Almanacco > Inediti
29 aprile 2014

How Proust Can Mess Up Your Life. A personal story

Philosophy, women, English as a second language, and international careers

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Letta l'informativa*, dichiaro di averne compreso il contenuto e acconsento al trattamento dei miei dati per le finalità e secondo le modalità ivi indicate.

Here are some things I’ve done over the past fifteen years.

I earned a philosophy degree in my native country, Italy. I enrolled, at eighteen, because I wanted to understand art through philosophy. I had this idea that art could give meaning to life and that philosophy could explain how this is. Perhaps I still hold this view. I am pretty sure I got it from reading Proust, and Sartre’s Nausea. In search of lost time and Nausea both end with people who realize that they can give meaning to their lives by means of making and appreciating art, respectively. Or so I thought. I had read both books when I was sixteen and they certainly had given a lot of meaning to my long summer vacation. I would lay on a lounger at the beach in my hometown and read for hours and hours. This was no fancy beach: just a long stretch of sand facing the Adriatic Sea, covered in umbrellas. An affordable destination for family vacations, as they say.

Although I thought art could give meaning to life, I didn’t want to spend my life making art. I wanted to understand how art worked. No, this isn’t true. I wanted to make art. I’ve always wanted to write a great novel. But I thought I needed to understand how art works in the first place, if I wanted to make good art. That’s why I needed philosophy. (Why on earth I was moved by those particular desires while lying on the beach in the mid-90s at the age of sixteen is a different story. It’s not an interesting one, I think).

By the time I graduated, five years after my enrollment, I didn’t have the foggiest idea of what the relationship between art and what confers meaning to life was and I didn’t know whether philosophy had anything to say about this. Also, I didn’t know if philosophy had anything to say about the meaning of life in general – but I knew that it is often depicted as a discipline concerned precisely with this issue. My search for the philosophical reason why art can give meaning to life had turned into the search for the reason why we do philosophy. And, guess what, I had no answer to this question either.

My memories of those times aren’t very clear. I can recall four things that happened, which have something to do with the story I’m trying to tell.

I realized that, most of the times, when my professors talked about art they talked about the philosophical significance of some artwork. Only, I did not realize I had realized this. What I felt was a constant dissatisfaction while listening to those philosophers talking about art. As a matter of fact, they were not talking about the issue that bothered me. I wanted to understand how art works and why we think it’s meaningful and they were talking about how art can do the job of philosophy. Was I supposed to think that art worked just like philosophy? I wish I had been sharp enough to ask this question at the time. But I wasn’t. It wasn’t easy to get straight to the questions. We weren’t being trained for that. Our education consisted of listening to lectures – three courses per semester, on average. Fifteen hours a week, taking notes while the professor was talking. Many professors commented on works by famous authors in Western philosophy – from the Presocratics to Heidegger, roughly. Some were able to comment on the work of most authors in the history of philosophy in the space of a single week of lectures. Our exams were oral: we were required to recall what the professor had explained – most of the times it was sufficient to repeat what he (or, less often, she) had said – to summarize (very, very roughly) the arguments of classic works (Plato’s Republic, Arendt’s Vita Activa, and a lot of other stuff in the middle), and to be familiar with the critical examination of such works outlined in a monograph or a collection of essays by some historian of philosophy (often, the professor himself).

In my second year as a philosophy student, I forced myself to take a logic class, because it was what the tough guys did. Later, I took one in philosophy of language, and then two in philosophy of science. I discovered that there was one such thing as analytic philosophy. It wasn’t pleasant. I wasn’t particularly good at it. I didn’t know if it could help me with my original quest about how art works. But it was challenging. It managed to be challenging, even though it was taught pretty much in the same style of the other classes: endless hours of listening to a professor talking. The thing is, that those professors were talking about weird stuff. Counterintuitive (a word I wouldn’t have used at the time). Unusual. From a false premise any conclusion can be derived. How do names refer to things in the world? The predicate “grue”. To me, it was fascinating, in an odd, somewhat jarring way. And it made me feel that I had to prove to myself that I was good enough to deal with it. I had a similar feeling when I read Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment. He was trying to say something about why we value art, and this was the closest to an answer to my original question I had ever gotten so far, but boy, there were lots of new concepts there, and I didn’t understand if Kant was using them to talk about things that really were there or if they only made sense in a kind of alternate universe he had painstakingly constructed.

