The Emptiness of the Image: Psychoanalysis and Sexual Differences

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The Emptiness of the Image offers a psychoanalytic answer.

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Parveen Adams argues that, despite flaws in some of the details of its arguments, psychoanalytic theory retains an overwhelming explanatory strength in relation to questions of sexual difference and representation. She goes on to show how the issue of desire changes the way we can think of images and their effects. The Emptiness of the Image shows how the very space of representation can change to provide a new way of thinking the relation between the text and the spectator.

It shows how psychoanalytic theory is supple enough to slide into and transform the most unexpected situations. Product Details. Average Review. Write a Review. Related Searches. Art: Sublimation or Symptom. Each of the contributors addresses the theoretical questions by pursuing a definite artistic problem, including Each of the contributors addresses the theoretical questions by pursuing a definite artistic problem, including a close look at the relation between the image and the object in Hitchcock's Vertigo, the sexual aesthetics of Caravaggio, the artistic pen of Barthes, View Product.

Between Feminism And Psychoanalysis. In this landmark collection of original essays, outstanding feminist critics in Britain, France, and the In this landmark collection of original essays, outstanding feminist critics in Britain, France, and the United States present new perspectives on feminism and psychoanalysis, opening out deadlocked debates. The discussion ranges widely, with contributions from feminists identified with different, often By repressing dependence on the maternal origin of life, the masculine is marked as originary, that from which differentiation proceeds.

Not only is Western culture premised on matricide, which she claims is more primordial than the patricide of Totem and Taboo , but this matricide is forgotten and the mother remains unmourned. Repressing any maternal genealogy, political life has been predicated on the lineage between fathers and sons and the bonds of brotherhood, appropriating universality and citizenship to men and rendering women as objects of their desire and exchange.

The exploitation of women is not merely a phenomenon that takes place within the social order, it is its very foundation and premise. This forgetting of the mother supports vertical and horizontal relations between men but leaves women unrepresented in language as subjects and incapable of achieving representation in the body politic as citizens. Developing the resources for transformation, i. This task requires intervening in the symbolic and imaginary realms, creating a new language that would not be severed from the body and ending the division of labor between love and law. The structure of the representational economy, its association of subjectivity with masculinity, precludes the convergence of being a woman and being a speaking being.

Although of course there are words for women, these words constitute her only with reference to masculinity, as a photographic negative of man, or in response to a patriarchal exertion of feminine norms and expectations. They secure her in a masculine universe, they say in advance what she is, they render her captive to an idea of feminine essence.

By contrast, Irigaray seeks to create a representation for women that would not be a designation of what she is, defining her by and holding her to some concrete essence, but would allow her to exist on her own terms and speak for herself. Irigaray believes that this type of self-determination is barred by the exclusion of mother-daughter genealogies, an exclusion that works to assign woman to a maternal destiny as mothers of men.

Neither denotative nor expressive, neither speaking of woman as though woman were a determinate object of study nor speaking as one as though the aim were to express an inner essence , Irigaray's writing establishes a reflexive relation to language. By acquiescing, in her mimetic writing style, to the cultural expectation of feminine artifice, Irigaray stages her own exiled agency and thereby extends the possibilities for being a woman to include being not only an object in or reference of language but a transformer of language.

Without claiming to say what a woman really is, to get right what the symbolic order gets wrong, she shows that in speaking differently, the very meaning of being a woman or being a man can be transformed, so that sexual difference remains open to new possibilities. She thus does not so much refute Freud's account of the Oedipal Complex and the little girl's purported masculinity as re-present its primal crime against women, the Oedipal exclusion of maternal dependency, thereby altering the scene of its representation.

Irigaray also challenges the Lacanian idea of the law of the father and the phallic signifier, pillorying the way in which natural birth has been assigned to maternity while cultural birth is assigned to paternity, equating the woman-mother with body and the man-father with language and law, and relegating the bodily process of parturition maternity to mute nature while valorizing the symbolic process of legitimation paternity as constitutive of civilization. Human subjectivity has been masculinized, while human flesh is both feminized and animalized.

