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Philosophy and Gender

Tracing Sexual Difference: Beyond the Aporia of the Other

Pamela Anderson

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ABSTRACT: A reading of Luce Irigaray suggests the possibility of tracing sexual difference in philosophical accounts of personal identity. In particular, I argue that Irigaray raises the possibility of moving beyond the aporia of the other which lies at the heart of Paul Ricoeur's account of self-identity. My contention is that the self conceived in Ricoeur's Oneself as Another is male insofar as it is dependent upon the patriarchal monotheism which has shaped Western culture both socially and economically. Nevertheless there remains the possibility of developing Ricoeur's reference to 'the trace of the Other' in order to give a non-essential meaning to sexual difference. Such meaning will emerge when (i) both men and women have identities as subjects, and (ii) the difference between them can be expressed. I aim to elucidate both conditions by appropriating Irigaray's 'Questions to Emmanuel Levinas: On the Divinity of Love.'

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I. Introduction

Here I appropriate two questions from Luce Irigaray's 'Questions to Emmanuel Levinas: On the Divinity of Love' in order to disruptively refigure Paul Ricoeur's account of self-identity, without assessing Irigaray's reading of Levinas. Irigaray suggests the possibility of tracing sexual difference in philosophical accounts of personal identity. By 'tracing' I mean to follow the marks left by that which is no longer present to that which is never entirely spoken, i.e. sexual difference. I argue that Irigaray makes possible moving beyond the aporia of the Other which lies at the heart of Ricoeur's account of self-identity in Oneself as Another. This aporia is a self-engendered paradox which, as I have demonstrated elsewhere, Ricoeur is not able to go beyond: he cannot name the Other/other (whether l'Autre as a general category for the Other or l'autrui as a term for another person).

My contention is that in appropriating Irigaray's questions, we can begin to refigure Ricoeur's account of self-identity, extend his use of 'the trace of the Other' and conceive the non-essential meaning of sexual difference. As it is Ricoeur's account of self-identity seems to eclipse sexual difference in being dependent upon the patriarchal monotheism which has shaped western cultures both socially and economically. Yet according to Irigaray sexual difference will be conceiveable once (i) both men and women can gain identities as subjects, and (ii) the difference between them can be expressed. Arguably Ricoeur's notion of narrative identity, to which I will return, could express this difference and these distinct identities.

II. On Sexual Difference

As imagined by Irigaray 'sexual difference' cannot be picked out or referred to like a physical object or an essential nature. Instead sexual difference is an ideal. Unlike a reification, this ideal can be understood as a 'trace' in the philosophical sense to be demonstrated here: it can signify the face of the Other. As a trace, sexual difference needs to be given space between two sexually specific subjects and not set in opposition to the sameness of a male standard of subjectivity. This trace remains invisible as long as it is suppressed by the sameness of patriarchy.

Patriarchy is constituted by a society ordered from father to son and by an economy of men-amongst-men. In a patriarchal philosophy premissed on male sameness, sexual difference is hidden; but Irigaray insists that it can be brought to the light. She praises Levinas for demonstrating that the emphasis upon sameness by western philosophy has precluded otherness; but otherness without sexual difference, according to Irigaray, results in accounts of self-identity which fail to recognize the Other. Ricoeur would seem to exhibit this failure.

III. First Question

Irigaray's first question to Levinas, 'Is there otherness outside of sexual difference?' is answered in the negative. Otherness without sexual difference is a masked form of self-sameness. Irigaray calls 'self-same' the male subject who measures his identity against the same idealized standard as every other man. Traditionally God has represented this ideal for man. Irigaray confronts the male self-sameness of the philosopher who is constituted in relation to the one God of classical theism. She forces use to query, How can we begin tracing sexual difference?

