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Pornography in the Political Domain: A Citizen is Being Beaten

This post is part of the Gender and Domination Course in OOPS.

It is election time. I am almost done with the course “Gender and Domination.” However, the echoes of conversations started in that class are proving to be difficult to silence. Among the questions that this seminar has left lingering, the one that has stayed with me the most has to do with the little use that historically psychoanalytic theory seems to have had for political philosophy. Maybe the problem is that I do not know enough about the topic, but it is my impression that the existing collaborations between the two disciplines are scarce at best. Yet I do not think it has to be this way. Thus, in what follows, I present my attempt to engage psychoanalysis with certain political attitudes that I consider problematic. The starting point of my reflection is an article that Drucilla Cornell wrote back in the 1990s as a response to the debate on pornography initiated by Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. No knowledge of said controversy is really needed in order to understand my piece, for the central point of my commentary does not have much to do with the “Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance” per se. So, without much ado, I hope you are in the mood to think about mainstream (heterosexual) pornography, Phallic Mother(s), presidential candidates, and beating fantasies (did I mention I also bring Freud into the conversation?) If you are, read on.

In an effort to explain the pervasiveness and appeal that characterizes the cultural phenomenon we call pornography, Drucilla Cornell, in her article entitled “Pornography’s Temptation,” resorts to Jacques Lacan’s insights concerning the role that the figure of the Phallic Mother plays in creating and re-creating the social conditions that enable the allure of mainstream-heterosexual pornography to become a reality that justifies the rise of an ever-growing, million-dollar industry. Similarly, in my engagement with Cornell’s article I will be using the Lacanian problematization of the Oedipal complex to discuss some basic political attitudes that, I contend, also result in a reproduction of the social disposition that tends to normalize domination and the ‘beating fantasies’ that go with it. In this way, just as Cornell attempts to provide a psychoanalytic account that could “adequately come to terms with pornography as a cultural phenomenon” (126), my idea is to outline a similar account for the sake of tracing the roots of the embrace of political domination/subjugation at the individual level, and to explore how such an analysis may shed light on the way in which our disposition for obedience is also administered by our early social interactions.

In “Pornography’s Temptation,” Cornell claims that for Lacan the seminal point of the establishment of the individual’s linguistic consciousness occurs when the infant is forced to face the fact that his mother is a separate being in her own right, and that, as such, she has desires of her own (127). This realization has profound repercussions in the making of the consciousness of the child, for he will be forced to realize that, despite the absolute dependence that he feels ties him to his mother, it is in his best interest to find a way to affirm his own identity without resorting to his mother for help, as the mother cannot be trusted to be an unconditional guarantor of his identity. At the same time –according to Cornell’s reading of Lacan– the child cannot avoid feeling enticed by what he identifies as the object of desire of his mother: his father. For in the son’s eyes, it is the father who ultimately controls the mother by embodying that which the mother lacks. In this reading, then, the child assumes that the mother desires the father because he can complete her in a fundamental way. Under this lens, the mother becomes a failure, a mutilated figure standing in sharp contrast with the idea of her that the infant cherished during the pre-Oedipal phase, according to which the mother was deemed an all-powerful figure invested with the capability to bestow and take away life as she pleased. Such is the way in which, according to Lacan, the child regards the Phallic Mother.

But the story does not end there. Or so Drucilla Cornell tells us, who goes to a lot of effort to explain what lies at the basis of pornography’s power to tempt, to arouse, thus proposing an interpretation of pornography that depicts it as an instance of sadomasochism. Contrary to what is normally assumed (and, in particular, contrary to what the main interlocutors of Cornell’s intervention — Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin — seemed to assume), Cornell argues that “[i]t is not male power that is portrayed in pornography but their lack of security over who they are supposed to be” (159). Pornography, therefore, becomes an avenue to avenge the vulnerability that the separation from the mother bequeaths to the individual. Yet, the “ripping apart” of women conveyed by pornography only entails a symbolic and temporal vendetta, and therefore condemns its audience to engage in what Cornell defines as a “repetitive dance of dismemberment that can never achieve its end” as no pornographic act can ever fully erase the phantasmatic figure of the Phallic Mother (130). It is for this reason that, Cornell argues, the compulsiveness associated with the sexual pleasure promised by pornography should be understood as intimately related to terror and fantasies of control. In this sense, pornography speaks not to the penis but to the unconscious (138). To the extent that pornography encodes the purported inferiority of women through sexual subjugation, it affords men a compensation for what Cornell, along with Lacanians, deems as a “primary narcissistic wound” — namely, the wound effected by the loss of intimacy with the Phallic Mother (142).

