Castration Complex

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In psychoanalysis, the word "castration" is associated with several others that define it and that it in turn defines. These include "anxiety," "threat," "symbolic," "fear," "terror," "disavowal," and above all "complex." Beyond the everyday connotations of the term, the specifically psychoanalytic definition of castration is rooted in the act feared by male children, namely the removal of the penis. The essential connection between "castration" and "complex" derives from the fact that psychoanalysis views the castration complex, in tandem with the Oedipus complex, as the organizing principle of psychosexuality and, more broadly speaking, of mental life in general.

The metapsychological position of the castration complex was described relatively late in Freud's work, but the word "castration" appeared earlier, linked to various psychoanalytical notions the consideration of which makes it possible to trace his theoretical course chronologically.

Castration fantasies, the symbolic aspects of castration, and mythological references to castration all figured in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a) and in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901b). In the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), where Freud dealt with sexual aberrations, infantile sexuality, and the metamorphoses of puberty, fear and anxiety concerning castration were evoked several times, and the subject became even more prominent in the later revisions of the book. In 1915, and again in 1920, the set of problems surrounding castration was clearly set in its Oedipal context, and castration was treated as a major theoretical and clinical notion.

In "On the Sexual Theories of Children" (1908c), in connection with the evasive answers that parents give to children's questions as to "where babies come from" and about sexuality in general, Freud noted the coexistence in children (bespeaking a first split in mental functioning) of an official version, that of the parents, and a set of firmly believed "theories." The first such theory was the belief that every human being had a penis. It was the collapse of this belief that would give rise to the castration scenario. It is notable that Freud from the outset took the psychosexual profile of the boy as his model; as a result he was led later to explain female psychosexuality by reference to that model. Meanwhile, already in this paper of 1908, he was pointing out how the clitoris was conceived of as "a small penis which does not grow any bigger" and the female genitalia were viewed as "a mutilated organ" (p. 217).

The case history of "Little Hans" (1909b) illustrated and rounded out Freud's discussion of the "sexual theories of children." In Freud's eyes, the castration complex was still a sort of psychopathological nucleus, frequently encountered, which had also left "marked traces behind in myths" (p. 8). This nucleus was amplified with a second surge of the castration threat, the moment of seeing, as when Little Hans (aged three and a half) saw that his newborn baby sister had no penis. This observation occasioned an act of disavowal: Little Hans decided that as his sister grew up, her penis would get bigger (p. 11).

Only later, however, in a deferred manner with respect to the two phases of the threat of castration, would castration anxiety make its appearance. Note that Freud long used the words "anxiety" and "terror" almost interchangeably with reference to the fear of castration; he eventually drew a clear distinction in Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety (1926d [1925]), contrasting the "anxiety as signal" that triggered repression with the various terrors characteristic of psychosis. Although Freud's account of 1909 did not yet use the term "phallic," when he introduced the concept of the infantile genital organization in 1923, he claimed universality for it precisely under that heading.

In Totem and Taboo (1912-13a), Freud presented the myth that he believed was the basis of human socialization. The threat of castration and the murder of the father were themes present in Freud's writings in this vein throughout his work, concluding with Moses and Monotheism (1939a). "The Taboo of Virginity" (1918a) had a similar perspective, though it was concerned with more properly psychological issues. This paper was one of a trio of short works called "Contributions to the Psychology of Love." In the first, "A Special Type of Choice of Object Made by Men," the theme of castration was latent throughout, the object-choice under consideration being made from the "constellation connected with the mother" (the mother and the whore "basically . . . do the same thing") (1910h, pp. 169, 171). In the second paper, "On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love" (1912d), Freud described incestuous wishes as giving rise to an equivalent of castration, either in the direct form of male impotence or, indirectly, by means of projection, in the form of the debasement of the love-object. The third text, "The Taboo of Virginity," dealt explicitly with the castration anxiety precipitated in men by contact with women, universally recognized as a danger to male sexuality, that is to say, as always potentially castrating.

In the delusions of Dr. Schreber, castration was an obligatory emasculation, but an acceptable one in that it would afford him access to female "states of bliss," so much more voluptuous than male ones (1911c, p. 29). With "On Narcissism" (1914c), Freud appeared to reject the castration complex; in point of fact, however, his allusion to castration was part of a refutation of Adler's conception of "masculine protest" (pp. 92-93), while his clear account of the narcissistic hypercathexis of the penis tended on the contrary to reinforce the notions of the castration complex in boys and of penis envy in girls.

