j_spot the Journal of Social and Political


Volume One, No. 3 | June 2001

j_spot online edition ISSN 1481 8 5842


Guiltless Credit and the Moral Economy of Salvation


Margaret Gibson

School of Social Science
University of New England
Armidale, New South Wales
hands outstretched

    The relation between man and woman, men and women, takes place on the grounds of a groundless ground.  It is without definitive resolution or assumption, always becoming in the outward and return journeying between one and the other, the ones and the others, with no end or final reckoning.

                              - Luce Irigaray 1996: 107
    An initial question might be—what is meant by the salvation economy?  This phrase is used throughout this essay and it refers to a number of interrelated things.  It refers to the Christian religious myth that promises the reward of eternal life with God in a place called Paradise for those who are faithful and seek forgiveness for their sins.  In Christian faith a sinner who turns away from God is a  ‘lost soul’, and conversely, the sinner whose faith is restored and who seeks forgiveness comes back to the fold and goes forward on the path of salvation.  Loss, gain, reward, punishments, forgiveness, saving grace—the language of Christian faith, morality and justice is an intricate web of economic binds and turns.  In The Symbolism of Evil, Paul Ricoeur states that salvation1 is concerned with the idea of “buying back” (1969: 92) and further that one is “in” sin as a relationship to bondage (1969: 92-93).  This bondage is an “enveloping situation, like a snare in which man is caught” and that “something of unclean contact is retained in this idea of the ‘captivity’ of sin” (Ricoeur 1969: 93).  Furthermore, Ricoeur writes, “All our ideas of salvation, of redemption—that is to say, of buying back—proceed from this initial cipher” (1969: 93).  The religious myth of salvation is complex and has the potential to open up all sorts of issues, contradictions and differences in Christian Church histories, doctrines, and theological debates.  However, over and above such differences, there remains the economic base of monotheism and a single masculine hom(m)osexual father-son economy.  This essay discusses the gender structure of Christian moral economics in relation to salvation.  It discusses two interrelated issues.  Firstly, it considers the debt-structure and bondage of sin which is structured through a masculine hom(m)osexual economy of binding relations and gift sacrifices.  And secondly, it discusses the gender economy of patriarchal monotheism and divine masculine incarnations which are secured and mediated through women, women’s flesh and the genealogical sacrifice of the mother-daughter couple.

    Luce Irigaray’s work on the divine and an ethics of sexual difference informs much of the conceptual and ethical orientation of this discussion.  In “The Fecundity of the Caress” and other essays, Irigaray rethinks the biblical Genesis Fall story and imagines a loving encounter between two sexually autonomous beings who provide a path for the other’s return to self.  Irigaray argues that in order to have sexual ethics between men and women, women need their own relationship to the divine as the project/projection of infinite self-becoming.  Accordingly, women need their own path of becoming which is possible only through the recognition of two genders irreducible to each other:

      If sexual difference is to be overcome is it not imperative first of all to find a sexual ethics?  If one day we are to be one must we not now be two?  Otherwise we fall back into the same formal and empty (male) one, back into the hierarchies we are familiar with, or into a nostalgia for returning back into the womb where the other is nothing but an encompassing source of food and shelter. (1993a: 179)

    The question of the path is important in both Irigaray and Hélène Cixous’ return to the Fall story (Irigaray 1993b; Cixous 1994).  For both of them, the traditional patriarchal story founds an unethical gender structure.  Cixous suggests that in and through this story the feminine is positioned/aligned with death, that is, the end and place of no-return(s).  In this position, which the masculine subject both fears and desires, she loses her own path of becoming as a relationship to the infinite and her own gender ideal:

      To have believed...that there was only one path.  That there was only one of them!  To have believed that the thread which crossed through him was destined for her, that she was made for him, the natural prolongation of his original thread.  And that she would thereby be the path from thread to line going from line to thread and back.
      To the point of having detested the idea of a no-return, in imagining that the beings without a thread would disappear beyond a certain point into nothingness.  To the point of having taken infinity for death. (Cixous 1994: 62)

    The Genesis story is about the path and the creation of two binary poles—the negative and positive, man and woman.  Irigaray sees these binary poles as part of the problem because, as she says in her essay “Sexual Difference”:

      If there is no double desire, the positive and negative poles divide themselves between two sexes instead of establishing a chiasmus or double loop in which each can go toward the other and come back to itself.  If these positive and negative poles are not found in both, the same one always attracts, while the other remains in motion but lacks a ‘proper’ place. (1993b: 9)

    Woman is denied her own place in relation to man, remaining unhoused whilst providing him with shelter.  She provides him with a place in which he can seek himself through her and return to himself, without him considering or respecting her as another subject needing her own path of infinite becoming: “Their paths cross but achieve neither an alliance nor a mutual fecundation” (Irigaray 1993b: 202).  In this single gender economy, God-the-father stands to reconcile the difference between the two genders.  Through assimilation, this sacrificial and unethical structure represses the trace of alterity (the irreducible difference) between the two genders into the unity of one.  However, it is the feminine-maternal2 that pays the price for this structure of the one and the unity of the self-same.  She is sacrificed for the masculine subject and his narcissistic—as well as rivalrous—encounter with his own project/projection of perfection and wholeness through God as the ideal of the masculine gender.  Unless two subjects and genders can emerge in relation to a groundless origin or rather a “groundless ground” (Irigaray 1996: 107), then the feminine-maternal will remain forever contained within the masculine universal, and be exchanged within the genealogy of the father-son economy.  Referring to Irigaray’s work on the gift in the symbolic economy of patriarchal Western thought and religion, Judith Still writes that women are economically situated in three general ways: “Women are virgins (pure exchange value), mothers (use values) or prostitutes (use value which is exchanged)—in none of these positions do women have a right to pleasure as women” (1997: 178-79).  This has particular relevance in terms of the figures of Eve and the Virgin Mary, where the Virgin Mary represents a pure exchange value between familial economy of father and son.  Mary bridges the relation, binding each to the other without accruing neither a debit line nor a credit bind to herself as a creator and origin.

