Of Grammatology

For any unfamiliar with Derrida, Of Grammatology is one of his more accessible and popular works that is simultaneously thought-provoking in the piercing sense. The premise we begin with is that a certain view of the world has been accepted as the correct one for the majority of people in a given culture, but upon further examination of “the minute particulars” a different picture of reality comes into focus. Derrida stresses that what is familiar to us happens to be such merely because it is commonly agreed upon and repeated on authority as the correct and only interpretation. But simply by slowly reexamining the situation it could be argued that we would arrive at a different view each time. Thus, all conclusions should be considered provisional and inconclusive. So says Derrida.

The motive behind humanity’s denial of this plural-scape without stable identity or origin is our common desire “for a stable center, and for the assurance of mastery.” The primary way this is achieved is through the familiarity of one’s own language, culture and discourse. Hence, the predicament anyone faces who would wish to pursue a strategy of resisting the status quo would have to use familiar resources to overturn the very categories they are utilizing. To use a proverbial saying, you have to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. Derrida’s tactic of “sous rapture” which translates from the French to “under erasure” defines this process more thoroughly.  “This is to write a word, cross it out, and then print both word and deletion. (Since the word is inaccurate, it is crossed out. Since it is necessary, it remains legible)” (p. xiv). In other words, we must twist and contort available resources (such as language) in order to do reach a different perspective. “We must learn to use and erase our language at the same time” (p. xviii).

A good example that Derrida refers to so as to make this point is Levi-Strauss’s bricoleur. The bricoleur is a handy-man (or woman) who “makes do with things that were meant perhaps for other ends” (xix). By doing so, when applied to “writing” or “grammatology”, the bricoleur uses conservative concepts for the purpose of simultaneously exposing their limits. The bricoleur does so because nothing else can be done to change certain habits of the mind. We must make do with “the old language, the language we already possess, and which possesses us” (xv). Nietzsche found a similar way to cope with this problem. His pervasive strategy was to intersubstitute unitary opposites.

If one is always bound by one’s perspective, one can at least deliberately reverse perspectives as often as possible, in the process undoing opposed perspectives, showing that the two terms of an opposition are merely accomplices of each other (xxviii)

To sum up, Derrida (Heidegger and Nietzsche with him, the philosophers of erasure) believes that we can break out of the enclosure of monoculture by using a certain “plural style.” We must confound opposites, switch perspectives and use many registers of discourse. But unlike modern cynicism which is cold and harsh we should be prepared to “rejoice in uncertainty” and proceed in a spirit of carnivalesque play. As Spivak notes in the preface, “responsibility itself must cohabit with frivolity, this need not be cause for gloom” (xiii). Risk-taking, after all, should be characterized by “affirmative joy” or “joyful wisdom”—what Nietzsche calls the gay science.


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