Vol. 10
2001

Pee(k)ing into Derrida's Underpants:
Circumcision, Textual Multiplexity, and the Cannibalistic Mother

The Rev. Dr. Philip Culbertson
The College of Saint John the Evangelist - Auckland, New Zealand

In Nineteen Hundred and Forty-Four--the date was Columbus Day, October 12--I was sailed like a frisbee quite involuntarily [1] into the ocean of patriarchal heterosexism, of male hegemony, and of maternal betrayal [2], as the mark of circumcision was inscribed forever on my flesh. As I was hurled through the fog-obscured skies of gender expectation, my foreskin was ripped away in a gust/o of parental violence [3].

Four hundred and fifty-two years separate these two events, and yet Columbus and I hold a wound in common [4], like Freud, like Derrida. Columbus was, by most accounts, a Marrano, a Jew who adopted the external trappings of Catholicism in order to survive the successive waves of persecution and expulsion [5]. I am not a Jew [6], but I, like Columbus--like Freud, like Derrida--am circumcised, involuntarily determined a child of patriarchy long before I could think for myself.

 

Who wounded me, and why was I wounded? As I struggle through the unveiling of my scars [7], so I unveil the wounds that all men carry. Some of us carry them visibly on our cocks. Even more troubling are the invisible wounds of the uncircumcised, the unreadable marks written on the bodies of men who are wounded and do not know by whom, or why, or even that they bear/bare wounds [8].

How do we make meaning out of the practice of male circumcision in the world, in the South Pacific, in Aotearoa-New Zealand, in the contemporary men's movements, and above all in the thought of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Derrida?

First of all we have to admit that there is no single meaning to this act of ritually or surgically altering or removing the prepuce [9], or foreskin, of the penis, in order to expose the glans penis [10]. 'Dick-head' is the word one hears more commonly in the streets.

The practice of circumcision is 7000 years old. Today, although it is infrequently observed in Europe, it is practiced routinely in many parts of Africa and in all Moslem countries [11]. The rate in the US has dropped recently from 85% to about 60% [12], though in my generation it was routine. Judaism requires it at the eighth day after the birth of a male child [13], and Islam requires it for boys at any age up until puberty [14]. Doctrinally the Christian Church has interpreted circumcision as a metaphor for the conversion of the heart, and thus it is not expected to be practiced literally [15]. Yet the interpretation of Christianity may be, and often is, over-ridden by culture. For example, my own circumcision, as a Christian and a priest of the church, is hardly metaphorical [16], and yet St. Paul and the writers of the early church were at great pains to separate Christianity from Judaism by telling Christians not to circumcise [17].

Here in Oceania, the Christian dis-avowal of circumcision is observed primarily in the breach. In Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, ritual circumcision is still practiced as part of the male rites of passage from childhood to adulthood [18]. A male who is not circumcised is not considered--according to the traditional social construction--to be an adult, and therefore may not marry or take a seat in the village governing council. According to the construction of gender in traditional Samoan culture, an adult male who is not circumcised is considered lower in voice and authority than a woman [19]. Circumcision routinely takes place for Melanesian and Polynesian (though not Maori) boys at puberty, or immediately before. While such circumcisions are done in a doctor's office, they are celebrated with elaborate social rituals. Yet here in Aotearoa New Zealand, the rate of circumcision has dropped so low--among both Maori and Pakeha--that friends who recently had a baby son could not find a doctor in all of Palmerston North who would circumcise the boy. They had to make an appointment in Wellington with the only doctor they could find who would do the surgery.

Given its 7000 year history, and given the wide variation of ritual and surgical practices throughout the world, how can we give meaning to this 'simple snip' that so quickly removes a quarter-inch or less of tender, and possibly useless, male baby's skin?

