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Does the Woman Exist?Review - Does the Woman Exist?
From Freud's Hysteria to Lacan's Feminine
by Paul Verhaeghe
Other Press, 1999
Review by Talia L. Welsh
Jul 31st 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 31)

The title question of this book leads one to suppose the Paul Verhaeghe will solve the oft-mentioned "problem" of Freud's theory: his sexist attitude toward women. However, Verhaeghe's book proves to be far more than an apology for Freud's sexism. Verhaeghe provides a thoughtful analysis of the role of the "Woman" in both Freud and Lacan's works, and concludes that only with a Lacanian-structuralist approach can only adequately deal with the "woman problem." This book is especially recommended to anyone conversant in Freud's theory and wishing to learn more about Lacan's, for it (unlike many Lacanian sources) demonstrates, without too many obscure "Lacanisms," how Lacan built upon Freudian texts. It is also a necessary read for Lacanian or structuralist/post-structuralist scholars, for it demonstrates that, despite the highly theoretical and philosophical nature of Lacan's work, his theories are indebted to the insights first formulated by Freud. Furthermore, Verhaeghe, as a practicing analyst, also provides some, albeit highly theoretical, insights into therapeutic practice.

One of the most criticized aspects of Freudian theory is that it demeans women by characterizing them as hysterical (and thus overly emotional, unstable, hyper-sensitive, and so on). Verhaeghe points out that the hysterics Freud analyzed often were the ones to demonstrate to him the inadequacy of his own theory. Freud was unable to classify the behavior of hysterics, and it became increasing apparent that they would fabricate traumas in order to constantly "test" his authority. Thus, the characterizations of hysterics ran between everything from frigid to sexually over-charged, passive to aggressive, etc. Freud continued to search for a real event that caused hysterical behavior, but was unable to ever locate the "source" of the trauma he supposed existed. Verhaeghe criticizes post-Freudians for continuing to think that such real events factually occurred and can be "uncovered". In order to understand hysterics, one must make the jump to Lacan's structuralist theory. Lacanian theory does not require factual events to occur for them to be traumatic to the patient. Imagined traumas plays are also intrinsic to the pathology of the analysand. Lacan immunizes himself from social-historical critiques, for his explanation doesn't presuppose that certain events had to occur. (For example, in Lacanian theory, the role the phallus plays for men and women is not dependent upon real traumatic encounters with the father's penis.) Freud paved the way for such a theory by recognizing that people often fabricated stories of childhood incest, but he failed to formalize these insights.

For Freud, sexuality had to be traced to the distinction between the sexes. Only when children recognize sexual difference can they develop a sexual identity. Hysterics, Freud concluded, failed to accept sexual difference. Women would display this rejection of sexual difference more often due to their lack of a penis (and hence Freud's theory of penis-envy). When Lacan declared, "there is no sexual relationship," it was not to indicate that intercourse did not exist, but that fundamentally no one resolves the problem of sexual difference. Of course, this still fails to explain why women are of particular interest.

Verhaeghe points out that the polymorphous sexuality one experiences as a child is due to the lack of understanding of sexual difference; it is also necessarily pre-linguistic. Once children enter into a world of signifiers, they find that no "signifier" exists for a woman's sex. Thus, the Woman does not exist. The Woman's sexuality remains in an undetermined and ambiguous state. The hysteric, male or female, is most traumatized by this inability to "place" the Woman and thus displays an eternal search, but rejection of, any offered solution. "No," is the hysterical refrain, "not that exactly…" In conclusion, the Woman does not exist because she cannot be circumscribed by our symbolic order. In Lacanian parlance, she remains "in the Real."

Verhaeghe's book does require that one acknowledge a distinction between male and female that goes beyond just bodily difference, and also that one does not demand that "everyone is fundamentally the same." (Verhaeghe pulls no punches in his criticisms of feminist and social-constructivist takes on psychoanalytic theory) It also requires some familiarity with both Freud's texts and Lacanian/structuralist theory in order to understand how terminology like "symbolic," "imaginary," "signifier," etc. operate. However, even if one accepts the tenants of psychoanalytic theory, one is left wondering if, in fact, Verhaeghe is correct in placing the role of sexual difference as the fundamental core around which the subject revolves.

The split subject, which results from this entering into the symbolic, centers around a break one must make with the "oceanic feeling" (a phrase employed with Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents)--the lack of a subject-object split. This break entails an entrance into the world of sexual difference, but also means for the subject a coming to terms with troubling and more existential crises such as one's entrapment in subjectivity, entrapment in a finite body, etc. Perhaps, sexual difference is not the only defining characteristic that creates the individual qua subject.

Talia Welsh is a Ph.D. student in Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. She is writing a dissertation on Merleau Ponty's psychology.


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