Category Archives: translation

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—

Continue reading On real problems

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.

La vie active and French right-wing vocationalism

The always useful website of Sauvons L’Université has just published the text of a curious proposal in the French Senate for a new law that would require all French students pursuing a traditional high school or university degree to also study for a vocational diploma. The proposal has some interesting remarks on what a university is:

Outre les qualités intellectuelles qu’elle amène à développer, l’université, par la diversité de ses étudiants et de son corps enseignant apporte des qualités humaines à celui qui y étudie. L’université est le lieu transitoire entre la vie d’un adolescent et la vie d’un homme, qui devient autonome, assume ses choix, ses études et par là même, ses résultats.

Cette formation est un des piliers qui permet à chacun de se construire.

Un deuxième pilier est cependant indispensable pour aborder efficacement le monde du travail, je veux parler de la formation professionnelle.

Beyond the intellectual qualities that it helps to develop, the university, by the diversity of its students and its teaching staff, brings human qualities to those who study there. The university is a transitory place between the life of an adolescent and the life of a man, who is becoming autonomous, accepting responsibility for his choices, his studies, and thus also for his results.

This education is one of the foundations that allow each of us to construct ourselves.

A second pillar is nevertheless indispensable for efficiently entering the work world, I mean professional training…

The proposed law would thus require that university students spend five hours weekly on getting a BEP or CAP, which are both secondary-level education certificates, on the level of American vocational-technical diplomas. Typical specializations for the BEP or CAP are things like carpentry, retail sales, automobile maintenance, graphic design, secretarial work, and restaurant work: they are degrees that, in essence, aim to produce the specialized “technicians” who make up the French working classes in an increasingly post-industrial era. Given widespread complaints about out-of-work university graduates, it isn’t surprising that this proposed law hopes to enhance job placement prospects, while also (in a charming moment of humanist pragmatism) allowing students to “balance their knowledge” between pure theory and pure technique.

Continue reading La vie active and French right-wing vocationalism

A campus controversy

Over in France, there’s a controversy brewing over a conference on Israel that was going to be held at Paris-8 next week. It’s been covered in a range of newspapers. The gist is that the conference, subtitled “Israel, an apartheid state?”, had been authorized to be held on campus, but when a major French Jewish organization expressed opposition, the campus administration withdrew its authorization. Here’s a quick translation of the campus president’s communique explaining his decision:

To the university community,

The University of Paris-8 was recently asked to give its authorization for a conference on its campus entitled, “From new sociological, historical and legal approaches to the call for an international boycott: Israel, an apartheid state?”, planned for this February 27-28.

Initially, the President of the University did give an authorization to the conference organizers, on the condition that a certain number of obligations be scrupulously observed. These involved, on one hand, an absolute respect for the principles of academic neutrality and secularism [laïcité], and on the other hand, the removal of the university’s logos and visuals, since the university is not the organizer of this conference.

In giving this authorization, the President was mindful—as in every case when he is asked to approve public events—at once of the rights of freedom of speech and of assembly for campus users, of the maintenance of public order on the premises, of the institution’s intellectual and scientific independence, and of the principle of neutrality in public service vis-à-vis the diversity of public opinion.

However, today it appears that respecting these conditions will not be enough to guarantee the maintenance either of public order on the premises, or of the institution’s scientific or intellectual independence, given that the pluralism of scientific approaches, the pluralism of critical and divergent analyses, must be regarded as intangible academic obligations.

Indeed, the presentation of this “conference” as “academic,” along with the repeated presence of “Paris 8” on the conference publicity, could be, in themselves, of such a nature as to create confusions that may infringe on the requirement to keep the university free of any political or ideological grasp. The reactions elicited by the conference, which have begun to compromise the university itself, reveal that confusion has set in, and that there is a real risk to the principle of neutrality of public services in research and higher education.

The theme of the conference, the nature of the planned presentations, as well as of the contributors’ titles, strongly polemical in nature, have caused strong reactions that foreshadow a serious risk of disturbances in public order, and of counter-protests that the university is obliged to prevent.

In such circumstances, the President of the University has decided to withdraw the previously given authorization.

The President’s Office has contacted the organizers to propose that on-campus space should be allocated for a day of public debates, in the framework of a diversity of views.

