White, "Menace to Philosophy: Jacques Derrida and the Academic Sublime"
The Sublime and Education
Menace to Philosophy: Jacques Derrida and the Academic Sublime
Deborah Elise White, Emory University
In “Punctuations: The Time of a Thesis,” the opening statement of Derrida’s 1980 thesis defense for the doctorat d’état, he refers to “a certain terror” before his trajectory. The context is a recollection of Jean Hyppolite’s informal response to “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” at the 1966 Johns Hopkins Colloquium on The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man: “‘That said, I really do not see where you are going.’” Derrida remarks that “perhaps [. . .] concerning this place where I am going, I in fact know enough about it to think, with a certain terror [une certaine terreur] that things there are not going very well and that, all things considered, it would be better not to go there at all” (Right II 115f.; 442). What is at stake in this reference to “a certain terror”? In what way is terror associated with the power to mobilize and to immobilize a trajectory which, with characteristic reservations, Derrida refers to elsewhere in “Punctuations” as “deconstruction”? “Structure, Sign, and Play” itself famously concludes with “the as yet unnameable which is proclaiming itself [. . .] in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity (Writing and Difference 293, my emphasis). With these words, terror appears as part of the promise and menace of futurity, but “Punctuations” has a still more concrete agenda. It conjures up terror in an explicitly academic and institutional frame. In “Punctuations,” Derrida does not precisely defend his “thesis,” which consisted of already published works submitted to count as a thesis that, in a manner of speaking, remained unwritten. Rather, he defends an earlier decision not to submit a thesis for the academically legitimating doctorat d’état and, by the same token, defends his decision to submit one (however equivocally) on the present occasion. This double gesture itself constitutes a kind of thesis, for the implicit argument is that his philosophical writings and his institutional hesitations cannot be disentangled. They both participate in the discourse(s) of deconstruction. Confirming the connection, “Punctuations” appears in a collection of Derrida’s writings devoted to institutional problems and polemics: Du Droit à la Philosophie (published as two volumes in English: Who’s Afraid of Philosophy: Right to Philosophy I and the volume in which “Punctuations” appears, Eyes of the University: Right to Philosophy II). Restricted to a polemical, institutional context, the invocation of terror remains provoking. What are the stakes of “terror” in the institution(s) of philosophy and, more particularly, the university?
I propose to explore this last question by drawing on the literary and philosophical concept through which modernity traditionally confronts terror: the sublime. Terror recalls the aesthetics of the sublime, and Derrida’s institutional writings repeatedly test themselves against its vocabulary. Certainly, the sublime does not belong to a specifically Derridean lexicon – iterability, différance, invagination – nor does the sublime often appear to have the paleonymic function of other deconstructive appropriations of philosophical concepts. And yet it does have an important and, at times, unexpected, valence in Derrida’s work on academic institutions – work in which one should always read “institution” as both a noun and a verb. Allusions to the sublime recur throughout Du Droit à la Philosophie. Some are explicit; others oblique or glancing. They all set the sublime to work (and are set to work by it) in ways crucial to thinking the university as a site of institutional responsibility.
The ‘institutional’ cannot and should not be isolated from the ‘philosophical.’ The aporetic and undecidable character of their encounter operates one relay between the texts of Droit and the excesses and aporias of the sublime. Philosophy becomes, even as it overruns, ‘itself’ in and as its institutions. (One should add that these are not restricted to the university, though the university may be the most prominent.) The texts gathered together in Droit repeatedly address the need for philosophy to engage its institutional conditions of possibility. At times, the tone is straightforwardly polemical: “[It] is impossible, now more than ever, to dissociate the work we do, within one discipline or several, from a reflection on the political and institutional conditions of that work” (Right II 129). At others, the polemics are themselves subject to questioning. At what point in the work of institutionalizing itself does philosophy become something else? The preface to Droit, “Privilege,” comments that the “juridico-political” problematics of the volume trouble the determination of the philosophical in the name of something that may or may not be philosophy. In order to fight for its rights (for example, in school curricula, universities, and government policy) philosophy may have to cross the line into unknown disciplinary territory:
[….] most of the texts collected in this volume claim to participate in such a ‘fight.’ Will they have done so in the name of philosophy? Or in the name of something else that could be the affirmation of a thinking that is still or already foreign to philosophy and even to the question about philosophy? The very form of these questions no doubt deserves the most guarded, patient, suspended, we might even say unresolved attention. (Right I 27)
The unresolved character of Derrida’s relation to what is arguably his central argument concerning the institutional determinations of intellectual positions – and the need for disciplinary border crossing – separates his project from sociological, political, or even ideological critique. Tilottama Rajan has rightly pointed to the Bourdieuvian (and Foucauldian) language that can be found in parts of Droit (Rajan 149), but Derrida repeatedly refuses to equate his concern with philosophical or academic institutions with what he calls a sociology or politology of knowledge.
A responsible rethinking of the founding philosophical premises of the university must include a rethinking of the founding philosophical premises of the sociological and political ‘critique’ that has claimed the mantle of responsible thinking from philosophy. For all critique bears within it implicit and often unacknowledged philosophical assumptions:
These disciplines [sociology, politology] are no doubt more necessary than ever; I would be the last to want to disqualify them. But whatever conceptual apparatus they may have [. . .] they never touch upon that which, in themselves, continues to be based on the principle of reason and thus on the essential foundation of the modern university. They never question scientific normativity; beginning with the value of objectivity or of objectification, which governs and authorizes their discourse. Whatever their scientific value – and it can be considerable – these sociologies of the institution remain in this sense internal to the university, intra-institutional, controlled by the deep-seated norms, even of the programs, of the space that they claim to analyze. (Right II 149)
On the one hand, philosophy and philosophical critique must not be thought apart from its institutional formations, but on the other, its institutional formations must not be thought apart from their philosophical and critical implications. The ensuing predicament allows neither for sublimation into the idea(l)s of philosophical tradition nor for decomposition into the materials of institutional practice but partakes, undecidably, of both.
As suggested above, the instance of undecidability poses a point of contact between the texts of Droit and the discourse of the sublime (and undecidability punctuates allusions to the sublime throughout Derrida’s writing). In the Kantian tradition which is Derrida’s primary point of reference, the sublime names an impossible articulation of incommensurable forces. One stands suspended before a clash of freedom and nature that Kant does not so much resolve as decide, finally, in favor of freedom. To summarize somewhat schematically, Kant posits two ‘types’ of sublimity. In the mathematically sublime, imagination offers a sensory presentation of magnitude that reaches towards, but can never arrive at, infinity; understanding can keep on counting to higher and higher numbers, but imagination, the faculty that presents what one understands to the senses, will eventually be unable to keep up. It cannot maintain the aesthetic (that is, perceptible) sense of a measure: “[imagination] soon reaches its maximum, namely the aesthetically largest basic measure for an estimation of magnitude” (CJ 108). In this encounter with the infinite, reason intervenes to think the infinite as if it were a given, graspable totality. It thinks what the imagination can never encompass: “reason demands comprehension in one intuition, and exhibition of all the members of a progressively increasing numerical series, and it exempts from this demand not even the infinite (space and past time)” (111). In effect, reason demands that imagination give sensible form to the very grounds of the sensory world, for only by doing so can imagination encompass the world’s totality. In other words, reason demands the sensory presentation of the supersensible.
Responding to reason’s demand, imagination inevitably fails and its failure generates the irresolution of the sublime, its peculiarly negative pleasure: “This agitation (above all at its inception) can be compared with a vibration, i.e., with a rapid alternation of repulsion from, and attraction to, one and the same object” (115). But imagination succeeds in being a failure. As Derrida writes in his account of the mathematically sublime in “Parergon” (his book-length essay on The Critique of Judgment): “Presentation is inadequate to the idea of reason but it is presented in its very inadequation, adequate to its inadequation” (Truth 131). Ultimately, imagination’s failure generates an intimation of reason’s capacity to transcend the sensory world. The incommensurability of the two terms brings into focus the sublime “mental attunement” of the judging subject (112; 113) – its freedom from the world of the senses and thus its capacity for moral action. Alternatively, though following a partly analogous pattern, the dynamically sublime confronts the subject with the sheer power of nature rather than its magnitude. Experiencing nature’s power as fearful without actually falling prey to fear, the subject discovers its superiority to nature – its freedom. That is, the subject is recalled to its supersensible destiny as a moral being precisely by being exposed to its sensory vulnerability. The determination of the self by exterior forces gives way to its determination from within, heteronomy to autonomy. With the dynamically sublime, in particular, philosophy seeks to master terror – the menace that Derrida locates at the limits of philosophical mastery.
The incommensurability of reason and imagination suggests why the sublime cannot help but play a role in texts that address themselves to the impossible realization of philosophical institutions in general and the university in particular. For Derrida, institutional questions generate what he calls (again recalling Kant) “the antinomies of the philosophical discipline” (Right II 165-174, my emphasis). One must think philosophy as a discipline in its autonomy and in its heteronomy, for the university (the exemplary philosophical institution) can only be adequate to its inadequation to the philosophical idea of reason that it supposedly embodies (cf. “The Principle of Reason” discussed below). Extending Kant Derrida also asks whether the idea of Reason is even, as it were, adequate to itself. So, for example, in positing the principle of reason as the ground of the university, the question concerning the ground of that ground – and the university itself – is left hanging: “The abyss, the hole, the Abgrund, the empty ‘gorge’ would be the impossibility for a principle of grounding to ground itself. This very grounding, then, like the university, would have to hold itself suspended above a most peculiar void” (Right II 137). The university opens onto an abyss and, as Derrida recalls in “Parergon,” “the abyss […] would be the privileged presentation of the sublime” (Truth 129).
