Amajor figure in contemporary feminist critical theory, Cixous is known for works that analyze and attempt to counter Western culture's traditional concepts of male and female. Cixous is best known for her essay collaboration with Catherine Clément, La jeune née (1975; The Newly Born Woman) and her essay "Le rire de la Méduse" (1975; "The Laugh of the Medusa"). Both texts are recognized as being markedly influenced by the writings of Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher and founder of the critical method known as deconstructionism; Michel Foucault, the French philosopher and historian who rejected the theory of human nature and was a proponent of the notion of an ever-changing self; Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst and philosopher who proposed a linguistic theory of the unconscious; and Sigmund Freud, the originator of psychoanalysis. A proponent of écriture féminine, or feminine writing, Cixous strives in all of her works to establish a uniquely feminine perspective, both to correct what she and many feminist theorists view as the traditionally masculine character of Western discourse and as a methodology with which to critique that discourse.
Cixous was born in Oran, Algeria, to a French-colonial father and Austro-German mother. Members of her family were Sephardic Jews, and Cixous grew up with a sense of kinship with persecuted groups. Her father, a physician, died when she was eleven, an event some critics suggest informs her writing. In her teens, Cixous read myths, the German Romantics (including Heinrich von Kleist), and English literature, especially the writings of William Shakespeare. Cixous moved to France in her late teens, where she earned an agrégation d'anglais degree in 1959 and became a docteur des lettres in 1968. She also founded, with Gérard Genette and Tzvetan Todorov, the prestigious literary and critical journal Poétique in 1968. She was a founder of the University of Paris-Vincennes (also known as Paris VIII), a liberal school offering an alternative to traditional education, and the Centre de Recherches en Etudes Feminines in 1974. Also that year, she established Europe's first doctoral program for women's studies. Cixous has taught at various universities in France, including the University of Paris, the Sorbonne, and the University of Bordeaux; she has also been a visiting professor at such institutions as Yale University, Columbia University, and Dartmouth College.
Cixous's first published work of criticism was her doctoral thesis, L'exil de James Joyce ou l'art du remplacement (1968; The Exile of James Joyce or the Art of Replacement). In this work she examines Joyce's experimental literary techniques and the ways in which they express his belief in the mutually influential relationship between linguistic and mental structures. She criticizes Joyce, however, for emphasizing a connection between guilt and death; she argues that this leads to the unnecessary paradox, detectable in all of his works, that one must "lose" in order to "gain," kill in order to live. In Prénoms de personne (1974), a collection of essays, Cixous presents psychoanalytic analyses of literary texts by Freud, August Heinrich Hoffman, Kleist, Edgar Allan Poe, and Joyce. These essays deal with the concept of the "unified subject," or the individual's sense of being or "possessing" a distinct, whole personality. In 1975, Cixous published "The Laugh of the Medusa", a well-known essay that examines Freud's concept of castration anxiety. Freud argued that this anxiety stems from a fear of female genitalia, perceived by males at a subconscious level as the result of castration—the female body understood subconsciously as "lacking" a phallus. Freud suggested that the mythical story of Medusa, in which people turn to stone when they look at the snake-covered head of the Gorgon, could be read as addressing this psychoanalytic fear. In "The Laugh of the Medusa" Cixous argues, following many theorists, that this masculine view of women as "lacking" has broad social and political implications and manifestations. The Newly Born Woman consists of three parts: Catherine Clément's essay "The Guilty One," Cixous's "Sorties," and "Exchange," a dialogue between the two authors in which they discuss the similarities and differences in their views on women and writing. Through their readings of various historical, literary, and psychoanalytical texts, the two explore the role played by language in determining women's secondary place in society. They go on to propose that Western culture's repressive language must be replaced with a language of liberation. La venue à l'écriture (1977), co-authored with Annie Leclerc and Madeleine Gagnon, further evinces Cixous's preoccupations with language, psychoanalysis, and feminine pleasure. In her novel Illa (1980) Cixous restructures the story of Persephone and Demeter. The Greek goddess Persephone, according to legend, was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter (the Roman goddess Ceres, goddess of crops and fertility). She was abducted and raped by Hades and forced to be his wife. Demeter searched for Persephone and, grieving over her disappearance, decided that the land would be infertile until she was reunited with her daughter. Zeus brokered a deal that would allow Persephone to reside with her mother for two-thirds of the year; for the other third she would be imprisoned in Hell with Hades. Greek mythology uses this myth to explain the earth's barren condition during the winter months. In Illa, Cixous highlights the male-dominated, colonizing aspects of this tale and changes the story to reflect a more self-determined, feminist text. In Illa, she celebrates camaraderie among women, underscores women's link with nature, and highlights the feminine goals of love and nonviolence. Entre l'écriture (1986; "Coming to Writing," and Other Essays) collects translations of a number of Cixous's critical works written after 1976, including "Clarice Lispector: An Approach," "Trancredi Continues," and the title essay.
Reaction to Cixous's critical works has been mixed. Many critics have praised her attempts to revolutionize traditional beliefs about women and writing. Others, however, have castigated what they consider the contradictory nature of her work and her intentional resistance to analysis. Her penchant for using both feminine and masculine writing techniques within feminine literature has confused some commentators, yet many find that writers need to claim both the male and female identity to present a whole self. Some reviewers also suggest that Cixous's attempts to redefine gender differences reduce women to what one critic has called an "anatomical essence," and that her works are, in fact, antifeminist. Others argue that Cixous's work is expansive rather than reductive. Most critics, however, praise Cixous's belief that the creation of a new language of discourse is essential for feminine expression and women's search for identity.