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Luce Irigaray

Luce Irigaray interviewed by Octave Larmagnac-Matheron and translated by Mélanie Salvi.

Luce Irigaray, now ninety-two years old, was, among many other things, one of the most impactful feminists of the 1970s liberation movements – before she was marginalised, then ostracised, from the francophone intellectual sphere. The reason for this was the publication of her thesis, Speculum of the Other Woman (1974), a radical critique of the use of the feminine in psychoanalysis, and a deconstruction of the very foundations of our culture. According to Irigaray, our culture is built around the idea of a ‘neutral subject’; but this idea is fictitious: the reality is what she calls ‘sexuate belonging’ and ‘sexuate difference’. This says there are two subjectivities, masculine and feminine, and also a culture of ‘between two’; as opposed to the idea of a universal human subject who in practice is male.

Luce Irigaray

The immediate scandal of the publication was commensurate with the book’s success: Irigaray was cast away from Vincennes University and the École Freudienne de Paris. Later she was prevented from publishing anything. Already exiled from her birth country, Belgium, and from her coal-miner family, the young woman faced intellectual rejection in her new homeland. She and her ideas took refuge abroad; in Italy where she worked alongside the Communist party for years; and in the United States, where she became a fundamental reference for gender studies and feminist theory. Her deep ecological conviction was born out of ‘a respect for nature’, which is also at the heart of her differentialist approach to gender. Reluctant to look back on the controversies she’s had to face, she tirelessly endeavours to ‘create something positive for the present and the future’ instead of dwelling on negatives.

Her latest work, The Mediation of Touch, explores the role of touch as living mediation in relating to oneself, to the other(s), and to the world. It develops the idea that touch entails communing with other living beings rather than seizing hold of them as quasi-objects; and suggests that touch can ensure a sensitive mediation between individuals in a culture of transcendental difference(s).

How did you think about the Covid crisis?

As a young researcher who attended my postgraduate seminar wrote to me during the first quarantine, “the two central themes of your thought, breath and touch, are now central issues.” It is unfortunate that it’s so for negative reasons rather than positive. It would be preferable to think about the practice of breathing as a culture of life, and air as that which unites all living beings, and touch as the first and most fundamental means of communication and communion between us [rather than as things to be feared].

Why have we in the West forgotten the importance of air?

Air is absolutely irreducible, but our logic cannot deal with this type of fundamental reality. Air is the element most essential to life. Alas, our culture considers eating rather than breathing as that which primarily makes our existence possible; and while materialists focus their attention on the need to eat and the money that this requires, they worry very little about the need to breathe, which is even more fundamental, and is, in a way, free.

What’s the starting point of our forgetting about air?

Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone (c.441 BC) marks the passage from a time where humans merely inhabited the cosmos, to an era where the world itself is constructed by man. It is also Antigone’s concern for the purity of the air that spurs her to bury her brother in defiance of King Creon’s prohibition; and it is by depriving her of air – by trapping her in a cave – that Creon condemns her to death.

I wrote about Antigone in Speculum, because the principles she defends with her life – a respect for nature, for matrilineal genealogies, and for sexuate difference – are at the heart of our time’s concerns. Yet who amongst our contemporaries really understands the meanings of these imperatives? Is not man still striving to appropriate natural laws, instead of wondering how to respect them and to develop himself in conformity with his natural belonging? Doing so would allow him to utilise the breath his soul needs in order to be a body’s soul, as in Aristotle’s conception of the soul – a soul made of breath and touch.

Does the desire to dominate nature come through the logos?

The logos, or logic which underlies the discourse, is the instrument through which our Western tradition attempted to appropriate and govern the real. But this rational discourse cannot give expression to the living, because words fix it and life only exists by becoming. The most elementary gesture of life, breathing, cannot be reduced to discoursing. However, there are certain uses of language that are more in accord with a culture of breath, such as singing and poetry. Yoga masters taught me, especially during an apprenticeship in India, the importance of singing, which in the West is too often enslaved by discourse.

