Simon Wortham (1999) Rethinking the University: Leverage and Deconstruction.

Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0- 7190 5629-2

Paul Bowman

Simon Wortham’s Rethinking the University: Leverage and Deconstruction is a novel and explicitly interdisciplinary examination of some of the political questions of the university institution, where the word ‘institution’ is considered in both its noun and verbal senses. The novelty of the work derives, first of all, from the fact that Wortham does not follow the ‘usual’ route (‘since Derrida’, as it were) into and through the theme of the founding, foundations and foundering of the university institution. Rather, he frames and figures the matter in terms of orientation.

Consequently, although Wortham’s book can of course be numbered among the growing corpus of studies dealing with the political implications of the structures of institutional academia, it nevertheless remains distinct by virtue of both its foregrounding of orientation as being the inevitable result of any stabilisation an institution will necessarily effect by deciding and imposing its preferred premises, telos, practices and procedures, and its recuperation of this contingent imposition of ‘necessity’ as a fertile ground for the strategy of reorienting.

Wortham’s thesis has its basis in the observation that whenever any practice is instituted, so it is given an orientation which is itself a necessary imposition (although contingent in terms of the given form or character imposed). The institution of a certain orientation derives from what Wortham calls a fundamental condition of disorientation. Accordingly, a given orientation is inevitably open to the possibility of reorientation, and Wortham ties this strategy to a process of disorientating the established orthodoxy. As the book’s title suggests, Wortham sees deconstruction as the main way a given orientation/institution can be levered in another direction through a process of disorientation, destabilisation and desedimentation. The political resonance of such a possible strategy is obvious, and already from this premise one can discern the way in which those critics of ‘deconstruction’ who make claims to the effect that ‘deconstruction cannot institute a new political practice’ and suchlike, are fundamentally disoriented in thinking of ‘deconstruction’ (or anything else, for that matter) as being isolated from the institutional contexts in which ‘it’ might be put to work as a tool of, in the first instance, ‘rethinking’, and specifically ‘rethinking the university’ – the primary context of its application and applicability — and thereafter in the terrain of displacement, leverage and contestation called ‘the social’ or ‘cultural’.

Rethinking the University explicitly finds its feet or takes its orientation from the focus of the volume Logomachia: The Conflict of the Faculties (Rand, 1992), and especially the essay by Derrida which opens the collection, entitled, ‘Mochlos; or, The Conflict of the Faculties’ (Derrida, 1992): Wortham taking Derrida’s reading of Kant’s The Conflict of the Faculties (or, rather, his ‘translation’ of it into the situation and structural dynamics of the contemporary western university) in terms of the motifs of ‘leverage’, ‘walking’/’taking a step’, orientation (‘left/right’) as his point of departure. The book’s introduction thus offers summaries of several key texts dealing with the question of the institution, notably those which themselves could be said to have been decisively oriented ‘into’ the topic by Derrida’s direction; namely Logomachia, Readings’ The University in Ruins (1996) and Kamuf’s The Division of Literature, Or, The University in Deconstruction (1997). This introduction is itself a kind of review or preview of what follows, although the subsequent chapters and sections ‘take it as read’ that the argument presented in the introduction will be remembered, and so they focus much more closely on specifically chosen texts and themes or sub-themes, without belabouring the argument presented as an overview in the introduction. The introduction frames and characterises the context and terms by which the subsequent analyses are to be read and evaluated, without an excessive reiteration of that first argument or presentation of the thesis.

As Wortham has chosen the metaphors of ‘leverage’ and ‘taking a step’ from Derrida’s ‘Mochlos’, in the first section, ‘Van Gogh’s shoes, or, does the university have two left feet?’, he retreads the path Derrida took in The Truth in Painting (1987) in reading Heidegger and Schapiro’s polemic about one of Van Gogh’s paintings of two shoes. He begins, though, with a reading of Jameson’s ‘The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’ (1995), and it would be fair to say that Jameson’s text suffers some fairly damning judgements. For instance, we are told that:

Jameson treats us to the easily digestible and reproducible view offered by the tour guide, where critical insights are exchanged in the form of commodifiable information (the sound bite). Here we have all the elements of the postmodern as described by Jameson himself: simulacrum and the ‘deep constitutive relationships of . . . a whole new technology’ (the glossy reproductions); depthlessness (the superficiality of Jameson’s ‘scratch the surface and all will be revealed’, non-contemplative approach). . . (23-24)

