Defective Institutions. By Jacques Lezra.

Friends–this is the text of the talk I gave last Friday at TAMU, to which Alberto referred in his post.  I’d be very glad of your comments and thoughts.  It’s a draft, so please, entre nous only.

Un abrazo,


“Defective Institutions”

Jacques Lezra


It’s a great pleasure to be here in College Station. I’d like to thank Belén and Guillermo, the organizers of the Graduate Workshop in Hispanic Studies and the sponsors of this talk, for honoring me with the invitation to lead yesterday’s workshop on the problem of untranslatability, and to address you this afternoon.

My talk today is on “Defective Institutions.” It’s the subject of a book I’m just beginning.

My purpose is to formalize the concept of “Defective Institutions” and to offer it to you as a model for small-r republican governance. The ultimate claim is that republicanism in its most radical form, in its wildest shape, is the intractable governance of defective institutions. (I’m aware that worlds are at stake in the ambiguous grammar of that sentence, the subjective-objective genitive expression “The intractable governance of defective institutions.” Coming up with a conception of sovereignty, that is, of governance, that retains and radicalizes this ambiguity—that’s probably also the task of this wild republicanism.) Minimally, the task of political philosophy today is not the critique of actually-existing institutions or political concepts, with a view to strengthening the former and clarifying the latter, or to producing new and stronger institutions or new and stronger, more coherent political concepts. Our task is to produce defective political concepts and defective institutions.   A fully and radically differentiated democratic society stands on the defectiveness of its institutions. The sovereignty of such institutions is always divisible; the time and conditions of their emergence is never given in the axioms of other institutions. Defective institutions persist and decline according to discontinuous logics and times. They entail regimes of representation, police forces, pedagogies, rhetorics and lexicons that do ephemeral work, with often reversible results, transparently. They are an-organic without being, exactly, machinic.

My example today will be the University-institution: the possible University-institution.

Well, then, “Defective Institutions.”   First off, a remark and some definitions. My title, “Defective Institutions,” is manifestly intended to excite the imagination in the mode of what’s called in psychological literature the “White bear” or the “polar bear” problem. “Try to pose for yourself this task,” wrote Dostoevsky in 1863, in a little travelogue called “Winter Notes on Summer,” “[try] not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” Hence the “white bear” problem. Pose for yourself this task: try not to think of a “defective institution,” and the cursed thing will perhaps come to mind—a raft of them, every institution you’ve had the chance or the mishap to encounter. Electoral colleges, judiciaries, families, universities. Today, especially today, especially in the context of the last presidential election in the United States, of the Senate confirmation hearings that have followed Donald Trump’s inauguration; in the context of Brexit, of the crisis of the project of the European Union; in the context of a University-institution in crisis also: today the “curse” of institutional defectivity is glaringly with us. Indeed it’s hard to think of an “institution” that is not gravely defective, or weak, or misformed. The inverse exercise—offering for you, say, the provocation of the title or the concept “Effective institutions,” or “Strong institutions,” or “Working institutions” or even “charismatic institutions”—is likely to produce few such—few will “come to mind,” to use Dostoevski’s phrase. Whether in fact what we generally call “institutions” are more subject to defect today than they were (for instance) twenty years ago; or more subject to defect here, more defective here, for instance in the United States, than elsewhere, for example in France or the Netherlands—we’ll agree, maybe, that today institutions are represented as being more defective than at many other times and places. Take this remarkable proposal by the political theorist Corey Robin, recently published in the journals Jacobin and the Guardian: “[T]he worst, most terrible things that the United States has done have almost never happened through an assault on American institutions; they’ve always happened through American institutions and practices. These are the elements of the American polity that have offered especially potent tools and instruments of intimidation and coercion: federalism, the separation of powers, social pluralism and the rule of law.” Thus Corey Robin. He does not say so but we may infer that a commitment to the converse of this proposition has enabled “the worst, most terrible things that the United States has done” historically, and that this commitment will enable the United States to do further terrible thing in the next years. The strong “American institutions” serving to make concrete political concepts like federalism or the separation of powers will always and as a matter of course resist the assault of skewed, partial or totalitarian agendas or personalities because of their strength—a commitment to this notion has enabled, and will enable, the worst. Because institutions are believed to be strong, because these institutions suffer only minor defects of execution rather than disabling defects of structure, they have historically “offered especially potent tools and instruments of intimidation.”

