Monique Wittig

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Monique Wittig
Monique Wittig 1964.jpg
Wittig in 1964
Born (1935-07-13)July 13, 1935
Dannemarie, Haut-Rhin, France
Died January 3, 2003(2003-01-03) (aged 67)
Tucson, Arizona, United States
Occupation Author; feminist theorist; activist
Nationality French
Subject Lesbianism; feminism
Website
www.moniquewittig.com/index.html

Monique Wittig (July 13, 1935 – January 3, 2003) was a French author and feminist theorist[1] who wrote about overcoming socially enforced gender roles and who coined the phrase "heterosexual contract". She published her first novel, L'Opoponax, in 1964. Her second novel, Les Guérillères (1969), was a landmark in lesbian feminism.[2]

Biography[edit]

Monique Wittig was born in 1935 in Dannemarie in Haut-Rhin, France. In 1950 she moved to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. In 1964 she published her first novel, L'Opoponax which won her immediate attention in France. After being translated into English, Wittig achieved international recognition. She was one of the founders of the Mouvement de Libération des Femmes (MLF) (Women's Liberation Movement). In 1969, she published what is arguably her most influential work, Les Guerilleres, which is today considered a revolutionary and controversial source for feminist and lesbian thinkers around the world. Its publication is also considered to be the founding event of French feminism.[3][4]

Wittig earned her Ph.D. from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales,[1] after completing a thesis named "Le Chantier littéraire"[5] Wittig was a central figure in lesbian and feminist movements in France. In 1971, she was a founding member of the Gouines rouges ("Red dykes"), the first lesbian group in Paris.[3] She was also involved in the Féministes Révolutionnaires ("Revolutionary feminists"), a radical feminist group.[3] She published various other works, some of which include the 1973 Le Corps lesbien (or The Lesbian Body) and the 1976 Brouillon pour un dictionnaire des amantes (or Lesbian Peoples: Materical For A Dictionary), which her partner, Sande Zeig, coauthored.

In 1976, Wittig and Zeig moved to the United States where Wittig focused on producing work of gender theory. Her works, ranging from the philosophical essay The Straight Mind to parables like Les Tchiches et les Tchouches, explored the interconnectedness and intersection of lesbianism, feminism, and literary form. With various editorial positions both in France and in the United States, Wittig's works became internationally recognized and were commonly published in both French and English. She continued to work as a visiting professor in various universities across the nation, including the University of California, Berkeley, Vassar College and the University of Arizona in Tucson. She taught a course in Materialist Thought through Women's Studies programs, wherein her students were immersed in the process of correcting the American translation of The Lesbian Body. She died of a heart attack on January 3, 2003.[1]

Writing Style[edit]

Wittig had a materialist approach in her works (evident in Les guérillères). She also demonstrated a very critical theoretical approach (evident in her essay, "One Is Not Born a Woman").

As a lesbian writer adamantly opposed to any notion of an inherently feminine writing. Wittig has most often been placed either in opposition to Hélène Cixous, or in a tradition of lesbian writers. Her ties to de Beauvoir and Sarraute are, however, equally significant, and position her work within a double history of feminism and avant-garde literature of the last half of the twentieth century. Like Duras and Cixous, she develops her work to a rethinking of women's experience in writing, while her staunch opposition to a notion of "difference" that would be based on sexuality or biology aligns her more with de Beauvoir and Sarraute.[6]

The Straight Mind[edit]

While Wittig depicted only women in her literature, she abhorred the idea that she was a "women's writer". Monique Wittig called herself a "Radical lesbian."[7]

"There is no such thing as women literature for me, that does not exist. In literature, I do not separate women and men. One is a writer, or one is not. This is a mental space where sex is not determining. One has to have some space for freedom. Language allows this. This is about building an idea of the neutral which could escape sexuality".

Moreover, for Wittig, the category "woman" exists only through its relation to the category "man," and the "women" without relation to "men" would cease to exist. She advocated a strong Universalist position, saying that the expression of one's identity and the liberation of desire require the abolition of gender categories.

Wittig identified herself as a Radical lesbian. In her work The Straight Mind, she argued that lesbians are not women because to be a lesbian is to step outside of the heterosexual norm of women, as defined by men for men's ends.

"...and it would be incorrect to say that lesbians associate, make love, live with women, for 'woman' has meaning only in heterosexual systems of thought and heterosexual economic systems. Lesbians are not women" (1978).

Wittig also developed a critical view of Marxism which obstructed feminist struggle, but also of feminism itself which does not question the heterosexual dogma.

A theorist of material feminism, she stigmatised the myth of "the woman", called heterosexuality a political regime, and outlined the basis for a social contract which lesbians refuse.

