Decent Derrida?!?!?

Okay, so I was discussing the pathetic understanding of science, and especially our developing scientific understanding of us humans, among the so-called scholars of the humanities, with a co-worker of mine. I was specifically panning Deleuze and Guattari, who have written some total claptrap about science, so bad I remember cheering when I finally found someone dismissing them wholesale over it.

I have some patience for Foucault, though my respect was a little tarnished by discussions suggesting he based his work on, well, more on his own sense of how things were than on source materials and so on. Actually, what REALLY tarnished my respect for Foucault’s work was simply the religiosity with which a certain clade of academics cling to it as the best and final framework for looking at the universe. I’ll admit, Discipline and Punish was good fun, and smart, but come on, it’s one lens. We can’t hope to explain all things by that lens.

When an academic is self-described as, or accepts without resistance a description of being, a Marxist, a Foucauldian, a Derridean, a Kantian, a Kierkegaardian, a Straussian, or whatever, I really start to get uncomfortable. The investment in a theory to the point where identity gets tied up in it, identity and thereafter the tendency in one’s work to tend towards this perspective — with, of course, obvious attendant costs that nobody seems willing to discuss — it seems to me like people simply hobble themselves. It’s like elective paraplegia — or is there a word “triplegia”? — where you choose one limb to use for the rest of your life, and have all nerves to the other three severed. For what purpose? To what benefit? It’s beyond me, that’s for sure.

Of all the academics whose writings I despise, Derrida has to be the one I despise most. I can never get past a few pages without thinking, “Are you yanking my chain, buddy?” Well, the co-worker with whom I’ve been having this discussion has promised to “set me straight” about Derrida, meaning a talk over beer, I imagine, at some point; he’s also promised to copy a chapter from a book for me so I can know more about why Derrida is in fact important.

The litcrit book I wasted money on last week… When he promised this, I decided maybe I should refresh my memory of Derrida by trying to read some more of him, but I didn’t find much in the University library, so I picked up a copy of the old, apparently seminal text Deconstruction and Criticism, featuring essays by Bloom, de Man, Derrida, and two characters whose identities are a mystery to me, Geoffrey Hartman, and J. Hillis Miller.

Well, here I am, 18 pages into the Derrida essay, and I’m annoyed at having wasted my money on the book. The Bloom essay is full of, “I’m not saying… but…” moves, some of them quite silly, and the Derrida is unreadable. (And I’m not so interested in the other three anyway.) Derrida’s essay, called “Living On”, is a bloody stream-of-consciousness thought-salad. It’s as if he got high and then wrote whatever random crap occurred to him, and then fancied it up with special words, half-page-long clarifications, and fancy interjections of words used in highly idiosyncratic ways when the high petered out. So far, after 18 pages, I’m willing to say that the essay isn’t even worth wiping your butt with, for fear that you might catch whatever brain disease the original writer had.

So I’m wondering, folks. There’s a lot of edumaficated folks out there, some of whom read this very site. Can someone recommend to me even one readable piece of writing by Derrida? Just one work I can read, and not throw across the room? Something that doesn’t feel like some patronizing twerp with a sinecure is out to waste my precious time? Is there anything written by Derrida that is not dog-crap? I’m honestly interested. Because I’m quite curious why so many people are so invested in the writings of a “scholar” (ha) whom I think is barely even as skilled or talented as your average Korean boy-band. If someone can show me even one piece of writing by Derrida that doesn’t seem total trash to me — doesn’t seem to be constructed to confuse but rather to communicate, to make a point instead of endlessly digress because there’s no real point to be made that wasn’t self-evident from the start, that doesn’t seem to insult the preciousness of my time — something that suggests the man could actually write and express himself coherently at all for an audience whom he wished to benefit with the elucidation of ideas — I’d be quite happy to read it.

Recommendations? Anyone? And if there’s a text online, so much the better for me. I usually cannot preview books in English before buying them, and am loathe to spend any more money on this guy.

2 thoughts on “Decent Derrida?!?!?

  1. I am not aware of anything by Derrida that is worth reading. Some of his *ideas* are worth considering, but his writing style is a crime against thought.

  2. I have to agree with Andy B above. I’m very anti-PoMo, and while I understand a lot of Derrida’s big ideas (some of which share thematic similarities with Buddhism), I don’t agree with his conclusions, and have blogged my disagreements on a couple occasions. You’re better off getting one of those comic book-style intros to philosophers if you want Derrida in a nutshell.

    Derrida’s core ideas are probably best summarized in an essay titled “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” in his book Writing and Difference. You can probably find the book in a local library; just photocopy the chapter.

    I’ll spoil the ending for you: you won’t be wowed. I remember thinking that Derrida was onto something when that essay launched into the critique of the Western “metaphysics of presence” (Derrida’s term for what is also variously called foundationalism, reificationism, essentialism, etc.). But later on, I started reading Western philo and quickly discovered that Derrida was critiquing a straw man: the Western philo tradition includes more than a metaphysics of presence– we have our own philosophies of flux, process, interrelationality, intercausality, and nonessentialism.

    This is another reason why I love Camille Paglia: she sees the “unholy trinity” of PoMo thought as Derrida, Foucault, and Lacan. I think she’s on the money, though I’d probably add Baudrillard and make this an “unholy quaternity.”


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