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Luce Irigaray: The philosophy of sexual difference and women in film

Lecturer: Mara Antic

Originally Taught: Summer School 2021

This course is conceptualised as an encounter between cinema and Luce Irigaray’s ontology of sexual difference. Irigaray’s attempt to reimagine female subjectivity and sexuality beyond the phallogocentric parameters is immensely productive for thinking about gendered spectatorship, authorship and the filmmakers’ strategies for representing female consciousness and corporeality on screen. The aim of the course is to explicate the points of convergence between the alternative filmmaking practices that challenge masculine film language and Irigaray’s insistence on the notion of sexual difference grounded in the specificities of female body, especially the female auto-eroticism and bodily multiplicity. Each class is devoted to the specific aspect of Irigaray’s theory of alterity, such as feminine language, enunciation, haptic visuality, and female genealogy, exemplified in the films of Agnès Varda, Marguerite Duras, Chantal Akerman, Claire Denis, Jane Campion, Céline Sciamma, Moufida Tlatli and Shirin Neshat.

Lecture 1: Sexual difference and film representation 

The primary aim of this lecture is to introduce the key concepts and frameworks of Irigaray’s theory of sexual difference and discuss its overlapping relations (convergences, affinities or tensions) with the early feminist film theory. In particular, we will examine Irigaray’s This Sex Which Is Not One ([1977] 1985) and Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975), both of which employ psychoanalytic tools to expose the objectification of women within the dominant phallocentric economy and seek to reconceptualize the traditional perceptions of female body, sexuality and its cultural representation.

Key readings:

  • Irigaray, Luce (1985) This Sex Which Is Not One, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, pp.23-85; 170-191; 205-218.
  • Mulvey, Laura (1975) “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16:3, pp. 6-18.

Recommended readings:

  • Grosz, Elizabeth (1989) “Luce Irigaray and Sexual Difference” In Sexual subversions: three French feminists, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, pp.100-183.
  • Rivière¸ Joan (1929) “Womanliness as a masquerade,” The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 1929: 10.
  • Doane, Mary Ann (1982) “Film and the Masquerade: Theorising the Female Spectator,” Screen 23:3-4, pp. 74-87.

Lecture 2: The film language and female subjectivity 

In her early work, Irigaray exposes erasure of the feminine from the Western philosophical tradition which privileges the male subject, arguing that the woman is defined only through her reflective function (she exists only as the negative of his reflection). In this lecture, we first examine Irigaray’s notion of the speculum, which she employs to disturb traditional perceptions and representations of female morphology. Then, we look at how this concept can be used to map out a space for the female specificity and desire in cinema. This particularly relates to alternative filmmaking techniques and strategies of representation of female subjectivity, or what Lucy Bolton calls “the camera as Irigarayan speculum” (2011).

Key readings:

  • Luce Irigaray (1985) Speculum of the Other Woman, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. pp.112-145.
  • Lucy Bolton (2011) “The Camera as an Irigarayan Speculum” in Film and Female Consciousness: Irigaray, Cinema and Thinking Women, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.29-59.

Recommended readings:

  • Whitford, Margaret (1991) “Subjectivity and Language” in Luce Irigaray: philosophy in the feminine, London; New York: Routledge, pp. 29-52.
  • Moi, Toril (1985) Sexual-Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory, London: Methuen, pp.126-148.
  • Bainbridge (2008) “Riddles of the Feminine in The Piano” in A Feminine Cinematics, London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.155-184.
  • Films: Jeanne Dielman (Chantal Akerman, 1975), Vagabond (Agnes Varda, 1985), Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003), The Milk of Sorrow (Claudia Llosa, 2009), Women Without Men (Shirin Neshat, 2009).

