Where have all the Derrideans gone?

I’ve been reading some literature on the “Idea” of the university lately. If you’re curious to get a sense of this arcane set of texts, which go back to Kant and Cardinal Newman, the best recent introductions are Gerard Delanty’s 1998 The idea of the university in the global era and Jeffrey J. Williams’ 2007 Teach the University (free here).

But what I wanted to write about, briefly, was a little exchange I discovered in Critical Inquiry from 1999 between Dominick LaCapra, an intellectual historian, and Nicholas Royle, an English literature professor. The year before, LaCapra had written a fairly critical response to Bill Readings’ well-known 1996 book, The University in Ruins. In his earlier 1998 essay, LaCapra notes that Readings’ claims of “ruin” are hyperbole, and he goes on to make some very sensible points about Readings’ tacit theory of institutions and his forms of evidence. Here’s a typical passage:

Readings’s very understanding of institutions is largely conceptual rather than oriented to institutions as historically variable sets of practices relating groups of people. His perspective on the institution and what he considers institutionally relevant thus seems very high-altitude in nature. In this approach… Readings relies not on studies of the institutional functioning of universities but on a decontextualized reading of such figures as Kant, Humboldt, Arnold, and Newman. These figures did elaborate paradigms or normative models, at times embodying critical and self-critical elements, and these models may have had a problematic relation to institutional practice that varied over space and time. But what that relation was, including the differences between model and practice, is not immediately obvious. (1998:38)

This strikes me as wise methodological advice for anyone who wants to understand what a university is and how “the university” relates to the various ideas that actors have about it. LaCapra argues, in short, that one has to look at the relations, gaps, tensions, between discourse and practice. But what strikes me as hilarious, and what drives me to write this blog post, is how Royle writes in his response to LaCapra the year after. In short, Royle gives a flawless performance of what I recognize, from essays I read in college, as stock deconstructive rhetoric. Here’s the start of Royle’s essay:

In his extremely measured and seemingly even-handed essay, Dominick LaCapra recalls Jacques Derrida’s well-known (though still perhaps inconceivable) proposition that “one must begin where one is” (p. 50).[1] He does not recall the more difficult and disconcerting supplement that accompanies it, that is to say “Wherever we are: in a text already where we believe ourselves to be” (“Quelque part où nous sommes: en un texte déjà où nous croyons être”).[2] To be already in a text, that is to say, in a context, is to be in ruins.[3] It is to have to reckon with a thinking and an affirmation of ruination at the origin. As Derrida has observed: “In the beginning, at the origin, there was ruin. At the origin comes ruin; ruin comes to the origin, it is what first comes and happens to the origin, in the beginning. With no promise of restoration.”[4] An affirmation of this experience of ruination is, as Derrida says, “experience itself”: the ruin “is precisely not a theme, for it ruins the theme, the position, the presentation or representation of anything and everything.”[5]

How do you feel about this passage? Yes, I’m serious. I want to hear your reactions. But since, alas, I can’t find out without finishing this post first, I’ll start by telling you some things that strike me about this passage.

