Published: Sept. 1, 2001 By

[1]   Debates about female fetishism have been going on for almost two decades now; but there appears to be as yet no consensus about the value of claiming this particular practice for feminist politics. Ever since Sarah Kofman’s suggestion that a Derridean reading of Freud’s 1927 essay could not preclude the possibility of female fetishism (133), “indecidability” has characterized virtually every attempt to theorize that practice. Naomi Schor’s early suspicion that female fetishism might be only the “latest and most subtle form of penis envy” (371) continues to haunt efforts to delimit a specifically female manifestation of a perversion widely understood, in psychoanalytic terms, to be reserved for men. Subsequent attempts to “feminize” the fetish by Elizabeth Grosz, Emily Apter, and Teresa de Lauretis have reiterated Schor’s hesitation about the topic, and none have dispelled completely the shadow of that inaugural doubt. Proponents of female fetishism appear to have kept Baudrillard’s famous warning about fetish discourse, and its ability to “turn against those who use it” (90), firmly in mind.

[2]   Reviewing the history of this debate in her recent book, Object Lessons: How to Do Things With Fetishism, E. L. McCallum suggests that the political impasse reached over the value of fetishism’s paradigmatic indeterminacy for feminist politics has arisen, in fact, through the effort to define an exclusively femalefetishism. According to McCallum, a careful reading of Freud on the subject reveals that, “The very usefulness of fetishism as a strategy lies with how it (potentially productively) undermines the rigid matrix of binary sexual difference through indeterminacy [. . .]. To then reinscribe fetishism within that same matrix–defining a male or female fetishism–undercuts fetishism’s strategic effectiveness” (72-73). McCallum’s advocacy of a “sympathetic” epistemological return to Freud might appear a rather ironic solution to problems about defining female fetishism, since those debates arose out of the need to challenge the essential psychoanalytic relationship between fetishism and castration. For Freud, of course, the fetish is constructed out of the young boy’s effort to disavow his mother’s evident castration, and to replace her missing penis. In this role, it functions as a “token of triumph over the threat of castration and a protection against it” (“Fetishism” 154). Kofman’s initial discussion of female fetishism arises out of her reading of Derrida’s Glas as a formal double erection, in which each textual column acts as an “originary supplement” not dependent on castration (128-29). Yet while most theorists of female fetishism have followed Kofman in attacking the relationship between castration and fetishism (a notable exception is de Lauretis), McCallum’s effort to read Freudian fetishism as a means of breaking down binary models of gender difference resonates with the strategies of an author whose contribution to debates about female fetishism has gone thus far unnoticed. Kathy Acker’s postmodernist fiction explicitly negotiates the problem of returning to Freud’s theory of fetishism in order to affirm the possibility of a female fetish, and to erode conventional sexual and gender hierarchies. As such, it provides a forum in which the desire to assert a specifically female fetishism comes face-to-face with McCallum’s sympathetic return, while also offering an oblique commentary on the work of Schor, Apter, and de Lauretis, who use fictional texts as the basis for their theoretical conclusions. Acker’s novels show evidence of a desire to blend a theory of female fetishism with a conscious fictional practice.

[3]    Where McCallum encourages attention to the semantic instabilities in Freud’s text, Acker’s strategy is less subtle. Toward the middle of her penultimate novel, My Mother: Demonology(1993), Acker resolves the incompatibility between the psychoanalytic construction of the fetish as a penis substitute, and the practice of fetishism by women, through a surprising addendum to Freudian theory:

  Father said, “For a moment, consider that Freud’s model of female sexuality, that a woman and her desire are defined by lack of a penis, is true. Then, in a society in which phenomenal relations are as men say they are, women must radically contest reality just in order to exist. According to Freud, a fetish for a woman is one means by which she can deny she’s lacking a dick. A fetish is a disavowal.”
The era of pirates had yielded to the era of artists and politicians. At the same time women began getting into more than fetishes. (95)

To those familiar only with Acker’s controversial status among feminist scholars and critics, her engagement with female fetishism might appear as simply another attempt to stake out and inhabit the most unstable areas of feminist thought. To readers of Acker, however, this passage is intriguing not only for its provocative supplementation of Freudian theory, but also for its efforts to credit that supplement to Freud himself. Acker’s work has been largely defined by its citation and, at times, plagiarism of other authors and texts. The decision, here, to cite a “Freudian” theory that never existed is an anomaly worth remarking; it suggests the importance of female fetishism to both the formal and political dimensions of her late work. As the culmination of a series of interrogations into Freud beginning in Empire of the Senseless(1988), Acker’s theorizing of female fetishism should be read as an important development and continuation of what she calls that novel’s “search for a myth to live by” (Friedman, “Conversation” 17).

[4]   In an interview conducted by Ellen Friedman shortly after the publication of Empire, Acker remarks on the difference which separates this novel from those that preceded it. Looking back over her own artistic evolution, Acker observes that it is the formal and thematic foregrounding of plagiarism in novels like Blood and Guts in High School (1978) and Great Expectations (1982) that distinguishes her more recent work from the essentially autobiographical impulses of her first three novels: The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by the Black Tarantula (1973), I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac: Imagining (1974), and The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec (1975) (Friedman, “Conversation” 15). Yet although, as Acker points out, all of her post-“identity” work is unified through its common concern with textual appropriation, she goes on to draw a distinction between the “deconstructive” Don Quixote (1986) and a new “constructive” motivation underlying Empire of the Senseless. The new aim is the impossible representation of a world beyond phallogocentrism:

[Y]ou try to imagine or construct a society that wasn’t constructed according to the myth of the central phallus. It’s just not possible when you live in this world. That’s what I wanted to do in the second section of Empire, but the CIA kept coming in [. . .]. So I ended up with “Pirate Night.” You can’t get to a place, to a society, that isn’t constructed according to the phallus. (17)

