Michael Milov-Cordoba | Reading Marine Lover with Irigaray: On Forms of Critique under Trump

By Michael Milov-Cordoba


In last week’s session of Nietzsche 13/13, each of the five presenters attempted to characterize the peculiar form of Irigaray’s Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche. Professor Velasco called the text a philosophical poem in which the speaker (Irigaray) gives account of herself to an other (Nietzsche), who represents an existential threat to the speaker, without expectation of recognition in return, and she does so in precisely the form through which the existential threat is carried out. Professor Deutscher called the text an unfinished dialog, emphasizing the ways in which the very form of critique that makes the dialog possible—the voicing of the unsaid or silenced—presents a kind of limit to the critical exchange. In doing so, she raises the question of whether we might, in the spirit of the text, enact a critique on lrigaray’s own critique, and, if so, what form this critique should take. Professor Oliver described the text as a final love letter written to a man whose particular form of love for woman pathologically results in a self-love that negates the category of woman altogether. Professor Oliver raised the question of how we are to understand the mimetic form of a letter which participates in Nietzsche’s philosophical form in order to implode the form from within and, in doing so, make space for another voice. Professor Oliver read this form of critique in light of Irigaray’s later work, which moves from Nietzsche as lover to Nietzsche as companion and, formally, from a direct address that opens certain comedic and ironic rhetorical possibilities to a narrower prescriptive form. Professor Harcourt proposed that we interpret Irigaray’s indirect exchange with Nietzsche as a kind of foil colored by a bitterness that both makes her particular critique possible and limits her relation to Nietzsche. Professor Harcourt located Irigaray’s engagement with Nietzsche in the context of the course, connecting it to Koffman’s Nietzsche and Fanon’s Nietzsche. In doing so, he raised the question, which has haunted the seminar since the Fanon session, of whether we should be engaging with Nietzsche in the contemporary moment at all. Finally taking up Professor Deutscher’s gesture towards a poetics of the unsaid and Professor Oliver’s move towards the recent Irigaray who locates in sexuate love the condition of possibility for alterity, Professor Dailey asks about the unsaid in this new recent work, questioning whether it is possible to extract out of love the violence of sexual desire.

A philosophical poetic account of oneself. An unfinished dialog at its limits. A final love letter. A bitter foil. As these characterizations suggest, Irigaray’s rich, enigmatic text breaks our expectations for what philosophy and critique should look like (In my own reading of Irigaray’s radical text, I found myself newly questioning the formal assumptions I make when reading or engaging in critique regarding citation style, rhetorical devices, audience, transitions, paragraph and chapter structure, narrative structure, and emotions). Out of the presenters’ attempts to interpret her text and name this critique, many new questions emerge: who, for us reading Irigaray today, is the you to whom this account is addressed and why turn to poetics to level the critique? What about the poetics makes the critique possible? If Nietzsche cannot recognize the category of woman, then in what ways is this a dialog or exchange as opposed to two monologues? Why write in the form of a letter—a letter to a man who cannot speak back—and, in particular, a love letter? How is the category of lover operating Irigaray’s critique? What kind of critique is made possible by holding onto bitterness rather than leaving the source behind altogether? Though Marine Lover supports these characterizations and we could, therefore, follow the particular inquiries to their end, it seems to me that, taken together, each of these interpretations responds to the question of how to speak to one who not only neither hears nor recognizes the speaker but also seeks to silence the speaker. In view of the contemporary crisis in which a white nationalist administration is attempting to annihilate all non-white (male) subjectivities—as well as, in my view, the very conditions of possibility for critique[1]—Irigaray’s text seems to be highly relevant. Since the election, many of us have been asking ourselves: with what forms of critique should we to respond to the current crisis? Marine Lover suggests that a direct address in the voice of the other or, in a different formulation, in the voice whose exclusion serves as the condition of possibility for the other’s speech—I agree with Oliver’s reading that “she must make a space in which to create herself by taking up the place assigned to her as the resented woman,”[2] but I find it difficult to clarify when and whether Irigaray speaks as Nietzsche’s woman or as Nietzsche himself—might unearth the root of the other’s authority and, in so doing, open a space for the excluded voice and subjectivity.

