Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Week 4--The Dark Continent

Anne Dalke's picture

At Gail's suggestion, I'm trying this week for a slightly more directed question, seeing if we can "thread" our thoughts in relation to one another, rather than as stand-alone essays. I take our keynote from Cixous's saying that "The Dark Continent is neither dark nor unexplorable."

The 19th century explorer Stanley described Africa as "the dark continent." Freud evidently borrowed that description of a hostile, impenetrable place to evoke his understanding of the inner world of women's sexual experience. This week we are reading the work of two very complicated and sophisticated contemporary theorists, who use the figure of the "dark continent" to highlight two very different aspects of women's lives. Gayati Spivak describes the narrative work of orientalism, the "worlding" of the third world, while Helen Cixous explores the dark continent of women's unconscious.

Which of these analyses speaks more compellingly to you? Which do you think might contribute more productively to a current feminist praxis? And how might we understand their intersection(s)?

hslavitt's picture

Cixous equates writing to

Cixous equates writing to sex because being a writer, like the actual act of sex, makes us examine ourselves and like other areas of life experience, female sexuality is taboo. Bronte and Woolf address the difficulties of being a writer due to the obstacles between women and world experience. If you cannot travel away from your physical continent or explore your own "dark continent" (i.e. your body and sexuality), then your ability to write is harshly limited. Jane Austen wrote what she knew from her limited life experience and  consequently,the body and sex, like other experiences available to male writers, is absent. To write your sexual body, like writing about any life experience, is a way in which women can demand a place in the greater world experience that male writers have always had access to.

Ann Dixon's picture

link to introversion article

Thanks and great article. I made it into a clickable link to encourage every extrovert we know to read it. My favorite sampling:

Extroverts are seen as bighearted, vibrant, warm, empathic. "People person" is a compliment. Introverts are described with words like "guarded," "loner," "reserved," "taciturn," "self-contained," "private"—narrow, ungenerous words, words that suggest emotional parsimony and smallness of personality. Female introverts, I suspect, must suffer especially. In certain circles, particularly in the Midwest, a man can still sometimes get away with being what they used to call a strong and silent type; introverted women, lacking that alternative, are even more likely than men to be perceived as timid, withdrawn, haughty. 

Anne Dalke's picture


touche. those were exactly the sorts of words i was using...
Ann Dixon's picture

costs and the call to generosity

While Anne joined Cixous in calling us to "be generous and share everything" and even describing the more reticent of us as "selfish," I vigorously disagree (and this is coming from the alum sitting in the corner recording the conversation). The idea of equating generosity with participation in public conversation doesn't address the disparity of costs to the individual. While someone with an extroverted personality would incur almost no costs in speaking up and speaking out in the world, someone with an introverted personality would incur extraordinary costs for the same act.

For there to be equitable generosity, we would need to construct a scenario where an extrovert would incur extraordinary costs, too. What would that be? (I don't have any idea, but maybe an extrovert might give us some insights.)

Alternatively, we could change the definition of generosity so that it doesn't extract the high toll on certain individuals. Must we expect all feminists to perform public acts that are excruciating? Why can't our diversity inform our definitions, acts and movement?

ndegeorge's picture

Ann, thanks for your

Ann, thanks for your comment. I think it probably meant a lot to all the introverts in the class.

I just wanted to share an article that I discovered a few years ago. It's called "Caring for Your Introvert" by Jonathan Rauch. Not all of it can be applied to the classroom but it is definitely an interesting read. Here's the link:

ndegeorge's picture

Thursday's Class

<>In class on Thursday we spent most of our time discussing "The Laugh of the Medusa" by Cixous. The reactions to the text were mixed. Some in the class exclaimed that they loved it, that it was the feminist text they'd been waiting for. Others found its lack of structure frustrating and "un-academic."

<>We discussed Medusa in the context of Freud, who would say that she is the symbol of "dangerous female sexuality," that is potentially castrating to men. Following that, we acknowledged that female sexuality is often hidden away and has become shameful. Cixous wants to turn that all around by telling women to express themselves through writing, which she equates to having sex or masturbating in public. The invitation to expose the unconscious through writing she says will be the "anti-logos weapon." She rejects the patriarchal, academic style of writing as inhibiting to feminists.

However, we found there to be problems in following that lead. Some people said that they would feel uncomfortable exposing so much. And I think we all agreed that writing like Cixous for a typical class at Bryn Mawr would not be acceptable. It also brings up this question again: Is there a place for privacy? Cixous would say no, that we must be generous and share everything.

