Haiti and the poetry of broken utopias

And what does it mean when a research project that thought it was about France and about arcane educational questions suddenly finds itself confronted with an event from across the sea? What does it mean when the question of the intellectual production of a single academic department in the Parisian banlieue turns out to be in part about how the university becomes a site for the reception and mediation of mass trauma?

Part of the answer involves this poem I came across today, by Jean Herold Paul, a Haitian doctoral student in philosophy at Paris-8 (a department that turns out to have long-standing links with Port-au-Prince). I’ve translated it with his permission for you all.

The night that we are
(in memory of Jésula and Wilmichel)

bric-a-brac of apocalypses
bric-a-break of our utopias

and if…
and then…
but are we still?

in the night where we are
in the night that we are
a horrible night
where only our dead appear dimly
without name or register
without farewell or burial

in the night where we are
in the night that we are
what’s left of us?

bric-a-brac of apocalypses
bric-a-break of our utopias

in the night where we are
in the night that we are
it’s still night
at least our presence is reflected there
a simple sensation of being somewhere
without knowing who we are
where we are
without knowing with what or with who we are

in the night where we are
in the night that we are
when will we be able to mourn
for ourselves?

Pécresse, business and the human sciences

I started to feel that I’d been over-privileging the protestors in this blog, so I thought I’d translate a recent speech by the Minister of Higher Education and Research, Valérie Pécresse. Pécresse has had a controversial time in the Ministry and is now running for regional offices in Ile-de-France. This week she spoke at a conference at her Ministry, titled “Human Sciences: New Resources for Enterprise?” I couldn’t make the conference because the website said it was full and couldn’t accept further registrations, but I found the text online. Her speech was everything one could wish for — at least if what one wishes for is the best possible integration of universities into the work world.

I’ve been listening to the results of your debates with great interest.

It’s remarkable that we’ve been able to bring students, young graduates, university actors and business representatives together for this debate on the “new resources for enterprise” that the human and social sciences represent.

The question that has been discussed here for the past three-plus hours is essential. It’s at the heart of my activities at the Ministry of Higher Education and Research.

There was a time when, among employers, the universities had a bad reputation in relation to other establishments of higher learning. This time has passed. For almost three years now I’ve led efforts that aim to restore the universities to their full place in the country’s instructional programs.

Graduates in the human and social sciences deserve to be supported in their search for employment. To be sure, three years after the end of their studies, graduates with a license in classics, languages or history have unemployment rates around 7%, which is actually lower than those with the same degree in physics (8%) or chemistry (12%). But these encouraging statistics should not hide a worrisome reality: these fields also see a process of unacknowledged selection — by failure. This failure extends to as many as 50% of enrolled students, in both the first and in the second years [of the 3-year license].

For too long, we have let things be without reacting.

The fields of social and human sciences have welcomed many of the students coming from the second wave of massification of university enrollments, the one that began in the 80s. But the democratization of access to higher education has remained unfinished. We have too often neglected to support these new high school graduates. They have been driven by the system’s inertia [les pesanteurs] towards the social and human sciences, without really having chosen them.

It was in order to reverse these tendencies that the law of 2007 set disciplinary and professional placement [l’orientation et l’insertion professionnelle] at the heart of the university’s missions. The “License plan” has offered universities the means to bring students up to speed and to better prepare them to enter professional life.

It was not acceptable that many enrolled students never showed up to take their exams, nor that the university had such high exam failure rates. From this point forward, troubled students should be able to leave the university better armed for professional life. And, starting this year, universities should furnish their professional placement indicators.

In other words, students and students’ issues have been brought back to the heart of the university. Henceforth it will be possible to respond to their legitimate needs for disciplinary placement, for training [formation] and for preparation for professional life.

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“Our profession does not easily accommodate resignation”

I’ve been spending more time lately with La Ronde Infinie des Obstinés, the Infinite Rounds of the Stubborn, the little group which, in spite of all instrumental considerations, persists in marching every Monday in front of the Ministry. I said in my previous post about them that I was going to translate their tract, so now you (anglophones) can all have another sample of French political rhetoric.

