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Wittig's lesbian and the Corinthian men: problematising categories of sex in 1 Cor 11.2-16.

Monique Wittig burst onto the French literary scene in 1964 with the publication of her first novel, L'opoponax, at the age of 29, for which she was awarded the Prix Medicis, one of the most prestigious literary awards in France. With her subsequent novels and theoretical essays functioning alongside her radical politics, she was foundational in the development of post-Beauvoirian French Feminist philosophy, a movement which she would come to epitomise alongside the better-known figures of Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva and He1ene Cixous. Although she moved to the United States in 1976, it was Judith Butler's reading (and critique) of her work in Gender Trouble (1990) that brought Wittig to the attention of academic feminist circles throughout North America, the UK and Australasia. In particular, her social theory and literary praxis informed the thinking of leading figures associated with queer theory such as Butler, but also Teresa de Lauretis, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Consequently, Wittig is often considered a pioneer of the queer theory movement.

Wittig published The Straight Mind in 1992, (1) the first (and only) collection of her essays, many of which were previously published in English between 1980 and 1990 in the journal Feminist Issues. She notes in the Preface that the collection is divided into two parts, the first half being political discussion and the second half being about writing. This division is perhaps indicative of her dual literary role as novelist and political theorist; (2) a quick scan of any bibliography of Monique Wittig criticism will reveal a tendency by scholars to focus on either her fiction or her philosophy. (3) For the purposes of this paper I will restrict myself to one aspect of Wittig's work, namely her theoretical writings on gender that are found in The Straight Mind, and other places, rather than on her novels. Undoubtedly Wittig's philosophy of gender influenced her fictional writing, finding there a place of creative outworking. For her, the act of writing is a political act 'of unwriting and rewriting' in order to specifically demonstrate that the category of women is not a natural group but an historical creation of the dominant phallogocentric point of view. (4) Any reading of her fiction ought to then indicate a familiarity with her theory, but I think it safe to assume that it is possible (albeit not ideal) to read the theory without the fiction.

As noted above, Judith Butler's reading of Wittig was a catalyst for increasing awareness of her work outside of France. However, while Wittig scholars argue that Butler's critique of Wittig is actually a 'misreading', as we shall see, other scholars found Butler's reading incisive. One such scholar is Daniel Boyarin (noted Talmudic professor, Pauline scholar, and author), who utilised Wittig's theory in two articles exploring early Christian formulations of gender. (5) In his initial analysis, the crucial biblical text for Boyarin is the notoriously difficult 1 Corinthians 11.2-16, in which he suggests Paul makes clear his theory of gender. (6) In fact, very few scholars find this passage clear, commenting rather that Paul is being 'obscure' and 'contradictory', (7) 'inarticulate, incomprehensible, and inconsistent.' (8) But, as I have suggested elsewhere, (9) in order to make progress on deciphering this text an approach is needed which critically examines the gender issues inherent in the text, something which Boyarin does exceptionally well. To do so through the intersection of biblical studies and poststructuralist theory creates a marginal zone of critical inquiry, something which Butler reminds us is required when examining the complex issue of gender. (10)

In this paper, then, I will explore 1 Cor 11.2-16 in the light of Wittig's philosophy of gender, building upon Boyarin's reading (which is dependent upon Butler), and seeking a clarification in the light of those scholars who found Butler's reading misrepresentative of Wittig's theory. Such an exploration has the potential to enable a new que(e)rying of this passage, thus hopefully shedding some new light on this troublesome passage of the New Testament.

Wittig's Materialist Lesbianism

Wittig's theory of gender is known as materialist lesbianism. Taking as her point of departure Karl Marx's concept of the sexual division of labour in the family, Wittig analysed the situation of women in terms of political economy. Refuting Marx's implication that this division is natural, she identified women as a social category, an ideological construct, but even more than that (building on the materialist feminist analysis of Christine Delphy), a political class, the product of an economic relation of exploitation. She declared, for example, that: 'There is no sex. There is but sex that is oppressed and sex that oppresses.' (11) Drawing also upon the work of Simone de Beauvoir, she exposed the oppressive relation between gender and subjectivity in language and culture. The title of her 1980 essay, 'On ne nait pas femme' (12)--'One is not born a Woman'--was a clever play on the famous passage from de Beauvoir that, 'On ne nait pas femme: on le devient' (13)--'One is not born but becomes a woman.' As de Lauretis observes, 'Almost the same words and yet such a difference in meaning ... In shifting the emphasis from the word born to the word woman, Wittig's citation of de Beauvoir's phrase invoked or mimicked the heterosexual definition of woman as 'the second sex', at once destabilizing its meaning and displacing its affect.' (14)

Seeking the disappearance of women as a class, Wittig posed the reconceptualization of the subject as 'the lesbian'--a figure who exceeds the categories of sex and gender, who is not a product of a social relationship with a man, and who is thus, 'not a woman.' (15) She argued that women need to extract themselves from the myth of woman that is imposed upon them by the dominant discourse of heteronormativity; the idea that women are a natural group which exists in relation to men--a relation she describes as 'servitude' and which 'implies personal and physical obligation as well as economic obligation.' For Wittig, the only way to escape this myth, and to destroy the category of woman, is through lesbianism. She states that, 'The refusal to become (or to remain) heterosexual always meant to refuse to become a man or a woman, consciously or not.' She further explains that, 'lesbianism provides for the moment the only social form in which we can live freely. Lesbian is the only concept ! 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.' (16)

Butler's Wittig

This figure of 'the lesbian' is described by Butler as 'a third gender'--'neither female nor male, woman nor man ... a category that radically problematizes both sex and gender as stable political categories of description.' However, Butler has two major difficulties with this figure. To begin with, on a pragmatic level, she views Wittig's lesbian-feminism as a kind of 'separatist prescriptivism', where only lesbians can be true feminists, and there is no solidarity with heterosexual women, nor any possibility for optional heterosexuality. (17) She even goes so far as to say that Wittig's 'defiant imperialist strategy' is aimed at 'lesbianizing the whole world', and denounces this 'totalitarian' position as 'no longer viable' or even 'politically desirable.' She suggests that it inevitably creates lesbianism as a compulsory category, no different to 'the compulsory meanings of heterosexuality's women and men.' (18)

