Contents Disappointed Utopia 3. The Neocolonial Bargain

Men aren’t disposable

As a final incident suggests, the bitter precarity that afflicted the students could also reach the staff. One year at a department meeting, an older North African administrator, Hamid, stood up to give a speech. Earlier that year, he had given up his position as department secretary to take on a year-long research contract. Officially it was a retirement. But I gathered that it had been a matter of some institutional maneuvering with the university administration, and the new position was nonrenewable. He must have known that at the start. He rose, nonetheless, to ask that the Department help him keep his job.

“It’s the moment to pass the baton,” he said. “I’m making a fair amount of effort: I’ve left a real job for a fictional job, in order to hold on to a teaching line for the future of the department… I have problems with physical mobility; administrative tasks and public transportation are getting hard for me.”
The assembled professors considered his request, but it seemed that there was no institutionally legitimate way to extend his job, and there was a reluctance to go outside normal channels.
This reluctance seemed to frustrate Hamid, who gave a further speech about all that was going wrong with the department. He railed against a new enrollment deadline in August, which he read as a portent of fascism. “It’s the disappearance of philosophy, the only thing guarding us against technocratic and administrative fascism at the university…”
“Men aren’t disposable [les hommes sont pas jetables],” he concluded painfully.

Eventually there was a brief debate about whether to even put the matter to some sort of a vote. But the uneasy consensus was that there was nothing to be done.

So nothing was done.

Hamid too was quite attached to philosophy, and to the Philosophy Department in particular. Philosophy, he declared, was a guard against fascism. He maintained himself, too, as a moral subject charged with a particular masculine dignity: men aren’t disposable.

Yet Hamid’s very protest served to reveal the precarity of this intellectual workplace. It showed philosophical belonging was vulnerable to shifts in labor relations. It showed the disturbing ease with which certain subjects slip from the margins of philosophy to just being outside it. Not all marginality is even nearly utopian.

A precarious subject such as Hamid would not necessarily be honored with a memorial conference or an honorific notice in the Department’s subsequent course brochure. For a year or two he did, however, continue teaching his preferred class, “Arabic for Philosophers.” He was remembered most prominently by a large painting of his face which hung above his former desk in the Department office, an index of a present absence.

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