Constructions of gender and genre in Chantal Chawaf's Retable-la Reverie


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Constructions of gender and genre in Chantal Chawaf's Retable-la Reverie
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vi, 195 leaves : ; 29 cm.
Droppleman, Elizabeth I
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Romance Languages and Literatures thesis, Ph.D   ( lcsh )
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Thesis (Ph.D.)--University of Florida, 1999.
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 183-194).
Statement of Responsibility:
by Elizabeth I. Droppleman.
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Copyright 1999


Elizabeth Droppleman


This dissertation could not have been realized without

the generosity of many individuals. I am especially grateful

to the committee Chair, Dr. William Calin, and the members

of the supervisory committee, Dr. John Leavey, Dr. Carol

Murphy, Dr. Ofelia Schutte, and Dr. Gayle Zachmann, for the

expert advice and direction that made possible the

completion of this project. Special thanks is in order for

Dr. Gayle Zachmann's tireless work with me on the genesis of

this study; her extraordinary commitment to mentoring

students has provided me with a model that I will strive to

The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' award of a
Threadgil Dissertation Fellowship and the Department of

Romance Languages and Literatures' award of a Nancy Kaufmann

Scholarship for study abroad provided generous support of

which I am appreciative.

Finally, I cannot possibly how fully my family (Mom,

Dad, Susan, Jackie, John, Richard, Timothy, Taylor, Ellen),

friends (Joe, Judy, Kristy, Xandria, Jeannine, Val, Bill,

Hutch), and Wayne have supported me through this endeavor. I

continue to be moved by their gifts of unfailing
encouragement and love. This dissertation is dedicated to

Mary Lutz and Irene Murphy in remembrance of the past, and

to the future of Ellen, Alexa, and our girls to come.


ACKNOWLEGMENTS ..................... .................... iii

ABSTRACT .................................... ............ v

INTRODUCTION .............................................. 1

Notes ............ ....... ................... .......... 12


Sexual (In)Difference, Representation and Matter....... 17
The Mirror and Mim6tisme .............................20
Rereading Plato ................... .................. 28
Rereading Freud ....................................... 35
Gender Performativity ................................... 47
Conclusion.................................. .... ......... 61
Notes. .................... ............................. 64

IN RETABLE-LA REVERIE ...................................67

Paratext ..................... ................... ........ 70
Grossesse ....... ....................................... 74
Peritext and Autofiction ................................ 85
Titles and Construction ................................. 89
Cover Art .............................................. 96
Notes ..................... ................... .......... 105

REVERIE. .............................................. 108

R6sume ................... ............................. 111
Retable. ............................................... 117
Naissance .................... ...................... 117
Document (I) ..................... .................... 140
Portrait ........................................... 142
Mausol e ............................................ 150
La Riverie ............................................151
Notes. .................... ............................. 172

CONCLUSION .............................................. 174

Notes .............. .... .................... ......... 182

REFERENCES .... .......... ............... ............ 183

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH ........... .......................... 195


Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of
Doctor of Philosophy


Elizabeth I. Droppleman

May, 1999
Chairman: William C. Calin
Major Department: Romance Languages and Literatures

Chantal Chawaf's dazzling combinations of words, images

and metaphors forge new possibilities for conceptualizing

the body, particularly the female body. Nonetheless, she

remains a controversial figure among feminist and literary

critics who insist that traditional archetypes of woman and

established literary convention contaminate her avant-garde

practice of ecriture feminine ("feminine writing").

In "Constructions of Gender and Genre," I argue that

Chawaf's excessive displays of gender and literary

convention in the novel Retable-la reverie form an integral

part of her mimetic strategy. This strategy entails a

hyperbolic performance of gender and genre norms that

actually parodies them. Undermining the norms of literary

and gender convention, her parody also subverts the values

that support and sustain them.

Rereading Retable-la reverie through the optic of a

feminist mimetic strategy sheds light on Chawaf's poetic and

narrative tactics, as well as her marginal place among

practitioners of ecriture feminine. In effect, her novel is

a quintessential example of this radical practice. It not

only subverts traditional literary and generic norms, it

operates within, yet against, the establishment of ecriture

feminine itself to expose and expand the boundaries of this

avant-garde writing practice.

Drawing from Luce Irigaray's practice of textual

mimicry and Judith Butler's theory of gender performativity,

Chapter One lays the theoretical groundwork for the study of

Chawaf's mimetic strategy.

Chapter Two examines the construction of the novel

through paratextual elements ranging from its material

borders--cover art, titles, headings--to the symbolic figure

of the womb that symbolizes the ethical dimension of

Chawaf's &criture feminine. Her maternal metaphor provides a

representation of radically different self/other relations:

a shift in the struggle for identity from a paradigm of

dominance/subordination to mutual recognition.

A close reading of the narrative, Chapter Three traces

how the stereotypes of Mother and Woman are subversively

reiterated as they are repeated in the narrative. Retable-la

reverie creates an imaginative performance of sexual

reborderization that is constantly negotiated through

Chawaf's writing of the body. Whether strategically using

myths of Woman or boundary markers of genre, Chawaf's

practice of ecriture feminine remains faithful to the

subversion of established convention, and presents and

example par excellence of innovative avant-garde writing.


Combining startling sensuous images with flowing

lyrical prose, contemporary French novelist, playwright,

poet, and philosopher Chantal Chawaf stands as a distinctive

literary figure at this fin-de-siecle. While acknowledged by

some as one of the more inventive, experimental writers of

this century,' she continues the rebellious French literary

tradition of writers who view fiction as a powerful form of

social and political resistance.

Praising Chawaf's literary talents, her critics

emphasize that her dazzling combinations of words, images,

and metaphors forge new possibilities for conceptualizing

the body, particularly the female body. Nonetheless, she

remains a polemical figure among feminist literary critics

who dismiss her texts for reifying traditional ways of

thinking about gender and sex. It is significant that, on

the one hand, she has been relatively neglected outside the

circles of feminist criticism, and that, within these

circles, some fault her for not apparently adhering to the

generally accepted ideological aesthetics of the movement.

Her subversive practice seems deeply flawed to feminist

critics who enter her texts searching for radical

innovation, yet find there, on both philosophical and

literary levels, the very masculinist norms they wished to

escape. To give form to her female characters, she draws

from a stereotypically female biological and material

register of mounds of flesh, mucus, and mother's milk. This

intense embodiment is interpreted as a sign of their

inherent powerlessness. Controversial for shocking

sensibilities and transgressing literary propriety, her

corporeal poetics provokes strong, een visceral,

reactions.2 To a greater extent than her contemporaries, she

is blamed for having so explicitly "tied the practice of

feminine writing to the biological fact of motherhood"

(Suleiman, "Writing and Motherhood" 370).

Viewed as fundamentally contradictory in form and

content, Chawaf's innovative linguistic manipulation is said

to break with normative convention. Yet, adding fuel to the

charges of essentialism, her novels continue to rely upon

polarized, socially "fixed" stereotypes: the masculine

symbolizing the mind, the intelligible, culture, activity,

light; the feminine as the body, the irrational, the

sensible, nature, passivity, obscurity (224). Such

masculinist archetypes of woman, critics insist, contaminate

her avant-garde practice of ecriture feminine. As Bosshard


ce que nous montrent les couples chawafiens c'est
l'affrontement des personnages feminins et masculins,
repartis dans des r6les virils d'un c6te et feminins
hypertrophies de l'autre. (223)

Even if her poetic style aims to represent the body in

innovative ways, her writing reiterates an unenlightened

paradigm of woman's nature in critics' views. Like the

Virgin Mary and Dante's Beatrice, her female figures are

often likened to the bountiful Mother Earth: closer to

nature than males, and a medium of access through which man

can communicate with higher spiritual forces. In this

paradigm it seems that woman functions only in relation to

man; passive, she serves only in his quest for self-

knowledge. Reflector, supporter, and "nurturer of the male

ego" appears to be the only role played by Chawaf's women,

Valerie Hannagan observes (183).

Aiming at a feminist vision of harmonious relations

between men and women, these relations in Chawaf's world, it

has been argued, are paradoxically often marked by a

depressive tone and marked by the failure of her female

protagonists to escape their alienation, as in Retable-la

reverie and L'Interieur des heures. How could the repetition

of such stereotypes undermine binary logic and put into

question the symbolic exclusion of the feminine? It cannot,

Bosshard decides: "la bipolarisation des 6tres en sexe

masculin et sexe f6minin persist" (223). In the end, the

promise her writing holds for envisaging new male/female

relations remains unfulfilled, Hannagan argues. She conveys

the general opinion succinctly: Chawaf's "textual body is

rich in symptoms, but ultimately the redemption it seeks to

achieve is firmly grounded in the status quo" (190).

The contradictory reception of Chawaf's work, largely among

American feminist critics, can be explained, in part, by the

rise of the philosophical essentialist critique during the

1970s and 1980s. Now, however, the essentialist/

constructivist dichotomy is being rethought.' An alliance

with sexual difference has been seen as a foundational move,

instead of taking into account the social constructionist

aspect of French feminist thought. In Bodies That Matter,

Butler proposes that the tradition to which Irigaray belongs

ultimately challenges the essentialist/constructivist

dichotomy at the basis of much feminist practice. Chawaf's

work can also be read through such a perspective. Rather

than setting limits to conceptualizations of sexuality, its

purpose, I propose, ultimately serves to put into question

the foundations and boundaries of discourses on sexuality.

Furthermore, the anti-establishment tenet as the

impetus for diverse practices of 6criture feminine has often

been overlooked. The rubric ecriture feminine groups

together an eclectic corpus of texts by radical female

intellectuals writing from the early 1970s to the present.4

Jaded by their male counterparts in the revolution of 1968,

these authors initiated their own revolt; they purloined the

intellectual and literary weapons of this still too

conventional peer group whose modus operandi was grounded in

the questioning of all established convention. Hle8ne Cixous

coined the phrase ecriture feminine in her famous 1976

manifesto "Le Rire de la meduse," which underscores the

massive attack behind this practice aimed at the foundation

of masculine-biased institutions:

Un texte f6minin ne peut pas ne pas @tre plus que
subversif: s'il s'ecrit, c'est en soulevant,

volcanique, la vieille croate immobilibre, porteuse des
investissements masculins, et pas autrement; il n'y a
pas de place pour elle si elle nest pas un il? Si elle
est elle-elle, ce n'est qu'a tout casser, a mettre en
pieces les batis des institutions, & faire sauter la
loi en l'air, A tordre la 'v6rit6' de rire. (49)

This writing practice aims to refute tradition by attacking

it at its core, by magnifying the operations of the literary

institution from within the terms of its own discourse in

order to shake up what appears to be the solid ground of its

assumptions. This explosive process aims to dismantle the

misogynous ethics behind model-copy representation. As

Chawaf says, she writes in order to,

arriver donc & l'interieur, quitter les surfaces
parce qu'il remettrait tout en question, parce que
les privileges tomberaient. ("Ecrire A partir du corps
vivant" 119)

On what grounds, then, can critics repudiate Chawaf's

version of a practice that epitomizes the seditious values

of 6criture feminine?

In this light, we can understand Chawaf's "r8les

f6minins hypertrophids" and other excessive displays of

convention as anything but gratuitous. In effect, they form

an integral part of what I call her performative mimetic

strategy. While mimesiss" traditionally denotes the faithful

representation of nature, Chawaf's mimetic strategy entails

a hyperbolic performance of gender norms that actually

parodies them. The aim of her project is not simply to

mirror "reality" but, through a more complex notion of

referentiality, to interrogate the limits of thinking about

sexed bodies. This parodic, imitative tactic (what Cixous

refers to as the "elle-elle") seeks to highlight the

constructed aspect of gender norms through an insistence on

the slippage in meaning of the signifier. In doing so, it

challenges theories of the stability of the symbolic order,

and the supposed exclusion of the feminine from this realm.

Chawaf's parodies serve to undermine not only gender

and representational norms but also the values that support

and sustain them. Mikhail Bakhtin has articulated the

transformative operation at work in parody. Through it,

language is transformed from the absolute dogma it had
been within the narrow framework of a sealed-off and
impermeable monoglossia into a working hypothesis for
comprehending and expressing reality. (61)

From his conception of parody, Suleiman notes that we arrive

at the

contemporary feminist insight that the stories we
tell about reality construe the real, rather than
merely reflect it. Whence the possibility, or the hope,
that through the rewriting of old stories and the
invention of new forms of language for doing so, it is
the world as well as the words that will be
transformed. (143)

It is from within a tradition of analytic exposure that

Chawaf uses textual parody as a means toward recasting the

language and grammar of the symbolic order,s exploring this

tactic's potential for symbolizing the feminine in hopes of

altering oppressive self/other relations.

Despite her emphasis on plurality and diff6rance in

signification, Chawaf's work continues to be denounced when

her 6criture feminine fails to meet the standards that

critics have imposed. For example, her work has been

measured against a criterion of laughter celebrated in

Cixous' "Rire de la meduse" and has been judged

insufficiently transgressive. Dismissing Chawaf's texts for

their lyrical tendencies, Suleiman implies that a

subversive, authentic ecriture feminine would above all be

laughter provoking:

little of the writing thus produced was playful in the
ordinary sense of lighthearted, or just plain funny.
Annie Leclerc, Chantal Chawaf, and Julia Kristeva .
opted for the expansive lyric mode when writing as
mothers. Although lyric can be full of invention, it
does not offer much possibility for humor or parody.

If parody and irony are loaded signifiers with multiple

meanings, should this element in Chawaf's writing be

discounted simply because it does not provoke laughter in

the narrow sense?

According to Chawaf, critics' brief honeymoon with

ecriture feminine in the 70s ended when its unsettling

implications began to come of light:

On a 6t6 un temps amoureux socialement de l'&criture
feminine en se gardant bien d'aller voir la
metaphysique qui se cachait derriere. Quoiqu'on 6crive
de neuf, on risque d'@tre lu par des habitudes
millionaires qui chercheront a nous r6primer. (43)

She attributes critics' initial enthusiasm for &criture

feminine, and their fairly rapid decline in interest, to a

refusal to examine the disturbing philosophy it brought to

light: a metaphysics of the repressed feminine. As my

analysis of Chawaf's texts through the critical framework

provided by Irigaray and Butler will demonstrate, to

understand Chawaf's work from another optic would mean to

challenge thinking based on binary oppositions--even to the

point of questioning the sex/gender distinction at the basis

of feminist practice. Considering the role language plays in

constructing the sex/gender split appears to work against

the ends that feminist practices stand and strive for. How

could feminism proceed, critics argue, without relying on

the stability of sex as a foundation? Butler consents that

it could not at this time. For political reasons, the

sex/gender distinction must be maintained, if only

tactically. Within feminism, "sex" is the site of woman's

oppression and as such is a concept that enables feminist

practice. However, a systematic questioning of the

foundation is not the same as discarding it altogether.

Instead, such interrogation might reveal the possible

function of "sex" as a constraining limit and lead to new

ways of thinking about--and a new ethics of--sexual


This study interrogates the limits critics have imposed

on Chawaf's ecriture feminine in order to demonstrate how

her project is a quintessential example of this radical

practice; in effect, her writing not only undermines

traditional gender norms, it works within, yet against, the

established standards for ecriture feminine itself in order

to expose and expand the boundaries of this avant-garde

writing practice.

Chapter One examines the philosophical thought of

feminist philosophers Luce Irigaray and Judith Butler, that

I believe useful for the analysis of Chawaf's oeuvre.

Rereading her work in the context of Irigaray's "mimetisme"

and Butler's theory of gender performativity can refine the

understanding of the concept of matter important to her

textual and ethical strategies in support of a theory of

sexual difference.

As Irigaray and Butler demonstrate, the concept of

matter has been largely seen as outside social, historical,

and cultural structures. Irigaray and Butler seek to expose

the idea of the exteriority of form to matter that

conditions discourses on identity formation.6 Rereading

foundational philosophical texts, they simultaneously aim to

refigure concepts of the body and materiality within this

tradition. Irigaray and Butler challenge the authority of

philosophical discourse, revealing the extent to which the

latter is historically shaped and biased, highly literary,

and often paradoxically dependent on those elements the

authors' thought attempts to devalorise. When seen as a

product of, as well as productive of, social types of power,

matter can become a site of resistance to oppression.

