EssaysFeatureSex & Gender

The Portable Phallus

An excerpt from Penis Envy and Other Bad Feelings

In Penis Envy and Other Bad Feelings: The Emotional Cost of Everyday Life Mari Ruti interweaves theoretical insight, cultural critique, feminist politics, and personal experience to lift the lid on the prevalence of bad feelings in contemporary everyday life. Emanating from a playful engagement with Freud’s idea of penis envy, Ruti’s autotheoretical commentary fans out to a broader consideration of neoliberal pragmatism. She focuses on the emphasis on good performance, high productivity, constant self-improvement, and relentless cheerfulness that characterizes present-day Western society. Revealing the treacherousness of our fantasies of the good life, particularly the idea that our efforts will eventually be rewarded — that things will eventually get better — Ruti unveils the false hope that often causes us to tolerate an unbearable present. Read an excerpt from Ruti’s new book below.

The Portable Phallus

What we all know but often try to ignore is that for many people, and for women and the ambiguously gendered in particular, dichotomous thinking about gender is a considerable source of bad feelings such as lack of confidence, anxiety, and anger. Such thinking makes me want to scream Why is this so important to you? Who cares what the equipment between your legs looks like? People are people. I care about whether they’re interesting, thoughtful, empathetic, amusing, damaged, or whatever else they happen to be. Whether they are male, female, or anything in between (or beyond) seems entirely beside the point.

The world clearly doesn’t agree with me, for it continues to allow social power to accrue to the possessor of the penis. As much as things have improved for Western women since Freud’s time, there’s no denying that our society still equates power with the penis. This is why it’s easier for men to assert authority than for women. There are of course many women who do, but the process can get complicated. As a female professor, I’ve learned to approach the matter with a degree of irony. For example, I’m aware that I never lecture without holding a pen. If I forget my pen in my office, I borrow one from a student. It doesn’t matter whose mini-penis I’m wielding. And it also doesn’t matter if the pen actually works: for all I care, it could be jammed or out of ink. I just need it to complete my outfit, like an accessory.

I think of the pen as a portable phallus: one that I can pick up when the situation calls for it. There have been times during the last three decades when I’ve had to grip it fairly tightly in order to project authority, not just when I walk in front of students but also when I walk in front of colleagues to give a talk. Earlier in my career, when I had no “credentials,” I often felt that I had to hold it so tightly that my knuckles went white. Mercifully now, at this late stage in my career, things are more relaxed: when I accidentally drop my pen, I can say, “Gosh, I just dropped my phallus,” without fear that this will instantly undermine my right to deliver a lecture. Best of all, I’ve learned that most students and colleagues “get” it, rewarding the situation with appreciative laughter. I wish I had known this earlier; I wish I had realized that they know just as well as I do that my so-called authority is a masquerade. One of the many things I appreciate about Lacan — and this is what some of my fellow feminists misunderstand about him (because he’s not always easy to understand) — is that he illustrated that phallic authority is always a masquerade, regardless of who displays it. Men can pretend to possess this authority because they have a penis, but in actuality they don’t have it any more securely than women do; in actuality, they’re just as “lacking,” as fundamentally woundable — “existentially,” psychologically, emotionally, and physically vulnerable — as women are.

To emphasize this point, he even used the term castration as a synonym for this woundability, suggesting that castration, metaphorically speaking, is the human condition. Although Lacan was far from a feminist, he gave feminist theorists a lot to work with when he declared that men are just as “castrated” — lacking — as women are.

Like his contemporary Jean-Paul Sartre, Lacan was interested in the lack — the encroaching nothingness — that gnaws at the foundations of human life; he was interested in the feeling of emptiness that often permeates our being even when things are in principle going fine. His explanation for why we feel this way was developmental. He hypothesized that the void at the heart of human subjectivity is an inevitable byproduct of the process of socialization that molds an infant — who is initially a creature of unorganized bodily functions — into a culturally viable being, into a child who understands the basic codes of behavior that she’s expected to adhere to. This process is necessary because it allows the child to become a member of her society.

