Freud’s Penis, and Other Family Dramas

Freud's Penis Diane Arbus's Penis

Freud Your Mom

In order to resolve some confusions – and to add some more – let me talk a little of Freud’s Penis again.  Freud’s classical formulation of the working of the (sexual) unconscious (in simplistic terms) resolved problematic sexualities in the famous tragedy of Oedipus, in which the boy kills his father in order to usurp his love for the mother, and its overcoming in normal adolescence.  Where this interests me is his wider view of civilization and the unconscious, which crosses over into our Daguerreotypes and the “beauty” of architecture.  Freud compared the properly civilized mind of the human, to the crumbling facades of turn of the century Rome.  In his view the centuries of soaked up culture represented the cohesive sense of wear of natural man.  In the worn away cracks of the coliseum, for instance, could be found the accumulation of man’s knowledge.  Both views of human activity have a very ordered, progressive semblance to their formulation.  One has a triangle in which family dominates, the other has a triangle in which a particular version of civil society pervades.  What happens to what lies outside?

Photography disconcerts precisely because when we come to attempt to place this blueprint of human action upon it, it has a tendency to disorder our possibility of describing it.  We lose words, or the words we choose lose their “subject”: we flatten and project, expand and abstract, and often don’t get a lot closer.  Freud’s response is – to my mind – a very possessive, aggressive and masculine one: which I find in this image.  In the Arbus image, I see an attempt to sustain the disorder of the human.  Instead of the “normal” as the key to thinking about the human body (what we call ontology) and knowledge (epistemology), there is an invigoration of the “abnormal”, what Sontag calls the “freak”.  Sontag is very critical of Arbus: she says she is interested in the circus, the “freak”, in an exploitative fashion.  For Sontag, Arbus only offers the pretence of compassion, but instead distances.  To me Arbus has nothing to do with this individualised sense of compassion (which is instead abstracted melancholy for the loss of humanist subject, who could know and alleviate the burden).  Arbus instead confronts us with our own ordered sense of the surface of reality (through photography and other media) and the socialised sense of our disgust.  She reveals that the compassion is fake, because it is – in a sense – fake; and that these subjects speak for themselves, because they don’t want to be reduced to the labels (or signs) we would to put them under.  She speaks to the problem of the surface of the photographic image and the reality it is supposed to represent, as if it is merely a play with perspective.

In this sense Arbus’s penis is much more powerful for being limp.  It refuses to allow history to order itself again around what we are used to making of it; with the mother, the father and the child of the averted Oedipus tragedy.  This might make you think of Leigh Ledare and the public-private bounds of “intimacy”.


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