Luce Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference, trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill, Ithica NY: Cornell University Press, 1993 [Ethique de la difference sexuelle, Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1984


For two weeks now, I have carried a copy of Irigaray’s An Ethics of Sexual Difference in my bag. I want to read it to consider if it helps me think about the voices of screenplay, and my idea that speech might be found not just in dialogue, but in locations and viewpoints and edits and even in the blank spaces of the paper. Everyday has been the day I will read it, as the clock ticks down to its date of return. On special loan, I cannot renew it, and fines are punitive, but I am paralysed by the reading terror which has gripped me so often these last few years. A lectophobia which is the paradoxical product of my anxiety in the face of my own ignorance; though perhaps not so paradoxical if seen in the light of the unconscious compulsion to repeat those scenarios which annihilate us, mine being that of the humiliation of realising how foolish one is, to think that one knows anything, how risible one seems, in the eyes of those who do… And now I have just two hours to read it, on a cranky slow train that rattles from Leeds to Sheffield and stops at all the stations in between, my eyes skimming the pages for fragments that might coalesce into sense. I collect my thoughts under my own headings…


Intervals and Desires

‘The transition to a new age requires a change in our perception and conception of space-time, the inhabiting of places, and of containers, or envelopes of identity. It assumes and entails an evolution or transformation of forms, of the relations of matter and form and of the interval between: the trilogy of the constitution of place.’ pp. 7–8

I want to find in this a space-time frame for speech, a place, a moment, where voice spreads like water, not just running down the pages, but also soaking through them. I wonder if I can think of matter and form as stuff and shape: particles that might coalesce at points across time like sci-fi transportations of bodies, or like ink flexing into graphemes. But what are Irigaray’s intervals? Are they the indeterminate pause, the space-moment when stuff considers its potential shape?

Desire occupies or designates the place of the interval. Giving it a permanent definition would amount to supressing it as desire. Desire demands a sense of attraction: a change in the interval, the displacement of the subject or of the object in their relations of nearness or distance.’ p. 8

Desire occupies the interval but is not defined by the interval, nor is the interval fixed; both desire and the interval stretch and contract; there are advances and retreats. (I’m thinking of desire both in the particular, linked to a tangible object, and in the abstract, as a force, a drive that exists independently of individual foci). If I think of the screenplay desiring its film, writing towards its annihilation in production, I can think of the screenplay deferring its production, flexing the interval, keeping its desire alive. And I think perhaps some screenplays enact deferral even when their films are made, as having ‘literary qualities in excess of the requirements of any blueprint’[1]: Eisenstein’s ‘prose-poem’ scenario for October (1928); Geert’s ‘screenplay as literature’[2]; Emeric Pressburger’s stanza-like handwritten drafts for the opening sequence of A Matter of Life and Death (1946). And there are works where the text retains its primacy even within the film: the directional voiceovers of Jarman’s Blue (1993), of Okamfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation (2013).

‘…desire ought to be thought of as a changing dynamic whose outlines can be described in the past, sometimes in the present, but never definitively predicted.’ p. 8

…it is the questioning discourse of desire; constantly calling out, never satisfactorily answered…

Envelopes and Places

‘As for woman, she is place. […] She is able to move within place as place. Within the availability of place. Given that her issue is how to trace the limits of place herself so as to be able to situate herself therein and welcome the other there. If she is able to contain, to envelop, she must have her own envelope.’. p. 35

There is so much that is interesting in this, and so much that is problematic… the ‘as for’ places ‘her’ in opposition to ‘him’, which these days seems so, what, unfashionably binary? Oh, but the idea of mapping the limits of one’s ‘self’, to know where one is… for those of us who feel ourselves foully porous, what a tempting proposition that would be… I both understand, and do not understand, the relations and differences between envelopes and places. Irigaray returns both before and after this point to woman as mother—womb?—to signify her as place that moves within place, and I might dispute this as I am not and will never be this kind of place. But I certainly feel myself to be a place… albeit one—as I think Simone de Beauvoir put it—that is an enclosure that is forever being broken into.[3] I would like to think that ‘women’ could be other kinds of place than wombs or broken enclosures. Earlier, she indicates that we (women) are not our own envelopes in the way that men contain themselves, and that we must make our envelopes from our clothes, our jewellery, our accoutrements. I think of a naked crustacean, rebuilding its carapace from fragments floating in a polluted ocean. I am not the best person to talk about envelopes. I cannot even imagine being contained.

‘…place appears like a vessel (which may possibly be a variant of place because it is a subject of locomotion?). p. 37–38

And now I wonder about movable sites of screenplay… Materially, an orthodox format is like a map. There are margins and indents specific to its different voices… the narrowed central columns of character speech, the left-aligned locations, the spaces for temporal numbering, for viewpoints, for actions and edits, for descriptions and commands; and the blank spaces offering themselves up for annotation, for critique, instruction, and change. Within this map the voices perform, time flows, characters unfold, locations change and spectacle is framed; and all these movements are conceptually present even when they are not, even when a screenplay does not look like a screenplay.

 ‘The independence of place in relation to matter and form may be understood by this to mean that place itself is that toward which there is locomotion. When separated from place, the thing feels an attraction to place as a condition of existence.’ p. 39

Is the object/Other also a place? Or is it that we imagine the desired Other will gives us a place in the world? In terms of screenwriting, the process/action of a desirous writing towards. The place that is screenplay writes towards the place that is film, the place of that is the unconscious drives us towards the place that is the object/Other…?

