Few names register the sheer grandeur and gravitas of that of “Luce Irigaray” who is, in the minds of many, a living legend within contemporary philosophy and feminism. But unlike most philosophers, who remain too timid to live a life based on their ideas, Irigaray risked embodying her intellectual apparatus in the world. She thus works on surmounting the privilege of sameness towards a world in which difference is considered in a new and positive way, beginning with difference between men and women, and then difference between cultures, traditions, languages etc.She continues to struggle for liberation from patriarchy toward what corresponds to a liberation not only of women but of the whole humanity. Her views in the 1968 and 1970s were so radical that she was exiled from the academy, but that didn’t stop her genius from pouring out into pages, books, poems, and conversations or seminars in all the place where it was possible. Recently, in September, Prof. Irigaray delivered a brilliant seminar in Paris entitled, “The First Steps in Building a World Culture” for Alma Mater Europaea-ECM and The Global Center for Advanced Studies. And a few days ago, Institute of Contemporary Arts of London has listed Through Vegetal Being as one of the top books in 2016.
Precisely, over the past year I’ve had the rare opportunity of meeting with her and spent a few days discussing her ideas, above all those developed in her last published book, Through Vegetal Being, co-authored with Michael Marder. What follows is my interview with her.
Creston Davis: It's widely held that you gave birth to theorizing feminism within the context of French philosophy generally and psychoanalysis in particular. Can you describe the ways in which you started formulating this philosophical approach?
Luce Irigaray: A problem difficult to endure when you have a certain audience is that some people perceive you only through their own categories and conception of truth. They do not listen to the irreducible singularity of the living being that you are and the sap that it conveys, notably through its words. As I have said, notably in Through Vegetal Being, I chose, from my first university studies, to remain a woman instead of subjecting myself to a culture and a subjectivity presumed to be “neutral” but are in reality masculine. Such a choice brought me a lot of repression, in particular from feminists and psychoanalysts; which, by the way, shows that I was not merely one of their followers. Fortunately, I received my first background in philosophy at the University of Louvain, and this sound training allowed me to acquire a perspective on various discourses and ideologies and to keep my autonomy in thinking whatever difficulties I met to clear my path. This developed above all through dialogues with philosophers of the Western tradition as my work proves.
CD: What is most striking about your latest work, Through Vegetal Being, is how you not only identify a fundamental problem in philosophy, but you traverse through the problem itself as you say, "I think that we have to take on the void and preserve it as an insurmountable moment of our becoming" (p. 94) in order to "join loving and thinking" (p.89). Would you say that the problem that persist in philosophy is that it still speaks to the dead and not the living as you say, "Does not their thought [Hegel and Marx] address the dead more than the living?" (p. 23). So my question is why? Why does philosophy still speak to the dead?; or, put differently: Why is philosophy scared of the living?
LI: Life for our past philosophy is an abstract concept, which ends in a worse infinite. Thus we must endow it with limits, and the limit that can correspond to such conception of life is only death—as it is affirmed by the most important philosophers of our tradition like Hegel or Heidegger. I propose to recognize that our life, as well as our subjectivity, are determined. The most universal, and let me say also democratic determination of our being as living is its sexuation. Becoming a human, according to me, means being able to take on the insurmountable negative of our sexuation as a limit that life procures to itself. Assuming our sexuation provides our being and existence with the limits of a peculiar individuation without we need to resort to death. It suffices to acknowledge and take on our difference- notably regarding the vegetal world- and the negative that this involves in comparison with our claim to represent or know the all.
CD: One of your key philosophical creations is “sexuation.” When did you first create this concept and what is its basic structure?”
