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Cambridge University Press
0521862701 - Luce Irigaray and the philosophy of sexual difference - by Alison Stone
Luce Irigaray and the Nature of Sexual Difference
This book defends an understanding of sexual difference as natural, challenging the prevailing consensus within feminist theory that sexual difference is a culturally constructed and symbolically articulated phenomenon. The book supports this challenge with a distinctive interpretation and critical rethinking of Luce Irigaray’s later philosophy of sexual difference. According to my interpretation, the later Irigaray sees sexual difference as a natural difference between the sexes, which should receive cultural and social expression. Opposing the dominant view that any idea that sexual difference is natural must be politically conservative and epistemologically naïve, I want to show that Irigaray’s later conception of sexual difference is philosophically sophisticated and coherent, and supports a politics of change which – importantly – aspires not only to improve women’s situations but also to revalue nature and to improve humanity’s relations with the natural world. However, I will not simply defend the later Irigaray but will criticise her for overlooking what I call the natural multiplicity within each of our bodies: a multiplicity of forces and capacities such that we are never simply sexually specific. Given this problem, I shall argue,Irigaray’s philosophy must be fundamentally rethought within the framework of a theory of nature as self-differentiating, a theory which can recognise the reality and value of bodily multiplicity as well as that of sexual duality. Thus, this book is not merely an exposition of Irigaray but also the development of an original position within feminist thought – a philosophy of self-differentiating nature.
Although Irigaray’s earlier thought has exerted immense influence on feminist theory, her later philosophy has proved considerably less popular. 1 As one feminist critic writes: ‘Irigaray’s later work is far more problematic with respect to the charge of essentialism, and her deployment of sexual difference has seemed increasingly to suggest certain pre-given and determinant qualities of the feminine’.2 The later Irigaray assumes that men and women naturally have different characters, implying that they are qualified for distinct ranges of activities. This looks troublingly close to the traditional view that women’s natural character predisposes them to childrearing and the domestic sphere. In attempting to identify and describe the natural characters of the sexes, Irigaray appears to overlook how deeply any perceptions of their characters must be shaped by existing cultural prescriptions, prescriptions which she can only end up reproducing. Moreover, to support her account of the natural differences between the sexes, she appeals to an understanding of nature as a whole: seemingly, for her, ‘the fixity of the natural, material world is the ground of the fixity of the social world’, whereas, for most feminists: ‘Any theory of women’s liberation...must certainly abandon the belief that nature is immutable and fixed; otherwise, no liberation is possible’.3
Against these criticisms, my first aim in this book is to show that Irigaray’s later philosophy has underappreciated strengths. Her focus on nature is valuable in reminding us that we are natural beings, surrounded and shaped by natural environments. Moreover, she sees nature not as a static realm of fixed forms but, rather, as a process (or set of processes) of open-ended growth and unfolding. By stressing that human beings belong to nature so conceived, Irigaray can maintain that human beings have natures which need to grow and express themselves culturally. She thereby links feminist and ecological politics, by arguing that the pursuit of our own flourishing as sexed beings must be based on recognition of our dependence on, and responsibilities to, the natural environment. As for her belief that humans naturally have sexually specific characters which need to unfold and develop culturally, this need not be conservative; it enables her to criticise existing society on the grounds that women’s nature has never been allowed expression. Admittedly, this would hardly appease critics if women’s nature gave them a need to express themselves only in the activities traditionally allotted to them, such as childrearing. But Irigaray distinguishes her account of women’s (and men’s) nature from traditional views by deriving her account from her novel conception of nature as processual.4 This conception leads her to rethink sexed individuals as differing, fundamentally, in respect of certain rhythms which (as I will explain later) she takes to regulate the circulation of the fluid materials composing individuals’ bodies.5 (Throughout, when I refer to ‘bodies’, this denotes specifically human bodies, not natural bodies generally.) Irigaray maintains that these fluid materials enter into transient bodily forms, which give rise to sexually specific bodily capacities and forms of experience and perception.
