The University in the World it is Attempting to Think – Peggy Kamuf

No, really, you’ll have to help me. What is there to say about the relation between cultural studies and deconstruction?

–You’re kidding. There are endless things to say.

–Precisely my point. Rarely have I felt so discouraged in advance about the chances of saying anything worthwhile, useful, pertinent, or even just mildly interesting.

–Well, then, perhaps you should start there, with your discouragement. But first, be honest: it was not out of hopeless despair that you agreed to try to address the topic. On the contrary, you must have recognized it as a worthy subject and believed you might contribute to the proposed discussion. My guess is you saw an opportunity to reflect on the phenomenon of cultural studies, which, like everyone in your part of the university (sometimes still called the Humanities), you have had to think about a lot lately, probably more than you would like. For I’m also guessing that more often than not you are critical of the phenomenon. Right?

–No doubt. And no doubt as well it is the necessity of this critique, as I see it, that discourages at the outset, for it seems to promise little more than a negative satisfaction. What seems to me to call for the kind of thoroughgoing critique that Bill Readings began in The University in Ruins is the phenomenon, as you aptly put it, of cultural studies, a phenomenon that has the form perhaps merely of that name itself. A nominal phenomenon, therefore. Readings is careful, of course, not to dismiss or disparage work that may be done in or under that name, but rather to aim his critique at the name’s symptomatic appearance ‘at the point when the notion of culture ceases to mean anything vital for the University as a whole’ (1996: 91). Without necessarily endorsing all of Readings’ argument as concerns the end of what he calls the University of Culture, one may still acknowledge the boldness of his attempt to account for something that, especially in its more recent variation, has been so feebly defined even by its strongest advocates and spokespersons. The curious thing is that his critique of the ‘dereferentialization’ of the ‘cultural’ in cultural studies makes essentially the same point as these advocates do, very frequently, when defining cultural studies as that which knows no definition. It’s curious as well because the repetition of what is now such a cliché–every cultural studies anthology begins de rigueur with its version of the non-definition–can function effectively, it would seem, as cover or alibi for the very lack it announces.1 Which means that those who are ‘doing’ cultural studies seem to be able to recognize each other because they can all say that they don’t know what they are doing! At the moment, I can’t think of a single valid parallel with any other socially instituted behavior, unless it’s from a famous fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, you know the one I mean…

–That’s harsh! And before you slide too much further into ‘negative satisfaction’, is there not a parallel with deconstruction as name or label that, many might say, has functioned no less to situate academic work within undefinable limits? Do those who ‘do’ deconstruction know any more what they are doing?

–Surely you’re right, there is a parallel to be brought out, and that cannot surprise anyone since what goes by the name cultural studies today has many debts, acknowledged or unacknowledged, to deconstructive thinking and practices as these came to be widely recognized in the university (especially, although certainly not exclusively, English-speaking universities) some time prior to the emergence or rather re-emergence there of cultural studies by that name.2 By the same token, however, if one can speak of indebtedness here (although few enough are those who do,3 and this too would call for a symptomatic analysis, but never mind), then the geometric figure of the parallel is altogether inapt, since the two lines of thought in question cross, touch each other, and come into relation at some point, indeed at many points. But neither should one rely too much, if at all, on something like a generational modeling of this relation, that is, cultural studies as an indebted offspring of deconstruction. Since one could rightly say that deconstructive thought begins with a deconstruction of the filial relation (which is not the least reason it provokes such strong resistance), then it would be more than just ironic to configure its paternity or maternity of cultural studies, or anything else for that matter. No, whatever its debts, which are extensive and obviously not only to deconstruction, cultural studies is (are?) certainly more than (or less than) a derivation, an offshoot, a generated iteration. There is also an originality, a singular invention at work in this formation, although I don’t see it necessarily being articulated as such in the self-(non)-definitions repeated so predictably whenever it feels called upon to present itself. So, for all these reasons, I would hesitate to speak of a relation of filiation or a parallel, but above all for the reason that, as soon as one begins to think a little about these things, it is the differences, the non-relation or non-resemblance that come to the fore.

— But that’s just a truism, is it not? If there were no difference between them, we could not even be speaking of their possible relation. Besides, as you’ve already pointed out, there is the phenomenon of its own name, however empty, indistinct, or dereferentialized . . .

–Indeed, so let’s begin there, again, with the name, and at the risk of provoking the charge of being stuck or hung up in language, which is supposed to be the great pitfall of deconstructive thought and which cultural studies, in its dominant procedural modes, does everything to avoid.4 Two things at least one may remark about this name: first, despite the plural form, it has a tendency to function, at least in most contexts, as a singular noun, conjugated with the third person singular verb. For examples, one need look no further than the ‘Call for Papers’ to which we are responding right here, the first sentence of which reads: ‘cultural studies has often described deconstruction in rather pejorative terms’ and then further on ‘Is cultural studies capable of providing anything that other modes of enquiry cannot achieve more easily/interestingly/rigorously? . . . Is cultural studies already in deconstruction? Can there be a “deconstructive cultural studies”?’ and so forth. There are of course other precedents for this usage, but it is striking in this case because cultural studies is/are so often identified in its/their plurality, pluralism, or multiplicity, and this multiple condition is even frequently cited among the obstacles to satisfactory definition. And yet, when the phrase enters into the syntax of our language (and, obviously, we are speaking of its grammatical habits only in English), then it exhibits a strong drive to gather all this multiplicity under a nominal heading that can function as a unity or a whole. The second thing to remark complements or follows from the first: this grammatical anomaly, if that is what it is, can be traced rather easily to the only context in which the phrase has currency, which is the academic context. There, it functions as a heading, a title, a name for some kind of unit within the university’s organized division of its academic activities. To speak of cultural studies in the singular implies such a unit, that is, something like a department or program that could be so-named, and as you know, there are indeed many such units now listed in university catalogues. One may thus understand the phrase as employing the shorthand so often used within academic communities, where if I say, for example, ‘French is shorthanded’, it doesn’t sound like utter nonsense because you can understand me to be asserting something about the staffing needs of (the department of) French. Likewise, when one hears or reads ‘cultural studies is . . .’ it is as if one were being relied on each time to supply the elided part of the phrase: (the department of), (the program of) . . .

