White Mythology revisited

More than fourty years have passed since the publication of Derrida’s essay on ‘White Mythology’. I do not hear or see it discussed very often (I must confess that I do not frequent meetings of ‘Derrida-specialists’), but to my opinion it still offers some cutting-edge questioning of the practice of making and using universalistic language, which should be put to use still more in analyses of the role of language in science, literature, politics, advertisement, etc. etc.  What Derrida here writes of the practices of  ‘metaphysicians’, as the philosophers par excellence, observes critically the smart and effaced process of deculturalizing ‘white’ culture in order to be able to sell it for transcultural universal truth. What about his analysis?

He cites Anatole France where he compares metaphycisians to knife-grinders, who do not grind knives and scissors, but coins, effacing the images of the rulers of the countries which have put them into traffic. Although the coins without images are now useless in the real world, the grinders claim for them now to be of indefinite exchange-value! Thus they take words from local languages, and rub their original indicative power (transparency) from them, in order to declare them to be universally applicable. ‘[…] the first meaning and the first displacement are then forgotten. The metaphor is no longer noticed, and it is taken for the proper meaning. A double effacement.’

‘Metaphysics – the white mythology which reassembles and reflects the culture of the West: the white man takes his own mythology, Indo-European mythology, his own logos, that is the mythos of his idiom, for the universal form of that he must still wish to call Reason.’ As is fitting for someone who thinks absolute new beginnings to be only more effacing moves, and who therefore makes a plea for deconstructing what already is in place, Derrida would not want to try to dethrone the (silent) domination of white culture, but only tries to make it less silent, by asking for attention for its Indo-European mythological roots (the effaced faces on the coins), thereby making its users aware of the ‘limit[s] of its plasticity.’ Which is, of course, a subtle way to gnaw at its dominance.

The mentioned limits, and natural restrictions to the secret work of the shamans of white mythology (the philosophers) were always obviously active for Seventeenth century philosopher Spinoza. In his pragmatist view of language, the effacing of the local origins of philosophical language can never be total. His point: ‘[…] language is preserved by the learned and the unlearned alike, whereas books and the meaning of their content are preserved only by the learned. Therefore we can readily conceive that the learned may have altered or corrupted the meaning of some passage in a rare book […], but not the meaning of words.’ And ‘words acquire a fixed meaning solely from their use.’ As it remains bound to the practices and thus the needs of unlearned people, Spinoza could still be optimistic about the positive, edifying role of philosophy.

But isn’t there one tiny problem, which would bring us back to the necessary more pessimistic views of Derrida? The fact that literacy is spreading across the world (helped by metaphoric expressions like ‘the millenium goals’) makes the trust in the ‘unlearned’ as the keepers of semantic transparency rather imaginary. The goals of the millenium (what millenium?, of whom?) are about to suck up all human beings into complicity in the belief in universal language. Derrida, in his later work Spirits of Marx, descried opposition to the injustices of our age by ‘a new international’ of ‘sans papiers’, hackers, and other offenders of ‘white legality’ (not his, but my expression). Should he not have mentioned another category of offenders, the ‘sans diplomes’? Would they not be the only ones to effectively resist the universal ‘newspeak’ which spreads around the globe, while insisting on clarity and transparency? This thought might be empowering to all those who are not able, for any reasons whatsoever, to enter the universe of so-called universal meanings. But they won’t read it, I’m afraid…

Jacques Derrida lived from 1930-2004, Baruch Spinoza from 1632-1677.

I cited from Derrida’s Margins of Philosophy, The University of Chicago Press, 1982 [original French edition 1972], and from Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Brill Paperbacks 1991 [original Latin edition1670].

  1. First of all I would like to say wonderful blog!
    I had a quick question which I’d like to ask if
    you don’t mind. I was interested to know how you center yourself and clear your head prior to writing.
    I have had difficulty clearing my mind in getting my thoughts out there.
    I do take pleasure in writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes tend to be wasted
    just trying to figure out how to begin. Any recommendations
    or hints? Kudos!

    • Hi, Nigerian Arts and Culture, thanks for your appreciation, and your question. I first want to mention an interesting thing – that you are the first one to write a comment (though unrelated) to this post, which is by chance my most read post ever!

      Now about the writing, I must say I have been writing in all kinds of formats for many years, and I remember the thing you describe, but don’t experience it anymore. That doesn’t mean I don’t ‘waste’ my first minutes – I just don’t experience them to be wasted anymore, I guess. I often write an opening paragraph that I later erase, or change significantly. So I would say: don’t worry, just start, and change whatever you don’t like afterwards.

      All good wishes for much enjoyable writing to come!

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