Theoretical Views[edit]

Wittig's essays call into question some of the basic premises of contemporary feminist theory. Wittig was one of the first feminist theorists to interrogate heterosexuality as not just sexuality, but as a political regime. Defining herself as a radical lesbian, she and other lesbians during the early 1980s in France and Quebec reached a consensus that "radical lesbianism" posits heterosexuality as a political regime that must be overthrown. Wittig criticized contemporary feminism for not questioning this heterosexual political regime and believed that contemporary feminism proposed to rearrange rather than eliminate the system. While a critique of heterosexuality as a "political institution" had been laid by certain lesbian separatists in the United States, American lesbian separatism did not posit heterosexuality as a regime to be overthrown. Rather, the aim was to develop within an essentialist framework new lesbian values within lesbian communities.[8]

Wittig was a theorist of material feminism. She believed that it is the historical task of feminists to define oppression in materialist terms. It is necessary to make clear that women are a class, and to recognize the category of “woman” as well as the category of “man” as political and economic categories. Wittig acknowledges that these two social classes exist because of the social relationship between men and women. However, women as a class will disappear when man as a class disappears. Just as there are no slaves without masters, there are no women without men.[9] The category of sex is the political category that founds society as heterosexual. The category of “man” and “woman” exists only in a heterosexual system, and to destroy the heterosexual system will end the categories of men and women.[10]

Criticism of Marxist Theory[edit]

Wittig was a critic of Marxist Theory. She criticized it for not acknowledging a “subject” or individual in its class revolution. Since individuals do not exist within class struggle, Marxism does not differentiate between the oppression of women and men within a class. The masses then could not be the subject of their struggle but could only fight for their class and its organizations. Wittig suggests that class consciousness is not enough. There is a necessity for everyone to exist as an individual as well as a member of a class to bring to light that personal problems, including the plights of and the inequality of women, are also class problems.[9]

Linguistics[edit]

Wittig states that "Gender is the linguistic index of the political opposition between the sexes." Only one gender exists: the feminine, the masculine not being a gender. The masculine is not the masculine but the general, as the masculine experience is normalized over the experience of the feminine. Feminine is the concrete as denoted through sex in language, whereas only the masculine as general is the abstract. Wittig lauds Djuna Barnes and Marcel Proust for universalizing the feminine by making no difference in the way they describe male female characters. As taking the point of view of a lesbian, Wittig finds it necessary to suppress genders in the same way Djuna Barnes cancels out genders by making them obsolete.[11]

Les Guérillères[edit]

Les Guérillères, published in 1969, five years after Wittig's first novel, revolves around the elles, women warriors who have created their own sovereign state by overthrowing the patriarchal world. The novel is structured through a series of prose poems. "Elles are not 'the women'--a mistranslation that often surfaces in David Le Vay's English rendition--but rather the universal 'they,' a linguistic assault on the masculine collective pronoun ils."[12] The novel initially describes the world that the elles have created and ends with members recounting the days of war that lead to the sovereign state.

As discussed in "The Mark of Gender," Wittig universalizes the point of view of elles. Elles (they in English) is a personal pronoun rarely used in French which does not exist in English. Ils (they) often stands for the general and plural "they say" or "people say" assuming a he for they. When using elles, Wittig's purpose is "not to feminize the world but to make the categories of sex obsolete in language." Elles, therefore, is set up in the text as the absolute subject of the world. When elles is turned into "the women" in the David Le Vay's translation, universalization is destroyed and elles stops being mankind.[13]

Bibliography[edit]

Novels[edit]

Plays[edit]

Short fiction[edit]

Most collected in Paris-la-Politique. Paris: P.O.L., 1999

Translations[edit]

  • 1982, Djuna Barnes. Spillway and Other Stories. La Passion. Tr. Monique Wittig. Paris: Flammarion.
  • 1968, Herbert Marcuse. One Dimensional Man. L'Homme unidimensionel. Tr. Monique Wittig. Paris: Minuit.
  • 1974, Three Marias (Isabel Barreno, Teresa Horta, Fatima Velho Da Costa). Novas Cartas Portuguesas. Nouvelles lettres portugaises. Tr. Monique Wittig, Evelyne Le Garrec, Vera Prado. Paris: Seuil.

Essays and criticisms[edit]

Most collected in La Pensée straight.Paris: Balland, 2001 and in The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992

