beziehungsweise – weiterdenken

Forum für Philosophie und Politik

Rubrik denken

Eine Ethik des “Dazwischen”

Von Anne Claire Mulder

Für Anne Claire Mulder liegt der Schlüssel für einen friedlichen und produktiven Umgang mit der Differenz unter Frauen (und auch zwischen Frauen und Männern) in der Wahrnehmung und dem Respekt vor dem “Dazwischen”. Grundlage ihrer Überlegungen sind Texte von Luce Irigaray.

Sollte eine unserer Leserinnen ihren Text ins Deutsche übersetzen wollen, würden wir uns darüber freuen.

The necessity of an ethics of the in-between for the recognition and respect of the differences between women

In the following text I will contribute to the ongoing discussion at Beziehungsweise-weiterdenken about the questions how to live together peacefully and fruitfully as women (and men), without succumbing to the power of the logic of the One/the Same that operates in our dominant discourse. My contribution focuses on the issue how to give form to a ‘we, women’ while respecting the differences between women.  I will argue that the key to respecting differences lies in the recognition and respect of the ‘in-between’ – thought as a space, an interval, a membrane even, which is the site of separation and alliance between subjects. I develop my argument through a close reading of some texts of Luce Irigaray, especially those she wrote in the late eighties and beginning of the nineties of the last century. To some extent these thoughts return in her latest book Sharing the world (Welt teilen), that has already been reviewed in bzw-weiterdenken. (Rullmann, 2010)

The text is organized as follows: I will begin with the elaboration of Irigaray’s that the recognition of the transcendence of the other is the key to the ethics of the in-between I aim to develop. I will show that this recognition pivots around the acknowledgement of limits and limitations induced among others by the belonging to a gender, including linguistic gender. I will then proceed to elucidate the process of the generation of the space in-between through the recognition of the transcendence of the other, arguing that this recognition is carried by the passion of wonder.

In the second part of this text I will explore the relevance of this ethics of the in-between for the relations between women. I will first describe briefly Luce Irigaray’s diagnosis of the troubled relations between women as well as her solution, notably the generation of a horizon of meaning in the feminine. I will show that this solution constitutes part of the problem of the recognition of the transcendence of the other between women. For as this worldview is marked by the feminine (linguistic) gender, linguistic gender can no longer function as a marker of the transcendence of the other. I will then argue that theories of intersectionality[1] can help to think through the idea of irreducible differences between women, because they illuminate that the limits and limitations to knowing the other are not only due to the fact of belonging to a gender but to the belonging to other histories and genealogies as well.

In the conclusion I will argue that in order to safeguard the differences between women as well as between women and men, one ought work toward practices that contribute to the realization of this ethics of the in-between I develop in this text, so that this ethics would subtend the way of being a collective and be entwined in the different modes of being and living together.

The transcendence of the other

The ‘ethics of the in-between’ I want to develop in this text develops from the idea that the recognition and respect of the transcendence of the other is key to the good life for all, of living together creatively and peacefully. It entails the acknowledgement of a difference, which refuses whatever appropriation by the other or whatever reduction to the already known and expressed. In I love to you, Luce Irigaray writes:

‘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  […] cannot completely identify you, even less identify with you.

I recognize you means that I cannot know you neither by thought nor by the flesh, the power of a negative prevails between us. I recognize you goes hand in hand with: you are irreducible to me, just as I am to you. We may not be substituted for one another. You are transcendent to me, inaccessible in a way (…) I will never be you, neither in body nor in thought.

Recognizing you means or implies respecting you as other, accepting that I draw myself to a halt before you as before something insurmountable, a mystery, a freedom that will never be mine, a subjectivity that will never be mine, a mine that will never be mine.’ (Irigaray, 1996, 103/104, translation modified)

This long quotation describes the encounter of the irreducibility of the other in different ways. On an experiential level it evokes the concrete reality of the difference of the other: the unexpected strangeness of familiar others, the refutation of expectations of similarity between I and You, the recognition that one can only know the other up to a point, the experience that the other is not-me.

The quotation shows also in more epistemological terms that the transcendence of the other consists in a resistance to the gesture of identification, to being assimilated to something already known. The alerity of the other resists moreover the subject’s desire to fully her or him. Neither through the subject’s intellectual powers, nor through her or his perceptions of the sensible matter that is the flesh (Mulder 2006, 107-114) can the opacity of the other be penetrated. She or he remains therefore a mystery to the subject, a transcendence which induces the experience that the other is ‘not me’.

