The Age of Breath by Luce Irigaray

‘The Age of the Breath.’ Translated by Staci Boeckman, Katja van de Rakt & Luce Irigaray . Chap. 14 In Luce Irigaray: Key Writings, edited by Luce Irigaray (London, New York: Continuum, 2004:165-70)

Luce Irigaray

In the last decade, Luce Irigaray has started to draw together insights from her philosophical and psycho-linguistic scholarship with her personal experiences of spiritual practice, primarily through the Yoga tradition, but undoubtedly influenced by her infant Catholicism.  Not everyone is a fan of this move of course, the idea that there are different types of knowledge that might share an egalitarian platform is strongly resisted in academia, but I think that this move is entirely consistent with Irigaray’s development as a radical feminist thinker.  To embrace spiritual ways of knowing is, for her, to embrace the particularity of her Self as a person and as a woman.  The objectified, empirical knowledge privileged by the Academy, and by public political discourse in general, is one that privileges a male perspective; hence, her investigation into body ways of knowing and the feminine divine are a natural extension of her earlier work conceptualising gender.

For Irigaray, ‘god’ has no independent reality outside of the human psyche, so although I will not follow her into that territory, she is an interesting and instructive traveling companion on my journey towards a love epistemology.  If the human psyche comes in two forms, again as Irigaray asserts, then there will be two distinct projections of the divine: masculine and feminine.  Therefore, women must recover their own unique conception of the divine as part of the process of discovering their own uniqueness as women.  Irigaray argues this centres around the body; specifically the breath of the body.

‘The divine appropriate to women, the feminine divine, is first of all related to the breath.  To cultivate the divine in herself, the woman, in my opinion, has to attend to her own breathing, her own breath, more even than to love.  Breathing, in fact, corresponds to the first autonomous gesture of a human living, and it is not possible to be divine without being autonomous with respect to the mother and the father, to the lover, to the child, to the others in general, women and men.’ p.165

If we take care to step around the reductionist tendencies in Irigaray’s work, there is an insight here worth paying some attention to.  Unless we know ourselves, we cannot know what we are projecting on to others; unless we take the time to listen to all of our amazing capacity for knowledge – body, soul, mind and strength – we limit our natural human resources for engaging with life, the divine and the universe.  This need not exclude the operation of other, non-subjective sources of knowledge that originate outside of us as human persons, which is what the Christian doctrine of ‘revelation’ is all about.  Rather, human subjectivity and revelation work hand in hand.

Integrating the body in the process of intellectual discernment increases the pathways of spiritual enlightenment, one human being at a time.

‘If the gesture of God shows in the myth of Genesis – the necessity of making matter divine through the breath, this gesture cannot take the place of the woman-mother’s breath.  If it were so, God would have to create all the humans one by one.  This cannot be the meaning of the creative gesture in Genesis.  Nor can it be that of the incarnation of Jesus, in which God entrusts his spirit to the woman twice: the first time as woman-daughter, spiritually virginal, the second time as woman-mother of a divine son.’ p.169

You can access this fascinating chapter of Irigaray’s on line through google books.

I Love To You by Luce Irigaray

I Love to You: Sketch of a Possible Felicity in History. Translated by Alison Martin.  New York: Routledge, 1996.

Luce Irigaray

In 1989 Luce Irigaray  shared a speaking platform with politician Renzo Imbeni  at an Italian Communist Party meeting in Bologna.  It was such a significant experience for her – of one man and one woman speaking together to create a forum for men and women to freely share sociality – that she dedicates this book to him and introduces her purposes by describing what was extraordinary about that event.  Prior to this Luce Irigaray worked on articulating gender as a way of articulating ‘différance’ – a particular preoccupation of late twentieth century, french philosophy, the term itself coined by Derrida. After the event with Renzo Imbeni she shifted her focus to communication between the genders, starting with this book, I love to You.  In the last decade her interests have shifted again to feminine ways of knowing and being, integrating insights from her spiritual explorations, particularly in the yoga tradition, alongside her philosophical reflections.

