Transition A scholar's progress between Warsaw and Leiden
This essay is an attempt at capturing my evolving ideas and the perception of my place in the intellectual world between 2014, when I was still in Warsaw, and the present day in Leiden (2019). It was a long way to go from the resentment often present among the Poles, considering themselves dwarfed in the international context, to unhindered participation in whatever global humanities are. This is why there are two voices in dialogue here; one of them, corresponding to my former self, preserved in some previous notes that I merged in this text, is visually distinguished through italics. Objectively speaking, my depart from Poland wasn't especially dramatic. First of all, the dissociation was rather gradual, as I first spent a year in Lisbon and then another year in France, while I was formally still a professor of the University of Warsaw. On the other hand, it put an end to multiple traumas of which I spoke at length in my first autobiographical essay, The Four Riders. In a way, the present text is an attempt at seeing my own intellectual story with more optimism, if not at a more advantageous angle. I could attain such a relatively equanimous view of my situation only after several months of research, reflection and inner healing in a quiet Western European academic institution. Then I got ready to leave much of my native sound and fury behind. I shall also comment on the path that progressively led me out of the normal practice of the disciplinary humanities towards the creation of something that, in my view, occupies the place of a discipline for those scholars who are to give a lasting contribution: the structure of their own original thought. Multiplying experiments and areas of more or less systematic visitation, I have been trying to articulate my own intellectual space, to make a cosmos of thought out of a chaos of spare ideas. This is the main story I should narrate, but I get entangled in constant geopolitical - or geointellectual - digressions that my former self still cares to bring forth. I also revisit my intellectual patron saints, trying to see more clearly how and why scholarship may actually be worth while. Overall, as I presume, this path is leading me from a debilitating sensation of irregularity and queerness in the margin to the inner acceptance of my own originality, mastery and power.
I came very late to any theoretical awareness whatsoever. As I confessed in my autobiographical essay The Four Riders, I obtained my Polish qualification in Romance philology, in 1997, having never heard in the classroom such names as Foucault, Deleuze or Derrida; at the third class university of Lublin where I studied, structuralism was considered an advanced, state-of-the-art topic. For sure, my studies in Lisbon provided me with a certain theoretical background, but it did not go far beyond Genette. Later on, around the turn of the millennium, I lived through all the theoretical awakening of Polish academia. Theories essentially dating back to the 1980s, such as deconstruction, postcolonial school or feminism were treated as incendiary ideas provoking fierce debate and even fiercer resistance. Crazy years in which I had to learn it all. My ambition of theory-making, initially -as I see it today- extremely naïve, dates back to 2012, a moment in which I had behind me a 15-year career of typically Polish, theoretically neutral academic production. I aspired to make my own experiments, to establish original aims of my research. The adventure started in the most discouraging context imaginable, in parallel to the pretensions of originality nurtured by my older colleagues, men in their sixties and seventies that had spent the best of their lives in rather lazy wanderings through such disciplines as classical philology and history. Ravelling in new theoretical winds, the dean of my faculty stopped considering his college of liberal arts as the uttermost experiment in elitist formation and aspired to develop a new curriculum in human/animal studies. This is the context in which such texts as my "transhumanist" approach to falconry appeared. But overall, as I wrote in The Four Riders, it was the moment of "the frontal clash of Polish mind against the complexity of international humanities". I was an eye-witness of the disaster. I tried to avoid my involvement in it; intellectually, I mobilised all my resources to avoid perishing among the dead and the dying; the landscape of ideas and pretensions to originality that I saw around me could hardly be more dismal. Around 2014-2015, clenching my teeth, I searched for new ideas at the crossroads of humanities, art and mathematics, thinking about a topology of symbolic space. I needed an abstract conceptualisation of whatever may be derived from meaning-making activity of man, abstract enough to find space for whatever passed through cultural transmission, as well as whatever might be created individually, "neurotypical", transmissible, only as an exception to the rule, to the narrowest circle of other individuals. The more I thought about these ideas, the more I was convinced to transmit them. But I felt at my ease only after I left Poland. Not for any definite oppressive instance forbidding my experiments; to the contrary, the most castrating circumstance was mere presence of ignorance around me. The thought that with all those ideas of mine, I might be just as stupid as those pretenders trying hard to be original; that constant, latent and lethal comparison with my context, that though that I was just one of them proved to be the most dis-empowering circumstance that I've ever experienced. The progress of my theory-making is strictly connected with my progressive independence from local intellectual and mental climate. Be that as it may, my theoretical works till 2019 were published in Polish, quite unfortunately for sure, but I needed a linguistic fluency to articulate my thought. Only after I settled in Leiden, early in 2019, I started to feel at home in English. There is plenty of things to develop.
Among varied destinies of the scholars populating European academia of today, my own way must appear, I suppose, as impossibly intricate, illogical and queer. Competing, for most of the time, with people formed at good universities, I often feel as the last remnant of the self-taught generations of early modernity. As I have no leading institution to back me up and offer a warrant on my competences, my only escape is to prove my originality. This is where I got this idea that my only chance of survival lies with the boldest innovation in the humanities. In terms of academic prestige, as soon as we cross the frontiers of Poland, I have very little to lose and everything to gain. This is why I became a very attentive reader of bold humanities, from Derrida to Agamben, just to see how their revolutions have been done. This is also the reason why I have maintained, for years now, a very broad approach to research, building a network of topics, rather than a clearly delimited specialization. I am not sure if it makes my life easier, but I suppose it is a major investment, if I seriously pretend to arrive at the very top of visibility in humanities. These are long term strategies, giving no immediate institutional stance, not even in a local sphere; nothing but the promise of a very considerable outcome at the end of the road. It is an intimate option and a personal risk. This is why I have no loyalties, no true affiliations. I am a typical outsider, a minor destined to change everything or die in the attempt. There is of course an enormous load of hubris in this minor condition.
Hubris?... Yes, I suppose so, but this is even more complicate. There is a lot of overdoing, overacting in all this. As if I had to compensate my inferiority by such a bold superiority that no one would dare to deny it. Clearly, such a dynamics, that doesn't even admit the existence of a middle way, is typical for someone who has a Polish female underclass history behind, such as I described at length in The Four Riders. Since the very beginning, I had to work double and triple to assert my very presence in the academic world, and till the end, at least in my inner, arguably distorted perception, I failed to make myself respected. This is why I live with the persuasion that if I fail to become a new Agamben, I will continue downtrodden for the rest of my life. I suppose this explains some histrionic traits of my intellectual personality. I just cannot be normal. Meanwhile, it is a sort of normalcy, a good, solid, professional level, not the high flights of sublime or particularly original ideas, that I see around me here in Leiden.
I've got used to think that my intellectual way must appear as a bumpy ride, quite an adrenaline rally, compared to the smooth academic paths of the majority of the colleagues I meet here in Western Europe. My very narration must appear as strange and obscure in many moments, especially as I hesitate and contradict myself in my ways of interpreting things. But perhaps it is only a mental habit of sound and fury, and the bumpy ride is but a gentle sway of a plastic horse on a merry-go-around. Am I overdoing my origin, that has nothing so very peculiar in it? Certainly we tend to believe that being a Pole has something intrinsically dramatic in it. But people come to the international academia from very strange places indeed: Somalia, Barbados, Sao Tome. Even Tunisia or Egypt are richer in adrenaline than Poland, nonetheless people do routinely come from there, they are accepted and make part of the whole. Perhaps my own origin has in fact the characteristic of being normal, grey, unpicturesque and uneventful. Its tale, speaking mainly of spiteful dwarfs, is sad, very sad, but lacking the slightest hint of pathos. But where does this origin weights so heavy? What used to worry me - perhaps still worries me - is that people usually come to Western universities when they are young, and the subsequent process of their formation follows more or less regular paths. I see Turks and Egyptians offering excellent scholarly performance here in Leiden, but when I check their CVs for details, I find resounding names of American Ivory League universities where they confess to have obtained their masters and doctoral degrees. This is why it gives me such a queer feeling. It is rare, even exceptional, to see people join the international academia as experienced, fully formed scholars, having done their apprenticeship somewhere in its outskirts; probably it would imply unlearning too many old tricks. By the way, what is the most striking difference to be noticed by someone who comes from an Eastern European, gerontocratic reality to any Dutch university is that here everybody seems to be so young. Old professors, constantly occupying the front of the stage in Poland, here are hardly visible, they disappear in a crowd of young and fresh faces.
