Luce Irigaray

Start Free Trial

Carolyn Burke (essay date summer 1981)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8324

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 is a philosopher, psychoanalyst, and essayist whose work explores the possibility and impossibility of understanding “woman.” She has been active in the MLF (Mouvement de libération des femmes) in Paris since its early stages.1 With the publication of Speculum de l'autre femme in 1974, her critiques of psychoanalytic and philosophical discourses began to be known by a limited audience outside of France.2 Her work has been inaccessible to English-speaking feminists partly because there have been so few translations, but more importantly, because of the conceptual and stylistic difficulties that her writing presents, even for those who are fluent in French. This situation is further complicated by the fact that her writing has been discussed, to some extent, out of context in a series of critiques of what is taken to be her position. Because Irigaray is concerned with the possibility of an analogy—a seductive one at that—between female sexuality and a parler femme or women's language, it is important to examine her writing in context, to see how it functions and whether it lives up to its own expectations.

For some time, Irigaray has been working on the premise that “language and the systems of representation cannot ‘translate’” woman's desire.3 Her first book, Le langage des déments (1973), studies the statements of schizophrenics of both sexes.4 As a result of this research, Irigaray concludes that “sexual differences become embedded in language,” that “there is a dynamics of statements which is different according to sex.”5 Although, in her view, male patients retained the ability to perform syntactic modifications and the use of metalanguage, women tended to articulate their condition physically, to “suffer it directly in their body.”6 Generally speaking, she asserts, women lack access to language appropriate to the expression of their desire. Consequently, in Speculum de l'autre femme, she set out to understand why female sexuality could not be articulated within Western theoretical discourse. Taking examples from Plato to Hegel, Irigaray sees in this idealist tradition, which emphasizes the principles of identity, sameness, and visibility as conditions for representation in language, the philosophical assumptions underlying psychoanalytic discourse. Within this psychophilosophical system, the female is defined “as nothing other than the complement, the other side, or the negative side, of the masculine.”7 Thus, the female subject is either assimilated to the male, as in Freud's account of infantile psychic development, or simply left out of theory, which assumes that it cannot be conceptualized. Because the female sex offers nothing to see, female sexuality becomes the “hole” in psychoanalytic theory. This lack scandalizes the philosopher in Freud, who suspects that it is indeed impossible to say what woman really wants.

Speculum de l'autre femme calls for a patient but radical “disconcerting” of language and logic, which is then enacted in Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un (1977).8 The sex that is not one is, of course, the female sex. In Irigaray's view, the male sex has taken unto itself the privileged status of “oneness”: that is, a...

(This entire section contains 8324 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

unitary representation of identity in analogy with the male sexual organ. She asserts that “all Western discourse presents a certain isomorphism with the masculine sex: the privilege of unity, form of the self, of the visible, of the specularisable, of the erection.”9 Such a logic cannot allow for the expression of the female sexual organs, which can not be described, let alone represented in unitary terms. Just as the female genitals are “plural” or multiple—the vulval lips “are always at least two … joined in an embrace”10—so women's language will be plural, autoerotic, diffuse, and undefinable within the familiar rules of (masculine) logic. Because Irigaray believes that female sexuality cannot be articulated within Aristotelian logic, her prose abandons the coherence and forcefulness of analytic argument. The result, in Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un, is a more fluid and sinuous style or styles, which seek to keep “in touch” with a different style of sexuality.

A woman's language might articulate experiences that are devalued or not permitted by the dominant discourse: the most important, in Irigaray's view, are the sensual/emotional relationships of women with their mothers and with other women, which have been censured in psychoanalytic theory. Her next work, written in 1979, was a brief poetic text entitled Et l'une ne bouge pas sans l'autre which takes as its theme the difficult relationship between a mother and daughter.11 Painfully, Irigaray's prose embodies their knotted relations and the guilt-ridden structures of their mutual desire. Returning in a different vein to the body language of women, she explores corporeal paralysis as a metaphor for lack of connection to the maternal. Written in 1980, Irigaray's most recent work, Amante marine de Friedrich Nietzsche, conducts a subtle critique of the philosopher's theory, taken as a type of masculine thought.12 However, its lyrical, incantatory voice refuses to argue a thesis according to the traditional requirements for such language. It is as if she were speaking from another territory: the ocean, or the other side of the looking glass, where the familiar rules of logic have been reversed, deconstructed, and subjected to a sea change. To follow her trajectory, this essay adopts the strategy of first locating her starting points and defining their intellectual ambience, then, imitating her progress in search of an ideological space for the parler femme, female writing.

Irigaray might be described as a dissident Lacanian psychoanalyst whose feminist revision of psychoanalytic theory and “female style” may be situated in relation to Derridean deconstruction. However, such a description raises more questions than it answers for an American audience. Jaques Lacan and Jacques Derrida do not figure in her writing as straightforward “influences”: indeed, Speculum de l'autre femme mentions neither, and in Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un, Irigaray hesitates to invoke the authority, indeed the name, of Lacan. These two prominent intellectual forces are, to borrow a concept from deconstruction, present “intertextually”; they are interwoven into the web of her own text's unfolding. However, to locate the echoes of their writing in Irigaray's work, to describe their effects upon it, is a risky business, for any selection or summary is necessarily a distortion when one is dealing with such maddeningly abstruse thinkers. Risky, but unavoidable, if one wishes eventually to read with Irigaray, rather than read about her.

Irigaray was a member of the Freudian School of Paris, the psychoanalytic institute founded by Jacques Lacan in 1964 when he and his followers broke from the more conservative French Psychoanalytic Society.13 Members of the Freudian School also taught at Vincennes, the experimental, “left-wing” campus of the University of Paris established in the wake of the 1968 political disturbances. From its inception, the Vincennes Department of Psychoanalysis, the only one of its kind, was staffed by some of Lacan's close associates, including Irigaray. However, after the publication of Speculum de l'autre femme, when she proposed to examine some of its themes in her seminar, Irigaray learned that her seminar had been canceled by the new board of directors of the department: it did not appear to fit into their program for the development of a psychoanalytic “science.”14 When no explanation for her sudden dismissal was offered, many people felt that the publication of her book was the real reason, and furthermore, that Lacan had used the reorganization of the department to express his personal displeasure at this feminist critique. Thus, to call Irigaray a “dissident Lacanian” raises the complicated history of her theoretical and personal relations to the controversial psychoanalyst. It calls for a discussion of her efforts to deal with the presence of “le Maître,” or, the position of Lacan as “Master” of the house of psychoanalysis.

The question of the disciples' relationship to Freud has played an enormously complicated role in the creation of a psychoanalytic establishment. Critical of American interpretations of Freud, Lacan claims to return psychoanalysis to the spirit of the Master and accuses its American advocates of reducing Freud's subtle science to normative ego-psychology. As faithful disciple, Lacan defends and reinterprets his Master's word, but as new Master, Lacan occupies the central position in his own branch of the psychoanalytic establishment. Although in their writings, both Freud and Lacan undermine the traditional foundations of authority per se, their own magisterial positions within psychoanalytic practice pose serious problems as a contradiction of their theory. Sherry Turkle, a sociologist of “psychoanalytic politics,” has asked whether the master-disciple relationship built into psychoanalysis by means of the training analysis does not work, in the long run, to subvert what is most subversive about its own practices. She observes that Lacan's followers have been taxed with an allegiance to Lacan that overshadows any psychoanalyst's allegiance to Freud, and that not surprisingly, the problem of “le Maître” has occupied a central place in their discussions.15 One might expect, then, that questions of “mastery” and “the Master” would engage French feminists' attention: these concepts are loaded, or overdetermined, in their particular cultural context, and for that reason, call out for a feminist demystification.

In Irigaray's view, the general problem is further exacerbated when male masters speak as authorities on the subject of female sexuality. The first section of Speculum de l'autre femme analyzes Freud's (fictive) lecture, “On Femininity,” as the discourse of a master who cloaks his desire to dominate his female subject(s) with the seductive formulations of phallocentric theory.16 In 1972-73, Lacan took as the theme for his famous public seminar, Freud's question Was will das Weib [What does Woman want?]. Lacan concluded that “there is a pleasure [jouissance] beyond the phallus,”17 but insisted that women, even women analysts, would not or could not make clear to him what this pleasure might be. Furthermore, to add insult to injury, he added: “They don't know what they are saying, and that's the whole difference between them and me.”18 Lacan, by contrast, is the one who can “explain what it's all about.”19 But, Irigaray “replied,” in two essays published in 1975 and 1977, there is no place for the female subject within Lacan's theoretical models. Although he had already expelled her from the ranks of the faithful, she had by no means gotten him out of her system. If “a Maitre can play a dominant role as much by his absence as by his presence,”20 Irigaray's texts may be haunted by Lacan. His unspoken name paradoxically embodies the paternal authority of psychoanalytic “law.”

Lacan is like the patėr familias of the psychoanalytic family who refuses to acknowledge the independent wisdom of his daughters. The daughter, in turn, seeks a way out of her overdetermined transference to this rejecting father-lover by turning upon the terms of her allegiance. Lacan's absent presence in Irigaray's writing resembles the “Name-of-the-Father,” his own concept of social identity as inscribed in the subject, male or female, through the assumption of the patronym within a patriarchal order.21 Her work, then, becomes, in part, an attempt to rename herself. She must divest herself of the patronym “Lacanian” to reclaim an ideological space from which to “speak female.” Furthermore, this self-renaming would refuse the Name-of-the-Father's prohibition against prolonged contact with the maternal, which the congruence of “name” and “negative” [nom et non] implies in the original French. Ridding language of this embodiment of the paternal law may free one to explore the “geography of female pleasure”22 and its ties to the preoedipal phase, when the child enjoys a sensual relationship to the mother's body. Irigaray suspects that it is with other women that a woman may find the “means for overcoming that loss of the first relationship with the mother's body,”23 and that this recovery can happen only in an ideological and textual space apart from the prohibitions represented by the Name-of-the-Father. This position leads to a kind of separatism which is nevertheless troubled by the seductive appeal of the paternal metaphor from which it is breaking away.

Irigaray derives considerable support in this undertaking from a male philosopher who asserts that only “the ‘man’ … believes in the truth of woman, in woman-as-truth.” This provocative statement appears in Jacques Derrida's essay, “La question du style.”24 This text hovers, unmentioned, in the background of both Speculum de l'autre femme and Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un, which amplify the charge that Lacanian discourse is phallocentric. Derrida's essay weaves its way around its subject, the relations of “woman” and “truth” as a question of style in Friedrich Nietzsche. It suggests that the apparently misogynistic Nietzsche may have sought, in spite of himself, to “describe a femininity that is not defined by a male desire to supply a lack.”25 Whether or not this was Nietzsche's project, it becomes Irigaray's. But to come to it, she operates through the detour of deconstructive philosophy, which provides her with the methods to elaborate upon Derrida's charge against Lacan.

Derrida's vocabulary, in “La question du style,” undergoes a slight but significant modification for Irigaray's purposes when he asserts that Lacanian theory places woman “back in the old [conceptual] machinery, in phallogocentrism.”26 His word weds “phallogocentrism” to “logocentrism”: it implies that psychoanalytic discourse is guilty of identifying the phallus27 with the Logos as transcendent, and therefore, unexamined (and unexaminable) grounds of signification, of assigning meaning. One may attempt to unpack his neologism. In Derrida's writing, “logocentrism” designates the tendency in Western philosophy to interpret the Word [Logos] in its full theological sense (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God”). Logocentrism also implies an attitude of nostalgia for a lost presence, or a longing for some first cause of being and meaning. More recently, with the general diminution of religious belief, logocentric thinking has assigned this lost value to the activities of full self-consciousness (“thought thinking itself”). Logocentrism results from the human desire to posit a central presence as a locus of coherence and authenticity—whether in the form of God's statement “I am that I am” or the Cartesian “cogito ergo sum.” Derrida's coined word taxes Freudo-Lacanism with a double centrism when it puts the phallus in the central position as a kind of Logos, as the “signifier of all signifiers.”

Expanding Derrida's critique, one could argue that because the phallus guarantees the possibility of the representation of both sexual difference and desire, it is the master term of psychoanalysis, or “God” within its own conceptual system. Derrida's phallogocentrism, then, “declares the inextricable collusion of phallocentrism with logocentrism … and unites feminism and deconstructive, grammatological philosophy in their opposition to a common enemy.”28 In psychoanalytic theory's longing for an authorizing principle resides its capacity for blindness about its own presuppositions. In a general way, Derrida's meditation on the relations of “truth” and “woman” suggests ways out of the old conceptual machinery.

But what is deconstruction, let alone a feminist version of that enigmatic procedure? The deconstructor begins by finding “the point where the text covers up,”29 or “the moment that is undecidable in terms of the text's apparent system of meanings.”30 Then, “the task is to dismantle [déconstruire] the metaphysical and rhetorical structures at work in (the text), not in order to reject or discard them, but to reinscribe them in another way.”31 The structures in question are usually binary opposites such as “same/other,” “subject/other,” “identity/difference,” “male/female.” The aim is not to neutralize the oppositional structure, but rather, to demonstrate the inequality of the terms locked into opposition. In such a structure, according to Derrida, “one of the two terms controls the other, … holds the superior position. To deconstruct the opposition is first … to overthrow [renverser] the hierarchy.”32 However, the task is not yet complete: “in the next phase of deconstruction, this reversal must be displaced,” and the “winning” term used without giving it the privileged status that its opposite once possessed. The critic must be prepared to accept “the irruptive emergence of a new ‘concept,’ a concept which no longer allows itself to be understood in terms of the previous regime.”33 In Speculum de l'autre femme, this strategy of reversal and displacement operates upon the conceptual hierarchies “identity/difference,” “subject/object,” “male/female.” It also produces the fable of female sexuality and writing enacted in Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un in which the “inferior” terms of these structural pairs are reinscribed, but with a different status, and presumably, without placing the formerly devalued term in the position of its “oppressor.”

The problematic status of this displacement, the way in which the new concept means what it says once the operation of deconstruction is complete, is beyond the scope of this essay which returns now to the subject of Irigaray, Irigaray as subject. At this point, however, one may offer a final description of Derrida's strategy: “His text … is the unmaking of a construct. However negative it may sound, deconstruction implies the possibility of rebuilding.”34 Both Derrida and Irigaray create new sexual fables of the process of signification. Derrida proposes an account that replaces phallogocentrism with a “hymeneal” fable: one that involves both sexes and sexual difference in its metaphorical representation of the creation of meaning. Irigaray, by contrast, omits the male sex and valorizes female sexual sufficiency, in a fable that can be described as “vulval” or “vaginal.”35 Her account emphasizes the multiple or plural styles of female sexuality and expression, in the figure of the sexual lips which are constantly “in touch” with the diffuse sensuality of the female body. Although it would be interesting to compare Derrida's “hymeneal” fable with Irigaray's “vaginal” one, it suffices to observe that in both cases, a fable is offered in opposition to Lacan's figure of the phallus. Again, in both cases, it is important to note that terms like “hymeneal” and “vaginal” are being used with an awareness of their limitations as analogies, or as emerging “concepts” resisting the possibility that they will be taken as new master terms. To put it differently, the reader of such texts must be willing not to “believe” in their fables, to let go of them once they have become too useful.36

Is it possible or even desirable to adopt a frame of mind that does not require a text to confer a final, reliable authority? Deconstructive writers assert, and intend their readers to understand, that they are creating limited analogies without an absolute claim for their ontological status. Certainly, this peculiar use of language creates a strain. Words are being used without their authors' subscribing to the premise that the models to which they refer might actually exist. The referential status of language is put into question, and, furthermore, each deconstruction can, in turn, be deconstructed. In such a view, “language bears within itself the necessity of its own critique.”37 One may observe, at this point, that deconstruction's basic stance is antiauthoritarian: it is suspicious of master concepts and explanations that assert their own finality. Indeed, if one adopts the strategies of deconstruction, then no single text, including this one, can pretend to have made a definitive statement. With this predicament in mind, the critic is tempted to imitate Irigaray's move from the “hard” language of theoretical discourse to the more “fluid” languages of poetry and fable in her recent writing. This transformation—but the word is too dramatic to describe the gradual shift that occurs in Irigaray's prose—can be observed as it happens in her work. At this point in my own text, therefore, I follow on her path, while keeping my distance, to speak of Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un in its own language(s).

Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un is a chorus of voices, in which Freud, Lacan, Derrida, various unnamed speakers, and unexpectedly, Lewis Carroll, reverberate and are transposed into a different mode. As readers, we are invited not to begin objectively, outside the text, but rather, to start inside and work our way out into its complex web of textual relations. We recognize our own textuality while adjusting to the quality of intertextuality that inhabits Irigaray's writing. To become the reader of Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un is to recognize that we are all implicated in this discourse. This realization may then generate a new critical attitude: one that rejects the lonely fiction of superiority over a text.

If we can abandon the illusion that it is possible to speak from a position of mastery, we may be tempted by the subversive notion of an “other” view—an underview. We may follow Irigaray when, in the preface, she goes underground with Lewis Carroll's Alice, seeking a place from which she may (re)learn to speak. It is found after the book's prolonged journey through the looking glass to what she imagines as the “other side,” a conceptual realm beyond the law of the Logos. Woman's place, she tells the men, is not where you think it is: we are beyond the mirror of your languages in a new psychic space. Her “other” view is, then, something like the dizzying perspective of an adult Alice, and her “other side,” an ideological space beyond the psychic economy of patriarchy. Irigaray is trying to imagine a realm—at once emotional and intellectual—in which woman is no longer defined in relation to man as his negative, other, or as lack.

However, in the country of Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un, the rules of logic are not simply inverted as in Carroll's Through the Looking Glass. Rather, Irigaray questions the structures of logic in which the female as concept has been suppressed, then displaces the whole system. Deconstructing structural polarities that assign priority to the first term and devalue the second, she attempts to leave behind the conceptual universe of the Logos and its symbolic policeman, the phallus. This new ideological place of Irigaray's writing could be described as preoedipal or postpatriarchal, or, as the place of a desire. It is a site where women's relations to each other might acquire appropriate expression.

Some of the difficulties confronting one who would discuss Irigaray on her own terms may be apparent by now. In a sense, there is a lack of “content.” Unlike Hélène Cixous or Monique Wittig, Irigaray does not invent (or reinvent) for us female characters, heroines, or myths in opposition to patriarchal culture. Her deconstructive procedure is puzzling, because she is chiefly concerned with questioning familiar modes of thought, and interrogating the concepts of logic and the rules of discourse. Once we realize that this procedure is, in part, her content, we are on the right track. At the same time, her attempt to rethink woman without resorting to limiting or essentialist [intrinsic] definitions puts a strain on our reading habits, as when Irigaray suggests, but does not make absolute claims for, a relation between the geography of female sexuality and the shape of her own writing. As my discussion interweaves with her texts, I trust that this performance will convey something of their procedures and strategies, while sketching the shape of her “female writing.”

On the unexpected order of Speculum de l'autre femme, which begins with Freud and ends with Plato, Irigaray commented,

the architectonics of the text, of the texts, disconcerts that linearity of a project, that teleology of discourse, in which there is no room for the “feminine,” unless it is that traditional one, that which is repressed or censured.38

In that work, her desire was to disturb the “phallogocentric” order of argumentation, in which the end is clearly predetermined by the beginning. It is not surprising, then, that the form of Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un is difficult to describe. Like Speculum de l'autre femme, it begins in an unexpected manner: its preface is a film review entitled “Le miroir, de l'autre côté” [“The Mirror, from the Other Side”]. This preface is doubly reminiscent, for it reviews a recent Swiss film, Les Arpenteurs [The Surveyors], whose heroine is named Alice in a subtle parallel with the Alice of Wonderland. The film's “Alice” seems to have elected a dwelling-place somewhere on the “other side,” in Irigaray's new geography of female desire. Her activities, and the opposition which they soon encounter, provide the rich thematic material that Irigaray teases out in the rest of the book. After this curious preface, she traces “Alice's” journey backwards, via “a long detour through the analysis of the different systems of oppression that work upon her,” so that she may once again “arrive there where she knows pleasure as a woman.”39 This detour includes the title essay on female sexuality,40 an evaluation of psychoanalytic theory, and an essay on the power of language and the subordination of the female as a concept. After a series of dialogues with various interlocutors, Irigaray pursues her analyses with an essay on “the traffic in women” (which suggests that female homosexuality must be rethought outside the psychosexual economy of patriarchy)41 and a discussion of pornography. Her book concludes, although it does not seem to end, with a poetic prose essay evoking a love relationship between women, “When Our Lips Speak Together.”42

If Speculum challenged Freud by deconstructing his theory of female sexuality, Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un adopts Lacan's own tactics to question the discourse of the Master: it contains two remarkably subtle replies to Lacan. Interestingly, however, Irigaray rarely mentions him by name in these two essays. She prefers to bring his system into question by exposing the ways in which it gives him the magisterial role. The first essay, “Così fan tutti,” does Lacan the curious honor of quoting him against himself, to demonstrate his incapacity to hear what women say. Irigaray again insists that in his psychoanalysis, “there is no place for the female except within a system of models and laws decreed by masculine subjects.”43 Although she cites Lacan throughout the text, his name—the symbol of his authority—is relegated to the bottom of the page, where he appears in a footnote.

The second essay, “La mécanique des fluides,” indicts the Master and his system for their lack of interest in the geography of female pleasure. However, Irigaray does this in an insidiously indirect manner, again weaving her way around Lacan while citing him in the footnotes only. Ostensibly, she discusses the physics of fluids, which have not been explained by the language suited to the discussion of solids. Here, of course, “fluids” is partly an analogy with female expression, and “solids” with the dry self-consistency of male logic, including the logic of psychoanalysis. In an artfully flowing style, she unravels the “long-standing complicity” between rationality and “solids,” which has resulted in a privileging of that which is firm, quantifiable, and measurable. In this system of physics (and metaphysics), “the whole psychic economy is organized in terms of the phallus (or Phallus).”44 It is not surprising, then, that the fluidity of the female is deemed unworthy of attention. Because female language flows beyond the boundaries of logical discourse, it is seen as unstable, in excess of solidifiable sense, and therefore outside the discourse of the Master. Because “woman” speaks “fluid,”45 her meanings can not be frozen into static images or metaphors. With tremendous stylistic fluidity, Irigaray slips away from Lacan's fiefdom while paying an ironic “hommage” to the Master, in woman's language.46

Because her writing seeks to stir up this fluid current within language and open up the closure of its logical and syntactic systems, it is useful to focus upon her strategies of beginning and ending, or, “preface” and “conclusion.” Both “Le miroir, de l'autre côté” and Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un begin with an epigraph from Alice's Adventures Through the Looking Glass (chapter 3):

She stood silent for a minute, thinking, then she suddenly began again. “Then it really has happened, after all! And now, who am I? I will remember, if I can! I'm determined to do it.” But being determined didn't help her much, and all she could say, after a great deal of puzzling, was “L, I know it begins with L.”

The original Alice finds herself alone in the wood where things have no name. The rules of logic do not yet prevail, for no name-bestowing Adam is present. This is Alice's question about her identity, and her observation that “it begins with L.” There is no answer, other than her self-renaming. “L” is, of course, multiple in Irigaray's reading: Alice, “Alice,” Luce, and for a French speaker, elle/elles—the third person feminine, both singular and plural. To begin with elle(s) means to learn that the female self is multiple, that we are all written into the text. Once through the looking glass, the unified self is seen as an illusion. In the shifting tones and styles of Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un, “je” is trying to speak as “elle(s),” to establish through language the communication that she desires among “nous: toute(s)”—the final words of the book.

Irigaray suggests that our naming system has always hindered this communion. Names appropriate identity and cloister us within the networks of family relations. Like Lewis Carroll's Alice, the film's “Alice” does not use a family name, for she seeks to live beyond the Name-of-the Father. She hopes to live apart from the categories of the “proper,” “property,” and “propriety.” Irigaray examines the logical requirements of this cluster of concepts and demystifies its effects upon the status of women within the economy of language.47 It follows that elle must demystify her proper name, the one that she was “given” within the system that saw her as a form of property. Since her father's death, “Alice” has situated herself in relation to her mother, who is her closest neighbor and “the only one who seems to know what Alice is.”48 This special knowledge suggests an identity shared with, or derived from, the mother. Soon, another woman appears in “Alice's” house and becomes first her double, then her accomplice. The two women refuse the surveyors' “patriarchal” attempts to separate them or demarcate their sphere as private property. Through their deliberate rejection of such values, they establish a fragile community among themselves. However, the old laws concerning identity, property, and what is proper soon reassert themselves, when the surveyors threaten to destroy their privileged territory.

This new geography of female relations reappears only in the final essay, which has a therapeutic aim. Irigaray wants to make room for a language of love among women, of sexual pleasure that is truly beyond the law of the phallus. These relations partake of the preoedipal relations between mother and daughter, without, however, recreating their roles. Resurrected in the present, this lost paradise of mutual affection does not resemble the psycho-analysts' description of preoedipal crises over the need for individuation. There is no need to seal off the self from the other. For the space of an essay, mutuality once again exists among women, for each woman is herself multiple and speaks a variety of tongues. “Elle” speaks to her lover in a mode that reinvents the female subject as “tu/je,”’ “you/I.” Here, language is trying to unlearn its requirements for a unified subject and to set aside the subject-object paradigm as a model of human relations. “Tu” is the equal of “je”; their mutuality is signaled in writing by their double inscription as subject(s). Untrammeled by the delimiting function of proper names, the lovers reject the demands of appropriation as literally inappropriate to their relations. “When Our Lips Speak Together” may be described as a love poem in prose and a fable of female relations in the optative mood: it is written “as if” we could forget the logical and emotional requirements of the phallic economy. Irigaray wagers that once language has been taught to lower its resistance, it may then learn to generate another mode of signification.

Allow me to open a parenthesis within this opening. In her dream of an “other side,” Irigaray's writing again shows affinities with that of Derrida. Like Derrida, Irigaray returns to the current in Freud that could enable us to decode the neurosis-producing structures of the oedipal family, the guilty relations of this central Western fable. However, if one abandons the oedipal model, what remains as a figure of truth? Is there a “feminist” fable through which we can work out the relations of woman and truth, woman's truth? In their similar/dissimilar approaches, Irigaray and Derrida have both taken up Antigone, that difficult daughter of Oedipus who defied the laws of the city. In their different interpretations, the Antigone myth describes a break with the teleology of Oedipus within his own family.49 In Speculum de l'autre femme, Irigaray reads Antigone's defiance of the law—the edicts of Creon—as the assertion of her maternal lineage. In her view, Antigone buries Polyneices, not because he is her brother, but because he is her mother's son. She wishes to honor their shared connection to the mother, in opposition to the surrogate father, Creon. She analyzes the Sophoclean drama as testimony of the transition from matriarchal to patriarchal values. Then, in the startling analogies of Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un, Irigaray's “Alice” shows affinities with Antigone, the antagonist whose going underground subverts the laws of the fathers. Describing the project that preceded her dismissal from Vincennes, Irigaray explains that she intended to examine the myth of Antigone in the work of Sophocles, Hoederlin, Hegel, and Brecht. Her seminar would have analyzed what this heroine's opposition to the law brings into focus, “that other ‘face’ of discourse which provokes a crisis when it meets the light of day.”50 In this reading, Antigone's example prompts us to rethink the reasons behind her sentence: the law's requirement that she be silenced to save the constituent necessities of rationality.

Both Irigaray and Derrida, however, bring into question these logical necessities in their attempts to counter the closed circle of theoretical discourse. Rejecting teleological closure, both create unfamiliar sequences of argument and demonstration. Although at this point, I close my parenthesis concerning Derrida in Irigaray's text, I reopen the question of its opening. Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un begins with a preface that is not a preface: a review which repeats or rehearses the rest of the book in another key. In the sequence that follows, “Alice” is transformed into “elle(s),” the antagonist of closed structures of meaning. For Irigaray, the metamorphoses of the female self can occur only in an open structure, one in which neither beginning nor end is quite what we expect. Once the rhetorical and metaphysical structures requiring closure have been deconstructed, the critic can reinscribe her meaning in a new way. Irigaray's book ends without closing, as befits the image of “ce sexe”: the female one whose lips are both closed and open. Through them flows the current of what “woman” is saying. “Yet one must know how to listen otherwise than in good form(s) to hear what she is saying.”51

Irigaray's texts know how to listen, for “Alice” is also “an/alyste” and her work, “an/alyse.” Her writing is an extension of the performance of psychotherapy, for female self and other. As such, it accepts the hesitations and silences of unfamiliar meanings. “Questions,” for example, transcribes a number of interviews or exchanges in a mode that is between speech and writing, as befits her subject(s). Questions echo throughout her writing, but when they go unanswered, silence is not oppressive. It waits for an opening, as in the indecisions, pauses, and blank spaces of “When Our Lips Speak Together.” Reserving a space for the reader, her concluding essay offers “the site of a listening attention,”52 or what the analyst provides for the analysand. In a more general way, Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un as a whole opens itself to the reader, that other self. The book calls for a complicity between reader and writer not unlike that which may occur in the analytic situation, between a nonsubordinate analysand and a nonauthoritarian analyst. Reading Irigaray is like taking part in a process in which neither participant is certain of the outcome. Because “termination” suggests (fore)closure, this analysis may well be interminable, but my own is now coming to an end.

But how, the nagging voice persists, do we learn to play with language in this fashion? And how shall we rescue our own writing from the mark of Oedipus, from the guilt and neurosis of “absence” and “lack”? Can we rid ourselves of the yoke of “authority” and desubjugate the female self simply by altering the languages in which we have learned to express our understanding? Is there anything here that translates into our contexts? One may observe that Irigaray's writing is not immediately “useful” or prescriptive, and that in its very nondirectiveness lies its importance. We can not extract from her work an all-encompassing feminist theory, although we can learn that “trick of rereading,”53 the habit of mind that is called deconstructive. Furthermore, we may conclude that deconstruction, “which teaches one to question all transcendent idealisms,” is a critical approach eminently suitable to feminists: surely, we have less to lose and more to jettison in the traditions of critical distance, authority, and mastery.54 And finally, it may come as a relief to find that one may use the available languages without fully subscribing to their premises, that one may question the metaphysics of their questions.

However, an important problem for readers of Irigaray remains: does her writing manage to avoid the construction of another idealism to replace the “phallogocentric” systems that she dismantles? Do her representations of a parler femme, in analogy with female sexuality, avoid the centralizing idealism with which she taxes Western conceptual systems? Although feminists criticism of her work has come, generally speaking, from quarters not in sympathy with the deconstructive strategies she employs, their different readings are, in their own ways, instructive. In one such reading, Irigaray is charged with an essentialist celebration of the female body, differing little from the patriarchal definitions which she proposes to dismantle: “To found a field of study on this belief in the inevitability of natural sex differences can only compound patriarchal logic and not subvert it.”55 However, as another critic asserts, to dismiss Irigaray's arguments in this reductive fashion “is to fail to register their full impact and the range of devices at their disposal.”56 One might respond to the first criticism by commenting that it reduces the subtlety of Irigaray's thought to a simple argument “from the body,” in order to then point out that such arguments are, indeed, essentialist. This strategy ignores Irigaray's suggestion that female writing may be produced in analogy with the body and her awareness that it does not simply flow from it. Furthermore, in thus reducing her arguments, it disregards their manner, even though questions of style and strategy go to the heart of their matter.

A more useful critique argues that “to invoke the rhythms of the body is only to extend the sphere of existent speech, not invent a new one.”57 In this view, the parler femme simply extends the terrain of what can be expressed, and the dream of an “other side” of language is unrealizable. Although this observation is probably correct, it too focuses upon the problematic figure of the body in Irigaray's writing at the expense of other features: its mode of address, its stylistic fluidity, its deconstructive tactics. In her use of conscious or deliberate analogies, Irigaray intends to avoid the reification of which such critiques would convict her: she stresses “not so much the anatomy but … the morphology of the female sex.”58 The lips of “When Our Lips Speak Together,” for example, should not be reduced to a literally anatomical specification, for the figure suggests another mode, rather than another model. It implies plurality, multiplicity, and a mode of being “in touch” that differs from the phallic mode of discourse. Similarly, her “vaginal” fable does not simply replace the “phallic” one, and one should recall that both are probably simulacra, or representations of ideas in the mind. Important questions that have not been raised by Irigaray's critics concern the nature and use of her figurative language: whether it is mimetic or referential, whether it hovers or shifts back and forth between these two types of signification, and whether it is used consistently. Only once these questions have been fully discussed can we begin to understand the problematic intersection of sexuality and representation. On the subject of philosophy's “proud, delusive knowledge” (the assumptions which allow us to ask such questions), Nietzsche wondered whether all philosophy “has not been merely an interpretation of the body and a misunderstanding of the body.”59 To reverse Nietzsche, one might ask whether the representation of the body does not depend upon the undecidability of these philosophical questions. At this point, once again, the language of theory cedes tactfully to the language of fable.

Such fables can only be read: they do not provide a basis for action. However, although we can not “apply” Irigaray's writing in any direct fashion, we may find that we emerge from this difficult reading process with our minds, literally, changed. We may become interested in a kind of writing that encourages us “to question privileged explanations even as explanations are generated.”60 Furthermore, such writing is itself generative in its power to set language in motion. It is liberating to find that one may transgress the demands of univocal signification by letting in the linguistic “accidents” that don't fit into logical discourse—the puns, conjunctions of opposites, and coinages that open up the realm of meaning. At the same time, we may learn to participate in the play of self-unfolding within writing, for once the requirement of objectivity is demystified, we come to the salutary admission of the autobiographical necessities of our own work. The transformations of “L”/Alice/“Alice”/Luce/“analyste” perform an instructive mimesis of self-discovery: Irigaray's insertion of this multiple signature runs counter to the “Name-of-the-Father” and goes beyond the enclosures of patriarchal naming. Through such play with language, the conceptual systems that have determined the representation of the female may be deconstructed as the machinery of masters reluctant to recognize their actual lack of mastery. Let us dream, with Irigaray, that the story of O may yet be erased by the story of elle(s).


  1. On this context and her relation to other French feminist writers, see the following in Signs 3, no. 4 (Summer 1978): Elaine Marks, “Women and Literature in France,” pp. 832-42; and Carolyn Burke, “Report from Paris: Women's Writing and the Women's Movement,” pp. 843-55.

  2. Luce Irigaray, Speculum de l'autre femme (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1974).

  3. Irigaray, “Women's Exile,” Ideology & Consciousness 1 (1977): 71.

  4. Irigaray, Le langage des déments (The Hague and Paris: Mouton, 1973).

  5. Irigaray, “Women's Exile,” p. 74.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Ibid., p. 63.

  8. Irigaray, Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1977).

  9. Irigaray, “Women's Exile,” p. 64. “Specularisable”: that which can be represented, as in a mirror or reflection.

  10. Ibid., p. 65.

  11. Irigaray, Et l'une ne bouge pas sans l'autre (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1979).

  12. Irigaray, Amante marine de Friedrich Nietzsche (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1980).

  13. Jacques Lacan's selected essays are available in translation: Ecrits (New York: Norton, 1977). On his work, see Yale French Studies 48 (1972); Juliet Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism (New York: Pantheon, 1974); Jane Gallop, “The Ghost of Lacan, the Trace of Language,” Diacritics 5, no. 4 (Winter 1975); Anika Lemaire, Jacques Lacan (London: Routledge & Kegan, 1977); Martha Noel Evans, “Introduction to Jacques Lacan's Lecture: the Neurotic's Individual Myth,” Psychoanalytic Quarterly 48 (1979), among others. My account is indebted to Sherry Turkle, Psychoanalytic Politics: Freud's French Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1978).

  14. See Turkle, Psychoanalytic Politics, pp. 164-88, passim, on Lacan's attempt to base psychoanalytic “science” on the use of mathematical formulas, or mathemes.

  15. See Turkle, Psychoanalytic Politics, especially p. 120 ff.

  16. Irigaray, Speculum de l'autre femme, pp. 41-42. See also Jane Gallop, “The Ladies' Man,” Diacritics 6, no. 4 (Winter 1976); and her forthcoming Feminism and Psychoanalysis: The Daughter's Seduction, to be published by Macmillan.

  17. Jacques Lacan, Le Séminaire XX: Encore (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1975), p. 69. All translations are my own, unless otherwise noted.)

  18. Irigaray cites Lacan's provocative judgment as the epigraph for “Così fan tutti,” in Ce sexe, pp. 85-101, in which she implies that Lacan does not know how to listen.

  19. Lacan, Le Séminaire, p. 54.

  20. Turkle, Psychoanalytic Politics, p. 130.

  21. For a full account of the Name-of-the-Father in relation to the Oedipus complex, see Lemaire, Jacques Lacan, pp. 78-92; and Evans, “Introduction,” pp. 386-404 (n. 12).

  22. Irigaray, Ce sexe, p. 88.

  23. Irigaray, “Women's Exile,” p. 76.

  24. Derrida's essay, “La question du style,” first appeared in Nietzsche aujourd'hui? I: Intensités (Paris: Collection 10/18, 1973). Slightly revised, it is available in a bilingual edition: Spurs/Eperons (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1978). The citation from Derrida appears on p. 249, “La question du style,” and pp. 62-65, Spurs/Eperons.

  25. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Translator's Preface to her translation of Derrida's Of Grammatology (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), p. xxxvii. I am greatly indebted to her account of his thought.

  26. Derrida, “Question du style,” pp. 247-48; Spurs/Eperons, p. 61, where “phallogocentrism” is, unfortunately, translated as “phallocentrism.”

  27. Lacan's exegetes point out that the phallus is not simply the penis, that it is, rather, a simulacrum or mental image which functions in the psycholinguistic representation of sexual desire. Moreover, it is not so much a symbol as it is a mode of meaning, for the phallus expresses the realization of lack as a structural factor in the understanding of sexual difference. Freud's infamous “penis envy” might, then, more properly be called “phallus envy,” and it might apply equally but differently in the psychic development of males and females. The phallus is “the signifier of all signifiers,” or “the signifier of desire,” that is, of the instauration of the need to express desire for what is lacking through and by means of language. On this difficult concept, see Lacan, “The Signification of the Phallus,” Ecrits; and Irigaray, Ce sexe, pp. 57-59, 63, 108-109.

  28. Gallop, “The Ladies' Man,” p. 30.

  29. Spivak, Translator's Preface, p. lxxiii.

  30. Ibid., p. xlix.

  31. Derrida, cited in Spivak, Translator's Preface, p. lxxv.

  32. Ibid., p. lxxvii.

  33. Ibid. See also Derrida, “Signature Event Context,” Glyph 1 (1977): 195.

  34. Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 140; cited in Spivak, Translator's Preface, p. xlix.

  35. Here again, according to Spivak, in Translator's Preface, pp. xxi-xxvii, Derrida's practice is Nietzschean when he adapts the concept of the philosopher-artist. Nietzsche observed that philosophical discourse is rhetorical or figurative language that has forgotten its own metaphorical status. Thus, he argued, its “truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions.” Philosophical fables such as those imagined by the philosopher-artists Derrida and Irigaray might function, then, as illusions which have a certain truth value as long as one remembers that they are illusions. Of his coined word, “hymeneal,” for example, Derrida writes, quoted in Of Grammatology, p. lxxi, “This word … is not indispensable.”

  36. See Spivak, Translator's Preface, pp. xiv-xx, on Derrida's practice of writing sous rature (under erasure). This strategy allows one to use terms while putting into question their premises.

  37. Derrida, cited in Spivak, Translator's Preface, p. xviii. Deconstructive philosophy puts one in the awkward/exhilarating critical position of the mise en abîme (placing/being placed in the abyss or infinite regress of meaning), in which no final account is possible even though one must offer her provisional account—such as this one—as if she “believes” in it. (See Spivak, Translator's Preface, pp. lxxvii-lxxviii on this intellectual “double bind.”)

  38. Irigaray, Ce sexe, p. 67.

  39. Ibid., p. 30.

  40. Translated by Claudia Reeder as “This Sex Which Is Not One,” in New French Feminisms, ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980), pp. 99-106.

  41. Translated by Claudia Reeder as “When the Goods Get Together,” in New French Feminisms, pp. 107-110.

  42. Translated by Carolyn Burke, with Introduction, in Signs 6, no. 1 (Autumn, 1980): 66-79.

  43. Irigaray, Ce sexe, p. 85.

  44. Ibid., p. 108.

  45. Ibid., p. 109.

  46. Ibid., p. 114. On this question, see Jane Gallop, “Impertinent Questions: Irigaray, Sade, Lacan,” Sub-Stance 26 (1980): 57-67.

  47. Cf. Spivak's discussion in Translator's Preface, p. lxxiii, of Derrida's somewhat different problematization of “proper” and “proper name.”

  48. Irigaray, Ce sexe, p. 10.

  49. Derrida and Irigaray both reread Hegel on Antigone (The Phenomenology of Mind). See Derrida, Glas (Paris: Editions Galilee, 1974); Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Glas-Piece: a Compte Rendu,” Diacritics 7, no. 3 (Autumn 1977): 22-43; and Josette Féral, “Antigone or the Irony of the Tribe,” Diacritics 8, no. 3 (Autumn 1978): 2-14.

  50. Irigaray, Ce sexe, p. 162.

  51. Ibid., p. 109. The rhetorical status of the parler femme and Irigaray's sexual metaphors is not easily defined, partly because of her deliberate decision to elude the rigidity of definitions. The problem is discussed at the conclusion of this essay.

  52. The phrase is used to describe Lacanian psychoanalysis by Stephen Heath, whose analysis of sexual difference and representation is influenced by Irigaray. See his “Difference,” Screen 19, no. 3 (Autumn 1978): 52.

  53. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Explanation and Culture: Marginalia,” Humanities in Society 2, no. 3 (Summer 1979): 204.

  54. Ibid., p. 202. The forthcoming publication of Spivak's Deconstruction, Feminism and Marxism: Theory and Practice in the Humanities is announced in the Contributors section of this issue of Humanities in Society.

  55. Monique Plaza, “‘Phallomorphic power’ and the psychology of ‘woman,’” Ideology & Consciousness 4 (1978): 8. This essay was first published in Questions féministes 1 (1978).

  56. Beverley Brown and Parveen Adams, “The Feminine Body and Feminist Politics,” m/f 3 (1979): 36.

  57. Irigaray, “Women's Exile,” p. 64.

  58. Cited in Spivak, Translator's Preface, p. xxv.

  59. Spivak, “Explanation-and-Culture,” p. 218.

Hélène Vivienne Wenzel (essay date autumn 1981)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1371

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

With “And the One Doesn't Stir without the Other,” psychoanalyst and writer Luce Irigaray gives lyrical if anguished voice to the silenced daughter of the mother-daughter relationship.2 In particular, she envisions a pre-Oedipal relationship between daughter and mother, a relationship heretofore only sketchily charted by psychoanalytic discourse and therefore virtually nonexistent. In fact Freud himself, as Irigaray explains, saw the relationship between mother and daughter as

so whitewashed by the years, so censored-repressed, that it would be necessary to go back to a time predating Greek civilization in order to find another civilization which would permit us to decipher what there is of this archaic desire between the woman and the mother.3

Such an examination of the woman-mother, mother-daughter relationships is what Irigaray attempted at great length in her earlier works, Speculum de l'autre femme and Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un.4 In these very rich theoretical works, she called for and executed her own interpretative rereading (“relecture interpretante”) of all theory regarding the female subject, especially of psychoanalytic theory. The latter has succeeded in assigning and fixing, it would appear forever, a secondary role to the mother in the great Oedipal drama, while leaving the girl-child/daughter out of the picture entirely—except, that is, to describe her as just like the little boy minus a penis.

The feminist movement in the United States has given rise in the past decade to much examination of this most thorny, most personal of relationships between women. However, a pervasive sense of mistrust with which most American feminists met all Freudian psychoanalytic theory led them initially to think that mother and daughter are women enacting roles to be studied in their literary and social manifestations rather than women involved in intra- and interpsychic experiences.5 More recently, the growing tolerance for and interest in psychoanalysis as a method of inquiry potentially rich for feminist theory has created a new prospect from which to view the relationship.6 Since Irigaray has already begun exploration of that psychic territory, her works offer an invaluable guide to American feminists.7

Irigaray takes as her point of departure an indictment of psychoanalysis for its almost total disregard of the female subject:

I might even go so far as to say that one thing has been singularly misunderstood, hardly sketched out in the theory of the unconscious: the relationship of woman to mother and the relationship of woman to woman.8

At the end of her second major work, Ce sexe, the transitional essay “When Our Lips Speak Together” poetically examines the relationship of woman to woman by opening a space in which women “speak female” (“parler femme”) and speak to each other (“parler-entre-elles”) without the interference of men. In it the speaking female subject “I” says to “you”: “I love you who are neither mother (pardon me, mother, for I prefer a woman) nor sister, neither daughter nor son.”9 This spoken love for the woman preferred to the mother would seem to herald, as it were, the piece before us in which another unexamined relationship, that of the woman/daughter to the mother, is explored.

In “And the One Doesn't Stir without the Other,” “I” addresses a specific “you” who is her mother. Written as a direct-discourse monologue that is divided into three parts indicated by the discrete placement of asterisks, the piece is highly personal and lyrical. It is a daughter's retrospection carefully designed to bring her reality into strong relief after its long obfuscation by psychoanalytic discourse. In the first part, the daughter begins to “speak” from what may be perceived as the pre-Oedipal stage: she describes her earliest intimate relationship to her mother in terms of an infant's sensations. (Here, the narrator/protagonist is at one and the same time the infant and the grown daughter, and time is fluid.) One of the most interesting and pervasive sensations described is that of being filled up, stuffed by the mother's zealous nurturing. Glut and its accompanying paralysis become the strongest sensations, and they ostensibly cause her to abandon her mother in anger and to follow her father, who then leaves her empty of himself but socialized into acceptance of the roles assigned her. Irigaray's subtle reversal of the belief that “lack” causes little girls to renounce their mothers and attach themselves to their fathers shows her power to undo playfully those Freudian and Lacanian Oedipal theories that she has previously deconstructed more seriously.

In the second part, the daughter's sensation of plenitude has become one of emptiness, and she despairs over the nullity of her mother's personhood (as well as her own, by extension), sandwiched as it is between the roles of mother's daughter and daughter's mother—a personhood destined to become nil when her daughter leaves her. So the script circles to a new beginning. Mothers, daughters, all women, Irigaray is saying, are swallowed up in the sole function of “maternage,” mothering. Anger, bewilderment, pain, confusion, despair: which of us has not experienced and decried these emotions as they are elicited by her own mother-daughter relationships! Yet in confronting them, Irigaray does not attempt to write a feminist fairy tale of the Good Mother—or of the Bad Mother, for that matter.

The varied emotions provoked by the fusion in which mothers and daughters are forced to lose their separate identities resolve themselves into grief over the lost possibility for a real relationship between two separate, whole women. This essay forms a companion piece to “When Our Lips Speak Together,” echoing words, images, and themes already sketched out in the latter essay—only here the desideratum for woman-to-woman relationships is more specifically described: as women become subjects, mothers and daughters may become women, subjects, and protagonists of their own reality rather than objects and antagonists in the Father's drama.10


  1. Luce Irigaray, Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1977), p. 140. Except where otherwise indicated, translations are my own.

  2. “And the One Doesn't Stir without the Other” is a translation of Et l'une ne bouge pas sans l'autre (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1979). I want to express my gratitude to Suzanne L. Relyea, who helped to nurture—in all the best senses of that word—this daughter piece.

  3. Irigaray, Ce sexe, p. 136.

  4. For a more general background to Irigaray's writings, see Carolyn Burke, “Introduction to Luce Irigaray's ‘When Our Lips Speak Together,’” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 6, no. 1 (Autumn 1980): 66-68. Burke offers excellent bibliographical information in her footnotes and in her text addresses questions concerning Irigaray's style.

  5. This mistrust persisted in spite of Juliet Mitchell's controversial Psychoanalysis and Feminism (New York: Random House, 1975), in which she urged feminists to reexamine Freud and his followers for deeper insights into liberation. It would be impossible to do justice to the great number of books and articles that have considered mothers and daughters in terms of roles; many have been excellent, some quite reductive.

  6. I am referring specifically to the ground-breaking work by Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978), that has served as the foundation for much published research as well as for seminars and workshops on feminism and psychoanalysis.

  7. Burke refers to those works of Irigaray's already available in translation. Speculum is currently being translated by Gillian Gill for Cornell University Press.

  8. Irigaray, Ce sexe, p. 123.

  9. Irigaray, “Quand nos lèvres se parlent,” in Ce sexe, pp. 205-17. Translated by Carolyn Burke as “When Our Lips Speak Together,” in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 6, no. 1 (Autumn 1980): 69-79, quotation from p. 72. My italics.

  10. This piece is dedicated to my mother, whom I would yet seek to touch.

Christine Holmlund (essay date summer 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10453

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 continual recognition that theoretical choices carry with them practical implications; and (3) her ongoing insistence that language usage both constitutes and perpetuates sexual inequality. Other stances may well seem alien: (1) her immersion in European philosophical debates; (2) her strategic invocations of essentialism; and (3) her apparent failure to examine concrete aspects of women's lives.

Unlike most North American feminists, Irigaray rereads and rewrites male, not female, theorists. And she urges that the roles biological factors play in the constitution of subjectivity be explored; whereas most North American feminists would prefer to emphasize social factors. Irigaray consciously places herself on the margins of, even outside, the French intellectual establishment and defines her work in feminist terms. In line with many male structuralist and poststructuralist thinkers, she frequently argues that “Woman” is the silent condition of representation. Consequently, she holds up male avant-garde literature and poetry, not writing by women, as the prime loci of subversion. Although Irigaray prefers dialogue with male philosophers, she does occasionally refer to the work of other women, and she always finds the idea that “Woman” is the condition of representation intolerable and unacceptable.

In this essay I review Irigaray's work, survey its critical reception, and suggest some directions for future research. For those interested in but unfamiliar with Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One is no doubt the best point of entry to her complex theoretical/political project. Two other collections of essays and lectures, L'Ethique de la différence sexuelle and Sexes et parentés, also merit attention, but they are more demanding, and only portions are available in English.1 The clearest and most comprehensive critical study of Irigaray to date is Elisabeth Grosz's Sexual Subversions. Other suggestions for secondary reading may be found in the notes.

Ever since the publication of Speculum de l'autre femme in 1974, Luce Irigaray has analyzed and reanalyzed, worked and reworked, the meanings accorded identity, equality, sameness, and difference within patriarchal discourses and within the alternative theoretical framework she proposes. Echoes, shifts, and contradictions in definitions and usage abound, from work to work, even within the same work. In Speculum de l'autre femme, Irigaray formulates what is no doubt her most fundamental argument regarding “sameness” and “difference.” Here, as throughout her work, she maintains that Western philosophers, linguists, and psychoanalysts describe women and femininity according to a male model which ignores the difference between the sexes and thereby reduces women to being the same as men.2 Elsewhere in Speculum de l'autre femme, however, Irigaray insists that women today are not the same as men but that they have much to gain, politically, from demanding social justice and risking sameness. Sameness, in other words, may be a necessary first stage before differences can be perceived and appreciated:

It is still a matter, ultimately, of demanding the same prerogatives [as men have]. … [W]omen have to advance to those same privileges (and to sameness, perhaps) before any consideration can be given to the differences that they might give rise to.3

Three years later, in Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un, Irigaray recasts this political paradox she sees feminism facing as “equality” rather than “sameness.” In an essay entitled “Questions,” she asks, for example, “how can the double bind—for both equality and difference—be articulated?”4 In another essay in this volume, “The Power of Discourse,” she argues against equality alone, because “women merely ‘equal’ to men would be ‘like them,’ therefore not women. Once more, the difference between the sexes would be in that way cancelled out, ignored, papered over” (Ce sexe, p. 166).

Irigaray uses “identity” in similarly multivalent ways. In Passions élémentaires (1982), as earlier in “Le Langage de l'homme” (1978), reprinted in Parler n'est jamais neutre (1985), identity is defined as a male concept used to make sense of men's necessary separation from their mothers. For women, who have a different, much closer relation to their mothers, according to Irigaray, identity is meaningless: no separation or delimitation of boundaries occurs between mother and daughter.5 Within a male framework, the possibility of a female identity is, therefore, unrecognized, unknown, unthought, as are reciprocity, fluidity, exchange, and permeability. Difference is quantitative (women are less than men), not qualitative (women are other than men).6

Despite her earlier condemnation of identity, in Sexes et parentés (1987), Irigaray insists that women need an identity of their own, not an identification with men.7 Returning to the political/philosophical questions she broached thirteen years earlier in Speculum de l'autre femme, she argues that because the rhetoric of equality is too easily absorbed within the state, which uses it to neutralize and contain women, feminist demands for “salaries and social recognition” should be made

in the name of identity and not equality. Without women, no more society. They should make this heard and demand, for themselves, a justice appropriate to their identity and not a few temporary rights annexed to the justice of men. Sexual difference is one of our hopes for the future.8

What are U.S. feminists, who have fought long and hard for equality with differences, to make of Irigaray's frequent preference for a distinctive female identity over equality? How to interpret the seeming contradictions within her work? Does Irigaray opt for a single difference between women and men over multiple differences among women and also among men? What of history and change?

In the past, Irigaray's vehement polemics have often led to a hasty dismissal of her theories as utopian and/or essentialist. With some exceptions, neither the nuances of her arguments nor the differences between U.S. and French intellectual and political contexts have been sufficiently taken into account.9 True, the fragmentary nature of much of Irigaray's work (several books are collections of essays, interviews, lectures and similar pieces), its unavailability in English, and the widely different textual strategies she has adopted over the years have exacerbated critical confusion. For the casual reader not versed in the rhetoric of European cultural debates especially, Irigaray's multiple styles are disconcerting, even intimidating. The range of her intellectual engagement—from psychoanalysis to linguistics to philosophy—is unquestionably daunting.10 And, last but not least, Irigaray's use of metaphor to express her vision of sexual difference makes it virtually impossible to say definitively what she means. As she herself points out, metaphor is, by definition, elusive. To interpret a metaphor is to close off the play of meaning it sets in motion.11

How, then, given the complexity of Irigaray's project, are we as U.S. feminists working in the 1990s, to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses? How are we to assess the promises and problems her writings pose in light of our own political and theoretical needs? Are her formulations of an alternative sexual difference purely theoretical and utopian, or are they also grounded in history and praxis?

In order to approach these questions from a fresh perspective, I argue that Irigaray consciously and unconsciously structures her critiques and creations around three central female figures. I maintain, further, that the fulcrum of Irigaray's analyses has changed over the years, moving from the lesbian to the mother and the daughter to the female lover in a heterosexual couple. This progression corresponds roughly to the three phases of stylistic experimentation identified by Carolyn Burke. The first phase includes the early, densely written, deconstructions of male philosophers (Speculum and Ce sexe). The second phase includes the transitional, erotically charged, poetic inscriptions of feminine desire of the late 1970s and early 1980s—the last essay of Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un, entitled “Quand nos lèvres se parlent,” Et l'une ne bouge pas sans l'autre (1979), and Le Corps-à-corps avec la mère (1981). And the third, most recent phase includes the more collaborative engagement with Nietzsche, Levinas, Heidegger, Hegel, Derrida, and others—Amante marine de Friedrich Nietzsche (1980), Passions élémentaires (1982), L'Oubli de l'air (1983), La Croyance même (1983), L'Ethique de la différence sexuelle (1984), Parler n'est jamais neutre (1985), and Sexes et parentés (1987).12

In what follows, I examine each of Irigaray's central female figures in turn, associating each with a particular period and style of writing and placing each within the broader context of her work as a whole. In conclusion, I return to my initial questions regarding Irigaray's de- and re-codings of identity, equality, sameness, and difference, rephrasing them in light of Irigaray's successive emphasis on these central female figures. Because Irigaray's most recent concern has been the relation between woman and man, has a different relation between woman and woman, as lesbians or as mothers and daughters, disappeared? If so, what might this mean for Irigaray's political philosophy? Where and how should our own critical rereadings of Irigaray come into play? Crucial questions, indeed, for as Irigaray herself would be the first to admit, the choice of organizing figures and tropes has political as well as poetic consequences.


Although like Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva and unlike Simone de Beauvoir, Irigaray has always emphasized the need to define femininity in relation to maternity,13 initially, the lesbian, not the mother, served as the linchpin for Irigaray's deconstructions of and dialogue with male philosophers, particularly Sigmund Freud. In Speculum de l'autre femme and Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un, only the lesbian and lesbian relationships provide Irigaray with an alternative to the hegemonic phallocentric model she so harshly condemns. With analyses of the lesbian, Irigaray thus begins a double theoretical move of critique and reconstruction which will characterize all her future work.14

For Irigaray, the lesbian's reduction by Freud to a man—she looks and acts like a man; she desires another woman like a man—stands as “the extreme consequence” (Ce sexe, p. 43) of what Irigaray labels the “hom/m/osexuality” of psychoanalysis, by which she means its inability to conceptualize women except as the “same” as men.15 All exchange, Irigaray insists, takes place among men, and male homosexuals are ostracized only because they too openly enact this basic principle.16 Lesbianism, in contrast, is overlooked by psychoanalysis because “the phenomenon of female homosexuality appears so foreign to [Freud's] ‘theory,’ to his (cultural) imaginary, that it cannot help but be ‘neglected by psychoanalytic research’” (Ce sexe, p. 195).17

That a woman might desire a woman ‘like’ herself … that she might also have auto- and homosexual appetites is simply incomprehensible to Freud, and indeed inadmissible. So there will be no female homosexuality, just a homosexuality in which woman will be … begged to maintain the desire for the same that man has. …

(Speculum, pp. 101, 103)18

Irigaray shows Freud's vision of the lesbian as always, inevitably “masculine” to be riddled with contradictions, the result of his own desires and denials. Whereas, Irigaray charges, Freud could have pointed out that “miming—acting, pretending—is capable of affording an increase in pleasure over simple discharges of instincts” (Speculum, p. 100), he instead passes over lesbian pleasure and by extension, female pleasure. In the framework of sameness he constructs, women in general, and lesbians in particular, are granted no separate identity. Equality, as a result, can quite literally not be thought.

Nevertheless, by her presence, the lesbian shows up the conflation within psychoanalysis and philosophy of femininity and maternity as ideologically motivated. She exposes “mature femininity” (Speculum, p. 112, citing Freud) as, in effect, mere masquerade, imposed on women by men.19 By desiring another woman “like a man,” the lesbian mimics and plays with the masculinity and femininity of psychoanalytic discourse, thereby making both “visible” as constructions and performances.20 At the same time she discovers, creates, “what an exhilarating pleasure it is to be partnered with someone like herself” (Speculum, p. 103). For Irigaray, then, the lesbian demonstrates that women “are not simply resorbed” by a male-defined femininity: “They also remain elsewhere …” (Ce sexe, p. 76).

