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Luce Irigaray and the Female Imaginary

Luce Irigaray and the Female
Imaginary: Speaking as a
Margaret Whitford
Although Luce Irigaray’s name is beginning to become
more familiar in England, her work has not, for the
most part, been translated, so that non-French-speaking
readers have had to confine themselves to the odd bits
and pieces – the translation of an interview in Ideology
and Consciousness (1977), a few excerpts in New
French F eminisms (1981) and in Signs (1980, 1981). Now
two of her books have been published in translation by
Cornell University Press, Speculum. (translated by
GiUian C. GilD, and This Sex Which Is Not One (translated by Catherine Porter), giving the opportunity to
read in more depth (though as far as Speculum is concerned, the translator has not always respected the
ambiguity and plurality of Irigaray’s text, and a spot
check reveals that in some places her grasp of French
grammar seems slightly shaky). However, these two
books appeared in French in 1974 and 1977 respectively, and in the meantime, Irigaray has written a number
of other books developing the themes of the early two.

The present article sets out to offer some introductory remarks, putting Speculum and This Sex in the context of the rest of her work. It is not so much a critical account as a clarification of what I understand to be
her aims. I see her as, among other things, a theorist
of change, seeking to define the conditions under which
change could take place. Even this is to some extent
an interpretation, and not merely a gloss, for despite a
superficial accessibility, I think that her work will not
deliver its meaning more fully until it has been read,
discussed, interrogated and evaluated by a great many
of us. I hope to show that Irigaray’s work requires an
interlocutor more than most, since ‘speaking as a
woman’, if we accept the definition of it given by her
work, necessitates a dialogue: the meaning of what
women are saying only becomes accessible in an active
exchange between speaker and hearer. I am also arguing for the psychoanalytic dimension of Irigar~y’s work
to be taken seriously. In reply to a question about her
method, Irigaray says she intends to ‘have a fling with
the philosophers’ (This Sex: 150). ‘The philosophers’

include as central figures Freud and Lacan (see in particular Speculum: 13-129, addressed to Freud, and This
Sex: 86-105, addressed to Lacan). Irigaray is herself a
practising psychoanalyst. Since my intention here is
merely to suggest a possible reading of Irigaray, I do
not intend, in the present article, to analyse the question of her differences with the Freudian tradition:

however, this tradition seems to me essential further
reading if we wish to understand Irigaray more fully.

The imaginary and female identity
Irigaray resists the role of theorist:

I can answe,r neither about nor for ‘woman’ •
••• it is no more a question offfiy making
woman the subject or the object of a theory

:than it· is of subsuming the feminine under
some generic term, such as ‘woman’. The feminine cannot signify itself in any proper meaning, proper name, or concept, not even that
of woman.

(This Sex: 155-56)
So it may not be possible to speak of a central concept, since insofar as she intends to ‘speak as a
woman’, ‘the concept as such would have no place’

(This Sex: 123). However, the imaginary (in French
imaginaire) is certainly one of the central terms in her
work, and, as used by Irigaray, is flexible and curiously
imprecise. Our culture is dominated by what she calls
the male imaginary, and the aim and theme of her work
throughout is to initiate the task of revealing and uncovering the female imaginary and bringing it into

We can assume that any theory of the subject
has always been appropriated by the ‘masculine’. When she submits to (such a) theory,
woman fails to realize that she is renouncing
the specificity of her own relationship to the

(Speculum: 133)
The more or less exclusive – and highly anxious attention paid to erection in Western
sexuality proves to what extent the imaginary
that governs it is foreign to the feminine.

(This Sex: 24)
Woman, in this sexual imaginary, is only a
more or less obliging prop for the enactment
of man’s fantasies.

(This Sex: 25)
Perhaps it is time to return to that repressed
entity, the female imaginary.

(This Sex: 28)
I am trying, as I have already indicated, to go
back through the masculine imaginary, to
interpret the way it has reduced us to silence, to muteness or mimicry, and I am
attempting, from that starting-point and at
the same time, to (re)discover a possible
space for the feminine imaginary.

