Contents Disappointed Utopia 3. The Neocolonial Bargain

Very happy, very scared

We can contrast Paul’s story with a different and less poetic case, one which returns us to everyday academic life farther out on the margins of the margins. It is the case of my friend Lila — as I will call her — a middle-aged Egyptian woman who had come to France to write a dissertation about Egyptian politics. Like Paul, she was respected as a foreign, postcolonial intellectual. Yet she occupied a more marginal position in the Department. She received no fellowships, and I felt guilty, the first time we met, when she insisted on paying for both our coffees in the small cafe near the Department. When we eventually held a more formal interview, Lila conveyed an intense experience of being a postcolonial woman in the Department, for whom the French language was already anxiogenic.

When I was doing my first enrollments, I was very scared, because I’m a foreigner. My French isn’t good. And I don’t know how the professors can accept me, I don’t know. When I first went to the department office, I was really scared. There’s the secretary, as you see, and they’re not very organized. But I really don’t care about that kind of thing! That’s Paris 8 for you!
[She spoke of Zouzi, the former secretary.] He’s very open with people. He helps a lot. That’s Paris 8. There, voilà, that’s the Left! [Laughs.] That’s what it is for me, anyway.

As a secular Egyptian activist “in the political scene,” she said she had picked Paris 8 “because it’s the university of the left.” Tellingly, it was the Arabic-speaking administrator, Zouzi, who embodied the left for her; Zouzi’s care labor worked to humanize the university institution.

Meanwhile, Lila explained that she had left Egypt for intellectual reasons, since philosophy in Egypt was “not especially good,” and she loved “French writing, their way of presenting things.” Like Paul, though, her major political involvements were related to her country of origin. And she conveyed a deeply ambivalent structure of feeling, at once happy and scared.

Lila: And since Mr. Vermeren has accepted me [as his student], I’m very happy.
Eli: And you were scared at the time that he wouldn’t accept you?
Lila: Yes, of course. And now I’ve much more scared, because, the first year happened, it worked out. But—
Eli: Now it’s the second year?
Lila: Yes — you have to turn in a lot of work, and I find that I need to deepen my knowledge further, and I’m very scared.

Although Lila had a few friendly acquaintances on campus, she found the university an isolating place. “In class, no one talks to anyone, we pass the whole year without really talking.” And outside of the university, she said, it was even lonelier still. “I don’t have time at all, at all. I’m running all the time,” she reported, running from campus to the Arabic teaching job that she had taken to make ends meet. Her language teaching work was hard, she said, because it took so much time. And she was relatively pessimistic about her future in philosophy. “I don’t think I’ll finish my dissertation. It’s so much, and it’s very hard.”

Still, in spite of her pessimism, Lila was invested in a recognizable telos of philosophical work, with a protocol of disciplinary socialization and a structural attachment to the future. She explained that, although she hadn’t been trained in philosophy, Vermeren had helped her “get those foundations.” Her work involved two simultaneous projects: “To read Foucault’s system, and to accumulate facts about Egypt.” When I pressed for details about her intellectual method, she commented that “You must not impose theory on reality; you must study reality and try to utilize theoretical tools for—” Just then, a white French woman chimed in, a mutual friend of ours: “You try it out and you see if it works or it doesn’t work, if it lets you get somewhere.” “Yes, that’s it,” Lila agreed.

A certain kind of ambivalence emerged in our conversations. This ambivalence could lead you to continue your intellectual labor in a system not made for you, in a system that offered only a very marginal space to you. It was a distressing structure of feeling: to admire the white French professoriate, which may offer you a very hospitable welcome, but nevertheless constitutes a world apart, a world which will probably never fully include you. Lila’s anxieties were not just about the French language and economic precarity; they were also the anxieties of philosophical work itself, the fear of never finishing one’s thesis, the fear of simply being overwhelmed. Still, Lila continued, in spite or because of her anxiety about her marginal existence. (She eventually did finish her dissertation.)

Both Paul and Lila had to do work to be locally accepted, and both were working on processing postcolonial history through their philosophical work. Still, the contrast between Lila and Paul teaches us something about national and gender differences within the Department’s social field. Haiti was a major focus of the Department’s foreign investments, and a community of Haitian students formed at Paris 8, which Paul belonged to. I do not believe that a similar community existed for Egyptian philosophy students; if so, Lila had not discovered it. That lack of community had direct consequences for the loneliness and vulnerability of life at this university. The isolating mass space of the campus hallways, with its flows of bodies not necessarily talking to each other, came to dominate Lila’s experience.

This experience was also inevitably shaped by gender difference. Masculinity tended to confer access to intellectual networks and to spheres of masculine mutual recognition, even across ethnoracial or national lines. While Lila was liked and respected by her dissertation advisor, no one arranged to publish her poetry or wrote her a book preface. Her ambivalence about her future in philosophy seemed amplified by her isolation. Male homosociality could provide a powerful holding environment, a powerful space of networks. The absence of such an environment was both stressful and detrimental to any sense of a future.

What then was utopian for Lila? Her precarious life and her stress were not legible, from the perspective of the Department’s official discourses. If she had any space for processing her experience, it was perhaps in the cafeteria, talking with other foreigners like me, or with her retired French friend, a woman who often smiled and offered her emotional support. If anything was utopian for her, it was perhaps just social acceptance and belonging in an institution that tended to offer neither: “Since Mr. Vermeren has accepted me, I’m very happy”; or of Zouzi, “he helps a lot. There, that’s the Left!” The left, such as it was, still retained a certain capacity to channel optimism across national boundaries.

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