Monique Wittig’s
Materialist Utopia and
Radical Critique
Brad Epps and Jonathan Katz

La pérennité des sexes et la pérennité des esclaves et des maîtres
proviennent de la même croyance.
[The endurance of the sexes and the endurance of slaves and masters
derive from the same belief.]
Monique Wittig, “La catégorie de sexe”
The whole is the truth, and the whole is false.
Herbert Marcuse, Reason and Revolution

The essays here assembled, variegated in methodology, tone, and texture, are the fruit of a memorial conference in honor of Monique Wittig that was, in turn, the fruit of friendship and its traces.1 In 2002 Brad Epps, encouraged by his friend Carol Pavitt, a friend in turn of Sande Zeig, Wittig’s partner and occasional coauthor, invited Wittig to Harvard University. The dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Drew Faust (recently appointed president of Harvard), kindly agreed to finance the invitation. All was in place for a visit — to the very room in which the memorial conference took place — by a writer whose work had long dazzled readers with its conceptual brilliance, theoretical verve, poetic elegance, and political power. That visit, however, never took place: on January 3, 2003, Monique Wittig suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. Reeling from the news, the organizers of Wittig’s visit were left at a loss: as to how to respond to the loss of someone whom we had never met but had felt certain that we would meet (the arrogant or insouciant optimism of life); as to how to respond to Sande Zeig, so close to Wittig; as to how to respond to a body of work that had been strangely quickened by death.

Knowing that every attempt to put into words this sense of loss is bound to all sorts of infelicities and failures, missteps and maudlin projections, overstatements and understatements, we turned to other friends, old and new: to Judith Surkis, codirector of the Seminar on Gender and Sexuality at the Humanities Center; to Jonathan Katz, then director of the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies at Yale University; to Nancy Cott, director of the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe; and, most importantly, to Sande Zeig, whom we finally met, after many an electronic exchange and more than a few telephone calls, at the memorial conference in which Wittig’s absence was everywhere present. It is just this turning to friends and colleagues that we would like to propose as honoring, in some small way, the memory of a thinker, an activist, and a writer who understood the importance of group efforts and collective projects beyond the petty isolation of the self and in tension with, if not indeed beyond, the power of powerful institutions, Yale and Harvard surely among them.

The ties and tensions between individuals, groups, societies, and systems are crucial to Wittig’s critical and creative practice. In the introduction to a collection of essays published in English in 1992 under the title The Straight Mind and Other Essays and in French in 2001 under the title La pensée straight (the title, of course, of one of Wittig’s most celebrated essays, first presented at a meeting of the Modern Language Association in New York City in 1978), Wittig, writing from her adopted home in Tucson, Arizona, revisits her work and expresses her gratitude to some of the women without whom she says she would not have had the strength to take on the straight world, its conceptual systems, its symbolic and material power: Nicole-Claude Mathieu, Christine Delphy, Colette Guillaumin, Paola Taber, and Sande Zeig (“Introduction,” PS, 12).2 The list of proper names, not unlike other lists in Wittig’s work (most famously, the list of body parts in The Lesbian Body), gestures toward a unity out of otherwise discrete parts and persons as well as toward a reconfiguration of dominant society by way of a “lesbian point of view,” in the sense that Wittig formulates in “One Is Not Born a Woman” (1980): not as some autonomous formation romantically outside heterosexual social systems or beyond the vicissitudes of history, as some of her critics have contended, but as a pragmatic demonstration in the here and now that the putatively natural division of the sexes, with its basis in heterosexual reproduction, is “in fact” artificial, that is to say, political (“On ne naît pas femme,” PS, 51 n. 3).3 For Wittig, the violently imposed reality of reality, its coercive artificiality, is axiomatic:

Heterosexuality is the political regime under which we all live, [a regime] founded on the enslavement of women. . . . In such a desperate situation, comparable to that of serfs and slaves, women have the “choice” between being fugitives and of attempting to escape their class (as lesbians do) and/ or of renegotiating daily, term by term, the social contract. There is no other way out. (“Introduction,” PS, 11, emphasis added) 4

