Presidential Lectures: Hélène Cixous: Essays: Briganti and Davis
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By Chiara Briganti and Robert Con Davis


The focus of Cixous's discourse is écriture féminine ("feminine writing"), a project begun in the middle 1970s when Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, and Catherine Clément, among others, began reading texts in the particular contexts of women's experience. Their general strategy, at odds with biologically based readings of Sigmund Freud, reflected a notion of femininity and feminine writing based not on a "given" essence of male and female characteristics but on culturally achieved conventions, such as "openness" in feminine texts as a lack of repressive patterning. This theorizing, pursued in the politicized French atmosphere during deconstruction and cultural revolution, prompted questions about how "writing" deploys power, how to read a feminine (nonpatriarchal) text, and, with even greater urgency, what the "feminine" is.

In La Venue à l'écriture, perhaps her most strongly Derridean text, Cixous challenges the boundaries between theory and fiction and projects écriture féminine as not necessarily writing by a woman but writing also practiced by male authors such as Jean Genet and James Joyce. "Laugh of the Medusa" and "Castration or Decapitation?" present Cixous's case for the reading of feminine writing against psychoanalysis. In "Laugh" she describes how writing is structured by a "sexual opposition" favoring men, one that "has always worked for man's profit to the point of reducing writing... to his laws" (883). Writing is constituted in a "discourse" of relations social, political, and linguistic in makeup, and these relations are characterized in a masculine or feminine "economy." In this model, patterns of linearity and exclusion (patriarchal "logic") require a strict hierarchical organization of (sexual) difference in discourse and give a "grossly exaggerated" view of the "sexual opposition" actually inherent to language (879).

But it is in the apocalyptic scenario that she envisions as preparatory to the venue à l'écriture of woman that Cixous makes her mark:

When the "repressed" of their culture and their society returns, it's an explosive, utterly destructive, staggering return, with a force never yet unleashed and equal to the most forbidding of suppressions. For when the Phallic period comes to an end, women will have been either annihilated or borne up to the highest and most violent incandescence. ("Laugh" 886)

Cixous is aware of the difficulties of envisioning a writing practice that cannot be theorized and whose existence is scanty. She notes how in France the only inscriptions of the feminine can be found in the work of Marguerite Duras and Colette and in Genet's Pompes funèbres. Cixous claims woman's privileged relationship with the voice as a result of her being never far from "mother. ... There is always within her at least a little of that good mother's milk. She writes in white ink" ("Laugh" 881). But she refuses to conceive of the effects of the past as irremovable, and when she speaks of women's writing -- or, as she later said in Illa, of women's search for a langue maternelle -- she speaks in the future tense: she sets out, not to say what it is, but to speak "about what it will do" (875). The exclusion of women from writing (and speaking) is linked to the fact that the Western history of writing is synonymous with the history of reasoning and with the separation of the body from the text. The body entering the text disrupts the masculine economy of superimposed linearity and tyranny: the feminine is the "overflow" of "luminous torrents" ("Laugh" 876), a margin of "excess" eroticism and free-play not directly attributable to the fixed hierarchies of masculinity.

The "openness" of such writing is evident in Cixous's own style both in fictional texts such as Souffles (1975) and Angst (1977) and in "Laugh," as when she writes that "we the precocious, we the repressed of culture, our lovely mouths gagged with pollen, our wind knocked out of us, we the labyrinths, the ladders, the trampled spaces, the bevies -- we are black and we are beautiful" ("Laugh" 878). In such language Cixous forces exposition into poetic association and controls the excess of imagery through repetition and nonlinear accretions. Virginia Woolf contrasts such writing to "male," "shadowed," or violently imposed writing. This is Kristeva's conception, too, of jouissance, the poetic discourse "beyond" the masculine text of reason and order. For Cixous, Woolf, and Kristeva, there is the key assumption that the feminine economy of excess does not need re-creation, to be made anew, because it persists in the margins and gaps (as the repressed, the unconscious) of male-dominated culture. As a characteristically deconstructive reader, she understands texts as built upon a system of cultural contradictions, especially concerning values. In her reading she strives to focus on those contradictions and then to find the channels of "excess" and violation, accidents of meaning and perversities of signification, through which texts inscribe a feminine writing that goes beyond and escapes the masculine economy of texts.

