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Cixous, Hélène (b. 1937)  
 
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Hélène Cixous, an influential French feminist theorist and experimental novelist and dramatist, celebrates female and feminist solidarity.

Cixous was born on June 5, 1937, in Oran, Algeria. Her father, a physician of mixed colonial-French and Sephardic Jewish background, died during her childhood, an early experience of loss that Cixous later explored in her writings. Cixous enjoyed a nurturing and creative bond with her mother, a Jewish woman of Austro-German origin.

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Although Cixous writes in French and teaches English literature, she considers German, her native maternal tongue, a richer and more embodied language than the more rationalistic discourse of French.

In the colonial environment in which she was raised, Cixous felt displaced as female, Jewish, and non-native Arab; accordingly, she became determined to free herself from the constrictions of the world into which she was born and to combat the encroachments of power on the individual. In her teens, Cixous began to study English literature, and shortly thereafter she emigrated to France to pursue her studies.

In the course of completing her doctorate, Cixous married, had two children, and was divorced. In 1968, she became professor of English literature and, in the aftermath of student uprisings, she was appointed to establish the experimental and politically controversial University of Paris VIII, which was to accommodate "nontraditional" students and provide an alternative to the more hierarchical French academic environment.

In her published doctoral thesis, The Exile of James Joyce (1968), Cixous, like Joyce an "exiled" writer in France, praised Joyce's shrewd exposure of political and ideological manipulations as well as his conviction that language could transform mental structures.

On the other hand, in an early indication of her revolt against the "death drive," Cixous critiqued Joyce's belief that one must metaphorically "kill" the mother, and therefore suffer guilt, in order to live.

During this period, Cixous also began her prolific career as a creative writer, and her first novel, Inside (1969), won the prestigious Prix Médicis. Inside is an autobiographical text that, as the title suggests, explores the writer's "inside": an interior landscape that includes evocative meditations on the death of her father, the influence of her mother and grandmother, and her relationship with her brother.

Here, as elsewhere in her writings, Cixous explores the multiple significations of her title: "inside" connotes for her, as a woman writer, a place of refuge and protection as well as a confining private domestic space to which women have been "exiled" from the public world of politics and history.

Cixous's critique of repression and social injustice, as well as her involvement in political causes that trivialized the concerns of women, led her to become a feminist. In Nobody's Name (1974), Cixous explores the relationships among the unified "phallic" or "masculinist" subject, narcissism, and death.

As against the efforts of male writers such as Freud and Poe, for example, to place women in what she terms a "limited economy" dominated by an obsession with death, Cixous proposes an alternative "feminine" economy based on the "gift" and characterized by continuity, abundance, and the absence of fixed identities and categories.

Although Cixous has been accused of being an "essentialist" who relates mental attributes to biological sex, and although she perceives women's knowledge as different from men's because of their position in culture and their capacity for motherhood, Cixous believes that women can partake in a "masculine" and men in a "feminine" economy.

In accordance with her deepening commitment to feminism, Cixous founded the Center for Research in Women's Studies in 1974 and, in the following year, published "The Laugh of the Medusa" (1975). In this article, Cixous analyzes a Freudian text on castration and argues that man, horrified by women's genitals, turns to "stone" and erects a symbolic "phallic" system to exclude women. Since oppositions are self-canceling, women should neither oppose nor support this system but rather laugh at it, for laughter not only dissolves ossified meanings but also affirms life and joyousness.

By contrast, in her more "serious" theoretical article, "Sorties" (1975), Cixous sets forth her feminist epistemology by relating a series of hierarchical oppositions (for example, culture/nature, form/matter, speaking/writing, and head/heart) to the fundamental division between "man" and "woman." Cixous attacks the dialectical relation between these terms that, by privileging one term of a pair over another, creates a binary structure of unequal power marked by the constant threat of violence and chaos.

Moreover, Cixous begins to explore the issue of sexuality by arguing that under this system of unequal binaries sexual difference is only tolerated when repressed or "closeted." As against Freud, she argues for the possibility of "bisexuality," understood not principally as a form of sexuality but as an embodied recognition of plurality and the coexistence of masculinity and femininity within individual subjects.

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Hélène Cixous. Photograph by Claude Truong-Ngoc.
  
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