Purple Magazine
— The Island Issue #35

catherine malabou


interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
artwork by MARLENE DUMAS

in her latest book, the french philosopher describes the clitoris as a pleasure island that has been systematically obliterated by patriarchal societies, not only on women’s bodies, in sexuality, but also in psychoanalysis and philosophy. the recognition of the clitoris is nigh, and it is changing the game.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Etymologically, you say “clitoris” means “little pebble,” but one could also see it as an island, like a small protruding part of an internal organ recently discovered by science. Like a little island in the middle of the ocean of the female body, or the female continent.
CATHERINE MALABOU — Yes. That’s what my book [Le Plaisir Effacé: Clitoris et Pensée, Pleasure Erased: Clitoris and Thought] is about: making the clitoris fully visible on every level, including on a philosophical level. In the word “isle,” there is “isolat”: isolation. If patriarchal societies — and that includes our own — keep this organ hidden, in the shadows, and continue to obliterate it, that’s because it’s autonomous. Its sole function is pleasure. From the viewpoint of the patriarchal system, it’s this double independence that’s intolerable: erotic freedom and independence from the vagina and therefore reproduction. The clitoris is an island because it’s self-sufficient.

OLIVIER ZAHM — We must begin with a harsh reality and the incredible violence that is genital mutilation, which is still very widespread. You say that 200 million women, 44 million girls, were listed in 2021 as having undergone this.
CATHERINE MALABOU — Yes. I believe a woman is mutilated every 15 seconds somewhere in the world. This happens a lot in Africa, of course, but also in Asia, essentially Southeast Asia, and many islands in the Indian Ocean. It’s pretty widespread. Then, there’s the mutilation of intersex newborns, for whom distinct male or female genital organs are made, long before they are able to give their consent.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is any progress being made?
CATHERINE MALABOU — There has certainly been progress because now there’s a lot of talk about the clitoris; a great variety of books have been published about it, and mores have changed. The anatomy of the clitoris — both internal and external — is a very recent discovery, barely 20 years old. And schoolbooks are generally silent on the matter. For many years, the clitoris was seen as part of the labia, and it also had the same name, the nymphs. It was eliminated by being included as part of the vulva. That said, there was one Greek doctor who “autonomized” it — Rufus of Ephesus. After him, Ambroise Paré mentioned the clitoris but then mysteriously removed it from his book, The Apologie and Treatise of Ambroise Paré. No one knew exactly what to do with it. After that, it was associated with a form of hysteria, the famous nymphomania. It was a long time before the clitoris was studied scientifically.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The negation of the source of female pleasure.
CATHERINE MALABOU — Exactly. Because that’s the only reason it exists. That, once again, is the problem — the problem for psychoanalysis and religion, and even for thought. “What is this creature that has two sexual organs, a clitoris and a vagina?” Woman has one sex too many! How can the two be reconciled? The solution was clear: one must be sacrificed for the sake of the other.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Shouldn’t we reverse that and say that the true female sexual organ is the clitoris? Because even in vaginal sex, that’s really where pleasure and the orgasm are concentrated.
CATHERINE MALABOU — Yes. It was the great Italian feminist Carla Lonzi who invented the word “clitoridian.” She wrote a book titled The Clitoridian Woman and the Vaginal Woman. She said that the vaginal woman is a male invention. For her, the real female sexual organ is the clitoris. Which, of course, means, as I was saying a moment ago, that what is at stake here is a woman’s autonomy.

