Born of the Interval: Irigaray’s Ethics of Difference

Text Abbreviations:

IBSW: In The Beginning, She Was
KW: Luce Irigaray: Key Writings
TBT: To Be Two
WL: The Way of Love


Luce Irigaray’s work has, unfairly, been rather willfully read stateside, resulting in her frequent dismissal as an essentialist feminist, when in fact the entire oeuvre of her work offers one of the monumental twentieth century contributions to thinking difference, as well as an unmatched genius in thinking sexual difference as ontological.  I want to spend some time outlining some general parameters of Irigaray’s thought, then, in order to frame my perusal of her writings on ethics in this serial essay, to avoid misunderstanding.

Irigaray’s work spans decades (and is very much ongoing), eluding categorization and simplification, but for the purposes of this essay I would point out that she began her career elaborating her acute critique of the univocal mode of representation, logic and subjectivity symptomatic of “phallocentrism,” a critique she pursued through both psychoanalysis—where she emerged onto the French intellectual scene in great scandal by out-thinking her mentor Lacan, who fired her after the publication of Speculum of the Other Woman—and readings in the history of Western philosophy, beginning notably with Plato in that same volume.  More recently, Irigaray has tended to accent what she considers the interrelated, second part of her overall project: inventing ways of beginning to think, speak, enact and relate through two subjectivities, a working towards a cultivation and affirmation, rather than a forgetting or negation, of sexual difference.  To summarize, we could say that Irigaray’s critique of phallocentrism functions by pointing out that the originary forgetting of woman (and nature) in Western culture and logic makes the masculine subject the one and univocal model for all humans, thus substituting the self-same for difference, cutting subjects off from themselves and others, submitting them to an exterior, illusory and hierarchical set of measures.  Given this critique, the companion impulse subtending her work is the cultivation of sexual difference as an ontological category that would move us toward a different culture and nature of at least two subjectivities, two sexuate subjects that are not equal, but also not hierarchical.  Irigaray allows us to see that for feminism it is not a matter of woman becoming “equal” to man, for that would only mean her recognition according to the standards already set by man, a further submission to phallocentric logic, rather than an elaboration through difference of an irreducibly other model of subjectivity that has never existed in the West: the feminine subject.

I must concede, however, my awareness of the potential strangeness, since I have been thus far pursuing critiques of a fundamental anthropology of sexuality as the hegemonic narrative of the generation of the child, of Irigaray as penultimate figure in this essay before turning toward a nonhuman language of infant affects through Deleuze and Guattari next week.  Indeed, Irigaray is unabashedly interested in the category of the human—so much so, in fact, that I might argue it verges on its own kind of anti-humanism, or, even, a gesturing towards an illegibly different concept of the human altogether: one that would allow for two subjectivities.  The privileging of the subject is nevertheless clear in what follows and whatever critical force Irigaray’s work can bring to understanding the erasure of the child in a phallocentric economy of genealogy is tempered, for me, by her relentless insistence on a sexuate becoming-human to come.  Nevertheless, Irigaray’s thought is indispensable in this overall essay for several good reasons, and I tend to agree with Elizabeth Grosz that we are more than authorized by her thought to push her concepts past the specific operationalization they are given in her texts.  First, Irigaray is a nondualist thinker: she proposes sexual difference as ontological precisely to indicate nonlinear movements across nature and culture, to avoid its companion Cartesian dualism of body and mind (this is, incidentally, why American feminist theory, so dependent on “gender” as cultural, has had great trouble understanding her work).  Irigaray is also a non-dialectical thinker of difference: for her, difference is never oppositional, as in a Hegelian, negative difference-from, but rather the negative functions to indicate the interval of irreducibility between two subjects, making difference a positive force in which relationality precedes its terms and always exceeds them.  Finally, Irigaray is a non-hylomorphic thinker.  She does not separate matter and form, and indeed one of her major critiques of Western thought is for its forgetting of the maternal in order to make matter passive and available for a transcendent imposition of form from either God or the Father in the form of knowledge.  For all of these reasons, Irigaray’s thought mobilizes a richly enabling set of concepts around relationality, difference and ethics that this essay on the generation of the child cannot ignore.  Moreover, Irigaray’s breathtaking acuity with Plato and psychoanalysis, with which I have spent ample time so far, gives her a sort of right of response to the strands of thought I am assembling.  Ultimately, given that I have also been speaking, at my own risk, in the neutral language of “the” child, which of course is to already commit an error, I submit this foray into sexual difference as nourishing of the overall point of this essay project to allow us to think the generation of the child differently, capable of outlining children’s own positive contributions to their relational emergence.

