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    Review of:
    Luce Irigaray, Between East and West: From Singularity to Community. New York: Columbia UP, 2002.

  1. Many contemporary feminist thinkers reject the accusation, most forcefully leveled by Monique Plaza in 1978, that Luce Irigaray's theories of the feminine are naturalist. Irigaray's conception of "the feminine" is hardly biological, but rather an "interrogative mood," writes Meaghan Morris, coming to her defense in 1978; Morris imagined the iconoclastic philosopher lingering in a doorway, an ironic "recalcitrant outsider at the festival of feminine specificity" (64). Irigaray's lasting radical concepts, including the "two lips," which posits a feminist economy of knowledge production--chains of speaking in which no one ever speaks the final word--have invigorated feminist philosophy in both esoteric and popular milieus, as the resurgence of Irigaray's reputation in academia in the 1990s and her influence on the grassroots theorizing of the recent Riot Girl movement confirm. A special issue of Diacritics in 1998, with titles like "Toward a Radical Female Imaginary: Temporality and Embodiment in Irigaray's Ethics" and "Women on the Global Market: Irigaray and the Democratic State," attests to the fact that Irigaray, once unfortunately unfashionable among U.S. feminists, still provokes and compels some thirty years after she transformed the feminist critical landscape with her second doctoral thesis, which became one of her most important books, The Speculum of the Other Woman.
  2. In one of the most inspiring grapplings with Irigaray's work, Beyond Accommodation: Ethical Feminism, Deconstruction, and the Law (1991; 1999), Drucilla Cornell rejects any notion that Irigaray's "feminine" can be mapped onto femaleness, or even that it describes something that exists in reality. Rather, Cornell explains, the feminine is "a kind of radical otherness to any conception of the real."[1] Cornell persuasively describes Irigaray's category of the "feminine" as a space of the prospective, a conditional tense that inaugurates a certain future within language and within intelligibility. The fears in U.S. feminist academic circles (much less acute abroad) of what was seen as Irigaray's essentialism now tell us more about the exigencies of backlash provoked by poststructuralism than about the real nature of Irigaray's work. For, again to quote Morris, in fact "Luce Irigaray is very far from confusing the anatomical and the social, but works with a deadly deliberation on the point (the site and the purpose) of the confusion of anatomical and cultural" (64).
  3. Now that the polemic of essentialism versus constructionism no longer dominates feminist scholarship, contemporary critics like Cornell and others have begun to engage Irigaray on her own terms. In her new work, Between East and West, Irigaray continues to do what she's always done: interrogate the binaries of Western metaphysics, question what passes as normative rationality, insist on sexual difference as the impetus for the ethical apprehension of the Other. But here she also moves beyond the "feminine" as a critical space of possibility, to talk about actual breathing, stretching, orgasmic female bodies.
  4. In this addition to Columbia University Press's "European Perspectives" series, Irigaray's tone is open, appraising--lacking the charged, tricky edge of "loyalty and aggression," to use Judith Butler's phrase, that characterizes her early, furious outfoxings of Plato and Freud (19). Here she dispatches the Pope with two words--"naïve paganism"--and takes a mere snip at deconstruction, identifying its practitioner's virtuosity with a too "secular manner of know-how" and hence with Western man's domination of nature: "does not the technical cleverness of the deconstructor risk accelerating, without possible check or alternative, a process that appears henceforth almost inevitable?" (5). In Between East and West, Irigaray has herself abandoned some of this "technical cleverness" and with it too the anger that fueled her first dizzying displays of critical prowess. Here, Irigaray is once more focused intently on what Morris admiringly identified as writing the "elsewhere." Like Cornell, her American colleague in philosophy, Irigaray is "dreaming of the new"--what she calls "human becoming"--but her dominant mood is one of sadness for an entire civilization gone astray: "we are to have become at best objects of study. Like the whole living world, destroyed little by little by the exploration-exploitation of what it is instead of cultivating what it could become" (85, vii).
  5. Searching for a different way to "constitute the mental," Irigaray diagnoses our current condition as breathing badly: we are "bathing in a sort of socio-cultural placenta" of exhaled, already-used air (74). Yet when it comes down to it, Irigaray is not simply employing a pretty metaphor. Literal breathing is, she believes, a way out of the potential pitfalls of the "linguistic turn":

    We Westerners believe that the essential part of culture resides in words, in texts, or perhaps in works of art, and that physical exercise should help us to dedicate ourselves to this essential. For the masters of the East, the body itself can become spirit through the cultivation of breathing. Without doubt, at the origin of our tradition--for Aristotle, for example, and still more for Empedocles--the soul still seems related to the breath, to air. But the link between the two was then forgotten, particularly in philosophy. The soul, or what takes its place, has become the effect of conceptualizations and of representations and not the result of a practice of breathing. (7)

