Derrida, hate, and stupidity, in the practice of thesis writing.

My twin sister, Anitra Nottingham, is doing a masters by research in the Faculty of education at the University of Melbourne. Her thesis is about graphic design education. She’s been struggling with the prescribed coursework lately, but struggle can be a good thing – as she tells you in this post. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

As those of you who follow me on Twitter and do their homework late on a weeknight might already know, I have been in the throes of writing a paper on Derrida for my Critical Theories subject. If you had told me early last week this would be one of the most rewarding learning experiences I’ve ever engaged in, and that I would come to kind of love Derrida (in a kind of hating him kind of a way), I would have smacked you.

Really hard.

It’s been that difficult.

I hated Derrida with a red-hot flaming passion of a thousand suns for ooh, about 2 weeks. Then something happened while I was crossing the road on Friday and it all clicked for me. I got it. Talk about a clichéd threshold moment. I now describe Derrida to the Thesiswhisperer as my B**** in capital letters.

Yes, it’s not nice, but that’s the truth and don’t tell me you haven’t felt that way about a philosopher/scientist/designer/whatever when you figured out their trick (or one of them anyway). I might get his idea of “free play”, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it, or Derrida – or speak nicely about him.

This experience has taught me two things. First. You don’t have to love your subject in order to go through the pain of learning it. It’s OK to hate your subject, whatever it is. I mean really just want to reach-through-time-and-belt-the-old-french-guy-over-the-head-with-your-paper kind of hate. Hating your topic of study doesn’t mean you can’t, or won’t, learn from it.

Hate is actually kind of motivating.

The second thing I realised is this hate is a different kind of hate than the “I scorn your ideas because frankly they sound stupid” kind of hate. That kind of hate is the kind of thinking people like Tea Party activists engage in, i.e.

“I think your ideas fundamentally challenge my way of thinking. Therefore I will know them superficially enough to sound like I know what I am talking about – and then I shall dismiss them”.

The hate I was feeling about Derrida is motivating instead of dismissive. It is what you might call the: “maybe I am too stupid to figure this out” instead of “You are definitely stupid for me to bother really figuring out” hate.

The “Maybe I am stupid” hate is uncomfortable. It emerges when you have the sneaking suspicion that that the person’s idea is important, but you might not like what it has to tell you. This second kind of hate is what drove me nuts, because I felt stupid, and no one likes feeling stupid.

Understanding that I hated Derrida because potentially I was too stupid to figure him out, and maybe he would challenge my ideas, is very helpful. It makes me want to know, to not be stupid. It’s a feeling I now think I should pay attention to, because honestly, sometimes, there’s a danger here for me. It’s all too easy to indulge the first kind of hate, when it’s the second kind of hate, the hate which is difficult, that can make us dig deep enough to really understand.

Of these two kinds of hate (now I am setting up one of Derrida’s “binary opposites”, but never-mind!) one is productive and the other isn’t. The hating-enough-to-gain-a-superficial-understanding will only get you so far. The other kind, which drives you to challenge and battle an idea until the very end, is a more informed position. Using this hate the right way might change how you think profoundly.

That’s what makes it scary, and that’s what makes it worthwhile.

(The third thing I learned was how to think a bit like Derrida, and my goodness, who would have known how useful that could be?! But that’s a post for another time.)

So how about you, who’s (or what) ideas or work have you hated? Do you think you hated them enough to really understand them?

(Editor’s note: What Anitra is too modest to tell you is she aced the paper. So much so that she was briefly, falsely accused of plagiarism! But that’s another story for another post)

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32 thoughts on “Derrida, hate, and stupidity, in the practice of thesis writing.

  1. I hated Deleuze. I don’t think I ever got over it actually. My hatred of Deleze drove me into the arms of actor network theory though, so it all worked out in the end :-)

  2. Bourdieu and Foucault. Both pains in the a*rse to read, because of the denseness of the English translation, but when you get into what they’re saying, pretty awesome.

      • I’m told the trick to Bourdieu is only to read the last sentence in every paragraph. Never tried it, but it does say something about his writing that you need a rubric to even approach it!

  3. For me its Freud. Not so much because I don’t understand what he is saying, but because I don’t understand why he’s saying it. I think it’s highly likely that he is nuts. Still, I can’t help using some of his stuff when it suits me.

    • I have to post a coda really. I think hate has turned to love with Derrida, this might take a while to work itself out of my system.

  4. For me, yesterday, it was an article describing an approach integrating Habermas and Foucault. Very uncomfortable. There’s something fishy when writers writing about these guys take the ideas to even more unfathomable reaches of obscurity (but still feel stupid.)
    Also – felt keenly for the plagiarism accusation. Same thing happened to me in Year 11 Economics. Couldn’t wait to get my mark back and instead got a See Me and then torn apart at the staff room door. I walked out. My dad came to the school. Clearly, I’ve never recovered…

    • Really? interesting combination of thinkers, link please!

