A philosopher’s ethnic joke

I was thinking of reading a famous — in some quarters infamous — book called La pensée 68 (i.e., ’68 Thought), by Alain Renaut and Luc Ferry, a 1988 critique of 60s French intellectuals. So far I’m only a few pages into it, but I thought I would just reproduce the epigraph, which consists of an ethnic joke that Ferry has repeated elsewhere. It goes like this:

A Frenchman, an Englishman and a German were assigned to study the camel.

The Frenchman went to the zoo at the Jardin des Plantes, spent half an hour there, talked to the keeper, threw bread to the camel, teased it with the tip of his umbrella, and, when he got home, wrote a column, for his newspaper, full of keen and spiritual observations.

The Englishman, along with his tea-box and comfortable camping supplies, went and set up his tent in the Oriental countries, and after a stay of two or three years, produced a thick volume overflowing with facts, without order or conclusion, but with real documentary value.

As for the German, full of disdain for the Frenchman’s frivolousness and the Englishman’s absence of general ideas, he closed himself up in his room to write a work of several volumes, entitled: Idea of the camel drawn from the conception of the self.

Un Français, un Anglais, un Allemand furent chargés d’une étude sur le chameau.

Le Français alla au jardin des Plantes, y passa une demi-heure, interrogea le gardien, jeta du pain au chameau, le taquina avec le bout de son parapluie, et, rentré chez lui, écrivit, pour son journal, un feuilleton plein d’aperçus piquants et spirituels.

L’Anglais, emportant son panier à thé et un confortable matériel de campement, alla planter sa tente dans les pays d’Orient, et en rapporta, après un séjour de deux ou trois ans, un gros volume bourré de faits sans ordre ni conclusion, mais d’une réelle valeur documentaire.

Quant à l’Allemand, plein de mépris pour la frivolité du Français et l’absence d’idées générales de l’Anglais, il s’enferma dans sa chambre pour y rédiger un ouvrage en plusieurs volumes, intitulé : Idée du chameau tiré de la conception du moi.

I’m not sure I find it a extremely funny joke, but academic humor is always worth documenting as a cultural artifact, if nothing else.

Coca-Cola and postwar market liberalization

From time to time I find myself reading about episodes in French history that, while not strictly related to the university system, nonetheless seem like important points of historical reference. This one will, I guess, probably be well known to any French historian, but it was a surprise to me. It has to do with the economic politics of Coca-Cola’s arrival in France in the period just after the Second World War. Let me quote a long passage from Robert Gildea’s handy France since 1945, which is where I found out about this:

The Americans insisted on the right political conditions for aid [direly needed by post-war Europe]; they also demanded the right economic conditions. These were imposed by a series of missions in each European country receiving Marshall Aid… and bilateral agreements made with each recipient power. That with France was signed in June 1948, and the three brief ministries in power between 1948 and 1949 all pursued policies of economic austerity, balancing the budget by spending cuts and tax rises, and price and wage controls to bring down inflation. The Americans also required that all barriers to their exports and investment be removed, so France was inundated not only by American products but also by propaganda selling the American way of life. ‘Will France become an American colony?’ asked one book in 1948, exposing the threat from American Westerns and gangster movies, children’s comics such as Donald, Tarzan, and Zorro, and magazines controlled by Reader’s Digest, called Sélection in France.

The French won a minor victory in September 1948, when the French boxer Marcel Cerdan became world champion by beating an American in Jersey City. The real battle, however, was fought over Coca-Cola. Fed to GIs during the war, it was then the object of a sustained campaign to penetrate European markets. Coca-Cola was not simply a product, it was an image: that of the consumer society, on the wings of mass advertising, ‘the essence of capitalism’ in every bottle according to its president, James Farley, a weapon in the global ideological battle against Communism. Bottling operations were started in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg in 1947, but in France there was great opposition, first from the Communist party, which argued that they would become ‘Coca-colonisés’ and that the distribution network would double as a spy network, and second from the winegrowing, fruit-juice, and mineral-water interests. The French government, concerned by the trade deficit and the repatriation of profits, turned down requests by Coca-Cola to invest in France in 1948 and 1949, and banned the ingredients from Casablanca.

A bill was tabled by the deputy mayor of Montpellier on behalf of the winegrowers to empower the health ministry to investigate the content of drinks made with vegetable extracts in the name of public health. Its passage through the National Assembly in February 1940 provoked a storm of controversy. Farley visited the State Department and the French ambassador in Washington. The Americans put pressure on the French government. An article appeared in Le Monde entitled ‘To Die for Coca-Cola’, mimicking the ‘To Die for Danzig?’ article of 1939. ‘We have accepted chewing gum and Cecil B. De Mille, Reader’s Digest and be-bop,’ it read. ‘It’s over soft drinks that the conflict has erupted. Coca-Cola seems to be the Danzig of European culture. After Coca-Cola, enough.’ The French government was caught between the anger of French public opinion and the need to retain the favour of the American government. In the end the matter was resolved by the French courts, which ruled that the contents of Coca-Cola were neither fraudulent nor a health hazard. The French government retained its honour and the Americans obtained their market.