This is yet another reason why I regret so bitterly all those years in Poland - all those years that obviously made me who I am now to regret and to feel the bitterness. I find it so difficult to get out of this circle of pointless rumination of my insufficient beginnings, that are insufficient precisely in relation with my present mastery and power. Years ago, someone told me I'm a big tigress that indulges in walking through the jungle meowing. Let me meow for a dozen of lines. I did not know, at least I didn't have it clear in my mind - not even in 2006 - that the option of making my academic career in Poland signified to remain a second class scholar for the rest of my life. Certainly, there was the resentment, the sense of injustice of which we were presumably victims, as our voice was inaudible in the international academia. Yes, I knew that whatever we were trying to say was simply too clumsy and inarticulate to be listened to, and even more importantly, that we were usually coming to discuss certain topics years and even decades after the close of the debate. I knew it, even published essays in Poland, speaking about this. Yet this knowledge was strangely obfuscated in me, as if pushed away from my awareness, or reduced to something I criticized without drawing personal conclusions. I did not see it clearly enough that remaining in Poland undermined the very quality of my scholarship; that I would never climb to the top of the crystal mountain as I pretended. That every day I remained in Poland was putting me even farther from the foot of that mountain. That accepting the position in Warsaw would cost me my intellectual dreams. This is why I feel vaguely cheated by the whole academic system to which I belonged, by its self-satisfaction even more than its resentments, by the myths of intellectual excellence the Poles were cultivating.
Oh, didn't I know? Oh, yes, I knew; this is why I am here now. And it is a long time that I fight against those bitter feelings. Certainly, I have also made a great effort of unlearning and leaving things behind. Obviously, no one cheated me, because no one knew those things I know now. There was no mentor to tell me those things, there couldn't be. I could know those things only after leaving Poland. They became patent to me when I was already in Leiden, precisely as my past was done and gone. It is indeed very hard to find examples of people who made great careers in international academia after their formation in provincial, third-class universities; as I said, even the apparent newcomers usually have a splendid Western formation in their personal biographies. Perhaps Eastern European people are a notorious exception. This explains my lasting attachment to the figure of Mircea Eliade, ancien eleve of Spiru Haret National College (although he also attended the University of Bucharest later on). I've got my formation at the University Maria Curie-Skłodowska in Lublin, the very city of the kuntsnmakher of Isaak Bashevis Singer. Perhaps I should discreetly omit this piece of information in my official CV from now on. I am ashamed of it as much as Eliade was of his Romanian clothes during his first travel to Italy. In any case, now I know many things about the international academia that I was very far from knowing when I was in Lublin. Perhaps the very measure of success and ascension is to arrive at a point where we start to feel uneasy about our own beginnings. What should I do with this uneasiness? Said wrote a book about it, and I am writing as well. Miłosz said in a poem: "I descended toward the Seine, shy, a traveler, / A young Barbarian just come to the capital of the world". How many people, as great as I have ever wished to be, shared the same experience? And then they learned from books, just as I am learning now, here in Leiden, and they wrote their things. Where is the sound and fury of this? Perhaps, if I go on climbing my crystal mountain, there may even be another sort of knowledge awaiting me somewhere higher up. A knowledge that my deficient origin was never to become a hindrance; rather to the contrary, the way I went as a nomad and Barbarian only made me stronger, more daring, more authentic. There might be a glory in it that the sedentary people might envy. I hope so. But is that true at all? Have I ever been a Barbarian? Arguably, I also came to the international academia when I was just as young as my colleagues were when they made their first steps. Even if later on I worked sixteen years in Poland, as many of them may have worked in China, Turkey or Emirates. But essentially, as my birthright, I have always been an international scholar. This is just another way of telling my story. Everything happened just in the right place at the right time, since I've got my formation in Portuguese studies at the University of Lisbon. Overall, nothing in my destiny is so very unusual, if I look to it from the perspective of those things that remain. Eventually, what kept me backward was that long period in Poland, initially at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, and then at the University of Warsaw, but it is a closed parenthesis. And perhaps these universities are not such dark places as I think about them; I'm just overacting my intellectual drama. I have been in Warsaw just as Eliade was in Bucharest and Zizek in Ljubljana. None of us overwhelmed by the place. Even, there might have been nothing in particular to keep me backward; I just couldn't move forward as fast as I wished. It was just a long Cinderella's sleep in the ashes. I was there sixteen years, and when it appeared clear to me that it caused a detriment in the quality of my scholarship, I left. I just grew out of my old stockings, and there is no need to go on ruminating it. I just grew out of my old Polish/Romanian/Slovenian/Balkan/Eastern European stockings and I came to the Netherlands to continue doing my things. Not the first one to do so. As I rewrite my story, I leave sound and fury behind to enter the silence zone of intellectual work. No place for sound and fury in a library.
I studied Romance philology and specialized in Portuguese studies. I did all the required steps of a regular academic career: PhD, habilitation, and I even got a full professorship. Some people ask how my degrees are recognized in the West; they are not recognized in any particular way whatsoever; I'm simply an experienced researcher, no one denies it, no one asks for more. Some people are simply cautious. Being a full professor in Poland is not necessarily the best recommendation for a scholar. I do understand. I would be even more cautious myself. But this doesn't matter in the least for the main things I have in mind. What remains ahead is the task of making my own intellectual universe that would transgress all the usual boundaries to trace its own, autonomous frontiers. Naturally, this process is at odds with the usual paradigms of academic recognition; there is no institution to certify anyone as the author of those things that are destined to change everything and to remain.
At an early stage, I realized that the most authentic part of my intellectual life actually remained outside the academia. Trying to stick to a discipline too seriously (such a discipline as my Portuguese studies) was the reason why I never ventured to reveal what my real fascinations were. Certainly not the Portuguese. I grew out of these stockings as well. Even before I grew out of Polish university, not to challenge the institution, but to leave it behind. In order to gain enough space for my own originality. As long as I resigned myself to cultivating my little Portuguese garden in exclusivity, I couldn't reveal my internal complexity, the whole image of who I was in intellectual terms. This is why these boundaries started to erode quite early in my academic life. And how did I get my discipline after all? It was the very image of my limited opportunities. It was mere accident that during my studies at a shabby, provincial university I got the opportunity of going to Portugal. It was the only opportunity that appeared, and I took it. Does it make me a Lusitanist, and nothing but a Lusitanist, for life? My Portuguese studies were marginalizing me and at a given moment I stopped putting up with it. I also started to ask myself if I would be happy with any discipline other than Portuguese studies. The best thing about the two fields that were tempting me, comparative literature and history of ideas, was their vastness, their encompassing character. Definitely, what I needed was just to live in an open intellectual horizon. This is why, as early as 2004, all my effort was to bring my true intellectual world in, to give it visibility. I saw it as a transgression at the time, and took it at my own personal risk, but later on I understood that it was precisely what the high-level international academia required - they wanted things that might be pertinent and visible in a multidisciplinary context, not just things good enough for the narrow boundaries of disciplinary fields.
The initial aspiration of "making my own theory" (short word, or perhaps a part pro toto, for innovative humanities) was certainly very vague. It was hardly anything more than a natural call for boundless curiosity, creativity and originality. Obviously, there was no one to tell or show me how to make a theory, even if the aspiration was not uncommon in Polish academic milieu. Unfortunately, it was often taking the shape of aimless wandering in search of an all-encompassing, abstract system simplifying things, a hidden rule supposed to explain the complexity of facts, facts that otherwise remained unexplored, unresearched. Theory making was popular among those who had no access to good research libraries, remained out of joint with the progress of their disciplines and, last but not least, developed no strategies or work habits to become effective, efficient scholars. No wonder why, in most cases, the "Eureka moment" was never to come. This is why the aspiration of theory was often accompanied by a sense of marginalization and strong resentments in relation to the dominant structures of international scholarship, seen as instances of quasi-colonial oppression.
I've spent years trying to discover the ways of making true scholarship, against a background of a lot of fake one. Serendipity was certainly the keyword of the greater part of my endeavor. Constantly multiplying and diversifying my experiences, I hoped to reach a stage at which some new patterns of organization might emerge from sheer abundance of the analyzed material; more unexpected things one brings about, more probable it becomes that one will ever manage to create something really innovative. It was in this direction that my readings of Eliade, Derrida and Agamben seemed to point. The main thing is that I wanted to write like them, not just to write about them, comment on them, put their concepts into any sort of discursive practice. That's a crucial difference. And of course, the result of "writing like them" would not directly resemble their texts. Properly speaking, the times of "making theory" are over; innovative humanities consist rather in creating new discourses. Probably what I am after right now is my own, idiosyncratic and recognizable formula of writing, a genre in itself, such as Agambenian essay is a recognizable genre, with its typical sylva of erudition leading to powerful, elucidating conclusion right on the last page.
