September 23, 2010

Jacques Derrida’s “The University without Condition”

"Take your time but be quick about it, because you do not know what awaits you."

Let’s begin with a question of marginal importance: Why, in this address, does Derrida insist on mentioning that he's short on time and why is he afraid of “wasting” it? Late in his discussion, Derrida points out that the “clock sometimes represents the attribute of the humanist – the same clock that I am obliged to watch and that keeps a strict watch over the lay worker that I am here” (228). Time is a fictional construct ordered by hourly units, it is part of what maintains the structure of the university and the work that is done, both inside and outside the university. In other words, time operates as part of the architecture that defines and delimits the university. But what sort of work does such time permit?

The university that we have inherited (the university that engages us, the university in which we are engaged) operates within a framework based on Kantian ideals. For Derrida, the Humanities belong to Kant’s dream of a system of knowledge without work; as such, they appear to correspond to Kant’s pure concepts of the understanding in the Critique of Pure Reason (though here Derrida confines himself to the discussion of art and nature from the Critique of Pure Judgment). Kantian categories, which form the basis of knowledge, are purely constative: they “must prepare without prescribing: they would propose forms of knowledge that remain merely preliminary” (219). Kant’s Humanities are proposed to be scientific, neutral and universal. Even for the professor, whose work of professing is an activity, the Kantian university imagines a space free from the production of oeuvres. Derrida works to show how Kant’s privileging of the Humanities (his dream of sovereign knowledge) rests on basic, but no less generative, distinctions within the university, which constitute “the powerful juridical performatives that have given shape to the modern history of this humanity of man” (231). By taking Kant to task, Derrida reveals how Kant’s traditional conception undermines its own claims to interiority and sovereignty: Kant “withdraw[s] the faculty of philosophy from any outside power . . . and guarantees this faculty an unconditional freedom to say what is true and to conclude concerning the subject of truth” (219). Here, Derrida’s work is to reveal the horizon (which is both a limit and opening) of the Humanities.

At the same time, the Western tradition divides the activity of work from its concept of the “world.” Derrida’s decision to use the French “mondialisation” (instead of globalization) keeps our focus on this “notion of world that is charged with a great deal of semantic history, notably a Christian history” (224). In other words, mondialisation is a product of the Humanities, an attempt to think its outside through a lateral, universalizing process. Can we understand the sovereignty of Kant’s Humanities as a way to think our way out of death, perhaps as a further expression of interiority? Does Derrida’s rhetorical anxiety, mentioned at the beginning of this response, reflect the impending arrival of death?

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