TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. August 2008

Sektion 5.4. Women’s Performances in Transnational Migration
Sektionsleiterin | Section Chair: Maria-Sabina Draga Alexandru (University of Bucharest, Romania)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Seeing Through Eagle and Serpent Eyes:
Transnational Feminist Practices

Maria-Theresia Holub (Graz, Austria) [BIO]



At some point, on our way to a new consciousness, we will have to leave the opposite bank, the split between the two mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores at once and, at once, see through serpent and eagle eyes.

(Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands 100–101)



This essay focuses on the intersection of gender and transnational and transcultural space. What I am specifically interested in is how transnational space, as a space of and on the border, could work as a point of departure for (re-)thinking questions of sexuality and gender.

One of the challenges of contemporary feminist studies and practices is, I think, to allow for a multiplicity of voices without getting lost in their midst, i.e. to foster an understanding of difference and sameness that is dialogic rather than oppositional. This is also a reason why I find transnational feminism of particular interest: while it stresses the necessity of particular locations, it nevertheless also opens the possibilities of coalitions across and beyond conventional boundaries. In this paper I want to call particular attention to  transnational feminist practices that engage the imaginary through a kind of “transgressive imagiNation”, as Peter Hitchcock calls it. I argue that such paractices do not necessarily work as a form of escape or denial of  reality. The realm of imagination, especially in a transnational and transcultural frame, does in my view present alternative forms of understanding ourselves in relation to the world(s) around us. Rather than viewing particular experiences and perspectives as ends in themselves, the transnational offers a more interactive sense of identity, what I call a relational subjectivity. In this way, imagination is not viewed in opposition to a so-called “reality”, but it becomes an important tool for conceptualizing different possibilities, especially within the realm of feminist discourse. Discussing the work of Hélène Cixous and Gloria Anzaldúa as instances of “transgressive imagiNations” I want to propose the transnational imaginary as an important tool of resistance that helps  foster a transformative engagement with the world.


In his article “Humanism and Minority Literature: Toward a Definition of Counter-Hegemonic Discourse”, Abdul R. JanMohamed warns that “if apolitical humanistic definitions are allowed to emasculate minority critical discourse, then the challenge of minority literature can be easily neutralized or ignored” (JanMohamed 297). Leaving aside for now the rather hideous implication that minority critical discourses have to be “masculine” in order to possess true liberating potential, what this quote, among other things, shows, is the very limited effectiveness of liberatory theories and practices that are conceived as solipsistic entities rather than spaces of negotiation and coalition. While JanMohamed is very much invested in a politics of resistance, his statement illustrates in rather not-so-subtle ways what happens if hierarchies of power are merely countered, not relativized. I want to use this quote to emphasize the importance both of transdisciplinary work and of feminist theory and practice as a crucial factor in working towards real social change.

In keeping with the title of my essay, I will focus on the intersection of gender and transnational and transcultural space. Within the discussion of transnational literature as a form of “border” literature, a literature that locates itself on the border of various national, cultural and epistemological discourses, what I am specifically interested in is how transnational space, as a space of and on the border, could work as a point of departure for (re-)thinking questions of sexuality and gender.

The combination of “gender” or “feminism” and “transnationalism” is of course not completely new. I do not only allude to work done by feminists like Inderpal Grewal, Caren Kaplan or Gayatri Spivak (to name but a few), who have stressed the importance of transnational feminist alliances. But the understanding that space (national or otherwise) is gendered and that within the patriarchal space of phallogocentrism, women have no particular place to claim as their own can, for instance,  already be traced within the writings of Virginia Woolf. Her famous lines in the Three Guineas,“as a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world” (15) attest to this form of gendered displacement. While the category “woman” or the existence of “woman” as such is not yet questioned, Woolf already presents a form of unbelonging on the part of women that may at the same time be seen as a form of empowerment, since “feminine” identity is envisioned between and beyond the confines of the patriarchal nation-state. In Susan Friedman’s words, Woolf’s lines express a “refusal of nationalism and [an] advocacy of a radical humanism” (Friedman 118).   

But through its insistence on the universal plight of “woman”, Woolf’s “humanism” also bears the risk of universalizing the location of specific white western women into one that seeks to account for all women everywhere. Within Western feminist discourse there has long been a tendency to not only universalize feminist concerns within the “West” itself, but also to regard western feminism as a hegemonic model for everyone.  Woolf’s lines can be seen as symptomatic of this debate in that they have been read as both a form of critique of western imperialism and a perpetuation thereof. Her words are in this way  symptomatic of both the strengths and downfalls of transnational feminist practice.

