Jordan Osserman, "Circumcision on the Couch: The Cultural, Psychological, and Gendered Dimensions of the World's Oldest Surgery" (Bloomsbury, 2022)


It is not terribly controversial to say that castration fear is one of the key conceptual engines driving the psychoanalytic project overall. Whether one thinks of it manifesting as a looming, retributive threat for incestuous longings or as a struggle to face one’s shortcomings, contending with what we are at risk of losing or what has already gone missing animates both the field and the consulting room. Imagine the profession if it didn’t contend with this subject: without castration we would have neither Oedipal conflict nor a theory of repression. As such, it is noteworthy to consider the paucity of writing about circumcision in psychoanalysis, especially when you remember that circumcision and castration both involve cutting male genitalia. And before you protest that a penis is not a testicle, it should not come as a surprise that in the unconscious the bits and bobs of male genitalia might not be represented as separately as they are in medical discourse—in the unconscious sometimes a penis is a scrotal sac and sometimes the balls include the dick.

Jordan Osserman’s  Circumcision on the Couch: The Cultural, Psychological, and Gendered Dimensions of the World's Oldest Surgery (Bloomsbury, 2022), approaches the subject of penile cutting née circumcision from myriad angles. It represents the pining of contemporary “intactivists” in search of lost foreskins and lost chances as both poignant if not also politically pregnant with neoliberal meaning. It fleshes out the pondering of St. Paul (of “love thy neighbor as thyself’ fame) on the importance of the unimportance of circumcision. It illuminates the ways in which what appears to be a fear of childhood sexuality run amok also belies a prurient interest in it. The discussion of 19th century American medicine’s invention of reflex theory, which employed circumcision to cure boys’ perceived ailments, investigates a mode of thinking that will be familiar to readers of feminist medical history of the same period. The removal of the foreskin and the removal of the uterus share a close, perhaps twinned, relationship.

Osserman has written a book that invites the reader to see circumcision as a rite, experience, discourse and practice that offers itself up to unabashedly efflorescent and ambivalent readings. Is a penis without a foreskin more masculine because it lacks a flowery covering— think of tulip petals or better yet pansies strewn on the roadside? Or is a penis without a foreskin a tad castrated, having been bloodied, (and a tad envious—sorry Alice Cooper but not only women bleed) and so ultimately feminized? We are encouraged to wonder what might keep this practice—the world’s oldest surgery—in seemingly perpetual, if at times contested, circulation? What are the unconscious roots of the wish to cut penises anyway?

I found myself a little surprised at how little I or others I know have given thought to the beautifully irrational reasons that underlie a surgical practice (performed the world over and without any singular religious allegiance as it ends up) laden with meaning and yet not medically necessary. What has given it such staying power? What unconscious conflicts might circumcision sate, if not actually resolve? In trying to answer these questions, I find myself asking if there is any relationship between circumcision and Freud’s idea that the repudiation of femininity functions as a kind of bedrock? What is bedrock is challenging to crack open (intellectually, philosophically) precisely because it is foundational. It is the ground upon which we stand. We fear fucking with it.

In a precisely bedrock-like fashion, circumcision is hard to keep in focus. Questioning its existence, its whys and wherefores, can lead us into the same cul de sac shared by that old chestnut of a question, “what does woman want”? Is this practice of penile cutting an unconscious attempt to soften the searing pain of sexual difference that haunts us all very powerfully always, and also very much so now? What keeps us cutting male genitalia sans a lot of thought anyway?

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Tracy Morgan

Tracy D. Morgan: Psychoanalyst, LCSW-R, M.Phil., Editor, New Books in Psychoanalysis.

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