Contents Disappointed Utopia 5. Thought in Motion

Writing after midnight

The conference proved to be a space of effervescence and anxiety. The anxieties of conference performance had something in common with the anxieties of having an ethnographer along. To be seen is to risk anxiety. I complained a little about the awkwardness of my role, but my friends corrected me. “Reflect a little before you complain about being viewed as the Foucauldian police.” “An ethnologist complaining about being the observer is like a psychoanalyst complaining about transference.” That’s what I was told — ironically, of course — as I climbed up the hills with Ishmael and Marcel, the night before the first conference session.

It was evening. The spring buds were traced out in black alongside big floppy leaves, the sky darkening, the mountains in the distance blue in silhouette against the west. We found our way first though a narrow alley and then up a hillside. The hills are dense in that part of the world, covered with orchards, stone terraces, and tongues of scrubby bushes. Our path ran alongside an open sluice that had once supplied the town with water, but had gotten dried out and overgrown with moss.

Figure 47:  Hillside near Céret.
Figure 47: Hillside near Céret.

As we set out, it was at first hard to find our way out from the houses. We found ourselves facing a driveway marked Voie sans issue: Propriété privée (dead end: private property). “Private property is a dead end,” said Marcel, but he was kidding, not trying to be dogmatic. They climbed ahead of me, hands in their pockets, and we looked back at the town, with its shuttered windows and red roofs. The slopes were rocky, and Ishmael, as usual, was only wearing sandals. At dusk we turned back towards home, at a bend where an electrical pole looked like a cross silhouetted against the sky. When we got back into Céret, we found that many of our conference mates had also gone for walks, and soon we all sat down for dinner, told jokes, gossiped, and told stories.

But after dinner, the mood changed. A nervous haste set in. It was late in the evening, but for many of us, it was time to go to work — time to finish our conference talks. “To our pens!” Marcel exclaimed as he vanished into his hotel room. We seemed to be living in the temporality of just-in-time intellectual production, and just-in-time was threatening to overflow into too-late. People’s writing, by their own accounts, was chaotic and frantic. Ishmael would report getting up at 4am to write, and Marcel would say he had tried to wake up at 5am, but couldn’t get coffee until 7am. Stéphane Douailler reported getting up at 3am to write out the text of his intervention, and Marie explained that her laptop had run low on batteries, so she had had to finish writing her exposé in her hotel bathroom, the only place with an electrical outlet. A hotel bathroom: not the usual image of a place of philosophical contemplation.

Figure 48: Where I wrote my conference talk.
Figure 48: Where I wrote my conference talk.

For some, this temporal compression blurred into the anxieties of ritual performance. On Saturday, a few hours before Marcel and Ishmael were due to give their talks, I found them outside the conference lunch cafe. They were sitting mutely, not even having drinks, just waiting. Even after I sat down beside them, they were barely talking, Ishmael’s eyes falling almost closed. “Marcel, you’re nervous,” I said. “More than nervous, so totally worn out that I’m not even nervous any more,” he said. Ishmael said he could barely get to sleep the night before. Our conversation had long silences, the scene was worn out, slack; the sunlight got hotter and hotter. Both of them seemed to be in an odd state of semi-victory: the texts were finished, but not the delivery.

As the afternoon went on and the appointed time grew nearer, the stress intensified. In one pause between presentations, I found both of them pacing around outside the conference building, smoking vigorously, again barely talking. When I asked, Marcel said he smoked “a huge amount in these moments of stress.” The stress came out in the smoke, in the corporeal distance that sprang up between us, in the unaccustomed silence. Stress came out in resignation. “It’s really not great, but well, voilà, it’s done,” Marcel said of his paper, self-deprecatingly. I tried to comfort him: “You’re the only one who will see the flaws.” The talks went off without incident. Later, in the evening afterwards, they sat at the hotel bar, drinking whiskey to wind down.

These changing moods were far from being trivial details. They tell us something about philosophical work in a system of mass intellectual production. The philosophers had to churn out legible disciplinary texts. They had to produce them according to a rigid presentation schedule. And they had to move from one world to another, from the solitary moment of writing in hotel rooms in the wee hours to the social moment of presentation, exchange and reception in the conference room. This structure was genuinely scary for some of its participants. It gave them immense and real anxieties. And then it let the anxieties drain away.

The image of Ishmael quietly alone “in his thoughts” was perhaps the classic image of a modern philosopher. Yet it was radically incomplete. Our official image of a philosopher thinking does not not involve being left sleepless, silent, pacing, self-deprecatingly resigned, or “so totally worn out that I’m not even nervous anymore.” Indeed, the moment of escape into the hillside that we saw above, so pastoral, becomes legible as a moment in a structure of feeling. The happy moment of being in motion, walking outside, doing non-instrumental activity, turns out to be a moment of only provisional freedom from the anxiety of rationalized philosophical work.

This anxiety again gets into the body. Anxiety became an embodied form of reflexive knowledge, one which was no less meaningful for its lack of conceptual elaboration. In this case, Marcel and Ishmael’s anxiety was, I think, a form of reflexive knowledge about the very borders of philosophy as a field. To write and present a philosophy talk was not just a straightforward, linear production process. It was a stressful rite of passage, especially if you were new to the game. It exposed you to the risk of judgment, maybe even the risk of public failure or humiliation. I was no exception to that structure of feeling: as my own presentation drew closer, I jotted down that “I can barely function, anxious, exhausted, jumpy physically from coffee,” and I stopped taking notes.

The defining characteristic of anxiety in psychoanalysis is that it is mobile and sometimes even objectless. In this, it is unlike fear, which has a clear definite object (Salecl 2004:11). What then were these anxieties about? I would argue that they were anxieties of recognition and indeterminacy.

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