Cixous, Hélène: General Commentary

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SOURCE: Conley, Verena Andermatt. "Textual Strategies." In Hélène Cixous: Writing the Feminine, pp. 3-13. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

In the following essay, Conley addresses Cixous's theories of feminine discourse and illustrates the author's opinions of the femininity and masculinity of texts and writing.

May 1968: student-worker uprisings, the occupation of the Sorbonne—a stronghold of out-worn pedagogical traditions. Intellectuals cast aside their differences and march in the streets. Their demands: new universities; improved curricula; access to schools for everyone, not just for the privileged few. The political ferment is paralleled by an intellectual ferment with the advent of the human sciences, and readings in philosophy, psychoanalysis, anthropology, linguistics. It is a period of belief in the revolutionary power of language and of hopes for a shattering of millenary oppressive structures. Women want their share. They rally behind the banner of "liberation" in teaching, criticism, writing. Twenty years after the publication of Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex, women in search of a new feminism continue their readings of Freud and Marx, to whom they add others. They read new theoretical works in and about major discourses governing society in an effort to determine how and where women have been excluded and how to question and undo that exclusion.

It is not my intention here to establish a historical determinism, or to link such a historical "event" to such a cultural "event." I simply want to read some of Cixous's writings, published roughly since the May uprisings in 1968, the period of the founding of Vincennes, the founding of the Centre de recherches en études féminines in 1974, and her temporary involvement with the MLF,1 followed by a new departure, away from an official political affiliation. In these fifteen years, a writing of enthusiasm and effusive energy appears almost mensually. It is here, during that time and in those rhythms, that I situate the pages to follow.

Subversion through Poetry

Cixous comes to writing via fiction. A collection of short stories, Le Prénom de dieu, is published in 1967. In 1969, Dedans, a fictional autobiography about her entrapment in an Oedipal scene, is awarded the Prix Médicis and catapults her to the fore of the Parisian literary scene, which she has occupied ever since. She publishes her 900-page doctoral thesis, The Exile of James Joyce, in 1968. Her radicalism spills over the boundaries of a narrowly defined feminism. As an Algerian, Jew, and woman, she finds herself thrice culturally and historically marked and vows to fight on all fronts against any form of oppression. One of the founders of France's furthest left university, Paris-Vincennes (Paris VIII)—now moved for political reasons to the suburb of Saint-Denis—she was been conducting seminars on writing, femininity, and sexuality over the last decade. Though there is a shift in her work from a covert to an overt "feminism," Cixous has always been interested in the inscription of the feminine in text and society.

A longstanding French tradition believes that art is necessarily "to the left," on the side of subversion of existing "bourgeois" values. In the wake of the rise of human sciences, moreover, Cixous asserts that social structures cannot be dissociated from linguistic structures. Language, far from being an atemporal tool, is inextricably linked to history and society. Its structures define and constitute the subject. There are no absolute, immutable values beyond words or the grammar and syntax that order them. To change existing social structures, the linguistic clichés that purvey them and make them appear as transparent, immutable truths must be detected, re-marked, displaced. Hence Cixous's interest in language and its use in artistic practices.

First and foremost a writer, Cixous considers poetry—defined not in opposition to prose but as the subversion of coded, clichéd, ordinary language—necessary to social transformation. For Cixous as well as for many other writers, poetry condenses, renders opaque, carries greater psychic density. It is opposed to discourse that flattens, systematizes.

Most important for her definition of the feminine is the fact that Cixous does not proceed on a purely conceptual level, though she dialogues with concepts of philosophy and psychoanalysis. While her texts alternately emphasize one over the other, Cixous, like other modernists, questions the distinction between theory and practice. Her poetic texts are more a theoretical praxis; her critical and her pedagogical readings at Paris VIII emphasize the theoretical. As a result of her own resistance, little of her theoretical work has been published except for Prénoms de personne, "Sorties" in La Jeune Née, La Venue à l'ecriture, and a number of articles in Poétique, New Literary History, Signs.

As a writer, Cixous engages by definition in a solitary, narcissistic (selfish) activity. Writing keeps the other out, physically, and presupposes leisure time as well as an income. An individualistic activity, writing may nevertheless bring about some changes in others' perceptions of the world. One should not, therefore, confuse levels nor let oneself be indicted by tribunals where one does not belong. A writer is not a lawyer or a guerrilla-woman. In a collective endeavor, each fights in her own way, with her own medium, according to her talents and a freedom of choice dictated to some degree by economics and geography. Cixous's concerns are political, but textually political, and she states the premises (and limits) of her enterprise: to read and write texts in order to displace the operating concepts of femininity in major discourses governing (Western) society. In this she is close to other "feminists"—Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Sarah Kofman—as well as male thinkers: Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, but mainly Jacques Derrida, with whom Cixous from her specifically (féminine) literary border, maintains an ongoing dialogue.

