What have the French ever done for us?

On Bastille Day, Michael Cronin, 1776 Professor of French at Trinity College Dublin, salutes French ideas, from existentialist cafes to making the planet great again

French philosopher Jacques Derrida: concerned less with the question of animal rights and more with the notion of human as animal and our relationship as organisms to other members of the animal kingdom Photograph: Joel Robine/Staff AFP

French philosopher Jacques Derrida: concerned less with the question of animal rights and more with the notion of human as animal and our relationship as organisms to other members of the animal kingdom Photograph: Joel Robine/Staff AFP


In the late 1780s, the Cork clergyman Arthur O’Leary met a performing bear at Boulogne-sur-Mer in northern France. The bear could mark time, count with his paw on the sand and in the words of Eugene Davis who tells the story in his Souvenirs of Irish Footprints Over Europe (1889) he could ‘nod to the gentleman and make an Oriental salaam to the ladies with a grace and affability quite foreign to the members of his grizzly order’.

The bear, however, became irritated after been repeatedly poked at with a stick by his owner, and growled out, ‘t’anam ón Diabhal, táim cráite go deo leis an buc seo’ [The devil take him, this guy has me persecuted].

The ‘Bear’ turned out to be a monoglot Irish speaker from Dungarvan, shipwrecked while sailing to Bilbao with a consignment of dried cod. A Frenchman had subsequently sewn him up in a bearskin and made him perform. O’Leary contacted the mayor of the town, the skin was ripped open and out clambered the naked Waterford man.

The poor fisherman, if he had been asked the question ‘What have the French ever done for us’, would probably have been less than gracious in his answer and said not a lot.

I want to suggest, however, that this incident in its bizarre meeting of the human and the animal, in its brief vignette of subjection and liberation, in the contact between different languages, suggests that the French may have done much for us but in ways that are not widely understood when we generally discuss French influence in the realm of politics, literature, ideas or culture.

Part of the surprise for the audience in Boulogne-sur-Mer was the bear seeming to cross the ontological divide between the human and the animal. And it is precisely the question of animalité that has exercised the minds of French thinkers such as Jacques Derrida, Élisabeth de Fontenay and Dominique Lestel in the last number of decades.

Their concerns have been less with the question of animal rights and more with the notion of human as animal and our relationship as organisms to other members of the animal kingdom. Jean-Marie Schaeffer, for example, in his La Fin de l’exception humaine (2007) argues for the need to end human exceptionalism and recognise the embeddedness of humans in the physical world. Schaeffer draws on work in cognitive psychology and neurosciences to develop a non-reductionist continuism.

He argues that literary studies needs to work from a more ‘integrationist’ notion of human that includes a concept of human as developed in ethology, anthropology, evolutionary psychology and cognitive science.

Decentring human perspectives, deconstructing the animal/human binary that is part of the legacy of Cartesian dualism, does not mean denying difference or arguing for some form of biological reductionism (humans can be reduced to their biological, animal self) but it is a refusal to fetishise difference. The insistence on what we do not have in common with animals systematically overlooks what we do have in common. And the most obvious thing we have in common is a shared planet. Our wellbeing as a species depends on the preservation of what Bruno Latour has called our ‘common world’. A question we might ask then is: has the denial of interrelatedness to other species led to the catastrophic endgame of climate change?

I want to consider notion of interrelatedness in terms of how different languages – French and English – conceive of the environment and why this matters. Let us take the word itself, ‘environment’ . The English ‘environment’ is a relatively recent term and comes partly from the Middle French environnement, meaning surroundings, and partly from the Anglo-Norman avirounement, meaning proximity or perimeters.

The use of the term in English was relatively stable until second half of the 19th century when the term began to be used in science to describe the place where an organism lived or developed and then more specifically, to refer to the natural environment. In the closing decades of the 20th century, the term was given new meaning to describe the politics of countercultural resistance among grass-roots ‘environmental’ movements in North America.

The French term environnement has not undergone the same transformation. It largely retains the original Middle French meaning of environs. It can refer to that which surrounds an organism but it is clear that word continues to connote a person or place that is at the centre of its surroundings.