Crucially, lesbian relationships thus figure not only the possibility but also the actual existence of another kind of exchange, another kind of desire, “without identifiable terms, without accounts, without end” (Ce sexe, p. 197). The last essays of Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un in particular draw on lesbian relationships and sexuality to initiate a “speaking among women” (Ce sexe, pp. 119, 135). In the final essay of Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un, “Quand nos lèvres se parlent,” the central metaphor of the first period, women's two lips, is explicitly associated with lesbian sexuality. As the title suggests, kissing and talking are linked: for Irigaray, the two lips evoke both a nonreproductive female sexuality and a new female language.21

Despite her lyrical evocation of lesbian love as a space where “there are no proprietors, no purchasers, no determinable objects, no prices” (Ce sexe, p. 213), however, Irigaray is not uncritical of lesbianism as a feminist strategy. Elsewhere in Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un, she warns against adopting separatism as a goal or lesbianism as the life-style for women. Posing such either/or choices, she says, will lock women into being “among themselves” once again, with the result that “history would repeat itself in the long run, would revert to sameness: to phallocratism” (Ce sexe, p. 33).22 In her later works she is even more reluctant to promote lesbianism as an end in and of itself. In L'Ethique de la différence sexuelle (p. 66), for example, she argues that “one of the dangers of love between women is the confusion of identity between them, the nonrespect and non-perception of differences.” For Irigaray, self-love, love for other women, and lesbianism, like “forg[ing] … a social status that compels recognition” and “earning [a] living,” are “indispensable stages” needed for “women's sexuality … women's imaginary [and] women's language to take place” (Ce sexe, p. 33). Later, in L'Ethique de la différence sexuelle (p. 69), ideal love seems more heterosexual than homosexual: “The discovery would be to be two in order to be able to be one in this third which is love.”23 Nevertheless, she does acknowledge at various points that both female homosexuality and a heterosexuality based on the difference between women and men must be explored.

Two qualitative differences remain to be discovered, to be placed in relation to each other—that which arises from sexual difference and that which can be lived in a sympathy between women. They are no doubt not separate but they do not correspond to the same feeling. To fold them in on each other or to efface one within the other would be to reduce both to something quantitative.

(Parler, p. 294)

Irigaray's own interest in analyzing the figure of the lesbian and lesbian relationships wanes, however, after Speculum de l'autre femme and Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un. Instead, in the next phase of her writing, her attention shifts to the mother and the relationship between mother and daughter. While the lips continue to be a central metaphor, evocative of openness, fluidity, and the importance of touch as opposed to sight, their connection with lesbian sexuality and relationships among women is attenuated by the increasing prominence of the placenta, the nourishing envelope for both sexes. How the lesbian functions as metaphorical or historical figure, and what she may offer Irigaray's, and our own, understanding of identity, equality, sameness, and difference, cannot be fully assessed, therefore, until her work with the mother and the heterosexual female lover is also examined.


Although the mother figures prominently in Irigaray's early books and again in her most recent work, Et l'une ne bouge pas sans l'autre (1979) and Le Corps-à-corps avec la mère (1981) stand out for three main reasons: (1) in them, Irigaray focuses exclusively on mother/daughter relationships; (2) in them, she applies and adapts the double move of criticism and creation begun around the lesbian to the mother; and (3) in these works, as opposed to those that follow, Irigaray's attitude toward the mother is ambivalent, haunted by the image of the male-defined phallic mother she described in Speculum de l'autre femme and Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un. In her studies after 1981, in contrast, Irigaray's redefinitions of the mother and maternal metaphors are far more positive.

From Speculum de l'autre femme on, Irigaray views the reclamation of the mother and motherhood for women as a more urgent task than the reappraisal of the lesbian. Time and again, she notes that phallocentric discourse equates female identity with motherhood: “‘Femininity’ fades away before maternity, is absorbed into maternity”; “the mother once again … mask[s] the woman” (Speculum, pp. 74, 117).24 For Irigaray, as Elisabeth Grosz points out, “maternity has functioned to elide the specificity of women's identities and social positions by equating femininity always and only with reproduction and nurturance.”25 A corollary proposition also holds: because phallocentric discourse emphasizes motherhood and reproduction, the mother is deprived of her identity as a woman and as a lover.26 Hence the dual importance, politically and personally, of “recognizing your mother as a woman … [of] distancing yourself from motherly omnipotence. You recognize her as a finite person with limits. …”27

Irigaray analyzes at length men's conscious and unconscious reasons for reducing women, including mothers, to reproductive vessels. The mother, she says, “at least—is not nothing. She is not this vacuum (of) woman” men find so threatening (Speculum, p. 228). Although sons may feel nostalgic for an archaic mother, usually they fear her. Daughters, however, are not permitted any active relationship or identification with their mothers.28 So complete is the erasure of mother and daughter within male representation, Irigaray charges, that mother/daughter relationships can be termed the “dark continent of the dark continent” (Corps, p. 61), and Western culture can be said to be founded on the death of the mother.29

To counter and rewrite this suppression of what she refers to in L'Ethique de la différence sexuelle as the “vertical dimension” of feminine ethics,30 Irigaray takes mother/daughter relationships as the subject of Et l'une ne bouge pas sans l'autre and Le Corps-à-corps avec la mère. In both books, exchange between mothers and daughters is accorded the seductive and productive characteristics earlier attributed to lesbian exchange. Written from the point of view of a baby girl and reminiscent of the lyrical exchanges between the lesbian “tu/je” in “Quand nos lèvres se parlent,” Et l'une ne bouge pas sans l'autre is a lament for the lack of love between mother and daughter. In the absence of genuine dialogue between them, love borders on hate, an idea Irigaray occasionally returns to in her later work as well. In L'Ethique de la différence sexuelle (p. 100), for example, she asks:

Love for the mother, for women, perhaps must only or could only exist in the form of a substitution? Of a taking her place? Which is unconsciously suffused with hate?

Ambivalence, however, is the central emotion in Et l'une ne bouge pas sans l'autre. Only at the end of the essay does the daughter, overwhelmed, suffocated by the mother, try to persuade her that they do not need to obliterate each other, that “in giving me life, you still remain alive.”31

More polemical in style and more positive in tone, Le Corps-à-corps avec la mère overtly reformulates mother/daughter relationships in terms of lesbian relationships:

Given that the first body with which [women] are involved, the first love with which they have to do, is a maternal love, is a female body, women are always—unless they renounce their desire—in a certain archaic and primary relationship to what is called homosexuality.

(Corps, p. 30)32

The maternal is thereby redefined in nonbiological terms, no longer restricted to reproduction. As a result, Irigaray can say at the end of Le Corps-à-corps avec la mère and in an accompanying interview that “we are always mothers as soon as we are women,” and “every woman is potentially a mother” (pp. 27, 63). What Irigaray calls the “motherly dimension” is separated from “material reproduction”: “You can also ‘give birth’ in your work or in your relations with others. You can mother your friends.”33 Irigaray's belief in the existence of a redefined motherhood is implicit here, although elsewhere it becomes visionary as motherhood encompasses all creation: “of love, of desire, of language, of art, of the social, of the political, of the religious, etc.” (Corps, pp. 27-28).

Gone is the ambivalence which permeated Et l'une ne bouge pas sans l'autre: from Le Corps-à-corps avec la mère on, the mother in Irigaray's model becomes largely a positive figure. The placenta—first home of both women and men, symbol of flux, permeability, nourishment, and a mother who is forever elusive, lost—becomes as frequent and important a metaphor as the lips. Irigaray thereby moves, in Teresa Brennan's words, “to symbolize women's relation to their maternal origin.”34 Indeed, were it not for the appearance of a third female figure, the heterosexual female lover, one might well agree with Domna C. Stanton that “the vehicle for [Irigaray's] exploration of difference is essentially maternal.”35 But because in Amante marine de Friedrich Nietzsche,Passions élémentaires,L'Ethique de la différence sexuelle,L'Oubli de l'air, and Sexes et parentés Irigaray's identification with the heterosexual female lover is far more profound than her identification with either the mother or the lesbian, this final figure must also be considered before Irigaray's redefinitions of identity, equality, sameness, and difference can be fairly evaluated.


The seeds for Irigaray's dialogue with male philosophers from the point of view of the heterosexual female lover, like her initial treatment of the mother and the daughter, are already to be found in Speculum de l'autre femme and Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un. In the latter, she describes the strategy of destruction through seduction which will dominate her later work, saying of her engagement in Speculum de l'autre femme with Freud, Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Hegel and in Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un with Lacan, Marx, Levi-Strauss, and Freud: “It was necessary to destroy … with nuptial tools. … The option left to me was to have a fling with the philosophers …” (Ce sexe, p. 150).

But although the practice of amorous dialogue is already present in the early work, the figure of the heterosexual female lover does not fully emerge until Amante marine de Friedrich Nietzsche (1980). Despite Irigaray's brief return in 1981 in Le Corps-à-corps avec la mère and again in a few later essays to the mother/daughter relationships, after Amante marine de Friedrich Nietzsche her attention shifts from female relationships, whether lesbian or mother/daughter, to heterosexual relationships. The couple is now characterized as “the basic unit of all society” and the “intermediary space between individuals, peoples, States” (Sexes et parentés, pp. 167, 17). Irigaray's dream of a new age encompasses everyone and everything, including, even foregrounding, men: “A new epoch signifies a different relation between man and god/s, man and man, man and world, and man and woman” (L'Ethique, pp. 15-16).36 Marriage is no longer simply conceptualized as the male exchange of women, to be countered by exchange among women. Rather, like Irigaray's reformulation of lesbian relationships and her metaphoric reexamination of the mother, marriage is now thought of as openness and fluidity, characterized by a respect for the boundaries of an other without fixed identity.37 In order to celebrate marriage, Irigaray notes, “a harmonious passage from the exterior to the interior, from the interior to the exterior of bodies … is needed. That the two be here and there at the same time, which is not to say that they merge” (Amante marine, pp. 124-25). In a sense, the heterosexual love relationship even replaces procreation and motherhood. Irigaray argues that “lovers would confer life on themselves/each other, in the assumption and absolution of a definitive conception” (L'Ethique, p. 177). As was the case with her redefinition of the mother, Irigaray insists that the heterosexual love relationship be considered outside the demands of reproduction: “By forcing couples to reproduce they are prevented from being creations of the world.”38

The double move of critique and re-creation begun with the lesbian is thus multiply present in Irigaray's discussion of heterosexual love and lovers. Once again, Irigaray chastises post-Socratic philosophy for straitjacketing women and men as the same and proposes an alternative wherein love and eroticism are combined. “In order to love, it is necessary to be two,” she says repeatedly (L'Ethique, p. 69). Passions élémentaires sings the rediscovery of love, the elements, and the world by female and male subjects who encounter and embrace without fusing with or annihilating each other. Amante marine de Friedrich Nietzsche (p. 43), in contrast, warns that “If the one and the other don't marry each other in the difference of their movements, they risk the abyss in each other, perceiving nothing any longer of themselves or of the other.”

To date, Irigaray argues, phallocentric conceptions of love have been predicated on hierarchy and exclusion, not reciprocity and acceptance. Love has meant appropriating and consuming the other, not letting her or him grow.39 In much the same way that she scolded Freud for defining the little girl and the lesbian as men, Irigaray takes Nietzsche to task: The woman “takes part in your marriage, but in your marriage with yourself. … That she is destroyed in the process is of little concern to you” (Amante marine, p. 38). Within phallocentric discourse, neither female self-love nor an active female desire of the other can be envisaged. The female lover is positioned as object, as the beloved, in French, “l'aimée.” The consequences of such a restriction, Irigaray charges, are disastrous for women: “To define the couple in love as lover and beloved signifies, already, an assignation to a polarity which deprives the female lover of her love” (L'Ethique, p. 189).40

Irigaray rewrites this scenario as she did with the lesbian and the mother. Now, however, her intentions are clearer, for instead of redefining the original term “lesbian” or “mother” within a different context, here she counters “l'aimée” with “l'amante,” the female lover, an actively desiring female subject. Again, as with the redefined lesbian and mother, the question implicitly arises as to whether this active female lover already exists or whether she is purely a utopian construct. The answers Irigaray gives are contradictory. Her sadness at the impossibility of a relationship with Nietzsche as an equal is obvious. At the beginning of Amante marine de Friedrich Nietzsche (p. 9), she sighs: “How I would love you, if I had the possibility of speaking to you.” And, in Sexes et parentés (pp. 193-94), she maintains that the heterosexual female lover does not yet exist: “Where the woman is concerned, her gestures as lover seem still to be invented. She has lost herself in the mother. … She expresses perhaps her need-desire to be loved, but not her own love.”

But Irigaray's own practice systematically undercuts such pessimism. Her writing style—the multiplication of questions and quotations, the proliferation of sentences without subjects, the fondness for conditional verbs—refuses certitude, presence, and Truth. All are predicated on love relationships which are, for the most part, heterosexual. With the exception of “Quand nos lèvres se parlent,” Et l'une ne bouge pas sans l'autre and, arguably, Le Corps-à-corps avec la mère, Irigaray speaks to, of, and with men as their lover, in “a double style: a style of amorous relationships, a style of thought, of exposition, of writing” (Sexes et parentés, p. 191).

Despite her harsh and sustained criticisms of male philosophers, the extent and continuity of her involvement with them is obvious. Nowhere, perhaps, is this more apparent than in Amante marine de Friedrich Nietzsche. As she says in an interview in Le Corps-à-corps avec la mère (p. 44), “Amante marine … is not a book on Nietzsche but with Nietzsche who for me is a partner in a love relationship.” Carolyn Burke explains that Nietzsche's attractiveness for Irigaray is based on a shared critique of metaphysics as a misunderstanding of the body.41 The very title of Irigaray's book acknowledges her debt to and active participation with Nietzsche: the preposition “de” in Amante marine de Friedrich Nietzsche is willfully ambiguous. The use of the informal “tu” throughout further indicates the closeness of the bond she feels with Nietzsche.42

In many ways, then, and on many levels, the status accorded the female heterosexual lover within Irigaray's work differs markedly from the status accorded either the lesbian or the mother. Although Irigaray makes clear her opposition to rigid dichotomies and forced alternatives, promoting relationships between women and relationships between women and men, there can be no doubt that for her, the heterosexual couple is more important, more intriguing than either the lesbian couple or the mother and daughter. As she says in an interview, “man and woman is the most mysterious and creative [couple].” Jokingly she adds, “it is deeper with a man.”43

Jokes aside, Irigaray's recent emphasis on heterosexual relationships and comparative neglect of lesbian relationships necessarily affects how critics and activists read and use her deconstructions and redefinitions of identity, equality, sameness, and difference. Having sketched the political and philosophical concerns which motivate Irigaray's mobilization of these three main female figures, therefore, I will now weigh each against the others, first with respect to metaphor, then with respect to history, in order to assess the strategic value implicit in each, and in all.


Feminist critics in general find Irigaray's critique of phallocentric “identity” powerful and frequently persuasive. When woman is reduced to the same as or less than man, equality is clearly impossible. Debate as to the value of Irigaray's analyses of identity, equality, sameness, and difference centers for the most part on her visionary re-creations of an undefinable, nonunitary female identity based on difference. Does Irigaray's version of difference become yet another model predicated on sameness, as Linda Godard charges?44 Does her new model of female identity duplicate without transforming phallocentric representations of “Woman”? Does she ignore differences among women, as Domna C. Stanton maintains?45 Are Elizabeth Berg and Debra Terzian right to say that Irigaray speaks not as a woman but as a phallic mother or a man?46 Or is Irigaray successful in thinking difference “differently,” as Carolyn Burke argues?47 Is she able to deal with difference without constituting an opposition?48 Does she express something amorphously in-between, multiple, and fluid, which she calls the “interval”?49 Can a final judgment of her even be rendered, or does she manage to “proceed in such a way that linear reading is no longer possible” (Ce sexe, p. 80)?

For me, the debate over how to read and use Irigaray's recreations hinges on two related questions: the one concerns the role of metaphor, language, and experience in her work, the other the role of history, ideology, and politics. For some feminists, the question of the status of metaphor in Irigaray's writing has been particularly divisive. Most appreciate Irigaray's dissection of the tropes of phallocentric discourse and especially her critiques of the privileging and conflation of the penis/phallus in Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis. Although Jacqueline Rose may be right to argue that Irigaray does not recognize that, for Lacan, the phallus is a symbol of lack for men as well as women, she is not simply anti-Lacan or anti-Freud, or even antiphallus.50 Rather, as Margaret Whitford points out, her goal is to expose the ideological dimensions of psychoanalysis and Western metaphysics which mask an imaginary grounded on the male body as neutrality, objectivity, reality, and truth.51 She is concerned with questions of representation, not with the drives or the pre-Oedipal per se. And here there is of course no getting around the fact that the phallus is propped on the penis, a male sex organ.

Irigaray's countering of phallic metaphors with her own metaphoric network knotted around the lips and the placenta is harder for many feminists to accept. Many castigate Irigaray for lapsing into essentialism and repeating phallomorphic categories, and/or for failing to question her own metaphors.52 Others, however, appreciate Irigaray's metaphors, reading them as efforts to reembody the disembodied Cartesian subject, and/or to anchor “femininity” in a female body. For these critics, Irigaray's confusion of social and anatomical categories is a necessary political strategy, productive, not reductive. As Dianna Fuss puts it, because “Irigaray both is and is not an essentialist,” she circumvents an either/or opposition between discourse on the one hand and matter on the other.53

Irigaray describes her rewriting of, with, and through the body as metaphor, that is, as a way of “translat[ing], by an obligatory detour, the aporia of speech as to the inarticulable functioning … of the copula, of sex. …”; a way of expressing “the games of like or, better yet, as if … the games between.” Metaphors proliferate throughout Irigaray's texts because, she says, only an “abuse of metaphors” or what “is abusively designated as metaphors” can in any way convey the ineffable (Parler, pp. 174-75). For Irigaray, the choice of both the lips and the placenta is thus motivated by a desire to go beyond “the phallocentric equat[ion of] women's sexuality with her reproductive organs” to inscribe an erotic female sexuality built around openings and permeable membranes which are neither unitary nor immediately visible (Speculum, p. 146).

The lips, in particular, are associated with female autoeroticism and “a symbolism … created among women … who can speak with each other” (L'Ethique, p. 103). In Jane Gallop's view, Irigaray's selection of the lips bypasses the either/or phallocentric opposition of vagina and clitoris and plays back and forth between sexuality (the lips below) and language (the lips above). But because Gallop does not discuss Irigaray's overt association of the lips with lesbian sexuality in “Quand nos lèvres se parlent,” she argues that Irigaray “produces an in-itself of female experience that is not rooted in anything recognized as female experience.”54 Although I am sympathetic to Gallop's desire to defend Irigaray against charges of reductive anatomical referentiality, and although I agree that Irigaray's emphasis is on representation, I would like to move feminist rereadings of Irigaray in another direction. For me, Irigaray's association of lips with a lesbian sexuality is richly evocative. Imagine, lips on lips, above and below. No longer is genital sex in the service of reproduction the only option for women. Finally attention is paid to the multiplicity of female erogenous zones, with time for talk and laughter, too. I find it useful and necessary to insist on Irigaray's references to sexual practices among women, as compensation for Irigaray's own recent neglect of the lesbian and as counterbalance to the many readings of Irigaray that remain docilely within heterosexual parameters.

Yet I do not want to suggest that the lips are to be read as only referring to or reflecting sociological experience: this would be to ignore the emphasis Irigaray constantly places on representation. Nor do I want to imply that the lips are only aligned with the lesbian in Irigaray's discussions: all women have lips, above and below. Because Irigaray goes on to describe mother/daughter relationships in terms of lesbian relationships, she provides, as Stanton acknowledges, “an important vehicle for speaking the Lesbian relation in an enduringly homophobic hegemony,”55 and, I would add, suggests a way out of what is often the impasse of heterosexuality.

The placenta functions differently. Although Irigaray describes it as the first home for both women and men and links it to a prediscursive experience shared by both sexes, as a metaphor it is obviously associated with the mother's body alone. Irigaray may expand the constellation of meanings associated with the placenta and the mother to the bursting point, but unlike the lips, the placenta cannot be stretched to encompass different sexual practices or female sexuality and eroticism in general. Stanton argues as a result that “the maternal metaphor does not produce revelations so much as revalorizations or relodgings of topoi, images, and myths embedded in binary phallologic.” Because the maternal is so overdetermined in today's society, she says, “it militates against our overcoming the conceptual impasse it represents.”56

In her critique, however, Stanton tips the scale toward the mother, without taking the lesbian or the heterosexual female lover adequately into account, and without giving sufficient weight to Irigaray's interweaving throughout her later work of metaphors of the lips with metaphors of the placenta. When Irigaray's work is reviewed as a whole, it is clear she is more aware of differences among women than Stanton will admit. Certainly, the danger that a phallocentric binary logic will be reduplicated exists, both because Irigaray counters male metaphors with female ones and because she reinscribes traditional conceptions of femininity as fluidity, openness, materiality, and so on. But the risk of sameness must be taken: feminism will always find itself in a double bind vis-à-vis the body, because patriarchal ideology has no outside.

Where Irigaray's metaphors of the body are concerned, then, it seems to me we need to insist on, even highlight, the early association of the lips with lesbianism, despite Irigaray's current preference for the heterosexual female lover, and not focus exclusively on the maternal and the placenta. Perhaps we should even hope for still further thickenings of this metaphorical soup, for reconfigurations of male as well as female sexuality. What about the balls, for example, as Jane Gallop asks?57 After all, phallocentric discourses form male as well as female sexuality: the penis and the phallus are not the same. How might we expand on Irigaray's analyses of male hom/m/osexual exchange and formulate male homosexuality apart from male heterosexuality? Meanwhile it is crucial that we recognize the political impetus behind Irigaray's abuse of metaphors. The title “Le Sexe fait comme signe” in Parler n'est jamais neutre nicely expresses the complexity of Irigaray's practice of metaphorization: the sex is already made, constructed, in discourse, like a sign; but it also gestures, actively, like a sign to this discourse, in what Irigaray terms its “semaphoric function” (Parler, p. 181). By gesturing outward, toward the act of enunciation, metaphors and plays on words may thus serve as prompts for investigations of history, politics, and ideology.58

Here, too, however, Irigaray's interventions in the name of difference and female identity are hotly debated. At issue, as I have indicated earlier, is the extent to which Irigaray's re-creations are solely theoretical and utopian or whether they are also historical and material. Is the feminine, and/or women, completely silenced, repressed throughout history? Or can female alternatives be extrapolated from a range of “contextual, sociohistorical discourses”?59 Similarly, does Irigaray always position herself in opposition to phallocentric philosophy, repetitively offering the same monolithic, ahistorical critique of male philosophers? Are such either/or assessments of her work fair? Or do they instead reflect a North American discomfort with Continental philosophy? Where does it make sense, politically speaking, to insist in our rereadings of Irigaray on an imbrication of experience and representation in her work? Should we read her as solely concerned with representation?

At many points in her texts, Irigaray indicates her sensitivity to the need to look at sexual difference and sameness from a contextual and sociohistorical perspective. For example, she describes sexual difference as “one of the questions or the question which must be thought” in today's society (L'Ethique, p. 13) and calls for an analysis of “the historical determinants that prescribe the ‘development of a woman’ as psychoanalysis conceives of it” (Ce sexe, p. 63). She speaks of “Woman” as “differently veiled according to the epochs of history” (Amante marine, p. 126) and says that sexual difference “is not situated in reproduction (natural or artificial) but in the access of the sexes to culture” (Sexe et parentés, p. 8).

Yet although she argues against “making woman the subject or the object of a theory” and against “subsuming the feminine under some generic term such as ‘woman,’” and although she urges that women's liberation movements should be recognized as many, not one, saying “there are multiple groups and tendencies in women's struggles today” (Ce sexe, pp. 156, 164), only rarely does Irigaray herself refer to or enter into dialogue with other women.60 Her collusion in the silencing of women's voices is a conscious choice, resulting from her desire to clear a space for “le féminin,” a female symbolic, a new form of knowledge, by tackling and engaging with patriarchal discourses. As Grosz points out, Irigaray is well aware that

the project of (re-)creating a lost past does not simply consist in excavating those women “forgotten” in history. … To be able to trace a female genealogy of descent entails new kinds of language, new systems of nomenclature, new relations of social and economic exchange—in other words, a complete reorganization of the social order.61

But this choice carries with it risks and limits. As a strategy, it unwittingly exonerates female writers and philosophers from the crimes of Western science, technology, and metaphysics. It also paradoxically leaves Irigaray vulnerable to charges that she is a “phallic mother” who positions herself as the authority on female language, experience, and politics.62 Finally, because Irigaray converses with white European men and focuses on gender and sexuality, class and race do not often surface as issues in her work. As a result, for all her insistence that she speaks as a woman, not for women, and for all her emphasis on the need for a genealogy and a history of women, she may be in danger of “ignoring who the other woman is.”63 The question of Irigaray's relation to women and history thus proves as thorny, yet as necessary, as the status of metaphor in her work.

Irigaray's readings of male philosophers similarly shy away from concrete historical analyses, although they are by no means either completely one-sided or entirely ahistorical. She repeatedly emphasizes, for example, the contributions as well as the limitations of psychoanalysis: “Freud is in fact indicating a way off the historico-transcendental stage, at the very moment when his theory and practice are perpetuating … that very same stage.” She also insists on the need to interpret “the historical determinants of the constitution of the ‘subject’ as same” (Speculum, pp. 139-40). Frequently, she acknowledges her debts to Nietzsche, Heidegger, Lacan, Levinas, Descartes, Merleau-Ponty, Derrida, and others. Yet the fact that she makes virtually the same criticisms of each can be seen as problematic, unless we agree with Margaret Homans that Irigaray's intent in so doing is to explore “not only the powers but also the limits of feminist revisionism.”64 I believe, however, that because of the complexity of Irigaray's political/philosophical project, we will only really be able to appreciate whether and why Irigaray analyzes shifts in female and male representations when her later texts have been examined more thoroughly, within and against the contexts of male philosophers.

In the meantime, I will argue once again that precisely because history, politics, and ideology are granted such important, but vague, roles in Irigaray's work, the figure of the lesbian is crucial to our reviewings of her reconstitutions of identity, equality, sameness, and difference. For in her analyses of the lesbian, Irigaray draws on and refers to a desire and exchange among women which already exists, and which, moreover, offers an alternative to, although not necessarily a replacement of, phallic sexuality. As feminist critics and activists, we cannot afford to forget that “there are at least two modes of jouissance for women” (Le Corps, p. 31).

To argue in favor of retaining and foregrounding the lesbian in Irigaray's work is not, however, to argue that the lesbian alone holds the key to another, better, world. One of Irigaray's primary strengths, as I see it, is that in her texts, unlike those of most male theorists, it is impossible to view the metaphor of woman as single. The lesbian, the mother, the daughter, the heterosexual female lover all function as nodal points for the subversion of patriarchal discourses and the creation of feminist alternatives. For U.S. feminists especially, Irigaray's deconstructions and reconstructions of the mother as always, also, a woman, hence not solely defined in terms of reproduction, are vital interventions, because motherhood and choice have become such volatile political issues. Irigaray's recent concentration on and reconceptualization of the heterosexual female lover is innovative as well, for it runs counter to and complements the tendency within feminist theory to promote a politics of identity based on female autonomy. For all her interest in feminine identity and difference, Irigaray argues that the heterosexual female lover must be thought together with the man, and vice versa. I read Irigaray on the heterosexual female lover, therefore, as not just obsessed with a difference from men but as engaged in reformulating a difference with men.

For both sexes, a new status for “Woman,” whether as lesbian, mother or heterosexual lover, necessarily entails a certain danger: “The difference between the sexes—when it happens—brings with it a risk, each time not easily foreseeable, of an increase or a diminution of jouissance if not of desire. For the woman as well as for the man” (Parler, p. 273).65 Feminists have always taken this risk, have always found it necessary to posit difference in order to ask questions. This is not the same as positing difference in order to give answers. What female identity/identities or a female imaginary/imaginaries may be, may become, is not clear. But explorations like Irigaray's, which walk the tightrope between metaphor and history, philosophy and politics, can help create “the conditions in which change can take place.”66

Admittedly, shifting gears between biology, psyche, and society as Irigaray does is inevitably awkward, invariably unsatisfying. Future studies of Irigaray need to engage with at least three as yet ill-explored areas of her work: (1) the tropes and figures which uphold her formulations of identity and difference; (2) her relationships to and departures from male philosophical traditions; and (3) her explorations of female and male language use. In the first of these areas, we will certainly want to look at a fourth, far more androgynous figure, who increasingly haunts Irigaray's writings: the angel. For Irigaray, the angel, as intermediary between heaven and earth, heralds the importance of defining a sexually based ethics. But the angel's relation to female and male figures can only be assessed through investigation of the second area, Irigaray's interactions with male philosophers. To date, most work has been done on her rereadings and subversions of Freud, Lacan, and Derrida. Yet Irigaray's work is not just deconstructionist or poststructuralist in its suspicion of identity. A strong totalizing urge marks it as well. Not enough attention has been paid to Irigaray's concern with ethics and metaphysics: it may well make sense to read her now in conjunction with the various strands of the nouvelle philosophie that are similarly characterized by a renewed interest in Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, and political philosophy.

Finally, Irigaray's ongoing examinations of language use must be studied with respect to her psychoanalytic, philosophical, and poetic interventions. Despite the fact that empirical studies have been an integral part of her political/theoretical project from the start, the task of evaluating what they may mean has only begun.67 It is quite possible, for example, that the connections Irigaray makes between experience and ideology, metaphor and history will surface more concretely here. The studies she is currently conducting, together with women in France, the United States, Italy, Canada, and Germany, may well yield data on cross-cultural differences as well as on gender differences.68

There are no easy bridges between theory and practice or French and American intellectual and political contexts. Nevertheless, I strongly believe we cannot afford to dismiss the questions Irigaray raises out of hand, for they are vital to the theoretical and practical dilemmas that confront us today. In right-wing America, where AIDS is viewed as proof of gay men's damnable difference, and where women's right to choose is placed on a par with a fetus's right to life, we can certainly agree with Irigaray that the meanings accorded identity and equality, sameness and difference, are not just academic exercises. As we know all too well, merely to fight for difference or merely to fight for equality would be naive. For U.S. feminists who want to adapt Irigaray's provocative “detour[s] into strategy, tactics and practice” to our own present political and theoretical needs, the best solution is to engage in dialogue with her,69 taking the time to consider the implications her thought has for ethics and metaphysics, rather than invoking her texts in support of an ahistorical methodology of reading.70 It is, after all, unfair and unwise to expect Irigaray, or anyone, to have all the answers.

Within the larger projects of reading and dialogue I have signaled above, the task of “pierc[ing] the metaphors” (Speculum, p. 136) she herself has constructed stands out as crucial, as Grosz notes, “not only because [metaphors] occup[y] a central place in her writings, but also because [they] constitut[e] the most densely inverted and heatedly contested area of her work.”71 Irigaray's current preference for the heterosexual female lover and corresponding neglect of the lesbian, for example, does not mean she has repudiated the one for the other. But given the force of heterosexual assumptions and privileges in today's world, we may well need to insist that the lesbian is not a stage to be outgrown en route to mature heterosexuality. From my dialogues with and readings of Irigaray, I would urge that we—like Irigaray, with Irigaray, even, if necessary, against Irigaray—explore differences within women, among women, and between women and men. Rather than reformulate “Woman” as lesbian, as mother, or as heterosexual lover, let us follow Irigaray's lead and use these figures to question and extend each other.


  1. Besides Speculum de l'autre femme and Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un, only a few of Luce Irigaray's essays have been translated into English: Et l'une ne bouge pas sans l'autre as “The One Doesn't Stir without the Other,” trans. Helene Wenzel, Signs 7 (Autumn 1981): 60-67; part of Amante marine de Friedrich Nietzsche as “Veiled Lips,” trans. Sara Seidel, Mississippi Review 11 (1983): 98-119; an essay from Parler n'est jamais neutre, “Is the Subject of Science Sexed?” in Cultural Critique 1 (Fall 1984): 73-88; an essay from Sexes et parentés, “Woman, the Sacred, and Money,” trans. Diana Knight and Margaret Whitford, Paragraph 8 (October 1986); the first chapter of L'Ethique de la différence sexuelle, “La Différence sexuelle,” as “Sexual Difference,” trans. Sean Hand, in French Feminist Thought, ed. Toril Moi (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987); the last chapter of L'Ethique de la différence sexuelle, “Fécondité de la caresse,” as “The Fecundity of the Caress,” trans. Carolyn Burke, in Face to Face with Levinas, ed. Richard S. Cohen (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987); and another essay from Sexes et parentés, “The Gesture in Psychoanalysis,” trans. Elizabeth Guild, in Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis, ed. Teresa Brennan (New York: Routledge, 1989), 127-38.

  2. Irigaray's later work continues to charge that men prefer sameness to difference: she therefore refers to the male body as women's prison. See, for example, Irigaray, Passions élémentaires (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1982), 16-17: “You have trapped me in yourself … we will die together unless you let me go outside your same.” See also p. 91: “You erase … the difference between us.” The translations are mine, as are all subsequent translations except those from Speculum de l'autre femme and Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un.

  3. Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 119. Subsequent references to this edition are cited in parentheses in the text. Gill's translation at times alters Irigaray's text and interrupts the flow through the addition of title subdivisions; however, I have chosen to refer to it in what follows because it is so readily available.

  4. Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 81. Subsequent references to this edition are cited in parentheses in the text.

  5. See, for example, Irigaray, “Le Language de l'homme,” Revue philosophique 4 (Fall 1987), reprinted in Parler n'est jamais neutre (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1985), 284, 287. Subsequent references to this edition are cited in parentheses in the text. See also Irigaray, Passions élémentaires, 109.

  6. On this subject see, for example, Irigaray, “Le Sujet de la science est-il sexué?” in Parler n'est jamais neutre, 313. See also Irigaray, L'Ethique de la différence sexuelle (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1984), 78, 178 (a passage that connects a qualitative, not a quantitative, difference with the possibility of a nonoppressive heterosexual love). Subsequent references to this edition are cited in parentheses in the text.

  7. On the distinction between identity and identification, see Irigaray, “Une Chance de vivre,” in Sexes et parentés (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1987), 210-11:

    The neuter is often situated … in the confusion between identity and identification. The lure of being … able to be men … exiles women from themselves and makes of them agents of individual and social destruction.

    See also “Femmes divines,” in Sexes et parentés, 85:

    Feminine identity is always brought back to empirical parameters which prevent a woman, and the world of women, from resembling themselves as unity. … “Are you a virgin?” “Are you married?” … “Do you have children?” these … do not situate [a woman] except from the outside and in relation to a social function and not [in relation to] a feminine identity and autonomy.

  8. Irigaray, Sexes et parentés, 8. Subsequent references to this edition are cited in parentheses in the text. See also pp. 126, 130.

  9. For discussion of the differences between U.S. and French contexts see, for example, Teresa Brennan, “Introduction,” in Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis, 1-24; Claire Duchen, Feminism in France (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986); Josette Féral, “The Powers of Difference,” in The Future of Difference, ed. Hester Eisenstein and Alice Jardine (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980), 88-94; Jane Gallop and Carolyn G. Burke, “Psychoanalysis and Feminism in France,” in Future of Difference, 106-22; Dorothy Kaufmann, “Simone de Beauvoir: Questions of Difference and Generation,” Yale French Studies 72 (1986): 121-32; Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron, eds., New French Feminisms (New York: Schocken Books, 1981), 3-38; Alice Jardine, Gynesis: Configurations of Woman and Modernity (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985); Christiane Makward, “To Be or Not to Be … A Feminist Speaker,” in Future of Difference, 95-105; Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics (London: Methuen, 1985); Domna C. Stanton, “Language and Revolution: The Franco-American Dis-Connection,” in Future of Difference, 73-87; and Danièle Stewart, “The Women's Movement in France,” Signs 6 (Winter 1980): 350-54.

  10. Most assessments of Irigaray, as Margaret Whitford and Ellen Mortensen point out, deal with her work solely in relation to psychoanalysis. Only recently have critics begun to examine and discuss her work in philosophy and linguistics. See, for example, Elisabeth Grosz, Sexual Subversions (New York and London: Routledge, 1989), 100-83; Ellen Mortensen, “Woman's (Un)truth and the Dionysian Woman: Reading Luce Irigaray with Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger,” forthcoming; Naomi Schor, “This Essentialism Which Is Not One: Coming to Grips with Irigaray,” Differences 1, no. 2 (1989): 38-58; and Margaret Whitford, “Rereading Irigaray,” in Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis, 106-26.

  11. See Irigaray, Parler n'est jamais neutre, 177. In Sexes et parentés, 191, Irigaray characterizes her style in L'Ethique as “double.”

  12. See Carolyn Burke, “Romancing the Philosophers: Luce Irigaray,” Minnesota Review 29 (Fall 1987): 103-14.

  13. For comparisons of Irigaray's work on the mother with that of Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva, and Simone de Beauvoir see, for example, Kaufmann. See also Arleen Dallery, “Sexual Embodiment: Beauvoir and French Feminism,” Women's Studies International Forum 8, no. 3 (1985): 197-202; and Domna Stanton, “Difference on Trial: A Critique of the Maternal Metaphor in Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva,” in The Poetics of Gender, ed. Nancy K. Miller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 157-82.

  14. In an earlier article, I describe the lesbian in Irigaray as a kind of “double other”: “As a woman, she is the other to man's subjectivity and economy; as a homosexual, she is the other to heterosexual relations formulated around reproduction.” Irigaray also, however, defines the lesbian as “otherness”: through their sexual practices, lesbians “call attention to the characteristics of female sexuality Freud neglected or redefined in terms of a masculine model.” See Christine Holmlund, “I Love Luce: The Lesbian, Mimesis, and Masquerade in Irigaray, Freud, and Mainstream Film,” New Formations 9 (Winter 1989): 108.

  15. See also Irigaray, Ce sexe, 65.

  16. See Irigaray, Speculum, 99-104, and Ce sexe, 192-93.

  17. The internal quotes in this passage are from Sigmund Freud, “Femininity,” New Introductory Analyses on Psychoanalysis, trans. and ed. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1965), 133.

  18. See also Irigaray, Ce sexe, 194.

  19. For a comparison of Irigaray's and Joan Rivière's discussions of femininity and masquerade, see Holmlund, 105-10. See also Mary Ann Doane, “Masquerade Reconsidered: Further Thoughts on the Female Spectator,” Discourse 11 (Fall-Winter 1988-89): 42-54.

  20. Nowhere does Irigaray discuss butch/femme lesbian roleplaying.

  21. See also Irigaray, “Nietzsche, Freud, et les femmes,” in Le Corps-à-corps avec la mère (Montréal: Editions de la pleine lune, 1981), 49 (subsequent references to this edition are cited in parentheses in the text); and Carolyn Burke, “Introduction to Luce Irigaray's ‘When Our Lips Speak Together,’” Signs 6 (Autumn 1980): 67-68.

  22. See also Irigaray, Ce sexe, 160-62.

  23. See also Jane Gallop, The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), 73-74: “Of course, the ‘answer’ is not to set up another homosexual economy, but that may be necessary as one step to some hetero-sexuality.”

  24. See also Irigaray, Speculum, 234.

  25. Grosz, 119.

  26. See, for example, Irigaray, Speculum, 146, and Ce sexe, 64, 102.

  27. Kiki Amsberg and Aafke Steenhuis, “An Interview with Luce Irigaray,” trans. Robert van Krieken, Hecate 9 (1983): 198, 195.

  28. Psychoanalysis, Irigaray charges, most often equates the daughter with the son, although a girl's relationship to her mother is framed not in terms of mastery but of self-engenderment. See, for example, Irigaray, Speculum, 77; La Croyance même (Paris: Editions Galilée, 1983), 19-30; and “Le Geste en psychanalyse,” Sexes et parentés, 109-18.

  29. L'Oubli de l'air is based on this premise. See also Irigaray, Le Corps, 81.

  30. For Irigaray, the horizontal dimension consists of relationships between women or between “sisters.” See L'Ethique, 103.

  31. Irigaray, “The One Doesn't Stir without the Other,” 67.

  32. Irigaray distinguishes lesbian relationships from mother/daughter relationships as a “secondary” rather than a “primary” homosexuality.

  33. Amsberg and Steenhuis, 199.

  34. Brennan, 16 (emphasis added).

  35. Stanton, “Difference on Trial,” 159.

  36. Irigaray, Amante marine de Friedrich Nietzsche (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1980). Subsequent references to this edition are cited in parentheses in the text. See Moi, ed., French Feminist Thought, 120, for a slightly different translation of this quote.

  37. See, for example, Irigaray, L'Ethique, 174. See also Burke, “Romancing the Philosophers,” 108.

  38. Amsberg and Steenhuis, 199.

  39. See Irigaray, Passions élémentaires, 32.

  40. Ibid., 56-58, 62.

  41. See Burke, “Romancing the Philosophers,” 107.

  42. Nietzsche is the only male philosopher Irigaray addresses informally; elsewhere, she uses the formal “vous.” For other discussions of the use of direct address in Irigaray's texts, see, for example, Gallop, The Daughter's Seduction; and Susan Suleiman, “(Re)writing the Body,” in The Female Body in Western Culture, ed. Susan Suleiman (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 15.

  43. Amsberg and Steenhuis, 200.

  44. Linda Godard, “Pour une nouvelle lecture de la question de la ‘femme’: Essai à partir de la pensée de Jacques Derrida,” Philosophiques 12 (Spring 1985): 161-64.

  45. Stanton, “Difference on Trial,” 175.

  46. Elizabeth Berg, “The Third Woman,” Diacritics 12 (Summer 1982): 15; and Debra Terzian, “Luce Irigaray: Discours de l'homme ou de la femme?” Constructions (1985): 125.

  47. Carolyn Burke, “Rethinking the Maternal,” in Future of Difference, 107.

  48. See Gallop, The Daughter's Seduction, 93.

  49. On the subject of the “interval,” see, for example, Irigaray's L'Ethique, 15-21, 41-59, and Sexes et parentés, 33.

  50. See Jacqueline Rose, “Femininity and Its Discontents,” in Sexuality in the Field of Vision (London: Verso, 1986), 83-103. In “I Love Luce” I argue, in contrast, that Irigaray has considered critiques like Rose's and does “retain the unconscious for feminism.” Holmlund, 117. See also Whitford, “Rereading Irigaray,” 106-26.

  51. Margaret Whitford, “Luce Irigaray's Critique of Rationality,” in Feminist Perspectives in Philosophy, ed. Morwenna Griffiths and Margaret Whitford (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 109-30.

  52. See, for example, Stanton, “Difference on Trial,” 162-63.

  53. Dianna Fuss, Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature, and Difference (New York and London: Routledge, 1989), 70. For similar arguments, see also Brennan; Grosz; Schor; Paul Smith, Discerning the Subject (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988); and Whitford, “Rereading Irigaray.”

  54. Jane Gallop, “Quand nos lèvres s'écrivent: Irigaray's Body Politic,” Romantic Review 74 (January 1983): 82. See also Whitford, “Rereading Irigaray,” 149; and Grosz, 114-16.

  55. Stanton, “Difference on Trial,” 177. Unlike many of Irigaray's critics, Stanton bases her critique on well-considered and nuanced engagement with Irigaray's texts.

  56. Ibid., 171.

  57. Gallop points out that Irigaray sees the male genitals “according to phallomorphic parameters” which demand that male sexuality be perceived as unitary, “Quand nos lévres s'écrivent,” 78.

  58. Grosz (110-11) claims Irigaray uses metaphor “to devise a strategic and combative [sic] understanding, one whose function is to make explicit what has been excluded or left out of phallocentric images.”

  59. Stanton, “Difference on Trial,” 176.

  60. See, for example, Irigaray, “Psychoanalytic Theory: Another Look,” This Sex Which Is Not One, 49-60, and “Misère de la psychanalyse,” Parler n'est jamais neutre, 253-80.

  61. Grosz, 123. Also see Elizabeth Gross, “Philosophy, Subjectivity, and the Body,” in Feminist Challenges, ed. Carole Pateman and Elizabeth Gross (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1986), 142.

  62. Berg, 15.

  63. Gayatri Spivak, “French Feminism in an International Frame,” Yale French Studies 62 (1981): 179. Irigaray on the whole fails to raise questions about differences among women even where Western women are concerned. Naomi Schor (56 n. 5) also comments that “Irigaray has, like other bourgeois white feminists, only managed to relocate universality, to institute a new hegemony.”

  64. Margaret Homans, “The Woman in the Cave: Recent Feminist Fictions and the Classical Underworld,” Contemporary Literature 29 (Fall 1988): 371.

  65. See also Irigaray, Passions élémentaires, 33: “What risk is contained in attraction through difference?”

  66. Whitford, “Luce Irigaray's Critique of Rationality,” 110.

  67. As Katherine Stephenson says, “if there is one thread uniting all [Irigaray's] works, it is her critical focus on the representation of subjectivity in language, and the lack of representation of female subjectivity.” See her “Luce Irigaray: Theoretical and Empirical Approaches to the Representation of Subjectivity and Sexual Difference in Language Use,” in Semiotics 1988, ed. Terry Prewitt, John Deeley, and Karen Hayworth (Lanham: University Press of America, 1989), 417.

  68. See, for example, Katherine Stephenson, “Luce Irigaray's ‘L'Ordre sexuel du discours': A Comparative English Study on Sexual Differentiation in Language Use,” in Semiotics 1987, ed. John Deeley (Lanham: University Press of America, 1987), 257-66. Although Irigaray's “Love Survey” does not look at race, it does request information on the participant's education level, native language, age, and occupation.

  69. Margaret Whitford says

    Irigaray's work requires an interlocutor more than most, since ‘speaking as a woman’ … necessitates a dialogue: the meaning of what women are saying only becomes accessible in an active exchange between speaker and hearer.

    See her “Luce Irigaray and the Female Imaginary: Speaking As a Woman,” Radical Philosophy 43 (Summer 1986): 3.

  70. See Mortensen, 43 n. 7.

  71. Grosz, 113.

Ofelia Schutte (essay date summer 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6017

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 philosophy and the attempt at subverting the logical order of coherence upon which such a discourse is grounded place the activity of feminist philosophizing in a difficult predicament with respect to the interpretation of this work. Insofar as philosophy relies on a notion of coherence rejected as phallocratic by Irigaray, it would seem that, if she is right, feminist principles would bar one from trying to explain her thought in a manner consistent with currently accepted tools of philosophical analysis. Yet refraining from explaining Irigaray's position as clearly and coherently as possible would only lead to the exclusion of her thoughts from philosophical attention, a circumstance that would deprive us of the opportunity to understand one of this century's leading feminist authors. Indeed, the power of her critique of “the subject” is enriching and stimulating not only to literary theory, linguistics, and psychoanalysis but to philosophy as well. I take it, therefore, that a philosophical reading of Irigaray is not a contradiction in terms, and in fact, much can be learned from approaching her intentionally obscure work, Speculum, in a clear and coherent manner.

In Speculum Irigaray uses a postmodern perspective to challenge the hegemony of phallocentrism in philosophy, linguistics, and psychology. I will focus here on an examination of her thesis (given as a chapter title) that “Any Theory of the ‘Subject’ Has Always Been Appropriated by the ‘Masculine’” (Irigaray 1985a, 133-46). At stake in her argument is the claim that the notion of subjectivity is subordinate to a psychological structure of gender dominance. Irigaray's critique has important implications for the construction of a feminist philosophical conception of subjectivity. We depend generally on the notion of the subject to construct our theories of knowledge, value, personal identity, and sociopolitical rights. If our conception of the subject is askew, so will be the values we try to defend and pursue in our civilization. Irigaray's analysis may help to shed some light on this particular dilemma.


Irigaray questions the validity of a cluster of dominant paradigms in epistemology, metaphysics, and psychology, all of which she takes to be interrelated. In epistemology, she puts in question theories resting on an essential split between the knowing subject and the object of knowledge. The classical paradigm for this type of subjectivity, as elaborated by Kant, is one in which a transcendental subject of knowledge coordinates and controls the multiplicity of sensations and impressions received from sense experience, thus forming a unified field of experience.3 Irigaray claims, however, that the transcendental subject designated by this paradigm has, by assuming a position of distance from and superiority over the object, cut himself off “from his empirical relationship with the matrix that he claims to survey” (Irigaray 1985a, 134). Several chapters of Speculum are devoted to the critique of philosophers—including Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Hegel—as she explores paradigms in which the formal conditions of knowledge privilege male subjectivity as foundational to the epistemic enterprise. In this sense the category “subject” eludes the feminine because linguistic practice has inscribed masculine experience within it, in a binary system of oppositions such that the very condition for the possibility of (masculine) theorizing is feminine silence: “Subjectivity denied to woman: indisputably this provides the financial backing for every irreducible constitution as an object: of representation, of discourse, of desire” (Irigaray 1985a, 33).

The epistemological paradigm under attack by Irigaray rest on a basic division between subject and object of knowledge. She understands a division of this nature as the splitting of a larger whole into two parts, conceived here as “sides.” Although she believes that the positions of subject and object are pregiven in language and are thus, in a sense, preconstructed for any speaker, as a writer she takes advantage of the distinction (as a split) to bolster her view of the excluded feminine. In her writing, through the use of analogy as well as literary devices such as metaphor and metonymy, a number of other referents are explicitly placed on the “side” of the subject, while their counterparts are positioned to appear on the “side” of the subject. Accordingly, the subject of knowledge acquires two other characteristics: a masculine gender identity (the properties of the masculine pronoun he) and the role of the subject of speech, the “I speak” of discourse. Through the blending of these three categories—subject of knowledge, masculinity, and speaking subject—the subject of knowledge is explicitly positioned in the role of male speaker, so that “male speaker” and “subject of knowledge” become interchangeable descriptions. (This implies that any woman philosopher adopting the position of the transcendental subject is speaking with a male voice and articulating a masculine vision of the universe.) Correspondingly, the object of knowledge, precisely because it is object for a subject and lacks a subjectivity of its own, is a being that does not speak. For Irigaray, the object is the denied feminine, or fetishized woman. She uses the feminine pronoun she to refer to the object of knowledge, a reminder of the status of fetishized femininity as constructed by the masculine gaze.

Under Irigaray's scrutiny, epistemology is quickly converted into sexual politics. The subject of knowledge, which secures a position of distance from and control over the object of knowledge comes to stand for the woman whose actual or potential speech is silenced by his discourse. If this is the case, then the human process of becoming conscious of oneself as subject is strongly or entirely dominated by a masculine notion of subjectivity. The paradigm of self-consciousness, used pervasively in historical struggles for equality, freedom, justice, and self-determination, appear tainted by a male bias. If Irigaray were right in her analysis, the emergence of self-consciousness would be mediated exclusively or predominantly by a masculine paradigm of the subject as self, leaving what subjectivity might mean to a feminine subject or partially or wholly out of the picture.

Does the situation improve if the notion of subjectivity is projected onto the unconscious? If one could speak of a subject of the unconscious, would it make sense to refer to this subject as feminine, in contrast to the masculine subject of consciousness? Clearly Irigaray is inclined to move in this direction. But here too she encounters some major obstacles. While she believes that there is a potential reservoir of feminine energy, yet to be tapped, in the unconscious, she argues that the study of the unconscious is still dominated by the masculine-oriented idea of knowledge outlined above. Here too Irigaray finds that any theory of the “subject” has so far been appropriated by the “masculine.” She attacks vigorously what she takes to be the male-oriented bias in the psychoanalytic theories of Freud and Lacan (which have otherwise influenced her work significantly). She notes that these theories are an extension of the drive to knowledge of the previously defined transcendental subject. “He” had expressed his dominance over the object by attributing to himself, to his capacity for knowledge, the qualities of elevation (height) and clarity. Eventually, “he” is going to be attracted to the study of the unconscious, with its opposing and therefore challenging attributes of “darkness” and “depth.”

This imagery carries Irigaray over to the Freudian psychological paradigm she is intent on subverting. Psychoanalysis, she claims, is an extension of the paradigm of the transcendental subject. Not content with surveying reality from the heights, man wants to penetrate into its depths. Past mastery had been tied to “clarity,” says Irigaray; how now will he master these “dark continents”?4 Among other things, she claims, man will turn the unconscious into a “property of his language” (1985a, 137). This conclusion follows from the importance given to language in Lacanian theory, including the well-known observation of Jacques Lacan that “the unconscious is structured like a language” (Lacan 1977 and 1978, 149 and 203). Irigaray is not saying merely that a male psychoanalyst treating a female client will induce her to give meaning to her experience according to the linguistic and theoretical categories which make his experience meaningful. Her interest goes much further than this problem in doctor/patient ethics. She is concerned with the manipulation of the unconscious through language that, as she notes in her critique of the epistemological subject, is tied to a psychological law giving dominance to the position of the male speaker over that of his female counterpart.5 She characterizes the psychoanalyst as being caught up in the following ritual:

Session after session, in a procedure that is now regulated by visual—rememorative—laws, he [the analyst] repeats the same gesture reestablishing the bar, the barred. While all the while permissive, listening with benevolent neutrality, collecting, on a carefully circumscribed little stage, the inter-dict. The lines between the lines of discourse. But he restricts himself to reframing, re-marking, or “analyzing” its contours … so that order, good “conscious” order, may prevail. Elsewhere.

(Irigaray 1985a, 138)

In this sense, the analyst, caught in his own discursive role, is blocked from the possibility of understanding or appropriately interpreting the heterogeneous experiences of women. He is also kept from engaging in a feminist questioning of current psychoanalytic theory, such as the one that ultimately led Irigaray to break from the theoretical perspectives of Freud and Lacan.

For Irigaray, then, to say that the field of the unconscious contains something that is undefinable is to position the unconscious on the same side as the woman whose otherness lies beyond representation before the phallic law. In other words, if the transcendental subject has been linked to a male speaking subject and he makes the unconscious a property of his language, the unconscious (as other to the appropriating act) will come to stand for woman. Speaking of woman, Irigaray states:

Unconsciousness she is, but not for herself, not with a subjectivity that might take cognizance of it, recognize it as her own. Close to herself, admittedly, but in a total ignorance (of self) …, she is the matter used for the imprint of forms.

(Irigaray 1985a, 141)

To the previous divisions—subject/object, he/she, light/dark, speaking subject/silent object—Irigaray adds conscious/unconscious and form/matter, with woman appearing, again, on the side of the repressed. Woman's unconscious, she argues, does not have access to the means for its self-expression, since it is given form by a discourse springing from the interests of male subjectivity. In this way man's consciousness triumphs over woman's unconscious; he succeeds in mastering her even in her own realm of impenetrability and darkness. Her unconscious is prostituted “to the ever-present projects and projections of masculine consciousness” (Irigaray 1985a, 141). With this type of schema Irigaray puts into question the legitimacy of Freudian as well as Lacanian psychology, insofar as both theories are guided by a concept of gender identity extraneous to women's desires and interests.

Having criticized the notion of the subject in epistemology and psychoanalysis, Irigaray turns to a critique of the position of the subject in metaphysics. Her criticisms are directed to the concern with sameness and the control of ultimate meaning characterizing a metaphysics of the subject. Borrowing freely from Heidegger's critique of a metaphysics of “the same,” Irigaray argues that the subject functions as “the same,” an attribute that guarantees his continuity, permanence, and stability. The subject also functions as a point of reference, a designator, the foundation of the world he observes and lives in. Prior to the advent of a secular, scientific age, this subject, the selfsame he, speculated on the ultimate meaning of life by relating the origin of his being to some divinity. Now, Irigaray suggests, the “ultimate meaning will perhaps be uncovered by tracking down what there is to be seen of female sexuality” (Irigaray 1985a, 145).

The control over the meaning of life shifts from a metaphysical to a sexual, biological, or psychoanalytical sphere. The medical procedure known as a hysteroscopy reminds Irigaray of the ancient quest for the ultimate meaning of life in metaphysics. Playing upon the word speculum, which appears in her title, she considers man's “speculum” to be an expression of the drive to measure, survey, or give definition to what is other to himself. Such definitions are aimed at controlling the other and reducing the other's meaning to that projected on it by the subject. Thus the world of objects becomes the double of the subject, bouncing back like a mirror whatever meaning/image is projected upon it. In particular, woman as the double of man is woman as object of appropriation for the phallogocentric order—silent before the law, always readily available for penetration or the imprint of form. But, like a mirror, the world also contains a side that cannot be penetrated by the subject (of reflection) and his ubiquitous, persistent gaze. For Irigaray, this other side is woman as undefinable to phallogocentric discourse and its correspondingly fetishistic gaze. In this aspect woman stands for the theory-resistant field of the unconscious. Metaphorically speaking, she is the dark continent that the white man does not cease to try to penetrate and manipulate, whether sexually or through his thoughts, ideology, and language.

In metaphysics, Irigaray's view of woman undermines the traditional notions of substance and accident, identity and difference, as elaborated by mainstream Western philosophy. Her perspective shows the metaphysical privileging of masculine subjectivity insofar as man is placed on the side of the same, and woman on the side of the (appropriated) other. She also notes that the political economy of the division between identity and difference in metaphysics is such that the other is always reducible to the same. For example, she calls attention to “the movement to speak of the ‘other’ in a language already systematized by/for the same” (Irigaray 1985a, 139). “Other” in this context is a word lacking specificity due to the fact that any specificity in language or logic is drawn according to the categories imposed by the economy of the “same.” If the “other” had any real meaning, then, it would mean the boundless, the undefinable, the unknown. Yet, as this reasoning would conclude, if woman is on the side of the boundless and the undefinable, does this not mean that she will always defy man's control? Only if definition ceases to be the highest instrument of control over the other. The strategic feminist struggle for Irigaray thus becomes the subversion of the power of efficacy and predictability of definition. Her counterproposal to the male speculative drive is the projection of a “concave speculum,” a uniquely feminine mirror, one that is found pirouetting ceaselessly upon itself (Irigaray 1985a, 134). This mirror will absorb the light of the transcendent subject until it disintegrates him. The issue is to fight the adversary not through arguments, whose rules of the game he controls, but through images of the unconscious that will unleash an avalanche of discursive displacements. The task is to “make it impossible for a while to predict whence, whither, when, how, and why” (Irigaray 1985a, 142). As she suggests: “Overthrow syntax by suspending its eternally teleological order, by snipping the wires, cutting the current, breaking the circuits, switching the connections, by modifying continuity, alternation, frequency, intensity” (Irigaray 1985a, 142). The intention is to break the nature of causal explanation, break the subject's assurance of linguistic control over reality, let the unconscious explode. In short, the task is to break the hegemony of the masculine narrative, in terms not only of its content, but also in terms of its form (self-reflection, control over the unknown other).


