PRINT January 1993


the New Penile Code

YOU CAN HARDLY OPEN a magazine or newspaper these days without getting smacked in the face by a penis, or some facsimile thereof. Most prominent is white rapper Marky Mark massaging his wad for Calvin Klein: if you live in a big city, you’ll see him not only, in the pages of Vanity Fair and Interview but on the sizeable illuminated walls of your neighborhood bus stop. Mark’s crotch-clutching style (an appropriation from his black rapper forebrothers, the vanguard of fuck-you, he-man performance art) has been spreading like wildfire, appearing everywhere from the fashion pages of Harper’s Bazaar to the narrow pathways of Wall Street. His new book, Marky Mark, is dedicated “to my dick.” In the Year of the Woman, the Primacy of the Penis would not be ignored.

Thinking back, you could see it coming. First Robert Mapplethorpe, repackaging porn, unsheathed the penis and reconstituted it as signifier/design element, an exemplary item of display. Not for him Sylvia Plath’s put-down of the male genitals as resembling nothing so much as the gizzards of a turkey. Then Bruce Weber went Mapplethorpe one better. Although he had to re-cover the penis with the fine knit of white designer undies, Weber’s 1982 Calvin Klein ad of a well-hung Olympic pole-vaulter-turned-model left no doubt that the penis was staking a place in the mass-market sun.

Of course, all of this has to an extent remained merely the high jinks of art snobs and the fashion elite (though trickle-down outrage has always been more effective than its economic counterpart). The phallus, which, as Jacques Lacan says, “can only play its role as veiled,” has managed to retain its magisterial preeminence. Let the penis be unsheathed by homosexual shooters, advertising esthetes, and baby-pussed pop stars. The phallus has retained its dignified cloak (and iron fist) of gray pinstripe and white skin.

Perhaps there is a plan at work: the phallocracy may have used the penis as a decoy, ushering it into the spotlight in order to maintain its own exclusive privilege. It is the basis of phallocratic politics that the phallus speaks but must never be seen. The phallic order isn’t going to take it all off without a fight. Even the preening Arnold Schwarzenegger is said to have contemplated filing criminal charges over Spy’s full-frontal shot of him, which unveiled his gratifyingly ample endowments. This fleshy revelation apparently sullied his supremacy as Phallic Poseur.

The wild card in any challenge to phallocratic rule is the confounding, unmanageable Madonna. In her role as phallic woman, parading in her vestments of masquerade, Madonna was initially an acceptable affront to bourgeois propriety. But she became increasingly and graphically demanding about the needs and perquisites of what was between her legs. Madonna has made it clear that the penis is at her beck and call, and with her trademark crotch-clasp she has proclaimed the power of what is supposed to be an absence. In her hands, the phallic order has come hilariously unhinged, finding itself reduced to no more than a plethora of penises. So deftly has Madonna co-opted the phallic position for herself that her critics are left with little ammunition to shoot her down; accusations of inferior singing and inadequate dancing are the best they can do.

The use of “phallus” and “penis” as if they were interchangeable flies in the face of Lacanian belief in the concept of a numinous phallus. Jane Gallop quotes analyst Serge Leclaire to the effect that “there exists neither image nor text of the phallus.” Which means that no representation of a mere penis will cause any problems for the phallic order. Along with Gallop, however, we can ask whether a definitive split between penis and phallus is not only possible but theoretically or politically desirable. Marky Mark and his ilk might thrill to the notion of the transcendent, godlike phallus. But the demonstrably worldly penis has so far proved plenty potent enough.

Carol Squiers is a writer and curator who lives in New York. She is senior editor at American Photo and contributes regularly to Artforum.