Published: Nov. 1, 2010 By

Introduction: Situating Monique Wittig

[1] Following Monique Wittig’s sudden death in 2003 there has been a flurry of criticism paying homage to the importance of her work, rightly situating it as a crucial contribution to gender and sexuality studies. In 2007 GLQ produced a special issue entitled “Monique Wittig: At the Crossroads of Criticism,” following on from Namascar Shaktini’s edited collection, On Monique Wittig: Theoretical, Political and Literary Essayspublished in 2005. These collections help to safeguard and shape Wittig’s legacy as the radical French theorist who, it can be argued, paved the way for queer theory, who bequeathed theorists and activists the contentious statement “lesbians are not women” at New York’s MLA conference in 1978, and the novelist who, throughout her fiction spanning the mid 1960s to mid 1980s, challenged literary form through experiments with language, point of view and structure. Whilst there is much critical work on Wittig’s theories and fiction, academic consideration of the film The Girl (2000) has been largely absent, aside from a recent article by Annabelle Dolidon in Feminist Review. The Girl is a collaboration between director Sande Zeig and Wittig and is based on an unpublished short story by the latter who also worked on the screenplay and was an advisor on the film. In this article I seek to situate the film in relation to the discourses of Wittig’s own theories as well as its contribution to theories of gender and sexuality more widely. AnalysingThe Girl offers an opportunity to re-vision Wittig’s earlier theories in the light of a post lesbian chic cultural climate of the 1990s and a concomitant theoretical climate of queer.

[2] It is not my intention to redeem Wittig for queer theory; she needs no such legitimating redemption by the “critical authority” of queer theory, in Robyn Wiegman’s phrase (507). Whereas Dolidon states she “reconciles Wittigian theory with post-modern queer theory,” I wish to consider Wittig’s work as always at odds with any dominant system of thought, which, paradoxically, queer theory has become by the film’s release date of 2000 (Dolidon, 72). Whilst overtly there is little disagreement on how influential Wittig’s theoretical work is to its contemporaneous context of the mid 1960s to 1990, its specific relationship to queer theories is a subject of debate. Indeed, Wiegman perceives a tacit silencing of Wittig’s contribution in certain arenas of queer theory, which serves to suggest some of the tensions between Wittig’s work and what has come to be the queer establishment:

Judith Butler’s paradigm-shifting Gender Trouble needed Wittig to make the turn that has become absolutely definitional to queer theoretical work, but in the critical habits that shape that enduring history, Wittig has become something of an unknown (Wiegman, 513).

Writing this in GLQ‘s memorial special issue on Wittig, Wiegman offers remarkable evidence from this leading journal’s own history of citations in its digital archives. Since the journal’s inception in 1993 she finds Wittig cited five times, contrasted to other figures such as Foucault (127 times), Butler (125 times) and Sedgwick (97 times). Wiegman is cognisant of her own and the journal’s U.S. base that reflects the “distinct U.S. focus of the scholarship that serves to found, paradoxically even in transnational trajectories, so much of the critical authority of queer studies as a field” (Wiegman, 518, n.20). Widening the statistics that Wiegman points to, Shaktini offers a brief analysis of the distribution of criticism on Wittig from 1964 to 1999, noting that there was a progressive increase in publications year-on-year until a peak in 1990, “the year when the influential critique of Wittig in Gender Trouble appeared,” the number of items published on Wittig thereafter maintaining a 50% reduction from 1991 onwards (Shaktini, 110, n.18). Recent work has revised what many see as Judith Butler’s misapprehensions of Wittig’s theories in Gender Trouble, including re-readings by Butler herself in “Wittig’s Material Practice” (see also De Lauretis; Zerilli). Queer theory is of course by no means monolithic and is characterized by anti-definitional and non-prescriptive mobilities. As Annamarie Jagose has put it, “Queer itself can have neither a fundamental logic, nor a consistent set of characteristics” (96). Yet, Wittig’s oftentimes liminal status in relation to some forms of queer demonstrates that there are limits. One such boundary between queer and Wittig has recently been reinscribed by Butler:

Here is where I differ from Wittig today: the terms of heterosexuality are not outside, not absolutely other, and I am not sure they can be fully refused without that refusal “acting” in some way on the subject who emerges in its wake. (“Wittig’s Material Practice,” 531)