We also learned the term "subaltern"- a person who is silent and without agency because they lack social status. Cixous wishes to give all such people a voice.

llauher's picture

We've come back from always...

I will readily admit that it took our class discussion today to convince me to post this week. Yes, I realize it's required and highly valued, but as I said in class, I get very, very nervous about writing responses, especially on a forum such as this, where, even if my response doesn't receive comments, I know it's being read. Well, screw it. Thanks to Cixous, I accept that the female world may be losing unrivaled and unanticipated brilliance through my choice not to write.

I found myself inspired today, both in reading and understanding Cixous and by the route of the class discussion today. Abby's orgasm imagery is on point with how I feel and react to Cixous' piece (which is not to say that I literally found it "orgasmic"). Cixous' reclamation of female sexuality and bodily function in a literary manner spoke to me on the deep level on which it seemed to speak to Rhapsodica. I naturally respond better to poetic, flowing, anecdotal writing, rich with imagery and saturated with metaphor and zeal, perhaps because that's the form of writing that I find myself falling into most frequently and most comfortably. I've written the majority of my paper for tomorrow, but I find myself wondering if it will ultimately follow this form.

For me, feminism is almost as bodily an experience as Cixous' orgasm statement. My blood boils, my heart races, my eyes widen and my cheeks flush at the chance to defend womankind. Perhaps it is this reaction that makes Cixous' essay the most interesting reading for me thus far in our studies; her descriptions are almost edible in their sumptuousness. I feel Cixous teasing a reaction out of me, almost as if she is leading me by a string into her glimmering web of feminist theory and principles, urging me straight from the marrow to respond to her call to arms.



marybellefrey's picture


I think Cixous was voicing a part of the collective unconscious of woman.  I can't imagine how she could have done it better.  These things are archetypes and/or symbols; the only way to understand them is via the intuitive mind.  There are layers and layers -- for me she caught that very well.

Once many, many years ago my husband and I and a friend attended a steel band competition in Trinidad.  All the songs were ostensibly about a theme with very clever parallels to sex --- and maybe to the archetypes also, for all I know.  One song was about a cricket game, very well done.  When it ended with the line, "And the game was called for rain", we women in the audience went wild with laughter.  Three women within my view actually fell out of their seats onto the floor.  Our friend (a man!) turned to me and said, "That's when the woman..."  I interrupted him with, "I know,I know"  through my laughter.  So not all women have had their bodies repressed --- though few of us are as up-front about it as the Trinidadians. 

It is so easy to produce those extreme physiological reactions of the female body, men are so delighted with themselves when they do it, that one ends up feeling like a circus dog put through her paces.  At some point some of us stop and ask what this is all about.  Cixous says we have masturbated and written just enough to take the edge off.  So what happens if we don't stop there?  If we continue the game in the rain, so to speak?  The edge gets thicker and thicker and for all the 'thumpings' and 'whooshes of air' we cannot make our bodies do what a man's does so easily.  A woman's sexual energy is simply not like a man's.  I think men can be forgiven for putting women's sexuality into a male model --- though I might wish he would pay attention to ME.  But if I myself fail to pay attention to me and try to stuff my body and my soul into a male-patterned skin, who is to blame?


I live on the side of a volcano and in sight of two more, one of which is active.  Last night I dreamed that the inactive one was exploding, not erupting, exploding, and that a nearby hill was fast growing into an even more violent volcano.  I think Cixous put me in touch with the archetypes!  

Pemwrez2009's picture

Well first off, go Abby for

Well first off, go Abby for your Ani reference! From one Ani feminist to was very much appreciated! (if you do not identify as a feminist, I want to apologize in advance!)

Secondly, I agree with Kat Wheeler! The female body is too often forgotten, misrepresented and/or taken advantage of. For me, this ties in so well with previous discussions of understanding how the body shifts from context to context, or rather from foreground to background. This is partically why I was up in arms when I read and heard about Spivak's Jane Eyre compared to how I first learned of the story and saw it in a film with Orson Wells and Joan Fontain.

It was interesting (in the ironic kind of way) and terrible how the idea that Birtha was a crazy woman of color was so differently represented in a visual from the film. This also reflects on the contexts and mediums from which we are able to express ourselves. Why was Bronte able to expose Birtha in writing as a woman of color, but she is not able to be visually represented in the same way? Do some mediums of expression have more agency than others? Or is it always a question of context?

Like Kat, it sort of makes you question the hegemonic influences we buy into even now.

