Helene Cixous and Poststructuralist Feminist Theory

Helene Cixous‘ work has been influenced by Derridean deconstruction. Essays such as The Laugh of the MedusaSorties, Coming to Writing and Other Essays (1991), Readings and The Newly Born Woman (with Catherine Clement, translation in 1986) are her attempts to discover a writing that is fluid, transgressive and beyond binary systems of logic. Cixous has also written fiction and plays.


(I) Analysing Western discourse, Cixous discovers binary oppositions at work everywhere. The binary hierarchy is always a relationship of violence and the feminine term, is always killed. And since logocentrism attributes all origins to the phallus, creativity and life is also assumed to be male. This principle of exclusion is summed up by Cixous thus: “Intention: desire, authority—examine them and you are led right back . . . to the father. It is not possible not to notice that there is no place whatsoever for women in the calculations.”

(2) Patriarchy is maintained by the exchange of women as possessions from father to husbands in order to gain something. The male gains authority, power, virility and pleasure in this economy based on property and exchange. The feminine economy is based not on the proper and exclusion but on the gift. The woman, writes Cixous, does not try to “recover her expenses.” She is able to “depropriate herself without self-interest . . . endless body, without end.” Writing is also structured by a “sexual opposition,” one that favoured the male and reduced writing “to his laws.”

(3) Exclusion and linearity, the characteristics of male writing, created a hierarchy of sexual difference within language and discourse. The exclusion of women from writing is due to the fact that Western history of writing is synonymous with the separation of the body from the text, of the privileging of reasoning over feeling. The need is thus for a woman’s writing, one that will be a flow of “luminous torrents,” excess, never-ending and open, without hierarchy, repressive logic or control.

(4) In her search for the ecriture feminine —a feminine writing practice — Cixous suggests that such a feminine writing can never be “theorised enclosed, coded.” This writing can help escape (what she terms a “sortie”) to an “elsewhere” beyond the oppressive identities of binarisms. In The Laugh of the Medusa, which is one of Cixous’ best read essays, Cixous demonstrates what the ecriture feminine can be. A celebratory and ecstatic tone is visible in this writing which ranges in style from the poetic to the densely theoretical, the use of slang and colloquialisms to the use of high rhetoric. This is what Cixous described as “flying in language and making it fly,” since for centuries we’ve been able to possess anything only by flying;  we’ve lived in flight, stealing away.” Puns, declamations, fragmented syntax and associative word play are very often the staple of Cixous’ writing. Here creative and academic/theoretical discourse cannot be distinguished, for to separate the two would be to put into place a binary opposition. The writing celebrates excesses, flows and creative extravagance, and (like Irigaray) emphasizes the sense of touch. Cixous refers to even male authors like Joyce and Jean Genet as writing this kind of ecriture feminine.

(5) A feminine text is, for Cixous, never anything other than subversive. The emphasis on word-play, on fragmentation and slipperiness, of the economy of rhythm and sound and many-voiced discourse seeks to undermine the unitariness of phallocentric writing that represses fluidity and the flow of desire in favour of order and “system.” The subversiveness of ecriture feminine is the rejection of such a repressive binary logic—of man/woman, theoretical/creative, nature/culture, and inside/outside—and therefore of the reality the logic represents. The stories need to be retold without the oppressive logic of patriarchal society.

(6) Femininity is plenitude, excess. In order to deconstruct the logic of the symbolic order one needs to return to the pre-Oedipal. This would mean a return to the early stage of bisexuality. Bisexuality, for Cixous, is the means to collapse the unitary sexual identity, which “doesn’t annul differences, but stirs them up.” It also, therefore rejects any sexual essentialism, leading to the argument that there is no “pure” male or female sex: each is the Other.

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1 reply

  1. This was a great summary of Cixous’ key ideas throughout her writing! Very useful and easy to understand, thank you so much!

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