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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.

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“It feels like a betrayal”: EU citizens react to Jeremy Corbyn’s migration stance

How do Labour-supporting European migrants in the UK feel about their leader wanting to control EU migration?

“This feels a bit different from the man I had campaigned for,” says Eva Blum-Dumontet. “It felt like he was on the side of the group that matters, regardless of whether they were actually going to make him gain voters or not. He was on the side of what seemed right.”

Blum-Dumontet is a 26-year-old EU citizen who has been in the UK for five years. She works as a researcher for a charity and lives in north-east London’s Walthamstow, where she is the local Labour party’s women’s officer.

She joined Labour just before the 2015 general election, and campaigned for Jeremy Corbyn during his leadership bid that year. She spent one and a half months that summer involved in his campaign, either phone banking at its headquarters at the Unite union building, or at campaign events, every other evening.

“When he suddenly rose out of nowhere, that was a really inspiring moment,” she recalls. “They were really keen on involving people who had recently arrived, which was good.”

“Aside from the EU, I share all of his views”

Blum-Dumontet voted for Corbyn in both of Labour’s leadership elections, and she joined Momentum as soon as it was set up following Corbyn winning the first one in 2015. But she left the group two months ago.

She is one of the roughly three million EU citizens living in the UK today whose fate is precarious following the EU referendum result. And she doesn’t feel Corbyn is sticking up for her interests.

Over the weekend, the Labour leader gave an interview that has upset some Labour-supporting EU migrants like her.

Corbyn reiterated his opposition to staying in the single market – a longstanding left-wing stance against free market dominance. He added that his immigration policy “would be a managed thing on the basis of the work required” rather than free movement, and, in condemning agencies exploiting migrant workers, he said:

“What there wouldn’t be is wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions, particularly in the construction industry. You prevent agencies recruiting wholescale workforces like that; you advertise for jobs in the locality first.”

Corbyn also emphasised that Labour would guarantee the rights of EU nationals to stay in Britain – including the right of family reunion – and that there would still be Europeans working here and vice versa. But, for some in his party who hail from Europe, the damage was done.

“I feel like he’s now trying to signal more and more that he’s not on all sides, he’s on the side of people who are just scared of migrants,” says Blum-Dumantet, who will nevertheless stay in the party to try and change the policy. “The idea that he is willing to engage in this whole dog-whistling immigration fear feeling is a bit disturbing.”

She stresses that, “aside from the EU, I share all of his views”, but adds:

“I feel like he’s chosen his socialist utopia – and I don’t mean that as a bad thing; I’m a socialist as well – over the reality of the concrete lives of three million people. For us, this is not about some abstract ideal, it’s about our lives, whether we can get jobs here, whether we can stay here. And for the sake of his ideal, he’s sacrificing that. That does feel like a betrayal.”

***

Other EU migrants who initially supported Corbyn also feel let down. Sabrina Huck, the London representative of Labour’s youth wing Young Labour, moved here from Germany in February 2014.

Having joined the party that year, she voted for Corbyn in the first leadership election, “particularly because of things like being an internationalist, talking about migrant solidarity”.

Huck, 26, who lives in south London and works in public affairs, began to change her mind about him she discovered his Eurosceptic views. “It’s kind of my fault because I didn’t really do the research properly on him, I guess!” she laughs.

“I understand the argument that we have put downward wage pressure on some jobs”

Now, she feels “disappointed” in Corbyn’s comments about “wholesale importation” of workers. “The way he articulates himself – it doesn’t sound like what I wanted to hear from a Labour leader, particularly somebody who’s been a proud internationalist, proud migrant rights campaigner,” she tells me.

“I think the way he was making his point about wages was laying the blame way too much with workers and not with the bosses, basically.”

Huck notes that Corbyn is against the single market because of his socialist view of the EU as a “capitalist club”, rather than concern about borders. But she feels he’s using “the immigration argument” to sound mainstream:

“I feel like he’s using it as an opportunity to further his own ideological goal of leaving the single market by tying that to an argument that goes down well with the Leave-voting public.”

***

However, other Labour-leaning EU migrants I speak to do not feel Corbyn’s genuine motive is to bring immigration down – and are more understanding of his comments.

“I appreciate and understand the argument that we have put downward wage pressure on some – particularly blue collar or poorer paid – jobs, that is the nature of mass migration,” says a 29-year-old Czech who works for the government (so wishes not to be named), and has lived here since 2014. She believes his comments were made to “appeal to the hard left and Ukip types”, and has left the Labour party. But she adds:

“I can understand how communities suffering through a decade of stagnant wage growth and austerity are looking for a scapegoat, easily found in the form of migrants – particularly in a country where minimum wage and labour protections are so weak legislatively, and so poorly enforced.”

She also is sceptical that a “mass deportation” of EU migrants from Britain is likely to happen. “The optics are too bad, at a minimum,” she says. “It would look too much like the 1930s. What would the government do? Put us all on boats back to Europe?”

“I kind of shrugged off those comments and they didn’t bother me massively”

“I think they [Labour] are feeling their way around the issue [of Brexit] and are listening for public sentiment,” says Agnes Pinteaux, a Hungarian-born 48-year-old who moved to Britain in 1998. “But reconciling their hardcore Brexit support, those who just hate immigrants, those who want ‘sovereignty’, and those who want Brexit ditched altogether is going to be impossible.”

“I think the debate about the ethics of free movement of labour is a legitimate one, but it has to be rooted in human rights and dignity,” says Anna Chowrow, a 29-year-old third sector financial manager who moved from Poland to Scotland in 2007, adding:

“I was thrilled when Jeremy Corbyn was first elected Labour leader, and I have admiration for his principled approach. [But] I am in disbelief that these comments – akin to ‘British jobs for British workers’ – were made by him. The dehumanising language of ‘importation’ and ‘destruction’ is beyond disappointing.”

***

Finding EU citizens in Britain who are entirely sympathetic to Corbyn’s comments is difficult. Forthcoming defenders of his stance are hard to come by, suggesting that it’s a minority view among Europeans living in Britain. But there are some who continue to back him.

“I like Jeremy Corbyn’s authenticity. He comes across as genuine and honest, and I agree with most of his ideas. Contrary to the majority of politicians, he’s actually not afraid of coming across as a human being,” says Teresa Ellhotka, 24, who moved to the UK from Austria in 2016 and works in PR.

“His ideas and visions are, in my opinion, still very progressive”

“I kind of shrugged off those comments and they didn’t bother me massively,” she says of Corbyn’s stance on EU migrants. “My mind about Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t changed drastically as his ideas and visions are, in my opinion, still very progressive and I admire that he is dedicated to change but in a human way, and doesn’t suggest fighting fire with fire – as many other politicians, and people, seem to do.”

Ellhotka admits to being “a little surprised, as I did not expect this stance from him at all”, but feels there has been “so much back-and-forth” on the issue that she’s stopped worrying about what politicians say.

“Nobody seems to know what exactly is going to happen anyway.” The only thing, perhaps, that all politicians – and their voters – can agree on.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.