Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN: 0816644829.
The claim of the humanities: A dialogue between Simon Morgan Wortham and Christopher Fynsk
Simon Morgan Wortham
Christopher Fynsk’s most recent book, The Claim of Language, contributes to current debates about the state of the contemporary university by acknowledging the decline in fortunes of those disciplines traditionally associated with the liberal arts, particularly (although by no means exclusively) in North America. Fynsk’s analysis of this deterioration draws upon and further extends the terms of discussion set out by Bill Readings and others over the past decade. Thus, the book intervenes in and adds to a growing literature written by academics frequently associated with the ‘theoretical’ approaches found in the contemporary humanities, in which the significance of a variety of factors and forces is brought out in the story of the humanities’ decline: globalization, the advent of so-called ‘late’ capitalism and the readjustment of the labour market; the advance of technics and technical instrumentality on a worldwide scale; the intensifying commercialization of higher learning and the rise of institutional discourses, programs and practices tied to the notion of ‘excellence’; the changing meanings and values of nationhood, culture and the subject, and so forth. Fynsk’s book is distinctive, however, in that it commits itself to the task of making a case for the humanities–perhaps the most traditional of headings for work that goes on in the field which this name implies–in the face of the rapidly changing set of circumstances to which these various forces contribute. While Fynsk has not been alone in seeking to rearticulate this name in the strongest possible way–Jacques Derrida, in ‘The University Without Condition’, has called on the humanities as a way to think the question of the university’s future, for example–this book ties the case for the humanities to what might be called the ‘claim of language’. The claim which language has upon us amounts to an indispendable condition which cannot but be affirmed, and, for Fynsk, this claim may bring us closer to ethico-political exigencies in a way which, far from establishing the possibility of an extraterritorial vantage point from which to evaluate disciplinary ‘objects’, opens on to the other as irreducible possibility.
The discussion came about in the following way. One of the editors of Culture Machine, Joanna Zylinska, asked me to review the book, and I was pleased to accept the invitation, not least because the broader question of the university is one about which I have written at some length in recent years. Indeed, Fynsk himself wrote a short review of my own book on the topic for the journal symploke, in which he raised questions about the project at the same time as applauding certain aspects of my work. So I thought it would be interesting to reverse roles and repay the favour. But as I began to read The Claim of Language, I became more and more convinced that a dialogue with the author would prove a much better way to do justice to the book. First of all, the sheer importance of the issues with which the title essay in particular deals seemed to me to call for serious debate rather than just the kind of calculated response which frequently occurs in an academic review (the form or style of which frequently promotes certain recognizable features: intellectual point-scoring; abstract or formal ‘cleverness’; furtive assertion or defence of one’s own project or perspective; the stealthy introduction of extraneous material outside the scope of the title under review, brought into play so as to gainsay the author; and so on). I had genuine questions about the book, things I wasn’t sure about or didn’t know if I’d got quite right, and a great deal seemed to be at stake in what Fynsk was saying. So here was a chance to ask. Second, the growing body of work in this area undoubtedly accompanies a widespread feeling of dissatisfaction with the state of the contemporary university–this almost goes without saying, and yet the obvious truth of such a statement surely calls for (new) forms of dialogue, particularly those which attempt to exceed (or, at least, extend) established academic convention where the question of scholarly review and debate is concerned. So a dialogue with the author, written for publication in an exclusively on-line (and free of charge) journal like Culture Machine, a journal already long associated with the question of the university as well as that of counter-institutional possibility, seemed to fit the bill much better than a simple review. Such interchanges may indeed prove useful or inventive in developing new networks of academics–and others–dissatisfied not just with the university ‘as such’ but with the play of forces on a worldwide scale which contribute to its contemporary character and plight.
Finally, I was drawn to Fynsk’s thinking about the claim of language as that which calls us to (think) the other as irreducible possibility (at any rate, this is what struck me as a central implication of the book’s ideas and arguments). This seemed to invite not just dialogue, but the risk of an exchange which might even turn into an event, which might cause surprise, or which might entail the unforeseen. If Fynsk was right about the distinctiveness of the humanities along the lines which the book sets out, then we had to take the chance.
The discussion took place by email over a short period of two or three weeks. During this time, Fynsk was preparing to leave the United States, where he was for many years a professor of comparative literature and philosophy at Binghamton University, in order to take up a chair at the University of Aberdeen in the UK. This move established one context for the question of the changing fortunes of the university in the US and in the UK– a question which demands that painstaking attention be given to both the connections and the discontinuities which inform the ‘politics’ of the university in the Anglo-American world (not forgetting, of course, the complexities which tie US and UK institutions to universities elsewhere across the globe). One feature of the discussion, therefore, is that it stages a ‘transatlantic’ encounter and conversation between two academics interested in the predicament of the university today, and brings together different perceptions of the debate in Britain and North America.
Simon Morgan Wortham
SMW: In The Claim of Language, which provides the occasion for this discussion, you seek to rethink the essential task of the humanities from a perspective which goes beyond, say, the predominating culturalist and identity politics inherited and developed from a certain reception of ‘poststructuralism’ in the Anglo-American world. Instead, you return to the philosophical tradition which, notably, includes Heidegger, to pursue a thought of the humanities inspired by the claim which language has upon us, one which calls us toward an experience characterized by an openness to alterity, rather than toward the positive knowledge of disciplinary ‘objects’ within the field. To this extent, while you remain attentive to the problematic nature of any attempt to establish a ‘ground’ for the humanities, you seek to rediscover what might be distinctive about this field in terms which, for you, make possible a renewed ethical and political purchase in the face of contemporary exigencies.
Without wanting to summarize this argument any further, since the ideas and implications it entails will doubtless be drawn out more fully in what follows, perhaps we could begin our discussion with a first line of thinking or questioning prompted by your book. What, indeed, would it mean in fundamental terms to call on the name of the humanities? If to call on the name of the humanities is less to anticipate or prepare for its revival along traditional lines (namely, a reassertion of its identity), than it is–via the claim of language–to call on the other or an other (perhaps we should even say: to be called by the other), then isn’t it possible that an appeal to the name of the humanities could be seen as just strategic rather than fundamental? A passing phase, a transitional moment, or a contingency plan, a holding operation or stop-gap measure on the way to some other place, something else, some other incarnation? What, then, are the implications of this different phrasing of your own argument, if to call on the name of the humanities–via the claim of language–is to call on the name of the other, or to call the humanities by an other? Or if it is to find, in the end, the humanities being called by another? Your own book implies that the tradition which includes Heidegger and Derrida seeks to rethink essence in terms of alterity (a fact which you rightly suggest has been badly missed in the Anglo-American reception of so-called ‘poststructuralism’), and it is precisely here–and not in the events, arguments or positions associated with the ‘linguistic turn’–that we might discover the deeper force of the claim of language. But doesn’t this imply a thought of destination for the humanities in which we must, in the very name of the humanities, somehow replace (subvert?) its own name with another, or an other (which may, indeed, remain nameless)? Or, at least, that we must await such an event, without knowing what it may bring? To say the least, this rephrasing of the fundamental argument certainly seems to trouble the pragmatic aspects, in your book, of a ‘defence’ of the (badly depleted) humanities, if, according to the very claim of language, what(ever) founds it simultaneously puts its name at risk. (Your book begins, of course, with a bold appeal to the very name of the humanities as the starting point of a ‘defence’.) Or is there a better way of viewing the negotiation between the fundamental and the strategic here? Might we put the problem differently, or think about it differently? For while the humanities may not be the future according to the line of thought unfolding here, equally such a line of thinking makes it possible to say that the question of the humanities is indeed a question of the future, and therefore a question that we must, at all costs, retain. An essential question, of sorts, yet one that is always already on the move, as it were. This reminds me of what Derrida says towards the end of ‘The University Without Condition’: ‘One thinks in the humanities the irreducibility of their outside and of their future. One thinks in the humanities that one cannot and must not let oneself be enclosed within the inside of the humanities. But for this thinking to be strong and consistent requires the humanities Â… It is at this always divisible limit that what arrives arrives’ (2002a: 236). In this sense, the humanities is its own counter-institution, already and yet to come.
