Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Somewhat ironic in light of previous post: what happened to Derrida's posthumous legacy in the United States

This piece just in from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Very sad, a battle over intellectual property rights waged over the body of a dead philosopher, by a university against a widow and her 3 children, also involving a case of alleged sexual misconduct by an academic against a student.
Archive Fever
The battle over Jacques Derrida's papers began even before the philosopher died. It ended in victory for his family — and a black eye for the University of California at Irvine.

In his final interview, given to the French newspaper Le Monde in the spring of 2004, Jacques Derrida spoke of death and writing: "I leave a piece of paper behind, I go away, I die: It is impossible to escape this structure, it is the unchanging form of my life." He worried that everything he wrote would simply disappear after he was gone.
"Who is going to inherit, and how?" he wondered. "Will there even be any heirs?"
It was a strange anxiety for a man whose role as a pioneer of literary theory brought him international fame. Best known as the father of deconstruction, a playfully aggressive method of analyzing texts, Derrida was also keenly interested in what people leave behind, and how it is stored and remembered. He even devoted one of his many books — Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, published in 1996 — to the subject.
And the philosopher himself left behind a lot. Along with his intellectual legacy, a voluminous paper trail of Derrida's thought remains. Most of those papers — 116 boxes and 10 oversized folders taking up 47.8 linear feet — are housed at the University of California at Irvine. Derrida, who held a professorship at Irvine, had, more than a decade before his death in 2004, chosen the university's library as the final resting place for his manuscripts. But there are more papers that remain in the office and attic of his house outside Paris, including his later writings, letters to colleagues, books from his personal library, and so on.
Last fall the university sued Derrida's widow and his children after they refused to turn over the remainder of his papers. It was a startling move, considering the almost casual way in which the deal was struck: Neither Derrida's initial gift of his papers to Irvine, nor an amended version of it, was witnessed by a lawyer or notary public. The dispute between Derrida's heirs and the university had gone on in secret for more than two years. The lawsuit brought it into the open and, at the same time, infuriated scholars who were close to him.
It was a decision that may have ended up doing more damage to the university than did the loss of Derrida's remaining papers. While decades of his thought have been exhaustively documented, what exactly he intended to give to the university remains unclear. That has left the heirs he longed for to squabble over larger questions about the nature of archives — and the slipperiness of language — that Derrida himself might have pondered.
The Last Days
Avital Ronell, an old friend, remembers the call from the hospital. Sometime in 2003, Derrida had traveled back to Paris from California to be with his wife, Marguerite, who had been ill. While he was talking to her doctor, he mentioned having stomach pains. Derrida had always been remarkably healthy, the kind of person who never got sick. He mentioned once in an interview that he felt stronger in his 70s than he had in his 20s. "As long as you're here, let's examine you," the doctor said.
What the doctor found was troubling. More tests were done. When Derrida called Ms. Ronell, he had just been given the results. He had pancreatic cancer, which often spreads widely before it is detected. The diagnosis would turn out to be a death sentence.
"He called me the minute he got out of the doctor's office," she says. "And I freaked out, of course."
Ms. Ronell had known Derrida for a quarter-century. They met when she was in her twenties, a budding scholar — "a nobody," as she puts it. At that first meeting, Ms. Ronell, a former performance artist with a youthful dramatic flair, told him her name was "Metaphysics," an introduction so odd and memorable that Derrida later wrote about it in one of his many books. Ms. Ronell is now a professor of German, English, and comparative literature at New York University and a respected scholar in her own right.
At times in the last few months of Derrida's life, Ms. Ronell stayed with him and his wife in their modest home in Ris-Orangis, just outside Paris. She became something of a surrogate daughter to Derrida, or, in her words, "a pet." She tried to bolster his spirits when, inevitably, he became depressed. Though Derrida said he believed in Plato's dictum that to philosophize is to learn how to die, he acknowledged in interviews that he was filled with terror at the thought of his demise.