Wortham writes off Jameson’s (‘bad’?) arguments (a process that involves recourse to the metaphor of ‘depth’, several times along the way and I’m not sure whether this is done ironically or whether it is perhaps a ‘non-contemplative’ recourse to the trope of ‘depth’) in order to introduce the (‘good’?) treatment of the motif of feet and walking in Derrida (by way of a stroll along a path Derrida had previously laid out in The Truth in Painting). Wortham concludes the analysis of Derrida’s analysis by saying that ‘It is difficult not to agree with him’ (40), especially on the matter of ‘the question of vision’ (42), which Derrida unpicks from Heidegger and Schapiro’s ‘blind spots’ of presumption and presupposition in a polemic that might be reduced to their battle over property rights to the interpretation of Van Gogh’s painting and its ‘proper meaning’.

In so opening the matter of ‘vision’, Wortham closes this chapter with more explicit reflections on the university, before changing tack and opening chapter two with an analysis of the disciplinary gaze, spectacle, power, and the ‘blind spot at the centre of powerful structures of identification and reflection’ (52), in order to argue for the importance of ‘recognising the part played by criticism itself in the representation of its subject matter’ (50); and fleshing out this observation by engaging in revealing analyses of new historicism and cultural materialism. This leads the narrative into chapter three ‘Excellence and division: the deconstruction of institutional politics’, in which Wortham sets out to explore ‘the deconstructibility of an institutional politics of opposition’, and thereafter ‘the different challenges and possibilities afforded by the deconstructibility of the university’s institutional set-up itself’ (73).

This section commences by retracing the argument of Bill Readings in The University in Ruins (1996), in a manner that, to me, seemed less than ‘exhaustive’ (which is also the very judgement that Wortham makes of Readings’ book (80)), but would certainly amount to a good and helpful introduction to or summary of Readings’ position, and as such, would make a good pedagogical tool. The same can be said of the ensuing reading of Kamuf’s (1997) work, which leads into a further elaboration of some of the themes of Logomachia (1992), and, once again takes us into a conclusion that sets up the premise of the following chapter, this time, first of all, the matter of ‘literature and censorship’ (91). Again, this section is certainly a good introduction to the theme, which interestingly prefers Bourdieu’s notion that censorship ‘is not something others do to us, but something we do to ourselves’, and that ‘Censorship is the imposition of form’ (96), rather than, say, a more explicitly Foucauldian approach. This preference might be accounted for by reference to the economic or expedient form of Bourdieu’s own predilection for the instant communicability of something akin to the sound-bite, as opposed to the less instantly representable manner of a Foucauldian perspective.

Moving from censorship and literature to ‘censorship and criticism’ (97), the text engages with the matter of conflicts of interpretation that often appeal to ‘truth’ as their validation (99). But, Wortham tells us, ‘It is therefore not my aim to attempt to negotiate and resolve (i.e. to censor) the differences between critics . . . Rather, I want to contribute to the debate — and perhaps reflect on it more widely — by coming again at questions of censorship and criticism, prohibition and knowledge, freedom and limitation, writing and reading, in the context of the institutional space of the academy itself; this time, at a crucial moment in its development, in the early modern past. To do this, I will undertake a ‘reading’ (though the text itself problematises this activity) of Bacon’s New Atlantis’ (101). On undertaking this reading, Wortham institutes a distinction between being ‘knowledgeably ignorant’ and being ‘ignorantly knowledgeable’ (105), so as to demonstrate the constitutive blind spots and necessary imposition of censorship in the establishment of knowledge; or, the mechanism by which ‘enlightenment’ can be seen as ‘a ‘protected zone’, quick to enforce its borders against real and symbolic threats of infection’ (106).

In the ensuing chapter, ‘Bringing criticism to account: economy, exchange and cultural theory’, the text flirts (in a subclause) with the notion of ‘academic desire itself’ (121), but recoils, I think, and refocuses on an explicit consideration of the notion and logic of ‘interdisciplinarity’. The thesis here is that ‘the ‘economic’ [is] inseparable from the concept of interdisciplinarity’ (124). In the course of his far-reaching debate about the ‘double and contradictory positioning of the market [which] can be traced throughout the development of cultural studies itself’, though, the text backs off from fully unpacking this statement, for ‘there is not sufficient space here to provide a thoroughgoing account of this development’ (129). Needless to say, I would have preferred it if sufficient space had been made. Nevertheless, again, in my view, this chapter amounts to a good introduction to some of the questions surrounding interdisciplinarity, along with providing interesting accounts of how Derrida’s thinking on the ‘gift’ and Baudrillard’s thought can be related to these matters.

