Culture Machine, Vol 2 (2000)

CM2000 Article: Culture Machine


Culture Machine

As for the professor, he speaks to these listening students. Whatever else he may think or do is cut off from the students' perception by an immense gap. The professor often reads when he is speaking. As a rule he prefers to have as many listeners as possible ... One speaking mouth, with many ears, and half as many writing hands - there you have, to all appearances, the external academic apparatus: there you have the University culture machine in action. (Nietzsche, from J. Derrida, 'Otobiographies')

As the above epigraph suggests, the theme for this second edition of the Culture Machine journal has been drawn from Nietzsche by way of Derrida and deconstruction. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that by far the majority of contributions to this edition come from people who are either working in, or who are associated with, university departments of literature. For the most recent challenge to the idea of the modern university has come from a group of discourses which are, as Samuel Weber puts it in this issue, 'associated on the one hand with philosophy, or rather with a critical response to the systematic, totalizing claims of philosophy; and on the other, with the study of literature and of language as the medium to which that critical response appealed'. This relationship between philosophy and literature is the explicit subject of at least two of the essays published here: that of Stephen Jarvis, who provides an extremely rigorous account of the importance of literature to Derrida's philosophy, a topic which in turn 'concerns the interrogation of the institution of the university'; and Geoffrey Bennington, who, reflecting precisely on what it is to be a university professor, privileges the frontier between literature and philosophy as a means of understanding what it means to 'profess' in an era which increasingly attempts to 'condemn thinking to mere scholarship, disciplines to mere disciplinarity, professing to a mere professionalism, and the University to a mere bureaucracy or management of established learning'. Still a third contribution, that of Graham MacPhee, locates itself very much in this frontier zone between literature and philosophy in its reposing of Benjamin's aesthetics to Derrida's raising of the question of 'university responsibility'; as does a fourth, which draws on the philosophy of Heidegger and Blanchot to make a spirited defence of the value of reading literature in a university system dominated more and more by economic imperatives. 'There should be more spaces for waste, for potential uselessness, for seeming nothingness', Diane Elam argues, 'because these are the very same spaces that create the possibility for thought'.

Yet as important as this line of questioning is - and more work of this kind is certainly needed if the discourse of league tables, 'teaching quality assessments', 'learning outcomes', 'transferable skills', 'student centred learning', 'problem solving' and 'working in teams' which is dominating so much of academia at the moment is to be challenged effectively - to confine the interrogation of the university to an exploration of the relationship between philosophy and literature would be to risk adhering too readily to established (inter)disciplinary paths; paths that have, to a certain degree, already been mapped out within the space of the contemporary institution. Consequently, as well as investigating the relation between philosophy and literature, this edition of the Culture Machine journal is also concerned to examine the relevance of the lesson that 'it is necessary to think the institution' of the university - a lesson learnt, as it is for Bill Readings in The University of Ruins, specifically from deconstruction (Readings, 1996: 219, n.19) - to a number of other disciplines, particularly in the humanities, but also elsewhere; disciplines to which thinking about the university perhaps does not come quite so easily.

Of these, cultural studies is granted a certain privilege here. For if at one time the task of understanding the university was allotted, in the UK at least, to English literature, and elsewhere to philosophy, the uncovering of the colonialist and nationalistic origins of English literature (see Elam, this issue) has led to literary studies being increasingly replaced as a means of thinking the university by cultural studies. One could therefore be forgiven for assuming that cultural studies has little to learn from deconstruction when it comes to the university. Cultural studies has for the most part, however, tended to address the question of the university by attempting to forge relations with social movements it sees as belonging to the 'real world' outside the university. Indeed, for many cultural studies practitioners, it is only by remaining beyond the institutionalising and disciplining effects of the university that cultural studies can have the sort of political impact on both the university and society it seeks. This is why the analysis of the current crisis in the idea of the university has been left predominantly to those such as Readings (1996) who are more closely associated with deconstruction. Such self-reflection tends to be regarded from a cultural studies view point as too naïvely elitist, too closely bound up with the very values of the university cultural studies is supposed to challenge. In fact deconstruction is often attacked by those working in cultural studies on precisely these grounds: for being too 'theoretical' and 'apolitical', and for overemphasising the inner workings of texts at the expense of the concrete, practical, historical materialities of everyday life. Witness Stuart Hall's complaints regarding the 'deconstructive' fluency of much of cultural studies in America, whereby power and politics are constituted 'as exclusively matters of language and textuality itself' (Hall, 1992: 286). From the perspective of cultural studies deconstruction is increasingly seen as merely a literary and textual exercise, the emphasis now being very much on moving away from 'theory' and 'back to reality', as Angela McRobbie puts it (McRobbie, 1997).

