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Luce Irigaray

Luce Irigaray (c. 1930-) is a key figure of twentieth century French feminism. If you're not a fan of Sigmund Freud's (1856-1939) theories, then Irigaray might be for you! She is particularly known for her critiques of the sexism in psychoanalytical theory and her own theory of sexual difference. While her biography is somewhat of a mystery, Irigaray has published a multitude of books explaining how she believes psychoanalysis, and Western culture in general, can be expanded to include and understand the female sex.

Luce Irigaray: biography

An important thing to note when considering Luce Irigaray's biography is the fact that she consciously kept much of her biographical information private as she believed the male-dominated establishment of academia would use it to discredit her in some way.

Irigaray is thought to have been born on 3rd May 1930 in Belgium. Irigaray was highly educated and became heavily involved in French academia throughout the 1950s and 1960s. She received both her bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Louvain in Belgium. Irigaray then moved to Paris to continue her studies. She achieved a master's in psychology from the University of Paris and a PhD in linguistics from the University of Vincennes in Saint-Denis.

Luce Irigaray, the Louvre in Paris on dark evening, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Irigaray settled in Paris to continue her education.

In 1964, renowned philosopher and critical thinker Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) founded the École Freudienne de Paris (Freudian School of Paris). Here, Irigaray studied psychoanalysis in both the Freudian and Lacanian schools of thought. She also had various teaching positions. However, in 1974, Irigaray published her thesis, Speculum of the Other Woman, which criticised Freudian and Lacanian ideas on the grounds of sexism. This led to her removal from the Freudian School and the loss of her teaching jobs.

Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist and is a widely recognised figure today. He founded the study of psychoanalysis, in which the human subconscious and the ways in which the brain works are investigated. Freud focused on people's unconscious desires, what was hidden behind the things that they were aware of. This led him to form theories on how people's desires could be decoded from their dreams and one of his most famous ideas, the Oedipal complex.

The Oedipal complex theorised that all young boys are subconsciously attracted to their mothers and, therefore, see their fathers as rivals. While Freud's theories have been contested over the years, they remain highly influential.

Jacques Lacan was a French philosopher and psychoanalyst, prominent in Paris in the mid to late twentieth century. Lacan built on and challenged Freud's theories in equal parts, carrying out what became a famous lecture series in Paris. Lacan too focused on the unconscious but expanded his ideas to also encapsulate the impact language has on the human mind. He theorised that what humans think is reality is really a fantasy world created by the mind, whereas the real world is much more complex and hard to express.

After the publication of her thesis, Irigaray retained her position at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, where she carried out a great deal of research into dementia. Today, Irigaray is a Director of Research for Philosophy at the centre. The controversy generated by Irigaray's thesis propelled her to popularity in the academic community. She published extensively from this time onwards. Some of her works include This Sex Which is Not One (1979), Ethics of Sexual Difference (1984), and The Way of Love (2002).

Today, Irigaray is a highly influential figure in psychoanalysis and feminist theory. Despite being ninety-two, she is still active in feminist movements in both France and Italy. Irigaray's latest book was Sharing the Fire: Outline of a Dialectics of Sensitivity (2019).

Luce Irigaray: theory

A major motivation behind Luce Irigaray's critical studies was to expose the ways in which psychoanalytical theory had ignored women and privileged the male perspective. The psychoanalytical idea of the ego was presented by psychologists like Freud and Lacan as sexless and non-gendered. However, Irigaray proposed that this was fundamentally untrue. In reality, these theories only presented the male viewpoint and disregarded the experiences of women. Irigaray's ideas saw her excluded from Lacanian and Freudian academic circles in Paris.

Psychoanalytical theory: a theory that explains the ego is the part of the human personality that interacts with the outside world. It balances the id, driven by unconscious desires, and the superego, driven by morals.

Irigaray expanded her criticisms to the broader Western culture. She theorised that all culture is based on women's sacrifice, often in motherhood. Women are also constantly othered, and seen as foreign and different, whereas men are viewed as the default sex.

