What does the speech of women teach us in the age of #MeToo?
The concrete enunciation of women’s public declarations concerning the question of sexual assault has hit its target and made the news. This global event undeniably constitutes a breach in discourse and has broken a wall of silence that goes a long way back.
The viral echo of this movement has created an extension of the field of sexual assault, which now includes the whole range of physical, verbal and moral harassment. It shows that feminism as a discourse has changed: we have moved from political feminism in the modern sense, a feminism of subjects (universal rights), to a feminism of bodies. The war of the sexes has moved into the public domain and the political war, to the level of intimacy, with a tendency to demonise men. This was nothing new in American feminism, as evidenced by the position of Catharine MacKinnon,1 who, in the 1980s, contended that there was “less than the thickness of a cigarette paper” between normal sexual relations and rape.
A step was taken towards a culture of contract, where the rights and duties of each party are codified in strict regulatory provisions, particularly to ensure consent, the aim always being to seek contractual protection for the “weak” against the “strong.” The activist tendency veers towards bringing back this confrontation to a physical face-to-face that invokes the law of the strongest.
Radical neo-feminism, which can go as far as lesbian separatism,2 thus brings each woman back to her body (or even her colour) in an endless fragmentation. If we consider that the structure of the group that emerges from this is based on the imaginary of bodies – we all look alike – then the result would be an attack on culture and on social bonds. A community of brothers without the myth of the dead father? The only answer to the real of the drive would therefore be the group – a false fraternity in short, a sisterhood of bodies. Exit the subject, exit desire, and nothing to say on jouissance.
It should be recognised that the notion of harassment first became generalised to a degree where the pressure would be for language itself to be freed of misunderstandings and above all emptied of anything that might be offensive. The offence and the guilt it invokes in return are at the centre of this discourse. This movement, which generates a veritable policing of language, takes up an idea that is not new: by striking the word, one will get rid of the thing itself, and destroy the phallus. In its extreme forms this trait resonates as a veritable anti-Enlightenment “censorship.” I use the term “censorship” here in the way that Barthes uses it in his Sade, Fourier, Loyola, where he says that true censorship does not consist in prohibition, but in miring people in stereotypes, not restraining them but unduly encouraging them, and forcing them to speak in a certain way.
Let us be dialectical. On one side, there is refusal, rejection. It is a question of rejecting everything in language that can resonate as masculine domination, in short, everything that falls within the purview of the virile order – precisely at a moment when it is becoming apparent that the decline of the father has been followed by the decline of the man. But does this not go in the direction of promoting a new master? And, in particular, of occupying, through misunderstanding this, the place of the master of language?
On another side, there is an aspiration. Can we see in this rage to purify language, by means of fixed phrases and euphemisms, a desperate attempt to find or impose the right word, the true word, the new word to accommodate that which cannot be named – for it is not a language – namely, the feminine part of every parlêtre? The new word would arise out of what is fundamentally lacking.
Shouldn’t we therefore read this movement against the backdrop of what Jacques-Alain Miller has called today’s “aspiration to femininity”?3 Aspiration because we are fundamentally separated from it – the feminine is the Other par excellence. He points out that “the deepest phenomenon lies in the contemporary aspiration to femininity, and the resistance, delusion and rage that seize the partisans of the old order. The great fractures we are witnessing between the old and the new order can be deciphered, at least in part, as the virile order retreating in the face of female protest.”
The feminine, as J.-A. Miller points out, is becoming increasingly important. It is not of the order of a new master for the simple reason that as such, it escapes all control, all knowledge, and ex-sists to the semblants of gender.
One cannot help but think here of the teaching of the Précieuses movement, which Lacan summed up as follows: “a society … devoted as it entirely was to the perfecting of language [langage].”4 In particular, he notes the “innovations introduced into language” by these women’s circles which were not very well organised, but whose heritage we can still sense. There was also a challenge to the phallus in the Précieuses movement, which wanted to break “the signifier at the level of its letter.”5 For Lacan, the Précieuses phenomenon also illustrates the social effects of the eros of feminine homosexuality, what he calls, in his “Guiding Remarks for a Convention on Female Sexuality”, “the social instance of women”6 insofar as it transcends the order of the contract and affects the whole of society. In short, the lasting changes introduced into the social – everything that tends to go beyond conformity without for all that aiming at consensus – contrast with the homogenising bond of male homosexual communities. Lacan accentuates here the dissymmetry between the cohesion of the group ensured by the Ideal, whereas no master signifier collectivises the Précieuses movement, which, in this sense, responds to the structure of the not-all.
