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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 52 December 23 & 30, 2023

Review: Emily Laurent-Monaghan on ‘Pleasure Erased’ by Catherine Malabou

Saturday 23 December 2023



Reviewed by Emily Laurent-Monaghan

Pleasure Erased:
The Clitoris Unthought
by Catherine Malabou

2022. 150 pp.
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1509549935
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1509549931

Unlike ‘woman’ or ‘sex’, the clitoris is not an overdetermined signifier. On the contrary, in Pleasure Erased, Catherine Malabou argues that the clitoris, despite its forcible erasure, persists, waiting to be thought. Arguably one of the most dynamic philosophers thinking today, Malabou insists on giving a proper ontological account of one of philosophy’s repressed ‘objects’: the clitoris. And what of the breasts, surely they too have been repressed by thought? Unlike the clitoris, the breast looms large in the aesthetic realm. Indeed, one does not find a clitoral counterpart to the Madonna of the Milk (Virgin or Madonna Lactans), an indispensable motif of Renaissance iconography, which simultaneously desexualises and makes legible its object. The utter absence of the clitoris from the aesthetic realm solicits the question: why is the clitoris, the organ of pleasure par excellence, exceedingly unrepresentable? At first glance, this question belongs to the art historian (Aby Warburg is summoned within the book), yet Malabou’s inquiry seeks to unearth the unrepresentability of the clitoris within the symbolic as such, arguing that the clitoris is a ‘silent symbol’ (8). While Malabou does not put it this way, her book asks the question ‘What is sex?’ with respect to ‘woman’, the ‘feminine’ and ‘philosophy’, a question which propels her inquiry concerning the (non)relation of the clitoris and thought.

The organ of philosophy is, of course, the brain. The brain is a privileged site of exploration for Malabou, who argues, a contrario previous feminist thinking that the brain has some minimal relation to sexual difference, that it can be thought of, in some sense, as an ‘organ of sex’, irreducible to biology. The philosophical brain, and its historical insistence on the identity between what is mental and what is conscious, ensures the corollary (repressing its critical Cartesian antecedents): that the subject of philosophy is neuter, asexual; a claim one finds already in Jean Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (1943), which is extensively elaborated by Simone de Beauvoir within The Second Sex (1949). It is against the presupposition of a neutered subject that Malabou writes: ‘To name the clitoris in philosophy is to bring it into sight. But how can this be achieved without shading it again? If philosophical language is itself a logical excision, how can the clitoris be thought?’ (9) The general premise of the book seeks to articulate what, historically and presently, makes possible this theoretical erasure, which is not limited to Malabou’s own philosophical position of enunciation, but intervenes within an entire field of relations: biomedical, neurobiological, psychoanalytic, aesthetic and political.

Pleasure Erased is presented as a montage of various attempts to think the clitoris against its forcible erasure. While Malabou insists that she is not trying to persuade her reader, the book functions as an index of various proto-feminist, feminist and ‘post-feminist’ accounts of the relation between sex, sexual difference, sexuality, femininity and gender. The methodology employed is a discursive survey, whereby the sites of repression are connected by way of their respective techniques of erasure. These sites of erasure fall into two groups: principally aesthetics and philosophy. While the first four chapters engage aesthetics, Malabou begins her inquiry with Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, whereby the clitoris appears only once in reference to the ‘monstrous’ clitoris of the hermaphrodite (9). This salient example of obfuscation enables Malabou to state that philosophical discourse continues to blot out feminine sexuality. Philosophers, poets and novelists endeavor to think the feminine through the prism of the fantasmatic: as nymphs. Already noted in Beauvoir and echoed in Agamben, the nymph, according to Agamben’s eponymous work, is ‘an image’.

Philosophy can think woman/the feminine as image, not as ‘real’, according to Malabou. The nymph is the ‘improved woman’, as Beauvoir puts it, ‘they neither piss nor come – in other words, they actually have no autonomy’ (26). Woman as muse, woman as nymph, she is ‘deprived of her human base’, ‘child-woman’, she is an ‘oracle one questions’. These remarkable descriptions cut to the heart of the matter: when it comes to ‘la femme’, philosophy and its attendant culture is racked by fantasmatic lore.

