Monday, September 12, 2011

Jacques Derrida, "Acts of Religion," and "University Without Condition"


I feel the need to introduce this batch of half-conceived questions and notes that I have put together in the past few days as preparation for my class on these two incredibly dense and rich essays by Jacques Derrida.

First, these notes were not fashioned "linearly," questions are mixed with notes and notes with questions in the good spirit of not trying to make my "questions" merely questions that ask what "is" (let us avoid ontology when possible).

The notes gathered here I hope to turn into a solid post with a point (a? point--at least one point) perhaps with a bit more focus after our discussion.

One of the things that I am pleasantly surprised by in these essays (and really in all Derrida essays) is how he makes abstract theoretical and philosophical speculation relevant for concrete political, cultural, and "religious" phenomena. I enjoy how he is able to lay out the way he stays on the border without ever seeming like he is "noncommittal."

For instance, I think "Faith and Knowledge" bears on a lot of current (and i mean the last 10 or 20 years) events:

Genocides (pick your incident)
The "Rushdie" affair (FATWA)
Osama Bin Laden's tapes to America and their subsequent circulation
The circulation of images of beheadings (see what he says about taking vengeance on the "body proper") and what these come to mean (because they can be distributed globally)

I'm sure there is more and if I were more politically aware (which I am striving to become better at) I would be able to say something.

And of course, "The University Without Condition," urges us to take on a deconstruction of the Humanities and to open up the question of the human (and the animal) again by re-thinking the history of our discipline. It asks us to be self-reflexive (which I believe we are on our way to doing) in the way that Ronell thinks "Science" needs to be become self-reflexive. We must inquire into our grounds (and our histories, our traces) in order to understand.

Furthermore, "University Without Condition," although it focuses at the end on the "event," seems committed to understanding a Professor's work as prescriptive rather than merely descriptive. In other words, Derrida seems to support the idea that professors profess--that there can be no ideologically "neutral" professor and that we have the right (perhaps, academic freedom?) to teach from those interested standpoints. Of course, our "profession," according to Derrida, needs to be an affirmation of an impossibility--a University Without Condition"

These are all moments and motifs, points and particulars that stand out for me in the two essays, but the following notes should give those who have not read the essays a glimpse into the wide ranging issues taken up on merely 1 or two pages (or across pages!). These essays are rich and demand not only attention but ACTION. I found myself again and again looking up words (German, Latin, French, even English) in order to grasp their various implications.

Derrida's texts strive to be "unreadable," but this unreadability should not merely cause us despair. Rather, as he writes in "Living-On: Borderlines," :
If reading means making accessible a meaning that can be transmitted as such, in its own unequivocal, translatable identity, then this title is unreadable. But this unreadability does not arrest reading, does not leave it paralyzed in the face of an opaque surface: rather it starts reading and writing and translation moving again" (140). 
Derrida's essays force us outside of his text into other texts (which is also, sometimes, his other texts). Rather than think Derrida's emphasis on the "sliding of the signifier" as an interminable task that erases meaning, we should think of the setting-into-motion (which is also the moment--although here we get too much into presence) as a pedagogical imperative. We as readers are forced out of our comfort zones--out of our chairs , for instance, on the balcony and back into the sea of texts that we are constantly trying to arrest in an article or what we call a "book."

So is this my introduction to the notes? Or are the notes a propaedeutic (cf. Kant and "University Without Condition,")  to what I am calling my "introduction"? Which comes first? what is the "important" part?

Cormac McCarthy: "The ugly fact is books are made out of books" (out of texts[?] 