On a theoretical level, Butler also questions the way in which the lesbian identity is constructed for Wittig. Specifically this concern centres on the role of the subject and the place of agency. Wittig states that individuals 'need to know and experience the fact that one can constitute oneself as a subject ... that one can become someone in spite of oppression, that one has one's own identity.' (19) While acknowledging the historical difficulty of the individual subject, particularly within Marxism, (20) Wittig goes on to discuss the importance of language as the means of producing such political and personal transformation. (21) How gender functions at the grammatical level in language--in the reinforcement of heterosexuality and the appropriation of the universal by men--is of central importance for Wittig. She suggests that gender enforces upon women a particular category, depriving them of the authority of speech, denying them universality, and ultimately stripping them of subjectivity. (22) She declares that 'Language casts sheaves of reality upon the social body, stamping it and violently shaping it.' (23)

However, she also suggests that language is neutral; it is raw material lying there to be used by the writer to create something new. Words are likened to the Trojan Horse--a 'war machine' by which the author can shock the reader into an awareness of how language operates in the domain of ideology. Literature thus has the potential 'to pulverize the old forms and formal conventions' (24) which buttress heteronormativity and the domination of women. (25) Gender, then, can--and indeed, 'must'--be destroyed through the power of language. (26) For women, this means assuming the status of the universal subject. She states:
   when one becomes a locutor, when one says T and, in doing so,
   reappropriates language as a whole, proceeding from oneself
   alone, with the tremendous power to use all language, it is then
   and there, according to linguists and philosophers, that the
   supreme act of subjectivity, the advent of subjectivity into
   consciousness, occurs. 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 ... I mean that in
   spite of the harsh law of gender and its enforcement upon
   women, no woman can say 'I' without being for herself a total
   subject--that is, ungendered, universal, whole ... Language as a
   whole gives everyone the same power of becoming an absolute
   subject through its exercise. (27)

For Butler, this idea that women can 'speak their way out of their gender' is 'startling.' She is not impressed with the 'enormous' power that Wittig accords to language, nor to the volition of the speaking subject. Butler states: 'This absolute grounding of the speaking "I" assumes God-like dimensions within Wittig's discussion.' (28) In explaining her unease with Wittig's viewpoint, she says, 'As a subject who can realize concrete universality through freedom, Wittig's lesbian confirms rather than contests the normative promise of humanist ideals premised on the metaphysics of substance.' (29) For Butler, Wittig's subscription to the Nietzschean idea of a 'metaphysics of substance'--the notion that there is a prior ontological reality of substance and attribute (as reflected in the grammatical formulation of subject and predicate)--is anathema. She calls Wittig's position 'uncritical', 'prefeminist', and 'naive.' (30) She also situates Wittig's project within the Heideggerian discourse of ontotheology; that is, within a modernist framework which presumes the primary unity of beings grounded in a prelinguistic Being. Gender, sex, heterosexuality and domination thus all belong to a second-order, discursively constituted reality. Language is therefore both the cause of sexual oppression and the way beyond that oppression. Butler labels this a 'foundationalist fiction', (31) and questions why Wittig doesn't rather pursue a strategy of decentering the subject, preferring a Derridean position that relies on an operational differance. (32)

As stated earlier, it was Butler's reading of Wittig that brought Wittig to the attention of feminist scholars in North America, the UK, and Australasia. In fact, Butler's critique of Wittig as a 'humanist', and a 'classic idealist', (33) served for many as 'the definitive verdict' (34) on her work, and thus effectively eliminated her views from feminist debates in the 1990s. (35) Teresa de Lauretis states: 'To the reader of Gender Trouble, Wittig appears to be an existentialist who believes in human freedom, a humanist who presumes the ontological unity of Being prior to language, an idealist masquerading as a materialist and, most paradoxically of all, an unintentional, unwitting collaborator with the regime of heterosexual normativity.' (36) In recent years, however, many Wittig scholars--such as de Lauretis--have responded by suggesting that Butler's critique is actually a misreading. We will return shortly to their rereading of Wittig, but first need to examine the work of one of those scholars who took Butler's reading of Wittig as the definitive reading.

Boyarin's Wittig

In his consideration of gender issues both in the present and in first-century Judaism and Christianity, Daniel Boyarin states that Butler's analysis of Wittig is 'incisive.' (37) His initial--and fascinating--premise is that early Christianity is a culture in which gender did not operate in a way that would produce so-called 'natural' sex whereas, by contrast, rabbinic Judaism was fully committed to a naturalized 'sex.' He suggests that this division is 'reproduced in the split between different schools of feminist theory of our time ... exemplified here by typical representatives Monique Wittig and Luce Irigaray, respectively.' He thus goes on to demonstrate how these two thinkers illustrate 'both the promises and predicaments' (38) of these two approaches to the issue of 'gender.'