    Sacrificial Gifts

    The salvation economy is a hom(m)osexual economy because it is structured through the couple of father and son; this couple relies on the exchange and mediation of women to secure the same sex-gender tie or bind.  The father and son need the bodies of women, principally the mother figures of Eve and Mary, to open up and later secure the path and redemptive turn of the sinner back to God-the-father through the son.  Father and son bind the return of the sinner back from exile and alienation but this is done through the bodies of women who must remain unbound by their own path of return.  In remaining economically unbound within their own gender, they function as the mediating bodies and economic sacrifices that bind these masculine gift/debt relations and paths of return.

    The question of the gift in the context of Christian ethics of responsibility and justice has returned quite recently (it would seem that discourse on the gift remains in circulation) in the work of Jacques Derrida and critical readings of Derrida’s work in feminism, philosophy and theology (Caputo and Scanlon 1999; Carlson 1998; Joy 1999; Kronick 1999; Still 1997).  While discussions of the gift in anthropology deal quite specifically with the question of sex-gender structures and the economy of the gift, the recognition of similar sex-gender issues is often blatantly absent in theological responses to Derrida’s work on the gift.  Carlson (1999) refers to Derrida and the gift of death without thinking through the relationship between women and death in theological discourse.  Morney Joy in “Beyond the Given and the All-giving” identifies a general absence of ethical engagement with sexual difference and cultural difference ethics in relation to the gift in philosophy, feminism and theology.3  Still’s criticism of Derrida’s discussion of the gift is different in orientation, in that she questions the economy or rather debit/credit structure of Derrida’s authorial line.  She suggests that Derrida writes about the gift in a masculine “homosocial textual economy” which traces and interweaves masculine debts of authorship in philosophy and anthropology (e.g. Heidegger, Mauss, Levi-Strauss and so on).  Still offers the most comprehensive and critical reading of the textual/sexual economy of the gift in Derrida, Cixous and Irigaray.

    In Given Time: 1. Counterfeit Money, Derrida makes a distinction between a pure gift and a sacrificial gift, arguing that a pure gift is unbound—it has no tie or bind of reciprocity.  A pure gift (purely generous, gracious) is unbound by a structure of return (1992a: 137-138): “a gift must not be bound, in its purity, nor even binding, obligatory or obliging” (1992a: 137).  In another work, The Gift of Death, Derrida describes this gift as “incalculable” (aneconomic is his term) whilst being the very condition of calculation and economy in general.4  The generosity of a pure gift, if it is even possible or ethically desirable, reflects the position of the feminine-maternal in relation to the salvation economy and the father-son couple structure.  Is the feminine-maternal in this economy a sacrificial gift or an unbound generosity or are these really one and the same in an economy of the self-same masculine subject?  In Given Time, Derrida implies that sacrifice is not a pure gift.  However, the very idea of a pure gift is also questionable and we see signs of doubt in his argument.  Carlson notes that this conditional structure “if there is gift” indicates that “the gift constantly risks falling into a structure and dynamic of exchange, circulation, reciprocity, symmetry, recognition, calculation, and so on—all of which annul the gift in its definitive unconditionality (1999: 221).  A sacrificial gift, unlike a pure gift, according to Derrida, is calculating in that it expects or tries to secure a benefit:

      Sacrifice will always be distinguished from the pure gift (if there is any).  The sacrifice proposes an offering but only in the form of a destruction against which it exchanges, hopes for, or counts on a benefit, namely a surplus-value or at least an amortization, a protection, and a security. (1992a: 137)

    Derrida’s discussion of the gift in The Gift of Death partly engages with Christian ethics on responsibility and judgment by God.  In telling the Old Testament biblical story of Abraham asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, Derrida articulates the notion of a pure gift.  He suggests that at the moment in which Abraham raises his hand on the sacrificial altar, ready to strike a fatal blow, he has already in his mind murdered his son and thereby obeyed God’s command.  In the instant in which there is no time to turn back and alter the direction of his hand, Abraham has given his son death and given God his son’s death.  He has sacrificed everything in that instant and this is why God gives him back his son and saves his life.  For God sees in secret and knows that Abraham sacrificed without question and was thus completely faithful to his command.

