jayme melrose: 20226103
december 13, 2006
destabilizing the binary for enlarged spaces of the sayable:
reflections on Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva
“Let me go where I am not yet” is how Hanneke Canters translated Luce Irigaray’s “Laisse-moi aller ou je ne suis pas encore” (Canters &Jantzen, 2005, p. vii).
Those few words are a seed for the opening up of such possibility. If within patriarchy, women have been oppressed and constructed as (m)other, what has been excluded?
Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva are two French Feminists who inquired along the axes of exclusion and marginalization, asking after the ‘female’/’feminine’ subject.
It was Paris in the 60’s, there was a lot of talk about social subjects: Marxism and socialism were thriving; existentialism had met Simone de Beauvoir; the ideas of Michel Foucault and postmodernism were in circulation; and psychoanalysis was thriving via Lacan’s Ecole freudian. The women’s movement was still trying to get equality before the law.
Weaving together elements of these discourses feminist theory has helped create, among other things, “a set of discourses which have created feminist subject positions” (emphasis hers, Bury, 2003, p. 222).
Perhaps the two most influential feminist philosophers to emerge from this period are Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray, though, Kristeva cannot strictly be called a ‘feminist’ as she refused to define her politics along the gender axis; for exactly this reason, her work is central to contemporary gender theory.
While Irigaray’s mission is to engage, expand, and explore the subjectivity of the silenced ‘feminine,’ Kristeva’s mission is the deconstruction of identity altogether to allow the sexual signifier room to move (Moi, 1985, p.172). This essay is a(n incomplete) mapping of the space their theories have opened up for alternative feminist subjectivities, helping to enlarge the “spaces of the sayable” (Foucault qtd in Charania, 205, p. 31).
By mapping out the key arguments of Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva I hope to do two things: get an idea of how their ideas may have helped open up ways of being through theorizing alternate subjectivities, and to disseminate these ideas to my peers to encourage the making of further meanings.
In this paper I will sketch out a bit of the context Irigaray and Kristeva emerge from, and their main trajectories, though in a much simplified framework, focusing on their theories regarding the social construction of gender. I will engage the critiques of Irigaray’s essentialism, and illustrate how I find their works useful in being taken up as part of the continuing work of enlarging our “spaces of the sayable” (Foucault qtd in Charania, 2005, p. 31).
to set the stage…
To set the stage, starting in the early 60’s, the ideas of ‘structuralism’ blossomed. Structuralism can be defined as the approach to academic disciplines that explores the relationships between elements of language, literature, and theory upon which some higher function of mental, linguistic, social, cultural structures, or “structural networks” can be drawn (Wikipedia, 2006a, para. 1). A major theory within structuralism is the existence of binary opposition in which “there are certain theoretical and conceptual opposites, often arranged in a hierarchy” (Wikipedia, 2006b, para. 10).
Structuralism was critiqued in the rising tide of alternative radical philosophies, including feminism, Marxism, and nihilism, which Foucault termed “subjugated knowledges” (Wikipedia, 2006b, para. 10). Rather than look at the underlying structures, post-structuralism emerged proposing to deconstruct them.
Post-structuralism views even the underlying structures as culturally constructed and therefore mired in the matrix of the knowledge system that produced it. Knowledge systems became seen as imbricated within power systems. Just as juridical systems represent their subjects, Foucault established that “juridical systems of power produce the subjects they subsequently come to represent” (Butler, 1990, p. 2). Likewise “representation is the normative function of language” (Bulter, 1990, p. 1), thus language also plays the multiple role of producing, restraining, and reflecting its subjects.
As Judith Butler (1990) says
“[f]or feminist theory, the development of a language that fully or adequately represents women has seemed necessary to foster the political visibility of women. This has seemed obviously important considering the pervasive cultural condition in which women’s lives were either misrepresented or not represented at all” (p.1).
In questioning the misrepresentation, those ‘subjected knowledges’, the excluded voices including feminism, turned the tool of deconstruction upon the structure of binary oppositional logic pervasive in patriarchal thought.
