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Obituary: Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)

Sat 6 Nov 2004 In: Features

Jaques Derrida Jacques Derrida, a prominent French philosopher, died a fortnight ago. Why are social conservatives so frightened at "deconstruction," his associated philosophy? Some Gaynz.Com readers may have read Frank Haden's rather intemperate remarks about Derrida and deconstruction in the Sunday Star-Times, or noticed shrill notes of paranoia about 'the deconstruction of heterosexual marriage' on Maxim's website. Given the Institute's disapproval, it occurred to me that our communities deserve to know more about the late philosopher. As an expat French Algerian Jew, Derrida was interested in issues of social exclusion, although, understandably, his own concerns were focused on issues of institutional racism, be they South African apartheid, racist asylum seeker or immigration policies. So why did the US and New Zealand Christian Rights get hysterical about deconstruction? Well, Derrida's philosophy didn't believe in stable meanings within literary and philosophical accounts. It investigates what constitutes unacknowledged origins, fractures and ambiguities within apparently fixed meanings, including those within allegedly inerrant and infallible sacred books and institutions. See the problem? Yes, it might act as a solvent on dominant social identities or relationships, like heterosexuality, masculinity, caucasian ethnicity etc, or philosophies that present their domination of western societies as somehow "natural." Social conservatives hate the idea that meanings of sacred texts and other elements of Western culture are liable to historical change, which has adverse implications for their own activism and assertions about "historical permanence" and "Christian orthodoxy." What about LGBT activism? Well, it encourages us to realise that LGBT identities, as opposed to our desires for one another, and sexual relationships, are socially variable over different cultures and historical periods. Derrida wrote only one particular work that centred on the significance of gay righs for political and philosophical debate. Oddly enough, it hasn't featured prominently in LGBT political theories. In Glas, Derrida compared the writing of Georg Hegel's eighteenth century dialectical philosophy to Jean Genet, a notorious French twentieth century gay author and one-time borstal inmate. Hegel's writing provided a naturalist excuse for dominant social institutions, while Genet's pungent and earthy accounts of his adolescent sexuality disrupt more rarified accounts of overall historical objectives through insistence on intimate social and sexual relationships. As noted above, though, it encourages us to situate our own lives in particular historical and cultural contexts. As condom adverts note, one size doesn't fit all of us. Judith Butler is probably the foremost feminist and LGBT theorist whose work deals with deconstruction and its political implications. As its title implies, her most important work deals with (trans) "gender trouble" and has been a source of inspiration for that particular community. Trans political activists welcomed her recognition of the destructive, oppressive implications of fixed gender and sexual identities for their communities. For transpeople, biological sex is not a given, because reassignment surgery destabilises it- but there are destructive implications for transwomen and transmen if their transitioning is recognised. Three examples come readily to mind. Venus Xtravaganza was a Latina transgender performer and sex worker in Jenny Livingstone's documentary about African-American gay and transgender 'vogueing', Paris Is Burning. Venus was murdered by a transphobic client after he discovered she wasn't a 'biological' female. Think about Brandon Teena, too, in Boys Don't Cry. He was raped and murdered after his preferred gender became common knowledge in a small rural Nebraska town. Predictably, the Christian Right would rather ignore it. It's trying to develop its own anti-transgender politics, as evidenced in the work of Australian anti-feminist Babette Francis. She has written two profoundly ignorant pieces that dealt with an involuntarily castrated male infant who was assigned a female gender, but reverted to a heterosexual male gender identity later on. Francis' reading is highly selective- she ignores the fact that the male protagonist featured sought assistance from the Intersex Society of North America, and received it. Given that ISNA is LGBT-identified, I find this deliberate omission fascinating. Why does Francis ignore it? Ah, well, that would mean that this conservative Catholic would have to acknowledge the fact that her own institution incinerated any intersexed individuals that it was unlucky enough to encounter during the Middle Ages. And today, Pope John Paul II has declared reassignment surgery anathema. As surgical techniques were rather primitive at the time of the birth of Christianity, it is difficult to see why this should be the case. I don't recall any biblical injunction against gender identity transitioning. I suspect this is more antiquated drivel from the musty twelfth century prescientific era of St. Thomas Aquinas and his version of 'natural law theory.' If I were the Christian Right, I wouldn't go any further down that road, unless they want exposure of their own stygian record against gender dissidents. Venus and Teena lead us to recognise the savage inhumanity of dogma that misrepresents fixed biological sex as an eternal 'truth.' It isn't that for the transgender communities, which highlights the political value of deconstruction. At a time when Georgina Beyer's trans-inclusive antidiscrimination amendment bill is in the parliamentary ballot, that is a timely message for New Zealanders. Recommended Reading: Judith Butler: Gender Trouble: Routledge: London: 1990. John Colapinto: As Nature Raised Him: The Boy Who Was Raised A Girl: HarperCollins: New York: 2000. Jacques Derrida: Glas: Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press: 1990. Michel Foucault: Herculine Barbin: The Story of a Nineteenth-Century French Hermaphrodite: Pantheon: New York: 1980.. [Should be read as a corrective to Colapinto's account. Deals with the unhappy results of the 'outing' of Herculine, a nineteenth century French intersexed woman, who was reassigned to a male gender after her anomalous body was discovered and she was 'reclassified.' Sadly, Herculine suicided because she couldn't live as a male.] Not Recommended: Babette Francis: "Bookshelf: The Most Significant Book of the Century, So Far" Endeavour Forum Newsletter (October 2000): Babette Francis: "Is Gender A Social Cost or Biological Imperative?" Conference Paper, Australian Institute for Family Studies, 24-26 July 2001: Craig Young - 6th November 2004    

Credit: Craig Young

First published: Saturday, 6th November 2004 - 12:00pm

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