Psychoanalytic theory and postfeminism: the work of Luce Irigaray
Irigaray studied linguistics and philosophy before becoming a psychoanalyst. She taught in Lacan’s Department of Psychoanalysis at the University of Vincennes; however, after she published her book Speculum of the Other Woman (1985a), she was dismissed from her position by Lacan. Irigaray is one of the French feminists most interested in the concept of difference: differences between the sexes; differences among women; differences within the single individual woman. Her area of interest is the discursive field of metaphysics and her writing style is literary and creative. Irigaray’s work deals with ‘“the master-texts of Western philosophy” and her thought engages in an in-depth dialogue with a range of major theories in this field, including Foucault’s archaeological/genealogical method, Derrida’s metaphysical deconstruction and Deleuze’s desiring machines’ (Braidotti 1994:62). Irigaray responds to these theories and adapts them to her project of ‘expressing the positivity of sexual difference’ (ibid.).
One of the central theses in Irigaray’s (1977:71) work is that language and systems of representation cannot express female desire. She studies the language of ‘male and female schizophrenics and observes that men have an ability for meta-language (language which talks about language) which women do not have’ (Rowley and Grosz 1990:195). Irigaray contends that this development is not specific to schizophrenia and she maintains that women are ‘unable to express their ideas through the language that is imposed upon them when they enter the symbolic order’ (ibid.). As Braidotti (1994:63) states: ‘How can we speak, think and create within structures that are misogynist and seem to feed off the exclusion and appropriation of the feminine?’ Braidotti goes on to reveal how Irigaray confronts this positioning of the feminine in ‘a double movement that combines denunciation and creation. [S]he unveils the masculine character of discourse, while positing a new female feminist subject’ (ibid).
In Speculum of the Other Woman (1985a), Irigaray analyses the history of Western theoretical discourse from Plato to Hegel. In this tradition, to which Freud belongs, Irigaray (1977:63) states that the feminine is defined as ‘nothing other than the complement, the other side or the negative side of the masculine’. In challenging this conception Irigaray is not interested in anatomy, but in its morphology; in other words, in the way it has been represented, conceptualised and articulated in these discourses.
Irigaray’s emphasis on heterogeneity and difference in language is influenced by the work ofJacques Derrida. Todd (1983:237) maintains that, in addition to exploring ‘the specific morphological characteristics of the feminine’, Irigaray’s feminist project is to deconstruct phallogocentric discourse, ‘to show that the socalled universal discourse, whether it be philosophic, scientific or literary, is sexualized mainly in a masculine way’ (ibid.). Thus for Irigaray textual practice cannot be separated from political practice and Irigaray bases her re-evaluation of ecriture feminine on the feminine multiple plural jouissance. As Braidotti (1994:64) notes, ‘[h]er ‘position on feminism is much more positive than that of the other ecriture feminine women; Irigaray is the only one to have been involved in feminist actions through the 1970s’. While defending the notion of dfferance, Irigaray subtly combines this with a commitment to collective feminist political action. For Irigaray ‘woman does not exist and she will be unable to come into being without women’s collective efforts, which empower and symbolize her specific sexuality, jouissance, textual practice and political vision’ (ibid.).
In another of her texts, This Sex Which is Not One (1985b), Irigaray addresses the question of the relationship between equality and difference, and warns against the concept of equality. She states that ‘Woman could be man’s equal. In this case she would enjoy, in a more or less near future, the same economic, social, political rights as men. She would be a potential man’ (Irigaray 1985b: 84). One of Irigaray’s most strident criticisms of emancipatory feminism is the danger of its being subsumed within pre-established masculine canons. Braidotti (1994:65) maintains that Irigaray’s ‘justification of ecriture feminine is articulated along with the search for women’s unexplored possibilities and potentialities, so that this “other” which is concealed by the masquerade known as femininity may be revealed’.
Irigaray goes beyond Freud and Lacan to produce a radical theory of the feminine libido which is based on, as Weedon (1987:61) notes, female sexuality and autoeroticism and which celebrates the plurality of female sexual pleasure in separation from men. Weedon indicates that Irigaray extends the Lacanian concept of the phallocentric patriarchal order in arguing that ‘the otherness of female sexuality has been repressed by patriarchy which seeks to theorize it within masculine parameters’ (ibid.: 63).
Irigaray maintains that ‘the patriarchal definition of sexuality caused women to lose touch with their essential femininity which is located in the female body; with its capacity for multiple and heterogeneous pleasure(s)’ (ibid,.). Weedon shows how Irigaray argues for an integral relationship between sexuality and language. As in Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, Irigaray shows that ‘the acquisition of language produces desire and women’s language is motivated by attempts to satisfy desire’ (ibid.). Irigaray argues that just as women’s libido is ‘other’ to men’s, so women’s language is necessarily distinct from male language. Weedon highlights the fact that Irigaray offers a theory of the ‘female’ rather than the feminine. In Irigaray’s view, female sexual pleasure is fundamentally autoerotic and plural, while male sexuality is concentrated on the penis, women’s has a multiplicity of sexual organs. Irigaray maintains that ‘female desire is totally foreign to male desire and the two can only be brought together through a patriarchal repression of the female’ (Weedon 1987:64).
In establishing the interconnection between sexuality and language, Irigaray argues that, when freed from their patriarchal definition and repression of their sexuality, women are assumed to be fundamentally different from men and their use of language is other than the logical language of the symbolic order. In Irigaray’s work, ‘the male sexuality and desire in the form of the phallus is the organizing principle of the symbolic order and the source of the type of rational language through which social power is exercised’ (Weedon 1987:65). For Irigaray there is no space for resistance within the terms of the symbolic order, and women who do not wish to repress their true femaleness can have no access to it. Irigaray is much more explicit about the link between biology and identity than Lacan:
The shift of emphasis in Irigaray’s work from the ‘Oedipus complex’ organised around the phallus, the signifier of male desire to female sexual pleasure offers women a positive interpretation of their bodies. They are no longer defined in terms of lack
Thus Irigaray’s commitment to feminist politics is central for the articulation of her theory of difference; it is women’s movements which establish ‘a separatist space’, where women can ‘speak their desires and.. .shatter the silence about the exploitation they have undergone; it is the theoretical and political building site for forms of expression and multiple struggles’ (Braidotti 1994:65). Irigaray’s approach provides a theoretical basis for an understanding of the transformation of subjectivity in which feminism has played a central role.
While Irigaray’s conception of the subject within a system of signification gives her much in common with elements of poststructuralism, ‘her aim is the deconstruction of phallogocentrism through the affirmation of another symbolic system, based on female feminine specificity’ (Braidotti 1994:96). As Braidotti observes, for Irigaray, deconstruction is only a dimension in her analytic framework, while it ‘constitutes the most critical and most explicitly feminist stage in the rereading of the history of Western philosophy: the heart of her work is about creating an alternative system’ (ibid.). Ultimately Irigaray’s philosophy of sexual difference has at its centre the dissolution of the classical subject of representation to facilitate the possibilities and articulation of ‘new nonlogocentric ways of thinking’ (Braidotti 1994:67)