Between fugitive flight to an unfamiliar, as-yet-unavailable outside and daily renegotiation from within an all-too-familiar inside lies a vast yet restricted space of existence, ordered by a long-standing social contract in which the daily lives of men and women “naturally” and “normally” unfold.5 According to Wittig’s famous pronouncement, “Lesbians are not women” because they refuse to be defined in relation to men. In rejecting the natural and normal unfolding of daily life, in evading and/or renegotiating the dominant heterosexual order, lesbians reveal that life and that order to be oppressive and, in the process, exercise their own fractured yet forceful quotient of freedom. 6

Although flight and renegotiation may appear to constitute two extremes, they are actually, in Wittig’s formulation, part of the same struggle. The “and/or” that we have taken the liberty of throwing into relief, of re-marking in italics, is not, in other words, a mere stylistic tic but a sign of a struggle that moves between refusal and engagement or, more ponderously, between radical utopianism and radical realism, neither of which is sufficient in itself. The point is important, for a number of queer and feminist critics have taken Wittig to task for being utopian (which tends to be tantamount to being “too utopian”) without always recognizing that utopianism is profoundly involved in realism and both, in turn, in a mode of materialism that strives to unveil and to ground the idealism of both utopianism and realism. Conventionally, idealism is understood as a virtual synonym of utopianism and as a virtual antonym of realism, itself in turn often simply conflated with materialism. Yet, from a materialist perspective such as the one that Wittig champions, the division or difference is not nearly so neat. If the idealism of utopianism is all too clear, occluding, in its excessive clarity, the material bases of utopianism, the idealism of realism is all too opaque, occluding, in its excessive opacity, the ideological framing of that which passes for reality.

For Wittig, reality as “naturally given” is a congeries of ideas whose historical force is such that the ideas — say, black and white in a racial register, or man and woman in a sexual register — are naturalized as real, purely and simply, that is to say, “self-evidently.” But the self-evident, like the regime of evidence to which it belongs, is for Wittig deeply suspect, if not simply false:

What we believe to be a direct and physical perception is but a mythic and sophisticated construction, an “imaginary formation” that reinterprets physical traits (in themselves as indifferent as any others but marked by the social system) across the web of relations in which they are perceived. (He/she is seen as black, and so he/she is black; she is seen as woman, and so she is woman. But before being seen in this manner, it was necessary for them to be made black, women.) (“On ne naît pas femme,” PS, 54 – 55)7

Reality, at its most self-evident and commonsensical, is, in short, ideological, and realism, as the systematic rendering of reality, is an idealism whose historical force, or violence, is tendentiously pacified as the natural order of being.

For Wittig, there is arguably no greater example of idealization and pacification, of utopianization and dystopianization, than maternity, traditionally pre-sented as the alpha and omega of femininity, as the most palpable sign of woman’s difference and, to loop the loop, of her supposedly “privileged” relationship to materiality (mater, matter, matrix):

Instead of considering . . . that the act of making a child issues from a forced production, we regard it as a “natural,” “biological” process, forgetting that . . . births are planned (demography), forgetting that we ourselves are programmed to produce children, when it is in fact the only social activity, “except for war,” which presents such a danger of death. (“On ne naît pas femme,” PS, 53)

Deploying such aspects of material history as the mortal dangers of childbirth and its attendant plays of sacrifice and self-abnegation in order to expose the utopianization of reality and the idealization of materiality, Wittig ridicules the “it’s marvelous to be woman” rhetoric that marks a mighty strain of dominant ideology and feminism (“On ne naît pas femme,” PS, 56). But even as she exposes and criticizes the utopianism of dominant reality, Wittig also rescues, paradoxically, the utopianism of another reality, one in which the division of the sexes would cease to signify, to matter. The paradox of utopia, there and then, is that it exists no-place (ou-topos) other than the here and now of oppression and suffering; in the words of Linda M. G. Zerilli, it engages a “no-more” and a “not-yet” in which “free acts tend to take on the form of necessity.”8 Future directed as it may be (though it may also be past directed), utopianism arises from the recognition or experience of suffering in the hic et nunc. So too its gestures of transcendence, which are not shamanistic mumbo jumbo, as some critics seem to believe, but the effects of a politically engaged and materially based flight from and/or renegotiation of reality as ever so “ideally” constituted (where the ideal is negative). Put all too quickly, utopia, as the imagined, desired, or anticipated disappearance of suffering, is that through which suffering appears, makes its way into material consciousness, and motivates politically concerted action to transform reality.9

