On Reading “Writing and Difference” by Jacques Derrida


Like so many books that rest comfortably on my shelves, Writing and Difference was an impulse buy prompted by the dual realization that (1) I know who the author is and why he/she is considered “important,” and (2) that I had never actually read that particular author.

Being a graduate student in the area of Christian apologetics (i.e., the rational and philosophical defense of Christianity), I am constantly coming into contact with references to ideas and philosophies that stand opposed to or in tension with orthodox Christian theism. The ideas and philosophy of Jacques Derrida are one example. And as one might expect, most of my contact with these ideas and philosophies come in the context of pro-Christian texts and resources.

But I’m a fair-minded guy. I’m also inquisitive, read constantly, and I’m established in my Christian faith. I do not avoid serious books or their ideas out of fear that I might apostatize and abandon my faith. Plus, if I expect other thinkers and writers to take Christianity seriously as a worldview hypothesis, then I must be willing to do the same in evaluating other ideas.

So I read Writing and Difference. And this is my initial reaction, just twenty-minutes or so after finishing the book.

First, I think I might have chosen the wrong book as an introduction to Derrida’s work. Writing and Difference is a difficult book to read, for a number of reasons. In fact, I almost just put it down a number of times, knowing that I’d probably never pick it back up again.

The first five chapters (one-half of the book), initially read like complete nonsense. It was only after finishing the book and skimming the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Derrida that these first five chapters (sort of) made sense.

Chapters 6-11 made more sense, mostly because I am somewhat familiar with the writers he’s “deconstructing” in those chapters. But I also think that his writing got a lot clearer in those chapters. This book, it must be kept in mind, is a collection of essays written and lectures delivered from 1959-1966, so the progression in clarity may be a reflection of maturity of thought, but that’s just a guess.

Having read all 300 pages of substantive text, I can say this, however: Jacques Derrida, at least in this work, is one of the most unclear and disorganized writers I’ve ever read. At times, reading this was excruciating. Even allowing for the fact that he is essentially demonstrating deconstruction in these essays, it’s hard to latch onto what, exactly, he’s trying to say. There were entire sentences and even paragraphs that, after reading them two or three times, I just had to move on with the conclusion that what he’d written doesn’t really mean anything.

The translator’s introduction does offer the caveat that it might not even be possible to really understand Derrida without reading him in French. Maybe he’s right. At many points, Derrida reads like the stereotypical French intellectual who uses a lot of words that sound really nice but don’t actually mean anything as he sips coffee and smokes bad cigarettes in a sidewalk cafe.

Aside from his, at times, complete lack of intelligibility, I do get what Derrida is trying to do, at least in part.

Derrida is trying to expose some of the shortcomings of Western thinking (he’d probably say the shortcomings in Western thinking). And that’s not a bad thing in and of itself. To the extent that he is being constructively critical of Western philosophy and the linguistic limitations philosophy can place on itself, he’s spot on.

But.

The ultimate conclusions that are derived from his critique don’t hold water in the real world. Derrida is one of the preeminent thinkers influencing postmodern textual criticism. I deal with some of the problems with this school of thought in another blog post. But since I’m on the subject, a bit of recapitulation doesn’t hurt.

Derrida appears to advocate an underlying belief that writing cannot communicate any real, true meaning. This belief is made evident in the book’s title, which is a sort of double entendre: the English difference represents two different (pun intended) French words, differance and difference. One has the (roughly) same meaning as the English word difference and the other has a meaning related to the English word defer, as in “to delay or postpone.” Spoken, they sound the same in French, which requires one to resort to the written word to decipher the meaning.

Derrida is trying to expose the reliance on dialectic that written, philosophical communication relies on (light/dark; same/other; being/non-being). At the same time, he is asserting that a written text’s meaning is always future, always deferred, regardless of the author’s intended meaning(s). He does not deny that an author has an originally intended meaning. Nor does he deny that a reader can extract a meaning (maybe even the intended one!). But Derrida asserts, it appears to me, that those meanings are themselves ultimately meaningless because there will always be some other meaning (present or future).

The root problem with the various extrapolations of Derrida’s thinking is the idea that written texts take on a life of their own the moment they’re written. The idea that there’s some disconnect — something lost — from pure thought, to thought-speech, to written thought that makes the writing not the same as the thought. If that’s the case, then five thousand years of human history is meaningless. And that, no matter how good the words sound in the sidewalk cafe, is unlivable.

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