Psychoanalytic Concepts of Fatherhood: Patriarchal Paradoxes and the Presence of an Absent Authority

13 Jun 2019

This essay presents a critical examination of the patriarchal assumptions that have shaped psychoanalytic concepts of fatherhood since the inception of this discipline. Patriarchy is founded upon the symbolic power of the father and yet there has been a long-standing cultural silence shrouding men's parental roles and relationships in experiential terms. The subsequent tension between the symbolic presence and substantive absence of fathers is built into the heart of orthodox psychoanalytic theory, being enshrined in Freud's foundational concept of the Oedipus complex. In particular, the Oedipus complex is premised upon the father's absence from the pre-oedipal sphere, perpetuating an image of paternal authority legitimated by men's distance from, and difference to, the naturalized domain of mother-child relations. The simultaneous exaltation of paternal power and marginalization of fathers from the fabric of family life is reproduced across the central schools of psychoanalytic thought, as exemplified by the work of Klein and Lacan. At the core of this discussion is a critical analysis of key sites of silence and contradiction in Freud's account of the Oedipus complex that are attributed to the negation of paternal intimacy in early infant relationships. Most notably, the oedipal resolution is seen to lie at the source of deep psychological tensions within male and female gender identities that conform to patriarchal definitions of “normal” adult heterosexuality. In recent years, paternal absence has been problematized in theoretical, empirical, and political terms, with a weight of therapeutic observation, feminist critique, and cultural commentary beckoning a fundamental reassessment of psychoanalytic concepts of fatherhood. I argue that the corresponding turn toward more positive representations of father-child relationships signifies a radical critique of the paradoxes of patriarchy that has yet to be incorporated into psychoanalytic theory. By confronting the conceptual limits of the authority of the absent father, this discussion illuminates a theoretical vacuum within mainstream psychoanalytic thought in which to usher in more realistic conceptions of the fathering experience.