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Algerian Disorders: On Deconstructive Postcolonialism in Cixous and Derrida

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 May 2015

Birgit Mara Kaiser*
Utrecht University


This article explores Hélène Cixous’s and Jacques Derrida’s explicit revisiting of their Algerian memories, especially in their later work (mainly Reveries of the Wild Woman and Monolingualism of the Other). These texts offer a specifically deconstructive response to the colonial project in Algeria, attempting to think non-appropriative relations to otherness and processes of identification that exceed a self/other binary. Investigating the colonial principle that manifested itself in Algeria from the vantage point of their Judeo-Franco-Maghrebian situatedness, they derive from this position not accounts of cultural particularity, but analyses of (and alternatives to) colonial practices of identification: analyzing colonial and identity politics as harmful to a fundamental relationality to otherness and affirming a “spectral” zone without belonging that nonetheless carves out a life with, toward, and of the other, on the others’ sides, relational without being oblivious of antagonisms and violence.

© Cambridge University Press 2015 

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1 Deleuze, Gilles, Pure Immanence. Essays on a Life (New York: Zone Books, 2001), 6667 Google Scholar.

2 Jacques Derrida, quoted in Chérif, Mustapha, Islam & the West: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 30.

3 Young, Robert, White Mythologies. Writing History and the West (London and New York: Routledge, 1990)Google Scholar, 1.

4 Ibid.

5 Hélène Cixous, “Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways Out/Forays” Hélène Cixous and Cathérine Clément, The Newly Born Woman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 63–132, 70.

6 Ibid.

7 Cixous, Hélène, Reveries of the Wild Woman. Primal Scenes (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 2006 [Fr. 2000]), 26 Google Scholar.

8 The subtitle alludes to Freud’s notion of the primal scene (Urszene), for Freud the child’s witnessing of parental coitus, first used in the Wolfman case (1914) to analyze the patient’s neurosis as resulting from this witnessing (whether imagined or real) and its repression (see Freud, Sigmund, Zwei Krankengeschichten (Frankfurt/Main: Fischer, 1996), 154172 Google Scholar). Cixous resignifies the notion by pluralizing it, displacing it onto other scenes, and claiming the “stigmata” that result from it not so much as traumatic, but rather as productive of writing and self-formation. See also Cixous, Hélène, “From the Scene of the Unconscious to the Scene of History,The Future of Literary Theory, ed. Ralph Cohen (London and New York: Routledge, 1989), 118 Google Scholar.

9 Ahluwalia, Pal, Out of Africa: Post-Structuralism’s Colonial Roots (London and New York: Routledge, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Hiddleston, Jane, Poststructuralism and Postcoloniality. The Anxiety of Theory (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2010)Google Scholar. On the intersections between postmodernism and postcolonialism, see Quayson, Ato, “Postcolonialism and Postmodernism,A Companion to Postcolonial Studies, eds. Henry Schwarz and Sangeeta Ray (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 87111 Google Scholar.

10 Explicitly since the mid-1990s, especially in Jacques Derrida’s Circumfession (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993 [Fr. 1991]) and Monolingualism of the Other; or, The Prosthesis of Origin (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998 [Fr. 1996]); and in Cixous’s Reveries of the Wild Woman, her “My Algeriance, in Other Words: to Depart Not to Arrive from Algeria” Stigmata. Escaping Texts (London and New York: Routledge, 1998 [Fr. 1997]), 204–31; “Stigmata, or Job the Dog” Stigmata: Escaping Texts (London and New York: Routledge, 1998 [Fr. 1997]), 243–61; her conversation with Mireille Calle-Gruber in Rootprints. Memory and Life Writing (London and New York: Routledge, 1997 [Fr. 1994]), and her recent fiction Philippines (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011 [Fr. 2009]).

11 Derrida himself raises this when he discusses the formation of Freudian psychoanalysis in Archive Fever, noting that in “the classical structure of their concept, a science, a philosophy, a theory, a theorem are or should be intrinsically independent of the singular archive of their history. We know well that these things (science, philosophy, theory, etc.) have a history, a rich and complex history that carries them and produces them in a thousand ways. We know well that in diverse and complicated ways, proper names and signatures count. But the structure of the theoretical, philosophical, scientific statement, and even when it concerns history, does not have, should not in principle have, an intrinsic and essential need for the archive, and for what binds the archive in all its forms to some proper name or to some body proper, to some (familial or national) filiation, to covenants, to secrets.” Derrida, Jacques, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 45 Google Scholar.