Philosophy has often tried to contain the terrors of the abyss. Kant’s sublime is one such effort. But Derrida’s writings suggest that philosophy cannot help but open itself to the very terrors it tries to contain. Its singular privilege is to put itself to the question and, in doing so, to expose that same singular privilege “to danger [à la menace] or presentation, sometimes to the risk of presentation” (Right I 2; 12). What menaces philosophy is thus not external to it but, rather, its founding premise. The institutional conditions of philosophy – which are inextricably intertwined with its presentation – entail the language of the sublime insofar as they cannot help but institute a field of risk in and as which philosophy takes place. The institution of norms betrays the original determination of philosophy as a questioning of norms, but the absence of institution leaves it prey to a normativity all the more forceful for never having been acknowledged let alone questioned.
In what follows, I explore the displacements operated on and by the sublime as Derrida engages these challenges. Part I opens with the explicitly marked role of the sublime in “The Principle of Reason: The University in the Eyes of its Pupils” in order to consider how a sublime temporality – the chance of an instant or the blink of an eye – exposes itself to “the risk of presentation” in the institution of the university. The impossible (re)presentation or narrativization of the instant signals the allegorical dimension of Derrida’s project, and Part II traces the relation of Derrida’s sublime to an allegorical tradition that looks back to Paul’s Epistles. It further explores how that tradition informs the materiality of the teaching body in “Where a Teaching Body Begins and How it Ends,” a text in which the teaching body is the focal point of incommensurabilities of letter and spirit characterized as, precisely, “sublime.” Part III concludes with the obliquely marked recurrence of the sublime throughout Droit in the text’s many references to “menace.” Their iterative undercurrent suggests that philosophy and its institutions cannot be disengaged from a threat of danger that is, arguably, the underside of the quasi-messianic promise so often invoked in Derrida’s writings. “Menace” will also turn out to have been the ultimate if indirect topic of Parts I and II, for what is at stake throughout this essay is the feeling of menace against which a certain discourse of the sublime and a certain allegorical (re)presentation seek to erect an institutional and disciplinary shield as if in defense of (the right to) philosophy. At the same time, and however problematically, the sublime and its allegorization remain an unavoidable touchstone for thinking this menace and “the entirely other of a terrifying future” (Right II 88) to which – or from which – it points.
I. Properly Sublime
In “The Principle of Reason: The University in the Eyes of its Pupils” the sublime is center stage – or, rather, it is the stage. Derrida originally delivered “The Principle of Reason” as the inaugural lecture of his tenure as Andrew D. White Professor at Large at Cornell University. The occasion characteristically informs the argument in ways both playful and serious as he recalls the crucial place of the sublime in the history of Cornell – the remarkable landscape setting that has become so much a part of its identity. With this history and this landscape in mind, he ironically solicits the sympathies of his audience: “Perhaps now you can better imagine with what shudders of awe [tremblements quasi religieux] I prepared myself to speak to you on the subject – quite properly sublime – of the essence of the university. Sublime in the Kantian sense of the term” (Right II 134; 469).
The passage verges on satire. Already, in the very opening of “Parergon,” a text written long before the Cornell lecture, Derrida seems to cast an ironically divided eye over the Kantian aesthetics of the sublime: “it’s enough to say: abyss and satire of the abyss” (Truth 18). A satire of the abyss seems to divide the abyssal scenography of “The Principle of Reason” as well. Derrida takes the measure of the “properly sublime” at a distance, for the “properly sublime,” or the “sublime in the Kantian sense” remains normative. It gives the subject a (negative) intimation of autonomy – the feeling of its own subjectivity as freedom from nature. In the economic vocabulary with which Derrida broaches the sublime in “Economimesis,” (another essay on The Critique of Judgment and a missing chapter, as it were, from the longer “Parergon”) the sublime inscribes its negativity within a restricted aesthetic economy. It circulates through a system of exchange in which the sacrificial labor of imagination enables the surplus value of the subject’s freedom to announce itself. Imaginative incapacity signifies rational mastery. For this reason, “Economimesis” explicitly denies that the sublime is in any way heterogeneous to the fundamental oppositions that structure and found transcendental critique – freedom versus nature, subject versus object, sensory versus supersensory:
Although repulsive on one of its faces, the sublime is not the absolute other of the beautiful. It still provokes a certain pleasure. Its negativity does indeed provoke a disagreement between the faculties and disorder in the unity of the subject. But it is still productive of pleasure and the system of reason can account for it. A still internal negativity does not reduce to silence; it lets itself be spoken. The sublime can dawn in art. The silence it imposes by taking the breath away and by preventing speech is less than ever heterogeneous to spirit and freedom. The movement of reappropriation on the contrary is even more active. That which in this silence works against our senses or in opposition to the interest of sense (hinderance and sacrifice, says Kant) keeps the extension of a domain and of power in view. Sacrifice [Aufopferung] and spoliation [Beraubung], through the experience of a negative Wohlgefallen, thus allows for the acquisition of an extension and a power [Macht] greater than what is sacrificed to them. (“Economimesis” 21f.)
The sublime brings critical philosophy to a crisis in the incommensurability of imagination and reason and, thus, too, of nature and freedom, or of knowledge and ethics. But reason’s final victory in translating the negativity of imagination into the sign of its own sovereignty is all the greater. The critical subject reproduces itself through the breakdown of its faculties. Thinkers of the sublime close to Derrida, notably Lyotard and De Man, have argued that the negativity of the sublime is not so easily overcome (or even isolated as negative) within the critical system – that the sublime is, in some ways, heterogeneous to critique and critical normativity. Derrida’s own writings outside of “Economimesis” suggest a certain ambiguity on this point as in his focus on the not-quite-sublime figure of the colossal in “Parergon” (Truth 119-147 and discussed below). But in much of his work the sublime appears provisionally to name a rigorous negativity that nonetheless remains normative (or dialectizable) within the system of aesthetics that underwrites critical philosophy and that remains academically sovereign within the university. The subject of the Kantian sublime remains a subject. And when Derrida writes that the “subject” of the university (that is, the “subject” of his lecture but also, perhaps, punningly, the subject interpellated by the university) is “properly sublime […] in the Kantian sense” he may be hinting at the normative and self-reproductive dimension of academic discourse and the many ways in which it perpetuates itself through a dialectic of crisis and legitimation. (The demand that every doctoral thesis present new research and the correspondingly strict protocols for what counts as new is a minimal version of crisis as the condition of academic legitimation and reproduction.)
Derrida is also making a simpler claim. What is “properly sublime…in the Kantian sense” about the essence of the university is that its founding idea necessarily exceeds any attempt to realize it:
In The Conflict of the Faculties, Kant averred that the university should be governed by ‘an idea of reason,’ the idea of the whole field of what is presently teachable […]. As it happens, no experience in the present allows for an adequate grasp of that present, presentable totality of doctrine, of teachable theory. But the crushing sense of that inadequacy is precisely the exalting, desperate sense of the sublime, suspended between life and death. (Right II 134)
The university tries to embody a totality that cannot be embodied but only thought by reason as its own idea. In this characterization, Derrida isolates a very particular schematic of the sublime: the clash of the totality of an idea with the finitude of human imaginings. But in a more technical sense, one may wonder whether his formula is properly sublime: Kant insists that the sublime may be found only in relation to raw nature and that “a pure judgment about the sublime […] must have no purpose whatsoever of the object as the basis determining it, if it is to be aesthetic and not mingled with some judgment of understanding or of reason” (CJ 109). The university is only improperly sublime insofar as we necessarily judge it in relation to “‘an idea of reason’” or to any idea of how the university “should,” as Derrida writes, “be governed.” The impurity of the academic sublime gives it a peculiarly redoubled reflexivity, since the totality demanded by the idea of reason is the idea of reason in its totality. In the Kantian sublime, reason always ends by thinking (of) itself, but when the subject matter of thought is the university, the reflexivity of reason arises in relation to a deliberate attempt to think and see itself through the (cracked) mirror of its own institution. The idea of reason that inheres in the university as an institution may pre-empt a purely aesthetic response, but it intensifies the reflexivity of the university and thus leaves it all the more open to something like Derrida’s divisive irony when he calls it “properly sublime.”
The university divides as if against its own sublimity. At least that is the story of Cornell as Derrida tells it. The very phrase “properly sublime” risks falling into cliché by making the sublime appear all too proper – definable, graspable, limited – at the very moment one asserts its overwhelming power to exceed boundaries. Likewise, a deliberate staging of the sublime risks pre-determining it on a human scale. Derrida repeats the story of how the founders of Cornell chose the university’s spectacular setting for a combination of pragmatic and aesthetic reasons. It was far enough from town to leave room for the university to grow; at the same time, its stunning scenery would have the power to inspire sublime thoughts – that is, to inspire reason itself. Derrida cites James Siegel’s account:
Cornell’s plan seems to have been shaped by the thematics of the Romantic sublime, which practically guaranteed that a cultivated man in the presence of certain landscapes would find his thoughts drifting metonymically through a series of topics – solitude, ambition, melancholy, death, spirituality, ‘classical inspiration’ – which could lead, by an easy extension, to questions of culture and pedagogy. (qtd. 133-134)
Rendering reason as landscape, the grounds of the university become a decidedly literal figure for its philosophical ground. Kant writes that the desire for a literal, sensory relation to the sublime is “lächerlich” or, as Pluhar translates,“ridiculous” (136; 202). Only a fanatic demands to “SEE something beyond all bounds of sensibility” (135, Kant’s emphasis). Fanaticism is a kind of mania (Wahnwitz) and “of these latter is least of all compatible with the sublime, because it is ridiculous in a somber way” (136; 202). The contrary error is a complete absence of sensory relation to the sublime, when an unlimited imagination “[rises] to the level of enthusiasm” (135). Enthusiasm is a parodic intensification of the sublime “comparable to madness [Wahnsinn]” (135, 202; Kant’s emphasis). For Derrida, the university is “properly” (that is, also ironically) sublime because it is both “a matter of life and death” (Right II 134) and “ridiculous” in its attempt to (re)produce the sublime literally – that is, to institutionalize reason – whether in a landscape or, for that matter, a faculty. In contrast, the high-mindedness of a purely anti-institutional position approaches the madness of enthusiasm.
