Jacques Derridas Cambridge Affair
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Jacques Derridas Cambridge Affair

Deconstruction, Philosophy and Institutionality

Niall Gildea

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Jacques Derridas Cambridge Affair

Deconstruction, Philosophy and Institutionality

Niall Gildea

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About This Book

What is philosophy? A question often asked, but usually in an abstract or speculative way. Rarely do we find a case of ‘philosophy’ being determined in the real world. However, at Cambridge in 1992, this is exactly what happened, as a debate took place over the merits, or otherwise, of awarding an Honorary Doctorate of Letters to the philosopher Jacques Derrida. Derrida’s supporters argued that his deconstruction of Western traditions of thinking ushered in an important new manner of doing philosophy; his detractors dismissed his work as charlatanism, philistinism – and non-philosophy. As arguments raged over the validity of introducing the canon of Continental philosophy to the Humanities in British Higher Education – the so-called ‘Theory Wars’ – Derrida’s ‘Cambridge Affair’ focalized this decisive conflict more than anything else. This is the first study of the Cambridge Affair. Drawing upon archival and unpublished material, little-known texts pertaining to the Affair, and Derrida’s own oeuvre, this original account offers an historical and philosophical reconstruction of this crucial debate, evaluating it against the body of work it put on trial.

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Part 1

Chapter 1

Reprising the Cambridge Affair

There was this terrible honorary degree crisis in Cambridge.1
Inevitably, it will be known as ‘the Derrida affair’, though z[…] it might from another perspective be more justly denominated ‘l’affaire Cambridge’.2
…leaving aside the Cambridge affair…3
‘The Cambridge Affair’ is the name given to the debate concerning Jacques Derrida’s proposed, and ultimately awarded, honorary doctorate of letters at Cambridge University in 1992. It is referred to frequently in biographies of and introductions to Derrida, but always in adumbration.4 Retrospective accounts of the Affair tend to be only schematic narratives or foot- or endnotes. The brevity of these synopses has produced the oversimplification of two principal interpretations. The first views the Affair as one episode of many in the ‘Theory Wars’ of the final three decades of the twentieth century.5 The second – an interpretation rejected by Derrida6 – regards it as emblematic of a longer-term enmity between British and French philosophy going back at least as far as the eighteenth century.7
This simplification perhaps follows from the fact that Derrida himself refrained from subjecting the Affair to a thoroughgoing analysis, stating more than once that he had ‘abstained’ from writing a polemical text about the Affair. Accepting an honorary doctorate from the University of Silesia in Katowice in December 1997, Derrida referred to ‘a polemic [about the Affair] from which I have always abstained’,8 and in his honorary doctorate acceptance address at the University of Coimbra in November 2003, this phrase and his broader summary of the Affair were rehearsed verbatim.9 Whatever the reasons for Derrida’s abstinence, one of its effects has been that outright critics of Derrida have expended more words on the topic of the Affair than have those supportive of his work. I maintain throughout this book that the Cambridge Affair was neither simply symptomatic of the Theory Wars, nor of intellectual jingoism, but is best understood as a debate in which the question of philosophical propriety, proper-to-philosophy, was debated and determined (not to mention cathected) from several perspectives.
I show in chapter 2 that the debate elaborates the logic of Immanuel Kant’s late text, The Conflict of the Faculties. The university becomes the institution in which Kant’s ideal of scholarship – articulated most succinctly in ‘What Is Enlightenment?’ – practically can be realized.10 For Kant, the ‘lower faculty’ of philosophy has no civic obligation (its research does not answer to state imperatives), but it can be of civic use: The onus is on the state to ‘listen to’, to hear (höre) the philosopher,11 whilst promising to the philosophy faculty an unimpeachable autonomy and autotely; hence philosophy’s contrast to the ‘higher faculties’ of law, medicine, and theology, whose ends are the training of students for civic positions in those fields. It is valid to object that the philosophy faculty’s autonomy already may have been impeached by this contract with the state; Derrida has illustrated this constitutive paradox of Kant’s model.12 In the present chapter, I prepare this relation to Kant’s text by describing the Cambridge Affair in detail. But there are other important contexts for the Affair, which are worth going over here; they are discussed more thoroughly in the chapters that follow.
The first is the immediate political context. The Affair played out alongside the run-up to the general election of 1992, which saw John Major’s Conservatives defeat Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party. Although there were few explicit references to the election (those that were made are outlined in chapter 4), many parallels were made by Derrida’s opponents between the Thatcherite interference in academia throughout the 1980s and the growing influence in the university of ‘Continental’ (predominantly French) philosophy and theory, for which Derrida was considered a synecdoche. To preview only the most overt juxtaposition here, Brian Hebblethwaite, whose retrospective article on the Affair is summarized later in this chapter, avers that