(This Sex: 164)
Her use of the term could imply, I think, that imaginary
is an unproblematic notion, immediately accessible to
the reader. Now the imaginary is a term which has
been given new currency in French by Lacan, and so
one might assume that Irigaray has simply taken over
the term from Lacan, in whose early work the Imaginary is the domain of pre-linguistic, specular identifications (see ‘The Mirror-Stage’ in Ecrits 1966, 1977). The
child is offered an image of itself (e.g. the image in
the mirror) and its identification with this image
enables the formation of the ego to take place. Since


this ego is an imaginary unity, it is not coextensive
with the subject, and to the extent that the subject
takes this ego to be itself, it is necessarily ali.enated
(Laplanche and Pontalis 1973: 250-252). The mirrorstage precedes the assumption of the ‘I’ in language
(the ‘Symbolic’). In this context it is important to note
that, in Lacanian theory, the terms Imaginary and Symbolic have been allocated a specific (if not completely
stable) domain of applicability, which gives them greater precision at the expense of connotative range (see
Ecrits: passim). A comprehensive index locates for the
reader the principal references to the Imaginary.) However, the term imaginary in French has debts to a number of pre-Lacanian sources, and it is no part of
lrigaray’s purpose to strip it of its connotative accretions; she continues to leave it as ill-defined and as
richly connotative as possible.

One area of connotation is phenomenology. Sartre,
in his book L’lmaginaire (940) (English title: The Psychology of the Imagination), made a sharp distinction
between the perceiving and imagining functions of the
mind, and held that the imagining consciousness was (a)
-intentional and (b) could not be confused with the perceiving consciousness. According to Sartre’s definition,
the imaginary is the intentional object of the imagining
consciousness, whether it be an object in the mind
({antasies, day-dreams, evocation of absent persons
etc.) or external objects which are products of the
imagination (such as novels, paintings and so on).

Irigaray seems to have the phenomenological definition
in mind when she extends the term imaginary to refer,
not only to a function of the mind, but also to cultural
productions which are marked by the imagining function: what she elsewhere describes as the realm of the
in-between, or what mediates and is exchanged either
at the individual or cultural level. The products include: love, God (or other transcendent principle), art,
thought, poetry, language. To the phenomenological
imaginary, she adds the further qualification that the
imaginary is sexed; it is either a male imaginary bearing the morphological marks of the male body, whose
cultural products are characterised by unity, teleology,
linearity, self-identity etc., or it is a female imaginary
marked by the morphology of the female body, and
characterised by plurality, non-linearity, fluid identity
etc. In this sense, her use of imaginary is much more
similar to that of other proponents of ecriture feminine
or woman’s writing. The following remark by Helene
Cixous shows the way in which the phenomenological
and psychoanalytic versions of imaginary are conflated:

‘Things are starting to be written, things that
will constitute a feminine Imaginary, the site,
that is, of identifications of an ego no longer
given over to an image defined by the masculine •.• , but rather inventing forms for women
on the march, or as I prefer to fantasize, ‘in
flight’, so that instead of lying down, women
will go forward by leaps in searc~ of themselves.

(Cixous 1981: 52)
A second area of connotation might be Bachelard.

Although lrigaray never, as far as I know, mentions
Bachelard, within the French intellectual environment
the resonances of the term imaginary are clearly
Bachelardian. Reading her work alongside his, it is
difficult to believe that there has not been a
Bachelardian influence at some stage~ However, the
imaginary, for Bachelard, is a function of the imagination and owes nothing to the Lacanian theory of the
mirror-stage. It is that faculty of the mind which alters
the images provided by perception and distorts them.

This distortion may be creative in the case of the lit-erary imagination, but it contaminates the effort to
acquire scientific knowledge. Knowledge has to purify
itself of the images supplied so readily by the imagina4

tion in order to achieve genuine objectivity. The image
offers apparent and seductive solutions to problems of
knowledge which must be resisted if real knowledge is
to be won. In a number of workS, Bachelard classes
these images in terms of the four elements: earth, air,
fire and water, and argues that these are primitive and
basic categories of the imagining mind. It is striking
therefore to see that Irigaray has adopted this
Bachelardian classification in three published works
(though using it in a different way): Amante marine
(water); L’Oubli de l’air (air); and Passions eIementaires
(earth). A fourth projected book on Marx and fire has
not appeared. Bachelard suggests that creative writers
have a preference for one element over another, and
that there is usually one in which they feel most at
home. For example, he devotes a whole chapter of
L’Air et les songes to Nietzsche’s ‘dynamics of ascension’ (air). Irigaray, unlike Bachelard, emphasises not
what is specific to a particular author, but what is
absent as being more revealing, and in Amante marine
takes Nietzsche’s work as a point of departure for a
meditation on the flight from water and from the unacknowledged nurturant element, the unsublimated
female body. Here the Bachelardian analysis of a dominant element is linked to her aim to ‘go back through
the masculine imaginary, to interpret the way it has
reduced us to silence’ (This Sex: 164). For, whereas for
Bachelard there is a disjunction between knowledge and
imagination, with knowledge having to be separated off
sharply from the imagination which would otherwise
distort it, Irigaray argues that the disjunction cannot
be made, that knowledge always bears the mark of its
imaginary origins, and that what we take to be universal and objective is in fact male, so that the four
elements, in their turn, are subtended by a more basic
schema than Bachelard’s, namely the male/female distinction. There can be no question of purification by
getting rid of the sexual imaginary: knowledge is irrevocably marked by its imaginary morphology.