So where do we “locate” transnational feminism/s? An interesting aspect of it to me is a particular sense of space and place that often seems to come out of various forms of displacement. While earlier versions of western feminism have at times been rather weary and suspicious of ideas of home as an oppressive site of patriarchal power, more recently a move towards an acknowledgement of home as a potential space of resistance and feminist theorizing can be discerned. In the context of transnational feminism, a sense of unbelonging is foregrounded that eventually leads not necessarily to a complete renunciation of home and identity, but rather to a different understanding thereof. Thus, displacement is not to be viewed in opposition to a homeplace, or to sites of locality and specificity. Rather, it may serve as a space from which to forge new connections and alliances. To envision feminist praxis transnationally is thus to try to find a way to look through both eagle eyes and serpent eyes, as Anzaldúa suggests, to allow for different views and voices without having one cancel out the other. Transnational feminism thus becomes a feminism of the borderlands.


Transgressive ImagiNations

Kathy Rudy claims that “any metanarrative that seeks to describe otherness in Western terms […] simply exports Western theories into other locations and hence functions as another form of colonization”(1) (Rudy 1051). What Rudy, following other feminist scholars like Ella Shohat,(2) Caren Kaplan or Inderpal Grewal, suggests, is a locational form of feminist inquiry, something that Caren Kaplan (following Adrienne Rich) calls a “politics of location”, which, as Kaplan states, “requires a critical practice that deconstructs standard historical periodization and demystifies abstract spatial metaphors” (Scattered Hegemonies 138). In a somewhat related vein, Susan Friedman discusses a form of feminist theory and practice she describes as “geopolitical thinking”. As Friedman explains, such thinking “must be attentive to complex questions of power and hybridizing forms of transculturation in the context of empire and postcoloniality” (112). She thus, like Kaplan, stresses the importance of locality to ensure a grounding in specific material conditions that nevertheless still allow for coalitions beyond their own boundaries. Both Friedman and Kaplan envision transnational feminism as distinct from “global” feminism, which, in Kaplan and Grewal’s terms equals “a kind of Western cultural imperialism” that has “elided the diversity of women’s agency in favor of a universalized Western model of women’s liberation that celebrates individuality and modernity” (Scattered Hegemonies 17).

Yet, in contrast to Kaplan, Friedman also acknowledges the importance of going beyond a mere critique of hegemonic structures, or “tracking the effects of western conquest, imperialism, and dominance of non-western others”, since that would ultimately just create a “Eurocentric assumption that no other parts of the globe have engaged in such geopolitical activities” (112). Instead of merely dwelling on the negative effects of hierarchical power structures or simply on the West as the standard of comparison, such geopolitical thinking would also focus on the question of transnationality at home rather than only on transnational spaces elsewhere. I want to follow Friedman’s idea, but also add another element into the discussion: while I agree with Friedman that transnational feminism should not be limited to a narrative of east versus west, or anti-colonial locality versus imperial globalism, I also believe that a form(ul)ation of a transnational feminist consciousness should entail not just a “here” and a “there”, but an “elsewhere” (to borrow from Trinh T. Minh-ha), a space where not only present and historical forms of inequality are critiqued, but where new possibilities can be tested out and developed.

Such a “geopolitical” space would thus not just be ethnographic, but also imaginative, allowing us to read transnational feminist texts as something more than just transparent sights of information retrieval. For, I agree with Peter Hitchcock’s assessment that “as long as culture engages in imaginative processes, the marginalization of the literary or its reduction to sociological method seriously underestimates the value of the literary for knowledge” (Hitchcock 9).

In her book At the Heart of Freedom Drucilla Cornell outlines a concept of an “imaginary domain” as an alternative space with transformative potential:  “The imaginary domain is the space of the “as if” in which we imagine who we might be if we made ourselves our own end and claimed ourselves as our own person” (Cornell 8).  This space of the “as if” allows us to consider different possibilities by changing not just our ideas but the method by which we conceive and gather them.