12 I am thinking here of a similar move as the one Édouard Glissant implies with his notions of Relation and creolization (to which Derrida refers in Monolingualism, as I will indicate in more detail later). For Glissant, creolization articulates two situations at the same time. It names, on the one hand, the encounters and relations that are historically specific and localized in the Caribbean; on the other hand, it articulates a condition of the world at large at the turn of the twenty-first century. Due to centuries of displacements and migration in the backwash of colonialisms, and intensified entanglements across the globe in the past decades, Glissant sees our contemporary time as marked by a “massive and diffracted confluence of cultures” (Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation [Ann Arbor: University of Michgan Press, 1997], 153) analogous to what occurred in the historically specific context of the Caribbean. Glissant calls this condition of confluence-encounter-becoming (epitomized by the Caribbean, yet active everywhere) Relation. In Philosophie de la Relation he specifies Relation as “the realized abundance of all the differences of/in the world, without being able to exclude a single one” (Philosophie de la Relation. Poésie en Étendue [Paris: Gallimard, 2009], 42 [translation mine]).

13 Gil Anidjar, “Introduction: ‘Once More, Once More:’ Derrida, the Arab, the Jew,” Derrida, Jacques, Acts of Religion, ed. Gil Anidjar (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), 139 Google Scholar, 35.

14 Huffer, Lynne, “Derrida’s Nostalgeria,Algeria & France, 1800–2000. Identity, Memory, Nostalgia, ed. Patricia M. E. Lorcin (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2006), 228246 Google Scholar, 241. Huffer is critical of this, see note 119.

15 Young, White Mythologies, 1. For the history of the war, see Alistair Horne’s classic study A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954–1962 (London: Macmillan, 1977).

16 The fierceness with which the central Maghreb (Algeria) was annexed and seen as France still resonates more than a century later in François Mitterrand’s famous statement, as French Minister of the Interior in a radio-broadcast on November 7, 1954, shortly after the start of the War of Independence on November 1, 1954: “L’Algérie, c’est la France” (quoted in Mohammed Ramdani, “Introduction,” Jean-François Lyotard, La guerre des Algériens. Écrits 1956–1963 (Paris: Galilée, 1989, 9–31, 12) and in Jacques Soustelle’s address to the Algerian Assembly on February 23, 1955 (as governor general of Algeria): “La France est ici chez elle, ou plutôt l’Algérie et tous ses habitants font partie intégrante de la France une et indivisible. Tel est l’Alpha et l’Omega. Tous doivent savoir... que la France ne quittera pas plus l’Algérie que la Provence ou la Bretagne.” (Ibid.) On the history of decolonization in Algeria, see Shepard, Todd, The Invention of Decolonization. The Algerian War and the Remaking of France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006)Google Scholar.

17 During colonization, the legal and citizenship status of the population of Algeria was carefully divided into various ethnically and religiously specified categories (“Muslim,” “Arab,” “Indigenous,” “Jew,” “European,” “French”). Full citizenship for the Muslim population was continuously promised and continuously postponed, and only in 1958 did all Algerians become full citizens of France. On Muslim citizenship in French Algeria, see Shepard, , Invention of Decolonization, 1954 Google Scholar.

18 See Shepard, , Invention of Decolonization, 28 Google Scholar; these laws were complemented in June 1889 by the law of nationalization of all European settlers.

19 Cixous, “My Algeriance,” 215. Roumi is an Arabic term pejoratively used for “Christian invader” or European. Francaouis is a term used by pieds-noirs settlers for the French from metropolitan France.

20 Cixous, , Reveries, 70 Google Scholar.

21 Cixous, , “My Algeriance,” 204 Google Scholar.

22 Eva Klein’s family was formerly from Alsace, then settled in Osnabrück. George Cixous’s family had migrated from Spain through Morocco to Algeria after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain after 1492 (cf. Cixous, Rootprints, 182).

