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Wilson, M. (2017). Body and Symbol: Introduction to Hansbury and Commentators. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 65(6):1005-1008.

(2017). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 65(6):1005-1008

Body and Symbol: Introduction to Hansbury and Commentators

Mitchell Wilson

… perpetually unnamed, the female genital preserves its status as that which resists naming and being known. And so why name it, or try? Because the vagina is the quintessential representation of and symbol for space—the space for generation, the space for intercourse, the space for discourse, Winnicott's “potential space” for play, for the emergence of what he called the “spontaneous gesture.” As long as that (vaginal) space—metaphorical and literal—remains unspeakable, it remains diffuse, it remains inconceivable.

—Jill Gentile (2016, p. 200)

In his classic text “The Signification of the Phallus,” Lacan (1958) put the anatomical penis in a truly psychoanalytic context by showing that its human function is not biological but instead symbolic. As the fundamental signifier of difference (linguistic, gendered, sexual, generational), the phallus, Lacan argued, is not one signifier among many; rather, it grounds the entire symbolic order in which the human subject lives. While the phallus has had a complex, and contested, trajectory within the Lacanian theoretical corpus, this crucial step from body to symbol—from the normative constraints of “anatomy is destiny” to a theorization of the phallus-as-signifier unmoored by a bodily anchor—has had consequences that reach far beyond psychoanalytic theory. In fact, many lives have been changed by this move. If we are all “symbolically castrated subjects,” and if any subject can be in some meaningful relation to the phallic signifier, then whole worlds of gender performativity and polymorphous sexual object choice can be not only imagined as possible but also engaged-in-fact.

[This is a summary excerpt from the full text of the journal article. The full text of the document is available to journal subscribers on the publisher's website here.]

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