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

Section Two

The status of translation (and of the bilingual, multilingual subjects that it entails) is unstable, even, if not especially, when it is “self-translation.”20 The and/or that we have previously re-marked might serve as an inevitably inadequate summation of the inevitable inadequacy of translation itself: unstable, dislocated, disidentified even as it seeks, through the adequation of a word in one language to a word in another, an identical replication, a repetition without fault or fissure, without, that is, any significant difference. That search, a sort of righting of Babel, is utopian too, and yet it tends to go unnoticed by Anglo-American critics who, writing exclusively in English, do not grapple with the French and who criticize Wittig’s utopianism as if their own practice of reading in one and only one language were not in any way a “problem.” Apparently assuming that Wittig’s meaning comes across without a hitch, such readers, such reading practices, not only have implicit faith in the stability and adequacy of translation but also effectively suppress the back-and-forth crossings, le va-et-vient, that place Wittig and her work at the crossroads of critical and creative configurations: feminism, women’s liberation, gay and lesbian liberation, queer theory, Marxism, post-structuralism, post-Lacanianism, the nouveau roman, and so on.

Wittig herself acknowledged the force of le va-et-vient in, for instance, the tense interplay between materiality and conceptuality, subjectivity and objectivity, in the comprehension of, and struggle against, oppression:

The operation by which [an oppressive] reality is comprehended should be undertaken by each of us: one can call it a subjective, cognitive practice. This practice is accomplished through language, as is the back-and-forth movement between two levels of social reality (the conceptual reality and the material reality of oppression). (“On ne naît pas femme,” PS, 62)

De Lauretis cites the same passage to bring to the fore the back-and-forth movement between Wittig and Simone de Beauvoir, famous for saying that “one is not born woman; one becomes woman.”21 In so doing, de Lauretis signals a less obvious translational play within the same language (French) even as she gestures to what we would here unfurl more amply: a translateral, indeed multilateral movement that understands reality, for all its oppressive sedimentations, as still open to reconfiguration, as not merely knowable and describable (what Horkheimer called “traditional theory”) but also, and more acutely, changeable (what Horkheimer called “critical theory”).22

It is precisely out of respect for the complexities and challenges of transnational, translational critique that we, writing in English, have preferred to work from texts written in, and translated into, French. Like Seth Silberman, who leaves aside the published English translation of The Lesbian Body to delve at once more intimately and more strangely in Le corps lesbien, we follow Wittig’s emphasis on working through language (à travers le langage), not with the presumption of capturing her meaning in some pure, original state (we repeat: some of Wittig’s most influential articles were written and published originally in English), and less still with the presumption of discounting monolingual critics, but with an eye to something cryptically queer.23 As Sedgwick styles it, queer “is a continuing moment, movement, motive — recurrent, eddying, troublant. The word ‘queer’ itself means across — it comes from the Indo-European root -twerkw, which also yields the German quer (transverse), Latin torquere (to twist), English athwart” (xii). The working through language, which is more precisely a working across language(s), offers, then, an intriguing supplement to more straightforward renditions of the queer as a twisted or bent subject and places the accent on the act of saying and unsaying, of writing, erasing, and rewriting, as it inflects conceptual, political, and material production, Wittig’s most certainly included. Yet, as we argue below, the crosscut to the queer, and most especially to “queer theory,” is far from clear-cut and straightforward as well. It is along these lines, indeed, that the decision to translate “The Straight Mind” as “La pensée straight” rather than, say, “La pensée hétérosexuelle” or “La pensée hétéronormative” may be said to preserve and render explicit a translational, transnational meeting or crossing that does not issue in a melding or crossing out. Lest translation be taken in its strictest, most delimited sense, it is important to remember that Wittig understood lesbians, as well as gay men, people of color, and the oppressed in general, as always already involved in a translational act vis-à-vis dominant heterosexist and racist discourse.24

The straight mind through and against which Wittig and the relatively loose amalgamation of writing designated as “queer theory” work may not be, that is, the same straight mind; in other words, and as a number of the articles included here make clear, there is no easy alliance between Wittig and queer theory — far from it. Indeed, where Jardine tends to see Wittig and queer theory as a more or less coherent unit at odds with a maternally positive feminism, Diane Griffin Crowder tends to see Wittig and queer theory, despite certain shared concerns, as largely at loggerheads; where Wiegman posits a relation, or nonrelation, of silence and indifference (going so far as to cite her students’ lack of interest in Wittig’s work as “evidence” of its preterition in general), Silberman remembers and reactivates Wittig’s literary prose by folding it into his own critical practice and into a meditation on queer theory. Interestingly, only Butler, one of the undeniable touchstones of queer theory, makes no mention of queer theory, choosing instead to read Wittig as a philosopher.

