The theoretical work produced by the renowned scholar Luce Irigaray is extensive and challenging to understand especially for those without any background in philosophy, psychoanalysis and linguistics. Despite this barrier I will do my best to illustrate the relevance and use of some of her theories to investigate the motivations behind the development of and continued residence in ecovillages, a type of intentional community. Defined as “an intentional, traditional or urban community that is consciously designed through locally owned participatory processes to regenerate social and natural environments” by the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN), ecovillages have known an increased popularity in North America since the 1960’s and are present all over the world. I became interested in what drives groups to create these communities. What of these spaces do their members find different and better than the “outside world?” In her text Through Vegetal Being, Irigaray writes about a number of feelings and ideas she had regarding her personal relationship with the natural, especially the vegetal, world which are useful to think about ecovillage life.
The first of them concerns nature as a refuge. Following tumultuous childhood experiences that left her feeling ill and disconnected, the young Irigaray sought shelter in the garden and the woods where she could derive breathing and living energy from the trees and wildlife to heal her physical and spiritual ailments. This is not the first person I have heard seeking refuge in the natural world against the stressors of everyday life. The popularity of visiting national parks and outdoor experiences like hiking and camping in the United States and the prominence of ecological tourism across the globe illustrate that this is a practice to which many resort. It is interesting for me to consider why being in nature is found to be such a positive experience by so many people. What is it about nature that they seek out when visiting? What benefits are derived by them? Is the notion of natural refuge thought of differently depending on sex, religion, or geographic location?
My own experiences have led me to note that being in nature gives me space to breathe – mentally as a chance to calm my hurried thoughts and physically through conscious intakes of air. According to Irigaray, “breathing suffices for living.” The availability of air and space in nature provided her with physical and mental autonomy thanks to which she could “not only begin living again but also continue thinking.” This resonates in me because I also have felt more physically and mentally centered after an immersion in nature. Despite recognizing that humans need more than air to sustain themselves, Irigaray’s words bring to the surface an appreciation regarding air, the atmosphere, and their possible “universal sharing” – from which she says that her “tradition cut [her] off” – that is not often voiced. This disconnection of society and culture from nature’s elements is also echoed in other chapters of Through Vegetal Being where she discusses man’s domination on the natural world and lack of consideration for the rhythm of the seasons and the bounty they can provide.
Not only does she discuss the existence of disconnection, but also how she reacts to it by “turning [her] culture upside down” and “revers[ing] what [her] culture taught [her].” This aspect of her theory is particularly inspiring for me because it reveals an intention: making positive change requires both acknowledgment of an issue and action for progress to be accomplished. Opposition to cultural norms is a challenging endeavorur and needs courage when an individual goes it alone. Despite the obstacles, cultural changes are possible and the potential for individuals gathering together, planning, and carrying it out is promising especially within the context of the ecovillage movement.
Continuing with a discussion on cultural change, Irigaray further elaborates on how she might turn culture upside down through the “conversion” to a culture that more aptly uses all human senses as “path[s] toward spiritual becoming.” Shifting focus to other senses – listening, smell, taste, touch – in addition to sight, could allow individuals to have a more holistic life experience and thus develop in ways currently unavailable for those who know more limited degrees of interaction with other living beings.
It is through all these senses that we might fulfill our aspiration after human companionship, which, according to Irigaray, comes from our experience of the “fullness” of nature and a strong desire to share it with another human. However, as Irigaray mentions, culture has put up barriers also there. The hardness of the environment, in which many city dwellers live, and a culture based on information do “not consider the education of our entire being enough, but instead turns us into a sort of hard disk that is more or less full, more or less complex and appropriate to one or another culture, tradition, language.” This ends in human beings being “with you without really being with [you].” How could a culture that functions in such a way be adjusted in order to better care for our full selves in a manner that doesn’t make us overfull with information that does not contribute to our wellbeing? Ecovillages might be one such approach.
Relevance to Project
The ideas regarding cultural change are of particular relevance in a discussion of ecovillages as these communities are fundamentally destined for cultural changes toward lower and more conscientious impacts and relationships with the natural world. As many North American utopias among which ecovillages are sometimes included – arose from global events, such as the Great Depression, World War II and Climate Change, seeking refuge is a familiar and common reason for joining these communities, in order to reach a spiritual connection as well as a shelter from economic and social pressures. Given the inclusion of practices like yoga and meditation in some ecovillages, breathing is of particular relevance in them. Lastly, a will to reform society and fight against the isolation due to society by living in community are historically motivations put forward for joining intentional communities that are in accordance with Irigaray’s theories.