Women on the market - Luce Irigaray

Women on the market - Luce Irigaray

Luce Irigaray applies Marx's analysis of the commodity to the status of women - objects circulated by men to reproduce a male-dominated society.

The society we know, our own culture, is based upon the exchange of women. Without the exchange of women, we are told, we would fall back into the anarchy (?) of the natural world, the randomness (?) of the animal kingdom. The passage into the social order, into the symbolic order, into order as such, is assured by the fact that men, or groups of men, circulate women among themselves, according to a rule known as the incest taboo.

Whatever familial form this prohibition may take in a given state of society, its signification has a much broader impact. It assures the foundation of the economic, social, and cultural order that has been ours for centuries.

Why exchange women? Because they are “scarce [commodities] . . . essential to the life of the group,” the anthropologist tells us.1 Why this characteristic of scarcity, given the biological equilibrium between male and female births? Because the “deep polygamous tendency, which exists among all men, always makes the number of available women seem insufficient. Let us add that even if there were as many women as men, these women would not be equally desirable … and that, by definition. . ., the most desirable women must form a minority. “2

Are men all equally desirable? Do women have no tendency toward polygamy? The good anthropologist does not raise such questions. A fortiori: why are men not objects of exchange among women? It is because women’s bodies-through their use, consumption, and circulation-provide for the condition making social life and culture possible, although they remain an unknown “infrastructure” of the elaboration of that social life and culture. The exploitation of the matter that has been sexualized female is so integral a part of our sociocultural horizon that there is no way to interpret it except within this horizon.

In still other words: all the systems of exchange that organize patriarchal societies and all the modalities of productive work that are recognized, valued, and rewarded in these societies are men’s business. The production of women, signs, and commodities is always referred back to men (when a man buys a girl, he “pays” the father or the brother, not the mother … ), and they always pass from one man to another, from one group of men to another. The work force is thus always assumed to be masculine, and “products” are objects to be used, objects of transaction among men alone.

Which means that the possibility of our social life, of our culture, depends upon a ho(m)mo-sexual monopoly? The law that orders our society is the exclusive valorization of men’s needs/desires, of exchanges among men. What the anthropologist calls the passage from nature to culture thus amounts to the institution of the reign of hom(m)o-sexuality. Not in an “immediate” practice, but in its “social” mediation. From this point on, patriarchal societies might be interpreted as societies functioning in the mode of “semblance.” The value of symbolic and imaginary productions is superimposed upon, and even substituted for, the value of relations of material, natural, and corporal (re)production.

In this new matrix of History, in which man begets man as his own likeness, wives, daughters, and sisters have value only in that they serve as the possibility of, and potential benefit in, relations among men. The use of and traffic in women subtend and uphold the reign of masculine hom(m)o-sexuality, even while they maintain that hom(m)o-sexuality in speculations, mirror games, identifications, and more or less rivalrous appropriations, which defer its real practice. Reigning everywhere, although prohibited in practice, hom(m)o-sexuality is played out through the bodies of women, matter, or sign, and heterosexuality has been up to now just an alibi for the smooth workings of man’s relations with himself, of relations among men.

Whose “sociocultural endogamy” excludes the participation of that other, so foreign to the social order: woman. Exogamy doubtless requires that one leave one’s family, tribe, or clan, in order to make alliances. All the same, it does not tolerate marriage with populations that are too far away, too far removed from the prevailing cultural rules. A sociocultural endogamy would thus forbid commerce with women. Men make commerce of them, but they do not enter into any exchanges with them. Is this perhaps all the more true because exogamy is an economic issue, perhaps even subtends economy as such? The exchange of women as goods accompanies and stimulates exchanges of other “wealth” among groups of men. The economy in both the narrow and the broad sense-that is in place in our societies thus requires that women lend themselves to alienation in consumption, and to exchanges in which they do not participate, and that men be exempt from being used and circulated like commodities.


Marx’s analysis of commodities as the elementary form of capitalist wealth can thus be understood as an interpretation of the status of woman in so-called partriarchal societies. The organization of such societies, and the operation of the symbolic system on which this organization is based-a symbolic system whose instrument and representative is the proper name: the name of the father, the name of God-contain in a nuclear form the developments that Marx defines as characteristic of a capitalist regime: the submission of “nature” to a “labor” on the part of men who thus constitute “nature” as use value and exchange value; the division of labor among private producer-owners who exchange their women-commodities among themselves, but also among producers and exploiters or exploitees of the social order; the standardization of women according to proper names that determine their equivalences; a tendency to accumulate wealth, that is, a tendency for the representatives of the most “proper” names-the leaders-to capitalize more women than the others; a progression of the social work of the symbolic toward greater and greater abstraction; and so forth.

To be sure, the means of production have evolved, new techniques have been developed, but it does seem that as soon as the father-man was assured of his reproductive power and had marked his products with his name, that is, from the very origin of private property and the patriarchal family, social exploitation occurred. In other words, all the social regimes of “History” are based upon the exploitation of one “class” of producers, namely, women. Whose reproductive use value (reproductive of children and of the labor force) and whose constitution as exchange value underwrite the symbolic order as such, without any compensation in kind going to them for that “work.” For such compensation would imply a double system of exchange, that is, a shattering of the monopolization of the proper name (and of what it signifies as appropriative power) by father-men.

