The Canon: Speculum of the Other Woman. By Luce Irigaray

September 10, 2009

When the weekly series The Canon began in April 2009, the question was posed: is there a "baggy monster" of a book that has opened up new ways of thinking and come to count as a classic in your research field? The phrase "baggy monster" couldn't be a more appropriate epithet for Luce Irigaray's Speculum of the Other Woman: a still controversial and poorly understood (but much quoted and referenced) work, of particular importance for some varieties of feminist philosophy and a broad range of cultural theory.

First published in French in 1974, but not translated into English until 1985 (after other, less challenging works by Irigaray had been translated), Speculum sets out to show how the traditions of philosophy and psychoanalysis portray women as monstrous. In particular, it calls attention to the lack of an adequate framework to think birth and, more specifically, the (human) subject who gives birth.

From Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis (explored in the first 100 pages); through Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, the medieval mystics, Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant and G.W.F. Hegel (dealt with in the middle section); through an extended meditation on Plato's myth of the cave and the womb imagery it employs (the focus of the final part), Irigaray's "baggy" musings - for she can't really be said to argue - open up a way of looking at the history of philosophy and theories of the self that offer an important paradigm shift.

Although philosophers have endlessly written about death, there were very few philosophers prior to the recent feminist ones who took birth into account in the analyses that they offered of freedom, self-identity, virtue or the good life. While Irigaray would not have described herself as a feminist then, she provided new ways for thinking female embodiment and natality as central to the fully human self.

From the start, Speculum was notorious: it led to the loss of Irigaray's teaching position at the University of Vincennes and her expulsion from the Ecole freudienne de Paris, the school of psychoanalysis that Jacques Lacan directed in Paris from 1964 to 1980. In English, Speculum has suffered mixed fortunes. Extraordinarily influential in a broad range of subjects - including literature, architecture, theology, law, film and art - its loose and flowing style has made it easy for critics (such as Alan Sokal and, most recently, Richard Dawkins) to portray Irigaray as some kind of "fake".

In Speculum, Irigaray presents her case through parodic quotation, together with allusions, homophones and puns. The inadequacies of the English translation - which not only lacks decent footnotes, but also omits portions of the passages from the philosophers that Irigaray quotes and then mimics - have increased the sense that this is simply "mysticism".

But it's not. Although I often disagree with Irigaray's account of the history of Western philosophy and science, and certainly do not wish to follow the direction of her most recent writings, Speculum is a brave and original book that does indeed deserve its place among the "baggy monsters" of "the canon".

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