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Geometrical space in French universities

Looking back at my photos of Toulouse 2-Le Mirail, I’m struck by a common visual trait: the sheer repetition of cartesian grids in academic space.

The very tiles on the walls are gridded.

The bars and grills of the windows recede along their grid towards an unreached vanishing point.

In a courtyard at Toulouse, the pillars run in rows. The cement beams run in columns. The bench has a predictable railing. The windows are little boxes of crosses. The grass is boxed in. The one curved cement beam in the open ceiling only serves to set off the space’s overall linearity.

The chairs and desks are in alternating rows, their regularity still evident even if we look at them from an angle.

One starts to wonder if the campus was designed to make the individual feel a sense of vertigo in the face of the endlessness of this rectangular tunnel. The plane of the ceiling, broken up into a vast set of cement indentations, mirrors that of the tiled walkway. The sides, admittedly, are less regular, but even there we see regular columns, symmetrical pathways leading off on both sides.

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Class analysis as farce

One of the things that always bothers me about universities is how cagey they are when it comes to talking about their place in class reproduction. (For those of you who are uneasy about “class,” try asking yourself about the possible place of universities in hierarchical, even antagonistic social systems of status, prestige, exploitation, wealth, and opportunity.) Sometimes people talk about how universities promote social mobility for students, but, as easy as it is to forget this, even the very idea of “social mobility” presupposes hierarchy and inequality; it takes a structure of inequality to enable the individual to move around within it. As for the social class of the faculty, there too it’s difficult to pin down. In part that’s because longstanding ideologies of the “scholarly guild” tend to conceal class inequalities within the faculty, above all between contingent and non-contingent staff. In part that’s because a traditional Marxist analysis of class has a hard time handling people like academics who have a lot of cultural capital but relatively little actual money. In part that’s because it’s convenient to imagine oneself as classless (which is, moreover, the foundational fantasy of middle-class America).

I find it interesting, therefore, to notice those rare occasions when some sort of class analysis manages to emerge from official academic discourse. If we look at the University of Chicago’s very odd Idea of the University colloquium from 2000-2001, we see that Don Randel, then the university’s president, expressed a very definite faith in his university’s collective attachment to wealth:

“We must hope that values and commitment are the principal reasons for which both faculty and graduate students want to be at The University of Chicago. But we cannot idly expect them to express their values and commitment through any very significant financial sacrifice. One of our greatest challenges for the future, then, will be to find the resources with which to ensure that neither talented faculty nor talented graduate students go to other institutions for the wrong reasons (though it is hard to imagine what a “right” reason could be).”

In other words, Randel argues that the faculty (and graduate students) must be well paid, lest they go elsewhere for the “wrong reasons” (i.e., for crassly economic reasons). The university has continued this argument in the meantime, incidentally; it was one of their main motivations for increasing graduate stipends in humanities and social sciences a few years ago. But Randel doesn’t only observe that many people are motivated by money; he also argues that we can’t expect any very significant financial sacrifice for any apparent higher purpose. Which is a way of saying not only that money matters, but also that it outweighs any foreseeable moral or political motivation. In other words, economic status — indeed, class status — is the bottom line.

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Where have all the Derrideans gone?

I’ve been reading some literature on the “Idea” of the university lately. If you’re curious to get a sense of this arcane set of texts, which go back to Kant and Cardinal Newman, the best recent introductions are Gerard Delanty’s 1998 The idea of the university in the global era and Jeffrey J. Williams’ 2007 Teach the University (free here).

But what I wanted to write about, briefly, was a little exchange I discovered in Critical Inquiry from 1999 between Dominick LaCapra, an intellectual historian, and Nicholas Royle, an English literature professor. The year before, LaCapra had written a fairly critical response to Bill Readings’ well-known 1996 book, The University in Ruins. In his earlier 1998 essay, LaCapra notes that Readings’ claims of “ruin” are hyperbole, and he goes on to make some very sensible points about Readings’ tacit theory of institutions and his forms of evidence. Here’s a typical passage:

Readings’s very understanding of institutions is largely conceptual rather than oriented to institutions as historically variable sets of practices relating groups of people. His perspective on the institution and what he considers institutionally relevant thus seems very high-altitude in nature. In this approach… Readings relies not on studies of the institutional functioning of universities but on a decontextualized reading of such figures as Kant, Humboldt, Arnold, and Newman. These figures did elaborate paradigms or normative models, at times embodying critical and self-critical elements, and these models may have had a problematic relation to institutional practice that varied over space and time. But what that relation was, including the differences between model and practice, is not immediately obvious. (1998:38)