Abby's picture

There's no one like Ani. 

There's no one like Ani.  No one:)  I'll probably be quoting her quite often over the next 10 or so weeks...
sarahcollins's picture

Cixous's vision for feminism

My response also is pretty long, so here's the short version, and I elaborated a little more in my blog, because there's probably some gaping holes in what's here:  

Cixous’s essay was the most intriguing for me because it framed the question of whether there is such thing as a definite feminine style of writing in terms of what the world would be like if woman’s way of thinking were just as deeply rooted and institutionalized as men’s, if woman’s half of the world were painted, in her words.

Cixous also basically redefined what “personal” means, at least in comparison to Kauffman’s definition, because she sees writing as a woman (“I-Woman, escapee” (888)) unrelated to the personal.

I don’t necessarily agree with her definition of feminine writing (achronological, multifaceted, both the author’s self and Other, emotional, embracing rather than hating, and most interestingly (at least to me) anonymous (888), or even whether there is such a thing, but it does raise some questions fundamental to feminist studies – is there an inherent difference between how “men” and “women” (if those catagories exist) think and write? Is it biological, evolutionary, cultural, or even existent? Is it even limited to women? because Allen’s essay I thought asserted otherwise, that the Keres people think in a “feminine” way, that is non-hierarchically and matriarchically. 

Rhapsodica's picture

Okay, my response to this

Okay, my response to this topic got rather long, so I stuck it in a blog rather than posting it here in its entirety. You can find it if you go to this link: /exchange/node/1158. Here's the beginning, just to give you an idea of where I'm going with it...

When I came to class on Tuesday after reading Spivak's essay, I was feeling terribly daunted. I hadn't read any of the books she used to illustrate her ideas (though I was pretty familiar with the plot of Frankenstein), and found it very difficult to get through her writing and extract anything useful, if only because I didn't know what she was trying to say most of the time. Our discussion & small group work in class were helpful, but I still didn't take very strongly to Spivak's ideas. I suppose, as I've said before on this forum and in class, feminism is something that I feel involves a connection on a personal level as well as on an academic/activist level... and I felt virtually no connection with her essay at all.

But this afternoon, I sat down to read Cixous's essay and had a completely different reaction. Something about her writing style drew me in immediately (perhaps, like Abby, I'm a sucker for a good sex metaphor?), and though her ideas are indeed complex and a little intangible, and her style is extremely "free," as others have described it, I found that I could relate to what she said more than the work of any other writer we've encountered so far. In a sense, I feel like this is the reading I've been waiting for over the past few weeks... the first thing that's really spoken to me on a deeper level...

One Student's picture

Take a look around, then cut through!

First, what I pulled from class discussion about Spivak on Monday:


Imperialism means making natives the means to imperialism’s ends, but claiming that natives are being made into ends, through imperialism.

Feminism, as it is, is part of the imperialist hegemony.

We should critique the forest of feminism, not the tree Jane Eyre; it is the forest that made Jane Eyre feminist, that is, made it part of the hegemony.

The water from Cixous’s “The Laugh of the Medusa” ("the water" is a reference to bel hooks's notion of letting the silt sink to the bottom of the glass, ignoring those parts that aren't useful, and pulling out and using what is):

I think “Laugh of the Medusa” is a call to revolution. “Break out of the circles … Take a look around, then cut through!” (pg 892) Cixous isn’t proposing any particular kind of new order, but chaotic experiment and exploration by individuals each doing as they please, indulging their desire, whether it is to write or to gestate. Her only law is that we should try to understand and love the other, instead of to subdue it and fear it.

What is the connection between Woman reclaiming her body (reclaiming it like a territory), and Woman writing? Specifically writing, not any other form of voice. On page 891, Cixous defines “the desire to write: a desire to live self from within, a desire for the swollen belly, for language, for blood”. Perhaps I find this hard to grasp because I never feel less embodied than when I’m writing – then, I’m all mind and eyes and hands, in that order, but mostly mind. But is her point that women regard their bodies and their writing in a similar way, with shame and without pride? And is her assumption that to take pride in one will be to take pride in the other?

What is Cixous’s attitude toward men? For most of the article, she seems to see them as the opposition. But near the end, “I want all. I want all of me with all of him … I want all of us … I don’t want a penis to decorate my body with. But I do desire the other for the other, whole and entire, male or female …” (pg 891)

The silt, which I’m calling silt because some of it irritates me or I disagree with it, and if I let myself get distracted by disagreeing then I’ll never understand the gist of the overall piece:

-Discussing women and men as if they were discrete, neat categories, and the only ways of being; and saying there is feminine writing and masculine writing.