Thus the social body would be redistributed into producer-subjects no longer functioning as commodities because they provided the standard of value for commodities, and into commodity objects that ensured the circulation of exchange without participating in it as subjects.


Let us now reconsider a few points in Marx’s analysis of value that seem to describe the social status of women.3

Wealth amounts to a subordination of the use of things to their accumulation. Then would the way women are used matter less than their number? The possession of a woman is certainly indispensable to man for the reproductive use value that she represents; but what he desires is to have them all. To “accumulate” them, to be able to count off his conquests, seductions, possessions, both sequentially and cumulatively, as measure or standard(s).

All but one? For if the series could be closed, value might well lie, as Marx says, in the relation among them rather than in the relation to a standard that remains external to them – whether gold or phallus.

The use made of women is thus of less value than their appropriation one by one. And their “usefulness” is not what counts the most. Woman’s price is not determined by the “properties” of her body-although her body constitutes the material support of that price.

But when women are exchanged, woman’s body must be treated as an abstraction. The exchange operation cannot take place in terms of some intrinsic, immanent value of the commodity.

It can only come about when two objects-two women are in a relation of equality with a third term that is neither the one nor the other. It is thus not as “women” that they are exchanged, but as women reduced to some common feature-their current price in gold, or phalluses-and of which they would represent a plus or minus quantity. Not a plus or a minus of feminine qualities, obviously. Since these qualities are abandoned in the long run to the needs of the consumer, woman has value on the market by virtue of one single quality: that of being a product of man’s “labor.”

On this basis, each one looks exactly like every other. They all have the same phantom-like reality. Metamorphosed in identical sublimations, samples of the same indistinguishable work, all these objects now manifest just one thing, namely, that in their production a force of human labor has been expended, that labor has accumulated in them. In their role as crystals of that common social substance, they are deemed to have value.

As commodities, women are thus two things at once: utilitarian objects and bearers of value. “They manifest themselves therefore as commodities, or have the form of commodities, only in so far as they have two forms, a physical or natural form, and a value form” (p. 55).

But “the reality of the value of commodities differs in respect from Dame Quickly, that we don’t know ‘where to have it”’ (ibid.). Woman, object of exchange, differs from woman, use value, in that one doesn’t know how to take (hold of) her, for since “the value of commodities is the very opposite of the coarse materiality of their substance, not an atom of matter enters into its composition. Turn and examine a single commodity, by itself, as we will. Yet in so far as it remains an object of value, it seems impossible to grasp it” (ibid.). The value of a woman always escapes: black continent, hole in the symbolic, breach in discourse . . . It is only in the operation of exchange among women that something of this-something enigmatic, to be sure-can be felt. Woman thus has value only in that she can be exchanged. In the passage from one to the other, something else finally exists beside the possible utility of the “coarseness” of her body. But this value is not found, is not recaptured, in her. It is only her measurement against a third term that remains external to her, and that makes it possible to compare her with another woman, that permits her to have a relation to another commodity in terms of an equivalence that remains foreign to both.

Women-as-commodities are thus subject to a schism that divides them into the categories of usefulness and exchange value; into matter-body and an envelope that is precious but impenetrable, ungraspable, and not susceptible to appropriation by women themselves; into private use and social use.

In order to have a relative value, a commodity has to be confronted with another commodity that serves as its equivalent.

Its value is never found to lie within itself And the fact that it is worth more or less is not its own doing but comes from that to which it may be equivalent. Its value is transcendent to itself, super-natural, ek-static.

In other words, for the commodity, there is no mirror that copies it so that it may be at once itself and its “own” reflection. One commodity cannot be mirrored in another, as man is mirrored in his fellow man. For when we are dealing with commodities the self-same, mirrored, is not “its” own likeness, contains nothing of its properties, its qualities, its “skin and hair.” The likeness here is only a measure expressing the fabricated character of the commodity, its trans-formation by man’s (social, symbolic) “labor.” The mirror that envelops and paralyzes the commodity specularizes, speculates (on) man’s “labor.” Commodities, women, are a mirror of value of and for man. In order to serve as such, they give up their bodies to men as the supporting material of specularization, of speculation. They yield to him their natural and social value as a locus of imprints, marks, and mirage of his activity.

Commodities among themselves are thus not equal, nor alike, nor different. They only become so when they are compared by and for man. And the prosopopoeia of the relation of commodities among themselves is a projection through which producers exchangers make them reenact before their eyes their operations of specula(riza)tion. Forgetting that in order to reflect (oneself), to speculate (oneself), it is necessary to be a “subject,” and that matter can serve as a support for speculation but cannot itself speculate in any way.

Thus, starting with the simplest relation of equivalence between commodities, starting with the possible exchange of women, the entire enigma of the money form-of the phallic function-is implied. That is, the appropriation-disappropriation by man, for man, of nature and its productive forces, insofar as a certain mirror now divides and travesties both nature and labor. Man endows the commodities he produces with a narcissism that blurs the seriousness of utility, of use.

Desire, as soon as there is exchange, “perverts” need. But that perversion will be attributed to commodities and to their alleged relations. Whereas they can have no relationships except from the perspective of speculating third parties.

The economy of exchange-of desire-is man’s business. For two reasons: the exchange takes place between masculine subjects, and it requires a plus-value added to the body of the commodity, a supplement which gives it a valuable form. That supplement will be found, Marx writes, in another commodity, whose use value becomes, from that point on, a standard of value.

