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  • Monique Wittig and the Revolution of Pronouns
  • Laure Murat, assistant professor in the Department of French and Francophone Studies
On Monique Wittig: Theoretical, Political, and Literary Essays Namascar Shaktini , ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005. xvi + 230 pp.

Books entirely devoted to Monique Wittig are infrequent enough to make us pay special attention to the book edited by Namascar Shaktini, who has dedicated her whole academic career to the study of the author of The Straight Mind and Other Essays.1

The volume is divided into five sections, but one can immediately see that "Critical Approaches" (section 3) is not only the physical center and the longest section but also the core of the book's intellectual project. Its aim, summarized in the preface, is to "respond to influential misreadings"—transparently targeting Judith Butler's critique, in Gender Trouble, of Wittig's work—"that dismiss her [Wittig's] writing as 'essentialist', 'humanist' and/or 'lesbian separatist'" (ix).2 If this statement fails to answer questions such as what constitutes a "misreading" (is it an erroneous interpretation? a misunderstanding? or a provocative dialogue?) and is silent about the reasons why this misreading was so "influential," some of the responses are nevertheless rich and stimulating.

Teresa de Lauretis's contribution, carefully re-placing Wittig's work in the historical context, pays an interesting personal tribute to the author of the famous statement "lesbians are not women." De Lauretis reminds us that by considering women as a class and the lesbian as a figure that "exceeds the categories of sex and gender" (52), outside the political regime of heterosexuality, Wittig "opened up a conceptual, virtual space" that had been unthinkable before (52). It initiated de Lauretis's own reflection on the "eccentric subject," the problem of disidentification and displacement, and even "anticipated some of the emphases of today's postcolonial feminism" (53). Her text can be read as an homage to Wittig the theorist and the poet, intertwined roles that Linda M. G. Zerilli analyzes in what she calls "Monique Wittig's poetic revolution" (87).

According to Zerilli, Wittig's purpose was not "to put sex into doubt but [End Page 600] to dramatize the space and practice of freedom" (91) and to shape "the free act that eschews truth in search of meaning and a new grammar of difference" (93). Focusing on Les guérillères and the use of the pronoun "elles" (a plural of "she" or a feminine "they," which has no counterpart in English) as a way to universalize the lesbian subject, Zerilli stresses that language is at the heart of Wittig's radical project to transform the social contract.3 Therefore, the problem of translation, frequently conjured up in several of the book's essays, is one key to the reception of Wittig's work in the United States: how to render forcefully the "on" ("we," "you," and "one" together) central to L'opoponax, the slashed "j/e" (translated as "I") of Le corps lesbien, or the "elles" (severely mistranslated as "the women") of Les guérillères?4 How to transpose into another language this revolutionary grammar that structures a poetic world with a political mind?

Wittig's literary project is here enlightened by the writer herself. In an excellent move, Shaktini included in the volume the first-ever English translation of the founding manifesto "For a Women's Liberation Movement," "Some Remarks on Les Guérillères" (published only in the French version of The Straight Mind and Other Essays), and the previously unpublished "Some Remarks on The Lesbian Body." Wittig details here what we could call her aesthetics of the fragment, of the margin, as well as her cinematographic technique of "montage," common among the writers of the nouveau roman, such as Michel Butor, Alain Robbe-Grillet, or Robert Pinget. She also goes back, again, to the pronoun, especially in her work on Les guérillères: "My goal was to make elles come as a shock for the reader, as a surprise; since elles holds the whole story, a sort of disorientation should follow from it. The reader enters the book and finds her/himself confronted with an elles that is not familiar...


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