Cixous, Hélène (1937–)

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Hélène Cixous was born in Oran, Algeria, on June 5, 1937. Her father was of French-colonial and Jewish descent and her mother was Austro-German. Cixous grew up in Algeria, although she studied in France and began her academic career there. Her first text, Le prénom de Dieu (God's first name), was published in 1967. Since 1968, she has been a professor of English literature at Université de Paris VIIIVincennes, a university considered "revolutionary" for its opposition to traditional institutional structures, which she helped found. Cixous also established the first women's studies center in Europe at Université de Paris VIII.

Cixous has been consistently concerned with the repressive and exclusionary consequences of institutional and systemic forms of power. She has been interested in both individual and collective liberation struggles, such as the liberation of the self from the impact of psychoanalysis, the liberation of women, and Third World struggles. She has published approximately fifty novels, plays, and theoretical essays. Within the United States, the best known of her writings have been "The Laugh of the Medusa" (1976) and The Newly Born Woman (1986). Much of her work has been originally published in French and has not been translated into English.

Cixous is well known for her notion of écriture feminine. In "The Laugh of the Medusa," Cixous maintains that to define a feminine practice of writing, or écriture feminine, is not possible since "it will always surpass the discourse that regulates the phallocentric system" that aims to theorize or enclose it (1976, p. 883). Cixous discusses her wariness of reductive language that would simplify or capture her practice of écriture feminine. Nonetheless, her basic attempt is to free language and to offer new ways of writing and speaking. To do so, she emphasizes the fictional and poetic elements in her writing. In questioning structures of power, Cixous advocates the freeing of self through writing. In turn, freeing the self (or the subject) means rethinking traditionally repressed categories; for example, woman, the body, and writing. Cixous argues against the association of the phallic subject with narcissism and death, which simultaneously equates women with death. In contrast to an emphasis on narcissism and death, Cixous suggests an economy of the giftan economy that is based on giving and receiving. The exchange represented by an economy of the gift would mark a new mode of exchange, for Cixous, and would arise through linguistic changes. In turn, in Cixous's view, it is only through linguistic changes that social changes are possible. Thus, Cixous encourages women to "write themselves"; that is, women should write their bodies and their desires, which have always and only been written and discussed by men.

The transformation of the relationship between self and other is central to Cixous's writing and constitutes its political dimension. While Cixous wrote her dissertation on Irish author James Joyce, her emphasis on life over death separated her from him. Although Cixous recognized Joyce for his emphasis on transforming linguistic structures as a means of changing mental structures, Joyce ultimately maintained that one must lose (kill the other) in order to have (live). Despite Cixous's recognition of loss and death as inevitable for life, her aim is to emphasize life over death (thereby reversing the emphasis of many male authors). One way in which Cixous highlights life, and the economy of the gift, is through a focus on the mother and child relationship; specifically, the mother and daughter relationship. Cixous suggests that the woman/mother gives insofar as she nourishes the child. Woman is both the container and the contained. Woman's relationship to the Other, or to otherness, thus differs from the relationship between man and the Other since things happen to him from the outside. Cixous uses the metaphor of "white ink," or of writing in breast milk, to convey the idea of reuniting with the maternal body. She also argues for a bisexuality that would extend subjectivity beyond dualisms to configure a multiple, rather than a fixed and static, subject.

In addition to Joyce, Cixous's work has been informed by several German and French philosophers, including Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida. In La Venue à l'écriture (1977), a strongly Derridean work, Cixous advances the position that écriture feminine is not necessarily writing by a woman; instead, it is writing likewise practiced by certain male authors (such as Joyce and Jean Genet). Cixous has furthered the work of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, though amidst controversy, by pointing out that women and men enter into the symbolic order (the structure of language) differently. She critiques Lacan's naming of the phallus as the center of the symbolic and suggests that this view marks language as "phallocentric" (the idea that the structure of language is centered by the phallus). In this regard, she both echoes and presses Derrida's insight that the Western privileging of spoken words over written words renders the structure of language as "logocentric." Like Derrida, she interrogates the binary structure of language in the West and exposes its role in maintaining oppressive structures of thought.

Often Cixous is placed alongside Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, and Catherine Clément as being one of the French or continental feminists. However, the use of the phrase, "the French feminists," is problematic here in that it tends to conceal from consideration other feminists who are French. Moreover, the phrase overlooks the more complicated backgrounds of the so-called "French" feminists themselves. Not unlike these other thinkers however, and most notably Irigaray, Cixous has been charged with essentialism. That is, she has been criticized for engaging with an essential, identifiable, and named femininity within the texts she examines. Cixous's response to such accusations, not unlike Irigaray's, would be to claim that she does not intend to engage with a biological category "woman"; rather, she aims to interrogate the cultural position held by such categories within discourse and systems of language.

See also Feminism and Continental Philosophy.


works by hÉlÈne cixous

"The Laugh of the Medusa." Translated by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen. Signs 1 (Summer 1976): 875893.

The Newly Born Woman. With Catherine Clément. Edited by Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

"Coming to Writing" and Other Essays. Edited by Deborah Jenson. Translated by Sarah Cornell, Deborah Jensen, Ann Liddle, and Susan Sellers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Hélène Cixous, Rootprints: Memory and Life Writing. With Mireille Calle-Gruber. New York: Routledge, 1997.

works about hÉlÈne cixous

Conley, Verena Andermatt. Hélène Cixous: Writing the Feminine. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.

Sellers, Susan, ed. The Hélène Cixous Reader. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Wilcox, Helen, ed. The Body and the Text: Hélène Cixous Reading and Teaching. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1991.

Mary K. Bloodsworth-Lugo (2005)