The Loss of the Self

The French attempt at a feminine writing has its equivalent in the United States, where women advocating the expression of a self abound. Writers like Adrienne Rich praise feminine experience in poetry and prose, while critics like Kate Millett expose its exclusion through (male) sexual politics in criticism and fiction. But whereas the former work is based on the importance of an experience lived and felt, on the expression of a self, the latter proposes a loss of subjectivity and ego, a plural self always already other, as well as an erasure of the division between life and text, between before and after. This is not to say that there is no experience; quite the contrary. But there is no experience prior to its enunciation in and through language. This is most important for Cixous, who, following psychoanalysis, believes in speech that enables her to do the economy of her desire, to "traverse" an experience. There is always room for something to be desired, yet this desire is not based on lack. The insistence is on movement, not stasis. Speech is never all rational, scientific. Always becoming, it never becomes the system, the recipe to be applied. Conflating poetry and politics, reading and writing, from what she calls a feminine border, Cixous has been the major proponent of a writing of the feminine or a feminine writing.

Like that of other feminists, Cixous's writing attempts to break away from cultural stereotypes, essentializing concepts and their attributes such as man/woman, masculine/feminine, active/passive. She tries to displace the conceptual opposition in the couple man/woman through the very notion of writing and bring about a new inscription of the feminine. Simone de Beauvoir had written from the vantage point of an existentialist humanist: "On ne naît pas femme, on le devient" (one is not born woman, one becomes woman). Similarly, though less humanistically, Cixous questions the traditional concept "woman" defined by its predicate passive and shows how what appeared as an immutable concept was part of a historical moment, that of logocentric (Western) thinking, privileging the concept, presence, truth, and making possible our idea of paternity, the father/son relation, and the repression of woman.

Philosophy with Psychoanalysis

In her classes at Paris VIII, Cixous insists on what is of importance in all her writings, as in anybody's writings. She does this via a quotation from Derrida's Dissemination:

A text is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the law of its composition and the rules of its game. A text remains, moreover, forever imperceptible. Its laws and its rules are not, however, harbored in the inaccessibility of a secret; it is simply that they can never be booked in the present, into anything that could rigorously be called a perception.

And hence, perpetually and essentially, they run the risk of being definitely lost. Who will ever know of such disappearances?

The dissimulation of the woven texture can in any case take centuries to undo its web: a web that envelops a web, undoing the web for centuries; reconstituting it too as an organism, indefinitely regenerating its own tissue behind the cutting trace, the decision of each reading.2

In Derrida's remark "a text remains imperceptible," one must listen to the etymology of imper-cept-ible, from captio, to capture, to take, the very cept of the concept. The imperceptible of the text is that which cannot be arrested, which remains elusive. There is no hidden secret to be revealed, no truth to be extorted, but there is always that part of the text, the imperceptible, the writerly, the unconscious dimension that escapes the writer, the reader. Even an attempt to reconstitute what an author "really meant" (vouloir dire) comes back to saying only "what I meant when my reading crossed this text, on this day, at a certain hour."

Reading then is writing, in an endless movement of giving and receiving: each reading rein-scribes something of a text; each reading reconstitutes the web it tries to decipher, but by adding another web. One must read in a text not only that which is visible and present but also the non-text of the text, the parentheses, the silences. Silence is needed in order to speak, to write. One phoneme differs from another phoneme, and in speaking, a voice traces, spaces, writes. There is no true beginning; writing is always already there, as Derrida said, adopting and making famous a Heideggerian expression. This critique of the origin, of the paternal capitalization, of the castratory gesture of an à partir de, a "from there, from then on," is essential. It questions authority (of the father). It opens onto differance—not a concept, not even a word, but the movement of something deferred or of something that differs, escaping an assignation, a definition. Differance does not have a punctual simplicity, that of the point, the period, of the sujet un, identical to itself, an author-head-god. What passes from one language to another, from one sex to another, in translation, is always a question of differance. Sexual differance replaces difference; movement supersedes stasis and Hegelian differences recuperable into dialectics. Derrida insists on the differential between masculine and feminine as both, neither one nor the other, where one signifier always defers the other. He undoes paternal authority, in Cixous's words, from a "masculine border," yet does not broach the possibility of a maternal, a matrical. This is where her work "begins."

