Politics and Poetics of Hélène Cixous

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Politics and Poetics of Hélène Cixous

What makes reality fascinating is the imaginary catastrophe that hides behind it.
– Raymond Federman, Critifiction

If we do our work well, reality will appear even more unstable, complex and disorderly than it does now. In this sense, perhaps Freud was right when he declared that women are the enemies of civilization.
– Jane Flax, Postmodernism and Gender Relations

L’écriture féminine – The End of Patriarchy?

The notion of writing as liberation is the basis for Hélène Cixous’s concept of l’écriture féminine. The whole concept has political implications, to say the least. Cixous herself comes from the academic/literary feminism of the 70’s, as do some other French writers that became part of the “mandatory”, or “classic” women’s studies reading list: Monique Wittig, Luce Irigaray, Catherine Clémment, Julia Kristeva. Although they are all strong individuals that do not necessarily share the same politics, poetics and theories, one thing they have in common is that they all clearly express the need to put an end to patriarchy once and for all. That is how these writers sharpened their political edge. Their demand was to destroy patriarchy, not to reform it, ‘soften’ or ‘diminish’ it, or, for that matter, replace it with matriarchy (if matriarchy would be patriarchy in reverse, its opposite, where roles would be switched and nothing else). Their idea was to imagine and create (at least in writing) a world with a completely different kind of economy, human relations, language. It is a life long project is to figure out – how? This is a short commentary on and an interpretation (hopefully, not a simplification) of Cixous’s essays: “Sorties”, “The Laugh of the Medusa” and “Coming to Writing”. The complexity of Cixous’s vision itself suggests that the task in front of us – to put an end to patriarchy – is anything but easy.
In Cixous’s writing, we find a word phallocentrism1F, not patriarchy. Phallocentrism is a much wider concept that includes discourses such as philosophy. The critique of phallocentrism does not leave anything out, saying that nothing, not even philosophy, is “above” the social and historical conditions that we live in, but rather everything is either a result or a preconditionn of these conditions. The world of ideas apperas to be both a result and a precondition. In “Sorties”, as in “The Laugh of the Medusa”, Cixous sees the system of phallocentrism as “a machine turning out its Truth”, a machine that functions this way: “The philosophical constructs itself starting with the abasement of woman. Subordination of the feminine to the masculine order which appears to be the condition for the function of the machine.” (Sorties, 289) I find the following view very important as well:
”Phallocentrism is. History has never produced, recorded anything but that. Which does not mean that this form is inevitable or natural. Phallocentrism is the enemy. Of everyone. Men stand to lose by it, differently but as seriously as women. And it is time to transform. To invent the other history”. (Sorties, 291)
Based on the masculine/feminine opposition, phallocentrism produces other hierarchized binary oppositions in order to encompass each and every aspect of being into its system of domination and subordination.2F Here are the binary oppositions that Cixous lists in “Sorties”, and another similar list can be found in Donna Haraway’s “Manifesto for Cyborgs”:


activity/passivity self/other
seed/receptacle mind/body
culture/nature culture/nature
head/heart civilized/primitive
logos/pathos reality/appearance
form/matter whole/part
intelligible/sensitive agent/resource
convex/concave right/wrong
Sun/Moon truth/illusion
day/night total/partial
Father/Mother God/man
man/woman male/female

We are all taught to think in this dialectical sytem. The oppositions seem “natural”. “Naturally”, man is superior to woman, as Father is superior to Mother, mind to body, culture to nature, and so on. Colectivly or individually, we remember nothing but the history of opressions. All the discourses, including literature, carry on the message that this history is our destiny, that it always has been and always will be. “The same thread, or double tress leads us, whether we are reading or speaking, through literature, philosophy, criticsm, centuries of representation, of refelction.” (Sorties, 287) The language itself is a language of hierarchized binary oppositions as long as signifiers come in couples and they too often do. And so do our metaphors, revealing an opressing reality. According to my understanding, what Cixous is saying is that we learn to accept this “reality”, and therefore we can “unlearn” it. As a start, we can make an effort to reject the language of oppression, tell the stories differently and the reality will start to transform too. Cixous definitely made this effort – her experimental essays reject genre classification, subvert phallocentrism and offer liberating ideas about women and the practice of writing. Here I will present the most important points.
The main implication of Cixous’s metaphor of phallocentrism as a machine3F, as I see it, is that those who are subordinated in that “machine” of phallocentrism, as are women, are actually themselves parts of the machine, they keep it going too, and only they are capable of breaking it, not those who are privileged. The breaking starts when we become conscious of the way we are inferiorized and used in the symbolic and the social hierarchy and when we act against the hierarchies themselves. In Cixous’s opinion, a way to act is to write, which women, at the point when Cixous was writing, had not yet done as women.
“I shall speak about women’s writing: about what it will do. Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies – for the same reasons, by the sam law, with the same fatal goal. Woman must put herself into text – as into the world and into history – by her own movement.” (Medusa, 245)
In the quoted opening lines of “The Laugh of the Medusa”, we can read most of Cixous’s central points about l’écriture féminine, the points she repeats in “Coming to Writing” as well.
1) Woman must write her self – even though it includes writing about women, it is not enough to have a woman’s life story as a topic, the most important thing is to constantly invent the self and therefore not to conform to stereotypes, never forgeting that the self is multiple and ultimately indefinable (Cixous sees it as an “ensemble”).
2) Writing should be (and is) close to the body, and the desire. “I, too, overflow; my desires have invented new desires. My body knows of unheard-of songs.” (Medusa, 246). The self and the body are so closely interrelated, that the body cannot be reduced to the biological. As our selves, our bodies are also historically, socially and culturally determined (constructed), and although it seems that we constantly resist that determinaton, the final goal (dream?) is to break free and, again, invent.
3) Cixous sees the main difference between traditional male creativity and l’écriture féminine in the “libidinal economy”. The term itself is inclusive of traditionally two completely separate things: libido and economics. Indeed, what is the connection? First, it is necessary to understand libido as more than the sexual urge, it is rather – “lust for life”. Economics should be understood as something more than the distribution/exchange of material wealth, it is rather an exchange of power and pleasure. A libidinal economy can be calculated so that the return is greater that the gift, or it can be process-oriented, rejoicing in giving, without thinking about the end result – the return; without conuting on the return.
4) New women’s writing could be understood as a metaphor for action, rebellion in the larger liberation movement, and therefore we can have l’écriture féminine in literature, arts, academia, politics, economics etc.

1. Cixous ofter refers to Lacan and Freud, therefore the symbolic “phallus”. Additionally, critics (see: Toril Moi) notice that Cixous ows a lot to Derrida, namely his analysis of binary thinking characteristic for logocentrism (Derrida’s term), and also his concept of differànce. Cixous often invents neologisms, and phallocentrism is one. Another one is the verb that is translated into English as “to hierarchize” and I use this word my text too.
2. I would like to add at the very beginning one thing, very obvious and yet very obscured. At present times, in the feminist critique of the system, we should never fail to address the subordination of the people of color to the white people (racism), as well as the older condition of the subordination of the poor people to the rich, the persistant subordination of the gay/lesbian/queer people to the heterosexuals and the curious subordination of both the young and elderly people to the people “in their prime”. You cannot address one problem and leave another one “for later”. In that respect, no one is “innocent”, not those who critique the system or those who support it. Sexism/male chauvinism, racism/white supremacy, classism/exploitation of the poor, ageism/putting the young down and heterosexism all work together to “maintain the machine”. This could, ideally, be the platform for solidarity among all of the opressed. In practice, it works as a dividing force.
3. Of course, it is a metaphor which is not at all uncommon in human imagination before and after Cixous.

AuthorSnežana Žabić
2018-08-21T17:23:41+00:00 November 1st, 2001|Categories: Reviews, Literature, Blesok no. 23|0 Comments