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The Feminine in Body Language and Spirituality

Doctoral thesis, School of History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics, University of Queensland, 2013

The full text of this thesis is available on the University of Queensland website:

some part of us always

out beyond ourselves

knowing knowing knowing

are we all in training for something we don’t name?

Adrienne Rich

(Rich, 1982, p. 45)

Women have been thinking in and as female bodies within a language-structure bequeathed by Western androcentric culture. I intend to discover and express that which has been unthought for, or by, women within phallogocentric culture. This is the horizon to which I am oriented. Hence Adrienne Rich’s poem; women are “in training for something we don’t name”, and which we are as yet unable to name. Yet we are guided by “knowing, knowing, knowing”. I aim to translate this knowing into thinking and speaking as a female subject, independent of the masculine symbolic. I argue for a new identity not embedded within it.

The questions which prompt this thesis are; what do we mean by ‘the feminine’ and how does this relate to women, especially through language and through dwelling in a body sexed as female. Further, in what way might women’s

spirituality be different from those who are sexed as male? Corollary to this question, are traditional patriarchal religious forms suited to women? I aim to extract thinking from a dependence on the masculine symbolic with its dualistic assumptions, and simultaneously expose the necessity for a new identity not embedded in it. Throughout, my primary interlocutors are C. G. Jung and Luce Irigaray, because they each frame a spirituality and subjectivity for women as distinct from both patriarchy and the concerns of men.


What, then, is the most favourable way to inquire into ‘the feminine’, women’s subjectivity, and divinity-in-the-feminine? What question do I need to ask? What suppositions must I challenge? In what ways might women be connected to ‘the feminine’? Is the very concept of ‘the feminine’ a patriarchal invention, an ideal projected onto women by men? Luce Irigaray "defines patriarchy as a historical and masculine system devoid of value in the feminine” (Martin, 2000, p. 53). Could it be that even the notion of ‘the feminine’ is a depersonalized androcentric abstraction, which functions as a defense against the actual presence of embodied women?

Using the terms true and false self, Donald Winnicott argued that in order to pose a true question, we must be situated in the true self. Answers are too easily provided by the false (enculturated) self (Winnicott, 1965). An example of the importance of posing the question is provided by the Grail myth, where the knight Perceval only has to pose the question, “Who does the Grail serve?” (E. Jung & von Franz, 1998). He is not required to provide the answer. The question, however, eludes him. Has the right question eluded women, and then prevented them from discovering the right answer?

Chapter One: “Interrogating ‘the Feminine’”.

I differentiate between ‘the feminine’, both historically and in the present, and women as sexed female subjects. I consider whether Jung's idea of archetypes might be a form of essentialism, an a priori claim on (one’s) being, but conclude that they nevertheless contribute to a contemporary understanding of women and the feminine. I explore the notion of women’s experience, and women’s religious experience specifically. I argue for the inclusion of all women’s experience, while I simultaneously allow that experience might be contaminated by patriarchal beliefs, structures, and language.

I argue that Luce Irigaray’s insistence on sexuate difference provides a fertile possibility for inquiry into the nature of the feminine and the experience of women. The concept of ‘sexuate’ difference articulates the different modes of being and becoming for men and women, in bodily, social, linguistic, aesthetic, erotic, and political and religious forms. Further, Luce Irigaray’s notions of genealogy reveal stylistic variation of a feminine way, and allow for multiple expressions of femininity. Having established sexuate difference as foundational, I begin an in-depth critical analysis of how this applies to the body, language and spirituality of women.

Chapter Two: “Cultivating the Feminine Body”.

I ask how our notions of body and experience in the body would change if we were to put aside the body/spirit trope, that is, if we did not separate bodily experience from spiritual experience. I demonstrate that a woman’s experience of/in/as her body should be understood as a body/spirit continuum when viewed through the lens of Luce Irigaray’s sensible/transcendental. I argue for the importance of cultivating the body, which enables me to reinstate (and restate) the divinity of carnality, or the spiritualization of the flesh, and further support my use of Luce Irigaray’s sensible/transcendental.

I argue that spirituality is available through the senses, through the sensible self, and that both body and mind need to be cultivated, especially through the breath. For both Irigaray and Jung the aim of cultivation is to establish a connection between above and below, spirituality and carnality; I equate Irigaray’s use of cultivation with Jung’s notion of Individuation. I elaborate other aspects of ‘cultivation’ employed by Irigaray to support my emphasis on conscious feminine becoming; namely the cultivation of ethical relations with the other, the cultivation of language suited to the feminine subject, and the cultivation and spiritualization of the body and the senses, ultimately towards ‘becoming divine’.

