3rd January 2013 marks the tenth anniversary of the death of Monique Wittig, one of feminism’s – and lesbianism’s – key philosophers, writers and activists.
Wittig fought for women’s rights in her native France and was a foundational member of what was to become the MLF (Mouvement de Libération des Femmes). She co-organized the first action of the yet-to-be-named MLF at the University at Vincennes in May 1970 and wrote the manifesto circulated there, entitled ‘Pour un mouvement de libération des femmes’. She took part in the MLF’s first major public demonstration at the Arc de Triomphe later the same year, one of ten women who laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to remember ‘the one more unknown than the unknown soldier, his wife’.
After helping to shape the women’s movement in France, however, Wittig’s developing theory of the concept of ‘lesbian’ through her fiction and criticism was ultimately to lead to a split between her radical lesbian position, and what she saw as the (hetero-)feminist theories based on the idea of difference between women and men that many of her contemporaries were forwarding. Her most famous and contentious statement ‘lesbians are not women’, first made in a paper delivered at an MLA conference in 1978, is based upon the logic that ‘women’ only make sense in heterosexual systems of thought, related economically and politically to ‘men’. Because a lesbian is allocated a position outside of the heteronormative structure, she can use this position to disrupt that centre from the outside. The statement reclaims the historically well-worn negative connotations of lesbians as not ‘real’ women, faux men etc. and attempts to celebrate the strengths that originate from a conceptual position outside of the norms. Her ideas on the intertwined relationship between discourses (language; acts; social structures) and the material, real-life conditions of lesbians and women greatly influenced Judith Butler, a theorist whose 1990 Gender Trouble continues to shape feminist and queer thinking. Butler’s engaged critique of Wittig in that work is softened in her later writings where she comes to understand Wittig a little differently. Without Wittig the landscape of gender theory today might look very different yet she is sadly frequently left out of dominant feminist narratives.
As a creative writer, too, Wittig was radical. Her novels and plays are experimental and challenging in terms of language, form and content. Her first novel, L’opoponax (1964) won Frances’s Prix Médicis, one of the country’s most prestigious literary prizes. This novel was written entirely in the present tense and deconstructs many of the conventions associated with its subject matter, ostensibly the story of a childhood, by employing a distanced and impersonal narrator and having multiple characters that seem to flow into one another. Her most famous novel, perhaps, is her third novel, Le corps lesbien (1973). This book is remarkable in that it extends her play with what a novel form can look like and what it can be about. Wittig creates a new language and form to depict the lesbian body. Bodily boundaries are fluid, humans merging into mythical creatures and one another in this fantastical world. All of Wittig’s novels are available in English (and other) translations.
Sources and recommendations
Wittig’s novels are recommended! Find out about them, and more about Wittig, here: http://www.moniquewittig.com/
Many of Wittig’s key essays are collected in: Wittig, Monique, The Straight Mind and Other Essays (Boston: Beacon, 1992)
Epps, Brad and Jonathan Katz, ‘Monique Wittig: At the Crossroads of Criticism’, Special Issue of GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 13.4 (2007)
Shaktini, Namascar, ed., On Monique Wittig: Theoretical, Political and Literary Essays (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005)