books, gradschool, the academy

the very nature of an answer

During my grad school years, I took a seminar on Derrida to which Derrida himself paid a surprise visit, modestly answering our questions with none of the drama I had imagined reading his written words on the page. He seemed, amazingly, to be saying something, rather than just saying something about the impossibility of saying anything. In one cringe-inducing moment, a peer of mine asked a rambling, self-referential question that began by putting “under erasure” the very nature of an answer. I remember breaking into a broad smile when Derrida responded, after a long pause, “I am sorry, but I do not understand the question.” It seemed like the end of an era: Derrida himself was asking for more clarity.

– Stephen Johnson, “I Was An Under-Age Semiotician,” NYT