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Irigaray anxiety

Irigaray anxiety
Luce Irigaray and her ethics
for improper selves
Penelope Deutscher

The essays Luce Irigaray has published in the recent
works le, tu, nous, Thinking the Difference and I Love
To You are usually described as her more simplified
work. Questions are raised concerning the extent to
which Irigaray’s writing, and her concerns, have
evolved from the earlier, better known work in
Speculum of the Other Woman and This Sex Which Is
Not One. I Such questions should allow new
perspectives on that work, on the way in which it was
taken up in an Anglophone context, and the terms and
times in which it was read. In what follows I consider
the critical response to and problems of interpretation
provoked by the later work.

Sites of anxiety
Irigaray has undertaken to formulate the conditions of
possibility for a culture which would valorize sexual
difference. Her work includes historical surveys of
representations of women and materiality in the history
of philosophy, as well as specific proposals for the
reform of public, legal, civic, religious and political
institutions, and for formulating new conceptual bases
for ethical relations between the sexes. But in a recent
interview, Irigaray refers, surprisingly, to the humility
of her speaking position:

The way of using ‘I’ at one moment of my work is
to refuse to pretend to dictate truth for others; that
is, it’s a certain strategy for breaking with a
traditional philosophical subject and one parenthesizes the fact that it’s ‘he’ who dictates the truth.

In other words, I, Luce Irigaray, at this moment in
history; I think there’s a humility and a singularity
at the philosophical level. 2
This is a statement destined to grate on the ears of the
many critics who would not identify Irigaray’s tone,
or theoretical gestures, as humble. Michele Le Dreuff,
for example, finds a disturbing grandiosity, a stylistic


Radical Philosophy 80 (NovlOec


self-inflation in the feminism of difference, which, in
her view, implies an inappropriate intellectual stance.

Le Dreuff’s concern is that the worst pretensions of
the ‘Grand Subject’ of philosophy, who promises a
radical freedom of thought, are being repeated by some
feminist theorists:

to explore the entire system of signs governing the
manifestation of ‘femininity’ and ‘virility’ … It
would take an angel … to do it. We might as well
acknowledge the gap between radical freedom of
thought, which philosophy promises, and the
narrower freedom of which’!’ am (anyone is)
capable. In relation to the question of sexual
difference, no one is the Great Subject of philosophy or theory and this is why work can and
does take place, started by one, continued by
another, disputed by many.3
Although Irigaray agrees that grandiosity is the
classic philosopher’s mistake, ludith Butler suggests
that there is an incongruity in her work: ‘The largeness
and speculative character of Irigaray’s claims have
always put me a bit on edge … her terms tend to
mime the grandiosity of the philosophical errors that
she underscores. ‘4 This is particularly evident in
Irigaray’s material on divinity. Naming the ‘diabolical
thing’ about women as their lack of a God, Irigaray
declares that, ‘deprived of God, [women] are forced to
comply with models that do not match them, that exile,
double, mask them, cut them off from themselves and
from one another, stripping away their ability to move
forward into love, art, thought, toward their ideal and
divine fulfilment.’5 What does she mean by ‘ideal and
divine fulfilment’? Margaret Whitford has emphasized
the need to interpret Irigaray’s comments on women’s
identity, subjectivity and divinity in the context of her
radical redefinition of these concepts. 6 It is easy
enough to get interested in the complication of

lrigaray’s redefinitions.7 But there are always formulations that come back at one uncomfortably in the midst
of such unravelling (surely those jarring ideals of ‘divine
fulfilment’, for example). Butler is right that Irigaray’s
tone and style leave the reader on edge, left with a kind
of ‘Irigaray anxiety’.

Le Dreuff is also concerned that feminism of
difference ‘has remained at the stage of programmatic
utterances’ ,8 and Whitford identifies the danger that
‘the rather less subtle and more programmatic elements
of [Irigaray’ s] later work could close off rather than
open up dialogue with other women.’9
If this is a later site of Irigaray anxiety, early sites
are well known. Debates about essentialism, identity
politics, the privileging of sexual difference over differences of race, age and sexual orientation, overdetermined the Anglophone reception of her work. Despite
the critical material refuting such readings, the most
common reference one hears is still to Irigaray as the
essentialist who reifies women’s difference. 10 A certain
datedness is sometimes attributed to Irigaray, as expressed by a colleague who spoke of how she had once
gone through an Irigaray phase, and by another who
asked what I get out of Irigaray’s work these days.

But the proliferation of lrigaray’ s recent books means
that the question of what one gets out of Irigaray these
days must be renegotiated. Being able to rethink
Speculum of the Other Woman and the essays in This
Sex Which Is Not One in the light of the more recent I
Love To You should allow a regenerated discussion of
the earlier work. Despite her claim that there is no break
between her earlier work and the later texts, lrigaray
recently suggested that her work could be divided into
three phases. There was, she explains, a first, critical
phase, of decentring the dominance of a masculine
perspective on the world. There was a second phase, of
defining ‘those mediations that could permit the
existence of a feminine subjectivity’. A new, third phase
is said to correspond to the construction of an
intersubjectivity respecting sexual difference. Here, the
governing question would be ‘how to define … an ethic,
a relationship between two different subjects’ .11
However, in moving to the second and third phases,
critics worry that Irigaray has changed her style.

lrigaray’s analysis of the transitions to the second and
third phases returns us to the question of Irigaray anxiety.

