Trans. Heidi Bostic and Stephen Pluhàcek. Continuum: New York and London. ISBN: 0-8264-5982-X
In my experience, engaging with Irigaray’s texts is never an easy task. This is particularly true of The Way of Love. Although it is a translation from the French version (La Voie de l’Amour), the English edition is the first, and to date only, publication in any language. Irigaray demands that her readers come equipped with a fairly decent grasp of some of the key figures and debates in Western philosophy (and her dialogues are promiscuous, ranging from Aristotle, Plato, and Descartes, to Heidegger, Spinoza, Nietzche, Hegel, Freud, Lacan, Merleau – Ponty and Levinas). She also asks us to partake in a difficult experiment: to open Western philosophy and culture to a problematic that, in her opinion, has hitherto been unthinkable, the question of sexual difference and the opportunity of love between two subjects.
This book, in particular, is part of Irigaray’s more recent attempts (I Love To You, Democracy Begins Between Two) to construct the possibility of an intersubjective relation between masculine and feminine subjects that is founded on love, and, more specifically, on a particular formulation of love that could provide the basis for a new socio-political order. Irigaray’s later work is based on the premise that if we are genuinely interested in forging the conditions for democracy, we must change our intimate engagements and practices (the way we speak to, interact with, and respond to one another), as well as aim at transforming broader macrostructural forces and institutions. Although she grounds her analysis in interpersonal relations and the nature of the symbolic, her later work is inherently political in its motivation. Her central claim is that any analysis of society must take into account the fact that society is made up of specific individuals who are intimately linked together, particularly through sexual relations (Irigaray, 2000: 118). Since we live our lives as sexed and sexual individuals, not as neuter or abstract subjects, we must attempt to go beyond envisioning society in the abstract. We must also be aware of the masculine nature of Western subjectivity and how this informs our knowledge and practices.
The Way of Love returns to the philosophical focus Irigaray set forth in the early stages of her work (particularly in Speculum of the Other Woman, An Ethics of Sexual Difference, and This Sex Which Is Not One). Her main aim in this book is to provide an “incitement to open differently one’s eyes upon the task of the philosopher” (2002: 5); a task in her opinion that should aim to account for the entirety of human subjectivity and experience, not simply focusing on our cognitive and mental aspects. Irigaray’s central claim is that Western philosophy, in its pursuit of the love of wisdom, has forgotten the wisdom of love. In doing so, Irigaray argues that it has reduced wisdom (sophia) to a conceptual, rational game, which she claims is useful for populating universities and generating discussions among initiates, but is not capable of giving insights into how to live well. nor of impacting our lives in the way that ‘true’ wisdom ought to. Her introduction provides a satirical critique of the ways in which Western philosophy is and has been practiced as well as of the subjects it engenders. Her image of the Western philosopher, who privileges conceptual thought at the expense of all else, is particularly biting: “the presumed friend of wisdom becomes, from then on, one who falls into wells due to an inability to walk on the earth. His science causes laughter, like that of other sages just as incapable of governing their life and who nevertheless issue words claiming to instruct us on the most everyday and the most sublime” (2002: 3). Irigaray writes that reading philosophy can stimulate and cure us, sending us back to our daily lives with more vigor and spirit; however, she proceeds by sarcastically claiming that a chess match might accomplish the same task, with less mental perversity and illusion.
However, her aim is not to totally dismiss the Western philosophical tradition, but to recognize its partial and contingent nature. She argues that because this tradition emerged as a way of thinking that was constructed within and by small, select groups of people who associate primarily with each other, it cannot sufficiently account for the diversity of human life. Furthermore, the gendered dualisms informing its construction lead Western philosophers to trivialize, condemn or ignore those elements that have been positioned as ‘feminine’ (maternal origins, material elements of existence such as air, water, and food). By reclaiming `love’, or, more specifically, philosophy in the feminine, Irigaray suggests that philosophy would come to value and account for intersubjectivity, dialogue in difference, and an attention to the present moment.