While I thus want to make a plea for a form of critical (or “geopolitical”) imagination as an important element of sociopolitical transformation, I argue that transnational feminist practices that engage such forms of “transgressive imagiNation”, as Hitchcock calls them (9), do not necessarily escape or deny reality. As Cornell suggests, “[t]he demand that each of us have our imaginary domain protected as a matter of moral and legal right does not turn on an appeal to our likeness to other women” (10). The “imaginary domain” does not seek to reduce experience to one common denominator. Rather, the imaginary becomes an important tool of resistance. As Pieterse and Parekh explain in their introduction to The decolonization of imagination, the process of colonization involves a reshaping of people’s consciousness, and thus any attempt at decolonization has to include the imaginary as well: “Colonialism evolved a new consciousness out of a subtle mixture of the old and new; decolonization has to follow the same route. It requires not the restoration of a historically continuous and allegedly pure precolonial heritage, but an imaginative creation of a new form of consciousness and way of life” (Pieterse and Parekh 3). According to Pieterse and Parekh, decolonization does not have to come completely from outside colonial discourse: Rather than denying the existence of “the old”, engaging critically through the use of the imaginary with what is “already at hand” becomes an important aspect of “decolonizing the mind”.

The realm of imagination, especially in a transnational and transcultural frame, does in my view present alternative forms of understanding ourselves in relation to the world(s) around us. Rather than viewing particular experiences and perspectives as ends in themselves, the transnational offers a more interactive sense of identity, what I call a relational subjectivity. In this way, imagination becomes an important tool for conceptualizing different possibilities, especially within the realm of feminist discourse.

I am proposing the work of Hélène Cixous and Gloria Anzaldúa as instances of “transgressive imagiNations” that foster a transformative engagement with the world. Both of these women can be placed within multiple national, cultural and linguistic spheres, and both of them have been active both as poets/fiction writers and as “theorists”. In this way, they challenge traditional social and conceptual boundaries, and they deliberately employ imagination to envision potential spaces of feminist theorizing(3) and praxis. 


Anzaldúa's Borderlands

In her famous book Borderlands/La Frontera, Chicana poet and theorist Gloria Anzaldúa seeks to give expression to the heterogeneity of mestiza identity, an identity that is rooted in geographical, cultural, sexual and gendered borderlands. Through her concept of the “mestiza consciousness” she tries to create a homeplace for those socially and politically displaced. As Anzaldúa explains, this consciousness is located both within and apart from several locations:

As a mestiza I have no country, my homeland cast me out; yet all countries are mine because I am every woman’s sister or potential lover. (As a lesbian I have no race, my own people disclaim me; but I am all races because there is the queer of me in all races.) I am cultureless because, as a feminist, I challenge the collective cultural/religious male-derived beliefs of Indo-Hispanics and Anglos; yet I am cultured because I am participating in the creation of yet another culture, a new story to explain the world and our participation in it, a new value system with images and symbols that connect us to each other and to the planet. (Anzaldúa 102-103)

In this “locational” re-reading of Woolf’s claim, the category of “woman” is particularized into a “mestiza”: the woman not only as sexualized but also racialized body. Taking part in multiple specific locations of identity the mestiza transgresses them, both by rejecting certain aspects and by forging connections among and through these various “borderlands”. Anzaldúa questions the fixity and naturalness of formations of identity as well as the boundaries between them. 

Like the issue of identity formation among Chicanos in general, the conceptualization of female Chicana identities is closely linked to the idea of borderlands. In “Una lucha de fronteras/A Struggle of Borders” Anzaldúa writes,

Because I, a mestiza,
continually walk out of one culture
and into another,
because I am in all cultures at the same time,
alma entre dos mundos, tres, cuatro,
me zumba la cabeza con lo contradictorio.
estoy norteada por todas las voces que me hablan
simultanamente. (99)

Woman is associated closely with that “vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary” (25). Female identity is positioned as a borderland in itself, as a space of the abject, or as Anzaldúa describes the interstitial space of the borderland elsewhere, as the residence of “the squint-eyed, the perverse, the queer, the troublesome, the mongrel, the mulato, the half-breed, the half dead” (25).  The mestiza woman becomes a border crosser, someone living in and defining herself through multiple lines of subjectivity. In addition, she serves as a crossroads by herself, her body representing a “bridge” to communicate between various positionalities. The split experienced by the colonizing impact of European cultures on the Americas is for Anzaldúa not an abstract matter, but a very immediate physical experience: the border between the United States and Mexico is felt as an “open wound” that “[runs] down the length of my body/staking fence rods in my flesh” (24).