What counts as a “defective” institution? We make judgments regarding the value, coherence, strength and utility of devices and institutions in different ways historically—ways conditioned by what “making judgements” means socially, for whom, and under what conditions. Today, for instance, I buy a car or a blender. I have in mind something I want it for—I want my car for getting to work, my blender for making soup. If one or the other doesn’t work to that end I’ll say it’s “defective,” a lemon, broken. I trade it in for another that’ll do the trick. An intentional structure is presumed: I have in mind this end for that device. We can be more or less loose with this conception, but its structure seems irreducible. Let’s say, to be a little looser in my “making judgments,” let’s say I buy a car and I have in mind more than one end—the car gets me to work, but alas it doesn’t serve the other end I intended, openly or perhaps even secretly, secretly even for myself—I wanted a car that would help me do what the advertising campain for this car also promises, find a glamorous partner and breeze down coastal highways romantically. My Volkswagen Jetta is perfectly good at one thing, but perfectly useless at the other. I won’t say it’s “defective,” since it gets me to work; I’ll say it’s disappointing, since it doesn’t also get me a glamorous romantic partner. And now let’s say that my therapist gets me, hours into expensive analysis, to disclose to myself why it is that my car, while not defective, still disappoints me. I had another unacknowledged end in mind for the device, and it’s not working to that end. An intentional structure, even if my intention is or has been secret, still shapes my judgment. Our judgments about cars and blenders are, to use Kant’s lexicon, teleological.

Are institutions to be understood in that way today? For not all judgments are of this sort, and not all objects of judgment are like blenders or cars: some, for instance, are like polar bears or white bears, or the color yellow, or a sunset. But institutions, today, are much more like blenders or cars than they are like bears or sunsets or poems. They have ends and they have use-values.  For Corey Robin, political institutions in the United States have two sorts of ends and use-values. Political institutions serve to give shape to the political concepts or fantasies at the heart of the modern secular state– federalism, the separation of powers, social pluralism and the rule of law. They also, as he says, “offer[] especially potent tools and instruments of intimidation and coercion.” This latter may not be an explicit end of these institutions, any more than my desire for hooking a romantic partner is when I buy a useful car, but for some it can become so, and in any event when the astute therapist or philosophical diagnostician of current political disappointments reveals the secret, my secret, the institutions’ secret, then political institutions can be held to the implicit end of producing coercion and intimidation, and found to be disappointingly wanting or excitingly effective. We might say that institutions today are the political form of use-value, and our judgments regarding the effectiveness, strength, utility and so on of institutions are not just teleological and technical, they are nakedly expressed in the language of political economy, of efficiencies, of excellences, of outcomes, customer-relations, and so on.

Is there an alternative? Are there ways of conceiving institutions that do not subject their concept, and judgments about their structure, value, effectiveness, etc., to the logics of the intentional structure, the teleological judgment, or the technical a priori? For Kant one answer lies in aesthetic judgments—judgments that are purposive without having purposes, and which we form with regard to natural objects (a towering cliff, a beautiful sunset, a polar bear) and (slightly differently) with regard to manufactured objects that we agree to call aesthetic because they have no technical function—works of art, the dome of St. Peter’s (which has a function, of course, but which we do not admire for its function), or even something like a mathematical proof. That’s not the direction I’m going to take, though my alternative does bear comparison to moments in Kant’s Third Critique. I want instead to make an argument for conceiving institutions as modal objects—possible, necessary, contingent; and for making judgments about them in those terms.[1]

I’ll turn now to my example: the University-institution.

I start from the observation that the pastoral conception of the modern University-institution, as a conforming, converting, and translating machine, has exhausted its analytic interest and its political possibilities. In the age of its global reproducibility, the University-institution is a machine intended to re-produce the unity of capitalist relations. Or to put it differently. In the age of its global reproducibility, in the age in which the conception of “universality” tied to the ancient notion of the “University-institution” has become expressible primarily in the lexicon of economic and technological “globality,” the University-institution devolves into a conforming, converting, and translating machine. It fulfills its old destiny as the institution devoted to the production and reproduction of the one: its absolutization, to use a word from the French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux. One market of markets; one global economic value-system; one language, tendentially.[i]