Alys Weinbaum and Margaret Whitford agree that
Irigaray has courted danger. The move towards the
programmatic has occurred in tandem with what
Weinbaum describes as a ‘sharp stylistic break from
[her] earlier more recognizably philosophical texts’ .12
As Whitford writes: ‘she now states, rather than evoking
indirectly, and spells out instead of alluding’ .13 While

some critics have been uneasy with Irigaray’s
grandiosity, others are also uneasy with her attempts
at simplicity. While she goes on to defend Irigaray’s
work as a provocative gamble, Weinbaum agrees with
Whitford that it ‘constitut[es] a risk to readers who
will be tempted to interpret these simplified statements
at face value’. Whitford suggests that ‘Irigaray’s later
work is in some ways as difficult to understand as her
earlier work.’ The meaning of the simplified statements
‘depends on the complex analysis and infrastructure
of the earlier work’ .14
Although I agree with Whitford, I am trying to
engage here more directly with the Irigaray of works
such as le, tu, no us, Thinking the Difference and the
title essay of I Love To You – particularly the Irigaray
who eventually proposes programmes for reshaping
intersubjective relations between women, and between
women and men. I’m interested in reading back into
her early work the formulations concerning self/other
appropriation she sets forward in the later work. For
there is also the question of how ‘the complex analysis
and infrastructure of the earlier work’ looks when read
in terms of some of those ‘simplified statements’ of
the later work.

Having asked this question, I will return to the
question of ‘Irigaray anxiety’. Beyond new concerns
about the simplistic or programmatic elements in the
later work, it is obvious that certain refrains in the
later work must reinforce, or provoke anew, iriterpretation of Irigaray in terms of old debates – particularly
the debates about essentialism and identity politics.

Statements from Irigaray about the need to cultivate
women’s identity, including a civic identity, have
proliferated relentlessly in the later work, provoking a
classic ‘Irigaray anxiety’. Take Irigaray’s comment, in
the prologue to I Love To You, that what is required is
more than the attainment of the immediate needs
and desires of a woman …. It is, rather, a question
of awakening her to an identity and to rights and
responsibilities corresponding to her gender.

And again in ‘A Chance to Live’, in Thinking the

Woman must be able to express herself in words,
images and symbols in this intersubjective relationship with her mother, then with other women, if she
is to enter into a non-destructive relationship with
men. This very special economy of woman’s
identity must be permitted, known and defined. 15
Further, I will add some additional concerns which seem
likely to arise from certain formulations in I Love To
You. In her early work lrigaray discussed phallocentric
figures of the feminine. When she suggested that the
feminine had been ‘appropriated’ by the masculine,


she incurred considerable criticism. If Irigaray spoke
of an ‘appropriated’ feminine, did she not presuppose
some femininity ‘proper’ to women which ‘had been’

appropriated? Irigaray now often addresses the field of
intersubjective relations. She discusses the ways in
which one subject ‘appropriates’ another. Again, this
raises the question of the metaphorics of the proper
which it seems to imply. Here, the pertinent question
would be: what are ‘proper’ boundaries between

Irreducibility and mediation
Stepping back to review Irigaray’s corpus, and placing
early work such as Speculum of the Other Woman in
the context of her recent concerns, it now seems
Irigaray has offered a sustained account of the modalities of narcissism, the attempts at self-loving, ‘selfcapture’ by the subject, in which she is particularly
sensitive to the price paid by the other, by others.

Summarizing Irigaray’s concerns, one might say
that a subject who identifies with too phantasmatic or
impossible an ideal- of masculinity, of unified subjectivity, of autonomous identity – displaces the spectre
of lack onto the figure of the other. Irigaray could be
said to have investigated the way in which one draws
on desirable reflections of the self in the attempt to
coincide with a desired, ideal self. She counsels against
the confusion of identification with identity, describing
it as ‘idealistic delusion that produces a great deal of
social entropy’ .16 In her view, identificatory structures
are appropriative of difference, and her interest lies in
generating concepts for hypothetical identity structures
which are not appropriative of the other.

Irigaray can be seen, then, as a theorist particularly
sensitive to the price paid by others when the other
serves to reflect a contrasting inverted image of the
self to sustain his or her identity. A ‘masculine’

identity, constituted in this way, she said back in
Speculum, could be said thereby to ‘need its other, a
sort of inverted or negative alter ego’. This poses the
question: out of what matter is fashioned the reflecting
surface, and what must have happened to that ‘matter’

for it to have become so implicated in the self-capture
of the subject? In This Sex Which Is Not One, she
declared, famously, that the feminine ‘is always
described in terms of deficiency or atrophy, as the
other side of the sex that alone holds a monopoly on
value: the male sex’ . 17 The feminine was the archetypal
other sustaining an archetypal masculine subject.

But the feminine is also described as a remainder
exceeding its appropriation as the other. It is a device
that we see in the formulation of questions such as:

What has been appropriated?, What has been


atrophied? One can therefore argue that were it not for
the atrophy, feminine others might be otherwise, not
produced relative to the self-capture of the masculine
subject. In this way, one carves out the hypothetical
conceptual space for representations of femininity in
terms of other modes of difference. Irigaray makes
this move without having to essentialize the notion of
a feminine which ‘has been’ atrophied, as some kind
of specific identity subsisting its own atrophy.

Appropriation is not seen merely as a matter of
‘overlay’ which could be stripped away again to
expose an essential feminine underneath, waiting to
be uncovered.

Irigaray has attempted, from her earliest work, to
take up this question of how we can speak of a
missing ‘x’ which ‘has been’ appropriated. ‘X’ stands
in not for the misrepresented truth of woman but for
the absence of such a truth – for the truth, if you like,
that there is no truth. X, in other words, stands in not
for an identity but for a foreclosed possibility.

‘Sexual difference’ is also the name for relations
between women and men, which Irigaray argues are
not possible so long as femininity represents atrophy.

The idea of ‘sexual difference’ in this sense doesn’t
represent an ideal of monolithic, radically distinct
sexual identities occupied by women and men, but
instead an ideal for a culture in which sexed subjects
would be primarily oriented towards the other. as
opposed to drawing on the other primarily to provide
succour for one’s identity. Irigaray describes this as a
proposal to reconstruct society or the social community
through encounters between ‘a sexuate two’, each of
whom is irreducible to the other. Rather than appropriating the other, each would see the other as ‘you who’ll
never be me or mine’. 18
Some obvious concerns arise from the position just
outlined. First, the reader must ask why Irigaray so
emphasizes sexual difference. Between man and
woman, she says, there is:

a type of irreducibility that doesn’t exist between a
woman and a woman … Between us there is really a
mystery. Yes, there’s an irreducible mystery
between man and woman. It’s not at all the same
kind of mystery that exists between woman and
woman or between man and man.

