Contents Disappointed Utopia 3. The Neocolonial Bargain

Bring your own precarity

This Philosophy Department thus led a double life. It could be a utopian refuge that helped people escape malign structures, including those of the French state apparatus. Within the Department, foreign and postcolonial subjects genuinely were welcomed and recognized for their intellectual work. A whole series of transnational relations, social investments, affections, and even kinships came into being. Jean Hérold Paul got married while in France; Patrice Vermeren for his part got married to an Argentinean. Figures like Hamid and Rabah became invested in the Department, became at home there, professed a certain love for the place.

And yet the Department also remained a place where people were routinely getting crushed by structures. The structural racism that pervaded French society also existed within the Department. Students and staff alike suffered from economic precarity, institutional marginalization, asymmetrical relationships, historical traumas and disciplinary anxieties. Neocolonial economies thus maintained themselves.

Figure 24: “Migration is not a crime,” seen on the campus walls in 2017.
Figure 24: “Migration is not a crime,” seen on the campus walls in 2017.

I do not want to suggest that the Department’s professors were indifferent to these contradictions, even if they rarely addressed them in public. The Department’s spatial fix rarely felt stable to its key institutional actors. There was a long stream of institutional crises, and this was not without consequence for the Department’s general relations of intellectual reproduction. In the Philosophy Department, reproduction itself was not understood through the eternalizing schema of a conventional scholarly discipline, which presumes implicitly that it will stay alive forever. Rather, the Department’s model was one of staying alive from year to year, of having ultimately loose relationships with its disciples. It was a system of bricolage reproduction, one could say, always balancing on a structural precipice, and lacking the ideological power to make itself (seem) eternal.

This structural vulnerability made people aware that reproduction itself had politics. Daniel Bensaïd, the Department’s most eminent Trotskyist, had noted as much in his book Marx for our Times.

Inheriting is never an automatic process: it poses questions of legiti­macy and imposes responsibilities. A theoretico-political legacy is never straightforward: it is not some possession that is received and banked. Simultaneously instrument and obstacle, weapon and burden, it is always to be transformed.

[Bensaïd 2002:xi]

In these terms, the heritage and culture of the Department were themselves both instruments and obstacles. If one holds that a doctoral degree ought to provide a future, or the means to provide some sort of economic existence within capitalism, then the Department’s neocolonial bargain was indeed brutal. For it offered only half a future: thoughts without money, degrees without jobs. Still, Paris 8 sought to advance a different theory of the doctorate: you bring your own future, and then see how philosophy fits into it.[12] Which amounted to also saying: bring your own precarity, and expect no salvation from it, however racialized and classed and gendered it might be.

Should we conclude, then, that the ugliness of the neocolonial bargain was inseparable from the utopianism of the Department’s hospitality? In a postcolonial academic world, it remains a utopian gesture to break with philosophical nationalism, to provide hospitality and openness to the Other, to insist that anyone could be a philosopher if they wanted to. And yet all too often, disappointed utopianism threatened to become a merely disappointing utopianism.

It is a curious ruse of neoliberal history that the Philosophy Department ultimately looked like a success story in the eyes of the French state. What had once long a marginal site in French academia suddenly found itself highly ranked by the new neoliberal assessors, as French policymakers began to reward international rankings and international collaborations. As we know, neoliberal classifications can invert or reshape the “traditional” disciplinary orders that they seek to govern. But by the same token, the positive evaluations from the French state were nothing one could rely on. The 2013 evaluation complained that the Department had no data on its students’ subsequent job placements. The Department founded by Foucault promised to start collecting them.

It seems to me a long-term historical failure of this Philosophy Department that, for all its hospitality, it remained dependent on a neocolonial economy for its own survival.

I do not say this to “accuse” or lay blame. My point is that we only understand a “utopia” by also understanding that which it leaves undone. By understanding the ways it leaves us undone.

  1. To be fair, historically, the doctorate was not the foundation of a philosophical career in France. If one wanted to teach philosophy, one would typically get an initial degree — if possible at the elite Ecole Normale Supérieure — and pass the teaching exam (concours). One would then teach philosophy in secondary schools (lycées) and, while teaching, one could write a doctoral dissertation, which might provide grounds for a mid-career switch to the university system.  ↩

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