EXQUEUE | Exploring Literary Theory

The Subjection of Discourse for the Feminist Agency

Posted in Literary Theory and Comparative Literature by Stella Tran on 07/01/2009

In Luce Irigaray’s “The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine” she confirms the biological difference of sex for men and women, yet similar to Gayle Rubin, Irigaray also suggests that differences in sex do not constitute the socially-constructed idea of differences in gender. For this reason, Irigaray uses the terms “feminine” and “masculine” rather than the use of the terms of sex, specifically the words “female” and “male,” to subtly denote that gender differences between men and women are a created concept. In other words, “femininity” implies a universal set of characteristics of females of biased origin whereas “female” merely indicates a person’s sex, and thus to use the words “feminine” and “masculine” instead of “female” and “male” destabilizes the prevailing idea that such characteristics are biologically innate according to one’s sex.

As a result of this highly selective usage of terms, Irigaray is able to reverse the fabricated depreciating concept of “femininity” into a mode of power for the members of her sex in the language of discourse. Irigaray stresses that to participate in a phallocratic economy of discourse for the feminist objective without becoming an affirmed subordinate means “to speak as a (masculine) ‘subject’” (p. 570). But given that femininity is an ideal set of characteristics in a phallocratic society and that this dominating society allows women participation in philosophical discourse only by imitations of themselves, to speak as a “masculine subject” would undoubtedly invalidate a woman’s opinions within this logic of male-dominated philosophical discourse. As a result, Irigaray subverts the necessity of speaking as a “masculine subject” by working covertly within the limitations on women in the phallocracy, thereby providing women with a procedure to assert their strength and independence while still maintaining objective male attention.

The procedure Irigaray outlines calls for utilizing the phallocratic notion of a definitively “feminine” perspective in order to impress upon males the idea that, although women are ‘inferior,’ “a disruptive excess is possible on the feminine side” which must be respected (p.571). This “excess” evidences itself in a lingual manner, in which the understandings of signifiers and their signified and binary oppositions are “disrupted” by females in order to destroy the powerful ideological effect of these objects in the form of words and sentences (p. 572).

Essentially, to free women of subordination the feminist has no choice but to work within the allowed confines of the phallocracy, for she cannot gain legitimacy in her subjective society by attempting to evolve a separate philosophical discourse alongside the dominating established one. By doing so it cannot weaken the idea of the difference between the two sexes because it does not change the attitude of the masculine perspective towards the feminine. It is only by upsetting the primary masculine philosophical discourse, which subordinates women, that the idea of the female as the inferior sex can be challenged, after which a new language may be found.


Texts of Reference
Rivkin, Julie, and Michael Ryan, Eds. Literary Theory: an Anthology. Blackwell Publishers, Inc. Great Britain, 1998.

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