And again:

Sometimes [Renzo Imbeni] has it that the
[irreducible] difference not be a sexuate manwoman difference, while I always try to return
the difference to that… This is by far the most
important: … a completely new relation and
without any … submission of one sex to the
other. 19

Irigaray can’t claim, as
she has at times, that
sexual difference is the
difference which cuts
without implying that
‘sexual difference’ IS a
stable ‘x’ signifying in
the same core way,
throughout all cultures,
whatever its local variability.

Furthermore, it is one
thing to argue, as Irigaray
does, that, to change
relations of sexual difference, no isolated modification to law or language
is ever sufficient; that
one would have to see
modified language, law, religion, economic exchange,
civil codes, the media, formal and informal ethical
codes, and so on. Irigaray’s insistence on this kind of
point is what I find useful in her turn to the
programmatic. It is another thing to argue (as she also
does) that the effects of traditional representations of
masculinity and femininity pervade and mediate not
just the man-woman relation but also relations among
woman and relations among men, and differences of
age, culture, race and sexuality. It is surely another
thing again, when Irigaray converts that refrain into
one with a quite different tone, into the refrain that
men and women are ‘more’ irreducible to each other.

One can only resist when Irigaray starts giving such
particular emphasis, as we have recently seen, to
formulations hierarchizing difference.

Second, some sections of I Love To You appear to
depart from the focus in Irigaray’s early work on the
way in which an othered femininity sustains the
specular self-capture of masculinity, the analysis of
woman as appropriated subject, cast in the role of
man’s other. By contrast, Irigaray’s recent work sometimes analyses woman as appropriating subject. Both
men and women are said to be prone to the day-to-day
appropriative relations in which I am less interested in
the other than in the recognition, love or identity which
the other seems to give me. In I Love To You Irigaray
describes this as cultural cannibalism, ethical failure
between subjects. She offers as instances a series of
self-other relations which risk ‘annihilating the alterity
of the other’, transforming him or her into the object,
or the ‘mine’; that which comprises ‘my field of

Pally Apfelbaum, All is Not Yet Lost, 1988

existential or material properties’. This series of
relations includes: ‘I love you, I desire you, I take you,
I seduce you, I order you, I instruct you, and so on.’20
Women are prone to this tendency precisely because
they are caught up in the specular self-capture of
masculinity. Already appropriated in man’s selfcapture, abandoned in that sense to atrophy, they are,
she claims, likely to turn to the other with the question
‘Am I loved?’ Surprisingly, Irigaray’s description of
women apparently concurs with the Freud who
asserted that there were ‘fundamental differences
between the male and female sexes in respect of their
object choice in love’. Women’s need, Freud claimed,
does not lie in loving but in being 10ved. 21 What do
we find in Irigaray’s work but formulations such as:

‘The typical sentence produced by a woman is: Do
you love me?,22 Analysing woman as appropriative
seems to lead to a restaging of woman as the narcissist
turning to others to sustain her ego.

The emphasis in Irigaray’s early work on woman
as ‘appropriated’ seems to have shifted. However,
elements in the early work do also suggest an interest
in figuring woman as appropriating, not only as
appropriated. For example, in ‘And The One Doesn’t
Stir Without the Other’, Irigaray’s retelling of the
Oedipal narrative, she describes an archetypal mother
who appropriates her daughter in her desire to
‘vanquish [her] own infirmity’. In Irigaray’s narrative,
the young girl does not turn away from her mother
towards her father because of her discovery of her
mother’s lack. Instead, she turns away because her
mother suffocates her. Irigaray describes a woman


unable to relate to her daughter in any but a paralysing
and engulfing mode which subordinates her daughter
to the needs of her own atrophied identity. As the
daughter laments to the mother:

an introverted intentionality, going toward the
other so as to return ruminating, sadly and endlessly, over solipsistic questions in a sort of cultural
cannibalism. 25

didn’t you quench my thirst with your paralysis?

And never having known your own face, didn’t you
nourish me with lifelessness …. Of necessity I
became the uninhabitable region of your reflections.

You wanted me to grow up, to walk, to run in
order to vanquish your infirmity. So that your body
would move to the rhythm of your desire to see
yourself alive, you imprisoned me in your blindness
to yourself … Imprisoned by your desire for a
reflection, I became a statue. 23

Irigaray’s appeal was not always so overtly to an
ethics of mediation: think of essays in This Sex Which
Is Not One in which Irigaray privileges a model of
interconnectedness between feminine subjects. ‘I love
you’, says Irigaray in ‘When Our Lips Speak Together’,
‘body shared, undivided. Neither you nor I severed’,
‘One is never separable from the other’. In this essay,
the speaker’s voice mocks the masculine logic whose
concern is with the exact number of subjects: the fact
that there are two. ‘In their calculations, we make two.

Really, two? Doesn’t that make you laugh?’ asks the
speaker; ‘I’m touching you, that’s quite enough to let
me know that you are my body’ .26
Because of these early, well-known evocations, the
reader might well be surprised at the ideals Irigaray
defends in her latest work – most of all, the politics of
mediation between selves and others, between women
and men, and between women. But a gesturing towards
a politics of mediation is also locatable in the early
work. For example, ‘And the One Doesn’t Stir Without the Other’ is an essay which evokes an ideal for
the entre-femmes in which ‘the one doesn’t disappear
in the other, or the other in the one’. As the daughter
says to the mother there:

Irigaray reminds us that, left in a cultural position of
atrophy, women do turn to appropriate the other feminine or masculine – to sustain the self, and that
there is a responsibility to analyse women’s ‘inappropriate’ relations to others. However, as we will
see, this in turn raises the question of what an
appropriate relation to the other might be.

