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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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Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people

Trump will lead the whitest, most male cabinet in memory – a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective”.

It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

There has been much discussion about the lack of experience of many of Trump’s appointees (think of the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs) and their alleged bigotry (the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, denied a role as a federal judge in the 1980s following claims of racial discrimination, is on course to be confirmed as attorney general). Yet what should equally worry the average American is that Trump has picked people who, in the words of the historian Meg Jacobs, “are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run”. With their new Republican president’s blessing, they want to roll back support for the poorest, most vulnerable members of society and don’t give a damn how much damage they do in the process.

Take Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt describes himself on his LinkedIn page as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and has claimed that the debate over climate change is “far from settled”.

The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s pick for housing and urban development, a department with a $49bn budget that helps low-income families own homes and pay the rent. Carson has no background in housing policy, is an anti-welfare ideologue and ruled himself out of a cabinet job shortly after the election. “Dr Carson feels he has no government experience,” his spokesman said at the time. “He’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, who was tapped to run the department of labour, doesn’t like . . . well . . . labour. He prefers robots, telling Business Insider in March 2016: “They’re always polite . . . They never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

The billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos, nominated to run the department of education, did not attend state school and neither did any of her four children. She has never been a teacher, has no background in education and is a champion of school vouchers and privatisation. To quote the education historian Diane Ravitch: “If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”

The former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated for the role of energy secretary by Trump, promised to abolish the department that he has been asked to run while trying to secure his party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Compare and contrast Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in animal science but failed a chemistry course in college, with his two predecessors under President Obama: Dr Ernest Moniz, the former head of MIT’s physics department, and Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Berkeley. In many ways, Perry, who spent the latter half of 2016 as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, is the ultimate kakistocratic appointment.

“Do Trump’s cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” asked a headline in the Chicago Tribune in December. That’s one rather polite way of putting it. Another would be to note, as the Online Etymology Dictionary does, that kakistocracy comes from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst”, which is a superlative of kakos, or “bad”, which “is related to the general Indo-European word for ‘defecate’”.

Mehdi Hasan has rejoined the New Statesman as a contributing editor and will write a fortnightly column on US politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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