Écriture Féminine: Luce Irigaray




Women are outside all systems; they are stranded in the “eternal,” the “natural,” or the “essential.” Outside of history and beyond the reach of progress, women exist as the contradiction to the Enlightenment, which, for half the world, has not lived up to its emancipatory promises. Or perhaps one could say more accurately, if women and people of color are Othered, then the Enlightenment does not consider them as worthy of consideration. The Enlightenment and all its philosophies is white and male and European. The emancipatory discourses of the modern are gendered male and modernism is the discourse of the male subject. One has only to leaf through the pages of an art history text or wander down the corridors of a museum of modern art in order to see the “natural” female, usually nude, displayed and framed into powerlessness by the modernist male artist. The inevitable conclusion is that bourgeois modern men manifest their social and cultural powers on the supine and helpless body of the objectified female to exhibit social prowess.

Such exclusionary practices which keep the woman outside of culture extend across the entire social spectrum, which has been carefully policed and constantly patrolled by the ever-vigilant male. Ruled by their wombs, women are unreasoning beings. Reason is exclusively male. As a result, the culture of the west is monosexual, therefore, the only reasonable way to resist sexual difference is for women to assert sexual difference. The task of écriture féminine, like that of Marxism, is to demonstrate that there is nothing natural or universal. If it can be convincingly demonstrated, using the methods of logic, that the presence of women has not been acknowledged, then insisting on including women in the discourse causes a crisis in knowledge and a problem of the legitimization of the entire discursive system. If male philosophers are the only speaking subjects and if the subject of philosophy is the male, and if women are silenced, then how can philosophy be universal or transcendent if half the human race has been left out and rendered mute? The only way male philosophy can claim universality or transcendence is to write out women, but once women insert (note how phallic the language is) themselves and insist upon making themselves known as human beings, the whole system is in crisis, because, according to this system and its rules, the Feminine is a sign of unrepresentability.

As Dani Caravallaro pointed out in her excellent 2003 book French Feminist Theory: An Introduction, French feminism, like feminism in America was divided into different camps or opinions as to how to solve the problem of male dominance and to re-place women into Western philosophy. As Cavallaro wrote in her “Introduction,” “materialist feminism” critiqued the “fashioning” of gender and sexuality by the patriarchy, “linguistic feminism” examined the psychological impact of symbolic representations of the “fashioning” upon the psyche. These twin impulses are but the sides of the same coin and both of these two movements in French feminism are dedicated to exposing the cultural construction of the “natural” which renders the body as a text, written by the patriarchy. The French feminist writer and psychologist Lucy Irigaray practices “linguistic” feminism and her playful and subversive language must be read as a mode of expression of the female body which re-writes male texts.

Male discourse, in suppressing the feminine, is an inherently political institution and its acts of attempting to silence women are acts of political suppression. In America, the watchword was “the personal is political,” meaning that the private lives of women, long announced to be outside of the realms of serious speech acts, had to be understood as part of a strategy of oppression. In fact, the life of Luce Irigaray underscores the fate of women who dare to speak out. Note that the American and British feminists either selected their points of assault on male edifices carefully or approached the power source of male institutions more obliquely than the French feminists. But Irigaray directly challenged the heart of male oppression, the very site of silencing women: Enlightenment philosophy. Even more confrontationally, she posed a theoretical challenge to both Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan on the topic of women. Although she had been a student of Lacan and was a practicing psychoanalyst, when Speculum of the Other Woman was published in 1964, she lost her teaching position at Vincennes and was expelled from Lacan’s Ecole freudienne de Paris. Her opposition to the Enlightenment “Othering” of women and her exposure of the male bias in her field revealed that psychoanalysis is historically determined and impacts upon the social attitude towards women.