To comprehend the process of meaning-making, Derrida refers us to the ancient Jewish exegetical schema known as PaRDeS, or 'the paradise of Scripture' [20]. Both medieval Christianity and medieval Judaism insisted that every verse of the Bible has at least four meanings, basing their arguments on more ancient interpretive practices [21]. According to the Jewish tradition that Derrida cites, meaning-making occurs at four levels, usually simultaneously, though each must be teased out in its own right [22]:

  • Peshat: The simple, the 'literal,' the plain meaning of the text, usually accessible to the uninitiated, and having its own inherent value as memory, instruction or entertainment.
  • Remez: The allusive, the intimated meaning, the metaphor hinted at, though always based on a rational and concrete form of logic, such as a notarikon, tachygraphy, mnemonic, or gematria. This form of exegesis became popular in both Judaism and Christianity as a sort of puzzle.
  • Derash: The homiletical meaning, more a synthetic attribution than an analytic clarification of meaning, an excursus by which moral and ethical applications are drawn.
  • Sod: The secret meaning, the mystical message accessible only to the select few initiated, and often having to do with the very nature of God.
  • This schema for meaning-making plays a significant role in Derrida's primary essay on the subject of circumcision, his Circumfession. There he writes: "In relation with the singular score of these four epitomes, unrational enough to have to be denied or complicated, cut into, I discover the quaternary model of a paradisiac discourse of Jewish irrationality, to be specified, etc.: 1. Pshat, literality denuded like a glans, 2. R'Emez, crypt, allegory, secret, diverted word, 3. Drash, morality, homily, persuasive and pulpit eloquence, 4. Soud, profound, cabbalistic, although I've got the PaRDeS of this partition 'in my blood,' it does not correspond exactly to the one imposing itself on me, some laborious translation of it is not forbidden" [23]. And indeed, throughout that essay, he struggles to make meaning, at a variety of complex levels, of the wound that marks his own male member, that "exemplary counterscar that we have to learn to read without seeing" [24].

    Derrida applies the PRDS schema in several ways in his long essay Circumfession. For example, he speaks of four bloods that are signified in the removal of "the ring of flesh around my foreskin" [25]:

    (1) his own blood, drawn by the mohel's circumcision knife (recapitulated in his middle-age by an alarming bloody discharge in his urine [26];

    (2) the blood of his cousin Simone, whose accident on a scooter Derrida witnessed, and which he describes as "that first blood that came to me from the sex of a cousin";

    (3) his mother's menstrual blood, evidenced by "the towels my mother left lying around, 'marked' from red to brown, in the bidet, when, as I understood so late, she was having her own 'period';" and

    (4) his mother's life blood, draining out of her as she lay dying.

    These four function as Peshat (his 'literal' blood of circumcision); Remez (the blood of an accident, connected with sex, and awakening his first sense of the trauma of his own circumcision); Derash (the menstrual blood which signals femininity, and thus conversely, masculinity: the yin and yang of creation); and Sod ("for the life of the flesh is in the blood"; Leviticus 17:11, 14). It is thus in the bleeding, newly-circumcised penis that Derrida finds his most-powerful symbols of maternal threat, psychological trauma, community identity, and the hope for his autobiographical salvation, as we shall see.

    I confess, in the autobiographical manner of Derrida [27], that for much of my life as a circumcised, middle-class, American, male Christian, I didn't think much about the possible larger meanings of circumcision. Yet having said that, I also couldn't reconcile the New Testament argument that circumcision is a vain ritual for Christians, with the fact that every Christian male I knew was circumcised. How did I know that? Yes, we do peek in the changing shed; we just peek very carefully so as not to get caught peeking [28].

    As a child, I did occasionally see an uncircumcised penis when changing for a swim. But foreskins were rare, and in my disbelief I could only come up with three possible explanations: that the boy came from a lower-class family; that some unimaginable health complication had prevented his 'normalization'; or that his parents had particularly poor aesthetic taste. In all cases, I reasoned, surely an uncircumcised penis was a carrier of shame. Only when I began my study of Freud thirty years ago as part of my psychotherapy training, did I begin to think more deeply about the meanings of circumcision. My involvement in Men's Studies fifteen years ago heightened my interest, and recent exposure to Derrida's writings has intensified it further.

