Woman as God, God as Woman: Mysticism, Negative Theology, and Luce Irigaray

by Ann-Marie Priest
Woman as God, God as Woman: Mysticism, Negative Theology, and Luce Irigaray
Ann-Marie Priest
The Journal of Religion
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Woman as God, God as Woman: Mysticism, Negative Theology, and Luce Irigaray

Ann-Marie Priest / Central Queensland University

Many religious writers have pointed to the connections between Derri- dean deconstruction and negative theology. As Roger Williams notes, "in spite of Derrida's disclaimers, it has proved very hard for religious writers not to read the language of trace and dffirance as a negative theology."' There has been less scholarly interest, however, in the connections be- tween negative theology and the work of postmodern feminists on the alterity of woman.2 I want to argue in this article that apophatic mysticism

Roger Williams, "Hegel and the Gods of Postmodernity," in Shadow of Spirit: Postmodern- ism and Religion, ed. Philippa Berry and Andrew Wernick (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 72-80. While Williams, like Daniel Bulzan, is "suspicious" of reading deconstruction as a negative theology (Daniel Bulzan, 'Xpophaticism, Postmodernism and Language: Two Sim- ilar Cases of Theological Imbalance," ScottishJouml of Theology 50, no. 3 [1997]: 261-87), others, like David Tracy, have seen enormous potential in the possibilities unleashed by the absolute alterity, the "true otherness," of God: "A naming of the Divine reality, in our postmodern period, may be found, above all, in the very otherness and difference where God manifests Godself with an interruptive, othering power" (David Tracy, "Literary The- ory and Return of the Forms for Naming and Thinking God in Theology,"Jouml ofReligzon 74, no. 3 [1994]: 302-19, 318). On the connections between deconstruction and negative theology see also Kevin Hart, The Trespass of the Sign: Deconstruction, Theology and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989); and Don Cupitt, Mysticism after Modernity (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1998). Derrida has also written on the connections between his work and negative theology. See Jacques Derrida, "How to Avoid Speaking: Denials," in Languages of the Unsayable: The Play of Negativity in Literature and Literary Theory, ed. Sanford Budick and Wolfgang Iser (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), and On the Name, trans. David Wood, John P: Leavey, Jr., and Ian McLeod (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Univer- sity Press, 1995).

An obvious exception is Amy Hollywood, who suggests an alliance between Irigaray's work and negative theology when she writes that "Irigaray, in her attempt to articulate another conception of the divine as both immanent and transcendent, implicitly allies her- self with apophatic mysticism." Amy Hollywood, "Deconstructing Belief: Irigaray and the Philosophy of Religion," Jouml of Religion 78, no. 2 (1998): 230-46, quote on 245. See also Amy Hollywood, "Beauvoir, Irigaray, and the Mystical," Hypatiu 9, no. 4 (1994): 158-85. Kathryn Bond Stockton makes a related argument in the context of her work on Victorian novelists when she writes that "What 'God' was to Victorian thinkers, 'the body' is to post-

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and negative theology have been vitally important, if largely unacknowl- edged, influences on contemporary feminism-specifically, on that mode of feminist thought known as "difference femini~rn."~

Through an anal- ysis of the work of French philosopher and psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray, I want to suggest that woman-as-other occupies the same place in the texts of postmodern feminism that God occupies in the texts of apophatic mystics. In her groundbreaking early texts, Irigaray appropriates both the methods (the linguistic strategies of "unsaying") and the conceptual framework (the idea of absolute alterity) of apophatic mysticism in devel- oping what might be called a negative theology of "~oman."~

Her texts construct "woman" as apophatic mystics construct God: as an unspeak- able other, irreducible to the terms of a language that would seek to re- make her in its image. In so doing, they posit (by erasing) a "feminine" mode of being that, in evading what Raoul Mortley calls "existential, posi- tional, temporal, qualitative, and moral concepts," is able to evade patri- arch~.~

The disruptive presencetabsence of this "feminine" modality in discourse has the potential, Irigaray's work further suggests, to bring into existence a new symbolic order in which both masculine and feminine will be represented.

Several of Irigaray's texts engage in diverse ways with concepts associ- ated with religion, spirituality, and the di~ine.~

Most recently, she has ar-

structuralist feminists: an object of doubt and speculation but a necessary fiction and an object of faith." Kathryn Bond Stockton, God between Their Lips: Desire between Women in Iri- garay, Bronte, and Eliot (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994), p. 3.

"Difference feminism," often associated with French feminists, is generally distin- guished from "equality feminism," which tends to be associated with Anglo-American femi- nists. Tina Chanter describes these "two conflicting feminist demands" as follows: "On the one hand, there is the desire to be treated as men's equal, and the accompanying unstated presupposition that in all significant respects women are either already, or potentially, similar to men. . . . On the other hand, there is the demand to have women's special needs recognized, and the implicit acknowledgment of the uniquely female character of these needs." Tina Chanter, Ethics of Eros: Irigaray's Rewriting of the Philosophers (New York: Routledge, 1995), p.

23. Difference feminists seek to affirm rather than minimize sexual difference.

I will focus on Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. G. C. Gill (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985), and This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. C. Porter with C. Burke (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985), but my argument also applies, I would sug- gest, to Elemental Passions, trans. J. Collie and J. Still (London: Athlone Press, 1992), and Marine Lover: Of Friedrich Niettrche, trans. G. C. Gill (New York: Cornell University Press, 1991). This article will also refer to Luce Irigaray, Je, Tu, Nous: Toward a Culture of Difference, trans. A. Martin (New York: Routledge, 1993), and ILove to You: Sketch of a Possible Felicity in History, trans. A. Martin (New York: Routledge, 1996).

Raoul Mortley, From Word to Silence: The Way of Negation, Christian and Greek (Bonn: Peter Hanstein, 1986), p. 15.

For instance, in Luce Irigaray, Sexes and Genealogies, trans. G. C. Gill (New York: Colum- bia University Press, 1993), she points to, among other things, the importance of a feminine divine, which would act as a "horizon of accomplishment for my gender" (p. 62), and in An Ethics of Sexuul Difference, trans. C. Burke and G. C. Gill (New York: Cornell University Press, 1993), she argues that the experience of the transcendent that is traditionally associated

gued that personal spiritual practices-specifically those of "Eastern cul- tures," such as yoga-are essential in enabling us to resume "the work of our human becoming," work that the patriarchal Western tradition has arrested for both men and women.' She explicitly connects such practices with her own Christian heritage, explaining, as Penelope Deutscher writes, that "her Roman Catholic background gave her a personal imper- ative to reformulate concepts of becoming divineeW8 In this article, how- ever, I am primarily concerned not with Irigaray's overt engagements with religion but with the ways in which her early texts appropriate and redeploy the strategies of apophatic mysticism as part of their interroga- tion of the concept of "woman" within mainstream philosophical and psy- choanalytic discourses. To see Irigaray's work as a form of negative theol- ogy gives us, as I will argue, a new way of approaching her conception of radical alterity as it relates to sexual difference. My focus is on Irigaray's early work because it is chiefly there that she deploys the linguistic strate- gies of apophasis. Her later work is less experimental in style, arguing for but not enacting the alterity evident in her earlier textsg

But as well as elucidating Irigaray's method and ideas, the analogy that a focus on negative theology reveals between God and woman in Irigar- ay's work also has interesting implications for students of religion. In writ- ing woman as God, Irigaray suggests that God is also woman: not that God is sympathetic to woman or has, somehow, a female sexual identity, but that God is (also) that which is suppressed, appropriated, denied, or simply domesticated by a patriarchal symbolic order. As such, God in God's radical alterity, like woman in hers, possesses the explosive poten- tial of the feminine: to enable new words to be spoken, new meanings

with God provides a model for the relationship between the sexes, writing that the "feeling of surprise, astonishment, and wonder in the face of the unknowable" that is usually "re- served for God" should be "returned to its locus: that of sexual difference" (p. 13).

