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Thinking with Hélène Cixous: Enchanted Modernities and Anti-Oedipal Modernism

5 August 2022
Eret Talviste, University of Tartu

The paper I presented at the Hopeful Modernisms conference was based on the theoretical frame of my PhD thesis that I am now turning into a monograph entitled Affect, Embodiment, and Materiality in Virginia Woolf and Jean Rhys: Exploring Strange Intimacies. I’m interested in what I call ‘strange intimacies’ –  affective, sensorial, and bodily moments when a close relationship with an unexpected or unlikely character, thing, or place emerges. My general claim is that in order to notice strange intimacies in modernity and modernism more broadly, we need to view modernist fiction as anti-Oedipal. Below, I offer an extract from my work where I move towards thinking with Hélène Cixous in order to see modernism in a hopeful way.

Affect theories aim, as Julie Taylor (2015) puts it, “to put feeling at the heart of our thinking as we theorise modernism and modernity.”[1] It seems that engagement with affect, however, has primarily put negative feelings at the heart of modernism. The alienation in urban environments, technological improvements that were often used for disastrous ends, and international travel are, as Lorraine Sim and Ann Vickery (2014) point out, a trigger for the new feelings that modernist literature examines.[2] These new feelings include nostalgia, regret, shame, despair, resentment, passivity, escapism, self-hatred, withdrawal, bitterness, defeatism, and loneliness. While readings that explore negative affects offer great insights into the experience of modernity, they present an understanding of modernity and modernism as primarily concerned with loss and disenchantment. I want to contemplate, with Jane Bennett and Hélène Cixous, the possibility of a more hopeful counter story.

Jane Bennett’s (2001) work explores this tale of disenchantment in Western modernity writing “not of a man wrong, but of a civilization wronged,” shifting the focus from an individual subject to a shared affective atmosphere.[3] Bennett sees the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason as the beginning of the decline of enchantment (that at the time was understood as divine enchantment, but Bennett’s – and mine – are enchantment in terms of the world of vibrant matter). According to Bennett, the early twentieth century became disenchanted through the world wars and developments in technology and a widespread understanding of the world as scientifically explainable. Bennett proposes that the modern worldview engenders the decline of the sense that humans are one part of a wider world; it encourages seeing the world and its resources as a dead matter to be used to satisfy human needs. As she writes, “The disenchantment tale figures nonhuman nature as more or less inert ‘matter’; it constructs the modern West as a radical break from other cultures; and it depicts the modern self as predisposed toward rationalism, scepticism, and the problem of meaninglessness.”[4] It is no wonder then, that we as critics tend to pick up precisely negative affects from modernist fiction.

But how, then, to experience, read, and write the world differently, more hopefully? Bennett proposes a counter story that seeks to induce an experience of the contemporary world – a world of inequity […] – as also enchanted – not a tale of reenchantment but one that calls attention to magical sites already here. Not magical in a sense of a ‘set of rituals for summoning up supernatural powers within a coherent cosmology,’ but in the sense of cultural practices that mark ‘the marvelous erupting amid the everyday.’[5]

Bennett’s answer, that traces Deleuze among others, is, a certain anti-Oedipal attention to life, an attention which goes beyond the individual towards all life, in its dailyness. Claire Colebrook argues that certain post-structural readings have created an Oedipal reading of modernist literature, as thinkers like Kristeva and Derrida have also drawn that theory from modernist literature, particularly that of James Joyce.[6] Oedipal, in my use of the word, has two ‘layers’: one is the simple level of lived reality, where the focus is not on familial, heteronormative relations, but on the non-familial and non-human, hence my interest in ‘strange’ intimacies (as in intimacies with strangers, not family members). The other layer is how to express this in language and what the roles of language and Oedipality are in their respective  systems. In the Oedipal system, language is ‘stuck’ in defined, largely human relations, and consequently so is literature. An anti-Oedipal ‘view’ on life, and writing, and reading, on the other hand, places language and literature elsewhere by considering various strange encounters and intimacies which form selves and their stories. From this anti-Oedipal view seem to emerge the post-human, new materialist, and ecocritical readings of modernism that often have a hopeful, enchanting project, as anti-Oedipality seems to be strongly related to decentring the human subject..