For Acker, pirates (along with sailors and tattoo artists) express both the hope and the impossibility of such a mythic society, the appeal of which resides in the ability of its constituents to “take their own sign-making into their own hands” (Friedman, “Conversation” 18). That the search for this mythic society continues to motivate Acker’s fiction even after Empire is evident from the work which follows. Each of her next three novels, In Memoriam to Identity (1990), My Mother: Demonology (1993), andPussy, King of the Pirates(1996), addresses this vision of an outcast mentality and culture whose signs–sometimes belonging to a forgotten past, sometimes those of an impossible future–are always pirates, sailors, and witches. On this basis, these four novels can be seen to demarcate a final, “constructive” stage in Acker’s artistic evolution. A continuity can be traced from the revolution-torn Paris of the second section of Empire, in which Agone discovers hope and sexual desire through tattoo, to the crime-ridden New York of My Mother, the setting for “Beatrice’s Story,” in which women begin “getting into more than fetishes.” Following this line, Acker’s last novel, Pussy, is an attempt to render directly the mythical society of “pirate girls” which lurks in the wings (literally in parentheses throughout long sections of My Mother) of the previous novels.

Given this artistic trajectory, and her program to move beyond the phallic myth, it is not surprising that Acker should eventually address the issue of fetishism. In Freud’s view, fetishism’s essential relation to castration makes it a privileged object of study: “An investigation of fetishism is strongly recommended to anyone who still doubts the existence of the castration complex or who can still believe that fright at the sight of the female genitals has some other ground [. . .]” (“Fetishism” 155). The female fetish, as many of its theorists have noted, is positioned to hit psychoanalysis where it hurts, aiming at the very myth which secures the centrality of the phallus: castration. For Acker, though, the value of fetishism as a fictional strategy does not reside solely in its power to deconstruct psychoanalytic models. This is suggested in her return to a Freud considerably altered from that of the Standard Edition. Acker’s divided attitude toward female fetishism emerges as an effort to refashion the psychic mechanism of disavowal into a feminist political practice while, at the same time, emphasizing the need for women to move beyond that practice, to get into “more than fetishes.”

[5]   Acker’s work dramatizes this simultaneous attraction and repulsion toward fetishism even when one takes Beatrice’s father at his word, and simply assumes, in lieu of analysis, that a female Freudian fetish is possible. At the most general level, fetishistic disavowal, as a strategy for simultaneous affirmation and denial, is the predominant mechanism at work in the psychic life of almost every Acker character. The heroine of an Acker novel is invariably troubled by her simultaneous need for a man and the need to repudiate that need. Very often, these contradictory impulses are expressed as a longing for, or rejection of, the penis. Disavowal, particularly in the late novels, does not reflect the difficulty of acknowledging sexualdifference so much as the problem of asserting personal autonomy: “I have always felt anxiety based on this situation: I need to give myself away to a lover and simultaneously I need to be always alone” (My Mother 15). At this level, Acker’s presentation of disavowal supports Marcia Ian’s argument that fetishism has always been about, first and foremost, the problem of individuation: “The algorithm of one and zero symbolized by the fetish only seems to refer to the woman: as if either she has the penis or she doesn’t. It would be more accurate, more truthful, however, to say that this algorithm defines the subject in his presence or absence to himself, for himself [. . .]” (128). In Acker, the compromise strategy has deep political consequences. Subjected to a painful recognition–often produced through rape–of the denial of her own identity and will, the Acker heroine becomes aware of the unavoidable fact of women’scollective exclusion from phallogocentric culture and history. Typically, her first response is an attempted retreat into imagination or dream:

    Because she had not made any public thing, history, because she wasn’t a man, Airplane lived in her imagination. More precisely: Because she hated the world and the society to which her childhood and then the rapist had introduced her and because she didn’t even know what society she lived in (because she hadn’t made it), she had drifted into her imagination. (In Memoriam 221)

Where could I hide this self? I searched. Decided to hide in the mirror: in memories of my past victimizations, especially sexual abuses and rapes. As Father was making love to me, whenever my consciousness was bad and wandered into the present, I repeated the sacred laws I had just given myself: the laws of silence and of the loss of language. For us, there is no language in this male world. (My Mother 168)

The latter passage in particular, with its reversion to the mirror and the injunction against speech, fits the Lacanian definition of fetishism as a resistance to entry into the paternal law–a resistance that results in an oscillation between the imaginary and symbolic realms, and in non-communication (Lacan and Granoff 272). Many of Acker’s female characters are caught in precisely this oscillation. Clinging to a vision of a whole, inviolable (and hence imaginary) body, yet unwilling and unable to give up entirely the world of language, political action becomes a sexual rebellion which seeks the destruction of Self and Other in the real: “I destroy either myself or the world whenever I fuck” (My Mother 48).

[6]   But to focus solely on how Acker’s characters exhibit aspects of fetishistic disavowal neglects the fact that many of these characters are engaged in a conscious struggle against the psychoanalytic construction of female sexuality. This struggle, especially when it questions the relationship between Freudian and Lacanian theory (implied in Acker’s confounding play with the terms “penis” and “phallus”), makes it impossible just to assume the political or descriptive value of female fetishism in Acker’s texts. If Acker’s mention of fetishism targets Freud rather than Lacan, she is nevertheless very concerned with the specifically Lacanian definition of female sexuality as “not-having” or “being” the phallus–a condition which results in women’s automatic fetishization of the penis (Lacan, “Meaning” 84). Indeed, it is the normalizing of the female desire for a phallus on the male body that renders female fetishism theoretically invisible, according to Marjorie Garber:

