Claire Goldstein on Luce Irigaray, "This Sex which is not one"

The first time we discussed Luce Irigaray in class, there seemed to be quite a bit of hostility or discomfort about the author, her philosophical and rhetorical styles, and (our perceptions of) French feminisms.

I am hoping that as we have passed through some of the major influences on continental intellectual life of the twentieth century, we might better understand or perhaps even appreciate Irigaray's programme, methods and ideologies. Since we will not be spending time on Irigaray in class, I thought that I would use this paper to reconsider some of our concerns from September along with a little commentary on the short article we are reading for this week. I am certainly not an Irigaray expert, so I would appreciate any corrections or criticism you may send to the listserve.

"What is she trying to do?"

Irigaray's theoretical vocabulary seems a little more familiar now that we have read psychoanalytic and Marxist critics. "Radical analysis" looks a lot like the superstructure-base diagram we discussed in class for several weeks; a vector of causality connects a society's economic reality to its ideological construct, or vice versa depending upon the critic. Althusser, Gramsci, and even Bourdieu demonstrated that ideology plays a central role in the formation of social reality. Like Julia Kristeva and Helene Cixous, the other two major figures of 1970s French feminism, Irigaray passed briefly through a controversial intellectual circle called "Psychanalyse et Politique." Thus, as a radical *psychoanalytic* intellectual, Irigaray mixes radical analysis with Lacanian and Freudian theory in order to deconstruct patriarchal hegemony in the connected real, symbolic and imaginary orders. Hence her unorthodox prose -- a reaction against and within a symbolic order complicit in domination.

The title of Irigaray's book, "This sex which is not one," makes use of the polyvalence of the French word, "sexe." As in English, in French "sexe" denotes both sexual category and the sexual activity. Irigaray plays on yet a third French meaning for the word -- the sexual organ, usually the penis. By a strange coincidence, the noun with its definite article, "le sexe" may be used to designate either "the fair sex" or "the penis." With such a title, Irigaray is pointing to the slippage between the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic which she plays off of in her resistant re-reading of Freud and the construction of the feminine.

Irigaray's critique is more a narrative than a traditional expository analysis. With occasional irony, she retells the theorization of the female body and female sexuality and desire according to a masculine optic.

The feminine is figured as an absence within the real as well as the imaginary and symbolic orders. She has neither penis, nor phallus nor the Father's name. Lacan's reading of the subject may de-essentialize gender.

Yet, as Irigaray points out, his imaginary and symbolic are figured on a real physical object -- a "sexe" which no woman actually possesses. She has no singular, prized penis to erectly figure her interaction with the outside world. Her multiple, diffuse, tactile sexuality is eclipsed in the predominant phallic scoptophilia of western eroticism. Female desire is repressed from the cultural imaginary much as her physical body, seen in relation to the male sexual organ, is perceived as a passive negative space. Like Marx's money she does not signify independently, but as an exchange value, mediating and signifying male desire.

Of course, Irigaray may be criticized for her "essentialism." (which, by the way, does not bother *me* so much -- this whole female gender thing did, after all, start the day I was born with a vagina) Her style seems dated and obtuse. And, here we are in the 90s -- where has radical analysis of social domination taken us?

Although she is not talking about the classroom or the intellectual, I think that Irigaray's narration can teach us a few things about our work even beyond the scope of a feminist analysis. With her difficult style she reminds us that no rhetoric is neutral, rather, each rhetoric is fundamentally tied to a larger symbolic order which is in turn related to an imaginary and a real, which, as we know have no claims to impartiality.

Although she is perhaps not the stylistic example each of us would wish to follow, Irigaray does exemplify the type of critic who considers and deploys within her own cultural work the theoretical reading which she perceives as influential.

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