OLIVIER ZAHM — There are certain studies that say that pleasure, including vaginal pleasure, comes from the clitoris because it is stimulated from inside.
CATHERINE MALABOU — Yes, but you can see the risk here: if we say that a woman’s sexual organ is the clitoris, then we put aside reproductive sexuality. And that is what was censored, including by Freud, who affirms that a clitoris is a truncated penis, a miniature penis, which women use only for masturbating. For Freud, unlike Lonzi, a woman’s true sexual organ is the vagina. According to him, vaginal sexuality marks the transition from childhood to maturity. A little girl necessarily becomes vaginal when she grows up. It’s a well-known way of downgrading the clitoris.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, there’s this idea that a woman has a sex for herself, a clitoridian sexuality, and then a vagina for necessities that are more reproductive than erotic.
CATHERINE MALABOU — No, I wouldn’t go that far because, after all, there is no good reason to devalue the vagina, either.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But more than the breasts, or the neck, or a kiss, or any other erogenous zone?
CATHERINE MALABOU — The vagina has no more erotic weight than other parts of the body. You can say, “But that is where reproduction takes place, that is where life comes from.” Maybe, but from an erotic point of view, it’s a different question.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Isn’t that something we should teach children?
CATHERINE MALABOU — Absolutely! On this point, too, Lonzi says something very interesting: “When you look at what we call sex education in our schools, it concerns only reproduction and is often limited to advice on how to avoid getting pregnant or catching AIDS in today’s world. Sexual education is not an education in pleasure.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — There is no acknowledgement of that organ.
CATHERINE MALABOU — That, too! Personally, I never heard it being talked about at school.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What impact will this recognition of the clitoris have on psychoanalysis? How can we make a new start? Because you say something quite incredible: that feminism may be for women what psychoanalysis is for men. For you, would starting from the clitoris mean having to rethink psychoanalysis?
CATHERINE MALABOU — Let’s say that if we think of psychoanalysis as an enterprise of emancipation, that the exploration of the unconscious is supposed to obviate a certain number of taboos, we may still ask whether there are certain subjects that are excluded from it, subjects that don’t seem to match the predefined criteria of that emancipation. For these subjects, we therefore need to create counter-practices of liberation, which is what Lonzi does with feminism.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And women psychoanalysts also accept this reduction?
CATHERINE MALABOU — Can the Monster Speak?: Report to an Academy of Psychoanalysts, a work by the transgender activist Paul Preciado, is based on a lecture calling for a radical overhaul of psychological and psychoanalytic discourse and practices that he presented to an assembly of psychoanalysts at the École de la Cause Freudienne’s annual conference in Paris in 2019. It caused a furor. Even today, psychoanalysts are incapable of listening when it comes to the autonomy of female sexuality, on one side, and gender issues, on the other. The theoretical structure of psychoanalysis is still dictated by the heterosexual model, even if there are, of course, one or two dissident psychoanalysts.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, the refoundation of all psychoanalytical studies is a possibility.
CATHERINE MALABOU — Well, I hope so because either it’s possible, or psychoanalysis will die. That’s very clear. Either psychoanalysis is plastic — that is to say, capable of integrating a certain number of transformations — or it dies.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I’ve never really understood the symbolic importance that Lacan gave to the phallus as master signifier.
CATHERINE MALABOU — When Simone de Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex, she went to see Lacan and said: “I’d like you to give me an interview. I’m currently writing a book about women, etc.” And Lacan brushed her off. “For me,” he said, “there is no second sex.” In other words, according to Lacan, man and woman are both oriented toward the phallus. Yes, of course, he says: “Oh, but when I talk about the phallus, it’s not the penis — it’s the signifier, that is something unconscious. It’s the master signifier. And man and woman don’t necessarily have the same relation to the phallus, but both are oriented toward this master signifier. So, don’t bother me with all your stuff about feminism and the clitoris/vagina. Besides, for me, there is no man and no woman — there are two subjects confronted with a master signifier.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — Right. And what is this master signifier? Is it the importance of language in desire?
CATHERINE MALABOU — Exactly. According to him, unlike animals, human subjects speak their sexuality at the same time as they enact it. For human beings, there cannot be love, there cannot be a sexual relationship, even with someone we don’t love, without discourse. For Lacan, discourse in the sexual is as important as the sexual itself.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Whatever the gender?
CATHERINE MALABOU — Whatever the gender. Even if it’s a sexual relationship with no emotion. We always tell ourselves some story, and that is what Lacan calls the relation to the phallus. Whatever we do, even if we have the impression we are acting like animals, etc, it is taken up by discourse, in the order of the signifier.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In light of which, couldn’t we just as well call it the “master clitoris” as the “master phallus”?
CATHERINE MALABOU — Absolutely. That’s the fundamental question that we could put to Lacan a posteriori: “Okay, you say that the phallus is not exclusive to men, that it is not the penis, but why did you choose that name, which is anything but innocent? That is completely gendered.” What is the relation of the phallus to the clitoris? That seemingly simple question opens up an abyss.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, a second set of questions in relation to current transfeminism: isn’t there a risk, in fighting for the “recognition” of the clitoris in philosophy, of reducing woman to her anatomical differences?
CATHERINE MALABOU — Well, there you touch on the heart of my problem. The whole difficulty of this book for me was defending an idea of the “feminine” that is not the same thing as “woman,” that does not imply a female “nature.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — Which is what we call “essentialism,” right?
CATHERINE MALABOU — Yes. Essentialism consists in affirming that there is an essence — that is to say, a male and female nature, which is anatomically and psychically translated into sexual difference, the binarity of male and female. A binarity that is also socially determined, which gives rise to stereotyped gender behavior.

