Poststructuralist Feminist Theory

"The Laugh of the Medusa"

Helene Cixous

Sandra Gilbert's "Literary Paternity" looks specifically at literary history to find that an overwhelming number of male authors have attributed their creative capacity directly to their bodily configuration: the pen, as Gilbert documents, is a metaphoric penis, and vice-versa. By linking writing with having a penis, these authors insist that writing, or creativity in general, is a biological act, one that is rooted in the body, and specifically in the male body. Gilbert's article shows how powerfully the idea of biological or physiological determinism operates in Western culture. She argues that women writers as well as men writers have internalized this notion, and in fact she doesn't argue with it; rather, she asks, if writing is a bodily process, then what organ to women use to write with? Her evocation of milk or blood as women's "ink," and natural surfaces, such as leaves or bark, as their "paper," invites us to look for women's writing in places not traditionally associated with writing, yet traditionally associated with notions of femaleness or the feminine.

These are themes very similar to those taken up by the poststructuralist feminist theorists, particularly Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray.

Let's start looking at poststructuralist feminist literary theory (or theories of writing and language) by looking at Alice Jardine's "Gynesis." Published in 1982, this article worked to explain poststructuralist feminist thought to an American audience of academics and feminists who were almost completely unfamiliar with the ideas she was presenting--so Jardine provides a good introduction to poststructuralist ideas in general. Her article starts out by talking about developments in Paris intellectual circles in the late 1960s and early 1970s.. She points out that "french feminism," as she calls it, wasn't like American "women's liberation," in that it wasn't a separatist movement, one favoring women and excluding or vilifying men. Rather, "french feminism" (or what we will call "poststructuralist feminist theory") emerges from women theorists who are direct disciples of male poststructuralist theorists, including Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, and Althusser.

While Anglo-American feminist literary critics in the early 1980s were focusing on creating analyses and critiques of fictional representations of women in men's and women's writings, these poststructuralist feminist theorists were studying how gender was created and/or destabilized within the structure of language itself, following Lacan; they examined how subject positions were gendered as "Man" or "Woman," masculine or feminine, rather than looking at individual gendered beings and how they were portrayed in literature.

Jardine introduces a new concept, which she calls "gynesis," and which she describes as the process of putting woman into discourse. She's again following Lacan here: "woman," as a subject position within the Symbolic, is defined by/as other, as lack, as absence; how then could such a position speak, and what would it say if it could? Jardine posits a "gynema" as a place where fixed meaning starts to break down, become destabilized-- a place in a text where a "rupture" occurs, and where this woman/feminine/otherness disrupts the coherence, the seamlessness, the stability, of the masculine structured text.

It's in this sense that Jardine argues that poststructuralist feminist theory isn't about women at all; rather, it's about "woman" and "man" as subject positions within the structure of language. Feminist theory in France in the early 80s, she points out, isn't interested in women writers or women theorists, but in positing "woman" as a binary opposition to "man," and examining/deconstructing the other binaries that reinforce and uphold that opposition: man/woman, masculine/feminine, presence/absence, rational/irrational, moral/immoral, light/dark, life/death, good/evil, etc. All the things on the right side of the slashes are things that Western culture works to control, to suppress, or to exclude, positing them as disruptive or destructive of the concepts on the left side of the slash. Hence "woman" and the "feminine" are constituted as otherness, as non-being, as alterity, as something outside of consciousness and rationality, and dangerous to those categories.

Jardine then turns to Lacan, and discusses Lacan's idea that woman is "not All"--that the position of "woman" in the Symbolic is founded on Lack or Absence, so that "woman" can't (mis)identify with the Phallus as the center of the Symbolic. "Woman" is a position on the edge of the Symbolic, not firmly governed by the center, and hence there's something in that position that "escapes discourse," is not fully controlled by the center and the system of language.

This something that escapes or evades the structuring rules of the center and the system is what Lacan, and Jardine, call jouissance, which is the French word for orgasm. In this context, the word means a form of pleasure that is beyond language, beyond discourse, something that can't be expressed in words or in the structure of language. More specifically, this form of pleasure that escapes or exceeds the rules and structures held in place by the Phallus is a specifically feminine pleasure, a feminine jouissance, which is unrepresentable in language--which in fact works as a "gynema," something that disrupts language, interrupts representation, disturbs the linear flow of language and narrative. This jouissance can also be considered a type of deconstruction, as it shakes up the fixity and stability of language (where meaning is held in place by the Phallus) and puts signifiers into play, making them slippery and indeterminate.