The first part of Chapter One discusses aspects of

Irigaray's work that provide the groundwork for Chawaf's

mimetic strategy and Butler's performative theory. It

explores how Irigaray, through textual mimicry,

systematically questions the conditions, and exclusions, of

the production of matter within Freudian psychoanalysis and

Aristotelian philosophy. The feminine has been excluded from

these discourses, she claims, and the result is by no means

neutral: it is a more or less unconscious strategy for

denying sexual difference, thereby perpetuating male

privilege. Her close textual readings provide insights for

understanding how material bodies and the symbolic realm in

which they signify are marked by social, cultural,

historical, and literary contexts (24).

Expanding Irigaray's line of inquiry, Butler draws not

only from philosophy and psychoanalysis but also from the

linguistic theory of performative speech acts, in order to

conceptualize a broader framework for understanding identity

formation and agency. She argues that philosophical

statements are not purely constative, that is, descriptive

statements about the nature of things. To embrace this line

of thinking would be comparable to understanding mimesis as

the faithful representation of nature. Philosophical

statements are also performative, she claims, productive of

the situation they appear to be describing. Butler's theory

of the social construction of "sex" as a performative

process involves the repetitive citing of norms and

conventions, forming and constraining over time the human

agent through the threat of prohibition. Continually in

process, the boundaries of body types are marked through the

repeated invocation of gender norms. Yet, this reiteration

of norms proves ambivalent. Although it may be the occasion

for shoring up the norm, Butler contends that it also

provides the possibility for its subversion. Rethinking

Chawaf's &criture feminine as a performative tactic broadens

our understanding of this avant-garde practice and its

potential as a strategy for transforming the social

structure of oppression.

Chapters Two and Three address Chawaf's mimetic

strategy and its subversive use of gender norms and generic

convention in her first and most important work, Retable-la

reverie. Chapter Two examines some aspects of the novel's

paratext. As formulated by Gerard Genette, paratextual

elements belong to a realm mediating between text and world,

writer and reader, where meaning remains open to

negotiation.' An exploration of the paratext provides

insights into how Retable-la reverie's construction

interrogates ways of thinking about bodies and texts, and

the links between the two. Chawaf's use of the maternal

metaphor is discussed in light of her mimetic strategy. An

expanded use of metaphor, the figure of the pregnant womb is

understood in the context of Irigaray's phenomenology of

proximity--an alternative to specular theories of subject


I also argue that Chawaf exploits paratextual elements

as possible sites of symbolic transformation. The titles,

the cover art, and the work's divisions signal a shift from

representation to the scenography of representation, from

attention to what is represented to how it is shown and

received. In order to prepare the reader to accommodate her

non-conventional use of generic and gender convention in the

narrative, she emphasizes the function of the paratextual

elements to encourage reflection on modes of reading signs.

Such an emphasis aims to effect the cognitive shifts

necessary for new ways of thinking about the body and the

text--accenting the dynamic functioning of language and its

performative power to reconceptualize the symbolic.

Chapter Three offers a close reading of the double

novel, Retable-La reverie, exploring feminine writing of the

body as a subversive mimetic strategy and a locus of

metamorphosis. It examines the protagonist's quest to

uncover the truth about her birth mother and her attempts to

refigure the maternal-feminine through the act of writing.

It demonstrates how Chawaf's use of hyperbolic poetic

language enacts a performance of gender norms, co-opting

stereotypical conceptions of female materiality and desire

in a subtle, paradoxical way in order to undermine them.

Crossing back through the images and language historically

employed to devalorise the feminine she criticizes their

traditional usage. Simultaneously, through metaphor, she

expands the conception of the maternal-feminine, developing

a poesis that attempts to create a space for the expression

of her specifically feminine desire.


Among others, see Colette Nys-Mazure, "Chantal
Chawaf: 'Rouge&tre'," Les Cahiers du GRIF (1978): 179-80;
Francine de Martinoir, "Territoires sur fond t6nebreux," La
Ouinzaine litt&raire 498 (1987): 8; Jacques Vandenschrick,
"Corinna Bille et Chantal Chawaf, saints &critures du
d6sir..." La Revue nouvelle 69.4 (1979): 434-38; Monique

Nagem, afterword, Mother Love: Mother Earth, by Chantal
Chawaf, trans. Monique F. Nagem (Hamden: Garland, 1992) 101-
111; Christiane P. Makward and Judith G. Miller, eds.,
foreword, "Warmth: A Bloodsong," trans. Christiane P.
Makward, Judith G. Miller, and Cynthia Running-Johnson, in
Plays by French and Francophone Women (Ann Arbor: Univ.
Michigan Press, 1994) 233-46.

In "De Retable a Rougeatre," Chawaf recounts, not
without a note of pleasure, an anecdote testifying to
readers' intense bodily reactions: "Deux ou trois homes
apres la lecture de B1 de semences se sont pr&cipites au
lavabo pour y vomir" (88). Such responses approach Cixous'
criterion for &criture feminine: "Les vrais textes de
femmes, des textes avec des sexes de femmes, ca ne leur fait
pas plaisir; ca les &coeure" ("Rire de la M6duse" 40).

3 See Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive
Limits of "Sex" (New York: Routledge, 1993); Carolyn Burke,
Naomi Schor, and Margaret Whitford, eds., Engaging with
Irigaray: Feminist Philosophy and Modern European Thought
(New York: Columbia UP, 1994); Margaret Whitford, Luce
Irigaray: Philosophy in the Feminine (London: Routledge,
1991); Linda J. Nicholson, Feminism/Postmodernism (London:
Routledge, 1990); Drucilla Cornell, Beyond Accommodation:
Ethical Feminism. Deconstruction, and the Law (New York:
Routledge, 1991).

SAs an author transgressive of convention and
tradition, it is not surprising that Chawaf herself does not
use this epithet to describe her own practice. Although in
the 1970s the classification served a purpose in promoting a
certain type of woman's literature, Chawaf believes that, in
the long run, it also served to erode the legitimacy of such
threatening writing: "Mes livres ont subi ce que les femmes
ont subi. On a pr6f6r6 jouir d'eux plutSt de les comprendre"
("L'action du language" 43). Despite Chawaf's reservations, I
have chosen to retain the epithet for the purposes of this
study. Sometimes the most effective way to be heard, perhaps
the only way as, Irigaray reminds us, is to participate in
the term of the discourse one is criticizing. This label,
after all, has been useful in facilitating the defense and
illustration of feminine writing.

s The "symbolic" is used throughout this dissertation
in the Lacanian sense, as the linguistic dimension of the
social order in which sexual identity may be constructed.
See Jacques Lacan, "Fonction et champ de la parole et du
language en psychanalyse," Ecrits I (Paris: Editions du
Seuil, 1966) pp. 111-208.


6 Although Butler draws heavily from Irigaray in her
discussion of the form/matter dichotomy, she also condemns
Irigaray for essentialism. This paradox inherent in Butler's
criticism of Irigaray is discussed at length in Chapter One.

SIn Gerard Genette, Seuils (Paris: Editions du Seuil,


No body, for Irigaray, exists unmediated by textuality.

Never completely biologically predetermined, bodies are

socially constructed in a complex and shifting way,

"penetrated and disciplined by discourse, gender codes, by

culture" (Diamond 154). Philosophical conceptualizations

(such as knowledge, the idea, the subject, and substance)

play an active role in constructing and interpreting the

"reality" of sexed bodies, she contends, and each bodily

form is invested with a cultural value. Irigaray views

bodies, then, as not just the sum of their biological parts,

but also as produced and conditioned within a social matrix.

Her thesis is that this social order is sexually-

indifferent.' As such, it deprives women of subjectivity as

well as of their own relation to language, and therefore the

possibility of speaking their desires and dreams.2 As a

result, the lack of feminine subjectivity has dire economic,

political, and social consequences for the lives of women

and of men.

One way to understand the link between bodies and texts

is through Irigaray's conceptualization of the Imaginary. In

Luce Irigaray, Philosophy in the Feminine, Margaret Whitford

explains Irigaray's expanded use of this term. It is not

simply a synonym for unconscious fantasy (as in Lacanian

psychoanalytic theory): it also connotes, in the Sartrian

sense, an "intentional object of the imagining

consciousness," encompassing internal fantasies (i.e.

daydreams) as well as external products such as literature

and art (54). In addition, a Bachelardian influence can be

traced in her idea that the four elements underlie the

imagination and condition individuals' passions, limits, and


Not only is the Imaginary organized by air, fire,

water, and earth, Irigaray claims, but at the most basic

level it is marked by sex. As such, the Imaginary can be a

powerful creative source for change. On a discursive level,

she characterizes products of the male imaginary as

singular, linear, and involving a unified, static identity

as opposed to those of the nonlinear, plural feminine of

fluid identity. Ethique de la difference sexuelle opens with

the statement that sexual difference is the major

philosophical question of the late twentieth century (5). To

Irigaray, it is only through the understanding of this

concept at the level of discourse--a recognition of female

sexual difference--that transformation in the condition of

women can be effected.3

Irigaray attacks the problem of sexual indifferencee

through a close look at the scene of representation, and the

role played by the mirror and matter. In textual re-

readings, she deploys a tactic of mimicry ("mimetisme").

From such a perspective, she aims to unveil the exclusionary

logic of sexual indifference as a first step toward thinking

a post-patriarchal space where woman's difference can be


The first half of this chapter explores Irigaray's

understanding of mimesis, the mirror, and the concept of

matter, as well as the tactic of mimicry deployed in her

critique of Freud's theories of sexuality and in her re-

reading of Plato's allegory for the production of forms. The

second half of this discussion elaborates Butler's theory of

gender performativity. The framework developed by Irigaray

and Butler offers insights for interpreting Chawaf's

&criture feminine.

Sexual (In)Difference. Representation, and Matter

Derrida's now familiar critique of the scene of

representation demonstrates how the patriarchal order is

organized by a dialectical and hierarchial system of

binaries (i.e., male/female, form/matter, mind/body,

culture/nature, activity/passivity), the first term

privileged over the second.4 While some feminist theory

seeks to revalorize the negative/feminine poles of this

binary structure, for Irigaray this strategy proves flawed:

"Ii ne s'agit pas de renverser." It is not a question of

replacing male privilege with female privilege even if that

were possible, since "cela reviendrait finalement au meme"

(CS 67; TS 68) Critiques of woman as "other" in relation

to the male subject and the demand for sexual equality might

serve a consciousness-raising function, but ultimately, she

argues, they do not question the bases of phallogocentric


Instead of reiterating that the feminine occupies the

negative, devalorized realm in these binary opposition,

Irigaray claims that the dichotomies themselves do not

represent a system of differences. Rather, the second term

mirrors the first and as such seeks to exclude otherness

altogether. The traditional philosophical conception of

"woman" (the "other of the same"), is actually just a

negative mirror image of the masculine, produced and

conditioned through the hidden phallic specular relationship

to the masculine (the "self-same"). Within this

"hom(m)osexual" economy based on a standard of oneness, she

maintains that sexual difference does not yet exist. Both

poles of the binary are actually masculinist constructions

participating in a theatrical mirror game, repressing the

Other, the feminine and the material, in order to fortify

male supremacy. Ofelia Schutte describes the distinction

between the other of the same and Irigaray's Other:

In this tradition, the Other is that which exceeds
and subverts the self, not the Hegelian other who
desires a reciprocity of recognition and who is
ultimately considered a counterpart to the self.
Irigaray uses the term Other in the sense of what
is radically Other and irreducible to the master
consciousness--the excluded, the very marginal,
the unconscious, the excessive, the mysterious,
the superfluous. (50)

To support her argument, Irigaray uncovers how the

operation of philosophical discourse is contingent upon

masked variables that sustain truth claims. These figures

of philosophical discourse include,

la "matirre" don't se nourrit le sujet
parlant pour se produire, se reproduire; la
scdnographie qui rend praticable la representation
telle qu'elle se d&finit en philosophie, c'est-a-
dire l'architectonique de son theatre, son cadrage
de l'espace-temps, son economie g6om6trique, son
ameublement, ses acteurs, leurs positions
respective, leurs dialogues, voire leurs rapports
tragiques, sans oublier le miroir, le plus souvent
masque, qui permet au logos, au sujet, de se
redoubler, de se reflechir, lui-meme. (CS 72-73;
TS 75)

The use of a theatrical trope for exploring representations

demonstrates how philosophical discourse itself is

conditioned. As Timothy Murray notes,

What is theorized or understood as "real" or
"material" or even "historical" remains contingent
on its mise-en-scene, that is, on the means with
which it is represented as well as on the context
of its reception. (Mimesis. Masochism, and Mime 7)

The figure of performance can be viewed as a "third" term

that exceeds the binary paradigms perpetuating repressive

mental structures such as racism, sexism, and heterosexism.

Within this theatrical scenography, through the specular

operation and the conceptualization of matter, sexual

difference is conditioned, produced, and comes to signify--

or as Irigaray claims, does not.' Her thesis is that in

traditional philosophy the concept of matter is excluded

from, yet supports the patriarchal scene. It provides

substance and sustenance for the male subject that enables

his reproduction as the sex that matters. This culturally

and historically mediated scene of representation conditions

(male) subjectivity and sexual indifferencec.

Irigaray argues that the language of the symbolic is

sustained by material elements, and that the feminine has

historically served as this material support. Etymologically

bound to mater and matrix (the mother, the womb), feminine

matter functions as the support or grounding of the system

that upholds male privilege. The nourishing matter outside

the scene of representation is the maternal-feminine; it

provides the foundation of the system, and enables "la

puissance de sa syst&maticite, la force de sa cohesion .

la generalit6 de sa loi" (CS 72; TS 74). Western philosophy,

including feminist discourse, proceeds as if matter lay

outside this scenography instead of taking part in its

formation. Significantly, her argument implies that through

the repression of the maternal-feminine, masked as an appeal

to a higher "truth," phallogocentric logic and the supremacy

of the male subject are maintained. In Irigaray's view,

philosophy's most urgent imperative at this time is to

reveal this aporia through interpretation.

The Mirror and Mimetisme

Irigaray's theory of specular identity formation and

the constitution of sexual difference through language is

indebted to structuralist, psychoanalytic, and post-

structuralist thinking.' In Saussure's concept of linguistic

meaning, there is no inherent link between signifier and

signified, words and reality. He explains how words come to

mean within a symbolic system of language and shows that

signify relationally. Foucault applies this linguistic

structuralist thinking to his conceptualization of social

identity formation. On an individual or group level, he

says, we form our identity only in relation to others,

through dis-identification from them.' This is not to say

that if we dis-identify with the other, we posit the Other's

difference, but rather that the other in this Hegelian

schema, as Schutte says, exists only as a counterpart to the

self. In other words, the specular relation effectively

negates others' difference. This process is linked to the

perception of one's own self-image and psychic boundaries.

If identity is formed through such a hierarchy of

dominance, Foucault argues, there must some relationship

between the two. However, in order to assure the subject's

primacy over the other, this rapport or resemblance and its

accompanying elements of difference must be repressed.

Furthermore, in order to sustain a prevailing ideology, the

means by which social supremacy is attained, and maintained,

must be concealed. As Irigaray says in her description of

the scenography, "Toutes interventions dans la scene qui,

rest6es ininterpr6etes, assurent sa coherence" (CS 73; TS

75). A set of norms dictated by a socially powerful group

serves to screen how that power is attained. With recourse

to norms, social 'laws' are created to dictate the true, the

good and the normal over the false, the bad, and the

abnormal. Through the injunction of these cultural 'laws'

produced within patriarchy, those who do not fall within a

standard of male heterosexuality are subject to forms of

social punishment: rejection, repudiation, and disavowal.