The metapsychological papers of 1915 contain no reference to the theme of castration. At the same period, however, Freud was at work on his case history of the "Wolf Man" (1918b [1914]), where castration played a prominent role in the "reconstruction" of his patient's infantile neurosis. The Wolf Man sought through identification to assume the passive position of his mother during sexual intercourse; he chose the fantasy of anal penetration by his father, implicit in which was a castration fantasy. In this case history Freud opted for several theoretical hypotheses related to castration. These included the definition of femininity; castration as at once feared as a narcissistic injury and desired as a precondition to penetration by the father; repression; erogenous displacement onto the bowel; splitting of processes of thought and ideation; and radical disavowal (Verwerfung, translated by Jacques Lacan as forclusion ("foreclosure"). All the same, castration as a complex was still not regarded by Freud at this time as an organizing principle of the psyche; he felt simply that as threat, anxiety, or fantasy it was sufficiently freighted with meaning to bring about reorganizations of the psyche.

In his paper "On Transformations of Instinct as Exemplified in Anal Erotism" (1916-17e), Freud returned to his earlier theoretical options and brought them together, notably with respect to female sexuality and anality. He presented female sexuality as centered on penis envy and on the wish for a child, the two being equivalent. A like set of equivalences obtained in the psyche, "as an unconscious identity," between feces, penis, gift, and babyall of them part-objects, all of them small, "detachable" parts of the body (p. 133). In this way Freud came back to the idea of a "pregenital" phase (already mentioned in 1905) predicated on genital castration conceived as anal castration, just as an oral castration could be said to describe separation from the breast. The word "castration" thus came in all cases to indicate the sexual implicationseven if they were deferredof such separations.

"The Infantile Genital Organization" (1923e) was presented as an addition to, and a development of the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. The paper stressed the fundamental difference between the pregenital organizations of the libido on the one hand and, on the other, the part played by the infantile genital organization in the two-phase institution of sexuality. The infantile genital phase was characterized by the primacy, in both sexes, of the cathexis of the male genital organ. The evolution of Freud's thinking here thus concerned not only the discovery of the anatomical difference between the sexes but also the fact that it was the presence or absence of a penis that gave full meaning to that difference. "What is present, therefore, is not a primacy of the genitals, but a primacy of the phallus " (p.142). The replacement of "penis" by "phallus" here clearly indicated Freud's new perspective. Further, and quite logically, he added that "the castration complex can only be rightly appreciated if its origin in the phase of phallic primacy is also taken into account" (p. 144). The sadistic-anal pregenital antithesis between active and passive gave way to the antithesis between phallic and castrated. The sexual polarity between male and female would not coincide with masculine and feminine until puberty.

"The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex" (1924d) rehearsed some now familiar arguments, but it did so from the phallic perspective proposed in "The Infantile Genital Organization." The phallic genital organization of the child succumbed to the threat of castration. This threat was conveyed first through what was understood and then through what was seen; when its full effect was felt, the child "turns away from the Oedipus complex" (p. 176). But the object-cathexes thus abandoned were replaced by identifications. The period of latency followed: libidinal tendencies were desexualized and sublimated, and the introjection of paternal authority formed the nucleus of the superego.

An important issue nevertheless remained unresolved, that of female sexuality, including its relationships with the Oedipus complex, with the superego, and with latency. Was it also characterized by a phallic organization and a castration complex? Freud maintained that the girl, realizing that a clitoris was not on a par with a penis, accepted castration as an established fact. For her the threat of castration and the superego were thus of lesser significance. A more general threat was that of the loss of love. Penis envy tended to be replaced by the wish to obtain an oedipal child from the father.