Jardine equates this feminine jouissance with the female body, which takes us back to where we left off with Sandra Gilbert: is women's writing, or women's language, somehow related to female bodies and female biology? The rest of Jardine's article looks at poststructuralist feminist theories which explore the connection between female bodies and the structure of language; this part will be more comprehensible once we've examined what Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray have to say on this topic.

Hélene Cixous takes up where Lacan left off, in noting that women and men enter into the Symbolic Order, into language as structure, in different ways, or through different doors, and that the subject positions open to either sex within the Symbolic are also different. She understands that Lacan's naming the center of the Symbolic as the Phallus highlights what a patriarchal system language is--or, more specifically, what a phallo(go)centric system it is.

This idea, that the structure of language is centered by the Phallus, produced the word "phallocentric." Derrida's idea that the structure of language relies on spoken words being privileged over written words, produced the word "logocentric" to describe Western culture in general. Cixous and Irigaray combine the two ideas to describe Western cultural systems and structures as "phallogocentric," based on the primacy of certain terms in an array of binary oppositions. Thus a phallogocentric culture is one which is structured by binary oppositions-- male/female, order/chaos, language/silence, presence/absence, speech/writing, light/dark, good/evil, etc.--and in which the first term is valued over the second term; Cixous and Irigaray insist that all valued terms (male, order, language, presence, speech, etc). are aligned with each other, and that all of them together provide the basic structures of Western thought.

Cixous follows Lacan's psychoanalytic paradigm, which argues that a child must separate from its mother's body (the Real) in order to enter into the Symbolic. Because of this, Cixous says, the female body in general becomes unrepresentable in language; it's what can't be spoken or written in the phallogocentric Symbolic order. Cixous here makes a leap from the maternal body to the female body in general; she also leaps from that female body to female sexuality, saying that female sexuality, female sexual pleasure, feminine jouissance, is unrepresentable within the phallogocentric Symbolic order.

To understand how she makes that leap, we have to go back to what Freud says about female sexuality, and the mess he makes of it. In Freud's story of the female Oedipus complex, girls have to make a lot of switches, from clitoris to vagina, from attraction to female bodies to attraction to male bodies, and from active sexuality to passive sexuality, in order to become "normal" adults. Cixous rewrites this, via Lacan, by pointing out that "adulthood," in Lacan's terms, is the same as entering into the Symbolic and taking up a subject position. Thus "adulthood," or becoming a linguistic subject, for Cixous, means having only one kind of sexuality: passive, vaginal, heterosexual, reproductive. And that sexuality, if one follows Freud to his logical extreme, is not about female sexuality per se, but about male sexuality: the woman's pleasure is to come from being passively filled by a penis (remember, Freud defines activity as masculine, and passivity as feminine). So, Cixous concludes, there really isn't any such thing as female sexuality in and of itself in this phallogocentric system--it's always sexuality defined by the presence of a penis, and not by anything intrinsic to the female body or to female sexual pleasure.

If women have to be forced away from their own bodies--first in the person of the mother's body, and then in the person of their unique sexual feelings/pleasures--in order to become subjects in language, Cixous argues, is it possible for a woman to write at all? Is it possible for a woman to write as a woman? Or does entry into the Symbolic, orienting one's language around a center designated as a Phallus, mean that when one writes or speaks, one always does so as a "man"? In other words, if the structure of language itself is phallogocentric, and stable meaning is anchored and guaranteed by the Phallus, then isn't everyone who uses language taking up a position as "male" within this structure which excludes female bodies?

Cixous, and other poststructuralist feminist theorists, are both outraged and intrigued by the possibilities for relations between gender and writing (or language use in general) that Lacan's paradigms open up. That's what Cixous means when she says (p. 309a) that her project has two aims: to break up and destroy, and to foresee and project. She wants to destroy (or perhaps just deconstruct) the phallogocentric system Lacan describes, and to project some new strategies for a new kind of relation between female bodies and language.