For me, this idea of the counter-institutional ‘possibility’ which arises in the name or on the grounds of the humanities calls to mind Sam Weber’s powerful critique of Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins, and perhaps helps us to move ahead in its terms. Let me explain why. In his essay ‘The Future of the University’, Weber takes a close look at the way in which Readings presents the concept and practice of corporate-style ‘excellence’ as a characterising feature of contemporary academic institutions. As Readings puts it, in a passage quoted by Weber in his own essay,
the appeal to excellence marks the fact that there is no longer any idea of the University, or rather that the idea has lost all content. As a non-referential unit of value entirely internal to the system, excellence marks nothing more than the moment of technology’s self-reflection. All that the system requires is for activity to take place, and the empty notion of excellence refers to nothing other than the optimal input/output ratio in matters of information. (1996: 39).
Here, Weber detects a problem. Doesn’t the ‘self-reflection’ implied in the movement and measure of excellence–albeit of an apparently extreme technocratic and bureaucratic kind–nevertheless constitute a certain sort of reference? Perhaps even the very kind of self-reference found in that which inaugurates Enlightenment thought, rather than in a ‘post-historical’ present to which the Enlightenment tradition is irretrievably lost? Weber goes so far as to tie the formation of ‘excellence’ described by Readings to the determination of the Cartesian cogito itself, thereby suggesting that the supposedly ‘posthistorical’, ‘dereferentialised’ university which emerges from the pages of The University in Ruins in fact repeats and reinscribes longstanding formations, modes and processes of knowledge, representation, reference and self-identity. Thus, he writes:
Excellence, like the Cartesian cogito, distinguishes itself from all others, above all from the objects of its representations. It divests itself of all “content” in order thereby to demarcate its own self-identity, henceforth to be determined in nothing but the process of representing as such, which is to say, in the process of ‘doubting’ as opposed to the determination of that which is doubted. As its name suggests, ‘doubting’ is duplicitous. It doubles and splits itself off from what it doubts and, in so doing, establishes a purely formal relation to its own ‘performance’. The grounding force of the Cartesian cogito, by which it attains certitude, resides in precisely this doubling, splitting and demarcating movement, which produces a kind of pure performativity not so very different from that ascribed by Readings to the notion of ‘excellence’. (2001: 231)
On Weber’s view, then, it is as though Readings, in the very attempt to apprehend what is distinctive about the contemporary university (i.e. its ‘excellence’), nevertheless unwittingly repeats a longstanding tendency to view the university as an institution that is essentially self-grounded and self-contained. Far from exposing and confirming the radical transformations to which academic institutions have been exposed and which they have undergone in recent times, Readings might therefore actually be seen to resort to habitual thinking as a defence against the violent shock of change.
Now, while I think that there are other ways of approaching Readings’ book,1 it is interesting nonetheless that this critique allows Weber to suggest that Readings’ analysis (which he views as resting on an idea of the pure self-reference of the contemporary university) in fact fails to take into account the complex play of virtualisation which constitutes contemporary reality in the world today–a play (or, indeed, an economy) in which dynamic relations of spatio-temporal dislocation fundamentally rule out ‘self-contained realms or fields’. Leaving aside the question of whether Readings indeed does little more than portray the university of ‘excellence’ in such ‘traditional’ terms, to my mind this thought of the counter-institutional ‘possibility’ of the humanities includes or suggests a possible opening onto the ‘other’ as precisely virtual. In his essay, Weber tells us that, hitherto, traditional academic scholarship saw its advance as the pursuit of the not-yet-known, as if the unknown could be construed as just the negative other of knowledge. But with virtualisation, ‘the unknown becomes, as it were, the element or medium of knowledge, not merely its negative other’, since ‘virtuality emerges not as a possibility to be realized or actualized’ (2001: 230). Going back to our discussion of the humanities, this thought of virtuality acquires significance, for me, to the extent that the ‘other’ which may arrive (or which might claims us) in the very name of the humanities would much less give rise to the institution or ground of ‘new’ or ‘positive’ knowledge, than it would come as the medium or trait (of the humanities) which remains irreducibly virtual–or, better, actuvirtual, as Derrida has put it. This is because, as you yourself argue, the humanities–whether in traditional or rediscovered form–involve practices and modes of knowing or experiencing which, at bottom, remain tenaciously distinct from objectification or the epistemological relation established in positive sciences. But it is also because, according to the logic I’ve just been pursuing in relation to your book, the very name of the humanities–or the claim it has upon us, the ‘claim of language’–gives rise to the counter-institutional ‘possibility’ of an other within itself (‘in the humanities’, as Derrida says) which, nonetheless, it can never ‘properly’ be or become, a ‘possibility’ which could never be ‘realized or actualized’ according to what you term the epistemology of scientific positivism or objectivity, but which nevertheless remains distinct in the humanities (as its opening to the future)–which perhaps, one might even say, is fundamental or essential, if one rethinks essence as, following Heidegger and others, you try to do. (Here, one might recall that Derrida links the question of the humanities as a question of the future to the complex modalities of the ‘as if’, which do not make possible ‘the order of the masterable possible’ (2002a: 234), or a performative act which originates in an enunciative ‘I’ seeking to confirm its own power, agency or standing.)
CF: I have not had a chance to read the Weber text yet, so I hesitate to respond to his argument at any length. Let me just ask the following: was Readings really describing an act of auto-foundation? Was this loop in the ‘system’ to which he points (which is the university inscribed in advanced technology and capital, described here in terms of information theory) understood to be self-grounding and self-containing? I don’t quite read that in the citation you provided, though I concur that the passage invites some questions. In any case, I guess I tend to think of the appeal to ‘excellence’, as Readings describes it, as a kind of pseudo-foundation, a simulacrum of self-identification that could be discarded and replaced at any moment. ‘Excellence’ is nothing but a place-holder for an earlier self-grounding claim to a civic function or a role in Bildung (whose structure does indeed call for a reference to the metaphysics of subjectivity and humanism). But I suppose I should go back to look at the manner in which Readings employs his analysis of the term; I see no need to dispute Weber here, particularly since his interest seems to lie elsewhere (i.e., in his determination of ‘the virtual’). On this matter of ‘excellence’, though, I suspect it’s worth a bit more attention. Let me just note that I’m not inclined to dismiss the matter of “excellence” quickly–I stumble upon it almost every day. I read, only this week in Binghamton’s most recent mission statement: ‘Excellence is a delicate state of being; it must be continually recreated’. I’ll leave that extraordinary sentence without comment for now and simply juxtapose to it a remark made to me by a Dean of my College some years ago: ‘Surely, Chris, you cannot expect me to make decisions on the basis of quality?’.2 The latter was probably the most important utterance I have heard in my twelve years as a department chair at Binghamton.
