As If, Without Alibi

This spring there has been overlapping discussion between social groups around Jacques Derrida’s text, The University Without Condition. This led to desire for a summary to be circulated. Here it is.

Derrida, Jacques. “The University Without Condition” in Without Alibi. Peggy Kamuf, ed.
Stanford : Stanford University Press, 2002. 202‐237.

“The University professes the truth, and that is its
profession. It declares and promises an unlimited
commitment to the truth. (D, 202).”

This summary is written with reference to Peggy Kamuf’s (K) introduction to the collection of Derrida’s (D) essays, Without Alibi. Kamuf’s introduction elaborated some key concepts used in The University Without Condition but expanded further in the accompanying texts.

The University Without Condition is a lecture delivered in a performative mode. It is itself a profession of faith in the role of the “new” Humanities during a crisis of sovereignty due to blurred boundaries of globalization (D, 203) and a crisis of work in which information technologies and changing patterns in teaching, research and scholarly communication have destabilized the social bond of “campus” as physical place (D, 210). The Humanities as a public space for discussion and research are in flux and through changing financial situations are, “directly or indirectly controlled… by commercial and industrial interests” (D, 206). This sponsorship places the work of the university, and of the professor under certain conditions. Derrida begins by asking if the university can claim a sovereignty from these conditions, and whether this assumed freedom is part of a privileged place historically accorded to the Humanities, “as a sort of principle of civil disobedience, even of dissidence in the name of a superior law and a justice of thought“ (D,207‐208)?

Derrida then continues to ask a series of questions to reveal the hierarchy inherent to this position of sovereignty, and the flawed assumptions that are implied. Derrida interrogates the limits of J.L. Austin’s performative and constative utterances within the classical university (D, 218), positing that the performative mode initiated by the phrase as if implies a fictional condition that limits us in our thinking. A narrative event implies that the end was known at the beginning (K, 5), justice for Derrida is not a state of affairs that can already be known, in his concept of the oeuvre, Derrida is describing the work of “making connections to a world that could still be more just” (K, 21). The work of the professor in the University without condition is to produce oeuvres towards the impossible horizon of justice.

The University must be not only a place of work, but also of works (oeuvres), “What happens not only when one takes into account the performative value of “profession” but when one accepts that a professor produces oeuvres and not just knowledge and preknowledge?” (D, 221). Kamuf tells us that for Derrida, the “work” or oeuvre is the ability to think simultaneously at the conjunction of machine and event – the possible/impossible conjunction of the “event” as singular, as a rupture and a decentering of convention and the “machine” as “calculable programming of an automatic repetition.” (K, 3) Derrida points to this production of oeuvres as a mutation in the academic tradition of the Humanities in which professors who professed or produced knowledge, did not traditionally produce signed oeuvres, “A professor, as such, does not sign an oeuvre. His or her authority as professor is not that of the author of an oeuvre, a work (D, 217).” Derrida most often engages with written works or literature, and Kamuf makes a point here that the history of exclusion of artist‐professors or poet‐professors (who align practice with instruction) in the French academic establishment is different from their integration in the US (or Canada) (K, 18).

In the second half of the essay, Derrida takes up the “end of work” as described by Jeremy Rifkin’s “Third industrial Revolution” where fewer and fewer workers will be needed to produce the goods and services of the global population…technological innovations and market‐directed forces” move us towards a “workerless world” (D, 225). For Derrida this ushers in a gap where zones of the world, populations, nations, groups and classes are excluded victims of the “end of work” (D, 227). It is in this sense that the work of the oeuvre in the new Humanities is justice and resistance to injustice. Derrida uses the example of the “juridicial performatives” in the historical past of the Declarations of the Rights of Man and the related concept of crimes against humanity (D, 232). These are presented as the transformation of international law through concepts of justice limited by the fictional mode of confession – acting as if the citizen or legal subject were free, deciding and responsible (D, 232). However, because a distinction can no longer be made between domestic and foreign, national and international, the fiction of sovereignty, the legal subject, and of the legal state is up for question (K, 13). Thus, the university should resist all forms of sovereignty, but that of the principle of truth. For Derrida, such an unconditional resistance could oppose the university to numerous powers, but this oppositional event must come as a surprise that challenges the limits of academia and of the Humanities, if it “remains controllable or programmable” then it is ”unfolding what is already possible” and thus not a singular event or rupture in conventional organization.

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