rhizomes.04 spring 2002

The Laugh of the Modem:
Interactive Technologies and l'ecriture feminine
Michelle Kendrick

[1] I was a graduate student when I read Hélène Cixous for the first time. As an young woman who prided myself on my "reason," and my ability to be unemotional when needed, the "Laugh of the Medusa" left me quite startled and more than a little put off: how did writing -- which for me was painful and laborious -- relate to bodily sensuality and pleasures? A friend at the time, Lisa, fell in love with Cixous' writing and would quote her dramatically in the student lounge. "Throw high the vast fringes of your body and write," she once commanded me. I remember thinking, "you point to my fringes, honey, and I'll do my best to give them a toss."

[2] What shocked me, then, was finding a theoretical article, written by a woman, that so viscerally evoked the female body. At that time, in the 70's and 80s, Cixous' writings, and those of other French feminists who called for ecriture feminine, worked on me in a gradual fashion. At first reading I cringed and turned away -- as a lapsed, but by no means cured, catholic -- I had no desire to imagine sexuality and its associated "dark" areas influencing what I wrote. Gradually, over the years, as I became more confident in myself, in my body, and in my writing, the memory of the poetic feminists began to reemerge and the connection between the "who" of me and the "what" I produced on the page, began to register again, like a far-off sound.

[3] Several years later, as my work moved into new media, I began studying hypertext. Theorists (this time mostly male rhetoricians) were waxing as enthusiastically, if not as eloquently, as Cixous and her colleagues, about new forms of writing. They celebrated hypertext for its associative, non-linear, and multi-valanced form. Over the last decade, these theorists have promised to liberate us from the constraints and "passivity" of print and to deliver us to the interactive world of hypertextual writing. Hypertext is imagined as a kind of electronic jouissance -- made safe for white male academics by promising both to transcend the material body and turn the text into all "fringes." In this essay I examine the claims of new media, in relation to feminist writings of the 1970's and 1980's, specifically ecriture feminine, to argue that claims of writing are inextricably twined with received notions of gender, coded -- even overdetermined -- as active, passive, penetrating and receptive and that these gendered notions of writing can profoundly affect the way we teach. Despite theoretical gestures that have been critiqued as essentializing and colonizing, several French feminists recognized and sought to affirm the connections between materiality and cognition through a celebration of embodied writing; hypertext theorists rarely acknowledge the connections among bodies, gender and writing and seek instead to disembody the writing process, reifying instead the "mind," and a philosophical history that glorifies masculine cognition.

Bodies and Bytes

[4] The French feminists of the 1970s and 80s, notably Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray and Monique Wittig, all share the vision of a common enemy, phallocentric thinking, that is, thinking which places males (white, western and ruling class) and masculinist values at the center of meaning and language. They celebrated, instead, women's bodily experience, as a mode of both liberation and resistance, particularly the experience of jouissance as an alternative to the rational, controlling mastery of masculine culture. The term jouissance is one that many have struggled to translate, -- it takes the guise of women's various experience of sexual pleasure. Jones writes that jouissance is resistance to patriarchal culture, "in the direct reexperience of the physical pleasures of infancy and of later sexuality, repressed but not obliterated by the Law of the Father." [1] French feminists, in this period, were writing from and against a psychoanalytic framework, drawing on and critiquing the works of Freud, Lacan and others. Jouissance was seen as articulated in language, particularly writing. I am particularly interested in how the claims of the French feminist are reconceived, though unacknowledged, in new media formats like hypertext.

[5] Cixous in her famous essay "The Laugh of the Medusa" encourages women to "write her self -- write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies"(335). [2] Cixous connects a return to writing as a return to the body: "Write! Writing is for you, you are for you, your body is yours, take it." Writing, for Cixous, is powerful; it is "the very possibility of change." But ecriture feminine is not writing that can be captured by dry theorizing -- it is writing which resist categorization, which is the "excess" that disrupts, circles around, climbs like ivy up the sides of rational, linear traditional texts. In this way, ecriture feminine is both of the body -- reflecting women's pleasure that has its source in female embodiment -- but excessive, more than, never simply equivalent to a specific instance of bodily pleasure.