Yet, if the essays share anything other than their engagement of Wittig, it is a recognition of a historical, even epistemic, passing: not only in the more obvious sense of the author’s death but also in the less obvious sense of missed encounters, shifting fortunes, unfulfilled promises, nostalgic homecomings, resilient returns, quasi-melancholic retentions, and institutionally motivated “unrememberings” — many of which may well be more of the critics’ making than of Wittig herself. Striving to be agnostic as editors, we here note only that Wittig’s call for the destruction of the heterosexual system remains a fraught proposition even among those who seem to wish, desire, or demand something similar. Aware that “centuries of thought” (PS, 11) are against her and that even many of those who most want to change reality often invoke it as some reified, untranscendable horizon, Wittig states, as we have seen, that the “only way out,” the only truly evasive act, is to “consider oneself a fugitive, a runaway slave, a lesbian” and “to destroy politically, philosophically, and symbolically the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ ” (“Introduction,” PM, 11 – 12). Though some readers may be troubled by the implicit leveling of history at work in comparisons of lesbians to slaves (serfs and serfdom are, at least in the United States, another matter), Wittig’s project, her vision of a better and more just world, is structured by a striving for liberation and, as mentioned, by a turning to others, others who would not be constrained by the straightjacket of such concepts and categories as “woman” or, for that matter, “sex” and “gender,” two words whose disaggregation, so dear to those of us working primarily in English, Wittig derided as inconsequential if not downright deleterious to a truly radical transformation of society.25

Of course, Wittig did not live to see a radical transformation of society, nor in any likelihood will any of us, though she certainly did live to see the transformation, or at least the destabilization, of some of its most cherished concepts. However Wittig will be read and remembered, the essays here grapple in various ways with loss and remembrance, with memorialization. As the principal impulse that animates this collection, memorialization hinges on the notion that there once was someone who is no longer. The rift that obtains, yawning before us, spurs efforts to mind the gap and make good the loss, to find a response that, attending or not to the customs and inventions of friendship and solidarity, might do justice to someone as committed as Monique Wittig was to a truly just understanding of justice: beyond the constraints of “common sense,” “intuition,” and entrenched tradition. “It would be perhaps appropriate,” as de Lauretis writes in an important collection of essays published shortly after Wittig’s death, “to mourn her passing and honor her memory with a story, a fiction in the style of Les guérillères, an allegory after Paris-la-politique, or an epic poem remade like Virgile, non.”26 Indeed, as already intimated, Silberman attempts to do just that: to fold Wittig’s literary practice, as manifested in Le corps lesbien, into a lyrical-critical meditation on death: his mother’s, Wittig’s, and, indeed, everyone’s — each in its own way.

In the light of Wittig’s commitment to universality, the universality of death, though fraught with a far-from-innocent ideology of ultimate equality (king and chambermaid, lord and bondsman, rich and poor, man and woman as all equalized in the end), serves as a telling test to the discourse of difference that so many feminists embraced (and embrace) and that Wittig tended to reject as little more than a masculinist and heterosexist lure. Wittig’s insistence on calling herself a writer, “un écrivain,” rather than a “woman writer,” a sentiment echoed in Suzette Robichon’s obituary tribute, did not mean that she endorsed a humanist tradition in which the masculine trumped all; far from it. Instead, what Robichon recalls is Wittig’s refusal to cede the universal to the masculine, her insistence on “universalizing a particular point of view [here, a lesbian point of view] through the generalization of a pronoun.”27 Although Butler reads the obituary as lending itself to established humanist readings, she disputes the implication that Wittig was a humanist and, in so doing, seems to have reconsidered, in the dialogic back-and-forth that characterizes her work, her previous assessment in Gender Trouble that “Wittig calls for a position beyond sex that returns her theory to a problematic metaphysics of presence” (124), so crucial to a traditional understanding of humanism. Butler’s return to Wittig might temper, perhaps, de Lauretis’s accu-sation that Butler’s work “mainstreamed” Wittig within a U.S. academic context in a way that “mistook” Wittig’s radicality as buttressing a prescriptive, literalist separatism.28

