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Feminist Body, Feminist Mind: A Comparative Analysis of Hlne Cixous and Virginia Woolf 2

May 15, 2007 Tricia Foster Part Two: Helene Cixous By Tricia Ares The same year Woolf conducted her BBC interview, Hlne Cixous was born in Algeria, the daughter of a French colonist. Cixous not only went to school in France, passing her aggregation in English in 1959, she became an assistant at the Universit de Bordeaux, in 1962. Unlike Woolfs early experience with education, women were no longer excluded from academia. In 1968, Cixous became docteur s letters, receiving full professorship a year later at Universit de Paris VIII at Vincennes. Like Woolf, Cixous advocates effecting social change through language and writing. However, were Woolf questioned patriarchal structure in literature, Cixous advocated the active creation of a matriarchal one. Although Woolf noted that of the four great women novelistsJane Austen, Emily Bront, Charlotte Bront, and George Elliotnot one had a child (Writing 45), Cixous viewed motherhood as a major catalyst for writing. Cixous philosophy is based on a deep connectedness between writing and the body. Motherhood was a uniquely feminine experience and therefore became the primary trait of women. As a student Cixous studied English literature, mythology and German romantics which no doubt influenced her theory of writing the body. Diane Griffin Crowder explains that the body serves as a pretext for the symbolic and that the movement from the concrete body to cosmic metaphors is characteristic of her writing. In Laugh of the Medusa Cixous uses the metaphor white ink to draw a comparison between the nurturing qualities of a mothers breast milk and the feminine act of writing. In women there is always more or less of the mother who makes everything alright, who nourishes, and who stands up against separation (Medusa 2050). Where Woolf critiqued the imperialist nature of patriarchal linguistic structures, Cixous actively identifies with the colonized. She urges women not to identify themselves in relation to men; as a signifier that has always referred back to the opposite signifier (Medusa 2050), but to develop a new identity through the symbolic. Although she acknowledges biological difference between the male and female, she is intellectually savvy and understands that difference has come to mean more than she intends: To say I believe in sexual difference is a statement that, with the decades that have past, has taken on a sort of political value, a sort of authority that is all the more insistent since it is denied by a huge number of people.(Rootprints 52) Like Woolf, Cixous understands the pluralistic nature of language. However, rather than merely deconstructing it, she chooses to create new meanings and new language through metaphor and symbolism that will empower women. This new metaphor and symbolism would liberate women from phallocentrism and would allow the emergence of equality by reestablishing bisexuality. This bisexuality is the exchange found within the difference of male and female, therefore it is a process that takes place within the couple rather than an experience had by an individual. Where Woolfs feminist format was analytic, Cixous