So far I have focused on the structure of Irigaray's argument insofar as she places man on the side of the subject of knowledge and woman on the side of the object. It remains to be seen how Irigaray interprets the nature and manner of the appropriation process through which the subject takes over the object and/or reduces her to silence. To understand the mechanism or structure that generates this kind of appropriation, let us now turn to what she calls “the phallic economy of castration.” We are aided in this analysis if we switch attention from Irigaray's appropriation of Marxist discourse by means of the recurring image of women as “commodities” and note instead the less explicit use of the Marxian category of surplus labor, which seems to accompany her post-Freudian treatment of masculinity.6

Borrowing freely from Marx's analysis of a “political economy” in which the fruits of the worker's labor are unjustly appropriated through the economic system of wage labor that generates surplus value, Irigaray speaks of a “phallic economy” that she sees at the root of gender oppression. Her description of this economy is drawn from Freud's model of a libidinal economy, since she refers to a “phallic economy of castration [emphasis added]” (Irigaray 1985a, 141). Yet Irigaray reverses the axis upon which Freud's model turns. One way to understand her analysis is to view the phallic economy as ruled by an operational displacement of the following type: where the gender division occurs in the unconscious between “he” and “she,” the value that falls on the side of the masculine is surplus value extracted/displaced from the side of the feminine. Irigaray's attention focuses to a great extent on the economy of discourse, where, she acutely observes, the silence of one guarantees the autonomy of the other (Irigaray 1985a, 140-44). Henceforth the paradigm of surplus value is not exclusively limited to the specificity of the capitalist/worker relationship. Every time the slash [/] representing the mark of difference occurs between masculine and feminine, we must ask ourselves the question, where does the value, in particular the excessive value, attributed to the masculine term come from? Is it the case that it attains its superiority or predominance precisely because it extracts its value from what originally belongs to the other, the residue indicated after the mark of difference? Or, in Irigaray's words, if the (phallic) economy of discourse is one in which the subject (he) speaks and the object (she) is silent, what would happen if the other began to speak? Can we imagine her discourse?

Before expanding on this question, I wish to go back to the phallic economy insofar as it is an economy of castration. What does this mean? An economy of castration is an economy of lack, of privation. It is one in which fear of loss (of the penis) plays a predominant function. In the logic of castration, the exclusive sense of the logic of either/or is given predominance. Value is attached to one object and its lack is perceived as valueless. The penis functions as this divider and symbol of value in the gender difference distinguishing boys from girls. Absence of the penis in this economy of castration means absence of value, since according to this logic everything hinges on the possession and use of this organ. The penis acquires a much broader significance than the bodily organ would have on its own. It becomes, at the level of meaning, the phallus (in Lacanian theory, the phallic signifier). The phallus comes to symbolize value, limit, measure, authority, the law. As such it is a placeholder for the personal pronoun I, as spoken by a masculine subject. (This is the only subject, if Irigaray is correct that subjectivity has been appropriated by the masculine.)

For its survival, the economy of castration needs the absolute repression of nonphallic value, which, according to this model, is also the value of difference, of that which cannot be reduced to the “same.” According to the presuppositions of the economy of castration, such aberrant value would be nonexistent or unreal. If real, it would have to be completely submissive to the former's capacity for penetration, for the imposition of meaning and measure. It would only have the status of matter, which can always be made pliable by the imposition of meaning and measure. It would only have the status of matter, which can always be made pliable by the imposition of form. “She” is the “dark continent,” the matrix, the matter, upon which “he,” the master of language and meaning, of logic and culture, of metaphysics and psychotherapy, will impose his “form”: his distinctions, his structures, his norms, his expected rate of productivity, of yield. Her pleasure and pain are guided by his interest. His laws govern her body, the rate and timing of her fertility. His morality governs her sexual movements and her sexual pleasure.

What about her universe, her hidden thoughts, her feelings, her experience? The phallic economy of castration does not recognize these unless their expression fits into the rules and categories of his thought. “Truth is One,” such an economy repeats ceaselessly. My truth—thus speaks the voice of this phallic economy—must therefore be your truth. There cannot be two (different) truths. Either my thoughts represent civilization or there is no civilization. As the (only) representative of civilization, I have the right and the duty to destroy, punish, silence, or otherwise restrain you if you challenge my ideas or my right to rule.


Previously we raised this question: if the object, the silenced, could speak, what would she say? Our analysis of the phallic economy of castration has begun to answer this question. The silenced woman would say what every oppressed being says to its oppressor: “No.” “Stop imposing your force on me.” “I don't want your system.” Clearly, women—as well as men aware of their oppression by sexism—would want a different system than the one ruled by the phallic economy of castration. But what does this mean? Is it possible to move toward such an economy? If our consciousness is distorted and bent out of shape by the results of the phallic economy of castration to which we have been subjected from infancy, where can we begin, as we turn toward the new life we desire?

We cannot simply replace some concepts with others, or change from one set of regulations to another. We must get behind the concept and the rule. To express our feelings as women we must bypass the phallic economy of castration in the unconscious. Woman can do this by imagining a region prior to language, a space prior to the knowledge of the Law of the Father, a source out of which she can draw her own figures of speech. There is no economy of lack in this region but one of superabundance (echoes of Nietzsche's Dionysian creativity?). Before the cut signifying the Law of the Father in the unconscious, and the limit of meaning defining the boundaries of our individual experience in our conscious mind, there is the fusion of the infant with the maternal body and the (adult) recovery of this boundless feeling in the specific characteristics of the feminine orgasm, which the French feminists refer to as jouissance (see Cixous 1981, 90-98, esp. 95).

To rekindle the flame of this lost horizon, Irigaray and other postmodern French feminists turn to writing—in particular, “writing the woman's body” (as they describe it). This writing emerges from the unconscious, from the pain or pleasure of sexual experience, from the “dark continent” of desire prior to its appropriation by the phallic law. It is the affirmation of a difference that cannot be conceptualized as long as the concept is tied to a law of meaning going back to the Name of the Father or phallic signifier. Once the structure of desire is released from the (repressive) Law of the Father, speech will follow women's desire as jouissance, rather than subdue it. This process will signify the reinvention of subjectivity. I say we must “reinvent” rather than “reconceptualize” subjectivity, for to reconceptualize it, according to Irigaray, would be merely to leave it where it is today.


Given the perspective Irigaray has put forward, a number of responses and/or criticisms could be offered. I will mention one issue only, namely, whether her argument changes our standard conception of the relation of gender to subjectivity and, if so, in what way. If, on the one hand, we accept the position that our present understanding of subjectivity is only a masculine construction, as Irigaray appears to suggest, then in order to be feminine, we would have to get rid of subjectivity altogether. We would rescue the feminine only at the price of destroying the subject. Although postmodern writers generally want to move in this direction, such an option seems to me, for the most part, a difficult one to put into practice because it seems to require the rejection of the notion of self. The concept of self is not reducible to that of subject, but insofar as it strives to offer an integrated perspective on subjectivity, it is not favored by postmodern theory, which prefers to work with what is fragmented and discontinuous in consciousness. Still, as I see it, it may be more worthwhile for feminist theory to reexamine the notion of self—including the discontinous manifestations that form its fragments—than to discard it altogether. This is an important topic that, regrettably, cannot be pursued here. In general, the question raised would have the following form: if a given notion of self or subject has so far been pervasively appropriated by a masculine bias, must the notion itself be given up as inevitably or necessarily masculine-defined or does the possibility exist of reexamining the notion from a feminist perspective? Unless there is reason to believe the notion itself no longer serves a good theoretical purpose, the tendency I would favor would be to explore feminist alternatives of interpretation. In fact, as will be shown shortly, it seems that Irigaray herself is willing to explore alternative notions of feminine subjectivity even if she does not refer to them by this name.

But if, on the other hand, we continue to hold that subjectivity is independent from gender, as the philosophical tradition has assumed so far, the result would be to dismiss Irigaray's analysis as absurd. Philosophy would continue to regard the “feminine” as only an “accident,” a modality logically distinct from the “subject.” The subject as such would be gender-free. Such a position is precisely what Irigaray considers to be the illness/illusion of modern philosophy.

Neither one of these two solutions appears acceptable: either the destruction of the subject or the subordination of the feminine to a theory of an independent (supposedly neutral but actually masculine) subject. I would argue, however, that there is yet another option. In this case, subjectivity would not be reducible to gender (as Irigaray describes it) but neither would it be independent from gender (as Western philosophy describes it). As I have already suggested, Irigaray's position can also be read as implying that we need to reinvent subjectivity. Reinventing subjectivity can be done in the process of reimagining gender. A new approach to gender would require two conditions, at least. One is to stop reifying woman's body as a commodity and/or object of sexual pleasure for the male gaze; the other is to get out of the normative definition of gender that has marked the concept of gender in our societies (e.g., the intrinsic and necessary association of the feminine, or “woman,” with motherhood, understood in subordination to phallic law). We need to take the notions of gender and subjectivity out of their present alienated state and rework them on our own terms.

To some extent Irigaray herself attempts to do this when she tries to imagine what it would be to release the notion of gender from compliance with phallic law. It will be recalled that one of the ways she proposes to initiate this resistance against compliance is to ask, what if the object were to speak? But if, indeed, the so-called object (woman) were to speak and we were to imagine her discourse (as Irigaray would have us do), wouldn't the object somehow position itself in the role of a subject? The difference between the subject, as imagined by Irigaray, and every other subject (the masculine one) is that the former is not constituted by its compliance with phallic law. If anything, it is constituted by rebellion against it. When Irigaray asks her readers to imagine a type of “short circuit” in the relation between subject and object, so that the object begins to speak and the subject is blown to pieces, losing its previous hegemony, couldn't this be construed as a reinvention of feminine subjectivity—namely, the positing of a feminist subjectivity whose principal activity would be the subversion of the entire phallocentric order? What might be important here, if we want to pursue this interpretation, is not to attempt to universalize Irigaray's proposed model of feminist subjectivity as if this were the exclusive option for overturning phallocentrism. There are more than a few cracks in the phallocentric edifice, so it makes sense to think of Irigaray's way of getting at them as one among other possibilities.

But now, someone might ask, what does all of this theory mean in practice? Is it possible to obtain a few details or possibly even some hints about the reinventing of subjectivity? How is this going to come about? Perhaps Irigaray would suggest that we begin by imagining a series of reversals of meaning in which the prohibitions inhibiting women's desires through phallic law become ineffective or absurd. “Once imagine that woman imagines and the object loses its fixed, obsessional character” (Irigaray 1985a, 133). If the obsessional, fixed character of the object is destabilized, so will be the identity-fixation of its corresponding subject of knowledge and desire. This means that subjective gender identity-fixation (of the masculine-type) would be destabilized. A fluid, undefinable type of subjectivity could then emerge in place of the old, identity-bound notion of the subject. But such a fluid conception of subjectivity or of subject-object relations does not in itself guarantee the emergence of a feminist perspective on the subject. If Irigaray is right, such a perspective would have to emerge from the repositioning of the object of desire (woman) in a different role than the one she generally occupies at present. “Woman” would have to operate as “other” than the object of sexual desire constituted through phallic law. This involves a refocusing on imagining a psychological “place” free from the scope of the law establishing the prohibition of incest and the binary system of oppositions for the construction of gender identities. Irigaray begins to take this path toward the invention or imagining of a feminist subjectivity when she comments on what Freud might have said about female sexuality but didn't:

For whereas the man Freud—or woman, were she to set her rights up in opposition—might have been able to interpret what the overdetermination of language (the effects of deferred action, its subterranean dreams and fantasies, its convulsive quakes, its paradoxes and contradictions) owed to the repression (which may yet return) of maternal power—or of the matriarchy, to adopt a still prehistorical point of reference—whereas he might have been able also to interpret the repression of the history of female sexuality, we shall in fact receive only confirmation of the discourse of the same, through comprehension and extension.

(Irigaray 1985a, 141)

The “might have been able to” referred to twice above becomes the site of the possibility of a feminist interpretation of female sexuality. But stated this way, the capacity to locate the site where a free feminist imagination intersects with the interpretive activity of human subjectivity appears deceptively simple. Irigaray wants to resist such an apparently simple solution to a difficult problem. “It is still better to speak only in riddles, allusions, hints, parables. Even if asked to clarify a few points,” she reiterates. “Even if people plead that they just don't understand. After all, they never have understood. So why not double the misprision to the limits of exasperation?” (Irigaray 1985a, 143) In other words, the short-circuiting of the rules of discourse demands a more provocative way of repositioning the established order's relation between subject and object. The object must disengage herself from the fetish into which she has been relegated and turn into a theoretically subversive, desiring, female subject.

This interpretation of Irigaray's imagining a different type of subjectivity releases us from the compulsion to construct another theory of the subject. The process of reinvention to which we become committed is not reducible to theory making, although it need not discount theory. What motivates us to create is the awareness that theoretical knowledge is always incomplete. From its silences and gaps new images and thoughts emerge, claiming ground for the differences left unarticulated by the previously hegemonic discourses. Seen in this way, the feminist task ahead of us is not to make categorical predictions about the future or to situate ourselves comfortably in an epistemic position of self-certainty. The immediate task is to break the phallocentric justification of knowledge and power still ruling over our present existence and to reclaim an imaginary order in which the boundaries imposed by phallic law will be disintegrated.


  1. An earlier version of this paper was read at the Second International Meeting of Philosophical Feminism, sponsored by the Argentine Association of Women in Philosophy, Buenos Aires, November 1989. It was published in the association's journal Hiparquia 3:1 (1990) in Spanish translation by M. L. Femenías under the title “Irigaray y el problema de la subjectividad.”

  2. Irigaray (1985b, 149). Originally published in France in 1977 as Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un. See also Irigaray (1985a) originally published in France in 1974 as Speculum de l'autre femme. For recent philosophical discussions of postmodern feminism see Nicholson (1990) and Butler (1990). See also Fraser and Bartky (1989). For an early review of works by Irigaray and Kristeva focusing on the psychoanalytical theme of subjectivity, see Josette Féral (1978).

  3. For a feminist critique of Kant's theory of knowledge see Robin May Schott (1988).

  4. Irigaray (1985a, 136-37). “Dark continents” is an expression used by Freud to refer to the adult woman's sexuality. See Gay (1988, 501-22).

  5. Irigaray's critique presupposes Lacan's theory of the phallic signifier. See “The Signification of the Phallus,” in Lacan (1977, 281-91). For a clear explanation of Lacan's theory of desire see Butler (1987, 186-204). In Lacan's theory, “the paternally enforced prohibition against union with the mother is coextensive with language itself,” as is “the paternally enforced taboo against incest” (Butler 1987, 201). “The Phallus is thus understood to be the organizing principle of all kinship and all language” (Butler 1987, 202). For a Lacanian response to Irigaray's criticism see Ellie Ragland-Sullivan (1987, 267-308, esp. 295-304).

  6. Irigaray uses the commodity concept particularly as it applies to the objectification of women in phallocentric society. See Irigaray (1985b, 192-97).


Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge.

———. 1987. Subjects of Desire. New York: Columbia University Press.

Cixous, Hélène. 1981. Sorties. In New French Feminisms. Marks, Elaine and Isabelle de Courtivron, eds. New York: Schocken Books.

Féral, Josette. 1978. “Antigone or the Irony of the Tribe.” Diacritics September: 2-14.

Fraser, Nancy, and Sandra Bartky, eds. 1989. “Special Issue on French Feminist Philosophy.” Hypatia 3: 3.

Gay, Peter. 1988. Freud: A Life for Our Time. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Irigaray, Luce. 1985a. Speculum of the Other Woman. Gillian G. Gill, trans. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

———. 1985b. This Sex Which Is Not One. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke, trans. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Lacan, Jacques. 1977. Écrits. Alan Sheridan, trans. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

———. 1978. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Jacques-Alain Miller, ed. Alan Sheridan, trans. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Nicholson, Linda, ed. 1990. Feminism/Postmodernism. New York: Routledge.

Ragland-Sullivan, Ellie. 1987. Jacques Lacan and the Philosophy of Psychoanalysis. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Schott, Robin May. 1988. Cognition and Eros: A Critique of the Kantian Paradigm. Boston: Beacon Press.

Maggie Berg (essay date autumn 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9210

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 alternative feminine discourse modeled on the female genitals.1 Irigaray's “lips” have become the basis of debate: those critics (including Plaza, Jones, Moi, Burke) who regard her work as naive (it suggests the possibility of a prediscursive sexual identity) and dangerously essentialist (it posits an eternal essential femininity) have occasioned widespread feminist suspicion of poststructuralism as ultimately leading to a reactionary essentialism.2

Irigaray's defenders, on the other hand, regard her “lips” as having a “strategic” function: she posits a feminine essence not in order to trap women in deterministic definitions but to enable them to escape cultural definitions defined by men.3 The only critic who has recently attempted to argue against the seemingly overwhelming consensus that Irigaray is essentialist is Jane Gallop, who claims that we should read Irigaray's work not as a politics but as a poetics of the body: “not predestined by anatomy but … already a symbolic interpretation of that anatomy.”4 The debate, as Diana Fuss says, “comes down to this question of whether the body stands in a literal or a figurative relation to language and discourse: are the two lips a metaphor or not?”5 Formulating the problem of Irigaray's work in terms of an opposition is, however, symptomatic of a misconstruction of Irigaray's explicit disavowal of binaries that not even Gallop, despite her own poststructuralist style, avoids.

I suggest an alternative reading of Irigaray's lips. It is surely an example of old sexist double standards that Jacques Lacan is taken at his word when he insists that the phallus is not the organ to which the word phallus refers, whereas Irigaray's lips provoke accusations of naive essentialism. It may be true that both signifiers are equivocal (as Emile Benveniste said in a different context: “Here … is the thing, expressly excluded at first from the definition of the sign, now creeping into it by a detour, and permanently installing a contradiction there”),6 but only Lacan is given the benefit of the doubt. While Lacan is appropriated to the feminist cause by critics such as Jacqueline Rose who insist that his remarks about there being no such thing as a woman are ironic exposures of the social representation of femininity, Irigaray's irony (which is more obvious than Lacan's) is almost wholly overlooked.7 Yet Lacan reminds us that “desire must be taken literally,” that is, he wants to be taken at his word.8 To redress the Irigaray-Lacan critical imbalance, I propose reading Irigaray's lips as a counterpart to Lacan's phallus, but without ignoring their irony, because I think the apparent contradictions in Irigaray's work are resolved by recognizing her ironic critique of Lacan.


Open your lips; don't open them simply. I don't open them simply. We—you/I—are neither open nor closed. We never separate simply: a single word cannot be pronounced, produced, uttered by our mouths. Between our lips, yours and mine, several voices, several ways of speaking resound endlessly, back and forth.9

Understandably, perhaps, the immediate reactions to Irigaray were suspicious, not to say hostile. Monique Plaza, writing in an early issue of Questions feministes, countered: “All that ‘is’ woman comes to her in the last instance from her anatomical sex, which touches itself all the time. Poor woman.”10 Irigaray perpetrates, says Plaza, the “Eternal Feminine,” who is moreover (by virtue of avoiding masculine, i.e., coherent, discourse) the “eternal idiot”: “illogical, mad, prattling, fanciful.”11 Plaza is “astonished” at Irigaray's “cheerfully prescribing woman's social and intellectual existence from her ‘morphology,’ … when we remember that [she] criticized Freud's prescription of the psychical by the anatomical.” Plaza concludes that Irigaray's “positivism” is “matched by a flagrant empiricism.”12

Perhaps the best known of the “Anglo-American” interpretations of what has come to be known as “new” French feminist writing is Ann Rosalind Jones's article “Writing the Body: Toward an Understanding of l'ecriture feminine.” The article, which echoes Plaza's objections to Irigaray, was first published in 1981 when very little of Irigaray's work had been translated into English.13 No doubt because of its pathbreaking role but also possibly because it reads the French authors within a materialist feminist framework congenial to a British and North American audience, Jones's criticism remained influential among Western scholars. Her article was republished in three anthologies with very different critical orientations in 1985 when two of Irigaray's major books became available in English.14 When Jones castigates the French for claiming “that female subjectivity is derived from women's physiology and bodily instincts as they affect sexual experience and the unconscious,”15 she effectively inverts the French concept of the subject as discursive; it is Jones who creates an essentialist position by defining the unconscious as the innate, a priori, origin of subjective experience. What Jones misses is that Irigaray, Hélène Cixous, and Julia Kristeva hold the Lacanian view of the unconscious as the product of the subject's insertion into the symbolic; it is not the cause but the consequence of women's social experience. Irigaray does not offer “as the starting point for a female self-consciousness the facts of women's bodies and women's sexual pleasure,” as Jones maintains;16 on the contrary, Irigaray attempts, through discourse, to reconstruct women's bodies and their sexual pleasure. Her essay on Freud in Speculum of the Other Woman exposes the role of language in the construction of female sexuality and the body, just as her essay “When Our Lips Speak Together” alters them discursively.17

Kaja Silverman more recently (1988) has also been troubled by Irigaray's lips; her reading of Irigaray is perhaps surprising in view of her earlier critique of Lacan in The Subject of Semiotics, in which she held that “it is preposterous to assume … that woman remains outside of signification,” since both the female and the male subject's “linguistic inauguration” cuts them off from immediate “being.”18 Although this echoes aspects of Irigaray's rejection of Lacan, Silverman nevertheless catches Irigaray committing an error similar to Lacan's in suggesting that feminine sexuality lies outside of (phallocentric) signification. Silverman explains in The Acoustic Mirror that Irigaray “dreams of forging an existential or indexical relation between words and the female body,” which she “celebrates, as though it were an accomplished fact.”19 In doing so, says Silverman, Irigaray simply repeats an approach that she otherwise denounces as phallocentric: “All Western discourse,” Irigaray explains in Women's Exile, “presents a certain isomorphism with the masculine sex … the privilege of unity, form of the self, of the visible, of the specularisable, of erection.”20 Irigaray's suggestion of a discourse modeled on the labia to replace one modeled on the phallus is, according to Silverman, phallocentric and essentialist. There seems sufficient evidence for Silverman's view that Irigaray considers women to have an extradiscursive sexuality: “We are women from the start,” says Irigaray in “When Our Lips Speak Together”; “we don't have to be turned into women by them, labeled by them” (referring to men).21 She also writes: “Long before your birth, you touched yourself, innocently.”22

It is important, however, to distinguish an indexical relation of language to the body, which Irigaray does not claim, from a morphological one. An indexical sign, as Silverman explains, is understood to be existentially connected to its referent, whereas a morphological or iconic sign merely draws attention to formal resemblances.23 If Irigaray criticizes the phallomorphism of discourse, she does not make any claims about which comes first, the penis or the phallus; in fact, she suggests that the focus on the penis in the construction of male sexuality is a consequence of values inscribed in discourse, especially that which Lacan describes as a “fantasy of oneness” (i.e., the dream of singularity, unity, coherence).24 Similarly, with respect to the morphological relation that Irigaray establishes between language and the female body, the lips do not refer to the labia (although they aim to alter the way in which we perceive the female genitals); I will return to this in the last section of this article.

Silverman objects that rather than attempting to liberate “a prediscursive sexuality” (which does not exist), we should be transforming “the discursive conditions under which women live their corporeality.”25 This is certainly a reasonable response, but, strangely, Silverman is echoing Irigaray's own sentiment in the essay “This Sex Which Is Not One”: “In order for a woman to reach the place where she takes pleasure as a woman, a long detour by way of the analysis of the various systems of oppression brought to bear upon her is assuredly necessary.”26 In other words, a woman experiences her body and its pleasures only within the repressive “discursive conditions under which” it is lived. Irigaray emphasizes that because female sexuality is defined by “the imaginary and symbolic processes that regulate the workings of a society and a culture,”27 it is impossible to disengage “woman” from the current symbolic system: Irigaray agrees with Silverman, then, that it is impossible to liberate “a prediscursive sexuality.” The conditions that determine women's sexuality are, in Irigaray's view, ultimately discursive. Irigaray maintains that a politics of women that ignores discourse “would leave room neither for women's sexuality, nor for women's imaginary, nor for women's language to take (their) place.”28 For Irigaray, women's sexuality is, as Silverman suggests, entirely discursive, so that altering the conditions under which it is lived entails altering language itself.

So what are we to make of the female lips? Margaret Whitford argues that Irigaray

is speaking not of biology but of the imaginary”: “A distinction needs to be made between (a) women as biological and social entities and (b) the “female,” “feminine” or “other,” where female stands metaphorically for the genuinely other in a relation of difference (as in the system consciousness/unconscious) rather than opposition.”29

If Irigaray is referring not to empirical women but to a metaphorical “Other” in relation to a masculine subject, her work would have no bearing on feminist thought and would merely be a repetition of a phallocentric gesture: if the feminine is simply “Other,” the masculine remains the normative subject. While agreeing with an interviewer who complained that “I simply fail to understand the masculine-feminine oppositions,” Irigaray observed that “the problem is that of a possible alterity in masculine discourse” (emphasis mine).30 Whitford fears “that a provisional identification between female and ‘female’ may entrap the user.”31 Far from being a trap, however, some sort of identification between “woman” as a discursive construct and woman as a “biological and social” entity is absolutely necessary and is central to Irigaray's work. Had Whitford recognized that masculine and feminine are in a relation of “differance” rather than “difference” in Irigaray's work, she would not, I maintain, also have made the misleading split between empirical and textual women.32

Jane Gallop's recent reevaluation of Irigaray in Thinking through the Body (in The Daughter's Seduction, Gallop seemed to subscribe to the view that Irigaray is essentialist) is the most sympathetic reading so far.33 Gallop sees Irigaray creating a tension between the politics of the body (which Gallop equates with the referential use of language) and a poetics (which “reconstructs anatomy in its own image”)34 in order to expose and problematize our tendency to read the textual body as though it were the anatomical one. While I could not agree more with Gallop's warning against talking “as if there were such a thing as a ‘body itself,’ unmediated by textuality,”35 the distinction between a politics and a poetics of the body—however provisional, and however Irigaray complicates it—is misleading. Irigaray's discursive construction of the body inevitably has a political effect: as Gallop points out, our perception of the body is already always mediated, so that the textual body, its “ideology,” is the body as far as we know. The problem with Gallop's emphasis on Irigaray's poetics is that it confirms the erroneous assumption that poststructuralism is apolitical, by maintaining a traditional distinction—which Irigaray denies—between the metaphoric and the referential (political) use of language. Gallop's term for Irigaray's discourse, “vulvomorphic,” is strangely biological in view of her claim that Irigaray's textual body is not to be simplistically linked to anatomy. Nowhere does Irigaray propose “vulvomorphism”: “les lèvres [qui] se parlent” or “the lips that speak to themselves”36 are carefully chosen for their ambiguity, referring simultaneously to the production or construction of textuality (the lips that speak) and sexuality (the genitals); the point is that the two cannot and should not be separated, because one always implies the other.

Irigaray's essay “When Our Lips Speak Together,” which is central to the debate about the status of Irigaray's female body, attempts neither to forge an existential relation between language and the female body (Silverman) nor to offer a poetics of the body distinct from a politics (Gallop). Irigaray's lips are, as Gallop suggests, a discursive phenomenon, but irony is crucial: while the lips bear a similar relation to the labia as Lacan's phallus does to the penis, they are offered playfully or ironically in order to avoid the phallocentric gesture of displacing the phallus with an alternative hierarchy. “When Our Lips Speak Together,” which has caused so much unease among feminists, is as much a critique of Lacan as the essay “Così fan tutti,” which explicitly interrogates him, but the former is much more successful at unveiling the phallus.37 (The phallus can function as a signifier, says Lacan, only as veiled, i.e., when it is not recognized as the penis.) Irigaray's lips, significantly, self-consciously oscillate between signifier and signified to reveal the impossibility of Lacan's claim that the penis is not the organ to which phallus refers. Lacan's logic, says Irigaray, is one that is “unaware of itself,” that is, is unaware of its own ideology.38 Irigaray mimics Lacan's phallus in order to expose it; elsewhere she explains that ironic imitation is a strategy for uncovering the repression of women:

To play with mimesis is thus, for a woman, to try to recover the place of her exploitation by discourse, without allowing herself to be simply reduced to it. It means to resubmit herself … to … ideas about herself, that are elaborated in/by a masculine logic, but so as to make “visible,” by an effect of playful repetition, what was supposed to remain invisible.39

Irigaray's lips are a “playful repetition” of Lacan, exposing Lacan's failure to sustain his premise that gender, constructed entirely within discourse, is unstable, arbitrary, and therefore open to choice. Despite his claims that the speaking being can line up on whichever side of the phallus she chooses,40 Lacan renders it impossible for one born without a penis to be on the side of the phallus: gender, within the determinism of his discursive system, is ultimately linked to anatomy.


The value of psychoanalysis for feminism, says Rose, is its challenge to any prediscursive and therefore determining sexual identity:41 Lacan shows us that “men and women are only ever in language.”42 This may be true, and it is certainly what appeals to feminists about Lacan, but insofar as women can also be mothers, they cannot, in Lacan's terms, be “on the side of the man.”43 How we acquire gendered identity depends upon our relation to the “real” of biological reproduction, according to Lacan, just as the phallus, which Lacan claims to distinguish from the penis, is nevertheless “what stands out as most easily seized upon in the real of sexual copulation.”44 While insisting that the body is constructed in discourse, Lacan makes the position of the speaker in discourse inextricably tied to his/her anatomy. Women, as Irigaray shows, are placed by Lacan's discourse in an impossible double bind: excluded from a system from which nothing escapes.

Like Freud, Lacan makes the oedipal complex central to a theory of the subject, with the difference, says Judith Butler, that “the oedipal complex does not designate an event or primary scene that could be empirically verified, but indicates instead a set of linguistic laws that are foundational to gender and individuation.”45 For Lacan, Butler explains, the linguistic structures—the “elementary structures of reference and differentiation”—are effected in the child as a result of the incest taboo, which in turn is known through the “primary forms of differentiation that separate the child from the mother, and that locate the child within a network of kinship relations.”46 In other words, the awareness of gender takes place cumulatively within the symbolic. But so long as the incest taboo is central to a theory of how we acquire a cultural identity, the mother's body will be identified with a precultural state. True, it is not the “real” body that is the issue, but in Lacan's view the subject can only “mean” (i.e., represent himself/herself in the symbolic) by barring (or repressing) “being,” which is the stage of unmediated identification with the mother.47 The child accedes to language in the “Name-of-the-Father”—by acknowledging paternity, which depends on signification—and by transcending or barring the imaginary unity with the mother's body.48 Lacan thus relegates the maternal woman's body to the “real” of biological reproduction that lies outside of culture or the symbolic.

Once the subject enters the symbolic, the mother becomes the focus of a nostalgic desire for lost unity, for the state of non-meaning, prior to subjecthood; this means, of course, that she also serves as a cautionary reminder “against going beyond a certain limit in jouissance” and losing individual identity.49 The attempt of the “I” who speaks to reunite with the I who is speaking produces “non-meaning”: “If we choose being, the subject disappears, it eludes us, it falls into non-meaning.”50 If the mother represents our nostalgia for “being,” she also represents the danger of dissolution of the self; she is consequently the focus of our ambiguous feelings about the symbolic realm, which both enables identity and entails a loss of immediacy. Lacan says that insofar as we acknowledge the “Name-of-the-Father,” we take our place in the symbolic by submitting to a purely metaphorical relationship; but insofar as we identify with the mother, we sacrifice the exigencies of symbolization and retreat from the symbolic.

Lacan claims the phallus is the signifier of both desire—“the phallus is … veiled as the ratio of the Other's desire”51—and the recognition of the impossibility of satisfaction—the “lack inscribed in the signifying chain through which the Other, as the only possible site of truth, reveals that it holds no guarantee.”52 If the phallus represents both the promise and the impossibility of unity, both sexes would have an identical relation to the phallus; why, then, does Lacan also say that men have the phallus and women attempt to be it? And how can Lacan say that the castration complex is the recognition that the mother does not have the “real” phallus? If the phallus is a pure signifier and the “real” cannot be known, what would it mean to be without a phallus? It seems that within the symbolic it is only the woman who is a poor shadow of her imaginary self (the man does not arouse the same “intimations of immortality”),53 so that she bears the burden of loss and the man the promise (which may equally be a burden) of fulfillment. The penis, says Lacan, makes connections: by virtue of its turgidity it is “the image of the vital flow as it is transmitted in generation”54 (an echo of Aristotle?),55 whereas the clitoris, by contrast, is “autistic”56 (i.e., it cannot make discursive or sexual connections).

Lacan's key statements on women, which are said to have been taken up by Kristeva, Cixous, and Irigaray, are: “There is no such thing as The woman” and “There is woman only as excluded by the nature of things which is the nature of words.”57 Jacqueline Rose defends Lacan from what she calls a “misreading” that interprets him as excluding women from language:

Woman is excluded by the nature of words, meaning that the definition poses her as exclusion. Note that this is not the same thing as saying that woman is excluded from the nature of words, a misreading which leads to the recasting of the whole problem in terms of woman's place outside language, the idea that women might have of themselves an entirely different speech.58

If Lacan's statements about women mean simply that the definition of something objectifies it (which is rather trite), one wonders why he formulates the problem in terms of “woman.” Why not man “is excluded by the nature of words”? Rose defends Lacan's statement, “The woman does not exist,” as Lacan's exposure of sexual fantasy: “The woman … is not, because she is defined purely against the man (she is the negative of that definition—‘man is not woman’), and because this very definition is designated a fantasy.”59 To the extent that the woman constitutes man's fantasy, says Rose, she can be said not to exist. But this still does not explain why Lacan does not say, “Man does not exist,” which would be equally true. Lacan insists:

When any speaking being whatever lines up under the banner of women it is by being constituted as not all that they are placed within the phallic function. It is this that defines the … the what?—the woman precisely, except that The woman can only be written with the The crossed through. There is no such thing as The woman, where the definite article stands for the universal. There is no such thing as The woman since of her essence … she is not all.60

What Lacan means is that only the presymbolic mother is “all,” and since she can never be retrieved, women as we know them are essentially not all. “Woman” as a universal—in terms of what Lacan suggests is the only defining characteristic, motherhood—does not exist. She “exists” only in imaginary oneness with the subject, which is to say that she does not exist as such within signification. Lacan reminds us in “God and the jouissance of The Woman”61 that the sexualization of woman takes place in discourse and so is subject to a logical requirement in speech that the woman as “not all” is substituted for the “all.” In other words, entry into language requires that the presymbolic mother be replaced by the woman who reminds the subject of the loss of immediate “being,” that is, of what the subject lacks.

Lacan sees desire as metaphorical: desire in the symbolic is always a substitution for the impossible desire for the immediacy of “being” in the imaginary unity with the mother: “The subject designates his being,” Lacan says, “only by crossing through everything which it signifies.”62 As Anika Lemaire explains, the subject must formulate metaphors for his/her true desire because of the existence of the father: “The desire for union with the mother, is repressed and replaced by a substitute which names it and at the same time transforms it: the symbol.”63 If desire for the mother is the original signifier, it is “barred” or transformed into the signified, replaced by a new signifier. Lacan always represents the relation between signifier and signified hierarchically:


The bar represents the ineluctable separation of the two. Lacan's algorithms are complex and obscure, but their pretensions to objectivity mask an ideological and imaginary construction. His algorithm for the signifying substitution in which the “Name-of-the-Father” stands “in the place … of the absence of the mother” is represented thus:


Desire of the Mother

Desire of the Mother

Signified to the subject

Name-of-the-Father (O/Phallus).65

What matters in this otherwise incomprehensible diagram is that the mother occupies the place of the signified, beneath the bar.66 Lacan says that each unit of any signifying chain has “a whole articulation of relevant contexts suspended ‘vertically,’ as it were, from that point.”67 As Derrida says of Lacan, you should not satisfy the longing for transcendence by giving primacy to the signifier, especially, Irigaray would add, if the mother is always that which is beneath the bar, repressed and consigned to the realm of potential signification.68 Lacan's conception of desire is phallocentric in Irigaray's view because his conception of meaning is phallomorphic: the relation between signifier and signified is explicitly hierarchical. Using the example of a tree, Lacan shows how it “can … call up” various associations, but all are nevertheless “suspended ‘vertically’” (my emphasis) from the signifier.69 “Why not rather,” asks Irigaray, “have recalled those ‘pictures’ made for children, pictographs in which the hunter and hunted, and their dramatic relationships, are to be discovered between the branches, made out from between the trees. From the … Spaces that organize the scene, blanks that subtend the scene's structuration.”70 Rather than interpreting the dream (expression of desire) in terms of a “teleologically horizontal or vertical displacement,” Irigaray recognizes that the gaps between the trees are as important as the trees; rather than conceiving of desire as substitution, Irigaray wishes to emphasize its metonymic nature: the woman as “all” is never entirely displaced by the woman as “not all.”

In Lacan's theory, as Judith Butler points out, desire is coordinated not with the object that would satisfy it but with an originally lost object, the mother, or woman as “all.”71 Irigaray puts it even more bluntly: “‘She’ [is] the projection onto that infant ‘being’ … of his relation to nihilism.”72The woman,” insofar as Lacan identifies her with the mother, represents man's relation to nonexistence in the imaginary—hence Lacan's controversial statements that “the woman” does not exist.

Despite his claim that human identity and gender are constructed only in discourse, Lacan's theory implicitly supports the notion of transcending a biological origin: the mother is identified with a natural state that must be overcome for the subject to take up its place in the cultural realm. The distinction between paternity and maternity in Lacan's system is that paternity depends on signification; maternity, apparently, does not: “There is no need of a signifier to be a father, any more than to be dead, but without a signifier no one would ever know anything about either state of being.”73 What we have is a prediscursive state construed within discourse as identification with the mother; a nature-culture opposition is created in a system that purports to deny it. The problem, as Irigaray points out in “Così fan tutti,” is that although “anatomy is no longer available to serve … as proof-alibi for the real difference between the sexes,” Lacan now makes women's exclusion “internal to an order from which nothing escapes.”74


Irigaray does not (as is frequently assumed) accept women's exclusion from the Symbolic, but from Lacan's system of the Symbolic. In response to Lacan's “Woman does not exist,” Irigaray counters, “Fortunately there are women” (my emphasis).75 This does not mean, however, that she begins at the other end (so to speak) and creates the textual “woman” out of the empirical bodies of “women.”76 Irigaray's position resembles Kristeva's, if we correctly read the following: “A woman cannot ‘be’; it is something which does not belong in the order of being. It follows that a feminist practice can only be negative, at odds with what already exists.”77 Kristeva here juxtaposes a feminist practice with a reconceptualized identity. The claim that “a woman cannot ‘be’” is not an affirmation of Lacan's woman as “not all,” but is rather a deliberate avoidance of what Gayatri Spivak calls the “sovereign subject” of phallocentrism: Kristeva is effecting “the deconstruction-of [sic] man's insistence upon his own identity.”78 An identity that is constantly in flux is not contained by the regime of “being,” and can only be “at odds with what already exists,” because it will continually extend and shift its boundaries. Irigaray's practice is similarly “at odds with what already exists” because of her poststructuralist conception of the subject. It is not the woman's body as such that is at issue in her quarrel with Lacan but what that body is “made to uphold of the operation of a language that is unaware of itself.”79 Because Lacan's system is “unaware of itself” as a constructed system, it lacks recognition of what is repressed for the sake of coherence. “Woman comes into play” in this system “only as mother”;80 Irigaray says this is inscribed in the entire “philosophical corpus,”81 in which woman is designated as “the unconscious womb of man's language,”82 the “Other” who “serves as matrix/womb for the subject's signifiers.”83

Because Lacan claims that the subject enters language only by repressing desire for the mother, Irigaray aims to show “what the unconscious” of his text “has borrowed from the feminine.”84 As Barbara Johnson reminds us, a deconstructive reading “does not ask ‘what does this statement mean?’ but ‘where is it being made from?’” or what are the “grounds” of its “possibility”? Such a critique “reads backwards from what seems natural, obvious, self-evident, or universal, in order to show that these things have their history, their reasons for being the way they are, their effects on what follows from them, and that the starting point is not a (natural) given but a (cultural) construct, usually blind to itself.”85 According to Irigaray, the fundamental “condition” of Lacan's systematicity is the “woman,” especially the “earth-mother-nature” that “nourishes” his speculating subject: she is the very condition presupposing subjectivity.86 Asks Irigaray:

Once imagine that woman imagines [that is, becomes a subject as opposed to an object], there is no more “earth” to press down/repress, to work to represent, but also and always to desire … no opaque matter which in theory does not know herself, then what pedestal remains for the existence of the “subject”?87

Irigaray's deconstructive strategy of filling in the gaps seems less successful in her reading of Lacan (in “Così fan tutti”) than in her readings of Freud and Plato. Perhaps this is because of the peculiarity of Lacan's text: although the discourse he articulates is continually destabilized by the unconscious, it seems in effect to tie us strongly to rationality as we attempt to make sense of it. Irigaray's ironic interlocutions only exacerbate the problem. Lacan may be—to paraphrase Irigaray—speaking to himself about love in order to speak love to himself,88 but Irigaray's intervention in the narcissistic circle is not entirely successful.

We turn with relief to “When Our Lips Speak Together,” which discards Lacan's text while keeping Lacan firmly in view. This essay more effectively unveils and disables the phallus. Irigaray's relation to Lacan here is much less equivocal, perhaps because she achieves her aim of a “double syntax (masculine-feminine).”89 To use Gallop's terms, “When Our Lips Speak Together” is more political because it is more poetic: it enacts Irigaray's evolving subject constituted as “difference” within (endlessly oscillating between) the mediated “I” of the Symbolic (in the “Name-of-the-Father”) and the immediate “I” experienced as fusion with the “Other” (in the name of the mother, we could say).

Carolyn Burke, the first translator of “When Our Lips Speak Together,” presented it as an imagined “dialogue for female lovers” or between “two aspects of the self,” but she makes only a passing reference to Lacan.90 Irigaray's essay, however, could well have been written as an ironic rebuttal to Lacan's theory of the phallus, or to his declaration that the clitoris is “autistic” (i.e., it cannot communicate: it is impotent in the Symbolic).91 Irigaray replies that “woman has sex organs more or less everywhere” and thus forges multifarious connections.92

With the two (or more) lips, Irigaray subverts the reproductive determinism of Lacan's theory: her emphasis on women's multifaceted sexuality exposes Lacan's theory as an example of what Gayatri Spivak calls the effacement of the clitoris: “Defining woman as object of exchange, passage, or possession in terms of reproduction, it is not only the womb that is literally ‘appropriated’; it is the clitoris as the signifier of the sexed subject that is effaced.”93 In Lacan's theory, as Irigaray shows, woman (at least as “all”) is the womb: “matrix/womb for the subject's signifiers.”94 Unlike Lacan, Irigaray refuses to appeal to biological origin for her conception of the subject; she shifts the emphasis away from the subject's relation to the mother in order to focus on the (mature) subject within the symbolic: “Forgive me, mother, I prefer a woman.”95 Irigaray's work conspicuously lacks a theory of the subject, or of identity, in terms of development from any fixed origin. Her aim is to retrieve the woman not from discourse, as Rose and others have maintained, but from determinism.

Whereas Lacan reneges on his premise that the subject is overdetermined—“events mesh with one another and are continually transformed through their exchange of meaning”96—Irigaray wants to sustain its continual transformation. Lacan himself acknowledges—but ignores—the dynamic nature of the subject: “What is realised in my history … is the future anterior of what I shall have been for what I am in the process of becoming.”97 Irigaray suggests, playfully, that we conceive of the subject altogether differently—“lipeccentrically,” if you will, rather than phallocentrically.98 This reconceptualization has many implications: it challenges Lacan's centered subject (defined teleologically with reference to its origin in the mother); it defines woman without reference to reproduction—in Spivak's words, as “clitorally ex-centric from the reproductive orbit”; and it constitutes the subject in flux, with reference to a continually deferred future rather than to a repressed past.

Kiss me. Two lips kissing two lips: openness is ours again. … the passage between us, is limitless. Without end. … When you kiss me … the horizon itself disappears. Are we unsatisfied? Yes, if that means we are never finished. If our pleasure consists in moving, being moved, endlessly. Always in motion: openness is never spent or sated.99

Irigaray claims that the subject's horizons are limitless. The traditional Freudian conception of the psyche, within which Lacan formulated his theory, is based on the notion that the organism needs equilibrium: this means that any “investment” of psychic energy requires a “return.”100 Irigaray replaces this “libidinal economy”—which, using Marx, she links with capitalism—with the conception of an unlimited “spending” of inexhaustible energy. “When Our Lips Speak Together” demonstrates the “difference” it makes when we take the lips rather than the phallus as the model for textual/sexual subjectivity.

Neither one nor two. I've never known how to count. Up to you. In their calculations, we make two. Really, two? Doesn't that make you laugh? … Let's leave one to them: their oneness, with its prerogatives, its domination, its solipsism. … And the strange way they divide up their couples, with the other as the image of the one.101

Irigaray's emphasis on two or more lips and on the speaker's inability to count refers to Lacan's attempt to demonstrate in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis that “the subject has to recognize himself … as he who counts.”102 The importance of the child's counting is synonymous with the mirror stage which is the decisive event in the constitution of Lacan's subject. The mirror stage, in which the child (mis)recognizes its mirror image as a more coherent (and illusory) representation of the self, inaugurates entry into the symbolic realm, where language similarly presents a deceptively unified self.103 The subject, as we have seen, is split between the immediacy of being (which cannot be represented in the symbolic) and the being that is conferred by language; but it is only the symbolic subject which “counts.” “I have three brothers,” says the child, “Paul, Earnest and me.104 Once the boy in the example recognizes that it is he who counts, that is, that the represented self is and is not the speaking self, he assumes his split subjectivity; his representations, in the mirror and in language, become his own.105 In Lacan's account, maturity requires repressing the (unmediated) one who is counting (i.e., the one identified with the mother) in favor of the only one that “counts” or matters (identified with the “Name-of-the-Father”); Lacan also implies that language is a flat plane, a mirror that represents an even or coherent image (however illusory) of the self. Irigaray sees language as a “speculum,” giving back an uneven, multiple, shifting self. The denial of the ability to count in “When Our Lips Speak Together” is a rejection of Lacan's conception of desire as metaphorical: in Lacan's account, the child replaces the mother—the “woman as all”—with the woman as “not all,” because language is metaphorical. For Irigaray, language—and therefore desire—does not facilitate such a singular displacement, since metonymy occurs as frequently as metaphor. The essay emphasizes desire for that which is proximate and close (the self or female lover) rather than desire for the lost and displaced mother. Irigaray's evocation of indistinguishable yet multiple identities means that there can be no simple substitution for the desire for the mother: Lacan's claim that language performs the inevitable exclusion of the woman is thereby shown to be false.

As a dialogue between women, Irigaray's essay serves as a critique of the role Lacan—borrowing from Levi-Strauss—assigns to women. When Lacan reflects in Ecrits that “the law of man has been the law of language since the first words of recognition presided over the first gifts,” he affirms Levi-Strauss's myth of the origins of society in which women function as signs of cooperation between groups of men: “The emergence of symbolic thought must have required women to be things (reciprocally) exchanged like spoken words.”106 Lacan thus refers to empirical women rather than textual “woman.” In “Women on the Market,” Irigaray transposes Lacan's and Levi-Strauss's notion of women as objects of exchange into Marx's theory of commodities. The exchange value of women reduces them, Irigaray says, to “a common feature”: “their current price in gold or phalluses. … each one looks exactly like every other. They all have the same phantom-like reality.”107 Her claim that women's bodies have a phallus-value is derived from Marx's insight that the exchange value of a commodity is the projection of desire, a manifestation of (male) relations of production.108 “When Our Lips Speak Together” opposes the fetishization of women whose exchange manifests the power of the phallus, by reestablishing the links between women alienated from one another by a competitive market:

Come back. … We don't owe each other anything. … What would I do with you, with myself, wrapped up like a gift? … bargains like these have no business between us. Unless we restage their commerce, and remain within their order.109

The dialogue represents a refusal to allow the bodily form of one woman-commodity to mirror the exchange value of the other—“It would be frivolous of us, exchanged by them, to be so changeable”110—thereby rendering women inaccessible to a heterosexual economy: “Between us, one is not the ‘real’ and the other her imitation; one is not the original and the other her copy. Although we can dissimulate perfectly within their economy, we relate to one another without simulacrum.”111 “When Our Lips Speak Together” offers an alternative to the masculine “libidinal economy” of parsimonious desire.

We must not forget the lips: “Without lips, there is no more ‘us.’ The unity, the truth, the propriety of words comes from their lack of lips, their forgetting of lips.”112 Lacan's discourse, with its emphasis on the signifier as a unit—its phallomorphism—closes the gap in the play of “difference” between opposites: the result is that Otherness always collapses into Sameness and the feminine Other is always the negative of the masculine Self. Irigaray's lips, by contrast, emphasize continuity, circularity, supplementarity: “Our two lips cannot separate to let just one word pass. … Closed and open, neither ever excluding the other. … Together. To produce a single precise word, they would have to stay apart. Definitely parted. Kept at a distance, separated by one word.113 The lips signify what Derrida calls the “open and productive displacement of the textual chain.”114 Irigaray wonders whether “the motifs of ‘self-touching’ of ‘proximity’ … might not imply a mode of exchange irreducible to any centering, any centrism.115 The interrogative is important: Irigaray eschews dogmatic statement, or “univocity,”116 because she does not wish to displace Lacan's phallus with the lips, which would be a phallocentric strategy.

To avoid what she calls reproducing sameness by installing another hierarchy, Irigaray offers the lips playfully: “To escape from a pure and simple reversal of the masculine position,” she says, we must not forget “to laugh.” Laughter reminds us that “desire” and “pleasure” are “unrepresentable … in the ‘seriousness’—the adequacy, the univocity, the truth … of a discourse that claims to state its meaning.”117 If Irigaray's lips speaking to themselves provoke a smile in the reader, so much the better: that response draws attention to the absurdity and pretentiousness of the phallus as a transcendental signifier. The irony with which the lips are offered is crucial; without it, Irigaray would be guilty of the phallocentric strategy of reversal. The lips are also ironic because they have a dual and contradictory signification: they both do and do not refer to the labia. Far from forging an existential relation between language and the body, as Silverman suggests, Irigaray's lips textually reconstitute the anatomical labia, in a discursive context that enables them far to exceed anatomy. Equally misleading is Gallop's alternative to Silverman's explanation—that Irigaray is articulating a “poetics” of the body—because no distinction can be made between the “poetic” and the “political” articulation of the lips: they are always and only mediated through discourse.

Irigaray's “lipeccentrism” attempts to articulate a sexual identity that is not founded on a gesture of repression and denial, especially of the woman. Irigaray reminds us of what Lacan forgets: that gender is never fixed but is continually transformed as we live it; as Judith Butler says in a different context:

The origin of gender is not temporally discrete precisely because gender is not suddenly originated at some point in time after which it is fixed in form. In an important sense, gender is not traceable to a definable origin because it itself is an originating activity incessantly taking place.118

Lacan's reaffirmation of the oedipal complex—in Irigaray's view a “categorical and factitious law”—makes us wonder to what extent, to quote Butler, “the reification of the prohibitive law is an ideological means of confirming that law's hegemony.”119 “When Our Lips Speak Together” attempts—to borrow from Michel Foucault in another context—to “develop action, thought, and desires by proliferation, juxtaposition, and disjunction, and not by subdivision and pyramidal hierarchization.”120 “When Our Lips Speak Together” demonstrates the vital link between a knowledge of difference within the self and the ability to acknowledge the differences among selves subjected to what Irigaray calls “the various systems of oppression.”121 Furthermore, if the “horizon” of identity continually disappears, this does not mean—contrary to Daryl McGowan Tress's claims of the poststructuralist subject—that “there is no one to emancipate”;122 rather, it means that the subject is oriented by desire toward half-glimpsed alternatives.123 By emphasizing the “lipeccentric” (as opposed to “vulvomorphic”) logic of Irigaray's text, we perform the double maneuver of which Irigaray is so fond: we do not immediately regard the body as though it were a given, thus essentializing it, but neither do we divest the textual body of its political effect. Irigaray's lips remind us that, to use Cixous's words, no political reflection can dispense with reflection on language.124 Irigaray reclaims the body, because it is on this basis that women have been oppressed, but she has no wish to identify it outside of discourse (even if that were possible), because this would return women to where Lacan had placed them. Irigaray's irony has many dimensions: while it emphatically distinguishes the lips from the labia, it at the same time reveals how impossible it is to cut the signifier (lips) free of its habitual referent (labia) as Lacan claims to do with the phallus. Irigaray's text makes the signified (what goes on in our heads when we read the lips) so rich in connotation that it actually transforms the anatomical referent.

To assert woman's difference, as some critics claim Irigaray does, would simply make the lips the new phallus. Irigaray's aim is not to displace the phallus but, rather, to uncover “phalluses” as they function historically in various discourses, to “unveil” the assumptions on which systematicity depends.125 In Lacan's case, ironically, the phallus turns out to be the “empty” womb: the contentless origin or matrix of the Symbolic. Irigaray's lips are an alternative to Lacan's phallus, but Irigaray does not constitute them as either “univocal” or privileged in the order of “being”; she does not pretend the lips are the “privileged signifier” of our culture.126


  1. It is interesting that the critics who translated and introduced Irigaray's essay for Signs criticize the French project in Feminist Studies; see Carolyn Burke, “Introduction to Luce Irigaray's ‘When Our Lips Speak Together,’” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 6, no. 1 (Autumn 1980): 66-68, and “Irigaray through the Looking-Glass,” Feminist Studies 7, no. 2 (Summer 1981): 288-306; Helene Vivienne Wenzel, “Introduction to Luce Irigaray's ‘And the One Doesn't Stir without the Other,’” Signs 7, no. 1 (Autumn 1981): 56-59, and “The Text as Body/Politics: An Appreciation of Monique Wittig's Writings in Context,” Feminist Studies 7, no. 2 (Summer 1981): 264-87. See also Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory, New Accents Series (London and New York: Methuen, 1985); Beverly Brown and Parveen Adams, “The Feminine Body and Feminist Politics,” M/F 3 (1979): 35-50; Rachel Bowlby, “The Feminine Female,” Social Text 7 (Spring and Summer 1983): 54-68.

  2. See Linda Alcoff, “Cultural Feminism versus Post-Structuralism: The Identity Crisis in Feminist Theory,” in Reconstructing the Academy: Women's Education and Women's Studies, ed. Elizabeth Minnich, Jean O'Barr, and Rachel Rosenfeld (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 257-88 (first published in Signs 13, no. 3 [Spring 1988]: 405-33); Jane Flax, “Postmodernism and Gender Relations in Feminist Theory,” Signs 12, no. 4 (Summer 1987): 621-43; Daryl McGowan Tress, “Comment on Flax's ‘Postmodernism and Gender Relations in Feminist Theory’”; and Jane Flax, “Reply to Tress,” Signs 14, no. 1 (Autumn 1988): 196-200, 201-3; Ann Rosalind Jones, “Writing the Body: Toward an Understanding of l'ecriture feminine,Feminist Studies 7, no. 2 (Summer 1981): 247-63.

  3. Diana Fuss, “‘Essentially Speaking’: Luce Irigaray's Language of Essence,” Hypatia 3, no. 3 (Winter 1989): 63; Margaret Whitford, “Luce Irigaray and the Female Imaginary: Speaking as a Woman,” Radical Philosophy 43 (Summer 1986): 3-8.

  4. Jane Gallop, Thinking through the Body (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 94. For another argument that Irigaray is not essentialist, see my “Escaping the Cave: Luce Irigaray and Her Feminist Critics,” in Literature and Ethics: Essays Presented to A. E. Malloch, ed. Gary Wihl and David Williams (Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1988), 62-76.

  5. Fuss, 68.

  6. Emile Benveniste, Problems in General Linguistics, trans. Mary E. Meek (Coral Gables, Fla.: University of Miami Press, 1971), 44.

  7. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose, eds., Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the école freudienne, trans. Jacqueline Rose (New York and London: Norton, 1982), 50-51.

  8. Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York and London: Norton, 1977), 256.

  9. Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985), 209.

  10. Monique Plaza, “‘Phallomorphic Power’ and the Psychology of ‘Woman’: A Patriarchal Chain,” trans. M. David and J. Hodges, in Human Sexual Relations: A Reader, ed. Mike Brake (London and New York: Penguin, 1982), 353 (first published in Questions feministes 1 [November 1978]: 91-111).

  11. Ibid., 352, 353.

  12. Ibid., 352.

  13. Jones, “Writing the Body” (n. 2 above). When Jones's article was first published, only Irigaray's essays “When Our Lips Speak Together” and “And the One Doesn't Stir without the Other” had been translated into English: the former in Signs 6, no. 1 (Autumn 1980): 66-79, and the latter in Signs 7, no. 1 (Autumn 1981): 56-67.

  14. Jones, “Writing the Body,” republished in The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature and Theory, ed. Elaine Showalter (New York: Pantheon, 1985), 361-77, and in Feminist Criticism and Social Change: Sex, Class and Race in Literature and Culture, ed. Judith Newton and Deborah Rosenfelt (New York: Methuen, 1985), 86-101; see also a similar article by Ann Rosalind Jones, “Inscribing Femininity: French Theories of the Feminine,” in Making a Difference: Feminist Literary Criticism, ed. Gayle Green and Coppelia Kahn (New York and London: Methuen, 1985), 80-112.

  15. Jones, “Writing the Body,” in Showalter, ed., 362.

  16. Ibid., 364.

  17. For Irigaray's essay on Freud, see Luce Irigaray, “The Blind Spot of an Old Dream of Symmetry,” in Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985), 13-129.

  18. Kaja Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1983), 189. I am indebted to Mary Carpenter for pointing this out to me.

  19. Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 145.

  20. Irigaray, quoted by Silverman in ibid., 145, from “Women's Exile: Interview with Luce Irigaray,” trans. Couze Venn, Ideology and Consciousness, no. 1 (1977), 65.

  21. Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One (n. 9 above), 212.

  22. Ibid., 211.

  23. Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics, 19.

