The margins of my first copy of Luce Irigaray’s “This Sex which is Not One” are covered in scathing rhetorical questions like “So your genitals determine how you think?” and “What do you mean, women are ‘incomprehensible’ and ‘capricious’?” It is easy for constructivist critics to dismiss Irigaray’s formulation of woman – “neither one nor two,” “other in herself,” “constantly touching herself,” etc. — as mere male fantasy (26-29). MaryAnn Doane calls the project of Irigaray and similar theorists “effectively political only in its hyperbole or excess, for what they delineate is not a desirable place. In fact, it is a nonplace … allotted to the female ‘subject’ both by psychoanalytic scenarios and by the cinema” (“Desire to Desire” 12). The female subject that emerges in Irigaray’s writing, in Doane’s view, enjoys only a pseudo-subjectivity inherited from patriarchy. But this does not mean Irigaray is subscribing naively to the system that constitutes her as a quotation-mark-worthy “subject,” nor is she espousing an ideology that claims to empower while disempowering. She is working within the patriarchal symbolic order (which, after all, has no absolute outside) while emphasizing and, as Doane observes, hyperbolizing woman’s exclusion from the phallic order and its logic — a paradox made possible by woman’s contradictory signifying function as the outside within; as the signifier of the system’s nonexistent outside. Irigaray’s call for female subjectivity is not an exit strategy from patriarchy, but a digging deeper into it, an unearthing of the repressed feminine that underlies it.
It is not always easy to know when Irigaray is describing a current Western construction of woman and when she is referring to her own vision of the feminine, leading to critics’ frustration that the two can look similar. For instance, she claims that woman “is indefinitely other in herself … doubtless why she is said to be whimsical, incomprehensible, agitated, capricious,” a characterization not foreign to sexist stereotypes (“This Sex which is Not One” 28). This frustration, however, hinges on the belief that Irigaray is opposing the already existing notion of woman and her own. To be sure, she wants to change the fact that there is no female subject, but not by creating an entirely new language. Instead, she borrows from an old construction of woman as the figure considered outside language and close to the real, and develops a symbolism from the possibilities within this nonplace.
Though Irigaray’s insistence that “prior to any representation, we are two” (“When Our Lips Speak Together” 216) appears essentialist, it is simply taking the patriarchal construction of woman one step further, Doane says: “The logical consequence of the Lacanian alignment of the phallus with the symbolic order and the field of language is the exclusion of the woman or, at the very least, the assumption of her different or deficient relation to language and its assurance of subjectivity. The French feminists who are repeatedly accused of situating the woman in an impossible place, outside language, are simply elaborating on the implications of such a theory” (“Desire to Desire” 10). In other words, woman is placed outside language by language. Irigaray knows that being outside language is impossible; nevertheless, she insists woman is outside language because her position, her nonplace, in language is precisely one of impossibility: the impossibility of such closeness to her own body that it speaks to her before it is spoken.
This ostensible essentialism is the reason “This Sex which is Not One” initially made me lament the existence of difference feminism. But it is also the reason I reread the same essay one, two and three years later. It was then that I noticed the comma at the end of the second paragraph, a transitional comma, a connecting comma, in the sentence: “a masculine organ turned back upon itself, self-embracing.” The beginning of this sentence clearly describes female sexuality “on the basis of masculine parameters” (23). Yet the split second of silence that the comma creates invites multiple interpretations of what at first seems like an afterthought: “self-embracing.” Irigaray uses this break to transition to a different logic, making room for the feminine perspective that has for too long been an afterthought at best. This last phrase not only continues the description of female sexuality within masculine parameters, but also deflects it toward different ends. It not only takes the “masculine organ turned back upon itself” to its conclusion, but also catches unawares the viewer accustomed to a masculine viewpoint ending in a period, proclaiming its own truth and neutrality, closing the door to woman. It is with these feminine not only … but alsos that Irigaray introduces the woman that has been covered in heaps of nots, buried in a nonplace previously considered powerless in its concavity.