Post-Scriptum (cf. Derrida, "Faith and Knowledge," pg. 60)

“University Without Condition” notes

Professional Professors

Ronell—We need to go back to pgs 196-203 and put Weber’s ideas in conversation with Derrida’s ideas about the University. Weber, like Rorty, seems to want to avoid a confrontation with the dangerous. In Weber’s case, the possibility of transference: “The debasement of a teacher to an implicit word-salad [. . .] puts a restraining order on the possibly devastating politics of transference that teacher’s function could otherwise prime” (197)–Concerned with  the “prophetic professor”—meaning, a professor who actually professes, rather than transmits knowledge  through exchange value (rather than even use-value): “The American’s conception of the teacher who faces him is: he sells me his knowledge and his methods for my father’s money, just as the greengrocer sells my mother cabbage” (196).

This is the teacher, but what is relationship between the professor and the professional—the professional “renders services.” As Sam Weber puts it

“The incommensurability of the professional, of the ‘services’ he rendered, and did not merely sell, sought to place his activities outside of the pale of ordinary commodity relationships. This was, and has remained, a decisive feature of the professional who, while offering his services for pay, nonetheless claims for them a value irreducible to that determined by the market” (Weber 26).

Thus, the professional frames his or her services in terms of a “social need”: “the professional professes to be concerned primarily with the public good, with the necessities of life and welfare” (Weber 27).

This puts the Humanities in a precarious position though, does it not? Or perhaps puts the university and the professor into a precarious position because  it is concerned with public good and indeed we frequently have to frame our ‘work’ (this problematic term will be explored later) in terms of “use value,” but the Humanities in particular refuses such use value. As Ronell puts it, “The professor comes in handy as figuring the university’s tendency to undermine its cause. Academic speech consistently fails the test of scientific integrity by lapsing into prophecy” (200). Ronell’s word “prophecy” may be akin to what Derrida speaks of in terms “professing” as “performance”—even a professing of faith.


How can we claim a "crime against humanity" when we are still in the process of redefining and clarifying what man "is"? The New Humanities doesn't seem to merely call for protection of already constituted "human rights" but rather to rethink the very concept of "man" (and, I assume, Derrida includes women?)

What is this mondialisation? A “humanization,” but a humanization in terms that have not been properly thought?
Derrida writes that,  paradoxically, the university is exposed in its unconditionality because “it is a stranger to power, because it is heterogeneous to the principle of power,  [. . .] without power of its own” (206). Thus, there is always a risk that it may be appropriated by institutions and structures that have power. But this seems to be the condition of its unconditionality. Derrida asks whether the university can affirm a sovereignty “without ever risking the worst, namely [. . .] being forced to give up and capitulate without condition, to let itself be taken over and bought at any price” (206). If the university is a “stranger” to power then it must take this risk. But this risk must be confronted by resistance (but a resistance that is not a power?)

The university as a meeting of faith and knowledge: “In an original way, this professional faith articulates faith to knowledge in the university above all in the place of the self-presentation of unconditionality that will go by the name ‘Humanities’” (208).

What is the connection between mondialisation (a ‘humanization’) of the world and the advent of the technology of cyberspace. As Derrida asks, “Where is to be found the communitary place and the social bond of a ‘campus’ in the cyberspatial age of the computer, of tele-work, and of the World Wide Web”?  It is not that virtualization is absolutely new, but “what is new, quantitatively, is the acceleration of the rhythm, the extent, and the powers of capitalization of such a virtuality” (210).

Is this virtualization eroding the boundaries between the ‘university’ and ‘public space’?  Derrida claims that the discussions of the New Humanities must “in pricinple find its space of unconditional discussion and, without presupposition, its legitimate [!] space of research and reelaboration, in the university”  (203). Derrida says that the unviersity allows us to find “the best access to a new public space transformed by new techniques of communication, information, archivization, and knowleedge production”  (203). But it is precisely this “space” that Derrida puts into question on the following page, when discussing how “the topology of the event” has been upset.
The connection of the “as if” to the “event.” While it is generally believed that the event must interrupt the order of the “as if” so that its place is “real,” Derrida asks “What happens when the place itself becomes virtual, freed from its territorial (and thus national) rootedness, and when it becomes subject to the modality of an ‘as if’. In other words an event that may (perhaps) come “through the university,” “thanks,” to it—the university which is now virtual?

