Gender & Sexuality Studies
Sarah Moss

Recuperating Monique Wittig through the “Site of Action”

  • Faculty Advisor

    Mary Dietz

Published On

May 2017

Originally Published

NURJ 2016-17
Honors Thesis

Abstract

More often than not, individuals think of language as an autonomous tool, a value-free resource to express ideas in social spaces. In this thesis, I complicate and challenge a singular definition of language by rereading “The Site of Action” (1984), in which Monique Wittig uncovers how implicit social stereotypes unknowingly commit female speakers to an oppressive contract, rendering conversations unequal battlefields wrought with women’s subjugation. In what follows, I aim to highlight Wittig’s literary spaces to emphasize how fictive worlds offer writers like Wittig the unique opportunity to destroy old, oppressive language. I propose that a renewed reading of Wittig’s two novels underscores the importance of symbolic violence in forging new language to revolutionize social conceptions of femininity.

Introduction

6. Shaktini, Namascar. On Monique Wittig: Theoretical, Political, and Literary Essays. Malibu
Beach: Babette Mangolte, 2005. 1-32. Print.

The result of the imposition of gender, acting as a denial at the very moment when one speaks, is to deprive women of the authority of speech, and to force them to make their entrance in a crablike way, particularizing themselves and apologizing profusely. The result is to deny them any claim to the abstract, philosophical, political discourses that give shape to the social body. Gender then must be destroyed. The possibility of its destruction is given through the very exercise of language. For each time I say ‘I,’ I reorganize the world from my point of view and through abstraction I lay claim to universality… (Wittig, 1985, p. 81) [6]

Monique Wittig (1935-2003) explored the often unnoticed and dangerous entanglements between stagnant communicative patterns, sexual categorization, and women’s subjugation in her groundbreaking theoretical essays published throughout the 1970s and 1980s, each compiled into The Straight Mind (1992). Like the dramatic rhetoric exemplified in the epigraph, Wittig’s writing style addresses readers directly as she compels them toward the revolution necessary to dismantle systems of sexual oppression. [3] For Wittig, “the category of sex” has consistently and relentlessly convinced both women and men that sex—the division between intelligent, strong, capable men and incompetent, passive, hyper-sexualized women—are naturally formed, unchangeable categories. Similar to Marxist calls to action that claim the working class’s loss of agency stems from laborious jobs controlled by bourgeoisie supervisors, Wittig calls women a socially constituted class, shaped and stifled through male “dominance” that limits women’s chances for self-expression and individuality. [3, 12] In fact, it is “compulsory heterosexuality” that drives the unrelenting denial of women’s voices. Though men have the agency to dwell outside the bounds of their sexual experiences, women–whether at work, in town, or in the bedroom‒cannot escape their definition as the “sexed sex,” or as objects of pleasure.7 Here, Wittig presents a dark scene of the contemporary social order, in which compulsory heterosexuality and the category of sex are totalitarian systems that govern all. As men inhabit the role of the oppressor and women the oppressed, Wittig argues the category of sex “shapes the mind as well as the body since it controls all mental production. It grips our mind in such a way that we cannot think outside of it.” [3] The unrelenting category of sex’s web shapes sexual and non-sexual situations so that women’s bodies and minds become deprived of a safe environment, one that promotes autonomy and subjectivity.

3. Durand, Laura G. “Heroic Feminism as Art”. NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 8.1 (1974): 71–77.
Web.

12. Wittig, Monique. “One is Not Born a Woman.” In The Straight Mind. Boston. Beacon Press
(1981): 9-20. Print.

Yet there is an undeniable hope woven through Wittigian theory. Her urgent tone invites women readers to become a part of a revolution, one that will “destroy” the category of sex. [6] ‘Women’ are socially constituted as inferior, sexually objectified, capable of reproduction and pleasing men, but not much more. She compels, then, that women ‘escape’ this harmful category. “Escapees from our class” introduce the image of the political lesbian figure. [12] Though she may seem similar in appearance and biological renderings to women, Wittig’s lesbian operates outside the category of sex. She resists existing under heterosexual norms, and thus has the opportunity to form her own self-conception and points of view apart from male domination. Wittig writes, “…because of a change of perspective...it would be incorrect to say that lesbians associate, make love, live with women, for ‘woman’ has meaning only in heterosexual systems of thought and heterosexual economic systems. Lesbians are not women” [5,10]