Now, let us think for a moment about what would happen if, instead of placing a woman in the position of the Phallic Mother, one were to assign this role to the nation-state. In such a scenario, the trauma of separation described by Lacan would force the infant-citizen to realize: a) that he cannot count on the support of the Mother-Land to provide unconditional fulfillment of all his individual needs and identity, b) that the Mother-Land has particular needs and interests of her own that clearly extend beyond those of the child, or, even more importantly, beyond those imposed by her role as ‘mother’ to that particular child. If we resort to the example of Freud’s grandson, Ernst, as a way to understand the reaction that a child may experience while placed in such a situation — a resorting that entails the omission of the fact that, in the context of Cornell’s discussion, Ernst is not negotiating his position as a citizen but as a son of a real woman — we learn that a child who suffers a traumatic separation such as the one described above becomes very invested in re-gaining power over the mother. And, it is for this reason that the child turns to the figure of the imaginary father who signifies mommy’s object of desire, who from that point on becomes a role model. To the extent that daddy represents the powerful figure that can make the mother his, who can “stamp her with his name” (129), daddy represents the ultimate embodiment of balance, of the reestablishment of order and security that the child lost once he was forced to grant independence to the maternal figure. The obvious question then becomes: who is the ‘father’ in the picture I have constructed while transposing the Lacanian account of the relation with the Phallic Mother into the political arena? Who is this figure that can control the ‘mother’ (short for Mother-Land), while provoking the admiration that in turn results in a disposition for emulation in the child-citizen?

In attempting to answer this question it is useful to turn our attention toward the grammar of the political discourse that serves as the driving force of the fabric of the social relations that envelop us. In doing this, we realize that the ‘father,’ that figure that contains, controls, and fulfills the needs of the Mother-State is a hybrid that synthesizes the figure of a politician and a conquistador. In other words, the ‘father’ is what the mainstream discourse calls “a natural leader,” that ‘innate’ guide that we all (individual, citizen-children) need in order to feel safe, and who provides the model that informs the shaping of our political culture. For it is undeniable that our mainstream political-culture adores leaders and abhors the ‘chaos’ that results from their absence (this is why the anti-hierarchical approach of Anarchism is for the most part ignored as a serious alternative within political discourse, academic or otherwise). In fact, this inherent faith in the redeeming power of leadership, this longing for guidance, is particularly exploited in the rhetoric of the current presidential debate, where presidential candidates summarize their virtues under slogans that promise an effective re-shaping of the Mother-Land. It is with this in mind that the candidates claim their intentions of “Mak[ing] America Great Again”, “Reigniting the Promise of America,” or “Unleash[ing] the American Dream.” Whatever the words, the promise is the same: the candidates are leaders who (allegedly) can guide the ‘mother’ into the realization of her full potential. In order to achieve this, the ‘father’ does not need a biological penis per se. Rather, the idea is that any person can assume such a role provided that (s)he embraces the privileged status of the phallus (as many female politicians do while attempting to prove that they can be ‘as tough’ as their male counterparts).

And children grow hearing the motivational mantra of how good it is to be a leader instead of a follower, a shepherd instead of a sheep. Becoming a leader is the goal, even though it is pretty clear that a country cannot accommodate an endless number of ‘leaders,’ and even less can the world. In noticing this, it becomes obvious that there is something ultimately problematic and even violent about a culture that is programmed to worship the place-holder of an individual leader, independently of who this person may happen to be, insofar as this disposition brings about unhealthy social dynamics that condemn individuals to compete with each other, just as the infant subject of Lacanian analysis is condemned to admire and resent the presence of his father whom he perceives as a threat and as a role model. It is in this way that the current model of citizenship, as enforced by those countries that abide by the most aggressive realizations of capitalism, could be said to be inherently permeated by a sort of beating phantasy which prompts the individual to assume that love may be enforced by the means of force, and that there is a way in which the role of the beater is open to anyone capable to show that they have what it takes to assume the role of the father. The fact that we can get up every day and continue to condone these dynamics speaks volumes of the masochistic ways that characterize our political existence.