One of the first things in Leiden, I made order in my writings. I believe to have achieved some sort of consolidation, and it is clearly my first reaction to the normalcy of a good professional level that I've found here. I suppose it is not what we Poles expect to find in Western Europe. The expectation would be the one of a great illumination, finding things we had never heard about, too complex to comprehend, some sort of esoteric knowledge that had been hidden from us. But of course, in Leiden, I found no esoteric knowledge and hardly anything I didn't hear about before; perhaps just more details to fill the frame and immediate access to books I couldn't put my hands on before. The only novel and crucially different thing here is the absence of blatant stupidity that was so frequent in Warsaw; no more pointless, inconclusive, improvised debates that used to occupy our time. Anything that is to be delivered, is delivered in a professional, polished package, clearly, dynamically, without stammering. What I've found here is not a novel, luminous idea of any kind; perhaps nothing whatsoever in a positive sense. I've found just a world swept clean: no ignorants trying to assert their importance by sheer white noise of words, no inherited persuasions, no urge to falsify, no delusions.
As I said, first thing in Leiden was a consolidation. I spent quite a lot of time to disentangle myself from my excess and whatever was messy, discontinue, unattended in my work. Especially because it had been so abundant. I am a prolific writer according to both Eastern and Western standards, and I pay attention to keep up my rhythms, not just to comply with any academic system whatsoever, but for my inner perception that writing every day and multiplying my experiments is the long way I need to go if I am ever to achieve my intellectual goals. Occasionally, I face the suspicion of some colleagues, supposing that an output of over 200 publications and not a single white hair on my head must be indicative of low quality and unsound scholarship in any way. Probably, I would have the same suspicion if I met anyone else with the same output, and it actually happens rarely, unless I search among the collaborators of Critical Inquiry or in the French official category of professeurs niveau excellence. In other words, the suspicion is not caused by the sheer amount of my work, but rather by the fact that people don't see me as much of a professeure niveau excellence as I wander through Europe homeless, jobless and penniless, in search of a place to put up my tent. It is the contrast between the work and the status that appears as strange. In fact, I'm not so extremely over-productive at all; I merely appear so to those who try to judge my output by the standards of their own, average productivity. But there are much more prolific authors in Europe nowadays, just like Zizek or Tarik Ramadan in his days of glory. Compared to them, I'm living a lazy, relaxed, contemplative life. Yet in the first place, it must be understood that I came to this amount of writing by the way of working, as a rule, seven days a week, up to twelve hours a day, for something like a quarter of a century. Also the choice of my first patron saint, Mircea Eliade, when I was little more than a teenager, contributed for the results. Eliade, as I've learnt quite early in my life, came to his intellectual importance by writing every day, keeping his journal, publishing an article every week or so, before he even started making books. I took this story very seriously indeed. I consider my life is in perfect order if I manage to produce at least one research paper or chapter every month. Meanwhile, those things are not as smooth as getting up early every day to write. Eliade's Portugal Journal can be read as a poignant testimony of the violence of intellectual dissociations. In spite of his exacerbated nationalism, he finally had to clash against the insufficiency of the Romanian academic milieu. Apparently, it should be very easy to make a career in a relatively modest cultural context; yet it often proves to be virtually impossible. The giant stature of Eliade would never fit in the local mediocrity, and the Bucharestan position he applied for, as he guessed very well, would be, for him, the most difficult to obtain. Becoming a metropolitan scholar was something more than just an option; he simply could not avoid it. In the meanwhile, the haunting vision of Romania as a place too small to live comes to the journal with successive waves of frustration, hostility, anger, till his final decision of “closing the Romanian phase”. I strangely resonate with his destiny. Certainly, what happened to me in Poland was strongly marked by quite similar experience of ambient hostility toward my commitment and competence; nonetheless, I lived it as an injustice that happen to me personally, not as a general Eastern European fate; even if, specifically, I have very little to complain about; I've reached the top of the national academic career at 46. Perhaps once again, I'm just overdoing my drama. Meanwhile, the deficiencies of Polish academic system are not only generalizable for all the extent of Eastern Europe; even more interestingly, they do not seem limited to the historical reality of the post-communist period alone. I was marginalized by a deficient local meritocracy: how bitter Mircea was about such things in his time! But it was precisely what saved us both; as we were severely marginalized inside our native systems, we could face the external academic realities with the full creative impact of our anger, leaving nothing but our anger behind. Only a handful of people from our respective countries were able to do the same.
Certainly, having written 200 scholarly papers, it is sometimes difficult to think about the 201st one. Especially if I knew it wouldn't make me respected by the people who marginalized me precisely for my mastery and competence; there was nothing I might eventually prove to them. But I should think they have done me a great favor. They helped me to get beyond the earthly attachments, beyond the usual logic of achievement and institutional reward. They forced me to put the question of the reasons and motivations of my scholarship in a very acute way. There used to be moments when I was repeating to myself that a scholar traveling in search of knowledge is on the path of God; I was unable to verbalize any more down-to-earth reasons of my quest. But perhaps the obsessive impulse making order is among my strongest motivations to go on working. After all, it may all be about pleasure; it may all be about the exquisite beauty of an emergent system, the sublime moment of discovering a higher form of organization being born right under my own eyes; and more, that I bring this higher form of organization into existence, I cause it to appear. There is no greater delight, at least not in this world. The key term for my extensive work is emergence. Certainly, innovative humanities do not come true with mere repetition of the same ideas in 200 papers; but I still believe they do come true with 200 divergent experiments forming a network of synergistic ideas. Emergence, like in biology, means that a new quality is born from complexity, from the interaction established between a large number of simpler units. This is what I try to bring about, as I go on with my exploration, coming home with a new paper and a new topic every month, and striving to accelerate the rhythm of my writing.
Certainly there is a way of silencing those ill-intentioned voices, doubting of me just because I'm such a suspiciously prolific writer, and it is to publish in visibility. Such a strategy of flight into the highest mountains was something that, for a long time, I refused to adopt. I used to publish just in any friendly, familiar environments, with the sensation of doing things together with people I accepted and who accepted me. Such a modesty and friendliness proved to be a major obstacle, a major trick to unlearn when I finally decided to search my place in the international academia. Whatever I had written in Polish was to be left behind. I only managed to overcome the sensation of a loss, of a dwindling as an academic author, when I understood that the cumulative result of my writing is not just a body of texts, but also some quintessential outcome that I may extract from all the work done and express in good English. This is how I managed to turn the page. My private use of English anticipated by many years the moment of resigning myself to it in academic matters, in such a way as to see myself as a primarily English-speaking author. My relation with the Polish language lingered and proved to be very hard to severe, till the moment when I managed to develop a similar emotional attachment to English; probably there was also the temptation of my native fluency. But one day, obviously, I had to switch to it, and switch to it in exclusivity. I never managed to write in English consistently just to increase my local prestige in Poland or make greater impression on my compatriots; their multiple modalities of falsifying erudition and importance, that I was only too smart to discern, were always profoundly repugnant to me. Privately, I was very much used to live in the global horizon before it actually shaped my academic world. I was married outside Poland; I constantly traveled over large distances; places like Berlin and Amsterdam were close at hand, in the sphere of nearly quotidian penetration. When I finally decided to emigrate to the Netherlands for good, I had the perception of merely moving from a remote countryside to the metropolitan area, inside my native Europe. Lingering fury was probably the hardest attachment to severe. My discourse was naturally representative of Europe, for instance in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern matters; this is why, at a given moment, I felt that it was much more natural for me to write in English, rather than build castles of euphemisms or adopt intricate voice games in Polish. The set of presuppositions that I shared was fitting quite naturally the international discourse, but not the Polish one. The growing distance between Poland and Europe pushed me to see more clearly where my deepest loyalties lie. It was in Europe that I was at home.