Lastly, Luce Irigaray characterizes the transcendence of the other in more psychoanalytic terms. She emphasizes that this transcendence resists, first,  the fantasmatic desire to identify oneself with the other, to imagine being the same as the other, to confuse the one and the other, because I and You will never occupy the same space nor have the same history. Secondly, it resists the fantasmatic idea that the other can be a substitute for an important relational object of the I (a father or mother for instance ), because the You cannot take the place of this other and play her or his role.

All these characteristics of the transcendence of the other illuminate that the subjects in any encounter are confronted by a limit and a limitations. The limit set by the concrete reality of the You forces the I to forego the idea that he is ‘the whole – defining, circumvening, circumscribing, all by itself, the properties (and value) of any thing, of everything,’ as Irigaray has described it in This Sex which is not one (Irigaray 1985b, 80) This recognition of limitation generates in turn diffusion, (a) distance and distinction between the one and the other, opening the possibility that the relation between them can become an inter-subjective relation, a non-hierarchical relation between two subjects.

Luce Irigaray’s ideas about an inter-subjective relation between two or more subjects sets off her thoughts on the idea that the generation of a collective or ‘we’ asks for another dialectics than the Hegelian dialectics. In Hegel’s  dialectic the differences between the one and the other are elevated or effaced into a synthesis, into a (new) unity or collective one, expressed in a collective subject e. Luce Irigaray rather points out that the generation of a We must be understood as an oeuvre, the result of communication, of exchange, of seeking and finding mediations that enable these communications and exchanges. (Irigaray 1996, 105 & 107). This generation of a collective subject entails hard work, hence the word oeuvre. It asks for working through the negative, of developing and engaging in a practice of acknowledging and respecting the limits and limitations set by (the presence of) the other upon the subject  and the way this acknowledgment affects the subject.

Belonging to a gender: a limit to the I

Luce Irigaray’s use of the personal pronouns I and You in the passage I quoted in the above might suggest that ‘the transcendence of the other’ is to be understood on the level of the individual subject. However, the transcendence of the other is (also) the effect of belonging to a larger collective. Luce Irigaray writes about this:

‘The mine of the subject is always already marked by a disappropriation: gender. Being a man or woman already means not being the whole of the subject […] as well as not being entirely one’s  self. The famous “I is an other”, the cause of which is sometimes attributed to the unconscious, can   be understood in a different way. I is never simply mine in that it belongs to a gender. Therefore I am not the whole: I am man or woman. And I am not simply a subject. I belong to a gender.  I am objectively limited by this belonging.’( Irigaray 1996, 106)

This passage introduces the idea that the limitation upon the subject’s knowing, doing, naming is not (only) set by the concrete reality of the other person, but (also)by the subject’s belonging to a gender  and this gender’s horizon of meaning. It is in relation to the collective and this –gendered – horizon that the subject situates herself as well as the other, and makes meaning out of her particular life. This belonging means a disappropriation, a not-owning-oneself, an acknowledgment of a difference between I and mine – between what is given to the me by nature (mine) and what the I must become, or between ‘I am born a wo/man and I must become this wo/man that I am by nature.’(Irigaray 1996, 107) This means that the subject is not asserting her autonomy, his self-possession, when she or he uses the personal pronoun I, but that she assumes her position in relation to this particular, gendered horizon of meaning, a horizon of meaning which expresses and gives form to the irreducible difference of either sex. [2]

To understand this train of thought it is necessary to explain Luce Irigaray’s (psycho-) linguistic theories on the working of grammatical gender in the constitution of subjectivity and identity, which she developed in the nineteen-sixties.[3] These theories are as important to her ideas about the irreducible difference of the sexes as her psychoanalytic views on the repression of female desire or her philosophical analyses of the effacement of sexual difference through the operations of the logic of the One/the Same.

In these (psycho-)linguistic theories Luce Irigaray argues that the (linguistic) identity and subjectivity of the subject are marked by the gender of the third person singular or plural. The gender of this subject determines the implied gender of the first and second person singular or plural. In French, for instance, a group of two women and one man is always referred to by using the third person plural ‘ils‘, The effect of this grammatical rule for the subjectivity of the female members of the group becomes clear when members of this group say: ‘Nous disons, faisons, désirons‘ (we say, do, desire). Because this nous refers on a linguistic level to a masculine ils, the group Is understood as an all male group. The gender of the women of the group is effaced, and more important, their utterances are understood as coming from masculine subjects ‘in drag’ , they speak as if they are masculine speaking subjects.  As the subject of the dominant discourse is masculine, a He, the ambiguity of the gender of the I in sentences as I do, will, desire, will be disambiguated (as a rule, and often unconsciously) by assuming that this (speaking) subject is a masculine subject, which amounts to a denial of female subjectivity and of a subjectivity in the feminine in general. When Luce Irigaray writes that the dominant discourse knows only One Subject that describes all by itself ‘the properties of any thing and everything’, (Irigaray 1985b, 80) she refers among others to this dominance of the masculine subject in grammar.

