Edward Sapir on French culture

Sapir wrote in 1924 in a splendidly titled article, “Culture, Genuine and Spurious“:

The whole terrain through which we are now struggling is a hotbed of subjectivism, a splendid terrain for the airing of national conceits. For all that, there are a large number of international agreements in opinion as to the salient cultural characteristics of various peoples. No one who has even superficially concerned himself with French culture can have failed to be impressed by the qualities of clarity, lucid systematization, balance, care in choice of means, and good taste, that permeate so many aspects of the national civilization. These qualities have their weaker side. We are familiar with the overmechanization, the emotional timidity or shallowness (quite a different thing from emotional restraint), the exaggeration of manner at the expense of content, that are revealed in some of the manifestations of the French spirit. Those elements of French civilization that give characteristic evidence of the qualities of its genius may be said, in our present limited sense [of culture not as high culture nor as all of a people’s traditions but as the practiced ‘genius’ of a civilization], to constitute the culture of France; or, to put it somewhat differently, the cultural significance of any element in the civilization of France is the light it sheds on the French genius.

From this standpoint we can evaluate culturally such traits in French civilization as the formalism of French classical drama,  the insistence in French education on the study of the mother-tongue and of its classics, the prevalcence of epigram in French life and letters, the intellectualist cast so often given to aesthetic movements in France, the lack of turgidity in modern French music, the relative absence of the ecstatic note in religion, the strong tendency to bureaucracy in French administration. Each and all of these and hundreds of other traits could be readily paralleled from the civilization of England. Nonetheless their relative cultural significance, I venture to think, is a lesser one in England  than in France. In France they seem to lie more deeply in the grooves of the cultural mold of its civilization. Their study would yield something like a rapid bird’s-eye view of the spirit of French culture.

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Student violence in Aberdeen, 1861

I was reading a curious old book called The Rise of the Student Estate in Britain (by Eric Ashby and Mary Anderson, 1970) and I came across a rather shocking passage:

This happened in 1860 in Aberdeen. The students wanted Sir Andrew Leith Hay, the ‘local candidate’, and there was in fact a numerical majority for him, since the numbers in the ‘nation’ which comprised the Aberdeen constituency were greater than those in the ‘nations’ which came from outside Aberdeen. Reckoned by ‘nations’ and not by numbers, there was a tie between Hay and Maitland, the solicitor-general. The principal gave a casting vote in favor of Maitland. This was taken as a deliberate move to back the professors against the students. In March 1861 Maitland came to deliver his rectorial address. The academic profession, along with the magistrates and the town council, entered the hall. Cheering, hooting and yelling greeted their appearance; this was to be expected: it was the traditional accompaniment to every rectorial address. But then the scene became ugly. Chunks of splintered wood hurtled across the hall. The audience were, of course, expected to come unarmed, but some of them had brought in hammers and other instruments with which they uprooted the seats and smashed them into pieces suitable for projectiles.

The principal took his place at the rostrum and called on the meeting to join him in prayer. Out of respect for the kirk there was a temporary lull. But the uproar resumed as soon as the oath was administered to Maitland, and he stood at the lectern to give his address. At this point some of the professors left the platform ‘to remonstrate personally with those taking a leading part in the row’.The rector kept smiling and endeavoured to proceed with his address, but at this stage blood was trickling down his face. The more respectable students were ashamed, and added to the pandemonium by hissing. There were cries of ‘Call in the police’. After ineffectual intervention by the principal, several police were ‘brought up to the hall door, but no force was used by them. . . ‘. The rector calmly and impressively completed his oration, the principal pronounced a benediction, and the proceedings, ‘which had lasted upwards of two hours’, were brought to a close. (20-21)

I’d like to imagine that these days outright violence is no longer a part of university politics, but there are just too many counterexamples to take that claim seriously.

The most American of French universities

In this winter’s exhibition on the history of Paris-8 at Vincennes (the university’s first site in the 70s), I was particularly interested in a text that discusses the relationship between Paris-8 and U.S. academia. The exhibit was separated into panels each starting with one letter of the alphabet, and this was one of the last of them: “W – Go West.” François Noudelmann, the author, kindly gave me permission to post a translation. So without further ado:

W — Go West

And if Paris 8 was the most American of French universities?

Just kidding, of course: that would be forgetting all the isms (anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, …), forgetting that Vincennes’ breath comes instead from the East, or even the far East where the Cultural Revolution rose up. 1969: East Wind by Jean-Luc Godard, co-written with the future Dany the Red. Today the compass would be set South instead, towards that pole that defines non-rich countries in terms of the North. And as for the West? The response from the dictionary of received ideas would be: turn your back on it!

But the West may thus have taken advantage of us without our knowing it. While here new ideas [la pensée vivante] are forced to settle in the margins on the outskirts of the Sorbonne, in the United States they have grown so far they have their own label, French theory. Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, Cixous, Lyotard and so many other children of Paris-8 have inspired American campuses for the past forty years. And the contemporary minds of Saint-Denis are exporting themselves faster than foie gras: Badiou brings Mao to the far west in California. “Rancière is so cool!” New York galleries announce. And Obama’s America creolizes itself with the thought of Glissant.