Luce Irigaray, Between East and West: From Singulan'ty to Community, trans. S. Pluhicek (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p. viii. In this book, Irigaray draws explicitly on her own experiences in practicing yoga and advocates such practices as a means of achieving a necessary "spiritualization of the body and of the senses" (p, viii): "To go back and meditate starting from practices and texts of Eastern cultures . . . can show us a way to carry on our History. It has been like this for me" (pp. 9-10).

Penelope Deutscher, "Review of I Love to You: Sketch for a Felicity within History," Hypatia 13, no. 2 (1998): 170-74, 172. Deutscher is referring specifically to Luce Irigaray's essay, "La redemption des femmes," in Le souffle desfemmes (Paris: ACGF, 1996).

Deutscher writes: "In her recent work . . . while Irigaray speaks to an ideal of cultural heterogeneity, one senses that she does so in lieu of finding means sufficiently complex to enact that heterogeneity. Carolyn Burke has said that Irigaray seems to have set aside her stylistic experiments, her enigmatic work in language, turning to a 'prophetic voice, one that spells out its vision rather than trying to enact it"' (Deutscher, p. 171). For me, the difference between Irigaray's early work and her more recent work is akin to the difference between a mystical text and a theological work-both may deal with the same ideas, but one seeks to embody and the other to describe them.

to emerge, and new possibilities to be conceptualized for both human subjectivity (female and male) and the divine. As an apophatic mystic of "woman," then, Irigaray sheds light on the "womanliness" of God, sug- gesting that God is both a model and an agent for the disruption of patri- archy and the creation of a feminine subjectivity.


In Speculum of the Other Woman, Irigaray writes:

Woman is neither open nor closed. She is indefinite, in-finite,form is never complete in her. She is not infinite but neither is she a unit(y), such as letter, number, figure in a series, proper noun, unique object (in a) world of the senses, simple ideality in an intelligible whole, entity of a foundation, etc. This incompleteness in her form, her morphology, allows her continually to become something else, though this is not to say that she is ever univocally nothing. No metaphor completes her. Never is she this, then that, this and that. . . . But she is becoming that expansion that she neither is nor will be at any moment as definable universe.1°

If "God" were substituted for "woman" in this passage, and the masculine pronoun for the feminine, it would be easy to take Speculum of the Other Woman for a mystical text, and Luce Irigaray for an apophatic mystic. Irigaray writes "woman" as the mystic writes God: as the unknowable, the unspeakable, the absolute other. Compare, for instance, a passage from Pseudo Dionysius: "[God] has no number, order, greatness, smallness, equality, likeness, unlikeness; he neither stands still nor moves, keeps si- lence nor speaks. . . . [H]e has no virtue, nor is he virtue or light; he is not life or substance or age or time; we can understand nothing about him. . . . He is none of the things that have no being, none of the things that have being.. . . Nor is there any way by which we can reach him through reason or understanding: he has no name; we cannot know him; he is neither darkness nor light, error nor truth."" Many of the character- istics of apophatic texts are evident in both these passages: negation, par- adox, contradiction, doubleness. In Irigaray's text, "woman," like God, is that which we can "understand nothing about": she is "in-finite" and yet "not infinite," finite yet without form, "woman" and yet not a "proper noun." She is unrepresentable within language-not a unity, letter, num- ber, figure-and yet she is the subject and/or object of this text. She is always "something else." She cannot be (defined)-she is "neither this nor thatn-yet she is not "nothing." She is, in effect, "none of the things that

lo Irigaray, Speculum ofthe Other Woman, p. 229; ellipsis in original.

l1 Pseudo Dionysius, "Dionysius' Mystical Teaching (Dionise Hid Divinite)," in The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works, ed. B. Radice, trans. Clifton Wolters (London: Penguin, 1978), pp. 205-18, p. 217.

in relation to masculinity. As long as woman is seen as "the complement to man, his inverse, his scraps, his need, his other," she "cannot be truly other. The other that she is remains trapped in the economy or the hori- zon of a single subject."14 I would argue that Irigaray uses both the imag- ery and the textual strategies of mysticism to break out of that horizon, opening up a "space" in which a "truly other" feminine subject can take place. Before exploring the ways in which she does this, I will briefly outline Irigaray's argument about the place of the "feminine" within a patriarchal culture.


In her early works, Irigaray shows how, in canonical philosophical and psychoanalytic texts, "woman's" real otherness is reduced to that of the other-of-the-same. "The feminine" is there, within those discourses-in- deed, her presence as the other-of-the-same guarantees their coherence. But she is also not there: she is not there in her "true otherness," as a "feminine" defined in relation to itself and not in relation to the mascu- line. What Irigaray wants to do, then, is on the one hand identify and make visible the role of the feminine in language-its role as the other-of-the- same, making possible the constitution of the masculine subject, and on the other hand, find traces of the "true otherness" of the feminine that has been repressed, ignored, and erased in the process of creating the feminine as the other-of-the-same. Within the philosophical and psycho- analytic discourses of the Western canon, Irigaray writes, "the feminine must be deciphered as inter-dict: within the signs or between them, be- tween the realized meanings, between the lines . . . and as a function of the (re)productive necessities of an intentionally phallic currency, which, for lack of the collaboration of a (potentially female) other, can immedi- ately be assumed to need its other, a sort of inverted or negative alter ego-'black' too, like a photographic negative."15 What she seeks to "deci- pher" are "those effects of negation that result from or are set in motion through a censure of the feminine [as 'true other'], though the feminine will be allowed and even obliged to return [as 'other-of-the-same'] in such oppositions as: belbecome, havelnot have sex (organ), phalliclnon-phallic, pe- nislclitoris or else penislvagina, pluslminus, clearly representableldark conti- nent, logoslsilence or idle chatter, desire for the motherldesire to be the mother, etc."16 Here Irigaray is alluding specifically to Freud-her critique of Freud's work on femininity centers on his declarations that "the little girl

l4 Irigaray, ILove to You, pp. 61, 63.
I' Irigaray, Speculum ofthe Other Woman (n. 4 above), p. 22; ellipsis in original.
l6 Ibid.