  24. Mitchell and Rose, eds. (n. 7 above), 137.

  25. Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror, 146.

  26. Luce Irigaray, “This Sex Which Is Not One,” in This Sex Which Is Not One, 31.

  27. Ibid., 69.

  28. Ibid., 33.

  29. Whitford (n. 3 above), 7.

  30. Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, 140.

  31. Whitford, 7.

  32. “Differance” combines “to differ” and “to defer,” in order to remind us that difference is not a consequence of identity but, rather, makes identity possible. For a full exposition of differance, see Jacques Derrida, “Semiology and Grammatology: Interview with Julia Kristeva,” in Derrida's Positions, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 15-36.

  33. See Jane Gallop, The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982), in which Irigaray seems to be “seduced” by both Freud and Lacan: “She joins Lacan the ladies' man, even Lacan the prick” (41).

  34. Gallop, Thinking through the Body (n. 4 above), 94.

  35. Ibid., 93.

  36. Taken from the French title of the original essay, in Luce Irigaray, Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1977), 203.

  37. Luce Irigaray, “Così fan tutti,” in Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, 86-105.

  38. Ibid., 93.

  39. Ibid., 76.

  40. Mitchell and Rose, eds. (n. 7 above), 143.

  41. Ibid., 45.

  42. Ibid., 49.

  43. Ibid., 143.

  44. Ibid., 82.

  45. Judith Butler, Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 201.

  46. Ibid.

  47. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York and London: Norton, 1981), 211.

  48. For the function of “Name-of-the-Father,” or the paternal metaphor, see Lacan, Ecrits (n. 8 above), 197-200.

  49. Ibid., 322.

  50. Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 211.

  51. Mitchell and Rose, eds., 83.

  52. Ibid., 117.

  53. Taken from the title of a poem by William Wordsworth; see Jack Stillinger, ed., Selected Poems and Prefaces by William Wordsworth (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965), 186.

  54. Mitchell and Rose, eds., 82.

  55. See “On the Generation of Animals,” in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941), 677-78.

  56. Mitchell and Rose, eds., 91.

  57. Ibid., 144.

  58. Ibid., 49.

  59. Ibid., 48-49.

  60. Ibid., 144.

  61. Jacques Lacan, “God and the jouissance of The Woman,” quoted in Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One (n. 9 above), 89; for an excerpt from this seminar, see Mitchell and Rose, eds., 137-48.

  62. Mitchell and Rose, eds., 82.

  63. Anika Lemaire, Jacques Lacan (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977), 87.

  64. See, e.g., Lacan, Ecrits (n. 8 above), 200.

  65. Ibid.

  66. Elizabeth A. Grosz says (Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction [London: Routledge, Chapman & Hall, 1990], 101) that Lacan's “formulae are fundamentally incoherent as mathematical or logical hypotheses. They are irresolvably obscure if taken seriously as formulae.” Jane Gallop says (Reading Lacan [Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985], 119) that “these algorithms are absurd.”

  67. Lacan, Ecrits, 154.

  68. For Derrida, see Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Translator's Preface,” in Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), lxiv; for Irigaray, see Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, 89. For a different interpretation of Irigaray's attitude to the maternal, see Domna Stanton, “Difference on Trial: A Critique of the Maternal Metaphor in Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva,” in The Poetics of Gender, ed. Nancy K. Miller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 157-82. I cannot agree with Stanton's inclusion of Irigaray among those who “reproduce the dichotomy between male rationality and female materiality, corporeality and sexuality” (170) by celebrating the pre-oedipal relationship between mother and child.

  69. Lacan, Ecrits, 154.

  70. Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman (n. 17 above), 137-38.

  71. Butler, Subjects of Desire (n. 45 above), 193.

  72. Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, 95.

  73. Lacan, Ecrits, 199.

  74. Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, 87-88.

  75. Ibid., 90.

  76. Jacqueline Rose, e.g., in Mitchell and Rose, eds. (n. 7 above), says that “femininity is assigned to a point of origin prior to the mark of symbolic difference and the law”; this, which is clearly impossible, turns the French feminists' position into one that is untenable (54).

  77. Julia Kristeva, in New French Feminisms: An Anthology, ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980), 137.

  78. Gayatri Spivak, “French Feminism in an International Frame,” Yale French Studies 62, no. 2 (1981): 171.

  79. Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, 93.

  80. Ibid., 102.

  81. Ibid., 86.

  82. Ibid., 94.

  83. Ibid., 101.

  84. Ibid., 123.

  85. Barbara Johnson, introduction to Jacques Derrida, Dissemination (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), xv.

  86. Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, 102.

  87. Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman (n. 17 above), 133.

  88. Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, 103.

  89. Ibid., 132.

  90. Burke, “Introduction to Luce Irigaray's ‘When Our Lips Speak Together’” (n. 1 above).

  91. Mitchell and Rose, eds. (n. 7 above).

  92. Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, 28.

  93. Spivak, “French Feminism in an International Frame” (n. 78 above), 181.

  94. Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, 101.

  95. Ibid., 209.

  96. Antoine Vergote, “From Freud's ‘Other Scene’ to Lacan's ‘Other,’” in Interpreting Lacan: Psychiatry and the Humanities, ed. J. Smith and W. Kerrigan (New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 1983), 6: 207.

  97. Lacan, Ecrits (n. 8 above), 86.

  98. “Lipeccentric” is my term, intended to convey the ex-centric and eccentric trajectory of subjectivity.

  99. Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, 210.

  100. See J. Laplanche and J. B. Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis (London: Hogarth, 1982), 127-30.

  101. Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, 207.

  102. Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (n. 47 above), 20.

  103. For the “mirror stage,” see Lacan, Ecrits, 1-7.

  104. Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 20.

  105. Ibid., 81.

  106. Lacan, Ecrits, 61; Claude Levi-Strauss, “Les structures elemantaires de la parente,” quoted in Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis: Jacques Lacan, trans. Anthony Wilden (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968), 254.

  107. Irigaray, “Women on the Market,” in This Sex Which Is Not One, 175.

  108. Ibid., 183: “Hence women's role as fetish-objects, inasmuch as, in exchanges, they are the manifestation and the circulation of a power of the Phallus, establishing relationships of men with each other?”

  109. Ibid., 206.

  110. Ibid., 205.

  111. Ibid., 216.

  112. Ibid., 208.

  113. Ibid.

  114. Derrida, Positions (n. 32 above), 45.

  115. Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, 79.

  116. Ibid., 163.

  117. Ibid.

  118. Judith Butler, “Variations on Sex and Gender: Beauvoir, Wittig and Foucault,” in Feminism as Critique, ed. Seyla Benhabib and Druscilla Cornell (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 131.

  119. Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, 27; Butler, Subjects of Desire (n. 45 above), 204.

  120. Michel Foucault, preface to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (New York: Viking, 1977), xiii.

  121. Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, 31.

  122. Tress (n. 1 above), 197.

  123. See my “Humanism vs. Post-Structuralism: The Debate in Feminist Theory,” Journal of the Canadian Humanities Association (in press).

  124. Hélène Cixous, “Castration or Decapitation?” Signs 7, no. 1 (Autumn 1981): 45.

  125. Mary Carpenter, “The Phallus as Hysterical/Historical Subject” (paper presented at Modern Language Association conference, Washington, December 30, 1989).

  126. Mitchell and Rose, eds. (n. 7 above), 82.

Margaret Whitford (essay date fall 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6136

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:

Frequently efforts to give new meanings to women [have] been viewed through entirely traditional spectacles. For example, feminist photographs and paintings of our genitals have often been received not as the intended celebration of women's autonomous sexuality but simply as titillation, or even as obscenity. [Whereas] [m]en's bodies have never stood simply for sex, rather they have represented a wide spectrum of emotion and experience.

(1985, 44-5)

The tension is epitomized by Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party which, on the one hand, is a spectacular representation of women in myth and history, yet on the other hand disturbs by its apparently quite traditional equation of women with their sexual organs, however lovingly and gloriously these are presented.

In Irigaray's work, we find this particular tension exemplified. Her critique of Western metaphysics argues that women have been the substratum of representation and thus are not representable without complete transformation of the symbolic order as we know it. Yet Irigaray is also concerned with the possibility of a female imaginary, which would necessitate images or representations of women in which women could recognize themselves, or with which women could identify. The imaginary vehicles our most powerful passions and emotions; to leave it with no images in which these emotions could be embodied, or with images of women-for-men, leaves intact the power of the dominant system of representation. Without symbolization of some kind, whether verbal or iconographic, women remain “homeless” in the symbolic order, as Irigaray puts it, in a state of dereliction (Whitford 1989). But since it seems to be impossible, according to Irigaray, to produce images of women's difference in a sexually in-different culture, it is hard to know what strategies to adopt. Irigaray herself makes a number of concrete suggestions at various points in her work, for example:

To whomever is concerned today with social justice, I propose putting up in every public place images representing the (natural and spiritual) mother-daughter couple. … Such representations are absent from public and religious sites.

(1987, 203-4, my trans.)

But again it is hard not to feel, given the power of her analysis of the place of woman in patriarchy, that such representations could make very little difference to women's position in society, since they would not flow from an infrastructural reorganization. As Elizabeth Grosz puts it succinctly: “it is not possible to position female-orientated images in place of male ones, where the underlying structure accords no specificity to the female” (1986b, 6).

What is more interesting in Irigaray's work is her use of images of the body. I want to discuss two images in particular, the “two lips”1 and the mucous (membrane). The first is well-known and has always been controversial. The second is less well-known; it does not appear in Irigaray's work until about 1982, in an essay on psychoanalysis called “La Limite du Transfert,” and is then developed further in the still untranslated Ethique de la différence sexuelle [The Ethics of Sexual Difference]2. What I shall argue here is that these images have in fact become a basis for resymbolization despite their quite insistent literalness and referentiality; that what Irigaray has succeeded in doing, in her enigmatic and allusive writing, is to provide images of women's bodies which have become material for symbolic exchange among women, and which therefore have already in a limited domain and to a limited extent exceeded the parameters of patriarchal representations of women. I shall argue, firstly, that what is important about the two lips is not only their literalness, but, above all, the fact that no one can agree on exactly what they mean.

Although I accept that a discursive representation can support any number of interpretations, I am not putting forward a post modernist reading of Irigaray here. By postmodernist, I mean this: one of the features of postmodernism is its emphasis on multiplicity and plurality; Irigaray's “feminine” is characterized by multiplicity and plurality; therefore Irigaray is postmodernist and the two lips therefore “stand for” multiplicity and plurality. It is not so much that I reject this reading. Rather, I want to argue that it is only one among many other possible readings, including the most literal and naturalizing one; the two lips cannot be reduced to a representation of the postmodernist feminine multiplicity. I am arguing that the strength of Irigaray's image lies in the extent to which it exceeds and goes beyond the possible intentionality of a single author, to become part of our cultural and symbolic “baggage.”3

First of all, there is the literal reading. The discussion of the two lips is often taken as a naturalistic account of female sexuality, an essentialist picture of what women's sexuality is really, or could really, be like. Irigaray is thought to be positing a real body, unmediated by the symbolic order, which women might recognize as their own. This essentialist picture has been sharply criticized, and the critique has often focused on the image of the two lips, and the inference that language, or women's language, should be a direct expression of the non-symbolized body. Kaja Silverman, for example, falls back on this literalist reading of Irigaray, and concludes:

What Irigaray advances here … is the notion of a language which would be “adequate for the [female] body,” a language capable of coexisting with that body as closely as the two lips of the vulva coexist. This is the obverse of the linguistic model proposed by Lacan, which stresses the incommensurability of signifier and body, the loss of the latter constituting the price which must be paid for access to the former. It is also, to my way of thinking, an impossible paradigm, one which attempts to deny the fundamentally arbitrary relation of language to the referent.

(1988, 144)

This reading depends on the literal extrapolation of the two lips to female language. Counter-readings of the two lips can be found elsewhere, and I will give a range of examples to illustrate how the two lips can be read as a representation of whatever interpretation of Irigaray the interpreter wishes to highlight.

There is an obvious flaw in the literalist reading (which does not however exclude the power of the image and its “reality effect”); Jan Montefiore points out that “this metaphor of the ‘two lips’ is not a definition of women's identity in biological terms; the statement that they are ‘continually interchanging’ must make it clear that Irigaray is not talking about literal biology” (1987, 149). So several interpreters insist that the two lips should be seen as a discursive strategy. Carolyn Burke explains clearly that: “The lips of ‘When Our Lips Speak Together,’ for example, should not be reduced to a literally anatomical specification, for the figure suggests another mode, rather than another model. It implies plurality, multiplicity, and a mode of being ‘in touch’ that differs from the phallic mode of discourse” (1981, 303). For Jane Gallop and Elizabeth Grosz, it is a question of a poetics of the body, devices of writing and representation, “whose function is inter-discursive rather than referential. In short, Irigaray is not outlining the truth of female sexuality or the makeup of the world. She is creating a discourse to contest or combat other, prevailing discourses” (Grosz 1986b, 9). Gallop points out that despite the referential illusion, anatomical reference is never an unmediated reflection, even in phallomorphic discourse. She quotes Freud's remark that, “From all one hears in analysis, one could not guess that the male genitals consist of anything more than the penis” (1982, 67) to illustrate that images of anatomy are precisely that: images, not unmediated reproductions. Thus the two lips for Gallop offer the possibility of a healing metaphor, loosening the rigidity of phallomorphic logic (1983, 81).

Other interpreters see the two lips as more of a “struggle concept,” produced specifically to combat Lacanian theory. Rosi Braidotti suggests that the image of the two lips is “chosen for its value of metaphorical subversion, in response to the Lacanian image of the black hole” (quoted in Morris 1988, 49). Diana Fuss makes a similar point: “Irigaray's production of an apparently essentializing notion of female sexuality functions strategically as a reversal and displacement of Lacan's phallomorphism” (1989, 66); the two lips, by shifting the focus from sight to touch, challenge Lacan's obsession with veiling (1989, 67). So Fuss sees it as a question of the symbolization of the imaginary, rather than a question of biology: “The symbolization of the female imaginary is precisely what Irigaray seeks to elaborate through her conceptualization of the two lips” (1989, 67). This interpretation is also made by Maggie Berg: “Irigaray's lips are, I think, offered as an ironic alternative to Lacan's phallus, and her ‘lips’ bear the same relation to the labia as does the phallus to the penis” (1988, 71). In this view, the lips are an alternative privileged signifier, not an organ, part of the body or object; they exist only in the symbolic realm and disturb the monopoly of the phallus.

Yet another interpretative possibility is to see the two lips as a deconstructive concept, perhaps as a kind of Derridean “undecidable.” This move is made in another article by Elizabeth Grosz:

The two lips can be seen as the third movement in the process of deconstruction—the creation of a third term occupying an impossible middle ground of binary oppositions. This third term simultaneously participates in both categories of the opposition, defying the demand for one or the other. Such an image demonstrates that what had been conceived oppositionally—the distinction between clitoris and vagina, one and two, inside and outside, visible and invisible—need not be regarded oppositionally. Rather, such oppositions may be seen as, for example, poles within a continuum.

(1986a, 76)

Anna Munster appears to take a similar line when she writes that the two lips are “a strategic representation defying the logic of definition and identity” (1986, 121).

It is also possible to see the two lips in terms of feminist politics as well as in terms of deconstruction. This is Mary Jacobus's interpretation: “The lips that speak together (the lips of female lovers) are here imagined as initiating a dialogue, not of conflict or reunion … but of mutuality, lack of boundaries, continuity” (1986, 78; see also 281-282). I also put forward a political interpretation in Luce Irigaray: Philosophy in the Feminine (Whitford 1991), based on taking the two lips as a figure for metonymy or contiguity. Tracing the itinerary of the idea of contiguity in Irigaray's work, and its reference to a) the mother-daughter relationship, and b) the parental intercourse, or the sexual relation between male and female, I argue that the two lips stand for what has been left out of the social contract: namely the maternal genealogy, and women's relations between and among themselves. At the same time, however, Irigaray points out that simple contiguity is not enough; the problem is the transition from contiguity to another symbolic figure which would enable the contiguity of the unsymbolized mother-daughter relationship to take a mediated, symbolized and social form.

I think Iris Marion Young (1990) probably sums up the current interpretative situation very precisely when she writes: “I am not sure what Irigaray means by our lips speaking together, but for me it means a discovery, recovery, and invention of women's culture” (181). However, I will give the final word here to Irigaray herself. In a 1977 article she stressed that it is a question of discourse and representation, not of nature:

To seek to discover-rediscover a possible imaginary for women through the movement of two lips re-touching … does not mean a regressive recourse to anatomy or to a concept of “nature,” nor a recall to genital order—women have more than one pair of two lips! Rather it means to open up the autological and tautological circle of systems of representation and their discourse so that women may speak (of) their sex [parler leur sexe].

(1985, 272, my trans.)4

The point is, I think, the proliferation of readings. In a sense, whatever Irigaray may have meant originally when she put the two lips into circulation, and whatever she may maintain now, she is not in control of this image any longer; it has taken on a life of its own and this life is far more significant than any single reading. It is the autonomous itinerary of multiple symbolic interpretation which I want to stress here, the now seemingly independent life of an image which started off originally as an image of a (mostly unmentionable) part of women's body, but is now thoroughly impregnated with layers of symbolic meaning.

The image of the mucous presents different problems; unlike the two lips, it is not yet well-known as an Irigarayan image, and interpreters have not yet explored its connotations. In many ways, the mucous is the most intractable of Irigaray's symbolic terms; it is a bit too close to the “abject” for comfort, on the dangerous boundary between inside and outside. Irigaray has chosen it, I think, precisely for its intractability, since: “in the absence of valid representations of female sexuality, [the] womb merges with woman's sex/sexual organs as a whole. There are no words to talk about it, except filthy, mutilating words” (1987, 28).5 The mucous represents the most “unthought” and “unthinkable” of Western culture; it is related to the threshold, but is never theorized, Irigaray writes (1985, 302). It corresponds to “what is to be thought today” (1984, 107), or sexual difference itself: “the question to be thought in our era” (1984, 13). One of the most explicit statements about the mucous explains:

For women, it is therefore a matter of learning to discover and inhabit a different magnetism and the morphology of a sexuate body, especially in its singularities and mucous qualities. But this flesh (and aren't the mucous membranes the very stuff of flesh for many?) has remained ignored, often imagined as chaos, abyss, or dregs. Raw material, or a cast-off from what has already been born, it has yet to find its forms, to flower in accordance with its roots. It has still not been born into its own growth, its subjectivity.

(1987, 194)6

Irigaray's startling claim in Ethique de la différence sexuelle is that what is unthought and what we need to think, is the relationship of the mucous to the divine, for “this mucous, in its touching, in its properties, would hinder the transcendence of a God of immutable and stable truth” (1984, 107). What I suggest here is that the mucous is a nodal concept which links together every part of Irigaray's work, from the earliest to the most recent. It corresponds to the attempt to build a sensible transcendental, in which the most corporeal and the most transcendent are no longer culturally split, and in which women's bodies and sexuality could be representations of the most transcendent or the divine.7 It is not just a question of theology. What is important here is whether we could think, conceive or imagine the divine in terms of what has culturally been, for women too, the most “abject,” the most unspeakable part of the body. It is a question of the possibilities of what we can permit ourselves to think.

Let me begin by explaining why the properties of the mucous make it a particularly suitable image for the whole range of Irigaray's preoccupations, and why it lends itself to the representation of the unthought:

  1. It relates back directly to the problematics of the mirror in Speculum (1974). The mucous is interior, it cannot be seen in the Lacanian flat mirror which “reflects the greater part of women's sexual organs only as a hole” (1974, 109, note 122; trans. 89, note).
  2. It is more accessible to touch than to sight, thus shifting the emphasis away from an excessive preoccupation with the scopic and the visible, in order to privilege a different sense.
  3. It is always partly open (entrouvert), whereas, according to Irigaray, the male imaginary would like the woman to be a closed container, under his control. Irigaray writes that woman represents a house for men, but the threshold is closed. Irigaray calls it in one place a maison close, literally a closed house, but also a brothel or house of ill fame (1974, 178; trans. 143), and argues that the male imaginary needs to fantasize the maternal body as his property: “For men to have the possibility of thinking themselves or imagining themselves causa sui (self-caused), they have to think that the container ‘belongs’ to them” (1984, 86). What Irigaray is looking for and attempting to symbolize is a way of distinguishing symbolically between mother and woman. The mucous cannot be reduced to the maternal-feminine body and the production of children; it refers to the possibility of woman as a desiring subject too.
  4. The mucous indicates a body that is not easily incorporated into the male imaginary. It is not a part-object like the penis or breast, it cannot be separated from the body, and so cannot be easily grasped by the male imaginary which is perhaps “exclusively dependent on organs?” (1985, 270). More importantly, perhaps, it cannot be swallowed (incorporated, devoured), nor can it be spat out. It is neither object nor subject. It does not correspond to binary oppositions (men also have one pair of lips, mucous membranes etc.). It is neither simply solid nor is it fluid. It is not stable in a fixed form; it expands, but not in a shape; its form cannot readily be visualized.8
  5. It corresponds both to women's sexuality and to women's speech (the “more than one pair of two lips” mentioned in Parler n'est jamais neutre [1985, 272]).

The purpose of the mucous is to initiate extensive resymbolization of Western culture. Possible areas of resymbolization which Irigaray singles out in particular are: 1) The symbolization of a maternal genealogy, which would allow women to situate themselves in relation to the mother, and symbolize this relation otherwise; 2) The categories of space and time;9 (I shall mention this theme further below); 3) The symbolization of birth, loss, separation and death in terms which do not revolve around the centrality of the phallus and the notion of castration.

I shall take death as my example here, since this is an Irigarayan theme which has so far remained more or less unexplored. To understand the connection between the symbolization of death and the representations of the body, we need to return to Irigaray's critique of psychoanalytic theory, particularly Lacan. Very briefly, she argues that symbolic systems are subtended by a male imaginary which, despite the denials of Lacanian theorists (“the phallus is not the penis”), is intimately connected with the phenomenology of the male body and its self-representation as phallic. The specificity of the female body is missing from these systems of representation, and as a result, women are seen—and forced to see themselves—as defective and “castrated” men. It is a regime of sexual “indifference,” in which representation accords no specificity to the female. In Speculum, Irigaray argues that the death drives (whether these are interpreted as aggressiveness, [self-]destructiveness, return to stasis and immobility, or primary masochism) are mediated by this phallic economy, to a certain extent protecting men at the expense of women. I will spend a few paragraphs explaining Irigaray's account of woman as mediator of the death drives of men, before coming back to the mucous. The importance of the mucous as a symbolic term is that it offers a way of representing the imaginary body as non-phallic, without having recourse to the concept of castration, and therefore proposes a different symbolic economy, in which women would no longer be used for men's self-affection and self-protection, and in which women's own self-affection and self-protection against the death drives could find a mediation.10

In Speculum, Irigaray links castration with the death drives, presenting the castration complex in men as a way of dealing with the death drives, but a way that continues to leave women without adequate symbolization, while women continue to represent for men the specter of total dissolution and disintegration. Death is a kind of “hole” in being. That hole or nothingness cannot be mastered; it is literally unthinkable. But if women can stand for that hole in representation (1974, 85; trans. 71), a kind of “dark continent,” then there is at least the fantasy or illusion of mastery—for men at any rate. The unthinkable has been represented; woman represents death or the unthinkable for/by men.

Irigaray links the differential development of the little girl and the little boy to the structure of the castration complex. The aggression which both boy and girl are said to exhibit at the anal stage is turned, in the case of girls, into masochism; that is, their aggression is turned against themselves, while men protect themselves against self-aggression through the castration complex and the “normal” structure of masculinity. Quoting Freud, Irigaray writes:

You will have realized also that the “sexual function” requires aggressiveness from the male, and that this authorizes an economy of death drives disengaging and protecting the “subject” by exercising itself on the “object.” And by continuing to be the “object” pole in the sexual act, the woman will provide man with an outlet for his “primary masochism,” dangerous not only for the “psychical,” but also for the “organic,” threatening to “life.” Now, Freud states that this primary or “erogenous” masochism will be reserved to woman, and that both her “constitution” and “social conventions” will forbid her any sadistic way to work out these masochistic death drives. She can only “turn them round” or “turn them inward.”

(1974, 62; trans. 54; trans. adapted; my italics)

In this scenario, so long as it functions effectively, the “subject” (male) is then protected from his own self-destructive masochism at the expense of the woman who cannot sublimate her own death drive. (These violent unsymbolized drives can then be turned against herself; they become, for example, the traditional self-sacrifice of the woman, or women's deadly rivalry with each other.) By connecting the trajectory of the death drives with the castration complex, Irigaray makes a link between the naturalization of castration (the absence of the penis) and the naturalization of female masochism (it is her “constitution”), and can therefore claim that castration apotropaically functions to ward off death. By making death (instead of woman) the absolute other, and by making women into the representatives of death, men attempt to master and contain the unthinkable:

In this proliferating desire of the same, death will be the only representative of an outside, of a heterogeneity, of an other; woman will assume the function of representing death (of sex/organ), castration, and man will be sure as far as possible of achieving mastery, subjugation. …

(1974, 27; trans. 27)

In this economy, no system of representation is provided for women to deal with their death drives, their “castration” (i.e., their entry into the symbolic order), and this has an effect on their possibilities for sublimation, for becoming “subjects,” whether subjects of representation or subjects in the social world. And this especially affects their possibilities for constructive relationships with other women.

But in this equation of castration and death, the possible emergence of the woman subject is extremely threatening: “the other … threatens only with the reminder of that with which she has been surreptitiously entrusted: death” (Irigaray 1980, 85-6). For the male subject, the woman threatens the “horror of the abyss, attributed to woman … loss of identity, death” (1980, 97). For women to assert their co-subjectivity, then, means that the specter of death and dissolution returns to haunt the male imaginary. That which the patriarchal symbolic has attempted to master by repression and splitting can only re-appear in an unbearably threatening form. It is clear from Speculum that Irigaray sees the symbolic order as a way of binding the death drives of men at the expense of women (1974, 62, 126; trans. 54, 102). To challenge this economy of the death drives, she writes, what we have to challenge is the representation of women by men.

The constitution of the male subject, then, involves the structure described with such apparent finality by Lacan, in which castration structures the death drives and, at the same time, relegates woman to her traditional position in the Oedipus complex. The whole edifice depends on the phallus. However, the mucous resists recapture by the male imaginary, as I indicated above. It is invisible in the flat mirror; it is not immediately accessible to sight; it indicates that which is not entirely “owned” by men; it cannot be detached, split off from the body, manipulated and handled by the male imaginary, as can other parts of the body; it does not slot easily into the available dichotomies. Its function, and its potential strength, lies in this elusiveness and ungraspability which might orient us towards a different way of symbolizing the sexuate body.

The mucous, then, is a term which is offered as an approach to the problem of rethinking the phallic economy, breaking down the traditional metaphysical oppositions, and fundamentally undermining the whole tradition based on the imaginary male body. (It slides away from the dichotomy of castrated/not castrated.) Its provocation lies in its insistent referentiality, the attempt to replace the female body in the symbolic order, its wager that the female body could be as adequate for symbolization as the male body and the phallic referent, and not only that, but that its symbolization could overcome the split on which all of Western culture is based: celestial and terrestrial, transcendent and sensible, life and death, Eros and Thanatos. “Women are dispossessed of access to life and to death as affirmative responsibilities” (Irigaray 1985, 294); to symbolize the mucous would allow access to life and to death to both sexes, “without eternal strife and without a lethal fusion” (1985, 303).

The implications of these fragmentary hints could be extraordinarily far-reaching. In particular, Irigaray suggests in Ethique that the symbolization of the mucous could put into question Kant's transcendental aesthetic, i.e., space and time defined as the conditions of possibility of experience:11

The transition to a new age necessitates a new perception and a new conception of time and space, our occupation of place, and the envelopes of identity.

(1984, 15; trans. in Moi (ed.) 1987, 120; trans. adapted)

We need both space and time. And perhaps we are living in an age when time must redeploy space. The dawning of a new world? The re-casting of immanence and transcendence, notably by that threshold which has never been examined as such: the female sex. A threshold unto mucosity. Beyond the classic oppositions of love and hate, absolute fluidity and ice—a perpetually half-open threshold. A threshold of lips strangers to dichotomies.

(1984, 24; trans. in Moi 1987, 128; trans. adapted)

Irigaray is here suggesting that our conceptions of space and time may be based entirely on the imaginary representation of the male body and the body of woman-for-man. Irigaray on her own cannot rewrite the whole cultural map, but in the mucous, she is beginning to attempt a different conceptualization of space-time, whose imaginary would be provided instead by the morphology of the female body. It will be of great interest to see what emerges from women's interpretative imaginations when the mucous starts to receive the same kind of attention as the two lips. It is not clear yet, for example, whether the mucous will be able to bear the weight of symbolic meaning that Irigaray attaches to it.

If, as Irigaray suggests, men's way of dealing with death/loss/absence is to project the fantasy of disintegration onto women (so that the female imaginary is in bits and pieces, their bodies often fragmented), this prevents women from acceding to a collective symbolic identity, and could in part explain the disintegrative forces that seem to operate when adequate socio-symbolic mediation between women is lacking. I would further hypothesize (while insisting that this is only speculative) that one could provide a reading of the situation of contemporary Western feminism in Irigarayan terms such as I have outlined above. One might well argue that the crisis of confidence being displayed by some Anglo-American feminists in the notion of identity—under the dual pressure of a) what is loosely called postmodernism, and b) the women who are marginalized by feminism itself—is an indication of the disintegrative force of the patriarchal order, in which women's death drives are turned upon themselves. Women need to symbolize their own death drives for themselves, and not merely remain the passive victims of a patriarchal economy of the death drives.

But since the death drives of men, according to Irigaray, depend for their mediation on women's role as the condition and substratum of representation, any challenge to this is both disturbing and destabilizing, not to say dangerous. So that the question of women's representation for Irigaray has very wide implications. The attempt to create positive images of women does involve a fundamental wager; it can neither be speedily nor easily accomplished, simply because the will to do it is now there, nor is it without perils.

In these brief reflections, I hope to have provided a glimpse of the horizons that this apparently rather “abject” image of the mucous opens on to. And again, what I would like to stress is that woman's body is once more in Irigaray's work the source for extremely far-reaching cultural meanings which cannot be easily reduced to the traditional meanings of woman-for-man.


  1. See Irigaray (1977a, trans. 1985), particularly the sections entitled “This Sex Which is Not One” and “When Our Lips Speak Together”; see also Irigaray (1977b).

  2. “La Limite du transfert” is in Irigaray (1985, 293-305); a translation by David Macey with Margaret Whitford will appear in The Irigaray Reader (Whitford 1991). Three sections of Ethique de la différence sexuelle have been translated into English to date. See: “The Fecundity of the Caress,” trans. Carolyn Burke, in Face to Face with Levinas, ed. Richard A. Cohen, Albany: SUNY Press 1985, 231-256; “Sexual Difference,” trans. Seán Hand, in French Feminist Thought, ed. Toril Moi, Oxford: Blackwell 1987, 118-130; “Sorcerer Love: A Reading of Plato's Symposium, Diotima's Speech,” trans. Eléanor Kuykendall, in Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 3(3): 32-44.

  3. This is a slightly different argument from the one I put forward in my Luce Irigaray: Philosophy in the Feminine (1991).

  4. This quotation comes from a still untranslated essay, “Misère de la psychanalyse,” which contains Irigaray's most direct critique of the Lacanian School; a translation will appear in The Irigaray Reader (Whitford 1991), under the title “The Poverty of Psychoanalysis.”

  5. Translation in “The Bodily Encounter with the Mother,” in The Irigaray Reader (Whitford 1991). One thinks for example of the “viscous” as an image in Sartre's work. The mucous or mucosity (le muqueux) or the mucous membrane (la muqueuse) is a scientific term in French, with a fairly precise medical reference (see for example Irigaray [1990], where the biologist Hélène Rouch refers to “la muqueuse utérine”: the lining of the womb). An earlier draft of the present paper was given at the Women Teaching French conference at Ilkley, November 1990; I should like to thank the audience, particularly Felicia Gordon and Gabrielle Parker, for their informative interventions on the connotations of the mucous.

  6. Trans. in “The Three Genres” in The Irigaray Reader (Whitford 1991).

  7. That is to say, a symbolic order in which the corporeal is no longer split off from the spiritual and ideal. The sensible transcendental is not easy to define precisely, as Irigaray uses it in a number of different contexts. The simplest way of describing it is to say that it refers to the conditions for women's collective access as subjects to culture and society. I discuss the sensible transcendental much more fully in Whitford (1991).

  8. Iris Marion Young (1990, 193) has some useful comments to make on the symbolic implications of the image of the fluid which could be extended to the mucous:

    Irigaray's idea that women are specially linked to the aqueous is the subject of much ridicule, which sometimes makes me wonder whether there is a fear going on even among feminists, a fear of the loss of “something to hold on to.” As far as I am concerned, it is not at all a matter of making a claim about women's biologies or bodies, for conceptualized in a radically different way, men's bodies are at least as fluid as women's. The point is that a metaphysics of self-identical objects has clear ties to the domination of nature in which the domination of women has been implicated because culture has projected onto us identification with the abject body. It makes a difference how we think about beings in the world, and we can make choices about it that seem to have political implications. A process metaphysics, a metaphysics of fluids, where the being of any location depends on its surrounding and where we cannot delineate clearly what is inside and outside, is a better way to think about the world from an ecological point of view. Inasmuch as women's oppression derives to a significant extent from literal and figurative objectification, I am suggesting, subverting the metaphysics of objects can also be liberating for women.

  9. The link between the mucous, the death drive and space and time, has to be constructed, because Irigaray does not write in such a systematic way. On the mucous and space-time, see Ethique de la différence sexuelle, passim. See also “The Gesture in Psychoanalysis” (Irigaray 1989) on the fort-da; the fort-da is the game which Freud describes in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” in which the little boy attempts to master absence and loss, and symbolize his own death drive; Irigaray argues that it is not accidental that Freud's example figures a little boy, and that the fort-da is inadequate for the little girl, who has a different relationship with her mother. The little girl therefore needs different symbolization, or a becoming without breaks, and so her relation to space and time is—or potentially could be—different (the question of whether Irigaray is talking about the actual or the possible is, as usual in her work, unclear). This issue is also discussed in “La Croyance même” (in Irigaray 1987).

  10. A fuller account of this complex argument can be found in Whitford (1991). See Whitford (1989) for a description of Irigaray's account of the death drive turned against other women.

  11. See Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. On Kant, see Irigaray (1974, 253-265, trans. 203-213), and Irigaray (1984 passim).


Berg, Maggie. 1988. “Escaping the Cave: Luce Irigaray and Her Feminist Critics.” In Literature and Ethics. Gary Wihl and David Williams, eds. Toronto: Toronto University Press.

Burke, Carolyn. 1981. “Irigaray through the Looking Glass.” Feminist Studies 7(2): 288-306.

Fuss, Diana. 1989. “Essentially Speaking: Luce Irigaray's Language of Essence.” Hypatia 3(3): 62-80.

Gallop, Jane. 1982. Feminism and Psychoanalysis: The Daughter's Seduction. London: Macmillan.

———. 1983. “Quand nos lèvres s'écrivent: Irigaray's Body Politic.” Romanic Review 74: 77-83.

Grosz [Gross], Elizabeth. 1986a. “Derrida, Irigaray and Deconstruction.” Intervention 20: 70-81.

———. 1986b. Irigaray and the Divine. Sydney: Local Consumption Occasional Paper 9.

Irigaray, Luce. 1974. Speculum de l'autre femme. Paris: Minuit. Trans. Speculum of the Other Woman. Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1985.

———. 1977a. Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un. Paris: Minuit. Trans. This Sex Which Is Not One. Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1985.

———. 1977b. “Women's exile.” Ideology and Consciousness 1: 62-76. Reprinted in The Feminist Critique of Language: A Reader. Deborah Cameron, ed. London: Routledge 1990.

———. 1980. Amante marine de Friedrich Nietzsche. Paris: Minuit.

———. 1984. Ethique de la différence sexuelle. Paris: Minuit.

———. 1985. Parler n'est jamais neutre. Paris: Minuit.

———. 1987. Sexes et parentés. Paris: Minuit.

———. 1989. “The Gesture in Psychoanalysis.” In Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis. Teresa Brennan, ed. London: Routledge.

———. 1990. Je, tu, nous: Pour une culture de la différence. Paris: Grasset.

Jacobus, Mary. 1986. Reading Woman: Essays in Feminist Criticism. London: Methuen.

Moi, Toril, ed. 1987. French Feminist Thought: A Reader. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Montefiore, Jan. 1987. Feminism and Poetry: Language, Experience, Identity in Women's Writing. London: Pandora.

Morris, Meaghan. 1988. The Pirate's Fiancée: Feminism, Reading, Postmodernism. London: Verso.

Munster, Anna. 1986. “Playing with a Different Sex: Between the Covers of Irigaray and Gallop.” In Futurefall: Excursions into Postmodernity, eds. E. A. Grosz et al. University of Sydney: Power Institute of Fine Arts.

Parker, Roszika. 1985. “Images of Men.” In Women's Images of Men. Sarah Kent and Jacqueline Morreau, eds. London: Writers and Readers Cooperative Publishing Society Limited.

Silverman, Kaja. 1988. “The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema.” Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Whitford, Margaret. 1989. “Rereading Irigaray.” In Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis. Teresa Brennan, ed. London: Routledge.

Whitford, Margaret. 1991. Luce Irigaray: Philosophy in the Feminine. London: Routledge.

Whitford, Margaret (ed.) 1991. The Irigaray Reader. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Young, Iris Marion. 1990. Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays in Feminist Philosophy and Social Theory. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

James Robert Quick (essay date fall 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6814

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 without the strictures of philosophy. On this “subject” Irigaray has much to teach philosophy, certainly beyond the confines of our modern Cartesian subjectivity (whether held philosophically or, more ephemeral, held within the solidity of a common-sense construct), and, as well, beyond the simplistic declaration of the death of the subject or its radical reinscription as a feminine subject over against a masculine subject.2 Instead, she invites us to think a deconstruction of the subject: its fluid displacement by an other. But then, such a project raises questions.

This scene is always already an interrogative one (whether that of the Department of Psychoanalysis or the scene of a present reading), the scene of a demand to justify an (un)certain body of teaching, the scene where one is called to legitimate a discourse within an institutional space. Legitimation requires submitting one's discourse to the Law, a law of none other than the Father who would claim paternity for this body of teaching, this teaching body. Taking the figure of Antigone as her first subject in the course outline authored as a response to this institutional demand, Irigaray is uncannily and eerily cast in this role herself when her proposal is turned down; she suffers a repetition of Antigone's fate, her teaching is buried, put to death, and repressed by a stringent pedagogical law determined to maintain a phallocracy.3 It is therefore also a question of limits, a limiting question whereby one reduces the fluidity of an enunciation or an uncertain textual body to the space reserved for it in advance, like so much shelf-space within the archival remains of the western metaphysical tradition—a tomb for those who would transgress the Law. And finally, it is a penetrating question that in turn asks for a penetrating answer (demanding that the body of the interrogated mimic the interrogator), demanding that whatever response is made make an incision into the homogenous discourse which has already determined a pedagogical place for a body of teaching—a place that allows no excess, and one that determines the inevitable overflow shall be discarded or excluded because any excess is never recognizable in the homogeneity of the solid formation of an institution.4

Irigaray's response to this question is not one, and, more personally, not me. Her response is, in effect, a radical questioning that steps outside the interrogation of philosophy and philosophers.5 Responding again to a question—a different scene, but with the same cast—she refuses the mastery of philosophy, refusing submission to its phallogocentric economy:

this domination of the philosophic logos stems in large part from its power to reduce all others to the economy of the Same. The teleologically constructive project it takes on is always also a project of diversion, deflection, reduction of the other in the Same.6

Unwilling to occupy the subject position predetermined for the respondent by the limits of this Socratic (i.e., philosophic) interrogation, Irigaray instead marks “the necessity of ‘reopening’ the figures of philosophical discourse,” remarking a (non)philosophy beyond the closure of the subject centered by this institutional confinement.7 She, at least, will not submit to becoming a “commodity” within this economy. In short, Irigaray responds to the interrogation of philosophy through a reading of philosophy against itself, an articulation of “the way the unconscious works in each philosophy.”8 Read from out of this project which reduces the Other to the Same by silencing the Other, excluding the Other from conscious discourse, is a reflection of the subject (the interior of Plato's hystera), a reflection that does not imagine the unsubjected woman. Reading otherwise, we read what philosophy has consumed, and confined, by “its silences.9 Unimaginable to philosophy, from the Index Locorum of the Platonic corpus to Freud's subjection of woman to the phallus in his lecture on “Femininity,” and yet at the same time everywhere readable on the margins and between the lines of this discourse of repression, is a position not equatable with the solidity of the philosophic subject. This is a refusal of the philosophic one, a refusal that does not attempt the reduction of everything to the Same. Irigaray's fluid dynamics is a deconstruction of the solidity of philosophy from Plato to Freud.

To name Irigaray's (non)philosophic strategy a deconstruction is not to impose this limit on its fluidity, nor do I wish to provide a convenient label that would mark it the same deconstruction as we have read the space of this strategic motif in Heidegger or Derrida. Nevertheless, since Speculum of the Other Woman engages in a “destruction [Destruktion] of the history of ontology,”10 as embodied in the particular ontological status of woman within the texts of the history of western philosophy, Irigaray's work takes up this task of Heidegger's destructive phenomenology. More germane to Irigaray's project in Speculum, however, is the sense in which Jacques Derrida has appropriated this strategy of Heideggerian Destruktion:

To “deconstruct” philosophy, thus, would be to think—in the most faithful, interior way—the structured genealogy of philosophy's concepts, but at the same time to determine—from a certain exterior that is unqualifiable or unnameable by philosophy—what this history has been able to dissimulate or forbid, making itself into a history by means of this somewhere motivated repression.11

Unnameable by philosophy, dissimulated, forbidden, and repressed, is (the) space of the woman—where is “she” to be found in philosophy? “She” is not the subject of philosophy, but “she” is subjected by it. “She” (and she—i.e., the space of a woman and Irigaray as the woman spaced) is (un)certainly exterior to philosophy; her repression is the condition for the possibility of philosophy's history. To thus, perhaps improperly, name Irigaray's work deconstructive is to recognize that it maintains certain affinities with the cultural milieu within which she writes, and, more importantly, with the strategies she employs to read a space for her self within the discourse of western philosophy, a reading that shall first have been enabled by an interrogative challenge to that tradition—an overturning of its priorities, which could be said to be followed by a displacement of the philosophic phallus: the symbolic one that has organized philosophy through the logic and logos of the Same. As it overturns and displaces the history of western philosophy, which is the textual space of the Speculum between the temporally overturned Plato and Freud, Speculum of the Other Woman (which is now to write her space within this title) suggests that Irigaray's reading of philosophy otherwise can be read as a variety of deconstruction.

Beyond Plato and Freud, but without the assertion of the metaphysical limitations of temporal or spatial priority, there is the thinking of a “subject” irreducible to the one or its preconceived opposite—zero. Before Plato and after Freud, there is a margin where solidity dissolves into itself, a limit which folds in to (and out of) itself. In this fluid space of the neither Plato nor Freud there is the dynamic fluidity of a “subject.” Without the history of western philosophy from Plato to Freud, and from Freud to Plato, this radically other “subject” is written before philosophy as such as Thales' “water,” Anaximander's “apeiron,” Anaximenes' “air,” and Heraclitus' “panta rhei.12Before philosophy, all things arose out of the indeterminate or boundless, everything flowed. After (the end of) philosophy, and after Freud as well, it is the “subject” thought within Althusser, Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze. For Irigaray, this subject of an as yet unwritten history of philosophy is an other/woman. After philosophy, the subject is decentered and must be read otherwise; it (“she”) becomes (an) other.

The other is an alterity that Irigaray thinks anew out of the dissolution of the subject—or the becoming solution of the subject—the position that has heretofore accounted for the other. The philosophical other is constituted first by conceiving of some one other than the self, that which is other than the subject, i.e., the non-Ego, the not-I, the “other” subject, and so on—in short, the other is read in the texts of the history of western philosophy as that which is not “me,” the negation of the Same. In this sense, philosophy begins by positing an other which is not, the I and the Not-I. These first formulations of subjectivity (and its object) are, for Irigaray, always conceptions of the other from the position of the subject—an other determined, in advance, by the structure of the I (i.e., the previous negations of the subject). The place of the other in philosophy has thus always been structurally inferior to the subject, and to subjectivity in general.

Although I cannot reproduce the specificity of Irigaray's manifold responses to the interrogation of philosophy, subjective as it would necessarily be (a subjectiveness which philosophy has always already read in the pejorative sense, concealing the emphasis with which it endows the Subject), this essay is concerned with the possibility of Irigaray's response to such philosophical questions as “What do you propose to do in your teaching?” and with the body that is asked to conform to the space between the solid outlines of the institutional practices and theories that seek to determine (in advance) the structure and space of such responses. I shall thus chart the topography of a “single” stream that writes itself in response to this question, but it is itself not singular, for the flow of such a writing eddies, swirls, and returns within its own (un)chartable flows, a river into which one cannot step twice, a pas sans pas (in)to the phallocracy of an institutional discourse. Irigaray's response to the question I have cited, a plural response of n+1 that flows from the panta rhei, could be read in the swirl of the following:

Philosophy, as the discourse on discourse, has also largely governed the discourse of science. From this viewpoint, the historical lag in the mathematization of fluids as compared to solids leads back to the same type of problem: why has solid mechanics prevailed over fluid mechanics, and what complicity does that order of things maintain with rationality?13

A response without response, this departure from the scene of interrogation reinscribes the interrogative in a question that refuses to answer (a) for itself. Here, philosophy is challenged by its own critical practice, for an account is now demanded of philosophy that renders it silent in the same interrogative gesture that reveals its structures of repression. Elsewhere, Irigaray has also marked the ground of the repression of fluidity by a solid philosophy as a complicity between the structures of language—which differentiates pronoun use on the basis of gender, and reason—which, a fortiori, creates spaces within the history of philosophy based on gender, and thus, she opens philosophy to a reading as (a) language of reason.14 A philosophy engendered to repress (her) fluidity.

Not a response, then, nor a reflection upon the scene of interrogation (for such reflections are invariably caught within the speculative and objectifying gaze of philosophy) determined within the post-Socratic teaching institution, this answer flows back toward the original question, and makes any response to it complicit with the totalitarianism of an institution, its determination of a subject-position subordinate to a teaching body. Of course, such a body is a synecdoche, for it all comes down to this whole (the body) standing in (and up) for an institutional part—the phallus. “Do you recognize yourself in the phallus?” asks the interrogative scene. Irigaray's response is une pas—not simply a no, but a refusal to step before the specular mirror of representation, to solidify oneself with the I=eye (the I=I or the eye=eye) of philosophical reflection, philosophy's principle of specular identity. Irigaray's questionable answer flows: it flows around this binary logic to flood any such metaphors of identity in a stream of (in)difference. Indeed, there is more here than the refusal of a philosophical identity, for Irigaray also refuses the logic of such constructions—not only logic as such, but the implicit recourse to metaphor that grounds any logical equation determined by the copula. Irigaray teaches us that we must distrust the privilege of “metaphor (a quasi solid) over metonymy (which is more closely allied to fluids)” in philosophy's language of reason.15 The solidity of metaphor, in philosophy and elsewhere, is the ability of its quasi-ontological “is like” to reduce the other to the Same. First, and by philosophy, woman will have been confined to the same subjectivity. She is subjected.

It is thus a question of the position of the subject, of articulating once again the problematics of the subject in relation to certain determinations: institutional, philosophical, linguistic, or sexual—in effect, within this logic, they all reduce to the logic of the Same, they are all reduced by the logic of the Same, a metaphor of the Same. The position of the subject is determined within the unreal articulation of a space within the differential chain of the symbolic (the metonymic ordering of signifiers), a position where the subject is supposed to know (her place).

Between Plato and Hegel—or, rather, within the institution of philosophy (a between that is inverted for us in the textual entre of a chapter on Hegel and the Platonic hystera in Speculum of the Other Woman), Irigaray stages a specular inversion of the subject-position, remarking within these philosophical limits a becoming subject. It is a moment of non-philosophy that seductively curves and contours a (non)space between two philosophic giants. But the becoming subject anterior to the institutionalized scene of philosophic interrogation is asymmetrical in its “Volume-Fluidity,”16 in its “Mechanics” of Fluids, spaced out of the time of western metaphysics, a fluid (lack of) space between one (two) formalism(s), one (two) solid(s). The problematics of a subject(ive) position, a (sexual) position and a space of subjection—a slave's place between two masteries (and thus it has no reflection save in mystery), two signifying chains that seek to close this fluidity into a solidity begin within volume/fluidity:

She is never here and now because it is she who sets up that eternal elsewhere from which the “subject” continues to draw his reserves, his re-sources, though without being able to recognize them/her. She is not uprooted from matter, from the earth, but yet, but still, she is already scattered into x number of places that are never gathered together into anything she knows of herself, and these remain the basis of (re)production—particularly of discourse—in all its forms.17

We must first ask, of not only this particular citation but also all those citations that will follow, who is she? Should we have come upon a passage, even one that is structurally reducible to this one save for the fact that the pronoun is he rather than she, there would be no necessity, explicit or implicit, for asking this question. It would be understood within the discourse of philosophy that the masculine pronoun refers beyond the masculine to any subject position that stands before the text, indeed, to enclose even (and especially) the feminine. It would also be understood, although this understanding by the discourse of philosophy would remain inarticulate as it constitutes the force of a repression, that such a closure is one where the feminine is not included; it is a closure that functions at the level of the symbolic (the order of language) to exclude the feminine. Such “understandings” are, however, susceptible to precisely the style of Irigaray's (non)philosophic interrogation. But is, as she has done here and elsewhere, supplanting the masculine pronoun with the feminine simply to reverse this violent hierarchy of the masculine and the feminine and assert an other x-centric (either gynocentric or phallocentric) dominance? Perhaps it is best to respond to such a question simply by designating this pronoun as neither masculine nor feminine, for it does not so easily fall within the binary oppositions of philosophy and language that have heretofore determined the subject—and it is, of course, the entirety of this structure that is subject to rereading within Irigaray's texts: “She is beyond all pairs of opposites, all distinctions between active and passive, or past and future.”18 By avoiding the metaphysical comfort of too easily falling into a philosophy determined by binary oppositions, which is the effect of reading “she” within a discourse determined by the masculine/feminine opposition, we hold open a space within the solidity of discourse. This is a first fissure, a disruptive space within philosophy where fluid becomes.

“She” is not a subject, nor, certainly, is “she” ever capable of being thought as the Subject, especially in the “here and now” of the Hegelian subject. What Irigaray first posits in the passage I have cited is “she” in relation to the subject, but this is not an oppositional relation, for “she” is other than the subject, an other of the subject irreducible to the subject's reflection of itself (as the other subject). And not least of all because “she” is already displaced or disseminated. As conceived from the position of the subject, it is “she” that grounds the subject: not only a reflective grounding, but also the ground of the subject in the sense that the subject draws from this “she” without recognizing a relation because it is neither reflective nor speculative, and only becomes so through the subject's reduction of the alterity of “she” to its own discursive formation. The subject cannot recognize itself in “she,” nor can she ever be reduced to (a) subject because she is never solid, the signature of a fluidity which cannot be structured in the solidity of one unit(y). She is “scattered”—disseminated on the surface of the earth, the surfaces of the material, permeating those surfaces as fluid.

Not a “subject,” it would seem that she lacks a voice in the history of philosophy's repressive economy:

And yet that woman-thing speaks. But not “like,” not “the same,” not “identical with itself” nor to any x, etc. Not a “subject,” unless transformed by phallocratism. It speaks “fluid,” even in the paralytic undersides of that economy.19

“She” does not seem to speak, to have articulated her difference from this history (and thus to have written herself as history) because it is we who have lacked the means to listen for her. Not speaking “the Same,” philosophy does not hear from her unless “she” becomes philosophy's subject, even while “she” flows under the surface of philosophy.

“She” is not a subject, and yet not only is “she” the source from which the subject is drawn (as from a well or an Ursprung), allowing us to think in terms of a subject, “she” also allows us to think beyond this concept of the subject, to deconstruct the subject-position in a reading that desolidifies this position, rather than dialectically negating it, in a fluid solution to the problematics of the binary opposition. These formal strictures cannot envelop what “she” signs, nor can “she” be reflected within an opposition to the formal that would render her as somehow just the/a space within the formal. In effect, “she” cannot be written within these oppositions as their subject:

Woman is neither open nor closed. She is indefinite, infinite, form is never complete in her. She is not infinite but neither is she a unit(y), such as letter, number, figure in a series, proper noun, unique object (in a) world of the senses, simple ideality in an intelligible whole, entity of a foundation, etc. This incompleteness in her form, her morphology, allows her continually to become something else, though this is not to say that she is ever univocally nothing. No metaphor completes her.20

“She,” not yet the subject of this text, never subject to a text, is also woman. Neither a woman or the woman, “she” continues to reserve the space of a position that interrogates subjectivity, since traditionally it has been this position that is equated with subjection, that cannot but be read otherwise than as subjection. “She” is a pronoun without referent, without a signified, for all that could be formalized within this series are solids—unities. Neither a letter nor a number, and certainly not something that could be read within the status (and stasis) of a proper noun, “she” does not simply and solidly occupy one of a number of given places within a differential series that articulates a structure—whether in language, mathematics, or in the “world of the senses.”

But “she” is also not nothing, and this is an important distinction for Irigaray to remark here, for at this “point” in any formalist analysis of a concept called “she” (or “woman”), the formalist interpretation of this “thing,” the phallogocentric interpretation and interpreter are bereft of the binary strictures of coding in language and mathematics which have traditionally determined the differential relations among units. At this point in the formalist analysis of “she,” the discourse of philosophy grasps that which is opposed to the positions denied to the unsubjected “she.” If not a positive term, then the rules of this discourse dictate “she” must be, therefore, negative—“she,” in other words, is nothing. Outside of the order of things which the discourse of philosophy is engendered to cognize, not equivalent to the being act of exclusion rendering the fluidity of this space outside the positive. “She,” however, is not formalizable even within this duplicitous gesture of subjection, for even though “she” is at once forced to the outside of this discursive formation, this outside is still thought within the binary logic of phallogocentric discourses. “She” is not nothing because this would still be to subject oneself to the dominance of the discourse of philosophy and to the predetermined position of the subject that it solidly reserves for what we must now think as totally other than the “other” of philosophy—an “other” which is of course still conceived within the logics of subjectivity, the dim reflection of the philosophic “I.”

But if “she” is not nothing, and unreadable under the effacements of the discourse of philosophical subjection, then what is “she”? In fact, is it still possible to structure a response to this question without inevitably falling into the logic of the copula, of subordinating any answer to Being, to its predetermined position of subjectivity, even if the answer it is necessary to give to this question might be: “she” is woman? Like Heidegger, Irigaray is aware of this complicity between language and Being, and she is aware, further, that the attempt to respond to such questions within the solidity of limits inexorably determining that “she” is a/the subject also mark a complicity between the scene of interrogation and the system of possible responses to these questions:

Woman is not to be related to any simple designatable being, subject, or entity. Nor is the whole group (called) women. One woman + one woman + one woman will never add up to some generic entity: woman. (The/a) woman refers to what cannot be defined, enumerated, formulated or formalized. Woman is a common noun for which no identity can be defined. (The/a) woman does not obey the principle of self-identity, however the variable x for self is defined. She is identified with every x variable, not in any specific way. Presupposed is an excess of all identification to/of self. But this excess is nothing: it is a vacancy of form, gap in form, the return to another edge where she retouches herself with the help of—nothing.21

“She” (woman) is not of this language, and thus “she” is not reducible to the position within language of the pronoun. Outside of language, but still readable on its margins, “she” cannot be inscribed within the complicity of the relation between language and Being, for such an inscription serves to do nothing but disrupt this system, fissure the principle of identity which holds language and Being in their symmetrical relation. As “she” fluidly resists the (metaphoric) condensation to solidity, “she” is also “a physical reality that continues to resist adequate symbolization and/or that signifies the powerlessness of logic to incorporate” her.22 “She,” outside of this reflective gaze between language and Being, cannot serve as their mirror—“she” shatters this speculative mirror. Thus, to offer the fluidity of the response “she is a woman” to the question posed at the outset of this paragraph is at once to disrupt the relation of language and Being, a disruption of their attempts to solidify the woman-subject caught between them, but this fluid that cannot remain caught there for long, flowing between the cracks of this structure.

“She” (woman) is nothing more (nor less) than a moment in a metonymic chain which is not reducible to the symbolic ordering of a language, or of the language of western metaphysics which everywhere reads a metonymic chain finalizing itself in Being. Woman does nothing more than maintain a fluid distance from this essential category—from the essential category, whether it be named woman, subject, or Being, the category that would subject woman to the logic of the Same. Of course, woman is also outside of mathematization, another of the systems in which she is solidly placed in order to subordinate this term to a transcendental signified. Not only can we not add these “one woman” “things” together to form a whole, but we cannot even reduce such a structure to the simplicity of the logical principle of identity: no woman can say “I=I,” for not only is such an enunciation not permitted in the subjections of a determined phallic language for this “subject,” but if it is permitted at all it is to subject woman to the specular gaze of the philosophic “I,” the subject from Descartes, through Hegel, to Husserl, which returns to woman only in order to render her an object.

Women are thus not themselves, never themselves. “Woman never speaks the same way. What she emits is flowing, fluctuating. Blurring.23 For to affirm this “I am myself,” or “I am I,” is to subordinate oneself to oneself, a suborning of the other as simply one, to the phallogocentric determination of the self, the equation of the “I” of the self with the phallus. In her disruption of the position of the subject in the history of western philosophy, Irigaray offers a space which is not fixed and formalized, a “blurring” not contingent upon the principle of identity's equation of “I=I,” an equation readable as the being of the subject is the same as the being of that which is other than the subject—in short, a reflection grounded upon the logic of the Same, the logic of Being where “Not-Being cannot be.”24 Other than a principle of identity, Irigaray writes “(a/the)” woman who flows into a logic of dissemination, a flow into all x variables that remain undetermined by an equation.

