Richard Wollheim (‘Psychoanalysis and Feminism’, nlr 93) argues for a biological interpretation of Freud’s account of sexual development. As a group of feminists concerned with the theoretical elaboration of unconscious sexual formations, we wish to argue that Wollheim’s view is both idealist and reactionary in its implications for feminist practice: biology constitutes neither a sufficient nor an adequate basis for a future materialist interpretation of Freud. Wollheim admonishes Juliet Mitchell for her ‘failures of perception’, but it is Wollheim who invites us to see the issues ‘not as they themselves require’. We shall demonstrate the way in which he does this; first, however, let us look at Wollheim’s arguments as he presents them.
The value of Freud’s account for Wollheim is that he can acquire from it a theory of the bodily ego and therefore a developmental norm. According to Wollheim, the growth of the ego and the growth of its accompaniment, the ego concept, are structured within the bodily organism, and will reflect the dominant organization of the libido (the oral, anal, phallic and genital phases) at each stage of maturation. None of these stages are gender specific; in the development of the bodily ego along the lines of sexual maturation its objects and its aims remain the same for boys and girls.
Having outlined a theory of the development of the ego, and having attributed that theory to Freud, Wollheim argues that Freud’s account of the Oedipal stage is not of a piece with the theory of ego which confines itself to biology and its internal representatives: the output of the theory of bodily ego is not the correct input to a theory of the Oedipal stage.
Wollheim argues that Freud’s theory of ego development as it stands is an inadequate basis upon which to erect a theory of feminine sexual development, since with its insistence on phallic monism, it ‘seems to underestimate the early role of the vagina’. He sketches out some features of an alternative theory that he considers would remain compatible with the concept of the bodily ego. His revision calls for a greater emphasis on the processes of projection, introjection and identification in accounting for sexual development and differentiation.
Wollheim considers that the roots of sexual discrimination are to be found in the relations between parts of an individual’s sexuality (‘mankind’s essential bisexuality’), and not in the relations between the sexes. In this way, he implicitly posits a pre-given aversion to the other sexes’ ‘natural’ characteristics, and a projection of this aversion onto social forms (‘what women have suffered from over the centuries is man’s inability to tolerate the feminine side of his nature’).
In Wollheim’s eyes, Mitchell has succumbed to the terms of a topical debate, among certain feminists, about penis envy in her book Psychoanalysis and Feminism. He suggests that the consequences of this are twofold. First, it has ‘led her into errors of tact in that she spends time on issues that do not deserve it’. Mitchell, however, unapologetically understands her work as part of a political process—the development of a theory of patriarchal formations. Secondly, Wollheim argues that Mitchell has failed to make use of the potentiality of a feminist critique of Freud (i.e. through a reawakening of the concept of the bodily ego). For want of this, her feminist commitment leads her to displace the theoretical problem—Freud’s insistence on phallic monism—onto a historical limitation. In other words, he argues with Mitchell for having failed to notice the inconsistency of the Oedipus complex in Freud, and not only this, but even elaborated this inconsistency as a limitation of history, ‘the presentation of the psychology of women under capitalism’. Wollheim’s understanding and criticisms of Freud and Mitchell stem from his insistent reduction of Freudian theory to biologism, with a concomitant reduction, if not to say rejection, of the place of the unconscious.
We would like to raise two points which challenge the adequacy of Wollheim’s reading of Freud. 1. His account of an autonomous biology supporting the growth of the ego is questionable when examined in the light of Freud’s paper on narcissism (1914). There Freud found it necessary to distinguish between the auto-erotic instincts and the ego as a separate function: ‘It is impossible to suppose that a unity comparable to the ego can exist from the start; the ego has to develop. But the auto-erotic instincts are primordial, so there must be something added to auto-eroticism—a new psychic action—in order that narcissism may come into being’. footnote1 Lacan, in ‘The Mirror Phase’, theorizes the relationship between narcissism and ego-formation in the following way. The ego is constituted at the point of the subject’s narcissistic identification with its body as an image of unity rather than an anatomy of parts. The ego itself is the reflection of a narcissistic structure grounded on the return of the infant’s image to itself in a moment of pseudo-totalization. From the moment the infant sees its reflection in the mirror, it internalizes a fantasy of its own perfection, and the ego sets off in a fictional direction. footnote2