Lecture 3: Female genealogies 

Countering the backdrop of hegemonic patriarchal control and masculine filiation systems, Irigaray positions the female genealogies and woman-to-woman relationships as crucial for establishing the female subject in her own right. According to Irigaray, the mother-daughter relationship is related to the idea of divine necessary for women to establish themselves as subjects defined outside of their function in the patriarchal symbolic order. In this lecture, we will look at how women filmmakers engage with this issue and what strategies and techniques they employ to represent the female collectivity and mother-daughter relationships.

Key readings:

  • Luce Irigaray (1994) Je Tu Nous: Toward a Culture of Difference, New York: Routledge, pp.7-15; 31-54; 121-126.
  • Irigaray, Luce (1981) “And the One Doesn’t Stir without the Other,” Translated by Hélène Vivienne Wenzel, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol.7.No.1, pp.60–67.
  • Bainbridge (2008) “Screening Parler Femme: Silences of the Palace, Antonia’s Line and Faithless” in A Feminine Cinematics, London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 99-124.

Recommended readings:

  • Irigaray, Luce (1993) The Ethics of Sexual Difference, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, pp.59-72; 97-132.
  • Whitford, Margaret (1991) “Maternal genealogy and the symbolic” in Luce Irigaray: philosophy in the feminine, London; New York: Routledge, pp. 75-98.
  • Films: The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993), Silences of the Palace (Moufida Tlatli, 1994), Women Without Men (Shirin Neshat, 2009), No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman, 2015).

Lecture 4: Irigaray’s theory of love and gender relations

In the later stage of Irigaray’s work, her emphasis shifts from theorising female subjectivity to reconsidering intersubjective relations within a (heterosexual) couple, which she sees as foundational for envisioning a new socio-political order. In I Love to You and To Be Two, Irigaray reconceptualises love to include the space between the self and the other she calls the interval. This space of transcendence which acknowledges differences and prevents reduction of a person to an object. In this lecture, we will focus on how the cinematic spatial and temporal regimes render this space between the two subjects.

Key readings:

  • Irigaray, Luce (1996) I Love to You, New York: Routledge, pp.97-128.
  • Irigaray, Luce (1999) To Be Two, London: Athlone, pp.17-29.

Recommended readings:

  • Irigaray, Luce (1992) Elemental Passions, New York: Routledge.
  • Hill, Rebecca (2012) The Interval: Relation and Becoming in Irigaray, Aristotle and Bergson, New York: Fordham University Press, pp.113-125.
  • Films: Orlando (Sally Potter, 1993), Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis, 2001), Portrait of A Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019).

Lecture 5:  Haptic visuality 

As early as in Speculum and This Sex Which Is Not One Irigaray developed a theory of tactility associated with the female body and sexuality. Her insights into the affinities between the male identity and primacy of vision as well as her work on the caress allowing for female subjectivity and intersubjectivity can be particularly useful for discussing the feminist film phenomenology. The final lecture will thus combine Irigaray’s writings with Laura U. Marks’ (2000, 2002) theory of haptic cinematics to underline the importance of the embodied experience for the representation of female subjectivity in women’s cinema.

Key readings:

  • Irigaray, Luce (1993) The Ethics of Sexual Difference, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, pp. 133-217.
  • Irigaray, Luce (2004) “To paint the invisible,” Continental philosophy review, Vol.37 (4), pp.389-405.
  • Marks, Laura U. (2002) Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, pp.1-20.

Recommended readings:

  • Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1968) “The Intertwining—The Chiasm” in The Visible and the Invisible, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, pp.130-155.
  • Grosz, Elizabeth (1993) “Merleau-Ponty and Irigaray in the Flesh” Thesis eleven, Vol.36 (1), pp.37-59
  • Olthius, James H. (2009) Gazing Through a Prism Darkly: Reflections on Merold Westphal's Hermeneutical Epistemology, New York: Fordham University Press, pp.150-162.
  • Films: India Song (Marguerite Duras, 1975), Friday Night (Claire Denis, 2002), Water Lilies (Céline Sciamma, 2007)