Originary Transcendence of the Mother

Children appear with some variability in Irigaray’s work, but their centrality to her thinking of relationality is paramount in that the first relation of the human, that of the infant to its mother, is precisely the foundationally repressed substrate of phallocentric logic.  This originary “forgetting of Her,” as she puts it in her most recent work (IBWS 112[1]), makes the question of the generation of children central to both her critique of univocal subjectivity, but also as a constituent in the project of elaborating a culture of difference, of at least two subjects.

To begin, then, there is an “originary transcedence of the maternal”: the first “you” (tu) of the infant is its mother (KW 69).  This relation is marked by a transcendence because the infant is unable to know the mother and is dependent upon her, yet is also distinct from her, not fused with her (recall Laplanche, here).  Transcendence, though, as with Irigaray’s way of reading and writing all concepts, takes on a different meaning here, where “Transcendent means irreducibly other—other but not superior” (91, emphasis added).  The mother is the first other, irreducibly different from the infant and unknowable to it, un-objectifiable.  It is this originary transcendence whose repression and forgetting Western logic takes as its goal.  Irigaray writes, in this vein, of Western culture as a kind of exile, a wandering of the masculine subject, a fleeing from the original relation with the mother that continues to frustrate it, to haunt it as lack, as it submits itself to the repetition a false set of invented rules and laws for its subject and objects, the logos, that are meant to prove its auto-generation, its self-birthing as Man.  This is a process that is always doomed to failure and one that denies sexual difference, erasing the possibility of a female subject, and it begins with the infant-mother relation.  The originary, horizontal but asymmetrical relation of infant and mother, in other words, is replaced by genealogy: a vertical hierarchy according to a univocal, masculine model of subjectivity.  In this context, we can understand what Irigaray means when she writes “We are orphaned from what brought us into the world” (IBSW 1412).

Genealogy, Verticality, Negativity

The first relation with the mother is already one formed through sexual difference: the experience of the “girl-child” with her mother is different than that of the “boy-child” (Irigaray’s terms).  This complicated situation is immediately annulled, negated, and repressed from birth, however, by its replacement with genealogy, vertical hierarchy, and a negative function for the child as an incomplete subject.  This results in a particular way of regarding children, as little unfinished adults, very much like the tabula rasa of the Platonic body politic I detailed several weeks ago, as subjects-in-the-making, a profound narrowing of the potential becomings of children on three fronts: the only metric by which children are considered, in that they deviate negatively from it, is the measure of an adult subject; this measurement, moreover, is based on the unmarked masculine subject, negating sexual difference; and, finally, it is yet another example of a narrative of children’s development that sees no potentially positive dimension for children in contributing to their genesis, which is linear and unidirectional, transmitted from generation to generation.  Whatever kind of difference children might embody, as not-actually-subjects, is left to the Western logic of negative difference, of a system of knowledge in which adult subjects look upon, discuss, and pedagogize children as objects:

Should we not avoid that which remains out of the reach of our evaluation and shun it as not being of our species? As not truly or not yet human? And therefore to be handled with instinctive-animal kindness? Or with an indulgence that is paternalistically welcoming, with a view to some further integration into an already acculturated world? (KW 72)

In her speculative mode, Irigaray outlines succinctly the reduction of the child to genealogical function in a phallocentric economy: the child is a not-yet-human creature, a sort of intermediary between an innocent, non-threatening animal and a potential subject.  For that reason, to care for it is to submit it to the dictates, the logic, of the Name of the Father, an imposition of a culture whose goal is the repetition of the same, the one, across generations.  Children, here, are near completely passive in their generation.

