Final paper for “An Ethics of Sexual Difference: Luce Irigaray” with Charlene Spretnak at California Institute of Integral Studies, Summer 2004
“The transition to a new age requires a change
in our perception and conception
the inhabiting of places,
and of the containers or envelopes of identity.”
The universe is based on asymmetry. We identify systems of duality, like symmetry and asymmetry, to describe this reality we inhabit, but inevitably either side of the duality is so entirely different from the other that to imagine them as symmetrical would collapse the system. The balance of symmetry is static. Motion requires asymmetry. Both are necessary to each other, symmetry for foundation and sustenance, asymmetry for growth and increase. As a continuation of the work begun by Luce Irigaray, this paper will explore the cosmological asymmetries / dualities present in physics, gender, the relationship between the two, and the ethical imperatives that emerge through the exploration. Duality simply identifies two sides of a given division. It does not necessarily imply symmetry or hierarchy.
Identifying a division and calling for change by one side of the division inevitably evokes defensiveness in people associated with the side being criticized. Such a call, however, is not a war waged for the destruction of the qualities I will associate with masculinity but merely a call for the recognition of their limitations and of the value of balancing them with the alternative qualities of femininity, whose disrepair harms us all. For example, limitation, which I consider a masculine impetus, is an essential aspect of our everyday reality but could serve a greater good if applied to limitation itself, rather than assuming its own boundlessness. Even limitations must recognize their limits. The level of self-reflexive consciousness necessary to realize this insight is available through a transcendence created by a healthy relationship of mutually respectful difference on many levels.
Space and Time: The Duality of Sex Difference
In the first few pages of Luce Irigaray’s An Ethics of Sexual Difference she identifies an intriguingly potent relationship between the dynamics of space-time and sex, as well as the problems that arise from our current conceptions of each. She calls for the philosophical work of reframing of space-time in order to address the problems of gender relations.
To begin with, she outlines the typical theological cosmology. God first creates space, then creates the world by separating the elements, then creates the denizens of these regions and their temporal rhythms. Noting Kant’s alignment of temporality with subjective interiority and space with externality, she makes the jump to sexual difference, “the feminine is experienced as space, while the masculine is experienced as time.” (Irigaray, 1993, 7) The notion of time and subjective interiority as masculine sheds some light on the history of patriarchy.
The main thrust of patriarchy has been “divide and conquer,” later manifested in the Scientific Revolution as “analyze and control.” In the Babylonian creation story the sea monster / goddess Tiamat is divided in two. From these foundations the dividing of the waters in Genesis is a short hop, skip, and jump away. And from here the history of patriarchy unfolds, dividing in order to create. The female is relegated to the role of dividee, absent of interiority – a role consistent with sexual topography, but lacking deeper understanding of interior complexity. It is like forgetting the little dots in the yin-yang. This oversight, of the whole within each of the parts, which so plagues Western civilization has caused a whole mess of trouble, and it is about time we set about straightening things out. (Again, I emphasize, that I call not for killing off all men or masculine values, which we appreciate as important and necessary, but for bringing to consciousness some essential nuances necessary for the healthful and happy relationship of difference.)
It is this line of thought that I would like elaborate on in the following pages. Just how is the duality of sex difference a microcosmic manifestation of larger, cosmological dualities? How can our changing notions of either duality inform the other, as well as our own ways of living and being in relationship?
The notions of division and duality, while not fully elaborated by Irigaray, are alluded to by her reference to the masculine as the gender of closure and limitation which creates division, as opposed to the open, boundless fluidity of the feminine envelope. Irigaray draws attention to the qualitative difference of boundedness between male and female enveloping:
He contains or envelops her with walls while enveloping himself and his things with her flesh. The nature of these envelopes is not the same: on the one hand invisibly alive, but with barely perceivable limits; on the other, visibly limiting or sheltering, but at the risk of being prison-like or murderous if the threshold is not left open. (Irigaray, 1993, 11)
The divisions created by the closures are the source of the rigidity that plagues Western civilization. “My criticism of Western culture above all concerns the forgetting of her – as woman, as nature or Goddess.” (Irigaray, 2004, vii) She has been forgotten in the same way space has been forgotten, as the ever-present backdrop whose perceived lack of internal difference renders her to the unconscious. The focus has been on enclosing and dividing for the sake of analysis and control of that which is unknown, wild, and potentially dangerous. This is the thrust of private property ownership and colonization: the creation of boundaries.
