Chapter 2: Monique Wittig's le Corps Lesbien / the Lesbian Body

By Campbell, Marion May | Postmodern Studies, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Chapter 2: Monique Wittig's le Corps Lesbien / the Lesbian Body


Campbell, Marion May, Postmodern Studies


I. Introduction and overview

As the previous chapter notes, in Genet's last play, Les paravents, imaging through spraypainting makes its material insurrection on the stage; rather than being a translation from the wings, it is literally screened as active performance (the image making happens in the dramatic present and constitutes the uprising of the Arabs). Beyond this, for Genet there was the abandonment of the theatre and a long disengagement with writing in favour of involvement with revolutionary groups like the Black Panthers and the A1 Fatah, activities which gave rise to his posthumously published masterpiece, Un captif amoureux, in which he explored in a radically innovative kind of extended prose poem his loss of faith in revolutionary change but also much of the beauty of comradeship he experienced while dwelling with the A1 Fatah in Jordan.

Three years after the premiere of Les paravents, in the turbulent climate of the early 1970s, with the war in Vietnam still raging, against a background of urban guerrilla movements in the Americas and in Europe, with the civil rights movement evolving into Black Power in the US, and the simultaneous amplification of the second wave of women's liberation movements1 2 Monique Wittig stages her specific materialist-lesbian war. She makes the page the scene of a radical un-writing and re-writing of what she calls "sarcastically" Le corps lesbien.3 As her Chantier littéraire [Writer's Workshop] and Le cheval de Troie [The Trojan Horse]4 attest, Wittig was privy early in her career to the championing of the nouveau roman5 and the roman textuel by intellectuals such as Barthes, Derrida, Kristeva and Sollers. Its radical formal experimentation can be seen as a prolongation of the modernist avant-garde, as can much of the work promoted by Tel Quel. Wittig's politics are informed by Marxist materialism6 and a concerted anti-humanism, which in many ways is in a continuum with Genet's radical anti-humanist attacks. As will be apparent, Wittig sees commitment and writing to be mutually annulling; there are formal ways of insurrection, overthrow or renversement (as Ostrovsky appropriates Wittig's term for her practice)7 and these will involve a different kind of "war machine",8 Trojan Horses taking many forms. In the US her quest to universalise the minority or singular subject position led to much misunderstanding and controversy.9 Well before her early death in 2003 Wittig was variously charged with a new kind of phallic authoritarianism (universalising the minority, putting the lesbian body in the place of the phallus);10 with idealism (utopianism: the return to a utopian Lesbos or Cythera);* 11 and with essentialism (eschewing difference within the category: the lesbian body).12 Yet she has also won great admiration on lesbian, queer, gay and feminist and radical literary fronts for her writing tactics and material practice.13 My line of enquiry is to examine the work of intertextuality in relation to the scénographie performance of the body - looking at the textual strategies as they work macrostructurally and in specific scenes of writing - in order to ascertain how effectively such writing works as political critique. The particular work under consideration, Le corps lesbien, certainly gave rise to wide controversy, which makes the "troika: Kristeva-Cixous-Irigaray"14 look like liberal purveyors of feminine difference, positive transvaluers of the category "woman". It is understandable that the text profoundly shocked the theorists and promoters of l'écriture féminine, not simply with its parodies of aspects of this reclaiming of gender, but especially with its unapologetic violence and visceral explosiveness.

Wittig complained that -

"Feminine writing" is the naturalizing metaphor of the brutal political fact of the domination of women, and as such it enlarges the apparatus under which "femininity" presents itself: that is, Difference, Specificity, Female Body/Nature. …

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