I offer two diagnostic propositions, with a view not to mourning the passing of the University-institution-form that we have known since Kant, but to imagining its possible successor. First: the intellectual project of the possible University-institution, of the University-institution as a modal object, is the absolutization of what is not-one, and such absolutization is the technical means that the possible University-institution should aspire to develop and employ in its pedagogy and in its institutional structure. “Disciplines” in the possible University-institution will be absolutist machines: techniques for the identification, the description, the abstraction and the production of the not-one. But second, and now stressing the modifying term, the term “possible.” The project and the means of the possible University-institution is the modalization of the one. To say this is to acknowledge the persistence of unitary thought, which is to say, the irreducibility in thought of the principle of identity: this is this, a University-institution is a University-institution, violence is violence, God is God. I’ll have more to say about these tautological expressions in a moment, but for now let’s draw attention to their fundamentally rhythmic structure. Tautology is the first rhyme, inasmuch as tautological propositions, which is to say propositions constitutive of any disciplinary knowledge, take as subject and predicate the same entity. The modalization of this sort of propositional rhythm is, minimally, what the Algerian-French philosopher Jacques Derrida designates by the term espacement: the acknowledgment of the difference-différance that structures the irreducible rhythm of the presentation of the one.

I hang the future of the possible University-institution, then, on two distinct pegs, and on the procedures, techniques, and lexicons that we can develop for maintaining a commitment to both: on one hand, a procedure or a technique of absolutization, of abstraction and conceptualization, though our goal is not the absolutization of the identical, but of the not-one or the non-identical; and on the other hand a procedure or a technique of modalization, that is, a procedure or a technique of re-translating the grammar of propositions into their modal components, decomposing them into rhythms, and into the different orders of necessity, contingency and possibility that affect the structure of our affirmations regarding our objects of interest, study and valuation. None of these classic terms is itself one or simple. The necessities of force and coercion are not of the same order as the necessities we associate with logical or propositional form; the vectors of contingency are formal as well as historical and aleatory. (The distinction I am drawing is in this way at least different from the old distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions.) Possibility is potentia, and thus always in principle actualizable—a possible University-institution will always be one that may be wrought or produced. But a radically modal University-institution will never be an entelechy: the very possibility of this or that sort of University-institution excludes in this sense its coming into actuality, as an institution at a time and with a purpose. A proposition like “In the age of its global reproducibility, the University-institution re-produces the unity of capitalist relations” is subject, under this regime, to modalization: its necessities are made manifest; its contingencies; and its possibilities as well.

If we are devoted to imagining and constituting a University-institution that hangs between these two requirements, the requirement of the absolutization of the not-one and of the not-identical, and the requirement of the modalization of its forms of knowing and expression, we must negotiate two positions. On one hand, the critique of principial institutional politics, of any institutional politics that sits on principles. On the other hand, the intuition that institutions are the place in which animal singularities encounter one another and notions of the common are made available to these animal singularities, whether in the form of thought or in the form of experience. The repetition, the repeated performance, of the primal violence of the University-institution’s foundation works, or can work, like or as a non-principial “principle” to give shape and rhythm, that is, to give the minimal identity that is signaled by the abstract notion of repetition, to the institution we call the University-institution. To the degree that the University-institution produces, in the “proper sphere of ‘understanding,’ language” (these are Walter Benjamin’s words, in the essay on “Critique of Violence”), violent thought concerning the violence of its institution, it can or may become the institutional frame for the production of commonalities, as thought or as experience. “Violent thought” is thought committed to, that is, committed to performing rhythmically, in the “proper sphere of ‘understanding,’ language,” the exercises and recursive iterations of the twin forms of absolutization and modalization. I offer you today, very briefly, two names for this “violent thought,” this violent performance: “relation” and “translation.” It is the possible University-institution’s first obligation to think and to perform, that is, to remember, guard, and reproduce in its non-limiting condition, this enduring, repeatable violence: inasmuch as it can be made and shown to inhabit the “proper sphere of ‘understanding,’ language.”

