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Book review: Juliet Mitchell, the obsolescent Oedipus complex, and the decline of patriarchy.

Book reviewed:

Mitchell, J. (1974) Psychoanalysis and Feminism

Keywords: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, Freud

Patriarchy, rooted in 'father origin,' implies that authority derives from the father and that men rule the world. Patriarchy is the opposite of feminism. Psychoanalysis has often been viewed as an intellectual force opposed to women's liberation because Freud thought female genitals were inferior to those of males and believed that women lack the moral strength of male super-egos. Patriarchy as a system supports hierarchicalism, male dominance, and egotism, and expects that women will always aggrandise men and support them emotionally. Within the patriarchal social world, women regarded as feminine must take pleasure in being dominated and excluded from decision-making in the public sphere.

Juliet Mitchell's book Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1974) argues that Freud's analysis of the Oedipus complex is key to understanding how patriarchal ideology perpetuates itself through the institution of the family-as-mediator between nature (biology) and culture (social rules and roles). Resolution of the Oedipus complex involves moving from a two-person (dyadic) relationship to a triangular (three-person) relationship. This transition in development involves differentiation of genders, and can be represented schematically as follows:

Oral phase (dyadic, undifferentiated): attachment {~~~~~~}: symbiotic unity with the mother identification

Oedipal phase (triangular): 'masculine' attachment--mother


'feminine' attachment--father identification--mother.

In the pre-oedipal stage of development both sons and daughters are both attached and identified with the mother from whose body they came. Bound to the mother for food and love, the pre-oedipal child participates in a polymorphous, sexually undifferentiated symbiosis. Narcissism is based on this primary relationship. The mother's face is the first mirror where the child sees itself reflected. What the infant sees in the mother's eyes when it looks at her, as Winnicott has theorised, relates to what the mother sees when she looks at the infant. Through mutual gazing, the mother mirrors forth an identity and self-image to the child.

According to Freud's analyses, the oedipal phase implies internalising patriarchal psychology and its sex/gender system. Gender identity gets superimposed on the child's original maternal identification and mirroring. In psychoanalytic thinking, 'masculine' and 'feminine' refer to alternative solutions to the problem posed by the father as an obstacle to the child's access to the chief object of desire, the mother. In accepting the father's privileged relation to the mother, the child's erotic at-one-ness splits into an attachment and identification. Maintenance of the preoedipal attachment is what psycho-analysis calls 'masculine,' along with the shift in identification from the mother to the father. Breaking the pre-oedipal attachment to the mother in favour of an affirmed identification with her, along with a shift of erotic investment from the mother to the father as an object of attachment, is what is called 'feminine.'

As is evident from this schema, the adoption of one solution to the oedipal triangle means the repression of the other, so 'masculine' and 'feminine' always latently harbour one another. Thus a masculine-identified person will hold his or her original maternal identification in a state of repression; and a feminine-identified person will hold the apparently relinquished maternal identification as a latent force. These psychic tensions are often mediated through cultural access to figures of androgyny or bisexuality, hermaphrodites, transvestites, Dionysian and Orphic characters. For Freud, the Oedipus complex was both the heart of neuroses and the primary structuring agent of civilisation. Juliet Mitchell shows how it is key to the social differentiation of the sexes, and she sees psychoanalysis as crucial to the uncovering of contradictions within the institution of the family and between the family and the fundamental structural demands of culture.

Every human being begins life bound to a mother for food and love, and both boys and girls make an early identification with her. This is the basis of a constitutional bisexuality because girls are forming an erotic attachment to a woman and boys are making identification with a woman. But the onset of the Oedipus complex around the fourth or fifth year of life creates the sex/gender system of patriarchal sexual differentiation. It introduces the law of the father in the form of the incest taboo (the father as a third term standing between mother and child), and enforces a difference between 'masculine' and 'feminine.'

For Freud, 'masculine' and 'feminine' describe alternative modes of solving the problem of the father's privileged relation to each child's chief object of desire. To a child's mind, the father's penis symbolises ability to connect to the mother. According to Freud, the girl feels she is without this connector; and the boy, seeing the female's lack, fears the loss of his own. Mitchell emphasises that these are the unconscious processes behind the psychological formation of gender identifications. These are the means by which we internalise the patriarchal sex/gender system and its heterosexual mores and valorised notions of male genital primacy.

Girls are socialised to give up their pre-oedipal attachment to the mother in favour of an affirmed identification with her. In an act of massive repression, girls convert their active sexuality to a passive aim. Freud says that women are more bisexual than men because they have more to renounce in taking on what patriarchy calls 'feminine'-pleasure in being dominated.

