Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Philosopher and Her Shadow: Irigaray's Reading of Merleau-Ponty

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Philosopher and Her Shadow: Irigaray's Reading of Merleau-Ponty

Article excerpt

Just as the perceived world endures only through the reflections, shadows, levels and horizons between things ... so the works and thought of a philosopher a re also made of certain articulations between things said.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty,

"The Philosopher and His Shadow"

What other mode of reading or writing, of interpretation and affirmation, may be mine inasmuch as I am a woman, with respect to you, a man? Is it possible that the difference might not be reduced once again to a process of hierarchization? Of subordinating the other to the same?

Luce Irigaray,

This Sex Which Is Not One

Irigaray has stated that her readings of philosophical texts are not intended to reproduce a "point-by-point interpretation of philosophers' utterances.'" Still, one is startled to find that her reading2 of Merleau-Ponty's influential chapter, "The Intertwining-the Chiasm" from The Visible and The Invisible? skips over its entire middle portion, focusing only on its first and last few pages.

Along with this glaring omission, Irigara'sy characterization of Merleau-Ponty's work as oculocentric, solipsistic, and male-biased is another puzzling and controversial aspect of her commentary. For one thing, touch is critical to Merleau-Ponty's understanding of perception. His notion of reversible flesh is based on a model of touched and touching hands. Moreover, he calls solipsism an illusion and even says, in the chapter under discussion, that the visible is "open to visions other than our own" (VI 143). Finally, his philosophy has influenced feminist theorizing, Irigaray's included, in a remarkably positive way.4 So perhaps it is not surprising that her critique, entitled "The Invisible of the Flesh," has itself become the focus of commentary explaining or cross-examining her objections to MerleauPonty.5

Ethical and ontological issues at stake in her reading account for some of this critical attention and lead to questions concerning the viability of both philosophical projects. Is there room in Merleau-Ponty's ontology for a sexually and subjectively differentiated other or is this possibility precluded, as Irigaray suggests, by his positing a structure of reversibility? Can Irigaray open up some sexually-differentiated, respectful space between her reading and his writing or does her use of a controversial mimetic strategy simply reproduce or reintroduce unethical gestures of silencing and exclusion? In questioning Merleau-Ponty, does she take her own ethics seriously or is her apparent disregard of so much of what he says a scandalous suppression of his own (sexually-differentiated) speech?

This essay argues that Irigaray's interpretative re-reading should not be dismissed as a simple mis-reading, an uncharitable account or irresponsible caricature of Merleau-Ponty's philosophy.6 While skipping so audaciously over the middle part of Merleau-Ponty's text may complicate her critique and make it appear uninformed, evasive or unbalanced, I show how this obvious omission can also be read as a critical aspect of her argument, a strategy of resisting his notion of one universal Flesh and "ultimate truth" of its reversibility (VI 155). As we shall see, the lapse in Irigaray's reading mimes what she discursively depicts as the neglect of a sensible medium in his Flesh ontology and is a (fittingly) silent indication of her own sense of this medium. What she leaves unspoken in her text is intimately connected and meaningfully fleshed out by what is.

My interpretation of Irigaray's critique approaches it through the twin lenses of narcissism and nostalgia. Through Irigaray's selective reading, idiosyncratic questioning and unconventional interpretative strategies, we see her ontology diverge from MerleauPonty's at the point where they seem most enmeshed: in the notion of a pre-reflective, prediscursive "formative medium"-that of (maternal) flesh. While her notion of sexual difference appears to be influenced by an ontological matrix of non-coincidence original to Merleau-Ponty, she achieves a critical distance from it by exposing its reliance on a patriarchal or polarized understanding of sexual difference, where the sexes are modeled after a mother/son relationship or regarded as reversed reflections of each other. …

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