Irigaray aims to provoke a legitimation crisis in the paternal legacy and the name of the father that bestows on the child a political and familial identity.

The Emptiness of the Image: Psychoanalysis and Sexual Differences / Edition 1

The erasure of sexual difference enables a metaphysics of substance in which sexual identity is a matter of fixed and pre-determined being, of underlying essences or common properties, rather than a form of becoming and self-generation. Irigaray's genealogical account of sexual difference resists both the idea of an invariant universal and hence sexually neutral human essence that subtends and thereby expels human multiplicity and the idea of sexual essences that consist in self-enclosed identities between which there is an uncrossable divide.

Freud on: Sublimation

That is, she rejects the ontological assumptions of both universal equality and separatism, taking both to be implicitly masculine and patriarchal, bound to a metaphysical essentialism that aims to capture diversity in first or final principles, or to subsume particulars under general concepts. Challenging the logic of the one and the many, Irigaray takes the self-division of nature, its being-two, as a model of autonomous self-development. When Irigaray says that human nature is two, she does not mean that there are two fixed sexual substances, but that to be natural is to be embodied, finite, divided, that the fundamental character of nature is growth through differentiation.

Human nature, in her view, is not disembodied or neutral; it is always distinctively sexed or sexuate, a neologism for sexed, but not necessarily erotic, bodily difference. If human nature is two, and always divided, Irigaray argues, then civil identity is also two and divided; the two of nature needs to be brought into the two of culture. The one is an illusion of patriarchy, while the two threatens the phallocentric order and challenges the supposition that universality must be singular.

The scandalous idea of a feminine subjectivity means that the universal must be doubled.


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Doubling the universal does not, for Irigaray, mean merely replacing a neutral universality something that holds true for all human beings with two wholly distinct and separate truths. A universal that has been doubled has also been split or divided from itself, no longer one, and Irigaray sees in this the possibility for cultivating sexual difference and overcoming a culture of sexual indifference that is dependent on the idea of the generic human.

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If the other has always been formulated on the basis of the same, as merely a specific difference from some underlying generic identity, there has only been complementarity and opposition, there has never been an actual other subject, each with its own path of development. Women have mirrored men's subjectivities, reflected their egos back to them in an illusion of wholeness and unity, submitted to the demand that they perform or masquerade femininity.

Given this criticism of the exploitation of otherness, and despite her criticism of a feminist politics of equality, Irigaray thus cannot be simplistically aligned with the project of difference, if this means asserting features of women's biological or social specificity as essential and innately valuable attributes, since these Irigaray takes to be framed already and in advance by a patriarchal symbolic and imaginary order. Irigaray's affirmation of sexual difference does not mean affirming the feminine traits that have been ascribed to women, since these are actually, in her view, the traits of sexual indifference, defined only with reference to men.

Sexual difference has yet to appear and it is her task to bring it into being. Being-two is counterposed to the metaphysical alteration between the one and the many, with its incessant oscillation between the essentialism of a rigid identity and the laissez-faire contingency, independent of any determining essence, of unlimited multiplicity and atomistic individualism.

It is on the basis of this being-two that Irigaray attempts to build an ethics of sexual difference, a political relation between-two, with civil rights appropriate to sexuate identity, so that one's identity as a citizen is not cut off from the body, and law is not severed from nature. If sexual difference is not simply an effect of oppression, then freedom does not mean freedom from sexed embodiment. While political neutrality can only recognize disembodied subjects deprived of their bodily life, for Irigaray, citizens are not abstractions.

The doubled, non-neutral, universal allows for distinctively feminine and distinctively masculine subjects to be recognized politically. Similarly to Beauvoir, who ascertains that language and culture constitute the subject as masculine, and the feminine as other to him, Irigaray maintains that inhabiting a feminine subjectivity is paradoxical in a fraternal social order. But, for Irigaray, both Beauvoir and Freud fail to address sexual difference insofar as they retain a singular notion of masculine subjectivity, Freud because he presumes the libido is always masculine, and Beauvoir because she reckons the aim of women's emancipation as equality with men for instance by concluding the Second Sex with a call to brotherhood and seeming, arguably, to be calling for women to assimilate to masculine norms of selfhood.

