My first foray into the politics of sexual difference was thorny. After years of independent reading and casual discussions with similarly-aligned friends, I was getting theoretical for the first time with my feminism. Armed with what I thought was a solid base of intersectional and radical thinking, the idea that the differences in the way men and women present themselves in society, in their language, and in the work they produce are socially constructed didn’t exactly seem revolutionary. I knew it, all of us taking this Women’s Studies online seminar knew it, and our professor sure knew it, because the undeniability of these differences were all we were talking about.
We all want to effect change and we all want to learn the unshakeable truths that will convince our communities to march together towards a less patriarchal future – why weren’t we learning about that? What are the practical applications of sexual difference in the lives of real women? How can women outside of academia even read this convoluted work?
The main idea behind sexual difference, as proposed by the namesake of this piece, Belgian psychoanalyst and unavoidable name in feminist theory this (European) side of the Atlantic, Luce Irigaray (1930 – ), is a critique of the “symbolic order” (culture and everything that pertains to it as mediated by language) present throughout Western history, whereby the asymmetry between the male and female experience is fabricated or distorted.
Women’s lives being misrepresented, or not represented at all, on a cultural level is nothing new; but Irigaray formulates this differently by showing women not as a misrepresented Other, but as fundamentally absent. Women are “the sex that cannot be thought”, and it is precisely “their” absence from the process of creating their own representation in a symbolic sense that defines them as something other than male.
Speculum of the Other Woman is a difficult text for those of us without a PhD in Freudian thought, but our earnest professor told us not to be discouraged, there’s no such thing as a wrong reading, think of it from a personal perspective and we’ll discuss it next week. It took a big leap of faith to trust the guidance of what I very wrongly assumed to be a conservative professor who just didn’t want to get that women need to come out of poverty and have full reproductive rights and be free to walk down a street unperturbed before reshaping the symbolic order can even matter.
Irigaray insisted on this need for “reshaping”, or creating thought and language pertaining only to women, because simply including them in the already patriarchal symbolic order would not effect significant change. But she proposed no practical solutions. Her background in psychoanalysis and focus on the symbolic made sexual difference seem devoid of social reality.
Folks engaged in feminism will likely never settle this chicken-and-the-egg debate: do we first need to “transform language and representational norms” before we can successfully work toward women’s liberation, or do we first need to assure that all women have access to that basic starting-point where they are free to recreate the symbolic? I was surprised that Irigaray herself stood by the latter in Speculum of the Other Woman, pg.119 :
Of course, it is still a matter, ultimately, of demanding the same prerogatives. Nonetheless, women have to advance to those same privileges (and to sameness, perhaps) before any consideration can be given to the differences that they might give rise to.
To transform language and representational norms requires the capacity to change culture and discourse, which implies a level of power that is barred to many women (and men, of course). Thus it is impossible to reach this end without first addressing more immediate material concerns. There might be, then, a middle-ground between sexual difference and material struggle, a happy marriage between theory and action, symbolic and practical.
We were given an example in the shape of the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective, a group founded in the seventies and an institution in the herstory of Italian feminism. They combined Irigaray’s work with influences from radical consciousness-raising groups in the US, and sought to create a revolutionary praxis that prioritized women’s relationships with other women above all others. To create their own space, find their own language, their own genealogy and their own codes of conduct was to explore the possibilities of creating that elusive woman that had so long been absent from a script capable of creating and changing culture.
To get into Luce Irigaray was to accept, as they’re saying these days, that your fave can be problematic.
However arguably limited in scope, (and apart from the heteronormative and heterosexual matrix it seems to be based on, though it’s been suggested that her work is in itself a critique of this matrix), once you step back from the seeming unfamiliarity of very different solutions being offered for the same problem – or, I thought, not offering them at all, just picking pointlessly at what the problem really is – you might see how her own work is revolutionary: she is a living testament to that mysterious “reshaping” of the symbolic order.
A practicing psychoanalyst, she criticized the field’s treatment of femininity and created her own theoretical paradigms that are still actively studied today; and in writing on the absence of a “female” cultural discourse, she created a language, obscure though it may be – sexual difference – that became an enormous contribution to the recreation of norms and symbols she herself theorized.
Illustration by Olivia Stephens