Lesbianism and the Universal – By Eliah Aoina

It is clear that Monique Wittig’s project would be markedly different from other writers such as Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, and Helene Cixous, when she writes, “Women’s oppression results not from repression of the personal unconscious, but from very conscious political mechanisms which have alienated women from themselves and each other, and which have silenced women’s discourse” (Wittig 1981, p. 47). For Wittig, it is through a political regime of heterosexuality that the oppression of women originates. Thus unlike the other writers mentioned, her task is not to revalorise the maternal body, but to dismantle the heterosexual regime by universalising a lesbian perspective. The following questions arise: What is a lesbian perspective? What does it mean to universalise it? I interpret a lesbian as one who nullifies the categories of sex and gender. Since the lesbian takes the form of a minority, to universalise it means to displace the masculine as a necessary condition for articulating the universal. This paper sets out to demonstrate these points. Wittig’s idea of the lesbian can be conceived of more clearly, both as a subject position and an apparatus in her writing, after we understand how she operationalizes the concept of the universal. The analysis of the universal therefore precedes that of the lesbian. Through this course I attempt to shed greater light on the opening quotation and how it attends to Wittig’s political undertakings.

Both the concrete and singular universals of Hegel and Kierkegaard yield subjects that are at once situated and generalised. Hence both subjects occupy dual perspectives. For Kierkegaard it is sometimes lived as a contradiction or paradox, though for Hegel it is eventually achieved without conflict (Baumann 2011). When the particular and the universal are harmonious, one can speak from multiple positions. For instance, one may speak as both a lesbian and a woman. In this case the universal adopts the particular as a kind of specification, but this is not necessarily problematic for the universal. However when Wittig connects the two, she has every intention of creating conflict. This is signalled when she claims, “a lesbian is not a woman” (1980, p. 32). At this point Wittig might be read as preparing to put forward a standpoint epistemology, deeming that the social structure is fully understood only from the point of oppression. The act of universalising would then appear to imply legislating a single perspective. If this gratifies Wittig’s case, we would expect to see the reproduction of existing power dynamics, however with the roles of the oppressors and the oppressed reversed. In Paris-la-politique (1999), we realise that Wittig’s aims are the contrary. She writes, “Neither gods nor goddesses; neither masters nor mistresses” (p. 51). Thus the change she desires extends itself to the radical restructuring of the framework through which power relations are constituted. Let me deliberate for a further moment whether this interpretation is a viable one. After all, in The Mark of Gender (1985), Wittig appropriates the Marxist view that each new class must give its thoughts the form of universality and to represent its interest as the common interest. It would be imprudent to charge Wittig as having believed that this representation would be faithful for everyone. Yet it is entirely reasonable that she may hold her own interests as the “objective” interests of all, even if it is unclear to them. One may leap to the conclusion that she is pushing a marginal perspective which itself becomes authoritative over time. This it not Wittig’s point of representation – at least not entirely. A minority view that universalises itself represents a view, which, for the majority, is either partially or wholly obstructed. Certain positions become obscured and hidden; they are consequently inaccessible. Thus it is through representation that Wittig is able to usher in new positions, reorienting the world and proposing new interests.

This is not an exceptional idea, nor is it new. It might be claimed that this is the goal of all writers: to prompt the imagination of readers and of a reality that does not yet exist. But Wittig is even more ambitious. For her, it is not only about what has been written, but how it has been written. In Les Guérillères, she sets up the world through the feminine subject, replacing the masculine universal pronouns he (il) and they (ils) with the feminine plural elles. It may be levelled against Wittig that, as an avant-garde novelist, she mistakes the reorganisation of language as the reorganisation of reality. It is essential to remember here that she is also a materialist whose fiction and theory are often entangled (Wallraven 2007). By co-opting language conventions, Wittig subsumes her story into a larger one about the way stories are told. She unsettles dominant conceptualisations of language and it is precisely this unsettling that Wittig’s enterprise rests upon. If her reader is challenged at every mention of a subject, it calls into question their pre-established modes of thinking. That the world can be reflected in the image of a feminine subject suggests that the feminine can be given the form of universality. This textual move has lasting effects of a politically consequential sort. Les Guérillères becomes performative insofar as it establishes for us this point: the universal is contingent upon presentation. To bear the quality of universality is to be presented in some way such that, strictly speaking, the universal does not come to exist independently of that presentation (Butler 2007). Though that which bears universality does not denote some accidental medium through which articulation becomes possible. Instead it constitutes a precondition for the existence of universality itself (Butler 2007). This speaks to the effects that Wittig seeks in unsettling her readers. The source of their discomfort originates from the tensions between the worlds of possibility. What was previously inconceivable now enters into the public imagination and, in its entrance, facilitates the possibility for its materialisation. We are suddenly made aware that the universal is not abstract and free-floating apart from any media, which means as well that the universal is not purely formal (Butler 2007).