But let me move on. Weber’s appeal to a Derridean notion of the ‘virtual’ is quite interesting, and I’m sure that I could adopt the term without much discomfort to address what escapes the demands of the principle of reason (to refer to another important essay by Derrida on the university), and haunts every effort to respond to what I termed ‘the claim of language’. The term also has the virtue of reaching important dimensions of the spatio-temporal disorder of modern technology. But I have purposely not chosen to elaborate that ‘claim’ in the terms of the trace structure explored by Derrida because I think that too many appeals to this notion by students of his remain formulaic and are couched in a rhetoric of conceptual mastery that implicitly covers a refusal to address a broader set of questions. I am not making a statement there about Derrida (nor about Weber, for that matter)–after all, I devote one of the three chapters in my book to Derrida’s efforts on behalf of the International College of Philosophy, and I meant that discussion to be quite affirmative. Wherever Derrida appeals to a notion of ‘experience’, he is writing at the level I seek to attain in my book. But I’m trying to accompany deconstruction, not confirm it. And I should acknowledge that there is a point of real divergence in my argument vis-à-vis Derrida (though I consider the distance taken to be still proper to any true ‘accompaniment’). The difference actually goes back some way to a disagreement we had ten years ago concerning the question of the human. In a paper presented at the conference, ‘The Futures of Deconstruction’, I tried to indicate how Derrida’s deconstruction of the metaphysics of humanism in Heidegger’s text missed crucial dimensions of Heidegger’s effort to rethink what he called the human ‘essence’. Derrida took strong exception to my effort to return to the question of the human (as did Sam Weber!). But my subsequent work on this question has convinced me that Heidegger’s notion of ‘usage’ does point to a possibility of taking up the question of the human in new ways. This work, presented in Language and Relation: that there is language and Infant Figures, is behind my argument that a thought of the ‘claim of language’ can renew this critical question for the humanities (though my ‘case’ for the humanities does not hinge on this topic of the human). I should say that I am quite struck by the fact that the recent text by Derrida on the university (which you have cited) repeatedly asserts the necessity of taking up the question of the human for the cause of the humanities.
Let me say one more word about deconstruction, here, since it informs so many of your questions. Then I’ll turn to your question about the name of the humanities. An important part of my effort in this recent book has been to move beyond reference to any particular philosophical or theoretical movement (associated with a particular name). To be sure, when I develop Foucault’s evocation of the ‘being of language’ in The Archaeology of Knowledge along Heideggerian lines, I am pursuing a very particular path of argument. But as I tried to assert, I could have started from any number of authors, including Deleuze, Lacan, Lyotard, or Derrida himself. My aim at that moment is to recall a broader tradition of thinking (without trying to contain the names I mentioned there); so before making the step toward Heidegger’s notion of usage on my own line of thinking, I go back to situate Foucault’s phrase in relation to a tradition that includes Heidegger, Rosenzweig, Benjamin, Wittgenstein, and then a number of authors from the preceding two centuries. In short, I am trying to break out of the a-historical character of much theoretical discussion and invoke an intellectual history (with all due caution about what it means to invoke tradition). The step to Heidegger with the notion of ‘usage’ is important because it allows me to raise the question of the human and also to displace the tendency (latent in much reception of post-structuralist theory) to turn language, surreptitiously, into a kind of ground–my aim being to break out of ‘the prison-house of language’, or ‘the house of Being’, for that matter. But I could also have taken this step with others in an effort to show how there is a ‘claim’ in language by virtue of the way it gives relation to alterity. As I suggested above, I don’t believe I need the question of the human (as Heidegger allows me to pose it) to make my argument that (a) there are humanities by virtue of the claim of language and that (b) this claim leads thought to engage an other. Currently, I pursue this same question via Blanchot and Levinas. ( By the way, I’m going to have to stop this recurrent referral to my title, because I want to avoid jargon as much as possible. Even a phrase such as ‘the other’ slips rapidly into a form of shorthand that is inherently obscurantist.)
So, I try to argue that the humanities should have a vital place in society and the academy by reason of an exigency made on thought by language, or, more properly, by a form of event that occurs in language. What distinguishes the humanities, I argue, is the nature of the response–in other words, ‘the humanities’ are forms of reflection and practice that cannot be described as wholly descriptive or representational in that they are always at grips with something that exceeds their purview (something ‘virtual’, if you will). The modes of ‘knowing’ of the humanities, in other words, are distinctive, though I am uneasy about drawing sharp distinctions with those of other fields (with those of the social sciences, for example–on this point, I am raising an issue that remains a real question for me). In some respects, this is not so radical an argument; the Rockefeller foundation report on the humanities of 1981 said that the ‘medium’ of the humanities is language. But I think that my willingness to give this argument an ontological reach (or even ‘extra-ontological’ since the thought of usage carries us beyond ‘being’, and even–but I must be careful here–‘language’) gives it a different kind of bite. I want to say, for example, that the humanities are at grips with a ‘real’ that exceeds the hold of the concept and any positive form of knowing.
In this latter respect, I try to give real weight to the phrase ‘there are’ humanities; something calls upon their singular existence and there are responses that bring this call to language in questioning, reflective forms. Thus, my appeal to the name of the humanities is not merely pragmatic. It’s not merely pragmatic, to put this in another way, because I argue that the humanities have a pragma. Granel called this, after Heidegger, ‘being in the world’–for my part, I add a thought of the event and return to the question of the human via Heidegger’s notion of usage; but I’m not sure we are so far apart in thinking this ‘thing’ that concerns the humanities. That said, I am not wedded to the name of the humanities (any more than I am to the name of the human–I would be quite comfortable with Jean-François Lyotard’s reference to an ‘inhuman’ for this same non-ground of experience). There is no proper name for the discursive events I am trying to describe. Indeed, the mode of inquiry I try to sketch in the book under the name of ‘local’ forms of practice is quite open-ended, and I would embrace the notion of a becoming other in/of the humanities. Here, in particular, I do not take the humanities to be an essentially ‘academic’ exercise. I tend to focus on the academy and to speak from my own insertion in it, but I am most interested in the moments when the local forms of engagement I am describing lead beyond the limits of the university.
That said, there is also an important pragmatic dimension to this use of the name of the humanities. I speak very much from my own place as an American academic in this book. I believe strongly that in political matters we must always find leverage in the institutional conditions in which we are situated. I know that ‘the humanities’ do not have quite the same resonance in the UK as they have in the US, and I think this is an important fact for the discussion at hand. (I suppose I should consider, in this regard, the meaning of my move to the University of Aberdeen next January, but I’ll put that aside for now.) But in the US, the name of the humanities bears a powerful resonance. Academic administrators, even the most cynical, cannot afford to dismiss openly the claims of the humanities, even as they turn aside and strip their resources from them. As for myself, I would willingly admit to a certain love for the word that I think is shared by many others. Again, I think it is important to acknowledge where one is speaking from and to assume one’s inscriptions (I have no inclination to deny my classical literary training or even my love for the book, a quite aesthetic attraction to the material object that extends into a passion for collecting in other areas as well). For me, the formulations you have used in your question seem to leap toward an unforseeable future in an effort to avoid any possible imputation of sentimentality or mournful appropriation–almost as if they are in flight. The watchword strikes me as almost Rimbaudian–one must be absolutely radical, absolutely modern. I think I’m attempting something else. I’m trying to affirm where I am (in a kind of Nietzschean sense–though I cited a Talmudic tale to define this in the book, in the chapter on Granel), and move forward from the real conditions of my work. In this process, I think I’ve learned not be so afraid of those accusations and to attempt always to explore what passions and desires are really at stake in the loves to which I referred above. I find they almost always lead into temporalities and exposures (to ‘the other’) not unlike the ones to which I believe you refer. But quite beyond my love for the humanities is my sense that their name has a mobilizing power in the contemporary context.
