Excerpt: returning to the field

This is from my field notebook earlier this spring, as I returned to France after spending some time back in Chicago this winter.

march 2 – on returning to france

the sky hazed and prongs of sun forked into the railroad cars and the gravel ballast of the tracks. in the tunnel the buckles of the woman across the aisle shine and her hair is a vast mound. near me a man in gray types up his notes on a laptop, palefaced and bespectacled, and i stepped on his toe as i sat down. little whistles of mechanized high hats come from what i hypothesize is someone beside me with headphones; there’s a smell of shit replaced before long with a smell of vinyl seating; the guy across from me, his notebook falls from the seat on my toe, and he picks up his notebook before i can, but he sees my readiness to pick it up for him and says merci. the border guards barely looked at me as i entered. the guard looked african — always contradictory when social norms are enforced by the non-normative social type, though of course this formulation doesn’t do justice to the case at hand. we’re passing sevran, aulnay-sous-bois. it’s noticeably different light and heat from chicago, just as the meteorologists would have led us to expect. my thoughts feel unfocused as i write this. the country is not terribly unfamiliar so far. little houses, signs in french. red-tiled roofs. torn-up hair of the weeds and brush trackside that’s dead brown & unkempt. at least i observe that i have a will to write. as we get closer the tumbleweeds of white buildings rise up into landscape.

The shape of ethnographic materials

My department asked me for a summary of my “results,” and I thought it would be worth posting some of that here because I think it’s worth trying to be public, and therefore honest, about what exactly one ends up with after a spell of ethnographic fieldwork.

If I look at the physical form of what I’ve brought home, I find a reassuring but also daunting quantity of material: three suitcases of books and print matter, several thousand photographs, approximately 300 hours of recorded audio, 1750-odd digital documents in an archive I’ve been maintaining, and some nine field notebooks. Although I plan to make a more thorough inventory of my materials in the near future, my sense is that the data falls into five major categories:

  1. The discourses and organizational practices of French university politics: how people have debates, analyze their situations, produce slogans, march or blockade, express political feelings like anger or hope;
  2. the public practices of philosophy departments: what happens in classrooms and conferences;
  3. the intellectual world of French philosophy: the lexicon of its ‘cosmos,’ the characteristic forms and contents of its texts, the ways people enroll themselves in philosophical genealogies, and a more limited amount of data on local reading and writing practices;
  4. the organization and bureaucracy of French universities (which differ considerably from their American counterparts);
  5. local social relations: friendships, collegiality, social networks, status and difference marking;
  6. local historicities and futurities: how people conceptualize their history, future, and present conjuncture (which varies enormously with social position);
  7. finally, and hardest to articulate, a mass of unsystematic data on everyday life, the shapes and smells that serve as half-ignored backdrop to local action.

Looking over this material makes me realize that I have too much material to ever fully analyze, but also, paradoxically, too little material (or the wrong kind) to give an entirely satisfactory description of the days and lives of my informants. Ultimately, my material is based on many fleeting acquaintances and relatively few close field friendships. But when I said as much to one philosopher, he observed that in fact many French academics don’t know each other well, and that superficial, partial relationships are preponderant, which suggests that perhaps having many “superficial” relationships was, in a paradoxical sense, a form of full and typical participation in the world in question, and hence itself more a form of data than an ethnographic weakness.

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Early fragments on the intellectual precariat

Contemporary commentators often give us the sense that the increasing precarity of academic work is a recent and novel phenomenon. As I’ve noted before, in the American case this sometimes seems to rest on the historically inaccurate fantasy of a previous Golden Era of tenure, even though tenure, on further investigation, was apparently a rather recent invention that only became widespread in the post-1945 period, only lasted a few decades, and never covered all academic staff anyway. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that there aren’t ongoing degradations in the conditions of academic work; the last twenty years have not been pretty in terms of US academic employment. Things look particularly grim in Britain this year, given the threats of 80% cuts in public university funding; in spite of the fantasy that tuition will increase to compensate, it’s easy to imagine that many humanities departments will be closed down. (Or already have been.) And as I’ve discussed before, France has seen a growing discourse on academic precarity the last year or two.

But it may help our sense of historical consciousness to discover that even a hundred years ago, some people already had a fairly clear discourse on precarious intellectual work. I’m not a historian and I can’t pretend to give the whole picture, but if we search on JSTOR for “intellectual proletariat” the first use of the term is as early as 1884, and the term has been used occasionally ever since, being used on average a few times per year in the scholarly literature since the 1930s.

In 1904, one Frances J. Davenport wrote a review in the Journal of Political Economy of a book by Carlo Marin. Marin apparently set out to demonstrate that “the inferiority of the Italian is by no means innate, but is the result of his extreme poverty.” Davenport went on to summarize as follows:

The fundamental cause of the poverty of Italy, according to Dr. Marin, is the faulty system of education. Numerous but poorly equipped universities train great numbers of lawyers and of doctors, who cannot find employment and form an intellectual proletariat. On the other hand, the few schools of agriculture, industry and commerce are scantily attended, and the instruction lacks a practical character. Reduce the number of universities, improve their scientific equipment, and introduce into every university thoroughly practical instruction in agriculture, industry, and commerce; work directly for economic development and social improvement will follow.

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The end of fieldwork

Who knows if anyone these days is still subscribed to this blog? But at any rate, this post is to say that I hope to resume posting, after a half year hiatus. I’m back in the States, having wrapped up my fieldwork in Paris a couple of weeks ago. At least, it’s wrapped up for the time being. I have plans to go back to France in 2012-13, and I already suspect that some further interviews will need doing.

As I left for the airport we drove over the train tracks. I was in a van driven by an Algerian born in Paris (that was his self-description). His cousin turned out to teach at the University of Paris-8, my fieldsite, which reminded me that even a physically vast metropolis can be a socially small world. Do you want his contact info? he asked me. I don’t know, does he have strong feelings about campus politics? I said. I don’t know, we only talk about technology, said my driver. Formerly he had been a middle school (collège) technology teacher, but having not found work he’d decided to switch to the transportation business.

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