Out the back door

Image source: Judy Horacek. (Love her work).

This post is drawn from my experiments with academic writing practices in a recent book chapter: “Academic Writing from the Depths: An autoethnographic and organisational account” in Academic Writing and Identity Constructions (edited by Louise Thomas and Anne Reinertsen). In a previous post, I described why I enjoy writing book chapters (which ‘count’ less than journal articles in metricised academia): I relish the chance to play while writing.

Last week I experienced experimental writing from the other side: as a reviewer of a work that defied the conventions of academic texts by including poetry, song, and art, and using unexpected styles, fragments, narratives, metaphors and allusions. It was an uncomfortable position to occupy, especially for an academic reviewer. I have been mulling over this difficult (but enjoyable) reading experience all week.

In the wonderfully metaphorical essay “Birds, Women and Writing”, French feminist philosopher Hélène Cixous (2004) refers to opening “the back door of thought” to the “nether realms” (p 169), a dangerous place where the unthought, the risky and the impossible can be imagined. She suggests that writing comes from “deep inside” this space:

It is deep in my body, further down, behind thought. Thought comes in front of it and closes it like a door. This does not mean it does not think, but it thinks differently from our thinking and speech. Somewhere in the depths of my heart, which is deeper than I think. Somewhere in my stomach, my womb. (2004, p 172)

In “The Laugh of the Medusa”, Cixous (1981) coins the phrase écriture feminine: “Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing … Woman must put herself into the text” (1981, p 246). This process of écriture feminine has two aims: “to break up, to destroy; and to foresee the unforeseeable, to project” (p 246) Luce Irigaray (1993) uses the similar term parler-femme (speaking as woman): “I am a woman. I write with who I am” (p 53).

Tracing her inner reveries about women and writing, Cixous finds herself thinking about birds, swarming outside threateningly and joyfully like ideas. To understand the association, Cixous (2004) turns to the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament, where birds are unclean, forbidden for human consumption, otherworldly:

Let those birds be “abominable”: I associate women and writing with this abomination. I do this, of course, half playfully, half seriously. It is my way of indicating the reserved, secluded, or excluded path or place where you meet those beings I think are worth knowing while we are alive (pp. 168-169)

Birds on campus. © Jennifer Vu. Image source.

If you seek to join the exalted company of writing women, if you go outside towards the birds, if you enter the “nether realms” of the unthought and the impossible, Cixous (2004) writes: “you no longer belong to the world. Out there we shall be in the company of swans, storks, and griffons” (p. 171). This space is “somewhere in that most evasive of countries without precise address, the one that is most difficult to find and work with, and where it is even difficult to live without effort, danger, risk” (2004, p. 169). When writing, I follow Cixous: inside, into the depths of embodied writing experience; and outside, towards the birds, into the university.

(I recommend Rowena Murray’s ‘It’s not a hobby’ and Helen Sword’s Air and Light and Time and Space if you want to think about these ideas of writing and academic work).

I walk the campus. My favourite place is a remnant turpentine ironbark forest that clings to the edge. On the way, I watch the birds. The masked lapwings, who lay their delicate eggs on the ground and defend them energetically, occupy the grassy areas of the campus; large ibis and brush turkeys dominate spaces frequented by students; and in a feat of defensive cooperation, one duck couple have managed to keep a dozen ducklings alive. Like Cixous, I relish the outside:

Those who belong to the birds and their kind (these may include some men), to writings and their kind: they are all to be found—and a fair company it is too—outside (2004, pp. 168-169).

© Patrick Wiecks. Source: Australian Geographic Wildlife on Campus.

What do you find when you open the back door of thought?

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