I don’t think of myself as a woman, and I’m not going to say how I think of myself, here and now: out of the closet, but you don’t know what closet I stepped out of, and I’ve gone some place else where you can’t see me because there aren't any damn words for it anyway. The overall impact of these readings is to feel myself an outsider, albeit one with a stake. I don’t want to redefine the words woman and man or explore new ways of being them, or be them better than before. I want to make new words. A renaming.

-Speaking about women as Africa, as black (pg 877): I wonder what Spivak would say about a citizen of a colonizing nation saying that all women are Africa, are black.


Also, some photos of Helene, her mother, and her brother, which I found arresting. They all have the same magnificent nose.

Jill &#039;66's picture

Jane Eyre and Frankenstein

Spivak's reading of Jane Eyre was bracing and illuminating. I think I will go back again for the deatils I missed as a young reader.

I wish she had added Mansfield Park to her analysis for its almost invisible references to slavery and also for an understanding of the the role of play-acting in creating the double or "other."

Frankenstein I have not read but I trust her description, they feel right to me. I love the idea that the recipient of the letters functions almost like a sleeve in a Dutch painting of the 17th century that seems to fall out of the frame of the picture, opening it up to the viewer's world.

The Spivak essay meshed quite well with the Kaufmann and reasserted to me that an object or end or project of feminist criticism is to reveal injustice as a way of combating it.

In this essay, and in the texts she discusses, injustice is the reaction to the mirror image of what is negative, dark, untamed in us. In imperialism, that is the image of the slave or savage; in other texts it appears to be sex and reproduction. Both seem plausible.

I don't see an obvious connection between imperialism and reproduction unless it is economic necessity--markets must expand, either by reproducing little consumers or by conquest . . .

Others in calss have called Spivak's writing "manic" but I hardly see how her first paragraph can be argued against. It is very clear and compelling.

albolton's picture

Spivak & Cixous

First impressions:

Spivak--Kind of tiresome ranting, but it would be interesting to get ahold of both Jane Eyre and Wild Sargasso Sea and read them together.

Cixous--This is poetry more than an essay.

Later thoughts:

 My opinion on Spivak hasn't changed much with re-reading, but I've appreciated hearing (by proxy) the insights shared in class, and thoughts posted here so far.  Political discussion always seems to make me angry and sad--not a productive combination.  (But I'm still interested in trying the JE/WSS experiment, though not so analytically as she might suggest.)

On the third reading of Cixous, she started to make sense to me, and I think in terms of "contributing to a current feminist praxis" she offers ever so much more than Spivak.  It is so much more inspiring to be exhorted to set ourselves free to do what we can do than to continue with rounds and rounds of recriminations for past injustices.  Cixous says "write," but Abby recognizes that not only writing, but painting, songs, cooking, theoretical imaginings, etc., etc. are all ways in which we can (and should) creatively express ourselves as seems appropriate to each individual.  (Thanks, Abby, for expressing that so clearly.)

I think again we may be confronting the difference between feminism per se and feminist literary criticism.  As Matos says, Spivak may contribute more to literary criticism, but I think Cixous offers more to a feminist life (if only we can live up to her lofty expectations.) 

--Alex '65



YJ's picture


The first thing that struck me upon finishing the Cixous reading was the note at the end indicating the two translators of the essay, presumably male and female based on their names. It reminded me right away of the Allen essay ("Kochinnenako in Academe...") and her point about the role translation can play on a text. Agreeing with Allen as she demonstrated quite well the cultural influence a translator can consiously or unconsciously bring to the text they're translating, I wondered how much of this occurred with this essay.

I agree with many of the comments made above that Cixous' essay seemed and felt very "floaty" and "free" to me. Like many others, I too yearned for more order and structure in this essay. How much of that comes from the arguably male-dominated academic structrues already in place (as argued by Sonoski and Scweickart) that informs how we think and read as students-male or female and how much of that comes from my own personal need for familiarity and routine-for structure and order, I do not know.

Ultimately, I couldn't quite grasp the point of Cixous' essay precisely because I couldn't follow the free-wheelings style of writing. And quite honestly, I couldn't take it that seriously either-which may again go back to that point that I've been cultured and taught in such a way that I can't take anything seriously or consider anything "intellectual" if they do not fit the male standards of intelligence. The overarching question Cixous' essay foregrounded for me is if we're ready to break out of the "masculine" writing quite yet. Have feminists and feminist scholars reached a point where they can write in the way Cixous does? I personally do not think so, but I don't consider myself a good example of a "feminist" (although at this point, I'm not sure what is).

