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  • Who speaks? Grammar, Memory, and Identity in Beckett's Company
  • Justin Beplate (bio)

In Twilight of the Idols Nietzsche declares, with his characteristic blend of pithiness and hyperbole, that "we are not getting rid of God because we still believe in grammar" (19). Long before the advent of post-structuralist critiques of "presence," Nietzsche's remark takes aim at the complicity of our language in accommodating a misplaced faith in metaphysical forms, a "crude fetishism" of Being as an originating presence rather than a derivative concept. "Being is thought in, foisted in everywhere as cause," he writes, when in truth "only following on from the conception 'I' is the concept 'Being' derived." And yet "nothing has had a more naïve power of persuasion so far than the error of Being [. . .] for it has on its side every word, every sentence we speak!" (18–19). Throughout his writings, Nietzsche pursues this idea that Being—an agency transcending the material conditions of our existence—is little more than a fantastic prejudice of reason perversely sustained by our habits of language.

He is in fact preceded by David Hume in leveling this charge. In his inquiry concerning our supposed idea of self in A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume asks: "from what impression could this idea be derived? This question is impossible to answer without a manifest contradiction and absurdity [. . .]" (251). The central difficulty for Hume concerns the conspicuous lack of any one impression that could possibly give rise to the concept of self: an entity characterized by continuity in time, perfect identity, and simplicity. "The mind," he declares, "is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations. There is properly no simplicity in it at one time, nor identity in different" (253). After demonstrating the incoherence of "self" as a possible object of philosophical inquiry, Hume is led to a conclusion of "great [End Page 153] importance": namely, "that all the nice and subtile questions concerning personal identity can never possibly be decided, and are to be regarded rather as grammatical than as philosophical difficulties" (262).

Hume's remarks on language and identity raise a problem that has taxed modern European thinkers to a marked degree, posing in stark terms a notion that has become a commonplace of contemporary French theory: that the self is an effect of language and that the interrelated problems of self-identity and consciousness are inescapably tied to the problem of language. Foucault's analysis, in The Order of Things, of what he sees as a profound epistemological shift at the close of the eighteenth century locates a widespread rupture in the classical relations ordering language and knowledge. Language lost its status as transparent medium and began to acquire its own weight as a possible object of knowledge. Coalescing in the form of a dense historical objectivity, it was increasingly viewed as the reserve for all those unconscious deposits of tradition and memory that inform discursive practices over time. At the threshold of modernity, then, language was "demoted" to the status of an object: an "autonomous organic structure" (295).

One of the compensations for this demotion of language, Foucault suggests, was a renewed concern with textual exegesis, as nineteenth-century philologists labored over the hidden deposits of language, discovering those buried histories that pattern our everyday discursive habits. Criticism, in other words, sought to counteract the trap laid by a profoundly amnesiac conception of language:

Having become a dense and consistent historical reality, language forms the locus of a tradition, of the unspoken habits of thought, of what lies hidden in a people's mind; it accumulates an ineluctable memory which does not even know itself as memory. Expressing their thoughts in words of which they are not the masters, enclosing them in verbal forms whose historical dimension they are unaware of, men believe that their speech is their servant and do not realize that they are submitting themselves to its demands. The grammatical arrangements of a language are the a priori of what can be expressed in it.


If the question of epistemological limits turns on...


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pp. 153-165
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