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  • Women on the Global Market: Irigaray and the Democratic State
  • Nicole Fermon (bio)

Best known for her subtle interrogation of philosophy and psychoanalysis, Luce Irigaray clearly also conducts a dialogue with the political, proposing that women’s erasure from culture and society invalidates all economies, sexual or political. Because woman has disappeared both figuratively and literally from society [see Sen, “More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing”], Irigaray conceives the contemporary ethical project as a recall to difference rather than equality, to difference between women and men—that is, sexual difference. She characterizes relations between men and women as market relations in which women are commodities, objects, but never subjects of exchange, objects to men but not to themselves: women do not belong to themselves but exist “to keep relationships among men running smoothly” [TS 192]. Women under these conditions require imaginative ways to reconfigure the self, to subvert the melancholy and regression of masculinist economies and envisage a future in which women would not be ashamed of the feminine, would experience it as a positivity worth emulating.

Irigaray contends that after the gains of egalitarian politics are carefully examined, the inclusion of women in the political arena has failed to take into account women’s distinct and different position from men, and from each other, as well as perpetuating the fiction of the “neutral” citizen, the ahistorical individual citizen of the nation-state. It is that fiction Irigaray dispels in her critique of liberal democratic politics and its creation, “citizens who are neuter in regard to familial singularity, its laws, and necessary sexual difference” [SG 112] in order to benefit the State and its laws. The subject is male; the citizen is neuter. Who is the female citizen in contemporary society? What is the ethical elaboration of the contractual relations between women and men, and between sexed individuals and the community? How do women imagine a distinct set of rights and responsibilities based on self-definition and autonomy, given the particular strictures of contemporary politics—that is, the market-driven, antidemocratic nature of the current economic national and global forces? Irigaray suggests that “the return of women to collective work, to public places, to social relations, demands linguistic mutations” and profound transformations, an embodied imagination with force and agency in civil life [TD 65].

Irigaray warns that if civil and political participation is construed in overly narrow terms, if focus is on economic or judicial “circuits” alone, we overlook the symbolic organization of power—women risk losing “everything without even being acknowledged” [TD 56]. Instead an interval of recognition can expand the political to include the concerns and activities of real women, lest silence imply consent to sexual neutrality, or more likely, to women’s obliteration under men’s interests and concerns. Women’s insistence on self-definition and wage labor, on love and justly remunerated work, [End Page 120] testifies to the obduracy of women’s difference, one that is not likely to disappear. The patriarchal family is still the legal norm, even when certain exceptions are made, while enduring questions regarding women’s health and children’s physical welfare as priorities beyond market considerations are consigned to legislative obfuscation, still a political afterthought. Instead, in the US the liberal state removes the slender welfare net specific to women and children, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and fails to provide medical coverage to those who are among the most vulnerable of its citizens. Women without access to the legal protection of sex-neutral citizenship, poor working women without language (the money for an effective “mouthpiece” to represent their distress in a court of law), are further disempowered by liberal politics’ insistence on sexual neutrality—that is, on repression or amnesia regarding the lived experiences of women.

Sexual difference is key to any project of self-definition by women. Irigaray insists on the sexual nature of this self-definition, not solely for its obvious procreative necessity, but because the natural world is a source of renewal and fecundity which requires attentive interrogation and respect [SG 15]. This rebirth seems alien to the structure of male politics, which instead seem to provoke disasters (Bhopal, Chernobyl, or the current runaway...