It occurred to me recently that the ‘father’ role in the Oedipus conflict, which was never intrinsically bound to actual fathers, may no longer even coincide with it very much in practice. It may be that, as in so many other areas, the mass society, the media, the public, the peer group, has taken over from specific family roles – or rather, has started to play those roles more directly, rather than indirectly through the mediation of those family roles.
For those who forget the essential dynamics of the Oedipus conflict, the idea is pretty much this: the child’s father holds a position of power that inspires both resentment and the fear that requires that resentment to be suppressed. The conflict between resentment/rebelliousness and fear/submissiveness is resolved, in male children, by the child coming to identify with the father, a sort of ‘social contract’ whereby the child makes peace with paternal authority and in exchange is permitted access to the social world that the father possesses.
Crucially, the power that’s involved is not just brute strength but the social power of access to the shared cultural world – the mingled power-knowledge of knowing how things are done, what things are appropriate, what is admirable and what is contemptible, how to be respected, what’s cricket and what’s not cricket, etc. It is in sense personhood itself, recognised as such by others. This is why there’s so much talk of ‘castration’: in an explicitly sexist society, having a penis is recognised-by-society-as equivalent to being a real person, which is as much as to say that having a penis is being-recognised-by-society-as-a-real-person. Which is what the father has and what the child must preserve and develop.
So that’s Oedipus. The thing is, this analysis was written about a century ago and a lot has changed. For a start, sexism is much less explicit now. For another thing, familial authority has weakened a lot.