23 Cixous, “My Algeriance,” 225. Thinking of Oran, she remembers: “In rue d’Arzew... the Pétain Youth brigades marched in vain. I had the language and its subterranean passages. Or rather I had: My languages. We played at languages in our house, my parents passed with pleasure and deftness from one language to the other, the two of them, one from French the other from German, jumping through Spanish and English, one with a bit of Arabic and the other with a bit of Hebrew. When I was ten years old my father gave me at the same time an Arabic teacher and a Hebrew teacher. That translinguistic and loving sport sheltered me from all obligation or vague desire of obedience... to one mother-father tongue” (225).

24 Cixous, , “My Algeriance,” 205 Google Scholar.

25 Derrida, , Monolingualism, 16 Google Scholar. In his autobiographical text Circumfession (1991), he equally notes the “chance or arbitrariness of the starting point, irresponsibility even” (50), which he unravels in that text as the coincidence of being born between two brothers who both died at a young age, leaving him—from his mother’s perspective, about whom Circumfession is speaking—in a position of “a precious but so vulnerable intruder, one mortal too many, Elie loved in the place of another” (51–52).

26 Quoted in Chérif, Islam & the West, 34. Derrida discusses this at length also in Monolingualism of the Other, 50–56.

27 Derrida, , Monolingualism, 42 Google Scholar.

28 Ibid., 53.

29 Ibid., 54.

30 Ibid., note 9, 79. For more on Derrida’s work on Judaism and religion, see Anidjar, , “Introduction,” 139 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

31 Cixous, , “My Algeriance,” 205 Google Scholar.

32 Cixous, “My Algeriance,” 217. In Cixous’s specific case, her paternal family had applied for French citizenship before the Crémieux decree, in 1867, along with only 144 other Jewish families (Ibid.). For population estimates of the Jewish community in Algeria, see also Hyman, Paula, The Jews of Modern France (Oakland: University of California Press, 1998)Google Scholar, 83.

33 Cixous, Hélène, “Preface: On Stigmatexts,Stigmata: Escaping Texts (London and New York: Routledge, 1998)Google Scholar, xiv.

34 Ibid.

35 Ibid. The stigma is thus not a sign of alientation, which resonates with Derrida’s stress of the non-negative basis of identification discussed toward the end of this article.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid., xv.

38 Cixous, , “My Algeriance,” 219 Google Scholar.

39 Cixous, “Preface,” xv.

40 Ibid.

41 Cixous, “Preface,” xv–xvi. The resonances between Cixous’s scene and the one Frantz Fanon describes in “The Fact of Blackness” are striking (Black Skins, While Masks [London: Pluto Press, 1986], 109–40). Their similarities as well as the differences that Fanon discusses between blackness and Jewishness cannot be examined here, but would warrant a separate study.

42 Cixous, , “My Algeriance,” 213 Google Scholar.

43 Cixous, “Preface,” xvi.

44 Cixous, , “My Algeriance,” 218 Google Scholar.

45 Ibid., 213.

46 Cixous, , Reveries, 23 Google Scholar. Cixous explores the importance and difference of the gendered experience of “Algeria” throughout Reveries, especially via the figure of “the Bike”—a girl’s bicycle that her mother gave to the children, which came to mark the difference between her brother’s and her responses to living in Clos Salambier (see esp. Reveries, 11–27).

47 Ibid., 18. Cixous recounts how her grandmother insisted on buying two loaves of bread—one sweet, one salty. It is crucial that Cixous avoids here the syntactically expected phrasing of “us the children with two loaves and them the children without loaves.” Avoiding the antagonism of “us/them,” she instead places “us” twice, for both groups, in line with the thought of inclusion/exclusion that insists on always considering also the other side, to which I turn in a moment.

48 Cixous, , “My Algeriance,” 213 Google Scholar.

49 Cixous, , Reveries, 70 Google Scholar.

50 Ibid., 71.

51 Ibid., 86.

52 Ibid., 85. Later, in “Letter to Zohra Drif” (College Literature 30.1 (2003): 82–90), Cixous writes: “I called to them in silence and without hope. I was behind the bars of a mad destiny, cooped up with the French my non-fellow creatures, my adversaries, my hands held out toward my kind, on the other side, invisible hands held out to my own tribe who could not see me. For them, surely I was what I was not: a French girl. My ancient desire for them... inaudible. There was no us” (87). In a similar vein, we could explore the loving relation to Aïcha, the nanny and household help of the Cixous’s in Algiers that Reveries describes. Although on the one hand, Aïcha is the dear, loved surrogate mother to Cixous, she is, on the other hand, also ignorantly misnamed (her real name being Messaouda [Reveries, 52–53]), and the Cixous’s never get to visit her at her house or meet her own children. It is a loving relation, yet shot through with “all the ghosts” of colonial Algeria.

