UC Irvine plans to drop its lawsuit seeking French philosopher's papers

Times Staff Writer

Facing a backlash from scholars worldwide, UC Irvine says it will drop a lawsuit against the widow and children of professor and philosopher Jacques Derrida, the acclaimed founder of the intellectual movement called deconstruction.

Instead, UCI officials said they had resumed negotiations with Derrida's family over control of his groundbreaking scholarly work.

"We feel confident that in the very near future this issue will be resolved in a manner that satisfies the Derrida family," said UCI spokeswoman Christine Byrd.

Derrida, a Frenchman who taught part time at UCI from 1986 to 2003, developed an influential and bewildering intellectual discipline that questions the notion of absolute truth.

In November, UCI sued Derrida's estate in federal court, saying his family had refused to relinquish manuscripts and correspondence that Derrida promised in writing to donate to the university.

The dispute began brewing shortly before Derrida's death three years ago at age 74.

Until that time, Derrida had slowly been turning over lecture manuscripts, journals and other materials to UCI's special collections library under an agreement he signed in 1990.

UCI had spent more than $500,000 on the project, installing two copy machines at Derrida's house near Paris and hiring French-speaking graduate students to help catalog the documents, according to the lawsuit.

But in 2004, Derrida sent a letter to UCI's then-chancellor, Ralph Cicerone, threatening to withdraw permission for scholars to photocopy or quote material from the archives, a move that would have rendered the papers virtually useless, said Peggy Kamuf, a friend of the Derrida family and chairwoman of USC's comparative literature department.

Derrida was "quite unhappy with some things the University of California was doing," Kamuf said, adding that she couldn't discuss details except to say it didn't involve Derrida's own relationship with the university.

After Derrida's death, his widow and sons said they wanted copies of UCI's archives shared with the Institute of Contemporary Publishing Archives in France, Kamuf said.

"Irvine is not exactly the center of the world," Kamuf said, so the family requested duplicate archives to assure wider scholarly access to the philosopher's work.

Derrida's estate also sought changes in how UCI managed the papers, said Jackie Dooley, who heads the school's special collections and archives.

About a year ago, the family cut off negotiations, she said, so UCI sued, seeking $500,000 in damages and a court order requiring the family to transfer its stash of Derrida papers to California.

After Derrida's family was served with court papers in January, word of the lawsuit filtered back to the U.S. from France, prompting an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education and protests from faculty and administrators at UCI and beyond.

"I think the lawsuit is deplorable and disgraceful," Kamuf said.

On Feb. 1, following a meeting of UCI professors, librarians and administrators, the university "began the process of dismissing the lawsuit," said Karen Lawrence, UCI's dean of humanities.

"We are very pleased that negotiations with Derrida's family are ongoing," Lawrence said.

UCI spokeswoman Byrd said the school hoped to make an announcement about the situation this week, but she declined further comment.

Kamuf said she was told that UCI would agree to share copies of its archives with the French institute.

"This is what should have happened all along," she said. "One hundred years from now, Derrida will be considered the most important philosopher since [Immanuel] Kant."

UCI now has the equivalent of 40 unpublished Derrida books, said Kamuf, who is helping to translate and publish the works, a project that could take 20 years.

"The papers at Irvine are an incredible treasure trove of his teaching," she said.





A Derrida primer

Who was Jacques Derrida?

An Algerian-born French thinker regarded as perhaps the most controversial and daring philosopher of the late 20th century. He founded an intellectual movement called deconstruction, which gained a following on U.S. college campuses in the 1970s.

What is deconstruction?

A notoriously difficult theory that has alternately been described as utterly brilliant and utterly absurd. Used to analyze literature and other texts, it seeks to find ambiguities and contradictions that undermine the surface meaning of the words. Deconstruction rejects the idea that a text can have a single, authoritative interpretation.

Although its influence has waned, deconstruction has left a mark on such fields as architecture, law, religion and business. In literature, scholars used it to radically reinterpret classic works.

How is Derrida viewed in philosophy circles?

Richard Rorty of Stanford said, "Of all the philosophers of our time, [Derrida] has been the most effective at doing what Socrates hoped philosophers would do: breaking the crust of convention, questioning assumptions never before doubted, raising issues never before discussed."

But critic John Searle of UC Berkeley chided Derrida for "striving to give the appearance of profundity by making claims that seem paradoxical but under analysis often turn out to be silly or trivial."

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