The subversion of perversion.
In Alice Doesn't de Lauretis expertly wove together feminism, film theory and semiotics. Approaching The Practice of Love a decade later, those readers familiar with her work are in for a surprise; so are those coming to it for the first time with preconceptions. This book is both theoretically sophisticated and autobiographical. De Lauretis informs us that "my theoretical speculations and my reading of the texts follow the yellow brick road of my own fantasies, the less-than-royal road of my personal and experiential history." Her writing is as elegant as ever; she also establishes a far more intimate tone here than in any of her previous work, which is delightful.
However, the most surprising development lies in de Lauretis, shift from her previously wary regard for Freud in Alice Doesn't and elsewhere to an earnest desire to engage his work on her own terms. She puts her lesbian desire up front in what is at times an arduous quest through Freudian psychoanalytic theory. This quest wends its way through the writings of Lampl-de Groot, Deutsch, Jones and others into the revisionist territories of Laplanche, Lacan, Butler, Dollimore, Bersani and feminist psychoanalytic writing. It is a somewhat treacherous path for the nonspecialist, but as de Lauretis reminds us in her introductory quote from French psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche: "For the 'non-specialist,' sexuality is indeed the essential contribution of psychoanalysis to contemporary thought."
Here lesbian feminists might ask the most obvious question: What can rereading Freud possibly offer us? After all, Freud and many of his acolytes helped pathologize lesbianism by explaining it as a wrong object-choice, and by consigning it to the masculinity complex that included a severe case of penis envy. Yet despite the history of animosity between Freudian theory and lesbians (a history de Lauretis admits to having contributed to in the past), she argues convincingly lesbians should attend to the ambivalence in Freud's work. For her, reading Freud as a "passionate fiction" provides an entry into psychoanalysis that makes possible the transformation of a heterosexist theory of sexuality into an affirmative theory of lesbian sexuality - one that is based on a nonpathological notion of perversion.
In the effort to vanquish the paternal phallus once and for all, de Lauretis unites radical lesbian separatism with a rereading of Freudian psychoanalysis. Many post-structuralists who have worked hard to destabilize Western philosophical commitment to notions of centrality will cringe when they read that she has decentered phallic power only to reestablish the center elsewhere - with lesbians. However, The Practice of Love is an unapologetically renegade (and perverse) book.
De Lauretis makes two main arguments: first, that Freudian theory can usefully be read for its paradoxes and ambiguities, thereby shedding light on the "perversions"; second, that feminists who appropriate lesbianism as just another form of female sexuality wrongly deny the distinctiveness of lesbian desire, which psychoanalysis actually can delineate. She moves from the psychoanalytic concepts that structure lesbian sexuality in Part One of The Practice of Love to the role they play in social fantasies that offer scenarios of lesbian desire in Part Two. (Part Three is the least integrated section of the book and almost appears as an afterthought.)
In part one, which includes the previously published essays "Freud, Sexuality, and Perversion" and "Female Homosexuality Revisited," de Lauretis advances a notion of perversion that challenges the limited options for lesbian sexuality within the confines of traditional Freudian theory. According to Freud, perversion is intrinsic to normality: it is characterized as an "abnormal" or "unnatural" form of sexuality that only makes sense in relation to its opposite - "normal" or "natural" heterosexuality. But in rereading Freud's 1905 Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, de Lauretis questions the polarization of "normal" and "perverse." Freud's inconsistencies suggest to her a different perspective not based on any binary pairing: "It now seems to me that what I have called Freud's negative theory of perversions, that which neither he nor his followers could propose or count as a theory of sexuality, that is Freud's theory of sexuality," she writes. In other words, perversion is not the flip side of normality, but rather the very ground of human sexuality.
De Lauretis views her insurgent reading not as a victory over psychoanalysis but as a tactical and political engagement. For her, the central task is crafting a lesbian model of perverse desire, "finding in the perversions a model of sexuality as it is subjectively lived through fantasy and desire."
In Part Two, she breaks ranks with the feminist theory of such writers as Nancy Chodorow, Julia Kristeva, Laura Mulvey and Mary Ann Doane, and draws her theory of fantasy from Lacanian psychoanalysts Laplanche and Pontalis, who argue that fantasy is the "stagesetting of desire." Here she focuses on the "public fantasies" of film, plays and novels that provide representations of lesbian sexuality and desire - for example, a lesbian reading of Adrienne Rich's poem "Transcendental Etude" which challenges feminist interpretations of the poem focused on "the maternal." While this part of the book provides some relief from high theory in the intricate (and often brilliant) readings of work by filmmaker Sheila McLaughlin, and writers Rich, Radclyffe Hall and Cherrie Moraga, it will probably anger many feminists.