The “bridging” Anzaldúa describes as the work of la mestiza is, then, one of recognizing and naming the wound, and eventually healing it not only through an exterior but through an interior change, a change of consciousness. To achieve this, it is not enough to reverse conventional notions of “good” and “bad”, “superior” and “inferior” in a way that renders the ostracized, displaced, marginal as the ideal. Rather, as Anzaldúa states, moving towards a mestiza consciousness means to “break down the subject-object duality that keeps her a prisoner and to show in the flesh and through the images in her work how duality is transcended” (102). Counterhegemonic tactics are an important “step towards liberation from cultural domination” (100). Yet, they should never be seen as ends in themselves, because such reversals eventually “[lock] one into a duel of oppressor and oppressed; locked in mortal combat, like the cop and the criminal, both are reduced to a common denominator of violence” (100). Crossing borders is then a necessary step towards facilitating dialogue among different locations. But crossing alone will not help to shift or diminish any borders.  It may at times even help to reinforce them.

For instance, the opposition between “white” and “non-white” and “victimizer” vs. “victimized” sometimes appears rather fixed and unchangeable in Anzaldúa’s account. Although the author maintains that “[t]o live in the Borderlands means knowing […] that denying the Anglo inside you/ is as bad as having denied the Indian or Black” (216), there is, as Friedman observes, rather little elaboration given on the hybrid nature or the border crossings of white society: “the categories of white and Anglo remain largely monolithic, unexamined, and morally condemned” (Friedman 94). Thus, while the boundaries between “Mexican”, “Indian” and “mestiza” shift and collide, the borders between these groups and “white society” are not that easily relativized. Moreover, while Anzaldúa’s critique of western colonialism is well justified, and while she does not shy away from criticizing oppressive aspects within Mexican culture, it is interesting that the “native” indigenous cultures (such as the Aztecs) become at times idealized, rather than critiqued, for their views on the status of women. 

In an essay reconsidering the transnationality of Chicana/o identity, Angie Chabram-Dernersesian warns of tendencies among Chicana/o writers to essentialize mestizaje and to turn it into a static category opposed to other forms of Latina/o identity formation (rather than being put into dialogue with them). According to Chabram-Dernersesian,

[i]t is ironic that, although we live in a period that prizes the multiplicity of identities and charts border crossings with borderless critics, there should be such a marked silence around the kinds of divergent ethnic pluralities that cross gender and classed subjects within the semantic orbit of Chicana/o. So powerful is the hegemonic reach of dominant culture that fixed categories of race and ethnicity continue to shape the production of social identities within the alternative sector. (269)

What ultimately saves Borderlands from becoming “locked” in a scenario, like the one outlined above, of an essentialist “here” vs. a “there”, is Anzaldúa’s insistence on a space beyond, a space where experience and knowledge meet with the imaginary. Because, as she explains, “[n]othing happens in the “real” world, unless it first happens in the images in our heads” (109). These “images” represent to Anzaldúa, “a bridge between evoked emotion and conscious knowledge” (91). By creating such imaginary spaces, Anzaldúa allows for forgotten and repressed history to be remembered.  She creates such spaces through language, using different “symbols” and “myths” to challenge those that would render mestizas invisible and non-existent.

The conceptualization of a feminist consciousness is, to Anzaldúa, intricately tied to the development of an alternative way of reading and writing, which is, like mestiza identity, located in a borderland space:   

Writing produces anxiety. Looking inside myself and my experience, looking at my conflicts, engenders anxiety in me. Being a writer feels very much like being a Chicana, or being queer – a lot of squirming, coming up against all sorts of walls. Or its opposite: nothing defined or definite, a boundless, floating state of limbo where I kick my heels, brood, percolate, hibernate and wait for something to happen. (94)

In Anzaldúa’s rendition, writing is not a safe space, but a place of indeterminacy that allows for change at the cost of uncertainty and anxiety. Writing the mestiza self (in some ways like writing the queer self) means first of all engaging with a history of trauma and oppression. Since mestiza history is one that is usually not recognized within official US historical discourse, Anzaldúa employs both “scholarly” and creative forms to create room for such histories (and herstories) to be re-membered and told. Thus, the mestiza cannot be conceptualized within conventional academic discourse. She also challenges the western idea of knowledge as a scientifically measurable concept by deliberately using “subjective” modes of inquiry, such as poetry or testimonials, as a means of transmitting knowledge. “[C]reating a new mythos,” Anzaldúa explains (102), will help create a new consciousness. 

