Last day in Paris (2011)

I’m not sure whether this little descriptive passage from my fieldnotes will ever have much use in academic discourse, but it does remind me quite vividly of urban space in my fieldsite.

May 4, 2011. Last day in Paris. A man across from me on the metro dangles one hand in his crotch and texts with the other. A woman across the aisle is chewing gum and has flipflops with painted nails. The day is hazy, footsteps tap on the car floor, the train squeals as it accelerates; it picks up speed and the cement panels flash by and the advertising, CHOISISSEZ LE LOOK MALIN it says in orange on blue, hint of a smell of pastries, of sweaters, thrashing of the air through the open windows. I’m aboard the 14 train going to Saint-Denis to see a friend one last time; it sighs, the train, the man across from me now replaced by another, he rises, a woman gathers her purse, staggers a little as she gets off as the train shudders, with its long tube of fluorescent lights, with the grey of the car and the black of the tube that the tube of the train rushes along, rushes through; and I’m elbowed gently, but fortunately it’s not a période de pointe.

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On real problems

I came across a confrontational moment in one of my interview transcripts. We had been talking about philosophers’ metanarratives about “truth.” But my interlocutor found my questions a bit too oblique.

Philosopher: But I don’t know — you aren’t interested in the solutions to problems?

Ethnographer: The solutions to philosophical problems for example?

Philosopher: Problems! Real ones! For example do you consider that the word “being” has several senses? Or not? Fundamental ontological question. Do you accept that there are several senses or one? It changes everything. And what are your arguments one way or the other?

Ethnographer: Well me personally I’m not an expert—

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Boredom as a practice

I was reading through my field notebooks lately and I came across a little ethnographic snippet of description. It is a description of a male French student sitting in a classroom and getting bored. The more bored he got, the more he seemed to invent new ways to exhibit and alleviate his boredom. His boredom became generative, I would almost say. It seemed to try to overcome itself.

What, then, is boredom as a practice?

To stack two pens one on the next.

To roll the pens in the pen case, a Mexican folk art/hippie-esque knit bag with a dark zipper.

To test a pen.

To put new ink in it.

To try to wipe off the ink with a whiteout marker.

To cradle the back of the neck in your palm.

To send an SMS, surreptitiously, keeping your phone mostly still in your pocket.

To sigh and lean back, one arm crossed, in white t-shirt and jeans.

To put one foot up on the chair to retie your shoelace.

To sit sidesaddle in your seat.

To stare intently at the ethnographer’s notebook, looking away when the ethnographer glances at you.

To look at the ethnographer’s notebook again as soon as he lets his guard down…

[Field notebook V, p.35]

Anthropologists have sometimes claimed that when ethnographic subjects “look back” at the ethnographer, that this is almost a political act: a way of challenging the power relationship that normally sets the observer up and over the person being observed. Here I’m not sure that that’s what it was. Here I think that looking over the ethnographer’s shoulder at their notebook was more of an attempt to escape the tedium of a local situation.

Graduation day

I’ve now had the Ph.D. in hand for about three weeks. It is in a large brown folder. It looks pretty official. There is, if anything, something incongruous about the notion that years of one’s work and passion can be adequately compensated by a shiny document.

Now that that small matter is behind us, I hope to have more time to write — here, and other places.

Modernity isn’t philosophical

Here’s a tidbit from before Sarkozy was President that gives a certain sense of how his administration was likely to regard philosophy, and the humanities in general:

« Nicolas n’est pas quelqu’un qui se complaît dans l’intellect, assure le préfet Claude Guéant, directeur de cabinet place Beauvau, puis à Bercy. J’ai beaucoup côtoyé Jean-Pierre Chevènement. Il lisait de la philosophie jusqu’à 2 heures du matin, c’était toute sa vie, les idées prenant parfois le pas sur l’action. Nicolas, lui, est d’abord un homme d’action. Quand il bavarde avec Lance Armstrong ou avec un jeune de banlieue, il a vraiment le sentiment d’en tirer quelque chose. Dès qu’il monte en voiture, la radio se met en marche. Il aime les choses simples, les variétés, la télévision. En cela, il exprime une certaine modernité. Les Français ne passent pas leur temps à lire de la philosophie… »

“Nicolas isn’t someone who revels in the intellect,” asserted the prefect Claude Guéant, chief of staff at the Ministry of the Interior and then at the Ministry of Finance. “I’ve spent a lot of time with [the Socialist politician] Jean-Pierre Chevènement. He read philosophy until two in the morning, all his life, ideas sometimes took precedence over action. Nicolas, on the other hand, is primarily a man of action. When he chats with Lance Armstrong or with a kid from the slums, he really feels like he’s getting something out of it. As soon as he gets in a car, the radio’s on. He loves simple things, variety, TV. In that, he expresses a certain modernity. The French don’t spend their time reading philosophy…”