But that surplus-value enjoyed by one of the commodities might vary: ‘Just as many a man strutting about in a gorgeous uniform counts for more than when in mufti” (p. 60). Or just as “A, for instance, cannot be ‘your majesty’ to B, unless at the same time majesty in B’s eyes assume the bodily form of A, and, what is more, with every new father of the people, changes its features, hair, and many other things besides” (ibid.).

Commodities-”things” produced-would thus have the respect due the uniform, majesty, paternal authority. And even God. “The fact that it is value, is made manifest by its equality with the coat, just as the sheep’s nature of a Christian is shown in his resemblance to the Lamb of God” (ibid.).

Commodities thus share in the cult of the father, and never stop striving to resemble, to copy, the one who is his representative. It is from that resemblance, from that imitation of what represents paternal authority, that commodities draw their value-for men. But it is upon commodities that the producers-exchangers bring to bear this power play. “We see, then, all that our analysis of the value of commodities has already told us, is told us by the linen itself, so soon as it comes into communication with another commodity, the coat. Only it betrays its thoughts in that language with which alone it is familiar, the language of commodities. In order to tell us that its own value is created by labour in its abstract character of human labour, it says that the coat, in so far as it is worth as much as the linen, and therefore is value, consists of the same labour as the linen. In order to inform us that its sublime reality as value is not the same as its buckram body, it says that value has the appearance of a coat, and consequently that so far as the linen is value, it and the coat are as like as two peas. We may here remark, that the language of commodities has, besides Hebrew, many other more or less correct dialects. The German ‘werthsein,’ to be worth, for instance, expresses in a less striking manner than the Romance verbs ‘valere,’ ‘valer,’ ‘valoir,’ that the equating of commodity B to commodity A, is commodity A’s own mode of expressing its value. Paris vaut bien une messe” (pp. 60-61).

So commodities speak. To be sure, mostly dialects and patois, languages hard for “subjects” to understand. The important thing is that they be preoccupied with their respective values, that their remarks confirm the exchangers’ plans for them.

The body of a commodity thus becomes, for another such commodity, a mirror of its value. Contingent upon a bodily supplement. A supplement opposed to use value, a supplement representing the commodity’s super-natural quality (an imprint that is purely social in nature), a supplement completely different from the body itself, and from its properties, a supplement that nevertheless exists only on condition that one commodity agrees to relate itself to another considered as equivalent: “For instance, one man is king only because other men stand in the relation of subjects to him” (p. 66, n. 1).

This supplement of equivalency translates concrete work into abstract work. In other words, in order to be able to incorporate itself into a mirror of value, it is necessary that the work itself reflect only its property of human labor: that the body of a commodity be nothing more than the materialization of an abstract human labor. That is, that it have no more body, matter, nature, but that it be objectivization, a crystallization as visible object, of man’s activity.

In order to become equivalent, a commodity changes bodies. A super-natural, metaphysical origin is substituted for its material origin. Thus its body becomes a transparent body, pure phenomenality of value. But this transparency constitutes a supplement to the material opacity of the commodity.

Once again there is a schism between the two. Two sides, two poles, nature and society are divided, like the perceptible and the intelligible, matter and form, the empirical and the transcendental
… The commodity, like the sign, suffers from metaphysical dichotomies. Its value, its truth, lies in the social element. But this social element is added on to its nature, to its matter, and the social subordinates it as a lesser value, indeed as non-value.

Participation in society requires that the body submit itself to a specularization, a speculation, that transforms it into a value-bearing object, a standardized sign, an exchangeable signifier, a “likeness” with reference to an authoritative model. A commodity a woman-is divided into two irreconcilable “bodies”: her “natural” body and her socially valued, exchangeable body, which is a particularly mimetic expression of masculine values.

No doubt these values also express “nature,” that is, the expenditure of physical force. But this latter-essentially masculine, moreover-serves for the fabrication, the transformation, the technicization of natural productions. And it is this super-natural property that comes to constitute the value of the product. Analyzing value in this way, Marx exposes the meta-physical character of social operations.

The commodity is thus a dual entity as soon as its value comes to possess a phenomenal form of own, distinct from its natural form: that of exchange value. And it never possesses this form if it is considered in isolation. A commodity has phenomenal form added on to its nature only in relation to another commodity.

As among signs, value appears only when a relationship has been established. It remains the case that the establishment of relationships cannot be accomplished by the commodities themselves, but depends upon the operation of two exchangers.

The exchange value of two signs, two commodities, two women, is a representation of the needs/desires of consumer-exchanger subjects: in no way is it the “property” of the signs/ articles/women themselves. At the most, the commodities-or rather the relationships among them-are the material alibi for the desire for relations among men. To this end, the commodity is disinvested of its body and reclothed in a form that makes it suitable for exchange among men.

But, in this value-bearing form, the desire for that exchange, and the reflection of his own value and that of his fellow man that man seeks in it, are ek-stasized. In that suspension in the commodity of the relationship among men, producer-consumer exchanger subjects are alienated. In order that they might “bear” and support that alienation, commodities for their part have always been dispossessed of their specific value.

On this basis, one may affirm that the value of the commodity takes on indifferently any given form of use value. The price of the articles, in fact, no longer comes from their natural form, from their bodies, their language, but from the fact that they mirror the need/desire for exchanges among men. To do this, the commodity obviously cannot exist alone, but there is no such thing as a commodity, either, so long as there are not at least two men to make an exchange. In order for a product-a woman?-to have value, two men, at least, have to invest (in) her.