This might seem unnecessary, especially to equality-oriented feminists, since of course, women can, at least in much of the liberal, democratic world, be citizen-subjects, just like men. But Irigaray's point is that women can have the rights of men only so long as they are like men, i. This purportedly equal access to citizenship and subjectivity thus does not resolve the paradox, since it merely takes the side of subjectivity over that of femininity, retaining the constitution of the feminine as lack, the inverted image of man, the other of the same, that which stands in the way of political agency and obstructs autonomy, and which thus must be overcome in order to achieve self-determination.

In the prevailing social contract, femininity and subjectivity remain opposed. Irigaray does not think she can say what a woman is or what femininity is. Familial, social, and symbolic mechanisms of exchange have denied femininity its own images and language, fashioning women through men's language, images, and desires, and thereby producing an apparent, but false, symmetry within a single, monotonous, language. Against this homogeny, with its same and its other, Irigaray construes the production or work of sexual difference, sexual difference as a relation between-two, to be the path toward liberating both femininity and masculinity from their metaphysical and political constraints by allowing them each to cultivate their own interdependent natures.

The idea of a between-two does not mean a singular path that is shared by both, but rather indicates, in addition to the value of a specifically feminine sexual identity and a specifically masculine sexual identity, the ethical path of an intersubjective relationality that allows them to appreciate and value one another. Since the between-two is premised on being-two self-differentiated , it is in the cultivation of this sexual difference that we will find the possibility of an ethical sexual relation, what Irigaray calls an ethics of sexual difference.

For Irigaray, then, contra Lacan, there can be a sexual relation. Irigaray's undertaking thus involves not merely an assertion of difference against equality, nor certainly a simple reversal; such stances take place on the basis of an already existing symbolic order and imaginary relation and are themselves what need to be interrogated.


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  7. Although Irigaray often invokes the maternal as the source of life and subjectivity, she does not equate maternity with femininity or the mother with the woman. She is not an essentialist who views women's biology as their destiny. While often grouped together in cursory overviews of so-called French Feminism, Irigaray and Kristeva have fundamentally disparate projects and locations in the academy , both with regard to their critical analyses and with regard to their political enterprises. Whereas Irigaray was a student of Lacan who breaks with even as she is inspired by his teachings from her earliest work, Kristeva has a much more ambiguous relationship to his school of thought and was never his student or attended his seminars.

    Their respective views can perhaps best be captured with respect to their attitude toward the symbolic violence of castration the Oedipal Complex and the social contract.

    The Emptiness of the Image

    As explained above, Irigaray envisions a sexuate culture that would overcome the Oedipal demands of a sacrificial economy and restore feminine genealogies to the work of civilization. Kristeva, by contrast, argues that there is no subjectivity beyond sacrifice and does not believe Oedipus can or should be overcome.

    Kristeva and Irigaray do not form a cohort and they do not respond to each other's writings. But they both have psychoanalytic training and practices and both attend to the body and the drives, taking up the theme of loss or exile of the mother's body and the impact of matricide on social relations. Kristeva's connection to feminist thought is also unsettled and volatile, although her focus on questions pertaining to language, femininity, and the maternal body has made her work amenable to feminist interest and development. The first generation is universalist in principle and aspires to give women a place within history and the social contract; this generation takes equality as its mission and asserts women's identification with the dominant values of rationality.

    Kristeva aligns Beauvoir with this project of pursuing access to universal subjectivity. The second generation is reactive, rejecting the idea of assimilation to values taken to be masculine; this generation insists on feminine difference. While Kristeva does not mention Irigaray, it seems clear that Kristeva would align her with this strategy and the project of recognizing feminine specificity.

    In Kristeva's view, the first generation is so committed to universal equality that it denies bodily difference, and the second generation is so committed to difference that it refuses to partake of a history it deems to be masculine. The third generation follows neither the path of fixing identity nor the path of neutralizing difference in the medium of universality. Instead it embraces ambiguity and non-identity, respecting both the value of participating in historical time and the ineluctability of bodily difference.