text: “The Woman, the Islamic Veil, and the Semblant” (E Ragland)

a text presented at the Roundtable on “The Semblant in Contemporary Culture” at Clinical Study Days 4:

The Woman, the Islamic Veil, and the Semblant

Ellie Ragland

In his last work on knots, Lacan evoked the binary pair of the semblant opposed to the real (Miller, 1991-92, p. 38).  Lacan (2007; orig. 1968-69) asked in his Seminar, “D’un discours qui ne serait pas du semblant,” Seminar XVIII, what such a discourse would be.  He answered that the body is  equivalent to a cadaver of a delibidinized speaking being.  The body of jouissance means the body significantized:  not a semblant.  What, then, is a semblant?  In his Course on De la nature des semblants (Miller, 1991-1992), Miller says that the semblant is a category, a principle of classification, a quality attributable to an object, as well as a class where one organizes objects of the same nature.  Lacan, particularly, used the idea of the semblant after Seminar XVII (Lacan, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, 1069-1970).  He invented it after having invented a theory of “discourse” (Miller, Nov. 20, 1991).  Lacan stressed in Seminar XVIII that the phallus can be read as a semblant, as the Real of the father who is denunded in psychosis.  But most people are not psychotics who call themselves Jesus Christ, Napoleon, the Wife of God., etc.  What, then, is the real of the father?  It is the real veiled by the semblants of the father—-Archie Bunker, Santa Claus, Daddy.  But the semblant is not just a static mask, it is not just illusion, for it operates (Miller, 1991-1992-, p. 38).  The totalizing signifier One makes an all of the all, pushes toward the universal of masculine sexuation where all are castrated –¹x …x—alike in obeying the law of the one exception (µx) be it God, Allah, or some other.

Such a likeness evokes a jouissance of the ego, the jouissance of the semblant of all being alike before a mirror, as the gaze of the Other darts back and forth.  That is, Lacan’s first theory of the semblant is organized on the mirror stage.  Such a doctrine of the libido is narcissistic.  The one involved in the Other sex is reducible to the narcissistic subject (2006d; origin. 1948, p. 95).  This  jouissance of Islamic males, for example, who feel themselves alike in hiding their women from public view is imaginary, Lacan says.  Jouissance and the imaginary are created as barriers to symbolic opposition as it carries the object a.  In the psychoanalytic clinic of deception and semblance, jouissance is in question insofar as analysands are trapped in false identifications.  Any lack of the imaginary also means a lack of jouissance, a lack of narcissistic identity (Miller, Semblants, April 15, 1992).  The mirror stage becomes equivalent to the …, however, in the same way that jouissance is equivalent to a signifier.  But the phallus is primary in the way of the murder of the mythical Ur-Father (May 20, 1992).  That is, the Islamic veil belongs to the band of the brothers who murdered the Ur-Father, in Lacan’s rereading of Freud’s Totem and Taboo (Freud, 1913), where the brothers ground themselves in the law of the group by murdering the one who is the exception to the law of castration (S. XX, 1988a, pp. 73-74).  That is, the imaginary third (R.S.I.) normalizes around the question of “am I the phallus” (the desired object) or not? (May 22, 1992).  The veiled woman lacks the phallus whose value is symbolic.  But in the imaginary she incarnates it.  Even in incarnating this signifier, she still lacks power in the symbolic.  Yet, the feminine one under the veil has her unconscious structured on the side of the real where one finds a kind of logic of the same and which is opposed to the masculine logic of difference from the same, the mother (Ragland, 2004).  This logic of the same is, however, impossible.  It is the real as unsayable as well as the impossibility of something being identical to itself.

Yet, paternity is a sham, an imaginary function, even a function of the semblant.  Between the poles of existence and sex, the veiled woman poses the question of what is “more” under the veil—the object a—or a mortified woman?     What is woman’s object the veil asks?  While the woman is man’s object, Freud says the woman’s objects are her own father and later a child.  Lacan says, rather, that she wants to be the object of the man’s desire.  One of the powerful components of feminine sexuality is that it introduces the lack of an object, thus pointing to the primacy of the phallus.  Lacan called this phallus, this semblant, an ancient simulacrum.  Freud called it an image.  Both views are based on jouissance.  Miller, says, rather, that the phallus serves its function as semblant by endowing someone with power.  But the phallus qua phallus does not exist, only the subject’s perception of something lacking or lost, to be regained by the pathways of sexual difference.  All of this introduces the subject as lack-in-being, a lack of something:  $ (Miller, May 20, 1992).