The general equivalent of a commodity no longer functions as a commodity itself. A preeminent mirror, transcending the world of merchandise, it guarantees the possibility of universal exchange among commodities. Each commodity may become equivalent to every other from the viewpoint of that sublime standard, but the fact that the judgment of their value depends upon some transcendental element renders them provisionally incapable of being directly exchanged for each other. They are exchanged by means of the general equivalent-as Christians love each other in God, to borrow a theological metaphor dear to Marx.

That ek-static reference separates them radically from each other. An abstract and universal value preserves them from use and exchange among themselves. They are, as it were, transformed into value-invested idealities. Their concrete forms, their specific qualities, and all the possibilities of “real” relations with them or among them are reduced to their common character as products of man’s labor and desire.
We must emphasize also that the general equivalent, since it is no longer a commodity, is no longer useful. The standard as such is exempt from use.

Though a commodity may at first sight appear to be “a very trivial thing, and easily understood, … it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” (p. 81). No doubt, “so far as it is a value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it …. But, so soon as la wooden table, for example] steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than ‘table-turning’ ever was’ ” (pp. 81-82).

“The mystical character of commodities does not originate, therefore, in their use value. Just as little does it proceed from the nature of the determining factors of value. For, in the first place, however varied the useful kinds of labour, or productive activities, may be, it is a physiological fact, that they are functions of the human organism” (p. 82), which, for Marx, does not seem to constitute a mystery in any way … The material contribution and support of bodies in societal operations pose no problems for him, except as production and expenditure of energy.

Where, then, does the enigmatic character of the product of labor come from, as soon as this product takes on the form of a commodity? It comes, obviously, from that form itself. Then where does the enigmatic character of women come from? Or even that of their supposed relations among themselves? Obviously, from the “form” of the needs/desires of man, needs/ desires that women bring to light although men do not recognize them in that form. That form, those women, are always enveloped, veiled.

In any case, “the existence of things qua commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom.

[With commodities] it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things” (p. 83). This phenomenon has no analogy except in the religious world. “In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one and the human race.

So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands” (ibid.) Hence the fetishism attached to these products of labor as soon as they present themselves as commodities.

Hence women’s role as fetish-objects, inasmuch as, in exchanges, they are the manifestation and the circulation of a power of the Phallus, establishing relationships of men with each other?


Hence the following remarks:

On value

It represents the equivalent of labor force, of an expenditure of energy, of toil. In order to be measured, these latter must be abstracted from all immediately natural qualities, from any concrete individual. A process of generalization and of universalization imposes itself in the operation of social exchanges. Hence the reduction of man to a “concept”-that of his labor force and the reduction of his product to an “object,” the visible, material correlative of that concept.

The characteristics of “sexual pleasure” corresponding to such a social state are thus the following: its productivity, but one that is necessarily laborious, even painful; Its abstract form; its need/desire to crystallize in a transcendental element of wealth the standard of all value; its need for a material support where the relation of appropriation to and of that standard is measured; its exchange relationships-always rivalrous-among men alone, and so on.

Are not these modalities the ones that might define the economy of (so-called) masculine sexuality? And is libido not another name for the abstraction of “energy” in a productive power? For the work of nature? Another name for the desire to accumulate goods? Another name for the subordination of the specific qualities of bodies to a-neutral?-power that aims above all to transform them in order to possess them? Does pleasure, for masculine sexuality, consist in anything other than the appropriation of nature, in the desire to make it (re)produce, and in exchanges of its/these products with other members of society? An essentially economic pleasure.

Thus the following question: what needs/desires of (so-called) masculine sexuality have presided over the evolution of a certain social order, from its primitive form, private property, to its developed form, capital? But also: to what extent are these needs/desires the effect of a social mechanism, in part autonomous, that produces them as such?

On the status of women in such a social order

What makes such an order possible, what assures its foundation, is thus the exchange of women. The circulation of women among men is what establishes the operations of society, at least of patriarchal society. Whose presuppositions include the following: the appropriation of nature by man; the transformation of nature according to “human” criteria, defined by men alone; the submission of nature to labor and technology; the reduction of its material, corporeal, perceptible qualities to man’s practical concrete activity; the equality of women among themselves, but in terms of laws of equivalence that remain external to them; the constitution of women as “objects” that emblematize the materialization of relations among men, and so on.

In such a social order, women thus represent a natural value and a social value. Their “development” lies in the passage from one to the other. But this passage never takes place simply.

As mother, woman remains on the side of (re)productive nature and, because of this, man can never fully transcend his relation to the “natural.” His social existence, his economic structures and his sexuality are always tied to the work of nature: these structures thus always remain at the level of the earliest appropriation, that of the constitution of nature as landed property, and of the earliest labor, which is agricultural. But this relationship to productive nature, an insurmountable one, has to be denied so that relations among men may prevail. This means that mothers, reproductive instruments marked with the name of the father and enclosed in his house, must be private property, excluded from exchange. The incest taboo represents this refusal to allow productive nature to enter into exchanges among men. As both natural value and use value, mothers cannot circulate in the form of commodities without threatening the very existence of the social order. Mothers are essential to its (re)production (particularly inasmuch as they are [re]productive of children and of the labor force: through maternity, child-rearing, and domestic maintenance in general).