Butler’s statement here describes the queer necessity to disrupt the dominant codification of the binary between homo- and hetero- sexualities, to show that the binary is a construction of the dominant order. Sasha Roseneil summarizes this:

Queer theory identifies the heterosexual/homosexual binary, and its related opposition, “inside/outside” (Fuss, 1991), as a central organizing principle of modern society and culture, and takes this binary as its key problematic and political target. (29)

[3] In her fiction and theory, Wittig firmly concurs with the need to overhaul the dominant constructions of sexualities but she circumnavigates the prefabricated binary differently. As I shall discuss,The Girl depicts a “straight” world and a “lesbian” world as clearly delineated but the film focuses on the transgressors between these worlds, the titular Girl and the Painter. By contrast, from a Butlerian queer perspective, in “reality” there are no such separate worlds from which one is “in” or “out:”

I am doubtful, for instance, that we could find heterosexuals who are not negotiating homosexuality within their relationships, or lesbians and gay men who are not in some way working within and against entrenched heterosexual structures. (“Wittig’s Material Practice,” 531)

This “doubt” illuminates something fundamental to queer approaches: that there might be something beyond the imposed constructions, that sexualities are not constrained by the constructions that exist. Arriving at what this reality might be is notoriously difficult, and quite possibly unattainable, but the exposure of the binaries as fictions that do not describe but attempt to prescribe is a central concept. By contrast, because Wittig sees no differentiation between discourse and “reality,” as I shall explore, her starting point for the disruption of the binaries is from the position of “outside:” one begins from the ascribed discursive position. In her fiction, theory and in this film, she very much conceptualizes the lesbian as outside of the heterosexual system, a positive place from which to subvert the pre-existing binary. Wittig’s philosophical position, therefore, falls somewhere between/outside both queer and essentialist ideas about difference. The concept of difference is important to her work but it is a constructed difference rather than essentialist. It is her aim to infiltrate the position of dominance from a different starting point to that of queer fluidity wherein “anyone with a queer enough attitude” is, paradoxically perhaps, “in” (Roseneil, 36). A useful description of the process of infiltration can be found in Wittig’s 1984 essay “The Trojan Horse,” on experimental literature as a “war machine” (The Straight Mind, 68):

The stranger it appears, nonconforming, unassimilable, the longer it will take for the Trojan Horse to be accepted. Eventually it is adopted, and, even if slowly, it will eventually work like a mine. It will sap and blast out the ground where it was planted. (Straight Mind, 69)

This metaphor passionately encapsulates the hope of material transformation behind Wittig’s formal experimentation in her fiction but also demonstrates her approach to binaries more generally, to infiltrate and blast apart conformities, be they of literature, of sexualities, genders or sexes (these latter two are the same for Wittig, since in her essay “The Category of Sex,” she argues that sex is a social construction). In fact any ossified preconceived way of thinking needs to be questioned.

[4] Wittig’s central ideological weapon is the lesbian. “Lesbian” as defined by Wittig is a radical and complex term, both of these adjectives summed up in her famous declaration which I quoted at the beginning of this article: “lesbians are not women.” This statement is made possible because, for Wittig, being gendered a “woman” is heterosexual-economy dependent: “‘woman’ has meaning only in heterosexual systems of thought and heterosexual economic systems” (Straight Mind, 32). In Wittig’s theory, heterosexuality appears to define or at least prefigure gender, for heterosexuality maketh the woman. Importantly, heterosexuality for Wittig, as for queer theorists, does not necessarily describe a sexual proclivity but is rather an institutional “ideological form” (Straight Mind, 40). This notion converges with Adrienne Rich’s articulation in 1980 in “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” where she figures heterosexuality as the dominant “political institution” that erases lesbian history and existence (637, emphasis in original). The terminology Wittig uses to describe lesbians replicates and exaggerates that promoted by the heterosexual patriarchal order that positions the lesbian as outside and other to the norm. Her essays collected in The Straight Mind and Other Essays, written between 1976 and 1990, are infused with references to lesbians as almost beyond definition by the heterosexual system: “a not-woman, a not-man, a product of society, not a product of nature, for there is no nature in society;” “runaways, fugitive slaves;” “standing at the outposts of the human;” “located philosophically (politically) beyond the categories of sex” (13, 45, 46, 47). These provocative descriptions are used positively by Wittig because this neo-human position “represents historically and paradoxically the most human point of view” (Straight Mind, 46). Indeed, the power of the lesbian is unique:

Lesbianism provides for the moment the only social form in which we can live freely. Lesbian is the only concept I know of which is beyond the categories of sex (woman and man), because the designated subject (lesbian) is not a woman, either economically, or politically, or ideologically (Straight Mind, 20, emphasis in original).

