1. I wish to thank J. Jennifer Jones for conceiving this volume of Romantic Praxis and to thank Cathy Caruth and Brian McGrath for their comments on an earlier draft of this essay. I also wish to acknowledge a debt to Jan Plug’s editorial apparatus to the two volume translation of Du Droit à la Philosophie. The translation appears as Who’s Afraid of Philosophy: Right to Philosophy I and Eyes of the University: Right to Philosophy II. I will refer to these volumes as Right I and Right II. Additionally, for purposes of clarity I refer to works by Derrida, Kant, and De Man by title (rather than date) or as follows: Derrida, The Truth in Painting as Truth and Acts of Religion as Acts; Kant, The Critique of Judgment as CJ and The Conflict of the Faculties as Conflict. For quotes from French or German, the page number always follows that of the English translation.
2. Offering a synoptic account of his writings between 1963 and 1968, Derrida notes that, “All of this was grouped together under the title of deconstruction, the graphics of différance, of the trace, the supplement and so forth…” (Right II 119, Derrida’s emphasis). One could write at length on Derrida’s different deployments of the word “deconstruction” throughout his work, especially as the word comes increasingly to refer to his work and its institutionalization within the academy. Cf. Kamuf, 9-10.
4. Following Derrida’s lead, commentators have correctly underlined the connections between his philosophical and institutional commitments. See, for example, the introduction to Wortham and, more recently, and in a different vein, Rajan. Rajan argues that “the writings on the university [. . .] are the culmination of an underground dialogue between Derrida and Foucault that marks deconstruction, in the broadly interdisciplinary and epistemic rather than literary mode I have outlined in my book Deconstruction and the Remainders of Phenomenology (1-4, 23-33), as a large scale reorganization of knowledge” (134-135).
5. As Peggy Kamuf points out, “the university” is something of a fiction; one can only speak “as if there were one selfsame University, which is obviously an untenable confusion of a multifarious thing with this single name” (3).
7. From a certain perspective, Kant also addresses a void ‘within’ reason or, rather, a void that divides its operations: “The great gulf that separates the supersensible from appearances completely cuts off the domain of the concept of nature under the one legislation, and the domain of the concept of freedom under the other legislation from any influence that each (according to its own basic laws) might have had on the other” (35). The Critique of Judgment aims to “to throw a bridge from one domain to another” (36). (Kant’s vocabulary of the “gulf” and “bridge” is taken up in Derrida’s discussion of the Cornell landscape discussed below.)
10. Derrida refers to Kant’s “General Comment on the Exposition of Aesthetic Reflective Judgments” (CJ 126). The translators of “Economimesis” use J. H. Bernard’s translation of The Critique of Judgment.
11. See, for example, De Man, “Phenomenality and Materiality in Kant” in De Man, Aesthetic Ideology (70-90) and Lyotard “Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?” in Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (71-82). In a recent essay, addressing related issues, Ian Balfour shows how psychological appropriations of Kantian “subjectivity” fundamentally misread it. He suggests that “subjecticity” may be a more useful way to refer to the “order of the subject” in Kant (and related romantic texts) as the word “subjectivity” increasingly comes “with the considerable baggage of psychologism” (“Subjecticity” 1).
12. In addition to the normativity of the sublime, Derrida may be uneasy with its “univerticality,” a term I take from Chris Fynsk. Fynsk writes that Derrida poses “a challenge to the entire ‘univertical’ ordering of knowledge in the space of the universitas [which] obliges philosophy (or the thought that would succeed it) to entertain an open set of transversal relations with emergent forms of knowledge and their technical elaborations […] [W]e find a call for translation and transference – multiple passages (of thought) across institutional boundaries and into entirely new problematics and institutional (or extrainstitutional) spaces” (26). Fynsk does not discuss the sublime here, but his remarks have a bearing on it as the sublime originally refers to height or hypsos (Longinus’s term): metaphorically speaking, it looks ‘down’ and ‘over.’
