- Monique Wittig and the Allegory of the Possible in Across the Acheron
Monique Wittig’s fictional and theoretical writings—indeed, the very words she uses to express her creative and intellectual vision—are infused with an intense passion for women and their social, sexual, economic, and political liberation. A celebrated member of a French feminist movement that gave rise to work described as “poetic, utopian, hyperbolic [and] declamatory,” Wittig produced a small, but powerful oeuvre that demonstrated all of these characteristics, sometimes simultaneously.1 Yet many of Wittig’s American feminist heirs and commentators, chief among them theorist Judith Butler, have diminished the complexity of her work. In so doing, they have misrepresented Wittig and diverted attention away from the importance of Wittig’s writings to Anglo American feminist thought and its continuing evolution. This becomes especially apparent when examining her theoretical work in context of the historical matrix from which it emerged alongside her post-1968 fictions, and in particular her 1985 novel, Across the Acheron.
“lesbians are not women”: the return of lesbian materialism
Key to understanding the reductionism to which Wittig’s work has been subjected is her infamous 1978 claim, “lesbians are not women.”2 First uttered at the 1978 MLA Convention in New York City, these four words ignited heated debates among feminists about gender, sex, and sexuality that continued into the 1990s.3 Wittig’s statement is grounded in the notion that language is tied to “a network of powers” that directly acts upon and constructs social reality.4 Language is therefore a political force that creates day-to-day material conditions in society. This means that the institutions or groups controlling language can use it to oppress (the speech of) those deemed outsiders. The result is that these social “others” must “speak in [the oppressor’s] terms,” if they are to be heard or even acknowledged.5 So when Wittig says “lesbians are not [End Page 96] women,” she is breaking an implied linguistic, political, and historical contract with patriarchy that demands speaking subjects identify lesbians by (1) their biology (sex) and (2) the nature of their desires (sexuality).
In Gender Trouble, a seminal text directly influenced by Wittigian thought, Judith Butler argues that Wittig advocated a lesbian separatism that is “prescriptive” and precludes “any kind of solidarity with heterosexual women.”6 Butler understands that Wittig’s concept of “lesbian” is open and political; but she does question what terms might then be used to discuss sexual identity. What she does not consider is how Wittig’s concepts of “lesbian” and “woman” are a reaction to histories or traditions she is seeking to rewrite. Indeed, history as much a part of the oppressive mechanism of patriarchy as the language in which it is inscribed. So by radically altering definition of “lesbian,” Wittig-the-materialist is actively forcing a reconceptualization of both words. One could even speculate that a reason she does not use “sex” and “sexuality” to define “lesbian” is not so much to deny their existence but to foster (an ongoing) debate about those concepts that would leave space for definitions that could evolve over time.
Part of Butler’s concern with Wittig’s theoretical stance stems from a concern that as a category, “lesbian” may become “compulsory,” much as the “woman” has.7 Looking at how historically entrenched ideas about (the nature of) “woman” are, her fears are justified. But as I argue here, Wittig had no doubt anticipated responses of this kind, especially by the time she published Across the Acheron. In the novel she erases all marks of gender that might identify the characters by sex or sexuality and strives to transform “lesbian” into a fluid concept that is at once born of history yet also imbued with new meaning that replaces the old. She also critiques separatism and in the end depicts a community open to all subjects who strive against patriarchy.
Some of the Anglo American critics who followed Butler express ideas more in alignment with Wittig. In “When Lesbians Were Not Women” (2005), for example, Teresa De Lauretis posits that “lesbian” means an “eccentric”—or better, ex-centric—subject that “deviate[s...