In Wittig’s radical conceptualization of the lesbian then, one sees the distance between those queer perspectives that refuse to take on the categories of genders and sexualities that are ascribed and Wittig’s almost hyperbolic re-writing of the category of lesbian. Again, though, there are similarities with the play of queer performativity and the technique of repetition, revision and reworking in some ways prefigures the reclamation of words like “queer” itself, from insult to positive self-declaration. Butler has indicated that this strategy for queer is not simply a “reverse-discourse” but in taking in the term that has initiated outside of oneself and making it one’s own it has the potential for “the politicization of abjection in an effort to rewrite the history of the term, and to force it into a demanding resignification” (Bodies That Matter, 21). Whilst Butler is talking of “queer” this might readily be applied to Wittig’s lesbian and many other terms that have been reclaimed by particular groups in particular contexts, such as “gay” or “nigger.” In this way queer theory is seen to adopt and re-cite this existing political strategy.

[5] The extent to which Wittig initially adopts the ascribed role of lesbian needs to be understood in relation to her theory of discourse as imposing reality, which also explains the importance of the disruptive formal properties of her creative work. She writes “[l]anguage casts sheaves of reality upon the social body, stamping it and violently shaping it” (Straight Mind, 43-44). Language, discourse and materiality are as one:

The entire world is only a great register where the most diverse languages come to have themselves recorded, such as the language of the Unconscious, the language of fashion, the language of the exchange of women where human beings are literally the signs which are used to communicate. These languages, or rather these discourses, fit into one another, interpenetrate one another, reinforce one another, auto-engender, and engender one another (Straight Mind, 22).

Wittig’s unwavering materialism is displayed in this quotation. Her insistence “on the material oppression of individuals by discourses” underscores her belief that individuals are “in” discourse, indeed quite possiblyare discourse, and that this is from where one needs to begin (Straight Mind, 25). As Butler has recognized, “she does not accept a distinction between the textual and the material in the last instance” (“Wittig’s Material Practice,” 521). Lesbians are positioned by a discourse that excludes them, the starting point for action. Diane Griffin Crowder suggests that the primary way that queer theory’s impulses are divorced from those of Wittig are in the former’s promotion of play and citation as forces of subversion:

As a materialist who understands the materiality of discourse, Wittig does not believe that the heterosexual regime can be modified or subverted by playing or citing roles differently, inasmuch as these roles are still scripted by that regime. (497)

Instead, Butler indicates that for Wittig “[s]omething fracturing, if not brutal, must happen to the framework itself” (“Wittig’s Material Practice,” 520).

[6] “Brutal” formal interventions propel all of Wittig’s creative work. As the first, and only, film on which she worked, it is interesting to see how the disruptive strategies that are so familiar from her fiction adapt in The Girl to the materiality of this new medium. Or rather, when one considers that in 1985 Wittig wrote that film “influenced all [her] writing,” one may be more surprised that she had not worked in the medium before (“The Constant Journey,” 157). Wittig’s self-identified influence by film techniques follows two interrelated strands that share a potential for materially disrupting the linearity of film: montage and ellipsis. One can see the influence particularly in novels like Le Corps Lesbien, translated as The Lesbian Body, and Les Guérillères that are structured as series of poetic fragments with frequently highly visual imagery, a type of scenography in words. As “fabricator” (“The Literary Workshop,” 546) of these novels, Wittig writes that she used “a technique of montage (of editing) as for a film. All the fragments were spread on the ground and organized” (“Some Remarks on The Lesbian Body,” 47-8). This very material interpretation is also found in her description of ellipsis:

I would also like to recall the reflection of the filmmaker Jean-Marie Straub on what he describes as “lacunary” art with a homology drawn from Littré, a term from mineralogy: “Lacunary body, body composed of agglomerated crystals that leave intervals among themselves.” He uses this term à propos of cinematographic writing. Applied to literary writing, this designation indicates for me the fact of creating intervals, putting holes in the sentence at the grammatical level, of destabilizing the conventional order of discourse. (“Some Remarks on Les Guérillères,” 37-38)

Once again this very tangible metaphor for cinematographic writing is solidified in Wittig’s fiction in manipulating the materiality of the form in which she works. As one might anticipate, then, when Wittig moves into handling visual codes, it is central to break those pre-existing conventions there too, as she did in an earlier collaboration with Zeig, a theatre piece named The Constant Journey, which makes use of “distancing” Brechtian techniques (Savona, 141). Her manipulation of formal properties is central to producing an “outsider” perspective that creates the potential for lesbian intervention.