A third point. Irigaray has come to appeal increasingly to the concept of a culture of mediation, of
mediation between subjects. She asserts the need for
the reorganization of codes of laws, civic duties and
ethics to mediate relations between women and
between women and men. 24
In I Love To You, Irigaray marks the relations I
would have with the other in such ideal circumstances
with an emblematic linguistic modification. My
relations with the other, she says, would exchange an
‘I love you’ for an ‘I love towards you’; an ‘I give
you’ for an ‘I give towards you’; ‘I tell you’ for ‘I
speak towards you’; and so on. The linguistically mediating ‘to’ is the emblem of the mediation between self
and other, of the non-reduction of the other to my
self-capture, my domain, such that intersubjective
relations might not be structured in terms of cultural
cannibalism. Irigaray designates the role of the
emblematic to as follows:

I love to you thus means: I do not take you for a
direct object, nor for an indirect object by revolving
around you. It is, rather, around myself that I have
to revolve in order to maintain the to you thanks to
the return to me. Not with my prey – you become
mine – but with the intention of respecting my
nature, my history, my intentionality, while also
respecting yours… The ‘to’ is the guarantor of two
intentionalities: mine and yours.

What Irigaray indicts in I Love To You as cultural
cannibalism is taking the other as object, as prey or
possession, or as the ‘you’ becoming ‘mine’, or ‘same’,
in a mode of ‘I ask myself if I am loved’. This is


I would like both of us to be present. So that
the one doesn’t disappear in the other, or the other
in the one. So that we can taste each other, feel
each other, listen to each other, see each other together.

Furthermore, an early evocation of the consumption/
cannibalism metaphor can be seen in that essay:

We’ve again disappeared into this act of eating
each other…. Will there never be love between us
other than this filling up of holes? To close up and
seal off everything that could happen between us, is
that your only desire? To reduce us to consuming
and being consumed, is that your only need?27
In current debates, much of the sense that Irigaray’s
themes and priorities have changed is probably attributable to the specificities of the Anglophone reception
of her work in the 1980s. Because ‘Two Lips’ was by
far the best-known, most discussed paper, commentary
initially focused on the Irigarayan evocation of indistinguishability between feminine subjects. Yet
Irigaray had simultaneously evoked an ideal of
distance and separation between those subjects, and
the ‘politics of mediation’ which Irigaray introduces

in her later work is consistent with those early

The impropriety of the proper
However, some elements of Irigaray’s conception of
the constitution of the subject do bring into question
how the ideal of mediation and non-appropriation of
the other is to be grounded theoretically in her work.

Irigaray was trained in Lacanian psychoanalysis,
although she is also its critic. 28 Let us recall, then, a
‘first principle’ of Lacanian psychoanalysis: that there
is no ‘self’ before the other, but rather a fragmented
mess of a body in bits and pieces, a conglomeration of
flows of incorporation and expulsion, with no discrete
bodily, or subjective, boundaries. What begins to give
us a sense of self is our encounter with an image of a
whole, unified, body – an encounter with either a
mirror image or with the image of the mother, for

Any sense of recognition or primordial identification is a ‘false’ one since the unified, whole, discrete
image identified with is not an ‘accurate’ reflection of
the uncontrolled, un-unified body. The sense of recognition is ‘false’ in that we do not ‘recognize’ ourselves,
but, rather, through that process of ‘recognition’,
develop an internal image of a unified self with which
we identify. In other words, the self does not precede
its own ‘recognition’ but is the product of it. And, on
the strength of the intersubjective structure instituted
by the ‘mirror phase’, we are produced as subjects
who never quite meet up with, or coincide with, our
images and social identities – neither our images of
self, nor our symbolic, social positions. Identity – both
imaginary or symbolic – will always be that with
which we are never at one. 29
Even at the most primordial level, then, there is not
ever a self ‘prior to’ or separate from the other, on this
account. Discussing Lacan’ s mirror phase, MerleauPonty points out that the adult never entirely resolves
the initial lack of boundaries between self and other.

Evidence of this is to be found in many adult emotions
and responses: for example, in jealousy and empathy,
in pride in the other’s achievements, and in love. ‘To
love’, says Merleau-Ponty, ‘is inevitably to enter into
an undivided situation with another.’ Love is an
encroachment on the other, exerting influence,
‘deciding to a certain extent on behalf of [the other],
and impinging on the other. By ‘impingement’, he
means that the beloved becomes intermingled with
one’s ‘proper’ subjective boundaries: ‘From the
moment when one is joined with someone else, one
suffers from her suffering … One is not what he would

be without that love … One can no longer say “This is
mine, this is yours”; the roles cannot be absolutely
separated.’3o Does this not echo Irigaray’s descriptions
of everyday infringements of self-other boundaries as
appropriations, cultural cannibalisms, the ‘je t’aime’

as opposed to the ‘j’ aime a toi’? If so, the following
problem arises: given that love, empathy, pity,
jealousy, pride and other adult forms of transitivism
are manifestations of breakdowns of boundaries
between self and other, what justifies the moral loading
on expressions like ‘infringement’, ‘appropriation’ and,
of course, ‘cannibalism’? How can the transformation
of this material into an ethics of non-appropriation be
legitimate? Isn’t the impingement on the other, in this
sense, inevitable? Is there any kind of a self which is
not an impingement on the other?

If there is no self which is ‘pure’ of an incorporation
of the other, any theme of the proper or property of
the boundaries of the subject is destabilized. What is
there about identity which is ‘proper’ to me, such that
the other, confusing the boundaries between us with
the plaintive ‘I ask myself if I am loved?’, could be
said to have appropriated me? Irigaray specifically
questions certain formulations of love as inappropriate.

