Last night, I woke up at 2:30am where I was reminded of an event that occurred three years ago, when I was unofficially auditing university courses (2016-2017ish). At the time, I was a ghost, a specter, who lived inside the classrooms of my local university. Of course, nobody knew I wasn’t an official student categorized by the institution. In fact, I fit in quite well. Nobody knew I was a ghost, but that was the point. However, I will admit that my feelings of exclusion still remains till this day at a certain level. This is probably due to my strange set of specialized knowledge that not many people understand. It is a set of knowledge that I live by in practice because I consider myself a Derridean in certain ways. But what does being a Derridean even mean? I have a new post on Derrida that I will share in a few days / next week. It will talk about communication and differences in relationship with nature, culture, and writing (you can find it here).
At my local university, I sat in many philosophy classes that spoke about a diverse range of subjects. I read G.W.F. Hegel, Barbara Cassin, Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Simone de Beauvoir, and many more. I also attended film theory courses and learnt how the movie theater is basically a replication of Plato’s cave. The professor for this film theory class was very kind to me. She bought me coffee and made me felt like I belonged somewhere. She was a Heideggerian film scholar and we spoke a lot about one of my favorite authors: Roland Barthes.
Out of all these classes, I audited a big two-semester length 300 level course on literary theory with a professor who is now my supervisor for my Master’s research project. I was surprised that he was so supportive of me and my personal intellectual endeavors in doing my masters. But he was also surprised at how much I knew about Derrida when I let him read some of my writings on him. This writing became my sample essay for grad applications.
I remembered during one of our lectures on post-colonialism, a TA (Teaching Assistant; PhD student) did a presentation on Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. I remembered a line where he confidently said:
“Deconstruction leads to decolonization.”
No offense, the first thing that popped up in my mind was whether he read enough of Derrida because the claim was bold and in my humble opinion, not “entirely” possible (will get to this). His statement made me wonder if he really understood deconstruction because he spoke of deconstruction as if it was a method, even when it isn’t. He also spoke of deconstruction as if it had a specific telos (end goal; i.e. to decolonize), which is not true at all since it utilizes “free play”. Strangely enough, this notion of free play does have decolonizing motifs because it is related to Claude Levis-Strauss’ book, The Savage Mind and his concept of “bricolage”.
I guess maybe he wasn’t expecting that a Derridean super nerd would be sitting among one hundred students in the lecture theater, silently judging him on his readings on one of the most esoteric thinkers of 20th century (Lol). To be sure, I’ve met many people who misread Derrida—including myself and other professors. In fact, I would say that Derrida is one of the most loved, hated, and misunderstood intellectual figures of 20th century. This leads to a question that I will talk about in my next post: “What is misunderstanding?”.
Regardless, this bold claim made by the TA relates to my current graduate seminar that I am enrolled in which talks about marginalized people. Earlier in the semester, we read a book called The Hanging of Angelique by Afua Cooper where she spoke about a story of a real Canadian black slave woman named Angelique. At the end of the book, Cooper talks about black liberation and how they were able to get proper education and share their slave narratives through (phonetic) writing.
Perhaps one can already see where the problem lies: Can a marginalized person of color proclaim their liberation by speaking through the language of their colonizers?
I’m pretty sure those who are familiar with my numerous readings of Derrida that I’ve done on this blog could predict that I was going to ask this question. In fact, it was Spivak who first proposed this problem in her famous essay: “Can the Subalterns Speak?”. In it, she recognizes this very problem where in order for the voices of marginalized people to be heard, they must speak through the language of their colonizers. Of course, this is not always the case—especially when colonizers learn the marginalized language and attempts to understand their identities, cultures and traditions. But it certainly feels like the latter is less likely than the former in our increasingly globalized world.
Spivak’s claims are assuming that language influences the way we see the world. Thus in order to answer this question, one must consider whether language changes how we experience time (or how we think in general). Let us for the moment, take a look at one of the most famous linguistic theories known as Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Those who had watched the film Arrival would know what the theory is about. The hypothesis suggests that language influences the way humans experience time. This theory began by studying the Hopi language (Google, “Hopi controversy”) and was later proven to be false by other linguists. Recently however, there had been linguists who suggests that language does influence how we perceive time, but not in the way Sapir and Whorf had thought.
But there is a more cultural and historical dimension to language that we must consider. This is the idea that the words within language consists of many historical implications which establishes its meaning as such. I am thinking in particular to the etymologies of words. Language carries specific strands of histories within it. As we speak the language, we are also in a way, practicing its culture, its play between words, etc.
Another consideration is through the complicated psychoanalytic dimensions. For those who read my Lacanian post on the wound of split subjectivity, speaking and writing requires the subject to “give up” or “repress” their desires in order to fit into the laws of whatever language that they are articulating. Thus, the so called “liberated” subject is in fact, filtered through the Symbolic Other. In this sense, slave narratives are deeply related to repression and the unconscious mind.
There is also another area that we should consider: the act of interpretation and how meanings are formed through differences within contextual structures. Obviously, this consideration is referencing Derrida, which takes us back to alluding Spivak (there are other great thinkers in this field such as Homi Bhabha and Edward Said that I won’t talk about here). For Derrida, meanings are produced in between words. This is why people often talk about deconstruction through “binary oppositions” because it is in between author / reader, speech / writing, etc. which produces meaning. I will talk more about this in my next post. But if we look at slave narratives from a Derridean perspective, the problem is that on one hand, the English language functions as their medium for liberation because they are able to express their stories (to be sure, this is certainly a good thing—at least on a practical level). But on the other hand, the English language usurps the subject by forcing them to practice a linguistic culture that is not their own. And is it strange that I am writing this post in English, even when I am Chinese? I have lots to say about this, but I don’t have time right now.
Last but not least, we should consider my current topic of interest / research: critical race theory. Especially the works by Fred Moten who I am currently obsessed with because I think he is an incredible thinker—particularly on sound theory. In Black and Blur (2017), Moten’s first chapter is titled “Not in Between” and the first sentence began with “Remembering the Present”. I smirked when I first read these because I was able to predict what he was going to say in regards to Derrida and people like Hegel. For your information, “Remembering the Present” means to remember the “present (past)” from “the future” (to come)—a Derridean allusion that Moten later indirectly addresses. In this book (and also in In the Break that I am currently reading), Moten makes an incredibly bold move in an attempt to shift beyond Derridean differences by pointing out what he calls “nonhesitation” or “improvisation” in between written sounds (words) [this improvisation is most prominently found in Jazz music which comes from African culture]. As mentioned, for Derrida, meaning is produced in between words. For Moten, the “African Voice” is produced “not-in-between” differences, but as a (radical) radical alterity beyond differences via the grammatical ruptures of written sounds and the spacings between them. Here, I enjoy the way he uses the word “spacing” because I don’t see many scholars utilize its importance, despite it being a prominent Derridean theme found in Of Grammatology.
As we can see, there are many theoretical problems that one must overcome in order to answer the (post)colonial question that I proposed. I spoke about some of these problems to my MA supervisor and he giggled at me saying that I won’t solve them in a graduate seminar due to its sheer difficulty. He was right. I am still in the middle of a lot of these ideas. But there is a very high chance that I will be writing about Fred Moten and his relationship with literature and slave narratives for my final research paper in this class.
Anyways, I should get back to work.