Masculine Subjects: Notes on the Thought of Luce Irigaray

Key Concept


Given that Irigaray’s philo­soph­ical pro­ject fo­cuses at large on re­thinking the re­la­tion­ships between women and men, within a cul­ture of sexual dif­fer­ence, as sub­jects in their own terms, it seems there­fore only lo­gical that sexual dif­fer­ence (in Irigaray’s later texts re­worked as sexuate dif­fer­ence) re­veal it­self as a fruitful frame­work for also en­ga­ging with the issue of mas­culin­ities and male bodies. In this post I will con­sider the im­plic­a­tions of Irigaray’s crit­ical pro­ject for male bodies and mas­cu­line sub­ject formation.

Irigaray’s work com­pels us to look at men and their bodies from a totally dif­ferent con­cep­tual space, where the fem­inine and fe­male bodies cannot be con­sumed, de­valued or defined in mas­cu­line terms. Simply put, Irigaray sug­gests that men should start thinking and living their own bodies and par­ti­cipate in the con­struc­tion of the world within their own terms without de­vouring ‘others’.1 That is the reason why, for her, it is un­con­ceiv­able to place her­self in a man’s po­s­i­tion, to think or speak for him.

But is it up to me, I wonder, to speak of the other ‘man’? It’s curious, be­cause it’s a ques­tion that I am con­stantly being asked. I find it quite amusing… I am con­stantly being asked what that ‘other’ man will be. Why should I ap­pro­priate for my­self what that ‘other’ man would have to say? What I want and what I am waiting to see is what men will do and say if their sexu­ality re­leases its hold on the em­pire of phal­lo­centrism. But this is not for a woman to an­ti­cipate, or foresee, or pre­scribe…2

Nevertheless, in many of her pre­vious works, but more poignantly in The Way of Love and Sharing the World, while of­fering a powerful crit­ical dia­gnostic of pat­ri­archal male modes of or­gan­izing and ex­pressing thought, Irigaray also hints at re­thinking men’s po­s­i­tions and lived ex­per­i­ences in re­la­tion to their own bodies and women’s, as well in re­la­tion to lan­guage and the world. Among these is her call for men to ques­tion their own re­la­tion to what is con­structed and pro­jected as ‘hu­manity’ by men them­selves. Since for Irigaray hu­manity has yet to be achieved,3 what re­mains is a need to cul­tivate the limit, a concept bor­rowed from Heidegger in her re-​thinking of the re­la­tions between and among women and men. Refusing the ar­ti­fi­cial con­struct of hu­manity, i.e. the mas­cu­line fic­tion of the idea of what a human being is, im­plies for her a re­turn to the reality of sexuate dif­fer­ence as a novel con­sti­tu­tion of the uni­versal. Irigaray pre­vi­ously elab­or­ated on this spe­cific un­der­standing of the uni­versal and limit as sexual dif­fer­ence in I love to you thus:

I be­long to the uni­versal in re­cog­nizing that I am a woman. The woman’s sin­gu­larity is in having a par­tic­ular gene­a­logy and his­tory. But be­longing to a gender rep­res­ents a uni­versal that ex­ists prior to me. I have to ac­com­plish it in re­la­tion to my par­tic­ular des­tiny.4

The task, for men then, is to cul­tivate the limit, the fi­nitude of their gendered em­bodied pres­ence in the world, their male em­bod­i­ment in re­la­tion to women’s bodies and the world. Consequently, men would fi­nally un­der­stand that they are not all, i.e. the uni­versal and the world, and that the jour­neys made by men in and through the world have to be rethought.

In her most re­cent work, In the Beginning, She Was, Irigaray re­turns to the Heideggerian concept of the ‘path’,5 in re­la­tion to her cri­tique of Western male cul­ture as one of es­trange­ment and ex­ter­i­ority ‘rushing for­ward to build a world which even­tu­ally sub­sti­tutes it­self for us’.6 Parallel to this, ‘we’ still have a tra­di­tion of the ‘return’ — a concept that Irigaray re­works in her dia­logue with Nietzsche — or, better put, of the im­possib­ility of re­turning home, to one­self. In order to re­con­cile man’s iden­tity crisis, there is a need for a re­turn both bodily and cul­tur­ally, spe­cific­ally a re­turn to the Greek cul­ture, where one can locate al­most lost mean­ings that could in­dicate a dif­ferent path and journey even for men them­selves. This re-​turning back to one­self, this self-​affection, for man, is more re­lated to one­ness, given he is not yet dif­fer­en­ti­ated from the ma­ternal world and given the dream world of all and everything, which he con­structed for the lack of cul­tiv­a­tion of his re­la­tion­ship with the mother.