In the third place, Irigaray’s imaginary is obviously indebted to Lacan’s Imaginary, and refers to a mental structure or activity, corresponding to a fundamental stage of human development. However, three
important divergences between her imaginary and his
should be noted. (a) Whereas in Lacan, the Imaginary is
a technical term within a psychoanalytic theory
(Lemaire 1977, Laplanche and Pontalis 1973, Rose
1981), in Irigaray it is not a technical term; there is no
precisely demarcated theory to which it belongs, and
she does not seek to define it carefully – on the contrary. (b) Lacan makes an essential distinction between
the Imaginary and the Symbolic. Irigaray often seems to
conflate the two, as in the following remark: ‘She
functions as a hole … in the elaboration of imaginary
and symbolic processes’ (Speculum: 71), and argues that
what is needed is for the female imaginary to accede
to its own specific symbolisation. And given that she
uses the term to refer not only to a mental function,
but also to the products of that function, including
language, as I pointed out above, it ‘is difficult to make
a clear conceptual distinction in her work between
imaginary and symbolic. (c) The Imaginary, for Lacan,
tends to be presented in rather pessimistic terms as a
kind of trap, since Imaginary identifications are essentially illusory and imprisoning, images of the self which
are alienating insofar as the subject does not realise
that they are no more than images. Irigaray, in contrast, is seeking to make the emergence of a female
imaginary possible, and so has a more positive attitude
towards the imaginary. Lemaire points out that ‘the
imaginary is pertinently reflected in socio-cultural symbolism, as much by the number of thoughts it implies as
by the .number of thoughts it neglects’ (Lemaire 1977:

61). Only certain Imaginary objects are taken up and
symbolised; other objects, presently neglected, could be


And one definition Irigaray offers of the

female imaginary is ‘those components of the mirror
that cannot reflect themselves’ (This Sex: 151, her
italics), in other words, the material of which the
mirror itself is made.

Nonetheless, lrigaray is aware of the ‘trap’ constituted by identity. In Western thought, the relation
between the sexes has traditional1y been conceptualised
in terms of polarity and opposition, and as a result,
argues Irigaray, inevitably in terms of hierarchy, where
one sex is either superior or inferior to the other. So,
although she speaks of a female imaginary and to that
extent of female identity, this identity is not defined
in the same terms as male identity. If it were, it would
be impossible to avoid unstable oscil1ation between the
two poles, each asserting itself in turn, or else a kind
of ‘inverted form of sexism’ (Moi 1985: 13), in which
the female took the superior position instead of the
male. Female identity is both a necessary condition and
a possible snare. On the one hand, ‘it stil1 remains .E.2!iticallyessential for feminists to defend women as
women in order to counteract the patriarchal oppression that precisely despises women as women’ (ibid.).

·On the other hand, identity as such is a product of the
,male imaginary. Jane Gal10p explains the problem as

Without a female homosexual economy, a
female narcissistic ego, a way to represent
herself, a woman in a heterosexual encounter
will always be engulfed by the male homosexual economy, wil1 not be able to represent
her difference. Women must demand ‘the
same’, ‘the homo’, and then not settle for it,
not fall into the trap of thinking a female
‘homo’ is necessarily any closer to a representation of otherness, an opening for the

(Gallop 1982: 74)
The essential phrase here, think, is ‘be able to represent her difference’. What is needed, according to
Irigaray, are cultural representations of difference, of
a different libidinal economy, so that women are not
engulfed in an economy of the same, but have available
to them symbolisations of their otherness and differ.ence which can become objects of exchange in the culture at large.

and no exchange except within an economy of the
same; there is no permeability and no fluidity. Its syntax is dominated by identity (quantitative or possessive), non-contradiction,. binary opposition (SUbject/object, matter/energy etc.) (Parler ne’est jamais
neutre: 312-313). It is governed by opposition (which is
hierarchical) rather than difference (which is not). A
female imaginary is characterised by its difference
(otherness), its resistance to the male economy, although ‘it does not oppose a female truth to male
truth’ (Amante marine: 92). The principles of noncontradiction and identity do not apply (Parler: 285),
although this does not mean that the female is ‘unidentifiable’; rather it implies ‘an excess of all identification t%f self’ (Speculum: 230). A female libidinal
economy would oblige us to reevaluate the status of
the subject (Parler: 289) and the subject would have to
be reconceptuaJised in terms of mobility (Parler: 266).