As Derrida makes clear in his essay on 'The Conflict of the Faculties', however:

what is hastily called deconstruction as such is never a technical set of discursive procedures, still less a new hermeneutic method operating on archives or utterances in the shelter of a given or stable institution; it is also, and at the least, the taking of a position, in the work itself, toward the politico-institutional structures that constitute and regulate our practice, our competences, and our performances. Precisely because deconstruction has never been concerned with the contents alone of meaning, it must not be separable from this politico-institutional problematic, and has to require a new questioning about responsibility, an inquiry that should no longer necessarily rely on codes inherited from politics or ethics. Which is why, though too political in the eyes of some, deconstruction can seem demobilizing in the eyes of those who recognise the political only with the help of prewar road signs. Deconstruction is limited neither to a methodological reform that would reassure the given organization, nor, inversely, to a parade of irresponsible or irresponsiblizing destruction, whose surest effect would be to leave everything as is, consolidating the most immobile forces of the university. (Derrida, 1992: 22/23)

What Derrida means by this is that, far from an apolitical textualism, deconstruction is both a theoretical reversal and displacement of some of Western thought's major hierarchical oppositions and a grappling with specific political and institutional structures. A number of the contributors to this edition thus offer much needed correctives (at times implicitly, at others quite explicitly) to some of the misconceptions regarding deconstruction currently being propagated within cultural studies. Not least among these is Jacques Derrida himself who, in the interview included here, emphasises how in many of his published texts he engages with questions which even those capable of identifying the political 'only with the help of prewar road signs' would recognise: questions concerning political resistance, the intellectual, Marxism, democracy, social justice, the 'International', etc. But as Derrida has also maintained on numerous other occasions, if deconstruction is not a set of theoretical or textual exercises that simply turns 'reality' into a book, neither is it limited to practices and procedures 'inherited from politics'. Rather, deconstruction is both a reflection on the political and at the same time a rethinking of the political: of what the political is and of what it is to be political. Stephen Jarvis thus shows how the very 'literariness' of many of Derrida's texts constitutes an actual performative engagement with the institution of the university. He quotes Derrida to the effect that: 'What is intolerable to the institution of the University is a tampering with the form rather than the content of language: "It can bear more readily the most apparently revolutionary ideological sorts of 'content', if only that content does not touch on the borders of language . . . and of all the juridico-political contracts that it guarantees" (Derrida, 1979: 95). Meanwhile J. Hillis Miller, in his reply to the 'thirty-three terrifying "interview questions"' posed to him by Wang Fengzhen and Shaobo Xie, draws attention to the way in which, by confining their 'terminology and conceptual apparatus' to that 'one piece of the field' enclosed by cultural studies, rather than the 'whole expanse, in current thinking about these topics', his interviewers risk limiting the answers he might give to their questions. Responding to Wang Fengzhen and Shaobo Xie's emphasis on the work of Fredric Jameson, Terry Eagleton, Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Gramsci and Althusser, Miller raises the names of Derrida, Lyotard, Deleuze and Guattari, Judith Butler, Bill Readings, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, among others. In doing so, he makes it clear that while the majority of the Marxist thinkers routinely privileged in cultural studies discourses are 'like me, into capitalism up to their necks, since they are paid and given the privilege of carrying on their research by universities that are increasingly supported in one way or another by transnational corporations', 'not all thinkers who are not explicitly Marxists are necessarily reactionary or "capitalist tools"'.

Situated productively, then, on the problematic frontier between cultural studies and cultural theory, this edition of Culture Machine constitutes a modest, partial and preliminary attempt to rethink cultural studies' relation to both deconstruction and the university. Witness Henry A. Giroux's use of the concept of difference to reconfigure the strategic pedagogic and political role academics play in their classrooms, and Ted Striphas' investigation of the institutionalization of cultural studies against the backdrop of changes taking place in the book publishing industry. Giroux's long-standing interest in linking the political and the pedagogical and Striphas' editing of a recent issue of Cultural Studies on The Institutionalisation of Cultural Studies notwithstanding (Striphas, 1998), such politico-institutional practices and procedures have too often been left unexamined within cultural studies, for all the many discussions that have taken place over the question of its institutionalisation.

