Back in the 1970s, when the humanities still set the intellectual tone for the college campus, it was common for advanced scholars to divide the personnel in two: There were those who understood High Theory and those who didn’t. New ideas and methods were in the air. Leading-edge journals and symposia such as diacritics and the School of Criticism and Theory were founded. If you read Jacques Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” and couldn’t figure out what “the original or transcendental signified” meant, well, that left you outside the flow of twentieth-century thought. If you hadn’t worked through Derrida’s forebears in phenomenology (Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger) and structural anthropology (Saussure, Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss), you couldn’t appreciate the breakthrough.
I was a graduate student in the 1980s, immersed in deconstruction, and it bothers me to recall that condescension. We fancied ourselves the smart ones and disdained the rest. They had no imagination for metaphysics and we did, though we didn’t believe in God. When they came across Derrida’s catchphrase il n’y a pas d’hors-texte, they heard only that the world is like a book, ever open to reading—hardly a novel idea. But we heard an insight into the nature of reality that put grand assumptions at risk, including “nature” and “reality.” Here was a radical skepticism that didn’t deny God, Being, History, and Mind. It threw them into textual conditions; the “fundamental immobilit[ies]” and “reassuring certitude[s]” (Derrida’s words) dissipated in an unstable structure of signs. Truth became a high-stakes game of interpretation, and we played it with the fervor of a keen novice.
The key was difference. Hegel had started it for us, replacing the law of identity, A is A, with a dialectics of otherness and mediation that said the concrete is really the abstract, the master is really the slave, A is not A. Truth, he showed, is not the reliable sphere of the man in the street. It is the development of reflective consciousness in and through “the suffering, the patience, and the labor of the negative.” Heidegger came along and raised thinking, genuine thinking, into an epochal activity that had to begin with the ontic/ontological difference, the difference between Being and beings. The proper way to inquire into Being, he insisted, is first to realize that our categories of description (substance, quantity, etc.) turn Being into just another being, like God as a super-large, -wise, and -powerful individual. When we forget this difference, Being withdraws and thinking collapses into empirical inquiry and unreflective faith.
That wasn’t for us, who cited with surety Nietzsche’s flat rule, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” We wanted thought to be momentous and the world an adventurous terrain. Language, too, had to be de-naturalized, and Ferdinand de Saussure, the Swiss linguist, provided a nice difference-premise for it: “in language there are only differences without positive terms.” Words, that is, aren’t natural and they aren’t full of meaning on their own; meanings issue in and from a language system that works through the play of words off of one another. Brown signifies brown because it does not signify what red, blue, green . . . signify.
Derrida consolidated these differences into the condition of existence and gave it a name, “différance.” This was the source of our thrill. We had already learned to look at the world phenomenologically, its objects weakened in their solidity. We could “see” things in differential relationships. But if it were just a surface assemblage of signs, the world wouldn’t be open to the fateful thinking and dramatic views we desired. There had to be a deeper element, something worthy of the life of Zarathustra. Différance was it.
What is différance? Well, for the same reason that Heidegger cannot say what Being is, Derrida can’t define it. In the 1968 essay under the bare title “Différance,” he acknowledges that it functions much as God does in negative theology, except that différance, though disengaged from finite categories, has no superior and ineffable character. Difference is the way of thought and being, and différance is how it happens. Nothing escapes its differentiation—that is how things come to be—but we can’t attribute motive or law to it, for that would set motive and law outside its destabilizing power. Yes, it “generates” all things, but it isn’t a cause. It isn’t active, though we register its effects. It allows “the possibility of conceptuality,” but isn’t itself a concept. We can identify and talk about specific differences, but différance has no specificity and no location.
First consequence: Différance is not. It is not a present being, however excellent, unique, principal, or transcendent. It governs nothing, reigns over nothing, and nowhere exercises any authority. . . . Which makes it obviously threatening and infallibly dreaded by everything within us that desires a kingdom . . .
Everything in human experience is always in relation to something else; there are no identities in hand; and the “thing” behind it all, the force or process that yields this broken world, isn’t real—or unreal. We can’t even call it the Void, because nothingness is itself already differentiated from thing-ness.
Where did this leave us? With no grounds and no goals, none of the metaphysical kind. But we did have from now on a powerful weapon to use against those who affirmed them, who erected a “kingdom.” In academic debates, if we handled it skillfully, the work of différance disabled every claim that rested upon a foundation, a being or Being presumed to stand all by itself. We could always find something prior to it on which the foundation rested, and something prior to that. . . . Différance liquidated the world, but it empowered us.
We didn’t expect many colleagues to understand. They had either taken the deconstructive turn or they hadn’t. It was our criterion of peer review. There were a few hostile figures on the faculty, to be sure, mostly traditionalists and Leftists who interpreted deconstruction as, respectively, the enemy of literary critical practice and the frustration of set political causes. We liked them, in a way, because they took us seriously even if they weren’t in on the deconstructive gnosis. Many of the others were professors in their fifties and sixties, trained in formalist and philological criticisms, who paid little attention to what was happening and had nothing to add pro or con. As long as they didn’t interfere, say, by blocking the hiring of a theorist, we regarded them as harmless drudges.
Another group annoyed us, however. It was made up of people willing to admit deconstruction to the canon of critical methods, but their way of doing so ignored its philosophical depth. For them, deconstruction was just another school of interpretation like feminist criticism and reader-response theory. Yes, they admitted, deconstruction was baffling, but if it could be translated into clearer terms and usable premises, the confusion would end and deconstruction would become an acknowledged point in the progress of academic criticism.
It was easy for us to explain them away. They were philosophically inadequate. The altitudes of brooding speculation were too high for them. Deconstruction was part of a profound human drama, but they didn’t see it. We entered Teutonic mists with a nihilistic thrill; they didn’t ponder Being or nothingness at all. They were strangers to “our own profoundest midnight and midday solitude” (Nietzsche), numb to the airy poetry of “[divine] Love disporting with itself” (Hegel), and careless of the “care” that Heidegger set in place of the cogito.
As self-aware Nietzscheans, we assumed we would always be outnumbered. Popularization was bound to happen, and the ontological insight of différance, the apprehension that reality was shifting, aimless, and radically “other” wouldn’t survive. We would end up with a vulgar, textbook deconstruction. It would be tamed. That’s exactly what took place. Derrida’s readings were intricate and ambiguous. The terms undecidable, aporia, the problem of, the question of, and problematize were central to the deconstructive idiom. The popularizers domesticated them into an easy, transferable routine. Instead of broaching Being, identity, language, or any other great logical or semantic project, they pared deconstruction down to a neat manageable procedure: finding the binary opposition.
It goes like this. First, identify in a text an operative pairing of contrary terms. Derrida’s example in “Structure, Sign, and Play” comes from Lévi-Strauss, the nature/culture divide. In his studies of kinship among tribes in the Amazonian jungle, Lévi-Strauss splits human affairs into, on one side, those things that are universal and do not vary from society to society and, on the other side, those things that are normative and do vary from society to society. Derrida declares this binary “congenital to philosophy . . . even older than Plato.” The vulgar Derrideans took this example and said that you can find similar sweeping binaries in nearly every other piece of composed writing, though often sedimented so deeply in the text and in ourselves that we overlook them. They proceeded to lift them out of the “interstices” of the text and scrutinize them, asking not “Are they real? . . . Are they true?” but “How do they work in the text?”
The second step leaps from description to intervention. The binary carves the world in two, but the deconstructor knows that life isn’t so simple. The trick is to uncover a rogue element that doesn’t fit either side or that falls on both sides. In this case, Lévi-Strauss finds it in the incest prohibition, a rule that all societies follow (hence, natural) but which is nonetheless a rule (hence, cultural). He calls this irregularity a “scandal.”
Here is where the political project of deconstruction kicks in. Derrida had argued that the scandalous factor doesn’t just lie outside or beyond the binary. It’s more dynamic than that. For the binary to stand, it must repress or contain the outlier. The outside factor is actually part of the genesis and structure of the binary that ousts it. The excluded factor is a dialectical part of the binary that excludes it (in the way, for instance, that queer theorists argue that the exclusion of homosexuality is essential to the normalization of heterosexuality). The incest prohibition and other uncanny, subversive, or indeterminate factors mark not just an exception. Each one is a troublesome exception, a transgressor that is tactically ignored by people who rely on the binary as a foundation, for instance, natural law theorists who presume the nature/culture split. In bringing the exception to attention and showing its functional character, deconstructors reverse the process. What the binary and its votaries ignore or suppress, the critic highlights—and he highlights the act of suppression, too.
One more step completes the process. We recognize that the scandal is a scandal only because of the binary that it confounds. The binary casts it as extraneous or aberrant, but its errancy is due only to the binary’s authority. The very existence of the incest prohibition, a natural and cultural thing, puts the opposition nature/culture in a skeptical light. The binary nicely charts the deep conditions of tribal life, but it doesn’t do so all the time, and this erodes its truth value. When the incest prohibition arises, Derrida says, “this difference [of nature/culture], which has always been assumed to be self-evident, finds itself erased or questioned.” The binary loses its authority; the distinctions we use to get around in the world are now suspect. The kingdom falls, and reality in its full diversity is liberated.
There lay the great appeal of vulgar deconstruction. It promised freedom without entangling people in metaphysical perplexities. This was not Derrida’s way, however. He didn’t presume to eliminate metaphysics or cancel binaries. He aimed, instead, to mark their limits. Deconstructing the nature/culture opposition did not get rid of it. When Derrida says “erased,” he doesn’t mean that a difference is made to disappear. The difference is “x-ed” out, but still readable, as in Heidegger’s formulation “A thoughtful glance ahead into this realm of ‘Being’ can only write it as Being.” In putting a distinction “under erasure,” Derrida marks it as inadequate, but inescapable. It is too much a part of us to be expelled. We would have to invoke something beyond the play of différance in order to transcend this and other foundational oppositions—and there is nothing higher or deeper or “behind” différance.
This balancing act between rejection and acceptance, this “parasitical” posture, as Derrida put it—deconstruction feeds on metaphysics, but if it kills the host, deconstruction dies, too—was too skeptical and wavering for the popularizers. They wanted a results-oriented method, one painless to teach and practice. Most importantly, the method dovetailed nicely with projects of liberation. If you were of a progressive temper, here you had a method that (to use another deconstructionist word) deprivileges metaphysical origins and ends, grounds and foundations, ultimate goods and truths.
We weren’t impressed. The practice seemed so pedestrian. A dismantle-the-binaries approach sounded no different from taking apart a radio. It kept the interpreter too detached; it made deconstruction something you pick up when you get to the office and set down when you leave. It forgot that every inquirer is implicated in what he does. Derrida warned, “We can pronounce not a single destructive proposition which has not already had to slip into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest.” He was the first to admit that he was and always would be very metaphysical, referring once to his elliptical manner as “a trembling proper to all post-Hegelian attempts,” attempts, that is, to think about reality in a properly differential way. Take away the dialectical trembling and you’ve got nothing but deconstruction as techné, a new tool for critical thinking.
Anti-metaphysical thinkers used deconstruction in just this way. Some of them were cheerful progressives, notably Richard Rorty, who read Derrida as an ironist who helped us live more liberally (because undoing metaphysical authorities undermined political authoritarianism). Others, especially political critics on the Left, acted as if deprivileging the transcendent were the same as escaping it.
This positivized deconstruction couldn’t last, we thought. It was too superficial. People would get bored with it as soon as academic trends changed. The deeper wellsprings of deconstructive thought would endure—Nietzsche’s play, Saussure’s difference, Heidegger’s erasure—and so would the truest believers. Us.
It did not turn out that way. The vulgar Derrideans triumphed. We were the ones erased. The philosophical Derrida shrunk to a micro-specialty, while the against-the-binaries Derrida has become a potent weapon of cultural warfare. The method we dismissed as hack theory thirty years ago is now a dogma in and out of academia.
One can hardly attend a conference without hearing someone invoke this or that thing that doesn’t fall into standard categories, and therefore explodes those categories. For twenty years it has been commonplace for critics to speak of “queering the ”—yes, queer was added to the list of transgressive elements in the ’80s and soon rose to the top. Newspaper and magazine stories profile eccentric, subversive, trans-, and other abnormal characters (though we can’t call them “abnormal” now) whose newfound visibility challenges the normalcy of everyone else. What Derrida presented in knotty dialectic form, engrossed in dense philosophical treatments from the past, has congealed in American life into a standard posture of critique. Especially in matters of sexuality, the exception has become a device of liberation.
