Literary and Critical Theory Luce Irigaray
by
Claire Colebrook
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0028

Introduction

Luce Irigaray (1932–) is a Belgian-born philosopher (holding a 1955 master’s degree from the University of Louvain) who moved to Paris to complete her education at the University of Paris (VIII), with a doctoral degree in linguistics and a later doctoral dissertation in philosophy. Her work engages with the major texts of the Western philosophical tradition, from the Presocratics to Martin Heidegger. Trained in philosophy, linguistics (with a dissertation on language and madness published in 1973), and psychoanalysis, Irigaray reads the entire tradition of Western thought as symptomatic of a failure to address its corporeal debt, and in this respect her work is a diagnosis of the desires and repressions that constitute the philosophical subject as a negation of a femininity that it can imagine only as an unrepresentable lack. She remains a practicing analyst, writer, researcher, and advocate of sexed rights. She has often been accused of essentialism, especially in the 1980s, when philosophy and theory were focused on the ways in which textuality mediated reality. In the early 21st century, when that textualism is being rejected and there are now positive ways of thinking about life, bodies, and matter, Irigaray’s work is being reread and reinterpreted. The description of Western philosophy as a phallogocentrism that has assumed a specific morphology of unified and solid beings and subjects, and that could be countered by a philosophy that contemplated fluidity, the elemental, touch, the in-between, and the multiple both earned her criticism for being an essentialist and tied her to a broader movement of écriture féminine, a phrase coined by Hélène Cixous, whose work was initially and ultimately quite different from Irigaray’s but whose general critique of a Western culture of binaries that privileged disembodied reason did provide some (if misleading) common ground. Écriture féminine was often used broadly to refer to the movement of French feminism that questioned the supposedly neutral-speaking subject at the heart of philosophy. Irigaray’s work first entered the Anglo-American scene of feminist thought alongside the writings of Cixous, Julia Kristeva, Sarah Kofman, Christine Delphy, Michèle Le Doeuff, and others. Irigaray was interpreted as one voice in “French feminism” that differed from Anglo-American feminism because of the emphasis on positive sexual difference.

Primary Texts

In addition to providing a psychoanalysis of Western metaphysics, Irigaray provides a rigorous philosophical and phenomenological critique of the framing narrative of psychoanalysis, especially as it is articulated in her teacher Jacques Lacan’s “return to Freud.” Irigaray’s relation to Lacanian psychoanalysis was never that of a dutiful daughter; she was famously expelled from the École Freudienne in Paris and was removed from her teaching duties at the University of Paris. She continued to work as a researcher at Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris but has progressively moved away from philosophical and psychoanalytic projects to questions of more immediate political theory, including an argument for a conception of human rights that takes account of sexual difference, and—even more recently—an articulation of a political theory that would embrace sexually differentiated humans’ relationships to nature in a manner that breaks with centuries of what she originally referred to as “phallogocentrism.” Although there is a clear shift from her early work, written as a playful, literary, and highly complex reading of the philosophical tradition, to a more activist style of constructing a future by way of thinking of practices such as yoga and relationships between mothers and daughters and men and women, one strand is continuous: sexual difference for Irigaray offers a way of thinking beyond Western patriarchy’s self-enclosure and logic of the same. Her early-21st-century work reflects on her early exclusion from the institutions of psychoanalysis and philosophy; she is quite clear that her rejection by the École Freudienne demonstrates a nihilistic tendency in Western thought that her own work has sought to overcome. Here is Irigaray in 2016, quoting an earlier text she wrote regarding her exclusion; this testifies to the profound impact that her earlier career has sustained on her sense of place in Western thought: “As I write in the text ‘Between Myth and History: The Tragedy of Antigone’: ‘Fortunately, if I have been excluded from society—from universities, psychoanalytical institutions, circles of scientists and even friends, in part from publishing houses and, more recently, from my house itself—I have not been deprived of my relation to the natural world. Expelled from public organizations, enclosed or shrouded with a silence that I sometimes felt to be the opaque wall of a tomb, I have not been deprived of my relation to air, to the sun, to the plant and animal worlds. I have been expelled from the polis, the city, the human society to which I belonged and sent back to the natural world that my contemporaries no longer appreciate or consider of much value, and hence something of which it was unnecessary to deprive me. Being sent to the natural world in this way has allowed me to survive or, better, to rediscover what life itself is.’” This quotation is taken from a coauthored volume with the philosopher Michael Marder, Through Vegetal Being (see Irigaray and Marder 2016, cited under Plants and Animals, p. 32). Here she reiterates the effect that the response to her first book had to her subsequent writing trajectory: “Through the event that Speculum provoked, I have been sent back to the thing that my tradition neglected: life itself” (Irigaray and Marder 2016, p. 32). This moment of reflection and self-definition helps us negotiate our way through the decades and volumes of Irigaray’s corpus.