Serving as Derrida's live-in therapist was not always easy or pleasant. At times Derrida, wracked with pain, embraced help and encouragement. Other times he spurned and mocked it. Ms. Ronell would massage him, and tried to convince him to hire a professional masseur, but he refused. "He didn't want a stranger to touch him," she says. In the end, though, she was impressed by his resilience and with how, for instance, he was willing to learn meditation from her. "You know," he once joked, "my notion of meditation is Descartes."
Ms. Ronell would spend a couple of hours a day meditating with him, trying to soothe him. One day she remembers he woke up numb and panicked. Not sure what to do, she suggested that she brush him. "I didn't even know what I meant," she says.
Derrida, perhaps not knowing what she meant either, agreed. She went upstairs, found one of his wife's hairbrushes, and brushed him until the feeling returned to his body.
The Request
Derrida never seemed like an old man. For proof, watch the 2002 documentary Derrida. The silver-haired leading man strides confidently across the street. He engages in verbal parry and thrust with interviewers. He is combative, funny, mischievous, unpredictable. Writers and academics often appear diminished on-screen, but Derrida seemed like he belonged there.
His vitality may have been why, up until the end, it was hard for those around him to believe that he might actually die. "We thought he was superhuman," Ms. Ronell says.
Early on Derrida had tried to keep the news of his illness private. But word spread nonetheless, and soon letters and packages began to arrive at his home. From fans and friends he received vitamins and powders, along with books and brochures on alternative medicine. Old colleagues and even longtime opponents wrote well-meaning missives.
"People sent letters saying how important he had been to them," Ms. Ronell says. "Or he would get a letter saying ‘I've hated you my whole life, but now that you're gone, I want you to know how much you've meant to me.'"
The tense was what hurt. You were important to me. It was like finding your obituary in the mailbox. Derrida, despite his trademark bluster, his pugnacity, the cool, clean mechanism of his mind, was sensitive, deeply so, to the opinions of others. "People seemed in a hurry to get rid of him," Ms. Ronell says. "They were ahead of themselves."
Along with the premature eulogies came requests. He was asked, for instance, to make a public statement on gay marriage. (He thought it should be permitted, though he also thought the state should stop sanctioning marriage altogether.)
He was approached for help on less weighty issues, like writing letters of recommendation, or refereeing minor disputes between colleagues. He was generous with his time, even as that time dwindled, and that generosity, Ms. Ronell felt, was frequently abused. "I thought people were being selfish," she says.
One of those who came to Derrida for help was Dragan Kujundzic, an associate professor of English at Irvine. They were colleagues and friends, though exactly how close is a matter of debate. One former colleague describes Mr. Kujundzic as a hanger-on, someone who was on the periphery of Derrida's circle. Another describes him as a "very good friend."
Whatever the case, Mr. Kujundzic found himself accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a graduate student, a dilemma that looked as if it might short-circuit his promising career. He needed help. So he came to Derrida. In so doing, he set in motion a series of events that would permanently damage Derrida's relationship with Irvine.
The Affair
The story, as told in a legal complaint, is of a brief, pathetic affair between a married professor and an admittedly vulnerable and confused graduate student.
It was September of 2003, the beginning of the fall semester. At a graduate-student orientation, Lisa Anderson, who planned to study Russian literature, chatted with Mr. Kujundzic, director of the Russian-studies program. He was to be her graduate adviser. After talking for a few minutes, according to the complaint, the professor and the graduate student left the reception together. Ms. Anderson believed they were going to a restaurant, to talk about her academic plans.
Instead they went to his apartment. Mr. Kujundzic invited her inside to show her "pictures of Moscow." The two drank several glasses of wine. Several glasses became three bottles. At one point Mr. Kujundzic commented on her short hair. Ms. Anderson, who is epileptic, told him she had brain surgery earlier that year to remove a tumor. She later argued in her lawsuit that her medical condition made her more vulnerable to the professor's advances.
They watched television together. Mr. Kujundzic told her that he was responsible for her admission to the university, that he could help her academic career. He stroked her hair, told her she was beautiful. He kissed her.
She asked if he was married. No, he said. A lie.
