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Circle around a Circle: Irigaray conversation


Luce Irigaray is a Belgian-born French feminist, philosopher, linguist, psycho­linguist, psychoanalyst, sociologist and cultural theorist. The following transcript is drawn from a conversation between Remie Cibis, Georgina Criddle, Tamsin Green and Rosina Prestia following the conference Topologies of Sexual Difference, hosted by the Luce Irigaray Circle, in The Communication, Politics and Culture Research Centre at RMIT University, Melbourne, on Wednesday 10 to Friday 12 December 2014. While the initial aim was to report and expand on the conference, the shared space of conversation was chosen in order to practice some of the questions generated by Irigaray’s relational thinking. Georgina Criddle : Maybe we can start by discussing Elizabeth Grosz’s keynote ‘Ontology, Topologies, Temporalities: Irigaray, Ethics and Art’. From what I understood she was trying to propose an ethics of sexual difference through a kind of cosmological or untimely worldview. She says ‘The untimely [is] a way of overcoming the phallocentric “oneness” of space time being and becoming.’ Tamsin Green : The untimely…yes is it that point when she talks about bringing back the untimely ghosts, the losers of the ­argument? Rosina Prestia : I think Grosz spoke about acknowledging the importance of space, time and transformation as not separate from, but in relation to objects and things that are already known, or accountable? She introduced the concept of the aperion as a way of thinking these things together. TG : That seems like two different forms of the untimely. Remie Cibis: Perhaps she’s applying the untimely in terms of both content and method. She chooses to return to these pre-Socratic, unfashionable ideas as a method and specifically the idea of the aperion, which is also a concept that speaks to a different understanding to time. GC : The aperion seemed to be a kind of universal concept where space and transformation are given a role alongside the ‘being there’ of matter and objects. The term she used to describe this later was ‘material ideality’. TG : That is a concept I’d like to look into further… RC : Yes, me too. GC : I looked up the term aperion and it’s a feminine principle of the universe proposed by Anaximander in the sixth century BC: an unlimited space that contains worlds and gives the conditions for new worlds to come into being. TG : Thinking of the aperion, or as you say, unlimited space, how useful is it to think of that as feminine and how does that relate to female subjectivity? I still feel like ‘the feminine’ could be a prohibitive term. For example: who comes to the Irigaray conference or who constitutes a conversation such as this one we are ­having now? RC : But then the feminine principle can also be a strategy for introducing the question of difference itself and forms of subjectivity that have been excluded from the dominant formation of the subject. GC : Right, and making a space for feminine principles and feminine subjectivity is consistent with Irigaray’s call for ‘always at least two’. As a general note about the conference, it surprised me that there were several accusations of essentialism from the audience during Q&A, who read this call for ‘at least two’ as a sexual binary as apposed to a more nuanced application of difference. RP : And of course Irigaray herself employs strategies of mockery in response to essentialism, sometimes to the point of hysteria. GC : In terms of ‘material ideality’ I got the impression that by rethinking the world, one of the outcomes is the transformation of the subject. Or that when you rethink the world you rethink yourself in it: a radical ethics of everything. Grosz quoted Irigaray as saying ‘A revolution in thought and ethics is needed if we are to reconsider everything between the subject and discourse, the subject and the world.’ RC : Grosz also said: ‘Irigaray reminds us that we have a body and that it is through that body that we can attempt to access the real or the immanent.’ So it’s specifically an embodied approach. RP : There’s clearly still work to be done regarding the question of what is possible in the constitution of subjectivity. GC : The concept of aperion, unlike new materialist theories, seems to be a combination of both the tangible and the incorporeal—ideas as well as matter. RC : Yes, there was quite a pivotal moment with Grosz ‘coming out’ as not a new materialist. She mentioned something about getting a T-shirt…with ‘I’m not a new materialist…ask me why.’ (Laughter) TG : Some gentle criticism on my part was that I thought the presentation began sounding a little…pseudo-spiritual—in general I was quite surprised by her optimism and affirmations. She put forward the idea that philosophy could be about living a good life, or even about health. Some part of me says ‘great!’, but another part of me thinks ‘who gets to live this good life anyway?’ RC : We could say that the entire conference seemed to be framed around positive propositions for the future: there didn’t seem to be much room for negativity. GC : I feel like that’s a question that has come up of late: critique verses affirmative practice. To what extent does the practice of critique limit the production of new futures? TG : As opposed to practices of affirmation, such as Alex Martinis Roe’s interest in the practice of entrustment, which we’ll speak about. But just to stay with the negative for the moment, I would question the positioning of the role of art throughout. At one point Grosz defined philosophy as being about the production of arguments and concepts, as opposed to art, which is concerned with the production of affects. It seems perhaps strange if she is really pursuing this idea of an immanent materiality to make that kind of categorical distinction between these two disciplines (art and philosophy). RP : This seems to be an ongoing problem in some philosophical positions; that philosophers fail to recognise that art is also about concepts, or that material itself is also conceptual. RC : However Grosz also said that ‘Everything is framed by non-thing’—I guess a concept or something of that nature—and that ‘this is how art functions; as an act of framing’. So that does seem to allow art the conceptual. TG : Yes, perhaps her categorical distinction only bothered me in the context of a certain literalism in the way that some of the practices were represented. GC : That’s one of the reasons I liked Helen Johnson’s work in the accompanying exhibition.1 It seemed to be self-reflexive about this literalism. I’m thinking about her painting A visual metaphor for the suspicion of the visual which flags the inescapability of the visual; even metaphors at one point or another have to be recorded, made visual. RP : If it’s okay with everyone I’d like to talk about the question of scientific language being used as a bit of a front. I’m thinking in Stephen Seely’s talk ‘Does Life Have (a) Sex? Thinking Ontology and Sexual Difference with Irigaray and Simondon’. As much as I loved the paper, I also questioned why we have to talk about difference in a ­different way? TG : How do you mean, using scientific language as a front? RP : A front in that it appears more legitimate or appeals to some kind of authority. TG : But then science is also making sure there is something real that we are pointing to: real science. GC : Well interestingly in his talk Seely discussed the new materialists, Myra Hird and Luigi Apperizi, who argue that sexual difference as a framework is ‘too closed, anthropomorphic, heteronormative and ‘repro-centric’ to be of value to either feminist theory or politics.’ These theorists propose a more scientific method of counting difference and suggest that metabolism is more illustrative of sexual difference because there you have thirty-three hundred thousand different examples. TG : Some infinite multiplicity within ­organisms. GC : But at the end of Seely’s talk he says that the very nature of counting difference is phallocentric because it methodologically privileges rational, quantitative types of reasoning. And that is why they were wrong; because it’s not about counting. TG : There’s also enough in the initial idea of difference. It doesn’t have to be, as you said, sexually productive or heteronormative or binary. RC : I think this metabolic metaphor has a value and an openness, which is productive, but sexual difference makes a lot of sense because it comes from human experience. We’re talking about expanding the scope of human thought—maybe if we were bacteria, you know. But it makes sense to use sexual difference as a starting point to explore broader notions of difference. GC : I liked what Seely was saying; that sex can’t be reduced to procreation, that it’s also about the exchange of information more broadly. He used the term ‘sexuat’. He said that the internet is a model that’s based on the sexual exchange of bacteria and that all of art and technology draw on the history of sex. RC : So maybe the exchange of stories between people is also is a bit like… TG : …impressing something upon someone. RG : Yeah, or impregnating people with your thoughts so that those stories will continue and circulate. TG : That’s the sleazy side of pedagogy. But then if it’s just for the perpetuation of information and exchange does sex have an ethics? RC : Not necessarily. Whereas this concept of affidamento that Alex Martinis Roe has been researching and applying in her practice seems to privilege the lived relations that carry the feminist theory, ideas and conversation. Her work with the Milan Woman’s Bookstore is indicative of this.2 TG : These propositions around affidamento, of a feminist entrustment, were the most generative ideas that I took from the conference. And they certainly influenced the proposition of this conversation, which we are attempting now. I would say that we are at the beginning