–or the discipline of ? You seem to be on the verge of broaching the tediously debated question of cultural studies as a discipline that isn’t one because it is inherently interdisciplinary or anti-disciplinary or non-disciplinary or multi-disciplinary or whatever, and so forth and so on and on and on. Must we go there?

–Well, I see I’m not the only one whose patience is tried by, as Stefan Herbrechter puts it, ‘the extreme self-reflexivity which has always been characteristic of cultural studies’ (2002: 1). At the risk of trying yours, however, might one not add that what is exasperating is the fact that this characteristic turn is also characteristically left unexamined in its function of constituting a ‘self’ or ‘selfhood’ for what will then be said to have no identity, no definition, no boundaries, no limits, in particular no disciplinary limits? The ‘selfness’ of cultural studies is like the unit, unity, or unification that can stand on its own, have the ‘ownness’ of a self-relating entity, even as this entity or unity is proclaimed to be multiple, unbounded, undefined. One is tempted to say that, with its ‘extreme self-reflexivity’, cultural studies is/are stuck in the mirror stage even as it/they celebrate(s) or congratulate(s) ‘itself’ for achieving some new arrangement that can dispense with all that old talk about, for example, this discipline or that one. This irresolvable incoherence would explain in part why so much reflection on cultural studies keeps turning in the same circle, the circle of a self-unification that has to be performed but through or as denial. If an extreme is reached here, it would not be the extreme penetration of this self-reflexivity or reflection, but only the incidence of repetition of more or less the same gesture: a self-positing that is immediately a self-cancelling.5

–I can imagine someone replying that the analysis you’ve just improvised is no less lacking in ‘penetration’, and even that it too is caught in a mirrored reversal. For I suppose, if pressed, you would go on to say that deconstruction has everything to do with undoing this circle of repetition, that its ‘characteristic’ is thus the opposite…

–Hold it before you let the figure of mirrored opposition run away with everything. ‘If pressed’, you said. What else presses down more on thought than the formal structure of opposition? What else presses thinking more to follow over-worn paths rather than striking off into the thickets of an experience of thought? Thought is an experience, or else it is not thinking anything much. So, if we would try to think something here, then let’s not be pressed into some unthinking set of oppositions that aligns these two terms, deconstruction and cultural studies, and all they may stand for, over against each other in an irremediable, interminable face-off. If we can do nothing more than entrench even further the appearance of an opposition here, then we might as well break things off right now. That prospect would be the ultimate source of discouragement, and I don’t imagine that Gary Hall, David Boothroyd, and Joanna Zylinska ever meant to discourage thinking by pressing it in this oppositional direction, on the contrary. Their ‘Call for Papers’ is a provocation to think the slash bisecting their title (‘Deconstruction is/in Cultural Studies’) as something other than a line drawn in the sand. They even make explicit appeal to ‘a newer generation of cultural studies writers and practitioners, many of whom . . . regard deconstruction and deconstructive modes of thinking as extremely important to their work’. Why should we continue here unless they are right and there is some future for deconstruction in cultural studies, but also therefore, for cultural studies in deconstruction and even for the deconstruction of cultural studies, to suggest yet another syntax for a possible title?

–Agreed, but–without wishing to dampen your refound enthusiasm for the subject–I don’t think one should be content to put on guard against the general tendency to adopt oppositional patterns of thought. At work producing this particular oppositional pattern is also a specific institution, the university, or at least a certain idea of the university, and thus the conjunction of historical forces determining the direction of its development today (to continue to speak as if there were one selfsame University, which is obviously an untenable confusion of a multifarious thing with its single name). As you observed a moment ago, the peculiar functioning of the denomination cultural studies has to be traced to its currency in the university, but surely that is only a place to begin a possible analysis, or to continue the one begun by Readings already mentioned.

–Go on.

–Well, since Readings is not concerned to differentiate, compare, or draw parallels between Cultural Studies (which he consistently capitalizes and uses in the singular) and deconstruction (at least by that name) in their respective relations to the University (also always given the upper case initial), a supplement to his analysis might attempt to do just that. First, however, we would need to recall how Readings describes the relation of Cultural Studies to the University as one that is strongly marked by a structural contradiction or incoherence. Here is how he initiates this discussion:

I will focus on Cultural Studies . . . because it is the most essentially academic of . . . various trans-disciplinary movements. By this I mean that the denunciation of the University as an institution within Cultural Studies is a problem not merely for the University but of the University. The call to move beyond the University outside academicism is not a response to an act of repression by the University; it is a response to the repressed of the University itself. To put it another way, the lesbian and gay, African-American, and feminist movements are different in that neither their genesis nor their goals are essentially linked to the University . . . .

