David Wills

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David Wills

Professor of French Studies

Mike Cohea/Brown University
The work of Jacques Derrida caught David Wills’ eye shortly after Wills completed his doctorate at the Sorbonne. Now he and others are working to translate 40 years of the philosopher’s seminars into English — a task that may engage more than a generation of scholars.

There are many ways to look at how technology relates to the body, although a common interpretation views the body as a natural form that has various technologies added to it. David Wills sees things differently.

“I say it makes more sense to consider the body, even as it were from the beginning, as a prosthesis. We have always been articulating with the technological; it’s always been a part of us in a sense,” Wills said.

That philosophy was the driving force for a series of three books that Wills started more than 20 years ago and that is now nearing completion. Prosthesis, Dorsality and Inanimation each approach Wills’ theory from a different perspective. The third, which will be completed this fall, analyzes a series of non-scientific examples in which the term “life” is often used to refer to something that is not organic. Themes that Wills touches on in the book include autobiographical writing, love and war.

“In war, in combat, there is a complicated relation between the soldier who is fighting with his body on the front but is doing it on behalf of the social and political body of the country he represents. I look at how his body gets extended in that way and how that creates a technologization of his body and an opening of spaces where life is extended or spent,” Wills said.

Wills cites the works of several 20th-century French philosophers in his work, the same scholars that drew him into the field while he was completing his doctorate at the Sorbonne in Paris in the 1970s. Hooked by the intellectual and artistic events of the emerging post-structuralist movement and the philosophers who were teaching in France at the time, Wills said he experienced an “intellectual excitement” that continues to fuel his work.

But none of those philosophers has held his interest quite like Jacques Derrida, whose work first caught Wills’ eye shortly after he completed his doctorate.

“What drew me to Derrida’s work was something in the writing itself, a type of freedom that I thought he gave himself, writing within the philosophical tradition, which has its own constraints and norms. He was very much challenging those norms, taking liberties and giving himself a freedom, which was an inspiration to me,” Wills said.

For the last several years, Wills has worked with a group of other scholars on the translation to English of more than 40 years’ worth of seminars that Derrida taught. It’s work that Wills doesn’t expect to be completed any time soon.

“We’re also working to train the next generation because this is something that is going to outlive us. Who knows if it ever gets to the end. It’s going to take a while,” Wills said.

That translation work led to a series of essays on the death penalty, inspired by a seminar that Derrida taught, that Wills is currently working on.

“I got interested in how the question of life that’s being brought to a close by means of the death penalty works again in paradoxical relations with technology,” Wills said.

In the essays, Wills touches on how the complexity of the technology used to put someone to death relates to the complexity of the judicial system that is employed to determine that person’s fate. Wills also writes a chapter on drone warfare, which he describes as “the most striking current exercise of the death penalty as practiced by America.”

Wills comes to Brown from the University at Albany, where he was a professor of both English and French. This semester, he is teaching a graduate class called “Stop, Love, Listen” that centers around the theme of the beating heart.

“It’s the idea that the heart stops every time it beats and can’t beat without stopping. Yet it is what provides the continuity to our existence. It’s the pump that keeps our blood flowing and the oxygen flowing through it, but it is in fact this stop-go mechanism,” Wills said.

Wills said he was attracted to Brown both for the comparative and theoretical work that is well-represented in the French department and, on a broader scale, for the growing emphasis the University has placed on the humanities in recent years.

“It was clear that in many institutions around the country there was a presumption that the humanities no longer had the place it used to have in the university. That seems not to be the case at Brown and, of course, that was something I agreed with totally. It seemed like an excellent opportunity and a very good time to be here.”

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