Hélène Cixous across the Atlantic: The Medusa as Projection?

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Editor: Janet Witalec
Date: 2004
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,060 words

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[(essay date 1999) In the following essay, Jouve discusses Hélène Cixous's theories regarding feminine identity--particularly as expressed in the essay "The Laugh of the Medusa"--and notes how Cixous's critical writings have often been misread or misinterpreted in the United States and abroad.]

In the last thirty years or so, America got used to importing, or shooting, the best of the gray cells of Europe. Each country provided its specialty. Nazism and the war had already produced mid-European Jewish physicists or analysts: they were there to stay. The USSR and UK provided novelists. Ireland provided poets. France had been such a provider before: several members of the surrealist movement, such as André Breton and Benjamin Péret had been in New York during the Second World War. But, perhaps as a result of the vogue of Sartre and Beauvoir, it was French theory that, along with Perrier water and camembert, came to appeal more and more. Foucault, Lacan, Derrida. ... Writers and scholars were translated, became the object of exegesis, did prestigious lecture tours, occupied visiting chairs. King Dollar helped: intellectual worth was recognized in substantial kind, transfigured as cash was by Californian excitement, Mid-Western energy, or East Coast high-mindedness.

In 1980, an anthology edited by two American scholars and entitled New French Feminisms, made available in translation a number of French women writers. Ironically, I feel like saying, the anthology, together with articles, full-length translations, monographs, feminist Readers or author Readers, led to the formation of what was seen as a cogent, representative body of theory, "French Feminisms." Its three supposedly major proponents or "stars" were Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva. I call this ironic, not because these writers were not remarkable--they were and are--but because none of them endorsed the term feminist. There were many French féministes, claiming the term féministes (and often a filiation to Beauvoir, so influential on such early American feminists as Betty Friedan and Shulamith Firestone). The féministes were closer to mainstream American feminist positions of the 1970s and early 1980s, especially in the domains of history and the social sciences; yet they were never taken up to anything like the same degree. It is as if American feminisms, born out of, or amid, the Civil Rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam war, needed an "Other" to fertilize itself. That French "Other" turned out to be born not only of May 1968 but also of post-World War II French experimental and avant-garde writing, and the theoretical and psychoanalytic scene (Foucault, Althusser, the Tel Quel group, Derrida, Lacan).

Joan DeJean and Nancy K. Miller, editors of a 1991 collection of essays, chose the term Displacements for their title, and spoke of a "kind of continental drift" to describe the intense exchanges between so-called French and American feminist theory.1 Others complain of the "jet lag" readers may feel as they travel on what Naomi Schor has called the "transatlantic shuttle."2 The Atlantic, Atlas's ocean (the waters that supposedly hide a vanished continent)...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100053076