    In attempting to rethink the gift of death as that which opens economy and exceeds reciprocity, Derrida both does and doesn’t consider the actual gender economy of the narratives of the gift to which he refers—accounts which are thoroughly masculine and paternal.  The paternal economy of Judeo-Christian monotheism governs The Gift of Death as it governs the texts of those he is reading.  But traced within the margins of both The Gift of Death and Given Time are figures of women who momentarily unsettle the circulation of masculine authors and masculine-centred narratives.  Derrida acknowledges in various places (1995: 75-76; 1985: 172) that the gift is already within a restricted economy in which woman is an unaccountable sacrifice.  Can one speak of a pure gift without traces of calculation and identity interests economising what is supposedly aneconomical?  It was a question Derrida put to Levinas and his marking of the trace (another name for the aneconomical) as ‘He’.  Levinas’ trace is a certain figuring of the divine, but it is certainly different from the use of God as a ground and reconciling presence or origin.  And yet Levinas’ trace does not escape a gender order which subordinates sexual difference and from this, the feminine. I n “The Trace of the Other” Levinas speaks of the trace as a third person in the face of the Other which is beyond being.  The trace in the face of the other is described as a “radical unrightness which escapes the bipolar play of immanence and transcendence proper to being, where immanence always wins against transcendence” (1986a: 356).  This “radical unrightness” contrasts with the closure sought in the religious ideal of the right path towards God and absolute Truth.  Derrida addresses the gender issue of the trace in his essay, “In This Very Moment in This Work Here I am,” where he remarks “How can one mark as masculine the very thing said to be anterior, or even foreign to sexual difference?” (1991: 430).  In this essay, Derrida returns to Levinas’ trace in a critical fashion and finds that Levinas marks the trace of the wholly other (the otherwise than being) as ‘He’ in such texts as “The Trace of the Other” and Totality and Infinity.  We might wonder if Levinas assumes that ‘He' does not mark the wholly otherwise in terms of sexual difference, as ‘He’ is taken to be gender neutral.  Levinas would thus remain within a philosophical tradition where the feminine mark is the contamination of sexual difference, and represents the division and fall of the universal into the particular.  Derrida writes:

      E.L.’s work seems to me to have always rendered secondary, derivative and subordinate, alterity as sexual difference, the trait of sexual difference, to the alterity of a sexually non-marked wholly other.  It is not woman or the feminine that he has rendered secondary, derivative, or subordinate, but sexual difference.  Once sexual difference is subordinated, it is always the case that the wholly other, who is not yet marked, is already found to be marked by masculinity (he before he/she, son before son/daughter, father before father/mother etc.). (1991: 430)

    Would the absence of any explicit gender mark mean that the trace in Levinas’ work was before and free of the mark of sexual difference?  This question, I would argue, cannot be settled either way and I take this to be Derrida’s economic strategy.  Once the trace is marked by sexual difference, which is the case which Levinas’ trace, it becomes a question of whose mark marks the trace.  It always ends up being an appropriating gesture, like the relation to origins or Being, which privileges one side over another.  Derrida’s discussions of the trace would seem to resist this appropriating move because it is explicitly part of the very account of the trace.

    Salvation is founded upon a sacrificial gift that opens the way for a return to God-the-father through faith and love.  But it cannot be a pure gift because the return back to God is already bound up with economy as reward, expiation, restitution, etc.  We can argue that the feminine-maternal comes closest to Derrida’s formulation of a pure gift (purely generous, gracious) in being unbound by the moral order that ties a debt structure to her (1992a: 137-138).  Is this because woman, as Cixous and Irigaray suggest, has been associated with the path of death—the no place of no return where moral accountability ends or is annihilated?  This puts the feminine-maternal in an impossible place, a no-place, that threatens moral accountability. Consistent with Levinas’ position, however, death and ethics (as opposed to moral accountability) are not mutually exclusive, but rather are constitutive binds (See Levinas’ Time and the Other 1987).  The feminine-maternal does not stand in judgment at the end of time and tally up the record of debts and credits of each sinner, nor does the feminine-maternal stand in the place of return, although one could indeed argue that this entire mythic economy is merely the transfiguration and transvaluation of the mother.  This is something upon which Kristeva speculates but doesn’t really address in Tales of Love (1987: 21-56).  What is partly at stake in this salvation economy and the couple of father and son is the desire to escape death.  It is the mother figure and the bodies of women who are associated with the cycle of life and death here and now on earth.  Given the association between the maternal body and death, the salvation economy appropriates this origin and end of economy by surpluses of reward, debts of sin, and the irreducible flaw or fault in being.  These economic binds aim to extend moral accountability after death while also functioning to constitute and economically figure the very idea of the after-death.  Marina Warner suggests that although original sin is taken away by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, the actual tendency to sin as the irreducible flaw of human imperfection remains irreducible (Warner 1976: 51).  The impossibility of ever fully overcoming the bondage and contamination of sin functions as a permanent binding trace between sinner and God.  Human beings will never be free from this fault or flaw in their being and this means that they will always be subject to sin.  In this sense, human beings are not free from the bind of sin and moral accountability that requires restitution and the seeking of forgiveness.

    The salvation economy is partly designed to overcome the place of no-return, the place where the ego is no more.  It is indeed an egocentric economy which prefers to pay the father, who promises eternal life, which may just be another name for eternal death, over the mother who is associatively situated in the place of self-annihilation.  Gender is thus marked and marks a split between immortality and mortality.  The paternal God-creator and the salvific figure of Jesus Christ seek to save or redeem ‘man’ and presumably ‘woman’ from the maternal body and the natural earth bound cycle of life and death.  This amounts to an addition and extension upon a return to the maternal-body-earth through a mystical and moral transvaluation of this economic end.  Christianity economises death through the belief in an immortal soul and in the idea that death is merely another passage and turn in one’s journey towards God.  The afterlife is literally an additional path and an after-word.  As a truly generous gift, however, death is a turn without return.  The Christian myth of an afterlife and the moral economics of reward and punishments are designed to draw the source of life and death back to the masculine from the death-bound maternal body.  It is the economic triumph of the father and son couple over the maternal-body-earth.

