Sunday, March 19, 2017

Genres of Embodiment: On Jacques Derrida's Law of Genre

"Why gost thu in white? 
Art thu a mayden?"

Book of Margery Kempe

Taking up Stone’s theory of genre answers both needs to account for the creativity within cultural embodiments and change within cultural genealogies. Such definitions of gender, Stone attests, arise from the insistence on a rule of genre that Derrida critiques in his “Law of Genre.” Stone writes, “A transsexual who passes is obeying the Derridean imperative: ‘Genres are not to be mixed. I will not mix genres.’”[1] The reference to Derrida’s “Law of Genre” is a logical extension both of what Stone does to gender and what she does to genre but thinking them together. Starting with the claim, “I will not mix genres,” drawn from a structuralist understanding of categories that seeks to naturalize divisions in art and society, Derrida falls on the side of post-structuralism that affirms division but asserts that it is not natural, ahistorical, or absolute.[2]

The nature of genre defies the force to deny mixture. Etymologically, gender and genre share roots through French, the language of Derrida’s “Law of Genre,” where the sexual meanings, the literary meanings, and generally categorical meanings do mix. Because both derive from the Latin, “genus,” meaning category in general, when the poststructuralist selects and uses the word, genre, he means to play with the intermeshed iterations of genre. Things that share a genus are supposed to belong together, as specified in the definition of gender that derives from it, “the fact, condition, or property of belonging to such a class.”[3] A genus as a statement of belonging to one category is then defined against every other genus in a statement of not belonging. Yet as literature and art, genre does mix at times. Blues becomes Jazz, combines together with Bluegrass to become Rock and Roll.[4] Each genre is different but also mix and transition into one another from time to time. So too with gender, where bodies are defined and divided but come together, mix, and transform if only to generate more bodies; and sometimes mix to form something new, a body which does not belong to either genre, gender, or genus.


The law of genus not to mix is eventually broken whenever genre is enacted. For the poststructuralist, genre is not just something that exists but is enacted. There is no genre separate from specific texts that fit into a genre, that enact genre by belonging or not belonging. For Derrida, this “not belonging” which defines one from another genre is another ways that genres belong together. Men are not women and so need women to tell them who they are. Yet even this division, what Derrida calls a “hymen,” by its nature, will produce embodiments of that division whose function it seems is to split the two, to enact the law, and as a result belonging to neither. Without yet naming transgender, Derrida imagines its existence as a logical extension of language and literature:

“The question of the literary genre is not a formal one: it covers the motif of the law in general, of generation in the natural and symbolic senses, of birth in the natural and symbolic senses, of the generation difference, sexual difference between the feminine and masculine genre/gender, of the hymen between the two, of a relationless relation between the two, of an identity and difference between the feminine and masculine.”[5]

Male and female generate one another in nature, Derrida acknowledges, but also in language, with man and woman defining one another as that genre to which I do not belong. Yet gender is not merely a structure but an enactment; gender is gendering. If gender is a process of becoming embodied, then there are intermediary phases, persons not fully gendered and texts not fully belonging to a genre. One might imagine a fetus going through development in the womb, or even after, where an infant undergoes many changes into adulthood. This in-between phase may follow the telos of the law of genre, working to embody male or female distinctly, but so long as the gendering, the work of genre is underway, different forms and mixed forms are embodied. Before we become cisgender men or women, we exist in a trans mode of transition.


Forecasting the later use of genre within transgender studies, Derrida names this process of genre as well as the created genres “transsexual.” Derrida writes, “genres pass into each other. And we will not be barred from thinking that this mixing of genres, viewed in light of the madness of sexual difference, may bear some relation to the mixing of literary genres. ‘I,’ then, can keep alive the chance of being a female or of changing sex. His transsexuality permits him, in a more than metaphorical and transferential way, to engender” (La trans-sexualité me permet, de façon plus que métaphorique et transférentielle, d'engendrer).[6] For Derrida, trans genre goes beyond being a mere offshoot but grows outward from inherent development within the law of genre. Indeed, trans genres of embodiment seem to keep a system of gender functional. Just as culture tropes and figures develop in one genre and then move into the next, the genre changes composition. The shift is more than a mere “transferential” movement where one body moves from on structure of gender and genre to another without change to the body or structure. Likewise, the shift is more than merely performative or “metaphorical” in any way where “this” figure or trope functions “as that” without a change to its overall composition. This is because genre is not mere descriptive of things that are but a system, an ecology of forms, within the wider life of discourse. The bringing together and exchanging of associations is creative and transformative. These genres, especially as they construct and reconstruct gender, are not limited to the proliferation of discourse in any way that is limited to language. In Derridian’s conception of genre as a system of discourse, the narratives we tell are not fundamentally separate from the narratives we live. The one orients and limits the other, and visa versa. If transsexuals did not exist, literature would soon create them out of a genealogy that cites art and society as parents.

