Evelien Geerts – The other woman. A diffractive rereading of the works of Simone de Beauvoir and Luce Irigaray

This diffractive (re)reading project that has to be located in the domains of Continental philosophy and feminist theory wishes to overcome the Oedipalized reception history or the Oedipal feminist narratives that have been created and told about the philosophies of Simone de Beauvoir and Luce Irigaray. This problematic reception history – as I will argue – mistakenly put the works of de Beauvoir and Irigaray against one another in an oppositional and hierarchic manner by focusing on the assumption that Irigaray should be seen as de Beauvoir’s rebellious daughter, and by claiming that Irigaray’s innovative sexuate difference philosophy then must be a flat-out refusal of de Beauvoir’s humanist, existentialist feminism. My project hopes to shed light on this paralyzing constructed opposition and wishes to engage in a different kind of feminist rereading and storytelling – a diffractive, or a transdisciplinary, an-Oedipal, dialogical and open-minded way of telling stories that would look for the lines of continuity between these two philosophies, without however reducing them to another; i.e. without falling back into the phallogocentric, reflective logics of sameness.

This diffractive project in fact starts from the intuition that the feminist (but also philosophical) differences between both oeuvres have been extremely over-accentuated: both de Beauvoir and Irigaray have been the victims of an Oedipal and Oedipalizing generational dialectics – a phallogocentric, dichotomizing dialectics that is at work in the reception history of feminist theory in general, which has made it almost impossible to look at feminist oeuvres in a continuous manner. Due to a combination of this Oedipal dialectics, the Anglo-American (mis)construction of ‘French feminism,’ and the many mistranslations and misinterpretations of their works, de Beauvoir’s and Irigaray’s philosophies have been read in an oppositional, fixating and paralyzing way: an Irigaray versus de Beauvoir dichotomy has been created, as if both philosophies could no longer speak to each other. These stifled and stifling stories about their oeuvres are extremely problematic, seen from a feminist point of view, and specifically from an Irigarayian perspective – a perspective that wishes to revalue relationships between women, and mothers and daughters in particular.

In my project, I then first of all explore some examples of such paralyzing, unproductive, and mostly Anglo-American misreadings by, for instance, looking at some of American feminist philosopher and queer theorist Judith Butler’s works and interviews. Although one cannot deny that Butler also has had a positive influence on the Anglo-American reception of the philosophies of de Beauvoir and Irigaray, I would nonetheless like to claim that Butler has misread their oeuvres by making use of a particular Anglo-American ‘sex versus gender’ terminology – a terminology that, in my opinion, cannot capture the complexities of Irigaray’s philosophy, ontology and ethics of sexuate difference. Although Butler’s engagement with Irigaray’s critical mimesis might be seen as productive, her overall reading of Irigaray is highly problematic: this not only has to do with the fact that Butler misunderstands Irigaray’s conceptualization of sexuate difference, but it is also connected to Butler’s ambiguous misreadings of de Beauvoir as either a classic gender feminist or as a feminist that wishes to deconstruct the sex/gender distinction. Because of the fact that Butler misreads de Beauvoir in either of these readings as an Anglo-American radical social constructivist, and hence understands de Beauvoir’s feminist philosophy as anticipating her own gender troubling feminism, Butler completely disables herself from fully engaging with Irigaray’s sexuate difference philosophy. In the end, Butler falls back into the aforementioned dichotomous Irigaray versus de Beauvoir narrative.

So, the latter is an example of a kind of misreading that this project wishes to distance itself from: de Beauvoir and Irigaray should be valued as autonomous feminist philosophers, instead of being read through such an either/or perspective. In the rest of this project, I then also reflect on how stifling binaries such as essentialism versus anti-essentialism, and difference versus equality, have been applied to the philosophies of de Beauvoir and Irigaray. Next to that, I also develop a strategy of diffractive (re)reading by looking at the conceptual and feminist origins of diffraction in the works of Donna Haraway and Karen Barad.

My project then finally culminates into a philosophical-feminist diffractive rereading of de Beauvoir and Irigaray that focuses on their conceptualizations of woman as O/other, and their critical feminist-inspired dialogues with the philosophies of Hegel and de Sade. By rereading de Beauvoir and Irigaray in a diffractive manner, I hope to bring about a productive, an-Oedipal and feminist cross-fertilization between these two philosophies.