[6] There are certain qualities of writing that have been associated with jouissance and women's sexual pleasure such as excess, circularity, and repetition . In writing these traits counter linearity, hierarchy, and rational order. Feminist proponents of ecriture feminine allowed that it was possible for male writers to evince this style; the number of given examples (like Joyce or Genet) however, was limited, and soon "writing the body" with its emphasis on the connection between a certain type of writing and the biological processes of the female body became irrevocably associated with women. The call for "feminine" writing as excess, or recursiveness, became linked in many people's mind to an essentialized female body - one that defined pleasure in a particular way, and one that remained recognizable and consistent across race, ethnicity, social and economic class. As feminist theory moved away from trying to define a feminine "essence" and towards constructivist notions of gender, sex, and bodies - the poetic excess of the French feminists became largely a historical touchstone in feminist theory.

[7] Enter now the hypertext boys -- George Landow, Richard Lanham, Jay Bolter, Michael Joyce, among others. [3] Hypertext -- as writing in electronic environments that consists of links and nodes, connected in web-like structures - has been touted over the last decade as miraculously undoing the "tyranny" of print culture. Linearity, hierarchy, the submission of a passive reader to a controlling author - according to these theorists - is being overturned by the recursive structures of hypertextual writing. Despite the connections that seem clear to me between the kind of writing celebrated as "feminine" by the French feminists, and this new electronic writing, I have seen no more than cursory mention made of the feminists who identified and called for this sort of writing two decades ago. Now this same writing (associative, non-linear, non-hierarchical, and playful) has taken up residence inside the computer -- it is suddenly once again declared liberating, but now outside of bodied experience. Although the claims they make for hypertext seem isomorphic of those claims for ecriture feminine, these rhetoricians instead situate hypertext in a high Eurocentric literary and theoretical tradition - connecting hypertext to Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault. John Palatella asks,

Why is the work of women manifestly excluded from the aesthetic and theoretical avant-garde traditions that these books invoke to prop up their claims about digital literacy? What would it mean to trace the semiotics of the digital word back to the early 20th century film theory of Dorothy Richardson; the literary and cultural theory of Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray; or the novels of Virginia Woolf, Angela Carter, or Kathy Acker? [4]

[8] Palatella challenges both a particular lineage of postmodern forms, including hypertext, and the seemingly bedrock concept of a founding, masculine lineage as a model of artistic and cultural development. Take Lanham, who while writing of the "revolution" of hypertext on print culture cannot help but rescue the canon and the concept of canonicity in his argument:

I think, then, that Western culture, for which the `Great Books' has come to be a convenient shorthand phrase, is not threatened by the world of electronic text, but immensely strengthened and invigorated. I think we shall come to understand our great literary texts, and especially their neglected oral and rhetorical aspects, in ways that we never could have understood. The Great Books side of our politicized curricular street need not feel imperiled. The Dead White Males, digitally galvanized, will rise again. (2)

The hypertext men, I argue, "galvanize" a tradition of writing that assumes the primacy of masculine reason, as instantiated in rhetorics of the "mind," where mind is defined outside of materiality and distinct from embodiment. That is, I'd like for a minute to consider - not what is similar between these theorists and the feminists - but rather what is different. The feminist saw writing the body as a revolutionary practice that sought to overthrow someone's oppression. Writing, these feminists claimed, is not an abstract expression of masculine reason actualized through the "technology" of the alphabet, or printing press; it is an embodied practice, drawing on our undeniable materiality, and a material practice which could be grounded in the excesses and pleasures of the body. Perhaps this is, as some have argued, essentializing. Perhaps it was a stance that too readily assumed that bodies sexed "female" shared common experiences that could become the sites of liberatory practices. Perhaps.

