Women's Writing Before Woolf: A Social Reference/Helene Cixous

Helene CixousEdit

Helene Cixous is a French feminist theorist. She has published novels, plays, poetry and literary criticism. She is an important figure in post-structural feminist theory and is credited the creation of the notion of écriture feminine, which translates to 'women’s writing'. Her experimental writing style and literary theory has influenced models of education and understandings of women’s writing.[1]

Early LifeEdit

Cixous was born to Jewish parents in Oran, Algeria in 1937. During this time Algeria was part of the French colony. Her mother was Austro-German, a refugee from Osnabruck in Nazi Germany. Her father was French-Algerian and died of tuberculosis when was young . Cixous’ upbringing was unique, she grew up a German and French speaking Jew, enduring the control of French colonisation as well as anti-Semitism. The diasporic context of her early life instilled her with a desire to confront the social injustices and power imbalances that had marginalised her in her early years.[2]

EducationEdit

Cixous went on to study English Literature and passed her agrégation (teaching accreditation) in 1959. She went on to become a teaching assistant in Paris. She published her thesis “The Exile of James Joyce, or the Art of Displacement” in 1969.

Cixous was heavily involved in the students riots of 1968. These riots were prompted by a number of social issues including the current state of higher education, and students challenged the conservative views on education, advocating for a liberal experience.[3] She became involved in founding the experimental University of Paris VIM where she was appointed to a Chair in English Literature. The University of Paris VIM incorporated alternative education methods as a critique to the traditional French academic environment. Her appointment to Chair allowed her to conduct research into the feminine presence in literary history, where she focussed on examining representations of female bodies, sexuality, and physicality in literature.

Research and Literary TheoryEdit

In 1974 Helene Cixous set up the first doctoral program for studies of women’s writing in Europe, Centre de Recherches en Etudes Féminines. In 1975 Cixous published The Laugh of Medusa, her most famous and studied work. In the text, Cixous posited a literary theory which challenged phallocentric ideas of writing reinforced by patriarchal systems, and put forth an argument for female-centric writing practice that could overturn the patriarchal hegemony within literature. She does this by introducing the concept of ecriture feminine. Translated as “women’s writing” ecriture feminine is a concept established by Cixous in the theories of The Laugh of Medusa. Cixous confronts the patriarchal hegemony dominant in literary theory that positions women as “the other" and examines the portrayal of feminine difference in language. She posits, ecriture feminine is a transgressive concept that aims to liberate feminine expression through advocating for a style of writing that subverts a hierarchical binary structure and empowers women to tap into their innate feminine qualities.

Cixous argues that the structuralist language cannot fully express the feminine. Women are typically represented as the negative part of the gender binary, but Cixous believes that women do not fit the binary, as there is no one typical woman. Ecriture féminine is thus writing that situates itself outside of patriarchal logic and discourse, “writing that overflows the binary oppositions of patriarchal logic." Cixous argues for alternative methods and modes women to write themselves into literature through experimental approaches like stream of consciousness. Cixous argued that disruptions in the text, such as gaps, silences, puns and new images contribute the 'ecriture feminine', making women's writing uniquely feminine.

Anglo-American Feminism vs French FeminismEdit

Cixous' literary work and theory epitomises the different approaches between Anglo-American feminism and French feminism, with Cixous' practice falling under the latter.

The differences in Anglo-American feminism compared to French and European feminism stem from their origins. The feminist movement in the US was prompted by the 1960’s civil rights movement, and therefore Anglo-American feminism was generally more concerned with the liberal and socialist ideologies. In contrast, French feminism developed from philosophical tradition, and is more theory oriented. French feminism focuses on advocating the importance of biological separatism and how feminists can form coalitions advocating for change for minority groups.[4]

Cixous critical theory epitomises the difference between French feminism and Anglo-American feminism. This is evident in the strong philosophical roots of her theories, heavily influenced by post-structuralism and psychoanalysis, and her engagement with the ideas of theorists Jacques Derrida and Sigmund Freud.

Derrida first used the term ecriture to denote writing as différance.[5] Cixous takes Derrida’s concept of logocentricism and subverts it to phallogocentricism: rather than a privilging of the logos in the cronstruction of meaning, Cixous refers to a privileging of the masculine perspective in the construction of meaning. Cixous also confronts Freudian notions of women’s sexuality as dangerous and unknown. This ideology means that because women are supposedly non-comprehensible, they are therefore unrepresentable. Cixous wants women to express and write themselves more accurately.

Notable WorksEdit

  • The Laugh of the Medusa (1976) - In her most famous critical essay, Cixous posits the concept of écriture feminine. Cixous utilises Medusa to illustrate her point of the masculine barriers which prevent women from 'having a voice'.[6] Medusa who was killed at the hands of men is metaphoric for men silencing women over the decades. Eventually, Medusa "laughs at the barriers of the masculine discourse because she has discovered her own feminine writing."[7] From January 2014-January 2021, Cixous' critical essay download has increased by an average of 60 percent.
  • The Newly Born Woman (1975) - In this seminal essay, Cixous asserts the belief of a gender hierarchy where the male component always conquers; "This maleness is described in terms of activity, while femaleness in terms of passivity." Cixous further expands the notion of écriture feminine and how women's sexuality has moulded their imagination, creativity and writing. The University of Minnesota Press has states that this text "...is a landmark text of the modern feminist movement."[8]

Further ReadingEdit

  • Cixous, Hélène, 1937, Susan Sellers, and Bloomsbury Academic: Aesthetics and Cultural Theory Archive 1999-2012. The Writing Notebooks of Hélène Cixous. Continuum, New York, 2004.
  • Cixous, Hélène, 1937, Peggy Kamuf 1947, and Cambridge Core. Mother Homer is Dead. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2018.
  • Renshaw, Sal, 1964, Ebook Central - Academic Complete ANZ Edition, and JSTOR eBooks: EBA Title List. The Subject of Love: Hélène Cixous and the Feminine Divine. Manchester University Press, New York;Manchester, UK;, 2009;2013;.
  • Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Hélène Cixous". Encyclopedia Britannica, 1 Jun. 2020, Accessed 20 May 2021.
  • Sellers, S. (Ed.). The Hélène Cixous Reader (1st ed.), 1994. Routledge. Taylor and Francis Online. Doi: https://doi-org.ezproxy.newcastle.edu.au/10.4324/9780203408483

ReferencesEdit

  1. "Helene Cixous: Professor of Writing and Philosophy at The European Graduate School / EGS." European Graduate School, https://egs.edu/biography/helene-cixous/
  2. Hilfrich, C. “Hélène Cixous.” Jewish Women's Archive, https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/cixous-helene
  3. Dulaney, Michael. “May 1968: The Protests That Changed the World.” ABC News, 11 May 2018. ABC News Online, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-05-12/may-1968-protests-changed-the-world-explainer/9752206
  4. Mambrol, N. "Anglo-American and French Feminisms," Literary Theory and Criticism, November 22 2020, Literariness Website, https://literariness.org/2020/11/22/anglo-american-feminisms/
  5. Derrida, J. Différance, In Margins of Philosophy, 1982, University of Chicago Press.
  6. Cixous, H. "The Laugh of the Medusa," Signs, vol. 1, no. 4, 1976, pp. 875–893.  
  7. Biroglu, Esma. "The Summary of The Laugh of the Medusa," Feminism, 2018. Doi: 10.13140/RG.2.2.35234.68807
  8. Minnesota Press, The Newly Born Woman by Helene Cixous and Catherine Clement, English Translation by Betsey Wing, published in English in 1986. https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/the-newly-born-woman