It is for this reason that Michel Serres argues in Le Contrat Naturel, ‘Oubliez donc le mot environnement, usité en ces matières. Il suppose que nous autres hommes siégeons au centre d’un système de choses qui gravitent autour de nous, nombrils de l’univers, maîtres et possesseurs de la nature’. [Forget about the word environnement, commonly used in these matters. It assumes that we humans sit at the centre of a system of things that gravitate around us, navels of the universe, masters and possessors of nature]

Serres, citing René Descartes’s famous line, ‘maîtres et possesseurs de la nature’, equates the words environnement or environnementalisme with a long history of anthropocentric thinking. He explicitly uses écologie to describe the thinking needed to understand the intertwined, reciprocal relationship between humanity and planet. Bruno Latour is equally resistant to the implications of ‘environmentalism’ and even coins a new verb, écologiser [to ecologise] as an alternative to moderniser [to modernise] to suggest modernisation in the classic Western sense is only one possible narrative among others for the development of our society and one that is certain to destroy us if continued on its present path.

Félix Guattari is equally resistant to an idea like ecosophy being reduced to a menu of sustainable lifestyle practices and argues that ‘the ecosophic problematic is that of the production of human existence itself in new historical contexts’. Transversal subjectivity – our relationship to other species – also involves our relationship to other non-organic parts of our world, including ‘machinic ecology’, the techno-scientific infrastructures in which biological life bound up. As Guattari puts it, ‘Ecology must stop being associated with the image of a small, nature-loving minority or with qualified specialists. Ecology in my sense questions the whole of subjectivity and capitalistic power formations, whose sweeping progress cannot be guaranteed to continue as it has for the past decade’.

What I want to argue is that this broad, political notion of ecology which refuses the nature/culture distinction (there is a nature ‘out there’ that we need to protect) and rejects the notion that there are such things as specifically ‘green issues’ (disposal of plastic, protection of panda bears) allows us to revisit the notion of French studies itself as a discipline.

French Studies: three paradigms

If we consider the evolution of French studies, there has been a fundamental shift at different times and at different speeds in different places from the nation state paradigm to the global paradigm. When the Chairs of Modern Languages were established in Trinity College Dublin in 1776 in the case of French the concentration was on the language, literature and culture of one country, France. This was the classic paradigm for the study of French – the study of the language variety, the history and the literature of continental France. This emphasis was very much in keeping with the post-Westphalian emergence of national sovereignty and the nation state.

The second paradigm, the global paradigm, begins to emerge from the 1960s onwards. It is driven by mixture of French geopolitical interest (maintaining spheres of influence across the planet) and the contributions of the anti-colonial and decolonisation movements where French-language activists such as Albert Memmi and Franz Fanon will come to play a prominent role.

This will eventually result in the promotion of Francophonie – a celebration of the presence of the French language across the globe. Even the literary manifesto Pour une littérature monde (2007) that was critical of some of the neo-colonial aspects of Francophonie argued for the need for French-language writing to move towards an openness to the world, to move beyond the national paradigm and embrace the multiplicity and plurality of a globalised planet. So the F is doubled and Society for French Studies becomes the Association des études françaises et francophones en Irlande.

Any given culture or language is product of endless mixing and cross-fertilisation

Returning to our earlier discussion of the broad understanding of ecology in recent French critical thinking and given the implications of climate change for all areas of life is it not time to shift from the ethnocentric and geocentric paradigms of French studies to a what might be termed a terracentric paradigm? Not the nation, not the globe, but the earth. Not the view from somewhere (nation), not the view from nowhere (looking at the blue planet from outer space) but the view from everywhere.

In thinking about what this terracentric paradigm might look like I want to briefly engage with the notion of ‘identity’ and French studies. The French sinologist François Jullien in his Le pont des singes: de la diversité à venir (2010) described how decades of working with Chinese culture had taught him that the notion of ‘identity’ was deeply problematic. Any given culture or language is product of endless mixing and cross-fertilisation. New ways of working, generational change, new forms of technology subject culture and language to continuous transformation.

