labrys,études féministes

numéro spécial, septembre 2003


When lesbians were not women*

Teresa de Lauretis




There was a time, in discontinuous space—a space dispersed across the continents—when lesbians were not women.  I don’t mean to say that now lesbians are women, although a few do think of themselves that way, while others say they are butch or femme; many prefer to call themselves queer or transgender; and others identify with female masculinity—there are lots of self-naming options for lesbians today.  But during that time, what lesbians were was that one thing:  not women.  And it all  seemed so clear, at that time.

t would be perhaps appropriate, on this happy occasion, when we are gathered to celebrate the work of Monique Wittig, to tell you a story, a fiction in the style of Les guérillères, or an allegory after Paris-la-Politique, or an epic poem remade like Virgil, non.   Wittig herself is something of a legend now.  But I will not tell you a story—or, not exactly a story.    I’m going to reflect, looking back, on what her work meant for me in the 1980s when I was working in feminist and lesbian studies, and how it still intersects with the critical questions that concern me now.

n the 80s, it was reading Wittig, and the few but wonderfully intense conversations I had with her in Northern California, that first started me on the project of writing lesbian theory as distinct from feminist theory.  The distinction became clear in my mind only after I read three crucial texts:  “The Straight Mind,” “One Is Not Born a Woman,” and The Lesbian Body.  In retrospect, it seems to me that a new figure—a conceptual figure—emerged from those works and was encapsulated in the statement “lesbians are not women.” [1]   Generally misunderstood and criticized from many quarters, nevertheless that statement did fire the imagination and indeed, from the vantage point of today, has proved to be prophetic:  as I said a moment ago, today’s lesbians are many other things—and only rarely women.    But, at that time, the statement “lesbians are not women” had the power to open the mind and to make visible and thinkable a conceptual space that until then had been rendered unthinkable by, precisely, the hegemony of the straight mind—as the space called “the blind spot” is rendered invisible in a car’s rear-view mirror by the frame or chassis of the car itself.  Wittig’s writing opened up a conceptual, virtual space that was foreclosed by all discourses and ideologies left and right, including feminism. 

In that conceptual virtual space, a different kind of woman appeared to me, if I may say so after the title of a book we read at that time. [2]   I called her the eccentric subject. [3]   For, if lesbians are not women, and yet lesbians are, like me, flesh and blood, thinking and writing beings who live in the world and with whom I interact every day, then lesbians are social subjects and, in all likelihood, psychic subjects as well.    I called that subject eccentric not only in the sense of deviating from the conventional, normative path, but also ek-centric in that it did not center itself in the institution that both supports and produces the straight mind, that is, the institution of heterosexuality.  Indeed, that institution did not foresee such a subject and could not contemplate it, could not envision it. 

What characterizes the eccentric subject is a double displacement:  first, the psychic displacement of erotic energy onto a figure that exceeds the categories of sex and gender, the figure Wittig called “the lesbian”; second, the self-displacement or disidentification of the subject from the cultural assumptions and social practices attendant upon the categories of gender and sex.  Here is how Wittig defined that figure:

Lesbian is the only concept I know of which is beyond the categories of sex (woman and man), because the designated subject (lesbian) is not a woman, either economically, or politically, or ideologically.  For what makes a woman is a specific social relation to a man, a relation that we have previously called servitude, a relation which implies personal and physical obligation as well as economic obligation (“forced residence,” domestic corvée, conjugal duties, unlimited production of children, etc.), a relation which lesbians escape by refusing to become or to stay heterosexual.  (p. 20)

To refuse the heterosexual contract, not only in one’s practice of living but also in one’s practice of knowing—what Wittig called a “subjective, cognitive practice”— constitutes an epistemological shift in that it changes the conditions of possibility of both knowing and knowledge, and this constitutes a shift in historical consciousness. [4]

Consciousness of oppression [Wittig wrote] is not only a reaction to (fight against) oppression.  It is also the whole conceptual reevaluation of the social world, its whole reorganization with new concepts, from the point of view of oppression... call it a subjective, cognitive practice.  The movement back and forth between the levels of reality (the conceptual reality and the material reality of oppression, which are both social realities) is accomplished through language.  (pp. 18-19)

The work of language in that movement back and forth is inscribed in the very title of Wittig’s 1981 essay, “On ne naît pas femme.”  If de Beauvoir the philosopher had said, “One is not born but becomes a woman” (and so, in his way, had Freud), Wittig the writer said:  “one is not born a woman” (emphasis added).  Almost the same words, and yet such a difference in meaning—not to say such a sexual difference.  In shifting the emphasis from the word born to the word woman, Wittig’s citation of de Beauvoir’s phrase invoked or mimicked the heterosexual definition of woman as “the second sex,” at once destabilizing its meaning and displacing its affect.

