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  • Gender, Genre, and the Near Future in Derrida's "The Law of Genre"
  • Jonathan Crimmins (bio)

Concluding their call for papers with Martin Heidegger's question, "Why is there something rather than nothing at all?"1 the organizers of the 1979 International Colloquium on Genre in Strasbourg wrote that this question "might be transformed to read: Why is there genre, rather than generalized Literature?" [Chartin et al. 237]. Derrida's response, the lecture called "The Law of Genre," suggested that the answer to both questions required attention to the other meaning of the term genre in French, gender. He inflected the question, "why are there literary types?" with the question "why are there genders?" In his work of the 1970s,2 Derrida had already brought gender to the fore, deploying metaphors of female sexuality as alternatives to Hegel's reliance on the trope of opposition—"law of day(light) against law of night, human law against divine law, law of man against law of woman" [Glas 146a]—and announcing in Spurs that his work had entered a "new phase" that would be "affirmative" [37]. If the mechanism of truth for Hegel was dialectical opposition, the negation of a negation, a no, no, Derrida would seek a philosophy that said yes, yes, a philosophy that he aligned with the feminine.

The four movements of the lecture—Derrida's passage from the question of genre in general to a specific text in genre theory, then from a specific instance of genre to the narrator within that text—recall Plato's divided line [Republic VI 509d-510e]. Yet, where Plato describes the relation between the intelligible and the visible as a sexless mimetic relationship of the real to its image, Derrida inscribes gender difference into each section of his divided line. The two halves of his lecture restage the marriage trope he employed in "The Double Session," which enacted a "hymen" between theory and literature [183]: roughly speaking, the first half is theoretical, universal, public, male; and the second half literary, particular, private, female. Also, within each half, Derrida foregrounds the operation of gender difference: in the first half, the focus is on marriage, the public act that unites the genders; and in second half, the focus is on sex, the private act that does the same.

The first half of "The Law of Genre" presents two ways of conceptualizing genre and articulates how the two appear conjoined within the many suppositions of genre theory. While Derrida leaves the two tendencies of genre theory unnamed, they are the classical view of genre, associated with structuralism and narratology, which I will call the formal bias, and the contemporary view of genre, associated with speech-act theory and rhetorical genre theory, which I will call the genre bias.3 Genre theorists smuggle one or the other [End Page 45] form of this fundamental bias into their work whenever they represent genre. Theorists who appeal to scientific, mathematical, or logical schematics to naturalize their argument, operate with the formal bias. Theorists who appeal to cultural, functional, or historical mechanisms, operate with the genre bias. Although contemporary genre theorists have tended to shift away from understanding genre as a taxonomical system towards understanding genre as the cultural conditions that enable textual production, vestiges of both biases persist. In the PMLA special issue, Remapping Genre (October 2007), for example, when Ed Folsom suggests the database as a metaphor for genre, he can be aligned with Gérard Genette, who argued for a tabular method of genre in which, "the overlap between n thematic classes and p modal or submodal classes would determine a considerable number—that is np, neither more nor fewer—of existing or possible genres" [Architext 77]. When Diana Taylor uses a "performance lens" [1417] she can be aligned with Carolyn Miller, who suggests that genres function according to "conventions of discourse that a society establishes as ways of 'acting together'" [36]. Throughout the first half of "The Law of Genre," Derrida painstakingly maintains a bivalent stance, articulating the mutual dependence of these two tendencies. He recognizes that these two biases require each other, and works against privileging either the one or the other, constantly foregrounding...