Katarzyna Szopa — Toward a Culture of Relations: New Materialism in Philosophy of Luce Irigaray

“Our being in the world is relational” (Irigaray, Luce, Sharing the World)

The critique of monosubjective nature of patriarchal culture inspired Luce Irigaray to elaborate a positive philosophy of dialogue and culture based on intersubjective relations. In her latest works — such as The Way of Love, To be Two, I Love to You — Irigaray puts the stress on love, happiness and ethical mutual respect, and she develops a new model of subjectivity starting from our “relational identity”. In my research project I mainly focus on this “affirmative phase” of Irigaray’s work to emphasize the noticeable evolution of her philosophy. I believe that affirmative ethics is a creative position, which could have a great influence on our sociopolitical reality. According to Irigaray,

“[t]his happier, more fertile and democratic model enables us, moreover, to turn to the many without hierarchizing, thanks to the respect of the difference between the one (male and female) and the other (male and female)”. (Luce Irigaray, Democracy Begins between Two, trans. K. Anderson, London-New York: Routledge 2001, p. 172).

“Turning to the many without hierarchizing” involves a necessity of entering into relations not only between human beings, but also between human and non-human beings. Thus, in her latest books, such as Sharing the World or In the Beginning, She Was, Irigaray emphasizes the importance of developing a “relational identity”.

“The philosopher must henceforth put the accent on the subject as a being in relation. Philosophy has to consider the cultivation of our relational identity to be a decisive stage of our becoming humans. (…) Humanity cannot be defined as a group of individuals who assert their difference with respect to the other kingdoms: animal, vegetable or mineral, through a quantitative distinction, a distinction that is founded, for example, on the number of neurons”. (Luce Irigaray In the Beginning, She Was, London-New York: Bloomsbury 2013, pp. 19-20)

What is more, it is significant that the other is no only the other of sexuate difference, but, as Irigaray writes in Sharing the World, “whomever this other could be: a companion, a friend, a child, a foreigner” (Sharing the World, London-New York: Continuum 2008, p. 23), as well as “animal, vegetable or mineral” (In the Beginning, She Was, p. 20). Such a non-anthropocentric position indicates a new stage within Irigaray’s thought, a stage that I recognize as a new materialism. I suggest that Irigaray starts from physical difference in order to define subjectivity and relations only between two different subjectivities.

Irigaray takes into consideration an agency of nature and matter, and develops “relational” thinking. Basing on Irigaray’s thought, I argue that it could happen only thanks to recognizing sexuate difference. Such perspective requires rethinking human’s role and position in the world. What is significant in Irigaray’s philosophy is the importance of returning to ourselves, to our natural belonging, rather than stopping with declaration on the fall of humanity as such. In other words, new materialism in Irigaray’s philosophy consists in cultivating our natural belonging and respecting our mutual differences, starting from recognition of sexuate difference, i.e. the most basic difference capable of acting as a bridge between nature and culture. As Irigaray puts it, “[f]rom now on I can consider and encounter the other (male or female) – whether she/he is of another race, age, culture, religion, etc. – without feeling myself the superior one, nor the one who is simply a part of whole whose governance can be appropriated by any leader whatever” (Democracy Begins Between Two, p. 172).

Although Irigaray does not reduce “relational identity” to human being only, she stresses the importance of recognition of sexuate difference as a universal one, an irreducible element of our identity, where nature and culture can be intertwined. “Overcoming the dualism (….) first requires us to return to the real duality of the sexes. The pairs of opposite that our Western logic involves result from the elimination of the duality or our sexuate embodiments and of the living energy of which they are a source” (Luce Irigaray, Perhaps Cultivating Touch Can Still Save Us, “SubStance” 2011, vol. 40, no. 3, p. 135). Such a new dialectic, neither merely a dualism, nor reducible to any monism, is based on a logic that refuses the oppositional thinking which our Western tradition has accustomed us to. This other dialectic between two subjectivities is not constructed as an opposition, or fusion. Rather, it involves a process of sharing one’s own spiritual energy from a cultivation of our natural belonging. Such a non-dualistic thinking is a part of new materialism that tends to overcome traditional dualism and cultivate space in which nature and culture coexist with one another.

Additionally, Luce Irigaray’s work offers the conception of language which is not subjected to representational rules:

“Our tradition has been established as a world parallel to the living world. The flow of life, the growth of life, its perpetual change towards development or decline has been brought under control through a logic of representation that institutes an artificial and permanent reality that is separated from the present and an embodied presence. Instead of cultivating life and coexistence among living beings, our culture has substituted an organization and structuring of names, images and representations for a real living existence. In this dead world, life is simulated through oppositions and conflicts, which also act as regulators of energy”. (Perhaps Cultivating Touch Can Still Save Us, p. 133)

A language dominated by a logic of representation dictated our manner of thinking. Enclosed in a “house of language” separating him from the natural world, Heideggerian man cannot discover a dialogical manner of communicating with others who are different from him. In this world put in the neuter, communication has been limited to an exchange of information, whatever the desire of Heidegger, and natural life has been submitted to hegemony of representation. Then, the words of such a language “no longer adhere to the real, no longer transmit a living energy” (In the Beginning, She Was, p. 31). In fact, language has become a substitute for the living matter.

Nevertheless, Irigaray claims that language should be taken as a means of holding a dialogue between two beings who are different as well as a medium for establishing a new world. Our relational identity, which is quintessential of our human condition, but not yet actually considered as such, could be embodied through language. Irigaray thinks of a new elaboration and use of language which overcomes past constructivist paradigms; we are no longer sheltered by one only house of language, and we can no longer rely on one already existing meaning. Rather, we need to develop a new manner of perceiving which would remain sensible and would let us take a sensitive approach to the world and to the other, especially through language. “Life”, as Irigaray writes, “never speaks simply. It shows itself in its flower, hides itself in its roots. (…) It remains in the ‘yes and no’ of manifestation. Words cannot show life more than it shows itself, unless they cut it off from the sap that gives it unity” (In the Beginning, She Was, p. 33). Discourse must not be based on an already existing meaning but rather arises from “touches, stirs and moves”, encompassing words and the living world. Thus, sharing the word will amount to sharing also one’s own breath and living energy. Such a perspective, developed by Irigaray, is what one can define as “new materialism” – notably by overcoming dualism of nature/culture, life/language, and cultivating natural belonging with respect for mutual differences.

Then new words and new meanings, which arise from an encounter between two, can build a house of language in which we can dwell together. According to Irigaray, “in such an event, an advent, what saying means is experienced” (Sharing the World, p. 15). This is one of the most significant shifts within philosophical thought: language and experience, or rather language of, and even as, experience, semantic and morphologic in relation to our body, theory and praxis are intertwined through a new dialectical process. Considering language in this way allows for faithfulness to reality and provides us with a new manner of communicating. I believe that such a conception of language could open up a beneficial perspective for an evolution of our culture.


Philosophy is, as Irigaray reminds us in The Way of Love, constituted by two basic elements: thinking and loving. If philosophy should be a wisdom of love, then thinking would be an approach to loving. And loving involves sharing energy with others. Participating in the seminar held by and with Luce Irigaray was an opportunity to share with each other: one’s own worlds, one’s own energies, and one’s own thinking.