Contemporary ambivalence around the word “feminism” is remarkable for what it says about our times, when the question of women’s rights, especially in the United States, is increasingly being framed almost exclusively in terms of workplace achievement.
Earlier this year when Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, was generating controversy by associating feminism with “militant” women who “have a chip on the shoulder,” Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, launched her book Lean In. The book, which she calls a “sort of a feminist manifesto,” instructs women on how to “internalize the revolution” in order to better their chances to secure individual professional achievement.
The Cixous Reading Group, a newly formed collaboration of Los Angeles-based artists and writers, is a kind of pop-up seminar, trying to reframe what it means to be a feminist today. Bringing together women and men from a wide range of ages and nationalities, the group has been meeting every two weeks for the past six months to read and discuss the works of Hélène Cixous, the famous French poet, playwright and philosopher whose body of work includes some of the world’s most influential works on critical theory and feminism. Through close textual readings and wide-ranging discussion, the group investigates feminism in the context of what it means to be working artists trying to find grounds from which to create.
The reading group is an outgrowth of “Forêt Intérieure/Interior Forest,” a project by Los Angeles-based artist Alexandra Grant that includes a series of public drawing sessions, artist collaborations, and an installation at the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica. Co-curated by Pilar Tompkins Rivas and Isabelle Le Normand, this work will premiere in Santa Monica and be presented at Mains d’Oeuvres in Saint-Ouen, France this fall.
Since Grant’s collaborative installation focuses on Cixous’ book “Philippines” as a source for imagery, the reading group was formed with the intent of activating discussion around the entirety of Cixous’ oeuvre, including the classic texts “Coming to Writing,” “Steps on the Ladder of Writing,” and her highly anthologized essay “The Laugh of the Medusa,” which reads as a true feminist manifesto, as rousing and inspirational today as it was when it first appeared in 1975.
Born in North Africa and educated in France, Cixous has produced a body of work that is as famous for its breadth and variety as for its difficultly in being categorized. Multilingual, Jewish, and female, Cixous claimed early on that she had no grounds from which to write. “With no legitimate place, no fatherland, no history of [her] own,” her every text becomes an autobiography, every text a manual on how to read, how to write, and how to come to language.
What unifies her work is a belief in the importance of language, that the very linguistic structures we think with, speak with, write with, and are embodied by, are the sources of our limitations and means for our liberation.
For Cixous, the notion of “woman” has been “inculcated with the spirit of restraint.” She asks us to “be wary of names, they are nothing but social tools, rigid concepts, little cages of meaning assigned.” Her poetical and wildly imaginative texts try to enact a feminine position, which she argues is available to anyone of any gender, that allows for freedom from self-limitations and the limitations imposed upon us.
Indeed, Cixous’ texts are nothing if not playful. In some ways, the Cixous Reading Group functions as a kind of social reading party. The group rides together on the waves of Cixous’ irresistible rhetoric and wordplay, sometimes stopping to play within the gaps in meaning between translations and the original texts.
For many of the younger artists in the reading group who are encountering Cixous’ work for the first time, Cixous offers permission to “[let] yourself go, unwind, open the floodgates.” It was Cixous’ use of wordplay and double entendre that captured the imagination of abstract painter Lauralee Pope, a second year MFA student at CalArts. In her latest exhibition Pope found herself titling her paintings for the very first time: “I was waiting for this moment when I could use language in a way that reflected the type of play I already do in painting.”
For others in the group, who first started reading Cixous in the 90s, it’s been a welcome return to a writer who had earlier inspired them to find their voices as artists. “The thing I really respond to in Cixous is that she focuses on the process,” says LA-based artist and writer Cindy Rehm, “As a creative person you can get bogged down about worrying about the product. Focusing on being in the process is a much happier place to be.”
In an ongoing effort to draw in different groups of readers, the group meets at various locations around Los Angeles such as Lehrer Architects in Silver Lake, the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, and 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica, where the group gathers in the very space where the installation “ForêtIntérieure/Interior Forest” is collaboratively coming to life.
Artist and writer Mary Anna Pomonis says, “Staying in touch with other people who are interested in feminism and supporting each other” is one of the great benefits of the Cixous Reading Group. For Pomonis, reading Cixous is “constantly reminding me what my job as an artist is, to stop and frame what I’m doing.”
Meital Yaniv, a first year MFA student at CalArts who works with language and translation in her own practice, says she has found in Cixous the new feminist voice she’s been looking and searching for. “Cixous!” she says, “Where have you been all my life?!”