The Girl and Film Noir

[7] It is a combination of form and ideologies of sexuality that is targeted for fracture in The Girl. In my analysis of the film I focus on the ways that Wittig and Zeig manipulate perspective and carve out a logic that is not a product of the “straight mind” nor of a queer mind and not entirely of a mind that fosters any familiar form of lesbian identity politics either. The choice of the noir genre is central to The Girl‘s politics since the film draws on the genre’s history as social critique as well as the hyperbolized gendered attributes of one of the key figures of the genre, the femme fatale. It works both within and beyond the genre of film noir; as Zeig indicates in her commentary to the DVD, she was “taking a kind of film noir genre and turning it.” Both the 1940s’ classics and the neo-noir resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s resonate within Wittig and Zeig’s film. Popular in post-war France, the American films of the 1940s “tended to represent a corrupt and dysfunctional society,” deeply rooted in post-war anxiety (White, 106). Although it became consolidated as a classic genre, representing this dysfunction makes noir potentially a subversive genre. According to Sylvia Harvey, such subversion is especially played out in representations of the family where “tension” symbolizes “beginnings of an attack on the dominant social values normally expressed through the representation of the family” (172, 173). The enmeshing of family and society and possible fractures in the idealized heteronormative family is ripe for replication by Wittig and Zeig, who elect to make their characters lone figures, quite explicitly devoid of traditional nuclear ties. Both the Girl and the Painter are outside of consolidated heteronormative systems. Dolidon observes of the opening scene of The Girl, the character of the Narrator/Painter narrates in her voiceover that the Girl “has no brothers, no sisters, no mother, no father.” What the Girl does have instead, as the story develops, is two lovers, one male and one female. And what the Painter has is two lovers, both female. This certainly fractures conventional family ties yet the Girl clearly is not outside of the heterosexual economy; she works in the Man’s nightclub, a metonymic abstraction of “the straight world” as Zeig points out, and has sex with him as part of that economy. The Girl is a reconfiguration of the femme fatale who plays an important role in noir “foregrounding the ideological battles raging in the 1940s in regard to women’s appropriate social role” (Hollinger, 247). Rosie White observes that the femme fatale:

[C]arries a heavy symbolic load; she is a deathly figure who signifies the mutability of identity, her appearance concealing a lack of identity rather than a true self. Such authenticity was often assigned to the male protagonists she destroyed, and the lack of it placed the femme fatale at the centre of noir cinema’s critique of Western society (106).

This is an engaging symbolism when transposed to 2000, where postmodernity has taken hold to unravel concepts of authentic identity that 1940s’ noir was already critiquing, especially gendered identities. The symbolic weight of the femme fatale is transposed onto the figure of the Girl who is designated in Zeig’s commentary on the DVD “a straight person,” and whose affair with a lesbian exposes the inauthenticity of categories of sexuality based on sex or gender of object choice, reinforcing categories of sexuality as ideological markers instead. Wittig and Zeig also have as their intertexts the resurgence of interest in thefemme fatale in neo-noirs of the 1980s and 1990s, where the figure is “all about sexuality” (White, 107). White gives examples such as Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, whose highly sexualized and dangerousfemmes captured the popular imagination. Bound also comes to mind for its focus on lesbian sexuality butThe Girl is emphatically “all about sexuality” in a different way, as heterosexuality is foregrounded much more directly as a category for disruption by means of the formal properties that I shall discuss. The Girl operates as a femme fatale in that her lesbian relationship poses a threat to the straight world, exposing its structures and fractures by means of her transgressions. For this, both the Painter and the Girl are threatened physically by the Man’s operatives and punished for disrupting “the social contract” of heterosexuality (Wittig, Straight Mind, 40).