In many respects, Wittig’s project resembles that of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: both posit reality as an ideological formation and as a negative ideal in the service of some rather than all; both aim for the abolition of the very categories or classes whose oppressive inequality causes them to cohere as categories or classes (proletariat and bourgeois, woman and man); and both configure said abolition in terms of struggle, conflict, even war. In other important respects, however, Wittig parts company with Marx and Engels and a lengthy history of Marxist thought in which sex and gender have figured little, if at all. Nowhere is the separation more pressing than in the arena of subjectivity, which, according to Wittig, Marx and Engels all but spirit away from those in whose name they purport to work: the oppressed. Deriding the Marxist derision of subjectivity as always already individualist and bourgeois (or, worse yet, petit bourgeois), Wittig asserts that “Marx and Engels reduced all conflicts to two terms” and that “Marxism denied the members of oppressed classes the quality of subject” (“Homo sum,” PS, 89, 60). Going further, Wittig claims that Marxism has had two consequences for women: “It has prevented them from thinking of themselves, and consequently of constituting themselves, as a class . . . by making the relation women/men elude the social, by making it a ‘natural’ relation,” and it has cast, via Lenin, every attempt to reflect on or to regroup women as a “class” in their own right as a divisive and diversionary act (“On ne naît pas femme,” PS, 61). Although Wittig bases her assertions on Marx and Engels’s The German Ideology and not on Engels’s Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, in which the family is explicitly cast in terms of slavery, her point is as clear as it is controversial: subjectivity is not to be derided, and it is certainly not to be celebrated as fissured and fractured, but defended and, as it were, “repaired” — not in the sense of a redemption of past suffering (which, as past, is impervious to redemption) but in the sense of a mending of insufferable social rifts in the future.10

The defense and future-directed, nonredemptive reparation of subjectivity set Wittig apart from any number of post-structuralists with whom she is often associated willy-nilly, as if fractures, fissures, splits, and divisions were always and only the stuff of liberation rather than the residue of oppression.11 In this, Wittig evinces more than a passing resemblance to Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and, albeit more somberly, Theodor Adorno, all of whom also defended, from within a dramatically reconfigured Marxism, the resistant potential of concrete individual subjectivity, fragmented though it may be under capitalism. Wittig, in other words, is not alone in her defense of a dialectical interplay between a relatively concrete individual subjectivity and a relatively abstract collective non- subjectivity. For Wittig, of course, capitalism is on a par with patriarchy and heterosexuality, as production is with reproduction, and the concrete subject, fragmented still, remains that by which another social order, more equitable, just, and, yes, pleasurable might ever so fugitively be glimpsed. Wittig’s recourse to split subjects in The Lesbian Body, given graphic form in the virgule that marks each and every articulation of the “I” (“j/e”) and its attributes (m/e, m/y, m/ine), accordingly posits the exercise of subjectivity, the saying of the self, as a contentious and contested activity that is of especial significance for the dissonant subjects known — or rather, not quite known — as lesbians.

