Chapter 16: “An Ethics of Sexual Difference” by Luce Irigaray
Public lectures are fun. You know what else is fun? Sociocultural organization depriving the female subject of her objectivity as a person. Just kidding, that sounds dreadful. Even so this thesis is the central star of Luce Irigaray’s 1992 lecture given at the University of Rotterdam. Taking aim at both language and thought’s tendency towards supremacist positions of sexual power, the ending of the essay represents a new way of thinking about the historical purpose of gender.
Utilizing Hegel throughout, Irigaray combines the antiquated concepts of family and identity from preceding philosophers in order to show how they collapse under their own weight. Claiming at the same time that each period is related to a different strand of thinking, her deconstructive method is not as impersonal as Derrida’s yet still retains a certain abstract quality that can be hard to follow for those not committed to re-reading passages. Regardless, the position on woman is firmly understood: “It is generally understood that [they] accedes to generality through their husband[s] and their child[ren] but only at the price of their singularity. (223)” Meaning that a sort of maternal obligation binds the female subject to the family thereby cutting off their own chances at self-development. This is because “philosophy, thought, and discourse do not evolve swiftly enough in response to ‘popular’ movements.” Woman, despite their historical predicament, are always caught within a praxis which undermines their identity faster than a counter-praxis may be assumed; said another way, the cat is always faster than the mouse.
A primal manifestation of this cat-mouse game is fear. Not fear as in ‘don’t wander off by yourself in the dark’ but fear as in ‘when you search for yourself, in yourself (memory), you risk imprisoning yourself (224).’ This was what happened to men with their discursive thought and language games. Inviting women into this field would “assume that [humanity]… loses ourselves by giving ourselves.” Hence why the sciences and humanities have kept a scientific model which excluded itself from the previously mentioned popular movements and insisted on “sterilizing the losses if equilibrium even though they are necessary to achieve a new horizon of discovery. (227)” The intent was to merely re-write accepted practice; to appear less patriarchal while still perpetuating what Irigaray calls a ‘slope of sexual differences’ which promulgated the reproductive aspects of the feminine while maintaining the oppressive aspects over it. This contradiction provides the primary antagonism for our day: women’s search for self-expression and man’s debt to the woman for her organic and lingual gifts. Each, after all, subsist on the material: flesh and blood in order to give life to their expression. In the end each of these, in both the science and humanities, serve as the intellectual impediment to gaining an equitable comprehension of the tactics and theory needed to liberate both men and woman from their present situations, a situation which is shown as a sexual ethic.