University : Anat Matar

Part IV

What, then, lies beyond the horizon of liberal thought? How is it possible to overcome the liberal-conservative predicament? In order to suggest an answer, I wish to embark from Derrida’s discussion of the university-to-come in his “Mochlos” and “The University without Condition.” Derrida is a philosopher, a dialectician, a deconstructionist—and philosophy, dialectics, and deconstruction are, for him, the foundation for the university “à venir,” the university that must arrive, and indeed the university that already arrived as an idea with the inauguration of the Platonic academy.

Like Plato, Hegel, Schelling, and Kant, Derrida believes that philosophy is the essence of the university—its necessary condition, its vital force; therefore, he concludes, conceptual analyses of the university, of philosophy, and of truth should be interlaced. Derrida’s deconstruction is in fact none other than Platonism laying bare its innards, its modus operandi, its mechanism. It reveals-creates the meaning of dialectics, which aspires to the unconditional. Such a move of self exposure cannot, of course, preserve the excavated insides and is doomed to conclude in dismantling the mechanism, at least in part. This philosophical procedure—a kind of Aufhebung—takes liberal thought to pieces but attempts to retain something of its spirit.

Derrida’s idea is, tout court, that once we place deconstruction at the basis of the university, we must confront the double-edged dagger directly, boldly. Now, “deconstruction at the basis”: this is an oxymoron, since deconstruction relentlessly examines and destroys its own presuppositions, and hence cannot serve as a basis, in the usual sense of this term. But the oxymoron acknowledges the fact that the foundation of the university must be unstable, and yet that this doesn’t mean it to be eliminated—or buttressed. The wobbly foundation is but an upshot of the immanent contradiction at our point of departure: the aspiration to attain and articulate the elusive truth, which refuses the necessarily conditional and partial nature of words.

Yet deconstruction also acknowledges the endless vivacity of language, the fact that alongside its necessary failure it does leave room for meaningful discourse—one that is primarily not formal, empty or negative, but a discourse of truth. The enormous achievement of the nineteenth century was overcoming Kant’s predicament and restating the possibility of articulating truth that is not at all “independent of time, place, and historical circumstance”; eventually, though, this achievement was annulled. Once we acknowledge the power of words—rather than lay emphasis on their impotence—we aim the arrows of our questions and criticism towards the very concepts of question and criticism.

Thus, when a question clarifies to the scholars that their claims are weaker than they have been willing to believe, it focuses their gaze on the inevitable; but when it frees them of the belief in truth and allows anything and everything, with the sole provision that they observe the procedures of the question, when it presents the critical move as an aim unto itself, it is purely negative, empty, and arbitrary. Derrida is fearful of the oppressive possibilities of this procedural void and rejects it in an act of philosophical and political refusal, that is, an act of philosophical refusal that is pointedly political. Deconstruction, says Derrida, will never be construable as “a technical set of discursive procedures.”44 At the very least, it includes

the taking of a position, in the 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 [that is, with the constative rather than the performative], it must not be separable from this politico-institutional problematic, and has to require a new questioning about responsibility, a questioning that no longer necessarily relies on codes inherited from politics or ethics. [These belong rather to the “higher faculties,” those essential instruments of the government.]45

Truth is political. Once we realize this, we realize also—with Marx, or Henry Giroux—that the understanding of truths is inseparable from proving them in practice, that theory should be interwoven with praxis.46 Eliminating the political, in the name of that liberal fantasy about the purity and freedom of the lower faculty, of contemplative science, amounts to nothing short of eliminating truth and reinforcing the conventional. This is the answer to Weber’s complaint about the mediocrity common to academics.47 Weber, we saw, wholeheartedly supported the root causes of this mediocrity.

The most crucial—and perhaps most surprising—move taken by deconstruction is hence restoring truth as central to academic discourse: strong, content-laden, personal, political truth; truth that hasn’t been thrust aside, to be replaced by its liberal heirs, the anemic twins, “sense” and “clarity.” The separation of rhetoric from content, of methodology from truth, and of theory from praxis, is a mirage. This is why Derrida insists on reminding his readers that he is a professor— he professes, by profession, by a pledge of faith. He professes, declares, rather than transmits knowledge in a “neutral” manner; he believes in what he’s teaching; he is engaged; he takes upon himself a moral, political, public responsibility. He refuses to remain on the “pure” side of the fence—primarily because he realizes there is no such side.

45. Jacques Derrida, “Mochlos,” 102. For inserted clarifications, see 90.

46. See for example Henry Giroux, “Breaking the Chains: A Strategy to Retake the University” in
The University in Chains.

47. Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation,” 5.

48. Alain Badiou, L’antiphilosophie de Wittgenstein, 8.

« Previous // Next »