It is only through this “elsewhere” of the imaginary space that the transnational mestiza consciousness can be thought. This includes Aztlán as a central point of reference within Chicano nationalist imagination. Like other aspects of Chicana/o history and identity, Laura Elisa Pérez reminds us that “Aztlán’s “existence” as a nation goes against “reason”; unauthorized, its discourse has the status of fiction” (Pérez 19). Thus, to conceptualize a Chicana feminist consciousness through the imaginary is not merely indulging in an ideal fantasy but also becomes a way of resisting the dominant society’s perception of minority members’ “reality” as mere “fiction”. That this resistance has a “feminine” stance is intentional. The invocation of the “Shadow-Beast” (Anzaldúa 39) becomes more than a recognition or resistance to sociocultural displacement. It is the racialized and sexed body of “the maligned and abused indigenous woman” (Alarcón 67) that serves as the focal point of a critical engagement with a racist and sexist colonial history but also with forging a critical present in which the racially, culturally and sexually oppressed mestiza “has gone from being the sacrificial goat to becoming the officiating priestess at the crossroads” (Anzaldúa 102).

The displaced serves as a mediator between different places, rather than as an ostracized “other”. In Anzaldúa’s words, the mestiza “has a plural personality” and she “operates in a pluralistic mode – nothing is thrust out, the good the bad and the ugly, nothing rejected, nothing abandoned” (101). In this context, multiculturalism is not a fancy fashion statement but rather an immanent tool for survival in the borderlands. Anzaldúa’s Chicana/mestiza feminist consciousness employs the underground mode of rasquachismo. As Pérez explains, discussing Ybarra-Frausto: “[t]o be rasquache is to posit a bawdy, spunky consciousness, to seek to subvert and turn the ruling paradigms upside down. It is a witty, irreverent, and impertinent posture that recodes and moves outside established boundaries” (Pérez 42).

While the mestiza consciousness may at first resemble other postcolonial idealizations of those “in-between” the lines, Anzaldúa does not simplistically revert hierarchies or universalize difference through a reverence of the oppressed. Rather, she seeks to take all of her sides into equal (and equally important) consideration. To reject or abandon nothing is a premise difficult to live by, but it is an important point of departure from which a critical transnational feminism can be conceptualized.


Cixous' Exilic Energies

Somewhat similar to Anzaldúa, the French Algerian poet and feminist critic Hélène Cixous traverses boundaries of many types in her writing as she tries to conceptualize and reread notions of identity and the way they intersect with questions of nationality and gender. In a rereading of her own name, Cixous reveals not only the various “routes” that make up her “roots” but also the contradictions and stereotypical assumptions connected to sociocultural spaces of these “rootprints”:

My tumults were at the very most concentrated under a name, and not just any name! Cixous – itself a tumultuous, indocile name. That, a “name”? This bizarre, barbarous word, so poorly        borne by the French tongue, this was “my” “name.” An impossible name. A name to put outside at night. A name which no one ever knew how to spell and which was me. […] one of those foreign, unswallowable, unclassifiable  words. […] I could have been called Hélène; I would have been beautiful, and unique, the only one. But I was Cixous. (Cixous 1991: 25-26)

A feeling of displacement, of “unhomeliness” is intricately tied to notions of gender and ethnicity: The family name “Cixous” interrupts both ideas of ethnic/racial purity and a  “stable” gender identity promised by the name “Hélène”. “Home” becomes an impossible place in the sense that no particular space can ever be occupied or claimed as “one’s own”. There are no particular sides to choose, since her name puts her simultaneously on many different sides and apart from them all. Cixous’ feminist consciousness displays an “exilic energy”(4) that not only bears witness to the writer’s own multiple displacements. But this “exilic energy” also refers to a questioning of geographical or cultural essentialisms, and in Eva Karpinsky’s words, it provides an opportunity to “break the frame and step out of any discourse of containment” (Karpinsky 19). For Cixous, this includes questioning essentialist notions of gender.

