Derrida's essay on Shakespeare (image via

Derrida’s essay on Shakespeare (image via (click to enlarge)

For a long time, I’ve struggled to understand the academy’s obsequious reverence for Jacques Derrida, famed founder of the deconstruction movement and an infamously ponderous writer. When I first had the misfortune of wading through Derrida’s near-incomprehensible writing, I was in an advanced French seminar. I wondered if I’d managed to forget a language I’d been studying for 10 years at the time. But I quickly realized that my French wasn’t the problem. The problem, it emerged when I read the rest of the texts in the seminar without much difficulty, was Derrida’s jumbled prose.

Though I’d arrived at college set on pioneering a “semiotics” major, my encounter with Derrida catapulted me towards analytic philosophy, where the prose was crystalline and the argumentation rigorous. For years, I felt about Derrida the way I felt about popular girls in middle school. He was worse than awful: he was overrated.

But it turns out the French weren’t too fond of Derrida’s prose either. A recently opened exhibition at the UC Irvine Libraries, which features the papers of several seminal thinkers, showcases a poorly marked essay that Derrida wrote on Shakespeare. The paper bears the grader’s comments, many of which mirror the criticisms levied against Derrida to this day: “In this essay you seem to be constantly on the verge of something interesting, but, somewhat, you always fail to explain it clearly. A few paragraphs are indeed totally incomprehensible,” the notes read. “Quite unintelligible,” the grader goes on to comment alongside one passage. The essay comes from Derrida’s days at Khâgne, a two-year institution designed to prepare French high school graduates to apply to top universities, Critical Theory reports.

Not only did Derrida do poorly on his Shakespeare essay, he also went on to flunk his university entrance exams, which he had to take three times. When confronted with a passage from Diderot, The New York Review of Books reports, he attempted evasion, arguing that “this text was a trap … that everything about it, in its form, was ambiguous, implied, convoluted, complicated, suggested, murmured.” Unimpressed, the jurors replied, “This text is quite simple. You’ve simply made it more complicated.”

That, I would argue, about sums up Derrida’s role in American intellectual life.

Through Discerning Eyes: Origins and Impact of Critical Theory at UCI continues at Langson Library, UC Irvine (Irvine, California) through mid-September.

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Becca Rothfeld

Becca Rothfeld is assistant literary editor of The New Republic and a contributor to The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Daily News’ literary blog, The Baffler, and...

29 replies on “Turns Out Derrida Has Always Been Incomprehensible”

  1. it’s always funny how people incapable of understanding derrida tend to blame derrida for their own inadequacies. also, once again, for the third time in as many months, this article is clearly “inspired” by another in another online zine. it won’t make you any less interesting to acknowledge that.

    1. It’s not an article; it’s a little blog post.

      Unfortunately, a big problem with online magazines is that the difference between (informal) blog posts and (formal, presumably edited) articles is rarely clearly marked.

      So readers bring their high expectations of articles to blog posts that were never meant to meet such expectations – and would never attract that sort of expectation on a stand-alone blog.

      Slate is Exhibit A for this phenomenon,

        1. That’s the thing, Hrag: It is not clearly labeled “In Brief”. It’s labeled ‘In Brief” in tiny little blue lettering just above a big, bold, black headline.

          If you know anything about how regular people look at web pages (and I think you do, since you’ve developed such a good and widely-read website), you know that most readers’ eyes are not going to be pulled to that “In Brief.”

          And even if readers see the “In Brief,” they’re not going to know (unless they’re already familiar with the particular editorial policies and taxonomy of Hyperallergic) that “In Brief” is considered a blog – with a blog standard of (minimal-if-any) editing and content routinely picked-up-with-a-hat-tip from other sources – rather than a column that gets edited the way that “In Brief”-type columns have always been edited in newspapers and magazines.

          Does that mean I’m accusing you and Hyperallergic of being disingenuous? No more than most online newsmagazines. It’s a genre-wide issue.

          It seems to suit the purposes of most online-only news publications to visually minimize the differences between blog posts and full-fledged, edited articles. I know that there are good reasons for this – reasons of clear visual design, not just maximizing clicks or credibility – and I’m not trying to demand that all online magazines completely revamp the page design for their blogs.

