By Harry Bregazzi
In October 2014, the University of Bristol hosted a one day workshop with philosopher and psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray. The workshop was titled ‘Sharing the World’, after Irigaray’s (2008) book of the same name. The event focused on exploring the ethical and practical issues surrounding the sharing of a world that is defined by increasingly globalised forms of connectivity. Some key themes discussed included the nature of community, relations across cultural difference, hospitality, and human-nature relations.
The event was organised by Maria Fannin, who teaches on the Society and Space programme and uses Irigaray’s theory to inform her research. Two other key speakers also in attendance were critical theorist Judith Still and philosopher Michael Marder. The workshop attracted an audience of students and academics from across the UK, as well as from universities in Poland, Italy and the USA. Students enrolled on the Society and Space MSc were invited to attend, and so had the opportunity to meet with one of Europe’s most significant feminist/post-modern theorists.
At the time, I had just completed the Society and Space programme and had recently started my PhD. The workshop’s subject matter was, however, very much related to the work I had produced for my master’s dissertation, which investigated the place of peace in contemporary geographical study. Towards the end of the day’s discussion, members of the audience were allowed five minutes to present how the themes of Sharing the World related to their own research, as well as ask Luce questions. Below is an edited version of what I presented in that session. In it, I consider Irigaray’s discussion of community and encounter, in relation to the concept of peace.
In Sharing the World, Irigaray (2008) writes that ‘the essential task we have to carry out in our times is: how to coexist in respect for difference(s)?’ (p. 67). Although the book is not explicitly framed as a theoretical exploration of peace, this question seems to me to be unavoidably a question about peace. Differences between countries and cultures are often understood as a source of tension, struggle, and potentially, violence. Irigaray seeks to theorise how differences would not be a source of tension, but would rather enrich our lives, and indeed, would be the condition of authentic ethical relations and hospitality. The central themes of Sharing the World can therefore inform academic discussion around the meaning of peace, and could also provide a framework through which to investigate contemporary peace processes.
Community and conflict
In general, we might associate the term ‘community’ with people getting along well together, and supporting each other. We might also think of it as a peaceful concept – warfare and violence are not part of the definition of community.
Yet for Irigaray, our identity as part of a community, culture, or tradition, is potentially problematic. This is because it can mean being closed off from difference, and thus potentially hostile to difference. Irigaray refers to this as a ‘standardisation from below’, which can manifest itself in through various signs, including ‘the refusal of the foreigner’ (p. 65). Elsewhere, Jacques Derrida (1995) has also expressed suspicion of notions of community, which he sees as necessarily exclusionary, and by extension, inherently violent. Whilst Irigaray does not go so far as to call community inherently violent, she does refer to community as ‘confinement’. We are born into a culture that moulds our identity ‘in a way irrelevant to us but of which we become prisoners’ (p. 47). And indeed, conflicts are often framed as being between irreconcilable communities – Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Palestinians and Israelis, Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda.
For Irigaray, an ethical relation involves being open to difference, not closed off, suspicious, or hostile. It involves seeing beyond our standardised community/culture/tradition, to ‘open the structure of the world in which we are included from the very beginning’ (p. 66). This does not mean that we should interpret all sense of community as a negative, nor does it prescribe abandoning cultural heritage or identity (as if that were possible). But this re-thinking of community does involve accepting that your own world is not the only world, and reminds us of the potential for injustice or even violence when communities are hostile towards difference.
The Encounter’s potential for peace
Potentially promising, therefore, in terms of thinking about peace, is Irigaray’s idea that an encounter with the other can ‘free us from a confinement: in ourselves, in a tradition or a community’ (p. 46). An authentic encounter with difference, one that is respectful, can disrupt the familiarity into which we are born, and to which we conform. The encounter exposes the limits of the collective world of our community. The encounter holds potential for compassion between people from different ‘worlds’. This relates to some recent thought within geography that considers the socio-spatial relations that produce both conflict and peace. There is a need to increase our understanding of the socio-spatial relations that produce nonviolence, justice, compassion and equality. In my own work, I hope to be able to investigate ‘spaces of encounter’ in divided societies – places where people meet and interact, and how peaceful relations can potentially be produced in such spaces. Danielle Poe (2008) has already begun to think about the peaceful potential of encounter. She claims that Irigaray’s ethics of difference can provide an alternative to war, because of the emphasis on compassion and respecting difference. Poe gives an example of nonviolence in the Philippines in the 1980s, where in the event of a demonstration against the government, rather than being repressed by the military, dissidents were invited to send a delegation to meet with the President to discuss their grievances.
And yet this possibility that the encounter could constitute a movement for peace is seemingly challenged by another key point within Sharing the World: that the space for the other in our world cannot be pre-established – ‘a room for guests’ (p. 21). The problem with such a pre-made hospitality is that it is addressed to any other, not a unique other, who is ‘irreducible to anyone else’ (p.21), and in this sense it is a neutral or indifferent hospitality. Irigaray says this may come from a moral commandment, or a social ideology etc. It is not that such ‘pre-established’ hospitality is un-ethical (and it is surely better than hostility). But such attempts to institute openness to the other do not address the individual other, who is not only totally unique in themselves, but who we encounter in a unique time and place. Instead, for an authentic relation with the other, what is required is ‘a hospitality that is without pre-established dwelling’ (p. 93).
What is the political potential of the authentic encounter? Can it ever constitute a movement, for peace, for developing empathy and reconciliation between different groups? Or can the authentic encounter only be a matter for individuals?
Derrida, J. (1995) Points… Interviews, 1974-1994. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Irigaray, L. (2008) Sharing the World. London: Continuum
Poe, D. (2008) Replacing just war theory with an ethics of sexual difference. Hypatia 23(2): 33-47.
Information about Luce Irigaray:
Irigaray, L. (2003) Between East and West: From Singularity to Community. New York: Columbia University Press
Joseph, M. (2002) Against the Romance of Community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
McConnell, F., Megoran, N. and Williams, P. (eds.) (2014) Geographies of Peace. London: I. B. Tauris.
Nancy, J-L. (1991) The Inoperative Community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Weber, E. (ed.) (2013) Living Together: Jacques Derrida’s Communities of Violence and Peace. New York: Fordham University Press.