Then I went to study in Berlin for a year and, by chance, I discovered that there were analytic philosophers who were talking about pictorial art and images. I decided, at once, that this had to be the topic of my dissertation.

Finally, I began working on my dissertation, reading many papers and books in English. I hadn’t read anything in English since secondary school and I had been studying German since my second year as a university student. Now, I like to think that if I hadn’t studied German I wouldn’t have gone to Berlin and wouldn’t have found out about analytic aesthetics. But it doesn’t take a great philosopher to see that there are infinite other – and infinitely more straightforward – ways I could have met analytic aesthetics. I remember sitting in Berlin’s State Library (you know, the one from Wings of Desire), trying to read an English monograph on depiction, and getting lost at least once every paragraph. My dissertation was a kind of history of the debate on depiction. So I hadn’t turned into an analytic philosopher, one who tackles specific questions with careful arguments. I had turned into an historian of analytic aesthetics. Again, however, I wasn’t aware of this at the time. I had made a great effort trying to grasp issues that were not being discussed in Italy, with some support from my advisor – a truly kind man who, candidly, had warned me that he himself knew little about the topic. I was proud of my effort, I had been praised for it during my defense, and when I got a scholarship to pursue a PhD at the same university where I had earned my first degree I thought I was on the right track.

My kind supervisor made it clear from the beginning that I should find a specialist who was willing to give me some advice on the topic of my research – depiction, again. At the end of my first year as a PhD student I approached a scholar of depiction, with my still tentative English, and an equally tentative idea for a research project, at a conference dinner held in a castle in the North East of England. It was the first of many Harry-Potter-esque experiences to come: as a result of that conversation, I was admitted to the University of Oxford as a visiting student. I ended up spending almost three years there. And it was there that my big, painful, cathartic, disorienting, and still ongoing transformation really began.

At the time I moved to Oxford – an elite school and, most importantly for me, the European capital and one of the world capitals of analytic philosophy – my preoccupation with the question about how art works and how it might be able to make life meaningful seemed long gone. But – in retrospect, again – I can tell that it had been replaced by a loosely related question: how is it that we find pictures, especially art pictures, so compelling, although it is not clear what they are meant to say to us, for the simple reason that they show us figures, and are not made out of words we can read an meditate upon? I thought an answer to this question was my final destination, but at Oxford I finally realized that there were some intermediate stops I couldn’t bypass: I had to turn myself into an analytic philosopher and, concomitantly, into one who thinks in English and writes in English, because that was the language of analytic philosophy. So my question about art in general had turned into a question about how pictures work, which had brought to the question of how to turn myself into an analytic aesthetician and to the effort of appropriating the English language. I was walking backwards, like a crab, and it made perfect sense to me.

What did not make much sense was that I had come to realize only then, at twenty-six, that this was what I had to do if I wanted to be a philosopher working in aesthetics in the analytic style. I had always been an ambitious person, who attended a good secondary school (a public one, like most good schools in Italy in the 90s), had access to people who were believed to be able to give good advice, had enrolled at what was considered one of the best philosophy schools in Italy, had lived and studied in Berlin – the cool capital of European youth – and yet, until the age of twenty-six, I had never been aware that Italy couldn’t really help me become a researcher working in the field of my choice and that, to study certain kinds of philosophy at a really high-level, I had to move to an English-speaking country and, possibly, enroll at a really good (and expensive) school. Of course I knew about Oxford and Cambridge and the Ivy League but, to me, those were places where people who wanted a very different kind of career had to go and study. Businessmen. Entrepreneurs. Scientists. Mathematicians. Diplomats. Not humanists, not philosophers.

The economic crisis had just started. Italy, however, was mostly preoccupied with Berlusconi’s scandals – not so much the political, but the private ones. Talk about missing the forest for the trees. There were some hints of what was about to come, though. The Italian media, for the first time, were talking a lot about brain drain and, not for the first time, about how deeply corrupt, nepotistic, and resistant to change my country was. Although my brain, still surviving on an Italian fellowship, hadn’t properly drained away, I felt everyday more detached from, even foreign, to my own country. Not that I felt British. I was somewhere, in the middle, quite alone.