One of the topical debates informing Derrida’s lecture concerns plans to build protective barriers on the bridges spanning the gorges leading to and from the Cornell campus. The barriers were intended to prevent suicidal passersby flinging themselves over the bridges and into the gorges. However somber the scenario, it still occasionally inspires ridicule. A 2003 editorial in the Stanford Daily calls Cornell “the butt of every other university’s jokes because we’d all like to believe that suicide is something that happens to other students on some other campus, and not to us. (Cornell is infamous as the United States university with the highest suicide rate amongst its student body)” (Freytag). One crosses the bridge to the university – any university – through “the abyss and satire of the abyss,” though which one is which may not always be easy to decide. The sublime subject internalizes the abyss in a realization of his own sublimity; the passerby who throws himself into the gorge seemingly turns the process inside out. At issue is not the actual psychology of suicide (which is neither Derrida’s topic nor mine) but the problematic inscription of the sublime in literal scenographies. The very seductiveness of the literal clarifies the potential bad faith of seemingly less fanatical or less literal claims to a melancholy interiority “which could lead by an easy extension to questions of culture and pedagogy” – that is, to a melancholy interiority that leads back to the institution as a set of normative determinations.
Derrida is nowhere more pedagogical than in his allegorization of the Cornell landscape. He concludes “The Principle of Reason” by describing two ways “not to speak” (Right II 129) of the university. On the one hand, one must not plunge into the abyss of a radicalism that finally consumes itself in its refusal of all relation to the institution’s canons, protocols, and traditions, including those that determine it as standing apart from the world that surrounds it. One must not assume, for example, that refusing to submit a doctoral thesis necessarily serves to undermine the legitimating function of a Ph.D. or that opening the university to its surroundings will necessarily endow it with social or political relevance. On the other hand, one must not put up protective barriers around the institution’s canons, traditions, and protocols, sealing them off in a vacuum as deadly as the abyss that the barriers seek to screen. One cannot defend the university by closing one’s eyes and pretending that an abyss (and satire of an abyss) does not surround it:
Thinking requires both the principle of reason and what is beyond the principle of reason, the arche and an-archy [. . .] Beware of the abysses and the gorges, but also of the bridges and the barriers. Beware of what opens the university to the outside and the bottomless, but also of what, closing in on itself, would create only an illusion of closure, would make the university available to any sort of interest, or else render it perfectly useless. (Right II 153)
The university is only “properly sublime” in its own fanatical fantasies. They are the other side of the sublime melancholy which the founders of Cornell hoped to cultivate. But what if fanaticism is the not so hidden truth of the sublime? Elsewhere, Derrida recalls Kant’s argument in “Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone” that “the sublimity of moral law” inevitably clashes with the “finitude and fallibility of man” (Right II 48). The Critique of Judgment stages that clash in the act of subreption. On the one hand, sublimity brings a finite subject into contact with its infinite vocation; on the other, the subject ends by misrecognizing himself in an act of “subreption (in which respect for the object is substituted for respect for the idea of humanity within ourselves as subjects [. . .]” (114). The subject misrecognizes himself in the abyss as if it were sublime. Subreption thus already announces the errant literalism of the fanatic. The sublime cannot escape this errancy – which is the errancy of institution and what Derrida, in “Privilege,” points to as the “risk of presentation.” “The Principle of Reason” suggests that the properly sublime university should not even try to do so. Rather it should maintain a “double keeping” (155) that watches over sublimity and its subreption with the “unresolved attention” of thinking.
The time of a ‘thinking’ that answers at once to the principle of reason and to what is beyond it, to arche and to an-archy, may entail a sublime that is not finally normative in the way “Economimesis” describes. “Double keeping” interrupts temporal consciousness in an instant whose imperceptible force can never be fully absorbed by an historical institution. It occurs in “the blink of an eye” (154), a quasi-temporal figure that proves crucial because it embeds the force of the instant in the very ‘reason’ it disturbs. Initially, in “The Principle of Reason,” reason appears as a seeing eye. The eye of reason opens and closes. It takes things in but also shuts them out, the better to hear – that is, to internalize – knowledge. But when the eye returns later in the essay it ‘blinks’ the better to interrupt the time of internalization – which is also to say, internalization as time, or Kant’s “inner sense.” With the “blink of an eye” the eye that figures reason at once figures its disruption. The “‘blink of an eye’” or “Augenblick” (literally the rapid movement of an eye) gives “the chance: for the event of thought” that is no longer simply answerable to reason, but answerable for reason (154). The instant enables reflection on the very powers of reflection that underwrite the “reason” of the university. In the instant, the (rational) seeing of the subject can itself be seen, its hearing heard. Yet, as Derrida describes it, this supplemental reflexivity differs from the reflexivity of the reason it supplements because it cannot be assimilated to subjectivity or the time of the subject.
Then the time of reflection is also an other time: it is heterogeneous to what it reflects; and perhaps gives time for what calls for and is called thinking. It is the chance for an event about which one does not know whether or not, presenting itself within the university, it belongs to the history of the university. […] The chance for this event is the chance of an instant, an Augenblick, a ‘wink’ or a ‘blink’; it takes place ‘in the blink of an eye.’ (Right II 154)
The chance of an instant remains elusive, not to say undecidable. The subject only has access to the heterogeneous “other time” of an “other” reflection indirectly or allegorically, through narratives unfolding in so-called vulgar time (the Kantian “inner sense”). Such narratives include the Kantian sublime and its allegory of the faculties in which imagination “sacrifices” itself to reason (CJ 129). As De Man describes Kant’s language, “it is a story, a dramatized scene of the mind in action. The faculties of reason and of imagination are personified, or anthropomorphized” (Aesthetic Ideology 86). In “Parergon,” Derrida underlines both the recourse to travel narrative (in Kant’s references to Savary) and the narrative back-and-forth of apprehension and comprehension in Kant’s preliminary account of the sublime: “But does not the distance required for the experience of the sublime open up perception to the space of narrative? Does not the divergence between apprehension and comprehension already appeal to a narrative voice?” (Truth 142). As a narrative, allegory obscures the sublime instant which is its own condition of (im)possibility. It operates disjunctively in relation to what it (re)presents “as if [an] ironic moment were signed, were sealed within the body of [its] allegorical writing” (Memoirs 84).
In “The Principle of Reason” Derrida refers the Augenblick to Kierkegaard rather than Kant, but one finds it posited in The Critique of Judgment as the crucial articulation (or, better, non-articulation) of the Kantian sublime. Despite Kant’s seeming normativity, he does refer to the instant (Augenblick) that, as if sealed within the allegory of sublime subjectivity, ironizes its narrative. The temporal synthesis of the imagination is interrupted when reason demands that imagination present an infinite series all at once – in the blink of an eye. The ‘all at once’ is heterogeneous to the inner sense that constitutes time as a sequence. Therefore, it is not one intensely condensed moment among other moments; it stands ‘outside’ all measures of time, and the name “instant” (or Augenblick) is at best a catachresis for something that can only be thought by reason as the substratum (that is neither temporal nor spatial) of nature. Bringing multiplicity into the unity of an intuition through its power of successive presentation, imagination approaches a limit and, at the limit, and in an instant, does violence to itself:
[C]omprehending in one instant [in einen Augenblick] what is apprehended successively, is a regression that in turn cancels the condition of time in the imagination’s progression and makes simultaneity intuitable. Hence (since temporal succession is a condition of the inner sense and of an intuition) it is a subjective movement of the imagination by which it does violence to inner sense, and this violence must be the more significant the larger the quantum is that the imagination comprehends in one intuition. Hence the effort to take up into a single intuition a measure for magnitude requiring a significant time for apprehension is a way of presenting which subjectively considered is contrapurposive, but which objectively is needed to estimate magnitude and hence is purposive. And yet this same violence that the imagination inflicts on the subject is still judged purposive for the whole vocation of the mind. (CJ 116; 182)
In Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, Lyotard draws special attention to this passage in order to explicate the peculiar temporal character of the sublime. Here I cannot review his entire analysis (which draws on the First as well as the Third Critique). I recall only his attention to the temporal heterogeneity of the Augenblick, a heterogeneity which prevents the reflexivity of reflexivity that Derrida articulates (the seeing of seeing) from becoming no more than a play of equivalent and equivocating mirrors. Seeing seeing dislocates the meaning of ‘seeing’ between the two uses of the word. Lyotard argues that by doing violence to the inner sense – that is, to “the temporal synthesis, which is itself constitutive of the synthesis of apperception” (144), the sublime disrupts the ‘I think’ and thus strikes a blow at subjectivity itself. In the pleasure and pain of the sublime, the ‘I think’ of knowledge seems no longer necessary to Kant. Yet it is felt subjectively “and felt as zweckwidrig, as contravening the finality of the faculty of presentation [imagination]” (144). Just as time is annihilated for imagination, it is annihilated for reason. But Lyotard will argue that the implications for reason are entirely different. Again, a blink of an eye is the (a)temporal unit of the advent of the sublime:
At the very moment (I dare say) when the thought that imagines seems threatened with annihilation by its ‘regression,’ that is by working against the current of the succession it usually needs, the (rational) thought of reason also feels serial time to be annihilated in the Idea of the infinite as absolute whole and, further still, as we have shown, in the Idea of absolute causality [that is, causality through freedom]. The power to engender an ‘effect’ without being determined to do it by a condition does not involve the temporality wherein phenomena are perceived and explained according to their linkage. (145)
These two interruptions of seriality work at odds with each other; they are “two very heterogeneous feelings” (145). Imagination must not permit the interruption to persist, for it must save the ability of thought to continue to synthesize (in time) what imagination cannot. Reason, on the other hand, experiences “the exaltation of recovering the maximal power that thinking has of beginning a series of givens without being bound to it […]” (145, my emphasis). Lyotard concludes, somewhat differently from Derrida, that Kant is finally not a philosopher of the subject. However, in “The Principle of Reason,” Derrida’s “blink of an eye” functions as a remainder of the Kantian sublime that implicitly converges with Lyotard’s reading. The sublime instant brings subjectivity to a crisis it cannot overcome.
