Irigaray wanted to unlock the female imagination. Photo: Getty
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Jane Clare Jones on Luce Irigaray: The murder of the mother

Luce Irigaray's public image consists largely of the fact that she once said something unfathomably silly about E=mc2 being a "sexed equation". But there is far more to her than that.

This piece is part of the New Statesman's "Rereading the Second Wave" series. Read the other essays here.

 

Luce Irigaray tends to get a bad rap – at least in popular thought. Thanks to Sokal and Bricmont’s Intellectual Impostures (published as Fashionable Nonsense outside the UK), the Belgian-born feminist's public image consists largely of the fact that she once said something unfathomably silly about E=mc2 being a ‘sexed equation’ [1]or reckons gender was the reason physics hadn’t made much progress with fluid dynamics. As the science wars rumble steadily on, she is still periodically wheeled out as Exhibit A of the “daffy absurdity” (Richard Dawkins klaxon) of postmodern irrationalism. She’s why all right-minded people should properly regard feminist philosophy as feminist "philosophy".

It may be futile to try and side-step a Twitter-spat with skeptics, but I’m going to give it a good go. However silly Irigaray’s observations about the gendered nature of Einstein’s equation may or may not be, such a succinct dismissal is, above all, a derail. Irigaray is interested, not in the pure mechanics of material reality, but in the cultural imagination, and the way it inflects the representations of ourselves, our subjectivity, and our relations to the world. More particularly, she is interested in the way the assumptions of just half our species have dictated the form and structure of that landscape. In the fact that a good swath of western culture is a projection of what she understands as the "masculine imaginary".

The imaginary is more than just made-up stuff. Irigaray was a student of Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst whose notion of ‘the imaginary’ evolved out of his theory of ‘the mirror stage’. The mirror stage is an archetypal moment in the development of an individual’s sense of self, through which you comes to perceive yourself as a coherent whole by identifying with your reflection in a mirror. This feat of triumphant self-integration lends the individual, Lacan suggested, the thrusting “impressiveness of statues". It is the process which “constitutes the ego” with the “attributes of permanence, identity, and substantiality”. 

Irigaray’s great insight was to notice that this mythic developmental moment never actually involves a mirror. The identity of the child – who in Lacan’s account is always male – is not actually formed in relation to an impassive reflecting object, but rather, in relation to an active reflecting person. And to her mind, it was far from incidental that this person-being-depicted-as-a-mirror is most usually a woman. That is, this mirror-person is a mother.

What Irigaray had noticed was the Lacan’s account of identity-formation relied on erasing the presence of the person who was responsible for creating and sustaining the life of the child. The ideal image of the integrated self concealed its dependence of our existence on other individuals. Most importantly, it imagined the idealized, independent, boy child without mentioning the material and emotional support of the woman who brought him into being.

This observation was to become the basis of Irigaray’s reading of the canon of Western philosophy. In Speculum of the Other Woman (1974), her first - and still most enthralling – work, she took on Plato, Freud, Descartes and Hegel. Her painstaking archaeology revealed the way that philosophy, in its efforts to erect the male subject as an entirely self-made man, consistently erased the relational mirroring on which our identities all depend. This philosophical sleight-of-hand, Irigaray suggested, represented a wider tendency to appropriate and simultaneously erase the work – and the existence – of women. It was indicative of what she described as a general gesture of cultural matricide. “All western culture,” she wrote in 1981, “rests on the murder of the mother.”  

This might seem a bit extreme, but we don’t have to look far to appreciate what Irigaray was worried about. The Name Equality campaign for example, has recently highlighted the literal erasure of mothers from marriage certificates; a state of affairs which, as Caroline Criado-Perez suggested last weekrepresents an unconscionable annihilation of the reproductive, material, domestic and emotional labour of mothers. And this erasure is not confined only to the work of women with children. For all of feminism’s gains in terms of formal equality, the capacity of many women to realise their potential is still scuppered by the sheer quantity of what they are expected to do in the service of others. In an important sense, women’s work makes the world. And their labours are often unrecognised, and undervalued.

There are a tonne of problems with Irigaray’s work. Her notion of the "sexuate difference" between men and women sometimes slides towards essentialist ideas of gender, and her idealisation of the cultural and spiritual possibilities of sexual relations between the sexes is unforgivably conservative – and frankly, homophobic. However, there is, nonetheless, something to be salvaged from her insights about the nature of the relation between the sexes. And it is this. We live in a world, which, at least since the fifties, and under the aegis of Loaded-inspired laddism, has become ever more sexualised. And yet, if our cultural landscape is to be believed, women – as sexual subjects with their own needs and modes of expression – still do not really exist.

This has a number of consequences. Perhaps the most important being the way it effects our understanding of sexual consent, both in popular and legal thought, and the impact this has on the incidence and prosecution of sexual violence against women.  

Luce Irigaray’s analysis also speaks to the ongoing ding-dong between feminist factions over the vexed question of sexual expression. Framing the debate as that between "sex positive" and "sex negative" feminists is unhelpful at best – not least because we should have got it though our heads by now that a straightforward binary is probably not advancing our understanding of pretty much anything. But more than that, Irigaray’s thought is adept at illuminating the blind-spots in our culture, and perhaps above all, her writing made me aware of the gaping absence in our culture of representations of female sexuality not shaped by the needs, desires and gaze of men.

As Meghan Murphy has noted, so-called ‘sex negative’ feminists are not a bunch of wizened old prudes who just need a good *$%*ing to put them right (oh, much feminism). The issue is that under the present cultural conditions we barely have a clue what female sexuality actually looks and feels and tastes like. I, for one, have a pretty strong suspicion that it resembles something a lot more like this than like this – but am inclined to wonder what, in this present world, can I know?

Of just one thing I’m certain. That in the late seventies, a teenager called Kate Bush somehow managed - almost miraculously - to commit the form of female desire to vinyl. And that forty years later, the promise of her appearance on a London stage caused such elation and disappointment among the women I know, because of just how vanishingly rare that is.

 

Jane Clare Jones is a feminist philosopher, and is interested in how our ideas about gender are implicated in sexual, colonial and capitalist violence.  A selection of her work is available here , and she can be found on twitter @janeclarejones. She lives in Brighton. 

 

[1] I’d like to give you a link to this quote, but discover I can’t. The many instances of it being cited on the interwebs (Oh, that silly woman!) all give Sokal and Bricmont as the source. And the reference in Sokal and Bricmont is to this text - here - which has never been published in English, and as you can see, doesn’t provide much in the way of evidence that it even contains an essay by Irigaray (if you happen to own this somewhat obscure little book, I’d be grateful for a scan of the offending portion). The one thing I could find, however, is an essay with a name very similar to the one Sokal and Bricmont reference, which was published here. Unfortunately, it doesn’t say anything about sexed equations.

Daily Mail
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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle