When I read this story on the University of Tennessee Office for Diversity and Inclusion asking students and teachers to stop imposing gendered pronouns on one another, I didn’t think about the silliness of trying to create linguistic change by bureaucratic fiat. Or about one more exercise in social engineering by identity politicians. Or about the ironies of the self-proclaimed “tolerant ones” proscribing not only vile insults such as the n-word, but also some of the most common words in the language.

Instead, I was carried back to 1981 to my first readings in literary theory and of the works of Jacques Derrida. The trigger was in the words of the author of the proposal, the head of Tennessee’s Pride Center, Donna Braquet, who asked that teachers begin the semester by asking each student in the class which pronoun he or she prefers. If neither “he” nor “she” fits, the Office suggests the non-gendered ze.

Here is how Braquet justifies the request:

Transgender people and people who do not identify within the gender binary may use a different name than their legal name and pronouns of their gender identity, rather than the pronouns of the sex they were assigned at birth.

The words “transgender,” “gender identity,” and “sex” tag the most current and controversial factors, while the other operative notion, “gender binary,” sounds quaintly academic and flat. But in fact, the other terms have no force unless we assume that the binary on the table is spurious.

Here is where the Derridean background comes in. The first essays by him that made their way into American language and literature departments in the late-60s, followed by the 1976 translation of De la grammatologie, brought the term binary opposition into critical vocabulary, and American theorists proceeded to wield it as a standard disciplinary tool for years after that. (See here for a defense and here for an attack, and most importantly, the essay “Différance” for the sharpest rendition of Derrida’s dialectics.) Derrida borrowed binary analysis from structural anthropology and linguistics, but united it with Hegelian dialectics to produce a handy instrument for dismantling pairings of presence/absence, reason/madness, and speech/writing.

Under Derrida’s expert treatment, the opposition proved less clear and distinct than had been assumed. Not only that—or rather, because of that—the oppositions had a juridical function, or so he said, placing whatever happened to be the case into one realm or the other. That is, the binary opposition wasn’t so much a description of reality as it was a constitution and division of reality. The binary isn’t natural; it’s a construct.

After Derrida, it was only a small step to call it a falsification, too. Derrida applied binary deconstruction to the history of philosophy and reason, writing mostly about canonical philosophers: Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud, Husserl, and Heidegger. But soon enough his American followers applied it to social affairs—vulgarly so, but for academics fired with progressive aims, the outcome mattered far more than did rigor and consistency. If deconstruction could undergo the cogito’s expulsion of un-reason, then why couldn’t it undergo heteronormativity’s denigration of homosexuality? And what better instrument to disable those social binaries than those entities that don’t fit either side, such as . . . the transgender person?

These marginal, uncanny, and subversive figures came to play a key role in literary studies. In the hands of theorists, they acquired a special illumination precisely because of their instability. They expose the inadequacy of binaries such as he/she pronouns, and they also test their regulative power. (Here we add a touch of Foucault to this dime-store version of deconstruction.) In effect, the more binding and traditional a binary is, the more coercive it is—and the more virtuous the transgressive element.

Therein lies the quiet authority of Donna Braquet’s citation of “gender binaries.” A long thread of premises lies behind it, premises that hit literary studies in the early-70s with all the roguish and edgy attraction of a new avant-garde, captivating two generations of rising professionals.

If we wish to halt corrosive episodes of social and cultural breakdown such as this pronoun flap at Tennessee (the recommendation was withdrawn after mass public ridicule, but I expect to see it surface again), the moral poles must be reversed. Virtue must be restored to the traditional binary.

Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.

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