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Research in French Feminist Literary Theory

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A presentation to a class in reference librarianship in the arts and humanities on how to do research in French feminist literary theory.

A presentation to a class in reference librarianship in the arts and humanities on how to do research in French feminist literary theory.


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  • 1. French Feminist Literary Theory
    Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva
    Presented by Alisa Orrin on August 18, 2009
  • 2. “Just a few weeks before my graduation, I went into a bookstore and bought two recently published works in my field of interest, which was women writers and feminist literary criticism. […] The [one] book baffled me. It was New French Feminisms, a collection of essays by feminist theorists like Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva. Though these essays were in English, they might as well have been in a totally foreign language, as they talked about the Phallus and the Symbolic and the category, ‘woman.’ I had no idea what they were talking about, or even what perspective or premise they were writing from. After ten pages, I threw the book across the room, yelled several expletives, and declared, ‘I’ve been studying all the wrong things!’” – Professor of English, Mary Klages
    Klages, M. (2006) Literary theory: A guide for the perplexed. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.
  • 3. Definition
    What is French feminist literary theory? How do Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva fit in?
  • 4. What is it? What is it not?
    Traditionally defined as the theories of Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva
    However:
    None of them are French – Cixous was born in Algeria, Irigaray was born in Belgium, Kristeva was born in Bulgaria
    None of them wanted to be labeled “feminist”
    “These three scholars are brought together for the convenience of our scholarly drive to categorize, and yet they do not present themselves as having anything in common with each other” (Still, 2007, p. 263).
    Includes other theorists: Simone de Beauvoir, Monique Wittig, Catherine Clément, Michèle le Doeuff, Christine Delphy, Colette Guillaumin
  • 5. Influences
    Simone de Beauvoir
    In The Second Sex (1949), de Beauvoir posits that women have been constructed as man’s Other
    Jacques Lacan – Psychoanalyst who re-examined Freud
    Subjectivity (“I”) happens through language – we develop our concept of ourselves through our acquisition and use of language – or our entry into the Symbolic
    The Symbolic is governed by the Law of the Father
    The phallus is the center around which all other elements move in relation to each other
    Men are closer to the phallus than women because they more easily identify with or see themselves in the phallus
  • 6. Influences
    Jacques Derrida – Deconstruction
    Words have meaning only in reference to their binary opposites (In other words, words are defined through their difference – through what they are not)– one opposite in the binary is usually valued over another:
    For example: Good/evil
    But, why is thought and language structured in binaries?
    How is it that one binary is valued over the other?
    What would happen to thought and language if we took these binaries apart?
  • 7. Common ideas:
    Language is itself patriarchal or “phallogocentric” – “Male” or “Masculine” is subject (Self) and “Female” or “Feminine” is object (Other)
    Words have meaning through binary oppositions and the female or feminine are always on the negative side of the binary:
    Male/female
    Masculine/feminine
    Active/passive
    Self/other
    Light/dark
    Being/non-being
    Women’s subjectivity, desire, and sexuality cannot be represented or expressed in this language because it is Other
    Back to “What is it?”
  • 8. The Key “Theorists”
    Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva
  • 9. Hélène Cixous
    Écriture feminine
    Feminine writing
    Writing the body
    The unconscious, fluid, multiple, Imaginary, feminine sexuality
    Cixous’ example: the language of Freud’s hysterics
    The “other bisexuality”
    A refusal of the self/other binary
    Sexuality is from anybody, any body part, at any time
    Medusa, by Caravaggio (1592:1600) – from Wikipedia.com
    “Almost everything is yet to be written by women about femininity: about their sexuality, that is, its infinite and mobile complexity, about their eroticization, sudden turn-ons of a certain miniscule-immense area of their bodies […]. A woman’s body with its thousand and one thresholds of ardor – once, by smashing yokes and censors, she lets it articulate the profusion of meanings that run through it in every direction – will make the old single-grooved mother tongue reverberate with more than one language.” – From “The Laugh of the Medusa”
  • 10. Luce Irigaray
    Women function as mirrors for men, which is why they cannot be seen
    Female sexuality has only been defined in terms of male sexuality – according to Freud, woman is a castrated man – she has nothing to see – no visible sex organ – she is no sex – the negative of man
    Women’s sexuality is different: she has sex organs everywhere that are always touching each other
    “Parler-femme”
    Womanspeak
    Women’s desire
    Fluidity and touch
    “The feminine will be allowed and even obliged to return in such oppositions as be/become, have/not have sex (organ), phallic/non-phallic, penis/clitoris or else penis/vagina, plus/minus, clearly representable/dark continent, logos/silence or idle chatter, desire for the mother/desire to be the mother, etc. […] Off-stage, off-side, beyond representation, beyond selfhood.” – From Speculum of the Other Woman
  • 11. Julia Kristeva
    The Symbolic
    Words clearly represent objects
    Logical and ordered
    Scientific Discourse
    Authority and Power
    The Semiotic (not to be confused with semiotics)
    Pre-Oedipal Babble
    Rhythm and sound
    Contradictions, disruptions, absences, silences in language
    Poetic Language
    Language is constantly moving back and forth between the symbolic and the semiotic
    • Meaning is not always expressed in words: music
    • 12. We must analyze both the conscious and unconscious, the mind and the body, the cultural and the natural to make meaning.
    • 13. Subjectivity happens through language : speaking subject
    • 14. Because language is dynamic, the subject is always in process.
    • 15. Identity is not fixed
  • Best Resources
    Where to find information on French feminist literary theory
  • 16. Works Consulted & Further Reading
    Cixous, H. (1983). The laugh of the medusa. (K. Cohen & P. Cohen, Trans.). In E. Abel & E.K. Abel (Eds.), The signs reader (279-297). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1975 as Le Rire de la Méduse).
    Cixous, H., & Clément, C. (1991). The newly born woman. (B. Wing, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. (Original work published 1975 as La jeune née).
    Irigaray, L. (1985). Speculum of the other woman. (G. C. Gill, Trans.). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. (Original work published 1974 as Speculum de l’autre femme).
    Irigaray, L. (1985). This sex which is not one. (C. Porter, Trans.). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. (Original work published 1977 as Ce sexe qui n’en est pas un).
    Kristeva, J. (1980). Desire in language: a semiotic approach to literature and art. (T. Gora, Trans.). New York: Columbia University Press. (Original work published 1977).
    Kristeva, J. (1984). Revolution in poetic language. (M. Waller, Trans.). New York: Columbia University Press. (Original work published 1974 as La révolution du language poétique).
    Klages, M. (2006) Literary theory: A guide for the perplexed. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.
     Kowaleski-Wallace, E. (1997). Encyclopedia of feminist literary theory. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.
    Moi, T. (1988). Sexual/textual politics: Feminist literary theory. New York: Routledge.
    Robbins, R. (2000). Literary feminisms. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
    Weil, K. (2006). French feminism’s écriture feminine. In E. Rooney (Ed.), The Cambridge companion to feminist literary theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.