“to profess” has the structure of a promise, a performative act and engagement: “it is to promise to be that, to pledge oneself on one’ word to be that,” “to give oneself over to philosophy, to bear witness” (215).
Derrida seems to perform what he argues for—thinking the university’s history, laying it out. So he inquires into the religious connotations (and ‘origins’) of the “professor” in the university. He is tracing how we got from profession (of faith) to professor.


Working (or le travailleur) seems to imply a market concept—work is recognized only if it is connected to a salary (the teaching assistant). Insofar as the student “studies” the student is not a worker. However, is he/she working toward being a professor? In order for someone to be recognized as a “worker” it must have market value.

Types of work:

1.)    Work in the sense of “product” or “ouevre”

a.       Products that are “objectivizable use or exchange values without deserving the title of ouevres.
b.      Ouevre—something like fine art.

2.)    Work that does “not give rise to substantial or real products, only to virtual specters
In the classical/modern tradition we usually do not think of the professor’s authority as a professor like we think authority of an “author.” He does not “sign” his work. Rather, to be a professor was to produce a knowledge that does not consist in this kind of product—It was “to teach a knowledge even while professing, that is, even while promising to take a responsibility that is not exhausted in the act of knowing or teaching” (217). Derrida speculates that this has been changing because of the thin line between creation and criticism, reading and writing. Of course, Derrida himself “signs” for his work, for his professing. He becomes a kind of “author” as much as a professor, even though he frames this entire essay in terms of “profession of faith.”


The traditional university’s knowledge  is not “in principle” performative: “The act of professing a doctrine may be a performative act, but the doctrine is not” (218). Somehow we must ‘conserve” this and “change” it but NOT through a hegelian dialectical mode.

Derrida argues, we have to realize that the “unconditional theoreticism” will itself always suppose a performative profession of faith, a belief, a decision, a public pleged, and ethico-political responsibility. “ (218).

This view of the non-performative goes back to Kant, where he argues Humanities as a ‘propadeutic’ to Fine Arts: “The Humanities must prepare without prescribing: they would propose forms of knowledge that remain merely preliminary” (Derrrida 219).

Thus, Kant separates the University from public space in order to render the knowledge constative rather than performative (or prescriptive). Derrida points out the (impossiblity?) of saying “publically all that one believes to be true and what one believes on must say, but only inside the university” (220).

Regardless of the fact that this is basically impossibelwe must believe that “this is an idea we must reaffirm, declare, and profess endlessly—even if it always means addressing ourselves to the university’s outside without neutrality” (220). Meaning, we must continue to commit ourselves to this view of truth even as we realize that we too are caught up in the questions of the university in the marketplace, which Derrida says that he will “leave aside.” This is why we must think the university’s history, because it allows us to realize our position within this system.

Questions that arise then: If indeed the Humanities is foreign to the production of ouevres, what could it possibly mean “to profess,” “to be a professor.”

What happens when we accept that “a professor produces oeuvres and not just knowledge or pre-knowledge? (Derrida 221).

Looking back at again the question of the “end” of work (its termination; its object or aim). “Work” and production is not the same, but work (travaille) connotes “the passivity of a certain affect (221).

Derrida writes, like Sam Weber notes, a profession (or a professor) implies a sort of “social responsibility” and “duty” (here is the Kantian language again). There is a commitment, a faith, a testimony to render an account (see Derrida 222).

“Work” is related to the event , but an actual event, in the sense that we do not think that what “happens or comes about in general “ can be virtual (223)

“as if the world began where work ends” is a difficult phrase. Here, Derrida lays out two interpretations of this phrase: 1) a utopia (without work) to come or 2.)  an originary, earthly paradise. Similar to the way we articulated Nietzsche’s in-between the teleological and the original (or archaeological) (223).