is a little man" and that the "castration complex" for the girl involves her "realisation" that she is castrated, his assumption being that not to have a penis is not to have any sex organs.I7 But these passages are also descrip- tive of Irigaray's work on philosophical texts; according to Irigaray, the "phallic model" used in Freudian psychoanalysis "shares the values prom- ulgated by patriarchal society and culture, values inscribed in the philo- sophical corpus: property, production, order, form, unity, visibility . . . and erection."18 In effect, the place where "the feminine" appears within language-as the negative value in the phallogocentric pairings that un- derwrite Western metaphysics-is the place where the feminine also dis- appears: disappears as "true other," that is. Irigaray seeks to mark these places and to explore what is at stake in the discursive repression and curtailment of the feminine: "Whence the necessity of 'reopening' the figures of philosophical discourse-idea, substance, subject, transcen- dental subjectivity, absolute knowledge-in order to pry out of them what they have borrowed that is feminine, from the feminine, to make them 'render up' and give back what they owe the feminine."lg

Within philosophical discourse, Irigaray finds "the feminine" in "mat- ter" (the devalued "other" of form), "fluids" (the other of the single and the unified), "caves" (an image of the hidden, or repressed, foundations of discourse and subjectivity), and "mirrors," among other figures. In psy- choanalytic discourse, she sees the feminine in the unconscious and in the hysteric, as well as, again, in the mirror. The mirror is one of Irigaray'~ most pervasive figures for woman, expressing her sense that "woman's" role within discourse is to reflect masculinity, to serve as the means by which "man" establishes a relation with his own reflection, a "specular" relation with himself. As a mirror, confined to the function of reflection, woman cannot herself appear (in language, in the symbolic order)-that is, she cannot appear as herself, in her "true otherness." She is merely "the foundation for this specular duplication, giving man back 'his' image and repeating it as the 'same.'. . . Woman will therefore be this same- ness-or at least its mirror image-and, in her role of mother, she will facilitate the repetition of the same, in contempt for her difference. Her own sexual differen~e.''~~

l7 For instance, speaking of Freud's theory of "penis envy," Irigaray asks: "How can we accept the idea that woman's entire sexual development is governed by her lack of, and thus by her longing for, jealousy of, and demand for, the male organ? Does this mean that wom- an's sexual evolution can never be characterized with reference to the female sex itself? All Freud's statements describing feminine sexuality overlook the fact that the female sex might possibly have its own 'specificity'" (Irigaray, This Sex [n. 4 above], p. 69).

l8 Ibid., p. 86; ellipsis in original.

l9 Ibid., p. 74.

20 Irigaray, Speculum ofthe Other Woman, p. 54.

The one who has "contempt" for sexual difference here is not in fact "woman" but Freud, who perpetuates the patriarchal values of his culture by failing to question those values, refusing to "investigate the historical factors governing the data with which he is dealing."21 It is Freud's dis- course that, in keeping with philosophical discourse, constructs woman as the "same" as man (that is, the other-of-the-same), in contempt for her difference: "He defines sexual difference by giving a priori value to Sameness. . . . Heir to an 'ideology' that he does not call into question, Freud asserts that the 'masculine' is the sexual model, that no representa- tion of desire can fail to take it as the standard, can fail to submit to it."'" The reinvention of Freudian psychoanalysis by Jacques Lacan, though it takes "discourse" rather than "anatomy" as "the object of its investiga- tions," merely reinscribes the masculine as the standard for subjectivity: "The sexes are now defined only as they are determined in and through language. Whose laws, it must not be forgotten, have been prescribed by male subjects for centuries."" Psychoanalytic discourse, Irigaray argues, reveals the "logic of truth" that underpins philosophical discourse: "namely, that the feminine occurs only within models and laws devised by male subjects. Which implies that there are not really two sexes, but only one. A single practice and representation of the sexual. With its history, its requirements, reverses, lacks, negative(s) . . . of which the female sex is the main~tay."'~

It is in this sense, then, that "woman" occupies the "mystical" position of the unspeakable: the female sex cannot be spoken within a language given over to the representation of the male sex, just as the divine cannot be spoken within a language given over to the representation of the hu- man. To speak (of) "her" is to subject her to a logic and to forms of repre- sentation that are alien to her. Irigaray describes woman's position within patriarchal language in the same terms that apophatic mystics use to write of their own existence within a material world: as a form of e~ile.'~

2L Irigaray, This Sex, p. 70. This is a point Irigaray repeats. Later in This Sex, e.g., she argues that in refusing to "interpret the historical determinants of its discourse . . . and in particular what is implied by the up to now exclusively masculine sexualization of the appli- cation of its laws, [psychoanalysis] remains caught up in phallocentrism, which it claims to make into a universal and eternal value" (pp. 102-3).

22 Ibid., p. 72.

23 Ibid., p. 87.

24 Ibid., p. 86 (ellipsis in original).

25 Ulrike Weithaus writes that a "mystic's experience of union and the inherent annihila- tion of the self is often conceptualized as a return 'home' from a life of alienation" (Ulrike Weithaus, Ecstatic Transformation: Transpersonal Psychology in the Work of Mechthild of Magdeburg [New York: Syracuse University Press, 19961, p. 53). In terms of the tradition of negative theology, this can be understood as a return to the "starting point" of Platonic philosophy- that pure state from which all being emanates. Similarly, Brunn and Epiney-Burgard write of how in becoming nothing, the mystic soul is annihilating "what she is in her individual,

She argues that, lacking valid representations of their sex in language, women "are so irremediably cut off from their 'self-affection' that from the outset, and in particular from the time of the Oedipus complex, they are exiled from themselves, and lacking any possible continuity/contigu- ity with their first desires/pleasures, they are imported into another econ- omy, where they are completely unable to find them~elves."'~ This "im- portation" involves the loss not only of a language but of pleasures and desires that are specific to the feminine.


In her book on Irigaray and European philosophy, Ethics of Eros, Tina Chanter puts Irigaray's conception of "true otherness" in context with the work of other European philosophers, identifying both continuities and ruptures. She cites Simone de Beauvoir's Hegelian conception of the other: "The subject can be posed only in being opposed-he sets himself up as the essential, as opposed to the other, the inessential, the obje~t."~' For both Beauvoir and Irigaray, it is "woman" who is "the other, the ines- sential, the object," the one who enables the "subject" to constitute him- self, who provides the defining "not-self" against which the "self" can be established. But, Chanter argues, Beauvoir's thinking of otherness re- mains limited: "Insofar as Beauvoir retains the Hegelian idea that 'true alterity-otherness, is that of a consciousness separate from mine and substantially identical with mine' . . . , she does not carry out her own project of thinking woman as other, from a woman's point of view." In- stead, she sees "otherness" as something women need to overcome, so that her "final message is that sexual difference should be eradicated and women must become like men." According to Chanter's reading, then, Irigaray takes up the challenge Beauvoir declined-that of rereading women's otherness as radical alterity. For Irigaray, Chanter writes, "women need not be exclusively one, nor rigidly other; rather they can be both one and other."28

Chanter goes on to argue that Irigaray's conception of the "true other- ness" of woman is informed by Levinas's idea of alterity. Chanter writes that "in asking about the possibilities for women to be radically different

created, and separated being (the being that today would be called ego)" in order that "she can find again in God her original, non-separated being." In other words, her human existence is, for the mystic, a form of exile from herself. Emilie Zum Brunn and Georgette Epiney-Burgard, Women Mystics in Medieval Europe, trans. S. Hughes (New York: Paragon House, 1989), p. xxxii.

