Of Improper Grammar-tology
March 23rd, 2011
My deepest interaction with rockstar French philosopher Jacques Derrida (who, for the record, looks like a Quentin Tarantino supervillain) came in a class called “Remix Culture” I took during my first term at Georgetown. Throughout the semester we read Derrida along with some works by French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, as these men respectively extended and founded the concept of de-deconstruction, or construction piece by disparate piece, which has famously come to be known as bricolage in academic circles.
Qu’est-ce que c’est “bricolage”?
What is bricolage? Bricolage is creating with whatever works or is available. The process is done by bricoleurs, who with a do-it-yourself attitude (bricoler means “to fiddle or tinker” in French) solve a wide range of problems using only the limited, finite tools they have acquired by living and adventuring, by experiencing former problems. Lévi-Strauss pioneered the term to describe how mythological thoughts make sense even to people who have not experienced the objects or facets of reality that inspired the thoughts originally. He surmised there must be some universal concepts to which myths harken that enable them to cross-pollinate minds across time and space and still resonate. Derrida worked this theory into an argument similar to one proffered by bestselling author Jonathan Lethem in his 2007 essay on intellectual property, “The Ectasy of Influence: A Plagiarism,” in which every sentence had already been written by other people in books or articles — if everyone is imagining and creating within the same cultural catalogue, are we not all bricoleurs?
My class went the route paved by Lévi-Strauss, Derrida and later Lethem: we decided that academics are bricoleurs, since they use odds and ends to discuss, reverse discourse and reflect discourse on itself, all the while turning signified objects into signifying objects and vice versa in order to extract new meanings from old discourse and forge new discourse. We also decided that bricoleurs are remixers in the Digital Age sense, since both combine how we concretely see things with how we abstractly imagine them in order to present the world with new objects to examine. Whenever our professor gave us a new remix assignment, he instructed us to begin by selecting our “albums” — which tool set we wanted to use. We used these tools to deconstruct and decentralize original material, which could have been texts, sounds, images, a combination of these things, or none of these things. Both Lévi-Strauss and Derrida would classify Girl Talk or Danger Mouse with their genre-bending mash-ups, or Banksy with his perspective-warping street art, or line-lifting authors like Lethem as bricoleurs — gold-star fiddlers and tinkerers.
“Cut me some slack, Jack [Derrida]!”
“Ebonics” came up in the most recent class of mine to discuss Derrida, a course on media theory. One student, in a brief but contentious point, was critical of the black American vernacular for its (in)famously improper grammar and technically poor syntax. It’s a hotly contested debate: is Ebonics, as psychologist Robert Williams in his 1975 book Ebonics: The True Language of Black Folks contends, “the study of the language of black people in all its uniqueness,” a representation of the “communicative competence of the West African, Caribbean and United States slave descendent of African origin”; or is it, to paraphrase the five highest-rated definitions on Urban Dictionary, “A poor excuse for a failure to grasp the basics of english [sic] … a pseudo-language that screams ‘I am illiterate.’”? Is it elevating or offensive when the DEA announces it wants to hire black people to “translate” the language of narcotics dealers, or when Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings responds to a question about the controversial 1996 decision by the Oakland School Board to legitimize the dialect with “What be Ebonics?” (Inexplicably, tragically, footage of this latter event is no longer on the Internet.) Is it hilariously self-aware when the actress best known for playing pearl-bedecked June Cleaver talks to a sick black man on a plane by telling him to “hang loose, blood” — or is it something worse? Both camps have a lot of support. But one day after media theory class, an interesting thought occurred to me: Derrida would most likely be in the camp less expected of a well-educated white theorist. He’d love the fact that cute, grandmotherly Barbara Billingsley had “two black fellas” teach her “jive.”
What do we know about Derrida’s core beliefs? We know he disliked structure and order and linearity — he liked to “play,” to subvert and divert. We know he wanted to devise a way to undermine the “center” of systems, or the glue that is paradoxically both an element within a system and an element beyond it. (Good example: God. Center of the universe but greater than the universe simultaneously.) We know he believed all structure is created — that no structure is an automatic, pre-existing, natural truth — and that he considered standard fusty Western philosophy so blind to this fact he used the word “rupture” to describe the moment it realized its own myopia. And we know that, as expressed in Of Grammatology, he believed the existence of different cultural writing systems (and thereby speaking systems, I’ll extrapolate) is natural and wonderful, and to denounce an extracultural system for being different is to denounce the system’s humanity.
CliffsNotes of my thought process: Derrida would stand up for Ebonics, or “African American Vernacular English,” because he liked to challenge and decentralize, and there is no greater thorn in the side of Standard English purists than phraseology that willfully, even gleefully disobeys the rules. Grammar both is structure and gives structure — it’s the central element both within a language and external to it. For a maestro of play like Derrida, Ebonics would be rebellious and fun. Or, in other words, it would be the stuff of bricoleurs.
Any idiomatic dialect could prove my point, of course — I’m looking at the wiki for North American English dialects, for example, and some eye-popping stand-outs are “Yooper,” “Baltimorese” and “Pennsylvania Dutchified English.” But a theory’s always more fun when the pith is polarizing. “I could never get a clue as to how it was done,” Billingsley later said of her Airplane! stint. “Like Pig Latin? You can figure that one out. … Couldn’t figure out jive.”