This is fine. Let me tether this fairly abstract polemic to a text, Derrida’s essay “Unconditionality or sovereignty: The University at the Frontiers of Europe.” “Unconditionality or sovereignty” was read at Derrida’s investiture with the degree of doctor honoris causa by Pantion University in Athens, on June 3, 1999. Both the date and the location are important, for a number of reasons—both as the particular frame for Derrida’s comments, and as the mark of a sort of tense, even polemical push and pull between an unconditional claim or the claim of unconditionality that will characterize what the University-institution symbolizes or “what the University-institution represents,” and the conditions of the enunciation of that claim. Derrida’s lecture takes place during NATO’s air campaign against forces of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, during the Kosovo war. The war witnessed and experienced from the perspective of the country at the frontier of Europe or of the European Union, a war within the frontiers of Europe, another European war which is also, Derrida says, an unrecognized or unacknowledged world war, inasmuch as NATO imagines itself to be a global organization. Derrida’s lecture takes place at a time when Greece’s neighbor and old foe Turkey has made application for accession to the European Union—and when that application is in debate, determined and overdetermined by the —the vote to recognize Turkey as a candidate for full membership coming later that year, in December 1999. Finally, it takes place in, and takes as its topic, the University-institution, “l’université aux frontieres de l’Europe,” a tag that could serve to designate the conditioning location and circumstances of the address, at Pantion University in Athens, this particular University-institution on Europe’s Southeastern frontier on a day in June of a certain year, and also an implicit assertion: the University-institution, that concept or collection of concepts, whatever it is now or can be in the future, the University-institution is to be found where “Europe,” whatever it represents, faces and touches upon what is foreign, strange, alien, Xenon, to it.

The essay’s cluster of topics—the frontier, the University-institution, Europe, sovereignty, unconditionality, what constitutes “thinking,” what constitutes “dissidence”—is unusually tightly knit, and in some ways unremarkable. Derrida proceeds in three great steps.   He opens aligning the concept of the frontier with that of the front, forehead, or face—and ties the latter to what will become a conception of politics tied to place, to location. Can we, the essay then asks, prevent the frontier from becoming such a front—that is, can difference (national, ethnic, religious, generic difference) be kept from becoming a face-to-face grounded in a conception of autonomous national sovereignty rooted in the earth and in the face, in particular in my own face, in my own singular and self-identical face, with which I face and answer to the other who speaks to me in a voice I lent him, as Socrates speaks to the laws in the prosopopoeia of the Crito to which Derrida returns throughout the essay?

In the University-institution the conversion or translation of frontier into “face” or into a face-to-face can happen (it is not guaranteed to happen; it will never happen necessarily), on the condition that we understand what it is to think in the University-institution—what the structure of thought as well as the proper object of thought is in the University-institution.

Derrida devotes the second part of the essay to sketching out what thinking might mean in this context, in the University-institution.   His approach is lateral, and concerns the relation between unconditionality and sovereignty. In some ways this is the least controversial section of the essay: in each of its two principal subsections, the definition of unconditioned thought in the University-institution and the description and genealogy of sovereignty, Derrida is on rather familiar ground. It is only when he sets out, as he puts it, to “contest” the “troubling, seductive but deceptive analogy” between the one and the other, between the exercise of the unconditional right to question, and the classic, theologico-political sovereign right of autonomous decision, that this section of “Unconditionality or Sovereignty” becomes truly strange. As to the first, the description of the place of unconditioned thought in the University-institution: Derrida describes the place occupied by the University-institution in the European imaginary and history—a place where unconditioned inquiry should flourish, the capacity to question everything, including the question—with a view to its public expression, experiencing, and testing—terms covered by the French experience, which I’ll return to in a moment. The University-institution supposes an unconditional right to the truth, or rather the unconditional right to pose necessary questions in regard to the history and the value of truth (the value of a truth-statement), of value, of what is human. One imagines at this stage the frontiers of the University-institution to be identical with the frontiers of a certain degree of liberty, frontiers or walls, ivory towers, within which speech is exercised feely, to the irritation or entire disinterest of a surrounding, immunized society. The protected place, its lexicon, the set of injunctions and liberties gathered in the concept of the University-institution, Derrida says, all come, or almost all, from Greece, from the Greek city, the polis—and thus, he says, it is fitting that he should be returning to Greece, to the Greek city, speaking back to Greece, words he learns from Greece, concepts derived from the Greek, just as Socrates speaks back, acquiescently, to the Laws that address him in the voice that he gives them, in the Crito. The University-institution conceived in these terms turns out to be protected by the walls of the city-state; its politics is local, autochthonous, civic; the stranger, to xenos, enters the city as such, identified by the city’s laws, given the voice of the stranger that the city proper decides for him. Socrates’ acquiescence to the address and injunctions of the laws to which he himself has given speech is an emphatic allegory of the protected narcissism to which this concept of the University-institution, the merely auto-political lexicon of the enclosed unconditionality of University-institution speech, seems destined. My commitment to truth is unconditional because it is sheltered behind the walls of an established state of affairs: it is an unconditionality on the condition that what counts as strange, alien, xenos speak in my language, in my tongue.