Such a shift entails a dis-placement and a self-displacement:  leaving or giving up a place that is known, that is “home”— physically, emotionally, linguistically, epistemologically—for another place that is unknown, that is not only emotionally but conceptually unfamiliar; a place from which speaking and thinking are at best tentative, uncertain, unauthorized.  But the leaving is not a choice, since one could not live there in the first place.  Thus all aspects of the displacement, from the geopolitical to the epistemological and the affective, are painful and risky, for  they entail a constant crossing back and forth, a remapping of boundaries between bodies and discourses, identities and communities.  At the same time, however, they enable a reconceptualization of the subject, of the relations of subjectivity to social reality, and a position of resistance and agency that is not outside but rather eccentric to the sociocultural apparati of the heterosexual institution.

I remember thinking, at that time, that the possibility to imagine an eccentric subject constituted through disidentification and displacement was somehow related to  one’s geographical, linguistic and cultural dis-location—Wittig’s, from France to the United States; my own, from Italy to the United States. Only later did I find that a similar conception of the subject was emerging in postcolonial theory and would be subsequently articulated in Homi Bhabha’s notion of cultural hybridity and the recent studies on the transnational subject. [5]   However, already back then, in the 80s, I noted the kinship of Wittig’s “lesbian” with other figures of eccentric subjects that emerged from the writings of women or lesbians of color, such as Trinh T. Minh-ha, Gloria Anzaldúa, Barbara Smith, and Chandra Mohanty.  I would argue, therefore, that Wittig’s critical writings anticipated some of the emphases of today’s postcolonial feminism.

With de Beauvoir and with other feminists of our generation in France, Italy, Britain and the Americas, Wittig shared the premise that women are not a “natural group” whose oppression would be a consequence of their physical nature, but rather a social and political category, an ideological construct and the product of an economic relation.  Most of us, at that time, 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.  I need not tell you about the theory of materialist feminism, since some of those who articulated it most clearly are present in this room. [6]   I will only say that the definition of gender oppression as a political and subjective category—one that is arrived at from the specific standpoint of the oppressed, in the struggle, and as a form of consciousness—was distinct from the economic, objective category of exploitation.  And that redefinition was also shared by others in North America, such as the black feminist group The Combahee River Collective, for whom gender oppression was indissociable from racist domination. [7]  

But Wittig went further:  if women are a social class whose specific condition of existence is gender oppression, and whose political consciousness affords them a standpoint, a position of struggle, and an epistemological perspective based in lived experience, then what Wittig saw as the goal of feminism was the disappearance of women (as a class).  A curious paradox has occurred in the history of feminism over the past 30 years in relation to this idea.  I will come back to it in a moment, but first allow me to continue with my account of the argument.

In order to imagine what female people would be like in such a classless (i.e., genderless) society, Wittig did not  offer a myth or a fiction but referred to the actual existence of a “lesbian society” which, however marginally, did function in a certain way autonomously from heterosexual institutions.  In this sense, she claimed, lesbians are not women:  “the refusal to become (or to remain) heterosexual always meant to refuse to become a man or a woman, consciously or not.  For a lesbian this goes further than the refusal of the role ‘woman’.  It is the refusal of the economic, ideological, and political power of a man.” [8]   Well, the phrase “lesbian society” had everyone in an uproar.  They took it to be descriptive of a type of social organization, or a blueprint for a futuristic, utopian or dystopian society like the amazons of Les Guérillères or like the all-female communities imagined in Joanna Russ’ science fiction novel The Female Man.  They said Wittig was a utopist, an essentialist, a dogmatic separatist, even a “classic idealist.”  You cannot be a marxist, people said, and speak of a lesbian society.  You can speak of lesbian society only in the liberal political perspective of free choice, according to which anyone is free to live as they like, and that of course is a capitalist myth. 

