Judith Rifeser — Luce Irigaray’s Philosophy of the Caress: A New Horizon for a Dialogical Encounter with Practice-as-Research

In my work, I try to hold a dialogue with Luce Irigaray about her philosophical way of conceiving of the caress and its potential for practice-as-research in the field of feminist film phenomenology.

The purpose of my PhD research project is to explore Irigaray’s philosophy on touch and feminine subjectivity in films by women directors from across the world of the 2000s and in my own experimental film work through practice-as-research. My point of departure is Irigaray’s groundbreaking work on touch and the caress. My study focusses on the shift of emphasis from an oculocentric and logocentric investigation – for example, in Merleau-Ponty, Deleuze and Nancy’s theories – to Irigaray’s philosophical thinking of the caress.

However, to embody Irigaray’s philosophical notion of the caress through praxis requires broaching a new field of investigation. My research seeks to bridge the gap between theoretical research in philosophy and film, feminist phenomenology, and emergent practice-as-research, contributing therefore to contemporary scholarship that recognizes the textual, political, ethical and poetical significance of the intertwining between theory and practice.

Thus, my project seeks to create moments that engage with Irigaray’s thinking about the caress and feminine subjectivity through an exploration of the potentialities of writing about cinematic texts but also through the analysis of already existing and the creation of new audio-visual material.

In her most recent book To Be Born (2017), Irigaray highlights again the need for a shift from sight to stress a more global embodied experience, as the former runs the risk of leading the child to a ‘confinement within a metaphysical horizon’ (21), instead of allowing it to develop as a living and sexuate being that breathes, senses, perceives, desires. For Irigaray, ‘the touch of the caress’ is a gesture that embraces but at the same time maintains the sense of oneself (Ethics of Sexual Difference, 1993: 186). What is more, it is a gesture that leads to a being with the other, without harming one’s own subjectivity. The caress is crucial for our own subjectivity, thus for our relation to the same, as well as for our relation to the other, as it offers the possibility of a true co-existence between two as ‘different other(s)’ (Conversations, 2008:161). In other words, Irigaray’s philosophical work on the caress is fundamental for the understanding of her thinking about sexuate difference and intersubjectivity (To Be Two, 2000:20-28; Ethics of Sexual Difference, 1993).

Irigaray makes evident the importance of paying attention to favoring intersubjectivity also in linguistic, phonetic and syntactic terms. In I Love To You (1996) she opens up the possibility of a meeting with the other that allows us to touch one another with love, without compromising the subjectivity of oneself.

One of my experimental audio-visual practice-as-research pieces is entitled A Letter of Love To You (2016) and presents an investigation of Irigaray’s way of shifting the position of the loved one from object to subject status in the expression of love between two. This short film was selected for the London Feminist Film Festival 2016, and later shown as an installation piece in the week-long Feminism in London (FiLia) exhibition (December 2016), as well as in the run-up to the Leeds Queer Festival (February 2017).

Irigaray’s work on the caress allows me to perceive how to bridge the gap between the two elements of my research, namely writing and audio-visual practice. By placing Irigaray’s philosophical discourse in dialogue with my practice-as-research, I seek to forge a dialogical encounter between a theoretical written text and practice-as-research, contributing so to challenging the Western traditional separation between writing and practice in my field of study. Irigaray herself alludes to how in some non-Western traditions an expression through language was not foregrounded. Instead, ‘art was really important as a general means of expression, notably dance and, more generally, gestures. Perhaps they were a manner of writing’ (Conversations, Irigaray, 2008:163).

I take this as an invitation to re-consider our relationship with writing about film. I see it as an opportunity for a research practice, and to reach a form of individual expression, that is, as a way of thinking about and through the material I am analyzing to make moments of touch and feminine subjectivity emerge.

Robin Nelson’s model of praxis, understood as ‘theory imbricated within practice’ (Practice as Research in the Arts: Principles, Protocols, Pedagogies, Resistances, 2013:5), challenges the Western academic tradition of a separation between theory and practice. Nelson’s observation echoes a key tendency in Irigaray’s entire oeuvre but in particular in its first phase (Speculum, On the Other as Woman, 1985; This Sex Which Is Not One, 1985), namely to criticize the ways in which traditional Western phallogocentric discourse has excluded the feminine.

Such an emphasis attracts attention to the embodied experience that my practice-as-research tries to achieve. Film scholar Vivian Sobchack observes ‘the gap that exists between our actual experience of the cinema and the theory that we academic film scholars construct to explain it’ (Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture, 2004:53). Doing practice-as research through the audio-visual essay format affords exactly the possibility of contributing to bridging this gap.

Irigaray’s groundbreaking work on the caress calls for an active engagement with her thoughts. Her research is deeply concerned with the ontological question of sexuate difference in Western culture. As I attempt to make clear, the caress itself is crucial for this quest. My research stresses the way in which we can consider the weaving together of theory and practice as an alternative space of enunciation. This follows Irigaray’s call for a space for the feminine, and thus supports my claim for a shift to an Irigarayan notion of the caress for feminist film phenomenological research practices.