Version: v1, Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 23, 2021, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/cixous-helene-1937/v-1
Hélène Cixous, a prolific French author born in Algeria, works between poetry and philosophy. She is part of a larger intellectual community in France that, since the 1960s, has sought a critique of the Western (male) subject, claiming that the ‘metaphysical’ notion of the subject has for three centuries contributed to the repression of nature, women and other cultures by construing human existence in terms of the separation of mind from body, and more generally of concept from metaphor.
Influenced by Nietzsche and Freud, Cixous privileges the artistic and poetic but all her work has philosophical underpinnings, especially those proposed by Derrida. Like his, her thought champions notions of difference, multiplicity and life over identity, univocity and death. She seeks to displace the unified, narcissistic (male) subject, which in her view is on the side of death. Cixous is also importantly influenced by her critical reception of Hegel and Heidegger.
Though she declares herself primarily a poet and a thinker, Cixous has kept close ties with the academy and has undertaken a variety of political activities. After helping to found, in 1968, the experimental University of Paris VIII at Vincennes – an institution both politically controversial and intellectually scintillating – she established there, in 1974, one of France’s few Centres for Women’s Studies. Her seminars have attracted students from around the world and have become, not merely intellectual experiences, but spiritual training grounds. Her struggle for a different approach to the other and for giving a voice to others has led her to espouse many political causes. But politics for Cixous are, like philosophy, never separated from poetry: from the invention of new languages without which, in her words, no social change can come about.
The critique of a subject identified as ‘male’ leads, from Cixous’ earliest work on, to broadly psychoanalytical concerns. Her acute perceptions of others’ psychic ‘vibrations’ has made her an excellent reader and critic, as evidenced in the early essays on Freud, Joyce, Kleist, and Poe collected in Prénoms de personne (1974). But she has also subjected psychoanalysis to intense, deconstructive scrutiny, in which supposed psychoanalytic ‘truths’ are rejected in favour of open-ended, personal narratives. Her avant-garde writings of the late 1960s and early 1970s conceived of a subject that is no longer masterful and autonomous but always in dialogue – or transference – with other textual or living subjects or voices. In this conception, the subject constructs itself, or is actively ‘born’ and ‘reborn’, at the interstices of various texts and history. The philosophical underpinning for this is a critique of Hegel and his brand of dialectical reasoning, as exemplified in the account of the master–slave relation in the Phenomenology of Spirit (see Hegel, G.W.F §5) – a relation which Cixous sees as the basis of much of Western dualistic thinking, including the existential humanism of Sartre and de Beauvoir.
In one of her most widely read books, La Jeune Née (The Newly Born Woman) (1975) co-authored with Catherine Clément, Cixous began a lengthy detour through the cause of women. In this phase of her work, she ‘deconstructively’ criticized symbolic practices that organize culture through hierarchically ordered oppositions such as nature/culture, speech/writing and man/woman (see Deconstruction). These oppositions, themselves produced historically, were to be displaced into mere differences. The simultaneous exclusion in metaphysics of the terms ‘writing’ and ‘woman’, argued for by Derrida, enabled her to coin the productive but controversial expression, ‘feminine writing’ (écriture feminine). This phrase, read in the derivative sense of a woman writing, was used to raise consciousness. But in a Derridean sense, writing is always related to and occurs within an (unconscious) scene. Thus, Cixous argued that the body is never a brute given but is always already encoded, and disarms accusations of essentialism. ‘I’ is more than one, for it is in constant dialogue with others, and any identity is imposed from the outside. Cixous destabilized the fixed sexual identities imposed by a reigning cultural order through her concern with bisexuality.
In Cixous’ enterprise of feminine writing, philosophy intersects with anthropology as well as with psychoanalysis. Bataille’s reading of Mauss’s classic essay, Essai sur le don (The Gift) (1925) prompted her to look at cultures that practise modes of exchange different from those of Western retention and accumulation (such as Kwakiutl tribes, known for their ritual of potlatch). This led her poetically to invent ways of giving and receiving unconditioned by a restricted (male) economy infused with feelings of guilt and debt. She argued that women, because of their marginal status in society, practise the art of the gift more often than men, who are caught in scenarios of castration. ‘Feminine writing’ itself therefore exemplified an art of giving at the level of content and form. Her texts, speaking of generosity, exemplify it through an excess of meaning. In this, ‘feminine’ serves to designate, not an enduring attribute, but a transitional step toward other modes of exchanging where it will be replaced with other adjectives.
In the early 1980s, Cixous’ critique of the Hegelian dialectic of recognition and sublation gave way to other approaches. Her reading of the Brazilian novelist, Clarice Lispector, first published in the review Poétique in 1979, inaugurated a shift toward Heidegger’s philosophy of language. With it came a change in style. Emphasis on surface gave way to depth; earlier ‘explosions of the subject’ were discarded in favour of a return to ‘man’ (l’homme). Heidegger’s notion of poetry, a technē that he favours over instrumental technology of repression, was welcomed. In this stage of her work, Cixous combined her devotion to writing more explicitly with philosophy, as a new brand of ‘writing–thinking’ enabled her to work through personal, cultural and historical issues. Her texts of this period are concerned with philosophical questions such as, who leaves and who arrives where? How does one give and receive? How does one have what one has? Her continued dialogue with Derrida also led her to deal with questions similar to his, such as the promise and the secret.
In her recent work, the emphasis on individual pleasure (jouissance) fades. Her concern with the cause of women, though not abandoned, opens out to others. This is evident in her writings for the theatre. Her plays on Cambodia (1985) and India (1987), on apartheid and the gulag (Manne, 1988) broach issues of history and collective voice in terms of neo-colonialism. All these plays and texts oppose a lofty sphere of combat for truth to a low sphere of political battles and sheer power. In this period Cixous has continued her personal meditations, now focusing on her childhood and her Jewish origins. She is also returning more to the classroom, navigating deftly between national literatures and philosophies, between genres and media.
How such a hybrid writing–thinking fares either as poetry or as philosophy remains to be seen. To date, all of Cixous’ production, whatever its genre, has been critical of metaphysical closure and its repressive conceptual and syntactic structures. Her reading and writing of differences performed through a variety of topics undo totalizing systems based on inclusion, exclusion and negation – or, in psychoanalytic terms, on castration. Yet birth – no longer just anatomical and natural – and sorties, ways out, do not simply lead to an outside. They must, for Cixous, be continually re-enacted in an ongoing writing–thinking at the interstices of personal, cultural and social history.
Conley, Verena Andermatt. Cixous, Hélène (1937–), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DE006-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/cixous-helene-1937/v-1.
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