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.