13. For a dissertation to be acceptable, its readers have to be able to recognize it as new. The unrecognizable – which is to say, the authentically new – does not pass muster, as Walter Benjamin, for one, discovered. Further on I discuss Derrida’s reflections on the rejection of Benjamin’s Habilitation thesis.
14. In Solitude and the Sublime, Frances Ferguson emphasizes Kant’s insistence “upon sublime aesthetic experience as the communication of intentionlessness” (4). Ferguson’s book takes issue with the deconstructive reading of Kant which informs my discussion here partly because of what she considers its “crypto-empiricism” (ix). She includes thoughtful though brief reflections on “Parergon” in her criticisms of deconstruction (20f., 78f., 92f.). Yet if one reads the “parergon” (as Ferguson does not) as a way of thinking the installation or formation of form that is itself neither empirical nor formal, then Derrida’s discussion may not be without affinities to her account of Kantian formalism as enabling “the deduction of possibilities not necessarily available to the senses” (23). Cf. Cheetham on the importance of the imposition of limits and borders in both The Critique of Judgment and “Parergon.”
16. Thomas Pfau suggests that the sublime is, at it were, inherently ironic, an affectation of affect, “essentially notional and figural” (43), that replaces the failure of authentic feeling with the “simulacrum of a feeling, ‘respect:’” “The content of sublime feeling is, if anything, a negative one – a feeling that should routinely occur suddenly fails to do so and, in response to that traumatic rupture, the subject ‘affects’ the notion of reason as a (quasi-) ‘feeling’ of its own ‘supersensible destination’” (41, 40). Therefore, “rationality constitutes itself as a self-authorizing and self-generating fantasy” (40).
17. The “ridiculous” or “lächerlich” desire to see the something beyond the bounds of sensibility may seem to prefigure aspects of Žižek’s account of the “ridiculous sublime.” In The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch’s Lost Highway, he describes how the literalization or actualization of fantasy works to undo its “spectral aura:” the postmodern femme fatale thwarts desire by granting it (11). But the “ridiculous sublime” specifically associated (in Žižek’s argument) with Lynch’s utterly serious stagings of “the most ridiculously pathetic scenes” (22) poses somewhat different problems than Kant’s fanaticism.
19. A number of critics have written about the rhetorical character of subreption. In Ian Balfour’s words, “it is an abuse of language, a catachresis, even to call any object sublime” (6). Gayatri Spivak describes subreption similarly as a “metalepsis” (11). She also shows that subreption remains normative for the sublime despite being in error: “Our access to morality is operated by rhetoric and clandestinity” (12). The one who falls outside of normativity altogether, foreclosed by sublimity (and subjectivity), is the “rohe” or raw man – that is the figure of the primitive non-European who cannot even mistake the sublime as an object, but is merely terrified by it (11ff.). Her reading confirms that subreption coheres with the order of the institution. On the Kantian sublime and presentation cf. Jean-Luc Nancy, “The Sublime Offering,” especially 46-49.
20. Because the two ‘reflections’ differ, this “thinking” is not the infinite reflexivity that literary history traditionally associates with Jena romanticism. For a helpful discussion of Derrida and the problem of ‘bad infinity,’ that also addresses the charge that deconstruction is a “crypto-empiricism,” see Düttmann. (Cf. note 14 above.)
21. Derrida alludes to De Man’s reading of Stendhal in “The Rhetoric of Temporality” which describes Stendhal as “a full-fledged ironist as well as an allegorist [who] has to seal, so to speak, the ironic moments within the allegorical duration” (Blindness and Insight 227).
23. In De Man’s reading of the Kantian sublime, its narrative articulations are interrupted by “the prosaic materiality of the letter” (Aesthetic Ideology, 90) and the Kantian allegory of the faculties exists side by side with a “materiality of sublime vision [. . .] entirely devoid of teleological interference” (83; quoted out of order). In the context I am addressing here, Lytotard’s way of posing the issue resonates more clearly with Derrida’s and with Kant’s.
