Adel Abdessemed, Hélène, 2016
A MEETING WITH HELENE CIXOUS
By Armelle Leturcq
Hélène Cixous, the writer who disrupted feminist thought in the 1970s, notably with her legendary text, The Laugh of the Medusa, has taken a close interest in a handful of artists with whom she feels an affinity: Luc Tuymans, Roni Horn, and especially Adel Abdessemed, whom she has followed for several years. She recently published her second book on the artist: Les Sans Arche d’Adel Abdessemed.
How did you meet Adel Abdessemed?
In 2013, I was in contact with Luc Tuymans at BNF. I wrote a book about him, Le relevé de la mort. A friend, Donatien Grau, brought Adel into the room. Adel wanted to meet me at the time. And a lot of people close to me insisted that I meet Adel. Finally I saw him, and I found him convincing, delicious, and talented. He wanted me to write about him. I think I understand him. I wrote my first book about him, Insurrection de la poussière, which covers the full breadth of his work. Afterwards, I wanted to write a book collecting all of Adel’s animals. Which led to this second book, Les Sans Arche…
Did you have a shared history related to Algeria?
We had no shared history, except the mystery of our relationship to our native land. About Algeria, I always say that I never lost it because I never had it. From my earliest childhood, I was anti-colonialist to the core. Today I oppose the current government policy in Algeria. But It remains the motherland. As for Adel, he’s an absolute rebel. You can’t mention Algeria around him. He even rejects the Arabic language. It has become a source of great strength for him. I think he is the only one who resists so radically. Adel has leapt beyond the influence of this country and he has an impassioned sense of liberty.
He went through a tragic experience there, when the director of the Beaux-Arts school in Algiers was murdered by Islamists while he was a student.
The way he tore himself away from Islam in such a pure and radical way is extremely rare. It’s his independence from Algeria. He is a child of Art! I know his native country well. I see how his jubilant ability to remove himself from that country represented a power for him. I couldn’t help but like him.
Have you gone back to Algeria?
My mother exercised her profession as a midwife in Algeria. I went there until 1972, out of loyalty to History. Then my mother was chased out of the country in 24 hours. End of Algeria. Beginning with the dark years in the 1990s, going there was out of the question. When the first Algerian intellectuals and artists fled the country to save their necks, I met with them in Paris. We became friends. I went back on several occasions as soon events permitted it.
Things haven’t gotten any better there?
There was an intense cultural life that seems to be deteriorating. Movie theaters have closed. Books have trouble surviving. But there are still a great many writers, artists, and intellectuals. Adel and I never talk about it. He has no responsibility to account for the state of this country today, he is French.
Why do you think he approached you?
I think he felt that I might understand him. But that’s up to him to say.
How do you view his relationship to women and the feminine?
He is absolutely not a misogynist, which is a crucial trait for me, of course. He adores his mother. He was fortunate to marry the love of his life, Julie, and he even has four daughters. He is surrounded by women, though destiny finally gave him a little boy! He is a tender spirit.
We are publishing an interview with Adel conducted by Lise Guéhenneux. She “acts” in the video titled Lise. You actually mention this piece in Les Sans Arche.
It’s a very beautiful and very simple video, as is often the case with Adel. He is drawn to the internal and external beauty of a naturally subversive image. He doesn’t seek out subversion, but he doesn’t inhibit expressions of great liberty… It’s a video where we see Lise nursing. Then we realize that the child is a small pig. The content jumps to a recent topic of debate centering on speciesism. It also disrupts the clichéd image of the virgin and child. What’s beautiful is that Lise herself is not a particularly maternal woman. She has an unadorned beauty. It produces images that appear like nature itself, life itself.
The video faced censorship…
It was misunderstood. I’m not part of the art world, even though I have written books with artists I like. There is a lot of rumor within this microsociety, which I would not have known had my friends not warned me about it. It’s incredible how many grotesque and ridiculous scandals have targeted Adel. Now I am taking a stand. It’s a worthy cause for me to celebrate his work and try to get people to understand its truth.
Few artists take risks in the way he does. Today’s art tries hard not to disturb anyone.
Adel doesn’t try to “take” risks, he lives in risk like a fish in water. Adel is a primal, passionate, and instinctual force. A sure instinct drives him swiftly to great heights and depths.
At the same time he is also reflective and literary.
Yes, on that note, he often calls me up and says something like “tell me about Joyce.” And I do it.
In your correspondence, it is evident that there is no hierarchy between you. There is intimacy.
There is no reason for us to have a hierarchy. Developments yes, he’s an artist and I consider myself to be an artist in literature. Adel has the desire to write but it is not absolute. He has a taste for words, but that is not his most familiar tool. I think we have entered a very affectionate phase. He knows he can trust me.
You manage to avoid the banal position of the art critic in contemporary art: the artist on one side and the critic who is there to justify or legitimate the artwork. Your writing is much more intimate.
I’m not an art critic. I speak about art in my language as a poet. I can place Adel among all sorts of inspired company. As soon as we enter the marvelous world of creation, we discover gestations that mock the current of the times. In Les Sans Arche, I compare Adel to Fabrice from The Charterhouse of Parma, as we see him discover the world and wonder whether what he saw was really a battle. Adel embodies purity, desire, the striking encounter. Like when he produced his work called Décor, for example.
With your landmark text The Laugh of the Medusa, you introduced this idea of “écriture feminine,” or women’s writing, of not rejecting the feminine mode. It’s true that we are almost at the point of blaming women for being women… or always pointing out their status as women.