What if it should turn out that female fetishism is invisible, or untheorizable, because it coincides with what has been established as natural ornormal–for women to fetishize the phallus on men? In other words, to deny female fetishism is to establish as natural the female desire that the male body contain the phallus. Heterosexuality here–as so often–equals nature. Female fetishism is the norm of human sexuality. That is why it is invisible. (54)

Karen Brennan, commenting on Acker’s engagement with psychoanalytic theory in Blood and Guts in High School, argues that Acker’s strategy is to collapse Lacan back into Freud by deliberately conflating the penis and the phallus. According to Brennan, this conflation invalidates psychoanalysis as a forum for deciding the issue of female subjectivity, enabling feminist politics to take over (256). Yet while this may be true of an early novel likeBlood and Guts, it is less so of Acker’s later work, in which the relationship between the penis and phallus is more complex. Acker’s unwillingness to dismiss psychoanalysis out of hand is suggested in the reference to female fetishism already cited: “For a moment, consider that Freud’s model of female sexuality, that a woman and her desire are defined by a lack of a penis, is true.” Clearly, Acker’s feminist politics are no longer–if they ever were–a simple alternative to phallic myths. In this light, the need for women to get into “more than fetishes” will become comprehensible only once the politically inflected relations between the penis, the phallus, and the fetish in these novels is unpacked.

[7]   One way of getting a handle on Acker’s use of Freud (and through him, of Lacan) can be found in a series of methodological statements which emerge in My Mother: Demonology. These statements, held together by their emphasis on body-building, are an evolution of Acker’s affinity for tattoo, the point where language meets body:




The “constructive” project first embarked upon in Empire finds expression here in a form which sheds light on the continued role of citation and plagiarism–both fictional and theoretical–within that project. The attribution of female fetishism to Freud is a breaking down of Freudian theory through a process akin to that of overloading a muscle group. It is a performance which strains the original theory to failure in an effort to push it beyond its limitations. With reference to Lacan, the quest for a “literature of the body” suggests the search for a body both before and after language, a movement both forward and backward through the symbolic to an imaginary body “so material that it becomes immaterial.” In keeping with the rhetoric of body-building, however, neither of these overworked theoretical models can serve constructive ends until, together, they are “properly fed with nutrients.” The task of Acker’s fictional body-building is thus not only to strain and break down selective aspects of Freudian and Lacanian theory, but also to rebuild the relationship between Freud and Lacan on the basis of these overstressed areas. It is therefore worth examining in some detail the nutrients Acker uses to establish the relationship between the symbolic journey to the immaterial body, conceived with reference to Lacan, and a Freudian model of thefemalefetish.

[8]   In My Mother: Demonology, the key nutrient is history. The announcement of female fetishism as a strategy through which women can “contest reality” is foreshadowed by two passages which emphasize the need to nourish psychoanalytic accounts through historical awareness. The first of these occurs early on, as a commentary on a series of letters written by the mother of the novel’s title. In a parenthetical aside, the narrator summarizes a section of Roudinesco’s Jacques Lacan and Co., “Suicide, Sex, and the Criminal Woman”:

According to Elisabeth Roudinesco in her study of Lacan, around 1924 a conjuncture of early Feminism, a new wave of Freudianism, and Surrealism gave rise to a new representation of the female: nocturnal, dangerous, fragile and powerful. The rebellious, criminal, insane, or gay woman is no longer perceived as a slave to her symptoms. Instead, “in the negative idealization of crime {she} discovers the means to struggle against a society {that disgusts}.” (My Mother 30)

The section of Roudinesco summarized here focuses on the specific “historical configuration” influencing Freud’s theory of the death drive, and its adoption by André Bréton as part of the Surrealist movement (12-21). But Acker’s citation is clearly chosen to emphasize the historical coming together of feminism and Freudianism–a conjuncture that transforms the behaviour of the “outcast” into both a new paradigm for representing the female, and a rebellious political practice. And this passage paves the way for a more direct Freudian reference. While the narrator’s mother is attending an all-girls’ school, her friend, Beatrice, mysteriously disappears. Searching for her companion, the mother tracks down Beatrice’s boyfriend, Gallehault, who explains Beatrice’s suicide by reading Freudian masochism as a historical symptom:

During their meetings, he had begun to understand that phenomena or orders that seem to be psychological dysfunctions, even disorders, such as masochism, though on the surface obviously caused by childhood and other social disorders, actually arise from other sources [. . .].
Rather than for psychological, Gallehault, in love, began searching for… he didn’t know what word to use here… not quite social or political… causes:
“I can only explain historically. By using history.”
(74, bracketed ellipses mine)

Taken together, these two passages emphasize how symptoms or behaviours deemed psychologically deviant can be endowed, through historical contextualization, with new representational and political potential. This has important implications for female fetishism. If the political value of fetishistic practices for women depends on the acceptance, at least initially, of the truth of Freudian theory, then according to Gallehault, such truth will be established not through universal psychological models of development, but through concrete historical narratives. It would thus appear, at first glance, that Acker’s breaking down and reformulating of the relationship between Freudian and Lacanian theory consists of downplaying the value of Freud in order to privilege a Lacanian emphasis on the historical construction of the subject through language.