24. Cf. De Man’s account of the difficulty defining allegory in “Pascal’s Allegory of Persuasion” (1): “Allegory is sequential and narrative, yet the topic of its narration is not necessarily temporal at all, thus raising the question of the referential status of a text whose semantic function, though strongly in evidence, is not primarily determined by mimetic moments; more than ordinary modes of fiction, allegory is at the furthest possible remove from historiography.”
25. Cf. Dawn McCance’s book on Derrida and the university, Medusa’s Ear: University Foundings from Kant to Chora L. Drawing on the work of Lynn Enterline, McCance argues that the Medusa is an image of threatening deafness and muteness before which the university withdraws into its own petrification: “[…] the modern university is petrified. It needs to be shaken – solicited into movement – […]” (4). McCance does not address the sublime or the Pauline tradition of allegoresis (and does not seem concerned with the actual figuration of the Medusa in the texts she treats), but her larger argument intersects with mine. (For a reading of the Medusa as a relay for the Pauline tradition in Dante’s Inferno see Freccero 119-135.)
26. The OED defines a colossus as “a statue or image of the human form of large dimensions.” Citing Jean-Pierre Vernant, Derrida emphasizes that the word did not originally carry any reference to size (120).
29. On letter and spirit in Paul de Man, see my introduction to Romantic Returns (White 20ff.). Scholars debate the precise nature of Paul’s relation to the letter – to what degree he admits it into his system in a dialectic of letter and spirit and to what degree he rejects it altogether (see, for example, Boyarin 97-105). According to Cassirer, Kant experienced the pietistic sect within which he was raised as still too literal, a prototype for “the regulation and mechanization of religious life” (16) that he opposes.
31. Derrida points out that in Kant one cannot teach someone to be a philosopher anymore than one can teach someone to be an artist. One can only exemplify the philosophical project (Right II 60ff.). Christ, too, exemplifies.
Perhaps the most sublime passage in the Jewish Law is the commandment: thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven or on earth, or under the earth etc. This commandment can alone explain the enthusiasm that the Jewish people in its civilized era felt for its religion when it compared itself with other peoples, or can explain the pride that Islam inspires. The same holds also for our presentation of the moral law, and for the predisposition within us for morality. (CJ 135)
In “Parergon,” Derrida describes “a certain Judaism” as “the historical figure of sublime irruption” in Kant and Hegel (134).
35. Wortham offers a helpful discussion of this passage that reads it in conjunction with the figure of the flower and the anthology in Glas (Wortham 77ff., 84). Another passage in Glas that bears consideration in this context is its commentary on the “élève” (student), the “relève” (Derrida’s translation of Hegel’s Aufhebung) and the sequence of words associating the student with upbringing or height (élévation) (Glas 23). Cf. Truth which cites the “élève” of Glas in its discussion of the sublime (123).
36. The privilege of the vocable and the audible in the scene of teaching is also the burden of Derrida’s “Otobiographies” which addresses Nietzsche’s lectures “On the Future of Our Educational Institutions” (The Ear of the Other 3-38). Cf. McCance’s concern with the figure of the deaf and dumb Medusa as the abject “othered-body” from which the philosopher and the university recoil (4).
37. Derrida returns to the sublime teaching body in a discussion of Kant in “Vacant Chair: Censorship, Mastery, Magisteriality.” Kant’s philosopher teaches a discipline that (like the moral law and like art) cannot be taught. The resultant double bind absents the body:
It would be enough, if one might say so, to draw the institutional consequences from this. They result from this double bind that knots itself around the sublime body of the teacher of philosophizing, of his evident and unavoidable absence. For in his very withdrawal he remains unavoidable. He haunts the scene more than he dominates it; he dominates it, indeed, as would a phantom. One could say that he fascinates […] (Right II 62)
On the phantom or ghost in Derrida as it informs the institutions of “theory” and “romanticism,” see the recent essays by Simpson and Wang.
