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The University Of Plagiarism

Laurence Simmons


“Originality consists in trying to be like everybody else—and failing.”
—Jean Cocteau “plagiarising” Raymond Radiguet

When Jacques Derrida came to Auckland in August 1999, he delivered a paper entitled ‘The Future of the Profession; or The University Without Condition (Thanks to the “Humanities”, What Could Take Place Tomorrow)’; the essay was published, together with some local responses to it, in Derrida Downunder.1 Here and in another essay entitled ‘Unconditionality or Sovereignty: The University at the Borders of Europe’,2 he gives the name ‘unconditionality’ to the research university’s hypothetical freedom from outside interference, to the privilege to put everything in question, even to put in question the right to put everything in question. He posits that ‘the modern university should be without condition’ and:

[t]his university demands and ought to be granted in principle, besides what is called academic freedom, an unconditional freedom to question and to assert, or even, going still further, the right to say publicly all that is required by research, knowledge, and thought concerning the truth.3

‘The University Without Condition’ relies, as Derrida acknowledges, ‘often and at length on Austin’s now classic distinction between performative speech acts and constative speech acts’. ‘This distinction’, he continues, ‘will have been a great event in this century — and it will have first been an academic event. It will have taken place in the university’.4 The profession of the professor calls not upon discourses of knowledge but upon performative discourses that produce the event of which they speak. The performative is an act that ‘consists in swearing, taking an oath, therefore promising, deciding, taking a responsibility, in short, committing oneself in a performative fashion’.5 The ‘future is not described, it is not foreseen in the constative mode; it is announced, promised called for in a performative mode’.6 Its promise, its performative act, is thus staged as the instantaneous positing of what is not yet, and perhaps never will be, present. Yet the performative can only take place by asserting — constatively, indeed — the actuality of a real, incontestable institution for its future; it can only take place on the double terrain of the not-yet-real, the spectreal perhaps.

What is invoked here is the way in which all performatives are necessarily haunted by a non-present remainder, by what still remains to be thought, engaged, experienced, by the possibility that the performative fails or goes astray. Derrida’s unconditional university is based on ungrounded performative speech acts, speech acts based neither on previously existing institutionalised sanctions, nor on the authority of the ‘I’ who utters the speech act. For Derrida, it is literature that manifests this unconditionality as the extreme expression of the right to free speech, ‘as the right to say everything publicly, or to keep it secret, if only in the form of fiction’.7

To understand this ‘turn to literature’ at this moment in Derrida’s discussion of the university, we need to return to an earlier point where he defines literature, notably in ‘This Strange Institution Called Literature’.8 For Derrida, literature is the possibility for any utterance, writing, or mark to be iterated in innumerable contexts and to function in the absence of identifiable speaker, context, reference, or hearer. ‘The space of literature’, he says, ‘is not only that of an instituted fiction but also a fictive institution which in principle allows one to say everything […] The law of literature tends, in principle, to defy or lift the law […] It is an institution which tends to overflow the institution’. That is, literature is the possibility that any seemingly non-literary usage of language can be used in a literary way, that any literal use of language can always be taken figuratively, such that figurative meaning is the basis upon which literal meaning stands. Yet this ‘lawlessness’ of the literary is the result of certain rules, conventions and institutions.

Literature is an exploitation of the possibility that any utterance may be ‘non- serious’. It, and therefore all writing, is the reduction of an idea: a truth, the notion of serious linguistic usage, the ‘right way to think’, my ‘real’ intention. Yet such an idea may always only be a supposition, radically unverifiable, because the only sensible form it takes is its appearance in literature, in language as literary. All language is potentially ‘non-serious’, potentially just literature, because it never is for sure the restitution of the ‘serious’, of something prior to language. Derrida thus identifies literature with the freedom of speech, the unconditional right to say everything and to disclaim responsibility for what is said, that is the linchpin of Western democracy:

What we call literature … implies that license is given to the writer to say everything he wants or everything he can, while remaining shielded, safe from all censorship, be it religious or political [….] This duty of irresponsibility, of refusing to reply for one’s thought or writing to constituted powers, is perhaps the highest form of responsibility.9

It should be clear, at this point, how the institution of fiction, ‘which gives in principle the power to say everything, to break free of the rules to displace them, and thereby to institute, to invent…’,10 is not unlike that of, and in its institutionalised procedures informs, the practice of plagiarism. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Derrida also concerns himself with plagiarism. Derrida’s early essay on Condillac, The Archaeology of the Frivolous, argues that Condillac’s duplicity of terms, his imagining as retracing the connection of ideas, and his repetitive structure of knowing gives rise to ‘a metaphysics of plagiarism’.11 Derrida reproduces Condillac’s own note against plagiarisers from the Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge:

