The Significance of the Phallus

What do we know of Oedipus? We know he was a tragic hero in Greek mythology. We know he unavoidably fulfilled a prophecy that brought him to kill his father and marry his mother, eventually bringing destruction to his city and family. We also know that Freud used the myth of Oedipus to convey some very deep truths about the underlying structure of the psyche.

But what do we know of Oedipus and the phallus? In Greek mythology, not much. In Freud, quite a lot. For in the Oedipus complex the phallus plays a central role in what Freud calls the “phallic stage” of psychosexual development. In this stage, children of both sexes are predisposed with questions revolving the possession of the phallus. In this stage children firstly discovers that their mother doesn’t have a phallus, raising several concerns as to their own impending or prior castration.


Tyrone Guthrie’s production of Oedipus Rex

According to Freud, the phallus functions as the biological marker of the duality of the sexes. He equates the phallus to the actual male organ we all know as the penis, and claims that it is the actual encounter with its presence or absence that has great repercussions on the child’s psychical development.

In his reformulation of the Oedipus complex, Lacan adopts Freud’s notion of the centrality of the role of the phallus in the course of the child’s development. Nevertheless, unlike Freud, Lacan does not strictly equate the phallus to the male organ, but claims that it is in fact a signifier. More specifically, Lacan argues that the phallus is the signifier of lack – something that sticks-out, and stands-in the place of a lack in the psyche.

Drifting a bit from the original coordinates of the Oedipal myth, Lacan divides it into three instances in which the phallus is situated as the signifier of lack in the place of its three starring figures – yes, you’ve guessed it – the mother, the child and the father. Interestingly enough, each of these instances corresponds with Lacan’s account of the three registers of the psyche – the real, imaginary and symbolic.

The Real Lack of the Penis:

Lacan’s version of the Oedipal myth begins with the sudden introduction of the most initial lack in the history of the child. Let us imagine a hypothesised state (preceding the Oedipus complex) in which all of the child’s instinctual needs (hunger for example) are satisfied at the exact moment they are engendered. The Oedipus complex beings at the moment where one of these needs is not satisfied, introducing a lack where there was once constant satisfaction. According to Lacan, this primordial lack, situated on the level of the instinct, can be considered to be the first designation of the phallus in the course of child’s psychical development. Lacan names this exact manifestation of the phallus the real phallus, and situates it in the place of the mother (the figure of the mOther which takes care of the child). According to Lacan, it is the real lack of the phallus in the place of the mother which is a necessary condition for the initial division between the child and the mOther and the beginning of the Oedipus complex. It marks a gap where there was once continuity, enabling the apprehension of the interior and exterior of the psyche.

The Imaginary Lack of the Real Phallus:

Once divided, the distancing from the mother becomes a source of a great frustration for the child. As it expands, it accentuates a part in the mother which does not directly correspond with the child’s needs – a part which is not given to the child, but given to someone else. Therefore, at this stage of the Oedipus complex, the child is very much preoccupied with it, trying to retake its place as the soul object of her desire. In order to be that object for the mother, the child constructs a montage of images corresponding with whatever he deems as desirable for the mother beyond itself. Lacan would call this montage, or Gestalt, the imaginary phallus. The child then goes on to feverishly attempts to identify with the imaginary phallus, to wholly assume its image on itself. This stage in the Oedipus complex could be associated with the classical Freudian interpretation in which the child is in love with the mother, and by aggressively identifying with the father, attempts to take his place as the one receiving that part of the mother which is not given to it.

The Symbolic Lack of the Imaginary Phallus:

Nevertheless, according to Freud, one of the main points of the Oedipus complex is the prohibition of incest. Meaning, the Oedipus myth is all about fate, about a prophecy that cannot be undone. In Freud this fate is the fate of the phallus, of lack, of a part of reality which is initially cut out and can never be regained. Accordingly, in Lacan’s reinterpretation of the Oedipus complex the child’s attempts to correspond with the real lack of the phallus in the mother through his identification with the imaginary phallus inevitably fail. The realisation of this failure brings about the third and last shift in the position of the phallus in the Oedipus complex to the place of the father. The child, now situating the phallus in the place of the father (“So he’s getting what I wanted all that time… and there’s no way around it…”), realises that its narcissistic identification with the imaginary phallus is not going to cut it. Moreover, the child realises that its real phallus (weather it has one or not) cannot compensate for that as well. Accordingly, the child goes on to identify with the position of the father as the bearer of the phallusAt this stage it is not the child’s attempt to be the imaginary phallus which is at stake, but the child’s identification with the symbolic authoritative standpoint of the father as the one that has it – as the bearer of the symbolic phallus. The identification with the symbolic aspect of the phallus bestows on the child access to a dimension of psychical reality which exceeds the real lack of the organ, and its imaginary signification. This reality, according to Lacan, is symbolic reality, rooted in language and the knowledge it provides for deciphering ones sexuated position in the Oedipus complex and ones own role in society. It’s the end of this story, but the beginning of a whole new story – that of neurosis.


To summarise briefly, Lacan argues that the phallus cannot be strictly identified with the real organ (the penis), nor with its biological role in copulation, or with its turgidity and the image of the vital flow. Rather, Lacan claims that the phallus is a shifting signifier representing lack in the three registers of psyche; A signifier whose function is to give the child access to intersubjective symbolic reality which exceeds the narcissistic fantasy of the child as the sole object of the mother’s desire, as well as the solipsistic existence of a being so complete it has never been touched by lack.

Accordingly we see that Lacan provides us with a refreshing take on Freud’s well known claim that “anatomy is destiny”. For the phallus punctures our existence weather we want it or not. It stands-in the place where lack sticks-out in the psyche, eventually prompting a destiny from which we certainly have no escape.