A ruling by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this year demonstrates its force. The affair began when “G.G.,” a female high school student in Virginia who identifies as a boy, was granted access by the school to the boy’s bathroom and locker room. Soon after, the school board drafted a policy that banned her from doing so. G.G. and her mother filed suit, claiming discrimination under Title IX, which says,
No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance . . .
In a document from December 2014, the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education issued a clarification regarding transgender students and Title IX: “All students, including transgender students and students who do not conform to sex stereotypes, are protected from sex-based discrimination under Title IX.”
When the Obama Administration took this position, many people pointed out that the Office of Civil Rights had flatly changed the meaning of the word sex. In adding gender identity to Title IX, it did something the original drafters never imagined in 1972. Sex signified men and women as defined by their bodies, not by their “identification.” In a “Dear Colleague Letter on Transgender Students” dated May 13, 2016, the Department of Justice and the Department of Education reiterated the point explicitly, stating, “a school may not segregate or otherwise distinguish students on the basis of their sex, including gender identity, in any school activities or the application of any school rule.”
A lower court had rejected G.G.’s claim because it judged Title IX unambiguous. Sex means sex. The court of appeals took up the case and made ambiguity a central feature of its judgment. The decision that the court issued in April stipulates that if we have “an ambiguous regulation,” then an interpretation of it by a government agency deserves deference unless it is “plainly erroneous or inconsistent.” In other words, if we find ambiguity in Title IX, then the Obama administration’s position stands.
So begins the court’s deconstruction. The operative word in Title IX is sex, which refers to male and female persons. There’s our binary (Step One). We know what sex means, the higher court’s opinion says, and we don’t challenge the right of schools to apply it in rules regarding male and female students. But we have a problem. The regulation in this case, which allows for separate facilities for boys and girls, “is silent as to how a school should determine whether a transgender individual is a male or female.” In other words, we may accept the definition of sex, but we have a person that doesn’t fit the binary. As semanticists would put it, the intension of the word sex (its conceptual ingredients) stands firm, but its extension (the objects to which it applies) is now uncertain. How does sex categorize transgender persons? We have a dilemma, a “scandal.” Step Two of vulgar deconstruction is achieved.
What, we might ask, is the basis for this “scandal”? We could easily say that a transgender person does fit the sex schema, but is confused as to where he belongs. It’s his confusion, not ours. The authorities could then reinforce the male/female binary, treat G.G. as an unsettled person, and ask the school to make accommodations for her short of letting her use the boy’s facilities.
But the court didn’t do that. It granted transgenderism a status distinct from the traditional binary, accepting it as a third possibility. Inevitably, their choice made the binary problematic, not G.G. We are now in Step Three. “We conclude,” the court says, “that the regulation is susceptible to more than one plausible reading.” Yes, the judges reason, we may divide students by biological sex, but the exception robs biological categories of authority. The existence of G.G. forces that ambiguity upon us. The court cites several more “problematizing” exceptions: “an intersex individual . . . an individual born with X-X-Y sex chromosomes . . . an individual who lost external genitalia in an accident.” These exceptions shatter the male-female scheme, we are told, and so the majority rules that gender identity must be respected in school policy. The Department of Education extension of Title IX to gender identification holds. Deconstruction complete.
The court had larger intentions than working out a resolution for an unusual student and a single school. It was out to address her status as unusual. The judges had to raise her into a “scandal,” a figure who put the whole system in doubt. The system had to be revised. Saying that G.G. was a special case that deserved special treatment such as her own bathroom facility wasn’t enough. The authority of the binary itself had to be rejected. That was the final aim—not to help one exception adjust to a difficult situation. It was to shake a traditional, natural framework.
There is only one way out of this general deconstruction of things. It is to change the implication of human exceptions. To hold to established definitions, traditionalists and conservatives must reduce the “scandalous” status of those exceptions. Progressives see them as explosive. We must cast them as manageable. The way to do so is to confront a fundamentally false assumption. Derrida interpreted the exception as a serious problem for a reigning system of truths and values. As he put it in a later essay, “In the order of concepts . . . when a distinction cannot be rigorous and precise, it is not a distinction at all.” And, “It is impossible or illegitimate to form a philosophical concept outside this logic of all or nothing.”