In his section on the Christian thinking of gender, Boyarin states that the crucial text for his analysis is 1 Cor 11.2-16, where he suggests: 'Paul makes practically explicit his theory of gender as produced in the sexual relation.' (39) His focus is thus on Paul, and his response to the Corinthians, not on the Corinthians themselves, and whatever it was that they were up to that disturbed Paul so greatly. Citing key verses from this passage, he explains how Paul combines two systems of conceptualising gender, one in which there is an explicit hierarchy (w. 3, 7-9) and one in which there is none (vv.11-12). The absence of hierarchy does not necessarily correspond to a practical equality however; rather, Boyarin suggests it points to a representation of androgyny existing on the level of the spirit. Like many Pauline scholars, he makes the connection between the declaration in verse 11 that, 'There is neither woman without man nor man without woman, in the Lord' and Gal 3.28, that 'There is neither male and female in Christ.' (40) Here we have the baptismal formula indicating the creation of a new humanity in which all difference--race, class, gender--would be effaced in Christ. But Boyarin makes the important point that for Paul this new creation was not something that would--or even could--be entirely achieved on the social level. He says that 'Paul could never imagine a social eradication of the hierarchical deployment of male and female bodies for married people.' (41) It is this qualification of marriage that seems to be the crucial factor here; Boyarin observes that, for Paul, 'It is (hetero)sexuality, therefore, that produces gender ... any possibility of an eradication of male and female and its corresponding social hierarchy is only possible on the level of the spirit, either in ecstasy at baptism or perhaps permanently for the celibate.' (42)

Boyarin also makes the connection between these two levels of operation--that of a spiritual equality and a social hierarchy--and the corresponding two myths of the origins of the sexes found in Genesis 1 and 2. Again, this is also a connection many Pauline scholars make. (43) Here Boyarin notes that 'Paul's interpretation of Genesis is virtually identical to Philo's.' (44) For Philo, the first story of Gen 1 tells of an entirely spiritual being, a 'singular unbodied Adam-creature', whose designation as both male and female really means a primal androgyne of no sex. (45) The second story of Gen 2 then tells of 'a carnal male Adam from whom the female is constructed.' (46) As Boyarin therefore points out, 'Bodily gender--structurally dependent, of course, on their being two--is thus twice displaced from the origins of "man."' (47) To be female, of course, is to be even one step (exponentially?) further removed from such origins. Although noting that Philo doesn't make the connection explicit, Boyarin suggests that the second story implies another foundational myth, namely, the Fall (Gen 3). Philo only ever claims the first creature as being made 'in the image of God' and 'by nature incorruptible'; (48) the second creature, marked by sexual difference through 'the soul's fall into materiality', is inferior.

Consequently, the unification of opposites in general, and the symbolization of a reunified humanity in particular, became well-known motifs in religious experience, (49) and we see this in Philo's description of the Therapeutae in his De Vita Contemplativa. Here we have a 'highly eulogistic account' (50) of a Jewish-Christian ascetic community living near Alexandria (and thus likely to have been familiar to Philo) whose fellowship included both men and women living celibate lives of prayer and contemplation of Scripture. Boyarin draws our attention to the climactic ritual of their festal meeting held once every seven weeks; the men and the women each form a choir, singing and dancing in turn but, as the celebration becomes more ecstatic, they join together to form one chorus, 'the treble of the women blending with the bass of the men.' (51) He suggests that, 'this model of an ecstatic joining of the male and the female in a mystical ritual re-creates in social practice the image of the purely spiritual masculofeminine first human of which Philo speaks in his commentary [on Genesis], indeed, that this ritual of the Therapeutae is a return to the originary Adam ... the state of ecstasy (as its etymology implies) involves a symbolic and psychological condition of being disembodied and thus is similar to the condition of the primal androgyne.' (52)

The key point for Boyarin in all of this is that 'Spiritual androgyny is attained only by abjuring the body and its difference.' (53) As long as women renounce their sexuality and maternity--that which makes them specifically female--they may attain a level of autonomy and creativity on the spiritual sphere. Boyarin explains further: 'As the category "women" is produced in the heterosexual relationship, so in Philo a female who escapes or avoids such relationships escapes from being a woman.' (54) He suggests that we can also see this in Philo's discussion of female figures in the Bible, who fall into one of two categories: women or virgins. A typical example of this is found in Philo's Quaestiones: 'When a man comes in contact with a woman, he marks the virgin as a woman. But when souls become divinely inspired, from being women they become virgins' (Ex 2.3). (55) Boyarin anticipates his connection between this early Christian thinking and Wittig's theory of gender when he states that: 'By escaping from sexuality entirely, virgins thus participate in the "destruction of sex," and attain the status of the spiritual human who was neither male nor female.' (56)

There is an important point to make however, before we get to Boyarin's discussion of Wittig. The embodied, gendered person is inevitably represented as female; transcendence beyond this to become a spiritual being, through the renunciation of the body and its sexuality, is also inevitably to become a male androgyne. If we recall the stories of Joseph and Aseneth, Paul and Thelca, and the Martyrdom of Perpetua; the disciples Maximilla (in the Acts of Andrew), Mygdonia (in the Acts of Thomas), and Charitine (in the Acts of Philip); and Jesus' teaching, as found in the Gospel of Thomas regarding Mary, (57) we can clearly see that transcendence is, in fact, a 'virilization.' (58) The women in these stories renounce their femaleness and become male--through hair-cutting, clothing exchange, celibacy, rejection of maternity, and so forth--and in doing so, move 'to a higher state of virtue.' (59) The social hierarchy that is supplanted by a spiritual androgyny is indeed a return to the original Adam. Sexual unity is, in fact, 'reconstituted masculinity' where the female becomes male: 'the androgyne myth is not antiquity's answer to androcentrism; it is but one manifestation of it.' (60) With regard to these stories Boyarin says:
   On my reading, then, these Christian imaginings of gender
   bending don't even really comprehend a "destabilization of
   gender identity." Rather, insofar as they are completely immured
   in the dualism of the flesh and the spirit, they represent no
   change whatsoever in the status of gender. All of these texts are
   mythic or ritual enactments of the "myth of the primal
   androgyne," and as such simply reinstate the metaphysics of
   substance, the split between the Universal Mind and Disavowed
   Body, which constitutes a reinstatement of masculinism ...
   These are mythic representations by Christianity of its
   understanding that the metaphysics of substance that subtends
   the notion of transcendence is itself a masculinist inscription of
   the abstract (spirit) over the concrete (body), in other words what
   Jean-Joseph Goux has called "metamorphosis into the
   masculine-neutral," a neutrality or universality that in its drive
   toward that neutrality, is already masculine. (61)