In a critical realm as laden as “ours” is with accusatory and dismissive infighting, such a tempering, let alone a softening, after the death of one of the “fighters” may itself be dismissed as utopian. Wittig herself was hardly a stranger to such fights, nor are Butler and Fuss, nor is de Lauretis, nor, it would seem, are any of us. The complicity of the logic of critical competition in a broader, more devastating logic of capitalist competition remains an open question, but within that general problematic, it seems that de Lauretis is not entirely without reason when she holds Butler accountable for “the relative disregard or condescension in which Wittig’s work has been typically held in gender and queer studies until now” (57). We would be quick to add, however, that where we part company with de Lauretis is in the affective charge of her assessment, which functions as an accusation, as if Butler, however “right” or “wrong” in her reading of Wittig, could have controlled its repercussions, as if the author of a work that became as influential as Gender Trouble could be held accountable for the vagaries of influence itself.29 Attempting to temper the affect of accusation, we would submit that Fuss and others writing in the late 1980s and early 1990s also had a hand in forging a view of Wittig that, eliding the protocols of post-Marxist thought (which Wittig, as we have seen, engaged but by no means simply endorsed), missed some of the implications of her understanding of subjectivity, universality, and language as a material practice.

A leitmotif in all the essays of this special issue is Wittig’s relationship to feminism, gay and lesbian liberation, and, more tensely, “queer theory,” a relationship that we at once recognize and would yet complicate by way of a back-and- forth engagement with other approaches, most notably, as we show below, those of Marxism and the Frankfurt School of critical theory. To do so is not to discount still more approaches, such as postcolonial feminism, rather telegraphically mentioned by de Lauretis, or, more explicitly, an entire strain of literary theory and experimentation, especially in and around the nouveau roman, and whose most signal example is, for Wittig, the work of Nathalie Sarraute, celebrated in her essay “The Literary Workshop,” published here for the first time in English. Although most of the following essays focus on Wittig’s relationship to feminism and, more pointedly, queer theory, Wiegman cautions in her essay not to “re-member” Wittig according to our current preoccupations: “Let us not incorporate her into queer studies by memorializing her into the current habits of critique, or . . . use her again as a feminist weapon against queer theory, as if the only thing interesting about second-wave feminist thought were the tug of war it offers to every iteration of post-structuralist thought.”

Whatever the reader’s assessment of Wiegman’s assertions, we concur that the alternatives that she delineates — Wittig as anticipating queer theory or attacking it — hardly suffice. As several of the following essays bear witness, Wittig will continue to be remembered, and even “re-membered,” as one of the most compelling voices of the historical moment that saw the rise of queer theory, however close to or distant from queer theory she “ultimately” may “really” be. Accordingly, and in an attempt to complicate a debate whose major players (feminism, queer theory) have grown somewhat sluggish from overuse, we would like to flesh out, ever so briefly, what we have heretofore only mentioned in passing: that another player, one typically left on the sidelines, is the critical theory pioneered by the Frankfurt School social theorists. By making such a claim, we do not mean to deny the “obvious”: that Wittig does not address such thinkers as Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse in any sustained way and, no less important, that these same thinkers evince little if any substantive engagement with gender as a category of analysis, even Marcuse, with his interest in eros, certainly included.30 Accordingly, rather than argue for any direct “influence” or “inspiration,” we propose that careful attention to Wittig’s deployment of materialism, which distinguished her from others in the feminist movement in the United States, nonetheless reveals significant affinities to a Frankfurt School analytics of social transformation.

Wittig’s insistence on materialist analysis; her attention to economic and political as well as linguistic and discursive forms of domination; her back-and- forth engagement of the particular and the universal; her deployment of a negative and positive hermeneutics of ideology and utopia; her defense of concrete subjectivity (albeit without the psychologistic vocabulary of Marcuse); her suspicion of pragmatism, empiricism, evidence, and “common sense”; her refusal of resignation in the face of a profoundly “unhappy” social reality (more stalwart, though, than that of Adorno); her “yearning for [another] normative totality” against and out of the oppressive normative totality of the here and now;31 her creative reworking of myth as a mnemonic or, better yet, an anamnestic device against the naturalized myths of the status quo; and, last but not least, her repeated critical invocation of Marx and Engels: all suggest, ever so subtly, the possibility of viewing the Frankfurt School critique of Marxism as offering a historically intermediate “bridge” between Marx and Engels and a materialist thinker like Wittig. It is an intellectual lineage that, for all its fissures and factions, has, we believe, a good deal to recommend it: as philosophers of the operations of domination, the members of the Frankfurt School, many of whom were Jewish exiles from Germany, modeled a compelling alternative to the influential psychoanalytically inflected accounts of femininity-as-difference promoted during Wittig’s student days and early years as a writer in France and, later, in the United States.