Derrida explicitly refers the instant to the sublime elsewhere in his writing. In a discussion of De Man that addresses the ironic relation of the instant to allegory, he notes the motif of “acceleration, of absolute precipitousness” that informs its peculiar temporality in De Man’s work (Memoirs 62). As in the “absolutely large” (CJ 103) of the mathematically sublime, the “absolute precipitousness” of the instant involves an incomparable measure of time:
These words [acceleration, precipitousness] do not designate a particular rhythm, a measurable or comparable speed, but a movement which attempts through an infinite acceleration to win time, to win over time, to deny it, one might say, but in a non-dialectical fashion, since it is the form of the instant that is charged with the absolute discontinuity of this rhythm without rhythm. This acceleration is incommensurable, and thus infinite and null at the same time; it touches the sublime. (Memoirs 62)
In the instant, as in the Kantian sublime, time leaps out of itself as if to leave itself behind. It is (not) what it cannot be.
The “double keeping” of thought is the work of such a sublime instant. It keeps faith with memory – canons, traditions, protocols of legitimation – and with chance – futurity, unpredictability, eruptions of the new (Right II 155). It enshrines the past even as, in Lyotard’s words, it experiences “the maximal power that thinking has of beginning.” In the clash of these two heterogeneous impulses the university arises. It gives duration to the instant, setting in motion the “movement of reappropriation” (“Economimesis” 21) that, for Derrida, characterizes the normative trajectory of the Kantian sublime. But the instant leaves a virtual remainder – the unmarked scar of a cut in time that interrupts that normative trajectory even as its elusiveness makes it seem, and perhaps not merely seem, illusory. In other words, the university allegorizes a break in the temporal (and a fortiori the social and political) continuum that surrounds it, but a break whose status remains undecidable. Since the instant never appears as such and its occurrence (or its having occurred) can never be guaranteed, it can only operate as a kind of fiction – which by no means prevents it from having actual effects. To borrow from Kant, the allegory of the university offers a temporalizing “subreption” (114) of the atemporal, an illegitimate (re)presentation of the un(re)presentable, but neither the atemporal nor the un(re)presentable can be thought outside of such subreption and representation. The university can thus all too easily misrecognize itself in its most sublime or most fanatical claims. It nonetheless remains the privileged site of “a double keeping”— “as if an ironic moment were signed, were sealed in the body of [its] allegorical writing” (Memoirs 84, my emphasis).
II. The Body of an Allegorical Writing
In a reading of Derrida, one may find the prominent use of the term ‘allegory’ to be somewhat surprising. Marc Redfield recently recalled Derrida’s dry remark that “one cannot understand [De Man’s] privileging of allegory – I was long puzzled by it for this very reason – if one is not familiar with the internal debates of Anglo-American criticism concerning Romanticism” (Memoirs 77; qtd. in Redfield 228). But in addition to showing an acute responsiveness to De Man’s writings on allegory, Derrida’s writing is deeply embedded in an exegetical tradition that cannot be understood without reference to allegory – a tradition that is, at times, marked in his own idiom by allusions to the Medusa and petrification. The concluding section of “Parergon,” “The Colossal,” already links the sublime to the ancient topos of the book of nature: “The question is still, as we know now, the cipher writing [Chiffreshcrift] on the surface of nature” (Truth 146). In the Kantian sublime, the book of nature allegorizes the freedom that can never actually appear in nature. That is, one cannot sense freedom (or its causality) in the natural world, but one can interpret the natural world as a series of signs pointing negatively to freedom and, in that very act of interpretation, achieve an indirect intimation of the freedom one cannot sense.
Still more crucially, “The Colossal” emphasizes the not quite sublime “colossal” which, in Derrida’s reading, “derives” from the sublime (122). The colossal is “the mere exhibition of a concept if that concept is almost too large for an exhibition” (CJ 109). As “almost too large” the colossal challenges one’s ability to delimit and define the sublime and thus confirms the sublime as seemingly without “parergon” or defining frame (127). A quite different aspect of the colossal also draws Derrida’s attention – its connection to the colossus, a stony human effigy, almost an idol. In its stoniness, the colossal seems to stand in metaphorical relation to the initial stone-like fixity that overwhelms the subject in the sublime – the initial feeling of inhibition and arrest that only later gives way to a feeling of vitality and sovereignty (128, cf. CJ 98). But petrification has more than a metaphorical relation to the sublime. Despite Kant’s assertion that the sublime must be found in nature, his preliminary account of it focuses on architecture. Derrida notes that “even before the colossal rises up, and you already sense that it will be of stone, stony, petrified or petrifying, the two examples are of stone” (141). The first example draws on Savary’s description of the pyramids in order to evoke the distance from the object necessary to arrive at the fragile balance of perceptions (part and whole) the sublime requires. The other “place of stone in the name of the Rock” (142) that serves as an example is St. Peter’s in Rome: “This is what happens [. . .] when ‘the spectator enters for the first time into the Church of St. Peter in Rome.’ He is ‘lost’ or struck with ‘stupor.’ One would almost say turned to stone [médusé]: a moment ago outside, now inside the stony crypt” (142). In both cases, the sublime informs the erection of an institution, pyramid or church, that is the site of a dead body, or a corpse, (and, in the latter case, of a body of texts or corpus), that serves as its foundation.
What is the relation of stone to writing and to allegorical writing in particular? The “colossal” (like the Medusa) alludes to pagan traditions, but St. Peter’s participates in still other networks of allusion that bring writing to the fore. In relation to petrification in particular it suggests the tension between letter and spirit that structures the Christian allegoresis of Paul. In the introduction to Acts of Religion, Gil Anidjar recalls a wide range of Derrida’s works that mention Paul or the opposition of letter and spirit (Acts 2). In the same volume, in “A Silkworm of One’s Own,” Derrida stresses that Paul “thought he knew the literality of the letter. He prided himself on being able to distinguish, for the first time, he no doubt thought, wrongly, the circumcision of the heart, according to the breath and the spirit, from the circumcision of body or flesh, circumcision ‘according to the letter’” (Acts 344). For Paul, the error of the Jews is that they read their Bible literally and assume that its law can save them. In contrast, the Christians read the same Bible spiritually, interpreting its law from the perspective of faith in Christ as its fulfillment.
Paul addresses his epistles to the Christians whom he also figures as texts, “written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart” (King James Version, 2 Cor. 3.3). The same living God who has written the Christian heart
[…] also hath made us able ministers of the new testament: not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious so that the children of Israel could not steadfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance [. . .] How shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious? (2 Cor. 3.6-8)
Reading literally corresponds to writing in stone; it leads to petrification and death. Reading spiritually corresponds to writing in the heart; it leads to glory and eternal life. In effect, Pauline allegoresis prefigures the Kantian sublime because it teaches its readers to see through writing in order to internalize its truth as one’s own spirit. For the Christian community it renders stone (at least partially) transparent and achieves a dialectic of continuity and discontinuity between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament by positing the former as an Old (that is, newly interpretable) Testament homogeneous with the Christian mythos. Following Paul, a long exegetical tradition in which Kant participates poses letter against spirit or external norms against internal authenticity. Stone becomes a crucial sign of the interpretive blindness to which any supposedly literal and legalistic system falls prey when it fails to read allegorically.
What I have described as Derrida’s allegorical account of the university may seem to participate in the same tradition, but his point is, quite the contrary, that the allegorical Chiffreschrift cannot be spiritualized. Attention to the petrified architecture of the Kantian sublime disturbs the sublime recuperation of inwardness that Derrida refers to in “Economimesis” when he argues that “silence [that the sublime] imposes by taking the breath away and by preventing speech is less than ever heterogeneous to spirit and freedom” (as quoted above). From a certain perspective, Kant’s trajectory remains in the direction of spirit and freedom. The preliminary architectural examples of the sublime give way to examples drawn from nature. The pyramids are transformed into pyramids of ice – a more reflective material than stone – as if to symbolize the reflexivity of sublime consciousness:
[…] true sublimity must be sought only in the mind [im Gemüte] of the judging person, not in the natural object, the judging of which prompts this mental attunement [diese Stimmung]. Indeed who would want to call sublime such things as shapeless mountain masses piled on one another in wild disarray, with their pyramids of ice [Eispyramiden], or the gloomy raging sea? But the mind feels elevated in its own judgment of itself when it contemplates these without concern for their form and abandons itself to the imagination and to a reason that has come to be connected with it – though quite without a determinate purpose, and merely expanding it – and finds all the might of the imagination still inadequate to reason’s ideas. (113; 179)
Pyramids of ice ultimately reflect the light of the mind. The act of subreption through which one mistakenly assigns sublimity to nature rather than to one’s own mind weaves an allegorical veil, a cipher or Chiffreschrift, over that light.
