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The Laugh Of The Medusa Cultural Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 2875 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The main reason for choosing the above critics and their respective essays is that within feminist theories, Cixous often comes to be associated with French feminist psychoanalytic theorists like Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray. In addition both critical essays are concerned with writing the body.

By the early eighties, feminists had advanced to a confrontational attack on male supremacy, advocating a complete overthrow of the biased (male) canon of literature. French feminists, like Helene Cixous and Luce Irigary claimed that women should have a greater consciousness of their bodies when writing, a thing which would create a more honest and appropriate style of openness, fragmentation and non-linearity. Both feminist critics seem to have similar agendas mixing radical analysis with Lacanian and Freudian theory in order to deconstruct patriarchal hegemony in the connected real, symbolic and imaginary orders. Hence their unorthodox prose, a reaction against and within a symbolic order complicit in domination.

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Cixous’ first reading of the essay “The Laugh of the Medusa” reveals like an impassioned call to action and a feminist manifesto in which women are urged „to write themselves out of the world men constructed for women. Using the first person, plural and imperative statements, Cixous urges women to put themselves – the unthinkable/unthought – into words (Putnam Tong, 1998). She pledges for the invention of a new insurgent writing that will allow women to deconstruct the discourse that regulates the phallocentric system. Therefore the purpose of the essay under analysis is to break up and destroy a type of men writing which has functioned as an instrument of patriarchal expression and which has become a locus where the repression of women has been for too long perpetuated.

In the same line of thought, Irigary pledges in her essay “This Sex Which Is Not One” (1977) for promoting women’s language which is viewed as far richer than men’s language in that it does not follow only one thread. It is advanced the idea that women’s writing is capable of constantly creating the ‘other meaning’ (Irigary: 204) generating an incomprehensible multiplicity of meanings which are unable to remain immobilized, and therefore impossible to be included into patterns of sexuality and behavior imposed by the dominant patriarchal cultural and social norms.

Writing and language become the main concepts of the essays under analysis and the centers around which all the other notions like feminine/masculine sexuality, identity, ideologies and power revolve. The concept of writing, most often hereafter referred to as ‘écriture feminine’ is perceived as one important transformational tool if one is concerned with changing the social, cultural and political masculine economy. It is impardonable, as Cixous puts it that ‘there has not yet been any writing that inscribes feminity’ (Cixous: 2042). Assuming that language is not a neutral medium it follows that writing is constituted in a discourse of relations social, political, and linguistic, and these relations are characterized in a masculine or feminine „economy”. In this model, patterns of linearity and exclusion (patriarchal “logic”) require a strict hierarchical organization of (sexual) difference in discourse and give a “grossly exaggerated” view of the “sexual opposition” actually inherent to language. Sexual opposition has always been inclusive to writing and is thus incriminated, this being one reason for women never having the possibility ‘to speak’ as writing has always favored men, it “worked for man’s profit to the point of reducing writing… to his laws” (Cixous: 2050).

Irigary’s critical vision is therefore in agreement with Cixous’ ideas in that both point in negative terms to women’s underdeveloped condition which stems from their submission to an oppressive culture. To this oppression, the feminist critics oppose a type of consciousness raising appeal as the main political base which would presumably be able to counteract the so-called ‘amputation’ of power (Irigary: 205). Also a re-vision of the previous historical and cultural activity is needed backed by the critical force of feminist tradition.

Therefore the rupture from the phallocentric tradition is indispensable as a means of escape for women. Like male sexuality, masculine writing, which Cixous usually termed phallogocentric writing, is also ultimately boring” and furthermore “stamped with the official seal of social approval, masculine writing is too weighted down to move or change”. Women’s writing expressed a unique female consciousness, which was more discursive and conjunctive than the male one. Such consciousness was completely different, and had been unfavorably treated. Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex studied the ways in which “legislators, priests, philosophers, writers and scientists have striven to show that the subordinate position of women is willed in heaven and advantageous on earth.” Women had been induced the idea of inferiority and, although men theoretically supported equality, they would object its implementation.

Cixous’ essay in an attempt to define écriture feminine which favors experience over language and a type of non-linear, cyclical flow, actually lists one condition as the main prerequisite for bringing about some mutations in human relations: to destroy the sexual oppositions, as well as the distinction between feminine/masculine writing (Cixous: 2046). Such thread which aims at destroying the artificial power and cultural constructs is also favored by Irigary who militates against the type of thinking based on sexism and disjunctive political discourses: ‘the power of slaves’ (Irigary: 205) would eventually collapse the binary thought inherent to Western tradition and would undo the logocentric ideology and proclaim woman as the source of life, power and energy.

