Theses Doctoral

On the Origin and End of Sex: Language, science and social construction in Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Monique Wittig

Burton, William Michael

This dissertation explores the history of social-constructionist theories of sexual difference through the surprising connection between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the lesbian-feminist writer and theorist Monique Wittig. Wittig developed a social contract theory that radically denaturalized sexual difference, an approach she credited to Rousseau. I offer an interpretation of her appropriation of Rousseau that frames it within the French women’s liberation movement. Then, re-reading him through her lens, I argue that Rousseau too viewed sexual difference as a social construction.

Chapter 1 argues that Wittig’s concept of “the lesbian” is modeled after Rousseau’s “natural man.” Wittig used this notion in the “lesbian question” quarrel in the women’s movement to depict human freedom after the abolition of sexual difference. In chapter 2, I show how Wittig interprets the social contract as a political and epistemological concept that encodes the presuppositions, like heterosexuality or race, which shape the social order and knowledge production. Through this concept, she engages in a debate with the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss over Rousseau’s legacy.

Chapter 3 demonstrates that Rousseau retooled the naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon’s methodology and data in order to denaturalize sexual difference. From there, he posited that sex originates in the transition from proper nouns to common nouns, and is therefore a linguistic construction. This construction allows humans to understand virtue, because without it, humans are unable to access their moral sense. In chapter 4, I argue that his novel Julie represents his most sustained effort to harness material science to favor the development of moral sense. The novel synthesizes spiritual exercises’ emphasis on linguistic representations with materialist ideas about language’s influence on the body. It calls on readers to use spiritual exercises to shape their sexual identities in order to conform with rigidly defined gender roles.

In the conclusion, I bring Wittig and Rousseau together within a loosely existentialist framework. I argue that by severing the chain of necessity between biology and sex, they posit a meaninglessness underlying our sexual identities; they react differently to this abyss, but it is in their realization of it that their work has a striking relevance today.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
French and Romance Philology
Thesis Advisors
Stalnaker, Joanna R.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 31, 2020