It is on this view of unconditionality that the analogy to classical sovereignty hangs. To exercise the freedom to question under these circumstances looks a lot like the exercise of autonomous decision by the sovereign subject, who is able to act freely either because the consequences of the act stand before him to be calculated or reckoned imaginatively, or because he can propose for himself rules to be followed categorically and in the absence of any calculation of consequences. Both forms of autonomy—consequentialist and deontological—flow from the same theologico-political stream as modern, apparently secularized state-sovereignty—including, Derrida quite polemically argues, the apparently distributed, secular sovereignty of the Rousseaunian general will, which seems to underlie the modern democratic state form. Bodinian, indivisible sovereignty haunts even meta-national sovereign institutions and claims to meta-national sovereignty, Europe being one, NATO another. Concepts like the “rights of man” or “universal human rights,” and meta-national institutions such as the “international tribunal” at The Hague are haunted and partly enabled by this same auto-affective conception of sovereign subjectivity.   The unconditionality of the University-institution is sovereign in and for the domain of the University-institution; sovereignty of this sort is unconditioned inasmuch as nothing lies outside of its walls, so long as here is nothing beyond the purchase, lexicon, the prosopopoeia of the subject or of the state.

            All this lexicon, all these injunctions flow from Greece, Derrida says—or not all, not quite; or rather, all that flows from Greece and something else as well: a parasite, foreign but intimate, attached to the lexicon of philosophy, a surplus or a deficit that isn’t calculable in quite way that the facing symmetries of the unconditional University-institution and the sovereign subject-state are. And it is to this, Derrida says, that the unconditionality of the University-institution must turn its thought, if frontier is to be kept from becoming face-to-face. This something else, this almost nothing, marks the difference in the narcissistic circuit binding the contemporary speaker to the genealogical source on which he casts his voice, only to answer it. Presque rien: almost nothing marks the difference and adds a frontier between Derrida’s speech and the Greek, between the conditions of the present enunciation and the ideal of the University-institution, between nomos and physis one might say. Derrida is very clear about what this almost nothing is, and about the conditions in which it is to be accomplished. Here the words are “tenter,” “experience,” “debattre,” “patience,” “rigeur inflexible.”   What is attempted in the University-institution, as a form of debate, patiently, with inflexible rigor, is indeed a sort of thought, it is a sort of thought that questions the genealogy, history and the concept of sovereignty, but what sort of thought exactly is not yet clear. Here Peggy Kamuf’s excellent translation seems to me to go symptomatically off track. Derrida has been talking about thought within the University-institution (he has not yet set up or dismantled the analogy to sovereign decision) and he provides a definition of thought that has in it, dare I say, a foreign element that English has trouble recognizing as foreign. Here is the French: “Et justement ce que j’appelle ainsi ‘pensée’, c’est ce qui correspond à cette exigence inconditionnelle. La pensée n’est rien d’autre, me semble t-il, que cette expérience de l’inconditionnalité, elle n’est rien sans l’affirmation de cette exigence: questionner sur tout, y compris sur la valeur de la question.” The tricky concept here is what Derrida calls l’expérience de l’inconditionnalité, and which Kamuf translates, almost necessarily, as the “experience of inconditionality.” “Thought” is just that—the subject’s experience or experiencing of unconditionality, and we understand “experience” in all its quasi-mystical overtones. Yes, “thought” is an “experience,” there is a phenomenology of thought, and since any phenomenology is in every way conditioned, then we can come to understand thought, taken as the experience of unconditionality, in and as the contradiction between the conditioned experience and the object we experience, the unconditional: think of the aesthetic experience; this is something like the sublime exposure of a naked thought thought nakedly, a green thought in a green shade. We experience unconditionality.