Concerning the organization of the conference on February 27 and 28th, it is decided that the President’s Office will offer the university’s services in locating other premises off-campus where the conference can be held.

-The university administration

This decision has prompted a fair amount of outrage from faculty (including American intellectuals like Judith Butler and Noam Chomsky), who, naturally, invoked the same principles of academic freedom (“intellectual and scientific independence”) that the campus president (Pascal Binczak) had invoked in defending his change of views. I think it’s quite interesting that the principle of academic freedom can equally be invoked to license or to deny campus space for controversial events — the proponents of an event can argue that political interference shouldn’t be allowed to censor campus events; the opponents can argue that politically charged topics are insufficiently academic to deserve campus space. At the level of principle, I think this is more of a real dilemma than most parties want to acknowledge. Not many people today want to live in a static university where ancient, let’s say Aristotelian, intellectual doctrines are the only ones allowed to be presented on campus. But most campuses these days also want to set limits on acceptable speech. And it’s not clear to me that there is a principled way to set such limits on a purely intellectual basis.

Ultimately the relevant “principle” seems most often to be “what’s currently acceptable given the social mores of the moment” or “what some plurality of current scholars think is acceptable,” but given that both of these are historically contingent and variable reference points, I’m not sure they are extremely defensible. It seems to me it would be much more honest if administrators admitted that the main principle, in moments like this one, was just to save face or to avert conflict, was in short a principle of sheer expediency. My sense is that large bureaucracies make decisions for such reasons of expediency much more than they can possibly admit in public.

Losing the Excellence Sweepstakes

In France, one way that the Sarkozy government has been financing major projects on universities is with a large loan it took out in 2010, termed the “Grand Emprunt.” (I would translate this as “major loan” — “grand loan” would sound a bit silly in English.) Part of the funds have been directed towards so-called “Excellence Initiatives” (Idex, initiatives d’excellence) in the universities—the sums offered were large, and many campuses felt obliged to compete for the money. Apparently the president of one regional council was disappointed that his region’s universities failed to get their Idex, and wrote a letter to that effect which has become public. The following letter was one striking rejoinder:

Monsieur le Président,

I must say that it is with consternation that I read the letter you sent to university administrators in your region. This letter has made the rounds of the country, since I myself received it nine times. I can understand your disappointment in learning that the Idex wasn’t chosen in the Grand Idex Sweepstakes. I understand as well that, faced with drying up ministerial funds for higher education and research, the regions have done what they could to help their academic institutions—yours perhaps more than others.

But how is it possible that this desire to do right, this will to defend your region has managed to blind you to the point of not seeing how the “Major Loan” in general, and the “Idex” even more so, are fraudulent? Maybe you forgot that the President of the Republic himself announced that the interest paid out from the loan will be compensated by deductions of regular funding—making it quite officially a zero-sum game, where the losers pay for the winners? Moreover, you obviously haven’t taken into account that the loan procedures are aimed at systematically removing any role from elected academic bodies and at further demolishing our system. How can you not see that it takes a grandiose stupidity to put Montpellier and Marseille, Lyon and Grenoble, Bordeaux and Toulouse, Paris 2-4-6 and Paris 3-5-7 in competition? That in such tournaments, whole territories in the West, the North and the Center will not have the slightest chance, in spite of their efforts?
Continue reading Losing the Excellence Sweepstakes

“Nothing left but the fac”

I’ve just started reading the most prominent book on French university reforms of the past year, Refonder L’Université: Pourquoi l’enseignement supérieur reste à reconstruire, which translates to “Refounding the University: Why higher education awaits reconstruction.” It came out last October from La Découverte, and has spawned debate at, for instance, ARESER (the Association of Reflection on Higher Education and Research), at a seminar last November on the Politics of Science, and more generally within the remnants of the faculty opposition to Sarkozy’s education policy.

I may write more about this in the future (once I’ve finished it!), but I was struck by the very beginning of the introduction (pp. 15-16), which gives a nice capsule summary of how the university is seen as being at the absolute bottom of the prestige scale in French higher education. I’ll translate; bear in mind that “la fac,” short for “the faculty,” is French slang for “the university.” Bear in mind, also, that a major distinguishing characteristic of French public universities is that they’re open to everyone with a high school diploma, while other kinds of higher education have more selective admissions.