In claiming that men and women have inherently different characters as an effect of their location within nature, Irigaray can be seen to use the concept of nature in two main senses. Firstly, the ‘nature’ of something, for her, denotes its defining character or essence – in this sense, men and women are said to have different natures. Secondly, for Irigaray, ‘nature’ designates the material world or environment as a whole, which is understood to exist, and to pursue patterns of development, independently of human transformative activities. This material world includes human beings insofar as they have natures (and act according to those natures), but it excludes humans insofar as they are distinctively cultural beings, engaged in activities of transforming themselves and the material world around them.
The idea that Irigaray’s descriptions of nature and sexed humanity differ from traditional – patriarchal – descriptions may seem problematic. Is Irigaray hereby claiming to ‘leap to a pre-linguistic, pre-metaphysical, pre-cultural description of nature that would deny our unavoidable situation in language, culture, and metaphysics’?6 Irigaray does not deny that she claims knowledge of nature and human bodies from a culturally specific standpoint; rather, in her view, her cultural location within the European philosophical tradition gives her epistemic access to nature and to the natural reality of human bodies. This location offers her the resources to reconceive nature in a novel way and, on that basis, to offer a correspondingly novel – and socially critical – account of sexual difference.7
The feminism of sexual difference which Irigaray espouses in her later work differs significantly, I believe, from that of her earlier work.8 This earlier work understands sexual difference as the difference between ‘male’ and ‘female’ as identities or positions made available within the symbolic order (that is, broadly, the linguistically articulated realm of culture and meaning). On this understanding, sexual difference differs importantly from both sex difference – the biological difference between the sexes – and gender difference – the difference between masculinity and femininity as roles embodied in social practices.9 According to the earlier Irigaray, western culture persistently defines the female as the inferior counterpart of the male, establishing patterns of symbolism which are more fundamental and all-pervasive than the contingent, varying, gender roles which result from social practices. Irigaray’s early form of sexual difference feminism is important in focusing attention on the symbolic constitution of sexual difference and in opening up the project of transforming received patterns of symbolism by reconceiving female identity positively.10 But, although sexual difference feminism is usually understood consistently with Irigaray’s earlier position, she herself moves away from this position, which she comes to find incoherent.11 This position aims to revalue female identity and, also, nature, matter, and embodiment – with which the female is traditionally aligned – yet it attempts to revalue these only as culturally conceived and symbolised, presupposing, all along, the validity of the conceptual hierarchy which privileges (symbolically male) culture over (symbolically female) nature. Irigaray rightly moves on to espouse her later form of sexual difference feminism, which, preferably, does not devalue nature and matter relative to culture and meaning. One might object that she has reverted to focusing on biological sex difference, not sexual difference. But she insists that sexual difference, as a difference in rhythms which (among other things) regulate sexual energy and forms of perception and experience, remains culturally significant and erotically charged, and hence is a sexual, not narrowly biological, difference.
Insofar as I am defending Irigaray’s later philosophy of sexual difference, I am also – unusually within feminist theory – defending essentialism as it figures in her later thought. Although Irigaray explicitly denies being an essentialist, her later view that men and women have natural characters which need and strive for expression is identifiably essentialist.12 Generally in philosophy, essentialism is the belief that things have essential properties or characters which are necessary to their being the (kind of) things they are. A stronger variant of philosophical essentialism holds that the essences of things consist in their spontaneous tendencies to develop in certain ways – to exhibit certain distinctive patterns of unfolding.13 Within feminism, essentialism denotes the view that women and men are constituted as such by certain essential characteristics. For simplicity, whenever I discuss essentialism, I will understand it in this intra-feminist sense.14 Irigaray’s (feminist) essentialism is of a strong form, holding that women’s and men’s essential characters consist in the rhythms which ensure that their bodies and experiences grow and unfold in distinctive ways. In attributing this form of essentialism to Irigaray, I have no intention of discrediting her later philosophy; rather, I think that the intricacy and fruitfulness of this philosophy shows that essentialism has underexplored potential which feminists should tap.