In effect, Wittig mobilized both the discourse of historical materialism and that of liberal feminism in an interesting strategy, one against the other and each against itself, proving them both inadequate to conceiving the subject in feminist materialist terms. [9]   To this end, she argued, the Marxist concept of class consciousness and the feminist concept of individual subjectivity must be articulated together; their join is what she called a “subjective, cognitive practice,” which implies the reconceptualization of the subject and the relations of subjectivity to sociality from a position that is eccentric to the institution of heterosexuality and therefore exceeds its discursive-conceptual horizon:  the position of the subject lesbian.  Here, then, is the sense in which Wittig proposed the disappearance of women as the goal of feminism. 

Critiques came from all quarters of feminism, including many lesbian quarters; for example, those lesbians who wanted to reclaim femininity for women and rehabilitate its traits of nurturing, compassion, tenderness and caring as equal in value to so-called masculine gender traits; these were the same critics who indicted Wittig’s already famous book The Lesbian Body for what they called its violence.  Critiques came from those who wanted to promote a women’s culture, conceived not as a class but as a community of woman-identified women, and from those who favored the idea of a “lesbian continuum” to which any woman who, for whatever reason, had refused or resisted the institution of marriage could rightfully belong—and be considered a lesbian regardless of sexual choice, behavior or desire.  And critiques also came from those who, on the other hand, considered sexuality and desire central to lesbian subjectivity, but maintained that heterosexuality necessarily defines homosexuality and dictates the very forms of lesbian and gay sexualities, however subversive  or parodic they may be.

These critiques mainly failed to see that Wittig’s “lesbian” was not just an individual with a personal “sexual preference” or a social subject with a simply “political” priority, but the term or conceptual figure for the subject of a cognitive practice and a form of consciousness that are not primordial, universal, or coextensive with human thought, as de Beauvoir would have it, but historically determined and yet subjectively assumed; an eccentric subject constituted in a process of struggle and interpretation; of translation, detranslation and retranslation (as Jean Laplanche might put it); a rewriting of self in relation to a new understanding of society, of history, of culture.

Similarly, her critics did not understand that Wittig’s “lesbian society” did not refer to some collectivity of gay women, but was the term for a conceptual and experiential space carved out of the social field, a space of contradictions, in the here and now, that need be affirmed and not resolved.  When she concluded, “It is we who historically must undertake the task of defining the individual subject in materialist terms,” that we was not the privileged women of de Beauvoir, “qualified to elucidate the situation of woman.” [10]   Wittig’s we was the point of articulation from which to rethink both Marxism and feminism; it was, or so it seemed to me, the term of a particular form of feminist consciousness which, at that historical moment, could only exist as the consciousness of a something else; it was the figure of a subject that exceeds its conditions of subjection, a subject in excess of its discursive construction, a subject of which we only knew what it was not:  not-woman.  Reread the second sentence of Le corps lesbien:  “Ce qui a cours ici, pas une ne l’ignore, n’a pas de nom pour l’heure.” [11]

There is, as I said, a curious paradox in the history of feminism over the past 30 years with regard to Wittig’s call for the disappearance of women.  For, in a certain sense, women have disappeared from the current lexicon of feminist studies, at least in the Anglophone world.  It began in the late 80s, in the wake of identity politics and with the increasing participation of women of color, lesbians and straight, in academic studies, when the word women came to be subjected to the same critique that had dismantled the notion of Woman (capital W, la femme) by the early 80s. [12]   In the 90s, then, to speak of women without racial, ethnic, or other geopolitical modifiers was to take for granted a common and equal oppression based on gender or sex, which disregarded concomitant forms of oppression based on racial, ethnic, class and other differences. [13]