Cixous's post-Lacanian discourse, however, has also been indicted for supporting patriarchal and psychoanalytic norms. Ann Rosalind Jones and others have charged that underlying Cixous's feminine economy, her sophistication in articulating it notwithstanding, is the assumption of an "essential" femininity in texts, the identifiable quality that allows feminine discourse to be named as such in relation to Oedipus, the essential quality of openness that allows a text to resist external control and the superimposition of closed Oedipal patterns. More recently, however, other critics have come to her rescue. Christiane Makward has emphasized Cixous's production as creative writer and has argued that while most of her readers are determined to neglect her creative work and to see "Laugh of the Medusa" as encapsulating her thinking, Cixous's work continues to change: "Medusa has been classified, petrified, sentenced, guilty of biologism, guilty of essentialism, of utopianism….But she does not laugh, she is not listening, she just is not there" (2). Anu Aneja has suggested that the case against écriture féminine results from a desire "to locate l'écriture féminine within a definite category, a desire to co-opt into a literary theory that which always exceeds it" (195). Aneja's observations place Cixous's discourse in relation to the Eastern doctrine of nonduality: "Cixous' proposed depersonalization, like that of the ancient east, desires to put something back into an incomplete and mechanical life, a life lived without passion or intensity" (198-99). This view clarifies the trajectory of Cixous's most recent work, which has moved away, as Cixous herself claims, from "work on the ego" (Jardine and Menke 236).

Recently at work in the theater, Cixous sees Portrait de Dora (1976) as marking the beginnings of her theatrical career. Focusing on "what Freud did not understand and all that Dora didn't know" (Franke, "Interview" 173), this piece was not written as a play (like Le Nom d'Oedipe: Chant du corps interdit [1978], which was a libretto for an opera). She wrote about Dora in her novel Portrait du soleil in 1973 and in The Newly Born Woman (1975) and finally wrote the play for staging at the Théâtre d'Orsay in Paris in 1976. Her first play written for the Théâtre du Soleil, L'Histoire terrible mais inachevée de Norodom Sihanouk, roi du Cambodge (1985), is "an epic way of approaching reality" (Franke, "Interview" 155), and it reflects her recent involvement in the history of Cambodia in relation to her ongoing concern with the discourse of love. L'Indiade ou l'Inde de leurs rêves (1978), which she takes to be her philosophical text (164), is about the India-Pakistan partition of 1946 and "the paradoxes of fidelity."

In the theater Cixous has found a new freedom from her own voice and from the self. She claims that the theater allows her to "step out of [her] own language, and borrow the poorest of languages" (166), to forget Hélène Cixous, French intellectual, and become a peasant woman. Time is not artificially elongated in the theater as it is in fiction, she argues, and the theater, therefore, is better equipped to capture a precise moment in human destiny (170) -- for Cixous, the theater's highest achievement over fiction. In her plays she considers most poignant the pauses that she imposes on events, scenes that stop history and become the moments, political and personal, when "we interrogate ourselves and we say our fear and our indecision" (152).

Hélène Cixous, "Castration or Decapitation?" (trans. Annette Kuhn, Signs 7 [1981]), "The Character of 'Character'" (trans. Keith Cohen. New Literary History 5 [1974]), "Coming to Writing" and Other Essays (ed. Deborah Jensen, trans. Sarah Cornell, Deborah Jensen, Ann Liddle, and Susan Sellers, 1991), Illa (1980), Readings: The Poetics of Blanchot, Joyce, Kafka, Kleist, Lispector, and Tsvetayeva (trans. Verena A. Conley, 1991), "Le Rire de la Méduse" (1975, "The Laugh of the Medusa," trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs I [1976], Vivre l'Orange (bilingual ed., trans. Ann Liddle and Sarah Cornell, 1979); Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément, La Jeune née (1975, The Newly Born Woman, trans. Betsy Wing, 1986); Hélène Cixous, Madeleine Gagnon, and Annie Leclerc, La Venue à l'écriture (1977); Catherine Anne Franke, "Interview with Hélène Cixous," Qui parle 3 (1989).

Anu Aneja, "The Mystic Aspect of L'Écriture féminine: Hélène Cixous' Vivre l'Orange," Qui parle 3 (1989); Verena A. Conley, Hélène Cixous: Writing the Feminine (1984), Hélène Cixous (1992); Robert Con Davis, "Woman as Oppositional Reader: Cixous on Discourse," Gender in the Classroom: Power and Pedagogy (ed. Susan L. Gabriel and Isaiah Smithson, 1990); Jean-Joseph Goux, Freud, Marx: Economie et symbolique (1973); Elizabeth A. Grosz, "Lacan and Feminism," Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction (1990); Alice Jardine, Gynesis: Configurations of Woman and Modernity (1985); Alice Jardine and Anne Menke, "The Politics of Tradition: Placing Women in French Literature," Yale French Studies 75 (1988); Sarah Kofman, L'Enfance de l'art: Une Interprétation de l'esthétique freudienne (1970, The Childhood of Art: An Interpretation of Freud's Aesthetics, trans. Winifred Woodhull, 1988); Christiane Makward, "Hélène Cixous and the Myth of 'Feminine Writing,' or 'Hélène in Theoryland'" (1990); Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (1985); Elaine Showalter, ed., The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory (1985); Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (1987).

Excerpt taken from: The John Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. Pages 162-164

©1994 The John Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.


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