So we have a quite an interesting situation from a political point of view. On the one hand, one can describe the humanities as almost abject in the contemporary socio-political context. This isn’t true in the most powerful institutions, but it is certainly true in a great many public ones. This institutional abjection is coupled by a kind of symbolic destitution. Not many humanists, at least reflective ones, are now prepared to defend ‘the humanities’ in the traditional sense, and they can’t really formulate anything else beyond an appeal to culturalist values. A defence of the traditional notion of the humanities would be preposterous today, even in this time of Republican ascendency (though even as I write those words, I shudder a bit–who knows what’s coming). At the same time, an appeal to ‘the humanities’ can mobilize a very strong symbolic resonance (or at least a haunting echo!). So I am interested in seeing if a transformation of the university can be achieved from this haunted site of destitution. Might we now find, as we confront the radically declining fortunes of the humanities, an exceptional opportunity for a needed rethinking and, by virtue of the force still latent in the name, some real symbolic leverage? In the process, I would indeed hope for a ‘becoming-other in/of the humanities’. I’m sure I won’t live to see their name replaced by another one (at least not through this process of ‘becoming other’ I’ve invoked–the academic market, on the other hand, has other resources), but the idea doesn’t trouble me. I guess I would say that I want to put the name of the humanities into play. I don’t take that name as something given; on the contrary, I’m attempting a kind of performative and trying to give it a new ‘sendoff’. Since I am citing Derrida there, let me add in conclusion that the paragraph you quote from him concerning the way in which the humanities think their outside and their future certainly meets my approval–we need the humanities to move beyond what the humanities have become. And if we follow the ‘local’ practice I try to describe, there is little danger of enclosure.
SMW: As you’ve just implied, your case for the humanities entails rigorous attention to the question of language–language as a philosophical question, that is. In his essay ‘Where a Teaching Body Begins and How It Ends’, Derrida says this:
If ‘pedagogical practice always lags behind mores,’ a proposition that perhaps neglects a certain heterogeneity in their relations, but which does not appear, globally, very questionable, then the outdated structure of teaching can always be questioned as repetition. That does not make less necessary any other specific analysis but rather concerns a structural invariant in teaching. It originates in the semiotic structure of teaching, the practically semiotic interpretation of the pedagogical relation: Teaching delivers signs. The teaching body produces (shows and puts forward) signs, or, more precisely, signifiers supposing the knowledge of a prior signified. In relation to this knowledge, the signifier is structurally second. Every university puts language in a position of belatedness or derivation in relation to meaning or truth. That the signifier–or rather the signifier of signifiers–is now placed in the transcendental position in relation to the system changes nothing: the teaching structure of a language and the semiotic belatedness of a didactics are reproduced insofar as they are given a second wind. (2002b: 81)
This implies that the ‘linguistic turn’ was always in danger–as you yourself suggest–simply of giving a ‘second wind’ to the traditional image and function of the university–an image and function which you acknowledge to be so deeply in decline that our best bet is not to hope too ‘optimistically’ for its salvation or return. But equally, if this is the case, isn’t it too ‘optimistic’ to hope for another thought of language which, if charged with responsibility for a renewal of the humanities along fundamental lines, might make a decisive difference in the midst of the university’s ‘ruins’? I say this as someone who thinks the question of language may still have a great deal of mileage, force or future, not just in the kind of analyses I myself want to undertake, but more broadly in the field of institutional or, indeed, counter-institutional ‘possibility’. Yet the question remains, exactly which thought of language could hope to avoid the fate of language in the university as suggested by Derrida in the passage above?
CF: I’ve experimented with the pedagogical relation a number of times (particularly in conjunction with Bill Haver), and I’m inclined to agree with Derrida on that ‘structural invariant’. Moreover, our pedagogical institutions are quite effective in upholding that structure–so much so that the greatest resistance seems to come from the students themselves. But I have found that displacement is possible. In fact, I was trying to evoke such a thing near the conclusion of my book when I described my advanced undergraduate seminar on the topic of ‘the limits of representation’. By dwelling on the structure of Freud’s case-studies (which includes introducing the topic of transference), and then approaching the question of testimony via Blanchot, Lanzman, Levi, and Ota Yoko, I’m able to dislodge the usual assumptions about the nature of the teaching relation and lead the students toward what I call there ‘an experience with language’–which is to say, an event in which the limits of language are somehow marked. Once again, I want to emphasize that what interests me in that so-called ‘claim of language’ is an experience with language (to speak like Heidegger) where our relation to language comes into question. Where that happens, the real questions, and the question of the real, occur. Of course, a lecture seminar in which I take that event as a theme or topic of investigation (and I do that too, on occasion) will immediately reinstate the structure to which Derrida refers. And, to a certain degree, there’s no avoiding that thematization, even in the most adventurous and successful seminars.
But I think that your question also points in another direction. Can one, in this late stage of the fortunes of post-structuralism, really hope that a return to the question of language can salvage or re-start anything?
First of all, if it is just a matter of elaborating another thought of language (or of its limits), then the pitfall to which I just pointed is inevitable. I wouldn’t see much intrinsic interest in establishing a new theory or philosophy of language, presuming I were even capable of such a thing. (Let me be clear: I might take great satisfaction from such work along the way–but at some point I know the pen would drop from my hand and I would ask what the point might be; this has happened to me more than once.) And I’m not looking to a philosophy or theory to ground our practices in the humanities–that would simply reinstate the oldest thinking about the theory/practice relation (with all the political consequences that attend this structure). I’m simply trying to give the means to think (a) the exigency to which the humanities owe their existence (to the extent they exist in something more than an encrusted institutional form), or in relation to which they might exist if we assume the task, and (b) the singular character of the response–i.e., what distinguishes the humanities as modes of knowing and practice. And I believe that existence, here, really is a function of performative acts of teaching and writing for which notions such as ‘testimony’ or perhaps ‘professing’ are vital indicators. As I tried to suggest in the introduction to my book, I do not want to imply that my account of this exigency is the only possible one, or even that ‘exigency’ is quite the right term. If I can trigger other responses from inspired or angered readers that do the job more effectively (and by that I mean in a more invigorating way–not in a more ‘adequate’ manner since there is no correct or sufficient answer to the exigency in question), all the better. There are certainly risks in this effort (beyond the possibility of a phrase such as ‘the claim of language’ being caught up in a play of jargon). I most fear an anxious clenching to a notion of ‘literariness’ or some aestheticizing posture that would block openings to articulations with other fields in the sciences or social sciences. To affirm that there are humanities might induce a kind of defensiveness. But again, I write from a situation where participants in a committee drafting a five-year plan for research at our university proposed barring the use of the term ‘research’ for work in the humanities. The latter, they argued (and I’ve heard this elsewhere) are engaged in ‘scholarship’, not ‘research’, since the latter presupposes the capacity to generate funds. In such a situation (and this is just a tiny symptom of the ascendency of technocratic modes of thinking in the new marketplace), the humanities are destined to a very secondary service role. I believe that a great deal is at stake here of an ethico-political order. I don’t think I need to go on at this point, but I would point to Jean-François Lyotard’s meditations on the necessity of honoring the temporalities and forms of thought and what it carries of something he called ‘the inhuman’.