To develop a more productive way to think about gender and to allow women to form a way to express themselves authentically, Irigaray focused on her theory of sexual difference. This involved differentiating how men and women behave, speak, and process their desires. Irigaray did this in order to evaluate the ways women have been subordinated and to find a way to address this. She particularly focused on the way men and women operate linguistically because of her experience in the field. Irigaray believed that the two sexes communicated differently, noting that men often spoke more dominantly, whereas women tended to be subordinated in conversations.

Task: There have been various studies carried out regarding the different ways the two sexes communicate. Do some research on this and note down your findings. Do these studies corroborate or challenge Irigaray's theories?

Luce Irigaray: books

Luce Irigaray has written prolifically throughout her career, publishing over twenty books so far. Below are important examples of these.

Luce Irigaray: Speculum of the Other Woman (1974)

Speculum of the Other Woman is the published version of the thesis that saw Irigaray removed from the Freudian School of Paris. She engages in heavy criticisms of the key tenets of Freudian psychoanalytical theory. Irigaray's central issue with the study of psychoanalysis was that it was phallocentric.

Freud's theories were conceptualised from a male standpoint and, therefore, were only ever representative of one sex. In Irigaray's view, female sexuality has been fundamentally misunderstood by male psychoanalysts like Freud and Lacan. Women were viewed as a disadvantaged version of a man, instead of as their own autonomous sex. Therefore, female sexuality was defined as opposite to male sexuality, instead of as a wholly different entity.

Phallocentrism: in critical theory, it is the idea that all culture is dominated by the masculine. This results in the subjugation of women. The term phallocentrism comes from the word 'phallus', referring to the male reproductive organ.

Luce Irigaray: An Ethics of Sexual Difference (1984)

An Ethics of Sexual Difference built on theories formulated in Irigaray's previous texts. In this book, Irigaray uses various classical texts, like Symposium (c. 385-370 BC) by Ancient Greek philosopher Plato (c. 428 BC-c. 348 BC), to expose the ways in which women have been excluded from the predominant culture. Irigaray focuses on how language has been formulated and developed in a world of male dominance, effectively pushing women out of the social sphere.

Luce Irigaray, a large pink X in a circle, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Irigaray investigated how women have been excluded and removed from Western culture.

Irigaray also considers the different ways love presents itself in human relationships, noting how women can often be subordinated in love. Irigaray concludes that women need a private space to love each other and themselves, separate from a patriarchal society. This will lead to a more equal culture in which have been allowed to understand themselves as autonomous beings with agency.

Patriarchy: a type of society in which there is an unequal balance of power between two sexes. Men are privileged and hold the majority of the influence, whereas women are subordinated and oppressed.

Luce Irigaray: feminism

In recent years, Luce Irigaray's work has come under criticism from proponents of modern feminism, like the British psychoanalyst Janet Sayers. They argue that Irigaray's theories can be essentialist at times, meaning that her definitions of the masculine and the feminine are unmoving, strict, and traditional. In trying to establish a feminine language in order for women to express themselves in a male-dominated culture, some feminists believe Irigaray reinforces heteronormativity. They see defining men and women as two vastly separate entities as, in fact, traditionalist and not radical.

Heteronormativity: the phenomenon in which a society promotes heterosexuality as the only normal and most accepted sexuality. Often this leads to discrimination against those who deviate from this strict binary.

However, defenders of Irigaray, like the critic Helen Fielding, argue that Irigaray is simply responding to the patriarchal culture. They argue that Irigaray utilises the fact that cultural expression is ever-changing and, therefore, cannot be essentialist.

Despite any criticisms, Irigaray's work has proved highly influential, impacting important theorists like Judith Butler (1956-) and Catherine Malabou (1959-).

Luce Irigaray: quotes

Irigaray's direct quotes can sometimes be complex and difficult to interpret. Below is a helpful table to decode the theorist's work.