Such a philosophical reading and writing already questions and displaces the truth of its genre through recourse to psychoanalysis. Yet the real analytical contribution comes from Lacan. Freud, notes Cixous, had recourse to literature, but his readings differ from ours. Freud thought of the text as a product of the author, as a verification of the writer's neuroses, as a process of identification. Freud was interested in the signified. The work of art had a hidden message to be deciphered. Cixous praises Lacan, who was able to show through a double contribution by contemporary linguists, Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson, how a signifier always refers to another signifier in an endless chain. With help from Freud's Interpretation of Dreams and Jakobson's theory of language, Lacan was led to establish the two poles in language: that of condensation, substitution, metaphor, or symptom, and that of concatenation, metonymy, or desire. Combined with Saussure's readings of the anagrams in Latin poems where the name of a general is reinscribed through letters and phonemes, this opened the way to a different analytic reading practice, away from themes and signification. In her classes Cixous stresses what her texts perform, a philosophical and analytical reading, one that combines both dimensions but without attempting to enclose the world in its discourse, as a kind of total analysis. To this must be added a reading on the semantic level, a graphico-phonic reading, which listens to silences, looks at graphic tracings.

Cixous reads and writes at the interstices of Lacan's theory of language—that of the chain of signifiers and not that of the phallus—and Derrida's differance. She focuses on reading and writing from a feminine border, not from the between, which for her is too much of a masculine position. She attempts to displace further Derrida's "masculine" displacement toward what she will come to call a feminine economy.

Until now, the majority of writing has fallen under the phantasm of castration, a masculine phantasm which some women under pressure have interiorized. Writing has always been done in the name of the father, and the question must be asked, how do women write? What are the effects in artistic productions of the inscription of their desire?

For Cixous, the terms "masculine" and "feminine" do not refer to "man" and "woman" in an exclusive way. A clean opposition into man and woman would be nothing but a correct repression of drives imposed by society. Cixous writes (of) sexual differance from her feminine poetic border in dialogue with a certain philosophy and a certain psychoanalysis. She searches poetically for operating concepts of femininity and economies of sexual difference(s) that would not come back to unity and sameness.

Cixous carries out her call to writing, and her production is abundant. Aware of the violence of our gesture, of the coup de dé, the dice throw of our de cision, we de cided to "begin" reading her ongoing questioning of femininity around different strategic moments, where text and biography engender each other, flow into each other:

  1. Cixous's dialectics of excess, an exuberant practice for the limitless as social liberation, based on readings by Georges Bataille, Nietzsche, Hegel; critical articles collected in Prénoms de personne; an article on character in fiction; the writing of the limitless in Le Troisième Corps, Commencements, Neutre ; a questioning of the law (of the father) and a re-traversing of her North African origin in Portrait du soleil; a rewriting of one's name in a neo-Joycean work, Partie. Cixous meditates on the possibility of social changes through writing and, like other new novelists, on the transformation of narrative.
  2. La Jeune Née, La Venue à l'ecriture, LA, Souffles. Cixous calls on women to break their silence, to write themselves, to explore their unconscious. She develops the notion of a "bisexual" writing around Freud's Dora. Angst marks the passage toward a writing to and from the woman.
  3. Vivre l'orange, Illa, With ou l'art de l'innocence, Limonade tout était si infini. Cixous's (belated) discovery of a Brazilian woman writer, Clarice Lispector. From the insistence on a rewriting of the Hegelian desire of recognition, the emphasis shifts toward a Heideggerian problematic of the approach of the other and the calling of the other. Though not advocating separatism, Cixous writes more from and toward the woman. This move is accompanied by a temporary shift from established publishing houses like Grasset and Gallimard to Des Femmes. Cixous discards the notion of bisexual writing and develops her theory of libidinal economies.

The Question of the Canon

Cixous, like other French writers, does not limit her critique of logocentrism to an a priori gender distinction but, on the contrary, reads male authors who exceed dialectics, who are "singers of spending and waste," who transgress limits and inscribe feminine libidinal effects. There are women who write on the masculine side and men who do not repress their femininity. We should note that in France, feminist readings are not equivalent, as much as in the United States, to "opening the canon." Feminist readings all question a certain type of logocentric or phallogocentric discourse that may be used by men and women alike. It has been used predominantly by men because of historical and cultural circumstances. The "canon" as it exists in American English departments does not have its exact equivalent in France, where reading and writing do not necessarily go through university channels and where an academic affiliation is not a prerequisite to intellectual success. Rather, the question of the canon is linked to social classes. There has always been a conflictual coexistence of several literatures and literary histories, Communist, Catholic, and maybe an official academic one. Throughout the century, iconoclasts—dadaists, surrealists, existentialists, and new novelists—have been busy questioning what they referred to as "bourgeois tradition." In a French tradition, letters and politics are seldom separated, and letters are usually thought to be on the side of subversion—at least since the French revolution.

