Hélène Cixous

Hélène Cixous, Professor of Writing and Philosophy at The European Graduate School / EGS.


Hélène Cixous (b. 1937) is a writer and philosopher. Transgressing the limits of academic language by and with poetic language, she is widely lauded for both her experimental writing style and her experimental practice, which traverses many discourses. An influential theorist, as well as a novelist, playwright, and poet, Cixous is also noted for her role in initiating and developing new models of education. Much of her prominence developed around écriture feminine, a method and practice that addresses Cixous's ongoing concern with the effects of difference, exclusion, the struggle for identity, and the overcoming of Western logocentrism. These ideas were prominently exposed in her widely influential essay Le rire de la Méduse from 1975 (The Laugh of the Medusa). This work is considered a key text within her concept of écriture feminine, and informs her advocacy for the freeing of writing, and the freeing of the self through writing.

Born in Oran, Algeria, Cixous's father was a French-colonialist who died while she was young; her mother was Austro-German and German was Cixous's first language. Her father, and therewith many members of her family, were Jewish, and the atrocities of World War II had an early influence on Cixous. From an early age she studied literature in many languages, reading authors Franz Kafka, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Clarice Lispector, among others. She went to school in France, studying English literature, primarily Shakespeare, mythology, and the German romantics, in particular, Heinrich von Kleist. In 1959, Cixous passed her agrégation in English, and in 1962 became assistante at the Université de Bordeaux. Moving to Paris in 1965, she then became maître assistante at the Sorbonne, and was appointed maître de conférences at Nanterre in 1967. That same year, Cixous published her first text, Le Prénom de Dieu (God's First Name) and a year later, in 1968, she earned her Doctorat ès letters with her thesis L'Exil de James Joyce ou l' art du remplacement (translated as The Exile of James Joyce, or the Art of Displacement, 1972), which she published in 1969. Shortly after the student riots of 1968, she was appointed chargé de mission to found the experimental Université de Paris VIII at Vincennes. Paris VIII was designed as a place of learning incorporating an alternative structure to the usual hierarchies of institutional education, and was formed in response to the critique of the traditional French academic environment. The university gained a strong reputation, especially for its distinguished faculty including such thinkers as Gérard Genette, Michel Foucault, Tzvetan Todorov, Félix Guattari, and Gilles Deleuze. In 1969, Hélène Cixous, along with Todorov and Genette, founded Poétique, a review for experiments in reading and text. In 1974, while still at Paris VIII, she founded the Centre de Recherches en Etudes Féminines, where she still remains as chair. The Centre was the first of its kind in Europe.

The years between 1968 and 1972 were a dynamic and exciting period for French intellectuals working in the aftermath of May 1968. During these years Hélène Cixous published her first fictional texts: Dedans (1969), for which she was awarded the Prix Médicis, and the trilogy, Le Troisième Corps, Les Commencements, and Neutre (The Third Body, Beginnings, and Neuter, 1970-72).

In 1974, Hélène Cixous published Prénoms de personne (Nobody's Name), a collection of essays on Sigmund Freud, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Heinrich von Kleist, Edgar Allan Poe, and James Joyce. In these texts, she explores the associations between the unified or phallic subject, narcissism, and death. She reveals how the dialectical structure in writing, specifically in these authors, traps women in a limited exchange or economy, dominated by a desire for death. Inspired by the work of Georges Bataille, she offers a general economy of the gift, related to expenditure and loss. Exchange is a dominant theme in her writing, and she questions its relationship to alterity: if the subject only exists in a differential relationship with others, then to think through new modes of exchange is a method toward social change. Within this thinking is Cixous's notion that there must be linguistic change in order to effect social change and thus investigates the effects of exchange on language and writing.

Hélène Cixous published Angst in 1977, which was followed by a concentrated period on feminist study and work. She published almost exclusively with the publishing house Des Femmes and made the association of Antoinette Fouque, who was the founder of Politique et Psychoanalyse, or 'Psych et po', an influential political group for the women's movement. Her writings of this time suggest the idea that new descriptive terms, without reference to sexual difference, would eventually replace the attributes of masculine and feminine. She also became influenced by Martin Heidegger's work on poetry and language, as evidenced in her works Préparatifs de noces au-dela de l'abîme (Wedding Preparations Beyond the Abyss, 1978), Anankè (1979), Illa (1980), With ou l'art de l'innocence (With or the Art of Innocence, 1981), and Limonade tout était si infini (Lemonade All Was So Infinite, 1982), in which she works through ideas of knowledge, innocence and law, and meditates on the sublime.

In the early 1980s, her relationship with Des Femmes became increasingly strained, and she broke with Antoinette Fouque. One could suggest as well a marked change in her work at this time, in particular with the 1983 text Le Livre de Promethea (The Book of Promethea or Promethea's Book, 1990). It is considered a feminine rewriting of the Promethean myth and was influenced by her meeting with Ariane Mnouchkine, the director of the experimental Théâtre du Soleil. Mnouchkine and her theatre mixed Elizabethan theatre with Far Eastern techniques and was known for experimental productions of William Shakespeare. Cixous's collaboration with Mnouchkine marked a shift toward historical and political writing, or with what Hélène Cixous calls the "scene of history."