First Things First: The Laugh of Cixous

by rooswijnants

cixousWhat a fine sunny day to write about a fine sunny person. During my research, Hélène Cixous will be of big importance. But, one may ask, who is this woman, and is she the same woman as depicted in the above featured image? The answer to the latter question is; yes, yes she is. And to answer the ‘who?’ will be answered below. I must say that, maybe to others, I might leave out pivotal information regarding her life and works, because can one everever, write enough about Cixous? The answer is: certainly not. But since I am confinedto this considerably small amount of words (because that is how blogs work, right?), I will focus on those aspects of Cixous’ thoughts and ideas that will be of importance in my research. Moreover, since you, my dear reader, are already on the World Wide Web, Wikipedia is available at any time. Now, let us feast on the ideas that Cixous brought into this world

Hélène Cixous (1937), and Algerian born writer, theorist and (whereas she herself would never approve of these labels, and I therefore apologize in advance) feminist, grew up in France. Cixous is considered as one of the founding mothers of the poststructuralist feminist school of thought. One of Cixous’ most influential texts is ‘The Laugh of Medusa’, where she wrote the notorious words that

[w]oman 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 same law, with the same fatal goal. (Cixous 1976: 875).

Cixous has always had a specific preoccupation with femininity and writing (the latter counting for all poststructuralist thinkers); she argued that our ‘everyday symbolic order’ (or: language as we know it) was a marked language; marked by patriarchy and phallic power. For Cixous, this ‘phallocentric order’ was a order that was constructed of irreconcilable divisions between the self and the other, the centre and a periphery; one can only express oneself by contrasting ‘the self’ (whatever that may be) with ‘that whom/which is not the self’. Women cannot express themselves in this phallocentric order, characterized by binaries, since ‘woman’ does not have this illusive ‘phallic’ power. If the phallus is indeed the center of this phallocentric order (see Jacques Lacan’s ‘Signification of the Phallus’ (2006 [1958]: 576), the woman will never be able to represent herself; instead, she is always reduced to the one who is represented by those who are center of this order; men. Cixous therefore called for a radical change in our language, and proposed a new language based not on binary oppositions, but on plurality and multiplicity. A language where the phallic holds no power, where women can move freely since they do not lack anything. Instead, they can free themselves, and write from their sexuality. Cixous coined this new language écriture féminine.

If woman has always functioned “within” the discourse of man, a signifier that has always referred back to the opposite signifier which annihilates its specific energy and diminishes or stifles its very different sounds, it is time for her to dislocate this “within,” to explode it, turn it around, and seize it; to make it hers, containing it, (…) inventing for herself a language to get inside of. (Cixous 1976: 887)

Écriture féminine served as a means to (re)inscribe the female body into text; the female body, and the female sexualilty, has been caged and oppressed within the dark confines of the phallocentric order for too long, and it is therefore time to reclaim it; reclaim it through the means that was initially the hotspot of patriarchy and oppression; reclaim it through the symbolic order.

This connection between language and the body may come as an absurd connection, but for Cixous it is a rather obvious connection. Cixous writes that

[c]ensor the body (…) you censor breath and speech at the same time. (Cixous 1976: 880)

In the phallocentric order, the woman, as already stated earlier, is always represented; her body is oppressed, silenced, and spoken for (and not spoken by). Censor the body, censor breath, censor speech. If women want to reclaim their voices, they must do so by starting with their body; write the body into text, the voice is allowed to speak and the text simultaneously becomes the body; the body through which this voice speaks.

How, one may ask by now, does this relate to your research, Ms. Wijnants? Well, that is precisly what I will figure out during this research. For one, Cixous’ connection between the body and the text is a connection that allows us to trace notions of agency; in inscribing the feminine body, this body becomes an ‘agential body’ (obviously, I will go more in depth about ‘agency’ and its supposed meaning later in my research): écriture féminine is a means to reclaim the body and the voice, supposedly resulting in control and ‘ownership’ of this body and voice.

Cixous’ ideas, and the overall poststructuralist ‘wave’ that was flowing through France, is one that is tightly connected to the Algerian war of independence. Jane Hiddleston, in her Poststructuralism and Postcoloniality (2010) argues that, in paraphrasing Robert Young, that

The inauguration of of deconstruction [and consequently poststructuralism] was indeed not may 68 but the Algerian war of independence. (Hiddleston 2010: 1)

Cixous’ specific position as being an Algerian Jew in France was of big influence in her theories. Therefore, the Algerian war of independence did not only leave its traces in the colonial history and collective memory of France and Algeria, but also in the Francophone literary- and cultural theories. Her specific relation to the French language is an ambiguous one; French is the ‘imposed’ language through the French colonial school system (in Algeria), but French as a global language of emancipation and modernity.

In other words; Cixous particular philisophical stance and theories are indebted in her ‘Algerianness’ and how she perceived of the (processes of) language, identity and identification. How can one identify with a language that is drenched with oppression, colonial horrors and rape (both the French as the overall phallocentric order), and simultaneously express oneself in this language? By inhabiting this language, and appropriating it: by moving through it, exploding it in, shifting it, turning around. By making it a feminine language.

But more on Cixous later, it is now time to catch the last sunbeams and let the vitamin D inscribe our bodies.