A Former Student Remembers Paul Rabinow

There was this one time, during my senior year at UC Berkeley, I showed up to Anthropology of the Contemporary about a half-hour early. It was held in one of the Anthro department conference rooms — the larger one, where the AUA meetings were held, at the intersection of the hall near the waiting room and the bathrooms. The door was usually locked, but that day it stood open a crack. I remember lingering outside for a moment, listening to hear if there was a meeting or some event going on inside. But it was silent, and so I let my guard down and pushed it open. There, alone, at the head of the room sat Paul Rabinow. You might think it shouldn’t have been a surprise — it was his class, after all (even if he hardly got around to handing out the syllabus). But facing him there in the low-lit room, alone, waiting, still took me aback. And that was before I realized I was about to have to try to impress the unimpressible for the next half-hour, before class would begin.

I didn’t know Paul Rabinow — or “Rainbow”, as he sometimes referred to himself, having must have beared the student mispronunciations for decades — very well, in a personal sense (outside school, i.e.). But today I read, on Berkeley’s student paper The Daily Californian, that he has died. However, I will say that I certainly remember him, that I learned a lot from him, and that I think of him often. Thus, I felt compelled to write something of what I remember of him, as a former undergrad student of his.

I don’t remember every detail of our pre-class conversation that day I showed up early. But I do remember a couple things, including the general topic: Wittgenstein. That semester I happened to also be taking Barry Stroud’s course on Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (Stroud’s final offering of that course, as it would turn out). So Wittgenstein was an acute topic for me, and besides, I was also majoring in philosophy and — like all undergrad philosophy majors — I liked to bring up the fact that I was doing so as often as possible. I don’t know how I introduced the topic, but I remember that it came up quite easily, and didn’t need to be forced at all. Rainbow listened, attentive, genuinely interested — perhaps not so much in my thoughts about Wittgenstein, but in me as a student, in me as someone who was also genuinely interested (he gave me the impression he must have listened to all of his students in this way). After I was finished saying whatever it was I said, Rainbow told me his own thoughts about Wittgenstein. I wish I could remember what those were, altogether, but what I remember is his final gist: that Wittgenstein had some interesting things to say, but that he ultimately “…left me cold” (his words). This was particularly interesting to me, because I felt I sort of understood what he meant, but I wasn’t sure why I understood — as I didn’t share the feeling.

But, what was it that didn’t leave Rainbow cold? These are the things I most remember from class, and the things I often pass on to other people, and which I always attribute to Rainbow.

One of these things was an early assignment we had that semester: to read Bertolt Brecht’s Writing the Truth, Five Difficulties. Written in 1935, amid a gathering fascism, this paper sets out — in stark terms — what it takes to really write something, with conviction. When I first read this, I found it very frustrating. I kept asking myself, “But what does Brecht mean by ‘the truth’?” My contribution to the class discussion on this (Rainbow always held the classes seminar-style) were probably quite meek, mostly because I didn’t really have much insight into what was going on in the paper, since I’d set myself the trouble of “not being able to understand what Brecht means by ‘the truth’”. But nowadays — and during the latter part of Trump’s reign — this was a go-to, must-read, gotta-send-you sort of piece that I would reference often. It might’ve taken me a while to get around to understanding it, and I had ample assistance from the material circumstances of the world which made it impossible to avoid. It’s a good thing we had Rainbow, or else it would have been possible to avoid.

Another of these things was Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. Rainbow used to call us “barbarians”. He used to say that we didn’t even know what that word meant (it turned out he was using the word literally, as the ancient Greeks did, to refer to those who weren’t versed in Greek language and custom). It seemed to bring him a glint of joy to watch us struggle, in our “barbarian” way, to string together connections between the seemingly disparate things he decided to talk about on any given day. Coriolanus was a disparate thing. I wasn’t taken with Coriolanus (or Shakespeare — little did Rainbow know I’d written a screed in high school triumphantly declaring Shakespeare as definitively boring), but I did notice that I found it impressive in some way that we were focusing on Coriolanus — of all Shakespeare plays. And then I thought, for the first time, as we watched a YouTube video of a performance of the scene with the rotted fens, that there was really some pretty good writing going on. It was for that spark of interest that I, the disinterested, went out and bought a copy of Coriolanus the semester afterward. It’s a good thing we had Rainbow, or else Shakespeare would be boring yet.

The last of these things I’ll share here is Max Weber’s Science as a Vocation. Weber was the kind of theorist that I really didn’t care to hear about at that time in my academic life. By then I had disavowed all the anthropology I’d ever studied — it was the final class I needed for the major, after all. I’d shifted to philosophy to get away from just that kind of continental thing. Here, again, I found myself with the sort of frustrations I’d had with Brecht’s work earlier in the course. What does Weber mean? What’s the point of this? Here, too, as with Brecht, my own contributions to the class discussion were limited. What interest could all this comparison of American and German universities really have for me? I kept thinking about the “conceptual grounds” of the piece. I kept analyzing it in abstract terms: how does someone hold to conducting research knowing they probably won’t be recognized or remembered for it? How do they go on knowing they’ll be surpassed eventually; when it won’t even matter in the long run? e.g. I always got that it was supposed to be about something practical, and I always identified with having — perhaps not science — but academics as a vocation, but I would only come to really get the drift later on. My academic plans back then resemble in almost no way my academic present. The course that took me from 2017 Berkeley to 2021 Helsinki was foreseen in no way, but it forced on me what it means when academics is your vocation — no longer a conceptual thing to-be-understood, but an unavoidable, practical, material circumstance. This was what Weber was really talking about, I thought to myself, and this is how Rainbow wanted to prepare us. I’ve thought back to this orientation point many times since that class, and that it’s a good thing we had Rainbow.

Now I think I have a better idea why I understood what Rainbow meant when he said Wittgenstein left him cold, despite my feeling differently: it’s because Rainbow made me, and us, pay genuine attention, in the way that he did. I couldn’t help but understand, in other words. This is what it was to have Rainbow as a teacher. His teaching method was to impart emulationnot so that we’d end up being little Rainbows, but so that we would learn the feel then, even as barbarian undergrads, what it is to write the truth, what it is to string together the connections, what it is to bear our vocations — and to do these things despite the myriad, disagreeing, conflicting, disparate difficulties they impose, both from within and without. In that way, to give us the experience to help us become ourselves. And that’s really what the best teachers are supposed to do. I am truly thankful to have had the opportunity to be a student of Professor Paul Rabinow, and to have been imparted with these thoughts because of him — whether I really “understand” what Brecht et al. meant or not. The world will have less truth in it now, so it’s all the more important — especially for those of us privileged enough to have had a class with him — to remember Rainbow and the truths he wrote and lived. I certainly do.

Now I understand why Rainbow thought the idea of handing out a syllabus was so laughable. Or as he once remarked to the class, shooting me a sly grin, “Do you think Wittgenstein had to worry about the syllabus?”

Steven N. McGannon


*This article has been edited several times since I published it. In some cases, there were minor errors, in others, I wanted to make a point clearer, and so I added in or changed a sentence here and there.

Permalink to this article: https://snmcgannon.com/2021/04/12/remembering-paul-rabinow/

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