Abby's picture

Call to "Action"

    I am thankful, Mary Clurman, for what you shared this week in your above post.  The experience you describe of leaving Bryn Mawr because of a resistance to that which is "too intelectual, too abstract, too self-consciously rigorous...Unreal" reminds me of some of my own struggles when I first came to this college.  I think many must share your experience, if not completely, at least in part.  I guess your words inspired me to forgo an attempt at "appropriate" academic analysis of this weeks readings and just talk about what turned me on.

  I might as well come out and confess:  I'm a sucker for a good sex metaphor.  Cisoux's comparison of the woman ashamed of her private erotic pleasure and the woman ashamed of her writing drew me in from the start.  Perhaps it's because I study literature that I find the connection between words and erotics so appleaing; because I've spent the past three years flirting with authors instead of athletes, staying up all night with books instead of boyfriends.  Who knows?  All I do know is that orgasms are powerful, and so are words.

  I think that's at the heart of Cisoux's piece. She's encouraging us to let it out: to write, speak, scream, EXPRESS.  Our drives and desires have huge implications: they can create!  People, perhaps especially women, are creative creatures.  We make ideas, books, poems, songs, paintings, orgasms, babies, families, you name it!  Put aside all the jargon and politics and what it comes down to is this: we've got a lot to give.  That's not to say that every woman should feel as though she must give, must express or must make her expression public; certainly not.  I think the point is this: don't be ashamed of the sounds you make.  Our voices are valuable; just as valuable as our wombs.  There's no need to be silent, if you don't want to be.  That which we give birth to is a contribution to the continuous project of world-making, whether it be children, theories, art, protests or some crazy mix of all those things.  We have the potential to envision new worlds.  We might as well take a shot at actually building them. 

"And I sing sometimes like my life is at stake

 because you're only as loud as the noises you make."

                                   - Ani  DiFranco

(Sorry, had to quote the woman at least partially responsible for my foray into the feminist world)

gail's picture

orgasms and words

Yes, yes,

I like the way you put it that orgasms are powerful, so are words

so is any art form.


smigliori's picture

The Notion of "Othering"

I feel like the largest connective force between the Spivak and the Cixous piece is the theoretical concept of "othering". Perhaps this comes to mind because of Spivak's focus on imperialism, especially connected with the concepts of "worlding" and "Orientalism" -- two concepts which I, for reasons I am not prepared to analyze at the moment, automatically connect with feminist theory as regards the concept of "woman" as the "other" of "man". While Spivak groups together Western men and women under the umbrella of the imperialist oppressor who causes the "worlding" of non-Western societies, Cixous vehemently insists on the seperation of femininity from masculinity and, therefore, woman from man.

I think the biggest difficulty I have with the Cixous essay, and, in fact, probably the same problem I've had with every other text we've read so far, is the assumption of the categories "woman" and "man" as things which are biologically determined and pre-destined to exist throughout all ages. The notion that the there are two genders, male and female, and, for most of these theorists, that these genders are biologically determined is a presupposition which I believe we must overcome if we are to move forward to individual equality. However, I suppose perpetually railing against the gender binary is not the purpose of these weekly postings, though I'm sure this will not be the last time I do so. To return to my original point, I really like the positioning of the Spivak essay with the Cixous because it points out the problem with setting up any dichotomy. Eventually, and probably sooner rather than later, another category will be introduced which throws the entire system out of whack.

matos's picture

Regarding the question

Regarding the question which analysis spoke more compellingly to me, Spivak’s or Cixous’, I’m going with Spivak. Though I only read one of the texts she discussed, Frankenstein, the other two are so well known that they had certain connotations that they brought with them, especially Jane Eyre. I’ve heard so much in conversation and popular culture of women aspiring to be Jane Eyre. As much as Austen’s Mr. Darcy is hyped to the perfect man, Jane Eyre has been hyped to be all a young lady should be. Spivak’s analysis was such a new an interesting perspective to me because she seemed to toss Eyre to the side, focusing mostly on the Bertha character. As a woman of color, the focus on a character who was the sole representative of the non-European world in this European imperialism-era novel pulled me in to Spivak’s analysis. Especially, the point that Professor Dalke brought up in the end of Tuesday’s class. The idea that the only way a “foreign” non-European woman’s experience can be relevant in a story of a girl maturing into a woman is as “Jane’s dark double” disgusts me and I reject it.