‘…an idealisation of the container? Of place? Not only of a being or of a thing but of place. Now place in this context always constitutes an inside. How is an inside to be sublimated, remembered?’ p. 42

In trying to unpick this my inside and my outside are confused. The container (in translation, at least) seems, in general, to be the-same-as/nearly-the-same-as the envelope: the shape that gives form to the stuff, but that is not the same as the stuff. If we are both stuff and a place, then the place is always inside the envelope; contained. Is she asking, regarding sublimation, how is an inside to be re-presented (into something that can be born to be seen)? Is she asking, regarding remembering, how is an inside to be seen-as-retrieved? Must insides be sublimated? What does this say about the nature of insides?

‘—Place is not form. By the property it has of surrounding, of being an envelope, form appears to be place: the boundaries of what surrounds and what is surrounded are the same. In actual fact, these are two boundaries but not of the same being. Form is the boundary of the thing; the place, the boundary of the surrounding body.
Place is not the interval (“some sort of extension between the extremities”). Whereas the container remains, that which is contained changes. The interval which is intermediary between the boundaries appears to be something insofar as it is independent of the displaced body. This is not so, but it happens in the place of one body or other, provided it be one of those bodies who can move and whose nature it is to enter into contact.’ pp. 47–48

The form of screenplay (whether manifested materially or conceptually) contains a place where the unformed (the fragmented, the multi-voiced) can be contained. The place of screenplay contains a form whereby the multi-voiced, the fragmented, can be both sublimated and remembered. As in auto-fiction, the truth can be made bearable through a ‘fictional ordering’.[4]

Selves and Others

‘I am supposed to relate to myself, but how? the I is supposed to relate to the self, but how?’ p. 59

I have it in my head that Lacan did say, or write, somewhere, that the self is the body pierced by language… but I cannot find where he might have said, or implied it. I have written it so many times, and always countered it with the question, ‘then what is silence?’.

‘Love of self raises a question for language, a question for the subject, for the world, for the other, for the god(s). p. 60

The question for language I ask again and again is how my narrative can fit its syntax? Truth-speaking breaks down under such rules.

 ‘Woman sets [the infinite] in an expanse of jouissance here and now right away. Body-expanse that tries to give itself exteriority, to give itself to exteriority, to give itself in an unpunctuated space-time…’ p. 64

‘What is here and now’—we have no history? INT./EXT.

 ‘She always wants more, encore, we are told by certain psychoanalysts (Jacques Lacan in particular) who equate this more with pathology. In fact, this more is the condition of sexuate female desire.’ p. 64

writing towards

‘The Other can exist only if it can draw on the well of sameness for its matter, for the texture of its horizon, the emergence of its beyond-world.’ pp. 97–98

This beyond world is a parallel world… I can see it on the other side of the glass.

‘The typical sentence produced by a male […] is: I wonder if I am loved or: I tell myself that perhaps I am loved. The typical sentence produced by a woman is: Do you love me?’ p. 134

These sentences stem from Irigaray’s work with dementia patients, and her analysis of their language: what the translation of her text refers to as an analytic ‘reduction’ of their speech, (categorised by binary gender). The word ‘reduction’, I suspect, might be misleading for the English speaker, implying in the first case a diminishing or lessening, whereas the sense, on closer reading seems to be that of a culinary ‘reduction’: a strengthening; a sharpening and concentrating of taste; the production of an essence. Although I can see that ‘reduction’ may refer to the stripping away of language and sense and memory that dementia enacts, perhaps ‘condensation’ might be a better term? These two condensations (whether you consider them gendered or not) move from the calmly abstract to the desperately particular. The first is self-directed. I wonder about myself. I speak to myself. I consider an idea of desire. The second is a question to an external Other that is implicitly a plea. Do you love me? Please love me?

Memory and Forgetting

‘There is a pathos of memory and forgetting. Moving backward in search of something that has been erased, or inscribing it so that it shall not be erased. Fretting over repetitions, reproductions, over what has been erased and comes back. p.141

I think about how it took a memoir, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015)[5], to get me past my bad reading of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990).[6] That it is not a denial of the painful reality of some aspects of gender (I am an enclosure that has been repeatedly broken into), not a suggestion that gender amounts to nothing more than fancy dress, but that there is a complexity about repetition, about performing what one is, that might be illuminable, but that is not always escapable. But perhaps I am now performing what is just a different kind of bad reading (and bad writing)?

‘The pathology of memory may correspond to a historical pathology.’ p. 142


Looking and Touching

‘According to Merleau-Ponty, the look would be a variant of touch. It palpates, envelops, espouses things. It discovers them as if it already knew them […] No one knows, but the relationship of touching and being touched, which is very close to that of interrogating and being interrogated, perhaps indicates the secret of this still “obscure” alliance between looking and being looked at.’ pp. 159–160

But now it is too late and I have to give the book back and there is something about mirrors and a face in perpetual darkness but there is no time to read it…


[1] Steven Price, A History of the Screenplay, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2013 pp. 116–117

[2] I may have imagined this source, because now it is gone…

[3] This is from The Second Sex. No, I will not go and find the exact reference, not right now…

[4] From Jacques Lacan, ‘Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’, in Écrits, trans. by Bruce Fink, New York: Norton, 2006 [Écrits, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1966]. I am far too tired to find the page number…

[5] Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts, Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2015

[6] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York: Routledge, 1990