We recognize, of course, that the proposition of “remembering” the Frankfurt School even as we remember or, as Wiegman would have it, “un-remember” Wittig may sound odd, dare we say queer, to more than one “queer theorist” and Wittigian scholar alike, for whom the library of critical references may be open toward the future but closed, all too securely, toward other lines of thought in the past. Yet just as Wiegman argues for reengaging with second-wave feminist thought, we would like to argue for a concurrent reengagement with critical theory. One of the few references to the Frankfurt School in the dawning years of lesbian and gay studies comes relatively early on, in Dennis Altman’s Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation (1971), in which the author puzzles over the dearth of attention to thinkers such as Marcuse in liberation literature.32 Altman wrote that the ultimate goal of “homosexual liberation” was not simply to live in freedom as a lesbian or gay man but to live in a society in which the division of a population into male and female, gay and straight would no longer make sense, a society in which individuals would be free “from the surplus repression that prevents us recognizing our essential androgynous and erotic natures.”33 Although we would take issue with the notion of an “essential androgynous” nature, Altman does make an intriguing “early” case against a reified homosexuality that would risk mimicking a reified heterosexuality. Altman’s argument has a classically Frankfurt School ring to it, inasmuch as it seeks equality not within a given constellation of available subject positions, but rather through a challenge to the adequacy of these positions as descriptive of a sphere of freedom in the first place. While the terms surely differed, Wittig also contested the notion of liberation written in oppression’s tongue, even though she would take the generally perceived “inadequacy” of “lesbian” as one of the strongest arguments for its adequacy in a contestatory mode.

Inasmuch as critics in the anglophone “world” tend to associate Wittig with her theoretical essays of the late seventies and eighties, it is perhaps easy to forget that intellectually Wittig “came of age” in the 1960s, for she was in her late twenties and early thirties, and hence at the beginning of her career, when imagination was empowered, however fleetingly, on the walls and in the streets of Paris in 1968. Of course, Wittig was hardly alone, for critical theory, with its subtle if often contradictory and conflicted understandings of political opposition, its refusal of a reified real, its anatomy of domination, and, not least, its antiascetic invocation of the body and its pleasures as a means of criticality, made Frankfurt School theorists favorites of 1960s revolutionary thought generally. Wittig’s first novel, L’opoponax, was published in 1964, the same year as Mar-cuse’s treatise for the coming revolution, One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, which, tellingly enough, Wittig translated into French in 1968 — with revisions by Marcuse himself.34 The two works bear, to be sure, almost no immediately visible relation other than chronology, but by the early 1970s, when Wittig participated in the first important public demonstration by the Mouvement de Libération des Femmes (MLF) or Women’s Liberation Movement, the affinities — and differences — between Marcuse’s critical theory and Wittig’s own writing and political practice became compelling, though they more often than not have gone unnoticed.35 By the late 1970s and early 1980s, Wittig, in a series of essays whose revolutionary charge is perhaps best measured in the controversy and conflict they occasioned, began to unpack the heterosexual assumptions of feminism, or heterofeminism, and to dispute its reliance on a matrocentric, feel-good, “woman is wonderful” logic. It is a logic that Jardine, in a line that includes thinkers like Biddy Martin, retains — compellingly to our eyes — as a critical problem.36 Amid all the twists and turns, all the divergences and disagreements, one thing, at least, seems clear: a cohesive and celebratory concept of femininity, which “The Straight Mind,” with its emphasis on the lesbian, presents as a virtual lure, is hard-pressed to stand alone.

Wittig was central to the formation of a materialist feminism that traced its beginnings at least from Beauvoir’s Second Sex and included such key feminist intellectuals as the aforementioned Delphy and Guillaumin. Over time, their alliance or détente with other less materialist factions within the MLF developed into opposition. In 1979 hostilities broke into the open as a faction associated with the theoretical works of Antoinette Fouque, Hélène Cixous, and to a lesser extent Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray, came to trademark the MLF name. The members of the faction, called Psychanalyse et politique or Psych et Po, foregrounded psychoanalysis, flirted with or even embraced separatism, and dedicated their work to the rediscovery of a “femaleness” no longer conceived as being in the service of men.37 In claiming the MLF name as their own, Psych et Po sought, moreover, to appropriate the history of feminism in France to their differentialist perspective and, through a savvy use of the courts, acquired the legal wherewithal to remake the MLF in their own image. Although the MLF for a while papered over a number of doctrinal differences in pursuit of a common goal, by the late 1970s, Psych et Po, with its emphasis on an analysis of female difference, had created a crisis that split the MLF and forced all other groups to respond. Wittig, who had emigrated to the United States, added her voice to the materialist collective publishing Questions féministes, but that group soon split over the issue of lesbianism.

