I would like to focus primarily on Gayle Rubin’s reading of the Lacanian conception of phallus and how it overlays across Levi-Strauss’s theory of kinship practices with its possibility towards a Marxist criticism. Levi-Strauss, in a paragon of structuralist thought, describes the mechanisms in which certain taboos and a necessity to create communal relationships create a grammar that determines the exchanges of women in the process of creating bonds of kinship in elementary culture. He posits that in pre-state or pre-government cultures, social bonds are formed via the reciprocal nature of gift gifting, and the deepest of these social connections are formed by the exchange of women, for through this exchange a common descendent will be created. Because of the necessity to build relationships beyond the family, the mechanism of the incest taboo was created in order to ensure that families would make connections outside their immediate relationships. At this point a cogent application of marxism would be apt; this system so described is indeed an economy, but Rubin merely touches on this point without any further elucidation.
Lacan relocates the phallus and the fear of castration within the Oedipal complex away from biological origin as found in Freud (i.e. the dread of losing the physical appendage) to that of a more semiotic function. That is to say, if a boy were to fulfill the Oedipal urge and supplant his father as the sole possessor of his mother’s love, the father would then proceed to “castrate” him by refusing to confer to him the phallus (as a symbolic token of power), thereby rendering him female, and presumably making his desire for his mother even more impossible. Hence the boy agrees to the supremacy of the father, receives the phallus, and recognizes because of this he will be able to achieve a woman in his own right akin to the manner with which his father possesses his mother. This formation in relationship to a girl takes on a more complex character. A girl has no phallus and therefore no potential of attaining the mother. She is outside the realm of either giving or being given the phallus; she may only participate in the exchange as a subordinate.
I am particularly fond of Lacan’s reinterpretation of the Oedipal complex. It seems to give more overt language to what was always implicit in Freud’s theory: that castration and the threat of castration, for the most part, never manifests itself in such literal terms. It also illuminates quite well how gender power is transmitted generation to generation. A boy cannot have his mother, but, after this disappointment, he realizes at least he is of the same form of person who can possess his mother. In a sense, he is born into the ruling class (a spring board for a Marxist analysis?) In contradistinction, the girl not only realizes that she will never be able to have her mother, but is born outside the commerce of the phallus.
Both these concepts are quite successful and describing the social and psychological systems at work that place women into an inferior mode of being. Yet, as Rubin properly remarks, by doing this they paradoxical reinforce the systems they attempting to disassemble. She quotes Derrida, “We cannot utter a single destructive proposition which has not already slipped into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of what it precisely seeks to contest.” This remark leaves the critic in the lurch. How then does he or she proceed without perpetuating the very thing that he or she is seeking to end?