In chapter five, ‘Political Anatomy’, Malabou brings us ‘back to reality’ by way of a medico-historical account of erasure. She argues that the question of female pleasure makes indistinguishable ‘biology and politics’ (29). While the slogan the ‘personal is political’ has enjoyed a long life of political support, is anatomy, as the arguably ‘indifferent’ aspect of our being, de facto political? Does this equivocation disavow the fact that ‘nature’ is indifferent to ‘culture’? This certainly depends on what we mean by biology, anatomy, sex and so on. At this point in the book, and for the remaining chapters, the necessity to tease out sex, sexuality and ‘sexuation’, as Malabou enters psychoanalytic terrain, becomes more pressing. This theoretical necessity also entails articulating the particularities of what we mean by sex qua biological difference, sexuality (as sexual practice) and gender (identity). At times, it is difficult to pin down what these terms correspond to, though Malabou does distinguish between ‘anatomical sex and social gender’ (115), but without giving an account of their relation. This unmet necessity is most apparent in chapter seven, ‘Dolto, Lacan, and the “Relationship”’, where Malabou dwells on an interesting problem: the existence of women psychoanalysts. While Freud’s disciples and dissident followers count many women among them, this chapter focuses primarily on Françoise Dolto, recounting the delivery of her speech in the 1960s on feminine sexuality, stating that ‘[i]n France, people were not yet ready to hear a report given by a woman’ (44). The appearance of constituencies in the twentieth century were organised around crucial psychoanalytic questions, including the question of feminine sexuality, whereby feminine sexuality functioned as a shibboleth, and arguably continues to do so.

Malabou argues that Lacan’s ‘contempt for feminism in general, and for Beauvoir in particular’ is demonstrable in Seminar XIX …Ou Pire (1971-72). Malabou’s chapter takes Lacan’s offhand remarks about The Second Sex as a starting point for her critique, whereby Lacan claims that ‘there is no second sex’. While an exposition of the theoretical differences between Beauvoir and Lacan is a necessary procedure (and would require a book-length disquisition), Malabou seems to read Lacan’s claim along phenomenological, rather than psychoanalytic, lines. In response to Lacan’s claim that man and woman are not like ‘lion cubs’, which look ‘utterly alike in their behaviour’, stating that asymmetry obtains, ‘precisely for as much as you sexual yourselves comme significant, as signifying’, Malabou argues that Lacan’s insistence on discourse ‘is precisely what erases the relational aspect of the sexual act’ (48). However, the ‘relation’ of il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel [there is no sexual relation] is not a sexual act [liaison], but a rapport, a ratio, a measure, etc. Her critique of Lacan casts sexual difference in terms of ‘each sex’, rather than the ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ poles employed by Lacan, which are irreducible to biological sex. The logical aspect of the argument, such that language is unaccountable by way of meaning when it comes to the sexual rapport, is glossed over, and this weakens Malabou’s critique.

Chapters eight and nine discuss the works of Carla Lonzi and Luce Irigaray, as the progenitors of a feminism of difference. Let us focus on her fascinating exposition of Lonzi, who is credited with having brought the concept of sexual difference to the philosophical fore, giving it a particular political twist: ‘the concept of difference, as an alternative to oppositional logic’, appeared for the first time in Lonzi’s thinking (60). Against Lacan’s rejection of the distinction between vaginal and clitoral, Malabou argues, following Lonzi, that woman’s difference is predicated on the immanent split within feminine genital organisation, as elemental to feminine sexuality as such. This is not a ‘natural’ error, but something that must be given account, giving rise to a new form of subjectivity. Despite Lonzi’s rejection of psychoanalysis as synonymising clitoridian sexuality with immaturity, she develops a proto-concept of sexuation in her account of the irreducible yet overlapping coordinates of sex, sexuality and subjectivity. However, Lonzi’s own critical insight concerning the relation of sexuality (as clitoridian) and the potential for ‘psychic autonomy’ brushes up against the real, such that the ‘actuality’ of clitoridan subjectivity, even in its most radical form (lesbian separatism), as practiced by Lonzi and her partner, could not put an ‘end’ to her being a ‘man’, and thus her partner being a ‘woman’, as noted in her Diaries (65).