    In his 1911 essay on the relationship between the pleasure ego and the reality ego, Freud gives a brief psychological interpretation of the origin of reward in an afterlife.  This essay sets out to explain the shift from a self-gratifying, impulse-driven, morally unrestrained pleasure ego, to the socially adaptive, morally ordered and conservative reality ego.  In the Freudian moral economy, the deferral of immediate self-gratification (pre-eminently part of Christian asceticism) is not the absence of self-gratification.  On the contrary, the deferral of immediate self-gratification leaves a kind of effect which religious belief converts into the idea of a future reward.  On this economy, Freud writes:

      the substitution of the reality principle for the pleasure principle implies no deposing of the pleasure principle, but only the safeguarding of it.  A momentary pleasure, uncertain of its results, is given up, but only in order to gain along the new path an assured pleasure at a later time.  But the endopsychic impression made by this substitution has been so powerful that it is reflected in a special religious myth.  The doctrine of reward in the after-life for the voluntary or enforced—renunciation of earthly pleasures is nothing other than a mythical project of this revolution in the mind.  Following consistently along these lines, religions have been able to effect absolute renunciation of pleasure in this life by means of the promise of compensation in a future existence; but they have not by this means achieved a conquest of the pleasure principle.  It is science which comes nearest to succeeding in that conquest; science too, however, offers intellectual pleasure during its work and promises practical gain in the end. (1986: 514)

    A series of interconnected economic binds is suggested in this passage.  The deferral of immediate pleasure (self-denial now) is already caught up in the bind of self-interest (self-preservation later, in an afterlife) through a surplus trace.  In other words, there is no pure disinterested selflessness that is outside the economy—self-denial will be rewarded; the deferral of expenditure now is only a deferred gain.  The deferred surplus effect (the endopsychic impression) becomes an investment (a saving/reserve) in the religious idea of a path beyond death, which death does not cancel.

    In Christianity it is through the father-son economy that immortality is regained from the mortal fall.  The fall into death and original sin is redeemed through the sacrificial death of the son, Jesus Christ.  He pays for the debt of original sin with his life, which, in Christian belief, secures the path of salvation.  Addressing Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, where Nietzsche sarcastically condemns this creditor/debtor relation, Vicente Rafael states that the “Father makes a gift of himself” through the sacrifice of the son.  Rafael argues that this is an irredeemable gift, which defies an equal return because no one can equal God (1988: 96).  The surplus of the gift would be cancelled by an equal return.  As sovereign patriarch, God is already constituted economically as self-sufficient.  And yet the surplus of the feminine-maternal, whether as a guiltless gratuity or matricidal debt, remains the unspoken condition for a supposedly self-sufficient, sovereign Creditor.  In feminist critiques of monotheism, the question of the lost origin of the mother and female goddesses is generally construed as an issue of matricide.  Feminist writers have raised the question of the mother’s murder preceding and haunting (through a return of the repressed) a single monotheistic father origin (Froula 1983; Friedman 1993; Irigaray 1993a, 1993b, 1996; Stone 1976; Daly 1973).

    Blood Debt and Sacrificial Murder

    Stories of sacrificial murder are the foundation of moral economic binds between men in both Judaism and Christianity.  In Totem and Taboo, Freud argues that murder, and in particular the crime of parricide, is foundational to civilisation in Greek and Jewish origin myths.  Freud also argues that, in Christianity, original sin is the crime of parricide as the sin of the son (Adam) against God-the-father:

      If, however, Christ redeemed mankind from the burden of original sin by the sacrifice of his own life, we are driven to conclude that the sin was murder.  The law of talion,5 which is so deeply rooted in human feelings, lays it down that murder can only be expiated by the sacrifice of another life: self-sacrifice points back to blood-guilt.  And if this sacrifice of a life brought about atonement with God the Father, the crime to be expiated can only have been the murder of the father (1983: 154).

    In tracing the links between origin sin and Christianity, Freud makes the reading that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and its redemptive aim is indicative of the primal sin of parricide:

      In…Christian doctrine…men were acknowledging in the most undisguised manner the guilty primaeval deed, since they found the fullest atonement for it in the sacrifice of this one son.  Atonement with the father was all the more complete since the sacrifice was accompanied by a total renunciation of the women on whose account the rebellion against the father was started.  But at that point the inexorable psychological law of ambivalence stepped in.  The very deed in which the son offered the greatest possible atonement to the father brought him at the same time to the attainment of his wishes against the father.  He himself became God, beside, or, more correctly in place of, the father.  A son-religion displaced the father-religion.  As a sign of this substitution the ancient totem meal was revived in the form of communion, in which the company of brothers consumed the flesh and blood of the son—no longer the father—obtained sanctity thereby and identified themselves with him. (1983: 154)