Derrida plays on this notion of the world coming into being where “work” ends in the sense that at the same time that we are witnessing the end of work, the ‘world’ seems to be coming into being in the meaning of “globalization.”

225—something is happening to our conceptions of “work” and “world” (through mondialisation) that will change our conceptions of “the being-in-the-world of what is still called man”

“What is happening is indeed an effect of techno-science ,with the world-wide-izing virtualization and delocalization of tele-work” (226).

Rifkin (in ‘the-end-of-work) argues that the “teachers,” in the “sector of knowledge” will be spared this end of work, but Derrida points out that he does not mention the unemployed teachers or aspiring professors (particularly in the humanities)

In general, those who are overly optimistic about the possibilities of globalization “ending work” exclude the victims of this movement who suffer either because “they lack the work they would need” or “because they work too much for the salary they receive” (Derrida 227).

228—The Figure of the Humanist is a response to the question of work.
                --the “unity” of the world of work
229-230—“The difficult task of the Humanities to come is to think their own history” in a cross-disciplinary way that will not necessarily be ‘interdisciplinary’ or ‘cultural studies’.

Derrida’s 7 professions of Faith (see pgs 231-237)

--these studies will not be merely “theoretical” or “neutral” but “practical and performative transformations” Sam Weber echoes this sentiment in the studying of disciplines: “On way of exploring such limitations might be precisely to demonstrate how the apparently objective, denotative language of individual disciplines entails, necessarily but implicitly, a precise series of prescriptive ‘speech acts’, involving injunctions and commands such as those that comprise the professional ethos in general” (Weber 32).  The problem for Weber, said differently than Derrida, is that the university instituted areas of research that could “ignore the founding limits and limitations of the individual disciplines” (Weber 32).

1.) These new Humanities will treat “these performative productions of law or right (rights of man, human rights, the concept of crime against humanity) where they always imply the promise and, with the promise, the conventionality of the as-if.  With regard to the distinction between human and ‘animal’.

2.) These humanities will treat the history of democracy and the idea of sovereignty.

3.) These new Humanities would treat the history of ‘professing’ of the ‘profession’ (and its Christian and Abrahamic origins)

4.)the history of literature

5.) the history of profession, the profession of faith, professionalization, and the professoriat.

6.) the history of the ‘as-if’ and the “precious distinction between performative acts and constative acts

7.) the event—that which comes about and is outside a horizon of expectation.  “only the impossible can arrive”
235: “It would be necessary to dissociate a certain unconditioned independence of thought, of deconstruction, or justice, of the Humanities, of the university, and so forth from any phantasm of indivisible sovereignty and of sovereign mastery” (It is the “what if” rather than the “as if”

The key to this quotation is “indivisible,” meaning that the university has a kind of unconditioned independence, but it ALSO has a history, a history that must be interrogated.

Preliminary Questions

In class, Dr. Leavey argued that Ronell thinks that Nietzsche wants to kind of stay somewhere in the middle (so to speak) between the archaeological and the teleological. In “University Without Condition,” Derrida discusses two different “ways” to interpret the “as if” as utopian or ‘earthly paradise’.  Is there a relationship between this Nietzschean attitude and the kind of ‘middle ground’ Derrida is going to try and lay out?

Derrida writes about world-widization and cyberspace virtualization upsetting “the topology of the event, the experience of the singular taking place” (210). My question is: Can an ‘event’ still take place? Derrida asks (and can we respond): “what happens, then, when the place itself becomes virtual, freed from its territorial (and thus national) rootedness, and when it becomes subject to the modality of an ‘as if’” (213).

What is the relationship between the “world-widization” discussed in “University Without Condition” and “Faith and Knowledge”? Obviously, it is the same phenomenon, but how is the effect different.