He argues not for ‘identity’ which is always more or less fictive but for the idea of fécondité [fecundity]. Fecundity, expressing a dynamic sense of plurality, foregrounds the resources (ressources) of a culture. Resources not to be confused with values. As Jullien says, ‘values are the vectors of an affirmation of self. They are bound up, whatever one might claim to the contrary, in a relationship of power whereas resources are indefinitely exportable […]and available to everyone’. He gives the example of Confucianism which offers the thinker the resources of subtlety of expression, a sense of balance, the importance of a notion of ‘regulation’, the avoidance of overly dogmatic thinking. However, when Confucianism is presented as a value system, it is far less less attractive in promoting social conformism, a servile attitude to those in power and so on.

So conceiving of French studies from a terracentric perspective means no longer conceiving of French or francophone studies in exclusively identitarian terms (what our studies will tell us about the culture of France or Senegal or Quebec) but in seeing what French studies can offer in terms of the resources needed to create a resilient and habitable common world, how we might, in the much quoted words of the French president Emmanuel Macron, make the planet great again. Crucial to this terracentric perspective is the notion of situated knowledge. As knowledge is always produced in a particular place, it bears the marks and conditions of this place, but crucially places are a polis that are made up of all kinds of human and non-human elements and these elements are connected to far distant events and influences. The crucial ethical thrust of this terracentric paradigm is best expressed by Félix Guattari in his Chaosmosis when he states:

How do we change mentalities, how do we invent social practices that would give back to humanity – if it ever had it – a sense of responsibility, and not only for its own survival, but equally for the future of all life the planet, for animal and vegetable species, likewise for incorporeal species such as music, the arts, cinema, the relation with time, love, and compassion for others, the feeling of fusion at the heart of the cosmos.

Here, Guattari articulates the all-important notion of biocultural diversity. In this view, the destruction of human languages is as momentous as the loss of animal species, part of a continuum which targeted by monolingual and monocultural extractivist logics. There are two strands to this terracentric French studies. Borrowing a distinction Bruno Latour makes between plus intra and plus ultra, the plus intra strand is where you reassess literary and philosophical production in the French language from an ecosophical perspective, that is everything from the garden and and the bestiaire in medieval French literature through the writings of Michel de Montaigne, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Georges Sand to Merleau-Ponty, Gabrielle Roy, Marie Darrieussecq and Michel Houellebecq. The plus ultra strand involves the exploration of writings outside of a pre-existing body of French-language narrative and thought which brings new perspectives to bear on the notion or definition of ecosophy. Four brief examples might be the young Belgian philosopher Pascal Chabot’s L’Âge des transitions (2015), the French critic Mireille Macé’s Styles: Critique de nos formes de vie (2016), the Cameroonian political scientist Achille Mbembe’s Critique de la Raison Nègre (2013), or the two historians Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz and their L’Événement Anthropocène: La terre, l’histoire et nous (2013).

The open island

So we might say that the fecundity of the French-language tradition has potentially much to offer terracentric thinking but again that recurrent question, ‘What did the French ever do for us’? In terms of situated knowledge, that is, in relation to our situation here in Ireland, what are the resources on offer?

I mentioned in passing the controversial French novelist Michel Houellebecq. In his novel Les particules élémentaires [Atomised] (1998) it is in Trinity College Dublin that the scientist hero Michel Djerzinski has the illumination that will change the course of his life. He comes across the Book of Kells and the narrator tells us, ‘his long study of the book allowed him – in a series of intuitions which in retrospect seem miraculous – to overcome the complexities of calculating energy in biological macromolecules’. In Trinity College Dublin, the equivalent of Victor Frankenstein’s Ingolstadt University in Mary Shelley’s eponymous novel, Michel hits upon the formula for the artificial creation of life.

