English 456: C20 Criticism and Theory

Brief Remarks about Cixous' "The Laugh of the Medusa" (1975)

Al Drake | Cyber Cafe | Thurs. 6-7 | 714-434-1612

Helene Cixous' 1975 essay "The Laugh of the Medusa" revolves around a connection between writing and female sexuality. The most basic link is probably that in both areas women have long been hemmed in by men. She opposes psychoanalytic notions about female identity and sexuality being based upon lack. (Note 1) Cixous posits instead a female body that is prolific, exploratory, and processively erotic--rooted in Becoming rather than Being. (Note 2) Similarly, women's writing should proceed by a profusion of the signifying process, not by the male economy of restraint, reduction, and mastery. Perhaps the key statement that Cixous makes about writing is that it is "the very possibility of change" (311). As Cixous sees it, writing, like sexuality, has the potential to challenge the status quo in gender and social relations. She is not simply privileging "the female" at the expense of "the male" (see the Norton Intro. on this matter); neither is it necessarily the case that she subscribes to the essentialism others have accused her of positing--in other words, we should be wary of taking her argument as a straightforward appeal to some alleged "female nature." Her rhetoric may sound this way, but perhaps it is more tactical than a final statement about the supposed differences between men and women.

While Cixous argues that women must "write themselves," she also concerns herself with the necessity for women to speak out. For her, the female voice is important because it is not a repressive instrument; for her, writing is to be modeled on the voice. We do not find in Cixous the sharp scission between speech and writing that obtains in classical philosophy. (Note 3) Both speech and writing are linked to the body, and as such both offer a way to recover from the static abstractness assigned to women by men. Writing at its best, says Cixous, is "bisexual" in that it does not simply neuter the potential for change; it proliferates meanings, stirs things up, multiplies effects, participates in the logic of both/and rather than either/or. Cixous' theory of writing affiliates itself to Barthes' "dissemination," which sees signification as processive and prolific rather than as purely referential or rigidly "coherent."

Like Simone de Beauvoir, Cixous argues that because of their history as the oppressed, women have strengths that men do not have. A woman, says Cixous, knows a great deal more than a man about "the economy of the drives and the management of the ego." Likewise, she overturns the phallic emphasis on the purely personal. With Cixous, we must invoke again Hegel's master/servant dialectic at least insofar as it implies that the repressed or oppressed know more about themselves and their situation than the oppressors. (Note 4)

One final thing to discuss is that Cixous' prose style--the title of her essay, as was noted in class, is important in this regard. Her style is playful and overflows with suggestive meanings, while retaining the capacity to deal with a given topic precisely. Cixous is a writer whose prose exudes "becoming" and process over final product. Cixous surely wants to emphasize the potential for effecting individual and social change that she sees in writing. Her essay amounts to an exhortation rather than a specific five-point program for women's advancement. Everyone will recognize the significance of Cixous' title: the Medusa of Greek mythology turns to stone anyone who looks her in the face. Yet here, she is laughing. How are we to take this gesture? Cixous' style exemplifies the situation of the woman who has long been forced to see herself as the Other even to herself but who then looks within and writes. (Note 5) Her writing is the "laugh" of the Medusa (remember Cixous' connection between the voice and writing), beautiful and suggestive to those who understand the source of the writing, and troubling to those who do not understand it.

Notes

Note 1. See Freud's theory of "penis envy"--the female supposedly envies males because their protruding sex organ is something she "doesn't have." Among males, only some of the characters in Woody Allen movies claim to suffer from this condition....

Note 2. Like Judith Butler and some "queer theory" writers, Cixous aptly reappropriates terms that have long been used in a denigrating fashion--notice her witty use of the term "the Dark Continent" (i.e. a colonialist reference to Africa) to refer to female sexuality.

Note 3. Refer to the notes section of my supplementary essay on Edward Said for a quotation from Plato that addresses the classical notion of writing.

Note 4. See my reference to the master/servant relationship in my supplementary essay on de Beauvoir.

Note 5. Here I am paraphrasing the language of former class participant Pilar Pollock, whose excellent comments helped to round off our discussion of Cixous.