy,” allows the subject a secure place in association with others; it lets the child acknowledge that “There is room for you as well as for me.”  Counting—“one, two, three, four siblings, playmates, school friends . . .” leads to subject-subject relations and a social “contract: to extend one’s narcissism to form a social group in which one loves because one is the same” and to social exclusion and oppression, to rejection of “another group to hate, because they are different” (p. 44).  If the father establishes vertical relations, the mother opens up relations of difference on the horizontal axis.

           As well, the mother’s law lays down a prohibition on reproduction, thereby limiting the childhood fantasy of parthenogenesis and sibling reproduction:  the girl child must wait before she can become a mother; the boy will not ever deliver a baby.  As she answers the question of ‘where do babies come from?’ the mother enforces an acceptance of difference:  “you cannot make babies like me:  for the boy this indicates never giving birth (just as for the girl of the castration complex it is that she will never be a father); for the girl it is for the time being. . . . The prohibition here relates to not treating the other as the same, to not continuing with narcissism and grandiosity in the field of the social” (p. 107).  Because Mitchell identifies the child’s wish to give birth as a wish “for a cavity within,” it follows that the child’s acceptance of the mother’s prohibition—“it is I, the mother, not you the child, who gives birth”—is the opportunity for the formation of a different, mental space:  “an inner space can be symbolized—a place from which thoughts come and in which representation can be held ‘in mind’” (p. 72).  A space for creative thought becomes possible when the mother’s womb is represented as lacking for the child, one lost as a literal place and sublimated into a mind differentiated from “its context/origin” in the body (p. 73).  The mother for Mitchell is thus an active agent, inducing the child into the symbolic, into thinking and interpersonal, social relations, in contrast to the pre-symbolic, pre-Oedipal mother that feminism in the United States has adopted from British Object Relations, in contrast also to the romanticization of the “semiotic,” pre-symbolic processes Julia Kristeva ascribes to a bodily, maternal realm, and, as well, in contrast to the mother’s relatively passive position in traditional Freudian theory.

           A final important consequence of Mitchell’s emphasis on sibling relations is a rethinking of the distinction between gender and sexual difference.  For Mitchell, sexual difference, a product of binary thinking, has to do with reproduction; it establishes relations between subject and other.  “Gender,” on the other hand, refers to non-reproductive, polymorphous sexuality; it covers the subject to subject relation between different but equal siblings and peers that involves survival and violence, the threat of annihilation by the other who is the same.  If gender and sexual difference are distinguished, this is not an absolute distinction—Mitchell is always cautious to show that her stress on the lateral interpenetrates the vertical axis—but Mitchell gives a compelling rationale for marking it:  the intent is, paradoxically perhaps, to reintroduce a stronger consideration of sexuality into analysis:


one of my aims is to prevent us slipping away into psychotherapies which find no key role for sexuality in the construction of the psyche, or ones which believe that sexuality is only out there in the actual world of abuse.  Siblings show us just how crucial a force sexuality is in psycho-social dynamics. (p. 121) 


Early psychoanalytic theory opposed a “self-preservative” drive to a sexual drive that was seen to be disruptive and dangerous to survival.  Subsequently, sex was harnessed to a life drive in the service of reproduction and in conflict with death drive, while the disruptive power of sex was linked to a reproductive perversion or to so-called inversion.  As a result, a focus on reproduction ignores sex:  “the clinical and theoretical subjugation of sexuality to reproduction is a hidden version of the repudiation of sexuality itself (p. l2l).     With the proliferation of medical technologies of reproduction in contemporary societies and the weakening of the father’s role, and as gender has become, in academic discourses generally, and especially in the influential work of Judith Butler, a broad and widely used term designating social and historical roles and identities, which do not necessarily encompass sex, reproduction is thought as an “asexual dynamic,” the woman posited as an object, and the mother denied desire:  “This asexuality probably arises because (again, in the modern Western world) reproduction is linked to women.  Mothers (even wives and women generally) are not seen psychologically as subjects of desire.  In the ideology women either have too much sexuality or none at all” (p. 120).  Motherhood, then, is conventionally understood to be asexual, only reproductive, and sexuality is ascribed to the man.  The preoccupation with the role of the mother in therapies has, ironically, foreclosed discussion of the mother as a subject of desire, with the result that the therapist has acted in the place of the mother, unconsciously taking up her place.  This preoccupation has resulted, particularly in Object Relations theory, in a diminished sense of the castration complex, so that what is a complex is transformed into a character, the castrating woman/mother. Too, it neglects the difficulties the child encounters in a developing construction of sexual difference.   And the preeminence of the mother in theories of “maternal deprivation” ignores the pressures of real economic facts and cultural situations in child development, along with the significance of sibling bonds.