          But if the difference between full-fledged articles and blog posts isn’t immediately visible to the casual reader, then editors and writers can’t be surprised or upset when readers don’t notice the difference and expect blog posts to live up to article standards.

          1. Actually, all posts are edited. Becca is also a philosopher, who is coming to this article with deep knowledge. It is also possible that two intelligent people can disagree about an accomplished person and both be right. Also, I think the idea of a full-fledged article and blog post being that different is a legacy idea, and not one I’m interested in perpetuating.

          2. “Actually, all posts are edited. … I think the idea of a full-fledged article and blog post being that different is a legacy idea, and not one I’m interested in perpetuating.”

            Good to know. Very good to know.

            Do you at least see the problem (visual cues and reader expectations) that I’m going on about? It does seem pretty widespread to me, and Slate is one perfect example of it.

          3. Yes, I understand your concern but I do think people may want to slow down the way they consume information an the type of trust. The reason some satirical posts are passed off as news is because of that. We used to publish more satirical posts and even wrote [SPOOF] at the bottom but stopped when people were literally believing them and disseminating them as fact. It’s an ongoing conversation.

          4. “deep knowledge” ? a “philosopher” ? not yet. she admits below that she will go to graduate school next year, which means at most she has an undergraduate degree in philosophy. and as someone very familiar with the academic approach to philosophy, i’d wager that in the pursuit of that degree, she did not spend all that much time reading either derrida or heidegger. her idea, again stated below, that only philosophers who clearly say what they mean are worth debating, is naive at best.

  2. Try “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”; it’s clear for Jackie. Of Grammatology is sure kooky, though. Derrida’s re-reading of Bataille’s reading of Hegel is seminal and -like it or not- influential: it stages deconstruction like a magic trick. This piece amounts to a gossip column, anyway —and I had to read it in The Doctor’s voice, from Star Trek: Voyager.

  3. difficult writing is not necessary for difficult subjects. In fact, good writers know that difficult subjects require that you be even more clear.

    AND having great ideas does not mean that you know how to deliver them. Derida was a terrible writer – that doesn’t discount his contribution, but being aware of that DOES allow his readers to feel better about being confused. The ideas aren’t all that complicated once you actually figure out what the hell he’s trying to say. and are sometimes worth the effort – or just read summaries.

    1. Thank you!

      Can you recommend someone who has explained Derrida’s ideas more clearly than he could?

  4. Interesting. Khâgne however is not an institution, but a sort of program, which is offered by several institutions.

  5. Hey all,

    I can’t speak to whether or not I fully understand Derrida, though I think I’ve given him a relatively fair shot. I’ve read a fair amount of his work in the original French–I even learned German so as to read Heidegger in the original, in order to better understands D’s influences. My main substantive criticism of Derrida is that all of his interesting insights are culled directly from Heidegger (who isn’t the world’s clearest prose stylist but at least has the merit of being an original thinker). But I also think that D’s methodological approach is intellectually irresponsible. Couching your thoughts in flowery, opaque language is one very effective way to promise profundity you can’t deliver.

    Worse, it serves to deflect opposition by discouraging dialogue. It’s funny and rather telling how many of the Derrideans I’ve encountered are quick to write off criticisms of Derrida as “misunderstandings,” a rhetorical move that I think relies somewhat heavily on the convoluted quality of his prose. A similar argument wouldn’t work as a catch-all rebuttal in the case of a writer like Quine or Kripke, because it’s clear what those philosophers are saying. As a result, we can debate the psubstantive merits of their views without spending all our time trying to extract a clear message from what can most charitably be described as a mess.

    Finally, it’s unreasonable to assume that one snarky blogpost to illustrate all the nuances of its author’s positions. When I report on timely events, I try to infuse my writing with a bit of personality–but this short blog post certainly doesn’t exhaust my thoughts on Derrida. I trust that there will be plenty of time for me to indict him more extensively when I go to grad school next year. More generally, ad hominems are bad form. If you’re capable of articulating a substantive defense of Derrida’s views and methods, do so. But forgive me if I’m a bit skeptical –I doubt that you would be so bent on insulting the author of this article if you had better responses to the claims levied against D.

    I’d also prefer it if you could come up with a word more original and less banally sexist, or ideally less generally sexist, than “shrill.”