Bastia, August 2008. Conversation with a taxi driver. He finds out that his passenger is an academic. He brings up the case of his daughter, which he’s worrying about. She has just received her high school diploma, science track, with high honors. She wants to enroll in a private school in Aix-en-Provence to be a speech therapist. It’s a dream she’s had since childhood. This is the best school for it, it seems, but the tuition fees are high and you have to pay for lodging too (no dorm housing if you’re not enrolled in the public university). But above all, the results are uncertain: there are only a few dozen places for several thousand candidates. The academic tries to convince the taxi driver that it would be good for his daughter to enroll simultaneously in psychology at the university. That would at least guarantee that she’ll get a degree. Neither the taxi driver nor his daughter seem to have thought of that…
Continue reading “Nothing left but the fac”

Rage, repetition and incomprehension in precarious work

The following is the text of an open letter sent to the President of the University of Paris-8 by a teacher in visual arts. She’s losing her job because of a particularly Kafkaesque circumstance: she doesn’t make enough money from art to maintain her tax status as an artist, and in France there’s a regulation that says you have to have a “principal occupation” to work as an adjunct. At any rate, this text, which tends to express its outrage through repetition and irony, is a particularly rich example of the emotional consequences of precarity.

April 28, 2011

Mr. President,
The honor I feel in writing to you is coupled to the hope that you will be able to spare a few moments.

In terms of the facts, all resemblance to the life of Christine Coënon is not accidental; in the form of the writing, all resemblance to John Cage’s Communication (Silence, Denoël Press, 2004) is not accidental (in italics).

I am a visual artist, an adjunct [chargé de cours] in Visual Arts [Arts Plastiques] at the University of Paris-8 since 1995.
I am 48 years old. High school diploma in 1980, two years of college (Caen, 1980-82), five years in art school (Caen, 1982-87) and then the Institute of Higher Studies in Visual Arts (Paris, 1988-98).
Holding a degree in art (DNSEP, 1987), more than twenty years of research and artistic production, fifteen years of teaching at the University of Paris-8… my pay as an adjunct in visual arts is rising to 358€ per month.
What if I ask 32 questions?
Will that make things clear?

Every week I teach two classes, a practical and a theoretical class, which comes to 128 hours of teaching per year.
All my classes are paid at the “discussion section adjunct rate [chargé de TD].”
Do you think my pay is fair, compared to the pay of a tenured professor whose hourly quota is less at 200 hours?

The adjunct is paid for the time spent in class: two and a half hours, although the time slots are currently three hours long. Should I refuse to answer questions after class? And course preparation? And correcting people’s work? And grading? And tutoring the seniors?
What is the difference between an adjunct and a baby-sitter?

In 2005, the semesters were changed from 15 weeks to 13 weeks; after which adjuncts were paid for 32 hours instead of 37.5.
32 = 13 x 2.5?
Why didn’t someone teach me to count?
Would I have to know how to count to ask questions?

Why, when a visiting lecturer [vacataire] gets a gross hourly wage of 61.35€, am I getting 40.91€ (compare to the rate of a visiting foreign lecturer)?
I was told that the hourly rate of 61.35€ corresponded to what an adjunct costs the university.
So if I just add the bosses’ overhead to my own salary, everything adds up.
Do I understand that adjuncts are supposed to be paying the bosses’ overhead?
These things that are not clear to me, are they clear to you?
Do you think it’s fair, this special system?

Why don’t adjuncts, who agree to work for a trimester or a year, get contracts?
They do, however, sign an agreement to work, and after that it’s a “maybe.”
If I start a semester, am I just supposed to imagine that I’ll be there at the end? The same thing for a year?

The adjunct is paid hourly, and thus doesn’t have the right to paid vacation or to an end-of-contract bonus. [NB: The French have something called an indemnité de précarité, which is supposed to be paid at the end of short-term contracts to “compensate for the precarity of the situation.”]
Is there any point in asking why?