The theory and the practice of psychoanalysis is phallocentrically biased with the symbolic male organ being elevated (more phallic language) to the universal order. But in order to elevate the male, the female must be extinguished. The psychoanalytic social order rests on the unacknowledged and unincorporated body of the mother. Irigaray, like Mulvey, used male theories against men. If the “feminine” is a sign of unrepresentability, then the “imaginary body” must be male. The female body is not symbolic for reasons articulated by Lacan who stated that the “masculine” is a structure of specularization. The eradication of the female renders her invisible, and the visualization of the male is based on a buried act or matricide, the death of the Mother. After this ritual murder, the “woman” is the victim who haunts this Phallic structure. The male projects his ego onto the world but this narcissistic act is, as Laura Mulvey noted, only a mirror of his own reflection. According to Irigaray, since men possess the reflective side of the mirror, then women are the repressed tain of the mirror. They are the the lack of reflection, the inability to reflect; they are the back of the reflection, the dark coating that allows the transparent glass to become a mirror.

Freud’s “fort-da” game, for example, portrays the absent mother as an object (the child’s toy). Even worse, the object of this game is to substitute a toy for the real mother, teaching the masculine subject that women and objects are equivalent and that women are, therefore, unnecessary. It is Irigaray’s hope to uncover the buried mother. Within the masculine system, woman is natural, outside of history, indeed, outside of life. She is nothing but a Hole without symbolism; she is homeless, unrecognizable residue. Women need a “house of language” where she can live and speak. To parler-femme is to speak (as) woman, to bring her body into language and to refuse the mastery of the patriarchy. Irigaray proposes a feminist strategy of “rétour et retouche,” which is a healing metaphor. In this poetics of the female body, the two lips indicate auto-affection: women loving themselves and refusing the male by replacing the male monological speech with a plurality of voices.Women need to rethink the cultural imaginary and to create a female imaginary which is fluid and mobile and indifferent to logic. The female auto-affection is a counterpart to the oppressive man-to-man as the universal “I” and means to love oneself.

I am completely ready to abandon this word, (feminism) namely because it is formed on the same model as the other great words of the culture that oppresses us.

Luce Irigaray wanted to reclaim feminism and to redefine it as the struggle of women and their “plural and polymorphous character…” She does not tell us what a woman is for this is something women have to create and invent. “Woman” as a concept is already implicated in the male/female opposition of patriarchal metaphysics, because “woman” is automatically not a man. The danger lies in attempting to undermine the concept of “woman,” because by merely entering into the terrain of male discourse, if only to combat it, one risks becoming complicit with that which one is trying to subvert.

Speaking (as) woman is not speaking of women. It is not a matter of producing a discourse of which women would be the object or the subject.

According to Irigaray, representation is both masculine and self-reflexive and specular. Anticipating the publication of Irigaray’s first book by two years, Ways of Seeing by English author John Berger called attention to the way in which women are watched by males and how they then internalize the watching and watch themselves. Thinking of Lacan and of the constant social surveillance over women, Irigaray also noted that women are looked at by men but do not look back at men. Men possess the “gaze,” the power to look, which personifies male power over women. By this non-exchange of the “gaze,” women are rendered “different” from men in terms of negation—what they are not relative to men. Women are the negative; men are the positive. Women are defined in terms of what they cannot do: they cannot look; what they cannot have: the Phallus. They have no positive place in society. The “difference” between men and women that elevates the male and devours the female has been structured into the unconscious of the social, political, and cultural hierarchy.


Luce Irigaray (1930-)

One of the most valuable contributions of feminism, both in America and France is the revelation that “femininity” is a male construction, a role and an image, a value imposed upon women by the narcissistic and misogynistic logic of masculine systems. How is the “feminine” determined–meaning fixed and rendered unmoving–by male discourse? The Marxist concept of social determination transforms into anatomical destiny when the feminine is “determined” as Lack or Error or as an Inverted reproduction of the masculine subject, solely on the basis of the absence of a specific form of genitalia. Without a Phallus, the female Lacks symbolism, and because, the male exists as the lone signifier solely because of a primal matricide, repression is the only place of the feminine. The woman has been repressed, squeezed out of culture and society and confined to a speechless and inert body.