The notion of sexual difference was especially targeted and discarded—not without good reasons—as inadequate, insufficient, Eurocentric and class-centered.  Moreover, in the version of poststructuralist feminism that has become popular in academic feminist and queer theory (where the term “poststructuralist” references almost exclusively the influence of the early Foucault and Derrida), women are understood to be simulacra of the social imaginary, with no inherent physical or psychic substance:  women, like gender, sexuality, the subject, and the body itself, according to this view, are all discursive constructs, sites of convergence of the performative effects of power.  In this perspective, concepts such as Wittig’s “subjective, cognitive practice” or  the notion of lived experience, which was central to feminist theory in the 70s and 80s, have been dismissed as essentialist, naturalizing, ideological [14] or worse, as humanist—which, in the context of the “posthumanist” or postmodern vogue of the 90s, was definitely a derogatory word.  So, in a way, one could say that women have disappeared. [15]

The paradox is this:  Wittig, who had first proposed the disappearance of women, was herself cast in the essentialist, passé or humanist camp.  In the words of one poststructuralist feminist philosopher, “Wittig calls for a position beyond sex that returns her theory to a problematic humanism based in a problematic metaphysics of presence.” [16]   The phrase “metaphysics of presence,” a sign of the influence of Jacques Derrida’s early work, recurs several times in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990), the book that brought Wittig to the attention of non-lesbian and non-feminist readers—and for this reason will be briefly referred to here. 

Marketed as a feminist intervention in the field of French philosophy, the book was widely cited and translated, and became an authoritative text of gender studies and queer theory.  Its extensive discussion of Wittig’s work in the disciplinary context of philosophy effectively mainstreamed Monique Wittig as a French feminist theorist (next to the two others whose names circulated widely in North American universities, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva).  However, Butler objected to Wittig’s radical stance, which she mistook for what she called a “separatist prescriptivism”—as if Wittig had been arguing that all women should become lesbians or that only lesbians could be feminist. 

Like the other critics, Butler failed to understand the figural, theoretical character of Wittig’s “lesbian” and its epistemological valence.  The subject of a cognitive practice based in the lived experience of one’s body, one’s desire, one’s conceptual and psychical dis-identification from the straight mind, Wittig’s “lesbian” was well aware of the power of discourse to shape one’s social and subjective (and I would add, psychic) reality:  “If the discourse of modern theoretical systems and social science exert[s] a power upon us, it is because it works with concepts which closely touch us,” Wittig had written in “The Straight Mind” (pp. 26-27). 

Butler, however, referred to Wittig’s lesbian subject as the “cognitive subject,” endowing it with strong Cartesian connotations, and tossed her theory in the dump of surpassed and discarded philosophies:  to the reader of Gender Trouble, Wittig appears to be an existentialist who believes in human freedom, a humanist who presumes the ontological unity of Being prior to language, an idealist masquerading as a materialist, and most paradoxically of all, an unintentional, unwitting collaborator with the regime of heterosexual normativity. [17]   This, in my opinion, may account for the relative disregard or condescension in which Wittig’s work has been held in gender and queer studies until  now.  Until, that is, the renewed attention to Wittig’s work on the part of a new generation, which brought us here today, may perhaps reopen another virtual space of lesbian thought and writing.

For I would like to emphasize that the conceptual originality and radical import of Wittig’s theory are inscribed in her fiction prior to The Straight Mind: in Les guérillères, the figure of the lesbian as subject of a cognitive practice that enables the reconceptualization of the social and of knowledge itself from a position eccentric to the heterosexual institution is figured in the practice of writing as consciousness of contradiction (“the language you speak is made up of words that are killing you”); a consciousness of writing, living, feeling, and desiring in the noncoincidence of experience and language, in the interstices of representation, “in the intervals that your masters have not been able to fill with their words of proprietors.” [18]   And it is also already there in the first page of Le corps lesbien.

One of the first to grasp this was Elaine Marks who, in her 1979 essay “Lesbian Intertextuality,” wrote:  “In Le corps lesbien Monique Wittig has created, through the incessant use of hyperbole and a refusal to employ traditional body codes, images sufficiently blatant to withstand reabsorption into male literary culture.” [19]   Indeed the thematic topos of the voyage in Wittig’s fiction corresponds to her formal journey as a writer.  Both are voyages without fixed destination, without end, more like a self-displacement that in turn displaces the textual figurations of  classical and Christian mythologies, the Homeric heroes and Christ, in Western literary genres and reinscribes them other-wise:   The Divine Comedy (Virgil, non) and Don Quijote (Voyage sans fin), the epic (Les guérillères), the lyric (Le corps lesbien), the Bildungsroman (L’Opoponax), the encyclopaedic dictionary (Brouillon pour un dictionnaire des Amantes), and later the satire (Paris-la-politique), the political manifesto and the critical essay (The Straight Mind).

