Arachne Online: A Response to Hélène Cixous in the Digital Age

Let the priests tremble, we’re going to show them our sexts!   —  Hélène Cixous

For me, the point of departure is the body by which I perceive, by which I measure, and by which I make my imprint. The corporeal, the tactile, is thus the primary source of communication, cognition and understanding. — Adriena Simotová

In the essay “The Laugh of the Medusa,” (1976) the French poststructuralist Hélène Cixous calls for an écriture feminine, a “women’s writing” to counter the ethos of phallocentric, linear, “hierarchical,” “rational” male texts. At the time Cixous wrote this work, feminist theory was in its ascendance; other writers like Luce Iragary and Julia Kristeva championed similar feminine literary movements that reintroduced the body as an intellectual locus. Cixous’s invocation was for women–recognizing in her paper that this group is not homogenous— to break with traditional language, grammar and propriety when they speak for and from themselves. “Women must write through their bodies, they must invent impregnable language that will wreck partitions, classes, and rhetoric, regulations and codes, they must submerge, cut through, get beyond the ultimate reserve-discourse, including the one that laughs at the very idea of pronouncing the word ‘silence,’” she wrote.[1]

            Medusa’s severed head, with its impossibly threatening laugh, becomes Cixous’s metaphor for the disempowered female voice dominated by masculine discourse. But Cixous also sees a virulent assault on the feminine by the female. She writes, “Men have committed the greatest crime against women. Insidiously, violently, they have led them to hate women, to be their own enemies, to mobilize their immense strength against themselves, to be the executants of their virile needs.”[2] This internecine sexual battle occurs most importantly, to Cixous, in the literary realm. Women try to write like men and ostracize other female writers who don’t follow suit. Presently one need only look at the artificial genre of “chick lit” and authors like Jennifer Weiner, who struggle to bridge the gender divide.

In his work Metamorphoses, the first century Roman poet Ovid depicts how a woman undermines another woman through competitive communication in the myth of Arachne and Athena. Here weaving is the medium for a contest between the mortal and immortal realms. This webbed, interlaced support was an essential aspect of the feminine realm and one of the only modes of communication available to ancient women. In Ovid’s telling, Athena appears in armor and her aegis—a skin bearing the head of the Medusa. This aegis was a supernatural defense. But it also reminds the reader of what happens to a woman who transgresses her subservience to masculine authority.

Arachne, in her maidenhood, offers a democratic, truth-telling version of storytelling. She weaves the acts of oppressors–the god’s rapes—in front of an oppressor, Athena. The female goddess punishes the woman by transforming her into a spider, a subhuman weaver, a worker. This physical transformation (metamorphosis) ties the body to the techne of weaving.

            Women’s bodies have often been linked to communication, first through weaving, next through secretarial work like dictation and then through computing. For instance, during World War II, many women helped process wartime information. At Bletchley Park a group of women were called computers for their work intaking and evaluating Axis transmissions.[3] At present, the majority of factory workers assembling microprocessors are women in low-paying jobs.[4] These roles, however, never permit women to be authors, possessors of agency, but tools for men to use for their expression.

            Women writers have become more common and vocal since Cixous penned “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Some of that corresponds to the rise of the Internet. A Nielsen study in 2012 found that women are eight times more likely to pen a blog than men. The same study determined that one in three bloggers are mothers. Women are also more likely to create and participate in social media. They spend more time online then men (by just under two hours) and purchase more there, too.

Statistically the Internet is slightly female dominated. And to many Cixous’s essentialist view of feminism has become very unfashionable. But what Cixous had in mind when she called for women to “write from their bodies” was for a liberation from traditionally male engineered systems of communication, from prescriptivist linguistic rules and from the oppression of others as only objects, never subjects in their own narratives.

Cixous’s call to write should empower every member of an oppressed group to pick up a pen, to speak out. The digital media market may cater to and court women, but it also exploits them by depriving them of their own bodies (revenge porn) and their own economies. This market is still the oppressive goddess wearing the head of Medusa and making women workers into little spiders.

“To write and thus to forge for herself the antilogos weapon. To become at will the taker and initiator, for her own right, in every symbolic system, in every political process. It is time for women to start scoring their feats in written and oral language.” — Hélène Cixous [5]


[1] Cixous, Helene, 1976. The Laugh of the Medusa, Signs: Vol. 1, No. 4 (Summer 1976), pp. 875-893, p. 886

[2] Cixous, 878

[3] Plant, Sadie. Zeros and Ones. Doubleday, New York. 1997. P. 147

[4] Plant, 74

[5] Cixous, 886

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