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Review Article: Luce Irigaray’s Conversations and Hélène Cixous’ White Ink

In Cixous on March 8, 2012 at 8:55 am

Reviewed by Sophie Fuggle.

Conversations by Luce Irigarary (London and New York, NY, Continuum, 2008).

White Ink: Interviews on sex, text, politics by Hélène Cixous, edited by Susan Sellers (Stocksfield, Acumen, 2008).

There is something paradoxical and slightly disingenuous about publishing a collection of interviews. Whether the exchange is, in the first instance, oral or written, the intimacy and immediacy of the dialogue along with the specific circumstances which sparked the encounter must inevitably give way to an editorial process aimed at producing a publishable text of interest to a wider audience. Where the primary interlocutor is heavily involved in this process there is the increased danger that the rough edges of a dialogue, in which he or she is called to account for the aporias, discrepancies or contradictions in his or her work, will be smoothed down until nothing remains but empty repetition of existing themes and concepts. This is sadly the case in Conversations, a collection of recent interviews between Luce Irigaray and a number of scholars engaging directly with her writing and thought, including Judith Still and Elizabeth Grosz as well as those such as Michael Stone, Andrea Wheeler, Margaret R. Miles and Laine M. Harrington who are working in fields as diverse as architecture, yoga and theology. Despite the potential for a rich and exciting selection of discussions, Irigaray’s overwhelming desire to control her material, as well as all those with whom she enters into conversation, shuts down any genuine dialogue or interchange of ideas. The outcome is a largely stale reiteration of key aspects of her thought, most notably her insistence on ‘sexuate’ as opposed to ‘sexual’ difference and the notion of ‘breath’ as mediator between oneself and the other. Thus, while the collection will no doubt be of interest to those Irigaray completists eager to consume her every last utterance, those seeking a way in to her work may find it somewhat limiting and frustrating, as will those looking for greater clarification and development of certain aspects of her thought. Conversely, where Irigaray introduces her collection with an affirmation of the importance of open-dialogue and exchange between scholars yet fails to deliver a genuine openness during the conversations themselves, Cixous admits, in the prefacing interview to White Ink, her suspicion and discomfort with the spoken word, candidly expressing her preference for the written text and the complex play it allows her. Nevertheless, in the various oral interviews thoughtfully selected for the collection by Susan Sellers and which date from the late Seventies to the present, Cixous amply demonstrates her dexterity in verbal expression, not least in the breathtaking semantic acrobatics of her 2004 discussion with Jacques Derrida translated into English as ‘From the word to life.’ Although a wide variety of subjects are dealt with, including Cixous’s Jewish heritage and her childhood spent in Algeria, the collection’s subtitle; ‘Interviews on sex, text and politics’ is slightly misleading since what emerges first and foremost from these interviews is her passion for language, literature and theatre. This passion is brought to life with both enthusiasm and humility as Cixous refuses to focus solely on her own writing, often opting to discuss those writers who have most influenced her including, among others, Shakespeare, Joyce and Kafka. Although much of the insight proffered in these interviews is biographical rather than theoretical, the collection provides a useful backdrop to Cixous’s literary and theatrical works and would be of value to both newcomers to her writing and those already familiar with her texts. The translation of both sets of interviews into the English language demonstrates the widespread significance of both Irigaray and Cixous’s work for non-French speaking audiences. However, both acknowledge the inherent risk of decontextualisation and alienation which can result from a translation which fails to appreciate the intricate linguistic play at work in the original French. Consequently, Cixous’s interviews are frequently annotated with the original French in brackets in order to highlight such complexity. Irigaray, on the other hand, often translates her work herself as a means of maintaining its vitality. While these approaches are intended to assist the reader, the awkward syntax of Irigaray’s translations can lead to some confusion whereas the annotations explaining Cixous’s wordplay tend to attest to the primacy of the French language for her thought and the necessary exclusion of those unable to read it.

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