    Feel free to email if you’d like to debate the intricacies of Derrida further.

    Liebe Grüße,

    1. sorry, i do apologize and since i’m unaware of what you mean by the word ‘shrill’ being unoriginal, i’m supposing, or assuming, that it carries some kind of connotation that is often used in a context that i entirely did not intend to invoke here. i read an essay just the other day defending the charges against the ‘shrill’ Nazi-era/1933-1949 writings of adorno, when his writing and thought were at their most hyper-polemical and expressionistic.

      i’m not an expert, not a teacher, and don’t have the time, at least not now, to help elucidate the merits (as well as the shortcomings—those that have nothing to do with his pre-college or even collegiate track record, of his inability to keep his teachers happy) of so difficult a writer as derrida. though this article, its tone, its title, lead one to believe that its author is years past having made up her mind on the writer in question, if you are indeed interested in exploring his work, one of the best places to start might be his dialogues with elizabeth roudinesco — in a book called “for what tomorrow…” on stanford uni. press. its eminently accessible, not at all mandarin, explicitly “topical,” and pockmarked with helpful endnotes. past that, i’d also highly recommend “negotiations,” edited/translated by elizabeth rottenberg (my favorite of his trans.’s, along with alan bass and peggy kamuf). concision and economy of expression, as they’re typically understood (informational, communication of a “message”, watertight analyses, an even balance sheet of theses with little or no remainder) is almost entirely lacking in derrida’s work, especially his middle period in the 70s and 80s. i recommend look at “writing and difference,” though, as well as some of his later 80s and 90s works. you might be interested in “of spirit,” seeing as it takes heidegger as its subject matter. the typical kind of summary presentation of derrida’s thought is maybe best achieved in his “letter to a japanese friend” which you won’t have any trouble finding online or aaaaaaaarg or wherever (as is the case w/ everything i’ve mentioned).

      its best that readers blaze their own trail in JD’s works, seeing as there is no trail to begin with; “No Weg without Umweg: the detour does not overtake the road, but constitutes it, breaks open the path.” like you i’m more inclined to german thought and writing, and have likewise taken to learning the language to come closer to it. i don’t however think an analytical, logical positivist, or sociological template of presentation best befits philosophical writing. and in fact i think the germans brought into the world the kind of writing that derrida could be said to inheriting as a legacy, however tenuous a one. on that note you could also look at jean-luc nancy’s “logodaedalus: the discourse of the syncope,” a study of style in kant, if you’re interested in that particular french school’s take on style (although it of course wasn’t anything like a school).

      i’ve been meaning to pay a visit to the hyperallergic office sometime (i write here also); can maybe talk some of his stuff over if you are interested in it. and pls scuse any typos or the like in this here response above; gotta get back to work!

    2. Becca, I like your response –
      – but I don’t buy that the word “shrill” is sexist. Never have.

      You think men aren’t or can’t be shrill? What is Glenn Beck if not shrill?

    3. Liebe Becca, chère amie,

      What a pleasure coming across your iconoclastic review of Derrida. His work seems to have become so saintly that any critique would be seen as blasphemous — at least by some Derrida’s disciples who chose to retaliate by riding ad hominem attacks on you (not exactly the best visiting card for any writer).

      If it’s of any consolation to you, here are some comments by Derrida critics whose works I have come to appreciate:

      1. NOAM CHOMSKY: “I found the scholarship appalling, based on pathetic misreading; and the argument, such as it was, failed to come close to the kinds of standards I’ve been familiar with since virtually childhood” [DERRIDA, Wikipedia, footnote 122].

      [Chomsky wrote a short Foreword to my small anthology of linguistic poetry, WHO’S AFRAID OF NOAM CHOMSKY (U of Essex at Colchester, 1977).]

      2. TERRY EAGLETON: “The portentousness is ingrained in the very letter of this book, as one theatrically inflected rhetorical question tumbles hard on the heels of another in a tiresomely mannered syntax which lays itself wide open to parody”[DERRIDA, Wikipedia, footnote 117].

      [Eagleton was the external examiner of my MA thesis (on DISTORTIONS) at Essex.]

