Some Thoughts on Pussy Riot, Lacan’s Supreme Signifier, Kristeva’s Semiotic and Abject, and Irigaray’s Symbolic Order

Myron Panchuk (7/2012)

The 2012 presidential elections of the Russian Federation have not been easy for the power elite of this country. In contrast to three consecutive elections of the recent past, Vladimir Putin and his United Russia Party were accused of large scale election fraud which energized street protests and unleashed the detention of opposition leaders. Popular criticism was also directed at the Russian Orthodox Church, specifically at its primate Patriarch Kirill who vocally expressed support of Putin’s United Russia Party. By law, the Russian Constitution guarantees strict separation of church and state, and defines its governance as secular. In practice, however, the Russian Orthodox Church benefits financially from Putin and from state-run oil companies, such as Gazprom. Analysts have noted that there is also a long history of the church serving the interests of the government and the government manipulating clergy for its needs. Of course, this has compromised the moral authority of the church particularly during moments of authoritarianism and the suppression of oppositional ideologies.
On the eve of the general presidential election, a feminist punk group known as Pussy Riot entered the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow and performed a punk service in front of the altar which began with the singing of intercessory prayer calling upon the Holy Mother of God Mary to chase away Putin (Huffington Post, Feburary 21, 2012). This feminist punk-rock group consists of 10 performers who dress in skimpy dresses and tights with their faces masked by colorful balaclavas. The politically loaded name of the group, Pussy Riot, sums up the revolutionary nature of the feminist discourse which they attempt to engage in, that is to loudly broadcast the oppression of women in Russia with an attitude of impudence. Their punk prayer performance at the cathedral which the Patriarch of Moscow presides over was construed by many as a direct attack upon the church’s collusion with the regime. Three of the group’s members were arrested a few days after the incident, and have been imprisoned since.
It should be of no surprise that the members of Pussy Riot have been politically and culturally influenced by the thought of Michel Foucault, Simone de Beauvoir, Julia Kristeva, Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak, Kate Millet, bell hooks (Fifi, March 10, 2012), and many others. The group’s radical feminist stance is complex and informed by post-modern, post-structuralist, post-colonialist, queer and gender theories. Certainly, this grates upon the nerves of institutional leadership whose very existence is threatened by the embodiment of countercultural ideas. Patriarch Kirill stated that the church has no future if the mocking of shrines and holy places continues, and condemned Pussy Riot’s performance by saying that the “Devil has laughed at all of us” (Howard Amos, March 25, 2012). Undoubtedly his statement was intended to be understood literally, but when considered symbolically, perhaps the devil is actually laughing at the masquerade of male-dominated, phallocentric, and patriarchal signifiers which have historically constructed Russian power and the dominant cultural narrative.
The intention of this essay is to uncover the “laugh of the devil” and to expose the hidden, unconscious dimensions of phallocentrism and patriarchy by taking a critical look at Lacan’s notion of the phallus as supreme signifier, contrasting it with Kristeva’s definition of the semiotic and the abject, and relocating it with Irigaray’s thoughts on the symbolic order and the feminine divine.
Lacan’s Supreme Signifier
Lacan begins his lecture entitled “The Signification of the Phallus” (Lacan, 2004) by stating that “the unconscious castration complex functions as a knot” (p. 271). In doing so, he on one hand affirms Freud’s essential teaching on the phallic phase of psychosexual development, but also questions why “a little girl considers herself, even for a moment to be castrated, in the sense of a phallus by someone she at first identifies as her mother…and then as her father” (p. 272). A knot indeed, since according to classical Freudian theory both sexes recognize the mother as endowed with a phallus. Lacan also notes that clinical evidence suggests that the formation of psychological symptoms is the result of the discovery of the mother’s castration. Furthermore, on the debate of the phallic phase, Lacan takes Helene Deutsch, Karen Horney, and Ernest Jones to task by stating that these followers of Freud “were destined to lose their way to a greater or lesser degree” (p. 274).
Lacan bolsters his position in having the answer on the subject of the castration complex by arguing that his articulation of the signifier/signified opposition is the linguistic interpretive lens for comprehending analytic phenomenon. “The signifier plays an active role in determining the effects by which the signifiable appears to succumb to its mark, becoming, through that passion, the signified” (Lacan, 2004, p. 274). Indeed, the passion which Lacan speaks of adds a new dimension in human relations since “it is not only man who speaks, but in man and through man that it speaks” (p. 274). The structure of language becomes the very matter from which psychological ideas are conceived and analytic work can fully take place. The unconscious contains the “unstable elements that constitute language” (p.275) and generate the signified through metonymy and metaphor.
The phallus is neither mere fantasy nor simple object. It is not even the organ that it symbolizes, whether penis or clitoris. The phallus is the privileged signifier, but veiled and hidden as it was in the ancient mysteries. Lacan examines the effects of the phallus as hidden presence and signifier and concludes that this signification is a deviation of man’s needs because they are subjected to demand and come back “in an alienated form” (p. 275). Such an alienation of needs is what rightfully constitutes repression and appears as desire. In psychoanalysis this form of desire emerges as “paradoxical, deviant, erratic, eccentric, and even scandalous” (p. 276).
The phallus as hidden signifier “requires that it be in the place of the Other that the subject has access to it” (Lacan, 2004, p. 278). A dialectic tension results between being and having, which Lacan points out as contradictory in nature since reality is given to the subject in this signifier, but at the same time “render unreal the relations to be signified” (p. 279). This creates a splitting which for the woman consists of an experience of love which “deprives her of what the object gives, and a desire that finds the signifier in this object” (p. 279). In the case of men this results in a debasement in the arena of love. The splitting notable in a man’s desire is that the phallus is signified as “either virgin or prostitute” (p. 280).
Lacan’s theoretical musings on the phallus as signifier were intended on not only providing him with a framework for his linguistic approach to analysis, but also were directed at comprehending the dynamics of love relations between men and women. However, if Lacan’s assertion that the phallus is a supreme signifier is appropriated within the context of protests of the punk group Pussy Riot, the traditional discourse on this subject matter is not only amplified, but enriched. Is it possible that the very name of the group, Pussy Riot, suggests that the vagina is a new and potent signifier, also hidden and veiled? Freud and Lacan’s phallocentrism would attack this notion and maintain that the phallus is contained in the woman as the clitoris. However, from all indications, the embodied polity of Pussy Riot offers an aggressive social counterpoint to such thinking by potentiating a new signifier as riotous.
Vladimir Putin has referred to the downfall of the Soviet Union as “biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” (Bigg, April 29, 2005), and as a result has successfully reintroduced a Soviet era style of governance which is popularly called “the power vertical.” The verticality of power structures in Russia, and some other post-Soviet countries, is an attempt to limit democracy and reestablish maximum control in all sectors of military and civilian life. The same strategy has been adopted by the Russian Orthodox Church under the leadership of Patriarch Kirill. One can interpret the verticality of power as an expression of the hidden phallus as signifier. In this context, the demands of the hidden, veiled, and repressed phallus are potency and presence. These demands create a dialectic tension between being and having; reality is given to the signifier, but the relationship to the signified is unreal. The consequence is a distortion between signifier and signified which plays out in the lives of Russian citizens. Lacan was wise to note that when the phallus is unveiled and phallic power unleashed, the demon of Aidos springs forth and strikes the signified “marking it as the bastard offspring of signifying concatenation” (Lacan, 2004, p. 277). Who is the bastard offspring? Is it Putin, Patriarch Kirill, Pussy Riot, or perhaps all of them?
Lacan (2004) concludes his lecture on “The Signification of the Phallus” by praising Freud’s intuition into the masculine nature of the libido. Never elucidated, Lacan affirms that there is only one libido and that the function of the phallic signifier “touches…upon its most profound relation: that by which the Ancients embodied therein the Nous and the Logos” (p. 280). Therefore, the language and the symbolic structure of institutions are masculine and phallocentric. This is particularly true of the Church, whose very image of God is masculine and its subjectivity governed by Lacan’s “Law of the Father.”