In “University without Condition,” Derrida writes that the research into humanity “in principle” must take place in the university and above all in the Humanities. “Not so that it may enclose itself there, but, on the contrary, so as to find the best access to a new public space transformed by new techniques of communication, information, archivization, and knowledge production” (203). The question of access is also brought up in “Faith and Knowledge”: “the religious cultures, states, nations, or ethnic groups that they represent have unequal access, to be sure, but often one that is immediate and potentially without limit to the same world market [. . .] <At stake in the struggle> is thus the access to the world (transnational or trans-state networks of telecommunications and of tele-technoscience” (79).  How might we address this issue of access?

In a footnote in “Faith and Knowledge,” the translator makes a point about the shift from “mondialisation” and “globalization”—what is at stake in this shift from world to globe? Or rather, what is the significance of ‘mond’ being translated into English as “globalization,” a phenomenon the West has named? What bearing does Derrida’s discussion of “world” have on the Christian and Heideggerian ideas of “world,” (and being-in-the-world)?

In “University Without Condition,” Derrida argues that the University is able to have an independence, but an independence without power However, it is this independence without power that also exposes us to the risk of being appropriated by other institutions with power.

When we discussed Ronell, we talked a lot about how the book was organized. Moreso with “Faith and Knowledge,” why is Derrida’s text set up like it is? Why are there phrases in bold? Is it for easier navigation? Is it because he wants them to look like hyperlinks (going along with the techno-science idea)? Is it because they are “key terms”?  Related to this, Derrida explains why he organized his text into sections:

Let us choose, then, I told myself, a quasi-aphoristic form as one chooses a machine, the least pernicious machine to treat of religion in a certain number of pages: 25 or a few more, we were given; and, let us say, arbitrarily, to decipher or anagrammatize the 25, 52 very unequal sequences, as many crypts dispersed in a non-identified field (Derrida 76).

Do we trust Derrida here? What is the significance of the word “crypt” (and cenotaphs)?  Why is the Post-Scriptum longer than what we usually think is the ‘body’ of the work?

Faith and Knowledge: Notes


  • ·         Belief and Truth
  • ·         Sacredness, holiness, healing

Religion: Two possible “sources” (etymologically)

1.) Relegare—“To bring together in order to return and to begin again

2.( Religare—“To bind, in sense of obligation or debt”

·         It is this second sense that “binds” religion to respondeo (acc. To Beneviste) and spondee (promise and “to answer for”) which stems from the Greek spondē, which means a sacrifice to the gods”

Etymology/Form of essay

Pg 73—How does Derrida get from relegare to this sense of “scruple, patience, modesty”? (this may be answered on page 74)

Pg 76—“crypt,” “cenotaph” A ‘cenotaph’ is an "empty tomb" or a monument erected in honour of a person or group of people whose remains are elsewhere. This concept of monument, tomb, crypt—this sense of “burying”—the empty tomb, linked with death, resurrection, a S(crypt).

Respect for Life

Pg 86-> about “respect for life” (how does this relate to the “University without Condition’s ‘crime against humanity’)  

Life and the Posthuman

How might we take Derrida’s claim that “This dignity of life can only subsist beyond the present living being [. . .] This excess above and beyond the living, whose life only has absolute value by being worth more than life, more than itself—this, in short, is what opens the space of death that is linked to the automaton (exemplarily ‘phallic’) to technics, the machine, the prosthesis” (87). Does this concern what we tend to call in our discipline the “posthuman”?
See also:

Pg 78—“the machinic”
Pg 80—“immunity/autoimmunity à What is this relationship (see footnote)

82-84—Seems like Derrida is laying out a future project about life, sacredness, and swelling

Life of a Co (auto) mmunity

Pg 87— About Community (Co-auto-immunity) as the alive community –“open to something else, more than itself” –this more than itself—the “to come”? This relates to the concept of hospitality? The opening to any other that is every other?

Religion –Sacrifice? Prayer?

88-Religion sans Sacrifice/prayer—Is it possible? What side is the sacrifice/prayer on? Is prayer in the “faith” category rather than the “sacred” category? Can these things be separated?

