Mélanie Salvi — Luce Irigaray’s individuals 

The aim of my PhD project is to explore the ways in which the philosophies of Early Modern thinkers Spinoza and Leibniz can provide useful tools to re-conceptualize the subject and his/her relationship with the world with the intention of contributing to the recent theoretical developments of feminist thought, as defined by the latest works of  philosopher Luce Irigaray. My entryway into these three philosophies is Etienne Balibar’s concept of the “trans-individual”. Through this concept I attempt to carry out a connexion between my readings of Spinoza and Leibniz and the recent developments in the philosophy of Luce Irigaray. 

My study of Irigaray’s thought is grounded on four research hypotheses. Firstly, I try to show how  Irigaray’s recent works can fruitfully be examined through the concept of “trans-individuality”. Secondly, I explore how her re-conceptualization of the individual can ground a new ethics of the self. Thirdly I attempt to demonstrate that Irigaray engages in a specific practice of metaphysics which, while escaping the frame of the philosophical tradition, provides a ground for her re-conceptualization of the subject and his/her environment. Finally, I want to show how Irigaray’s work provides an alternative paradigm for feminist theory. 

At the moment, my research focuses mainly on To Be Born and on Irigaray’ latest works. My intent is to explain how these contributions shed a new light on the diagnosis of the state of subjectivity in philosophy and culture that she developed during her career.

Firstly, I argue that Irigaray’s innovative way of conceiving of the subject can be helpfully described as a form of trans-individuality. In her most recent works, she inaugurates a reconfiguration of human agency and existence. The human bodies she depicts are inherently processual, they are in constant relationships of interaction and inter-creation with the rest of nature. Irigaray presents the individual as the product of an embedding in the world. In doing so she counteract the philosophical tradition’s marginalization of materiality and of the creative potentialities of the body. 

However, Irigarayan individuals, while strongly relational, should remain distinct from each other if they are to engage in empowering and non-dominating relationships. There is a specific mode of encounter for Irigaray’s individuals. In In The Beginning She Was, she explains that this relationship is both opened and closed: the subject is open to the other’s radical difference (p. 14), but is also closed because a distinction is maintained between the own self and the other – the other will always remains radically distinct from onesel. In this respect Irigaray defines a  form of trans-individuality which differs in important respects from Balibar’s trans-individuality and from the forms of relational subjectivities existing in contemporary feminist theories.

On the basis of my exploration of the first research hypothesis, I attempt to show how Irigaray’s recent works inaugurate a new ethics of the self. This ethics starts off by a diagnosis of the limitations of our culture, education, and morality (see To Be Born, especially Chapter 1 “To Give Birth to Oneself”; Chapter 3 “Growing”). As Irigaray explains, the education individuals undergo neglects most of what the human experience entails. Our culture encourages us to develop practices and frames of thought antithetical to the vital and embodied dimensions of human life. The education we receive does not take truly into account the relational nature of subjects. The western ideal of the isolated and self-sufficient subject not only underrates our constitutive sharing of existence with others, it also thereby prevents us from fully developing our individuality and independence. An attuning to our relational being is necessary for the development of our autonomy. Irigaray’s recent work is, to a great extent, an effort to provide us with tools to modify our way of interacting with the other(s) and with the world. She attempts to devise an alternative ethics of the self aims at helping us relate properly to ourselves and to whatever alterity we encounter.

My third research hypothesis holds that Irigaray develops a specific practice of metaphysics. The critique of past metaphysics is clearly a central theme of her oeuvre and continues to inform her thought up to her most recent contributions. As she shows, traditional metaphysics operates an occlusion of the sensible and a repression of alterity. Any metaphysical attempt to account for nature and to give conceptual expression to our constitutive relationship with it seems doomed to be a gesture of appropriation. Western metaphysics is built from a masculine perspective which excludes feminine subjectivity and materiality in a way that cannot be remedied through an appeal to the tradition’s corpus and set of conceptual tools. However, Irigaray also expresses the need for a new cultural frame to articulate a new subjectivity: a conceptual structure to conceive of the unthought body as born of two different beings (To Be Born, p. 88) and to cultivate life (Ibid, p. 89). In other words, there seems to be a possibility to engage in a new practice of metaphysics, a feminine and sexuate relational practice of metaphysics. I aim to define the ways in which Irigaray develops such a practice. 

On the basis of an exploration of Irigaray’s critique of metaphysics I try to make clear how her own metaphysical discourse avoids the shortcomings of traditional metaphysics and provides a viable alternative framework. I focus in particular on the specificities of Irigarayan metaphysical language. The discourse Irirgaray deploys in her metaphysical work is associative rather than systematic. It is a fluid language in which properties are never fixed. It is not a language of representation but of expression and communication. As a result, Irigarayan metaphysics is evolving as the living. It is meant to accompany what happens in the present. Her work operates dynamic metaphysical interventions which differ drastically from traditional metaphysical discourse.

Finally, my last research hypothesis suggests that Irigaray’s re- conceptualized subject lays the basis for a different feminist ethics and politics. Most of today’s conventional feminist identity politics are premised upon the notion of recognition, which is conceived as the struggle for the affirmation and representation of one’s particular identity. In that framework, the feminine subject would exist only as a deviation from the masculine subject; the feminine could only be understood on the basis of the masculine subject. In contrast, Irigaray undertakes to express feminine subjectivity from a different standpoint. Instead of only  renegotiating the feminine subject’s relationship to the masculine subjectivity, she aims at devising an alternative metaphysics to conceive of the feminine  subjectivity itself. In this respect Irigaray’s most recent works provide the foundation for a practicable alternative to the politics of recognition.