Their responsibility is to maintain the social order without intervening so as to change it. Their products are legal tender in that order, moreover, only if they are marked with the name of the father, only if they are recognized within his law: that is, only insofar as they are appropriated by him. Society is the place where man engenders himself, where man produces himself as man, where man is born into “human,” “super-natural” existence.

The virginal woman, on the other hand, is pure exchange value.

She is nothing but the possibility, the place, the sign of relations among men. In and of herself, she does not exist: she is a simple envelope veiling what is really at stake in social exchange. In this sense, her natural body disappears into its representative function. Red blood remains on the mother’s side, but it has no price, as such, in the social order; woman, for her part, as medium of exchange, is no longer anything but semblance. The ritualized passage from woman to mother is accomplished by the violation of an envelope: the hymen, which has taken on the value of taboo, the taboo of virginity. Once deflowered, woman is relegated to the status of use value, to her entrapment in private property; she is removed from exchange among men.

The prostitute remains to be considered. Explicitly condemned by the social order, she is implicitly tolerated. No doubt because the break between usage and exchange is, in her case, less clear-cut? In her case, the qualities of woman’s body are “useful.” However, these qualities have “value” only because they have already been appropriated by a man, and because they serve as the locus of relations-hidden ones-between men. Prostitution amounts to usage that is exchanged. Usage that is not merely potential it has already been realized. The woman’s body is valuable because it has already been used. In the extreme case, the more it has served, the more it is worth. Not because its natural assets have been put to use this way, but, on the contrary, because its nature has been “used up,” and has become once again no more than a vehicle for relations among men.

Mother, virgin, prostitute: these are the social roles imposed on women. The characteristics of (so-called) feminine sexuality derive from them: the valorization of reproduction and nursing;
faithfulness; modesty, ignorance of and even lack of interest in sexual pleasure; a passive acceptance of men’s “activity”; seductiveness, in order to arouse the consumers’ desire while offering herself as its material support without getting pleasure herself.. . Neither as mother nor as virgin nor as prostitute has woman any right to her own pleasure.

Of course the theoreticians of sexuality are sometimes astonished by women’s frigidity. But, according to them, this frigidity is explained more by an impotence inherent to feminine “nature” than by the submission of that nature to a certain type of society. However, what is required of a “normal” feminine sexuality is oddly evocative of the characteristics of the status of a commodity. With references to and rejections of the “natural” – physiological and organic nature, and so on-that are equally ambiguous.

And, in addition:

- just as nature has to be subjected to man in order to become a commodity, so, it appears, does “the development of a normal woman.” A development that amounts, for the feminine, to subordination to the forms and laws of masculine activity.
The rejection of the mother-imputed to woman would find its “cause” here;

- just as, in commodities, natural utility is overridden by the exchange function, so the properties of a woman’s body have to be suppressed and subordinated to the exigencies of its transformation into an object of circulation among men;

- just as a commodity has no mirror it can use to reflect itself, so woman serves as reflection, as image of and for man, but lacks specific qualities of her own. Her value-invested form amounts to what man inscribes in and on her matter: that is, her body;

- just as commodities cannot make among themselves without the intervention of a subject that measures them against a standard, so it is with women. Distinguished, divided, separated, classified as like and unlike, according to whether they have been judged exchangeable. In themselves, among themselves, they are amorphous and confused: natural body, maternal body, doubtless useful to the consumer, but without any possible identity or communicable value;

- just as commodities, despite their resistance, become more or less autonomous repositories for the value of human work, so, as mirrors of and for man, women more or less unwittingly come to represent the danger of a disappropriation of masculine power: the phallic mirage;

- just as a commodity finds the expression of its value in an equivalent-in the last analysis, a general one-that necessarily remains external to it, so woman derives her price from her relation to the male sex, constituted as a transcendental value: the phallus. And indeed the enigma of “value” lies in the most elementary relation among commodities. Among women. For, uprooted from their “nature,” they no longer relate to each other except in terms of what they represent in men’s desire, and according to the “forms” that this imposes upon them.

Among themselves, they are separated by his speculations.

This means that the division of “labor”-sexual labor in particular requires that woman maintain in her own body the material substratum of the object of desire, but that she herself never have access to desire. The economy of desire-of exchange is man’s business. And that economy subjects women to a schism that is necessary to symbolic operations: blood/semblance; body/ value-invested envelope; matter/ medium of exchange; (re) productive nature/fabricated femininity That schism-characteristic of all speaking nature, someone will surely object-is experienced by women without any possible profit to them. And without any way for them to transcend it. They are not even “conscious” of it. The symbolic system that cuts them in two this way is in no way appropriate to them. In them, “semblance” remains external, foreign to “nature.”

Socially, they are “objects” for and among men and furthermore they cannot do anything but mimic a “language” that they have not produced; naturally, they remain amorphous, suffering from drives without any possible representatives or representations. For them, the transformation of the natural into the social does not take place, except to the extent that they function as components of private property, or as commodities.