To enable women to become a speaking subject according to their gender, Luce Irigaray advocates the generation of a gendered universal, a collective horizon of and for the female sex, a wrap of language marked by a gendered third person singular, a She, a representation of the divine in their (grammatical) gender.  For such a wrap of language would offer mediations, a culture, a spirituality that would be appropriate to one’s physiology, of one’s gender, so that a female subject would become this woman that she is already by nature (Irigaray, 1996, p. 107)

This elaboration of the notion ‘belonging to one’s gender’ adds another layer to her thoughts on the recognition of the transcendence of the other. It colors and deepens the notion of the mystery of this other to the subject, because it interprets this mystery as the effect of being inscribed in a horizon of meaning, genealogy or history that is not ‘mine’.

Creating an in-between in the encounter of the other

Recognizing the transcendence of the other brings about that the subject stops in her or his tracks when s/he encounters the other. This is an important moment, that can easily be overlooked. But in this very moment of drawing oneself to a halt before the other a space is created, an in-between.
Luce Irigaray describes this space as ‘a space of freedom and attraction between them, a possibility of separation and alliance [..] The interval would never be crossed.’ (Irigaray 1993a, 13). I want to highlight this idea that this space guarantees the possibility of both separation ánd alliance, by calling to mind the skin between two touching bodies. The skin can be seen as a membrane, which separates these bodies, and guards the individuality of the touching subjects. It clarifies the idea that no matter how intimate the encounter between them, there will remain some space between them that cannot be dissolved or crossed. It is this space that ensures the singularity of the subject – and her or his freedom.

However, the skin is also the matter in and through which the subjects are connected, in and through which they communicate, commune with each other. Thinking this membrane as the in-between subjects elucidates therefore that this in between is also the space of the alliance between the subjects. This is of no less significance than the idea that the in-between separates them. The space in-between ‘couples’ them, but not in a traditional sense. It does not turn them into a ‘We’ , a unity without distinction between them, nor into identical entities that mirror each other. The space in between becomes rather a meeting-ground, a space  ‘owned’ by both in the sense that they both partake in and of this space..It is the space of their interactions, of their communications. As shared space it is no man’s land, it cannot be claimed by either subject as her or his space.  Rather it must be seen as the site where the hard work of  ‘working through the negative’ takes place: the negotiation of boundaries and limitations, the effort of not-identifying with the other, the attempt of not taking her or him as a substitute for someone else, the exertion of not falling into the trap of thinking that one fully understands the other. This hard work of negotiating the negative is not only toil, however, it is also creative and generative: it generates new forms of communications between the subjects; it creates different expressions of and forms for their communion, for what they share and what they partake of in their inter-subjective exchanges.  At heart it is the work of co-creating a We. This We is the product of the communications of the I and the You in which they have managed to turn the in-between into a creative space while recognizing and working through the negative between them. The pronoun We does not only refer to the linguistic sign wherewith this co-creation can be presented but also to the more tangible products of the creativity which is set free by working through the negative: the images, thoughts, stories, practices generated together as well as by each of them. All this points out that the respect of the in-between is a necessary condition of a mode of living together in peace and creativity.

The passion of wonder

In An Ethics of Sexual Difference, Luce Irigaray points out that this space in-between is generated and maintained by the passion of wonder:

‘(wonder) means that we would look at the other, stop to look at him or her, ask ourselves, come close to ourselves through questioning. Who art thou? I am and I become thanks to this question.   Wonder goes beyond that which is or is not suitable for us. The other never suits us simply. An excess resists. […] Attracting me toward, wonder keeps me from taking and assimilating directly into myself.’ (Irigaray 1993a, 74 & 75.)

This quotation sheds the process of the generation of the space in-between two subjects. It shows that the passion of wonder is instrumental in this process. It indicates both the willingness to encounter the other as well as the surprise before him or her, and describes thus  the paradox of moving toward and stopping in one’s tracks before the alterity of the other. This ‘double’ movement turns the space between the subjects, which was hitherto common space, into a specific in-between.

The quotation shows moreover that the passion of wonder is expressed and symbolized by this question ‘Who art Thou?’ Asking this question, the subject draws to a halt before the other, creating an in-between space.  He or she invites the other to enter this space that has been just created and to turn it into a shared space, by unfolding himself or speaking (of) herself; thus sharing something of herself with the subject.