Being Out(side)

[8] The film outlines a form of relationship that exists outside of the heteronormative structures, that between the Painter and her lesbian lover, Bu Savé. Although this relationship is given relatively little diegetic time, Wittig assigns it a key place in delineating a contrast with the heterosexual relationships depicted in the film:

But the most important idea of the story and the film is that of freedom in relationships. One should stay with the other only minute by minute; it is a contract that has to renewed. It should not exceed an hour, or a week at the most. That means that the painter and Bu Savé […] are just going through this process. The relationship between the painter and the Girl is just a heterosexual affair in their world, just afilm noir. (“Girl Talk”)

The relationship between the Painter and Bu Savé is thus characterized as something that is adaptable and sustainable, opposed to “just a heterosexual affair” between the Girl and the Painter (in a statement that also explicitly correlates noir with heterosexuality). Bu Savé and the Painter accept one another’s other partners since their relationship exists “minute by minute.” Their relationship is not founded upon possession as are the heterosexual relationships depicted, including that between the Girl and the Painter which takes place in the heterosexual spaces of the film. The lesbian relationship is contrasted with the “it-goes-without-saying” that upholds the “heterosexual contract” (Straight Mind, 41, 44).

[9] Bu Savé exists as an oppositional force outside of the straight world. This is exaggerated by the fact that she is the only character with a given name, contrasting sharply with the generic placeholders of “the Girl” and “the Man.” Bu Savé is also played by the only black actor (Sandra N’Kake) in an otherwise all-white cast, accentuating her position as a minority in the film’s binaries. Bu Savé’s name is highly symbolic, variously suggestive of knowing/having/saving that implies a powerful figure that is more than a match for the straight world (in French the name sounds rather like “vous avez” or “vous savez,” the plural or polite forms of “you have” or “you know” respectively; its typography reproduces the English “save”). Dolidon discusses other resonances but beyond this Anglo-French context, Bu Savé’s name reverberates with the Trojan “war machine” of Wittig’s theory, for the Turkish “bu savaş:” means “this war” and in the martial art of aikido:

Bu signifies valor and indomitable spirit, not contention and strife. Aikido is the ultimate expression of Bu, which originally meant to keep two weapons from coming together. (Stevens and Shirata, 195)

Bu Savé thus comes to represent a peace-keeping warrior and in the film it is she who gives the Painter the gun that the Girl uses to kill the Man in self defence. The critique of heterosexuality that Bu Savé represents is literalized when the injustices of the heterosexual world are symbolically arrested in this death scene at the film’s close, heterosexual violence turned upon itself. This intrinsic violence reverberates in the two gunshots that the Painter and viewers hear before they view the bedroom scene of the Girl injured lying on the bed with the dead Man on the floor. Unlike that of the Man, the fate of the Girl is ambivalent: life or death is uncertain. She symbolizes sacrifice and the possibility of redemption; the Painter terms her “Agnus Dei” and her position on the bed echoes iconographic images of the crucified Christ, draped in white with a stigmata-like single bleeding gunshot wound in her side, her knees slightly raised and bent. This lends an ironized epic quality to the work. Wittig explains she has drawn on this aspect of epic in her fiction:

In the ancient epic songs there was always a surreal, supernatural dimension with appearances of legendary characters. This device is called the Christian fantastic. It has a poetic function that is to aggrandize the heros of the fable. (“Some Remarks on Les Guérillères,” 42)

The “legendary character” is Christ himself here, merged with the figure of the Girl in order to elevate the scene. The film suggests that what is at stake here is not one Girl but many, a representative for the many women/not-women who exist on the cusp of heterosexual ideological forms and whose survival is tenuous.

[10] The institution of heterosexuality is critiqued for being a nexus of economics, gender and sexuality. The character of the Girl is a commentary on “womanliness” and placing her in the heteronormative economic position of working as a singer in the Man’s nightclub knowingly accentuates her performance of her gender and her sexuality: she earns her money performing as a woman, upholding the heterosexual economy. Wittig’s Marxist background comes into dialogue with the notions of performance and gender performativity, explicitly linked in the Girl’s conversation with the Painter:

THE GIRL. I have relationships with a lot of people who’re going to help with my career. That’s the way it’s done [. . .]. You go to bed with them like you go out to bars with them.