Religion and Violence—

Derrida looks at different violences committed in the name of religion (and sometimes not in the name of religion, but basically as “religious” wars)

Pg 89—Vengeance of the body proper against the delocalizing tele-technoscience. It’s a claim to “rediscover roots” and such violence is “auto-immune.” The irony is that they have align themselves with this very technology to get the effect—what has been known as the “Rushdie” affair wouldn’t be such a big deal if it wasn’t able to be picked up by the media and distributed through the very science that this revenge on the “body proper” tries to recover its sacredness (its “purity”).

This search for “roots” is a complicated one as Derrida also acknowledges that the violence of “abstraction” and “radical extirpation” can be just as harmful.  “Extirpation” means “to pull up from roots” and it has a meaning in (ecology?) as “local extinction.” This “local extinction” is at the expense of mondialisation/globalization/abstraction/tele-technoscience. 

Derrida points out though that the reasons for reactionary violence are tied to a notion of “sacredness,” “purity,” “un-contamination” that is simply not there (for the same reason that we cannot see the University as completely divorced from its history, which is a history of interaction with institutions of power).

Derrida also contrasts this localized violence (that still must employ the forces it fights against) on the ‘body proper’, which can be imaged and calculated to the “incalculable” (see page 90) which I think is related to the many deaths that we do not count (as the United States—or any nation). What do we do with events that simply are incalculable? The holocaust? Genocides?

Our relationship with science is interesting as well, considering there is a divorce between our scientific knowledge and our manipulating competence. We put “faith” in technology like animists—as if there really were a ghost in the machine rather than wires and chemicals. Technology  is something we can manipulate but (many of us) do not understand. Derrida seems to suggest there is a kind of religio, a kind of bind and obligation to technology.

Religious Reactions to Technology: 2 Forms (neither of which are inherently democratic or anti-democratic (pg 92)

1.)  The fervent return to national citizenship 
2.) A protest that is universal, ecumenical. We get this from “ecologists, humanists” who want to unite in an anti-technology movement. (who have to employ the mechanisms they oppose in order to gather and garner support)

Heidegger and Thought (pgs 94-98)

--Here Derrida shows how Heidegger tries to exclude the first sense of religion (faith, belief, glaube) from a notion of the “sacred” and the difficulties of doing this. Derrida refers explicitly to the idea of the “attestation” of conscience. Indeed, is not phenomenology’s project (or at least existentialism’s project) of “authenticity” always tied up in a faith or belief that one is being-authentic? That there is no external criteria that we can apply and say: yes, you, you are authentic.

--I’m also interested in how  this section seems to deal with Heidegger’s idea  of the mit-sein, which is assumed in his phenomenology. It is assumed in Heidegger that we are all “being-in-the-world’ in the same world (the phenomenological world). What is the significance for Heideggerian thought when we speak about “globalization” as a particularly Western (perhaps even American) force that is a wide-spread conversion that extirpates? How can we harness the power of tele-technoscience without potentially welcoming the “other”—radical evil.

Radical Evil

The idea of “radical evil” comes from Kant. Kant's idea of ‘radical evil’, so far as I understand it, affirms that we are responsible for evil because we are not following the right (and reasonable) actions. We must enact a “moral conversion”—I’d like to explore how this ‘moral conversion’ relates to Derrida’s idea of “faith/belief” as well as Derrida’s mention of Kant’s “reflective” judgments as opposed to deliberative judgment.

Rhetorical Situation

In every Derrida essay, it is important to pay attention to what Derrida is “responding” to and how immediately makes the very call for this response a problem. In “Faith and Knowledge” the problem is that of the academic conference, which necessarily (?) excludes others. Gil Anidjar is going to make a major point that Derrida harps on the question of Islam. Derrida emphasizes that we are expected to  speak of Monotheisms that do not fall under the Latin word “religion.” And so, he emphasizes that they are all speaking a derivative of Latin and suggests that the word “religion” is a Christian and Latin conception (globalatinization). 

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