Lacan's description of the Symbolic (as illustrated by the pictures on p. 741 of the two doors) places women and men in different positions within the Symbolic in relation to the Phallus; men more easily misperceive themselves as having the Phallus, as being closer to it, whereas women (because they have no penises) are further from that center. Because of that distance from the Phallus, the poststructuralist feminists argue, women are closer to the margins of the Symbolic order; they are not as firmly anchored or fixed in place as men are; they are closer to the Imaginary, to images and fantasies, and further from the idea of absolute fixed and stable meaning than men are.

Because women are less fixed in the Symbolic than men, women-- and their language--are more fluid, more flowing, more unstable than men. It is worth noting here that when Cixous talks about women and woman, sometimes she means it literally, as the physical beings with vaginas and breasts, etc., and sometimes she means it as a linguistic structural position: "woman" is a signifier in the chain of signifiers within the Symbolic, just as "man" is; both have stable meaning ("woman" is the signifier attached to the signified of vagina and breasts (etc.)) because both are locked in place, anchored, by the Phallus as center of the Symbolic order. When Cixous says that woman is more slippery, more fluid, less fixed than man, she means both the literal woman, the person, and the signifier "woman." Here's where the line between biology, or physiology, and subject position gets blurred again. Is Cixous arguing, like Freud, that anatomy is destiny in language?

Cixous' essay is difficult, not only because she's assuming we all know Freud and Lacan's formulations about female sexuality and about the structure of language, but also because she writes on two levels at once: she is always being both metaphoric and literal, referring both to structures and to individuals. When she says that "woman must write herself," "woman must write woman," she means both that women must write themselves, tell their own stories (much as the American feminists say women must tell their own stories) and that "woman" as signifier must have a (new) way to be connected to the signifier "I," to write the signifier of selfhood/subjecthood offered within the Symbolic order.

Cixous also discusses writing on both a metaphoric and literal level. She aligns writing with masturbation, something that for women is supposed to be secret, shameful, or silly, something not quite adult, something that will be renounced in order to achieve adulthood, just like clitoral stimulation has to be renounced in favor of vaginal/reproductive passive adult sexuality. For women to write themselves, Cixous says, they must (re)claim a female-centered sexuality. If men write with their penises, as Gilbert argues, then Cixous says before women can write they have to discover where their pleasure is located. (And don't be too quick to decide that women write with their clitorises. It's not quite that simple).

Cixous also argues that men haven't yet discovered the relation between their sexuality and their writing, as long as they are focused on writing with the penis. "Man must write man," Cixous says, again focusing on "man" as a signifier within the Symbolic, which is no more privileged than "woman" as a signifier. In an important footnote, Cixous explains that men's sexuality, like women's, has been defined and circumscribed by binary oppositions (active/passive, masculine/feminine), and that heterosexual relations have been structured by a sense of otherness and fear created by these absolute binaries. As long as male sexuality is defined in these limited and limiting terms, Cixous says, men will be prisoners of a Symbolic order which alienates them from their bodies in ways similar to (though not identical with) how women are alienated from their bodies and their sexualities. Thus, while Cixous does slam men directly for being patriarchal oppressors, she also identifies the structures which enforce gender distinctions as being oppressive to both sexes.

She also links these oppressive binary structures to other Western cultural practices, particularly those involving racial distinctions. On 310 she follows Freud in calling women the "dark continent," and expands the metaphor by reference to Apartheid, to demonstrate that these same binary systems which structure gender also structure imperialism: women are aligned with darkness, with otherness, with Africa, against men who are aligned with lightness, with selfhood, and with Western civilization. In this paragraph, note that Cixous is referring to women as "they," as if women are non-speakers, non-writers, whom she is observing. "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:"--i.e. entry into the Symbolic order, into language, into having a self and a name, is entry into these structures of binary oppositions.