But how to indict the subject’s confusion of those
boundaries when we are always improper selves? How
to distinguish between inevitable incorporation and
unethical appropriation of the other? Irigaray’s is a
difficult and tenuous ethics because, in Derrida’s
words, ‘One eats [the other] regardless and lets oneself
be eaten by him.’ Irigaray’s could never amount to an
ethics of non-appropriation of the other. For Irigaray,
as for Derrida, ‘this carrying of the mortal other “in
me outside me” instructs or institutes my self and my
relation to myself’. 31
I am proposing here that the debate about whether
Irigaray is being too simplistic and too programmatic
be redirected into one about what the programme
actually is and what its internal problems are. In
particular, I am asking what the nature of the distance
is between self and other implied in the programme of
the ‘j’aime a toi’.

Those who have been cast in the position of other such as Irigaray’s emblematic ‘atrophied’ woman – go
on to cannibalize another other in order to sustain their
own attempt at self-capture. We need, then, so the
theory goes, some kind of mechanism which interrupts
a reactive cannibalization of the other in a compensating attempt at plenitude. In her later work, Irigaray
cultivates a programme for such an interruption. She
suggests that the kind of mechanism which could serve
such a function is a certain relationship to a sexuate


collectivity in which one participates; participation in
the sexuate ‘genre’ in which subjects would situate
themselves as sexed. As a woman, I would be participating in the genre of women; or as a man, in the
genre of men. Participation in one’s genre would
operate as a mediating factor in all kinds of relations
between selves and others. Sexuate genre would have
to be recognized at a social and institutional level specifically through modifications to legal, religious,
economic, linguistic, political and civil institutions hence the bill of sexuate rights printed in le, tu, no us
and Thinking the Difference
Irigaray is gaining a renewed notoriety for going
on saying things like ‘women must be roused to an
identity’. On her view, participation in my sexuate
genre is a way of reinforcing my identity. Any
intimation of a possible return to the ideal of
‘reinforcing women’s identity’ raises eyebrows, particularly in the wake of the spectre of an ego psychology whose ideal is the so-called ‘strong ego’, and
also in the wake of that spectre constituted by the
‘metaphysics of identity’. But these spectres, respectively the targets of Lacanian psychoanalysis and
Derridean deconstruction, are spectres precisely
because the ideals of a strong ego or a self-present
subject involve, firstly, the disavowal of the necessary
fragility and failure of
such a subject, and
secondly, the disavowal
of the dependence of a
subject, with pretensions
to strong identity, on the
cannibalized other to
sustain these pretensions.

These appropriative modes
of ‘reinforcing identity’

are the product of the
subject’s inability to
reconcile him- or herself
with lack.

By contrast, although
Irigaray does argue that
participation in the sexuate
genre would serve to
reinforce identity, she
phrases the stakes of such a
participation very differently – as we have
seen, in terms of a means
of reconciliation with
being ‘not-whole’. The
recent Irigarayan notion


of being ‘sexuate’ is an attempt to formulate the
concept of an identity-mechanism for the sexes which
would not collapse into ideals of wholeness and
totality, imaginary specular capture of the other, and
disavowed orthopaedic props. Remember, she states,
not to confuse identity with identification. Hers is an
ideal for an identity structure where the self would not
cannibalize the other in its own reinforcement.

This can be summed up in four points. First,
Irigaray takes as a utopian political ideal a reconstruction of the nature of identity. Second, she seems
to understand the situation of the self in the context of
genre as a non-identificatory identity structure. It is
not grounded in a subject’s identification with what it
is not, a structure which simultaneously consolidates
identity and lack. Rather than ‘identifying with’ one’s
genre, a subject would be coextensive with her or his
sexuate genre. Third, Irigaray’s claim is that this would
only be possible with a recognition of two sexuate
genres at the level of all social institutions, thus her
interest in institutional and policy reform. And fourth,
taking genre to be an identity-structure which does not
intertwine identity with lack, she is claiming that a
subject who situated him- or herself in the context of
genre would be less impelled to appropriate the other
to sustain the self. If we return to the theme of love,

Rachel Lachowicz, Broken Glass, 1993

for example, we see that Irigaray connects the issue of
how we might love differently (less appropriatively)
with the issue of institutional reform: ‘love … requires
that the rights of both male and female be written into
the legal code’ .32 Irigaray’s utopian reform of identity
is thus connected with her ideal for how a subject
relates to the other. In particular, her claim is that
one’s situation of oneself in the context of the sexuate
genre with which one is coextensive might enable one
better to respect the other’s difference. Accordingly,
we see comments such as the following:

Because I’m able to situate [difference] there [with
sexual difference] … I’m able to respect the
differences everywhere: differences between the
other races, differences between the generations and
so on. 33

Non-appropriation: eating well
In other words, Irigaray’s argument is specifically that
the problem is not with ideals of ‘identity’, baldly put,
but with appropriative ideals of identity. Is Irigaray to
be aligned with an identity politics? She defends the
need for an identity structure which is not appropriated
of the other. But this makes her insistence that ‘we
need identity’ compatible, at least in spirit, with the
critique that ‘identity politics’ represent gestures where
I appropriate the other woman as she who is the same
as myself, or, at worst, she for whom I speak, she
whose truth I presume to know as woman.

This renders all the more preposterous statements
from Irigaray that sexual difference is ‘more irreducible’ than any other kind of difference. She
herself emphasizes the imperative to ‘respect the
differences everywhere’ – of other races, generations,
and so on. Sexual difference now construed as ‘sexuate
genre’ has simply become the identity-field in terms
of which I am better equipped to ‘recognise differences
everywhere’ rather than preying on the other to
reinforce myself.