What follows in Ms. Anderson's complaint is a detailed account of their first tryst. They met several more times — including once at Ms. Anderson's invitation. She then broke off the relationship, telling Mr. Kujundzic in an e-mail message that "you never should have taken such an aggressive approach to beginning sexual relations with a student who is in the awkward position of ‘advisee'; you can only imagine how nervous/illogical/frightened such a situation can make one."
Mr. Kujundzic declined to be interviewed for this article, referring questions to his lawyer, who denied much of Ms. Anderson's account. Through his lawyer, Mr. Kujundzic contends that it was Ms. Anderson's idea to go back to his apartment, that she pursued him, and that he was honest — from the beginning — about his marital status. His lawyer even says that it was Mr. Kujundzic, not Ms. Anderson, who ended the affair.
Nearly two months later, Ms. Anderson filed a complaint against Mr. Kujundzic with the university's Office of Equal Opportunity, which after an investigation concluded that Mr. Kujundzic did not sexually harass Ms. Anderson. However, the university did find that Mr. Kujundzic had violated a recently enacted policy on consensual relationships between professors and students.
That policy states that it is unacceptable to enter into a "romantic or sexual relationship with any student for whom a faculty member has, or should reasonably expect to have in the future, academic responsibility." At the time of the relationship, Mr. Kujundzic was Ms. Anderson's adviser. Among the possible disciplinary actions was dismissal.
The Letter
In July 2004, Derrida sent a letter to Ralph J. Cicerone, then the chancellor at Irvine. In it he writes that he feels "great surprise, worry, and indignation" upon hearing of the allegations against Mr. Kujundzic. While he approves of injunctions against sexual harassment, he writes, those same rules "can give rise to applications that are abusive, capricious, or even perverse and deceitful."
Derrida admits in the letter that he does not have access to the "confidential file" and so is in no position to judge the merits of the case. He also states that his knowledge of what happened came exclusively from his colleagues, including Mr. Kujundzic.
Despite that acknowledgment, Derrida appears to have arrived at a firm conclusion. He calls the allegations made by the graduate student "unfair" and "in bad faith." He asserts that "there has been neither coercion or violence brought to bear on her." When referring to Ms. Anderson, he puts the word "innocence" in quotation marks and points out that she is in her mid-20s.
Derrida argues that his friend is "absolutely incapable of using or abusing his power with students." He also includes a long paragraph listing Mr. Kujundzic's scholarly accomplishments and attempts to elicit sympathy by revealing that the professor experienced "dramatic weight loss, depression, and so forth" as a result of the accusations.
The letter ends with a threat. If the case against his friend is not "interrupted or canceled," then Derrida will end "all my relations" with the university.
This includes, presumably, his promise to donate the rest of his papers to Irvine.
But because the "deed of gift" Derrida signed in 1990 and amended in 1996 does not spell out what, precisely, he intended to give to the university, it's unclear what he intends to withhold. He also threatens to restrict access to the papers that are in Irvine's possession, stating that his authorization is required for researchers who wish to use the archive. "This authorization would become increasingly selective and infrequent," he writes.
Here Derrida may be misremembering his agreement with Irvine. The original deed of gift, signed in 1990, states that "Professor Derrida may restrict access to specific portions of the Archive." However, a 1996 addendum to that deed, signed by Derrida, says that he wishes to make all materials available "without restriction according to the Library's established procedures." He does reserve the right to approve requests for any reproduction of his papers (a right now in the hands of Marguerite Derrida). The addendum also states that his donation does not include the copyright to his works.
Derrida's letter to the chancellor preceded a decision on Mr. Kujundzic's case. Mr. Cicerone did respond to the letter, though his response has not been made public. Derrida, in a subsequent letter to another university official, described the chancellor's response as "polite, predictable, and remarkably neutral."
The former chancellor remembers Derrida's letter well. Mr. Cicerone, who is now president of the National Academy of Sciences, says that at the time he received the letter, a faculty committee was reviewing the case. While he didn't know Derrida well, the two men had met on several occasions. "It's fairly unusual for a European scholar of his stature to have any affiliation with a university on the West Coast," says Mr. Cicerone. Consequently that affiliation was "very prized."