It is with this in mind, then, that Boyarin makes the connection with Wittig's materialist feminism. He finds the parallels between the views on gender found in these stories and the feminist philosophy of Wittig 'stunning.' (62) He notes that Wittig herself makes such a connection when she states that 'the category of sex is the product of a heterosexual society which imposes on women the rigid obligation of the reproduction of the "species," that is, the reproduction of heterosexual society ... [the category of sex] turns half of the population into sexual beings, for sex is a category which women cannot be outside of ... Some lesbians and nuns escape.' (63) Boyarin suggests therefore, that, 'Wittig's lesbian is another version of the woman of Hellenistic Judaism or early Christianity made male and thus free through celibacy ... Metaphysically speaking, nothing has changed.' (64) Philo's 'virgins' and Wittig's 'lesbian' are therefore almost--but not quite (65)--identical in that they are not women.

Boyarin is openly reliant on Butler's analysis of Wittig. He declares that Butler 'demonstrates clearly' that Wittig's call for the destruction of the category of sex is dependent on the same metaphysics, and thus the 'same masculinist ideologies of transcendence', as Philo. (66) In citing Butler's critique of Wittig's adherence to the metaphysics of substance, he defends his conclusion that Wittig's position 'ends up being almost entirely a reflection of the patristic ideology of freedom as pregendered and of nongender as male.' (67) He also concurs with Butler's critique regarding Wittig's dismissal of heterosexuality as a genuine option for some women. He suggests that 'In Wittig's writing, not being a lesbian, that is, "being a woman" seems finally as pejorative as it was in Philo and [the] patristic writings.' (68)

At this point we need to ask a few questions. Recalling that Boyarin is openly reliant on Butler's analysis of Wittig, what if, rather than being 'incisive', Butler's analysis is a 'misreading', as many Wittig scholars claim? How would that affect Boyarin's reading of the theology implicit in 1 Cor 11.2-16? If we were to reread Wittig's theory in a way consistent with those who defend her work--and thus seek to hear Wittig's voice more clearly than Butler's (69)--might another reading of this passage emerge? Would we perhaps find that while Boyarin's reading accurately reflects a Philonic-Pauline view of gender, a rereading of both Wittig and the text reveals a view of gender characterized by the Corinthians themselves--those whose voice is not heard in Boyarin's discussion? (70) Boyarin concludes both his articles--the 1998 original article, and his 2003 subsequent revised version--by expressing a sense of despair over our current situation with regard to discourses of gender. He states that we are suspended between the two poles of 'an irresolvable antinomy or aporia'; that is, the dialectic between the 'Christian' and 'rabbinic' understandings of gender. (71) He suggests that, although there is not yet 'any third term that can clearly resolve this antithesis', (72) 'our project must be to find a way past the impossible terms of this Hobson's choice.' (73) Remembering that for Wittig writing is a political act of unwriting and rewriting, perhaps this is a strategy we can emulate to extract ourselves from such a binary bind. If we reread this passage in such a way to hear what we might call the 'subdominant voices' of both Wittig and the Corinthians, (74) rather than the dominant points of view of both Butler and Paul, a third way may emerge; this 'troublesome' passage may yet prove open to further que(e)rying.

Re-reading Wittig

As if to affirm this possibility, let us consider the words of de Lauretis; as one of the scholars who found Butler's analysis of Wittig to be a misreading, she points primarily to Butler's failure to understand the figural, theoretical character of Wittig's 'lesbian' and says:
   These critiques mainly failed to see that Wittig's "lesbian" was
   not just an individual with a personal "sexual preference" or a
   social subject with a simply "political" priority, but the term or
   conceptual figure for the subject of a cognitive practice and a
   form of consciousness that are not primordial, universal, or
   coextensive with human thought, as de Beauvoir would have it,
   but historically determined and yet subjectively assumed--an
   eccentric subject constituted in a process of struggle and
   interpretation; of translation, detranslation, and retranslation
   ... a rewriting of self in relation to a new understanding of
   society, of history, of culture. (75)

Wittig's lesbian then, is not so much the 'cognitive subject' that Butler posits (76)--with all the Cartesian connotations inherent in such a figure--but rather a conceptual figure whom de Lauretis describes as an 'eccentric subject ... a subject that exceeds its conditions of subjection, a subject in excess of its discursive construction, a subject of which we only knew what it was not: not-woman.' She goes on to add that this lesbian 'is figured in the practice of writing as consciousness of contradiction . a consciousness of writing, living, feeling, and desiring in the noncoincidence of experience and language, in the interstices of representation ...' Subjectivity in such lacunary spaces (to borrow a phrase from Wittig) is therefore eccentric in that it is neither centred in or situated outside of the institution of heterosexuality. Accordingly, it involves a displacement, or a disidentification; a leaving of the familiar for that which is unknown, 'a place from which speaking and thinking are at best tentative, uncertain, unauthorized.' This displacement--this reconceptualization of the subject--is not a static, singular event however; it inevitably entails 'a constant crossing back and forth, a remapping of boundaries between bodies and discourses, identities and communities.' (77)

Two other Wittig scholars offer further clarification over the meaning of the lesbian figure, particularly emphasising its conceptual nature. Diane Griffin Crowder reminds us that Wittig's lesbian is not 'a woman who loves women' as is commonly understood; (78) as Wittig herself said: 'it is not "women" (victims of heterosexuality) that lesbians love and desire, but lesbians (individuals who are not the females of men).' (79) Lesbianism is not about sexual desire or practice; it is a political, economic, social and symbolic action that refuses and resists the system of domination that is heterosexuality. Dianne Chisholm further clarifies this issue; 'It should now be clear that Wittig's lesbian body does not represent a real, physical, or political body; it does not imag(in)e lesbian persons nor even lesbian erotic experience. Rather, it acts as a body-metaphor; a catachresis, a metaphor without a literal referent that serves to coneeptualise a radically different body/body politic, to think beyond representations of the conventional, naturalized body.' (80)