  6. To cultivate the kind of consciousness needed to be aware of breathing--and different, gendered modes of breathing--would constitute a re-education of the body, a spiritualization of the body in the present tense that Western metaphysical tradition, with its emphasis on divine, inaccessible transcendence, has occluded. In the Western framework, the possibility of the very "divine" character of sexual difference itself falls by the wayside. This metaphysics, Irigaray argues, has sacrificed the pleasures of the spiritualized, individuated body by focusing on the fruits of reproductive intelligence, both literal and figurative: "man essentially wants to reproduce [...] [He] gives birth to imaginary children. Philosophy and religion are two of them," she quips (26).
  7. Irigaray turns to the traditions of India to present a model of a different kind of plenitude, one radically different from Schopenhauer's schema of the "genius of the species," in which "love between lovers represents nothing but an irresistible reproductive attraction. [...] as individuals, the lovers do not exist. [...]. They are differentiated only by the hierarchy of natural functions" (25). India, Irigaray muses, has a philosophy of sexual difference with no separation of theory and practice, where the continuity between microcosm (the body) and macrocosm (the universe) ensures an ethic of caring about "the maintenance of the life of the universe and [...] body as cosmic nature" (31).
  8. Where is Irigaray going with all this? One of her primary targets is the too-abstract nature of Western culture. Attention to the body demands a practice and a framework of intention, the goal being an "accomplished" and "connected" interiority (the Hindus, she writes, worship individuation as body, as self, but not as ego--unlike the egological Schopenhauer). Our reigning ethos is too speculative, sociological, she wagers; it has run away from--but needs desperately to return to--consideration and cultivation of sensory perceptions.
  9. Irigaray takes this moment, before bemoaning the fact that "the majority of animals have erotic displays that we no longer even have," to interject an intriguing, if brief, narrative of her own (ontological and psychoanalytic) education:

    It has often been said to me that I should have conquered my body, that I should have subjected it to spirit. The development of spirit was presented to me in the form of philosophical or religious texts, of abstract imperatives, of (an) absent God(s), at best of politeness and love. But why could love not come about in the respect and cultivation of my/our bodies? It seems to me this dimension of human development is indispensable. (61)

