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  • Toward a Radical Female Imaginary: Temporality and Embodiment in Irigaray’s Ethics
  • Ewa Plonowska Ziarek* (bio)

An important intervention of Irigaray’s work on sexual difference into the postmodern debates on ethics is the mediation between two different lines of ethical inquiry: one represented by the work of Nietzsche, Deleuze, Foucault, and, to a certain degree, Castoriadis, and the other by the work of Levinas, Derrida, and Lyotard. Although the two trajectories both depart from the notion of morality as a universal system of law and judgment, they represent different approaches to freedom and obligation. For Levinas, Derrida, and Lyotard, the ethical significance of alterity disrupts social systems of signification and, in this sense, marks transcendence as a break in discourse, whereas for Nietzsche, Deleuze, and Foucault, otherness is expressed within the endless variations of becoming. To elucidate this difference, it might be useful to recall John Caputo’s distinction between two kinds of postmodern ethics—the Nietzschean heteromorphism and the Levinasian heteronomy. In its emphasis on becoming and change, heteromorphism, Caputo claims, puts forward the claim of liberation but cannot accommodate an obligation to the other: “In heteromorphism, the aim is freedom from inhibition and blockage, freedom from . . . the weight of values . . . from everything that weighs the will down. . . .” By contrast, the Levinasian ethics of alterity gives priority to the obligation to the other, which calls the freedom of the subject into question: “freedom is suspect, suspended, held in question, because it is aggressive, self-accumulative, and eventually, finally murderous. Heteronomism wants the other to be free while one is oneself held hostage” [Caputo 60].

In my discussion of the radical female imaginary I would like to show that Irigaray’s work refuses to align itself with either side of this divide. Originating in the very gap between liberation and responsibility, self and other, immanence and transcendence, freedom and obligation, the feminist ethics of sexual difference cannot disregard any of these claims. For Irigaray, the ethics of sexual difference has to enable different trajectories of gendered becomings without forgetting the obligation to the other. In fact, Irigaray argues that the responsibility to the other who differs sexually is the very source of such becomings. Irigaray’s ethics maintains neither the rigid separation between freedom and obligation, as is the case in Levinas’s work, nor their symmetrical reversibility, as is the case in Kant’s ethics. By contesting the oppositions between carnal passions and ethical obligations, between the respect for the other and the becoming of the self, Irigaray allows us to think through the disjunction between the two main ethical trajectories of postmodernism and to find the means to negotiate between them. In this essay I would like [End Page 60] to focus on two moments of such negotiation: the becoming of sexed bodies and the temporality of the female imaginary.

One of Irigaray’s famous claims is the charge of the forgetting of sexed bodies in the discourses of philosophy, science, linguistics, and politics. Although this claim is certainly not new in feminist theory, what is original in Irigaray’s work is the diagnosis of the numerous symptoms of such forgetting, for instance, the relation she makes between the erasure of the sexed body and the nihilism of Western culture. For Irigaray, the forgetting of sexual difference manifests itself not only in the disregard for the specificity of feminine embodiment, desires, and genealogies but also in the disembodied character of linguistic analyses, in the erasure of the drama of enunciation evident in the privilege given to predication, in the separation of the subject of knowledge from carnality and desire, in the infatuation with formalism and with its obverse side, the crippling nostalgia for the maternal body, and, finally, in the rigid separation between the immanence of flesh and the transcendence of the spirit. 1 Even more striking is the originality of Irigaray’s intervention, which links the question of sexual difference with the temporality of the body.

An important element of Irigaray’s ethics of sexual difference is the recovery of “that repressed entity, the female imaginary” [TS 28]. Despite numerous excellent discussions of the imaginary in Irigaray’s work, the complexity of her negotiations around this...