Following up on my last post (and indirectly on a couple of older posts), I came across an interesting interview extract that comments in a bit more detail on the lived experience of being a philosopher with practically no work infrastructure. Here’s a philosopher from Paris 8 commenting on his workspace:
Professor: “I don’t think I’m giving you any scoop in saying that, on the material level, the Philosophy Department is the poorest one in the country. It’s clear — it’s very clear, even. When, for instance, young colleagues were arriving after I got here — at the moment I’m thinking of Renée Duval who sent me a message asking, so, where was her office [Laughter] although she didn’t have an office. And, you know, even at Paris 7, if you want to meet, I don’t know, Frédéric Gauthier, I say Frédéric Gauthier because we know each other pretty well, so, indeed, he will make an appointment with you in his office.”
A department secretary interrupts: “Still, they don’t have their own offices, they have a shared office for teachers.”
Professor: “Non non non non non non non. Gauthier, he has an office, and there are other offices. At most, they’re two to an office. Of course! No, here, it’s on the edge.”
Secretary: “Yes, it’s on the edge.”
Professor: “Yes, here, it’s borderline scandalous. Meaning that, for example, we wouldn’t have to be meeting here [in the staff office space].”
Secretary: “Mais non, I agree with you.”
Professor: “Mais oui. And, well, there’ll be an office, we would be in the office, indeed, we could both of us shut the door. So for example, the master’s thesis exams happen here [in the staff office space].”
Me: “Really, they’re here?”
Professor: “Yes, it happens — and so people who show up, we can’t prevent them, it’s the office — where they turn in their homework, where they come for information, but, still, it’s scandalous. The first year, when I came, throughout practically the whole first year, I spent the first twenty minutes of class with the students looking for a room. It’s since been stabilized, but—“
I’m struck by the descriptor “the poorest philosophy department in the country.” And by the massively comparative nature of the moral order at work here. To be scandalous, to be on the edge (“à la limite“): these are, precisely, descriptions of a work environment that contrasts with what one has a right to expect, or with what would be typical of a workplace in one’s profession. The aspiration to a dignified workplace, then, is grounded in an epistemology of comparison. Normative in the most banal sense.
What is more interesting, perhaps, is how moral comparison becomes strategic in some circumstances and not in others, how workplace norms are useful at certain times but inconvenient at others. It’s so typical of academic institutions to want to seem incomparable or sui generis when they need to legitimate themselves, isn’t it?
(N.B.: All the proper names in the interview are pseudonyms.)