This provisional description raises at least two
points. Firstly, what would be the conditions of emergence of the female imaginary, given that .’there is no
simple manageable way to leap to the outside of phallogocentrism, nor any possible way to situate oneself
there, that ‘Would result from the simple fact of being
a woman’ (This Sex: 162, her italics)? And secondly,
how can we talk about it at all and still make sense, if
its language is other than the prevailing male
language? Irigaray herself insists that the female
imaginary should not be conceptualised:

To claim that the feminine can be expressed
in the form of a concept is to allow oneself
to be caught up again in a system of ‘mascul-

ine’ representations, in which women are
trapped in a system of meaning which serves
the auto-affection of the (masculine) subject.

If it is really a matter of calling ‘femininity’

into question, there is still no need to elaborate another ‘concept’ – unless a woman. is.

renouncing her sex and wants to speak like
men. For the elaboration of a theory of
woman, men, I think, suffice. In a woman(‘s)
language, the concept as such would have no

(This Sex: 122-123)
The beginning of a response to these questions can be
discerned, if we look more closely at Irigaray’s use of
the psychoanalytic model, and the way in which she
extends it to the culture as a whole. It needs to be
stressed that her whole work has to be seen in the
light of a project to change the culture, and not merely to analyse it. Psychoanalysis, for Irigaray (despite
her critique of its phal10centric bias), seems to have
provided a blueprint for a type of situation in which
change, and openness to the other, can occur under
certain conditions.

The ‘feminine’ as the unconscious of culture: the psychoanalytic model
lrigaray presents herself as a cultural prophet; there is
a utopian streak in her work. Her: account of Western
culture runs something like this. Our society is dominated by a destructive imaginary (whose apotheosis is
the ideology of science elevated to the status of a pri-

vileged truth) and whkh is constructed over a buried
What would the morphology of the female body
and its metaphoridty imply in terms of language and
culture? In Amante marine, Ethigue de la difference
sexuelle and Parler n’est jamais neutre, Irigaray gives
some indications of the way in which a female imagin!!:y. would differ from a male A male libidinal economy is characterised as follows: there is no difference
except quantitative (more/less); there is no reciprocity

act of matricide, a murdered mother (a matricide more
ancient than the parricide of Freud’s Totem and
Taboo). For there to be any hope of renewal, the male
1i1lagInary needs to recognise its own unconscious (at
present located in the ‘female’ element) and cut the
umbilical cord which still attaches it to a repressed
mother, while the female imaginary needs to tind a
voice. For this reason, ‘sexual difference represents
one of the questions or the question of our age’

(Ethigue: 13). We are enteringthe West’s third era; the


first was the Old Testament, the reign of the Father,
the second the New Testament, the reign of the Son,
the third, on the horizon, will be the Age of the
Couple (or Copula): the Spirit and the Bride (Ethigue:

140). Subtending the rational subject (with his aspirations to universality, neutrality and objectivity), but
unrecognised, there is a subject governed by unconscious desires, powerfully motivated and above all,
sexed (so that the criteria of scientific epistemology
can in fact be seen as shaped by the male imaginary).

Irigaray’s work can be seen, then, as a sort of ‘psychoanalysis’ of Western culture and metaphysics, seeking
what underpins its fragile rationality, looking for the
repressed or ‘unconscious’ of culture. In Parler n’est
jamais neutre, she attempts to demonstrate her thesis
by analysis of the enunciation of speaking subjects in
order to uncover the ‘true identity of the subject who
assumes the enonce’ (Parler: 55) (the terms enunciation/enonce are explained in Benveniste 1971). She argues in
this book that psychoanalysis offers a privileged experimental situation, since it works directly on the enunciation, revealing phenomena which are unavailable to
the linguist or psychologist who are merely working on
cold data (the enonces).

At least three specific characteristics of the psychoanalytic situation as the model for a situation in
which change can occur, can be elicited from her later
work. All three are characteristics in which theory, as
it is commonly conceived, has a rather less assured
place than theorists are usually willing to accept.

Firstly, there is no outside observer; the situation is
qui te unlike the condi tions of experiments in empirical
science, since no ‘test’ or ‘repeat’ experiment can be
set up. And it is not clear what ‘verification’ or ‘falsification’ would mean in an analytic context. Secondly,
it is a participatory model, not a distanced objective
stance, but one in which both participants take risks,
unlike the safe detachmeniOf the academic or scientist. For change to occur, you have to put yourself at
risk (and that includes the theorist/analyst, not just the
woman/analysand): ‘Either the unconscious is nothing
but what has already been heard by you ••• or the unconscious is desire which attempts to speak itself and,
as analysts, you have to listen without excluding. However much this listening to everything might bring
about ca1lings into question of your desire … Whatever
the risk of your death that might ensue’ (Parler: 255,
trans. Gallop: 102). Thirdly, its essential instrument is
the parole: the word addressed to someone by someone,
the spoken word of the analyst and the analysand. This
powerful parole, according to Irigaray, can imprison or
set free, and certainly, release what has been blocked.