Cultural Studies arises, however, in the University out of the predicament of those who are excluded from within, who can neither stay nor leave. And the cry of Cultural Studies that the University must be left behind has proved a particularly fruitful way of staying in the University. This is not an attack on practitioners of Cultural Studies for privately seeking the crown of laurel that they publicly refuse in print (the judgment of individual motivation is irrelevant to analysis of the system); it is merely the observation that the wish to get out of the confines of academe is a wish structurally situated within those confines. (1996: 91-92)

This starting point for the analysis might be seen as concentrated in the ambivalence playing among all of these italicized prepositions, and above all in the ambivalent or split determination of a situation in the University from which to call to ‘move beyond’ or outside it. In the chapter’s conclusion, Readings will again resort to italicizing the preposition in order to concentrate attention on the configuration this spatial metaphor lends to the whole endeavor of Cultural Studies: ‘the endeavor of Cultural Studies’, he concludes, ‘is the contemporary way to speculate on the question of what it means to be in the University’ (1996: 118). There are, of course, quite a few rich and complex pages separating these two italicized positionings at the outset and conclusion of the chapter, but it is tempting to let them collapse into each other or overlap, in other words, to hear the conclusion (‘the endeavor of Cultural Studies is the contemporary way to speculate on what it means to be in the University’) as mainly reiterating the point made at the beginning (‘the cry of Cultural Studies that the University must be left behind has proved a particularly fruitful way of staying in the University’). If we allow these two ends of the argument to overlap, then Readings could be heard saying that Cultural Studies’ ‘denunciation’ of the University, its call to move beyond it, is the contemporary way of speculating ‘on what it means to be in the University’. Or, in a still more telescoped version: to be in the university today means to denounce it and to leave it behind. At least that is what it means if one identifies with the very academic, intra-institutional formation called Cultural Studies.

–I think that is a fair summary of Readings’ representation, although no doubt one could argue about the fairness of that representation itself. What is clear, however, is that The University in Ruins seeks finally to counter the way Cultural Studies speculates (and not only perhaps in the philosophical sense) on what it means to be in the university; that is, Readings proposes alternative ways for thinking about this, for staying in the university without alibi, in other words, without invoking the claim to have been somewhere else all along, as if it were the scene of a crime. Even more clearly, of course, there is neither complacency here with the University of Excellence nor nostalgia for the University of Culture as Readings critically analyzes these two historical configurations. Perhaps, however, there remains something like an unremarked fallout from that little word in to which Readings both repeatedly calls attention, in the phrase ‘in the University’, and curiously passes over without much comment. As Samuel Weber has pointed out, in an essay taken up in large part with a critique of The University in Ruins, ‘[w]e would not, for instance, say that we worked in IBM or General Motors, whereas we do often speak of the university as a place in which we not only work and study, but also, in a sense, reside’.6 Weber links this habit of speech to a notion of the university as closed, self-contained space, which in turn harks back to the autonomous, self-regulating or self-determining idea of the university, the Kantian University of Reason but also, Weber argues, the University of Excellence as Readings describes it.

The autonomy of Reason that marked the Enlightenment tradition has now been transferred, as it were, to the autonomy of the organizational system itself, which seeks no finality beyond the borders of its own performance and self-interest, measured quantitatively in terms of the optimal input/output ratio of information. The university has become a sort of cybernetic, self-regulating machine, an automaton serving above all the interests of its administrators. . . . It is as if Readings, in his effort to discern what is distinctive in the contemporary form of the university, himself falls prey to the traditional temptation of construing the university as an institution that is utterly self-contained, identifying simply such self-containment with a bureaucratic system of management that administers excellence in terms of its own self-interest. It is as if the dream of the university to finally rid itself of all external tutelage seems to reach fruition, albeit in a nightmare, when Readings asserts that: the University is no longer primarily an ideological arm of the nation-state but an autonomous bureaucratic corporation. (n-d, non-pag.)

Weber is concerned above all to identify the problems created by this residual carryover of the idea of the university’s autonomy for the analysis of the University of Excellence, in particular its place in a globalized economy that is so largely reliant on technologies of the virtual. Readings, for example, can be shown retaining essentially a concept of the localized institution, without making allowance for virtuality, that is, for that which does not present itself, spatially or temporally, as such, in the present, here or there. However in ruins it may be, the university in which Readings would continue to dwell resembles little the one that Weber sees as having already arrived, although not here or there because, precisely, it is through delocalization and a virtualization of its reality that the traditional idea of the university, including the one Readings continues to invoke, will go on being displaced. Weber writes: ‘the advent of computer-operated technologies of data-storage, processing and retrieval, digital libraries, tele-teaching, tele-conferencing and electronic networking of all sorts profoundly relativize the importance of universities as localized institutions. . . . [W]hat seems clear is that the traditional sense universities have had of themselves as constituting a privileged and self-contained space, a kind of womb in which intellectual and social maturation takes place, is becoming ever more tenuous in the face of the delocalizing effects of computerized and media technologies’. Ever more tenuous as well, then, are the reasons we have to speak of being or staying or dwelling in the space of such an institution. As for moving beyond or outside these delocalized, virtual spaces, it is less clear than ever what that could mean for discourses of Cultural Studies except an incredible alibi.

–In this regard, can there be any difference for the discourse of deconstruction, at least when it takes place, as we continue to say, in the university?