This strikes me as wise methodological advice for anyone who wants to understand what a university is and how “the university” relates to the various ideas that actors have about it. LaCapra argues, in short, that one has to look at the relations, gaps, tensions, between discourse and practice. But what strikes me as hilarious, and what drives me to write this blog post, is how Royle writes in his response to LaCapra the year after. In short, Royle gives a flawless performance of what I recognize, from essays I read in college, as stock deconstructive rhetoric. Here’s the start of Royle’s essay:

In his extremely measured and seemingly even-handed essay, Dominick LaCapra recalls Jacques Derrida’s well-known (though still perhaps inconceivable) proposition that “one must begin where one is” (p. 50).[1] He does not recall the more difficult and disconcerting supplement that accompanies it, that is to say “Wherever we are: in a text already where we believe ourselves to be” (“Quelque part où nous sommes: en un texte déjà où nous croyons être”).[2] To be already in a text, that is to say, in a context, is to be in ruins.[3] It is to have to reckon with a thinking and an affirmation of ruination at the origin. As Derrida has observed: “In the beginning, at the origin, there was ruin. At the origin comes ruin; ruin comes to the origin, it is what first comes and happens to the origin, in the beginning. With no promise of restoration.”[4] An affirmation of this experience of ruination is, as Derrida says, “experience itself”: the ruin “is precisely not a theme, for it ruins the theme, the position, the presentation or representation of anything and everything.”[5]

How do you feel about this passage? Yes, I’m serious. I want to hear your reactions. But since, alas, I can’t find out without finishing this post first, I’ll start by telling you some things that strike me about this passage.
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Professors’ status loss

Christine Musselin, a French sociologist of higher education, ventures an interesting interpretation of the changing relation between professional status, salary, and the overall size of the academic profession. In short, she argues that the larger academia gets, the lower status professors will have.

The massification of higher education has not only had demographic implications. It has led to a certain trivialization of university faculty’s social position in developed countries — it is no longer rare to be an academic. At the same time, it is no longer rare to be a university graduate. This trend should increase in the years to come, in spite of the stagnation of demographic growth in developed countries as enrollments among 18- to 25-year-olds, by cohort [classe d’âge], tend to plateau or even decline. But official policies in most developed countries, as we enter the third millennium, nonetheless aim to increase access to higher education. In France, the objective of the post-2007 government, like that of its predecessor, is to bring 50% of each age class to bachelor’s [license] level. The idea is to facilitate underprivileged or underrepresented populations’ access to education, to encourage the pursuit of studies through graduation, to encourage further studies and teaching all throughout the life course. One should not thus expect a decrease in the population of university teachers in the years to come; one should expect growth, aimed at accommodating students with more and more diversified profiles in terms of age, sociological composition, motivation, etc.

These developments are often described as one of the signs of contemporary societies’ transition towards “knowledge societies” [sociétés de connaissance] one of whose notable characteristics is a break with the concentration of knowledges [savoirs] within a handful of heads. University faculty, as they become more numerous and come to play a central role in this process, will be less and less able to maintain the quasi-monopoly of knowledge [connaissance] expertise that they have held in the past.

The progressive loss of social prestige should thus continue — at least for the larger part of the professoriate, who won’t be in the avant-garde of scientific production, but will rather primarily contribute to the transmission of knowledge and the training of highly qualified personnel. This evolution has already been in progress for a long time and can be measured in particular by looking at salaries. University faculty salaries have evolved less favorably than those of professionals with the same level of education working outside academia (for France, see Bouzidi, Jaaidane and Gary-Bobo [2007]). This trend goes for most of the university models concerned [here in this study], whether quasi-completely public as in Europe or partly private as in North America, whether the academics are state functionaries or have private-sector contracts.

(Musselin, Les universitaires, 2006, pp. 25-26, my translation.)

My sense is that academics’ “status loss” is somewhat more complex than this, since, if you believe what you read on academic blogs, most American college students can’t tell the difference between an adjunct with really low institutional status and salary and a tenured professor. So on the level of everyday phenomenology of professional life, Musselin’s description seems a little hasty. But there is certainly a sort of myth, at the very least, that (American) faculty used to get more respect than they do now; and it may well be the case that students, on the whole, demonstrate less exaggerated obsequiousness than they once did. And it’s hard not to agree with Musselin that this shift likely is deeply related to  the massification of higher education: as if the more people go to college, the less prestige they gain from it – and the less prestige their teachers garner from teaching them. As if there was a kind of prestige mimesis, such that the lower status of today’s less elite student populations was contagious. Some longer meditations on the relation between prestige and scarcity may be in order here: Graeber’s, for example…