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.