Wanting to change language in a radical sense amounts to imposing a “wall of language” without any nuance: if we disregard all semblants, we logically land, today, on the body; not on a conversation between the sexes, but on the silence that is consubstantial with violence: rape or murder. On this slope, one does not target some men but at “all men”, that is to say the universal of “All men are mortal”: Lacan tells us that the phrase “all the” has no meaning, “all the” can only be imagined, experienced, via death.
In Ornicar ? J.-A. Miller once indicated an orientation that remains highly topical: “What keeps Lacanian opinion alive (its true opinion, orthè doxa) is its propagation amongst the public.”7 What is a true opinion in psychoanalysis? An interpretation, a saying that is true and just, adjusted to the here and now. In the current malaise, it must relate to the feminine Other, which is not of the order of “all women” (there is no such thing as “all women” and each woman is not all). The experience of an analysis allows this journey towards what ex-sists to the semblants of gender, not the sexuated position, but the experience of sex as such – this is the path of the symptom. It will not be in vain then to be ahead of the curve.
In Response to a Question About Separatism
If I mentioned this extremist discourse, which asserts a political lesbianism to the point of separatism, it is not in order to give it consistency. It remains a discourse with its fantasmatic, fictitious dimension. It remains a dream (the dream of a society of emancipated sisters cf. Pauline Harmange). It remains to be seen what impact it will have on contemporary subjectivity. It was rather a matter of questioning what’s new in the discourse.
And what is new, it seems to me, is that feminism as discourse has moved to the level of the body itself. This is both a matter of historical continuity – according to Michèle Perrot, the history of feminism is “a history of women’s bodies”8 – with the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s, insofar as it was also about the right to control one’s own body, one of its famous slogans being “Our Bodies, Ourselves”, and of historical discontinuity, in the sense that it is the body itself which becomes the place of emancipation, the place of political combat and even the body made of detachable pieces: breasts, hair, menstrual flow.9
This suggests that what has not been dealt with by universalist feminism, nor in a sense by the LGBT+ movement, now seems to manifest itself as a feminist demand or ‘femininity’ within the body, in infinite fragmentation and, as a result, infinite segregation. In short, as struggles for equal rights are won, what of the feminine struggles to be accommodated within the universal discourse (which is always virile) is progressively laid bare.
What began with the desire to change language (with the endless task of political correctness, the hunt for micro-aggressions, the feminisation of language), hunting for the phallus in language, ends up with the body and, ipso facto, with the lack of dialogue between the sexes.
In view of this, a psychoanalysis is the chance to bring to light with an analyst not only the misunderstandings one has with the other sex, but also the misunderstandings one has with oneself. From this point of view, it is an anti-segregative experience, because the difference which we extract from it gives us an identity of a special kind, that of the symptom, a singular mark which cannot be collectivised and which, as a result, escapes what, for Lacan, constitutes the slope of all discourse, namely domination.
Translated by Janet Haney
Reviewed by Véronique Voruz
Intervention given during the 50th Study-Days of the ECF on the theme “Attentat Sexuel [Sexual Attack]”, 15 November 2020. First published in Lacan Quotidien, No. 897, 26 November 2020
- Catherine MacKinnon initiated the definition of sexual harassment in law in the United States in 1977.
- See Coffin, A., Le génie lesbien, Paris, Grasset, 2020; Harmange P., Moi les hommes, je les déteste, Paris, Seuil, 2020.
- Miller J.-A., L’orientation lacanienne: L’Un-tout-seul, lesson of 9 February 2011, published as “Progrès en psychanalyse assez lent”, La Cause freudienne, No. 78, 2011, p. 200.
- Lacan, J., Seminar I, Freud’s Papers on Technique, 1953-1954, text established by J.-A. Miller, trans. J. Forrester, London/New York, Norton, 1991, p. 268.
- Lacan, J., Seminar XIX, … or Worse, text established by J.-A. Miller, trans. A.R. Price, Cambridge, Polity, 2018, p. 9.
- Lacan. J., “Guiding Remarks for a Convention on Female Sexuality”, Écrits, trans. B. Fink, London/NY, Norton, 2006, p. 620.
- Miller, J.-A., “Liminaire”, Ornicar ?, No. 28, January 1984, p. 6.
- Perrot, M., Mon histoire des femmes, France culture/Seuil, Points coll. history, 2008.
- Cf. Les glorieuses newsletter by Rebecca Anselem or Camille Froidevaux-Metterie, Le corps des femmes. La bataille de l’intime, Philosophie Magazine ed. 2018.