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.


~ by Matt on April 11, 2007.

22 Responses to “The Derrida Incident?”

  1. Very interesting and readable post, even for a non-academic like me. Reminds me of how all public figures and celebrities these days are often judged according to their actions in their personal lives.

  2. There are many things missing from these articles.,1,4055397.story?coll=la-editions-orange


  3. (which is not to fault the reporters)

  4. Holy cow–I had no idea that that was the issue. Nor that the incident (which I certainly remember) would be so far-reaching. I join Joe in thanking you for letting us know about this.

  5. Egads, people. Do you not read the departmental emails? Wait, nevermind, of course you don’t. Who would?

    That said, like surlacarte, I think I can’t say anything about this, as I participated in some of the proceedings…which is why I haven’t written about it. As much as I can say is this: pay attention to the time-line. When did Derrida make this statement, and what his state at this time? The answer bears on why a manipulative person might be able to influence Derrida into supporting him as he did.

  6. Thank you all for you comments. Thanks in particular to S for reminding us all (at least, this is how I take your somewhat cryptic comment) that Derrida was not in the best of health in 2004. I’m adding a note about this at the end of the post.


  8. The link that Jane provides is perhaps crucial to approaching any reading of Derrida’s *consenting* to sign against the (then new and quite controversial) policy against any sexual relations between someone in a supervisory role (even in an imagined role à venir) and one s/he is or may supervise. By signing his letter to Chancellor Cicerone, Derrida was effectively countersigning the 1977 petition to the Assemblée nationale. That he was signing that letter to threaten withdrawing his consent for UCI to archive his papers, bringing the force of his name down against the impossibility of the student’s ability to consent, that is where it gets nasty.

    Whether cancer and its treatments led him more easily back to 1977, or to allow resistance to age-related consent laws to determine resistance to the power-related consent policy of the UC, this is a question perhaps for a trauma theorist. (Graduate students are used to being figured, if not directly treated, as children.)

    Whether to anthropomorphize Derrida’s work on the politics of friendship so that it maps onto his relations with Kujundzic is a question that might have been asked of Derrida, although what de Man might have written on it would have been helpful, too, no doubt.

    Whether someone more than “not in the best of health”–dying, really–is in a position to offer consent, well, I wonder whether Derrida would have signed a petition against a law determining that issue–while he was so close to death in the summer of 2004 or while he was so close to death in so many seasons and years before then.

  9. Antenna Clasis’s comments lead me here, where a more extended discussion primarily concerned with the legal dimensions of the sexual harassment charges has already taken place. I particularly appreciate this last comment, in its attempt to bring together, around the term “consent,” the legal dimensions of both lawsuits (the second being the one over Derrida’s papers) as well as previous efforts by Derrida on behalf of the legal definition of consent. These are exactly the kinds of questions we ought to be asking.

  10. […] here. Related posts here and here. To recap briefly: Then faculty member Dragan Kujundzic was sanctioned […]

  11. Any takers on whether this blog has shut down in anticipation of a forthcoming article: “Scruples, or, Faith in Derrida” in South Atlantic Quarterly?

  12. I’m still here, Antenna; I just don’t post much more than once a week, if that. However, I thank you for calling that article to my attention. It actually seems to be currently available online. I’ll look into it immediately.

  13. Having been filled in a bit more regarding the time-line, I’m further convinced that Derrida’s actions here are fully mitigated by his illness to such an extent as to render him beyond reproach in this particular instance. This is not, as Antenna Clasis suggests, a question for a trauma theorist. Unless the facts are other than I understand them, I see no possible reading of these events such that the signature on the letter to Chancellor Cicerone belongs to the same figure who authored the rest of Derrida’s works. While it does remain a question whether and in what circumstances Derrida’s own work would authorize a dying man to offer consent, that question is no more implicated by this particular instance than it would be by the death of a stranger.

    I’m fully willing to entertain arguments to the contrary, and I will continue to respond to comments on this thread, but I’m relinquishing my own pursuit of the issue.

  14. You may wish to consult this website for more informed opinion, and for the relevant information about this “affair.”

  15. […] Letter to UCI Having had the opportunity to think more carefully about the issues raised in this post, I’ve taken the occasion of a new article on the subject in the Chronicle of Higher Education […]

  16. […] first post UC Irvine Critical Theory Archive Jacques Derrida more, more, more, more, more, more, more (the 100k […]

  17. haha, i’m taking Dragan’s class at UF right now. small world

  18. However, I disagree that Dragan was somehow ethically at fault. Yes, a relationship between adviser and advisee may in some cases be dangerous or unfair, but both the graduate student and Dragan must have known this at the onset. Why is he anymore to blame than she? It was her choice to enter into a relationship in which she might be at a disadvantage. I see no proof of coercion, nor that the graduate student was harassed in any way. On the contrary, she might have made out with a large sum of money without any suffering at all, and it would be Dragan who was harassed, his pocketbook, and more importantly, his reputation. In terms of policy and law, I see the necessity of the provision to prevent dating between students and professors, and Dragan violated that rule, and he should suffer the punishments. However, sexual harassment is an overstatement, when clearly no such harassment can be proven, only a harassment of the rules of the University. A reputation is an important thing and a charge of sexual harassment is about the worst blow second to murder or rape a reputation can take. I think this charge is a ludicrous and unwarranted blow to Dragan’s life.

  19. Can we agree that neither of us is in any position to speak for the graduate student and to judge whether she suffered or felt coerced, or whether she would have engaged in the relationship had she not felt that failing to do so would have endangered her career? Could Professor Kujundzic have been unaware of the possibility that his advances might be received as coercive, particularly given the specifics of the situation? Can you excuse him for putting the graduate student in this position, regardless of how she chose to respond?

  20. Though this matter was last discussed nearly 5 years ago, I think the following website archive should be consulted for the blogger and respondents to gain more perspectives and information on the matter

  21. I forgot to post the link, sorry:

    • The link Lorenzo posted is really important. It indicate that the code of prohibiting all “sexual” or “romantic” relationships between a member of the faculty and a student was approved AFTER and FOR those events Dragan involved in. But the university was using that against Dragan. I think that’s what made Derrida and many faculty members angry.

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