    In discussing the mythic origins of morality and civilisation in Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism, Freud argues that the father’s murder gives him life as an immortal, haunting presence.  In both texts, Freud tells the myth of the primeval horde where the father is murdered by the brothers/sons who want to take his place, and possess “his” women (Gibson 1998: 90-91).  The gender structure of the myth requires the prior sacrifice of women as self-possessed in order to set-up the Oedipal struggle/rivalry between the father and the brothers/sons.  The women in the story are already positioned as objects of exchange between men in a patriarchal genealogy and hom(m)osexual moral economy.  They are essential figures of mediation in a gender economy that establishes moral and economic binds of obligation, reciprocity and responsibility between men, principally father and sons.  Through his sacrificial murder, the father becomes an even greater figure of authority to whom the sons defer.  Perhaps the mother is not murdered and this is why she is more dead than alive.  In discussing Totem and Taboo in “Before the Law,” Derrida provides a parallel argument to this idea: “The murder fails because the dead father holds even more power.  Is not the best way of killing him to keep him alive (and finite)—and is not the best way of keeping him alive to murder him?” (1992b: 198).  If the mother is dead she might be the unaccountable surplus of the law (guiltless credit) before the law is activated.  This reading can sustain the argument of a repressed matricidal debt with the argument that paternal law refuses to recognise this debt as a binding trace contracting both a genealogical line and path of indebtedness back to a mortal and/or divine mother.  Is the relationship to the maternal-feminine one that is not based on sacrificial murder and its institution of the paternal law and moral consciousness through transgression?  In this reading, the mother is not the haunting figure of the father through his murder but the haunting of a “figureless figure” (Derrida 1979: 131) that is prior to the law as guiltless credit.  This is the reading Derrida makes of the mother in “Living On: Border Lines” when he writes of her as “’a figureless figure’, the vanishing origin of every figure, the bottomless, groundless background…” (1979: 131).  As guiltless credit underwriting patriarchal monotheism, the unaccountable figure of the mother is taken into the law of the father and his proper name.  Is the maternal-feminine debt of origin a morally unbound and unbinding excess in a paternal order, which only recognises the bondage of masculine sacrifices and murderous blood traces?  Is consciousness of guilt and remorse gender selective?  The/a woman is the unconscious and unspoken condition of moral consciousness that cannot recognise her line of credit or debt because of the appropriation of the origin of creation and morality under the father’s name.  When Derrida speaks of the mother as a “figureless figure,” he is speaking of woman as the guiltless, unnameable surplus that underwrites and mediates the symbolic or moral economy.  Irigaray makes a claim on this economy where woman is priceless because she is the limitless value of no-thing.  The/a woman, according to Irigaray, is “the value of no value.  That nil, that zero, that moving decimal place which is the basis and seal of all accountability” (1985a: 237).

    The crime of matricide is concealed and enacted by any religion founded on paternal autogenesis.  Accordingly, paternal autogenesis bears within itself the irrepressible blood trace of the mother’s murder.  The mother’s murder, the loss of female goddesses and creation sources, which Merlin Stone (1976) researched, seems to escape serious weight and a binding debt of guilt conscience requiring some form of expiation, restitution or indeed a binding return back to the feminine-maternal.  The crime of matricide is thus the unbound basis for a bind of indebtedness to a father-creator, law-maker and loving judge.  Christina Froula writes that, “The repression of the mother is the genesis of Genesis” (1983: 337).  Her point is that we can never have Genesis as such and thereby begin at the beginning without there already being a trace of what that beginning relies upon as the condition of its possibility (Gibson 1998).  This point has been made by Luce Irigaray, Merlin Stone and other feminists critiquing the repressed debt and credit of monotheism.  In her essay on scenes of crime in Genesis and psychoanalysis, Friedman asks: “If an originary narrative directs our attention to the story of its own production, is this scene of birth also the site of a death, a murder whose trace exists as an insistent return of the repressed?” (1993: 72).  The mother in relation to the father is a prior untraceable trace, indeed a form of guiltless credit, which supports and underpins a moral economy developed through the property bind of the law of the father.  In being morally unbound by a debt to the feminine-maternal, the father is lawless in setting up the law.

    The mother is not only absent, it would seem, but through the autogenesis which is necessary for patriarchal monotheism, the mother is prior to the father’s law, the super-ego and the subsequent calculations of just rewards and punishments that mark the calculating history of the moral economy of salvation.  The father-god of Christianity who stands as the absolute figure of judgment at the end of time cannot ethically reconcile an economy built upon an outstanding debt to the feminine-maternal.  It would seem that a god who forgives and remits sins is a debtor living off the borrowed or perhaps stolen credit of the feminine-maternal.

    The incarnation of God is a gift that makes amends for the earlier separation and it is women who are the unbound threads which mend.  In the “Crucifixion or in the ‘Take, eat: this is my body,’ Christ’s body becomes the gift, the vehicle of atonement, which establishes a new covenant between man and God” (Hyde 1983: 58).  The gift of the son, sacrificed for the redemption and resurrection of humankind is understood in Christian theology as a pure and disinterested gift.  According to Nygren, the forgiveness of sins which this sacrifice brings about is “the bestowal of a gift” (Nygren 1953: 80).  The concept of love as agape is the idea that God’s love is “spontaneous and ‘unmotivated’,” that is, it is not limited by the character or conduct of human beings (Nygren 1953: 76).  Nygren states that divine love is “indifferent to value” because it is itself value-creating: “the man who is loved by God has no value in himself; what gives him value is precisely the fact that God loves him” (1953: 78).  God’s love knows no bounds and is not based on a distinction between the deserving and undeserving (Nygren 1953: 76-78): “Christian love is definitely a disinterested gift.  Far from needing to deserve it or to fear its withdrawal by God, the Christian is assured of being loved independently of his merits” (Kristeva 1987: 139).  The assurance of love from God does not secure salvation nor prevent just punishment.  The Christian is expected to emulate the idea of selfless disinterest, putting others before self.  However, masculine and feminine are necessarily situated differently and unequally in relation to this ideal form of love and gift of forgiveness because of patriarchal monotheism and its privileging of the father-son relation.  These are gender investments and gender sacrifices that put into question and symbolically stain any ideal of a pure, disinterested gift.  Women must be sacrificed in advance, must be for-given, in order for these ideals and gifts to be symbolically represented through male divine figures.  The masculine narcissism invested in the image-name of God-the-father and the hom(m)osexual masculine economy (which positions and appropriates the feminine as other of the same) cannot be disinterested nor can it be ethical, because it is structured through the sacrifice of two genders mediated by a groundless alterity.

