villanova roundtable…

Villanova University, October 3, 1994.
Roundtable Discussion with
Jacques Derrida
Question: Perhaps we can start today’s discussions by talking about what we are in fact doing here now at this moment, which is this event being held to inaugurate an academic program in philosophy. That is a rich event and it suggests a lot of things and things that in many ways over the years you have been addressing in your work. Many people whose impression of deconstruction has come from public media might think that this is an odd thing for you to do, as in this country one thinks of deconstruction as the end of philosophy and here we are beginning something new in philosophy, and many associate deconstruction with a kind of destructive attitude towards texts and traditions and truth and the most honorable needs of the philosophical heritage. Furthermore, there are people who might think that deconstruction would be the enemy of academic progress; that you can’t institutionalize deconstruction, that deconstruction resists the very idea of institutions, is anti-institutional, that it resists academic programs, it deconstructs them, it knocks them down, it can’t accommodate itself to institutionality. Finally, you have often spoken about the very notion of the irruption of something new, and we are trying today to irrupt, and we would be interested to know what your reflections are on the inaugural moment.

Derrida: Yes…first of all I want to apologize for my awful English. I have to improvise here and this is a very difficult task for me and I hope that it passes. Before starting to answer the question I would like to thank the President and the Dean for their kind words…and to thank all of you for being present here. Of course it’s an honor for me to be part of this exceptional moment in the history of Villanova University and I’m very proud of sharing with you this experience, especially because it’s the inauguration of a philosophy program. I think it’s very important to try and say something, some words about what I think this means, but before I do that I would emphasise the fact that the institution of such a program is not only important for you and for this university, it is important for the community of philosophers in this country and even abroad. …

Space for them is reduced more and more in our, let’s say, ‘industrial societies’, and I myself in my own appropriate way try as far as I can to struggle in order to impart a space for philosophy teaching and for philosophical research. It’s important for your university, it’s important for the country, it’s important for other philosophical communities in this world first of all because at this university the philosophers who are running this program are already well known in this country and in Europe… I assure you that they are very, let’s say, important philosophers for us, very precious thinkers and the fact that they are running this program is a guarantee for the future of this program – and we knew this in advance. Then, a moment ago I met for one hour with many of your students, graduate students, students who will work within this program, and I will release without any convention – not out of politeness – I will tell you that they are very bright students and I was very happy to discuss with them for one hour of intense, intense philosophical debate. They are very well informed, very organized, and it makes me very optimistic about the future of this program. So I will attempt to congratulate you and all of their colleagues who decided to have this program built and wish you the best.

Of course…hopefully, deconstruction – and I will be very, let us say, ‘sketchy’, for we don’t have time to get into a very detailed analysis – but deconstruction, what is called deconstruction has never opposed institutions as such, philosophy as such, discipline as such. Of course, as we rightly say, it is another thing for me to be doing what I am doing here because however affirmative deconstruction is, as we recalled a moment ago, it is affirmative in a way which is not simply positive – that is, it is not simply conservative, it is not simply a way of repeating the given institution or the lack of an institution on the part of which we are able to criticize, to transform, to open the institution to its own future. The paradox in the instituting moment of an institution is that it continues something, is true to the memory of a past, to a heritage, to something we receive from the path of the assessors of the culture and so on, but if an institution is to be an institution it must break with the past and at the same time keep the memory of the past and inaugurate something absolutely new. So I am convinced that although this program looks to some extent like other similar programs there is something absolutely new and the indication of this can be found not simply in the status of the structural organization of the program but in the work, in the content of the work of the ones who will run this program, teach the new themes. The faculty for instance, the colleagues who inscribe in their programs things such as ‘Heidegger and Deconstruction’ or new themes indicate that they are not simply reproducing, they are trying to open something new and something original, something which hasn’t been done in that way in other similar university programs. So the paradox is that the instituting moment in an institution is violent in a way, violent because it cannot guarantee, although it follows the premises of a past, it starts on the cusp of the new and this newness is not only a risk, something risky – it has to be something risky – it’s violent because cannot be governed by any previous rule. So at the same time you have to follow a rule and to invent a new rule, a new norm, a new criterion, a new law. That’s why the moment of the institution is so dangerous at the same time.

One should not have an absolute guarantee, an absolute law, we have to invent the rules and be sure that the responsibility taken by the students implies that they give themselves the new rules. There is no responsible new decision without this inauguration, this absolute break. That is what deconstruction is about – not a mixture but a tension between memory, fidelity, the preservation of something of something which has been given to us, and at the same time heterogeneity, something absolutely new. The condition of this performative success, which is never guaranteed, is the blindness of these two rules. That’s why – I am coming to the question of the program – in France, we have for a long time been confronted with similar issues… I have at the same time said two things which sum up the issue. On the one hand, I was – and I won’t hide this here – I was fighting, I was opposing the rigid definition of programs, disciplines, the borders between disciplines, the fact that in my country philosophy was taught only at the university or in the last grade of the high school, so we founded another institution in 1975, a movement called the Group for the Research of the Teaching of Philosophy [GREPH, Groupe de recherche sur l’enseignement philosophique] which opposed the dominant institution, which tried to convince our colleagues and our presidents that philosophy should be taught earlier than in this last grade of the high school, that is, earlier than at [a student’s] sixteen or seventeen years, that there should be philosophy across the borders – not only in philosophy proper, but in all fields such as law, medicine, so on and so forth. To some extent this struggle was a failure but I am still convinced that it was right, ‘a good war’, so to speak. But at the same time I was emphasizing the necessity of a discipline, that is, of something specifically philosophical that shouldn’t dissolve philosophy in order to… that we need at the same time the interdisciplinarity, crossing the borders, establishing new themes, new problems, new ways or new approaches to new problems but while teaching the history of philosophy, the techniques, the rigor of the profession, what one calls discipline. I think we shouldn’t choose between the two. We should have philosophers trained as philosophers as rigorously as possible and at the same time audacious philosophers who cross the borders and discover new connections, new fields; not only interdisciplinary research, but [research on] themes that are not even interdisciplinary.
If you allow me to refer to another institution I have been involved with in France – I mentioned GREPH in ’75 – but in ’82, some friends and I founded a new institution called the International College of Philosophy, in which – and we inaugurated this in 1983 – in which at the same time we tried to teach philosophy as such, as a discipline, and to discover new themes, new problems which had had no legitimacy, which were not recognized as such in the given universities. That was not simply interdisciplinarity because interdisciplinarity implies that we have given identifiable proper identities – we had a legal theorist, we had an architect, a philosopher, a literary critic, and they joined, they worked together on a specific type of academic object – that’s interdisciplinarity. When you discover a new object, an object which up to now hasn’t been identified as such or has no legitimacy in terms of any academic media or academic field you have to invent a new campus, a new type of research, a new discipline. The International College of Philosophy granted a privilege to such new themes, new disciplines which were not up to then recognized or legitimated in other institutions. So you see, at the same time I am a very conservative person. I love institutions and I spend a lot of time, let’s say, sharing the interest of my work with institutions which sometimes do not work and at the same time trying to dismantle not institutions but some structures in the given institutions which are too rigid or are dogmatic or which work as an obstacle to any future research.

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~ by aikaterine on June 11, 2007.

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