Hello class! Please remember that the Take Home Midterm is due next week, this coming Wednesday March 21st. As discussed in class, please plan accordingly. Because you will have so much time to complete it, all on your own schedule, the Midterm may feel greater than it is and take you more time than if we had planned a 2-3 hour exam in class.
Since we are quickly getting behind in class, I am going to dive into our class discussion. We covered quite a bit.
Week 8: This week, we went over Hélène Cixous‘ “The Laugh of the Medusa” and Luce Irigaray’s “This Sex Which is Not One” and “The Question of the Other.” We read Cixous over two weeks ago, but we were not able to go over her background and writings until this class.
To begin, I will first discuss psychoanalysis. Both Cixous and Irigaray are going to base much for their theories and analysis on ideas of psychoanalysis. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, psychoanalysis “develops a theory of the unconscious that links sexuality and subjectivity ineluctably together. In doing so, it discloses the ways in which our sense of self, and our political loyalties and attachments, are influenced by unconscious drives and ordered by symbolic structures that are beyond the purview of individual agency. ” It is Sigmund Freud who develops psychoanalysis, and it is to attempt to understand the human unconscious. Psychoanalysis works with three elements: dream interpretation, free association, and Freudian slips.
Psychoanalysis attempts to understand what a human being wants versus the social expectations demanded of her or him. It wants to explore what really motivates a person to do what s/he does.
According to Freud, there are three parts that make up the human psyche (mind). The psyche, a Greek word, is suppose to mean something like the soul, spirit, mind, the totality of all these; however, there is no actual English equivalent to such a word. A German word, geist, is more like psyche that soul or mind. The three parts that make up the psyche are the id, ego and super ego. The id is wholly unconscious, it is where our drives, desires, aggression and sexuality lie. The id is unrestrained, and we are actually never aware of what it is about. The ego, is like a moderator, mediator, between the id and super ego. It is our interior strategist, in a sense. It can calculate risks and advantages, and it is partly conscious and partly unconscious. The super ego is our conscious, our self police. This is where our guilt comes from, and it is a type of moral compass. The super ego is also partly conscious and partly unconscious. The id and super ego are more linked to the exterior, and come out with our outer selves.
What Freud discovers is that there is not such thing as a normal human being or normal sexuality. Or, in other words, we are all perverted. Freud believed that every individual is unique; that the unconscious influenced individuals; that the past influences the present and future; and that an individuals is developing throughout their lives.
Freud attempts to understand these stages of development, and one thing it leads to is the Oedipus Complex. Based on an ancient Greek play, Oedipus Rex, it is another example of how the Greeks and their mythology and literature have greatly influenced our current symbolic order. In this complex, as we have discussed before, it attempts to explain a specific stage of development that happens early in the life of the son. This complex also relies on the “traditional” family structure of the father, the mother and the son. Already, it is easy to see that this will be problematic for such feminist writers and theorists as Irigaray and Cixous. In the Oedipus complex, the father, who is the holder of power because he is male (and has a penis), is the phallus. The phallus is the symbol of power. The mother, the woman, demonstrates lack of power, and lack of the phallus. Her body, without the penis, also signifies the symbolic lack. Her only way to power is through the father, or by having the boy child. Through her male child, she has a link to power. The son, the boy, whose first love is the mother, because the mother is who nourishes, begins to notice that power, which the father holds, is important and he desires it. He has an urge to kill the father to replace him, and have the mother. This is all occurring in the unconscious.
Obviously, there are many problems in this theory. Woman here is completely the other, she is lack, she has no power. And the woman strives for power as well, but can only do so through the man. The man becomes the essential, once again.
Psychoanalysis becomes a jumping off point for these French feminist theorists. They are not convinced by the Oedipus Complex. This is very interesting because this was not Freud’s first theory. Freud began his work in psychoanalysis by treating women with hysteria from the upper classes. These women became his first subjects. He began to realize that the women who were demonstrating the worst symptoms were women who were once raped, molested and abused by family members, such as their fathers, or other father figures. When he was about to publish his theory, he was threatened by his father to not do so, because this theory was revealing some scandalous things about important people in the upper classes. Because of this, Freud repressed his original theory, the Seduction Theory, and replaced it with the Oedipus Complex. He went from a theory that began with a girl as the subject with one for the boy. This was much less controversial.