Mr. Cicerone says he wrote to Derrida that there was still an opportunity for input and that he should get in touch with the faculty committee. "His letter came as a surprise to me," Mr. Cicerone recalls. "My most powerful sense is that he didn't have all the information. That's not a criticism of him, but he had only heard one side of the story."
The Loyalist
Why would Derrida entangle himself in such a dispute, even going so far as to put the final disposition of his papers on the table? He was ill and aware that he might not have much time left. The conflict didn't affect him directly. Why get involved at all?
The answer may lie in Derrida's strong belief in loyalty. In interviews with friends, this belief comes up again and again. Derrida both demanded and extended loyalty. That was particularly true when it came to the group of scholars who were closest to him, those who translated his work, those whose own scholarship followed the trail he had blazed. Often, especially in the early days, deconstructionists suffered in the academic world, failing to get certain jobs or receive tenure. Feeling like academe's black sheep, they became fiercely loyal to one another.
"There was a gang, a family — I don't know the right word," says Thomas Keenan, an associate professor of comparative literature at Bard College and a member of the gang. "Derrida was a very loyal person, and loyalty was definitely something he valued."
Mr. Keenan made trips to Derrida's home in France in the late 1980s to organize and catalog his archives. He says Derrida expressed a desire to "unload his papers into a safe, institutional place."
Mr. Kujundzic, according to Mr. Keenan, was a genuine friend and a "person willing to work hard on behalf" of the philosopher. "Derrida wouldn't have written that letter for some schmo," Mr. Keenan says. "Dragan had emerged as a kind of leader of the deconstructionist wing."
Ms. Ronell remembers Mr. Kujundzic approaching Derrida for assistance. Mr. Kujundzic was "someone who Derrida did cherish," she says, but the appeal to him did not sit well with her. "This guy had nothing better to do than to ask Jacques for help," she says.
Still, Derrida's sensitivity to injustice kicked in immediately. "Derrida was incensed that anyone would be put through that sort of torment," she says. "He responded in a way he thought would be efficacious."
Several members of Derrida's circle did not want to talk on the record about the controversy. Some see the philosopher's stance as noble and consistent with his championing of the individual against the institution. Others see it as misguided. Peter O. Krapp, an associate professor of film and media studies at Irvine, first posted news of the lawsuit on his blog. Mr. Krapp studied with Derrida and runs a comprehensive Web bibliography of his work. "After reading Derrida's letter," Mr. Krapp wrote in an e-mail message, "I find it troubling that he thought intervening so forcefully in a personnel decision was worthy of putting his legacy at UCI on the line."
The Value
What, it's worth asking, is the Derrida archive actually worth? Peggy Kamuf says its value is inestimable. Ms. Kamuf, a professor of French and comparative literature at the University of Southern California, worked closely with Derrida, translating his work and editing several of his collections. The archive contains thousands of unpublished pages of seminars, which Derrida wrote beforehand in near-publishable form. They are not notes and scribbles, but fully realized arguments. The first volume of the seminars is scheduled to be published next year in France, with English editions to follow. (The University of Chicago Press is close to signing a deal.)
The very presence of such archives confers prestige. In academe such prestige is not trivial, or easy to quantify. In 2002 the University of California at Los Angeles purchased the archives of Susan Sontag for $1.1-million. That deal included Sontag's correspondence and her 20,000-book personal archive. Why were her papers and books worth so much? Certainly part of the reason is that now the two entities — Susan Sontag and UCLA — are forever linked.
What Derrida gave Irvine was, in a sense, part of himself. He was buried in a cemetery near his home in France, but his work would be buried at Irvine. That would be a place where scholars could come to pay their respects. The papers would also help bring in other donations to Irvine's library.
Derrida's letter was a sign that he was willing to withdraw the valuable prestige that his presence at the university conferred, depending on the outcome of a personnel matter that had nothing to do with him.
The Murk
Before Derrida died, a settlement was reached between Mr. Kujundzic and the university. Mr. Kujundzic's salary was reduced, and he was banned from the campus for two quarters without pay. He was not fired, as some thought he might be.
Derrida saw that outcome as unacceptable.