5. Sarraute, Nathalie. The Use of Speech. Denver: Counterpath Press, 1983.

10. Wittig, Monique. “The Mark of Gender.” In The Straight Mind. Boston. Beacon Press (1985):
76-89. Print.

Though language historically has been used as a medium of exchange to further dismiss women’s voices, Wittig’s lesbian figure molds language to aid in her autonomous reinvention. Within the category of sex, language particularizes women, helplessly linking their voices to their sexed characteristics as sexually pleasing but as majorly incompetent philosophers, thinkers, or dreamers. [9] A woman may speak at a board meeting, but her male conversationalists often reduce her nuanced ideas to nothingness merely because her voice, body, and tone remind them of her woman status. But through the “I,” political lesbians—that is, the former women who abandon their placement in the category of sex—can occupy space that has traditionally been afforded to men. These individuals seek the chance to become universal subjects. [9] In conversation, the locutor, or speaker, has the chance to make claims from her point of view through “I” statements. A site of linguistic power, language offers the possibility of amplifying female voices in Wittig’s idealized future world, but only when restrictive social meaning, like the category of sex, no longer exists. It is through her imaginative renderings of these possible conversations that Wittig’s theoretical essays and utopian fictional novels offer that a political upheaval of sexual categories can dramatically reconstitute the female figure.

9. Wittig, Monique. The Lesbian Body. Boston: Beacon Press, 1973. Print.

In this abridged thesis, I aim to better understand Wittig’s novel Les Guérillères (1969). [4] Wittig’s essay “The Site of Action” uncovers how an implicit social contract often forcefully shapes conversations, so that the promise of reciprocal communication may only exist within the confines of imagined spaces, such as Wittig’s own fictional narratives. I will use this text to emphasize the importance of the “I speaker” and highlight how literature offers writers the unique opportunity to destroy old, oppressive language and introduce egalitarian principles through violent interventions in “form and content.” [11] A renewed reading of Wittig’s fictional world underscores the importance of symbolic violence in forging new language—words, expressions, communities, and connections—that revolutionize social conceptions of femininity as departed from harmful stereotypes of “women.” In this abbreviated version, I have excerpted significant moments during which I link Wittig’s political contracts to her fiction.

4. Sarraute, Nathalie. Tropisms and the Age of Suspicion. London: John Calder, 1963. Print.

11. Wittig, Monique. “On The Social Contract.” In The Straight Mind. Boston. Beacon Press
(1989). 33-45. Print.

Navigating the Site of Action: A Violent Interval between Explicit Locution and Implicit Interlocution

In her final essay “The Site of Action,” Wittig centers The Straight Mind (1992) around communicative violence, both the dark reality of sexual oppression and the promise of women’s regenerative capabilities. The last piece is perhaps the most revealing of Wittig’s engagement with a feminist revolution since it deconstructs aspects of language—words, speech, discourse— as units that fuel the complexity of volatile exchange. It is through her rereading of Nathalie Sarraute’s fictional novels that she locates the problems (les problématiques) associated with social actors’ use of speech, or what Sarraute calls in her native tongue, l’usage de la parole. [1, 2, 9] Though we often blur the lines between language, speech, and words as synonymous terms, “The Site of Action” delineates each phenomenon as distinctly influenced by social convention, conversationalists’ socio-political stance, and interplay between speakers or competing “points of view.” [9] Closely reading Sarraute’s The Use of Speech (1983), Wittig aligns herself with the author because the novel locates person-to-person conversational exchange within the seemingly “impossible” intersection of language as plastic, egalitarian, promising versus language as singularly defined, categorically stringent, and imprisoning. [2, 8, 9] In what follows, I will draw the critical distinction between speech and language to emphasize how communication operates as both a tool to stereotype and a space to explore unmediated self-expression.

1. Arendt, Hannah. The Life of the Mind: The Groundbreaking Investigation on How We Think.
Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 1978. 210. Print.
2. Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge Classics, 1990. Print.

