For those who question the feminine, the history of feminism is an inescapable teaching, both clinical and political. By publishing online the text of Annie Le Brun’s memorable intervention in the TV show “Apostrophes”, Lacan Quotidien1 fortunately reminded us that her essay Lâchez tout marks an indisputable moment in the history of feminism. There is an urgent need to read or reread this essay which is now available, as well as “Vagit-prop” and twelve other texts gathered in a collection.2
In the Name of “All Women”
Annie Le Brun’s biting, scathing texts throw a light as merciless as it is salutary on the neo-feminism of her time, making a whole era, that of the Cause of Women, resound for the women of my generation. But they also shed light on the aftermath, allowing us to meditate on today’s neo-feminism, by delivering keys to understanding its essential impasses.
Annie Le Brun ignores nothing of the reality of women’s misery in history and in the world, of the validity of feminist struggles and the struggle of all women who have not allowed themselves to be silenced. Therein lies the dignity of her attack. But her act aims to separate women’s struggle for equal rights, their struggle against all forms of oppression and their rejection of alienating models, from feminist ideology when it swerves towards the “corporatist” discourse that intends to rule souls and bodies. In short, she attacks neo-feminism when, under the cloak of liberation, it intends to impose the flatness of uniformity. The foolishness that Annie Le Brun intends to fight against is indeed that which consists in wanting to impose one’s fictions, or even one’s fantasy, on the world order. She says it clearly and plainly: she refuses to be enlisted in the “women’s army” simply because of biological chance. Lâchez tout is a call to desertion against “the sinister armies of conformism, whatever sex is slung across the shoulder.”
The vigorous criticism undertaken by this militant of the surrealist cause would be mere execution, gratuitous lambasting, if it were not based rigorously on the in-depth analysis and interpretation of the texts that formed the enlightened basis of the feminist movement of the 1970s, texts that she examined with merciless precision.
None of the great figures who inspired feminism escapes her uncompromising diatribe: Evelyne Sullerot’s Le Fait féminin (1978) and Marie-Françoise Hans and Gilles Lapouge’s Les Femmes, la pornographie, l’érotisme (1978) are particularly targeted, as are Benoîte Groult, Germaine Greer, Gisèle Halimi, Élisabeth Badinter, Annie Leclerc, Xavière Gauthier, Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous, etc. Let’s just say that given the moment in which she speaks, her proposition sounds a little iconoclastic, not to say “blasphemous,” as she herself admits.
Her attack begins by targeting what inaugurated twentieth-century feminism, one of the major books of contemporary thought, The Second Sex. Without going into the details of the analysis of this text, whose historical significance she acknowledges, she refers to Suzanne Lilar’s memorable critique Le Malentendu du Deuxième Sexe [The Misunderstanding of the Second Sex]. Above all, she emphasizes the contradictions of a position that wishes to erase the difference between the sexes, but which hardly conceals the claim of a feminine specificity. Sexuality is situated as the site of the confrontation of two irreconcilable categories, masculine and feminine, whose only liberating outcome would be at the price of “a generalised de-sexualisation.” Annie Le Brun is not making things up: “two human beings who come together in the very movement of their transcendence no longer need to unite carnally,”3 as per The Second Sex.
Basically, for Annie Le Brun, the worm was in the fruit as soon as it was a question of making a second sex exist and making The Woman consist. Failing to conceive “that the feminine is no more exclusive to women than the masculine is to men,” the vista of women tends to shrink to an oscillation between greatness and misery, angels or demons, witches or mystery…
Annie Le Brun methodically demonstrates that feminism as a discourse renews the impasses it claims to fight: the dictatorship of the same, the prejudice of nature, the surveillance of the law of gender.
A Dictatorship of the Same
Unlike the feminists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who aimed to erase the illusory difference legitimising men’s power over women, Annie Le Brun notes that the neo-feminism of the 1970s tends to re-establish the reality of a generic difference, which is always at the expense of specific differences. The right to be different established a dictatorship of the Same, with homosexuality reduced to a position of sexual withdrawal from which men could be quietly hated, with rape being conceived as the implicit model for all male behaviour.
It is indeed the dimension of the Other that is invested with all the evil right up to the point that “for fear of disappearing into otherness, one only thinks of going to war.” Throughout her clear-sighted pages, she shows that this discourse evacuates the dimension of love and hunts down “the taste for passion.” In so doing, she poses the only worthwhile ethical question: that we are forever separated from the Other does not absolve us from having to answer for the possible link with the Other, insofar as “existing is not Being. To exist depends on the Other,”4 as Lacan puts it. Annie Le Brun’s criticism takes us to the heart of the contemporary discourses which makes the other an intruder suspected a priori of raping being: how can we ensure that parlêtres cohabit in a common space?
Of an Absolute Femininity
Annie Le Brun analyses the rhetoric and contours of a short-sighted epistemology that ultimately appeals to the “profound nature” of feminine beings. What she calls the “terrorism of femaleness” consists in revising the whole of culture, with the famous “women’s point of view,” “women’s words,” “women’s Writing.” The totalitarian temptation that she deciphers in the chorus of the artistic or intellectual femininity of the time is such that “there are executions galore” for all those who contributed to revealing the feminine principle, from Breton to Baudelaire, via Degas, Manet, Goya – a striking echo of contemporary misandry.
It is in this context, as Annie Le Brun points out, that the hateful fixation on psychoanalysis of this neo-feminism has a blind spot: that without Freud, “the notion of phallocracy would have been unthinkable”, and that we owe it to him to have overturned the idea that men and women have of themselves.