This is how, through a complex interplay of causes, approximations and experiences, I saw myself ready to accept that I was a global scholar. Like a fish washed away by mysterious currents, I've found myself drifting through abysmal depths of the global ocean, and at home in it. There is no more “center” or “periphery”; there are global humanities and me, my share in the transcultural community of scholarship and intellectual life. Just as the European converts to Islam in the 1930s used to say, I never converted to this, I merely discovered I had always been this. But of course, such a perception of coming home may not be the literal truth. Once upon the time, I used to exploit the concepts of center and periphery in my own conceptualization of the world. This was how I saw my own place in the academic hierarchies and networks of dependency. I even participated in several festivals of resentment toward the Western academic system, allegedly marginalizing innocent people like us. What remained of my identity as a peripheral scholar, of my alleged subaltern condition at the moment I entered the central space of debate, speaking with my own voice? I put my reflection in a strictly personal, autobiographical perspective that certainly differs from the experience of those who remained on the opposite shore. After all, as I see it now, comfortably sited in the Universiteitsbibliotheek in Leiden while I write these words, it was not so very difficult to occupy my place in the global landscape of scholarship. As soon as I managed to solve my intimate relation to the language of Shakespeare, I could see that some of my writings (such as those on the Amazigh or Lusophone African literature) were quite unique also in the global context; my contribution was valid and visible in appropriate communities of knowledge that are busy with that sort of topics. Once or twice, I found my own traces in Leiden, as I simply attempted to continue my work where I had abandoned it; I was spontaneously invited to publish in international volumes by some colleagues who saw my former writings, remembered me. I've never been marginalized. The idea that our Polish work, discourse, voice did not count, as a rule, outside the local context was simply imposed by those who firstly, never managed to express themselves in clear English, and secondly, never had the modesty of giving such specific contributions to the world. They wanted great theories, answers to great questions, and even more that this, visibility, prestige, honors, coming to them by shortcuts, without the patient work that scholarship requires. When none of these were coming, alleged self-sufficiency of the Western humanities was a handy explanation. In reality, Western humanities are not self-sufficient in the least. They are giant sea urchins sucking every little organic particle they manage to find on their way; they greedily absorb just anything that appears as remotely edible. Certainly, I'm still in battle with the global context. I pretend to build much higher than those little hints of Africa that I have given. My intellectual stance is all to be done, and the global space offers me, first of all, a new scale, a new idea of how big I may grow. Daring intellectual endeavor gives a tremendous sense of strength, purpose, as well as a sense of personal greatness very far beyond the levels of local prestige that never kept me going very far. I might appreciate precisely the flight into the highest mountains, the solitude of individual, unshared thought, as I feel intensely in the world, part of the world. To be alone in the company of my patron saints. As I said, in my youth, my patron saint was Mircea Eliade, a fascination not so rare in my national context and my generation; he was translated into Polish and easily available. Later on, I read George Steiner, untranslated. Still later on, Jacques Derrida. Still a couple of years later, Giorgio Agamben. I wanted to be like them, it was with them that I measured myself, taking their striking and easily measurable characteristics to standardize my own production. This is why I decided to write as much as Eliade and work with as many languages as Steiner. I did not see them as inaccessible giants, but as people who established precedents, indicated paths of intellectual activity that I was to follow. I tried to imitate their winning strategies as soon as I managed to identify them. I was shy to confess these feelings as long as I was in Poland; I was fearing the ridicule. I can talk about this kinship openly as a global scholar. In the end, there was also the utmost stake, freedom. If I wanted to be great like them, it was because I wanted to be able to flee like them, break free from systems of political, spiritual, intellectual oppression. The reward of greatness, as I imagined it, was simply the facility of finding safe havens whenever they needed them, even if not all of them were emigrants or intellectual refugees. Yet the idea that intellectual excellence brings personal freedom has accompanied me since my early twenties till the present day. This thought makes me loyal to the international academia. Because it is the very space of my flight, not only from politics, but also from the small-scale, everyday domestic oppression of which I was a victim at my Polish universities.
The utmost stake of our presence in the global reality doesn't appear close at hand. Most people don't seriously ask: “what is my position in the international scholarship?” in their 20ties or 30ties, when they are busy asserting their position just in the local context of an institution, to gain a degree or a stable contract. Such interrogations emerge at the moment of making a long-term balance of one's intellectual life. When it is often too late to undo previous moves or change the strategies put into practice along the years. To make a universe of one's spare thoughts. Ancient philosophical tradition, from Socrates to Boethius, presented the intellectual activity as an apprenticeship of dying. Today, I would say it is all about learning how to grow old in such a way as to avoid the danger of increased lucidity coming with the old age. The “late style”, as Said concluded at the end of his own life, is devoid of sweetness and harmony, “unreconciled, uncoopted by a higher synthesis”; it brings forth the “lost totality”. Doing a careful mid-career balance after the first two decades of my presence in the academia, I hoped to milden the bitterness of an unreconciled old age, the painful consciousness of doors that remained unopened; one day it would certainly come to me. I did not know yet about all the work of mourning that would expect me here in Leiden. Still in Warsaw, I was aware of the bitter fruits of an old age that might belong even to the best; the metaphor of unopened doors was taken from none other than George Steiner, who confessed in his Errata: “What is now aching in me is the sense of doors unopened: my lack of Russian, for one, my lack of access to Islam, for another”. I'd read this remark for the first time when I was studying comparative literature in Lisbon. Evidently, I knew Russian, we all knew it to a certain degree at that time, since it was still compulsory in Polish schools; Errata contributed to my decision of taking Arabic studies seriously. Steiner's remark shows that there are more frontiers than just those between the "center" and the "peripheries". Confrontation with the global dimension present in such concepts as world literature or international academia, as well as the very richness and variety of human cultures, may signify more than just the discomfort of realizing that one hasn't reached the level of international recognition. The awareness of one's own intellectual insufficiency is a burden and a privilege all in one.
When I was in Warsaw, I believed in the fairy tale of the brain-sucking centers; of course, we all secretly dreamed about being sucked and drained dry. I knew there was no reason to speak of symbolic violence in this case, although ignorance and intellectual void find handy explainations in postcolonial theory. Yet the system composed by centers and peripheries was impersonal, had no agent and no ideological program behind it; this is why I preferred to use abstract, mathematical or astronomical metaphors to describe it, speaking of symbolic gravity rather than symbolic violence exerted by the central academic system. Its propensity for absorbing matter from the peripheries was due to unfathomable curve in the very tissue of space, caused by no recognizable human agency. Perhaps, after all, I wasn't so very wrong about it. The centers drain the peripheries, causing a movement of the best minds. - This is why I am in Leiden now. - Great universities serve as sanctuaries for peripheral intellectuals in politically dark times; but they remain unconcerned with their struggles, and the devastation of local academic communities that prove unable to fend for themselves. The periphery is by no means a victim of their programmatic ostracism or spite. I would rather say that, ravaged by the effects of symbolic gravity, the periphery suffers from self-inflicted violence that still remains largely unexplored. It delves in passivity and darkness voluntarily assumed. The peripheral scholar looks up to the center, neglecting everything else. This is the very basis of his or her symbolic dependence. She neither knows nor cares about nothing but the ideas that appear in the center. The rest of the world barely exists, mediated and filtered by the center. Meanwhile, the non-peripheral scholar has a direct access to the world, unmediated and unfiltered by any center exterior to herself. This is precisely the situation that enables her to formulate innovative, original conclusions rather than recapitulate received ideas. This is why unmediated access is what the central scholars strive for; this is why Steiner lamented so bitterly his inability of reading Dostoyevsky and Ibn Arabi otherwise than in translation.
To speak of the meanders of being-in-the-world beyond the opposition of center and periphery, I tried to employ the concept proposed by Said in The World, the Text and the Critic. Originally, his terminology had little geographical or ethnic connotations; Said brought about the case of a pianist interpreting his partition in front of a public. Worldliness characterizes an act of communication, an act of facing the Other. Analogically, the participation in global humanities is "worldly" not because of its planetary scale or importance, but because it is defined by the existence of a public to whom the discourse is addressed. Those who address a global public participate in global humanities, no matter how big or small their contribution is. There are two sides of this sort of being-in-the-world: the unmediated experience of the world and the successful mediation to the world, or better say, to a world. Two things are needed: something to talk about and an efficient (linguistic, discursive, rhetorical) way of talking about it. And I would stress the first one. We often believe our peripheral problem originates from the lack of “mastery of language”; of course, our lack of standard, grammatically correct English is a basic hindrance; we should also pay attention to our faultive linguistic, discursive and rhetorical skills that the center requires of us. Yet the importance of this factor is secondary and instrumental. The main thing the peripheral scholar lacks is the unmediated access to his or her matter. Her competence, as large or narrow as it may be, is usually derived (she knows, thinks and writes about things she has read about in books, manuals, translations, existing analysis, not in the primary sources). This is why the peripheral knowledge is characterized by belatedness; belatedness naturally resulting from the time-consuming process of derivation. The use of theoretical and methodological keys that, in the central perception, are out-dated is thus concomitant. The peripheral scholar sees the world in the mirror of the center; the view is necessarily fragmentary and easily distorted. Whatever the peripheral scholar says is a reflection of reflection, mere jugglery with borrowed terms, concepts, expressions, constructs, ready-made items of discourse.
The greatest thing to unlearn when I came here was the inner persuasion of my minor condition as a peripheral scholar, a woman under a glass ceiling, a contextualized and conditioned subjectivity. Here in Leiden, I am, for the first time, someone in full power of exerting an influence, changing the current course of the debate in a continuous, although infinitesimal, way. Belatedness and anachronism are no more; I am immersed in the present time of scholarship. It is a bit of a miracle, as I simply go to my first sources, straight through to the essence – whatever the essence is in the present moment of my reflection. Finding the courage of doing so, I establish myself as a center, not as a periphery. I create my own configuration of the world. It puts me in position of parity with other intellectuals. I interrogate our common beginnings, as we originate from the same stem. Without the sensation of belatedness or the urge to find anything fashionable, up-to-date. With Ibn Hazm, Ibn Arabi and my remaining dead, I'm still very much alive, comfortably inhabiting my present; my way of interrogating them is dictated by the present tense of my intellectual experience.
