Thursday, 28 May 2009

Irigaray and Sexual Morality II

The second and final part of Joost van Loon's discussion of Irigaray and sexual morality in which he thinks more about the implications of her work for conceptualizing virginity.

For Irigaray, virginity is not merely an tool of paternalism, but also a ‘potentiality’, or promise of (female) autonomy. There are two forces at work here: objectification, in which virginity becomes commodified in terms of exchange value, and (inter-) subjectification, in which virginity becomes an assertion of being-in-the-world that is articulated as ‘existent’, i.e. ‘there’ (
Dasein), which is always a being-with the Other (hence the inter-). The potentiality of virginity is of course not restricted to women only, but because in patriarchal systems, the integrity of women’s bodies is always denied (one could say this more positively: female subjectivity is superior in terms of its capacity to develop relational identities), it becomes a more acute political and moral issue. In this sense, a purely objectified virginity does not affirm the potentiality of integrity, but instead of its exchange value. An inter-subjectified virginity, however, affirms something quite different: a notion of ‘integrity’ that corresponds with what Heidegger referred to as ‘authentic being’, one that acknowledges its full dependence on an openness to ‘otherness’ (for Heidegger, this otherness was Being itself; for Levinas, it is God). In her essay, Irigaray (1999: 108-110) does not go that far; she merely equates this notion of virginity as authentic being with ‘autonomy’ in relation to the Other (which is neither being, nor God, but a (human?) person). However, when reading this in terms the broader framework of her philosophy it becomes obvious that her sense of autonomy, or self-determination, of women is not an advocacy of the liberal concept of the unified Subject, but a mode of being that always-already acknowledges that it is not One (in-dividual).
The inscription of the rights of the couple in civil law would have the effect of converting individual morality into a collective ethic, of transforming relations between genres within the family, or its substitute, into rights and duties concerning culture in general. Religion could then recover its meaning as a relationship with the divine for both genres (Irigaray, 1991: 202).

Irigaray’s project, an advocacy of an ethic of ‘being two’ (e.g. Irigaray, 2000), could be seen as one of the most sustained attempts to relocate a feminist politics within an ethical domain of intersubjectivity, or between-ness. ‘Sex’ for Irigaray, is the most universal and pervasive difference, that transcends the either or of biological essentialism and social constructionism. Her ethic focuses on responsiveness: listening, silence, touch, communication-between. This also entails a negative dialectic, rather than moving towards full assimilation into a discourse of totality, she suggests that ethical being entails an entering into a relationship between two in which the two remain two, that is, to some degree incomprehensible to each other, i.e. ‘we must renounce to be (as) the other’. This communicative action based on non-appropriation is thus not Habermas’ ‘reasoned’ deliberation, but an intimacy that enables both me and you to return to ourselves.

Irigaray’s ethic is thus radically concerned with ‘openness’ in terms of relational being. It is remarkable, however that whereas she understands this openness in terms of relational identity, she does not want to accept that relational identities thus also imply a dependence. Instead, her insistence on autonomy points towards a ‘singularity’ that never fully accomplishes its relationality. Perhaps it is a latent individualism in her philosophy that prevents her from this final radical move – to declare an ethic of intersubjectivity which involves a virginity of both dependence and openness, rather than either/or. Only when I realize that I need you, can I begin to see that you need me; that, surely, must be the inaugural moment of between-ness, of a movement-towards. However, her thinking does enable us to resist the temptation of equating intersubjective between-ness with an Oedipal desire for becoming-One; intersubjectivity based on both dependence on and openness to the Other entails a respect for limits and an attentiveness to remaining two.

Irigaray, L. (1987) This Sex which is not One
Irigaray, L. (1991) ‘The Necessity for Sexuate Rights’ in Witford (ed.) The Irigaray Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, p. 198-203
Irigaray, L. (1993) Je, Tu, Nous. Toward a Culture of Difference. London: Routledge.
Irigaray, L. (2000) To Be Two. London: Athlone.

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