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Book Review: An Ethics of Sexual Difference (Éthique de la différence sexuelle) by Luce Irigaray

“I search for myself, as if I had been assimilated into maleness.

I ought to reconstitute myself

on the basis of a disassimilation.

Rise again from the traces of a culture, of works already produced by the other.

Searching through what is in them-for what is not there… Their conditions of

possibility, for what is not there.” (9)

1932 Belgian-born philosopher, psychoanalyst and linguist Luce Irigaray is situated among the Second Wave feminists who were generally studying over difference, opposed to the First Wave who focused on equality. She was initially from Paris-Freudian ecole that was founded by Lacan, though later dissented from the group owing to the gender-related disagreements. In her initial studies[1], she delves into the realms of Western Culture only to detect it was developed over phallocentric discourses perpetuating gender inequality. Herein, the female was used as a speculum (mirror) in the creation of male subject, hence womanhood was the unthought realm of philosophy, the other of philosophy. Worse, it was degraded and divided as mother, virgin, whore. The dichotomies and binary oppositions of the Western Culture (such as body&mind, reason&emotions, culture&nature) are one reason for this degradation in which relationality was undermined. To Irigaray, though claiming itself objective and universal, Western philosophical traditions did have limited and partial worldview. These arguments lay the foundations of her second period studies, where she mainly asks: What could be done to build female subjectivity?

In the book ‘An Ethics of Sexual Difference’ (1984), consisting of lectures given at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, first and foremost, Irigaray aims at a cultural revolution, a transformative shift to a culture of ‘sexual difference’, which is pointed just in the opening lines of the book as “one of the major philosophical issues, if not the issue, of our age” (5). She claims this self-coinage term to be the “salvation” of our culture (5).

Few can deny that the culture in which we live has been determined by solely one gender (male), hence flourishing of female sexual difference and establishing and expressing itself culturally, spiritually and universally is far from being attainable within this mono-sexual culture. Therefore, she envisions a cultural revolution where sexual difference can be possible. In other words, in her ethics, difference is embraced and preserved, not abolished through saying like equal treatment or sameness. Having based her thesis on the term sexual difference, she proceeds to the establishment of female ethics that is more egalitarian and comprehensive. To heri should we want to do sexual difference study, a fundamental change in thought and ethics is vital. In “this world of female ethics” (108), she strongly claims we need to re-evaluate and re-describe all the traditionally accepted and undervalued norms, discourses, categories and relations that might implicitly possess masculinist inscriptions. These words resonate with her main intention:

“A revolution in thought and ethics is needed if the work of sexual difference is to take place. We need to reinterpret everything

concerning the relations between the subject and discourse, the subject and the world, the subject and the cosmic,’ the microcosmic and the macrocosmic. Everything, beginning with the way in which the subject has always been written in the masculine form, as man, even when it claimed to be universal or neutral.” (6)

As she seeks to challenge and subvert the prevailing patriarchal discourses, she is in the quest for a production of a new thought, a new language, “a new poetics” (5) to build female identity over as the application of available male discourses is not enough for women to claim their subjectivity in all spheres of life or for equal rights. This is because, sameness or equality is not the determinant of the existence of a female subject, yet the difference is. Therefore, revisiting the established realms, she comes up with new notions as she (as a linguist) is quite aware of the importance of language through the creation of culture. Challenging the conventional linguistic forms, she acknowledges the language as a transformative tool for the sake of this ethical change. She seeks to explore the new ways of speaking and listening that could account for the multiplicity of experiences and voices. That is because, “language is said, is ordered in the masculine, except when it is a case of what linguists call a mark. The feminine follows the masculine grammatical norm” (168). Therefore, a shift in language use is vital.

To Irigaray, this culture of sexual difference means “a fecundity of birth and regeneration” (5). There is something in this culture that needs “consummation" for the sake of not only women, but also men. In this process of formation and transformation, manhood and its related conditions are to be re-examined, as well. “He would no longer be enveloped or assisted by the maternal, on the one hand, and would no longer treat the female as a kind of doll or robot, on the other” (145) as this perpetual dependence or domination does harm his autonomy, too. Without sexual difference, no-one can obtain an autonomous subjectivity.

Though later breaking up with his ideas, Irigaray is still influenced by Lacan, especially by his idea of symbolic order. Phallic, as a symbolical category, organises our world in ways that we do not even recognise it. In contrast with this phallic subject conception as unitary or a desire to grasp what is outside of itself that is phallic, Irigaray turns to the figure of lips, thus symbolically phallus is replaced with vulva (with an anatomic metonym). She claims the idea of lips helps figure a doubling. She refers this doubling as the new ways of re-evaluation of traditional notions of selfhood that is not rooted in singular subjectivity. In the end, though lips are two, they are not dichotomies. She puts:

“The threshold of the lips, which are strangers to dichotomy and oppositions. Gathered one against the other but without any

possible suture, at least of a real kind. They do not absorb the world into or through themselves, provided they are not misused

and reduced to a means of consumption or consummation. They offer a shape of welcome but do not assimilate, reduce, or

swallow up. A sort of doorway to voluptuousness” (18).