 In Le corps lesbien, the odyssey of the lesbian subject j/e  is a journey into language, into the body of Western culture, a season in hell. [20]   “Ce qui a cours ici, pas une ne l’ignore, n’a pas de nom pour l’heure.”  Ici refers at once to the events described in the diegesis and to the process of their inscription, the process of writing:  the dismemberment of the female body limb by limb, organ by organ, secretion by secretion, is at the same time the deconstruction term by term of the anatomical female body as represented or mapped by patriarchal discourse.  The journey and the writing ignore that map, exceed the words of the masters to expose the intervals between them, the gaps of representation, and trespass into the interstices of discourse to re-imagine, re-learn, re-write the body in another libidinal economy.  And yet, the journey and the writing do not produce an alternative map, a whole, coherent, healthy female body or a teleological narrative of love between women with a happy ending, till death do us part.  On the contrary, death is assumed in the lesbian body, inscribed in it from the beginning.  “Fais tes adieux m/a très belle”:  “Ce qui a cours ici” is death, the slow decomposition of the body, the stench, the worms, the open skull. . .  Death is here and now, because it is the inseparable companion and the very condition of desire.

Time and again, over the years, I have returned to this extraordinary text that will not let itself ever be read at one time or “consumed” once and for all.  That the book is about desire (non-phallic desire, to be sure) was always clear to me.  If Virginia Woolf’s Orlando has been called the longest love letter in history (to Virginia Sackville-West), Le corps lesbien, I thought, might be called the longest love poem in modern literature.  But what has become clear to me only lately is that Le corps lesbien is not about love; it is an extended poetic image of sexuality, a canto or a vast fresco, brutal and thrilling, seductive and awe-inspiring. 

Let me be clear:  I do not mean sexuality in Foucault’s sense of a technology that produces “sex” as the truth of proper bourgeois subjects.  I mean it in the sense of Freud's conception of sexuality as a psychic drive that disrupts the coherence of the ego; a pleasure principle that opposes, shatters, resists or compromises the logic of the reality principle, that is, the symbolic logic of the name of the father, the family, the nation, and all the other institutions of society that are based on the macroinstitution, and the presumption, of heterosexuality.  Freud saw these two forces, the pleasure principle and the reality principle, as both active concurrently in the psyche and at war with each other.  When he later reconfigured them on a scale beyond the individual, he named one Eros and the other death drive.  But it is the latter, the death drive, and not the Platonic Eros, that is the agent of disruption, unbinding, negativity, and resistance that he had first identified in the sexual drive: it is the death drive, and not Eros, that is most closely, structurally associated with sexuality in Freud’s metapsychology, his theory of the psyche. [21]  

This warring of two psychic forces is what I now see in Wittig’s text:  its inscription of the enigma of sexuality and of  non-phallic, non-Oedipal desire.  And this is perhaps what has always provoked my fascination with Le corps lesbien and the urge to return to it time and time again:  the enigma that it poses and the enigma that it is.


Teresa de Lauretis, born and educated in Italy, received her doctorate in Modern Languages and Literatures from Bocconi University in Milan.  She has taught Italian and comparative literature, film theory, women’s and gender studies at several American universities and is currently Professor of the History of Consciousness, an interdisciplinary doctoral program at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  She has held Visiting Professor
appointments at universities in Canada, Germany, Italy, and The Netherlands, as well as the United States.The author of over one hundred essays and numerous books, de Lauretis has written on semiotics, psychoanalysis, film, literature, science fiction, feminist and cultural theory in both English and Italian.  Some of her works have been widely anthologized and translated into thirteen other languages.  Her  books in English include Alice Doesn't:  Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema (1984), Technologies of Gender (1987), The Practice of Love:  Lesbian Sexuality and Perverse Desire (1994), and three edited volumes of essays including Feminist Studies/Critical Studies (1986).  She has also guest-edited two special issues of journals, including the "Queer Theory" issue of differences:  A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies (1990).  Her books in Italian include La sintassi del desiderio:  struttura e forme del romanzo sveviano (Longo, Ravenna 1976), Umberto Eco (La Nuova Italia, Firenze 1981), Differenza e indifferenza sessuale (Estro, Firenze 1989), Sui generis. Scritti di teoria femminista (Feltrinelli, Milano 1996), Pratica d'amore.  Percorsi del desiderio perverso (La Tartaruga, Milano 1997) and Soggetti eccentrici (Feltrinelli, Milano 1999).  She is currently working on a book on
the death drive in cinema.

