Equal Opportunity Psychoanalysis

Byron Hawk

Enculturation, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 1997

About the Author
Table of Contents

Book Review:
Francette Pacteau. The Symptom of Beauty. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

In The Symptom of Beauty Francette Pacteau argues that men and women are caught in same psychological influences that construct the male and the female image of the beautiful woman. Pacteau does not fall into simple binaries like woman/representation, real/false, female good /male bad as early feminists did in regards to cinema and advertising. Rather, she inquires into the "confused space of barter between woman and her representation," acknowledging "I am not so concerned with the objects of the attribution 'beautiful', as I am with the act of attribution itself. . . . I am interested in the psychical apparatus to which the beholder's eye is attached; that is to say, I am interested less in the contingent object of desire than the fantasy which frames it" (15). Rather than focus on beautiful objects, or more specifically women as (beautiful) objects, she is interested in the psychoanalytic scene that stages the fantasy, creates the conditions of possibility, for something to be desired as beautiful. Her project, "then, is an attempt to describe the mise-en-scene of 'beauty', not in any abstract, purportedly 'absolute', sense, but in a particular field of representations . . ." (18). For Pacteau, the staging, the mise-en-scene, is the inception of subjectivity attained as an infant in relation to the mother. She argues that images of feminine beauty are unconsciously motivated through a desire to reinstate the original unity with the mother. Though she says she is more interested in fantasy, it is desire that drives that fantasy. According to Pacteau,

Freud suggests that, "The love of beauty seems a perfect example of an impulse inhibited in its aim." He thus points us to the fantasmatic dimension in which we turn from the object of instinct (Instinkt) to the object of "drive" (Trieb); from the possibility of a punctual satisfaction of need, to the impossibility of fulfillment of desire; it is a dimension in which desire, forever invoking interdiction and loss, is articulated in processes of defense and production of symptoms. (17-18)
In short, beauty is a series of symptoms produced by the separation from the mother--a desire for unity that can never be attained and that affects male and female alike. This repressed past of unity with the mother becomes desired once the instinct is alienated in the signifier--the images of beautiful women. Even though, "The variety of formulations of what is recognized as beauty in a woman would correspond to a variety of (mainly) masculine symptoms" (16), Pacteau realizes that "it is to [the] narcissistic dimension of beauty, in which both subject and object of the look are mutually implicated . . ." (19). Both male and female are implicated in their attraction to the image of beauty. The female gaze at her image objectifies her as much as the male gaze.

Initially the book engages the male gaze. The male sees woman as essentially an enigma. Freud's in/famous (if not mythical) quote, "The Great Question . . . which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is 'What does a woman want?,' " lays the cultural foundation for Pacteau's analysis of male objectification and mystification of women. But to speak of woman immediately and necessarily means to speak of the woman's body. This given automatically creates woman as a sign--an image. Since the woman is paradoxically both perplexing enigma and self-evident image, Pacteau, following Mary Ann Doane, makes the analogy between woman and hieroglyphics:

On the one hand the hieroglyph is summoned . . . to connote an indecipherable language, a signifying system which denies its own function by failing to signify anything to the uninitiated, to those who do not hold the key. In this sense, the hieroglyph, like the woman, harbors a mystery, an inaccessible otherness. On the other hand, the hieroglyph is the most readable of all languages. Its immediacy, its accessibility are functions of its status as a pictorial language, a writing in images. (99)
Thus Pacteau breaks her discussion into woman as visual object and woman as enigma.

In order to make this distinction, Pacteau goes into detail about the infant's separation from the mother that begins at the suckling stage. At this stage of infancy, all the senses are undifferentiated; the infant sees the mother while touching/feeling her as it is being satisfied by nourishment. The original moment of unity with the mother, when all of the senses are indistinct, creates a visual impression that is full. There is no absence/lack--no distinction between need and satisfaction. But this original satisfaction gets fractured, severed from unity. Similar to fort- da, the child gets separated from the nipple, and reintroduced to it. The fulfillment of touch and nutrition comes and goes, but the pleasure of sight always remains. Seeing is separated from feeling/touching and becomes distance perception. This separation, this distance, is the basis for a fantasy of the self with no disunity, and creates the distinction between satisfaction and desire. The loss of the breast creates desire for polymorphous satisfaction through the delay of gratification and at the same time creates the desire for a unified identity. Once the child is separated from the mother, it attempts to hold on to her through its gaze in order to master her. The infant begins to see the mother as something other than itself--an image, a visual object; the infant becomes a spectator. Pleasure no longer comes from all the senses simultaneously, but through looking. But because this pleasure involves loss, there is also a built in anxiety that inhibits the pleasure. Though the desire can never be re-fulfilled, the person always assumes the original state of unity/satisfaction can again be achieved; the child/adult becomes fixated with sight/gaze, and uses it to scan for potential fulfillment/unity (104).

