Cixous's The Laugh of the Medusa Against Showalter's Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness

Cixous's The Laugh of the Medusa Against Showalter's Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness
In learning about feminist theory this semester, one idea that arose from class discussions was the notion of essentialism. Essentialism, a theory that stresses essence as opposed to existence, was discussed at length and while some classmates found it to reductionary and cliché, it is a question that I assume must be asked of ecriture feminine writing. Does ecriture feminine writing essentialize women? If it does, is essentializing women problematic?
One critique of ecriture feminine by the feminist critique and gynocricitics is that the former essentializes women. In my own understanding of feminist theory, I have related to ecriture feminine in my writing and believe that women should write from their bodies, should write as women, but there were some interesting points raised in class by classmates who do not argue with ecirture feminine?s position. This paper will look at the issue surround essentialism; whether a woman writing from her body essentializes women. Ironically, although I find the writing of ecriture feminine writers to be engaging, stimulating and meaningful, I have chosen to write this paper in a linear, structured and straightforward manner. As an exegesis piece of work, I still believe that the notions of writing from female experience and acknowledging female difference are possible.

I will look at an example of Ecriture Feminine writing, that of French feminist Helene Cixous?s ?The Laugh of the Medusa?. This work will then be critiqued against Elaine Showalter?s essay ?Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness?, in which she discusses Cixous? work, as a way to flesh out the limitations (if any) of Ecriture Feminine. While both essays are different, both work to reinforce feminist theory, despite the difference in method and practice.

As a way to understand Ecriture Feminine, I look to Phallogocentrism. Phallogocentrism is the notion that the penis (phallus) is the (symbolic) creative center of creating language and literature. Because men see their penis as the center of their creative abilities, it can be argued that men ?write through their bodies?. As Cixous suggests, women should also write through their bodies, through the female body, receive their creative power from their bodies.

Showalter postulates that Ecriture Feminine is largely about women?s repression but also suggests that it has (slowly) become gynocrentric, focusing more on women?s writing (Showalter 2000: 312-313). She says, ?All are struggling to find a terminology that can rescue the feminine from its stereotypical associations with inferiority? (Showalter 2000: 313).

Within feminist theory, there are many schools of critical thought. In looking at Cixous and Showalter, two of these schools of thought come into direct conflict, that of ecriture feminine and the feminist critique. Before outlining each position, a discussion of the theories is needed.

The main argument in the feminist critique is that women live within a patriarchal society in which they (women) are inferior. The feminist critique argues that women are equal to men and should therefore be treated equally. Followers of the feminist critique believe that in order for women to gain equality, they must change society; it is societal constraints that make women unequal. Changing society will change the patriarchal ideology that exists.

Ecriture feminine, on the other hand, takes its theoretical framework from Freud and Lacan, who saw that men and women were essentially different, from biology to creativity. Ecriture feminine accepts this inherent and essential difference-women are different from men. In regards to creativity, ecriture feminine links female / male creativity to female / male orgasm. Women and men have orgasms differently. A man?s orgasm is linear, it follows a lineal path with the focus centered on the end. Male orgasm is about the release at its end. A woman?s orgasm, however, is cyclical as opposed to lineal, female orgasm take a longer time to occur and are repetitive; there is no urgency to end, but rather a slow and exploratory process. Ecriture feminine compares women and men?s writing to their orgasms; men?s writing are lineal, that are directed to the ?explosion? and release of creative tension at the end of the work, while women?s writing are more cyclical and explorative of multiple ideas. Ecriture feminine argues that phallocentrism validates male creativity and sees it as superior to female creativity. Ecirture suggests that neither are superior, but they are both equally vaild. In their difference they are both vaild. In this way ecriture feminine accepts the psychoanalytic differences in women and men, but demands that female creativity be validated and women write from their bodies, write as women.

These two oppositional positions cause much argument within feminist theory. Feminist critique sees ecriture feminine, in admitting that women are essentially different, as reinforcing the political oppression of women. That is, the feminist critique argues that ecirture feminine allows patriarchy to maintain that women are inferior and lacking. Ecriture feminine responds to this claim by arguing that the feminist critique is being co-opted. Nevertheless, each position has strong points within it. What needs to be addressed is the question raised by the feminist critique against ecriture feminine that the latter essentializes women in theoretical position.

The relationship between Cixous and Showalter is an interesting one, although not an obvious one at first glance. In looking at Helene Cixous?s essay, ?The Laugh of the Medusa?, Cixous writes,

It is well known that the number of women writers?

has always been ridiculously small. This is a useless

and deceptive fact unless from their species of female

writers we do not first deduct the immense majority

whose workmanship is in no way different from male

writing, and which either obscures women or reproduces

the classic representations of women (as sensitive-

intutive-dreamy, etc (Cixous

her main argument is that women are virtually absent, literally and figuratively speaking, from literary history and, more importantly perhaps, from literary texts. Cixous argues that women must find a way to bring women out of the ?dark? and proposes that women use their writing in order to bring about social change (which, ironically, is one of the main emphasis of the feminist critique).

Cixous, as I have said, believes that ?women must write herself. Women must write herself and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies? (Cixous 334). Cixous wants women to write from the experience of women. She acknowledges and accepts the differences between women and men and she argues that it is because of this difference that women need to learn to write in a different way. Women are not men; they therefore should not write like men. Cixous does not view women as inferior to or ?lacking? something to men, and she wants to turn the idea of lack into the idea of excess; she wants to challenge the binary opposition that is evident in phallogocentric constructions of language.