The consequences, Irigaray argues, lead to social and

economic injustice, as well as psychological and physical


How can this (masculine) logic be exposed? A break with

the patriarchal order, which is supported and sustained by

philosophical theory, is not feasible. One cannot simply

step outside the language of this deep-seated, historically-

laden scene. Instead, Irigaray argues that focusing on the

process of how discourse and cultural systems of

signification mean can reveal flaws in their logic. It is

through representational fissures that she glimpses

possibilities for reconfiguring the symbolic. To contest the

foreclosure of feminine representation and desire within the

specular economy, the figures of philosophical discourse

must be reopened.

C'est bien le discours philosophique qu'il faut
questionner, et deranger, en tant qu'il fait la
loi A tout autre, qu'il constitute le discours des
discours. (CS 72; TS 74)

A feminist critique interested in transforming the

patriarchal system must subvert it from within. It must take

a closer look at the variables in play (matter and the

mirror), and "les faire rejouer, dans chaque figure du

discours, pour le deconcerter a entreprendre de

'd6truire' le fonctionnement discursif" (CS 73; TS 75).

Through her own process of mirroring, which mimes the

phallo-specular relation, Irigaray uncovers the negation and

suppression of both matter and the feminine within the

Western philosophical tradition.

Irigaray's tactic is not simply a repetition of the

self-same in which she seeks to run away with the power of

the dominant group or to reinstitute, for the feminine, the

same sort of oppressive regime. Such a reversal of power

would still operate within the structure dictated by

patriarchal thinking. A whole new idea of woman needs to be

conceptualized, along with new relations to language and to

power, for being a subject in language is a condition for

social subjectivity. As Irigaray, Chawaf, Cixous, and others

have argued since the early 1970s, as long as the concept of

woman is used to construct (man's) language, she has no

access to her own.

Irigaray's subversive textual practice does not seek to

determine what woman is nor to definitively define her, but

rather to understand the system in which a conception of

woman without social subjectivity is reiterated as the norm.

Il fallait, en effet, un discours qui prenne come
enjeu la sexuality meme pour que ce qui
fonctionnait comme condition de possibility du
discours philosophique, de la rationality en
g6enral, se donne A entendre. (CS 162; TS 168)

It would initiate the possibility of thinking woman outside

the realm of the "other of the same." Irigaray's texts pose

the question of the "Other of the Other," which Lacan

proclaims does not exist. For the nonce, she agrees, "La/une

femme fait signe vers l'indefinissable, l'inenumeration .

. nom common indeterminable quant A une identity" (SP, 285;

SPE 230). For now, "La femme 6tayera ce redoublement

speculaire, renvoyant a 1'homme 'son' image, le rdp6tant

come 'm&me'" (SP 63; SPE 54). But keep in mind that

Irigaray's vision of systematicity is dynamic. The exclusion

of woman makes possible the "closure" of philosophical

discourse: it provides the illusion that the system is self-

sustaining. What, Irigaray wonders, would happen to the

specular relation if an other mirror, "un image 'autre,' un

miroir 'autre'" were to intervene in the system (SP 63; SPE

54)? A scenario exposing possible difference within the

order of the self-same would "signifie toujours le risque

d'une crise mortelle" for the existence of the sexually

indifferent, feminine-repudiating logic (SP 63; SPE 54).

How, then, can one begin to unleash this crisis, to

subvert the systematicity at play in the specular theater?

Through a poetics of the body, a strategy of "mim4tisme"

(mimicry, camouflage), which would reveal, Irigaray insists,

a premise that the master philosophers did not explore:

"qu'il pourrait 6ventuellement s'agir d'un meme mais autre

miroir. Miroir concave peut-&tre? Pour refldchir un autre et

meme miroir" (SP 307; SPE 248). A tactical stance true to

the basic tenet of 6criture feminine, Irigaray's mimicry

appropriates the modus operandi of reflection and

replication, but manipulates the tools of the specular to

her own ends. Her strategy of reversal and displacement aims

to transfigure "en affirmation une subordination, et, de ce

fait, commenger a la dejouer" (CS 73-4; TS 76). She enters

the phallogocentric realm through the linguistic doors it

inevitably leaves open, penetrating philosophical discourse

by addressing it on its own terms:

Jouer de la mimesis, c'est donc, pour une femme,
tenter de retrouver le lieu de son exploitation
par le discours, sans s'y laisser simplement
r6duire. C'est se resoumettre -- en tant que du
c8t6 du 'sensible', de la 'matiere' .-- a des
'id6es', notamment d'elle, 6labor6es dans/par une
logique masculine, mais pour faire 'apparaitre',
par un effet de r6p6tition ludique, ce qui devait
rester occult: le recouvrement d'une possible
operation du feminin dans le language. C'est aussi
'd&voiler' le fait que, si les femmes miment si
bien, c'est qu'elles ne se r6sorbent pas
simplement dans cette function. Elles restent
aussi ailleurs: autre insistence de 'matiere',
mais aussi de 'jouissance.' (CS 74; TS 76)

Through a close look at each aspect of this mise-en-

scene, she reexamines

le fonctionnement de la 'grammaire' de chaque
figure du discours, ses lois ou necessit&s
syntaxiques, ses configurations imaginaires, ses
reseaux m6taphoriques et aussi ses silences
(CS 73; TS 75)

in order to demonstrate that the specular system of

reproduction, of mimesis, always already contains the

seeds of its own undoing.

Irigaray's call to textual play is not to be taken

lightly, for the passage from "jouer" to "jouissance" is

simultaneously political and ethical, an interrogation and

an affirmation. Characterized by a series of double lexical

movements, this quotation illustrates the procedure it

describes, relying on equivocal figures of speech in order

to render one definitive reading dubious. "Jouer (de)"

delivers the meanings, both playful and serious, of the act

of mimicry: interpreting, camouflaging, taking advantage of

to one's profit, making fun of, and risking.' Infinitives

and pronominal verbs lead us through the passage ("jouer,"

"tenter de retrouver," "faire apparaitre," "d&voiler," "s'y

laisser," "se resoumettre," "se resorbent") and make an

ethical statement about subjectivity and language. Not bound

to the subject, infinitives are impersonal. Their

positioning slides from and to both subject and object. The

pronominal verbs designate a movement of reciprocity--a

mutual action between two people--as well as a self-

reflexive action. These latter may connote a collective or a

singular that has the value of a plural. What must remain

secret in master philosophical discourse, is "le

recouvrement" of an operation of the feminine: both the

covering over and recovery of feminine matter. In the double

movement of her mimicry, to reveal the covering over is also

to gesture towards the recovery of woman's "jouissance." The

illness is not fatal; the debt and her rights can be


Irigaray describes something resistant in the concept

of (feminine) matter that enables a miming subversion unable

to be riveted definitively in place: "elles ne se r6sorbent

pas simplement dans cette function." They do not disappear

altogether in this dissimulation. Rather, this "rdsorption"

can be likened to passage through a mucus membrane that

Irigaray theorizes as the middle-passive, a place of

threshold allowing free-flowing entrance or exit. The

middle-passive can be understood in relation to her concept

of the interval or envelope: an elasticity through which two

beings encounter each other as subjects. The contiguous

meanings, like two individuals in a relation of generous,

non-selfish desire, lead to "jouissance" in all senses of

the term: as sexual pleasure, as active participation ("se

servir de quelque chose"), and as attainment of legal rights

(becoming "titulaire").

To re-explore the site of woman's exploitation, to

probe the dark continent of the repressed feminine, Irigaray

penetrates the threshold of the scene of representation with

another mimetic tool: a speculum. The term speculum, linked

etymologically to sight ("specere"), designates an

instrument inserted into a body passage for inspection, most

often for gynecological examinations. What more appropriate

tool could a feminist practice use for the exploration of

passages of the body, both material and textual, and sexual

difference? Playing on the difference of this exploratory

instrument designed for the female genitals allows her to

look at representation from a previously obscured feminine


With her passage-opening speculum, a trope for

critically rereading theory--and copy of the Self-same

mirror with a sexual difference--Irigaray mimes foundational

philosophical texts. Reiterating the words of the masters,

she effects subtle subversions in their discourse. Through

this mode of introducing anotherr voice into texts, she

puts into question sometimes explicitly, sometimes

implicitly, the "fonctionnement discursif": the system of

metaphor that allows the substitution of the masculine for

the feminine, and the repression of the maternal-feminine.

Tracing how the system of thought was constructed in

order to expose the gaps of both metaphor and concept, she

deconstructs philosophical texts through their own logic. In

doing so, she reveals the paradoxical moves made that give

their arguments the appearance of cohesion. Although this

poetics, "a mimicry that undermines the referent's

authority," echoes modernist gestures toward the non-

referentiality of language," hers is one with a feminine

difference (Diamond 62). Instead of replacing the

masculine/male with feminine/female bias, she reveals these

binary concepts to be postures.

Rereading Plato

For exposing sexual indifference and initiating a

process of cultural and linguistic transformation, Irigaray

cites Plato's myth of the cave as a good point of departure.

"L'hystera de Platon," the last essay in Speculum, returns

to the most fundamental of western philosophy's beginnings

in order to explore the question of sexual indifferencec.

In Book 7 of The Republic, Plato's parable approaches

epistemological questions of primary concern to Irigaray:

What things are real? What constitutes their reality? How

can we know? How do we know we know? Her rereading

demonstrates how Plato's myth does not simply seek knowledge

about what is "real," but his text actually operates

performatively, producing and conditioning a "reality" that

excludes matter and the maternal-feminine in order to serve

his own ends. Through repetition that magnifies the elements

constituting the cave-womb scene, Irigaray highlights the

stakes involved in Plato's metaphorical representation:

Dilemme, oscillation, indecision, don't on ne
sortira pas sans interpreter l'inter&t, les
int&rets, en jeu. A qui, a quoi, profitent les
credits investis dans l'efficace d'une telle
m6taphoricite, dans de tels quadrillages et
definitions des pions du jeu, dans l'attribution
de ces critrres differentiels aux pieces de
l'chiquier, dans cette hidrarchie de valeurs
comme enjeu, regles, et solde de la parties. (SP
335; SPE 269-70)

Plato constructs an elaborate scene, which he likens to

a theater, in order to illustrate the difference between

true and false representations. Thus he sets the stage for

dichotomous illusion. In describing the production of Forms,

he creates a metaphorical system for differentiating between

the good/true/real and the bad/false/illusory. The Form, in

referring both to species and shape, is central to

Irigaray's broader concerns of legitimacy and exclusion:

what is valued as human and how it accrues value--through

morphology--both of the body and of language. Announcing her

argument in the title "Plato's Hystera," Irigaray

establishes from the outset that the cave-world at the basis

of Plato's metaphor is actually the womb robbed of its

reproductive function. His scenario offers up a "tentative

de metaphorisation, proces de d6tournement, qui prescrit,

silencieusement, la metaphysique occidentale," that requires

that the womb-mother-earth be forgotten, erased, and left

behind in a quest for Truth and Knowledge (SP 301; SPE 243).

While purported to represent the feminine, the matter that

figures within his scene is conditioned by phallic logic.

Irigaray points out that there is a second, "inarticulate"

matter covered over by Plato's specular feminine, "the Other

of the Other." As Butler says, this matter "designates the

constitutive outside of the Platonic economy; it is what

must be excluded for that economy to posture as internally

coherent" (BTM 151).1 The patriarchal world/scene of

representation founds the sexual indifference reflected in

model-copy mimesis and sustained by the operation of the

mirror that Irigaray traces to the psychoanalytic discourse

on sexuality.

Within this representation the inhabitants live in a

cave-womb of the earth, chained to their places, facing

forward, "6tant immobilis&s par l'impossibilit de se

retourner, ou retourner, vers l'origine, vers l'hystera" (SP

303; SPE 245). They view a stage where statues illuminated

by a fire from behind cast shadows upon the backdrop, the

screen of the theater. Chained as they are, they do not see

that their perspective is only partial. Although the

prisoners only see one dim light, one set of images and

shadows, only hear one set of accompanying voices, each

aspect of Plato's cave is doubled in a larger realm, the

world, and further in the world of Ideas. As Irigaray points

out, in this "caverne ou 'monde' tout ne serait

qu'images d'images" (SP 305; SPE 246). Plato draws analogies

first between these first and second realms, then between

the second and third. Each set of copies, doublings, and

substitutions visually perceivable is hierarchically ordered

and more highly valued as it moves from the earth-mother-

cave to the realm of Ideas. For Plato, each form produced is

a copy of an unknowable Ideal Form--an a priori origin

outside knowledge. The Ideal is one of a kind, self-

identical, the pure model for its copies that are individual

things (bodies, actions, shapes, and objects). It sets the

normative standard against which all copies can be measured

but is itself exempt from interrogation. This system of

analogy and of substitution, is also one of estimated worth.

Copies have more or less value based on their position in

the analogy chain that leads to Truth, Reality, and

Knowledge. The closer that copies resemble the Ideal Form,

the better, the truer, the more real they are.

Plato's system of likeness sustains its illusion "par

une alternance regl6e de r6pliques ou les interference et

bruits du fond de l'entretien sont d'entrie de jeu reduit"

(SP 258-9). Through her amplifying mime, Irigaray attempts

to displace the authority of Plato's word by turning up the

volume--magnifying the ideal of truth underlying and

legitimating his metaphors,

figures, qui representeront 1'intervention des
femmes, sans voix, sans presence. Feminin,
maternel, d'embl6e glacEs par le 'comme', le
'comme si' de cette representation, masculine,

domin&e par la resemblance, l'identit&. (SP
329; SPE 265)

Her mimicry gives voice to silenced material and sensible

background elements, lends an ear to barely perceptible

sounds, and fleshes out the tactile.

Plato's analogies conceal the fact that all the copies

and images rely on a material support (the projection screen

of the cave, the water reflecting men and objects, the veil

barring passage to the world of Ideas). Through metaphor

Plato's argument progresses away from the archetypally

feminine supports of mirror, water, and veil and bars

passage to them: "passage oblitere entire le dehors et le

dedans, le haut et le bas, l'intelligible et le sensible

Le 'pare' et la 'mere' (SP 431; SPE ). As Irigaray

demonstrates, Plato, the mother's child, "est en train de

depouiller les membranes par trop mat6rielles, les heritages

par trop physiques" (SP 397-98; SP 318). Once in the world

of Ideas, the eyes that facilitate sight/knowledge are no

longer attributed to the body but to the soul. The movement

from the body-mother-earth to the mind-father-soul

corresponds to a progression from illusion to Truth,

illusory copy to true original, the sensible to the

intelligible. Chained and unable to move about, the common

man lives in a world associated with matter, while the

proper philosopher would be the man capable of exiting the

dangerous cave-womb and proceeding toward the blinding light

of the Ideal/Truth/Reason. The philosopher's ascent towards

intelligibilty requires leaving behind the material place of

his origination. At his final destination, Plato manages to

conceal the connections between his world of the mind and

the realm of the senses.

Plato himself employs a familial metaphor to describe

the scenario. In keeping with his logic, the mother should

participate in reproduction. Yet, he renders her powerless,

depriving her of contribution to the production of forms.

She figures only as the receptacle for its enactment. He


a prohibition on resemblance (mimeta), which is to
say that [in Plato's text] this nature cannot be
said to be like either the eternal Forms or their
material, sensible, or imaginary copies. (BTM 153)

It is Plato's paradoxical use of metaphor prohibiting

resemblance that produces the nonspecular feminine as the

outlawed element and makes possible a scene of

representation based on likeness. "A whole system of

kinship--that is, in this case, of analogy--makes contact

between them impractical. The economy of metaphor that is in

control keeps them apart" (SP 346). And yet Irigaray shows

clearly that Plato's metaphor is catachrestic; it strips the

mother of the reproductive power to create a form/copy that

would resemble her. Neither form nor copy, she has no status

in ontology; hers is a "nonthematizable materiality" which

cannot be said to exist at all.