This is also pertinent to Irigaray’s apparent downplaying of the differences among women in favour of
an apparently homogenizing conception of ‘women’s
identity’. Tina Chanter has commented that some of
the early emphasis placed by Irigaray on ‘patriarchy’s
exclusion of women as women’ led to critics thinking
that her writing ‘fails to recognise that female
sexuality is experienced differently, at different times,
in different cultures’. 34 Chanter defends Irigaray by
locating her earliest refusals to ‘define women’ in This
Sex Which Is Not One. 35 Irigaray’s work on cultivating
women’s identity in terms of their sexuate genre must,
I have suggested, reopen the same questions. Yet

again it seems clear that the intended ‘function’ of the
concept of genre is that of non-appropriation – of
men by women, of women by men, and also in the

Essentialism has been one name for the gesture of
assuming the sameness of women, but the specific
intent of Irigaray’s concept of genre is that it serves as
a means to represent women without assuming the
sameness of women. Genre is the very thing Irigaray
believes might interrupt assumptions about the sameness of women, and about the sameness of the other to
the self. Respecting the other as irreducible is her
ethical imperative. Theorists like Le Dreuff, who too
easily points out the paradox that she who speaks in
the name of woman’s difference submerges the differences among women,36 aren’t attending to the intent
of the project. Developing the concept of women’s
genre, of sexual difference, is precisely the conceptual
structure intended to allow a woman to respect another
woman’s difference to her.

Lastly, it is with precisely this conceptual apparatus
that Irigaray avoids positing a domain which is intrinsic, essential or proper to a subject. In proposing
an ethics of non-appropriation, she is specifically
negotiating a means of locating ‘appropriation’ without
having to assert that which is ‘proper’ to a subject as
having ‘been’ appropriated. Irigaray legitimates her
account of non-appropriation not account
of the pre- or non-appropriated other or self but, rather,
through the assertion of the ‘need’ for mediation
between subjects. The substantive account given is not
of the real or discrete subject but, rather, of the form
that a utopian mode of mediation between subjects
would take.

Alys Weinbaum emphasizes how in recent work,
including essays in le, tu, no us and Sexes and
Genealogies, Irigaray intertwines metaphors of mediation and interconnection. She discusses two instances
of Irigaray’s evocation of ethical relations between
subjects: Irigaray’s re-narrativization of the relation
between analysand and psychoanalyst, and the relation
of maternity. Irigaray rejects as undesirable childmother relations which are conceptualized in terms of
merging or fusion between child and mother. Her
ideal is a relation where it is possible for child and
mother (or analyst and analysand, or indeed any other
couple – man and woman, or woman and woman) to
recognize and respect each other as subjects rather
than, as Weinbaum points out, the interaction
representing the annihilation of either one. 37 This
being Irigaray’s ideal for ethical relations between
subjects, what is unusual is her appeal to a refigured


concept of the placental relationship between mother
and foetus as an emblem of that ideal.

But there is also a certain inevitability involved.

Accordingly, Derrida proposes that:

Pro-abortion arguments typically emphasize that
mother and foetus are not two separate ‘subjects’.

the moral question is thus not, nor has it ever been:

should one eat or not eat … but since one must eat
in any case … how for goodness sake should one
eat well? And what does this imply? What is
eating? How is this metonymy of introjection to be

Irigaray refigures the placental relationship as a
relationship between two entirely interconnected
entities. 38 The placental relation becomes a figure for
ethical relations between subjects. The foetal relation,
Irigaray suggests, has an almost ‘ethical character’ .39
Foetus and mother are intrinsically interconnected, and
yet conceptually separate such that one can speak of
exchange between them. As Irigaray summarizes the
discussion of the placenta by H6lene Rouch, ‘the
placental economy is … an organized economy, one
not in a state of fusion, which respects the one and the
other’ .40 So figured, Irigaray appeals to the placental
relationship as an emblem of how to reconceive the
relations between all sUbjects. We have some experience in the difficulty of conceptualizing the relation
between entities in the foetus-mother relation as in
some ways separate, in other ways not conceptually
separable. Irigaray deploys the placenta metaphor in
her difficult attempt to think all self-other relations in
terms of a simultaneous separability and nonseparability of boundaries. The placenta itself is the
emblem of the importance of mediating structures
between simultaneously separate and non-separable
entities. The placenta represents Irigaray’s concept of
the mediating role of genre between sexed subjects.

My ability to contextualize myself as coextensive with
my sexuate genre would mediate my relations with
others, and would facilitate less appropriative
exchanges, because of my being less driven by the
need to sustain identity.

In the context of his discussion of how we have
always ‘eaten the other’, Derrida evokes the
following relations: identifying with the other,
assimilating the other, and interiorizing the other,41
and he elsewhere adds: incorporating, introjecting,
subjectivizing the other in me. 42 Irigaray’s list of
the ways in which the self persistently cannibalizes
the other (I give you [to another], I order you, I
command you, I submit you to me, I consume you,
I seduce you, I marry you, I love you, I desire you,
I take you, I instruct you) is comprehensive enough
to suggest that Irigaray might well agree with
Derrida that we have always eaten the other.

Irigaray’s cannibal subject is still unethical. Derrida
does not disagree that there is a failure towards the
other at the point at which I cannibalize the other.

There is what he calls an ‘identifying appropriation’.


Says Derrida, one eats the other regardless. But he
still locates an excess and a remainder, reminding us
that I never entirely cannibalize the other. Thus: ‘I
must and must not take the other into myself’. My
incorporation, interiorization, introjection and subjectivizing of the other in me is always ‘doomed to
failure’ :

There is no successful introjection, there is no pure
and simple incorporation. 44
This is not to deny that the question remains: how to
eat well. Indeed, Derrida argues that responsibility
towards the other is invoked precisely by the inevitability of ‘eating’ the other. But, in the end, Derrida
also insists that we never interiorize, subjectivize,
introject, incorporate, identify with the other, appropriate the other, ‘understand’ the other without thereby
‘addressing oneself to the other’, ‘and [so] without
absolutely limiting understanding itself, the identifying
appropriation’ .45
We always eat the other, but the other always
exceeds our eating. Yet this does not alleviate the
responsibility to eat well. For Irigaray, subjects are
always ‘improper’ subjects with no proper boundaries.

