Language and Being Heard

Updated: Feb 6, 2019

In her interview with Simone de Beauvoir, twenty-seven years after the publication of ‘The Second Sex’, Susan Brison asks: “If one doesn’t want to define woman negatively in relation to man -- woman as an inferior man, a failed man -- how can one define her positively? [Hasn’t Helene] Cixous [] written: “They’ve stuck us between two horrifying myths, between Medusa and the abyss.” [Haven’t they stuck us between being a horrible other and a terrifying nothingness]”? (Brison, 2003, p.191)

De Beauvoir responds by clarifying: “[Yes they have. And this is the important point - it is they who have, and they have felt that this is quite a normal thing to do since they follow the patriarchal social code as if it is God’s Law.] It’s not by nature that [woman] is reduced to immanence [to dwelling within herself as the inessential complement to man]; she’s been reduced to it by men, who prevent her from acting, creating, transcending” this template self which is given to her by patriarchy. (p.191-2)

Brison leads the conversation in the less abstract direction of practicing speaking-in-order-to-be-heard, (the writer/speaker’s primary concern acknowledging that one is beginning to speak in a still-patriarchal world): “You said yesterday that you refuse to accept the notion of a uniquely feminine style of writing, that we have to get rid of “macho” words but that it’s not a question of creating a new language.” (p.192)

De Beauvoir: “Yes, that’s what I was just saying a moment ago, too, because a language is … something [whose effectivity is] constituted through circulation, in the mass of people, in reciprocity, in all of that, and if you try to create a language artificially you’ll … cut off communication with others. I find that many of [Helene] Cixous’s books, for example, are virtually impossible to read because they sever communication with others” (p.193)

Brison: “I agree completely with what you said yesterday about how “every woman has the right to shout, but the cry must be heard and listened to . . .” ” (p.193)

De Beauvoir: “Right, that’s it … What I don’t approve of is the choice of a language that is completely different from common language because I think it cuts off communication … To the extent that there are new things to say, they must be said in a way that’s accessible” (p.193-4)

What Beauvoir clarifies is that although it is important to create a “women’s writing” (or a feminine literature which affirms that “my body knows unheard-of songs” so that women might feel free to live outside the patriarchal idea of the well-adjusted woman as Helene Cixous (1976, p. 876) famously called for), it is also crucial to ensure that this writing does not become cut off from communication with mainstream social circulation, that it is not taken to be only the language of a social minority, that it is not so easy to dismiss as the point of view of a few extremist women.

What is needed is a way to put the dominant language of society (which functions according to the patriarchal code) to use in an unexpected way; in a manner of communication where the existence of an important experience cannot be denied. In other words, to speak and be heard in a reality where most of us have internalized patriarchal habits of interpretation and response.

In his Editor’s Note to Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘What is a Minor Literature?’, the thinker Robert Brinkley (Deleuze et al., 1983) points out that minorities such as women, “suffer from interpretation … Typically the interpret[ation]” is done through “a dominant social code” (p.13), which is the (naturalized) code of patriarchy. When they try to present an experience which upsets this social code, they are not seen as merely critics, “they are much 'worse'; they [are those who] do not believe, they do not believe in the identity … of the [patriarchal] Law” In other words, they are heretics. “Societies transform them into new [and horrifying] powers … [of] opposition” (p.14) For eg, into the rise of Woman heralding the fall of Man, or of the Feminist as a figure which threatens the identity of Man!

What women on the other hand want to affirm, is that it is actually impossible that Woman has overnight become a threat to Man; that women will continue to remain a minority as long as society is patriarchal!

How to affirm to men (and patriarchal folks in general) the real existence of women’s experience of the same situations? What is that special something that might induce a patriarchal man - or anyone to whom the current (patriarchal) organization of the world makes perfect sense - to listen to something they could dismiss as “women’s writing”, a fad, a fashion?

What could this special something be, but a growing feeling of doubt towards the consistency of some fundamental terms of the ‘natural’ organization of society?

As political theorist Ernesto Laclau points out, “...language is a system of differences. In order to understand the meaning of a term, I need to understand the meaning of all other terms” relative to it. Fundamental terms such as ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘boss’ etc are defined in social life in relation to one another and several other terms.

What does it mean to say fundamental terms are defined in social life? As Laclau reminds us, “the linguistic and extra-linguistic act are part of a single operation”, ie, when I say something in society, it is meant to be understood, and acted upon. The meaning of words must be connected to the possibility of acting upon these meanings in our social life.

Thus to use language in society is to always exchange assumptions about the relation of each term with a whole set of other unspoken terms. These relations between the meanings of common words are rigidly interpreted (or “territorialized” in Deleuze and Guattari’s lingo) by the patriarchal code. As feminist theorist Judith Butler has pointed out, gender is “a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame”. (Salih, 2003, p.62)

According to Laclau: “in order to understand what mother means, I need to know what father and child means as well … language is a set of rules of combinations that is going to be important to master from the very beginning.” It is the set of such possible combinations which is delimited by the patriarchal code. “That is what Wittgenstein called ‘language games’... [and what] we call ‘discourse’.” Feminists must try to unsettle the language games of patriarchal social life.