–No, but then again it is a discourse that has never had much use for the alibi we’re talking about, in other words, for the claim that it will always have been elsewhere, somewhere outside and beyond the university in which it only appears to take place. I should qualify, explain, and gloss that statement, but first, since we want to address ourselves to a newer generation, perhaps something will have to be said about a certain history here. It probably should not be dignified with the name of history, however, because it consists less in events than in apprehensions and misapprehensions, therefore in nothing that ever really took place. I’m referring to what many were in great haste to identify as the ‘institutionalization of deconstruction’, a non-event if there ever was one, but that didn’t much matter to whoever picked up this idea-gadget and passed it on. According to these relays of misapprehension, what is supposed to have occurred, beginning, oh, sometime around 1975, say, is that the movement of deconstruction had let itself be co-opted by the university, brought inside, caged, and its fractious potential tamed, defanged, or something like that. It was, of course, exclusively academics who passed this news around among themselves, in quite a remarkable display of self-loathing, their message to one another resembling the punch line of the joke about the guy who refused to join any club that would accept someone like himself as a member. That many academics, above all in the U.S., consider recognition or legitimation by the academy to be the surest sign of political or cultural ineffectualness ought to prompt more serious reflection on this kind of internalization by the ‘target’ of such routine, garden variety, clichéd, stereotypical, ignorant anti-academicism and anti-intellectualism, which is so prevalent in the ambient context as grossly defined by the mass media and the political institutions that depend on them. (By saying it ought to prompt more reflection, I am dropping a hint to the newer generation of cultural studies scholars, in the hope that some of them have not yet developed all the symptoms of this debilitating pathology. If so, then surely the anti-university, and in particular anti-humanities discourse of the mass media is worthy of study by a new, deconstructive cultural studies.) Although such self-inflicted wounding should have raised suspicions about the reliability of the rumor regarding the ‘institutionalization of deconstruction’, no doubt the unspoken and unspeakable collusion with the premise (i.e. if legitimated by the university, then ineffectual) kept many from even noticing that deconstructive thought, as purveyed especially by the writings of Derrida but many others as well, for example, Sam Weber, never took it upon itself to leave the university behind, move beyond it, or still less denounce it qua institution. Rather, as institution, the university is being thought here in its historicity as a stabilizable but essentially and necessarily unstable formation, open to a future, that is, to deconstruction. Like all institutions of meaning, the university can only dream that it is closed and settled, determined in an eternal present by a past tradition, therefore out of time and without future. Of the future, from the future, deconstruction is what happens, and the thinking that opens onto this eventness also touches on, that is, pertains to and perturbs, all institutional formations. Unlike the designation Cultural Studies, deconstruction will never have designated an academic, purely academic ‘unit’; one cannot even begin to imagine what a Department of Deconstruction would look like, what it could include or exclude, which is why there has never been one on record to my knowledge. Whereas departments and programs of Cultural Studies, despite a constitutional lack of definition, encounter little enough institutional resistance to judge by the number of such ‘units’ being founded every day. Given this widespread and rapid implantation, it is remarkably odd, don’t you think, that the ‘institutionalization of Cultural Studies’ has raised so little alarm?

–No, not necessarily. It could merely indicate that what Readings identified as the constitutive alibi of Cultural Studies has done its work. That is, it has provided a kind of immunity shield from the sort of suspicions that have dogged deconstructive thinking to the extent the latter never sought to ‘leave the university behind’.

–Yes, well, I said one should qualify the statement that the discourse of deconstruction has never had much use for this alibi. In speaking of deconstruction as a discourse, one yields rather facilely to the tendency today, perhaps especially in and around Cultural Studies, to call everything and anything ‘discourse’. Often enough, the reference is lost today to Foucault’s more regulated and disciplined use of the term, to designate, precisely, disciplinary orders that articulate knowledge with power.7 No matter how freely it is used, however, ‘discourse’ tends to refer us today above all to this site of a subject producing and produced by some knowledge formation (e.g. Descartes’ Discourse on Method). One cannot speak of deconstruction as simply ‘discourse’, therefore, without giving up the possibility of naming, gesturing toward, or making contact, so to speak, with what puts such a ‘discourse’ in motion before or beyond this site of ‘an institutionalized system for the production of knowledge in regulated language’ (Bové, 1995: 53). In one of the many places where Derrida has addressed this problem of the word deconstruction that became irreversibly associated with his thinking, he points out that on its own, and like any word, this one is unsatisfactory ‘and must always be girded by an entire discourse’ (1991: 272). Later in the same brief essay, he says that, no less than any other word, it deconstructs and is deconstructible, and thus one’s task is to keep the nominal form from imposing its unity on thought: ‘Of Grammatology questioned the unity “word” and all the privileges with which it was credited, especially in its nominal form. It is therefore only a discourse or rather a writing that can make up for the incapacity of the word to be equal to a “thought”‘ (1991: 274-75). Notice how both of these remarks discern for discourse the role of interrupting or preventing the nominal illusion, of girding language against itself, of supplementing the incapacity of words to name ‘thought’. There is little or no echo here, in other words, of Foucauldian discourse that inscribes a subject in power/knowledge relations, and this difference is certainly not the least way of understanding what was at stake between Derrida and Foucault in their famous debate about the Cartesian ‘discourse’ on reason and madness.8 Notice too, in this regard, how this ‘discourse’ pulls back from that very term and prefers to speak of writing (‘a discourse or rather a writing‘), a term that, it’s well known, Derrida charges with more than mere linguistic significance, beyond and before the sense of written language or transcription. Writing opens out, in Derrida’s writings, onto the figure of a general trace of originary alterity, before the ‘signifying practices’ of any subject but also as the condition of possibility of those practices whatever they are, with writing in the limited sense being obviously but one (presuming one can speak even in the limited sense of writing as always the same ‘practice’: again, one must beware the nominal illusion of the ‘unit’). To recall this is also to remind oneself how deconstructive thought has always engaged, in the most fundamental way, with the whole diversity of ‘media’, and how it has been taken up widely by critical discourses in the visual arts or in architecture, but also in reflections on music, dance, as well as on what are called simply the ‘media’. This diverse or dispersed resonance, moreover, has not depended on the structure of the university in order to disseminate across ‘disciplines’ or ‘departments’ or compartments of knowledge. Indeed, the university has more often than not lagged behind the interest shown by artists and non-academic practitioners of all sorts in deconstructive thinking.

–Wouldn’t this also explain why, as you said, the discourse of deconstruction has had little use for the alibi, that is, for the claim that it takes place elsewhere than in the university? It need not be claimed at all because it happens and goes on happening.

