I’ve lost count of how many academic celebrities I’ve met at Wageningen University and Research. I couldn’t imagine a better timing to do a PhD. Earlier this month, James Ferguson, a well-known anthropologist from Stanford University, USA, gave a public lecture at Orion about share, presence, and social obligation. A couple of days after, other famous names participated in the two-days Hauntology seminar on psychoanalysis and political economy. Don’t ask me about the seminar, I swear I have no idea.
While having my daily dose of sunbathing on the outdoor bench in Leeuwenborch, a participant of the hauntology seminar casually sat down next to me. My half-closed eyes were transfixed by his beautiful shoes. They must be expensive, I guess. He opened the lid of his cigarette box and asked me what I thought of the seminar. I looked up and my jaw dropped in disbelief. It was Erik Swyngedouw, a world-leading political economist from Manchester University.
Keeping my cool, I answered him in shameless honesty, ‘I didn’t understand a single word.’ Why pretend, not everyone is familiar with Lacan. A slight smile curved up in Erik’s face, ‘I still remember what that’s like.’ And that’s the beginning of our jovial conversation.
‘When I was teaching at Oxford, I was a regular participant at the monthly seminar of Amnesty International. I was a supporter. I always attended their seminar in order to purchase the ticket so they would get money’, he said. ‘In 1998, Slavoj Zizek was one of the speakers. I came out of the seminar, thinking: what a bloody circus!’ he told me.
‘I owned two books by Zizek because everybody said he was so good, but I just read the back covers and put them right back on the shelf. That day, after the seminar – I remember it vividly, it was May – I went straight to a very beautiful bookstore …’ I cut him off, shortly, ‘Blackwell, was it?’, ‘Yes, Blackwell’, he continued, ‘I bought more than ten books by Zizek and paid around 400 pounds.’
‘Later, during the summer holiday, I spent three months reading all his books at a house by the sea. I read from morning to evening, just having a break for lunch, and I still didn’t understand most of it. Only around ten years later, in 2007, did I start to understand half of it. And now, once I got it, I can do whatever I want with it’, he said animatedly with his hands flipping up and down.
‘Learning is slow’, his words sounded like music to my ears. ‘Sometimes, students would think I’ve got it all easy. They only see me now. But I was also a student like them once. Nothing is easy. It was also difficult for me. I also took a long time to learn to finally get to where I am now’, he confessed.
‘The most important thing is to not give up on our enjoyment, and not give in to fear’, he added passionately. ‘I remember when I studied Marx when I was a student like you. Everybody said it was an academic suicide. But, I am still here’, he smiled victoriously.
‘I followed my enjoyment, and do not give in to the fear.’