According to "Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes" (1925j), whereas castration was experienced by boys essentially as a threat, girls looked upon it as a reality to which they were already subject. Either alternative derived directly from the "primacy of the phallus" in both sexes. When the girl observed a boy and his penis, she recognized that she did not have a penis, and wanted to have one. Worse, she might develop a masculinity complex (the wish to be like a man) or, as a further step, disavow reality by "refusing to accept the fact of being castrated" (p. 253). Naturally, the consequences could sometimes be serious, ranging from feelings of unfair treatment to narcissistic injury, from jealousy to the sort of onanistic fantasy described in "'A Child Is Being Beaten'" (1919e). The mother, in such cases, though the original love object, was blamed for this effective castration.

With puberty, however, a powerful wave of repression would bear down upon all sexual activity in girls that was of a "masculine" stamp (clitoridal masturbation), clearing the way for the development of a passive and receptive femininity. Likewise, and at the same time, she would take her father as an object of Oedipal love and transform her penis envy into the wish for a child from him. In short, "In girls the Oedipus complex is a secondary formation. The operations of the castration complex precede it and prepare for it" (1925j, p. 256).

For Freud, therefore, the anatomical difference between the sexes was interpreted in the same way by both girls and boys. It is this Freudian account of female sexuality that has been most widely criticized.

Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety (1926d [1925]) introduced Freud's second theory of anxiety: the earlier notion that the affect associated with a repressed idea was converted into anxiety was replaced with a conception of anxiety as an alarm signal that itself triggered repression. Anxiety and the castration complex were both central to this new conceptualization. Revisiting the cases of "Little Hans" and the "Wolf Man," Freud clearly expressed the view that "the motive force of repression" was anxiety in face of the threat of castration (pp. 107-8). He added that the fear of being devoured, bitten, and so on, as well as animal phobias, and phobias and imaginary fears in general, should also be attributed to castration anxiety, which for its part was the fear of a danger felt to be thoroughly real (Realangst ). This theoretical picture explained what the three types of neurosis, hysterical, phobic, and obsessional, had in common: "in all three the motive force of the ego's opposition is, we believe, the fear of castration" (p. 122). Furthermore, whether with respect to pregenital forms (experiences of separation from breast or feces) or with respect to more developed forms (social or moral anxiety stoked by the superego), it was invariably the danger of castration that was feared, and distinctly not the danger of death, no representation of which existed in the unconscious. Nor was the "birth trauma" evoked by Otto Rank involved here.

The prototype of anxiety was the suckling's state of distress in the absence of its mother; from the economic standpoint, this biological situation implied an increase in the tension created by need. The pivot of anxietydeferred, relative to that initial distresswas the castration complex. The heir of the castration complex was anxiety vis-à-vis the superego. In women, fear of losing the object's love played the same role as castration anxiety in men (p. 143).

Freud's paper on "Fetishism" (1927e) broached the issue of the disavowal of female castration. "Probably no male human being is spared the fright of castration at the sight of a female genital" (p. 154). For the fetishist, at the place where the penis ought to be, there was indeed a penis, in the variable (and often vivid) form of a personal fetish whose presence and employment implied a splitting of the ego: one part acknowledged the castration of women while the other disavowed it, in a single, perpetual process that protected the fetishist from the terror of castration.

In "Female Sexuality" (1931b) and throughout the New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1933a), especially in the lectures entitled "Femininity" and "Anxiety and Instinctual Life," Freud reasserted the importance of the structuring role of the castration complex. He reiterated his general position as follows: "The danger of psychical helplessness fits the stage of the ego's early immaturity; the danger of loss of an object (or loss of love) fits the lack of self-sufficiency in the first years of childhood; the danger of being castrated fits the phallic stage; and finally fear of the super-ego, which assumes a special position, fits the period of latency" (p. 88).

The closing pages of "Analysis Terminable and Interminable" (1937c) addressed what Freud continued to look upon as an anti-analytical enigma, even, in a sense, a scandal: men would not understand that passive submission to a master does not amount to castration, while women could not admit that they have no penis and that this is their nature. In short, men's fear of castration and women's penis envy corresponded to a refusal of femininity (i.e., of castration) by both sexesa refusal graven in the "bedrock" of the biological (pp. 250-53).