Defining myself as an itinerant scholar, I have always had a great deal of self-confidence in the encounter with the Other, in blatant opposition to the majority of my compatriots and colleagues, adopting essentialist positions in relation to such concepts as civilization and belonging. Meanwhile, feeble, changing, unstable identity – or even lack of identity – is crucial for truly encountering the Other. Here I enter another intellectual divide that separated me from my Varsovian colleagues and PhD students. No need to say that I entirely failed to make them see why on earth they should modify or abandon their crass essentialist concepts of identity.
In contemporary humanities, I tried to explain, the word performance is often treated as one of the key terms. Very often we can also read about performative identities, specially in context of post-feminist or queer gender theories. If you ask me who I am, the primary answer I would like to give would be: I'm a scholar. Such an identification is the result of a choice. Instead, I could give many answers, evoking not only communities with diverse extension to which I belong, but also concepts and realities situated at different levels: I could say I'm a woman (gender), I could also mention my religious identification, etc. Nonetheless all these elements are more or less circumstantial and I can judge them as accidental, imposed upon me (did I actually choose to be a woman?). This is why I prefer to stress the elements based on my own personal choice rather than those “deterministic” components of my identity. This is when I stress the performative aspect of identity: what I do, rather than what I am. What defines me is a certain kind of performance – i.e. performing a certain kind of work, activity that determines my values, priorities and the primary conceptualization of life as a search for knowledge. It also establish the basic circumstance of my encounter with the Other and the Otherness, that I conceptualize primarily as a determined field of knowledge. In such a conceptualization, I as the participant of the encounter is just a void, an empty space of no-knowledge that may eventually be filled up with the knowledge of Other. This is, as far as I understand, the point that may bring me quite close to a Buddhist conceptualization of human consciousness. In the situation of encounter, I'm a formless entity that is precisely the opposite of any strong identity. In my lifelong process of becoming a scholar, my endeavor is to get rid, progressively, of a strong identity that I perceive as a hindrance in my search of knowledge. I suppose such a construction of identity may seem to many people as something unrealistic, even impossible. This is why I would like to bring personal arguments and mention particular circumstances that make it possible. If one asks how my “empty” identity is possible, one should take into consideration several circumstances, such as f. ex. my individual beginnings in a kind of cultural void. I come from a family and a social group that could offer me very little. Honestly, I envy people who see a possibility of harmonizing their original education with universal values. I cannot do it myself, because I wasn't educated in any consistent culture at all. No authentic religious practice was ever performed in my original familiar context, so I cannot say I was educated in any perception of the sacred whatsoever. As a product of a family, I received only a set of pseudo-values, such as admiration for off-handedness and glibness connected to profound contempt of hard work of any kind, or a persuasion that wealth may only be the result of cunning and stealing from others. This might be an echo of communist persuasions; on the other hand, such conceptualizations may characterize the peripheral mind more generally. This situation is thus not only my own bad luck. Eminent Polish intellectuals close to my generation, such as Michał Paweł Markowski, mention a childhood in a home without books and without values as a part of their personal past as well. Similar experiences may also be deduced from documents referring to other parts of the world, such as Out of Place, the autobiography of Edward Said. This kind of cultural void is a typical phenomenon in many societies that faced symbolic violence connected to colonization, forced displacement or any other kind of cultural rupture, even the rupture due to such processes as accelerated urbanization, and similar. The times of People's Republic of Poland also wrought such a cultural havoc. I can say I'm a person who received no inheritance of any kind at a personal level, neither in terms of symbolical background connected with social position nor in terms of material possessions (that may also “localize” an individual – as it often happens to those who inherited a house, a land, a farm, etc.). No place of my own has ever been given to me. This explains why my personal becoming is based primarily not on identification with a community and its shared values, but on a move of cutting the links and emptying the stock of received persuasions. This is why since my earliest life I've build a habit of transgression, going beyond any spirit of identification with a localized community and a profound distrust of shared values. All those circumstances contribute for an identity based on performance, i.e. on what I do momentarily, “right now”, as there is nothing or very little coming from behind. As knowledge is my only capital, I tend to stick very strongly to my identity of a scholar – I think it is understandable to all of us, since it is deeply human to build an image of oneself according to what we actually depend on and what we believe we may rely upon in times of crisis. On the other hand, research and scholarship as a specific kind of performance have its own, particular characteristics that contribute for further “delocalization” of the individual identity. As much as any material possession localizes, the “possession of knowledge” delocalizes, because the competence, in the globalized world, may be valued even higher outside than inside the original local context. It also establishes very particular conditions for the encounter with the Other, since the knowledge and competence are not distinctive (as a strong ethnic or cultural identity would be), but to the contrary, they are shared, often fostering identification with the Other as a member of the same epistemological community. The Barbarian is essentially: 1. the one who doesn't speak; 2. the one who doesn't know. Thus, the person who knows (and who speaks) cannot be considered as a Barbarian, a stranger, the Other. This is why a certain set of competences, specially if they are performed, i.e. not only stored as information, but actually persuasively displayed in cultural interaction, become a basis for inclusion and identification. It's often said that science has no nationality. Advanced humanities tend nowadays to have less and less nationality as well. Yet what I've just said is not restricted to sophisticated transnational research fields. The “identifying” value of knowledge is present also in many surprisingly traditional contexts. How many times did I profit from my (relative) competence in Qur'anic recitation to get admittance into cultural circles where I would be otherwise a mere tourist! If there is knowledge, competence and performance, there is also belonging, identification and responsibility. What I should perhaps stress once again in this place is the importance of intellectual participation, instead of participation in rituals. Knowledge, not faith, is at the core. Established, institutionalized religions demand exclusive possession of our souls. On the other hand, mystical traditions born in different places of the world and in different cultural contexts point towards an essential unity of the human experience of the sacred and the essential unity of human quests for the transcendent reality. From a certain point of view, religion can thus be as universalist and non-excluding as my intellectually-oriented vision of the “knowledgeable/performable”. What should be stressed in this context is the obvious impact of the globalization. Delocalized state of mind is fostered by the sheer continuity of interactions that become much more than the “festive” encounter. It would be banal to notice that we belong to the generation of the virtual; yet there is more to be said. Beyond the sheer existence of the Internet, I would also stress less conspicuous elements, such as the constant presence of imported books and of the foreign languages. According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, usage of a determined language shapes the consciousness in a determined way. If it is so, my constant contact with and a habit of thinking in several languages puts me in a very particular situation. Hypothetically, it may foster a kind of broadband processing of information that passes simultaneously by several filters. Of course one may ask “what do I really feel”, supposing that the “true” identity must be down there, perhaps hidden at the emotional level. I might speak at length about all sorts of emotions that my dispersed homelands evoke in me, from a German song to a distant call for prayer in the dusk. Yet I think the Zen precept of avoiding liking and disliking, that both belong to the in-illuminated consciousness tarnishing our deepest and truest nature, is to be applied here. No only do I act on a varying set of cultural principles, according to place, time and circumstances or enact diverse sets of local knowledge. I also feel different sets of local emotions. As a delocalized subject, I constantly move between languages, emotions, attachments. To some people such statements may seem somehow cynical, lacking ethical dimension, even immoral. But there are ethics behind all this. Cultures and civilizations don't survive on passive loyalties nor our “identifying” with them. They survive on our cultivation of knowledge, which is by its nature non-exclusive (if I read Mickiewicz, it doesn't imply that I cannot read Pushkin) and tends towards universality. They are transmitted across time and space. Civilizations and their destinies are not inscribed in stones and ruins, not even in books; they are deposited in their scholars and the transmission of living, re-enacted, performative knowledge they provide. Since I know things, this knowledge not only transforms and determines my identity, but also imposes me a responsibility of what is deposited in me. I'm the “bearer of the Ring” (to use the Tolkien's symbol), no matter what are my individual characteristics of gender, race or ethnic origin. It is absolutely pointless to ask “whose ring it really is” or who created it, and to suppose that my “real” identity may lie somewhere else. There is no way of building such a distance. If knowledge is in my head, the ring is on my finger, and it is very hard to get rid of it.What is more, the “power of the Ring”, may I want it or not, is upon me.
