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  • Sexual Difference as Model: An Ethics for the Global Future
  • Gail Schwab

In Éthique de la différence sexuelle (1984), Luce Irigaray targeted language and love—for her, inseparable from each other—as the two areas of focus for the elaboration of an ethics of sexual difference. The heterosexual couple seemed to have taken on a new, and somehow inappropriately central, importance in Irigaray’s thought in the early eighties; however, the projected mutations in language and love theorized in Éthique did not exclusively concern the heterosexual relationship, even though many readers of Irigaray expressed just such reservations about the book. Éthique foregrounded the couple in the love relationship in order to rethink the philosophical basis of ethics in general, to develop new paradigms, beyond or outside of Western totalizing phallo- and logocentrism, for human relations—not only relations between women and men, but also, and perhaps even more importantly, relations among women and relations among men. Irigaray carried on this project in subsequent works, in Sexes et parentés (1987), which as the title explicitly indicates, opens up the ethical debate to familial and genealogical issues and broadens her focus to include children and the ethical basis of their relationships to parents and more generally to adults of both sexes, and in Sexes et genres à travers les langues (1990), a cross-cultural report on her empirical studies of gender differences in language usage, which sheds new light on the linguistic and communicational issues she had presented in Éthique and even before, in several seldom read and even more rarely analyzed works of the late seventies and early eighties. J’aime à toi (I Love to You) (1992) returns specifically to the more traditionally philosophical approach to the problems of language and love and their intertwining, and carries on the work projected in Éthique, but it goes much further in both the theoretical and the practical development of the concept of sexual difference as the foundation for a new ethics, a new culture of universal validity. J’aime à toi can be read as a follow-up to Éthique and as a founding text for the construction of an ethics of difference modeled on sexual difference, an ethics for the future of humanity in all of its diversity.

Western Feminism and the Global Future

Irigaray is very much aware of the limits of the various Western political and academic feminisms, of the need to broaden their scope, both horizontally across cultures and vertically within specific cultures, before they can serve as the basis for a new ethics. Irigaray expresses the concern that Western feminists, rather than represent the exploited women of the world, may exploit them ideologically for their own personal or political purposes, at the risk of preventing them from coming to a feminism of their own making, appropriate to their own cultures and historical moments. “Certain women do implement power strategies—including the power of the media—but not solely for the benefit of the exploited women they use as an alibi. They thus run the risk of clouding the issues and [End Page 76] preventing their consciousness from being raised” [Irigaray, J’aime à toi 15]. 1 Irigaray calls this “egological” feminism (Dare I invent a new term here? Now we have “egofeminists” as well as “ecofeminists” . . .) and demonstrates its totally undemocratic orientation, despite its representative claims.

Certain militants . . ., practicing direct democracy or an egological feminism, based on their own real, or imagined, needs and desires, rather than on those of all women, leave women subject to existing legislation. Indifferent to the rights necessary for all women—including the little girls of the present and the future, and the women of other cultures—they make decisions that perpetuate, and even aggravate, through unnecessary misunderstandings, the injustices done the female gender.

[J’aime à toi 13]

As a feminist, in general, it always pains me to read criticisms of feminism, even cogent and theoretically valid criticisms, and I am even now painfully aware of the political dangers of criticizing feminism myself in a public forum such as this one. However, if I have managed to learn anything from the works of Western feminists of color and from Third World feminists, it is...