Like the pyramids, the stony sublimity of St. Peter’s also gives way before its spiritualized double, though the sublime transformation figures elsewhere in Kant’s writings than The Critique of Judgment. A “universal” and “invisible” church supplants the “church in the place of the rock” in The Conflict of the Faculties (105), a late work on the university and censorship which is the subject of an essay in Droit, “Mochlos, or The Conflict of the Faculties.” As an institution whose canons are, as it were, written on the heart, the “universal (though invisible) church” (107) appears to resolve the opposition between the ersatz sublimity of external landscape and the authentic sublimity of internal worth. Authentic Christianity is universal; it testifies to “the God in us,” for its basis is “drawn from man’s own soul” (Conflict 85; 105). Kant looks to Christ as the biblical example of this Christianity and its greatest teacher. One must teach Christianity so that it “will really be present in the hearts of men” (95). Through his example, Christ teaches that man is capable of sacrificing his sensual nature to the demands of morality. He does not lay down the law, but creates a communion of moral beings by serving as their model. Kant is too careful to say what he nonetheless implies: what one worships in Christ is one’s own freedom from external constraints. The entire passage is redolent with the vocabulary of the sublime. “Bewunderung,” wonder (or, in Pluhar’s translation, admiration) precisely characterizes sublime affect in Kant’s “General Comment on the Exposition of Aesthetic Reflective Judgments” (CJ 133). The invisible church inspires the same “Bewunderung” and for much the same reason:
For there is something in us that we cannot cease to wonder at [bewundern] [. . .] We do not wonder at the fact [darum wündert man nicht] that we are beings subject to moral laws and destined by our reason to obey them […] But we do wonder at our ability so to sacrifice our sensuous nature to morality[,] that we can do what we quite readily and clearly conceive that we ought to do. This ascendancy of the supersensible man in us over the sensible, such that (when it comes to a conflict between them) the sensible is nothing, though in its own eyes it is everything, is an object of the greatest wonder [Bewunderung] […] (105, Kant’s emphasis)
Christ exemplifies the moral law “so that we might make it our own – or rather, since it is already present in us by our moral predisposition, so that we might simply make room for it […] This teaching [. . .] works with divine power on all men’s hearts [. . . ] and unites them in one universal (though invisible) Church” (106). In comparison, the grandest of religious monuments is a mere tourist attraction and the most learned of doctrines fanatical.
Only an invisible church can correspond to the spirituality of the sublime Kantian subject and institutionalize its fundamental inwardness. But an invisible institution can scarcely be considered an institution at all. Even for Kant, the invisible church is finally less an institution than the interior and invisible reality of the institutions within which the university faculties, including theology and philosophy, must operate for the time being. It also serves as an implied ideal of the university of the future secreted within the pragmatic, institutional program offered by the text of The Conflict of the Faculties. An institution without institution – an institution “without condition”  because without external compulsion or law of any kind – it continues to serve as a model for the sublime fantasies of the university that Derrida investigates in “The Principle of Reason” and throughout Droit. From this perspective, the colossal exemplifies the stony institutional architecture from which spirit supposedly takes flight – or the heteronomy of writing. Petrified and petrifying, the sublime will have been written, in spite of itself, in tables of stone.
Derrida’s insistence on the letter which is also the law (droit) of institutions is not so much opposed to the sublime as it is a recognition of its allegorical and ironic character as a way of speaking otherwise. In Theresa Kelley’s words, “Allegory is alien; its ancient rhetorical status as ‘other speech’ survives all other adjustments. There is always an irreducible difference between allegorical representation and its referent [. . .]” (Kelley 5). In temporal terms (as I addressed in Part I), institutionalization petrifies the “chance of an instant” as a condition of duration in time, but in doing so it runs the risk of becoming a memorial to thinking rather than its occasion – a headstone on a grave as much as a barrier against the abyss. Derrida does not so much shuttle between these alternatives as show how at each and every instant they divide the texts and contexts that make up the university, including, if not especially, the faculty that make up its “teaching body.”
The faculty features prominently in “Where a Teaching Body Begins and How it Ends.” In French, the ‘faculty’ is the ‘corps enseignant’ – translating literally, the “teaching body” (Right I 67-98) – and Derrida underlines its corporeal status. The opening session of a year-long seminar on the institutions of the teaching of philosophy, “Where a Teaching Body Begins” shows how the idealism of Kant’s invisible church (supplemented by a tradition of Catholic clerical instruction) informs the project of secular education in France. In the documents Derrida considers, teaching appears as a quasi-clerical institution devoted to establishing a communion of educated beings. Like Kant’s Christ, the exemplary teacher (re)produces learning by enabling students to uncover their own powers of (re)production or auto-didacticism. The task of the teaching body is to render itself superfluous. Like a pyramid of ice by sunlight, it should reflect the light of learning – and melt into air.
A certain superfluousness also informs Derrida’s own teaching position at the time of the seminar when he was an agrégé répétiteur at the École Normale Supérieur. He describes at length his role preparing students for the agrégation, a competitive exam crucial to academic careers in France: “A repeater, the agrégé répétiteur should produce nothing, at least if to produce means to innovate, to transform, to bring about the new. He is destined to repeat and make others repeat, to reproduce and make others reproduce: forms, norms, and a content” (Right I 75). The model of teaching as repetition confirms the final superfluousness of the teaching body. The body of the teacher – which is to say, also the idiomatic character of his language – must not interfere with the student’s internalization of a (self)-reproductive process. (Here as elsewhere I use the masculine pronoun deliberately. The historical model is male. Pedagogic reproduction takes place in the absence of a woman’s body. Derrida cites the specifically clerical ideals espoused by Napoleon and other nineteenth-century theorists for whom the proper teaching body is single, celibate, and male. Teaching thus requires a “more or less constraining rule of ecclesiastic celibacy” .) Reading Condorcet’s farewell letter to his onetime pupil the Prince of Parma, Derrida cites the tutor’s final self-abnegating gesture: “‘It’s up to you, my lord, henceforth to instruct yourself all alone. I have already prepared you for this and even accustomed you to it’” (qtd. in Right I 86). The end of teaching is to show the student that he is always already his own teacher. The autonomy of a discipline (such as philosophy) corresponds to the autonomy of the subject. In a more contemporary idiom, one might say that the role of teaching is to empower students. Derrida’s analysis compels one to consider how the language of empowerment may actually occlude structures and effects of power.
“Where a Teaching Body Begins” concludes with a parodic vision of the transfigured body of the faculty as it undergoes effacement “by sublime annihilation” (Right I, 91): “My body is glorious. It gathers all the light. First of all, that of the spotlight above me. Then it is radiant and attracts all eyes. But it is also glorious in that it is no longer simply a body” (90). Derrida turns the theatrical spotlight of a classroom into the chrism of secular sainthood (and vice-versa). Becoming superfluous, the body becomes more than itself. As a repeater, it articulates a passage between the body of knowledge and the bodies of the teacher and students in the classroom – between the institutional authorities that underwrite knowledge and the here-and-now of teaching. Or, rather, it brings these very oppositions into being, without being identical to either of them. The institutions of knowledge do not precede (or belatedly befall) the body that they transfigure and divide.
Initially, the process appears to be one of sublimation in which the glorious body is “a place of convergence and fascination,” (90) that is, the site of a symbolic communion:
[My body] is also glorious in that it is no longer simply a body. It is sublimated [il se sublime] in the representation of at least one other body, the teaching body of which it should be at once a part and the whole, a member letting the gathering together of the body be seen; a body that in turn produces itself by erasing itself as the barely visible, entirely transparent representation of both the philosophical and the sociopolitical corpus, the contract between these bodies never being brought to the foreground. (Right I 90)
However violent, sublimation enables symbolization. The teaching body – Derrida’s body – serves as a synecdoche for the discipline it represents and for the university it inhabits; it is part of the whole for which it stands whether willingly or not. At an extreme, and like the body of Christ, it incarnates what it teaches. In more secular terms it becomes a symbol of learning which the student body consumes in order to internalize. The reference to synecdoche (a part standing for the whole) and the transparency of the sublimated body recalls not only Coleridge’s definition of the symbol as discussed by De Man in “The Rhetoric of Temporality” but Derrida’s discussion of the latter text in “Memoirs” (80ff.). But the symbol is, as it were, hollow. The extreme formulation of symbolic communion in the “glorious” teaching body is not only parodic – another “satire of the abyss” – but destructive. At its limit, sublimation collapses into “sublime annihilation” and exposes a heterogeneity that symbolization cannot overcome. The teaching body appears as a form in which the incommensurability of letter and spirit – the inexorable remainder of Pauline allegoresis – gives itself to be read. As Derrida summarizes De Man on Coleridge: “Allegory speaks (through) the voice of the other, whence the ghost-effect, whence also the a-symbolic disjunction” (Memoirs 80). Sublime annihilation is the site of asymbolic disjunction.
How does this disjunction disclose itself? The bodily erasure “always takes the form of a cadaverization of my body. My body only fascinates while playing dead, the moment when, playing dead, it is erected in the rigidity of the cadaver: stiff but without strength proper. Having no life of its own but only a delegation of life” (91). As a delegate of life, the body represents life in its absence. Derrida insists that the erasure leaves no (readable or unreadable) trace in its wake. He is not describing a layering of textualities, one body of writing superimposed on another. Erasure is complete: “erasure makes disappear, by sublime annhilation, the particular characteristics of a facies and of everything in the face that cannot be reduced to the vocable and audible.” As symbolic communion, education ostensibly bases itself on what is spoken and heard, for the ghostly inwardness of spirit passes through vibrations of sound that impregnate (like the holy spirit) through the ear. At the same time, as sublime annihilation, education also erects (what remains of) the body as a rigid corpse, the bearer of literal exteriority – the exteriority of the letter – hardened into stone. Unknown to itself, communion is bodily: “All the rhetorics of this cadaverizing erasure, then, are body-to-body relations” (91).
The teaching body is discontinuous with the institution it only supposedly embodies. At the cost of its own petrification, it allegorizes what it repeats. Sublime annihilation produces the allegory of the university: its other speaking. It erects the colossus of the university as if its truth were purely internal, spiritual, ideal – as if the university were an invisible church. And it reproduces itself in the body of the student as if the telos of learning were to become one’s own teacher. On the one hand, the ‘as if’ cannot entirely subsume the corporeal literality underwriting it. On the other (and as in Derrida’s treatment of the sublime), corporeality cannot simply undo the powers of idealization. Rather, Derrida’s concern with the “body to body” attends to the heteronomy of all acts of institution – whether they idealize or, for that matter, demystify idealization in language that remains in thrall to the idealism it negates. (For an example of the latter, one need only recall what Derrida writes about the inadequacy of sociological and political critique.) Most importantly, it suggests the impossibility of arriving at an end to teaching or, if one prefers, an end to learning. No-one ever becomes his own teacher – even if he or she happens to get paid for teaching others.
In the university, behind the annhilated facies that Derrida evokes, one senses the pressure of the facies hippocratica, the freezing lineaments on the face of someone who has only just died, who is – just barely – a corpse. For Benjamin, in The Origin of the German Mourning Play, the facies hippocratica is the stony face of allegory: “in allegory the observer is confronted with the facies hippocratica of history as a petrified, primordial landscape. Everything about history that, from the very beginning, has been untimely, sorrowful, unsuccessful, is expressed in a face – or rather in a death’s head” (Benjamin 166). Drawing the line between facies and facies hippocratica, sublime annihilation testifies to the violence of allegory. Again, in Benjamin’s words, “the greater the significance, the greater the subjection to death, because death digs most deeply the jagged line of demarcation between physical nature and significance” (166). In “Privilege” Derrida recalls Benjamin’s writing on allegory as an example of all that the university at one time felt bound to exclude as untimely, sorrowful, and unsuccessful:
[. . .] the University of Frankfurt is not only the institution that refused to confer the title Doctor of Philosophy upon Walter Benjamin, but it is also that [. . .] Would so many of us recognize Hans Cornelius’s name if a certain editor’s note at the end of Benjamin’s complete works were not dedicated to this event, exemplary in so many ways – the rejection of The Origin of the German Mourning Play as a thesis for the Habilitation? (Right I 6)
Allegory may also be read as a stand in for the wider problem that Benjamin names in the opening sentence of his (once unacceptable) Habilitation thesis. What disturbs the trajectory of philosophy towards finished “doctrine” is “philosophical writing:” “It is characteristic of philosophical writing that it must continually confront the question of representation [Darstellung]” (27; 9). Like Benjamin before him, Derrida writes from an awareness of the peculiar milieu in which philosophy risks itself in order to (re)present itself: “Philosophy would be what wants to keep, by declaring it, this ultimate or initial privilege that consists in exposing its own privilege: to danger [à la menace] or presentation, sometimes to the risk of presentation” (Right I 2). In (re)presentation – as in repetition, as in teaching, as in institution – all of the forms that constitute philosophy (as if) from inside simultaneously threaten it (as if) from outside. In Derrida’s formulations, a sense of menace or dread inevitably hangs over philosophy. As the philosophical institution par excellence, the university follows suit. It is “at once menaced and menacing [à la fois menacé et menaçant]” (Right II 90, translation modified; 406). Menace may well inspire “a certain terror” but it also signals the chance for the event of thought as the chance for a future. In its allegorization of the sublime, Derrida’s writing takes that chance.
III. At Once Menaced and Menacing
According to a computer search of an online version of Du Droit à la Philosophie, the word “menace” or some grammatical variant of it, appears twenty two times in the text. Eight of these appearances occur in the preface, “Privilege,” including one each on its first and last page. To cite a few quite varied examples: the stability of institutional arrangements supportive of new work (such as the Collège International de Philosophie) are “relative, menaced [menacés], essentially precarious” (Right I 10; 23); philosophy traditionally supposes that institutional interventions can only “at most [ . . .] menace the public exercise [. . .] of philosophy [à la limite menacer l’exercice (publique) [. . .] de la philosophie];” (24; 43); the government’s plan for educational reform “menaced [était des plus menaçants]” (196; 44); one must find a way to question philosophical norms “without menacing [sans menacer] the critical ideal of science and philosophy” (66; 107). (In all of these examples – and in those cited below – the English version translates “menace” as “threaten.” I have revised the translations to clarify my argument as I address the difference between the two words below.)
The frequent and various uses of menace suggest an enterprise haunted by unnameable dangers and well-qualified to provoke the terrors of the sublime: “nothing in this domain [of ‘university responsibility’] seems certain to me. Everything seems obscure, enigmatic, at once menaced and menacing, in a place where the greatest danger today is concentrated” (Right II 90, translation modified). In the context of the sublime “in the Kantian sense,” menace belongs to the affective realm of the dynamically sublime: “When in an aesthetic judgment we consider nature as a might that has no dominance over us, then it is dynamically sublime [. . . and] we must present it as arousing fear.” One judges the object as arousing fear, though one is not actually afraid of it: “we merely think of the case where we might possibly want to put up resistance against it, and that any resistance would in that case be utterly futile” (CJ 120). In the dynamically sublime, one experiences the other’s power without being under its sway. The result is pleasure, a sense of wonder (Bewunderung) at discovering in oneself a quality superior to something that threatens (mere) sensory destruction. Like the biblical Christ, the dynamically sublime reminds the subject of its capacity to choose reason and the moral law over nature and personal desire. It recalls the subject to its freedom.
For Derrida terror does not resolve itself into the subject’s freedom, but his use of the word “menacer” and its variants nonetheless encodes the sublime in his text in a way that the usual translation of menacer as “threaten” in the English translation of Droit partly obscures. “Threaten” brings with it much the same meaning as “menace” but not the same etymological texture. The French verb menacer derives from the late Latin minaciare and classical Latin minaciae, which both refer to verbal threats of injury or harm. But these words, in turn, derive from minæ, a word for overhanging mountain peaks and, by extension, any threatening overhang, as in “the ridgy steep/Of some loose hanging rock” where danger, as Collins writes, “stalks his round, an hideous form.”  “Menace” thus provides a constant trace of the sublime within the text of Droit and, more particularly, of the literal or embodied sublime landscape that, for Kant, is – in its sublimity – an effect of subreption. Derrida never mentions this etymology of which he may or may not be aware, but it operates a subterranean relay between the illegitimate assignment of the sublime to an object and the invocation of a future whose “terrifying forms” (as Derrida writes in “Structure, Sign, and Play”) remain unnameable. Menace necessarily involves (re)presentation and the dangers it poses to any philosophy that would, to recall Benjamin, set itself up as doctrine rather than writing. (Of Grammatology posits a similar configuration – some version of which may be traced throughout Derrida’s writing: “Metaphysics has constituted an exemplary defense against the menace of writing [la menace de l’écriture]” [101; 149].)
At times, Derrida uses the word “menace” to name threats to philosophy and its institutions that appear as if from outside whether in the form of institutional norms or government policies. At others, he does so to name threats that appear as if from within traditional disciplinary formations. He even ventriloquizes the rhetoric of deconstruction menacing the humanities while indicating that deconstruction also experiences itself as menaced. Thus, “The Principle of Reason” recalls that “the approach I am advocating here is often felt by certain guardians [tenants] of the ‘humanities’ or of the positive sciences as a menace [comme une menace] (Right II 147; 487). But the approach Derrida is “advocating” is menaced in its turn:
These new responsibilities cannot be purely academic. If they remain extremely difficult to assume, extremely precarious and menaced [précaire et menacées], it is because they must at once keep alive the memory of a tradition and make an opening beyond any program, that is, toward what is called the future. (149; 489)
From a polemical perspective, the two cases may appear to be quite different. The aporias of the (nonprogrammatic) program of deconstruction genuinely threaten its institution as a program, whereas “certain guardians of the ‘humanities’” merely feel threatened by what they imagine to be the external danger of deconstruction. In the latter case, a defensive claim to guardianship generates the need, even the desire, for an external menace. But the two experiences of menace at least threaten to collapse into one all-pervasive experience haunting the history of philosophy. In the face of any apparent exteriority or alterity, which is to say, in the face of futurity, philosophy erects institutions that aspire to be free of menace – to rise sublimely above it. The ‘real’ menace to philosophy encompasses both the experience of and the reaction to menace, both the threatening abyss and the defensive barrier. De Man’s formula concerning the resistance to theory offers an analogue: “Nothing can overcome the resistance to theory, since theory is itself this resistance” (The Resistance to Theory 19). Philosophy cannot overcome the menace to philosophy, since it is itself this menace. It is itself the (act of) institution in which it defends itself and brings itself to ruin. In other words, philosophy cannot overcome the menace of (re)presentation and its institutions. It must risk presentation, since it cannot defend itself, even for an instant, without taking that risk. But, in doing so, it institutes itself in the name of everything it aims to exclude. It becomes, as Simon Wortham has written, a counter-institution.
Deconstruction, whatever it does name, does not name a power to escape this double bind or its risks. Derrida punctuates his project for the Collège Internationale de Philosophie with reminders of the fearful power of petrification as the condition of all sublime institutional exaltation including its own (cf. Right II 216ff.). In “Mochlos,” as if to exemplify the danger, Derrida recalls Heidegger’s 1933 rectoral address at Freiburg, “The Self-Affirmation of the German University.” Heidegger’s speech is
the last great discourse in which the Western university tries to think its essence and its destination in terms of responsibility, with a stable reference to the same idea of knowledge, technics, the State, and the nation [as Schelling, Fichte, Schleiermacher, Humboldt, Hegel], very close to a limit at which the memorial gathering of a thinking makes a sudden sign toward the entirely-other of a terrifying future [un avenir terrifiant]. (Right II 88)
A certain terror erupts on the page and, with it, the double bind of a certain deconstruction: one is terrified of going beyond the limits of reason and history, of plunging into the abyss, but one is just as terrified of not going beyond the limits, of erecting a barrier before the future, restricting oneself to a law or “droit” made of stone. Derrida’s revisionary relation to the sublime reads and writes the double-bind as an allegory of the sublime, the story of an im-properly sublime institution.
As the very word “menace” implies, the story has not yet come to its conclusion. A “menace” is a speech act whose temporality is directed towards the future both in what it threatens and in that it threatens. Its description of the future tries to make something happen in the present, and its success by no means depends on the accuracy of the description. On the contrary: uncertainty makes menace all the more menacing. Uncertainty itself menaces. Menace thus functions as an anti-redemptive promise. It counters even as it converges with the quasi-messianic promise invoked in Derrida’s final formal statement on the university: “The University Without Condition.” Derrida describes this text as a “profession of faith.” It links the profession and the professoriate to the performativity of the promise that every profession of faith implies:
‘To make profession of’ is to declare out loud what one is, what one believes, what one wants to be, while asking another to take one’s word and believe this declaration. I insist on this performative value of the declaration that professes while promising. One must underscore that constative utterances and discourses of pure knowledge, in the university or elsewhere, do not belong as such, to the order of the profession in the strict sense. (Without Alibi 214-215)
Both promise and menace are performative. They act in and as language. Littré defines the verb menacer as “frapper de menace” – to strike with a menace. But the “menace” with which it strikes may itself be a matter of mere words or signification: “Parole ou geste dont on se sert pour faire craindre à quelqu’un le mal qu’on lui prépare” (a word or gesture which one uses to make someone fear the evil one is preparing for him). As in the English word “menace” (and also the English word “threat”), the French “menace” is ambiguously poised between word and act, constative and performative, present and future – menacing these very oppositions with undecidability. Menace hovers in the twilight temporality of an ‘as if’: what may or may not occur, what may or may not be a danger, what may or may not be a speech act. For all these reasons, it may provoke a touch of paranoia – the interpretive equivalent of a plunge into the abyss.
In their own performative power, Derrida’s writings in Droit (and elsewhere) show other – less destructive, less fantasmatic – ways to take on the terrors of academic responsibility. In “Punctuations,” the opening statement of his thesis defense, terror converges with joy much as menace converges with promise. (At least, perhaps it does; as long as the future is at stake, one can never be sure.) Derrida concludes “Punctuations” by casting aside defenses and seeming to let his guard down. He once again recalls Hyppolite’s response to “Structure, Sign, and Play” – “‘I really do not see where you are going’” – and assumes it as a task. Terror before the unknown is not necessarily best answered or best withstood by a sublime subject standing with the immobile fixity of a statue or, what may amount to the same thing, the disciplined violence of a soldier. Derrida suggests another response – mobile, vulnerable, exposed – which is at once the promise and the menace of an institution that knows no terror:
The strategy without any goal – for this is what I hold to and what in turn holds me – the aleatory strategy of someone who admits that he does not know where he is going. This, then, is not after all an undertaking of war or a discourse of belligerence. I would like it also to be like a headlong flight straight toward the end, a joyous self-contradiction, a disarmed desire, that is to say, something very old and very cunning, but that also has just been born and that delights in being without defense. (Right II 128)
1. I wish to thank J. Jennifer Jones for conceiving this volume of Romantic Praxis and to thank Cathy Caruth and Brian McGrath for their comments on an earlier draft of this essay. I also wish to acknowledge a debt to Jan Plug’s editorial apparatus to the two volume translation of Du Droit à la Philosophie. The translation appears as Who’s Afraid of Philosophy: Right to Philosophy I and Eyes of the University: Right to Philosophy II. I will refer to these volumes as Right I and Right II. Additionally, for purposes of clarity I refer to works by Derrida, Kant, and De Man by title (rather than date) or as follows: Derrida, The Truth in Painting as Truth and Acts of Religion as Acts; Kant, The Critique of Judgment as CJ and The Conflict of the Faculties as Conflict. For quotes from French or German, the page number always follows that of the English translation.
2. Offering a synoptic account of his writings between 1963 and 1968, Derrida notes that, “All of this was grouped together under the title of deconstruction, the graphics of différance, of the trace, the supplement and so forth…” (Right II 119, Derrida’s emphasis). One could write at length on Derrida’s different deployments of the word “deconstruction” throughout his work, especially as the word comes increasingly to refer to his work and its institutionalization within the academy. Cf. Kamuf, 9-10.
3. On childbirth as a figure for futurity in “Structure, Sign, and Play” and its relation to the (a)teleological movement of philosophy, see Bennington 2000, 4ff.
4. Following Derrida’s lead, commentators have correctly underlined the connections between his philosophical and institutional commitments. See, for example, the introduction to Wortham and, more recently, and in a different vein, Rajan. Rajan argues that “the writings on the university [. . .] are the culmination of an underground dialogue between Derrida and Foucault that marks deconstruction, in the broadly interdisciplinary and epistemic rather than literary mode I have outlined in my book Deconstruction and the Remainders of Phenomenology (1-4, 23-33), as a large scale reorganization of knowledge” (134-135).
5. As Peggy Kamuf points out, “the university” is something of a fiction; one can only speak “as if there were one selfsame University, which is obviously an untenable confusion of a multifarious thing with this single name” (3).
6. Derrida concludes the preface to Droit with a brief consideration of Bourdieu that focuses on the normativity implicit in his critique of the academy.
7. From a certain perspective, Kant also addresses a void ‘within’ reason or, rather, a void that divides its operations: “The great gulf that separates the supersensible from appearances completely cuts off the domain of the concept of nature under the one legislation, and the domain of the concept of freedom under the other legislation from any influence that each (according to its own basic laws) might have had on the other” (35). The Critique of Judgment aims to “to throw a bridge from one domain to another” (36). (Kant’s vocabulary of the “gulf” and “bridge” is taken up in Derrida’s discussion of the Cornell landscape discussed below.)
8. “Menace,” like “terror,” can be read across the entirety of Derrida’s oeuvre. My essay limits itself primarily to Droit with some attention to Derrida’s other writings on Kant and the university.
9. As Rajan writes: “More than anyone, it is through Kant, the civil-servant philosopher, that Derrida thinks the university inside and ouside the conditions of its function” (147).
10. Derrida refers to Kant’s “General Comment on the Exposition of Aesthetic Reflective Judgments” (CJ 126). The translators of “Economimesis” use J. H. Bernard’s translation of The Critique of Judgment.
11. See, for example, De Man, “Phenomenality and Materiality in Kant” in De Man, Aesthetic Ideology (70-90) and Lyotard “Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?” in Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (71-82). In a recent essay, addressing related issues, Ian Balfour shows how psychological appropriations of Kantian “subjectivity” fundamentally misread it. He suggests that “subjecticity” may be a more useful way to refer to the “order of the subject” in Kant (and related romantic texts) as the word “subjectivity” increasingly comes “with the considerable baggage of psychologism” (“Subjecticity” 1).
12. In addition to the normativity of the sublime, Derrida may be uneasy with its “univerticality,” a term I take from Chris Fynsk. Fynsk writes that Derrida poses “a challenge to the entire ‘univertical’ ordering of knowledge in the space of the universitas [which] obliges philosophy (or the thought that would succeed it) to entertain an open set of transversal relations with emergent forms of knowledge and their technical elaborations […] [W]e find a call for translation and transference – multiple passages (of thought) across institutional boundaries and into entirely new problematics and institutional (or extrainstitutional) spaces” (26). Fynsk does not discuss the sublime here, but his remarks have a bearing on it as the sublime originally refers to height or hypsos (Longinus’s term): metaphorically speaking, it looks ‘down’ and ‘over.’
13. For a dissertation to be acceptable, its readers have to be able to recognize it as new. The unrecognizable – which is to say, the authentically new – does not pass muster, as Walter Benjamin, for one, discovered. Further on I discuss Derrida’s reflections on the rejection of Benjamin’s Habilitation thesis.
14. In Solitude and the Sublime, Frances Ferguson emphasizes Kant’s insistence “upon sublime aesthetic experience as the communication of intentionlessness” (4). Ferguson’s book takes issue with the deconstructive reading of Kant which informs my discussion here partly because of what she considers its “crypto-empiricism” (ix). She includes thoughtful though brief reflections on “Parergon” in her criticisms of deconstruction (20f., 78f., 92f.). Yet if one reads the “parergon” (as Ferguson does not) as a way of thinking the installation or formation of form that is itself neither empirical nor formal, then Derrida’s discussion may not be without affinities to her account of Kantian formalism as enabling “the deduction of possibilities not necessarily available to the senses” (23). Cf. Cheetham on the importance of the imposition of limits and borders in both The Critique of Judgment and “Parergon.”
15. Cf. Derrida’s reflections on how difficult it is for Kant to maintain the purity of his own examples of the sublime. (Truth 122).
16. Thomas Pfau suggests that the sublime is, at it were, inherently ironic, an affectation of affect, “essentially notional and figural” (43), that replaces the failure of authentic feeling with the “simulacrum of a feeling, ‘respect:’” “The content of sublime feeling is, if anything, a negative one – a feeling that should routinely occur suddenly fails to do so and, in response to that traumatic rupture, the subject ‘affects’ the notion of reason as a (quasi-) ‘feeling’ of its own ‘supersensible destination’” (41, 40). Therefore, “rationality constitutes itself as a self-authorizing and self-generating fantasy” (40).
17. The “ridiculous” or “lächerlich” desire to see the something beyond the bounds of sensibility may seem to prefigure aspects of Žižek’s account of the “ridiculous sublime.” In The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch’s Lost Highway, he describes how the literalization or actualization of fantasy works to undo its “spectral aura:” the postmodern femme fatale thwarts desire by granting it (11). But the “ridiculous sublime” specifically associated (in Žižek’s argument) with Lynch’s utterly serious stagings of “the most ridiculously pathetic scenes” (22) poses somewhat different problems than Kant’s fanaticism.
18. For a somewhat different account of the role of landscape in Derrida’s Cornell lecture, see Trifonas 99ff.
19. A number of critics have written about the rhetorical character of subreption. In Ian Balfour’s words, “it is an abuse of language, a catachresis, even to call any object sublime” (6). Gayatri Spivak describes subreption similarly as a “metalepsis” (11). She also shows that subreption remains normative for the sublime despite being in error: “Our access to morality is operated by rhetoric and clandestinity” (12). The one who falls outside of normativity altogether, foreclosed by sublimity (and subjectivity), is the “rohe” or raw man – that is the figure of the primitive non-European who cannot even mistake the sublime as an object, but is merely terrified by it (11ff.). Her reading confirms that subreption coheres with the order of the institution. On the Kantian sublime and presentation cf. Jean-Luc Nancy, “The Sublime Offering,” especially 46-49.
20. Because the two ‘reflections’ differ, this “thinking” is not the infinite reflexivity that literary history traditionally associates with Jena romanticism. For a helpful discussion of Derrida and the problem of ‘bad infinity,’ that also addresses the charge that deconstruction is a “crypto-empiricism,” see Düttmann. (Cf. note 14 above.)
21. Derrida alludes to De Man’s reading of Stendhal in “The Rhetoric of Temporality” which describes Stendhal as “a full-fledged ironist as well as an allegorist [who] has to seal, so to speak, the ironic moments within the allegorical duration” (Blindness and Insight 227).
22. Cf. Derrida on the “crisis of crisis:” “you can see that the two occurrences of the word are merely homonyms here: ‘crisis’ does not have the same meaning twice” (Right I 102).
23. In De Man’s reading of the Kantian sublime, its narrative articulations are interrupted by “the prosaic materiality of the letter” (Aesthetic Ideology, 90) and the Kantian allegory of the faculties exists side by side with a “materiality of sublime vision [. . .] entirely devoid of teleological interference” (83; quoted out of order). In the context I am addressing here, Lytotard’s way of posing the issue resonates more clearly with Derrida’s and with Kant’s.
24. Cf. De Man’s account of the difficulty defining allegory in “Pascal’s Allegory of Persuasion” (1): “Allegory is sequential and narrative, yet the topic of its narration is not necessarily temporal at all, thus raising the question of the referential status of a text whose semantic function, though strongly in evidence, is not primarily determined by mimetic moments; more than ordinary modes of fiction, allegory is at the furthest possible remove from historiography.”
25. Cf. Dawn McCance’s book on Derrida and the university, Medusa’s Ear: University Foundings from Kant to Chora L. Drawing on the work of Lynn Enterline, McCance argues that the Medusa is an image of threatening deafness and muteness before which the university withdraws into its own petrification: “[…] the modern university is petrified. It needs to be shaken – solicited into movement – […]” (4). McCance does not address the sublime or the Pauline tradition of allegoresis (and does not seem concerned with the actual figuration of the Medusa in the texts she treats), but her larger argument intersects with mine. (For a reading of the Medusa as a relay for the Pauline tradition in Dante’s Inferno see Freccero 119-135.)
26. The OED defines a colossus as “a statue or image of the human form of large dimensions.” Citing Jean-Pierre Vernant, Derrida emphasizes that the word did not originally carry any reference to size (120).
27. The translators of The Truth in Painting use James Creed Meredith’s translation of The Critique of Judgment.
29. On letter and spirit in Paul de Man, see my introduction to Romantic Returns (White 20ff.). Scholars debate the precise nature of Paul’s relation to the letter – to what degree he admits it into his system in a dialectic of letter and spirit and to what degree he rejects it altogether (see, for example, Boyarin 97-105). According to Cassirer, Kant experienced the pietistic sect within which he was raised as still too literal, a prototype for “the regulation and mechanization of religious life” (16) that he opposes.
31. Derrida points out that in Kant one cannot teach someone to be a philosopher anymore than one can teach someone to be an artist. One can only exemplify the philosophical project (Right II 60ff.). Christ, too, exemplifies.
32. I quote from Mary Gregor’s bilingual edition. The German text can be found opposite the English.
33. Paul notwithstanding, the best prefiguration of an invisible church may well turn out to be a church that believes in an invisible god:
Perhaps the most sublime passage in the Jewish Law is the commandment: thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven or on earth, or under the earth etc. This commandment can alone explain the enthusiasm that the Jewish people in its civilized era felt for its religion when it compared itself with other peoples, or can explain the pride that Islam inspires. The same holds also for our presentation of the moral law, and for the predisposition within us for morality. (CJ 135)
In “Parergon,” Derrida describes “a certain Judaism” as “the historical figure of sublime irruption” in Kant and Hegel (134).
34. I allude to Derrida’s later “profession of faith” concerning the university: “The University Without Condition” (Without Alibi 202). On the “without condition” see, too, note 43.
35. Wortham offers a helpful discussion of this passage that reads it in conjunction with the figure of the flower and the anthology in Glas (Wortham 77ff., 84). Another passage in Glas that bears consideration in this context is its commentary on the “élève” (student), the “relève” (Derrida’s translation of Hegel’s Aufhebung) and the sequence of words associating the student with upbringing or height (élévation) (Glas 23). Cf. Truth which cites the “élève” of Glas in its discussion of the sublime (123).
36. The privilege of the vocable and the audible in the scene of teaching is also the burden of Derrida’s “Otobiographies” which addresses Nietzsche’s lectures “On the Future of Our Educational Institutions” (The Ear of the Other 3-38). Cf. McCance’s concern with the figure of the deaf and dumb Medusa as the abject “othered-body” from which the philosopher and the university recoil (4).
37. Derrida returns to the sublime teaching body in a discussion of Kant in “Vacant Chair: Censorship, Mastery, Magisteriality.” Kant’s philosopher teaches a discipline that (like the moral law and like art) cannot be taught. The resultant double bind absents the body:
It would be enough, if one might say so, to draw the institutional consequences from this. They result from this double bind that knots itself around the sublime body of the teacher of philosophizing, of his evident and unavoidable absence. For in his very withdrawal he remains unavoidable. He haunts the scene more than he dominates it; he dominates it, indeed, as would a phantom. One could say that he fascinates […] (Right II 62)
On the phantom or ghost in Derrida as it informs the institutions of “theory” and “romanticism,” see the recent essays by Simpson and Wang.
38. In “Towards a Critique of Violence” Benjamin addresses the risks of institution in the sphere of law (Benjamin 277-300; I have slightly modified the translation of the essay’s title.) Cf. my discussion of the Benjamin in White 2009.
39. In “Derrida’s ‘Eighteenth Century’” Geoffrey Bennington discusses Derrida’s response to the word “menace” in Foucault. Foucault refers to the “Malin Génie” as a “menace perpétuelle” to Descartes’ cogito (390). Bennington relates this perpetual menace to the nexus of reading and autoimmunity in Derrida’s later work: “this auto-immunity is just what I call reading, as what opens texts up always beyond their historical specificity to the always possibly menacing prospect of unpredictable future reading” (392).
40. Cf. CJ 120f. (with Pluhar’s modifications):
It reveals in us at the same time an ability to judge ourselves independent of nature, and reveals in us a superiority over nature that is the basis of a self-preservation quite different in kind from the one that can be assailed and endangered by nature outside us. This keeps the humanity in our person from being degraded, even though a human being would have to succumb to that dominance [of nature]. Hence if in judging nature aesthetically we call it sublime, we do so not because nature arouses fear, but because it calls forth our strength (which does not belong to nature [within us]), to regard as small the [objects] of our [natural] concerns: property, health, and life, and because of this we regard nature’s might (to which we are indeed subjected in these [natural] concerns) as yet not having such dominance over us as persons, that we should have to bow to it if our highest principles were at stake and we had to choose between upholding or abandoning them.
41. For “menacer” here and later in the essay, I draw on Littré, Le Petit Robert, Picoche, and Walde.
43. As always, Derrida retains a certain distance from the traditional sublime, as if remaining wary of its normative or subjectivizing dimension. So, for example, in the metaphorical opening of “Vacant Chair: Censorship, Mastery, Magisteriality,” the mountain overhang or “ridgy steep” is, like Cornell’s abyss, seductive but misleading:
At this point we begin a second journey. No more so than the first will this one lead us toward an overhanging edge [quelque ligne surplombante] from which we could dominate the totality of an epoch or a historical territory. It will be a question of situating some significant points of reference in order to measure a displacement or the transformation of a problematic. This presupposes strategic choices and risks on our part. (Right II 43).
Despite the reserve towards the sublime, the text continues to urge risk – risk that is elsewhere signaled by the word “menace”.
44. On the role of anxiety and defensiveness in the constitution of the professions cf. Sam Weber “The Limits of Professionalism” which Derrida discusses briefly in “The Principle of Reason.” Cf., too, Weber, “The Vaulted Eye: Remarks on Knowledge and Professionalism” and “The Future of the University: The Cutting Edge.” These essays all appear in the expanded edition of Weber, Institution and Interpretation.
45. Terdiman’s partly sympathetic critique of Derrida’s later essay on the university, “The University Without Condition,” suggests that in this essay, at least, Derrida aspires to such an escape. I note here only that the later essay refers at crucial points to Derrida’s earlier writings on the university in a way that I think modifies its seemingly more utopian claims and that Terdiman does not address. I read the “without condition” as another invocation of the ironic instant that, sealed within the allegory of the institution, interrupts its duration but never simply or finally overturns it. Cf., too, Kamuf, 6: “deconstructive thought, as purveyed especially by the writings of Derrida [. . .] never took it upon itself to leave the university behind, move beyond it, or still less denounce it qua institution. Rather, as institution, the university is being thought here in its historicity as a stabilizable but essentially and necessarily unstable formation, open to a future, that is, to deconstruction.”
46. In several texts, Derrida remarks the relation of the promise to both the messianic and the menacing. See, for example, in “Marx and Sons,” the reference to the “threatening promise” that “organizes every speech act” and intersects with “the horizon of awaiting [attente] that informs our relationship to time – to the event, to that which happens [ce qui arrive], to the one who arrives [l’arrivant] and to the other” (251; translator’s brackets).
47. Cf. Derrida’s (perhaps playful) description of himself as he prepares for a lecture: “I feel like a hunted animal looking in darkness for a way out when none is to be found. Every exit is blocked.” (Right II 132). A fuller development of Derrida’s relation to paranoia would need to consider not only his writings on psycho-analysis but his writings on politics and auto-immunity.1. Note 1.
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