I’m meeting Andrei Poama, a Romanian PhD candidate in Political Theory at Sciences Po in Paris, where he is working on theories of punishment. This fall he co-taught a class on Foundations of Moral and Political Thought, which I attended. He is also an alumnus of Bard College Berlin’s (previously ECLA’s) International Summer University of 2004, and studied in Bucharest, at Oxford, and Yale. We talked about his experience of the ISU, his current research, and models of education.
D: You joined the ISU in 2004, right?
A: Yes, I was there just for the summer school in 2004, when I was 20 years old. I arrived one week earlier, which made it almost two months.
How did you find out about the school?
I remember I was watching about it on television. The director of the program at the time was Theodor Paleologu. He talked about it in very nice terms. During the communist times there was this ‘Romanian Heidegger’—Constantin Noica—who founded the school Școala de la Păltiniș: kind of elitist, not so phenomenological as Heidegger, but close – in places as unintelligible as Heidegger. Noica’s idea was to create a school where the professors would learn more than the students, and Theodor presented the ISU as being sort of the same as Noica’s project. He really advertised it, and so I went on the internet, looked it up, and eventually applied.
And what was the experience like?
The way it was organized was that it focused on one big book. We did The Brothers Karamazov, which meant that we had six weeks of The Brothers Karamazov. What I can distinctly remember is that we had a week on the “Problem of Evil” and another week on “Fathers and Sons.”
What was the community like?
Well, there were a lot of Romanians. Out of the whole program there were maybe five or six Romanians, so with around 45 people, around 10-15% were from Romania. We read a lot, watched a lot of movies. We barely got out of the campus. I remember I had the reputation of writing the longest essays and I enjoyed that, so every week I would try to make it even longer, in order to live up to my reputation. I really enjoyed it. I remember the red cover of The Brothers Karamazov and the grills that Dick [Shriver – Provost of the institution at the time] would do almost every weekend in the garden.
Who else was there? Any teachers that you remember?
I loved Dan Vyleta. I think he’s in Canada now. Catherine Toal was there. I remember that she asked me once whether I had a background in classics, because I would be so snobbish and write things in Latin in my essays – cum grano salis, or something like that. I said “No,” and she just smiled. Back then I thought it was a sign of appreciation but, in retrospect, I think there was a slight irony there. I really enjoyed the close readings we did with her. Another great thing I remember is that Hans-Hermann Hoppe actually came at some point. It was the “Fathers and Sons” week and we started sort of savagely psychoanalysing Hans-Hermann Hoppe: “Oh, you’re being a libertarian because of your childhood experiences,” which was kind of fun. Aya Soika was there, teaching art history. That was the one time when we really got out of campus, when we went to Dresden. We were all expecting to go to Italy, but they decided to replace Florence with the ‘Florence of the north’, which is still nice, of course.
Dresden trips are still popular.
So, before and after the ISU you studied in Bucharest?
Yes, I went back to Bucharest afterwards. 2004 was at the end of my first year there. And then I had to decide whether to stay for another year. Back then it was Academy Year plus Project Year. But I decided to come back to Bucharest, because I wanted to specialise in something. And I remember someone told us that, if we really don’t know yet in which direction to go, we should stay, but if we already knew that we wanted to study one particular discipline, then it would be better not to. Back then I thought that I knew, so I left. But I think it was a smart choice.
The only time I came back was in 2006, when they did the reunion. That was a good one. People who did the summer school or the AY or PY up to that point got together and celebrated for a weekend.
What did you study in Bucharest?
Political Science with a major in Political Theory. I was a Foucauldian back then, as an undergrad, and then I gradually learned to say good-bye to Foucault and start doing more serious stuff – while keeping a sort of Foucauldian sensitivity to things.
And afterwards you went on to study where?
I came to Sciences Po for an exchange during my undergrad, and then went back to Bucharest for a couple of months to finish my B.A. dissertation, on the concept of norms in Foucault, and then I came back to Paris for my master’s degree. I did two years in the Master’s in Political Theory and then went to Oxford for one year and did Criminology, at the law faculty. And then I came back to Sciences Po Paris for two years, and then went to the States for one year. I was at Yale, on a Fox Fellowship, and I worked on my PhD. I actually never lived more than two consecutive years in Paris. So if I’d stay next year it would be the exception, because I came back from the States in 2013.
And now you’re almost done with your PhD. What’s it about?
It’s a theory of punishment as corrective justice. The idea is that both a necessary and sufficient reason to punish crimes – defined in the legal sense of the word: I’m not concerned about parents punishing their kids, etc. – is that we are trying to rectify the kind of inequalities that come out of offences, that are to be defined and understood in terms of basic rights. A very simple example: if I am going to steal your phone, then I am going against your basic right to property. Corrective justice captures this idea of us as equals in terms of basic rights. What corrective justice, which is an Aristotelian idea, would say is that what’s wrong about this crime is that I am violating you as a person by violating your basic right to property. So it both defines a wrong and also gives you a way of selecting the adequate form of punishment: the offence needs to be rectified, and it needs to be rectified in terms of basic rights. Some kind of restitution or compensation has to happen: I should give you your phone back, but also repair for the time you weren’t able to use the phone, and also for the psychological and symbolic inconvenience of you showing up before your friends and saying “my phone got stolen.” Corrective justice does two things: it defines the kind of wrong that the offence is about and it gives you a way of selecting appropriate punishments.
And other theories cannot do that?
Well, some of them can do, but only in part: some only see what the wrong is, some only look at particular forms of punishment. I don’t think the main two competing theories can. When you look at the Introduction to Criminal Justice, or Philosophy of Punishment, you have the retributivist and the consequentialist side. And basically, utilitarians or consequentialists are quite bad at identifying what’s wrong about offences, and retributivists are pretty bad at identifying the appropriate forms of punishment. One example is the case of rape: a hard-core retributivist would bite the bullet and say, well, you should rape the rapist. Obviously there is something wrong with that, but the retributivist tradition is usually quite bad at saying what exactly is wrong with that.
Now corrective justice is good at that – or is at least less bad than retributivism to the extent that it says that, if you’re raping the rapist, you are actually not in any way contributing to rectifying our equal relationship as persons endowed with basic rights, but making things worse. So, to a certain extent corrective justice is what is called a second-best theory. A wrong has been done and what you need to do is to rectify that wrong as far as possible. Of course, in some particular cases it’s not going to be very feasible, but I think that’s the limit of the theory and I don’t think that any other theory on the table does better.
A question on education: you’ve been to many schools and places, so you know quite a lot about different traditions. Do you have a favourite approach to education?
… If I were to combine things, I think I would take the students from Sciences Po and sort of transport them to the US, but on a campus that has the format, size and atmosphere of Bard College Berlin, which is small enough that it allows people to communicate. And I would probably take some of the professors from Oxford, if I were to make a combination of all the places I’ve been. And I would take the bars from Bucharest.
Your plans for the future?
Become an assistant professor within one year [laughs]. Well, this is what I would like. I’m giving myself one or two years and if not, I’m going to administer in some programme at some university, somewhere…
Good luck and thanks a lot.