Seiko Yoshinaga on Irigaray, "Women on the Market"

Irigaray argues that the pretence of (so-called) hetero-sexual society is a mere alibi covering the fact of a socio-cultural practice of hom(m)o-sexuality. The exchange of women not only smooths the working of men's relations with one another, but also stimulates the exchange of other "wealth" among groups of men. According to Irigaray, Levi-Strauss, on this very point, is surely right in observing that society would fall into disorder without the exploitation of women. In a patriarchal society only women serve as exchangeable "commodities," while men are "exempt from being used and circulated."

A woman is split into two bodies: her "natural" body and her socially valued exchangeable body. Only when women become "utilitarian objects and bearers of value" in exchanges among men do they become valuable. Women themselves are alienated from their own bodies, becoming instead both "forms" shaped by the cultural values of men and "mirrors" to reflect patriarchal morals. Women have no language of their own; they simply mimic male language like parrots.

In short, women are valued only in the social context of being the commodity-objects of men. What Irigaray suggests is that in order to create female identity and female subjectivity, women must have a sociality among themselves and a language of their own.

Irigaray begins her argument by taking the idea of "the exchange of women" from Levi- Strauss. However, she quickly dismisses him by pointing out the weakness of his rationalizations in accounting for the history of exchanging women. Levi-Strauss says women are exchanged because they are "scarce [commodities]...essential to the life of the group." Why scarce? Because, he says, the "deep polygamous tendency, which exists among all men, always makes the number of available women seem insufficient." But why are women, not men, objects of exchange? According to Irigaray, it is simply because in patriarchal hom(m)o-sexual society women have been excluded as "the other" and reduced to a means for smoothing transactions among men.

For Irigaray, therefore, Marx's analysis of "commodities" offers a more effective resource for developing her own argument. She uses Marx's description of the commodity relations and values in the capitalist market as an analogy for her own analysis of the structure and values of the cultural "market" or "economy" in patriarchal society in which women are situated and exploited. Where Marx posits "capitalists" as exploiters, Irigaray posits "men" in that role.

Irigaray, however, is critical of Marx for lacking a view of women's reality as a social "form" of the needs/desires of men, and not simply as natural "matter" or physical "property" in themselves. Women are "always enveloped and veiled" in men's judgments, and therefore "remain an unknown 'infrastructure' of the elaboration of that social life and culture." Marx probably believed that his scientific analysis of society could account for the totality of aspects of human life. But for Irigaray Marx's "science" was perhaps not so scientific after all, because it failed to see the exploitation of women as the basis of the commodity relations in patriarchal societies.

One might ask, however, whether Irigaray herself is trapped in the web of essentialism, a problem confronted by other feminists as well. Irigaray argues that women should take part in "elaborating and carrying out exchanges....Not by reproducing, by copying, the 'phallocentric' models that have the force of law today, but by socializing in a different way the relation to nature, matter, the body, language, and desire." If she believes in the existence of a language for and of women in contrast to male language, does she not make the same mistake as Levi-Strauss when he contrasts the "science" of modern people and the "magic" of "primitive" people? Is it the fate of anthropology and feminism, despite their efforts to the contrary, to fall into essentialism?

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