Characteristics of this social order

This type of social system can be interpreted as the practical realization of the meta-physical. As the practical destiny of the metaphysical, it would also represent its most fully realized form. Operating in such a way, moreover, that subjects themselves, being implicated in it through and through, being produced in it as concepts, would lack the means to analyze it. Except in an after-the fact way whose delays are yet to be fully measured…

This practical realization of the meta-physical has as its founding operation the appropriation of woman’s body by the father or his substitutes. It is marked by women’s submission to a system of general equivalents, the proper name representing the father’s monopoly of power. It is from this standardization that women receive their value, as they pass from the state of nature to the status of social object. This trans-formation of women’s bodies into use values and exchange values inaugurates the symbolic order. But that order depends upon a nearly pure added value. Women, animals endowed with speech like men, assure the possibility of the use and circulation of the symbolic without being recipients of it. Their nonaccess to the symbolic is what has established the social order. Putting men in touch with each other, in relations among themselves, women only fulfill this role by relinquishing their right to speech and even to animality. No longer in the natural order, not yet in the social order that they nonetheless maintain, women are the symptom of the exploitation of individuals by a society that remunerates them only partially, or even not at all, for their “work.” Unless subordination to a system that utilizes you and oppresses you should be considered as sufficient compensation…? Unless the fact that women are branded with the proper name – of the “father” – should be viewed as the symbolic payment awarded them for sustaining the social order with their bodies?

But by submitting women’s bodies to a general equivalent, to a transcendent, super-natural value, men have drawn the social structure into an ever greater process of abstraction, to the point where they themselves are produced in it as pure concepts: having surmounted all their “perceptible” qualities and individual differences, they are finally reduced to the average productivity of their labor. The power of this practical economy of the meta-physical comes from the fact that the “physioological” energy is transformed into abstract value without the mediation of an intelligible elaboration. No individual subject can be credited any longer with bringing about this transformation.

It is only after the fact that the subject might possibly be able to analyze his determination as such by the social structure.

And even then it is not certain that his love of gold would not make him give up everything else before he would renounce the cult of this fetish. “The saver thus sacrifices to this fetish all the penchants of his flesh. No one takes the gospel of renunciation more seriously than he.”

Fortunately-if we may say so-women/commodities would remain, as simple “objects” of transaction among men.

Their situation of specific exploitation in exchange operations sexual exchange, and economic, social, and cultural exchanges in general-might lead them to offer a new critique of the political economy.” A critique that would no longer avoid that of discourse, and more generally of the symbolic system, in which it is realized. Which would lead to interpreting in a different way the impact of symbolic social labor in the analysis of relations of production.

For, without the exploitation of women, what would become of the social order? What modifications would it undergo if women left behind their condition as commodities-subject to being produced, consumed, valorized, circulated, and so on, by men alone-and took part in elaborating and carrying out exchanges? Not by reproducing, by copying, the “phallocratic” models that have the force of law today, but by socializing in a different way the relation to nature, matter, the body, language, and desire.

Chapter 8 from This sex which is not one, 1985. This text was originally published as “Le marche des femmes,” in Sessualita e politica, (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1978). This version taken from Caring Labor.

  • 1. Claude Levi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (Les Structures Elementaires de La Parmte, 1949, rev. 1967), trans. James Harle Bell, John Richard von Sturmer, and Rodney Needham (Boston, 1969), p. 36.
  • 2. Ibid. p.38.
  • 3. These notes constitute a statement of points that will be developed in a subsequent chapter. All the quotations in the remainder of this chapter are excerpted from Marx’s Capital, 5ection1, chapter 1. (The page numbers given in the text refer to the Modern Library edition, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, ed. Frederick Engels, rev. Ernest Untermann [New York, Will it be objected that this interpretation is analogical by nature? I accept the question, on condition that it be addressed also, and in the first to Marx’s analysis of commodities. Did not Aristotle, a thinker” according to Marx, determine the relation of form to matter by analogy with between masculine and feminine? Returning to the question of the difference between the sexes would amount instead, then, to going back through analogism.

Posted By

Joseph Kay
Dec 13 2012 13:03


  • By submitting women’s bodies to a general equivalent, to a transcendent, super-natural value, men have drawn the social structure into an ever greater process of abstraction, to the point where they themselves are produced in it as pure concepts.

    Luce Irigaray

Attached files


darren p
Dec 15 2012 17:54

This has got to be the worst article I've ever seen on Libcom. The author is a complete fraud.

Here's a couple of choice quotes from her:

"[E=mc2 is a] sexed equation [because] it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us”

"The privileging of solid over fluid mechanics, and indeed the inability of science to deal with turbulent flow at all, she attributes to the association of fluidity with femininity. Whereas men have sex organs that protrude and become rigid, women have openings that leak menstrual blood and vaginal fluids… From this perspective it is no wonder that science has not been able to arrive at a successful model for turbulence. The problem of turbulent flow cannot be solved because the conceptions of fluids (and of women) have been formulated so as necessarily to leave unarticulated remainders."

My bullshit detector is going haywire!

Dec 15 2012 23:34

Those quotes are not from this article. What their context is remains in the realm of the bullshit detection unit.

Dec 16 2012 11:49

there is a good critique of Irigaray's ideology by the German socialist feminist Clauda Pinl from around 1990 basically saying thet Irgaray and the Liberia della Donne Milano (they proclaimed around 25 years ago that "patriarchy has ended") have lost touch both with social reality and the feminist movement and are spreading esoteric idealistic crap

Joseph Kay
Dec 16 2012 14:13
darren p wrote:
This has got to be the worst article I've ever seen on Libcom. The author is a complete fraud.

well in that case it should be easy enough to offer some critical thoughts of your own, rather than mining some unrelated quotes from the wikipedia 'criticism' section/Sokal and Bricmont.