Why is it that an artist must have money to make money?
Why does the university refuse the House of Artists’ regulatory framework? I pay them fees as a good taxpayer. [NB: The House of Artists is the professional association chosen by the French state to handle artists’ social security.]
Why does Visual Arts at the University misrecognize the artist’s situation, characterized by precarity?
(The median earnings of affiliated artists are 8300 euros per year, which is below the poverty line, and 50% of artists earn less than that…)

Is an artist who has “insufficient earnings” insufficient?
Why do I have the feeling of only being a chit for the accountants?
Why is the teaching artist considered “lucky” to get underpaid for teaching only if her research is profitable?
Why, paradoxically, does the University only recognize artists’ sales, and under no circumstances their research and teaching?
(I’ll permit myself to mention that in 2008 I got a research fellowship from the National Center of Visual Arts [CNAP]).

Is this the 28th question?
Have we got a way to make money?
Money, what does it communicate?
Which is more communicative, an artist who makes money or an artist who doesn’t?
Are people artists within the market, non-artists outside the market?
And if people on the inside don’t really understand, does that change the question?

Why do I teach at the University? (Some say there are Art Schools for artists!)
Why? Because I was invited there and, naturally, I found myself a place there.
I say “naturally” because, whether at an Art School or at the Institute for Higher Studies in Visual Arts, I have always felt a complementarity between the historian and/or theorist and the artist.
Too naturally, no doubt, I got invested and, too passionately, I have continued in the conditions that you know.

Is there always something to wonder about, never peace or calm?
If my head is full of uncertainty, what’s happening to my peace and to my calm?
Are these questions getting us somewhere?
And if there are rules, who made them, I ask you?
In other words — is there a possible end to these uncertainties and, if so, where does it begin?

Are there any important questions?
The semesters are getting shorter, the quota of students per class is rising…
60% of teachers in visual arts are precarious, their pay rising a few hundredths of a euro each year.
I ask you, given that experience emerges over time, what will happen if experience is sacrificed for momentary profit?
Are these questions getting us somewhere?
Where are we going?

Mr. President, I hope that you will be able to understand these questions, and able to answer them too.

I inform you that in spite of the recognized interest in my classes, they are going to be canceled because I am subject to the House of Artists system (which is not even a professional obligation for me), and my earnings are below the threshold for being a full member.
“Fired for insufficient earnings”: my courses are being canceled because my earnings are too low.
Faced with the aberration of this situation, and without a response on your part, I will choose to make this letter public on May 19, 2011.

Please accept, Mr. President, this assurance of my best regards,

Christine Coënon
Continue reading Rage, repetition and incomprehension in precarious work

Testimonial from French protests

So as everyone who reads the news has probably heard, there has been a major “social movement” here the last few weeks, basically opposing the government’s reform of the pension system. There have been a number of street protests, major strikes of public transit and railroad workers, and fuel shortages because of industrial strikes. I’m not going to take the time to give links to these ongoing stories, because you can look it all up on google. (I recommend French-language coverage, if possible, and otherwise maybe the BBC. Americans seem to be prone to idiotic analyses like this one.)

To be honest, as an ethnographer, I haven’t been extremely curious about this whole political affair; it’s only peripherally about the universities, and I’m mainly interested in the politics of the university system. And I’m not the only one who feels separate from this movement: at a faculty activist meeting a week ago, teachers commented that their concerns about the institutional situation were radically different from their students’ involvements in the pension question, and they weren’t sure (at that point) what points of commonality with the students they were going to find.

University discussion of the movement has, nonetheless, been ongoing, and I was particularly interested in one sociology student’s testimonial from the barricades in Lyon. I’ve taken the time to translate it; there’s something important to learn, I think, from stories of what happens when privileged, educated people suddenly find themselves subject to irrational and overwhelming state violence.

Thursday, October 21, 2010. Testimony of events on Place Bellecour, Lyon.

I arrived around noon at Place Bellecour, accompanied by some student friends. A protest was supposed to start at 2pm, on Place A. Poncet just beside Place Bellecour, with college and high school students, partnered with the CGT [a major union] and SUD [a left autonomist union]. A number of young people were there, mostly high schoolers and middle schoolers. You crossed a police cordon to enter the square. There were several dozen of them at every exit from the public square, which is one of the largest in France. They were armored from head to foot, with helmets, shields, nightsticks, pistols… There was also a truck from the GIPN (National Police Intervention Group, who had an armored truck and wore masks) and two anti-riot water cannon trucks. A helicopter surveyed the site from a low altitude. Half an hour later, after a few stones were thrown towards the police and their vehicles, the cops went into action and fired tear gas grenades. The crowd dispersed.