*  This paper was written for and delivered at the Colloque “Autour de L’oeuvre Politique, Théorique et littéraire de Monique Wittig,” sous la direction de Marie-Hélène Bourcier et Suzette Robichon, Paris, 16-17 juin 2001.

[1]    “The Straight Mind” (1980) in The Straight Mind and Other Essays (Boston:  Beacon Press, 1992), p. 32.

[2]    René Vivien, A Woman Appeared to Me [Une Femme m’apparuit, 1904].  (Renée Vivien, née Pauline Tarn, was an Anglo-American poet and friend of Colette, living in France.)

[3]    See Teresa de Lauretis, “Eccentric Subjects,” Feminist Studies, vol. 16, no. 1 (Spring 1990), pp. 115-150; “Soggetti eccentrici” in T. de Lauretis, Soggetti eccentrici (Milano:  Feltrinelli, 1999), pp. 11-57; and “Sujetos excéntricos” in T. de Lauretis, Diferencias:  Etapas de un camino a través del feminismo (Madrid:  Editorial horas y HORAS, 2000) pp. 111-152.

[4]   A similar point is made by Namascar Shaktini:  “Wittig’s reorganization of metaphor around the lesbian body represents an epistemological shift from what seemed until recently the absolute, central metaphor—the phallus” ( “Displacing the Phallic Subject:  Wittig’s Lesbian Writing,” Signs 8:1 [1982]: 29).

[5]    See Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London:  Routledge, 1994).

[6]   The text that circulated in the anglophone world was Christine Delphy, Close to Home:  A Materialist Analysis of Women’s Oppression, trans. and ed. by Diana Leonard (Amherst:  Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1984).

[7]   See “The Combahee River Collective Statement” in Barbara Smith, ed., Home Girls:  A Black Feminist Anthology (New York:  Kitchen Table:  Women of Color Press, 1983), pp. 272-282.

[8]    “One Is Not Born a Woman,” in The Straight Mind, p. 13.

[9] First she deployed the marxist concepts of ideology, class and social relations against liberal feminism: she argued that to accept the terms of gender or sexual difference, which construct woman as  an “imaginary formation” on the basis of women’s biological-erotic value to men, makes it impossible to understand that the very terms “woman” and “man” “are political categories and not natural givens,” and thus prevents one from questioning the real socioeconomic relations of gender.  Second, however, Wittig claimed the feminist notion of self as a subject who, although socially produced, is apprehended and lived in its concrete, personal singularity; and this notion of self she held against marxism, which denied an individual subjectivity to the members of the oppressed classes.  Although “materialism and subjectivity have always been mutually exclusive,” she insisted on both class consciousness and individual subjectivity at once:  without the latter “there can be no real fight or transformation.  But the opposite is also true; without class and class consciousness there are no real subjects, only alienated individuals” (p. 19).

[10]   Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. H. M. Parshley (New York:  Vintage, 1974 [1949]), p. xxxii.

[11]   Monique Wittig, Le corps lesbien (Paris:  Minuit, 1972), p. 7.

[12]   See de Lauretis, Alice Doesn’t:  Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema (Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 1984).

[13]    See Robyn Wiegman, “Object Lessons:  Men, Masculinity, and the Sign Women,” Signs:  Journal of Women in Culture and Society 26. 2 (2001):  355-388.

