The Derrida Incident?
I hate to be the agent of this kind of controversy, but something is rotten in Denmark, and no one is talking about it.
As this article from the L.A. Times describes in greater depth, UC Irvine and the family of the late Jacques Derrida have been embroiled for some time now in a struggle over the ownership of an archive of Derrida’s writing which he supposedly promised to the university, only to withdraw his promise subsequently over a dispute with the University. Perhaps given the gravitas of Derrida’s name, even among those who vigorously oppose his work, or perhaps because the current incarnation of the struggle pits a large and impersonal university against Derrida’s widow, the University of California seems to have come out as the bad guy here. While I have no problem with this in principle, the facts of the case don’t seem to fit this characterization, and in fact pose troubling consequences for Derrida’s legacy.
What the mis-characterization leaves out is the nature of the impetus for Derrida’s falling out with the university. As the article explains:
In [a three-paragraph document that Derrida signed in 1990], Derrida pledged to donate his archives to UCI, where he taught part time. However, shortly before his death in 2004, the pipe-puffing philosopher changed his tune. Derrida threatened to torpedo the archive agreement unless school officials halted their investigation into a Russian studies professor [Dragan Kujundzic] accused of sexually harassing a female grad student.
I find this particular disturbing because I know the female grad student and some (but certainly not all) of the details of the Dragan incident. I have a hard time understanding why Derrida went to bat for Dragan, particularly to the point of trying to disrupt a sexual harassment investigation and withdrawing his commitments to the university when he failed to do so. Surely Derrida was defending a friend whom he believed to be innocent, but the facts of the case suggest otherwise:
Although a school probe concluded that Kujundzic’s four encounters with the woman were consensual, it said he nevertheless had violated a university policy that bars faculty members from dating students they supervise.
The student, who said she felt coerced to have sex because of Kujundzic’s influence over her academic career, then sued him and the university, a case that was recently settled out of court for $100,000 — of which $20,000 came from Kujundzic’s pocket.
Kujundzic violated a university policy designed to prevent sexual harassment, and paid $20,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit. The violation of the policy alone means (in ethical terms at least, if not in legal terms) he committed sexual harassment. The fact that the encounters were “consensual” is irrelevant – there is no such thing as consensual sexual relations in a relationship where one party has significant control over the future career of the other. The fact that the victim “felt coerced” is enough – the situation itself was coercive, and there was a policy in place to prevent it precisely because it would otherwise be impossible to draw the line between “consensual” and “coercive” sexual relations between an advisor and an advisee. I just don’t see how any apologetics is possible – Dragan knew the consequences of his actions, and could have acted otherwise. Derrida’s defense of his actions is inexcusable.
There’s a long tradition of sometimes shoddy and sometimes thoughtful criticism of major figures in literary/critical theory or continental philosophy based on revelations about their ethical or political decisions “outside” of their work. Heidegger’s relationship to the Nazi party, for example, remains a major stumbling block for those interested in his work, as does de Man’s wartime writing for a collaborationist newspaper, including an anti-Semitic article entitled “Jews in Contemporary Literature.”
The best writing on the subject of these controversies is able to take seriously our misgivings about the ethical or political decisions of these thinkers without jumping to a premature dismissal of their writings. Avital Ronnel’s The Telephone Book for example, poses a command issued by telephone to Heidegger by a Nazi official as the nexus of questions about “the call of conscience” and Heidegger’s rethinking of modern technology. This strategy allows Ronnel to investigate Heidegger’s ethos through the terms of his philosophy while simultaneously testing the limits of that philosophy. Ethical and philosophical considerations mutually inform each other without producing the convenient “out” for which misinformed critics of “theory” are desperate. Unlike in high school debate, where I remember winning a case mainly by arguing that Heidegger was a Nazi, such ethical considerations should never be a substitute for an understanding of the writing that one is trying to dismiss. The philosophical or theoretical work should not, nonetheless, emerge intact.
In using the term “the Derrida Incident,” I realize I’m opening up all of the potentially facile dismissive readings that accompanied the “De Man Incident,” which was heralded as one of the many “death knells” of deconstruction, which in turn nonetheless remains as undead as it ever was. However, I think it is essential to open up a responsible consideration of the ethical implications of a major figure in literary theory who seems to have chosen to use his archives as a form of capital in order to subvert a university policy designed to prevent sexual harassment. How might we theorize this incident in terms of Derrida’s own work? What does the conversion of writing into capital or clout tell us about Derrida’s renown equation between his “debts” and his “death”? How do Derrida’s writing on sexual difference, the law and the politics of friendship inform his response to an application of sexual harassment policy against a friend and colleague? These questions do not suffice to erase the body of writing which Derrida has left behind, the very dead body over which two parties, both in mourning in their own ways, are now struggling for control. But there is no possible account of Derrida’s writing of which this incident can be said to fall “outside.”
Edit: S reminds us in the comments that Derrida was not in the best of health at the time of the events in question, and this certainly bears on the discussion in a significant way. I’m not certain that this entirely removes my concerns, but it certainly mitigates them.