His next novel La possibilité d’une ïle [The Possibility of an Island] (2005) is similarly preoccupied with engendering a new race of beings, the neo-humans. These neo-humans have their own creation text about how they came into being, in one of these crypto-biblical musings we read, Le Retour de l’Humide sera l’avènement des Futurs (Houellebecq 2005: 115) [The Return of the Humid will be the advent of the Futures]. I want to reflect on how in a very literal sense the Return of the Humid will affect the Futures of where we are situated. We need consider the possibility not so much of an island as of the future for one particular island, Ireland. In this context, I want to ask what are resources of French thinking that can be brought to bear on considering our own particular ecological state of affairs.

Novelist Steinunn Sigurdardottir, one of the judges in the International Impac Dublin Literary Award 2002 reads the citation for the winning book Atomised by Michel Houellebecq at Dublin Castle in 2002. Photograph: Joe St Leger
Novelist Steinunn Sigurdardottir, one of the judges in the International Impac Dublin Literary Award 2002 reads the citation for the winning book Atomised by Michel Houellebecq at Dublin Castle in 2002. Photograph: Joe St Leger

Gilles Deleuze, in the title text of a posthumous collection of essays L’Île déserte [Desert Island] (2002,) makes a distinction between two kinds of islands, continental islands and oceanic islands.

Continental islands are islands that break off from a continental landmass, the result of a rupture or dislocation which separates them from a larger landmass – the signature note here is separation. Oceanic islands on the other hand are sui generis, the result of coral formations or an undersea volcano eruption. These are the originary, essential islands, islands placed under the sign of creation or re-creation.

Post-Brexit Britain becomes for Leave voters, both on the Right and the Left, the opportunity for beginning all over again, restoring the pristine possibility of utopia to the island

What these two island types posit is two ways of imagining islands. On the one hand, the notion of island as separate, elsewhere, disjunctive, broken off. On the other, the island as the place of radical origin, where you begin all over again, where new worlds are imagined and ushered into being. In the case of both, however, Deleuze argues there is an ontological anxiety that only disappears when it is forgotten or denied.

What the island highlights in its being is the incessant struggle between land and sea. Islands are defined by the sea around them just as the land beneath the sea may emerge at any moment and form an island.

There is a fragile equilibrium between island and ocean so that in Deleuze’s words, ‘L’homme ne peut bien vivre, et en sécurité, qu’en supposant fini (du moins dominé) le combat vivant de la terre et de l’eau’ [Humans can only live well and securely assuming that the struggle between land and sea is over (or at the very least contained)].

There are two ways to consider the Deleuzian analysis in the light of recent events in these islands. Firstly, we can see how the notion of the continental island can feed into a Brexit imaginary which oscillates between the poles of separation and re-creation. Breaking away from the European Union is a paradoxical recognition of the continental nature of the island of Britain, but continental in its separateness not in its conjoinedness. Secondly, post-Brexit Britain becomes for Leave voters, both on the Right and the Left, the opportunity for beginning all over again, restoring the pristine possibility of utopia to the island. Leaving it all behind means starting all over again.

For Ireland, on the other hand, matters are more complex, demanding a partial redefinition of Deleuzian insularity. When sea and land levels stabilised after the last ice age and rising sea levels flooded coastal areas severing the land bridges connecting us to Britain and Europe about 7,000 years ago the island of Ireland emerged. Ireland is a continental island but an island that seeks not separation from but closer partnership with the European continent. And it is arguably for this reason that the second insular function will have to come into play, namely that of the imaginative exploration of future possibility.

It is in this respect that Deleuze adds an important nuance to his island discussion when he claims that the appearance of the island is the original creation and what occurs on the island is not the ‘origine’ [origin] but the ‘origine seconde’ [second origin], the ‘naissance’ [birth] of the island gives birth to the ‘renaissance’ of the culture. As Deleuze notes we characterise life by its capacity to reproduce itself – a once off production would be an anomaly – it is only re-production, repetition, the series, that indicates we are in the presence of the living.

Taking that to be the case then we can argue that what is of crucial importance for Ireland heading into the post-Brexit world (given that the majority of its inhabitants north and south voted to remain in Europe) is that we reimagine the island not as the dead, originary site of ethno-national purity but as living site of ‘re-création’ [re-creation], ‘re-commencement’ [beginning again]. This is where, I believe, to paraphrase the title of a book by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams on Faith in the Public Square, there is room for modern languages in the public square.