Irigaray’s sug­ges­tion is that a cul­tiv­a­tion starting with re­ima­ging the re­la­tion with the mother in bodily and af­fect terms would be a first step in this new journey of male mas­cu­line sub­jective form­a­tion. For ex­ample, in Sexes and Genealogies and in I love to you, Irigaray de­scribes the male ima­ginary and his sym­bolic ex­pres­sions as neg­ating the mother’s body and re­pro­ductive power, the mother’s primary nur­turing space and re­la­tion­ship to the child and ar­gues that (male) lan­guage ap­pro­pri­ates the fe­male puis­sance, sexu­ality and de­sire. In sym­bol­ical terms, the phallus takes the place of the um­bil­ical cord (thus the cas­tra­tion com­plex ob­tains its primacy in re­la­tion to the ori­ginal cut from the mother), and the womb and the pla­centa are for­gotten through a spe­cific lan­guage defined in the terms of the male (iso)phallomorphic fantasies in re­la­tion to his own bodily activ­ities and ex­per­i­ences. Irigaray’s con­structive move here is to in­dicate mor­pho­logic loc­a­tions for re­thinking man’s own ima­ginary in terms of pos­it­iv­izing fe­male bodies: a) the navel as the tribute place/​scar memory for the primary bond/​home (the um­bil­ical cord, the pla­centa and the womb) with the mother and b) a rad­ical re-​interpretation of the phallic erec­tion as the mas­cu­line ver­sion of the um­bil­ical cord, not as the all-​powerful ap­pro­pri­ating sig­ni­fier, but rather more of a re­pe­ti­tion of the ‘living bond to the mother’ out of re­spect for ‘the life of the mother’:

The penis evokes some­thing of the life within the womb as it stiffens, touches and spills out, passing beyond the skin and the will. As it softens and falls, it evokes the end, mourning, the ever open wound. Men would be per­forming an act of an­ti­cip­atory re­pe­ti­tion, a re­turn to the world that al­lows them to be­come sexual adults cap­able of erot­i­cism and re­ci­pro­city in the flesh.7

Consequently, as far as men are con­cerned, sev­eral di­men­sions can be drawn on to elab­orate fur­ther Irigaray’s thinking on mas­cu­line mor­pho­logy. One pos­sib­ility is the re-​imagining of man’s way of re­lating to his own sexuate body to­wards a rad­ic­ally dif­ferent male ima­ginary against the dom­in­ating phallic het­ero­norm­ative rep­res­ent­a­tions of male bodies. Additionally, men must re­think their re­la­tion with the mother and her body so that this re­la­tion could be dif­fer­ently rep­res­ented in the cul­tural order. As we faced a con­struc­tion of male sub­jectivity through the elab­or­a­tion of an in­ter­i­ority via the cor­rect use of lan­guage, there is a need for trans­form­a­tions in lan­guage, such as the cul­tiv­a­tion of male de­sire and self-​affection through a new speech. Thus, for men, both bodily and cul­tur­ally, one’s path and re­turn to one’s self, as the con­di­tion of pos­sib­ility for that path, be­come fun­da­mental as­pects of la­bouring to­gether with women for a cul­ture of a ‘real’ sexuate difference.

Ovidiu Anemtoaicei is a PhD stu­dent in Gender Studies at Central European University.

Show 7 foot­notes

  1. Luce Irigaray (1993) An Ethics of Sexual Difference, Trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, p. 98
  2. Luce Irigaray (1985) This Sex Which is Not One, Trans. Catherine Porter and Carolyn Burke, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, p. 136
  3. Luce Irigaray (2013) In the Beginning, She Was, London: Bloomsbury, p. 76.
  4. Luce Irigaray (1996) I love to you: sketch for a fe­li­city within his­tory. Trans. Alison Martin, New York: Routledge, p. 39.
  5. See for ex­ample in pre­vious work Irigaray, above n 1, pp.1 – 29; Luce Irigaray (2008) Sharing the World, New York: Continuum, pp.31 – 61.
  6. Irigaray, above n 3, p. 140.
  7. Luce Irigaray (1993) Sexes and gene­a­lo­gies, Trans. Gillian C. Gill. New York: Columbia University Press p. 18.

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