‘I am and I become thanks to this question’, writes Luce Irigaray. This is true for both subjects of the encounter. It moves the one of whom is asked  ‘who art thou?’ to unfold him or herself, to reveal who s/he is in her or his difference – without losing this singularity thanks to the in-between which guards it. While unfolding, s/he also discovers her/himself, as it induces self-reflection and the question ‘who am I?’ It opens the Thou to her- or himself, to the other who s/he is (also). And this process of self-reflection brings about (a) change in her however subtly, so that s/he is ánd becomes who s/he is, differently.

A similar process unfolds within the subject, the I, who puts the question ‘who art thou?’ before the other. This I is also moved to reflect upon him/herself, to contemplate what has moved her in the encounter of the other, what has struck him as new or different. This process of contemplation and introspection can bring about the recognition of the desire to introject the other, to identify or identify with this other, as well as the acknowledgment that the otherness of the other resists this desire. The recognition of these limitations moves the I to take up her/his difference, to change, thus to become who s/he is differently too.

Wonder constitutes a mode of relating to the world. Irigaray argues that it is the first of the passions,  because it is the force that motivates the subject to move, to grow, to create, and because it is a power that ‘beholds what it sees always as if for the first time, never taking hold of the other as object.’ (Irigaray, 1993a, 13)[4] Especially this latter argument explains the importance of the passion of  wonder in inter-subjective relations. It generates not only an in-between when the subject beholds another for the first time, it also enables the subject to experience this other as new and different time and again, when the capacity to wonder is cherished, at least. Wonder thus safeguards the freedom and the autonomy of the other. For this very reason, Luce Irigaray values wonder as ‘indispensable not only to life, but also or still to the creation of an ethics.’ (Irigaray, 1993a, 74) – an ethics of sexual difference that is also an ethics of the in-between, because it pivots around this notion.

An ethics of the in-between in the collective of women

The ethics of the in-between I described in the above turns on the recognition that the other never suits me simply, that an excess resists (Irigaray, 1993a,84). Although Irigaray situates this experience primarily in the relations between subjects of different sex, it is also a theme in the discussion on the relations between same sex subjects. Especially within the women’s movement and in feminist theory, the discussions circle around the problems involved in speaking of and speaking for a ‘we, women’. The most important problem of this notion ‘we, women’ is the danger of effacing the differences between women in and through the establishment of such a collectivity, of falling in the trap of the Logic of the One/the Same by establishing  one representation of female identity and subjectivity at the expense of other forms of  female identity.

The rivalry between women

Luce Irigaray devotes ample attention to the difficult relations between women. She uses the word polemos to describe their troubled nature, indicating the violence involved in the confusion-fusion between them. (Irigaray 1993a, 102) She attributes these troubles to the absence of a symbolization of the mother-daughter relation; to the lack of narratives, images and practices in which the desire to be with the other is expressed and given form to. Because the order of discourse is dominated by the mother-son relationship, there is only one place for (a) woman in this discourse and in the desire of men: that of the woman-mother. This has the effect that mother and daughter turn against each other in a rivalry over this position. Luce Irigaray describes this mechanism in An Ethics as follows: ‘if we are to be desired and loved by men, [in a discourse that is dominated by the mother-son relationship, acm] we must abandon our mothers, substitute for them, eliminate them in order to be same. All of which destroys the possibility of a love between mother and daugh­ter.’ (Irigaray, 1993a, 102) She finds traces of this mechanism in narratives as well as in psycho-analysis.[5]

The rivalry between mother and daughter spills over in the relations between women. It is expressed in the desire to be the substitute for the other, to take her place, and in anxiety that the other will take her place and so on. It is expressed in nagging calculations as: just like me, more than me, less than me, just like everyone else – calculations to keep each other in place. This picture of the pattern of communication between women illuminates the disastrous effect of the logic of the One/the Same upon the relations between women. They become unable to communicate or share with the other; to use of modes of expression that speak of a with you, thus to ask, thank, appeal to or question the other (Irigaray, 1993c, 170). These modes of expression presuppose a space, even a ‘third’ term, that enables the I and the You to distinguish between themselves.

This idea of a third term can be interpreted at two levels. (Mulder 2001, 58/59) First, it refers to the site of permutation and identification in the structure of communication. As I explained in the above, this site enables the I and You to shift the positions of sender to listener in the communication. But more importantly, it enables them to speak, to be spoken of and referred to as gendered speaking subjects, because this site is marked by the grammatical third person singular, thus by the personal pronoun He or She.

