Reflections on Luce Irigaray's 2016 Seminar
Paris. Summer. 2016.
by Anna White
We’ve come from scattered locations to meet in this common space, in this south bank of Paris, in this historic Les-Halles district, in this mid-September heatwave, in this city of stone and light and love. We’ve left families and partners and jobs to answer the invitation by The Global Center for Advanced Studies and renowned French philosopher Luce Irigaray to commune at the Centre Sèvres to discuss the increasingly crucial concern of: how do we build a new world? It is at once a question of despair and hope, of destruction and construction, and it seems that one of the better places to address it in this moment is here in this heart of Europe.
After all, among the more pleasant aspects of the city, are two less charming but perennial social sites to witness in the streets of Paris: the homeless refugee families and the police presence, which is increasingly militarized. In other words, the continued influx of people who are faced with a total loss of land and livelihood and the response to it in the form of a bolstered regime. This is not just an observation of France of course, as we can all bear witness, in some degree, to this same tragedy playing out in our own corners of home. Too many of us can point far too easily to the ways in which the powerless and the powerful continue to grow in polarity and animosity. Refugees across the EU. Immigrants in the US. 20 million starving, homeless Yemenis. Syria’s victims. Myanmar. Venezuela. Greece. Sudan. And on and on.
Despite philosophy’s reputation for being removed from reality, much of Luce Irigaray’s work is written to engage with our current condition, and that is especially so of her most recent book, Through Vegetal Being, published in 2016 by Columbia University Press. In this text and throughout the week-long seminar, Irigaray speaks of a human condition which she sees as being steeped in internal and external conflict, in self and social alienation, in a masculine mechanization, in an overall reliance on a world-order which positions the world outside of human subjectivity. By adopting such an ontology, says Irigaray, both subject and object have been alienated from each other, giving rise to a world without a soul, open for unchecked abuses, and a soul without a place, open for nihilism. In such a way, we have lost our connection with the foundations of life itself- with perception, with intimacy, with roots, with clean air and water, with breathing, and ultimately, with each other.
Undoing this myth of the independent individual- who supposedly survives on mere machines, laws, codes, territories, allowances- is a key concept throughout Irigaray’s book, as she carefully and lovingly sketches scenes from her own life in which she is first forced to leave society and return to the embrace of nature, followed by a longing for and a return to human intimacy. For her then, the answer to how do we build a new world comes in the form of a return, a remembering of our origins and a rediscovery of our natural energy, which is a human synergy. It is only in this return to the basic interdependent structure of all life that we can move into a positive ontology, one which recognizes and honors the ways in which our lives are built upon air, sun, earth, plants, people, desire. Desire, for Irigaray, is the new fuel in the new world, the desire, that is, to gesture across the distance of difference which naturally separates us. The desire to flourish, not just survive.
It is for these reasons that a large group of us has come from scattered places to meet in this common space and frankly, it hasn’t always been easy this week. There is so much difference which we bring from our scattered origins and sometimes it succeeds in keeping us separated rather than engaged. But each day there is a revived desire to meet and try again. We sit together and eat, drink, walk, all the while talking, talking, talking. So much talking. Why so much talking? For Irigaray, talking is one of the more important ways that we humans try to love. Talking is loving. Which is why for her, a new language is at the center of our new world.
In the end I return to the scenario of the powerless and the powerful. I’m sitting in front of the train station waiting for my train home. A row of military vehicles is parked along the curb and the officers are coming and going from the surveillance vans, patrolling the main entrance to the largest station in Paris. Meanwhile the people of Paris are passing in hordes along the sidewalk, many unfazed. There’s a group of idle young men next to me who are watching the officers, commenting, making eye contact, trying to establish their own valid presence in this public square. The officers are staring back, pacing, rearranging their automatic weapons, laughing sometimes. I’m sitting more or less in between them so their wordless language is ringing like bells in my ears announcing their deep divide, an abyss, gaping between them. But it’s not telling anything of a way across. I’m stumped- how was it that we were going to build a new world from this one?
“Pardon, avez vouz une cigarette pour moi?” I say to the group of men. “Ah oui bien sur” they say “un seul?” The youngest of the group pulls out a pack of cigarettes, removes one, hands it over and lights it for me. They smoke too. The officers walk over to their vans and emerge with cigarettes. The square is different now. We all smoke together in a new silence, turning our faces slightly towards the sun. It’s not ideal, this little world that has opened up, but it’s better. When the cigarette is done, the group of men decides to leave, but before they do, they offer me another cigarette.
Non merci, je vais.