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  • Commonplaces:Rhetorical Figures of Difference in Heidegger and Glissant
  • Seanna Sumalee Oakley

The tradition of Western metaphysics represents one of the most insular and, by the same token, thoroughgoing conversations of any humanities discipline. Its philosophers rigorously engage with the ideas of their antecedents and subsequently become themselves subjects of conversation. In the twentieth century, Martin Heidegger stands as the philosopher with whom all contemporaries must contend. Jacques Derrida nods to that monumentality when, in tracing the historical shifts in the conceptual difference between being and beings, he proposes his concept of différance: "Does différance for all that merely adjust itself in the variations of ontico-ontological difference, such as différance is thought, such as the 'epoch' in particular thinks it 'through,' if one may still say, the incontrovertible heideggerian meditation?"1 Despite the advent of sexier philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze or Derrida himself, and in spite of Heidegger's Nazi past, we continue to "hear"—to use a figure he was quite fond of—Heidegger's ideas, his uncanny tropes culled from cliché, his constant rhetorical questioning.2

Yet insularity has its drawbacks, notably when an outsider's shrewd engagement with the canonical questions might reinforce and deepen their contemporary pertinence. Édouard Glissant is a philosopher conspicuously outside the Western metaphysical patrimony. On the other hand, he remained on the margins of African diasporic thought as well until recently. Even as Glissant participated in the historic 1956 Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Paris, he tenaciously pursued a philosophy of "diversalité" and difference in stark contrast to the dominant pan-Africanist, Afrocentric, and Négritudinist thought of the 1950s through 1970s. Born in 1928 in Martinique, the descendant of African slaves, Glissant is a prolific writer of philosophy, poetry, and fiction, all of which manifest an intense interest in fracturing the syntax and grammar of the French language as a means of transgressing its ontological and epistemic limits. A few key works are: La Terre inquiète (1955), Soleil de la conscience [End Page 1] (1956), La Lézarde (1958), L'Intention poétique (1969), Le Discours antillais (1981), Poétique de la Relation (1990), and Traité du Tout-Monde (1997).

Glissant has doggedly addressed modern Western philosophy, notably Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Emmanuel Levinas, G. W. F. Hegel, and of course Heidegger. His careful attention to a tradition for which he virtually does not exist fulfills his explicit strategy to "appose" rather than "pose" or "posit" concepts (1997, 21). Likewise, he urges us to "appose" cultural commonplaces, which are "not received ideas, but literally places where one thinking of the world encounters another thinking of the world" (1995, 27).Why, one might ask, would Glissant be interested in thinking difference "through . . . heideggerian meditation"? In turn, why should traditional philosophers and rhetoricians as represented in journals like Philosophy and Rhetoric join Glissant's conversation? Derrida would say, "there's no simple response to such a question" (1972a, 22), yet I will offer three fairly simple ones. First, Glissant offers a critique of Heideggerian difference that is distinct in kind from those critiques originating within the Western tradition. Second, rather than subverting the tropes Heidegger uses in thinking difference, Glissant repositions them in his own rhetoric. He thus acknowledges both the power of the tropes and their vulnerability to the larger rhetorical structure which contains them. Third, Glissant comes close to achieving Heidegger's ostensible aim to think of something that universally obtains without thinking of it as a ground. For Heidegger, this is to "think Being without beings [which] concerns that thinking that explicitly enters Appropriation in order to say It in terms of It about It" (1972, 24). Glissant thinks through this relation as "Relation," the poetics or imaginary of the infinitely differential totality of relations: Relation "links (relays), relates" (1990, 187) the "quantifiable totality of all possible differences" (42).

This article examines how rhetoric frames difference, particularly in regard to language. Specifically, we will compare how Heidegger and Glissant write about difference, the diminution of difference through standardization, and the consequences for human being. I begin by situating Glissant's idea of lieux communs, "commonplaces," within Aristotle's tradition and use...


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