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Beautiful Theology

Signifying truth in more than words alone

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Sexes and Genealogies, “Women, the Sacred, and Money”

In this essay, Irigaray ponders the strong association of sacrifice and gender: women as excluded from the role of the officiant at sacrifice, and as the object of sacrifice. She reades the sacrificial economy as entailing gender-asymmetry, which heightens the question of whether women and men can live in community when that community is constituted by sacrifice.

Women’s exclusion from the sarcifical economy (except occasionally as the sacrificed and this asymmetry again is not innocent, since the male sacrifical victim can be, usually is, “redeemed” by an alternate sacrifice, whereas for Jephthah’s daughter no alternative avails — but maybe that’s just a coincidence). Irigaray extends this reflection to include natural fertility, which in industrial society stands in the relatively less-valued relation to the “refined,” “developed,” processed products which industrial-commercial culture vests with greater honor (but which nonetheless depend for their existence as “produced objects” on the materials and resources and fecundity of the natural order). She imagines an inaugural sacrifice that founds industrial culture, where the (male-identified) order of domination and abstracted exchange value sacrifices the (female-identified) natural condition of fertility and abundance.

Irigaray ties the question of women’s liberation to their exclusion from both the sacrificial order and the order of exchange; women are symbolically homeless, as it were, without unfettered access to an interactive mode that befits their identity as women, they face the choice of participating in the male-dominated orders on men’s terms, or giving way to pathologies of symbolic deprivation (for which “hysteria” may serve as an emblematic cover term, not an exhaustive diagnosis). Women, on Irigaray’s account here, do not manifest “penis envy,” but they show the signs of exclusion from an imaginary economy that systemically denies their humanity. Where women cannot express themselves as women, their expressions appear to be distorted, muffled, incoherent versions of “something a man would say (or ‘do’ or ‘show.’ ”

By way of resistance, Irigaray challenges her readers to think and imagine possibilities for social organization that do not presuppose the sacrifice of some proportion of the populace, or of the environment that sustains all (her exhortation rings more clearly now, in the “Incovenient Truth” era, than when she wrote in the 90s). . .

My interst in Irigaray doesn’t depend on her being right-about-everything, but derives from her naming some truths that have not come to expression under the discursive regimens I’ve known elsewhere. That interest intensifies as she rejects both simple submission to the Christian tradition (of the “Father knows best” variety) and a reactive rejection of Christianity in the name of a feminist alternative. Irigaray takes as granted the prevalence of Christianity, and looks within it for the resources to bring to expression possibilities consonant with, but not constrained by, the churches’ understanding of the world. If at last I remain more pervasively entwined in the tradition’s account of itself, I benefit at least from her astringent analysis of what sort of world that account produces, at whose expense.

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