A Program of Displacement: The Poetics of Luce Irigaray

Profile of a Feminist 

This issue of Samyukta gives a profile of Luce Irigaray in its regular series on major feminists. 

What is Luce Irigaray really saying? Why is she so difficult? The questions haunt major critics as Irigaray questions all the major aspects of social, economic, symbolic, linguistic, psychoanalytic and philosophic issues, so much so that readers wonder, from what theoretical locus she is speaking’ (Felman 116). Often self-contradictory, and in a discourse which is cyclical, Irigaray appears so perplexing that Bowlby even charges her for the ‘lack of coherent social theory’ (Bowlby 54-68). Hence Irigaray is a difficult proposition, despite being an influential and innovative French feminist who raises several questions and analyses all existing theory, thought and language that are monopolised by men. 

Equally difficult it is to understand her need for absolute privacy as regards her personal life especially when other feminists flaunt their private lives in public. In a 1993 interview with Margaret Whitford she specifically says that she does not like to be asked personal questions. She believes that entrance into intellectual discussions is a hard-won battle for women and any reference to biographical detail is one way of challenging women’s credibility.  The little information that we have about her is that she does not like to be referred to by her first name as it reveals her sex, She was born in Belgium in 1932. She holds two doctoral degrees—one in Philosophy and the other in Linguistics. She is also a practicing psychoanalyst. She was educated at the French school of Paris and later expelled from it probably because of her differences with Lacan. She has held a research post at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique de Paris since 1964. Currently she is the Director of Research in Philosophy at the centre. Her early hardships include the suspension of her teaching career from the University Of Vincennes and her ostracisation by the Lacanian community due to the publication other famous thesis in 1974, Speculum: de l’autre femme which criticised the phallocentrism of Freud and Lacan. Yet later she became an influential author in feminist theory and philosophy. She also actively participated and still continues to do so in the women’s movements in France and Italy. 

In an interview with Elizabeth Hirsh and Gary A. Olson, Irigaray divides her work into three phases ‘the first, a critique [. . .] of the auto-mono-centrism of the Western subject; the second, how to define a second subject; and the third phase, how to define a relationship, a philosophy, an ethic, a relationship between two different subjects’ ( Interview, Online 4-10-2004). The first phase is a critical one to which belonged her most famous texts Speculum, This Sex Which Is Not One and An Ethics of Difference. In the second phase she introduced the ideas that made possible the existence of a feminine subjectivity and the third responds, as she puts it, to the construction of an intersubjectivity respecting sexual difference’ as we find in J’aime a toi). Speculum written in three parts. These are historically inverted, beginning with Freud and ending with Plato, and throughout there is a play of historical reversals. Elemental Passions is composed directly. J’et nous offers suggestions for eloping mother-daughter relationships such as displaying images of the mother-daughter couple. An Ethics of Sexual Difference addresses thinkers as diverse as Plato, Spinoza and Levinas. The Forgetting of Air challenges the ideas of Heidegger. Utopian ideals are seen in Sexes and Genealogies. Her last book, called Essere due, Etre due (Being Two), is in a sense, at once philosophical and also in the sense of being two, two things. Irigaray prefers to be treated as a philosopher rather than as a writer because philosophy was the specific canon of thought, ‘by means of which values are defined’ (Interview). The philosophical has power in the production of knowledge, meaning and subjectivity. Women have generally been excluded from this area, ‘[. . .] In the United States my books are read mainly in literature departments. But they are philosophical books and I think there is a great deal of misunderstanding about them because the heart of my argument is philosophical and literary scholars are not always prepared to understand this philosophical core’ (Interview). 