–Indeed, which prompts one to wonder what reason non-academics could find to interest themselves in the practice of Cultural Studies, if only because the designation itself (‘studies’) essentially forbids anything but an academic understanding of this practice. Cultural Studies produces, well, more studies, which is nothing to sneer at in the least as such. Of course, all extra-academic ‘signifying practices’ are of interest to those who do Cultural Studies, but principally as objects or fields for analysis and, again, study. As for the discipline’s claim to particularity insofar as it is also a political project and entails intervention in extra-institutional politico-cultural affairs, I think one can only agree here with Readings that this hardly sets Cultural Studies apart and is even a far more salient characteristic of several other academic formations one can think of. Moreover, it is certainly not under the banner or aegis of ‘Cultural Studies’ that its practitioners are going to be effective in their political activities or interventions, whatever these may be. I mean, I don’t imagine someone showing up to join a political action in solidarity holding a sign identifying his or her affiliation with Cultural Studies and expecting that that is going to be a decisive factor in support of the cause. No, the commitment to act in solidarity is the movement of anyone who takes the responsibility, precisely, to respond to injustice with action. I frankly find it a bit outrageous when I read assertions to the effect that Cultural Studies, as a discipline no less, is characterized by a particular commitment to radical political intervention. This is not in the least to doubt such commitments on the part of many who can identify their intellectual interests under this name; it is, however, to protest the idea that any disciplinary formation, as such, holds a special key to political action or effectiveness. This is, I believe, nonsense and worse than nonsense. One can have more respect for the very old argument that intellectuals in general and as such have each a greater share of social and political responsibility, or if you will, have fewer excuses, fewer alibis for inaction, than those without a comparable education behind them. I realize this risks sounding quite benighted or naïve, if not worse, but I can find no cause to apologize for believing that the university as such, without regard to discipline, ought to be a fomenter of democracy and social justice. That is its primary ‘business’ and has been the duty of every intellectual at least since Kant replied to the question ‘What is Enlightenment?’. The university is not and never has been a space closed on itself, closed off from the ‘real’ political or cultural space of a society. To hear academics repeat and propagate this notion is more than dismaying; it makes one think of the child’s vision of school as representing everything that takes her away from the gratifications of a world outside the classroom walls. It’s another facet, it seems to me, of that internalization of the general cultural disdain for academic work I mentioned earlier.9 But I digress no doubt. What were we saying?

–You were qualifying the statement that the discourse of deconstruction . . .

–Yes, OK, I remember, I wanted to say something more about the notion of writing, about the reasons deconstructive thought gives us to speak of writing rather than discourse, not only in reference to academic work but in general for all ‘signifying practices’, as one is wont to say today. In the passage I quoted, Derrida writes ‘a discourse or rather a writing’, that is, une écriture, and this indefinite article serves to differentiate immediately a singular practice within the general concept or figure of writing, thus this writing as distinguished from that one. It is a usage that has two more or less standardized senses in French: one speaks of someone’s handwriting as une écriture or else of a writer’s distinctive manner, style, or expression as his/her écriture.10 Both of these uses lead us to think about this writing as what bears a signature, meaning less the legal inscription of a name, than traits of a singularity that do not function at all to name or to sign someone’s name, but rather to betray, expose, or display a singularity but only for another. So, there will have been signature, in this extra- or pre-legal sense (before the legal proper name, which is anything but ‘proper’), only when another receives it and apposes what Derrida calls a counter-signature.11 Now, what would happen if, instead of saying deconstruction ‘is a discourse that has never had much use for the alibi, in other words, for the claim that it will always have been elsewhere, somewhere outside and beyond the university in which it only appears to take place’, we took the hint from Derrida and introduced this singularized writing, so as to say ‘deconstruction is a writing that has never had much use for the alibi, etc.’? Well, first of all, the very notion of alibi has to shift, if indeed a writing is consigned in its very singularity to another, to a space from which only the other can give me ‘my’ signature, which is therefore not mine since it cannot return to me without the other’s movement to counter-sign it, and thus it will never return to me or belong to me, I will never recuperate it even as it cannot be denied as ‘my’ writing. It is thus at once undeniably mine–no alibi–and it is ‘mine’, singularly, only by virtue of the alibi, the other place from which it does not so much return as rebound outside my grasp. So, in this sense, the alibi structure is both irreducible and by its very irreducibility it requires a new thinking of responsibility without alibi, that is, it has to induce a thinking of the without-alibi that begins from the place of the other without whom or without which ‘I’ will never have signed anything or taken any responsibility for that which bears my signature.12 The other signs, and yet, without alibi, my responsibility is engaged and in play. Such deconstructive writing would thus require a topographical shift, so to speak, in the thinking of the signature and of responsibility, a thinking that would therefore have to disrupt and disturb what remains intact (and it is quite a lot) of the whole investment in a subject-centered view of the world of discursive formations, even as these are said to produce or subject the subject to regimes of power/knowledge. (Which is to say that this will be a task for cultural studies only when it/they can begin to write for or in view of something other than the subject.) Secondly, the shift from a discourse to a writing, in the sense of the latter just outlined, would force one to think about the university as a place for such singular and singularly signed works, that is, for the taking-place of events of signature and counter-signature, or simply (but it is not at all simple to think about) as space or scene of the event, of that which comes about, arrives, without horizon of anticipation, preparation, or programmation. It is to such a university open to the singular event that Derrida appeals in a text that itself would invite endless commentary, that is, counter-signature, and especially on the questions we are supposed to be treating here. I am referring to ‘The University Without Condition’, which is above all a profession of faith, declared as such, in the university, and within the university in the Humanities as space for a writing and thus for events of signature.

–I seem to recall that this essay makes a passing and dismissive reference to ‘cultural studies’.