In doing this, one would necessarily destroy the phallocratic ideology which has been responsible for the ‘symbolic annihilation of women’ (Tuchman, 1978). This annihilation serves to confirm that the roles of wife, mother and housewife, etc., are the fate of women in a patriarchal society. Women have been socialized into performing these roles by cultural representations that attempt to make them appear to be the natural prerogative of women.

Furthermore, within the context of mass media, men and women have been represented in conformity with the cultural stereotypes that serve to reproduce traditional sex roles. Thus men are usually shown as being dominant, active, aggressive and authoritative, performing a variety of important and varied roles that often requires professionalism, efficiency, rationality and strength to be carried out successfully. Women by contrast are usually shown as being subordinate, passive, submissive and marginal, performing a limited number of secondary and uninteresting tasks confined to their sexuality, their emotions and their domesticity. The concern being voiced here is that this ‘symbolic annihilation of women’ means that women, their lives and their interests are not being accurately reflected. Therefore, to Cixous, the practice of écriture féminine is part of an ongoing concern with exclusion, with the transformation of subjectivity, and the struggle for identity.

Moreover women in Western thought has represented the Other that can confirm man’s identity as Self, as rational thinking being (Beauvoir, 1949). The concept of Self, she writes, can be produced only in opposition to that of not-self, so that the category of the Other is as primordial as consciousness itself. To constitute himself as Subject, man has constructed woman as Other: she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to him, the Subject.

Cixous’ voice acquires vehement tonalities militating for women’s inscribing in language in a new articulation of feminine drives, libido and sex insinuating into texts as a means of liberation from their repressed sexuality and also as a means to changing the meaning of history: „Let the priests tremble, we’re going to show them our sexts” (Cixous: 2048). Écriture féminine could certainly prove itself extremely prodigious in its infinite and mobile complexity as opposed to masculine writing which is perceived as governed by the phallus, a type of super-egoized machinery which is synonymous with the history of reasoning separating body from the text and ultimately rejecting female-sexed texts. As a result of this policy of exclusion, the true potential of many women goes unfulfilled.

The reason behind this policy of exclusion is the most blamed ‚dogma of castration’ which Cixous finds responsible for the sublation of the phalologocentric, a self-admiring and self-congratulatory tradition which censors the body and implicitly the speech, Freud’s concept of castration anxiety. Irigary suggests the same type of Freudian reading through her mentioning of men’s foraging for a social status and recognition: head/man/phallus/symbol of power. Freud argued that this castration anxiety stems from a fear of female genitalia, perceived by males at a subconscious level as the result of castration – the female body understood subconsciously as “lacking” a phallus. Freud suggested that the mythical story of Medusa, in which people turn to stone when they look at the snake-covered head of the Gorgon, could be read as addressing this psychoanalytic fear.

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It follows that Cixous and Irigary argue, following many theorists, that this masculine view of women as “lacking” has broader social and political implications; our sexuality and the language in which we communicate are inextricably linked. To free one means freedom for the other. To write from one’s body is to flee reality, “to escape hierarchical bonds and thereby come closer to what Cixous calls joissance, which can be defined as a virtually metaphysical fulfilment of desire that goes far beyond [mere] satisfaction… [It is a] fusion of the erotic, the mystical, and the political” (Gilbert: xvii). Cixous’ definition of “jouissance” is that which operates outside of patriarchy, in the realm of the feminine Imaginary and is a crucial concept since it is the source of women’s writing and of breaking the Law of the Father.

„The Laugh of the Medusa” and “This Sex Which Is Not One” also draw on the writings of Ferdinand de Saussure and Jacques Lacan displaying an interest in connecting language, psyche and sexuality. Lacan’s theory develops the notion of the development of the (male) ego from Pre-Oedipal (non-linguistic) Imaginary to Symbolic via the castration complex which is both a sexual and linguistic model. The Imaginary is fashioned as a feminine space (connected to the body, the mother, the breast). The Symbolic is associated with the Law of the Father and is a condition of having acquired language and sexual difference.

