Cixous and Žižek

Natasha Gatian

            Cixous and Clément’s influential article entitled “Out and Out: Attacks/Ways Out/Forays” presents an alternative vision to the cycle of philosophical “thuggery” outlined by Slavoj Žižek in his essay “Taking Deleuze from Behind.” The title Sorties, or exits, underscores their project of finding ways out of phallocentric discourse as epitomized by Žižek’s buggery, which “imputes to the interpreted philosopher is own innermost position and endeavors to extract it from him” (304). The écriture feminine endorsed by Cixous and Clément, conversely, encourages a new approach in order to free philosophy from phallocentrism. Their feminine writing, based on personal observation and fruitful juxtaposition of constructed binaries such as “Culture / Nature” rather than systematic argument, provides a model to reevaluate traditional philosophical discourse from a feminist perspective.

In order to evaluate Cixous and Clément’s project as it stands in relation to more orthodox modes of philosophy, it is useful to examine some examples of the strategies of their feminine writing. The most obvious departure from traditional philosophical texts is the essay’s opening, which asks “where is she?” before providing a series of juxtaposed opposites then listing masculine-coded attributes such as “form, convex, step, advance, semen, progress” and the feminine concepts “matter, concave, ground—where steps are taken, holding-and dumping-ground” (654). The authors rely on the self-evident hierarchical ranking inherent in these oppositions to convey the idea that the male term is privileged rather than presenting a logical, linear argument to the same effect. The essay is digressive, meandering from Mallarmé to Ulysses while also discussing the myths and fairytales that continuously reinscribe woman’s subjugated position throughout history. Rather than delving into any one example with any great specificity, Cixous and Clément instead present a breadth of instances to show that “[woman] is to the shadow. In the shadow he throws on her; the shadow she is” (657). Cixous also recounts her own experience as a woman of Jewish descent growing up in colonial Algeria, linking colonialism with sexism in that both entail the “Murder of the Other” (659). Subjective personal experience supplants the often disingenuous objectivity of masculine philosophical discourse, and to underscore the distinction “Out and Out” adopts an informal, conversational tone that helps to distinguish it from traditional philosophical treatises. It encourages a dialogue between authors and reader rather than talking “at” her.

Cixous claims elsewhere that “with a few rare exceptions, there has not yet been any writing that inscribes femininity,” and that for most women writers the “workmanship is in no way different from male writing, and . . . either obscures women or reproduces the classic representations of women” (“The Laugh of the Medusa”878). It is not enough for women to write, according to Cixous. They must also resist becoming a part of the patriarchal apparatus by appropriating its modes of signification.

Clément and Cixous contend that “thought has always worked through opposition” (654), then problematize this notion of “hierarchical oppositions.” Linguistic binaries function according to gendered oppositions, as implied in the question “is the fact that Logocentrism subjects thought—all concepts, codes and values—to a binary system, related to ‘the’ couple, man/woman?” (654). Noting that in systems of signification there is always a privileged term, they maintain that “‘victory’ always comes down to the same thing: things get hierarchical” (655). They oppose the uncritical reproduction of these binary models, offering a new, more inclusive way of approaching philosophy. Exploring the gender valences in binary thinking undermines the logocentric impulse towards categorization and opposition. For instance, defining woman against the positive qualities associated with the male subject makes her a “dark continent” and typifies the “infamous logic of antilove” (“Laugh”878).

In “The Laugh of the Medusa” Cixous extensively compares the act of female writing to masturbation. This implies intimacy, hiddenness, and a close association with the censored sexual body, as opposed to the more public and “objective” realm of masculine discourse. Addressing the female writer who hides her work, she says, “you wrote, irresistibly, as when we would masturbate in secret” (877). Women’s writing, then, has traditionally been a clandestine, transgressive activity. Speaking about the literary establishment, Cixous says there is a bias against “female-sexed texts. That kind scares them” (877). Women’s writing, like masturbation, presents a challenge to patriarchal authority which “men have been trying to make [women] forget, condemning it to ‘eternal rest.’ The little girls and their ‘ill-mannered’ bodies immured, well preserved . . . frigidified.” The word “frigidified” is important here because it recasts female sexuality as resistant or “frigid” in the face of male potency; once again woman becomes the unknowable Other against which phallocentric discourse defines itself. Linking unregulated sexuality with the generative power of women’s writing, Cixous underscores the power dynamics at work in the ongoing suppression of female voices.