In fact, de Lauretis sets up feminist theory, belittling feminists who advance theories of fantasy that question rigid gender boundaries. The heterosexual presumption of many feminists, she argues, has led them to unsex lesbians with metaphors of "the maternal," masculinize them, not see them, or opt for voluntaristic "sexualities." At worst, lesbian sexuality is transformed into a trendy trope of difference. But her righteous anger over feminist omissions or appropriations of lesbian sexuality undercuts her initial argument that the perversions are the ground for building a theory of lesbian sexuality. If all sexuality is perverse (at least contingently so), why then does a reified heterosexuality return as her adversary in the guise of feminist theory? De Lauretis herself has not escaped the binary logic of normality/perversion. She calls bisexuality a "placebo" and declares that it "seems unlikely that a heterosexual feminist's object of desire - fetish or not - [is] anything but the penis-phallus."
Though de Lauretis concedes that women (and feminists in particular) may experience a range of sexual preferences and desires over a lifetime, she notes that "insofar and as long as a woman is straight (and able to choose), her sexual object-choice will be a heterosexual one and vice-versa." Here, sexual options appear disturbingly foreclosed and determined, with little room for straight women to "become" lesbian as de Lauretis herself says she has done.
Still, there are exciting moments in the second part of The Practice of Love. De Lauretis is the semiotic detective, looking for signs of desire as she subjects "public fantasies" to the "talking cure." She makes a ease for the reciprocal nature of lesbian desire in her analysis of Sheila McLaughlin's She Must Be Seeing Things, an avant-garde film that focuses on the relationship between a black lawyer (Agatha) and a white independent film-maker (Jo). The plot concerns Agatha's jealousy over Jo's sexual infidelities, represented in fantasy sequences of cross-dressing, fetishism, voyeurism and butch-femme roles, and through the device of the film-within-a-film.
McLaughlin's film, in which fantasies of castration and seduction are shared by both Jo and Agatha, presents a double and more potent form of desire, specifically lesbian. De Lauretis tracks a pairing motif that recurs throughout the film, beginning with the "she" of the title, which signals that lesbian lovers Jo and Agatha both "occupy the subject-position." She writes that "it takes two women, not one, to make a lesbian," and later that "the lesbian subject is a double one." She clarifies this provocative statement with "In my view, then, lesbian desire is not the identification with another woman's desire, but the desire for her desire as signified in her fetish and the fantasy scenario it evokes."
In "The Lure of the Mannish Lesbian: The Fantasy of Castration and the Signification of Desire," De Lauretis comes up with a lesbian model of desire in which there is no penis. Rather, there is the longed-for female body - a much sexier and more gratifying absence, recovered through fetishes such as boots or hats, enjoyed between women.
But even in developing this fascinating interplay between the fantasy of castration and fetishism, de Lauretis missteps. In the same chapter, she compares the lesbian fantasies structuring Cherrie Moraga's play Giving up the Ghost with Radclyffe Hall's novel The Well of Loneliness. Moraga's play is about Marisa, a Chicana lesbian who must "give up the ghost" of her adolescent self, Corky, who has suffered the humiliations of racism and sexism and the supreme violation of rape, an act that makes her femininity a liability. De Lauretis analyzes a parallel passage: from The Well of Loneliness in which Stephen Gordon gazes at her own naked, "imperfect" body in the mirror - a body that "lacks" femininity. For both Marisa and Stephen, the psychoanalytic concept of castration is presented as the necessary condition for their self-love as lesbians.
But although de Lauretis' intricate structural analysis of these two texts fits a formal model of lesbian sexuality, she glosses over differences - most glaringly, the difference of race and class. Her "factoring out" of race and class (ill the name of theory) is not so different from the straight feminists she severely criticized earlier who fail to take account of lesbianism in their formal theories of (straight) female sexuality.
I have the least to say about Part Three of the book, which consists of two chapters, "Perverse Desire" and "Sexual Structuring and Habit Changes." De Lauretis admits that her attempt to develop a theory of lesbian sexuality is "tortuous and discontinuous," and there is much repetition from the first parts of the book. I have yet to be convinced that psychoanalysis can accurately map the messiness of material reality, as the final chapter seems to claim.
The Practice of Love is a complex book that deserves the many and varied responses it will receive. It is elegantly theoretical and wonderfully intense, a book that "gets personal" in criticizing the blind spots of feminist theory. However, this comes at the cost of a radical break with feminism - a move that leaves me wondering if the price of high theory is too high, especially given the urgent need for collective lesbian and feminist action in this political climate.