Madame Minister,

For the past two years, we—teachers, researchers, staff and students—have declared our total disagreement with the LRU university law, with the teachers’ education reform, and more generally with the spirit guiding the majority of measures and initiatives that come out of your ministry.

In spite of the longest strike the university world has ever known, you have refused all negotiations on the universities’ status, concerning yourself solely with your career as a politician.

In spite of last year’s general refusal to fill out the auditing forms that inaugurated the teachers’ education reform, this year your government is set to continue every measure that brought us out in the streets last year. You are even adding dangerous, aberrant rules about internships.

Madame Minister, our profession does not easily accommodate resignation.

Research, creativity and the transmission of knowledge all imply a freedom quite at odds with the reforms, these reforms that are turning us into petty administrators of social selection. For us to accept these reforms in silence would amount to renouncing our own idea of what a university should be, a university bolstered by a centuries-long tradition of research, a university engaged in creating a future that cannot be dictated by short-term economic needs.

Madame Minister, the university will not understand itself, it will not manage itself, and it will not evaluate itself in terms of productivity and profitability, for it is based on the inherent risk of research. This risk is at the base of the formative gesture that brings students and professors together, and it falls to universities in the public service to keep this risk alive. Yes, the university needs reform—indeed, we know this better than you do, we teachers, researchers, staff and students who ARE the university in all its contradictions, and who are devoted to preserving and restoring a democratic future for the institution.

Madame Minister, on every one of our campuses, we are working to invalidate each one of the measures you hoped to use in your project.

Madame Minister, beyond these points of resistance and days of protest that will mark our defense of public education from nursery school to the university, we believe it is indispensable to show the public that we resist your policy of dismantling the university, to re-establish the truth against your lies, and to remind the world that the university is a common good that should not be open to corruption by politics. This then is the reason why, having already held vigil for a thousand hours last spring in front of the town hall, we are now going to revive this Infinite Round of the Stubborn. You can find us every Monday starting at 6pm, from here until the day when real negotiations over the universities’ status are opened.

Our stubbornness is total because, in wanting to transform our universities into corporations, you have gone past the limit of what is tolerable.

Our stubbornness is total because we are in no respect inclined to renounce the freedom without which there would be neither research nor creativity.

Our stubbornness is total because, whatever the difficulties of battling your policies, we know that the university community is massively hostile to them.

Our stubbornness is total because of the high stakes we defend, stakes which go far beyond any simple categorical reading of this conflict.

[Second Page:]

Why we are stubborn:

-To remind everyone that the university is a common good, one not open to corruption by a political ideology.

-Because we refuse a third-rate teacher’s education brought about by the disappearance of practical training.

-Because we refuse a university conceived as a business, thrown open to competition between campuses, between employees, between students.

-To defend everyone’s access to quality education—freely chosen, secular, and free of tuition.

-To defend independent research.

-Because we refuse the coming rises in tuition fees and loans that logically follow from the reforms.

-Because we refuse the social selection that will become part of the university admissions process, as budgets come to be calculated in proportion to graduation rates.

-To show the public our resistance, in the face of the dismantling of the whole system of public services.


The Infinite Rounds of the Stubborn
meets every monday starting at 6pm
in front of the Ministry of Higher Education and Research, 1 Rue Descartes


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Negative knowledge in the classroom

I’m in the middle of shortening an essay for publication (on which more soon, I hope), which means I have the pleasure of excising all the interesting-but-peripheral tidbits. Here’s some text that used to be a footnote (retuned a little to make sense here).

One way of thinking about a classroom is as a place of knowledge transmission. From this perspective, it’s intriguing that classrooms often evoke an intriguing phenomena that involves, not knowledge-display or knowledge-transfer, but precisely their opposite, performances of ignorance or what might be called “negative knowledge.” Karin Knorr-Cetina has written, in examining the fixation on possible causes of error among experimental particle physicists, that “negative knowledge is not nonknowledge, but knowledge of the limits of knowing, of the mistakes we make in trying to know, of the things that interfere with our knowing, that we are not really interested in and do not want to know.”