[9] But the hypertext theorists, I would hold, err too far in the other direction. The body is gone. Literally vanished from view. Some suggest that the "technological" spaces of new media (say the world wide web) obscure physically-marked, historically-situated bodies. In doing so, the argument goes, it promotes what Jerry Kang has called "racial abolition," (or abolition of difference in ,say, gender or ability,) leaving us all to be judged not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our hypertext. Kang, rightfully, critiques this common argument, suggesting that instead of racial or gender abolition, what is achieved on-line is an assumption of whiteness and a glorification of the masculine. [5]

[10] In much of the theorizing in the last decade, hypertextual writing is seem as manifestation of the "mind" yet again, this time the mind is viewed as a cognitive structure marked by the associative connections and the inspirations that have long been the hallmark of American male genius. The history of this particular claim precedes hypertext as a technological practice; Vannevar Bush, in his 1945 article anticipating hypertext, argues, "The human mind ... operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain." Predicting mechanization that would duplicate and even improve on the brain's associative abilities, Bush writes:

Selection by association, rather than by indexing, may yet be mechanized. One cannot hope thus to equal the speed and flexibility with which the mind follows an associative trail, but it should be possible to beat the mind decisively in regard to the permanence and clarity of the items resurrected from storage. [6]

Since Bush's prediction, the idea that hypertext is structured analogously to the mind has become commonplace. Jay Bolter, early in his writing about new media, claims hypertext's "electronic symbols in the machine seem to be an extension of a networked of ideas of the mind itself ... the computer reflects the mind as a web of verbal and visual elements in a conceptual space" (207). Michael Joyce describes hypertext as a technology which does better what "you already do well.":

From Bush onward through Douglas Engelbart's Augment and even to Ted Nelson's Xanadu, the visionaries have insisted that the sometimes slippery and obscure trails of hypertext rest upon an underlying bedrock of natural cognition. With nothing less than democratic zeal each of this trinity -- the citizen-scientist, the engineer-rationalist and the provocateur-humanist -- builds upon a constitutional belief that the habits of mind are naturally associative.... It is a compelling, and potentially accurate, vision and it is a vision I share. (57) [7]

[11] For these theorists digital medias are revolutionary precisely because they mirror cognition exactly. That is to say, new technologies are not actually new, rather they "return" us to a place where we can more accurately appreciate, utilize and technologize the "mind." In articulating this position, hypertext theorists often fold their rhetoric neatly into a long history of familiar discourse on the separation between mind and body. This is especially true when claims of hypertext's isomorphism with cognition is coupled with other claims about the nature of hypertext, such as discourse about the death of the author.

[12] Discourse about the death of the author is now quite familiar. Hypertext theorists claim that in new media spaces the subject as author is dismantled and diffuse. In networked environments, so they argue, the authorial subject has vanished. The individual book, in print culture, presupposes an author function, as Foucault defines it: "the singular relationship that holds between an author and a text [as] the manner in which a text apparently points to this figure who is outside and precedes it." [8] As texts restructure and blend, as they move on-line, fragment, and reform, so too does this authorial figure. The author is thoroughly dispersed; "the self takes the form of a decentered (or centerless) network of codes, that, on another level, also serves as a node within another centerless network"(91) writes Landow. Michael Heim asserts, "As the authoritativeness of the text diminishes, so too does the recognition of the private self of the creative author." [9] Mark Poster sees new technologies as deconstructing the subject: "The mode of information indicates communication practices that constitute subjects as unstable, multiple and diffuse" (32). As Richard Grusin argues in Cyberspace and its Discontents, hypertext theorists claim that electronic writing actualizes what they see as basic principles of poststructuralism. In fact, they misread Derrida, Foucault, and Barthes to link hypertext to a new, revolutionary heritage of high postmodernism. [10]

[13] The unstable, multiple and diffuse subject that Poster names may be seen as having a connection with the subject of ecriture feminine - for now, purportedly the univocal, authority of the "author" has been subverted and destabilized. But the disappearance of the body, with its historical connection with the feminized, coupled with hypertext's theorists evoking of a purified and disembodied mind, suggest cyberspace as an ahistorical, uptopian, and masculine space. Furthermore, if you consider the other half of the binary author/reader, however, it becomes clear that with the author dead, the reader is reconstructed to take his place. That is, agency is rewired in discourse surrounding hypertext, away from authorial responsibility and towards readerly acts of "consumption."