I ought to warn that many writers have copied this Essay, for it could be thought that I myself copied them by writing on the art of thinking [Derrida adds an interesting aside here: how do you fight the form of plagiarism that looks like you are plagiarising those who have in fact plagiarised you?]. Plagiarizing metaphysicians could not be more common. When they are shown, within themselves, metaphysical truths, they flatter themselves that all by themselves they would have found these truths, and they unscrupulously present these truths to themselves as discoveries.12

However, deconstruction is itself ‘plagiaristic’: Derrida insists that deconstruction is not a method for repeating the propositions of an original in the voice and spirit of the original; rather, it encourages the potentialities of that supposedly first and originating text to create its own copy or double. For him, the condition for the possibility of thinking is an essential and unavowable debt: in order to speak of this radically new present, and in order to make claim for the new, one must already submit that eventful newness to a repeatable system. There is always a redundant, repeated and stolen element that enables any future or anticipation, an undecidable haunting of all speech and writing with repetition. Repetition is not therefore the opposite of originality or even innovation, but rather both internal to it and at the same time heterogeneous. The paradox is that in order for an original work to be recognised it must bear a resemblance to other works, which compromises its originality, and yet in order to be recognised as original a work must be taken to resemble nothing other than ‘itself’. Plagiarism is not the machine-like repetition of a work or event understood in terms of a pure singularity, but rather something like the condition of every work. That literature and plagiarism (of which literary forgery is a subgenre) are categories of writing that have much in common might even cause us to revalue plagiarism as an antimonian phenomenon produced by creative energies whose power is attested to by the individuals and the institutions that exhibit such fierce resistance to it, who feel compelled to denounce and eradicate it.

The traditional definition of a citation, derived from classical rhetoric, that limits it to the purpose of illustration and ornament is thus inadequate and no longer applies for postmodern writers for whom quotation represents a break with tradition as well as a means of questioning the nature of the literary text. That is, the concept of text as an autonomous entity is no longer adequate. Derrida’s own experimental volume Glas,13 which relies on citation to such an extent that as readers we never know quite where we are, or with whose words we are, can serve as a new paradigm for a theory of quotation (and by implication plagiarism), one which I only have time to sketch out in a very programmatic fashion here. In Glas, Derrida links quotation with violence and sexual penetration, and stages a deliberate game of appearance and disappearance through which his reader is unable to pin him down; he reveals that words contain within themselves other words, blurs the boundaries between languages and between specific texts, demonstrates how meaning is generated through an aleatory scattering of semes. Indeed, in Glas we might say that Derrida has elevated plagiarism to the level of originality and has shown that writing is always and inevitably quoting.

Nonetheless, the view of plagiarism that dominates university discourse necessitates a simplistic definition of the relationship between power and resistance as primarily one of absolute otherness and exclusion. In actuality, this view of plagiarism’s authority to prohibit can never be separated from its need to include, or to regulate by way of strategies of engagement with and appropriation of available meanings. That is, the pure text cannot erase traces of dialogic ambiguity constituted in and constituting any pure text. The identification of authorship thus constitutes a kind of censorial limiting of language. Losing all sense of plagiarism as reading, promotes a kind of non-reading. Tradition does not want to understand fiction as the possibility of the very work of knowledge, and as that which reserves the possibility in its enfolded pliability of unconditional truth. Whereas, in contrast, deconstructive reading (let’s front up and call it that), as Derrida insists, must be understood as polysemy, indeterminancy, ambivalence and dysfunction:

Deconstruction is not a method for discovering that which resists the system; it consists, rather, in remarking, in the reading and interpretation of texts, that what has made it possible for philosophers to effect a system is nothing other than a certain dysfunction or ‘disadjustment’, a certain incapacity to close the system.14

Indeed, I could be outrageous (and why not be outrageous!) and suggest that plagiarism and the imposition of it within the domain of specialised knowledges, or the academy, should be understood as the very structure of the field in which university discourse is produced and circulated. This structure of the field, an institutionalised field enabled by its own difference, places internal constraints on the very process of discursive production. It is thus the structure of the field that constitutes plagiarism, not some adversarial position with regard to the sanctity of the word or copyright. Plagiarism, then, is not something that others do to us, but something we do to ourselves.

Another way of saying this with Derrida is that plagiarism, like literature, represents a counter-institution. In A Taste for the Secret, Derrida confesses:

In abstract and general terms, what remains constant in my thinking […] is indeed a critique of institutions, but one that sets out not from a wild and spontaneous pre- or non-institution, but rather from counter-institutions. I do not think there is, or should be, the ‘non-institutional’. I am always torn between the critique of institutions and the dream of another institution that, in an interminable process, will come to replace institutions that are oppressive, violent and inoperative. The idea of a counter- institution, neither spontaneous, wild nor immediate, is the most permanent motif that, in a way, has guided me in my work.15

Elsewhere, he noted that in French ‘[t]he word “contre”, counter or against, can equally and at the same time mark both opposition, contrariety, contradiction and proximity, near-contact [….] The word ‘contre’ possesses these two inseparable meanings […]’.16 So the notion of the (counter)institution requires careful thinking of the kind that may only derive from the perspective of the contre itself, which, as Derrida notes, forces together — and yet refuses to fuse — proximity, on the one hand, and a certain kind of contrariety, on the other. Such a relation articulates and disarticulates itself, within and against itself, at each time of use and persists in its own divisibility. Indeed, this divisibility leaves its mark within the institution of the university between the desire to conserve and defend an establishment, and an unavoidable exposure to what is unpredictable, to alterity and the event.