Cixous challenges the binary opposition that phallogocentrism creates because of its simplistic and oppressive nature. Within the Freudian paradigm (a space where phallogocentrism flourishes) female sexuality is viewed and defined in relation to or in opposition to male sexuality. Cixous argues that female sexuality always refers back to male sexuality in a patriarchal culture,

Writing has been run by a libidinal and cultural-hence political, typically masculine-economy; that this is a locus where the repression of women has been perpetuated, over and over, more or less consciously, and in a manner that?s frightening since it?s often hidden or adorned with the mystifying charms of fiction; that this locus has grossly exaggerated all the signs of sexual opposition (and not sexual difference), where women has never her turn to speak-this being all the more serious and unpardonable in that writing is the very possibility of change, the space that can serve as a spring board for subversive thought, the precursory movement of a transformation of social and cultural structures. (Cixous 337)

Female sexuality is therefore dependent on male sexuality for its existence. Cixous argues that through writing women have the potential to gain power, but it is also a space where women are repressed and silenced. Cixous?s argument for a female language and a feminine writing is an obvious one; because writing has been a male dominated practice and perpetuates male ideology and female repression, the only way that women can find voice and power is in redefining the language and the ideology that surrounds it.

As a (radical) post structuralist feminist who embraces, to a certain extent, psychoanalytical thought, Cixous mixes her conception of female language and writing with Lacanian and Freudian theory in order to deconstruct the patriarchal hegemony in relation to female sexuality. Ecriture feminine readings of Freud suggest that female desire is always a desire for a penis to fill the lack or ?gap? in women. This causes the difference in desire for women and men. As I mentioned earlier, Cixous wants to look at women?s ?lack? or ?gap? as a place of excess, in much the same way as other French feminists, such as Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva, do. In contrast to the masculine construction of language which is both privileged and considered more ?rational? and ?linear? in our current (patriarchal) discourse and culture, Cixous sees female language and the expression of that language in women?s writing as more fluid and expansive; it is filled with ebb and flow with multiple beginnings and taking multiple directions in its process. Women?s language and writing, according to Cixous, is, in essence, an intense exploration and continual search of knowledge through experience that is steeped in female sexuality.

Elaine Showalter, by contrast, is of the gynocriticism school, and while she does see feminist criticism as ?an act of resistance theory? (Showalter 2000: 309) and quotes Fetterley who says that feminist criticism has been characterized by ?resistance to codification and a refusal to have its parameter prematurely set? (Fetterley as qt. by Showalter 2000: 309), the resistance is one that Showalter does not believes can be most adequately done through creating a new female language and writing.


I would argue, though, that Showalter would say that feminist criticism reasserts the authority of experience, just not in the way that Cixous or other ecriture feminine theorists would like it to be reasserted.

Showalter discusses how the tension between European (ecriture feminine) feminist theory and the United States (feminist critique) feminist theory exists, ?the question of how feminist criticism should define itself with relation to the new critical theories and theorists has occasioned sharp debate in Europe and the United States? (Showalter 2000: 309).

Showalter discusses the ?two distinct modes? of feminist criticism, the ideological (feminist critique) and the theoretical (gynocriticism, and I will argue ecriture feminine). The feminist critique, the ideological mode of feminist criticism, is concerned with woman as ?reader, and it offers readings of the texts which consider the images and stereotypes of woman in literature, the omissions and misconceptions about women in criticism, and women-as-sign in semiotic systems? (Showalter 2000:309). Showalter sees the feminist critique as one of interpretation that any text will accommodate (Showalter 2000: 310). The second mode of feminist criticism, the theorectical for Showalter is looking at woman as ?writer, and its subjects are the history, styles, themes, genres, and structures of writing? (Showalter 2000: 311). This is what Showalter calls ?gynocriticism?; looking at ?women?s writings as primary subjects? which ?redefines the nature of the theoretical problem before us? (Showalter 2000: 312-13). One theoretical question that Showalter asks in her essay is ?What is the difference of women?s writing?? (Showalter 2000: 313)

This is a very interesting question for Showalter to ask. In asking what is the difference, she is implying that there is a difference to begin with, whether conscious of it or not. In this way, then, we can begin to look at her as moving away from the feminist critique, which suggests that men and women are essentially the same, and for the feminist critique, that is what makes them equal.

Showalter agrees Sandra Gilbert that feminist criticism ?wants to decode and demystify all the disguised questions and answers that have always shadowed the connections between textuality and sexuality, genre and gender, psychosexual identity and cultural authority? (Gilbert as qt by Showalter 2000: 310). However, Showalter is concerned with the way that the feminist critique continually challenges male critical theory, ?the feminist obsession with correcting, modifying, supplementing, revising, humanizing, or even attacking male critical theory keeps us dependent upon it and retards our progress in solving our own theoretical problems? (Showalter 2000: 310). In saying this, Showalter is acknowledging that feminist criticism must look towards a new way of understanding female writing and literature. While Showalter is clearly a gynocritic, I argue that she can be seen to support the movement to an ecriture feminine way of looking at women?s writing and language. My reasoning behind this argument is that I believe the reason why Showalter objects to ecriture feminine writing is because she believes that ecriture feminine essentializes women and that sees essentialism to be harmful to feminist theory. Because I do not think that ecirture feminine essentializing women (in a problematic way), I argue that Showalter can reinforce the notions behind ecriture feminine.

Cixous's The Laugh of the Medusa Against Showalter's Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness 8.4 of 10 on the basis of 1598 Review.