Kari and I have been on vacation this first week of Spring Break. We’ve returned to Paris, a city we both lived in when we were in our student years, and in which we have spent extended periods of time in the time since. Although this was not a Wesleyan trip, we spent a few hours at the Wesleyan-Vassar program here. It was great to meet some of the staff and talk with some students who are spending the spring semester in France. Studying in a foreign country, especially when you are immersing yourself in another language, can be such a powerful complement to a broad, liberal arts education. There are so many things you have to re-consider when you are living outside the US, not the least being your own views of home. One starts to see oneself and one’s culture through the eyes of others — usually a strong learning experience.
Our students in France are studying art history, politics, history and, of course, French literature. Some want to explore psychology, while others are attracted to geography, science studies and philosophy. All of these things are often grouped here under the rubic of “human sciences,” and recently there has been a reinvigoration of the term “humanities” in French. Kari and I went to hear the inaugural lecture of a new Humanities Institute in Paris, at the Diderot campus (Paris 7). The feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti made a strong case for a “post-anthropocentric,” integrative version of the humanities that would be as interdisciplinary as anything we have seen in the states.
We’ve spent much of the week seeing old friends, listening to music and looking at art. We heard about new trends in philosophy, and Kari was especially interested to learn about the important number of philosophers who are now investigating “the problem of the animal.” Her new book, Thinking Animals, is about to come out from Columbia University Press. We saw a wonderful exhibition on Matisse, in which the decisions the painter made when confronted with certain visual/cognitive problems were brought to the fore. This reminded me of how Tula Telfair has recently discussed her work. We also saw fantastic, disturbing exhibition at the Musée Branly, L’Invention du Sauvage. The English title for the catalogue is The Human Zoo, and the two titles together give a good idea of the subject matter: the creation and display of the colonial Other as exotic — even antihuman. This exploration of the genealogy of racialism and racism reminded me of Andy Curran’s recent book, Anatomy of Blackness. And I couldn’t help wonder what our dance faculty would think of the great exhibition on dance and the arts at the Centre Pompidou, Danser sa Vie.
It’s not as if I think only of Wesleyan when visiting Paris. I promise, nothing red and black came to mind when we saw the exhibition on Degas’ nudes!
We’ll soon be home to prepare for the rush of the second half of the semester. There will be music to hear, and exhibitions to see as the senior theses continue to unfold. And friends, new and old, to share stories of Paris with.