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Hélène Cixous - Biography

Hélène Cixous was born on June 5, 1937, in Oran, Algeria. Her father was a French-colonialist, and died while Cixous was young. Her mother was Austro-German, and German was Cixous' first language. Members of her family were Jewish, including her father, and the atrocities of World War II had an early influence on her. Hélène Cixous studied English literature, especially Shakespeare, and read mythology and the German romantics including Heinrich von Kleist. From early in her life she has studied literature in many languages, reading authors like Franz Kafka, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Clarice Lispector.

Hélène Cixous went to school in France, and in 1959 passed the agrégation in English. She married the same year and gave birth to her first child, and her second was born in 1962. In 1962 she became assistante at the Université de Bordeaux. In 1965 Hélène Cixous moved from Bordeaux to Paris when she and her husband were divorced. In 1965 she became maître assistante at the Sorbonne, and was then appointed maître de conférences at Nanterre in 1967. Also in 1967 she published her first text, Le Prénom de Dieu (God's First Name). In 1968 she became docteur ès letters, but did not publish her thesis, L'Exil de James Joyce ou l' art du remplacement (translated as The Exile of James Joyce, 1972) until she was a professor in 1969. Shortly after the student riots of 1968, she was appointed chargé de mission to found the experimental Université de Paris VIII at Vincennes. Paris VIII was designed as a place of learning where there was an alternative structure to the usual hierarchies of institutional education, and was formed in response to the critique of the traditional French academic environment. The university gained a strong reputation, especially for its distinguished faculty, including such thinkers as Gérard Genette, Michel Foucault, Tzvetan Todorov, Félix Guattari, and Gilles Deleuze. In 1969, Hélène Cixous, along with Todorov and Genette, founded Poétique, a review for experiments in reading and text. In 1974, while still at Paris VIII, she founded the Centre de Recherches en Etudes Féminines, where she still sits as chair today. The Centre is the first of its kind in Europe.

The years from 1969 to 1972 were an exciting period for French intellectuals, working with the possibilities released in the aftermath of May 1968. It was during these years that Hélène Cixous published her first fictional texts: Dedans (1969), for which she was awarded the Prix Médicis, and the trilogy, Le Troisième Corps, Les Commencements, and Neutre (The Third Body, Beginnings, and Neuter, 1970-72). Hélène Cixous questions traditional power structures, examining political and libidinal economies as inspired by the work of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. She is an advocate for the freeing of writing, and the freeing of the self through writing.

In 1974 Hélène Cixous published Prénoms de personne (Nobody's Name), which is a collection of essays on Sigmund Freud, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Heinrich von Kleist, Edgar Allan Poe and James Joyce. In these texts she explores the associations between the unified or phallic subject, narcissism and death. She reveals how the dialectical structure in writing, specifically in these authors, traps women in a limited exchange or economy, dominated by a desire for death. Inspired by the work of Georges Bataille, she offers a general economy of the gift, related to expenditure and loss. Exchange is a dominant theme in her writing, as she questions its relationship to alterity. If the subject only exists in a differential relationship with others, then to think through new modes of exchange is a method toward social change. Hélène Cixous felt that there must be linguistic change to effect social change, so she studied the effects of exchange on language and writing.

Hélène Cixous is known for her experimental writing style, which crosses the traditional limits of academic discourse into poetic language. Her practice crosses many discourses, and she is admired for her role as an influential theorist, as well as a novelist and playwright. Hélène Cixous is also noted for her role in initiating and developing new models of education. In the United States she is primarily recognized for developing 'écriture feminine', a method of dealing with subjective difference in writing and social theory, and overcoming the limits of Western logocentrism. Écriture feminine is a practice that addresses Hélène Cixous' ongoing concern with the effects of difference, exclusion, and the struggle for identity. In 1975 Cixous published the essay Le rire de la Méduse, in which she describes how women might write, breaking from myth and rhetoric that have kept them from participating in the public sphere. This is a key text among many that work with her influential concept of écriture feminine and the transformation of subjectivity.

Hélène Cixous published Angst in 1977, and for a few years after this concentrated her work on women's causes. During this time she published almost exclusively with the publishing house Des Femmes. Here she made the association of Antoinette Fouque, who was the founder of Politique et Psychoanalyse, or 'Psych et po', an influential political group for the women's movement. Hélène Cixous' writings at this time suggested that new descriptive terms, without reference to sexual difference, would eventually replace the attributes of masculine and feminine. She was influenced also by Martin Heidegger's work on poetry and language, and her works Préparatifs de noces au-dela de l'abîme (Wedding Preparations Beyond the Abyss, 1978), Anankè (1979), Illa (1980), With ou l'art de l'innocence (With or the Art of Innocence, 1981), and Limonade tout était si infini (Lemonade All Was So Infinite, 1982), she works through ideas of knowledge, innocence and law, and meditates on the sublime.

Hélène Cixous' relationship with Des Femmes was increasingly strained, and she broke with Antoinette Fouque in the early part of the 1980s. The text Le Livre de Promethea (The Book of Promethea or Promethea's Book, 1983; translated 1990) may be the marker of a change in her work. A feminine rewriting of the Promethean myth, it was written after an inspirational meeting with Ariane Mnouchkine, the director of the experimental Théâtre du Soleil. Mnouchkine was working with a mix of Elizabethan theatre and Far Eastern techniques, and was known for her experimental productions of William Shakespeare. Cixous' collaboration with Mnouchkine influenced a shift toward historical and political writing, or what Hélène Cixous calls the 'scene of history'.

Hélène Cixous' life and work is a search for emancipation, for the self and for others. She distinguishes herself from much of academia by insisting on celebrating life rather than death. From her early psychoanalytically influenced work concentrating on the individual in search of personal liberation, she has moved toward the collective struggles of women and the developing world, and has studied the death camps of World War II through the experiences and writings of others. She has always been interested in historically locating repression through institutional power at all levels, and she seeks to manifest change by revealing how exclusions are articulated and practicing alternative and challenging forms of articulation in response.

Hélène Cixous is a professor at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where she teaches an Intensive Summer Workshop.