Of the final chapter and penultimate section, ‘Surviving theory, ‘as if I[t] were dead’, I had some difficulties, not in reading it, but in understanding, or, if I have understood ‘correctly’, in agreeing with, if you will, its ‘orientation’. That is to say, whilst the reflection on the pro- and anti- ‘theory’ polemics that have related to literary, critical, and cultural theory, in their various manifestations throughout the arts and humanities, is well expounded and of quite an ‘advanced’ character, for me it yet leaves too much unspoken, or too much that ‘goes without saying’, that is ‘taken as read’. And that, I suppose, is exactly my point: to make the most of this section, you would really, I suspect, already have had to have read the polemics about ‘theory’. In this respect it jars somewhat with the orientation of the previous sections. For it immediately dives into a correlation of ‘theory’ and ‘death’, which, to me, and many may disagree, is perhaps to enter into, or ‘introduce’ the problems around ‘theory’ versus some other kind of analysis (empirical, historical, positive) in a disorientating, and perhaps ultimately unhelpful manner to the project of ‘leverage’ and reorientation. This is to suggest that whereas Derrida’s reorientations are premised or predicated on a fundamental acknowledgement of and reference to ‘classical protocols’, which amount also to those reference points or ‘points de capiton‘ by which discourse is structured, and ‘clarity’ and ‘intelligibility’ are possible, I felt that Wortham had overlooked this injunction: to be intelligible and clear, one should perhaps tie one’s discourse to the extant orientation within which or against which one seeks to ‘lever’ a reorientation. But, I shall not dwell on this point, for, again, the argument and the chapter theorises ‘theory’ in a novel way — which is surely the source of my ‘resistance’ to it. Others may have no problem whatsoever with it. I expect it all devolves on one’s orientation.

This being said, rather than declare some (inevitably reductive) verdict about the book, I would prefer to pose some questions, which of course will also amount to the statement of some ‘problems’ I had, and the voicing of some reservations that nagged at me whilst reading Rethinking the University:

1. A first problem involves the use of certain pairs, complements or binaries, throughout the book; namely, that of ‘dis/orientation’ with ‘leverage’. These two terms are coupled throughout by the word ‘and’, but without any explanatory note on the status of this ‘and’. The same is the case for the book’s subtitle, which is ‘Leverage and Deconstruction‘: yet the book would perhaps, on my reading, have been rendered better by a subtitle more like ‘The Leverage of Deconstruction‘. For it is not clear how this work might be about leverage and deconstruction: deconstruction is invoked, and ‘leverage’ is involved throughout, whilst at the same time being tied, by the coordinator ‘and’, with ‘disorientation’. It is not clear what ‘leverage’ might possibly mean, whether it is ‘metaphor’ or whether it is ‘literal’, for instance, or what pragmatic form or logic it might entail.1

2. The fundamental binary Wortham uses — that of ‘orientation/disorientation’ — itself seems to labour at times under the strain of an attendant ‘good/bad’ binary imposing itself on ‘Wortham’. In the introduction itself Wortham poses a question that suggests what I mean by this. To paraphrase, he asks whether ‘disorientation’ might possibly be re-narrated as not-necessarily-a-bad-thing. This, to me, indicates the tense, ambivalent, or problematic status of ‘dis/orientation’ (or at least some of the pragmatic ramifications I believe present themselves when thinking about disciplinary practices by way of interrogating the values underpinning their orientation). This anxious ambivalence is surely inevitable. For how is any orientation into academic practice to fare (Wortham’s, mine, yours, everybody’s) when it is subjected to an interrogative analysis of the ‘values’ upon which it is enabled and carried out (perhaps in a way we are here talking about the ‘nonconceptual order’ upon which, Derrida has argued, any ‘conceptual order’ is articulated)? That is to say, if we are looking into the values which found, institute, or orient, a given academic set of preferences, economy, hierarchy or hegemony (the values that obviate the choices of certain objects as being appropriate and proper objects of academic attention, and simultaneously divide this ‘good’ from the ‘bad’, or certain other objects, which will therefore be overlooked, subordinated, or excluded, in accordance with the dictates of this instituting/institutional decision), then how are we to evaluate our own chosen objects of study and our own preferred ways of going about doing things? In short, a certain anxiety and irresolvable ambivalence and insecurity must surely attend or haunt one’s activities from the moment it has occurred that there is no natural or neutral choice, and that one must try to take responsibility for one’s decisions.

