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Medusa's Carnival of Skaz
written by: Susan Marie Shuman
According to poststructuralist “libidinal” feminist writer, Helene Cixous, “Woman must write her self.” She argues that the center of the language structure is the phallus, and that this phallogocentric center has all but dried up the ink flow of the feminine pen. According to the oppressive patriarchal hegemony, the woman’s place is beneath the man, and fettered to his last name in his kitchen. She should be in front of the stove, rather than behind the pen or typewriter. In response, Cixous incites women not to destroy, but to deconstruct as Derrida would say, the patriarchal paradigm, and create a new paradigm and structural center that would include the feminine. Mikhail Bakhtin’s carnivalesque theory might be the point of contact, if not the answer to this impasse.
To begin with, the word “libidinal” deserves closer scrutiny. It can be inferred that by the use of the word “libido” Cixous thinks that women’s “sex” is quite important. Further, perhaps by invoking the libido — that urge to pleasure, Cixous is suggesting that female sexual pleasure is no longer passive. Women will no longer accept or buy into the status of receptacle for male pleasure; to lie beneath him passively and dutifully, moaning and gasping at just the right time to insure that the male ego as well as the male member is satisfied. Finally, when our presence is no longer required we are allowed to step back into our bodies and resume our lives. Fulfillment? Not quite. Women desire a deeper, more creative kind of gratification that comes from within rather than without. What was just described is nothing more than the execution a tedious household chore, such as scouring the grout in the shower, or cleaning the oven. The act of sex is, at times, something that has to be done to keep the house running smoothly and the patriarchal paradigm centered. Among other things, Cixous is here to tell us that a woman’s selfhood isn’t located between her thighs as the patriarchal ideological structure has brainwashed themselves, and women, into believing. “The woman who’s still impressed by the commotion of the phallic stance…that’s the woman of yesterday.” There is more to woman than a collection of orifices waiting to be filled.
Cixous claims that the writing of women is sometimes viewed as silly and not to be taken seriously. It can be likened to masturbation in that it is labeled as shameful, childish, and always done in secret. When we grow up we will stop playing (with our clitorises) and do the things women were meant for, such as waiting for a man and his phallus to fill our vaginas with pleasure. The patriarchal paradigm would have us believe that the goal of our existence as women is to be the little woman behind the big capable man. According to the patriarchy, woman is defined by the man, and it would follow that a vagina is defined by a penis. Without a penis, a vagina is nothing but a hole; a non-entity. Further, women’s writing isn’t even done properly because it is done in secret and never reaches its complete, fulfilling end. Women write just enough to scratch the creative itch. But it feels so good! For that small amount of time we are immersed in the feminine and it’s like coming home. We are being who we are and finally, we feel free. But suddenly, out of nowhere come the familiar feelings of guilt. We begin to ask: “But how far should we go? Where is this leading? How much is too much? Maybe it’s time to stop…”
Women who pick up the pen, which can itself be taken to be a phallic symbol, perhaps feel or even fantasize, as if they are castrating a man in their lives. Guilt ensues and they revert back to the coquette in order to placate the man and be accepted again. As Cixous said, “There is no room for her if she is not a he,” and, “her shameful sickness is that she resists death, and makes trouble.” Since the feminine writer had developed her intelligence and had the nerve to used it, no doubt she was called mad, a monster, and unwomanly; a Medusa. That monster, the woman, is always The Other. She is always the object; never the subject. There was no place for someone like her in the patriarchal world. So she dons the mask of femininity, which includes taking pleasure in private and never being a capable partner in the pleasure of sex, put their writing away, and bake a batch of brownies instead. Nice girls reproduce this painful “Angel in the House” ideology and never topple the boys’ paradigms, no matter how much it hurts us to maintain their egos and erections. And were we not brought up to be nice little girls who grow up to be nice little women?
In order to write themselves, women must first know themselves. How can we accomplish this unless we define ourselves using our own language, the grammar and syntax of our feminine bodies? Since the center of our language is the phallus and we are immersed in a phallogocentric societal structure, everyone writes in a male voice. There is no other choice. In fact, how could the feminine even be properly defined within a phallogocentric vocabulary? This means we must find another way of relating to ourselves than through the traditional avenue of patriarchal phallic language.
This is not to say that the whole language as we know it should be discarded. It serves a purpose. “A little bit of phallus” is tolerable and even welcome because it is part of the culture. The feminine “I” is part of that culture too, whether men like it or not. Admittedly, women cannot destroy the male autobiographical “I,” but we can write over it, cross it, and collectivize it to include the female I. Cixous’ goal is not to destroy, or to castrate the structure, but rather to shake the foundations a bit. It is woman’s turn to speak, to write, and to be heard. No doubt this will frighten men a bit. Change is always frightening because it means one’s power and control is being called into question. A paradigm shift is rarely welcome when it’s your paradigm that is being changed, your structure’s foundation that is being rattled. Why would men want to change anything? The system they have created works great for them.