Continue reading Testimonial from French protests

Academic activism flier, september 2010

I confess I’m not sure this will really interest anyone besides me, but on the off chance… this is a quick translation of the higher education flier that accompanied the street demonstration I wrote about a few days ago. It’s useful if you want to get a sense of what oppositional faculty are talking about. I’m attending the OECD conference on higher education management this week, and something else at the French Ministry of Higher Education, so I should shortly have lots to say about the political contrast between official and oppositional discourse. Plus I’ll get to feel fair and balanced.

Mobilize together!

Working and studying conditions in research and higher education

As this school year starts, staff and students are seeing no improvement in their working, studying and living conditions. The government’s reform of teacher education [mastérisation] is showing all its negative effects: there are former job candidates who can’t apply twice, candidates who pass the hiring exam but still don’t get jobs [reçus-collés], acrobatics aimed at creating [new] “teaching MA” programs after a parody of accreditation, interns put in front of classes without any real professional training, whose secondary school colleagues have refused to tutor them… The university and research map has been profoundly modified by the accelerating restructuring of research organizations (new Instituts at the CNRS, merger between the INRP and the ENS-Lyon) and of universities (with processes of inter-campus “fusion”), which have lurched into being through bidding on the government’s recently borrowed infrastructure funds [Grand emprunt]. The multiplication of individualized research grants (PES, PFR, …) threatens teamwork, essential in our sectors. Precarity is rising among the students, under the combined effects of rising fees set by the government (tuition, student health insurance [sécurité sociale], campus dining halls) and rising housing expenses.

Job cuts

We have already seen a freeze in government workers’ salaries for 2011, cuts of 36,000 public sector jobs, and a drastic fall in the number of teaching jobs up for hiring (11,600 jobs versus 15,125 the year before, with a 55% decline for primary school teachers). Under the cover of “deficit reduction,” the latest government announcements presage new public sector blood-letting, further falls in our purchasing power, accelerating degradation of the services offered to the public, and accelerating degradation of staff working conditions, with an ever-rising growth of precarity.

Continue reading Academic activism flier, september 2010

Fictitious seminar on imaginary disobedience

I’ve been reading some listserve archives from the 2009 strikes and I came across a mocking proposal for an alternative seminar. I don’t think the somewhat heavy-handed irony is likely to get lost in translation.


You will find below a proposal for an alternative seminar.

A seminar titled “The expression of social malaise” will be held every monday at 9pm. Drawing on the recent works of our colleagues from Guadaloupe and those of our working-class neighbors from 2005, we will learn to generate acts of symbolic, media-ready disobedience.

The seminar will begin with a theoretical exposition of alternative means of expressing social malaise (occupying train stations and commercial buildings, setting garbage cans on fire, vandalizing bus stops). The practical application of these means will be open for discussion, and there will be a presentation on indispensable information for strikers (about the cracks in the riot police’s armor, protecting yourself from tear gas grenades, and practical legal advice).

The second part of the seminar will be dedicated to physical exercises relevant to this expression of social malaise (exercises in dispersion, intensive running, basics of close combat, unarmed and with blades, throwing paving stones, fabricating Molotov cocktails, and so on).

Course credit for students will involve an individual and spontaneous student project, preferably of a practical nature. This seminar can be counted for credit either in Law or in Communications.

Participants from the experimental centers of Clichy-sous-bois and Villiers-le-Bel will intervene in the seminar.

A and M

PS: If this proposition is taken seriously, the organizers of the seminar are not to be held responsible.

Some of the listserve participants then chimed in with suggestions on the grading system; whereupon a professor suggested rather more seriously that even in fun, such discussions probably shouldn’t be left in the public record.

It’s probably superfluous to note, at any rate, that the humor of the proposition apparently derives from the juxtaposition between the register of illegal street violence and academic discourse. The former is mockingly dignified by the latter; the latter is profaned by the former. One is left wondering, though, what sort of impulse towards imaginary disobedience motivated the authors, and what sort of social function this humor is serving or undermining.