SMW: Early on in your book, you comment that there ‘was a moment, in the weeks following the events of September 11, 2001’–prior to the full interpretative appropriation of the event by the media and authorities–when American public discourse and culture was exposed to fundamental questions, notably about the ‘human’, for which there were no immediate, reassuring, or consensual answers. And you regret the fact that the humanities were unable to capitalize on this opportunity for a newfound relevance or role. Indeed, this recognition concerning the missed opportunity of the humanities during the period that followed 9/11 in many ways forms the starting point for your analysis of the long-term demise and marginalization of the humanities as an influence or voice in the wider public or cultural setting–an analysis that shrewdly dissects the appropriative force of the US media and government in the realm of cultural politics in recent years. Yet it is very clear that you don’t wish to suggest that the events of 9/11 could take their significance–now, for us–from the opportunity they might have afforded the humanities to revive their mission. The ethical standpoint of your book in general seems, indeed, to point in a very different direction. Moreover, the various responses to the events of 9/11 by influential members of the theoretical community frequently place in question the very notion or possibility that one might be sufficiently able to detach oneself from the ‘event’ or find a ground, a secure standpoint or safe horizon from which to treat it as an object of commentary or critique, to objectify it ‘as such’. The forces at play in this event–‘globalization’, ‘terror’, ‘mediatization’, ‘virtuality’, and so forth–might imply, for some, that a response from the humanities was lacking not simply because of inertia in the humanities (although, of course, this must be part of the story), but, more fundamentally, because an essential or vital response might indeed have entailed somehow giving up the name and ground of the humanities in (thinking) the very experience of the event. Do you agree with this line of thinking? Or is it possible to follow an ‘other’ thought of the humanities–and of the ‘human’ to which the humanities point, in some way at least–according to which the ‘experience’ or ‘event’ doesn’t just automatically exceed, outstrip or render obsolete the name and possibility of the humanities? In what way, if any, is it possible that the humanities might rediscover and assume in its own name something more than just, say, a work of mourning? (Derrida suggests something like an anesthetic or pain-killing effect in the ritualized naming of the event — ‘9/11′–which quickly took place in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, implying that the attribution of a name to the event serves a work of mourning which is perhaps inevitably and necessarily reductive or neutralizing. In this regard, one might ask what is implied by a powerful restatement of the humanities’ very name, such as we find in your own book and indeed in Derrida’s essay ‘The University Without Condition’, when one thinks of the effects of naming that might be associated with ‘9/11’.) In short, then, how do you think about the relation between the humanities and events such as 9/11?
CF: I think it would indeed be strange to suggest that the events of 9/11 could take their meaning or significance from an opportunity they afforded the humanities–nothing was farther from my mind. What I was trying to suggest in that paragraph was that the kind of ethico-political exigency that constitutes a call for something like ‘humanistic’ reflection was quite visible in those weeks after the attacks, and that equally visible was the lack of significant voices from that quarter, particularly from the academy. After reading your question, I fear I may perhaps have left readers with the sense that an ‘opportunity’ of some kind was missed there. But I was writing, rather, with the sense that a need had not been answered, and that the silence was highly symptomatic. Looking back, I see that I did in fact speak of that need in the paragraph in question, and that I was trying to suggest that it had surfaced in a very particular way during the weeks after the events. What I wanted to say was that the dread and anxiety that gripped the ‘body-politic’ at that moment (I use that phrase tentatively, and with ‘dread’, I’m thinking a bit along lines suggested by Bataille) constituted a real ethico-political exigency. I was also quite gripped, for my part, with the question of civic duty and community (I wrote an essay for Vacarme entitled, ‘Peut-on être citoyen d’un empire?’–for me, the question of civic participation had really opened in that moment). It was the role of thinkers in the humanities–along with many others–to find language to bring that dread and confusion into language and some form of questioning, thinking response. My own University Provost, whom I cite in my essay, remarked to me only a day after the events that she had never felt the humanities were as needed as they were at the time, since so few knew even how to formulate the questions the event provoked, let alone deal with the massive presence of death, the sense of foreboding, and the latent political and social crisis (this is the same person who, just a few months before, had said quite candidly to me, ‘You know, we don’t think that much about the humanities in our planning’). The fact that individuals from the humanities were not at the table in public discussion was a sign of the difficulties I was trying to point to in those pages. But I could never imagine that the events of 9/11 could serve as some kind of grounding point for the humanities, nor could I sit well with the idea that the events were to be capitalized upon. (Here, I must add that I have a real horror of any tendency to ‘capitalize’ intellectually on events such as the Shoah or 9/11; I find such a capitalization especially offensive when it takes an aestheticizing form.) Again, my feeling was that there was a genuine public exigency in that moment to which the humanities, as a discursive constituency, let us say, did not significantly testify. The events could certainly never constitute a grounding point in the sense that the humanities would have some privileged role in commentary and critique (implying the detachment to which you pointed). Indeed, one of my most crucial points in the book, as I suggested earlier, is that the notion of response I elaborate does not entail objectification. The point is essential to my argument, because I am suggesting that the form or relation involved in humanistic inquiry diverges from the epistemological relation established in the positive sciences, including sociology or political science. One could even push my argument to the point of suggesting that the humanities are not about interpretation at all (though I think such a statement is potentially misleading–the point would be simply that it is not about deciphering signifiers in search of their signified). This understanding of the modes of knowing and practice involved in the humanities leads me to my emphasis on ‘local’ practice, both in the main essay, and in the essay on Granel in my book.