–Yes. It comes at a point at which Derrida has begun to elaborate on what he means by the ‘Humanities to come’ or the ‘new Humanities’:

The deconstructive task of the Humanities to come will not let itself be contained within the traditional limits of the departments that today belong, by their very status, to the Humanities. These Humanities to come will cross disciplinary borders without dissolving the specificity of each discipline into what is called, often in a very confused way, ‘interdisciplinarity’ or into what is lumped with another good-for-everything concept ‘cultural studies.’ (2002: 230)

–So how do you understand these ‘new Humanities’?

— I would say that in part Derrida is using the phrase as another name for the work of deconstruction in but also on the university. This is work that recognizes and claims the specificity of the university as the place of a unconditional commitment to truth, that is, unconditioned by any other power, and at the same time it is a work that has to keep putting that specificity in question, thereby always forcing open whatever closure gives the university its concept. By ‘new Humanities’, then, one would have to understand at once something very close to what has been going on for a long time under that old name in the university–the disciplines professed there as philosophy, literature, language, and so forth–but also a work not to be confined by what we think we have known to be the university or as the university. As institution, this known university comes as the legacy of a past, which it is the task of the new Humanities–alias deconstruction–to receive and transform, to receive by transforming. I am simplifying considerably a complex argument, but it seems to me that a very clear thought is dictating the use of this language of the new, e.g. the new Humanities. This is the thought of some future for the world, for an as yet unrealized world, which can remain still to come. The university and within it the ‘Humanities’ are called upon to be new so that it, the university without condition, can remain also something to come. The new designation draws the Humanities from their past toward a future. It is a name that wants to renew the belief that the university must have a future for there to be a future of the world. ‘The Future of the Profession’ was the title of this essay when it was first delivered at Stanford University in 1999.

–What need has deconstruction for an alias?

–A good question, and one that Derrida provokes us to think about on at least two occasions that I can recall. Both times he hesitates or feigns to hesitate to pronounce the name with which he himself is so thoroughly associated, at least in the American university. The name ‘deconstruction’ is thus put out there as giving pause, although this pause cannot be assigned in any simple way to the one who stages this hesitation. Rather, it as if he were speaking for or as another who would prefer not to hear the name deconstruction pronounced. Early in the lecture, when he is laying out his hypothesis ‘in direct and broadly simple terms’, he writes: ‘[the university without conditions] should remain an ultimate place of critical resistance–and more than critical–to all the powers of dogmatic and unjust appropriation. When I say “more than critical”, I have in mind “deconstructive”‘ (2002: 204). And then a parenthesis is added that underscores the hesitation: ‘(Why not just say it directly and without wasting time?)’. This question in parentheses is left suspended. It is essentially a question about some unspoken or even unspeakable resistance, although we cannot assign it to Derrida himself. Moreover, the following sentences waste no time referring directly to deconstruction by that name:

I am referring to the right to deconstruction as unconditional right to ask critical questions not only about the history of the concept of man, but about the history even of the notion of critique, about the form and the authority of the question, about the interrogative form of thought. For this implies the right to do it affirmatively and performatively, that is, by producing events (for example, by writing) . . .’

A similar gesture is remarked and repeated a few lines later: ‘The principle of unconditional resistance is a right the university itself should at the same time reflect, invent, and pose, whether it does so through its law faculties or in the new Humanities capable of working on these questions of right and of law–in other words, and again why not say it without detour, the Humanities capable of taking on the tasks of deconstruction, beginning with the deconstruction of their own history and their own axioms’. This repetition signals clearly enough at the beginning of the essay the adoption of the alias new Humanities for deconstruction, in other words, the place where the tasks of deconstruction are assumed within the university, but also at its divisible borders. For the space of these several paragraphs, the resistance there is, in the university, to the very pronunciation of deconstruction’s name is floated or suspended, but it is a resistance that is never assumed by the one here speaking. For, at the same time, the name of deconstruction is being aligned with the university as site of unconditional resistance to sovereignty. (This essay has an important place in Derrida’s recent reflections on the concept of political sovereignty.) I cite a long passage:

I will not claim that, in the torment threatening today the university and within it some disciplines more than others, this force of resistance, this assumed freedom to say everything in the public space has its unique or privileged place in what is called the Humanities–a concept whose definition it will be advisable to refine, deconstruct, and adjust, beyond a tradition that must also be cultivated. However, this principle of unconditionality presents itself, originally and above all, in the Humanities. It has an originary and privileged place of presentation, of manifestation, of safekeeping in the Humanities. It has there its space of discussion as well and of re-elaboration. All this passes as much by way of literature and languages (that is, the sciences called the sciences of man and culture) as by way of the non-discursive arts, by way of law and philosophy, by way of critique, questioning and, beyond critical philosophy and questioning, by way of deconstruction–there where it is a matter of nothing less than re-thinking the concept of man, the figure of humanity in general, and singularly the one presupposed by what we call, in the university, for the last few centuries, the Humanities. From this point of view at least, deconstruction (and I am not at all embarrassed to say so and even to claim) has its privileged place in the university and in the Humanities as the place of irredentist resistance or even, analogically, as a sort of principle of civil disobedience, even of dissidence in the name of a superior law and a justice of thought.

Let us call here thought that which at times commands, according to a law above all laws, the justice of this resistance or this dissidence. It is also what puts deconstruction to work or inspires it as justice. (2002: 207-08)

Note the parenthetical aside whereby Derrida assumes without apology the privileged place of deconstruction in the university. Here then is another gloss on what we were saying earlier about the discourse of deconstruction having no need for the alibi. Not only is there no need to claim that deconstruction takes place elsewhere, beyond the university; there is affirmation, without alibi, that it also takes place, and has a privileged place in the university.