One might think this is somehow an egotistic discourse. But I still believe there is, firstly, no alien knowledge, and secondly, no anodyne knowledge, no matter how insignificant the things we happen to know may appear. Power comes with it, power of it is upon us, whenever we possess any kind of true knowledge or any kind of sound, consistent competence. It actually transforms, first of all at the level of the identity of the one who knows. In the sense of the progressive loss of identity; more we know, less certain we are of who we are. But in Poland, especially in that historical moment, it was very hard to persuade people on such things. The claim we were proposed to discuss was that nobody may or is able to belong to more than one civilization. I argued that whoever truly belongs to a civilization, belongs to all of them. I still believe that the problem of Poland has little to do with any civilization whatsoever; it is caused by the proliferation of the country's Barbarians; I suppose this is not a great discovery in any sense. Certainly, I do belong to more than one civilization. What is more, I'm persuaded that anybody who might require of me to “choose my civilization” would commit the same deeply immoral deed of the German soldier who once asked a Jewish woman which of her two sons he should kill and which to spare. But at the time when violence and hatred break loose, complex identities are usually the first ones to eliminate. They are considered troublesome and disruptive. This is yet another reason why I am in Leiden.
Also the religious concept of conversion that I mention below is not of my making; it would never come in such a way to the fore in my autonomous thinking. The concept of metanoia was imposed upon me by a context pervaded by a determined religious stance, i.e. Polish Catholicism, in which I was obviously a religious alien. What is more, the presence of the concept did not necessarily imply intrinsic modalities and intellectually efficient means of religious thought. Certainly, conversion is something else from a Sufi or even generally Islamic perspective, but such a point of view was, how to say, entirely unavailable from the Varsovian perspective, even in 2014, before we actually entered the downward spiral dynamics. I could not speak about such things otherwise than by euphemisms; this fact brought further intricacy to the discursive games we played. Sine me, deus meus, dicere aliquid et de ingenio meo, munere tuo, in quibus a me deliramentis atterebatur.
Many years ago, a colleague of mine at the University of Warsaw found my blog through the Google search engine, as she was looking for any hints concerning Sufism. She received the notice that a distant cousin of her, living in America, had recently “converted to this”. “Nonsense”, was my spontaneous, yet authoritative answer, “no one can convert to this. Your cousin must have discovered he had always been this”. Hypothetical “conversion to Sufism” is a reflexive act, a self-recognition and a return to one's own deepest identity. Conversion to Islam, as it is generally understood, might eventually be a “conversion into a new identity”. Yet any mystical experience starts with transgressing the opposition between “this way or that way”, stepping into what I call the dimension of superposition: “this way and that way”, the conjunction of “yes” and “no” of Ibn Arabi. Translating such a superposition of “yes” and “no” into the domain of everyday life would provoke the practical problems that one of my students probably had in mind telling that this would be like “playing chess and billiard simultaneously on the same table”. Especially if we tend to imagine the Islamic billiard balls as naturally bigger and nastier that our own civilized chess figures, which is not necessarily the case; firstly, chess is an Islamic game, of course. But what I have in mind here is a specific problem of complexity avoidance from which the peoples of Eastern Europe are suffering. The proportions of the elements vary according to moments, locations and circumstances, yet it is the hybridity of the whole situation that causes the malaise. Meanwhile, what I want to explore are novel and unexpected possibilities that appear with the subtle fusion of the moves between the incompatible, yet superposed sets of rules: the orderly state of chess and the chaotic nature of billiard, their independent chains of causality. The presence of a chess constellation on the billiard table makes the consequences of each stroke at the balls even more complex. The slow evolution of this chess constellation introduces a counterpart to the instantaneousness of the billiard motion. Two temporal dimensions. Yet it was quite pointless to speak about such things to the Barbarians. The essential choice for me was as follows: do we accept the invitation to chose between chess and billiard, or we reject such an invitation, claiming the right to chose chess and billiard simultaneously. The political options of the democratic majority that might chose tyranny in such countries as Poland or Hungary gave a sufficient answer to my interrogation. As far as those people were concerned, no one was to play chess on a billiard table any more. Even less space for a discussion on the choice between a confessional and a meta-confessional stance. Both stances were essentially novel in the post-secular landscape. Yet the outcome might be seen as a result of the tension between the center, characterized by the modernizing oblivion of the divinities, and the peripheries, where the confessional stance has never been abandoned or forgotten. My own return to the religious problems stemmed from quite different peripheries; it was provoked by the intrusion of the “spirit of the Desert”, forcing the reintroduction of the monotheism as a problem into the European intellectual agenda. But this is how the question looked like from an essentially Western European perspective that for some reasons I tend to adopt instinctively. The Poles would not put any such interrogations in any agenda whatsoever. The essential choice of simplicity in the religious dimension, the nostalgia of massive participation in Corpus Christi processions I still remembered from my own childhood, waged heavier than any more sophisticated approaches to spirituality. The destructive and degenerating potential of such phenomena could hardly be fathomed from the Western European perspective. There is a necessary ellipse at the moment where I should logically explain why, when and to what did I actually convert. This ellipse results from the superposed games of chess and billiard, the patent and the hidden, the requirements of modernity that tends to privatize the confessional identities and their natural transparency. And yet, paradoxically, the modernity tends to privatize and de-privatize the spiritual life at the same time, creates a double-bind that evacuates it of the essential content that should remain in the shadow. Excessive “coming-outs” lead to the collapse of more than one dimension; this remains valid for eroticism as it does for spirituality. On the other hand, the refusal of an unequivocal answer is inherent to the meta-confessional stance. To translate it in post-modern terms proposed by Derrida, at the meta-confessional level, the act of conversion opens the space of khōra, cannot be defined otherwise than in terms adopted to describe a non-periodic oscillation: by amplitude, frequency of iterations, distribution of probabilities. Supposing that the ambiance of the 1980s in Poland produced me – i.e. a particular, individual thinker with such and such characteristics, inspirations and aspirations, conceptualizing her responsibilities in a determined way – what is to be deduced from this fact? The whole story of our Polish encounter with Western Europe ended there, I'm afraid. The emergence of a new, larger Europe, a Europe that might include us, collapsed; it remained at the level of a mere fluctuation; soon, things returned to the previously existing levels of low complexity. Yet this differently shaped world, this parallel universe of mine must have emerged somehow. Certainly it was an individual creation; nonetheless it did not appear in a complete vacuum; it started from some sort of potentiality – this is at least a hypothesis I might like to verify... The field of potentiality is transformed by the individual thinker according to complex modalities, including negation and voluntary disruption. Other fields are brought into superposition by an autonomous intellectual decision. Yet some particles of the original matter remain. Is there any important conclusion to be reached through tracing them back to their origin? - I wrote at the time, probably thinking about my own irreducible Polish-ness, my belonging to the peripheries, my communication with some sort of roots. But right now I doubt if there have once been any roots whatsoever, any sort of communication with my origin, except the mere biological structure. Certainly, a transmission of DNA took place. And no more than this, I'm afraid. My cultural roots, I regret to say, must lie elsewhere. Otherwise I wouldn't be here. I think it is in the Risala fi fadl al-Andalus that Ibn Hazm says that the large consensus of the genealogists is to associate a man's nasab (genealogy and belonging) to the place he emigrated to and settled in, rather than the place he came from; "we are entitled to those who come to us from elsewhere, just as we do not have any hold over those who leave us". If this is correct, the Netherlands are entitled, from now on, to my fadl, and Poland does not have any rightful hold over me.
Among other things I was invited to discuss in Warsaw was the future of the humanities. The original horizon of that debate was the usual insufficiency of financial means, jobs, perspectives. The implicit aim was thus to prove humanities "usefulness", of which no one seemed to be intimately convinced. What I tried to bring into that discussion was a perception of living in a larger world, a reference to humanities as a global affair.
Futurology is not an exact science. Many people would go even further, telling that futurology is not science at all, and it's not worth spending our time to discuss it. On the other hand, my patron saint George Steiner says that the future tense is the essence of our language. The possibility of talking about the future, about the state of affairs that doesn't currently exist, is what makes us human and makes possible any kind of human intervention in the world. Future tense is thus a key issue in humanities. Meanwhile, many people treat humanities as a study of the past, of the cultural legacy that come to us from past generations. The value of the studies in humanities would reside in the fact that this cultural legacy constitute an expression and a “documentation” of past experiences. And if the human condition is seen as circular, as eternal return of basic situations and problems, past solutions could be regarded as worth keeping in mind as keys for future situations. The future, thus, again and again. This is why I consider that the true making of humanities, the authentic way of dealing with humanities should be constantly oriented towards the future, not towards the past. The aim in humanities, contrary to what many people seem to believe, is not a reconstruction, as faithful as possible, of some past stages or forms of culture. Neither it is, as some other people believe, the endeavor of conservation, including all forms of patrimony, not only paintings in the museums, but also immaterial forms of culture, such as living languages that at the present moment are at the brink of extinction in many parts of the world. Many people believe that the true scope of humanities is to keep all these things alive in one form or another, their pious cultivation. In my opinion, there is a crucial element that is usually overlooked. Of course, culture is at the same time continuity and change; but it's the continuity that “makes itself” quite naturally, just through natural inertia of men. What we should really care about is change, and to foster change is the main endeavor of humanities. Cultural dynamics are essential because they bring about adaptability of human communities, adaptability that has a crucial importance in contemporary, globalizing world in which environmental and contextual changes are accelerated to quite unprecedented degree.