The traditional account of God eclipses any trace of difference; so it cannot give women their own identities. Irigaray reasons that although monotheism has been philosophically significant for conceptions of personal identity, it has been built upon women's exclusion and so the suppression of sexual difference. According to Irigaray, philosophical monotheism's deleterious consequences for women in the western world remain at least twofold. First, women lack a personal deity of their own as a necessary condition for defining their sexually specific identity. Second, women lack a female genealogy, and so lack any place in society or power in the economy of male self-sameness. Yet discovery of a trace signifying the face of the Other could open up the ideal of their genus. Irigaray exposes this twofold lack in her readings of Levinas's 'Le temps et l'autre' (1947) and Totalité et Infini (1961).

In 1947 the figure of the feminine serves as the paradigm in Levinas's account of the absolutely other. But even at this early date Levinas exhibited a suspicion of femininity. Later in 1961, and then in 1974 in Autrement qu'être ou au-delà de l'essence, the feminine other is reduced to a maternal function. Levinas's interest in eros and so in the feminine other decreases as he becomes increasingly concerned with the ethical relation between self and other. According to Irigaray, he turns to paternity and the face-to-face relation between father and son; or perhaps I should read this as a relation between two self-same subjects. In Levinas the erotic relation between man and woman falls short of an ethical relation because it involves a return to self. While Irigaray criticizes the subordination of the feminine in Levinas's account of the ethical relation, she nevertheless employs his radical insight concerning otherness to account for sexual difference. This insight derives from the paradigm of the feminine as the absolutely other in Levinas's early account of the caress.

Consider Irigaray's provocative assessment:

Although [Levinas ] takes pleasure in caressing, he abandons the feminine other... For him, the feminine does not stand for an other to be respected in her human freedom and human identity. The feminine other is left without her own specific face... To go beyond the face of metaphysics would mean precisely to leave the woman her face, and even to assist her to discover it and to keep it.

In response to the above let us see how Ricoeur fares in his account of the face as the trace of the Other.

First, in Time and Narrative III, Ricoeur quotes Levinas stating that 'the trace signifies without making anything appear'. For Ricoeur, the trace can signify a face precisely in not making the face of the Other appear as an object or thing. For this reason, the trace has a positive relation to time; in particular it allows us to sketch various possibilities across time into a narrative form. In constituting a narrative out of a space of possibilities, we can see the trace unfolding, running along and crossing temporal distance. So conceived the trace is a crucial form of mediation: as a mark of connection the trace helps constitute a narrative identity out of the vicissitudes of one's life.

Second, in his Oneself as Another, Ricoeur recalls Levinas's assertion that the face is the trace of the Other. Although the face has been given a masculine gender by patriarchal monotheism, the trace can still signify not a static mask of a male God, but a dynamic mark of connection, linking subjects, past, present and future. This positive function provides a significant tool for tracing sexual difference. With this tool in hand, How might we respond specifically to Irigaray's claim that in Levinas the feminine other is left without her own specific face?

I propose that we endeavour to trace sexual difference as a future event: something that will be expressible in narrative form. The quest for narrative identity, then, will be shaped by the unveiling of the specific face of the feminine other: this will bring to the light the trace of the Other.

IV. Second Question

In response to Irigaray's second question: 'Who is the other (l'autrui), the Other (l'Autre)...?' Levinas speaks at once of the face of the other (visage d'autrui), respect for the Other and the trace of the Other. To name the other/Other, I have chosen to focus upon the trace. The trace of the Other, to repeat, signifies not a mask but the face which is missing or has been buried. But if so, can the feminine other discover this alterity for herself? What would it mean here 'to trace' the face of the feminine other? Minimally, it would mean to sketch the otherness of sexual difference as a future possibility and not as a mark of the historical or psychological past.

Ricoeur reiterates Levinas's claim that the face is the trace of the Other. But alternatively stated, the trace signifies the face of the other/Other. Whereas Ricoeur is led to an aporia of the Other, Levinas names the Other as another person. And yet ultimately Levinas avoids Ricoeur's aporia only by describing the Other in terms of the paternal God's, or the father's, relation to his son; in Irigaray's words, the self-same subject's relations leave the feminine other without her own specific face. Ironically, insofar as Ricoeur remains agnostic as a philosopher about the Other, he may leave the crucial space for reconceiving sexually specific subjects.

In my earlier article on Ricoeur, I questioned the viability of his self-confessed 'methodological agnosticism' concerning the Other. If viable, such agnosticism could offer a significant opening for women and sexual difference; the horizon would be open for becoming divine women and men. At least there is the possibility that an open horizon could render Ricoeur's philosophical account of narrative identity independent of any culturally determined patriarchy. Yet earlier I concluded that Ricoeur's 'Interlude' in Oneself as Another on Antigone presents a narrative in which the tragic figure of the feminine other hides the gendered conflicts within a patriarchal culture; and symbolically speaking, she leaves the feminine buried alive. The gendered conflicts in this narrative configuration arise from the distinctive tensions of patriarchy between city and family, politics and private conviction, man and woman. These conflicts are only 'resolved' by giving greater value to the first term - i.e. to the male self and his economy of male privilege - while the woman is symbolically forgotten. Thus Ricoeur concludes his reading of the narrative of Antigone as follows:

Finally, the company of the dead will leave her without any fellow citizens, robbed of the help of the gods of the city, without husband and without offspring, and even without friends to mourn her.

The above prediction of the tragic end to Antigone's life is also consistent with Irigaray's description of the patriarchal culture which subordinates the feminine other:

It is the culture of men-amongst-themselves, and in particular the monopoly of divine power by male gods, which is responsible for female sexuality, in so far as it is visible at all, being kept from the light and left without representation in terms of the divine.

V. A Disruptive Refiguration

Following Irigaray's method of disruptive refiguring, Can we disrupt Ricoeur's narrative concerning the tragic suffering of the feminine other to signify the face of the Other? An opening for refiguration appears in Ricoeur's question, 'Why, nevertheless, does our preference go to Antigone [not to the king]'? This query provides space for disruption - that is, for a disruptive recognition of an absolute otherness in a new sense of wonder. For Ricoeur, tragic wonder is something both awesome and monstrous. But, if we refigure Ricoeur's account, our preference could equally go to Antigone out of the Irigarayan sense of wonder. Unlike Ricoeur, Irigaray treats wonder as the passion and space for a rebirth, for becoming sexually specific subjects. Irigaray explains,

[this is] wonder which beholds what it sees always as if for the first time, never taking hold of the other as its object. It does not try to seize, possess or reduce... but leaves [the other] free.

This means the passion of birth and rebirth: 'Wonder...is the passion of that which is already born and not yet reenveloped in love.' Thus acknowledging the buried other - the feminine other - can result in the recognition of an absolute otherness in an Irigarayan vision of the face of future possibility.

To develop this vision, I move back from Ricoeur's Oneself as Another to his Time and Narrative III. I refuse to follow Ricoeur's account of self-identity strictly in the terms of the identity of the self-same subject who confronts an aporia. Instead I reconsider Ricoeur's conclusions concerning time and narrative, extending his use of the trace of the Other in order to uncover an irreducible difference between male and female subjects; this sexual difference would not constitute an opposition which resolves itself in a hierarchy subordinating the feminine. To avoid such opposition, I encourage renewed study of narrative in its role of creating identities which manage to allow for difference. Unlike Anglo-American philosophical accounts of personal identity, Ricoeur's narrative identity offers the possibility of 'solving' identity's problems with time, the Other and sexual difference. These are precisely problems which can make productive use of the trace as a mark of connection.

Both Ricoeur and Irigaray give the trace an essential role as a third term which serves to cross temporal distance. In addition, for Irigaray the trace uniquely enables us to mediate the space between two subjects in love. This love in a space between two subjects offers something different from the subject's love of his object, different from the male lover and his beloved. Irigaray describes the transformative experience of two subjects in love as 'a shared outpouring':

...leaving the circle which encloses my solitude to meet in a shared space, a shared breath, abandoning the relatively dry and precise outlines of each body's solid exterior to enter a fluid universe where the perception of being two persons (de la dualité) becomes indistinct, and above all, acceding to another energy, neither that of the one or that of the other, but an energy produced together and as a result of the irreducible difference of sex. ...In this relation, we are at least three, each of which is irreducible to any of the others: you, me, and our work (oeuvre), that ecstasy of ourself in us (de nous en nous)... prior to any child.