J. Hillis Miller, a longtime friend and fellow deconstructionist (at Irvine, they had lunch together once a week) whose own stature in the world of literary theory is considerable, spoke to Derrida a month before his death. As Mr. Miller describes it later, Derrida was outraged by the punishment.
Mr. Miller, who is still at Irvine, called the chancellor, Mr. Cicerone, to express his and Derrida's anger over the handling of the case, and also to impress upon him the importance of the Derrida archive. This was October 2004, and Derrida was in the hospital. At first Mr. Miller thought he should wait until his friend was back home before telling him about the conversation. But he changed his mind and decided to call him at the hospital.
They never spoke. He called the night Derrida died.
It's unclear to Mr. Miller what Derrida would have wanted with regard to his archive. The letter said he would abide by his contract, but not go beyond it. "What he meant by that, I'm not sure," Mr. Miller says.
The Struggle
Within weeks of Derrida's death, according to Ms. Ronell, his widow (who declined to speak to The Chronicle) received a letter from the university, inquiring about the remainder of the archive. Marguerite Derrida made it plain to university officials that Irvine would receive no more papers. That was, she believed, her husband's wish, and she would abide by it.
More letters were exchanged between the university and Ms. Derrida. She held firm. No papers. No books. Nothing.
Then, in November of last year, Ms. Derrida, a psychoanalyst, returned from a session with a patient to find a uniformed official standing at her door. (That is how legal papers are served in France.)
Irvine had upped the ante, filing a lawsuit in California against Ms. Derrida and her two sons. The lawsuit also named a third son, whom Derrida had fathered with another woman. The inclusion of this third son seemed, to those who were close to Derrida, to be either a callous legal maneuver or a deliberate low blow.
The stress on Ms. Derrida, according to friends, was real. There were sleepless nights. She became ill. The prospect of spending thousands of dollars on lawyers, traveling to California, the trouble it might cause for her sons, was more than worrisome. Derrida's fame had not translated into wealth for his family. He did not often insist on speaking fees, or even travel reimbursements. He didn't like to talk about money. And he did not make much of it.
Who at Irvine actually made the decision to sue Derrida's widow is not clear. Jackie Dooley, head of special collections and archives, declined a request for an interview. Lorelei Tanji, assistant librarian for collections, would only discuss the Derrida archive in general — not the dispute. For a lawsuit to be filed by the university, however, it must first be approved at the very top — by its chancellor, Michael V. Drake, and by the university's regents.
The lawsuit claimed that the university had spent $500,000 cataloging Derrida's papers, a figure several people close to him say was exaggerated. But Richard W. Oram, associate director and head librarian for the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, says it's easy for a library to run up such costs working on an archive. And the value was more than monetary. Mr. Oram calls Derrida's papers the cornerstone of Irvine's critical-theory archive.
The problem with the agreement Irvine had with Derrida, according to Mr. Oram, was its ambiguity. "This was more than a handshake, but it was somewhat vague," he says.
Regardless of who made the decision to sue, it was made with no consultation of faculty members at Irvine or elsewhere. Several of the scholars in Derrida's circle remain close to Ms. Derrida, and it was through her that they learned that a lawsuit had been filed.
Professors called and e-mailed each other, their messages tinged with disbelief. "We all sat around saying ‘No, it can't be,' " says David Carroll, a professor of French at Irvine and longtime friend of the Derridas. "But unfortunately it was."
Ms. Ronell calls the suit an "act of aggression." Many, like Mr. Miller, wish the university had tried to resolve the dispute without resorting to legal action. "If they had asked me, I would have talked to" Ms. Derrida, he says.
Mr. Carroll and others say the university should have known the lawsuit would alienate scholars who knew and respected Derrida, some of whom have plans to donate their papers to the university. (The archive already has a substantial number of Mr. Miller's papers.) And what would potential donors unaffiliated with Derrida think when they heard the news? Would they worry about their families being sued, too? "It was a constant refrain: Even if you win, you lose," says Mr. Carroll. "Look what you've done! Why would anyone want to donate anything to the UCI archive now?"