In the myriad forms in which it manifested itself in mental life, as interpreted theoretically by Freud, castration was omnipresent, and closely bound up with the Oedipus complex; if female sexuality was something of a stumbling-block for it, the concept was firmly anchored to the difference between the sexes and the difference between the generations. Starting out from empirical observations, such as those in the case history of "Little Hans," Freud's theoretical path led him beyond clinical experience into fundamental questions of epistemology. Castration turned out to be more than the fantasy of a child under threat; embedded in the Oedipus complex and theoedipal situation, this fantasy emerged not only as an organizing principle in the psychic life of the individual but also as prototypical of the "split" which, as distinct from fusion, made possible individuation and the secondary processes (temporality, succession, language, psychical working-out, thought, and so on). In this perspective, Jacques Lacan laid much stress on symbolic castration, making the phallus responsible for the organization of difference, hence for splitting, and hence for the symbolic order, though at the same time he continued to endow this order with the sexual aura specific to the human condition.

It was precisely this anthropological dimension that would seem to have been misapprehended by most English-language authors. For Melanie Klein, admittedly, the castration fantasy continued to play a predominant role in the development of childhood psychosexuality, but it intervened at a late stage, even though she spoke of an early Oedipus complex. As early as the nineteen-twenties, Sándor Ferenczi and Otto Rank had been critical of the castration complex, while, later on, Freud's account of the link between castration and femininity had, not unjustifiably, been questioned. Castration had barely any place in the theoretical and clinical contributions of D. W. Winnicott, whose definition of femininity was highly original; nor did it have much significance for Wilfred Bion, and it had even less for Heinz Kohut, for whom the Oedipus and castration complexes refer merely to late, relative, and contingent events in mental life.

Another conceptual difficulty that should not be overlooked is that attending the relations between the castration complex and the death instinct. It is notable that Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g) pays scant attention to the castration complex, whereas Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety (1926d [1925]), largely focused on the castration complex, makes no mention of the death instinct.

In its role as organizer of mental life, the castration complex sometimes fails, either because it has not been sufficiently developed to be effective, or because it is apparently overwhelmed. In such cases the subject finds himself grappling directly with instinctual disintegration and exposed to the ravages of the destructive instincts. In psychotic functioning, castration anxiety, so far from playing a structuring role, itself constitutes a terror operating in the same mode as archaic fears of dismemberment.

The fact is that two different perspectives are present here. While Freud undoubtedly considered that the castration complex played a basic organizing role in mental life as a stage in which the anxieties and distress of an earlier timeeven the earliest timewere revived in a deferred manner, he simultaneously looked upon it a stage in the formation of the superego. And it was thanks to the part played by the superego that instinctual renunciations would eventually be effected under the pressure of unconscious feelings of guilt and the need for punishment.

Although such instinctual sacrifices were injurious to the individual, they were essential to the "process of civilization," that is, to the development of conscience and thought. This process was subject, like the individual, to that instinctual duality which, we must not forget, was based at once upon an antagonism and an inextricable connection between the life and the death instincts. The great lesson of Civilization and Its Discontents was that "This conflict is set going as soon as men are faced with the task of living together" (1930a, p. 132). Living together indeed requires at the very least the symbolic marks of sacrifice (circumcision, for instance), and such marks are planted on the sexual body, thus clearly demonstrating the power of the notion of castration in the various registers of human reality.

Jean Cournut

See also: "Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-Old Boy" (Little Hans); Anxiety; Aphanisis; Biological bedrock; Disavowal; Exhibitionism; Fascination; Father complex; Fetishism; Fright; "From the History of an Infantile Neurosis (Wolf Man)"; Identificatory project; Masculine protest (individual psychology); Oedipus complex; Penis envy; Perversion; Phallic mother; Phallic stage; Phobias in children; Phobic neurosis; Primal fantasies; Psychanalyse et Pédiatrie (Psychoanalysis and pediatrics); Psycho-sexual development; Self-mutilation in children; Sex differentiation; "Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Difference between the Sexes"; "Splitting of the Ego in the Process of Defence"; "Taboo of Virginity, The"; Unconscious fantasy.


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Further Reading

Jacobson, Edith. (1976). Female superego formation and female castration conflict. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 45, 525-538.

Horney, Karen. (1924). On the genesis of the castration complex in women. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 5, 50-65.

Mayer, Elizabeth Lloyd. (1995). The phallic castration complex and primary femininity: Paired developmental lines toward female gender identity. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 43, 17-38.

Rangell, Leo. (1991). Castration. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 39,3-24.

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Castration Complex

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