Errors of translation arise because very few read her as a philosopher. For instance, a chapter in ‘Speculum’- is called L’incontournable volume which an American translated as ‘Volume fluidity’ and an Italian as `volume without contours’ whereas what she actually referred to was the morphology of the female body, an open volume which cannot be circumscribed. Similarly by the title Speculum and its subtitle de l’autre femme she was actually playing on the term mirror, mirror of the world as well as the other women, of the other women and on the other women. This is important for it is precisely here that she is philosophically and radically different from Simone de Beauvoir who refused to be the other. Simone de Beauvoir wanted to be man’s equal whereas Irigaray argues for two separate subjects and to make possible a double subjectivity: 

We are two equal subjectivities, and inventing a new relationship is fundamentally the same as inventing a new social cultural order. I also think it’s important not to confuse sexual choice with sexual difference. For me sexual difference is a fundamental parameter of the socio-cultural order; sexual choice is secondary. Even if one chooses to remain among women, it’s necessary to resolve the problem of sexual difference and likewise if one remains among men. (Interview). 

Errors in translation can also arise at the cultural level and create problems. Hence she advises her readers to be bilingual and then compare her works. Errors of interpretation occur because she has had various scientific trainings — linguistic, psychological, psychoanalytic, literary and philosophical — and if she is read at only one level the meaning is lost. Irigaray also does not like her works to be divided into any particular genre. This is because primarily as a woman she would like to resist categorisation and also because she wants to open up new ways of thought.

Unlike de Beauvoir, Irigaray does not encourage women to engage in politics probably because she feels that political practice is masculine through and through. She advises against demanding powers equal or equivalent to those or men through ‘a sexual revolt, or revolution that would simply reverse things and risk ensuring an everlasting return of the same’ (Speculum 119). It clearly cannot be a matter of substituting feminine power for masculine power because this reversal would still be caught up in the economy of the same—merely a ‘phallic seizure of power’ (This Sex 129). She thus feels that existing forms of politics are solely men’s affairs and if a radical revolution has to occur in the political arena for women to be heard women have to invent new forms of struggles and new challenges. To escape from exploitation women have to disrupt the entire order of dominant values and call for “another grammar of culture” (This Sex 143)

         Western philosophical systems, cultural and psychoanalytic ideas are targeted in her books Speculum and This Sex Which is Not One. Irigaray suggests that the hidden aim of Freud’s theory is the standardisation of women’s sexuality according to masculine-parameters(www.colorado.edu/English/ENGL2012Klages/Irigaray.html).Closely following the theories of post-structuralists like Helene Cixous, she brings in relationships between language and bodies specifically male and female bodies and masculine and feminine language. She focuses on female body and sexuality; and what Cixous and she together call jouissance of the feminine is perceived to be different from what has been constructed in the phallogocentric systems.

         Freud defined active erotic behaviour as masculine and passive behaviour as feminine. Irigaray categorically declares that female sexuality has always been conceptualised on the basis of masculine parameters. Freud sees the female clitoris as a little penis and hence an inferior and less powerful one. Moreover female sexuality is oriented toward finding a penis in a father husband or a baby or a masculine role. If a woman acts like a man, rational and logical, Freud also feels she is in essence neurotic. All this amounts to a big confusion, the confusion of western psychoanalytic theory itself when it tries to define female sexuality and its representation in language. Binary positions too fail as the idea of the lack on the other side of the Freudian paradigm can be deconstructed and the idea of multiplicity and excess can be brought in, which is exactly what Irigaray explores and upsets in her thesis. 

Irigaray opposes the idea that female pleasure is closely linked with her reproductive capabilities whereas for men it is not. Neither is it masochistic, as Freud says. As against the Freudian idea of lack and male sexual pleasure, Irigaray argues that the female experiences sexual pleasure everywhere. Female pleasure is autoerotic. A woman touches herself constantly without anyone being able to forbid her to do so. Irigaray contrasts this autoerotic pleasure to the Freudian ideas. Moreover a woman has a multiplicity of desires whereas a man’s desire is limited by his sex. 

Women also have to invent a new language which involves complexity, and subtlety in order to escape men’s schemes, distinction ‘Shake off the chains of these terms free ourselves from their category, rid ourselves of their names’ (This Sex 212). Only within another topology of jouissance, a play of significances, can women finally get beyond all pairs of opposites, all distinction between active and passive or past and future. A limitless indeterminacy displaces the logic of coherence. 

The idea of a female language is based on the multiplicity of the female body. Language patterns develop out of this pleasurable auto- erotic self-touching of a woman’s sexual organs. According to her, another meaning is constantly weaving itself, embracing words and yet avoids becoming fixed and immobilised. Masculine language is rational and linear, but feminine language ebbs and flows and has multiple beginnings and paths. It can speak from everywhere as body can experience desire everywhere. Language is consequently unfixed and slippery. Women have to seek and find alternative experimental forms of discourse. 

Hence Irigaray writes in a style that is limitless in scope, fluid in practice, everchanging and ever expanding. No normal conventions of coherence are seen. She engages these conventions on many levels through quotation, mimicry, evasion or circumambulation, calculated exits and interruptions at critical points. It need not make sense, as it is not anchored firmly within the phallogocentric symbolic order. As Robert de Beaugrande puts it: 

[. . .] to portray and subvert masculine systems of representation, her own discourse moves toward a corresponding form : a cyclical array of concepts or theses touching each other at their edges, but not striding forward in the directional march of argument or syllogism, let alone of formal demonstration or proof. We may enter at various points and move about freely, never finding a first ground or absolute origin. Social, economic, symbolic, linguistic, psychoanalytic and philosophic issues reflect and refract each other in a bewilderingly variegated and often richly magistic texture. (de Beaugrande, Online) 

A woman in her process of re-discovering herself creates an expanding universe to which no limits can be fixed. In a feminine syntax there would no longer be subject or object, no proper meanings proper names or proper attributes. In order to destroy the discursive mechanism, she exhorts women to turn everything upside down, inside out, back to front, to insist upon the blanks in discourse which are places of women’s exclusion. Established forms have to be reinscribed in eclipses and eclipses so that we deconstruct the logical Arid of the reader-writer. ‘Overthrow syntax by suspending its eternally theological order’ not by means of a growing complexity of the same but `by the irruption of other circuits’ (Speculum 142). Or ‘speak only in riddles, Allusions, hints, parables, even if people plead that they just don’t understand, double the misprision to the point of exasperation’ (143). 

This programme of displacement is what we see in Speculum where he attempts to practice ‘a logic other than the one imposed by coherence’ (This Sex 153). The logic rejects all closure and entails ‘a different relation to unity, to identity with self, to truth to the same and thus to alterity, to repetition and thus to temporality’ (153 f). Speculum has neither beginning nor end: linearity is confounded by the architectonics of the text; multiplicities abound; coherence is differed; and discourse that is cyclical and circular prevails. Not only does a woman have to write differently as perhaps Virginia Woolf did. Woolf’s characters experience continual interruptions of their consciousness as they move backward and forward. The conversations of Woolf’s characters in their inner selves are always in a state of fluidity, doubling back upon themselves and ‘weaving patterns of memories together with currently happening events’ (http:/www.let.ruu.nl/women’s_studies/rosi/cyberfem.htm#par1). But as Irigaray puts it, the women must also be heard differently. 

It is interesting to note here how Irigaray makes use of the privileging the visual, that is, of the male body and the male sex over the non-visual. This, she says, has been part of Western civilisation and thought for centuries. It is visible in Greek statuary where women’s sexual organs are simply absent. The objectification of woman is also based on the visual as she tries to be passive and she beautifies herself for man’s viewing pleasure. It is this idea that Irigaray has countered with the idea of touch. The vision would lessen distances between people as it encourages multiplicity and plurality. Connections would bind people and boundaries would be blended if only Freud’s systems are exploded. 

To emphasise her ideas the most important method that Irigaray uses is mimesis. She resubmits woman to stereotypical views in which woman has been represented and objectified in order to explode the views and upset the equation. These views are however not repeated faithfully for example if women are represented as illogical, women have to speak logically about it. The juxtaposition of these two positions that is logical on the one side and illogical on the other, undermines the representation of the male order that women are by nature illogical. Another way of undermining the claim is to be playful about it and treat it in a very light manner: if women’s bodies are multiple and dispersed, women should tease the male economy that is so narrow that it can only value identity and unity and has to exclude the woman as the other and think of it as lack and having nothing visual. This mimesis is also called strategic essentialism, a technique that is constantly employed in Irigaray’s essays. 

In Speculum she practices the deconstructive discourse mimesis. Chapters on Plato and Plotinus deal with women. One argues the priority of Idea over Matter where matter stands for the female. The passage demonstrates the tactics of playing with mimesis ‘recover the place of her exploitation by discourse’ (This Sex 76). The playful deputation makes visible the feminine. Other tactics involved the analysis of the unconscious in every philosophy to make explicit the procedures of repression throughout the ages. This involves a procedure that presents the text and subverts them at the same time. The interweaving of the original and the commentary is elaborate and she herself seems to be in a state of indeterminacy. She takes on the role of echo, min-or, mime as well as accuser and determined antagonist. 

Another tactic is to write an argument and mimic it to the point where it seems irritating and unjustifiable. She also introduces the same metaphor repeatedly into different contexts assessing its value For example, the mirror is at one level flat and symbolises the masculine search for sameness: in a concave shape it shows things upside down. The cave can be identified with the womb or it can symbolise representation as in Plato’s parable. In the same way in which metaphors can be subverted, the discourse of science and reason can also be subverted. A negative view can also be repeated in an unfaithful manner so that it means exactly the opposite. Nothing is achieved through ignoring the views. They have to be exposed, demystified and overthrown. Making fun of the view is one way of discarding the view. Irigaray feels that mimesis will be able to create a separate female form of subjectivity and evolve a paradigm shift by challenging the authority of the fabricated view and by pointing out the nature of women’s exclusion. 

Specific speech patterns of each sex do exist and women do not occupy subject positions in language. The French language is a clear example of this, as all objects of value are in the masculine gender. In her text love to you’ Irigaray conducts an experiment. She views the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ as markers of subjectivity. In her writing practice she also uses the interrogative often so as to leave a space for the future and not to establish an idea as an absolute truth. 

Cultural norms have to be changed, but individual relationships between women, which have remained problematic over the years, have also to be addressed. Irigaray points out how in the story of Hades and Persephone, the mother and daughter are separated by the scheming of the male gods. Here men treat women as commodities. This has to alter and attitudes between women also have to alter. This is a theme in je, tu, nous. Mothers have to emphasise their daughters’ subjectivity both by language and by using images. In An Ethics of Sexual Difference, Irigaray imagines having dialogues with six male philosophers. She talks of creative relationships between men and women; relationships that are platonic, separate spaces for men and women, Finiteness, intersubjectivity and divinity. At the end of the book one realises that Irigaray does not believe that western culture is ethical, as ethics involves thinking of otherness. Men and women must work together and respect each other. 

Irigaray is also concerned with theology. The idea of God has always been used to exclude otherness. Her mission is to suggest the alterity of the feminine. Hence she challenges theology to create a space for the other. She calls for a feminine divine for which the death of God and the death of man have to prepare the way. This will engender a creativity that is an eschatological reality, a parousia of the other, ‘that necessarily accompanies the coming of an ethical God’ (Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference 150). These eschatological ideas of Irigaray make Margaret Whitford refer to her as a theorist of change. 

Irigaray also places theology at the heart of every political concern. She insists that religious traditions have always to be questioned. ‘God must be questioned and not simply neutered in the current pseudo liberal way’ (An Ethics 129). Male dominated religious positions have to be overthrown. A divinity that oversees dualisms should be constructed. These ideas find expression in Sexes and Genealogies, Thinking the Difference and Je, tu, nous. She focuses on the two basic principles of Christianity, ‘the sensible transcendental’ and ‘the double syntax’, that is, incarnation and trinity. Irigaray talks of how God evokes wonder and mystery of the other. 

`Wonder is a moaning for the self as an autarchic entity […1. Wonder must be the advent or the event of the other’ An Ethics 75). The two are related through the concept of the sensible transcendental. Through the same concept transcendence can be achieved but here what is other to the subject is also involved and the other can be safe guarded only through the doubles syntax. The double syntax signifies two nodes of subjectivity where there is room for the other. 

Her writing appears militant but she steers clear of any one group of feminists. Democracy Begins Between Two and Two Be Two were inspired by her experiences in Italy. Her ethics and politics are all different aspects of her argument for rights on sexual difference. She also describes civil laws that would help women achieve subjectivity. For example, one law says women should have control over their virginity. 

Marxist ideas permeate her analysis of society. Woman is bound up in cultural systems and property that dominate the West. Marx points out that woman is exploited. Engels too comments on the domestic slavery of the wife. The husband is the bourgeois and the wife, the proletariat. Irigaray goes beyond this to say that, as commodities, women are utilitarian objects and bearers of value. She is an object of circulation among men.

Several writers have influenced the work of Irigaray since her writings and interests have been so widespread. Throughout her work Freud, Lacan, Derrida and several other philosophers find mention. Other writers include Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Hegel and Heidegger. Yet no philosopher has completely influenced her work. Her method of mimesis resembles Derridian deconstruction though she criticises his deconstructive strategy of women in Spurs. She accepts Heidegger’s idea regarding the fact that every age has its concepts but she cannot agree with him on his idea of the woman. Hence she does not follow one philosophical approach. 

In assessing Irigaray’s vision of a new feminine discourse and of creating two different subjectivities, we notice that she only ventures to proclaim that it has to be done while deferring her interest to seek some other ground. She cannot and will not decide on a new identity as she feels women have to discover it for themselves. 

Other negative aspects also have been pointed out about Irigaray. Her use of strategic essentialism, that is, endorsing the view that social behaviour follows from biology, met with opposition from the U.S. Others criticise her for talking about psychological oppression and not social oppression. As regards her deferring the question of creating a new identity for women, critics ask who will do it, the white middle class woman, the minority woman or the third world woman? Her style is also opaque and elitist. 

Thus Luce Irigaray presents a difficult case to readers and critics say that the difficulty may be deliberate. Other feminist critics eloquently express their differences and call for sweeping changes in male attitudes and in social and cultural spheres. But Irigaray tries to attack time-honoured discoveries from a central point. She concentrates on more abstract spheres and hence her critique of society becomes more difficult to comprehend. Moreover her mode of attack, namely, through deconstructive strategies, makes her appear forbidding. Irigaray may aptly be said to develop with a new rigor filet’s precept that “the arena of sexual revolution is within human consciousness even more pre-eminently than it is within human institutions” (de Beaugrande). 


Bowlby, Rachel. ‘The Feminine Female,’ Social Text 7, 1983: 54-68.

De Beaugrande, Robert. ‘In Search of Feminist Discourse: The “Difficult” Case of Luce Irigaray,’ Online, 4 October 2004.

Felman, Shoshana.’The Critical Phallacy,’ Diacritics 1975, 5.2: 2-10.

Harmon, Brenda. ‘Luce Irigaray,’ Online, 4 October 2004.

Hirsch, Elizabeth and Gary A. Olson. ‘Je—Luce Irigaray’: A Meeting with Luce Irigaray. Hypatia 10, Spring 1995: 93-114.

Irigaray, Luce. (1993), An Ethics of Sexual Difference, trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill. Cornell U P, Ithaca.

. (1993), Sexes and Genealogies, trans. Gillian C. Gill, Cornell U P, Ithaca. . (1985), Speculum: Of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill, Cornell U P. Ithaca.

. (1985), This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter. Cornell U P, Ithaca.


ESTHER JAYANTI RAJ. Principal, All Saints’ College, Thiruvananthapuram. Her area of interest is feminist literary theory. Has presented papers in many conferences, national and international.

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Principal, All Saints’ College, Thiruvananthapuram. Her area of interest is feminist literary theory. Has presented papers in many conferences, national and international.

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