Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Luce Irigaray 1930-

Belgian-born French critic, philosopher, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Irigaray's career through 2000.

A noted psychoanalyst and influential linguist whose writings have been largely co-opted by feminist literary critics, Irigaray is best known for her critique of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theories in such groundbreaking works as Speculum de l'autre femme (1974; Speculum of the Other Woman) and Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un (1977; This Sex Which Is Not One). The most famous dimension of Irigaray's thought exploits the contradictions and gendered assumptions in the work of both Freud and his colleague, Jacques Lacan. Using a deconstructive approach, Irigaray has advanced psychoanalytic theory by focusing on the ways that language and culture position men and women differently during the oedipal stage of human development when subjectivity is formed and language is acquired.

Biographical Information

Born in Belgium, Irigaray earned a postsecondary degree in philosophy and literature from the University of Louvain in 1954. She wrote her graduate thesis on the French poet Paul Valéry in preparation for a career as a secondary school teacher. Between 1956 and 1959, Irigaray taught high school in Brussels before she entered the University of Paris in 1961, earning a diploma in psychopathology. After graduating, she briefly returned to Belgium and took a position with the Fondation Nationale de la Recherce Scientifique (FNRS), a scientific research center. Irigaray worked for the FNRS until 1964 when she transferred to a similar agency in Paris, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), where she has worked since, accepting an appointment as their director of research in philosophy in 1982. During this period, Irigaray pursued a doctorate degree in linguistics at the University of Paris at Nanterre, completing her studies in 1968. Her thesis analyzed the syntactic structures of the language used by schizophrenics and other mentally unstable patients and was later published as Le Langage des déments (1973). Between 1969 and 1974, Irigaray taught at the University of Paris at Vincennes where she was affiliated with the Ecole freudienne de Paris. At the same time, she was participating in the women's liberation movement in France, as she prepared her thesis for another doctorate degree in psychoanalysis. Irigaray's thesis, which later became Speculum of the Other Woman, ignited a firestorm of controversy due to its infusion of gender politics into mainstream psychoanalytic theory. Consequently, the Ecole freudienne expelled Irigaray and terminated her teaching position. Irigaray, however, continued her own psychoanalytic practice and has since accepted a host of visiting professorships at universities in Europe and North America. In addition, Irigaray has continued to write in a variety of academic disciplines, including feminist studies, linguistics, and psychoanalysis.

Major Works

Written in a complexly dense prose style that exploits her expertise in several fields, Irigaray's works can initially confuse readers unaccustomed to neologisms, theoretical constructions, and specialized metaphors and allusions. However, Irigaray's complicated methodology, derived from French feminist revisions of classical and Continental philosophy, speaks to her overarching thesis that the deconstruction of language is necessary to establish a female counterpart to conventional psychoanalytic theories. To that end, Speculum of the Other Woman critiques Freudian and Lacanian theories about identity formation in female subjects, which are predicated on masculine norms of development. Although the text subverts the typical patriarchal representations of women, Irigaray does not “privilege” the cultural signification of her “lips” metaphor with respect to female identity formation, as Freud and Lacan do with their “phallus” metaphor. Clarifying the details in and expanding upon the thesis of Speculum, This Sex Which Is Not One explores the relationship between language and sexuality, suggesting that women use unique syntactic structures, independent of phallocentric binary oppositions in the production of meaning. The essays in this collection examine such issues as power relations mediated by gendered social discourse, the difficulties feminist politics face in phallocratic society, and the connections between models of semiotic exchange and economic exchange. These topics inform much of Irigaray's subsequent work, including Éthique de la différence sexuelle (1983; An Ethics of Sexual Difference) which investigates the masculine biases of discursive rhetoric, and Parler n'est jamais neutre (1985; To Speak Is Never Neutral) which argues that gendered subjectivity and social context influence linguistic forms and usage. Sexes et parentés (1987; Sexes and Genealogies) restates the model for female subjectivity that Irigaray proposed in Speculum as a question of transference rather than of desire, particularly its effects on relations between women that results in either intolerance of other women or abject silence. Beginning with Le Temps de la différence: pour une revolution pacifique (1989; Thinking the Difference: For a Peaceful Revolution) and Je, tu, nous: pour une culture de la différence (1990; Je, Tu, Nous: Toward a Culture of Difference), Irigaray's works increasingly analyze the contingent basis between systems of representation and the hierarchical interests of the social order that construct and institute them. These works include J'aime à toi: esquisse d'une félicité dans l'histoire (1992; I Love to You: Sketch for a Happiness within History), Le souffle des femmes (1996), and Entre Orient et Occident: De la singularité à la communauté (1999).

Critical Reception

Deemed one of the most difficult of French feminists for the complexities of her prose style, Irigaray has often been compared to Hèléne Cixous, Simone de Beauvior, and Julia Kristeva for her adaptations of psychoanalytic theories to foment feminism that stresses “difference.” German and Italian feminists have embraced Irigaray's desire to establish an écriture au feminine (“woman's language”), but radical French feminists have denounced Irigaray for advocating ideas that perpetuate patriarchal oppression. These critics have argued that Irigaray's concept of “woman” originates and is constructed from an already established masculine discourse rather than prior to its constitution. In the English-speaking world, scholars have been hampered by slow translations of Irigaray's works, which have resulted in opinions based on brief texts isolated from the context of her entire oeuvre. Consequently, much Anglo-American criticism has centered on debates surrounding whether Irigaray's concept of “woman” is a “construct” (nonessential) or an a priori being (essential). While many critics have traced the influence of philosophers Martin Heidegger, Emmanuel Lévinas, Jacques Derrida, and Emile Benveniste in Irigaray's writings, they also have noted Irigaray's tendency to “rewrite” their ideas to suit her own purposes. Literary scholars have favored the deconstructive approach of her early works to the progressive approach of her later works. With the increasing availability of translations of her works, full-length studies on Irigaray have begun to appear since the early 1990s. Although the debate about a feminine “essence” has continued, particularly over the psycho-symbolic implications of Irigaray's images of the female body, several critics have started to examine other aspects of Irigaray's thought, including the relation of woman to ideas of divinity, the reconstruction of gender relations to improve society, and other modes of communication outside masculine linguistic patterns.