Language

Irigaray’s earliest published research (Irigaray 1973) contains empirical work in which patients suffering dementia were not simply observed but were given psycholinguistic tests in order to see if one might formalize a different type of grammar. Le langage des déments seeks to grant a positivity to patients suffering from dementia, not simply observing them as lacking normal speech or falling into error, but finding new ways to communicate. One might be able to discern in this early work an attempt to think about different modes of speech and subjectivity that cannot simply be seen as the breakdown or negation of standard or normal speech. Irigaray’s focus shifted away from dementia toward the relation between speech and sexual difference, arguing for a complex relation of morphology between sexual difference and philosophy: philosophy and the mode of its speaking subject are not caused by the sex of one’s body. Rather, the comportment of the body and the coming into being of the speaking subject occur through relations among subjects, and their different relations to the world (Irigaray 2002). Language does not simply represent an observed world but emerges from a body’s relation to the world. Different types of bodies orient themselves differently toward their first milieu—the mother’s body—and from then on are composed by way of a sexually different comportment.

  • Irigaray, Luce. Le langage des déments. Approaches to Semiotics 24. Paris: Mouton, 1973.

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    This is Irigaray’s first book, and one that she later criticized for its scientific narrowness even though she was here focusing on the theme of the singularity of the speaking subject, a theme that would preoccupy her later work on sexual difference.

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  • Irigaray, Luce. “And the One Doesn’t Stir without the Other.” Translated by Hélène Vivienne Wenzel. Signs 7.1 (1981): 60–67.

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    This text is at once highly psychoanalytic (in the significance it places on early relations with the mother) and unconventionally fictive. It is written in first person and is addressed to the mother, who provides the milieu for sensible becoming from which the speaking subject emerges. This text describes the ways in which bodies and selves are intertwined in the earliest stages of emergence. Reprinted in Irigaray’s Et l’une ne bouge pas sans l’autre (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1979).

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  • Irigaray, Luce, ed. Sexes et genres à travers les langues: Éléments de communication sexuée; Français, anglais, italien. Paris: Grasset, 1990.

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    A collection edited by Irigaray on the relationship between sexual difference and language across French, English, and Italian, deploying a phenomenological methodology. With chapters by Rachel Bers, Cristina Cacciari, Mark Calkins, and Margaret Dempster.

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  • Irigaray, Luce. To Speak Is Never Neutral. Translated by Gail Schwab. London: Continuum, 2002.

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    This work, Parler n’est jamais neuter in the original French (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1985), extends two claims that run throughout Irigaray’s early work. From phenomenology she maintains that speaking subjects brings their world into being relationally. Subjects are neither complete nor enclosed beings who encounter a distinct world, but are always formed in an ongoing relation to a world that is always a world of (sexually different) others.

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Phallogocentrism

Irigaray’s two major early works—Speculum of the Other Woman (Irigaray 1985a) and This Sex Which Is Not One (Irigaray 1985b), first published in French in 1974 and 1977, respectively—challenge the foundations of Western thought. Like her earlier doctoral dissertation in linguistics, published in 1973 as Le langage des déments, Speculum and This Sex explore the limits of the speaking subject and its negation of the complex fluidity of the body’s relation to itself and others. This first period of her work challenges the bounds of reason and sense and, for this reason, is written in a mode that quotes canonical texts, while weaving her own questions and ironic remarks into paraphrase of the works she studies. She continues to write and publish to this day, but this early work is characterized by a complex combination of stylistic innovation and close reading of major philosophical works that has since given way to a more conversational and clearly “political” tone. Whereas Speculum argues that the subject of Western thought has been constituted by an ongoing negation and constitution of “woman” as an unrepresentable absence, and This Sex opens the possibility of a new mode of voice emerging from the different morphology of the female body, later works focus specifically on empirical questions of rights, policy, and political representation and turn to non-Western traditions of philosophy and bodily practice rather than generating a voice from within the established canon. Both Speculum and This Sex are magisterial texts that combine interpretive analysis of key philosophical and psychoanalytic texts from the ancient Greeks to the present with multiple and playful uses of voice and metaphor. Both texts are also indebted to, while being critical of, Martin Heidegger and Jacques Lacan. Like Heidegger, Irigaray sees Western thought as unified by an ongoing forgetting of the emergence or genesis of the speaking subject; whereas Heidegger aimed to generate the thought of the coming into presence of Being, Irigaray asks how “Being” is assumed as something to be disclosed, and how the sexual relation to the world has been occluded in a theater of a single speaking subject. What she retains positively from Heidegger is a reading of Western metaphysics as symptomatic of a loss of a more intimate relation with a matter than cannot be posited as an object set over and against the subject. What needs to be explored is the emergence of speaking subjects from relations, which, for Irigaray, are primarily relations of sexual difference. The ideal of the phallus—self-commanding, potent, single, singular, and erect—provides a morphology for knowledge and comportment to the world: “phallogocentrism” describes a history of thought where the notion of thought as unified and commanding is coterminous with a body that is virtually self-fathering, incapable of recognizing that the sense it has of itself is achieved only by way of a relation to another sex (a sex that it disavows). To this end, her work deploys a series of complex literary, stylistic, and almost ironic modes in order to reread the Western canon, while attending to all the ways it invokes a passive, inert, and blank matter as nothing more than the ground through which thought comes to know and master itself and its world.

  • Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. Translated by Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985a.

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    Originally published as Speculum de l’autre femme (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1974). This remains Irigaray’s most significant work. In Speculum the importance of sexual difference is presented as the subject’s relation to a maternal body that “he” can only negate as passive matter to be represented; rather than “the” subject, then, Irigaray explores different modes of writing that would allow relations of touch and sexual difference rather than objectification and representation. If Western thought has been dominated by a quest for a universal truth that would remain present and in command of itself (logocentrism), it has done so by way of a sexual morphology.

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  • Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Translated by Catherine Porter and Carolyn Burke. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985b.

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    When Irigaray titled her second major work Ce sexe qui n’en est pas un (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1983), she used her then-typical mode of wordplay to point out both that the feminine is the sex that has not been taken into account (does not count as one), and that—in the formula of Lacan’s psychoanalysis of sexual difference—there is a sex that is not. It was against the formula of sexual difference where the feminine “is not” that Irigaray defined her positive notion of a sex that is not one because it is multiple.

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The Elemental

Irigaray’s earlier work devoted itself to studies of canonical philosophers (e.g., Plato, René Descartes, Friedrich Nietzsche, Heidegger, the Presocratics) whose work both influenced her own while also being symptomatic of the forgetting or occlusion of thought’s embodiment (Irigaray 1985a and Irigaray 1985b, both cited under Phallogocentrism). Her writing was always more than critical. Unlike Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction and its conception of logocentrism that insisted that anything outside the metaphysics of presence could only problematically be gestured toward in a future “to come,” Irigaray was insistent that logocentrism (or the focus on that which remains present, unified, and in command of itself) was a phallogocentrism that expressed one comportment to the world, and that another mode of philosophy was possible. Just how this other voice (other sex, other woman) was to be achieved was a point of dispute for Irigaray’s readers and critics and was articulated differently as Irigaray developed as a philosopher. In addition to her early major works such as Speculum of the Other Woman, which explored the history of Western thought with an attention to all the ways in which it had imagined something like a passive materiality in order to constitute a subject who is nothing more than an autonomous process of self-mastery, Irigaray also wrote on the “Imaginary” of individual philosophers, including Heidegger (Irigaray 2000) and Nietzsche (Irigaray 1991). If genuine sexual difference were to be articulated, the male philosopher would not relate to others and the world as nothing more than material for representation but would generate a genuinely different philosophy, aware of (at least) two voices. Her ongoing claim regarding the way in which we experience the world and others is that the transcendental is sensible, that our world is not an object to be observed but that the speaking subject and lived world emerge from a milieu of touching/touched that is never reducible to a single sense.

  • Irigaray, Luce. Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche. Translated by Gillian C. Gill. Gender and Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

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    Originally published as Amante marine: De Friedrich Nietzsche (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1980). In this extended and unconventional address to Nietzsche, Irigaray explores two themes that inflect her entire corpus: the elemental and the primacy of relations. As the title suggests, the work explores Nietzsche and his imagined philosopher of the future both as a woman and as one to whom he is related by way of love rather than the contestation and agonistics that mark the masculine voices of philosophy.

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  • Irigaray, Luce. Elemental Passions. Translated by Joanne Collie and Judith Still. New York: Routledge, 1992.

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    In Elemental Passions, she continues this exploration of philosophy’s unacknowledged sexual binary (which is not sexual difference). Man distances himself from the maternal body in order to become an autonomous subject; he can see woman only as a negated and passive matter. First published as Passions élémentaires (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1982).

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  • Irigaray, Luce. The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger. Translated by Mary Beth Mader. Constructs. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000.

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    Irigaray’s other study of a single philosopher (Heidegger) takes up the element of air, again contesting philosophy’s reliance both on its disavowed sense of materiality (earth, foundations, ground) and its forgetting of the milieu or medium through which thought relates to itself, and to others. This exploration of the elemental is both indebted to and critical of phenomenology. Originally published as L’oubli de l’air chez Martin Heidegger (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1982).

