Sartre, in his 1960 critique of orthodox Marxism called Search for a Method, has an interesting comment about absent presences that reminds me of my last post about absent militaries, absent militantisms:
“The city is a material and social organization which derives its reality from the ubiquity of its absence. It is present in each one of its streets insofar as it is always elsewhere, and the myth of the capital with its mysteries demonstrates well that the opaqueness of direct human relations comes from this fact, that they are always conditioned by all others. The Mysteries of Paris stem from the absolute interdependence of spots connected by their radical compartmentalization. Each urban collective has its own physiognomy.” (p. 80 in the english translation)
I’m not sure that this is the kind of absence I was talking about in relation to the Bastille Day parade. Here Sartre seems to have in mind the fact that a city – Paris, for example – exists everywhere and nowhere, that one can never see the city as a whole even though its existence as such depends on an “absolute interdependence” between the city and its various streets, neighborhoods, hidden alleyways, and so on. Whereas I was thinking about the fact that the military appears fully only through the mediation of images and stories, of parades and journalists’ photos of parades; the absent presence of the military depends less on its mediation through its other units and more on the sheer fact that it is visually unobservable except through spectacular semiotic mediations.
Sartre says some other interesting things too, things which partly need to be saved for some other time when I am in the mood for exegetical writing, but I am particularly taken by his comments, early on in the first chapter, on what knowledge is good for. He simultaneously displays a marxian cynicism about knowledge being a product and tool of class struggle, and a rather more traditional desire for philosophy to come to master the world – albeit only in a precarious, momentary dialectical fashion. “If philosophy is to be simultaneously a totalization of knowledge, a method, a regulative Idea, an offensive weapon, and a community of language, if this ‘vision of the world’ is also an instrument which ferments rotten societies, if this particular conception of a man or of a group of men becomes the culture and sometimes the nature of a whole class–then it is clear that the periods of philosophical creation are rare,” he says a bit glumly (6).
And then he emphasizes that our knowledge is external to us, can even master us: “We are not only knowers; in the triumph of [Hegelian] intellectual self-consciousness, we appear as the known. Knowledge pierces us through and through; it situates us before dissolving us” (9). Or more dialectically: “To understand is to change, to go beyond oneself” (18).
Dialectical philosophy is an excellent ethnographic object! Surely this is as arcane to an average american as any “exotic” witchcraft accusation of the Azande?
Still, I’m not sure that these quotations will mean much to anyone besides me, though. Whoever you people are who are reading this blog (there are 25 subscribers according to google), what kind of stuff are you interested in reading? To be sure, partly I write this blog to clarify things for myself, to amuse myself, to process some of my field material, to keep myself aware of what’s happening to universities in various places. Which is why it seldom arrives at any finished claims or polished prose. But I also want it to be in some way useful or interesting to people who are interested in academic culture and university politics… what would you want to know about French universities as a foreigner? Perhaps it would be useful to give some more background on the structure and history of the national university system as a whole. Am leaving for vacation in five minutes, but will come back to this.