The Interpretation of the Flesh: Freud and Femininity

The Interpretation of the Flesh: Freud and Femininity

The Interpretation of the Flesh: Freud and Femininity

The Interpretation of the Flesh: Freud and Femininity


The 'riddle of femininity', like Freud's reference to women's sexuality as a 'dark continent', has been treated as a romantic aside or a sexist evasion, rather than a problem to be solved. In this first comprehensive study, Teresa Brennan suggests that by placing these theories in the context of Freud's work overall, we will begin to understand why femininity was such a riddle for Freud. Brennan argues that by turning to Freud's work and his concrete questions about feminity, a psychical state which occurs in men and women alike, the problem is clearly a soluble one, provided that Freud's concern with energy is taken into account. the real riddle of feminity is as much a problem for thinking about physicality as a problem for the subject who suffers from what Freud described as 'femininity's' negative effects on curiosity, intelligence and activity.


This study of Freud's theory of femininity was shaped by two casual observations. The first was that women in analysis commented more on feeling exhausted or wrung out at certain key points of the analytic process. For men, the process seemed more verbal. This was not true of all the men I knew in analysis, or all the women, but there was a definite weighting towards women and energy, men and words.

This was not a clinical observation, and it was highly context-specific. The context was a mainly white, largely academic feminist community in which psychoanalysis, following Juliet Mitchell's initiative, was more and more an issue. As the theoretical interest escalated, so did the number entering analysis and discussing it. The odd thing was that none of the numerous theoretical turns in the debate between psychoanalysis and feminism addressed the energetic dimension of psychical life. Neither the linguistic turn of Lacanian-influenced feminism, nor the familiar constellation of object-relations theory, took it into account.

This is odder still, given that a close investigation of Freud's own riddle of femininity reveals that energy is its cornerstone. Having said that, and while I trace the theoretical developments and feminist debates at issue, this book is more embedded in the contemporary theoretical context than its mode of presentation reveals. The way that the 'return to Freud' helps undo the links between maleness and masculinity, and femaleness and femininity, respectively (any being could take up either position), and the Lacanian insistence that the subject was constructed, not self-generating, provide pointers to rethinking the energetic issues. They do so if the idea that the self-contained, self-generating subject is an illusion is pushed as far as it will go, which brings me to the second observation.

At one level, the second observation is self-evident. In the relations between beings, emotions as well as positions are interchangeable. A man or woman can be the beloved one year, the lover the next. Even in the briefer time-frame of an argument, for instance, positions and their attendant emotions or affects can be reversed. At a certain moment one party is hysterical, in the colloquial sense of the term, while the other is rational.

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