An hegemony has been created in that the feminine voice is repressed and overshadowed by the stronger, overbearing masculine voice. One way in which men make this hegemony work is by pitting women against one another, and against the woman’s self. They have instilled in us and we have internalized Althusser’s concept of the marriage ISA which tells us the only thing worth loving is something we haven’t got, and never will have: the almighty penis. Through this miraculous appendage comes strength, power, and control. Without it there is inertia. It is stick or be stuck, so to speak. Perhaps when women pick up their clitoral pens and begin to stick back, we will begin to decenter the system.
But what happens when women do dare to write, and it is good writing? When that happens, we are accused of assimilating; of playing around again and pretending to be real, talented, thinking writers. We are accused of wanting to be men and are thusly, defeminized. As Cixous explains, “There is no room for her if she’s not a he.” We find ourselves neutered, and even castrated in that our phallic pen is taken away. Perhaps the fear of authorship is what causes some women to willingly give up the pen of their own accord. When women put down their pens they symbolically castrate themselves, but in doing so they deflected the ridicule and animosity hurled at them by the patriarchal structure; their punishment for inserting some of Derrida’s “play” into the system. We cannot be “real” women and thinking human beings at the same time because it explodes the paradigm.
In order to know who and what they themselves were, men had to define what women were not. To do this they adopted a classification system similar to that implemented in Said’s Orientalism theory. In order to see themselves the powerful, intelligent, and all-around rational alpha-males, they labeled women as being irrational, illogical and emotional, and most of all, inscrutable. The last adjective is the most powerful. Men have gotten a lot of mileage out of that over the years, and continue to do so today. Would anyone with these characteristics be able to write or speak intelligently? If they cannot be understood in the first place, why allow them a voice? The hierarchy says women should be seen and not heard. If they are heard, they’d better be parroting the hegemony’s monologue.
Yet another way in which men manage to keep the upper hand in the hegemony is through jokes. Again, the jokes define women by defining what men do not wish to be. Ethnic jokes worked to keep certain minority groups repressed, and jokes about PMS, blondes (note that blonde is never a man), and women drivers serve to keep woman under man’s collective thumb. The PMS reference is an especially powerful tool as it suggests that, not only are women even more ridiculous and unpredictable than initially perceived, but that at certain times of the month they have the potential to become violent and crazed. To give it a double whammy, women even laugh at and repeat these jokes to each other, and to their daughters. Women are helping to reinforce this patriarchal ideology by reproducing and making it constant, while the men sit back and grin. This is an example of the way men pit women against each other to ensure the phallic center of their societal structure remains erect.
Cixous says that women write in white ink, meaning breast, or mother’s milk. The woman’s role, according to the patriarchal system, is that of mother and nurturer, and she is never far from that stereotype. Obviously the words she writes are invisible and leave nothing behind but a blank page. Although reading is subjective, even that of a blank page, one possible inference could be that the writer has been silenced. Or perhaps she was unable to express her Self properly within the confines of a phallogocentric vocabulary thrust upon her by a patriarchal hegemony. However, there is something to be said for that stark emptiness. It tells a story about what was, what was not, and what might have been. There are times when silence says more than words.
How then, are women to set about answering Helene Cixous’ call to writing? How will we as women, begin to write our bodies?
Cixous points out, “You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful, and she’s laughing.” Perhaps Mikhail Bakhtin’s carnivalesque theory merits consideration. Carnivalesque, which can be defined as “…the inversion of power structures, the parodic debunking of all that a particular society takes seriously as well as that which it fears…” suggests that perhaps we are taking the situation a bit too seriously. A more light-hearted approach may be in order. “Laughter,” Bakhtin writes, “demolishes fear and piety before an object.” Since the patriarchal hegemony appears to be fearful of women, too fearful in fact, to even allow us a voice, we must make them less afraid. After all, Perseus silenced Medusa out of fear of being silenced himself. Therefore, it would seem that the answer might be to engage the hegemony in dialogic discourse and keep the lines of communication open and the illusion that their phallogocentric paradigm as they know it, is still in tact. By implementing Bakhtin’s theory, both the matriarchy and patriarchy will have a chance of achieving a balance of carnivalesque inversion if you will, between self and other, subject and object. Otherwise, if one voice is silenced, the dialogue is finished. If there is no dialogue there is no-thing. According to Bakhtin, “Once the dialogue ends…both other and self have ceased to be.”