It’s worth pondering whether this category applies to a sort of anxiety about knowledge that I’ve often seen in American grad school classrooms. What I’m thinking of is the kind of conversation where people drape their statements in a shroud of qualifications, qualifications that communicate no propositional content but nonetheless index the epistemological anxiety and low epistemic rank of the speaker. These phrases are all too familiar: perhaps, it seems, in a sense, it would seem to me, to some degree, kind of, sort of, it appears, arguably, I would argue that, on one level, I could be wrong but, you know, you might say, I’m not an expert but, umm, I don’t know anything about X but, etc., etc. Such awareness of fallibility can also appear as a kind of corporeal knowledge, in posture, gesture, and tone: nervous laughs, pulling at one’s hair, avoiding eye contact, and the like. I can remember times in my first couple of years of grad school when, at the very thought of talking, my voice shook and my heart beat wildly. And it’s often the least authorized, most institutionally peripheral and lowest-ranking participants who feel this way — which is to say, in short, that epistemic hierarchy in the classroom can get written onto academics’ bodies and flung throughout their conversation.

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French press release: Putting an end to precarity

Monday afternoon this week there was a big meeting in a fancy auditorium at the CRNS (National Center for Scientific Research). I say it was fancy because the audience’s chairs were padded bright red, a long coat rack held a long row of dark coats, and, unlike the plebian amphitheatres at the public universities, this room had a soft carpet. Everything was semiotically calcuated to make the afternoon’s discussion of precarity take place in an environment of visible luxury.

The occasion marked the results of a major study on precarity in French higher education and research. Precarity, needless to say, can become a contested and complicated concept, and I want to write about this too but first I need to read more of the prior literature. But the funny part, as it turns out, is that the researchers themselves seem to have faced these very same agonies of literature review and conceptual clarification; and, wanting to avoid having to settle on a single definition of precarity, they decided to let precarity be defined by the research subjects. Hence if you considered yourself precarious, you counted as such in this survey, which had 4,409 responses and appears to be a fairly representative sample of French disciplines and institutions. In practice, I venture to add, ‘precarity’ seemed to come down to a fairly straightforward matter of having a temporary, hence unstable, job situation.

The gist of the study is that precarity is rising fairly rapidly in this sector, the non-permanent workforce having for instance increased by 15.5% at the CNRS between 2006 and 2008, and university workforces currently being estimated at about 23% precarious (looking across all categories of university staff). The major findings of the report included a marked feminization of precarious jobs, a notable concentration of precarity in the social and human sciences (which Americans would call “humanities and social sciences”) in relation to the hard sciences, a definite group of young precarious workers (under 30) combined with a significant group of older “perma-temps,” a range of rather low wages (as someone put it rather sarcastically, temporary contracts are not being compensated for by better salaries), and, subjectively, a set of waves of anxiety and uncertainty about the future. As one would guess, there’s also a lot of struggling to make ends meet through multiple jobs (apparently a few even teach under assumed names, to circumvent age restrictions on some teaching assignments), a certain amount of disdain and nonrecognition from the tenured staff, and a set of inferior working conditions coupled to a lack of workplace rights in the face of the organizational hierarchy.

This has to be taken as only a quick provisional summary; the actual research report is 83 pages long, and I’ll write more about it when I’ve read it all the way through. But what I wanted to post for now was a quick translation of the political declaration announced at the end of the afternoon, after the research results were explained, after a panel of precarious workers had testified, after a distinguished roundtable had chewed things over. At the end there was a long line of academic union leaders (100% male, surely not accidentally) who sat in a row and released a joint statement. It reads as follows:

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Testimonials of precarity in American academia

I’m about to post a few things about precarious jobs and political responses to precarious jobs in French higher education, but before I do that, I wanted to call a bit of attention to this fragment of a personal narrative of precarious work in American higher ed, which I came across by chance in an old story on Inside Higher Ed:

I don’t know how I’ve gone this long without discovering Inside Higher Ed, but I’m very glad I finally have. This is clearly a hugely valuable resource and I appreciate it very much. I’ve been adjuncting @ 2 institutions for just 1.5 years now, after teaching as a grad assistant for 2, and am actively trying to figure out where the hell to take my career. The article here, as the others, and especially the dialogue in the comments are hugely valuable to me, not least because they just make me feel less alone in my outrage over the “white-collar Walmart” set-up, as another commenter coined.