Having established that Wittig's 'lesbian' is primarily a conceptual figure, the thoughts of two more Wittig scholars are pertinent with regard to the specific issue of subjectivity with which Butler was so concerned. Karin Cope suggests:
   Wittig's lesbian subject, while universal, is not a seamless whole,
   the One of patriarchal male major subjectivity ... As Wittig
   writes, "[T]he minority subject is not self-centred as is the
   straight subject ... This [involves] a constant shifting which,
   when the text is read, produces an out-of-the-corner-of-the-eye
   perception; the text works through fracturing." The power of
   minority subjectivity comes from multiplying sites of difference
   --so that even a "major" subject is revealed to be different from
   itself, fragmentary and fractured, minoritized, as in the so-called
   death of the subject ... Contrary to all-too-popular opinion, "the
   death of the subject" does not mean the disappearance of
   subjectivity altogether but the abandonment of the myth of the
   supreme, fully present, fully conscious, fully intentional,
   universal subject as the only figure of subjectivity. When the
   subject is dead, subjects, however fragmented and fragmentary,
   remain to write and be written. (81)

And, finally, it is appropriate to hear the comments of Namascar Shaktini, renowned Wittig authority and compeer. She suggests that one reason why Anglo-American feminists have misread Wittig is that they have not paid enough attention to her self-acknowledged debt to the French linguist Emile Benveniste and his theory of the speaking subject. (82) In brief, Benveniste posits the indeterminateness of the concept T, saying:
   There is no concept "I" that incorporates all the I's that are
   uttered at every moment in the mouths of all speakers ... It is a
   term that cannot be identified except in ... an instance of
   discourse and that has only a momentary reference ... I and you
   do not refer to "reality" or to "objective" positions in space or
   time but to the utterance, unique each time, that contains them ...
   [They are] "empty" signs that are nonreferential with respect to
   reality. (83)

Shaktini thus makes the connection between Benveniste's 'I' and Wittig's lesbian in that they are both 'empty signs' able to be filled only in specific instances of discourse.

Re-reading 1 Cor 11.2-16

With these rereadings of Wittig's lesbian in mind, we are ready to reread 1 Cor 11.2-16. This text is notoriously difficult, and biblical scholars have debated the various hermeneutical, theological and historical aspects of it with little consensus emerging on any of the issues. (84) This passage then, allows for--and even encourages--an approach which accepts contradictions, multiplicities, and 'out-of-the-corner-of-the-eye' perceptions. It is a passage replete with lacunae, 'empty signs', and 'eccentric' subjects who defy definition.

I would argue that it is crucial--and somewhat ironic perhaps--to ensure adequate attention is given to the Corinthian men in this passage. (85) Too many analyses of this text have either ignored the presence of the men in Paul's argument, or declared that their role in his argument is purely hypothetical, and have focused solely on the behaviour of the 'problematic women.' (86) Yet both textually and historically there is no reason to suppose that Paul is not also addressing the men's behaviour alongside that of the women. A rereading of this passage then, must take into consideration the possibility that the men--by playing with the established sign systems of clothing and coiffure--are as involved in 'gender-scrambling' (87) behaviours as are the women. (88) Consequently, these men may be as 'eccentric', if not more so, than their female counterparts. As contradictory, unthinkable figures, ignored or deemed hypothetical, viewed as effeminate and thus mislabelled as 'homosexual', (89) these men may be reflecting a view of gender that reveals the 'third way' we have been seeking. And as such, it might even be possible to liken them to Wittig's lesbian figure.

In his examination of the myth of the primal androgyne, Boyarin gives no explanation for the behaviour of the men, (90) considering only the motivation that might lead women to renounce their sexuality in order to attain a degree of transcendence. In his examination of Philo's Therapeutae, discussed above, Boyarin is aware that the men of this community were also celibate, but comments--without explanation--in a footnote that, despite this, they have not had to renounce their sexuality. (91) Perhaps celibacy therefore entails a rejection of one's body, and its sexual desires, which for males meant a rejection of that part of themselves seen as female. Boyarin cites the account in the Acts of Andrew where the apostle addresses the disciple Maximilla as a 'man', even as a 'wise man', entreating her to remain celibate, and implores her to help him to become perfect--to become male. This would seem to affirm that for anatomical males, masculinity is not a given, but something that needed constant attention and maintenance. (92) Certainly this fits with the Stoic view of sexuality, where men and women were arrayed along a continuum 'according to their metaphysical perfection ... along an axis whose telos was male.' (93) If they didn't maintain the appropriate gender behaviours, men risked slipping down this scale towards effeminacy, and in the words of the Stoic contemporary of Paul, Musonius Rufus, this would be 'to appear as women, and to be seen as womanish, something that should be avoided at all cost.' (94)

However, we also have numerous examples of male behaviour in Greco-Roman contexts that does not fit with this dominant view of gender. As noted elsewhere, gender role reversal was an important component in various religious festivals celebrated by the Greeks, particularly those regarding Heracles and Dionysos. (95) The male worshippers of these gods would engage in 'ritual transvestism' donning feminine apparel in order to 'show themselves off as ambisexed beings, striving to transcend gender categories.' (96) What we need to note here is that this behaviour does not fit with the transcendent male androgyne that Boyarin has described. There is a taking-on of the female in order to become transcendent. With regard to the followers of Dionysos, many observers regarded this ritual transvestism as a shameful activity. The Roman historian Livy criticises the male followers saying, 'there are men very much like women' (XI, 39.15.9) while, in his Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Philostratus records an episode where Apollonius criticises them saying, 'disguised as female harlequins ... they shine in shame alone' (IV.21). (97) Such language of shame is exactly how Paul describes the Corinthians' behaviour (11.4-7, 13-15). And such language reflects the dominant view of sexuality as we might expect.

