GENDER AND LANGUAGE: WITTIG’S PRONOUNS
As an even more fundamental example of how gender has become a contested term, consider the work of the French writer Monique
Wittig. Wittig combines the roles of radical feminist theorist and novelist and her work has been principally concerned with problems of gender and language. At first sight her ideas seem to be sharply at odds with the central argument being developed in this book since, not only does Wittig fail to pluralize gender, she also insists that it is an inherently singular term. This is because linguistically ‘the masculine is not the masculine but the general’ — that is to say, the use of words like ‘mankind’ or ‘he’ to refer to men and women alike perpetuates an abstract, universalizing idiom that is denied to women, making men its sole beneficiaries (Wittig 1992: 60). From Wittig’s perspective the consequences of this much-overlooked fact are devastating.
Wittig’s position is rooted in a materialist theory of language, according to which concepts and symbols are not mere free – floating ideas or signs, but have real effects upon individual subjects. Despite her indebtedness to Marxism — she refers to it at one point as ‘the science which has politically formed us’ — Wittig explicitly turns the Marxist theory of revolution on its head. Instead of adopting Marx’s argument that the conflicts produced by economic forces will bring about a political revolution which will necessarily destroy the dominant ‘categories of language’, Wittig calls for a revolution in language as the first condition of social change:
Can we redeem slave? Can we redeem nigger, negress? How is woman different? Will we continue to write white, master, man? The transformation of economic relationships will not suffice. We must produce a political transformation of the key concepts, that is of the concepts which are strategic for us. For there is another order of materiality, that of language, and language is worked upon from within by these strategic concepts.
(Wittig 1992: 30)
For all its high-flown rhetoric, passages like this are in deadly earnest, since they point to language’s overwhelming impact ‘upon the social body, stamping it and violently shaping it’ (Wittig 1992: 78). While some people have been forced to conform to established ideas about what is and is not natural, others have been written out of history.
Wittig’s prime target is what she calls ‘the straight mind’, a mode of thinking about the world that ‘cannot conceive of a culture, a society where heterosexuality would not order not only all human relationships but also its very production of concepts and all the processes which escape consciousness, as well’ (Wittig 1992: 28). On this view, gender relations can never be equalized, for the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are defined as asymmetrical or hierarchical from the outset. Language plays a crucial role in sustaining this imbalance, for by learning to call oneself a woman one is also implicitly deferring to the privileges enjoyed by men. By installing a basic division at the core of our being, the heterosexual imagination denies women the capacity to act as subjects, something that can only be achieved by taking control over the ways in which language is used. To become what Wittig calls a ‘total’ or whole subject one must first break with the assumptions embedded in the grammar of heterosexuality, that system of linguistic positions which conventionally assigns women an identity only in relation to men. Of course, there have always been those who have slipped through the nets of language, those whose ‘refusal to become (or remain) heterosexual always meant to refuse to become a man or a woman, consciously or not’ (Wittig 1992: 13). It logically follows, in the words of one of Wittig’s most famous slogans, that ‘Lesbians are not women’, a conclusion which she is delighted to accept (Wittig 1992: 32).
But how is it possible to transcend the prison-house of language in order to bring about the abolition of gender? And isn’t Wittig herself inescapably complicit with those same linguistic resources that enable her to diagnose her condition and make her arguments intelligible to others? It is here that we turn to Wittig’s practice as a novelist, and also return to the grammatical meanings of gender with which we began this chapter.
Gender has often been used primarily as a sociological category, as if language were only of secondary importance. Reversing this assumption, Wittig looks to the place within language where gender begins: the personal or subject pronouns I, you, he, she, we, you, they. These markers are ‘the pathways and the means of entrance into language’, the words that position us within discourse as male or female, ‘working in the same way as the
declaration of sex in civil status’ by calling upon specific gendered identities (Wittig 1992: 78—9). Wittig’s extraordinary fiction takes the personal pronoun as its point of departure, foregrounding the principles by which they operate and attempting to disrupt their normal functioning. In her first novel L’Opoponax (1964), for example, Wittig explores the interior world of a young schoolgirl, creating a curiously distanced stance through the use of the indefinite or ungendered French pronoun on (the English ‘one’) in her narration, interspersed with the protagonist’s name, Catherine Legrand:
On ne met pas de pantalon quand on est une petite fille. On n’aime pas qa parce qu’on devient deux. Catherine Legrand mais aussi ce qui est dans le pantalon et qui n’est pas exactement Catherine Legrand. Peut-etre Catherine Legrand est la seule petite fille a porter un pantalon et a n’etre pas exactement une petite fille.
(Wittig 1964: 17-18)
You don’t wear knickers when you’re little. You don’t like them because they divide you in two, Catherine Legrand but also what is in the knickers which is not exactly Catherine Legrand. Perhaps Catherine Legrand is the only little girl who wears knickers and who is not exactly a little girl.