How can a woman enter into a discourse that is hostile to her presence? Women have access to language only through systems of representation that are masculine. The binary oppositions that support language work against women who have been historically assigned a negative role, a “not.” Therefore, women must mimic the “feminine.” Within the text—and there is no outside the text—women can only act out their roles. Irigaray defines écriture féminine as the writing style of women that emphasizes the tactile, the simultaneous, and the fluid, the kind of writing, capable of, as she explained in 1975, “.. jamming the theoretical machinery itself, of suspending its pretension to the production of a truth and of a meaning that are excessively univocal. Which presupposes that women do not aspire simply to be men’s equals in knowledge.” That being said, the concept of a writing “style” for women is unimaginable within the existing male order, the inherited “grids” of masculinity. Writing within and outside of the masculine style of linear logic, the female writing signifies excess or deranging power–the disrupting otherness of women.

Irigaray was concerned that women would fall back into a language of the male social organization that exiles and excludes women, and she wished to promote and encourage the development of a social form specific to women. Paralleling similar movements in America in the seventies, Irigaray proposed that separation of women from men is an effective short-term strategy. Women need to learn to love each other and themselves, a revelation that is an indispensable step towards autonomy. Without the preliminary step of reclaiming the woman and her body, the females cannot become full and complete human beings. The real danger is accepting the terms of a system that forces women to become men. The real challenge is to confront the foundation of the social and cultural order for equality but such a challenge should not mean becoming “men” or man-like. Difference has always been used against women, and if women are assimilated to the world of men, they will have nothing to contribute as women. One must fight for human rights rather than for women’s rights and to intervene into an unjust system as a woman.

In This Sex Which is not One of 1977, Irigaray refused to consider power as anything but a male obsession, something women are against.Women should resist hierarchy and orthodoxy and recognize a multiplicity of strategies. The female strategy par excellence is to appropriate the role given to her by the male and to make the role her own. This appropriation is what she meant by mimicry. To mimic as a writer is to mimic the male fears of the uncontrollable fluidity that is the female. Irigaray attempted to theorize female specificity as a radical difference, which could be a serious threat to the hegemony male sex. The protective masquerade proposed by Joan Rivière in 1929 could be transformed into rebellious mimicry or an exaggeration of “womanliness” and a new appreciation of the feminine.

One must assume the feminine role deliberately to invert a form of subordination into an affirmation, and thus begin to toward it. To play with mimesis is thus, for a woman, to try to recover the place of her exploitation by discourse.

The old mimesis was the masquerade, which is only parroting the master’s discourse, in order to protect oneself, as Riviérè pointed out. Within French Feminism, female mimicry becomes a parodic mode of feminine discourse to deconstruct the discourse of masculinity. As American theorist, Mary Ann Doane, stated the goal is, “..to enact a defamiliarized version of femininity…” In other words to reassert the woman by making the feminine seem strange again. Mimesis is a “canny”–strange–mimicry, projecting difference as a positive. Embracing female difference, Irigaray associated women’s writing and speech with female fluidity rather than with male rigidity. Women have a special relationship with fluids–breast milk, menstrual blood, afterbirth–and historically, because of its relationship with women, fluid has been abandoned to the feminine.

In embracing the fluid and the plural, Irigaray abandons the binaries of Structuralism by deconstructing the paired opposites to demonstrate that within the polar system, women are always disadvantaged. The male side of the contrast is valorized at the expense of women and herein lies the act of deconstruction: if men need the negated women to carry the burden of his power, then without the woman to signify powerlessness, the male can have no independent status. The dualism must be interdependent, men and women are entangled together and it is the task of the feminist to untie the knot. Irigaray wrote,

…to play with mimesis is thus, for a woman, to try to recover the place of her exploitation by discourse, without allowing herself to be simply reduced to it. It means to resubmit herself–inasmuch as she is on the side of the “perceptible,” of “matter”–to “ideas,” In particular to ideas about herself, that are elaborated in/by masculine logic, but so as to make “visible,” by and effect of playful repetition, what was supposed to remain invisible: the cover-up of a possible operation of the feminine in language. It also means “to unveil” the fact that, if women are such good mimics, it is because they are no simply resorbed in this function. They must remain elsewhere: another case of the persistence of “matter,” but also of “sexual pleasure.”