Despite Plato's attempts to strip the feminine of its

power, Irigaray maintains that what is repressed in a

symbolic systems "regit-il, sans (r)appel, le texte meme qui

maintient sa prohibition" (SP 314; SPE 253). Philosophy as

we know it cannot proceed without excluding the feminine

from the form/matter binary. To understand this, "Il suffit

d'en questionner la surdetermination. De d&masquer les

figures, formes, signes, qui assurent sa coherence pr6sente"

(SP 314; SPE 253). By exposing the concealed elements of

Plato's scene, Irigaray's light reveals a passage forgotten

by Plato, the "forgotten vagina." Playing on the homophony

of entire and "antre," she argues that this passage is what

enables movement between worlds, "cet entire deux 'mondes',

modes"--the specular and excessive feminines" (SP 305; SPE

246). With a fuller view of the cave-world, the captive

philosopher would be overtaken by vertigo. Spinning, senses

reeling, losing perspective "de ce retournement," he will no

longer be able to reconcile his two points of view (SP 335;

SPE 256). But the philosopher able to unchain himself and

move towards the light-knowledge is not subject in Plato's

world to such a destabilizing, doubly visual effect of the

cave-womb-mother. Instead, he masters disorder through

relations of likeness. Irigaray's mimicry reveals that

Toute une conception s'arr6te 1~[ ]sur--
1'illusion d'une m6taphorique propre, d'une
mdtametaphorique, postulde par la pres6ance de la
v6ritg qui decide, par advance, du ddroulement de
l'entretien, des inter-ventions. (SP 325; SPE 261-

Irigaray's rereading triggers a sort of Gestalt shift

in perception that would reveal how Plato's metaphor depends

on the suppression of the maternal-feminine. For example,

just as some elements of the cave are visible while others

are invisible, some inhabitants of Plato's cave speak while

others are prohibited from doing so. Absent and silent

elements function as the reflecting screen necessary for the

reproduction of the same. The coherence of his argument

necessitates silence, "car si tous parlaient, parlaient en

meme temps, le bruit de fond rendrait difficile, sinon

impossible, ce proces de redoublement que constitute l'6cho"

(SP 318; SPE 257). To create a quiet backdrop for the words

of the selected few, the multiplicity of voices must be

reduced. Moreover, in order to mask his omissions and to

sustain his narrative as being logical, Plato posits the

silence of the background elements of the scenography as

neutral. "Qui soutiennent la fiction de terms propres a

chaque un, et A chaque chose, susceptibles d'etre reproduits

comme tels (SP 319; SPE 257). Discourse, as Irigaray shows

through her critique of Freud and Plato, does not merely

reflect reality or describe how things are, but instead

performs the illusion that they are only one way. Miming

Plato's text, rendering visible the invisible, Irigaray

offers momentary glimpses beyond the borders which enclose

his thought and which prohibit a feminine operation within

language. Despite his attempts to control metaphor, the

maternal-feminine cannot be fully foreclosed.

Rereading Freud

While Freud set out to uncover the nature of sexuality

by way of language, Irigaray criticizes his approach in the

first essay in Speculum, "La T&che aveugle d'un vieux r&ve

de symetrie." She draws attention to what she considers the

"blind spot" in his theoretical "dream of symmetry": the

phallic specular relation operating within his theory.

Irigaray demonstrates Freud's admission that his

understanding of sexuality derives from "une prescription du

psychique par l'anatomique selon 1'ordre de la mimesis," a

metaphorical one-to-one relation between sexual organisms

(sperm/ovum) and sexual beings (male/female) (SP 15; SPE

12). Based on unitary logic, Freud's version of mimesis

refers to the model-copy variety that posits "a truthful

relation between world and word, model and copy, nature and

image, or, in semiotic terms, referent and sign" (Diamond

58). Within such a paradigm, sameness masks potential


Instead of uncovering the nature of sexuality, the

reiterated results of his case studies (women most often

being his objects of inquiry, Irigaray ironically notes)


donne a voir ce qui jusqu'alors pouvait
functionner tout en restant implicite, occult,
meconnu: l'indifference sexuelle don't se soutient
la v6rit6 de toute science, la logique de tout
discours. (CS 67; TS 67)

His interpretations repeat the age-old metaphysical scenario

begun with Plato and offer a version of sexuality based on

phallic parameters. For instance, when it came to theorizing

woman, he could only conceive of her as a man minus the

penis, castrated, a deformed copy of himself, "thereby

demonstrating the truth of his own centrality" (Diamond 59).

Lacking a penis, she is deprived of her subjectivity, as

well as the possibility of self-representation. If that were

not enough, Freud's concept of penis envy pushed her state

of lack even further, to lock her into a position of futile

desire. She serves as a tool, a mirror, propping up his

desire, facilitating his subjectivity. Instrumental in this

specular relation but without subjectivity, she, or rather

her envy, fleshes out his mirror reflection, "making her

look like a male looking at himself" (Diamond 63). "Son lot

serait celui du manquede, de 'l'atrophie' (du sexe), et de

'l'envie du p6nis' comme seul sexe reconnu valeureux" (CS

23; TS 23). Freud speaks of the child's phallic stage, but

no vulvar, vaginal, or uterine stage figures in his schema.

Each of these moves illustrates the foreclosure in Western

thought of the possibility of representing feminine

difference and female desire. Covering over woman's sexual

specificity enables Freud to posit the psychosexual standard

as male. As Irigaray sees it, Freudian theories of subject

formation require the negation, repression, and repudiation

of the vaginal, the uterine, and the vulvar.

Although she does credit him with uncovering a certain

logic of presence, he was unable to analyze the conditions

of the production of his own discourse on sexual difference:

Autrement dit, les questions que la pratique et la
theorie de Freud posent A la scene de la
representation ne vont pas jusqu'a celle de la
determination sexude de cette scene. (CS 71; TS

His "blind spot" vis-a-vis these conditions enabled him to

demonstrate the "truth" of his own model of psychological

behavior. Freud is not alone in his lack of foresight

Irigaray emphasizes. Failure to question the sexual

determination of the scene of representation is a phenomenon

endemic to a broader metaphysical trend in Western thought.

Irigaray, mimicking Freud quoting Napoleon, asserts that

"l'anatomie, c'est le destin" (CS 70; TS 70). Her brilliant

re-citation enables her both to engage Freud's text and to

put into question the veracity of his affirmation in support

his own theory:

autre 'symptime' de l'appartenance du discours de
Freud a une tradition non analysee: le mode de
recours a l'anatomique come critere irrefutable
de v6rit6. (CS 69; TS 70-71)

Through Irigaray's "psychoanalysis" of Freud, she

demonstrates how his theory of sexual difference depends on

a model of anatomical a priori sameness clearly reflected in

his "mode d'emploi" of symmetry, analogy, comparison, and

binary oppositions--figures of speech which efface

difference and relations of contiguity. Psychoanalytically

speaking, these relations of closeness represent the

unstable divide between the bodies of mother and infant

that, as Butler says, "reemerge in language as the metonymic

proximity of signs" and risk to decenter phallogocentric

metaphorical unity (BTM 46).

When viewed in light of the castration complex, Freud's

scenario initiates fear and repulsion of the feminine in

both men and women.

La fille se detourne de sa mere, la 'hait' parce
qu'elle s'apergoit que celle-ci n'a pas le sexe
valeureux qu'elle lui supposait; ce rejet de la

mere s'accompagne de celui de toute femme, elle-
meme comprise. (CS 68; TS 69)

Citing Freud's own words, Irigaray reiterates the "law" that

dictates that woman's lack of a penis determines man's

"'dIpreciation de la femme horreur de ces creatures

mutilees ou m6pris triomphant & leur dgard'" or at the very

least, a disparaging attitude toward women (CS 69; TS 69).

The little girl, as Freud says, "'se d6tourne de sa mare,'

'qu'elle devalorise toutes les femmes' a l'egal d'elle-meme

parce que depourvues de penis" (CS 69; TS 69). But Irigaray

ironically implies here that the problem lies not in the

fact that women are penis-less but in the cultural taboo of

identity with the mother, apparent in women's psychological

rejection of her mother, herself, and other women. Marking

the feminine body as an illegitimate version of the

masculine body, a flawed copy, creates a looming, prohibited

feminine, a threat to manhood that reinforces the imperative

of subjecting oneself to cultural law.

As a result, historically, Western thought provides an

account of the social order that forbids encounter with the

maternal-feminine and forecloses "woman" as a viable

subject. Irigaray's rereading of Freud argues that woman is

only the fetish of representation, deprived of

representation as Subject: "la femme, dans cet imaginaire

sexuel, n'est que support a la mise en acte des

fantasmes de l'homme" (CS 25; TS 25). Ontologically, she

simply has no status within this "indifferent" economy.

Going back through sexual difference, "the staging" of

matter is the first step in undermining the stability of

what we know as sexual difference (BTM 52).

Cet ailleurs de la jouissance de la femme ne se
retrouve qu'au prix d'une retraversee du miroir
qui sous-tend toute speculation. Ne se situant
simplement ni dans un proces de reflexion ou de
mimetisme mais renvoyant toutes ces
categories et coupures aux necessites de l'auto-
repr6sentation du desir phallique dans le
discours. (CS 75; TS 77)

Resubjecting herself to mimesis and matter in order to

disrupt the specular foreclosure of the feminine in her

famous essay "Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un," Irigaray mimes

Freud's use of metaphor by juxtaposing a catachrestic plural

morphological figure to that of phallic oneness." Defined

in the Petit Robert, a catachresis is a figure of rhetoric

that "consiste A detourner un mot de son sens propre." It is

a metaphor that denotes the inappropriate use of a proper

term to describe what cannot be properly named within a

symbolic system. "Detourner" also suggests "soustraire A son

profit, voler," and links up with Cixous's description of

6criture feminine:

Voler, c'est le geste de la femme, voler dans la
langue, la faire voler. Du vol, nous avons toutes
appris 1'art aux maintes techniques, depuis des
siecles, que nous n'avons aces a l'avoir qu'en
volant; que nous avons v6cu dans un vol, de voler,
trouvant au desir des passages 6troits, derobes,
traversants. Ce n'est pas un hasard si 'voler' se
joue entire deux vols, jouissant de l'un et de
l'autre et deroutant les agents du sens. Ce n'est
pas un hasard: la femme tient de l'oiseau et du
voleur come le voleur tient de la femme et de
l'oiseau: illes passent, illes filent, illes
jouissent de brouiller l'ordre de l'espace, de le
desorienter, de changer de place les meubles, les
choses, les valeurs, de faire des cases, de vider

les structures, de chambouler le propre" ("Rire"

Irigaray fleshes out a specifically sexed feminine metaphor,

of two lips, turning the site of her exclusion--sexed

morphology--into an affirmation. She proposes this vulvar

counterpart by deliberately stepping into the materially-

laden role historically associated with women. She does so

not with pretensions of declaring the "truth," but to show

instability in the system that classifies "sex." Irigaray's

"vulvomorphic" logic reveals the performative function of

language to produce, from a linguistic conceptualization,

the "reality" that it names. As Jane Gallop points out,

"phallomorphic logic is not based in anatomy but, on the

contrary, reconstructs anatomy in its own image" (78). It is

in this light that we can understand Irigaray's metaphor,

not as a faithful representation of nature, but as a poesis

as Gallop says, a process of creating woman's sex

transgressive of the phallomorphic law operating on an

unconscious level and therefore divorced from its historical

beginnings. Excessive and non-normative, her lips trope is

"not predestined by anatomy but is already a symbolic

interpretation of that anatomy" (Gallop 78). Through

imitation, it offers a reflection on the mimetic structure

that objectifies the other through the visual. Human bodies,

down to their anatomical aspects, vary, but they are often

conceptualized as being of one type, usually male. Moira

Gatens points out in Imaginary Bodies that portrayals of

whole female bodies are often absent in anatomy textbooks.

They include only sketches of what is lacking, the female

reproductive system for example, in the prototype. Outside

the mode of expression of philosophy proper, Irigaray's lips

function catachrestically. Neither vaginal nor clitoral,

they form an unsanctioned, improper symbolic figure without

a "nom 'propre'." Irigaray reproduces an image of female

sexuality counter to the ideal morphological standard--and

also parodies, self-consciously, the exclusions inherent in

the formation of phallic imagery.

There is no "propre" for the feminine deprived of

subjectivity Irigaray argues. For now, she can only be

glimpsed as the disturbance within it. The only tactic

available to her is the embezzlement and reappropriation of

roles, images, and stereotypes assigned to her. She steals

the techniques of phallogocentric logic and uses them

against it to uncover its sexed nature. At the same time,

her irreverent operation, her "vol," flies "elsewhere," and

keeps from being reduced to singularity and leads to

recognition of the repressed difference already within

phallogocentric logic. The operation of mimicry is not

reabsorbed into the repetitive function of sameness: it

points to meaning "outside" the system by miming, by

exposing what the linguistic signifier "n'articule pas dans

l'enonc6: ses silences" (CS 73, TS 75). The goal of mimicry

is to enact a self-same repetition but through a poesis that

repeats it differently. True to the art of the mime,

Irigaray makes visible what is invisible through the medium

of the body. Excessively charged with materiality, her image

exposes a vacant, constructed character inherent in

discourses on sexuality that reveals how bodies never quite

conform to the norms into which they are interpellated. Her

construction of a feminine metaphor is not essentialist for,

as Elizabeth Berg says, she "is obliged to advance some

image of woman if only to hold open this blank space." The

images she proposes "of fluids, caves, etc.--are empty ones"

subject to infinite deferral (17).

Playing with mimesis in such a way means to "tenter de

retrouver le lieu de son exploitation par le discours"

without allowing oneself to be reduced to exploitation and

silence (CS 74; TS 76). Irigaray's lips metaphor slips out

and flies free, if only for an instant, from symbolic

constraints." Indeed, her figure is not meant to determine

a fixed concept of female sexuality. Rather, it is a

symbolic representation that exceeds dualities. Constantly

moving back and forth between the lips and multiple points

of contact, this feminine pleasure "d'au moins deux levres"

exceeds the law of sameness (CS 73; TS 26). Its multiplicity

troubles the phallogocentric logic of one-to-one

equivalence. If her jouissance is so plural, it cannot be

easily controlled, reduced, and assimilated into oneness.

Butler understands Irigaray's multiple lips as a repetition

of the violation of that reduces woman to materiality, but

she claims that these

repetitions of hegemonic forms of power fail
to repeat loyally and, in that failure, open

possibilities for resignifying the terms of
violation against their violating aims. (BTM 124)

Irigaray's excessively material configuration of the anatomy

disrupts the image of woman as man's negative. Uncovering

the plurality of possible representations within the phallic

scene of representation risks to jam the workings of the

machinery of sameness. Once introduced into the system, the

catachrestic feminine figure reveals the logic of

phallocentrism's impotence to determine the meaning of its

terms. Through this nontraditional metaphor, she points

toward the possibility of a third course, gesturing toward

an "Other of the Other" covered over by phallic logic. As

Berg notes, she does so "by fixing her gaze on the support

itself: focusing resolutely on the blank spaces of masculine

representation, and revealing their disruptive power" (17).

Irigaray describes her process of "mimetisme" as

"hysterical miming," as the woman's attempt to save her

sexuality from complete repression. Hysterical laughter is

always at least double. Whereas laughter should signify joy,

hysterical laughter is paradoxical and improper. Hollow, it

resounds like an echo in an empty house. Listening closely,

one can hear the silences within it. Nevertheless, at the

same time this tactic is liberating. By exposing the threat

of psychological and physical harm inherent in subject

formation based on negative disavowal, it reveals the

boundaries of the subject to be more shifting than imagined.

In fact, for Irigaray the hysterical figure is a

catachrestic one: she is inside the symbolic realm but

exceeds its figuration of her. The illusion that the

boundaries of subjects are fixed could not be sustained

without the social prohibition of feminine specificity. For

both Irigaray and Chawaf, this taboo produces a cultural

aversion toward the feminine. By appropriating hysteria,

which Freud claims is proper to woman, such excessive

performances of feminine sexuality symbolically embrace the

risk that threatens a subject's boundaries.