    If there is a gift in this economy of salvation, it takes place in and through the bodies of women which bind and make possible the couple of father and son whilst remaining unbound by debt-bondages of sin and paths of return.  It is the mediation of the feminine-maternal and the life-giving and death-giving bodies of women which is the unbound gift, perhaps the only truly generous gift, which makes possible the birth of a son from the father, and enables the return of the sinner back to God through the sacrificial gift of forgiveness.  The sacrifice of women, principally the sacrifice of moral economic and genealogical binds to them, mediates and underwrites these father-son moral economic binds and gift-giving transactions.

    Ethics and Irreconcilable Alterity

    The singular origin of the father is instituted through a binding trace structure that simultaneously undoes any possibility of a path or line back to the mother.  Paternal autogenesis excludes the possibility of two origins and two paths leading back to both the father and the mother.  Is it possible to have two origins?  What is at stake or at risk in this possibility?  In the thought of two origins irreducible to one all-encompassing source is the idea of an independent maternal genealogy and by extension, a divine maternal source.  An economy of two dependent origins situates the feminine and the masculine as independently grounded in and on their own divine resources.  However, this independence requires the mediation and tracing of each in the other, otherwise this undermines ethical binds of mutual responsibility.  An economic structure of two or more origins undermines/undoes patriarchal monotheism and a Western philosophical tradition which privileges the idea of a single, father source.  In referring to Irigaray’s displacement of the Platonic account of the origin which displaces the maternal origin, Judith Butler argues that feminist practice does not have to claim the origin by setting up a rival ontology.  She implies that it is more a question of strategic reading and writing practices that aim to permanently unsettle all claims to origins and grounds.  Butler’s critique of origins in Gender Trouble is specifically directed towards heterosexist origin claims.  She makes explicit in her writing the idea that origins are discursive sites of identity investments, where certain lines of gender identification and sexual desire are pre-structured.  She points out, for example, that the law which structures the incest taboo is the same law which exposes the non-determination of heterosexuality as ‘naturally’ before the law and independent of it.  In her essay “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” Butler makes suspect the notion of origin (1991: 22) as an ordering sequence which produces secondary others and derivative copies:

      The origin requires its derivations in order to affirm itself as an origin, for origins only make sense to the extent that they are differentiated from that which they produce as derivatives.  Hence, if it were not for the notion of the homosexual as copy, there would be no construct of heterosexuality as origin.  Heterosexuality here presupposes homosexuality.  And if the homosexuality as copy precedes the heterosexual as origin, then it seems only fair to concede that the copy comes before the origin, and that homosexuality is thus the origin, and heterosexuality the copy.

      But simple inversions are not really possible.  For it is only as a copy that homosexual can be argued to precede heterosexuality as the origin.  In other words, the entire framework of copy and origin proves radically unstable as each position inverts into the other or confounds the possibility of any stable way to locate the temporal or logical priority of either term. (1991: 22)

    The claim on the origin assumes and orders a prior groundlessness and disorientation as the place of self-subsisting and “pre-existing identities” (Butler 1990: 141).  There is a parallel connection between Butler’s strategy and Freud’s notion of the originally directionless (objectless), polymorphous perverse sexuality of the infant.  Butler reads the origin itself as a ruse, that is, a retroactive effect of repetition and displacement and not a prior grounding presence, substance or entity (1993: 45).  In reference to Irigaray, she writes that:

      Insofar as the Platonic account of the origin is itself a displacement of a maternal origin, Irigaray merely mimes that very act of displacement, displacing the displacement, showing the origin to be an 'effect' of a certain ruse of phallologocentric power.  In line with this reading of Irigaray, then, the feminine as maternal does not offer itself as an alternative origin.  For if the feminine is said to be anywhere or anything, it is that which is produced through displacement and which returns as the possibility of a reverse-displacement. (1993: 45)

    Unless it is possible for two subjects to emerge in relation to a groundless origin or “groundless ground” (Irigaray 1996: 107), then the feminine-maternal will remain forever contained within the masculine universal, and exchanged or sacrificed within the genealogy of the father-son economy.  Do we need two origins or is it a matter of permanently unsettling all claims to origin and proper names as Butler suggests?  Irigaray goes back the Fall story to imagine the birth of a sexual ethics, that is, a relationship between man and woman which is not based on the sacrifice of woman to/for the birth of the male subject and masculine universal.6

      In the beginning ‘God’…created us naked, man and woman, in a garden that gave us all the food and shelter we needed.  Laboring to earn a living, laboring to give birth, marks an exile from this garden.  The toil that has become our lot, our only horizon, is, then only an exile, a waiting to return.  The ban on the flesh, the obligation to work and to suffer, are the reverse image, the failure of our first birth.  Today man is combing through his archaeology of myths, when he is not going out to search for himself in the most distant planets.  But all the while he is bound here and now by a fault he can never be free of, and for which he can never substitute a third party, such as love, grace, the jubilation of the flesh and the share these have in language too. (1993a: 178-179)

    The question of fault in this passage concerns the history of original sin and its positioning of the feminine as the imperfect side of man.  As his imperfect side, woman is the fault that he must try to overcome or erase.  The moral structure of fault is ethically at fault because it is constituted through the repression or denial of sexual difference, which is not modelled on the masculine subject (an economy of the same).  In response to the sexual politics of original sin which constitutes the feminine as castrated, Irigaray writes: “But doesn’t the male lover keep asking the beloved woman to efface an original wound of which she would be the bearer?” (1993b: 201).  This gender economy formulates one (masculine) genus, one (masculine) subject and one (masculine) projection of future perfect self-becoming.  It is through her fall as a sexual object that woman is positioned as giving rise to man’s sensuous mortal existence.  In reading Rabbinical interpretations of the Genesis story, Levinas writes in “Judaism and the Feminine” that