But this does not preclude the question of indicting
some appropriation. Further, she is not content with
an account of how the other always exceeds, or resists,
my appropriation. In that sense, appropriation is always
impossible. Nevertheless, Irigaray specifically wants
to theorize ‘how to interrupt’ ‘the identifying appropriation’. This is why she turns to her politics of
mediation, her theory of mediation by sexuate genre
and the bill of sexuate rights which would contribute
to an institutionalization of genre. I am suggesting that
where for Derrida the question is how to eat well,
lrigaray offers an answer which is both programmatic
and utopian: the politics of mediation by genre.

A politics of reform
Irigaray is not supporting a politics or an imaginary of
the proper subject. The concept of genre is an attempt
to conceptualize a non-appropriative self, without
theorizing the subject as having ‘proper’ boundaries.

The boundaries of a self participating in sexuate genre

are interconnected with the genre, not proper to the
self. Irigaray is suggesting that there is a connection
between the fantasy of the proper, autonomous self,
and the self’s unethical appropriation of the other to
sustain that fantasy. Her utopian programme is for
reconstituted identity. A self conceived as having no
proper boundaries, conceived as interconnected and
coextensive with sexuate genre, might not cannibalize
the other as negative reflection to sustain a phantasmatic proper self.

I suggested that one constant between Irigaray’s
early and late work is the coordination of a theory of
subjects as interconnected, fused, ‘neither one nor
two’, with a theory of the need for mediation between
subjects. The increasing focus in her later work on the
area of political reform reflects Irigaray’ s theory that
better modes of mediation between subjects need to
be institutionalized. The development is both programmatic and utopian, because it lays down a ‘practical’

agenda of what is necessary, which is also impossible,
monumental. We saw her explanation that the third
phase of her work asks how to define ‘an ethic, a
relationship between two different subjects?,46 Though
the political reform would be extremely difficult to

Rather than cultural institutions such as law, media,
language, etc., reinforcing women’s role as other
(equal to, opposite of, or complement to the masculine), such institutions should ‘recognize’ two sexuate
genres. The cultural institutionalization of sexuate
genre would mediate relations between self and other,
and ethical relations between them might be enabled.

Responsibility towards the other would be better
enabled in such a context, because Irigaray has argued
that the irresponsibility of all subjects towards each
other is incited by cultural institutions which
consolidate woman as other. This not only consolidates
the appropriation of women by men; it also retards
women’s responsibility towards other women. Such
responsibility is inhibited because women are prone to
turn to the other in an attempt at compensation for a
culturally atrophied position. This restricts one’s ability
to recognize the other in ways not oriented towards
the self. Women, claims Irigaray, as other, desire ‘to
be loved’ and to be reflected. The woman’s failure to
recognize the other woman as different to herself, even
in a feminist politics, could plausibly be seen, Irigaray
seems to suggest, as a product of a woman’s desire to
be reflected in the other. For this reason, she turns to a

interconnected with the other: I emulate, resist, envy,

politics of mediation.

Mediation of self-other relations by cultural insti-

admire, love and desire, deny, reject, give to and

tutions which recognize two sexuate genres would not

receive from (etc.) him/her. The boundaries between

leave women in a position of atrophy. Women would
not serve as a reflection of the masculine, and a woman

establish, the ethic is easily articulated. I am always

us are never proper. Yet there must be mediation
between us, the recognition of difference between us,
responsibility for the one and the other. There must be
ethico-political resistance to the subordination of the
other to the self. Irigaray distinguishes interconnection
from subordination. The one is inevitable, the other
she resists. Both call for an ethics of responsibility
towards the other.

Subordination between self and other is culturally
reinforced by institutions which continue to consolidate woman as man’s other. Therefore, ethics in
the ‘relationship between two subjects’ is a matter of
how social institutions come to mediate between those
subjects. If the relationship is mediated by institutions
which reinforce the role of woman as other, then an
ethical relationship between the two subjects is inhibited. The woman’s appropriation by the man is
already institutionally consolidated. Further, this can
incite women’s proneness to a compensating appropriation of others, to succour identity. So, cultural insti-

would not recognize in other women only a reflection
of herself. The politics of mediation by genre, then, is
a complicated attempt by Irigaray to theorize how
subjects who are always interconnected in every kind
of relation, and whose boundaries are not proper, might
nevertheless be responsible towards the other.

Irigaray’s emphasis is on the need for this to be
addressed at the level of institutional reform, however
utopian such a programmatic politics may be.

Like Derrida, Irigaray thematizes the necessity of
responsibility between subjects understood as having
always ‘eaten’ (interiorized, introjected, identified with,
incorporated) each other. Both philosophers thematize
the necessary remainder of the other to appropriation.

For both, it is true that I appropriate the other, and also
true that I can never succeed in appropriating the other
– the other is always more than my appropriation,
introjection, identification and incorporation of them.

But the juxtaposition of this theme in the two phil-

tutions must be reshaped so that relations between self
and other are differently mediated. Irigaray’s political

osophers highlights Irigaray’ s passion: to add a politics

reforms arise from this view.

remainder and excess.

of institutional reform to a politics which emphasizes


1. L. Irigaray, le, tu, nous: Toward a Culture of Difference,
trans. A. Martin, Routledge, New York and London,
1993; Thinking the Difference – For a Peaceful Revolution, trans. K. Montin, Athlone Press, London, 1994; I
Love To You – Sketch for a Felicity Within History, trans.

A. Martin, Routledge, New York and London, 1996;
Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. G.c. Gill, Cornell
University Press, Ithaca NY, 1985; This Sex Which Is
Not One, trans. C. Porter with C. Burke, Cornell University Press, Ithaca NY, 1985.