I would add just a few more remarks about this essay that seem particularly pertinent to our discussion here. The new Humanities would be the place of events that occur as what Derrida insists on calling in French oeuvres, which English ‘translates’ as works. The difference to be remarked is between precisely oeuvre and work, in French, travail.13 The first three of the four numbered sections of ‘The University Without Condition’ are close readings, as we used to say, of the concept of work in general. Each of these three sections sets out in some way from the enigmatic phrase first floated in its bare form: As if the end of work (travail) were at the origin of the world. Everything follows from this phrase in as if, as Derrida writes when he comments on its first and barest use, ‘as if I wanted to let an example of the “as if” work all by itself, outside any context, to attract your attention’ (2002: 210). This nesting of ‘as if’ clauses is quite vertiginous, calling attention to what it is doing, or rather to what it is perhaps doing, since whether or not it means to say what it is doing or not is precisely the question suspended here: ‘as if I wanted to let an example of the “as if” work all by itself . . .’. In effect, by redoubling its example, the ‘as if’ does work all by itself since one cannot say that it has been put to work by someone, by someone who clearly posits: this is what I want to say or to do. What kind of ‘work’ is that in which an ‘as if’ works ‘all by itself’? And how does it work to ‘attract your attention’? As if it were calling attention to itself, as if it could itself be something and pose itself rather than turn aside all position in a fiction of posing, only posing as or as if.

I’m no doubt entering into too much detail here, but it is as if I wanted to come to the heart–I will risk that word–of the new Humanities, that place where deconstruction works on the university, but not just what we call, today, the university. The heart lies in this strange work of the ‘as if’, of the ‘perhaps’, of fiction, in general of virtuality. The heart of the Humanities beats as a virtual fiction, a notion that Derrida does not limit to its literary sense even as he insists that the reference to literature, in the modern, European sense, must remain irreducible if indeed the university without condition will continue to be able to affirm, that is, profess its faith in the unconditionality of truth. Literature, fiction names the democratic institution in which the right to say anything or nothing is safeguarded as an unconditional one, and as such, it safeguards as well the university. These remarks can bring us back to the notion of oeuvre being deployed here in its difference from travail, that is, from work in its expiatory, eschatalogical, and perhaps simply dialectical sense: the work of the negative. In this other sense of oeuvre, work would be neither reducible to nor dissociable from literary works or works of art–in general, of the simulacrum. Well, the work of the university, affirms Derrida, must also admit oeuvres as well as travaux; it must also admit the work of the ‘as if’, the mark of the virtual that must be allowed to play out there its unlimitable, unconditional enfolded possibility. The new Humanities names the place where the ‘as if’ works as such, if one can say such a thing, the ‘as if as such’, and mean a thing as such that is or even could be as such. The ‘as if’ names no thing, nothing as such, and it brings thinking that tries to approach it as such, and as if that were possible, to engage with a force of deconstruction at work there–and in play, already, in the university or any other institution that has to be inherited and transformed.

–All this sounds very close to, if not the old humanities, then the oldest idea of the university, with the humanities at its heart or, to change the figure, as its womb, its progenitor, or the origin, the humaniores, which it has continued to inherit and transform.

–A former Dean of Humanities at my institution, my friend the philosopher Marshall Cohen, used to repeat every year at graduation (or ‘commencement’ as it’s called) his faith, ‘our’ faith, that the humanities are still at the core of the university. And yet I’m pretty sure that Marshall, and the tradition he was invoking and repeating, did not understand this heart as a fiction, as virtuality, as the work of the ‘as if’. Nor would the invoked tradition want to understand fiction as the possibility of the very work of knowledge, and as that which reserves the possibility, in its enfolded pliability, of unconditional truth.14 So, yes, the new Humanities echoes with this tradition, and first of all it receives, in inheritance, what this tradition preserves and offers to transformation. But also, no, the new Humanities is not simply a new old Humanities, if you follow me. (I would say the old humanities find a more congenial home in New Historicism than in what we’re calling here, after Derrida, new Humanities.) In any case, without dismissing in the least the necessity for the old Humanities to go on finding homes in the new university–on the contrary–I’m merely trying to indicate, again, the deconstructive newness of new Humanities, as they are envisioned or professed in this work or this oeuvre, ‘The University Without Condition’.

The new Humanities names the place in which events take place or could take place in the university, and therefore always a potential place of transformation. As such a place of event, however, the new Humanities shares the trait with the whole profession of the professor, any professor, that is, anyone who is engaged by a profession of faith, a promise, therefore, and what is called a performative event. This performative is always at least implied, folded into the act of professing, when it is not professed aloud, repeated even ritually at those rituals we call commencements–as if the end of work at the university were at the beginning of the world, that which students and even many professors call the ‘real world’ lying beyond the university. As if the university offered only fictional worlds, or a fiction of the world. Or again, as if there could be any ‘real’ world without virtuality.

–I remember, close to the end of the essay, a certain sentence, which struck me as something like a motto for all those who remain, as we will continue to say, in the university. I could imagine it emblazoned on one of those official seals, right next to Lux et Veritas. The passage is evoking all the divided borders of the university and of the Humanities, it speaks of the outside within (‘One thinks in the Humanities the irreducibility of their outside and of their future’ [2002: 236]), and then one reads: ‘It is there that the university is in the world it is attempting to think.’

–Yes, in the university in the world, never just in one place, virtually, and still to come.


1 To cite only a very recent iteration, Stefan Herbrechter’s introduction to Cultural Studies, Interdisciplinarity, and Translation begins by signaling that the ‘extreme self-reflexivity which has always been characteristic of cultural studies–whether understood as a specific methodology, a particular set of questions, an (anti- or interdisciplinary) discipline (or “interdiscipline”), as a specific (academic or non-academic) analytical practice, or simply as a subject of area of studies–prevents the establishment of traditional forms of (disciplinary) consensus. . . . The practitioners of cultural studies–including the contributors to this volume–are drawing their strength from crossing, even ignoring, disciplinary boundaries and combining methodologies, without really being too concerned with the question of what “properly” constitutes the “baggy monster” called “cultural studies”‘ (2002: 1). Readings also cites several other examples (1996: 98-101).