  10. This brings us to the aspect of the book that stands out the most: its powerful obsession with Eros. This direction in Irigaray's work has always distinguished her enterprise and is perhaps responsible for the renewed respectful attention to even her earliest theorizations of the body. Irigaray's most fervent argument here is for the creative--but not necessarily procreative--integrity of what she memorably names "carnal sharing." Irigaray goes further here in specifying the parameters and contours of "the carnal" than do other feminist theorists. Cornell, for instance, advocates but never actually details a "carnal ethics" in Beyond Accommodation (in which the concept is her shorthand for taking the body, and the Other, seriously).
  11. Irigaray's focus on the carnal emphasizes that carnal union can be a privileged place of individuation, an engaged practice even more rigorous than the renunciation of the flesh. The body, then, is the "very site" where the spiritual gets built. To put it baldly, "men and women have something besides children to engender" (64). This is not merely what Fredric Jameson terms Molly Bloom's sensual, affirmative "vitalist ideology," but rather "an evolved, transmuted, transfigured corporeal" (63). Here sexual difference, manifest in the physical union of bodies, provides a fabric for a type of transcendence that Irigaray theorizes as productively "horizontal," in contradistinction to the genealogical transcendence outlined by Schopenhauer.
  12. Sexual energy is often sinfully paralyzed in regimes of knowledge--even leftist or feminist ones--and it is equally stagnant under postmodernity's "technical chains" and multiplicity of information that theorists like Jameson and David Harvey analyze. Irigaray exhorts the postmodern subject to revolt against all that produces obeisance ("abandon the clarity of judgement!" she demands), even obeisant patterns of breathing (116). "The flesh," then, can become both spirit and "soul" (conceived as a force animating the body), thanks to the conscious physical machinations of the body. Irigaray sees the body registering shades of non-compliance to metaphysical strictures and thought patterns. A new sexuality invested with mystery works against the idea that sex is a base "corporeal particularity," yet Irigaray desires an erotic ontology of sexual difference whose foundations are not solely in the abstract. Here Irigaray's focus is on the bridge that real bodies create--not on the theoretical "elsewhere" in language that the "feminine" once seemed to powerfully indicate (escaping the tyranny of logos, in fact, is a recurring theme).
  13. Unfortunately, however, unlike in her earlier work, here Irigaray's rhetoric--while grand and even gorgeous--often slips into the "vive la difference" or even the "opposites attract" approach that for years feminists have understandably been writing past: "what attracts men and women to each other, beyond the simple corporeal difference, is a difference of subjectivity" (84). It is further disconcerting, then, when she also declares, "love, including carnal love, becomes the construction of a new human identity through that basic unit of community: the relation between man and woman" (117, emphasis mine). She also proposes legislation to "protect [...] the difference between subjects, particularly the difference of gender" (102).[2] Irigaray's stubborn insistence on restricting her purview to the male-female dyad is unwarranted, even willfully ignorant. That she bypasses consideration of same-sex "unions," spiritual or physical or legal, even in her chapter devoted to mixité, the "mixing" up of the normative family as a principle for refounding community, is a central weakness of this text. While she speaks of multiracial and, more broadly, of "multicultural" and mixed-religion couples, and of family "mutations" as a factor of progress, never does she so much as mention a gay family or how, on a basic theoretical level, carnal sharing between people of the same sex might challenge or transvalue her ethic of sexual difference, the dialectic between two gendered consciousnesses that she views as a bedrock of culture. Her conceptualization of a solution to the dilemma of subjectivity and community--that "being I" and "being we" become instead simply "beings-in-relation" (yet with "I" and "you" still individuated, singular)--is seductive, but her strong emphasis on the relation between the genders as "the privileged place for the creation of horizontal relations" leaves much unanswered. Carnal love, Irigaray strongly suggests (and her prose, dotted with metaphors of openings, elevations, and ladders, affirms) is vaginal sex.
  14. Generalizations about men and women abound; Irigaray flies in the face of poststructuralist doxa. Sometimes this is refreshing, an invocation of political common sense, as when she snaps, "the corporeal and spiritual experience of woman is singular, and what she can teach of it to her daughter and to her son is not the same. To efface this contribution of the transmission of culture is to falsify its truth and value" (59). But when Irigaray issues such proclamations as, "woman also remains in greater harmony with the cosmos" and ascribes--much like Carol Gilligan did in her seminal, roundly criticized A Different Voice (1982)--a relational ontology to woman, one begins to suspect that she is idealizing: "woman has, from her birth, an almost spontaneous taste for relational life" (85, 87). The list of woman's attributes goes on along these lines, though Irigaray is careful, in drawing in part on Eastern feminine traditions for inspiration, to make clear that she is not invoking the maternal; in fact, as she states rather frankly, "the role of woman as lover is in some ways superior and more inclusive compared with that of the mother" (89).
  15. Yet in Irigaray's most recent schema, what is finally most frustrating about her fascinating and provocative vision of mental, spiritual, and physical erotic production is that women bear the burden of educating men. Ethics, Irigaray points out, differ for men and women; but while Gilligan, and Seyla Benhabib most notably after her, aimed to revise the dichotomies structuring this perceived enculturated difference, Irigaray seems only to substitute the physical for the numinous with the idea of the "spiritual virginity of woman," a quality that helps man discover relational life. Hence, women must teach men to breathe not only for the sake of male survival, but also to cultivate men's interior vitality (88). The thought that woman must spiritually give birth to already-adult men is unappealing, to say the least; yet woman must also "initiate" and "safeguard" the process of education (130). To put it simply, compared to men, women have a markedly spiritual role in furthering humanity. Irigaray's rallying call is as follows:

    The task is great, yet passionate and beautiful. It is indispensable for the liberation of women themselves and, more generally, for a culture of life and love. It requires patience, perseverance, faithfulness to self and to the other. Women are often lacking these virtues today. But why not acquire them? (91)

