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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.

Irigaray wanted to unlock the female imagination. Photo: Getty
Irigaray wanted to unlock the female imagination. Photo: Getty

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.