Also, I write a poem each day, as a sort of daily prayer – Everyday Prayers (2004) is the title of my first poetry book. There I pay little attention to form and attempt instead to express experience in intimate connection with life as lived, letting my flesh discover the appropriate words without submitting them to my judgement’s arbitration. This is a return to an original speech, before speech is integrated into the totality of discourse.

Does such speech preserve silence?

In Sharing the World (2008), I write that silence is the threshold from which one is able to welcome and listen to the other as other. This silence is necessary in order to respect each of the two worlds’ horizons. And as I mention in Between East and West (Entre Orient et Occident, 1999), the endpoint for a Westerner would be the mastery of every discourse (such as Hegel attempts); whereas for Buddha, the goal is about reaching silence. Eastern cultures generally stay faithful to nature and show a concern about life and its rhythms. The West, on the other hand, privileges a culture of the subject, as inaugurated by man’s attempt to master the cosmos, and thus to break free from his natural belonging and his coexistence with other living beings, whose functioning he claims to regulate. This is decried by the Chorus in Antigone. My thought endeavours to escape the logic of ‘mastery over’, and instead to return to the irreducible singularity of each living being.

Does breathing teach us to live in harmony with other(s)?

Breathing is first of all the condition for our autonomy and our individuation: to be born is to breathe by oneself. Breathing is also what most universally unites us with other living beings. Breathing is thus at once what separates and unites us with the world and with the other(s). The daily practice of yoga taught me how a conscious exercise of breathing contributes to freeing us from physical, but also mental, paralysis by reopening the circle of habits, certainties, and blockages. It allows us to discover what an embodied and spiritual integrity is, which makes us able to recognise, and also to welcome the other as other without projecting on to them our own problems, and so without encumbering or polluting our relationship.

For you, does cultivating life require cultivating the natural difference between the sexes?

Sexuate belonging is an original and irreducible determination of our identity and subjectivity. The fact that we are sexuate is prior to anything pertaining to sexuality proper, in particular, sexual choice. That is why I use the word ‘sexuate’ [sexué] instead of ‘sexual’ [sexuel], except when it comes to sexuality. Sexuation is a fact that characterises us as living beings. Taking on our sexuate difference is a way to recognise ourselves and to exist as a living being among other living beings instead of behaving like masters of the universe. Questioning the way genders have been constructed historically cannot amount to abolishing their difference(s). As an evolved animal species, humanity is divided into two genders. Denying this is behaving in a non-human way.

Was this radical position on difference the cause of your expulsion from French intellectual circles after the publication of Speculum?

I was expecting neither such success nor such repression. Luckily, the reactions were not solely negative. Besides the incredible sales of the book, many women contacted me to thank me for writing it. Is it really mine to explain what motivated the violence of the exclusions? There is no doubt that my position challenges the foundation of our culture, in particular by my advocating a return to nature antedating the elaboration of binary logic by Presocratic philosophers. My thought takes issue with the privileging of ‘the same’ over the existence of difference – beginning with the differences which exist between living beings.

What did you make of the exclusion?

I was immediately welcome abroad, first and foremost in Italy. There I worked a lot with women from independent political movements, but also with women from the Italian Communist Party. I even got to speak during the last Party Congress. I then collaborated with one of the party’s members, Renzo Imbeni, notably at the European Parliament. Together we wrote the report on EU citizenship in which we demanded rights for women, children, and foreigners. I was also invited to give conferences and organise seminars by many foreign universities, in Europe, the US, Canada…

Sexuation is natural, you say. Is it then inscribed on the body, into biology?

Our sexuate belonging is determined by our genetic and chromosomal potential, incarnated in the body of a man or a women through specific morphology and properties, in particular hormonal properties.

Is it not strange that science today is so deeply concerned with chromosomes and sexual hormones, while we are very inattentive to our identity, both physical and psychical? How is it possible to ignore sexuate difference while claiming to fight for ‘women’s liberation’? Is this ‘fight for women’s liberation’ not tantamount to maintaining a traditional position which refuses to recognise both woman’s subjectivity and an appropriate culture for her natural belonging?

I do not believe that my position on this issue is marginal, even in France. Women I speak to incognito – in parks, on public transport, or in shops – are in fact closer to this position than they are to the ‘official’ discourse held up in the name of feminism. As for the accusation of ‘essentialism’, does this accusation itself not result from a misconception? If man and woman exist, is the human being other than a constructed essence?

Does this biological difference entail different conceptions of the world?

Our traditional logic has privileged the ‘one’, the visible, the solid, the substantial, and the exterior – so many qualities that relate to man’s sex. It has neglected, if not despised, the qualities of feminine sex, which have more to do with touch, with the fluid, the invisible, the interior, the intimate, the communion between two – so many qualities towards which men have feelings of both attraction and repulsion. They have a fascination with Plato’s ‘Myth of the Cave’, which privileges sight, whereas women aspire to a sensitive transcendental that touch allows them to reach.

Is there a radical difference between feminine and masculine subjectivities?

Woman’s subjectivity should be able to exist in harmony with her corporal specificity, but also in harmony with her position vis-à-vis the mother.

The structuring of subjectivity is not the same according as one, but is dependant on whether one is born of a mother different from oneself, as the boy is, or a mother similar to oneself, as the girl is. It also varies depending on whether love and generation happen within or without oneself, with all the differences this entails. Accordingly, for woman, hospitality goes beyond the question of national borders, of a culture, a house, and presupposes a welcoming in the most intimate depths of oneself.

Antigone and Polynices
Antigone and Polynices, Sébastien Norblin,1825

Is the idea of a ‘neuter’ subject a fiction?

Conceiving subjectivity as neuter amounts to a need and/or a desire, in particular for man, to rise above nature and to dominate it – beginning with the nature the mother is equated with. This need/desire is justified by the alibi of seeking ‘a real objectivity’. But real objectivity requires one to be able to recognize oneself objectively in one’s specificity. So by default, purported ‘objectivity’ responds to subjective personal requirements, and what presents itself as truth then corresponds to what is proper to a particular subject. Hence, a true encounter and true fecundity of exchanges between two different subjects are rendered impossible. The recognition of feminine subjectivity and intercultural relations also contradict the existence of a unique ‘neutered’ subject.

How are sexuation and generation best articulated?

As I explain in To Be Born (2017) and Sharing the Fire (2019), the question of the origin is crucial. We are born of a conjunction between two differently sexuated living beings. So our origin cannot be appropriated by either of the pair. Furthermore, it cannot be grasped by our dominant model of thought, which privileges the one and the One - its transcendental form - the same, the identical, and the similar. Then the origin has been attributed to God, or elaborated as mythical tales or philosophical systems more compatible with our logic.

Are women less estranged from the mystery of origins?

Woman is more familiar with the natural character of our origin. Our cultural tradition attempts to safeguard the privileging of the one and the One, by making the woman’s body a receptacle for the masculine seed. We are supposedly born, biologically from sperm, and spiritually, from a masculine logos, which is imposed upon the feminine body. Thus deprived of her own germinal potential, woman is valued as body and nourishing earth, but the generative potential of the female chromosomes is not recognised. However, the fact that a child resembles its father and its mother proves that this potential is real.

Is it necessary to recognise sexuate difference for a peaceful society to be possible?

Sexuation contributes to our individuation, as philosopher Gilbert Simondon remarked in L’Individuation psychique et collective (1989); but it is also necessary for the formation of society. Indeed, sexuation cannot be fully realised only at the individual level, as it involves the self in its relationship with the other. Sexuation therefore provides the community with a living link between individuals. But a neutered individual is deprived of personal identity. Hence individuals are gathered by external imperatives: customs, doctrines, ideologies, or decrees of more or less authoritarian masters. What can liberate us from such imperatives is the dynamic potential, the desire, that animates us and spurs us to unite. This is not a matter of sexuality strictly speaking, but of sentient, relational, and emotional elements linked to our sexuation. This potential arises from difference rather than from sameness.

Do you then encourage a society of ‘coexistence in difference’?