26 Irigaray, Thb Sex, p. 133. 27 Chanter (n. 3 above), p. 55 (quoting Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. H. M. Parshley [New York: Knopf, 19541, p. xx). Chanter, pp. 75, 76, 77.

or to be other in a radical way, Irigaray is influenced by Levinas' critique of metaphysics as the systematic suppression of alterity. Both Irigaray and Levinas challenge the logic of metaphysics whereby one cannot conceive of otherness without referring back to the concept of the same as the guiding principle." By the standards established by metaphysics, Chanter writes, "what Levinas proposes-to think the other in a way that is not reducible to the same-is quite literally unthinkable, as he himself con- cedes and as Derrida confirms." For me, it is precisely this-the attempt to think the unthinkable-that Irigaray attempts, and that puts her work into the realm of the mystical. Chanter writes that Irigaray's work poses "the difficulty of thinking otherness at all": "Or rather, since to speak of the other by resorting to the concept of otherness is already to embrace the very contradiction Irigaray sees in any attempt to make otherness a problem, we might say Irigaray's project is to raise the question ofthe possi- bility of speaking otherwise. How do we become other than this other that history has designated us? Can we think women as other without systema- tizing otherness, without construing it in terms of the totalizing discourse that defines woman as other?"" What Chanter describes here in relation to "women as other" is the same dilemma mystics face in relation to God, the ultimate other: it is impossible to "think," speak, write beyond the bounds of language; but to use language, to use the word "other," is al- ready to contain "otherness"-just as to use the word "God" is already to change what God "is." Nevertheless, it is possible, as mystics show, to insist on the possibility of otherness, to gesture toward it within language, and to posit and try to move toward a "space" outside of language.


Mystics try to move toward this "space" through the use of the linguistic techniques of "apophasis"-what Michael A. Sells calls the "languages of unsaying." Sells argues that claims of ineffability constitute an aporia in the mystic text: "Any statement of ineffability, 'X is beyond names,' gener- ates the aporia that the subject of the statement must be named (as X) in order for us to affirm that it is beyond names." Having once named the "transcendent" (even if simply as "the transcendent"), the mystic must then erase that naming-but that act of erasure constitutes in itself a new

29 Chanter, pp. 173, 174, 176-77. Though Chanter argues that Irigaray was influenced by Levinas, she also emphasizes that this influence has its limits and that Irigaray is very critical of what she sees as Levinas's phallogocentrism. For instance, Levinas imagines an "eros" in which the "borders of self and other" are blurred (p. 215), but "it is only at the expense of female desire and female subjectivity that male desire succeeds in transcending the body, exceeding the limited model of need and satisfaction that structures enjoyment, and breaking out of the egoism of the self. To be responsible for others, the message is, you have to be a man" (p. 2 18).

naming, which must be erased in its turn. For Sells, the resulting "linguis- tic regress" is the foundation of mystic language: "The regress is har- nessed and becomes the guiding semantic force, the dynamis,of a new kind of language."30

The basic semantic unit of this language is, Sells argues, the "double sentence" or "double proposition." Meaning emerges through the juxta- position of mutually contradictory propositions. As Sells explains, any positive statement about the transcendent cannot be true, as the tran- scendent transcends language; it must therefore be contradicted or modi- fied by another statement. But that statement, because it also takes place in language, is also untrue and must be "unsaid" in its turn: "Each state- ment I make-positive or 'negative'-reveals itself as in need of correc- tion. The correcting statement must then itself be corrected, ad infini- tum. The authentic subject of discourse slips continually back beyond each effort to name it or even to deny its nameability." Meaning becomes entirely contingent, appearing for a tantalizing moment only to be erased: "As Plotinus said, as soon as one thinks one has it, one has lost it. It is glimpsed only in the interstices of the text, in the tension between the saying and the ~nsaying."~'

Something must be said, and yet nothing can be said; no statement can be left to stand, yet statements must be made before they can be erased. The "subject" of the mystical text both "is" and is "not that."

For Raoul Mortley, the "negative method is . . . a systematic attempt to disestablish ordinary thought." It is an attempt to enable "thought" to jump "beyond itself to other levels of being and experience." Mystical texts do this through (among other methods) the consistent use of para- dox. As Mortley explains, contradiction is a linguistic technique that "shocks" the mind "onto a different plane of understanding." He cites the Zen Koans as an instance of this: "[They] carry many such puzzles which

Michael A. Sells, Mystical Lanpges of Unsaying (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 2. For de Certeau, too, mystics is a distinctive, characteristic mode of discourse that he calls a "language." He argues that in historical terms, this language grew out of the tension between Latin and the vernacular, the so-called vulgar tongues that developed throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, and cites the argument made by Diego of Jesus, an apologist for the mystical writings of John of the Cross, that mystics have special license to coin words and phrases because their work "treats of very lofty, very sacred, and very secret things," concerns "experience more than speculation," and "consists more in taste and divine savor than in knowledge" (Michel de Certeau, TheMystic Fable, trans. M. B. Smith [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 19921, pp. 137-38). For De Certeau, however, mystics did not experience a "reality" for which there were no words but rather created that reality through their writing: "The act of naming invented a new land . . . as Adam did for the first time" (p. 133).

3' Sells, pp. 21, 2 , 8. The following summary of Sells's work has been adapted from my article on Henry James's use of apophasis; Ann-Marie Priest, "'In the Mystic Circle': The Space of the Unspeakable in Henry James's TheSacred Fount," Style 34 (2000): 421-43.

aim to tease the mind out of ordinary rational patterns of thought." Con- tradiction in negative theology "arises out of a desire to supercede lan- guage, just as the via negativa does. Both manoeuvres are examples of speculative philosophy trying to cause language to rise above itself, to move out of its own limits." The premise of such "experiments" with lan- guage is that "the normal rules of discourse place artificial limits on the capacity of the intelligence." Negation and contradiction are "attempts to interfere with the usual structure of language, in order to cause it to pro- duce different results, to get it to play another tune, as it were."32

It is this attempt to make language "play another tune" that Irigaray, like the mystic, tries to do. In her recent book Between East and West, Irigaray comments that "the way of negative theology-perhaps imagined by humble Beguines before its use in the discourse of the mystic of the Rhine-should be followed today by all philosophers, men and women, in order to be in accord with the truth of 'being I' and of 'being ~e'."~~ While her work in Speculum of the Other Woman and This Sex does not ex- plicitly align itself with this "way," the influence of those "humble Beguines" on her writing is signaled in the brief but crucial essay on mys- ticism, "La Mysterique," that appears in Speculum of the Other Woman, and that, as Hollywood points out, closely mimics the writing of Angela of F01igno.~~

The connections between Irigaray's own project and Angela's

32 Mortley (n. 5 above), pp. 25, 13, 237, 238, 239, 240.

33 Irigaray, Between East and West, (n. 7 above), pp. 100-101. Irigaray's argument here ap- pears to be that Western philosophy should learn the art of silent attention from negative theology: "Respect for other as irreducible to oneself," she writes, calls for "absolute silence"

(p. 100). Negative theology does not attempt to control the other but instead makes a space for the other, enabling one to achieve in relationship with the other a nonappropriative knowing that is a kind of unknowing: i.e., to participate in "the construction of a truth unknown to the self alone" (p. 101).