So, while at Oxford, the desire to think and speak English, that to work as an analytic philosopher, and that of living in a country offering more opportunities to people like me intertwined tightly. They formed a bundle, which was part the gravity center of my new self, part a messy, knotty bundle that could hurt hard, if used to play a kind of inner game of squash.

I was in love with analytic philosophy, with English, and with life between Oxford and London. The two cities reciprocated: I met great people, I saw many beautiful things. The English language became more approachable by the time my stay in the UK was coming to an end – this deserves a story of its own, as any migrant knows. Analytic philosophy remained distant, the object of an unfulfilled passion. Yes, I was making some progress. I presented my work at a couple of conferences and published a couple of papers (pretty good by Italian standards, really minor by Oxford standards). My advisor there encouraged me to develop my ideas and gave me helpful suggestions. Argument, however, didn’t come naturally to me. Reconstructing other people’s arguments was all I could do, most of the times. To argue philosophically about art I needed more general philosophical resources. So I went to graduate seminars. Metaphysics, language, and epistemology. Philosophy of Mind. Value theory. It was so difficult to follow the discussion. I was so scared, and envious, of the brilliant students, asking questions and firing objections I could hardly grasp. I needed time, time to study this stuff from the beginning, like an eighteen year old, like someone who hadn’t learned to think of philosophy in terms of history since she had studied it in secondary school. I needed time to write papers on basic issues, and to discuss them with advisors. Time to develop that sharp, questioning, relentless analytic writing style I so admired and bowed to.

I didn’t have that kind of time. I had a doctoral thesis to write. I had to grasp what I could grasp and make it work. And so I did. I went back to Italy, and got my degree, defending, in Italian, a thesis written in English for an imaginary audience, one that could see my efforts and help me improve: neither the foil fencing audience of Oxford graduate seminars, nor the audience of Italian philosophers – only two, in the country, as far as I know, were and are truly familiar with the topic of my research, while a few, on occasion, have found it appropriate to tease me a little for my concern with analytic aesthetics.

I still think that it is remarkable that nobody, in Britain or Italy, suggested that I enroll in a Masters or PhD program somewhere where I could study analytic philosophy, now that I had obtained my Italian degree. I asked around, and more experienced people told me that I had to try and keep going, and improving, that I could do it on my own, I could turn into an analytic aesthetician, publish, get a temporary job, etcetera. Some people told me that I had to find my own voice (oh, what a trite expression), the voice of someone who had gone through my very own kind of philosophical journey. I wasn’t interested in this: I wanted to do good, respectable, internationally marketable philosophy, and cherishing hybridization, exceptionality, exoticness even, seemed like missing the point. I began to believe that perhaps I could make it on my own. Also, there were all those questions I had first approached with my thesis, which I wanted to understand much better. Starting with a new degree would have meant leaving them sitting in a drawer for a very long time. Also, I wasn’t getting any younger.

A post-doc, or a teaching job, in an analytic department outside Italy, seemed out of the question (I had never taught anything except for a few classes in aesthetics in Italy so, by Anglo-American standards, my teaching experience was really poor). Like so many Italian researchers in my discipline, then, I applied for a post-doc at the same university where I had earned all my degrees. Things have gone well so far: I have been working there for almost four years now (currently I am based in the US, but I’ll explain this later). My contract expires in the autumn, however, and my future, as well as that of many other early career researchers, is really uncertain.

About four years ago, then, I went back to living in Italy, but I kept reading and writing in English, all the time. In the evening, I would watch TV series on Netflix, like anyone else, because they are addictive, and often good, but also because I needed to listen to people speaking English. I could seldom discuss the topics of my research with people at my department. I would have felt utterly alienated, hadn’t it been for my boyfriend, who was going through a quite similar experience. We talked philosophy together, we watched Netflix together, and we mutually proofread our papers in English.

I taught some lectures and seminars in aesthetics and I loved it. I also loved advising students for their final dissertations. I hated having to be, now, on the other side of the desk during oral exams. Pointless, painful oral exams with dozens and dozens of students. I began getting accepted at the very good conferences in my field, but the really good publications were – and to date, are – yet to come. In the meantime, Berlusconi was gone, Italy had discovered that it was in deep economic depression, and our public university and research system was being quickly dismantled. It is an ongoing process, and this is not the place to discuss it. Suffice to say that Italy is at the very bottom of the scale of EU countries on research expenditure. Academia is suffering everywhere, but in Italy it’s a particularly bitter brand of suffering.

