“There is no getting round the fact that each man and woman came out of a woman.”
— D.W. Winnicott, 1964
In her recent book Feminine Law: Freud, Speech and the Voice of Desire, psychoanalyst and clinical psychologist Jill Gentile puts forth a call to name the vagina. Through rigorous analysis of the histories and founders of psychoanalysis and democracy (but also psychology, philosophy, etymology, semiotics and more), Gentile details how psychoanalysis and democracy work towards a similar aim, which hinges on free association and free speech respectively. The locale where psychoanalytic and democratic freedoms may converge Gentile names as a “feminine space” governed by a “feminine law.”
In locating the space where one can associate and speak freely as a feminine space — a space in between — or a third space, Gentile highlights how both psychoanalysis and democracy exist in the margins. Next to “the luster of so-called empirical validity and scientific credentiality” (think pharmaceutical industry) psychoanalysis was never fully validated as integral to the health care system, yet persistently (not to mention labour-intensively) worked to give voice to repressed drives and unconscious desires.
The freedom of democracy that Gentile highlights requires citizens to be able to avail themselves of free speech and freedom of expression. For women, this capacity has a troubled history. Women have been relegated to the margins of civic participation and power — existing in the liminal realm between erasure and non-existence. Gentile writes that “perhaps surprisingly, democracy has always, from its origins to present, grappled with how to handle female speech and female desire.” Acknowledging Freud’s attempt to ‘figure out’ female sexuality, Gentile argues that he, and psychoanalysis more generally, are best understood in their in-between disciplinarity. Just as women have often found their voices in grassroots and marginalized communities, psychoanalytic circles thrive not at the center but at the borderlands of an industry dominated by psychiatry. Psychoanalysis is still overshadowed by a society cajoled into swallowing pharmacological solutions.
By its very nature, language occupies the place in between our thoughts and those of others. Our speech defines and delimits our relationality to our realities; it is both the boundary and the door to the domains we create to find meaning in our world, for example, through psychoanalysis, democracy, the arts and sciences. However, in order for speech to be considered ‘free,’ an individual’s voice must both represent and realize their human potential, the parts of themselves they may not even yet know. Gentile writes, “free speech, whether in the clinic or in the public sphere — is the means by which people’s unconscious lives gain expressive freedom”.
Although speech may be the vehicle for freedom for both individual creativity and civic participation, in a world penetrated by and understood through phallic symbolism, the woman is erased. No vehicle exists that speaks for her, of her, through her. This is evident in the psychoanalytic understanding of woman as lacking, due to her “lack” of penis, and her being positioned as castrated; in her absence from the political sphere; and as Gentile stresses, in the non-existence of representative symbolism of the female form: the women not as space for the phallus, but the vagina as a thing in itself.
Gentile argues that the vagina must be named because the very act of naming “endow[s] our otherwise primordial landscape with words.” The verboten-ness of the words vagina and vulva is apparent as soon as they are uttered in most social situations. Naming the vagina and naming the space for free association and free speech as feminine (or in between, or even as a “third space”) lays a conceptual foundation for non-phallic space or discourse. The phenomenological absence of ‘vagina’ in everyday language makes it impossible for us to discuss, know, and de-mythologize the yonic. Rendering the vagina speakable establishes a space that, if it were to be left un-named, would remain unknown. Gentile quotes philosopher Robert Sokolowski: “Things can be said about an object only when it is so held by a name.” Naming the vagina unsheathes woman from her erasure, or in Lacan’s language, from her non-existence.
I think the ineffability of feminine space, that there still remains an indescribable and undefinable element, is a strength often overlooked. It is creative; generative; open. I see this as the promise that feminine space contains the capacity for individuality understood as transindividuality; where, as Chiara Bottici writes, “individuals thus understood are therefore never atoms, events, let alone subjects, given once and for all. They are processes, the result of constant movements of association and repulsion that connect simple individuals with other simple individuals, but also with more complex ones that constantly do and undo a body.”
Feminine space, and feminism more generally, can dismantle the predominance of phallic oppression. However, it is not enough to simply name the vagina in attempt to restore the equilibrium sought by free speech and free association. Gentile’s work then leaves us at the threshold of the potential freedom of a feminine or third space. Femininity thus might finally encompass more than a binary otherness to masculinity and allow us all the freedom to be.
Ceilidh Webster is graduating with a BA in philosophy from The New School i.n Spring 2018