When one reads her work in the light of the psychoanalytic model, there are still further implications
which spring to mind, although these are not so explicit. (a) If we go back and look at the description of
the female imaginary, we can see that in many respects, its distinguishing features resemble those said to
characterise the unconscious: its fluidity and mobility;
its indifference to the laws of logic (identity and noncontradiction); its inability to speak about itself, and
so on. (b) In Parler n’est jamais neutre, Idgaray uses a
linguistic model to analyse taped material from psychoanalytic sessions (see ‘Approche d’une grammaire de
l’enonciation de l’hysterique et de l’obsessionnel’).

According to her analysis, the obsessional lives in the
universe of the ‘I’; there is no interlocutor. The hysteric, on the other hand, cannot assume his/her own discourse; everything is referred for validation to the
‘you’. The aim of the psychoanalyst is to enable an
exchange to take place between the ‘I’ and the ‘you’,
the two poles of any real dialogue. There is a parallel
between •thi~ linguistic model and the conditions of
Western thought analysed in This Sex and more fully in
Ethique. The situation which lrigaray describes is one

of a monolingual, ‘homosexual’ culture in which men
speak to men (the universe of the’!’ or the same) and
women remain merely the mediators of this exchange,
goods or objects, never partners in the dialogue. For
sexual difference to be realised, women would have to
assume the’!’ in their own right, and men would need
to venture out of the closed world of the ‘I’. It seems
to me that what Irigaray is trying to do in her writing
is to effect an intervention, so that her writing would
function like the psychoanalyst and set something, some
change, in motion. Further, within the framework of
the psychoanalytic session, interpretations are dynamic
– that is to say, they are not global descriptions of a
person’s character or psychic make-up, but an interpretation of what is happening, at that moment, between the analyst and the analysand. They refer only to
the moment at which they are being made; they may
apply to only part of a session; they may be confirmed
or disconfirmed by the response of the analysand; they
are essentially aimed at bringing about a change in a
s.ituation, so that an interpretation is not so much an
end-product, the fruits of the analyst’s understanding,
summarised and encapsulated, but the first step towards changing the situation, designed to effect shifts
in the unconscious, open up other possibilities for the
analysand who cannot effect the shift unaided. (c) Her
use’ of the ‘concept’ of a female imaginary has structural (and perhaps strategic) parallels with that of the
way in which psychoanalysis uses the notion of resistance to deal with certain critiques. To the critical
reader who wishes to· raise theoretical objections to
Irigaray, it could be replied that the criteria in the
name of which one is objecting are male criteria and
not universal ones, and that she is attempting to articulate an alternative to which these criteria would not
be applicable. Al though this argument functions to
forest an any immediate ‘recapture within the economy
of purely masculine desire’ (This Sex: 15~), .it also
makes assessment of her work difficult at the same
time. I will return to the problem of assessment in the
conclusion. (d) The ‘power’ of a psychoanalytic theory
may not be commensurate with its ‘correctness’. In
therapeutic terms, explanations and therapies based on
irreconcilable assumptions seem to produce effects. So
perhaps the importance of lrigaray’s work may turn out
to lie less in its theoretical adequacy than in wh!it it
enables. The ‘interpretations’ which she offers may
themselves be enabling, may allow the emergence of a
repressed element in culture, though it may not take
the shape or form that she envisages. (e) The use of
the’ psychoanalytic model raises a .further difficult
theoretical problem, which ‘I shall not attempt to discuss here, namely, the validity of using an interpersonal situation involving two individuals as the
model for a whole culture or society.

Irigaray’s critics
Before concluding, I want to take a brief look at a
couple of Irigaray’s British critics, in order to focus on
one or two further points. The two interpretations of
Irigaray which I discuss below both see her work as
‘regressive’ in one way or another (either identifying
her as a biological essentialist, or criticising her for
what seems like a nostalgic and hopeless desire for a
return to an unmediated relation with the mother).

There is some evidence for these interpretations in her
work. I’m not sure whether these vestiges of essentialism have a strategic function, or whether they are
remnants of a pre-Lacanian interpretation of sexuality
(see MitchelI’ and Rose 1982). Either way, I see them as
theoretical dead-ends for Irigaray, since any theory of
c~ange must necessarily posit (if not actually demonstrate) that change is within the bounds of the possible.