But for those followers, whose writings we do not have, to be dressed as women, 'to be seen as womanish' was not something shameful. Dionysos himself was closely associated with feminine clothing; the other name by which he is known, Bacchus, is derived from the word bassara, a woman's dress. (98) And Heracles is hardly any less masculine or heroic for his choice to wear women's clothing in various legends; see in particular the stories of his clothing exchange with Omphele, and the choice of Athena (herself a fascinating blend of gender characteristics) to give him a peplos, a distinctly feminine piece of clothing, as a gift. (99) Remembering that the Corinthians were primarily Greco-Roman in their religious background and cultural environment, it would seem that an alternative, sub-dominant, view of sexuality is operating here.

If we return to Boyarin, and the expression of Christianity he is describing, we find that he also notes some exceptions to this dominant view of gender. With no elaboration, Boyarin simply notes (in brackets) in his first article that 'there were valued female characteristics and metaphors for male Christians as well', (100) while in his second article he equally simply states (in a footnote) that 'there are representations in late antique Christianity of males "becoming female" as well.' (101)

These clearly, then, are examples of men who challenged the accepted gender hierarchy and who are thus examples of the contradictions and noncoincidences of experience and language that we can only see out of the corner of our eye; easily missed, fragmentary and fractured, tentative, uncertain, unauthorized, those which abide in the interstices of representation, on the boundaries of identity--and as such, those whose voices are seldom heard, those who we want to highlight here. The Corinthian men may also be such conceptual, theoretical lesbians--men who have challenged the dominant institution of heteronormativity, who experience disidentification and displacement--who radically symbolize a reconceptualization of the subject. Perhaps we could re-phrase Boyarin and conclude that the men (and women) of Corinthian Christianity are another version of Wittig's lesbian, neither male nor female, but free in Christ.


(1) Monique Wittig, The Straight Mind and Other Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992).

(2) Of course a third role (of many in her life) that ought not to be neglected is that of political activist; particularly in the revolutionary acts of the MLF (Mouvement de Liberation des Femmes) in Paris during the early 1970s but also through to involvement with the CLAGS (Centre for Lesbian and Gay Studies) in New York in the 1990s.

(3) For example, see the bibliography in On Monique Wittig: Theoretical, Political, and Literary Essays ed. Namascar Shaktini (Urbana/Chicago: University of Illinois, 2005), 203-222. Even the title of this book reveals the diversity of approaches her work evokes.

(4) See discussion in Namascar Shaktini, 'The Critical Mind and The Lesbian Body', in On Monique Wittig, 150-159.

(5) Daniel Boyarin, 'Gender', in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, ed. Mark C. Taylor (Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 117-135, and 'On The History of The Early Phallus', in Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages, eds. S. Farmer and C. B. Pasternack, Medieval Cultures Vol 32 (London/Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2003), 3-44.

(6) Boyarin, 'Gender', 123. However, Boyarin opts in his second article to omit any reference to 1 Cor 11.2-16, perhaps implying that he has reconsidered the usefulness of this passage. This is a point also noted below.

(7) Robin Scroggs, 'Paul and the Eschatological Woman', JAAR 40/3 (1972), 297.

(8) Jouette Bassler, '1 Corinthians', in The Women's Bible Commentary eds. Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe (London/Louisville: SPCK/Westminster, John Knox 1992) 326-27.

(9) Gillian Townsley, 'Gender Trouble in Corinth: Que(e)rying Constructs of Gender in 1 Corinthians 11.2-16', The Bible and Critical Theory 2/2 (2006), 17.1-14.

(10) Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity 10th Anniversary Edition (New York/London: Routledge, 1990, 1999), xxxii.

(11) Monique Wittig, The Category of Sex, in The Straight Mind, 2.

(12) Monique Wittig, 'On ne nait pas femme', Questions Feministes 8 (1980), trans. as 'One Is Not Born a Woman', in Feminist Issues 1/2 (1981).

(13) Simone de Beauvoir, Le Deuxieme Sexe: L'experience Vecue (Gallimard: Paris, 1949), 13. The English translation is found in The Second Sex (London: Jonathon Cape, 1953), 295.

(14) Teresa de Lauretis, 'When Lesbians Were Not Women', paper delivered at the Colloque 'Autour de L'oeuvre Politique, Theorique et Litteraire de Monique Wittig, sous la direction de Marie-Helene Bourcier et Suzette Robichon, Paris 16-17 juin 2001, labrys, etudes feministes numero special, septembre 2003.

(15) Monique Wittig, 'One Is Not Born a Woman', in The Straight Mind, 20.

(16) Wittig, 'One Is Not Born a Woman', 13, 20. This concept was first described by de Beauvoir in The Second Sex (1949; 1953)--see footnote 10 in 'One Is Not Born a Woman', for different page number, publisher etc.

(17) Butler, Gender Trouble, 26, 144, 162.

(18) Butler, Gender Trouble, 155, 162, 153, 150, 162, 162.

(19) Wittig, 'One Is Not Born a Woman', 16.

(20) Wittig, 'One Is Not Born a Woman', 16-19.

(21) Wittig, 'The Straight Mind', in The Straight Mind, 30-32.

(22) Wittig, 'The Mark of Gender', in The Straight Mind, 81.

(23) Wittig, 'The Mark of Gender', 78.

(24) Wittig, 'The Trojan Horse', 71, 71-3, 69.

(25) This idea of violence is critiqued by several feminists, such as Penelope Englebrecht, in '"Lifting Belly Is a Language": The Postmodern Lesbian Subject', Feminist Studies 16/1 (1990), 96. Wittig defends her view in 'Some Remarks on The Lesbian Body', in On Monique Wittig, 45.

