Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Based on Luce Irigaray’s work as a psychoanalyst, linguist, and philosopher, the eleven essays collected in This Sex Which Is Not One critically analyze Western culture’s descriptions of female identity and the many ways in which these representations influence women’s psychic, social, and economic development. Irigaray explores a number of related issues, including the restrictive nature of masculinist language systems and the subsequent limitations in male-defined images of female sexuality, women’s absence in Western philosophical tradition, and the importance of developing exclusively feminine modes of communication. The nonlinear, poetic writing styles she employs in many of these essays make it difficult to arrive at definitive statements concerning her theories of the feminine, yet this elusiveness is an important part of her undertaking. By unsettling readers’ expectations, she challenges them to rethink conventional definitions of masculinity and femininity.

Although many of the essays in This Sex Which Is Not One were previously published in various journals and can be read separately, the arguments presented in each chapter are interconnected and mutually dependent. The title essay offers a useful entry into Irigaray’s work, for it provides readers with an overview of her theory of the feminine. In addition to arguing that women’s pleasure and female sexuality cannot be adequately described in Western culture’s patriarchal language systems, Irigaray contrasts women’s autoeroticism with men’s and offers an alternative perspective on the feminine, which she describes as plural, nonunitary, and fluid.

Irigaray expands...

(The entire section is 689 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Like traditional psychoanalysts, Irigaray explores the ways in which language constructs gendered identities; however, by using her psychoanalytic training to analyze psychoanalysis itself, she exposes its unacknowledged masculine bias. As in Speculum of the Other Woman and her later writings, she attempts in This Sex Which Is Not One to develop a theory and practice of sexual difference that demonstrates the secularized nature of all Western philosophical and representational systems. This undertaking has important political implications, for Irigaray maintains that the pseudo-neutrality of rational thought and objective knowledge has led to the development of patriarchal social systems that oppress women economically, socially, and psychically. She suggests that the creation of specifically feminine ways of writing and speaking offers the possibility of developing alternate epistemologies and new forms of society.

Irigaray’s theory of sexual difference makes a significant contribution to feminist analyses of twentieth century knowledge systems. With the rise in gender studies in the 1980’s, increasing attention has been paid to her analysis of the sexualized nature of all linguistic systems and social structures. By exposing the phallocentric foundations of Western culture’s reliance on logical rational thought and the subsequent bias in all supposedly neutral accounts of objective knowledge, Irigaray provides theorists with...

(The entire section is 414 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Burke, Carolyn. “Irigaray Through the Looking Glass.” Feminist Studies 7 (Summer, 1981): 288-306. This essay provides a useful overview of Irigaray’s career, including her break with Lacan, the role that Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive philosophy plays in her theory of feminine writing, and her impact on feminist studies. It offers a highly sympathetic reading of Irigaray’s elusive style and insightful summaries of several essays in This Sex Which Is Not One, including “The Looking Glass, from the Other Side” and “When Our Lips Speak Together.”

Fuss Diana. Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature, and Difference. New York: Routledge, 1989. Chapter 4, “Luce Irigaray’s Language of Essence,” summarizes European American debates concerning Irigaray’s use of female anatomy to describe feminine writing. In addition to exploring how literal readings of Irigaray’s references to lips lead to misinterpretations, this chapter briefly discusses her theory of sexual difference.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Sexual Subversions: Three French Feminists. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1989. This examination of recent theories of sexual difference situates Irigaray’s work in the context of Kristeva’s and Michele Montreley’s theories of the feminine. In addition to exploring Irigaray’s use of Lacanian psychoanalysis and Derridean deconstruction, the two chapters on Irigaray summarize key concepts, including her analysis of phallocentric language systems, her attempt to develop autonomous representations of the feminine, and her call for alternative descriptions of mother/daughter relationships.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. New York: Routledge, 1983. A comparative analysis of European American feminism and French theories of the feminine developed by Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva. The chapter on Irigaray discusses Speculum of the Other Woman, This Sex Which Is Not One, and Irigaray’s reception in the United States.

Whitford, Margaret. Luce Irigaray: Philosophy in the Feminine. New York: Routledge, 1991. This book provides an extremely comprehensive account of Irigaray’s theories and an analysis of her contributions to twentieth century psychoanalytic and philosophic traditions. It includes extensive primary and secondary bibliographies of French and English texts.