Fwiw i think the attempt to go from the circulation of women (relatively uncontroversial - Levi-Strauss) to women as commodities is a bit tenuous (since women are not typically 'sold', even dowry, bridewealth etc don't seem reducible to commodity exchange). Quoting lots of Marx talking about value doesn't make it so. Still, this seems most applicable to prostitution, and from there arguing that mother/virgin represent two separated sides of use value/exchange value isn't ridiculous, though the analogy seems a bit strained.

darren p
Dec 17 2012 16:28

Let's just take the first sentence "The society we know, our own culture, is based upon the exchange of women." Can that really be supported in fact? No. The fact that the author can say something like this then claim to understand Marx is just ridiculous.

I'm sorry the article is just post-modern hogwash. It shouldn't need my comments for that to be apparent.

Joseph Kay
Dec 17 2012 17:36
darren p wrote:
Let's just take the first sentence "The society we know, our own culture, is based upon the exchange of women." Can that really be supported in fact? No. The fact that the author can say something like this then claim to understand Marx is just ridiculous.

A claim that was completely mainstream, indeed, elementary, in anthropology in the 1970s (and might still be, I dunno), stemming from the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, 'the father of modern anthropology'. I mean, have you ever been to a wedding? Seen the father 'give away' the bride to the husband?

darren p wrote:
I'm sorry the article is just post-modern hogwash. It shouldn't need my comments for that to be apparent.

The first part of the article seems to largely run through Lévi-Strauss' work on the circulation of women with a bit of Engels thrown in (linking patriarchy to private property). the middle section of the piece is a rather tedious exercise in direct quotes from Marx's value theory. The final third seeks to apply Marxian forms to women's social roles (somewhat tenuously imho). None of this is particularly 'post-modern' though. In fact afaik, Lévi-Strauss (together with Ferdinand de Saussure) is largely responsible for the structuralism to which post-structuralism (usually synonymous with 'post-modern hogwash') is a reaction. Fwiw, Irigaray is usually criticised for her essentialism, the cardinal sin of pomo.

I don't even think the article is very good, but this kind of proudly uninformed 'criticism' is, well, bullshit. This reminds me of the time someone said we can't read Judith Butler on sexuality cos she's a bit soft on Palestinian national liberation. QUICK, someone posted some feminism to libcom, better cobble together a 'critique'!

darren p
Dec 17 2012 18:13
Joseph Kay wrote:
A claim that was completely mainstream, indeed, elementary, in anthropology in the 1970s (and might still be, I dunno), stemming from the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, 'the father of modern anthropology'. I mean, have you ever been to a wedding? Seen the father 'give away' the bride to the husband?

Yes. But capitalism is not based on marriage is it. Though the history of private property is also the history of the subjugation of woman it isn't at all true to say that gender roles are the defining characteristic of the present era. Come on, I'm sure we can agree on what that is.

What I didn't like about the article was not it's supposed 'feminism' but it's cobbling together of ill digested elements into a kind of meaningless mush.

Joseph Kay
Dec 17 2012 19:00

Nobody said the defining feature of capitalism is gender roles or marriage. What you took issue with is the claim "our own culture, is based upon the exchange of women". As I understand it, Lévi-Strauss' claim is that all culture is founded on the circulation of women, as a fundamental structure of kinship. I haven't read him myself, so I'm going mainly off Irigaray's account.

Again, it doesn't seem difficult to grasp that a fundamental part of the reproduction of any society, including our own, is sexual reproduction. I.e. any society is based on a system of kinship, typically involving incest taboos (and hence the need to circulate women beyond immediate kin). Western societies are no different. Labour power is still produced in the womb (amongst other places).

Marx is happy to bracket this off as something which "the capitalist may safely leave its fulfilment to the labourer’s instincts of self-preservation and of propagation". Since the maintenance and reproduction of the working class is, and must ever be, a necessary condition to the reproduction of capital, it doesn't seem much of a leap to argue that kinship structures (and thus, for a Lévi-Straussian, the circulation of women), are the basis for capitalism (or indeed, any society).

I don't find Irigaray's attempt to frame the circulation of women as identical with the circulation of commodities particularly convincing. But equally, I don't see a problem with taking kinship relations as a starting point into persistent sex-gender inequailty in capitalism.

Tom de Cleyre
Dec 17 2012 19:15

There is a very strange bit in Marx about commodities as women and women as commodities in Chapter 2 of Capital:

Commodities are things, and therefore without power of resistance against man. If they are wanting in docility he can use force; in other words, he can take possession of them. In the 12th century, so renowned for its piety, they included amongst commodities some very delicate things. Thus a French poet of the period enumerates amongst the goods to be found in the market of Landit, not only clothing shoes, leather, agricultural implements, &c., but also “femmes folles de leur corps.”

Dec 17 2012 19:48
Joseph Kay wrote:

I don't even think the article is very good, but this kind of proudly uninformed 'criticism' is, well, bullshit.

I'ma jus gonna quote this because I liked it so much an up vote just would not do.

darren p
Dec 17 2012 21:30
Joseph Kay wrote:
Nobody said the defining feature of capitalism is gender roles or marriage.

"The society we know, our own culture, is based upon the exchange of women."
I'd read "the society we know" to mean "capitalism". I'd also read 'based upon' to mean 'defining feature'....

But equally, I don't see a problem with taking kinship relations as a starting point into persistent sex-gender inequailty in capitalism.

