Luce Irigaray is the author of several founding feminist texts, including Speculum of the Other Woman (1974) and This Sex Which is Not One (1977). Irigaray was trained as a psychoanalyst, and also holds doctorates in philosophy and linguistics. Irigaray’s training in linguistics can be seen in the careful construction of her prose and her focus on language, while her background in philosophy is evident in the fact that she structures most of her books as conversations with other philosophers.
In An Ethics of Sexual Difference, Irigaray writes that “Sexual difference is one of the major philosophical issues, if not the issue, of our age” (5). An Ethics of Sexual Difference is Irigaray’s attempt to construct an ethics through which women can imagine themselves as individuals, rather than defining themselves against the masculine. Irigaray claims that women have been “assimilated into maleness” and “ought to reconstitute [themselves] on the basis of a dissimilation” (Ethics 9). Only through such a dissimilation will women be able to exist and interact with men—and with one another—as equals.
The Place of Love
Irigaray is attempting to construct not just an ethics of sexual difference, but an ethics of love as well. She establishes the idea of love as an interval, or a liminal space. The function of love is to intervene and to create a bridge between opposites. Love bridges the gap between man and woman, between mortality and immortality, and between humanity and God. Traditional Western discourse attempts to erase the interval.
In this discursive tradition, women are perceived—or constructed—as place. Aristotle asserts that there is a difference between the common place that contains all bodies, and each body’s own unique place. In responding to Aristotle, Irigaray says that “each of us (male or female) has a place—this place that envelops only his or her body…that which delineates us from other bodies” (36). Women are denied their place when they are seen as destinations (for men’s sexual pleasure) or vessels (for the containment of a child). Such a construction figures women only as passive objects who exist for others, but never for themselves. If women are defined only as objects and are denied the chance to find their own identity—to find their place rather than being place—then they are unable to form ethical, loving relationships. Irigaray also suggests that men cannot build meaningful identities if they seek to control and possess women.
Language and Voice
Irigaray writes that “the self-proclaimed universal is the equivalent of an idiolect of men, a masculine imaginary, a sexed world. With no neuter…It has always been men who spoke and, above all, wrote: in science, philosophy, religion, politics” (121). Language creates a divide between the intellect and the bodily matter. Because language is masculine and because it is men who have, traditionally, been the ones to speak, this binary system constructs men as thinking beings, and excludes the possibility for women to be anything more than matter or essence. In this system, women cannot be intellectual, and so they cannot speak, either to men or to one another.
Women’s lack of ability to speak to one another is incredibly detrimental and creates hostility. Women are socialized to compete with one another, and are taught that if one woman has her own place, then she is usurping that place from other women. Thus, women are not encouraged to love the feminine. By pitting women against one another, masculine-centered ethics perpetuates a feminine dependence upon the masculine, since women must continue to look to the masculine in order to define femininity, instead of looking within, or looking to one another. This is damaging because, in order to love the masculine, women must first love themselves, each other, and the feminine.
Wonder and the Love of God
Irigaray’s philosophy in An Ethics of Sexual Difference attempts to point out that the old binary system of man = intellect/woman = nature no longer works. This gender binary assures that relations between men and women—including but not limited to the sexual act—will be sterile, since no ethical love can happen.
In discussing ethical relations between men and women, Irigaray makes the distinction between the beloved woman and the woman as lover. The beloved woman is objectified by her male lover. The male lover does not approach the woman with wonder and respect for her sexual difference but rather seeks to possess her and act upon her, taking his pleasure from her without concern for her. In this way, the man is able to rise and transcend while the woman is pushed even farther into darkness. Because she is subordinated in this way, the beloved woman cannot realize her own “call to the divine” (196). In contrast, the woman as lover is an equal partner in a relationship and is able to realize her own pleasure from the sexual act. Irigaray posits that a relationship in which the man as lover is the only active participant, and in which he objectifies the beloved woman, is unethical. This is so because men and women get in touch with God/the divine through love and lovemaking, and this cannot happen if a man reduces his female beloved to the level of merely an object.
1. In her writing, Irigaray will frequently frame a statement in the form of a question. For example: “The logos would maintain itself between the verb and the substantive. Leaving out the adjective? A mediation between the act and its result. The place of attraction?” (Ethics 209). What is the effect of Irigaray’s constructing her prose in this way?
2. Irigaray outlines the consequences for women of a system of ethics which objectifies them and denies them access to language. Is she equally straightforward in outlining the negative effects that this ethical system has on men?
3. Irigaray’s arguments in An Ethics of Sexual Difference are centered upon her conceptions of heterosexual relations of love and sex. Would a GLBT reader be able to identify with her ethics, or can Irigaray’s arguments only apply to heterosexual men and women? If the latter is the case, then is this a fundamental flaw in Irigaray’s argument? How (if at all) could her ethics be queered?
4. Are the ways in which Irigaray has influenced feminist thought immediately apparent from reading the selection from An Ethics of Sexual Difference? Where can we see Irigaray’s ethics in contemporary feminist and/or gender theory? What about ethical theory?
5. Irigaray begins An Ethics of Sexual Difference by asserting that “Sexual difference is one of the major philosophical issues, if not the issue, or our age” (5). Do you agree with this claim? Does this still hold true for contemporary feminist and gender theory?
Site Manager: Liz Grumbach