Can there be a ‘distinctly feminine mode of writing’?
Cixous says yes.
I suggest the better answer is no.
Nearly forty years ago, Helene Cixous made an impassioned argument for the existence of a distinctly feminine mode of writing, or ecriture feminine (Cixous 1976), which she believed might free women from the ‘exclusionary nature of dominant modes of language and writing’ and provide them with a mode in which to speak and write in their own voice (Thaiss, 134-135).
In this essay I will suggest that because western concepts of ‘self’ have changed so significantly from that relied upon by Cixous in forming her argument, that ecriture feminine is no longer possible.
Furthermore, using three brief alternative (traditional, ecriture feminine, and queer) readings of Christina Rossetti’s In An Artist’s Studio (1856; 1896), I will attempt to demonstrate that even if a feminine mode of writing’ does exist, it could not be ‘distinct’ in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED, adj. 3.b) sense that it is individually peculiar and not able to be confounded with another.
Cixous suggests ecriture feminine is necessary because language reflects culture and Western European languages reflect a culture she calls ‘Logocentrism’ – a hierarchical system that underpins the patriarchal and ensures that women detrimentally remain passive partners in relation to men (Hopkins, 324-325). Her position is underpinned by Lacan’s construction of the self, the ‘Mirror Stage’, which relies on the presence of ‘other’ to reflect back the image of ‘self’ (Blyth, 20).
In particular, Cixous was interested in the ‘Imaginary’ and the ‘Real’ which are two of the three overlapping stages in Lacan’s theory of childhood development – the third stage is known as the “Symbolic”. The ‘Imaginary’ is essentially the pre-verbal state inhabited by a child before his or her resolution of the Oedipus complex during which although the child has developed the beginning of a sense of self, he or she remains identified with mother. Like Freud, Lacan believed the bond with mother must be broken in order to resolve the Oedipus complex and like Freud, he believed this happened through a metaphorical castration or identification with father and the ‘Symbolic’ (Blyth, 20).
Because the transition from the ‘Imaginary’ and the Real’ to the ‘Symbolic’ is a one-way ticket, in patriarchal societies the ‘self’ of a woman is determined by lack (Blyth, 23). This in turn creates ‘the master/slave dialectic’ that Cixous was keen to overcome (Blyth, 23).
The problem as highlighted by Cixous and Lacan is essentially one of binary relationship. In ecriture feminine, the relationship between ‘self’ and ‘other’ is not juxtaposed but jumbled.
This is all very well and good however the self at the heart of any distinctly feminine (or traditional) mode of writing – jumbled or otherwise – remains a singular self and as such can relate only through binary means.
Today, we no longer perceive of self in this way.
According to Kenneth Gergen’s theory of the ‘saturated self’, no longer is there a single ‘self’ but a multiplicity of ‘selves; not only friendship selves, parent selves, child selves, professional selves but also possible selves and ideal selves. Furthermore, although socially constructed like Lacan’s ‘Mirror Stage’ self , Gergen’s ‘saturated self’ does not relate through lack. Instead the ‘saturated self’ has multiple opportunities for interaction and as the result of playing so many roles concurrently, finds it impossible to categorize itself along traditional lines such as gender (Worldviews).
I suggest that progressive theories such as Gergen’s have actually led to the destabilization of binary determinations of gender to such a degree that ecriture feminine as envisioned by Cixous is no longer possible.
For example, Queer Theory, developed in part on ideas about gender put forth in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, suggests that it is meaningless to talk in general terms about ‘women’ or any other group because identities consist of so many elements that people can never be classified by one (Melanson). Furthermore, based on Butler’s work, Queer theory suggests gender may even be a performance – an imitation – not of an original (gender), but as a parody (or pastiche) of the very notion that there is an original (gender) to be imitated (Butler, 175-176).
In the wake of Queer theory, I suggest that the binary oppositions between ‘feminine and masculine’ supporting Cixous’ ecriture feminine have dissolved. Indeed queer now uses ‘the open mesh of possibilities’ – those ‘gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning’ (Bennett, 217) which Cixous once claimed for ecriture feminine.
I further suggest that even if were a ‘feminine mode of writing’, that if the same text can support multiple readings, then it can not be considered ‘distinct’ in the OED sense that it is individually peculiar and not able to be confounded with another.
As an experiment to support my supposition, I purpose the following brief, alternative readings for Christina Rossetti’s In An Artist’s Studio (1856; 1896):
One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel — every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.
1) Traditional reading – Traditional modes of writing represents the symbolic; they are linear, logical, and authoritative thus reinforcing the master/slave dialectic (Waugh, 336). This poem most certainly does that. It begins with a male artist gazing at one of his canvases – a picture of a woman he has painted. As he ‘feeds upon her face by day and night,” he sees her mainly in terms of frozen poses and the roles in which he has painted her (‘a queen in opal’, ‘a nameless girl’, ‘a saint an angel’). She is ‘hidden’ and comes alive ‘not as she is’ but ‘as she fills his dreams’. This poem is both about contrasting images of reality (the picture vs. the woman) and domination and control. The woman in the picture is not tolerated to exist on her own but only in relation to the male artist. Once the image is captured on canvas, there is no more room for the expansion of possibilities leaving only a fixed past represented by a single image of the feminine – the ‘other’ – as framed by the patriarchal eye (Hopkins, 314-315).
