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Number 15: Autumn 2022

Circumcision on the Couch: The Cultural Psychological and Gendered Dimensions of the World’s Oldest Surgery

Jordan Osserman

Circumcision’s Ambivalence

In his study of castration in Seminar Ten, after some idiosyncratic comments on the aesthetic superiority of the circumcised penis, Lacan remarks, ‘Circumcision embodies . . . the fact that something akin to an order may be brought into this hole, into this constitutive failing of primordial castration.’1 Here, he suggests that the function of circumcision is to provide some kind of ‘order,’ perhaps to compensate for the abyss of castration. A piece of the penis is sacrificed to represent the lack that founds the subject. In a sense, it is similar to Freud’s views on circumcision and castration, yet it suggests a pacifying dimension of circumcision against Freud’s emphasis on guilt and fear. Circumcision does not castrate you; rather, by symbolizing castration as a mark on the penis, it relieves the unbearable trauma of the more fundamental, ‘primordial castration.’

Similarly, Luce Irigaray writes that Jewish circumcision ‘lies in the realm of the sign. What is cut away is only cut away in order to make a sign. . . . But almost the reverse of castrating, this excision is what marks the body’s entry into the world of signs.’2 Castration represents the failure or limit point of language, whereas circumcision marks the possibility of the subject’s embodied participation in language. Although both Lacan and Irigaray are here posing an opposition between circumcision and castration, I suggest we view the two as interdependent. Signification is possible only insofar as it incorporates a limit; language must be constitutively incomplete in order for us to go on saying different things. Likewise, to make use of signification, something of the body must also be incomplete; there must be an embodied experience of lack compelling us to engage in ‘the world of signs.’ More than solely symbolizing castration to mitigate its effects, circumcision marks – represents – this very moebius-like interrelation between lack (or castration) and signification.