The Toilette Conundrum
of the 21st Century Consulting Room
On the cover of Gherovici’s (2010) book “Please Select Your Gender” we see a slender figure dressed in typically feminine clothes standing in front of a toilet with her legs slightly spread, as if ready to urinate, like a man. The high heeled woman (or man?) is standing with her (his?) back to us. We are pressed to articulate what we are seeing. Is this a man or a woman? We may look at the cover over and over, but we cannot walk away armed with a straight answer. The cover of Gherovici’s book is a reflection of the psychoanalytic clinic in the 21st century, depicting the ways in which psychoanalytic consideration of phenomenon like gender has evolved. The cover illustrates the conundrum of gender itself and the psychoanalytic questions around it: what is a man, what is a woman? It challenges traditional notions of gender and as we try to define masculinity and femininity, we encounter some profound analytic questions about identity, language, health and illness. We learn more formulating the questions and living in the uncertainty than trying to nail down answers, and this is true of psychoanalysis generally. The book cover evokes the tension of trying to define a body that can never be fully captured by language.
Indeed, even the toilette of the 21st century is not a simple object. It evokes questions about social policies, human desire, the limits of the body, and the breadth of transitional space. We come to realize, as readers of the book-cover, that gender itself involves a ‘problem’ of reading. Consider for example the delicate nature of analyzing someone who embodies a gender that is discordant with their psychic position in gender. What if he or she presents an image that in the analyst’s mind registers as one gender, but one that stands in contradiction to this patient’s desired identification? The analytic tie here stands suspended on a thread, under the threat of an impending collapse. Imagine the analyst of a male-to-female (MTF) transsexual referring to her patient in the male pronoun. Is this the result of the analyst’s own anxiety about gender? Her hostility towards the patient’s perceived attack on fragile categories of fantasized certainty? Perhaps the analyst has identified with the projected masculinity of her patient? Perhaps this is a projective identification elaborating the patient’s own well guarded ambivalence about their transition?
These questions are but a few of multitude of possibilities. The analytic project has shown us that we will never rest on a stable answer, that, much like gender, stability itself is a precarious stance; a fleeting one at best, constructed through fragments of significations, that are added and shed from the self through time.
Recent expansions (e.g. Lacan) in psychoanalytic theory make it possible for us to think of gender as a psychic position and so, the patient’s proclamation (I am a man/woman) may seem coherent analytically and yet, shake our own chain of significations attached to gender, threatening the sense of security we may feel in the imagined solidity of our own embodiment. The act of reading gender becomes pregnant with phantasies of intrusion, danger and consequently the transference is infused with enactments as the move towards integration of painful gendered fragments become unbearable.
The tension of reading gender can be seen in women and men’s anxiety with questions like: “Am I feminine enough? Masculine enough? How is my gender being read by others?” As the cover of Gherovici’s book suggests, language and the body do not get along; something of the body always exceeds language. We are handed meanings that have preceded us and are given through cultural inscriptions. Indeed, the analytic project itself becomes one where questions are allowed to be asked, where hatred is turned to a question affected by time. The time of the unconscious is timeless and yet time forces our conceptions to change.
In the 21st century the psychoanalytic playground is more versatile. In analysis, femininity and masculinity become signifiers resting on ever-shifting ground, a flood of associations with varying meanings, infinite questions, in which difference is inscribed in the very uncertainty of the term. Psychoanalysis has to prevail in the face of its limitations, to negotiate space within the limits of its authors and be affected by interdisciplinary movement of knowledge, from which, like the body, it will also stay estranged. Indeed, knowledge and its body are inherently estranged and the “body of knowledge” is but a phantasy.
Transgenderism challenges psychoanalytic notions of gender and the concept of symptom and we may say that Freud’s question “what does the woman want” has now shifted to ‘What makes a woman?’ ‘Who is a man?’ Psychoanalysis becomes a creation of a transitional space – a holding place – while moving away from a reading that anchors its unintelligibility in the certitude of its knowledge. Instead of the question ‘where does knowledge about one’s gender come from?’ we come to wonder: “Can we play with our gender?
Gherovici, P. (2010), Please Select Your Gender. New York: Routledge.