We should orientate our humanities towards the future, but the future is unknown. How to deal with this paradox? In fact this is a problem any human activity has to face. To make things, we need this essential projection towards the future, we need planning, and I think that humanities' essential duty is to cope with some form of planning – not only planning for its own purposes, but planning for culture as such and the cultural change that is not something that comes by itself (only stagnation is “natural”). I see humanities, if you want, as a form of engineering and not a mere description of cultural realities.
As long as I remained in Poland, I could not think highly of the academic institution. University was a space in which I was suffering marginalization and symbolic oppression in its typical, not even so very sophisticated forms. It naturally made me inclined to think about the future of humanities in a strictly individualized perspective, as something that I shape myself and something that remains my own, inalienable responsibility. There is a necessary modification in all this as I come to Western Europe, where university is, essentially, something else, at least something that helps, not prevents me from doing my work. I start thinking once again about the perspective of a possible integration into an institution in which and through which humanities exercise a great part of their social influence. Certainly I wouldn't be inclined to belittle the humanities that do exist or could exist outside the academia, done by independent researchers, thinkers and authors; their importance might even grow in the future, as they might be supported uniquely by global book market and other media (Internet, independent television channels etc.). Situating themselves outside or even in opposition to the academia, such free-lancers may exercise a considerable influence and even serve academia as an exterior critical power. But perhaps I feel alleviated at the prospect of returning to university as the center of the world in which humanities live.
After all, for good and for bad, I am a person who always worked at a university or another, and hardly ever worked anywhere else (in an editing house for instance). I've also studied similar problem, namely thinking on the perspectives of the non-European intellectuals and observing their real choices. And what I see is that generally their first option is to seek integration in the international academia In many parts of the world during the last decade a general process of inclusion of intellectuals who represent former dominated cultures into the academia is to be observed. At the beginning, I was skeptical, I was thinking this could be a way of perpetuating discursive dominance of the West over them, a kind of neo-colonialism of mind. But later on I started to see how essential for the native or non-Western cultures the inclusion in this global space of discussion actually is, and how they manage to modify the intellectual context in which they are included. Of course, on the other hand they become deeply modified by the university, to the point of losing many elements that one might see as essential for their cultural identity as it was originally. But again, there is another paradox here: what one takes for their “true”or “original” or “authentic” identity is nothing more than an image one could form, based on past stages of their cultures. And they as they are – not my image of what they should be – incarnate the present and the future shape of their cultures. As I deal with non-European cultures in my every day research practice, I spotted so many times how much I tend to adopt this attitude of favoring “conservation” of cultures... But indeed it's nothing more than my intellectual inertia, that doesn't manage to keep pace with the accelerated cultural change. But let me return to the core of my topic: the future of the university. I think it is important to keep the global perspective constantly in mind. I don't think in terms of Polish university, not even European university; this is a reality that must be taken in much larger perspective. What is more, I see many contemporary thinkers shaping and situating their reflection to meet the needs of this global market, or at least a market that is larger than just Europe. Did you ever notice that Agamben, as he dives in the cultural past, never remains in the context of Christianity? Constantly, he draws a triple perspective of monotheistic religions, even if the result might be rather clumsy in some points. He is constantly crossing a frontier back and forth. Why? Just to show how vast his erudition is? My impression is that he tries to avoid the marginalization – sic! – of diving in merely European affairs. In fact, many scholars comment on this situation and try to orientate their projects in humanities to meet these particular needs. So does Damrosch proposing his way of studying world literature, taken as a patrimony into which diverse non-European and non-Western cultures would participate in a larger measure than it used to be. A new, planetary canon would be seen as more familiar and easier to identify with to all that new university public. All over the world, new universities emerge and reach the status of important centers quicker than anybody would expect. Every year I read the rankings of the best universities worldwide. Indeed it's a fascinating piece of information. Last 3 to 5 years, there are newcomers to be seen among the top 100, even the top 10: universities that could seem very exotic, if we don't make a real effort to keep pace with the changing global reality. Have you ever heard of National University of Singapore? I saw a ranking in which it was classed as the 7th best university worldwide, just below Harvard and Princeton. Lately, Singapore is inundating Asia and the Middle East with the world's best maths teachers... Of course, the change I refer to is evident mostly in the domain of science and technology. Many of these new fabulous universities hardly possess any faculty of humanities, or not in the shape we are used to. Cultural theory might be present in the context of their schools of design or art and multimedia faculties. But why do I speak about all this? How does this situation affects us? The perspective of relocating several thousand kilometers just to get a university job could be rather a nightmare than an appeal to most of you. But it is important to keep this in mind as we live, both in Europe and in the United States, in a shrinking world, where constant reductions and cuts are inevitable. I think that a good strategy to adopt is that “engineering” one I mentioned at the beginning: showing that humanities is really about doing things, changing things in order to increase the adaptability of the human to the changing conditions in the world. I wouldn't like to take every symptom of change as a symptom of crisis. Even the reductions could have a positive value. Many traditional / traditionalist faculties suffer severe cuts, but in the meanwhile, even during the worse of the economic crisis, schools of new type are created all over Europe. Nevertheless, it is important to take into consideration the difference between the old and the new. As far as I could get any orientation in this matter, the place of humanities should be seen in slightly different perspective, as I already mentioned. Traditional disciplines might have lesser and lesser importance in confrontation with transdisciplinary perspectives, a kind of general cultural theory & criticism. Its main scope wont be descriptive any more, and this is a point I would stress. The aim is no longer to study / describe / analyze cultural realities for their own sake. It is two things: 1) much more about creating than just describing; 2) much more about projecting interventions, interacting with the cultural practices than just describing them. Humanities cannot remain in the ivory tower any longer. The problem is that for many of us going out of the ivory tower used to have just one meaning: political engagement. But it's not the way I see it. It's another kind of interaction, in quite different spheres of reality. It's a kind of cultural design.
Apparently I did not what I said. Since the beginning of my Varsovian period, I slowly went on studying the intellectual and religious particularity of al-Andalus, although I used to publish very few things on the topic. What tempted me were those long forgotten modalities of mystic experience and Andalusian notions of supra-confessional, supra-cultural community of thinkers. I believe that it was a corpus of ideas requiring reactivation in the context of postsecular rethinking of monotheism. Certainly it looked much less exotic as soon as I found myself in Western Europe. I even discovered that the Mediterranean perspective was an over-exploited one. People were tired of those repeated attempts at thinking among Christians and Muslims; in Poland, with its hysterical rejection of the refugees and other Mediterranean problems, it might have been useful but it became impossible; in France, where I was in 2017/2018, the idea could hardly be seen as a novelty. This is why, for a moment, I felt tempted again by the global perspective in which Portuguese might serve as a central thread or at least a pretext, just because Portuguese is the least explored of the globalising languages. But what I verified during a rough survey of German universities in the summer 2018 was that the Lusophone departments outside Portugal were usually too weak to become centers of any consistent intellectual endeavor. Islamic studies, whatever might be told about them, seemed stronger, more lively, more dynamic; especially in a good place like Leiden.