One view of Irigaray put forward in this country
is that she is a biological essentialist. According to
Janet Sayers, for Irigaray:

femininity… is essentially constituted by
female biology, by the ‘two lips of the female

Furthermore she maintains that
women have a ‘specific female desire’ and
that Freud’s rejection of the notion of feminine libido is simply an effect of his patriarchal attitudes. She does not, however, provide
any evidence to show that femininity is, in
fact, essentially constituted by biology – let
alone that it is constituted by ‘two lips’ – or
that there is a feminine libido.

(Sayers 1982: 131)
Now the idea that Irigaray is proclaiming a biologically
given essential femininity in which biology in some unclear fashion simply ‘constitutes’ femininity seems to
me quite simply a misreading of Irigaray (based on the
only English translations available in 1982). She is
speaking not of biology but of the imaginary, in which
one may make male or female identifications, regardless of one’s biologica:l’sex. A distinction needs to be
made between (a) women as biological and social entities and (b) the ‘female’, ‘feminine’ or ‘other’, where
‘female’ stands metaphorically for the genuinely other
in a relation of difference (as in the system consciousness/unconscious) rather than opposition. Irigaray is
privileging women and the morphology of the female
body in her symbolisation of the other. She does in this
way run the risk of blurring the distinction between (a)
and (b), as it is in fact often already blurred in the
Western cultural imaginary, but this is obviously a strategy adopted within a particular historical and cultural
situation, although there is always the risk that a provisional identification between female and ‘female’ may
entrap the user. Strategically, too, this insistent material language, full of references to the female body,
could well be designed to confront readers with their
own sexed self, to elicit the sexuality of the reader, to
make readers aware of their own sexed, non-neutral
identity, and to make it difficult for readers to take up
the distanced stance they would normally adopt when
reading a work of theory or philosophy. In this way,
not only women, but also men have to become aware of
their sex as a reader.

A second criticism is the position argued by
Jacqueline Rose, to the effect that Irigaray has missed
the force of Lacan’s insistence on the construction of
sexuality and ipso facto, femininity. For Irigaray, she
Feminine sexuality is, therefore, predicated
directly onto the concept of an unmediated
and un problematic relation to origin. ••• It is
therefore a refusal of division which gives the
woman access to a different strata of
langage, where words and things are not differentiated, and the real of the maternal body
threatens or holds off. woman’s access to prohibition and the law.

(Mitchell and Rose 1982: 54-55)
Whereas, for Lacan, on the other hand:

there is no feminine outside language. First
because the unconscious severs the subject
from any unmediated relation to the body as
such ••• and, secondly, because the ‘feminine’

is constituted as division in language, a division which produces the feminine as a negative term. If woman ~s defined as other, it is
because the definition produces her as other
and not because she has another essence. •••
It is crucial… that refusal of the phallic
term brings with it an attempt to reconstitute
a form of subjectivity free of division, and
hence a refusal of the notion of symbolisation

itself. If the status of the phallus is to be
challenged, it cannot, therefore, be directly
from the feminine body but must be by means
of a different symbolic term (in which case
the relationship to the body is immediately
thrown into crisis) or else by an entirely different logic altogether (in which case one is
no longer in the order of symbolisation at am.


refusal of the phallus turns out once again
to be a refusal of the symbolic.

(ibid.: 55-56)
The problem is to reconcile statements like the following: ‘As for, woman, she touches herself in and of herself without any need for mediation’ (This Sex: 124);
‘She is neither one nor two. Rigorously speaking, she
cannot be identified either as one person, or as two’

(This Sex: 26); ‘She herself enters into a ceaseless exchange of herself with the other without any possibility
of identifying either’ (This Sex: 31), with lrigaray’s
claim in E-thique de la difference sexuelle that we need
a female imaginary which would achieve a specifically
female symbolisation; that women ‘lack mediation for
the operations of sublimation’ (Ethigue: 70); that ‘they
need language, a language’ (Ethique: 104-105); that
‘without a language in the female, they are used for
the elaboration of a supposedly neutral language in
which they are deprived of speech’ (Ethigue: 105). How
to reconcile women’s non-identity on the one hand
(since identity belongs to the (male) economy of the
same) and their specifici ty on the other?

Reading Rose’s account is to miss Irigaray’s aims.

It is of course difficult to understand what a woman’s
language could be, except by analogy with what we
already know as language and therefore, as Rose points
out, it sounds as though the desire for a different
language is self-defeating, because it would break the
conditions which are the conditions of any signifying or
symbolising at all. But if we keep in mind the model of
the psychoanalytic session, we might understand the
idea of a woman’s language as the articulation of the
unconscious which cannot speak about itself, but which
can nonetheless make itself heard if the listener is attentive enough. Irigaray defines discursive, theoretical
or meta-Ianguage as ‘male’, and says there is no ‘female’ meta-Ianguage: ‘there is simply no way I can give
you an account of “speaking (as) woman”; it is spoken,
but not in meta-Ianguage’ (This Sex: 144) and ‘Speaking
(as) woman is not speaking of woman. It is not a matter
of producing a discourse of which woman would be the
object, or the subject’ (This Sex: 135), which seems to
overlap with the remark of Lacan’s quoted at the head
of ‘Cosi Fan Tutte’: ‘Women don’t know what they are
saying’ (This Sex: 86).