Going back to Pythagoreus’ table of opposites, deconstruction revealed that the gendered framework “form[s] a structure in which maleness is associated with a clear, determinate mode of thought while femaleness is linked to vagueness and the indeterminate” (Canters & Jantzen, 2005, p. 10).
This gendered framework constructs male subject as the norm, “leaves the woman described as not-man, and erases her as a subject in her own right” (Canters & Jantzen, 2005, p. 16). Not only are things divided on a gendered axis which relegates the feminine to the passive, fluid darkness, but simultaneously along the axis of same and Other, with self and same being synonomous, and Other, referring to the unconscious, silence, madness, and that unsaid in language (Wikipedia, 2006c, para. 5). The self is identified as distinct from the Other with the Excluded Middle in between. These concepts are part of the foundation upon which civilization built identity and philosophy which Kristeva and Irigaray deconstructed to build upon.
Luce Irigaray was born in Belguim in the 30’s, earned her Master’s and taught high school before moving to Paris in 60’s to do her Master’s in psychology. She then did her diploma in Psychopathology; in 1968 she received her Doctorate in Linguistics. She taught from 1970-1974 at Lacan’s University of Vincennes. In 1974 she published her second doctoral thesis, Speculum de l’autre femme, at the “prestigious and high scholarly French” doctrat d’Etat in philosophy (Moi, 1985, p.129). The publication of this work was quickly followed by her dismissal from employment with Lacan. The extremity of the reaction to her work hints at the investment of psychoanalysis in that which she was criticizing, and gained her a lot of attention. (She continued and continues to publish, and is now the Director of Research Philosophy at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique de Paris).
Speculum (1974) is an circular work in which the “architectonics of the text, or texts, confounds the linearity of an outline, the teleology of discourse” (Irigaray, 1977, p. 68). Her project is to upset the dualistic framework that positions ‘masculinity’, linearity, rationality, and
culture as dominant to ‘femininity’, poetry, hysteria/incoherence/women’s language, and nature.
She argues that psychoanalytic theory and conventional philosophy hold one subjectivity – the (disembodied) masculine which is proposed to be neutral and universal, but it is “constituted on the silent ground of woman “ (Moi, 1985, p.129-131). Her project then is to explore, articulate, and theorize the whole silent/suppressed realm of ‘woman’ and ‘femininity’ in order to create a ‘feminine’ subjectivity. Her argument though is not that women need only to step into the realm of culture, but also that men must become more embodied, so both sexes see themselves equally in nature and culture (Donovan, 2006, para. 5).
Her strategy relies heavily on the use of paradox; “hers is most strenuously a both-and logic” (Roberts, 2005, para. 1). She works not only within the literal level of language but associatively, symbolically, using both metaphor, and Fuss, (1991) argues, metonym (p.101). Irigaray requires her readers to think associatively and engage in a creative relationship with her work; she considers the creation of this subjectivity an emergent process, and identity as multiplicitous, dynamic, and emergent. According to Whitford (1991) the instructions for use of Irigaray are:
“Do not consume of devour. For symbolic exchange only” (p. 52).
Julia Kristeva came from Bulgaria at the age of 25 to Paris in 1966 with a doctoral research fellowship in hand (Moi, 1986, p. 1). She engaged immediately with the “blossoming structuralist milieu” by becoming involved with the Tel Quel group (Moi, 1986, p. 2-3), a “center of gravitation for almost all of the younger generation of structuralist and emerging post-structuralist theorists in France” (Moi, 1986, p. 4). Her Bulgarian background provided her with an intimate knowledge of Marxism to fuse with Hegelian philosophy and linguistics; as well, she studied Freudian and Lacanian psychanalysis. She worked as an analyst and academic, and was on the editorial board of Critque, the journal published by the TelQuel group. She published her doctoral thesis La Revolution du langage poetique in 1974. The publication of her thesis lead her to become chair of Linguistics at the University of Paris.