Some of Irigaray's critics argue that her mimicry

relegates woman to a place where she is permanently deprived

of a voice. However, true to the flowing, ephemeral art of

mime, the blank space exposed through Irigaray's mimicry

is, clearly, no place between 'his' language and
'hers,' but only a disruptive movement which
unsettles the topographical claim a taking
of his place, not to assume it, but to show that
it is occupiable, to raise the question of the
cost and movement of that assumption. (BTM 36)

Philosophical discourse will continue to deprive women of

the value of their sex, Irigaray claims, as long as "on ne

sache pas pourquoi, par qui, et que cela soit port& au

compete de la 'Nature'" (CS 70; TS 71). Exposing the threat

of the loss of the self's integrity through hysterical

mimicry, she explores what Butler calls the "zones of

inhabitability" which a subject fantasizes to be threatening

its own integrity (BTM 243). Valorising the masculine over

the feminine serves to shore up the dominance of the

phallogo-centric order, to empower one group at the expense

of the other.

Irigaray's tactical mimicry shakes up the foundations

of marginalization on which the edifice of patriarchy is

built by exposing the metaphorical structure inherent in the

production of form and matter. It challenges the systematic

exclusion of what is outside conventional representational

systems--different relations of and within signification--

and attempts to open up a passageway to what has been

repressed: the flesh, the material, the maternal-feminine.

Exposing such referential instability is enabling for

feminist discourse. It implies that neither the

phallogocentric thinking nor the grammar supporting and

conditioning it are closed systems; they contain the

elements for their own undoing. The feminine exclusion that

she isolates is neither a permanent nor immutable state, for

it is produced performatively through an unstable system of

referentiality. Psychoanalytically speaking, recognizing the

repressed origin could unblock the erasure of the maternal-

feminine and allow new relations between the self and the

other to begin. A system of sexual difference which

recognizes woman's sexual specificity, instead of

assimilating her into masculine sameness, would be the means

for putting into question the domination of masculine over

feminine, as well as self-destructive rivalry among women.

Conceptualizing sexual difference in a different economy of

language would be a first step towards change in the human

condition, both female and male.

For Irigaray, such a return of the maternal-feminine

figures only in the conditional mode for it has yet to come

into being. Provisional tactics, such as Irigaray's mimicry,

are for her the first step towards not only female

subjectivity, but subjectivity for all bodies that do not

comply with the heterosexual masculine norm. Using

Irigaray's rereading of Plato as a point of departure,

Butler examines the conditions of the production of the

concept of matter. She traces, and problematizes, the ways

in which sexual difference functions in philosophical


Gender Performativity

Since the inception of 6criture feminine in the 1970s,

critics have dismissed the symbolic-altering potential of

this practice as utopian. However, in light of Judith

Butler's theory of the performativity of gender and its link

to bodily materiality, we can now envision the possibility

of "a radical rearticulation of the symbolic horizon,"

possible through the repetition of subversive mimetic acts

such as mimicry (23).'5 She engages with the western

philosophical tradition in an Irigarayian manner. That is to

say that she explores the conditions of the production of

discourse in order to understand how sexed bodies

materialize. For Butler as for Irigaray, the matter of

bodies encompasses the material, the discursive, and the

ethical: how bodies take form or appear and how they

signify, as well as "which bodies come to matter and why"

(BTM xii).

Since Simone de Beauvoir's classic formulation in Le

Deuxieme Sexe, "on ne nait pas femme, on le devient,"

feminist theory has relied on dichotomous thinking with the

sex/gender binary at its base (477). To account for

differences among women yet retaining their common bond, sex

was posited as the natural, biological given and gender as a

social supplement to sex, artificially added through

interaction with the world. Debates have since revolved

around two camps of thought: one that argues the primacy of

sex over gender, and the other, gender over sex. The theory

of social constructionism tends to privilege gender over sex

on the grounds that sex is an appeal to the "natural." Yet

Butler identifies a problem with an espousal of this theory

as it is currently formulated.

Paradoxically, in social constructionism's seeming

rejection of the notion of sex as a foundation, it

reiterates that very idea: sex is seen as the solid ground

to which the social is added. As Irigaray makes clear in "La

Tache aveugle d'un vieux rave de symitrie," Beauvoir's

formulation of gender derives from Freud's discourse on

femininity (SP 19; SPE 21). In terms similar to those of

Beauvoir he states, "psycho-analysis does not try to

describe what a woman is but sets about inquiring how

she comes into being" ("Femininity" 116). Beauvoir's re-

citation of Freud is significant, for Irigaray suggests that

feminist thinking uses his criteria uncritically: the

sex/gender dichotomy reiterates phallo-logic. In other

words, social construction reifies the notion of sex as the

solid ground of identity. Articulating a theory of the

feminine on the grounds of a body supposedly outside culture

is problematic, especially as Irigaray argues, when it is a

notion of the body articulated within a misogynistic

tradition, one that constitutes a structural position of


Constructivism suggests that a social force exists

which operates outside the scene of construction as an a

priori, investing the social with "a culture or agency .

which acts upon nature" (BTM 6). This way of thinking

implies that social agency remains outside human action.

Problematically casting aside bodily experience, the body

appears only as an effect of language, and the concept of

sex as a phantasy. Seeking to overcome the impasse vis-a-vis

the social problems of marginalization and abjection, Butler

shifts the focus of feminist philosophy from essentialism

versus constructivism to

the more complex questions of how "deep-seated" or
constitutive constraints can be posed in terms of
symbolic limits in their intractability and
contestability. (94)

The matter of "sex," the site of bodily oppression, is not

static. Butler points out that in Greek ontology matter was

a creative principle and had the power to originate. Yet

this idea is lost in Cartesian philosophy. Focusing on the

question of how sexual material difference functions with

respect to discursive practices, Butler's theory of gender

performativity aims to displace the stability of the

sex/gender dichotomy. To rethink the form/matter split in a

modern political context by interrogating the degree to

which the concept of form is historically produced, Butler

draws from Irigaray's reading of Plato and Foucault's

historical analysis of the interconnections of form and

matter." The following discussion traces Butler's

examination of the categories of sex and gender through an

optic of linguistic speech acts, structuralist and post-

structuralist philosophy, and psychoanalytic thinking.

One of the ways bodies materialize is through

discourse, Butler asserts, namely through performative

citational practices. Her theory of gender performativity

reconfigures J.L. Austin's concept of performative speech

acts elaborated in How To Do Things With Words. As opposed

to constative or descriptive statements, performatives are

neither "true" nor "false." Instead this class of statements

describes discursive moments when saying is doing, or, to

paraphrase Austin, when saying can make it so. Austin

outlines several requirements for these speech acts: his

rules illustrate how highly regulated speech acts must be

reiterated seriously in order to operate correctly.'

Performatives may either fail or succeed, depending on both

the speaker's and the receiver's compliance with

convention." A performative even masquerades as a statement

of fact, Austin declares, "when it assumes its most explicit

form," which is to say, as a type of authoritative speech

(4)." All philosophical constatives, according to Butler,

operate as performatives. Although they are neither "true"

nor "false," they masquerade as descriptions of "reality"

through the reiterated invocation of authority. This

masquerade involves the illusion that a statement's meaning

remains singular and constant through space and over time.

As Irigaray would say, it gives rise to the deception that

there is no meta-metaphor.

Austin's seminal work on performatives has led to

important critical insights into "how contingent and

radically heterogeneous--how contestable" the relationship

is between a subject and an utterance (Parker & Sedgwick

14). This contingency applies to the interlocutor, the

audience, and the locution of the performative act. Austin's

claim that "actions can only be performed by persons, and

obviously in our cases the utterer must be the performer,"

shows how he privileged the subject's agency over other

factors that constrain individuals, such as relations of

power (60). Butler's gender performativity, on the other

hand, questions an individual's ability to bring about the

intended action. Understanding the performance of gender as

a simple action effected through a subject's choice

oversimplifies this process. As Butler explains, a subject

cannot choose to don a gender as she chooses to put on

either a dress or pants at the start of the day. Instead of

subscribing to the performativity of gender centered around

the subject "as the act by which a subject brings into being

what she/he names," she emphasizes the role of discourse in

producing "the phenomena that it regulates and constrains"

(BTM 2). The function of discourse in this process provides

the link between the performativity of gender and the

materiality of sex, where materiality signifies how bodies

take form or appear and how they signify.

Like Irigaray, Butler argues that the materiality of

"sex" is not unproblematically a bodily given; it is

conditioned by the form/matter dichotomy and by the

psychical body image. "Sex" does not simply receive cultural

gender constructions, but serves as an Ideal produced

through the reiteration of cultural norms. This reiteration

is a type of performativity that dictates how bodies


Materialization is a complex discursive process over

time, Butler contends, an effect of power in the Foucauldian

sense. Just as Irigaray demonstrated that matter is not

passive but has been deceivingly conceptualized as such,

Foucault shows how form is historically produced, "from one

moment to the next, at every point, or rather in every

relation from one point to another .. it comes from

everywhere" (HS 93). In an abstract way, materialization

emerges through "ceaseless struggles and confrontations" at

the nexus of various cultural and discursive practices (93).

When conceived as outside discourse and power, form can be

used as a tool of (oppressive) power. Discursive acts,

Butler shows, are part of the process of diffuse power that

produces boundaries of texts and bodies.20 Through the

operation of "citation" which reinstalls normative

boundaries, the body's boundaries appear completely stable

instead of being repeatedly put into question. She uses

citation in Derrida's sense of citationality, "in which the

naming in discourse of an 'object' by a particular subject

is a 'citation' of an already existing discursive norm"

(Cotter 228). The invocation of normative gender constraints

is a ritualized procedure that not only "sets a limit to

performativity" but also "impels and sustains

performativity" (BTM 95).

Butler chooses a juridical metaphor in elaborating her

argument. To illustrate the role of regulation and citation

within the symbolic order, she compares the process of

identity formation to the formation of laws within the

American legal institution. Although a judge appears to be

invested with the power to create law, Butler reminds us

that the sanction does not rest in his person as such.

Rather, he can "originate" law only by subscribing to and

citing statute. Bound to the legal conventions preceding

him, any law he appears to initiate is actually a

reconstitution of prior law. As a certain law is cited over

and over in time and across space, it accrues authority.

Through an "echo chain of their own reinvocation," laws are

invested with a binding power which the judge, as appointed

guardian of the legal process, serves to perpetuate.

Discrete acts of gender performance operate similarly

through this echo chain.

What compels gender performativity? Instead of viewing

the formation of the sexed subject as largely developmental

in Freudian or Lacanian schemas, Butler suggests that

subject formation can be understood as an effect of power

that both generates and constrains "sex and a sexed position

within language" (95). There is no subject prior to the

reiterated performance of gender norms, she contends.

Rather, "an echo-chain of their own reinvocation" as subject

enables subjects to come into being (107). Following

Althusser, she argues that one can accede to the status of

subject only through a prior interpellation into this

position: "I can only say 'I' to the extent that I have

first been addressed, and that address has mobilized my

place in speech" (225). This interpellation begins at birth

when the doctor, invested with the authority to do so,

pronounces an infant's sex through the performative "It's a

girl!" Reiterated and reinforced through one's life, the

process of sexing "is at once the setting of a boundary, and

also the repeated inculcation of a norm" (8). Subjects do

not emerge prior to their recognition; instead, it is the

recognition as a viable subject that materializes the


From this perspective, Irigaray's insistence on mimicry

as a strategy for agency becomes more clear. Exposing how

woman's sexual specificity has been repressed in western

philosophy and psychoanalysis through mimicry reveals the

prior existence of the feminine, albeit an obscured one. At

present, she claims, woman's sexual difference can only be

glimpsed with recourse to the language strategy of mimicry.

In light of Butler's theory of dynamic identity

formation, "sex" can be seen as an "ideal construct," as

Irigaray's lips-figure illustrates, a "regulatory ideal"

dictated by symbolic law which, over time and through a

network of regulated discursive practices, has the power to

"produce--demarcate, circulate, differentiate--the bodies it

controls" (1). Although the force of this ideal appears to

exist prior to philosophical and psychoanalytic discourses

on sexuality, she maintains that these discourses actually

operate performatively, setting limits in advance on sexual

identification and simultaneously reproducing these limits

as normative in order to shore up the authority of their own

claims. Performative theory demonstrates, according to

Francois Lyotard, that the

limits the institution imposes on potential
language 'moves' are never established once and
for all (even if they have been formally defined).
Rather, the limits are themselves the stakes and
provisional results of language strategies, within
the institution and without. (17)

From Butler's perspective, relations of discourse and power

are more fluid than prior theories have acknowledged.

Through her rereading of Freud's and Lacan's language

'moves,' Butler recasts the symbolic "as a series of

normativizing injunctions that secure the borders of sex

through the threat of psychosis, abjection, psychic

unlivability" (15). In Freud's paradigm, subject formation

takes place through identification and repudiation. A boy

must identify with his father (his same) and renounce or

reject the mother (his other) "under and through the force

of prohibition and taboo" (95). "Demands, taboos, sanctions,

injunctions, prohibitions, possible idealizations, and

threats" serve to keep unruly bodies in line (106). As

Irigaray points out in Speculum de l'autre femme, Freud's

discourse on sexuality operates performatively. It does not

describe an actual condition but produces a certain version

of reality, a normative phantasm of "sex," based on

masculine parameters, that require the rejection of the

maternal-feminine. As Irigaray argues, such discourses on

sexuality produce the maternal-feminine as an abject zone

outside the realm of the subject, a realm of inhabitability,

that, according to Butler,

will constitute the defining limit of the
subject's domain; it will constitute that site of
dreaded identification against which--and by
virtue of which--the domain of the subject will
circumscribe its own claim to autonomy and to
life. (BTM 3)

One shores up one's position as subject through speech acts

that produce an abject outside. Stating "I would rather die

than be or do that!" is an example of the disavowal inherent

in this process (243). Among the effects the accumulation of

such renunciation produces is exclusion, disenfranchisement,

and physical harm.

The materialization of "sex" over time, through the

reiteration of regulatory norms and shaming interpellation

serves to assure the ruling authority's boundaries. What

would happen, Butler inquires, if a term meant to

marginalize were reiterated differently--detached from its

negating intent? As Austin reminds us, performative

reiteration invokes convention and this process must always

be a repetition of the same in order to assure the success

of the performative. "This law can only remain a law to the

extent that it compels the differentiated citations and

approximations called 'feminine' and 'masculine,'" Butler

demonstrates (15). If stable identity requires reiteration

over time, this reveals that the boundaries of signification

must constantly be reinstated and thus signals a possible

instability built into the system: the law "perpetually

reinstitutes the possibility of its own failure" (108). As a

result, Butler argues, "materialization is never quite

complete" and "bodies never quite comply with the norms by

which their materialization is impelled" (2). What appears

outside the normative realm in this "zone of inhabitability"

nevertheless figures inside it, she contends. It occupies

the place against which what is inside defines itself.

Because this outside is integral to the system, it hovers as

a threat to the inside's autonomy. In order to maintain its

self-perpetuation as the domain that matters, the system

must repress what it has pushed to the margins.

Each performative utterance is subject to such

infelicityy," according to Austin, a risk of failure that

cannot be controlled by a subject's intent. A strategy of

noncompliance with the authority of the speaker can perhaps

destabilizing norms. As Parker and Sedgwick note, a

threatening performative statement of

"I dare you" followed by a subversive "witnesses"
chorus of "Don't do it on our account" would
radically alter the social, the political, the
interlocutory (I-you-they) space of encounter.
(Performativity and Performance 9)

From an ethical standpoint, performativity

makes the "players" assume responsibility not only
for the statements they propose, but also for the
rules to which they submit those statements in
order to render them acceptable. (Lyotard 62)

The uncertainty within this system provides possibilities

for the "rematerialization" of abject bodies, bodies that do

not matter, in particular those who deviate from the

standard because of sex, sexual orientation, race, and/or

nationality. What effects, then, would certain subversive

acts, like Chawaf's 6criture feminine, which flaunt the

artificial nature of these constructs, produce?

