Irigaray, Luce (b. 1932)

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IRIGARAY, LUCE (b. 1932)


French philosopher and a founding figure of contemporary Western feminist theory.

Born in Belgium, Luce Irigaray moved to France in the early 1960s to earn a master's degree in psychology and, in 1968, a doctorate in linguistics. During the 1960s she also trained as a psychoanalyst and participated in Jacques Lacan's psychoanalytic seminars, eventually becoming a member of the Freudian School of Paris, directed by Lacan. During the same period, Irigaray associated briefly with the Mouvement de Libération des Femmes (MLF), the most visible wing of the French feminist movement, and in 1969 psycho-analyzed Antoinette Fouque, the MLF's founder and leader.

1974 Irigaray published her doctoral thesis, Speculum of the Other Woman, a work that set the stage for a mode of thinking that marks Irigaray's entire oeuvre. In Speculum, Irigaray demonstrated her claim that Western reason systematically suppresses sexual difference; she relentlessly critiques the patriarchal logic of the giants of Western thought, including Freud, Aristotle, Plotinus, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and Plato. Speculum revealed the suppression of sexual difference by linking the philosophical quest for truth with the psychoanalytic quest for selfhood, a quest that requires the erasure of a maternal origin. For Irigaray, the suppressed maternal origin functions as the site of a true sexual difference denied by Western thought, where difference itself is subsumed into a logic that Irigaray calls "the same." Irigaray's scathing critique of both philosophy and psychoanalysis ironically led to the loss of her teaching post at the University of Vincennes and her expulsion from the Freudian School; for some, this attempt to silence Irigaray demonstrated the very logic of exclusion she had diagnosed in Speculum.

While Speculum remains, for many, Irigaray's most important philosophical work, others see her deconstruction of Western thought as the necessary precursor to the more important constructive work to follow. Speculum's critical focus on the logic of the same in Western philosophy, for example, also introduced the more constructive Irigarayan concept of "mimesis," developed more fully in the 1977 volume This Sex Which Is Not One. Irigarayan mimesis describes a strategy of playful, even subversive repetition of the speech of the intellectual masters in order to redeploy the logic of the same against itself. Through parodic repetition, Irigaray argues, that which is suppressed becomes visible, opening up the possibility of different ways of speaking that would allow for the articulation of the "feminine" in language.

This concept of mimesis has significantly influenced postmodern thought, politics, and art, particularly in cultural venues where marginalized groups use parody and drag both as a critique of cultural norms and as a form of counterexpression that brings into being nonnormative experiences and identities. Articulated by some as "performativity," these mimetic strategies adopted by performance artists, theater troupes, photographers, and activist groups such as ACT UP parodically challenge the status quo and, by so doing, symbolically open up new avenues for political and cultural transformation.

Irigaray's work of the 1980s continued her early critique of Western philosophy and, at the same time, began to elaborate a constructive vision for the articulation of sexual difference. Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche (1980), The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger (1983), and Ethics of Sexual Difference (1984) all work to develop Irigaray's own philosophy of the radical alterity, or otherness, of "the feminine." Irigaray's work of the 1980s also put her in contact with other feminists, especially in Italy, interested in the practical application of her theoretical ideas about the transformation of the social and symbolic order. The work of the Milan Women's Bookstore Collective, in particular, gained notoriety for its application of Irigaray's work on female genealogies through the public, symbolic, and contractual affirmation of an ethical order among women.

Since the 1990s Irigaray's work increasingly turned toward the question of women and men together. In Je, tu, nous: Toward a Culture of Difference (1990), I Love to You (1992), and To Be Two (1997), Irigaray explores the possibility of a form that would allow for men and women together without the subsumption of difference into the "same." Imagining this "model of the two" as neither a replication of the same nor a hierarchical ordering, Irigaray argues that only in the "two-ness" of men and women as truly different can the singular subject of Western philosophy be radically transformed. This commitment to the radical possibility of true difference led Irigaray to attend to the rupture between Western civilization and its other in Between East and West, From Singularity to Community (1999) and in The Way of Love (2002), where she imagines new forms of love for a global democratic community.

See alsoFeminism; Lacan, Jacques.


Burke, Carolyn, Naomi Schor, and Margaret Whitford, eds. Engaging with Irigaray: Feminist Philosophy and Modern European Thought. New York, 1994.

Chanter, Tina. Ethics of Eros: Irigaray's Re-Writing of the Philosophers. New York, 1995.

Deutscher, Penelope. A Politics of Impossible Difference: The Later Work of Luce Irigaray. Ithaca, N.Y., 2002.

Whitford, Margaret. Luce Irigaray: Philosophy in the Feminine. New York, 1991.

Whitford, Margaret, ed. The Irigaray Reader. Oxford, U.K., 1991.

Lynne Huffer