Presidential Lectures: Hélène Cixous: Essays: Dunn
Stanford Presidential Lectures and Symposia in the Humanities and Arts

Lecturers || Hélène Cixous Home || Hélène Cixous: Commentary

The place that writes: Locating Hélène Cixous in Feminist Theory

By Susan E. Dunn*

Hélène Cixous writes from many different places. She writes as a novelist, as a literary critic (her doctoral dissertation was on James Joyce), a feminist, a poet. Her criticism is associated with twentieth-century avant-garde writers, especially James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Jean Genet and the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. However, her writing celebrates canonical writers such as Shakespeare and Stendahl as well. Key issues for feminist critics are her (re)definitions of the unconscious, bisexuality and l'écriture féminine. This latter concept is the one that she is most associated with and that is perhaps the most misunderstood. However it is important to recognize that all three concepts are integrally related.

In 1975 she published "The Laugh of the Medusa" and "Sorties," two of the most influential essays in contemporary feminist theory. Both works are best understood if one sees that they are concerned more with poetics than politics although the two notions are clearly entwined. "The Laugh of the Medusa" takes on both the Greek myth and the psychoanalytic interpretation of that myth in order to challenge the orthodoxies of patriarchy. "Sorties" expands her notions of the connections between women's desire and women's language. Cixous' theory of writing is a feminist theory because she recognizes that patriarchy is a specifically cultural and historical context with power relations that are not universal but nonetheless a real condition and that these do not exist separately from aesthetics and poetics.

"When I begin to write, it always starts from something unexplained, mysterious and concrete" (Rootprints, 47).

Along with French feminists such as Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva, Cixous' work draws on the writings of Jacques Lacan. The Lacanian model comes out of the work of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and French structural linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. The importance of this constellation of theorists is an interest in connecting language, psyche and sexuality. The French feminist found Lacan's writing to be both a ground for analysis and a site for critique. Lacan's theory develops the notion of the development of the (male) ego from PreOedipal (non-linguistic) Imaginary to Symbolic via the castration complex which is both a sexual and linguistic model. The Imaginary is fashioned as a feminine space (connected to the body, the mother, the breast). The Symbolic is associated with the Law of the Father and is a condition of having acquired language and sexual difference.

Kristeva, Irigaray and Cixous have found this model both rich and frustrating. Cixous is perhaps the most optimistic about the possibilities for the Pre-Oedipal or Imaginary phase, which is where she locates feminine writing, écriture féminine. Thus she rejects the notion of a feminine Imaginary which is non-signifying or outside of language. She suggests instead that the feminine is a way of signifying that calls into question or disrupts the Law of the Father. The Pre-Oedipal is a time before the creation of oppositional binaries, therefore prior to the imposition of the categories of male and female. At the same time, this is the period associated with the mother's body. In this way, Cixous' notion of feminine writing can be both feminine and non-essentialist (although this latter assertion is a matter of considerable debate amongst Cixous' critics).

"And here, the body also has a thing or two to say. It is very tiring to write. It is a high speed exercise" (Rootprints, 41).

Drawing on Saussure and Lacan, but rejecting their binary models that silence women, she revises the Freudian model which defines "woman as lack" and instead celebrates "woman as excess" using Dora, the hysteric, as an example of a woman who speaks her body and threatens patriarchy. She appropriates the Freudian psychoanalytic model wherein the Law of the Father is ruled by the fear of castration. Her definition of "jouissance" is that which operates outside of patriarchy, in the realm of the feminine Imaginary. Jouissance is a crucial concept since for Cixous it is the source of women's writing and of "blowing up" the Law of the Father. Nonetheless, critics have asked how can Dora, the hysteric, be a model for women? How is this useful for feminists? To understand Cixous' use of Dora, we have to see that Dora, like Medusa, is a mythological figure who continues to haunt patriarchy. She continues to blow up the Law of the Father. Her words, coming to us in twisted form, still rise up against the master/author of her story.

"The origin of the metaphor is the unconscious" (Rootprints, 27).

For Cixous the unconscious is an unmediated space outside of culture. The unconscious is associated with the repressed, and thus with the feminine as well as other colonized places, such as Africa, reminding us of her own position as Jewish-French-Algerian. The European history of war and colonization informs her use of metaphors of conflict, seen especially in the essay, "Sorties." Her autobiographical writings, which stress her own sense of not belonging -- of being the outside of many different cultures -- leads to her nuanced focus on the many forms of otherness, not just based on gender. Thus, her theory of "feminine writing" provides an escape from systems of cultural, religious, sexual and linguistic oppression. In addition her imagery of war and violence, which continually invades her writings -- including her title "Sorties" -- is an assertion that Cixous' writing is a battle: she is fighting her way out of the limitations placed on her when she is positioned as "other."

This focus on struggles connected to class and race as well as gender show that Cixous' has a materialist basis for her feminism as well. An example of this can also be found in her essay "Sorties" in the definition of the Empire of the Selfsame (Propre) as that of patriarchal production based not on sexual difference but on sexual inequality. In contrast, she proposes as an economy of the "gift."

"When I speak of the human, it is perhaps also my way of being always traversed by the mystery of sexual differences." (Rootprints, 31).

Cixous' notion of bisexuality, indebted as much to Jacques Derrida as Lacan or Freud, is situated in poststructuralist concepts (employing the deconstruction of binaries) within a feminist analysis of sexual difference. She argues that language that is based on oppositions (male/female, presence/absence, penis/hole) reproduces a patriarchal order which places the feminine as subordinate to the masculine. This is where she is associated with a critique of concepts such as logocentrism, or phallogocentrism. This postructuralist framework sets up a definition of bisexuality which is not about the combination of sexualities (androgyny) but the displacement of the terms "masculinity" and "femininity." Bisexuality goes beyond dualism to imagine a multiple subject. Cixous privileges women in achieving this bisexuality because historically and culturally women are more open or accustomed to accepting different forms of subjectivity. Nonetheless, the writer Jean Genet is one of her favorite examples of "l'écriture féminine" (an assertion that has infuriated many of her critics). As a reader, Cixous is able to imagine herself "bisexually" and to identify with both male and female characters. The resisting reader in Cixous, refuses to be Dido, the victim. She prefers the sexual ambiguity of a character such as Achilles.

Cixous asks women to "think differently" about their histories, not simply in the sense of origins but in terms of language. Drawing on the resources of the imaginary, mining its depths, women must invent another history, one which is outside of narratives of power, inequality and oppression, and which figures itself in our language and on our bodies. Thus, she theorizes women's writing in terms of the physical act of writing, reminding us that writings are created by real bodies.

"What does one set off writing with -- when one is little, when one begins? One set off with a certain number of aptitudes. First, with the fact that one was thrown into language and that one knows how to swim in language. Then with athletic aptitudes. Writing is a physical effort, this is not said often enough" (Rootprints, 40).

In addition, women's writing is also described in terms of childbirth; a metaphor for the vast resources of feminine creativity. By extension, women's writing is described using imagery such as the mother's voice/body/milk.

"It is as if -- what is imperative for me, without my formulating it -- it is as if I were writing on the inside of myself. It is as if the page were really inside. The least outside possible. As close as possible to the body. As if my body enveloped my own paper" (Rootprints, 105).

Nonetheless, Cixous dances around the trap of essentialism as her writing is shot through with a self-awareness of the problems inherent in concepts of presence and absence. While insisting on the bodily site of writing, she still does not fully locate it in a presence that is biological.

"What is most true is poetic" (Rootprints, 1).

In feminist theory, Cixous is associated with French feminist psychoanalytic theorists Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray. What most distinguishes her from these critics is the fact that she is a writer, a poet, a playwright first and foremost. She is theorist via poetic writing. Readers get in trouble with her when we forget that. When we separate an idea from its roots in her words and treat it as a concept divorced from the real material of language, then we have lost her point. Hélène Cixous employs strategies of excess, such as laughter, to undo the logical binaries of western rational thought. Her writings spill over the bounds of theoretical conventions endlessly retuning the self though contradiction, paradox and parody. Critics of Cixous have been most troubled by her assertions when they understand her metaphors too literally. This is most (infamously) seen in her meditation on metaphors of writing which creates a narrative whereby through patriarchal myths the father's sperm replaces the mother's milk as a source of creative nourishment. Yet, on the other hand, she is also criticized for using male writers as examples of "l'écriture féminine." In order to understand the complexity of her writings, one must delve into its deeply contradictory poetics.

"Oxymoronic writing: perhaps, but it's reality that is oxymoronic" (Rootprints, 19).

In this way, she is best understood as a theorist of the avant-garde and of experimental writing. "Laugh of the Medusa" is an inspiring and moving work at its most powerful when understood as a feminist manifesto. She is, as critic Susan Suleiman has pointed out, writing in the tradition of the French Surrealists, such as André Breton. Like the Surrealists, Cixous finds the connection between writing and desire in certain states of being, specifically: dreams, childhood, and intoxication. Her writing style is poetic and even, at times, religious, as if writing is an ecstatic state: a state not only of mind but also body.

"That is our privilege in language. To think that we have at our disposal the biggest thing in the universe, and that it is language. What one can do with language is . . . infinite. What one can do with the smallest sign!... This may be why so many people do not write: because it is terrifying. And conversely, it is what makes certain people write: because it's intoxicating" (Rootprints, 22).

*Susan E. Dunn is Associate Director of the Stanford Humanities Center and holds an Adjunct Faculty appointment in English and Comparative Literature. She teaches and writes on Modernism and the avant-garde, with a special emphasis on Mina Loy.

© 1998, Susan E. Dunn


Top of Page || Home || Stanford University Libraries || Stanford University