Thursday, July 08, 2010

Bon Mots: Derrida on the future of the Humanities

From "The University Without Conditions" in Without Alibi (Stanford University Press, 2002, p.231), Jacques Derrida describes "the Humanities of tomorrow":

These new Humanities would treat the history of man, the idea, the figure, and the notion of "what is proper to man." They will do this on the basis of a nonfinite series of oppositions by which man is determined, in particular the traditional opposition of the life form called "human" and of the life form called "animal." I will dare to claim, without being able to demonstrate it here, that none of these traditional concepts of "what is proper to man" and thus of what is opposed to it can resist a consistent scientific and deconstructive analysis.

The most urgent guiding thread here would be the problematization (which does not mean disqualification) of the powerful juridical performatives that have given shape to the modern history of this humanity of man. I am thinking, for example, of the rich history of at least two of these juridical performatives: on the one hand, the Declarations of the Rights of Man-- and of women (since the question of sexual difference is not secondary or accidental here; we know that these Declarations of the Rights of Man were constantly being transformed and enriched from 1789 to 1948 and beyond: the figure of man, a promising animal, an animal capable of promising, as Nietzsche said, remains still to come)-- and, on the other hand, the concept of "crime against humanity," which since the end of the Second World War has modified the geopolitical field of international law and will continue to do so more and more, commanding in particular the scene of worldwide confession and of the relation to the historical past in general. The new Humanities will thus treat these performative productions of law or right (rights of man, human rights, the concept of crime against humanity) where they always imply the promise and, with the promise, the conventionality of the "as if."

1 comment:

John said...

I am struck by the manner (but this is conventional in Derrida's work) in which the present state of things, in terms of politics or in terms of the line of thought is made to depend, hang in the balance, on what is still, always, to come. The emancipatory ideal is joined to a prophetic voice, which is necessarily fragile at the very moment it announces the strength to bring about a historical change.

I don't think that this is confined to Derrida's frequent use of the future perfect tense (and here the conditional "would"), but there is without a doubt an element in Derrida's work that announces the future, not as an alternate "place" in time, but as what the present opens onto, sometimes making of time not a line, but an asymptote. That is, an ever extended "learning curve" that adds to and disrupts any simple principle of presence.

Finally this passage seems to hint at what Derrida means by "the animal", both in terms of entities within nature and the life world (animals) and the sometimes threatening figures of the superhuman, or at the furthest limit of the human ("the animal" as an unknown we face, possibly signified by its own heraldry, its totems, its symbols).