  1. It starts out with utter sarcasm about LaCapra’s text; seemingly even-handed is basically academese for ridiculously unfair.
  2. Derrida is cast in a very strange way: as at once a sort of nearby interlocutor, someone who needs no introduction and whose propositions are “well-known,” but also as an absolute authority whose (in fact controversial) claims can be cited as if they were self-evident truths.
  3. It’s unclear why it would be an inconceivable proposition to “begin where one is,” and Royle makes no effort to explain what he means.
  4. Moving on to the second sentence… I note that being “more difficult and disconcerting” is cast as an obviously good thing.
  5. In passing, this is an incredibly scholastic bit of prose: every sentence ends in a footnote.
  6. Royle cites Derrida to the effect that we are (presumably always and everywhere) “in a text already.” (He also quotes the French original to no apparent purpose.)
  7. He needs to assert that we’re already in a text so that he can then claim, in the third sentence, that texts are themselves contexts. If there is nothing outside the text (are we far enough into the Derridean ritual incantations yet?) then, presumably, LaCapra’s “differences between model and practice” don’t exist, or at best can only be rephrased as mere differences between one text and the next.
  8. Having claimed that contexts are themselves texts, Royle can then present us with the fantastic metaphor, presented however as a seemingly literal claim, that being in a text is already being in ruins. My point here isn’t that we ought to strive for non-metaphorical thought — anyone who believes that should try reading George Lakoff — but rather that Royle fails to acknowledge the metaphorical status of his own claim.
  9. (Incidentally, I observe that Royle has casually slipped from Derrida’s voice to his own, blending one with the next.)
  10. In sum, Royle’s initial retort to LaCapra’s paper appears to be something like this: If all being involves being in a text, which involves being in a context, which is itself a text, and all being in a text involves being in ruins, then Readings can’t be accused of hyperbole in claiming that the university is in ruins. For we’re all always already in ruins.
  11. I’m tempted to point out that Royle himself is appallingly hyperbolic here, but as it turns out later in the essay, Royle is already well aware of his own hyperbole. I won’t quote the whole passage, but he tries to avoid the patent hypocrisy of his hyperbolic reaction to (what he views as) LaCapra’s hyperbolic reaction to Readings’ hyperbole by asserting, feebly, that “there is hyperbole… we could say, as soon as there is text” (fn. 11). Royle, of course, makes no effort to substantiate this sweeping statement.
  12. If we go on to read the last few sentences of the passage I quoted, we get a sense of the way that this Derridean language seems to constitute a limited, abstract literary cosmos, one which seems to have a strong aesthetic appeal for writers like Royle. A Derridean utterance like “At the origin comes ruin” certainly sounds mysterious; it has the patter of poetry; but it becomes a blunt form of thought, an intellectual anaesthetic that blocks us from distinguishing different origins and different ruins. There’s something Pavlovian about it, come to think of it: it’s as if, every time anyone uttered the word “ruins,” Royle were obliged to respond by citing Derrida to the effect that we’re already ruined. As if Derridean language makes its intellectual world less by persuasion or dialogue with its critics than through sheer force of repetition. A sad fate for a intellectual project that often wanted to be more discriminating, to read more carefully, than any other.
  13. Just to pick out one last quality of this Derridean style, I’m struck by the casual reference to something like “experience itself,” which apparently can be entirely defined (by Royle) as “an affirmation of this experience of ruination.” Really, all experience is an experience of ruination? This is a kind of writing that talks freely about extremely abstract entities and takes pleasure in giving lots of paradoxical definitions, but it’s simultaneously theoretically committed to the impossibility of ever defining anything. It’s a theoretical language that revels in its own paradoxes.

Now, LaCapra obviously was seriously annoyed by Royle’s critique (which went on for several pages). His 1999 response to Royle is one of the more witheringly comic bits of academic prose I’ve read in a while; it has moments like these:

I would begin by noting the seeming condescension in his tone of the initiate. This tone has become familiar in a certain discourse that seems to situate itself both textually and contextually somewhere between meta-metaphysical hyperspace and Planet Earth (conceived of course in appropriately global terms). This labile (non)position of the Luftmensch allows for rapid gliding between quasi-transcendental critique and historical (or pseudohistorical) commentary.

[In response to an argument that LaCapra is US-centric:] If Royle really has something to say about other university systems that would contradict or qualify my argument, it would have been enlightening for him to have said it.

[In response to Readings’s and Royle’s advocacy of short-term, non-institutionalized structures:] A university made up only of self-styled anti-institutional institutions of short duration could be the realization of the superbureaucratic, transnational manager’s wildest dream—the ideal place for the blissful rendez-vous of such an apparatchik with the Deleuzian nomad following a ligne de fuite.

[In response to a claim that LaCapra ignores students:] Royle asserts that “in a sense, students do not exist” (p. 152). I shall resist the invitation to sustained irony this formulation holds out and simply observe that in another sense they do indeed exist.

[In conclusion:] Readings’s book was striving for something while Royle at times seems to equate thought (or is it Thought?) with rather predictable, in any case “undisconcerting” and histrionic, verbal gestures.

So in the end it doesn’t appear that Royle managed to persuade his opponent of anything of substance. Instead, he managed to call attention to his own textual performance. But for me, this whole exchange elicits above all a feeling of the rapid passage of time in academia. It strikes me that I very seldom see anything from the last ten years written in the Roylean style — that style where Derrida is a vast authority yet close at hand, where certain kinds of universal claims (for instance about “experience itself”) combine so readily with a fixation on the irreducibility and undecidability of texts, where a certain form of in-group irony passed for the height of intellectual sophistication. I don’t even know if most grad students my age have encountered this Derridean style — it was a staple of undergrad literary theory education when I was in college, but that was a while ago and may have been particular to my undergrad institution. At any rate, it’s not a style I’ve really encountered in the humanities at Chicago where I am now (though admittedly I’m not in a humanities department). Does anyone else get the sense that this sort of deconstructive writing is now slipping away into the archives?