Cixous


As a white woman, Cixous draws upon the oppression placed upon her black “sisters” (to steal a term from popular culture), expressing the double negative placed upon black women because they are both black and women. On page 887 of “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Cixous speaks of women “from afar, from always,” returning to reclaim and write their selves. She describes the condemnation of these women by men (interpreted as the patriarchy in general) as well as “the sex cops [who] bar their threatening return” as follows:

You can incarcerate them, slow them down, get away with the old Apartheid routine, but for a time only. [Sidenote: I was reminded of Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” while reading this sentence.] As soon as they begin to speak, at the same time as they’re taught their name, they can be taught that their territory is black: because you are Africa, you are black.

This essentializing viewpoint describes the process of colonization, segregation (and the “old Apartheid routine”) as well as other ways in which “whiteness” has powered over – in fact has written over – “blackness” and other racial and ethnic differences. She continues to give the reasoning behind the atrocities:

[These women are taught] Your continent is dark. Dark is dangerous. You can’t see anything in the dark, you’re afraid. Don’t move, you might fall. Most of all, don’t go into the forest. And so we have internalized this horror of the dark.

After pointing out the stereotypes surrounding this racialized other (and this is my favorite part), Cixous decides to vocally reject these notions of fear, repression, and ignorance. She does not avoid the dark forest, unafraid of the difference constructed by our cultures. She speaks up against other-ization by attempting to embody the voice of the oppressed, which, as a(n angry) woman, she can do with some ease:

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.

We’re stormy, and that which is ours breaks loose from us without our fearing any deliberation. Our glances, our smiles, are spent; laughs exude from our mouths; our blood flows and we extend ourselves without ever reaching an end; we never hold back our thoughts, our signs, our writing; and we’re not afraid of lacking.

…From now on, who, if we say so, can say no to us? We’ve come back from always.

As I read this, I think about bell hooks and her notions of talking back and speaking out, of spreading black female voices and infiltrating a world of writing which is still male- and white-centered. There is also an obvious Freudian allusion in the passage where she states, “we’re not afraid of lacking,” of being seen as inferior, of being ostracized for who “we” are. The intersection of race and gender (as well as sexuality because each is inseparable, especially when looking at Cixous’s texts) is present here and is being deconstructed to produce a new and transgressing viewpoint of blackness as beautiful and as something to be embraced rather than avoided. Cixous is stating that there is not a lack in oppression; there is no inherent fault or flaw in the individuals or in the race itself, but rather in the institution causing the fear of darkness.

I just downloaded an article from the Electronic Journal of Sociology (citation on bibliography page – Fox, Nicholas) on the concept of intertextuality, defined as: “the process whereby one text plays upon other texts, the ways in which texts refer endlessly to further elements within the realm of cultural production” (1). This immediately reminded me of Gottlieb subtly drawing upon Cixous and her theories of writing one’s self… it’s always nice to be able to attach a label to whatever you’re writing about. The second connection I made was also from the first page, this time in the from of a definition of postmodern analyses, which “challenge the ontological status of modernist claims to knowledgeability concerning the world” (1). To me, this sounded extremely similar to the definition of queer theory as quoted in my last post. When applied to writing and intertextuality, these analyses (whether defined as queer or postmodern) view texts as  “fabrications and as such are subject to deconstructive re-writing and re-reading” (2). Claims made in social science texts, for instance, should be seen not as essential, capital-T Truths but rather as “claims” of truth, or narrative work that can be contested. Compare this to a portion of the Sandahl definition of queering: “appropriating a representation for one’s own purposes, forcing it to signify differently” and you can see commonalities surrounding critical analysis and reclamation of concepts, constructions, texts, and supposed Truths.

Fox also looks at Cixous and her concept of ecriture feminine, or the act of writing woman, linking it to textuality by using “one text as de-constructive of another, itself in turn dissolved or reread” (6). One particular passage also reminded me of my sexuality and gender classes, contrasting Cixous’s philosophy concerning feminism with that of a Marxist and/or modernist viewpoint:

Unlike philosophies of resistance… which have grounded their logic of resistance in identity (membership of a class or gender), a concern with the intertext is a celebration of difference and the possibility that things can be otherwise. Such a politics of difference goes far beyond feminism and suggests the potential for resisting discourse, knowledge and power through intertextual practices. In the context of writing social research, it replaces objectivity with indeterminacy and the search for control and closure with generosity and openness.

Applying these notions to Daphne Gottlieb and her poetry comes in as less concrete and more conceptual (which itself is postmodern or queer in nature) in comparison to academic and social science writing. Poetry in Gottlieb’s sense is definitely a form of narrative work and/or claim of “truth” from a personal sense. She details her personal-is-political esque stories using language and formatting that is quite unique to her work yet also reminiscent of her influences, or her intertextuality. For example, drawing upon Cixous’s theories is a form of tracing the genealogy of her work even though the wording and very medium is different between the two women’s writing. Gottlieb engages in the process of writing her self, writing “woman,” and therefore celebrates the concept of difference over sameness, subjectivity over objectiveness. I enjoyed taking this article, which was clearly written with academia in mind, and using it as theory upon which to build my analysis of poetry in this project.