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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Jacques Lacan and Women

JACQUES LACAN (1901 – 1981)


Throughout this series on the teachings of Jacques Lacan, I have noted several times that his terms must not be taken literally. The Masculine Order does not signify “men” or “males,” but the Symbolic Order or language and the Feminine, likewise, is not “women” or “females,” but the inarticulateness of the real. The Phallus is likewise a signifier that both joins the masculine and the feminine and acts as a function of difference or becomes the mask of sexual difference. But the Phallus is not merely or only abstract,the Phallus is also part of the physical and is linked to sexual jouissance. The linking can take place because sexuality and sexual desire is deeply rooted in fantasies of desire (for the Mother) that have faded and have become lost over time and are unrecoverable, except symbolically as signified by the Phallus.

As the complexity of the meaning of the “Phallus” implies, Lacan’s thinking on the organ/not-organ evolved over decades—as was his habit—and is marked with traces of his struggle to wrest the Phallus from Freudian biology and to place it, in all its erectile glory, in the abstract symbolic. The centrality of the Phallus is not just a problem for Lacan, for his interpreters, it is also a problem for the 21st century woman, who following the women who read Lacan in the 2oth century, can only wonder, if the Phallus is symbolic of the Symbolic Order, why must the Symbolic Order or Language be represented by an über-penis? why is Desire ordered and organized around this phallic entity? As Lacanian scholar Luce Irigaray wondered, if the Mother is/was the origin of all Desire and the unspoken real, why not the vagina or why not an Economy of the breast? The simple answer is that Lacan spent his lifetime re-telling the tales of the patriarchy as re-told by Freud.

In reading Lacan, it is striking how phallic and aggressive his word choice is, indeed, his entire analysis of the socialization of the human subject is not a story of loving nurturance but one of sexual jealously and dramatic renunciation. Lacan combined Ferdinand de Saussure with Sigmund Freud or language and sexuality with ideas of being and existence, an interesting intellectual game, but, whatever the intent, the effect is to privilege the male and male violence and to write off the female by placing the Feminine in the realm of the non-speaking. The result of the Lacanian “family romance,” while stripped of its Freudian biological roots, is still the same and mirrors the actual male dominance over the female in actual society and has the effect of reinforcing the genderization of the Master/Slave dialectic.

Within the Lacanian system, Woman cannot be; she cannot exist. Within Lacanian thinking, women are merely the sign of difference, and if women are merely the relation of difference, they are excluded from subjectness or subjecthood. While speaking against “mastery,” Lacan not only masters Woman/women but renders them as the Other or the always-already Other which exists for the masculine subject. But this Otherness of women is a minor one and is less than the status of the Symbolic Other to the Symbolic One or the (non)subject. Women cannot even exist as the Other, as Simone de Beauvoir asserted in The Second Sex,

…she is simply what man decrees; thus she is called ‘the sex’, by which is meant that she appears essentially to the male as a sexual being. For him she is sex – absolute sex, no less. She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.’

The category of the Other is as primordial as consciousness itself. In the most primitive societies, in the most ancient mythologies, one finds the expression of a duality – that of the Self and the Other. This duality was not originally attached to the division of the sexes; it was not dependent upon any empirical facts. However, like Freudian thought, Lacanian theory eliminates women, real women, from meaningful participation in society. The theory of Lacan by way of Freud, according to feminists, is nothing more than a ruse for a male voiced or “monologic” “elaboration” of the masculine. The feminine is silenced as the site of plurality, multiplicity, and subversion of the Masculine order, part of the real that resists symbolization. Women, as Difference, have always been excluded from universality, which is always the male who are assumed to transcend the local.