    Reading history and cultural studies, we discover that male circumcision signifies a staggering multiplexity, a paradisical polysemy, a daunting dissemination [29], a cacaphonous chorus of constructed voices. Variously the practice has been explained or interpreted as [30]:

    a rite of passage from boyhood to manhood [31],

    a mark of covenant relationship [32],

    an external signifier of an internal condition, such as a circumcised heart, lips, eyes,

    or, in Derrida particularly, 'circumcised' words [33],

    a sign of national, cultural, or communal identity [34],

    a symbolic wedding ritual [35],

    a symbolic remnant of human sacrifice, especially child-murder [36],

    a metaphorical simulation of castration [37],

    a symbolic remnant of ancestral cannibalism [38],

    a witnessing scar to paternal or maternal jealousy, possessiveness, and envy [39],

    a way to ward off evil spirits,

    a reminder of death, much like the less painful ashes on Ash Wednesday [40],

    a writing, inscribing, tatooing of identity on the body [41],

    a method for instilling sexual discipline by way of blessing and purification [42],

    a sacramental consecration of the sexual organ [43],

    a metaphor for nudity [44],

    a mark of shame [45],

    a hidden proof of perversity, immorality, dereliction, or devotion to the anti-Christ [46],

    a preventative or cure for masturbation, nocturnal emissions of semen, and bed-wetting [47],

    a means to enhance sexual pleasure [48],

    a means to decrease sexual pleasure [49],

    a medical preventative of syphilis or epilepsy [50],

    a hygienic prophylactic [51],

    as protection for women against cervical or uterine cancer [52],

    a reactive substitute for menstrual envy [53],

    as cosmetic or aesthetic [54],

    a metaphor for the universal human phenomenon of self-discovery [55],

    an indelible setting-apart of men from women, men signifying the perfected state [56], and women the natural state [57],

    a warning of how dangerous our fathers and other male forbears are [58],

    a hypocritical unveiling of males in a patriarchal culture that demands the veiling of women [59],

    a petrified memory [60],

    the traumatic primal wound of masculinity and patriarchy [61],

    and a personal holocaust [62].

    Many of these interpretations appear in the three Derrida essays I have examined. Perhaps few or none are original to Derrida, but he has succeeded in identifying many of the polysemic labels carried by the simple term 'circumcision.' The effect of this Derridian dissemination, however, is to cause the penis, once again as it so often does, to wiggle, to change shape, to appear ungraspable [63].

    Derrida is often seen as a Freudian revisionist, in the same vein as Kristeva, Irigaray, Ricoeur, Lacan, and LaPlanche. But revisionism is perhaps not the most accurate descriptor, for there are times when Derrida, like almost all of Freud's students [64], parts company significantly with 'Papa.' One departure point of particular interest to a discussion on masculinities is the attribution of responsibility for the trauma of circumcision to the father by Freud, and to the mother by Derrida.

    In his 1912-13 series of essays entitled Totem and Taboo: Some Points of Agreement between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics, Freud used the work of Darwin, Robertson Smith, and James Frazier, among others, to develop a social anthropology often referred to as phylogeny [65]. Now Freud was aware that circumcision took place at a variety of ages in the world's cultures, and attempted to devise a theory which would explain its effects as associated with the Oedipal struggle, whether the circumcision took place several years before that or several years afterwards. The idea of the Primal Horde is first set forth in Totem and Taboo and is expanded in Freud's 1939 work Moses and Monotheism.

    In primaeval times primitive man lived in small hordes, each under the domination of a powerful male. The strong male was lord and father of the entire horde and unrestricted in his power, which he exercised with violence. All the females were his property, wives and daughters of his own horde and some, perhaps, robbed from other hordes. The lot of his sons was a hard one: if they roused their father's jealousy they were killed or castrated or driven out. Their only resource was to collect together in small communities, to get themselves wives by robbery, and when one or other of them could succeed in it, to raise themselves into a position similar to their father's in the primal horde [66].

