This year, Trish Fancher and Jimmy Butts had the honor of attending the European Graduate School in Saas Fee, Switzerland. They participated in classes with Avital Ronell, Victor Vitanza, Denise Riley, Manuel Delanda, Volker Shlondorff and Wolfgang Schirmacher. In nightly lectures and in conversations and adventures with other students, Jimmy and Trish also learned from dozens of other artists, designers, scholars, writers, and all around fascinating folks.
Jimmy arrived a day early in Zurich to see James Joyce’s grave, and saw a Swiss Rock band with a female singer in the bar of his hostel the evening before he had to be up in the Alps to begin classes. Joyce borrowed Jimmy’s hat:
Also, Trish traveled throughout Norway for two weeks before going to EGS. And because it seemed like it was on the way, she made a short stopover in Paris.
All the students were welcomed after a whirlwind of planes and trains to Saas Fee by Wolfgang Schirmacher–Director of the European Graduate School–a flamboyant character with quite a bit of personal flair and panache. The schedule: a three hour class in the morning, followed by a second three hour class in the afternoon, and ending with a two hour lecture each evening is taxing, but really intellectually stimulating.
Normally, Jimmy and Trish would have begun with Diane Davis, but she had to miss this year to be with her family. Instead, their group of students began with Avital Ronell teaching Derrida for the first time since he passed away. The class opened with a discussion of Derrida’s Politics of Friendship and continued continued with Ronell for a second week discussing hospitality and friendship, even taking a day to watch Werner Herzog’s My Best Fiend. Ronell had just come from a press blitz in Paris and had met with Herzog to talk about a potential collaboration, which did not end up being viable for the two. Ronell’s teaching style is wonderfully hospitable, and Jimmy and Trish felt extremely close to her by the end of their time together. She offered a challenging pedagogical approach that worked through a diverse collection of texts, while giving them each careful attention through close reading. In addition, Ronell found a way to charm each student so that our her words continued to ring in our ears throughout the term at EGS.
Werner Hamacher, a true German philosopher, gave an intriguing talk near the beginning of the semester exploring the philosophical nature of the messiah that would never arrive, because of the mysterious definitional status of the messiah. The messiah is the one who is coming, so if it were to arrive, then it would no longer be the messiah, and we would not notice it. Hamacher suggested that the messiah might be anything, even a whiff of perfume–and that we will miss it. While walking back after the talk, Trish and Jimmy walked into a local bar only to find themselves dancing to “The Time of My Life” with several other EGS folks, including Werner Hamacher and an anarchist who has been trained in Chinese circus arts.
The two also began with the infamous Victor Vitanza as their second opening class. He spoke on Jean Francois Lyotard’s work and the ethical perspectives made possible through postmodern frameworks. He shared various visual examples including the creation of a moebius strip, as shown in this video clip.
At one point, Vitanza suggested, only momentarily, that Lyotard was more significant in thinking postmodern ethics than Derrida, but then took it back. Vitanza left the students with the question: “What is your relationship with language?”
This question resonated through the next two courses: “On Utterance” with Denise Riley and a second course with Avital Ronell, which focused on her own work.
Simon Critchley, the philosopher, scandalously read a short story he’d penned for his night lecture. The lecture led to a lively discussion among Critchely, Ronell, Schirmacher, and several students. Critchely bought Jimmy a beer afterward. They talked about Hamlet. Jimmy asked him later when it was better to write fiction over the factual research offered by philosophical inquiries. Critchley replied, over breakfast, “It’s all fiction.”
After saying goodbye to Victor, the two began an afternoon class with Denise Riley. Riley’s class was about listening to language using the inner ear. Working through Foucault, Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, and even Samuel Beckett, the class explored what it meant to hear the “truths” of language from language itself. The class experimented with this by reading aloud alternating lines of a few Beckett poems.
On a hike to see some marmots, Denise Riley shared with Jimmy that her first night in the United States was spent on Allen Ginsberg’s floor where she could hear the bugs crawling around the house and in the walls. After listening to Trish describe her dissertation project, Denise insisted that the world does not need another traditional, boring dissertation. She recommend that Trish write something that people will want to read, a dialogue or play perhaps. She was extremely British and very humble about her own work, yet she had a connection for whatever anyone was studying.
After two weeks of demanding and rewarding pedagogy in and out of class, Avital Ronell had to pack her bags and depart the magical mountain. She asked Trish to accompany her on part of her long journey to the airport. Trish helped Avital out with her luggage, and Avital helped Trish to better understand the complicated role of any mentor, teacher, and friend. It was a sad goodbye, with a very warm hug.
Somewhere along the way, Slavoj Zizek showed up. He, of course, generated quite a buzz. At one point, he grabbed Jimmy’s elbow by the coffee machine to tell him about a Brazilian drink called lágrima, warm milk with just a tear of coffee. He is a man full of information, and just likes to talk with people about it. Jimmy sat in on one of Zizek’s lectures where he talked about The Wire and various cinematic levels of honesty.
Jimmy then went on to sit in on Volker Schlondorff’s class. Schlondorff is a director who has won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival for The Tin Drum. He also directed cinematic adaptations of The Death of a Salesman and The Handmaid’s Tale. He gave lovely and haunting autobiographical stories about growing up during World War II in Germany and leaving for France to begin his film career. On his lecture night, he screened his latest film, Calm at Sea, about the execution a young man during the Nazi occupation of France.
Meanwhile, Trish sat in on Manuel Delanda’s class on Deleuze’s theories of history and science. Each morning, Delanda would lecture on the scientific foundations of Deleuzian theory. Each afternoon, he would parallel those scientific principles with historical and social principles, thereby creating strong connections among philosophy, science, and history.
Among other moments were Peter Singer sharing about utilitarian vegetarianism.
Michael Hardt talking about learning from Occupy Wall Street.
Catherine Breilllat screening her disturbingly honest 1996 film Parfait amour! or Perfect Love.
Sylvere Lotringer exploring prevalence of modern day video surveillance.
And Samuel Weber considering the uncanny through the work of David Lynch.
The two Clemson students finished their coursework in Saas Fee with Wolfgang Shirmacher’s class. They wrote short papers for him based on his research on Mediated Life and Homo Generator each morning, which they would go through along with the readings each afternoon. The process was really interesting at the end of the trip, and gave the students a chance to apply and play with some of the concepts they’d picked up.
All of this was interspersed with lots of hiking, eating Swiss chocolate, and visiting the local Metro Bar.
Afterwards, Jimmy met his lovely wife in Italy,
and Trish flew off to Brussels to eat waffles!
It was quite a trip!