Pleasure as Agency

[14] With the author dispersed, agency becomes an interesting problem for hypertext theorists. This problem seems most often resolved in one of two related discourses that displace agency to other elements in the cluster of author/machine/reader. One strand of theorizing flirts with technological determinism. Recall Lanham's claim that digital media will "galvinize" the Dead White Males. In this view, illumination and transformation are properties inherent in the new technologies of electronic writing. Such narratives of technological determinism have been properly critiqued as a detrimental to good pedagogy in that they replace student agency with machinic agency. However, there is a second strand of theorizing that may hold more danger for teachers, especially feminist teachers. In this particular compensatory narrative, it is the reader who is granted the agency lost to the author. Hypertext's hybrid nature is continually elided by the increased focus on the "reader" - but a reader defined as a consumer of text.

[15] Feminist theorists, such as Cixous, envisioned ecriture feminine as a way for women to assert agency within and against traditions that denied such agency and identity to women. But in theories of hypertext, the reader/writer as agent is no long envisioned as a site of liberatory practices, or a site of contested subjectivity, or even a place of pleasure specific to a certain materiality. Where reading was once seen as an act of absorption, as Coleridge's "willing suspension of disbelief," where one subjugated oneself temporarily to an author, in order eventually to claim a critical distance from which to evaluate his/her claims, now reading, in hypertext, is seen primarily through the metaphor of consumption. [11] The consumer is not subjected to, in the traditional readerly sense, but rather the subject, par excellence. The consumer is granted supposed unlimited agency within controlled and selective abundance. Digital forums are seen as instantiating the consumer dream of inexhaustible resources: Lanham celebrates, "Unlike print, electronic texts defies proverbial wisdom. You can have your cake, give it away, then eat it and still have it. Because it is so easily replicable"(xii). [12] This elision of the material is breathtaking. One cannot help but think that this "cake" will not eradicate a body's hunger. This emphasis on reproduction and replication, furthermore, elides the ecological consequences of material production: food, clothing, shelter, communication technologies, etc.

[16] This dream of a "super mall" of information, created by endlessly reproducible resources, underlies the theories of hypertexual education, as well. For instance, O'Gorman describes a hypertext that will "free the reader from the tyranny of the writer who 'imposes' upon the reader's textual experience," primarily because it offers an "array of choices." [13] As Landow explains it, hypertext holds out the possibility of "newly empowered, self-directed students" (219), inspired by interactivity to "choice." The hypertextual experience is seen by Landow as empowering the reader because it includes, "associative indexing (or links), trails of such links, and sets of webs of such trails. These new elements in turn produce the conception of a flexible, customizable text, one that is open -- perhaps vulnerable -- to the demands of each reader." [14] With his admission of the vulnerability of the text Landow creates the reader as one who can now "demand" what the text(s) will supply. In this compensatory rhetoric, the reader is granted the agency lost to the author; witness Barne's enthusiasm: "Learning text navigational skills transforms the student into an active information explorer who blazes trails through information space." [15]

[17] The frontier metaphor of trail blazing constructs the reader as uniquely American; Such a "self-made" frontiersman, explorer in a land of unlimited resources, is evoked as well in the rewriting the subject as reader. Landow, too, "frees" such a subject: "All hypertext systems permit the individual reader to choose his or her own center of investigation and experience." This rhetoric literally recenters a subject; The reader is conqueror, selecting only that which interests him for whatever reason, and "free" from the rest.