Cixous argues that most women do write and speak, but that they do so from a "masculine" position; in order to speak, women (or "woman") has assumed she needed a stable, fixed system of meaning, and thus has aligned herself with the Phallus which stabilizes language. There has been little or no "feminine" writing, Cixous says (p. 311). In making this statement, she insists that writing is always "marked," within a Symbolic order that is structured through binary opposites, including "masculine/feminine," in which the feminine is always repressed. Remember here, when Cixous speaks of "feminine," it is both literal and metaphoric--it's something connected to femaleness, to female bodies, and something which is a product of linguistic positioning. So Cixous is arguing both that only women could produce feminine writing, and it must come from their bodies, and that men could occupy a structural position from which they could produce feminine writing.

Cixous coins the phrase "l'ecriture feminine" to discuss this notion of feminine writing (and masculine writing, its phallogocentric counterpart). She sees "l'ecriture feminine" first of all as something possible only in poetry (in the existing genres), and not in realist prose. Novels, she says, are "allies of representationalism"--they are genres (particularly realist fiction) which try to speak in stable language, language with one-to-one fixed meanings of words, language where words seemingly point to things (and not to the structure of language itself). In poetry, however, language is set loose--the chains of signifiers flow more freely, meaning is less fixed; poetry, Cixous says, is thus closer to the unconscious, and thus to what has been repressed (and thus to female bodies/female sexuality). This is one model she uses to describe what "l'ecriture feminine" looks like. (It is worth noting, however, that all the poets and "feminine" writers Cixous mentions specifically are men.)

Such feminine writing will serve as a rupture, or a site of transformation or change; she means "rupture" here in the Derridean sense, a place where the totality of the system breaks down and one can see a system as a system or structure, rather than simply as "the truth." Feminine writing will show the structure of the Symbolic as a structure, not as an inevitable order, and thus allow us to deconstruct that order.

There are two levels on which "l'ecriture feminine" will be transformative, Cixous argues (p. 311-312), and these levels correspond again to her use of the literal and the metaphoric, or the individual and the structural. On one level, the individual woman must write herself, must discover for herself what her body feels like, and how to write about that body in language. Specifically, women must find their own sexuality, one that is rooted solely in their own bodies, and find ways to write about that pleasure, that jouissance. On the second level, when women speak/write their own bodies, the structure of language itself will change; as women become active subjects, not just beings passively acted upon, their position as subject in language will shift. Women who write--if they don't merely reproduce the phallogocentric system of stable ordered meaning which already exists (and which excludes them)--will be creating a new signifying system; this system may have built into it far more play, more fluidity, than the existing rigid phallogocentric symbolic order. "Beware, my friend," Cixous writes toward the end of the essay (p. 319) "of the signifier that would take you back to the authority of a signified!"

The woman who speaks, Cixous says, and who does not reproduce the representational stability of the Symbolic order, will not speak in linear fashion, will not "make sense" in any currently existing form. L'ecriture feminine, like feminine speech, will not be objective/objectifiable; it will erase the divisions between speech and text, between order and chaos, between sense and nonsense. In this way, l'ecriture feminine will be an inherently deconstructive language. Such speech/writing (and remember, this language will erase that slash) will bring users closer to the realm of the Real, back to the mother's body, to the breast, to the sense of union or non-separation. This is why Cixous uses the metaphor of "white ink," of writing in breast milk; she wants to convey that idea of a reunion with the maternal body, an unalienated relation to female bodies in general.

Cixous' descriptions of what "l'ecriture feminine" looks like (or, better, sounds like, since it's not clear that this writing will "look like" anything--since "looking like" is at the heart of the misperception of self in the Mirror Stage which launches people into the Symbolic order) flow into metaphors, which she also means literally. She wants to be careful to talk about writing in new ways, in ways that distinguish l'ecriture feminine from existing forms of speech/writing, and in so doing she is associating feminine writing with existing non-linguistic modes. So, for instance, l'ecriture feminine is milk, it's a song, something with rhythm and pulse, but no words, something connected with bodies and with bodies' beats and movements, but not with representational language.

She uses these metaphors also to be "slippery", arguing that one can't define the practice of "l'ecriture feminine." To define something is to pin it down, to anchor it, to limit it, to put it in its place within a stable system or structure--and Cixous says that l'ecriture feminine is too fluid for that; it will always exceed or escape any definition. It can't be theorized, enclosed, coded, or understood --which doesn't mean, she warns, that it doesn't exist. Rather, it will always be greater than the existing systems for classification and ordering of knowledge in phallogocentric western culture. It can't be defined, but it can be "conceived of,"--another phrase which works on literal and metaphoric levels--by subjects not subjugated to a central authority. Only those on the margins--the outlaws--can "conceive of" feminine language; those outlaws will be women, and anyone else who can resist or be distanced from the structuring central Phallus of the phallogocentric Symbolic order.