(26) Wittig, 'The Mark of Gender', 81.

(27) Wittig, 'The Mark of Gender', 80.

(28) Butler, Gender Trouble, 149, 148, 149.

(29) Butler, Gender Trouble, 27, 27, 29.

(30) Butler, Gender Trouble, 27, 29.

(31) Butler, Gender Trouble, 149, 150.

(32) Naomi Schor makes the observation, however, that Butler has since come to recognise that identity is politically necessary, and that the category of the universal cannot be done away with entirely; Butler admits to this in her subsequent work, Bodies That Matter (New York/London: Routledge, 1993); see the discussion in Schor, 'French Feminism Is a Universalism', differences 7/1 (1995), 27-28.

(33) Butler, Gender Trouble, 158, 159.

(34) Linda M. G. Zerilli, 'A New Grammar of Difference: Monique Wittig's Poetic Revolution', in On Monique Wittig, 91.

(35) Namascar Shaktini, editor of On Monique Wittig, notes that, 'A study of the distribution by year of 392 items published on Wittig between 1964 and 1999 shows a progressive increase, peaking at 31 items in 1990, the year when the influential critique of Wittig in Gender Trouble appeared. From 1991 to 1999 there were only 137 items, or 15.2 per year, a drop of 50 percent', in Zerilli, 110, n18.

(36) Teresa de Lauretis, 'When Lesbians Were Not Women', his/gefem/special/special/delauretis.htm.

(37) Boyarin, 'Gender', 127. Many of the citations from this article are also to be found in Boyarin's subsequent article, 'On the History of the Early Phallus' (cited above). These, and any differences, will be noted in the footnotes, in brackets, as necessary.

(38) Boyarin, 'Gender', 118.

(39) Boyarin, 'Gender', 123. Boyarin is utilising, in this section of his article, material published previously in A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity Contraversions 1 (Berkeley/LA/London: University of California Press, 1994), 193ff, and in 'Paul and the Genealogy of Gender', Representations 41 (1993), 1-33.

(40) For example, see A. Wire, The Corinthian Women Prophets: A Reconstruction through Paul's Rhetoric (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), 184ff; E. Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (London/New York: SCM/Crossroad, 1983), 205-241; G. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 270; A. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians NIGTC (Grand Rapids/Carlisle: Eerdmans/Paternoster Press, 2000), 829; D. R. MacDonald, "Corinthian Veils and Gnostic Androgynes," in Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism ed. Karen L. King (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), 980-281.

(41) Boyarin, 'Gender', 123.

(42) Boyarin, 'Gender', 123.

(43) Thiselton, 833-37, 842; Fee, 512-18; R. Hays, First Corinthians Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997), 184, 186-7; H. Conzelmann, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 186-88, etc.

(44) Boyarin, 'Gender', 124. In his article, 'On the History of the Early Phallus', Boyarin has eliminated virtually all references to Paul, a point we will discuss below.

(45) Boyarin, 'Gender', 120; 'On the History of the Early Phallus', 5. See also Wayne Meeks, 'The Image of the Androgyne: Some Uses of a Symbol in Earliest Christianity', HR 13 (1974), 1176ff.

(46) Boyarin, 'Gender', 120; 'On the History of the Early Phallus', 5 ('... a carnal Adam who is male and then from whom ...').

(47) Boyarin, 'Gender', 120; 'On the History of the Early Phallus', 5 ('Man').

(48) Philo, LCL (1929), 107, cited in Boyarin, 'Gender', 120.

(49) Meeks 1974 pp. 166-67; D. R. MacDonald 1988 pp. 982-283. Brooten (1988) provides a valuable critique of this view, however.

(50) F. H. Colson, 'Introduction to De Vita Contemplativa', in Philo, LCL (1954), 104.

(51) Philo, LCL (1954), 83-85.

(52) Boyarin, 'Gender', 121. 'On the History of the Early Phallus', 26.

(53) Boyarin, 'Gender', 121.

(54) Boyarin, 'Gender', 121-22.

(55) We also see this idea in Tertullian's discussion in De virginibus velandis on whether virgins are women or not (see the comments by Mary Rose D'Angelo in 'Veils, Virgins, and the Tongues of Men and Angles: Women's Heads in Early Christianity', in Off With Her Head! The Denial of Women's Identity in Myth, Religion, and Culture eds. H. Eilberg-Schwartz and W. Doniger (Berkeley/LA/ London: University of California Press, 1995), 149). Tertullian's comment that perhaps 'a virgin is some monstrous third sex with her own head' (7.6) may be worth exploring further in relation to Butler's description of Wittig's lesbian as a 'third sex' (see above).

(56) Boyarin, 'Gender', 122.

(57) See, for example, the discussion of these and other accounts in Elizabeth Castelli, '"I Will Make Mary Male": Pieties of the Body and Gender Transformation of Christian Women in Late Antiquity', in Body Guards: The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity, eds. J. Epstein and K. Straub (NY/London: Routledge, 1991), 29-49. We could also add other texts, such as that found in the Gospel to the Egyptians; 'When you trample upon the garment of shame; when the Two become One, and Male with Female neither male nor female.'

(58) Boyarin, 'Gender', 126.

(59) Castelli, "I Will Make Mary Male," 32.

(60) D. R. MacDonald, 'Corinthian Veils and Gnostic Androgynes', in Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism ed. Karen L. King (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), 285.

