Ginger Guin — Figuring an Irigarayan ‘physis’ 

“We still pass our daily lives in a universe that is composed and that is known to be composed of the four elements: air, water, fire, and earth. We are made up of these elements and we live in them. They determine, more or less frequently, our affects, our passions, our limits, our aspirations. These elements, which, since the beginning of philosophy, have been a focus of meditation of every creation of a world, have often been misunderstood in our culture, which has tended to refuse to think about the material conditions of existence.” – Luce Irigaray (“Divine Women” in Sexes and Genealogies). 

My presentation for Irigaray’s 2021 seminar derived from a portion of my current dissertation research. The presentation considered Irigaray’s engagement with the elemental – the four elements air, water, fire, and earth – in both her 1980s elemental series Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche, Elemental Passions,and The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger and in her 2013 In the Beginning, She Was. It sought to develop two conversations in the secondary scholarship that offer proposals regarding the operation of the elemental in Irigaray – one early conversation between Elizabeth Grosz, Carolyn Burke, and Margaret Whitford and another recent conversation between Helen Fielding and Alison Stone. Specifically, it sought to consider how the elemental relates to Irigaray’s concept of physis, a term which can be translated by nature and its growth. 

In order to develop the relation of the elemental with Irigaray’s concept of physis, my presentation – focusing primarily on the second conversation between Fielding and Stone – traced Irigaray’s reference both to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger and to the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles. In this way, it hoped to analyze the current conceptions of Heidegger, as one of Irigaray’s main interlocutors in thinking the elemental, and of Empedocles as one of her sources for broaching the elemental. 

First I paused on Irigaray’s response to Heidegger’s conception of physis in The Forgetting of Air. In this book, Irigaray criticizes Heidegger’s conception of physis insofar Heidegger subjects physis to the philosophic logos, that is the logic of the philosophic discourse, which is determined only by a masculine subject and his way of conceiving of the real and the truth (cf. Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One). Doing so, Heidegger removes physis and all living beings from their physical origin and growing.

Irigaray writes: “Physis is always already subjected to technology and science: that is, to the technology and science of the logos. In these, something of the manner in which physical beings grow is lost. Things, cut from their natural roots, float about, wandering the propositional landscape. The phuein of physical beings is forgotten in the physis of the logos. The physical constitution of beings is forgotten in the metaphysics of Being. Nature is re-created by the logos” (Irigaray, The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger, p. 86-7).  

In its second section of my presentation, I considered Irigaray’s alternative to Heidegger’s conception of physis in The Forgetting of Air. This alternative, as Fielding and Stone indicate, returns to physis as living matter and  the physicalgrowth of living beings. Irigaray suggests that this matter has to do with the elemental, referring to the schema of Empedocles regarding the elemental. This consists of the four elements: fire, air, earth, and water, which are transformed through a love’s activity of combination – under the guardianship of Aphrodite, the goddess of love – and a strife’s activity of separation. 

Emphasizing love’s activity of combination of the elements, Irigaray writes: “Love draws things together into the mixture that brings about birth: physis. Birth comes from the meeting and union of the things that are […] Each thing has its proper physis; moreover, each can be the genesis of another thing. […] Love can alter the forms they take and can switch their places, without for all that destroying their elemental being” (Irigaray, The Forgetting of Airp. 76).

According to Fielding and Stone, Irigaray’s conception of physis resorts to Empedocles’s elemental perspective, and in doing so represents a development of Heidegger’s conception of physis. This development via Empedocles appears to circumvent Heidegger’s position subjecting physis to the philosophic logos and so removing it from the origin and growing of natural beings. 

However, as my presentation indicates, in its third section, Irigaray suggests that Empedocles already subjects physis to the philosophic logos (cf. In the Beginning, She Was). Irigaray indicates that Empedocles, who once acknowledges Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, who contributes to the combination of the elements and to the real becoming of nature and its development – thus to physis, forgets Aphrodite. Irigaray suggests that this occurs when Empedocles reduces the feminine divinity Aphrodite to the simple term “love” and subjects «love» to the dichotomy love-hatred which participates in the western logic (cf. In The Beginning, She Was). 

My presentation, in its final section, questions the limits of Empedocles’s ability to serve as a productive resource for an Irigarayan physis, acknowledging that although Empedocles offers to Irigaray a discourse concerning the four elements, he above all alludes to a physis that remains connected to the Goddess. This section will henceforth include an open discussion among participants and with Irigaray about the possibility of retrieving something of the thought of Empedocles through different readings of him and the possibility of thinking of an Irigarayan physis respectful of sexuate difference, which  informs my present research.