[9]   But on closer examination, the function of history with regard to female fetishism, and the relationship Acker’s fiction establishes between Freud and Lacan, are more complicated than this. For to claim history as the ultimate arbiter of psychoanalytic truth entails new representational problems, of which both Acker and her characters are well aware. Foremost among these is the possibility that any use of a particular historical narrative to establish truth runs the risk of transforming that narrative into a metanarrative–a single, monolithic version of history which excludes all others. Resistance to this totalizing effect is emphasized in My Motherwhen, after listening to Gallehault’s expansive explanation, covering some seven centuries, the mother thinks, “None of this was true. I remembered The Waste Land” (77). Mention of Eliot’s high-modernist shoring of historical fragments points up the tension between Acker’s formal fragmentation of history through collage, plagiarism, and pastiche, and her emphasis on the political urgency of reading history as an explanatory narrative, whose wholeness and coherence stems from its systematic repression of women’s self-representation. As much as they would like a non-phallogocentric myth to reanimate those facts and fragments with a new, political historicity, Acker’s characters are aware that such a myth will always be complicitous with phallogocentrism precisely because they must travel through language to reach it. In this, Acker’s work becomes a particularly important example of the fundamental tensions Linda Hutcheon identifies in any encounter between feminism and postmodernist fictional practice. If Acker’s quest for a “myth to live by” has a certain high-modernist ring to it, her reference to Eliot betrays a distinctlypostmodernist irony–one which, according to Hutcheon, “rejects the resolving urge of modernism toward closure or at least distance” (99). That irony plays itself out later in My Mother, whenThe Waste Land is itself recycled for its sub-headings, “The Fire Sermon” and “Death By Water,” which Acker steals for chapter titles. By exercising what Robert Latham calls her “castrating prerogative” (32) over other texts, Acker’s plagiarism and collage rob those texts of the very paternal historicity implied in her constant references to the place of women “outside” that monolithic structure. This tension is visible everywhere in Acker’s late work. On one hand, Pussy, King of the Pirates offers a virtual paraphrase of Lyotard on postmodernism: “There is no master narrative nor realist perspective to provide a background of social and historical facts” (80). At the same time, however, sexual difference appears to provide exactly that distanced perspective:

“Men have history,” Airplane replied, “carved-out history, historical periods, periods, this time of war. Since women don’t have history, they don’t have a chance to be adolescent for just one period. We make ourselves up”         (In Memoriam 218-19).

Ultimately, Acker’s fiction refuses to decide whether, from a female perspective, history is more accurately represented as a fragmented series of localized narratives, or as a monolithic singular metanarrative from which women have been systematically excluded.

[10]   Yet far from compromising the effort to reform and repoliticize psychoanalysis, it is precisely this ambiguous attitude toward historical representation which becomes, in Acker, the structure governing the relationship between Freudian and Lacanian theory. Acker’s work assigns these representational models of history to Freud and Lacan, attempting to force a distinction between a totalizing Freudian metanarrative, and a contingent Lacanian narrative, of psychoanalytic truth. Of course, because Lacan ultimately depends on the truth of Freud, this is an impossible task. But then Acker’s quest for a myth beyond the phallus is also “impossible.” It is within the framework of this acknowledged impossibility that Acker’s fiction overworks and breaks down the conventional relationship between the theoretical models she cites. Enforcing an impossible distinction between Freud and Lacan is important to affirming female fetishism because it provides the necessary leverage with which to pry apart the exclusive symbolic bonds between the penis and the phallus. The rebuilding of the relationship between Freud and Lacan can then proceed through the insertion of that impossible entity, the female fetish, in the new space opened between Freud’s imaginary penis and Lacan’s symbolic phallus.

[11]   To see this process in action, it is necessary to recontextualize Acker’s mention of female fetishism within her more comprehensive interrogation of female sexuality in Freud. That interrogation reaches a frenzied pitch in her late novels; but it has its roots in the attack, waged throughout her work, on the limited compensation Freud allowed to women for their lack of a penis: the baby. According to Freud, the little girl’s desire to receive compensation for her lack of a penis is an essential element of normal heterosexual development, and its choice of object is fixed. Assuming the girl’s eventual acceptance of her castrated state, penis envy is transformed in the Oedipal stage from a wish for the penis, to a wish for a baby by the father (“Dissolution” 177-79, “Some Psychical” 253-56). The motif of abortion that runs throughout Acker’s novels challenges this fixation of the baby as testament to the imaginary effects of penis envy. Penis envy itself comes under attack by implication; but in such a way that, ironically, Oedipal fixations, and the desire for the father, are reinscribed at a symbolic, rather than imaginary, level.

[12]   This is evident in Acker’s portrayal of abortion as a sexual act with the institutions that serve to keep women in a place of helplessness and dependence: “Abortions are the symbol, the outer image, of sexual relations in this world” (Blood and Guts 34). In the very act of rejecting the baby as an imaginary compensation for lack, Acker’s characters invariably find themselves confirming the classic psychoanalytic reduction of femininity to passivity at the level of the symbolic:

Having an abortion was obviously just like getting fucked. If we closed our eyes and spread our legs, we’d be taken care of. They stripped us of our clothes. Gave us white sheets to cover our nakedness. Led us back to the pale green room. I love it when men take care of me. (Blood and Guts33)

In Pussy, this institutional power becomes reified such that, “in this world they always means medical people” (80). By denying the baby in its capacity as a substitute penis–a denial that amounts to a rejection of castration at the level of the imaginary–these women are subjected all the more to a symbolic law that reasserts the power of the phallus at a social and institutional level. Acker’s historicizing of psychoanalytic theory is evident, however, for in questioning the penis as the locus of value in the constitution of female sexuality, she suggests that the phallus continues to operate in the historical arena independent of its symbolic ties to an anatomical counterpart. Two consequences follow. First, by implicitly confirming the centrality of the phallus through a rejection of the penis, Acker shows how castration can be used to open an interpretive space between penis and phallus which is not supposed to exist. This interpretive moment enables the distinction between a prehistoric, imaginary Freudian penis (the lost object of Freud’s theory of fetishism), and a historic, symbolic Lacanian phallus. Second, the relegation of history to a place solely within the province of the phallus confines history to the realm of language, or of text. As such, its vulnerability to Acker’s plagiaristic reappropriation and revision is established. It is the effort to revise this phallogocentric text through the very tool it wields to maintain its paternal authority–the fetish–that defines the aim of Acker’s female fetishism as a linguistic and political strategy.

