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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 9.3 (2003) 393-414
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Butler's "Lesbian Phallus";
or, What can Deconstruction Feel?
The Lesbian Phallus and the Morphological Imaginary" begins by waggishly disclaiming its own suggestiveness. We must not, Judith Butler tells us, expect the essay to live up to the temptations of its name; "after such a promising title," she says, "I knew I could not possibly give a satisfying paper." 1 Though the lesbian phallus may be winking at us, Butler insists that we not expect anything bawdy. Indeed, dwelling on its sexiness only to dispute it, she regards the lesbian phallus as, in at least one respect, no different from any other phallus: "always dissatisfying" (57). Yet from such disappointment springs bounty, as Butler asserts that she will "work" the "failure" of the title (57). As promised, then, the lesbian phallus's limpness transforms quickly from shtick to fundamental conceit, for a lesbian phallus is not just a double but a triple entendre, whose first sense of dissatisfy, "Can this paper fulfill its stated goals?" gives way to a second, "What can you do with your lesbian phallus?" before arriving finally at a third, "What is our most recurring misconception about what language can do?"
For Butler, it is the third level of entendre that we are meant to get to: a lesbian phallus more "interesting than satisfying" (57). So the second, smutty reading sets up a further twist: rather than tender lascivious "satisfaction," the provocative allusion represents the essay troping its own investment in différance. The dissatisfaction that conjures images of sexual failure connotes as well the disjunction between what a title says and what a paper does, or, if we stretch this figure—as "The Lesbian Phallus" does—between a word and what it signifies. Smut, in other words, has a purpose. For the more we want to see, the more the lesbian phallus becomes a joke at the expense of the visual field altogether—a [End Page 393] seductive image through the suggestion of which the visual itself is lampooned. Riffing on the lesbian phallus's "promise," Butler reveals that an attempt to visually grasp the lesbian phallus (or, by extension, any referent) will always be deferred by significatory play.
But I ask us to stay with what is construed as the tacky, second level of entendre and consider that différance is introduced when "The Lesbian Phallus" poises—and parodies poising—for a blow: a reader who would strive to imagine the ways in which a lesbian phallus might indeed be satisfying. Although the joke is ultimately on the reader who reads double entendre too straightforwardly (for Butler means to suggest linguistic play, not a romp), the lesbian phallus's "satisfactoriness" is not only a joke whose multiple senses unfold one from the other but also the essay's split-second pause as it contemplates its own lasciviously literal reading. 2 Smut, in this sense, does not simply boost us onward to the ultimate deconstructive punch line; for though we are to understand that we cannot see the lesbian phallus, I will show that the possibility of the reader's disappointment—her failed peeping—is posited as a curious kind of evidence. In her enduring, unsavvy appetite, the reader is shown to feel the lesbian phallus precisely in trying and failing to see it. When Butler hails us into a dissatisfaction that we both do and do not want to suffer, "The Lesbian Phallus" suggests that someone, at least, is being let down by something. In this scenario iteration tells the truth about language because it hurts.
I will argue further that, in casting its drama of mistaken identity in terms of satisfaction, "The Lesbian Phallus," while devoted to the intangibility of a lesbian phallus, nevertheless evokes a reader who is quite tangible by comparison. If it resists giving us a lesbian phallus that we can visualize, in other words, "The Lesbian Phallus" offers instead a figure who experiences the lesbian phallus at work. The...