While she seeks for the new realms beyond classical oppositions. she objects to a reduction of two things into one. A notion of fusion is strictly disclaimed by her, only to make room for a new notion: interval, which is basically the image of between, “a threshold that is always half-open” (18). To her, this interval is the space being occupied by desire. She underlines the fact that there is always a gap between the self and the other, or between man and woman, which is the proof of difference. To her, “the interval would never be crossed. Consummation would never take place, the idea itself being a delusion. One sex is not entirely consumable by the other. There is always a remainder” (14). That’s why, a re-examination of the history written by male discourses is an urgent need as it was mostly a matter of dissociation of binaries or distribution between the sexes. She concludes “everything is constructed in such a way that these realities remain separate, even opposed to one another. So that they neither mix, marry, nor form an alliance.” (15)

She calls for a re-discussion of Lacan’s ideas for a couple of times throughout the book.“Desire is a relation to being to lack” as famously he quotes. Irigaray claims psychoanalysis forgets “the woman as a desiring subject” (213), rather positing her as the desired by male. Yet, when it comes to woman as a desiring subject, the West is mute. So, the economies of her desire is strictly put on the agenda. According to Irigaray, the other is a mystery, and in the face of the other, we need to experience wonder. This wonder turns into a desire that cannot be reduced to the otherness of the other. Clearly inspired by Descartes who claims wonder is the first of all passions and only that doesn’t have an opposite, Irigaray invites us to rediscover wonder in the face of the other. Neither a substitution, nor a hierarchy is needed in her ethics. Men and woman “cannot be substituted one for the other. I will never be in a man's place, never will a man be in mine. Whatever identifications are possible, one will never exactly occupy the place of the other-they are irreducible one to the other”(13). That’s why, she claims “who or what the other is, I never know.” (13)

She looks for the practical possibilities of desiring as a woman. Thinking through this, we need to re-think the notions of space and time, too. Conventional associations of woman with space, men with time are also subverted. Together with it, the domestic interior vs exterior is also denied as woman is situated at the doorway, threshold. She asks and answers: “Is this because women are interiority and also exteriority? Often they lack the power to experience the inward and the outward, more particularly because

they live their lives as a threshold that ensures passage between the two” (107).

We can clearly observe that her ethics of sexual difference is neither hierarchic nor related to norm or rules, but only relying on responsiveness and orientation towards the other. “The link uniting or reuniting masculine and feminine must be horizontal and vertical, terrestrial and heavenly.” (17) Different from “polemical form of the master-slave relationship”, as Heidegger also suggests, it needs to “forge an alliance between the divine and the mortal” (17). In this world, both angel and body can cohabit. Her motive to subvert binaries needs an ongoing process. Hence, “this is a world that must be constructed or reconstructed…A world that must be created or re-created so that man and woman may once again or at last live together, meet, and sometimes inhabit the same place.” (17)

Love is appointed as the ally of beauty, without its presence, neither good, nor justice could occur. We can claim in her ethics, love is not only personal, but universal, both transcendental and immanent. Suggesting that “contrary to the usual methods of dialectic, one should not have to give up love in order to become wise or learned” (21). She opposes the binaries of love and wisdom, claiming that “it is love that leads to knowledge, whether in art or more metaphysical learning. It is love that both leads the way and is the path. A mediator par excellence” (21). So to Irigaray, there is always a way for “an intermediary between pairs of opposites” (24). This intermediary is mostly hailed as love, and even philosophy is appreciated as “a quest for love, love of beauty” (24), rather than a formal teaching that is fixed and rigid.

Yet, patriarchal culture does not even let a love between the mother and daughter, but only a rivalry. The possibility of a love between mother and daughter is destroyed and wrecked with a rivalry of both moving into a separate and single position in the desire of man (102). “Closing off the cycle of love between mother and daughter, among women” (105) causes the land to be “no longer free and fertile”. Nonetheless, patriarchal culture is an infertile land, therefore a new land that allows sexual difference is needed. That’s why, she calls for ‘a world for women’. She puts: “women must construct a world in all its and their dimensions. A universe, not merely for the other, as they have been asked to do in the past: as keepers of home and children, mothers, in the name of the property, the laws, the rights, and obligations of the other's State” (109). This world is to be constructed not upon sameness and should not relate its appearance to an equation with the masculine world.

The first and foremost critic raised against Irigaray is that her studies are found to be essentialist. The idea that her assumptions are based on the fact that gender has an essential that is solid and restrictive has been opposed by feminist critics who think human/and gender has no essence. Another opposition is raised especially by Queer theorists on the basis of heteronormativity (dividing gender into two). Still, she is influential as she provokes ides and creats new notions, a new language.

Overall, the work, which is composed of a combination of feminist critique and philosophical and theoretical inquiry; on the whole, is intellectually stimulating, and thought-provoking, and the tone is quite welcoming and profound. Though due to delving into the variety of realms from philosophy to theology, from psychoanalysis to linguistics, it has such an intense theoretical nature that a deeply careful engagement is required. Yet still, the writer leads the reader like a gentle guide through all these historical and philosophical meanderings, and thus we are rendered with many questions and searches leaking through the ajar doors for the possibility of a disassimilation from the established male discourses. This questioning of “what is in them and what is also not there" will hopefully open new doors in our search for ourselves, and will help the reconstitution of our authentic selfness.


Irigaray, L. (1993). An ethics of sexual difference. Cornell University Press.

[1] ‘Speculum of the other woman’ (1974), ‘This sex which is not one’ (1979).

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