But Derrida’s French offers also something more: expérience is also a bit more active. We don’t just experience: we experiment. In its immediate, secondary senses, the word expérience means, as Littré’s dictionary tells us, “Tentative pour reconnaître comment une chose se passe,” the effort or the trial, the assay, made to recognize how something works or happens: an experiment, in physics, chemistry, or in physiology, Littré says. “Expérience” is, in fact, synonymous at times with “experimental method”: “Expérience, se dit quelquefois absolument pour méthode expérimentale, connaissance à posteriori par l’observation des faits.” We don’t just experience “unconditionality” in our thought-exposure: we put unconditionality to the test in the University-institution, we experiment it and with it.   Thinking this way means seeing what unconditionality will do, under certain conditions and to certain ends. Thought as the experience of unconditionality in this special, additional and rather foreign sense means not only remarking the sublime experience of the naked University-institution without conditions, but also bringing the unconditional out of the sublime condition of the city and into contact with what is foreign to the city, to the University-institution—or allowing, inviting, what is truly foreign, what is on its face untranslatable, to xenon, into the city.

Here we rejoin Derrida’s strong, extraordinary claim that we now live in an era where the political, le politique, “no longer has a place… it no longer has a stable and essential topos.” This u-topic politics is the politics beyond the closure of the University-institution made possible by the sort of thought that we undertake when we experience and experiment with and upon, when we put to the test of the extra-mural, when we put to the test of the ultramontane or of the frontier, the unconditionality of thought. But what does this mean, and how do we take it on?

Here we enter into the last, and to my mind the least satisfactory aspect of Derrida’s essay—though I’ll have a bit to say, in conclusion, about an additional dimension of the essay as a whole that seems to me to provide a performative enactment of this concluding section, in a perhaps more satisfactory way. The solution Derrida seems to offer flows from a distinction between what is proper to both the sovereign (the state, the individual) and the enclosed and autopoetic University-institution imagined in its shape: power, pouvoir; and on the other side, on the side of that “experience de l’inconditionnalité,” what Derrida calls force, a word only slightly different after all from “pouvoir,” a presque rien of difference that makes all the difference. The dissidence of thought in the University-institution, thought conceived as the “experience of the unconditional” in the specific sense I’ve suggested, this dissidence amounts to an “affirmation without power but without weakness. Without power but not without force.” The lexicon is familiar: patience, rigor, attempts, inflexibility, hospitality, the multiplication of frontiers.   We might as well, almost but not quite, be back in the preserve of what Lacan called “l’universitas litterarum de toujours,” the same-old, same-old injunction to academics to pursue truth on their own time.

This is likely to seem an inadequate response to war and catastrophe, to the urgent conditions under which Derrida is uttering his address on “Unconditionality or sovereignty” at Pantion University in 1999. There’s something more going here, though. In conclusion, let’s look briefly at a way in which Derrida enacts, in the course of “Unconditionality or sovereignty,” the violent “experience” of unconditionality in both of the dominant senses of the term I’ve been outlining. I want to draw your attention in closing to a series of gestures, as it were counter-prosopopoeias, in which Derrida solicits the voices of strangers, where he seeks, as he says, “to let other speak, living or dead, and other laws.” Yes, he’s been making Socrates say what Socrates manifestly does not say, out of an act of faith in him—smuggling the parasite of indocility and dissidence into Socrates’ relation to the voice of the laws. And yes, Derrida has brought the voices, conditions, the facts of the living and the dead in Kosovo before his audience. But he also returns a number of times to this formulation, which we find first at the essay’s opening, in the captatio benevolentia in which he says to his distinguished audience that if he were to treat the receipt of the degree offered him as a mere formality he would be injuring the gravity of the present moment, “as well as those who, not far from us, are suffering from them sometimes to point of death,” je ferais injure a la gravité des temps présents, comme à ceux et à celles qui, non loin de nous, en souffrent parfois à mort.” Non loin de nous: not far from us, but just where? How do we calculate this distance? Who peoples it, what spaces, what frontiers are crossed in bringing these men and women before us? The trope recurs: “Il y a encore, non loin de l’Europe, et autour du basin Mediterranéen, tout pres d’ici, tant de peuples, opprimés et reprimés…” and “Ladite purification,” this ethnic cleansing, “se poursuit non loin d’ici, vous le savez bien, selon d’autres voies et d’autres rhythmes.”   These are not just the marks of a decorous or prudish discipline, the polite disinclination to upset the hosts by speaking out of turn about matters too delicate for public discourse. Derrida’s preteritions call up the absent, but without giving them a name or a face: they are counter-prosopopoeias, inasmuch as they solicit the dead and the absent without determining their contours or giving them proper names, proper voices cast upon them for us to recognize ourselves in: for each of us, for each of the “nous” assembled as and at the conditioning audience, “vous le savez bien,” for those who know and those who, not knowing, are reminded that they too should already know, they are brought across the frontier, without faces. Palestine, the Kurdish population in Turkey, Cyprus, Macedonia, each subject’s peculiar ghosts as well as those great national ones, brought before Derrida’s discourse as the pronouns “nous” and “vous” assemble his audience and accuse it, without giving it a face. “Try not to think of a polar bear,” try not to think of what is happening “tout pres d’ici, tant de peuples, opprimés et reprimés…”, try not to think of what’s happening across the wall, the border: “you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” This, it seems to me, is how Derrida stages for us, without quite defining it, almost defining it but not quite, the thought proper to the University-institution—thought committed to a revised principle of identity and a strong, practical, even empirical, even empiricist project of modalization—of possibilities become necessities, of necessities become contingent, of contingency become possible. Derrida engages to force dissidence upon his listeners—as every University-institution not exhausted today must also do; he engages to force the marking and crossing of the University-institution’s frontiers: Derrida requires his audience, and us, to experience, to test out, the inconditionality of thought upon and in the claims made upon sovereign subjectivity by the conditioning specters he evokes on the frontiers of Europe.