(Wittig 1979: 13)
Especially in the original French, the effect is radically to unsettle the formation of identity, to interrupt the implied reference linking pronoun and proper name, suggesting that Catherine Legrand cannot quite occupy the elle (or ‘she’) that is traditionally awaiting her, just as her underclothes and her selfhood don’t sit comfortably together, somehow failing to add up. Moreover, as Wittig has herself noted in a commentary on this text, on is a marvellously elastic word that can be made to stand for any number of persons: I, you, they, everyone. And, insofar as it is able to invoke all of these at once, identification is always on the move, impossible to pin down. When, towards the end of the novel, a new and seemingly more decisive note is struck, signalled by an abrupt shift of pronoun — ‘Je suis l’opoponax’ (I am the opoponax) —
there is no corresponding gain in clarity, for Catherine has earlier written that the mysterious opoponax, from which the book takes its title, cannot be described, being ‘neither animal nor vegetable nor mineral, in other words indeterminate’/‘ni animal, ni vegetal, ni mineral, autrement dit indetermine’ (Wittig 1964: 161, 207; 1979: 119, 154).
Wittig’s fierce desire to push identity to its outermost limits, to transcend the categories through which identity has traditionally been thought, to disengage identity from gender, and to enact a new form of subjectivity within literary language places considerable demands upon her readers, preventing them from holding on to the binary logic that oppressively couples men and women together. This linguistic disruption is intensified still further in her later books. In Les Guerilleres (1969), for instance, Wittig makes extensive use of the rather specialized French collective pronoun elles, which has always taken second place to the masculine i/s. Elles can only be used to refer to a group of women, whereas a mixed group is invariably referred to as ils, even when the women outnumber the men. Moreover, ils has an important generalizing function that is denied its feminine counterpart, for it can also mean they in the sense of people or mankind, whereas elles cannot. Wittig’s strategy is to elevate the feminine plural to the same status as the masculine ils, to make it resound with a sense of communal destiny and purpose. ‘Word by word,’ comments Wittig, ‘elles establishes itself as a sovereign subject’, forging a new collectivity in an epic struggle, a nous, a ‘we’ who have proved themselves to be true ‘camarades’ and who together finally sound the funeral march for those who died for freedom, ‘un air lent, melancolique et pourtant triomphant’ (Wittig 1992: 85; 1969: 208).
At one point in Les Guerilleres, elles specifically reject the vocabulary of their adversaries, their enemies in language, the masculine ‘ils’, who have dismissed their fight as a ‘revolte contre nature’ (Wittig 1969: 153). So, in line with this repudiation, the text scrupulously avoids making reference to ‘men’ or ‘women’, since in Wittig’s lexicon these words are tokens of capitulation. As we have seen, Wittig’s textual manoeuvres are not easily reproduced in translation: the ‘you’ of the English version of
L ’Opoponax is gender-free, but suggests a closer, far more familiar idiom than the original on. And in the case of Les Guerilleres the unavailability of a gendered alternative to ‘they’ led Wittig’s translator to replace elles by ‘the women’, a substitution that wholly subverts the author’s own avowed intentions.
Nevertheless, Wittig’s fiction is a good example of the way in which fiction can serve as a laboratory for the exploration of gendered modes of consciousness, including those we might imagine to be among its terminal forms. Novels such as L ’Opoponax and Les Guerilleres stand in a long line of modernist texts whose stylistic innovations foregrounded the whole question of gender, power and subjectivity, and whose authors have included Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf, among many others. Though very different from Wittig’s guerilleres, the protagonist of Dorothy Richardson’s multi-volume novel Pilgrimage (1915—38), Miriam Henderson, has been described as ‘one of the first women in fiction to be shown other than in relation to a man’ (Beauman 1995: 153). And, as Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body (1992), with its sexually indeterminate protagonist, shows, we have by no means seen the last of those wily, ambiguous narratives that persistently avoid framing themselves in exclusively masculine or feminine terms.
Wittig’s prose-poetry, her uncompromising experimentalism informed by an intransigent belief that ‘everything is socially constructed’, represents an invitation to rethink the meaning and boundaries of our genders (Fuss 1989: 41). In the following chapters we take up this challenge, focusing initially upon the making of femininity and masculinity, before moving on to those more obliquely gendered margins that are often treated as ‘threats to heterosexuality’ or even ‘threats to gender itself’, but which have typically been lived out in the lengthening shadow of legal or extra-legal prohibitions and sanctions (Butler 1997: 135). Indeed it is the unresolved questions, theoretical, medical, legal and cultural that form the constellation of issues at stake in ‘the New Gender Politics’ of recent years, ‘a combination of movements concerned with trangender, transsexuality, intersex, and their complex relations to feminist and queer theory.’ Reflecting on these recent turns, Judith Butler reminds us that the ongoing and historically overlapping nature of these debates ought not to be read as linear revisions of earlier theories and practices but rather as a complex set of stories existing and being retold simultaneously (Butler 2004: 4).
If our identities are partly fictions, cover stories set in place by the narratives within which our lives are intertwined, then the restless play of identifications that our reading or viewing releases can become one of the key ways in which these fictions can be re-scripted. ‘When we let ourselves respond to poetry, to music, to pictures,’ writes Jeanette Winterson, ‘we are clearing a space where new stories can root, in effect we are clearing a space for new stories about ourselves’ (Winterson 1996: 60).