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Reviewed by:
  • Le Chantier littéraire
  • Renate Günther
Le Chantier littéraire. By Monique Wittig. (Des deux sexes et autres). Donnemarie-Dontilly: Éditions iXe; Lyon: Presses universitaires de Lyon, 2010. 226 pp. Pb €14.00.

Completed in 1986, Le Chantier littéraire is Monique Wittig’s thesis for the diplôme de l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales. Although some of the material developed here has already appeared in Feminist Issues, this book is the integral version of Wittig’s thesis, which she reworked only a few months before her death in 2003. Le Chantier littéraire comprises five chapters on language and literature, set within the intellectual context of Marxism, structuralism, and materialist feminism that inflected Wittig’s own work from her first novel L’Opoponax (1964). These essays provide the theoretical foundations of Wittig’s practice as a writer, highlighting the relationship between her contribution to the nouveau roman and her political commitment as a radical lesbian whose work was instrumental in the development of contemporary queer theory. For Wittig, language is used as a weapon of subjugation and as a way of maintaining social hierarchies. If, on the other hand, literature uses language as a means of social transformation, Wittig’s chantier alludes to the workshop where the writer constantly reshapes words into a ‘machine de guerre’ (p. 73), the metaphorical Trojan horse that can subvert dominant social discourses. This political engagement with words reveals an urgent need to strip language of its social connotations, as the process of writing focuses on what Wittig calls ‘la brutification du langage’ (p. 26), the rediscovery of language prior to the social fabrication of meaning. Wittig refers to Nathalie Sarraute as a writer whose novels exemplify this ability to reappropriate and use language subversively. Indeed, she repeatedly emphasizes her debt to Sarraute and other writers of the nouveau roman, whose denaturalization of realist conventions she [End Page 274] acknowledges as a profoundly political process. Wittig’s own playful experimentation with conventions is apparent throughout Le Chantier littéraire as she humorously flouts the rules of academic discourse. Although her reflections on literature are influenced by structuralism, Wittig criticizes the latter for its tendency to analyse textual productions in isolation from their social context. Le Chantier littéraire, then, seeks to re-establish the link between literature and reality, no more so than in the final chapter, where Wittig uses gender as an example of a philosophical category whose constructedness has become obscured by the fact that it is part of everyday language. For Wittig, the manipulation of language becomes central to the destruction of gender, which she considers to be essential if women are to gain access to universal subjectivity. In the concluding sections Wittig identifies the universalization of pronouns as the central theme of her writing, exemplified by her use of the indefinite ‘on’ in L’Opoponax and the introduction of ‘elles’ as the gender-neutral plural in Les Guérillères (1969). Le Chantier littéraire is the first integral text to draw together the different strands of Wittig’s work as a writer and theorist; as such, it will prove an invaluable resource to students and researchers in contemporary literature, critical theory, and gender studies.

Renate Günther
University of Sheffield


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pp. 274-275
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