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At Least Two

Irigaray’s later texts pursue the positive task of creating a philosophy generated from a different nonphallic morphology, where the unity of the phallus as an ideal is answered by a mode of writing that is multiple or coupled, like the lips that are both touching and touched (neither active nor passive but both at once), and that are both the lips of the mouth and the labia. To this day, in interviews about her work, Irigaray is still asked about essentialism (or the reality of sexual difference) versus a theory of the constructedness of gender. Major feminist thinkers such as Elizabeth Grosz, Judith Butler, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak were heavily influenced (in different ways) by Irigaray’s claim that sexual difference would provide a positive way out of Western thought’s narcissism and nihilism. By insisting on at least two sexes, Irigaray points to the fact that at present there is only one sex, and that woman is defined as the negation or other of man. Sexual difference, thought ethically, would be a genuine relation of different modes of relationality (Irigaray 1993a, Irigaray 1993b). The sexed body inflects philosophy because the experience and unfolding of the world emerge from a sensible relation, but philosophy—or the ways of thinking about bodies, time, matter, and being—inflects the way “we” live our bodies. Irigaray is, then, neither essentialist nor “anti-essentialist.” The body does not cause thinking, and thinking does not “construct” the body; the two are folded into each other, and in this respect the figure of the female body with its multiple lips and complex relation of touching/touched open a new way to think about the relation between thinking and “being.” Her later works also focus on the implicit but unarticulated relation between thinking and matter (although referring to these two distinct terms is something she renders problematic). If liberal autonomy is the capacity to think and legislate for oneself, freeing oneself from given and imposed norms, Irigaray argues that being a speaking subject requires entering into relations with others whose orientation to the world is different from one’s own. Her conception of autonomy therefore requires a relation to an other who is not simply a reflection or variation of oneself. In addition to her theorization of democracy by way of sexual difference, she also argues for new forms of relation between men and women (Irigaray 2000). Both the concept of sexual difference and new modes of relational love would not simply bring women into the polity and its domain of rights but would also generate new modes of masculine subjectivity, now mindful of otherness that had hitherto been negated. In addition to sexual rights and new modes of genuinely relational love, Irigaray also writes about a world that is shared rather than owned or mastered (Irigaray 1996).

  • Irigaray, Luce. An Ethics of Sexual Difference. Translated by Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993a.

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    An important text that clearly argues for the transformation of sexual relations in order to form a new relation to the transcendent: the sexual act would turn into the act whereby the other gives new form, birth, and incarnation to the self. Instead of implying the downfall of the body, it takes part in the body’s “renaissance” (p. 51). First published as Éthique de la différence sexuelle (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1989).

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  • Irigaray, Luce. Je, tu, nous: Toward a Culture of Difference. Translated by Alison Martin. London: Routledge, 1993b.

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    Originally published in 1990 as Je, tu, nous: pour une culture de la difference (Paris: Éditions Grasser and Fasquelle). Explores female genealogies, sexed rights, and differences of language among the sexes and looks forward to a creative conception of culture defined through a positive recognition of difference.

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  • Irigaray, Luce. Thinking the Difference: For a Peaceful Revolution. Translated by Karin Montin. London: Athlone, 1994.

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    First published as Le temps de la différence: pour une révolution pacifique (Paris: Librairie Générale Française, 1989). Includes a translation of “Une chance de vivre” (“A Chance to Live”) from Sexes et parentés (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1987). On civil rights and female genealogies.

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  • Irigaray, Luce. I Love to You: Sketch of a Possible Felicity in History. Translated by Alison Martin. New York: Routledge, 1996.

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    In I Love To You, the “to you” emphasizes that the affect of love is a relational comportment toward an other who is never given as an object but who, in turn, is an orientation toward the world and others. If feminism has been marked by claiming that the seemingly private, personal, and familial sphere of experience is political, Irigaray intensifies the significance of the most intimate and personal of relations. Originally published as J’aime à toi: Esquisse d’une félicité dans l’histoire (Paris: Grasset, 1992).

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  • Irigaray, Luce. Democracy Begins between Two. Translated by Kirsteen Anderson. Athlone Contemporary European Thinkers. London: Athlone, 2000.

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    Irigaray shifts her attention away from a diagnosis of Western metaphysics and its annihilation of difference toward the formation of a new mode of politics. Rather than the antifoundational subject of liberal theory who negotiates the public sphere by acting as if he were any subject whatever, Irigaray argues for a democracy generated through difference. Further, she explores the positive transition from natural to civil coexistence, arguing that civil society begins from embodied relations rather than being their negation. First published as La democrazia comincia a due (Torino, Italy: Bollati Boringhieri, 1994).

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  • Irigaray, Luce. To Be Two. Translated by Monique M. Rhodes and Marco F. Cocito-Monoc. London: Routledge, 2001.

