As #MeToo unfolded, I was teaching at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. In my class on global student protests since the 1960s, the students, especially Black activist women, were deeply invested in questions about intersectional politics. During #FeesMustFall, a student protest movement in South Africa that had erupted in 2015, activists had confronted questions about masculinism, class differences, and the political status of women and queer people. At the University of Cape Town, not far from where I was teaching, these issues had emerged in the shadows of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the British imperialist who had “donated” the land for the campus (although he had no right to the land in the first place). The Rhodes statue was removed after sustained protest — after being showered in feces — but a similar statue at my own campus stayed in place. I felt unwelcome and inadequately masculine every time I walked by the statue of J. H. Marais, an Afrikaner diamond magnate who had endowed the campus and whose statue radiated a brutal masculine physicality. To add the obvious, as a white Northerner hired to teach in an African university, I too was a blatant symbol of academic neocolonialism. I probably should not have been hired at all (as some of my colleagues said); but in any case, once I was there, I wanted to be politically useful. I frequently asked myself what I represented to my South African students, and what would be the politics of my teaching.
In the first class I taught, I tried to historicize the categories of intersectional analysis that activist students lived by. We read about the Northern critiques of white male radicalism that had emerged in the wake of the 1960s. We focused at one point on the Combahee River Collective’s theory of Black feminist identity politics (1978), and I tried to situate it historically in the context of 1970s political radicalism in Boston. The topic was relevant, I think, but I was not fully prepared to teach it, at least not in that context. One Black woman — who was facing criminal prosecution for her student activism — told me later that it had been painful to step back and intellectualize radical politics, given the violent backlash she faced herself from white supremacist students, law enforcement and reactionary university administrators. Another student observed — rightly — that we should have read African feminists instead of U.S. feminists. Meanwhile, conservative students openly resented my class: three white women walked out of the room when we read Steve Biko, an anti-apartheid student organizer and theorist of Black Consciousness who had been killed by the police in 1977. It was a tense environment. And the longer I worked in Stellenbosch, the more I began to hear haunting, traumatizing stories about how very unwelcome Black, queer and female academics and students were in the historically white, masculinist, Afrikaans-speaking institution.
I’m describing my erstwhile workplace partly so that you can see where I was coming from as I wrote this. I sense that I too am a social product. Like everyone else. In this book you can detect the usual contradictions and failures of the author, a Northern white radical academic working in a globalized academy. But Stellenbosch also was a place that reminded me of two basic methodological points for any ethnography of a university. First: universities exist on a political field. Stellenbosch was historically a university of the political far right, an intellectual home for the architects of apartheid, while the French site of this book, as we are about to see, was a university of the political far left. The Philosophy Department that we will study was one of the most internationalist and multilingual university departments I have seen anywhere. But second: No matter which university you go to, no matter what the dominant politics are, some feel more welcome in others. There is always a field of uneven inclusion that is also a space of symbolic violence. In France, we will see that a far left department was also a place of very uneven social inclusion.
I resigned from teaching in Stellenbosch after a year. But if I learned anything in South Africa, it’s that it often ends badly to put anybody on a pedestal, especially if we are otherwise committed to liberatory values. It is not just that we need to be more thoughtful about who we memorialize. We need to be cautious about the very form of hagiography, of building pantheons, of crafting pedestals. That ought to have been what French Theory was famous for — its opposition to pedestals. Instead it became a pedestal of its own. This book takes it off that pedestal and tries to make it serve as a resonance chamber for our utopian imagination.