Irigaray notes the cumulative effect:
…their fatherland, family, home, discourse, imprison us in enclosed spaces where we cannot keep on moving, living, as ourselves. Their properties are our exile. Their enclosures, the death of our love. Their words, the gag upon our lips. (Irigaray, 1985, 212)
“Their properties… their enclosures… their words” are all examples of the closed-ness of particulate matter in contrast to the wave form of energetic reality. The wave is informed /given its form and being by the particles of which it is composed. In turn, the wave determines where and how the particles move among one another. Neither is primary; both are reciprocal and necessary for the other, as with male and female.
The wave/particle duality informs and is made viscerally potent in sexuate difference, as explicated by Irigaray. Thus the observation that “you are woman…The other already affects you. It is inseparable from you” (Irigaray, 1977, 211) gains additional validity from the science of waves and carries power because of women’s subjective experience of inextricable relatedness. The limitations imposed by patriarchal culture on this interconnectedness permeate every aspect of life. In that passage, Irigaray continues to point out the way that the difference has been used to subjugate. “That is the crime which you didn’t commit: you disturb their love of property.” (Irigaray, 1985, 211) The “particles,” males, see everything as particulate but are blind to the fluidity of their boundaries and the wave, which continually facilitates communication between. The wave knows no property boundaries. It is not a conserved/limited quantity, but an infinite quality — like love.
The uncertainty that exists where openness prevails is the fuel for the liminal state of in-love-ness. Certainty allows an experience to be taken for granted, for the “death of our love.” Certainty closes down avenues of growth and prevents the possibility of transcendence. The forgetting of an appreciation for uncertainty is the seat of the Western world’s disenchantment. When our words are poetic, they provide an openness and fluidity of interpretation that brings them alive. When they are literal, they are the closed gag upon our outflow of alive-ness.
The openness of an action contrasts with the closed-ness of words, “perfectly correct, closed up tight, wrapped around its meaning.” (Irigaray, 1985, 208) While words can always be taken literally, even if meant poetically, an action can never mean anything but the complexity of its relational context. Thus Irigaray sets up the contrast between the openness of a kiss or the evocation of the caress and the limitation of words. “Two lips kissing two lips: openness is ours again. Our ‘world.’ And the passage from inside to out, from the outside in, the passage between us, is limitless….Openness is never spent nor sated.” (Irigaray, 1985, 211) Here we see the direct link in Irigaray’s thought between femininity, openness, infinity, and the transcendence facilitated by that openness. Thus the necessity for the maintenance of openness through the limitation of limitation is made clear for anyone desiring such a transcendent experience of difference.
Cosmologically, matter is energy closed in on itself. This we know from Einstein’s famous E=mc^2, where E stands for energy, m is the mass, and c is the speed of light revealing that mass and energy are different forms of the same thing. The difference is between loose energy (light) and bound energy (matter), just as it is between feminine (openness) and masculine (closure).
Matter and Energy: The Duality of Space-Time
Irigaray aligns the feminine with space and the masculine with time and division. She does not make clear, however, the nature of the relationship between time and division. Coincidentally, this particular hole lines up exactly with work I recently did for another class, where I developed an alternative conception of time as deepening rather than flowing uni-directional linearity. Although I didn’t consider it as such until now, a non-linear perspective of time could be considered a feminine vision of time. But since my particular version relies on the dividing masculine impetus as well as feminine holism, it might more appropriately be considered a view facilitated by healthy interaction of gender difference, rather than falling under the sole propriety of one gender or the other. The limitations of the traditional linear perspective squarely situate it in the masculine camp. While linearity is helpful for understanding things in a limited context, whenever one seeks to incorporate a bigger picture, it seems to always dissolve into a more complex web-like or cyclic pattern.