(61) Boyarin, 'Gender', 126; 'On the History of the Early Phallus', 8 (rearranged with some differences, ie. 'Christianity' is replaced by 'certain Judaisms and Christianities'; it is also noted that Goux is 'following Irigaray'). Boyarin also makes an important reference to the astute observations of John Whittaker on the grammatical reifications of this philosophy of gender; Whittaker notes that, 'in ancient Greek, and in particular in the Greek of Plutarch's period, the transition back and forth from neuter to masculine is easily achieved. And indeed it would not be an exaggeration to regard this grammatical phenomenon as one of the most important components in the theologies of the Roman Empire ... And as one would expect, God is one masculine when considered as a person, but one neuter--in fact, the One--when considered as a metaphysical principle', 'Plutarch, Platonism and Christianity', in Neoplatonism and Early Christian Thought: Essays in Honour of A. H. Armstrong ed. H. J. Blumenthal and R. A. Markus (London: Valorium Publications, 1981), 54, 56.

(62) Boyarin, 'Gender', 126. 'On the History of the Early Phallus', 25.

(63) Wittig, 'The Category of Sex', 6-7.

(64) Boyarin, 'Gender', 127. 'On the History of the Early Phallus', 25.

(65) Boyarin notes 'the enormous difference that sexual pleasure is not denied Wittig's lesbian', 'Gender', 127; 'On the History of the Early Phallus', 25. However, see comments below by Wittig scholars that suggest that this is irrelevant--Wittig's lesbian is not about desire in the any case.

(66) Boyarin, 'Gender', 126; 'On the History of the Early Phallus', 25.

(67) Boyarin, 'Gender', 127; 'On the History of the Early Phallus', 25 ('Philonic/patristic' ... 'non-gender').

(68) Boyarin, 'Gender', 127.

(69) Of course, in doing so, we also reveal several of the central debates existing within feminism itself--the divide between Anglo-American and French feminism, and the divide between essentialist and social constructionist theories of gender (or difference and equality feminisms) that runs through both. See the discussions by Diana Fuss, Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference (New York: Routledge, 1989), and Schor, 'French Feminism', 15-47.

(70) We may also wonder why this passage, which Boyarin cited as 'crucial' to his analysis, is completely absent from his revised article, 'On the History of the Early Phallus', as is almost any mention of Paul. I am awaiting an email response from Boyarin to this question.

(71) Boyarin, 'Gender', 133.

(72) Boyarin, 'Gender', 133.

(73) Boyarin, 'On the History of the Early Phallus', 34.

(74) To re-phrase Boyarin's use of the concepts 'dominant' and 'subdominant' fictions; 'Gender', 12, 24.

(75) Teresa de Lauretis, 'When Lesbians Were Not Women', (emphasis mine).

(76) Butler, Gender Trouble, 26.

(77) Teresa de Lauretis, 'When Lesbians Were Not Women', ibid.

(78) Diane Griffin Crowder, 'Universalizing Materialist Lesbianism', in On Monique Wittig, 71.

(79) Monique Wittig, 'Paradigm', in Homosexualities and French Literature: Cultural Contexts/Critical Texts eds., G. Stambolian and E. Marks (Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press, 1979). There is a revised version of this essay, in French, in La pensee straight (Paris: Balland, 2001). This essay was not included in the antecedent English edition of The Straight Mind.

(80) Dianne Chisholm, 'Lesbianizing Love's Body: Interventionist Imag(in)ings of Monique Wittig', in Reimagining Women: Representations of Women in Culture eds. S. Neuman and G. Stephenson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993), 204.

(81) Karin Cope, 'Plastic Actions: Linguistic Strategies and Le corps lesbien', Hypatia 6/3 (1991), 78.

(82) Again, this raises the issue of the distance between Anglo-American and Continental philosophical discussions.

(83) Emile Benveniste, Problems in General Linguistics (trans. Mary E. Meek: Coral Gables: University of Miami Press, 1971), 226, 219.

(84) See Townsley, 'Gender Trouble in Corinth', but also in Thiselton, 800ff.

(85) See Townsley, 'Gender Trouble in Corinth.' Thiselton also makes this point, 800, 805.

(86) M. MacDonald 1990, 164.

(87) Redick 1994, 39.

(88) Paul may well be more concerned with the behaviour of the women (a point still under contention), but he is still concerned to correct the men's actions. The details of these practices--involving clothing and/or coiffure--have been discussed elsewhere (see Townsley, 'Gender Trouble in Corinth').

(89) See Townsley, 'Gender Trouble in Corinth.'

(90) Nor have those who preceded him in this area, notably Wayne A. Meeks, 'The Image of the Androgyne: Some Uses of a Symbol in Earliest Christianity', HR 13 (1974), 165-208; and Dennis Ronald MacDonald, There Is No Male and Female: The Fate of a Dominical Saying in Paul and Gnosticism HDR, 20 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987). This is an observation Bernadette Brooten makes of MacDonald's reconstruction; see Townsley, 'Gender Trouble in Corinth.'

(91) Boyarin, On the History of the Early Phallus, 42, n99.

(92) See the discussions in Maud W. Gleason, 'The Semiotics of Gender: Physiognomy and Self-Fashioning in the Second Century C.E.', in Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World, eds., D. M. Halperin, J. Winkler and F. Zeitlin (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), and Dale B. Martin, The Corinthian Body (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1995), esp. chapter 1, 'The Body in Greco-Roman Culture', 3-37.

(93) Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 5.

(94) Musonius Rufus, XXI (Teuber edition by O. Hense).

(95) See Townsley, 'Gender Trouble in Corinth.'

(96) F. Frontisi-Ducroux and F. Lissarrague, From Ambiguity to Ambivalence: A Dionysiac Excursion Through the "Anakreontic" Vases, in Before Sexuality, eds. Halperin et al., 228-229.

(97) We must remember, however, that the cult of Dionysos was also denigrated because of its debauchery, not just its practices of cross-dressing.

(98) Farnell 1971, 160.

(99) See the discussion in N. Loraux, 'Herakles: The Super Male and the Feminine', in Before Sexuality. Halperin et al., 21-35.

(100) Boyarin, 'Gender', 126.

(101) Boyarin, 'On the History of the Early Phallus', 35, n9.
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Author:Townsley, Gillian
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Date:Nov 1, 2007
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