Jacques Derrida: “The Law of Genre”

So, I have not read La Folie du Jour, so I’m going to leave that section of “The Law of Genre” alone and just focus on Derrida’s main points, which I think he lays out in the first part of this talk. The big flashy “wow!” moment for me was Derrida’s “axiomatic question,” where he asks, “can one identify a work of art, of whatever sort, but especially a work of discursive art, if it does not bear the mark of a genre, if it does not signal or mention it or make it remarkable in any way?” (211). This seems to me to be the question he was leading us toward when, at the opening of his lecture, he gave us three utterances: “Genres are not to be mixed. I will not mix genres. I repeat: genres are not to be mixed. I will not mix them” (202). He says that we could have read that first statement, “genres are not to be mixed” as fairly neutral–in other words, here’s a thing that shouldn’t happen, just like eggs whites and parsley are not to be mixed, for whatever reason. Or, we could have read that as a prescriptive command: “Hey you, don’t even think about mixing genres! They are not to be mixed!” Similarly, his second statement, “I will not mix them,” could have been read according to different genre conventions. Again, it could have been a fairly neutral statement: “personally, this is not something I’m going to do, if that’s okay with you.” Or, it could have been read as a promise, a submissive posture in response to the previous command: “Okay, sir, I promise, I won’t mix them, I promise!” The key here is that Derrida did not give us any cues with which to interpret these statements. He left us uncertain of what genre they belonged to. So, we presumably had trouble classifying them, making them mean something, and therefore figuring out what he was trying to say. So, eventually, he asks, can we identify a work of art that has no marker of genre?

So, spoiler alert: Derrida doesn’t particularly believe in things that seem to have clear borders, like genres. So he doesn’t really want to talk about how to put things into genres. Anybody could do that, and besides, there are so many terms, he says, that how could he ever presume to contain their proliferation? It’s impossible. For him the law of genre is “precisely a principle of contamination, a law of impurity, a parasitical economy” (206). This is fairly familiar territory. By now, thanks in part to Derrida, we’re pretty comfortable acknowledging that nothing is just part of a specific genre. For example, in my case of sensation fiction, there is no ontological category called “sensation fiction.” It’s a “parasitical economy” in which the Newgate novel, the Gothic novel, the cheap serial novel, the Silver Fork novel, and a thousand other things all intersect to make a new category. But Derrida does not care about my categories on this level. What he cares about is the “category” that allows (or doesn’t allow) “categories” to be a “category.” Can categories be categorized?

Here he goes: “As with the class itself, the principle of genre is unclassifiable, it tolls the knell of the knell, in other words of classicum, of what permits one to call out orders and to order the manifold within a nomenclature” (208). So, if the death knell dies, who tolls the knell of the knell? If genre classifies members of a set, who classifies the set? As the principle of classification, genre can not itself be classified, so it exceeds itself, and the parts are bigger than the whole. So, part of the law of genre “is the law of abounding, of excess, the law of participation without membership, of contamination, etc., which I mentioned earlier” (210). Genre participates in sets by placing members into sets, but it is not itself a member of a set, so its principle is excess. At this point, Derrida realizes that he’s skirting the edge of genre-theory, and not really intending to go into genre-theory at all (interestingly, that word into treats genre as the container that Derrida characterizes it as being–he wants to talk about what makes the container contain).

Moving on, here’s the part that really fascinates me:

The trait common to these classes of classes is precisely the identifiable recurrence of a common trait by which one recognizes, or should recognize, a membership in a class. There should be a trait upon which one could rely in order to decide that a given textual event, a given “work,” corresponds to a given class (genre, type, mode, form, etc.). And there should be a code enabling one to decide questions of class-membership on the basis of this trait. (210-211)

Okay, so if we’re going to say “this thing is a calico cat,” it should a) be a cat and b) have calico markings. That may have been a bad example, but the point I was trying to make is that the “mark” is a really important word for Derrida, and thinking of animal marking reminds me of that. He goes on about the mark:

…if one is bent on classifying, one should consult a set of identifiable and codifiable traits to determine whether this or that, such a thing or such an event belongs to this set or that class. This may seem trivial. Such a distinctive trait qua mark is however always a priori remarkable. It is always possible that a set–I have compelling reasons for calling this a text, whether it be written or oral–re-marks on this distinctive trait within itself. (211)

First of all, the “trait” that identifies something as “Thing X” is a “mark.” Okay. And we can deduce that marks are remarkable, in the sense that they should be visible enough for us to remark upon. So, a set, or a text, in its very essence, re-marks on its own mark. In other words, it makes its mark visible (is this like the Foucauldian idea of compulsory visibility?), but it also comments upon its own mark. It not only shows its mark, but it says, “hey, look, here’s my mark!” I’m not sure if I’m getting this quite right, but as I’m writing it, it really does remind me of Foucault… (I guess it would be too meta if I tried to “classify” them as both being deconstructionists…).