Now, in your question, you ask whether the lack of strong responses from the fields we associate with the humanities points less to an inertia in those fields than to the fact that a response would have required ‘somehow giving up the name and ground of the humanities in the very experience of the event’. The phrasing of your question first makes me want to say, ‘What name and ground–is there still one?’. But let me back up and twist your question just a bit. I can’t imagine saying that there should have been a response ‘in the name of the humanities’. If anything, the humanities would find their calling (their name, if you will) in the response–which involves thinking, among other things, the nature of such an event and the questions that proceed from it. I ask in the opening page of my title essay whether we can speak in the name of the humanities to define a necessary task for thought, and I clearly want to answer in the affirmative. But I do not want to hypostatize this institutional entity in quite the way your question might be taken to suggest. ‘The humanities’, I want to say, are a set of practices that find their bearing, in always singular and local forms, in answering to the ethico-political exigencies of our histories (which come to us in many forms, including events as terrible as the destruction of the World Trade Center). This formulation is a bit heavy, but it should be taken broadly; and as I said in the book, I see no reason to exclude some very traditional practices of philology and so forth. I am not interested in ‘purity’ in this name. But where the humanities have a real symbolic claim, they involve practices with shared traits that I have tried to describe with an approach that involves a thought of language (and its limits), and I want to argue that their institutional place is worth claiming for reasons of an ethico-political character. I believe that there were few such responses with broad resonance or reach in the public space because of the current institutional configuration of the humanities. There is inertia, to be sure, but also something more, as your question suggests. But I think I would rephrase this. My argument is that the very discursive grounding of the humanities has collapsed; in brief, I don’t think they really have much of a ‘name’ at this time, at least not one that many can claim. The result is a striking delegitimation in the public, symbolic sphere–not only have humanists failed to find a way to speak, they have been elbowed aside (I tried to address a few words to this phenomenon in relation to the cultural politics of an organ such as The New York Times–the Times‘s recent handling of Derrida’s passing has offered a troubling confirmation of the points I tried to make). And their effort to posture as ‘public intellectuals’ in a few cases has only worsened the situation. Thus, while any number of writers and artists working in ‘the humanities’ developed incisive, invaluable responses, those responses had no public purchase, no ‘resonance’, as I have said. They could not gather significant communities of any kind, no matter how local. And few turned to those individuals for their contributions. (This is not to say that there were not all sorts of extraordinary gatherings, as I witnessed in my own community in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn–an area that is still considered a ghetto by many.) Consequently ‘9/11’ became the purview of the media and parties in the government. So, it is not that humanists held to their stubborn self-conception as an academic, corporate entity; it is rather that the disarray afflicting their institutional context neutralized their possible contributions and perhaps (in fact, I’m sure of this) paralyzed or undercut some responses.
You ask whether there could be another thought of the humanities ‘according to which the “experience” or “event” doesn’t just automatically exceed, outstrip or render obsolete the name and possibility of the humanities’. Well, I guess that’s exactly what I am trying to achieve. In a passage in which I tried to make a provisional distinction between ‘theory’ (as a formal undertaking that might be ‘applied’ to events) and thought, or what I called ‘fundamental research’, I wrote the following:
Fundamental research diverges from much theory in that it is always seeking the limits of its language in responding to that to which it seeks to answer: those dimensions of experience and symbolic expression that summon it (as a kind of exigency for thought) and to which no concept will ever be quite adequate. Such research is impelled by its own neediness and its sense of being answerable, whereas theory, governed by the concept, proceeds with ever-expanding appropriations; fundamental research proceeds from encounter (always from a sense that something has happened to which it must answer), and it seeks encounter. In theory, there are no encounters’. (2004: xi)
So I suppose I could say that one way in which the humanities should define their form is in a thought of the event. Elsewhere in the book, I suggest that I see the task of the humanities as making happen the questions that should proceed from an event, be it historical, textual or even somewhere in the new media. The practice of writing history, as Benjamin gives it to be thought, for example, is hardly a work of mourning. I might add that some of the theoretical work to which you refer in reference to 9/11 would be ‘humanistic’ in the sense I am offering here, and this helps me underscore that I do not mean to speak in absolute terms–it goes without saying that something was happening in the humanities at that moment to some extent.
Let me add a concluding word on 9/11. I chose to evoke that date in the paragraph you have focused on because most of my title essay was written in the months immediately preceding it. I composed it during the moments when my infant son would fall asleep on a blanket next to my desk (in fact, I wanted to dedicate it to him with the phrase, ‘for Gabriel, who slept during the best parts’–I finally concluded he might not forgive me for that in years to come). I spent a lot of time wondering if my essay would prove up to the new configuration of events, convinced that we had passed a ‘watershed’ moment, and I felt it was important to date the essay with the reference. I think I would speak of the ‘ethico-political exigencies’ facing the humanities a little differently today, particularly in light of the recent elections and the gravity of the global situation. But I haven’t changed my sense of the tasks facing the humanities and the urgency of creating institutional spaces for them.
SMW: Since this has already come up, albeit in a brief reference, I wonder how the claim of language, upon which your thinking of ‘the humanities’ rests, might affect the possibility of testimony or profession? As Derrida has noted, profession in its truest sense is not dependent on or reducible to a specific content, knowledge, or technical ability. And, elsewhere, he has shown how testimony emerges as that which is radically heterogeneous to evidence. Evidence, of course, forms a crucial part both of contemporary university discourse and practice in the age of ‘quality assurance’ and ‘excellence’, and underlies the advance of technics more generally (as your book repeatedly suggests). But how exactly does the claim of language in the humanities give specific or distinctive force to a testimony or profession which might re-engage or re-encounter the contemporary world, or, indeed, which might find within itself some sort of counter-force in relation to a number of contemporary issues and problems? In perhaps a rather more narrow sense, when compared to issues on a global scale at any rate, this question suggested itself to me primarily in light of my own experience of academic audit in the UK. The culture of institutional audit and public management in this country is one with which you will doubtless become more familiar as you leave the United States to join a Scottish university. Last year, I was responsible for coordinating the English Literature subject area at my own university–a former UK polytechnic–during a period of audit conducted ‘internally’ at subject level (the level of the discipline) at a time when the institution as a whole underwent a larger audit conducted by the QAA (Quality Assurance Agency), the government-backed body responsible for such evaluation in the UK. Indeed, for a while it seemed likely that the ‘internal’ audit for which I was preparing, along with my colleagues, was really just a ‘mock-up’ of the real thing to come, since the institution had undertaken a ‘risk analysis’ in which English Literature figured as a likely candidate for the DAT (discipline audit trail) by means of which the QAA would assess the academic health ‘on the ground’ (i.e. at subject level) of the institution in general. (And an unsatisfactory result in just one discipline, or so we were told, would lead to the withholding of a vote of confidence in the university as a whole.) So the stakes seemed quite high, since although the QAA is seen as rather ineffectual in some quarters–particularly where one would be able to attain a little distance from the situation which I am describing–nonetheless the outcome of such audits (both ‘internal’ and ‘external’) can produce very real effects at the level of funding, investment, strategic planning, and so forth. (I don’t mean to suggest, here, that judgements on the part of those responsible for ‘quality assurance’ actually do very much to change the minds of hard-headed or streetwise managers who make decisions first and foremost on the basis of ‘income-generation’–but nevertheless a bad result, if combined with, say, a picture of dwindling student recruitment in a particular discipline, even over the short-term, and the effects of certain manoeuvres undertaken on the basis of partisan interests or agendas within the university, can indeed have a genuine impact.) Now, one of the things that most struck me during this period was that, in the run-up to the actual event (the audit took place over a two-day period), I was kept extraordinarily busy with the preparation of bodies of evidence: programme specifications which detailed degree structures and learning aims, skills maps which included specific claims about ‘learning outcomes’ for particular parts and years of the degree in question, descriptions of individual modules written in standard format, files containing evidence of student feedback, external examiners’ reports, statistics on student admissions and performance, staff evaluations of their own courses based on such ‘evidence’, and so forth. But all the while I was conscious of an atmosphere in which no-one, ‘internally’ at least, seemed to value what might be called my ‘testimony’ (or indeed that of any other member of teaching staff), or saw fit to listen and make judgements on the basis of, let’s say, trust–or, indeed, responsibility in a perhaps more traditional sense. (If I remember correctly, none of the documents I was asked to prepare included space for a signature or, for that matter, the attribution of authorship.) I am not so much concerned or inclined to blame individuals for this state of affairs (who, indeed, would ‘sign’ for their responsibility within this system?) More accurately, the situation was–and still is–brought about by the domination of a discourse and practice of audit in which an all too crude, narrow, instrumental conception of ‘evidence’ is applied at the near absolute expense of ‘testimony’. This seems all the more ironic and ill-fitting in disciplines such as ours–literature, philosophy–where the question of judgement is not just unavoidable but perhaps more ‘properly’ central to the very nature and possibility of the ‘knowledge’ we produce: not just its instrument, then, but its very ‘medium’, in the sense indicated by Sam Weber. In one respect, one might even say that ‘trust’ is structurally necessary and unavoidable in our disciplines (it would be easy enough to regrade papers to improve the average mark, for example, and thus to alter the picture of the academic health of a particular course) and yet such trust, however irreducible it may be, is systematically denied or repressed as the audit unfolds. (Although I should say that I felt it to be partially restored by those external academic colleagues–not connected to the QAA–to whom a place on the audit committee was given, during the two-day event itself.) And so I’m very aware that, although I was called upon by various individuals and committees to speak, both in the build-up and in the course of the actual event, I was unable–I was not permitted–to speak in or with my own voice. Not that I particularly wanted to have recourse to some unreconstructed sense of the self, personhood, authentic voice, etc.–or even, at bottom, that I wished for a greater degree of professional respect or responsibility (although there were times when I certainly did). What really concerned me was that, in view of the standardized, uncontested discourse and practice of audit (as that of ‘evidence’), I was given no option but to adopt a ‘language’ to which no-one took exception. By this I mean, yes, of course, the whole process was treated as suspect and was even ridiculed ‘in private’ by many of those who were involved (not just university teachers), but, still, it seemed, no exception could be taken, not in any seriousness, and it is in this sense I say that I could not speak in or with my own voice.
