Christopher Fynsk


Some years ago, almost exactly twenty, and well before the celebrated "Heidegger controversy," GŽrard Granel wrote an essay entitled, "A Call to all those having to do with the University (in order to prepare another)." I understood this highly playful, but also highly serious text, to be an extreme repetition, in a deconstructive mode, of Heidegger’s proposals in his infamous "Rectoral Address"—an uncompromising deconstruction of Heidegger, in other words, but also a reappropriation of some of the genuinely critical and transformative elements of his thinking. When the controversy then ensued, about a decade later, it seemed to me time to repeat the call in an essay on Granel and Heidegger entitled, "Suppose we were to take the Rectoral Address seriously ...: GŽrard Granel’s De l’universitŽ." It was, let us say, an untimely gesture on my part, and it passed largely without comment. As it turned out, the socalled controversy was no context for a serious discussion of Heidegger’s political engagements, let alone his ambitions for the University and his attempt to reverse what he termed the "technical organization of the faculties." Now, however—a decade later, and at a moment when even the President of Cornell University has been discussing with his Chairs from the Humanities a volume entitled The University in Ruins (a volume that would have prompted an "I told you so" from Heidegger)—I wonder if it is not time to return to Granel’s "Call." At least it is time for me to do so. Because, despite everything, despite the tightening grip of technocracy (to use a convenient shorthand) and the declining cultural authority of the University, I find the latter still my affair, and I still hear an unanswered provocation in Granel ’s attempt to recall the University to its historical responsibility, to what he calls the "free" part of knowledge and the existential need for thought.

This time, however, I have to drop the mask and interrupt the transmission. I can no longer assume the stance Granel borrowed, in his turn, from Nietzsche. Because it seems to me that it is necessary to ask today whether it is, in fact, still possible to look to the University as the privileged site for an engagement of the question of existence in its ethical and political dimensions, and whether such an assumption is not burdened with a legacy of metaphysical thinking that has to be left behind. I suspect, in fact, that a great deal of the very best thinking about the cultural role of the University (including Granel’s) perpetuates this assumption about the University by means of a notion of critique whose effectiveness has reached its historical limits. If the University is to remain our affair, then some fundamental assumptions have to be reexamined, and new paths have to be found. I’ll start by reviewing Granel’s founding assumptions and then proceed to develop the questions I have introduced.

Granel’s meditation on the University and on the possibilities for a critical practice that would maintain the liberatory potential of its Idea and prepare its new advent is founded upon something he describes in the introduction of his first major collection of essays as "an absolute confidence in thought.’" His initial assumption, unaltered throughout his work, I believe, is that the efficacy of contemporary theoretical work rests upon its capacity to seize its historical condition of possibility in the tradition of thought marked by the contributions of Kant, Hšlderlin, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche: a tradition, essentially German, that was gathered by Husserl and delivered to its historicity by Heidegger (Granel has recently added Wittgenstein, but that does not alter the point). The contemporary theoretical enterprise, he argued in 1972 (this was in the context of Tel Quel and in view of the growing force of the projects of Foucault, Lacan, Althusser, and Derrida), could be characterized by its attempt at a general reinscription of the totality of knowledge. But it could only realize its ambition, he declared, if it was prepared to become both "fundamental" and "ontological" in the senses of these terms developed by Heidegger.

In North American critical discourse, of course, we are not accustomed to see the antifoundational discourses generally referred to as "poststructuralist" characterized in such a manner, and we would certainly be surprised by the articulation of such an ambition today. The fact of our surprise is worth considering in itself, I believe; it says quite a lot about the state of theory. But our current context aside, we should recognize that Granel’s statement of confidence in the possibility of such a fundamental turn for modern theory really did nothing more than echo and reaffirm similar statements made by Derrida in regard to the project of deconstruction, whose scope Derrida declared to be nothing other than "the greatest totality—the concept of the episteme," and whose enterprise he considered ubiquitous: "No exercise," he wrote in Of Grammatology, "is more widespread today, and one should be able to formalize the rules." I need hardly reemphasize that this is not the deconstruction usually discussed in literary or even philosophical departments in the U.S., but it is what immediately caught the attention of one of the most distinguished French philosophers working in the phenomenological tradition, and it became the basis of Granel’s future undertaking. A philosophical thought embracing the totality of knowledge is possible, he declared, and differently possible than in the manner articulated in the metaphysical tradition.

But "differently possible" meant for Granel that thought could no longer proceed from a center located in the texts of the tradition and instituted as fundamental philosophy. It could not be a matter of articulating a new governing center where a notion of difference or even "writing" would replace a determination of Being as presence. A deconstructive reading of the history of ontology would be crucial to the project he was undertaking (where else, as he put it, could one obtain a "working" knowledge of difference?), but this project could not inhabit the traditional space of philosophy and assume philosophy’s traditional, overarching position in relation to the sciences. The practice of thought would have to pass out of the instituted space of philosophy and into a series of articulations with other discursive practices (the multiple material sites of difference). Philosophy’s proper object would thus have to be what Granel termed the "practical finitude" of the various orders of discourse. It would be a matter of opening the theory of any given discursive practice to thought, and thereby exposing its nongrounds in a determination of being as difference, but only in a movement that would never transcend that practice, or would do no more than remark the freedom that presided at the act of its foundation. To couch this in the simplest terms: Every scientific practice rests upon a determination of Being (the constitution of an object and a relation to that object) that is immanent to that practice but unavailable to it as long as it remains within its thematic limits. The task of thought, as Granel understands it, is to make the turn by which this "foundation" (which is not a foundation, but something more like an abyss, or difference) is discovered, but always in and from the site of the discursive practice in question. Being is nowhere other than in its practical constitution, as Deleuze put it, and the task of thought, in Granel’s view, is to engage the practical constitution of Being by reworking the various discursive modes in and from their institutional sites and material comportments.


(This text is only a selection. For the complete essay please see our journal)