The performative without condition

A university sans appel

RP 162 () / Article

‘Responsibility’ and the homonymy of autonomy

‘Take your time but be quick about it, because you don’t know what awaits you’, said French philosopher Jacques Derrida in 1998 at Stanford.1 Indeed. He would not have expected to be cited like this by Valérie Pécresse, French Minster for Higher Education and Research, in January 2009:

We are taking all the measures to ensure that a new ethic founds the autonomy gained by the university community in the conduct of its own destiny. … ‘To profess is to pledge oneself’ writes Jacques Derrida in ‘The University without Condition’. The hour has come to recognize fully this engagement that is at once individual and collective, to have confidence in the university and in academics.2

One can truncate a citation, deform an aim, pervert its spirit.3 But perhaps one should in the first place rejoice that a French government minister knows her Jacques Derrida – unlike a president of the republic who hadn’t heard of Anne of Cleves.

Derrida said that something awaited us. In 1998 one could not have known what. Now we know. The law supposed to institute the ‘autonomy’ of universities is entitled ‘The Freedoms and Responsibilities of the Universities’ 4 – an entire vocabulary: ‘ethic’, ‘autonomy’, ‘community’, ‘destiny”, ‘engagement’, ‘confidence’. These are the words of Valérie Pécresse.

One can read some of them in Derrida too, and in the same general sense: ‘and what matters here is this promise, this pledge of responsibility’.5

I am thus referring here to a university that would be what it always should have been or always should have represented, that is, from its inception and in principle: autonomous, unconditionally free in its institution, in its speech, in its writing, in its thinking.6

It is the ethic of responsibility that strikes, in a really Pétainist fashion today, when candidates for professorial positions are evaluated for their competence to ‘act as a civil servant [fonctionnaire d’État] and in an ethical and responsible fashion’.7 Not, however, the same responsibility, because Derrida’s ‘without condition’ is grasped in the ethic of desaississement, of non-mastery, of the always-excessive event,8 in short of masculine hysteria.

On the other hand, ‘autonomy’ (that of our ministers, in any case) is grasped in the ethics of performance – in other words, the culture of results. ‘Autonomy is essential for the university because autonomy is the culture of the result. If the minister decides, it is irresponsibility’; ‘it is necessary for us today to admit that the culture of results should be a part of the university’. 9 As the icing on the cake, Pécresse added: ‘for the first time, a government will judge the universities, finance them, equip them as a function of their real performances’. Autonomy, then, is a ‘culture of results’ in so far as that culture is judged heteronomically. The university is autonomous when it suits the government, in itself the only judge of ‘real performances’. The university is quite literally ‘irresponsible’ (dependent on the minister) where it is said to be autonomous.



Originally published in French at, March 2010.

1. Jacques Derrida, ‘The University without Condition’, in Without Alibi, Stanford University Press, Stanford CA,2002, p. 237.

2. Valérie Pécresse, ‘Ce que je veux dire aux enseignants chercheurs’, Libération, 27 January 2009.

3. It is worth noting that the original French of the expression that Pécresse cites is ‘Professer, c’est s’engager’. The verb s’engager can mean ‘to take a stand’, ‘to commit oneself (to something)’. Derrida plays on the verbal form engager and the nominal expression en gage (pledge).(Trans.)

4. See Law 2007–1199 of 10 August 2007, Journal Officiel de la République Française, 11 August 2007, relative to the freedoms and responsibilities of universities.

5. Derrida, ‘The University without Condition’, p. 215.

6. Ibid., pp. 213–14.

7. New modes of organization relative to the ‘concours’ forthe recruitment of academics (the agrégation, CAPES,CAPET, etc.), contained in the decrees of 28 December2009. See the Journal Officiel de la République Française, 6 January 2010.

8. Derrida, ‘The University without Condition’, pp.234–7.

9. Valérie Pécresse on ‘Dimanche soir politique’, France Inter, 12 January 2009.