  • 1967, "Bouvard et Pécuchet." Paris: Les Cahiers Madeleine Renaud-Barrault.
  • 1979, "Paradigm." Homosexualities and French Literature. Eds. Elaine Marks and George Stambolian. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press: 114-121.
  • 1980, "The Straight Mind." New York: MLA, 1978. Feminist Issues 1.1: 103-111.
  • 1982, "Avant-note" for La Passion. Paris: Flammarion.
  • 1982, "The Category of Sex." Feminist Issues 2.2: 63-68.
  • 1983, "Les questions féministes ne sont pas des questions lesbiennes." Amazones d'hier, lesbiennes d'aujourd'hui 2.1: 10-14.
  • 1983, "The Point of View: Universal or Particular?" (Trans. of "Avant-Note" de La Passion). Feminist Issues 3.2: 63-69.
  • 1984, "Le Lieu de l'action." New York: Colloque on Nouveau Roman Oct. 1983; publ. in Digraphe 32: 69-75.
  • 1984, "The Trojan Horse." Feminist Issues 4.2: 45-49.
  • 1985, "La Pensée straight." Questions féministes 7, (1980). Rpt. in Amazones d'hier, lesbiennes d'aujourd'hui 3.4: 5-18.
  • 1985, "Le Cheval de Troie." Paris: Vlasta 4: 36-41.
  • 1985, "On ne naît pas femme." Paris: Questions féministes, 1980. Rpt. Amazones d'hier, Lesbiennes d'aujourd'hui 4.1: 103-118.
  • 1986, "The Mark of Gender." Feminist Issues 5.2 (1985): 3-12. Rpt. The Poetics of Gender. Ed. Nancy Miller. New York: Columbia University Press: 63-73.
  • 1986, "The Place of Action." Three Decades of the New French Novel. Champagne: University of Illinois Press.
  • 1989: "On the Social Contract." Feminist Issues 9.1: 3-12.
  • 1994, “Quelques remarques sur Les Guérillères.” L’Esprit créateur 34.4: 116-122.
  • 1996, “Avatars” L’Esprit créateur 36.2: 109-116.
  • 1996, "Lacunary Films." London: New Statesman, 15 July: 102.
  • 1996, “Le déambulatoire: Entretien avec Nathalie Sarraute.” L’Esprit créateur 36.2: 3-8.
  • 1996, “The Constant journey: An Introduction and a Prefatory Note.”Modern Drama 39.1: 156-159.
  • 1997, ”L’ordre du poème.” In Narrative Voices in Modern French Fiction, eds.M. Cardy, G. Evans, & G. Jacobs. Cardiff: University of Wales Press: 7-12.
  • 2005, “Some Remarks on Les Guérillères.” In N. Shaktini, ed., On Monique Wittig: Theoretical, Political and Literary Essays, 37-43. Urbana: U. Of Illinois Press.
  • 2005, “Some Remarks on The Lesbian Body.” In N. Shaktini, ed., On Monique Wittig: Theoretical, Political and Literary Essays, 44-48. Urbana: U. Of Illinois Press.

Films[edit]

Quotations[edit]

From Les Guérillères

Witchcraft is remembrance. There was a time when you were free. Remember that. You walked alone, full of laughter, you bathed naked in the sunlight--remember. You were wise woman and healer, you were huntress and amazon--remember that. You say you have lost all recollection of it; remember. Your bones remember. When you invoke your past, your heroines, your goddesses, your dreams--it is yourself you call to life. Remember who you are.

Popular culture[edit]

  • Excerpts from Monique Wittig's "The Lesbian Body" were printed on shock value t-shirts in the 1980s.[14]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Monique Wittig, 67, Feminist Writer, Dies, by Douglas Martin, January 12, 2003, New York Times
  2. ^ Benewick, Robert (1998). The Routledge Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Political Thinkers. London: Routledge. pp. 332–333. ISBN 0-203-20946-X. Retrieved 25 May 2012. 
  3. ^ a b c Balén, Julia. In Memoriam: Monique Wittig, The Women’s Review of Books, January 2004, Vol. XXI, No. 4., quoted in Trivia Magazine, Wittig Obituary
  4. ^ L'Homond, Bridgitte. France.—Feminism And The Women's Liberation Movement, Women's Studies Encyclopedia, ed: Helen Tierney, quoted in Gem Women's Studies Encyclopedia
  5. ^ "(...)Word by Word Monique Wittig completed The Literary Workshop (Le chantier littéraire) in Gualala, California, in 1986, as her dissertation for the Diplome de l'Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. Gérard Genette was the director, and Louis Marin and Christian Metz were readers. Wittig wrote The Literary Workshop at a time of immense productivity.(...); Monique Wittig, Catherine Temerson, Sande Zeig. "The Literary Workshop: An Excerpt", in "GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies – Volume 13, Number 4, 2007, pp. 543–551
  6. ^ Leah D. Hewitt. Autobiographical Tightropes (1990)
  7. ^ Kirkup, James (2003-01-09). "Monique Wittig". The Independent. Retrieved 2007-06-08. 
  8. ^ Turcotte, Lousie. “Foreward.” The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Ed. Monique Wittig. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992. VIII-XII. Print.
  9. ^ a b Wittig, Monique. “One Is Not Born a Woman.” Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives. Ed. Carole R. McCann and Seung-Kyung Kim. New York: Routledge, 2013. 246-250. Print.
  10. ^ Wittig, Monique. “The Category of Sex.” The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Ed. Monique Wittig. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992. 5-8. Print.
  11. ^ Wittig, Monique. “Point of View: Universal or Particular?” The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Ed. Monique Wittig. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992. 60-61. Print.
  12. ^ http://www.glbtq.com/literature/wittig_m.html
  13. ^ Wittig, Monique. “The Mark of Gender” The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Ed. Monique Wittig. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992. 84-86. Print.
  14. ^ Glumazine publication of photo of Wittig's text on t-shirt; see http://www.glumagazine.com
  15. ^ "Blow-Up" in "Yo-Yo Boing!" by Giannina Braschi, Amazoncrossing; ISBN 161109089X and ISBN 978-1611090895.

External links[edit]