Erin Graff Zivin, "Towards a Passive University"

Department: Comparative Literature

Date and Time: October 28, 2016 | 12:00 PM-2:00 PM

Event Location: HG 1341

Event Details

Towards a Passive University
Erin Graff Zivin, University of Southern California

In “Mochlos; or, The Conflict of the Faculties,” Jacques Derrida likens “the discourse of responsibility” in Immuanuel Kant’s 1798 Der Streit der Fakultäten to “a pure ethico-juridical agency, to pure practical reason, to a pure idea of the law, and correlatively to the decision of a pure egological subject, of a consciousness, of an intention that has to respond, in decidable terms, from and before the law.” Derrida is interested, by contrast, in imagining a responsible university as an institution within which interpretations of texts would be ventured not as decisions offered by an “egological subject” in “decidable terms,” but as readings that would guard the text’s undecidable qualities. Such decisions, such interpretations, would still be subject to an injunction (read me, translate me, inherit from me), and the interpreter, according to Derrida, should not be understood as “subjected passively to this injunction.”

Over a decade later, in Politiques de l’amitié, Derrida proposes the concept of passive decision as “the decision of the other-in-me,” a strikingly Levinasian idea that brings together decision and undecidability as necessarily bound. Here, what at first seemed to be a “pure egological subject”—a subject that decides and, in doing so, obeys the law—is now seen to be a subject haunted by an other that decides in, and for, her. The autonomous subject’s obedience to the Kantian moral law can now be read somewhat differently, as emanating from the “alterity of the other” (Nancy), as Gabriela Basterra argues in her recent book The Subject of Freedom. If (as Basterra suggests) Kant’s moral law is not entirely dissimilar, formally speaking, from the command of Levinas’s other, if we can no longer keep separate the Kantian autonomous subject and Levinas’s ethical (heteronomous) subject, what implications does passivity—and the related concept of exposure—have for reading, interpreting, thinking in the university within which we dwell today? Are we, in the “lower” faculty, free to read, to think? Have we exhausted responsibility?
Erin Graff Zivin is professor of Spanish and comparative literature at the University of Southern California.  She is author of The Wandering Signifier: Rhetoric of Jewishness in the Latin American Imaginary (Duke University Press, 2008) and the editor of The Ethics of Latin American Literary Criticism: Reading Otherwise (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).  Her most recent book, Figurative Inquisitions: Conversion, Torture, and Truth in the Luso-Hispanic Atlantic (Northwestern University Press, 2014), was awarded the 2015 prize for best book by the Latin American Jewish Studies Association, and her forthcoming edited volume, The Marrano Spirit: Derrida and Hispanism, will be published by Fordham University Press next year. Currently, she is finishing a book on Aesthetics, Ethics, and Politics in a Post-Literary Latin America.

About the University & State Research Cluster:
Emerging from a grad-initiated reading group on “The idea of the university and its histories”, this research cluster attempts to push questions about the university as an institution, as an idea, as a model and symptom of various iterations of the state, and as rhizomatic histories of institutions and ideas, spanning geographic and intellectual traditions but never in simple or obvious ways, that ought to be engaged as such. Although in part provoked by rhetoric of crisis, the group aims to excavate existing discussion that privileges consideration of the relation between the university and the state and to further this line of inquiry through guest lectures, collective reading and writing, and by highlighting work across the UC system that emboldens theoretical exploration, especially in conjunction with efforts to interrogate the history, legacy, and politics of public institutions around the globe.