“She” is thus held not to a principle of identity but to a principle of excess, overflowing the solid structures of onto-theology, a fluid that exceeds the chains of the solid. Fluid excess (excess fluid), unaccountable remainder of the creation of any solid, leaking from the solid confines of the structure, is also the excess of the subject and the object, the fluid limits where these binary codings are exceeded by what they have always sought to suppress:

the flow of some shameful fluid. Horrible to see: bloody. Fluid has to remain the secret remainder, of the one. Blood, but also milk, sperm, lymph, saliva, spit, tears, humors, gas, waves, airs, fire … light. All threaten to deform, propagate, evaporate, consume him, to flow out of him and into another who cannot be easily held on to. The “subject” identifies himself with/in an almost material consistency that finds everything flowing abhorrent. And even in the mother, it is the cohesion of a “body” (subject) that he seeks, solid ground, firm foundation. Not those things in the mother that recall the woman—the flowing things. He cathects these only in a desire to turn them into the self (as same). Every body of water becomes a mirror, every sea, ice.25

“The woman—the flowing things.” Not a principle of identity, nor an assertion of non-identity, but rather the dissolution, and, in a double sense, a “solution” that does not consume fluidity within the identity of identity and difference—the “flowing things” maintain their differences. But such a difference (sexual and otherwise) must be kept secret, that is, unacknowledged by the solid structures of philosophy. Secret because it would shame philosophy into a recognition of its repressed, its suppressed, a recognition of what is totally other than its solidity.

Philosophy has sought control over all of the fluids Irigaray has written, an attempt to gain control over the fluid by first uniting these under the category of “fluid” and second by submitting them to the logics of the subject-object binary opposition, an opposition that has everywhere thought these fluids as subordinate to the solid, a philosophizing of the fluid qua solid. What philosophy overlooks is “the properties of real fluids—internal frictions, pressures, movements, and so on, that is, their specific dynamics.26 As solids, within the enclosure of an absolute philosophy, fluids are reconstituted as solids and excreted from the bowels of this system. No longer dynamic, fluids are contained by philosophy's structures—they are solidified, made one with philosophy. Fluids become excess, waste, and as such must be expelled from his proper body. But as with “she,” the pronouns “his” and “he” are not reducible here to the mere fact of sexual difference, expressions of the masculine/feminine opposition. “He,” as a signifier newly written within this non-system of non-philosophy, is rather the philosophically erected subject, the I of philosophy personified and made subject to the rules of its (his) own game.

To “him,” the flow is abhorrent, and this is the position of philosophy from Plato to Freud, the attempt throughout the history of western metaphysics to stop this flow, to contain the subject by the theoretical (and thus specular) imposition of limits. Without such containment the subject will flow out of himself, not into a confrontation of I=I, but into a confrontation with an absolute other. Whether blood, which will drain the solid containment of the subject, or sperm, which will multiply the subject—making him not one but plural. Saliva, spit, tears: this flow is the excess and waste that philosophy considers the scatological opposed to the properly eschatological. The flow of fluid is so abhorrent to him, as the excess and denigration of philosophy and the philosophical subject, that it serves to unite and erect the entirety of philosophical discourse, even to the solidification of the conventional divisions of philosophy against itself: philosophy is always one in its fear of the fluid. Thus, philosophy unites even over the material-ideal, transcendental-immanent, and rational-empirical oppositions; it solidifies itself in the face of the flood warning that comes from the fluid excess of its repressed, what philosophy builds its solid dams against.

Deconstructed is philosophy's dream of the ground, the foundation, the reasonable point upon which it could build its structures. Philosophy's dream since Descartes' Discourse on Method, the attempt to stay the shifting fluidity of “sand and mud” and erect a palace of Reason “most superb and magnificent,” is thereby renounced in a wash of what has been dismissed as a certain “ancient pagan” fluidity.27 The possibility of this solid ground of the foundation is washed away in a flood of the excesses of fluid, the flow that escapes containment in the structures built upon this presumed solid ground. Even the body of the mother, the desire to return to this body is never the desire of philosophy for its (m)other—the (m)other is only desirable as a material and solid foundation, a ground, a refuge within which “he” might hide from the coming flood. At last, the desire for the solid even solidifies itself into the metaphors by which “he” thinks of the fluid, metaphors which allow “him” to refuse to think the fluid. But this repressive act also allows us to write, between the lines of this repression, philosophy's unconscious: the suppressed and contained fluids which are the “real” ground of the philosophic construction of the self. The philosophic “I” stands sentinel over the flood waters that at any moment threaten to engulf philosophy, washing away not only the subject, but the ground upon which that subject has always sought to erect himself. But even feeling the fluid lapping at his heels, the philosophical subject is still not ready to surrender himself to the fluid:

To keep himself from dissolving completely, he will still have recourse to the speculum. Giving up his plans, his neat outlines, his univocally framed shape, his calculations of proportions established once and for all, his immovably reflected unit(y), he will try to come to terms with the curves of the mirror.28

As Irigaray notes, “this does complicate the relationships to self (as same).”29 The philosophical subject is, however, prepared for such complications: his instruments, his mirrors and his dialectic (of the Subject), have been wrought to confront this absolute possibility of loss. Even in the gesture that admits the fluidity exterior to his own proper body, the subject is at once able to solidify the exterior, rendering it interpretable as an exteriorization of his own solid structures. His first act is thus to impose, in the between of himself and the fluid, a specular mirror which allows the conception of the fluid as symmetrical to himself, a mirror which allows him once again to peer at the fluid and see his own reflection. This is the function of the speculum. And, by using this image of the symmetrical mirror that is metamorphized (and metaphorized) by the speculum to render the fluid exterior to him as a solid, his instruments of torture and analysis can be brought to bear upon the fluid: the fluid can be analyzed. But such an analysis always tears the image of the fluid qua solid to pieces, it disembowels and dismembers this solid image in an effort to interpret its center, to read within its specularized limits an essence. Of course, there is nothing like this to be found within the metaphor of the fluid as solid, an interior of the fluid which is a mirroring of the subject. Lacking this central and centering subject in the now fragmented image, “he” declares that there is nothing there.

But “she” is never there. Never subject to this philosophical eye, the gaze that would at once render her as a subject (like the I of philosophy itself) or as an object, the “thing” subjected to the philosophical act of seeing. “She” flows from the solid bounds that would hold her within a determined position of solidity, chains that would hold her to herself, limits that would solidify her into something having volume, a mathematically and philosophically quantifiable solid. But “she” is never there, she is always overflowing these constricting attempts to subordinate her. “She” is the “subject” of philosophy, the subject after (the end) of philosophy, the subject before (the gaze of) philosophy:

Opaqueness of matter, fleeting fluid, vertiginous void between two, a mirror in which the “subject” sees himself and reproduces himself in his reflection, a shutter set up to allow the eye to frame its view, a sheath-envelope that reassures the penis about the mark made by its solitary pressures and imprints, a fertile soil to bear his seed. … Never is she one, either male or female.30


  1. Luce Irigaray, “Questions,” This Sex Which is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), p. 167.

  2. Despite the necessity that Irigaray's project must begin with the historical recovery of the silenced woman within the discourse of philosophy, and that “historically the properties of fluids have been abandoned to the feminine …” (“The ‘Mechanics’ of Fluids,” This Sex Which is Not One, p. 116), this is only the beginning. Irigaray offers us a substantial program for articulating a course after this beginning, as I shall describe below.

  3. Irigaray, “Questions,” p. 167.

  4. An institution is the terrain upon which a given theory and practice coincide: here, we could name such an institution “western metaphysics,” but this might only serve to perpetuate the illusion of its solidity. An institution's coincidence of theory and practice needs neither correspond nor cohere, for an institution occurs when they are said, or determined, to coincide by the institution as such. An institution thus names a space over which it claims sovereignty, whether bodily, geographic, political, academic, or in the most extended sense, simply discursive. In the Kantian sense, this coincidence of theory and practice is the space of the aesthetic, for it is under this rubric in the Critique of Judgment that the theoretical (Critique of Pure Reason) and the practical (Critique of Practical Reason) are set within the “free play of imagination.” Against this institution, a (non)philosopher like Irigaray might read this aesthetic space etymologically as the space of a body subject to an institution—to the dictates of a determined and homogeneous theory and practice. This body would be the solidly confined body of (a) woman, which Irigaray is re-reading fluidly.

  5. Although the question I have cited is staged from within the Department of Psychoanalysis, we should not overlook the complicity of psychoanalysis, particularly the Lacanian reinscription of this institution, with philosophy. Sharing a common “primal scene” and Father-figure (be it Plato or Freud), philosophy and psychoanalysis are metaphysically written over the body of woman for Irigaray.

  6. Luce Irigaray, “The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine,” This Sex Which is Not One, p. 74.

  7. Irigaray, “The Power of Discourse,” p. 74.

  8. Ibid., p. 75. I think it would be a mistake, however, to conceive Irigaray's project as just a psychoanalysis of philosophy, for rather than prioritizing a psychoanalytic practice (of reading) over philosophy, she also stages a reading of psychoanalysis' unconscious.

  9. Ibid.

  10. This is Heidegger's description of the “task” he sets for himself in Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper and Row, 1962). See, especially, section six of the Introduction.

  11. Jacques Derrida, Positions, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), p. 6.

  12. Cf. Anaximander, Fr. 1; Anaximenes, Fr. 2; and Heraclitus, Frs. 12 and 49a, in Kathleen Freeman's Ancilla to the Presocratic Philosophers (Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1948).

  13. Irigaray, “Questions,” p. 169. In the title of her essay “The ‘Mechanics’ of Fluids,” where Irigaray deals with the psychoanalytic implications of this complicity, we should note the delimitation of “mechanics” by quotation marks in its relation to the fluid. Perhaps these quotation marks remind us that we inhabit a fine space, in Irigaray, between the deconstruction of the subject's solidity (its reinscription otherwise), and its repetition as the Same—the “mechanical” subject of the Modern philosophers and its habitation in a mechanical universe.

  14. Irigaray, “The ‘Mechanics’ of Fluids,” p. 107.

  15. Ibid., p. 110.

  16. Irigaray's title for this chapter outside the history of philosophy, beyond the speculum of Plato to Hegel but before Plato's hystera, is “l'incontournable volume.” See Luce Irigaray, Speculum de l' autre femme (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1974).

  17. Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), p. 227.

  18. Ibid., p. 230. My italics. Far from eliding the specificity of the reader of Irigaray's texts—particularly the reader's gender, an insistence on the undecidability of the pronoun “she” as neither masculine nor feminine preserves an opening for the reader of Irigaray's Speculum. Within Irigaray's Speculum, the undecidability of “she” undoes the strictures of the reflection of, and reduction to, the Same.

  19. Irigaray, “The ‘Mechanics’ of Fluids,” p. 111.

  20. Irigaray, Speculum, p. 229.

  21. Ibid., p. 230.

  22. Irigaray, “The ‘Mechanics’ of Fluids,” 106-07.

  23. Ibid., p. 112.

  24. Cf. Parmenides, Frs. 6-8. But rather than condemn, out of hand, Parmenides as the progenitor of this phallogocentric tradition of Being in western metaphysics, we must reserve a re-reading of the poetics and narrative of the Parmenidean fragments—in the style of Irigaray—which would focus on “the goddess” instead of the “young man.”

  25. Irigaray, Speculum, p. 237.

  26. Irigaray, “The ‘Mechanics’ of Fluids,” p. 109.

  27. René Descartes, Discourse on Method, trans. Elizabeth S. Haldane, in The Philosophical Works of Descartes, vol. 1., eds. Elizabeth S. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911), p. 85.

  28. Irigaray, Speculum, p. 238.

  29. Ibid.

  30. Ibid., p. 240.

Lynda Haas (review date fall 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4061

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 larger part of her texts are still untranslated; perhaps this is why we are, as Margaret Whitford states, just now beginning to come to grips with Irigaray. Her texts have certainly been hotly debated on many levels; she has been both respected and dismissed by feminists in many places. In Philosophy in the Feminine, Whitford writes, “the scholar or student seeking to find out more about the debates kindled by Irigaray's work has their work cut out simply trying to locate the most important articles” (Whitford 1991, 2). In her edited collection of Irigaray's work, The Irigaray Reader, Whitford includes not only important pieces from This Sex Which Is Not One and Speculum of the Other Woman but a number of essays not previously published in English. For those interested in learning more about Irigaray and her critics, these essays and Whitford's clear-eyed commentary are most helpful. These texts together present an Irigaray competent in philosophy, linguistics and psychoanalysis; here I will concentrate on those pieces that advance an understanding of Irigaray as philosopher. As she opens Philosophy in the Feminine, Whitford asks, “How many people recognize Irigaray as a philosopher?” (Whitford 1991, 1). Whitford's two books, Irigaray's recently translated Amante marine (Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche), and the commentaries of other feminist philosophers (see, e.g., Schutte 1991 and Fuss 1989) provide avenues by which to assess and measure Irigaray's place in philosophy.

Critical to Irigaray's philosophical position is her stress on sexual difference (not on destroying it, but on emphasizing it)—a stress Whitford sees as a strategic and theoretical parallel to radical feminism:

Certain tendencies of the day, certain contemporary feminists, are noisily demanding the neutralization of sex [sexe]. That neutralization, if it were possible, would correspond to the end of the human race. What is indispensable is elaborating a culture of the sexual which does not yet exist, whilst respecting both genres. … [Sexual difference] is probably that issue in our own age which could be our salvation on an intellectual level. But wherever I turn, whether to philosophy, science or religion, I find that this underlying and increasing insistent question remains silent.

(Irigaray 1991a, 32, 165)

What I see, however, in this recent scholarship is more reason to assert that Irigaray crosses feminist boundaries while resisting definition. Whitford suggests that Irigaray's theories on the dissent and tension within the women's movement can be read as a therapeutic move toward helping us to understand further the tension between theory and action, between unthought and unsymbolized drives (Whitford 1991, 15). As Irigaray manages to keep the tensions of feminisms in productive crisis, she offers a multiplicitous intercourse in which both theory and practice find voice.

Irigaray, writes Whitford, is engaged in the “most philosophical of enterprises: philosophy examining its own foundations and its own presuppositions” (Whitford 1991, 2). At the same time, like two lips always touching each other, Irigaray questions the social and ethical concerns embedded in the master texts of philosophy, suggesting means to reconstruct feminine identity. For those who have dismissed Irigaray as essentialist, Whitford's Philosophy in the Feminine is a good companion piece to the work of Diana Fuss in arguing that we do Irigaray a disservice by missing the ways that her theory uses and goes beyond essentialism. Whitford addresses the critiques that say Irigaray, like other poststructuralists, is apolitical: “The tension between feminist theory and political action is a real one, and most feminists find themselves at one time or another attempting to negotiate it at a personal or collective level” (Whitford 1991, 5).

Philosophy in the Feminine is a monograph that attempts to unravel many questions connected to the name Luce Irigaray, while The Irigaray Reader is a collection of essays by Irigaray accompanied by Whitford's commentary. I think these two books are most usefully read as companion pieces, thereby gaining not only Irigaray's voice, but also Whitford's observations; thus, as I outline the issues Whitford undertakes in Philosophy in the Feminine, I add excerpts from essays in the Reader.

The first four chapters of Philosophy in the Feminine review necessary groundwork for reading Irigaray's philosophy and, although they will seem repetitive to some who are already acquainted with Irigaray, Whitford admirably lays these foundations in a succinct and understandable fashion. There is something to be gained by reading a discursive treatment of Irigaray alongside Irigaray's unique variety of écriture feminine. Irigaray's texts are, admittedly, difficult—“there has always been a visionary aspect to Irigaray's work, a utopian element that many have felt uneasy with” (Whitford 1991, 13). Chapter One of Philosophy in the Feminine concentrates on two different ways Irigaray has been read by feminists and how a difference in reading dictates either an immobilizing or an energizing outcome; these ways of reading are connected to two types of utopian writing—static and dynamic. Whitford argues for a dynamic interpretation of Irigaray—one that does not attempt to fix a specific historical context or meaning at any specific point in the text—and argues that Irigaray's utopian writing is valuable to feminists, if for no other reason that it can engage us to go beyond her. In the Reader, Whitford argues that in writing, Irigaray attempts to produce a living fluidity that cannot be reduced to narrative or commentary—a text that casts the reader as interlocutor (Irigaray 1991a, 14). In Ethique de la différence sexuelle, Irigaray writes,

The only replay that can be given to the question of the meaning of the text is: read, perceive, feel. … Who are you? would be a more pertinent question, provided that it does not collapse into a demand for an identity card or an autobiographical anecdote. The answer would be: and who are you? Can we meet? Talk? Love? Create something together?

(Irigaray 1991a, 14)

In Chapter Two of Philosophy in the Feminine, Whitford takes up Irigaray's method of “psychoanalyzing the philosophers,” and discusses how Irigaray dynamically engages the master texts of philosophy. Because it is unaware of its own historical determinants, Irigaray reasons that philosophy is governed by unconscious male fantasies, reflecting a solely patriarchal social order. Irigaray writes,

[Men's] discourses, their values, their dreams and their desires have the force of law, everywhere and in all things. Everywhere and in all things, they define women's function and social role, and the sexual identity they are, or are not, to have. They know, they have access to the truth; we do not. Often we scarcely have access to fiction.

(Irigaray 1991a, 35)

Irigaray also argues that philosophy does not acknowledge its debt to women's role, particularly that of mother—this is explained in “Women-Mothers: The Silent Substratum of the Social Order” (Irigaray 1991a, 47-52) and also in “The Bodily Encounter with the Mother” (43-46), where Irigaray performs a rereading of Greek myth, focusing on Clytemnestra (instead of the male heros reread by traditional philosophy) and argues that Western culture (for both men and women) is founded on a sinister acceptance of matricide:

As for us, it is a matter of urgency not to submit to a subjectivized social role, that of the other, governed by an order subordinated to a division of labour—man produces/woman reproduces—which confines us to a mere function. Have fathers ever been asked to renounce being men? Citizens? We do not have to renounce being women in order to be mothers.

(Irigaray 1991a, 42-43)

Irigaray maintains that a woman-to-woman relationship which liberates both daughters and mothers from their societally constructed identities is “an indispensable precondition for our emancipation from the authority of fathers” (Irigaray 1991a, 50).

Irigaray's counter-strategy to the dominance of philosophy's masculine fantasies, as outlined in This Sex Which Is Not One (Irigaray 1985) and explicated in Marine Lover (Irigaray 1991b), involves assuming the feminine role deliberately (mimesis). Irigarayan mimesis is an attempt to avoid adopting and adoption by the male system; by avoiding recapture, woman refuses to perpetuate both male fantasies and the dominant social order.

Chapter Two addresses the concept of “speaking (as) woman” (parler femme) and follows Irigaray's changing emphasis within this term from woman enunciating to woman-as-subject. Whitford suggests that as part of her change of emphasis, Irigaray now more often uses a different term: “the sexuation of discourse” (see Irigaray 1991a, 78). Whitford remarks on the difference between speaking “as” a woman and speaking “like” a woman and the tendency in recent writing to suggest that the feminine position can be adopted by either sex. For instance, Nietzsche, Hegel, Levinas, and Derrida have all shown interest in “feminine identity and in their identity as feminine or women” (Whitford, 50). Irigaray uses a comment by Derrida (“I would like to write, too, like a woman. I try to. …”) to point out that while men may be able to identify with woman's position (speaking like a woman), they cannot take woman's identity (speaking as a woman), and that if speaking (as) woman is their goal, it is highly questionable:

Turning back towards the moment at which they seized socio-cultural power(s), are men seeking a way to divest themselves of these powers? I hope so. Such a desire would imply that they are inviting women to share in the definition of truth and the exercising of it with them.

(Whitford, 50)

However, the feminized writing of philosophers like Derrida (writing without mastery) has obviously done nothing so far to include women as participants in the making of culture (women-as-subjects); in fact, what these writers do, in practice, is “colonize the space that might become women's. Their ‘feminine’ is, in Irigaray's terms, ‘the other of the same,’ not the ‘other of the other’” (Whitford 1991, 50). Therefore, Whitford suggests, Irigaray's concept of speaking (as) woman has evolved into two moments: first, the unheard feminine in patriarchy; second, the demands of women claiming their right to be epistemological subjects too.

The next two chapters of Philosophy in the Feminine discuss the “imaginary” and the problems caused by Irigaray's insistence on a feminine imaginary, particularly her symbolic articulation of this concept. Whitford explains Irigaray's claim that women (the maternal-feminine) provide the unsymbolized basis of masculine theoretical construction; Whitford then undertakes an historical description of how Irigaray reconstitutes the imaginary. Irigaray's emphasis on the imaginary is the basis for her critique of rationality and her call for a restructuring of the construction of the rational subject. Whitford presents the term “imaginary” within its rich context in European philosophy, explaining how it changes meaning when used by Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Bachelard, or Althusser; she suggests that when Anglo-American feminists have discussed Irigaray's use of “imaginary,” they have missed the other implications, seeing only an extension of Lacan—and that this narrow interpretation of Irigaray's imaginary has likely caused the labels like “biological essentialist.” Whitford reads the Irigarayan imaginary dynamically, and concludes that when Irigaray applies the genres of male and female to the imaginary, they become active reconceptualizations that “might help us change and transform our society in a direction which is less inimical to women” (Whitford 1991, 57).

In the last four chapters of Philosophy in the Feminine, Whitford connects the marginalization of women in the symbolic and social order, the complicity of philosophy in this marginalization, and the conditions for inclusion. Chapter Five outlines Irigaray's argument that a single move by traditional philosophy results in women's double exclusion from both philosophy and the social order and traces Irigaray's interpretation of philosophical fantasies that keep this exclusion in place. In the present system, argues Irigaray, the only place allowed women is that of “defective” or “castrated” men; women are not symbolically self-defined.

Then Whitford takes up Irigaray's interpretation of women's identity, showing how traditional philosophical conceptualizations of identity do not provide women with an imaginary and symbolic world; here Whitford extends the discussion begun in Chapters Three and Four, making suggestions on how Irigaray conceptualizes and symbolizes a female imaginary. Chapter Eight makes connections between the body, the imaginary, and the social order, showing how Irigaray's writing and speaking (as) woman could shift women's position as subjects of enunciation. In the Reader, Whitford explains that

The vision of women's language that seemed so revolutionary and iconoclastic in This Sex Which Is Not One turns out not to be a question of a totally different language, but more to do with socially-determined linguistic practices, sexual differences in the generation of messages, and self-positioning in language vis-à-vis the other, all of which are possible sites for transformation, opening up the possibility of women's distinct cultural identity.

(Irigaray 1991a, 5)

Underlying all, Whitford argues that Irigaray redefines the terrain of philosophy by investigating and re-exploring what philosophy, until now, has barred from its lofty heights.

Irigaray's project, for the most part, is to reclaim philosophy in a way that it can be of immediate relevance to the lives of women and to the women's movement. For Irigaray, it is crucial that women find new ways of speaking about relationships between women if we are ever to create a new identity for ourselves within the symbolic order. In Marine Lover, Irigaray not only addresses Nietzsche's philosophy and his symbolic allusions, looking at how woman has been defined by/for men, she offers a symbolic representation for women, who, she argues, as yet remain unidentified and unsymbolized. However, embedded in her metaphor of the sea is a fluidity and depth that resists identification. In “Volume without Contours” (an extract from Speculum in Irigaray 1991a, 53-67), Irigaray writes, “(The/A) woman gestures towards what cannot be defined, enumerated, formulated, formalized” (56); the “feminine feminine” is represented in this piece as a fluid that resists containers. Man's fear, a fear initiated by his need for mastery, is of the thing he cannot enclose, possess, or capture in his nets. “Or his fear is of the fluid, that which flows, is mobile, which is not a solid ground/earth or mirror for the subject” (Irigaray 1991a, 28). In the first section of Marine Lover, “Speaking of Immemorial Waters,” Irigaray extends this metaphor of a volume without contours, and describes a feminine imaginary that is like the vast ocean:

And the sea can shed shimmering scales indefinitely. … And each one is the equal of the other as it catches a reflection and lets it go. As it preserves and blurs. As it captures the glinting play of light. As it sustains mirages. Multiple and still far too numerous for the pleasure of the eye, which is lost in that host of sparkling surfaces. And with no end in sight.

(Irigaray 1991b, 46)

In contrast to the depths of the sea, Irigaray uses Nietzsche's own metaphoric language (from Thus Spoke Zarathustra) to describe aspects of him (and patriarchal philosophy): “Are you fish or eagle, swimmer or dancer, when you announce the decline of man? Do you seek to sink or climb? … And in your entire will for the sea are you so very afraid that you must always stay up so high?” (Irigaray 1991b, 13). She also uses the tightrope walker (literally translated “dancer”), a character in the Prologue to Zarathustra, to depict Nietzsche on a rope strung out over the abyss (which she often connects to the sea, or woman): “Perched on any mountain peak, hermit, tightrope walker or bird, you never dwell in the great depths. … Are you truly afraid of falling back into man? Or into the sea?” (13). And picking up on Nietzsche's sailor imagery (Zarathustra is sometimes called a sailor), Irigaray speaks of man's invention of ships in order to pass over the waves. But the feminine sea will not be mastered: the gaze from high can not penetrate, the rope (or bridge) is unsure, and the ship cannot negotiate:

The loftiest gaze does not penetrate thus far into her depths and is still unable to unfold all the membranes she offers to bathe his contemplations … she undoes all perspective. … Anything that has not yet seen daylight hurtles into the abyss. Anything that remains unilluminated is taken by the eye to be a chasm drawing a man to his destruction. And since he does not want to fall, he comes back at break of dawn to get a good look at things and thereby ensure himself a firm footing as he goes off again on his high-seas exploration.

(Irigaray 1991b, 47)

The only way to capture the sea is to take a cup and fill it with her fluid; but this does not really contain her—the separated water, contained by a master, loses its characteristics, like removing a brilliantly red piece of coral from underwater only to find that in the sunlight it is colorless. This, too, is how I feel about Irigaray as I attempt to take her words from the poetic context of her book.

Irigaray has entitled this work Marine “Lover,” and throughout, it is evident that Irigaray appreciates Nietzsche, that she reads him sympathetically although resistantly. However, stitched into her dialogue with Nietzsche are strong critiques: for example, she often questions his western rationality through a feminine imaginary based on the body. She writes,

If to be body whole and entire and nothing else means also taking the other's body, then keep your soul, old man! Go on playing with your reason, your mind, your beliefs. There is relative peace on earth when you keep busy with things other than bodies.

(Irigaray 1991b, 18)

Irigaray does not accept when Nietzsche's attitude is one of “ressentiment” (sometimes translated “rancor”); she would rather speak of mimesis than nihilism, of life masks than death masks. She recognizes the distance Nietzsche places between men and women, between himself and her, a distance necessary to keep the feminine in its marginalized place within the master texts of philosophy:

So get away from the sea. She is far too disturbing. … Too restless to be a true mirror. At a distance: that is where to keep her so as to bind her to his rhythm and to the measure of his will, without his coming back too near to test the reliability of such footbridges.

(Irigaray 1991b, 52)

In “Veiled Lips,” Irigaray focuses on Nietzsche's The Gay Science and Beyond Good and Evil (she also briefly refers to The Twilight of Idols and Daybreak) to discuss not only this binding distance, but also to offer her strategy for “subsisting,” existing beneath the bind. “Veiled Lips” refers, in part, to Irigaray's “mimicry,” a concept treated more fully here, perhaps, than in any other Irigarayan text. She begins by disagreeing with a quotation from Beyond Good and Evil: “From the very first nothing is more foreign … to woman than truth … her great art is falsehood, her chief concern is appearance and beauty” (in Irigaray 1991b, 77). Falsehood, appearance, and beauty, says Irigaray, are not foreign to truth, but rather, “They are proper to it, if not its accessories and its underside. And the opposite remains caught up in the same. … With a flip of the coin, it forms the basis for its representations” (77).

With her reference to a “flip of the coin,” Irigaray introduces the game imagery that prevails in this section, and which, interchanged with images of a “veil” and a “skin,” connect her discussion of the performance of gender. Other thoughts, both Nietzschean and Irigarayan, continually contextualize this discussion: the discourse of mastery, distance and the “foreign,” doubleness and duality, myth, the body, “the other of the same” and “the other of the other,” the will, the economy of truth, the abyss, and death. Irigaray articulates what is implied in feminine posing, which she refers to throughout as elle se donne pour:1

This may be read as: she gives herself out to be: what she is not. This operation would be implied in the game of the other. Of the same. Interpreted in this way, she stakes him in a new game without his needing to borrow from the kitty. And therefore go into debt, risk losing. Mastery. Which the other (of the same) threatens his with. From afar, given the way he is placed at a distance by the economy of truth. How to defend oneself from an adversary who is so subtly absent? The danger is dizzying in its deceit.

(Irigaray 1991b, 79)

When using the “skin” image, Irigaray switches the discussion to castration: “Wasn't that, precisely, the gesture of repetition which gave the key to the whole stage set by the same? And therefore gave it some play, gave the game the possibility: to be played” (Irigaray 1991b, 80). She then moves this idea into acting; woman is “nothing in this theatre but a nothing that resists representation. … Because she is castrated, she is the threat of castration.” She stays outside in the wings, prompting; “Thus: she is disguised for the performance of representation … where she doubles up her own role as other, as well as same—beyond all that is taking place” (Irigaray 1991b, 83)

When Irigaray shifts her images of mimicry to the “veil,” she evokes the Greek myths and philosophers, weaving them into her story. She speaks of Socrates who dreams, but who “doesn't know he does, doesn't want to know” (Irigaray 1991b, 99). “Philosophy teaches the eyelids to close tighter and tighter to bar anything still presented by the senses, teaches the gaze to turn inward to the soul. … The horror of nature is magicked away” (99). She speaks allegorically of Apollo and his patriarchal right/blood ties; of Orestes, who “slits his mother's throat [and] takes refuge in the temple of the god who is subject to the wishes of Zeus alone. The women who cry out for revenge are thrown out” (100). And of Athena: “The chorus of women/Athena. The mother/Athena. The woman/Athena. All the women all together—I-we, thou-you—wounded, humiliated, bloody, suppliant, breathless, exhausted from their pursuit” (101). With her “horror concealed, wound masked, the difference in values covered over,” she is the “Pretense of the God of gods—standing in the long white robe that veils even her feet” (101). She subverts the Law of the Father by giving herself out to be what she is not, and by demanding of Zeus a “clear explanation.”

I've chosen to stay outside in the wings of Irigaray's writing, presenting her themes in as close a context as possible to her own (albeit translated) language. Appreciating her poetic analysis, I find it difficult to sever words from her organic narrative; and so, I close by encouraging those interested in Irigaray to pick up Marine Lover. When I read it, I heard familiar but more complete lyrics, echoing the Irigaray I experienced in shorter pieces. The book is as deep, as beautiful, and as reflective as the sea itself. I close with a note of hope and a call from Irigaray:

We have a lot of things to do. But it is better to have the future before us than behind us. Let us not wait for the Phallus god to grant us his grace. Yes, the Phallus god, because whilst many repeat that “God is dead,” they rarely question the fact that the Phallus is alive and well.

(Irigaray 1991a, 45)


  1. This is Irigaray's translation of Nietzsche's statement “Dass sie ‘sich geben,’ selbst noch, wenn sie—sich geben” (Nietzsche 1974). Walter Kaufmann literally translates this as “They give themselves (that is, act, play a part, pose as …) even when they give themselves” (Translator's note, Irigaray 1991b, 82).


Fuss, Diana. 1989. “‘Essentially Speaking’: Luce Irigaray's Language of Essence.” Hypatia 3(3): 62-80.

———. 1990. Essentially Speaking. New York and London: Routledge.

Irigaray, Luce. 1985. Speculum of the Other Woman. Trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

———. 1985. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

———. 1991a. The Irigaray Reader, ed. Margaret Whitford. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

———. 1991b. Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche. Trans. Gillian C. Gill. New York: Columbia University Press.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. [1882] 1974. The Gay Science. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books.

Schutte, Ofelia. 1984. Beyond Nihilism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

———. 1991. “Irigaray on Subjectivity.” Hypatia 6(2): 64-76.

Whitford, Margaret. 1991. Philosophy in the Feminine. New York: Routledge.

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11137

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 that her works must be read, above all, as philosophical texts—that is, as interventions into the specific canon of thought “by means of which values are defined,” in her view.1 She thus assigns primacy to the philosophical not only as a dimension of her own multifarious writings, but within culture generally: in the historical production of knowledge, meaning, subjectivity, power. In fact, she suggests that it is because of philosophy's unique historical potency that women have been so vehemently excluded from its precincts—“the thing most refused to a woman is to do philosophy”—even as their literary impulses have been relatively indulged. Luce Irigaray inverts this arrangement, downplaying the importance of her practice as a “writer” (along with her involvement with psychoanalysis) while emphatically laying claim to the status of philosopher. Moreover, she indicates that, in refusing or neglecting to interrogate their own categories of thought, feminists who pursue a “politics of equality” which demands “not to be behind, not to be second” are complicitous in women's exclusion from philosophy: “the way of changing argumentation in order to deconstruct a discourse [is] absolutely not their problem,” she remarks. Implicitly, then, the feminism of equality is relatively yell accommodated by the patriarchy while efforts to develop “an autonomous politics” of the feminine, a feminism of difference, meet with the same resistance as a woman's doing philosophy—and for the same reason.

Corollary to Luce Irigaray's categorical rejection of a feminism of equality is her equally categorical repudiation of any filiation with the work of Simone de Beauvoir, whose egalitarianist “refus[al] to be Other” she contrasts with her own “demand to be radically Other in order to exit from a [certain] horizon” of thought. At the same time, while she grants having read Beauvoir's fiction “as an adolescent,” Luce Irigaray says that she has read only a small part of The Second Sex—the epic work in which Beauvoir's famous theory of woman as the absolute Other of Western culture is elaborated—and voices a deep sense of “disappointment” at Beauvoir's failure to offer support during the professional crisis precipitated by the publication of Speculum of the Other Woman, Luce Irigaray's own controversial philosophical epic (which was also her doctoral dissertation in philosophy), in 1974. Calling attention to the rethinking of transcendence in her own writings, Luce Irigaray rejects the view, which she ascribes to Beauvoir, that “woman remains always within the dimension of immanence and that she's incapable of transcendence”—as if suggesting that this gender segregation reinscribes, in another register, the gendered hierarchy that privileges philosophy (the discourse of transcendence, in this coupling) over literature (the discourse of immanence). Strategically or paradoxically, the most significant “theoretical filiation” acknowledged by Luce Irigaray is with a male-identified idiom from which women have been systematically excluded: “the tradition of Western philosophy.”

Beauvoir and Sartre were, of course, among the most celebrated couples of their day; Luce Irigaray cites her own relationship with Renzo Imbeni in discussing the possibility of a new relation between man and woman that would also define “a different historical configuration” and “a new horizon” both culturally and politically. The young, she thinks, are especially hungry for such a relation, which would be characterized by “reciprocal respect,” “autonomy,” and “reciprocal affection,” but which could only be predicated on something that has always been lacking in Western tradition: a recognition of the irreducible—that is, ontological—difference between man and woman. It is clear that for Luce Irigaray the meaning of the much-vaunted expression “sexual difference” is ontological before it is psychological, biological, sociological, or epistemological. Whereas a purely “empirical” type of negativity differentiates one woman (or one man) from another in the social dialectic, “the negativity between a man and a woman” participates in the order of being as such and so constitutes “a mystery,” a negativity which—“contrary to [that of] the Hegelian dialectic”—will “never [be] surmount[ed]” in any sort of sublation. Unsuspected by (the Hegelian existentialist) Beauvoir, by the feminism of equality, or indeed by the gay rights movement, this mystery also houses the as-yet-unrealized possibility of a new kind of transcendence. As distinct from the “vertical transcendence” of the “genealogical,” parent/child, relation “that has dominated our traditions”—including constructions of the man/woman relation, as in Freud's account of the “successful” marriage in which a wife replaces her husband's mother and he becomes her son—Luce Irigaray envisions “a horizontal transcendence” between two mature but irreducibly different subjects, man and woman. Since “sexual difference is a fundamental parameter of the socio-cultural order” (what she calls “sexual choice” is deemed “secondary”), it follows that “inventing a new relationship [between man and woman] is fundamentally the same as inventing a new socio-cultural order.” By the same token, Luce Irigaray asserts that it is precisely because she situates difference as such (“the difference and the negative which I will never surmount”) between the two genders rather than elsewhere that she is “able to respect the differences everywhere: differences between other races, differences between the generations, and so on.”

This effort to think the man/woman couple in its twoness is the logical culmination of a project that began, in Speculum, with a critique of the monopoly of a single, masculine subject in Western tradition, then proceeded to a “second phase” that attempted to “define those mediations that could permit the existence of a feminine subjectivity.” Contributing to this grand philosophical project are a series of experiments conducted by Luce Irigaray in recent years and designed to demonstrate the workings of sexual difference within gendered patterns of language use—ultimately in order “to redistribute discourse” between man and woman so as to promote that which has never yet taken place: an authentic dialogue between the two. These experiments purport to demystify the seeming neutrality of linguistic forms by uncovering the different, sexuate relations that inform the use of language by men and women respectively. They show, for example, that in a setting where girls typically use the preposition “with” in relation to another human subject, boys in the same setting will instead use it in relation to an inanimate object; girls thus construct (and construct themselves within) a subject-subject dialectic where boys construct a dialectic of subject and object. Similarly, girls typically use the first-person pronoun (“I” or “Je”) in dialectical relation with another subject (“You” or “Tu”) whereas boys typically use it in relation to an object or “it.” The “I,” then, always conceals a relation, and is not in fact one but two—sexed—a reality that Luce Irigaray proposes to capture in the double reformulation “I-she” (“Je-elle”) and “I-he” (“Je-il”). Through such discursive “redistributions,” she believes, it might become possible to construct the “double subjectivity” toward which her work has always been directed. In a related vein, Luce Irigaray suggests that feminism can undermine itself by fetishizing the authority of “personal experience” understood in terms of “the purely narrative, autobiographical ‘I,’ or the ‘I’ that expresses only affect”; by way of antidote, she urges a recognition of the dialectic of subject and object, the doubleness, internal to the subject as such: “I can't myself, all alone, affirm my own experience, since this is something I know only after the fact, by means of discussion, and so on. I can't affirm that this is always already the experience of a woman.” Experience should be understood dialectically, as the experience of an “I-she” or “Je-elle”; in this sense, it forms a significant parameter of Luce Irigaray's theorizing and a source of feminist insight.

Luce Irigaray's resistance to elaborating what she calls “a metadiscourse of Luce Irigaray”—either within this interview or elsewhere—is in keeping with the dialectical emphasis of her thought. To offer “commentary” of “a reflexive, critical” sort on her own writing would be to subject it to precisely the kind of “logical formalization” that, in her view, forecloses dialogue and precludes the representation of sexual difference. In order to keep her text “always open” she attempts to situate it “at the crossroads of a double mise en forme,” at or as “the encounter” between “a literary formalization” and a “logical formalization”—thus, assimilable to neither. The pervasiveness of interrogative constructions in her utterance serves a comparable intent: “the text is always open onto a new sense, and onto a future sense” as well as “onto a potential ‘You,’ a potential interlocutor.” Despite, or perhaps because of, this concern for preserving the dialogic character of her work, Luce Irigaray is distressed by the misreadings that she feels have been widely visited upon her text, whether as the result of mistranslation, the misrecognition of her intellectual filiations, or both; and she expresses an insistent desire to retain as much control as possible over the dissemination and interpretation of her words.

Luce Irigaray requested that our exchange open with a brief comment from her concerning her recent activities and the nature and evolution of her work to date. Our questions to her begin just after these comments.

[Irigaray]: Here's a book about which I'll talk a little bit called J'aime à toi, the second one that I wrote directly in Italian. These are books that have had great success, a large audience, especially but not only among the young. The correspond to the third phase of my work, in which I am trying to define a new model of possible relations between man and woman, without the submission of either one to the other. Occasionally this displeases some feminists, but these books inspire much hope and find much resonance, especially with the young. The third phase of my work thus corresponds, as I said, to the construction of an intersubjectivity respecting sexual difference. This is something, a task, that no one has yet done, I think, something that's completely new. The second phase of my work was to define those mediations that could permit the existence of a feminine subjectivity—that is to say, another subject—and the first phase was the most critical one, which comprehended, above all, Speculum,This Sex Which Is Not One, and to some extent An Ethics of Sexual Difference. It was the phase in which I showed how a single subject, traditionally the masculine subject, had constructed the world and interpreted the world according to a single perspective. Thus, three phases: the first a critique, you might say, of the auto-mono-centrism of the western subject; the second, how to define a second subject; and the third phase, how to define a relationship, a philosophy, an ethic, a relationship between two different subjects. For this reason the last book is called Être deux [Being Two], in a sense at once philosophical and also in the sense of being two, two things.

Before going to the questions I want to make a comment useful for you and, I think, for many American readers and especially for many feminist readers, male and female, worldwide. I think that in the United States my books are read mainly in literature departments. But they are philosophical books and I think that there is a great deal of misunderstanding about them because the heart of my argument is philosophical, and literary scholars are not always prepared to understand this philosophical core. Along these lines, I want to say that the questions you pose are tied to your literary training. These are questions that speak only to certain aspects of my work.2 Perhaps it's not pleasing that I say this, but at the same time I think it's useful. To make a work rigorous, it's necessary to agree on what's at stake in the work, and, even more, to agree that I speak as a woman and that the thing most refused to a woman is to do philosophy. It's always been admitted that women are able to create literature—at least a little, if they have time—but philosophy, by means of which values are defined, that was strictly reserved for men.

Also, to create a genuinely autonomous politics—not a politics of equality, but an autonomous politics—that too is a point where there's very great resistance. What I've done recently in Scandinavia and before leaving Italy is, for the first time, to explain myself more fully concerning my relationship to Simone de Beauvoir, showing the radical difference between our two bodies of work. Thus, if it interests you to repose questions about this, I can answer them.

[Hirsch and Olson]: We've established a tradition of opening every interview with this question: Do you consider yourself a writer?

How do you believe I could respond to you? Please note that you've put “writer” (un écrivain) in the masculine, but let that pass. I don't know if it's a problem of translation. What is a writer for you, in the first place? And in the second place, is it really up to me to decide if I'm a writer or not? I'm astonished to think that someone is able to decide for herself if she is a writer or not.

In general, it's history that decides.

Absolutely, we're in agreement.

Many readers in the United States rely on translations in approaching your work. In light of your concern with the phonetic specificity of languages, as well as with the process of cultural sedimentation in language, what guidance can you offer your would-be readers in the U.S.?

I don't understand what this means.

Most fundamentally: Is your work translatable?

If my work—now, notice how I've put this—if my work represents difficulties of translation, I'd say these are above all difficulties of syntax, logical difficulties, more than phonetic ones. I also think that there are two aspects of the problem of translation. The first thing that I've already spoken about is that very few male or female translators really read me as a philosopher and thus make interpretive errors about my text because of this problem. Also, errors of translation may come from the fact that I am opening a new field of thought. For example, there's a central part of Speculum that's called “L'incontournable volume.” The American woman who translated it entitled this chapter “Volume Fluidity.” In the anthology published by Blackwell, the chapter is retranslated because the people at Blackwell and Margaret Whitford retranslated it, but there are new errors in their translation. My attention was drawn to the Italian translation made by someone competent, a [female] philosopher, but for whom my thought was, more or less, something completely new, at least then. But in Italian, in any case, the term “incontornabile” exists. By “L'incontournable volume” I simply meant a volume that can't be circumscribed because it's open. Thus, it didn't mean either “volume fluidity” or “volume without contours.” It's an allusion to the morphology of the female body, and I say that this morphology is an open volume, one that can't be circumscribed. A closed volume can be circumscribed; an open volume can't be circumscribed. Why do people make this mistake? Because they fail to listen and lack the imagination that corresponds to what I mean.

I want to give another example since you've spoken of translation. Speculum has as its subtitle de l'autre femme, and it's true that I was imprudent in so titling it. With this title and subtitle I meant two things. Almost everybody understood the term “Speculum” as simply the term “mirror.” But the title evokes much more than this: it's an allusion to those European works (I'm no longer sure of exactly what era) that speak of the “speculum mundi”—that is, the “mirror of the world.” It's not simply a question of a mirror in which one sees oneself, but of the way in which it's possible to give an account of the world within a discourse: a mirror of the world. How I'm going to try to give an account of the world in my discourse. It's in this sense above all that I also played with the mirror, but not simply, because the mirror in a simple sense, in which I see myself, has served for the most part to constitute a masculine subject. And the subtitle was even more striking, because in French it's de l'autre femme. Apparently I was imprudent because in Speculum I play with words all the time. I should have put after de l'autre a colon: de l'autre: femme [of the other: woman], meaning the other as [en tant que] woman. Then in Italian the subtitle became Speculum: L'altra donna [Speculum: The Other Woman]. Everybody thought it was a question of the image of the other woman—that is, they thought of an empirical relation between two women, for example. This is absolutely not the project of Speculum. In American it became Speculum of the Other Woman. That's worse, because it should have been put, Speculum on the Other Woman or On the Other: Woman. That would have been best. It was there, that moment, that marked the counterpoint to Simone de Beauvoir. That is, Simone de Beauvoir refused to be the Other because she refused to be second in Western culture. In order not to be the Other she said, “I want to be the equal of man; I want to be the same as man; finally, I want to be a man. I want to be a masculine subject.” And that point of view I find is a very important philosophical and political regression. What I myself say is that there is no true Other in Western culture and that what I want—certainly I don't want to be second—but I want there to be two subjects. Thus, it was “On the Other: Woman.” And these are things that have involved an equally great misunderstanding of my work, so that it's been thought that in the second part of my work I turn my back on the first, that I renounce the first part. This error follows, among other things, from errors of translation in the title and subtitle of Speculum. I've never been repressive about homosexuality, but in Speculum I didn't want to treat a problem between two women. I wanted to treat the problem of the Other as woman in Western culture.

The advice I give to readers is to be bilingual, that's the best. And to read, to read in English and French and compare them. To male and female translators, I would advise that they talk with me about the translation. I think it's very important not to sell texts with errors in them. Also for the translator, because, as there are international translations, one day people will laugh at a poor translation, and meanwhile at the cultural level several years are lost with a bad translation.

As a writer, you've resisted attempts to divide up the corpus of your work according to the law of genre into fictional and nonfictional, philosophical or poetic, essayistic and analytic texts. Why is it important to you to resist such gestures? How can readers engage with the various registers of your writing without resorting to such anatomies?

I recognize the point of this question although I'm now at another stage, but I'll respond because it's a question for literary people, or at the frontier between literature and philosophy. In the first place, I want to say that I resist genres because in Western tradition to pigeon-hole oneself in a genre is to accept a hierarchy—let's say, between philosophy first and then art. Thus to accept that the artistic subject is second in relation to the subject who defines truth first. This I don't want. I resist perhaps because I'm a woman, and traditionally women have always had a way of speaking, of expressing themselves artistically rather than simply, coolly, logically, and I don't want to participate in the repression of this mode of expression. Neither do I want to remain within literature. I'd like to say also that I resist genres because, and above all, what matters to me is opening new ways of thought. That is, I want to think and I don't want simply to submit myself to the traditional categories of logic and understanding, not simply. To accede to these new ways of thought, it's necessary to find a new mode of thinking, a new mode of speaking. I'm not the first to say so; for example, Nietzsche said so, Heidegger said so. I think it's extremely important to accede to thinking and not remain within the logical categories of an intelligence of commentary, or an intelligence of abstract rationality. I want to find a way of thinking that's been forgotten in western tradition.

Concerning the practice of parler femme and the role of the poetic in your discourse, you remark in a 1980 interview with Suzanne Lamy and André Roy, “I think it's necessary to deconstruct and argue, but with another kind of argumentation, by means of a certain deconstruction of discourse.” Can you elaborate on this “other argumentation” as a means of feminist intervention? Is it in any way related to what you call “Diotima's method” in “Sorcerer Love,” which you describe as a four-term dialectic?

I see that all the questions are rather difficult. I don't know what's meant by “feminist.” Or let's say, more exactly, and there are many uses of this word, that it constrains me to be called simply “feminist” knowing that I don't have rapport with many other feminists. How can I say this? Are men going to be called “homministes”? I think it's accepted that men will vary according to different choices, philosophical choices, political choices, and so on. For me it's very tiresome today to classify all women—all women and men who are concerned closely or distantly with women's liberation—as being feminists or not. There are feminists of equality and feminists of difference, to give just one example, and I don't think that feminists of equality will ever be interrogated, themselves, about the way of changing argumentation in order to deconstruct a discourse; that's absolutely not their problem. They want to be equal to men, not to be behind, not to be second. What matters to me is to make possible a double subjectivity. In order to make possible a double subjectivity, it's necessary that I exit the prison of a single discourse and that I show how this discourse was necessarily limited to a single subject. But it troubles me a little to call this, in the abstract, a feminist intervention.

To the second question I can't respond at the moment because today I wasn't able to get and reread “Sorcerer Love,” and the only thing I want to say is that, according to my analysis of Diotima's discourse, that discourse isn't homogeneous; that is, she doesn't have the same position at the beginning of the discourse that she has at the end. And as much as I find the beginning of the discourse innovative—I don't know quite how to say it—as much as it seems agreeable to me, to the same extent I find that the end is very much more traditional and less interesting.

Your books seem to be composed or arranged in a variety of ways. For example, the tripartite structure of Speculum and the relation between and within its parts seems an essential aspect of the book's “argument.” To very different effect, the divisions and arrangement of An Ethics of Sexual Difference seem equally deliberate, although the texts that comprise that volume were composed as lectures and thus under various circumstances. Elemental Passions seems composed according to some quite different logic. Can you comment on the way these or other texts were composed as volumes?

Speculum isn't merely tripartite. It's a book written in three parts, but it's also necessary to emphasize that the parts are historically inverted. That is to say, it begins with Freud and ends with Plato, and there is a redoubling in the very interior of the book; thus, the book is called Speculum and the central part is called “Speculum.” There is throughout a play of historical reversals and of doubles that is much more than tripartite. Accordingly the middle of the book is called “L'incontournable volume”—that is, the volume that can't be circumscribed. [Ethique de la différence sexuelle] is a book that's much less composed, it simply follows the historical order of my seminars. Elemental Passions is composed directly, yes. Since you ask, “How were these volumes composed?” I will restrict my comment to three words—how can I say them? I can say first, I hope, artistically. That is, for me a book is also an art object, thus I compose my book and I'm not at all content to have an editor change my composition. In general I refuse changes. For example, when I received the proofs to Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche all the blanks had been suppressed and I had to recompose the whole thing. Thus, I would say first, “artistically.” At the philosophical level, I'd say there is in my composition a counterpoint between—this is difficult, it's important to find just the right words, otherwise they're going to make errors—between that which concerns the order of schematism and that which concerns the order of discourse. And I would say thirdly, I compose my books as if I were able to speak silently; that is, I always create a counterpoint between speech [la parole] and silence.

In “The Three Genres” you characterize “style” in language as “that which resists formalization.” Can you elaborate on this definition? Do you accept the identification of “style” with the feminine? How can a writer cultivate her style? And finally, what's the importance of style in your own writing practice?

I would like to note that most of the questions concern a meta-discourse of Luce Irigaray (above all don't say Irigaray, I have a horror of that). In other words, you always ask me to take a reflexive, critical position on my work, which corresponds to one of the things I want to avoid. [Laughs.] I can do it, but I'm afraid interviews of this type can undo the effect of the way in which I write. It's for this reason too that at a certain moment I don't want to offer commentary, I want to give some beacons, but no more. Above all, translate my words literally. For example, when I speak of “schematism” I'm alluding to Kant's word. If you use some other word, what I said no longer makes sense.

To continue to respond to your question: I want to say that in our tradition we are submitted to a type of logical formalization. When I don't use a flat pronouncement to explain myself, I cross the formalization of writing with logical formalization. This is what makes my utterance [parole] place itself at the crossroads of a double mise en forme. And that permits, first, the production of new meaning effects and, above all, leaves the text always open [entre-ouvert]—in that it's not enclosed within either a logical formalization or a literary formalization. It's at the encounter of the two. Thus, the text is always open onto a new sense, and onto a future sense, and I would say also onto a potential “You” [Tu], a potential interlocutor. That's what I'm able to say.

You ask, “Do you accept the idea that style is feminine?” I'm going to respond in a way that's deliberately rather lapidary and for some people provocative. If you think that the feminine is diverse, as I believe, because subjectivity is diverse, then evidently style is diverse—short of its being a pure and simple technology. But then I don't know if it's possible to talk about a concrete subject, a feminine subject.

As to how a writer can develop her style, I'd respond much the same way. Firstly, I don't think it's possible to have generalizations, and it displeases me to issue a norm for others, but I'd say that thought seems to me to permit the deployment of art, not only thought but also art, because it permits an escape from imitation. Most people who write or paint have begun with imitation. I think that if one permits it, thought will liberate itself from imitation and create its own way. And that also permits its own liberation from the status of pure and simple technique.

One striking feature of your own writing practice for many years has been the use of interrogatives to produce a wide range of effects. Would you comment on this aspect of your “style”?

I think the importance of the interrogative is to leave a place for the future, thus not to establish a truth that would be a truth once and for all, and also to leave a place for the other—to leave a place for a way toward that other or for the other toward me. I think that's the best explanation of the interrogative. Interrogation is a very good means of passage because the way is always open.

In “The Three Genres” and elsewhere you argue that it's essential for women to accede to the place of the “I” and you also call for “the transformation of the autobiographical ‘I’ into a different cultural ‘I.’” But in “A Chance for Life” you also urge women “never [to] give up subjective experience as an element of knowledge.” How do these concerns relate to the role of the “I” in your own writings—for example, in Speculum and in your more recent work? Does your theorizing draw upon your own “subjective experience” as a woman?

I think that in these questions and in what you proffer as a possible contradiction on my part there is manifest something that for me is a certain impasse of subjectivity. No, I mean a certain way of feminine subjectivity expressing itself, at least that which she's been permitted historically, and that which risks becoming a certain impasse in the liberation of women. Then, many women have understood (no doubt because they needed to), that liberation for them was simply to say “I.” They've begun to say “I” and have become a bit lost in this “I” because this “I,” as the philosophers say, lacks categories. Or then they fight among themselves to see who says “I” the loudest: your “I” versus my “I.” Certainly, it was important to begin to venture to take the word and venture to say “I,” but what seems more important to me, and in any case indispensable to the stage we're now at, is to say not only “I” but to say “I-she” (Je-elle)—that is, to live that “I” and define it not only as a simple subjectivity that expresses itself, but in terms of a dialectic between subjectivity and objectivity. Then, I myself write “I” as “I marked she” (Je indice elle), which permits me to make visible that the subject is two, that it's not a unique subject, and to pose all sorts of dialogic questions. For example, what is a dialogue between “I-she” and “You-she,” a dialogue between “I-she” and “You-he,” a dialogue between “I-he” and “You-she”? All these kinds of questions, the dialogic intersection between two differently adhering subjects, two generically different subjects, become possible.

Thus, if you like, I think that the purely narrative, autobiographical “I,” or the “I” that expresses only affect, risks being an “I” that collapses back into a role traditionally granted to woman: an “I” of pathos, that the woman also uses in her place, the home. It seems to me important to accede to a different cultural “I”—that is, to construct a new objectivity that corresponds not to an indifferent “I” but to an “I” that's sexed feminine. It's necessary to remain both objective and subjective. And to remain within a dialectic between the two.

I think the way I use the “I” is different depending on each text. The way of using “I” at one moment of my work is to refuse to pretend to dictate truth for others; that is, it's a certain strategy for breaking with a traditional philosophical subject and one that parenthesizes the fact that it's “he” who dictates the truth. In other words, I, Luce Irigaray, at this moment in history; I think there's a humility and a singularity at the philosophical level. At certain times, I think there's a dialectical strategy, but especially in the most recent books, for example, in Essere Due there are many dialectical strategies already in the title but also in the interior of the text, where I try to define what could be a double utterance [une parole à deux] that would respect the “I” and the “You” [Tu]. Thus, I use the “I” also to indicate speech [le discours]. The fact is I can't offer a single explanation that would apply to the collection of my works.

Yes, I draw on my personal experience if that means that I don't write or think in a purely abstract and insensible fashion. The truth I talk about is a truth that's also a sensible truth, one that changes with experience. The experience may be more immediately perceptual or more spiritual. I can say that, and I can also say that I don't think simply in order to depart from the thinking of others. Thus, yes, it goes by way of my personal experience—but I don't want you to put it that way, because it's very complicated. I can't myself, all alone, affirm my own experience, since this is something I know only after the fact, by means of discussion, and so on. I can't affirm that this is always already the experience of a woman. It must be a dialectic between subjectivity and objectivity.

Your linguistic experiments indicate that, contrary to certain commonly held beliefs, women tend to speak more objectively than men, their “I” more often giving way to the interlocutor or the subject matter of the utterance. But as you also note in An Ethics of Sexual Difference and elsewhere, it's men, not women, who continue to monopolize the rhetoric of objectivity across the disciplines and in public life—a rhetoric that sometimes operates by transposing the “I” to the third person or to impersonal constructions such as il y a. How can feminists more effectively expose the subjectivity of such masculinist rhetoric?

I'd say that they should do so in a rigorous fashion, and I propose as an example “A Chance at Life,” since you've cited it. That is, to make a rigorous analysis of masculine discourse and to disassemble the mechanisms of masculine discourse. I think that simply to engage in polemic will only augment distances and obstacles. I want to say also that it's important not to confuse the third person “he” [il] with the “there is” [il y a]. They're different. For example, il y a in Heidegger isn't at all the il. But, in any case, in responding to the question “How can they bring to light more effectively the subjectivity of that masculine rhetoric?” I'd say by making a rigorous analysis of masculine discourse and in drawing out the conclusions of their analysis. If the liberation of woman is to become an egotistical man, then it would be better if she stayed where she is. [Laughs.] It's all the more necessary to pay attention because among feminists of difference there are also two categories. [Laughs.] There's an Italian and perhaps also an American party, I'm not sure, that says: “We, the women who are different. Who are different from you” and who remain among themselves saying, “We're different.” This lacks something of dialectic, of humility, of the sense of history. What really interests me is actually to change the relationship of difference between the genders [genres]. I want to tell you why I'm not sure that you've fully understood the feminism of difference. It's because of the questions you ask me later on, for example, about homosexuals. If you understood the feminism of difference you wouldn't ask these kind of questions. [See exchange below].

In the United States your work is sometimes misunderstood as homophobic, has been perceived as homophobic by certain writers. That's what inspires the later question.

