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’.1Luce Irigaray (1993) An Ethics of Sexual Difference, Trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, p. 98 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…2Luce Irigaray (1985) This Sex Which is Not One, Trans. Catherine Porter and Carolyn Burke, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, p. 136

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,3Luce Irigaray (2013) In the Beginning, She Was, London: Bloomsbury, p. 76. 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.4Luce Irigaray (1996) I love to you: sketch for a felicity within history. Trans. Alison Martin, New York: Routledge, p. 39.

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’,5See for example in previous work Irigaray, above n 1, pp.1–29; Luce Irigaray (2008) Sharing the World, New York: Continuum, pp.31-61. 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’.6Irigaray, above n 3, p. 140. 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.7Luce Irigaray (1993) Sexes and genealogies, Trans. Gillian C. Gill. New York: Columbia University Press p. 18.

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.

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