Cixous does not believe in a strict opposition between men and women, a “feminine” identity (like identity in general) is always a “border” identity reaching out to and being touched by an “other”. Her concept of a “vatic bisexuality” is related to this fluid understanding of gender. In her own words, such a form of sexuality would be “each one’s location in self […] of the presence […] of both sexes, nonexclusion either of the difference or of one sex, and from this “self-permission,” multiplication of the effects of the inscription of desire, over all parts of my body and the other body” (Cixous 1986: 314). Bisexuality, in Cixous’ understanding, is thus not meant to eliminate difference but to respectfully engage with it.

Explaining Deleuzian philosophy and its possible implications for feminist theories and practice, Tamsin Lorraine remarks, “[b]ecause I present myself in terms of my engagements with the world, rather than in terms of an identity I maintain as the self-same, my boundaries can shift without the risk of self-annihilation” (Lorraine 193). Likewise, for Cixous, crossing or shifting boundaries does not equal annihilating the self altogether, but rather shift the focus more towards a relational aspect of selfhood than on an idea of identity as solipsistic. Moreover, not only will the “feminine” always be touched by the “masculine” (and vice versa), but other areas, such as the processes of writing and reading, will equally engender each other, and philosophy and poetry cannot be considered two separate entities (although Cixous does claim to favor poetry over philosophy, since the former is, in her eyes, less constricted by laws).

In her famous essay “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Cixous explains writing as an ethical encounter with the “other”:

To admit 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 – to admit this is first to want the two, as well as both, the ensemble of the one and the other, not fixed in  sequences of struggle and expulsion or some other form of death but infinitely dynamized by   an incessant process of exchange from one subject to another. (Cixous 1986: 314) 

In this form of “feminine” writing, there are no hierarchies between the “I” and the “you”, and both sides are allowed subject positions. As an activity both within and outside the constraints of the “masculine” Symbolic Cixous’ writing both demonstrates and eludes reason. Writing then becomes a process of border crossing, and a form of a critical shifting of boundaries. To Cixous, it is the space where actual change can take place: “[…] writing is precisely the very possibility of change, the space that can serve as springboard for subversive thought, the precursory movement of a transformation of social and cultural structures”(5) (Cixous 1986: 311). Thus, when Cixous locates her feminist consciousness within writing and text, it is not to avoid praxis, but it rather springs from an understanding that the written text itself is the locus where gender is manifested and can be deconstructed.
One typical gesture of “feminine” writing is, according to Cixous, the idea of flying (voler): “Flying is woman’s gesture – flying in language and making it fly” (Cixous 1986: 316). Since the French word “voler” means both flying and stealing, the act of flying becomes a double-gesture: it hints at the “illegitimacy” of a “feminine” writing, as it stands outside the symbolic order of the (masculine) text, the space to write is thus, according to the law, “stolen”, taken away. Writing as écriture feminine is thus a form of “civil disobedience”, of triggering unrest and questioning existing orders: “It’s no accident: women take after birds and robbers, just as robbers take after women and birds. They (illes) go by, fly the coop, take pleasure in jumbling the order of space, in disorienting it, in changing around the furniture, dislocating things and values, breaking them all up, emptying structures, and turning propriety upside down” (Cixous 1986: 316). In its second meaning, voler alludes to the possibility of flying as a form of escape from restrictive boundaries: “for centuries we’ve been able to possess anything only by flying; we’ve lived in flight, stealing away, finding, when desired, narrow passageways, hidden crossovers” (316).

The double gesture of “voler” as flying and stealing links women to a space of lawlessness, reflecting the notion of woman standing outside the Law of the Father. What Cixous seems to suggest is that, since woman does not exist within the masculine order of the Symbolic, a “feminine” consciousness can only be conceptualized outside the Symbolic’s legal premises. Discussing Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of lines of flight, Tamsin Lorraine reminds us that “[t]o think and write in terms of recognizable unities is to close off movement along lines of flight; it is to conform to a code of dominant utterances. Instead of responding to subtle shifts in terrain, such thinking conforms to an already established conceptual grid and so cannot introduce genuine novelty” (Lorraine 187). To suggest imagination as a starting point for feminist theorizing becomes in this way not just a form of escape, but an active challenge to the logic of phallogocentrism. I want to argue that flying hints at a move “beyond” conventional boundaries. It provides a space of transgressive imagiNations, a borderland where different modes of being can be envisioned and tested.  While those crossovers Cixous mentions may be hidden, they still open up new, creative possibilities. The seemingly utopian activity of flying enables transformative spaces of encounter.