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    In this text, Irigaray develops her ongoing argument for a transcendence, or relation to unfulfilled otherness, that is constitutive of every individual’s identity. Previously published as Essere due (Torino, Italy: Bollati Boringhieri, 1994) and Être deux (Paris: B. Grasset, 1997).

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  • Irigaray, Luce. The Way of Love. Athlone Contemporary European Thinkers. London: Continuum, 2004.

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    The relation between practices of love, intimacy, and an acceptance of the other’s difference will allow for a new wisdom no longer reducible to knowledge. This, in turn, may “rebuild the world.”

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  • Irigaray, Luce. Sharing the World. London: Continuum, 2008.

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    Explores the ways we encounter others and others’ experience of their world. Extends Heidegger’s claim that we are always thrown into a world with others, and yet for Irigaray the impossibility of knowing others, even in intimacy, allows for a critique of Western reason’s commitment to the same.

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The Divine

Rethinking divinity not as a distant and transcendent object but as a transcendence that emerges from a self that has a sense of its genesis, gender, and genealogy would transform the social order, the relation to the earth, and the relation of the self to itself. This begins with a discussion of the mother-daughter relationship coming out of Irigaray’s psychoanalytic research, and it continues with a series of texts delivered across Europe and Canada, including the very important essay “Divine Women,” which argues that women require a sexually specific and different milieu of transcendence in order to become. It also argues that we can relate to each other as persons only by way of a universal that is also bound up with the sensible. “Women, the Sacred, Money” encapsulates a theme of exchange and sacrifice that runs throughout Irigaray’s work and her ongoing theorization of a nonsacrificial conception of culture.

  • Irigaray, Luce. La croyance même. Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1983.

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    Ties the problem of sexual difference to belief and concealment: sexual difference is a relation in which what is other than oneself can never be fully revealed or known, and in this respect it is the tradition of belief rather than transparent knowledge that opens the way for a new ethics. Translated as “Belief Itself,” in Irigaray 1993 (pp. 23–53)

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  • Irigaray, Luce. Sexes and Genealogies. Translated by Gillian C. Gill. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

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    First published as Sexes et parentés (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1987). Here, Irigaray turns to concepts of the divine and transcendence that neither posit an external God the father nor reduce the world to its present and masterable materiality. In the essays that compose Sexes and Genealogies she explores the possibility of a feminine divine; this would not amount to substituting a female God for a male God, but would entail thinking about transcendence as an orientation toward an otherness that is not graspable but that transforms and opens the self.

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  • Irigaray, Luce. Prières quotidiennes: Everyday Prayers. Translated by Luce Irigaray and Timothy Mathews. Paris: Maisonneuve & Larose, 2004.

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    A series of poems/prayers written and introduced by Irigaray in which nature is no longer an object to be observed or described, but an other with whom the speaking subject is in transformative dialogue.

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East/West/Breath

In her later works, Irigaray focuses on re-creating the orientation of the self, and overcoming a rigid gender binary that has isolated man from his material and maternal milieu. Irigaray increasingly turns to non-Western modes of philosophy and practice. In occasional pieces, such as an essay on the Israel/Palestine conflict (Irigaray 2014) and a book-length study (Irigaray 2002), she has turned to Eastern modes of thought to achieve what (elsewhere) she refers to as a felicity in history. Rather than simply exiting from Western thought, she writes about the ways in which her own mode of feminist philosophy had already created a way of thinking beyond limited rationalisms, enabling her current work to think of a new unified tradition of thought that would be mindful of difference. Irigaray 2012 continues this reorientation of thought by returning to the Presocratics and to Irigaray’s often-explored discussion of Antigone, in which she argues for female bonds and fealties that had been excluded from the Western polity.

  • Irigaray, Luce. Between East and West: From Singularity to Community. Translated by Stephen Pluháček. European Perspectives. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

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    Between East and West explores the possibility of achieving a new relation of self-awareness where a sense of the breath would enable a new relation to an earth that is now suffering from centuries of a mode of thought that can only objectify nature and only think of a disembodied subjectivity. Originally published as Entre Orient et Occident: De la singularité à la communauté (Paris: Grasset, 1999).

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  • Irigaray, Luce. In the Beginning, She Was. London: Continuum, 2012.

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    In part an exploration of Presocratic myths, in part an ongoing critique of the philosophy and language of mastery, and in part an attempt to find a language for an ethical future that is no longer exiled from the maternal and sensible condition from which we are born.

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  • Irigaray, Luce. “Sharing Humanity: Towards Peaceful Coexistence in Difference.” In Deconstructing Zionism: A Critique of Political Metaphysics. Edited by Gianni Vattimo and Michael Marder, 169–180. Political Theory and Contemporary Philosophy. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

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    In what is ostensibly an essay on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Irigaray places this specific political problem within a context of world politics and the urgent need for a concern for life and for a positive sense of globalism.