One other remark on the dwindling fortunes (but also the last chances) of testimony. The continual rise of an ‘evidence-based approach’ to academic audit in recent years now means that teaching is rarely inspected in the UK. The pedagogical relation, and the kind of ‘experience’ or ‘event’ to which it gives rise, unsurprisingly remains incompatible with the aims and objectives of ‘evidence’. Soon after the audit had taken place at my own institution, I gave a paper at University College Cork, in which I tried to convey several of the points about ‘audit’ which I’ve just made. But I soon found out that, in Eire, outside the UK, teaching did still enter into the equation. In fact, colleagues at Cork had to submit a portfolio record of their teaching performance to qualify for promotion. It seems that student evaluations and other kinds of evidence were not considered as reliable a source as a videotaped recording of the teaching itself. Leaving aside the question of surveillance which obviously arises here, the idea that teaching–as we would understand it, from the perspective of your book or, for that matter, from that of deconstruction–might be turned into ‘evidence’ constitutes an extraordinary turn of events. And, with a further twist of irony, I discovered that the conference–and my talk–was similarly being taped, for submission by the conference organizers in view–or in lieu–of the university demands placed upon them (I hasten to add that this was, to say the least, a wry gesture on their part). As I spoke, then, I was, in a sense, becoming evidence. What I had to say about testimony and evidence was, in a sense, becoming evidence. And yet not quite, not entirely. The appropriation could never be so neat or absolute. For what I was saying, along with Derrida, was that ‘evidence’ can neither wholly assimilate nor utterly expel ‘testimony’ (this is akin to the point about both the irreducibility and denial of trust I made earlier)–rather, testimony is precisely that whichtakes exception to the bodies of evidence which, while they increasingly seek to sideline or downplay testimony, nevertheless still cultivate it, even at the most minimal level, if only as an object of appropriation. And Derrida tells us, after all, that testimony cannot so decisively be separated from the technical apparatuses associated with ‘evidence’ (testimony is composed of discourse, grammaticality, rhetoricality, language, all of which implies a technics from the outset), so that testimony is bound to drift in evidence’s direction, and–as that which is exceptional–contaminate its ‘purity’. Thus, an impure yet undismissable testimony remains, survives, to haunt evidence in all its technical manifestations (and it is with the question of technics, which has been raised between us already, that this issue may not look quite as narrow as I suggested earlier). The implications and effects of this situation are ones which I think we should begin to reckon with.
So, while all of this might encourage you to comment on the practice or idea of audit from the perspective of the American experience, I wonder how you’d see the relationships between testimony, profession, teaching and evidence/technics, particularly in light of the claim of language, as you understand it, in the humanities?
CF: The example you’ve given of the mutation in our working conditions is chilling. I have not known anything quite like the evaluative pressure to which you were submitted, but at the same time I think we face very similar demands in our respective systems. My own university relies increasingly on a ‘bottom line’ accounting as it heads toward an ‘entrepreneurial’ model that leads us into demands for evidence like the ones you describe. And I do not see any easy answers, any easy formulations concerning the nature of a ‘counter-force’ that might proceed from a new thought and practice of the humanities. I do agree fundamentally with Derrida when he asserts near the end of ‘The University Without Condition’ that ‘the force of the event’ exceeds the force of the performative. He continues there, as you will remember, by asserting the following: ‘In the face of what arrives to me, what happens to me, even in what I decide (which, as I tried to show in Politics of Friendship, must involve a certain passivity, my decision being always the decision of the other), in the face of the other who arrives and arrives to me, all performative force is overrun, exceeded, exposed’ (2002a: 235). When I speak of proceeding from an experience with language, I am trying to evoke an engagement with that force. (I try to make the link in describing what I call ‘Derrida’s engagements’ in my second chapter.) My hope is that a practice of the humanities like the one I try to evoke can constitute a kind of ‘communication’ of that force (though I mean this in the sense of communicating a disease, a passion or laughter). But I do not dream that this force can be ‘opposed’ to that of the demands of technocracy–not in traditional political (dialectical) terms, in any case. In fact, in evoking a ‘local’ practice in my book (i.e., one that answers what claims in an event), I am proposing a turn (away) from such oppositional structures. The contemporary demand that we, in the humanities, ‘be political’ calls for such an oppositional structure; but I am convinced that a quick surrender to this demand leads to another forgetting of what is at stake in the humanities. I must be careful here, however, because I do not want to suggest in any way that we, in the humanities, should give up attending to politics, be they ‘academic’ or of a more substantial character. Indeed, I have devoted a great deal of time to administrative duties and to efforts to create a humanities centre at my university because I believe that one cannot ignore one’s institutional conditions. And I would extend this to the broader socio-political context: I was a great admirer of Derrida’s work with Greph (in fact, my first published work was on this topic), and I took the lessons I learned in his seminar for that group in 1975-76 deeply to heart. One must work in multiple modes, and on multiple fronts. One response to the kinds of demands you confronted in that evaluation procedure must be political, in the most everyday sense of the term. But I think those efforts must be complemented, or supplemented, if you will, by that other force to which Derrida points. The humanities must find new ways to be compelling, and for this one must start in local sites and singular occasions. We do not need a powerful new theory or a new promotion of the ones in place, we need a communication of the force of engagement that Derrida describes. I place more emphasis on teaching for this than does Derrida in ‘The University Without Condition’ (his focus there is more on the production of oeuvres, like his own), but I agree with everything he asserts. My point is that the humanities must be a place where the exigency of community happens, as I try to describe it in my essay on Granel; they must be a place where the most vital questions about being human occur. If that takes place more broadly than it does today, then the humanities may gain a symbolic purchase that they lack now. I believe also–but now I move to a project that is more one of ‘critique’–that those working in the humanities must find ways of demonstrating how the different dimensions of their fundamental concerns have bearing on the work of other disciplines. In my book, I try to make a philosophical argument for what I call ‘fundamental research’–I try to show that it is possible (I could go on about how this involves engagement with an ‘impossible’, but let us leave this aside for now). But I start, in the opening pages, by suggesting that such research entails showing how the thought that occurs in the humanities bears on the foundations of other disciplines. We need to demonstrate why the humanities are so critically important across the entire range of those practices that claim some knowledge or ‘savoir-faire’. And then there is a related, but additional, critical project to carry forward: we should continue to try to make it hard for the appeals to evidence you describe to pass unchallenged. I fear we cannot rely too strongly on this project of critique for the reasons I outline in my essay on Granel, but I do not think it can be abandoned, and I think we must pursue it more aggressively outside the usual disciplinary boundaries. So again, we must work on multiple fronts in ways that cannot be made, in every case, wholly coherent from a philosophical point of view. We must find ways to engage our fundamental concerns in always singular forms of responsive practice (this is where the compelling force will come from), and we must work critically and politically to broaden our institutional legitimacy and resources.