2. E. Hirsch and G. Olson, ”’le-Luce Irigaray”: A Meeting
With Luce Irigaray’, Hypatia, vol. 10, no. 2, 1995,

3. M. Le Dreuff, Hipparchia’s Choice, trans. T. Selous,
Basil Blackwell, Oxford and Cambridge MA, 1991,

4. l. Butler, Bodies That Matter, Routledge, New York and
London, 1993, p. 36.

5. L. Irigaray, Sexes and Genealogies, trans. G.c. Gill,
Columbia University Press, New York, 1993, p. 64.

6. M. Whitford, Luce Irigaray – Philosophy in the
Feminine, Routledge, London and New York, 1991,

7. For example, one finds that Irigaray does not mean that
women need a God, so much as a structural function
which would substitute for the symbolic role traditionally played by a masculine-paternal God. This issue
is discussed in P. Deutscher, “‘The Only Diabolical
Thing About Women … “: Luce Irigaray on Divinity’,
Hypatia, vol. 9, no. 4, 1994, pp. 88-111.

8. Hipparchia’s Choice, p. 225.

9. M. Whitford, The Irigaray Reader, Basil Blackwell,
London and Cambridge MA, 1991, p. 12.

10. Alys Weinbaum agrees: ‘the often rehearsed criticism of
Irigaray in the United States (still!) focuses on her
purported essentialism’ (A.E. Weinbaum, ‘Marx,
Irigaray and the Politics of Reproduction’, Differences,
vol. 6, no. 1, 1994, p. 105).

11. Hirsch and Olson, “‘le-Luce Irigaray”’, pp. 106, 96-7.

12. Weinbaum, ‘Marx, Irigaray … ‘, p. 12.

13. Whitford, The Irigaray Reader, p. 11.

14. Weinbaum, ‘Marx, Irigaray .. .’, p. 112; Whitford, The
Irigaray Reader, pp. 11-12.

15. I Love To You, p. 4; Thinking the Difference, p. 20.

16. Thinking the Difference, p. 19
17. Speculum of the Other Woman, p. 22; This Sex Which Is
Not One, p. 69.

18. Hirsch and Olson, ”’le-Luce Irigaray”’, pp. 109-10.

19. Ibid., pp. 110, 111.

20. I Love To You, p. 110.

21. S. Freud, ‘On Narcissism: An Introduction’, in On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis, trans. l.

Strachey, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1984, p. 82.

22. An Ethics of Sexual Difference, trans. C. Burke and G.c.

Gill, Cornell University Press, Ithaca NY, 1993, p. 134.

23. ‘And the One Doesn’t Stir Without the Other’, Signs,
vol. 7, no. 1, 1981, p. 64.

24. I Love To You, pp. 2-5.

25. Ibid., p. 110.

26. This Sex Which Is Not One, pp. 206, 209, 207, 208.


27. ‘And the One Doesn’t Stir Without the Other’, pp.


28. See Whitford, The Irigaray Reader, p. 71.

29. See l. Lacan, ‘Some Reflections on the Ego’, International lournal of Psychoanalysis 34, 1953; and ‘The
Mirror Phase as Formative of the Function of the I’, in
Ecrits – A Selection, trans. A. Sheridan, Tavistock,
London, 1977. (Just as Irigaray’s reworking of Freud
involves a reworking of the Oedipal narrative, Irigaray’s
reworking of Lacan includes a reworking of the mirror
phase. For example, Irigaray presents her own version
of a mirror ‘phase’ – the specular economy. On
Irigaray’s narrative, negative mirror images – reflections
of what we are not – represented by ‘the other’ are
crucial to identity. She argues that the ‘negative
reflection’ of femininity-as-atrophy is one of the crucial
supports of masculine identity. The masculine subject
looks into a converse mirror which affirms masculine
identity through a negative contrast with that feminine
other which it is not.

30. M. Merleau-Ponty, ‘The Child’s Relations with Others’,
The Primacy of Perception, Northwestern University
Press, Chicago, 1964, p. 154.

31. l. Derrida, “‘Eating Well”, or the Calculation of the
Subject: An Interview with lacques Derrida’, in E.

Cadava, P. Connor and l.-L. Nancy, eds, Who Comes
After The Subject?, Routledge, New York and London,
1991, pp. 114-15; ‘Istrice 2: Ick biinn all hier’, in
Points … Interviews 1974-1994, Stanford University
Press, Stanford CA, 1995, p. 321.

32. Sexes and Genealogies, p. 4.

33. Hirsch and Olson, “‘le-Luce Irigaray”, , p. 110.

34. S. Moore, ‘Getting a Bit of the Other’, in R. Chapman
and l. Rutherford, eds, Male Order: Unwrapping
Masculinity, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1988, p.

169; cited in T. Chanter, Ethics of Eros: Irigaray’s
Rewriting of the Philosophers, Routledge, New York
and London, 1995, p. 175.

35. As Chanter points out, ‘Irigaray’s refusal to identify with
any group that “purports to determine the ‘truth’ of the
feminine, to legislate as to what it means ‘to be a
woman’, and to condemn women who might have
immediate objectives that differ from theirs” [This Sex
Which Is Not One, p. 166] is a testimony to the
seriousness with which she takes differences at all levels.

She is just as concerned to acknowledge the differences
among women as she is to assert sexual difference’

(Chanter, Ethics of Eros, p. 175).

36. Le Dreuff, Hipparchia’s Choice, p. 227.

37. Weinbaum, ‘Marx, Irigaray .. .’, p. 109.

38. Ibid., p. 113.

39. le, tu, nous, p. 41; cited in Weinbaum, ‘Marx,
Irigaray .. .’, p. 110.

40. le, tu, nous, p. 41.

41. Derrida, “‘Eating Well”‘, p. 115.

42. Derrida, ‘Istrice 2: Ick biinn all hier’, p. 321.

43. “‘Eating Well”‘, p. 115.

44. ‘Istrice 2: Ick biinn all hier’, p. 321.

45. “‘Eating Well”‘, p. 115.

46. Hirsch and Olson, “‘le-Luce Irigaray”, , pp. 96-7.

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