Tanja Lipiäinen — How does my work relate to the work of Luce Irigaray

In the recent years my main research interest has been the body. In my doctoral dissertation I explore how Russian bodies and an African-Brazilian practice relate to one another. I approach this topic using feminist ethnography as my methodology and theories of body from anthropology, phenomenology and new materialism.

I first encountered the work of Luce Irigaray while writing my doctoral dissertation. The first Irigaray’s book that I read was Between East and West. It appealed to me because of its inter-cultural, feminist, philosophical perspectives and because it considers yoga to be a meaningful practice. By including Irigaray’s thoughts from Between East and West into my dissertation I was encouraged to further “cultivate sensible perceptions” (p. 55) about the body, practice and relations. Furthermore, Irigaray suggests that Westerners have generally been unaware of the many different opportunities that breathing offers to us, unlike other traditions, for example, of India and China (Irigaray in Klemola, The Philosophy of Skills – The Skills of a Philosopher, p.133). Irigaray notes that some Eastern understandings of “becoming cultivated” correspond to “becoming spiritual through the practice of breathing” (Between East and West, p.8). Such remarks have helped me to further question Western understandings of the body, for example, by culturally relativising the meaning of a civilised body. Irigaray’s Between East and West also deepened my discussion on how bodily practice, like capoeira angola, is shared non-verbally, through personal experience. “To learn, in the best of cases, is to learn from someone’s experience”, writes Irigaray. “To teach is to transmit experience.” (op.cit., p.58). Teaching, according to Irigaray, is not firstly to pass on pieces of information but to pass on personal experience. This is frequently underlined also in the practice of yoga where it is said that a teacher should transmit the content of the practice rather than merely its physical form (Tavi, The Yoga Sutras as a Guide on the Path of Practice, p. 141).

Irigaray’s work also influenced the methodology of my dissertation. I began to think more about what it means to be a woman researcher in a man’s world/culture. How can I carry out my work so that it would be faithful to my own being, without assuming artificial roles? These questions extend beyond the dissertation into my daily life and further research. Reading Irigaray’s words about the necessity “to go for walks or to remain a moment each day in the vegetal world in order to continue to breathe and to live outside of the surrounding social exploitation” (Between East and West, p.50), I gained more courage to carry out research in a way that felt right to me. Therefore, Irigaray’s work has impacted not only on the content of my research but also on its style – the way in which I do research.

In the postdoctoral work I would like to ethnographically explore how bodies are cultivated by breathing in yoga classes in Joensuu, a small university town in Eastern Finland where I live. Irigaray’s texts on breathing and women will provide the philosophical/inspirational backbone for the research. Yoga classes in Joensuu will enable me to find (predominantly) female participants for my study with whom I can experience and discuss attentive breathing. I would like to focus on the participants’ personal experiences rather than on what is “common to a group, a community” (Irigaray, To Be Born, p.50). Some of the main questions that I am interested in are: What kinds of new subjectivities arise as ‘minoritarians’, such as, retired women, refugees and all types of ‘others’ (Braidotti, Becoming Woman) begin to be cultivated by breathing? What happens if we consider breath itself to contribute towards a relational subjectivity that transforms bodies when it is noticed? I suspect that it is not only the body which breathes and cultivates breath, but it is also the breath that breathes our body and cultivates it. How do participants talk about the relationality/communion (Irigaray, Through Vegetal Being) of their own body and air?

Inspired by Braidotti’s term ‘post-Woman’ (which stems from her reading of Irigaray), I would like to use the term ‘post-others’ in my future research. For Braidotti, a ‘post-Woman’ “no longer coincides with the disempowered reflection of a dominant subject who casts his masculinity in a universalist posture” but rather: “she, in fact, may no longer be a she, but a subject of quite another story: a subject-in-process…” (Braidotti, Becoming Woman, p.45). ‘Post-others’ are new kinds of subjects, who do not remain stuck in such ready-made categories as ‘migrant’, ‘female’, ‘disabled’ or any other labels that fix certain beings into an immutable category of otherness. I am curious to explore how bodily practices, such as yoga and conscious breathing, enable different kinds of human subjects to go beyond the rigid identities that have been imposed upon them by ‘a dominant subject’. Leaning on Irigaray’s and her commentators’ works, I propose that noticing our breath and being cultivated by it enables us to reveal new kinds of agency/autonomous subjectivities.

By reading Irigaray’s works, I have been encouraged to do research, yoga and other activities as a woman. After having read Irigaray’s and other feminists’ critiques of Western patriarchy, I have begun to use mainly women’s works as my key reference points (e.g. Grosz, Braidotti, Butler – all of whom have been influenced by Irigaray). Also, despite my intentions, I find myself reading more and more works on sexual difference. As Irigaray proposes, I would like to continue to combine thoughts and practices from different cultural contexts. I have already examined African-Brazilian practice in Russian bodies and now I would like to focus on Indian yoga and breathing practices in Finnish bodies.

All in all, my work is inspired and challenged by Irigaray’s texts. Moreover, the many commentators of Irigaray continue to intrigue and to trouble my thinking. This is an area of research that I feel particularly and personally connected to: philosophy-practice, feminism, body, yoga, breath, relationality are the topics that I have been drawn to already prior to reading Irigaray’s works. The readings of Irigaray have complicated, enriched and deepened my understandings of these topics.