The global matrix of what I call non-hegemonic universalism is a new symbolic space in which the cultural frontiers have been dissolved and the transcultural subjects aspire, as myself, to an intellectual life in conditions of limitlessness. This is by the way what I have always tried to find in the Mediterranean, in al-Andalus: a coherent aesthetic and intellectual space resulting from repeated interactions between thinkers and writers reconnecting the divergent traditions. At the same time, I am interested in the void. The transcultural global matrix tends toward a growing density; it tends to cover the unexpressed, to multiply, be it by borrowing and lending, the means of expression. Yet still what interests me most is the uncovered area, the inexpressible, the not-yet-created, the yet-to-come. The term "Eremos" appeared as a make-shift solution to give a name to my topological concept of symbolic space unoccupied by any culture. The Latin word for desert may not be seen as a particularly creative idea (not at the level of the Derridian concept of khora), but at least it permits to avoid the cumbersome prefix trans-, as well as abusing of the concept of transculture that cannot be entirely mine. In a larger perspective, what I would like to do is to introduce other languages into the humanities, beyond the usual philosophical triad of Greek, Latin, German. The desert is also redundant in this context. Agata Bielik-Robson went back to Hebrew, bringing about the Biblical term bemidbar. I'm still searching, either in mathematics or in the forgotten languages of heterodox thinkers. In the meanwhile, Eremos stands for the emergent space of encounter situated in the transcultural dimension, building on the metaphor of a "hyper-cultured" and at the same time "de-cultured" desert inhabited by anachoretic intellectuals who withdraw from their cultural contexts to occupy an apparently impossible location: outside and above any particular culture. As I go on searching for the word, hoping it will suddenly jump out of some obscure, long forgotten text, I also explore the abstract, theoretical aspects of transcultural condition as a construct that requires filling in with contents. These entangled threads of research present thus some leitmotivs, such as the search for a novel dimension of intellectual and aesthetic communication that emerges in our times, as the globalisation provokes an interference of diverse cultural orders interacting with unprecedented intensity. The new level of symbolic complexity emerging from those multiplied and magnified interference should be theorised; specific analytic tools should be provided for its study. The book I published in Polish in 2018 was a very timid step in this direction. Much more remains to be done.
In Leiden, I modified my terminology. The term "transcultural" became diffused and outdated; I redefined my search, speaking more boldly about non-cultural and extra-cultural. And even more importantly, I engaged in the effort of doing that "much more that remains to be done". It is no longer a vague idea, a hypothesis never to be seriously developed or verified; occasionally, we used to produce a number of such vague ideas in Warsaw, leaving them to evaporate. To work on them or to put them to test would be to risk losing the dream of greatness we deposited in them. I know this subtle kind of fear very well, and the temptation of withdrawal. I felt it intensely in my second month in Leiden, when I already had all the documents necessary to submit my ERC project proposal. I felt there would be nothing of it, and I missed so badly to be back in Kraków, in the dusk of my minuscule flat (the studio where I live in Leiden is more spacious, and brighter with its three tall, maswerk windows). Psychology knows such cases. It is not even the fear of failure. It is simply the fear of ceasing to be the person we used to be. In my case, I would cease to be a low-ranking female professor, or profesorka, from the University of Warsaw.
Finally, what helped me to overcome the fear of losing my dream of greatness was the perception that, in a way, I was living in a present, an actuality of greatness. No need to push it away from me. February 2019 was uncommonly warm, and there was a profusion of flowers already at that time of the year. I took the habit of buying a 5-euro value of blossom on a market every Saturday, and it is prodigious to see what a 5-euro note can buy in springtime in Holland. For the rest, I was living very modestly, drinking free beers generously provided by the University in the informal meetings organized after every invited lecture, and on the days when there was no lecture, a hot chocolate from distribution machine in the library. Certainly, I pushed many things away from me. I stopped learning Dutch, something I did quite intensely before I came to the Netherlands. It was an important dream to be in the Netherlands, I was looking forward to it even as I was in France. The very moment I stepped on Batavian ground, the dream burst like a soap-bubble. I had to rebuild it all, and make it all more solid, through reflection.
I spent a couple of years asking myself anxiously if I was truly an international scholar, a European scholar, a global scholar. Since the very beginning, it had been clear to me that Kraków and Warsaw were only camps on my way, soon to be abandoned. My intellectual universe under construction is still a conundrum I see unsolved in front of me. I still get up early to write, or rather stay late at night, writing. I hope it will progressively make a full sense of all my intellectual adventures, as I progress smoothly toward the conclusion of various books I have sketched. I may settle permanently in a place like Leiden, collecting whatever I manage to bring home from my travels. Once I doubted if I could ever find an institution powerful enough to refrain my discontentment: Perhaps I should rather think about my books as the only garden of my own, the only reality I am able to shape, bearing my name and my trace. Now I start to believe I might put up with being here, and in Amsterdam, and perhaps in Oxford for a semester or another. My home, when I manage to settle, is to be a receptacle of books and artifacts brought from all the travels; the maritime history of the location is there for something. I have private dreams. I would like to have a home to stop squeezing, as I had squeezed in my remote childhood. A home bigger not only in habitable surface; also more capacious in terms of ideas, books in many languages to keep on my shelves, masks in provenance from various parts of Africa. In a sense, this home is more than a dream; it is a symbol of me, as I would like to become, overcoming the cultural dynamics of mastery and wound, the tyranny of the peripheries. As I have been since the very beginning. Autonomous, assertive, self-reliant, beyond helplessness and acceptance of my wounds.
It took me long time to start considering my work as I do it now as a work. I thought it was a reckless way of spending time, something that I was doing for pleasure, but otherwise in vain, for no cumulative result whatsoever. Not like publishing academic articles in journals; although some of those unserious ideas partially sunk into that other, serious, public sphere. But a lot of my original writings, since 2010, are lost. I posted them online, on a Polish blogging service, making them public and private alternately, as I was ashamed and insecure with that sort of things. Now, on the contrary, I have suspended most of my strictly academic writing to do this unserious work. And right here, when I am in this prestigious university in Leiden. I suppose there is a connection between these two things; my originality has been empowered by the place, by sheer location, even if materially there is hardly any resource to which I wouldn't have access when I was in Poland. But, oh, to be here is beyond comparison with being in Poland. By sheer absence of certain things, people, cultural contextualization that exist there. I think there is a term employed in coaching: one calls it "identity shift", and it surprises me how much of it seems to be attached to location, although perhaps I am prone to confound the influence of the place with the effect of absence of people who, by their sheer presence, were the source of permanent symbolic oppression when I was in Warsaw. Certainly, I had the awareness of being an intellectual when I was in Warsaw. Among those deans and gerontocratic professors, the question of equality was a mirage on my horizon, occasionally woven in my direction in a way of manipulation. It was present in that famous last phone conversation that I had with Jerzy Axer, 30-minute long, where he did not exclude the possibility of making me in some way "equal" to my two successful colleagues, the ERC grantees from my faculty, if I decided to stay. Of course, I did not, because equality was not his to bestow upon me. I did not consider him as my equal, since there is no equality between an intellectual and a dean. But it was only here in Leiden that I took up fully the consequences of my being an intellectual. In the first weeks I spent here, I tried to work as usual, only better. Write the same kind of papers, only in English, and for better journals. I tried to read books, to learn, to observe my successful colleagues, their professionalism, the clarity of their presentations, their competence. But after only five or six weeks of this I saw myself engaged into quite a different endeavor, a kind of work that I did not directly see anybody perform here. Perhaps mimicking professionalism and competence would be too easy to make a motivating task for me; perhaps I realized how rare is in fact the kind of work that I have initiated; of professionalism and competence this university is already full to the brim. Be that as it may, after some moments of perplexity, waking up in the morning unsure how I was to spend my day, I went back to my experimentation initiated in 2015. It is not exactly the first time of my life that I thought about getting a job in the line of Derrida and Agamben, but it is the first time that it becomes a realistic program, a thing to do every day and as the main item on my to-do list, focusing on it as a way of organizing my life for the years to come. Maybe in Leiden such a scenario simply appears as somehow less improbable than it would be in Warsaw. This is how I started to be serious, really serious about my future for the first time in my life. Sort of seriousness beyond the serious. Certainly, I was feeling vaguely unsafe for some time, after I resigned from my tenure in Warsaw (tenure of which I did not actually take possession, because I left for Portugal exactly at the moment when it was given to me). I felt unstable ground under my feet; but I became as reckless as I was serious (in the narrow sense) in the past. I decided to go on with my work to the limit, as long as I could objectively have resources, money on my bank account, a roof over my head. I suspended any accumulation, even accumulation of books; my Multilingual Library is scheduled to shrink, as much as my wardrobe. Even more importantly, I left my academic past behind, all those things I wrote in Polish. I do not regret them, and have no project for my future that might be based on capitalizing any sort of prestige that might be derived from them. I have accepted shrinking, in many concrete and metaphorical senses (I have even lost some weight), because I have had the sensation of stepping into a present time of fullness and abundance that the Batavian blossoms epitomize. I write these words less than three months, exactly eleven weeks after I started my work here.
And this is, perhaps, where the transition ends. Overall, how much does it take to transform a profesorka from Warsaw into an unabashed international scholar? Eleven weeks, I say, counting the time since I have moved to this extravagant loft with three maswerk windows in Leiden; it is exactly a year, I think, since I went to Warsaw with my resignation. I did other things in the meantime, that I did not mention here: I circled through Europe on Flixbus, I spend some time with my husband, I spent some weeks in absolute thoughtlessness. Five years, if I measure the distance by the writings I brought here. But in fact, I did not "convert" to this; I have always been this. There has been no transition.