34 Irigaray does, however, demonstrate familiarity with negative theology in these early works, wondering in This Sex (n. 4 above), if "psychoanalysis, in its greatest logical rigor, [might] be a negative theology? Or rather the negative of theology? Since what is postulated as the cause of desire is lack as such" (p. 89). She comments that psychoanalysis neglects "the movement of negative theology, . . . the work on projections, whereby God is disin- vested of worldly predicates, and of all predication," and suggests that the reason for this neglect is that the process of "disinvestment" is also the disempowering of the phallus: "The phallic obstacle struggles against letting itself be disappropriated" (p. 89). This in turn sug- gests that she sees the project of negative theology as having at least some points of contact with her own project-that stripping away "predication," a process that takes place in lan- guage, is also the stripping away of phallogocentrism. Angela of Foligno was not, in fact, a Beguine, though she is often associated with the Beguine movement, and her life coincided with the rise of the Beguines and the "great flowering" of mysticism associated with them, as Paul Lachance explains in the introduction to his translation of Angela's Complete Works (Angela of Foligno, Complete Worh, trans. P: Lachance [New York: Paulist Press, 19931, pp. 36-39). The idea that Angela's work represents an authentically female voice has been chal- lenged by those who, like Hollywood and Cristina Mazzoni, point out that Angela's text was written not by her but by a male scribe known as Arnaldo. Lachance emphasizes that Ar- naldo is the "artisan of [her book's] composition" (p. 51) and that her words "were filtered

are evident in the seamless way in which the two texts are interwoven. In fact, I would argue that "La Mysterique" provides the missing "clue" to the otherwise difficult style of Speculum of the Other Woman, enabling it to be read as a form of apophatic subversion of discourse. In Irigaray's texts, "woman," not God, is the Platonic "starting point" that grounds her apo- phatic "strippings away." Like the Divine, "woman" is constructed as that which is utterly unknown, entirely hypothetical, finally ~nspeakable.~~ And like the Divine, "woman" has to be freed of all the material accretions of language and culture that have obscured her. Irigaray emphasizes repeatedly that the feminine identity that women assume within the sym- bolic order is an accretion, a mask-that women simply enact the femi- ninity that a phallogocentric culture imposes on them.36 But this mas- querade, this "mime," does not contain them: "They are not simply resorbed in this function. They also remain el~ewhere."~' For her, "[Woman] still subsists, otherwise and elsewhere than there where she mimes so well what is asked of her. Because her own 'self' remains foreign to the whole staging. . . . Her sex is heterogeneous to this whole economy of represen- tation, but it is capable of interpreting that economy precisely because it

by him" (p. 52). Complicating matters further, Arnaldo represents Angela as saying that his account of her words utterly fails to do justice to her meaning (pp. 137-38). As Irigaray argues that all texts, whether authored by women or men, are mediated by patriarchy (a position I explore later in this article) she would be unlikely to claim that Angela speaks from the place of the "feminine" simply by virtue of being biologically female. Nevertheless, it seems clear that for her, Angela's text does gesture toward the "truly other." Hollywood, "Beauvoir, Irigaray, and the Mystical" (n. 2 above), p. 179, n. 7. Cristina M. Mazzoni, "Femi- nism, Abjection, Transgression: Angela of Foligno and the Twentieth Century:' Mystics Quurterly 17, no. 2 (1991): 61-70, p. 63.

35 In "Beauvoir, Irigaray, and the Mystical," Hollywood argues that in making a connec- tion between "the mystery of feminine desire and the unspeakability of the mystic's God"


70), Irigaray is drawing on Jacques Lacan's seminar of 1972, Encore, "in which he interro- gates the relationship between woman, God, and jouirsance" (p. 159). Irigaray engages spe- cifically with Encore in her essay "Cosi Fan Tutti" in This Sex, asking whether, in Lacan's discourse, "that ineffable, ecstatic pleasure [of women] take[s] the place, for men, of a Su- preme Being, whom they need narcissistically but who ultimately eludes their knowledge? Does it not occupy-for them-the role of God?" (p. 97). For her, though, Lacan's work in this area is inadequate: he can recognize an "otherness" in women's desire only in the pro- cess of reinscribing it within male "laws" and subjecting it to a masculine "ethic," she argues


97). The possibility he appeared to open up of restoring "some chance for the sexual pleasure of the other-woman" by putting "the accent back on space" he simultaneously closed by "bringing it back inside the logic of the subject . . . giving an over-and-beyond back over to the same" (p. 98).

S6 Irigaray explains that the "masquerade" of femininity is "in particular, what Freud calls 'femininity.' The belief, for example, that it is necessary to become a woman, a 'normal' one at that, whereas a man is a man from the outset. He has only to effect his being-a-man, whereas a woman has to become a normal woman, that is, has to enter into the masquerade offmininity. In the last analysis, the female Oedipus complex is woman's entry into a system of values that is not hers, and in which she can 'appear' and circulate only when enveloped in the needsidesireslfantasies of others, namely, men" (Irigaray, This Sex, p. 134).

37 Ibid., p. 76.

has remained 'outside.' . . . Because it remains somewhere else than in that general repetition where it is taken up only as the otherness of same- ne~s."~~

Woman is "otherwise and elsewhere," "foreign," "heterogeneous," "outside," "somewhere else." She is "other" not in relation to man but in relation to language itself, to the very discursive system that establishes "male" and "female" (and that is dominated by what Irigaray calls the "masculine imaginary"). As the unspeakable, unthinkable "other," woman does not exist-or rather, like God, she "exists," but she "is" "neither this nor that."


The question Irigaray is addressing, then, is one of how the feminine as "true other" can come into being within language-come into being, that is, without being reduced to "being," because "being" is a property of the masculine within phallocentric discourses. As she asks in This Sex, "What can be said about a feminine sexuality 'other' than the one prescribed in, and by, phallocratism? How can its language be recovered, or invented?" If to speak of God in human language is to reduce him to the material, "to speak of or about woman may always boil down to, or be understood as, a recuperation of the feminine within a logic that maintains it in re- pression, censorship, nonrecognition." To speak "of or about woman," then, always involves not speaking about woman. In This Sex, Irigaray repeatedly returns to this problem, which I see as being the origin of apophasis: that is, the problem of how to speak of the other without speaking, how to make the ineffable present within language without re- ducing it to the logic of that language. She insists that "there is no simple manageable way to leap to the outside of phallogocentrism, nor any possible way to situate oneself there that would result from the simple fact of being a woman."39Nevertheless, it is the "outside" of phallogocentrism and, in- deed, of discourse, with which she is concerned-a hypothetical or imagi- nary space from which, and within which, the feminine can be imagined without being subjected to the logic of phallogocentrism. But she also makes it clear that this "outside" is not a space that anyone-even a woman-has easy access to. It has to be created-hypothesized, imagined-and it has to be created through and in language, by "work- ing" both in and on language.