Also, I want to say that I’m genuinely shocked that a couple of women found that Spivak was “ranting”. To me, Cixous’ piece was more rant-like than Spivak’s and her anger was more obvious, though both showed some rightful indignation. I viewed Spivak’s analysis as more put together, intellectual or “academic” as MRizzo described it. I think that’s another reason why it appealed to me more because it was something I was used to. She analyzed three texts, looking a for a common theme or idea within them, the basis of literary courses.

ndegeorge's picture

Imperialism and Feminism

<>I'd like to start by saying that I agree with Elizabeth319 that it was therapeutic to break up into small groups to begin discussing Spivak. The text was difficult and it was refreshing to get our thoughts out there without having to worry about being eloquent in front of the whole class. I also think it helped fuel the class discussion later on.

<>I think we decided at the end of class that the point of Spivak's essay was that feminism itself has become imperialistic. However, I don't think that I would have ever reached that conclusion on my own. I have studied Orientalism in the past and hoped that it would help me here, but it only made my understanding of the text more convoluted. You can use the theory when talking about feminism because women are often viewed by men as the "other" (the second sex). Spivak extends that to say that Bertha Mason was Jane Eyre's "other." However I think they are both the "other" to men. Spivak's interpretation is a modern construction that is divisive and not necessarily helpful to reaching a better understanding of feminism.

This may be a tangent but I know that particularly within the British Empire, women (both white and of color) were very often used as a means to an end. For example, widow-sacrifice or the rape of white women by natives often incited conflict. But if I recall, it was not usually a concern for women's rights so much as a way for the British to dehumanize the natives involved. When the British could establish the natives as the "savage other," then they justified their dominance over them.

I haven't read Jane Eyre but I don't buy that Bertha is the physical manifestation of Jane's inner turmoil. I would do a traditional feminist reading of the imperial context and say that in a man's world, the two women are pitted against each other. In the end one must be destroyed for the other to be happy and man retains his hegemonic power. That's as much as I have figured out. Caliban and Ariel could also be representative of this model but I've no idea how to fit Frankenstein in. Or child-bearing and soul-making for that matter. Hopefully we can continue this discussion in class.

kwheeler's picture

Cixous and Spivak

Though I found it difficult to read at first, I really appreciated many of the themes Cixous was trying to get across; the reclaiming of the female body, the rejection of the "self-disdain" that so many women accept and how it is important for women to write for women.

However, having just read Spivak's article I couldn't help but think that by using the "Dark Continent" as an analogy for the repression of women, Cixous is victim to the same imperialist ideas and forces that Spivak criticize. Or am I missing something?

I think this is all evidence of how important it is for us to read with the awareness of the fact that underlying hegemonic imperialist forces are ever-present in literature. However, just because someone has one criticism of a text does not mean they should reject the whole thing.

EMaciolek's picture

Class Discussion 9/25

The idea of "interpellation" forced our class to look at our own place in society, as students who are interpellated into school. When looked at from one perspective it seemed as if we were unknowingly, yet willingly, formed by school because it is the "dominant ideological apparatus," and we submit to it. However, when we delved more into the subject it became clear that we didn't think of attending college as a domination technique created by society, but rather attending school is equivalent to internally making a deal to engage in certain social practices.

In regards to Spivak's essay, our class broke up into four separate groups to discuss how "the active ideology of imperialism provides a discursive field" for Jane Eyre, Frankenstein and The Tempest. After we regrouped the following questions were brought to light: (1) What is the relationship between hegemonic imperialism and child-bearing/soul-making? (2) How does imperialism affect oppression in regards to race and gender? Which is affected more? (3) How does a hegemonic reading of literature relate back to feminism? (4) How do the three texts relate when it comes to child-bearing/soul-making?

We came to a general decision that a soul is a creation by social process that is added to a pre-existing body. Imperialism assumes that a monster/native needs a soul, when really she already has one - it just doesn't fit into imperialist norms. Also, when it comes to child-bearing and soul-making, we found, particularly in Frankenstein, that there is a problem with ignoring the female role in these processes.

I found the most enlightening part of the class discussion to be our discussion of the relationship between imperialism and feminism. We found that the type of feminism people use is imperialist. Also, the way that men treat women in certain texts is equivalent to the way imperialist countries treat natives. When it comes to literature it became clear that white women use native women to represent their own psycho oppression and in this way perpetuate imperialism. To follow up this thread of thought we asked: "Does the madness of one woman need to be contained so that another woman can be foregrounded?" (Examples: Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea)

We left class with the following questions in mind: Why is Jane Eyre the cult feminist text when it has hegemonic imperialist forces in it? What role does literature play in the project of feminism?

gail's picture

Class discussion

Thanks greatly for sharing what you discussed in class.