2 I am following Readings’ distinction between two moments in the emergence of Cultural Studies and am referring only to the latter of these, ‘around 1990 when several books appeared that seem to mark the acquisition of professional disciplinarity for Cultural Studies’ (1996: 97). Readings in turn is also in part relying on Larry Grossberg’s well-known and seminal essay ‘Formations of Cultural Studies: An American in Birmingham’ (1993).

3 Of these few, Gary Hall (2002) forcefully debunks alleged oppositions between cultural studies and deconstruction while thoroughly recasting a ‘deconstructive cultural studies’; see also Spivak (2000).

4 As one index, admittedly insufficient and arbitrary, of this avoidance of language specificity and difference in general in cultural studies, the volume edited by Herbrechter (2002) features prominently the term translation in its title and one of its five sections is devoted to translation studies. Of the three essays in this section, however, only one (David Katan, ‘Mediating the Point of Refraction and Playing with the Perlocutionary Effect: A Translator’s Choice?’) could be said to engage in a sustained and detailed way with language or language specificity. Throughout the rest of the volume, the frequent occurrence of the term translation almost never refers to linguistic translation. For something closer to a counter-example, see Spivak (2000: 29-30).

5 Herbrechter even speaks of obsession in this regard: ‘The resulting “lack” of identity might also explain why cultural studies has been so obsessed with problems of identity and its construction(s)’ (2002: 2).

6 Samuel Weber (n.d.), ‘The Future Campus: Destiny in a Virtual World’,

7 For a handy overview, which recalls the term’s currency and use among American New Critics long before Foucault set it circulating in a different sense, see Bové (1996).

8 For a deft and thorough analysis of the debate in these terms, see Lucy (1995).

9 The call to ‘leave the university behind’ also abandons this institution as itself an important site for direct political action and intervention. The possibilities for such action are unlimited and the instances of ongoing work in this regard are many. To cite only one exemplary model, the Human Rights Project at Bard College, directed by Thomas Keenan (a professor of Comparative Literature), coordinates numerous human rights actions into an undergraduate curriculum: ‘The project is interdisciplinary and humanities-based, with a focus on the philosophical foundations and the political mechanisms of human rights, and a special interest in freedom of expression, the public sphere, and media. The Project’s main emphasis is on forging links between the human rights movement and the academic world, including activists, faculty, and the undergraduates who might otherwise not find ways to develop and apply their interest in human rights.’

10 In 1953, Roland Barthes’s Writing Degree Zero, in part a response to Sartre’s What Is Literature?, proposes an analysis of writing as distinct from either style or language. Style ‘spring[s] from the body and the past of the writer and gradually become[s] the very reflexes of his [sic] art’ (1967: 10), whereas language is a horizon of necessity and tradition. By ‘writing’, however, Barthes wants to understand the literary element in which the writer exercises freedom and takes responsibility in relation to the general and literary historical legacies.

11 For one place in which Derrida has discussed this notion, see Derrida (1992: 66).

12 ‘[W]hat remains to be thought and presently resists thinking thus passively exposed, in its very passivity is another experience of the “without alibi”. It goes to the heart of what we would still like to call a “response” or a “responsibility”, be it ethical, juridical, or political’ (Derrida, 2002: xxxiv).

13 On this notion of oeuvre, see Kamuf (2002: 3 and passim).

14 See Weber (n.d.), for more ways to think about virtuality as the work of knowledge. He writes: ‘in the light of virtualization, the unknown becomes as it were the element or medium of knowledge, not merely its negative other. Virtuality emerges not as a possibility to be realized or actualized, but as the dynamic tendency of a network of links, out of which knowledge emerges as nodes or clusters of connections, which in turn are always subject to transformation by further exploration or development of the network or networks’.


Barthes, R. (1967) Writing Degree Zero. Trans. A. Lavers and C. Smith. New York: Hill and Wang.

Bové, P. A. (1995) ‘Discourse’, in F. Lentricchia and T. McLaughlin (eds), Critical Terms for Literary Study, 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, J. (1991) ‘Letter to a Japanese Friend’, in J. Derrida, A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds, (ed.) P. Kamuf. Trans. D. Wood and A. Benjamin. New York: Columbia University Press.

Derrida, J. & Attridge, D. (1992) ‘This Strange Institution Called Literature’, in J. Derrida, Acts of Literature, (ed.) D. Attridge. New York and London: Routledge.

Derrida, J. (2002) Without Alibi, (ed.), P. Kamuf. Trans. P. Kamuf. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Grossberg, L. (1993) ‘Formations of Cultural Studies: An American in Birmingham’, in V. Blundell et al. (eds), Relocating Cultural Studies: Developments in Theory and Research. London and New York: Routledge.

Hall, G. (2002) Culture in Bits: The Monstrous Future of Theory. London and New York: Continuum.

Herbrechter, S. (ed.) (2002) Cultural Studies, Interdisciplinarity, and Translation. Critical Studies, Vol. 20. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi.

Kamuf, P. (2002) ‘Introduction: The Event of Resistance’, in J. Derrida, Without Alibi, (ed.) Peggy Kamuf. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Lucy, N. (1995) Debating Derrida. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

Readings, B. (1996) The University in Ruins. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Spivak, G. C. (2000) ‘Deconstruction and Cultural Studies: Arguments for a Deconstructive Cultural Studies’, in N. Royle (ed.), Deconstructions: A User’s Guide. London: Palgrave.

Weber, S. (n.d.). ‘The Future Campus: Destiny in a Virtual World’,

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