Kristeva and the Semiotic
Kristeva (2002) in her essay Revolution in Poetic Language reminds us that the history of signifying systems is replete with “fragmentary phenomenon” that have been marginalized and “kept in the background.” This is especially true in the arts and religion which point to the process of signification itself. “Magic, shamanism, esoterism, the carnival, and ‘incomprehensible’ poetry all underscore the limits of socially useful discourse and attest to what it represses: the process that exceeds the subject and his communicative structures” (p. 30). From the outset, Kristeva asserts that it is the process of signification itself which warrants consideration rather than a status quo acceptance of Freud’s masculine libido and Lacan’s phallus as supreme signifier. Pussy Riot’s “incomprehensible” performance is a fragmentary phenomenon which openly attacked normative phallocentric and patriarchal systems by the very invocation to the “Mother” and not in the “Name of the Father.”
Kristeva’s (2002) genius lies in her expansive understanding of signification (signifiance), which by definition is a generating process “unlimited and unbounded.” It is an unending “operation of the drives toward, in, and through language; toward, in and through the exchange system and its protagonists—the subject and his institutions” (p. 31). Furthermore, as a process, it not only structures, but also de-structures and pushes the limits of the boundaries of social norms. It is only in doing so, that the process of signifiance can be “jouissance and revolution” (p. 31).
Kristeva’s distinction between two modalities of language, the symbolic and the semiotic, are helpful in comprehending the significant role which feminist groups, such as Pussy Riot, play in challenging normative phallocentric and patriarchal social discourse. For the purpose of this discussion, one can claim that the Russian Church and power elite are the subjects of an already constituted symbolic order. Whether it be the dogma of the Holy Trinity or the trinity of politicians, clergy, and military, the existing social order is almost fully masculine; its libidinal energy and Logos a Lacanian incarnation of the Father imago. Kristeva, however, posits an imaginary father within the framework of the pre-Oedipal conflict which in itself challenges phallocentric discourse. This is contrasted with semiotic process—all of those libidinal energies and bodily rhythms which the child experiences during the pre-Oedipal relationship with its mother. Although the semiotic will be repressed when the child enters into the social and cultural world of the symbolic order, it remains in the unconscious and can never be cut off fully from expression. It is precisely this feminine semiotic, always available to both men and women, that generates the restructuring of society, religious expression, and gender relations (Elliott, 2002).
Pertinent to Kristeva’s feminist critique is her notion of the abject. Defined as that which is rejected, expelled, and cast out, abjection is relevant to the denigration of women and the feminine in patriarchal cultures. Rooted in the context of the semiotic and the maternal body, the abject becomes “the object of primal repression” (Kristeva, 2002, P. 239). This primal repression is necessary in a child’s separation from the mother and the development of a personal “I.” Kristeva notes that abjection is a component of all religious systems, and is expressed as pollution, defilement, or sin. Pussy Riot’s perceived defilement of the area in front of the cathedral altar, compounded by their performance of punk music, has signified them as abject. It is not surprising that the highest ranking “father” of this church, the Patriarch himself, has characterized this radical prayer service as the work of the devil. Perhaps it is the semiotic which is laughing; a devilish laughter erupting from the repressed, but available, depths.

