Re-assessing the Freudian theory of penis envy

Re-assessing the Freudian theory of penis envy, Jessica Benjamin has written of the father who is unable to provide active recognition of his daughter’s wish for personal agency, and is therefore “missing.” He is, she writes, “the key” to women’s missing desire,” and to “its return in the form of masochism.” Benjamin understands female masochism as the kind of self-abnegation characteristic of an “ideal love” situation like that around which Double Blind revolves. Admitting that women “may have no female image or symbol to counterbalance the monopoly of the phallus in representing desire,” Benjamin proposes for women “an alternative psychic register.” This register partakes of an “intersubjective dimension,” that refers to “experience between and within individuals” rather than the “intra-psychic” model of the “phallic mode of representation.” This viewpoint encompasses “not simply what we take in from the outside but also what we bring and develop through the interaction with others – our innate capacities for activity and receptivity toward the world,” a mutual rather than one-way recognition. It is precisely such “receptivity toward the world” that is embodied in Calle’s presentation of the memories, perceptions and stories with which various individuals have invested the sites and objects, be they stolen paintings or out of favour political plaques, whose physical absence she marks.

Benjamin suggests that this “intersubjective” mode is often expressed in terms of a metaphor of “inner space” where women have been able to discover “their own, inner desire,” and a sense of personal authenticity. Within the pages of Des histoires vraies, Calle’s personal stories and photographs tell only of loss and a resignation to the female position outside patriarchal recognition. It is when inserted into the context of pre-existent museum installations (as for instance, a photograph of a silk wedding dress and its accompanying story hung next to a case of antique lace and a Baroque painting of an aristocratic woman) that they cease to speak of “castration” and lack and begin to function very differently. Writ large, startling because so seemingly “out of place,” these tales of unrequited longing assert themselves with an authority and a plenitude of desire that literally fill the spaces that in so many other works Calle has made to signify the absence of her own power.