Despite the necessity to look beyond the human world and subjectivity, the human subject experiences the world through a specific body that is gendered, raced, and classed.  In his review of Jane Bennett’s latest book Influx and Efflux: Writing up with Walt Whitman (2020), Tobias Skriveren evokes something he refers to as the second phase of new materialism – a certain recentring of the human.[7] In this book, Bennett asks: “How to bespeak an I alive in a world of vibrant matter? How to write up its efforts and endeavours?”[8] Hélène Cixous’s work allows us to explore the second phase of materialism and posthumanism better than, say, Deleuze’s, because her work always centres the human, while also being anti-Oedipal.[9] Cixous’s critique of Oedipal interpretation is present in her writing on history as a narrative of great men’s lives, which she argues is a direct outcome of the general tendency of Western cultures to produce phallocentric narratives. To move beyond the phallocentric writing that focuses on the ego, the self, and identity, which Cixous associates with Freudian psychoanalysis, she urges writers to “break out of the circles; don’t remain within the psychoanalytic closure. Take a look around, then cut through!”[10] Cixous’s écriture féminine encourages us to write a way out of Oedipal, disenchanted narratives by focusing on bodies, materiality, and the (non-human) other. Although language is important for her, like Deleuze, she does not fetishize it, but explores how it can convey joyful feelings and the pleasant physical sense of being alive.[11] In Rootsprints (1997) she writes:

“If one could x-ray-photo-eco-graph a time, an encounter between two people […] and then listen to what is produced in addition to the exchange identifiable in the dialogue – this is what writing tries to do: to keep the record of these invisible events […] all that will not have been pronounced but will have been expressed with means other than speech.”[12]

Although language here is important, it is equally important how she emphasises that language should be able to ‘catch’ non-human forces that are felt and lived. Thinking with Cixous’s writing when we read modernism, we begin to notice modernism’s life-affirming, enchanting, and hopeful nuances because Cixous’s relationship to not only life, but also specifically to language and writing, is anti-Oedipal and pays attention to how the human ‘I’ is alive, and written, among the world of vibrant matter.

Image credit: Alexandra Hughes, Amethyst (Living in Hope – paintings on the matrescence), 2021, 29.7 x 42.0 cm


[1] Julie Taylor, Modernism and Affect, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015), p. 2.

[2] Lorraine Sim and Ann Vickery, ‘New Feelings: Modernism, Intimacy, and Emotion’, in Affirmations: Of the Modern, 1.2 (2014), 1-14, p. 6.

[3] Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossing, and Ethics, (Princeton: Princeton University Press), p. 7.

[4] Bennett, p. 7.

[5] Bennett, p. 8.

[6] Claire Colebrook, ‘Woolf and Theory’, in Virginia Woolf in Context, ed. by Bryony Randall and Jane Goldman, (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012), 65-78.

[7] Tobias Skriveren, ‘New Materialism’s Second Phase’, in Criticism 63.3 (2021), 309-312.

[8]  Jane Bennett, Influx and Efflux: Writing up with Walt Whitman, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020), p. xii.

[9] Althouh Cixous is primarily known as a ‘French’ psycholinguistic feminist in the Anglophone academia, and associated with feminist theory, her work also offers a rich ground for initiating post-human and materialist dialogues, while keeping the attention on the human. See for example my article on why we should read Cixous with Deleuze: Eret Talviste, ‘Philosophizing in Plato’s Cave: Hélène Cixous’s Affective Writing’, in Capacious: Journal for Emerging Affect Inquiry, 1.4 (2019), 142-160.

[10] Hélène Cixous, ‘The laugh of the Medusa’, trans. by Keith Cohen & Paula Cohen, in Signs, 1.4 (1976), 875−893, p. 892.

[11] Many of Cixous’s later writings, particularly Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing (1993), explore how the human is situated in the larger non-human universe of things and beings.

[12] Hélène Cixous, Rootprints: Memory and Life Writing, trans. by Mireille Calle-Gruber, (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 48.


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