I looooooooooooove teaching, like crazy, and I don’t even want a PhD. It took me 9 years to complete my BS and MA altogether, I’m 36, and I’m tired. I just want to work & learn with students about textual meaning-making, and do my best to arm ’em with those literacies that will best empower them to get what they need/want.

Before this gig, I’ve been a waitress for going on 20 years, a job I loved, but needed to get out of, due to a chronic injury and a certain amount of going stir crazy within its intellectual limits. Teaching gives me everything I love about waiting, without the arthritis, crazy hours, and bathroom-cleaning. The only seriously huge glaring problem, of course, is that waiting tables, I can and have pulled in a pretty comfortable, lower middle-class income, and get health insurance and a frickin’ 401k.

Something’s gotta give, certainly. I have every confidence that somehow, I’ll make a career that works enough to avoid true abject poverty when I retire, and I’m even more positive that I will find a way to have fun while I do it. I knew what I was getting into, job-wise, when I went for the MA. But I’ll tell you what, if I hear one more tenured/tenure-track faculty at my 4-year institution cluck sympathetically at me about how awful it is that the life of an adjunct is so hard, but take absolutely no advantage of their position to advocate for any change in our treatment, I will lure them to the bar I still work at on the weekends, so I can throw a beer at them on my own turf.

(Unfortunately, there seems to be no way to link directly to a comment on Inside Higher Ed, but if you scroll around you can find the original.)

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Empty space in Amphi Orange

Early this monday morning, I happened to be in a lecture hall at Paris-12, down in Créteil about as far as you can possibly get from my apartment and still be on the paris métro. I arrived in the room about 8:03am, an hour before anything was happening there. It was dark and empty. Amphi Orange, it was called, Amphi being short for amphithéâtre, Orange possibly being related to the desks’ hue, which reminded me of some sort of artificial american cheese product.

This post is going to be boring for people who believe that social life can only happen in a crowd. This is a post about the signs of past social action inscribed in architecture and writing.

To see your way around you had to turn on the lights. This switchpanel did the trick. Stop for a second to notice its anti-aesthetic aesthetics, its calculated practicality, the way that its intentionally secondary, instrumental functions are mirrored by the camouflaged design of its switches. Note, too, that the designer has blundered by not making provisions for labels: the users have been obliged to write on labels with black marker.

If we climb up to the back of the room, our gaze falls into the standardized pattern of lecture hall vision, angled down, aimed at the blackboards, aimed at the podiums, aimed down at a desk where, if we were students we could be taking notes. It’s empty. A few people wandered into the room while I was there only to glance at me and wander out. It’s not only events that are scheduled on university calendars; it’s also emptiness and empty space.

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Decommunized communist colloquium

A couple of weeks ago, there was a big conference on communism at Paris-8. I went to an afternoon session that had Etienne Balibar and Alex Callinicos, curious to hear what kind of intellectual project could be made out of communism in these post-Soviet, often antisocialist, and post-20th-century days. The conference took place in a big, decrepit lecture hall in Bâtiment B. It looked like this:

A raised table, poorly lit by a fluorescent lamp shining on the whiteboard and a dim incandescent light aimed high on the wall & accomplishing nothing. Two microphones, passed back and forth between panelists. Debris of paper and waterbottles. Notebooks. Five men, one woman. Semi-formal dress: coats and jackets, Balibar in a vast yellow scarf, collars peeking out from unbuttoned shirts. Some are leaning back, the two to the left seem to be maybe whispering to each other, a couple take notes, the man at right stares out into space hands clasped as if the audience weren’t even there. (We will come back to this point.)

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