Our universities are held in contempt anyway by a government of philistines [.] […] There seems to be little we can do to reverse this. But I should have thought we could have avoided the internal contempt we bring upon ourselves when instead of repudiating the enemies of reason, truth and objectivity, we honour them.13
This passage presents what was, for many of those opposed to Derrida’s honorary, the major issue subtending the Affair. An important filiation is perceived between governmental interference in the university, said to subordinate the institution to the logic of corporatism from without, and Derrida’s work, said to do something analogous from within. This is a version of an older accusation about the complicity of ‘theory’ with the neoliberal professionalization of the university (one made, for example, by Terry Eagleton, whose critique of deconstruction is addressed momentarily). But it is intensified and made more specific by the fact that the Cambridge Affair took place at a moment that could have halted Thatcherism, but did not.
Readers familiar with historical objections to Derrida’s work will have noticed that this is a quite different accusation from the ones that hold that it is simply inimical to any idea of the university or of philosophy. That more basic charge does feature prominently during the Cambridge Affair, but it is presented as though there were no friction between it, on the one hand, and the charge of neoliberalism, on the other. In my view, this overdetermination of the case against Derrida, as well as being an important trope undergirding the making of that case, also echoes a crucial gesture in Kant’s Conflict of the Faculties, in which the philosopher relies upon a formally identical overdetermination to make his case for philosophy’s policing of its borders. I address this important moment in Kant’s text in chapter 2.
There is another pertinent political reading of the Cambridge Affair, which argues that the case against Derrida actually evinces the very neoliberal logic it repudiates. I make this argument at length in chapter 4, but the simple précis is that the particular sovereignty, a fusion of authority and capability prior to hegemony or ideology, in which terms the philosophy faculty is articulated in the written case against Derrida, actually corresponds exactly to contemporary Thatcherite discourse concerning higher education. What this means is that there is a genealogical link between the neoliberal reforms lamented by some of Derrida’s opponents (in which Derridean philosophy was said to participate), and the Kantian idea of the university, which those reforms were perceived to threaten. This bears out Derrida’s argument, made in a group of texts on the university in the 1970s and ’80s, about the deconstruction at work in Kant’s university model.
The second major context is that of Derrida’s oeuvre – two features of it specifically. First, the Cambridge Affair develops from an initial disputation over Derrida’s style, in particular its perceived nonseriousness, or ‘free play’, which sets it at odds with authentic philosophy. This continues to be an ambient issue in debates surrounding Derrida, but here it has definite reference points that can be traced to better understand where that accusation comes from, and what presuppositions ground it. Again, the term goes back to Kant, but not only to his aesthetic theory broadly conceived: It actually appears at a crucial moment in The Conflict of the Faculties, where it is the term Kant uses to clarify the qualitative distinction between the philosophy faculty and those of law, medicine, and theology. Hence, one of the principal ‘non-philosophical’ characteristics of Derrida’s work is actually the very attribute by which Kant’s philosophy faculty is able to take shape. In chapter 2, I look closely at this transplantation of ‘free play’ from Kant to Derrida, and what it means for his critics.
The second aspect of Derrida’s oeuvre that is at issue here is significant precisely because it is not addressed in the Cambridge Affair literature. Both sides of the debate share a rather blasé approach when it comes to ideas about community and institution, and the relationships between these. It seems taken for granted that ‘belonging’ to a university, qua community or institution, is a relatively straightforward matter. However, subtending terms like ‘community’, ‘institution’, and even ‘belonging’ is the concept of Mitsein (being-with) that Derrida certainly does not take for granted. Accordingly, in chapters 5 and 6 of this book, I discuss community, institution, and belonging, both in Derrida’s work, and in certain major critical attempts to categorize that work; my examples are readings of Derrida by Martin Hägglund, J. Hillis Miller, and Ernesto Laclau. The point of this exercise is to try to think deconstructively about this blind spot that nevertheless makes possible the Cambridge Affair debate.
The Cambridge Affair ended abruptly. Cambridge Minds, a volume published in 1994 advertising the contribution of the university to the nation’s well-being, does not refer to it,14 and nothing substantial was published on the matter after the symposia. However, the questions raised during the Affair about deconstruction, philosophy, and the university merit detailed treatment.