THE PAINTER. So, that’s the way it’s done.

THE GIRL. That’s the way.

Sustaining her relationship with the Man, and previously other men, can be thought of in terms of Butler’s repetition of acts that constitutes gender: “That’s the way it’s done” is even highlighted through its own repetition in the dialogue here. The performativity of gender (and sex acts) is resolutely reiterative, reinscribing the Girl within the system with each performance. Yet the Girl perceives she has an element of choice; she both knows the game she is playing and she also has an existence off the heterosexual stage, as it were, in her relationship with the Painter. She both plays and morphs the system and this disruption is important for Wittig, for whom some chinks in the system must be exposed to open up new possibilities. Away from the heteronormative footlights, the Girl’s very relationship with the Painter shows her dissatisfaction with the structures of the straight world. As I have mentioned, Zeig describes the character as “a straight person” but if heterosexuality is an ideology for Wittig, then it is an ideology to which the Girl does not completely subscribe. Her relationship with the Painter affords no economic gain, in fact the threat of quite the opposite, a risky endeavour borne out of pleasure. The boundaries and structures of heterosexuality thus become uncertain when the Painter enters this world. In The Girl, Wittig is manifestly interested in the woman/not-woman definition but for the first time explores the crossing of boundaries between the straight and lesbian worlds through a figure who fits not quite in either. For although the Girl does not transgress into the physical spaces associated with the lesbian world, she exposes the straight world’s potential for transgression by the lesbian perspective. The Girl flirts with being a “not-woman” not through the ascribed sex of her sexual partner but by desiring outside of the system.

[11] The film utilizes dress codes as visual markers of the performativity of gender and sexuality, with the Painter and the Girl conforming to a soft-butch/femme dichotomy. Usually attired in thenoir-like sequined dress of the jazz club singer, the Girl gives binary signification to the Painter’s habit of masculine black trouser suit, which in turn encodes the latter as the lesbian hero of noir. Instead of offering a secondary mimetic reproduction of the supposed authenticity of “man,” “woman” and heterosexuality, the dress code functions more to interrogate each of these terms. As I have discussed, the womanliness of the Girl, which only makes sense in heterosexual systems of thought, is destabilized rather than reiterated by her relationship with the Painter, who is a “not-man,” “not-woman.” A queer reading of the Painter illuminates her transgressive significance. In the light of Judith Halberstam’s discussion of “female masculinity,” in her book of that name, as exposing that there is no “real” man under the guise of anyone performing masculinity, the Painter certainly lays bare the non-essentialism of conventional categories of gender and sexuality. As a threat to the Man’s world by her very existence and involvement with the Girl, the Painter becomes the subject of violent attacks by him and his operatives in order to safeguard hetero-masculinity. The film employs a binary aesthetic not in order to reinscribe the binary but to disrupt it; what is left following lesbian transgression is not the same binary.

[12] Nevertheless, Wittig and Zeig’s employment of the binary dress codes also speaks a resistance to “queerer,” supposedly cooler or fluid representations of sexualities and genders at the time of the film’s release, coming as it does at the end of what one might consider the lesbian 1990s, a decade when the media accorded a consumptive credibility to lesbianism of the palatable kind (i.e. “lipstick” and/or “sexy” in relation to heteronormative standards). Instead, the codes employed stress the visibility of the lesbian protagonist as a recognizable “type,” as Dolidon discusses: “the Painter, with her black suit wearing her sleeves up, seems to represent a butch figure of the 1980s lost in the post-modern queer twenty-first century” (77). Whilst the soft butch look of the Painter is supposedly legitimated in current queer times as one possibility amongst many, there is an interesting parallel with the implied linear sequencing of time expressed in Dolidon’s observation and the value-laden trajectory of enlightenment that sometimes finds its way into the narrativization of feminist-into-queer theory, identified by Jackie Stacey:

This kind of characterisation of queer theory in relation to feminist theory constructs a linear progress narrative in which Theory (capital T) has rescued feminism from its early naivety. It represents developments in feminist theory as a journey from essentialism to fluidity, from ignorance to enlightenment. (63)

The backgrounding of Wittig’s theories in Anglo-American queer theory over the last two decades is a testament to this, even though, as I have mentioned, the mini-resurgence in Wittig studies is redressing some of the earlier misreadings of her work.