As mentioned in a prior post, Freud also developed the Electra Complex, which is like the Oedipus Complex but with a girl-daughter instead of the boy-son. This theory still is based on women being lack, which is still problematic, and it becomes a perpetuated circumstance within psychoanalysis.
Jacques Lacan, a student of Freud, pushes the theories Freud develops even further. Lacan takes Freud’s ideas on symbols and develops his own theories on the symbolic order in terms of language. In language, there is the signifier and the signified (sound familiar?) The word apple has no obvious or literal association with an actual apple, but the word apple signifies the fruit itself in our language. In language, we are constantly trying to articulate the real, but we never can. Real is not always represented in language. There is a moment when the baby, the child, enters language. This coming to language is when the child enters the symbolic order.
The symbolic order is something constructed by those in power. Once a child enters into language, the child then accepts the rules and dictates of society. According to Lacan, the acceptance of language is connected with the Oedipus complex because the symbolic is related the phallus, the father.
Lacan also develops the mirror stage. The mirror stage (when the baby first sees itself in the mirror and realizes it is a separate “I”,” a subject, not part of the mother) is when the child enters the imaginary order. The imaginary is something also constructed by those in power. Power, in both psychoanalysis and in actual society, is held by men. It is patriarchal in structure.
With all this in mind, let us now return to Cixous. She is aware and directly criticizing this basis for understanding human behavior. Cixous recognized the issue with basing the study of the human pysche in the stories and symbols of male power. This is why she tries to create a female imaginary to exist outside of the male imaginary, also known just as the imaginary. She creates the image of the beautiful laughing Medusa as one example of a symbol of the female imaginary. The Medusa, in the original Greek myth, is a hideous gorgon and men die by simply looking at her. She is killed by Perseus, who does so holding up a mirror to her. She dies by looking at herself. This story is filled with negative associations to women, putting her in a dangerous position. Cixous recaptures this symbol, she makes Medusa beautiful. Medusa becomes a powerful woman. By returning the gaze, by having to look at Medusa, it creates a symbol for women to gaze. The power of the gaze is fundamental, and women are usually the one’s to be gazed at than to gaze.
Cixous points out the issues of phallogocentricism, male-centric reason. She restructures this reasoning and its symbols of the unconscious so that women have positive representations. She does this by writing, through language, and she tells women to write, write, write to become themselves powerful. She suggests poetry as the best form.
She advocates for an écriture féminine. Écriture féminine means feminine writing. Feminine writing is open, non-linear, poetic. It is a different use of language that steps away from male-dominated reason. Remember, reason is the foundation of philosophy. Therefore, philosophy is based upon male-oriented models. Cixous demands we break away from this.
Hélène Cixous was born in Oran, Algeria in 1937. She is a pied noir, which is a term for white settlers in Northern Africa. Cixous was raised in a German-Jewis household. She would complete various degrees in English, receiving her doctorate in English in 1968. Cixous is a very prolific writer, and has written literary criticisms, poems, plays, as well as theory. She is considered one of the more prominent French feminist intellectuals and philosophers. She is currently a professor at Cornell.
To understand Cixous, you must recognize that she does not believe in essentials. There is not any given essence, but instead there are culturally conceived conventions. She advocates for the openness of feminine texts, which she believes goes against psychoanalysis and other repressive patterns. She wants to bring more agency to women. To have agency would mean to become a subject and to control one’s own choices.
Cixous is also a deconstructionist. Deconstructionism is a term in contemporary philosophy and social sciences, denoting a process by which the texts and language of Western philosophy (literature) appear to shift and complicate in meaning when read in light of the assumptions they suggest about and absences they revel within themselves. It destabilizes the power structure. For instance, Jean-Jacques Rousseau once wrote: “Languages are made to be spoken; writing serves only as a supplement to speech.” Jacques Derrida, long time friend of Cixous, also a deconstructionist, took Rousseau’s words and breaks down the statement to find out what it means and to ask if speech is not also a supplement.
