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.

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In a professor’s house

Earlier this fall I wrote to someone I’d met at Paris-8, a professor, to ask if we could meet and talk about campus politics. “Actually I just dropped out,” he said. (By which he meant “retired,” though it was in difficult institutional circumstances.) “But you’re welcome to come visit me in Brittany,” he added. Not that many French academics have invited me to their homes, so I was happy to accept, and last weekend I managed to get there in spite of the nationwide rail strikes.

Here I just want to show you a little of what the house looked like.

Seen from the quiet back street where it sat, the house looked conventional enough, with a solid stone façade, high windows with the obligatory shutters, a witch’s hat of a gable.

If we look in through the garden gate, though, we can see that the garden is decidedly non-Cartesian, the path is narrow, the entrance bowed over with branches. The garden is a protected space, walled off, the plants preserving the boundaries of private life.

If we go farther into the garden (these next few pictures were from the next day, which was cloudy) we see that the space doesn’t open up into a large open lawn, but rather is divided into little areas with different things, the bush that shelters the bicycle trailer, the path that’s edged by a long clothesline, a brushpile higher than your head.
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Is knowledge a value in itself?

Here in France one major government objective has been to integrate the public universities more closely with the labor market and the private sector. Faculty protesters often counter with a claim that universities should be valued as places of scholarship and critical consciousness, whatever their external results, that useless academic work is quite fine (and indeed may lead to great things), and that knowledge is “a value in itself.”

So I think we have to ask: Does it make any sense to claim that knowledge is valuable in itself? This seems to me something that should have to be demonstrated, rather than taken for granted by academics (whose profession and whole way of life, admittedly, encourages them to take it for granted).

As a preface to this discussion, we have to acknowledge that the topic raises two major conceptual questions: what we mean by “knowledge,” and what we mean by “a value in itself.” Without undertaking a long philosophical investigation, I’ll just say that it’s not prima facie obvious to me that it makes much sense to talk about the value of human knowledge in general. Knowing the contents of my sock drawer and knowing the physical parameters of the center of the Milky Way are different kinds of knowledge with very different sorts of value; the former is of practical value to me (and pretty much no one else), while the latter is of no obvious practical value to me but is of considerable professional importance to astronomers. It’s true that basic practical, cultural, and linguistic knowledge is a prerequisite for being a socially viable human being: at some basic anthropological level, one just can’t be a person without having all the prerequisite knowledge for enacting personhood. It’s true, then, that insofar as being human is valuable, knowledge is necessary (and instrumentally valuable, at least).

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The art of the student toilet

This post will make for a strange contrast with the last one, since we move from looking at the most noble of French spaces to the most profane. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve had the privilege and burden of living in a number of short-term apartment situations here, and in the shared student apartment where I lived last month, I was amused to discover that the tiny room housing the toilet had become the most elaborately decorated room in the house.

This ought to give you the general idea. The other wall and the inside of the door were no less decorated.

Beside the chain that flushed the toilet tank, there was a little user’s guide. “Please flush the toilet with the softness of an old lady. Thanks!” (This incidentally is also a fairly characteristic example of French cursive handwriting.)

A lot of the decoration was concert announcements and seemingly random images.
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