Like the mystic who seeks to bring God into language by holding God always out of its reach and representing instead language's failure, Iri- garay also seeks to create a space for the representation of woman-as-

Ibid., p. 152.
39 Ibid., pp. 119, 78, 162

true-other by drawing attention to language's failure to represent her. Woman cannot find her own other, her true otherness, "within the same type of utterance as the one that guarantees discursive coherence." Thus "discursive coherence" must be sacrificed. In both Speculum of the Other Woman and This Sex Irigaray proposes (and at times practices) a kind of writing that, like mystical writing, works directly against logic, reason, stable reference, and the attribution of consistent meaning. She suggests that women insist on "those blanks in discourse which recall the places of her exclusion": "Reinscribe them hither and thither as divergencies, otherwise and elsewhere than they are expected, in ellipses and eclipses that deconstruct the logical grid of the reader-writer, drive him out of his mind, trouble his vision to the point of incurable diplopia at least." In other words, she seeks to direct attention to the gaps in language, its failures, its moments of uncertainty-those spaces that witness, as "blanks," absences, failures of coherence, to the unspeakable. She wants to use those spaces to frustrate meaning, even to the point of insanity. By driving the reader-writer "out of his mind," she is driving him out of the stronghold of phallogocentrism-to a space equivalent to the (imaginary) outside of language. If woman is to take (her) place within language as "truly other," it can only be through hints, allusions, the work of the nega- tive. By speaking "only in riddles, allusions, hints, parables," she argues, the writer of the feminine can open a space for the other: "Why not double the misprision to the limit of exasperation? Until the ear tunes into another music, the voice starts to sing again, the very gaze stops squinting over the signs of auto-representation, and (re)production no longer inevitably amounts to the same and returns to the same forms, with minor variation^."^^ Like the mystic, Irigaray wants to make audible an "other" music-in Mortley's terms, to make language "play another tune." She wants to direct the gaze away from the visible, to make conceiv- able an "other" representation and reproduction, "different" forms. And to do this, she has to use language against itself.

In This Sex she emphasizes, among other strategies, the need for the kind of double discourse that Sells argues is the characteristic mode of apophatic mysticism: "Let us say that every dichotomizing-and at the same time redoubling-break, including the one between enunciation and utterance, has to be disrupted. Nothing is ever to be posited that is not also reversed and caught up again in the supplementarzty of this reversal." Irigaray is proposing a discourse of erasure-not a simple negation, a single "unsaying," but a continuing "undoing," the mystic's unsaying of an unsaying. The result is that "linear reading is no longer possible: that

40 Ibid., p. 78; Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman (n.4 above),pp. 142, 143.

is, the retroactive impact of the end of each word, utterance, or sentence upon its beginning must be taken into consideration in order to undo the power of its teleological effect, including its deferred action." Reading itself, the process of meaning making, is disrupted, and teleology is "un- done." And the purpose of this "language work" is to "cast phallocentrism, phallocratism, loose from its mooringsv-and thus to enable an "other" language, an other "being," to take place.41

What this other language might be is also, fittingly, unspeakable. Iri- garay writes that it is impossible even to imagine the forms discourse might take if it was based on two "syntaxes," one specific to the female and one to the male: "Their distribution and demarcation and articulation necessitate operations as yet nonexistent, whose complexity and subtlety can only be guessed at without prejudicing the results. Without a teleol- ogy already in operation somewhere."42 Even to imagine this hypothetical "double syntax" is already to construct it in the mold of the "same9'-to "prejudice the results," to impose a "teleology." This is why mystical lan- guage is necessary-as a means of evading this reduction to, this repro- duction of, "the same." Through the strategies of apophasis, the feminine as "true otherM-unthinkable, unspeakable-can take place.


This Sex Which Is Not One includes a chapter of questions which were put to Irigaray in a variety of forums following the publication of Speculum of the Other Woman. The first of these is the question "Are you a woman?" Irigaray responds, " 'I' am not 'I,' I am not, I am not one."43This is a powerful disavowal not of femininity as such but of "being," of subjectiv- ity. It is as though she is saying I am not that ("I") which represents me in language; I am not identical with myself; I am not a subject of predica- tion; I am not a single, unified entity-in other words, I am not. Yet, of course, as the mystic knows, to say "I am not" is a logical impossibility. To speak, even when that speech act is a denial of subjectivity, is to (re)con- struct oneself as "I"-as a subject within language. To say "I am not" is to contradict oneself, to "unsay" one's own words.

Evidently Irigaray wants to escape, on behalf of "woman," from subjec- tivity-specifically, from that subjectivity which is the province of the masculine. But because that subjectivity is the only (coherent) subjectivity, inscribed in language, underpinning all discourse, any "other" subjectiv- ity is unthinkable, unspeakable, ineffable. It can only be approached,

41 Irigaray, This Sex, pp. 79-80.

42 Ibid., p. 139.

43 Ibid., p. 120.

then, through mysticism-through the apophatic strategies of paradox, contradiction, oxymoron, and irony, in which the possibility of an "other" subjectivity can be posited only because it is simultaneously swept away. The "subject" of apophatic discourse-both God and the mystic who is "annihilatedu-is not a subject. As Sells explains, "the transcendent is not a thing, an entity. It is not being, a being, or substance. It is no-thing, nothing," but because language is ontological-"any naming or nondia- lectical description will inevitably lead to an object reified in temporal, spatial and ontological categories"-the mystical text must continually turn back "upon the spatial, temporal, and ontological reifications it has posed." Similarly, Irigaray's use of language is self-consciously dis-onto- theo-logical. For her, woman is "not a thing, an entityw-and thus is out of reach of discourse, always exceeding "any naming or nondialectical description" that would reify her. In Speculum, she spells out this nonex- istence of woman in relation to the categories set out by Aristotle: "Theo- retically there would be no such thing as woman. She would not exist. The best that can be said is that she does not exist yet. . . . Outside of this process [of the constitution of being] is nothing: outside of this process is the nothing that is woman. She alone is in a position-perhaps?-to question her function in this all-powerful 'machine' we know as meta- physics, in that omnipotent 'technique' of onto-theology."44 Mystical dis- course does not shrink from casting God as "nothing" while not ceasing for a moment to believe in "him." He is nothing that can be said-but this formulation, like the question about her gender put to Irigaray, hints at a "something" that cannot be said (a "something" that, because it is not an entity or a thing, is, mystically, paradoxically, "nothing"). In the same way, Irigaray casts woman as "nothingv-no such thing, nothing that ex- ists. And yet at the same time she gives "nothing" a name and an identity: "woman." While thus writing "woman" off, or out, she continues to invoke her as the "subject" of her own discourse, assigning her (she who does not exist) an active role, for instance, in questioning metaphysics. All the while, she is careful to "undo" her own namings and predications so that "woman" takes place within her texts always in a cloud of bafflement, as that which both is and is not. Like Sells's mystics, Irigaray is careful always to unsay the "spatial, temporal, and ontological reifications" her texts in- evitably pose.

44 Sells (n. 30 above), p. 208; Irigaray, Speculum ofthe Other Woman, p. 166. On Irigaray's use of language as self-consciously dis-onto-theo-logical, see, e.g., This Sex (n. 4 above), where she writes: "The issue is not one of elaborating a new theory of which woman would be the subject or the object, but ofjamming the theoretical machinery itself. . . . Which pre- supposes that women . . . do not claim to be rivaling men in constructing a logic of the feminine that would still take the onto-theologic as its model, but that they are rather at- tempting to wrest this question away from the economy of the logos" (p. 78).

