I read this yesterday at a really wonderful conference, Whose crisis, whose university?, which began with questions about the university and its relationship to carcerality, prison abolition, and abolitionist history in general. My little text is drawn partly from a longer paper I’ve written about sonic patriarchy in a French university department. The conference was also about criticizing the limits of the recently invented field of “Critical University Studies,” so I said a few words about that too.
My first thought about abolition is that it makes an immense difference just what we are trying to abolish. What, for instance, might it mean to “abolish left patriarchy” in academia? Etymologically, patriarchy is rule of the fathers, a regime of male power and patrilineal inheritance. One might thus see abolishing patriarchy as a destruction or cancellation of male power in general, or at least of propertarian gerontocracy and its self-assertions of grandiosity and naturalness.
Continue reading “Abolishing left patriarchy”
Here’s a little excerpt from the preface of my book about French radical philosophy, where I try to open up some questions about gender and object-desire in “French Theory,” as we once knew it in America. It’s not the ethnographic part of my project; it’s not even really about France. But it tries to think a bit about U.S. college culture around the turn of the 2000s, when I was a student and when—at my institution—French Theory was still somewhat in vogue.
The kind of theory I was taught in college had a big aura. It was a chic kind of theory, a French kind of theory, one entwined with hipster and bohemian aesthetics, with “female effacement” (Johnson 2014:27), with things postmodern or poststructuralist, with American whiteness, and with a barely repressed spirit of commodification and elite competition. In the American university context, this theoretical competition was readily entangled with clumsy masculine ambition and ersatz intersubjectivity, as one can see from a late-1990s satirical song about dating at Swarthmore College.
Continue reading “The American “Theory Boy” and his fetish”
I’ve been reading lately about the French Women’s Liberation Movement, which had its first public event in 1970, at the University of Paris 8, which would become my primary French fieldsite. In its early days, the university was called the Centre Universitaire Expérimental de Vincennes (Experimental University Center at Vincennes). It was located east of Paris amidst the woods of a major city park. It was notorious for overcrowding. It was notorious for far-left activist “frenzy,” which stemmed from the political movements of 1968.
I was not surprised to find out that in the 1970s, sexism and rape culture were major problems among the male-dominated French far left. They remain issues on French campuses today.
Continue reading “Sexist anti-feminism in the French Left, 1970”
The book project that I’m working on, Disappointed Utopia: Radical Philosophy in Postcolonial France, is basically an ethnographic study of “French Theory.” The book’s preface tries to explain why, at this point in history, we would still be interested in an ethnography of that. And the answer, in short, is that the historical problems of “French Theory” are not so different from our own (in Anglophone anthropology, if that who “we” is here).
So here is a little excerpt from the preface that explores the relationship between French Theory and the recent controversy over the HAU journal in my field.
Continue reading “The politics of HAU and French Theory”
Last week I was really delighted to get to talk about a paper I wrote, “The Infinite Rounds of the Stubborn: Reparative futures at a French political protest.” It was at Oberlin College, where my friend Les Beldo is teaching a class on Culture and Activism.
Here’s how my paper summarized itself:
When social actors find themselves at an impasse, perceiving their futures as threatened, how can they respond? If their futures can get broken or interrupted, can they subsequently be reconnected or repaired? If yes, how? Here, I consider an ethnographic case of reconnected futurity drawn from French protest politics: the 2009–2010 Ronde Infinie des Obstinés, or “Infinite Rounds of the Stubborn.” Opposing Sarkozy-era neoliberal university reforms, the Ronde sought to instrumentalize its temporal and political impasse, shifting its relation to the future out from the register of subjectivity and into the register of ritual motion. By situating the Ronde within the fabric of Parisian political space, I show how it synthesized the politics of occupation with the politics of marching, hopelessness with stubborn endurance, the negation of state temporality with the prefiguration of an alternative future. I conclude by reflecting on the place of temporal repair in relation to recent forms of prefigurative radicalism.
Continue reading “Questions about the Infinite Rounds of the Stubborn”
Sometimes I get asked for a biography of myself.
Continue reading “What is a biography?”
Last year, I blogged about a 1970 critique of sexism at the University of Chicago. Just now, I opened up the anthology in question, Sisterhood is Powerful, and discovered another neat document: a feminist political manifesto issued on the occasion of protests against the firing of Marlene Dixon, a Marxist feminist professor.
I especially liked its capacious theory of women’s freedom.
Continue reading “Women’s Liberation at the University of Chicago, 1969”
The places where we live during fieldwork can be so strange. Even in the best of circumstances.
My first summer in France I had a sublet for eight weeks. It wasn’t a place that made a lasting impression on me, but I just came across a list of rules and guidelines that I sent to an American grad student who needed a place to stay for a week.
Continue reading “Life in a shared Parisian apartment”
I just came home from visiting a literary theory and cultural studies graduate seminar at Carnegie Mellon University. I went to Pittsburgh — not so far from where I live in Cleveland — to talk about my book on French Theory, but I ended up talking about my life, my experience in the academy, and my “career.”*
Continue reading “Questions about ethnography of theory”
Ethnographers are constantly writing what they call vignettes. What they mean by this word is short stories. The core claim of this post is that short stories are great, and we should keep writing them, but that we should stop trivializing them by using this problematic, denigrating term.
What is a vignette? Vigne is vine (in French) and vignette is thus “little vine,” which is certainly an evocative image. But what does a little vine do for ethnographers?