Cixous and Clément contend that “woman is always associated with passivity in philosophy” (655). Turning to “Taking Deleuze from Behind,” it is illuminating to apply this notion to the all-male philosophical discourse Žižek explores. The “buggered” philosophers in Žižek’s formulation are feminized, and therefore rendered passive objects to be interpreted (or “penetrated”) by the person doing the interpretation. For the “feminized” philosophers, Kant as read through Sade by Lacan, for example, the act of “taking from behind” is a way of using another’s philosophy to bolster one’s own. The original philosophical text is rendered inert; it becomes an instrument of the philosopher doing the interpreting (buggering). This discourse utilizes rhetoric of phallic authority and female passivity that is somewhat troubling, despite the essay’s ultimate support of Deleuzean univocity. Resisting this cycle of exclusion from philosophy, Cixous says in “The Laugh of the Medusa,” “woman must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history-by her own movement” (875). That is, in order to disrupt this male-on-male discourse, women must actively challenge its established modes of expression on their own terms.

The discourse of buggery and its production of “unnatural children” and “true monsters” (Žižek 304) implicitly excludes female participation in philosophical discourse, while also suggesting that its phallocentric nature leads to undesirable conclusions. It is a form of procreation characterized by self-perpetuation and grotesque mutation in the form of “buggered” interpretations. Although he does not state this outright, the absence of female voices in Žižek’s article is conspicuous and thought-provoking. Lacking representation from women writers, the field of discourse Žižek studies is inherently skewed. He says, “as Hegel would have put it, the history of philosophy itself is part of philosophy, not just a comparative report on whether and how different ‘opinions’ are right or wrong” (306). Bearing this consideration in mind, philosophy emerges as an almost exclusively male realm, to its detriment. If history is really a part of the discourse, then philosophy has indeed been a field perpetuated by buggery almost since its inception. Cixous maintains that “nearly the entire history of writing is confounded with the history of reason . . . it has been one with the phallocentric tradition. It is indeed that same self-admiring, self-stimulating, self-congratulatory phallocentrism” (“Laugh” 879). Linking writing with the category “reason” and showing both to be inextricably linked to patriarchy, Cixous questions “the offspring of this immaculate conception” (Žižek 305), in this case the coupling of reason and writing rather than Deleuze and Hegel.

After discussing the similarities between the two philosophers, Žižek concludes:

“the truly subversive agent asserts the univocity of Being, assembling all the heterogenous elements within the same ‘plane of consistency.’ Instead of the ridiculously pathetic fake heroism of forcing the established order toward its transcendent traumatic core, we get a profoundly indifferent enumeration that, without the blink of an eye, puts in the same series ethics and buggery.” (309)

This championing of Deleuze’s great leveling of philosophical concepts naturally casts into doubt such categories as gender, and indeed Žižek mentions his “‘flat ontology’” in which “all heterogenous entities of an assemblage can be conceived at the same level” (308). This would seem to allow for the possibility of female incursion in philosophical discourse, but the notion of buggery denies female participation while appearing to break down boundaries. While Žižek employs the term “buggery” to insouciantly express a point about philosophers appropriating each other’s ideas to serve their own agendas, it nonetheless implies women’s exclusion from philosophical discourse.

Ironically, Deleuze aligns Hegel with the feminine when he “has to elevate Hegel into an absolute Other who cannot be appropriated by free indirect speech,” according to Žižek (305). Paralleling the masculine/feminine relationship as described by Cixous and Clément, this “straw man image . . . conceals, of course, a disavowed affinity” (305). Žižek refers to the affinity between Hegel and Deleuze here, but there are also shades of écriture feminine where “excess is everywhere, in an unbearable intensity. Therein resides the true transgression” (Žižek 309). Breaking down value distinctions between terms, Žižek argues, is a common feature in both Hegel and Deleuze’s philosophies. It is also the basis for Cixous’ feminine writing, which expresses the feeling that “I . . . have felt so full of luminous torrents that I could burst—burst with forms much more beautiful than those which are put up in frames and sold for a stinking fortune” (“Laugh” 877). Likewise, the orgasmic language employed in this passage recalls Hegel’s so-called “self-buggery.”

Cixous, Clément, and Žižek, then, are aiming at a similar disruption of existing philosophical categories in their respective writings. It is “Out and Out,” however, that also challenges the “frame” of philosophical discourse, not merely what it contains. Žižek employs the concept of buggery to illustrate univocity and erase value distinctions, but Cixous and Clément take the critique of systematic approaches to knowledge even further by deconstructing the masculine system of discourse that transmits them.

Works Cited

Cixous, Hélène and Catherine Clément. “Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways Out/Forays.” Global Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Richard J. Lane. 653-64. New York: Routledge, 2013.

–Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Signs 1.4 (1976): 875-93. Web. 2 May 2014.

Žižek, Slavoj. “Hegel 1: Taking Deleuze from Behind.” Global Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Richard J. Lane. 302-10. New York: Routledge, 2013.