At times Malabou seems to force a theoretical alliance among philosophical incommensurables. However, what may link these seemingly incommensurable positions is the concept of plasticity (either proto or actual). Malabou seeks to ‘plasticize’ the concept of the clitoris, which, at the same time, is an attempt to re-think the history of feminism, whereby the clitoris is reconceived as a ‘libidinal disposition’ that is no longer the ‘exclusive mark’ of women. While Malabou appears to welcome this deterritorialisation, her reticence is impossible not to register, unless one reads against the letter (‘and yet…’). Although the passage from biological erasure to an affirmative libidinal disposition is in no way demonstrated here (the ‘how’), Malabou spends the majority of her book focusing on twentieth century thought, signaling an allegiance to this robust site of thinking, resisting the premature notion of post-feminism. While Malabou presents a fresh incarnation of feminism, she doesn’t necessarily bridge the lacunae. Regarding the raison d’être of her book, Malabou writes: ‘I’m not trying to prove anything; I seek instead to amplify diverse voices and to find a balance through them between the extreme difficulty and extreme urgency of speaking the feminine’ (12). While her vision for the book is admirable, the now-bureaucratised notion of ‘diverse voices’ doesn’t strike the reader as particularly novel. Furthermore, the language of ‘speaking the feminine’ may serve to further mysticise rather than clarify the discourse on feminine subjectivity. Should we not defend a position of speaking about the feminine, rather ‘letting the feminine speak’, a vague appeal that links psychoanalytic doxa and écriture féminine?

While a renewed discussion of whether philosophy and psychoanalysis should continue their generative (non) relation is implicit within the book, so too is the question of whether politics can be deduced from these discourses (psychoanalysis and/or philosophy). While Malabou’s answer with respect to the former question seems rather ambivalent here, she engages Freudian thought in a meaningful way in other works (Malabou 2012; 2013; 2022). With respect to the second question, Pleasure Erased issues a hasty affirmative, without sufficient theoretical support. Perhaps the most difficult proposition to accept is the final provocation: ‘the clitoris is an anarchist’ (119). While sexual difference has been articulated by feminist thinkers and activists as a priori political with respect to concrete, political phenomena, it is more difficult to argue that sexual difference qua ontology is always-already political. Coupled with this affirmation is Malabou’s recasting of philosophy as ‘non-binary’, presupposing that philosophy begins with a binary logic, which is unsupportable from a psychoanalytic and set-theoretical perspective. Malabou’s Derridean roots are unearthed here, such that the supposed non-binarism of philosophy, and by extension the clitoris, signals that it can be ‘deconstructed’. Has philosophy not, already, been deconstructed to death (by Derrida himself, most brilliantly)?

Malabou previously argued that she is not interested in pointing out the ‘phallogocentrism’ of philosophy/theory, yet the Freudian critics she summons are precisely enacting this form of critique, in the most conspicuous way, suggesting, in the passage cited by Malabou, that privileges the Freudian account of the sexualised body in the most brute terms (96). The work of deconflation, such that the phallus is not the penis (yet it comes from the body), has been persistently articulated by Jacqueline Rose and Juliet Mitchel and other (feminist) psychoanalytic thinkers, against this simplified view of Freud (Lacan, Mitchell, Rose 1982). Malabou ultimately betrays the enormity of her question by forging partnerships which are theoretically incommensurable (Lonzi and Beauvoir, Irigaray and Preciado), and may ultimately chafe against her own philosophical positions. Yet her task is to plasticise beyond ‘binaries’, beyond reification. While Pleasure Erased is undeniably provocative, it ultimately serves as a prolegomena to future thought, rather than a substantive response to her ‘gaping’ questions.

(Reviewer: Emily Laurent-Monaghan is a graduate student in philosophy at Newcastle University, working under Lorenzo Chiesa on ontology and psychoanalysis)

14 December 2023


  • Jacques Lacan, Juliet Mitchell, Jacqueline Rose 1982 Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the école freudienne (London: Macmillan).
  • Catherine Malabou 2012 The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage (New York: Fordham University Press).
  • Catherine Malabou 2013 Self and Emotional Life: Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, and Neuroscience (New York: Columbia University Press).
  • Catherine Malabou 2022 Plasticity: The Promise of Explosion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press).

[This review from Marx & Philosophy Review of Books is reproduced under a Creative Commons License]

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