Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Juliet Jacques on Hélène Cixous: The Medusa gets the last laugh

Cixous argued that rather than undermining the class struggle, militant women would "push it forward" to prevent it "from operating as a form of repression".

This piece is part of the New Statesman's "Rereading the Second Wave" series. Read the other essays here.

 

Written in French in 1975 and published in English in Signs journal the following summer, The Laugh of the Medusa (Le Rire de la Meduse) remains the most influential text by feminist theorist Hélène Cixous. A powerful call for women to engage with their own bodies and document the experiences that came with them, creating a new écriture feminine that would lead to social change, it combined poetic prose and post-modern philosophy with activism.

Born in Algeria in 1937, Cixous was the daughter of a Jewish French colonialist father and Austro-German mother, with German as her first language. She went to school in France and shortly after the uprising of May 1968, co-founded the Université de Paris VIII as a challenge to the traditional academic establishment. Its faculty included such thinkers as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, loosely grouped as ‘post-Structuralist’  due to their shared interests in textual analysis, alternatives to orthodox Marxism, and the assumptions, ideas and power relations inherent in language. Essays such as Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author proposed that works could have many meanings, not always intended by their writers, and after the failed revolutions in France, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere, more theorists examined the domination and suppression that came with ideologies and their supporting texts.

Like many before her, especially the French Surrealists, Cixous drew on Marx and Freud, being interested in political and libidinal challenges to traditional structures of power. A novelist and playwright as well as a critical theorist, she was also influenced by post-war literature by Alain Robbe-GrilletMarguerite DurasNathalie Sarraute and others which experimented with plot, time and description of the material world, often exploring the interior consciousness of their narrators through detailed descriptions of physical objects. Aiming to combine the Surrealist belief in the power of writing, psychoanalysis and radicalism with post-Structuralist and nouveau roman alternatives to conventional political order and literary styles, The Laugh of the Medusa was a manifesto for women to free themselves from the patriarchal stranglehold over intellectual culture.

The Enlightenment discourse, with its claims to objectivity and rationality, had been questioned between the world wars but became untenable after them. Cixous encouraged women not to write in this style, instead engaging more personally with their readers, linking her rebellion against linear, climactic texts that reproduced phallocentric sexuality with her celebration of women’s more numerous erogenous zones. In this, and in advocating the discussion of menstruation, lactation, pregnancy and clitoral pleasure, she avoided the trap of casting conventions set by men as gender-neutral, and suggested a more exploratory alternative to that brand of 1970s feminism which struggled to talk about sex, but came close to suggesting that women reinforce ideas of themselves as intuitive, irrational, and overly concerned with emotional and personal issues. But for Cixous, as for many of her contemporaries, the personal was political, as female bodies and sexualities had been discussed far more by men – not least the Surrealists – than women.

Telling writers that they should not be held back by ‘the imbecilic capitalist machinery’ of the publishing industry, Cixous called for feminism, socialism and queer politics to work together. Rather than undermining the class struggle, militant women would ‘push it forward’ to prevent it ‘from operating as a form of repression’ or a ‘pretext for postponing … the staggering alteration in power relations’. This is a lesson still not learned by political parties which dismiss allegations of sexual misconduct against senior figures as derailments of their programmes, on the socialist left as much as elsewhere.

In its third paragraph, The Laugh of the Medusa displayed an awareness that it formed a starting position, not an endpoint, asserting that ‘since these reflections are taking shape in an area just on the point of being discovered, they necessarily bear the mark of our time’. Certainly, Cixous’ connection of the establishment of women’s writing with the exploration of a metaphorical ‘dark’ Africa feels Orientalist and appropriative, and her heightened focus on the body means that she could be accused of having an essentialist view of womanhood, with the essay only considering differences of race, nation, class, ability, sexual orientation or gender identity in passing, if at all.

But Cixous was aware of the problems of generalisation, asserting that there was no typical womanhood, and Barbara Biesecker has argued that Cixous’ use of the body is a rhetorical strategy, encouraging women to focus on how both content and form of their work might relate to their selves. She walks a difficult line, but Cixous is right to say that just because it is impossible to define a feminine practice of writing does not mean it doesn’t exist. Her focus on the body is of its time – plenty of 1970s artists, male and female, made it central to their work, and perhaps a better approach is to write about the experiences that come with female presentation, building on those of Angela Carter in The Passion of New Eve (1977), a novel about a man forced to live as a woman, or Sandy Stone in The Empire Strikes Back: A Post-Transsexual Manifesto (1987), which encouraged trans authors to explore spaces between traditional ‘male’ and ‘female’.

Femaleness, femininity and womanhood, and their intersections, have been reconsidered and redefined by numerous writers since The Laugh of the Medusa first appeared, but although plenty of women since have acted on Cixous’ text, many still labour under the burden of representation, particularly if they come from minority backgrounds, and further writing that follows her principles would relieve this. Women’s experiences constantly change, and sexism and misogyny reassert themselves in new ways as a response, but the tactics that Cixous offers are endlessly adaptable, and as powerful a call to creative activity as they were forty years ago.

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

Getty
Show Hide image

Commons Confidential: What happened at Tom Watson's birthday party?

Finances, fair and foul – and why Keir Starmer is doing the time warp.

Keir Starmer’s comrades mutter that a London seat is an albatross around the neck of the ambitious shadow Brexit secretary. He has a decent political CV: he was named after Labour’s first MP, Keir Hardie; he has a working-class background; he was the legal champion of the McLibel Two; he had a stint as director of public prosecutions. The knighthood is trickier, which is presumably why he rarely uses the title.

The consensus is that Labour will seek a leader from the north or the Midlands when Islington’s Jeremy Corbyn jumps or is pushed under a bus. Starmer, a highly rated frontbencher, is phlegmatic as he navigates the treacherous Brexit waters. “I keep hoping we wake up and it’s January 2016,” he told a Westminster gathering, “and we can have another run. Don’t we all?” Perhaps not everybody. Labour Remoaners grumble that Corbyn and particularly John McDonnell sound increasingly Brexitastic.

To Tom Watson’s 50th birthday bash at the Rivoli Ballroom in south London, an intact 1950s barrel-vaulted hall generous with the velvet. Ed Balls choreographed the “Gangnam Style” moves, and the Brockley venue hadn’t welcomed so many politicos since Tony Blair’s final Clause IV rally 22 years ago. Corbyn was uninvited, as the boogying deputy leader put the “party” back into the Labour Party. The thirsty guests slurped the free bar, repaying Watson for 30 years of failing to buy a drink.

One of Westminster’s dining rooms was booked for a “Decent Chaps Lunch” by Labour’s Warley warrior, John Spellar. In another room, the Tory peer David Willetts hosted a Christmas reception on behalf of the National Centre for Universities and Business. In mid-January. That’s either very tardy or very, very early.

The Labour Party’s general secretary, Iain McNicol, is a financial maestro, having cleared the £25m debt that the party inherited from the Blair-Brown era. Now I hear that he has squirrelled away a £6m war chest as insurance against Theresa May gambling on an early election. Wisely, the party isn’t relying on Momentum’s fractious footsloggers.

The word in Strangers’ Bar is that the Welsh MP Stephen Kinnock held his own £200-a-head fundraiser in London. Either the financial future of the Aberavon Labour Party is assured, or he fancies a tilt at the top job.

Dry January helped me recall a Labour frontbencher explaining why he never goes into the Commons chamber after a skinful: “I was sitting alongside a colleague clearly refreshed by a liquid lunch. He intervened and made a perfectly sensible point without slurring. Unfortunately, he stood up 20 minutes later and repeated the same point, word for word.”

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era