Contents Disappointed Utopia 3. The Neocolonial Bargain

I had to take care of them somehow

Who was Patrice Vermeren, who had done so much to make Lila feel accepted? During my fieldwork, I found that certain white French professors had become deeply invested in mediating foreign exchange. Vermeren had come to embody the Department’s connection to Latin America. His xenophilia was in part a response to his own ambivalence about French academic institutions. It emerged from a very particular historical conjuncture: from a relationship of solidarity that he had developed with Chilean philosophers under the Pinochet dictatorship.

Vermeren became chair of the Philosophy Department in 2010, at the end of his career. He had been born 61 years earlier in the provincial city of Reims, and he shared the anti-institutional mood that oriented his post–1968 generation of philosophers.[11] Above all, he was known for supporting Latin American philosophers, who thanked him prolifically in their dissertation acknowledgements:

Carlos Contreras Guala, 2008: “To Patrice Vermeren for his initiative, constant care, ongoing generosity and for his unswerving militancy in favor of the right to philosophy for all men and women [para todos y para todas].”
Carlos Perez Lopez, 2012: “I must also thank Patrice Vermeren in my own name and in that of so many friends who, without him, would not have been able to carry out their studies in France.”

When I interviewed Vermeren, I learned that this Latin American connection had begun in the 1980s. Through the Parisian philosophical circles of the time, Vermeren had encountered a group of left Catholic Chilean philosophers who needed support, cast out of the academic world by the Pinochet regime. When Vermeren visited Chile for a solidarity conference for these marginal figures, he explained, it made an impression.

I remember something quite moving. The son of Miria, who had been Allende’s secretary, had died in the assault on the Moneda Palace. There was his portrait, and the woman was crying, talking about her son. Demanding his burial — for he had disappeared. So in Chile I found these very interesting people. And I realized that, in terms of their philosophical questions, they couldn’t really talk about current events. They couldn’t criticize the way that the University of Chile had basically been destroyed. And so they switched to doing genealogy. Several people were working on the history of philosophical institutions in Chile.
What I really remember was the fear. It was really something, the fear. I remember Rodrigo telling me, look, that man speaking, this woman speaking, with minor roles in student life, they could disappear. And so the dictatorship had already advanced: there were still people disappearing, but much less, and much less in Chile than in Argentina…

When he got home, Vermeren reached an existential conclusion. “I couldn’t go on as if I had merely given a talk abroad, I had to take care of them somehow.” He had worked with UNESCO to organize a series of trans-Atlantic intellectual exchanges, and after the end of the Pinochet regime in 1990, his work culminated in a particular kind of symbolic recognition.

Eli: You had a position in Chile, honorary professor?
Patrice: After the end of the military dictatorship, my Chilean friends wanted to thank me for my efforts on their behalf. But it was important for them because — what they always said was that, even if I hadn’t done all that much, they no longer felt so alone. And that mattered. So then Humberto Giannini, a major figure in Chilean philosophy, basically invented a position as Honorary Professor at the University of Chile. So there was a ceremony, and a diploma, which I still have.

Initially, I did not take this very seriously.

Eli: But it wasn’t a permanent position?
Patrice: Uh, that is, it’s not remunerated, but it’s a permanent position. I have the title of Honorary Professor at the University of Chile.
Eli: But that doesn’t mean you have an office, a teaching load and all that?
Patrice: Uh, I don’t have an office, but when I go to the Philo Department at the University of Santiago de Chile, I’m at home there. When I go there, I talk to everybody. It’s a real title [titre], in the official sense. The rector was there, and the dean, and the professors. No it’s, it’s a real title!

I felt had I had to apologize for my dismissal, but my apologies provoked a fleeting moment of unambivalence.

Eli: I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say—
Patrice: No no, it’s just that — what I meant was — in any case, for me, it’s really the most important title that I’ve ever gotten. Because symbolically, it corresponds to something that’s — well, what are you doing with your life, eh?
Eli: Yes, absolutely, absolutely.
Patrice: Even if it isn’t much…

The Department’s postcolonial relationships were thus maintained in part by the “care labor” of its own senior professors, a sort of labor that interrupted the nationalist conventions of French philosophy to build new ties abroad. It becomes interesting, however, to compare the care labor of a professor like Vermeren with the care labor of a North African administrator.

  1. Vermeren’s major book, Victor Cousin: The play of philosophy and the state (Vermeren 1995), was a detailed study of the institutionalization of philosophy in 19th century France. His reflexive work often felt like it had something in common with my own, and he always supported my research project.  ↩

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