Secondly, it functions as the object of exchange, the ‘what/what about’ in the communications between the one and the other. As such ‘the third term’ can also be interpreted as the horizon of meaning or the transcendence of one’s gender I described in the above, by means of which and in relation to which a person interprets the world around her and positions herself within this world,  directs her or his process of becoming a subject as well as his or her behavior and modes of relations with the other.

Because there is no such horizon of meaning in the feminine, no such a ‘third’ term or site of permutation and identification as well as such an object of exchange in the form of a house-of-language or horizon of meaning, the communications between mothers and daughters as well as between women are troubled, according to Irigaray. Women therefore need a horizon of meaning in the feminine or a horizon of accomplishment that would constitute the objective of their becoming woman to be with the other peacefully. Such a horizon of meaning, such sediment of the qualities, values, attributes of a woman or of a collective of women,  would enable female subject  to situate themselves vis-à-vis this horizon of values, and to realize them in their lives. [6]

This horizon of meaning would (among others) be constituted by stories and images for instance of mother-daughter relation, because a symbolization of these relations would contribute to the flourishing of women as female subjects. Irigaray herself interprets and retells stories about divine mother-daughter couples and the powers they represented together, as well as of the dramatic effects of the severance of their relation. One example of such a couple is Demeter and Kore/ Persephone who stand for a mother-daughter couple that guaranteed human food supplies as well as the power of the oracle. (Irigaray, 1993c, 191) In Je, Tu, Nous she recommends, moreover, that women place images of the Mary and Anna, Mary’s mother in their homes to remind the onlooker of the female genealogy of Mary: that she was born from a woman, and not alone in the world. (Irigaray, 1993b, 47) Both these representations of (divine) mother-daughter couples point towards a mode of relation between women in which they are not caught in rivalry but are supporting each other. An image of the Anna – Mary couple, which is interesting in this context, represents Anna as the one who teaches Mary to read by handing her a book. (Günter 2004, 111/112) This image can be seen as symbolizing the (necessity of a) third term in the relations between mother and daughter, between women. It represents the object of exchange in the structure of their communication, enabling them to differentiate between themselves, and to shift between I and You all the time, using modes of expression as thanking the other, appealing to the other etc. Thus they generate and acknowledge space and the difference between them. This book can also be seen as symbol of the horizon of meaning, the transcendence in the feminine that women need.

This example of the ways in which Irigaray seeks new symbolizations of the mother-daughter relation illuminates the function of the horizon of meaning in the communication between women. It would not only constitute an objective to their becoming, it would also constitute the object of exchange in the structure of communication, the third term that would enable them to differentiate between themselves, to voice different points of view and standpoints about the mother-daughter relation for instance. This third term would generate space between them, enabling female subjects to share without fusion or confusion between the two, while it would also bring them together in a dialogical space, ‘binding’ them, however lightly and temporarily perhaps, in a ‘we, women’.

However, as I explained in the above when I wrote about Irigaray’s psycholinguistic theories, they can only be binded together in a collective of female speaking subjects when the site of permutation and identification of their communication is gendered in the feminine as well. This means that the transcendence of the horizon of the female gender ought to be marked by the third person feminine – by She. Such a feminine generic would not only enable the female subject to situate herself as such in the symbolic world, in the world of speaking subjects, it would also function as a universal of and within the collective of women. [7]

Multiple belongings

I return now to the issue of the ethics of the in-between in the collective of women, and especially to the notion of the transcendence of the other, woman. I explained that ‘gender’ functioned as a disappropriation to the subject in the relations between subjects of different sex : s/he had to recognize and acknowledge that s/he belonged to a gender, that this belonging to a gender brought the negative between the subjects (of different sex) to light, the recognition: ‘You who will never be me neither in body nor in thought’.

But how to elaborate the concept of the transcendence of the other, woman – understood as her mystery, a freedom which cannot be appropriated – within the realm of the collective of women, in which the subjects in the inter-subjective relation ‘belong to the same  gender’, so that  ‘gender’ in all its manifestations – sex, style, practices, linguistic gender – is not the decisive marker of the alterity of subject, nor refers to the ‘gender’ of the third term which enables the speaking subject to shift between I and You. Or to put this differently, how to co-create a We that does not efface the differences between the subjects in relations, but that is based on the hard work of working through the negative.

