“I’m in my thoughts,” Ishmael had said.
It could be a portrait of the modern philosopher: a French man withdrawn from his immediate surroundings, at least momentarily, and deep in contemplation, we knew not of what. It struck me, at the time, as an ethnographic enigma. Thought was happening right in front of me, and yet I had no access to it, no understanding of it. Ishmael was in his thoughts and they were in him; they left no obvious interactional traces. They were unobservable. And they were indecipherable, since thought was at once inward mental activity and meaningful participation in a key ritual of philosophical action. To think, for Ishmael on the train, was also to be seen thinking, to look busy (deliberately or not) in front of your colleagues. And yet it was not purely performative: something was actually being produced in the thoughtwork, something which may have been immaterial, but still had a use-value and an exchange-value.
My ethnographic participation in the conference had involved a transaction. In exchange for my free hotel room, I had had to agree to give a talk at the conference. This left me with the dilemma of what to talk about. I wrote to Marie: “I am not at all sure that I have the disciplinary or intellectual legitimacy (not to mention the linguistic competence) that a presenter ought to have.” But I also had a desire to perform. After having observed philosophers for more than a year, I wanted to show that I had something to tell them. I wanted to bring my reflexivity to the table, to make this reflexivity into a mirror in which they could see themselves. As if to provide a countergift for their many gifts to me.
I hit upon the idea of talking about the very notion of thought, since the French term la pensée cropped up constantly in philosophical discourse, much more than in American analytic philosophy. I proposed to Marie to give a talk called “Ethnography of the universal: thought and its national limits.” It was very last minute; on the train to Céret, I scoured the Philosophy Department’s texts for uses of the word “thought.” I was soon struck by a very long sentence in the Department’s course brochure, which I found hard to understand.
Opposant à l’injonction ordinaire des univers culturels demandant à la pensée de « se faire monde » une résistance plus forte que n’ambitionnent généralement de le faire les philosophies pragmatiques attachées à réduire les figures d’hétérogénéité au sein des structures logico-mathématiques du langage et de l’action ou les philosophies herméneutiques se vouant à les maîtriser dans des logiques et éthiques du consensus, ils s’obligent à explorer systématiquement les ressources critiques de la philosophie contemporaine et des pratiques humaines et sociales capables de retenir les aventures réelles du présent de s’identifier spontanément aux partages préformés des vies et des pensées, aux existences organisées sous l’État selon le réseau donné des liens économiques et juridiques, aux représentations artificieuses et rassurantes de la modernité.
It [the Department’s teaching and research] opposes the ordinary cultural injunction that asks thought to “become world” [se faire monde]. It opposes it with a stronger resistance than one generally finds in the ambitions of pragmatic philosophies, which are invested in reducing the figures of heterogeneity to logico-mathematical structures of language and action, or in hermeneutic philosophies, which aim to incorporate them within the logics and ethics of consensus. It sets out to systematically explore the critical resources of contemporary philosophy and human social practices, and to use these to keep the real adventures of the present from identifying with the predetermined divisions of life and thought, with State-organized existence within the extant networks of economic and legal relations, with modernity’s artificial, consoling representations.
“The department’s teaching and research… oppose the ordinary cultural injunction demanding thought to ‘become world.’” What might this mean, for thought to “become world,” I asked myself? I turned to Marcel, sitting across the table from me. Marcel examined the passage, seeming to get lost in the length of the sentence. Ten lines went by without a period in the French original, which was long even by philosophers’ standards. Marcel also found it puzzling. To “become world” (or more literally, to “make itself world”): what, precisely, could that mean? Neither of us knew. We speculated that perhaps it was one of those ceremonial phrases in institutional discourse that no one ever really reads. It was only a stray sentence introducing a course brochure, after all.
Soon I discovered the author, Stéphane Douailler, sitting in the row behind me. As we have seen, Douailler was often solicited to produce collective representations for his Department. But he didn’t seem surprised that I was perplexed by the sentence in question. He explained that it sought to express an opposition to the expectation that “thought” should have to realize itself in the world, should have to become the world, should have to be realizable, or perhaps pragmatic, functional, operative. He added that another part of this long sentence was supposed to express a resistance to any ”thought” that would seek to be total or complete. Thus the utterance aimed to oppose both a completely practical, technocratic relationship to thought, but also to oppose any philosophy that might seek to govern and transform society in a totalizing, unhesitating fashion.
This was not just thinking: it was thinking about thinking. It was thinking about the politics of thinking. It was thinking in public for an implied audience. (We may not be quite sure who that audience was, but as non-French non-philosophers, we can be sure we were not it.) And without parsing this long sentence in full, it is worth noticing that it reveals a strong sense of borders within thought. If thought is a space, it is not an undifferentiated one. Douailler’s discourse took pains to distinguish what happened in the Philosophy Department from various other kinds of philosophy, such as “pragmatic philosophies” and “hermeneutic philosophies.” And he invoked the local trope of thought as adventure — an adventure which involved some sort of escape from “modernity’s artificial, consoling representations.”
I have nothing against consolation, and it seems to me that the text too had a certain consoling function. It reassured its readers that the Philosophy Department itself had a mission. A highly oppositional, conflictual mission. A reflexive mission — one which had indisputably moved on from the 1970s-era Maoist-revolutionary mission statements, arriving at a more gently stated critique of “ordinary cultural injunctions.”
One could say a great deal about what a complex statement like this was trying to convey. But the more general point is just this: thought was never a tabula rasa. Rather, the philosophers were thinking in a densely organized, mythicized, symbolically jagged landscape, like Freud’s Rome with its many overlapping layers of history. In short, thought had baggage, it had barriers within it, and it was always already highly reflexive. My conference paper sought to make some of these points, but I have to say it was very underdeveloped.