Although I shall defend Irigaray’s focus on the natural reality of bodies against many of the criticisms levied against it, I nonetheless believe that her later philosophy has serious problems. To name the most salient: this philosophy is heterosexist, assuming that, being naturally different, men and women are naturally attracted to one another. Irigaray cannot, either, acknowledge deep differences between women but considers them to differ only as particular members of a common kind. She therefore regards sexual difference as more fundamental than other differences, such as race. She also asserts that all individuals are naturally either male or female, implicitly denying – or dismissing as aberrant – the intersexed (those whose bodies have ambiguous sex characteristics, such as testes and a vagina). These problems all stem from Irigaray’s conception of natural sexual difference, and so they cannot be resolved unless we fundamentally rethink her later philosophy. Nevertheless, given the attractions of this philosophy – its connection of feminist to ecological politics, and its provision of an original, socially critical, form of essentialism – this rethinking is worthwhile.
Accordingly, I aim to rethink Irigaray’s later philosophy, by synthesising it with two other currents of thought: Judith Butler’s ‘performative’ theory of gender and the idea of self-differentiating nature articulated within the German tradition of philosophy of nature. Butler’s approach to gender becomes important for my argument because it is strong in the very areas where Irigaray’s later philosophy is most problematic. Butler argues that gender, sex division, and heterosexuality are (in a sense to be explained) culturally produced and can, as cultural artefacts, be subverted and dismantled. Accommodating differences among women, she argues that norms concerning gender are continually changing and do not confer on women any common identity or experience. Moreover, she denies that sex difference is more fundamental than other differences, construing it merely as a transient artefact of these shifting gender norms. Despite these advantages, Butler’s thought is problematic in that her stress on the cultural production of sex and gender privileges culture over matter and nature. A viable synthesis of her thought with that of Irigaray must therefore considerably revise Butler’s thought too, specifically (I will argue) by predicating Butler’s claims on the idea that bodies do have a natural character, but one of multiplicity. By this, I mean that each body is naturally composed of multiple forces (pre-conscious impulses to pursue particular kinds of activity), where this character of multiplicity is universally shared by all bodies. This idea of bodily multiplicity conflicts with Irigaray’s belief in sexual duality in several ways. One is that multiplicity is common to all bodies, so it cannot serve as a principle which introduces sexual differentiation between them. Being universal to all bodies, there is nothing in multiplicity as such which could cause these bodies to become specified into two sexually different forms.15
How, then, can this idea of bodily multiplicity be reconciled with Irigaray’s belief in natural duality? For this, we can turn to the tradition of philosophy of nature.16 F. W. J. Schelling and, to a lesser extent, the poet/thinker Friedrich Hölderlin propose that nature is a process of self-differentiation, endlessly dividing into polar oppositions, then seeking to go beyond these oppositions by subdividing each of their poles. Nature, so understood, generates the difference between the sexes but, once realised in this form, passes beyond it by introducing subdifferentiations into each sexed individual, so that individuals are never simply sexed but always have an internal multiplicity of characteristics as well. Since natural duality can be fully realised only when it is expressed culturally, a culture of sexual difference is the precondition for the full development of multiplicity within individuals (although, because sexual duality is already partially realised, varying degrees of multiplicity must already co-exist with duality in all individuals). However, any legitimate culture of sexual difference must be of a self-critical kind which permits the expression of our accompanying multiplicity as well. According to my rethinking of Irigaray’s later philosophy, then, sexual difference remains natural, but it is merely one manifestation of a broader natural process of self-differentiation, and so it should be culturally expressed in a self-critical, self-limiting, form.
