Equality: Notes on the Thought of Luce Irigaray

Key Concept

Equality is a concept that has concerned Luce Irigaray, in various guises, throughout her work. In this post I will discuss both her critique of liberal mobilisations of equality, and her rethinking of equality through sexual difference.

Irigaray’s work is often divided into three phases.1Luce Irigaray (2008) Conversations (London: Continuum) 160. Briefly, in the first phase, or the ‘critical’ phase, she excavates the monosubjective (masculine) character and tradition of Western culture during which she revisits the seminal texts of philosophy and psychoanalysis and contests the defining concepts of enlightenment thought. In the second, she seeks to define the conditions necessary to develop a culture in the feminine and in the third, her focus is on the elaboration of a genuine coexistence between masculine and feminine subjects, without hierarchy, or the construction of intersubjectivity in sexual difference. I think we can map on a movement in her thinking on equality to these three phases.

Irigaray’s great insight in Speculum of the Other Woman was that the universal subject espoused by the men of philosophy and psychoanalysis is not universal or neutral, as they had asserted, but in fact masculine and that this subject had achieved its domination through the suppression and denial of the feminine. Through dialogic readings of the ‘blind spots’ of the texts of Freud, Plato, Lacan, Kant and others, Irigaray illustrated how the feminine has been colonised by a male fantasy of an inverted other through which he can project himself as subject, while woman functions only as object for and between men. The masculine projection of the feminine is thus defined in accordance with male perceptions and experiences of the world and involves the elaboration of norms for keeping the feminine within certain boundaries. These boundaries are premised upon the negation of specific female bodies in history and their replacement with masculine constructions of the feminine, such as those of wife and mother. Women’s bodies are thus materialised insofar as they serve the male world. Irigaray calls this law that orders society ‘hom(m)osexual’ or ‘phallocentric’ in that it values, and is in service exclusively to, men’s needs and desires, and exchanges among men.2Luce Irigaray (1985) This Sex which is not One. Porter C (tr) (Ithaca: Cornell University Press) 171. As Alain Pottage eloquently explains:

[Phallocentrism] therefore preserves the reproduction of culture in the image of a masculine morphology – a morphology sculpted and sustained through techniques of identification and attachment which institute a self predicated upon the denigration of otherness; or, specifically, an otherness which has been attributed a feminine gender.3Alain Pottage (1994) A Unique and Different Subject of Law. Cardozo Law Review (16): 1161, 1167.

This phallocentrism necessitates what Irigaray exposed as a symbolic economy in which woman’s difference can only be represented as a defective variation of the same. Woman exists in an ‘economy of the same’ in that equality is conceived as becoming equivalent to a man, however inclusion in phallocratic logic through equivalency with men does nothing to disrupt that logic; it remains the same. In such a symbolic order, woman has no entitlement to her own unique genealogy, culture or becoming and as such cannot enter into civil society as woman, for herself.

On the basis of this insight, Irigaray is critical of liberal politics of inclusion which espouse the goal of ‘equality’ between the sexes. The figure of the neutral ‘equal’ citizen, she argues, is a fiction which serves primarily to obscure the masculine as universal and justifies the continued denial of woman’s unique sexual difference. After the gains of egalitarian politics are carefully examined, argues Irigaray, women’s inclusion in civil society and culture has failed to acknowledge their distinct and different position from men, and from each other, and in doing so has left intact the ahistorical neutral (sexless) citizen of the nation state.4Nicole Fermon N (1998) Women on the global market: Irigaray and the democratic state. Diacritics 28(1): 120. The consequences of this construction of equality are significant: ‘The demand for the equality of the sexes often forms a part of this plan to neuter familial and sexual singularity for the benefit of the State and its laws… Yet these laws have openly sacrificed woman and covertly sacrificed man.’5Luce Irigaray (1993) Sexes and Genealogies. Gill GC (tr) (New York: Columbia University Press) 112.

From this critique of liberal equality Irigaray moved in the second and third phases of her work to consider equality through a (literally) different lens. If women are to become subjects, she argues, it will most likely not be because they have first become accepted as men, or as sexually neutral citizens. What is required instead is an ability to think equality not through sameness but through difference.