Yet the creativity of genre is not merely a matter of wordplay and logic but actively participates in creative arts of embodying and composing gender. It is not enough to say that transgender is an essential part of gender and genre discursively, without acknowledging that trans genres have implications on the countless iterations of gendered embodiments, histories, and identities. Crimmin cites how Derrida stresses, “[the] structure of iteration—and this is another of its decisive traits—implies both identity and difference.”[7] Iteration is easy enough to understand. Beyond being one of many periods in which trans genres of embodiment exist, within genealogical structures medieval trans genres are responsible for how trans lives are created, narrated, and engendered in future generations. Genres of embodiment are creative in the biological sense of creating genealogies of trans cultures, identities, and literatures.


There is a danger in considering genealogies of gender as too biological, however, because it might draw us to consider genres of embodiment as something wholly defined by nature at birth. The creativity of genre is that as an ongoing action, within a personal or collective history, any number of variations and differentiations occur. How then do we account for the transitioning of genres within trans genres? How do we account for the number of people who exist in a specifically trans form of gender before becoming more fixed within a cisgender identity? This may be perceived by a question or problem by frameworks that want to assert transgender as a fixed genus in the way cis male and females profess the law of genre: someone is only trans so long as they remain trans and never mix with cis forms of gendering. By rejecting the resolution to the law of genre is what qualifies trans theories of embodiment as a departure on how genre defines identity.

As a function of genre, identity is not a fixed genus but yet another enactment. One might effectively say there is no such thing as identity separate from the process of identification. Yet without a fixed identity, a trans method of genre would suggest that there is no such thing as absolute belonging –not only for transgender persons but any gendered being— even though one participates in an identity (i.e. enact identification). Crimmins concludes from Derrida, “I would speak of a sort of participation without belonging” [participation sans appartenance ]. The participation-without-belonging of the mark creates the possibility that future instances may fall within the genre.”[8] Although all iterations of a body and text are unique, substantiating a genre in themselves, once a genre is defined they invite others to identify. One may say that there is no continuity within a self (an “I”) without identifying with other iterations of the self.

Transgender history and literature can teach, how transition challenges the self to labor at the work of identifying across time, iteration, and difference in order to tell a story as essential as a life story. Yet even outside trans lives there is no escape from the demand. Any attempt to compose the self or to classify a text or body, concludes Derrida, is to invite others (even other iterations of the self) to join in this classicization through an act of identification, “simultaneously and indiscernibly saying ‘I’ and ‘we’ […] without it being possible to think that the ‘I’ is a species of the genre ‘we.’”[9] The adult “I” and the child “I” identify as one same life but also exist across time and iteration as a “we.” The medieval and modern form of a genre are different “I”’s yet may be generated by the same genre to form a “we.” The historical particularities are not lost but are tied to the same engines that created and connected other historical particularities.


Yet if all genres function with a degree of trans contingency, why not fold trans figures back into conventional forms, reincorporate Jazz into Blues or trans women into women? Why not pass as cis women? Derrida opens up a possibility for the reintegration of hybrids when he suggests that all women experience moments of participating but not belonging in womanhood, the law of genre usually applies but not always for everyone,

not to woman or even…to the female genre/gender, or to the generality of the feminine genre but… ‘usually’ to women… This ‘usually’ avoids treating the feminine as a general and generic force; it makes an opening for the event, the performance, the uncertain contingencies, the encounter[10]

That every woman participates but does not always belong, even if usually the two seem to go together, begs the question whether trans studies is necessary as a separate field or is it only a correct to the law of genre? Can we not simply consider trans women within the history of women and leave the trans-ness of gender and genre as a given?

In the end, Derrida seems undo “the Law of Genre” through a method that can be used to simultaneously affirm “the Law of Genre” in another way. Could transgender just be a way to fill in gaps in the wall between men and women? Perhaps yes but Derrida (and Stone) seem to have more faith in the creativity of genre. If trans women are women in another way, participating in womanhood as well as in forms of gender not belonging to men or women, then why not explore these other forms as objects of art in themselves? If we are creative enough to find ways to fill in the holes in the wall between men and women, are we not creative enough to make other things, such as doors? Derrida calls such a gap an “event,” “performance,” “uncertain contingency,” or “encounter.” If in the composition of genres we embody the wall, the gaps, and the fixes, are we not already more than just women? The problem of passing demands that we consider embodiments.

More on Genres of Embodiment

[1] Stone 232.

[2] Jacques Derrida. “Law of Genre.” Critical Inquiry. 7.1. On Narrative. Avital Ronell trans. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980.

[3] “Gender, n.”

[4] “Rock n’ Roll.”

[5] Derrida 74.

[6] Derrida 76.

[7] Jonathan Crimmins. “Gender, Genre, and the Near Future in Derrida’s ‘the Law of Genre,’” Diacritics 39.1. (Spring). Baltimore: John Hopkins University, 2009. 45-III.

[8] Crimmins 47.

[9] Derrida. 56-7.

[10] Derrida 75.


1 comment:

  1. This is very smart, really an intelligent idea. This is my first time in your blog and I really love it. Thanks for this awesome post. James