In The Laugh of the Medusa, Hélène Cixous speaks of female oppression from the phallogocentric structures inherent in language, in all cultural discourse, all signs, in all texts. Women are silenced, backed into a corner, told their nature, their sex is an abyss, a mysterious dark room, an unexplored, yet claimed country.
First, Derrida says that Western Philosophy is concerned with the elusive and irresistible search for Truth, or Logos. This is logocentricism, and its structures are organized through a series of binary oppositions: Man/Woman; Light/Dark; Dry/Wet. (More simply: A/-A.) The first term is desirable, the other shunned.
The shunned figures, the marginalized figures, the veils of philosophical discourse, the shadows, the enigmas, and figurative language itself, are, one can say, a resistance to Logos, the One, the Light, Truth, or whatever name it goes under these days.
Derrida also argues that speech itself can never manifest Truth directly. That speech, like writing, is structured through difference between the signifier and the sign.
“No actual language could achieve the simultaneity of signifier and signified, an idealization that is a consequence of the way in which Platonism and Christianity characterized the divine.” (Thank you Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, a different kind of bible, if you will.)
Structuralism analyzes the importance of binary oppositions, and now, through Derrida, Cixous, and other post-structuralists, the obscured ideas, the veils, the dark, infinite spaces, are also being analyzed, and then transformed.
Cixous talks of Écriture Féminine, writing through the body, writing in white ink, in Mother’s milk. She says that Écriture Féminine is characterized by the repressed mouths, both of them, woman’s sects. Écriture Féminine is about multiplicity, and forsaking once and for all the idea that woman is simply Not Man, or rather, a castrated man.
Cixous urges women to steal their voices back from men, to ignite their mouths, impregnate their words, and soar through themselves, soar above, on their own, without the phallogo-structures of men.
To do this, women must shirk the masculine tongue, the father tongue.
Cixous speaks positively and optimistically about women’s ability to reclaim their right to speak and write in a feminine style. She explains that to be effective, this style must take on an unconventional form, “sweeping away syntax, breaking from the famous thread which acts for men as a surrogate umbilical cord.” By abandoning the linear and orderly characteristics associated with traditional masculine style, Cixous uses the phallocentric language to her advantage. She acknowledges phallocentrism and then, through contradictions, she uncovers the inherent shortcomings. This inadequacy is based upon the realization that Cixous is not able to say exactly what she would like using a masculine discourse. Because Cixous does not have the option of speaking though a feminine discourse, she is forced to use alternative techniques in order to relay a direct and accurate meaning with a masculine language.
Cixous speaks about women’s writing: about what it will do.
For this, she uses Medusa, one of the three Gorgon sisters, the one with the hundreds of hissing snakes for hair, the unlucky girl cursed by Athena to be so ugly, so horrible, that her very gaze will turn men to stone. In a battle with Perseus, Zeus’ clever child uses his own shield to decapitate and defeat the hideous lovely Gorgon.
Freud once wrote a short essay on Medusa. He associates Medusa with castration and decapitation, whose image is both terrifying and ambiguous. The snakes on her head are a denial of the castration, are the act itself with the hissing penises and the what-not; and being turned to stone is also castrating (powerlessness, to make passive, to make a woman), as well as exciting, a form of arousal. His gaze, the gaze upon Medusa, woman, is so powerful, that the viewer is transformed, suffers a mini-death, an orgasm. Is rendered motionless by her figure, her form, her beauty.
But this is all to assume that woman is a castrated man, that she suffers penis envy, and requires either a deep dicking or a child to feel full, complete.
Cixous says men say that there are two unrepresentable things: death and vaginas. This is because vaginas need to be associated with death. Men need to fear women, they need to fear vaginas.
Medusa is simply a manifestation of men’s fear of large empty spaces, infinity, the sea, menstruation, vaginas, women. And of course, castration.
This is why Cixous transforms Medusa. She must revise the notion of femininity itself.
Wouldn’t the worst be, isn’t the worst, in truth, that women aren’t castrated, that they have only to stop listening to the Sirens (for the Sirens were men) for history to change its meaning? You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing.
Write, Cixous suggests, demands. Write, write, write.
It is by writing, from and toward women, and by taking up the challenge of speech which has been governed by the phallus, that women will confirm that is, in a place other than that which is reserved in and by the symbolic*, that is, in a place other than silence.
* A reference to Lacan’s theory of the psyche. “The Symbolic” is the dimension of language, law, and the father; in contrast “The Imaginary” is modeled on the mother-child dyad or on the relation between an infant and its mirror image.
1st image: Laurent-Honoré Marqueste. Perseus and the Gorgon
2nd image: Nancy Farmer. Medusa in Modesty