In the second phase of her work, during which time she was concerned with an elaboration of the conditions necessary for a culture in the feminine to emerge, she mused upon the dual demands of equality and difference primarily through her notion of the ‘double universal’.6Irigaray (1985), above n 2, 81. This idea has often been criticised, particularly in feminist circles, as being essentialist but this is a misunderstanding of her thinking here. The double universal is not the elaboration of a fixed feminine subjectivity to compliment, or double, the universal (masculine) subject, but rather the conduit for the full positive affirmation of two sexes and the reconfiguration of the subject beyond the ‘one’. As Elizabeth Grosz explains:

The sexes as we know them today have only one model, a singular and universal neutrality… But the idea that sexual difference entails the existence of at least two points of view, sets of interests, perspectives, two types of ideal, two modes of knowledge, is yet to be considered.7Elizabeth Grosz (2006) The Force of Sexual Difference. In: Mortensen E (ed) Sex, Breath, and Force. (Lanham: Lexington) 10.

In this way, Irigaray began to think about how sexual difference could form the basis for the wholesale transformation of civil society on the basis of two sexually differentiated subjects living in intersubjectivity.

In thinking through the possibility of the double universal in the earlier part of the third phase of her work, Irigaray turned increasingly to the law. While critical of law as an institution which remains mired within phallocentrism it remains necessary, nonetheless, she argues, in order to initiate that ‘full-scale rethink’ of the civil system she envisages. In a series of texts released in English in quick succession, Irigaray argues for what she calls ‘sexuate rights’ which are designed to apply in respect of men and women and ‘respond to the reality of their respective needs’.8Luce Irigaray (1993) Je, tu, nous: toward a culture of difference. Martin A (tr) (New York: Routledge) 86-89; (1994) Thinking the difference: for a peaceful revolution. Montin K (tr) (London: Athlone Press) 60-62; (1996) I love to you: sketch for a felicity within history. Martin A (tr) (New York: Routledge) 132. Equality between men and women, she argues, ‘cannot be achieved without a theory of gender as sexed and a rewriting of the rights and obligations of each sex, qua different, in social rights and obligations.’9Irigaray (1993), above n 8, 13. The law which would be brought into being by, but also tasked with safeguarding, such a system of rights would have the capacity to regulate the subjective and objective relations between (sexually) different persons thus facilitating a universal made up of two equal but different subjects.

In her more recent work Irigaray continues the project of thinking equality through sexuate difference. Her thinking emphasises the crucial importance of a shared horizon of becoming grounded in a respect for difference.

In order to go beyond a limit, there must be a boundary. To touch one another in intersubjectivity, it is necessary that two subjects agree to the relationship and that the possibility to consent exists. Each must have the opportunity to be a concrete, corporeal and sexuate subject, rather than an abstract, neutral, fabricated, and fictitious one.10Luce Irigaray (2000) To Be Two. Rhodes M and Cocito-Monoc M (trs) (London: Athlone) 26.

Those interested in the manifestation of the double universal in Irigaray’s later work might have a look at her new book released this year in which she revisits many of these key themes and in which the critical phase of her work is presented in a particularly accessible manner (chapters 1 – 3).11Luce Irigaray (2013) In the Beginning, She Was. London: Bloomsbury.

Yvette Russell is a lecturer in law at Queen’s University Belfast.

  10 comments for “Equality: Notes on the Thought of Luce Irigaray

  1. Thanks for your thoughtful interpretation. After 10 years of an applied focus – preventing violence against women, I return to her courageous project enthused and hopeful

  2. I have great admiration for Irigaray; she demonstrates just how dumb some of our politicians are when they talk about “equality”.

  3. I came across Irigaray by a hance meeting of someone who was toally enfused by her work, I am uncrtain as to the difference in essence of Greer’s work and Luce, Greer’s, who seems to have a language that many understand in contrast to a academic appreciation.
    If change is sought on behaviour, we need a language most can understand.
    Some feel the language of academics is so obtruse it is addressed to those of a elite class and is to technical to make useful for a change that is significant.

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