Mellon Seminar Reflection 10: Medussa is Laughing

We opened the seminar this semester with Derrida and Deconstruction. I won't even try to summarize Derrida because it is "impossible" (smile!). What I got out of the readings and our discussion if that Derrida showed us how much we are trapped in language and our constructions of meaning. Deconstruction appears to me to be a mental process or approach that seeks to discover inherent contradictions in all of our cultural productions, which reveals to us that there is no essential meaning to words or other forms of expression. The complete meaning of anything is postponed or delayed; it is in flux and ever-changing. This makes it impossible to fully grasp.

I think that Deconstruction puts us into a liminal space, where either-or makes no sense anymore. Both-and reigns. An example of this for me is some of Derrida's work on ethics. What is ethical to one party in the relationship usually harms the other. If we choose to spend more time with our families (an ethical choice for our families), this means that we don't spend as much time at work (an unethical choice for our workplace).

The big question for us in the seminar (and maybe you have an answer to this and can share it) is to what extent does Deconstruction exploit the contradictions to the sacrifice of the commonalities of language? We do in fact use language to communicate meaning and most of the time our minds meet on the subject and we know what is being expressed. We don't live most of our lives not knowing what is being said. We don't live in language-meaning chaos. Of course there are moments when we are misunderstood or misread. Those of us who are authors certainly have experienced times when our works have been read in ways we never intended. But even given all these contradictions, there still seems to me to be something stable about language and meaning in a given context or community. Something agreed upon that makes language useful to communicate between us.

What really got me excited actually wasn't Derrida, but Helene Cixous who developed an experimental form of writing influenced by Deconstruction. The piece we read is her very famous "The Laugh of Medusa" trans. and published in Signs 1.4 (1976) 875-893. Not only couldn't I put it down, but I sat in shock afterward. Two thoughts were going through my head. First, when I die I want this read aloud at my service. Second, how could a French woman in 1976 express what I have been feeling for years as an American woman in 2011? It is like she was inside my head and my feelings.

I really don't know what else to say, my reaction was so visceral. Her piece is a call to women (yes it is written to women which makes me wonder how different my writing might be if I imagined an all-female audience) to take our bodies back, to reject the phallocentric perspective that has dominated and determined and confiscated us, and to WRITE. Write we must because it is in the act of writing that woman seizes the occasion to speak, it mobilizes her to enter history no longer as the suppressed. It allows her to become "at will the taker and initiator, for her own right, in every symbolic system, in every political process" (880). Women must break out of the silence that has imprisoned us and "shouldn't be conned into accepting a domain which is the margin or the harem" (881). Famously she writes about men who have riveted us between the two horrific myths of Medusa and the abyss: "Too bad for them if they fall apart upon discovering that women aren't men, or that the mother doesn't have one. But isn't this fear convenient for them? Wouldn't the worst be, isn't the worst, in truth, that women aren't castrated, that they have only to stop listening to the Sirens (for the Sirens were men) for history to change its meaning? 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" (885).

Did I mention that I finished my manuscript Sex and the Serpent: Why the Sexual and Gender Conflicts of the Early Church Still Matter?