Phantasms of the Patriarchy

A Psychoanalytic Account of the Anti-Abortion Imaginary

In this paper I wish to examine the ways in which patriarchal rhetoric exercised in the abortion debate can be understood as aggressive projections of phantasmic relations to the fragmented body, as illustrated in Jacques Lacan’s “Aggressivity in Psychoanalysis.” Drawing upon the theoretical work of Peggy Phelan and Jane Gallop, I want to suggest that the generally male-led anti-abortion activist groups and legislation project onto the fetus fears steeped in the imagoes of the male fragmented body. Though Phelan points to fears surrounding increasingly visible paternity as a primary psychic root of the discipline of women’s healthcare, I want to extend this conversation to the fraught temporality of subjectivity that is made visible in Lacan’s essay. In the abortion debate, what of course is so often the central issue is the marking of when a life begins, and the desire to make that life visible. However, this marking often obscures the female subject, who is viewed solely as a mother, or often even as a mere host for a baby1—her subjectivity, the temporal stakes of her own life, are rendered invisible.

I want to demonstrate that the deep anxieties regarding the question of when a life begins can be traced to the narcissistic desire for the control of an image of a whole body or ego-ideal on the part of patriarchal ideology. Fears about the fragmented male body are in turn sublimated through attempts at controlling the female body. The blurry temporality of Lacan’s theory of subject formation that I will outline—qualities shaped by what Gallop refers to as the “future-perfect”—further compound the troubling responses to temporal anxieties around abortion. Finally, I argue that this strange role of time in subject formation—phantasmically projected in patriarchal rhetoric upon the question of when life begins—erases the living woman in favor of the patriarchal Imaginary, which ultimately turns us to issues regarding visibility and where the ‘future-perfect’ actually is invested in the abortion debate.

Let us begin examining the performative quality of patriarchal aggressivity through Lacan’s notion that aggressivity is deployed “as an image of corporal dislocation.”2 Images of corporal dislocation, what Lacan calls imagoes of the fragmented body, “are images of castration, mutilation, dismemberment, dislocation, evisceration”3 etc. These images are both subject to and contrasted by Lacan’s Gestalt theory, the desire for a whole that is coincidental with the subject formation that takes place in the mirror stage. Though this idea will be complicated later on in this essay by my discussion of Gallop’s Reading Lacan, upon the subject’s perceiving his or her whole body as their ego-ideal within the mirror, an anxiety sets in about the body’s simultaneously immanent and prior fragmentation, stoked by imagoes of the fragmented body. These anxieties, of course, have a relationship to aggression. Lacan attributes a “magical” efficacity to these imagoes­, but I want to think of the imagoes as having a ‘performative efficacity’ in the context of patriarchal discourse around the abortion debate. Consideration of the performative efficacity of psychic wounds of fragmentation exposes both the roots and extant shape of New Right anti-abortion rhetoric.

In Peggy Phelan’s Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, she illustrates the demonstrations and rhetoric of the anti-abortion activist group Operation Rescue as being effective as performances, despite their violent otherization of workers and patients entering the targeted clinic. She examines many of Operation Rescue’s tactics and the ideologies proclaimed by their founder, Randall Terry, but the gist of their activism is the performance of “rescues.” During a rescue, male members of the group form a human wall outside of a clinic, with images of bloodied, mutilated fetuses, often calling any woman who walks by a ‘dyke’ or a ‘whore.’ The female activists form quiet prayer units, acting as passive bystanders—the men are at the center of the performance.4 But let us look closely at one particularly striking element of their ‘rescues.’ Phelan writes that, “When a pregnant woman attempts to enter the clinic, a male rescuer will yell out in a strange falsetto, ‘Mother, please don’t murder me.’”5 In light of this performative utterance, Phelan argues that these men speak “both for and as the fetus . . . men displace their new reproductive visibility onto representations of the hitherto unseen ‘child.’”6 As evidenced by not only the linguistic embodiment of the fetus, but also in activist attempts to ‘humanize’ the fetus by referencing it as ‘little guy,’7 groups such as Operation Rescue gender the fetus as male. The performance and gendering of the fetus suggest that these activists make its mutilated image—and the supposed heroism which restores it to the whole, the gestalt—the center of the rescue spectacle in a way that both demonstrates and displaces their own phantasmic relations to the imago of the fragmented body onto the image of the fetus.