Like most of the French philosophers, Luce Irigaray is difficult to read, as much in her native French as well as in the English translations, I am led to believe by my French enabled colleagues.  For those of you following the blog since last year, you’ll have noted that I post less often: that’s because this stuff takes time to digest and it is only when you have ‘lived with them’ for a while that you can really say anything sensible!   Well, I lived and breathed Luce Irigaray for 6 weeks in preparation for a presentation at the annual conference of the UK Mystical Theology Network.  My paper workshopped three Irigarayan strategies for reading mystical love language, of which I used an example from St Therese of Lisieux.  The first two can be found in I love to you, the third is more substantially in later works.

Three strategics for communication in a feminine mode

Strategy One:  Speak/Listen subject to subject:

In I love to you Irigaray presents a fair chunk of linguistic research to back up her claim that women tend towards relational exchange in communication and men tends towards object relations.  So, in recovering what she describes as a uniquely feminine way of speaking and reading, Luce Irigaray insists that we do not turn a text, an audience, an author, or ourselves as reader into an object.  Subjects are responsive, fluid, complex and multidimensional.  They are a living, dynamic, evolving thing.

‘I love to you thus means:  I do not take you for a direct object, nor for an indirect object by revolving around you.  It is, rather, around myself that I have to revolve in order to maintain the to you thanks to the return to me.  Not with my pray – you have become mine – but with the intention of respecting my nature, my history, my intentionality, while also respecting yours.  Hence, I do not return to me by way of : I wonder if I am loved.  That would result from an introverted intentionality, going toward the other so as to return ruminating, sadly and endlessly, over solipsistic questions in a sort of cultural cannibalism.’ p.110

Strategy Two:  Seek out the lost feminine:
Like Simone DeBouvoire (though seemingly independent from), Irigaray insists that if there is only one perspective articulated in a text or speech, in a patriarchal context that perspective will be masculine.  Hence, readers need to seek out the lost feminine by asking ‘what is not being said’.  What life experience and knowledge is not being represented? It is clear at this point that Irigaray uses masculine and feminine as polemical opposites and there is little subtlety around these two poles pitched against one another.  In a more general sense though, this is an excellent question: what perspectives are missing?

‘The “to” is the guarantor of two intentionalities: mine and yours.  I you I love that which can correspond to my own intentionality and to yours.  I recognize you, thus you are not the whole; otherwise you would be too great and I would be engulfed by your greatness.  You are not the whole and I am not the whole.I recognize you, thus I may not revolve around you, I cannot encircle you or introject you.’  p.103

Strategy Three:  Speak/Listen with body and breath:

I’ll say more about this in my next post, because Irigaray only briefly touches on this concept in I love to you.  She argues that feminine subjectivity is essentially embodied, primarily through the breath.  We we must take time to listen and acknowledge ‘space’ in the conversation because it is far from an empty pause.

‘To love to you and, in this “to,” provide space for thought, for thought of you, of me, of us, of what brings us together and distances us, of the distance that enables us to become, of the spacing necessary for coming together, of the transubstantiation of energy, of the oeuvre…  The to you comes through breath trying to make itself speech.’ p.149


In summary, to speak in love is to speak as one whole person to other whole person or persons (plural), maintaining a constant openness to both person and knowledge.  It means we resist the utilitarian pull to use others for what they can do or be for us, continually redirecting our attention away from what we know to what we don’t know and away from ourselves to the Other.  It’s in this most general application of Irigaray’s work that I am comfortable.  I think if we push the gender categories into a universal and mutually exclusive binary we lose too much.  Irigaray is striving for a loving freedom in communication, a noble goal I am very happy to endorse.

‘I am listening to you not on the basis of what I know, I feel, I already am, nor in terms of what the world and language already are, thus in a formalistic manner, so to speak.  I am listening to you rather as the revelation of a truth that has yet to manifest itself – yours and that of the world revealed through and by you.  I give you a silence in which your future – and perhaps my own, but with you and not as you and without you – may emerge and lay its foundation.  This is not a hostile or restrictive silence.  It is openness that nothing or no one occupies, or preoccupies – no language, no world, no God.

This silence is space-time offered to you with no a priori, no pre-established truth or ritual.  To you it constitutes an overture, to the other who is not and never will be mine.  It is a silence made possible by the fact that neither I  nor you are everything, that each of us is limited, marked by the negative, non-hierarchically different.  A silence that is the primary gesture of I love to you.  Without it, the “to,” such as I understand it, is impossible.’  p.117