OLIVIER ZAHM — An idea opposed by gender theory, which says that the feminine is just a construction.
CATHERINE MALABOU — A social construction.

CATHERINE MALABOU — No, but to a large extent. To a large degree, we have the bodies we make for ourselves. When transgenders have an operation in order to get a clitoris, for example, we can see that this is not necessarily an organic attribute of a woman, but that it can belong to a transitioning individual. Which means that what I’m describing is not just an anatomical reality, but also a political reality. The moment you touch on identity, you’re entering the political arena.

OLIVIER ZAHM — When it becomes possible to graft a clitoris from an old penis, in effect, you confirm that from the outset, the clitoris itself may be an antiphallic transgender political symbol.
CATHERINE MALABOU — We can even go further, if you like, and say that, in a way, some men have a clitoris. They have a way of behaving sexually, of feeling pleasure, of touching their partner, be it a man or a woman, that is not necessarily attached to the phallus, to that image of virility.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Of mandatory penetration.
CATHERINE MALABOU — Mandatory penetration, breaking into an interiority. There is, of course, a relation to women that is not about domination, possession, control, etc. I do effectively argue for the idea of the “feminine” as a space of clitoridian plasticity that generally designates another relation to sexuality and power.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In this sense, the clitoris immediately introduces an opening of possibility between the masculine and the feminine.
CATHERINE MALABOU — Between the masculine and the feminine, between the feminine and the feminine, and perhaps even between the masculine and masculine.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Which would then indicate — if we play on stereotypes, and say the feminine is passive, and the masculine is active — an indeterminacy of positions?
CATHERINE MALABOU — Since you mention the opening of possibilities, it is exactly that: an indeterminacy of positions — sexual positions, symbolic positions, political positions. An indeterminacy of positions: that is the exact term.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, the clitoris is on the side of the transgender revolution, and not an essentialist regression?
CATHERINE MALABOU — Yes, I think so. But the problem is that transgender feminism, or transfeminism, is very hard on pioneers of feminism such as Simone de Beauvoir and Luce Irigaray, who belong to what is called second-generation feminism, which is wrongly judged to be “essentialist.” What I have
tried to do in this book is to show that all feminist positions could, while not reconciled, constitute a unitary history in motion. For me, transfeminism is not a rupture, even if it’s fashionable to think of it that way.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s interesting about Preciado, whom you mentioned earlier, is that he points in your direction. He posits the idea of the de identification of the individual.
CATHERINE MALABOU — I really like Preciado’s texts. They are absolutely necessary.

