Domesticating Derrida, Kim Worthington

Derrida Downunder
ed Laurence Simmons and Heather Worth
Dunmore Press, $39.95,
ISBN 0864693745

Jacques Derrida’s visit to New Zealand, for the Derrida Downunder Conference organised by Auckland University in 1999, was certainly an event worthy of commemoration in print. This was the first time the eminent French philosopher had been here, and the first time an interdisciplinary conference had been organised in New Zealand with a specific focus on his (famously difficult) work.

Appropriately, the highlight of this collection is an essay by Derrida himself, “The Future of the Profession of the Unconditional University”. The ideal (future) university he describes is, paradoxically, one that finds its authority in an intellectual and political past: “one whose European model, after a rich and complex medieval history, has become prevalent, which is to say ‘classic’, over the last two centuries in states of a democratic type.” In the terms of this tradition:

The university professes the truth, and that is its profession. It declares and promises an unlimited commitment to the truth. No doubt the status of and the changes to the value of the truth can be discussed ad infinitum … But […] everything that concerns the question and history of truth, in its relation to the question of man, of what is proper to man, of human rights, of crimes against humanity and so forth, all of this must in principle find its space of discussion without condition and without presupposition, in its legitimate space of research and re-elaboration, in the university and within the university, above all in the Humanities.

 

In expected manner, Derrida immediately proceeds to stress the impossibility of the institution he has just outlined; but at the same time he insists on its maintenance as an ideal: “The university without condition does not, in fact, exist … Nevertheless, in principle and in conformity with its declared vocation, its professed essence, it should remain an ultimate place of critical resistance – and more than critical – to all the powers of dogmatic and unjust appropriation.” In short, the role, principle and “right” of the (future/past) university is to be “deconstructive”; its function and purpose, indeed its responsibility, lies in “an unconditional right to ask critical questions” – not only of “the concept of man”, but of “the notion of critique – the form and authority of the question”.

I am surely not alone in finding such an account of, and mandate for, my (academic) profession attractive. Most seductive, perhaps, is the claim that an unconditional “Humanitarian” (and the pun is significant) critique has political efficacy: it is able to offer “unconditional resistance” to “State powers – economic powers – powers of the media, ideological, religious and cultural powers, and so forth – in short all the powers that limit democracy to come.”

And yet the definition of the university proffered by Derrida, with its appeal to “truth”, “principles”, “rights” and “man”, smacks worryingly of the kind of Kantian essential-ism (not to mention potentially elitist conservatism) that Derrida is most renowned for resisting. Here it is important to recall his insistence, from his earliest work through to the present, on the necessity – or rather the necessary illusion in Nietzsche’s phrase – of “centres”: those arbitrary, socially constructed (but binding) rules and conventions that allow for the possibility of meaning and ethical evaluation. A question remains, however: what kind of politics – “resistance” – can be underwritten by illusions, however necessary these may be?

And yet it is the political responsibility of the professing profession which is here insisted on throughout. This is so despite (one could say because of) Derrida’s insistence, as the essay progresses, that the “abstract … invincibility” he proposes for the (impossible) university is also its weakness, and vulnerability. He stresses “the fragility of [the university’s] defences against all the powers that besiege it, and attempt to appropriate it”. Academia’s professing power, its capacity for resistance, Derrida argues, lies in nothing less than the act of professing itself: the professorial (and indeed confessional) potential – no, demand – to say “as if”. The “if” towards which the “profession” gestures is what realises contact with (political) reality: “this is the place where the university is exposed to reality, to the forces from without … It is there that the university is in the world that it is attempting to think. On this border [inside-outside the institution] it must therefore negotiate and organise its resistance and take its responsibilities.”

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In the “Roundtable Discussion with Jacques Derrida”, which follows his essay, five academics (Victoria Grace, Barry Hindess, Margaret Wilson, David Wills and Michael Peters) praise his conception as a “deconstructive analysis that is both affirmative and utopian”; but they question its efficacy in the “real” world, with particular reference to the specific problems that beset the contemporary university. The concern with the tension between an “élitist” case for academic autonomy in relation to the pragmatic demands of governments and other external authorities echoes throughout the transcribed discussion: the “relationship between the local territorial and the global virtual” which results from new technologies and “professing’s increasing proximity to the technological media”; the dichotomy between professional, “practical” degrees and those, in the humanities, that “cultivat[e] critical thought”; the “consumerist ideology” which threatens the autonomy of the university, particularly in relation to issues of funding and public expectation; the fact that “publication is [no longer] in the hands of the academy”. Peters concludes the discussion by questioning the relationship between Derrida’s “utopian” conception and its relationship to postcolonial cultural issues “of present concern to us in Aotearoa/New Zealand”.

It is this last question which resonates through the collection as a whole. Contributors are less concerned with the role and future of the university, per se, than with the practical – and especially cultural and political – demands of the professorial (read “humanit[y]arian”) responsibility that Derrida urges. In one sense at least, all the essays are “deconstructive” insofar as they respond to the Derridean injunction to open up possibilities, through the unconditional, performative profession of the conditional – “(as) if”. This is even the case in those essays which question the relevance of Derrida’s own work (European, intellectual) to our “local” New Zealand/Aotearoan context: “a place almost defined by its pragmatic, no-nonsense, anti-intellectual culture”, as Stephen Turner puts it.

Framed in these terms, it is perhaps not surprising to note the editors’ (and most contributors’) concerted attempts to domesticate the philosopher-outsider: to neutralise his potentially alienating “otherness”, the singularly European register of his intellectual heritage; to harness him to and for “us”, here and now. Several of the essays engage directly with questions of New Zealand/Aotearoan cultural identity and our sense of geographical and intellectual (dis)placement (Turner and Farida Tilbury); others consider specific governmental policies and directives (Nigel Clark, Heather Worth); and two consider the visual arts (Laurence Simmons and John Lyall).

Alongside these applied readings of our local cultural “texts” are a number of essays that suggest the political significance of Derrida’s work more generally, leaving open the possibility of later application to New Zealand/Aotearoan concerns. In general, these essays consider the limits of various disciplinary boundaries and assumptions: social linguistics (Vicki Kirby); political science (Peters); anthropology (Tom Ryan); and sociology (George Pavlich). Read against these essays is an odd and oddly self-centred (not simply in the sense of autobiographical) chapter by Wills. Wills’ ostensible account of the nascent discipline of disability studies is more properly read as an elegy, an act of mourning, for his dead father. It ends with a two-and-a-half-page sentence, which I must admit to finding, for the most part, unintelligible.

Perhaps inevitably, the collection is marked by a degree of unevenness and some annoyingly obfuscatory rhetoric; and several essays display a sense of defensiveness as if anticipating antagonistic response. However, the quality of writing and intellectual engagement in many is high and, read together, the essays provide a very welcome addition to what might broadly be called interdisciplinary cultural studies in New Zealand. Most commendable is the insistence, of contributors and editors alike, on the political and, finally, local applicability of Derridean thought.

 

Kim Worthington teaches in the School of English, Film and Theatre at Victoria University of Wellington.

 

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