Mr. Carroll called Ms. Derrida to let her know that "people here were appalled and were doing what we could." He and fellow faculty members met with administrators to voice their concern. According to Mr. Carroll, administrators seemed to realize quickly that the lawsuit was a blunder and began discussing how best to extricate the university from a public-relations mess.
In February, The Chronicle reported the news of the lawsuit (following Mr. Krapp's blog post). Two weeks later, the university announced that it planned to drop the lawsuit. But the complaint wasn't actually withdrawn until May — a delay that the university attributed to Ms. Derrida. According to the university, she wanted to keep the lawsuit "on file" while the negotiations continued. Her lawyer says that's not true. "We asked that they withdraw as they said to the press," says Agnes Tricoire, in an e-mail message, "but they did not."
The only imperative, according to Ms. Tricoire, was to abide by Derrida's wishes. That was all that mattered and, to Ms. Derrida, it was nonnegotiable. What best expressed those wishes, Ms. Derrida believed, was Derrida's letter to the chancellor. "This letter has never been contested," says Ms. Tricoire, who specializes in intellectual property and who has represented other well-known writers. "The heirs must do what the person who died wanted them to do."
Besides, says Ms. Tricoire, the deed of gift that Derrida signed with Irvine was invalid. Under French law, such deeds must also be signed by an official witness, a notary. Neither the 1990 deed or the amended 1996 version had such a witness. Nor did the man who was famous for arguing that the meaning of words is unstable ever explain precisely what was meant by "archive."
There have been suggestions that Mr. Derrida spoke with library officials in more detail about his plans for the archive, but those conversations are not reflected in the written agreement.
Ms. Tricoire says the lawsuit was meant as a bullying tactic, an attempt to cow the Derrida family into submission. The university believed, she argues, that the Derridas would back down as soon as it went to the courts. "They thought we would be impressed if they sued us in California," Ms. Tricoire says. "We were not impressed."
Irvine's lawyers declined to comment.
In May, after months of bad publicity and protests from its professors, the university did drop the lawsuit. The settlement stipulated that no more papers would be transferred to Irvine. The remainder of the archive would go to the Institute of Contemporary Publishing Archives, located near the city of Caen in northwestern France. In addition, the university agreed to pay more than $16,000 to the Derrida family to cover their legal expenses.
The Questions
What had Derrida intended to give? What, for that matter, did Irvine want?
This was a question that, according to Ms. Ronell, was troubling for Marguerite Derrida. "Do they want his personal library? Do they want his pencils and erasers? His computer? His clothes?" says Ms. Ronell, echoing Ms. Derrida's anxiety.
Those are questions that Derrida himself might have found interesting. What did he leave of value? The heart of the archive is his seminars. There were notes, too, and book manuscripts. The lawsuit filed by Irvine asked for letters having to do with his American scholarship. Who would decide which letters would go to Irvine? It also asked for books from his personal library. Which books did Irvine want? If, for instance, one of his sons wanted a book, would it go to the son or to the university? Had Derrida ever intended to give these away? Were they part of his archive, too?
As for Mr. Kujundzic, whose own troubles set the case in motion, he left Irvine to become chairman of the German- and Slavic-studies department at the University of Florida. He was removed as chairman less than a year later because the department "was not functioning optimally under his leadership," according to a university spokesman. He remains a tenured professor there. Florida officials have said they were unaware at the time he was hired of the sexual-harassment charges made against him at Irvine.
Lisa Anderson, the graduate student who made the allegation against Mr. Kujundzic, has since left the University of California at Irvine.
So what would Derrida have made of all this?
Ms. Kamuf notes that Derrida wrote often about gifts and the trouble they cause, making the whole controversy over his donated archives more than a little ironic. She imagines him "smiling gently but knowingly from wherever he is."
Mr. Carroll, another longtime friend, doesn't imagine a smile on Derrida's face. After all, the university he came to love in the last chapter of his life sued his wife and children after he was gone.
"He would have felt betrayed," Mr. Carroll says. "He would have been furious."
http://chronicle.comSection: Research & PublishingVolume 53, Issue 46, Page A8

No comments: