Late last week I received grievous news that Hugh, a professor of philosophy and comparative literature at Stony Brook, passed away after suffering from cancer. Hugh was my undergraduate advisor and championed me getting into the graduate programs of my choice, which turned out to be DePaul University. His impact on me is indelible, and whenever I teach certain figures in Continental philosophy, I think of the courses with him where I first heard their names.
Intellectuals make their impact in different ways: some through books, some through blogs (now), and some through organization. I worked with Hugh as registration coordinator for 12 (!) IAPL conferences [it happened that I got the news as I was packing up stuff in my house, which at the moment was years of IAPL t-shirts Hugh had given me], and there wasn’t a minor detail that Hugh didn’t look after. I made my best friends in the academy at IAPLs, which also gave me the opportunity to travel the world while an undergrad and graduate student–something I could never have done otherwise. He brought together top flight intellectuals from different disciplines in a way no other conference does on a regular basis. And all along he would introduce me to the plenary speakers, be they Zizek or Kearney or Caputo or whomever, or even a young Graham Harman, who was from DePaul, but I only first met on an IAPL panel in 2002.
My first IAPL was a “turning of the century” conference held in Naples on the cusp of 2000. My girlfriend and I flew there and did the registration during the day, and danced and drank with a selection of some of the best intellectuals in the evening. One of my favorite Hugh stories was that I knew from him that people tend to cancel when conferences are overseas (previously IAPL had been in North America; after 2000 it would be mostly abroad). As such, I brought with me a selection of (what I thought were) my best papers, and next thing I know, in this palace in the heart of Naples, I was giving a paper on a critical race reading of journalists accounts of Africa in a room far more worthy than my paper. It is still probably the fanciest place I’ve given a presentation. Hugh didn’t even blink when I requested a slot (he laughed when I told him the wide selection of papers I brought to fit just about any panel), and in the early years of graduate school, he asked me to take on organizing “Close Encounters” (i.e., life and works) sessions of such people as Kearney, Caputo, and Dominique Janicaud. Arriving in my mid-twenties, I was on a first-name basis with people I would never have known otherwise, and this led to my first publications.
He also invited me to the International Philosophical Seminar in Alto Adige in northern Italy several times as a graduate student. With only a select 12-14 participants, each person gave an hour long presentation on a given book of a living author. I presented my first work on Agamben there and I recall well some of the best intellectual exchanges I’ve ever seen happening there. (This is also a place to mention Hugh’s fearsome ability with languages: we were in the German-speaking part of Italy, where he would seamlessly move among English, French, Italian, and German, and he seemed to pick up a hundred new words with each walk down the street.)
These last few years, as I moved from one institution to another, I did not keep in touch with Hugh as much as I had for so many years. But I got several kind emails this week about his regard for me, which made me feel a bit better for not telling Hugh about his influence over me–personally and professionally. There was always a group of us who knew Hugh well and would talk about him at SPEP or whatever conference, and now I know those talks will be far grimmer in the coming future, but perhaps with a smile that, as one person has a great way of putting it, will say “Oh, Hugh” or “Oh, that was Hugh.”
I could discuss Hugh’s work–his important studies in hermeneutics and deconstruction in the early 80s were instrumental in bringing such discussions about Derrida et al. into philosophy programs–but maybe I’ll leave with one story that comes to mind this week. Several years ago, Michael Naas let me know Hugh was coming to Chicago. We basically looked at each other–what to do with Dad, basically, while he was in town? So we took him to a Cubs afternoon game. Hugh was a daily watcher of Yankees games (we shared a love for this most-hated team–the only time, I guess, we would defend a form of empire), but it turned out he hadn’t stepped into a baseball stadium since long before the Braves moved to Atlanta. We circled the stadium, and Hugh was just giddy looking at the place across the street where his grandfather had once owned a lumber yard. He also was just great with my son Brad while watching the game, and he asked me for several years when we’d next get to a game. We didn’t get that chance. Which is another way of saying I’m still getting over the shock of his death and the impossible mourning this moment provides.