           The argument of Siblings as a whole is important in large part because of its practical thrust.  Working with a broad knowledge of case histories, drawn primarily from the literature of Object Relations by Klein, Bion, and Winnicott and from a rereading of Freud’s cases of the Wolf Man and Little Hans, Mitchell demonstrates how analyses of siblings and the “law of the mother” may correct and shift therapeutic practices.  For example, hysteria is understood to stem from an identification with the sibling who intrudes on the child’s uniqueness and with the mother who is feared to be lost to the new baby.  The hysteric’s question thus is not “am I a man or a woman?” as it is for Lacan but “do I or don’t I exist” (p. 133).  Male hysteria, like homosexuality, and frequently misdiagnosed as homosexuality, expresses an identification of the object with the subject; the genesis of male hysteria is the boy’s refusal to give up fantasies of pregnancy, his wish to bear a child, and an ensuing identification with the mother and/or sibling.  Likewise the female hysteric: 


                       the belief that one can give birth how and when one will is only a

                       compensation for the child’s fear that, if he is not omnipotent and

                       omnicreative, he has nothing.  The adult hysteric has not mourned the

                       baby that as a child he cannot have—instead he enacts having it.  The

                       hysteric in all of us may make use of the binary of sexed reproduction

                       falsely because we want to be both woman and man, but he does this

                       in order to hide a deeper dilemma—how can he exist if there is anyone

                       like him in the world?  (p. 150)


Sibling incest is explained as a desire to enhance, to supplement the narcissistic child and, at the same time, as a substitute for the violence and hatred directed toward the other child.  Fantasies of dead babies, failures in parenting, guilt feelings and ambivalences towards sisters and brothers and towards offspring are traced back to the fear of death, struggle for survival, and threats the sibling induces. 

           Even with the power and relevance of Mitchell’s discussion, some difficulties remain. One is the problem of where the child’s sense of self, where the subject who is displaced by the sibling, comes from to begin with.  Mitchell’s picture of sibling interaction is very close to Lacan’s mirror-stage, although the resemblance remains unacknowledged, but the advantage of Lacanian theory is that it accounts for a necessary  construction of subjectivity; a self is not something given from the start. As important, the mirror phase explains how any redirection of sex from self to other becomes possible:  the identification with the reflected other permits the transfer of autoeroticism to the ideal ego; narcissism may be aimed at an other body form.  As Lacan claims, Object Relations theory has no means of explaining how sexuality moves from a self-contained autoeroticism to an other.  Lacan’s mirror stage allows for such a move, while Mitchell’s model, while it explains the genesis of sameness and difference, seems unable to show how polymorphous sexuality may be directed to an other.  Neither does it provide easily for the articulation of sex with gender difference, which has to derive from a notion of vertical sexual difference from the start, if this “minimal,” lateral difference has any sexual significance as a difference.  If gender is a polymorphous sexuality, if gender is to depend upon the child’s acceptance that the mother has babies, gender must be a logical deduction from sexual difference, which cannot, after all, come from the fact of pregnancy, which is what is involved in “the law of the mother.”  Ultimately, Mitchell’s attempt to think outside the phallus leaves no place for gender to be a representation:  “Lateral desire does not involve the symbolization that comes about through the absence of the phallus (or womb); it involves seriality.  As part of a series, girls and boys are ‘equilateral’, in other words, they are not defined by what is missing.  Girls and boys explore what is there, not what is not” (p. 128).  This is to violate the very point Mitchell insists on that representation depends upon absence.  Where does the child’s desire come from, without the mother’s symbolization of her desire in the lacking phallus?  Finally, in the long run, for the very reason that “gender” has become a popular category for identity and social regulation, it is not clear how it may serve as a psychoanalytic distinction.

           Mitchell’s arguments throughout the book do not displace or even contradict traditional theories and, in fact, extend their reach, but a greater effort to place them within an Oedipal framework would allow a clearer articulation. For the arguments are complex, and their ramifications evolve from a direct, pragmatic, and level-headed style, free of unnecessary abstraction and jargon and fleshed out with details from case histories and with often fascinating personal references and anecdotal vignettes.  If the first few chapters are sometimes repetitive, and the concepts are not systematically developed, due perhaps to the fact that much of the book derives from lectures, as the book progresses it ties together the various threads, and it draws increasingly on cross-cultural material and historical contexts. The thoughtful modesty of its writing is an indication of Siblings’ radical thinking.


Published by I.S.A.P. - ISSN 2284-1059
Scientific Journal in the List 11 by the ANVUR (Italian Agency for Evaluation of the University System and Research)