In my project, I attempt to elaborate a theory of sexuate individuation by linking Irigaray’s work with that of Gilbert Simondon. According to Simondon, Western philosophy has ontologically privileged the individual over the processes of individuation that produce it. He thus replaces individualized ontology with ontogenesis as an ongoing process of individuation in which ‘individuals’ are generated from a ‘pre-individual’ fund consisting of matter, form, energy, and potentiality. While inanimate matter is individuated all at once, living matter retains a perpetual relation to this pre-individual fund, thus enabling an ongoing becoming. Furthermore, living matter individualizes itself at increasingly higher orders in response to ‘problems’ it encounters at ‘lower’ levels: from the physicochemical to the psychic, collective and technological. These levels are all linked through a process of ‘transduction’ that enables communication running from the pre-individual potentiality to the transindividual collectivity. Provocatively, Simondon suggests that sexuality is precisely such a mode of individuation, making him one of the only male philosophers who considers the role of sexual difference in processes of becoming. And because these various levels of individuation are linked through matter, Simondon’s theory is remarkably compatible with Irigaray’s contention that sexual difference must be considered at each ‘level’ of life from bodily morphology to psyche to collectivity, and even to technology.
Because the pre-individual contains all of the conditions of emergence, both past and future, and because all living matter retains a relation to this pre-individual as a condition of its becoming, I suggest that all living matter is thus virtually sexed in countless ways beyond its actualizations. For Simondon, individuation is an intensive process that is the condition for extensive differences between entities, that is, individuation is a process of actualization from the virtual. Bringing in Irigaray, I suggest that the ‘interval’ names the space-time necessary for this process of individuation. (Sexuate) becoming, that is, can only take place if this interval is not closed. And if being sexed is a mode of individuation, then this process occurs at an intensive level in the move from the virtual to the actual before it is manifest at the extensive level. The bulk of sexual difference, then, remains virtual and intensive; only aspects of it are locatable in extension.
As Irigaray points out in her work on fluids, the phallocentric representational economy has only ever attempted to capture sexual difference in extension. Because of the externality of the penis, the feminine’s multiple diffuse and internal sexuality has been reduced to nothing. This privileging of the male organ as the model of sex has led to a primacy of visualization, measurement, and the counting of solid substance at the expense of fluid’s processes, which cannot be seen, measured, counted or located. Coupling the critique of the phallic economy with Simondon’s account of intensive and extensive differentiation, we might say that sexual difference is an intensive process, even as it is also an extensive difference. Sexual difference is an ongoing mode of individuation and becoming, a qualitative rather than quantitative difference, that cannot be quantified without changing its very nature. We can, and in fact must, represent sexual difference as quantifiable in order to address it empirically and politically, but Irigaray’s work points out time and time again that sexual difference always exceeds these representations.
Matter, then, following Irigaray and Simondon, becomes living by becoming sexed and this makes sexual difference a fundamentally open-ended question. Here, I consider the work of microbiologist Lynn Margulis who contends that sexual difference is an aspect of life in all its forms, even down to the bacterial level, and that the emergence of sexual difference is coextensive with the emergence of living matter on earth. Yet, one major point of possible alliance between Simondon and Irigaray is their insistence on the fact that sexual difference imposes certain limits to individuation, i.e., those imposed by already-individuated forms of sexual difference. We cannot simply individuate beyond or outside existing forms of sexual difference and at their expense, but only starting from them. Simondon’s theory of non-linear transduction, however, suggests that there is no guarantee that the various levels of a being’s sexed individuation will ‘line up’ or follow from one another: the way one is sexed at a physical level might not be ‘the same’ as the way one is sexually individuated at a psychic or collective level. And following Irigaray, phallocentric economies of representation always work to restrict the becoming and possibilities of sexual difference in advance.
Thinking sexual difference as a mode of individuation at diverse levels of emergence helps understand that sexual difference is an ontological dimension of life itself, but one that can be indefinitely open-ended. Sexual difference is thus a condition of the diversification, creativity, and becoming of life itself; and yet this becoming always takes place within the limitations of individuated matter, as well as within limitations imposed by economies of representation. This means both that we are always already virtually sexed in perhaps infinite ways and that we have no idea what forms of sexual difference the future may bring, but many of these forms are cut off by the hegemony of phallocentric heterosexuality. Thus, I suggest with Irigaray, we must work to open the becomings of sexual difference, for life itself depends on it, while also working to reconfigure existing representational systems. Simondon and Irigaray thus provide a model of sexual difference that is constitutive of life itself without being merely anthropomorphic, binaristic, or closed. Similarly they both insist on the fact that sexual difference is a fundamentally philosophical problem.
Finally, I argue for the ethical importance of the ontology of sexual difference. For Simondon, ethics consists of preserving an openness to both the pre-individual field that generates (and thus connects) all matter and to the transindividual collectivity, so that further and mutual individuations with others remain possible. And for Irigaray, the ethics of sexual difference consist in maintaining the interval, which is the very condition and space of becoming and relationality in difference. Thus, I want to think about sexual difference as an ethico-ontological process of becoming which emphasizes the spaces between differently sexuate beings rather than reducing matter (and sexual difference) to self-present substance. This would require an attention to the materiality of the in between, of the interval that allows the generation of individuated forms in the first place and makes possible relations in difference. While Irigaray’s work certainly does not ‘need’ Simondon, thinking the two together helps understand sexual difference as a force of individuation at play in all living matter. Moreover, their work demonstrates that ethics flows necessarily from a conviviality respectful of the ontogentic difference(s) —that sexual difference is always at work in ontogenesis, and that all matter is ontogentically connected means that sexual individuation is fundamentally an ethical question. Irigaray and Simondon then allow for a feminist thought that can be attuned to sexual difference as running all the way from the ground of our virtual existence through to the psychic, collective, technological and spiritual registers of life.