[14]   See Joan Wallach Scott, “The Evidence of Experience,” Critical Inquiry 17 (Summer 1991): 773-797.  Interestingly enough, the notion of expérience vécue has now become central to postcolonial and critical race theory stemming from the rereading of Frantz Fanon, while the concept of experience is now being revaluated in the very writings of Foucault, which were formerly read as the staunch basis of the social-constructionist position against the essentialist position allegedly represented by “the evidence of experience.”

[15]    A recent move to replace academic programs in Women’s Studies with Gender Studies has met with very few objections.  See Leora Auslander, “Do Women’s + Feminist + Men’s + Lesbian + Gay + Queer Studies = Gender Studies?,” differences 9. 3 (1997):  1-25.  The author’s answer to her title question is an enthusiastic yes.

[16]    Judith Butler, Gender Trouble:  Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York:  Routledge, 1990), p. 124.

> [17] Here are some typical passages from Gender Trouble:

Wittig’s radical feminist theory occupies an ambiguous position within the continuum of theories on the question of the subject.  On the one hand, Wittig appears to dispute the metaphysics of substance, but on the other hand, she retains the human subject, the individual, as the metaphysical locus of agency. (p. 25)

In her defense of the “cognitive subject,” Wittig appears to have no metaphysical quarrel with hegemonic modes of signification or representation; indeed, the subject, with its attribute of self-determination, appears to be the rehabilitation of the agent of existential choice under the name of the lesbian.  (p. 19)

As a subject who can realize concrete universality through freedom, Wittig’s lesbian confirms rather than contest the normative promise of humanist ideals premised on the metaphysics of substance.  (p. 20)

Clearly her belief in a “cognitive subject” that exists prior to language facilitates her understanding of language as an instrument, rather than as a field of significations that preexist and structure subject-formation itself. (p. 154, note 27)

Wittig’s radical disjunction between straight and gay replicates the kind of disjunctive binarism that she herself characterizes as the divisive philosophical gesture of the straight mind. (p. 121)

Lesbianism that defines itself in radical exclusion from heterosexuality deprives itself of the capacity to resignify the very heterosexual constructs by which it is partially and inevitably constituted.  As a result, that lesbian strategy would consolidate compulsory heterosexuality in its oppressive [as opposed to “volitional or optional”, p. 121] forms.  (p. 128)

Wittig’s materialism... understands the institution of heterosexuality as the founding basis of the male-dominated social orders.  “Nature” and the domain of materiality are ideas, ideological constructs, produced by these social institutions to support the political interests of the heterosexual contract.  In this sense, Wittig is a classic idealist for whom nature is understood as a mental representation.  (p. 125)

[18]   Les Guérillères, trans. David LeVay (Boston:  Beacon Press, 1985), p. 114.

[19]   Elaine Marks, “Lesbian Intertextuality,” in Homosexualities and French Literature, ed. George Stambolian and Elaine Marks (Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1979), p. 375.

[20]   As I pointed out elsewhere, the linguistically impossible subject pronoun j/e may be read in several theoretically possible ways that go from the more conservative (the slash in j/e represents the division of the Lacanian subject) to the less conservative (j/e can be expressed by writing but not by speech, recalling Derridean différance), to the radical feminist (“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” (Wittig, quoted in Margaret Crosland’s introduction to The Lesbian Body in the paperback edition I own (Boston:  Beacon Press, 1986); and the play of j/e-tu may suggest the butch-femme double subject of lesbian camp performance envisaged by Sue-Ellen Case.  See Teresa de Lauretis, “Sexual Indifference and Lesbian Representation,” Theatre Journal  40. 2 (May 1988):  155-177; translated as Differenza e indifferenza sessuale:  Per l’elaborazione di un pensiero lesbico (Firenze:  Estro, 1989), Film in Vidno (Ljubljana:  SKUC, 1998), and “Diferencia e indiferencia sexual” in T. de Lauretis, Diferencias:  Etapas de un camino a través del feminismo (Madrid:  horas y HORAS, 2000).

[21]   Jean Laplanche, Life and Death in Psycho-Analysis, trans. by Jeffrey Mehlman (Baltimore:  The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), ch. 6.  See also Laplanche, “La pulsion de mort dans la théorie de la pulsion sexuelle,” in La pulsion de mort (Paris:  PUF, 1986).


labrys,études féministes

numéro spécial, septembre 2003