In all the current debates around Europe and Brexit where we have historians, economists, political scientists furiously debating past and future scenarios for Ireland in Europe there is a remarkable absence of contributors from Irish university departments of French, German, Italian, Spanish, Polish in the public sphere despite the fact that one might suppose that if any one knew about what it might be like to be attached or related to the European continent it would be academic experts in foreign languages.

Is there a sense in which too long travelling in other languages and cultures means that in Descartes’s words, ‘on devient étranger en son propre pays’ [one becomes a foreigner in one’s own country], that the hybrid may well an object of admiration but is always a subject of suspicion? Be that as it may, it is clear that there are two ways in which the project of insular re-creation can be advanced by modern language scholars.

Firstly, from a historic standpoint, there is potential for the exploration of the island’s multiple prior engagements with Europe as a way to avoid the compulsive obsessive disorder of the Anglo-Irish gaze. Recent examples of such work can be found in Paris – Capital of Irish Culture (2017) edited by Kevin Whelan and Pierre Joannon or in the many volumes from the excellent Imagining Ireland series edited by Eamon Maher from the Centre for Franco-Irish Studies in IT Tallaght.

Secondly, in the contemporary moment, there is the development of scholarship on topics central to the development of different European cultures and societies and which feed into the model of fecundity that I mentioned earlier. One example would the work of the Irish comparative literature scholar Barry McCrea whose exploration In the Company of Strangers of the gay community in Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu shows how literary modernity developed a notion of possible community outside of the blood ties of genealogy and filiation. The relevance of his findings into contemporary debates around migration and integration are inescapable. In other words, we can make the case for how langues secondes can help us work towards or on the seconde origine.

Frantz Fanon: played a prominent role in the anti-colonial and decolonisation movements
Frantz Fanon: played a prominent role in the anti-colonial and decolonisation movements

As we mentioned earlier, in our discussion of Deleuze’s views on islands, there is the founding tension of the island, centred around ‘le combat vivant de la terre et de l’eau’. For Jean-Claude Guillebaud in his Un voyage en Océanie (1980) this tension explains islanders’ intense attachment to place (it might disappear at any moment) – and their incurable nomadism (the waters all round enclose them in their island prison so best to get out while the going is good).

Here I want to look more closely at insularity and sovereignty and ask whether the French theorist is not reminding us of a tragic oversight that will cost us dear in terms of the ‘retour de l’humide’ that will fatally compromise our futures.

Although much attention has been focused on territorial issues around Brexit, there is a startling lack of attention to the ecological dimension to sovereignty

In the ceremonies surrounding the centenary of 1916 Rising two years ago, a phrase taken from the Proclamation that was often repeated was the sentence beginning ‘We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefensible’. This is a classic nationalist statement of territorial sovereignty but as Deleuze might say does it hold water or more pointedly, what does it do with water?

Ireland has a coastline of approximately 7,400km. As the centre for Climate Change Adaptation puts it, ‘Most of the Irish Sea coast is experiencing long-term recession, beaches and dunes are retreating’. Each year two kilometres of land in 300 sites around the coast are lost due to erosion and flooding and this rate is set to increase dramatically with global sea level rise.

In other words, although much attention has been focused on territorial issues around Brexit, there is a startling lack of attention to the ecological dimension to sovereignty. There is no point in claiming the right to ownership of land that is no longer there. Which in turns suggests that we need to perhaps revisit the link between territory and sovereignty and in the words of Bruno Latour in Face à Gaïa: huit conférences sur le nouveau régime climatique think about the need for souveraineté partagée [shared sovereignty]. This is power sharing in the sense articulated in the first part of the lecture where we need to engage with the non-human agents (water/temperature/soil) that are constituent parts of our common world. What we have is the suggestion of a posthuman, post-nationalist sovereignty that sees territorial integrity as based not on separation and exclusion but on interdependence and inclusion. As sea levels continue to raise in response to climate change we urgently need to rethink the effects of our economic models and lifestyle choices on our island home.