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Plants and Animals

In a brief essay on animals (Irigaray 2004) and a broader dialogue on plant life (Irigaray and Marder 2016), Irigaray addresses forms of care and otherness that might seem, at first, to challenge her ongoing commitment to the ultimate importance of sexual difference. In both cases, plant life and animal life are accorded worth and care within the framework of a new world in which the feminine will have generated a more benevolent and ethical comportment toward life in general.

  • Irigaray, Luce. “Animal Compassion.” In Animal Philosophy: Essential Readings in Continental Thought. Edited by Matthew Calarco and Peter Atterton, 195–201. London: Continuum, 2004.

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    A reflective and semiautobiographical piece on the solace and helpful presence of animals. There is still a sense of divine transcendence in Irigaray’s relation to animals.

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  • Irigaray, Luce, and Michael Marder. Through Vegetal Being: Two Philosophical Perspectives. Critical Life Studies. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.

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    Michael Marder’s work on plants and sentience prompts Irigaray to engage with dialogue regarding the presence of vegetal being and the challenge it offers to Western nihilism.

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Collections, Interviews, and Discussions

The early dissemination of Irigaray’s work owes a great deal to edited collections that translate the key moments of her corpus, ranging from the significant early anthologies (Whitford 1991) to more-recent and collaborative extensions of her work into political theory (Irigaray and Marder 2015) and pedagogy (Irigaray and Green 2008).

General Overviews

Understanding the initial reception and criticism of Irigaray in the English-speaking world requires some sense of the early dissemination and criticism of her work in two key edited collections and in three general introductory texts. Marks and de Courtrivon 1980, an anthology, introduced Irigaray as part of a broader movement of French feminism, tied to écriture féminine, and while valuable in placing Irigaray in context may well have contributed to later criticisms of her work as essentialist (Moi 1985). In Moi 1987, another anthology, Irigaray was grouped under the general rubric of “French feminism,” a movement that was defined in opposition to Anglo-American approaches that would focus on gender (or social construction) and would not consider “sex,” which was deemed to be either mere biology or dangerously essentialist. The importance of Elizabeth Grosz’s later defense of Irigaray cannot be overestimated (Grosz 1989). Whereas Toril Moi had placed Irigaray alongside Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva (favoring the latter over the supposed “metaphysical” appeals to difference of the former two), Grosz wrote far more sympathetically about Irigaray, linking her to the French feminism of Kristeva and Michèle Le Doeuff.

  • Burke, Carolyn, Naomi Schor, and Margaret Whitford, eds. Engaging With Irigaray: Feminist Philosophy and Modern European Thought. Gender and Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

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    One of the more significant general collections of essays on Irigaray’s thought, written after the dissemination, translation, and widespread discussion of her thought in English-language feminist philosophy. Includes essays by major feminists such as Rosi Braidotti, Judith Butler, and Grosz.

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  • Cimitile, Maria C., and Elaine P. Miller, eds. Returning to Irigaray: Feminist Philosophy, Politics, and the Question of Unity. SUNY Series in Gender Theory. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007.

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    Whether there can be such a thing as “woman” has vexed feminist politics, with Irigaray’s claims for sexual difference making the strongest claim for the importance of even a strategic unity. This collection ostensibly explores that problem, although some of the essays are focused on far more specific topics, such as her relation with Martin Heidegger. Includes a very illuminating essay by Gail Schwab on Irigaray for the 21st century, and a comprehensive bibliography up until 2007.

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  • Grosz, Elizabeth. Sexual Subversions: Three French Feminists. Current Books in Women’s Studies. Sydney, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 1989.

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    Grosz’s argument regarding Irigaray and sexual difference was not a defense of essentialism, but a claim that thinking about gender as “constructed” or “textual” was part of a limited/masculinist way of thinking about subjectivity as self-constructing. The notion of the self as disembodied self-creation was—from at least René Descartes onward—what Irigaray’s history and analysis of philosophy had sought to displace.

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  • Hill, Rebecca. “The Multiple Readings of Irigaray’s Concept of Sexual Difference.” Philosophy Compass 11.7 (2016): 390–401.

    DOI: 10.1111/phc3.12331Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Provides a through overview of criticism of Irigaray’s concept of sexual difference, with a conclusion that defends Irigaray against often-leveled charges of heterosexism, blindness to racial difference, essentialism, and transphobia.

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  • Jones, Rachel. Irigaray: Towards a Sexuate Philosophy. Key Contemporary Thinkers. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2011.

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    Argues for a specifically feminist philosophy. Irigaray is presented as offering not simply an argument within philosophy, but a different mode of philosophy.