Where do these phantasies come from, and where, or upon whom, are they ultimately exercised? In Thesis IV of “Aggressivity in Psychoanalysis,” Lacan claims, “Aggressivity is the correlative tendency of a mode of identification that we call narcissistic.”8 As I have already discussed, there is a narcissistic tendency that creates a paradox in the abortion debate. Despite all responsibility and demonization being relegated to women and occasionally their healthcare providers, the activists of Operation Rescue place male phantasmic fears at the center of their rhetoric. But there is slippage in the notion that abortion and conception are women’s issues. Phelan points out that there is an increase in the visibility of paternity that diminishes male power—through the very slow development of a gender balance in parenting roles, testing that determines paternity with 98% accuracy, and the partial sexual liberation of women, men on all sides of the spectrum are beginning to feel threatened.9 Phelan quotes George Gilder’s argument that with these shifted dynamics, “the penis is reduced to an empty plaything.”10 Cue the obvious evocation of castration anxieties, fears of a dismembered body, a body that does not match its whole, its ego-ideal.

The response to these fears, as Lacan theorizes, is aggressivity. This desire for “Gestalten in a shifting field”—even a shifting moral and political field—crafts:

this formal fixation, which introduces a certain rupture of level, a certain discord between man and his Umwelt, the very condition that extends indefinitely his world and his power, by giving his objects . . . their potential as defensive armour.11

The narcissistic armor that emerges in response to the formal fixation brought about by imagoes of the dismembered body projected onto the fetus—the castration of male [reproductive, social, political, total] control—extends into the world, manifesting itself in “the constancy of aggressive tension in all moral life.”12 This aggressive tension, rendered visible in this rhetoric, becomes displaced on the female body and subjectivity. Lacan himself points out that:

the imaginary primordial enclosure formed by the imago of the mother’s body . . . is the historical atlas  . . . in which the voracious aggression of the subject himself [and the imagoes of the father and brothers] dispute their deleterious dominance over her sacred regions.13

This account of psychic history demonstrates the way in which aggressive tension surrounding the imago of the fragmented body is ultimately displaced through the territorialization of the female body. In this territorialization, the marking of the female body renders her invisible as a subject, but visible as always-already mother—a host for patriarchal anxieties.

The paradoxical demand for a patriarchal dynamic between visibility and invisibility recalls the desire to make visible the marking of life’s beginning. Despite clearly outdated and confused scientific notions of when life begins,14 at the heart of New Right anti-abortion rhetoric is the idea that abortion murders a person with human faculties of speech and will : “Mother, please don’t murder me!” But if we take into account that this ‘person’ is a projection of white male anti-abortion activists’ fears surrounding imagoes of the fragmented body, what really becomes at stake is not so much the unanswerable question of when ‘life’ begins or how it can be defined, but rather a narcissistic projection of ‘life’ produced in light of a blurred temporality of egoic subjectivity.  In Jane Gallop’s Reading Lacan, she notes that Lacan’s “mirror stage itself is both an anticipation and retroaction . . . it is a turning point in the chronology of a self, but it is also the origin, the moment of constitution of that self.”15 The formation of a subject, the formation of a subject via the formation of its ego that occurs at the mirror stage, is a point of origin, a moment that could be used to think about the question of when life begins. To pinpoint this moment as the beginning of life would be utterly ridiculous and inhumane on many levels, but we can play with this (non)suggestion in order to illuminate how anti-abortion activists confuse their own subjectivity with a notion of the fetus as a person, the strange privileging of the image of the fetus over the life and autonomy of the woman—or more aptly put within the framework of this rhetoric, ‘the host.’

