(Breathing) Him to Her After Deconstruction (Luce Irigaray Between East and West)

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Against the better judgment of colleagues and friends I assigned Luce Irigaray Between East and West for my graduate seminar on “Religion, Art, and Aesthetics.”This year, we were looking at bodies and images of the body, starting with Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, including along the way Buber’s Daniel, Merleau-Ponty’s “Cezanne’s Doubt” and “Eye and Hand,” Deleuze’s Francis Bacon, Butler’s Bodies That Matter, and Judy Chicago, Through The Flower, and Michael Wyschogrod, Body of Faith. Since most of the texts I taught for this course were rather odd-duck, the choice if Between East and West fit the bill.

For some reason I thought I’d like the book, despite all things on the surface of the text that bother the critics. These would be the orientalism, the gender essentialism, and the heteronormativity. But assuming all this to be the problem, I wanted to wonder otherwise. Intellectually I’ll let almost anything slip. I tend to exercise maximal charity in my own hermeneutic, except in those cases where I don’t feel it’s possible to do so morally. So assuming that Irigrary is a smart person, what was it that drew her to yoga (obviously a seriously reconstructed one) and to the writing of this book? Assuming that she’s a canny thinker, it can’t be all that stuff that is, on the surface of this text, so patently ridiculous.

If I’m calling the orientalism, gender essentialism, and heteronormativity the surface of Between East and West, what caught my eye was the more simple surface of the surface, a surface that looks simple but isn’t. What drew my attention was the constitution of relation and breath as human movement, and the constitution of human movement as breath and relation. I remain open as well to the open conception of self, to the spiritualization of the body, and the lightening of corporeal being in relation to the heaviness of suffering and death. As a kind of aesthetic philosophy, what Irigaray looked for and found in yoga is a subjecting of sensibility and separation to sharing and spiritual elaborations. It’s her position that these spiritual elaborations make the body more “thoroughly and subtle sensible” (p.62).

As for what’s under the surface, I think it’s how yoga might offer a line of flight out of deconstruction, and all that might go with it.

To deconstruct, certainly, but that already represents a luxury for whoever has not built a world. And who or what supplies the energy for such a gesture? Would it be inspired by hatred? Of whom or of what? Of all, of everyone, and of oneself? Does such an operation really go beyond the existing logic…? Does not deconstruction, including though its recourse to innumerable linguistic ruses, remain trapped in a secular manner of know-how, and does it not imprison there reason itself, to the point of leading it to a nihilistic madness as the ultimate Promethean gesture? Would it not also be too mental, too exclusively mental, wanting to ignore that the sensible-intelligible and corporeal dichotomies are one of the reasons for the disturbing character of man and of his world. And does not the technical cleverness of the deconstructor risk accelerating without possible check or alternative, a process that appears henceforth almost inevitable?” (pp.4-5).

Both overstated and understated, this passage reads like an attempt to sever bonds binding her to the linguistic tricks and games and promethean intellectualism that dominate a philosophical world dominated by men, represented for Iragaray most likely by Lacan. What she claims to want most of all in yoga, it seems, is to learn to “breathe,” to breathe by herself, free and autonomous, without the “need to invent mothers and fathers,” i.e. father figures like Lacan and everything represented by him to her (p.5).

The return to the body after language is a strong, even polemical return too to consciousness and sensibility and subjectivity after thirty years of post-structuralism and Lacanism. In a strange way, parts of the discussion reminded me of Latour and network theory. Like Latour, Irigaray is addressing the need to create new kinds of linked-up connectivities between nature and culture in tune with the world based on individuation and communion. Against what she regards to be the false and damaging decision between technicity and animal instinctiveness, hers would be a robust sense of a bordered and bounded self in community with others. This would depend upon “the possibility of everything becoming conscious” “instead of losing consciousness” (pp.6, 97).

That’s what I think Irigaray went looking for and found in yoga. It’s not really India she meant to re-present as much as the India represented by Schopenhauer, namely the “east” marked out as annihilation of self and subjectivity, an acosmic world without bodies and nature. In this flat little intervention of a text, I think Irigaray has done something remarkable and deep. To someone more expert in India, I’d ask if one could read the identification in Between East and West of a core earthy tradition prior to the Indic-Aryan overlays alongside Wendy Doniger’s much bigger, more knowing, and recently banned-in-India anti-Brahmin polemic in The Hindus: An Alternative History.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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