    To use Irigaray's own language (from her description of Brahma, the Indian god), women's genius is not to know everything, but to be capable of one more question.
  16. Resolutely diagnosing Western civilization and seeing that we are, at best, as Irigaray puts it, sometimes good patriarchs or good matriarchs, Irigaray posits the goal of establishing a global civil community--and especially an as-yet-unrealized civil identity in the feminine. It is not enough to criticize patriarchy, she correctly observes. Women need to be aware of themselves as women, letting go of fundamentally conservative models of substantive equality and pursuing an ethics of carnality that surpasses instinct, the urge to procreate, in favor of a disciplined and rewarding "becoming without an end" (99). Irigaray calmly offers options for this "new epoch of History," affirming her hopeful belief in "tranquil world revolution" (145).
  17. Irigaray's argument and the strategy for civil identity that she describes are both deeply compelling and deeply flawed. What is viable here is Irigaray's evaluation of the erotic as a political foundation for subjectivity and the social. Serious and vital, Irigaray's critical attention to the erotic--not just as "philosophy," but as the sensible--skillfully connects Eros with ethical community-building and carries much power. Her ongoing and adamant focus on the erotic--ongoing since she unforgettably announced that women's desire "upsets the linearity of a project, undermines the goal-object of desire, diffuses the polarization toward a single pleasure, [and] disconcerts fidelity to a single discourse" in "This Sex Which is Not One"--remains Irigaray's outstanding achievement (27). The major--and riveting--contribution of Between East and West is that her relational ontology is specifically premised on an expansive erotic ontology, and this locus allows Irigaray to make her most provocative statements. Her privileging of individuated sexual "becoming" between lovers over motherhood in the chapter "The Family Begins With Two," for instance, is still indubitably radical. For many in the academy and in spaces of activism alike (and this is especially the case for the new generation of young feminists), Irigaray remains the most moving and articulate theorist of the body's relation to the horizon of the political.
  18. Ultimately, however, much of what Irigaray outlines in this new work is problematic. She is, as she has always been, frustrating. This is part of her continuing appeal, her bid for us to engage. "The path of such accomplishment of the flesh does not correspond to a solipsistic dream of Luce Irigaray, nor to a fin-de-siècle utopia, but to a new stage to be realized by humanity," she reminds us (115). It is not the commanding, exalted language, threaded with hope, that is objectionable. It is rather that Irigaray, in focusing solely on the generative force of sexual alliances between men and women, boldly ignores myriad portions of this resurgent "humanity" and the question of how they fit into her plan for the future. Irigaray consistently writes of "the union of two lovers, man and woman, free with respect to genealogy"; of how "between these two subjects, man and woman, there takes place [...] a spiritual generation, a culture foreign to a unique objective and a unique absolute" (63, 100). She notes--and casually dismisses--other possibilities, as when she writes of her hope for a refigured concept of the familial: "a family is born when two persons, most generally a man and a woman, decide to live together" (105, emphasis mine).
  19. Hence this brilliant and difficult philosopher ends an essentially fascinating text with what feels like voluntary obliquity. The stubbornness of this narrow vision is all the more confounding because Irigaray's proposals--her championing of the nonreproductive family, for instance, and her order for women to "pass from [...] imposed natural identity"--would seem to lend themselves to a more inclusive theory of sexuality (112). In this disappointing adoption, late in her career, of what strikes me as an inadequate (and yet surely self-aware) romance of gender, Irigaray is not alone: fellow French feminist Julia Kristeva's Revolt, She Said (also published in 2002) smacks of the same. As interviewer Phillipe Petit remarks to Kristeva in this book, "what is difficult to understand with you is the type of place you reserve for men and women in heterosexual couples" (93).[3] The force of Irigaray's argument would only be strengthened by a discussion of carnal sharing outside of the male-female dyad. If she further addressed the modes of love and union that her gender-charged "sexual difference in the feminine" does not furnish, her model would be even more relevant.

    Department of English
    Rutgers University

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    1. See Cheah and Grosz for Cornell's retrospective elaboration of her views of "the feminine" in Beyond Accommodation. The "imaginary domain" is the concept Cornell now prefers in place of the Irigarayan feminine.

    2. The content of this proposed legislation isn't surprising, given the fact that Irigaray has addressed certain questions of "sexuate rights" to the UN, for example, as Elizabeth Grosz points out, and has touched on this in recent work. See Pheng and Grosz.

    3. Kristeva's response to Petit is vague, describing the "endemic and deep" feminine melancholia that is the result of woman's relationship to the social order and indicating that "[balancing] out this strangeness" requires economic independence, as well as psychic and existential reassurance in which "husbands and lovers try to offset the Bovary blues that affect most of us." Unlike Irigaray, Kristeva here posits the primary role of the child: for woman, "it's the child who is the real presence and becomes her permanent analyst." Like Irigaray, Kristeva believes that "women hold the key to the species on the condition that they share it with men" (94).

    Works Cited

    Cheah, Pheng, and Elizabeth Grosz. "The Future of Sexual Difference: An Interview with Judith Butler and Drucilla Cornell." Diacritics 28.1 (1998): 19-42.

    Irigaray, Luce. "This Sex Which Is Not One." This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

    Kristeva, Julia. Revolt, She Said. Trans. Brian O'Keeffe. New York: Semiotext(e), 2002.

    Morris, Meaghan. "The Pirate's Fiancée: Feminists and Philosophers, or maybe tonight it'll happen." The Pirate's Fiancée: Feminism, Reading, Postmodernism. London: Verso, 1988.

    Plaza, Monique. "'Phallomorphic Power' and the Psychology of 'Woman.'" Ideology and Consciousness 4 (1978): 4-36.

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