For Cixous, speaking, speech, is closer to the body. Speech is privileged because it emerges from the body. Speech and its connection to the body is more important to her than the connection of signifier and signified in language. The signifier is thought of as concrete, but it is actually slippery, fluid, not anchored in the signified.
In “The Laugh of Medusa,” Cixous speaks of the dark continent, the issues and relations to darkness, as is related to women. This metaphor is related to Joseph Conrad‘s novel The Heart of Darkness in which Conrad creates a narrative that creates its own representations of and metaphors on darkness. These involve the literal darkness of skin of the Congolese people, the darkness of unknown in the Congo jungle (the setting of the novel), the violent darkness of the colonialists, and the subconscious darkness within all human beings. Cixous relates this back to women, to underscore how women are depicted and understood, as well as to deconstruct it. Freud once wrote: “We know less about the sexual life of little girls than of boys. But we need not feel ashamed of this distinction; after all, the sexual life of adult women is a ‘dark continent’ for psychology.” Cixous re-articulates this darkness so that it is no longer something negative.
Many of the ideas that Cixous proposes will also be evident in the works of Luce Irigaray. Irigaray, like Cixous, is considered one of the grand French feminists. She is actually Belgian, and was born in Belgium in 1932. She studied in her home country Belgium at the Catholic University of Leuven and later at the University of Paris VIII, Vincennes, where she received a doctorate in linguistics in 1968. From 1956 to 1960, she taught high school in Brussels. She then moved to Paris. In 1961, she received her masters in psychology. She then trained as a psychoanalyst at the École Freudienne de Paris (Freudian School of Paris), founded in 1964 by Jacques Lacan. When Irigaray publishes her second doctoral thesis in philosophy, Speculum de l’autre femme (Speculum of the Other Woman) in 1974, which criticized Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, it resulted in her being fired from her teaching positions and even blacklisted her.
In the Speculum of the Other Woman, she discusses how the theory of phallocentrism cannot accept sexual difference and the existence of different female subjectivity. She begins to move away from thinking of the subject/object dialect that consumes the discussion of woman/man to considering the existence of two separate coexisting subjects. This is something Irigaray highlights within the two texts we read in class.
The female as castrated male, as lack, is actually not the case. The female is multiple, the opposite of lack. She deconstructs the notions that the phallus is the sex and that the female is lack. The female does not lack, but in fact has a lot.
Irigaray argues this within a different economy, one that is more applicable when it comes to articulating sex and sexuality. She writes that human beings, female and male, are two irreducible subjects. She uses a comparison with the vaginal lips of the female to point how this sex is not one, but an irreducible two, that is in constant contact with itself. She later goes on to elaborate how the female genitalia, the sexual organs, are more than two, much more multiple. This, again, is to break away from the dialectical positive/negative that has been applied to discussing the two sexes.
This is all to shift, not to reverse, power structures, to move away from patriarchy. With two subjects that cannot be sublimated, there can be no synthesis (related to the Hegelian dialectic of thesis + antithesis = synthesis), but two irreducible subjects that each hold their own power.
In “The Question of the Other,” this is Irigaray’s take on Simone de Beauvoir’s articulation of the other (that humanity is male) and Platonic notions that pervade philosophical thought. Platonic ideas hold essentials as the goal, the end of the road, that everyone tries to approach by emulating and copying these ideals. Irigaray deconstructs these ideas, to suggest how they are problematic in considering the role and state of women. Once again, we return to the idea of the two irreducible subjects.
Next Week: Next week, as mentioned, the Midterm Exam is due. Remember to articulate your ideas and to illustrate with references to the texts, then to explain your readings of those texts. This should be done with both the definitions and, especially, your essays.
For those of you who turned in your Personal Bibliographical Archives, and received lower grades because you forgot to do the second part of the assignment, remember that this is due next class. Also, extra credit is due next class.