In this chapter, I give readers a clear sense of the texts that comprise the Cambridge Affair. These principally were the flysheets circulated in Cambridge that offered reasons why one might vote in a particular way, and the articles that followed the award of Derrida’s honorary, which offered interpretations of what was at stake in the Affair. The present volume will only make passing reference to the coverage of the Affair in the popular media, because nothing was said or written there that was not based substantially on the flysheets and articles I explicate. There would be much to consider in formal terms, as Derrida does in Paper Machine, about mediatic agendas and extrapolations, but I restrict myself here to what I adjudge to be particular to the Cambridge Affair – namely, the question of philosophy’s disciplinary and institutional preeminence, both as virtual reference and actual performance.
If there is a rhetorical cornerstone of the Affair for those critical of Derrida’s honorary, it is the belief in an enigmatic homology between ‘philosophy’ and ‘the university’, the surety of which is menaced by Derrida, who thereby becomes its symptom. But because this homology and the implied values on which it is based are articulated for the first time reactively, as a counteragent to the Derrida contagion (they react to the proposal of Derrida’s honorary, to its award, or to both), then Derrida remains the condition of the homology’s possibility whilst being a threat to its functionality; hence, there is a strictly symptomatic logic at work (describing the Affair, Derrida states, ‘This little event is symptomatic of a number of things [Cette petite histoire est grosse de symptômes assez divers]’15).
Troubled unconsciously by this symptomatic quality of Derrida’s work, these critics overwrite it with the related but more orthodox ‘othering’ trope of the parasite. The charge of parasitism has accompanied deconstruction at least since Derrida’s work began to be translated in the United States and Britain, and during the Cambridge Affair it was important for Derrida’s critics: Sarah Richmond branded Derrida’s work ‘poison for young people’; the Observer newspaper called Derrida a ‘computer virus’;16 and Barry Smith argued that Derrida’s work ‘translates into the academic sphere tricks and gimmicks similar to those of the Dadaists or of the concrete poets’.17 These charges share an argument that the ‘threat’ Derrida embodies is derivative rather than inceptive. That is, one needs a healthy body in order to poison it; one needs a working computer in order for a virus to corrupt it; one needs an organic ‘academic sphere’ in order to smuggle contraband into it. This is why the conceptual persona of the parasite recurs here – the parasite’s putative secondary nature, or de-nature, means it is a trope made to follow the constitution of a fixed chronology and topology. The parasitism charge displaces the more disquieting trope of the symptom: The symptom troubles this spatial and temporal fixity because it is not secondary, but constitutive and generative. Derrida, in the only interview he gave about the Cambridge Affair, addresses this question: He wonders whether his critics considered something they knew, and recognized – his work – or whether they ‘attacked’ a more phantasmatic unknown:
If it were only a question of “my” work, of the particular or isolated research of one individual, this wouldn’t happen. Indeed, the violence of these denunciations derives from the fact that the work accused [le travail incriminé] is part of a whole ongoing process. What is unfolding here, like the resistance it necessarily arouses, can’t be limited to a personal “oeuvre,” nor to a discipline, nor even to the academic institution [ne se lasse confiner ni dans une “oeuvre” personnelle, ni dans une discipline, ni mê me dans l’institution académique]. Nor in particular to a generation: it’s often the active involvement of students and younger teachers which makes certain of our colleagues nervous to the point that they lose their sense of moderation and of the academic rules they invoke when they attack me and my work [quand ils s’a...

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