Let’s approach the matter in hand with the work of the Jesuit philosopher and theologian Stanislas Breton, a thinker a generation younger than Walter Benjamin. Breton’s extraordinarily rich essay, “Dieu est Dieu: Sur la violence des propositions tautologiques,” of 1989, shows how the form of the proposition “Dieu est Dieu” on which monotheism stands is indeed inhabited by violence (as are, Breton marvelously suggests, three of the great principles of Western logic, thought broadly as the primary mode of articulation of reason, logos, or speech/thought, that Benjaminian “proper sphere of ‘understanding,’ language”: the principles of identity; of non-contradiction; and of sufficient reason). The form of the proposition “Dieu est Dieu” on which monotheism stands is inhabited by violence, then, but so, in a general sense, would any tautological propositions be inhabited by violence, including the propositions “violence is violence” and “The University-institution is the University-institution,” which you heard me offer a bit ago, or the proposition, “It is what it is.”

The claim can be made a little less broadly. Academic disciplines (though in principle we could show this proposition to be true for any corporate entity and of any coherent set of protocols, that is, any discipline, destined to produce an object, of any sort, from which it takes its value)—academic disciplines rest, tendentially, on just such tautological propositions. The rhythm of their identity is measured out in reference to these propositions. The techniques and the subject-matter we teach, what our students learn, the things we and they handle and the objects of knowledge we and they produce—inasmuch as these things and objects are identifiably the effects of our discipline, they also affirm our discipline’s identity, and its value as a mechanism for producing such things and objects. Philosophy is philosophy, our tautological disciplinary proposition runs, inasmuch as it produces for inspection objects that are deemed to be, and can be consumed as, examples of a philosophical formation. In the academy we thus remark an uneasy reciprocity between the circulation and the processes of valuation and relating of academic things (of things, object, and matter in the academic context), and what the British researchers Roger Brown and Helen Carasso recently called “the Marketisation” of higher education. The thing-as-datum not only marks the finitude of the human animal, it provides homo academicus and his brethren with value tradable across markets and languages, and it transforms the University-institution into a cloistered factory for the production of globally-tradable, translatable information-commodities. Brown and Carasso’s study focuses on the UK; the comparable work reflecting on the development of the modern University-institution in the United States (and globally) is Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins. Readings tracks the effects of the use of the vacuous criterion of “excellence” in assessing research and teaching outcomes. Here is how he describes the state of affairs: “[E]xcellence serves as the unit of currency within a closed field… a purely internal unit of value that effectively brackets all questions of reference or function, thus creating an internal market. Henceforth,” Readings concludes, “the question of the University-institution is only a question of relative value-for-money, the question posed to a student who is situated entirely as a consumer, rather than as someone who wants to think.”16 “As an integrating principle,” he maintains, “excellence has the singular advantage of being entirely meaningless, or to put it more precisely, non-referential” (22). Disciplines, especially those that took shape in funding regimes inspired in one version of the Cold War (Title VI programs, comparativist disciplines imagined as attending to cosmopolitan rather than narrowly national concerns, the modern humanities), find their standing in the University-institution in question when they appear to fail the test of non-referentiality. This failure might take one of two shapes, and each would be violent in its way. A discipline might fail to satisfy the conditions of “excellence” by seeking to link the free-floating commodity-form of the University-institution to some object or state of affairs outside of it (that is, by producing an object of knowledge that “refers” to an actually-existing object or state of affairs outside the closure of the discipline). Let’s call this the transcendent failure of the University-institution. The value of the “discipline” is then dependent on something it does not produce; the closure of the University-institution is threatened, but only to the degree that this “outside” cannot be reincorporate within the closure of the University-institution—cannot become the object-of-study for a future, notional discipline. And this inflation of disciplines is just what we see occurring, around the globe. The University-institution is a capturing device, a translating device, I said—so a transcendent failure, based in the critique of the reflexive University-institution value-form, will not do the trick.

