Feminism studies: Compare and contrast two competing accounts of ‘sexual difference’ – between Luce Irigaray and Judith Butler

Saturday, February 10th, 2007 (Posted 11 years ago)

Part two – Why ‘culture over nature’

Both Irigaray and Butler agree that culture is ‘over’ nature. Similarly, both of them reject the ‘given truth’, and believe that humans are cultural beings. We engage in activities of transforming ourselves in the material world. However, the term ‘culture over nature’ was elaborated in different ways by these two thinkers.

For Irigaray, ‘culture’ indicates the notion of ‘man’ (the ‘only one sex’) who revalued ‘woman,’ which is therefore a culturally constructed idea (of what it is a woman should be) that appears ‘natural’. Irigaray claimed that, traditionally, the need for a representation of ‘nature’, was seen as good or bad depending on whether it is created by men or engendered by women (Irigaray, 1987, p.96). It seems that Irigaray was trying to describe the power relationship between culture and nature, and also self-awareness among ‘women’. In her book This Sex Which Is Not One, she claimed that ‘ “women” always remains several, but she is kept from dispersion because the other is already within her and is autocratically familiar to her, which is not to say that she appropriates the other for herself, that she reduces it to her own property.’ She focused on the female position in human society and emphasized that women should create their own systems in terms of language, discourses and sexuality.

Stone argued that Irigaray could be seen to use the concept of nature in two main senses. ‘Firstly, the ‘nature’ of something, for her, denotes its defining character or essence – in the sense men and women are said to have different natures.’ (Stone, 2006, p.5) Besides that, Irigaray denoted ‘nature’ as character and essence of human – she believes that men and women have different natures.

One could argue that by encouraging and also emphasizing female positions, ‘sexual difference’ for her is to distinguish male and female identities or positions.

However, Judith Butler questions the notion of natural, biological or true gender identity. She stepped further than Irigaray’s analysis by explaining the hidden ‘reason’ behind why ‘nature’ was understood as natural. She claims that culture is continuously changing and gender is a constructed idea. As Long stated,

Butler contends that culture requires gender to be inscribed upon the body…gendered bodies are created. Gender is a facet of identity created through a stylized repetition of acts. Gender performance and prescription is internalized as a form of self-discipline. (Long, 2006)

For instance, Butler also argues that ‘heterosexuality is a cultural artifact, which can be subverted and dismantled’. She explicated ‘Phenomenological theories of human embodiment have also been concerned to distinguish between the various physiological and biological causalities that structure bodily existence and the meanings that embodied existence assumes in the context of lived experience.’ (Butler, 1988, p.403) This explanation reflects what Stone stated about Judith Butler’s idea that bodies do have a natural character, but one of multiplicity (Stone, 2006, p.6).


Long, V. (2006). Subjectivity and Gender: Luce Irigaray’s, Judith Butler’s and Riot Girl’s Gender Challenge. Internet (last viewed 10 January 2007).

Butler, J. (1988). Performative Acts and Gender Constitution. In Conboy, K., Medina, N., Stanbury, S. eds. Writing on the Body: Female Movement and Feminist Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Irigaray, L. (1987). Sexual Difference. Transl. Hand, S. In Whitford, M. ed. (1991). The Irigaray Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

Stone, A. (2006). Luce Irigaray and the Philosophy of Sexual Difference. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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