In the flux of transatlantic import and export, Paris-8 too plays its part. The United States no doubt produces the best and the worst, and one wonders why the world always chooses the latter: the reality shows, the industrial food, the world music, the quantitative ideology, the drive towards security… but the worst does not always come to pass, and when it comes to academic matters, Saint-Denis is the place where people study gender, queer, cultural,  post-colonial studies and theories, which are still distrusted by the mainstream French [franco-française] academy.

Are they products made in the USA? No, because they bring with them India, Africa, Australia, the Caribbean… these others of a Europe encircled by its borders. Walls always end up crumbling and ships always come to birth.

The University-World doesn’t have a statue, but it does have an address: liberty.

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Occupied “free space” at Paris-8

For about two weeks this month, a large space by the entrance to Paris-8 was occupied by students. It had formerly been a coffeeshop operated by a private company, but had been closed months or years ago.

To enter after hours when the campus was supposed to be closed, you had to climb up on that chair and through the window and down a little stepladder on the far side.

One of the occupants’ favorite activities was decorating the walls of adjacent university buildings. This wall was, as far as I recall, pretty much blank before the occupation began; the slogans now read “Bureaucrats outside!” “McDonald’s, we’ll burn you.” “State Rabble.” “Screw the government’s cleansing system before it screws you.” “Riot!” “Fuck may 68, fight now!” “Anti-France” (I have no idea what this one means, by the way). “Drops of sunshine in the city of ghosts.” “Long live the canteen and worker’s self-management” [this refers to a recent campus event I can only describe as student-organized Food Not Bombs for undocumented workers]. “Popes, popes, popes, yes. But nazi and pedophile popes?” “Burn the prisons, destroy the immigration detention centers.”

We can deduce from this photo that someone had invested in numerous colors of spraypaint.

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How many American college students are there?

A few weeks ago I put together a quick presentation on the U.S. university system for a meeting of European university activists. It’s a strange experience, suddenly being the only American in a room and feeling some sort of obligation to describe a massive institutional system with at least some minimal level of accuracy. I resorted to a fair number of statistics, which I confess is a cowardly gambit for someone from a qualitative field who’s opposed to illusions of objectivity; though to be fair, I think most people are aware that the numbers can be misleading and can take them with a grain of salt. (That, to me, was one of the major things to learn from looking at some demographic data last year: that numbers always require a lot of subject-specific interpretive labor.)

Today I wanted to write a word about one peculiar difficulty that I came across in the numbers. I was looking for an answer to a pretty basic question: how many university students does the United States have? Curiously, this turns out not to have a straightforward answer. If you look in the figures of the National Center for Education Statistics, there are several ways of measuring enrollments. Do you compare enrollment figures from a single point that you track across the years? There’s a large set of figures for “autumn enrollment” which appear to be useful for this purpose; I’d imagine that for certain kinds of research, like tracking attrition across years or tracking how a given high school class goes through college, it’s helpful to have a fixed point to compare from one year to the next.

But at the same time, there are naturally going to be a certain number of people who won’t enroll in autumn even though they’ll take university classes at some point in a year. As a result, there are also figures on “12-month enrollments” which cumulate everyone who’s signed up for a class in a 12 month period. And to make matters worse, there are some people who are full-time students and others who are something less than full-time; how do we count part-time students? Here we have yet another set of figures that gives “full-time equivalences,” calculated by dividing an institution’s total credit hours dispensed per year by the number of credits taken (arbitrarily) to constitute full-time enrollment (45 per year for undergrads, less for grad students).

If this last sentence makes no sense, you’re welcome to read the official explanation. But perhaps it would be better to skip to some examples:

2007 Enrollment Figures
Fall enrollments, Full-time equivalent 14,421,739
Fall enrollment, Total 19,008,329
12-month enrollments, Total 25,781,747
12-month enrollments, Full-time equivalent 15,562,078

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Urban surrealisms in the metro

There are times when I feel like ethnography should be less about seeing the local point of view and more about prying free all those sights, events, phenomena that are locally invisible. For everyday life, in my fieldsite at least, is full of little absurdities and small surrealisms that seem to pass without notice.

For example, consider the metro station that I was talking about in my previous post.

As the train approaches on the far track, a decent thicket of people accumulate on the facing platform. They face every which way. They form a long line with denser and emptier patches. They jockey for position on the platform or traverse it aimlessly.

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The walk home from the field (is still the field)

After nights of fieldwork, ethnographers have to make their way home. For me, after I get off the metro, the walk looks like this:

Except that the first time I try to take this picture, the camera focuses on the lines in the the bench where I propped my camera. When we correct for this oversight, we see the long view along the street, creeping up to the horizon and out of sight.

This walk home, which extends just past the horizon of this photograph, always seems like a terribly long distance, even though it only takes a few minutes. Someone suggested that my apartment is about as far from a metro stop as you can get within the city limits, even though it’s probably only 600m.

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