This helped me a lot with the Spivak article.

When you discuss Cixous could you give me your thoughts?

Anne quoted that which impressed me... that both masterbation and secret writing were tempory releases .  Sometimes this was not beneficial.  Since 1976, technology has brought us self publishing and POD.  With ISBN numbers available and channels to Borders etc, do you think that this is valid expression and writing?

Thanks for your ideas.

jrizzo's picture

I can certainly identify

I can certainly identify with the uneasiness Mary Clurman felt upon encountering Cixous's mystical leanings.  It seemed to me, at first, that the vague, shadowy style of her writing could only reinforce the "dark continent" misconception she seeks to eradicate.  I was confused, because not only does she seem to be fully concious of writing in this potentially off-putting way, but she even predicts, "you'll splutter that I'm a 'mystic," a statement that suggests an unapologetic pride, in a style that allows her to write of functioning within the discourse of man, "it is time for her to dislocate this 'within,' to explode it, turn it around, and seize it; to make it hers, containing it, taking it in her own mouth, biting that tongue within her very own teeth to invent for herself a language to get inside of."  I'm still working to untangle that metaphor. 

I realized though, that Cixous was most certainly allowing her writing to swirl around like this in order to be the best possible example of her own edict, "Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing."  I was fascinated to notice my own immediately averse reaction to Cixous's "feminine" writing style.  I was disoriented, and the absence of Spivak's masculine, academic style was keenly felt, not because it neccesarily made more sense to me, (both articles were difficult to understand) but because I have grown accustomed to Spivak's brand of academic writing, and am more comfortable grappling with it, when grappling is neccesary.  Once I was able to accept that Cixous's essay could not be read like an ordinary article, I was able to return to it, and found her thoughts immensely helpful.  To finally respond to the original prompt, I found this article infinitely more compelling and/or useful to the current feminist praxis, because if the exploration process Cixous proposes were to take place on a large scale, I believe it would effectively wipe out Spivak's imperialism issue.  As we discussed in class, the problem with imperialism is that it assumes that there exists an inferior, soulless group in need of soul-making.  Free a woman from the fear of her own "dark" unconcious, and she will soon discover her soul.  Once she is secure in this knowledge, she will never again consent to be oppressed. 

Lydiav's picture

I think the uneasiness one

I think the uneasiness one feels upon first encountering this text roots itself in the fact that Cixous's heart is completely on the table in this essay. The first thing I thought when I began the piece was, "whoa, this woman is angry.” The essay reads more like a diary entry, a rant as someone mentioned earlier, or an impassioned speech, rather than an academic article.

I don’t think we are used to seeing this much real emotion splayed before use in this manner. This is not a piece of fiction, this is a real heart, a real body, presenting itself to the reader and screaming: I will validate myself. It is as though she has let go of any/all societal constructs, any awareness of being P.C. , and is taking on all the injustice dealt toward women in one essay. Cixous talks as freely about woman’s masturbation and resulting guilt as she discusses their shame at writing their thoughts.

And I agree with Jessica (jrizzo) when she says that Cixous’ writing ‘swirls’ in order to exemplify her own code of arms. She is enacting what she calls for all women to do, to write the way of women; she is writing for her body to be heard and in doing so she is completely naked on the page. Her writing intimidates for this reason, I think. It is erotic and, for the prudes among us, not an easy read. She throws some very challenging ideas our way and even if I am not 100% sure I agree with all of them, I cannot help but wanting to stand up and clap for a woman who not only overcomes the shame of writing but is willing to put her heart out there for all of us to tear apart, if we so choose. There are no pretenses here and I admire that.

gail's picture


I loved Cixous's Medusa Laughs.


It spoke to me as an Artist- not as audience. viewer or reader.

Did your class discussion address how Cixous's ideas  help form a method of  feminist literary critique?

One Student's picture

We'll tell you after class

We'll tell you after class tomorrow!

But I think that I read it as a writer who is unsatisfied with the way the world is.

