Women as national education chiefs

Najat Vallaud-Belkacem is the first woman Minister of Education in France, in office since 2014 in the second half of François Hollande’s presidency. (Before becoming Minister of Education she was also the Minister for Women’s Rights and subsequently also Minister for Youth, Sports and of Urban Affairs; it turns out she isn’t the first French Minister of Education to use Twitter.) She was born in Morocco (and has had to think plenty about eluding the “diversity” pigeonhole); I’ve long been struck by her charisma as a public speaker (which isn’t to say that her political projects have always been unproblematic, needless to say).

In any case, I came across a recent interview in which she makes an interesting comment on the cultural value of education in France:

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Actually scary critique

Back in 2011 I facilitated a workshop at the University of Chicago on “actually scary critique.” The workshop didn’t really work out because it never really reached its object; it just ended up getting swallowed up by its own conceptual preliminaries.

Anyway, I just rediscovered a self-critical postscript that I had started writing afterwards about why that workshop didn’t really work out. Here it is, in the spirit of the thought that dwelling on our unsuccessful projects is a good idea.

The original workshop announcement:

This workshop aims to develop a mostly nonexistent genre that we could call the genre of the actually scary institutional critique. The premise: that many people have nestled away somewhere in their brains something about their institution (or department, discipline, campus, job, world, whatever) that to them is utterly intolerable, inexplicable, unjustifiable, ludicrous, unlivable, some little huddled kernel of lingering rage that can almost never be expressed, or at least that remains unresolved, because the genres in which we express institutional critique are generally either nonexistent, routinized by collegial etiquette, trivialized by being expressed only in private to friends, or else dismissed as activist hysteria or some other form of irrational excess feeling. The further premise: that it would be worth trying to develop a genre that would be equal to these non-normative moments of intense critical feelings. A genre that would break with the conventions of courtesy that make critique into an academic mode of social reproduction, that would exceed the routinized forms of mild annoyance that are normative for everyday differences of professional opinion.

Not that everyone does or ought to go around in a state of fury or other intense feeling, not at all. But it remains troubling that there are people who are really upset by various aspects of the academic world (I’m assuming we can all think of examples of this) who have no available genre with which to make their experience into something public that would actually threaten and change the people around them. Who have no genre equal to moments of real antagonism. Of course, universities have systems of unequal authority, mass complacency, self-interest, disinterest, etc, that make the inefficacy of critique far more than a question of genre. But the problem of making a critical genre that can actually scare (or touch, move, change) people in spite of all the defense mechanisms is one that seems to deserve our time.

Format: We’ll start with a discussion about critique and emotional intensity, and then move to a series of writing exercises in this possible genre. 

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The masculinity of Marxist theory

It is an exaggeration to say that all Marxist theory people are men. But the historical masculinity of that little world — let’s face it —is hard to underestimate. I’m not talking about political Marxists here— though if we look at France, for instance, the Trotskyist Nathalie Artaud is essentially invisible compared to the Communist-backed Jean-Luc Mélenchon, though both are running for president. (An aside for French analysts — obviously my claim is not that this political difference is entirely determined by gender, just that the gender difference here is symptomatic. Obviously, the French far right is doing pretty well this year with a woman candidate.)

In any event, I have long been struck by the usually-unmarked masculinity of Marxist theory, in both the United States and France. To draw on my personal experience in the academy, I might mention dominant male figures like Terry Turner, an activist Marxist-structuralist anthropologist who taught me an introduction to Marx’s work in college, or Moishe Postone, who has long led an intimidating Marx seminar at the University of Chicago. In these sorts of seminars, you’re not likely to hear much about gender, and the presumption of universal reason usually seems to lodge just a little too comfortably in the figure of the male teacher. It’s the usual critical theory paradox: ostensibly emancipatory ideas get drenched in the conventional authority of male power.

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Bourdieu on UC Santa Cruz

I just came across Pierre Bourdieu’s curious comment on American universities and their set-apartness from society:

American universities, especially the most prestigious and the most exclusive, are skhole made into an institution. Very often situated far away from the major cities — like Princeton, totally isolated from New York and Philadelphia — or in lifeless suburbs — like Harvard in Cambridge — or, when they are in the city — like Yale in New Haven, Columbia on the fringes of Harlem, or the University of Chicago on the edge of an immense ghetto — totally cut off from the adjacent communities, in particular by the heavy police protection they provide, they have a cultural, artistic, even political life of their own, with, for example, their student news­ paper which relates the parish-pump news of the campus. This separ­ate existence, together with the studious atmosphere, withdrawn from the hubbub of the world, helps to isolate professors and students from current events and from politics, which is in any case very distant, geographically and socially, and seen as beyond their grasp. The ideal-typical case, the University of California Santa Cruz, a focal point of the ‘postmodernist’ movement, an archipelago of colleges scattered through a forest and communicating only through the Internet, was built in the 1960s, at the top of a hill, close to a seaside resort inhabited by well-heeled pensioners and with no industries. How could one not believe that capitalism has dissolved in a ‘flux of signifiers detached from their signifieds’, that the world is populated by ‘cyborgs’, ‘cybernetic organisms’, and that we have entered the age of the ‘informatics of domination’, when one lives in a little social and electronic paradise from which all trace of work and exploitation has been effaced?

From Pierre Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations, p. 41.

Academic work as charity

In so many ways, academic work is hard to recognize as being work in the standard wage-labor sense of that word. It can take place at all hours of day or night, outside of standard workplaces, without wearing standard work clothing — in bed with the laptop at midnight, perhaps. American popular stereotypes allege that teaching is outside the realm of productive action and thus second-rate — “those who can’t do, teach.” That’s a maxim which devalues the feminine work of reproduction in favor of an implicitly masculine image of labor, but I digress; my point here is just that such claims reinforce the image of academic work as being in a world of its own.

The motivations for academic work are similarly supposed to be other than pecuniary. One is supposed to work for existential reasons, or out of commitments to higher values that go beyond the purely economic — the “pursuit of knowledge” in some quarters, the dedication to making citizens or producing social justice in others. Yet it’s no criticism of these values to observe, as many have already observed, that these higher values can become alibis for an amplified self-exploitation. “You’re doing it out of personal commitment,” they tell you as you donate your weekend to the institution.

A strange moment in this process, though, is the moment where colleges and universities beg their own employees for charitable donations.

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