8. Wittig, Monique. Les Guérillères. Les Editions de Minuit, 1969. Print.


The Multiplicity of Social Contract(s)

To understand how female communicators utilize language and speech to navigate freedom from oppressive stereotypes, Wittig underscores “The Site of Action” with an appropriation of contract theory. In “On The Social Contract” (1989), Wittig emphasizes the importance of the social contract since it highlights “the structures of the groups of sex and their particular situation among the relations of production and social intercourse.” [11] Rousseauian thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries understated the criticality of contract theory because “social contract[s]” seemed to imply “a notion of individual choice and of voluntary association” apart from systematic oppression. [11] Yet for Wittig, contracts are not about an “individual choice” but are intimately tied to the language individual females and “the sex” use to express their desire for freedom from the category of sex. [7] These desires can be as explicit as political rallies for gender equality or implicit in social interactions, in which marginalized voices demand authority or command of daily conversations. Wittig, then, appropriates social contracts as critical to an investigation of sex since “the first, the permanent, and the final social contract is language,” as it is, “the basic agreement between human beings.” [11]

7. Wittig, Monique. “The Category of Sex.” In The Straight Mind. Boston. Beacon Press (1982):
1-8. Print.

The social contract’s resilient, malleable qualities reinforce its staying power as a consistent linguistic index among human social actors. Despite group’s changing socio-political standings, the contract always connects people back to their own humanity. For Wittig, it is the “basic agreement” of communication through language that makes individuals “human and…social.” [11] As a constantly shifting social category, sex is a critical link to social contracts because they are “covenant[s], compact[s], agreement[s]…establishing once and for all the binding of people together.” [11] The contract is not singular, but in fact acquires multiplicity based on the social actors or “contractor[s]” who “reaffirm the contract in new terms” in diverse contexts, allowing the contract to continue its existence. [11] The multiplicity of the contract gives agency to locutors to reinvent their humanity apart from harmful and discrediting sexual stereotypes. The contract’s continued existence depends upon females continually examining their “conditions” to orient their sex to the varying conceptions of women over time. [11] The contract is Wittig’s means of interrogating how female figures navigate communication and use language, speech, and words to violently reconstruct their identities in the context of locution—interlocution. [9] Interlocution is the response bringing to light the implicit contract, or the violent flattening of identity. Wittig focuses on two iterations of contracts that she emphasizes as dichotomous in framing women’s communicative experiences. While the explicit contract aligns with the aforementioned promise of “raw” language, the implicit contract intervenes on language, imposing harmful social, speech-meaning. [9, 11]

Wittig’s Explicit Contract: Language as an Unlimited Wellspring

Wittig defines the Explicit Contract as the promise of egalitarian exchange, which locutors expect from the moment they “learn to speak.” [9] Social perceptions often frame language as a slate wiped clean. Speakers, then, often consider their engagement with communication as a site where “meaning has not yet occurred, which is for all, which belongs to all, and which everyone in turn can take, use, bend toward a meaning.” [9] For Wittig, young speakers’ infallible belief in meaning’s malleability upholds the expectation of conversation as “reciprocal.” [9] Wittig defines reciprocity as the promise that each speaker engages in careful consideration of their fellow conversationalists’ vocalizations. The somewhat utopian promise of near-equality among speaking social actors links this explicit contract with a “first language,” where there are “neither men or women, neither races or oppression, nothing but what can be named progressively, word by word, language.” [9] Under the explicit contract, “first language” amplifies each individual’s access to words, emphasizing the feasibility of self-empowerment in conversation.

The Implicit Contract: Categorical Impositions and Restrictions

The explicit contract’s boundless words and language starkly contrast realistic communication. Through speech, conversationalists quickly abandon expectations of equality. As Wittig writes, “the use of speech, such as it is practiced everyday, is an operation that suffocates language and thus the ego, whose deadly stake is the hiding, the dissimulating, as carefully as possible, of the nature of language.” [9] Wittig frames this “suffocation” as operating under the “implicit contract” since derogatory and harmful impositions on language reveal that the egalitarian promise of words is merely a mask. [9] The implicit contract restricts both words and speakers since “even before ‘I’ knows it, ‘I’ is made a prisoner, it becomes the victim of a fool’s deal. What it has mistaken for absolute liberty, the necessary reciprocity…is but the surrender… at the mercy of the slightest word.” [9] Wittig complicates language as not merely a site of empowerment through the “first language” since speakers eventually “surrender” to oppressive words.