Filming the Lesbian Perspective

[13] To help to defamiliarize the straight world that takes up much of the film’s diegesis Wittig and Zeig employ alienating techniques in order to give the illusion that the perspective of the film is from the outside lesbian position. This is effected explicitly by employing the Painter as the Narrator of the film’s voiceover but also through the use of disorientating camera angles. Both of these strategies encourage viewers to align with this outsider perspective. Once again, the pre-existing subversive formal conventions of noirafford an opportunity to capitalize on this unsettling of viewers’ positions. Zeig has indicated directly that she asks viewers to enter the film’s world askance through her “bizarre” camera angles in order to provide a “lesbian perspective” and Janey Place and Lowell Peterson employ Zieg’s term, “bizarre,” in their description of noir framing shots:

Common are bizarre, off-angle compositions of figures placed irregularly in the frame, which create a world that is never stable or safe, that is always threatening to change drastically and unexpectedly. (68)

Wittig and Zeig capture the potential of this technique and “lesbianize” the perspective, a Wittigian neologism (Straight Mind, 89). The camera frequently identifies with the Narrator/Painter and Wittig remarks on the politics of the camera strategy:

[F]or lesbians and homosexuals – it is the straight world that looks queer. We talked about the image being crooked, expressing a sense of distorted space, like in a German expressionist film. (“Girl Talk”)

The Girl makes explicit the jarring effect that “the straight world” can have for minority viewers of it, employing these German expressionist techniques that were a foundation for the later style of film noir. When the Painter enters the Man’s nightclub for the first time, for instance, she enters a straight “foreign world,” and the scene is shot “with strange angles and reflections and mirrors” in order to effect this defamiliarization and locate viewers in alignment with the lesbian perspective (Zeig). When cast upon the straight world the lesbian gaze finds reflective surfaces that disavow scopophilic control that, by implication, belongs in the straight world. Dolidon also discusses how the extreme close-ups in the sex scenes help to abstract the bodies and remove them from a controlling, totalizing gaze. These camera strategies aid in creating a point-of-view that looks in on a world that is alien; whether viewing the straight world or the sex scenes between the Girl and the Painter the act of viewing is defamiliarized in order to foster a new perspective.

[14] The way that the film’s Parisian location is shot also presents an off-centre way of viewing its geography; this quintessential hetero-romantic city is devoid of any of its definitional monuments. The familiar Paris of romance films is co-opted and revised in a move that disrupts the dominant heterosexuality attached to its spaces. The absence of the Eiffel Tower, for example, Paris’s defining phallic monument with its mythological resonance of heterosexual marriage proposals, helps to decentre heteronormativity. Furthermore, the Seine is shot without any of the monuments that flank its banks, the architecture replaced by decidedly anonymous concrete and stone walkways. This representational mode is an attempt to abstract the city from its specificity and its implicit heterosexuality. Wittig and Zeig aimed to present “a timeless city where the space doesn’t line up,” “so that people wouldn’t recognize it. An impossible geography […]. It’s a Paris for everybody; a neutral Paris, without the monuments that signal it. It could be any city, except that everyone knows it’s Paris” (Wittig, “Girl Talk”), “an anonymous city” (Zeig). This attempt to create a “neutral” space “for everybody” de-signifies the city in order to re-signify it from a fresh perspective, in Zeig’s words “lesbianizing Paris.” Instead of working with familiar Parisian locations, then, playfully re-citing them as might a more “queer” perspective according to Crowder’s distinction, The Girlvirtually refutes their existence. Instead, the film orders space on its own terms by creating an exaggerated topographic binary within its diegesis between straight and lesbian worlds that is transgressed by the Painter.

