Luara Karlason-Carp — Phallocentrism as a Diagnostics of Extinction: The Matricidal Space-Time of Sexuate Indifference

My project seeks to read Luce Irigaray’s concept of phallocentrism as a diagnostics of extinction, and to trace the implications of this diagnosis for understanding the relationship between gender, climate change and technocapitalism. Phallocentrism diagnoses the elision of sexuate difference by describing not only women’s exclusion as a subject from the symbolic economy, but her inclusion within this economy qua absence (Ce sexe qui n’en est pas un). This ‘inclusion’ functions as a negation which produces a form of space-time hostile to life as such, as it negates the Two of sexuate difference (Sharing the World). Irigaray’s concept of phallocentrism renders planetary technicity, capitalist political economy, and their teleological decimation of various life forms to be symptomatic of a masculine single-subject transcendence that speciously projects itself as the universal. Without the limit of the unknowably sexuately different other, there is no generative interval from which life can emerge (L’Ethique de la difference sexuelle). This unlimited phallocentric transcendence produces a circular space-time horizon which incessantly incorporates its outside and expropriates life as mere resource to fuel its teleology. Irigaray’s concept of phallocentrism is therefore a diagnostics of the extinction-telos of masculinist single-subject transcendence, and the rapacious space-time this transcendence produces.

In my thesis I frame phallocentric transcendence as effected by two forms of matricide. Matricide is a key operation in the production of a phallocentric order of signification, and indeed Irigaray relates that phallocentric society and culture are founded upon an original matricide (Sexes et parentés). Matricide refers to a phallocentric sleight-of-hand whereby, within the masculine discourse of philosophy, the difference of the feminine is negated through appropriating and then displacing the origin in the body of the mother with the phallocentric substitutions of the Word, the Name, or Reason. In Irigaray’s work, I read a distinction between her critique of ‘a priori matricide’, epitomized by Kant’s transcendental idealism, and ‘linguistic matricide’, indebted to the so-called ‘linguistic turn’.

In Kant’s philosophy, Irigaray reads a masculine drive to mastery which seeks to subjugate the chaotic, threatening nature of maternal-elemental life via his transcendental schematism (Speculum de l’autre femme). The threat of the natural world is domesticated through Kant’s defensive rendering of all objects as necessarily subsumable to the subject’s categories of the understanding. Matricide is effected here by positing a ‘specular’ model of the understanding in which the conditions of all possible experience are designated as a priori givens, unaffected by experience, language, history, or sexuate difference. Irigaray charges that Kant’s use of a priori presupposes a masculinist, ‘specularised’ notion of space-time, itself conditioned by a masculine experience of the world (Speculum de l’autre femme). Ergo, Kant’s philosophy confronts a paradox which undermines its critical aspirations.

Kant’s schematism was problematized with the advent of the ‘linguistic turn’, which criticized the indifference of reason to language. Thinkers of the linguistic turn argued that language is constitutive and not merely representational, thereby problematizing the distinction between a priori and a posteriori. This move to acknowledge the perspectivising function of language, particularly as it was taken up in the work of Martin Heidegger, has been important for Irigaray’s elaboration of the ways in which sexuate difference bears upon the transcendent(al) (Sharing the World). And yet, Irigaray also considers Heidegger’s treatment of language to lead to its own form of matricide: that of positing the human’s first home as always-already within language, and of therefore phallocentrically effacing the maternal-elemental origin (L’oubli de l’air chez Martin Heidegger). By substituting our first home to language, Heidegger enacts a linguistic matricide whereby the maternal-elemental origin is covered over by a totalising linguistic frame.

I posit that linguistic matricide also permeates the constructivist conceptions of gender in contemporary gender studies, particularly as formulated by Judith Butler (Gender Trouble; Bodies That Matter). Within Butler’s strong constructivism, the body is always subject to historical mediation by discourse. Any claim to the truth of sex is therefore an effect of power masquerading as an impossible appeal to pre-discursive nature. As such, any claim to the concepts of ‘nature’ and ‘life’ are mere empty signifiers loaded with oppressive norms which function as regulatory, groundless fictions, and as such betray a pre-critical, regulatory move to reify a contingent, historical construction within an impossibly prediscursive domain. But of which nature does Butler speak? From a sexuate difference perspective, this Butlerian analyses tracks truth, but only the truth of phallocentrism. Through its various techniques of matricide, phallocentrism negates maternal-elemental life, rendering it an inaccessible nothing. Therefore, ‘nature’ (and sex) as we understand them within a horizon of masculine transcendence are indeed regulatory fictions. They are wholly negative categories, as their content — sexuate difference as a positive, horizontal difference — must necessarily be negated for the possibility of erecting a horizon of binary sexuate indifference. This phallocentric system of signification relies upon nature having been void in advance of all qualitatively meaningful content. It is reduced to dead, quantifiable matter, able to be appropriated as an infinitely exploitable resource. This negated and neutered ‘nature’ can therefore only appear within a phallocentric symbolic economy as the bios of biopolitics; its vitality has always already been negated as the condition of possibility for the system of thought which apprehends it.

The digital can be seen as another site of, and indeed extension of, linguistic matricide’s evacuation of the maternal-elemental. Human communication has become increasingly exteriorised into technics via the reduction of language as a form of human expression and communication into digital data. This reduction of language to code operates within a binary system which elides qualitative difference, and which repeats the linguistic constructivist evacuation of nature in complicity with a capitalist, extractivist episteme. It is therefore a phallocentric mode of matricide par excellence. For Irigaray, in order to develop a mode of being in the world which is conducive to life rather than extinction, these phallocratic, matricidal effacements of life must be ameliorated through the cultivation of sexuate difference. Regarding this problematic of phallocentric signification, I am interested in engaging with the figure of the voice as a possible direction of inquiry. The voice is the medium through which meaning materialises via its exchange with breath in the dwelling of the sexuate body, and where the aesthetic and the affective permeate the semantic in an undisguisedly material way. Perhaps, then, the voice is a useful figure for imagining new non-phallocentric, non-matricidal, and non-biocidal ways of speaking and being.