The transitional university

Texts are famously defined by contexts and the learning and teaching of modern languages must be ever mindful of the contexts in which they are practised and taught. What we might ask is can we assume that these institutional contexts will somehow be able to remain indifferent to the major ecological challenges of our time?

Ernst Robert Curtius in his famous work on European literature and the Latin Middle Ages claimed that European universities were the ‘original creations of the Middle Ages’. The distinctiveness of these institutions for Curtius lay in their wetware and their hardware. Wetware in that they were a community of teachers and scholars – an universitias magistrorum et studentium – and hardware in the form of lecterns, libraries and private mail systems.

Though these emergent universities in Bologna, Paris, Oxford, Prague largely originated from pre-existing monasteries or cathedral schools, they represented the beginning of a sundering of education and clerical hegemony that had been a hallmark of Western Christendom for centuries. Even if the clergy would continue to exercise considerable influence, the university became increasingly aligned with secular power and sovereigns were soon to spot the political advantages in having an educated class that was prepared to support its economic, social and military interests against those of an often predatory papacy.

Thus, we might label this first form of university organisation the monarchical university to indicate the nature of ducal or regal patronage that allowed the universities to develop an autonomous identity outside the perimeter fences of ecclesiastical institutions. In terms of knowledge organisation, it is important to remember a crucial element of continuity was the transmission of Latin manuscripts which permitted the translatio studiorum, the carrying of classical antiquity to the High Middle Ages. It was not enough to store this knowledge, of course, it had to be transmitted, processed and recorded. The data-processing lecture, the data-storing university library and the data-transmitting mail network were part of an overall media system that would allow for the cumulative and recursive production of knowledge over several centuries.

National university

The changing nature of monarchy would ultimately usher in a form of knowledge organisation that would spell the end of monarchy itself as a dominant form of political expression. A characteristic of the British and French monarchies in the 16th and 17h centuries is the shift to a more strongly territorial notion of power consolidated around notions of cultural and linguistic specificity.

Henry VIII with the Act for the English Order, Habit and Language in 1537 and François 1er with the Ordonnance de Villers-Cottêrets in 1539 that makes French the sole legislative language on French territory signal the consolidation of royal power around emerging notions of national identity. When the French Revolution puts an end to royal power, the natural context for new institutionalised forms of knowledge is the nation-state. Thus, we get the foundation of École Polytechnique in 1794, the clear intention being to produce an educated group of graduates that would minister to the technical needs of the emergent republic.

The Prussian King gives university professors and high teachers the status of civil servants and the conditions are right for the emergence of what Bill Readings calls the ‘Humboldtian’ university. The purpose of this university, what I am going to call the national university, is to prepare students to be future citizens of the state. The Bildung that is dispensed is not simply a matter of individual character formation but it is designed to prepare the future graduate for public service, hence the increasing emphasis on the teaching of national language, history, geography and literature. Insurgent nationalism, the collapse of empire and the anti-imperial and anti-colonial struggles in different parts of the globe ensured the centrality of the paradigm of the national university to knowledge organisation in developed and developing nations until the closing decades of the last century.

Corporate university

From the 1980s onwards a radical reorganisation of the world economic system, loosely referred to as globalisation, created pressures for new forms of knowledge organisation. Five main features of the globalization era have been: the growing frequency, volume and interrelatedness of cultures, commodities, information and peoples across time and space; the increasing capacity of information technologies to reduce and compress time and space; the diffusion of routine practices for processing global flows of information, money, commodities and people; the emergence of institutions and social movements to promote, regulate, oversee or reject globalisation and the emergence of new types of global consciousness or ideologies of globalism which give expression to new forms of social connectedness described as cosmopolitanism.

Important geopolitical contexts for the emergence of globalisation were the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the spectacular emergence of the Asian economies – Japan, China, South Korea, Singapore – which has led to a fundamental shift in the global basis of economic production. Not surprisingly the relentless drive towards deregulation and the globalisation of production and consumption created unprecedented pressures for the traditional nation-state paradigm and its form of knowledge organisation.

