Thursday, February 22, 2001

The Sex Which Is Not One

A note on this from long afterward: this is a paper I did for a required social theory class for my undergrad degree in sociology, which had been hijacked by a controversial radical feminist professor at St. Lawrence University who took the opportunity to insist that of all of social theory, the class would be best served by a numbingly-thorough exploration of post-structuralist/Deconstructionist 3rd-wave feminist critical theory. My criticism of Luce Irigaray's mind-fuck of a treatise on how and why masculinity is evil didn't go over well. I got an F on this. On the bright side, as far as I know, she didn't get tenure. This was an F I was proud of.

Mark R. Brand
Inscribing Subjectivity

In “Ce Sexe Qui N’en Est Pas Un.” (The Sex Which Is Not One), Luce Irigaray seeks to problematize many of the essential elements of female sexuality in modern society. In doing so, she simultaneously hands down a stern indictment of masculinity as a subjugating, brutal, and somehow inevitably-cruel establishment. Irigaray is a persuasive and intelligent critic of her surroundings and contemporaries, but manages in “Ce Sexe Qui N’en Est Pas Un” to present a view of the masculine-feminine dialectic that is both sexist and logically flawed in several key areas.

The simplest of these claims to understand are the flaws in Irigaray’s reasoning and construction of her argument. First, at no time in “Ce Sexe Qui N’en Est Pas Un” does Irigaray mention the fact that she is French, or that the “society” in question is that of modern France (or even Europe, for that matter). She repeatedly uses sweeping, all-inclusive language on which to base the postulates of her theory. “Feminine sexuality has always been conceptualized on the basis of masculine parameters.” (Irigaray 23) Additionally, she asserts that femininity has no sexual outlet because “woman’s desire has doubtless been submerged in the logic that has dominated the West since the time of the Greeks.” (Irigaray 25) Not only is this, in great part, speculation that masculinity has subjugated femininity in terms of communicating desires, but again Irigaray fails to locate herself geographically, socially, or even sexually.

From this, it must be concluded that Irigaray is speaking of the men and women of all cultures, in a geographic, social, and sexual universal. Without making a tremendous jump in logic, it is readily apparent that this argument is flawed from almost the first line. There are several conflicts which arise with her postulates at this point.

The first and most obvious is that Irigaray continually refers to the boundary of language that separates men and women, both in a communicative and semantic sense. French (along with many languages of Europe, including Romance and some Eastern dialects) has an intrinsic quality whereby words are defined in their pronunciation as either “masculine” or “feminine”. Naturally, French therefore includes an entire undercurrent of divisive meaning in its words and phrases. This, however, is not the case with many other languages. It could be argued that the undercurrent exists in English, given that somewhere between 80-85% of the English language is derived from Latin or Romance grammar, but the languages of Asian countries, Chinese and Japanese dialects in particular, do not contain genderization of words or phrases.

If Irigaray was speaking solely about the Western Hemisphere, why did she not mention it?

Another example of this fault is when Irigaray attempts to solidify her assertion of the duality of femininity. In order to continue in a logical sequence to her thoughts about this duality, she offers a narrative of autoeroticism. “The Vagina is valued for the ‘lodging’ it offers the male organ when the forbidden hand has to find a replacement for pleasure-giving.” (Irigaray 23) This is not the last supposition she makes of the transition from boy to man and his expectations of women. She also states that the vagina “serves to take over for the little boy’s hand in order to assure articulation between autoeroticism and heteroeroticism.” (Irigaray 24) Additionally, Irigaray asks the leading question “How, in the classic representation of sexuality, can perpetuation of autoeroticism for woman be managed?” (Irigaray 24)

The problem of cultural location again plagues Irigaray here. She would have the reader believe that autoeroticism is a universal cultural taboo. In reality, it is not. Without being vulgar, it suffices to say that masculine autoeroticism, at all ages, has a greater potential for universality than does the taboo against it. This is easily evidenced in a real-life example by the booming market for pornography, which caters not just to the sexual ideals of masculinity of Europe, but to men of every conceivable nationality and preference.

The same is true, to a lesser degree, of feminine autoeroticism. Irigaray asks how perpetuation of feminine autoeroticism can be managed in the “classic” sexual paradigm (again, with no reference to which culture would consider this the classic definition of sexuality). The answer to this question lies, she says, in languages that were lost in the past (Irigaray 25). Her answer is quite close to the truth but with a crucial difference; the answer lies in old cultures, not old times. Asian nations, to this day (which is not what she would have the reader believe), have in the roots of their cultures respect and dignification for female autoeroticism and, furthermore, non-traditional sexual experimentation.

This is evidenced, if not by popular references such as James Clavell’s Shogun (in a memorable scene, the lead female character explains to the confounded Dutch pirate Blackthorne the necessity and normality of having a variety of sexual pleasure devices, among which are several phalluses for feminine masturbation), then by artistic and religious works. Japanese and Chinese plates depicting not only male-female intercourse, but male-female-female experimentation and other combinations are also common in collections of fine art from these cultures.

The crucial difference between the fact that female autoeroticism and non-traditional sex is characterized often in old cultures, and Irigaray’s assertion that the language of such things were lost in older times (before the Greeks, who for some reason Irigaray seems bent on implicating in some grandiose masculine subjugatory scheme), is that Irigaray would have the reader believe that not only are these cultures not alive and well today, but that women are even more helpless to resist the oppression of masculine subjugation based on the length of time since these cultures supposedly ceased to exist.

Here is where her argument truly breaks down, and for those who are not immediately railroaded by her powerful and persuasive language, her credibility is lost. Giving Irigaray the benefit of the doubt, and a substantial amount of theoretical leeway, there remains the final and most damning flaw. The “Ce Sexe Qui N’en Est Pas Un” is sexist propaganda.

For evidence to the charge of sexism, one need look no further than the fact that at no time does Irigaray refer to men as men with any sort of control over themselves as sexual beings. She constructs them simply as manifestations of the Freudian Id. “Woman, in this sexual imagery (it is important that this fact be reiterated, Irigaray has still not centered her concept of ‘this sexual imagery’ in a specific culture or even geographic region. Thus it can only be assumed that she is referring to all cultures and thereby implying that this paradigm exists in some form across all social and geographic boundaries, which it most certainly does not.) is only a more or less obliging prop for the enactment of man’s fantasies.” (Irigaray 25)

By itself, this is a rather harsh and negative view of masculinity. Irigaray does not stop there, however. She continues by asserting that men are victim to desires mitigated by “the enactment of sadomasochistic fantasies.” (Irigaray 25) To add insult to injury, she then speculates that this less-than-honorable desire is caused by some deep and unseen urge to regain the visceral womb contact lost at birth, rather than any sort of logical decision-making on the part of the men themselves. Also notably absent from her analysis, at least in this segment, is the presence of any sort of approach toward homosexuality. One might wonder where any “sadomasochistic” tendencies of men based on the “redemption of the womb” would fit into the love felt between two men?

Irigaray presents a picture of the masculine-feminine dialectic that is flawed at its logical core, offensive and pointed deliberately against men and masculinity (as though somehow masculinity is less-deserving than femininity of a forum and language of its own) in its enactment, defeatist in its attitude toward women, and encouraging of a view that is both flawed and one-sided. The unfortunate truth, despite Irigaray’s mastery of language and the admittedly intuitive nature of her narrative, is that “Ce Sexe Qui N’en Est Pas Un”, is the very definition of conflict-provocative propaganda.