I think this isn't fair, because I believe that when Speculum was understood as simply homophile, in part because of an error of translation, and when it became clear that I wasn't simply a homophile, then they said I was a homophobe, because people didn't know how to think the difference fairly. Then, either one is a homophile or a homophobe? I found myself in Toronto at a seminar where in the next room there was an American, I think, who was giving a seminar on Speculum and I was in the next room while she gave a seminar on Speculum against me. Oh yes, this is very fashionable. Even if Speculum is the child I've disowned, abandoned, now it's for them, isn't it, to do what they wish with this very difficult book that they certainly don't understand. I think Speculum is discussed in the way that Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason was, never mind the fact that no one has actually read it. And this situation is equally frequent, notably because of the misunderstanding I spoke about. So, I was a homophile and I've become a homophobe. [Laughs.] It has nothing to do with all that. Personally, I haven't changed positions.

Your 1977 indictment of Lacanian analysis, “The Poverty of Psychoanalysis,” calls on male practitioners to analyse their own unanalyzed drives and desires, including their homosexual desire and their desire to rape. Would you address comparable requirements of self-analysis to would-be male feminists?

I would require that every analyst, man or woman, feminist or not, in order to listen to someone (as) other must analyse their homosexual desires, their desire to rape and violate the other—man or woman, feminist or non-feminist. What strikes me is that men don't listen to themselves talk. They don't hear/know [entendent] what they're saying.

In a 1987 interview with Alice Jardine, you note that Speculum “is a difficult book, as it defines a new horizon of thought,” and in a 1988 interview with Christine Lasagni, you say that there is “no break” between your earlier and your latest texts. Does Speculum perform a kind of groundwork for your subsequent interventions in philosophy, psychoanalysis, and cultural theory? How would you place it within the ongoing evolution of your work, especially your recent experiments in linguistics?

I indicated already how I define the three stages of my work, so it's not necessary to repeat that. The research in linguistics appeared during the second part of my work when I was trying to define new mediations for the feminine subject, and it continues to interest me also in order to see how to make possible a relation between man and woman. When you see that if you ask a class of high school students to create a sentence with the preposition “with” and that a girl will make a sentence of the type “I'm going out tonight with you” [toi] or “I want to live with him” [lui] and that the boy will create a sentence of the type “I'm going out with my bike” or “I wrote that sentence with a pen,” of course you ask yourself how you're going to get these two subjects to live together, how you're going to create bridges. Thus, it's important to start out again from discourse. I began these analyses of discourse also because, obviously, when I changed language and culture people would always say, since nothing is more portable than nationalism, “What's true for you, a French speaker, isn't true for us.” So I decided to make inquiries in a maximum number of languages and cultures to be able to respond to these kinds of criticisms. Now I'm a little better prepared: I know a little better how this works out in a language where, let's say, gender doesn't express itself in articles as it does in French. I know it's going to express itself elsewhere—for example, in the use of prepositions. I think this also puts in question the idea that there must be language universals. Probably today I'd say that in a certain sense the universal is perhaps two at the level of subjectivity and at the level of discourse, and that this can lead the way to a consequent or secondary change at the level of language [langue]. This, certainly, poses a thrilling but large problem, for computer programs too.

In Speculum you invoke an approach to dream interpretation that would treat the dream not as the “rebus” of an “already given graphic order” but as a kind of pictograph, an avatar of an other order of writing. More recently you've argued that alphabetic writing is “linked historically to the civil and religious codification of patriarchal power” and you've affirmed the existence of an ancient social order where women's participation in civil and religious life is linked somehow to “still partially figurative, non-abstract” systems of written signs. Is there a connection between the pictographic dream script of the Unconscious and the “partially figurative” writing of this pre-patriarchal history?

I'd say that in a book like This Sex Which Is Not One I asked myself—and this seems to me to respond to your question—if woman didn't correspond in one sense to that which we call the Unconscious. If the culture is founded on a certain repression of the graphic order, and if that which returns at night under the guise of the dream presents itself as a sort of pictograph, isn't there the trace of a much more generalizable pictographic order that had already been historically repressed, specifically in the West? In order to know, it would be necessary to analyze the dreams of cultures in which writing is still today more pictographic, but I haven't done that. I know that cultures in which writing is more pictographic are generally more favorable to the feminine subject and to a culture of the feminine.

In “Gesture in Psychoanalysis” you say that girls and boys enter language by means of different bodily gestures: the boy's, epitomized in the Freudian fort/da, is apt to embody an alternating and linear motion that also mimics his style of masturbation, whereas the girl's is apt to be circular, self-enveloping, and expressive of rapport with, rather than mastery over, the (m)other. Does this mean that the logic of mastery is in some sense inscribed in the boy's anatomy, or at least in his capacity for autoeroticism? If cultural reconstruction depends upon the reconstruction of language, must we alter the very gestures by which boys and girls enter language?

Well, it seems to me that in this passage I was talking about the gesture of the little boy [Hans, of Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle]. That gesture is not entirely linear because it comes here, goes there, comes into the bed and goes out of the bed. It's a bit more complicated than being simply linear. Did I myself talk of masturbation?

You might have said “autoerotic.”

That's already better. It's not entirely the same thing. Autoerotic, yes, but that's not masturbation. To the extent that it's a gesture of mastery, it's not entirely similar. I think there are errors in the question, or in any case, errors in the relation between the [English] text and me. Also, in this text I oppose the triangular to the circular, especially the triangle of vowels. I pose the opposition of vowels, the phonetic difference between the little girl and the little boy, because I relate, I believe, the word of the little girl to the Om, the sacred syllable of the Far East. What I want to say about this, and what seems to me interesting, is that when people set up oppositions in my work, they oversimplify it. Here you are prepared, I'd say, to oppose the anatomical to the cultural and to make a parallelism between the anatomical and the cultural. But of course it's not simply a question of anatomy; it's a question of the relation between two subjects. The relation of the little boy to his mother is different from the little girl's relation. The little boy, in order to situate himself vis-à-vis the mother, must have a strategy, perhaps a strategy of mastery, because he finds himself in an extremely difficult situation. He's little boy. He has come out of a woman who's different from him. He himself will never be able to engender, to give birth. He is therefore in a space of unfathomable mystery. He must invent a strategy to keep himself from being submerged, engulfed. For the little girl it's entirely different. She's a little woman born of another woman. She is able to engender like her mother; thus, she has a sort of jubilation in being herself and in playing with herself. For the little boy, it's necessary to construct a world in order to construct himself. It's a very very different situation. It's not simply an anatomical question; it's also a relational question. It's essential not to forget that the anatomical is always entangled in the relational.

Now, I'm not sure the little boy accedes to language only in that way. It was Freud who saw that one day and decided so. I think boys accede to language more according to a subject-object relation—and this is verified by every linguistic inquiry—and the girl more by means of a subject-subject relation. For example, the little girl says to her mother, “Mama, will you play with me?” In other words it's a little “I” that talks to a [feminine] “You” [une Tu] and proposes to do something together while leaving her mother the right to respond. The little boy says, “I want a little car” or “I want to play with a ball.” He places much less emphasis on the “together” [ensemble] and especially on the two, and in general he doesn't ask for the opinion of the other. He doesn't use questioning like the little girl.

So, must one modify these gestures? No, I don't think so at all. I think—and this is rather like what I'm trying to do in the two recent books—that the genealogical relation is a vertical relation with a vertical transcendence. If we become capable of a horizontal relation between adult man and adult woman with a horizontal transcendence—that is, an irreducibility between “I-woman” [Je-femme] and “You-man” [Tu-homme]—then if a woman constitutes her feminine identity, she can help man exit from a simple or a difficult relation with his mother by means of a horizontal rapport between the man and the woman. In taking leave of the genealogical relation that has dominated our traditions and in trying to define a new relation of maturity, a horizontal relation between two genders involving the negative, involving irreducibility, involving difference. It's possible to advise the mother to speak differently to the girl and boy, because if the little girl says to her mother, “Mama, do you want to play with me?” or “Mama, can I comb your hair?” it's a little bit of her discourse flowing to her mother. An utterance going from mother to daughter might be, “Clean your room if you want to watch television” or “Bring back some milk on your way home from school.” That is, she suppresses the dialogue; she suppresses the “doing together” [faire ensemble]. The little girl who enters language and receives this kind of response from her first partner—that's very serious. At the same time, when she goes to school she will have a masculine partner imposed on her obligatorily. Then when the little boy says, “I want a little car,” the mother will say a sentence like, “Do you want me to come and give you a kiss in bed before you go to sleep?” That is, she poses many more questions to the little boy than to the little girl. The “Tu” which the little girl has given her, she gives to the little boy. One could teach the mother and teachers to pay more attention to the discourse of the little girl. I think the most destructive thing in our culture (mythology says the same thing, in Kora's [Proserpina's] abduction by the god of the underworld) is the loss of the little girl's questions, her discourse. Even more than that of the mother, the little girl's discourse is destroyed.

You're a practicing psychoanalyst and have written several papers on the technique of psychoanalytic psychotherapy. To what extent can the analytic encounter serve as a model for the sexuate reconstruction of language, such as you've advocated—especially with reference to the relation between the “I” and the “You”? Can the therapeutic encounter serve in other ways as a model for collective, cultural transformation? Which aspects of clinical technique seem most suggestive for this purpose?

I was practicing; I'm not at present. I'm not sure I understand the question. I'd say that Freud in his analytical models talks little of sexual difference, except in a biological way, not in a relational way. He talks a great deal about genealogy and about castration. Otherwise, for him the model of the successful couple is when the woman succeeds in becoming the mother of a little boy and in this way succeeds in becoming her husband's mother. There aren't really any couples in Freud. And much talk of castration. I myself would say that castration seems a useless thing from the moment in which one thinks in terms of two subjects, the limit of one subject sufficing to impose the limit of the other subject. In this sense, difference—real and not merely theoretical recognition, the real and not merely the theoretical drama of sexual difference—would be for me the privileged means of conducting a course of analysis. That is, at every moment to return difference to the patient, reflecting back to the patient the difference in his or her life and above all in creating the two.

I haven't written that much on the technique of psychoanalysis.3 I'm not sure I can respond well to this question, and I'm not sure I completely understand it. I'm in the process of drafting a communication for an intervention I'm going to make in Italy next week. For a time I proposed to reconstruct society or the social community through encounters between two. This was to escape from an abstract model of a disincarnate community, a totalitarian community, and I'd say also to give me a grip on political life. If I accept that there are others who are deciding in my place, if I accept those instances of power where people decide in my place, then I'm completely impotent; I can do nothing. Some years ago, out of discouragement, I decided that I would begin again every moment of the day with the relation of two. This didn't go so badly—it's interesting. Obviously this two is always potentially a sexuate two. It's difficult to explain, but interesting, because between man and woman there's a negative, a type of irreducibility that doesn't exist between a woman and a woman. Let's say between a man and a woman the negativity [la négativité] is, dare I say it, of an ontological, irreducible type. Between a woman and another woman it's of a much more empirical type, and, furthermore can only be understood and can only live in the ontological difference between man and woman. It's complicated.

This is a little like a refrain that returns throughout my book, which is the title of a chapter, Toi qui ne sera jamais moi ni mien [“You Who'll Never Be Me or Mine”]. If I say this to you [looking at Gaëton Brulotte], it's true.4 If I respect reality, you'll never be me or mine because we're different and moreover because we're each at a different intersection of nature/culture, or of nature/relationality, which is not the same thing. You have a different body, you are in a different relational world, you are a boy born of a woman and that implies on your part a whole world-construction different from mine, a different relational world, a different cultural world. Between us there is really a mystery. Yes, there's an irreducible mystery between man and woman. It's not at all the same kind of mystery that exists between woman and woman or between man and man. It's not similar. I don't know if this is easy to understand. But I think that it's because I'm able to situate there the difference and the negative which I will never surmount—contrary to the Hegelian negative, for example—it's because I situate it there that I'm able to respect the differences everywhere: differences between the other races, differences between the generations, and so on. Because I've placed a limit on my horizon, on my power. And I'm not able to put that limit anywhere but there, because it's real. I'm not able to place it in the same way with another woman, where it's much less real, because we [she and I] are not at the crossroads of nature and culture. This is factitious. If I put the limit there, I risk doing harm either to her/it [elle] or to myself. If I put it between us [Gaëton Brulotte as a man and Luce Irigaray as a woman], I think that you won't feel yourself to be injured when I say, “You who will never be me or mine.” That doesn't harm you at all, unless if already at an imaginary level you've wanted to create your culture to the detriment of my own subjectivity. Then that can perhaps hurt you, but in fact it doesn't hurt you at all. It's a cultural error, I'd say. While if I put the limit there I risk harming the other.

I labored for a long time toward a recognition of this irreducible difference. And I prepared a book and dedicated it to a man, an Italian politician with whom I continue to work. In a very intense public debate that we had, I don't quite know how to say it, he recognized my position and I recognized his, and for perhaps one of the first times in my life I truly sensed that we were two. And that helped me, I'd say, in putting together a transcendental intuition and a lived experience. It allowed me to reformulate the issue in a different manner. And we work together, especially on the political level, trying always to remain two. Sometimes he has it that the difference not be a sexuate, man-woman difference, while I always try to return the difference to that. When we've made certain book presentations and political debates together in Italy, I find it extremely interesting to see the interest of those who come to hear us about what transpires between us. People are extremely attentive, as if there were a new horizon there and they want to come; they enjoy coming, especially the young. When I presented this book with him, to whom it's dedicated,5 at the presentation where there were a lot of people, the young people came up later to get the book autographed. So I put a brief inscription and, as he was standing beside me, they presented the book to him saying, “you too.” [Laughs.] And he said, “But I don't want to, I didn't do anything”—because this is a man of great integrity, very honest—and I said to him there's nothing wrong with it. But what struck me was the desire of these people, especially the young ones, for a relation between a man and a woman that was a relation of reciprocal respect, of autonomy, and at the same time, yes, of reciprocal affection, so that something changes in the cultural relation, the political relation, and so on. It's really fascinating. It's a different historical configuration.

Feminists sometimes would like to talk in terms of a reversal of power. The men have had it, now we'll take power. I don't think this is the gesture that needs to be made. It's necessary to try to establish a relation of two. This is by far the most important: two, but different from that which already exists—that is, a completely new relation and without any horizontal submission and without any submission of one sex to the other. This calls for a fundamental rethinking of problems of sexual desire, because one is always left to deal with the level of sexual desire, as the greatest feminists understand. If they're homosexual then they no longer have that problem, or think they no longer have it; if they're not homosexual then they're a little schizophrenic because they're feminists on the social plane and on the personal plane they sometimes relapse into the worst stereotypes of heterosexuality. So I think that to change the mode of relationship between one and the other, between man and woman on the civil and affective plane, I think this is one of the most important gestures of our time.

You sometimes use the language of pathology to talk about social and cultural predicaments as well as individual ones. What is the status of the therapeutic, of the idea of health and healing, in your work?

I've said that it's profoundly pathogenic for girls to find themselves always confronted with models and figures of masculine genealogy. I would say that what interests me more and more is happiness, and I'd say that to be in good health can be an aid to happiness. But the relation to happiness beyond that to normality, in short, is complicated.

You call for a new ethics of the couple, apparently referring to various kinds of couples—mother and daughter, sister and brother, for example, as well as the father/son and mother/son couples that still secure patriarchal genealogy. But you've said that in your view “man and woman is the most mysterious and creative couple.” Does the project of creating “a culture of difference” and of critiquing what you've called “the hom(m)osexual imaginary” depend upon a ranking of sexualities such that lesbians and gay men are less mysterious and less creative than the man/woman couple? Legally, what relationship is there between women's rights and the rights of sexual minorities?

I think I responded to this question in part when I spoke about the negative, about the irreducibly other of the horizontal transcendence. It seems to me that the difference with other Others—for example, the difference with an Other of the same gender—that to me is not the same as the difference with someone who is of another gender. Note, it's essential not to confuse my critique of the Western hom(m)osexual imaginary, that is, of a world of the masculine subject, that can think itself only between masculine subjects—hom(m)osexual with the “m” in parentheses—it's essential not to confuse this critique, this ideological and cultural hom(m)osexualité with the practice of homosexuality. It's not the same thing. Mine is an oeuvre that concerns the relation of sexual difference; it's not necessary to demand that I create the work of others. I think today there's a great risk of being intellectual capitalists and believing that one can talk about everything, about nothing, about everyone, regardless of one's own experience. About the man-woman relation I have many other things to say. I think when people have looked at my new books a little they're going to understand everything I've done as leading to them.

And I'm amused by the last part of this question where it says “From a legal point of view, what's the relationship between women's rights and the rights of sexual minorities?” In France since 1980 homosexuals have rights and women no longer have them. That is, they are classified as men [hommes] with regard to their rights. They have rights only as a share of men's rights. As women they have no genuine rights. In France at present more attention is paid to minorities than to that half of the world called women. In my opinion that's because with the other minorities the patriarchy can remain that which condescends generously toward minorities, whereas in the horizontal man-woman relation there is no more patriarchy. We are two equal subjectivities, and inventing a new relationship is fundamentally the same as inventing a new socio-cultural order. I also think it's important not to confuse sexual choice with sexual difference. For me sexual difference is a fundamental parameter of the socio-cultural order; sexual choice is secondary. Even if one chooses to remain among women, it's necessary to resolve the problem of sexual difference. And likewise if one remains among men.

By way of conclusion, we have a tradition of posing the following question: Are you aware of any misreadings or misunderstandings of your work that you'd like to address here?

There are certainly errors of translation; I've given you examples. There are errors of interpretation which are tied to something I've already indicated: the principal points of error derive from not being sufficiently attentive to my philosophical training, and especially to my relationship to ontology and to the negative. In the same vein, errors result from confusing a scientific with a philosophical discipline, which aren't the same thing. Obviously, I represent a snare for the reader to the extent that I have various scientific trainings—linguistic, psychological, psychoanalytic, literary (my first studies were literary)—and at the same time, a philosophical training. So I make use of scientific techniques; sometimes I make an analysis of discourse using only scientific technique. Fundamentally, what I recur to the most in interpretation is, I think finally, a certain philosophical level. So when I'm read simply as a psychoanalyst or as a linguist, there are some levels of thought, intention, and interpretation in my work that are already lost.

There is also another error. I think Simone de Beauvoir said that woman remains always within the dimension of immanenence and that she's incapable of transcendence. But—by I don't know what mystery!—transcendence is something that interests me very much. Often the way in which I'm read and interpreted is too immanent, too much tied to contiguity, and the source and reference of my work is misunderstood. It's true that a woman who has a relationship to transcendence and to the transcendental in a real rather than a formal way is something all too rare. But I'd say there's been a little of that in my life.

Another error occurs when filiations are imputed to me that are not mine: for example, it's said that I'm a daughter of Simone de Beauvoir and that I haven't acknowledged enough the source of my thinking in relation to her. But that's because I'm not a daughter of Simone de Beauvoir. I don't know her work well. I read her novels when I was an adolescent. Two years ago I tried, for the sake of my students, to take another look at The Second Sex; in fact, I read it in 1952 and read only the Introduction and a little of the first chapter, but this is not at all the source of my work. And I've even commented recently about the time when Speculum came out and I sent it to Simone de Beauvoir, and I was very disappointed when she didn't respond to me—very disappointed, especially because I had much trouble on account of Speculum. I was excluded from the university, and afterward in France I couldn't get a teaching appointment. I still don't have one. So I'm not a daughter of Simone de Beauvoir; I think my theoretical filiation, as I've always said (it's in all my books), is much more to the tradition of Western philosophy. Now, I'm not saying that Simone de Beauvoir isn't part of that tradition, but hers isn't an oeuvre that I know well nor to which I myself especially refer. It's possible that I've been influenced by her work by means of the ideological climate, but I'm not someone who lives very much in that world. Once again, the question of the Other as she treats it, and the question of the Other as I treat it, as I was just saying, are radically different. She refuses to be Other and I demand to be radically Other in order to exit from a horizon. I think they even say I'm a disciple of Rousseau. I don't know Rousseau's oeuvre well. It's true that when Rousseau's work is explained to me there are certain things that are somewhat similar, but if I'd read much Rousseau I would have said so. I know well the philosophers of whom I speak. Look at my work and you'll see.


  1. In keeping with her express and emphatic preference, Luce Irigaray is referred to throughout this text using not only her surname (which is, of course, sexually neutral) but also her given name (which is sexually marked as feminine).

  2. The questions we framed for Luce Irigaray concerned three major aspects of her published work: the specificity of her own practice as a writer; her relationship to psychoanalytic theory and practice; and her relationship to the traditions of western philosophy. Unfortunately, time constraints compelled her to skip past precisely those questions that addressed the aspect of her work which she here describes as most crucial, her status and practice as a philosopher.

  3. Luce Irigaray's writings on psychoanalytic technique include “Gesture in Psychoanalysis,” (in Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis) “The Limits of the Transference,” (in The Irigaray Reader) “Le Praticable de la Scène,” and “L'énoncé en analyse” (both in Parler n'est jamais neutre).

  4. Gaëton Brulotte served as translator during the interview in Paris and also transcribed the French version of the interview. We would like to thank him for his invaluable assistance. Elizabeth Hirsh translated the French text into English.

  5. J'aime à toi is dedicated to Renzo Imbeni.

This interview was translated by Elizabeth Hirsh and Gaëton Brulotte.

Penelope Deutscher (essay date fall 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11178

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, art, thought, toward their ideal and divine fulfillment.

(Luce Irigaray, Sexes and Genealogies)

In this essay, I consider the importance of the theme of divinity in the work of French feminist Luce Irigaray. From her earliest to her most recent publications, Irigaray has, as Morny Joy has noticed, always shown an interest in religious themes (Joy 1990, 9). This interest has taken diverse forms. Sometimes, Irigaray asks why traditional readings of the Gospels or ancient mythology tend to ignore their more women-centered elements, for example: “the good relations between Mary and Anne, Mary and Elizabeth, etc., Mary and the other women. Even though this corner of society does form a part of the ‘Good News,’ few texts or sermons transmit or teach its message” (Irigaray 1993b, 68). She asserts as an often forgotten fact of ancient mythology that

most of the gods of the universe start out as goddesses. The solar goddesses are obliterated or displaced when the universe is taken over by the men-gods, especially by Zeus and his son Apollo. This domination of the cosmic world by the gods by means of the couple of a unique God-Father and an all-powerful son, erases the fact that mothers and daughters once presided as goddesses over the solar seasons and, together, protected the fertility of the earth in its flowers and fruits.

(Irigaray 1993a, 80)

These comments suggest ways in which feminist reflection might reshape our interpretation of key religious myths and texts, so that the importance of women was not eclipsed. However, in texts such as the recently translated Sexes and Genealogies (1993a) and An Ethics of Sexual Difference (1993b), we also find the more complicated thesis that a feminist reconceptualization of divinity could have a broader cultural significance.

A feminist theorist might well argue for the recognition of a feminine God because of personal faith in that supernatural entity. Or, as Margaret Whitford points out, “whatever one's personal beliefs about the reference of transcendental statements,” one might redress male-centered religious myths simply because those myths remain “an extremely powerful discourse.” Irigaray writes, “It seems we are unable to eliminate or suppress the phenomenon of religion” (Irigaray 1993a, 75, cited in Whitford 1991, 140). This might be sufficient reason for a feminist theorist to engage critically with the phenomenon instead.

However, for Irigaray there are broader implications for developing a feminist “philosophy of religion.” Irigaray argues that no substantial modification of women's subjectivity and identity could be achieved without the cultivation of a “feminine divine.” Her claim that a specific identity for women in Western culture could not transpire without the generation of a different conception of divinity is based on an unusual account of the intrinsic relationship between sexed identity structures and the role of gods as symbolic archetypes. In the case of Irigaray, we go beyond arguments that philosophy of religion should be reshaped by feminist reflection. Rather, we consider the more curious case of a theorist whose argument is that a substantial reshaping of feminist reflection and practice is not possible without the reshaping of philosophical conceptions of divinity.

Luce Irigaray's early affirmation of the concept of “sexual difference” is well known to an Anglophone feminist audience, if sometimes misunderstood.1 In recent publications, Irigaray has concentrated more on formulating the necessary preconditions for a culture of sexual difference. Predictably, these include extensive legal, civic, and linguistic reforms, but another of these preconditions is the generation of a “feminine divine.”

In the piece “Divine Women,” included in Sexes and Genealogies (1993a), Irigaray makes intrepid claims for the role of divinity in the cultivation of human subjectivity and society. She declares, “Divinity is what we need to become free, autonomous, sovereign. No human subjectivity, no human society has ever been established without the help of the divine” (1993a, 62). Irigaray asserts that there is a connection between the absence of an autonomous “subjectivity” for women and the fact that “woman lacks a divine made in her image” (1993a, 63). “If women have no God,” she argues, “they are unable either to communicate or commune with one another” (1993a, 62). As long as woman lacks a divine made in her own image, “she cannot establish her subjectivity or achieve a goal of her own. She lacks an ideal that would be her goal or path in becoming” (1993a, 63-64).

Three claims are made here. First, Irigaray argues that symbolic gods play a crucial role in relation to human identity. In fact, she claims that man is “able to exist” because of his identification with a masculine-paternal God (Irigaray 1993a, 61). Second, she argues that no divinity, and no other symbolic figure in Western culture plays an equivalent role for women. Third, she interprets the absence of a specifically feminine “divinity” as contributing to the atrophied state of women's identity, subjectivity, and community. Consequently, if a culture of sexual difference is desired, one in which women were not “cut … off from themselves and from one another” (Irigaray 1993a, 64), one necessary factor would be the generation of a feminine divine.

A description of women as “lacking” their own subjectivity will sound strange to some ears. Clearly, the claim is not meant literally, in the sense that women are not conscious subjects. Rather, it evokes the familiar argument, first articulated by Irigaray in early texts such as Speculum of the Other Woman (1985a) and This Sex Which Is Not One (1985b), that “the ‘feminine’ is always described in terms of deficiency or atrophy, as the other side of the sex that alone holds a monopoly on value: the male sex” (1985b, 69).2 Irigaray's original defense of this argument is wide-ranging and draws on her close readings of the representation of women in psychoanalytic and philosophical theory. The claim that “woman” needs to establish “her subjectivity” will sound strange to other ears. Irigaray seems to collapse all women under the apparently essentialist terms: “feminine identity” or “feminine subjectivity.” Does she mean to imply that all women can. or should, be represented by a singular, homogenizing concept of “their identity”? As Margaret Whitford points out, it is difficult to assess Irigaray's use of such terms in the different context of the Anglo-American feminist debate around essentialism.3 It is not a debate with which Irigaray engages, or has any particular familiarity: “When Irigaray is called essentialist by Anglo-American critics, she looks puzzled” (Whitford 1991, 135). Whitford goes on to explain the very different connotations of essentialism in a French philosophical context, and to suggest that we not be too hasty in our interpretation of Irigaray on this point.

In her Luce Irigaray: Philosophy in the Feminine (1991), Whitford compiles a list of Irigaray's various “contradictory gestures” regarding the notion of women's identity. Often, Irigaray has spoken against providing definitions of “woman.” Just as often, she has argued that women need a “generic identity” (Whitford 1991, 135). One of Whitford's proposals regarding this apparent contradiction is that we interpret Irigaray's “identity politics” as an attempt to subvert our notion of what identity means (Whitford 1991, 136). I will follow Whitford's lead here, specifically in the context of Irigaray's material on the divine. Irigaray so transforms the concepts both of identity and divinity that some care is needed to arrive at a viable interpretation of her project.


Tracing the role of the divine in Irigaray's work begins with her earlier texts. There, Irigaray argues that man's “identity” in terms of rational and positive qualities is dependent on the role of woman as his “other,” or as a kind of negative alter ego, or “mirror” to the masculine:

Phallic currency … can immediately be assumed to need its other, a sort of inverted or negative alter ego—“black” too, like a photographic negative. Inverse, contrary, contradictory even, necessary.

(1985a, 22)

Insofar as masculine identity is dependent on the feminine as its “negative alter ego” masculinity can be interpreted as peculiarly fragile. This is one sense in which Irigaray argues that the “conditions of possibility” of masculine identity are paradoxical. On the one hand, the feminine as absence and negativity seems conceptually dependent on the notion of masculinity as presence and positivity. The feminine as “irrationality,” for example, seems secondary to the notion of the masculine as “rational.” Irigaray argues, however, that the positive concept of the “masculine” is generated through its opposition to its (feminine) “negative mirror.”

Thus, the “masculine” both is and is not conceptually “dependent” on the notion of the “feminine.” The very same “A/not-A” dichotomous structure which produces the identity of masculinity as presence, positivity, and autonomy from the feminine also renders the masculine secondary to the feminine. Masculine identity depends on its opposition to the feminine. For Irigaray, the negative “interpretive modalities of the female function” actually sustain the masculine (1985a, 22).

Irigaray considers a second paradoxical structure in the production of masculine identity as presence and positivity: woman is constructed as nothing but “man's negative mirror” but is also rendered an “excess” to her role as negative mirror. Because the representation of masculinity as presence and positivity depends on its opposition to the feminine-as-absence, any intimation of a “remainder” to the feminine role as negative alter ego to the masculine destabilizes masculine identity. Yet she indicates the following paradox: the cultural “effort” of producing the feminine as “negative other” is itself an indication of a possible feminine surpassing of its role as man's “negative other.” The representation that reduces the feminine to “man's other” simultaneously indicates that there is a “remainder” to that representation and thereby destabilizes itself.4

Consider the following example. Irigaray sometimes uses the metaphor of “materiality” in discussing this concept of the “remainder.” Historically, woman has been associated with materiality, ground, earth, matter.5 Irigaray adopts or “mimics”6 this association by employing the metaphor of materiality to describe the feminine as the matter out of which man fashions his alter ego. If man, she argues, has fashioned his alter ego out of matter, then woman, as the matter out of which man fashions his alter ego, must be in excess of that fashioning. Woman-as-matter is “in excess” of any particular “fashioning” of that feminine “matter.” Woman is thus conceptually in excess (as “matter”) of, or is the “remainder to,” her role as “negative” mirror.

The sense of woman's “excess” is particular. I describe it as a “conceptual” excess to clarify its peculiar status. Irigaray does not straightforwardly argue that sexual difference is a real social fact, and that women are simply misrepresented in terms of atrophy. Where she describes the feminine as “exceeding” its representation in terms of femininity-as-atrophy, Irigaray does not invoke a distinction between the “truth” of woman and the “representation” of women.7 She argues that the representation itself is paradoxical and autodestabilizing. It limits the feminine to atrophy but destabilizes itself by indicating the possibility of excess. This paradoxical structure allows us to articulate the concept of a “feminine-in-excess” as a subversive hypothetical possibility, currently excluded from language and culture.8 Importantly, this critical maneuver occurs without reference to the supposed “truth” of woman and without an attempt to describe what women are “really like” as opposed to how women are “represented,” as if these levels could be clearly distinguished.

Irigaray proposes that one can trace in the texts of the history of philosophy not just the representation of woman as lack and atrophy but also the simultaneous. inevitable auto-destabilization of that representation. Moments of auto-destabilization will be said to have occurred where a text, in the midst of representing woman as man's negative other, indirectly indicates the possibility of a feminine identity in excess of that role.9

In her early work, Irigaray painstakingly demonstrates that the (paradoxical) exclusion of any feminine exceeding femininity-as-atrophy is a “condition of possibility” of the man/woman (A/not-A) dichotomy. However, in this material Irigaray also devotes considerable attention to the relationship between man/God oppositions and man/woman oppositions. While it is a lesser theme in early texts such as Speculum, interrogating the relationship between man/God and man/woman oppositions is a pivotal element of Irigaray's more recent work. We have seen her argument that the positioning of the feminine-as-atrophy is necessary to the production of masculine identity. However, Irigaray argues that a particular conception of God is also necessary to the production of masculine identity. I will present this argument and then consider its relationship to her arguments for a “feminine divine.”


Many of Irigaray's texts assert that the Western masculine-paternal God serves as a masculine “ideal ego.” In Speculum, for example, Irigaray asserts that there is a relationship between man and God in which “some (male) One has taken on omnipotence as one of his attributes … [and] the child can ‘fantasize’ himself identical to Him—to an ideal ego” (1985a, 356).10 In the conclusion to [Marine Lover] (1991a), Irigaray again considers the masculine-paternal God as a projection of a masculine ideal:

This figure of love [Christ/God] must continue to be unique, remaining eternally captive to the lure of a (male) Same. … Is it not the pattern for the mask that completes, to the point of inappearance, man's identity with himself? The dream of becoming the self without contradictions, of reabsorbing into the self all things opposed and different, of subsuming under the self the transcendent of oneself. Of one day finally being divinely the self.

(1991a, 186-87)

In these examples, the masculine-paternal God is presented as “guarantor” of masculine identity in the sense of being an identificatory figure for masculine perfection. In “Divine Women,” in Sexes and Genealogies, Irigaray reformulates the same point with a different terminology: “Man is able to exist because God helps him to define his gender (genre)” (1993a, 61).11 She continues, “The revival of religious feeling can in fact be interpreted as the rampart man raises in defense of his very maleness. To posit a gender (genre), a God is necessary: guaranteeing the infinite” (1993a, 61).

Irigaray uses the term “guarantee” (caution) both to describe the identificatory function played by the masculine-paternal God, and also to describe the role which divine figures play, in many traditional philosophical contexts, in relation to the “man of reason.”12 She comments, “Man has been the subject of discourse, whether in theory, morality or politics. And the gender of God, the guardian of every subject and every discourse, is always masculine and paternal, in the West” (1993b, 6).

Divine figures provide an ultimate horizon approached by the “man of reason” in his systematic pursuit of knowledge. This is a pursuit in which man displaces his material, passionate, unreliable, and sensuous nature onto the figure of the feminine. In this sense, both the masculine-paternal God and the feminine have been conceptualized so as to bolster masculine identity. God provides the horizon and the feminine takes up the “slack,” representing that from which man needs to be distanced (the bodily, the sensuous) in his approach toward God and truth.

Irigaray is arguing that masculine identity is produced through two different kinds of “prop.” Man's identity is bolstered by the figure of woman as his negative alter ego. Man's identity is also bolstered by God as his ideal ego. Just as Irigaray argues that the role of the feminine destabilizes masculine identity in supporting it, the same can be said of God's role. God may act as guarantor to masculine identity, but God is also its blind spot. As first seen in Speculum, Irigaray asserts that man, as the “son” in relation to the image of God-the-father, can not avow

how much that image owes and denies to specular projection and inversion. He would already [otherwise] have recognized that the “father” is that which is reproduced in him in order (not) to be mirrored in his absence (of self). The cover over a blind spot in consciousness which he fails to recognize.

(Irigaray 1985a, 314)

The masculine owes a considerable debt to the divine image of the “father,” but a debt which must also be denied. The role of the divine as masculine-paternal ideal ego is related to the paradoxical relationship between masculine identity and its “other,” the feminine. In each case, Irigaray asserts that masculine identity depends on its (divine and feminine) buttresses and yet is compromised by these buttresses.

Where the masculine is aligned with a divine ideal ego of immateriality, autonomy, omniscience, and self-identity, Irigaray argues that the masculine is dependent on the identification with the divine “in order (not) to be mirrored in his absence (of self)” (1985a, 314; italics added). The divine is an ideal of self-coincidence and self-sufficiency of which the masculine inevitably falls short. In the cited phrase, it is unclear whether the masculine identifies with an ideal (divine) mirror image in order to be reflected as an atrophied version or in order not to be reflected as an absence of divine self. In other words, man is both opposed to and aligned with the divine.13

As man's ideal, God must be simultaneously the opposite of man and the image of man's perfection. It is as man's opposite (immortal, where man is mortal, infinite where man is finite, disembodied where man is embodied) that God is figured as man's ideal. God thus confirms man's “absence of divine self” in the same movement as providing the impossible ideal with which he identifies. Insofar as masculine identity is bolstered by impossible ideals, its identificatory structure is fragile. The radical divide projected between the realms of man and God is precisely what produces God as an ideal other. However, the man/God schism also leaves man “severed” from his ideal.

Irigaray interprets the Platonic account of man aiming at a contemplation of the Good in these terms. For, on that account, the mind's grasp can only have an “intuition” of Being, and “only at the rarest and highest moments.” Irigaray comments:

Finally Being does not appear or even appear to appear. It slips away from the mind's grasp even as it forms the foundation of mind. Is this the mystery—the hysteria—of Being? Hidden in its crypt where no one, however skilled in philosophy, has glimpsed it? Only at the rarest and highest moments of loving contemplation of the Good—or of the Beautiful?—will the wisest man receive some “intuition” that can barely be put into words. Here then, man does not yet have the plenitude of Being within him, but instead a whole range of theoretical tools (geometrical, mathematical, discursive, dialogic), a whole technique of philosophy and even of artistic practice, are being worked out to form a matrix of appropriation for man.

(1985a, 150-51)

The problem with the “man of reason”'s objective, represented by a divine ideal, is the (necessary) evanescence of God. This is why Irigaray reinterprets man's identification with God as an “appropriation” of the plenitude of divine Being. It is an appropriation (in other words, it is inappropriate) because man privileges reason and knowledge in opposition to a devalued femininity (body, emotions, passions) on the strength of man's identification with a divine ideal, an identification which the same logic renders incoherent.

This is why God is interpreted as a fragile “guarantor” of masculine identity. It is the schism between man and God which renders God a meaningful, transcendent ideal, but the schism between man and God simultaneously leaves man severed from his own guarantor. Conceptually cast adrift as mortal limitation, suspended between an ideal of being “like God” and a condition of being radically “not God,” man is promised an eventual communion with the divine, but only on condition of transcending his mortality, his physical, embodied materiality. The promise of the eventual becoming-immortal of man does not alter the fact that terrestrial man is severed from the divine.

This concurrent identification with and severing from a transcendent ideal is linked with the appropriation of the feminine as a negative-feminine sustaining masculine identity. The terms according to which the masculine is opposed to the feminine and the feminine depreciated are, in fact, the terms of an ideal of which the masculine necessarily also falls short. This “falling short” necessitates the role of the feminine as negative other to bolster an otherwise atrophied masculine identity.


Irigaray is most known for her argument that “man/woman” (“A/not-A”) oppositions rely on the (auto-destabilizing) exclusion of any feminine in excess of that opposition. What I have emphasized here, however, is her concurrent insistence on the crucial relationship between man/woman oppositions and transcendent figures such as the masculine-paternal God. This is a problem emphasized most strongly in a series of recent Irigarayan texts to which I now turn.

Irigaray argues that masculine/feminine oppositions are sustained by transcendent figures through a paradoxical identificatory structure. Such an interpretation should affect the strategies that she proposes to subvert masculine/feminine oppositions. Anglophone feminist commentary is more familiar with Irigaray's strategic evocation of a hypothetical feminine in excess of an “A/not-A” framework.14 However, Irigaray's subversive strategies also include her articulation of a hypothetical relationship between the divine and the feminine, and this element takes on increasing importance in her more recent work. The subversion of “A/not-A” representations of the masculine and feminine now involves reformulating the relationship of both sexes with the concepts of transcendence and divinity. I view this as an implicit recognition of, and direct response to, the interconnection of masculine/feminine oppositions with the impossible masculine ideals that traditionally sustain such oppositions. Irigaray asks how we can adequately analyze man's opposition to the feminine. In answer, she analyzes this opposition in the context of the impossible ideal sustaining it: in this case, the masculine-paternal God.

Given that Irigaray interprets the displacement of devalued qualities onto the feminine in terms of man's identification with an impossible, transcendent ideal, it is not surprising that she interprets as a “source of evil” the fact that man and God are typically represented in terms of a schism between them. We see this interpretation in texts such as Marine Lover (1991a) and An Ethics of Sexual Difference (1993b), for example. The real “original sin,” says Irigaray, consists in the dissociation of human and the divine, and “in making God into a distinct and transcendent entity. With the expulsion from the ‘earthly paradise’ corresponding to the will to know God as such. To the desire to produce him as a ‘suprasensory’ reality? God—Different? And this would be the source of evil, in the beginning” (1991a, 173).

The tragedy of man's “banishment” is not, for Irigaray, that he is expelled from a state of innocence or paradisal plenitude. Rather, it is his discontinuity from the God/father with whom he identifies. This is a “tragic banishment” in feminist terms. In other words, it is tragic for Irigaray not because she laments man's discontinuity from the divine as such. She argues that the fate of the feminine (as man's other) is interconnected with man's identification with an ideal from which he is severed. This is how we must interpret her account of the divine “‘suprasensory’ reality,” “God—Different” as the real “source of evil.” The conceptualization of a schism between man and God is the “source of evil” because the division between man and a projected transcendent entity has been fatal for the role of the feminine as man's other.

The projection of a mythical transcendent realm serves to legitimate the hierarchy ranking man, woman, the material/sensory realms, and the animal. The projection of the transcendent, the schism between the transcendent and the actual human, and representations of man as both divided from and yet able to “approach” that transcendent realm—all on Irigaray's account, are supported by the organization of the feminine, the bodily, and the irrational as man's other. Woman's banishment to the role of man's “other” occurs where man's role is in the mode of “being like unto God.” “Sin and suffering” do not occur because men and woman are cast out of paradise, she declares in Marine Lover, but because man takes on God as his ideal, an extraterrestrial (impossible) ideal:

How does banishment occur? In the mode of the “being like unto God.” The position of God as model to be repeated, mimicked. Thus, set outside the self. Surely evil, sin, suffering, redemption, arise when God is set up as an extraterrestrial ideal, as an otherworldly monopoly? When the divine is manufactured as God-Father?

(1991a, 173)

Irigaray proposes, therefore, that remodeling man/woman relations necessarily entails a three-way reconceptualization of man/divine relations, feminine/divine relations, and of the role of the divine in relation to the masculine and feminine. Here, the divine would have to be reconceptualized so as to undermine the human/divine schism. If man did not identify with an impossible divine ideal, woman might not be appropriated as man's negative mirror. One conclusion is that, in general, the divine should not be figured as transcendent in relation to the human. From this point on, it becomes for Irigaray a feminist task to represent the divine as continuous with the human, rather than severed from it.

However, men and women do need identificatory structures. Perhaps, she muses, women do need some kind of “divine” with which to identify, a feminine-divine? If so, it is important that this not be figured in the same structural terms as the masculine-paternal God. Irigaray probes the possibility of a relationship between the feminine and the divine where woman might have a “perception of a divine that was not opposed to them, perhaps? That was not even distinct from them” (1991a, 173). Irigaray's conclusion is that women do need their own divine. From this point on, her problem is to invent a concept whereby a (feminine) divine would serve some of the functions in relation to women that the masculine-paternal God has traditionally served for men, without entailing the problems produced by man/God schisms.


What does Irigaray mean, however, by a divine specific to the feminine, or a “feminine divine?” If we consider some instances of the term's deployment, we see its broad range. Sometimes it is used by Irigaray to refer to the “wonder” there might be between the sexes in a culture of sexual difference. (“Sexual difference” is Irigaray's term for an ideal according to which woman would not be defined in terms of “atrophied masculinity” but as different from man in a positive sense).15 Transcendence would exist between men and women, rather than between human and divine (Irigaray 1993b, 15). Sometimes it simply refers to an “opening onto a beyond” or a “limit” (1993b, 17). Sometimes it is beauty (1993b, 32). Sometimes it refers to a certain, ideal form of love:

Where the borders of the body are wed in an embrace that transcends all limits … each one discovers the self in that experience which is inexpressible yet forms the supple grounding of life and language. For this, “God” is necessary, or a love so attentive that it is divine.

(Irigaray 1993b, 18-19)

Sometimes “God” is that which women would become for themselves (1993a, 71). Women's “fulfillment” would be “divine” (Irigaray 1993a, 64).

It is important to interpret Irigaray's argument that “women need their own divine” in the context of her plural redefinitions of the term “divine.” We have considered, for example, the suggestion that Irigaray does not simply “repeat” the same “logic of identity” which she condemns. True, Irigaray speaks of the need for women to cultivate their own identity. But the difficulty, points out Margaret Whitford, is that Irigaray attempts to “change our notion of what identity means” (Whitford 1991, 136).16 The same problem now also arises with the related Irigarayan material on the divine. Irigaray is clearly attempting to change our notion of what “divine” means.

Consider her use of the term “divine” in the examples just cited. Sometimes, “divinity” simply means “transcendence.” In a culture of sexual difference, Irigaray says, there would be “transcendence” (limit, radical difference, the “beyond”) between men and women. Love would be “divine,” if it were love of the other-as-difference, and not of the other as a variation of, or reflection of, the self. Some comments leave the impression that the concept of women “lacking their own divinity” simply amounts to the familiar claim that women “lack identity” in the sense that they serve as “negative mirror” to masculinity. The ideal of woman's “identity”17 is now transformed by Irigaray into a new definition of “divinity.” Such an interpretation certainly applies to Irigaray's descriptions of women's “fulfillment” as “divine,” for example.

Irigaray may argue that, hitherto, the occidental God has been figured as masculine-paternal and that woman needs her own divine. However, the latter term is far from having supernatural connotations. Irigaray so redefines the notion of woman's “divinity” that it is sometimes interchangeable with the concept of “woman-as-difference,” and with the ideal of difference between the sexes. Irigaray states that the diabolical thing about women is their “lack of a God” (Irigaray 1993a, 64). This statement could mean no more than the claim that the “diabolical” thing about women is their place as lack, atrophy, and mirror to the masculine.

This interpretation of the interchangeability of the terms “divinity” and “sexual difference” does, however, provoke some questions. What is served by such a surprising redefinition of the term “divine”? Why deploy the concept of divinity, so redefined, in such contexts? Why would Irigaray leave herself open to the reader's predictably confused interpretation of statements such as: “It is essential that we be God for ourselves” (Irigaray 1993a, 71)? Furthermore, I began by suggesting that, for Irigaray, there can be no substantial reorganization of feminine identity without a reconceptualization of the feminine divine. But a review of this material now seems to suggest not that the feminine divine is the “precondition” for feminine identity, but rather that these terms are indistinguishable, that they amount to the same concept.

There are instances, certainly, where we can make the best sense of Irigaray's use of the term “divine” only by so interpreting it. At this point, however, the term “divine” would lose all specific meaning. Why not simply speak of “sexual difference”? How can we explain Irigaray's decision to deploy the term “divinity”? In fact, we will see that the Irigarayan “divine” does have connotations over and above the ideal of “transcendence” between sexed human subjects. Before passing on to these, however, we should recall Irigaray's aim in retaining the term “divine,” despite the confusing effects of its radical redefinition.

I suggested the importance of situating Irigaray's revised concept of divinity in the context of her analysis of the relationship between the masculine-paternal God and masculine identity. According to this analysis there is, we saw, an intimate relationship between the ego ideals with which man identifies, and the devaluation of woman. Woman is devalued (as negative mirror) as not being those qualities of which the most pure instance is the masculine ideal ego represented by the masculine-paternal God. In identifying with that ideal, man also falls short of it. To compensate, his “feminine” qualities (the emotional, the embodied, the limited) are displaced onto the figure of woman so as to sustain his identification. The figure of woman, as “not” man's ideal sustains the oppositional effect of man as identified with his ideal.

The interpretation of this complex set of interrelations between masculinity and its ideal and negative alter ego figures leads to Irigaray's verdict that the subversion of traditional man/woman dichotomies requires a concurrent critical intervention into the concept of divine ideals. It is imperative, she concludes, to refigure divinity so as to strip away its connotations of schism from the human. This is one reason why Irigaray must retain the term “divine” while radically redefining it, for all that the new connotations of the term will have confusing effects on the reader.

Consequently, where Irigaray speaks of relations between the sexes being “divine,” or of woman becoming her own “God,” we should understand divinity as having evolved into yet another term for the ideal “culture of sexual difference,” where sexed subjects would respect each other's distance and difference. Transcendence is located not between mortal and immortal beings but between men and women. Love between man and woman is described as “divine,” but this simply implies an ideal relationship of difference from, and respect for, the other as other. Where this terminological redefinition occurs, the only conventional characteristics of divinity retained by Irigaray seem to be alterity and transcendence.

However, we will need to modify our interpretation for those contexts in which Irigaray speaks of divinity as the precondition for women's becoming, or of woman establishing her subjectivity with the “help” of the divine.

Here, we need to recall what else is specific to the term “divine” apart from the connotations of alterity. Irigaray has stripped the term of its supernatural connotations and of the connotations of schism from the human. She has retained the term because of her desire to remodel it. She has retained the conventional connotation of divinity—transcendence—but this is now relocated to the realm between humans. There is one further role played by the conventional God, which she retains for her own concept of a “feminine divine.” This is the role played by the divine as “guarantee” of one's identity, or subjectivity. Consider the following formulations from “Divine Women”:

Man is able to exist because God helps him to define his gender (genre), helps him orient his finiteness by reference to infinity.

(1993a, 61)

In order to become, it is essential to have a gender [genre] or an essence (consequently a sexuate essence) as horizon.

(1993a, 61)

No human subjectivity, no human society has ever been established without the help of the divine.

(1993a, 62)

Man is supposedly woman's more perfect other, her model, her essence. The most human and the most divine goal woman can conceive is to become man. If she is to become woman, if she is to accomplish her female subjectivity, woman needs a god who is a figure for the perfection of her subjectivity

(1993a, 64)

Traditionally, man relates to a transcendent, masculine-paternal God as a horizon of perfection. On Irigaray's model, woman would have a kind of equivalent field for the “perfection of her subjectivity.” The argument that women need a “feminine divine” means, in this case, that women need a “horizon of becoming” (or a field of infinite, open-ended feminine identit[ies]) in the context of which a woman could situate herself.

Elizabeth Grosz has suggested that aspects of the feminine divine do constitute some kind of equivalent to the role played, according to Irigaray, by a masculine divine in relation to man. Irigaray's divine, suggests Grosz, remains a “principle of the ideal, a projection of the (sexed) subject onto the figure of perfection, an ego-ideal specific to that subject” (1986, 12). Does Irigaray repeat, as an ideal for women, the same model that sustains masculine subjectivity in her view? Has her analysis gone awry if she does so? One possible answer lies in the status that women would have in relation to their “figure of perfection” or “ego ideal.” Irigaray insists, in “Divine Women,” for example, that the feminine would not be analogous in structure to that God which has acted as ideal ego to the masculine. The structural difference between the traditional masculine God and the Irigarayan divine is that women would not be severed from their ideal.

This leads us to the third, crucial attribute of Irigaray's redefinition of the concept of divinity. It is captured in a question asked by Irigaray in Ethics of Sexual Difference: “Why do we assume that God must always remain an inaccessible transcendence rather than a realization—here and now—in and through the body”? (Irigaray 1993b, 148). She speaks for a divine that would be “an inscription in the flesh” (Irigaray 1993b, 147). If sexual difference were cultivated, and gender “allowed to develop,” then, she says, gender “could mark the place where spirit entered human nature, the point in time when the infinite passed into the finite, given that each individual is finite and potentially infinite in his or her relation to gender [genre]” (Irigaray 1993a, 139). The term employed by Irigaray to express her conception of a divinity from which we are not severed is the “sensible transcendental.” She describes this concept as, “A birth into a transcendence, that of the other, still in the world of the senses (‘sensible’), still physical and carnal, and already spiritual” (Irigaray 1993b, 82).

We have seen that Irigaray considers especially problematic the schism between man and the masculine-paternal God. It is problematic because while the schism renders God a more idealized figure (as not-Man, not-human, etc.), it renders God a more fragile support of identity. The man/God schism leaves man in a state of both being and not being “atrophy,” insofar as he identifies with an ideal rendered all the more powerful by the fact that he is severed from it. This also leaves women associated with atrophy, since they are appropriated as the atrophied mirror reflection to sustain an already atrophied masculine.

In her conceptualization of a feminine divine this notion of the schism between human and divine is specifically rejected. This is the crucial structural change in Irigaray's remodeling of conceptions of identity. The feminine divine is not figured as an ideal ego that the feminine is both aligned with and yet simultaneously opposed to. The “feminine divine” does serve the function of a horizon of perfection in terms of which women can identify themselves. But, for Irigaray, it is crucial that one “participates” in the divine, in this sense. The divine is not an ideal from which a woman is severed.

The refiguring of divinity as that in which women “participate” is evident in three aspects of the Irigarayan divine. First, we have considered the concept of the “sensible transcendental” in these terms. Second, Irigaray sometimes defines the feminine divine interchangeably with the concept of the feminine “genre.” Women are said to situate themselves in the context of a horizon of “becoming women,” which is constituted by the notion of women in their entirety as a genre. Third, Irigaray introduces the terminology of sexed subjects participating in “horizontal” and “vertical” axes of relations.


Belonging to their sexuate genre would be a means for women to situate themselves, as finite, in the context of the “infinite.” Here infinite does not mean the transcendent, the supernatural, or “that which we are not.” Rather, it means that which is open-ended and in a process of becoming. So the connotations of the feminine genre are those of the collective of feminine identit(ies) in an open-ended process of “becoming.” Irigaray promotes the ideal of our situating ourselves in the context of the horizon constituted by our genre, without any ideal that women would “definitively” “become” themselves, or “accomplish” themselves. Because Irigaray affirms the notion of the infinite as always in a state of becoming, women would be coextensive with or could be seen as “participating in” this notion of infinity. This concept of “infinity” becomes substitutable for the concept “feminine divine.” As such, it is another figure for a divinity from which women are not severed.

Notice Irigaray's apparent ambivalence regarding the concept of “transcendence.” She rejects the concept of transcendence in the context of women's identificatory ideals. There is no schism between women and the feminine genre, as there is between man and the figure of the masculine-paternal God. However, Irigaray retains transcendence as an ideal of distance and difference between the sexes. Furthermore, we have seen that Irigaray uses the term “divine” to refer to both contexts: to transcendence between women and men, and to the participation by women in their ideal horizon. These factors lead us to the third aspect of Irigaray's revision of the connotations of “divinity.” This is Irigaray's use of the terminology of “horizontal” and “vertical” axes of relations. The “horizontal/vertical” model is important because it gives greater coherence to the diverse connotations of divinity. It is a model that enables Irigaray both to reject and to retain the ideal of transcendence.

One obvious interpretation of the “horizontal” and “vertical” planes would be that the horizontal refers to relations among women and to relations between women and men, while the vertical refers to relations between women and the divine. However, Irigaray's plural redefinitions of divinity complicate matters. Certainly, the “horizontal” is a term used to refer to women's relations with others. It is used either in reference to relations between men and women, or to relations “among women, or among ‘sisters’” (Irigaray 1993b, 108).

The vertical axis, however, is more intricate. We see an example of Irigaray's desire to reject the notion of transcendence along this axis where mother-daughter relations are included on the account of the vertical dimension, along with the ideal of a feminine genealogy:

The world of women must successfully create an ethical order. … This world of female ethics would continue to have two vertical and horizontal dimensions:

—daughter-to-mother, mother-to-daughter;

—among women, or among “sisters.”

In some way, the vertical dimension is always being taken away from female becoming. … Female genealogy has to be suppressed, on behalf of the son-Father relationship, and the idealization of the father and husband as patriarchs. But without a vertical dimension … a loving ethical order cannot take place among women. Within themselves, among themselves, women need both of these dimensions.

(1993b, 108)18

The vertical dimension is probably best understood here as the horizon of one's genre. It is the identificatory context for women to situate themselves in terms of a horizon of symbolic, ideal models. The role a mother represents for her daughter could be an example of the vertical dimension of relations. A history or prehistory of important feminine figures would play the same role.

Any woman, according to this metaphor, would always be involved concurrently in self-other and in self-“divine” relations. She would always be situated on both axes, horizontal and vertical. Any relation between self and other would always be mediated by divinity, insofar as the vertical axis of self-divine relations intersects with, thus mediating, the horizontal self-other axis of relations. What does this mean, given Irigaray's redefinition of “divinity”? Simply that any kind of relationship a woman has, either with another woman or with a man, would be mediated by the field of positive representations of women, symbolic figures of femininity, even “role models,” in the context of which a woman would situate herself. In this way, a woman's relationships both with men and with other women, would not take place from the starting point of women's position as “atrophy.”

In relation to the problem of Irigaray's simultaneous rejection and retention of the concept of “transcendence,” notice how the metaphor of intersecting vertical and horizontal axes functions here. The ideal of transcendence is retained as the ideal of transcendence between men and women in a culture of sexual difference. According to this metaphor, relations between men and women occur in the “horizontal” dimension. The transcendence between men and women along this axis occurs due to the mediation by the vertical axis. The vertical axis, typically understood as human-divine, has been redefined as that dimension of female genealogy, of mother-to-daughter and daughter-to-mother relations, female ideals and role models, female becoming, and of the female genre. These “human-divine” vertical relations would not be relations of transcendence. No schism is retained between women and the feminine “divine,” their identificatory horizon for becoming. This is because the feminine ideal is not defined as that which women radically “are not.” Women are co-extensive with their horizon of becoming, along the vertical axis.

Now we can better understand the definition of love between men and women as “divine.” Where this occurs, divinity is used in a very extended sense. The “divine” refers not just to the dimension defined by Irigaray as “vertical” (women in the context of their genre), but also to horizontal relations insofar as they are mediated by the vertical dimension. Thus, “love” between men and women in a culture of sexual difference would be “divine” if mediated by a vertical axis constituting a positive symbolic context for women.

So, to summarize a little. Irigaray's notion of the divine is reformulated so that she abandons the connotations of an inaccessible supernatural entity. Instead, Irigaray's “divinity” may simply consist in the experience of wonder at alterity in sexual difference.19 The sexually different other is elevated to the status of that which is transcendent to me.20 It is not that the other qua other is given the connotations of the divine in the sense of a supernatural God. Rather, the notion of the divine is reorganized. It includes an ideal encounter with the sexually different other. It includes the realm of ethico-legal-linguistic transformations which would enable the recognition and institutionalization of sexual difference. It includes the horizon constituted by the feminine genre. These transformations would constitute a vertical plane affirming the feminine, in which we could participate at the same time as interacting with the other. The mediation of my relation with the other by this vertical plane would render my encounter with the other less inclined toward appropriation.


This brings us to Irigaray's objective: the subversion of appropriative relationships between self and other. In recent essays in Sexes and Genealogies and An Ethics of Sexual Difference Irigaray uses the terminology of horizontal and vertical relations in the context of her ethics of mediation in human relations. Intersecting axes of horizontal and vertical relations would enable “mediation” between self and the other such that one would not appropriate the other in the generation of one's own self-identity. In Irigaray's view, relations between women, and between men and women, tend toward the appropriation of the other. Appropriative relations occur wherever I relate to the other in a narcissistic mode, using her/him to tell me “who I am” and whether I am loved.