In mystical texts, the annihilation and transformation of the mystic in the experience of mystic union puts referential language-the language of onto-theology-under extreme duress. As Sells puts it, "at the moment of mystical union, the undoing of self-other, before-after, and here-there distinctions is reflected in radical grammatical and semantic transforma- tions." Sells specifically identifies confusions and fusions of pronouns, a failure to distinguish between reflexive and nonreflexive action, and a destabilization of "temporal and spatial dualisms" through transforma- tions of prepositions. By writing about mystical union, the mystic "un- says" her own identity. Sells writes that the "soul annihilated in love of the divine no longer exists in the formal sense as a subject that wills and acts."45 Sells's qualifier-"in the formal sensew-indicates that in some other sense the "soul" does still exist. Her "subjectivity," however, is un- speakable-it is different from that "formal" subjectivity that exists and is recognized as such within language. It escapes, in other words, what Irigaray calls the "economy of the logos." The key to this "escape," for the mystic, is her relationship with the unknowable other. It is in the relation between self and (divine) other that subject-object distinctions are done away with, dualities overcome, time and eternity brought together. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that this mystical relationship between self and other appears everywhere in Irigaray's early texts as a kind of model or precursor of the "true otherness" of "woman." Not only God but the mystic herself, in her disontological relationship with God, is a model for the "true otherness" of woman.


In ILove to You, Irigaray argues that "a new economy of existence or be- ing" is needed in which the subject may be "reconstituted in a different way." In this new economy, the relation between self and other is not phallic but mystical, as she suggests in This Sex. "She herself enters into a ceaseless exchange of herself with the other without any possibility of identifying either." The distinction between self and other is confounded: " 'She' is indefinitely other in herself." This is the source of her "mystery," the grounds of her nonexistence: "She is neither one nor two. Rigorously speaking, she cannot be identified either as one person, or as two. She resists all adequate definition." Further, women do not have the "interior- ity" that the male subject has: "Within themselves means within the intimacy of that silent, multiple, dijjfuse In trying to rough out a space within language for a nonphallic subjectivity, then, Irigaray's texts once again

Sells, pp. 208, 208-9, 130.
46 Irigaray, ILove to You (n. 4 above), p. 43;Irigaray, This Sex, pp. 31, 28, 26, 29.

draw close to those of mystics. The exchange between two in which iden- tity is not formed but lost, the transgressing of the boundaries between self and other in the placing of the other within the self, the resistance to any single definition, and perhaps most of all the "intimacy" of "touch" that defines interiority could all be descriptions of the mystic's state of annihilation, or beyond-being, in mystic union.

In the essay "This Sex Which Is Not One," from which the above quota- tions are taken, Irigaray is, famously, using an image based on female morphology to invoke this "different" relation between self and other: that of the "two lips" of women's sex. It is the "contact of at least two (lips)" that, for Irigaray, "keeps woman in touch with herself, but without any possibility of distinguishing what is touching from what is t~uched."~' This is an attempt both to represent woman's sex within language and to use that representation as the basis of an "other" model of subjectivity, and in that way it counters the dominant model of subjectivity, which, Irigaray argues, is based on images and representations of the phallus. But the figure of women's "lips" is itself a reworking, I would suggest, of a set of figures borrowed from mystical texts, figures that Irigaray ex- plores (and exploits) in "La Myste'rique."

That essay uses many classic mystical images (drawn overwhelmingly from Angela of Foligno) in depicting mystic union. Irigaray writes that the mystic's union with her divine Other is a "marriage of the unknow- ablen-both God and the mystic having "renounced modes and attri- butes" and freely offering "the self in all its nakedness." She sees it as an ecstatic union in which "being" is obliterated: "[The soul] is wedded only in the abolition of all power, all having, all being, that is founded else- where and otherwise than in this embrace of fire whose end is past con- ception." This is a free exchange of self and other in which neither can be identified: "Each becomes the other in consumption, the nothing of the other in consummation. Each will not in fact have known the identity of the other, has thus lost self-identity except for a hint of an imprint." There is no possibility of extracting a self-constituting relationship of dis- tance and separation from this "cauldron": "I am to you as you are to me, you take pleasure with me as with you I take pleasure in the rejoicing of this reciprocal living-and identifying-together. In this cauldron of identification will melt, mingle, and melt again these reversing matrices of our last embraces." Irigaray's own text begins to mimic the mystic text, frustrating the assignation of identity through pronominal and referen- tial confusions: "Now I know itlmyself and by knowing, I love idmyself and by loving, I desire itlmy~elf."~~

For the self who has been transformed

" Irigaray, This Sex (n. 4 above),p. 26.
Irigaray, Speculum ofthe Other Woman, pp. 196, 200.

into the other, retaining only the "hint of an imprint," pronouns become inadequate-"it" must be immediately rewritten as "myself," but "myself" does not obliterate "it." The subject of the utterance is undecidable, and so "identity" remains in abeyance. What the mystic "knows," loves, and desires in her "embrace of fire" is both self and other.

For Irigaray, mysticism is a "place" in which subjectivity is thought dif- ferently, takes place differently. When the mystic plunges into this "abyss" of consciousness, this unspeakable place of unknowing, she is stripped of all attributes, of all those qualities that define "being," that constitute the "subject": "An abyss that swallows up all persons, all names, even proper names. For in fact all properties (and proprieties) will have to be shed to continue this penetration. Love, wish, affection, delight, interest, profit must all go as they are still related to a self-as-same, clothing it in a surplus value whose deceptive and treacherous charms are felt only by one who has yet to experience union in its most outrageous nakedne~s."~~

In giving up her "name" (an assertion that echoes Porete's claim that the unencum- bered soul "loses her name"),jO the mystic loses her capacity to be identi- fied, distinguished, and thus to be an object of exchange in patriarchal society. This is a crucial concept in Irigaray's work: she argues that the ability to enumerate individual women, to "divide them up into unities," is essential to their role as objects of exchange between men. In losing her "person" and her "name," as well as all (known, phallic) properties, the mystic moves out of the reach of this phallic economy. No longer subject, she is also no longer the object of the subject. Even positive values-"love, wish, affection, delightn-partake of the "economy of the same" and thus serve to reinscribe it. And so the mystic moves beyond those, too. Her "nakedness," then, is, for Irigaray, a putting off of the "clothes" of femininity, which she describes in This Sex as being those "needs/desires/fantasies of others, namely men" that "envelope" woman when she enters into the symbolic order. Once "la mysterique" has stripped away "all attributes that will soon sink to the bottom of the bottomless," she ceases to exist-as a subject. The "I" no longer (knows where it) stands: "Fire flares up in the inexhaustible abundance of her under- ground source and is matched with an opposing but congruent flood that sweeps over the 'I' in an excess of excess. Yet, burning, flowing along in a wild spate of waters, yearning for even greater abandon, the 'I' is empty still, ever more empty, opening wide in rapture of soul."51 The "I," marker

49 Ibid., p. 194.

j0 Porete (n. 13 above), p. 138.

51 Irigaray, This Sex, p. 134, Speculum ofthe Other Woman (n. 4 above), pp. 194, 193. The idea that the ability to enumerate individual women is essential to their role as objects of exchange between men is explored particularly in Luce Irigaray, "Women on the Market" (pp. 170-91) and "Commodities among Themselves" (pp. 192-97), both in This Sex, and is

of discursive identity, sign of subjectivity, is lost in mystical discourse: set aflame, flooded, emptied of meaning, opened to the other.