Such encounters are presented not merely on an abstract, mental plane: Cixous’ “feminine” writing also takes into account the body, not as a site of exploitation, but as an active participant in a feminist transformational politics. As Cixous claims, “[a] woman without a body, dumb, blind, can’t possibly be a good fighter. She is reduced to being the servant of the militant male, his shadow” (Cixous 1986: 312). Writing (and reading), as a physical, sensual act does, in Cixous’ view, recuperate the female body so as to encourage the recognition of a “whole woman” (312). Speaking and writing becomes a way for women to “physically [materialize] what [they] are thinking” (312). The borders between physical (oral) speech and (written) text as well as borders between theory and practice are thus relativized. As Cixous claims, “I live in writing. I read to live” (Cixous 1991: 20).

Although she favors transgressions of boundaries, Cixous is quick to point out that her position is not one of being “in-between”, because as she explains, “[t]he between, the entre, is the neither-one-nor-the-other. I am not of the neither-one-nor-the-other. I am rather on the side of with, in spite of all the difficulties and confusions this may bring about” (Andermatt 136). In order to keep a form of balance between these two “borders”, movement is necessary to prevent positions from stagnating and essentializing: “It has to be moving, has to be in movement. As soon as you stop, that is it” (136).  According to Friedman, such openness is a crucial element of what she terms “migratory feminism”: “As a border-crossing activity, migratory feminism involves resisting the tendency to fix, schematize, organize, taxonomize, and stabilize the fragmentation and fluidity of thinking and living. Even theories of transience and movement” (Friedman 102). By being in constant movement, Cixous’ version of hybridity is not a fixed or static concept, but rather by remaining “mobile” retains an openness to different approaches.

While the idea of “withness” as distinguished from “being in-between” may sound like mere indulgence in wordplay, it actually problematizes important questions of agency, since Cixous’ gesture does posit the “I” not as victim of circumstance, dependent on the whims and woes of either side, as it may be the case when being “in-between”. By positing herself on the side of “with”, Cixous also transcends the binary logic of an “either-or” that is still implicitly present with “in-betweenness”. Boundaries are transgressed not only between masculine and feminine, white and non-white, but also between reading and writing, theory and praxis: both activities engender and determine each other. Transnational feminist praxis as envisioned by Cixous requires a different way of writing and reading, of conceptualizing reality, with the help of the imaginary. Cixous frequently postulates dreams as a utopian space of becoming where a feminist consciousness can develop as a form of philosophical praxis:

And from dream to dream you wake up more and more conscious, more and more woman. The more you let yourself dream, the more you let yourself be worked through, the more you let yourself be disturbed, pursued, threatened, loved, the more you write, the more you escape the censor, the more the woman in you is affirmed, discovered, and invented. (Cixous 1991: 55)

Dreaming is here intrinsically linked to writing (and reading), and by this does not merely put women into a role of passive receptors. While dreaming may be viewed as a form of escape, it also actively encourages change by allowing for possibilities beyond atrophied conventions. Dreams also help present the self in relation, as being becomes a voyage, rather than a static, fixed territory:

Am I dreaming? No. These are my lives that come to me, all the ones that lead me everywhere,             into the regions, lands, countrysides, cities, cultures, nations, where my being has been touched, a single time suffices, to the quick, struck for life – to all the places from which a love letter has been mailed and then received so powerfully by my body that it could not respond. […] What happens outside happens inside. I myself am the earth, everything that happens, the lives that live me in different forms, the voyage, the voyager, the body of travel and the spirit of travel, and all of this with such suppleness that I go in and out, in and out, I am in my body and my body is in me […] (Cixous 1991: 47)

The travels Cixous embarks on cannot easily be boxed into either “fiction” or “reality”. Rather they take place in the borderlands between and beyond such categories.