During the session on Foucault’s Nietzsche, Professor Harcourt suggested that taking Trump seriously means recognizing a kind of brilliance in his capacities as re-interpreter and meaning-maker. When we do so, Professor Harcourt argued, the central critical task is then to impose a better meaning by offering a better interpretation. In this response, I want to try to respond to this call for a better interpretation through the horizon of Irigaray’s Marine Lover.

In order make sense of the text as a possible critical tool in our current climate, as I am suggesting we try to do, we, like Irigaray with respect to Nietzsche, have to pose a prior question: what is the form of Donald Trump’s critique? I understand that there is a kind of absurdity in this formulation. Trump has probably never thought about the word critique—as we used to laugh about, he has no time to read but also doesn’t need to because he has “a lot of common sense”[3]—but taking him seriously, and we sadly have no choice but to do so, means taking his mode of critique seriously.

Reading Marine Lover in this political moment, I couldn’t help but notice the ways in which Irigaray’s Nietzsche is defined by certain relational logics which we also see at work in Trump’s rhetoric. Irigaray’s Nietzsche of Marine Lover, as Oliver puts it, “loves always only himself.”[4] Out of this self-love, Nietzsche “and the men who come before and after him . . . have forgotten women . . . forgotten their mothers out of whom they were born . . . forgotten their sisters with whim they learned who they are . . . forgotten their lovers from whom they receive confirmation themselves.”[5] Irigaray’s Nietzsche refuses to identify a distinctly female subjectivity. This refusal takes the form of a desire to “absorb the other”[6] through the “castration game”[7] that assumes that “there is no other way to conceive of difference than in terms of quantity.”[8] This fallacy of difference allows Irigaray’s Nietzsche to subsume all difference in the eternal return: “Irigaray describes Nietzsche’s eternal return of the same as just a way of avoiding the difference of the female other.”[9] The fact of birth—and the undeniable recognition of dependency on what is distinctly woman that derives from acknowledging this fact—leads to a resentment—“Zarathustra’s greatest resentment, that he was born of a woman”[10]—that seeks to end dependency on woman by “annihilating”[11] the category altogether. As Irigaray writes:

Thus, when finally you allow her to speak, it is only to bring about—your perspective, your art,                                      your time, your will. . . . Her face, her lips, her world of harmony, her tuneful flow mastered by                                        your creation. All these are veiled or bent to suit your viewpoint. She is cut off from herself in this                                            way in order to join in your game. Becoming speech in your mouth, a stranger in her own body. As                            motionless as you can wish, she speaks the ‘yes’ dictated to her by your latest movement, your                                                latest will, your final plastic necessity. [12]


While in many ways Trump is defined by self-love and resentment—in addition to other qualities other course, including lying and a total lack of reflexivity—here I’d like to focus on the mechanism that, according to Oliver’s reading of Irigaray, leads Irigaray’s Nietzsche to annihilate woman: the castration game of “more or less.”[13] As I understand it, the game of more or less subsumes fundamental, radical difference into a single category such that difference becomes a numerical matter and thus not difference as such: unknown is rendered known or at least potentially knowable. In this formulation, I would argue that the game of “more or less”[14] is a central mechanism to Trump’s logic and his particularly slippery form of critique. His obsessions about the size of his electoral victory, the inauguration crowd, and his hands obviously come to mind, but I think there is a deeper way in which he uses this logic. Through hyperbole—what Judith Levine calls “his signature gesture”[15]—Trump locates himself precisely at the limit points between crisis and norm: the DC establishment is so dysfunctional and corrupt, but not so much that the swamp can’t be drained (note how the image operates in a less/more function); we have so many illegal immigrants pouring in (again, more/less), but not so many that a wall could still stop them. The entire system would collapse under the weight of immanent crisis—a condition which would be totally other—but the deal-maker will make better deals; the builder will build more walls; the strongman will muscle the bad dudes out. We will emerge with more and be great (normal) again.

It is this way of naming crisis—a condition of radicality—in order to subsume it into a kind of game of more or less—the condition of the norm—that empowers so much of what Trump says. Perhaps this is why radical critiques of Trump leveled via the discourses of normalization or incipient totalitarianism tend to slide off of him. In locating himself at the precipice between norm and crisis, Trump has already weaponized crisis for his own purposes, and, in doing so, dulled the blades of radical critique that attempts to portray his threat as radically other.

