My Night(mare) with Philosophers by Samia Rahman
It is the nocturnal life that seems to suit me best. Since my early days I have felt both a fascination and contentment with the stillness of the night. The moonlit hours of my much younger days were often spent reading and writing feverishly while the daytime seemed too alive with distractions to allow the full immersion of thought and isolation of presence that writing required. I can even recount one particular winter at university when I did not see daylight at all such were my unconventional sleeping patterns. The years marched on and I discovered the cultural riches London offers that extend well into the early hours. So it was that the nights of study became interspersed with meandering, solitary journeys home on night buses that I can promise you feed the mind in more ways than you could imagine.
Eventually my introduction into the world of work brought my love affair with the night to an abrupt and regretful end.
So it was with much excitement and some trepidation that I learned the Institut francais was holding an intellectual extravaganza on Friday 8th June 2012 from 7pm until 7am that my student self could have only dreamed of but my less young self was far less capable of enduring. All-nighters are a thing of the past in my world. My night-time routine consists of falling asleep watching Newsnight. How times have changed.
I convinced myself I had to attend. The first of its kind in the UK the speakers and performers were too enticing to miss, despite the unearthly hour. I read the programme all agog with heightening enthusiasm. We were promised, among others, Benoit Peeters lecturing at 8pm on Jacques Derrida: A Life, UCL’s Jonathan Wolff contemplating Political Philosophy and Real Life at 5.30am, Ken Gemes of Birkbeck musing Nietszche, Nihilism and the Death of God at 2.30am and UCL’s Cecile Laborde asking How Universal Is French Secularism? at 9pm.
The precedent had been set at hugely successful events at the Maison Française d’Oxford and the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. Would London have the appetite for a night of philosophy, lectures, music, readings, debates and arts? It would seem so. Would I have the stamina to last the night? I was doubtful.
I arrived at the Institute in South Kensington to a throng of attendees. This free event was heaving with philosophers, wannabe philosophers and the downright curious. Long, winding queues down the grand marble staircase were marked by their politeness and stewarded by efficient and supremely organised stewards. Events, usually 20-30 minutes long, were held simultaneously in every corner of the Institute including the impressive library and plush cinema. The only negative aspect was the epic queuing, but that was testament to the night’s overwhelming success.
Accompanied by my companions, one of whom had just emerged from Oxford University’s Anita Avramides talk entitled Dreamers and Zombies, I manoeuvred my way through the masses to what appeared to be the shortest queue and by default ended up in the cinema ensconced in fabulously comfy seats. There I listened to Mathieu Potte-Bonneville, président of Collège International de Philosophie, ask Is Philosophy Talking to Anyone? The answer? No, and yes. I have to confess I was a little distracted by his delectable French accent and also very put off by the young lady next to me who was fast asleep. Surely it was far too early to be nodding off already! With every seat coveted and a one-in-one-out policy into the various lectures it seemed criminal to waste such an opportunity when hundreds were clamouring to enter. Sensibly she appeared to leave after the lecture and such a spectacle did not present itself again, even in the early hours.
I was next introduced to Art, Truth and Picasso courtesy of Oxford’s John Hyman, followed by a journey into The Life of the Mind with Michelle Montague, also of Oxford, after which I was left with a new respect for the concept of phenomenology.
It was at this point I was unable to delay a trip to the ladies any longer, which inevitably involved more queuing but this was made quite bearable by more philosophical musings among those waiting. After a while the conversation slipped into French, this was the French Institute after all, but happily by then I was at the front of the queue and able to slope off without revealing my ignorance. I then managed to wait my way into a reading of Jacques Ranciere’s Le spectateur emancipe by Sarah Stern. Unfortunately I thought I was waiting for Magali Bessone reading from ‘the negro is not. Anymore than the white man’ Franz Fanon’s reading on the construction of ‘race’ as a hegemonic tool that reinforces hierarchy and superiority. I was therefore a little confused when Stern launched into her mesmerising performance entirely in French that my school-girl lessons proved entirely inadequate for.
It was soon after 1am, when some of my companions had skulked home on the last tube, that I settled into the cinema seats for one of the highlights of the night: Embracing the Other? The Philosophy of Multiculturalism featuring the wonderful Muslim Institute Fellow Rania Hafez among others. My anticipation was bitter-sweet, however, and I have to say this proved a frustrating experience, despite the illuminating presence of Rania. The discussion was weighted from the start and oozed a neoliberal, Eurocentric approach to multiculturalism.
What struck me was the lack of context throughout the debate. Any definition of multiculturalism was not even attempted. Instead we heard a series of anecdotes that felt more emotive than philosophical. It didn’t seem to me that this was a move to stimulate the audience and provoke debate. Instead it appeared the panel, which was dominated by personalities with a fixed and dare I say dogmatic view of the issue, wanted the audience to submit to their view. That is not to say there was no dissent among the speakers. Dr Jonathan Chaplin, director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, Cambridge, Dr Patrice Maniglier of the University of Essex and Professor Fabienne Brugere offered diverse and in some cases less hostile perspectives. However they were overshadowed by the more forthright Angus Kennedy and Chair Claire Fox of the Institute of Ideas whose own bias was palpable.
This pandering to the present political landscape rather than an attempt at proper analysis was no more blatant than during the Q&A session. One audience member who made the point that multiculturalism ought to be viewed through the prism of colonialism and imperialism was roundly dismissed by the panel and the Chair. The lack of historical context I found depressing. I asked the panel why educating people to consider the power and implications of the words they use (a consequence I believe of multiculturalism) and prompting a change in social attitudes towards language should be considered negative. Did I therefore advocate censorship, the Chair asked, or in effect a curtailing a freedom of speech? Of course not, I responded. That isn’t what I said at all.
A young man sitting in the row in front of me decided to be a little bolder and made an observation about the racial make-up of the panel. He was defensively rounded upon with accusations that he was claiming that some of them had no right to speak on the subject because they were white. This was not his point. He was merely acknowledging the fact. The misrepresentation of his remarks was infuriating but also perfectly illustrated the tone of the debate. His final comment questioned the preoccupation with the right to offend. Surely the right to freedom from offence was also valid? The audience broke into spontaneous applause, and I felt less depressed. Maybe the sounding of the death knell on multiculturalism is, thankfully, a little premature, and perhaps there are still some people out there who celebrate it.
Philosophical meandering continued into the early hours and I have to confess that by 3am I was lamenting my resolve to stay until the end and yearning for slumber. By 5am I felt I could unashamedly take my leave and made my way home on the first tube. Managing less than three hours sleep it wasn’t long before I was on my way to the Muslim Institute’s June monthly gathering with Edip Yuksel and Farouk A. Peru debating Islamic reform. I expected to be barely able to function. However, the contrast between the depth of discussion compared with the flaws of the multiculturalism debate the night before, could not have been more stark. I was jolted awake and brought alive to the importance of the Muslim Institute’s role in providing a space for critical thinking and challenging the pervasive trend of anaesthetising thought. Suddenly everything seemed a little less bleak.
Samia Rahman is Deputy Director of the Muslim Institute