But it comes at a price: it forces the child to encounter a symbolic world of meanings that she has had no part in devising; it throws her into a vast universe of complex (and often enigmatic or inscrutable) signifiers, including language, in relation to which she’s asked to find her bearings. This experience, according to Lacan, is intrinsically humbling, bound to make the child feel inadequate to the task. Because children can’t always fully process the signifiers that surround them, including what adults are saying to them (or around them) — because they can’t always figure out what adults want from them or why adults want certain things done in a certain way — they’re never able to feel completely in control of the universe they inhabit. This feeling of failure lingers into adulthood, making each newly minted human being feel like it has lost something precious, like a piece of its being is missing.

This is the “castration” that Lacan is talking about when he talks about the subject’s (ontological) lack-in-being. With lack comes the longing to fill it, which is how desire comes into being. I’ll return to this idea in the first chapter. For now, what’s important is that Lacan recognized that we tend to resort to reassuring illusions of wholeness in order to conceal our lack, that we tend to devise fantasies of grandeur and stability to fend off the specter of weakness and instability. Arguably, heteropatriarchy is an elaborate collective fantasy of this kind: by allowing (some) men to imagine themselves as more powerful than women, it makes it possible for them to keep ignoring their lack, their profoundly vulnerable status.

Heteropatriarchy doesn’t offer women the same coping mechanism, which makes penis envy a logical sentiment: if the penis symbolizes wholeness, then hell, of course I’m going to want it (or more precisely, I’m going to want what it symbolizes). Indeed, as I noted above, even many men want the figurative penis (the phallus as a signifier of omnipotence), which is why penis envy — envying the other guy’s imaginary dick — is a common predicament among them. Only those who manage to fully enter into the heteropatriarchal fantasy of seamless masculine omnipotence may be inoculated against this envy. But even the Donald Trumps of the world may one day — the day when they have to face their mortality — realize that their omnipotence is an illusion.

Another name for penis envy might be resentment. Nietzsche thought that resentment was the sentiment of the weak. So be it: measured against the heteropatriarchal fantasy of phallic power that I’ve outlined, most of us, including most men, are weak, and many of us have excellent reasons to feel resentful. We also have a wide array of other bad feelings to choose from: depression and anxiety are perhaps the most obvious ones, but there are numerous others to fall back on, such as bitterness, loneliness, frustration, annoyance, irritation, and utter disillusionment.

The cultural fetishization of the penis may be one reason — though certainly not the only reason — that women have historically been especially prone to bad feelings such as depression and anxiety: it’s harder to feel good when you can’t hide behind a fantasy of omnipotence. Many creative, artistic, spiritual, and intellectual men have found themselves in the same predicament, for such “effeminate” men have never been convincing as pillars of phallic power. Nor have they necessarily been keen to emulate this power. Quite the contrary, many of them have chosen to stare right into the abyss of existence: instead of aspiring to phallic power and its illusory veils of protection, they have chosen to confront the intrinsic insecurities of human life head on, with the result that they have produced works of unfathomable beauty while often feeling unfathomably awful.

While phallic men (and some women) fought wars, built castles, and forged empires, less phallic men — and the rare women who were given the opportunity to participate in public life — created the kinds of legacies of the mind that demand a courageous encounter with the nothingness (lack) at the core of human existence. Note that the divide here is not between men and women but between those who adhere to fantasies of phallic power and those who are either forced or prefer to contemplate the precariousness of life beyond such fantasies. Though the former are often portrayed as the heroes of history, the latter seem more heroic to me, and this is the case even though they have carried a greater burden of bad feelings, including penis envy.

The “Portable Phallus” is excerpted from Mari Ruti’s new book Penis Envy and Other Bad Feelings (Columbia University Press).

Penis Envy and Other Bad Feelings: The Emotional Costs of Everyday Life is available for purchase on the Columbia University Press website here. It is also available on Amazon here.

Mari Ruti is Distinguished Professor of Critical Theory and of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Toronto. She is the author of ten books, including The Summons of Love (2011); The Call of CharacterLiving a Life Worth Living (2013); and The Ethics of Opting Out: Queer Theory’s Defiant Subjects (2017), all published by Columbia University Press. Read an interview with Mari Ruti on Penis Eny and Other Bad Feelings here.

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