This uncanny exhumation makes woman difficult to locate inside or outside the patriarchal symbolic order. Irigaray uses this ambiguity to her advantage, evoking a vision of woman that is part of language yet outside it, for woman is a signifier of the outside. And this nonplace is teeming with possibilities; it contains everything that has been excluded. The beginning of “This Sex which is Not One” progresses so seamlessly, by means of a single comma, from a description of woman as defined by man’s language to a prescription of woman that transcends masculine classification, because the latter lies latent in the former. “That repressed entity, the female imaginary” was not born of Irigaray, nor is it dead permanently (28). It is undead, returning from the realm of the repressed where it was exiled.
The title “This Sex which is Not One” epitomizes the productivity that Irigaray finds in this haunting. Woman is the sex which is not; Lacan famously proclaimed that woman does not exist, and Irigaray agrees that woman’s “lot is that of ‘lack,’ ‘atrophy’ (of the sexual organ), and ‘penis envy,’ the penis being the only sexual organ of recognized value” (23). But the last comma here functions like the comma in the second paragraph, creating a moment where the previous statement loses its status as singular truth. The second clause reveals that the first is not neutral but biased in favor of the masculine, and offers another interpretation: that lack is woman’s lot only because we live in a society where the very notion of existence is masculine, where “being” is being as one, where “not” means not a man.
Irigaray is using already-existing descriptive accounts of a woman that does not exist to prescribe her own agenda, applying an inverted – one could say concave, or feminine – logic to them in order to uncover a repressed positive femininity that the patriarchal order explicitly excludes but implicitly refers to constantly. For example, Freud, she says, has taken the female genitals to be an absence of penis, to be nothing, because he had no way to interpret the innumerable nature of female sexuality: “She resists all adequate definition. Further, she has no ‘proper’ name. And her sexual organ, which is not one organ, is counted as none” (“This Sex Which Is Not One” 26). The lack of oneness that has so befuddled men is already quite present in their writings; Irigaray’s strategy is to utilize these descriptions of woman to create her own. She accepts that lack has been woman’s place, but sees this place in a way men have not: as a place of multiplicity, as more than a nonplace, affording woman positive space and meanings that are more than non-meanings.
The female subjectivity that Irigaray proposes is already partially formed, not only because it is a marginalized part of the symbolic system, but because the body itself is a symbolic system that language can disavow but not forget. Her goal is, she says in “When Our Lips Speak Together,” to both “invent a language” and “find our body’s language” (214). How can one invent something that is already out there to be found? In Irigaray’s texts, these goals not only are compatible but also go together necessarily. One is born a woman, she writes in “You Who Will Never Be Mine,” but that is not enough; she still must become one (11). To invent/find a feminine language is to create a symbolization that the female body already lends itself to. Anatomy does not ensure identity — language is needed for that — but language can be consistent with anatomy so that identity forms as more than a negation. The reason, then, that the patriarchal symbolic order has been able to repress woman but not expel her is that her body, the origin he constantly refers to without knowing, is an ontological entity. The feminine in Irigaray is an ancient concept, found in the symbolic language of the body and of previous cultures, that has been swallowed up in patriarchy and assigned the role of the not. Like the hieroglyphic, the feminine is “an indecipherable or at least enigmatic language … also and at the same time potentially the most universally understandable, comprehensible, appropriable of signs;” woman is too close to herself to be described by a masculine language that relies on distance (Doane, “Film and the Masquerade,” 229).
Film criticisms like Doane’s describe women’s unfortunate predicament but rarely prescribe a plan of action. I don’t intend to play peacemaker between Irigaray and her critics, but I believe their disagreement concerns strategy rather than truth. Though Irigaray treads on the dreaded territory of the natural, she offers an alternative to wobbly constructivist theories that threaten to topple at every suggestion of sexual difference. Far more radical than denying woman’s difference from man, she shows woman to be so much more than what a system defined by only masculine terms makes of her. This contribution is too valuable to forgo for the reason that it values a position allotted to women by patriarchal society, for there is no other position as of yet, and once examined more closely, this patriarchy has not done as good a job eluding the feminine as it would like to think.