Jacques Lacan as a Young Man

As Lacan explained, the “male way” of jouissance or pleasure precluded any relationship with the female. The male subject is everything: l’homme comme tout. What the male desires is not the specific female but the objet a or the original missing love object that can never be recovered but is identified by Slavoj Zizek as the “Mother-Thing.” Feminist philosopher, Monique Wittig called for the destruction of “sex”or gender differentiation so that women could assume the status of the universal being. Feminist scholars point out that Lacan, like Freud, privileged vision and created a specular system or a system that is deeply scopophilic and voyeuristic. The (boy) child discovers his mother’s (Freudian) castration or (Lacanian) Lack through vision, through looking. He sees that, because the mother does not have the penis which is the appendage necessary to carry authority, therefore, the mother is less than the male. Without definition or meaning in her own right, she is defined by her Lack of a phallus/penis/power. The (child’s) eye has mastered/seen the Mother/object and has reduced her to insignificance.

Notice that the child has already learned–or the male theorist has already assumed–that the female must be “seen” only “in relation” or in comparison to the male. For Lacan, they eyes are the source of the scopic drive, the access through which the libido explores the world by projecting itself on the world. Love reduces the beloved to an object for the sake of possessing and controlling the object. Male/female relationships are organized around the inevitable sadism of Displaced desire in which the Other is reduced to a submissive non-entity and the masochism in which one offers oneself as an object for the other. For Lacan, sexuality, based upon a differential structure, is an assignment and is confined within the structure of the language. To illustrate the ” assignment,” Lacan produced his famous image of restroom doors, one labeled: “Ladies” and the other “Gentlemen.” Just as the doors are labeled, human beings are also labeled or differentiated, their social identities imposed from the outside, assigned to them through the operation of the Law which is Symbolic. Gender may exist as a biological effect, but sex is a social construct and an effect of dominance and subordination and sadism and masochism.

Although the Phallus is put forward as the supreme signifier, its supremacy is fraudulent, it is a mask. The Phallus depends upon its power only through the subjection of the other. But, in truth, we are all castrated. Our place in the patriarchal system is secured at the price of a Loss and our adult life is one of deferred consequences of the repressions instituted by the rule of symbolic patriarchal law. Women might well ask, why not an economy of loss and gain based upon the vagina? But if one follows the logic of Lacan, a vaginal economy would be impossible. Lacan based his psychology on the specular, on the sight of the woman’s “lack” of the Phallus/penis. The vagina exists but cannot be seen. Therefore, the specular order functions only in terms of the seen or visuality. It is not that women don’t possess sexual organs; it is that the organ is not “present” in the sense of being “present/ed” to the viewer.

For years Courbet was in possession of a painting thought lost, Origin of the World by Gustave Courbet. This famous painting was kept hidden and shrouded by a wooden sliding door (decorated with a outline carving of the painting by André Masson), which was pulled aside when the doctor “presented” the painting of a woman’s genitalia to the viewer (male or theoretically female). As Courbet’s painting Origin of the World suggested, the vagina was to be presented under ceremonial circumstances. The viewpoint of the female genitalia is purely that of the spectator: the woman who presumably owns or possesses the organs cannot see that which define her. She is blind to her own sex. The painting of the female vagina by a male, whether by Courbet of anyone else, is an act of not only claiming and defining but also one of radical voyeuristic visualization of the terrifying mystery of Lack. In addition to the literal concealment during Lacan’s ownership, there is the veil of pubic hair which frames the labia, which in turn covers the feared “hole,” that Lacanian theory defined as the Lack.