I will turn thirty-five in July and there aren’t many chances that I will, if not get a permanent job, at least live with the awareness that I can continue working as a researcher and teacher of philosophy on a series of temporary jobs. If I were to take maternity leave with my Italian contract, right now, I wouldn’t be paid a single Euro. I would have to stop working on my project and then resume it later. Recently, unemployment benefits have made a comeback for several categories of workers in Italy, but not for those like me. If I don’t find a job immediately after I finish my contract I won’t get any money. The reason? Temporary research appointments are not jobs. What are they, then? If you live in the US, you might point out that paid maternity leave and unemployment benefits aren’t usually an option in this country either. True. Consider, though, that in October 2015 the unemployment rate in Italy was at 11,5 percent, while in the US it was at 5 percent. Perhaps welfare doesn’t really help, I don’t know, but Italy clearly has a problem (as for maternity leave, I believe it should not be negotiable). While I’m writing this, I’m sitting in my room in Washington, DC. I am in the US for ten months on a fellowship (which I could merge with my Italian one). When I am finished, I won’t be allowed to work in this country for at least two years, due to immigration regulations.

My philosophy is improving. I’m having a very productive time here and I hope I’ll get some papers in pretty good journals very soon. I’m still an outsider, though, wherever I go. And I’ve discovered that I’m even more of an outsider than I thought I was during those first years as a visiting student at Oxford. The number of women in philosophy is pretty small and there’s evidence of biases against women in grading and philosophy job interviews. Still, I feel much more at ease with analytic philosophy now. It is now my natural working style. It’s not easy, but it’s the only style I know, at this point. Even though I’ve also found out that working in analytic philosophy, as a woman, can be yet one more factor contributing to a general feeling of outsiderness. That’s because – and there is data and ongoing discussion on this – being good at looking smart is a very valuable asset in philosophy and looking smart, according to current standards among analytic philosophers, involves exuding self-confidence, the kind of self-confidence that helps a lot if you have to fence with arguments in the seminar room. That women, people who look other than white, people from non-privileged backgrounds, and non-native speakers of English might find it difficult to gather this kind of self-confidence when they enter the largely white, male, English-speaking international philosophy room, shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Will I get a job as a philosopher? I don’t know. This is the big question that is bothering me right now. Where did all the other questions go? Some are still here and I’ve come to realize they’ll be with me forever if I keep doing this job, although they now look less scary, domesticated, partially answered in the affirmative: can I master English well enough to work at the international level? Can I consider myself an analytic philosopher? The question about pictures has allowed me to learn much, and to learn that I wanted to know more about art than about pictures, in the end. So it’s not really a pressing question anymore. What of the question about the meaning-conferring power of art? I think I know a lot about that now. Perhaps I even have something to say. It feels good.

Still, I find myself in a predicament: all this work, all this effort, and I don’t know whether I can keep being a professional philosopher. I was looking for the reason why art could give meaning to life and I ended up seeking to give meaning to my life through a metamorphosis into an analytic, English-speaking, international philosopher of art. Will I have to turn to art for meaning and, more likely, consolation, if I have to abandon philosophy in the end?

If this were a movie, this would be the point where they play in the background, half seriously, half ironically, a song like Eye of the Tiger (I loved how they did it in that scene from Persepolis). But I’d like to conclude on a more neutral note. I think I’ve become a more aware person in all these years. No matter what, I can keep cultivating this power of awareness. Awareness will not replace the job of my dreams, the focus of my intellectual passion. It will not make up for the difficulties encountered by women, people who don’t look white, and non-native speakers of English doing analytic philosophy, and working as international academics, more generally. It won’t help changing the stale political, social, and academic environment in Italy. It won’t help persuade today’s academic administrators in Britain, and American universities reluctant to finance the Humanities, that some more philosophy jobs might be a good idea (yet one more topic for another story). Awareness is just what brings a smile to my face when I think of my bundle: now it looks like a soft, innocent, domestic bundle. I could get a cat and let it play with it.

Thanks to Bianca-Antonia Anechitei, Alain Bonacossa, Daragh McDowell, Matteo Plebani, and Laurna Strikwerda.


Cover: courtesy Beatrice Alemagna

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