Does the word ‘phallus’ refer to the same concept in the writings of both Freud and Lacan? Does Freud’s “substitute for the woman’s penis” (Freud “Fetishism” 842) correlate with Lacan’s “privileged signifier?” (Lacan “Signification” 1187). In The Signification of the Phallus Lacan writes: “it is Freud’s discovery that gives to the signifier / signified opposition the full extent of implications,” crediting Freud with his discovery of the phallus as the “privileged signifier” (Lacan “Signification” 1187). This begs the question, are Lacan’s privileged signifier and Freud’s symbolic penis the same thing? In this paper, I will deconstruct both concepts of the phallus demonstrating that, while differing in execution, both Freud and Lacan espouse the same basic concept of the phallus.

I will begin my deconstruction with a summary of Freud’s theory of the phallus. Freud’s theory centers on castration anxiety – one’s fear that, as his mother has somehow lost her penis, “his own possession of a penis [is] in danger” – and fetishization – the displacement of one’s fear of castration onto some token serving as psychical protection against the primordial castration fear (Freud “Fetishism” 842-843). It can be difficult to determine if Freud is discussing an actual penis that, in fact, never existed or a symbolic penis one has transferred from their mother onto some form of object-choice or fetish. Logically, it is clear to the subject their mother’s penis never existed, but this doesn’t explain the on-going desire the child cum man “does not want to give up” (Freud “Fetishism” 843). If the man’s fear of castration is the basis of the castration complex this indicates that the man once believed the mother’s penis was an actual penis, and thus fears the loss of his actual, physical penis, but this does not agree with the concept of fetishization. If the boy cum man can displace the mother’s symbolic penis onto some “token of triumph” (Freud “Fetishism” 843) the man cannot truly fear a loss of his own physical penis. The phallus cannot be both a manifestation of a physical penis and something capable of displacement onto some other, non-procreative object.

The logical problems outlined above call into question many of Freud’s arguments regarding the phallus by erroneously focusing on a narrow concept of Freudian psychoanalysis. The above serves to outline some basic problems of Freud’s concept of the phallus as portrayed in “Fetishism,” and does not constitute the body of my argument. To continue with my main argument, Freud’s concept of the phallus – and its displacement – either results in some form of psychological disorder or ceases to be a problem. In other words, the phallus is displaced onto an object (via object-choice and fetishization) or, as is the case with those who do not suffer some form of sexual neurosis, is accepted as a relic of childhood one can “surmount” (Freud “Fetishism” 843). One must note Freud’s avoidance of the term ‘repression’ in relation to the phallus; Freud does not believe the phallus exists within one’s unconscious, instead saying “a very energetic action has been undertaken to maintain the disavowal” of the mother’s penis (or phallus) (Freud “Fetishism” 842). Thus, contrary to some modern concepts of psycho-analysis, the phallus is something one may not be consciously aware of, but remains something one must constantly disavow. To clarify this, repression, per Freud, can be defined in two ways: “primal repression… which consists in the psychical (ideational) representative being denied entrance into the consciousness,” and “repression proper, [which] affects mental derivatives of the repressed representative, or such trains of thought as… have come into an associative connection with it” (Freud “Repression” 570; emphasis in original). In other words, primal repression is the total repression of a representative (in this case, the mother’s penis,) and repression proper is the displacement of a representative onto some other object via associative connection (object-choice); in both forms of Freudian repression, what is being repressed is unknown to the subject (Freud “Repression” and “Fetishism”). Thus, Freud’s concept of the phallus as something one must constantly disavow cannot be something repressed into the realm of the unconscious (Freud “Fetishism”).

Lacan’s concept of the phallus appears to differ from Freud’s primarily on these concepts of repression. To paraphrase “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious,” Lacan’s concept of the phallus as the bar that splits the subject, or the ‘ / ‘ in the S/s algorithm, the phallus is never something one must actively repress; the phallus, per Lacan’s S/s algorithm, is representative of the ‘thing’ separating the primordial self (or id) from manifest self (or ego) (Lacan “Agency”). Lacan’s “phallus is a signifier… for it is the signifier intended to designate as a whole the effects of the signified, in that the signifier conditions them by its presence as a signifier” (Lacan “Signification” 1185). To unravel this language, Lacan’s phallus is the point where the signified and signifier meet, and as such, it is the point where the subject’s conscious (ego) and unconscious (id) meet; the phallus is the foundation upon which the subject both creates and understands the world around them. Lacan’s phallus is not a penis (and never was,) instead it is the point where the subject who – during the mirror stage – was split by language connects to the primordial state: the state where the signifier (or repressed desire) and the signified (or manifest desire) existed as one within the subject before their inevitable separation during the mirror stage. Furthermore, Lacan’s phallus is not a representation of the mother’s penis, it is a representation of the divide between the subject’s manifest desire and their primordial desire (Lacan “Agency”, “Mirror” and “Signification”).