After the introduction, her text is broken into four chapters that outline what a philosophy in the feminine entails. The first chapter is a dialogue with Heidegger, in particular his essay On the Way to Language. She contends that Heidegger’s preoccupation with language neglects the very things that sustain life, such as air and breath, and that make individuation and relation possible. Thus, to reach a place of love (of proximity, communion, and being – with the other in her/his becoming), Irigaray claims we need to go beyond the representational mode of traditional philosophy, in particular its preoccupation with language, as language keeps us locked in a system of pre-constituted social order that has developed over time to engage with static objects rather than dynamic subjects. Beings in communication share more than meaning, we share non-signifying elements such as emotions, sensations, and breath. In order to conceptualize this understanding of communication, Irigaray contends that we also need to revise how we approach our understanding of divinity. By seeing ‘god’ as circulating among us and through our encounters rather than something that exists separately from us (or that is non-existent), Irigaray allows space for mysticism, wonder and awe in her understanding of beings in relation.
The next two chapters (Being with the Other; Thanks to Difference) provide an overview of Irigaray’s conception of subjectivity as between – two. Starting from an understanding of subjectivity as engendered between two, rather than as a monolithic entity or as encompassing multiple relations, Irigaray attempts to account for the specificity of our relations (between male – female; child – mother; human – god, etc.), while holding onto the understanding that this relationality is constantly in flux and never fixed. One way to accomplish this is to reconceptualize language, becoming aware of how the substantive (the noun) fixes time, whereas the verb has the capability of gesturing towards the dynamism of life. Another is to broaden our understanding of identity and belonging – moving beyond a phallogocentric (male language-centered) and anthropocentric definition of subjectivity to attempt to acknowledge the elements that bind and sustain all life. For example, Irigaray describes how we need to take into account air, as opposed to language, as the universal element and medium that binds and sustains our encounters and becomings.
In her final chapter (Rebuilding the World) Irigaray focuses on how we could love across difference, not by reducing identity to notions of sameness, but by accounting for belonging through the recognition of the irreducible differences between us. To love across difference, for Irigaray, requires a reformulation of the central logic of Western love, transforming it from a system of desire based on possession, exchange or absorption/consumption, to one which acknowledges and respects irreducible differences. Although she does not acknowledge it explicitly in this text, Irigaray engages Hegel (and gestures to her work in I Love to You) by offering a revised version of his notion of recognition, one that moves from a hierarchical lord-servant interaction, to an encounter between two equivalent (not equal) embodied subjects. For Irigaray, love occurs when neither subject effaces the other nor displaces her or his embodiment. Rather, when we come together as different sexed subjects and when we acknowledge our irreducible differences, the possibility emerges to recognize our own corporeal limits and thereby anchor our conceptual imaginaries in embodied reality rather than abstract or transcendental conditions of possibility. However, for Irigaray our differences are never complete or fixed for all time; they are always in relation, process and flux. The opportunity for a fecund encounter (for love) exists only when we enable the conditions for the irreducibility of at least two subjectivities (via symbolization as well as our everyday encounters), as well as when we realize that these subjectivities are themselves continuously open to change because they are in relation to one another.
Irigaray has described her work as divisible into three interrelated stages – a critique of the phallogocentrism of Western philosophy, an attempt to theorize female subjectivity, and finally an attempt to construct the symbolic foundation for intersubjective relations founded on love (Bostic, 2002). The Way of Love appears to marks a return for Irigaray to her previous philosophical engagements and critiques, but potentially also a movement into new territory. In particular, this book touches on how to conceive subjectivity, not only in terms of human sexual difference and spiritual dimensions, but also in terms of our relations with the natural world.
