Contemporary Critical Theory
Luce Irigaray’s essay called “This Sex Which Is Not One” (1977) was summarized by Shyam Nair of I MA English. The title of the piece has two meanings. First, it refers to women’s sex as “lacking,” which she doesn’t believe, but in fact uses this piece to refute Freud’s analysis of women’s sex as missing the only desirable component. Second, it refers to her position that women do not have one sex; they have multiple sex organs all over their bodies, not to mention two lips that encompass our pleasure.
Perhaps the most crucial part of this essay is its first line: “Female sexuality has always been conceptualized on the basis of masculine parameters” (23). If, as Irigaray claims, the penis is “the only sexual organ of recognized value” (23), then Woman is conceptualized in terms of her lack (as she references in both Freudian and Lacanian schemas). To counter this, Irigaray instead posits a different understanding of female sexuality, one outside of a phallic economy:
In order to touch himself, man needs an instrument: his hand, a woman’s body, language…And this self-caressing requires at least a minimum of activity. As for woman, she touches herself in and of herself in and of herself without any need for mediation, and before there is any way to distinguish activity from passivity….Thus, within herself, she is already two—but no divisible into one(s)—that caress each other. (24).
Within this schema, then, Irigaray characterizes penetration as “a violent break-in” (24). Given the very differences in male sexuality and female sexuality, then, leads Iragaray to importantly conclude that, “Woman’s desire would not be expected to speak the same language as man’s” (25). Irigaray’s conclusion here seems to align nicely with that of Hélène Cixous, whose “Laugh of the Medusa,” in which she posits “écriture feminine” as a women’s way of writing. For Irigaray, because the Female Imaginary cannot be pinned down—as Woman’s sexuality is not one, is not even two, but is plural—so Woman’s language can
similarly be pinned down: “What she says is never identical with anything, moreover; rather, it is contiguous. It touches (upon)” (29).
Critics of Irigaray accuse her of essentialism, and certainly, quite a few of her claims about female sexuality—such as, “Woman takes pleasure more from touching than from looking, and her entry into a dominant scopic economy signifies, again, her consignment to passivity” (26). Certainly, her recognition that “her sexual organ represents the horror of nothing to see” (26) within this dominant scopic economy is crucial. Still, I have trouble accepting such a not only essentialist but heteronormative claim. Further, while I have great appreciation for her recognition of female genitalia as being understood and defined in terms of lack, at times it seems as though she’s accepting this characterization as truth. I also take issue with the essentialist position she seems to be taking in terms of the scopic economy, when she claims that, “Ownership and property are doubtless quite foreign to the feminine. At lease sexually. But not nearness….Woman derives pleasure from what is so near that she cannot have it, nor have herself” (31). However, this is a very narrow view of ownership. What about a schema of property and ownership that relies upon consumption, rather than penetration?
What is important in this claim, though, is her correct observation that Woman is always already placed within this scopic economy, and it is this subjectivity as a commodity which Irigaray interrupts female pleasure: “How can this object of transaction claim a right to pleasure without removing her/itself from established commerce?” (32). Irigaray, despite her tendency to veer towards an essentialist position, does acknowledge the fact that “women do not constitute, strictly speaking, a class, and their dispersion among several classes makes their political struggle complex, their demands sometimes contradictory” (32). Irigaray seems dubious that any sort of equality is possible with men, as she sees any interactions as ultimately reverting to phallocratism.
Nair, Shyam. Class Lecture. Twentieth Century Critical Traditions.
Christ University. Bangalore,
India. 24 Feb. 2013.
Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985. Print.
A magazine of woman’s creative art and activism, Her Circle, <http://www.hercircleezine.com/2012/04/18/luce-irigaray-female-sex/>
[Notes of the lecture delivered on 24 February, 2014 at Christ University, prepared by D. Hepzibah- I M.A. (ENG) -1324127]