The split is not a figure of utopia, mind you, but of dystopia, that is to say, a figure of lesbians’ and other oppressed people’s situation in a long-standing reality whose “ideal” form, in and as the straight mind, is for them, and indeed for anyone with a radical sense of justice, intolerable. As Wittig states in the introduction to the English translation of Le corps lesbien: “J/e is the symbol of the lived, rending experience which is m/y writing, of this cutting in two which throughout literature is the exercise of a language which does not constitute m/e as subject. J/e poses the ideological and historic question of feminine subjects.”12 J/e is also, for Wittig, the symbol of a dualistic division of the sexes, of the imposition of a binary notion of difference as truth and value. The split, or virgule, is, in other words, the diacritical “evidence” of a viciously binary system in and by which men are (made) men and women are (made) women — with the twain meeting, over and again, in a romantically “free” reproductive copulation. Turning the heterosexist accusation that lesbians are not true or real women on its head, Wittig argues not only that lesbians are indeed not “true” or “real” women but also that they are not women at all, inasmuch as “woman” signifies, as already noted, only in relation to “man,” as its (or his) underside and shadow, as that by which “man” reproduces itself (himself ).

Wittig’s contention that lesbians are not women, which is all too often the only thing that many of her critics acknowledge, does not mean that they miraculously hoodwink traditional history or that they occupy, as Diana Fuss maintains, “a free cultural space — free of violence, free of control, even free of social determination.”13 Nor does it mean, as Fuss also contends, that “the category ‘lesbian’ remains intact” and hence that it is impervious or oblivious to the violent force of history (43). Fuss’s contention that Wittig’s anti-essentialist materialism harbors an essentialism of its own (the essentialism of radical anti-essentialism) is undoubtedly compelling, but it is forged, we submit, on an inattentive consideration of Wittig’s own nuances and caveats and, more bewilderingly, on an elision of the force of figures of conflict (the split pronouns, the countermythic recourse to mythical Amazons, the embattled calls for a nongenocidal destruction) that pepper Wittig’s critical and creative texts. Accordingly, where Wittig writes that “for us sexuality [meaning here, as Fuss notes, “lesbian sexuality”] has only a distant relation with heterosexuality” (“Paradigmes,” PS, 107), Fuss finds only the previously noted “free cultural space,” and where Wittig writes that “lesbianism provides for the moment the only social form in which we can live freely” (“On ne naît pas femme,” PS, 63), Fuss finds only the uncompromised and uncompromising integrity — or intactness — of the lesbian.14 Overlooking such significant details as “a distant relation” and “for the moment,” and hence overlooking spatial and temporal markers that qualify Wittig’s argument, Fuss effectively accuses Wittig of a totalization that is, in many respects, of Fuss’s making.

A more attentive — dare we say, “generous” — reading reveals, however, a more ambivalent picture: ambivalent not in the sense that Wittig is unsure about the oppressive nature of reality but in the sense that Wittig is intensely aware that lesbianism does not constitute some utterly “free cultural space” or some immaculate integrity but, quite the contrary, that lesbianism is only distantly related to heterosexuality (within yet without its arrogant purview) and that it is for the moment the only social formation in which she and others can live in relative freedom. True, Wittig bemoans the fact that not all lesbians share her view of lesbians or, rather, of the lesbian, thereby revealing an arrogance (in the Latin sense of claiming for oneself) that has hardly gone unnoticed or unchallenged.15 True, Wittig skirts the issue of the disappearance of “lesbian” even as she advocates the disappearance of “man” and “woman,” thereby suggesting not only that “lesbian” is not indelibly impressed by the mark of gender (as if being “not woman” were not marked by the regime of sex/gender) but also that its distance from heterosexuality and the moment of its liberational charge are indeed immense. Interestingly, and in anticipation of an inquiry into the fraught status of the “relation” between Wittig and queer theory that is at the center of more than one of the essays included here, the sense of exceptionalism that animates Wittig’s defense of “lesbian” (Fuss calls it a “third term”16) is no more emphatic than that which animates Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s defense of “queer” as resistant to “obsolescence,” indeed as “inextinguishable.”17 Of course, the sense of exceptionalism is itself a function — however distant or close, however momentary or enduring — of the very heterosexual order that meets and maligns every challenge to it as “exceptional.”