    Eventually the expelled brothers united to overthrow the Primal Father and then devoured him raw. Once free of the Father they both honored and hated, they quarreled among themselves over power. "A realization of the dangers and uselessness of these struggles, a recollection of the act of liberation which they had accomplished together, and the emotional ties with one another which had arisen during the period of their expulsion, led at last to an agreement among them, a sort of social contract" [67]. The social contract included a renunciation of behavior based solely on instinct, a recognition of mutual obligations, and the introduction of institutions that codified morality and justice along the lines of patriarchal standards. Circumcision was one of those institutions, an indelible marking of the flesh to remind all future sons of the power that the Primal, or tribal, Elders held, and that castration and death would be the outcome of any future attempts at rebellion. Toward the end of the section of Moses on drive renunciation, Freud interprets Moses's introduction of the custom of circumcision in light of this same need for "the painful renunciation of instinct" intrinsic to acculturation into any patriarchal society.

    ... circumcision is the symbolic substitute for the castration which the primal father once inflicted upon his sons ... and whoever accepted that symbol was showing by it that he was prepared to submit to the father's will, even if it imposed the most painful sacrifice on him [68].

    The wound of circumcision, then, raises phylogenic memories of the taboo against endogamous sexual relations--whether within the tribe or the family--which are punishable by castration and death. Today we men and women still carry the primitive memories of the Primal Horde as part of our unconscious social and cultural heritage, and their power continues to shape our individual development as well as our family relations.

    Of course, circumcision as symbolic castration need not necessarily lead us back to the Primal Father, to the transmission of his deeds and threats through acquired memory, and to the irresolvable difficulties of these formulations. In his 1926 book, Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, Freud argues that a child incorporates the power and authority of his own biological father as a significant part of the child's super-ego. This power and authority are in themselves enough to produce castration anxiety, which in turn becomes globalized into an undefined social or moral anxiety [69]. Here, while attempting to find a definitive reference point for anxiety in the threat of castration, Freud actually de-literalizes the concept. Castration anxiety becomes indicative of the conflicts involved in ethical, as opposed to tribal or patriarchal social, acculturation [70].

    In the pre-Oedipal period, around the age of 3, when the young boy has fallen in love with his mother, he then enters into an intrapsychic struggle with his father to win away the mother as his own [71]. However, the young boy is well aware that his father is bigger, stronger, and more powerful, and that any attempt to win the mother may lead the father to a jealous and murderous rage that will result in the boy's death. To defuse his growing anxiety, and indeed, to preserve his own life, the boy ultimately shifts his object of affectional alliance to the father, and away from the mother. The Oedipal struggle goes on whether a boy is circumcised or not. In children who are circumcised, a look at their wounded penis will remind them how dangerous--and yet desirable--adult manhood, and ultimately patriarchy, can be.

    The father, so important to Freudian explanations of the psychological trauma of circumcision, almost disappears in Derrida's writings on the subject. Whereas the mother is an object of desire in Freudian theory, in Derrida she is even more a subject of fear, betrayal, and danger, for it is the mother, rather than the father, who is held responsible for the boy's circumcision trauma.

    Freud traces the origins of circumcision to Moses; Derrida bases his theories on the actions of Moses's wife Zipporah. According to the Biblical book of Exodus, Moses fled Egypt, where as a slave he had murdered his overseer, to the land of Midian. There he worked for a landowner and priest named Jethro, and eventually married his daughter Zipporah. They circumcised their firstborn son Gershom. When Zipporah was pregnant with their second son, Moses heard a call from God to return to Egypt, to deliver the Hebrew people from slavery. Hurriedly he took his wife, his son Gershom, and his newly born second son Eliezer, who was not yet circumcised because he was not eight days old, and began the trip back to Egypt. According to Exodus 4:24-26, "On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the Lord met [Moses] and tried to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son's foreskin, and touched Moses' feet with it and said, 'Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!' So he let him alone. It was then she said, 'A bridegroom of blood by circumcision'" [72].