Take, for instance, the notion of a flat earth that dissolved as our perspective grew and we discovered that one side meets up with it’s opposite, that the end is actually the beginning in a circular manner. This transcendence is a manifestation of the masculine and feminine paradox of closure and openness. On one hand, the earth closes in on itself into the limitations of a sphere; on the other hand, the divisions of East, West, North, and South open into one another. Again Irigaray illustrates the paradox from the embeddedness of women’s sexual topography: “Our depth is the thickness of our body, our all touching itself. Where top and bottom, inside and outside, in front and behind, above and below are not separated, remote, out of touch.” (Irigaray, 1977, 213) This describes not only the feminine but also a fractal self-similarity of the whole inside the parts creating a depth within the thickness. This is the revolution I want to create for time. Just as the world became round, so might time. The temporal thickness is a depth, not a width. It seems logical that just as the linearity of the earth became cyclical — first with the discovery of its roundness, then with the discovery of its path around the sun — the linearity of time might also dissolve into such cyclicity. In this same manner, it seems to me that the linear nature of time is merely a psychological artifact of our limited perspective of reality. If we could have access to a larger perspective of reality, we could see the cyclic, symmetrical nature of time. The cyclical nature of time, however, would require its motion forward and backward, which I postulate scientifically elsewhere. Here I want to focus on understanding the flow of time not as backwards or forwards but as deepening.
Our typical way of thinking about space-time is based largely on Newtonian ways of thinking, in terms of mechanisms and particles that we interact with everyday. Since Newton, however, science has discovered much larger perspectives on space-time, which have yet to trickle down into our everyday way of thinking. The revolutions of thought that result from seriously considering the implications of relativity and quantum mechanics offer profound insight into reality and our way of being in it.
First, let’s take a look at relativity. The faster you go the slower time goes; in a sense, the moment expands. For photons, which travel at the speed of light, their moment has expanded infinitely, thus encompassing the lifetime of the universe within a single undivided moment. The photon has a view of all time as frozen, laid out like a storyboard. For photons there is no passage of time, and thus no distance between spatial points because travel is instantaneous: all is present at once. The photon is everywhere at all times because it experiences no separation between temporal points and, thus, no temporal separation between spatial points.
Since there is really no such thing as simultaneity because all spatial separations are temporal separations, it is possible that this one photon is dancing its way through the cosmos, masquerading as the billions. All photons could be one photon, multiplied into many only in the temporal realm, the realm where time flow exists for slow-moving objects like us. So the photon is, in a sense, a God particle with the omniscience that comes from existing outside of time. Photons also make up everything (literally and creatively, he he) – since matter is energy wrapped up on itself, bounded and slowed. We just see things as separate because we are a material form of photons rather than an energetic form and thus have slowed down and dropped out of the photon’s relativistic eternity into the flow of time. So the duality that exists here is temporality transcended by a-temporality on the dimensional axis of velocity.
To get a better feel for this mind-bending concept, think of this dynamic as a balloon ride into the vertical dimension. As you get higher, you can see more and more of the landscape below. When standing on the ground, your horizon is much smaller than when you’re 1,000 ft in the air. Now imagine a timeline under your feet in place of the landscape and imagine the vertical dimension as velocity, so greater height corresponds to greater speed. When standing on the timeline, you can only see the landscape / timescape directly ahead and behind you. But when traveling in the vertical dimension, increasing velocity increases our distance from the temporal horizon and, thus, the amount of the space / time visible within that horizon. So our view from within time, when stationary / on the ground, is a limited perspective of a greater whole existing simultaneously and visible from greater heights / speeds.
This speculation about photons also led me toward the concept of deepening time. The concept is best understood as based in the experience of subjective time as it differs from objective time. For instance, the older you get the faster time seems to flow. This can be explained by thinking about time in proportion to the rest of your life. As a five-year-old, one year is twenty percent of your life. Whereas when you’re one hundred, it’s a mere one percent of you total life, so by virtue of comparison, naturally ‘shorter.’