Continue reading “The vignette: a bad ethnographic category”
It’s early morning in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. The cognitive capitalism capital of the American rustbelt, you could call it. Huge university buildings and museums. Vast zones of middle class dwelling and consumption. Working-class neighborhoods hidden away out of sight.
It’s been about twelve weeks since I left my faculty job in South Africa. I really liked teaching there, partly because the weight of the Apartheid past was still so very present in Stellenbosch that, in an unexpected way, it made it feel especially worthwhile to teach critical social science. But it was just too far from my partner and our kid, who had stayed here. Obviously, we had explored different options. Leaving Stellenbosch ended up being the right thing, and I’m not ambivalent about it, even though I miss the teaching.
Continue reading “The view from Cleveland Heights”
I was just looking up how to spell the adjective “Comaroffian” when I came upon a paper by Charles Piot about the Comaroffs’ Of Revolution and Revelation. Skimming through it, I happened upon an amusing couple of paragraphs that set out to summarize different theories of “modernity.” In case anyone wants to see what that looks like, here they are:
Continue reading “Theories of modernity, a brief summary”
A little before seven, some sort of teacherly anxiety wakes me up before the alarm. Dim light slips through the blinds. From the obstructed view onto a garden wall, a row of bushes, and a westerly sky, I can’t immediately tell whether last night’s rain will continue.
Being a bit anxious makes it easier to get up and get moving.
Continue reading “A day teaching in Stellenbosch”
In the spirit of Shabana Mir’s blog, whose exceptional reflexivity about academic life I really admire, I thought I would write something about the intense anxieties that graduate school used to induce in me.
I had lots of different feelings in graduate school, and lots of them weren’t bad. But for me, some of the hardest things were those ritual moments where your very Being is supposed to be under examination. In concrete terms, that meant the big rites of passage: the qualifying exams, the dissertation proposal hearing, and finally the dissertation defense. It’s easier to think about them now that they’re a bit distant in time.
Continue reading “The panics of graduate school”
My disciplinary association (the AAA) is conducting a survey.
It doesn’t really matter to me what the survey is about. The survey has two fatal flaws:
- It uses clickbait marketing tactics to try to reach me.
- It purports to compensate me by offering me a chance to win a gift card.
Continue reading “Clickbait professionalism at the American Anthropological Association”
I just came across a book I feel that I ought to have encountered sooner, Sisterhood is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement, edited by Robin Morgan (1970). I haven’t had time to read it all the way through, but it has these astounding section titles like “The hand that cradles the rock,” and a few things I’ve seen before, notably Pat Mainardi’s marvelous “Politics of Housework,” a brutal and hilarious deconstruction of her husband’s sexist rationalizations for not doing housework.
Anyway, halfway through the volume, I find a compendium of sexist comments made to women graduate students at the University of Chicago. I thought it would be worth reproducing here, since I haven’t seen this text before and I think it’s good to have this sort of discourse out in circulation. While the general lines of this sort of sexist thought are pathetically familiar, the horror is always in the particulars.
Continue reading “Sexist comments from the University of Chicago, 1970”
Friday was the last day of my ethnography class, so I mainly wanted to tell some stories. Good ethnography isn’t much more than good storytelling, in the end.
Continue reading “The end of a class (otherness & vulnerability)”
Back in 2011 I went for a bike trip in southern Illinois and made it just across the river to Cape Girardeau, Missouri. I wrote about my trip at the time but I’m embarrassed to say that I mainly saw the place in terms of class — it was a largely run-down, working-class place — and, in racial terms, I only noticed that it was largely white.
Continue reading “The force of race in a Missouri college town”
As I write, night is falling slowly and heavily, like a train gaining momentum gracelessly. It’s easy to feel sleepy when I come home after the all-day heat, which still lingers in the house, but I eat dinner early and make myself go for a walk, the better to sit down afterwards to prep for class tomorrow morning.
Continue reading “Teaching and timelessness”
It’s a Sunday.
The ants are everywhere around the kitchen sink, swarming through the crack in the dishwasher door. Afterwards, every time you feel the tiniest itch, you suspect the ants of crawling on you.
Continue reading “Housework and anxiety on the day before class”
In my email right now, there are 10,364 messages signed with American academia’s standard valediction:
Continue reading “Why we can’t abolish “best””
The University of Paris-X at Nanterre is now just called Université Paris Nanterre. I went there this week to poke around in the archives of my fieldsite. On the way to the library I stopped to find something to eat, and it turned out that the nearest campus eating establishment was an ethnographically useful site. Admittedly, I am getting somewhat out of practice as a campus ethnographer, but I still noticed a few things.
Continue reading “The Crêperie at Nanterre”
I’ve been thinking lately about how, in ethnography, some objects of inquiry seem to come ready-made, almost pre-packaged, while others are so unclear, blurry, flou (in French), that it’s hard to decide how to examine them.
Continue reading “Pre-made objects”
I’ve been re-reading Butler’s work lately because I’m thinking about political mimesis, and I was struck along the way by her very frank and admirable comments about the fact that if you write a bunch of things over time, you don’t necessarily want to go back over them to make sure that your view is the same everywhere.
Continue reading “Butler on nonsystematic writing”
Since last month, I’ve been teaching in Social Anthropology at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. There’s a lot to say about this new and very intriguing teaching context — the first thing being that university politics are a very live issue, and so there’s a lot for me to learn, given my work.
Continue reading “Considerations on grading”