The Caitlyn (née Bruce) Jenner case has engendered if not a new subject at least a newly publicized and sensationalized one. For an old-timer like myself, transgenderism is reminiscent of the postmodernism that swept the universities several decades ago. Indeed, transgenderism now looks like a more dramatic, audacious, and, it may be, perilous form of postmodernism. Like postmodernism back then, so transgenderism today is moving very far, very fast. Before it goes much further, one might look back upon its predecessor as a cautionary tale, recalling its aspirations but also its tribulations.
A passage from an article I wrote almost 20 years ago may help put the current issue in historical perspective.
Imported from France (which had acquired it from Germany), postmodernism made its appearance in the United States in the 1970s, first in departments of literature and then in other disciplines of the humanities. Its forefathers are Nietzsche and Heidegger, its fathers Derrida and Foucault. From Jacques Derrida postmodernism has borrowed the vocabulary of deconstruction: the “aporia” (the dubious or enigmatic nature) of discourse, the “indeterminacy” of language, the “fictive” nature of signs and symbols, the self-referential character of words and their dissociation from any presumed reality, the “problematization” of all subjects, events, and tests. From Michel Foucault it has adopted the focus on power: words and ideas as a means of “privileging” the “hegemonic” groups in society,
and knowledge itself an instrument and product of the “power structure.” Thus traditional discourse and learning are impugned as “logocentric” (dominated by the word), “phallocentric” (dominated by the male), and “totalizing” or “authoritarian” (in the presumption that reality can be contained and comprehended).
In literature, postmodernism entails the denial of the fixity of any text (not only the immutability of meaning but the immutability of the text itself); of the authority of the author over the critic or reader in determining the substance and meaning of the text; of any canon of great books and, more significantly, of the very idea of greatness. In philosophy, it is a denial of the constancy of language, of any correspondence between language and reality, of any proximate truth about reality, indeed, of any essential reality. In history, it is a denial of the objectivity of the historian, of the factuality or reality of the past, and thus of the possibility of arriving at any truths about the past. For all disciplines it induces a radical skepticism, relativism, and subjectivism that denies not this or that truth about any subject but the very idea of truth—that denies even the ideal of truth, truth as something to aspire to even if it can never be fully attained.
Derrida’s Of Grammatology, which in 1967 introduced the concept of deconstructionism, is now regarded as one of the founding documents of postmodernism. The preface by the translator was euphoric. “The fall into the abyss of deconstruction inspires us with as much pleasure as fear. We are intoxicated with the prospect of never hitting bottom.” Almost half a century later, the striking image of the abyss was evoked for another postmodernist eminence, Paul de Man, Derrida’s friend and colleague at Yale. De Man, his biographer tells us, was “the only man who ever looked into the abyss and came away smiling.”
The abyss de Man confronted, and came away from smiling, was the Holocaust. After de Man’s death in 1983, it was revealed that during the war he had written hundreds of antisemitic articles for a pro-Nazi journal in Belgium (and had led a rather unsavory life in general, including criminal financial dealings and a bigamous marriage). Even more revealing than the antisemitism was the response of other postmodernists. The “soft deconstructionists” (as they called themselves) dissociated themselves from de Man, although not from postmodernism. But the “hard” ones, including Derrida, hotly defended him, not on the grounds that the antisemitic articles were an unfortunate youthful lapse (he was then well in his twenties), but by deconstructing those “texts” until they appeared to say very nearly the opposite of what they obviously said.