Volume One, No. 3 | June 2001
j_spot online edition ISSN 1481 8 5842
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’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:
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:
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.
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:
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)
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:
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)
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
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:
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
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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