Haiti and the poetry of broken utopias

And what does it mean when a research project that thought it was about France and about arcane educational questions suddenly finds itself confronted with an event from across the sea? What does it mean when the question of the intellectual production of a single academic department in the Parisian banlieue turns out to be in part about how the university becomes a site for the reception and mediation of mass trauma?

Part of the answer involves this poem I came across today, by Jean Harold Paul, a Haitian doctoral student in philosophy at Paris-8 (a department that turns out to have long-standing links with Port-au-Prince). I’ve translated it with his permission for you all.

The night that we are
(in memory of Jésula and Wilmichel)

bric-a-brac of apocalypses
bric-a-break of our utopias

and if…
and then…
but are we still?

in the night where we are
in the night that we are
a horrible night
where only our dead appear dimly
without name or register
without farewell or burial

in the night where we are
in the night that we are
what’s left of us?

bric-a-brac of apocalypses
bric-a-break of our utopias

in the night where we are
in the night that we are
it’s still night
at least our presence is reflected there
a simple sensation of being somewhere
without knowing who we are
where we are
without knowing with what or with who we are

in the night where we are
in the night that we are
when will we be able to mourn
for ourselves?

Theoretical insult poetry & half forgotten pedagogy

I quite liked this laconic description of a pedagogical scene.

About ten years ago while a graduate student at Cornell I studied Pali with a linguist of southeast Asian languages, James Gair, co-author of A New Course In Reading Pali: Entering the Word of the Buddha.

I retain little of it now but recall a string of sunny mornings in Jim’s office under the eaves overlooking the quad, light coming ovoid through the round window as I combed my pencil through the suttas while being corrected and encouraged by Jim, cheered by the smiles in his giant beard.

A lot of pedagogy eventuates in forgetting, and it can only be called a stroke of luck if that forgetting happens to supplement itself with smile-laden facial hair. In this case, the forgetting is being accomplished by a curious poet, Gabe Gudding — whose course in writing I in turn mostly forget. (It was while I was in college.)

Gabe, a poet, describes poetry thus:

Poetry is the country music of literature. Given to schmaltz, nostalgia, over extension, socio-emotional reactivity, and alienation from material reality. The flipside is the hipster reaction to this: flaff, whathaveyou, langpo, N/Oulipian generativity (hipster maximalist masculinist compulsive text generation), irony as a modal approximation of self-awareness, and a conflation of experiment in form with soi-disant radical politics (the result being merely a more extravagant quietism). Our capacity for delusion is almost total.

If you read the rest of this interview you’ll see that he is attempting what reads like a most curious integration of prose poetry and Bourdieuian sociology of poetic production. There’s a certain resonance, it strikes me, at the level of illocutionary force, between Gudding’s absurdist insult poetry and Bourdieu’s rhythmically intense complaints about academia. Let’s try a quick comparison.

Here’s Bourdieu at the height of his tirade of reproaches to academia in the introduction to homo academicus (p. 19):

“There are no doubt few worlds which provide so much scope, or even so much institutional support, for the game of self-deceit and for the gap between the representation experienced and the true position occupied in a social field or space; the tolerance granted to this gap doubtless reveals the inner truth of a milieu which authorizes and encourages all forms of splitting the ego, in other words all ways of making the confusedly perceived objective truth coexist with its negation, thus permitting those most lacking in symbolic capital to survive in this struggle of each against all, where everyone depends on everyone else, at once his competitor and client, his opponent and judge, for the determination of his own truth and value, that is, of his symbolic life and death.”

Bourdieu of course always disowned all “personalistic” readings of his poems… er, sociological analyses. But still. Compare with a passage from Gabe that contains, really, a rather similar message, albeit in a somewhat different rhyme and register:

“For I would more expect a Pigeon to tote a rifle

than a wise syllable issue from your cheesepipe.

And as your nose is packed with Error I advise you to pick it often.”

Does this last line not sum up Bourdieu’s whole theory of ceaselessly vigilant reflexivity in a nutshell?

Academic despotism, praised in iambic tetrameter

Department Head

“His kingdom isn’t large, but still
He rules it with a royal will
And, as his colleagues sometimes moan,
Needs but a scepter and a throne.
Part teacher only, he’s between
A full professor and a dean.
More like a congressman, by rights,
He represents his field and fights
For added space and extra books,
More office space and shelves and hooks.
He counts his majors, keenly knowing
He has to make a stronger showing
Or (how his loyal heart is torn)
His budget will be sadly shorn.
Above his colleagues quite a distance,
He has a phone and two assistants
And teaches what he wants and when
And takes a day off now and then.
The students all are scared to death,
The new instructor holds his breath,
The others envy, hate, admire,
And try to guess when he’ll retire.”

-Richard Armour, 1956, College English 17(8):450. (There are other examples of this doggerel out there too.)

Let me just note that it’s interesting that the three themes of this poem are: the structure of departmental power (somewhere between monarchy and legislative bargaining); the budget and material supplies (down to the shelves and hooks); and the chair’s affective relations with colleagues and students (envy, fear, suspense, admiration…).