Jacques Derrida’s is a household name when you’re in the Humanities – a name generally mentioned with a sigh and the grating of teeth. I have come to the conclusion that I am, indeed, a masochist, for I have chosen to make Derrida my main source of theory. My thesis makes use of his Specters of Marx (1993), which is all about the legacy of Marxism and, as the title suggests, spectres. Although Derrida’s usefulness is almost irritating (somehow, his work seems almost ubiquitously applicable), he is also infamously difficult to get to grips with. Considering his main theses of différance and trace, I suppose it would be in bad faith for his writing to be clear, concise and easily understandable. In light of this and because my thesis is finally at the point where I have to discuss Derrida and Spectrality, I decided to compile a list of the super-fun things about reading Derrida. I sincerely hope that I am not the only one who feels this way.
Fun things about reading Derrida:
- When you get to the end of a section only to realise that it stops on a bracket, but you have no memory of the first bracket and where the parenthesis started. In other words, it is very likely that the ten pages you just read and meticulously noted down was part of some Derridean aside that might sound like it has something to do with your interest, but really, it doesn’t.
- The unending use of adjectives. This obviously makes sense. I completely understand why Derrida uses ten adjectives in a row. It would be hypocritical if he didn’t. It just makes him rather difficult to quote.
- Scrambling and thinking yourself an idiot because suddenly Derrida is talking about the ‘messianic state’ like you should know perfectly well what that means, but this is the first time he mentions it and there is no indication of where the hell this thought is coming from. Only to read on a few pages or a few sections and then (when you have, in the meantime, been distracted by other things, other notions, other ideas or tricks or chose) BAM! There is a quote from Levinas that makes it all better.
- Derrida starts lists that he either does not finish, or takes several pages to close. So you start with 1 and get a couple of letters (from a through to d) over the next few pages. Then you get some interpolation and parentheses on other things and then, once again, BAM! There’s the number 2 you have completely forgotten about.
- All of the French, German and Latin you could hope for. What you should hope for is that the translator was kind enough to translate those as well. This is not always so.
- The assumption that you, you lowly third year, Honours or Master’s student, are supposed to completely understand what phrases like “the eventness of the event” or “ancient ancientness” mean. Sometimes it’s blindingly obvious, and that scares you too.
- Derrida’s long, scathing indictments (that might as well be commendations, one is never certain) of other authors and philosophers. From Specters of Marx, see the indictment of Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man Standing. A little snippet here:
This work frequently resembles, it is true, the disconcerting and tardy by-product of a “footnote”: nota bene for a certain Kojeve who deserved better. Yet the book is not as bad or as naive as one might be led to think by the frenzied exploitation that exhibits it as the finest ideological showcase of victorious capitalism in a liberal democracy which has finally arrived at the plenitude of its ideal, if not of its reality … this book goes beyond nuance and is sometimes suspensive to the point of indecision.
- You can make headings in your notes like “Three things about the thing” and there would be no better or clearer way of phrasing that, because Derrida is always about ‘the thing’ that can only be thingified by its thingness, and nothing else, except all the other things that thingify the thingness which the thing does not want to admit is thingifying it.
- Derrida makes you think about things in strange ways, which leads to expostulations like the above, in which theorising the thing can sound slightly dirty and totally academic at the same time. Then again, I think we can thank Freud for making most things sound dirty just because, so this one isn’t all on Derrida.