Even if this process operates as if neutral, as if objectively, as if logically based on the transmission of knowledge by adults through what we call relations of pedagogy, Irigaray reminds us that it, too, is subtended by the problem of sexual difference.  The acculturation of girls and boys proceeds differently, their being-produced as subjects in the image of adults is structured so as to reproduce in the boy a false sense of auto-affection, whereas for the girl she is only the copy of a copy, inhabiting femininity as a place outside the economy of phallocentrism:

In some ways, it is by opposing to the other that the subjectivity of the boy-child begins to be structured, whereas the girl accedes to her subjectivity first of all by behaving like the other [i.e., the mother, then eventually the father] (73).

Irigaray often focuses on language to mark the unthought of this differentiating, hierarchical economy of producing adults out of children.  Years of research in classrooms in Italy, France and Belgium, for instance, have focused on the different employments of language as speech (parole) by girls and boys.  Boys tend to speak in the “I” (je) with great ease, forming sentences in which they are the subject, in command of a world of abstract objects; girls, on the other hand, tend to speak intersubjectively, without an ease of commanding objects or assuming the “I.”  In this way, their ways of speaking are symptomatic of the problem of sexual difference in language, which, in Irigaray’s words, is captured by the fact that “I” (je) and “you” (tu) are not equivalent (79-80).  The Western education system, moreover, is explicitly founded upon this deployment of language: it values most highly the logic of noncontradiction, clear subject-object distinctions, and a competition between peers in school that groups them vertically in a hierarchy of intelligence (87).  Therefore, if language is eminently a question of relationality, inventing a different form of pedagogy, education and language for children is one primary zone in which to apply Irigaray’s thinking of the generation of children.

I want to focus on a different aspect of her thought, though, one that will begin to weave together this installation of my essay with its companion pieces.  To do so, I will return to the infant-mother relation, one that has occupied a central place in this serial.

Relational Affects

Irigaray’s critical detailing of the replacement of the horizontal relation of the originary transcendence of the mother with the vertical relation of genealogy gives us, in sumarry, an account of the normative generation of children.  Children are de-human-ized creatures, not yet subjects, subjected to genealogy as their fundamental anthropological education.  All they are allowed to become is a subject.  Hence, to think them differently, much as it would be an error to do so without sexual difference, it would be insufficient to try to simply author an epistemological corrective by evaluating the specificities of children according to our pre-established terms of subjectivity.  It would be, in other words, an error to try to make of children subjects to rescue them from dehumanization, for in this scenario,

Fixed by identificatory parameters, the other, with a benevolence that is all the more warm because it remains abstract [i.e. foreign to logic] is summoned to come and join those who already make up the ranks of supposedly conforming human beings.  So not other: the same (KW 67, emphasis added).

Children are, in some way, irreducibly other to adults; otherwise there would be no need to first dehumanize them and then impose on them an education that substitutes their original relation to their parents with the adult model of (masculine) subjectivity.  And so, even though Irigaray is careful to point out that we cannot simply valorize a girl or boy’s relationship with their mother as a ready-made model for a relation of two subjects in difference (WL 79), there is a value, particularly in the context of this essay, in returning to that originary anthropological situation.  Interestingly, given where I will be moving with my thoughts next week, Irigaray here suggests we return to the affects, in a passage evocative of her beautifully speculative way of writing differently, of writing the kind of exchange and communication between subjects that remains to be invented:

My senses perhaps put me better on a path towards your mystery, as long as they do not reduce you to an object…Seeing you, I must line your body with an interiority which evades my gaze, at least partially.  Similarly, your words will have meaning only against a backdrop of an unsayable which preserves the source and present utterance of this meaning.  And touch will continue to be touching-you only if it is neither capture nor annihilation of your subjective autonomy.  The dialogue between us begins before any words has been uttered, and it can never be reduced to language (KW 74-75).

