Contents Disappointed Utopia 3. The Neocolonial Bargain

Care labor and the love of the Department

While the professors often cared for their students, they did not handle all the domestic or bureaucratic work of the Department. One of the department secretaries, whom I will call Rabah, considered it his job to facilitate internal sociability within the Department, freely serving coffee and tolerating large amounts of non-work-related banter. Rabah was a North African philosopher who had gotten his doctorate from the Department, and like other North Africans, he spoke freely about endemic racism in France.

His work kept the Department functioning not just bureaucratically but also socially and affectively. As Lila had observed, the Department was often disorganized. I asked Rabah how students reacted to its bureaucratic problems.

Rabah: They get used to it, and I try to reassure them as well. To not dramatize. You have to go slowly. Keep everything relative.
Eli: So what do you tell them?
Rabah: I invent something every time. I say something to each to student to keep them…
Eli: But I’m guessing they get pretty worried?
Rabah: Yes, they worry a lot. A lot of the students get worried. But I reassure them. I tell them: go to class, and you’ll get your diploma, don’t worry about it. And they leave more calmed down.
Eli: You have a therapeutic side there, eh?
Rabah: Oh, well, you gotta, right?

Rabah thus understood his own labor as not only about bureaucratic procedure, but also as salving the emotional wounds of a disorganized institution. I learned that not only did he provide subaltern emotional labor, he was poorly compensated for it. I asked why he stayed involved. I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe out of love of the department, maybe to stay close, to stay plugged into philosophy and to see what was happening up close.”

At the time of our interview, he was still a contract worker, rather than having a permanent administrative position. When I asked him if he wanted to stay, he said laconically, “I’m not sure yet.” He did stay, though, in the end (I heard he got a permanent staff position). It was as if the possibility of leaving were also a condition of his ambivalent attachment.

Throughout our interview, Rabah was interrupted constantly as professors entered the office (even though the door was closed) to make requests and run errands. I began to wonder how we might understand Rabah’s subjective position. Who recognized Rabah? — Everybody. Who did Rabah recognize? — Almost everyone in the Department. Rabah’s gaze was largely synonymous with the Philosophy Department as such, but he was in no way the sovereign subject of the Department; his work was the under-recognized work of institutional reproduction, rather than the work of philosophical “production.”

If he was viscerally aware of anything on campus, it was the force of institutional power; but what power did he have himself? Above all, he seemed to have a reparative, therapeutic, technical power: the power to share affect, coffee and recognition; the power to arrange boundaries, documents, and institutional belongings. He buffered you from the state apparatus even while being part of it. Such was the state of administrative labor in this context: it was a force that interrupted structures and softened structures even while itself constantly being subject to interruption. It was somehow persuaded to work for the low wages of love for, and proximity to, a utopian space.

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