The current essays seem to reject the feminine Imaginary which is non-signifying or outside of language. In order to express her opposition, Cixous uses Dora’s case of aphonia which is considered to be the true ‚mistress’ of the Signifier, replacing the phallus as the privileged Signifier from Lacan’s theory. Dora, the misunderstood hysterical woman, like Medusa, could be read as a mythological figure, examples of women who speak their body and threaten patriarchy. They have the capacity to continue to interrogate and ultimately to deconstruct the Law of the Father. Dora’s words coming to us in twisted form rebel against the master/author of her story giving access to immense resources of the unconscious, de-censoring body and speech. „The Laugh of the Medusa”, therefore, revises the Freudian model which defines “woman as lack”, once again alluding to the Law of the Father which is ruled by the fear of castration, and instead celebrates “woman as excess”.

The fear of decapitation or castration should no longer be perceived as a threat at least for women. They always had the capacity to depropriate themselves. Woman is a whole that is made up of parts that in themselves are whole: “She is indefinitely other in herself” (Irigary: 204). Woman is also perceived as extremely complex and subtle in the geography of her pleasure which would be able to generate a connection between women’s bodies and the making of meaning in a continuous play of signifier which would disrupt the symbolic former order of language.

A similar standpoint is made by Cixous who states that this endless body has no end or parts, thus woman libido is ‘cosmic’ (Cixous: 2051). Woman does not perform the regionalization on herself as masculine sexuality does, her Eros is ‘not organized around any one sun’, is not centralized, therefore woman language is not a solid opaque block, but a flow which displays meaning into a multiplicity of signifiers without contours or frontiers; woman is changeable and open, ‘a cosmos tirelessly traversed by Eros’ (Cixous: 2051) which lacks repressive patterning and rejects logocentrism, or phallogocentrism. Thus it is suggested that the feminine writing is a way of signifying that calls into question or disrupts the Law of the Father because it will give access to women native strength and sexuality and un-coax conventions. Along with this rupture there comes a dislocation of language.

In addition, women’s writing is also described in terms of childbirth; a metaphor for the vast resources of feminine creativity. By extension, women’s writing is described using imagery such as the mother’s voice/body/milk: „write in white ink” (Cixous: 2045), therefore a desired return to the pre-Oedipal stage where binaries were absent. Drawing on the resources of the Imaginary, mining its depths, women are urged in both above-mentioned essays to invent another history, one which is outside of narratives of power, inequality and oppression, and which figures itself in our language and on our bodies.

The upheaval of these transformations is made possible through the process of collapsing the binary oppositions in which ‚woman’ has functioned as a negative term, always referring back to its opposite pair which annihilated its energy and causing woman to function within the discourse of man. Therefore a return to Pre-Oedipal stage is suggested, a return to a time before the creation of oppositional binaries prior to the imposition of the categories of male and female. This is the period associated with the mother’s body. In this way, Cixous’ notion of feminine writing can be both feminine and non-essentialist, although this latter assertion is a matter of considerable debate amongst Cixous’ critics. Therefore the oppositions do not limit themselves to the traditional antagony male/female, but extend beyond it to a ‚logic of the One and a logic of heterogenity and multiplicity’ which suggest that it is high time the phallocentric tradition be replaced by an infinite richness of individual subjectivities.

The body entering the text disrupts the masculine economy of superimposed linearity: the feminine is the “overflow” of “luminous torrents”, a margin of “excess” eroticism and free-play not directly attributable to the fixed hierarchies of masculinity. Hierarchical structures are shaken and subjective differences are encouraged so that écriture féminine could emerge as a way of overcoming the limits of Western logocentrism: ‚Almost everything is yet to be written by women about feminity, sexuality, infinite and mobile complexity’ (Cixous: 2049). The new feminine language, which yet needs to be invented, would be able to collapse partitions, classes and code ‚sweeping away’ syntax. At the end of the phallic era, women are envisaged as having two possible alternatives: they either give up any aspiration and become annihilated, or raise against their submissive and passive role to reach their full ‚incandescence’.

Writing becomes therefore the main imperative for women. They are asked to ‘think differently’, to leave behind the psychoanalytic labels and laws of the signifier which would only alter the generative powers of feminine writing: “In one another we will never be lacking” (Cixous: 2056). Therefore writing is the passageway, entrance, exit, and dwelling of the other. For man this non-exclusion is seen as a threat, as intolerable. Feminine writing keeps alive the other, as love is not perceived in economic terms any longer.


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