      And yes, I must one day tell the whole plagiarism story because it was kind of my fault. But that feeling is not nice is it? I understand how it could stay with you for a long time.

    • I agree about scary looking but not at all. My tutor claimed that once you work him out you will chuckle and say to yourself “oh Derrida” while reading him. He said this while pantomiming flicking through a book and shaking his head. I kind of wanted to hit my tutor at that point I must confess, but he’s right :)

  5. I think this ‘hating enough to understand them’ is very important, because years down the track you may actually find your ideas changing. You may actually go full circle and learn to love the photogenic Derrida. Furthermore, love can be terribly blinding. It can often take years to see the faults in the theorists we love and then the relationship can turn, very, very nasty.

  6. Great post, it reminded me that i have made made progress :)
    On reading John Law spaces and objects he bamboozled me with the obscure language of euclidian spaces. When i first attempted Latour’s Pandora’s hope, i remember asking my supervisor if i really had to make sense of it (he kindly said no). However on reading it now, its actually made sense- and yes it is useful. Just needed me to stand on my head and relate to a world differently configured. And like Inger my first read of Deleuze and Guattari A thousand plateaus had me shaking my head thinking everyone who cited them suffered from the emperor has no clothes syndrome. My reading buddy I recall suggested they must have been smoking something or eating special cookies while they wrote that one.

  7. My subject of hate is Goethe, the famous German author, who simply annoys the hell out of me. But yes, it is productive in way because it motivates me to keep going in a “oh my god, I can’t believe he wrote that, it can’t get any worse now, oh my god, he wrote that…”-kind of way. Not that he’s really that bad or that I don’t understand his genius I simply find him an arrogant jerk but you know. ;D

    Also I only now really read Foucault and well. Maybe I’m doing something wrong. Because I was told he was so difficult to understand and I just find him to be rambling and good and all but not really ground-breaking. Hmm. Probably because I’ve read so much by people influenced by Foucault that I read him out of his context in which he of course was ground-breaking. Still. Being under-whelmed – also not nice.

  8. As yet, I managed to get past a few words of Derrida, but if you like/hate him, I strongly recommend Catherine Malabou. And Hegel.

  9. Pingback: Derrida, hate, and stupidity, in the practice of thesis writing. | Keynote Speakers at The PLE Conference | Scoop.it

  10. Pingback: 3 reasons I hate writing sometimes (but do it anyway) « The Thesis Whisperer

  11. i dont hate any philosopher/thinker/whoever-it-is-i’m-supposed-to-write-on. i just wished some of em had included a cheat code in their publication. could’ve saved me tonnes of time. for instance,

    example? you could read an annotation of Jung ..

    the shadow bla bla bla, can drive the psychological self to be attuned to perdition, the affinity in turn does not demand a continuous struggle for virtue. bla bla bla this can be rather appealing to the majority.

    the cheatcode?
    being evil can make you worthless.
    but it’s a lot easier than being good.
    because goodness = struggle.
    so, a lot of people choose to be bad because it’s kinda easy.

    i mean, what the heck?? the author took like 5 pages to explain that. i mean, he could’ve included a cheat code in 4 lines. dang.. then i read a book written by Jung and it dawned to me why the author took so many pages to explain something. LoL

    the student speaketh in the way of the guru. :)

  12. Looks like you’ve almost deconstructed the word ‘hate’ in this article (so you probably are starting to think like Derrida)! Once I understood Derrida (finally) I was very drawn in by his thought, especially the concept of Differance. But it amazes me the extent to which many academics dismiss Derrida as they figure if they can’t understand him, then no one must be able to. One of the tricky things about Derrida is that you can’t really try to refute him until you’ve followed him down the rabbit hole, so to speak. And then you realize he might be onto something.

    As for the ‘hate’ thing for me, it’s Chomsky. At times he seems brilliant, other times inflammatory. Socialist, then populist. I’ve got an ambiguous situation going on with that guy.

  13. Pingback: Screw you thesis! « The Thesis Whisperer

  14. derrida has been much derided although so many of his detractors warmed their pots of soup at his fireplace. seems he is despite all the criticism the most important philosopher of the 20th century. he not only changed our thoughts the man virtually transformed our very vision and imagination. all the advances of the last 1/3rd of the previous century have their source in his so-called wordplay. the artist at play resembles the child playing with his legos and it is a beautiful site of creativity since there is no bloody sick psychology involved. jusr pure and simple passion and zest in the moment.

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