Contents Disappointed Utopia 5. Thought in Motion

Nomad thought

Jean Borreil, the Catalan philosopher to whom we paid homage, had never been a global theory star.[2] Many of the conference participants were unacquainted with Borreil, who had already been gone for decades. But the older French academics all brought up Borreil. Patrice Vermeren’s paper at Céret recycled part of a homage he had written to his friend in 1992. Christine Bouissou, a fellow Calalonian, dedicated her paper to him, “the friend I spent time with for more than twenty years.”

The homage at the heart of the conference was thus a masculine homage, like other memorial conferences I saw at the Philosophy Department. While women constituted nearly half of the conference presenters at Céret, the horizon of citation remained predominantly masculine. Meanwhile, the organizing work of the conference was handled by two female students, and the gender disparity in this structure of care and support work went without comment. The two philosophers from the Philosophy Department, Douailler and Vermeren, were clearly at the social and disciplinary heart of the conference. Intriguingly, though, the most institutionally powerful participants were all women. Michèle Gendreau-Massaloux, who spoke about the Mediterranean as a border space, had been a senior figure in the Mitterrand presidential administration from 1984 to 1989, and subsequently held numerous high-level roles in French public administration. Bouissou, one of the only presenters to discuss gender, was a university vice president. And the conference itself was sponsored by Joséphine Matamoros, who directed the Céret Museum of Modern Art. The masculinity of the homage to Borreil was thus not exclusive of women’s participation or of women’s power.

In spite of its masculinity, the ensuing space of homage was a highly reflexive space. Within the conference, one could reflect on one’s relationship to Borreil, on one’s own relationship to borders, on the relations between Catalonia and philosophy, and on the relations between border spaces and border concepts. The museum director, Joséphine Matamoros, was ill and unable to attend the conference itself, but she expressed her ties to Borreil in a brief preface to the published conference proceedings.

At the eve of my departure from Céret’s Museum of Modern Art, it was important to me to give homage to the one who had labored for the intellectual and historical recognition of this patch of territory that is North Catalonia: without him, and without his support, my trajectory would have been different, without any doubt. As my career reaches its term, a rapid glance backwards reveals — despite the steep and often arid path — the extraordinary illumination [éclairage] that Jean Borreil provided, which followed me through every step.
[Matamoros 2011:13]

Such statements were themselves acts of memory. They often invoked a sense of the body, as if the memory of embodiment provided a sort of reality effect. Matamoros evoked her own sense of biographical motion, of a “trajectory” and a “glance backwards” at the “steep and arid path” of her existence. In her image of things, Borreil himself served less as a moving body himself than as a source of “illumination” for her own motion. (Did this scenario, where a man illuminates the path of a woman, ever occur with the gender roles reversed?)

Other homages showed how Borreil’s own motion through the world was inseparable from his relationship to the border. Vermeren lingered on the image of Borreil walking, borrowing the prose from an homage he had coauthored in 1995 with a painter, Maurice Matieu.

He walked quickly. He had in the step something of those who know how to move, and this way of wrapping himself in his raincoat as he advanced. A gift from childhood? A habit garnered on the mountain where he was born? In Paris as in Barcelona, in Tübingen and in Dublin, he paraded his cap and his mustaches with the same determination. He crossed the Spanish border by smugglers’ paths. By instinct he knew where to get through. He had a mental geography, drawn from his history and his readings, which he would test on the spot.
[Matieu and Vermeren 1995:5]

Borreil’s physical act of walking became inseparable from his Catalonian identity, from an intimate knowledge of the physical landscape, and from a capacity to follow the paths of transgression — that is, the smugglers’ paths across the border. The figure of the nomad turned out to be a key image of Borreil’s philosophical work. For Borreil, “There is no return… there is only loss,” according to his former colleague Alain Badiou (2009:152), who also noted that “the enemy of thought is constantly identified by Borreil as the rightful owner [le légitime propriétaire]” (148). Thought was something mobile and nomadic that “follows a wandering and difficult line” (147). In this, it opposed the sedentary territoriality of such “rightful owners” as the capitalist, the state, or the owners of private property.[3]

Perhaps there is always tension between utopias as sedentary territories and utopia as a principle of motion. “Utopia can become a margin… it can also become a bitter realism,” Borreil wrote once (1978:69). Philosophy at Paris 8 was a vulnerable territory, constantly defended and arduously reproduced. It was also a place that showed you how uncomfortable a home is, how restless it can become, how disappointing, how unsettling. I keep thinking about thought that sets out but never comes home: “There is no return, there is only loss.” A far cry from a structuralist vision of knowledge as a largely stable system.

Thought in the Céret sense was an ambiguous form. Its definition was a field of struggle; its practices elicited disagreement. In all its forms it was immanent to a place, to a situation, to a history. It took people on mental journeys to faraway places, only to then bring them back full of anxiety, hastily writing long before dawn, even trembling before they spoke. After Céret, we did go on to publish our conference talks. We listed our essays on our CVs. In that sense, Céret remained a part of academic reproduction in a neoliberal university. But only a very liminal part.

If thought is often an affective form that takes you into a “game of back and forth” with the world, then in this, in its shape, it can also teach us something about the basic ambiguity of a disappointed utopia. Always it remains part of the system it wants to refuse. And this liminality is also what makes it able to continue. I did not necessarily find that there was anything very “utopian” about the form of these philosophers’ professional writing. Its existence was mandatory; it satisfied the production imperatives of the neoliberal university. Its content, on the other hand, could be quite heterodox, freed from the strictures of a mainstream academic discipline. Sometimes it was even radical.

Probably no one can be a utopian all the time. Some of these subjects seemed to be utopians in the morning, neoliberal text-producers in the afternoon, ambivalent self-critics in the evening. This sort of dividedness, where the division is often spread out over time, defines what I call a disappointed-utopian subject. Sometimes such a subject keeps its utopian parts outside itself, as if distancing itself from its defining ideals. And then later it might find them again.

  1. He was known in the Paris 8 milieu largely as a participant in the radical history that centered around Jacques Rancière, Révoltes Logiques.  ↩

  2. Borreil’s repudiation of property and propriety also resonated with the Philosophy Department’s embrace of exophilia and marginality. He was said to be committed to a “repudiation of the universal” (Badiou 2009:152). “His thought testified… to a solid and insatiable philosophical appetite which got him interested in all that was foreign to him” (Vauday 2006:82). The “art of contraband, of theft, of despecification [was] typical of Jean Borreil’s manner” (Douailler 1995:61).  ↩

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