I interpret the following passage from This Sex as
a description of the fate of ‘women’s’ desire in a
male-dominated culture, and not as an essentialist or
prescriptive account of female identity or parole. In
order to hear, one has to ‘listen with another ear’; the
reference to ‘getting rid of words’ may refer to the
way in which desire is converted into somatic symptoms
in hysteria:

‘She’ is indefinitely other in herself. This is
doubtless why she is said to be whimsical,
incomprehensible, agitated, capricious … not
to mention her language, in which ‘she’ sets
off in all directions leaving ‘him’ unable to
discern the coherence of any meaning. Hers
are contradictory words, somewhat mad from
the standpoint of reason, inaudible for whoever listens to them with ready-made grids,
with a fully-elaborated code in hand. For in
what she says, too, at least when she dares,
woman is constantly touching herself. She
steps ever so slightly ~side from herself with
a murmur, an exclamation, a whisper, a sen7

tence left unfinished. ..• When she returns, it
is to set off again from elsewhere. From another point of pleasure, or of pain. One would
have to listen with another ear, as if hearing
an ‘other’ meaning always in the process of
weaving itself, of embracing itself with
words, but also of getting rid of words in
order not to become fixed, congealed in them.

For if ‘she’ says something, it is not, it is already no longer, identical with what she
means. What she says is never identical with
anything, moreover; rather, it is continuous • ..!!

touches (upon). And when it strays too far
from that proximity, she breaks off and starts
over at ‘zero’: her body-sex.

(This Sex: 28-29)
But it is clear from Ethigue that Irigaray is not proposing that we get rid of words; on the contrary she is
arguing that women need to speak to each other. Both
in Speculum and This Sex, she proposes various strategies for women, all of them based upon various forms
of verbalisation: speaking, writing, (psycho)analysing
‘male’ language, even psychoanalysis (the ‘talking cure’)
despite its dangers for women.

If Irigaray were arguing what Rose takes her to
be arguing, i.e. postulating some kind of essential female sexuality, then Rose’s critique seems unanswerable. I think that lrigaray is in fact arguing something
rather different (which may in its turn raise problems,
but is not the same point), to the effect that, culturally, the relation to the mother’s body is unmediated by
symbolic representations, and that this is more devastating for women than for men, because unlike men,
they have no other home (sol or lieu) to take the place
of the mother. In that (cultural) immediacy their specificity disappears: ‘The lack of an imaginary or symbolic
territory (so1) accorded or recognised in the case of
women (dUcote des femmes) means that everything
takes place in an immediacy which risks being a “putting to death” … ‘ (Parler:’ 296). I refer back again to
Lemaire’s definition of the Lacanian Imaginary: ‘the
Imaginary is everything in the human mind and its reflexive life which is in a state of flux before the fixation is effected by the symbol •.•. The imaginary is pertinently reflected in socio-cultural symbolism, as much
by the multiplicity of thoughts it implies as by the
number of thoughts it neglects’ (Lemaire 1977: 61).

What Irigaray is interested in, then, is the neglected
imaginary, what our culture has chosen not to take up
and symbolise; this is one of the things she means by
the ‘female’ or ‘feminine’ imaginary.

Sometimes lrigaray can sound unbearably prescriptive.

One can be left with the uncomfortable feeling that as
a woman, one has the dilemma of either speaking like a
man (which seems to be politically undesirable) or of
being unintelligible/hysterical (which seems to be personally undesirable). I should like to conclude with the
sketch of a suggestion as to why it is difficult for the
reader to react neutrally.