In my view, feminist theories of intersectionality are extremely relevant to think through this issue. Within these theories, individual as well as discursive identity is presented as constructed upon and through the intersection of more than one axis of differentiation: gender, race, class ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexuality to name the most significant axes.[8] This means that the identity of a (single) subject is not only marked by her or his belonging to a gender, but that this identity is the product of the intersection of categories of differentiation: constructed out of the (oral) histories of (grand-) mothers and -fathers, the (half-forgotten) practices and manners of a group, of attitudes and values, which are each and all expressive of a worldview and value system. Thus ‘belonging to a gender’ takes on a different hue when it intersects with race or with class and race, or with religion and sexuality and so on. It accounts for the differences in experience of being a woman as well as for the different answers to the question what it means to be a free, autonomous and sovereign subject, or what shape such a freedom would take. For these particular experiences and answers are produced by acting and reacting in situations, in which ‘belonging to a gender’ constitutes only part of the multiple belongings of the subject. [9]

This turn to theories of intersectionality to think through the notion ‘the transcendence of the otherf’ follows from my effort to elaborate further on what I consider to be Luce Irigaray’s intention behind the concept of ‘the recognition of the alterity of the other’, notably that the subject’s knowing, doing, naming is limited; and that this limitation upon the subject’s subjectivity is not only set by the concrete reality of the other person, but also by the subject’s belonging to (a) larger collective(s). Luce Irigaray writes about this belonging:

‘I recognize you signifies that you are, you exist, you become. With this recognition, I mark you, I mark myself with incompleteness, with the negative. Neither you, nor I are the whole, nor the same, the principle of totalization. And our difference cannot be reduced to one hierarchy, one genealogy, one history.It cannot be weighed in more or less. That would be to annihilate it.’(Irigaray 1996, 105)

This quote opens the possibility to broaden the idea of ‘belonging to  a gender’ to belonging to a or more collectives’, thus to belonging to a gender as well as a race, an ethnicity, a religion, a class, a collective marked by sexual preference etc. For it is the postulation of a whole, of the same, that reduces (irreducible) difference to a single horizon of meaning. It is precisely this principle of totalization that is undermined through the theories of intersectionality. They show that sexual difference – but also the mother-daughter relation – gets a different hue in and through the intersection with other collective histories. Point of connection between Irigaray’s thought on the recognition of the transcendence of the other and feminist theories of intersectionality is the idea that belonging to (a) larger collective(s) means a disappropriation, a not-owning-oneself.  It means that in using the personal pronoun I, the subject is not asserting her autonomy or self-possession, but is taking up or referring to an other: to her gender(ed horizon), to her (female) genealogy in which more than one (personal) history intersects, as well as to the history of a collective or to histories of the collectives to which she belongs that mark her subjectivity and make up her particular identity.

Theories of intersectionality make it therefore possible to perceive and recognize the nature of the negative of the other woman that operates between the I and the You in a context where subjects belong to the same (linguistic) gender, and where ‘gender’ can not and does not mark their irreducible difference. They clarify that the excess that resists appropatrion is the effect of the location of the other subject in the force field of different axes of differentiation on the one hand; on the other hand it is caused by this subject’s individual process of internalizing and interiorizing the different social forces, which intersect upon her embodied location in the world and become inscribed in her body and flesh. They thus set off that the transcendence of the same sex other asks for a similar acknowledgement as the transcendence of the other of different sex and thus a same attention to the space in between these two subjects.

Towards practices of the ethics of the in-between

But how to ensure that the transcendence of the other – hence the in-between – will be recognized and respected in the daily practices of the many encounters between women. Or, how shall this ethics of the in-between be practiced in daily life?  For although theories of intersectionality provide a sound theoretical basis to think through the alterity of the same sex other, it is as difficult to recognize this transcendence as it is to recognize the transcendence of the other of different sex, perhaps even more so because the sameness in gender in all its manifestations – sex, appearance, style, practices –might lead to the presumption of being (the) same or similar.

This ethics is not easy to practice. For one, the deep-seated desire to make the other ‘mine’, to own or possess objects including the other, to appropriate the other’s qualities or knowledge or to use her for my growth and glory, all these are important obstacles in the development of this ethics. And for another, the passion of wonder, which plays an important part in the creation of an in-between in the inter-subjective relation, is not easy to practice either. Wonder – not once, but time and again – asks for a sensibility of the senses as well as for an attentiveness to the other that is at right angles with the pace of contemporary (urban) life. It asks for a sensibility of the flesh, for being in tune with the perceptions of the five senses to be able to register that the other has touched you as different – different in the sense of unknown, strange, new as well as different in the sense of changed, ‘other’. This sensibility, or the development of such a sensibility, is not easy to come by in an urban environment with its bombardment of noise and fumes and its pace of movement directed at steering clear of physical contact with another. Wonder – and thus the recognition of the transcendence of the other – also asks for time for the encounter: time to perceive that the other has touched you as different, time to ponder the emotions this other evokes in you, time for the other to respond to the wondering question ‘who art Thou?’; more time than the routine has allotted to this encounter.