...which gives birth to a third, mediator between us thanks to which we return to ourselves other than we were...

... Pleasure is engendering in us and between us, an engendering associated with the world and the universe, with which the work (oeuvre) of the flesh is never unconnected. ... it is a unique and definitive creation. In this sense, it is time. It is ineffaceable, unrepeatable, even by the child.

To understand the divinity of love (above) as a creation of pleasure in time - making 'ourselves other than we were' - I suggest we trace in narrative form the significance of sexual difference as a work of love. Appropriating Irigaray we could extend Ricoeur's notion of narrative identity to account for the love between two subjects. Narratives could recount the becoming of subjects in time as sexually distinct in the act of love; the work of constituting narratives that allow for sexual difference could engender a new form of relationship between two sexually specific subjects. For Irigaray, the biblical narrative in the 'Song of Songs' bears the trace of woman as a subject - and not an object - in love. The crucial refrain in this narrative for temporal recognition of the female subject in love is the command of the bridegroom: 'Do not rouse her, do not disturb my love, until she is ready (Song of Songs, 2:7; 3:5; 8:4).' The emphasis rests upon the bride who, as a female lover, is given respect and identity as a subject, not an object, in love's work.

To return to Irigaray's description of women's 'lack', Can the trace of the Other be found in newly refigured narratives and so fill the twofold lack which women suffer under patriarchal monotheism? Can women develop narratives which both create the necessary condition for defining their identities as sexually specific subjects and give them a place in a new society? Ideally narrative identities would constitute their power in a new economy of sexual difference.

The significance of narrative identity for sexual difference is glimpsed in Oneself as Another: the 'Interlude' on the tragic wisdom of patriarchal culture - an otherwise traditional narrative configuration of Antigone - reveals the gap between a tragic and a practical wisdom preserved by the non-closure of this narrative. Ricoeur admits,

one of the functions of [this] tragedy [of Antigone] ...is to create a gap between tragic wisdom and practical wisdom. By refusing to contribute a 'solution' to the conflicts made insoluble by fiction, tragedy, after having disoriented the gaze, condemns the person of praxis to reorient action, at his or her own risk, in the sense of a practical wisdom in situation that best responds to tragic wisdom.

...it is precisely ... reconciliation through renouncement, ...pardon through recognition, that ... at least the tragedy of Antigone - is incapable of producing. ...the hero-victims of the drama do not benefit from the 'certainty of self'.

Ricoeur's 'Interlude' reading of a tragic narrative represents a disruption to a philosophical argument built on the certainty of the self. It opens the space for developing practical wisdom: I submit that a feminist response of practical wisdom would be to follow Irigaray's proposal for a subversion of male dominance and so a reorientation of our philosophical vision. According to Irigaray's words, our response must be that

We are no longer in an era where the subject reconstitutes the world in solitude on the basis of one fixed point: Descartes's certainty that he is a man.

VI. Conclusion

The reorientation implied in my refiguration of Ricoeur's account of self-identity with insight from Irigaray's account of sexual difference would involve a mediating vision of the face of the absolutely other: not a point of certainty, nor a causally determined event, but a vision of two subjects in love. The trace of this love signifies without making anything appear, without the fixed certainty of the male self or God. Appropriately Gillian Rose narrates love's work:

L'amour se révèle en se retirer... The Lovers must leave a distance, a boundary, for love: then they approach and retire so that love may suspire.

Thus two conditions have given the ground to move beyond the aporia of the Other to trace sexual difference: (i) the distinctive mark of something ineffaceable between two subjects and (ii) the unforeseeable development of narrated time with its relation to future possibility.

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