I have already noted how fraught this particular sense of anti-abortion activist subjectivity is—how it is bound to anxieties regarding the mutilation or castration of male power. But Gallop complicates the imago of the fragmented body by locating its strange temporal location, rather, its temporal dislocation. She argues that origin of the phantasy of the body in bits and pieces “only comes after the mirror stage so as to represent what came before . . . it produces the future through anticipation and the past through retroaction . . . Both future and past are rooted in an illusion.”16 This suggests that subjectivity is still bound to the Imaginary, and to desires for the whole body, which are projected based on anticipation and retroaction. Gallop goes on to claim that:

‘My history,’ subjective history, the history of a subject, is a succession of future perfects, pasts of a future, moments twice removed from ‘present reality’ by the combined action of an anticipation and a retroaction.17

The individual is thus “projected, thrown forward, in an anticipation that makes her progress no longer a natural development but a ‘history.’”18

Though the pronouns would be gendered male in the context of anti-abortion rhetoric, I argue that this notion of a subject’s becoming as ‘history’ manifests itself in ideology that performs fears bound to the imagoes of the fragmented body, which demands a fixed notion of history, life, becoming, and body. This confused temporality, dictated by a future-perfect of the (patriarchal) ego, is infused within the desire to fix the idea of life beginning in the moment of conception. The afore-outlined narcissistic aggression that arises from the imago of the fragmented body brings forth the phantasmic desire for stagnation, for formal fixity, for gestalten—locating itself, in this case, in the desire for a fixed notion of time towards defining ‘life.’ The temporal policing of what constitutes a life becomes displaced, in this context, through the ultimate intention of controlling the female body, of marking her as mother, as host.

The troubling psychic desire to control the temporality of motherhood—and in turn the female body—ultimately illuminates the farce of patriarchal anti-abortion rhetoric’s interest in the ‘life.’ The narcissistic quality of this rhetoric is further abetted by considering Operation Rescue’s view that the temporal and ethical definition of a ‘life’ is dependant on its activity of rescuing, rather than the choice of the woman walking through the clinic’s doors. The farcical quality of actual interest in the ‘person’ that a fetus may or may not become is further evidenced by New Right proponents’ complete lack of investment in lives that do come to be. Legislators and activists of the patriarchal Far-Right—if they do not vehemently oppose—display no interest in making changes towards bettering access to childcare and social programs that support mothers, protecting future lives that will be affected by climate change, or investing in the lives of non-white and/or non-male citizens. Instead, New Right legislation and activism heavily invests itself in the supposed right to bear arms, the policing of queer subjects, the protection of unchecked corporate interests, and ‘the war on terror,’ among other causes that could be thought of as having disastrous affects on lives that are lived.

As I have demonstrated in my analysis of anti-abortion rhetoric’s narcissistic projections that act as responses to anxieties of fragmentation of patriarchal power, women are simultaneously rendered invisible as autonomous subjects, but also expressly visible as subordinated, always-already mothers. As I have discussed, the desire for temporal fixity of when a life begins is revealed to be the result of a protection of the patriarchal Imaginary’s interests, and can be tied to a conception of the ego ideal as both a future-perfect and a history, an image of the subject formed in retroaction and anticipation. Such slippage echoes Phelan’s concluding argument: “Under the banner of protecting women and children, men continue to protect themselves.”19 Under the banner of pro-life rhetoric, subjects that benefit from patriarchal control sublimate their fears invested in the imago of the fragmented body, in the castration of total patriarchal control that women’s liberation has began to chip away at.

  1. See the February 2014 example of Republican Senator Steve Martin: Accessed 3/9/2015
  2. Lacan, Jacques. “Aggressivity in Psychoanalysis,” in Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1977. Pg. 10.
  3. Lacan: 11.
  4. Phelan, Peggy. “White Men and Pregnancy: Discovering the Body to Be Rescued,” pp 130-145 in Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. New York and London: Routledge, 1993.  Paraphrased from pages 130-131.
  5. Phelan 131-132.
  6. ibid. 134
  7. Phelan 134, in reference to John Wilke’s anti-abortion handbook Abortion: Questions and Answers.
  8. Lacan 16.
  9. Phelan 138.
  10. ibid. Quoting George Gilder’s 1986 book Men and Marriage.
  11. Lacan 18.
  12. ibid. 24.
  13. ibid. 21.
  14. See, “When Does Life Begin?” on the National Right to Life Committee’s website for an example of a confusion between molecular ‘life’ and personhood. Accessed 11 March 2015.
  15. Gallop, Jane. Reading Lacan. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1985. Pg. 79.
  16. Gallop 80-81.
  17. ibid. 82.
  18. ibid. 83.
  19. Phelan 134.