LI: Early I understood that the culture that was imposed on me did not fit me.It did not really contribute to my development, and it was in a natural environment that I found refuge, assistance, and even communication or communion. I also perceived that I longed for something else than mere sexuality Rather, I wanted for a union between desire and love, a union that becomes possible if we accept that as a man or a woman we live in a different world, and that uniting with one another requires us to take into account this difference. It is not yet a question here of sexual choice but of sexuate identity and subjectivity which determine the peculiarity of our world. This specificity results from the morphology of our body, which acts upon our perception of space and time, of the outside and the inside etc. It is also the outcome of our own sexuation in comparison with this of those who begot us, that is, of the specificity of our relation to origin. Unfortunately, our culture more and more neglected to take into consideration these factors, and transformed most of us into sorts of fabricated robots which are no longer animated by a living energy, a living way of thinking and desire to share with other human or non human living being.
CD: Why through vegetal being? What is the idea of “through” in relationship to
LI: I, myself, insisted on choosing “through” instead of “with” as a little step toward changing our traditional way of thinking. Indeed, I did not intend, when writing my part of the book, to speak of vegetal being as a neglected “entity” or “object” of our cultural tradition; rather, I wanted to emphasize an aspect of being that thwarted our past subject/object logic. In our present world vegetal beings are perhaps beings that most remind us of life and call us back to being alive. Now life never can be reduced to “entity” or “object”. We can only be in communication or communion through it. It is through the air that vegetal beings provide us that we come into the world and continue living by breathing. Vegetal life in some way corresponds to a stage through which we must pass in order to develop as human beings. It is through the help of the vegetal world that we can go from a cultural phase to another without destruction or death, a thing that is particularly crucial in our nihilistic epoch. I also hope that the vegetal world can act as a living mediation between a logic in the masculine, which favors subject-object relations, and a logic in the feminine, which favors subject-subject relations.
CD: How does the role of nature relate to the role of humanity?
LI: Nature can allow us to live, can rescue us and even provide us with an experience of the absolute. With nature, as long as it reminds alive, we often commune easier than with humans and find a true happiness thanks to this communion. However, becoming an adult requires us to assume our individuation as a human being and discover how to become a source of felicity for ourselves, for the other(s), and in our sharing. If we do not reach this stage, we run the risk of considering nature to be a mother from whom we can receive all without reciprocating anything. It is not with nature that we can experience a real reciprocity; it is with the one who shares our human condition, while remaining autonomous with respect to us, that we can really experience reciprocity. How can we achieve our human condition without renouncing bliss that nature can grant us? Perhaps this can occur through a reciprocal touch, through approaching the fullness of our own nature, whilst transcending it, in our embraces.
CD: In Chapter 9, you demonstrate how human beings are presently alienated because machines henceforth move us, and laws dictate to us how we must interact or not interact with each other. Yet, in chapter 12, you propose a different way, one that is founded on “natural belonging” (p. 77) in relation to vegetal being “in order to discover an economy of our living energy” (p. 78). My question is thus: How can we realize and carry out the transition from our alienation to a becoming based on our natural belonging?
LI: We must first realize that not only our planet and some vegetal or animal beings are disappearing but that we, ourselves, are fading. This happens because of the pollution of the atmosphere, because we lack an environment suitable for our sensory perceptions, and more generally for the growth of our vitality, notably thanks to exchanges with other human and non human living beings. As humans, we cannot develop only thanks to elements present in nature: air, water, fire and earth. We must both transform these elements and contribute to our becoming with an appropriate culture. The problem with which we are faced is that we conceived culture as domination of nature and not its cultivation,beginning with cultivation of our own nature. This led to our division into body and soul or spirit, without a living dynamism ensuring the passage from our material to our “spiritual”belonging. We must return to ourselves, within ourselves and discover how we can grow as humans, not by repressing our living potentialities by presumed cultural forms and norms, but by allowing our living dynamism and forms to develop towards our blossoming. This new way of conceiving human culture requires changes in our manner of behaving, especially in educating. This cannot be limited to the addition of some courses or trainings, but calls for a new approach to truth, ethics and spiritual becoming. They are such considerations which inspire my teaching in seminars that I hold for years for young researchers who long for building a new world in which they can be more free, alive, responsible and happy.