Although there is no way to step neatly outside the

symbolic, destabilizing textual strategies seek to bring to

consciousness the operations of the streams of power

necessary for supporting and sustaining symbolic "law". For

Butler, "law" remains a citation. Her view on power reveals

that symbolic "law" is not an a priori Law, but is instead

self-endorsing, creating boundaries that serve to fortify

itself as Law. Strategies like mimicry put into question the

indisputable status of the "law" by revealing the

possibilities for citing it differently. Reiterations within

the "echo-chain" are always subject to failure, enabling

practices such as mimicry. Through hyperbolic over-

performances, such catachrestic speech acts produce

"unhappy" deviations (as Austin called them) in the

citational chain--"slippage between discursive command and

its appropriated effect" with the aim of forcing the

signifier "woman" to exceed its intended meaning (BTM 122).

An excessive conformity to symbolic commands actually

exposes the hyperbolic status of convention. It shows that

identity terms themselves are always catachrestic,

uncontrollable metaphorical positioning without absolute

referents. Paradoxically, exaggerated complicity with

phallogocentric norms reveals the reproductionn of power

through philosophical concepts, language, and grammar.

Pointing overtly to the gaps and fissures in signification,

nonsanctioned speech acts hold promise for intervening in

the normative framework of the symbolic order." Undermining

performative acts actually disputes the divide between the

symbolic and imaginary realms, upon whose separation Lacan


Although Butler provides the matrix for not reading

Irigaray as essentialist, she claims nonetheless that

Irigaray idealizes the feminine as the excluded "other" par

excellence--"as what must remain outside these oppositional

positions as their supporting condition" (BTM 52). Butler

points out that in Plato's discourse

There is no singular outside, for the Forms
require a number of exclusions; they are and
replicate themselves through what they exclude,
through not being the animal, not being the woman,

not being the slave, whose propriety is purchased
through property, national and racial boundary,
masculinism, and compulsory heterosexuality. (BTM

This criticism can be read as justifiable to a degree, in

that Irigaray fails to mention "the metonymic link between

women and these other Others" (BTM 49). However, Butler's

conclusion that Irigaray appropriates, and therefore

idealizes, the 'elsewhere' as the feminine can be contested

when considering how Irigaray rereads Plato--through a

strategy of mimicry. "Appropriating" the feminine is not

tantamount to "idealizing" the feminine. Irigaray mimes

Plato, making use of his familial metaphor, his exclusion of

the maternal-feminine. She does not necessarily define the

"elsewhere" of matter, but rather, her performative

rereadings suggest the inadequacy of any definition of

otherness. For example, in elaborating a morphological

figure of the lips, Irigaray does not expect the reader to

take her trope as a "real" depiction of female genitalia.

She intentionally omits the clitoral, the vaginal, and the

uterine to produce a counter response like "No! That's not

the way woman is." In this sense, a strong negative reaction

testifies to the success of the displacement. If matter is,

as Butler claims, "an ungrounded figure" and if

the feminine, strictly speaking, has no morphe, no
morphology, no contour, for it is that which
contributes to the contouring of things, but is
itself undifferentiated, without boundary (BTM

then how is it that Irigaray posits "the notion that the

feminine monopolizes the sphere of the excluded" (BTM 48)?

But, as apparent in Irigaray's lips figure, her mime reveals

a paradigm of dominance/subordination at work and it serves

to expose a certain logic of exclusion operating in

philosophical discourse, without foreclosing the play of


As Gayatri Spivak argues, identity categories allow

identity-based political practices to proceed. Yet, treating

them as foundations beyond interrogation limits political

potential ("In a Word" 124-56). It should be recognized that

the totalizations of such categories are provisional and

tactical. Irigaray recognizes the complexity of differences

among women: "les femmes ne forment pas A strictement parler

une classes, et leur dispersion dans plusieurs rend leur

combat politique et complex" (CS 31; TS 32). In the final

analysis, an interrogation of the terms of feminist debate

(the concepts of woman, sex, and gender) reveals the

discourse's own relation to power and authority and

therefore remains true to the democratizing principles of

feminist practice.


Exploring sexual metaphors in Western philosophy,

Irigaray and Butler reveal the exclusions inherent in the

production of "sex" in Western philosophy that challenge its

claims to Truth or Reality. The standard discourse produces

bodies which fall outside the realm of legitimacy, bodies

marginalized in terms of sex, sexual orientation, race,

ethnicity, and class--or any combination of the latter.

Irigaray and Butler seek new ways of conceptualizing

exclusive categories like "sex." In the twentieth century,

whereas the disciplines of anthropology and psychoanalysis

have provided useful insights for rethinking "sex" for

feminist purposes, Western philosophy is often seen as a

discourse that serves only to devalorize "woman." Irigaray

and Butler seek to show the ways in which this discourse can

be used to advance political democratization as well.

Although Chawaf's ecriture feminine is a textual and

also a political practice rooted in this philosophical

tradition, her procedure has yet to be studied within the

context of the tradition's important contributions to

contemporary feminist practice, brought to light by Irigaray

and Butler. Chawaf's version of ecriture feminine, that is

her mimetic strategy, employs gender categories

metaphorically. Few critics have acknowledged this, and the

implications of her use of metaphor have not yet been

sufficiently elaborated.

Irigaray's and Butler's rethinking of matter and gender

performance is useful for refuting claims that Chawaf's

ecriture feminine is an outmoded, essentialist, and passive

attempt at defining "woman." In fact, an argument could be

made that ecriture feminine has been rejected as a viable

"feminist" practice because it puts the idealized category

of "woman" into question, and thereby threatens a feminism

that depends on the solid ground of identity.

This chapter has focused on how Irigaray and Butler

offer a dynamic view of matter, not seen unproblematically

as a bodily given, but as standardized and regulated through

discourse, through the repeated invocation of norms.

Conceptualized in this way, the ethical implications of

matter are revealed: those bodies in noncompliance with

norms are socially marked as insignificant--as not

mattering--as nonexistent in terms of social and political

rights. They shift the focus of feminist inquiry from the

interrogative mode (asking, "what is woman?") toward the

performative, "toward the imaginative enactment of sexual

redefinitions, reborderizations, and rearticulations" (Fuss

7). In my opinion, such imagining "otherwise" is the goal of

Chawaf's practice. The body, Butler argues, is

a materiality that bears meaning, if nothing else,
and the manner of this bearing is fundamentally
dramatic the body is not only merely matter
but a continual and incessant materializing of
possibilities. One is not simply a body, but, in
some very key sense, one does one's body. (BTM

To state that "one does one's body" is not to deny biology.

Rather, Butler's theory of performativity reveals how

discourse shapes consciousness of material bodies, masks

difference, and even impels bodies to comply to norms that

never quite fit. Recasting the female body as Irigaray does

with her lips figure demonstrates how "doing" one's body is

a complex, dynamic, theatrical process, a performance that

is never completely finished. It broadens the horizon of

possibilities for refiguring the concept of "woman." From

this perspective, Chawaf's ecriture feminine can be seen as

an active procedure, a complex process of reworking

conceptualizations of bodies.

Examining Chawaf's writing through the theoretical

optic provided by Irigaray and Butler offers a new way of

understanding her controversial insistence on relations

between bodily materiality and textuality, and in

particular, how and to what ends she exploits conventional

portrayals of woman.


The term indifferencee signifies the veiled non-
differentiation between the sexes, hence Irigaray's
inscription of difference carries the traces of its

2 For Irigaray, sexual difference is at the heart of
all problems of marginalization, be they gender, class,
race, or homosexuality. In taking such a stance, Irigaray
does, nevertheless, recognize differences within and among
these groups. Speaking of women, she says, "les femmes ne
forment pas a strictement parler une classes, et leur
dispersion dans plusieurs rend leur combat politique et
complex" (CS 31; TS 32).

3 Irigaray understands sexual specificity as both
difference between the anatomy of women and men, and the
difference as it is inscribed in the cultural imaginary and
its symbolic representations.

4 See Jacques Derrida, "La structure, le signe, et le
jeu dans le discours des sciences humaines," in L'Ecriture
et la difference, as well as De la grammatologie, Marges de
la philosophie, and Positions.

5Irigaray's works are widely read in English. Therefore
page references include both French and English versions.
The abbreviations CS, TS, SP, and SPE stand, respectively,
for the following: Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un (Paris:

Editions de Minuit, 1977); This Sex Which is Not One, trans.
Catherine Porter (Ithaca: Cornell, 1985); Speculum de
l'autre femme (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1974); Speculum of
the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca: Cornell,

6 Matter in Irigaray should be understood as both a
noun and a verb. It constitutes what is conceptualized as
physical reality, as well as how this reality means or is

7 See Ferdinand de Saussure and Tullio De Mauro, Cours
de linquistique q6n6rale (Paris: Payot, 1972).

8 See Michel Foucault, Les mots et les choses: une
archeologie des sciences humaines (Paris: Gallimard, 1966).

9 This verb is synonymous with "representer," "monter,"
"interpreter," "simuler," "imiter," "incarner," "speculer,"
"se servir de," "se moquer de," and "risquer de."

"0 As Elin Diamond points out, "a nonmimetic language
means that a speaker can no longer lay claim to a stable
system of reference, can no longer rely on language to
mirror (express, represent) her entire thought" (59).

"Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex
(New York: Routledge, 1993) is abbreviated as BTM throughout
this manuscript.

Butler uses these terms to distinguish between the
other of the same and the Other of the other. Yet she also
notes her own improper use of excessive feminine, for she
names an element that cannot be thematized within philosophy
(BTM, 38-39).

13 In Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un.

Gallop reminds the reader of the contextualization
and temporality of this movement: "as soon as the metaphor
becomes a proper noun, we no longer have creation, we have
paternity" (81).

'" See Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the
Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990) and
Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" (New
York: Routledge, 1993).

In Bodies That Matter, Butler problematizes and
draws inspiration from the thought of a broad range of
thinkers--among them Lacan, Freud, Zizek, Laclau, and


7 "It is always necessary that the circumstances in
which the words are uttered should be in some way, or ways,
appropriate" (8). "The words must be spoken 'seriously' so
as to be taken 'seriously'" (9).

For "happy," successful performatives: "there must
exist an accepted conventional procedure having a certain
conventional effect, that procedure to include the uttering
of certain words by certain persons in certain circumstances
.appropriate for the invocation of the particular
procedure invoked"; "the procedure must be executed by all
participants both correctly and completely" and "where, as
often, the procedure is designed for use by persons having
certain thoughts or feelings a person must have
those thoughts or feelings," they must harbor the intention
to conduct themselves in a certain way, and finally, must
follow through with that intention (14-15).

Butler cites the example of the divine creation of
the world. God creates light through saying, "Let there be

Drawing from the work of Derrida and Lacan, Butler
separates acts from their implications of presence through
the notion of the sign chain. She understands "acts" in a
broad sense, as linked to a prior chain of acts. The fact
that they must be repeated signals "a provisional failure of
memory" and shows a present act to be, in fact, a vulnerable
continuum of the past (BTM 244). This vulnerability enables
a reconfiguration of past and present.

It is important to note that the result of such
performances can never be fully determined from the outset.
As noted earlier, their signifying power extends beyond
intention. In addition, a degree of complicity with norms
and convention makes possible these radical acts. However,
Butler makes a case for exploring their possibilities
anyway, despite the uncertainty and incontrollability, since
"the incalculable effects of action are as much a part of
their subversive promise as those we plan in advance" (BTM


Ce nest pas strange si
j'ai l'impression d'aller
centre la fiction.

Chawaf, "Contre la fiction"

Pour border un texte, il
faudrait que celui-ci eOt un

Derrida, "Survivre"

Chantal Chawaf's first and arguably most important

novel,i Retable-la reverie was published in 1974, the same

year as Irigaray's Speculum de l'autre femme and Cixous'

famous essay "Le Rire de la meduse." Its debut marked the

beginning of an era of female writers in France who flooded

the literary scene with works attempting to bring

specifically female experiences into the aesthetic arena.

Like Colette's "feminine" writing, Chawaf and many of her

contemporaries celebrated the pleasures and pains of

motherhood. However, writers of "ecriture feminine"2 more

explicitly envisioned their work as a means to protest the

moral, ideological, and aesthetic doxa of the epoch.

Retable recounts a woman's quest for identity--her own

and that of her mother, who was killed on her way to the

hospital to give birth. After learning of her mother's fate

from her adoptive father, she attempts to recreate her birth

mother through the act of writing. More a performance than

an account of events, La Reverie celebrates lovemaking, in

all its intricacy, between a man and a woman. The reader in

search of an elaborate plot might be disappointed by

Chawaf's first novel, for the pleasure offered by the text

comes in the form of rich images, elaborate metaphors, and

play at the level of lexis and syntax.

Despite Chawaf's unusual treatment of language, her

insistence on the biological, the maternal as privileged

experience, and "writing life" has been viewed as

problematic, from both avant-garde and feminist

perspectives. Considering Chawaf's association with Psych et

Po and Des Femmes, one would expect a transgressive feminist

approach to body and text. Yet the representations of women

in her novels reiterate, and hence have been said to

perpetuate, old myths and archetypes. Within a feminist

context, the "formes de femme" and their relation to the

womb evoke a maternal plenitude that raises a red flag. Are

they exclusionary when it comes to those who cannot, have

not, or will not give birth? Can these forms and her focus

on identity through a mother figure be labeled essentialist,

in conflict with a nonexclusionary, ethical life-embracing

perspective, and grounds to label her simply an "uncritical

maternalist?"' Or, from another angle, do they repeat a

mystification of the feminine, positing it as unknowable, as

some feminist critics claim of contemporary philosophical

practices?4 How might Chawaf's writing practice be

understood in a feminist context?

Such gender trouble is coupled with questions of

literary approach. Throughout the article "Contre la

fiction," Chawaf criticizes realist methods of writing, and

cites Balzac and Flaubert in particular, for aiming to box

in the novelistic universe, to limit language (47, 55).5 In

contrast, she claims to write "contre la fiction," to

produce an "1criture de la vie" that joins fiction with

life. To emphasize the extent to which Chawaf's writing

style is inseparable from her feminism of sexual difference,

Bosshard categorizes her project as a "realisme 'po-

6thique'" ("De l'eutopie champ8tre" 75). As Bosshard's

description suggests, Chawaf's poetics cannot be understood

outside the context of her ethics of love. Nonetheless, a

reading of her practice as realist implies that Chawaf

employs both language and imagery of female body with the

intent to approximate a faithful representation of nature.

Indeed, in order to flesh out the narrative she relies on

techniques and stereotypical portrayals of "woman" that seem

to support realist convention. What can be made of the

author's claims to be writing the matter, the body, the

feminine and the language of life? How can this be explained

in the context of the assertion that she writes centree la


In order to explore the dynamic of representation and

life writing in Retable-la reverie, this chapter examines

instances of the novel's paratext. As formulated by Gerard

Genette in Seuils, the paratext comprises those constitutive

supplements that designate the text as text and make

possible its presentation to the public, its circulation,

and its performance. Retable-la reverie's paratextual

elements provide a context for understanding what has been

called "the archetypal text of 6criture feminine" (Haxell

"Woman as Lacemaker" 546). My discussion aims to shed light

on Chawaf's aesthetic and ethical engagement with language,

and more broadly, to problematize the reading of her work as

naively realist.


