- Irigaray’s Erotic Ontology
Many contemporary feminist thinkers reject the accusation, most forcefully leveled by Monique Plaza in 1978, that Luce Irigaray’s theories of the feminine are naturalist. Irigaray’s conception of “the feminine” is hardly biological, but rather an “interrogative mood,” writes Meaghan Morris, coming to her defense in 1978; Morris imagined the iconoclastic philosopher lingering in a doorway, an ironic “recalcitrant outsider at the festival of feminine specificity” (64). Irigaray’s lasting radical concepts, including the “two lips,” which posits a feminist economy of knowledge production—chains of speaking in which no one ever speaks the final word—have invigorated feminist philosophy in both esoteric and popular milieus, as the resurgence of Irigaray’s reputation in academia in the 1990s and her influence on the grassroots theorizing of the recent Riot Girl movement confirm. A special issue of Diacritics in 1998, with titles like “Toward a Radical Female Imaginary: Temporality and Embodiment in Irigaray’s Ethics” and “Women on the Global Market: Irigaray and the Democratic State,” attests to the fact that Irigaray, once unfortunately unfashionable among U.S. feminists, still provokes and compels some thirty years after she transformed the feminist critical landscape with her second doctoral thesis, which became one of her most important books, The Speculum of the Other Woman.
In one of the most inspiring grapplings with Irigaray’s work, Beyond Accommodation: Ethical Feminism, Deconstruction, and the Law (1991; 1999), Drucilla Cornell rejects any notion that Irigaray’s “feminine” can be mapped onto femaleness, or even that it describes something that exists in reality. Rather, Cornell explains, the feminine is “a kind of radical otherness to any conception of the real.”1 Cornell persuasively describes Irigaray’s category of the “feminine” as a space of the prospective, a conditional tense that inaugurates a certain future within language and within intelligibility. The fears in U.S. feminist academic circles (much less acute abroad) of what was seen as Irigaray’s essentialism now tell us more about the exigencies of backlash provoked by poststructuralism than about the real nature of Irigaray’s work. For, again to quote Morris, in fact “Luce Irigaray is very far from confusing the anatomical and the social, but works with a deadly deliberation on the point (the site and the purpose) of the confusion of anatomical and cultural” (64).
Now that the polemic of essentialism versus constructionism no longer dominates feminist scholarship, contemporary critics like Cornell and others have begun to engage Irigaray on her own terms. In her new work, Between East and West, Irigaray continues to do what she’s always done: interrogate the binaries of Western metaphysics, question what passes as normative rationality, insist on sexual difference as the impetus for the ethical apprehension of the Other. But here she also moves beyond the “feminine” as a critical space of possibility, to talk about actual breathing, stretching, orgasmic female bodies.
In this addition to Columbia University Press’s “European Perspectives” series, Irigaray’s tone is open, appraising—lacking the charged, tricky edge of “loyalty and aggression,” to use Judith Butler’s phrase, that characterizes her early, furious outfoxings of Plato and Freud (19). Here she dispatches the Pope with two words—“naïve paganism”—and takes a mere snip at deconstruction, identifying its practitioner’s virtuosity with a too “secular manner of know-how” and hence with Western man’s domination of nature: “does not the technical cleverness of the deconstructor risk accelerating, without possible check or alternative, a process that appears henceforth almost inevitable?” (5). In Between East and West, Irigaray has herself abandoned some of this “technical cleverness” and with it too the anger that fueled her first dizzying displays of critical prowess. Here, Irigaray is once more focused intently on what Morris admiringly identified as writing the “elsewhere.” Like Cornell, her American colleague in philosophy, Irigaray is “dreaming of the new”—what she calls “human becoming”—but her dominant mood is one of sadness for an entire civilization gone astray: “we are to have become at best objects of study. Like the whole living...