Cixous’ work has been heavily criticized for essentializing and universalizing women, and for espousing theories that for the most part seem removed from any specific problematization of, for instance, the issue of racial difference and, instead, focus too much on mere sexual difference. Some critics read Cixous’ work as perpetuating precisely that which she seeks to put into question and, in this way, maintaining rather than relativizing hierarchies of race, gender, and class and so on(6). While I consider this criticism important and don’t agree with the way Cixous sometimes rather simplistically retains conventional binary oppositions (albeit altering their hierarchical implications), I still believe that her work on “feminine writing” has something to offer to contemporary conceptualizations of sexuality and gender, in that it does not simply analyze but actually seeks to put into practice a deconstruction of conventional norms such as “feminine” and “masculine”. Moreover, despite her movement “beyond” particular sides, I find a “locational” feminist practice within Cixous’ writing, rather than a mere attempt at universalizing “woman”.  Apart from the fact that her multiple strands of identity (Jewish, Algerian, French, German, woman) are always already implicated in her writing, Cixous, like Anzaldúa, also points towards a space “elsewhere”, a space both within and outside the “masculine” order of the Symbolic, hence its frequent postulation by various critics as “fiction” or “utopia”.



I think it is precisely this space of the literary as transgressive imagiNation and subversive borderlands, a poetry that is (in Audre Lorde’s words) “not a luxury” but a tool of “survival” that will eventually allow for actual change to happen. The direction that Anzaldúa and Cixous point to in different ways is that actual change cannot come out of mere opposition to the status quo. I believe that the imaginary is helpful not only in coming to terms with past and present spaces, but that it also offers different possibilities for the future, precisely because it dares to go beyond conventional notions of acceptability or norm. Imagination becomes a threshold to different possibilities and a bridge between various forms of reality.

The borderlands of transgressive imagiNations, such as those Anzaldúa or Cixous offer, invite us to foster coalitions and envision spaces outside our usual paradigms. The spaces Anzaldúa envisions are very localized and specific in their focus on Chicana/mestiza identity. But by allowing for multiplicity, and “developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity” (101), this mestiza consciousness offers the possibility to those of us who are not personally invested in mestizaje to reconsider preconceived notions of identity and alterity, because ultimately, “[r]igidity means death” (Anzaldúa 101) not only to those not able to hold on to monolithic constructions of reality.   By allowing not only for a crossing but also a re-thinking of various boundaries, the literary as transgressive imagiNation finally may provide us with a chance to see both through eagle and serpent eyes.


1 It is interesting to note that Rudy, who in the statement above is very critical of hegemonic representations of women, is apparently also not free from such moves. In the same article she writes: “We are not afraid to intervene in blatant cruelties and injustices here at home; why, then should we back off unjust situations abroad?” (1052).  It is never explained whom exactly this “we” refers to, who is included or excluded, and on what knowledge her statement is based. Do injustices in the United States really always receive more attention, and if yes, in what context?
2 Shohat’s work, like that of Kaplan or Grewal, very much focuses on the development of a critical transnational feminist consciousness. In an article entitled “Area Studies, Transnationalism, and the Feminist Production of Knowledge,” Shohat stresses the importance of a “relational multicultural feminism” which “has to be situated historically and geographically as a set of contested practices” (1271)
3 I like Susan Friedman’s preference of using the gerund verb form (theorizing) rather than the noun (theory), as this suggests a more open-ended, less stagnant approach to thinking that is involved more with experimentation than dogmatization.
4 I am borrowing this term from Eva C. Karpinsky. See Karpinsky, Eva C. “Choosing Feminism, Choosing Exile: Towards the Development of a Transnational Feminist Consciousness“ (19).
5 Emphasis in original.
6 Apart from Spivak’s well-known essay “French Feminism in an International Frame”, another interesting piece that criticizes Cixous’ project (especially in relation to the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector) as a rather neo-colonial act of self-aggrandizement is by Rosemary Arrojo, “Interpretation as Love: Hélène Cixous, Clarice Lispector and the Ambivalence of Fidelity”.  By contrast, Drucilla Cornell, in her book Beyond Accommodation. Ethical Feminism, Deconstruction, and the Law argues that “[t]he attempt in Cixous is not to find a universal capacity by which we can identify women as a designatable group. Her writing instead gives body to the utopian language of the imaginary relationship to the phallic mother. Fantasy is a literary device. Affirmed by women, this fantasy is rewritten, not just appropriated” (Cornell 1999:  64).

5.4. Women’s Performances in Transnational Migration

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For quotation purposes:
Maria-Theresia Holub: Seeing Through Eagle and Serpent Eyes: Transnational Feminist Practices.- . In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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