advocates a more synthetic approach. Although she acknowledges difference she denounces difference-opposition. Underlying Cixous philosophy of difference is the idea of cosmological duality. Many feminists criticize Cixous for being an essentialist, for reducing women down to mere essence and for reclaiming the power of the maternal, rhetoric that comes dangerously close to language once used to coerce women into domesticity. That argument looses its potency against the authenticity of her biography, however. Cixous is not only a mother, but an academic. Her theories operate out of the integration of her personal and professional activities. Unlike Woolf, Cixous need not contend with the phantom of the Angle of the House, therefore she is free to embrace the maternal aspects of womanhood without being swallowed up buy them. Much of Cixous theory relies heavily on Freudian and Greek mythology as she attempts to unseat the dominant myths of patriarchal society: She is convinced that womens unconscious is totally different from mens, and that it is their psychosexual specificity that will empower women to overthrow masculinist ideologies and to create new female discourse. (Jones 251) Cixous is selective in her utilization of Freud, however, rejecting the Oedipal drama and the idea of castration as the origin of desire; ideas that once again define women in opposition to men or define women in terms of lacking. In The Laugh of the Medusa, Cixous pities mans confined sexual experience, located only in the penis. It is women, she insists, who experience desire in a holistic manner, throughout the body. This is the basis of Cixous theory of writing the body. Her libido is cosmic, just as her unconscious is word wide. Her writing can only keep going, without ever inscribing or discerning [. . .] she doesnt defend herself against these unknown women whom shes surprised at becoming, but derives pleasure from this gift of alterability. (Medusa 252) In a 1996 interview with Kathleen OGrady, Cixous explains that in her experience, theory does not come before text. It does not proceed or dictate the writing process. It is instead a consequence of her text. In The Laugh of the Medusa, Cixous calls this the selfseeking text. Cixous rhetorical strategies include many traits typically maligned in male discourse: flowing, formless language, irrationality, the unconscious and maternal nurturance. Cixous these strategies manifest themselves in the form of lengthy, redundant sentences, full parenthetical insertions. Other sentences are broken in unconventional was creating the impression of the non-linear pattern of thought. In Farells work on gendered modes of rhetoric, he notes that Woolf also utilized this strategy which recreates the process of thinking (915). In A Room of Ones Own, Farell illustrates how Woolf switches between masculine and feminine modes of rhetoric.Woolf opens with a definitive thesis and implicitly alludes to it towards end. The middle portion is additive and open ended, implicit and merely suggestive of the thesis. This code switching indicates Woolfs constant struggle between innovation and conformity. As a writer, Woolf was intimidated by the social taboos of her day. In her essay on dedicated to Professions of Women, Woolf describes her writing processes as a trance, a trance that could be easily disturbed:

The imagination had dashed itself against something hard. The girl was roused from her dream. She was indeed in a state of the most acute and difficult distress.To speak without figure she had thought of something, something about the body, about the passions which it was unfitting for her as a woman to say . . . She could write no more. (Writing 62). This is the prison of sexual propriety Cixous seeks to destroy. She insists that women need to reclaim a female-centered sexuality in order to write themselves. On both a metaphoric and literal level, Cixous aligns writing with masturbation, an activity that is secret and shameful for most women. Cixous also argues, however, that men have not yet discovered the sexuality in their writing. Unlike Woolf, Cixous believes that both sexes are subject to the oppression found within the structures that enforce gender distinctions. Cixous solution calls for woman to write woman, a phrase that not only indicates that woman should write a connection to the physical being, but that woman should write of the signifier woman. Within the symbolic order of the Phallus woman has a stable meaning defined by the binary opposition of presence/absence, language/silence, male/female. Like Woolf, Cixous realizes language is more fluid, and she calls women to redefine it: Write! and your self-seeking text will know itself better than flesh and blood, rising, insurrectionary dough kneading itself, with sonorous, perfumed ingredients, a lively combination of flying colors, leaves, and rivers plunging into the sea we feed. (Medusa 2052) On the surface, Cixous bisexual approach to feminism appears to be at odds with Woolfs more androgynous variety. However, if we view feminism as a process instead of a static ideology, we can see that transition from Woolf to Cixous is more as an evolution. One way to illustrate this is by comparing these two varieties of feminism to an established quest model. In Maureen Murdocks The Heroines Journey, modern woman voyages forth on her own epic journey. Beginning with separation from the feminine, the heroines journey passes through eight stages, ending with the integration of masculine and feminine. The fifth stage is marked by a sense of betrayal. Identification with the masculine has failed and women experience a sense of spiritual aridity. In this phase there is not a desire to return to the safety of the hearth and home (Murdock 72): an early modern sentiment expressed by many postVictorian feminists. Later stages in Murdocks model include an urgent yearning to reconnect with the feminine and the healing of the mother/daughter spilt. Many contemporary French feminists advocate reconnecting to the body, motherhood, and/or other women. In this phase, women are challenging prevailing myths about ancient symbols of the feminine (Murdock 144). As women challenged their role in society, they redefined their opportunities and established new obligations. As the female relationship with a patriarchal culture changes, feminist aspirations broaden and deepen. Each new perspective heals a different aspect of the oppressed psyche. Woolf spoke with the breadth of an analytical mind. Cixous spoke with the depth of the body.