It’s a deviation. It’s a big problem because this question is not properly considered today, even though there are some venues for intelligent discussion on the topic, like the curriculum I started in 1974 at Paris 8, a doctorate in women’s studies where we also added “gender studies.” It has produced some necessary critical work in the field. We have entered a queer period, and that’s wonderful. It’s a logical offspring of my thought on sexual difference, but it can occasionally result in repression. Queer theory can function in both radical and restrictive ways, so it can be complicated to achieve the right benefits.
For me, queer theory can remain stuck on the clichés of highly sexualized representations of women and men.
It can work that way when it is not well thought out. It would be interesting to go back to the first days of the queer movement. I remember the Deleuzian era! Both masculine and feminine movements borrowed a line of thought from Deleuze that was suited to the times: the “becoming-” something. People would tell me, “I’m becoming-butterfly, becoming-pig!” Queer and trans thought has always existed. It was already there in Ovid! It’s always marginal and always present. Now, however, it has grown rigid, not playful, too serious. People have theorized it in a way that issues prescriptions, and which can sometimes neutralize difference.
We are always obliged to label an identity and arrange people into categories… We no longer imagine the existence of an undefinable gender.
Except among artists, since genius couldn’t care less about having a stable identity.
But despite this, do you think women have made progress?
I think we have taken a step, but no more. There have always been avant-gardes, but you also have to look at what is happening for the majority of women who are still looking, who can’t quite find their bearings. There was a strong movement after ’68 marked by the Veil law. The abortion law gave women a sense of liberty with respect to their sex lives. But we no longer talk about that, we fail to grasp the extreme importance of this major step forward: women are now free to enjoy their own bodies. What’s happening now (Weinstein, #metoo) is also a break with the past. People finally seem to recognize violence that has always existed – harassment, rape – and has always been denied. But I’m concerned that it may be quickly forgotten. I’m wary of the backlash.
Yes, especially in the United States about fifteen years ago, people talked about sexual harassment and then it was forgotten.
Feminism continues to make progress in the United States. American women are more militant than French women. It’s women who are leading the fight against Trump and, in fact, the #metoo movement grew out of women’s disgust for Trump, which was transferred to Weinstein because Trump is untouchable for the moment. Mass movements of this type can become somewhat unpleasant when they go too far, but that’s a necessary step. It’s the same as the French Revolution. There is a moment of excess and it’s inevitable. We can try to deconstruct it, but we have to wait for the right moment. We need the “mes” of #metoo to form a “we” of solidarity.
What about feminism in France?
Feminism as it’s portrayed in media today is more superficial than it was in the 70s and 80s, when it was more analytic and mobilized broader swathes of people. That’s how time flows, there is a natural regression in History. One step forward, two steps back, and then forward again. But books and publications are always there, in a time that resists this back-and-forth.
Do you feel like no one listens to you in France?
When I see the trajectories taken by my thought, how it is received throughout the world, I see it progressing. But in an uneven way.
Were you expecting to cause such a stir with your text The Laugh of the Medusa?
No. That was back in 1975, a Beauvoirian moment, whereas I am miles apart from Simone de Beauvoir. I find her position limiting. She subordinates women to men in her title The Second Sex. I was asked to write an article for a special edition on Simone de Beauvoir in the review Arc, but at first I refused. But they said, “you have total freedom,” so I wrote that text. I couldn’t understand how women could suffer so much, how they could be their own enemies, and the enemies of other women. The text was a global success because it was immediately translated into English, and it became required reading at every American university. It was translated into every other language based on the English version. China is just discovering the text now. Ten years ago it was Korea. In 2017 I was asked for the rights to translate it into Faroese, a language spoken by 50,000 people.
You opened the floodgates on the topic of women’s writing.
That wasn’t my original plan. I was thinking that women were held hostage by a very old culture that they hadn’t managed to deconstruct. In 1974, I had already started the doctorate in Women’s Studies at Paris 8, a project that I had trouble establishing because the university didn’t find it worthwhile to talk about these issues. But I had the good fortune of creating Paris 8’s organizational chart and operating structure. So I had an immense level of freedom within the university that I had personally established. I thought: we absolutely need a philosophical, ethical, historical, sociological, and analytical approach to the theme of “women.” By chance there was an opening on the institutional level as they were redesigning the doctorate programs. So I slipped into that crack. The curriculum has gotten even stronger today.
What do you think about the veil?
On principle I am obviously against the veil. But how should we proceed in practice? They are everywhere at my university. It’s a state of things that we cannot regulate by force. We can’t remove the veil from women who are attached to them. Just like we can’t force Jewish men to remove the yarmulke. The veil never bothered me in Algeria. It has become a weapon, a political manifesto. It’s a gesture of violence or defiance in the face of French republicanism. There are veiled feminists! Women have come to my seminars and told me, “I’m very happy in a polygamist relationship.” At the same time, there is a movement of women rising up in Iran who are removing their veils at immense personal risk. At Paris 8, which is the most cutting-edge university in my view, there are racialized seminars, which are not open to white students. What should we think about that? In the early days of the MLF, our meetings were not open to men. Women had enough trouble getting their message out, so it was a necessary move at that time. You can’t skip any steps. In the United States, a lot of black feminists do not communicate with white feminists. Even in India, where the question of color is hugely important, I was once called a “white colonialist.” We need forums for a wider audience, where no one can monopolize the power of thought, where we can have true discussions, dialogue, interact, listen to each other. Antiracist “racialization” is a fundamentally violent movement, driven by the continuous violence perpetrated on African-Americans in the United States, a country where there is a very serious racial issue. When I was giving conferences at American universities fifty years ago, I always wondered: “Where are the black students?” And it continues to this day. It’s always the same question. Thus the double backlash. Blacks respond to violence by whites. When you are excluded, you come to enact the same exclusion in return, as a way to reignite your fire and restore your pride.