This passage is meant to refer to the future meeting of two sexual different subjects—that is to say, adults—but there is nothing in Irigaray’s work that wouldn’t authorize it to be read as a mother addressing her infant, whether a girl or boy (although, as Irigaray tirelessly points out, she would relate differently to a boy versus a girl).  This is a description, or perhaps better, an evocation, of what Irigaray terms the “interval” of sexual difference, that which “subsists” between the two as “a real that belongs neither to one nor to the other and which allows the relation between the two to be without subjection of the one to the other” (IBWS 1367).  In this mode of relationality, in which the relation precedes its terms (man/woman, mother/infant, etc.), the interval is the name for whatever is the engine of the irreducible alterity of one to the other and vice-versa: their equivalence (not equality) through difference, where difference signifies “that which cannot be objectified,” or known (KW 92).

Hence it should be implicitly clear how the mother could begin to relate differently to her child, while for the father the same question would need to be approached differently, if with the same intention of not reducing the child to a nonhuman, not-yet-subject.  The more perplexing question, perhaps the one that is the most illogical to Western culture, is how to then measure infants or children “on their own terms,” so to speak.  When the question is of language, we must ask: how do we listen to children? Not just in our adult language, our way of speaking, after all; how do we learn to hear their way of speaking? How can we accept that we do not know children finally, or even more unsettling, that we need not know their worlds? How can we relate to children horizontally, through difference, such that we can begin to ascertain something of their own positive contribution to our relation with them?

Interestingly, the affects, which are split from knowledge and logic at the foundation of Western culture, are one fascinating suggestion Irigaray offers as a starting place for answering these questions.  The infant-mother relation again serves an instructive role here, as she points out in a critical reading of Sartre’s existential definition of a consciousness in isolation:

In fact, intention exists both on the part of the mother towards the girl or boy, and on the part of the child towards the mother.  Thus the affectionate gaze of the mother towards the body of her son and of her daughter as well as their attention towards the mother, is forgotten in Sartre’s thought (TBT 31).

Of what, exactly, consists that “affectionate gaze”? What is the “intention” that the girl or boy returns to its mother? We cannot know for sure in our present state, “For lack of cultivation of the sensible relation with his mother—that is, of his first affects,” Irigaray notes elsewhere, means that “man has cut himself off from experiencing his own self-affection” (IBWS 1919).  And yet, in the girl-mother relation, Irigaray pauses, demurs, on the potentiality of the affects for inventing a horizontal relation between the two, similar in gender, yet irreducibly different in age.  If the touching of the two lips was her first suggestion of a self-affection for woman in This Sex Which is Not One, here, in her most recent work, In the Beginning She Was, she muses, in passing, on the potential for a different form of relationality between two subjects “to affect/to be affected, which is perhaps fitting for the parent-child relationship” (2028).

It’s an enticing, if elusive, suggestion, since Irigaray is speaking here of “affects” as precisely outside of Western knowledge as constituted in the passage from the pre-Socratics to logos.  Nevertheless, as has probably becoming clear, I am moving in this essay toward affects as a conceptual vocabulary through which to approach the question of what children contribute to their own generation, since the affects are what subtend all relationality, beyond subjectivity and the human.  Precisely because of Irigaray’s insistent humanism and her interest in subjectivity as such—a concept that, for me, thinking children on positive terms puts so much pressure on that I leave it to only to someone as skilled as Irigaray to think it differently enough to warrant using “subjectivity” to describe children—I move next week to a positive account of a theory of infant affects and childhood blocks, two ways of thinking that, to my mind, only Deleuze and Guattari can offer us.

[1] Note: I read the Kindle version of this book, so the citations here follow the “location” number of that format.



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