Rethinking Binaries

[15] One of the key problematics with giving the kind of credence to binaries that the film suggests is a concern about hierarchies and totalitarianism afforded one side of the binary or the other. Simply to reverse power from one side of the binary to the other would be a rather unsatisfactory and certainly “un-queer” solution for it leaves a dynamics of dominance and submission intact. Neither is it Wittig’s solution. Instead, Wittig theorizes the assumption of “both a particularand a universal point of view” that shakes up the systems of power by its very existence, that re-signifies the concept of universalism (Straight Mind, 67). The way that speech is used in the film serves as a good illustration. At a basic level, the fact that the male characters have barely any lines (men speak a total of five times in the 90-minute film), would appear to be a parodic overhaul of masculinist language systems, yet also rather a blunt reversal that can be accused of being just as totalitarian as what Wittig sees as the masculinist language system itself. However, this may be read more subtly as shifting the very grounds of language and perspective, a move neatly seen in Wittig’s brief reflection on the conception of her novel, The Lesbian Body. Wittig describes how the word “‘lesbian’ by its proximity to ‘body’ seemed to me to destabilize the general notion of the body;” because “corps” is gendered masculine the lesbian body is “a kind of paradox but not really, a kind of joke but not really, a kind of impossibility but not really” (“Some Remarks on The Lesbian Body,” 46). Wittig thus speaks of the ideological functioning of language (and elsewhere she speaks of the culpability of English too (Straight Mind, 76)) that enacts categorizations under the guise of universalism and she considers all forms of discourse as implicated in this; making the body lesbian makes the body not a body as conventionally understood. By creating a lesbian perspective in the film, a lesbian use of language, lesbian characters, lesbian noir, Wittig disturbs the “it-goes-without-saying” concepts of perspectives, languages, characters and noir because lesbians are conventionally excluded from these readymade institutionally-heterosexual concepts; lesbians are not included in the universal as it stands. Moreover, the act of speech is formative to transforming the pre-existing systems of presentation:

It is when starting to speak that one becomes “I.” This act – the becoming of the subject through the exercise of language and through locution – in order to be real, implies that the locutor be an absolute subject […]. [N]o woman can say “I” without being for herself a total subject – that is, ungendered, universal, whole. For each time I say “I,” I reorganize the world from my point of view and through abstraction I lay claim to universality. (Straight Mind, 80-81)

To take control of the “I” means reconceiving the universal from the point-of-view of the ungendered “not-women:” one would no longer be in the same universal (universe even) because the universal cannot exist in the same way. This is how Butler has recently understood Wittig on this point, in a revision of her earlier thoughts presented inGender Trouble (118, 121) where she critiqued Wittig for replacing one side of the binary with an analogous dominant form, leaving the binary intact:

If the form of universality can be given to, say, lesbian thought, or if lesbian thought is presented as the only reasonable thought, the only universally valid one, then something happens not just to universality itself, or to reasonableness itself, but to the necessary modes of their presentation. Indeed, here another crucial point comes into the clear: a universal and reasonable perspective is established not by thought alone; it has to be presented in some way. (“Wittig’s Material Practice,” 522)

The mode of presentation is crucial, as is clear from the experimental form of The Girl and Wittig’s fiction. Butler continues that for Wittig:

The very possibility of “universality” and “reasonableness” depends upon a presentation so that, strictly speaking, they do not come to exist apart from the presentation that bears them; to “bear” them, moreover, is not to be an accidental vehicle for their articulation but to constitute a precondition of their existence. (“Wittig’s Material Practice,” 522)

The Girl‘s techniques attempt to constitute the preconditions for a lesbian world yet to come to fruition, what Angelika Bammer has discussed as the “Not-Yet” of Wittig’s earlier fiction (119-153). This parallels the thrust of the performative, again in a rethinking by Butler on the impulse of Wittig’s work. In Gender Troubleshe critiqued Wittig for adhering to the concept of a unified ontology of being that pre-exists social structures and discourse (117). Now Wittig’s attempt to represent a minority point of view is reconsidered as:

[N]ot to describe existing reality or to correspond to existing points of view or existing interests. On the contrary, it posits interests and positions that do not yet exist, setting them up, founding them, and is thus “futural,” if not performative, in its aspirations and effects. (“Wittig’s Material Practice,” 521)

One cannot help but think that Butler’s reappraisal and attribution of the “p” word retrospectively to this aspect of Wittig’s theory may well act performatively itself, legitimating interest in Wittig’s work once more by others working in the “critical authority of queer studies.” Whilst there are proximities in strategies, however, queer theorists generally attempt to expose the fictional categories of sexuality within the prevailing system by opening up the system to the diversity within it. By contrast, Wittig contends that minority sexualities are cast out of the dominant system and cannot exist within that system: “to live in society is to live in heterosexuality” (Straight Mind, 41). From this position of outside, the Trojan Horse must attack the system and rework its structures.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS. Thank you to Catherine Silverstone for consistent patience in reading various versions of this article and ever-helpful comments.

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