Luce Irigaray - psychoanalytic-feminist critic
This Sex Which is Not One. (Translated from French to English)
In lieu of women liberally entering the workforce and having access to widespread contraceptive methods during the 60s and 70s, women began to break free from the form that defined them as at-home wives and identified them by their maternal capacity. Instead, women were taking on a challenging and bewildering task that would redefine them forever; for the first time, women were obliged to face and acknowledge “that impossible role” of being a woman, of having a sexuality of one’s own (83). Controversial, inventive, and bold in her claims, Luce Irigaray brings light to this Freudian-deemed “dark continent” of women’s sexuality in her 1977 book, This Sex Which is Not One. Irigaray provides a diverse collection of fictional re-visions alongside explorative and persuasive interviews and essays to problematize both psychoanalytic and societal views toward women’s sexuality. And in practicing what she preaches, This Sex Which is Not One does not have a logical beginning, end or order in between, instead allowing for recursive interplay between challenges and solutions, questions and answers.
Irigaray opens the book with a fictional account of Alice— the same Alice we know from Alice in Wonderland— struggling to express her world on her own terms, based on a world that only she has experienced from the “other” side of the looking glass. She refuses to be reduced to one identity, opting instead for ambiguity and multiplicity. This exceptional tale sets the tone for Irigaray’s forthcoming arguments, acknowledging that women see the world from a different side of the “looking glass,” and these experiences cannot be expressed— they are subdued and silenced— in a patriarchal world.
Moving away from this fictional account of “Alice underground,” the subsequent chapters lay out, in no seemingly logical order, Irigary’s feminist arguments (from academic to introspective to frenzied essays exhibiting aggravation and rage) against long-held psychoanalytic trends. In each essay that focuses on Freud’s theories, opposing views from others (men and women) in the field combined with, and adding credibility to, her own counterarguments challenge Freud’s implication that there is only one sex—and that the female sex is, in fact, not one at all. Psychoanalysts define feminine sexuality on masculine terms, presenting it as the opposite of a man’s sexuality. Irigaray challenges this view, arguing that feminine sexuality is not only existent on its own terms, but that there are actually multiple sexualities, based on autoeroticism (that is, that the lips of the vagina are always touching each other, thus a woman is always sexually touching herself) and the assorted erogenous zones that exist on a woman’s body. She also confronts Freud’s notion that the clitoris is merely an undersized penis and that the vagina does not stand alone as an autonomous sex organ but instead exists in relation to the male phallus as a “lack,” “atrophy,” or “envy” of the penis (23). Irigaray refutes to this claim in “Psychoanalytic Theory: Another Look” by providing a short but comprehensive literature review on the wide-ranging views—some opposing and some complementing Freud— from both men and women on the notion of penis envy.
Irigaray’s own views culminate with the assertion that Freud overlooks the existence of a woman’s sexuality, falsely denoting penis envy as a passive action instead of recognizing it as the active desire for sexual pleasure, because of his position in a patriarchal society. Freud reductively attributes a woman’s sexuality to biology and anatomy when, in reality, a woman’s sexuality is formed by social and political climates (the envy of autonomy and freedom, not of the phallus itself), not by a programmed dependency on men.
By creating the woman as a commodity- as an item available for market exchange- society and political economy mold feminine sexuality. The woman is taught to find pleasure in the male gaze, to desire to be possessed, and is (in a state of false consciousness) forced into one of three roles: “mother, virgin, prostitute” (186). Here it seems as though Irigaray will follow a Marxist critique and, consequently, provide a Marxist solution to the issue; instead, she proclaims that such a solution would be ineffective because women do not belong to one economic class but are, instead, spread out among social, economic, and political classes. Irigaray’s resolution— or at least a start toward her ultimate goal of highlighting the differences between the two sexes without subordinating one— is to construct a woman’s language.
Feminine language, a new mode of expression and interpretation, is vital to the movement because, as explained in “The Power of Discourse,” discourse and politics share a reciprocal relationship in molding reality and rewriting each other. Irigaray proposes a female syntax that is fluid, emphasizing proximity and plurality (like a woman’s body) while putting a torch to “fetish words, proper terms, and well-constructed forms” (79). If women can write the body, unveiling “the truth of the silence of the body of the Other,” we can produce a place for the feminine sexuality, a place for the “other” as existent (100). In the interviews, Irigaray explains that her ealier book, Speculum, was written outside phallocentric parameters, containing no beginning or end. Because a woman’s sex organs, sexuality, and passion are more or less everywhere, her writing should follow that same model.
As for the act of feminine readings, Irigaray proposes a psychoanalytic re-reading of key philosophers, keying into their grammar (syntax, language, metaphor) and the silences that exist in their texts to find what is being presented in a patriarchal way and, more important, what is not being represented. Like she proposes with women’s writings, women’s readings must find room for women’s sexuality in our histories. A woman should express her own passions, but she must also find the silent spaces where women’s passions have been subdued in patriarchal writing. Women cannot merely master the master’s language to legitimize their existence as a sex because if we keep speaking the same language, “we’re going to reproduce the same history” that subdues women and entitles men (205). But how do women create their own language? Is merely avoiding syntactical and organizational convention enough to constitute a woman’s language? What is to be said about semantics and speech? It is problematic, in practice, to not have more guidance on a method to this (favorable) madness.
Irigaray does not introduce her book or give an official thesis or indication as to her purpose in writing or to whom she is writing, but nevertheless her message is clear; This Sex Which is Not One is a call to action for women, encouraging us to celebrate our differences from men and the differences within our own sex to collapse that “sameness” that we have been reduced to. Women cannot write for or about other women, but we can surely write ourselves—our bodies, our passions—in order to be recognized this sex which is (a powerful and equal, yet diverse) one. Irigaray’s message also has a proposition for men, a suggestion that is far from explicit, but unmistakable nonetheless: make room, here we come.
All in all, 9/10 stars.
I loved this book, even though it was a book for my literary theory class.
Recommended for: feminists, people interested in psychoanalytic theory, people interesting in reading a whole book about how the clitoris is not just a baby penis, damnit! Haha.
Also, this is a "professional" review for a class (I don't write reviews this in-depth and wacko in my free time!). But I wanted to share because I thought this was an excellent book for women (and men!). Everyone should read at least portions of it. It's laid out in essays, so it's very possible to read a chapter or two. There's even one on pornography, but I couldn't find room in my review to even touch that chapter ;o)