This recent interview with Jacques Derrida reminds me of a parlor game that a colleague of mine claims to have played, back in the day when it was easier to find academics who took Derrida seriously.
My colleague would open one of Derrida's works to a random page, pick a random sentence, write it down, and then (above or below it) write a variant in which positive and negative were interchanged, or a word or phrase was replaced with one of opposite meaning. He would then challenge the assembled Derrida partisans to guess which was the original and which was the variant. The point was that Derrida's admirers are generally unable to distinguish his pronouncements from their opposites at better than chance level, suggesting that the content is a sophisticated form of white noise. On this view, as Wolfgang Pauli once said of someone else, Derrida is "not even wrong.".
In general, this is an easier form of verbal amusement than anything much above the level of a knock-knock joke. Consider the following random phrase from Of Grammatology, Chapter 2: "difference is never in itself a sensible plenitude".
My colleague's technique produces variants like "difference is always in itself a sensible plenitude," "difference is never a sensible plenitude in relation to other things," "similarity is never in itself a sensible plenitude," "difference is never in itself a sensible emptiness," and "difference is never in itself an imperceptible plenitude."
Or my personal favorite variant, "similarity is always in itself an imperceptible emptiness," which I feel is a great improvement over the original.
Although it illustrates the technique, this example is unfair, like shooting Fish in a barrel. We've taken a short phrase out of context, and such a decontextualized phrase from anyone's work might be construed to mean almost anything, even if it had been entirely lucid in its original setting.
So here are two longer passages from the recent Derrida interview, one original and one variant. Which is which? (no peeking!)
I believe always in the possibility of being attentive in the end to this phenomenon of language, naming, and dating, to this freedom of repetition (at once rhetorical, magical, and poetic). To what this freedom signifies, translates, or betrays. Not in order to connect ourselves through language, as people with too much time on their hands would like us to believe, but on the contrary, in order to try to understand what is going on precisely within language and what is pulling us to try to say, exactly once and with full knowledge of what we are talking about, precisely there where language and the concept transcend their limits: "September 11, September 11, le 11 septembre, 9/11."Or number 2:
I believe always in the necessity of being attentive first of all to this phenomenon of language, naming, and dating, to this repetition compulsion (at once rhetorical, magical, and poetic). To what this compulsion signifies, translates, or betrays. Not in order to isolate ourselves in language, as people in too much of a rush would like us to believe, but on the contrary, in order to try to understand what is going on precisely beyond language and what is pushing us to repeat endlessly and without knowing what we are talking about, precisely there where language and the concept come up against their limits: "September 11, September 11, le 11 septembre, 9/11."
I think that if you know even a little bit about Derrida, you should be able to distinguish between the original and the variant, and thus show that Derrida can sometimes aspire to being, if only in tone, "even wrong". As he is here, in my opinion.
[Some later Language Log posts that mention Jacques Derrida:
"Kerry's French cousin, and Derrida's obscurantisme or otherwise", 7/27/2004
"The question of the question and the question of the place", 10/11/2004
"Time is space: when fronter is farther behind", 10/16/2004
"Cargo cult linguistics", 3/21/2005
"A euphoric dream of being scientific", 3/25/2005
"When is subalternism conciliatory?", 4/2/2005
"Labov's test", 8/17/2005
"French syntax is (in)corruptible", 10/26/2005
Also relevant is this discussion of Derrida's fellow Jacques, Lacan:
"Precision, poetry and paragraphs", 2/21/2007
]Posted by Mark Liberman at September 29, 2003 11:08 PM