That is not what we are after at all. Women want a voice, and equal voice though which to heard. Women no longer want or need to write in white diaphanous breast milk. We can write in menstrual blood-red, too. The goal is not to topple the paradigm or cause it to implode, but to insert some of Derrida’s play into the phallogocentric vocabulary so as to create Bakhtin’s polyphony of voices much like Kafka did when he modified the German autobiographical “I” to include the Prague Jewish “I”. Again, the objective is to add something to the structure by subverting the system, rather than to obliterate it completely. Since women have no penises we are farther from the phallogocentric center of the language structure. We, as women, are closer to the borders of marginality and imagination than the constricting patriarchal vocabulary of the hegemony. This denotes that the language of woman is less stable and less predictable than that of the precisely erect patriarchal hegemony. The Feminine expression is wild and slippery and edgy. Because it is located so far from the center the Feminine is able to and must express itself through conduct that might seem alien and Other-worldly to the phallogocentric structure, thusly causing it to decenter.
The concept and goal is akin to (Deleuze’s word) deterritorializing the phallogocentric language. This idea parallels adopting something foreign and putting your own mark on it; maybe like dipping frijoles refritos in wasabi. Black people did something similar with the English language by inserting their vernacular as did the Hispanics with “Spanglish.” Many of the new words introduced by minorities are now commonly used by many if not all races in America, which proves that a foundations’ structure can be shaken and decentered without collapsing. The female pen would, in a similar way enhance and expand the phallogocentric language’s monologue by inserting play in the form of Bakhtin’s “living mix of varied and opposing voices,” thusly creating dialogic discourse with the Other.
Further, by shaking up the patriarchal language structure with feminine vocabulary, we bring about the implementation of what Derrida and Levi-Strauss refer to as bricolag, and we (formerly known as Us and Them) would all become bricoleurs. When foreign words are immersed into a language it is no longer pure, but one is able to express more ideas in new and different ways. Most of us, meaning both men and women, don’t particularly care about the stability of the language system, and use whatever means are available to get our point across. The more subjects there are with which to engage in discourse, the more ideas there are to exchange, and points there are to make.
There is enough of Derrida’s play to allow flexibility; yet fixed boundaries are implemented in order to avoid the disorder of variety. When these two centers of power are bounced off each other and there is the right amount of give and take, a language becomes deterritorialized. The more a language is used creatively and by different subjects, the more its context is allowed to grow and expand, and thusly, democratization increases. The more diversity or Derrida’s play there is in the language system, the more effectively subjects will be to communicate with Other subjects. Thus, the borderland They are more likely to become part of the We; objects are more likely to become subjects. Further, the language will contain a different structuralized center, yet remain comprehensible to all who speak the language. Further, it would neutralize some of The Other’s otherness in that the level of communication will have risen to Bakhtin’s polyphony (“multi-voiced-ness, in which discourses interact on equal terms”) from heteroglossia (“different-speech-ness which refers to official and unofficial discourses, and foregrounds the clash of antagonistic social forces”).
Along those same lines, skaz, which is derived from the Russian verb RAZ-kaz-ZAT, means to tell, or narrate. It can be argued that the patriarchal hegemony’s version of skaz is more base and abrupt. It falls under the heading of heteroglossia in that it deals in official and unofficial discourses, meaning that there is no equality; there is a distinct subject/object disparity. One is always being talked to or at, by another, rather than talked with. It retains its status of subject by creating and then objectifying The Other. The patriarchy has an agenda, as does each individual member in that they each want to be king of the hill. Within the patriarchal hegemony exists a ‘he who has the most toys, wins’ mindset which Bakhtin defines as “the simultaneity of two or more national languages in the same society, a phenomena which developed during the Renaissance in ancient Rome” (248).
In contrast, the matriarchy is more inclined toward a polyphony, in that each sister is regarded as an equal, one with, next to, and for one another. They are a collective subject in that they are the common voice of many. Predictably, it is no coincidence that the phenomena of polyphony came into being at the height of Marxism. In light of this, it would follow that the goal and agenda of each member of the matriarchal group is to be acknowledged and heard as a collective voice.
Finally, perhaps engaging the patriarchy in dialogue by the implementation of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque should be considered. Rather than divide and conquer, we will invert, subvert and conquer. What if some of Derrida’s play in the form of feminine skaz was inserted into the patriarchal hegemony’s phallogocentric, heteroglossic structure? Perhaps that would sufficiently decenter and deterritorialize the outdated language structure and the matriarchal polyphony could theoretically move into its rightful place: alongside the phallogocentric vocabulary, rather than beneath it.