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  • Marks, Elaine, and Isabelle de Courtrivon, eds. New French Feminisms: An Anthology. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980.

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    Includes short selections of texts from major French feminists, from Simone de Beauvoir to Cixous, with two excerpts from Irigaray’s The Sex Which Is Not One. Irigaray’s piece appears immediately after Cixous’s “Sorties,” which describes Western thought as a series of hierarchical binaries.

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  • Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. New Accents. London: Methuen, 1985.

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    Moi’s introduction devotes a section to Irigaray, accusing her of “essentialism.” Irigaray’s appeal to sexual difference, or to trying to articulate a mode of subjectivity that was not reducible to the (always) male subject of philosophy, was, for Moi, a naively literalist approach to the body.

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  • Moi, Toril, ed. French Feminist Thought: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 1987.

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    Published soon after the translation of Irigaray’s major texts of 1985. At the time, Moi was a highly influential figure in the dissemination of French feminism to the English-speaking world.

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  • Rawlinson, Mary C., ed. Engaging the World: Thinking after Irigaray. SUNY Series in Gender Theory. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2016.

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    Of the many collections of essays on Irigaray, this one is set apart both by being the most recent and therefore assessing her early-21st-century work, and also thinking about the implications of the various dimensions of Irigaray’s work, including pieces by major authors such as Hill (on the interval), Grosz (on sexual difference), Mary Beth Mader (on anthropological thought), and Schwab (on linguistics and education).

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  • Škof, Lenart, and Emily A. Holmes, eds. Breathing with Luce Irigaray. Bloomsbury Studies in Continental Philosophy. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.

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    Essays by various writers primarily focused on Irigaray’s later work, with a particular emphasis on nature and spiritualism. Concludes with an essay by Irigaray, “To Begin with Breathing Anew.”

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  • Stone, Alison. Luce Irigaray and the Philosophy of Sexual Difference. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511617287Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    While refuting biological essentialism, Stone accepts and defends Irigaray as an essentialist, where essences are not simple natural causes but are real and have to do with the different ways in which sexed bodies disclose the world (pp. 133–134).

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  • Whitford, Margaret. Luce Irigaray: Philosophy in the Feminine. London: Routledge, 1991.

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    If we come into being as speaking subjects, with the Symbolic Order being identified with the name of the father and all that is excluded or prohibited being fantasized as feminine, then what is required is a transformation of the Symbolic Order. For Whitford this is what Irigaray’s work aimed to do.

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Irigaray in Context

Because Irigaray’s early work emerges from a tradition of psychoanalysis and phenomenology, with the latter movement, in turn, being oriented to the entire history of philosophy, much of the most important work on Irigaray requires attending to her critical rereading of the past. This includes the early-21st-century past (Hill 2012), Irigaray’s debate with psychoanalysis, and with the entire history of philosophy (Chanter 1995, Lorraine 1999), and even a radical reading of Charles Darwin (Grosz 2012).

  • Chanter, Tina. Ethics of Eros: Irigaray’s Re-writing of the Philosophers. London: Routledge, 1995.

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    After covering Irigaray in relation to sexual difference and gender, discusses Irigaray’s relation to Beauvoir, G. W. F. Hegel, Heidegger, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jacques Derrida.

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  • Grosz, Elizabeth. “The Nature of Sexual Difference: Irigaray and Darwin.” In Special Issue: Sexual Difference between Psychoanalysis and Vitalism. Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 17.2 (2012): 69–93.

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    Argues that both Irigaray and Darwin may be read in terms of a positivity of sexual difference that marks all life, human and nonhuman.

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  • Hill, Rebecca. The Interval: Relation and Becoming in Irigaray, Aristotle, and Bergson. New York: Fordham University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.5422/fordham/9780823237241.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Focuses on relations, and the distance and asymmetry of relations among subjects. For Hill it is the tradition of the philosophy of time that allows us to read Irigaray as a philosopher of sexual difference, where differences are not essences but distinct and singular ways that bodies are exposed to each other and their worlds.

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  • Lorraine, Tamsin. Irigaray and Deleuze: Experiments in Visceral Philosophy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999.

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    Lorraine insists, like Whitford and Grosz before her, that Irigaray’s focus is on woman’s erasure from the scene of philosophy, and that sexual difference and sexual relations offer the way to think about philosophy in a manner that no longer operated by negating the body.

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  • Tzelepis, Elena, and Athena Athanasiou, eds. Rewriting Difference: Luce Irigaray and “the Greeks.” SUNY Series in Gender Theory. New York: State University of New York Press, 2010.

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    A collection of essays examining Irigaray’s work in relation to ancient Greek philosophy.

