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  • Wittig's Material Practice:Universalizing a Minority Point of View
  • Judith Butler (bio)

It is not easy to know how to read Monique Wittig's assertion that a text by a minority writer is effective only if it succeeds in making the minority point of view universal. Perhaps there is something called, for instance, a lesbian point of view, that in being universalized is being legislated to everyone. The consequence would not be that everyone is henceforth a lesbian, or even that everyone is henceforth lesbianized—whatever that might mean. The task is, rather, to establish a minority point of view that can sustain or bear a universal perspective. Of course, it is not immediately clear in what this universal perspective might consist and what it means to "bear" it, but let us consider for a moment how this works, if it works.

There are, of course, traditions within philosophy that call for a position characterized as a concrete universal (Hegel) or a singular universal (Kierkegaard), and these seem to suggest only that the subject is at once situated and generalized, and that a dual perspective is occasioned as a consequence. Sometimes the dual perspective can be occupied without conflict, as is eventually the case with Hegel, but sometimes it is lived as a contradiction or paradox, as it is with Kierkegaard. If the conjunction between the universal and the particular is a smooth one, then one can say, with ease, "Yes, I am a lesbian, but I am also a human, and I speak from both positions." In this case, the particular adds to the universal or specifies it, but does not produce a problem for the universal as such. This is not Wittig's claim, since the universalizing of the particular that Wittig seeks is one that poses a very serious problem for the universal, as it has been traditionally understood.

Could it be that Wittig is putting forth a standpoint epistemology, a way to see and describe the world from a particular point of view that nonetheless becomes authoritative over time? Could it be that the truth of the social structure [End Page 519] is comprehensible as a whole only from the position of oppression? To answer these questions, we have to understand what Wittig means by universalizing. What kind of action is this? I have already offered a few mistaken formulations in an effort to find out what it means. For instance, if we take universalizing a point of view to be legislating the point of view, then we have done nothing more than oppose a dominant point of view that legislates itself as the universal with a minority one that does the same; the logic remains the same, and nothing changes, though some groups have changed places. At the end of Paris-la-politique, Wittig writes: "Neither gods nor goddesses; neither masters nor mistresses."1 Wittig here signals that whatever reversals of power take place, it will not do simply to reverse positions of power without radically changing the framework that configures power relations themselves. Something fracturing, if not brutal, must happen to the framework itself. Paradoxically perhaps, it is this nihilating exercise that is undertaken by the process, the action, of universalization. For instance, in "The Mark of Gender" Wittig writes:

In Les Guérillères, I try to universalize the point of view of elles [feminine plural]. The goal of this approach is not to feminize the world but to make the categories of sex obsolete in language. I therefore set up elles in the text as the absolute subject of the world. To succeed textually, I needed to adopt some very draconian measures, such as to eliminate, at least in the first two parts, he (il) or they-he (ils). I wanted to produce a shock for the reader entering a text in which elles by its unique presence constitutes an assault, yes, even for female readers.2

To universalize, then, means first of all to render categories of sex obsolete in language. Wittig uses the plural feminine, and by using it precisely in the way that she describes, the categories of sex can no longer function. It is unclear whether the...


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pp. 519-533
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