The loss of Monique Wittig's live voice and future texts in January 2003 made me deeply sad, especially so for those closest to her, who loved her. My own sadness has taken the form of a profound political, intellectual, historical, and literary melancholia. Wittig's impact on literature, feminism, philosophy, lesbian and queer theory, and more has been extensive and inimitable. Wittig was a thinker and poet whom I admired, and also a colleague and a famous person whom I happened to know. She was on the periphery of my private life, but at the heart of my poetic one. Wittig's voice, particularly her poetic voice, has always been a vital part of my thinking and my conversations about feminism, universality, foundationalism, and psychoanalysis; about heterocentrism, queer theory, and postcolonial and antiracist thinking; indeed, about the possibility of political alliances across all of these often conflicted discursive fields. But Wittig and I rarely encountered each other directly. Hardly ever. Except once upon a time . . .
In what follows I take the risk of "anecdotal theory" to explore three encounters with Monique Wittig and her work.1 I will not talk about my poetically tortured encounters with Les guérillères as I wrote my MA thesis on Wittig in 1977; or about the utter muteness I experienced on first hearing Wittig declare at the 1978 MLA that "lesbians are not women"; or about the impatient incomprehension I felt when Simone de Beauvoir insisted on reading out loud to me some of Wittig's most difficult writing during my visits to Beauvoir's studio in Paris in 1979.2 Rather, I want to insist on those encounters I had with Wittig that changed me, and my thinking, across three decades. I do so to focus on three controversial questions that I believe must continue to be at the heart of the conversations, debates, and, yes, disagreements [End Page 455] among feminist and queer theorists as we move forward: the questions of sexual difference, of universalism, and of motherhood. As I do so, I keep in mind something that Carolyn Heilbrun said long ago: "When a subject is highly controversial, and any question about sex is that, one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold."3
First Encounter: The Question of Sexual Difference
It's 1979: the morning of the huge "The Future of Difference" conference that I was chairing at Barnard College in New York City.4 In the photo included here, you see me deep in conversation with Monique Wittig—well, sort of deep in conversation with her. I had invited Wittig to the conference to explain to the six hundred feminist registrants what was going on in Paris: why, for example, were the two groups Questions Féministes and Psychanalyse et Politique so violently opposed to each other? In my youthful naïveté, I felt that the intellectual and political differences between the two and their approaches to gender and politics were so important, and so complicated, that only a genuine player could explain them. But there were two problems that morning: (1) I woke up with a classic case of laryngitis—I was unable to say a word; and (2) Wittig was very upset with me. As I walked into the Barnard Women's Center ready to struggle mutely through the morning, Wittig walked straight up to me and started scolding me in the fastest French I had ever heard. She assured me that she had left France "because there were no feminists there," and she was furious with me for using the word difference in the conference's title. The term difference is obviously so historically and epistemologically loaded in post-post-structuralist thought that I limit myself here to its resonant meaning in 1979: biological sexual difference as embodied...