In Seuils, Genette's entertaining, thought-provoking

study on the topic, he defines paratext as

ce par quoi un texte se fait livre et se propose
comme tel a ses lecteurs, et plus gen6ralement au
public. [ ] il s'agit ici d'un seuil
ou--mot de Borges a propos d'une preface--d'un
'vestibule' qui offre A tout un chacun la
possibility d'entrer, ou de rebrousser chemin.
'Zone ind6cise' entire le dedans et le dehors,
elle-meme sans limited rigoureuse, ni vers
l'int&rieur (le texte) ni vers l'ext6rieur (le
discours du monde sur le texte), lisiere, ou,
comme disait Philippe Lejeune, 'frange du texte
imprimi qui, en r6alit&, command toute la
lecture' zone de transition de
transaction. (7-8)

The paratext comprises the background objects that

constitute a literary work, that present it to the public

and render it materially present. They enable the marketing

and distribution of a text, and condition the public's

expectations. Guiding the exchange between the world and the

word, between real life and fiction, they form the mise-en-

scene that conditions the narrative. A novel without

paratext is no novel at all. As Genette points out, a text's

material existence depends upon these threshold figures, yet

historically critics give weight to individual features such

as titles and biographical information, while the larger

context of their relation to reception remains peripheral.

Attention to these elements challenges the conception

of the book as a static entity, for how and whether it

exists depends on a variety of factors including historical

context, reader reception, authorial and editorial

influence, the market, and evolving technology in the

distribution of information, such as the internet. As open

frontier or membrane, the paratext remains in flux. Nowadays

more or less sanctioned by an author, the fringe elements of

the paratext actually command the whole reading. Situated in

a zone between the inside and outside of a text, they aid

the reader's transition from one realm to another, from the

"real" world to the textual world, forming a liminal space

where the binaries of real/fiction and public/private

converge. This zone of transition, Genette demonstrates,

operates above all as a zone of transaction.

An exploration of the space of transaction is key, in

Irigaray's view, as a means of access to sexual difference.

A reexamination of what counts as "real" can take place by

interrogating the liminal elements of the scenography of the

scene of representation--its constitutive aspects, notably

matter and the mirror:

l'architectonique de son theatre, son cadrage de
l'espace-temps, son &conomie g6ometrique, son
ameublement, ses acteurs, leurs positions
respective, leurs dialogues, voire leurs rapports
tragiques. (CS 72-3; TS 75)

She suggests a shift in focus from the action of center

stage to the economy within which it takes place: the

framing of the transaction and the exchange between text and

reader. In post-structuralist critiques using the theatrical

trope, the focus is displaced, as Timothy Murray succinctly

puts it, from "what is represented" to "how it is shown or

re-presented and how it is seen, read, or received"

(Mimesis, Masochism, and Mime 7). The critique of feminist

post-structuralist theory as ludic play with, and nihilistic

destruction of, the grounds of feminist practice must be

reconsidered. Murray rightly argues that such questioning of

a realist approach serves not to deny the real, but rather,

seeks a less myopic perspective on "reality." The shift in

focus from representation to construction involves

negotiation of meaning between interlocutor and audience,

authors and readers.

The relationship of literature with the public is of

primary concern to Chawaf. She views reading writerlyy"

texts as a way for men and women to work through sexual

repression, the repression of the feminine. In Le corps et

le verbe she offers examples of the dynamic functioning of

language--its performative power. With the proliferation of

the written word, language has divided human beings, she

argues, and therefore it also holds the power to remake the

world. Refiguring the conceptual limits of the novel and the

feminine is part of her work towards reconnection, a kind of

ever-evolving unity that does not suppress difference.

The first-time reader, or those who simply glance

through Retable-la reverie, will notice how the

supplementary, auxiliary, and supporting elements of the

paratext play an important role in the novel. An aspect of

her innovative technique unmentioned in the criticism,

Chawaf's use of paratextual elements shows the latter to

operate as more than stable contextual parameters for the

novel; they serve an active role in the world-building

activities of readers. Focusing on the 'becoming' of the

speaking subject and the text through an emphasis on the

paratextual, Chawaf interrogates the effects of encounters

between texts and audiences.

In choosing "para," Genette baptized these elements

appropriately, for etymologically the prefix signifies

"against" in both senses of the word: "counter" and

"beside." By its prefix, the term parody also belongs to

this same zone of the undecidable and is rooted in a similar

paradox. In her extensive analysis of twentieth-century

parodic forms, Hutcheon stresses that it is the nature of

parody to signify in contradictory ways.6 When Chawaf states

that her writing goes centree la fiction," she describes her

6criture feminine as a literature of proximity and

opposition. Like other avant-garde literary practices,

Chawaf's mimetic strategy simultaneously draws from and

positions itself against tradition, capitalizing on

intertextual references that enable the construction of

author and audience roles. Echoes of works throughout the

centuries from medieval romance to surrealism, from texts by

Plato, Montaigne, Rousseau, Proust, Breton, and Beckett,

resonate throughout Retable-la reverie.7

It is fitting, then, that the liminal, paratextual

spaces of Retable-la reverie be explored, especially as

sites open to negotiation, unstable, possible spaces of

cognitive shift and transformation. An examination of some

of Retable-la reverie's paratexts demonstrates how Chawaf

goes withagainst normative conceptions of genre and gender.

In particular, it offers insights into how the book's

construction interrogates ways of thinking about texts,

bodies, and the connections between the them.


In "De Retable A Rougeatre," Chawaf describes the bond

between her "1criture du f6minin" and her experience of


J'ai commence Retable en grossesse. Les
premieres lignes de mon ecriture sont venues du
venture, de ma matrice pleine, de ma matrice o~
vivait, ou respirait un enfant et j'ai entendu et
vu une coloration linguistique rosee qui se
deposait en mots mat&riels, en petites phrases
grosses et rondes sur les pages blanches. C'6tait
la profonde joie de communiquer avec la vie, avec
la langue de la vie. C'etait l'espace d'une
liberation des perceptions de mon corps de femme
ou la vie dans un foetus m&el a l'ecriture prenait
forme, formes de femme Et puis les

retrouvailles s'dlargissaient, se sont d&veloppees
et n'ont plus cess6 de cheminer, de s'ouvrir et
Retable m'a conduite aupres des Editions des
Femmes, aupres d'une femme, Antoinette .
aupres d'un travail ou s'organisait politiquement
notre liberation et notre difference, oI le
language que je me sentais moi-meme en train de
liberer s'inscrivait grace & ce group dans
l'efficacit6 d'une lutte. (87)

Key to understanding her subversion of gender and genre

norms, this paratextual document from a 1978 interview

describes the genesis of Retable-la reverie. Genette

classifies such accounts as public epitexts of the

"auctorial" type.

Chawaf describes her pregnancy and coming to writing as

indistinguishable events blending together body, text, and

psyche. In abundant prose, she recounts the wonder of her

pivotal maternal/literary experience, the floodgate of

communication it opened for her, both personally and

politically. Subtly but unmistakably, her account also stirs

with revolt. Underneath its playful tone rumbles a

contention not only with the social status quo of the era

but with the history of aesthetics and ethics.

After a seven-year stay in Syria, Chawaf returned to

her native France quaking in the aftermath of May '68, and

to the rupture of the second wave of feminism. Female

intellectuals engaged in the events of the revolt were full

of expectations for the future. Yet they emerged from this

period disheartened by a larger awareness of oppression.

What promised to be an era of social expansion after the

upheaval, proved to be, from a feminine perspective,

continued familiar exploitation. The sexual division of

labor--the delegation of women to grunge work--mirrored the

traditional role of women as providers of support services,

shutting them out of positions of power. From their point of

view, the expansion of democratic ideals carried with it an

unspoken imperative: 'for men only.'

Moved by what they saw as hypocrisy inherent in the

system in place, groups of French women took the initiative,

forming organizations on several fronts over the next few

years as a strategy of attack: the M.L.F., Psych et Po, Des

Femmes and the Centre d'Etudes F6minines. These coalitions

initiated gendered critiques, arguing that systematic

oppression was symptomatic of both capitalism and

patriarchy. Faced with barriers that did not allow them

access, they built a network of their own. Chawaf makes it

clear that thanks to the presence of "Des Femmes," a press

willing to support texts written in the service of

liberation and sexual difference, there was a means by which

she could publish her work and join with others in a like


Especially in criticism dating from the late 1970s and

early 1980s, Chawaf's lyrical novels singing the praises of

femininity were interpreted as an affirmation of the

positive aspects of womanhood. As a producer of such texts,

Chawaf figured among the ranks of those attempting to create

a feminine genealogy, a space of writing in which

specifically female experiences--relations between women and

their children, mothers, or partners--could be explored from

a woman's perspective. For those whose lived experience of

motherhood contradicted Simone de Beauvoir's condemnation of

it as alienating, Chawaf's celebration of motherhood came as

a welcome response.

Paradoxically, with the rise of the essentialist

critique in the early 1980s, 6criture feminine received

increased critical attention. Unlike its early reception,

this avant-garde practice was viewed for the most part in a

negative light. Chawaf's references to the biological and

the maternal were interpreted as essentialist. Charges of

essentialism arose from the assumption that Chawaf

envisioned the body as privileged instrument of one's grasp

on the world. Linking her coming to writing with pregnancy,

the passage in "De Retable a Roucretre" made her an easy

target. To a greater extent than her contemporaries, she was

blamed for having so explicitly "tied the practice of

feminine writing to the biological fact of motherhood"

(Suleiman, The (M)other Tongue 370)."

On the basis that the institution of motherhood often

operates in the service of patriarchy, Beauvoir viewed the

functions of menstruation, pregnancy, and lactation, in

general, as alienating forces. Exposing ways in which

material differences perpetuate sexual inequality, she

developed a framework for splitting gender from sex as a

means to differentiate the cultural from the biological. Her

distinction between these two poles has been a major

contribution to feminist thinking. However, Chawaf,

Irigaray, and other writers of Acriture feminine take issue

with the possibility of the existence of a sexually neutral

subject. Since material differences between the sexes have

been used in the service of women's oppression, the

discourse reiterating these differences should be

interrogated on its own terms.

Chawaf, like Irigaray, travels the territory that

Beauvoir left unexplored. It is necessary to put into

question "ce vide de la mere," Chawaf argues, to

"l'explorer, le parcourir, l'habiter" in order to expose the

exclusion of the feminine ("De Retable a Roucgetre" 88). Her

"ecriture de la vie" can be read against the conception of

literary creation as a masculine metaphor, a biological act

in which the pen ejects ink onto the page and culminates

with "la petite mort," as a mimetic strategy of

displacement. In creation as a masculine act, the text is

complete when finished by the author who is central and

active, in control of meaning. Conversely, it implies that

the receiver (be it page or reader) accepts passively. Yet

such a conception effaces what is "other": the feminine as a

participant in the process, the material elements supporting

its foundation, and the reader as 'writer' or interpreter.

Miming the metaphor of writing as a masculine

engendering, Chawaf generates a specifically feminine

counter-trope as opposed to the phallic pen: the pregnant

womb. A figure for creating a space receptive to feminine

desire and sexual difference, her seemingly traditional

metaphor can be viewed as a seditious "vol" from

conventional origins.

To explore the womb as a space of writing is not to

make a clean break with the metaphor of writing as an act of

biological reproduction, but it is part of Chawaf's mimetic

strategy for critically engaging the logic of an economy of

domination on its own terms. Pregnant with possibilities and

performativity, this trope exemplifies the spirit of &criture

feminine which, as Cixous says, "est la possibility meme du

changement" (Rire 42). Both Cixous and Irigaray insist that

at this time there is no fertile ground outside the dominant

discourse from which a feminine language could spring, "mais

un sol millionaire et aride a fendre" ("Rire" 39). Like

Irigaray's mimicry, the function of Chawaf's mimetic

strategy is not to replace the masculine-centered metaphor

with a female-centered one, but to reproduce a copy of the

self-same with a critical difference as a means of

displacing the singular model as the model par excellence.

As Irigaray says, the aim is to jam the theoretical

machinery of normative metaphors, "de suspendre sa

pretension A la production d'une v4rit6 et d'un sens par

trop univoques" (CS 75; TS 78).

Lest one be mislead that the maternal is a metaphor by

taking Chawaf's words as descriptive rather than performative

and then dismiss the author for such an obviously essentialist

position, her choice of terms puts us on the right track.9 In

the passage where she describes the genesis of her writing in

maternal terms, "se d6posait" paradoxically signifies both

placement and displacement, simultaneous positing and

withdrawing, the operation of the mime. This double inscribing

gesture reveals the dual function of Chawaf's mimetic strategy

inherent in her womb metaphor: "ce que je dis a au moins deux

faces et deux vis6es: detruire, casser; prdvoir l'imprevu,

projeter" ("Rire" 39).

Chawaf's recourse to feminine exclusion is to

poser le d&sir de femme Poser, tracer la
femme existante, l'aider a exister, se donner
existante, pas morte, &crire la femme vivante.
Ecrire a partir du corps vivant. Mais on a voulu,
on veut si souvent la femme morte, la femme
souffrante, la femme fantasme. La femme tradition,
celle qui n'existe pas. ("Ecrire a partir du corps
vivant" 119)

Chawaf, like Irigaray, views the first step toward

sexual difference as beginning right where one is. To

"Tracer la femme existante" is to trace the ways in which

Woman exists in the cultural imaginary, to mime the logic

and expose it. Chawaf tactically deploys the metaphor of the

uterus to counter the logic of the phallus:

puisqu'on definit l'homme a partir de son corps,
de sa physiologie face a cet order qui a ete
fait, il est peut-8tre temps de voir l'autre c6t6
aussi. ("Discussion avec Chantal Chawaf" 135)

In "Ecrire a partir du corps," Chawaf decries the

symbolic devaluation of the womb:

L'uterus ne jouit pas du m8me statut, on renvoie la
femme a la nature, a la chair, au corps, & la
jouissance, au sans-parole, a l'indefinissable de
la sensation, a une maternity utilitaire, faire des
enfants, non pas faire des ames d'enfants, non pas
faire des esprits d'enfants. On la renvoie a ce

biologique tronqu6. .. ("Ecrire a partir du
corps vivant" 120)

In Irigaray's interview with H6lene Rouch in Je. Tu, Nous,

Rouch demystifies the psychoanalytic notion that the

separation of the psychic fusion of mother and child occurs

at the time of the child's entry into the symbolic, through

an intermediary, the "Nom-du-Pere" (47). The biological

reality is that there is no fusion in utero. Unlike the idea

that the fetus occupies the mother's body in the military

sense, her flesh is not the host for a parasitic intruder.

Allowing for peaceful cohabitation, the placenta mediates

between the bodies of mother and child and regulates the

exchange of nutrients and waste products. In order to

trigger the hormones that create the placenta, mother's

body--the self--must initially recognize the fetus as

foreign to her body. Most importantly, as Rouch indicates,

after this recognition of the other as "other," "la

difference entire le 'soi' et l'autre est pour ainsi dire

ind6finiment n&gocide" (Je, Tu. Nous 45). Clearly, the

description of the placental relation is an idealized

construct, as is Irigaray's figure of the lips; there are

cases when the placental fails in its functioning and causes

harm to the mother, the fetus, or both. This idealized

relation should be read in the context of Irigaray's


From an ethical standpoint, Chawaf's figure of the womb

offers a counterpart to ways of thinking that supports a

logic of domination and subordination. It is a figure of

union in difference, centered on generosity, a prototype of

proximity that would not require the effacement of the

other. Chawaf writes, "J'ai soif d'un flux et d'un desordre

qu'il ne serait pas urgent d'endiguer, j'ai soif de

generosit6" (Rougeatre 124). In maternal unity, each

individual retains difference. The mother-fetus relation

magnifies the error of dichotomous thinking, the folly in

the belief of complete independence of concepts, and

stresses inherent human interdependence.

Chawaf, ever critical of pinning down signification as

rational logic is wont to do, prefers a poetic mode and a

less restricted code. Suggestive of surrealist "ecriture

automatique," her writing figures a stream of prose flowing

from what is other to the conscious mind. Instead of centering

her metaphor on the quest to unlock the unconscious mind, for

Chawaf, the unconscious is rooted, above all, in body memory.

As she describes it, her creative power emanates from life

stirring in her womb; the form of her writing mimics the

pregnant body. Replacing the aesthetic concept of the pregnant

moment privileging the specular, Chawaf's ecriture feminine

engages all the senses. Through rich onomatopoeia and imagery,

her lexical combinations evoke sound, sight, taste, smell, and

above all, touch. She describes her notion of maternity not

necessarily as biological event, but as an ethical stance,

an "attention A la vie, d'1coute de la vie a partir d'une

vie qui s'organise dans le corps de la femme" ("Discussion

avec Chantal Chawaf" 135). Womb writing, in terms of the

placental economy,

c'est une attitude, enracinee dans le corps, dans
une histoire du corps, dans une m6moire et des
perceptions du corps qui d6bouchent sur le mental,
sur le symbolique face a ce symbolique pere qui
regne depuis longtemps. ("Discussion avec Chantal
Chawaf" 137)

Her seemingly essentialist references to the feminine

maternal body have less to do with biological sex than "une

attitude psychologique":

f6minin et masculin ne sont plus determines par le
sexe mais determines par une attitude
psychologique, affective devant la vie,
inddpendamment du sexe qu'on a. ("Discussion avec
Chantal Chawaf" 136)

In her view a more apt term, one that applies to all humans,

would be "corps."

Round and circular, camouflaged with "une coloration

linguistique rosee" the material words mimic the form of

the full womb, narrowing the distance between form and

content. This narrowing of the distinction between form and

content characterizes both ecriture feminine and the nouveau

roman, although the ideology and "raison d'etre" behind

these two types of writing differs significantly. Unbound by

time and space, the metaphor of uterine connections evokes

the past of tradition, the present bond between mother and

child, and the future of the child's growth and evolution.

In Ethiaue de la difference sexuelle, Irigaray develops

an ethics of closeness similar to the paradigm of womb

relations, a phenomenologyy of touching" (Schutte's term).1"

Chawaf too envisages an ethics of proximity as a point of

departure for refiguring the relations between self and

other and for healing injury. Instead of a relation of self

to other, Chawaf's maternal metaphor describes the

experience of self with other, the becoming of both fetus

and mother in a mutual interchange of give and take. Chawaf

describes the ethical intentions shaping her literary


D6sir de sauvegarder, de preserver, de donner la
vie. Amour non pas seulement de la vie charnelle
mais de la vie spirituelle. [ ] Pour que la
chair cesse d'etre primitive. L'ecriture doit se
r&&crire. Non plus loin mais tout pres du contact.
Au plus pres du toucher, du palper, du sentir. Au
plus pres de cette envelope humide de chair
animal qui spare de nous-mmmes le mot. (Le corps
et le verbe 13)

Just as the mother's body supports the life of the child, so

the fetus "m&le A l'ecriture" enables the creative act,

hence the liberation of her perceptions of her female body.

Toute expression, toute liberation de la parole
vivante du corps actif, du corps en r&ceptivit6,
du corps en travail sont politiques. [ .
elles peuvent modifier la parole politique,
l'aider A 6voluer, & perdre sa rigidity et A se
rapprocher des hommes, des femmes, des enfants.
("Ecrire A paratis du corps vivant" 120)

In a sense, the mother and child represent two aspects of

the self, of what Chawaf calls a human's bisexuality. In Le

corps et le verbe the author argues that because humans

continue to repress their feminine aspect, one side of

ourselves ("I'interdite") wages battle against the other

("la permise"), perpetuating self-loathing and destruction

within us (Le corps et le verbe 10). As long as the battle

continues internally, this state of turmoil will be

reflected externally, preserving a vicious, injurious world.

The author believes that healing must begin with the

individual, and provides the maternal image, a non-violent

separation, as a symbolization of difference without

aggression. Although indicting the novel as the means by

which we perpetuate this crime against ourselves, she argues

that it is also from there that "tout peut toujours

repartir" (Le Corps et le verbe 10).

Peritext and Autofiction

As with many works by Chawaf's female counterparts

writing during the 1970s", her first publication is woven

with details from her own life. Marianne Bosshard notes that

the author's parents died at the hands of German soldiers in

1943. Chawaf was taken from her dying mother's womb (216).

Not until adulthood did the author learn the story of her

parents' death--also that of her birth. Revolving around

questions of identity and writing, Retable's quest takes

place under similar circumstances. Ghyslaine's birth

experience mirrors the details of the author's trauma. By

interrogating her adoptive parents, the protagonist attempts

to learn the obscured "facts" about her birth parents. In

"Document (I)," an addendum to the first section of Retable,

the reader learns along with the adult Ghyslaine that during

World War II her mother was fatally wounded on her way to

give birth at the hospital. Before the mother's death,

Ghyslaine was born by caesarian. Also in the ambulance, her

birth father was killed immediately; her aunt perished some

days later. Presented in a traditional, chronological

narrative, "Document (I)" contains linear prose in contrast

to the nonlinear style of Retable-la reverie as a whole. In

this section, the protagonist's father reports the facts of

her violent birth, her parents' death, and the circumstances

of her adoption.

An indexed note accompanies the intertitle "Document

(I)," placed directly underneath it: "(I) Ces &venements

ont, sur le bitume et sous les bombes de notre monde MALADE

eu lieu r6ellement" (Retable-la reverie 39). While the usage

of notes in the twentieth-century indicates the marginal

status of the information conveyed, this note appears in a

prime position on the page. Clearly the author seeks a

special effect, but to what ends? Genette points out that

intertitles and notes, "peritextual" paratextual elements,

are often construed by reader to be more or less beyond the

narration, put in place as guideposts to aid the reader's

understanding of the text. A reader often assumes that the

instruction comes directly from the author--instead of the

implied author. On the threshold between the inside and

outside, intertitles and notes belong to a realm of

confusion where the fictional and factual intermingle.

"Document (I)" seems to represent a real-life intrusion into

the work of art, embedding a subtext of autobiographical

avowal within the text. The note forces an encounter with

the dichotomies of real-life and fiction that keeps the

reader wondering. In this case, tension is created by the

urgency to reveal "what really happened" and Chawaf's

avoidance of engaging in a discussion of Retable-la reverie

as autobiography.

Perhaps the note reference is a way for Chawaf the

author to make a cameo appearance in her own work,

reminiscent of Hitchcock's minor roles in his own films: a

self-conscious device, akin to a spatial or temporal break

in the narration, to prevent the reader from entering this

document forgetfully, or from being lulled into a

comfortable, fictive place. Or, perhaps it is a parody,

masked by its serious tone, of a Rabelaisian sound bite, the

authorial "precis" of a chapter's contents as found in

Pantagruel or Gargantua and in many novels of the eighteenth


Interestingly, as easily as Chawaf refers to her

personal experience of maternity in the interview "De

Retable A Rouge&tre," she is less willing in later

commentary to connect events in the text to the

circumstances of her own birth. In this she differs from

contemporaries like Cixous and Cardinal who are known to

emphasize the autobiographical origins of their work, but

resembles more closely Duras, ever cautious to confirm

connections between her biography and her fiction. Virtually

every critical work discussing Retable-la reverie mentions

the uncanny circumstances of the author's birth, yet only

Bosshard documents discussion of this topic with Chawaf. In

view of her insistence on being read as a woman and her

claim to be writing life, what might explain the evidence of

ambivalence toward an autobiographical reading of this


What can be made of the contrast between her emphasis

on sexual difference, her desire to be read as a woman,

evident in her books and articles, and an avoidance of the

personal in interviews? Since Proust, the concept of

autobiography has become synonymous with autofiction. With

the French literary tradition in mind, it is clear that

Chawaf desires to be read as a woman where "woman" remains a

constructed concept. As she explicitly states, "Sexualit6

feminine cache par la sexuality masculine. Rendre la parole

a la femme. La femme? Ou plut6t ma realite de femme .. "

("Ecrire a partir du corps vivant" 119).

Even without its autobiographical echoes, Chawaf's

novel and readings of it would unavoidably involve the

question of autobiography and the "real-life" influences on

her work. As Genette points out, there are certain details

of an author's life that are always viewed as significant.

If the writer is not male, one of those notable aspects is

sex. Only works written by heterosexual men will be read as

sex neutral. In many cases, a novel written by a woman will

be interpreted through the grid of a "woman's novel." Of

course Chawaf has calculated that her sex bears on our

reading, that it conditions her texts' receptions. She does

not take issue with being read as a woman writer, on the

contrary, but repeatedly emphasizes the limits of the

concept of "woman," insisting on both its social and

biological aspects.

Titles and Construction

Retable-la reverie's architecture features an unusual

presentation. Two books bound together, each "separate" work

consists of a front cover, editorial pages, and back cover.

At the outset of this chapter, as soon as I put the title

into writing, I committed a faux pas--an unavoidable misstep

and a transgression of law (faut pas)." Written as

Retable-la reverie, grammar dictates that the text comprises

one whole, broken into separate but related parts with the

"second" logically following, and subordinate to, the

"first." Retable does end in ellipsis, indicating

continuation, but then, so does La reverie. Considered

within the context of Chawaf's oeuvre, such endings do not

mark the text as unique. All but two of her works,

Redemption and Vers la lumiere, conclude in suspension." An

examination of the pagination offers no definitive answer.

Retable runs to page 93, but La reverie begins prematurely

on page 101. If the pages in between are to be counted, the

second part should begin on 103. Chawaf explains this

penchant for unending borders:

Quand j'ecris, ce qui compete, c'est de pouvoir
conduire l'ecriture A circuler d'un texte a
l'autre, d'un texte dans l'autre et de toujours
pousser, pousser l'ecriture, de l'obliger a perdre
toujours un peu plus de terrain sous
l'envahissement de la presence du corps. ("De
Retable a Rouqeatre" 88

Perhaps it would be more fitting to inscribe the work as

Retable-La reverie, as two separate, but connected novels.

What, then, can be made of their binding?

Although deviating with novelistic ritual, such play

with a work's structure and title seems only slightly more

inventive than traditional usage. But Chawaf's game is more

complicated than might be inferred in her suggestion of an

"open" novelistic structure. Chawaf's text habitually leads

the reader to impasses, forcing her to interrogate and

challenge reading habits. For example, I can only address

the text if I give it a proper name. But if I name it

according to the grammatical rules of citation, I cannot

properly address it. To refer to the text(s) with proper

grammatical form is, paradoxically, to speak

catachrestically, to wander into what Plato called a

"strange and unwonted" feminine territory (Timaeus 48d), a

space where language confronts its own limits. Putting the

title into writing forces the choice of direction, a step

("pas"") that simultaneously limits and opens up, errs and

wanders. Thus on the surface the title and frame constructed

by book sections seem to aid reader interpretation by

dividing her novelistic world into separate entities. In the

final analysis, though, the either/or logic of

classification they allude to ("should this work be read as

one text or as two?") actually leads to a dilemma, for

Chawaf's construction is neither one book, nor two. It

confounds the search for one ending, and gestures toward the

insufficiency of language to accurately, definitively

describe experience. In order to speak about the text in a

coherent way, I am forced to betray it, and am reminded of

this false posture each time I reinscribe the title.

Displacing the question of whether the work consists of one

novel or two, the focus shifts from what is represented to

questions about how it is shown and how it is received: an

interrogation of the architechtonics of the theater of

representation. Leading the reader to the impasse is

Chawaf's way of awakening her to constructs taken for

granted, as givens, in both reading and living.

Thus, the title Retable can be viewed as a parody of

nominative conventions. Titling is conventional naming; it

serves the purpose of identification. Yet as a literary work

circulates among the public, acquires object status, and

becomes a commodity, its title becomes disconnected from its

identificatory purpose. Its reiteration subordinates the

descriptive function and materializes the verbal as object.

Once in the hands of editors, publishers, and the public, a

work of art takes on a new life. On the subject of the

incontrollability of her texts in the hold of others, Chawaf

confirms, "Les romans a vous 6chappe" ("Discussion

avec Chantal Chawaf" 131). Routinely viewed as descriptive,

titles have a performative function. According to Genette,

titling is an act of naming that mimics a creative power.

This creative power is often masked by conventional usage,

but not in the case of the blatantly discordant title

"Retable"--which implies, "this book is a painting." Chawaf

puts into question the novel's ontological identity by

implying, "This book is a painting," thereby setting up a

substitutive relation between the verbal and visual object.

What does her 6criture feminine have to gain from an

approach centered on painting as a model? Instead of aiming

to prove the superiority of the verbal over the visual for

depicting "reality," the author engages in the ut pictura

poesis dialogue differently.

In S/Z, Barthes describes the circumstances of

novelistic engendering, employing theatrical terms to

describe how framing founds the novelistic universe:

Toute description litteraire est une vue. On
dirait que l'nonciateur, avant de d&crire, se
poste A la fen&tre, non tellement pour bien voir,
mais pour fonder ce qu'il voit par son cadre mime:
l'embrasure fait le spectacle. (61)

In Barthes' scenario, the speaker positions himself at a

windowsill. In the case of Retable, the narrator takes her

place before an altar, offering herself up to a tradition.

The term retable designates a Renaissance altarpiece, a

triptych, composed of panels often featuring monumental

events surrounding the birth of the Baby Jesus. A retable is

the setting or support for the church's altar--a feminine

structure constructing the background of the religious

'stage'. The posterior part of an altar, it often evokes

saintly images of the Virgin Mary as an adoring mother

cradling her child. Retable's three-part structure also

mirrors a triptych. At the structural center of the novel,

the panel "Portrait" lies between the two related outer

ones, "Naissance" and "Mausol6e." Thematically, the portrait

plays a significant role in Retable, as Ghyslaine's quest

revolves around the search for her mother's identity, which

is ultimately the search for her own.

Through the image of the retable, Chawaf's literary

process, like realism, exploits painting as a model.

Barthes, restating Aristotle, points out that realism

"consiste non a copier le r&el, mais A copier une copie

(peinte) du r&el" (S/Z 61). Of interest in this formulation

is the operation of copying a painted copy, for it unmasks

the exploitation of the pictorial as a device for sustaining

the realist illusion.

In her work of art entitled "Altarpiece: Resurrection,"

contemporary artist Margo Klass draws similarities between

texts' bindings and altarpieces. This latter's moveable

panels operate like giant pages opened or closed depending

on the liturgical calendar. The altarpiece, a feminine form,

is a figure of art constructed to fold back in on itself,

like the pages of a text, like two sets of labia folding in

on themselves. Recalling Irigaray's nonconventional metaphor

of two lips constructed to put into question Freud's

conceptualization of woman's sex as a little penis,

Retable's parts have multiple points of contact. They are

neither completely distinguishable each from the other, nor

separable. Moving in sync with the rhythm of religious

seasons, the figure of the altarpiece repeatedly turns back

in on itself, recalling an endless cycle of birth, death,

and rebirth.

Instead of obscuring the edges of the frame's embrace,

Chawaf's reference to the opening and closing retable draws

attention to its "bord," enclosure, wood, matter, "hyle," or

dynamic nature. To focus on the material is to draw

attention to the constitutive, but suppressed, maternal-

feminine. The retable resists a "masculin divinise"

disguised as transcendental, its appropriation of the life-

generating function, and the resulting wounds to the

collective social body. Although a retable features painted

scenes that reflect the Word, it also constitutes the

embrasure of the altar and is located in a feminine space,

the enceintee" of the church.

The triptych's construction blurs the boundaries of

inside and outside, offering new perspectives. Through "ce

movement perp6tuel," Chawaf's 6criture feminine draws its

transgressive power for the purpose of putting into question

established convention:

Il faut faire un travail sur soi-meme et les
lecteurs aussi, d'od la transgression cette
necessity toujours de se refaire, de chercher plus
loin, d'avancer, de continue, d'etre en movement
perpetuel et done d'obliger le lecteur--et soi-
meme parce qu'on est toujours lecteur .. a
transgresser ses habitudes de lecteur, de lecture,
ses habitudes de pensee, sa vision, done toujours
aller au-del&. Toujours tout remettre en question,
tout subvertir, et dans ce movement perp6tuel, de
ce desordre, de ce chaos auquel il faut toujours
revenir, A mon avis pour recommencer, recreer.
("Discussion avec Chantal Chawaf" 128)

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