If the photon’s moment is infinitely large then, when it “drops out” of that moment, the moment doesn’t change completely. It deepens, dividing into the past, present and future, like a higher octave in music. Perhaps instead of flowing continually from the past to the present and on into the future, time is actually just dividing the eternal moment more and more. So it’s just like the perception of age: the more time passes, the smaller your moment gets, the more of your moments fit into the total lifetime, and the longer the total lifetime seems to be. Thus the illusion of temporal flow is created by successive division. Since division is a masculine principle, this is one way to link the masculine to time as well.
One physical manifestation of the eternal moment is background radiation from the Big Bang in which we are continually bathed. Even though the event itself occurred 13.7 billion years ago, it is continually occurring, and we are literally deepening into it. It doesn’t exist on one side of us so that we’re moving away from it as linear time would suggest. It surrounds us.
The ultimate symmetry would be apparent in a perspective of the universe as oscillating between matter and energy, and between time and a-temporality, as it continually manifests the meeting between forward and backward time, between the past and future flowing into one another. We’re simply the multiplicitous variations on the themes of its oscillations. Every moment that passes divides this one grand moment again and again – creating an exponential deepening, making the initial moment seem ever larger and larger as the universe’s accelerating expansion.
Increase and Decrease: The Duality of Ethics
Two basic impulses of the universe are to sustain and to increase. We will focus on ethics with regard to the interaction between humanity and the biosphere of life in which we participate. Here increase means quantitative growth, and decrease refers to lack that inhibits life. The ethical question that arises as these dynamics play out in humanity is “Is it possible to increase without invoking a complementary decrease elsewhere?” The answer is no. Increase will always be accompanied by decrease of some form. The key is not to prevent decrease entirely but to ensure that the decrease will not over take the increase. The increase must be able to sustain the decrease. If the increase is not sustainable then the decrease will overtake it, and the system will collapse to a more sustainable level. Time and space hold decrease at bay and give increase a chance to prove itself worthy — but only for a short while. How can increase prove itself worthy? How can it make more out of the loan it has taken out?
The question again is “Is it possible to increase without invoking a complementary decrease elsewhere?” The answer is also yes. While increase will always be accompanied by decrease of some form, the two will not always be equal. While quantity is conserved; quality / meaning is not. The notion of conservation in this sense comes from the most basic principle of physics, conservation of energy, which states that there is a finite amount of energy, which changes form but not quantity. If I give you an apple, I’m out an apple. No matter how you look at it, the two sides of the equation balance out. Whether the apple is rotten or ripe, its quality, doesn’t factor into the equation.
Quality is an example of the vertical transcendence that comes with the addition of a dimension. Imagine a number line representing quantity. Now add a perpendicular axis representing quality. The addition of the axis of quality allows for increase of quality within quantity without a corresponding decrease in either. Increase in quality is often due to an increased time put into the project. So the decrease or use, of time, is hidden within the object. It is implicate rather than explicate, obvious only to a trained eye. The words implicate and explicate are David Bohm’s terms for his model of reality based in quantum mechanics. The implicate refers to the waveform, underlying, hidden, and potential aspects of reality that determine, and are determined by, the explicate order of manifest, physical, particulate reality. Because the quality or meaning of the manifest object is hidden, its value is ambiguous and depends on the subject to bestow value. The value, therefore, is a range of probability rather than a fixed quantity. It exists not in the object but in between the subject and the object, in the relationship.
The uncertainty of the value is what allows the value to be driven up. If the value were fixed, it could easily be taken for granted. Uncertainty is what drives motivation. It keeps magic alive in our lives. Uncertainty is inherent in relationship because there is always a hidden aspect which could manifest in any number of ways.
Our Western attachment to certainty and control has successfully disenchanted our lives. It is a struggle to remain in the mystery and attend to magical uncertainty when we are so focused on nailing every thing down. We divide in order to multiply. We analyze in order to increase our knowledge. Our focus on quantitative growth has neglected the inherent value and quality associated with uncertainty and mystery. That abyss is where creativity and fruitfulness come from. Without, it there is only stagnation, exploitation, and eventual collapse.