53 Cixous, , Reveries, 51 Google Scholar.

54 Ibid., 85.

55 Ibid., 70.

56 Ibid., 24.

57 Cixous, Hélène, “Celle qui ne se ferme pas,Derrida à Alger: Un regard sur le monde, ed. Mustapha Chérif (Arles: Actes Sud, 2008), 4558 Google Scholar, 56 (all translations mine).

58 Cixous, , “My Algeriance,” 225 Google Scholar.

59 Cixous, , Reveries, 7 Google Scholar.

60 Ibid., 81.

61 Cixous, , “My Algeriance,” 226 Google Scholar.

62 Ibid., 227.

63 Derrida, , Monolingualism, 25 Google Scholar. Cixous writes: “I did not lose Algeria, because I never had it, and I never was it. I suffered that it was lost for itself, separated from itself by colonization. If ever I identified it was with its rage at being wounded, amputated, humiliated” (“My Algeriance,” 224).

64 The modes of witnessing that Cixous and Derrida attest to would have to be explored in more detail along the lines of what Bracha L. Ettinger calls “wit(h)nessing” to stress that such acts of witnessing are co-constitutive of the ones observing and the others/scenes observed: a “co-poietic activity” that makes “a borderspace of swerve and encounter emerge... as a creative process that engraves traces revealed/invented in wit(h)ness-in-differentiation” (The Matrixial Borderspace [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006]), 144).

65 Cixous, , “My Algeriance,” 218 Google Scholar.

66 Cixous, Hélène and Jeannet, Frédéric-Yves, Encounters: Conversations on Life and Writing (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013)Google Scholar, 61.

67 Cixous, , “My Algeriance,” 227 Google Scholar.

68 Ibid.

69 Ibid.

70 Cixous, Hélène, The Book of Promethea (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 19 Google Scholar.

71 Cixous and Jeannet, Encounters, 61.

72 Her texts are dictations, dream-episodes which her hands try to write down as fast as possible (see for example Cixous, Rootprints, 98–107). In his book on Cixous, Derrida notes that her writing evokes “figures with six hundred voices... fictional idealities whose ‘as if’ eludes psychoanalytic knowledge and its theoretical questions after having seriously exhausted them” (H. C. for Life, That Is to Say... [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006], 31).

73 Cixous, , The Book of Promethea, 19 Google Scholar.

74 Cixous, , “Sorties,” 72 Google Scholar.

75 Ibid., 84.

76 Hanrahan, Mairead, “Of Altobiography,” Paragraph 23.3 (2000): 282295 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 287.

77 Cixous and Jeannet, Encounters, 101.

78 Cixous, Philippines, xiii.

79 As sketched especially in Cixous, Hélène, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Signs 1.4 (1976): 875893 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; performed exemplarily in The Book of Promethea. In “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Cixous writes: “It is impossible to define a feminine practice of writing, and this is an impossibility that will remain, for this practice can never be theorized, enclosed, coded—which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist” (883); but also that “writing is precisely working (in) the in-between, inspecting the process of the same and of the other without which nothing can live, undoing the work of death... a multiple and inexhaustible course with millions of encounters and transformations of the same into the other and into the in-between...” (883).

80 Cixous, , “Celle qui,” 55 Google Scholar.

81 Derrida, , Circumfession, 58 Google Scholar.

82 Quoted in Chérif, Islam & the West, 29. Among the other (equally spectral) experiences was notably his own circumcision. Derrida affirms the influence it had on this thinking, when, for example, in Circumfession he writes, somewhat tongue in cheek: “Circumcision, that’s all I’ve ever talked about, consider the discourse on the limit, margins, marks, marches, etc. the closure, the ring (alliance and gift), the sacrifice, the writing of the body, the pharmakos excluded and cut off” (70).

83 Derrida, , Monolingualism, 37 Google Scholar.

84 Chérif, , Islam & the West, 108 Google Scholar. Cixous recounts a similar scene of her primary school days in a “un-Frenchified Jewish dining-room-school... contain[ing] seven classes” (“My Algeriance,” 225).