Patriarchal boys retain their pre-oedipal attachment to the figure of the mother as an object of desire to be achieved by deferral through deference to the father's phallic superiority, accepting a present symbolic castration in exchange for an understood future accession to the paternal role. The patriarchal boy learns that he will inherit the father place, as in the song 'I want a girl just like the girl who married dear old dad.' The patriarchal daughter learns that she will compensate for the phallus she does not have in future by bearing a child. This constitutes the unconscious dimension of how women are socialised to be reproducers.

The maintenance of the pre-oedipal attachment through identification with the father is what Freud calls 'masculine'; the substitution of the father from the mother as love object is what he calls 'feminine.' Conventionally, this difference divides the boys from the girls. But, Freud does not conflate sex with gender. He acknowledges that boys can have 'feminine' resolutions to their Oedipus complexes. Male children can maintain their pre-oedipal identification with the mother and change their attachment to the father. Female children can maintain their attachment to the mother and take on a 'masculine' identification.

The identifications and attachments children make and childhood notions of castration do not require an actual father to be enforced. They are part of the human social order acquired with the incest taboo that Freud believed separates humankind from the animal world. What divides the sexes in Freud's view is what divides nature from culture. For moving from the pre-oedipal to the oedipal stage of development has each child living psychologically an initiation of human social arrangements.

Both Freud and the structuralist anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss saw the incest taboo at the origin of civilisation. Freud focused on the familial content of the taboo--incest, the father as lawgiver, but Levi-Strauss saw the principle of exogamy as more fundamental. Exogamy entails regulated exchange of marriage partners between kinship groups. Acts of exchange, Levi-Strauss emphasises, constitute social cement.

However, there are many possible objects of exchange. The more primitive a culture as regards its form of work and production, observes Juliet Mitchell, the greater the importance accorded to sex differences because women-as-reproducers remain chief items of exchange. As the productivity of labour develops, commodities assume greater primacy. Accumulation of wealth introduces the domination of economy exchange over exogamy as social ligature, making the incest taboo structurally redundant in cultural function. In the exploitation of accumulated surplus as capitalism, exchange between classes supersedes kinship structures as the medium of social cohesion, in Mitchell's view. The exchange of labour for money between the working and ruling classes, not exogamy between clans, forms the central structure holding together modern societies.

However, women as reproducers of the work force remained economically essential in the nineteenth century. Thus as the same time as the emancipation of women became structurally viable, Mitchell argues, the ideology of the patriarchal family, including worship of the domestic female as an 'angel in the house,' reached a peak of intensity in the economic service of reproducing workers for the industrial revolution. While Thomas Malthus prophesied human species extinction through over-population, and a measure of technical control of women's fertility was achieved through birth control--material realities that seem to open roles to women beyond the domestic, nevertheless, the ideal epitomised in Coventry Patmore's poem 'The Angel in the House' (1854, 1862, 1906) continued to dominate the Victorian community more as families proliferated.

Juliet Mitchell, still primarily of Marxist orientation in the early 1970s, follows Friedrich Engel's (1884) book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State in describing how the nuclear family replaced the extended kinship system as carrier of the incest taboo. This, says Mitchell, created the following internal contradiction: if the nuclear family transmits the taboo, it also maintains conditions that perpetuate incestuous wishes. The Oedipus complex as analysed by Freud is the new version of exogamy and it is also new version of incest. The Oedipus complex directs children's erotic energies away from their mother, but the narrow range of proximate love objects in a nuclear family focuses those same energies according to a scarcity principle that heightens intrafamial rivalries and jealousies. The Oedipus complex intensifies natural, biological relations at the same time that it sexually forbids them. This, claims Mitchell, is why Freud found the Oedipus complex at the heart of neuroses and why the family came under attack by social critics R.D. Laing, David Cooper (Mitchell's partner in the 1970s), and numerous feminists. Mitchell says patriarchy will ultimately fall apart with the exposure of the contradictions beneath its ideology although she concludes that we cannot give up the analysis for a dream. Psycho-analysis and feminism is rigorous, thorough and bracing. Mitchell's subsequent writings on siblings and on hysteria are far less well-organised than this very persuasive 1974 achievement.

Dianne Hunter

Trinity College, Hartford, USA

Professor Dianne Hunter

Trinity College, Hartford, USA

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Author:Hunter, Dianne
Publication:Journal of Social and Psychological Sciences
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2008
Next Article:Editorial: dialoguing across disciplines.

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