Sexuality  as a separate yet connected element of the personal self is a theme that spans both Cixous and Gottlieb’s work and is particularly important to analyze in terms of language because it is often less apparent than others (or at least less acknowledged, due to historical/social taboos). Helene Cixous places a heavy emphasis on this concept in her theories of the self, stating that writing is:

[An] act which will not only ‘realize’ the decensored relation of woman to her sexuality, to her womanly being, giving her access to her native strength; it will give her back her goods, her pleasures, her organs, her immense bodily territories which have been kept under seal… (880).

Cixous continues to cite sexuality and the honest recording thereof as a means to reject the hushed and limited nature of societal views on female sexual practices (as well as societal views on sexuality in general), a way to tear women away from the “superegoized structure” of androcentric society (880).

Likewise, in Telling Sexual Stories, Ken Plummer states, “Sexual stories live in [the] flow of power. The power to tell a story, or indeed to not tell a story, under the conditions of one’s own choosing is part of the political process” (26). The weight of telling sexual stories, especially ones dealing with concepts such as victimization, being queer, or having “explicit” sexual desires – all of which are often seen as even deeper taboos – can be a source of empowerment for both the writer/speaker and her audience (27).

Daphne Gottlieb’s work deals with all three of these more “risqué” topics, and her telling of her sexual stories and sexual self is simultaneously uninhibited and carefully calculated. By writing about past sexual abuse experiences as well as current forms of reclaiming sexuality using fluidity in her lexicon and imagery, the poems embody the power that sexual writing can hold according to both Cixous and Plummer.

Just wanted to insert this little footnote from my original paper proposal:

The word “woman” is used in Cixous’s The Laugh of the Medusa (1976) inclusively to mean both woman-as-woman and woman-as-person. She states that man must write him self as well: “it’s up to him to say where his masculinity and femininity are at,” which in turn will cause them to “[open] their eyes and see themselves clearly” (877).  Cixous sees men as victims of the oppressive patriarchal state just as women are: “the way man has of getting out of himself and into her whom he takes not for the other but for his own, deprives him, he knows, of his own bodily territory” (877). However, because language and speech are explained and seen to be “governed by the phallus,” the concept of femininity remains the default in her essay as well as my own (881).

Also: In class, we discussed the gendering of pronouns and using gender-neutral language, and while I can recognize that using woman-as-person (with the disclaimer about men) excludes individuals who do not subscribe to or fit into the neat little boy/girl gender boxes that we have socially constructed, I do appreciate her early use of the female pronoun as opposed to the typical male default.

I found out about Helene Cixous in my feminist theory class during the fall semester of 2007. Diana Tigerlily introduced us to Cixous during a section on – appropriately enough – French feminism. Cixous resonated with me rather intensely and I remember finishing “The Laugh of the Medusa” feeling immensely satisfied with what I’d absorbed. I went to class the next week ready to discuss and was more talkative in that class than I had been in any other, which was a personal accomplishment in itself.

The phrase “Write your self. Your body must be heard” has echoed in my brain since the very beginning, and it has become one of my mantras in both my writing and general navigating of the world. She continues:

To write. An act which will not only “realize” the decensored relation of woman to her sexuality, to her womanly being, giving  her access to her native strength; it will give her back her goods, her pleasures, her organs, her immense bodily territories which have been kept under seal (880).

Although Cixous does not discourage men from writing and expressing their selves, her focus on women’s writing is obvious from a feminist perspective; as many of our foremothers have pointed out, the very language (both written and spoken) in which we participate is birthed from patriarchal and racist mindsets or  “governed by the phallus” (881). This reclamation of linguistics and text is as important – if not more so – than the reclamation of our bodies, and Cixous argues that the two are inseparable. Aside from the literal bodily connection between the mind and the pen (the keyboard, the typewriter), writing provides a distinct voice to each person, a voice that had not been – and, indeed is still not always – given to women of any color or creed.

I have used “write your self” as a tagline inside notebooks that I have designed and either given to friends or listed for sale because I also find the act of writing to be tied so closely to the body. In my own writing, whether poetry or blog entries (which I feel are becoming an essential form of expression) I try to let my voice be heard through specific words (chosen of fabricated), punctuation, use of asides, etc. because it gives me a sense of purpose and selfhood.

Indeed, Cixous talks about the individuality of each woman that can be found through her body and through the expression of her essential self (emphasis original):

What strikes me is the infinite richness of [women’s] individual constitutions: you can’t talk about a female sexuality, uniform, homogeneous, classifiable into codes – any more than you can talk about one unconscious resembling another. Women’s imaginary is inexhaustible, like music, painting, writing: their stream of phantasms is incredible (876).

Cixous tells of imaginary worlds within each woman, a place where she has had ultimate rule all of her life but often chooses not to express. She urges us to hone in on this world and exclaim “I, too, overflow; my desires have invented new desires, my body knows unheard-of songs” (876). These lines fill me with so much hope and encouragement that I tear up each time I read them. To think that it is possible to completely let go of societal pressures, guilt complexes placed upon our sex (referred to by Cixous on page 878 as an “antinarcissism” or “the infamous logic of antilove”) is just awe-inspiring.