These obstacles highlight that the ethics of the in-between I pictured in the above must be given shape in a conscious practice of respecting the in-between. It demands the development of a different life-style, a different practice of encountering the other subject than the current one, because it is directed at modifying and re-directing deep-seated modes of behavior and desire. These can only be changed through the observance and performance of such an intentional practice of taking time to be attentive, paying attention to the practice of breathing, of taking time and space to be silent (Irigaray 2002, 49-73).

Because the practice of this ethics asks for such a conscious effort of shaping one’s life style according to this different rhythm of life (Mulder 2003, 40-50), it is important to keep in sight that a key value of human being-in-the-world and human sociality is at stake: notably the respect of the in-between between the one and the other. To call it a key value makes clear that it is essential to human being and becoming, to the flourishing of the human subject both individually as collectively; essential, because human being-in-the-world is a being-with-the-other from the beginning. To shape this being-with-the-other in such a way that each can become, can become more ‘completely’ human requires this ‘respect of the in-between’. That would make this value a ‘perfection’, pointing to the idea of completeness, of the ultimate of human being, worthy of the predicate ‘divine’ or the thought ‘of God’.

By presenting ‘respect of the in-between’ as a perfection of human being-in-the-world, I place this value in the domain of ‘God-talk’ or in the domain of the ultimate and of ultimate meaning. I do this to make clear that this ethics ought to become an indelible part of the horizon of meaning of the collective, for only then will it be part of the (cultural) identity of subjects and become inscribed in their modes of behavior. This implies that  this ethics should become anchored in stories, images, in bodies of thought as wel as in everyday practices and modes of behavior vis à vis the other. This for a mobilization of the imagination and the memory, for narratives of moments of wonder before the alterity of the other, memories of experience of the in-between, for stories that teach the basic principles of this practice, for practitioners of this life-style. Taken together, they map this ethics of ‘the respect of the in-between’ and offer the subject an image of a being- with- the- other she can imitate and try to realize in her own daily practices of being-in-relation with the other in order to flourish and co-create a flourishing community.

[1] The concept of intersectionality was introduced by Kimberley Crenshaw  (Crenshaw 1989). It is subsequently developed in many directions. In the Netherlands the most outspoken theoreticians of intersectionality are Helma Lutz and Gloria Wekker. (Lutz 2002; Wekker 1996; Wekker and  Lutz 2001)

[2] Implicit in this exposition is Luce Irigaray’s idea, that there ought to be two universals, two gendered horizons of meaning in relation to which a subject makes meaning out of life.

[3] I refer here to her book To speak is never neutral, (Irigaray 2002a). Most of the texts in this collection of essays were first published between 1966 and 1971, i.e. before the publication of Speculum of the other woman. For a description of the trajectory of these linguistic theories in her work, especially on the relation between these theories and her views that women need a horizon to become a subject, see: Mulder 2001, 49-73.

[4] She develops her thoughts in her reading of Descartes’ book The Passions of the Soul. (Descartes, 1931/1649, art 53, 358. Quoted in Irigaray, 1993a, 73) Descartes describes wonder as the first of all the passions, because it is the first passion that arises in the encounter with the unknown other or unknown object. This means that wonder precedes the reaction of the subject to this other as well as the modes of relation towards him/ her/ it: love or hate, desire or rejection.

[5] To name but two of the narratives on this subject referred to or quoted by Luce Irigaray are the film Maternale and its script by Giovanna Gagliardo, (Irigaray 1981, 60-67) the stories of Mélusine, (Irigaray 1993c, 57-59). In her interpretation of Freud’s text Femininity, she unravels the reasons of the rivalry between mothers and daughters within Freud’s Oedipal structure. (Irigaray, 1985a).

[6] Irigaray develops the idea of a horizon of meaning in the feminine in her text Divine Women. (Irigaray, 1993c, 55-72). She argues in that text also that a ‘God’ in the feminine would symbolize this horizon. See for a commentary upon this thought Mulder, 2001, 2006.

[7] This understanding of ‘gender’, and of ‘belonging to a gender’ runs the danger that it is based upon the universalization of one particular worldview or one understanding of female subjectivity and divinity. This has been labeled essentialism in feminist theory. The issue, however, is not that speaking of a horizon of meaning in the feminine is posing an essence of woman, but that it can exert hegemonic power and thus contribute to the (political) power of one group of women over others. This critique has led to a preference for the particular over the universal and to a disinclination to claim the universal by naming, oneself, the world – and God. However, the gesture of claiming the universal can also be seen as a strategic gesture with immense political value. Accepting this view on the political power of universals in the feminine implies that women disempower themselves when they keep undermining the idea of a collective subject in the name of defending particularity and/or the plurality of female subjectivity.