      The feminine … reveals itself to be the source of all decline.  This appears in an ambivalence in which one of the most profound visions of ambiguity of love itself is expressed.  The delicious weakness which, in the swoon of inner life, saves the human being from rootlessness takes place on the verge of letting go. (1990: 37)

    There is expressed in this passage a delightful sensuality in the moment of letting go to sexual passion but it is also, according to ancient Greek philosophy, Hebraic thought and Christian theology, the moment of weakness and negativity, of reason corrupted by passion and of the fall into mortal existence.  Eve bears the mark of corrupted innocence in being the vessel through which sin comes into existence.  Woman-Eve loses from the very beginning the specificity of her sexed-body and its representational possibilities outside a phallic reproductive model of sexual pleasure.  The marked figure of woman on the negative side of the symbolic order is redeemed by the figure of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ.  Against Eve’s body penetrated by the seeds of doubt through temptation, Mary’s virginity, at least in Catholic doctrine, restores an impenetrable fortress of virtue.  Mary, untouched by the stain of original sin, paves the way for the fault to be finally cancelled in a reconciling return to God-the-father.  Particularly in Catholicism, the emphasis on the virginity of Mary is symbolically important in sealing the promise of salvation.  Mary is the vessel through which this promise is sown and sealed as unbroken by her intact hymen.  The promise would be broken from her loss of virginity, as absolute faith in this promise is not marked by any sign nor penetrated by doubt.  A promise is kept by remaining secret and the most secret secret is the cipher.  In contrast to Eve’s fallen status, the Virgin Mary secures, in the absence of a breach between the inside and the outside, the salvation promise.  Her unbreached hymen symbolically heals the wound of the Fall.  Mary’s wholeness and unmarked status also mirrors back to the split masculine subject of the Fall, a fantasy projection of future reconciled wholeness and moral perfection which is the state of paradisaical sinlessness before God.  Mary’s virginity also figuratively guarantees the undivided origin of paternity.  Her lack of division (her lack of lack) and her unmarked and unimaginable sexed-body, is an ideal prototype and projecting screen of and for a masculine heterosexual economy of self-sufficiency and (sexually) impenetrable wholeness.

    Through Mary’s body the Word becomes flesh.  She is the redemptive counterpart to the incarnation of sin through Eve (de Beauvoir 1954: 187).  God needs Mary’s flesh in order to incarnate and represent his divinity.  The Virgin Mary represents the ultimate desire to reduce the feminine to a pure, uncontaminated and uncontaminating body—a pure typographical receptacle-surface that receives the creation of (eternal) life but does not also generatively contribute to that creation.  She is an empty, clean vessel (a pure gift) for the Word of God.7

    The politics of divine paternal autogenesis tell a story of a certain masculine desire to transcend and erase any trace of the feminine into itself, and to usurp the possibility of a maternal origin and a maternal naming.  In this reduction of the feminine to an untraced receptacle, masculine desire symbolically secures (solely) for itself the originary moment of life and language—the Word (Jacobus 1990).  In these economic binds of loss and gain, negative and positive, Mary plays a crucial part in restoring eternal life that Eve lost but also set up as the future possibility of Christianity.  Eve and Mary oppose and complement each other within a feminine order of binary relations—whole/divided, clean/corrupt, virtue/vice (Dalarun 1992: 27); they both underwrite the paternal origin.

    In rethinking the Genesis scenario in her essay “Sexual Difference” and “The Fecundity of the Caress,” Irigaray imagines a loving encounter which is not predicated on the politics of sexual transgression.  In this body politic of the Fall, the law is breached in a threshold crossing that is played out on, in and through, the body of woman-Eve.  The law has already taken possession of woman and demarcated a limit through the hymen.  As the membrane threshold, the hymen is a middle or between that is neither inside nor outside.  The hymen both joins and separates these binaries of inside and outside.8  When Adam and Eve are told “not to eat of the tree in the middle of the garden,” one could indeed interpret this garden as the body of woman, and the middle as the hymen that is prohibited from being unlawfully breached.  Irigaray works with the image of the garden and the threshold in “The Fecundity of the Caress” where its crossing is not the situation of an unlawful breach.  Irigaray writes another love scene:

      Crossing the threshold is no longer a profanation of the temple but an entrance into another, more secret, space.  Where the female lover receives and offers the possibility of nuptials.  Rapture unlike that of the conqueror who capture and dominates his prey.  Rapture of return to the garden of innocence, where love does not yet know, or not longer knows, nudity as profane.  Where the gaze still innocent of the limits set by reason, of the division of day and night, the alternation of the seasons, animal cruelty, the necessity of protecting oneself from the other or from God.  Face to face encounter of two naked lovers in a nudity that is more ancient then and foreign to sacrilege.  That cannot be perceived as profanation.  The threshold of the garden, a welcoming cosmic home, remains open.  There is no guard but love itself, innocent of the knowledge of display and of the Fall. (1993b: 201)

    In the Genesis story the threshold crossing is the scene of a fall where man passes through the woman as error and indirectly through her discovers or seeks the right path via the negative.  The threshold scene for Irigaray is the scene of contact between lovers who are created by, and in turn create, a shared alterity between them: “Prior to and following any positioning of the subject, this touch [of the caress] binds and unbinds two others in a flesh that is still and always untouched by mastery” (1993b: 186).  The caress both joins and separates the lovers without one being taken into the other by being under its sign or genus.  It is a groundless, mediating generosity and not a gift that amounts to a preconceived calculation that has sacrificed woman through an always already appropriated ground within the terms of the masculine.  This encounter between lovers involves divination of the flesh through a relationship of/to touching.  In touching each other, the transformation of each lover’s flesh and subjectivity is in continuous gestation.  This work of the flesh is Irigaray’s attempt to mediate and thus create a path between human and divine relations.  In seeking to transcend maternal, mortal existence and the feminine-maternal, Christianity has broken the bond of a loving relationship between human and divine, spirit and flesh.