85 Cixous, “Celle qui,” 47. She mentions it as the second stigma, calling the first his date of birth (July 15, 1930), one day after the centenary of French colonization in Algeria, celebrated on July 14, 1930.

86 Derrida, , Monolingualism, 1617 Google Scholar.

87 Ibid., 27.

88 Ibid., 26.

89 Ibid., 9.

90 Ibid., 8.

91 Ibid., 12.

92 Ibid., 29.

93 Ibid., 14.

94 Ibid., 1.

95 Ibid., 19. And noted previously for Cixous, we have to be equally cautious not to reduce the “demonstration” (Ibid., 72) that Derrida gives of a personal experience to a personal story or the account of an empirical person. Derrida precisely complicates the clear-cut distinction between the personal of unique, historical experience and the general of theoretical insight.

96 Ibid., 41.

97 Ibid.

98 Ibid., 31, see also 37.

99 Ibid., 32. Despite the interdiction, Derrida calls Arabic “the language of the neighbor” (Chérif, Islam & the West, 33) and the “first of my preferred languages” (Ibid., 34). Elsewhere, he states that he started learning Arabic, although he did not get very far. This might be a good moment to stress again that the notion of monolingualism is not born of the anxiety of not speaking any other languages than French. Derrida spoke many. The point of a “monolingualism of the other” is not one of proficiency in one or more languages, but a conceptual point on the formation of subjectivity and identification.

100 Ibid., 39–40.

101 Ibid., 31.

102 Ibid.

103 Cixous, , “Letter to Zohra Drif,” 84 Google Scholar.

104 Quoted in Chérif, Islam & the West, 35.

105 Derrida, , Monolingualism, 31 Google Scholar. The term pacified is far from innocent in Algerian (as in other colonial) contexts. In the case of Algeria, much of the military conquest, especially the battles against the resistance army of Emir Abd Al Qadir ( Ruedy, John, Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development of a Nation (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992), 5172 Google Scholar), was labeled a pacification.

106 Ibid., 23.

107 Ibid., 24.

108 See Ruedy, Modern Algeria, esp. 80–113, 224–28.

109 Derrida, , Monolingualism, 40 Google Scholar.

110 Ibid., 58.

111 Ibid., 25.

112 Surely, Derrida’s entire work, starting from Of Grammatology, is informed by this thought. But it is in his work on “Algeria” that the implications for noncolonial (or post-postcolonial) modes of cultural identification become most directly palpable.

113 Derrida, , Monolingualism, 53 Google Scholar.

114 Ibid., 55.

115 Glissant, Philosophie de la Relation, 66 (translation mine).

116 Ibid., 9.

117 Derrida, , Monolingualism, 28 Google Scholar.

118 Huffer, , “Derrida’s Nostalgeria,” 232 Google Scholar.

119 Ibid., 241. Huffer finds this problematic because it eschews in her view the political stakes of particularity and its cultural memory. Focusing on Derrida’s use of “nostalgeria,” Huffer notes that despite ironic detachment from a (reactionary) nostalgic position vis-à-vis Algeria, this “does not remove him entirely from the colonizer position, nor does it free him from the nostalgic ideological structures that Monolingualism of the Other... claim[s] to dismantle” (238). Instead, “[w]ith ‘nostalgeria,’ the elitist Derrida myth can be conveniently rewritten as a subaltern myth about Derrida as a postcolonial subject” (244). According to my reading, “nostalgeria” holds a somewhat different position in Derrida’s text than Huffer suggests. It expresses a “dream,” Derrida notes, of a relation to the language of the (colonizing) other that were to enable one to inscribe oneself in that language, “the desire to make it arrive here... forcing the language then to speak... in another way... keeping in her body the ineffaceable archive of this event” (51–52) of having been forced upon Algeria. But Derrida also stresses—very much in line with the argument of Monolingualism of the Other as I have tried to outline it here, and also in conjunction with Cixous—that such a dream is “only a first circle of generality” (52) and foreclosed to anyone in the situation of a double interdiction. From the latter, he then derives the “paradoxical opportunity” (53) of identification that I outlined. A more nuanced reading of “nostalgeria” from this angle exceeds the scope of the present article.

120 Derrida, , Monolingualism, 58 Google Scholar.

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