I think this anxiety manifests itself through several symptoms apparent in the text, but that the exigencies of compelling disciplinary requirements scuppered, or instituted, a delimitation in scope and orientation from the outset. These symptoms? For one, the orientation of this very question about orientation. Another: the fact that, despite being able to see the criticality of the questions of value and orientation, the text substantially silences the question of how can one ever decide, and simply proceeds to look at some fairly canonical literary and theoretical texts, somewhat reasserting their self-evident obviousness. ‘Obviously’ I am supposing and imposing something here which seems obvious to me. And, furthermore, there is nothing in such deconstructive problematisation which says that just because the decision is difficult, so one should not be obliged to make it, to decide. Quite the contrary. One must start from where one is and what is there, or what imposes itself as the ‘there is’ that should be analysed. Deconstruction always seems to invoke the double bind arising with any injunction. So Wortham’s decision and choice of objects of analysis ‘need not simply be negatively marked’ (6). My question is: what (silenced, excluded, censored) factors weighted the decision? All of this is to say that the text privileges some well instituted institutional reading material to such an extent and in such a way as to reorient us back into or towards it, to lever us right back into a certain canonical orientation and to lever this canon ‘into’ ‘radical’ ‘deconstructive’ ‘scholarship’ and ‘analysis’. Of course, it is never so simple a matter as rejecting the canonical when revaluing values, as Derrida has argued repeatedly. But, couldn’t — or shouldn’t — the text have directly engaged these questions?

3. In taking its initial orientation from Derrida’s ‘Mochlos’ (1992), it seems to me that it has yet overlooked or forgotten certain aspects of that text which, had they been ‘taken on board’, would have massively problematised and ‘complexified’ the work. I refer, of course, to the long passage in Derrida’s ‘Mochlos; or, The Conflict of the Faculties’, in Logomachia: The Conflict of the Faculties, on pages 21-23:

the interpretation of a theorem, poem, philosopheme or theologeme is only produced by simultaneously proposing an institutional model, either by consolidating an existing one that enables the interpretation, or by constituting a new model to accord with it. Declared or clandestine, such a proposal calls for the politics of an interpretative community gathered around the text, and indeed of a global society, a civil society with or without a state, a veritable regime enabling the inscription of that community. I shall go further: every text, every element of a corpus reproduces or bequeaths, in a prescriptive or normative mode, one of its several injunctions: come together according this or that rule, this or that scenography, this or that topography of minds and bodies, and form this or that type of institution so as to read me and write about me, organize this or that type of exchange or hierarchy to interpret me, evaluate me, preserve me, translate me, inherit from me, make me live on (überleben or fortleben in the sense that Benjamin gives to those words in Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers). Or inversely: if you interpret me (in the sense of decipherment or performative transformation), you shall have to assume one or another institutional form. But it holds for every text that such an injunction gives rise to undecidability and the double bind, both opens and closes, that is, upon an overdetermination that cannot be mastered. This is the law of the text in general — not confined to what one calls (up from) written works in libraries or computer programs — a law that I cannot demonstrate here but must presuppose. Moreover, the interpreter is never subjected passively to this injunction, and his own performance will in turn construct one or several models of community. And different ones for the same interpreter — from one moment to the next, from one work to the next, from one situation or strategic evaluation to the next. Those responsibilities are his. It is hard to speak generally on the subject of what for, or before whom, they are taken. They involve the content and form of a new contract every time. When, for example, I read some sentence from a given text or in a seminar (a reply by Socrates, a fragment from Capital or Finnegans Wake, a paragraph from The Conflict of the Faculties), I do not fulfil a prior contract, I can also write, and prepare for signature, a new contract with an institution, between an institution and the dominant forces in society. And this operation, as with any negotiation (pre-contractual, in other words continually transforming a prior contract), is the moment for every imaginable ruse and strategic ploy. I do not know if there exists today a pure concept of a university responsibility, nor would I know, in any case, how to express, in this place or within the limits of this lecture, all the doubts I harbor on this subject. I do not know if an ethico-political code bequeathed by one or more traditions is viable for such a definition. But today the minimal and in any case the most interesting, most novel and strongest responsibility, for someone attached to a research or teaching institution, is perhaps to make this political implication, its system of aporias as clear and thematic as possible. In speaking of clarity and thematization, even when those thematizations assume the most unexpected and convoluted pathways, I still appeal to the most classical of norms, but I doubt that anyone could omit to do so without, yet again, putting into question every thought of responsibility, as one may naturally always wish to do. By the clearest possible thematization I mean the following: that with students and the research community, in every operation we pursue together (a reading, an interpretation, the construction of a theoretical model, a rhetoric of an argumentation, the treatment of historical material, and even of mathematical formalization), we argue or acknowledge that an institutional concept is at play, a type of contract signed, an image of the ideal seminar constructed, a socius implied, repeated or displaced, invented, transformed, menaced or destroyed. An institution — this is not merely a few walls or some outer structures surrounding, protecting, guaranteeing or restricting the freedom of our work; it is also and already the structure of our interpretation. If, then, it lays claim to any consequence, what is hastily called deconstruction as such is never a technical set of discursive procedures, still less a new hermeneutic method operating on archives or utterances in the shelter of a given and stable institution; it is also, and at the least, the taking of a position, in work itself, toward the politico-institutional structures that constitute and regulate our practice, our competences, and our performances. Precisely because deconstruction has never been concerned with the contents alone of meaning, it must not be separable from this politico-institutional problematic, and has to require a new questioning about responsibility, an inquiry that should no longer necessarily rely on codes inherited from politics or ethics. Which is why, though too political in the eyes of some, deconstruction can seem demobilizing in the eyes of those who recognize the political only with the help of prewar road signs. Deconstruction is limited neither to a methodological reform that would reassure the given organization, nor, inversely, to a parade of irresponsible or irrseponsibilizing destruction, whose surest effect would be to leave everything as it is, consolidating the most immobile forces of the university.

