Source: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism (2013 1 ed). p. 235.

Deconstruction and a focus on the materiality of writing have also been important for Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s theories of Signifyin(g) (see Chapter 14). In fact, Derrida's own writing often Signifies on the subjects he is addressing—which is one reason many people find Derrida's writing rather difficult.

Are there examples where Derrida's Signifying makes something readable unreadable?

Rhodes Scholar John Wideman explains Signifying in 1988:

IF you look up ''signifying'' in a dictionary, you'll find a set of definitions. If you hear the word used by a black person, chances are you'll need something more than a dictionary to understand what the speaker means. The word ''signifying'' is situated where Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his new book situates the critic of comparative black literature, ''at a sort of crossroads, a discursive crossroads at which two languages meet, be these languages Yoruba and English, or Spanish and French, or even (perhaps especially) the black vernacular and standard English.''

To identify the concept of signifying drawn from Afro-American oral tradition and signal its difference from, as well as convergence with, another universe of discourse, Mr. Gates employs a capital letter to distinguish black usage: Signifying. Since this seemingly innocent naming - assigning upper case to black, lower case to white - also implies hierarchy and pecking order, it is itself an example of Signifying. Signifying is verbal play - serious play that serves as instruction, entertainment, mental exercise, preparation for interacting with friend and foe in the social arena. In black vernacular, Signifying is a sign that words cannot be trusted, that even the most literal utterance allows room for interpretation, that language is both carnival and minefield.

  • 1
    Just for the record Derrida has been quoted as stating that he deliberately made his presentations and books difficult and/or, if you prefer, impenentrable.
    – DJohnson
    Jun 4, 2018 at 13:12
  • @DJohnson I wonder if you could identify that quote by Derrida.
    – Tsundoku
    Aug 1, 2020 at 11:14
  • @Tsundoku Good question. The quote goes back to the 70s, at least. It may be parsed in Spivak's introduction to Of Grammatology, or it may have just been in the air, so to speak, when I heard Derrida speak at Yale around that time.
    – DJohnson
    Aug 1, 2020 at 17:34

2 Answers 2


(NB: I am not black, so please take anything I say on the topic of Signifying in African-American culture with the appropriate grains of salt.)

There are two things being discussed here: Derrida's theory of "the signifier and the signified," and "Signifying," African-American vernacular patterns.

Wikipedia does a good job of explaining Signifying, IMHO, but roughly, it's "adding new layers of meaning to words by way of culture." So you have to be in and/or familiar with the culture to understand the new layers of meaning added to the word(s).

Derrida's theory said that you had A, the signified (the Platonic ideal of meaning) of a word. Then you had B, the signifier, which is "all the words you use to convey the meaning of A." Derrida felt that the harder you worked at getting B to convey the meaning of A, the farther A and B were pushed apart by the pile of words between A and B.

That's an extremely simplified version of différance, the name of his theory. It's hard to explain; my Lit Crit teacher back in college probably spent two entire 90-minute lectures on it. It's self-ironic — it's a theory about how the harder you try to explain something the more you obfuscate it, and the more you talk about the theory of différance, the more confusing it becomes. The Guide you're referencing is describing that experience.

It's been a long time since I read Derrida, and never in the original French, so yes, it's entirely possible that the more he talked about his theory, the less comprehensible it was.

Venturino's additional comment is that Derrida was using in-culture references to add yet another layer of meaning on top of his academic discourse, making his already difficult theory practically indigestible.


The first quote seems to be saying that Derrida's playful (but instructive) use of language often makes it hard to understand him. If that's what you're looking for, you can take a look at "Limited Inc a b c . . ." (collected in Limited Inc), in which he uses more or less 26 sections to reply to John Searle, but only makes his points explicitly near the end of the essay. In all the previous sections, he's basically performing (or "Signifying on," the author of your first quote might say) the same points.

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