But if this issue of Culture Machine is concerned with exploring the relevance to cultural studies of the lesson that it is necessary to think the institution (a thinking which necessarily involves interrogating the limits of culture and of cultural studies), this is not to imply cultural studies has up until now been somehow unaffected by deconstruction, and that it can be set up in some sort of oppositional relationship to literary studies in this respect. Quite the contrary, as the comment from Hall quoted earlier testifies. Nor is it to suggest that deconstruction is without problems of its own when it comes to thinking the university. One of the ironies of contemporary cultural theory is that, in order to be taken seriously by the academy, many recent 'deconstructive' accounts of the 'crisis' in the idea of the modern university have adopted a number of the characteristics - usefulness, assessability, publishability, marketability, accountability, accreditablity, disciplinarity, inter-disciplinarity, excellence, etc. - they have sought to place in question. And in a way the present activities of Culture Machine are no exception to this, since there is obviously a certain amount of academic credit to be gained from producing an issue of Culture Machine on the subject of the 'University'. Nevertheless, as the editors of The Oxford Literary Review 'special edition' on The University in Ruins observe, '[t]o try out ways of negotiating or alleviating this structural or institutionalised double-mindedness may be the best way forward for rethinking the university' (Clark & Royle, 1995: 11/12).

In an attempt at one such negotiation, as well as examining the idea of the university, The University Culture Machine also includes a number of 'experimental' texts which challenge some of the specific politico-institutional contexts in which such an examination takes place. In other words, while complementing and adding to the range of 'theoretical' work already available on the university, contributors to this edition also investigate ways of rethinking the academic institution which produce what Derrida and Stiegler have termed, in a different but related context, a 'practical deconstruction' (Derrida & Stiegler, 1996: 45). Included among these experiments are Simon Wortham's provocative analysis of the assumptions and relations underpinning the UK's Research Assessment Exercise, and David Kolb's use of digital hyper-text to explore possibilities for the presentation and publication of academic research that are not confined to a mere reproduction of print-based aesthetics. However, experiments with the political and institutional structures of the university are limited here neither to those with an explicit interest in deconstruction, nor cultural studies, nor even the humanities. Instead, as the exchange between Stevan Harnad, Hal Varian and Bob Parks over the future of academic publishing in the online era bears witness, texts and contributors have been brought together from a variety of fields in the arts and humanities, sciences and social sciences in order that they be, in Geoffrey Bennington's words, 'rigorously - politically - exposed at their frontiers to the risk of skirmishes, invasions, violence, change, and death, with no horizon of quiescent "knowledge" in view'. And this points to a further way in which this edition of Culture Machine might be said to contribute to a rethinking of the university: by refusing to be confined to disciplines, or disciplinarity, or even by a normative notion of interdisciplinarity in which, as Bennington puts it, 'established disciplines, firm within their frontiers . . . have dialogues or debates'. For as Samuel Weber argues in his contribution to this collection, if the humanities are to have a future at all in a world progressively dominated by an economic logic of profit and loss, it must consist in an experimental opening toward heterogeneity, an opening which can never be conclusive or contained.

An active, performative intervention into the space and functioning of the contemporary university, then, which, like deconstruction itself, is not 'limited to concepts, to thought content, or to discourses' (Derrida, 1995: 28), The University Culture Machine explores new areas of academic inquiry and new ways of presenting and publishing research. As such, it can itself perhaps be considered one such experimental opening toward heterogeneity; an opening which acts as a space or place which puts the idea of the university to the test both 'theoretically' and 'politically', at the same time as challenging any simple distinction between the two.


Clark, C & Royle, N. (1995) 'Editorial Audit', The Oxford Literary Review 17: 3-13.

Derrida, J. & Stiegler, B. (1996) Échographies de la télévsion: Entretiens filmes. Paris: Galilée-INA.

Derrida, J. (1979) 'Living On: Border Lines', pp.75-176 in H. Bloom et al (eds), Deconstruction and Criticism. New York: Continuum.

Derrida, J. (1985) 'Otobiographies: The Teaching of Nietzsche and the Politics of the Proper Name', The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation. New York: Schoken Books

Derrida, J. (1992) 'Mochlos; or, The Conflict of the Faculties', pp.1-34 in R. Rand (ed.) Logomachia: The Conflict of the Faculties. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.

Derrida, J. (1995)Points. . . Interviews, 1974-1994. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Hall, S. (1992) 'The Theoretical Legacies of Cultural Studies', pp.277-294 in L. Grossberg et al, (eds), Cultural Studies. New York and London: Routledge.

McRobbie, A. (ed.) (1997) Back to Reality? Social Experience and Cultural Studies. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Readings, B. (1996) The University in Ruins. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press.

Striphas, T. (ed.) (1998) Cultural Studies, 12(4).