PRINT April 1995


Teresa de Lauretis’ The Practice of Love

Teresa de Lauretis, The Practice of Love: Lesbian Sexuality and Perverse Desire (Bloomington and Indianapolis: University of Indiana Press, 1994), 352 pages.

DONOVAN LEITCH. LET HIM TWINKLE for a moment. Slim darling of so many, famous for being rather than doing, since most are confused about what, actually, he does. (Something with fame.) Not Donovan Leitch in a bathtub shaving a muscle boy—he’s never “had a relationship with a man ” (whatever that means)—but Donovan Leitch, who’s “never been macho,” swishing little glitter bug, Donovan Leitch, “so turned on and enraptured by women,” saying: “Maybe I’m a lesbian.”

Teresa de Lauretis would not be amused by Donovan Leitch (she’s not amused by much), certainly not by that remark coming from anyone like him. The “lure of the mannish lesbian”? Sure. The lesbian man? I don’t think so. In The Practice of Love, de Lauretis provides insights into the complicated psychodynamics of what has come to be thought of as the lesbian, but it is very difficult to keep reading to find them. Toward the end of her book, even she confesses that her argument has been “advanced in a somewhat tortuous and discontinuous manner.” De Lauretis repeatedly calls this heavy theoretical tome “a passionate fiction,” which is a bit like calling Lacan’s Feminine Sexuality a caprice. Hard hard hard, but not quite shapely or exciting enough to be a dildo, not pleasurable. Never has discourse about lesbian and perverse desire been so devaginized: as if fun, as if the sexy ordinary of the everyday, were not theoretical, muff is never mentioned; fuck, never mentioned; fist-fucked, never; clit-lick, never; pussy, never.

De Lauretis’ project is to demonstrate “how lesbian homosexuality, subjectivity and desire are not similar to heterosexual female sexuality, subjectivity, and desire”: “they are not similar precisely in that they are organized in a different relation to the phallus, and to the penis.” As she explains: “lesbian desire is not the identification with another woman’s desire, but the desire for her desire as signified in her fetish and the fantasy scenario it evokes. What one desires is her lover’s perverse desire; her fetish, in which her castration or lack of being is both acknowledged and denied, also mediates the other’s fantasmatic access to her originally lost body.”

There is much to say about the lesbian fetish: “If the lesbian fetishes are often, though certainly not exclusively, objects or signs with connotations of masculinity, it is not because they stand in for the missing penis but because such signs are most strongly precoded to convey, both to the subject and to others, the cultural meaning of sexual (genital) activity and yearning toward women.” Although de Lauretis thoroughly investigates those “connotations of masculinity,” she does not illuminate the mystery of the femme, that “‘womanly woman.’” Baby doll, isn’t it high time for the femme to be the spotlit star?

De Lauretis insists that “it takes two women, not one to make a lesbian.” There is much to say for the pith of such a maxim, which snaps a retort to someone like Donovan Leitch proffering “Maybe I’m a lesbian.” Much to say, yes, but there are also innumerable bodies lost in just such a theoretical calculation (why not three?): those liminal bodies of the autoerotic (the staunch spinster, etc.); the “Mrs.” of a mariage blanc; those bodies for whose yearnings there are few words but for whom one salubrious word may be lesbian. Someone should consider the lesbian maybe—a frontier pointed to by, among other things, the glitter of Donovan Leitch’s ambiguous irresponsibility.

Something haunts this book, which is bracketed by the scars of what it is not allowed to be. In her preface, de Lauretis admits that “I shall endeavor to remind the reader, as discreetly as it can be done without offense to critical and stylistic conventions, that my theoretical speculations and my reading of the texts follow the yellow brick road of my own fantasies, the less-than-royal road of my personal or experiential history,” and, not many pages from her book’s close, that “it is only by generic and rhetorical conventions that this book does not read like an autobiography.” Whose conventions are these? Who enforces them? Why not give “offense to critical and stylistic conventions”? Why not pervert genre and rhetoric? These conventions need to be tucked with by the lesbian: it is a serious critical and theoretical task to do so. Heeding such conventions, being so discreet, de Lauretis phantasmatically enacts much of what she critiques in her book.

Bruce Hainley contributes regularly to Artforum.