For the 2016 Luce Irigaray International Seminar, I presented a paper entitled “The Paradox of Narcissism and the Philosopher’s Wife: Towards a Definition of ‘Auto-Theory.’” This constitutes the introduction of the first chapter of my dissertation, which takes up “auto-theory” as a contemporary mode of feminist cultural production across media. In my paper, I read the work of Chris Kraus (I Love Dick, Aliens and Anorexia, Torpor) through Luce Irigaray’s notion of mimesis and her reading of the philosopher’s wife. I began by fleshing out the theoretical implications of the “auto” orientation and narcissism through a feminist lens. Irigaray’s theoretical work becomes a way for me to connect the performances of hysteria, narcissism, exhibitionism, and disclosure that I perceive in contemporary feminist work to the history of philosophy and persisting gender-based issues. I propose that Luce Irigaray’s notion of mimesis, considered alongside Judith Butler’s performativity, provides a way in to reading auto-theory by writers like Chris Kraus and Maggie Nelson that looks back toward its antecedents while looking forward to its capacity for subversion. As a feminist strategy that resonates with the performative, the discursive, and the theoretical, mimesis continues to be a viable and fruitful notion through which to approach contemporary works of queer and feminist auto-theory.
The tension between the orientation toward the self (“auto”) and the production of legitimate theoretical work (“theory”) is bound up in this term “auto-theory,” and presents a problem that is particularly fraught in light of the history of feminism. Over the past decade, there appears to be a divide within feminism: while some feminist scholars incorporate their own experience explicitly in their work, others have disregarded such an impulse as narcissistic. For Freud, narcissism is something inherent in femininity. Yet there remains an unresolved paradox latent in Freud’s writings on narcissism in women. For Freud, women are simultaneously (1) associated with narcissism by virtue of their ‘inherent’ femininity and (2) distanced from the very possibility of being narcissistic due to their lacking access to subjectivity and discourse, which Irigaray maintains in her discussion of the philosopher’s wife.
Irigaray outlines two kinds of mimesis, reproductive and productive, both of which are found in Plato’s Symposium. Mimesis is defined by Irigaray as a strategic performance in which woman enters into discourse through reproductive mimesis and then has the opportunity to subvert it through productive mimesis; the mimetic function is a means rather than an end (where cultural revolution and the creation of new worlds might be an end), and it is constrained by parameters of time. Metaphors of performance abound in Irigaray’s discussion of mimesis, a point relevant for my dissertation as I am approaching auto-theory through frameworks of performance and performativity— including Judith Butler’s notion of gender performativity.
Since it is not possible to approach philosophical discourse head on (Irigaray This Sex 149), Irigaray states that “the option left to me was to have a fling with the philosophers, which is easier said than done” (150). One way to have a proverbial fling with a philosopher is to become the philosopher’s wife, a role that Irigaray describes as a site of reproductive and potentially productive mimicry. The philosopher’s wife is an object that exists for the (male) philosopher: a reflective surface (“mirror”) and formless matter (“reproductive material”) that exists to serve the (male) philosopher’s ends. Irigaray outlines this role that has historically been accessible to women, a role of reproductive mimicry in which the woman exists solely as a neutral (or nonagential) object — a mirror — to allow for and enable the (male) philosopher’s narcissism. The role of the philosopher’s wife necessitates an “avoidance of self-expression,” which is to say, there is a concerted effort to not be self-aware or self-reflective: an effort that Irigaray describes as virginal, as it entails a lack of maturity or self-development as a woman. What’s more, in Irigaray’s conception, the philosopher’s wife performs a dual role in “safeguarding” the narcissism of the male philosopher: (1) by being the mirror, and (2) by not speaking or disclosing what it knows or has seen as the mirror. The narcissism of the male philosopher is dependent upon the philosopher’s wife withholding what she knows about him and the process of philosophical reflection. This is significant for my project, as feminist acts of disclosure and selfreflexivity are central to the auto-theory texts that I take up. Irigaray lays out the context in which she advances mimesis as method, a context which includes the primacy of philosophical discourse as a “master discourse” and women’s status as always already unintelligible in their utterances:
“This aporia of discourse as to the female sex— whether it is envisaged as a limit of rationality itself, or as women’s powerlessness to speak coherently— raises a question and even provokes a crisis, which may be analyzed in various specific areas, but which, in order to be interpreted, have to pass through the master discourse: the one that prescribes, in the last analysis, the organization of language, the one that lays down the law to the others, including even the discourse held on the subject of these others: the discourse on discourses, philosophical discourse.” (Irigaray This Sex 149).
This is significant for understanding “auto-theory” as a recent invocation within and around contemporary feminist practice. “Theory” is invoked for the legitimacy and influence that it holds: for its power as a discursive structuring system that bleeds out to other systems of knowledge and language. Given that philosophy (or theory) functions as a “master discourse … the one that lays down the law to the others” (149), Irigaray as a feminist philosopher seeks to directly critique it rather than attending to its symptoms. Indeed, what better way to attend to the problems of women’s exclusion from language, culture, and subjectivity than targeting philosophy itself (as the master discourse) and changing its laws?
Luce Irigaray’s notion of the philosopher’s wife and the mechanism of mimesis provides a way in for me to theorize the gendered politics of “auto-theory” as a mode that explicitly incorporates the autos or self into theoretical or philosophical work. At the end of my presentation, we discussed the possibility that Luce Irigaray’s Speculum of the Other Woman is a work of autotheory. At Luce Irigaray’s suggestion I turned to her work on self-affection and considered the ways in which the breath and touch function as a feminist alternative to the ocularcentrism of narcissism.