Teresa de Lauretis is, on this score, enlightening, for rather than resort to a rhetoric of exceptionalism and (excessive) utopianism, she understands that Wittig’s work, and more specifically her claim that lesbians are not women, “had the power to open the mind and make visible and thinkable a conceptual space that until then had been rendered unthinkable by, precisely, the hegemony of the straight mind.”18 Anti-essentialist as Wittig is, her endorsement of lesbianism as contrary to an arrogant replication of the dominant and divisive order of difference is not perforce a covert endorsement of an immaculate essentialism any more than it is a wistful obviation of materialist thought. De Lauretis, who is unquestionably one of the most discerning of Wittig’s critics, recasts Wittig’s lesbian as an “eccentric subject,” that is to say, as “a different kind of woman,” one that not only deviated “from the conventional, normative path” but also “did not center itself in the institution that both supports and produces the straight mind, that is, the institution of heterosexuality” (52). Although Wittig would certainly wince at the notion of the lesbian as “a different kind of woman,” de Lauretis offers a compelling account of how Wittig’s radical proclamation — that lesbians are not women — was historically processed by feminists who had, by and large, taken the path of vindicating, even celebrating, femininity.

Wittig pushed, even shattered, common assumptions about sexuality and subjectivity, and advanced, amid a great deal of confusion, uncertainty, and derision, but also a great deal of conviction, urgency, and power, what de Lauretis presents as a potentially unending process of disidentification and displacement. Recognizing the importance of geopolitical provenance and biography without, however, making them simply “determinative,” de Lauretis, who herself is a transnational subject, points to Wittig’s movement between France and the United States as crucial to her understanding of disidentification and displacement and, ever so subtly, as crucial to misunderstandings on the part of a number of U.S. critics whose own national provenance, movement, and identification remained (and remains) either unexamined or taken for granted: the dubious privilege, one might say, of working less in a nation among nations than in an empire that would hold sway over other nations. Although Wittig’s work evinces, as we argue below, a tense affinity — via its equally tense affinity to Marxism — to certain aspects of the Frankfurt School, many of whose most salient members were also transnational subjects, de Lauretis proposes other, arguably less tense affinities to “the writings of women or lesbians of color such as Trinh T. Minh-ha, Gloria Anzaldúa, Barbara Smith, and Chandra Mohanty” and hence to postcolonial feminism, amply understood (53).

Chief among the affinities are, as already mentioned, those of the Marxist hermeneutical tradition. Here, too, geopolitics matter. As de Lauretis notes: “Most of us, at that time [the early 1980s], shared a Marxist understanding of class and a materialist analysis of exploitation, although in Europe that understanding preceded feminism whereas in anglophone America it often followed and resulted from the feminist analysis of gender” (54). The ethnolinguistic precision — anglophone America — is important, because what de Lauretis says of continental European intellectuals can also be said of Latin American intellectuals, for whom Marxist thought was, and in many ways continues to be, fundamental to any progressive, materially engaged mode of critique. To note such widespread differences in intellectual formation — part, after all, of the differential functioning of ideological state apparatuses — is not to reify them in the name of some pan-national divide (continental Europe and Latin America versus the United States, Canada, Great Britain, etc.); rather, it is to note how place, language, and institutional practice impress themselves on thought, conditioning though not determining it. Moreover, it is to signal, or at least to suggest, that the transnational and translational plays of Wittig’s work — some of it written first in French, some first in English — are crucial to any appreciation of the dislocated, disidentified, and dissonant subject that Wittig at once defends and enacts, even as she aims for its overcoming. As Ann Cvetkovich has remarked with respect to the following essays, the differences between, say, Alice Jardine’s self-implicating translation, both literal and cultural, of French feminism (in an Anglo-American frame) and Robyn Wiegman’s decidedly more distant relation to Wittig may well be a function of their respective institutional locations in French studies and American studies after the landmark work of Judith Butler, who has provided Anglo-American scholars with a dazzlingly rich and sustained meditation on sex, gender, feminism, identity, and politics written originally and exclusively in English.19

Section One | go to Section Two | Section Three