[18] In this ongoing reformulation of the hypertextual reader, traditional print-based acts of reading must be recast as primarily passive and feminized. Nelson writes that a principle point of hypertext "is that the student is in control and may use his [sic] initiative dynamically; the subject is NOT artificially processed into a presentational sequence"(emphasis his). [16] Typical of much hypertext theorizing, print texts are deemed "artificial" and passive while hypertext is dynamic and natural. [17] Here "natural, " once again, puts on the scientific realist cloak to signify more like the mind. Barnes believes hypertext is altering "the form of reading": "hypertexts are fundamentally different from printed texts and they change a student's instructional experience with texts by requiring a student to learn interactive reading and text navigation skills." Hypertext is coded as active -- interactive to be precise -- but where interactivity is seen in mechanistic, yet transcendent, "click" terms once again. Thus while one side of the author paradox reifies the presumed associative ability of the brain with cognitive metaphors; the same theoretical model still cannot imagine a kind of "active" which is not technologically based. The cognitive act of reading print texts must be seen as much less interactive -- only the "click" of computer technology counts. Reading books, in this view, is engaging with a locked-in, already narrated story-line -- equating books with television and both with a kind of passivity that Palattella reminds us is coded as female.

[19] If we remember back to the French feminists, we see agency in their theories as, not necessarily, founded on notions of control and power; certainly not about centering oneself and "penetrating" the text; rather agency was often for them pleasure. Bodily pleasure that is specific, and localized and yet amorphous and multiple. Think for a moment about the pleasure of orgasm; It is at once bodily in a absolutely direct way, but it is also a cognitive act, culturally shaped and informed. Instead of locating pleasure in the material body, pleasure for the hypertext theorists comes from an often-violent reading of texts -- consider Lanham's language in describing the "typical" electronic reader of the future:

Imagine growing up as an electronic reader, used to the broad interactive enfranchisements... How would you feel about Paradise Lost as presented to you in a codex book? ... Wouldn't you begin to play games with it? A weapon in your hands after 2,500 years of pompous pedantry about the Great Books, and you not to use it? Hey, man, how about some music with this stuff? Let's voice this rascal and see what happens. Add some graphics and graffiti." (7)

Lanham's reader is granted a violent agency, handed a "weapon" with which to assert his identity against the "old guard." Graffiti here is an interesting notion -- graffiti can be subversive "marks", unsanctioned violations of traditional discourse. Here however, Lanham's "graffiti" makes the electronic reader one who would "tag" the great works, like a dog marking his territory.

[20] The feminists wanted to grant women an agency for disruption and change, an agency denied to them by a history of phallocentric language and writing practices. Rather than situate new practices within a capitalist structure as do the consumer's metaphors of hypertext, Cixous tell us to see different scales of value:

Write yourself. Your body must be heard. Only then will the immense resources of our unconscious spring forth. Our naphtha will spread, throughout the world, without dollars -- black or gold -- nonassessed values that will change the rules of the old game.

Evoking "nonassessed values, "Cixous warns against the system of "masculine thrift": I believe it is this reductive sense of hypertext that is communicated most often by the hypertext boys. They incorporate hypertext into the history of classical rhetoric, situated it firmly in empowering "consumerists" terms, give agency back to the reader armed with the "weapon" of hypertext to make his mark yet again. What if we think of hypertext instead as an occasion for writing the body? What if we spurn thrift and spurn classifications? What if we create with rhythms of pleasure and excess? I can not tell you what such a practice might look like. Cixous writes, "It is impossible to define a feminine practice of writing, and this is an impossibility that will remain, for this practice can never be theorized, enclosed, coded - which doesn't mean that it doesn't exist."