In contrast to the unseeable Lack, the penis/Phallus is easily located, readily regarded, and is always available to view. The man can see his organ without difficulty. From the standpoint of visual culture, the absence of the woman’s present organ explains the intense male curiosity about the female “sex.” Given the supposed cultural power of the Phallus, it is curious that the penis, its signifier, perhaps in order to preserve its mystique, is kept socially hidden from view. The culture gives the penis a discourse of variety: large, small, long, short, fat, thin, dark, light and so on. To the contrary, the culture seems to assume a “universal” vagina, as though all vaginas are the same, unified by their Lack. Oddly enough, the endless variation of penises is spoken but rarely seen outside of pornography, while the female body is constantly on view while being constantly subjected to uniformity through surgical engineering to ensure sameness. Within this specular system, the woman is denied individuality and must correspond to an abstract vision of herself or be cast out of the visual culture. As Lacan said,

Besides, it isn’t the penis, but the Phallus, that is to say, something whose symbolic usage is possible because it can be seen, because it is erected. There can by no possible symbolic use for what is not seen, for what is hidden…Strictly speaking, there is no symbolization of the woman’s sexual organ as such..The feminine sexual organ has the character of an absence, a void, a hole…

The Phallus is the only theorizable sexual organ, therefore, according to Lacan, the Phallus is only “trivially masculine.” The Phallus is the theory of what is given, what one has, what exists, while the vagina symbolizes what one does not have, a Lack, a Loss or that which does not exist or lies outside of theory. However, Lack and Loss are the very reasons for Desire. Men are energized by the threat of castration (Lack) and live uneasily within a phallocentric message that intimidates men and forces them to enter into rivalry with those who seem to possess more Phallus/power. As for women, Lacan’s theories canceled out women. “Woman” is merely an endless sequence of projections and fabrications emanating from the male discourse. Lacan displayed wonder that the female orgasm even existed and that the woman’s ability to orgasm is situated beyond the Phallus.

For Lacan, there is never a sexual “relationship,” because in their inequality, men and women cannot relate. Each partner plays the role of Subject to the other’s Object. There is never symmetry or reciprocity. The female body scarcely exists (except as Lack). Women have little to do and nothing to say. They can “become equal” only to men, because only men exist. If women do not exist, then who or what is that we see? Lacan, who readily incorporated the the ideas of others, stated that the woman is a masquerade. The idea of “womanliness as a masquerade” was not Lacan’s idea, but that of Joan Riviérè who wrote her famous essay in 1929 in response to a 1927 paper by Freudian follower, Ernest Jones. According to Sean Homer in his book, Jacques Lacan, Riviérè wanted to present a woman more modern, an intellectual woman, into a world of male psychoanalysts who had not considered such a being. The result was her 1929 essay, “Womanliness as a Masquerade.”

According to Riviérè, women who possess intellectual abilities and aspirations must, in the early 20th century, be aspiring to “masculinity,” and such a Promethean act would arouse anxiety within the male. This disruption of male dominance would be so great that men would resort to retribution against the offender. Therefore, women wish for masculinity but wear a mask of womanliness as an expression of the resolution of aggression and conflict. The masquerade averts anxiety and retribution from men. The fear that women have of men can be traced back to the family–her fantasy of taking the place of a man, the Father. For Lacan, the woman is a sign-object, a item of exchange, and, for Riviérè, when a woman speaks in public, acting as a lecturer or in any public way, she feels fear. Not only do men not welcome the voice of a woman, she is also but a castrated subject within the language.

The solution to this fear and the possible retribution from the male is the Masquerade. Riviérè draws an analogy between the woman and the homosexual, both of whom are required to wear masks: an exaggeration of “femininity” is a masquerade for women who wish for masculinity as their identification and the “masculinity” of a homosexual hides from others his “femininity” by an exaggeration of masculinity. The masquerade is central to the creation of a womanliness that men will accept. Ironically it is this art form of disguise through mimicry that authenticates this inauthentic womanliness. Because the entire discourse of sexuality circulates around the needs of the male, femininity is a mask for men. The reassuring mask resolves the crisis of masculine identification by allowing men to define themselves in relation to what they are not: women. In fact, as Lacan stated, “Woman does not exist.” To express the non-existence of an element that must, nevertheless, be spoken of, woman, like Being is put under sous rature. The Woman does not exist.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]