[13]   This strategy becomes clearer when Acker takes on the doctrine of penis envy directly. Two of the three women whose stories make up In Memoriam to Identity refuse to identify with a need for the penis. Airplane denies that her desire to dress as a boy bears any relation to penis envy: “It’s not that I wanted a penis. I’ve never sympathized with Freud when he said that. Freud didn’t understand the relations between sex and power. Looking like a boy took away some of my fear” (143). That the penis, for Airplane, proves inadequate as a means of expressing the power she derives from cross-dressing, suggests a reliance on the phallus, and a symbolization of “having” that phallus, that is not restricted to the biological male organ. As in the case of abortion, however, her solution only reaffirms the very oppositional structure of “having” and “being” which her rejection of penis envy upsets. It is likewise the case for Capitol, who, in a section of the novel devoted to plagiarizing Faulkner’s The Wild Palms, discovers psychoanalytic theory through her brother QuentinIn this case, Acker offers her own version of a Freudian first-encounter story. Capitol tells her brother:

The first time I saw a penis was Father’s. I was in Mother and Father’s bedroom. I walked into the bathroom where Father was standing over the toilet, I hadn’t known he was in there, and I saw it for the first time. It was standing away from him and looked weird. I had never seen anything like it, some part of the body and yet not part of the body, opposite to it. I immediately knew I was seeing what I wasn’t supposed to see and I felt disgusted or frightened or both and I got out as fast as I could. Out of the bathroom. Freud said, you told me, girls always want their fathers, sexually. You think that’s why women are sluts, don’t you? That’s just why I fuck everyone. I only thought that penis was weird. (163-64)

Capitol’s disgust and fright at sight of the penis are clearly in defiance of the Freudian version of that initial encounter, in which the girl recognizes immediately her lack and takes up her position in the Oedipal scenario: “She makes her judgement and her decision in a flash. She has seen it and knows that she is without it and wants to have it” (“Some Psychical” 252). Capitol’s reaction opens a space of interpretation which is denied in both Freudian and Lacanian accounts of penis envy–a space in which the imaginary effects of perceived castration are open to question. If female fetishism, following the path of its male counterpart, takes root in the disavowal of castration, then its drive is toward cathecting an object other than the penis that is capable of symbolizing “having” the phallus. Though Capitol’s promiscuity, she implies, stems from a desire for her father, that desire must be attached to something besides the possession of the penis–an attachment that owes more to the cultural reiteration of malessymbolically“having” the phallus, than any imaginary longing for anatomical organs.

[14]   In this regard, Acker’s drive to affirm female fetishism charts a path analogous to that of Judith Butler’s “lesbian phallus,” which deconstructs the relation between phallus and penis by, paradoxically, overemphasizing the dependence of the phallus on the penis for its symbolization (Bodies 57-92). Capitol’s refusal of penis envy deprivileges the penis as the only signifier of “having” the phallus at the same time that it cements their symbolic interdependence, by implying a desire for the phallus as itself an imaginary effect–a move which, as Butler points out, threatens the very distinction between symbolic and imaginary (79). By this strategy, Acker’s desire to push Freudian theory beyond its limits, toward an affirmation of female fetishism, also puts the Lacanian phallus to uses for which it was not intended. This is because denial of penis envy disrupts the mutually exclusive effects of castration in the Lacanian system: “to argue that certain body parts or body-like things other than the penis are symbolized as ‘having’ the phallus is to call into question the mutually exclusive trajectories of castration anxiety and penis envy” (Butler, Bodies84-85). Acker approaches the problem from the opposite direction–targeting penis envy directly, so as to enable the symbolic power of those substitute objects–but the theoretical consequences, as Butler relates them, are the same:

Indeed, if men are said to “have” the phallus symbolically, their anatomy is also a site marked by having lost it; the anatomical part is never commensurable with the phallus itself. In this sense, men might be understood to be both castrated (already) and driven by penis envy (more properly understood as phallus envy). Conversely, insofar as women might be said to “have” the phallus and fear its loss [. . .] they may be driven by castration anxiety. (Bodies 85)

[15]   And indeed Acker’s texts do emphasize a female fear of castration, in a mode which reflects this erosion of imaginary and symbolic registers. It is as the representation of castration anxiety, shifted to the social and institutional level, that the near-obsessive fear of lobotomy in Acker’s work should be read. This fear binds together her entire oeuvre and finds vivid expression in her first novel: “I’m forced to enter the worst of my childhood nightmares, the world of lobotomy: the person or people I depend on will stick their fingers into my brain, take away my brain, my driving will-power, I’ll have nothing left, I won’t be able to manage for myself” (Childlike 53). In subsequent novels, lobotomy becomes synonymous with social conditioning, particularly the substitution of arbitrary rules for any possibility of free, independent expression: “No way given in this society in which to live. Nothing taught. Rules that is lobotomies taught” (My Death 295). By the time of Acker’s late work, lobotomization has been refined to a concept which connotes the acceptance of, and initiation into, the laws of a robotic society. In particular, lobotomy is revealed as the primary dogma of school education, especially that of the all-girls schools which figure predominantly in Acker’s last three novels. In Memoriam is the most explicit: “Our teachers are playing games with us, games that they love us, games that we need them, so that they can carve us up into lobotomies and servants to a lobotomized society. So that we’ll learn to obey orders” (13). Institutions such as schools and medical clinics deliberately evoke models of family life and structure as an alibi to mask the real sites of social brainwashing. This structure, always portrayed as an opposition between the typically poor, outcast heroine of the Acker novel and a vague “them” consisting of teachers, doctors, and politicians, is by no means necessarily an opposition between male and female. Men, too, can be placed in a position of “lack” through phallus envy, as Thivai discovers by watching a lobotomy in a burned-out Paris ward: “That lobotomy was both a lobotomy and a sign: my pleasure (my imagination, dreaming, desiring) was being cut off from actual life” (Empire 146). Still, if the phallus and the penis seem so often to coincide, it is because, historically, women have been the more successfully and systematically lobotomized. Women have been denied access to, and participation in, those discourses that would lead to a knowledge of their own bodies: “I know nothing about my body. Whenever there’s a chance of knowing, for any of us, the government [. . .] reacts to knowledge about the female body by censoring” (My Mother 62). Lobotomy, in Acker’s work, should be read as the castration-complex placed (at least partially) in the historical arena, where its relationship to feminist politics becomes plain. An early article by Hélène Cixous, entitled “Castration or Decapitation,” makes the point: “If man operates under the threat of castration, if masculinity is culturally ordered by the castration complex, it might be said that the backlash, the return, on women of this castration anxiety is its displacement as decapitation, execution, of woman, as the loss of her head” (43). For Acker, being a robot is akin to begin dead–a zombie-like death-in-life that grounds all her characters’ fear of lobotomy. It is likely this fear which Airplane finds partially alleviated when she dresses as a boy, and which leads her to suspect that Freud’s attention to the penis is a misunderstanding–if not a mystification–of the power issues in which she feels trapped.