So, finally, ‘without condition’: what does it mean? Exempt from dictations and servitudes;17 immune from the exactions of authority and the contaminations of power;18 self-standing,self-defined,self-governing,self-responsible;19 sovereign without its suspect theological overtone;20 having the freedom to assert, to question, to profess, and to ‘say everything’ in the manner of a literary fiction.21 Derrida’s essay delivers a ‘profession of faith [. . .] in the University and, within the University’22 that helps those of us working in or with it by clarifying how our work is doubly structured, in part by a respect for tradition and precisely the tradition of ‘unlimited commitment to the truth’,23 and in part by a regard towards the future and especially towards what Derrida calls the ‘event’. ‘An event’, he says in ‘The Deconstruction of Actuality’, ‘cannot be reduced to the fact of something happening [. . .] it is what may always fail to come to pass’.24 Derrida’s event, événement, comes from the Latin evenire, ‘to come out from’. At the root of the verb is venire, ‘come’, and it resonates with Derrida’s ‘to come’, l’a-venir, a strange kind of futurity that will never be present. The event names something that changes the notion of truth-as-masterable. We could say that Derrida wagers on the ‘event’. With such an engagement, he commits to something completely different from those whose proposals for university education stop with a tepid and vapid return to tradition. Derrida, on the contrary, seeks not a return to something known, but takes risks for the future.

What such ‘events’ might make happen to the concept of truth is that truth not be defined as an affair of mastery, but rather as dependent upon an unconditional. Derrida maintains that ‘[i]t would be necessary to dissociate a certain unconditional independence of thought, of deconstruction, of justice, of the Humanities, of the University, and so forth from any phantasm of indivisible sovereignty and of sovereign mastery’.25 If we conceded to the notion of the master (the teacher) as he or she who possesses certainty and its conventions absolutely, then we first of all give in to a phantasm, and secondly reduce the future to a mechanical application of a programme. Derrida’s allegiance to an unconditional independence of thought resists such closure and finality by insisting upon what is never mastered. As its etymology suggests, unconditional is what cannot be agreed upon, what cannot be said, what is irreducible to consensus. As a teacher, what Derrida teaches is that without an unteachable we cannot teach and are not teachers. He argues for a transformative reaction to tradition, a re-activation that also produces something not only different but, as yet, unconventional and, moreover, necessarily incomplete. The ‘university without condition’ does not and cannot give the answer; it can affirm answers but it can never prove them. This is, however, why the university can always be appropriated: there is always someone claiming to have the answer.26 The ‘university without condition’ commits to the unconditional: the impossibility of a simple truth, of truth as simple. This is why the university is always in danger: first, such an avowal of powerlessness is well-nigh an invitation to the wolves of demagogy, capitalism and above all ministers of education; second, such an admission will be understood as irresponsible by dogmatists. What is ‘sovereign’ for Derrida would be this unconditionality. It is what, by being impossible, rules since our otherwise supposed sovereignty (mastery, control) can never overtake unconditionality.

The violence of the founding act, the institution of the institution, leaves a puzzling mark, as a strange feature within institutions between the desire to conserve and defend an established set-up, and an unavoidable exposure to what is unpredictable, to alterity and the event, even to the possibility of instant death precisely as a result of the institution’s own auto-immune disorder. A true event must be something incommensurate with any pre-existing conceptual grids. Thus the institution remains caught undecidably between life and death; the institution lives in a kind of constitutive dissension — although, in the case of ‘the university without condition’, this indelible scar of the institution’s institution leads, as Derrida argues, to the chance of affirmation and ultimately to the possibility of life over, after or in death: in other words, survival. The university is in principle the institution that ‘lives’ the precarious chance and ruin of the institution as its very institutionality. Like all institutions of meaning, the university can only dream that it is closed and settled, determined in an eternal present by a past tradition. It is not a question, as I have said, of self-inflicting wounding, a form of self-harming, nor is it a question of leaving the university behind, moving beyond it, denouncing it as an institution. It is rather that the counter-institution of the university ‘to come’ brings into the open whatever keeps the institution from fulfilling its goals. The system disarticulates itself before our very eyes, forcing open again whatever closure gives the university its concept.