Aims to redefine femininity
"Luce Irigaray aims to redefine femininity so that women may be represented in their specificity and according to their own interests" (E. Grosz). Discuss.
Deemed one of the most challenging of French feminists for the sophistications of her prose style, the Belgian-born intellectual, Dr. Luce Irigaray, has often been compared to Hlne Cixous, Simone de Beauvoir and Julia Kristeva for her revisions of psychoanalytic theories to foment feminism that emphasizes "difference". Her work stretches beyond theory into practice since she has been actively engaged in the Italian feminist movement and numerous initiatives to implement an admiration for sexual difference on both a cultural and governmental level. German, Italian and Spanish feminists [cf. Grosz (1986, 1990, 1993, 1994), Donadi (2000), Kubissa (2006) and Thierfelder (2009)] have welcomed Irigaray's desire to establish an criture au feminine, but radical French feminists have deplored her for advocating ideas that promote patriarchal oppression. These critics have claimed that Irigaray's concept of "femme" derives and is constructed from an already fixed masculine discourse rather than prior to its constitution. While many critics have unearthed the influence of multiple philosophers in Irigaray's writings including Martin Heidegger, Emmanuel Lvinas, Jacques Derrida, and Emile Benveniste, they have also observed her propensity to "rewrite" their ideas to suit her own rationalizations. Irigaray alleges that women have been traditionally associated with matter and nature to the expense of a female subject position. While women can become subjects if they conform to male subjectivity, an independent subject position for women does not exist. Her goal is therefore to unveil the nonappearance of a female subject position, the relegation of all things feminine to nature/matter, and ultimately, the absence of true sexual difference in Western culture. Further to launching this critique, she offers suggestions for altering the situation of women, namely by way of mimesis, tactical essentialism, utopian principles, and employing novel language (Haines 1997: 645-646). This essay will investigate the Irigarian notion of "diffrence" in two of her ground-breaking masterworks which have presented her readers with a fulfilling challenge to traditional conceptions of gender, self, and body. The exploration will primarily focus on "Je, tu, nous" (1990) though allusions will also be made to "thique de la diffrence sexuelle" (1984). Finally, a subjective assessment will determine the implications of Irigaray's theory and its overall inefficiency, as well as possible solutions to improve the female position.
In "Je, tu, nous" (1990), Luce Irigaray presents a compelling argument privileging sexual difference as the key component in the quest for women's equality. In contrast to those feminists who would argue that sex be "la neutralisation" or render theoretically invisible in public discourse, Irigaray argues that sexual difference is central to the continuation of the human species. Moreover, for women in particular, as sexual exploitation is based upon sexual difference, then the solution to this problem can only be achieved through sexual difference (Irigaray 1990: 10). In terms of social constructions and political legislation, this means that:
"L'galit entre hommes et femmes ne peut se raliser sans une pense du genre comme sexu et une rcriture des droits et devoirs de chaque sexe, en tant que diffrent, dans les droits et devoirs sociaux" (Irigaray 1990: 11).
The form of the text consists of essays written by Irigaray as well as interviews with Irigaray, and by Irigaray of others, all of which revolve around the concept of difference. A particular focus in these pieces is her contention that society must recapture the female genealogies of the past. The erasure of these filiations between mothers and daughters was integral to the elimination of the feminine gender by patriarchal culture until today when "le fminin est devenu, dans nos langues, le non-masculin, c'est--dire une ralit abstraite inexistante" (Irigaray 1990: 19).
One of the primary focuses of Irigaray's text is on the gender of language which is a particularly important issue in her native French tongue since it is far more gendered than is English. Irigaray contends, in an observation that many linguists and biologists may take exception to, that the capacity for language is not rooted in cerebral functions but rather in social contexts. Thus, the domination of patriarchy in the social sphere is paralleled by the fact that "le genre masculin domine toujours syntaxiquement" (Irigaray 1990: 33). Irigaray asserts:
"La langue [...] traduit leurs modes de communication sociale. Elle n'est ni universelle, ni neuter, ni tangible. Il n'y a pas de schmas linguistiques existant depuis toujours dans le cerveau de tout sujet parlant mais chaque poque a ses ncessits, cre ses idaux et les impose comme tels" (Irigaray 1990: 33).
Given this perspective, patriarchal culture and the inequalities in our gendered discourse are social constructs open to revision. Similarly, Irigaray cites her social prescriptions which include significant legal and social reforms (Irigaray 1990: 99-102, 107-111) in the process of recapturing the genealogies of feminine filiations, while simultaneously acknowledging the difference of the feminine in society and in discourse.