Irigaray emphasizes her ideal of the non-appropriation of the other in her most recent work, J'aime à toi (1992). This particular phrase, whose English equivalent is “I love to you,” acts as an emblem for the ideal of a relationship to the other which is mediated rather than appropriative. (“I” would love to[ward] “you,” rather than appropriating you in my love.) The emblematic formulation “I love to you” is proposed as an alternative to formulations with a structure such as “I love you,” which, according to Irigaray, “always risk annihilating the alterity of the other” (1992, 172).21 Her utopian formulations for mediated self/other relations are proposed as an alternative to relations where the other is both appropriated in the production of my self-identity and also overridden such that I am unable to go out toward the other qua other. I am left in a mode of self and (the other appropriated as) version of the self.

How, on Irigaray's understanding, does the tendency to appropriate the other arise from the relationship between masculine identity, women, and a masculine-paternal God? As we have seen, Irigaray understands woman as appropriated in the generation of masculine identity. She understands man as dependent on his appropriation of woman as his negative specular mirror. Irigaray understands the masculine-paternal God to be a flawed guarantor of masculine identity. Indeed, this is another reason why she does not repeat the same structure as an ideal for the feminine-divine. Because positioning God as “not-man” is the means of rendering God man's ideal, man is left radically “not-God,” thus “not” his ideal. In other words, the projection of the masculine-paternal God does not provide an effective horizon and ideal ego for man.

Irigaray concludes that the instability of the man/God relationship is of concern to a feminist analysis. A subject can recognize and respect the specificity of the other, rather than appropriating the other, if an ideal horizon or genre reinforces the subject's identity. The appropriation of “women-as-atrophy” by man is related to the abandonment of man to a state of atrophy in relation to his masculine-paternal God.

Furthermore, the fact that women are left in a state of atrophy results in their tendency to appropriate the other in turn. Remember that appropriation occurs, according to this interpretation, where I relate to the other in an “I ask myself if I am loved” mode. Irigaray does identify this kind of relationship with the other in women, as well as men. In fact, our relation to the other is prone to be appropriative, particularly if we are organized as lack in opposition to the masculine.22 Irigaray pursues the idea that both women and men appropriate the other, although differently, to bolster an atrophied identity. She claims, for example, that the different usage of language by women and men is emblematic of this appropriative mode of relating to the other. She declares:

The typical sentence produced by a male, once all substitutions have been allowed for, is:
I wonder if I am loved or: I tell myself that perhaps I am loved.
The typical sentence produced by a woman is:
Do you love me?

(Irigaray 1993b, 134)

Irigaray analyzes both forms of relationship to the other as flawed and appropriative. In the first example, the speaker is not directed toward the other. Rather, she says, “the subject speaks to himself. … No place for words for the other here” (Irigaray 1993b, 135). The second example is said to be correlative to the question “Who am I?” (1993b, 135). Again, the subject's concern is not with the other, but with the self. Neither kind of utterance enables exchange or alliance between subjects. The possibility of true communication between the self and the other is excluded. This has occurred, on Irigaray's analysis, because man is “atrophy” in relation to his “God,” or his “ideal,” and woman is “atrophy” in relation to man. Atrophied subjects appropriate the other to tell themselves who they are or that they are loved; or to ask who they are and whether they are loved. They do not direct themselves outward, but rather inward. Thus they can neither communicate with the other nor respect his or her difference.

It is the negotiation and affirmation of two sexuate genres, which would serve as mediating vertical dimensions in the context of which an individual would be situated. Communication between subjects would be facilitated, rather than appropriation of the other in the reassurance of the self. Hence we see Irigaray's formulation: “I am often asked if man and woman will be able to communicate if two different genders are affirmed. Perhaps they will be communicating for the first time!” (Irigaray 1993a, 120). Human relations need to be mediated by “vertical planes” because mediation between self and other would enable respect for the other's alterity.

Irigaray's use of the term “genre” will doubtless provoke renewed interrogations by critics as to the “essentialism” in her work. So, I conclude with some provisional comments in this regard. “Essentialism” is a term which has been used, Grosz reminds us, to refer to

the attribution of a fixed essence to women. Women's essence is assumed to be given, universal … identified with women's biology and “natural” characteristics … [or residing] in certain given psychological characteristics—nurturance, empathy, supportiveness … [or] certain activities and procedures (which may or may not be dictated by biology) observable in social practices, intuitiveness, emotional responses, concern, and commitment to helping others, etc.

(Grosz 1990, 334)

Irigaray does not refer to a universal feminine essence, identified with women's biology. But her appeal to an ideal whereby women could “establish their subjectivity,” by situating themselves in the context of their sexuate genre, might well read as an ideal for the unification of women by a shared, singular “subjectivity.” Comments from Irigaray suggesting that women are prevented, in this world “from getting themselves together as a unit” (Irigaray 1993a, 72) might seem to support this interpretation. However, Irigaray emphasizes the plurality of selves who would “get themselves together.” This undercuts the impression that her ideal is the sameness of those “selves” constituting a unit. Perhaps the unit of genre need not suppress the differences among the selves.

“Essentialism,” continues Grosz, “entails that those characteristics defined as women's essence are shared in common by all women at all times: it implies a limit on the variations and possibilities of change” (Grosz 1990, 334). If Irigaray's concept of genre represented an ideal whereby women were somehow unified by a feminine subjectivity conceived as singular, then the charge which, in Anglo-American feminist debate has come to be signified by the label “essentialism,” would clearly apply. For this reason, Irigaray's emphasis on the “infinity,” the open-endedness of genre is very important. It is, recall, the concept of women's becoming (the situation of women along the vertical axis) which, in much of her discussion, becomes synonymous with women's “divinity.” One point that is clear is that Irigaray's ideal is not to deploy any term which would serve to “limit … the variations and possibilities of change.” The intertwined concepts of genre, horizontal and vertical dimensions, and divinity, all serve to articulate an ideal for women's always incomplete “identity.”

Essentialism, furthermore, evokes an ideal of the sameness of women. If certain characteristics are attributed to all women, then the differences between women are excluded in favor of an account of the ways in which women are alike. The material I have presented here does suggest a possible response. In promoting the concept of women's genre, Irigaray is very clear indeed that the concept refers to an ideal whereby women would not relate to one another in terms of sameness. She offers a complex analysis of a particular social structure that leads, in her view, to the exclusion of the other's difference. This is her interpretation of appropriative relations between the sexes. Appropriation of the other tends to occur where the subject is culturally abandoned to the position of atrophy or lack. Women, abandoned to this position, are all the more likely to relate to one another as a variation of themselves, or in such terms that the self is the overriding concern. The invention of the concept of genre is intended to serve as a mediating factor enabling respect for the other. This ideal is certainly intended to apply to horizontal relations among women.

Irigaray offers an interesting analysis of the context that leads to a subject excluding the other's alterity. She offers a novel redefinition of “divinity” as that which would inhibit appropriative relations. One is reminded of Judith Butler's recent “confession”: “The largeness and speculative character of Irigaray's claims have always put me a bit on edge. … Her terms tend to mime the grandiosity of the philosophical errors that she underscores” (Butler 1993, 36). We have considered one of Irigaray's most grandiose claims: that there can be no reshaping of women's identity and subjectivity and indeed of culture in general, without reshaping our conceptions of divinity. In the final analysis, we might or might not be satisfied by Irigaray's declarations of her best intentions: to enable respect among women, as well as between women and men, of one another's specificity. That assessment needs to be grounded, however, in the analysis of how the term “divinity” operates in the context of Irigaray's broader project.


  1. Elizabeth Grosz and Margaret Whitford discuss this concept and the diversity of critical interpretations which it has provoked. See Grosz (1989, xvii and 141) and Whitford (1991, 9-25).

  2. Irigaray's account of this “A/not-A” dichotomous structure is clearly articulated in the following passage from the essay on Freud in Speculum of the Other Woman: “The feminine will be allowed and even obliged to return in such oppositions as: be/become, have/not have sex (organ), phallic/non-phallic, penis/clitoris or else penis/vagina, plus/minus, clearly representable/dark continent, logos/silence or idle chatter, desire for the mother/desire to be the mother, etc.” (Irigaray 1985a, 22).

  3. A good overview of the Anglo-American feminist debate around the spectre of “essentialism” is provided in Grosz (1990).

  4. For this account of man's fragility, see in particular the chapter “Any Theory of the ‘Subject’ Has Always Been Appropriated by the ‘Masculine’” (Irigaray 1985a): “Her possession by a ‘subject’ … is yet another of his vertiginous failures. … Even as man seeks to rise higher and higher—in his knowledge too—so the ground fractures more and more beneath his feet” (1985a, 134). Here, the (feminine) ground could be said to “fracture” in the sense that, constituting the feminine as his “ground,” his “mirror” to catch his reflection, man simultaneously constitutes an other which exceeds and resists his projects of representation (Irigaray 1985a, 133-36). Irigaray also suggests that the feminine exceeds the place of negative mirror insofar as woman has to exercise “effort” to masquerade as negative mirror (Irigaray 1985b, 84).

  5. See, for example, the account of matter as feminine in Plato's Timaeus 51b (Plato 1961, 1178), also discussed in Derrida (1981, 160-61).

  6. Irigaray makes clear her strategy of mimicry in the interview “The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine” in Irigaray (1985b). She states,

    There is, in an initial phase, perhaps only one “path,” the one historically assigned to the feminine: that of mimicry. One must assume the feminine role deliberately. Which means already to convert a form of subordination into an affirmation, and thus to begin to thwart it. … To play with mimesis is thus, for a woman, to try to recover the place of her exploitation by discourse, without allowing herself to be simply reduced to it.

    (1985b, 76)

    See Whitford (1991, 71) for a discussion of mimicry as a strategy in Irigaray's project.

  7. In her comments on Freud's account of femininity, for example, Irigaray does not argue that Freud misrepresents women. Rather, she locates the “internal contradictions” interrupting the coherence of Freud's own account. Indeed, at one point, rather than rejecting Freud's description as false she states explicitly that Freud is “describing an actual state of affairs” (1985b, 70).

  8. The idea here is that the exclusion of sexual difference destabilizes itself through the effort of exclusion. Critics such as John McGowan are mistaken in thinking they have located a dilemma for “postmodern theory” which attempts to articulate the “exclusion of difference.” For McGowan, one cannot say both that nothing escapes from culture's signifying processes and also that—for example—a capitalist social order is not inclusive enough (McGowan 1991, 21-23). This kind of interpretation, if applied to Irigaray's project, would suggest that it is inconsistent to argue that patriarchal culture excludes sexual difference. If it has been excluded, how can we indicate the concept at all? But Irigaray argues, as I make clear here, that patriarchal culture is based not so much on the exclusion of sexual difference, as on a paradox by which sexual difference must be both excluded and, by virtue of that exclusion, included. Thus, the exclusion of sexual difference both “reinforces” and “destabilizes” patriarchal culture.

  9. Irigaray locates an example in Freud's interrogation of the “mystery” of femininity within a context of positioning women as an atrophied masculinity. Freud represents woman in terms of “passive aims” in relation to the “active aims” of man; he also represents the little girl as just a little boy; and he represents woman's sex in terms of an atrophied masculine sex. Yet Freud also represents woman as a great mystery, an obstacle to scientific penetration (see Freud 1973, 146-47, 149, 151, 160). Irigaray suggests that Freud's confrontation with woman as an “impenetrable mystery” is an implicit avowal on his part that woman is more than an atrophied masculinity. Thus, Irigaray destabilizes Freud's account of femininity through locating tension points at which the text would seem to undermine or locate moments of excess to its own overt account of femininity (see Irigaray 1985a, 13-14, 17, 19).

  10. At this point in Irigaray's text there is a merging between the presentation of a man's father as his ideal ego and of “God-the-Father” as ideal ego.

  11. Any standardized translation of genre by “gender” would be misleading. In the opening discussion to Sexes and Genealogies, Irigaray states that the term refers to class or type, as opposed to species (Irigaray 1993a, 3). In The Irigaray Reader, the term is not translated. Whitford, the editor, provides the following grounds: “genre, translated as genre. Genre can mean grammatical gender. It also means kind, sort, race (human race), species (animal), genre (literary or artistic). Irigaray uses all these connotations, but perhaps the most significant is the meaning of kind, as in mankind, and the suggestion that womankind should have its own specificity” (Irigaray 1991b, 17).

  12. This phrase is used by Lloyd (1984) in her discussion of the relationship between man as knowing, inquiring, reasoning subject, and the symbolic connotations of his rational activity as (overtly or implicitly) masculine.

  13. One of many possible examples of this problematic can be located in the differing accounts of man as both like and not like God in St. Augustine's Confessions. God serves as man's ideal of perfection. The ideal trait of man is thus (in relation to ideal divine identity) the most “disembodied” aspect of man—reason or soul. Man's identity must also be opposed to God as human and material. This relationship, and the concurrent identification of women as both “like man” and “not like man,” is discussed in Deutscher (1992).

  14. This body of commentary has directed very little attention to Irigaray's discussion of the theological aspects of this framework. A review, for example, of the critical material of Plaza (1978), Burke (1981), Gallop (1982), Gallop (1988), Berg (1982), Moi (1985), Nye (1988), Fuss (1989), Gatens (1991), Schutte (1991), etc., would support this suggestion. Three writers who do take up some of the theme of divinity in Irigaray's work are Elizabeth Grosz (see Grosz 1986; Grosz 1989, 140-51); Margaret Whitford (1991, 123-49); and Morny Joy (1990).

  15. The term does not refer to the revaluation of traditionally “feminine” qualities such as passivity, emotionality, closeness to nature, etc.

  16. Sometimes Irigaray redefines identity and then argues that women must accomplish their own identity. Sometimes, her claim is that the structure of men's identity will change if women do not represent atrophy.

  17. Irigaray's uses the term “woman's identity” to evoke an alternative to women's cultural role of “atrophied masculinity,” but not to assert the existence of an essence common to all women.

  18. Horizontality is also sometimes defined as the role of ground or matter that woman plays for man, in his relation with God (see Irigaray 1993b, 109).

  19. See the essay on Descartes in An Ethics of Sexual Difference. Irigaray gives a helpful formulation in the introduction to this work:

    To arrive at the constitution of an ethics of sexual difference, we must at least return to what is for Descartes the first passion: wonder. This passion … exists always as though for the first time. Thus man and woman, woman and man are always meeting each other as though for the first time because they cannot be substituted one for the other. … They are irreducible one to the other. … Who or what the other is, I never know. But the other who is forever unknowable is the one who differs from me sexually. This feeling of surprise, astonishment, and wonder in the face of the unknowable ought to be returned to its locus: that of sexual difference. The passions have either been repressed, stifled, or reduced, or reserved for God.

    (Irigaray 1993b, 12-13)

  20. See also Irigaray's “Questions to Emmanuel Levinas,” in which she states:

    It is possible to live and simultaneously create sexual love. Here would lie the way out from the fall, for in this case, love can become spiritual and divine. … The two genealogies must be divinized in each of the two sexes and for the two sexes: mother and father, woman and man, for it to be possible for female and male lovers [amante et amant] to love each other.

    (Irigaray 1991b, 186)

  21. Discussing this phrase, Irigaray states:

    J'aime à toi: signifie je garde à toi un rapport d'indirection. Je ne te soumets ni te consomme. Je te respecte (comme irréductible). … Le «à» est le signe de la non-immédiateté, de la médiation entre nous” [I love to you: signifies that I maintain toward you a relationship of indirection. I neither make you submit to me, nor do I consume you. I respect you (as irreducible). … The ‘to’ is the sign of non-immediacy, of mediation between us].

    (Irigaray 1992, 171; my translation)

  22. Note that on Irigaray's account, both women and men are understood in terms of “lack.” Women represent “lack” as the atrophied version of the masculine. However, man is also (although differently) seen as a variation on “lack” precisely because of his appropriative identity structure. He is represented in terms of “presence” and “positivity” only through the appropriation of both ideal and negative alter egos on which he is dependent. Thus he is simultaneously “plenitude” and “atrophy,” “identity” and “lack.”


Berg, Elizabeth. 1982. “The Third Woman.” Diacritics 12(2): 11-20.

Burke, Carolyn. 1981. “Irigaray through the Looking Glass.” Feminist Studies 7(2): 288-306.

Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies That Matter. New York: Routledge.

Derrida, Jacques. [1972] 1981. Dissemination. Trans. Barbara Johnson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

———. 1982. “Choreographies.” Diacritics 12 (Summer): 66-76.

Deutscher, Penelope. 1992. “The Evanescence of Masculinity: Deferral in Saint Augustine's Confessions and Some Thoughts on its Bearing on the Sex/Gender Debate.” Australian Feminist Studies 15 (Autumn): 41-56.

Freud, Sigmund. [1932-33] 1973. “Femininity.” In New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Trans. James Strachey. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Fuss, Diana. 1990. Essentially Speaking. London: Routledge.

Gallop, Jane. 1982. Feminism and Psychoanalysis: The Daughter's Seduction. London: Macmillan.

Gatens, Moira. 1991. Feminism and Philosophy: Perspectives on Difference and Equality. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Grosz, Elizabeth. 1986. Irigaray and the Divine. Sydney: Local Consumption Publications.

———. 1989. Sexual Subversion: Three French Feminists. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

———. 1990. “A Note on Essentialism and Difference.” In Feminist knowledge: Critique and Construct, ed. Sneja Gunew. London: Routledge.

Irigaray, Luce. [1974] 1985a. Speculum of the Other Woman. Trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

———. 1985b [1977]. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

———. [1980] 1991a. Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche. Trans. Gillian C. Gill. New York: Columbia University Press.

———. 1991b. The Irigaray Reader. Ed. Margaret Whitford. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

———. 1992. J'aime à toi. Paris: Grasset.

———. [1987] 1993a. Sexes and Genealogies. Trans. Gillian C. Gill. New York: Columbia University Press.

———. [1984] 1993b. An Ethics of Sexual Difference. Trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Joy, Morny. 1990. “Equality or Divinity—A False Dichotomy?” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 6(1): 9-24.

Lloyd, Genevieve. 1984. The Man of Reason: ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ in Western Philosophy. London: Methuen.

McGowan, John. 1991. Postmodernism and its Critics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Moi, Toril. 1985. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. London: Methuen.

Nye, Andrea. 1988. Feminist Theory and the Philosophies of Man. London: Croom Helm.

Plato. 1961. The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Plaza, Monique. 1978. “‘Phallomorphic Power’ and the Psychology of ‘Woman.’” Ideology and Consciousness 4 (Autumn): 57-76.

Schutte, Ofelia. 1991. “Irigaray on the Problem of Subjectivity.” Hypatia 6(2): 64-76.

Whitford, Margaret. 1991. Luce Irigaray: Philosophy in the Feminine. London: Routledge.

Naomi Schor (essay date 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8963

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 studies: “There was no place foreseen in the structure of the classical model of Berlin for women's studies.”1 Women's studies, a field barely twenty years old today, is a belated add-on, an afterthought to the Berlin model taken over by American institutions of higher learning. For Derrida the question then becomes: What is the status of this new wing? Does it function merely as an addition, or rather as a supplement, simultaneously within and without the main building: “With women's studies, is it a question of simply filling a lack in a structure already in place, filling a gap?”2 If the answer to this question were yes, then in the very success of women's studies would lie also its failure. “As much as women's studies has not put back into question the very principles of the structure of the former model of the university, it risks being just another cell in the University beehive.”3 The question, in other words, is: Is women's studies, as it has from the outset claimed to be, in some essential manner different from the other disciplines accommodated within the traditional Germanic institutional model of the university, or is it in fact more of the same, different perhaps in its object of study, but fundamentally alike in its relationship to the institution and the social values it exists to enshrine and transmit? What difference, asks Derrida, does women's studies make in the university: “What is the difference, if there is one, between a university institution of research and teaching called ‘women's studies’ and any other institution of learning and teaching around it in the university or in society as a whole?”4 Derrida goes on to strongly suggest that in the accumulation of empirical research on women, in the tenuring of feminist scholars, in the seemingly spectacular success of women's studies the feminist critique of the institution has been scanted. In the eyes of deconstruction women's studies is perilously close to becoming “just another cell in the University beehive.”

Derrida's account of the relationship of women's studies to the institution is perhaps not entirely fair, not sufficiently informed: women's studies—if one can generalize about such a vast and heterogeneous field—has been neither as successful nor as easily co-opted as Derrida makes it out to be, no more or less so than deconstruction, with which, as he points out, it is often linked by their common enemies. My concern, however, lies elsewhere: what I continue to find perplexing about Derrida's remarks, remarks that were made at a seminar given at Brown University's Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women, is his failure to articulate the grounds on which women's studies would found its difference. My perplexity grows when I read in the published transcription of the seminar, which I both attended and participated in, the following:

This is a question of the Law: are those involved in women's studies—teachers, students, researchers—the guardians of the Law, or not? You will remember that in the parable of the Law of Kafka, between the guardian of the Law and the man from the country there is no essential difference, they are in oppositional but symmetric positions. We are all, as members of a university, guardians of the Law. … Does that situation repeat itself for women's studies or not? Is there in the abstract or even topical idea of women's studies, something which potentially has the force, if it is possible, to deconstruct the fundamental institutional structure of the university, of the Law of the university?5

Is what Derrida is calling for then, that potentially deconstructive something, on the order of an essential difference? Is what he is calling for a women's studies that would be essentially different from its brother and sister disciplines? How, given the antiessentialism of deconstruction, about which more in a moment, to found an essential difference between feminine and masculine guardians of the law? How can women's studies be essentially different from other disciplines in a philosophical system that constantly works to subvert all essential differences, all essentializing of differences?

These questions are of special concern to me because the conflict within the faculty of women's studies has from its inception been to a large extent a conflict—and a very violent one—over essentialism, and it is to this conflict that I want to turn in what follows. I will first consider the critiques of essentialism that have been advanced in recent years, then compare briefly Simone de Beauvoir and Luce Irigaray, the two major French feminist theoreticians, who are generally held to exemplify respectively antiessentialist and essentialist positions. Finally, in the space I hope to have opened up for a new look at Irigaray, I will examine her troping of essentialism.


What revisionism, not to say essentialism, was to Marxism-Leninism, essentialism is to feminism: the prime idiom of intellectual terrorism and the privileged instrument of political orthodoxy. Borrowed from the time-honored vocabulary of philosophy, the word essentialism has been endowed within the context of feminism with the power to reduce to silence, to excommunicate, to consign to oblivion. Essentialism in modern-day feminism is anathema. There are, however, signs, encouraging signs in the form of projected books, ongoing dissertations, private conversations, not so much of a return of or to essentialism, as of a recognition of the excesses perpetrated in the name of antiessentialism, of the urgency of rethinking the very terms of a conflict that all parties would agree has ceased to be productive.6

What then is meant by essentialism in the context of feminism and what are the chief arguments marshaled against it by its critics? According to a standard definition drawn from the Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion, essentialism is the belief that things have essences. What then is an essence? Again from the same dictionary: “that by which a thing is what it is,” and further, “the more permanent and fixed aspects of a thing.”7 Essentialism in the specific context of feminism consists in the belief that woman has an essence, that woman can be specified by one or a number of inborn attributes that define across cultures and throughout history her unchanging being and in the absence of which she ceases to be categorized as a woman. In less abstract, more practical terms an essentialist, in the context of feminism, is one who instead of carefully holding apart the poles of sex and gender maps the feminine onto femaleness, one for whom the body, the female body, that is, remains, in however complex and problematic a way, the rock of feminism. But by defining essentialism as I just have have I not in turn essentialized it, since definitions are by definition, as it were, essentialist? Antiessentialism operates precisely in this manner, that is, by essentializing essentialism, by proceeding as though there were one essentialism, an essence of essentialism. If we are to move beyond the increasingly sterile conflict over essentialism, we must begin by deessentializing essentialism, for, no more than deconstruction, essentialism is not one.8 The multiplicity of essentialisms—one might, for example, want to distinguish French essentialism from the native variety, naive essentialism from strategic essentialism, heterosexual from homosexual—is revealed by the multiplicity of its critiques. Now most often these critiques are imbricated—so tightly interwoven in the space of an article or a book that they appear to form one internally consistent argument directed against one immutable monolithic position. And yet if one takes the trouble for purely heuristic purposes to disentangle the various strands of these critiques—I will distinguish four such critiques—it becomes apparent that they serve diverse, even conflicting interests and draw on distinct, often incompatible conceptual frameworks. However much in practice these critiques may overlap and intersect, when separated they turn out to correspond to some of the major trends in feminist theory from Beauvoir to the present.


This is the critique of essentialism first articulated by Beauvoir and closely identified with the radical feminist journal, Questions féministes, which she helped found. “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman,” Beauvoir famously declared in The Second Sex.9 This is the guiding maxim of the culturalist or constructionist critique of essentialism, which holds that femininity is a cultural construct in the service of the oppressive powers of patriarchy. By promoting an essential difference of woman grounded in the body, the argument runs, essentialism plays straight into the hands of the patriarchal order, which has traditionally invoked anatomical and physiological differences to legitimate the sociopolitical disempowerment of women. If women are to achieve equality, to become fully enfranchised persons, the manifold forms of exploitation and oppression to which they are subject, be they economic or political, must be carefully analyzed and tirelessly interrogated. Essentialist arguments that fail to take into account the role of society in producing women are brakes on the wheel of progress.


This is the critique derived from the writings and seminars of Lacan and promoted with particular force by Anglo-American film critics and theoreticians writing in such journals as Screen,m/f, and Camera Obscura. What society is to Beauvoir and her followers, language is to Lacan and Lacanians. The essentialist, in this perspective, is a naive realist who refuses to recognize that the loss of the referent is the condition of man's entry into language. Within the symbolic order centered on the phallus there can be no immediate access to the body: the fine mesh of language screens off the body from any apprehension that is not already enculturated. Essentialism is, then, in Lacanian terms an effect of the imaginary, and it is no accident that some of the most powerfully seductive evocations of the feminine, notably those of Irigaray and Cixous, resonate with the presence and plenitude of the prediscursive preoedipal. In the symbolic order ruled by the phallus “there is no such thing as The Woman,” as Lacan gnomically remarks.10 What we have instead are subjects whose sexual inscription is determined solely by the positions they occupy in regard to the phallus, and these positions are at least in theory subject to change. The proper task of feminist theory is, however, not to contribute to changing the status of women in society—for the Law of the symbolic is posited as eternal—but rather to expose and denaturalize the mechanisms whereby females are positioned as women.


The reference here is to the critique elaborated by Derrida and disseminated by feminist Derrideans ranging from Irigaray and Cixous to some of the major transatlantic feminist critics and theoreticians. Essentialism, in this view, is complicitous with Western metaphysics. To subscribe to the binary opposition man/woman is to remain a prisoner of the metaphysical, with its illusions of presence, Being, stable meanings, and identities. The essentialist in this scheme of things is not, as for Lacan, one who refuses to accept the phallocentric ordering of the symbolic, rather one who fails to acknowledge the play of difference in language and the difference it makes. Beyond the prison house of the binary, multiple differences play indifferently across degendered bodies. As a strategic position adopted to achieve specific political goals, feminist essentialism has, however, its place in deconstruction.


I have deliberately reserved this rubric for the only critique of essentialism to have emerged from within the women's movement. No proper name, masculine or feminine, can be attached to this critique as its legitimating source; it arises from the plurivocal discourses of black, Chicana, lesbian, first and third world feminist thinkers and activists. The recent work of Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn't, and the edited volume of conference proceedings, Feminist Studies/Critical Studies, might, however, be cited as exemplifying this trend.11 Essentialism, according to this critique, is a form of “false universalism” that threatens the vitality of the newly born women of feminism. By its majestic singularity Woman conspires in the denial of the very real lived differences—sexual, ethnic, racial, national, cultural, economic, generational—that divide women from each other and from themselves. Feminist antiessentialism shares with deconstruction the conviction that essentialism inheres in binary opposition, hence its displacement of woman-as-different-from-man by the notion of internally differentiated and historically instantiated women.12

Unlike deconstruction and all the other critiques of essentialism I have reviewed all too briefly here, the feminist is uniquely committed to constructing specifically female subjectivities, and it is for this reason that I find this critique the most compelling. It is precisely around the issues of the differences among as well as within women that the impasse between essentialism and antiessentialism is at last beginning to yield: for just as the pressing issues of race and ethnicity are forcing certain antiessentialists to suspend their critiques in the name of political realities, they are forcing certain essentialists to question their assertion of a female essence that is widely perceived and rightly denounced by minority women as exclusionary.13


Quelle femme n'a pas lu Le Deuxième sexe?

—Irigaray, Je, tu, nous

The access of women to subjectivity is the central concern of the two major French feminist theoreticians of the twentieth century: Simone de Beauvoir and Luce Irigaray.14 Indeed, despite their dramatically opposed positions, both share a fundamental grounding conviction: under the social arrangement known as patriarchy the subject is exclusively male: masculinity and subjectivity are coextensive notions. Consider these two celebrated assertions, the first drawn from Beauvoir's The Second Sex, the second from Irigaray's [Speculum of the Other Woman]: “He is the Subject, he is the Absolute”;15 “Any theory of the ‘subject’ has always been appropriated by the ‘masculine.’”16 Almost immediately the suspicion arises that though both are centrally concerned with the appropriation of subjectivity by men, Beauvoir and Irigaray are not in fact speaking about the same subject. Subjectivity, like essentialism, like deconstruction, is not one. There is a world of difference between Beauvoir's subject, with its impressive capitalized S, reinforced by the capitalization of Absolute, its homologue, and Irigaray's subject, with its lower case s and the relativizing quotation marks that enclose both subject and masculine. Beauvoir's subject is the familiar Hegelian subject of existentialist ethics, a heroic figure locked in a life and death struggle with the not-self, chiefly the environment and the Other:

Every subject plays his part as such specifically through exploits or projects that serve as a mode of transcendence; he achieves liberty only through a continual reaching out toward other liberties. There is no justification for present existence other than its expansion into an indefinitely open future. Every time transcendence falls back into immanence, stagnation, there is a degradation of existence onto the “en-soi”—the brutish life of subjection to given conditions—and of liberty into constraint and contingence. This downfall represents a moral fault if the subject consents to it; if it is inflicted upon him, it spells frustration and oppression. In both cases it is an absolute evil.17

Subjectivity is, for Beauvoir, activity, a restless projection into the future, a glorious surpassing of the literativity of everyday life. The dreadful fall from transcendence into immanence is woman's estate. Consigned by the masterful male subject to passivity and repetition, woman in patriarchy is a prisoner of immanence. Beauvoir's theory of subjectivity, thus, as has been often observed, dismally reinscribes the most traditional alignments of Western metaphysics: positivity lines up with activity, while passivity and, with it, femininity are slotted as negative. At the same time, however, Beauvoir's exemplary antiessentialism works to break the alignment of the transcendent and the male; by leaving behind the unredeemed and unredeemable domestic sphere of contingency for the public sphere of economic activity, women too can achieve transcendence. Liberation for women in Beauvoir's liberationist macronarrative consists in emerging from the dark cave of immanence “into the light of transcendence.”18

Deeply implicated in the radical reconceptualization of the (male) subject that characterizes post-Sartrean French thought, Irigaray's subject is a diminished subject that bears little resemblance to the sovereign and purposeful subject of existentialist philosophy. For Irigaray—and this displacement is crucial—the main attribute of the subject is not activity but language. The homo faber that serves as Beauvoir's model gives way to homo parlans. Thus Irigaray's subject is for all practical purposes a speaking subject, a pronoun, the first-person singular I. And that pronoun has under current social arrangements been preempted by men: “The I thus remains predominant among men.”19 The much touted death of the subject—which can only be the male subject20—leaves Irigaray singularly unmoved:

And the fact that you no longer assert yourself as absolute subject does not change a thing. The breath that animates you, the law or the duty that leads you, are they not the quintessence of your subjectivity? You no longer cling to [ne tiens pas à] your “I”? But your “I” clings to you [te tient].21

For women to accede to subjectivity clearly means becoming speaking subjects in their own right. It is precisely at this juncture that the major difference between Beauvoir and Irigaray begins to assert itself, and once again I take them as representative of what Anthony Appiah has called the “classic dialectic”: whereas for Beauvoir the goal is for women to share fully in the privileges of the transcendent subject, for Irigaray the goal is for women to achieve subjectivity without merging tracelessly into the putative indifference of the shifter. What is at stake in these two equally powerful and problematic feminist discourses is not the status of difference, rather that of the universal, and universalism may well be one of the most divisive and least discussed issues in feminism today. When Irigaray projects women as speaking a sexually marked language, a parler-femme, she is, I believe, ultimately less concerned with theorizing feminine specificity than with debunking the oppressive fiction of an universal subject. To speak woman is, above all, not to “speak ‘universal’”;22 “No more subject which is indifferent, substitutable, universal”;23 “I have no desire to take their speech as they have taken ours, nor to speak ‘universal.’”24 For Beauvoir, on the other hand, it is precisely because women have been prevented from speaking universal, indeed because they have “no sense of the universal,” that they have made so few significant contributions to the great humanist tradition. Mediocrity is the lot of those creators who do not feel “responsible for the universe.”25

My task here is not to adjudicate between these two exemplary positions I am outlining, but to try to understand how, starting from the same assumptions about women's exile from subjectivity, Beauvoir and Irigaray arrive at such radically different conclusions, and, further, to show that Irigaray's work cannot be understood without situating it in relationship to Beauvoir's. In order to do so Beauvoir's and Irigaray's theories of subjectivity must be reinserted in the framework of their broader enterprises. Beauvoir's project throughout The Second Sex is to lay bare the mechanisms of what we might call, borrowing the term from Mary Louise Pratt, “othering”: the means by which patriarchy fixed women in the place of the absolute Other, projecting onto women a femininity constituted of the refuse of masculine transcendence.26 Otherness in Beauvoir's scheme of things is utter negativity; it is the realm of what Kristeva has called the abject. Irigaray's project is diametrically opposed to Beauvoir's but must be viewed as its necessary corollary. Just as Beauvoir lays bare the mechanisms of othering, Irigaray exposes those of what we might call, by analogy, “saming.” If othering involves attributing to the objectified other a difference that serves to legitimate her oppression, saming denies the objectified other the right to her difference, submitting the other to the laws of phallic specularity. If othering assumes that the other is knowable, saming precludes any knowledge of the other in her otherness. If exposing the logic of othering—whether it be of women, Jews, or any other victims of demeaning stereotyping—is a necessary step in achieving equality, exposing the logic of saming is a necessary step in toppling the universal from his/(her) pedestal.

Since othering and saming conspire in the oppression of women, the workings of both processes need to be exposed. And yet to date the articulation of these two projects has proved an elusive, indeed insuperable task for feminist theoreticians, for just as Beauvoir's analysis precludes theorizing difference, or rather—and the distinction is crucial—difference as positivity, Irigaray's proves incapable of not theorizing difference, that is difference as positivity. One of the more awkward moments in Beauvoir comes in the closing pages of The Second Sex, when she seeks to persuade the reader that women's liberation will not signify a total loss of difference between men and women, for the entire weight of what precedes militates against theorizing a positive difference, indeed against grounding difference, since the body and the social have both been disqualified as sites of any meaningful sexual difference. Beauvoir gives herself away in these final pages when speaking of women's failure to achieve greatness in the world of intellect: “She can become an excellent theoretician, can acquire real competence, but she will be forced to repudiate whatever she has in her that is ‘different.’”27 Similarly, by relentlessly exposing the mechanisms of saming, the economy of what she calls the “echonomy” of patriarchy, Irigaray exposes herself to adopting a logic of othering, precisely what has been called—her protestations notwithstanding—her essentialism.28 What I am suggesting here is that each position has its own inescapable logic, and that that inescapability is the law of the same/other. If all difference is attributed to othering then one risks saming, and conversely: if all denial of difference is viewed as resulting in saming then one risks othering. In other words, it is as disingenuous to reproach Beauvoir with promoting the loss of difference between men and women as it is to criticize Irigaray for promoting, indeed theorizing that difference. And yet the logic I am trying to draw out of these two exemplary feminist discourses seems to have escaped Irigaray's most incisive critics, who have repeatedly sought to sever her brilliant exposure of the specular logic of phallocentrism from her theorization of a specifically feminine difference. Toril Moi's formulation is in this regard typical:

Having shown that so far femininity has been produced exclusively in relation to the logic of the same, she falls for the temptation to produce her own positive theory of femininity. But, as we have seen, to define “woman” is necessarily to essentialize her.29

My argument is a contrario: that Irigaray's production of a positive theory of femininity is not an aberration, a sin (to extend the theological metaphor), rather the logical extension of her deconstruction of the specular logic of saming. What is problematic about Irigaray's theorization of the feminine—which, it should be pointed out, is in fact only one aspect or moment of her work—is indicated by Moi's use of the word “positive.” For finally the question posed by Irigaray's attempts to theorize feminine specificity—which is not to be confused with “defining” woman, a task she writes is better left to men—is the question of the difference within difference. Irigaray's wager is that difference can be reinvented, that the bogus difference of misogyny can be reclaimed to become a radical new difference that would present the first serious historical threat to the hegemony of the male sex. Irigaray's wager is that there is a (lalune femme) woman in femininity: “Beneath all those/her appearances, beneath all those/her borrowed finery, that female other still subsists. Beyond all those/her forms of life and death, still she is living.”30 Mimesis is the term Irigaray appropriates from the vocabulary of philosophy to describe her strategy, transforming woman's masquerade, her so-called femininity into a means of reappropriating the feminine:

One must assume the feminine role deliberately. Which means already to convert a form of subordination into an affirmation, and thus to begin to thwart it. … To play with mimesis is thus, for a woman, to try to recover the place of her exploitation by discourse, without allowing herself to be simply reduced to it. It means to resubmit herself—inasmuch as she is on the side of the “perceptible,” of “matter”—to “ideas,” in particular to ideas about herself that are elaborated in/by a masculine logic, but so as to make “visible,” by an effect of playful repetition, what was supposed to remain invisible: the cover-up of a possible operation of the feminine in language. It also means to “unveil” the fact that, if women are such good mimics, it is because they are not simply resorbed in this function. They also remain elsewhere.31

Mimesis (mimétisme) in Irigaray has been widely and correctly interpreted as describing a parodic mode of discourse designed to deconstruct the discourse of misogyny through effects of amplification and rearticulation that work, in Mary Ann Doane's words, to “enact a defamiliarized version of femininity.”32 But there is yet another aspect of mimesis—a notoriously polysemic term33—that has been largely misread, and even repressed, because it involves a far more controversial and riskier operation, a transvaluation rather than a repudiation of the discourse of misogyny, an effort to hold onto the baby while draining out the bath-water. For example, in Le Corps-à-corps avec la mère, Irigaray writes: “We are historically the guardians of the corporeal, we must not abandon this charge but identify it as ours, by inviting men not to make of us their body, a guarantee of their body.”34 Irigaray's use of the word mimesis mimes her strategy, bodies forth her wager, which might be described as an instance of what Derrida has termed paleonymy: “the occasional maintenance of an old name in order to launch a new concept.”35 In the specific context of feminism, the old mimesis, sometimes referred to as masquerade, names women's alleged talents at parroting the master's discourse, including the discourse of misogyny. At a second level, parroting becomes parody, and mimesis signifies not a deluded masquerade but a canny mimicry. Finally, in the third meaning of mimesis I am attempting to tease out of Irigaray's writings, mimesis comes to signify difference as positivity, a joyful reappropriation of the attributes of the other that is not in any way to be confused with a mere reversal of the existing phallocentric distribution of power. For Irigaray, as for other new French antifeminists, reversal—the coming into power of women that they view as the ultimate goal of American-style feminists—leaves the specular economy she would shatter in place. The mimesis that lies beyond masquerade and mimicry—a more essential mimesis, as it were, a mimesis that recalls the original Platonic mimesis—does not signify a reversal of misogyny but an emergence of the feminine, and the feminine can only emerge from within or beneath—to extend Irigaray's archeological metaphor—femininity, within which it lies buried. The difference within mimesis is the difference within difference.


Est-ce qu'il n'y a pas une fluidité, quelque déluge, qui pourrait ébranler cet ordre social?

—Irigaray, Corps-à-corps

Où sont, au présent, les fluides?

—Irigaray, L'Oubli de l'air

Few claims Irigaray has made for feminine specificity have aroused more virulent accusations of essentialism than her “outrageous” claim that woman enjoys a special relationship with the fluid. One of the earliest such assertions occurs in This Sex Which Is Not One, where in the heyday of écriture féminine Irigaray characterizes both women's writing and speech as fluid. “And yet that woman-thing speaks. But not ‘like,’ not ‘the same,’ not ‘identical with itself’ nor to any x, etc. … It speaks ‘fluid.’”36

So uncomfortable has this assertion made certain feminist theoreticians that they have rushed to ascribe it to Irigarayan mimicry as ironic distancing rather than to the positive form of mimesis I have delineated above:

Her association of femininity with what she refers to as the “real properties of fluids”—internal frictions, pressures, movement, a specific dynamics which makes a fluid nonidentical to itself—is, of course, merely an extension and a mimicking of a patriarchal construction of femininity.37

And yet as Irigaray's linking up of feminine fluidity with flux, nonidentity, proximity, etc., indicates, the fluid is highly valorized in her elemental philosophy: “Why is setting oneself up as a solid more worthwhile than flowing as a liquid from between the two [lips]”;38My life is nothing but the mobile flexibility, tenderness, uncertainty of the fluid.”39

Where then does this notion of the fluidity of the feminine, when not the femininity of the fluid, come from? Undeniably it is appropriated from the repertory of misogyny: “Historically the properties of fluids have been abandoned to the feminine.”40 What is worse, for the antiessentialists, it appears to emanate from an unproblematized reading out of the female body in its hormonal instanciation. It is, indeed, triply determined by female physiology:

The anal stage is already given over to the pleasure of the “solid.” Yet it seems to me that the pleasure of the fluid subsists, in women, far beyond the so-called oral stage: the pleasure of “what's flowing” within her, outside of her, and indeed among women.41

The marine element is thus both the amniotic waters … and it is also, it seems to me, something which figures quite well feminine jouissance.42

The ontological primacy of woman and the fluid are for her one of the represseds of patriarchal metaphysics; the forgetting of fluids participates in the matricide that according to Irigaray's myth of origins founds Western culture: “He begins to be in and thanks to fluids.”43 Unquestionably then Irigaray's linking up of the fluid and the feminine rests on a reference to the female body.44

The antiessentialist would stop here, dismiss Irigaray's claims as misguided and turn away—and few of Irigaray's sharpest critics have bothered with the work published after 1977, which is to say the bulk of her writing.45 In so doing they miss another and equally troublesome, but ultimately more interesting aspect of her work. And that is her reliance on the universe of science, notably physics (but also chemistry to the extent that the borders between them cannot always be clearly drawn), which enjoys a strange and largely unexamined privilege in Irigaray's conceptual universe.46 Indeed, in her writings on the repressed feminine element of water, the referential reality that Irigaray most ardently invokes to ground her assertions is not so much physiological as physical; it is on the rock of materialism and not of essentialism that Irigaray seeks to establish the truth of her claim. Thus, in an essay entitled “The Language of Man,” she writes: “But still today this woma(e)n's language [langage de(s) femme(s)] is censured, repressed, ignored … even as the science of the dynamic of fluids already provides a partial interpretation of it.”47 The real in Irigaray is neither impossible, nor unknowable: it is the fluid. Thus, further in the same essay, Irigaray insistently associates the fluid and the real, speaking of “the real of the dynamic of fluids” and “an economy of real fluids.48 Two remarks are in order here: first, given all that I have said before, this new criticism of Irigaray may appear curious. But my desire in this essay is neither to “defend” Irigaray nor promote essentialism, but rather to dehystericize the debate, to show how the obsessive focus on what is so loosely termed the biological has worked to impoverish the reading of as challenging and ambitious a thinker as is Irigaray. Second, there is, on the other hand, nothing particularly surprising from the perspective of antiessentialism about the complicity of essentialism and scientism, in that both imply at least at some level a fundamental materialism. But because of the red flag (when it is not a red herring) of essentialism, the question of Irigaray's materialism is never really addressed. It is as though certain feminists were more comfortable evacuating the body from the precincts of high theory—thereby, of course, reinforcing the very hierarchies they would dismantle—than carefully separating out what belongs to the body and what to the world of matter.

To say that science enjoys a special status in Irigaray's writings is not to say that science, the master discourse of our age, has escaped Irigaray's feminist critique. It has not. Laughter and anger are Irigaray's reactions to the supposed neutrality of scientific language, a form of writing that, like all writing, is inflected by gender but that, more so than any other, disclaims subjectivity. Science's failure to acknowledge the gendering of language results in its failures to adequately theorize that which it aligns with the feminine, notably the elements, notably the liquid. Thus, in “The ‘Mechanics’ of Fluids,” Irigaray takes “science” to task for its failure to elaborate a “theory of fluids.” And yet, in some of her more recent writings, while remaining highly critical of the ideology of science, she constantly invokes scientific theories as models, analoga for female sexuality. For example: rejecting as more adequate to male than to female sexuality the thermodynamic principles that underlie Freud's theory of libido, Irigaray writes:

Feminine sexuality could perhaps better be brought into harmony if one must evoke a scientific model—with what Prigogine calls “dissipating” structures that operate via the exchange with the external world, structures that proceed through levels of energy. The organizational principle of these structures has nothing to do with the search for equilibrium but rather with the crossing of thresholds. This would correspond to a surpassing of disorder or entropy without discharge.49

Similarly, later in the same essay Irigaray suggests that recent work in physics as well as in linguistics might shed light on the specificities of women's relationship to enunciation: “Some recent studies in discourse theory, but in physics as well, seem to shed light upon the locus from which one could or could not situate oneself as a subject of language production.”50 Whatever her questions to the scientists, and some of them—as in “Is the Subject of Science Sexed?”—are impertinent, Irigaray repeatedly attempts to anchor the truth of her theories in the latest scientific knowledge. She knows that scientific discourse is not neutral, but nevertheless she looks to it as the ultimate source of legitimation. Science is Irigaray's fetish.

Why then is science, and especially physics, privileged in Irigaray's writings? The answer emerges from a consideration of the pivotal role of Descartes in Irigaray's writings. As Moi has noted, the Descartes chapter in Speculum is located at the “exact center of the ‘Speculum’ section (and of the whole book) … Descartes sinks into the innermost cavity of the book.”51 This chapter is, as Moi further remarks, traditional at least in its presentation of the subject of the Cogito: the “I” of the Cogito is self-engendered, constituted through a radical denial both of the other and of man's corporeal origins:

The “I” thinks, therefore this thing, this body that is also nature, that is still the mother, becomes an extension at the “I”'s disposal for analytical investigations, scientific projections, the regulated exercise of the imaginary, the utilitarian practice of technique.52

What is at stake here is the constitution of an ontology that excludes all considerations having to do with the physical world: “The same thing applies to the discussions of woman and women. Gynecology, dioptrics, are no longer by right a part of metaphysics—that supposedly unsexed anthropos-logos whose actual sex is admitted only by its omission and exclusion from consciousness, and by what is said in its margins.”53 How surprising then to discover in Ethique de la différence sexuelle another Descartes, a Descartes whose treatise on the passions of the soul contains the concept of admiration that fully realizes Irigaray's most cherished desire, the (re)connection of the body and the soul, the physical and the metaphysical:

We need to reread Descartes a little and remember or learn about the role of movement in the passions. We should also think about the fact that all philosophers—except for the most recent ones? and why is this so?—have always been physicists and have always supported or accompanied their metaphysical research with cosmological research. … This scission between the physical sciences and thought no doubt represents that which threatens thought itself.54

It is, then, in Descartes's treatise that Irigaray finds the alliance of the physical and the metaphysical, the material and the transcendental that represents for her the philosophical ideal. Little matter that in elaborating his notion of admiration Descartes does not have sexual difference in mind: “Sexual difference could be situated here. But Descartes doesn't think of it. He simply asserts that what is different attracts.”55

He does not differentiate the passions according to sexual difference. … On the other hand he places admiration first among the passions. Passion forgotten by Freud? Passion which holds open a path between physics and metaphysics, corporeal impressions and movements toward an object be it empirical or transcendental.56

Thus in Irigaray Descartes functions both as the philosopher who irrevocably sunders body from soul and the one who most brilliantly reunites them. Physics is here placed in service of Irigaray's radical materialism, her desire to return to a pre-Socratic (but also post-Nietzschean and Bachelardian) apprehension of the four generic elements as foundational, which is—I repeat—not the same thing as essentialism. But there is more: Irigaray's ultimate goal is not, so to speak, to put the physics back in metaphysics, but rather the ruining of the metaphysics of being through the substitution of a physics of the liquid for a physics of the solid. Heidegger names that moment in the history of philosophy when a possible questioning of the primacy of the solid remains earth-bound, grounded in the very soil of metaphysics. The ruining of metaphysics is bound up with an anamnesis, a remembering of the forgotten elements:

Metaphysics always supposes, somehow, a solid earth-crust, from which a construction may be raised. Thus a physics which privileges or at least has constituted the solid plane. … So long as Heidegger does not leave the earth, he does not leave metaphysics. Metaphysics does not inscribe itself either on/in water, on/in air, on/in fire. … And its abysses, both above and below, doubtless find their interpretation in the forgetting of the elements which don't have the same density. The end of metaphysics would be prescribed by their reinvention in contemporary physics?57

Finally, calling into question Irigaray's relationship to science returns us to the question of the institution, for what emerges from a reading of Parler n'est jamais neutre is that her interventions cannot be read without taking into account their institutional context. It is altogether striking in this regard to consider the difference between two of the most powerful essays in the volume, “The Poverty of Psychoanalysis” and “Is the Subject of Science Sexed?” In the first of these essays, where Irigaray's addressees are the male guardians of the (Lacanian) psychoanalytic institution, her tone is from the outset self-assured, truculent, outraged. How different is the tone of her speech to the scientists. Addressing the members of the “seminar on the history and sociology of scientific ideas and facts” of the University of Provence, Marseilles, Irigaray confesses to a rare attack of stage fright: “For a long time I have not experienced such difficulties with the notion of speaking in public,”58 she tells her audience. The problem is a problem of address: whereas the text to the analysts begins with a peremptory “Messieurs les analystes,” the speech to the scientists begins by interrogating the very act of address: “How does one talk to scientists?”59

Standing before the scientists, Irigaray stands like a woman from the country before the law:

Anxiety in the face of an absolute power floating in the air, of an authoritative judgment: everywhere, yet imperceptible, of a tribunal, which in its extreme case has neither judge, nor prosecutor, nor accused. But the judicial system is in place. There is a truth there to which one must submit without appeal, against which one can commit violations … unwillingly or unknowingly. The supreme instance is exercised against your will.60

According to Derrida's reading of Kafka's parable there is no essential difference between the man from the country and the guardians of the law. Their positions in regard to the law are opposite but symmetrical: “The two protagonists are both attendant to the law but opposing one another.” writes Derrida.61 But what if the man from the country is replaced by a woman? Is there no essential difference between the woman from the country, here the feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray, and the guardians of the law, in this instance the scientists whose faculty is to a very large extent hegemonic in our universities today?62 If the man from the country is replaced by a woman, can one so easily speak of positions that are opposite and symmetrical without risking relapsing into a logic of saming, precisely what Irigaray has called an “old dream of symmetry”?

There can be no easy answers to these questions, which are immensely complicated by the very powerful interpretation Derrida has advanced of the law in Kafka's parable. If, however, Irigaray can be taken here as exemplifying the feminist intervention in the institution, then one can, however tentatively, discern the difference that women's studies can make: for instead of simply addressing the guardians of the law—if indeed any address is ever simple—Irigaray transforms the very conditions of the law's production and enforcement. In raising the question of the gender of the producers of knowledge, women's studies always involves a radical questioning of the conditions of the production and dissemination of knowledge, of the constitution of the disciplines, of the hierarchical ordering of the faculties within the institution. Further, by allying herself with the most radical elements in science, Irigaray points the way to what, paraphrasing Prigogine—who borrows the phrase from Jacques Monod—we might call a “new alliance” between women's studies and the law, one that would go beyond mere opposition. In other words, it is finally by insisting on the dissymmetry of the positions occupied by the guardians and the woman from the country in regard to the law that women's studies, at least in its “utopian horizon,” can never be “just another cell in the University beehive.”


  1. Jacques Derrida, “Women in the Beehive: A Seminar with Jacques Derrida,” in Alice Jardine and Paul Smith, eds., Men in Feminism (New York: Methuen, 1987), p. 190. When it was originally published in the Brown student journal subjects/objects (Spring 1984), pp. 5-19, in keeping with Derrida's wishes, the transcript of the seminar was prefaced by a cautionary disclaimer (reprinted in Men in Feminism), which I want to echo, emphasizing the text's undecidable status “somewhere between speech and writing,” “authorized but authorless” (p. 189). All references will be to the reprinted version of the text.

  2. Ibid., p. 190.

  3. Ibid., p. 191.

  4. Ibid., p. 190.

  5. Ibid., pp. 191-192; emphasis added.

  6. I refer here in turn to Teresa Brennan, ed., Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1989), and Diana Fuss, Essentially Speaking (New York: Routledge, 1989), which started out as a dissertation at Brown University. The keynote to this new deal for essentialism was perhaps sounded in the footnote to a paper given at a recent feminist conference by Mary Russo, who writes: “The dangers of essentialism in posing the female body, whether in relation to representation or to ‘women's history’ have been well stated, so well stated, in fact, that anti-essentialism may well be the greatest inhibition to work in cultural theory and politics at the moment, and must be displaced” (Feminist Studies/Critical Studies, ed. Teresa de Lauretis [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986], p. 228; emphasis added).

  7. William J. Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion: Eastern and Western Thought (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1980), p. 155.

  8. Repeatedly in the course of an interview with James Creech, Peggy Kamuf, and Jane Todd, Derrida insists on the plural of deconstruction: “I don't think that there is something like one deconstruction”; “… it is difficult to define the one deconstruction [la déconstruction]. … Personally I would even say that its best interests are served by keeping that heterogeneity” (“Deconstruction in America: An Interview with Jacques Derrida,” Critical Exchange [Winter 1985], 17: 4, 6). Finally he concludes that it is more accurate to speak of deconstructions than a singular deconstruction.

  9. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. H. M. Parshley (New York: Vintage, 1974), p. 301.

  10. Jacques Lacan, Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the école freudienne, ed. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose, trans. Jacqueline Rose (New York: Norton, 1982), p. 144.

  11. Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984); de Lauretis, Feminist Studies/Critical Studies.

  12. There is an extreme form of antiessentialism, a candidate for a fifth critique, that argues that the replacement of woman by women does not solve but merely displaces the problem of essentialism. This is the position represented by Denise Riley, who suggests, in a chapter entitled “Does Sex Have a History?”: “Not only ‘woman’ but also ‘women’ is troublesome. … We can't bracket off either ‘Woman,’ whose capital letter alerts us to her dangers, or the more modest lower-case ‘woman,’ while leaving unexamined the ordinary, innocent-sounding ‘women’” (Am I That Name? Feminism and the Category of “Women” in History [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988], p. 1). Cf. Donna Haraway, who, in her “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,” remarks: “It is no accident that woman disintegrates into women in our time” (Socialist Review [1985], 80:79; emphasis added). This is perhaps the place to comment on a critique whose conspicuous absence will surely surprise some: a modern Marxist critique of essentialism. I emphasize the word modern because of course Beauvoir's critique of essentialism in The Second Sex is heavily indebted to the Marxism she then espoused. Though the writings of Louis Althusser and Pierre Macherey, to cite the major Marxist theoreticians contemporaneous with Lacan and Derrida, inform some pioneering studies of female-authored fictions, they have not to my knowledge generated a critique of essentialism distinct from the critiques already outlined. This seeming absence or failure of a strong recent Marxist critique of essentialism is all the more surprising, as clearly the critique of essentialism was at the outset appropriated by Beauvoir (and others) from Marxism. If Riley's book and Haraway's article are at this point in time the only articulation we have of a postmodernist Marxist critique of essentialism, then it might be said that for them the essentialist is one who has not read history.

  13. Ironically, in rejecting the ideal of a universal subject in favor of a subject marked by the feminine, Irigaray has, like other bourgeois white feminists, only managed to relocate universality, to institute a new hegemony. The question that arises is: How theorize a subjectivity that does not reinscribe the universal, that does not constitute itself by simultaneously excluding and incorporating others?

  14. For Irigaray on Beauvoir, see “A Personal Note: Equal or Different?” in Je, tu, nous, pp. 9-14/pp. 9-15. Unfortunately, this text appeared too late to be taken into account in this article. It sets forth in unusually personal terms the differences between Beauvoir's feminism of equality and Irigaray's feminism of difference.

  15. Beauvoir, The Second Sex, p. xix.

  16. Irigaray, Speculum, p. 133/p. 165.

  17. Beauvoir, The Second Sex, p. xxxiii.

  18. Ibid., p. 798.

  19. Irigaray, “L'Ordre sexuel du discours,” Langages (March 1987), 85:83.

  20. Nancy K. Miller, “Changing the Subject: Authorship, Writing, and the Reader,” in de Lauretis, Feminist Studies/Critical Studies, pp. 102-120.

  21. Irigaray, Passions élémentaires, p. 101.

  22. Irigaray, Corps-à-corps, pp. 63-64.

  23. Irigaray, Parler n'est jamais neutre, p. 9.

  24. Irigaray, Corps-à-corps, pp. 63-64.

  25. Beauvoir, The Second Sex, p. 793.

  26. Pratt, “Scratches on the Face of the Country: or, What Mr. Barrow Saw in the Land of the Bushmen,” in Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ed., “Race,” Writing, and Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 139.

  27. Beauvoir, The Second Sex, p. 788.

  28. Irigaray's most explicit rejection of essentialism occurs in the “Veiled Lips” section of Marine Lover, where she writes: “She does not set herself up as one, as a (single) female unit. She is not closed up or around [se referme sur ou dans] one single truth or essence. The essence of a truth remains foreign to her. She neither has nor is a being” (p. 86/p. 92). Irigaray's best defense against essentialism is the defiant plurality of the feminine; there can be no essence in a conceptual system that is by definition antiunitary.

  29. Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics (London: Methuen, 1985), p. 139.