SMW: While this doesn’t figure too much in your book, I wonder if we could talk a little bit about cultural studies. I hear in some of your earlier comments a sense, which I’d certainly share, that on occasion the culturalist perspective has done little more than offer an alibi for the reduction and false resolution of real philosophical problems–or, to avoid the charge of disciplinary elitism, one might rephrase this to say instead, matters which call for fundamental thought. In the US context, those associated with Derridean deconstruction have frequently showed little enthusiasm for cultural studies. And this includes Derrida himself, whose essay ‘The University Without Condition’ was originally given as a lecture to colleagues at Stanford University, and who in that paper rather hastily dismisses cultural studies as a ‘good-for-everything concept’. Tellingly, as we know, ‘the humanities’ is preferred as a name (albeit with a host of complex implications and effects) throughout that lecture, as a heading for the kind of investigations in which people like ourselves are involved. We know, too, of course, Bill Readings’ diagnosis of cultural studies as a symptom of the dereferentialisation of the university of excellence, and this image of cultural studies is often adopted, adapted or otherwise deployed by those in the US who are perhaps most closely linked to Derrida.
Elsewhere, meanwhile (I’m thinking particularly about the British ‘scene’ now), cultural studies is being rethought by some (I’d like to include myself here), in ways which can at times bring it into a productive interplay with deconstruction (and not only deconstruction, but psychoanalysis and Deleuze too, among others–to go too quickly and rely on ‘proper names’). For example, by following Derrida’s reading of Mauss, where the thought of the gift marks a shift from ‘cold economic rationality’ to a thinking of the ‘symbolicity’ of this ‘rationality’, I’ve asked whether the conditions of possibility of cultural study or critique might be understood as founded upon the (im)possibility of the gift–which (however unaccountably) opens the possibility of all exchange, of exchange in general, yet which remains in excess of all economies. To the extent that the study of culture seeks to capture specificities that cannot be translated fully into an economy of exchange, I’ve tried to characterise cultural studies as not just a ‘good-for-everything concept’, not just the scene of a vapid interdisciplinarity or a false reduction of genuine philosophical problems, but also an excess built into rationalised and administered economies, or indeed what might be seen as ‘global’ economy. (Elsewhere, for example, I’ve called it a kind of dream-thinking.) And this reconception of cultural studies fundamentally affects the question of teaching. For if to teach is always, inevitably, at some level, to give an account, then the rise of cultural studies as an economy of exchange–and a style of reckoning–opened by a thought of the gift may compel us in new ways to respond to the aporetical situation of teaching in general.
So, different relations or reactions to cultural studies may have something to do with the different disciplinary and institutional histories of cultural studies in different countries, the different effects it has produced, the different modes of reception it has encountered or invited, or, in general, the ‘politics of’ cultural studies in different places at different times. It’s perhaps too large a question, but how would you see cultural studies–its future in particular–in terms of the claim made upon us by the humanities?
CF: Near the end of the main essay in the book, I use a phrase that seems pertinent here. I note that the humanities are called for wherever a social usage offers itself (as usage) to the questioning I propose. This would seem to correspond to your effort to carry forward a thought of the ‘symbolicity’ of cultural practice along lines suggested by Derrida. Cultural studies tends not to think usage at the level I am pursuing, but I see no reason why it should not. In general, cultural studies tends not to welcome a ‘fundamental’ turn, as you note in your question–it avoids philosophy. But this is not true in every case, and I am very wary of generalization since I consider myself relatively uninformed as regards the latest movements in the field. Let me simply note that I recently went back to the work of Leroi-Gourhan for a project on ancient art and was quite inspired by his speculative gesture (and I have to add that my sense of inspiration was coupled by an almost equal disappointment in the ‘deconstructive’ reading of his text offered by Bernard Stiegler in Technics and Time). The great speculative works in the ‘human sciences’ of the twentieth century still offer immense challenges and possible inspiration to contemporary theoretical work. Thinkers in the humanities have to find new ways to broaden the reach of their questioning, I believe. This is partially why I tend to favor the designation ‘thought’ over that of ‘theory’. But I’ll leave that debate for the moment and just say that I am interested in finding new ways to articulate and address the broad socio-political questions of this extraordinarily unstable time. Your undertaking seems to go in that direction. To the extent I grasp your effort, I can only applaud. If the gesture you are making ‘takes’ in some manner, it will point again to the need for the kind of thinking I link to the humanities, even while it points beyond them. The task, I presume, is to do more than describe a particular field of study in a new way–it is to put into play the excess to which you point.
1 I offer a somewhat different reading of Bill Readings’ book, in response to Weber’s, in the essay, ‘”To Come Walking”: Reinterpreting the Institution and the Work of Samuel Weber’, Cultural Critique 48 (2001): 164-99. [SMW]
2 The reference here is not to the highly laden discourse of ‘quality assurance’ which has received much criticism among UK academics, but to a more fundamental notion of quality.
Derrida, J. (2002a) ‘The University Without Condition’, in Without Alibi, (ed.) Peggy Kamuf. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 202-37.
Derrida, J. (2002b) ‘Where a Teaching Body Begins and How It Ends’, in Who’s Afraid of Philosophy?: Right to Philosophy 1. Trans. Jan Plug. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 67-91.
Fynsk, C. (2004) The Claim of Language: A Case for the Humanities. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.
Readings, B. (1996) The University in Ruins. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press.
Weber, S. (2001) ‘The Future of the University: The Cutting Edge’, in Institution and Interpretation. Expanded edition. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 220-235.
Simon Morgan Wortham is Reader in Literary Studies at the University of Portsmouth, England. His work has appeared in such journals as Diacritics, New Literary History,Parallax, and New Formations. He is the author of Rethinking the University: Leverage and Deconstruction (Manchester University Press, 1999) and Samuel Weber: Acts of Reading (Ashgate, 2003). He is currently finishing a book on deconstruction and counter-institutions for Fordham University Press.
Christopher Fynsk is Professor of Comparative Literature and Modern Thought at the University of Aberdeen, UK. He is the author of: Heidegger: Thought and Historicity(Cornell, 1986/93), Language and Relation:… that there is language (Stanford, 1996), Infant Figures (Stanford, 2000), and The Claim of Language: A Case for the Humanities(Minnesota, 2004).