For difference to take place it is necessary that there are rights which recognise and protect respective identities. That is why I long fought, both theoretically and politically, for the obtention of sexuate rights. Our legislation, which is mainly concerned with ownership and goods (to which women and children are assimilated in patriarchal tradition) must be replaced by or supplemented with a legislation that privileges beings in their singularity and respect between different beings.

Does a feminine culture exist; or should it be invented?

Women already have a specific language, as shown by the many analyses of mixed-gender linguistic data that I carried out by myself or with others, notably in Sexes et genres à travers les langues (1990). Clear sexuate specificity in the usage of syntax appears in these analyses; but also difference(s) in the relation to time and space. It is necessary that our educational systems and our sociocultural norms recognize and encourage these differences, as a way to foster coordination instead of subordination between differently sexuated citizens.

How does sexuate difference relate to other differences?

As Simondon explains, the other differences follow from a process of individualisation, which is more surface-level than the process of individuation, which, in contrast, is more universal, original, and fundamental. The universal character of sexuate difference (even though this universal is at least twofold) allows coexistence between other differences, which often derive from sexuate difference. Indeed some ethnologists have shown how society is structured from family ties or alliances between the sexes.

Our era is said either to be individualistic or communitarian. Why?

The two tendencies are symptoms of unresolved issues in our relations to otherness. As was the case at the end of the nineteenth century, the other is still too often conceived by comparison with a unique subject that functions as a norm: the child, the madman, the stranger, etc. In this case there is no relationship to the other as other, nor is any reciprocity possible. The difference I talk about is neither comparative nor hierarchical. Yet woman has been, and still far too often is, defined as a sort of ‘negative’ of man. The binary logic that dominates our way of thinking leads us to mistake difference for opposition.

One of your recent works deals with ‘sharing’ the world. What do you mean by that?

Some feminist groups maintained that separatism was necessary as a resistance strategy. For sure, it is not easy for women to express what their world amounts to. However, it seems to me to be important that women and men learn to take part in a common world that takes account of their differences, without the subjection of the one to the other. We still have to invent such a world. It presupposes that man and woman assume their corresponding only to a part of the human being, and understand the necessity and fecundity of sharing with the other gender – for natural procreation, but also for the generation of community. Sexuate difference is thus the very difference that can secure a connection between our natural belonging and our cultural belonging.

This world grants us a chance of a liveable and shareable future, not only between humans but also between all living beings. Indeed such a world is constructed from life – a life that does not belong to any living being, but develops thanks to the sharing between all living beings.

Does the ‘to’ of ‘I love to you’ (the title of your 1996 book) aim to maintain difference in love?

It aims to avoid the reduction of the other to an object. Sexual embrace involves touch between mucous tissues, a communion in the greatest intimacy of the flesh. This communion can only occur if each abandons their withdrawal while maintaining their differences. Like the conception of a child, amorous union cannot occur without a difference which is incompatible with an appropriation of the one by the other. It exists like a work of art that the amorous partners create together without owning it. This is not a utopia, or a teenage dream. The practice of yoga, and tantric writings connected with a culture of energy, prove that such an amorous union is possible.

Is restoring energy the purpose and meaning of your oeuvre?

According to me, overcoming nihilism requires a culture of natural energy. This culture has been put on hold for centuries by the suprasensible ideals that Nietzsche invites us to forgo. But abandoning this natural energy to the power of technique is no less nihilistic. It is technique that now governs the world, to the point that it prevents democracy, as Heidegger maintains. How then can we appreciate the merits of certain technologies without becoming dependent on them? Is it not by cultivating the potential of our own energy, of which sexuate desire is a great part? Having energy allows us to keep hope. Sharing energy is to build another world together. Paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln, I would say that the way to believe in the future is to build it ourselves.

• Octave Larmagnac-Matheron is a journalist with a masters degree in contemporary philosophy from the Pantheon-Sorbonne University. He conducted this interview in French for Philosophie Magazine (philomag.com), where it was first published on 29 April 2021.

• Dr Mélanie Salvi, who translated it into English, worked with Luce Irigaray’s philosophy throughout her PhD, which she took at the University of Sussex.

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