  30. Irigaray, Marine Lover, p. 118/Amante marine, p. 126.

  31. Irigaray, This Sex, p. 76/Ce sexe, pp. 73-74.

  32. Mary Ann Doane, The Desire to Desire: The Woman's Film of the 1940s (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), p. 182.

  33. See Paul Ricoeur, “Mimesis and Representation,” Annals of Scholarship (1981), 2: 15-32. Irigaray gives this polysemy full play, reminding us for example in a passage of This Sex that in Plato mimesis is double: “There is mimesis as production, which would lie more in the realm of music, and there is the mimesis that would be already caught up in a process of initiation, specularization, adequation and reproduction. It is the second form that is privileged throughout the history of philosophy. … The first form seems always to have been repressed. … Yet it is doubtless in the direction of, and on the basis of, that first mimesis that the possibility of women's writing may come about” (p. 131/pp. 129-130). The question is, to paraphrase Yeats: How can you tell mimesis from mimesis?

  34. Irigaray, Corps-à-corps, p. 29.

  35. Derrida, Positions, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), p. 71.

  36. Irigaray, This Sex, p. 111/Ce sexe, p. 109.

  37. Doane, The Desire to Desire, p. 104; emphasis added.

  38. Irigaray, Elemental Passions, p. 15-16/Passions élémentaires, p. 18.

  39. Ibid., p. 28.

  40. Irigaray, This Sex, p. 116/Ce sexe, p. 113.

  41. Irigaray, This Sex, p. 140/Ce sexe, p. 137.

  42. Irigaray, Corps-à-corps, p. 49

  43. Irigaray, L'Oubli de l'air, p. 36.

  44. In a brilliantly turned defense of Irigaray against her antiessentialist critics, Jane Gallop cautions us against “too literal a reading of Irigarayan anatomy” (“Lip Service,” in Thinking through the Body [New York: Columbia University Press, 1988], p. 94). For example, when Irigaray speaks of the plural lips of the female sex, the word she uses, lèvres, is a catachresis, an obligatory metaphor that effectively short-circuits the referential reading of the text: “Irigaray embodies female sexuality in that which, at this moment in the history of the language, is always figurative, can never be simply taken as the thing itself” (p. 98). As brilliant as are Gallop's arguments against a naively referential reading of the Irigarayan textual body, in the end she recognizes that “the gesture of a troubled but nonetheless insistent referentiality” is essential to Irigaray's project of constructing a “non-phallomorphic sexuality” (p. 99).

  45. It is no accident that one of the most thoughtful and balanced recent articles on Irigaray is one based on a reading of her complete works and not, as many (though not all) of the highly critical analyses, merely on the works currently available in translation; see Margaret Whitford, “Speaking as a Woman: Luce Irigaray and the Female Imaginary,” Radical Philosophy (1986), 43: 3-8.

  46. On this point I would want to qualify Whitford's assessment of the place of science in Irigaray's discourse: “Her account of Western culture runs something like this. Our society is dominated by a destructive imaginary (whose apotheosis is the ideology of science elevated to the status of a privileged truth)” (“Luce Irigaray and the Female Imaginary,” p. 5). My claim is that while condemning the imperialism of a neutered science, a science cut off from the life-giving female body, and which threatens us with “the many forms that destruction takes in our world” (Ethics, p. 5/Ethique, p. 13; cf. the pronounced ecological strain in Luce Irigaray, “Equal to Whom?” trans. Robert L. Mazzola, differences [Summer 1989], 1(2): 59-76), Irigaray continues to look to science as a locus of “privileged truth.”

  47. Irigaray, Parler n'est jamais neutre, pp. 290-291; see also p. 289.

  48. Ibid., p. 291.

  49. Irigaray, “Is the Subject of Science Sexed?” p. 81; emphasis added. The reference here is to the Nobel prize-winning research by Ilya Prigogine on dissipative structures. For more on Prigogine's theories, whose influence on Irigaray has been significant, see Prigogine and Stengers. Shortly after I first presented this article I received a letter from Katherine Hayles telling me that, working out of the perspective of the relationship of modern literature and science, she had been struck “by certain parallels between the new scientific paradigms and contemporary feminist theory,” notably that of Irigaray. I am most grateful to her for this precious confirmation of my argument.

  50. “Is the Subject of Science Sexed?” p. 86; emphasis added.

  51. Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics, p. 131.

  52. Irigaray, Speculum, p. 186/p. 232.

  53. Ibid., p. 183.

  54. Irigaray, Ethics, p. 72/ Ethique de la différence sexuelle, p. 75.

  55. Ibid., p. 81.

  56. Ibid., p. 84.

  57. Irigaray, L'Oubli de l'air, p. 10.

  58. Irigaray, Parler n'est jamais neutre, p. 74.

  59. Ibid., p. 73.

  60. Ibid., p. 308.

  61. Derrida, “Devant la loi,” trans. Avital Ronell, in Alan Udoff, ed., Kafka and the Contemporary Critical Performance: Centenary Readings (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), p. 139.

  62. The question of gender is raised by Derrida in his reading, but not as regards the “two protagonists.” For Derrida what is problematic is the gender of the law, in German das Gesetz (neutral), in French la loi (feminine) (“Devant la loi,” p. 142).

Penelope Deutscher (review date spring 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2004

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 readings of Irigaray's early works, such as Speculum of the Other Woman (1985a) and This Sex Which Is Not One (1985b). But as Schor says, Irigaray's readers have become increasingly sophisticated (Schor 1994, 5, 11). Has there been another contemporary woman philosopher whose work has incited the same degree of diversity, intricacy, and frequently high quality of engagement from some of the most significant contemporary Anglo-American women theorists? These include many of those included in the Engaging anthology (Grosz, Butler, Schor, and Whitford), or discussed in it (Gallop, Fuss, Moi, Cornell, Spivak, Young) and the many theorists publishing new work on Irigaray, such as Tina Chanter (1995). Among the most interesting aspects of Irigaray's corpus is the elaborate secondary literature it has provoked. In the words of Whitford, “Irigaray will be as ‘strong’ as we can make her” (Whitford 1994b, 19). It is a good strategy to negotiate the strongest interpretations of innovative women philosophers. The few in the tradition have often received the weakest possible interpretations.

The irony is that all the while, Irigaray's work has been losing its sophistication, provoking considerable tension between Irigaray and many of her interlocutors. Few of the above commentators have engaged substantially with works such as Je, tu, nous (1993) and Thinking the Difference (1994), response to which has not been enthusiastic. The most recent examples of this work are Être Deux (1997) and the new translation of J'aime à toi,I Love to You (Irigaray 1996a).

Crucial to the shaping of relations between the sexes, argues Irigaray in I Love to You, is a reshaping of sexuate identity. Irigaray emphasizes the four domains that require reshaping so as to provoke an evolution toward a culture of sexual difference: law, language, religion, and love. A good reading of I Love to You will situate the work as an intervention into Hegel on natural immediacy, negativity, the master-slave dialectic, absolute spirit and civil law; yet unlike many of Irigaray's earlier flings with the great philosophers of the canon, this one does not closely occupy the Hegelian texts she references.

One of the best features of Irigaray's earlier encounters with figures such as Plato, Descartes, Freud, and Nietzsche was the complexity with which she staged a female voice articulating the exclusion of possibilities for itself, by occupying philosophical systems that sustained such exclusion. This is brilliant work partly because of the success with which heterogeneity of voice between Irigaray and these systems is philosophically staged. In her recent work, by contrast, while Irigaray speaks to an ideal of cultural heterogeneity, one senses that she does so in lieu of finding means sufficiently complex to enact that heterogeneity. Carolyn Burke has said that Irigaray seems to have set aside her stylistic experiments, her enigmatic work in language, turning to a “prophetic voice, one that spells out its vision rather than trying to enact it” (Burke 1994, 257).1

I Love to You is an excellent example of these recent Irigarayan directions. Although this new work has been described as Irigaray's gambit to appeal to a wider audience (Burke 1994, 257), it isolates her from many of her commentators, despite the pains Whitford takes in the Engaging anthology to offer a strong interpretation of this material (Whitford 1994a).

For her part, Irigaray declares that some of her critics applauded her when she dismantled masculine culture but they retained only the deconstructive aspect of that work and never followed the more constructive aspects of her project (Irigaray 1996b, 231). This raises intriguing questions about what obligations Irigaray's interlocutors may bear. Irigaray criticizes those she believes prefer the deconstructive over the constructive. But she also criticizes them for failing to accompany and comprehend her (Irigaray 1996b, 231). What status is attributed to the commentator under these circumstances? It is a stereotype of the female philosophical commentator that her talent is to reproduce dutifully or to follow. The status of the philosophical work performed by Irigaray's commentators should be reconsidered.

In suggesting that Irigaray's readers have engaged in a project of “making strong,” surely Whitford is also questioning the clarity of the boundary lines between interpreter and object of interpretation. To take one example, in an Anglophone context, theorists such as Gallop (1988), Grosz (1989; 1994), Diprose (1994), and Kirby (1991; 1997) have generated extremely rich positions designated as the philosophy—or feminism—of embodiment.2 A key reference for this project has been Irigaray's work, as Vicki Kirby makes clear in Telling Flesh:

My own work has “fastened upon” the biological body as a way to think through a différential logic … I engaged Irigaray's notion of the morphology of sexual difference … such is the implication of biology that Irigaray's “poétique du corps” might also be thought as biology rewriting itself.

(Kirby 1997, 158)

However, credit for the philosophical innovation can not be confined to Irigaray's work. Feminisms of embodiment have built up (and away from) Irigaray's project to generate complex positions on the “risk” of essentialism, theorizing the body as inscription (or “corporeography”). Such projects tell a great deal about the importance of Irigaray's work to feminist theorists of the 1980s and 1990s but the criterion of fidelity to the original is inappropriate to assess them. Increasingly, Irigaray is indicating the infidelity of many ostensibly faithful translations of and commentaries on her work. Is she failing to follow the more constructive aspects of her commentators' projects?

If Irigaray's newer work is provoking conflict over the obligations of her commentators, it also provokes questions about the limitations of certain philosophical modes. A considerable degree of repetition can be found in Irigaray's specific proposals for cultural change. The proposals for civic reform have been stated in more detailed form in Je, tu, nous and Thinking the Difference; the specific linguistic data presented in I Love to You are repeated in Le souffle des femmes (1996b), as are the proposals concerning the cultural importance of reshaping women's relationship to divinity. Irigaray cites lengthy passages from I Love to You in Être deux. One limitation of the philosophical mode of conveying a message is the potential for monotony. This is one reason to question Irigaray's presumption that many critics' resistance to her newer work is related to a preference for the deconstructive over the “creative.” Burke's concern that Irigaray is spelling out her vision in lieu of enacting it is understandable. The very creativity of Irigaray's work seems inhibited by the stylistic mode of “spelling out.”3

Furthermore, what sort of philosophical gesture is it to carry a message? To communicate one's message clearly in simple language may still be an excluding gesture, if one's project is premised on a conception of the role of the other as she or he who receives one's message. Whitford has written that Irigaray's efforts to open up dialogue with other women run the risk of sounding like monologue (Whitford 1991, 12). It is because of this risk that the strategy of apparent inclusiveness is extraordinarily disappointing—and deceptive—in the recent work.

The problem is not simplicity of language in itself but a dominance of the language of the lesson, of teaching, of necessary tasks; declarations of duty and what culture needs; and a drowning out of the different priorities, politics, concerns and culture of Irigaray's diverse readers. In “La redemption des femmes,” Irigaray explains that her Roman Catholic background gave her a personal imperative to reformulate concepts of becoming divine. But no one, she continues, can avoid this question, because we have inherited a culture dominated by the concept of a masculine God and the Holy Trinity (Irigaray 1996b, 212). Reshaping concepts of divinity is necessary for all men and women who are searching for their liberation (Irigaray 1996b, 185).

According to Irigaray, this emphasis has led many critics to brand her a traitor to the work of Speculum (Irigaray 1996b, 218). She suggests that her message has not significantly changed; and in the sense that continuities can be established between her latest and earliest work, this is true. But all this still begs the question of whether this debate concerns matters of aesthetic form alone. Irigaray also affirms that women need construction more than they need deconstruction (Irigaray 1996b, 232), again reinforcing the suggestion that resistance to the newer work arises because some of her readers stubbornly favor the latter.

The issue, however, is not whether continuities can be located across the Irigarayan corpus (they can), or whether the suggestion of a competition between the deconstructive and the constructive should be accepted (it should not). The main issue is the ethics of Irigaray's intellectual stance in her recent work, which interrelates strangely with the form of her writing. The declarative form of the “spelling-out” is connected to the dominance of a questionably didactic philosophical attitude pronouncing women's needs, which puts off many readers. In the mode of the speaker delivering the message, isn't the être-deux sacrificed to the mode of the one delivering content to the other, the recipient? It is hard to enjoy the aesthetic form of the recent work as much as the form of Speculum. But this raises interesting questions about the relationship between the form and the ethics of one's intellectual stance: as writer and as teacher, in relation to the other. Is one resisting the aesthetic form or the intellectual stance adopted by Irigaray in recent times when she takes on the writerly mode of instruction with a fairly conservative pedagogical model, the have I been properly understood?


  1. The appearance of Irigaray's Être deux (1997), may require some reconsideration of the position that she has set aside her stylistic experiments. Now the author is presented on the book jacket as a poet, in addition to her training in philosophy, linguistics, psychology and psychoanalysis. Two poetic pieces constitute the prologue and epilogue to the book.

  2. See Kirby (1991) in the Hypatia Special Issue: Feminism and the body, as well as other articles therein.

  3. Apart from the prologue and epilogue of Être deux, the stylistic form of the main work remains close to that of I Love to You.


Burke, Carolyn. 1994. “Translation Unmodified: Irigaray in English.” In Engaging with Irigaray, ed. Carolyn Burke, Naomi Schor and Margaret Whitford.

Burke, Carolyn, Naomi Schor and Margaret Whitford, eds. 1994. Engaging with Irigaray. New York: Columbia University Press.

Chanter, Tina. 1995. Ethics of Eros: Irigaray's Rewriting of the Philosophers. New York: Routledge.

Diprose, Rosalyn. 1994. The Bodies of Women: Ethics, Embodiment and Sexual Difference. New York: Routledge.

Gallop, Jane. 1988. Thinking through the Body. New York: Columbia University Press.

Grosz, Elizabeth. 1989. Sexual Subversions: Three French Feminists. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

———. 1994. Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

Irigaray, Luce. 1985a. Speculum of the Other Woman. Trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

———. 1985b. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

———. 1993. Je, tu, nous: Toward a Culture of Sexual Difference. Trans. Alison Martin. New York: Routledge.

———. 1994. Thinking the Difference: For a Peaceful Revolution. Trans. Karen Montin. New York: Routledge.

———. 1996a. I Love to You: Sketch of a Possible Felicity in History. Trans. Alison Martin. New York: Routledge.

———. (ed). 1996b. Le souffle des femmes. Paris: ACGF.

———. 1997. Être deux. Paris: Grasset.

Kirby, Vicki. 1991. “Corporeal Habits: Addressing Essentialism Differently.” Hypatia 6(3): 4-24.

———. 1997. Telling Flesh: The Substance of the Corporeal. New York: Routledge.

Schor, Naomi. 1994. “Previous Engagements: The Receptions of Irigaray.” In Engaging with Irigaray. See Burke, Schor and Whitford 1994.

Whitford, Margaret, ed. 1991. Introduction. The Irigaray Reader. Cambridge MA: Basil Blackwell.

———. 1994a. “Irigaray, Utopia and the Death Drive.” In Engaging with Irigaray. See Burke, Schor and Whitford 1994.

———. 1994b. “Reading Irigaray in the Nineties.” In Engaging with Irigaray. See Burke, Schor and Whitford 1994.

Richard Dellamora (essay date winter 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8699

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, revelations occur in the reports of sex scandals in the late-Victorian press. More generally, “Revelations” refers to the vision of existence as the battle of the sexes, a battle that both in the book of Revelation and in general usage can characterize any struggle that is seen in globalizing terms. The following essay focuses on apocalyptic rhetoric in the writing of Luce Irigaray, a leading feminist, writer, and theorist. One might ask by what token a writer like myself, who has written primarily about desire between men, addresses Irigaray's interest in male-female relations, but if we look for a moment longer at Wilde's text, an answer may be forthcoming. The lines I cite occur in the first act of Wilde's play A Woman of No Importance (1893). The first sentence is spoken by Lord Illingworth, the male protagonist, dandy, and villain of the piece. The focus of attention in act 1 is his decision to hire a young male secretary. This act implicitly puts in question both the routes of class mobility for attractive young men in a hierarchical social order and prompts a post-Wildean, post-Freudian listener to wonder just what interest(s) Illingworth may be pursuing. Illingworth's elusive desires indicate that sexual and emotional ties between males are implicated in what Irigaray describes as “the amorous economy between men and women” just as those “between women” are, for that matter (Elemental Passions 3).

The second line is spoken by Mrs. Allonby but is most apropos Illingworth's antagonist in the play, Mrs. Arbuthnot, the person whom Wilde, in a phrase that Irigaray could use to sum up the place of woman in Western culture, refers to as A Woman of No Importance. Mrs. Arbuthnot's position exemplifies what Irigaray sees as the situation of woman. Because of her locus within male exchange,

Woman is submitted to all kinds of trials: she undergoes multiple and contradictory identifications, she suffers transformations of which she is not aware, since she has no identity, especially no divine identity, which could be perfected in love. Quite apart from an explicit violence on the part of men, … woman is subjected to a loss of identity which turns love into a duty, a pathology, an alienation for her.

(Elemental Passions 2)

In Wilde's play, Mrs. Arbuthnot becomes a focus of pathos because of her painful self-division. Early in life, she identified herself through an illicit passion with the aristocrat Illingworth, who threw her over after she became pregnant. In the play, he returns to take from her the son to whose existence she has sacrificed the remainder of her life. The potential scandal of the revelation of her abandonment by Illingworth drives the play's narrative: Will “Mrs.” Arbuthnot be exposed to further suffering as a mother out of wedlock? Will her son's prospects be ruined? Will Illingworth be driven from society as a result of the revelation of his crimes?

The passions and ethics of sexual exchanges between men exist in a general economy whose most characteristic feature is the male-female couple. For this reason, sexual dissidents of the fin de millénium, especially those who identify themselves as queer, in the sense of disidentification from the institution of heterosexuality rather than identification with subjects of same-sex desire, need to attend to Irigarayan apocalypse. For just as the Apocalypse of St. John ends with the mystic marriage of the Church and Christ (Rev. 21.2), Irigaray imagines, beyond the violence of sexual relations, a heretofore unrealized nuptials:

Women and men can only be wed beyond an already defined horizon. An other sunrise, an other relation between nature and culture, a new human identity, all this is necessary for both to agree to nuptials between microcosm, macrocosm and god(s).

(Elemental Passions 4)

In her writing of the 1980s, Irigaray frames the project of rehabilitating sexual relations in both ethical and apocalyptic terms. In view of her negative appraisal of normal sexuality, one would expect her to focus on same-sex relations, especially between women, as she did earlier ([This Sex Which Is Not One] 205-18, [“And the One Doesn't Stir without the Other”]).1 But in “The Fecundity of the Caress” and other texts such as Elemental Passions (1982; translated in 1992) and “Love between Us,” an address presented to a communist youth organization in Italy in 1989, Irigaray reimagines sexual intimacy between a man and a woman. She seeks to reinvent heterosexuality or, rather, to invent it, since she is best known for her earlier argument that what exists at present is not heterosexuality but hom(m)o-sexuality, a sexuality of the same under a masculine signifier (This Sex 171). The work of inventing heterosexuality has important implications for subjects of same-sex desire, since dissident sexualities are constituted in relation to normal processes of gender formation. The project matters to women, who are defined in relation to male needs and desires. In its most generous aspect, moreover, Irigaray aims to enable the agency of straight-identified men, whose capacities are curtailed by a formation of gender that compels identification with a masculine ideal of the subject.2

As though the project of inventing heterosexuality were not challenging enough, in this essay I make it yet more so by situating it in relation to male poststructuralist theory in France, both straight-and gay-identified, in the writing of Emmanuel Levinas and Michel Foucault, respectively.3 In doing so, I emphasize linkages between sexual politics and political history. I argue that the texts by Irigaray that I mention above are prophetic not only in reinventing intimacy but in positing the possibility of an existence beyond the rigidities and suppressions of Cold War thinking. Since the texts were written during the period of neoconservative ascendancy associated with the names of Presidents Reagan and Bush, Irigaray's ability to envisage a transformation in gender relations is yet more remarkable. At the same time, what I refer to in conclusion as the rhetorical schizophrenia of these texts, even at their most visionary moments, suggests the difficult honesty with which Irigaray imagines a world otherwise. I take my license for expanding the discussion in this way from Irigaray, who poses a feminist ethic in dialogue with Levinas and who, in the Italian address, reminds her listeners that Hegel finds the origin of the master-slave dialectic not in political but in domestic economy (“Love between Us” 167-68).

Apocalypse in “The Fecundity of the Caress” is usually double: figuring in the first instance the violence done to women; in the second, imagining an intimacy that transcends this condition. In the title of the essay, Irigaray names as intertext “Phenomenology of Eros,” a section of Levinas's Totality and Infinity. The representations of violence and jouissance in her text call to mind the two terms of Levinas's title. Levinas uses totality to summarize the normal condition of human existence as a state of warfare: “Being reveals itself as war to philosophic thought; … war does not only affect it as the most patent fact, but as the very patency, or the truth, of the real.” This war exists in space and time; philosophically, it exists as the realm of being or ontology:

When the drapings of illusion burn war is produced as the pure experience of pure being. The ontological event that takes form in this black light is a casting into movement of beings hitherto anchored in their identity, a mobilization of absolutes, by an objective order from which there is no escape. The trial by force is the test of the real.

In turn, Levinas describes ontology as “the concept of totality, which dominates Western philosophy” (Totality 21).

To use Foucault's somewhat different terms, totality includes “the progress of consciousness, or the teleology of reason, or the evolution of human thought” (Archaeology 8). It includes democratic, fascist, and Marxist ideologies. At the date of publication of Totality and Infinity in French in 1961, the most obvious referent of “totality” was the Cold War, brought to crisis point that year in the Berlin blockade. Levinas's emphasis on ontology, however, also brings his view to bear on the individual and intersubjective concerns that preoccupy Irigaray in her critique of Western metaphysics. “Violence,” Levinas says,

does not consist so much in injuring and annihilating persons as in interrupting their continuity, making them play roles in which they no longer recognize themselves, making them betray not only commitments but their own substance, making them carry out actions that will destroy every possibility for action. Not only modern war but every war employs arms that turn against those who wield them. It establishes an order from which no one can keep his distance; nothing henceforth is exterior. War does not manifest exteriority and the other as other; it destroys the identity of the same.


Levinas's description of the subject of a split consciousness might easily refer to a French citizen in Occupied or Vichy France in the early 1940s. Equally, s/he might be the female schizophrenic who has been a frequent subject of Irigaray's studies and therapeutic practice.

Levinas turns to the male-female dyad in search of a “phenomenology of eros” that might make it possible to overcome totality. On the basis of the couple's intimacy, he posits not a new “real” but an apocalyptic horizon, which he calls an “eschatology of messianic peace” (22). His second term, “infinity,” refers to a horizon of as-yet unfulfilled human possibilities. Its temporal mode is the future. But this future, which encompasses the prospects of ethical existence, is not a telos or totality. In his words, “eschatology” is

a subjective and arbitrary divination of the future, the result of a revelation without evidences, tributary of faith. … Eschatology institutes a relation with being beyond the totality or beyond history, and not with being beyond the past and the present.


This infinity can be construed as synonymous with what Irigaray describes in the Italian address as a “History” in which nature and culture exist in transformed fashion (“Love between Us” 177). In Irigaray, however, Levinas's contrast between the “real” and “prophetic eschatology” is rhetorically refigured as a double apocalypse. Without losing sight of clinical experience, Irigaray poses a synechdochic figure of the “holocaust” of the female subject in a “wounding” intimacy that is in dynamic disequilibrium with the vision of a genuine because transvalued transcendence (“Fecundity” 217). This difficult situation is that of woman, poised between the schizophrenic condition that Irigaray argues attends the construction of gender and the possibility of inventing woman by becoming other.4

Levinas brings together on one level three different orders of experience: the philosophic; the political or historical; and the individual, inter-subjective, and ethical. The historical phenomenon that dominates his typology is what Foucault refers to as “the end of history” as experienced by the generation in France (and Belgium, Irigaray's country of origin) that experienced Nazi conquest in World War II (Death 174). Enslavement, shame, and alienation in Foucault, Levinas, and Irigaray continually, if obliquely, refer to this trauma. In France, disgrace is so encompassing a phenomenon that it was only after the end of the Cold War that it finally became possible, in spring 1994, to convict a Frenchman of crimes against humanity (Foucault and Deleuze 13; Riding). The master-slave dialectic in which French existence has been caught was briefly ruptured only when the first postwar generation reached the age of majority in May 1968. The texts by Irigaray that I consider in the following pages are all written in the shadow of the reassertion of order that followed the events of May.5

These texts acquire a new and different salience today, in what Thomas Friedman calls the “post-post-Cold War,” in which, he claims, the horizon of human possibility is, for the first time since 1945, actually open. In the media, this horizon is usually represented by the figure of barbarity, a regression to animality, allegorized in news accounts of events in places such as Bosnia, Algeria, Rwanda, or Haiti. In US domestic politics too, as the Christian right in the early 1990s gained control of the Republican Party at state and local levels, religious and ethnic divisions widened. In the words of Ralph Reed, the executive director of the Christian Coalition:

The old dichotomies of liberal-conservative, internationalist-isolationist, dove-hawk are breaking apart. There are some ideological categories being formed that don't have any history in the politics of the Cold War. The ends of wars don't bring stability. They bring chaos and recriminations. Postwar eras are periods of an enormous realigning of political lines.

(qtd. in Blumenthal 35)

For Reed, the new world order is one of universal warfare—or what Levinas refers to as totality. The portents of this apocalypse are particularly negative for women, people of color, industrial workers, the poor or otherwise disenfranchised, children, and sexual dissidents. Within this context Irigaray's effort, as she says, to reimagine “History” becomes yet more urgent (“Love between Us” 177).

Irigaray has successfully fought with philosophic tradition since the publication in France of Speculum of the Other Woman in 1974. In “The Fecundity of the Caress,” she adapts Levinas's preferred mode of exchange between “I” and “Thou,” “Self” and “Other.” I have already pointed out similarities in their presentations. But before Irigaray can enter Levinas's “peace,” she has to critique the phenomenology of the caress that under-girds it. For although Levinas seeks to transcend the battle of the sexes, Irigaray finds that his effort returns the couple to the totality from which he would like to rescue it. In her phrase, Levinas's “caress” opens onto “the wrong infinity” (“Fecundity” 204).

In “The Fecundity of the Caress,” Irigaray cites the opening sentences of “Phenomenology of Eros,” in which Levinas describes “the epiphany” of feminine difference in the experience of sexual intimacy between a man and a woman (203). Because, however, the other [l'autre] is masculine in French, the designation of the other as feminine is linguistically awkward. The difficulty is especially evident in the English translation, where the translator shifts between the masculine and feminine genders in the course of the paragraph. Despite possible ambiguity about the gender identification of lover and beloved, which Levinas plays on in a phrase that Irigaray cites (“the Beloved One, who is the Beloved Woman [l'Aimé qui est Aimée]”), the trajectory of Levinas's paragraph makes clear that the subject here is masculine, the object feminine:

Love aims at the Other; it aims at him in his frailty [faiblesse]. Frailty does not here figure the inferior degree of any attribute, the relative deficiency of a determination common to me and the other. Prior to the manifestation of attributes, it qualifies alterity itself. To love is to fear for another, to come to the assistance of his frailty. In this frailty as in the dawn rises the Loved, who is the Beloved. An epiphany of the Loved, the feminine is not added to an object and a Thou antecedently given or encountered in the neuter (the sole gender formal logic knows.) The epiphany of the Beloved is but one with her regime of tenderness. The way of the tender consists in an extreme fragility, a vulnerability. It manifests itself at the limit of being and non-being, as a soft warmth where being dissipates into radiance, like the “pale blush” of the nymphs in the Afternoon of a Faun, which “leaps in the air drowsy with thick slumbers,” dis-individualizing and relieving itself of its own weight of being, already evanescence and swoon, flight into self in the very midst of its manifestation. And in the flight the other is other, foreign to the world too coarse and too offensive for him.

(Totality 256)6

In the course of the passage, the subject of “Love,” who in the first sentence might be a woman, is disclosed to be a man. The object of love, “him in his frailty” in sentence one, ultimately comes to rest as woman in her frailty. According to Levinas, it is in the act of making love that the other is engendered as intrinsically feminine—not in or as herself but in her care of and for her male lover. This sexual engendering is necessary for the success of Levinas's larger project of converting totality into infinity. It is in the supportive and abstracted role of “tenderness” that woman opens the apocalyptic space of “the limit of being and non-being”—figured in the esthetic synaesthesia of the final sentences with their allusions not to women or women's culture but to “nymphs,” Mallarmé's modernist classic, and Debussy's impressionist music. “Alterity” in this key requires no other voice than that of the trio of male philosopher, poet, and composer. The “regime of tenderness” requires no tenderness of the masculine subject despite Levinas's concern to assure the reader that the process he here describes is one of reciprocal regard.

With this paragraph as point of departure, a feminist reader will not be surprised to learn that, as the section unfolds, it shows considerable anxiety to distinguish the caress from touch. The Beloved woman retains “the virginity, forever inviolate, of the feminine.” Intimacy, instead of rendering the couple more embodied, transcends the limitations of existence in time and space:

In the caress, a relation yet, in one aspect, sensible, the body already denudes itself of its very form, offering itself as erotic nudity. In the carnal given to tenderness, the body quits the status of existent. … The feminine essentially violable and inviolable, the “Eternal Feminine,” is the virgin or an incessant recommencement of virginity, the untouchable in the very contact of voluptuosity, future in the present.


Again, the feminine is associated with the infinite; it is “a fragility at the limit of non-being wherein is lodged not only what is extinguished and is no longer, but what is not yet.”

In the course of the essay, “Love” is revealed, increasingly, as Christian love, transcending sensation and the body, transubstantiating one order of existence into another, higher one. The ultimate sign of this order is, as in the New Testament, the s/Son or, in Levinas's word, “child.” The infinite is reduced to the material futurity (masculine signification and possession) of the child:

In this unparalleled conjuncture of identification [in the couple], in this trans-substantiation, the same and the other are not united but precisely—beyond every possible project, beyond every meaningful and intelligent power—engender the child.


As Irigaray argues in response, Levinas's goal of opening the erotic economy ends in the old economy of the same:

Revealed only in the son, fecundity continues to disguise itself as the fecundation of the lovers in difference. As the fruit of communion between lovers, male and female, the son becomes the male lover's ornament and display of the same as himself, the position of his identity in relation to, and through, paternity.

(“Fecundity” 202)

Countering the anxiety about the body shown by Levinas, Irigaray celebrates not female virginity but female touch:

Touching can also place a limit on the reabsorption of the other in the same. Giving the other her contours, calling her to them, amounts to inviting her to live where she is without becoming other, without appropriating herself.


Like Levinas, Irigaray calls her readers to an experience of intimacy that can make possible a utopian existence: “A revolution in thought and ethics is needed if the work of sexual difference is to take place” (“Sexual Difference” 6). Unlike Levinas, who reinscribes the metaphysics that he seeks to overcome, Irigaray's project envisages an existence beyond the end of history. Her wager is that, for us, the possibility of living differently necessitates rethinking and redoing the work of gender. As she says at the outset of An Ethics of Sexual Difference:

Sexual difference is one of the major philosophical issues, if not the issue, of our age. According to Heidegger, each age has one issue to think through, and one only. Sexual difference is probably the issue in our time which could be our “salvation” if we thought it through.


As the quotation marks indicate, transcendence in these terms would not be Christian transcendence, nor would fecundity be synonymous with biological reproduction:

Sexual difference would constitute the horizon of worlds more fecund than any known to date—at least in the West—and without reducing fecundity to the reproduction of bodies and flesh. For loving partners [of either or both sexes] this would be a fecundity of birth and regeneration, but also the production of a new age of thought, art, poetry, and language: the creation of a new poetics.


No one, however, is more aware than Irigaray how unlikely the prospect of such a Renaissance is.

In Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation, Jacques Ellul describes the representation of woman in the last book of the New Testament. First is “the great sign … in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon was under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars. And being with child, she cried out in her travail and was in the anguish of delivery” (Rev. 12.1-2). Ellul remarks that the figure of woman

engages us … in the plurality of symbolic meanings. She is, very obviously, first of all, the woman corresponding in heaven to Eve. … But in addition the woman is surely Zion and Israel, who engender the Messiah and the believers. Further, she is very clearly Mary; or rather, the celestial reduplication of Mary, mother of the little child.


In Irigarayan terms, this figure is woman completely subordinate to her role within the logocentric order. There is no possibility that she might exist for and in herself.

Within the context of Ellul's emphatically Incarnational reading of Apocalypse, the woman can be further generalized as the matter of creation, including the material of “man's” embodied existence. In this context, woman disappears in a fashion consistent with Irigarayan analysis. “We must not forget,” Ellul says,

that the Incarnation is the total union of the whole of man with the whole of God. In this perspective, the woman appears to me to be the image of the entire creation (of earth and heaven) in some way synthesized to produce the fruit of the most decisively intimate covenant of God with his creation. Then there can no longer be either opposition or rupture. But then the birth of the child is the result of this bringing together of the creation with its Creator.


Ellul transfers the function of engendering to male genealogy and culture, where it exists on the plane, at once sacred and profane, of the fulfillment of the “covenant” between God and the Children of Israel.

One of Irigaray's consistent themes has been the denial to women of their place in a divine genealogy. The representation of the destruction of the Whore of Babylon in chapters 17 and 18 of Apocalypse is an important site for, first, the inversion, then the erasure of women's history as goddesses, priestesses, and sacred prostitutes.7 The mystery of the virgin birth, for instance, occurs in the cults of the “harlot-priestesses, Ishtar, Asherah, or Aphrodite,” where

the title didn't mean physical virginity; it meant simply “unmarried.” The function of such “holy virgins” was to dispense the Mother's grace through sexual worship; to heal; to prophesy; to perform sacred dances; to wail for the dead; and to become Brides of God.

(Walker 1048-49)

Ellul offers a number of interpretations of the Whore of Babylon. Some are highly generalizing: “The Great Prostitute” is the city taken as a general figure of human making and exchange, the arts and civilization. It is a figure of the Old Testament city of Babylon as well as of the imperial capitol of Rome (187). Seated on “a scarlet-colored beast” (Rev. 17.3), which Ellul identifies as “the Spirit of [secular] Power,” the woman “is a historic actualization of the Power” (189; italics Ellul's).

In other characterizations, however, the Whore is insistently gendered as woman:

In fact the Woman in heaven is the image of the mother; on earth she is the prostitute. Exactly as throughout the Bible she is at the same time Eve and Mary! She is the mother of the new creation and the concentration [in a negative sense] of everything terrestrial. … She represents the exact opposite of the work that God carries out in the Incarnation.


Identified with the demonic power of “Satan,” she is specifically the harlot priestess of pagan belief. Her prostitution consists in the fact that she is “in communication (by sacred prostitution) with the religious and spiritual powers, with the satanic sources, and esoterism (but this also implies the immoralities, which are completely secondary)” (190). The Whore is a figure of religious idolatry or “infidelity”; the “dispersion of figurative sexuality” in promiscuity is

the image of the impossibility of a true covenant, … of an authentic communication. It is, further, the sign of the insertion of “love” into the domain of money, of exchange, of power. … Prostitution is the diabolic parody of love.


In this series of statements, Ellul transfers love from the figure of the mother to a masculine deity; he refigures “Woman” as the negation of divinity. She is also figured in relation to the history of nations, since her fidelity provides the model “of the impossibility of a true covenant.” Curiously enough, in chapter 18, in which her imminent destruction is prophesied, an angelic voice offers the men who have trafficked with her—kings, merchants, and mariners—the hope of divine rescue. Nothing is said of the women. But an angel prophesies that the “voice of bridegroom and of bride will not be heard” (Rev. 18.23) in Babylon any longer. In place of sexual congress in the pagan temple, Apocalypse substitutes the marriage of the New Jerusalem, the Christian church, the new children of Israel, with Christ (Rev. 21. 1-2).

In her 1989 address to the Federation of Young Italian Communists, Irigaray poses the question of how gender relations are connected with hope for a new creation. She poses this question as part of the work of undoing the totalizing history of Christian redemption with its alternative subordination of women and/or erasure of sexual difference. The context she chooses is that of Hegel's and Marx's secular apocalypticism. For the children who would be born in the fullness of time, “the body, the house, the city are habitable places.” But these children are different, possibly not children in the biological sense: “The objectivity of love in this case is no longer solely the child or the familial or collective goods but rather the natural and cultural world engendered by women and men at a moment of History” (“Love between Us” 177). Irigaray's statement challenges her young listeners since in order for this new creation to come about, it is necessary that the words nature and culture be redefined. This demand implies a critical view of the representation of women within traditional Marxism, which effaces the basis of the economy in a gendered division of labor by translating woman's reproductive work into a rhetorical figure of male production within the wage economy. When I say that the economy has as its basis a gendered division of labor, I do not mean a sole or originary basis. There are other bases, whose principal terms are class, place, ethnicity, and race. I do agree, however, both with Irigaray and with French materialist feminists such as Christine Delphy—whose views are usually, although in my view inaccurately, held diametrically to contradict Irigaray's8—that one cannot understand economic injustice without using gender as a principal axis of analysis. In contrast, traditional Marxist analyses regard the enslavement of women in marriage or prostitution as an aspect of bourgeois society. This analysis subordinates discrimination on the basis of gender to a general analysis of the class system. As Delphy points out, this approach effaces the subordination of women to men generally, including within working-class families. The traditional view absolves working-class men of responsibility for exploiting the women with whom they are intimate (177-78).

Consider, for example, Engels's treatment of the oppression of women in The Origin of the Family:

In an old unpublished manuscript written by Marx and myself in 1846, I find the words, ‘The first division of labour is that between man and woman for the propagation of children.’ And today I can add: The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male.


Engels continues to argue that in capitalism this oppression takes the shape of the male double standard that defines some women as wives, sisters, and daughters while casting out others on the basis of their labor as prostitutes. Men retain the “sexual freedom” they enjoyed before monogamy was instituted by reinforcing the subjection of women: “the women … are despised and outcast in order that the unconditional supremacy of men over the female sex may be once more proclaimed as a fundamental law of society” (97, 98). In Engels's account, however, “the first class opposition” is supplanted by the second, the struggle between proletarians and employers. When this struggle has been engaged and won, relations between the sexes will, as a natural consequence, be transformed. As Irigaray points out, this substitution betrays the original insight:

Marx defined the origin of the exploitation of man by man as the exploitation of woman by man, and he affirmed that the first human exploitation stems from the division of labor between man and woman. Why did he not devote his life to resolving this exploitation? He perceived the root of the evil but he did not treat it as such. Why?

(“Love between Us” 167)

For Engels, the answer is that “after the impending overthrow of capitalist production,” “real love” between men and women will become the norm (114).

If pressed, however, the question cannot be answered, in Delphy's view because answering it means that Marxists would have to acknowledge the unpaid benefits they enjoy from women. From a nonheterosexual stance, moreover, it is evident that Engels's position is necessarily homophobic, since neither he nor Marx can acknowledge the excess of their investment in concern about the well-being of male laborers. The obverse of this unacknowledged desire is condemnation of male-male desire wherever it does become manifest. In that case, Engels deems it to be yet one more example of exploitation leading to moral degeneracy: “This degradation of the women was avenged on the men, and degraded them also till they fell into the abominable practice of sodomy” (95). Both responsibility for and the possibility of same-sex desire exists elsewhere, in class oppression. By definition, members of subordinated groups can be demoralized, but they are incapable of being subjects of nonreproductive desires. Engels cannot think homosexuality without thinking sodomitical acts; and he cannot think sodomy without thinking prostitution (see Weeks 46-67).

Irigaray's new History can become possible only if the dream of History of Marx and Hegel is relinquished. Only if oppression is described along several axes and only if plural revolts and improvements are validated does it become possible to think heterosexuality differently. At the intersection of “nature” and “culture,” both work and intimacy need to be understood in a way that avoids reducing nature to the processes of reproduction and culture to the products of wage labor.

L'Unità, which was involved in the invitation to Irigaray, was also responsible for a series of interviews conducted with Foucault. During the interviews, Foucault speaks of prostitution in a way that draws on the political meaning of the biblical concept, which refers to the infidelity of “nations.” Foucault connects the end of history with national, individual, and gendered subjection. Speaking of the attitude of young intellectuals in France in the 1950s, he says:

Many young intellectuals, including myself, judged that it would be intolerable to have a “bourgeois” professional future as a professor, journalist, writer, or whatever. The very experience of the war had shown us the necessity and the urgency of creating a society radically different from the one in which we had lived; a society that had accepted nazism, had prostituted itself before it, and then had come out of it en masse with De Gaulle. One not only wanted a different world and a different society, one also wanted to go deeper, to transform oneself and to revolutionize relationships, to be completely “other.”

(Remarks 47-48)

In this paragraph, Foucault uses the word prostituted to describe the relation between Germany and France during World War II in terms of the master-slave dialectic that, Irigaray argues, Hegel finds in normal gender relations. Revulsion at this historical experience impelled Foucault to validate prostitution in another sense—that is, in the conflation of male homosexuality with sodomy and prostitution that Weeks describes as typical of late nineteenth-century bourgeois thinking. For Foucault, being completely “other” meant choosing sexual intimacy with other men in preference to the tidy alignment of marriage, mistress, and professional advancement characteristic of Parisian intellectual life.

Foucault's use of the word prostituted implies that erotic investment and alienation occur not just to persons but to collectivities. Gilles Deleuze makes this point in a well-known interview with Foucault of the early 1970s, in which he remarks that Marxism errs in basing the analysis of society on group interests, since individual and collective subjects identify their interests on the basis of their “investments of desire, whether economic or unconscious”:

The masses were not deceived; at a particular time, they actually wanted a fascist regime! There are investments of desire that mold and distribute power, that make it the property of the policeman as much as of the prime minister.

(Foucault and Deleuze 15)

Despite the general lack of attention to gender analysis in Foucault's writing, his perverse response to the sensation of living after the end of history brings his thinking close to Irigaray's in a number of ways. Early in her career, Irigaray showed, through the analysis of the speech of female schizophrenics, “how women, in contrast to men, fail to assume a subject position in language, effacing themselves in favour of men or of the world of objects through shifts in syntax” (Godard 368). Foucault's commitment to a radical male homosexuality produces a schizophrenic male subject. In the interview with Deleuze, Foucault takes women's struggles to be cognate with those of male homosexuals: “Women, prisoners, conscripted soldiers, hospital patients, and homosexuals have now begun a specific struggle against the particularized power, the constraints and controls, that are exerted over them” (Foucault and Deleuze 16). This comment has given offense to some feminists, who complain that Foucault is interested in women only as one example of a group in revolt. Rosa Braidotti, for example, comments on the preceding passage: “Sexual difference simply does not play a role in the Foucauldian universe, where the technology of subjectivity refers to a desexualized and general ‘human’ subject” (87). Braidotti, however, fails to recognize that in Foucault sexual difference is crucial, although not in terms of a binary model of gender difference. Foucault's “general ‘human’ subject” frequently is a masculine subject disidentified from normative masculinity and therefore, in Irigaray's terms, not masculine. This diacritically marked subject experiences splitting of the ego. In displacing the subject of knowledge, especially in psychoanalysis, h/e converts the masculine subject into the object of a new analysis that discloses the ruses by which “he” was hitherto instated as subject of knowledge. This maneuver is consonant with Irigaray's demand that the syntactical position of the gendered subject shift. Only in this way can other differences become evident. In his early career Foucault began to recognize his position as a male sexual dissident as a result of attempting to think through the condition that led Ellen West, an anorexic schizophrenic, to commit suicide (Miller 75-81, 90-91). Foucault was able to recognize his dissident place in French culture by recognizing the schizophrenic condition imposed upon women in the processes whereby they are defined as such. This insight is akin to Irigaray's realization that to be gendered as female is to be schizophrenic.

This originating point in Irigaray's critique of male philosophic tradition and, more locally, Freudian psychoanalysis determines the apocalyptic character of her representation of the sex/gender system, which can scarcely be characterized other than as a war of men against women.9 Because of this violence, Irigaray has no alternative but to insist that inter-subjective relations, including male and female homosexual ones, must always be thought through the concept of gender. For this reason too, her project demands a second mode of apocalypse—one in which gender becomes reconfigured in the field of what she refers to as love:

The objectivity of love in this case is [that is, will be] no longer solely the child or the familial or collective goods but rather the natural and cultural world engendered by women and men at a moment of History.

(“Love between Us” 177)

This double emphasis points out by contrast a lacuna in Foucault's concept of the sex/gender system. In texts such as The History of Sexuality, volume 1, he in effect refuses to conceptualize male homosexuality in terms of gender. This refusal does not make sense in Irigaray's terms, since she has found it impossible to conceptualize male-male or female-female relations except in relation to sexual difference. Foucault's resistance to doing so betrays an unacknowledged anxiety about the allegations of effeminacy that are characteristically lodged against “queers.” Yet even here his resistance finds a place in Irigaray's scheme insofar as he refuses the habit of metaphoric thinking that, according to her, reduces female difference to masculine sameness: “Are we alike? If you like. It is a little abstract. I don't quite understand ‘alike.’ Do you? Alike in whose eyes? in what terms? by what standard? with reference to what third?” (This Sex 208). Foucault refuses to fall into the trap of thinking homosexuality through a binary structure of gender difference (male/female; same/different) that will deprive it of all contingent meaning. To cite Irigaray again, Foucault sidesteps the power

of the philosophic logos … to reduce all others to the economy of the Same. The teleologically constructive project it takes on is always also a project of diversion, deflection, reduction of the other in the Same. And, in its greatest generality perhaps, from its power to eradicate the difference between the sexes in systems that are self-representative of a “masculine subject.”

(This Sex 74)10

In the final words of “The Fecundity of the Caress,” Irigaray projects the possibility of a utopian meeting of the sexes in the intimacy of a new couple. This hope, however, is almost overmastered by negation. The subject of the text is split. Pace Levinas's confidence in the encounter between subject and other, Irigaray contends:

The other cannot be transformed into discourse, fantasies, or dreams. It is impossible for me to substitute any other, thing or god, for the other—because of this touching of and by him, which my body remembers.

To each wounding separation, I would answer by refusing the holocaust while silently affirming, for myself and for the other, that the most intimate perception of the flesh escapes every sacrificial substitution, every assimilation into discourse, every surrender to the God. Scent or premonition between my self and the other, this memory of the flesh as the place of approach means ethical fidelity to incarnation. To destroy it is to risk the suppression of alterity, both the God's and the other's. Thereby dissolving any possibility of access to transcendence.


Feminist critics writing in English have frequently complained that Irigaray falls into what Toril Moi describes as “the essentialist trap.” According to Moi, Irigaray “comes to analyze ‘woman’ in idealist categories, just like the male philosophers she is denouncing” (139, 148). The passage that I cite, however, is materialist in character. It emphasizes a continual interplay between sensation, consciousness, and a vigilant fidelity to history. In a way, the passage is about refusing to forget—the opposite of idealist thinking, which demands that the subject forget what his or her consciousness excludes.

It's curious that memory should be the topic of a passage that is directed toward transcendence. But this passage is one in which, as is her wont, Irigaray mimes the language of male philosophical and theological tradition that she seeks to transvalue. In this respect, the most important term is “incarnation,” which is shifted from its Christ-centered context to a feminist one. Memory is incarnate in the speaker's awareness of a body that cannot forget the wounding separations of previous couplings. The body bears the weight of past violence, of “holocaust,” a term that has specific meanings for Irigaray, who uses it to refer not only as here to heterosexual intercourse but also to the negation of love between women that is demanded by the translation of female desire into duty to the masculine order:

The most radical loss of human singularity entails the effacement within the universal, or within the holocaust of spirit, of this relation between mother and daughter. This abduction of one from the other as it pertains to the feminine gender is a crime that humanity perpetuates unconsciously and without being able to mourn it.

(“Love between Us” 172)

The term holocaust cannot, however, be reserved from its reference to the Holocaust, the mass extermination of the Jews by the Nazis. As Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza points out, philosophers and Christian exegetes have a responsibility to offer witness to what Fiorenza refers to as “the profound negations in the genre of apocalyptic” (85). As Fiorenza points out, “the ideological heart of Nazi-fascism was racism, its ideological catch-word was ‘Untermensch,’ the less than human, the sub-human being.” Racism required the extermination of the Jews and members of other inferior races; the jailing of male homosexuals; “the sterilisation and elimination of ‘Entarteter,’ asocial German women (unwed, promiscuous mothers, prostitutes, homosexuals, women in racially mixed relationships)”; and the “strict sexual control of pure Aryan women, who were used as ‘breeders’ of the superior race” (86). Christian eschatology is implicated in the offenses against Jews, members of other racial and ethnic groups, sexual perverts, and women. The body of the speaker at the end of “Fecundity” is a collective, racially marked body. It also signifies the bearer of the most intimate personal violations in sexual touch. Speaking as “I” and “me,” the body is identified as Irigaray's; but it also refers to the bodies of all women who have been sexually violated and to all bodies subject to “holocaust.”

Because the speaker refuses to yield to the loss of memory in trauma, the threat that past violence poses to continued individual and group existence can be addressed. The speaker uses the memory of war crimes to negate their repetition and open the prospect of “alterity” or peace: “This memory of the flesh as the place of approach means ethical fidelity to incarnation.” An ethic that remembers the history of the embodied self enables it to “refuse the holocaust.” As experience in Bosnia and elsewhere testifies, genocide and the rape and murder of women are not mere metaphors of each other: they are intimately related in the political strategy cum sociopathology of the masculine subject, which impels it, in a term that Levinas and Irigaray use together, toward “death.” At a moment when state power galvanizes and protects murder, individual and mass, Irigaray reminds her readers that murder likewise comes home to bed in the most civilized places. At a moment when the action of nation-states, individually and collectively, is unable to halt this violence, she responds not by taking refuge in what Godard refers to as “the identity politics of much feminism” (371) but by inventing an ethics of intimacy. Irigaray asks men and women, Jews and Christians, whites and others, queers and straights, to be mindful of the moments in which human beings are engendered.

In “The Fecundity of the Caress,” Irigaray combines the imagination of intimacy with a reworking of the given terms of philosophic language. In the final words of the passage, she inverts spiritual transcendence so as to make it something embodied, sexually experienced, responsible to self and others. In a passage that I cited near the outset, Irigaray calls for a “love” whose product will be not “solely” offspring or property but a “natural and cultural world engendered by men and women.” Engendering in intimacy is not confined to biological reproduction or economic production. Indeed, neither are required of a particular couple. Hence the world “natural” occurs under the mark of erasure; it is not synonymous with reproduction. Similarly, “culture” is not defined as economic culture nor as men's or women's cultures as currently defined. Production and reproduction are implicated in a further term, “engendering,” which refers to a future that includes a new mode of constituting sexual difference. This future deserves to be described as history with a capital H; but it is no longer History as a totality requiring the subsumption of gender and other differences in identification with a unitary subject and telos of history. One can, of course, deny that such engendering is possible. But herein reposes Irigaray's ethical challenge. To return to Foucault, in the final volumes of the History of Sexuality, he too attempts to describe an ethics and aesthetics of pleasure. His premature death left this work incomplete. But it is a work to which Irigaray calls us.


  1. The two texts were published in 1977 and 1979, respectively.

  2. Thanks to Stephen Barber, who made this point in conversation with me in September 1993.

  3. I realize that the word project carries implications from its usage in existential philosophy with which both Irigaray and I would disagree (Butler 128). Because I would like to make this world useful within poststructuralist feminist discourse, I adapt it here as synonymous with my double use of the word work to refer to the processes both that constitute gender and that resist its normal constitution.

  4. The difficult, contradictory relationship between being-woman and becoming-woman otherwise is central to French feminist theory as it emerges in the aftermath of World War II in Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1949). See Butler 128-34.

  5. Note that the most important of the changes wrought by this reassertion occurred in the reorganization of transnational capital that brought the age of “Fordism” to an end in the 1970s. Overcoming the crisis in gender identification experienced by skilled and semiskilled male workers in Western Europe in the wake of this change is one important aspect of the work of gender to which Irigaray calls her young Marxist listeners.

  6. Here is the passage in the original French:

    L'amour vise Autrui, il le vise dans sa faiblesse. La faiblesse ne figure pas ici le degré inférieur d'un attribut quleconcque, la déficience relative d'une détermination commune à moi et à l'Autre. Antérieure à la manifestation des attributs, elle qualifie l'altérité même. Aimer, c'est craindre pour autrui, porter secours à sa faiblesse. Dans cette faiblesse, comme dans l'aurore se lève l'Aimé qui est Aimée. Épiphanie de l'Aimé, le féminin ne vient pas s'ajouter à l'objet et au Toi, préalablement données ou rencontrés au neutre, le seul genre que la logique formelle connaisse. L'épiphanie de l'Aimée, ne fait qu'un avec son régime de tendre. La manière du tendre, consiste en une fragilité extrême, en une vulnérabilité. II se manifeste sur la limite de l'être et du ne pas être, comme une douce chaleur ou l'être se dissipe en rayonnement, comme “l'incarnat léger” des nymphes dans l'Après-midi d'un faune qui “voltige en l'air assoupi de sommeils touffus,” se désindividuant et s'allégeant de son propre poids d'être, déjà évanescence et pâmoison, fuite en soi au sein même de sa manifestation. Et dans cette fuite, l'Autre est Autre, étranger au monde, trop grossier et trop blessant pour lui.

    (Totalité 233)

  7. See “Prostitution” and “Virgin Birth” in Walker 819-26, 1048-51.

  8. See, for instance, Moi 147-49 and Diana Leonard's preface in Delphy 10. Delphy's putatively contrary view says more about political splits in French feminism that about the political potential of Irigaray's arguments (182-83, 210n3).

  9. Irigaray emphasizes the word violence. I use the word war with reference to the preceding discussion of Totality and Infinity.

  10. Steven Goldsmith cites this passage and the preceding one (280).

  11. Here is the passage in the original French:

    L'autre non transformable en discours, fantasmes ou rêves, l'autre qu'il m'est impossible de substituer à quelque autre, à quelque chose, à quelque dieu, par ce toucher à et de lui dont mont corps garde mémoire.

    A chaque blessure de la séparation, je répondrais par le refus de l'holocauste en attestant, silencieusement, pour moi et pour l'autre, que la plus intime perception de la chair échappe à toute substitution sacrificielle, à toute reprise en quelque discours, à tout abandon au Dieu. Flair ou pressentiment entre moi et l'autre, cette mémoire de la chair comme lieu d'approche est fidélité éthique à l'incarnation. La détruire risque de supprimer l'altérité et du Dieu et de l'autre. Dissolvant, ainsi, toute possibilité d'accès à la transcendance.

    (Éthique 198-99)

Works Cited

Blumenthal, Sidney. “Christian Soldiers.” New Yorker July 18, 1994: 31-37.

Braidotti, Rosa. Patterns of Dissonance: A Study of Women in Contemporary Philosophy. Trans. Elizabeth Guild. Cambridge: Polity, 1992.

Butler, Judith. “Variations on Sex and Gender: Beauvoir, Wittig, and Foucault.” Feminism as Critique: Essays on the Politics of Gender in Late-Capitalist Societies. Ed. Seyla Benhabib and Drucilla Cornell. Cambridge: Polity, 1987. 128-42.

Delphy, Christine. Close to Home: A Materialist Analysis of Women's Oppression. Ed. and trans. Diana Leonard. London: Hutchinson, 1984.

Ellul, Jacques. Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation. New York: Seabury, 1977.

Engels, Friedrich. The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Ed. Michéle Barrett. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.

Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schüssler. “The Holocaust as Interruption and the Christian Return into History.” The Holocaust as Interruption. Ed. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and David Tracy. Edinburgh: Clark, 1985. 83-86.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon, 1972.

———. Death and the Labyrinth: The World of Raymond Roussel. Trans. Charles Ruas. New York: Doubleday, 1986.

———. Remarks on Marx: Conversations with Duccio Trombadori. Trans R. James Goldstein and James Cascaito. New York: Semiotext(e), 1981.

Foucault, Michel, and Gilles Deleuze, “Intellectuals and Power.” Discourses: Conversations in Postmodern Art and Culture. Ed. Russell Ferguson, William Olander, Marcia Tucker, and Karen Fiss. Cambridge: MIT P, 1992. 9-16.

Friedman, Thomas L. “Post-Post-Cold War.” New York Times July 13, 1994: A5.

Godard, Barbara. “Luce Irigaray.” Encylopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory. Ed. Irena R. Makaryk. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1993. 368-73.

Goldsmith, Steven. Unbuilding Jerusalem: Apocalypse and Romantic Representation. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993.

Irigaray, Luce. “And the One Doesn't Stir Without the Other.” Signs 7 (Autumn 1981): 60-67.

———. Elemental Passions. Trans. Joanne Collie and Judith Still. New York: Routledge, 1992.

———. An Ethics of Sexual Difference. Trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993.

———. Éthique de la différence sexuelle. Paris: Editions de minuit, 1984.

———. “The Fecundity of the Caress: A Reading of Levinas, Totality and Infinity, ‘Phenomenology of Eros.’” An Ethics of Sexual Difference. 185-217.

———. “Love between Us.” Who Comes after the Subject? Ed. Eduardo Cadava, Peter Connor, and Jean-Luc Nancy. New York: Routledge, 1991. 167-77.

———. “Sexual Difference.” An Ethics of Sexual Difference. 5-19.

———. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter and Carolyn Burke. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Totalité et Infini: Essai sur l'extériorité. 4th ed. La Haye: Nijhoff, 1971.

———. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1969.

Miller, James. The Passion of Michel Foucault. New York: Simon, 1993.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. London: Methuen, 1985.

Riding, Alan. “As Germans March in Paris, Some Cheer, A Few Are Chilled.” New York Times July 15, 1994: A3.

Walker, Barbara G. The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. San Francisco: Harper, 1983.

Weeks, Jeffrey. Against Nature: Essays on History, Sexuality, and Identity. London: Rivers Oram, 1991.

Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986.


Principal Works


Further Reading