I feel that the problems raised in this passage, as well as the problem Derrida specifies that Kant has in thinking the university (that there is no ‘inside’ or ‘it’ to ‘the university’) deserve to be considered further, as I suspect that they might have transformed the character of the book. My question, then, would be: why weren’t they?

4. Wortham is also at pains to avoid some traditional protocols: for instance, he justifies a decision to avoid ‘present[ing] the case concerning disorientation by charting in more orthodox ways a predominating history that is felt to be behind the problem. How, without devastating irony, could one (re)orient a book on disorientation by developing a periodising argument following, quite complacently, the linear trajectory plotted by less complex forms of economic, socio-political or intellectual history?’ (15). In terms of the orientation of my reading, this kind of statement seems to represent an attempt to validate what he is seeing as his unorthodoxy by way of referring to orthodoxy, a gesture from which one might infer again an anxiety attendant to this kind of project; namely, that he is anxious to seek the validation of the orthodoxy by way of attempting to justify the fact that this book will be unorthodox, but for reasons justifiable and acceptable to that very orthodoxy. Might this amount to a kind of ‘oppositional politics’, which he yet claims to be fundamentally disoriented? (You may protest that I earlier asked why Wortham did not refer to ‘classical protocols’; but this is slightly different: I am asking if this kind of tacit or implicit gesture amounts to both an oppositional stance as well as an anxious/ambivalent appeal to validation in the eyes of extant (‘disoriented’) hegemony or status quo of the institution?)

5. In this context of revaluating orientation and valuation, instead of writing off Jameson as ‘wrong’ (in an ‘oppositional’ manner to which he is explicitly opposed — as he does in chapter one; in what we should note has nowadays become quite a normal move in texts ‘affiliated with Derrida’), shouldn’t Wortham rather have explicitly reoriented the analysis into a reflection of the act and fact of judgement and reflected on the institutional ramifications and stakes of such (necessary?) judgements?


1. I appreciate ‘deconstruction’ works to ‘disorientate’ conventional, traditional, sedimented institutions and institutional ways of thinking and going about doing things. My point is that one would have to look elsewhere, other than in this book, to find such a direct statement of the relationship between ‘deconstruction’ and ‘orientation’, or deconstruction as a disorientating orientation which, in whatever way, might work as a ‘lever’, or might have some institutional leverage, in whatever realms or registers. (One might even, for instance, look at Wortham and Gary Hall’s co-authored editorial to the second issue of Culture Machine, on this very website, for such a statement.) In this text, though, it is far from clear what ‘disorientation’ means, what it might look, be, or act like. That is to say, neither of the terms (‘disorientation’ and ‘leverage’, ‘leverage’ and ‘deconstruction’) are unpacked, at any stage (‘deconstruction’ is the exception, but not the ‘and leverage’).


Derrida, J. (1987) The Truth in Painting. Chicago, Illinois and London, England: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, J. (1992) ‘Mochlos; or, The Conflict of the Faculties’, in R. Rand (ed.) Logomachia: The Conflict of the Faculties. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.

Jameson, F. (1995) ‘The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’, Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London and New York: Verso.

Kamuf, P. (1997) The Division of Literature, Or, The University in Deconstruction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rand, R. (ed.) (1992) Logomachia: The Conflict of the Faculties. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.

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