Seeing the vulva: adopting strategic essentialism as a means of disrupting phallogocentrism, finding a subjective voice, and picturing difference
f-word 2: the second feminist interdisciplinary research symposium hosted by the Faculty of Arts for staff, postgraduate students, and guests
9 March 2010, room 105 Scott Building, University of Plymouth
The symposium was organised by Roberta Mock, James Daybell, Mairie Mackie and Kayla Parker to allow us and other participants to share our research and engage in dialogue and debate.
Carolee Schneeman (1975) Interior Scroll
This paper takes as its starting point the statement made by Luce Irigaray in 1987: “I am a woman. I write with who I am”. That year, I made a 16mm animation The Internal Voice, a film without a soundtrack, 'directed' by dreams and automatic drawing. I was at the beginning of my career as an artist film-maker. For over twenty years since, I have supported myself through my creative work; but, unlike Irigaray, 'alphabetical writing' is not my principle means of communicating.

In my paper I explore the proposal that the phallogocentric may be disrupted through deployment of an array of essentialist tactics and strategies; and, by critically reflecting on my own doctoral practice-as-research, I examine the ways in which 'making as a woman animator’ creates ‘a language of the body’ that allows the vulva to be seen, pictured in the psychological space of difference on the moving image screen.

"Phallocentric structures are predicated upon the visibility or non-visibility of the penis; phallocentric ways of seeing thus hinge on seeing it or not seeing it, not on upon seeing it or seeing the vulva (seeing difference)" (Robinson, 2006: 9). In other words, there is a phallus, or there is an absence. An illusion, a conjuring trick, is at work here: the vulva does not exist, because we cannot see it. Luce Irigaray calls for a new language, a feminine language of the body, that will enable us to speak: "If we don't invent a language, if we don't find our body's language, it will have too few gestures to accompany our story" (Irigaray, 1985b: 214).

Becoming a speaking subject: Irigaray’s early research in the French language indicated that women are excluded from subjectivity in Western culture and that this was linked to the fact women are debarred from the active subject position in language, and are therefore 'silenced'. She found that both men and women, when given a choice, selected the masculine option; that women were unwilling to adopt the active subject position in speech - in other words, 'I' and ‘you’. She also highlighted the fact that masculine words were those of value (1996). Irigaray is in agreement with Lacan that one must 'enter language’, or culture, in order to be a subject. However, to affect a paradigm shift, she proposed that language itself must change and that women must develop additional forms of embodied subjectivity through language. Her suggestions include the articulation of the mother/daughter relationship (1993), and by allowing the excluded and invisible, body to 'speak'. Irigaray states that each person must define and state their own subjective position: she will not speak, and proscribe, on our behalf.
Jayne Parker (1989) K
del Rio, E. (1996) 'The body as foundation of the screen: allegories of technology in Atom Egoyan's Speaking Parts' camera obscura #37-38 (Summer 1996): pp. 94-115.
Grosz, E. (1989) Sexual subversions: three French feminists. London: Allen & Unwin
Irigaray, L. (1985a) 'Any theory of the "subject" has already been appropriated by the "masculine"' in Speculum of the other woman, translated by Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University. pp. 133 - 146.
Irigaray, L. (1985b) This sex which is not one, translated by Catherine Porter. New York: Cornell University.
Irigaray, L. (1993) 'Writing as a woman', interview with Alice Jardin and Anne Menke, September 1987; chapter six in Irigaray, L. Je, tu, nous: toward a culture of difference, translated by Alison Martin. London: Routledge. pp. 51 - 59.
Irigaray, L. (1996) I love to you: sketch of a possible felicity in history, translated by Alison Martin. London: Routledge.
Ivins-Hulley, L. (2007) 'The ontology of performance in stop animation: Kawamoto’s House of Flame and Švankmajer’s The Fall of the House of Usher' in Animation studies (Volume 3) (online) posted on Sunday 21 December 2008 at 7:07am. Available:
Accessed: 12 January 2010
Marks, L. (2000) The skin of the film: intercultural cinema, embodiment, and the senses. Durham and London: Durham University Press
Nelson, R. (2009) ‘Modes of practice-as-research knowledge and their place in the academy‘ in Allegue, L. et al. (eds.) Practice-as-research in performance and screen. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 112 - 130.
Parker, J. (1989) K [16mm film, b+w silent, 13 minutes]
Robinson, H. (2006) Reading art, reading Irigaray: the politics of art by women. New York: I.B. Tauris.
Schneeman, C. (1975) Interior scroll [performance]
Screening room with Caroline Leaf and Mary Beams (1975) Hosted by Robert Gardner [Documentary programme] [DVD 2005] Cambridge, MA: Studio 7 Arts. Distribution: Watertown, MA: Documentary Educational Resources. 75 min.
Walkerdine, V. (1990) Schoolgirl Fictions. London: Verso; cited in Jennie Small's essay Memory-work: an introduction (2007) (online). Sydney: University of Technology
Wells, P. (2002) 'Caroline Leaf', introduction, interview in June 1997, and conclusion; Chapter five 'The animation auteur' in Paul Wells Animation: genre and authorship, 'Short Cuts: Introduction to Film Studies' series. London: Wallflower. pp. 101-111.