The universal demand to sustain and increase is phrased in the Old Testament as the divine command to be fruitful and multiply. We have forgotten what it means to be fruitful, to sustain, to provide for our future multiplication. The current increase of humanity, driven by Western civilization’s need to produce, has successfully utilized time and space to create a structure to separate itself from its complementary decrease, the abuse of the rest of the world when treated as resource rather than subject. But the separation cannot be maintained forever, and the current state of increase is one that would surely be overtaken by the decrease it has created if the two were to come to a head today. The question now is how can we use the increase we have created to make itself worthy of its decrease before the two meet? Or do we just have to try to facilitate that meeting and collapse as soon as possible to prevent greater decrease?
It’s a high stakes gamble between the conscious and unconscious, the haves and the have-nots, the economy and the environment, the light and the shadow, the masculine and the feminine. On the smallest levels, this is the collapse the quantum wave function’s potentiality into manifestation by the constraints of reality. In our individual, lives this is the continual integration of our shadows. In the realm of social justice, it is the reintegration of the devalued other: the feminine, the body, the environment, and the victims of prejudice. In the global realm, it is a wager between the increase of humanity and the decrease of the biosphere’s sustainability. Cosmologically, it is the relationship of matter and energy. These are all the same struggle. Progress in any one realm is progress in all realms. To increase without decrease, we must develop the vertical transcendence in the dimension of quality, cultivating our relationships through time and knowledge.
Irigaray’s work to assert female subjectivity and difference brings the decrease of women’s value to confront the increase of men’s. She champions female subjectivity for the sake of cultivating a relationship between difference rather than purporting a false symmetry. At this crossroads, increase and decrease come face to face. They will either rise together or fall together. How does increase manifest in the realm of men? How does sustainability manifest in the realm of women? How are these both manifestations of underlying cosmological themes?
The Interval Between Duality: Deep Transcendence
Most asymmetries in the universe tend to have another half to balance them out somewhere in the universe. Their separation allows for there to be something, rather than the nothing of symmetrical opposites that cancel each other out. The seething of the particle/antiparticle creation and annihilation within the quantum foam illustrates the power of division to create and of unification to destroy — or of creation to divide and destruction to unify. The cosmological evolution of the universe relies on the breaking of symmetry for the forces and particles to differentiate themselves from one another. Mythologically this mirrors the divine division of the initial creation found in many creation stories.
The mechanism, or the “why,” of the transition between multiplicity and unity is something of a mystery. One way to look at it is in dialogue with dimensionality. The division of unity into asymmetrical duality requires the creation of a new dimension. But in order for a new dimension to be created, a division must occur. Here again we find the breakdown of linear, hierarchical primacy and the ascendance of mutual co-arising through and because of the creative dynamic of duality. While this exploration doesn’t offer a satisfactory “why” for the transition between unity and multiplicity, it does offer a valuable ethic for our consideration. Perhaps this ethic is the reason for the mystery.
Dimension is another word that warrants definition. Typically it refers to one of the three Cartesian coordinates, or to the magnitude or extent of something in a particular direction. When you do not include a particular dimension, something is hidden. I utilize this mathematical principle as a metaphor to gain insight into realms beyond mathematics. We could not tell the difference between two words on this page if we did not exist outside of its two-dimensional reality. It is the extra dimension that allows us to make the distinction. In the same way the extra dimension of time allows us to differentiate within three spatial dimensions. In mathematics when a problem cannot be solved in a lower number of dimensions, the mathematician can often find a solution by adding a dimension. This is why super string theory, which seeks to unite all of physics — specifically the division between relativity and quantum field theory — requires at least 10 dimensions and sometimes as many as 26. The adding of a dimension is a means to transcendence. It maintains the paradoxical nature of reality, in that through its division it gains the power to recognize not only the division of the former dimension but also the unity that holds it together. For example, by transcending the two-dimensional surface of a page, we recognize not only the distinction between words but the commonality of their dimensionality as well.