The act of universalising a minority perspective becomes a material act inasmuch as it relates to the categories of sex. To bring the feminine to the fore as the absolute subject in place of the masculine is to assault the gendered presumption of universality. It disrupts our understanding of those basic categories of sex that have informed our way of being and experiencing the world. There is a fundamental disorientation through which we see that theories of sex, gender, and even culture, have never been formal. Rather, they are modes of knowing that act upon and impinge us to the effect of constraining our bodily lives (Butler 2007). Under this light, the relation between theory and the body is, for Wittig, analogous to that of theory and fiction: inextricable and insurmountable (Wallraven 2007). Theory is not some abstraction separate from the body; it is constantly in touch with it, impressing it, generating its contour, giving it form, making it intelligible on different levels, and thus giving rise to the category of sex. That the category derives, at least in part, from theory, is what Wittig wishes to reveal, and through its reveal problematize it along with all discourse that depends on it. Though it is not a single theory responsible for producing the category of sex. If it were, Wittig’s project would be simplified tenfold. Instead it is an inexhaustible set of theories birthed by the dogma that is heterosexual discourse. In heterosexual discourse the question of sex is always pertinent and, so long as it continues to be, places one sex in the economy of exchange for another. Here we begin to gain a clearer understanding of what it means to be the lesbian that Wittig speaks of. If the question of sex is one that is raised by heterosexual discourse (this is not to say exclusively, but principally, at any rate), and in being raised is shaped by it, then the category of woman is one that belongs to a heterosexual social contract. And by belonging to this contract, it serves to reinforce the presumptive place of heterosexuality at the base of our culture, along with the theories of sex that belie it. A lesbian, then, is not a woman who is sexually involved with another woman. Conceiving of a lesbian in this way inadvertently perpetuates heterosexual discourse. To be a lesbian one must extend themselves beyond the categories of sex, assaulting and nullifying them, rendering sex obsolete. Hence a lesbian is neither woman nor man; a lesbian is without sex and without gender, but remains human nonetheless.

Here is where I begin to draw away from Wittig’s ideas. Whereas other theorists might assert that it is a functionalist perspective of sex that holds women captive, Wittig insists that sex itself cannot be sanitised and must be made obsolete. But obsolete is a strong word. To do away with sex entirely means to forfeit any chance of reclaiming it, of furthering our understanding of the way it has been co-opted and abused by patriarchy. Abandoning sex almost seems to be reminiscent of Simone De Beauvoir’s analysis and attitude towards motherhood. By renouncing motherhood, both personally and intellectually, Beauvoir restricted the scope of her inquiry into women’s oppression. Having remained agitated by the trappings of maternity and thus dismissing it, the possibility of bearing its intellectual fruits eluded her. In a similar stroke, Wittig has done well to problematize the categories of sex, and in the process she has provided us with sophisticated instruments for scrutinising patriarchy. But that effort is inhibited insofar as anatomical difference persists despite the nullification of sex. Wittig has shown that there is no purity in the domains of theory and fiction, and of theory and the body; they interact on multiple levels to constitute a reality and a gendered experience. So long as anatomical differences exist, they will continue to act upon discourse and theory irrespective of whether they are understood as sexual categories. Gender, then, is perhaps an inevitable consequence of anatomical difference, whether or not that difference is deemed sexual. It follows that hetero[sexual] relationships endure in some way, and I am left unsure that the refusal of sex is necessarily liberating for the subject who emerges in its awake. Thus I take up this position: sex is a problematic category, but not inherently. And I am not convinced that the knowledge Wittig gives us by problematizing it is cause for its rejection. Rather, that knowledge is better suited to further critique heterosexual discourse and to understand its distorting effects. I agree with Wittig that the oppression of women derives from the conscious political mechanism that sex has become. But that it has become something in the first place suggests it is malleable and can be reworked.

For Wittig, it is through the problematic discourse of heterosexuality that the categories of sex and gender manifest. Thus she views the oppression of women as a consequence of these categories and her project is to render them obsolete. To do this, she attempts to universalise the perspective of a minority, namely, a lesbian perspective. In her attempt, Wittig disrupts the junction between the particular and the universal, and through this disruption, two points come into the clear. First, what appears to be a pre-condition for the existence of the universal is merely a vehicle for it: the masculine is only a presentation for the universal and not the universal itself. Second, sexual categories shape and are shaped by theory. Through these points we learn that Wittig’s lesbian is without sex and without gender. While Wittig’s project clearly has its merits, I remain unconvinced that sex and gender should be abandoned entirely. The alternative is perhaps to pose the question of sex beyond both heterosexual and lesbian discourse.

Works Cited

Baumann, C 2011, ‘Adorna, Hegel, and the concrete universal’, Philosophy Social Criticism, vol. 37, no. 1, pp. 73–94.

Butler, J 2007, ‘Wittig’s material practice: universalising a minority point of view’, A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 13, no. 4, pp. 519–33.

Wallraven, M 2007, A writing halfway between theory and fiction: meditating feminism from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, ZAA monograph series no. 5, Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg.

Wittig, M 1980, ‘The straight mind’, in Wittig M (ed.), The straight mind and other essays, Harvester, New York, pp. 21–32.

Wittig, M 1981, ‘One is not born a woman’, Feminist Issues, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 47–54.

Wittig, M 1985, ‘The mark of gender’, Feminist Issues, vol. 5, no. 2, pp. 3–12.

Wittig, M 1999, Paris-la-politique et autres histories, Editions P.O.L, Paris.

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