They twisted ‘The Phallus’

JEFFREY TOBIN is an associate professor in Occidental College's department of critical theory and social justice.

MY 15 MINUTES of fame can be measured by Googling “phallus” and “phallologocentrism” together. As of Jan. 10, all 30 entries on the first three pages of results mention a course I am about to teach at Occidental College. The course is titled “The Phallus” and includes an exploration of what philosophers mean by the word “phallologocentrism.”

My course’s notoriety owes much to the Young America’s Foundation, which named “The Phallus” No. 1 on its annual “Dirty Dozen” list of “America’s most bizarre and politically correct college courses,” and to Charlotte Allen, who in these pages last week used my course as a cudgel to beat up my college for “offering trendy theories of gender, skin color and white-male oppression at the expense of actual academic content.”

I knew when I designed my course that its title and short description would be provocative -- and I also knew that it was an important course because the phallus is a key concept in psychoanalysis, and psychoanalysis has had a tremendous effect on how we think about gender and sexuality. Whether scholars agree or disagree with Sigmund Freud, they have to understand him. Briefly stated, the phallus is not a feature of male anatomy.


According to Freud, girls as well as boys pass through a phallic stage, at which point their gender identity is established. For French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the phallus is a symbol of power and privilege that is associated with patriarchal authority but which no individual man, or woman, ever fully embodies. Not only can a cigar be a phallic symbol -- so can wealth, a father’s voice, a ballerina and a trophy wife. According to Lacan, the phallus is something men try to have and women try to be.

Most of my critics scoff at my use of “phallologocentrism,” a word they dismiss as nonsensical jargon. They also are outraged at the idea that my students will study the Jewish phallus and the Latino phallus. But their imagination runs wild. Because the phallus is not anatomical, my class will not be comparing the genitalia of men belonging to different ethnic groups or cultures. Rather, we will study how masculinity varies from culture to culture.

Both the Young America’s Foundation and Allen contend that my course and the others on the “Dirty Dozen” list use up resources that would be better spent on teaching students “economics, American history and the role of government in a society” or “about the ideas and people and movements that created the civilization in which they live: who Plato was or what happened at Appomattox.”

In other words, economics, American history, political science and ancient Greek philosophy count as academic content while courses on the phallus, blackness, queerness and anything that smacks of feminism do not. I wonder, though, if all of Plato’s dialogues are equally academic.

Plato’s “Republic” is obviously academic because it deals with “the role of government in a society.” But what about Plato’s “Symposium,” which deals with theories of gender and sexuality? Is it appropriate to devote valuable class time to a text in which men sit around drinking and discussing eroticism?

Perhaps the “Symposium” is academic because its theories are ancient as opposed to trendy. Freud’s texts, of course, are not nearly as old as Plato’s, but they are older than Milton Friedman’s and Jeane Kirkpatrick’s, whose words the Young America’s Foundation has said are worthy of instruction. And who doubts that Freud’s ideas belong on a list of the those “that created the civilization in which [students] live”?

What, then, separates courses that have “actual academic content” from those that do not? If only we had a word that would help us grasp the distinction. We have the great books and battles of Western civilization on one side. We have feminism, queer theory, critical race theory and other theories meant to explain white-male oppression on the other.

Wait. There is a word that refers to the belief that only the “great books” should be taught, and that military history, diplomacy and other manly topics are academic, while the history of gender, sexuality and other unmanly topics are not. It’s on the tip of my tongue. The word is phallologocentrism.