Luce Irigaray Essay - Critical Essays

Irigaray, Luce


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.

Principal Works

Le Langage des déments (nonfiction) 1973

Speculum de l'autre femme [Speculum of the Other Woman] (criticism) 1974

*Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un [This Sex Which Is Not One] (criticism) 1977

Et l'une ne bouge pas sans l'autre [And the One Doesn't Stir without the Other] 1979 (nonfiction)

Amante marine de Friedrich Nietzsche [Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche] (criticism) 1980

Le Corps-à-corps avec la mère (nonfiction) 1981

Passions élémentaires [Elemental Passions] (philosophy) 1982

Éthique de la différence sexuelle [An Ethics of Sexual Difference] (criticism) 1983

La Croyance même (criticism) 1983

L'Oubli de l'air: Chez Martin Heidegger [The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger] (philosophy) 1983

Parler n'est jamais neutre [To Speak Is Never Neutral] (criticism) 1985

Una probabilita de divere: Limite al concetto di neutro e universale nelle scienza e nelle tecnologie (philosophy) 1986

Sexes et parentés [Sexes and Genealogies] (criticism) 1987

Le Temps de la différence: pour une revolution pacifique [Thinking the Difference: For a Peaceful Revolution] (philosophy) 1989

Je, tu, nous: pour une culture de la différence [Je, Tu, Nous: Toward a Culture of Difference] (criticism) 1990

The Irigaray Reader [edited by Margaret Whitford] (essays) 1991

§J'aime à toi: esquisse d'une félicité dans l'histoire [I Love to You: Sketch for a Happiness within History] (criticism) 1992

La democrazia cominicia a due [Democracy Begins with Two] (criticism) 1994

Le souffle des femmes (criticism) 1996

Être deux [Being Two] (philosophy) 1997

Entre Orient et Occident: De la singularité à la communauté (criticism) 1999

*In addition to the title essay, this work comprises the essays “The Mirror, from the Other Side,” “Così fan tutti,” “Women on the Market,” “Commodities among Themselves,” “Questions,” “The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine,” and “When Our Lips Speak Together.”

†This work contains the essays “The Fecundity of the Caress,” “Sexual Difference,” and “Sorcerer Love: A Reading of Plato's Symposium, Diotima's Speech.”

‡This work contains the essay “La Limite du Transfert.”

§This work has also been published as I Love to You: Sketch of a Possible Felicity in History.


Carolyn Burke (essay date summer 1981)

SOURCE: Burke, Carolyn. “Irigaray through the Looking Glass.” Feminist Studies 7, no. 2 (summer 1981): 288-306.

[In the following essay, Burke discusses Irigaray's early works in the context of Lacanian and Derridean thought, examining how Irigaray's writing functions and whether it meets its own criteria.]

It is no longer possible to go looking for woman, or for woman's feminity or for female sexuality. At least, they can not be found by means of any familiar mode of thought or knowledge—even if it is impossible to stop looking for them.

Jacques Derrida, Spurs/Eperons

Luce Irigaray...

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Hélène Vivienne Wenzel (essay date autumn 1981)

SOURCE: Wenzel, Hélène Vivienne. “Introduction to Luce Irigaray's ‘And the One Doesn't Stir without the Other.’” Signs 7, no. 1 (autumn 1981): 56-9.

[In the following essay, Wenzel outlines Irigaray's feminist revision of psychoanalytic theories concerning the mother-daughter relationship in “And the One Doesn't Stir without the Other.”]

When I speak of the relationship to the mother, I want to say that, in our patriarchal culture, the daughter may absolutely not determine her relationship to her mother. Nor the woman her relationship to maternity, unless it is to reduce herself to it.1


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Christine Holmlund (essay date summer 1991)

SOURCE: Holmlund, Christine. “The Lesbian, the Mother, the Heterosexual Lover: Irigaray's Recodings of Difference.” Feminist Studies 17, no. 2 (summer 1991): 283-308.

[In the following essay, Holmlund surveys Irigaray's oeuvre and its critical reception, identifying three central tropes that inform her criticism and the political/literary implications of these devices in the evolution of her thought.]

To North American feminists encountering Luce Irigaray for the first time, several of the themes underlying her wide-ranging theoretical and empirical investigations will seem familiar: (1) her overt, uncompromising challenge to male systems of thought; (2) her...

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Ofelia Schutte (essay date summer 1991)

SOURCE: Schutte, Ofelia. “Irigaray on the Problem of Subjectivity.1Hypatia 6, no. 2 (summer 1991): 64-76.

[In the following essay, Schutte analyzes the critique of female identity formation in Speculum of the Other Woman, examining Irigaray's claims of phallocentric biases in psychoanalysis.]

“My sex is removed, at least as the property of a subject, from the predicative mechanism that assures discursive coherence,” states Luce Irigaray in defense of her unconventional critique of the logic of identity and the subject undertaken in her study Speculum of the Other Woman.2 Her defiance of the “master discourse” of...

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Maggie Berg (essay date autumn 1991)

SOURCE: Berg, Maggie. “Luce Irigaray's ‘Contradictions’: Poststructuralism and Feminism.” Signs 17, no. 1 (autumn 1991): 50-70.

[In the following essay, Berg proposes an ironic reading of “When Our Lips Speak Together,” situating Irigaray's “lips” metaphor as a counterpart to Lacan's “phallus” metaphor.]

The work of Luce Irigaray is regarded by many feminists as riven with contradictions: she is a poststructuralist and a Lacanian insofar as she believes that the subject is a discursive construct, making identity unstable; but, in order to rescue women from what she sees as the repressive effects of phallocentrism, she apparently proposes an...