Elizabeth319's picture

Deciphering the Manic Writing of Spivak

Before I attempt to crack the message that Spivak hides in her writing, I want to express my gratitude for the discussion in class about the direction in which the forum was starting to lead. I praise to the alums for bringing to the surface the lack of interactions within the forum. I had started to sense a brewing of competition steaming in the forums. I became worried that my post was not long or scholarly enough. I thought I misinterpreted the idea that the forum was suppose to be another means for informal dialogue and a way for us to share our thoughts about the texts and reflection of discussion in class.


            With all that said, I apologize to the alums that are not able to be in the classroom because my post will allude to much of what was discussed in class. Class yesterday was particularly valuable in relation to making sense of the dense, manic writing of Spivak. I have yet to read Cixous’ text (and know that I will not be able to get it to prior to the deadline for this week’s posting) but I can only hope that it is more comprehensible than Spivak. Mary Clurman’s posting has given me a sense of reassurance for the Cixous’ text as I found myself relating and agreeing with much of what Mary expressed in her post.  Cixous piece appears to have a heavier psychological rather than philosophical perspective. A psychological perspective may put me on the same wavelength with Cixous because I relate to an underlying psychological perspective as a psychology major. That is not to say that I did not appreciate Spivak in class today as we untangled and deciphered what she expressed in her essay.


            Spivak’s writing is already difficult to decompose without the references to the novels which I have not read (except Frankenstein). The examples drawn from the novels only made her writing seem that much harder to grasp. Class discussion and analysis acted like the Tums per say to alleviate the indigestion that occurred after I read Spivak. I would not concur with Spivak’s argument that European women were using women with another skin color to symbolize the less pure thoughts of the white Europeans. Whether the European writers’ intentionally translated their “darker” desires through that of women of a minority class or that the patterns of female writing during imperialism was more of an act of the unconscious is up to debate. The imperialistic influence may have been a trigger to the hierarchical standing that the European women assumed in society especially during the period of colonization. The men may have been the ones to actually explore the lands to colonize, but the women may very well have played a crucial passive aggressive role in demonizing the third world female population.

albolton's picture

Class discussion

Please don't apologize to this alum for writing in response to class discussion.  Just because I'm unable to be physically present in the class is why I appreciate all the more any insights and tidbits that I can glean from the on-campus students' postings.

--Alex '65

Mary Clurman &#039;63's picture

Reading Critically

I find all this related reading to be salutary. At this point in my life I can even get ahead of the reading calendar (I still have bad dreams about not having managed all the required work in the required timeframe when a student -- maybe now they'll go away!), so I'd like to address everything I've read to date, including and beyond Schweickart and Sosnoski, and on through Cixous.

My overall impression is that the readings are getting more and more narrow, or at least the views of their authors are; the purpose here is surely to give us representative viewpoints, including the most extreme and/or militant. However it all reminds me of the reason I took a leave of absence from Bryn Mawr after sophomore year and never returned (I got my BFA instead): too intellectual, too abstract, too self-consciously rigorous for me. Unreal.

That said, it should also be understood that I feel I owe much of what I am and have become to the two years I completed at BMC, and far more than I ever learned in art school: I learned rigor, discrimination, articulation, perseverance, and with those, I think, intellectual honesty. So, looking at the course readings, I guess that what I acquired at BMC was the ability to seek and find what I need and to jettison what I don't -- even if I didn't recognize the latter at the time.

Nevertheless my experience left me resistant to jargon, keen on monosyllaby (new term? any synonyms?), and mistrustful of text that leans, as does Cixous's, toward the mystical and away from the straightforward. The defining moment came for me some years ago when, having seen the film "Pride & Prejudice," I felt "sucked in," a victim of intellectual identity theft; but when I watched "Othello," I felt a constant interplay between my emotions and my intelligence, a (Brechtian?) distancing that left me identified with, rather than alienated from, myself. (Yes, I'd read both long ago; but the films brought this insight.)

I appreciate the passion in Cixous's text; it was refreshing after Spivak's opaque rantings. I do appreciate Spivak's viewpint, just not her manner, or her writing style: she writes the way I was afraid, near the end of sophomore year, I would end up writing, though minus her anger.

I guess my basic concern is that anger/arguing (as in falsification)is a bad thing. It strikes me as counterproductive and counter-feminine: if, with Woolf, we are to save men (and ourselves) from themselves, atom bombs, global warming, etc., the individuation that is the goal of falsification won't cut it. I hate to see academe going that way, because truth comes to us only through intelligence, discrimination and perseverance.

I like and would shape my opinions and actions in line with the allegorical Kochinnenako of tribal interpretation: all things are in fact equal, each works best in its time, the foregraound is the background and vice-versa.