Hypertext as Feminist Text

[21] The final question for me, then, is can hypertext be a feminist tex-t? Is hypertext's "form" enough to declare it so? Many things are nonlinear and repetitive, I was lost recently in Pittsburgh, my wanderings were nonlinear and I must have past the same street corner eleven times, but I would hardly call my ramblings inherently feminist. There does seem to be, however, a space in new media for a feminist form and a feminist content. Cixous believes the poetic must underlie the political for a truly oppositional politics to be effective. Hypertext may give us a space for a poetics of the and/and/and rather than the either/or: a place where our feminist content, arguments or musings, may coexist side by side with their contradictions. Let me end with Cixous -- as she says it so much more eloquently than I do:

To admit that writing is precisely working (in) the in-between, inspecting the process of the same and of the other without which nothing can live, undoing the work of death -- to admit this is first to want the two, as well as both, the ensemble of one and the other, not fixed in sequence of struggle and expulsion or some other form of death but infinitely dynamized by an incessant process of exchange from one subject to another. (340)

This could be the promise of hypertext, if we would only make it so.



[1] Jones Rosalind, Ann. "Writing the Body: Toward an Understanding of l'ecriture feminine." Feminisms: An Anthologyof Literary Theory and Criticism. Eds. Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndel. New Brunswick, New Jersey. Rutgers UP. 1991 (357-369).

[2] Cixous, Hélène. "The Laugh of the Medusa." Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. Eds. Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndel. New Brunswick, New Jersey. Rutgers UP. 1991 (334-349).

[3]There are, of course, notable women who have written and continue to write on hypertext and new media issues. Jane Yellowlees Douglas, Ilana Snyder and myself to name but a few. I would argue, however, that the boundaries of the field, as defined in the last decade, were shaped primarily by the male theorists I mention here.

[4] Palatella, John. "Formatting Patrimony: The Rhetoric of Hypertext." Afterimage 23:1 1995 (13-32).

[5] Kang, Jerry. "Cyber-race." Harvard Law Review. Vol. 113. 2000 (1131-1208).

[6] Bush, Vannevar. "As We May Think." Atlantic Monthly, July 1945, (101-108). On-line at http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/flashbks/computer/bushf.htm (accessed June 10, 1999).

[7] Joyce, Michael. Of Two Minds: Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics. Ann Arbor, Michigan. The University of Michigan Press. 1995.

[8] Foucault, Michel. "What is An Author?" Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1977. 113-138.

[9] Heim, Michael. Electric Language. 221.

[10] Grusin, Richard. "What is an Electronic Author?". In Virtual Reality and its Discontents. Ed. Robert Markley. Johns Hopkins. 1996.

[11] Paul Ricoeur has called the willingness of readers to "suspend" their own belief system and enter the world of the text "distanciation." Through distanciation readers appropriate the world of the text temporarily.

[12] Lanham, Richard. The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology and the Arts. University of Chicago Press: Chicago. 1993.

[13] O'Gorman, Marcel. "How to Wread Hypertext." http://web.nwe.ufl.edu/~ogorman/gibb/howcover.html

[14] Lanham. 1992

[15] Barnes, Sue. "Hypertext Literacy." Interpersonal Computing and Technology: An Electronic Journal for the 21st Century. October, 1994. Volume 2, Number 4, pp. 24-36.

[16] Nelson, T. Computer lib/dream machines, (Revised Edition). Redmond, WA: Tempus Books of Microsoft Press. 1987.

[17] David Miall reminds us that reading print texts is "interactive," in a profound way: "The interactive nature of literary reading requires readers to permeate the text with their own images, memories, and desires; but the text in turn refashions these and situates them within a new perspective. Response to a literary work seems to depend in part on memory, feelings, or desire, such as the pull of narrative; it may call upon feelings not previously acknowledged or recognized by the reader... literary reading is predominantly an affective process, whereas the medium of hypertext tends to place emphasis on the discursive. " in "Trivializing or Liberating? The Limitations of Hypertext Theorizing" in Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature; Winnipeg; June 1999. Volume 32, Issue 2, P. 157-171.