Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Monique Wittig--The Straight Mind and Other Essays (1992)

In what Wittig characterizes as a materialist lesbian approach to heterosexuality, she “describe[s] heterosexuality not as an institution but as a political regime which rests on the submission and the appropriation of women,” a regime from which there is no escape (xiiv).  The only response to such an entrenched regime is nothing short of the political, philosophical, and symbol destruction of the categories of “men” and “women” (xiiv-xiv).  By defining “woman” in political terms, Wittig wishes to dissociate “‘women’ (the class within which we fight) and ‘woman,’ the myth” (15), and subsequently “suppress men as a class…[through] a political struggle” (15).  To Wittig, the primary failing of Marxism was its failure to see individual subjects historically situated: “It is we who must undertake the task of defining the individual subject in materialist terms” (19).  Further, in her indictment of (French) psychoanalytic theory, she importantly observes that in the midst of such theoretical work, “we forget the material (physical) violence that they directly do to the oppressed people” (25).  Wittig’s example of such violence (in her 1980 essay) is that of pornography, an analysis which has been addressed in much more complex ways than how she addresses it: to Wittig, all pornography demonstrates the oppression of women by men within a heterosexual economy.  However, it is within her discussion of pornography that she first uses the phrase “the straight mind,” which “develops a totalizing interpretation of history, social reality, culture, language, and all the subjective phenomena at the same time…[which has a] tendency to immediately universalize its production of concepts into general laws which claim to hold true to all societies, all epochs, all individuals” (27).
Important to my work is her discussion of the foundation of the marriage economy: “The compulsory reproduction of the ‘species’ by women is the system of exploitation on which heterosexuality is economically based” (6).  In her discussion of the necessity of problematizing any ideas of the categories of man and woman as natural, she states that “what we take for the cause or origin of oppression is in fact only the mark imposed by the oppressor: the ‘myth of woman,’ plus its material effects and manifestations in the appropriated consciousness and bodies of women” (11).  As the lesbian does not fit into the marriage economy, Wittig sees the lesbian as rejecting the role of women.  Borrowing a term from Prous, Wittig says, “The lesbian has to be something else, a not-woman, a not-man, a product of society, not a product of nature, for there is no nature in society….The refusal to become (or to remain) heterosexual…is the refusal of the economic, ideological, and political power of a man” (13).
Also intriguing is her discussion of “feminine writing,” a French feminist concept of which Wittig is quite critical: “What is this ‘feminine’ in ‘feminine writing’?  It stands for Woman, thus merging a practice with a myth, the myth of Woman” (59).  But as she does with the categories of men, women, and lesbian, as well as Marxist, psychoanalytic, and linguistic perspectives, she is not willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Rather, she identifies what is useful about each of these perspectives and fills her arsenal with their tools.

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