How are we to respond? Clearly the implicit connection I am drawing between Irigaray’s Nietzsche and Trump is a stretch in many ways. Beyond the fact that Trump is a live political figure with power over life and death and Nietzsche a dead philosopher, one could argue that, with respect to identity, the Trump administration seeks to acknowledge, even to create, “real” difference (the bad dudes) in order to rid itself of difference altogether, rather than subsume it as Irigaray’s Nietzsche does. But if we understand crisis as a condition of radical otherness—an emptying out of the norm and the known—then, with respect to crisis, Trump acts as Irigaray’s Nietzsche does: radical otherness becomes a matter of more or less. Even the rare account of himself that he made during one of the debates leveraged this move: he has not paid taxes for years, but he is just the best businessman and among the many non-tax-paying businessmen and not a radically corrupt, dangerously other figure. To the extent that the parallel between Irigaray’s Nietzsche and Trump holds, we would then, in the spirit of Irigaray, ask ourselves: what does an Irigarayian “productive mimesis”[16] of Trump that “reflects violence back at itself in order to produce the possibility of something other”[17] look like? It seems like it would be some combination of speaking in the voices whose exclusion serves as the condition of possibility for Trump’s voice and in the voice of Trump himself. Speaking in the voice of others is something which, Professor Oliver pointed out, academics are trained to do. One’s academic authority, she reminded us, derives from an ability to speak persuasively in and through the voice of others. Irigaray’s text challenges us to recognize that in deploying the academic form we often reify the authorizing forces of the form itself in a way that forecloses space for “something other”[18]—a cycle which Irigaray deliberately attempted to break in Marine Lover. Speaking in the voice of Trump—which is distinct from making fun of it, which was the most common form of critique in pre-election public discourse—seemed to be the last thing anyone wanted to do during the election. It remains a nauseating prospect. I am sure that it was for Irigaray too.

[1] It’s beyond the scope of this short response paper to fully substantiate this claim about conditions for critique, but my argument here basically comes out of Arendt’s work on totalitarianism. The administration’s attacks on truth and the media; the ways in which it seems to deliberately deceive in the open and lie in public; its complete inability to acknowledge hypocrisy or act with any form of reflexivity; the new “economic terrorism” bills introduced in state legislatures to “curb” protest—all of this, in my view, amounts to both an attack on what Arendt calls the “common world,” which as the condition of possibility for judgment, and by extension for critique, serves as the bulwark against totalitarian logics, and an attempt to replace the common world with the “onion structure” of totalitarian regimes that seeks to “make the system organizationally shock-proof against the factuality of the real world.” On “common world” see: Hannah Arendt. “What is Authority” in Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 95; On the “onion structure” of totalitarian regimes see: Arendt, “What is Authority,” 99. On economic terrorism see: “Republic lawmakers introduce bills to curb protesting in at least 18 states” in The Washington Post, February 24, 2016. Accessed March 11, 2017: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/02/24/republican-lawmakers-introduce-bills-to-curb-protesting-in-at-least-17-states/.

[2] Kelly Oliver, Womanizing Nietzsche: Philosophy’s Relation to the ‘Feminine,’ (New York & London: Routledge, 1995), 114.

[3] Marc Fisher. “Donald Trump Doesn’t read much. Being president probably wouldn’t change that,” The Washington Post, July 27, 2016. Accessed on March 10, 2017: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/donald-trump-doesnt-read-much-being-president-probably-wouldnt-change-that/2016/07/17/d2ddf2bc-4932-11e6-90a8-fb84201e0645_story.html?utm_term=.f5ab4a83712d

[4] Oliver, 83.

[5] Ibid., 83.

[6] Ibid., 89.

[7] Ibid., 89.

[8] Ibid., 89.

[9] Ibid., 106.

[10] Ibid., 108.

[11] Ibid., 89.

[12] Luce Irigaray. Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche (New York: Columbia University Press, 91) 36.

[13] Oliver, 89.

[14] Ibid., 89.

[15] Judith Levine. “Descent Into Liberalism,” N+1, March 10, 2017. Accessed March 10, 2017: https://nplusonemag.com/online-only/online-only/descent-into-liberalism/

[16] Oliver, 113.

[17] Ibid., 114.

[18] Ibid., 114.