Nadine Picone — Foundations for the future of feminist theory

“…the feminine grammatical gender itself is made to disappear as subjective expression, and vocabulary associated with women often consists of slightly denigrating, if not insulting, terms which define her as an object in relation to the male subject. This accounts for the fact that women find it so difficult to speak and be heard as women” (see Irigaray, Luce, Je, Tu, Nous, New York and London: Continuum, 2007, p. 12-13)

The above statement of Luce Irigaray reflects her unconditional assertion that women urgently need a language of their own. Consequently, the ethical obligation upon each one of us to assist in the bringing about of female language is implicit throughout her thought (though the creation of the language itself, because it must have its origins in the morphology of the female body, is a job for women alone). While the enormity of this task appears overwhelming, its initial stages could comprise of nothing more than paying attention to the way we use words (see Irigaray, Luce, I Love to You, London and New York: Routledge, 1996, p. 59-119).

As Luce Irigaray shows, the present lack of truly intersubjective relations is intrinsically linked to the different ways women and men use language – ways that repeatedly reinforce man as subject and woman as object. Thus, it is can be imagined that wherever women accomplish a degree of success in the formation of their own language, the strength of intersubjective appeal necessarily contained within such a language is likely to create shifts in the existing masculine language so that men too would attain a higher degree of intersubjective syntax – which is in no way to suggest that female and male languages ever could or should achieve synthesis (see Irigaray, Luce, I Love to You, p. 59-119).

Thus there is an onus upon each sex to use both language and silence and “the importance of an absolute silence in order to hear the other” (see Irigaray, Luce, I Love to You, p. 11) in ways that could develop a relational space between them. In a beautiful example of how language might be used, Luce Irigaray transforms the phrase ‘I love you’, so often uttered between men and women, into ‘I love to you’. As she explains,

“The ‘to’ is the site of non-reduction of the person to the object. I love you, I desire you, I take you, I seduce you, I order you, I instruct you, and so on, always risk annihilating the alterity of the other, of transforming him/her to what is mine, into mine, meaning what is already a part of my field of existential or material properties” (see Irigaray, Luce, I Love to You, p. 110).

The ‘to’, then, maintains the irreducible difference of one to the other. It creates a mediation between the one who loves and the one to whom love is offered where previously there was only a sensible immediacy (see Irigaray, Luce, ‘The Question of the Other’, Yale French Studies, 1995, no 87, p. 7-19). Accordingly, it is primarily through the mediations offered through truly intersubjective language(s) that the Sameness of present-day Western culture could give way to a world of dually gendered cultures – female and male that is, a world in which the cultivation of relationships between differently sexuate human beings could lay the foundations for “[h]appiness… here and now on earth” (see Irigaray, Luce, I Love to You, p. 15). For, though there are many differences aside from sexuate that divide human beings and pit them against one another, it is only through the initial recognition and respect for sexuate difference that we can find new ways of relating to each other and to non-human existence that both honour and foster the myriad of differences that each one represents.

In expanding on this point, Luce Irigaray refers to our ‘first other’, the mother. Indeed, Luce Irigaray reveals that the denial of sexuate difference in our culture can be traced back to the covering over of our maternal origins. It is this site of originary matricide where the merging of all humanity into a ‘one’ first took place and from which masculine language and culture were able to flourish.

“An unresolved link with the mother, an originary lack of recognition of her existence, irreducible to our own, leave us submerged in an undifferentiated collective ‘one’ in which each is confused with the other but without a possible meeting between us – merged together, we are also separated by a fundamental ignorance in relation with the other” (see Irigaray, Luce, Sharing the World, London and New York: Continuum 2008, p. 113-14).

Until the debt owed to our material origins is acknowledged, our culture will struggle to develop intersubjective languages – both female and male – and will thus continue to breed ignorance wherever the difference of the other is concerned, whether that difference pertains to sex, race, sexuality, age, physical ability, religion, etc. Moreover, as long as the mother remains buried, current masculine values of domination and appropriation shall aid in suppressing all kinds of difference through oppression and violence. Thus, it is only through an initial recognition of sexuate difference – our first and primary difference – and its earliest representative in the mother that humanity can begin to liberate itself from the many and varied hierarchies of human relations in which we are all only either ‘more or less’ (see Irigaray, Luce, ‘The Question of the Other’, p. 19). In conveying this crucial point, Luce Irigaray stresses,

“People never cease to divide themselves into secondary but deadly rivalries without realising that their primary and insurmountable division is into two genders” (see Irigaray, Luce, Je, Tu, Nous, p. 5).

In conclusion, the thought of Luce Irigaray calls upon each one of us to continually oppose the injustices of our present culture if we are to one day realize a world in which there is a cultivation of respect between two sexuate identities – male and female – that could generate a fecund energy that would allow the wealth of human differences to positively contribute to the way we share and create our world.