defence against critics of critics of Derrida

Danny Yee (danny@STAFF.CS.SU.OZ.AU)
Fri, 8 Apr 1994 14:20:09 +1000

Christopher Pound writes:
> No kidding. "Differance" is a compact review of and reply to Hegel,
> Nietzsche, Freud, Saussure and (especially) Heidegger. There's no way
> you could really "get" the last eight pages or so without having read
> a whole lot of other stuff (e.g. _Being and Time_).

Well someone was silly enough to put _Differance_ in an introductory
reader in Cultural Studies. How am I supposed to know it's the most
difficult thing he's written?


Stephanie Nelson writes:
> Christopher Pound's response to Steve Yee's diatribe against Derrida was

Sheesh... you could at least get the attribution right! My name is
Danny, not Steve. I can only assume you got me confused with Steve

> useful and gracious. I would not have been so generous. I find the fact
> that a professional academic would proudly proclaim that after reading one
> essay by a difficult author, he now no longer will read anything else
> by that author, and also excises any other authors who make use of him
> from his reading list, absolutely terrifying and deeply depressing. This sort
> of smug, provincial, academic facism gives the tenure system a bad name.

But I didn't tell *you* not to read him, or argue that Cultural Studies
should be thrown out of universities (this is where I differ from Bob
Graber, of course). I made a comment about *my* personal feelings
about an author. Do you read books randomly or do you employ some
criteria for selecting them? I happen to find astrology a lot less
interesting than astrophysics; is it a sin if I skip the horoscopes in
my daily paper? Would it be a crime to tell the members of a cooking
mailing list that I abhore beetroot?

And, by the way, I am *not* a professional academic (let alone one with
tenure!). I have no intellectual authority over any students, and no
financial or economic stake in "doing" anthropology.


Nancy Bowles writes:
> This whole discussion of obscurity sounds like self-defensive
> posturing. Why would we care if Mr. Yee won't read Derrida. What is
> more interesting is wh y he feels so defensive about it. I personally
> don't read physics or mathmatics, these topics are simply not of my
> concern.

Well, I confess I was trying to start a flame-war. I was curious as
too how many people on this list can and do read Derrida, and what they
thought he was useful for in anthropology. As I pointed out, it is
possible that their worlds are just too different for us to be able to
communicate, in which case I am happy for them to go their way
intellectually. (Politically or economics is another matter, of course:
I'd much rather universities and governments were run by people with
world views commensurable with mine, and am prepared to fight for that
if necessary!)

I do wish people would make up their minds whether I'm being defensive or


Christopher Pound again:
> You seem to think that anything, once written, should be
> readable by anyone to whom it is interesting. Personally, I don't agree.

I'm not sure about this. I am currently helping some biologists with a
paper entitled "Fluorescence Resonance Energy Transfer Determinations
of the Radial Coordinate of Actin Cys-374 Provide a Basis for
Distinguishing Between Models of F-Actin" - You can't really get much
more technical than this. Now my biochemistry is fairly sketchy, but I
can follow the gist of the paper, at least enough to be able to help
them. Your average Derrida quoting paper (and I am going to follow
this post up with an example, please hang on) is either completely
unfathomable or, where comprehensible, just banal.

A better parallel with that edifice of continental philosophy that
contains Heidegger and Derrida is probably the whole of pure
mathematics. Now I must confess that I can pick up the book on
Algebraic Topology which I am currently reading, jump forward ten or
twenty pages and find a page where I can't follow a thing. If this is
so, then what grounds do I have for complaining that Derrida is

1) Partial Sanity

I can at least understand/verify bits of the mathematics text. Making even
local sense of Derrida is beyond me.

2) Public Availablity and Coherence

Anyone who goes through the background material necessary to understand
Singular Cohomology seems to understand the same thing by it. This
doesn't seem to be true of everyone who studies continental philosophy,
or even followers of Derrida.

3) Pragmatics

One can construct theories of arbitrary complexity. Whether I think
they are interesting or not depends on what you can do with them. Now
people use mathematics in engineering and computer science or physics,
and that's how you're getting this message. (Whether you think this is
a good thing or not is another matter, of course. I sometimes have bad
Net days, not just bad Anthro-L days :-). Now maybe all that
Differance/Time-and-Being stuff is useful in literary criticism or
anthropology, but my experience of such work tends to suggest otherwise
(even before I deduct points for quoting Derrida).

4) Simple at the Edges

A complex theory has to connect with other theories and empirical
events to be interesting. The papers that draw on complicated pure
mathematics tend not to be so complicated themselves. The papers which
draw on Heidegger/Derrida/etc tend to be just as obscure as the
originals. And people can write popular mathematics and physics books;
I'm yet to see a popular explanation of Derridean philosophy.

This mail is already too long, so I'll stop here. If you don't care
about these sorts of criteria, that doesn't bother me. You should keep
on reading Derrida and discussing his uses in anthropology on this
list. I might even listen in.

Danny Yee (

P.S. Maybe we need two lists: anthro-obscure-l and anthro-clear-l :-).