Derrida Signs a Baseball

Derrida baseball 1991

Jacques Derrida was delivering one of four Carpenter Lectures (probably the second) at the University of Chicago between April 19 and 26, 1991. His topics involved exchanges, gifts, and counterfeits. Instead of a book, I brought a baseball and asked him to sign it, and he was nice enough to oblige me. Professor Derrida turned after signing someone’s book, looked at the ball, and immediately began signing. I said something like, “Gosh, you must have done this before,” and he said, matter-of-factly and without looking up, “I have never signed a baseball.”

At the time I was working at Recycled Paper Products, writing newsletters for greeting card salespeople. I wanted to get into graduate school, but that was still a ways off. Instead, I would go to Oz Park in Chicago and read Derrida’s books and drink iced coffee. Honest. Reading Derrida always makes me feel optimistic, and I really do laugh with genuine delight when I get caught up in the prose. He just can’t stop thinking something through, or talking about thinking something through, or thinking about talking something through, and this doesn’t seem annoying like it might with other people’s writing.

Anyway, at the moment Derrida signed the ball, a photographer from the Chicago Tribune, Ovie Carter, snapped a picture. The photo appeared in the paper on May 5, 1991, as part of an article written by Ron Grossman. In the article I was identified as a University of Chicago Student and since I wasn’t, I contacted the Tribune to ask for a correction. The person I spoke with suggested a correction wasn’t needed, saying “I don’t think the University would mind the misidentification.” I said, “Yes but I would mind.” Nothing against the U of C; I just wanted to keep the story straight. A few days later, the paper’s “Corrections and Clarifications” box included the grudging notice, “Steve Venturino was mistakenly identified in a photo caption in the May 5 Tempo section as a student at the University of Chicago. He is not.”

Meanwhile, I had written to Derrida thanking him for the signature and actually offering him an alternative interpretation of the Baudelaire story he had been discussing. I also told him the paper had published a picture of him signing the baseball. He wrote back with a very gracious reply and a request for a copy of the Tribune article.

People have asked why I brought a baseball and what I had in mind, theory-wise. I don’t think I had anything in mind theory-wise. I just wanted Derrida to sign something I could really hold and even throw around, which I did when I got into grad school, and which I still do, although usually more figuratively these days.

Steven J. Venturino
May 3, 2013

Derrida baseball

Blanchot and Poverty

  • What is irritating about poverty is that it is visible, and anyone who sees it thinks: You see, I’m being accused; who is attacking me? Blanchot.

The quotation above is from Maurice Blanchot’s story, “The Madness of the Day” (“La Folie du jour”), translated by Lydia Davis (The Station Hill Blanchot Reader: Fiction and Literary Essays. Trans. Lydia Davis, Paul Auster, and Christopher Fynsk. Ed. George Quasha. Barrytown, NY: Station Hill P,  1999, 196).

The story is full of provocative lines like this, and it’s usefully “difficult” to read, since it explores the difficulties of responding to a person or a system that already has an answer in mind.  Through much of the story, Blanchot illustrates how even the account of an emotional event may be like the response to a loaded question: “I had been asked: Tell us ‘just exactly’ what happened.” Replying as a witness in strict legal-ease may not produce truth when the perspective of a poet, painter, or novelist is needed. Accounting for yourself can be hard in a world full of already existing patterns and conventions.

In the line above, Blanchot suggests that the appearance of poverty irritates because the loaded question, or challenge, of capitalism, provokes instinctive feelings of guilt.

Jacques Derrida also considers the predicament of loaded questions, and Blanchot’s story, in “The Law of Genre” (Critical Inquiry 7, 1980, or in the volume Acts of Literature, edited by Derek Attridge). “La Folie du jour” was originally published in 1949 as “Un récit?” [“A Story?”] (Originally posted February 3, 2013)