As Thomas Doherty claims in Universities at War (2014), ‘Virtually every university institution nowadays presents itself as somehow shaped or determined in its fundamental values and activities by globlaization’. The most public face of the university is ritually expressed in the ‘mission statement’ which mixes the evangelising zeal of monotheisms with the corporate outreach of the transnational business enterprise. The internationalisation of university rankings, the institutional implantation of campuses in different geographical territories, the active recruitment of foreign students (only, of course, if the students are prepared to pay dearly for this education) and the vertiginous rise in the control and surveillance logic of corporate managerialism, all point to the estrangement of the university from the earlier nation-state paradigm. This is not say that the national university has been totally usurped by the corporate university anymore than the national university in Europe in the 19th century signalled the immediate end of the monarchical university. Forms inevitably overlap but the core argument here is that forms of knowledge organisation inevitably respond to broader societal changes.

The Australian theorist McKenzie Work has argued that the ‘production and reproduction of our species-being, whatever it may be, has to be a central concern of any critical knowledge’. The challenge of the Anthropocene – the era of human-induced climate change – is precisely the need to question deeply-help assumptions, to think the unthinkable and to develop new forms of knowledge responsive not just to our current predicament but to the planet which will be inherited by those who come after us.

The need to orient knowledge to different ends by taking means seriously requires among other things that we reconsider the infrastructures of knowledge, in particular those whose avowed aim is the support and promotion of research, universities. It might be asked whether universities as they are currently constituted are capable of the development of a critical knowledge that meets the current and future needs of the ‘production and reproduction of our species-being’?

The difficulty is that the employment needs, the nutritional needs, the educational needs of the planet’s inhabitants cannot be met by a growth model which is predicated on the unsustainable and destructive use of increasingly scare resources whether this be water, land, food or knowledge itself, corralled off in the auction rooms of the patents market.

Transitional university

This is where we might speculate on the emergence of the transitional university, a form of knowledge organisation that is directed to the creation of a carbon-neutral, sustainable and resilient economy and society. In what follows I will try to suggest why at a conceptual level the transitional university represents a radical departure from conventional ways of accommodating environmental issues. I will then argue that consideration of modern languages can potentially help us to engage with a number of core concerns in new critical forms of knowledge organisation.

Any organisation is at its most basic level is a process that creates an environment. It allows you to draw general lines in the fabric of the whole. You make some kind of cut in the universe, to simultaneously create and order an inside from an outside. So what kind of cut do we make when dealing with climate change?

To put this into context I want to allude briefly to the notion of ‘advents’ that the French philosopher Quentin Meillasoux has developed in L’Inexistence divine. Meillasoux’s argument is that there are three specific points in the history of the universe where there has been the emergence ex nihilo of distinct worlds: the World of the material, the World of life and the World of thought:

So far there seem to have been three [worlds] of irreducible facts: matter (reducible to what can be theorized in physico-mathematical terms), life (understood more specifically as a set of terms, that is, affections, sensations, qualitative perceptions, etc., which cannot be reduced to material processes), and finally thought (understood as a capacity to arrive at the ‘intelligible contents’ bearers of eternity, and which as such is not reducible to any other terms).

Advents, for Meillasoux, are forms of emergence without precedent. In the transition from non-life to life, the laws of biological life were not somehow contained in the pre-life world. Combinations that were inherent in the organisation of the living could be imagined as possible cases of the World of matter but not as latent in it, as if it were a ghostly potential force. In the transition from the Holocene to the Anthropocene we are arguably living through one of these radical discontinuities in the fabric of what has come before, an Advent moment that ushers in a new World.

When we pause to think of what the Holocene brought in its wake – agriculture, advanced forms of technology, urbanisation, animal domestication, the births of languages and religions and translation – the entry into a new geological era, the anthropocene, characterised by unboundedness, incalculability and unthinkability poses fundamental challenges to our habitual forms of knowledge organisation and institutional expression. So what future then for the university? How might we transition to the transitional university? And where do modern languages come into this picture of epochal shift?