2) Ecriture feminine reading – Ecriture feminine focuses heavily on the female body (Blyth, 24-28). This poem is an example of the female body being written into discourse – ‘her face’, ‘her figure’ as she ‘sits or walks or leans’. Ecriture feminine plays with language through pluralistic, non-linear and imaginary techniques (Thaiss, 135) and in the poem, the women is imagined in pluralistic aspects of the Victorian ideal – ‘a queen’, ‘a nameless girl’, as well as a ‘saint’ and ‘angel’. Ecriture feminine desires to establish space in which the self can explore and experience (Butler, 15). Although the form of the poem is traditional (Petrarchan sonnet), the emphasis on the ‘s’ sounds the end of each of the first eight lines (canvases, leans, screens, liveliness, dress, greens, means, less) gives it such a sense of fluidity that also in keeping with ecriture feminine it carries rather than holding back. To avoid essentialism, Cixous couches her distinction of ‘feminine’ in terms of ‘libidinal economies’ – sexually related sensation and experience. Although we learn nothing of the subject’s actual physical characteristics, in terms of her sensation and experience or jouissance, we are assured she is ‘not wan with waiting’ or ‘with sorrows dim’, but ‘joyful as the light’ which most certainly sounds blissful if not downright heavenly. It is only with the turn in the ninth line of the poem (night) that we plunge into darkness and death, both also important themes in Cixous’ ecriture feminine (Blyth, 42-25).
3) Queer Theory reading – Queer readings of literary texts involve ironic reconstructions of traditional gender roles, reimagining supposedly heterosexual characters as closeted gays, and turning formerly marginal forms of pleasure and desire into acceptable, mainstream ones (Post World War II Database). In this poem, a Victorian male artist regards the image of a woman he has painted as if in a ‘mirror’ reflecting various aspects of the Victorian feminine ideal – ‘a queen,’ a ‘nameless girl’ and an ‘angel’ and ‘saint’. For this artist, these images hold the ‘same one meaning’ and because ‘he feeds upon her face by day and night’ we know they are of serious import to him. Yet we are given no reason for such preoccupation. We are not even told the relationship the artist has or would like to have with the woman. Queer reading tries to pinpoint ambiguities in traditional gender relationships and evaluate them in ways that do not support traditional roles (Brizee). Perhaps if the subject of his painting is neither his wife, lover, sister, or muse (as traditionally might have expected) but instead the image the artist might like to appropriate for himself? After all, throughout history, creativity has been associated with the feminine and in regards to male artists, homosexuality. Queer reading also seeks to pinpoint literary devices and strategies that support gay or lesbian social and political experiences (Brizee). Perhaps it is significant then that the woman subject is ‘hidden just behind those screens’? Might the allusion to ‘queen’ (the first image on the list) further suggest homosexuality? According to the OED the word ‘queen’ in respect of homosexuality was already in use when this poem was written (OED, n. 13). Queer reading examines texts in terms of ways they might reveal the social, political, or psychological operations of homophobia (Brizee). Perhaps the image the artist has captured on canvas even ‘fills his dreams’ of the future of gay pride?
In conclusion, if our concept of ‘self’ is no longer singular then identification along binary gender lines (the basis for ecriture feminine) is no longer possible. Furthermore, even if a feminine mode of writing would exist, it can not be distinctive because the same literary text can be read in terms of traditional, ecriture feminine, and queer theory (the later, which interestingly relies on many of the same techniques as ecriture feminine to give voice to yet another marginalised group).
Bennett, Andrew and Royle, Nicholas, An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, 4th eds., (Harlow: Person Longman, 2009).
Blyth, Ian and Sellers, Susan, Helene Cixous: Live Theory, (London: Continuum, 2004).
Brizee, Allen and J. Case Tompkins, “Gender Studies and Queer Theory (1970’s – present)”, Purdue Online Writing Lab. https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/722/12/ (2/11/2013).
Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble (London: Routledge, (1999).
Castle, Gregory, The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory, (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2007).
Cixous, Helene, “The Laugh of the Medusa”, trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, The University of Chicago Press, Vol. 1, No. 4 (1976), pp 875-893.
Gergen, Kenneth J, The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life (New York: Basic Books, 2000).
Hopkins, Chris, Thinking About Texts – An Introduction to English Studies, (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001).
Melanson, Karen, “Queer Theory: Destabilizing Gender”, www.tulane.edu/~femtheory/journals/ (27/10/2013).
Meyers, Diana, “Feminist Perspectives on the Self”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2010), Edward N. Zalta, ed. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2010/entries/feminism-self/.
Post World War II American Literature and Culture Database, http://english.berkeley.edu/Postwar/queer.html (27/10/2013).
Thaiss, Janet Mel, “Viva l’orange: Writing in the Open and Outlawed Space of a Feminine Economy”, Third Space A Journal of Feminist Theory & Culture, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2006). http://www.thirdspace.ca/journal/article/view/melo-thaiss/134.
Worldviews. “Postmodern Psychology and Socially Constructed Selves”. http://www.allaboutworldview.org/postmodern-psychology-and-socially-constructed-selves-faq.htm 25/10/2013.
Waugh, Patricia, ed., Literary theory and criticism; an Oxford guide, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
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