The apophatic stripping away of "attributes" from both God and the mystic herself, then, is for Irigaray the stripping away of phallogo- centrism. The annihilation of the self in mysticism is not death but the annihilation of the phallic. The mystic is "already caught, enveloped in various representations, in different configurations and chains that lead her, bit by bit, back to her unity." It is these representations and configu- rations that she has to throw off in order to be able to elude "unity," to escape "her own form, or substance," the markers of phallic "being." She has to "flee the logic that has framed her thusn-and this means fleeing "truth," moving from light into a "night . . . beyond the mind's specula- tion, beyond theoretical contemplation, even that centered upon Being itself." For Irigaray, then, the mystical light-darkness is a "knowledge," "truth," and "being" that are incomprehensible as such-that are outside the phallic order. What is left after this process of annihilation-the excess or remainder-forms the basis of a new, authentically "other" femi- nine subjectivity that, as such, must remain unspoken and unspeakable: "Words begin to fail her. . . . For it is no longer a matter of longing for some determinable attribute, some mode of essence, some face of pres- ence. What is expected is neither a this nor a that, not a here any more than a there. No being, no places are designated."j2

The mystic's desire is thus entirely "other." Her longing is for nothing determinable, nothing that exists, nothing that has a place or a name or any modality of being. That longing itself is unknowable, taking place not only in darkness but in almost pure unconsciousness: "The higher mental faculties are in a deep slumber, the understanding in a virtual stupor." The mystic escapes not only from language but from consciousness itself: "What is beginning to happen takes place in such secrecy and deep obliv- ion that no intelligence, no common sense, can have precise knowledge of it." In This Sex, Irigaray argues that in trying to imagine the feminine as "truly other," it is necessary to do away with "concepts" because "con- cepts" belong to the existing economy: "To claim that the feminine can be expressed in the form of a concept is to allow oneself to be caught up again in a system of 'masculine' representations, in which women are trapped in a system of meaning which serves the auto-affection of the

a pervasive allusion throughout Irigaray's work. In ILove to You, Irigaray imagines "another era of civilization, or of culture, in which the exchange of objects, and most particularly of women, would no longer form the basis for the constitution of a cultural order" and refer- ences the work of Claude Levi-Strauss (pp. 43-48), indicating that she sees this cultural exchange of women as a historical (anthropological) fact.

j2 Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, p. 193.

(masculine) subje~t."~3

This is reminiscent of Angela's claim that God can- not be described with reference to "anything which can be named, con- ceived, or imagined."54 Mysticism does not elaborate a theory of the feminine-does not even use the word, but it strips away all attributes, it leaves behind all "concepts," and thus it opens onto a space of "true otherness," a space from which subjectivity can be "thought" differently.


In her exploration (and appropriation) of mysticism, then, Irigaray sees in the relation between the mystic soul and God in mystic union an un- forming embrace that produces a nonbeing that is not nothingness. This "other" being is not recognizable as such because it involves not separa- tion and individuation, the twin features of the dominant models of the self, but interpenetration and transformation. It is a revisioning of the phallic relation between self and other in which the (mystic) "self" is also revisioned, taking place differently. Irigaray emphasizes that "woman" in her true otherness is not a "subject" as that term (or entity) is conceived:

Woman is not to be related to any simple designatable being, subject, or entity. . . . (Thela) woman refers to what cannot be defined, enumerated, formulated or formalized.Woman is a common noun for which no identity can be defined. (Thela) woman does not obey the principle of self-identity, however the variable x for self is defined. She is identifiable with every x variable, not in any specific way. Presupposed is an excess of all identification tolof self. But this excess is no-thing: it is vacancy of form, gap in form, the return to another edge where she re- touches herself with the help of-nothing.j5

Again, this could be an apophatic's description of God, and also of the mystic in her moments of mystic union. It is, like Irigaray's denial when asked if she was a woman, a disavowal of subjectivity itself. It is a crossing out of all possible characteristics of identity-definition, form, self- identification-and an assertion of those things that are opposed to it: multiplicity, excess, nothingness. In effect, she is emptying the "content" out of the term "woman" in the same way that the mystic empties the content out of the term "God," thus leaving it open-as a space of the unspeakable-to the possibilities of the "truly other."

Positioning "woman" as an unspeakable otherness may not seem at first glance to be terribly attractive, either as a political position or as a mode of identity, for actual women. But for Irigaray, it is a crucial political ma- neuver, opening up the possibility of the transformation of society. To

53 Ibid., p. 194, ThisSex, pp. 122-23.
54 Angela of Foligno, p. 204.
Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, p. 230.

posit the existence of an outside, of a "truly other," is to posit the possibil- ity of the disruption of the "same." Because patriarchy dominates the symbolic processes, there is "nothingw-not even the feminine-that is not patriarchal. That "nothing," for Irigaray, is "woman." It is as "noth- ing" that "woman" can destabilize the existing order-because as "noth- ing," she can elude it, she can "speak" without being interpellated as mas- culine. But she can only do this by the mystic methods of indirection, by causing a "crisis" in language.56 This is Irigaray's method in her engage- ments with the philosophical and psychoanalytic texts that seal "woman" into her cave, that unspeakable space that haunts Irigaray's work. (As a psychoanalyst, a linguist, and an activist, she has other methods, too, which fall beyond the scope of my argument here.)57

But the implication of Irigaray's work is not only that "woman" is like God in her "true otherness" but also that God is like woman in "his." If God is understood as truly other, as the apophatic mystic understands God, then "he" is allied with woman. "He" can in no sense be reduced to, or seen as a product of, patriarchy. In fact, God's discursive presence (as absence) will disturb and disrupt the conceptual frameworks that un- derpin patriarchy and make it difficult for them to function. It is the "interruptive, othering power" that David Tracy identifies with postmod- ern namings of God that is, I would suggest, being invoked in Irigaray's texts.58 As a (non)concept in theology and philosophy, God should be as subversive, as utterly confounding, as "woman" is in the philosophical and psychoanalytic discourses Irigaray deals with. God's presence, like woman's, should cause a crisis in language, an overthrow of logic, and a rapturous release of jouissance. It should evade and ultimately overturn patriarchy, aligning itself with and manifesting itself as the untapped and untold potentially of the feminine. This potentially, like what Irigaray calls in Speculum of the Other Woman the "jouissance of woman," is an "in- definite flood in which all manner of developments can be inscribed. The fullness of their coming into being is hinted, is proclaimed as possible, but within an extension swelling outward without discernible limits"

(p. 229). It is the unspeakable possibility of GodiWoman.

j6 In Speculum of the Other Woman, Irigaray suggests that women "Rack [language] with radi- cal convulsions, carry back, reimport, those crises that her 'body' suffers in her impotence to say what disturbs her" (p. 142).

5' For instance, she conducts empirical research into the ways women use language (see chap. 7 of ILove to You [n. 4 above I), and sees a transformation of language in terms of its "genders" as essential to the future of sexual difference; she works with political organiza- tions such as the Italian Communist Party; and on yet another level, her essay, "The Culture of Difference," in Je, Tu, Nous (n. 4 above), gives "a few practical suggestions for the develop- ment of mother-daughter relationships" (pp. 47-50).

Tracy (n. 1 above), p. 318.

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