    For Derrida, 'the enemy' in the circumcision struggle, the traumatic scarring of the psyche, is not the father, but the mother, each and every man's own Zipporah. She is simultaneously betrayer, hedonist, cannibal, and failure. She is Everywoman; she is Other. In his Circumfession, Derrida writes: "circumcision, another word for peritomy, that cutting of the surround, is instituted by the mother, for her, the cruelty basically being hers, and sometimes the very act of cutting off that sort of ring [Zipporah] had to eat the still bloody foreskin, I imagine first by sucking it, my first beloved cannibal, initiator at the sublime gate of fellatio, like so many mohels [73] for centuries had practiced suction, or mezizah [74], right on the glans, mixing wine and blood with it, until the thing was abolished in Paris in 1843 for reasons of hygiene" [75].

    For Derrida, women's cannibalistic impulses are based on 'penis envy,' and here he turns to Freud for inspiration [76]. Because women do not have a penis, they compensate in two ways: by sublimating their desire into the offering of their sons for a (vengeful) symbolic castration, thus making the different like; and by having invented weaving. Humankind enjoys woven cloth, braided hair, and fiber optic cables, all because women learned to weave their pubic hair to veil the fact that they had no penises, forming woven pseudo-penises to compensate [77]. They have veiled the truth of their abyss, and in return betray their maternal responsibilities to nurture, by offering their sons up as a bloody sacrifice, so that the sons too will suffer loss of "the gram of the lost part of self ..." [78]. Because she has originated the wounding, she continues to hold "the wedding ring," that peritomic circle beneath the glans, until she passes it along to another woman to own in turn: the wife of her son [79]. With the penile ring, the wedding ring, woman at last has a boy-man with whom she can share jouissance without the power struggle typical to marriage [80]. With her circumcised son, she can play, at last, in a patriarchal world: "imagine the loved woman herself circumcising (me), as the mother did in the biblical narrative, slowly provoking ejaculation in her mouth just as she swallows the crown of bleeding skin with the sperm as a sign of exultant alliance, her legs open, her breasts between my legs, laughing, both of us laughing, passing skins from mouth to mouth like a ring, the pendant on the necklace round her neck" [81].

    Shocking? But so is circumcision. Both Freud and Derrida refused to have their sons circumcised--though both would have been expected to as Jews--perhaps because of the impact that studying such a trauma had upon them [82]. Misogynist? I can't decide yet, for even in the shocking section I have just quoted, about a mother laughingly fellating her circumcised son to ejaculation, there is a power and a jouissance attributed to women that sounds liberating--at least from the point of view of male fantasy [83]. The word plays, the polysemy, the dissemination, the over-interpretation, the PaRDeS, has led us to the margins of subversion--just where Derrida wants us--deconstructed, decentered, destabilized [84].

    At the same time--however graphically--Derrida makes a point about the human search for truth. The Jewish boy's newly-circumcised penis is covered with blood and wine--an "incredible supper" Derrida calls it [85]--and the image is distinctly eucharistic. Like the Christian eucharist, it is a supper in which all all are invited to participate [86]. But in this case, each of us must participate in an individualized eucharist of self-examination, self-criticism, self-knowledge, and the search for the deepest meanings of truth within us. Derrida calls this "autofellocircumcision" [87]--the fellating of one's self, one's identity, one's source of 'ejaculatory' production, up to the extent that one has drawn one's own penile blood and left an indelible mark. This intense introspection, this application of the most severe criticism to one's own thoughts and outpourings--the circumcising of all of one's own words--is particularly the task of those who write: philosophers, poets, and academics. Only then can the meanings below the veiled meaning, the Peshat, be unveiled in all their polysemic glory.

    In his Circumfession, Derrida observes that when St. Augustine wrote his famous "Confessions," he intentionally obscured the boundary between theology and autobiography [88]. In holding up his own circumcised penis for our observations, Derrida has also claimed autobiography as the sacred space of meaning-making from which theology ultimately proceeds.

    Any discussion of 'masculinities' cannot be just about the construction and deconstruction of gender, sexual and emotional health, and mythopoetic warriors. It must also be about the relationship between God and human woundedness--including the woundedness that Freud and Derrida and I carry in our flesh. Only as we make meaning of that woundedness, whether we are circumcised or not, can we as embodied men and women whose lives are directly shaped by masculinities move toward greater wholeness.

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