Chapter Three: “Language” – It Takes My Breath Away”.

I propose that women find a language that provides a free dwelling, (Heidegger) rather than a prison (Simone Weil). I challenge the idea of dualism in the philosophy of mind, that is the posing of body and mind as opposites, so I take female morphology, in both the linguistic and biological sense, and argue them as a continuum. That is, the form and structure of the human being sexed as female influences the structure and process of the language she uses. This chapter elaborates this theme. I propose that Poïesis and erotic logos are forms of language more suited to a feminine speech and becoming, and I argue that these forms escape the dominance of logos. I discuss erotic logos as a language for women, and investigate the story of Sheherazade and the Thousand and one Nights to discover how women might speak, and still remain alive (in the symbolic). I am dedicated to (finding and using a) language that is not ‘disembodying’ but ‘incarnating’. I argue that language needs to arise from myself and not merely though the logos of another, especially a sexuate other. While language is a product of the Symbolic Order, I follow Lacan in asserting that language can critique (or undermine) itself, in a similar way that one has an ego but at the same time one has to withstand the demise of its (psychotic) supremacy. Lacan claimed this as the ‘feminine’ position. I demonstrate ways in which Luce Irigaray achieves this position; she poetically inhabits the elements, for instance, to demonstrate how philosophy has ignored the material, especially air, in favour of the metaphysical.

Chapter Four: “Mysticism as Feminine Divine”.

I discuss mysticism as a direct response - or access to - the numinous, and propose this as a means by which women (or, possibly, men) can avoid the constructs of meaning of the symbolic. I define, discuss, and amplify what mysticism might be for feminine spirituality, both past and present. I contrast the possibility of a feminine divine apprehended and experienced in the mystical with a masculine divine enclosed within the symbolic and codified in religious dogma/theory. I take a position that equates feminine jouissance with divinity in the feminine. As I define it, mysticism is a body/spirit confluence, an experience of Luce Irigaray’s sensible/transcendental. My argument for the mystical as feminine divine avoids the need for the Christian paternal God. I am not arguing for a theist God (or Goddess) at all, but rather for an experience which does not automatically become translated through a priori assumptions about God, (including ‘his’ existence) and the rational foundations of true belief. I claim that a contemporary philosophy of religion does not need a loyalty to the notion that religious belief must be rationally justified as true, as in the phallogocentric system.

Chapter Five: “The Handless Maiden: Femininity Derogated”.

By way of extending my analysis of the feminine, I devote my final two chapters to an exploration of myth and fairy tale. I show how this narrative form presents the issues raised in the work so far in poetic and allegorical language, which can convey more than the text, and present a new horizon. In this analysis I apply key elements of Luce Irigaray’s work; specifically the notions of self-affection, virginity, solitude and silence, the sensible/transcendental, and sexuate difference.

Husserl’s idea of philosophy was a “radical inquiry that proceeds with the help of imagination and fiction” (Heinämaa, 2003, p. 15). This fairy tale aids our imagination, and as such it enables a development of philosophy. I argue that the handless state of the young woman represents the position in which all women find themselves. Without recourse to philosophy, theology or psychology, the particular genre of fairy tale proposes a cause, amplifies the details of her/women’s predicament, and most remarkably, proposes a course of action not only for the young woman herself, but also for those around her and in contemporary culture.

Chapter Six: “The Handed Maiden: Femininity Restored”. 

I continue an interpretation of the fairy tale, and we shall see how, through the image of her hands growing back, the Maiden/Queen demonstrates the retrieving of female subjectivity and spirituality. Through the young woman’s sojourn in the cottage in the forest, accompanied by the virgin white as snow and the angel, through solitude/silence, I imagine her discovering her virginity/self affection. It is important to include this discussion of a fairy tale, because many, if not all the subjects of my argument in earlier chapters are demonstrated in this story. As such, the last two chapters constitute a summary and amplification of the thesis.


I argue that a lack of understanding of ‘the feminine’ has led to an impoverishment of not only women, but our entire culture, specifically in how we approach and exploit the environment, and in this I relate ‘the feminine’ and ‘environment’. Ethics ‘in the feminine’ would encompass both women and nature, and result in a revolution in how each is viewed and experienced. Throughout, I revisit the question as to whether so-called ‘feminine’ experiences might also be available to men, and depart from Irigaray’s position on this point. I do so by appealing to different archetypes or paradigms as operating simultaneously, that of sexuate difference and mystical spirituality, for instance.


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