I was pleased with the direction that she has taken in The Way of Love as she retains the complexity of her earlier engagements. Although her initial work is dense and can be difficult to approach, particularly for those who are not well grounded in the works of the philosophers she engages, her later projects attempt to be more ‘practical’ and political/ However, I have found some of those writings (in particular Democracy Begins Between Two) have a tendency to come across as somewhat simplistic and repetitive, which is unfortunate, given the complexity and profundity of her philosophical project. Although different in style and note, The Way of Love is vulnerable to the very critique Irigaray wages against Western philosophy: to be capable of grasping her ideas often means being part of a coterie of academics (graduate students and professors) who have the familiarity with the traditions she writes against. To gain this familiarity, one must invest a certain amount of time and effort, which means that the sphere of her potential readers is necessarily limited to those who have the time, resources and interest to engage her work. This is not a critique of her work per se, for she has made valiant attempts to take her work beyond the confines of the academic world. However, it is important to note that philosophical/theoretical writings and engagements, whether they are ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ in character, will tend to be conducted within relatively small spheres of influence and will be accordingly situated and limited. Irigaray’s focus on the relationship between sexual difference and knowledge production, although it provides a very interesting addition (and challenge) to feminist standpoint epistemology, tends to obscure some dynamics of knowledge production. By engaging with theory, we all become ‘trapped’ within a conceptual/rational/logocentric perspective and I do not believe that attention to sexual difference and an incorporation of the ‘feminine’ into philosophy and critical thinking will necessarily prevent this from occurring. It is unfortunate that Irigaray does not address this in her work.
Her writing also tends to be obscure and abstract insofar as it can be difficult to understand how to implement her ideas. As she states in her preface, her intent in The Way of Love is to stage an encounter that has not yet transpired between subjects that do not yet exist in a language that lacks the appropriate words and gestures to adequately express the conditions she envisions. This utopian quality of her work, although it can be intellectually stimulating, can also result in her ideas being left in the realm of the abstract (the theoretical and conceptual) rather than enabling them to forge the material changes she desires. She also tends to limit her discussion of subjectivity to the work of Heidegger and his formulations of identity. Although his ideas have made a tremendous impact on Western academic traditions, there have been numerous discussions in the twentieth century on identity/difference, and on the limits of the symbolic, which Irigaray does not take into account. She claims, for example, “in the Western conception of identity as unity closed upon what is one’s own, this relational dimension of the human is forgotten Â… the act of entering into relation is conceived as a relation to oneself and not as a relation to the other” (2002: 89). She neglects to consider the work that has already been done, in ecological philosophy and feminist theory, to move beyond anthropocentric and logocentric accounts of human subjectivity.
However, this book is tremendously important, in my opinion, for those who are interested in questions surrounding subjectivity, language and power because it offers a way of recognizing the complexity of the situatedness of our symbolic practices, in particular, how knowledge production is informed by very tenacious gender dualisms. Irigaray ‘practices’ her philosophy by actively engaging her language, rather than simply advocating that we need to change it. What I find refreshing about Irigaray’s project, and this book in particular, is her attempt to account for sexual difference in a way that does not lead to a continued devaluation of the feminine. She draws attention to things that are normally not addressed in philosophical and critical theoretical circles, in particular, spirituality, natural resources, our emotional dimensions, and our relations with the maternal; she also attempts to reconcile the spiritual, philosophical and practical considerations of our existence. For those who are interested specifically in learning more about Irigaray’s project, The Way of Love offers a very good overview of her conceptions of subjectivity and language, particularly how she positions herself vis-à-vis the ideas of Heidegger and Hegel.
Perhaps to fully appreciate The Way of Love, we need to ourselves become the subjects she is writing towards, and learn to practice the dimensions of thinking and being that she describes. Such exercises in ‘becoming’ may not be to everyone’s taste. For those who enjoy Irigaray’s approach, however, The Way of Love is well worth the trouble(ing).
Bostic, H. (2002) “Luce Irigaray and Love,” Cultural Studies 16.5, pp. 603-610.
Irigaray, L. (1985a) Speculum of the Other Woman. Trans. G. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Irigaray, L. (1985b) This Sex Which is Not One. Trans. C. Porter & C. Burke. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Irigaray, L. (1993) An Ethics of Sexual Difference. Trans. C. Burke & G. Gill. New York & London: Continuum.
Irigaray, L. (1996) I Love to You: Sketch of a Possible Felicity in History. Trans. A. Martin. New York and London: Routledge.
Irigaray, L. (1999 /1983) The Forgetting of Air. Trans. M. B. Mader. New York & London: Continuum.
Irigaray, L. (2000/1994) Democracy Begins Between Two. Trans. K. Anderson. New York & London: Continuum.
Gwendolyn Blue is a PhD student in the department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, US. Her dissertation focuses on the cultural politics of food consumption in North America. She also serves as an associate editor of the journal Cultural Studies.