The Contested Interval

For speakers, at what point do the two dichotomous contracts meet? If locution is linked to a speaker’s utterance before reception, she momentarily exists under the explicit contract and belief in egalitarian communication. In typical conversation, violence exists as communication shifts from a feeling of limitless potential to limited structure, in which voices are hitched to stereotyped identities. As Wittig writes, “it is here, in the interval between locution and interlocution, that the conflict emerges: the strange wrenching, the tension in the movement from particular to general, experienced by any human being when from an ‘I’—unique in language, shapeless, boundless, infinite—it suddenly becomes nothing or almost nothing, ‘you,’ ‘he,’ ‘she,’ ‘a ’small rather ugly fellow.’” [9]

Exchange is a particularly politicized space because locutors and interlocutors operate under the assumption that certain voices are unworthy. Since men have traditionally dominated conversational, sexual, and other co-ed spaces, the idea that the strongest “deserves” the spotlight maintains a vicious cycle of linguistic abuse toward females. The explicit contract in many ways is “glaringly false” since exchange need not to lead to equality in voices, speakers, and/or thoughts. [9] In fact, the explicit contract and implicit contract have very little in common besides their placement in the conversational context. Wittig writes:

… the social contract, such as it is, guarantees the entire and exclusive disposition of language to everyone, and while, in accordance with this same right, it guarantees the possibility of its exchange with any interlocutor on the same terms—for the very fact that the exchange is possible guarantees reciprocity—it nevertheless appears that the two modes of relating to language have nothing in common (“The Site of Action,” p. 95).

Exchange implies an opportunity for reciprocity, encouraging locutors to speak. After all, as children, “we all learned to speak with the awareness that words can be exchanged, that language forms itself in a relation of absolute reciprocity.” [9] But singular meaning and harmful stereotypes halt the causal arrow from exchange to reciprocity. Singular points of view, which rule almost all conversation, ensure minority speakers’ severely limited linguistic and bodily freedom. Since only one perspective— the white, male, heterosexual point of view—governs conversation, reality isolates itself from the promise of the explicit contract. Here, the often-unnoticed contract overpowers exchange so that reciprocity is impossible, and instead, the strongest voices incessantly prevail.

The interplay between implicit and explicit contracts leaves little hope for reciprocity. After all, the “double movement” and “deadly embrace” between locution, freely speaking one’s point of view, and interlocution, the restrictive ‘other shoe dropping’ phenomena, continually minimizes female speakers. [9] Next, I consider how fictional literature operates as a relief from the “deadly embrace” of the two contracts. Examining critical moments of Wittig’s Les Guérillères (1969), I emphasize the writer’s duty to maintain characters’ autonomy in the tenuous interval between locution—sharing thoughts, and interlocution—critical response. Novelistic pursuits may be the only place where “counter[ing]” the force of interlocutionary reductionism is a possibility. [4, 9]

Les Guérillères: A Site of Productive Metaphorical Violence and Affective Renewal

Form, Content, and Achieving Reciprocity

In her utopian novel Les Guérillères (1969), Monique Wittig exemplifies how it is indeed possible to revel freely as a female embodied figure. [4] Through the invention of original context and characterization, Wittig’s female characters defy limiting stereotypes and become empowered through meaningful communication within an insular, fictional space. The unconventional structure of the novel allows her to highlight the importance of symbolism in destroying and recasting language to empower her characters. Like Wittig’s idealized “first language,” which she defines in “The Site of Action” as “before the ‘mothers,’ before the ‘you’s,’…the one in which meaning has not yet occurred, the one which is for all, which belongs to all, and which everyone in turn can take, use, bend toward a meaning,” writers have the means of shaping female characters in literature to resist even the most overwhelming structures of male-centered power. [9]

Wittig finds a way to communicate the necessity of violently reconstructing linguistic patterns by imbuing Les Guérillères with a sense of urgency. Alongside the symbolic female-centric plots, she expresses that impatience and anger fuel characters’ desire to touch others meaningfully and to win victoriously. The female figures seem to reach with an intensity toward a source of genuine human connection beyond social conventions and typical patterns, if such a connection exists. Wittig demonstrates her belief in this genuine human connection by aligning herself with her own female characters as she pursues to destroy old communicative forms in place of new forms. Wittig connects herself to this infallible mission of reaching toward equality through rage-filled expressions by opening and closing the novel with unconventional poems. Here, she abruptly introduces readers to her unfamiliar, fictive world by foreshadowing the text’s unusual content— body-driven conversations and symbolic battle scenes — with an equally revolutionary format. Below are excerpts from the novels’ introductory and concluding poetry:

THE WOMEN AFFIRM IN TRIUMPH THAT
ALL ACTION IS OVERTHROW
AGAINST TEXTS
AGAINST MEANING

THREATENING MENACING
MARGINS SPACES INTERVALS
WITHOUT PAUSE
ACTION OVERTHROW (Les Guérillères, p. 7, p. 143).