In fact, when one thinks about it, the similarities between the formation of our political consciousness and the structure that Sigmund Freud labels as “beating fantasies” are quite striking. Just as the little child in Freud’s account seems unable to control the succession of events that place him first in the position of a witness of a public beating (phase 1 of the fantasy) later as a direct victim (phase 2) and lastly as a member of a collective of victims (phase 3) similarly, modern-day citizens seem to partake in a political inertia that writes their fate for them. These citizens, just as Freud’s patients, start by witnessing the chastising of others and would for the most part remain indifferent to the scene thanks to the various techniques of rationalization put at their disposal (think of the ways in which the ones being beaten are described as “no angels” and therefore can be assumed to “deserve” the punishment). But then comes the time where the witness him/herself becomes the subject of the beating, which makes evident the masochistic traits that characterize the way in which some citizens relate to power. It is in light of these masochistic inclinations that some citizens would praise the rhetoric of the despotic neoliberal state, despite being utterly damaged by its effects in everyday life — after all, when your master-father tells you: ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ he does it for your own good, does he not? Similarly, when the state resorts to labels such as “Right-to-Work” to allude to laws aimed at weakening the power of collective bargaining, it is also claimed that the motivation for such a statute is the protection of the right of free association. And, against all odds, it is possible to find many citizens who buy into this rhetoric, and infer that these actions are indeed inspired by a concern for the well-being of the general population. They, therefore, proceed to stoically endure the beating.

Finally, the third and last phase of the actualization of the beating phantasy brings about a certain “collectivization” of pain, insofar as the individual partially returns to his role of onlooker of the pain of others. To better understand the significance of this phase, it is important to remember that in Freud’s account, this is the moment where the figure of the one doing the beating as well as the one placed at the receiving end constantly change their physical appearance, (which insinuates that by this point many children are being beaten by many representatives of the father). Yet, there is an important way in which the witness-victim feels connected to those undergoing the punishment, and as a consequence comes to experience part of the pain that the direct victim feels. In light of this detail, Freud qualified the sadism that he perceived in this stage of the phantasy as particularly tied to an instance of masochism, insofar as here the child producing the phantasy derives pleasure from experiencing pain through its identification with the figure of those being beaten.

At this point, a recapitulation is in order. By means of the transposition presented above, I have proposed that we use Cornell’s and Freud’s insights to try to shed a different light onto the re-construction of our political consciousness, for the purpose of gaining a better understanding of how the nuances of the infant-mother relationship might be filtered and reshaped in the political arena in order to justify noxious political assumptions, such as the idea that leadership and hierarchy are desirable ingredients of a healthy political life. If I am right in my analysis, there is an important way that these assumptions, in turn, might become a bedrock for our political consciousness, and in doing so predispose us to embrace domination and subjugation. Thus, the benefit of this analysis is its potential to expose the misunderstandings permeating the condoning of political axioms such as those that justify the cult of the leader over the emphasis on the power of the people. In this way, the essential disposition behind my re-employment of the figure of the Phallic Mother (which in my transposition is replaced by the Mother-Land) or the sadomasochism of the child producing the beating phantasies studied by Freud (who I depict as a child-citizen) is to show that what appears as political helplessness is likely an ill-produced understanding of our political stance in the world. It is in light of this that one of the main points of this exposition has been to gesture to the futility of trying to “Make America Great Again” while assuming that the viability of such enterprise depends on our ability to bend to the most ‘deserving’ elite, to the ‘right’ class of leaders. What we need is a way of thinking that places the power within the masses, so that anybody can stop the vicious cycle of battering, and anybody can step away from the dance of dismembering that Cornell describes.

This is to say that what we need, as a society, is to stop the consumption of political pornography in order to acquire the space to become active builders of the fate of our communities. And this is a power that no leader can grant us; in fact, for the most part, the only thing a true leader does is to administer this power on our behalf. And that is how the beating begins.

Cornell, Drucilla. “Pornography’s Temptation,” in The Imaginary Domain: Abortion, Pornography and Sexual Difference (New York: Routledge, 1995), 95-163.

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