Evidently, my approach to Irigaray is not simply expository but is also informed by the aim of working out a viable, substantive position in feminist philosophy – namely, a conception of nature as self-differentiating and manifesting itself in both duality and multiplicity. Given this orientation, I shall explain Irigaray’s claims in a critical and analytic style distinct from her own. Her later writing style is less allusive and opaque than that of her earlier texts, yet it often remains evocative and politically inspirational rather than precise. My relatively exact language may seem incapable of doing justice to her thought. Against this, I would stress that readers whose intellectual and cultural standpoints differ from those of a text can, because of this difference, illuminate previously occluded aspects of the text. This principle is familiar from feminist history of philosophy: current feminist concerns can unearth dimensions in earlier texts – for example, the sexed connotations of their concepts – which have always been present but can be articulated and more explicit only in the context of subsequent feminist movements.17 Similarly, predominantly English-speaking feminist debates around nature, essentialism, and sexual diversity enable us to analyse critically the strengths and weaknesses of Irigaray’s later philosophy and so, too, to ascertain how it can be resituated within a framework that recognises bodily multiplicity as well as duality.
Complicating the question of the appropriate language for discussing Irigaray’s ideas is the untranslatability of some of her terms, conspicuously her distinction between masculin and féminin. She speaks of a féminin sex, desire, language, and cultural world (TS, 149/146, 30/29; DBT, 131), whereas English speakers, informed by the sex/gender distinction, would probably call sex and desire female, language and culture feminine. Irigaray’s usage reflects the fact that the French féminin covers all aspects of human being, the predicates mâle and femelle generally applying only to nonhuman animals and plants.18 To confuse matters further, Irigaray asserts the need for a genre féminin; by this, she means not a social feminine role but a culturally recognised female identity with its own specific worth, which all women could see themselves as embodying.19 In general, the wider scope of the French féminin facilitates Irigaray’s postulation of a natural sexual difference in humans which is rhythmic and processual, rather than narrowly biological, and which realises itself in sexual, psychical, and, ideally, cultural forms. In turn, whenever I explicate or draw on Irigaray, I will speak indifferently of men and males, or women and females. I shall use the adjective ‘female’ (or ‘male’) to translate Irigaray’s féminin (or masculin), given her view that the various manifestations of sexual difference ultimately derive from nature.20
My aim of rethinking Irigaray in terms of ideas from the philosophy of nature may seem idiosyncratic, since her more obvious reference points lie in the traditions of phenomenology and psychoanalysis – although her references to other authors and texts generally tend to be oblique and indirect. Still, there are some elements of the tradition of philosophy of nature which Irigaray knowingly, and relatively overtly, adopts in her later work. Firstly, she is explicit that she draws some support for her conception of natural duality from Hegel’s account of nature, specifically his view that mind, and social institutions and relationships, emerge from and must reflect our nature. (Irigaray criticises other aspects of Hegel’s philosophy of nature, though, as we will see.) Secondly, Irigaray also – but usually less explicitly – draws support for her particular understanding of natural duality from Hölderlin’s idea that nature divides against itself through the medium of humanity. Thirdly, Irigaray openly appropriates aspects of Heidegger’s rethinking of nature as a process of growth, a rethinking which is itself deeply influenced by Hölderlin, as Irigaray is well aware. In part, therefore, I turn to philosophy of nature in this book because Irigaray herself builds more or less explicitly on ideas from Hegel, Hölderlin, and Heidegger; by filling in more of the detail and background of these ideas, I can clarify and amplify her later views. But, in addition, I turn to other elements of the philosophy of nature which Irigaray ignores – namely, Hölderlin’s and Schelling’s conception of nature as a process of unending self-differentiation. This conception does not support Irigaray’s later philosophy of duality (which is, perhaps, why she ignores it). Rather, this conception of nature supports the view that sexual duality and multiplicity co-exist within bodies. Thus, looking at how Irigaray adapts ideas from philosophy of nature provides us with a vantage point from which we can proceed to identify alternative elements in this tradition, elements which enable us to rethink and go beyond Irigaray’s own position.
© Cambridge University Press
Table of ContentsIntroduction: Luce Irigaray and the nature of sexual difference; 1. Re-reading Irigaray: realism and sexual difference; 2. Judith Butler's challenge to Irigaray; 3. Nature, sexual duality, and bodily multiplicity; 4. Irigaray and Hölderlin on the relation between nature and culture; 5. Irigaray and Hegel on the relation between family and state; 6. From sexual difference to self-differentiating nature; Conclusion: reconciling duality and multiplicity.