Contents Disappointed Utopia 3. The Neocolonial Bargain

An earthquake in Haiti

For many foreign students the Philosophy Department did feel like a place of genuine opportunity and hospitality. Witness the case of a male Haitian doctoral student, Jean Herold Paul, who was writing his dissertation on Immanual Kant and Karl Popper. When I met him in 2010, he had a rare teaching fellowship, and was capitalizing on the literary opportunities opened up by the Department’s publishing connections. He published two books of poetry with Harmattan, Je tresse mes mots in 2010, and Et caetera desunt: poétique du tremblement in 2011. The latter book began with a poem called “The night that we are” (La nuit que nous sommes) which he wrote in the immediate aftermath of the calamitous Haitian earthquake of January 12, 2010.

We got in touch afterwards; I translated the poem into English; and we met soon afterwards in the context of my research project. As Paul explained his trajectory of intellectual migration, it seemed to me a simultaneous product of agency and structure. Haitian higher education was deeply divided by class, Paul explained to me, and in the aftermath of the Duvalier regime (which ended in 1986), rich Haitian families sent their children abroad, while poor children studied in Haitian public institutions, where French was used in school. Paul had decided to come to France after meeting a Paris 8 professor, Georges Navet, who had come to Haiti for a teaching stint at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Port-au-Prince. “I wouldn’t say I chose Paris 8,” Paul remarked. “As a foreigner, you don’t know the French system.”

The media cast Paul as a success story of Paris 8, labeling him a “Haitian philosopher and poet.” He inhabited the intersection of intellectual, literary and postcolonial identity that figures like Zouzi had long pioneered in this milieu. Paul was photographed in a student magazine, l’Etudiant, and characterized as someone who had benefitted from Paris 8’s internationalism. The magazine profile drew on tropes like openness (ouverture), accessibility (disponibilité), and freedom (liberté) to characterize Paris 8’s internationalist environment. Yet Paul, like most international students, remained at a distance from the internal life of the institution. His political and artistic identity centered on the Haitian situation. L’Etudiant explained that “the beginnings in France for Jean-Herold were difficult: ‘I arrived all alone, without family in France and without a fellowship.’” Yet as the journalist recounted, Paul had succeeded in family and professional reproduction. Not only did he get a teaching fellowship, he had also “met his wife at the university and started a family.”

I met Paul just as his first book of poetry was getting published. Two male philosophy professors wrote prefaces for his books, and Zouzi contributed an enthusiastic afterword. It was an exuberant moment for him. Yet the poems themselves were anything but clearly optimistic. Even before the earthquake, his poetry was highly attuned to the tragic, the ambivalent, and the hostile.

Fournaises dantesques où se consume l’avenir
aux quatres points cardinaux de la promesse

Dantesque furnaces where the future consumes itself
at the four cardinal points of promise

[Paul 2010:50]

The future consumes itself: such an image also encapsulated life at the Philosophy Department, where futures never felt completely closed down, but often remained profoundly uncertain and shadowy. The sense of a destroyed future became even clearer in Paul’s poem about the earthquake, which he first read in 2010 at a benefit for the survivors.

The night that we are
(in memory of Jésula and Wilmichel)

bric-a-brac of apocalypses
bric-a-break of our utopias

and if...
and then...
but are we still?

in the night where we are
in the night that we are
a horrible night
where only our dead appear dimly
without name or register
without farewell or burial

in the night where we are
in the night that we are
what’s left of us?

bric-a-brac of apocalypses
bric-a-break of our utopias

in the night where we are
in the night that we are
it’s always night
at least our presence is reflected there
a simple sensation of being somewhere
without knowing who we are
where we are
without knowing with what or with who we are

in the night where we are
in the night that we are
when will we be able to mourn
for ourselves?

This was the earthquake: utopias in pieces. The apocalypse left behind the impossibility even of mourning. The impossibility of burial, or even of naming and counting the dead, seemed to be the point where subjectivity broke down. The historical subject of this poem seemed to lack an identity, a self-concept, a location, or anything but a “reflection” of presence. I am sure I cannot imagine an earthquake like the Haitian earthquake. I did not know Jésula or Wilmichel. But Paul’s poem leaves me momentarily bereft, I am not sure of what.

Still, the poem does have a definite subject, even though it reports on a cataclysmic breakdown of subjectivity. It is a poem based around we: a poem of belonging. The we of this poem seems to me not just to be the specifically Haitian subject who has lived through the earthquake. After all, the poem was read in France and written in French. A transcultural reader was being addressed here, and was invited into the new public constituted around the event of mass catastrophe.[9] This inclusive we — the sense that anyone could become the subject of the catastrophe, that anyone could feel the affective impact of the earthquake — became key to French philosophers’ solidarity with Haiti in the aftermath of the disaster. Numerous friends of the Paris 8 Philosophy Department died in the earthquake. Solidarity then became their operative term for material aid and emotional care. As Paul put it in an email to the department about the poetry benefit, “Yesterday an evening of very moving poetry took place, where a constellation of poets from all horizons made loud and clear their solidarity for dear Haiti [Haïti chérie].”[10]

Solidarity could, nevertheless, coexist with structural exclusion. Paul’s teaching fellowship was temporary; and several years after his dissertation, he had not found a permanent academic position, whether in Haiti or in Europe. I sense in this the very real limits of solidarity in a neocolonial system.

  1. This kind of public had a longer history. In the 1970s, on Charles Soulié’s account, the “strong foreign presence at Vincennes, which took in successive waves of migrants and political refugees, contributed to making it a resonance chamber for major international political events” (2012:185).  ↩

  2. The language of solidarity was taken up by French academics, but it had originated with Haitians academics themselves. On 15 January 15, a Haitian professor wrote to his colleagues at Paris 8 to ask if “an active solidarity between French and Haitian universities would be imaginable?” The Department responded as actively as it could, sending a collection of donated philosophy books to replace the destroyed library at their Haitian partner institution, the Ecole Normale Supérieure-Port au Prince.  ↩

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