If you introduce doubt into the stable meaning of a fundamental term, then would it be possible to unsettle the stability of the combinations in which this term itself is ‘naturally’ used? This must be the feminist experiment with language, against patriarchal society.

How to affirm women’s collective experience in such a way that the power of this affirmation cannot be escaped? How to turn “Our Words Into Our Weapons” (to paraphrase Rebecca Solnit)? Our words that are normally interpreted by patriarchal codes: how to turn these into weapons that wound the listener/reader so that, for her/him the patriarchal code can no longer fully re-interpret/re-code/“re-territorialize” the meanings of things? How to inflict such wounds into the dominant mode of sense-making?

In 2008, Rebecca Solnit’s essay ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ went viral, illuminating an experience most women had never thought would be taken seriously even if it was somehow expressed. “Young women subsequently added the word “mansplaining” to the lexicon”, which inflicts a wound within anyone who hears it, regardless of the gender of the person listening. The word ‘mansplain’ became the way into reading ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ for many people who might otherwise not have bothered to.

This forcing together of ‘man’ and ‘explain’ into ‘mansplain’ opened up once familiar words up to a kind of slang-ing. Slang invites the listener to a conspiratorial shifting of the meaning of common words. That is to say, for the listener, these words, coming together in this way, will never again signal the same old things. Normally, ie, as per the patriarchal code, the word ‘Man’ signals a being with an active capacity to shape the world, and ‘explain’ points towards a neutral clarification.

However, for anyone listening to or reading the word ‘mansplain’, the active capacity of ‘man’ suddenly becomes dubious by pointing to the same man’s in-capacity to think before speaking. Also the assurance of the neutral authority attached to this ‘explanation’ is shaken up. What has been ‘explained’ no longer seems like a clarification, but as ridiculous speech; speech that deserves to be ridiculed. A doubt has been introduced into the rigid patriarchal frame: Is it possible that what ‘mansplain’ affirms is the “only possible mode of expression” of a common, but silenced collective experience in society? The speech of a minority has now been heard in a major language!

As the philosophers Deleuze and Guattari write, “A minor literature is not the literature of a minor language but the literature a minority makes in a major language … [In it] the language is effected by a strong co-efficient of deterritorialization”. It escapes re-territorialization or re-coding into the dominant code. (Deleuze et al., 1983, p.16) What is achieved is “political”, and of “collective value”, it is something other than “a literature of masters”, meant for refined ears of a few. It is meant for everybody. (p.16, 17)

Feminist affirmations must therefore strive to convey experiences that are vitally important because they are collective and silenced. They must do so in an undeniable way, since the hidden violence of patriarchy lies in this collective silencing.

As a troubling example of this institutionalization, she points out how shockingly recent the coinage of the phrase “sexual harassment” has been, and how turbulent its reception: It was only “coined in the 1970s, first used in the legal system in the 1980s, given legal status by the Supreme Court in 1986, and given widespread coverage in the upheaval after Anita Hill’s testimony against her former boss, Clarence Thomas, in the 1991 Senate hearings on his Supreme Court nomination. The all-male interrogation team patronized and bullied Hill, while many men in the Senate and elsewhere failed to grasp why it mattered if your boss said lecherous things and demanded sexual services. Or they just denied that such things happen”! The point is that this kind of reaction which seeks to re-territorialize or re-code the experience has to be worked against experimentally and continually.

Consider that the coining of the word “rape culture” in 2012 “helped us stop pretending that rapes are anomalies, that they have nothing to do with the culture at large or are even antithetical to its values”. Its coining finally “lets us begin to address the roots of the problem in the culture as a whole. ” Patriarchy will always try to isolate instances of women speaking up as an overreaction to an exceptional situation, rather than as singular articulations of a universal/collective problem.

Solnit describes how in response to the horrific Isla Vista killings, a young woman “with the online name Kaye … decided to start tweeting with the hashtag # YesAllWomen”. Within a day, “half a million # yesallwomen tweets had appeared around the world, as though a dam had burst. And perhaps it had. The phrase described the hells and terrors women face and specifically critiqued a stock male response when women talked about their oppression: “Not all men.” ” And “as someone named Jenny Chiu tweeted, “Sure # NotAllMen are misogynists and rapists. That's not the point. The point is that # YesAllWomen live in fear of the ones that are.””

It is in this way that feminists must continue to try to raise common words to an uncommon power. Writes Solnit: “If you lack [the common] words for a phenomenon, an emotion, a situation, you can’t ... come together to address it, let alone change it.” Feminism’s use of language must lead the listener deeper towards the truth of patriarchy as a universal condition and her/his own unconscious compliance with its codes.


  1. Brison, S.J. (2003). Beauvoir and Feminism: Interview and Reflections. In C. Card (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Simone de Beauvoir (pp. 189-207). New York: Cambridge University Press.

  2. Cixous, H., Cohen, K., & Cohen, P. (1976). The laugh of the Medusa. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 1(4), 875-893.

  3. Deleuze, G., Guattari, F., & Brinkley, R. (1983). What is a minor literature?. Mississippi Review, 11(3), 13-33.

  4. Salih, S. (2003). Judith Butler. London and New York: Routledge.

  5. Solnit, R. (2014). Men explain things to me. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

#Language #Abuse #Feminism #Patriarchy #Women

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