The theme of difference is no doubt one of the most prevalent in contemporary thought, especially in that thought which is recognized as “postmodern.” Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it was among the French (who have been known traditionally for their appreciation of the matter: “Vive la différence!”) that the postmodern version of the theme first became a direct focus. We have, for example, Emmanuel Levinas’s recovery of the importance of otherness over against what he took to be a kind of totalizing ego-centeredness dominating Western patterns of thought. Even more broadly influential on this score is Levinas’s student, Jacques Derrida, who gave the word a new spelling (“différance”) and, on its basis, engaged a relentless attack on the traditional thinking that he felt to be inextricably caught up in various binary oppositions: pure-impure, speech-writing, good-bad, act-potency, form-matter, male-female, and so forth. However seriously Derrida may have been taken inside the academy—in the end, his philosophy seems to have had the most success, not so much in France as in the United States, and not so much in the field of philosophy as in English, where identity politics seems to be especially present—his critique of binary thinking has recently started to become mainstream. This is above all the case with respect to the issue of gender. A few months ago, for example, one of the two siblings formerly known as the “Wachowski brothers” decided to join his sibling in “transitioning,” and accompanied his announcement with what amounts to a brief manifesto:
But these words, “transgender” and “transitioned” are hard for me because they both have lost their complexity in their assimilation into the mainstream. There is a lack of nuance of time and space. To be transgender is something largely understood as existing within the dogmatic terminus of male or female. And to “transition” imparts a sense of immediacy, a before and after from one terminus to another. But the reality, my reality is that I’ve been transitioning and will continue to transition all of my life, through the infinite that exists between male and female as it does in the infinite between the binary of zero and one. We need to elevate the dialogue beyond the simplicity of binary. Binary is a false idol.
1. See Emmanuel Levinas, Time and the Other (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1987); Otherwise Than Being, or Beyond Essence (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1998).
2. Derrida introduced the term “différance” in his 1963 essay “Cogito et histoire de la folie.” The difference between this word and the original is detectable only in writing. In addition to difference, Derrida’s new orthography references “deferral,” indicating that we understand the meaning of words only by referring to other words, or “signifiers,” and so on, never arriving at a founding “signified.” See his “Différance,” Positions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971).
3. See Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).
4. “Second Wachowski Filmmaker Sibling Comes out as Trans,” by Tracy Baim, Windy City Times, March 8, 2016, http://www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Second-Wachowski-filmmaker-sibling-comes-out-as-trans-/54509.html.
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