[16]   In this light, female fetishism–the need for woman to “contest reality” and to “deny that she’s lacking a dick”–can be interpreted in Acker’s late work as a disavowal of lobotomy as a form of castration with which women (but not only women) are threatened. As such, it is indistinguishable from the performative declaration of its own possibility. Just as, according to Butler, the phallus attains its status as a privileged signifier through a performative announcement (Bodies 83), so too Acker’s announcement of female fetishism, read as the culmination of her pointed attacks on penis envy, situates the female fetish in the interpretive space opened between the penis and the phallus as privileged signifier. This announcement defetishizes the “normal” fetishes at the root of the Lacanian and Freudian models of female heterosexuality: for Lacan, the penis as the biological signifier of “having” the phallus, and for Freud, the baby as the only acceptable substitute for that lack, itself a signifier of an exclusively female biological capability. But the fetish in Acker ultimately replaces something that exists in neither Freud nor Lacan; it serves as the substitute for a partially deconstructed penis/phallus that plays the role of both terms and of neither. Perhaps this is why Acker devotes so little attention to describing the fetish object itself; it is as if the representation of that object would divert too much attention from the complex nature of what it disavows. Airplane’s cross-dressing is only one example of a pattern that recurs throughout Acker’s fiction, in which a seemingly fetishistic practice, and the fear it helps to assuage, is described without proportional emphasis on the object (in this case male clothing). Another example, which has received a good deal of critical attention, is the scene from Empire of the Senseless in which Agone gets a tattoo (129-40). Here Acker’s lengthy description of the process of tattooing leads Redding to define the tattoo as a fetish which is “not the foundation of a static arrangement of images but inaugurates a protean scenario” (290). Likewise Punday, though not writing about fetishism explicitly, reads the tattooing scene as establishing a “more material, less object-dependent form of representation” (para. 12). Of course, this descriptive deprivileging of the object also reflects on the methodology Acker uses to conduct her attack on female sexuality in Freud. As described earlier, that methodology proceeds in a direction opposite to Judith Butler’s work on the lesbian phallus, which is enabled by the supposition of the substitute objects Acker neglects. Still, if Acker’s drive to affirm female fetishism achieves many of the same disruptive effects as Butler’s theory, her lack of attention to the object implies misgivings about the political instrumentality of the female fetish. To assess the grounds of these misgivings, it is helpful now to return to Butler, whose work sheds a direct light on Acker’s methodology and its political ramifications.

[17]   The similarities between Butler’s lesbian phallus and Acker’s female fetishism are not coincidental. Butler’s arguments about the discursive constitution of materiality play a significant role in shaping Acker’s conception of the literature of the body. In an article published shortly before Pussy, King of the Pirates, Acker reads Butler’s essay, “Bodies that Matter,” in the context of her childhood desire to become a pirate. Acker begins by quoting Butler’s central observation that, “If the body signified as prior to signification is an effect of signification, then the mimetic or representational status of language, which claims that signs follow bodies as their necessary mirrors, is not mimetic at all” (Butler, “Bodies” 144, quoted in Acker, “Seeing” 80). Then, after an analysis of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, in which she compares her search for identity to that of the fictional Alice, Acker returns to Butler’s argument:

But what if language need not be mimetic?
I am looking for the body, my body, which exists outside its patriarchal definitions. Of course, that is not possible. But who is any longer interested in the possible? Like Alice, I suspect that the body, as Butler argues, might not be co-equivalent with materiality, that my body might deeply be connected to, if not be, language. (84)

Acker’s emphasis on the need to seek that which is not possible aligns her search for the “languages of the body” (“Seeing” 84) with the impossible goal of her late fiction, which is the construction of a myth beyond the phallus. Clearly, Butler’s work, as Acker reads it, is helpful here because it offers a conception of the body as materialized language. Recall that Acker’s distinction between Freud and Lacan on the basis of a symbolic, historical phallus and an imaginary, pre-historical penis opens a similar kind of space between language and the (phantasmatic) material. But while Acker’s rhetoric of impossibility establishes the relevance of Butler’s work to her own fictional project, it also implies why that project cannot be modelled on Butler’s theoretical construction of the lesbian phallus. The reason stems from the way in which Butler uses language to speculate on and figure an “outside” to phallic myths.