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Queer Theory

If early criticisms of Irigaray’s work focus on essentialism (and are undertaken by feminist critics who reject a single category of “the feminine”), the more common early-21st-century criticisms concern the problem of the binary or dual nature of sexual difference. If there are primarily two sexes, and the sexual relation between men and women is the focus of an ethics of the future, then this would seem to rule out any ethical potentiality for same-sex or transgender relations. One of the ways in which Irigaray’s work has been mobilized for queer theory and against the charge of heterosexism is to insist that the “feminine” of her imagined sexual difference is not the femininity that we have in the present (Huffer 2013), and to insist that her sexual difference is one in which there are at least, but not only, two sexes.

  • Huffer, Lynne. Are the Lips a Grave? A Queer Feminist on the Ethics of Sex. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.

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    Huffer sees no incompatibility between a theory of sexual difference and queer theory. By coupling Irigaray’s work with Michel Foucault’s theory of subjectivity as a relational event, Huffer argues that Irigaray’s work offers queer theory a different conception of the relation between male and female, where neither equality nor oppositional difference can account for the different ways in which different bodies comport themselves toward the world.

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  • Winnubst, Shannon. Queering Freedom. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.

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    Accuses Irigaray of heterosexual bias. For Winnubst, in Irigaray’s work “the heterosexual poses as the ahistorical site of difference and the power of the transcendent ahistorical articulates itself in the ideal of heterosexuality” (p. 106).

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Theology

Irigaray’s philosophy of sexual difference is not simply applied or placed in relation with theology but has conceptions of divinity and transcendence at its heart. From her earliest work, Irigaray has claimed that one cannot know the world in any absolute or apodictic manner, and that it is the very life of the world—and others—that commands us to relate to what is beyond ourselves, both with a sense of the spirituality of the world—in a manner of love (Joy 2006)—and with the project of thinking of divinity beyond the patriarchal conception of God the father (Joy, et al. 2003).

Specific Criticisms of Irigaray

Given Irigaray’s ongoing insistence on the primacy of sexual difference, and the suggestion that this difference is binary, it follows that how one thinks of racial and cultural difference, as well as differences beyond male and female, would be difficult at best. Key criticisms of her work therefore include the subordination of racial and global-cultural-political differences (Deutscher 2002).

  • Deutscher, Penelope. A Politics of Impossible Difference: The Later Work of Luce Irigaray. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002.

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    Addressing Irigaray’s later work, Deutscher argues that turning to a mythic figure of “the East” allows Irigaray to subordinate race to sex. It is as though Western thought’s relation to itself, its incapacity to deal with the sensual, the sensible, and the divine, might repair itself through rethinking sexual difference, allowing race to follow.

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  • Gingrich-Philbrook, Craig. “Love’s Excluded Subjects: Staging Irigaray’s Heteronormative Essentialism.” Cultural Studies 15.2 (2001): 222–228.

    DOI: 10.1080/09502380110033564Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Although critical of Irigaray’s own focus on the male-female binary, this essay extends her philosophy of the relational nature of the self toward a queer theory of the self.

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  • Johnston, Tim R. “Questioning the Threshold of Sexual Difference: Irigarayan Ontology and Transgender, Intersex, and Gender-Nonconforming Being.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 21.4 (2015): 617–633.

    DOI: 10.1215/10642684-3123713Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Provides a useful and thorough overview and summary of queer criticisms of Irigaray’s heteronormative attention to binary sexual difference, defending Irigaray against essentialism while remaining critical of the notion of identifiable sexual identity.

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  • Murphy, Ann V. “Beyond Performativity and against ‘Identification’: Gender and Technology in Irigaray.” In Returning to Irigaray: Feminist Philosophy, Politics, and the Question of Unity. Edited by Maria C. Cimitile and Elaine P. Miller, 77–92. SUNY Series in Gender Theory. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007.

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    Murphy accuses Irigaray of a form of transphobia and queerphobia that is irredeemable in her work.

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  • Poe, Danielle. “Can Luce Irigaray’s Notion of Sexual Difference Be Applied to Transsexual and Transgender Narratives?” In Thinking with Irigaray. Edited by Mary C. Rawlinson, Sabrina L. Hom, and Serene J. Khader, 111–130. SUNY Series in Gender Theory. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011.

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    Poe explores whether some work might be done with Irigaray’s corpus to render her philosophy more amenable to transsexual and transgender ethics.

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  • Salamon, Gayle. “An Ethics of Transsexual Difference: Luce Irigaray and the Place of Sexual Undecidability.” In The Transgender Studies Reader 2. Edited by Susan Stryker and Aren Z. Aizura, 418–425. London: Routledge, 2013.

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    Salamon endorses Irigaray’s argument for the different ways in which different bodies allow a world to be constituted, but insists that bodies that are not assigned either to male or female genders need to be granted the ethical recognition that Irigaray attempts to generate for women.

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