Annie Le Brun remarkably shows how the mystique of absolute femininity unfolds in a climate of policing: policing language that must be feminised, a deaf and guilt-ridden morality. When you hunt for the phallus, you always end up occupying its place. In short, she is rightly concerned that, having found itself to be mutilated, the speech of some women ends up imposing silence.
The Common Mistake
A logic relentlessly appears: in wanting the systematic deconstruction of “representations alienated to the gaze of men,” feminist discourse has oriented and exalted women’s gaze on their own bodies, the sublimated body of the famous Speculum or Ainsi soit-elle.5 The aim was to target the similarity of fascinating bodies in order to better gather together – or to gather together in order to better resemble each other – in the community of “blissful sisterhood.” Isn’t it the same logic that has led today’s neo-feminism to place the demand of the feminine within the body itself, except that it is a body made of detached pieces, in three dimensions, a femen body, stripped of all semblants.
From the toothed vagina to the winged vagina, the feminist literature of the 1970s renewed the prejudices of nature “whose traces on the body we believe we can read.” In the end, it is always what Lacan calls “the common error”6 which is at stake, that which consists in not recognising that it is language which grounds the naturalness of the distinction between the sexes.
And since there are no secondary sexual characteristics of the woman if not of the mother, as Lacan puts it, we logically witness the return of the mother as covering over the woman, a point which Annie Le Brun does not fail to emphasise.
Uncloaking the Feminine Principle
So what has happened to bring about such a disintegration of thought from “cet air affranchi de l’aurore” that a few women at the beginning of that century were able to create? This is Annie Le Brun’s main concern: a step has been missed in this historical moment when it was becoming difficult to believe any longer that “men were well-defined as such and that women were well-determined women.”7 One might have hoped, she remarks, to escape the weight of two thousand years of Christianity. Isn’t this the moment that Lacan describes as the uncloaking of the feminine principle, under the influence of the disappearance of the father?8 The question posed by Annie Le Brun prompts us to examine, for today and for tomorrow, what has contributed to covering up this uncloaking.
Subversion by the Singular
Annie Le Brun doesn’t mince her words: although it is only two centuries old, feminism has become an ageing idea. To this discourse, she contrasts necessity: “There is no specifically feminine thought, there are only beings here and there who one day feel obliged to cross the limits that have been assigned to them. The fact that these beings are women does not change anything.” And to quote Louise Michel, Flora Tristan, the women of the Commune…, whose revolt found its sources in the heart of a threatened life, pushing them to passionately invent their particular and collective destiny. It is always in the face of the impossibility of living “in a world which works incessantly to reduce them to the lowest common denominator of their nature” that a rupture imposed itself each time to the women who have found their place in the struggle “without asking for it”, as Louise Michel says, in order to cast off an inertia which insidiously brings them back to their bodies.
Beyond that, the elucidation provided by Annie Le Brun’s criticism, her position and her intuitions are astonishing. She is not content to castigate both “Stalinism in petticoats” and “phallocratic Stalinism.” With a pen that is as precise as it is lucid, of an incredible freshness, she tries to explain her position, a position that I would describe as accurate in relation to what she perceives as the mirages of being. It is so as not to analyse the vertigo of the “void of the verb to be,” we would say with Lacan, that a certain militancy ends up imposing “an obligation to be” that Annie Le Brun finds detestable. At a distance from the making of a “new man”, her sympathy goes to those who “content themselves with being exceptions.” And how can an exception be situated, if not where one really exists, in one’s unique mode of enjoying [mode de jouir]?
“I Based My Cause on the Void”
It is clear that Annie Le Brun prefers to doubt her femininity and leaves it to others to “police the definition.” Her quest lies elsewhere, it is a quest which confronts a certain nudity, where from the “most buried of her passions and her refusals, the Unique conquers its space over the nothing [le rien].” According to her, women have the privilege of knowing the presence of this nothing at the heart of themselves.
It is driven by this object nothing, this “famine,” in Annie Le Brun’s words, which does not give way either under the influence of gender or under the pressure of social roles, that the source of essential ruptures emerges in the heart of each.
“Not believing in the miracles of having it in order to heal the deficiencies of being, I based my cause on the void,” says Annie Le Brun. Isn’t it the cause of the “within us, it wants” that pushes us to go forward, to say, to do? It reveals itself in an analytical cure to be a void. It does not lend itself to being a standard. So how can the emptiness of the cause be linked to collective action? It is stapled to language, placed in the Other, that the cause joins the impetus of collective action or the solidarity of a collective.
Translated by Janet Haney
Reviewed by Véronique Voruz
First published in Lacan Quotidien, No. 914, 16 February 2021, under the banner: EDITORIAL –The Lacanian Opinion, continued.
- See Le Brun, A., “Contre le néo-féminisme”, Lacan Quotidien, No. 911, 28 January 2021. (First broadcast 10 February 1978 on Antenne 2.)
- Le Brun, A., Vagit-prop , Lâchez tout  and other texts, Ramsay-J.J. Pauvert, 1990, Sandre, 2010.
- See de Beauvoir, S., The Second Sex, trans. C. Borde and S. Malovany-Chevallier, London, Vintage, 2010.
- Lacan, J., Seminar XIX, …or Worse, text est. J.-A. Miller, trans. A.R. Price, Cambridge, Polity, 2018, pp. 89-90.
- Speculum, by Luce Irigaray; Ainsi soit-elle, by Benoîte Groult.
- Lacan, J., op. cit.
- René Nelli, Erotique et civilisation, quoted by A. Le Brun.
- Cf. Lacan, J., “Les complexes familiaux” (1938), Autres écrits, Paris, Seuil, 2001, p. 84.