« Rousseau: journal 2 | Main | Journal 2: Wittig »

Journal 1: Wittig and Foucault

CSCL 3979: Class Journal - Week 6
1 March 2008

On Thursday, February 28, our class discussion was guided by Monique Wittig’s and Michel Foucault’s essays concerning the social contract. The class divided up into small groups to discuss possible answers to the questions: “Why does Wittig emphasize the here and now?? And, “What is meant by the use of the term “heterosexual contract?? After extrapolating sections of the assigned texts, each group shared their ideas with one another in a mediated discussion.

One of the ideas discussed was that of men being “cultural? beings and women being “natural? beings. Also, there was an important connection made regarding heterosexuality and language as the first social contracts. Likewise, there were conversations about the temporality of the arguments presented in the texts and how these notions have carried over into the present. One last major issue discussed was that of female exclusion from the social contract despite the fact that it is the exchange of women which establishes and reinforces this contract still today.

According to the Wittig, women are said to be “natural? beings as a result of biological and political factors. Women birth children and, as a result, they are essentially defined by their natural biological capabilities of reproduction. Men are considered to be “cultural? beings due to the fact that men form relationships with other men due to the practice of exchanging women between families for the purpose of avoiding incest, which is considered taboo in all cultures.
Heterosexuality becomes the basis for all stated purposes of the exchange of women and, in as much, it becomes the quintessential social contract. Women, as tokens of exchange, in our predominantly heterosexual culture, become the social contract embodied. To say that heterosexuality “goes without saying? is a bit of a misnomer because heterosexuality continues to be a cultural norm as a result of the use of language. Language is a social contract to which we are all subject due to the fact that people use (practice) it to form communities.

In this way, language has much in common with heterosexuality. Both are central to the development and establishment of communities and, ultimately, Culture. Similarly, language enforces the incest and homosexuality taboos. Prohibition is communicated via the use of language. In this way, language communicates and perpetuates the “norm? of heterosexuality. It also contributes to the process of excluding women from active participation in establishing the social contract because they are offered up by men as tokens of exchange between other heterosexual men.

For Wittig, a well-known feminist, the idea that women are “natural beings? implies that they are somehow under evolved members of the human species. This is confirmed when she compares this to the idea that men are “cultural beings? who establish social relations with other men as a means to maintain power over women via exchanging them as though they are gifts. These exchanges of women as gifts are not free from any obligation on the part of the recipient of them. Instead, there is an expectation regarding reciprocity that accompanies the exchange. The gift (woman) becomes, more or less, a challenge to the recipient that he must meet or match for fear that something retributive will be inflicted upon him should he fail to do so (much like Mauss’ example of the “Hau? in his book, The Gift).

All of these factors contribute to the “trafficking of women,? (Rubin) which renders women powerless in regard to their ability to change the social contract in such a way that grants them true equality. As a result of this “trafficking of women,? Wittig notes that the gender roles ascribed to the relationship of male to female is one like that of master and slave. In other words, gender roles are constructed via power relations that always serve the interest of the masters. Of course, the “masters? are men. “The exchange of women isn’t about sex, it’s about power? (Peng).

Wittig references Levi-Strauss when she notes the development of language as a means to discern kinship relations. Language sets in motion the process of categorization in which the associations of “male? and “female? first become established within any given culture (Wittig 42). The exchange of women is made necessary by the incest taboo as to avoid the consequences of inbreeding and public scorn. Likewise, language reinforces the incest taboo in that it allows for the communication necessary in maintaining the cultural norm that forbids inbreeding.

This stems from the idea that heterosexuality is an institutional construct which establishes the social contract. Heterosexuality defines men and women based on biology and relations of reproduction. Wittig takes this one step further by stating that without the presence of homosexuality, there is no need to define heterosexuality. Furthermore, she claims that the practice of heterosexuality, thus, becomes the social contract itself. “Heterosexuality is not really a choice. Rather, it is compulsory and is masqueraded as natural? (Peng).

These arguments make perfect sense to me. On the other hand, I have no desire to escape the system by the means she suggests: fleeing by becoming a lesbian, thus doing my part to change the status quo. However, by being complicit with heterosexuality, I fear that I am contributing to the power that men hold over me. Armed with Wittig’s text, I could feel as though I have been “tokenized? and exchanged by the men in my life, but I don’t. For example, I met my fiancé through my brother, who is my fiancé’s best friend. My fiancé formally asked my father for my hand in marriage prior to his proposal. I am ambivalent about this, but I know that he certainly meant no harm. Rather, he was merely participating in a practice that is looked upon as being noble, courteous and respectful toward me and my family. There was no intention on his part to do me (or my gender) any harm, but Wittig would, likely, vehemently disagree.

The discussion of Foucault’s text yielded some interesting thoughts on the part of each group as well. We related Foucault’s arguments to Hobbes’ regarding war in that the relationship of the conquered to the conqueror is like that of a parent to a child. It was noted that the master/slave relationship exists because the slave relies upon the master to live. This is the same as the child relying on the parent as a question of life or death which, in turn, undermines the idea of the social contract because it is not about voluntarily signing the contract. Rather, it is simply about survival. In referencing Hegel, it was noted that the slave is necessarily more essential in the master/slave relationship. If there were no slave, there would be no means of recognizing the master as a human being. The slave, rather than representing the master, makes the master recognizable altogether. That is why the master does not kill the slave. One example of this can be found on page 105 of the text.

Another example of the mother/child concept was noted on page 95. In essence, fear makes for the continuation of the sovereign, even after all are already dead. In other words, conquering people does not establish the state. Instead, the state is legitimized due to its fear of the conquered. Hence, the slave (conquered) is more important and deterministic regarding the state’s preference for life over death which means that the fear of death is what establishes the state. This leads back to Hobbes’ arguments about the fear of the conquered: “…willing to let us live.?

Foucault is saying that politics are organized in reference to materiality (the body) and that it is taken for granted that life is preferable to death. However, he turns this idea on its head when he discusses that we have begun to kill in the name of life. He refers to this as the “radical will to live.? The most essential element of the social contract, for Foucault, is the fear of death. This is contradictory to Hobbes’ argument in that it “demonstrates to us that it is not really about ‘will’ as much as it is about one’s ‘will to let someone let you live’? (Peng).