[18]   In the same essay which Acker quotes, Butler poses a number of questions about the subversive potential of citation and language use, most of which focus on Luce Irigaray’s strategy of a “critical mime”: “Does the voice of the philosophical father echo in her, or has she occupied that voice, insinuated herself into the voice of the father? If she is ‘in’ that voice for either reason, is she also at the same time ‘outside’ it?” (“Bodies” 149). These questions, directed toward Irigaray’s “possession” of the speculative voice of Plato, could readily serve as the starting point for an analysis of Acker’s fiction, so heavily laden with citations from other literary and philosophical texts. Butler’s question is, moreover, especially relevant to a discussion of the political potential of Acker’s female fetishism, which is introduced in the voice of the “Father” (both fictional and Freudian). Insofar as Acker’s mention of female fetishism is seen as instrumental to her projected escape from phallic myths, her decision to stand insidethe voice of these fathers aims at a political and philosophical disruption which stems, according to Butler, from rendering that voice “occupiable” (150). Acker’s echoing of the voice of authority is the first step toward a disloyal reading or “overreading” of that authority. But there is, from the outset, a crucial difference in the way that Acker and Butler conceive of this “occupation,” which becomes evident when Butler conducts her own overreading (the term is hers–see “Bodies” 173, note 46) of Plato’s Timaeus. Having compared the way in which Derrida, Kristeva, and Irigaray read Plato’s chora, Butler finds in Irigaray a strain of discourse which conflates thechora with the maternal body, inevitably producing an excluded feminine “outside.” Rejecting this idea that the feminine holds a monopoly over the sphere of the excluded, Butler wonders, toward the end of “Bodies that Matter,” whether the heterosexual matrix which establishes the stability of gender difference could be disrupted by the possibility of feminine penetration–a question that leads into the territory of the lesbian phallus:

If it were possible to have a relation of penetration between two ostensibly feminine gendered positions, would this be the kind of resemblance that must be prohibited in order for Western metaphysics to get going? [. . .] Can we read this taboo that mobilizes the speculative and phantasmatic beginnings of Western metaphysics in terms of the spectre of sexual exchange that it produces through its own prohibition, as a panic over the lesbian or, perhaps more specifically, the phallicization of the lesbian? (“Bodies” 163)

Acker, reading Butler’s essay, would no doubt have appreciated the subversive potential of this “reverse mime” (“Bodies” 163) and the lesbian phallus which it postulates. But it is Butler’s respect for philosophical and linguistic possibility (“If it were possible. . .”) that makes her deconstructive methodology unattractive from Acker’s perspective. For as Acker repeatedly maintains in regard to her late fiction, it is not the possible but the impossible uses of language that interest her. When, after acknowledging the importance of Butler’s speculations about the discursive constitution of materiality, Acker asks the question, “Who is any longer interested in the possible?”, she signals her parting of ways with the philosopher. The path to the lesbian phallus cannot be the path to the literature of the body, for that body is defined from the outset as an impossible goal. Instead, the route by which Acker attempts to get outside of phallic myths follows the methodology of a fiction firmly grounded in the impossible–in a citational strategy, or critical mime, which echoes the voice of a Freud that never existed.

[19]   By thus claiming impossibility as an enabling condition of female fetishism, Acker’s “constructive” fiction can achieve many of the same disruptive effects as Butler’s deconstructive theory. Yet it is this foundation in the impossible that also constrains the depiction of the female fetish as an object. The announcement of female fetishism occupies the impossible material/linguistic space of interpretation between the Lacanian phallus and the phantasmatic Freudian penis. To substitute that performative announcement with a description of the material object is, however, to risk restoring faith in a mimetic model of language which Acker rejects, in her reading of Butler, as inappropriate to a search for the impossible body. The result is that Acker’s female fetishism is confined to the interpretive space it occupies in the heart of psychoanalytic theory. Trapped in this spatialized “between,” female fetishism can offer, in the final analysis, no guarantee of an escape from phallogocentrism. Butler gives warning about this kind of trap in her reading of Irigaray: “How do we understand the being ‘between’ [. . .] as something other than a spatialized entre that leaves the phallogocentric binary opposition intact?” (“Bodies” 149-50). Acker must therefore remain doubtful about the political instrumentality of the fetish for women. Lobotomy-as-castration describes Acker’s attempt to translate the moment of entry into the symbolic law out of the realm of the family and prehistory, into the realm of the social institution and history. Here, however, the workings of the phallus, whose function is to create an economy of having versus lack or not-having, remain all too obvious.

[20]   Thus even as “Father” articulates the conception of female fetishism, Acker steps out of that narrative voice to stress the importance of women “getting into more than fetishes.” “Having” the phallus for Acker means not being a lobotomized robot–a position open to women, if historically under-represented by them. But although this alternative economy, in theory, allows objects other than the penis to signify that “having,” it still preserves an essential binary opposition in which one term or group is elevated at the expense of the other. Female fetishism must therefore be only a turning point, a temporary pivot on which to pause and redirect one’s attacks on phallic economies. Acker’s novels do not bear out McCallum’s opinion that fetishism provides the means of blurring binary epistemological models, sexual or otherwise. Instead, her characters must finally wage war against these economies through direct engagement with the institutions which produce them–a feat rarely successful outside of dream: “In the section of my childhood before I had any friends, the architecture of my uniform and school building and all that they namededucation was static (not subject to time or change), or fascistic. I have destroyed that architecture by dream in which learning is a journey” (My Mother 193). Dreams provide the only glimpses of a revealed literature of the body, wherein the binary oscillation between male/female and material/immaterial are finally resolved:

   Here is why I talk so much about nature. Nature is a refuge from myself, from opposition, from the continuing impossibility of me.
Nature’s more than just a refuge, but it’s impossible to speak about it directly. For nature can be spoken about only in dream. I can’t explain this, not only to you, not even to myself. Only the dreamer or dream–is there any difference between these two?–can speak about nature. (My Mother249-50)

But because even dream is only the end of a trip through language, castration-anxiety persists: “Even in dream, my deepest fear is being enclosed, trapped, or lobotomized” (My Mother 49). In the context of her quest for a myth beyond the phallus, female fetishism marks a first step toward that end, but a step which opens up no permanent “beyond.” For while Acker’s fetishism displaces the penis as the sole object capable of symbolizing the phallus, and refuses to settle on any fixed economy of having versus lack, its strategy of oscillation remains bound to the backbone of that economy: symbolic castration.