Still, the phallus as semblant does not touch the essential  thing.  The paternal function of naming and stabilizing in the symbolic has a primordial meaning.  But it is the mother who gives the phallus—the term of difference—by her desire vis-Ð-vis the Father’s Name.  She symbolizes the question regarding what lacks in being.  As early as “The Instance of the Letter (2006e; orig. 1957), Lacan argued that the nature of the phallus is a point of lack indicated in the subject.  For Lacan, imaginary castration (-ˆ) became the barred subject ($), difference constructing  lack.  But why would a woman accept—even want to—incarnate lack?  This would be so only insofar as difference is itself a third thing, an effect of two things opposing each other, an abstraction.   In the case of the phallus Lacan speaks of a signifier without a signified.  The answers any culture evolves in how to treat this difference become institutionalized and then rigidified.  How does one undo something as complex as castration, the phallus, the man in the symbolic, the woman in the real, just by saying “no more veil” as some have said to the Islamic world.

Miller says that one of the desires of the mother is that men be feminized.  The veil itself denies this right to the man at the same time that it affirms his absence among the mothers.  But Lacan’s innovation here is to say that the true nature of the phallus is veiled.  It is approachable in psychosis and in male homosexuality.  While the male homosexual renounces his identification to the mother or the father (Miller, May 27, 1992), the female homosexual identifies with the woman as Other.  In heterosexual relations, the question of the complexity of woman as man’s symptom resonates.  The veil, I would say, is a desperate attempt to make THE WOMAN exist.  If one looks at the phallic mask of the veil in terms of the structures of desire as elaborated by Lacan—the psychoses, perversion, the masquerade, the neuroses—the mask can be removed in psychosis because the psychotic is One with the woman who was his mother.  He is the mask, the semblant of being as woman.  In perversion, the goal is to remove the mask and make sex an equivalent  of the primordial jouissance  (Miller, June 2009).  Here is also a link between image and signifier, the phallus serving as a semblant to be articulated in the symbolic order.  In the masquerade of normativity, the veil is whatever is in fashion, fills up the lack-in-being.  Indeed, the veil covers up in the masquerade and seems, rather, to be a denial of the père-version of sexuality.  Yet, there is the phallus and its jouissance.  In the neuroses–hysteria and obsession–the veil oscillates for the hysteric embodying  the question of “am I a man or a woman?”, while the obsessional takes up the issue of whether he is dead or alive.  If one loves in the other what one lacks in the Other, the veil is a sign of love, the feminine phallus if you will.  But this is a psychoanalytic structural view of the veil.  It enunciates the logic of how separable times interlink places and orders of elements that seem not to join in any way.  But linking up places concerns topology.  We can say with Pierre Skriabine that there is a fault in the universe.  It is not whole within itself, but contains an empty set written as the barred Other (:).  It is this hole in the Other that the veil addresses (Skriabine, 2004).  The veil is an answer as to how one passes from the imaginary jouissance of the man who has covered his woman in the symbolic institution of the veil which is a semblant that organizes the relations between the sexes.  On the other hand, once the veil is in the symbolic, its effect is perverse in the sense that there is a prevalence of the image, the scene, a projection of the symbolic onto the imaginary  The image of the veil takes on the value of a semblant—a signifying articulation.  While the woman remains a sublime object, the one who is loved for what she does not have, the symbolic term of castration functions in an imaginary way in response to the issue of castration (Miller, June 3, 1992).  The veil implicitly says that the woman lacks the phallus, has nothing.  But this nothing is made into something, a semblant on the side of the drive where lack is in play.  What is interesting about the veil as a semblant is to ask whether it is on the side of nature or that of being, being, for Lacan, residing on the side of the real.  The veil, I would say, is on the side of the semblant, acting like a masquerade- kind- of- solution to the question of what man is to woman and woman to man.  “The eternal feminine,”then, is a semblant.


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