The primordial desire, per both Freud and Lacan, is the primordial Oedipal desire: the desire to have sex with (please) one’s mother combined with jealousy for one’s father’s sexual relationship with one’s mother. Ostensibly, Freud’s phallus as representative of the mother’s penis does not correlate with Lacan’s phallus as the bar separating the signifier from the signified. Nonetheless, both phalluses represent the void between the subject’s manifest desire and the subject’s latent desire; it is the means through which this void is realized where Lacan and Freud differ. For Freud, the desire to please one’s mother is displaced into castration anxiety or the unconscious fear that, because one’s mother has lost her penis, one may suffer the same fate (Freud “Fetishism”). In literal terms, this fear of losing one’s penis seems to be a biological fear, but this is not the case. Rather, unrelated to a fear of losing one’s physical penis, castration anxiety refers to a fear of loss of desire, or, per Lacan, aphanisis. Lacan, by focusing on the linguistic elements of Freud’s theories, furthers Freud’s concept of the phallus by contorting Sassurian linguistics into the theories of the Oedipus complex, castration anxiety, and the phallus. Rather than focusing on exactly what the phallus is, Lacan focuses on what the phallus does; and in the case of both Freud and Lacan what the phallus does is identical. The phallus is the psychical/physical boundary between what the subject thinks they desire and the subject’s true desires (Lacan “Signification”). Freud’s mother’s penis is representative of the Oedipal desire to please one’s mother, as Lacan’s privileged signifier is the boundary between this same Oedipal desire and the subject’s manifest desire. While both these concepts appear disparate, upon examination one realizes they both refer to the same theory. Where Lacan defines the bar that splits the subject, Freud defines the token of one’s triumph over the fear of aphanisis.

Conversely, Freud’s phallus is actively denied, whereas Lacan’s phallus is an obstruction between the signified and signifier. In the case of Freud, it seems that the subject must constantly deny the existence of his latent Oedipal desire, whereas Lacan’s split-subject is always unaware of his Oedipal desire. Furthermore, Lacan’s theory of the phallus is something one cannot be aware of: “it can be said that [the phallus] is chosen because it is the most tangible element in the real of sexual copulation… it can play its role only when veiled” (Lacan “Signification” 1187). In other words, because the phallus can only fulfill its role when veiled, it is not an actively denied representation of the mother’s penis, but an aufgehoben or abolition of the signifier itself (Lacan “Signification” 1187). Thus, Lacan’s phallus is not actively denied, but an unconscious (or latent) manifestation of desire itself.

On the contrary, Lacan’s phallus is the bar that splits the subject’s conscious and unconscious, it is not a part of the unconscious itself. The phallus, per Lacan, is the one thing that can traverse the divide between the subject’s conscious and unconscious, it is “the most tangible” part of the subject’s relation between the real (manifest) and latent content of their desires (Lacan “Signification” 1187). The phallus as a manifestation of desire is precisely why the phallus is not latent or unconscious. Because of this, Lacan’s privileged signifier, and Freud’s mother’s penis both refer to the same thing: the connection between the subject’s latent and manifest desires; Lacan does not diverge from the content of Freud’s theory, he merely changes the form in which it is presented.

In conclusion, I have demonstrated that Freud’s mother’s penis and Lacan’s privileged signifier both refer to the same basic concept: the symbolic divide between the subject’s manifest and latent desire. Freud avoids referring to this divide as repressed because it is not repressed, acting instead as the manifestation of repressed desires. Lacan’s phallus as the ‘bar’ that splits the subject refers to this same concept: the point at which the manifest and the latent connect. Lacan’s split subject is not split by an unconscious manifestation of desire, it is this manifestation – the phallus – that connects the subject’s ego and id. The phallus “becomes the bar which… strikes the signified, marking it as the bastard offspring of this signifying concatenation” (Lacan “Signification” 1187). The signifying concatenation is, of course, the chain of signifiers leading inevitably back to the source of all meaning: the phallus. Freud and Lacan may differ in execution, but both agree on the major ideas underlying the psychoanalytic concept of the phallus; for both Freud and Lacan all discussion of the unconscious must return to the same place, the singular source of desire, the phallus.

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. “Fetishism.” Norton Anthology, edited by Leitch et al., translated by Joan Riviere, 1927, pp. 841–845.

—. “Repression.” Freud Reader, edited by Peter Gay, pp. 568–572.

—. The Freud Reader. Edited by Peter Gay, W. W. Norton & Co., 1989.

Lacan, Jacques. “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious.” Norton Anthology, edited by Leitch et al., translated by Alan Sheridan, 1957, pp. 1169–1181.

—. “The Mirror Stage as Formative.” Norton Anthology, edited by Leitch et al., translated by Alan Sheridan, 1949, pp. 1163–1169.

—. “The Signification of the Phallus.” Norton Anthology, edited by Leitch et al., translated by Alan Sheridan, 1958, pp. 1181–1189.

Leitch, Vincent B., et al., editors. The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism. Second Edition, W. W. Norton & Co., 2010.