The author Steven Johnson has an essay in the New York Times today, I Was an Under-Age Semiotician, about his younger years as a Semiotics major at Brown. It’s worth a read for anyone who did or still does philosophy or “critical theory,” to use an annoying term.

But I want to pull out a specific excerpt from Johnson’s essay:

During my grad school years, I took a seminar on Derrida to which Derrida himself paid a surprise visit, modestly answering our questions with none of the drama I had imagined reading his written words on the page. He seemed, amazingly, to be saying something, rather than just saying something about the impossibility of saying anything. In one cringe-inducing moment, a peer of mine asked a rambling, self-referential question that began by putting “under erasure” the very nature of an answer. I remember breaking into a broad smile when Derrida responded, after a long pause, “I am sorry, but I do not understand the question.” It seemed like the end of an era: Derrida himself was asking for more clarity.

I love this passage, because it neatly summarizes the fundamental misunderstanding most of us had about Derrida during the high-theory decades. The turgid prose seemed not only to be a style, but also an imperative: ideas require obscurity and brow-furrowing.

But anyone who ever had any contact with Derrida himself would have walked away with the same impression Johnson did: clarity, normalcy, and earnestness ruled the day. Derrida was interested in understanding, not in impressing people with obfuscationism. In that respect, Johnson’s only half right: it was the end of an era, but for students like Johnson, many of whom didn’t bother to notice the lesson. (I didn’t either, for the record. It took years until I started “detangling my prose style,” to use Johnson’s phrase for it.)

The irony, of course, is that Derrida’s own ideas insured the failed transmission of this message. Dissemination happens, after all, and Derrida’s characteristic style turned out to spread like a cancer rather than to work as a formal technique meant to enact the ideas it presented. Now that the linguistic turn is finally righting its rudders, perhaps it’s becoming possible to appreciate Derrida while lamenting the afflictive prose style he (and others) left behind.

published October 16, 2011


  1. Greg Borenstein

    I think at least part of the problem with Derrida’s style is an issue of translation. Having wrestled with some of the original French texts, I found that he came across as light and witty, using a playful punning logic to make some core points in ways that I found surprising in sub a supposedly stuffy self-conscious writer. In practice his prose felt writing-obsessed like Woody Allen’s or Monty Python’s rather than resembling other obscurantist academics. For example the central pun that makes up the concept of différance has additional resonances than are usually discussed (I.e. “de France”) that make the opening of that piece funny and slyly political.

    As a writer I actually think his book of obituaries (The Work of Mourning) shows his best most personal qualities, the ones Johnson rightly praises in his piece.

  2. Ian Bogost

    Greg, I agree that translation was part of the problem, also because translation itself became a topic of deconstruction. But, it’s still pretty turgid reading in French.

    Weirdly, I like Derrida’s work more now than I did when I was a stalwart deconstructionist, partly because I feel more able to appreciate it as a style.

  3. Neil Randall

    I wonder if Derrida’s most powerful effect on students was that he provided a way to elevate the language of the scholar above the purpose of scholarship. In doing so, his prose (at least, as so many understood it) offered a way to say things differently from what was in the journals – always a big draw for students (and I think young academics) seeking to make their voices heard above the crowd. Which would explain (to me at least) why obfuscation became the norm: scholarly language became both a playground and a site of rebellion. After all, if Derrida was so hard to understand, and so different from traditional literary scholarship at that time, yet so authoritative even early on, it’s pretty appealing move to use that authority to support a kind of “screw that old stuff” attitude – especially when actually understanding the authoritative texts was so open to personalization.

  4. Ernest Adams

    The culture of willful obscurity to which Derrida and Foucault, either intentionally or unintentionally, gave birth, did unimaginable damage to the academy in the United States. America has always had an uncomfortable relationship with intellectuals at the best of times. When our work became a steaming pile of self-amused, self-referential, ironic, “playful,” and ultimately meaningless and irrelevant shit, then it only served to arouse contempt and ridicule among those who pay our salaries, the taxpayers and politicians. When populist politicians can get votes by boasting about their ignorance, it shows that respect for the life of the mind is at its nadir. We whine endlessly about cuts in higher education while at the same time publicly demonstrating that some of us, at least, don’t deserve the money we do get.

    The Sokal Hoax should not have been possible, not only because the editors of Social Text should have spotted its flaws; it should not have been possible because no journal should ever publish anything written in that style, whether it is legitimate argumentation or not. I’d have sent back “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” if Einstein had written it in that masturbatory fashion.

    I’m an academic elitist and I strongly believe in the value of recognizing and supporting superior minds. But elite status must be earned, and it must be publicly apparent, not built upon deliberate obfuscation.

  5. dmf

    I have always experienced Derrida as being very aware of the reader and trying to have the works perform in the reading much of what he was trying to get across, a kind of Wittgensteinan showing rather than saying if you will, in the way that Kierkegaard and Sartre tried to use literary/stage effects to create existential conversion/aspect-dawning experiences in their audiences.

    This seems to me to be one of the promises of electronic/engineered experiences, Rorty noted that literature engaged many people more directly/fully than philosophical abstractions/calculations and perhaps video-games could open yet new possibilities.

  6. Christopher Schaberg

    Ian, your post reminds me of how I am continually telling students to stop using the word “deconstruct” as a verb, and instead to pay attention to how (as Derrida said it) deconstruction just “happens.” It’s not something you set out to *do*.

    I find myself rather torn about how to continue teaching what is regrettably still called (and derided as) ‘theory’. On the one hand, I’d like to see it disappear as an institution, as a requirement in English curricula: it would be great to hear about students in introductory philosophy classes just happening to read a Derrida or Foucault essay somewhere along the way. On the other hand, as you rightly point out (and as Johnson does too, in his essay), there are worthwhile lessons to be learned in the works of Derrida et alâ??lessons perhaps more timely than ever. As Johnson nicely puts it, these lessons might involve finding “new possibilities in the ordinary.”

    Not only that: the various writers who fall under the label of ‘theory’ also wrote some quite good essays and books. But I think we benefit from encountering the works of such ‘theoretical’ writers on a more expository or even descriptive level. Which is not to say they aren’t philosophicalâ??of course they are. But we don’t have to lead with that. That’s what leads to people using “deconstruct” as a nonsensical verb.

  7. Ian Bogost


    We may have overdosed on theory, and now we need a break from it for a while, after which we’ll return to a more moderated diet. Just as there was a mortgage debt bubble, so we had a theory bubble, perhaps.

  8. Adrian Forest


    Amusingly, I’d just like it if popular discourse would stop using ‘deconstruct’ as a synonym for ‘analyse’ or worse, ‘dismantle’. Read a commentary on the film The Dark Knight recently that referred to “the way Batman deconstructed the gun” and laughed until I cried.