[8] In one of her (Dutch) texts Helma Lutz distinguishes fourteen categories of differentiation notably gender, sexuality, race/ color, ethnicity, nationality, class, culture, religion/ religiosity, health, age, residence/ origin, North-South/ East-West, state of societal development. She lists moreover the basic dualism operative within each category: thus the basic dualism operating within the category ‘gender’ is male-female, within ‘sexuality’, it is hetero-homo and within ‘race’ it is black and white. (Lutz 2002, 14)

[9] Ultimately it accounts for the differences in the stories about a ‘God’ in the feminine, which women tell each other as well as for the differences in insights about the qualities and values that make up the humanity/ divinity of women, which these stories of ‘God-She’ express.


Crenshaw, K. (1989), Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex. A black feminist critique of anti-discrimation doctrine, in: The University of Chicago Legal Forum, 139-167.

Descartes, R. (1931), The Passions of the Soul, in The Philosophical Works of Descartes Vol I (transl. E.S. Haldane & G.R.T. Ross) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Guenter, A. (hg), (2004), Maria Liest. Das heilige Fest der Geburt, Ruesselsheim: Christel Goettert Verlag.

Irigaray, L. (1981), And the One Doesn’t Stir without the Other, (transl. V. Wenzel, in: Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol 7 (1981) 1, 60-67.

Irigaray, L. (1985a), Speculum of the Other Woman, (transl. G. Gill), Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press.

Irigaray, L. (1985b), This Sex Which Is Not One, (transl. C. Porter), Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press.

Irigaray, L. (1993a), An Ethics of Sexual Difference, (transl. C. Burke & G. Gill), Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press.

Irigaray, L. (1993b), Je, Tu, Nous. Towards a culture of difference, (transl. A. Martin), London, The Athlone Press.

Irigaray, L. (1993c), Sexes and Genealogies, (transl. G.Gill) New York, Columbia University Press,

Irigaray, L. (1993d),’ L’importance du genre dans la constitution de la subjectivité et de l’intersubjectivité,’ in: idem, Genres Culturels et Interculturels, (special issue) Langages 111, septembre 1993, 12-23.

Irigaray, L. (1996), I love to you. Sketch of a possible felicity in History, (transl. A. Martin), London, Routledge,

Irigaray, L. ( 2002a), To speak is never neutral, (transl. G. Schwab), London, Continuum.

Lutz, H. (2002), Zonder blikken of blozen. Het standpunt van (nieuw-)realisten, in: Gender. Tijdschrift voor Genderstudies, vol. 5 (2002) 3, 7-17.

Mulder, A.C., (2001), ‘A God in the Feminine’, in: Biezeveld, K. & A.C Mulder, (eds), Towards a Different Transcendence. Feminist Findings on Subjectivity, Religion and Values, Bern: Peter Lang, 49-73.

Mulder, A.C., (2003) Eine Ästhetik des Dazwischen: Die ethische Conditio sine qua non eines friedlichen Zusammenleben. In: M. Moser & I. Praetorius (Hg). Welt gestalten im ausgehenden Patriarchat. Ulrike Helmer Verlag. Königstein/Taunus. 40-50.

Mulder, A.C. (2006), Divine Flesh, Embodied Word. Incarnation as a hermeneutical key to a feminist theologian’s reading of Luce Irigaray’s work. Amsterdam, AUP.

Rullmann, M. (2010) Über die beziehung zum Anderen, in

Wekker, G. & H.Lutz (2001, Een hoogvlakte met koude winden. De geschiedenis van gender- en etniciteitsdenken in Nederland, in M. Botman, H. Jouwe & G. Wekker (eds), Caleidoscopische visies. De zwarte, migranten- en vluchtelingenvrouwenbeweging in Nederland, Amsterdam: KIT 25-50.

Wekker, G.(1996), Praten in het donker, in G. Wekker & R. Braidotti, Praten in het Donker. Multiculturalisme en anti-racisme in feministisch perspectief, Kampen: Kok Agora, 57-87.

Autorin: Anne Claire Mulder
Redakteurin: Dorothee Markert
Eingestellt am: 22.02.2011
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Kommentare zu diesem Beitrag

  • Fidi Bogdahn sagt:

    please, please, translate it
    wenigstens ein paar Sätze dazu, worin sich dieser Aufsatz von dem früheren “Ästhetik des Dazwischen” unterscheidet.
    … es ist einfach eine Bitttttttttte…

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