of an experiment in the use of the term. GC : I wonder though… The Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective had a specific concept of affidamento. It seemed to be a way of affirming particular feminine relations, and for Alex Martinis Roe to acknowledge particular female genealogies. I can’t help but feel that affidamento is a very particular practice that requires initiation. I wonder how they would feel about their concept being shared and exchanged? RC : So are we practicing affidamento now? TG : It’s a matter of trying. RP : So perhaps we are now. TG : I think it is ok to begin somewhere, as long as the source is acknowledged…but if we wanted to do it justice we would have to go back to the book, perhaps collectively. There’s an interesting element of affidamento in entrusting oneself to another woman in public with an acknowledgment of hierarchies between women. The process of entrustment seems to have to be actively undertaken between two women. In this way it seems in contrast to another prohibition that I think of in my practice: that you can never speak for another. In one example Alex gave, a woman was writing the history of her grandma who had been incarcerated in a mental institution: a voiceless woman. This would suggest that within affidamento there is a possibility of speaking for the other. RC : Do you think that the example of the grandmother is necessarily an enactment of affidamento? It seems quite different to other examples of affidamento that I’m familiar with. It’s not specifically named as affidamento. So perhaps it’s more related to storytelling. TG : Speculative histories and stories… RP : So maybe it’s quite important to have that relationship and exchange. Maybe there’s a mutual entrustment? GC : Well, Alex also said that in affidamento, a woman of lower social or economical status is entrusted to a woman of a higher class, who would enable her access to privilege. So as I understood it, the focus of the relationship seems to be one of enablement and, sure, in this sense a mutual entrustment. RC : Alex also gave the example of a woman at the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective giving permission for her to access certain documents and materials. When Alex made a request to access material, the woman at the bookshop contacted another woman. The idea was that together they could form the authority to provide access. When speaking for another who was absent there was not one single embodied authority but a collective authority of women. GC : That’s an interesting point. But then in practice if you’re an artist or academic wanting to speak on behalf of someone, that’s quite different isn’t it? RC : Perhaps it’s interesting because in this example, it’s not the person who is being spoken for who gives permission. It is rather a network formed between women, of which she is a part, with the authority to speak for her. So perhaps we could suggest that in philosophy or art practice, through conversation, negotiation and entrustment, there’s a way to speak for the other? TG : Which is both divesting yourself of authority as a singular subject and ­re-forming authority through the collective. It’s interesting to think about how this works in the document we are making and the editing process. GC : I’m thinking about Alex’s short statement in the conference pamphlet. She says that ‘Irigaray’s philosophy cannot be divorced from the practice of writing it and using it—and it is this experimental relationship between theory and practice that, I feel, calls for the production of specific histories of lived relations and practices which produce these theories.’ So maybe for us it’s in the editing. During the conversation there’s some consensus because we’re all here, but in editing we authorise one person to take on the responsibility of the whole. TG : Are we are perhaps starting to pursue a practice more so than make a piece of writing? This is not necessarily a problem. Our proposed task was to report on the Irigaray conference. But perhaps we are beginning to make something else… RP : A practice of entrustment?
Remie Cibis is a fashion designer, educator and MFA candidate. Georgina Criddle is a visual artist, writer and educator. Tamsin Green is a visual artist, writer, educator and PhD candidate. Rosina Prestia is a visual artist and MFA candidate.
1. The exhibition ‘Topologies of Difference’, George Paton Gallery, 9–12 December 2015 accompanied the conference and included work by Cherelyn Brearley, Janet Burchill, Virginia Fraser, Helen Johnson, Marina Kassianidou, Utako Shindo Kanai, Danni McCarthy, Joanne Makas, Alex Martinis Roe, Caroline Phillips, Kerrie Poliness, Elizabeth Presa, Julieanna Preston, Grace Pundyk, Tania Smith, Jacqueline Taylor, Terry Taylor and Alison Thomson.
[^2]: The Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective, Sexual Difference: A Theory of Social-Symbolic Practice, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.