While Kristeva’s theories do center around the status of the subject and the questions of identity, her axis of inquiry is not into ‘female’/‘feminine’ subjectivity, but into those marginal
or dissident to patriarchy. She maintains that all signification is composed of two orders, not ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, but semiotic and symbolic. The semiotic is the “the endless flow of pulsions gathered up in the chora (from the Greek word for enclosed space, womb)” (Moi, 1986, p.12).
The semiotic is, according to psychoanalytic theory, from conception until the mirror stage at 6-8mos, after which one enters the Symbolic order through language. Kristeva considers the semiotic the site beyond contradiction, of paradox, fluidity, and multiplicity; it is disruptive, maternal, the site of the Other within self, beyond difference and gender, impossible for the Symbolic; it is associated with rhythms, tones, and drives, and the body.
Kristeva’s project then is to connect the body and semiotic into the symbolic order, not to create a stable identity, but rather “discourses that resist rigid and one-dimensional logic and instead engage in an ongoing process of writing the struggle within the impasse of language” (European Graduate School, 2005, para. 2).
Her explicit aim is to open the meaning of signs up to polysemous readings, emphasizing multiplicity of expression and subjectivity. She maintains that ‘feminine and ‘masculine’ are social constructions created, enforced and disrupted through language, refuses to define woman, and “remain[s] aloof from the call for explicitly feminist approaches” (Moi, 1986, p. 9); for this reason, she cannot really be called a ‘feminist’, but it is exactly for this reason that the work of Kristeva continues to be of such value.
Essentialism in perhaps the key conundrum in contemporary ontology. Essentialism is speaking of things as though they have a innate nature (such as ‘human nature’). But, if we position something as essence, ‘human nature’, for example, then agency and resistance are foreclosed. A deeper inquiry, and cross-cultural comparisons, often reveal variations in that which was thought to be essence, revealing that it was social construction all along. Despite the brilliance of Irigaray’s work, the label of essentialism haunts it.
Irigaray’s project is to alter “the status of the “female’ in the symbolic realm”, but her strategy is through “uncompromising stress not on the obliteration and overcoming of sexual differences, but on sexual difference itself” (Whitford, 1991, p. 15). Irigaray is leveled with the
charge of being a ‘biological essentialist’ because of her “unmediated casual relationship between biological sex and sexual identity” (Whitford, 1991, p. 14). This rationale posits sex and gender as indistinct; in this formula, biology is destiny. Indeed, Irigaray says “by our lips we are women” (qtd in Fuss, 1992, p. 99), locating the realm of the feminine directly in the female body.
As Toril Moi (1985) succinctly surmises, “[t]o posit all woman as necessarily feminine and all men as necessarily masculine is precisely the move that enables the patriarchal powers to define, not femininity, but all women as marginal to the symbolic order and to society” (p. 166).
As Whitford explains of Segal’s critcism of Irigaray, if the “differences between the sexes are seen as a construct of patriarchy and repressive of both” then theory based on the emphasis of feminine/female/woman’s identity just continues to prop up patriarchy (Whitford, 1991, p. 15-16).
Toril Moi (1985) argues that if “all efforts towards a definition of ‘woman’ are destined to be essentialist, it looks as if feminist theory might thrive better if it abandoned the minefield of femininity and femaleness for a while and approached the questions of oppression and emancipation from a different direction” (p. 148). This is exactly what Julia Kristeva did. In the words of Moi (1985)
“Kristeva does not have a theory of ‘femininity’ or even ‘femaleness’. What she does have is a theory of marginality, subversion and dissidence. In so far as women are defined as marginal by patriarchy, their struggle can be theorized in the same way as any other struggle can be against a centralized power structure” (p. 164).
Even into her theorization of sexual difference she maintains an anti-essentialist approach. Kristeva held firm to the theory that “all meaning is contextual” (Moi, 1985, p.155), mapping out the different levels of our social patterns that can be deconstructed to become visible as social constructions. She chose to see how language is used discursively but with different interests, so that “[t]he meaning of the sign is blown open – the sign becomes ‘polysemic’” (Moi, 1985, p.158). What Kristeva’s strategy does, that Luce Irigaray could (arguably) not do, is alter the status of the ‘female’ in the symbolic realm, by allowing the sign and the symbol freedom to move.