Transcendence provides the “up-and-out” of the creative masculine, whose value Irigaray recognizes as providing an important qualitative difference in gender relations and how we live together. Difference as a source of transcendence, as is cultivated in love, can be valued only in a culture that values mystery, uncertainty, and the limitation of limitation. A culture of limitation and certainty reduces the relation of difference to function, to procreation.
This does not merit being called living together. In reality, one person is making use of the other…the man finding in the woman a maternal substitute and the woman finding in the man a paternal substitute. In this way difference is reduced to a function and is not recognized or developed as a source of transcendence. The horizontal transcendence between the sexes creates space, spaces, whereas reducing it to genealogy destroys them or at least fills up them up. (Irigaray, 2004, 132)
Here Irigaray uses transcendence, a masculine principle, to create space, a feminine principle, reinforcing the reciprocal nature of the two, rather than the primacy of either. Interestingly, it’s the deepening, downward force of embodiment and immanence, typically aligned with the feminine, that is excluded from typical patriarchal religions in preference to transcendence. Luckily, we can invoke the conservation of paradox once again to reveal the identity between deepening and transcending. Both add another dimension to the equation. Deepening adds a fractal dimension, a dimension of scale, a dimension of complexification, an interior dimension rather than the external dimension of transcendence. Here the dualities cross over, as previously Irigaray had assigned interiority to the masculine and exteriority to the feminine. Thus their paradoxical nature reveals itself again; both are within all things, depending upon how you look at them.
The tension of asymmetry in difference can simply fill the space, fulfill the function, pass the time, or it can continually birth something new, create a new transcendence, a new perspective, a new paradox, a new form to increase the complexification, seeing if it can still get something right. Fulfilling the function still makes kids, a new transcendence, but that’s the mistake of linearity that there’s only one answer. There is a multiplicity of way that difference can be fulfilled in a creative transcendence at every moment. The difference is qualitative and can be self-assessed by one’s happiness.
Creativity deepens, transcends, and cures boredom, depression, and anxiety. Creativity demands synthesis, which serves as a healthy remedy to the paralysis of over-analysis that is a symptom of and foundation for the self-indulgence and apathetic ethics of Western civilization. If one can recognize and draw on the resources available, they possess the power to create their own reality. If one seeks merely to fulfill a role, a function, or just pass the time, he/she will inevitably feel resentful toward the limitation of such constraints. Whereas if one seeks out transcendence — and recognizes the space created by difference and limitation rather than the restriction — then freedom rings. When imprisoned, metaphorically or literally, transcendence comes from deep within one’s subjectivity. It is by recognizing this subjectivity in all things that it is nourished to blossom and bear fruit. If unrecognized, the fruit will never nourish another. Recognizing subjectivity opens a whole new world of abundance, where previously unrecognized fruits of individuality offer themselves to the service of others.
“Working for the liberation or construction of a feminine subjectivity and a culture of two subjects, we are working towards the liberation of humanity itself, and towards another time of our becoming as humans.” (Irigaray, 2004, xv) Thus as we cultivate the deepening transcendence of consciousness, we cultivate a recognition of difference and, hence, a respect for complex individuality and a culture of equality. Humanity is the very edge of the universe’s struggle for ever-increasing and sustaining complexity and quality within a recognized limited quantity. To remember the forgotten holism of the feminine has the power to help us limit the limitations we set for ourselves, to provide openings in the closures of words, of ideologies, of hierarchies, of linearities, of relationships, of stagnation. Consciousness offers an interior space of deepening transcendence, manifesting the continual progress of time moving in the only direction it can, deeper into complexity. The liberation of the feminine is not for the sake of the feminine, but for the sake of the whole in the continual growth of the relationship between the masculine and feminine. Without it, the masculine is crippled.
Irigaray, Luce. “Sexual Difference.” An Ethics of Sexual Difference. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1993.
Irigaray, Luce. “When Our Lips Speak Together.” This Sex Which is Not One. Catherine Porter. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1985.
Irigaray, Luce. “Preface.” Key Writings. Luce Irigaray and Karpay Hirsch. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004.