Thus sight/looking is directly connected to separation from the mother and the formation of a unified identity through her presence, through her reflection back to him, her recognition of him. The desire for the image of the mother is the desire for presence; not the mother's presence but the observer's presence, a subjective fullness that would preclude lack/distance. The infant gets the notion of wholeness from the suckling stage, gets separated from that unity, then generates the notion of his/her wholeness as a body through visual identification of image/mirror. For Pacteau, "Looking becomes a drive as it becomes representative: the infant gazes at the mother's face, which now comes to signify the polymorphous pleasure experienced at the breast" (104). The perceived, fixed/coherent image is the first hint of an ego. But because it is an ideal image that the subject cannot sustain in reality, this state of separation and creation of desire for unity/identity becomes the primordial foundation for all future loss of the self. This unconscious lack creates the drive to assimilate the image of the woman via sight: "Pleasure in looking is thus premised upon a necessary distance between viewer and viewed, and the subsequent erasure of that distance, when the viewer takes the viewed into itself. Internalization . . . always involves mastery" (104). With the distance achieved by the separation from his mother as an infant, with his gaze, the subject is able to bring his mother into him/herself. This appropriation of the mother is an imaginary mastering of the object/image, a fantasy that creates the fiction of a unified identity and the mythic image of woman.

Behind this image of the woman is a hidden secret/enigma, a presence, which almost always involves sexuality. Through breast feeding and bodily hygiene focused on the erogenous zones, the mother emits unconscious, implicit sexual messages to infants that they cannot decipher. The mother's unconscious sexuality in these mat(t)ers is always in excess of the child's needs. Thus these messages are enigmatic to the child, and the child unconsciously represses them. Pacteau considers these infantile encounters with the adult unconscious as a form of seduction (115-16). Seen from this perspective, "to answer the riddle of feminine sexuality would be to commit incest" (118). The male psyche retreats from answering the riddle and strips the mother/woman of her reality in order to establish the correct distance that society requires of those who were once one. Man recoils from the recognition of woman because he is recoiling from the spectre of incest. Thus the question to which man returns always reverts back to what is man, not what is woman, because the enigma must always remain hidden, repressed. The desire for unity, for self, is satisfied only in a fleeting attempt to sublimate the desire created by the separation. For Freud, sublimation is the repression of "sexual excitation" which is "unserviceable for the reproductive function" (90). In other words, sublimation is the repression/redirection of incestual impulses. For Pacteau, the enigma of the woman "like the mythical hieroglyph, stands for both the possibility and the impossibility of the fulfillment of desire. . . . The riddle of the sphinx must not be answered, for to answer it is to destroy desire" (119). Answering the riddle, revealing incestual desires, would create a triple loss to the subject: loss of the unity of the breast; loss of the ideal, unified self-image; and the loss of desire.

However, the suppression of answering the riddle of the desire for the mother not only transfers the male infant's notion of wholeness and unity over to the child's body, but the female infant's as well. Whether male or female, "Narcissism is precisely that process--in that initial misrecognition and alienation which Lacan has called the 'mirror stage'--in which the subject takes its own body as object" (185). "As Lacan put it: 'The human being only ever sees his form materialized, whole, the mirage of himself, outside of himself'" (186). Pacteau examines this situation in the form of Countless de Castiglione's "obsessive self-representations" (183) and "self-objectification" (185). The Countess had a series of photos taken throughout her life and indulged herself in gazing at them. Pacteau argues from this that "the self has to come to terms with the fact that it is also a second and third person" (186). The 'I' is also a 'you' and a 's/he'. Thus the 'I' is always already another. The 'I' as other is being as object. For Pacteau, the Countess' actions are "no simple self-aggrandizement, but rather the intuition that a sense of beauty in oneself can only ever be alien to oneself, can only be in an image: a 'beautiful work' formed in the gaze of another, and in the guise of another" (186). Pacteau sees the Countess as enjoying the "pleasure of self display. Her work reveals the pleasure of identifying with the gaze of another, a pleasure that is therefore fundamentally scopophillic: the subject exhibiting herself . . . derives her pleasure from seeing herself through the eyes of the other who watches" (187). In "the symbiosis of exhibitionism and voyeurism, the Countess shows herself as both subject and object of the look. . . . With her own eyes . . . La Castiglione gazes upon these images of herself, but in the full understanding that her looking at herself can only ever be from the vantage point of another" (187). Pacteau argues, "If we accept that desire is inseparable from the desire of the other, we may entertain the possibility that man-made images of female beauty are, at least in part, a product of the man's attempt to meet the desire of the woman--to accede to being her desire, by presenting her with an ideal image of herself" (190; emphasis mine). In other words, her way of dealing with the enigma is to externalize it in a visual object that is separate from her--a sublimation employed by both male and female.

Pacteau has constructed an equal opportunity psychoanalysis. It is not only the male who masters via the gaze; it is also the female. It is not just the male who desires (and represses) incestual unity; it is also the female. The Symptom of Beauty sets the stage for further re-formulations of Oedipal instincts/desires, and suggests a possible future trajectory of psychoanalytical readings of culture.

Copyright © Enculturation 1997

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