38. In “Towards a Critique of Violence” Benjamin addresses the risks of institution in the sphere of law (Benjamin 277-300; I have slightly modified the translation of the essay’s title.) Cf. my discussion of the Benjamin in White 2009.
39. In “Derrida’s ‘Eighteenth Century’” Geoffrey Bennington discusses Derrida’s response to the word “menace” in Foucault. Foucault refers to the “Malin Génie” as a “menace perpétuelle” to Descartes’ cogito (390). Bennington relates this perpetual menace to the nexus of reading and autoimmunity in Derrida’s later work: “this auto-immunity is just what I call reading, as what opens texts up always beyond their historical specificity to the always possibly menacing prospect of unpredictable future reading” (392).
It reveals in us at the same time an ability to judge ourselves independent of nature, and reveals in us a superiority over nature that is the basis of a self-preservation quite different in kind from the one that can be assailed and endangered by nature outside us. This keeps the humanity in our person from being degraded, even though a human being would have to succumb to that dominance [of nature]. Hence if in judging nature aesthetically we call it sublime, we do so not because nature arouses fear, but because it calls forth our strength (which does not belong to nature [within us]), to regard as small the [objects] of our [natural] concerns: property, health, and life, and because of this we regard nature’s might (to which we are indeed subjected in these [natural] concerns) as yet not having such dominance over us as persons, that we should have to bow to it if our highest principles were at stake and we had to choose between upholding or abandoning them.
43. As always, Derrida retains a certain distance from the traditional sublime, as if remaining wary of its normative or subjectivizing dimension. So, for example, in the metaphorical opening of “Vacant Chair: Censorship, Mastery, Magisteriality,” the mountain overhang or “ridgy steep” is, like Cornell’s abyss, seductive but misleading:
At this point we begin a second journey. No more so than the first will this one lead us toward an overhanging edge [quelque ligne surplombante] from which we could dominate the totality of an epoch or a historical territory. It will be a question of situating some significant points of reference in order to measure a displacement or the transformation of a problematic. This presupposes strategic choices and risks on our part. (Right II 43).
Despite the reserve towards the sublime, the text continues to urge risk – risk that is elsewhere signaled by the word “menace”.
44. On the role of anxiety and defensiveness in the constitution of the professions cf. Sam Weber “The Limits of Professionalism” which Derrida discusses briefly in “The Principle of Reason.” Cf., too, Weber, “The Vaulted Eye: Remarks on Knowledge and Professionalism” and “The Future of the University: The Cutting Edge.” These essays all appear in the expanded edition of Weber, Institution and Interpretation.
45. Terdiman’s partly sympathetic critique of Derrida’s later essay on the university, “The University Without Condition,” suggests that in this essay, at least, Derrida aspires to such an escape. I note here only that the later essay refers at crucial points to Derrida’s earlier writings on the university in a way that I think modifies its seemingly more utopian claims and that Terdiman does not address. I read the “without condition” as another invocation of the ironic instant that, sealed within the allegory of the institution, interrupts its duration but never simply or finally overturns it. Cf., too, Kamuf, 6: “deconstructive thought, as purveyed especially by the writings of Derrida [. . .] never took it upon itself to leave the university behind, move beyond it, or still less denounce it qua institution. Rather, as institution, the university is being thought here in its historicity as a stabilizable but essentially and necessarily unstable formation, open to a future, that is, to deconstruction.”
46. In several texts, Derrida remarks the relation of the promise to both the messianic and the menacing. See, for example, in “Marx and Sons,” the reference to the “threatening promise” that “organizes every speech act” and intersects with “the horizon of awaiting [attente] that informs our relationship to time – to the event, to that which happens [ce qui arrive], to the one who arrives [l’arrivant] and to the other” (251; translator’s brackets).
47. Cf. Derrida’s (perhaps playful) description of himself as he prepares for a lecture: “I feel like a hunted animal looking in darkness for a way out when none is to be found. Every exit is blocked.” (Right II 132). A fuller development of Derrida’s relation to paranoia would need to consider not only his writings on psycho-analysis but his writings on politics and auto-immunity.