OLIVIER ZAHM — He doesn’t fold his identity into the idea of transgender, either male or female. And he posits the principle that we are all in transition, that every identity is transitive. And that is quite new. It opens up a palette of possibilities that has never been articulated this clearly.
CATHERINE MALABOU — Exactly. And Paul B. Preciado is someone who, even after transitioning, remains B. for Beatriz — who, in his transitioning, does not deny his past and present femininity. It’s a very interesting position.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You mentioned Simone de Beauvoir. On a more political level, can the recognition you afford the clitoris in your book be seen as “counterpower,” a redefinition of political power relations and of power relations, in general? You conclude your book by evoking the idea of anarchy, saying that, ultimately, in political thought, the clitoris could be the symbolization of anarchy in the body.
CATHERINE MALABOU — As you know, I’m working on a book about anarchy. In fact, this little book about the clitoris was an interlude within a bigger project. Anarchism is a philosophy of absence of government, in the sense that it rejects the division between those who command and those who disobey. That is what’s interesting about anarchy, that this kind of new way of thinking about power does not deny power — because power is always with us — but refuses to articulate it with that command/obey dichotomy. In the beginning, when I was working on the clitoris, I wasn’t necessarily thinking about anarchy, and then I realized that it was precisely this new relation to power that I was trying to define sexually.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Maybe that’s where we can locate its symbolic foundation.
CATHERINE MALABOU — Yes, because some women are still phallic: they act with their clitoris as if it were a phallus. There are women of power, too. What I am trying to say in this book is that I personally don’t want that, that this new relation to power that I am trying to establish is based precisely in the body. I don’t want to dominate. Or to be dominated. There is something in me that is not governable, that does not dominate and refuses to be dominated. I thought to myself, “Hey, maybe there’s a connection between my two books.” In the end, maybe the clitoris is what inscribes anarchy in the body.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Interesting. That has never been said before.
CATHERINE MALABOU — Maybe not. [Laughs] I don’t think so, but then again, I can’t say. After all, I haven’t read everything.

OLIVIER ZAHM — On several occasions, you emphasize the fact that philosophy hasn’t taken the clitoris into account, not even Foucault, who doesn’t really mention it in his History of Sexuality. That’s really quite shocking: that he never talks about the clitoris. Yet Foucault is a key figure for your generation.
CATHERINE MALABOU — Well, he never talks about women [laughs]… Maybe you’ve noticed that? They don’t exist for him.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And Derrida?
CATHERINE MALABOU — He talks about them, but it’s a macho discourse. I tried to show that in my book Changing Difference [Changer de Difference: Le Féminin et la Question Philosophique, Galilée, 2009].

OLIVIER ZAHM — It really is incredible.
CATHERINE MALABOU — Incredible, yes, absolutely. But true.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And yet, this poststructuralist generation went to great lengths to deconstruct all these forms of power, without thinking of the clitoris in opposition to the phallus. It’s amazing because, after all, they were on the side of all the feminist movements, too.
CATHERINE MALABOU — Of course. But, you know, philosophy is a discourse of domination. You shouldn’t let yourself think otherwise. It takes a lot of work to change it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Just one more point, to conclude. How does your analysis of the overlooking of the clitoris, or your combat for its visibility, help preserve the idea of the feminine? How would we translate féminin into English, as opposed to femme?
CATHERINE MALABOU — In English, there is a play on the difference between “womanism” and “feminism.” The second is not essentialist.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And so, this “feminine,” this excess in relation to gender: can we say that it is woman’s creative potential?
CATHERINE MALABOU — It’s the creative potential of a woman who refuses domination. It is that space, that island, that seeks to insulate itself from domination. That space is, at the same time, completely exposed to violence. It is a fragility, a total exposure to violence because, at the same time, the clitoris cannot defend itself. Therefore, it’s an island in the ocean of domination, at once protected and vulnerable.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And a potential source of freedom.

OLIVIER ZAHM — A counterpower? A utopia.
CATHERINE MALABOU — A counterpower, yes!

OLIVIER ZAHM — Which, in fact, is not gendered. You could put it like that — which doesn’t belong to men or women.
CATHERINE MALABOU — An island for future beings.



[Table of contents]

The Island Issue #35

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