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Margaret Whitford (essay date fall 1991)

SOURCE: Whitford, Margaret. “Irigaray's Body Symbolic.” Hypatia 6, no. 3 (fall 1991): 97-110.

[In the following essay, Whitford deals with the symbolic implications of Irigaray's images of the female body in To Speak Is Never Neutral and This Sex Which Is Not One.]

There is a real, and probably at the moment irresolvable, tension in feminist thought between the need to create positive images of women, and the arguable impossibility of producing images which are not immediately recaptured, or recapturable, by the dominant imaginary and symbolic economy in which woman figures for-man. Roszika Parker points out that:


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James Robert Quick (essay date fall 1992)

SOURCE: Quick, James Robert. “Pronom ‘She’: Luce Irigaray's Fluid Dynamics.” Philosophy Today 36, no. 3 (fall 1992): 199-209.

[In the following essay, Quick analyzes Irigaray's philosophical construction of female subjectivity, emphasizing the “fluidity” of femininity.]

The Department of Psychoanalysis at the University of Paris (Vincennes) demands Luce Irigaray's submission to a question: “What do you propose to do in your teaching?”1 Without confining the fluid discourse within which she stages her responses—for they are not one—this essay will chart the flow of Irigaray's articulation of a “Subject” with and...

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Lynda Haas (review date fall 1993)

SOURCE: Haas, Lynda. “Of Waters and Women: The Philosophy of Luce Irigaray.” Hypatia 8, no. 4 (fall 1993): 150-59.

[In the following review, Haas examines Irigaray's thought in Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche and The Irigaray Reader, focusing on her contributions to philosophy.]

“Let [people] take what they will out of my books. I don't think that my work can be better understood because I've done this or that” (Irigaray 1991, 1). Even though feminist scholars from many perspectives have discussed her work, the writing of Luce Irigaray remains somewhat elusive. Of course, in English we lack the benefit of Irigaray's full career, since the...

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Luce Irigaray, Elizabeth Hirsh, and Gary A. Olson (interview date May 1994)

SOURCE: Irigaray, Luce, Elizabeth Hirsch, and Gary A. Olson. “‘Je—Luce Irigaray’: A Meeting with Luce Irigaray.” Hypatia 10, no. 2 (spring 1995): 93-114.

[In the following interview, originally conducted in May 1994, Irigaray discusses the specificity of her own practice as a writer, her relationship with psychoanalytic theory, and her relationship to traditional Western philosophy.]

The authors conducted this interview with Luce Irigaray in her home in Paris in May, 1994.


Trained in linguistics, literature, and psychoanalysis, Luce Irigaray nonetheless insists...

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Penelope Deutscher (essay date fall 1994)

SOURCE: Deutscher, Penelope. “‘The Only Diabolical Thing about Women …’: Luce Irigaray on Divinity.” Hypatia 9, no. 4 (fall 1994): 88-111.

[In the following essay, Deutscher analyzes the cultural and philosophical significance of Irigaray's feminist reconceptualization of divinity in Sexes and Genealogies and An Ethics of Sexual Difference.]

The only diabolical thing about women is their lack of a God and the fact that, deprived of God, they are forced to comply with models that do not match them, that exile, double, mask them, cut them off from themselves and from one another, stripping away their ability to move forward into love,...

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Naomi Schor (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Schor, Naomi. “This Essentialism Which Is Not One: Coming to Grips with Irigaray.” In Engaging with Irigaray: Feminist Philosophy and Modern European Thought, edited by Carolyn Burke, Naomi Schor, and Margaret Whitford, pp. 57-78. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Schor considers contemporary critiques of essentialism, comparing the opposing thought of Simone de Beauvoir and Irigaray.]

As Jacques Derrida pointed out several years ago, in the institutional model of the university elaborated in Germany at the beginning of the nineteenth century no provision was made, no space allocated for the discipline of women's...

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Penelope Deutscher (review date spring 1998)

SOURCE: Deutscher, Penelope. Review of I Love to You: Sketch for a Happiness within History, by Luce Irigaray. Hypatia 13, no. 2 (spring 1998): 170-74.

[In the following review, Deutscher contends that Irigaray's later work—including I Love to You: Sketch for a Happiness within History—is less sophisticated than her earlier efforts, which many critics preferred for its deconstructive rather than progressive perspectives.]

In her introduction to Engaging with Irigaray, Naomi Schor reminds readers of the well-known story of Irigaray and her critics, beginning with the large numbers who adopted positions resolutely pro and con based only on...

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Richard Dellamora (essay date winter 2000)

SOURCE: Dellamora, Richard. “Apocalyptic Irigaray.” Twentieth Century Literature 46, no. 4 (winter 2000): 492-512.

[In the following essay, Dellamora analyzes apocalyptic rhetoric in Irigaray, comparing her vision of gender relations with that of poststructuralists Emmanuel Lévinas and Michel Foucault.]

“The Book of Life begins with a man and a woman in a garden. It ends with Revelations” (94). These sentences comprise one of Oscar Wilde's best known epigrams. The first suggests that, in the book of nature and Western culture, life originates in the male-female dyad. The second suggests that the end of life is apocalyptic in one of two ways. Topically,...

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Further Reading


Chanter, Tina. Ethics of Eros: Irigaray's Re-writing of the Philosophers. New York, NY: Routledge, 1995, 345 p.

Chanter offers an analysis of the ways that Irigaray has been influenced by other philosophers and the methods she has used to rework their ideas regarding gender relations.

Colebrook, Claire. “Feminist Philosophy and the Philosophy of Feminism: Irigaray and the History of Western Metaphysics.” Hypatia 12, no. 1 (winter 1997): 79-98.

Colebrook examines Irigaray's assertion that metaphysics depend on the exclusion of the female body.

Fermon, Nicole. “Women on the Global...

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