I would not see a problem with that either. But it's another thing to say that the capitalist mode of production is based upon gender inequality. Capitalism could work perfectly well with full equality in terms of sex and gender. But sellers of labour would still be forced to universally prostitute themselves to capital. Equal rights exploitation is exploitation all the same...

Tom de Cleyre
Dec 17 2012 23:05

Are you not contradicting yourself/ creating issues where there shouldn't be?

First you reduce the "society we know" to capitalism.

Then you say that capitalism does not need gender inequality (therefore implying that the society we know is not just capitalism but has other attributes).

Basically you're building a giant strawman saying she is saying that "the capitalist mode of production" is based on gender inequality (which is nonsense) when she says that "our society" is based on gender inequality.

Or are you denying the existence of gender inequality?

darren p
Dec 18 2012 10:35
Tom de Cleyre wrote:
Basically you're building a giant strawman saying she is saying that "the capitalist mode of production" is based on gender inequality (which is nonsense) when she says that "our society" is based on gender inequality.

Our society IS capitalism. But capitalism can incorporate a wide range of extra-economic configurations. Gender / race / ethnic inequality can and does exist within capitalism, but capitalism is not based on it.

Tom de Cleyre
Dec 18 2012 15:21

So our society is also based on gender and race inequalities. These inequalities have nothing to do with the development of capitalism, so are as basic to our society than capitalism. (As basic, as in, they don't come from capitalism. And capitalism does not come from them.)

There could be a lot of capitalist societies that are not our society. There could be genderless, raceless capitalism, as you say yourself. But our society is not, so our society is not only based on capitalism.

Tom de Cleyre
Dec 18 2012 15:30

I mean when Irigaray writes "Marx’s analysis of commodities as the elementary form of capitalist wealth can thus be understood as an interpretation of the status of woman in so-called partriarchal societies." She means that she is going to use Marx's analysis of commodities in capitalism and apply it to women in patriarchy, which does not imply that patriarchy and capitalism are the same thing, just that (according to her) there are similarities between the two systems on which our society is based.

darren p
Dec 18 2012 15:42

"Based on" means something like most fundamental element, or principle relation. In our society the fundamental relations are class relations and these determine how extra-economic factors, such as gender and race inequality, develop.

Value relations permeate every aspect of our society.

Tom de Cleyre
Dec 18 2012 15:53

No, something can be based on several things. Is it all really because you are stuck on that word? Have you read beyond it and is it really that one word that is the problem?

These different systems that our society is based on influence one another (hence Irigaray's text) but as you said so yourself, you can have a capitalist society without gender inequality and you can have a patriarchal society without capitalism (pre-capitalist societies).

darren p
Dec 18 2012 17:10

I'm not saying that something cannot be based on several things. What I am saying is that it is class relations, not ones of gender or ethnicity that are fundamental in our society, capitalism.

If you've found something useful in the text tell me about it. If not, this conversation seems pretty pointless.

Tom de Cleyre
Dec 18 2012 17:19

Well, I have several problems with this text, which I am trying to pinpoint. It is relevant to me because Irigaray is influential (most famously, in Butler's Gender Trouble).

So I was trying to understand your criticism of it to see if they were along the same lines as mine or complementary.

But if I understand correctly, you simply do not care about patriarchy. Which is not really Irigaray's fault.

Tom de Cleyre
Dec 18 2012 17:25

If you do not care about fighting patriarchy, this text contains nothing of any interest to you, that is true. I find useful things in this text (although I don't think I agree with most of it, still thinking about it), but they are related to understanding and fighting patriarchy.

I suppose you might like to consider the odds you have of gettingt rid of capitalism without attacking patriarchy, but I have not the time or the pretension to be able to change your view on such a fundamental issue.

darren p
Dec 18 2012 17:58

My problem with the article has nothing to do with the subject matter.

My problem with it is that the author doesn't seem to have a solid grasp on what she is supposed to be talking about, Marx's theory of commodities, and disguises this under a screen of opaque verbiage.

I'm a Communist so of course I'm against patriarchy. But you get rid of patriarchy by abolishing property relations. I have no interest in any kind of reformism, equal opportunities exploitation is exploitation all the same.

Joseph Kay
Dec 18 2012 19:00
darren p wrote:
Value relations permeate every aspect of our society.

Ironically, isn't this Irigaray's argument? (that Marx's analysis of the opposition of use value to exchange value and their unity in the commodity form gives rise to three categories of woman; mother / virgin / prostitute respectively).

I mean I disagree with Irigaray here, because I don't think value is a theory of everything. And I think Marx was very careful to define his concepts through close study of the subject matter, so there's no reason to think we can just apply them wholesale to other things.

darren p wrote:
I'm a Communist so of course I'm against patriarchy. But you get rid of patriarchy by abolishing property relations

ok, but this is precisely the 'after the revolution' attitude to women's oppression which most anarchist/marxist/socialist/materialist feminism rejects. if you think this, then there's no point in analysing patriarchy, and in fact doing so is presumably a distraction from 'real' communist politics. so i can see why you're not interested in this piece.

Tom de Cleyre
Dec 18 2012 19:29

Hm. Not sure I see really any "opaque verbiage" that is not... well, ironically, Marxist language. What obscure terms does she use that are not taken straight from Capital?

I am not sure where you take "reformism" or "equal opportunities" from this text?