[21]   Thus it is the case that, for all of her desire to reach the literature of the body, Acker’s attitude toward female fetishism as a political strategy remains divided, remains the attitude of the fetishist. Admittedly, at this point there is a great temptation to try and halt this oscillation, and to consolidate Acker’s female fetishism in relation to the numerous critical readings which ally her work with that of Cixous, Irigaray, Kristeva, and écriture feminine (see for example Friedman, “Now Eat,” as well as Peters, Sciolino, Siegle, and Walsh). It is very tempting to find in Acker’s late novels the fulfillment of a prophecy made by Cixous in the same article which establishes ties between castration and female decapitation: “Things are starting to be written, things that will constitute a feminine Imaginary, the site, that is, of identifications of an ego no longer given over to an image defined by the masculine [. . .]” (52). There is no shortage of evidence to support such a thesis. The central character of My Mother ends up rejecting those representations of power which, according to Irigaray (30), always involve a privileging of a “phallic maternal” over the feminine: “One result of this journey, or ‘identity,’ could be my loss of interest in ‘feminine power.’ Images of the Eternal Mother, the Virgin Mary, etc.” (My Mother 249). But while it would be foolish to deny Acker’s relevance to the work of Irigaray or toécriture féminine, her attack on penis envy and her contribution to female fetishism should not be taken as an attempt to delimit or describe a specifically female imaginary. Her portrayal of the refusal of maternity–symbolic or literal–extends also to a rejection of any desire to symbolize a pre-Oedipal mother-daughter relationship which, for Irigaray at least, is essential to the work of theorizing that imaginary (142-44)Acker’s refusal of feminine power and its symbolizations leads not only to an affirmation of desire as fluid and multiple (properties usually associated withécriture féminine), but, more importantly, to desire astransformation:

    There’re no witches or Eternal Mother. This is who I am: one day someone placed this ad in a paper: “Looking for LOST DOG.”
Woof. (My Mother 265)

Acker’s texts demonstrate a desire so fluid that it erases distinctions not only between the sexes, but between the species, between the animate and inanimate. The literature of the body toward which Acker strives bears a closer affinity to the “becomings-animal” of Deleuze and Guattari (236-306), than to any lost, imaginary, or pre-Oedipal maternal relationship. This point has been made before about Acker’s early work (see Dix and Harper). But it is only in the novels beginning with Empire of the Senseless that Acker begins to foreground so directly and so consistently the contrast between this anti-Oedipal conception of desire, and psychoanalytic theory. Her concerns with the articulation of female desire and writing only go so far as to cast an impossible form of that desire–fetishism–as the interface between these models. If fetishism, in keeping with Freud and Lacan, is a monument erected on the path to the Oedipus complex, it is also, for Acker, the first sign pointing the way out. Female fetishism offers a name for those moments where female desire bumps up against the transformative “beyond”:

   I’m the Chinese wood comb running through her curly hair. I’m the bra which outlines her delicate breasts. I’m the transparent net of her sleeves. The dress swishing around her upper legs. The silk stocking around her thigh. The heel which lies beneath her. The puff she uses after she bathes. The salt of her armpits. I sponge off her clammy parts. I’m wet and tender. I’m her hand that does what she needs. I don’t exist. I’m her chair, her mirror, her bathtub. I know all of her perfectly as if I’m the space around her. I’m her bed. (I Dreamt157)

[22]   Contrary, perhaps, to expectation, Acker’s contribution to a theory of female fetishism consists not in the fictional description of the object, but in the reassertion of the logical and political difficulties which attend even the naming of the practice. The decision simply to attribute female fetishism to Freud overleaps the theoretical hesitation with which it has always been plagued–affirming, as it were, the existence of the phenomenon as given–while also, by virtue of establishing it within Freudian doctrine, problematizing its reformative potential. Acker’s attacks on female sexuality in Freud, combined with her disarmingly easy cooptation of the fetish for women, reinforce rather than allay Schor’s reservations about reconstituted penis envy. So long as the fetish remains bound to an economy of having versus lack, its value as an instrument of feminist political practice will remain suspect. Yet in the context of Acker’s fictional efforts to articulate a “myth to live by,” the significance of female fetishism is clear. It stands as a first step toward that impossible end, a first performance of the unthinkable within phallogocentric models. And in this it satisfies the political mandate outlined in Empire:

    Ten years ago it seemed possible to destroy language through language: to destroy language which normalizes and controls by cutting that language. Nonsense would attack the empire-making (empirical) empire of language, the prisons of meaning.
But this nonsense, since it depended on sense, simply pointed back to the normalizing institutions.
What is the language of the ‘unconscious’? (If this ideal unconscious or freedom doesn’t exist: pretend it does, use fiction, for the sake of survival, all of our survival.) Its primary language must be taboo, all that is forbidden. Thus, an attack on the institutions of prison via language would demand the use of a language or languages which aren’t acceptable, which are forbidden. Language, on one level, constitutes a set of social and historical agreements. Nonsense doesn’t per se break down the codes; speaking precisely that which the codes forbid breaks the codes. (134)

To speak of female fetishism is not nonsense; rather, it is to speak that which the psychoanalytic codes forbid. As a highly disruptive example of “pretending,” Acker’s female fetishism performs its own justification as a fiction geared toward survival.

Acknowledgements: I thank the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for a doctoral fellowship which supported the writing of this essay.


Works Cited

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