The text above shocks readers in its blatant juxtaposition of destruction and renewal. Its all capital letters and absence of grammatical breaks certainly abandon novelistic conventions. Words like “OVERTHROW” emphasize there is an alignment between the piece’s poetic symbolism and its physical structure. In this way, the opening and closing poems emphasize the connection between “form and content,” something Wittig elaborates on in “The Trojan Horse” as critical to the destruction and renewal of harmful social patterns, such as female abuse and subjugation. [11] She invites us to consider how language itself is not merely a form of “communication” but part and parcel to the creation of “the domain of ideas.” [11] Though language is often considered simply a medium, it is wrapped up in content itself. In this way, forms—words, letters, grammar—operate as a covert but nonetheless “direct exercise of power.” [11] In the poem then, the means of revolution or “OVERTHROW” comes at the very level of literal letter, word, and textual structure.

“Overthrowing” old form and content for renewed textual elements in her fictive space coincides with the revolution’s end goal— to reach communicative reciprocity. Wittig’s notion of reciprocity is the only solution to untie the strong links between contemporary socialization and “commonplaces” that link femininity to harmful female stereotypes. [9] Reciprocity involves egalitarian exchange, in which each figurative speaker has equal space to express ideas, exhibit self-definitions, and question social givens. Wittig’s own literary pursuits demonstrate reciprocity because she humanizes the typically objectified class of women. Her novel exists outside reductive “text(s)” because her fictional world resists the singular narrative that marginalizes women. In “The Site of Action,” Wittig writes that in novels “the point of view, far from being unique, is constantly and quickly shifting, according to the interlocutors’ interventions, provoking changes of meaning, variations. The multiplicity of this point of view and its mobility are produced and sustained by the rhythm of the writing… [9] Wittig’s female warriors cannot fit into the modern conception of women, assuming the general elles or “they” position. In this way, Wittig maintains the “multiplicity” of the novel, which is broad enough to “continually prevent… the psychological, ethical, or political interpretation of the characters.” [9] Her females are not simply housewives, sexual objects, or incompetent individuals. Instead, they exist as multi-faceted, undefined figures empowered by their own volition to express ideas through language.

Concluding Thoughts

Fighting symbolic battles to reach empowered, independent personhood, Wittig’s characters recall the writer’s mission to violently respond to male-centric socialization in “The Site of Action.” Just as female figures resist stagnant, trivializing definitions of women, literature as a medium counters violent and reductive social conceptions of femininity. Les Guérillères constructs and supports female characters’ empowerment, linking their identities to limitless potential. Recall her belief in literary promise: “the paradise of the social contract exists only in literature, where the tropisms, by their violence, are able to counter any reduction of the ‘I’ to a common denominator, to tear open the closely woven material of commonplaces, and to continually prevent their organization into a system of compulsory meaning.” [9] Literature offers an escape from the implicit contract because it activates “tropisms.” [9] The dictionary defines this term as “the turning of all or part of an organism in a particular direction in response to an external stimulus.” Though Wittig only mentions this word three times in her essay, I consider the term a useful lens to better understand how literary female figures are able to “fight fire with fire,” or counteract the violence done unto them through their unique brand of actionable violence and affect-driven rage.

Tropism’s definition of change grounded in an organism’s body mirrors Wittig’s amplification of literary and physical corpuses. That is, both novels and female figures similarly revolutionize via self-resignification. Les Guérillères defies writers’ expectations, interrupting passages with images and eliminating typical narrative linearity. Wittig’s novel reconceptualizes how a writer’s coherency can be mutually exclusive from typical writing patterns. Similarly, the female characters’ within the novel unbind themselves from womanhood and redefine themselves as entirely separate from possessions of men, objects to be consumed, enjoyed, and taken. It is the violence of their locutionary force to “turn against” harmful conventions that align revolutionary novels and trailblazing females. [9]

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sarah Moss