There is a dual purpose in Irigaray’s work, in that
she wishes to occupy the position of analyst and analysand simultaneously. She wishes, that is, to ‘speak as
a woman’ (analysand) but also as the analyst to ‘read’

and ‘psychoanalyse’ the philosophers (‘insist also and
deliberately upon those blanks in discourse’, Speculum:

142). This dual purpose in part explains why she refuses
the distinction between literature and theory (Le
corps-a.-corps avec la mere: 46) and insists on the poetic
element in her work (Parler: 13). She is writing both/neither theory and/nor fiction, since she wishes not
merely to state or claim, but also to show, manifest in
her writing a different kind of parole.Iti1ink this dual
purpose leaves her, too, in a dilemma. In that she des-


ires to ‘speak as a woman’, she needs the other, the
interlocutor, as the analysand needs the analyst, for it
is only in the exchange that the repressed desire
emerges into language. But at the same time, she wants
to persuade, and this is where the problem lies. For if
her readers simply agreed with her work, with no
affect, then something vital would be missing, that is
to say, the engagement without which no change could
possibly take place. We are familiar with the idea that
our subjective reaction is relevant to the analysis of a
work of literature, but we are less used to analysing
our reactions to theory/philosophy in these terms. However, I think that Irigaray does demand a response from
her readers. But the reader thus ‘put on the spot’ may
react not with enthusiasm but with hostility or rejection. It seems to me, therefore, that we should treat
Irigaray’s work as literature, to the extent that its
effect on us is directly relevant to its more apparently
theoretical content. The ‘transference’ of the reader is
not a more or less accidental, ’emotional’ or subjective
response which can be set aside to get at the ‘theory’,
but in fact gives a clue to what is at stake. If, as a
reader, you ‘resist’, then this resistance itself is worth
analysing and exploring further. It is not in itself a
guarantee of the theoretical ‘correctness’ of Irigaray’s
work, and, in addition, it makes assessment difficult,
because your ‘transference’ means that you have relinquished neutrality and the assumption of an uninvolved
objective stance, whether your reaction is enthusiastic
or hostile. But it does indicate that you are not left
indifferent, that your ‘resistance’ is produced by something. If, in the interaction which takes place between
you a.nd Irigaray’s work, you do not withdraw, to that
extent she has succeeded and the scene is set for a
possible eXChange (Gallop’s reading of Irigaray is exemplary in this respect). It is in the nature of the exchange, however, that lrigaray’s own ‘theoretical’ position is thereby put at risk and that, .9.!:!!’ analyst/theorist, she herself risks ‘death’.



Le Langage des Dements, Collection ‘Approaches to Semiotics’; Mouton, The
Hague, 1973
Speculum, de l’Autre Femme, Minuit, Paris, 1974
Ce Sexe qui n’en est pas un, Minuit, Paris, 1977
‘Women’s Exile’ (interview), in Ideology and Consciousness 1, 1977
Et I’une ne bouge pas sans I’autre, Minuit, Paris, 1979
Amante marine. De Friedrich Nietzsche, Minuit, Paris, 1980
‘When Our Lips Speak Together’ in ~ 6, 1980
Le Corps-a-corps avec la mere, Editions de la pleine lune, Montreal, 1981
‘And the One Doesn’t Stir Without the Other’, in Signs 7, 1981
‘This Sex Which Is Not One’ and ‘When the Goods Get Together’ in New
French Feminism, ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron,
Harvester, Brighton, 198!.

Passions Elementaires, Minuit, Paris, 1982
L’Oubli de l’air chez Martin Heidegger, Minuit, Paris, 1983
Le Crovance meme, Galilee, Paris, 1983
Ethique· de la difference sexuelle, Minuit, Paris, 1984
Parler n’est jamais neutre, Minuit, Paris, 1985
‘Femmes divines’ in Critique no. 454, March 1985
SDeculum of the Other Woman, translated by Gillian C. Gill, Cornell
University Press, Ithaca NY, 1985
This Sex Which Is Not One, translated by Catherine Porter with Carolyn
Burke, Cornell University Press, Ithaca NY, 1985.


Other works referred to

Gaston Bachelard, L’Air et les songes, Jose Corti, Paris, 1943
Emile Benveniste, Problems in General Linguistics, University of Miami Press,
Florida, 1971
Helene Cixous, ‘Castration or Decapitation?’ in Signs 7, 1981
Jane Gallop, Feminism and Psychoanalysis, Macmillan, 1982
Jacques Lacan, Ecrits, Seuil, Paris, 1966. Translated by Alan Sheridan under
the title Ecritsl A Selection, Tavistock, 1977
Jean Laplanche and J.-B. Poritalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis, translated by David Nicholson-Smith, The Hogarth Press and the Institute of
Psychoanalysis, 1973
Anika Lemaire, Jacgues Lacan, revised ed. translated by Dilvid Macey,
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977
Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose, eds., Feminine Sexuality. Jacgues Lacan
and the Ecole Freudienne, Macmillan, 1982
Toril Moi, SexuaIlTextual POlitics, Methuen, 1985
Jacqueline Rose, ‘The Imaginary’, in The Talking Cure, ed. Colin McCabe,
Macmillan, 1981
Janet Sayers, Biological Politics, Tavistock, 1982
Jean-Paul Sartre, L’lmaginaire, Gallimard, Paris, 1940.

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