A certain modernity is the opposite of time wasted on philosophy books…

International traces of France in the American South

I’ve been reading up a bit on the international circulation in ideas of the university. It’s not hard to find documentation of how France has for a long time been at the center of this intellectual commerce. I am particularly fond of this little fragment from an 1888 book by one Herbert B. Adams, Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia (now freely available through Google Books):

Nothing is so enduring, when once established, as forms of culture. If French ideas had really penetrated Virginian society, they would have become as dominant in the South as German ideas are now becoming in the State universities and school systems of the Northwest. French ideas survived in Virginia and in the Carolinas long after the Revolution, and long after the French Government had ceased to interfere in our politics. It was one of the most difficult tasks in Southern educational history to dislodge French philosophy from its academic strongholds in North and South Carolina. It was done by a strong current of Scotch Presbyterianism proceeding from Princeton College southwards. In social forms French culture lingers yet in South Carolina, notably in Charleston.

(pp. 27-28)

I rather like the theory of culture implied here: it’s like a sort of strangling vine that, once taken hold, is quite hard to dislodge. And I am decidedly fascinated to learn that good old Princetonian Presbyterianism played a vital historical role in “dislodging French philosophy from its academic strongholds in North and South Carolina.” Who knew that it was ever lodged there to begin with? Certainly not me, and I dare say not many other people currently alive. As usual, this historical landscape is creased and torn with forgotten, curious details.

The world war of the intellect

A snippet from my dissertation chapter on the French university strike of 2009.

Nicholas Sarkozy was elected President of the Republic on May 6, 2007, and took office on May 16. He appointed Valérie Pécresse, a legislator and former UMP spokeswoman, as Minister of Research and Higher Education, and on May 18th, at a meeting of the Conseil des Ministres (Council of Ministers), officially assigned her to lead a reform of university autonomy. Such a reform had already been widely discussed during the presidential campaign, attracting support from Sarkozy, the Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal, and the centrist MoDem candidate François Bayrou. They differed, of course, on policy details. Royal emphasized a “national framework” that preserved more of a role for the French state, and for permanent institutional funding, particularly for research. Sarkozy, according to Le Monde, “wanted to go faster,” shifting research funding and universities alike towards a contract-based, short-term model. But policy differences and political tempos aside, there was a widespread public discourse on the necessity of university reform. “This [traditional university] system worked in its time, but the world has changed”: such was one fairly typical formulation that had appeared in Le Figaro earlier that year, in an op-ed by Vincent Berger, a French physicist active in university governance who later became president of the University of Paris-7 in 2009. In the face of globalized economic competition, Berger explained, “our country must maintain competitive and triumphant industries,” and he argued for closer links between research and industrial production, along with a better “equation” [adéquation] between economic demand and university supply.

The frequency of such arguments in political discourse would give the Sarkozy administration a powerful naturalizing argument for its university reforms, a chance to ally itself with the spirit of its time. Pécresse, as we will see, would frequently cast her reforms as a matter of obvious, objective necessity. But at the same time, there was a discourse of urgency and immediacy about the process. The Sarkozy administration wanted to put in place a number of major state reforms, dealing with everything from the university to labor regulations and criminal laws; and this multiplicity would be amplified by a very rapid governmental timeline.  “We’ll do all the reforms at the same time, and not one after the other,” Sarkozy remarked at the  May 18th meeting of his Conseil des Ministres. The Sarkozy government was also deeply committed to a particular fiscal policy, one typically called “austerity” by its opponents. State spending was to be cut; 50% of retiring state workers were not supposed to be replaced; and national debt was supposed to decrease. Even in such a moment, though, the university and research sector was slated for budget increases. It was said to be the government’s “primary fiscal priority.”

Still, it was generally understood that university reforms, whatever their fiscal and political priority, were a fraught topic. “Even if the chosen moment seems favorable,” remarked an editorialist in Le Figaro, “Valérie Pécresse will have to show great conviction and determination to succeed in such a sensitive subject. Numerous projects, for decades, have been abandoned or emptied of their content, so tenacious are the resistances, so much are they nourished by dogmatism.” In an initial effort to prevent discord, Prime Minister Fillon initially gave assurances that the two most controversial topics, selective admissions (termed “sélection”) and tuition hikes, would not be included in the reform. In spite of this, as Pécresse began official ministerial consultations at the end of the month, however, academic unions were already voicing concerns about the temporality of haste that the government was so attached to.

Thus on May 25th Bruno Julliard, the president of UNEF (the largest student union), would “deplore the short time allowed for negotiations.” The Prime Minister, nevertheless, announced that the university reform would be taken up by Parliament that July. Soon thereafter, the Intersyndicale issued an official communiqué attacking the speed of the reform: “The chosen calendar permits neither a debate about the contents and priorities of a university reform, nor a genuine negotiation with the university community. The signatory organizations [of the intersyndicale] solemnly demand that the law not be hastily submitted during the next special session of Parliament this July.” Pécresse nevertheless continued on the official calendar, calling a meeting of the National Council of Research and Higher Education (CNESER) to review her reform proposals on June 22nd. To her surprise, perhaps, after seven hours of debate, her proposed reform was rejected by the assembled representatives of the university community.