Derrida uses an example to explain his meaning above a bit more clearly:

A defense speech or newspaper editorial can indicate by means of a mark, even if it is not explicitly designated as such, “Viola! I belong, as anyone may remark, to the type of text called a defense speech or an article of the genre newspaper editorial.” (211)

What interests Derrida, he says, “is that this re-mark–ever possible for every text, for every corpus of traces–is absolutely necessary for and constitutive of what we call art, poetry or literature” (211). Literature needs the re-mark, and the re-mark is what makes literature literature. Is that because literature is inherently self-aware? Is it ALL meta?

Now it gets crazier:

…consider this paradox, consider the irony (which is irreducible to a consciousness or an attitude): this supplementary and distinctive trait, a mark of belonging or inclusion, does not properly pertain to any genre or class. The re-mark of belonging does not belong. It belongs without belonging, and the “without” (or the suffix “-less”) which relates belonging to non-belonging appears only in the timeless time of the blink of an eye. (212)

Said again, another way:

I submit for your consideration the following hypothesis: a text cannot belong to no genre, it cannot be without or less a genre. Every text participates in one or several genres, there is no genreless text; there is always a genre and genres, yet such participation never amounts to belonging. And not because of an abundant overflowing or a free, anarchic and unclassifiable productivity, but because of the trait of participation itself, because of the effect of the code and of the generic mark. Making genre its mark, a text demarcates itself. If remarks of belonging belong without belonging, participate without belonging, then genre-designations cannot be simply part of the corpus. (212)

So, each text has a mark, and that mark marks the text’s genre–which is the thing that makes a text a text. But the mark itself does not belong to the genre, and is only supplementary to the text itself (even though it’s also constitutive). Derrida explains it with the example of novels that announce on their cover that they are novels. For example, I just read a novel (for fun) called The Shoemaker’s Wife, and on the cover, right under the title, it says “A Novel”–just in case I couldn’t tell that it was a novel. This paratextual element–“A Novel”–is a mark. It marks the text as belonging to a genre–“the novel.” It makes the text announce, “Hello! I’m a novel!” However, the mark “A Novel” is not part of the novel. So genre-designations do not themselves belong to the genres they designate. The word or concept “novel” does not belong–along with Middlemarch and Vanity Fair–to the category it signifies. It gets complicated for me, at this point. Since the classificatory principle is itself NOT part of a class, then the thing that makes inclusion possible is itself excluded. The class, therefore, cannot be closed.

Here’s Derrida again:

This axiom of non-closure or non-fulfillment enfolds within itself the condition for the possibility and the impossibility of taxonomy. This inclusion and this exclusion do not remain exterior to one another; they do not exclude each other. They are neither one nor two. They form what I shall call the genre-clause, a clause stating at once the juridical utterance, the precedent-making designation and the law-text, but also the closure, the closing that excludes itself from what it includes (one could speak of a floodgate […] of genre). The clause or floodgate of genre declasses what it allows to be classed. It tolls the knell of genealogy or of genericity, which it however also brings forth to the light of day. Putting to death the very thing that it engenders, it cuts a strange figure; a formless form, it remains nearly invisible, it neither sees the day nor brings itself to light. Without it, neither genre nor literature come to light, but as soon as there is this blinking of an eye, this clause or this floodgate of genre, at the very moment that a genre or a literature is broached, at that very moment, degenerescence has begun, the end begins. (212-213)

Okay, so the genre-clause is the thing I just talked about, I think. It’s the idea that the genre-designation does not belong to the genre that it demarcates, so it is excluded from the principle of inclusion that it makes possible. However, these two things–the genre and the genre-designation–don’t necessarily exclude each other (deconstruction is happening right now, I think). In other words, just because the genre-designator is excluded from the inclusion it constitutes doesn’t mean that genre then doesn’t exist. The genre-designator has made a juridical utterance (“this thing is a novel, that thing isn’t”), but the inevitable constructedness of that utterance doesn’t negate its existence. A thing called “novel” still does exist, even though it’s always already contaminated. However, the genre-clause is about non-closure (if genre doesn’t include the thing that makes it a genre, then it can never be a closed set). Therefore, it “declasses what it allows to be classed” (213). The word “novel” makes it possible to class things as “novels,” but the exclusion of the word “novel” from its own category means that the things in that category can rush through the floodgates of the class called “novel.” So the genre-clause “tolls the knell of genealogy or of genericity” (213), but it also sheds light on genre because it brings these questions to our attention–it causes us to “re-mark” upon the members of the set. So, genre-designators bring members of a set to life: the concept “novel” means that we can see a certain body of texts as “novels.” But, in its inability to close the set and draw a complete line around “things that are novels,” it opens the floodgates (“well, is this thing a novel or not?”) and thereby kills the very thing it brought to life. So, literature cannot exist without genre, but the very moment that we notice the genre-clause or question a genre-designator (which we always do), that moment is the beginning of the end of genre.


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