While the charge of essentialism repeatedly comes up against Irigaray, it is also repeatedly defended. Margaret Whitford (1991) positions Irigaray as frequently interpreted to have some static notion of ‘woman’/’femininity’, while, in actuality, Irigaray is arguing for “the relation of ‘woman’ [a]s precisely what needs to be rearticulated” (p. 14); Irigaray is pushing for the exploration of gender relations in the realm where we are not yet.
Diana Fuss, (1992) concurs, viewing Irigaray’s mission as an attempt to explore the distinction of the sexes “in terms of how they inhabit or are inhabited by language” (p. 101) in an attempt to see what a “differently sexualized” (p. 101) language might be.
Whitford, (1991) argues that what both Irigaray and Kristeva hold in common is the idea of the “subject –in-process [ that is,] a subject in dialogue, engaged with the other” (p.48). From this perspective, it might be able to be argued that Irigaray does indeed leave room to be contingent, as Butler states is necessary.
Contingency implies allowing room for that which is not expected, allowing room for that which is not yet. In response to the question “what is woman?” Irigaray answers by asking “what is …?” (Irigaray, 1977, p. 122); to answer is to remain inside the phallocratic discourse, but to not answer is to remain outside of it, so Irigaray tries “to situate [her]self at its borders and move continuously from the inside to the outside” in an “attempt to overturn it” (Irigaray, 1977, p. 122).
While, in reading Irigaray, I truly do sense that Irigaray is calling for an emergent, contingent space to open within the social fabric that allows for and creates alternate subjectivities, specifically for those deemed ‘women’ by phallocratic discourse, I do still find supporting the gendered binary contrary to the political aims of reconstructing ontology, and for that reason, her reliance on the tem ’feminine’ remains problematic.
Kristeva’s account, on the other hand, by using the axis of marginalization to discourse, is more useful in collapsing binary logic completely. In remembering that the beliefs we hold have real world effect- they produce subjects, we are reminded to keep an eye on the ramifications of our theories.
enlarging spaces of the sayable…
Where Irigaray and Kristeva both explore that excites me so it their positioning of paradox at the core, calling for a both-and logic, instead of an either-or logic, as well as an understanding of and language for the world that is complex, multiplicitious, and emergent.
My personal perspective is based in an ecological understanding that views life as complex processes of relationship, interaction and mutuality. My interest in gender studies is born from the knowledge that we need a new ontological understanding from a feminist, ecological, and spiritual perspective that no longer allows for exploitation of ‘women’ and ‘nature’, (indeed, these need to be collapse as discreet categories).
As Irigaray and Kristeva worked to reveal, the gendered binary at the core of patriarchal discourse is not based in equal representation, guided by love, but rather sets up a framework that creates a hierarchy of marginalization that continues to produce women’s oppression.
Based on what I have read in the feminist, ecofeminist, and environmental discourses, binary oppositional logic is thoroughly deconstructed, regarded a patriarchal tool to justify exploitation. The next step is to reconstruct language that both reflects and produces the fluid and multiplicitous complexity of reality that does not trap us in an insincere, flattened, unitary identity.
In preparing for this paper, I discussed with a good friend of mine who is in the autistic spectrum the ideas of multiple subjectivites, including the idea of abandoning the subject-object construction. My friend became seriously excited, plying me for more information, concurring that autistics do not see the world with a subject-object or self-other perception, but rather as a fluid and undistinguished whole.
I began to observe more closely my speech patterns with ‘women’ and ‘men’, and in formal and intimate situations. With another close friend who is well-educated and shares with me a similar spiritual worldview, I began to notice our patterns of language becoming more and more abstract. We rarely finish our sentences, but rather use patterns of metonym to sketch out ideas and experiences as processes associated with other processes. Indeed I felt that we were trying “ceaselessly to embrace words and persistently to cast them off” (Fuss, 1982, p. 99), to avoid getting caught in flattened and insincere meanings, but convey experiences that we experienced on many levels simultaneously.