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What is utopia?

I’ve been thinking about what counts as utopian in my research site, and happened to come across a handy definition by René Schérer, now an emeritus professor. It’s from an interview, “Utopia as a way of living“, that appeared in in l’Humanité in 2007.

Je définis l’utopie comme de l’ordre du non-réalisable mais cela n’empêche pas de la penser et de vouloir la faire être. La pensée utopique est très réaliste car elle s’appuie sur des choses incontestablement réelles, c’est-à-dire les sentiments, les passions, les attractions mais sans se préoccuper des moyens de la faire être. Par exemple, Fourier parle de travail attrayant. À l’heure actuelle, il est peut-être impossible d’avoir un travail attrayant. N’empêche que cette idée doit à tout prix être maintenue. Le fait de donner à chacun des occupations selon ses désirs, de ne pas mobiliser quelqu’un sur une unique activité mais de diversifier toutes ces participations aux travaux, c’est irréalisable. Mais on doit maintenir cette utopie contre vents et marées sous peine de perdre le sens même de la vie. Je ne pense pas que l’utopie soit une projection vers l’avenir mais c’est un mode de vivre. À tout moment, il faut ouvrir dans sa propre vie d’autres possibles. Même si on ne les réalise pas, cela évite d’être bloqué à l’intérieur d’une sorte de fatalité. Il faut résister à une fatalité historique. 

I define utopia as the order of the unrealizable, but that doesn’t prevent thinking it and wanting to bring it into being. Utopian thought is quite realist, since it draws on incontestably real things, that is, feelings, passions, attractions; but without worrying about the means for bringing it into being. For example, Fourier talks about worthwhile [attractive] work. At this point in time, it’s perhaps impossible to have worthwhile work. But this idea must still be maintained at all costs. The fact of giving everyone an occupation corresponding to her desires, of not recruiting someone into one single activity but of diversifying all one’s involvements in labor: it’s unrealizable. But one must maintain this utopia, come what may, or else risk losing life’s very meaning. I don’t think that utopia is a projection towards the future; it’s a way of living. At every moment, one must open up other possibilities within one’s life. Even if one doesn’t realize them, this prevents you from being blocked within a sort of fatalism. Historical fatalism must be resisted.

Two points here are important to stress. 1) Utopianism isn’t necessarily affirmative. Indeed, what makes something utopian is that it rejects something about the present: it is necessarily a critique of the present. 2) It needn’t project a wish for a whole entire “new society,” not be centered around a futurism; it can center around something smaller-scale, something in the here and now. For instance, the desire to have an attractive or worthwhile job.

Alas, even this more modest utopianism isn’t always easy to realize in the course of everyday life.

On Korean American students in Illinois

Continuing with my sequence of book reviews, I recently sent LATISS a review of Nancy Abelmann‘s fascinating 2009 book The Intimate University. It should be coming out in the new issue of LATISS; it reads as follows:

Nancy Abelmann’s The Intimate University is at heart a study of the relationship between a university and a social group. The university is the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign; the group is that of Korean American students hailing from the Chicago area; and the relationship between them, as Abelmann effectively demonstrates, is tangled up in contradictions. Foremost among these is the matter of race; the Korean Americans she studies are caught in the bind of being an American model minority. They are not white enough to comfortably enact the American fantasy script of a universalist (but implicitly white and affluent), liberal, liberating and “fun” higher education, of a kind that would license “the luxury of ‘experience'” or a freedom from immediate vocational concerns (10-11). But they are “too white” and too affluent, from the point of view of national ideology, to comfortably identify with the nation’s oppressed racial groups. This implies a fraught relationship with other groups — one student describes her “bad impression” of “weird,” implicitly African American break dancing in one Chicago suburb (28) — but also a powerful “compunction to dissociate” from stereotypes of Koreanness, particularly with the Korean instrumentalism and “materialism” they associate with their petty-bourgeois immigrant parents (161, 7). This disidentification with their own group — or at least with its more problematic typifications — is, as Abelmann emphasizes, the product of a malicious American norm that identifies full individuality with whiteness, and ethnicity with groupness (161-2).

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What editing is

Editing is a lot of things, but one of them is an endless series of minor improvements in phrasing. While I was in the field, I often wished I could observe how academics made this kind of minor textual improvements, but it was next to impossible to see that sort of work first-hand. Nothing’s stopping me from giving examples from my own editing process, though. Here’s one.


An enormous amount of research, beginning in France perhaps with Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), has emphasized practices that subvert and evade the forms of social domination that Bourdieu had documented.

Revised version (trying to make things clearer, and more direct):

An enormous amount of research, beginning in France perhaps with Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), has emphasized how Bourdieuian forms of social domination get subverted and evaded.

I guess it’s up to the reader to say whether the latter is actually more understandable, but I can at least remark that it is far more concise. Making this change probably took me around ten seconds, but any long writing project involves thousands and thousands of these little editorial improvements.

critical anthropology of academic culture