Irigaray and the Symbolic Order
Anthony Elliott (2002) has summarized Irigaray’s fundamental critique of Lacan as one that exposes a deeper truth regarding the feminine and the symbolic order of contemporary culture. Irigaray’s point of departure lies in her firm belief that in all patriarchal societies and cultures the feminine cannot be adequately symbolized in discourse or even in theory. In her groundbreaking work Speculum of the Other Woman (1985), she posits that women undergo a process of “specularization,” i.e. a mirroring and reflecting of phallocentric ideals back to men. The feminine is not defined on its own terms, and therefore can only be an object which frames masculine desire and perpetuates illusion.
Since women and the feminine are symbolically oppressed, they remain outside cultural discourse. In such a capacity the feminine is essentially suspect, subversive, and threatening to the dominant masculine patriarchal order. Pussy Riot’s punk prayer service is an embodied subversive attack against the feminine as speculum and stands in opposition to a male dominated world which can only relate to women as the object of masculine reflection. By opening the prayer service to the feminine goddess Mary, the very language of traditional religious discourse becomes empowered with a new cultural practice. Although pious Orthodox Christians regularly pray to the Mother of God, the absence at the beginning of the prayer of “in the name of the Father” is particularly intriguing.
In An Ethics of Sexual Difference (1993), Irigaray addressed this very issue. Regarding the existence of the female divine, the importance of reaffirming the relationship with the mother is underscored thus: “innerness, self-intimacy, for a woman, can be established or re-established only through the mother-daughter, daughter-mother relationship which woman re-plays for herself…This is one of the most difficult gestures for our culture” (p. 68). Our religious tradition has been faithful only to the relationship of God as father who engendered a son by means of a virgin-mother, and has ignored scriptural evidence regarding the relationship between Mary and other women, the role of women in the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus, and Jesus’ own untraditional relationship with women. This cultural stance obliterates the creation of language, discourse, and symbolic process which could empower women’s embrace of the divine feminine. The need for a feminine transcendent seems “theoretically unavailable” to women; a transcendent which surrounds and envelopes women “in their jouissance” (p. 69). What is required is a “love of self,” which detaches women from their traditional place, nurtures a love for the child that each woman herself was, and opens and allows access to difference.
Perhaps the plea of the women of Pussy Riot is a plea to a transcendent feminine Mother who envelopes them in her own divine jouissance. Although the plea is politically motivated, the prayerful invocation comes from a non-traditional place, detached from the masculine, the phallocentric, and the patriarchal. This form of prayer engages a new subjectivity, the subjectivity of a feminine which loves itself and which seeks to open space for the derelict, despised, and the different. In a similar vein, Irigaray (1993) cites Husserl’s statement on philosophy’s role in restoring the power to signify and give birth to new meaning, even if wild. Questions will remain, especially in regard to the hypotheses foundational in the creation of language and discourse. But, hypotheses can be challenged and questioned if meaning has not yet been heard and has not yet come into existence. So it should be with Pussy Riot’s opening discourse on the Mother of God and the expulsion of Putin; a new discourse, a wild hypothesis grounded in emergent meaning.

