Arche-reading: the institution and the trace of "Of Grammatology"

Today's reading: Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, pp. 1–10 

My interpretation of Rousseau’s text follows implicitly the propositions ventured in Part I; propositions that demand that reading should free itself, at lest in its axis, from the classical categories of history—not only from the categories of the history of ideas and the history of literature but also, and perhaps above all, from the categories of the history of philosophy.Preface to Of Grammatology

First, a brief personal reception history of the work of Jacques Derrida. I first encountered Derrida in an undergraduate theory course, through the essay “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” presented in a textbook alongside an essay of Paul de Man’s and an introduction that struggled nobly against the fact that its author didn’t understand nor particularly care for what he was introducing.

I hated it. I developed passionate arguments against it, without (naturally) much understanding it. Yet by the time I was writing my master’s thesis two years later, I began to realize that I was repeating it; and so, with typical haphazardness, I cited it, made some kind of implicit allegiance to it, without (naturally) really rereading it. The next year, in my first round of PhD course work, I took a wonderful intro to theory course that included a large portion of Of Grammatology. The course taught me everything I needed to know about Derrida except how belated and dangerously unfashionable this all was, and for the next year and a half I wrote nothing but term papers inspired by it, without (naturally) bothering to read the rest of the book.

So, I suppose, my introduction to Derrida mirrored his general introduction to English-language criticism: belated and fragmentary, marked by a mixture of laziness, resistance, misapprehension, and enthusiasm. As a result, when I look back on the Derridean phase of my short critical career, I find that I had internalized many of his ideas without fully understanding them, creating a personal Derrida who became the authoritative name for my own critical method, before being suppressed as a name without the method much changing. Looking into Of Grammatology now, I recognize a much more effective and intelligible vocabulary for many of the concepts that I was trying to manage in my dissertation without making much reference to that hidden (even from me) source. Out of a combination of genuine source amnesia and perhaps a certain anxiety to distance myself from Derrida, I had managed to reinvent the wheel in an era morally opposed to car travel.

And where did that anxiety to distance myself come from? Partly from the usual anxiety of influence, certainly, but also from a definite sense that at that moment in literary criticism, Derrida just wasn’t acceptable. He was ahistorical, and to be ahistorical is to be apolitical, and to be apolitical is to be indifferent to the suffering of the oppressed, at best trivial and at worst a moral monster. At least that was the sense I formed as I read one post-Foucauldian, New-Historicist journal article after another, and made lame attempts to historicize my own work before inevitably drifting off into a series of dizzied and dizzying close readings.

The long Derridean backlash may have softened a little in the wake of his death; one new sub-field, animal studies, even seems to be willing to take him on as a patron theorist (check the latest PMLA). Yet it remains my sense that the invariable link between history, politics, and moral seriousness—that the only way to do politics in literary criticism is through empirical history; that the only acceptable moral excuse for writing literary criticism is to do this sort of politics—is still among the most unquestioned, unquestionable assumptions underwriting the practice of literary criticism today.

It’s against this backdrop that, after not looking at a text of Derrida’s in I don’t know how long, I decided to (re)read Of Grammatology. So this rereading should be institutional and personal as well as textual—that is, a reevaluation of my own failed understanding of Derrida against what Derrida’s text might “actually say” (lol), but also a working through of the discursive schism that, I fear, did the most to put the manqué in Critique Manqué, and for which Derrida is a convenient nickname. Can I rehabilitate my interest in Derrida outside of the reactionary over-identification I developed when I had so much of my critical and professional self-image pinned on him? Is there still more for literary criticism to get from his work? Will this project digress into some kind of anti-academic rant?

Spoiler alert: yes; not really, unless it's just the recognition that there are legitimate alternatives to historicism; not if I can help it.