Ethics of Sexual Difference

I promised to practice involved philosophy. And I think I did some of that, relating philosophical thought to aspects of the present human condition in which I see myself involved. What are those things in which I am involved? Globalization and the economic situation (which I hesitate to call capitalist, as I find more and more there is something problematical about it which goes beyond socialist/communist versus capitalist); migration and human rights; situations which could be called ‘racist’, although they are no longer about race, but more about ethnicity/culture/religion; the administrative pressures on care, learning, and life in general; our relation to nature… I have touched on those themes in several posts. One theme that I have neglected so far, thereby obeying a general trend, is that of the question of female-male relationships, which we used to call the feminist question, reintroduced under a new name in 1984 by Luce Irigaray as the ethics of sexual difference.

This neglect is nothing but an ostrich attitude, a natural attitude to want things away that are too ugly to look at. Just as the world after 1989 adopted the self-gratulatory mood of having reached the era of freedom and democracy, sustained by free economic exchange without borders (characterized by Derrida as the noisiest gospel), opinion leaders now for some time seem to carry the message that freedom and equality has in principle been reached for women worldwide (despite some backward problematic areas and events, like rape in civil wars, or child marriage in poor and unenlightened countries). Of course, women are granted civil rights in large parts of the world, since the twentieth century, and morally this situation has the stronger position worldwide. Still, one senses often, in some sense nothing has been reached. And Irigaray probably has found the problematic spot: ‘In politics, some overtures have been made to the world of women. But these overtures remain partial and local: some concessions have been made by those in power, but no new values have been established.’ (my italics)

This could very well explain the uncanny feeling that having one’s rights been granted does not repair all the damage which has been done to our world. The brave appeal that Irigaray has made (for which she has of course been heavily criticized too) is that we should still begin to have a ‘nontraditional, fecund encounter between the sexes’. I must admit that her book has only been looked into by me, since I bought it in 2006: it silently beckons me to read it fully. I have my excuses: my teaching program has been restricted to introductory courses, so I could not do it within my teaching assignment. And I had other things to read that seemed more coherent with my research plans. But it must also have satisfied the ostrich in me. For I live every day with a lot of silent discontent concerning her subject. No, more, not only discontent, but actual difficulties in speaking and acting from my heart. A hundred silent obstacles each day. The fecund encounter between the sexes barely exists, say Irigaray: ‘It does not voice its demands publicly, except through certain kinds of silence and polemics.’ Mostly silence, to my view. In 1984 we had polemics still, they are gone.

So, what is her point? Her ambitious point – that ‘sexual difference is probably the issue in our time which could be our “salvation” if we thought it through.’ The point is, that as long as we have not tried to understand the relation of sexual difference as being one of the fundamentals of being human, we have not reached the beginning of understanding ourselves as a species. Let alone be in a position to take a critical view at our so-called ethics and politics, our ‘mastery of nature’ and our ‘progress’. The foundation for her thought Irigaray found in the work of the philosopher which I chose to discuss in my first post, as my point of departure, so to say: Ludwig Feuerbach. Feuerbach was the first to draw our attention to the fact that the thinker is always already a sensuous, sensual being – male or female. That no thought is disconnected from our experiencing – body and soul – of our world. Feuerbach was also the one who drew attention to the fact that in religion, we, human beings, create the images of what a better, an ideal life could be like: it is there that we store, reconstruct and take care of our values. (I must stress here that the same goes for ‘atheistic’ or ‘humanistic’ religion as providing places where values are maintained)

So here, in the realm of values, contends Irigaray, we could expect a really fresh vision towards the contradictions in which we are stuck these days. That is what ‘salvation’ means. We can be saved from the false words of freedom and morality which cover up secret wars and suppression of freedoms. But the work has not been done, it has not even been started (not only not by me, postponing reading her book from cover to cover, but neither by critical thought, or philosophy). To lift a tip of the veil of this work: it presupposes the full acknowledgment of ‘incarnation’ – of the ‘memory of touching’ – where, before any formal rights will have been granted, alterity (another word for freedom) already might have been destroyed – or rescued.

Luce Irigaray was born in 1930 in Belgium. She has a name in deconstructivist feminist philosophy. I cited from the 2004 Continuum English edition of her An Ethics of Sexual Difference, originally published in French in 1984 as Éthique de la Différence Sexuelle.

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