This is a trap. The moment we treat male/female as all or nothing, we set it up for failure. Any exception will undermine it. But if we shift all-or-nothing to nearly-all and allow for exceptions, we acknowledge male/female as normative and natural, but not universal. Occasionally something won’t fit, but that’s all. The binary remains secure, the exception unthreatening.
Derrida’s fiercest antagonist after he had become an American phenomenon, the philosopher John Searle, criticized him on just this point. Searle came out of the ordinary-language thought of the later Ludwig Wittgenstein and J. L. Austin, which focused on commonsense arguments about meaning and truth. No Hegelian absolutes, no Heideggerean Being. They cared about how words work in different situations, whether concepts were helpful, and what the rules were, not whether the rules were metaphysically valid. So, in a 1983 New York Review of Books essay, Searle rejected the assumption that “unless a distinction can be made rigorous and precise it isn’t really a distinction at all.” It asks for too much purity out of our concepts. It sets them up for failure. If every proper concept erects absolutely stark borders, then the emergence of an element that fudges them blows them up. But, Searle counters, it isn’t the rogue element that causes the destruction. It is the requirement of perfect clarity. As Searle put it, the necessity of “transcendental grounding” is the problem; what leads to skepticism is the idea that without exception-less rigor, our distinctions have no authority.
The incest prohibition (in Derrida’s case) and the transgender person (in G.G.’s case) demonstrate that the nature/culture and male/female binaries fall short of universality. So what? We still may have very good reasons from common sense, science, and morality for upholding them. The presence of an exception may subvert the absolute scope of a distinction, but who says we can’t handle that shortcoming without uprooting the categories themselves?
Later, in a 1994 essay in New Literary History, Searle amplified the point, chiding Derrida for regarding “marginal cases” as devastating to ordinary distinctions. While Derrida pretended that abstract concepts and common sense stood on pedestals that couldn’t withstand a single crack, Searle gave them more resilience and flexibility. He addressed readers with a calm assurance:
It is not necessarily an objection even to theoretical concepts that they admit of application more or less. This is something of a cliché in analytic philosophy: Most concepts and distinctions are rough at the edges and do not have sharp boundaries.
A little fuzziness at the limits, the incapacity to cover everything—that doesn’t falsify or invalidate a concept or distinction. Day and night, literal and metaphorical, and true and false have their gray areas and marginal cases, but that doesn’t make them any less salient. The exception doesn’t bring on their collapse.
In saying that it does, Searle contends, Derrida is himself the absolutist. Derrida asserts that concepts and distinctions must be pure and universal, then uncovers impurities and wayward particulars within them, which he declares make them suspect and faulty. In other words, he assumes that which he deconstructs. If, however, we give our conceptual tools a bit more pliancy, then the deconstructive project has nothing political to do. It only takes the modest admission that exceptions and ambiguities will always be with us for thinkers to render attacks on binaries moot. From then on, we live with them, not by expelling our distinctions, but by making pragmatic adjustments to exceptions when they arise. If the exceptions are few, as they are in transgender situations, the distinction remains valid.
Transgender persons and other exceptions arise now and then, but they don’t subvert, transgress, dismantle, or undermine longstanding and stable categories of human being. Our fundamental binaries are stronger than that. Like steel, they have some flex and can admit the existence of outlying elements. When we loosen the demand for universal applicability, when we accept that there are some excluded middles here and there, the power of the exception abates. Instead of embracing exceptions (as progressives do) or suppressing them (as some conservatives do), we approach them with prudence and charity.
Most people in America accept the ones who are “different” as long as those ones do not push the rest into renouncing deep-seated beliefs. They’re willing to make practical concessions. In G.G.’s case, the school provided G.G. with a private bathroom and shower, and nobody seemed to mind. But she and her mother rejected that option. Who are the totalitarians here?
On August 3, the Supreme Court blocked the court order in Virginia that forced the school to allow G.G. into the boys’ facilities. For now, the school policy remains in place. When the Court decides whether it should hear the case, we may expect coverage to present it as a contest of rigid traditionalists who insist that everyone is male or female versus elastic liberals who respect gender fluidity. The poles should be reversed. It is the progressives who are stiff and totalizing, the traditional parties adaptive and reasonable.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.