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"To Come Walking": Reinterpreting the Institution and the Work of Samuel Weber

From: Cultural Critique
48, Spring 2001
pp. 164-199 | 10.1353/cul.2001.0041

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Cultural Critique 48.1 (2001) 164-199



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"To Come Walking"
Reinterpreting the Institution and the Work of Samuel Weber

Simon Wortham


During the early to mid-1980s Jacques Derrida wrote (and spoke) extensively and explicitly about questions relating to institutional issues, not least as a response to his strong involvement in GREPH 1 and the setting up of the International College of Philosophy. During the same time, Samuel Weber wrote a series of essays on various aspects of the question of the institution that appeared individually as chapters and articles before being collected together in a single volume, Institution and Interpretation. This was first published in 1987 and has been highly influential for subsequent projects, for example, Peggy Kamuf's recently published book, The Division of Literature, or The University in Deconstruction. However, partly due to the agenda-setting impact of Bill Readings's analysis of the commercialized university of excellence in The University in Ruins (an analysis that has, no doubt for good reason, imposed itself as a matter of urgency on the collective consciousness of significant sections of the academic community), Weber's work on the academic institution seems generally to have been a little overlooked during the 1990s, at least in more explicit debates about the future of universities today. Perhaps to address this situation, Institution and Interpretation is soon to be reissued with additional material, much of it written in the wake of Readings's work. The lasting value of Institution and Interpretation is suggested by the addition of this new material, which in fact renders possible fresh insights into Weber's earlier work on the question of the institution while simultaneously offering new ways to take debates concerning The University in Ruins beyond the current [End Page 164] tendency either simply to accept and reinforce the terms of Readings's account or to underplay, if not disregard, them altogether. In his more recent writing on the university, Weber offers a respectful yet penetrating critique of Readings's thesis, which in turn requires careful rereading of Weber's own contribution to the thinking of the institution over the last twenty or so years. In this essay, I want to demonstrate how such a rereading of Weber might take shape: both to suggest the relevance to contemporary debates about the university of just about all his writings on the topic and to highlight the way in which particular combinations and recombinations of various, recursive elements and concerns characterizing Weber's writings reveal significant possibilities for reactivating important elements in a broader tradition of deconstructive thinking on the question of the institution--not least in the work of Derrida himself. (Here, more generally, it is not so much a matter of attending to the specificity of Weber's critical contribution by distinguishing where possible between different conceptual renderings, frameworks, or emphases that would carve out a precisely articulated relation to Derridean thought, as it is a question of appreciating the iterative relation of Weber's work to deconstruction as well as to psychoanalysis and other theoretical or critical projects; whereby, in much less clearly differentiated ways, in terms of hard conceptual distinctions, repetition offers itself for Weber as a performative mode of transformation in each singular case according to the specificity of the analysis or object of study.) If taken alone, without due consideration to a context of reading established by his own work (as well as the work of others, like Derrida), Weber's responses to a recent critic such as Bill Readings can seem somewhat enigmatic. When restored to such a context, however, they become extraordinarily fruitful and pertinent--indeed, they begin to seem like the tip of an iceberg.

The Movement of Knowledge: From Adequation to Ambivalence

Weber introduces Institution and Interpretation with a discussion of Gaston Bachelard's 1930s text The New Scientific Spirit. This he [End Page 165] takes as indicative of a larger awareness within a number of academic disciplines that a decisive shift has taken place during the twentieth century in the formation and orientation of scientific--and...