But a discipline might fail the test of non-referentiality in a second way. A discipline might produce, within the strangely self-referential value system that Readings imagines the University-institution to have become, excesses or lacks of reference—spots where the closure of the University-institution discourse is threatened from within. (In this case, we would say that the discipline produces “objects” which cannot, and could not, be valued in the terms given by other disciplines—it is an object analytically excessive or defective with respect to them, or both). We’ll call this a sort of immanent failure of the disciplinary machine

Let’s try to understand a little more clearly what it might take to produce this double failure, immanent as well as transcendent, within the University-institution, by submitting disciplines built on tautological bases to “translation” and “relation’s” absolutization of the not-one; to the modalization of foundational propositions regarding the University-institution. A University-institution is a University-institution, except that the objects of study the University-institution produces, its most intimate result and the condition of its self-intelligibility and of its market value, no longer fall either within the scope of the University-institution, nor without it. They are, in sum, tautological propositions in a sense unlike the sort to which we are accustomed—the sort that underlie the principles of identity; of non-contradiction; and of sufficient reason. “Dieu est Dieu” offers Breton another gloss on tautology, as this new version that I am offering, “The University-institution is the University-institution,” offers us another, im- pastoral gloss that leads to what Breton calls “a new imperative: ‘Stop nowhere!’, for He gives you movement in order ‘always to go beyond.’” “’God is God,’” Breton writes.

The essential thing here is not to condemn images: rather, to multiply them to infinity, so none of them, fascinating us, succeeds in seducing us. The person of faith resembles a sort of Don Juan, on the search for the eternal feminine. Searching for the eternal divine, he reads in this tautology a new imperative: ‘Stop nowhere!’, for He gives you movement in order ‘always to go beyond.’ ‘One has to stop somewhere,’ we often say: this is, though, an axiom of laziness, as every cliché [évidence] is.” (139)

This imperative, Breton says, describes the form of thinking that he would like to choose—never to allow one function of the tautology of propositions to seduce him, thus allowing him to choose mercy over violence, Pauline humanism over the fundamentalism of the Unique Law. This, he says, is what he would like—and this would be the story of the Enlightened University-institution, which passes from the theologico-political violence of tautological propositions to the softer violence of instrumental or ancillary pedagogy, always leading-beyond itself, as the Augustinian sign always leads beyond itself toward an ultimate, grounding and transcendent sign. But Breton is too careful and too radical a philosopher and a theologian to accept this pedagogical, pastoral alternative, and the defective University-institution I imagine, and the disciplines that I imagine in and for it, should be no less radical. Breton closes the essay saying that he has no way of choosing between formally identical tautologies—which is a way of saying that he’s located in thought, in Logos, the violence of the choice between tautologies: there is no sphere of thought untouched by violence. Thought, the thought that Breton discloses for us, the thought of the language of the defective University-institution, the thought that the defective institution turns on in order to “understand,” to express, to translate, and also to guard the violence of its theologico-political foundation: this thought is violence, and, much more troublingly, this violence is thought.


[1] very much imagined as we would imagine judging the blender or the car. To make institutions “effective” again, or “strong” again, or “working,” again, is to

Formalize notion of defective institution.

Negation. Use/mention. I can say, When I go to the zoo I’m particularly scared by the polar bears, and in all probability white bears will not come to mind—just the sense that I’m a bit of a coward, or a proper indignation that I’m a fan of zoos, or some such. Defect in the concept of concept.

Difference between “a polar bear” and “a defective institution.” Representatio communis of the first, but of the second?

[i] As a preliminary to recovering the unconverted violence of the University-institution’s foundational moments, without falling into the romantic-heroic notion that this violence cannot be converted into a pedagogical object, for consumption and global reproduction, we should be clear what it is that we are rejecting—what the pastoral, ancillary University-institution was.