Language: Notes on the Thought of Luce Irigaray

Key Concept

I is marked sexually

Grammar reflects, for both men and women, a valorization of masculinity and an erasure of femininity.

Luce Irigaray’s critique of masculine language systems follows logically from her broader critique of history and culture first elaborated 40 years ago in Speculum.1 Irigaray’s thinking on language is so complex and informed by so many difficult methodological frameworks, when approaching it for the first time I think it helps to look at her corpus chronologically. In her vast critique of language systems, Irigaray argues that systems of parole, discourse and logic rather than being universal and neutral are set up and maintained to serve male interests. Irigaray’s psychoanalytic reading of language is informed primarily by her insight that through a process of specularisation man projects his own ego on to the world which is then reflected back to him with his own image. Woman, as body and matter, stands in for that reflective mirror. It is the mother who is the primary support for the male imaginary, but because she also cannot be represented (because she is the mirror) she is symbolically murdered as part of the process by which man enters into culture.2 Woman is therefore simultaneously erased within the specular economy whilst also an integral part upon which it is founded. This paradoxical dependence on and erasure of woman in culture, argues Irigaray, is mirrored in patriarchal systems of language and discourse. As Elizabeth Grosz explains, this happens with by way of self-​referential systems of logic which are fundamentally partial:

Discourses refuse to acknowledge that their own partiality, their own perspectivity, their own interests and values, implicitly rely upon conceptions of women and femininity in order to maintain their ‘objectivity’, ‘scientificity’, or ‘truth’ – that is, their veiled masculinity.3

The historic erasure of the feminine in culture is evident in the ‘deep economy of language’ where patriarchal culture has reduced the value of the feminine to ‘an abstract nonexistent reality’.4 In other words, ‘language, rather than anatomy, now consigns woman to her role as object and Other, but she is no less trapped: indeed in some ways, Irigaray suggests, the situation is worse’.5 It is Lacan’s insistence that woman’s position as non-​existent is a necessary feature of language; or the ‘effect of a logical requirement’, which makes it impossible to simply ‘appeal to another language in which woman is not defined in terms of lack but might instead participate as a speaking subject herself’.6

Irigaray develops this psychoanalytic critique further in her famous essay ‘The Mechanics of Fluids’. That essay speaks to a particular male angst regarding the ebb and flow of women’s bodies and the ways in which this angst has instantiated itself within systems of representation.7 Irigaray notes an ‘historical lag in elaborating a “theory” of fluids’,8 reflective perhaps of the fact that ‘women diffuse themselves according to modalities scarcely compatible with the framework of the ruling symbolics’.9 The equation between fluids and waste is said to justify ‘a complicity of long standing between rationality and a mechanics of solids alone’.10 The inability of language to incorporate the ‘reality’ of fluidity, or that which escapes symbolic articulation, may signify ‘…the powerlessness of logic to incorporate in its writing all the characteristic features of nature’.11

The masculine logos thus reserves to itself the sole ability to direct and constrain meaning. This necessary reduction of the play of meanings to mirror the male morphology bears witness, says Irigaray, to the very separation of man from ‘the mother-​nature’. ‘This separation, constitutive of man as man, requires that he erect himself as solid entity out of an undifferentiated subjectum’.12 It is this reduction of the play of meaning to unity that necessarily eschews the fluidity and plurality represented by woman. This plurality is represented most memorably in Irigaray’s work as the two-​lips.13 The two-​lips confound the dominant discourse as an alternative signifier to the phallus because there can no longer be a unity in the subject.

Irigaray’s work on language is extensive and spans multiple methodological terrains including substantial empirical research into patterns of speech, grammar and syntax, and in particular the differences observable between women and men.14 Irigaray illustrates the effect of the ‘veiled masculinity’ present in dominant language systems in her extensive empirical research into the relationship between philosophy and linguistics. Her basic experimental design in works like I love to you include developing a formal analysis from responses received by subjects given cues from which they are asked to form sentences.15 Her general findings are summarised by Margorie Hass thus:

  1. Men are more likely than women to designate themselves as speakers, more likely to ‘take speech in their name.’
  2. Women are more likely than men to use a dialogic structure. Whereas men privilege their relationship to the world in their responses, women privilege relationships between persons.
  3. Women are more likely than men to characterize difference as positive, and women are more likely to use interrogatives.
  4. Both women and men are unlikely to designate a woman as the subject of a sentence of direct a constructed sentence towards a woman.16

Irigaray traces how linguistics are marked by sexual difference through first the usage of ‘he’ and ‘she’, however her empirical work illustrates that even the personal pronoun ‘I’ is sexually marked. Not only do men and women produce different elements of sexual difference through their respective speech, but the grammatical subject itself is also sexed: ‘grammar reflects, for both men and women, a valorization of masculinity and an erasure of femininity.’17

In her later work, notably The Way of Love, Sharing the World and In the Beginning, She Was, Irigaray develops further her dialogue on language with her long-​time interlocutor, Heidegger.18 Irigaray is indebted to Heideggerian phenomenology in her work revealing the conditions which create the possibility of discourse, and indeed in the development of her constructive political project.19 In her latest work Irigaray extends and refines her analysis of Aristotelian logic in her dialogue with Heidegger in a way that is useful for thinking about law’s logos.20 She argues that we need to turn back to the pre-​Socratic conception of the world for understanding intersubjectivity, as it was at this point that woman has not yet been erased from culture. Irigaray traces the origin on Socratic thought through the notion of ‘truth’, illustrating how truth could only be acceded to through the teaching of the ‘master’.