Transversal subjectivity

Treating our ecological condition as yet another research topic or disciplinary sub-interest is a non-runner. Climate change is the outside that cannot be internalised in this way. Green Campus initiatives that encourage ecological good practice while laudable and necessary should not be confused with the more daunting task of finding a form of knowledge organisation that is adequate to our predicament. The biologist Edward O. Wilson in The Future of Life (2002) see specific, long-range historical thinking as crucial to curbing humanity, as ‘planetary killer, concerned only with its short-term survival’ (202).

Wilson argues it is only when humans begin to think of themselves as species that they can begin to take the longer view not only as an important exercise in critical self-understanding but as a means of securing the future. For Rosi Braidotti this move towards species awareness is a necessary step towards post-anthropocentric identity. Critical at the present moment is the de-centring of anthropos, ‘the representative of a hierarchical, hegemonic and generally violent species whose centrality is now challenged by a combination of scientific advances and global economic concerns’. Being ‘matter-realist’ to use her term is to take seriously our multiple connections to natural and material worlds. If we conceive of the notion of subjectivity to include the non-human then the task for critical thinking is, as Braidotti herself admits, ‘momentous’. This would involve visualizing the subject as ‘a transversal entity encompassing the human, our genetic neighbours the animals and the earth as a whole, and to do so within an understandable language’ . If we bear in mind what Braidotti has to say about new, emergent forms of subjectivity, ‘a transversal entity encompassing the human, our genetic neighbours the animals and the earth as a whole’, the emphasis is clearly on extended forms of relatedness.

This transversal subjectivity demands translation if the relatedness is to be anything other than simple contiguity. Thus, we might imagine for a moment a very different organisation of the current university, one which focuses on the Commons – those goods such as the water in the oceans or the air regarded as mere externalities and which were and still are constantly polluted. In this Elemental University we might have a Faculty of Air, a Faculty of Fire, a Faculty of Earth and a Faculty of Water. Recasting our institutional arrangements means at one level shifting the focus to the neglected externalities that make up life support systems on planet. If we have the physicists, the biologists, the engineers, the medical faculty, the computer science specialists, the philosophers, the comparative literature scholars all working together, for example, in a Faculty of Water - one of the most vital and endangered resources on our planet at present - then we have the potential coming together of anthropological and materialist approaches which are so necessary to holistic approaches to climate awareness. What this coming together begs, however, is the question of translation, or communicability across difference.

Crucial from the point of view of what might underpin the operations of the transitional university is that we find a line of thought going from Spinoza to Bergson to Raymond Ruyer, Gilbert Simondon, Félix Guattari, Gilles Deleuze, Rosa Braidotti, Val Plumwood and Timothy Morton which professes a form of continuism. Continiusm treats matter, organism, psychic and collective individuation on the same plane and in the words of Morton, ‘the fact that interconnection is also a thing, not just an abstraction or convenient idea, has really surprising deep implications’. It is precisely the collapse of continuism, the dualistic separation of subjects and objects, the instrumentalist, extractivist ideology of an inanimate universe that can manipulated by a select animate species that has brought us to our sorry ecological pass. One of the roles of the transitional university would be look to ways of making sure that the study of these continuums would form a fundamental part of intellectual enquiry and pedagogical practice.

WBS Taylor in his History of the University of Dublin said of Provost Hely-Hutchinson and his action in establishing the modern language chairs in TCD:

‘He was a man of an enlightened mind and extended views; he clearly perceived what those those who are secluded from intercourse with the world could not comprehend, though great their learning in books. He saw that, unless some innovations were made in their system, to bring it more to the real business of life, in a few years it would be left far behind.’ We might rephrase Taylor’s encomium and talk in an ecological sense of the ‘real business of life’ as pertaining to the living and those who will come after us. And the real business of a living planet has much to learn from French studies just as French studies has much to learn from a deep and sustained engagement with our island and our planet.

  • This is the text of the inaugural lecture given by Michael Cronin, 1776 Professor of French at Trinity College Dublin, on March 28th
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