Christopher Fynsk on Academia and Critical Theory

An interview with Figure/Ground Communication
Christopher Fynsk
Figure/Ground Communication talks to Professor Christopher Fynsk:
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?

This occurred in the last year of my undergraduate training at Cornell University (which would have been in 1974). I link the decision to my nascent political thinking: I could not think of a more worthy field (you will see that this thinking was also a bit naïve, but there it is).

Two of your mentors were Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy. How was your experience working with them and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?

I hope it will not be disrespectful to say that I did not really take Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy as mentors. I looked upon them rather almost as “older brothers.” At that time, my mentors were Jacques Derrida and Jean-François Lyotard. But I chose to work with the two of them in Strasbourg for my PhD (rather than return to Paris, where I had studied in 1976), because I felt that it was perhaps a more propitious site for my work on Heidegger. This was an obscure decision, but it seems to have been a good one, even though neither Lacoue-Labarthe nor Nancy had progressed as far in their respective readings of Being and Time as I had at that time (the text had not been fully translated in French). I don’t believe that Lacoue-Labarthe (attached at that time to Johns Hopkins and serving as my titular advisor) read even a page of my actual thesis, which was exactly what I had anticipated.

The seminar in ‘79-‘80 and ’80-’81 was a thrilling context. There was also an excellent seminar that was undertaken jointly, I believe, with Bernard Bass. When I returned to Strasbourg to take Jean-Luc Nancy’s place at the faculté (during his visit to San Diego), the seminar had declined in importance. But I was so nervous in conducting it (Lacoue-Labarthe was also absent that term) that it took me almost 6 weeks to realize that the institutional conditions had changed at the University and in Strasbourg.

Lunches and dinners at 6 rue Charles Grad were memorable events. For the first time I witnessed literary history debated at the table as something with real political and social importance. But here, I should refer to my experience in France in general during this period—I discovered there an entirely new set of possibilities for living as an intellectual. The university receded as my primary point of reference. This was where I would locate the substance of my real learning in Strasbourg.

In terms of their influence upon me, I would note that Lacoue-Labarthe was a great stylist, a “syntaxier,” as I described him in Typography. There was a care in thinking and reading that I responded to very strongly. I was also very attentive to his relation to the theatre. I was certainly fond of Nancy and very happy to present his work to a North American audience, but we were not as close. [Read More]

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