It is noteworthy that Irigaray opens her text on a "Note Personelle" discussing her relationship with the Simone de Beauvoir. Beauvoir's famous opening to "Le Deuxime Sexe," in which she argued that "On ne nat pas femme, on le devient," clearly played a significant role in Irigaray's own evolving conception of what it means to be a woman. Irigaray contends that the concept of "femme" as presently understood in modern culture is a patriarchal construct. Much of her project in "Je, tu, nous" involves the destabilizing of this construct at both the legalistic and linguistic levels:
"L'homme semble avoir voulu, directement ou indirectement, donner son genre l'univers comme il a voulu donner son nom ses enfants, sa femme, ses biens [...] une libration sexuelle ne peut se raliser sans changement des lois de la langue relatives aux genres. La libration subjective ncessite un emploi de la langue non soumis des rgles qui assujettissent ou annulent la diffrence sexuelle" (Irigaray 1990: 31, 35).
For Grosz (1986, 1993, 1994), Whitford (1989, 1991) and Yancy (2002), Irigaray is not making a biological or essentialist argument; rather it is one related to language and its construction as political, material and psychological in its effects. Irigaray, like Oseen (1997: 172) and Weedon (1987) sees language and its inevitable political substance as a means of engineering change for women. Moreover, it is Irigaray's belief that the patriarchal social body excludes the concept of difference; a process that is based upon the construction of "femme comme l'Autre" (Irigaray 1990: 61). Thus, when Irigaray asserts "Je suis une femme. J'cris avec qui je suis" she is destabilizing the patriarchal conception of woman as a subset of the masculine, by defining woman as "different".
Irigaray practice in this text is not consistently post-modernist which may be due to the fact that the text is a collection of pieces - each with their own purpose - rather than a coherent whole. Hence, while at times in her enquiries of the linguistic constructions of gender Irigaray's theoretical predilection appears post-modern in its orientation, at other times in her consideration of social justice and equality Irigaray appears entrenched in direct social and political action.
Consider, for example, Irigaray's remark about the lack of women teaching and practising feminism in universities and other institutions. In Western thought, the relation between the sexes has conventionally been conceptualized in terms of polarity and, inevitably, hierarchy instead of as a chiasmus, "une double boucle o chacun peut aller vers l'autre et revenir soi" (Irigaray 1984: 16). In the following passage, Irigaray is concerned with immediate social discrimination rather than with a postmodern discussion of society as text or linguistic constructs, though her non-postmodern passages in "Je, tu, nous" tend to be restricted to the interview sections; interviews being a linear, question and answer form not hospitable to postmodern discursive conventions:
"Il n'y a pas beaucoup de femmes notre poque dans les institutions. Quand elles y sont, elles sont souvent cantonnes certains grades de la carrire. Trs peu de femmes accdent aux postes les plus levs et elles la paient trs cher, d'une faon ou d'une autre" (Irigaray 1990: 62).
In "thique de la diffrence sexuelle" (1984), Irigaray emphasizes that women have interminably maintained a position in the shadow of masculine parameters and have been postulated as a "lesser men" by not being represented favourably in philosophical models. Likewise, this idea is corroborated by Cahill (2005) in her claim that women have been without a "proper" place in the universe of philosophy and linguistics. Irigaray elaborates on this cogent argument:
"La femme devrait se retrouver, entre autres, travers les images d'elle dj dposes dans l'histoire, et les conditions de productions de l'uvre de l'homme et non partir de son uvre, sa gnalogie" (Irigaray1984: 17).
There are significant points of overlap between the postmodern/poststructuralist elements of Irigaray's text and the "cyborg" feminist theory and practise of Haraway (1991) in "Simians, Cyborgs, and Women". However, these points of overlap indicate the fact that Haraway's and Irigaray's approaches to gender and feminist practice are radically distinct. Haraway's conception of the "cyborg" as a metaphor signifying late twentieth/early twentieth-first century humans' relations with their artificial constructions - language, machine, culture - differs significantly from Irigaray in that Haraway contends we - as "cyborgs" - live in a "post-gender world" (Haraway 1991: 150). Naturally, this is a view drastically at odds with Irigaray's perception of gender today:
"L'espce humaine est divise en deux genres qui en assurent la production et reproduction. Vouloir supprimer la diffrence sexuelle, c'est appeler un gnocide plus radical que tout ce qui a pu exister comme destruction dans l'Histoire" (Irigaray 1990: 10).
In this sense, Haraway locates her feminist practice upon the "refusal to become or to remain a 'gendered' man or woman" (Haraway 1991: 148). It must be noted that Haraway and Irigaray share a similar postmodern interest in the study of the social implications of gendered language. However, whereas Irigaray's practice is firmly embedded in redefining the "difference" between male and female linguistic genders, Parker et al. (1999: 78) and Haraway (1991: 130) utterly reject this "interdependence on a key Western political-philosophical field of binary oppositions".
Ebert (1996) would almost certainly be in accord with Irigaray's argument in many respects. For example, Irigaray's attentiveness on the social implications of the gender "difference" mirrors Ebert's own interest in the historicization of signifying structures:
"[...] the sign is the arena of social struggle [...] we can reconceive the sign as situated in an ideological process in which the signifier is related to a matrix of historically possible signifieds" (Ebert 1996: 174).
Nevertheless, it is likely that Ebert would make an objection to the transparently rigid dichotomy that Irigaray draws between male and female in her theoretical discourse. Where in this model she might ask, can we locate lesbians, gay males, bisexuals and transgendered individuals? It is interesting that there is no reference of what Ebert terms "alternative sexualities" anywhere in "Je, tu, nous" nor even any recognition that these can be said to exist, which does little other than to strongly accentuate Irigaray's idealization of heterocentrism and related modes of thought.
In this context, Ebert's exploration of the convergence of patriarchy and capitalism in the function of "compulsory heterosexuality" represents an implicit critique of Irigaray's focus upon "deux genres" and that "la femme doit tre mre et l'homme pre dans la famille" (Irigaray 1990: 10-11). For Irigaray, this model implies that "difference" signifies heterosexual difference which is, in all probability, the most significant shortcoming of her entire theory. Whilst Cixous' concept of "difference" refers to multiple variations, including the whole spectrum of sexual orientation and genders, Irigaray's emphasis on "two" seems to ultimately reinforce the patriarchal idea of difference based on the dualistic construction of masculine/feminine. It is likely that Ebert would critique this aspect of Irigaray's text, and demand clarification of her theory in this respect.
The presence of scientism within Irigaray's texts is largely indirect, and limited to the implications for gender theory of medical science. For example, Irigaray criticizes doctors for their faith in the scientific and technological aspects of their discipline. She contends, "Habitus l'usage de mdiations technologiques, savant-ils encore ce qu'est un corps vivant?" (Irigaray 1990: 73). Irigaray is particularly interested in the analogy between the power relations of doctor and patient and that of male-female. Technology and science, she implies, are constructed as "preuves" of male "puissance sexuelle". This power relationship must be destabilized by teaching boys the "vertus sociales" of girls (Irigaray 1990: 74).
Irigaray's text possesses numerous elements of romanticism and perhaps the most obvious of these is her fascination with the genealogy of feminine divinity in prehistory and its broader social implications. In the chapter entitled "Comment Habiter La Terre Sans Dieues", Irigaray suggests a linguistic connection between the social orientation of women to the home, the mythological power of women over the domestic hearth, and the Indo-European roots linguistic roots of the words "tre" and "habiter" (Irigaray 1990: 16). This romantic element occurs repeatedly throughout the text, whether it is in Irigaray's "jubilation" at seeing the divinity Jesus represented as feminine in a Venetian workshop (Irigaray 1990: 25), or in her advocating a return to this divine feminine genealogy by displaying "belles images" of mothers and daughters in every home (Irigaray 1990: 53). This romanticism is incontrovertibly a deficiency in Irigaray's argument. Contemplate, for example, her discussion of the significance of purity in prehistoric feminine mythologies. Irigaray herself concedes in a note that her perception of this is based, not upon scholarship, but upon her open view of these mythologies which is an affirmation attesting to her intellectual truthfulness, but does little to substantiate her arguments in this regard:
"Du moins est-ce ainsi que j'ai souhait l'interprter. Mais le privilge du feu et le caractre tardif de cette divinit font problme" (Irigaray 1990: 17).
While "Je, tu, nous" (1990) and "thique de la diffrence sexuelle" (1984) are engrossing and informative, one cannot help but be confounded by two aspects of Irigaray's feminine theory. Conceivably my primary criticism relates to her unconditional erasure of any genders save the rigid dichotomy of male and female. While it may be reasoned that this dichotomy is explanatory and biological, and thus is all-encompassing of the whole human species, Irigaray's unremitting emphasis to "la famille" as comprising "une mre" and "un pre", and being "un couple humain crateur et non seulement procrateur" appears to exclude gay males, lesbians, bisexuals and the transgendered (Irigaray 1990: 11).
Perhaps nowhere is this more striking than in Irigaray's discussion of the social importance of Le Sida. What is perhaps most striking about this discussion of the disease is that there is absolutely no mention of gay males or the particular significance Le Sida has possessed for gay culture (Irigaray 1990: 71-73). In fact, I noticed no reference to gay males, lesbians or bisexuals anywhere in "Je, tu, nous" whatsoever. However, the exclusion of these individuals from a discussion of the significance of Le Sida to modern sexual politics is nothing less than astonishing. Furthermore, it is worthy of note that Irigaray discusses Le Sida not in terms of the plague's profound impact upon Western and global culture (in terms of homophobia, racism etc.) but instead as signifying what she perceives as the tendency of medical science to proliferate rather than cure terminal illness (Irigaray 1990: 72-73). Clearly, the absence of different genders other than the heterosexual male/female from Irigaray's discussion is intriguing.
My other main response to Irigaray's text concerns her prescriptions for the remedying of the social problems fostered by the lack of a sense of gendered "difference" in Western society. Her prescriptions are remarkable for their lack of realism or relevance to women's daily lives. For example, in continuing her focus on the mythic significance of feminine virginity, Irigaray demands:
"L'inscription juridique de la virginit... Cette composante de l'identit fminine permet de donner la fille un statut civil et un droit conserver sa virginit (y compris pour son propre rapport au divin) aussi longtemps qu'il lui plaira, porter plainte, avec l'aide de la loi, contre qui y porte atteinte dans ou hors de la famille" (Irigaray 1990: 100).
I must confess to being completely perplexed by Irigaray here as she herself admitted that her mythic view of the significance of virginity is her own interpretation which may be factually "problematic" (Irigaray 1993a: 12). Sexual assault laws, instituted and reinforced after years of lobbying by feminists, offer women much more protection for their bodies than Irigaray's right to "lodge a complaint" if a woman's virginity is "violated". Irigaray's other prescriptions appear to be unreservedly impractical. For example, her demand for "Des reprsentations valables d'elles-mmes [femmes] en gestes, en paroles et images dans tous les lieux publics" (Irigaray 1990: 99) is unsettling in its implications. The only states that have enterprised such universal propagandizing (note "tous les lieux publics") in recent history have been Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and absolutist dictatorships such as Iraq where Saddam Hussein's image is ubiquitous. I argue that a state with such overpowering dominance over all public spaces would likely (as in the above cases) be immensely patriarchal in orientation, culturally hegemonic and hostile to women.
In conclusion, while Irigaray's texts are interesting in many respects, with reference to her apparent exclusion of gay males, transgendered individuals, lesbians and bisexuals from her model of gender, as well as her atypical prescriptions for the reinstitution of "difference" in the world, I must categorically declare to possessing reservations about her argument. Nonetheless, she compensates for this by positively deliberating the prospect of a new relation between man and woman that would define "a different historical configuration" and "a new horizon" both culturally and politically (Hirsh et al, 2006: 1-3). For Irigaray, the signification of the much-vaunted expression "sexual difference" is ontological before it is psychological, biological, sociological, or epistemological. It follows therefore, that women need to strategically position themselves in contiguity or metonymy, not in opposition, to what men are. They need to create for themselves a place in the language, a place in the realm of symbolic which depends on something other than hierarchical dualism through which they define themselves (cf. Grosz 1994, Oseen 1997, Duffy et al. 2010: 110). For until the feminine is symbolized and a transcendental sensible is realized, namely a transcendental which encompasses the previously unspoken, unthought and unsymbolized, there is little optimism for renewal in a society dominated by a destructive imaginaire sexu masculin, a phallically based notion. Irigaray, like Beauvoir, both value the importance of combining feminist theory and praxis to revolutionize the situation of women, and promote a sexed equality with men (Gnther 1998: 186).
The affirmation of sexual difference is addressed to the construction and creation of knowledge which has been predicated on the norm of the masculine universal and the negation of (sexual) difference. With applied deconstruction, nature's sexuality involves a difference, a construction of identities deferred from male or feminine sameness. Nature embodies a sexual difference; it is an epitome of sexuality - beyond masculinity and femininity; a multiple sex. Irigaray argues in "Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un" (1977) that the valorization of masculine sameness is destructive to the multiplicity of female sexuality; could then that identical valorization be detrimental to nature's multifarious sexual procreation? At least, if the destruction of the earth is observed through a multi-gendered lens, then the earth epitomizes more than two genders, a multi-dimensional web of sexual difference. Irigaray challenges her readers to cogitate on the metaphysics of this very web:
"La diffrence sexuelle est probablement celle de notre temps. La chose de notre temps qui, pense, nous apporterait le salut ?" (Irigaray 1984: 13).
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