French writers have been wanting to shock the bourgeoisie (to which they also belong) since that class came into power. Recently, Sartre's existential literature has not observed the rules of "le beau," of aestheticism or decorum; adepts of the new novel dehumanized what they called the traditional novel—anthropomorphic, ethnocentric—by "decentering" man and putting him within objects. Cixous's writings are part of a long chain which, from nineteenth-century poets to new novelists, attempts to question the values of bourgeois art. Cixous, like many others, defies the very language on which these values are founded. As an institution, literature reinforces the values of the dominant class. The literary establishment serves a class interest under the guise of moral and aesthetic values. Literary discourse must marginalize itself not through socialist-realist techniques but through the questioning of language. Cixous does not address the question of bringing literature to the masses, presupposing that anyone can read anything at all times and that accusations of hermeticism usually come from educated readers. She does, however, following May 1968, question the connection between literary establishments and pedagogy, and it has to be noted that many of the participants in her seminar are working women and foreign students.

Cixous writes at the interstices of fiction, criticism, psychoanalysis, and philosophy without enclosing herself in any of them. Mocking a certain academic approach to "literature" as a "rite of passage" into culture, a rite through which a ruling social class integrates itself into a symbolic mode, she urges a different literary reading/writing. Writing is not the simple notation on the page; life-and-fiction, life-as-fiction is one of unending texte (or sexte). Cixous does not privilege an economy of death, which she sees inevitably linked to conservatism and unity of self. She emphasizes an affirmation of life, movement, exuberance.

Absolute knowledge represses the senses, effaces signifiers and the body in order to accede to an idealized signified and the spirit; textuality based on originary repression eroticizes writing, questions the sign and its binary structure. In Cixous's writing of the feminine, subversive practices intervene on multiple levels: on a material level (phonemes and graphemes), on a conceptual level (questioning of the concept), and in an ongoing reflection on writing. The real she wants to transform is never a natural real, is never separated from language. Such a writing, we have said, calls for different reading practices. Reading and writing are not separate activities. A text is always guilty, in an Althusserian sense. A text is a rereading, not only because we must reread in order not to consume but also because it has already been read. We approach it with the memory of other texts, and there is no innocent reading as there is no innocent writing.

For Cixous, all writing is necessarily "autobiographical," and in each text there are unconscious dimensions. "Consciously," from Dedans to Limonade tout était si infini, Cixous writes texts of transformation and addresses the problem of writing as a woman, from a writing of the feminine to a feminine writing. In the pages to follow, it will be a question of reading Cixous's texts from the angle of sexual differance, in their movement, in their cheminement. The insistence of recurrent motifs grouped around woman, body, law, writing, is evident. We chose not to group these motifs but to read them in an ongoing (re)writing of the scene of sexual differance. We decided to read the texts around certain strategic moments of writing the feminine, in its play with other feminines, other masculines, and ask in turn questions of textual economy. This leads at times to extensive quoting, a repetition which is not a duplication. The necessity of quoting also derives from the urgency to "present" many of the texts unavailable to the English-speaking reader in an effort to give breadth to Cixous's oeuvre beyond "The Laugh of the Medusa" and La Jeune Née.


  1. MLF is the acronym of the Mouvement de libération des femmes (Women's Liberation Movement). In an interview with Catherine Clément in La Matin (July 16, 1980), Antoinette Fouque, one of its founders, explains the genesis of the movement, which grew out of the political scene of May 1968. Women noticed that political contradiction did not deal with sexual contradiction and grouped themselves around a movement called Psyche et po (Psychoanalysis and Politics). At Paris VIII-Vincennes they studied the only discourse that dealt with sexual difference, psychoanalysis. Reading Freud, Marx, and Lacan, they first had to overcome the resistance from the Sartrian camp. The acronym MLF started to circulate in the early seventies. At the end of 1973, Antoinette Fouque and some other women founded the publishing house Des Femmes. Underlining that their enemy is not man but phallocracy, she states that their aim is "to transform women's condition into one not of emancipation but of independence." Discussing the danger of disintegration the movement faces with the progressive institutionalization of woman (laws on abortion, laws on rape, laws on homosexuality, an office of the condition of woman), she explains how the MLF, after establishing a publishing house and founding a monthly and a weekly paper, felt the necessity to create a legal movement in 1979.
  2. Jacques Derrida, "La Double Séance," in La Dissémination (Paris: Seuil, 1972), 71.


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In feminine speech, as in writing, there never stops reverberating something that, having once passed through us, having imperceptibly and deeply touched us, still has the power to affect us—song, the first music of the voice of love, which every woman keeps alive.

The Voice sings from a time before law, before the Symbolic took one's breath away and reappropriated it into a language under its authority of separation. The Deepest, the oldest, the loveliest Visitation. Within each woman the first, nameless love is singing.

Cixous, Hélène. Excerpt from "Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways Out/Forays." In The Logic of the Gift, p. 165. New York: Routledge, 1997.

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]