The red flags of the stubborn

“We shall wish our minister an execrable new year on Sunday, January 11th,” they announced sardonically on their blog beforehand.

This is the scene. The group is La Ronde Infinie des Obstinés, the Infinite Rounds of the Stubborn, which I wrote about a little bit last summer. Now it is winter. They have been meeting again every week to make the rounds. Two hours. Six to eight. At night. On mondays, right in front of the Minister of Higher Education. It has a regularity to it. A rhythm. If you’re going to walk in circles for hours on end, you better have a high tolerance for repetition.

Last week there wasn’t a big crowd. Twenty people, thirty at most. Carrying their red flags, which, though it’s hard to make out, have an emblem of a circle and the words la ronde infinie des obstinés in black script. There’s a ritual symbolism to marching with red flags, as if little political rites were one way of endowing otherwise inscrutable political acts with a publicly visible symbolism. In other words, without the red flags it would be ever so much harder for passers-by to get the political point. The red flags have a hint of a definite political content (Le rouge est aussi la couleur du communisme, says wp), but also and perhaps more importantly they serve to mark the event as political, and as they serve to mark the event as an event, as something that retains its identity from week to week not only politically but also visually.

Metapolitics, for lack of a better word, has been one of the major issues in the French university sphere. By metapolitics I mean the political question of whether some issue is a political issue. For many protestors last year, university policy was viewed rather like a space of battle, of political forces, of political ideologies. Sauvons l’Université! (Save the University!) went as far as to talk about a repoliticization of the university — though that was in July and now, six months later, the repoliticization has dwindled. But this view of events as political would never have been shared by the Ministry, for whom the protests appeared not as political acts but a species of irrational academic conservativism. In other words, as not politics. As just a kind of nuisance resistance to policy. The large part of the government response to the university movement consisted in ignoring it, hence in aiming to deny its status as politics worthy of official recognition. In short, there was a contest over political legitimacy, a metapolitical contest over political status that was itself folded back into the political situation.

(This raises some methodological problems for political anthropologists. Is it already partisan on my part to talk about university politics? To talk about conflicts? There is no local consensus on whether ‘university politics’ even exists as such. To analyze is already inevitably to take a stance on some of these issues.)

In a situation rife with metapolitical concerns, the red flags, drooping under the weight of their symbolism, come to seem like an effort to repoliticize a dormant situation. (And I wanted to write more about the red flags, about the scene at the Ronde, about stubbornness as a political project and emotion, but perhaps on the whole it is more sensible to split things up into a series of shorter posts. NB: Thanks to Jean-Claude for the photo.)

4 thoughts on “The red flags of the stubborn

  1. The struggle over what’s intelligible as a political struggle seems particularly important in academic contexts, where so much blood is spilled over who gets to efine the institution’s relationship to its imagined exteriority, ho gets to map what gown means to town, what work the university does in the world, etc. I wonder if part of this struggle over the intelligibility of the political winds up being about also a struggle over what universities do and for whom they do it, though typing this it seems fairly obvious. In any event, this is really interesting.

  2. Nice to hear from you, Zach. Yes, there certainly is a difference of opinion over what universities should be for, with the government being in favor of increasing integration with the work world and generally, you know, reshaping universities to enhance France’s economic competitiveness. (They usually say something about cultural and social and scientific objectives too, but there’s less actual policy reform directed towards noneconomic objectives, as far as I can tell.) And protestors often defend — in ways that to my eyes are seldom really well thought through — a vision of a university where “knowledge is a value in itself.” (We can get into what I think is problematic about this if you want.)

    The question you raise, though, is about the relation between these kinds of university visions and the question of politicization. Honestly, I think it’s empirically hard here to map out this relation, because often the people who want to politicize university policy are precisely the ones who want to see the university reimagined through some kind of process of debate that hasn’t happened yet. As if they were politicizing in the name of a future concept of the university that doesn’t yet have a lot of positive shape. I should post my translation of the manifesto from last summer about the politicization of the university — I’d love to hear your thoughts on that text. Anyway, are we going to do more of this reading group stuff soon I hope? Eli m. said so.

  3. I probably think it’s problematic for some of the same reasons you do. (Knowledge as use-value? For whom? What about those involved in knowledge production only indirectly? How is this a break from pre-neoliberal modes of university organization and governance – how do we move beyond without trying to move backwards towards something we can’t reclaim and probably shouldn’t want to do so, etc?)

    I’d be interested to read your translation of the manifesto, and yes, I’d be up for more reading group stuff.

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