The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Monday, 22 June 2009

Modern Literary Theory: Helene Cixous

This was a course book that I hadn't got around to reading so I thought it would be a good source for the 2 essays that I need to read for #4 of the 2009 Mini Challenges.
I have read articles by the French writer and theorist Helene Cixous before and found her theories about feminism in literature interesting, so the first one that I have picked is by her.
Helene Cixous, 'Sorties', New French Feminisms, Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivoron, eds (1975), pp. 366-71
In summary, Cixous talks about how the definition of femininity, especially feminine sexuality, has been determined by language. Her theory is that 'thought has always worked by opposition', eg high/low, big/small, light/dark, male/female. All theory is based upon the same system and the hierarchization in male dominated patriarchal society has assigned the male role as being active, and so on the same system females must be assumed to be passive. 'In philosophy, woman is always on the side of passivity.' The father has a will, desire and authority, but if woman is opposite, what does she have? According to Cixous she can be passive or nothing.
All literary theory refers back to 'man and his torment, his desire to be the origin'. Therefore, for everything to fit together, women must be subordinate.
Cixous then brings in her thoughts about Freud, and his representations of women as 'an imperfect man'. In terms of sexuality, Freud anatomically places man in a position of power, with women in a position of 'defectiveness'. Libido can only be male. Cixous calls this obsession with male and female exterior anatomy as a 'voyeur's theory'. There ends up being no place for female desire in all of this because the system cites that she is the opposite of man.
Cixous argues that men and women lose out by such theory, but we are currently living through a 'transitional period' and that 'men and women are caught up in a network of millenial cultural determinations of a complexity that is practically unanalyzable.'
The nature of theory is that we can agree or disagree with them. I found a lot to interest me in her work, and certainly to look out for in language patterns of writing, by male and females. I am sure that there are those who believe that such theories are feminist twaddle, but there are many, both male and female, who believe that language has a lot of power, especially in patriarchal societies, however reformed.


Nadia said...

Interesting post! Reminds me of when I first read Sorties back in grad school and how much we debated over the role of language within feminism. Great read!

Leah said...

Thanks Nadia, definately gives you things to think about!

Anonymous said...

I've often wanted to read Cixous, and this essay sounds very interesting. I'll have to have a look for more of her work.

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