Irigaray’s focus is on parler femme which can translate into “speak (as) woman” (Whitford, 1991, p. 49). “Subjectivity is denied to women,” (Moi, 1985, p. 136) Irigaray claims; woman remains “exiled from representation”(Moi, 1985, p. 136) in order to provide the grounds upon which stable objects can be constructed. The “only place in Western history where woman speaks and acts in a public way” is in mystical discourse (Irigaray qtd. in Moi, 1985, p. 136).
Mystical experience involves the “loss of subjecthood… the mystic’s soul is transformed into a fluid stream dissolving all difference” (Moi, 1985, p. 136). In phallocratic discourse, “mysticism (like hysteria a few centuries later) offers women a real if limited possibility of discovering some aspects of pleasure that might be specific to their libidinal drives” (Moi, 1985, p. 138).
Women’s subjectivity, as Irigaray generalizes, is not unitary and divided like phallocratic subjectivity is constructed, but rather it is Woman neither two nor one but both at once, which “signifies that a woman is simultaneously singular and double; she is ‘already two - but not divisible into one(s)’ or, put another way, she is “neither one nor two’” (Fuss, 1992, p. 97). While the case for this can be made in a number of ways, the most obvious argument is in pregnancy and motherhood.
In pregnancy, a woman in both self and other, which blurs the unity of the subject, revealing the “subject in-process” (Oliver, 1993, p. 2). Julia Kristeva uses maternity as “a bridge between nature and culture, the drives and the Symbolic” (Oliver, 1993, p. 5). Drawn from this, Alison Weir “maintains that Kristeva provides a theory of a divided mother that allows the possibility for the mother to both participate in the symbolic and remain heterogeneous to it” (Oliver, 1993, p. 7).
Kristeva’s intent is to open discursive space to allow for the other within the self to be embraced, engaging a both-and logic. For Kristeva, the axis through which to access the Other, including women and those infantilized by patriarchy is the Semiotic, a core of fluid, multiplicitous, emergent contradiction and paradox, “which knows no sexual difference” (Moi, 1985, 165).
Language, in Kristevian terms, is an emergent “complex signifying process” (emphasis her, Moi, 1985, p.152), and it is not a universal, monolithic system, but rather sets of discourses which are “specific linguistic strategies in specific situations” (Moi, 1985, 154). Kristeva then “emphasizes the need to steer between stable identities” (Oliver, 1993, p. 8). In this way, Kristeva remains anti-essentialist, but also makes room for alternate subjectivites.
I enter this discourse with perhaps two generations between in which much expansion and critique of Luce Irigaray’s and Julia Kristeva’s work has rippled out through our social fabric. Born late in the seventies, I grew up in a rigid patriarchal household, with a hesitantly-feminist mother; it is interesting to reflect on the culture I was raised in, and the cultures I navigate through today; it seems that culture is much less rigid presently than it was for my mother’s generation.
While the direct action of grassroots feminist action began to expand life for women at the community level, Kristeva, Irigaray, (and others), were rattling the tap root of civilization: they were questioning the binary logic based in two discrete genders (and the law of the excluded middle), as neutral and universal ; they exposed that our very language, the symbolic order, is not neutral, universal, nor is the language of women is not represented.
In conclusion I see primarily the need to engage with these texts and disseminate this information. Our culture need to break and broaden our language base, so to shift ontology away from the ‘masculine’/ ‘feminine’ confines, collapsing the problematic binary towards a more fluid logic, with more room within the spaces of the sayable.
I feel we need to cross-reference our theories with an environmental ethic, and perhaps even more importantly, cross-reference our environmental ethic with these understandings of how power functions to ensure our means reflect our aims. While sex exists, is it useful explore the complexity and diversity of subjectivites, especially if we keep “a focus on the mechanisms of power” (Chanarnia, 2005, p. 36), we can perhaps expand the space that ‘woman’ is relegated and able to occupy.
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