- Of Being-Two: Introduction
The decade or so spanning the later 1970s to the mid-1980s witnessed the growing importance of “sexual difference” in Anglo-American academic discourse in the humanities and the “soft” social sciences. Both as an interpretive principle in textual criticism and literary theory and as a critical framework for the analysis of social and political structures and cultural formations, sexual difference provided a fertile conceptual ground from which the disinterested universalism claimed by patriarchal and phallocentric knowledges could be put into question. However, in the past decade, the primacy of sexual difference as a critical principle has itself been called into question for eliding other collective forms of difference such as race, class, and sexuality.
In a sense, this fracturing or fissuring of the conceptual ground of feminist theory can be seen as a logical outcome of the concept of “difference” itself, which endlessly proliferates into a multiplicity of sometimes conflictual forms. Nevertheless, it is important to stress that the fissuring of “sexual difference” within academic discourse also reflects and expresses (albeit a little belatedly) broader sociological and political events: the rise in the 1970s of what the sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein has described as new antisystemic movements or “new social movements.”
By the 1970s one began to speak in the plural of the “new social movements.” The shift from the grammatical singular to the plural provides a crucial clue to the nature of the process. For the “movement,” if it was ever organizationally singular, soon became multiple, if not necessarily fractionated. That is to say, there emerged a whole series of movements, each organized around a specific theme or focus—movements of “ethnic minorities” or “immigrants,” womens’ movements, ecology movements, antiwar movements, gay and lesbian movements, movements of the handicapped and of the aged (or pensioners). . . . The key theme of the new movements in the West was the forgotten people—the ethnic underclasses, the women, the gays, the aged, et cetera.[41–42]
Due caution should, of course, be exercised concerning the many mediations between theory and practice. Nevertheless, this connection between the fissuring of sexual difference in academic theoretical critique and the pluralized nature of the new social movements that emerged in the 1970s necessarily raises the question of whether the contemporary political world has become too complex for sexual difference to serve as a primary critical-analytical and practical principle. Put another way, does sexual difference have continuing pertinence as an effective mechanism and/or ideal horizon for ethical and political transformation? What political future(s), if any, does sexual difference have?
As editors of this special issue of diacritics, we have chosen to address these questions about the political future of sexual difference through a critical consideration of the work of one of the most intriguing and original of the present generation of European philosophers, Luce Irigaray. The theoretical question of sexual difference is [End Page 3] indissociable from Irigaray’s writing. The initial posing of the question of sexual difference in the Anglo-American academy coincided with, and was given added impetus by, the translation of Irigaray’s early works into English as part of the corpus of writings that became known as “French feminism.” 1 But what makes it especially apposite to center a special issue on the political future of sexual difference around Irigaray is her continuing insistence on the fundamental nature and, indeed, the infrastructural status of sexual difference to human existence as a whole. In An Ethics of Sexual Difference, originally published in 1984, Irigaray suggests that sexual difference is the fundamental ethical question of the contemporary era:
Sexual difference is one of the major philosophical issues, if not the issue, of our age. According to Heidegger, each age has one issue to think through, and one only. Sexual difference is probably the issue in our time which could be our “salvation” if we thought it through. But, whether I turn to philosophy, to science, or to religion, I find this underlying issue still cries out in vain for our attention.[ESD 5]
In subsequent, more politically oriented texts, Irigaray has not only reaffirmed this initial suggestion. She has made the...