Research Expertise and Interest
French literature, gender, sexuality, and feminism, (especially lesbianism), intellectual history, translation studies, Quebec studies
William (Will) M. Burton is an assistant professor in the Department of French. Prof. Burton's research examines how 'literary' authors position their work with regard to other disciplines and domains in the 18th and 20th centuries. The authors that Burton studies are concerned with imaginative writing's political potential and its capacity to produce knowledge. In often formally daring, genre-defying texts, these writers both adopt and contest philosophical, political and scientific concepts to articulate their views on what we now call 'literature'.
Professor Burton's current project, The End of Sex, approaches this topic through a case-study of Monique Wittig and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Burton show that in the 1970s and 80s, Wittig developed her uncompromising version of lesbian feminism through an appropriation of Rousseau's thought. She deployed Rousseau's concepts to critique the social sciences' naturalization of heterosexuality (including what is today referred to as 'the gender binary'). In her novels and essays, Wittig both called for and envisioned a world in which sexual difference has been abolished. Her surprising appropriation of Rousseau leads Burton to place her in conversation with the critical consensus that he was a gender essentialist. On the contrary, Burton demonstrates that in the 1750s and 60s, he formulated a complex social-constructionist account of sexual difference and its relationship to language. This account challenged the origin stories of both natural law and natural history. Unlike Wittig, however, Rousseau viewed sexual difference as essential to morality, and therefore he encouraged individual and social practices that would protect this fragile construction.
Will is also interested in and has published on Quebec studies and translation studies.