In contrast with Psych et Po, Wittig understood any theoretical or political pursuit of a transvalued femaleness as an inherently conservative position, for in promoting terms as dear to the status quo as woman and femininity, this dominant modality of feminism risked legitimating a belief in a “real” as unassailably factual. The best that feminists could hope for was, in other words, a reevaluation of the social valence of femaleness, not a refusal of the notion of this structuring difference in the first place. As Wittig declared in 1980:

It is up to us, historically, to define in materialist terms what we call oppression, to analyze women as a class, which amounts to saying that the category “woman,” as well as the category “man,” are political and economic categories and consequently are not eternal. . . . Our first task, it seems, is thus always carefully to dissociate “women” (the class within which we fight) and “woman,” the myth. For “woman” does not exist for us; she is nothing other than an imaginary formation, while “women” are the product of a social relation. (“On ne naît pas femme,” PS, 58 – 59)

In this and other formulations, and in clear contrast to many of her feminist allies, Wittig suggests, we submit, a little examined or hushed, even “unconscious,” affinity to a Frankfurt School criticality. In contradistinction to the Enlightenment ideal that by shining the so-called light of reason into the dark recesses of oppression one will necessarily vanquish domination, Frankfurt School theorists, like Wittig, suggested instead the myriad ways in which reason could become, indeed had become, a tool of domination, so much so that the subjugated could apply complicated and nuanced forms of analysis to everything but the fact of their own subjection.

For Wittig, feminism’s embrace of womanhood constituted precisely such an instrumentalization of reason in the service of subjection, what Marcuse termed “repressive desublimation,” in order to signal how seemingly liberational concepts and propositions like sexual liberation could in fact serve the interests of repressive power. As Wittig wrote, and as we have already had occasion to note: “Having stood up to fight for a sexless society, we now find ourselves entrapped in the familiar deadlock of ‘woman is wonderful’ ” (“On ne naît pas femme,” PS, 56). Even the most liberationist propositions, born with the best of intentions, become repressive when they delimit a radical reformulation of the present social real by using terms that have historically been complicit with hegemonic idealization (i.e., woman in contrast to lesbian) rather than by inquiring how the constitution of that real is itself already an act of containment. Moreover, by critiquing the extant social real, and thus making it seem capacious and liberal in its willingness to embrace and cultivate those living at its margins, such criticism runs the risk of shoring up instead of breaking down authority. As Wittig knew, the celebration of the margins with the “positive” language of the center, far from destabilizing authority, might actually only reinforce the center as a beguilingly compassionate and comprehensive site from which definition, which is to say power, emanates.

What distinguished and distinguishes Wittig’s work was its fearless application of a critique of preestablished heterosexist and masculinist ideals to what her allies (feminist thinkers of the MLF) sought to describe as the ground of their political claim: feminine identity. Like the Frankfurt School theorists, Wittig understood the social not as a preexisting material given but as a construction, a profoundly mediated world picture premised in part on a violent denial of its ideological foundations. Such works as Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, written during the Second World War but not published until afterward, and Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1955) rejected a reified social reality, which is to say, a notion of social reality as being independent of ideology. For Horkheimer and Adorno, the real was historically determined and contingent both in terms of the forms it took and in terms of the ability of the perceiving subject to comprehend those forms. But rather than acknowledge its historical contingency, the real, or rather the witting and unwitting agents of the real, instead sought to naturalize and render transparent its forms, consigning the perceiver not to the active realm of constructing what was perceived but to the passive and politically malleable role of simply “recognizing” what was supposedly always already there. For the Frankfurt School, therefore, to be an agent of social change was to be necessarily coterminous with that to be opposed, and the key task was to pierce the veil of illusion through which ideology structures the perception of the real and to begin the slow, difficult process of denaturalizing it. But the problem was that thought, no matter how self-conscious, was still but an expression of the social structures in which it occurred and thus carried embedded within it, almost by definition, a failure of the imagination. As a result, the Frankfurt School criticized “pragmatic solutions” to social issues as, at best, but incremental adjustments to the fact of domination.

Part One | Part Two | go to Part Three