[(essay date 2000) In the following essay, Robbins discusses how Luce Irigaray constructs her concept of feminine identity in such works as Speculum of the Other Woman and This Sex Which Is Not One, noting how Irigaray's notion of feminism questions the psychological precepts of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan.]
Luce Irigaray was born in 1930 in Belgium, though she is now a French national. As Margaret Whitford has noted, however, she strongly resists the tendency of criticism to focus on biography, fearing the kinds of ad feminam critiques that operate by 'neutralizing a woman thinker whose work is radically challenging [by reducing her] to her biography' (Whitford 1991, 1-2). Her work is in the fields of philosophy, linguistics and psychoanalysis, and she is also a regular contributor to Communist newspapers, especially in Italy. Although she rarely writes specifically about literary texts, she does have important things to say to feminist literary theory--those realms of oppression, repression and expression identified by Showalter as the foci of feminist thinking.
Her earliest book, Le Langage des déments (1973, The Language of the Demented), was an investigation into the linguistic collapse suffered by patients with senile dementia. Her focus was on the kinds of subjectivity that can exist for those whose language ceases to be a transparently expressive medium. She concluded that the dementia sufferer was disabled from speaking for himself, and was forced to repeat pre-existing language structures: the demented figure was denied a place from which to speak by the process of his disease, and ended by 'being spoken' by a language over which he had no control, which did not reflect any conscious intention, and which therefore undermined the very notion of subjectivity itself. It was a psycholinguistic study, heavily inflected by the training in Lacanian psychoanalysis that Irigaray had undertaken from the mid-1960s onwards. That interest in the subject as a speaking and spoken being is certainly derived from Lacan's view that subjectivity occurs in and through language. On the face of it, this does not look like a feminist intervention. But, as Toril Moi has argued, 'this passive, imitative or mimetic relationship to the structures of language [in sufferers from dementia] is strikingly similar to the ways in which ... women relate to phallocratic discourse' (Moi 1985, 127). The book in which Irigaray began to speak of the place of women in relation to the patriarchal languages of philosophy and psychoanalysis was Speculum of the Other Woman, published first in 1974, which was also Irigaray's doctoral thesis. Although this book, too, was heavily indebted to Lacan, Irigaray's main focus in Speculum was on the 'mastering' discourse of philosophy.
There was a personal cost to this second text. Immediately it was published, Irigaray was expelled from the École freudiennne at Vincennes, a research institution then under the directorship of Jacques Lacan himself, and was sacked from her University post there. Lacan was notorious for disapproving of theoretical deviations from his own point of view. Presumably, he recognised the implicit...