This ‘truth’ was genealogically passed between (male) disciples, thus instantiating a solipsistic male discourse exchanged only between men amongst themselves. It was thus at this very moment when woman became a ‘beyond’ of discourse, a gap, something outside the logos, a trace nevertheless, through the enclosure of the male world paralleling/​doubling the real of life and of the relation with Her.21

A consequence of this logic, says Irigaray, is that thinking itself comes to represent being, meaning that being itself is in thrall to the rules of the male logos.

Irigaray’s constructive project from her earliest work has been directed at the question of how to resurrect a specific feminine language. Why not challenge the limits of speech and of representation, she says, ‘[u]ntil the ear tunes into another music, the voice starts to sing again…’.22 This exhortation in her earlier work to speak through difference is something with which Irigaray has continued to be concerned throughout her corpus. ‘How does the subject come back to itself after having exiled itself within a discourse?’ She asks in To speak is never neutral; ‘[t]his is the question of any era’.23 Irigaray’s constructive project draws on her critical insights to assert the need to create a new ‘linguistic home’ in which woman is no longer the universal predicate upon which the meta-​language rests.24 This will necessarily require a change in the very position of the subjects of enunciation. But it will also require a new attentiveness to that which previously we were deaf:

We need to listen (psycho)analytically to its procedures of repression, to the structuration of language that shores up its representations, separating the true from the false, the meaningful from the meaningless and so forth. … What is called for instead is an examination of the operation of the ‘grammar’ of each figure of discourse, its syntactic laws or requirements, its imaginary configurations, its metaphoric networks, and also, of course, what it does not articulate at the level of utterances: its silences.25

Yvette Russell is a Lecturer in Law at Queen’s University Belfast.

Show 25 footnotes

  1. Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, Gillian C. Gill (tr), (Cornell University Press 1985)
  2. Margaret Whitford, Luce Irigaray: Philosophy in the Feminine (Routledge 1991) 34.
  3. Elizabeth Grosz, Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction (Routledge 1990) 180.
  4. Luce Irigaray, Je, tu, nous: towards a culture of difference, Alison Martin (tr), (Routledge 1993) 20.
  5. Rachel Jones, Irigaray (Polity 2011) 150.
  6. ibid 150.
  7. Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, Catherine Porter (tr), (Cornell University Press 1985) 106 – 118.
  8. Ibid 106 emphasis omitted.
  9. Ibid 106.
  10. Ibid 107.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Luce Irigaray, To Speak is Never Neutral, Gail Schwab (tr), (Continuum 2002) 233.
  13. See Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, above n 7, 205 – 218.
  14. Luce Irigaray, Le langage des dements (Mouton 1973); Luce Irigaray, I love to you: sketch for a felicity within history, Alison Martin (tr), (Routledge 1996); Luce Irigaray, To Be Two, Monique M. Rhodes & Marco F. Cocito-​Monoc (trs), (Routledge 2000).
  15. Irigaray, I love to you, above n 14.
  16. Margorie Hass, ‘The Style of the Speaking Subject: Irigaray’s Empirical Studies of Language Production’ (2000) 15(1) Hypatia 64, 66.
  17. Ibid 70.
  18. Luce Irigaray, The Way of Love, Heidi Bostic and Stephen Pluháček (tr), (Continuum 2002); Luce Irigaray, Sharing the World (Continuum 2008), Luce Irigaray, In the Beginning, She Was (Bloomsbury 2013). 
  19. See further Maria C. Cimitile, ‘Irigaray in Dialogue with Heidegger’ in Maria C. Cimitile and Elaine P. Miller (eds) Returning to Irigaray (SUNY Press 2007) 267.
  20. Luce Irigaray, In the Beginning, She Was, above n 18. 
  21. Ovidiu Anemtoaicei & Yvette Russell, ‘Luce Irigaray: Back to the Beginning’ (2013) 21(5) International Journal of Philosophical Studies 773, 775.
  22. Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, above n 1, 143. 
  23. Irigaray, To Speak is Never Neutral, above n 12, 4.
  24. Luce Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference, Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill (tr), (Continuum 2004) 107.
  25. Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, above n 7, 75, emphasis in original.

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