Politics that fade

I happened to discover the other day that if you display photographs from my fieldsite at full vertical resolution, while reducing the width, you get a vertiginous sense of height. This here was the light of late afternoon as it fell through low bushes across the windows of an amphitheatre in Bâtiment D (D Building) at Paris-8.

I was struck by the grain of the windowpanes and the gravely complexion of the sunshine. The date was April 14, 2010. The occasion was a debate over the university’s impending transition to “expanded competences and responsibilities,” responsabilités et compétences élargies, which is French bureaucratic jargon for the transfer of various managerial functions (like human resources management and accounting) from the national Ministry of Higher Education to the local campus administration. In short, it is a sort of managerial devolution, wherein formerly centralized bureaucratic functions are removed from the national level and transferred to the local level. This process was mandated by the Sarkozy government’s controversial 2007 university law, the Loi Pécresse or LRU, and since Paris-8 was a center of opposition to this law, the transition to the new managerial regime was controversial on campus.

An elongated view of the center of the amphitheatre shows the windows carved high up in the walls, the central dais with the President in his suit surrounded by his counselors, the vertigo of looking down at him over the cascade of desks and the cascade of hair and the scattered ranks of faculty and staff, the monotonous lines of critical leaflets that had been put out on the desks before the meeting to sway over the crowd, the many empty desks and seats that reminded us that, in the end, only a tiny minority of faculty, staff or students would bother to attend an event like this one. (To be fair, it was a relatively well-attended event, but nonetheless the room was mostly empty.)

Looking across the room, we get a clearer view of the ranks of assembled heads, the baldness of old men, the pink hands of the guy next to me, the cris-crossed gazes of cris-crossed heads, of the way that most people sat in couples or small groups of their friends and allies (people seldom sat right next to their local adversaries, so that their physical proximity loosely mirrored their social proximity), and a good view of the trapezoidal shape of the desks, and of their emptiness, and of the elaborate grid of lighting and air handling mounted in the ceiling, and of the reflections of daylight in the ceiling, and of the way that the space was closed off symbolically and acoustically and spatially from its surroundings, on the one hand by its architecture, on the other hand by its sociology.

But the thing that strikes me most is the way that these sorts of phenomenological details don’t leave a trace in local memory, don’t much stick in anyone’s head as far as I know, don’t get recorded or memorialized unless through the passing, partial whim of a passing ethnographer. The debate over this reform continues at Paris-8 and has, if anything, gotten more bitter than ever in the last year — so I’m told — but the little details, the little visual impressions, of a debate like this one just don’t stick anywhere. And it’s interesting to try to document these sorts of things that don’t matter.

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