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  • The Bodily Ego and the Contested Domain of the Material
  • Gayle Salamon (bio)

Every body contains in itself a phantom (perhaps the body itself is a phantom).

—Schilder 297

Of what use might psychoanalytic theory be to those of us trying to bring attention to transgenderism within contemporary discussions of embodiment and gender? I would suggest that recent writings on transgenderism share a number of concerns and questions with the domains of psychoanalysis and phenomenology: how does the body manifest a sex? How can we account, in a nonpathologizing way, for bodies that manifest sex in ways that exceed or confound evident binaries? An understanding of transgenderism that wants to proceed by challenging a rigidly binaristic understanding of sex might find useful tools in theories that put similar pressure on the binary relation between body and psyche. Transpeople have tended toward suspicion of psychoanalytic accounts of gender, and justifiably so, since it has historically been used to relegate them to the realm of pathology and abjection. Indeed, this tradition continues within some psychoanalytic circles.1 And yet, psychoanalysis, perhaps more than any other discourse, has provided the most thorough and detailed examination of the elaborate set of mechanisms by which a subject "knows" her own body. Since psychoanalysis deals with the psychic construction of the self and the way in which that self inhabits a body, it can complicate [End Page 95] the assumption that the material body is unproblematically available to us as a perfectly faithful reflection of the psychic self. I argue that Freud can be of use for discussing the psychic conditions under which the body assumes a sex and, consequently, for discussions of sexed embodiment in which we understand sex to be something other than a binary.

In what follows, I reexamine two Freudian concepts of particular relevance to discussions of transgenderism. First is Freud's critique of a binary model of sex in his discussion of hermaphroditism, a critique that has received surprisingly little attention. Second, I attempt something of a guided tour of his schematization of the bodily ego and the use to which it has been put by writers grappling with questions of gender, body, and identity. The concept of the bodily ego is of particular use in thinking transgenderism because it shows that the body of which one has a "felt sense" is not necessarily contiguous with the physical body as it is perceived from the outside. That is, the body that one feels oneself to have is not necessarily the same body that is delimited by its exterior contours, and this is the case even for any normatively gendered subject. Taken together, these two models offer a theory of gendered embodiment in which the body is understood to be something more complex and capacious than a unitary formation of matter, singularly given to or claimed by only one sex. To understand embodiment as necessarily routed through a bodily ego is not to contend that body and ego are coterminous or self-same, but to assert that projections of various kinds are required in the construction of both the ego and the body, that the ego is itself a projection, and that difference, distance, and otherness are at the heart of the ego and the body.

Intersexual Characters, Binarism, and Freud's Temptation

Freud opens Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905) with a string of provocative claims. The most startling among them is offered at the beginning of a discussion of his well-known theory that human beings are innately bisexual. "It is popularly believed," Freud begins, "that a human being is either a man or a woman" (7). Freud goes on to suggest that popular opinion on the subject might be mistaken, and that science "knows of cases in which the sexual characters are obscured, and in which it is impossible to determine the sex." In his discussion of hermaphroditism, Freud addresses the assumption that human beings are either [End Page 96] male or female, and suggests that this assumption is, at root, an error. He marshals the authority of science as evidence, where science possesses knowledge that is simultaneously secret (science knows about things of which popular opinion...


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pp. 95-122
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Archived 2004
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