Contents Disappointed Utopia 3. The Neocolonial Bargain

A “xenophilic agora”

The Philosophy Department’s internationalism had roots in the economy of decolonization. The North African situation had been highly salient for the founding figures of the university. Hélène Cixous and Jacques Derrida had both been born in Algeria before its independence. Jean-François Lyotard had taught there from 1950 to 1952, and Michel Foucault had taught in post-independence Tunisia from 1966 to 1968.[4] Neither man had family roots in North Africa; both went there for career reasons (Macey 2004:77). Yet both were deeply affected politically by the experience. Lyotard became involved in the far-left journal Socialism or Barbarism, and Foucault briefly sheltered an underground militant in his home (Macey 2004:82).

Upon his return to France, Foucault hired a Tunisian, Mohamed Hassan Zouzi Chebbi, to work in departmental administration. Perhaps Foucault felt a strong sense of solidarity with Tunisian people. Yet I find this gesture paradoxical: Foucault, the white bourgeois Frenchman, would include a Tunisian, but also would exclude him in the same gesture, providing him with primarily administrative duties and inaugurating an implicitly racialized hierarchy within the Department’s workforce. Zouzi spent his working life at Paris 8. A central figure in the life of the Department, he characterized it in poetic terms.

The philosophers… set up the climate [at Vincennes] by inaugurating philosophy education as a ‘xenophilic’ agora. It had an appetite for the foreign and for the foreigner and it was kneaded with variegated and mestizo speech, with the scent of spices, tatooed all around.
[Interview in Berger et al. 2015:234]

Zouzi was right to describe the Department as a place of variegated speech and hospitality (although in my experience, its primary scent was that of cigarette smoke). And he was certainly not the only one to voice the theme of hospitality. In a video from the Vincennes period, a foreign voice commented that “Vincennes, it’s like a family, there’s warmth. The most important thing here is the contact with people from every nationality…”[5]

Figure 23: Activist art from 1979: “That’s Vincennes! It’s possible here: Cultures mixing together! Opening up to the world! Would our Gallic ancestors be afraid of us!”
Figure 23: Activist art from 1979: “That’s Vincennes! It’s possible here: Cultures mixing together! Opening up to the world! Would our Gallic ancestors be afraid of us!”[6]

Nevertheless, the “xenophilic agora” or the “Vincennes family” remained romantic images of social experience at Paris 8. It is not that xenophilia — the “love of the foreigner” — did not exist. But it was a paradoxical love, because foreign students were often institutionally marginalized, experienced intense economic precarity, and were largely excluded from getting permanent academic jobs in France. As one white French doctoral student put it, “We have two hundred doctoral students, mostly foreigners — but if they had the slightest chance of getting teaching jobs in France, we’d get shut down.” A senior professor put a happier spin on it, saying, “People go home afterwards, in Europe or around the world, and they then put their knowledge to work in their own traditions.”[7] The Department did hire a racially diverse group of professors and administrative staff, but I would argue that it also remained a site of structural violence, since racially minoritized and foreign students were so much more likely to be students than ever to become professors.

Meanwhile, the local keywords for internationalism seemed to shift with the historical moment. In the 1970s, the “Third World” remained the keyword. By the 1980s, the department chair, Jacques Poulain, preferred terms like “international discussion” and “intercultural dialogue.” A cultural pluralism came into vogue, sponsored partly by international institutions like UNESCO, which published studies of various national traditions in philosophy. Finally, during the mid–2010s, the Department hired a cohort of postcolonial theorists, which brought terms like “subalternity” more decisively into its vocabulary. This shift towards postcolonial idioms was apparent in a manifesto that the Philosophy Department released in Spring 2018.

Our university-world opens itself up to alterity and subalternity, with which it learns and works. One cannot measure the success of this effort in quantitative terms… nor in terms of developing “humanitarian” operations of “knowledge transfer” from the North towards the global South. The movement must go both ways
That requirement inflects our conception and practice of philosophy, which need to be reclaimed from a geography which still, today, confuses its own limits with the real or fantasy borders of the West. One would need to think philosophical languages as Creole languages: fruits of new conceptual creation and linguistic encounters that defy territorial closure. Not to mention the unequal order of places between a center and the peripheries. […] We cling to these multiplicities: philosophy has no natural language! Philosophical practice is not, for us, the defense of a national privilege or a form of social distinction. It is indissociable from a reflection on the logics of emancipation that shape our pedagogies, our research, our engagements, and our ways of living.[8]

One can sense the ongoing commitment to an internationalist utopia, where philosophy would no longer be a specialty of French culture, and would become a space of radical mixing, “Creole languages” and cultural pluralism. But material realities did not always live up to these utopian dreams, as the trajectories of four postcolonial subjects suggest.

  1. The charismatic organizer of much of the early Vincennes recruitments, Hélène Cixous, also became known for writing about her experience as an Algerian Jew.  ↩

  2. Vincennes comme espace vécu (black and white film), Marielle Burkhalter and Annie Couëdel, 1977, (time index 2:18).  ↩

  3. Sticker produced in 1979, personal collection of Charles Soulié. Reproduced in Soulié 2012:402.  ↩

  4. Rancière described a longer social evolution: “Parmi les étudiants, il y avait aussi beaucoup de gens chassés de chez eux, comme les Chiliens par exemple, les Brésiliens, pas mal de Latino-Américains, qui sont passés par Paris-VIII. Il y a eu une circulation plutôt militante différente de ce qu’on a vu à la fin des années 1990 à Paris-VIII, quand le département de philosophie a retrouvé ses diplômes et qu’on a vu des étudiants arriver des quatre coins du monde pour avoir un diplôme dans le département de Foucault, Deleuze ou Lyotard. Un diplôme qu’ils ont pu faire fructifier pour avoir des postes dans leurs pays, ce qui était inimaginable dans les années 1970” (2012:37).  ↩

  5. ”Manifeste du département de philosophie sous condition de grève,” Department of Philosophy, University of Paris 8, 8 June 2018.  ↩

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