In discussing who might exist in the position of outlaw, Cixous brings up (p. 314) the question of bisexuality. Again, she starts from Freud's idea that all humans are fundamentally bisexual, and that the Oedipal trajectory which steers both boys and girls into heterosexuality is an unfortunate requirement of culture. For Cixous, "culture" is always a phallogocentric order; the entry into the Symbolic requires the division between male and female, feminine and masculine, which subordinates and represses the feminine. But by erasing/deconstructing the slash between masculine and feminine, Cixous is not arguing for Freud's old idea of bisexuality. Rather, she wants a new bisexuality, the "other bisexuality," which is the "nonexclusion either of the difference or of one sex"-- a refusal of self/other as a structuring dichotomy. In essence, rather than scotch-taping masculine and feminine together, Cixous' bisexuality would dissolve the distinctions, so that sexuality would be from any body, any site, at any time.

Without the dichotomy of self/other, all other dichotomies would start to fall apart, Cixous says: her other bisexuality would thus become a deconstructive force to erase the slashes in all structuring binary oppositions. When this occurs, the Western cultural representations of female sexuality--the myths associated with womanhood--will also fall apart. Cixous focuses in particular on the myth of the Medusa, the woman with snakes for hair, whose look will turn men into stone, and on the myth of woman as black hole, as abyss. The idea of woman as abyss or hole is pretty easy to understand; in Freudian terms, a woman lacks a penis, and instead has this scary hole in which the penis disappears (and might not come back). Freud reads the Medusa as part of the fear of castration, the woman whose hair is writhing penises; she's scary, not because she's got too few penises, but because she has too many. Cixous says those are the fears that scare men into being complicit in upholding the phallogocentric order: they're scared of losing their one penis when they see women as having either no penis or too many penises. If women could show men their true sexual pleasures, their real bodies--by writing them in non-representational form--Cixous says, men would understand that female bodies, female sexuality, is not about penises (too few or too many) at all. That's why she says we have to show them "our sexts"--another neologism, the combination of sex and texts, the idea of female sexuality as a new form of writing.

Cixous then moves on to talk about the idea of hysterics as prior examples of women who write "sexts," who write their bodies as texts of l'ecriture feminine. Again, she's following Freud, whose earliest works were on hysteria, and focused on female hysterics. The idea of hysteria is that a body produces a symptom, such as the paralysis of a limb, which represents a repressed idea; the body thus "speaks" what the conscious mind cannot say, and the unconscious thoughts are written out by the body itself. L'ecriture feminine has a lot in common with hysterics, as you can see, in the idea of the direct connections between the unconscious and the body as a mode of "writing".

Cixous concludes the essay (starting on p. 318) by offering a critique of the Freudian nuclear family, the mom-dad-child formation, which she sees as generating the ideas of castration (Penisneid) and lack which form the basis for ideas of the feminine in both Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis. She wants to break up these "old circuits" so that the family formations which uphold the phallogocentric Symbolic won't be recreated every time a child is born; she argues that this family system is just as limiting and oppressive to men as to women, and that it needs to be "demater-paternalized." Then she discusses other ways to figure pregnancy, arguing that, like all functions of the female body, pregnancy needs to be written, in "l'ecriture feminine." When pregnancy is written, and the female body figured in language as the source of life, rather than the penis, birth can be figured as something other than as separation, or as lack.

She ends with the idea of formulating desire as a desire for everything, not for something lacking or absent, as in the Lacanian Symbolic; such a new desire would strip the penis of its significance as the signifier of lack or of fulfillment of lack, and would free people to see each other as different beings, each of whom are whole, and who are not complementary. These beings, not defined by difference, absence, or even by gender, would begin to form a new kind of love, a love which she describes on 319-320, in the paragraph beginning "Other love.--"

Last revised October 23, 2001

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