      Of course, there are many more critics of Derrida’s work, as witnessed by this link, which opens up over 400,000 entries:….0…1c.1.64.serp..0.4.322.QK9DyvqGwHs

      Vielen Dank, merci bien, Becca, for having had the courage to talk openly about Derrida’s way of presenting his work.

      Henrik Eger

      PS: I wouldn’t be surprised if one of our Puritanical disciples of St. Derrida were to ride another ad hominem attack because I had the nerve to lower myself to the unwashed, uneducated masses and cited Chomsky and Eagleton on (horror of horrors) Wikipedia. 🙂

      All I can say is, “Let them eat cake.” 🙂

  6. What a sad, ignorant little article. First and last time I bother to read anything on Hyperallergic. Get some better writers, PLEASE.

  7. Interesting that some folks are upset with the brevity/”blog”-like style of this posting. As someone who wouldn’t have known who the hell Derrida was even if he jumped into bed with me ,I appreciated this brief little glimpse and this is going to carry me toward reading a bit more about the guy. Not all Hyperallergic articles are going to be everyone’s proverbial cup of tea; the trick is finding those articles that are like a shot of tequila and propel one’s interest further toward what scholarship floats your boat.

  8. Obliquely name drop yr school, appeal to authority, lazily critique important thinker: good job!

  9. i would agree w/observation that “In Brief” disclaimer at top of page is not where my eye wandered to…but glad that a commenter told me to look there. glad for the many references below to explore JD further, my own first reaction took me to a grad school entrance course at Pitt in which a literary theory prof asked me to read Plato’s Pharmakon through lens of JD’s Of Grammatology. I did not complete this request to satisfaction then, though I am curious as to whether I might now revisit it and do any better with it. It did seem opaque to me then, and the professor was not exactly approachable (to me anyway) though she was friendly.

  10. Whoa! You’re criticizing Derrida for being difficult to read and “incomprehensible”? What a daring iconoclast you are! This is a profoundly novel argument that’s never been made before, ever!

  11. “he also went on to flunk his university entrance exams, which he had to take three times. ” -> well, to be fair the concours de l’ENS is an extremely difficult exam to pass, and very VERY few people pass it the first time around : french students are expected to try it two or three times.

  12. Becca, I thought this article was hilarious. It’s so funny that the same critiques levied against Derrida as a philosopher showed up in his early essays.

    You are so right that Derrida draws heavily on Heidegger.

    I’ve read far too much scholastic philosophy to get to animated about arguments in philosophy. There are different schools of thought on Derrida. And lots of intelligent people on both sides make clever points.

    To some, Derrida is tragically opaque, contradictory, and his amorphous ideas don’t clarify practical problems in the real word, which is something many people want from philosophy. He is incompatible with the objectives of analytic philosophy.

    To others, his texts help to explain the resonances of works of art and literature that revel in the aesthetics of ambiguity, rupture, enigma, riddles and opacity. The iconographic strand of the riddle is woven into many works of art. And Derrida has inspired many artists to puzzle and mystify the viewer by showing when concepts don’t fit so seamlessly. And in the zen spirit, the process of trying to solve that riddle – that maybe doesn’t have one clear-cut answer – teaches you about yourself as you watch what thoughts bubble up to try and solve it.

    It would be wonderful if discussion on hyperallergic could rise above petty name calling and engage in ideas. Thoughtful dialogue does not reduce any side to a crude caricature but rather acknowledges that we get more from art, from literature and from thinking, when there are different schools of thought. And the process of playing these different schools of thought against each other – dialectics in its original medieval sense – as opposed to the Hegelian dialectics towards the perfected end synthesis – such conflict and tension is what makes inquiry so exciting.

  13. Bravo! I’ll support you. I truly entirely possible (and necessary, if you believe in the import of your message) to explain difficult concepts in as simple a language as possible. Derrida and many of his generation of fellow thinkers failed in this regard. But if only it were so benevolent. Derrida, by his own account, believed in purposefully obfuscating his argument in opaque language, to protect his own elitism. He says as much in his unpublished Postmodern Manifesto. And this not only makes him a failure, it also makes him an ass. But to each their own, I guess. Some people must feel the need to use puffed up polysyllabic invented words in order to feel better about themselves and superior over others. If an argument has any weight, any substance worth sharing with others, that message deserves to put into plain language.

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