Sunday, May 13, 2018

Short summary: The Laugh of the Medusa / Helene Cixous


In her seminal work "The Laugh of the Medusa" feminist thinker Helene Cixous deals with the topic of feminine writing. Her main point in the article is that women should pursue writing despite attempts to drive them away from the field in the past. She also demonstrates how feminine writing can look like through the text itself.

Cixous holds that women seldom wrote in history since they were denied such a position. If a woman did write it was considered "nonsense". The point in urging women to write is so that they can "write women", women created and written by women and not the by men. Cixous stresses that women should not internalize images projected onto them by men, images that alienated women from a sense of self-worth found in writing. Even when women did write they tended to adopt a male's point of view, and so the history of western writing is deeply phalluscentric .

Cixous argues in "The Laugh of the Medusa" that a woman should write texts and herself in two ways: on a personal and historical level. On the personal level the woman will return to her body to feel comfortable in it. By censoring women's writing the female body was also censored. Writing according to Cixous will give the woman back her assets and pleasures which were bounded and set her free from guilt. On the general-historical level a woman's writing marks her active entrance into history has an agent with initiative.

Cixous also holds that the woman always preserves someone else's potency. The ability a mother has to give love which is not destructive leads her to understand other human beings and especially other women.

As a subject of history the woman has always functioned in several positions. This is why Cixous thinks she has the potential to take apart a unified, hegemonic and organized thinking of history. A woman links all women together, her private history entwined with the national and global one. Cixous wants to break the rules of the game by not defining what feminine writing is, since any theorization of it will fall into the subordination of phalluscentric economy.

Women cannot avoid using men's language according to Cixous, but they should not be driven back by this. If a woman was always the opposite signifier of man, it's time to take a new position within discourse and make the signifier her own. For Cixous any feminine text has to be subversive, the mere act of it. A woman can write from a position that no man can have  



Sherry Ortner / Is Female to Male as Nature to Culture? - Summary, Review and Criticism

Sherry Ortner’s “Is Female to Male as Nature to Culture?” 1972 article stirred up feminist and anthropological discourse of the time by elucidating the observation stated plainly by its title. In “Is Female to Male as Nature to Culture?” Ortner argues that empirical findings show that all human cultures distinguish male from female, while favoring the former. The base for this distinction lies in the universal search for that which distinguished mankind from all other animals, “the superiority of man over beast (Ecclesiastes, 3, 19). This search leads us to separate the body (found with all animals and often very similar to that of humans in terms of bodily functions) and mind (which is perceived as unique to humans). This distinction between body and mind is a base for a binary structure which seperates nature and culture, earthly and spiritual, pure and profane (see also Mary Douglas / Purity and Danger and Julia Kristeva’s “Powers of Horror”) and so forth. The woman was driven to the nature side of this binary equation while the man was assigned to culture. The woman’s ability to bear and nourish children placed her closer to nature (see Simone de Beauvoir / The Second Sex).

 

According to Ortner, because the female was a human in the full sense, it was possible to turn her into a complete “other” - like me but not me. The otherness of the woman was hence institutionalized in various social formations such as family, politics and economy. This was a grand scale project aimed at maintaining Man’s sense of a special place within existence. This project did not stop with men and women and also moved on to races, religions and classes as part of the attempt to portray the “correct” and worthy human.

 

Ortner’s article drew wide scale attention, commentary and controversy and turned into one of the most quoted texts in Feminism. Criticism came in the form of arguments holding that Ortner is working through Western Judeo-Christian concepts which cannot be universalized. Ortner’s “Is Female to Male as Nature to Culture?” was also criticized for undermining the Feminist agenda by essentializing the difference between men and women and weaving it into the fabrics of human culture and even ontology.  




Additional reading:

 

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