QuoteLocationExplanation
'Each sex has a relation to madness. Every desire has a relation to madness. But it would seem that one desire has been taken as wisdom, moderation, truth, leaving to the other sex the weight of a madness that cannot be acknowledged or accommodated.''Body Against Body: In Relation to the Mother', (1993).Irigaray makes a point on sexual difference here. Both sexes have the ability to experience madness, but male madness is seen as having a relationship to the truth, whereas female madness is seen as hysterical and impossible to understand.
'A revolution in thought and ethics is needed if the work of sexual difference is to take place. We need to reinterpret everything concerning the relations between the subject and discourse, the subject and the world, the subject and the cosmic, the microcosmic and the macrocosmic. Everything, beginning with the way in which the subject has always been written in the masculine form, as man, even when it claimed to be universal or neutral.'Chp. 1, An Ethics of Sexual Difference.Here, Irigaray notes that the way we think about gender must change fundamentally if women are to experience any sort of equality or autonomy. Culture has been created from the perspective of the masculine, down to the most basic of things.
'The ‘feminine’ is always described in terms of deficiency or atrophy, as the other side of the sex that alone holds a monopoly on value: the male sex. Hence the all too well-known ‘penis envy.’ How can we accept the idea that woman’s entire sexual development is governed by her lack of, and thus by her longing for, jealousy of, and demand for, the male organ? Does this mean that woman’s sexual evolution can never be characterized with reference to the female sex itself?'Chp. 4, This Sex Which is Not One.Irigaray regularly investigates the ways society conceptualises female sexuality. She showcases that female sexuality is always seen in relation to male sexuality, never being considered as autonomous. Irigaray particularly takes issue with the Freudian concept of 'penis envy', the idea that all young girls have an inherent jealousy of male genitalia. Freud sees this as an essential step in the development of female sexuality. However, Irigaray sees this as sexist and incorrect.

Luce Irigaray - Key takeaways

  • Luce Irigaray (c. 1930-) is a French theorist, psychoanalyst, and linguist.
  • She is particularly known for her critiques of Freudian psychoanalytical theory.
  • Irigaray proposes that Western culture has been set up from a male perspective and a feminine language must be developed for women to be able to understand and express themselves authentically.
  • Two key books by Irigaray are Speculum of the Other Woman (1974) and An Ethics of Sexual Difference (1984).
  • Some modern feminists have criticised Irigaray for being essentialist, taking issue with how she defines the two sexes as so vastly different.

Frequently Asked Questions about Luce Irigaray

The name is phonetically pronounced as Loos Iri-ga-rae.

Irigaray is ninety-two years old.

Irigaray is a very private person; it is thought she is not married.

Irigaray has been accused of being essentialist because of her strict definitions of the two sexes. However, others believe she is merely responding to patriarchal culture.

Irigaray has influenced theorists Judith Butler (1956-) and Catherine Malabou (1959-).

Final Luce Irigaray Quiz

Question

When is Luce Irigaray thought to have been born?

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1930.

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Where was Irigaray born?

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Belgium.

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Why is Irigaray so private about her biography?

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Because she believed male critics would use it to discredit her.

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Why was Irigaray removed from the Freudian School of Paris?

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Because she published a thesis criticising Freudian psychoanalytical theory.

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Can you name two important texts by Irigaray?

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Answer

Speculum of the Other Woman and An Ethics of Sexual Difference.

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What was one of Sigmund Freud's most famous theories? 

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The Oedipus Complex.

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What did Jacques Lacan expand Freud's theories to? 

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To encapsulate language.

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What is one of Irigaray's key criticisms of psychoanalysis?

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That it is from a male perspective and is exclusionary to women.

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What does viewing men as the default sex lead to?

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It leads to female sexuality being defined only in opposition to male sexuality.

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What is Irigaray's theory of sexual difference?

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The idea that the way the two sexes behave and express their desires must be differentiated in order to form an authentic feminine language for women to express themselves.

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What is phallocentrism?

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The idea that all culture is dominated by the masculine which then oppresses women.

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In An Ethics of Sexual Difference, what kind of texts does Irigaray use to show female cultural exclusion?

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Classical texts.

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In terms of love, what does Irigaray believe women need?

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A private space to love themselves and each other.

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Can you name a theorist who has criticised Irigaray's work?

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Janet Sayers.

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What is heteronormativity?

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Answer

The phenomenon in which a society promotes heterosexuality as the only normal and most accepted sexuality.

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