    Irigaray’s account of a new birth imagines a relation between two terms where each welcomes the other.  Her account does not involve the fall of woman into the trajectory of the masculine subject, and his single path of becoming.  The biblical story of the Fall is haunted by the figure of woman whose creation after man marks a murderous erasure because she is his necessary, yet already excluded, other.  The God of this creation story is a God who has appropriated the maternal egg and made deadly the maternal body in order to proclaim a fiction of masculine autogenesis in conjunction with other-worldly immortality.  Western culture is full of accounting/narrative practices which place man first, and alone, without any sign of woman who would seem to threaten a fiction of heroic independence, whose other side, is the pathos of loneliness in the endless search for the (m)other who has been originally effaced/repressed.  The issue of a female symbolic is crucial to Irigaray because it presents the possibility of disrupting the sacrifice of women to masculine hom(m)osexual economy, whilst opening up another economy which mediates the relationship between mother and daughter.  Margaret Whitford (1991) suggests that this is only possible if there is a real other:

      At the moment, according to Irigaray, what we have is an economy of the Same, exchange between men—the same, male imaginary with nothing to act as the ‘break’, except women (i.e. women in external reality refusing the projections of the male imaginary).  In other words, for men to make the break with their imaginary, another term would be needed—women as symbolic term.  So long as women continue to be objects of exchange within that imaginary, they cannot be the term that effects the break.  They need to ‘go to market’ in their own right.  There is a symbolic castration which men have yet to effect: cutting the umbilical cord which links them to the mother.  And they will only be able to do this when it becomes possible to distinguish between the mother and the woman, when the relation between mother and daughter is symbolized. (1991: 91-92)

    Christianity is a moral not an ethical economy in terms of sexual difference.  The myth of the Fall is a story of law, order, and masculine hom(m)osexual property relations.  It is not a story of sexual difference, equality and shared subjectivity relations.  Irigaray suggests that we need to think “a way out of the fall” and “its ban on the flesh” (1993: 179) through imagining new forms of relationship, love and embodied inter-subjectivities.  This would require a radical change in the symbolic order and its sacrificial gender and moral economic binds.  But in order for such change to come about, the groundless ground of alterity needs to be respected before and beyond identity grounds and appropriations.  Gender ethics requires that women have their own genre/gender, genealogy, and their own project/projection of the divine.


    1.  The word salvation is derived from various Latin word forms.  Oxtoby traces these, commenting that salus (a noun) referred to the condition of salvus, that is, being intact.  The idea of an original integrity is implied.  He writes: “A person could be salvus, in good health, as the expression salvus sis, ‘may you be well’, testifies.”  Interestingly, from the point of view of feminist scholarship, “the idea of wholeness or safety was personified as a goddess, Salus, ‘the giver of health’”(1973: 17).  back to text

    2.  I use the term feminine-maternal to include women as a gender and to mark within this category the figure of the maternal.
    back to text

    3.  In this recent article, she criticises Derrida for his Eurocentrism as he translates across and between theories/interpretations of the gift in Western anthropology and theology.  This criticism is also directed at Irigaray’s essay, “Women, the Sacred and Money,” which interprets/aligns itself with René Girard’s notion of gift as sacrifice (1999: 319).  Joy criticises both Derrida and Irigaray for abnegating responsibility with regards to thinking through the relationship between cultural and sexual difference ethics.  At the same time, however, Joy acknowledges that the symbolic economy of the Western tradition and patriarchal religion is underwritten and mediated by the sacrifice of women (1999: 328-329).  back to text

    4.  In Derrida’s Heideggerian reading, death as the limit of substitution between human beings (no one can have my death for me; it is for me alone) assumes the status of inaugurating economy as the possibility of giving and taking: “it is only on the basis of death, and in its name, that giving and taking become possible” (1995: 44).  back to text

    5.  In Latin lex talionis means the law of retaliation whereby the punishment resembles the offence committed both in kind and degree.  back to text

    6.  This explicitly heterosexual narrative would seem to exclude, at the level of narrative, the structure of homosexual ethics.  The biblical couple of man and woman are heterosexual categories and this story is often deployed as a “naturalising narrative of compulsory heterosexuality” (Butler 1990: 146).  The biblical story of Adam and Eve’s fall and exile from Eden already determines the path of sexual desire and identification through the construction of gender opposites.  And the absence of any gender doubles of man and woman excludes same-sex identifications and desiring relations.  While Irigaray’s narrative is important in terms of rethinking heterosexual ethics, it is haunted by the repression of homosexual desiring and same-sex identifications.  One would have to begin with doubling the genders in order to make these structural relations possible.  back to text

    7.  Commenting on Irigaray’s reading of the Virgin Mary and her sexual embodiment in the Christian story of the crucifixion, Whitford (1994) writes: “In the Christian tradition of the West Mary is the receptacle for the divine child; her function is purely maternal.  Nothing is ever said of Mary’s sacrifice: the sacrifice of...her own life, her own embodiment as a woman-lover...” (384).  back to text

    8.  The hymen is also a rhetorical figure in Derrida’s work and this reading of the hymen—as that which both joins and separates—is Derridean.  back to text


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