- Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow:Hair Loss, the Tonsure, and Masculinity in Medieval Iceland
In an article entitled "Size Matters: Penile Problems in Sagas of Icelanders" published in 2007, I set out to evaluate the usefulness (or otherwise) of psychoanalytic theory as a lens through which to examine the relationship between men's bodies and their gendered identities in the medieval Norse-speaking world. I wrote at the beginning of that article that
determining the relative importance of nature and culture is a central problem in the understanding of human gender and sexuality, and the issues at stake become most pressing at the site where biology and culture meet: the human body, especially those parts of the body that are endowed with significance as markers of gender or instruments of sexual activity.(Phelpstead 2007, 420)
In "Size Matters" I was particularly interested in the way that the penis was endowed with meaning within culture, specifically how it was constructed as a marker of gendered identity. Other parts of human bodies are also, of course, culturally constructed as marking gender, and this essay continues the dialogue between psychoanalytic theory and the study of medieval masculinities by turning to a different part of human anatomy: hair.
When examining Icelandic texts about castration, erectile dysfunction, and an oversized penis it seemed impossible to ignore psychoanalytic theory. It is true that for some critics psychoanalytic theory is self-evidently devoid of value, but as I argued in my earlier article, whatever its therapeutic efficacy, psychoanalysis is embedded in contemporary discourse to such an extent that it inevitably informs one's thinking about issues of gender and sexuality; in such a situation its claims warrant interrogation (Phelpstead 2007, 421). [End Page 1]
My earlier article concluded that Freudian psychoanalytic theory has limitations as a framework for analyzing medieval Icelandic texts but suggested that there might be advantages in developing an approach that is sensitive both to history and to the insights offered by psychoanalysis because psychoanalytic theory claims to account for the way in which a phenomenon may both be a biological reality and also signify culturally, i.e. have meaning. Thus, a psychoanalytical approach that takes account of historical context might provide a path between cultural constructionism (where because everything is "cultural" the concept of "culture" becomes meaningless) and biological determinism (where biology explains everything, leaving no space for meaning) (cf. Phelpstead 2007, 434). I suggested that the seeds of a more historically sensitive psychoanalytic approach might be found not in the work of Sigmund Freud but in that of the French psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan. Lacan develops Freud's ideas about castration to suggest that men and women "lack" a phallus which—importantly—is symbolic rather than anatomical.1 He uses the term "phallus" to refer not to the anatomical organ, but rather to that which the organ symbolizes, a transcendental signifier to which the subject relates "sans égard à la différence anatomique des sexes" (Lacan 1971a, 104) ["without regard to the anatomical difference of the sexes" (312)]. Gender is constructed in relation to this social signifier so that, as Robert Mills puts it, the (Lacanian) phallus represents "what male subjects (think they) have and what female subjects (are considered, culturally speaking, to) lack" (2004, 110).
Because the phallus, in Lacan's sense, is symbolic, it need not necessarily be associated with the penis. Lacan himself argues that, paradoxically enough, at a certain stage of psychological development a woman's clitoris is "promu ... à la fonction du phallus" (1971a, 105) ["raised to the function of the phallus" (313)].2 The penis will often symbolize that which Lacan calls the phallus, but this need not be so. [End Page 2] It is therefore possible that the symbolic work of the phallus might at times be carried out by a different part of the physical organism. Toward the end of my earlier article, I briefly noted that Robert Mills has suggested precisely this in an article in which he reads the medieval tonsure as what he calls a "loose analogue" of the Lacanian phallus; his title—"The Signification of the Tonsure"—deliberately echoes the title of Lacan's essay on "The Signification of the Phallus...