Conclusion
During the course of time in which this essay was written, the three detained members of Pussy Riot continue to sit in jail in anticipation of court proceedings which lack legal definition. The charge of “hooliganism” is very slippery and legal analysts have determined that the lack of clarity in Russian jurisprudence has taken this case to the level of the absurd—a theatre of the absurd. What lies at stake is simply the inability for Patriarch Kirill to “soften” his stance, since this is perceived to be a sign of weakness and spiritual capitulation. So, the symbolic “father” of a patriarchal and phallocentric institution is incapable of letting go of old categories of language and signification. Predictably, his fear of the devil’s laugh makes sense in a world which denies a rightful place for the feminine and for abject women. Women remain outside the parameters of social discourse in many places on the globe, and the imprisonment of the Pussy Riot members is but another glimpse of a perennial struggle.
On July 26, 2012 Patriarch Kirill arrived in Kyiv for a pastoral visitation and was greeted at the airport by a member of the Ukrainian radical feminist group known as Femen. These feminist activists are known for their topless protests in order to heighten political awareness of the fate of sex trafficking and sex workers. This member of Femen greeted the Patriarch by exposing her breasts and showing the backside of her tee-shirt to the press. The words “Kill Kirill” were written on it in an act of solidarity with the Pussy Riot detainees (Kyiv Post, July 26, 2012). The activist was arrested and charged with hooliganism.
Undeniably, the post-Soviet world continues to change and a post-modern political subjectivity is on the rise. The wisdom of Lacan’s (2004) thoughts on the phallus as supreme signifier holds political currency even today. The masculine libido defines Logos and signifies our common language on a daily basis with faint recognition of Kristeva’s concept of the semiotic. The cries of feminist activists, such as Pussy Riot, could be construed as desperate cries for recognition. Unfortunately, the social justice dimension of their work is marginalized and the women themselves are treated as abject, as Other, and as the devil who laughs at a world which is signified by the hidden, veiled, and supreme phallus.

References
Amos, H. (2012, March 25). Russian punk band were doing devil’s work, says leader of Orthodox church. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/mar/25/pussy-riot-devils-work-kirill/print
Bigg, C. (2005, April 29). World: Was Soviet collapse last century’s worst geopolitical catastrophe? Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Retrieved from http://www.rferl.org/articleprintreview/1058688.html
Elliott, A. (2002). Psychoanalytic theory: An introduction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Fifi. (2012, March 26). Veli Italainen. Retrieved from http://en/wikipedia.org.wiki/Russy_Riot
Huffington Post (2012, February 21). Russy Riot, Russian all-girl punk band, surpirses Moscow catherdral with performance. Retrieved from hhtp://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/21/pussy-riot-russia-band-moscow-cathedral.html
Irigaray, L. (1985). Speculum of the other woman. (G. Gill, Trans.). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Irigaray, L. (1993). An ethics of sexual difference. (C. Burke & G. Gill, Trans.). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Kristeva, J. (2002). The portable Kristeva: Updated edition. (K. Oliver, Ed.). New York, NY: Columbia.
Kyiv Post (2012, July 26). Topless protester pursues Russian church leader. Retrieved from http://www.kyivpost.com/content/ukraine/topless-protester-pursues-russia-church-leader.html
Lacan, J. (2004). The signification of the phallus. In Ecrits: A selection (B. Fink, Trans). New York, NY: Norton.

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