The Crêperie at Nanterre

The University of Paris-X at Nanterre is now just called Université Paris Nanterre. I went there this week to poke around in the archives of my fieldsite. On the way to the library I stopped to find something to eat, and it turned out that the nearest campus eating establishment was an ethnographically useful site. Admittedly, I am getting somewhat out of practice as a campus ethnographer, but I still noticed a few things.

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Whittier College at the end of summer

I grew up partly in a college town, and I’ve been around college campuses most of my life. One of my favorite times of year is this late-summer empty moment that happens after summer sessions finish and before classes start for the fall. It’s peaceful; you get a clearer view of the space.

Here’s what Whittier College looks like this time of year.

whittier-summer - 1
Courtyard of the Campus Center

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Dissertation writing scene



This is the roof of the library where I’m writing a first draft of the introduction to my dissertation. The sunshine is always encouraging.

In writing the introduction, I’m trying to remember what I find or have found inspiring about my research site. At one point they wrote this:

L’université est riche des espaces et des expériences d’émancipation. Comme telle, elle est publique.

The university is rich in spaces and experiences of emancipation. As such, it is public.

In an era where higher education in the United States is largely dominated by economistic impulses and further dominated by the husks of an unrealizable humanistic project that generally aims to produce at best more “cultivated” or “critical” liberal subjects, it’s a bit jarring to be exposed to this blunt piece of French left universalism: the university is emancipatory and emancipation must be available to all. That’s a thought that just wouldn’t be thinkable in most American contexts I’ve encountered. (To be fair, this is a fringe view in the French case too.)

Time passes for old mornings

As you get farther from your fieldsite, things change and fade and blur and accrue artificial color in your memory, like food coloring.

creteil reflection w

I have a memory of having been in Creteil before, a couple of years ago, and of seeing these reflections of a face, of the chairs in an auditorium, in the blurred window of a decrepit building.

creteil reflection 2w

You want to remember these scenes with the colors and shadows, the scarlets and greens and blues, the eye contact that they should have had, rather than the grays, the dirts, the unevenness, the dust that they probably did have.

But maybe it’s a mistake to believe that what you thought your camera recorded there at the time is necessarily more real or more accurate than your later retouching of the same scene.


Medium-sized American college towns

Around this time last year, I happened to pass through the city of Cape Girardeau, Missouri. It’s a medium-sized city of 38,000 people, set beside the Mississippi River. When I showed up on my bike in the haze of summer, it felt quiet and empty, and I imagined that it was a sort of rust belt merchant town, a victim of the obsolescence of Mississippi River traffic, like Cairo. The economic story is a bit more complicated than that, it turns out. According to the city’s 2007 Comprehensive Plan (sec. 2), the town has had several periods of growth, initially in the 19th century because of river traffic, then around the turn of the century with a shift from steamboats to railroads, and again after World War II with a shift towards interstate highway traffic. This shift towards the highway, and I suppose the general post-war rise of car culture, brought about a familiar story of urban transformation: the surrounding farmlands partly became into suburban developments, while the historic downtown was increasingly abandoned:

As the more suburban areas continued to expand, the downtown began to decline as larger retail development spread to the outskirts of the City. By the 1980s larger retail stores and a regional mall were constructed near Interstate 55, further negatively impacting the market viability and tenancy of the downtown core area. The continued decline in downtown commerce has led to the significant ongoing efforts to preserve the City’s history and certain landmarks that add to the colorful past of Cape Girardeau. [2-5]

Seen in long-term historical perspective, the city appears to be a classic — even stereotypical — illustration of how shifts in the dominant mode of transportation determine the patterns of economic and urban development: the city reoriented from river to rail, and later from rail to highway. Seen from closer up, we find out that the city has, nevertheless, tried to preserve its “history” and “colorful past,” whose value is, of course, simultaneously cultural and economic.

(This mural depicts town history.)

On one hand, its “history” offers a cultural identity to a city that otherwise might have no choice but to surrender to reigning forms of social and economic homogeneity in America: to have a “colorful past” is to claim to be different — or at least, to have been different once — from every other city of the same size and approximate shape. On the other hand, of course, having a history is an economic strategy: it helps to bring tourists, giving them something to look at, and something to purchase in the city’s antique shops, which line the semi-revitalized downtown.

(Semi-revitalized downtown, in a traditional American style.)

If you believe the population statistics on Wikipedia, it is a city that has never been larger than it is now, but one which has essentially ceased to grow. And in such a place, again for simultaneously economic and cultural reasons, it matters that this is a college town: the home of Southeast Missouri State University. Continue reading “Medium-sized American college towns”

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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In the Minister’s office

Last weekend, under the auspices of a program called European Heritage Days, I went on a tour of the offices of the Minister of Higher Education. I’ve been in the building before for various academic events, but, unsurprisingly, the part that has the Minister’s office is separate from the part that ordinary visitors usually see.

This gate isn’t normally open to the public. There was something vaguely contradictory about the staff’s relation with the public, like in an art museum where they’re there to smile at you but also to protect the place against you. At this gate, two people stood watch in suits: one of them was radiant and tried to persuade every passing person to come visit; the other (back to the camera) seemed silent and kept watch.

Farther inside the premises, there were security guards stationed at every corner. I suspect that they don’t patrol that heavily on usual days, since the workers seemed unfamiliar with each other. I overheard one guard asking another, “What was the name of that guy downstairs, again?” “Umm, no idea.”

This, the building where the Minister has her office, is what I would describe as standard French government architecture. Pale stone, French and European flags. Leaping arches, solemn columns. The decoration is more than merely functional, but not ostentatious.

The first room you saw inside was this, apparently a place where they hold press conferences and the like. I noticed that the decor combined very traditional features like a parquet floor and a chandelier with very businesslike, modern features like a tiled ceiling and little spotlights. I guess that’s how you try to be modern while retaining the aura of past forms of architectural dignity.
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Photos of an Irish university

Last month I was in Maynooth, Ireland, for a conference of the European Association of Social Anthropologists. It’s a small town outside Dublin, beside a canal full of lilypads.

I went through a grim suburban railroad station in Dublin on my way there. But in the pedestrian bridge over the tracks, there was a pair of grills that produced one of the most intense moiré patterns I’ve seen.

When you got to the campus, though, there was an sense of almost physical relief compared to the tightly enclosed urban campuses where I work in France. This was the enormous lawn just beside the old part of campus.

It even had wildlife.

The old campus itself was stone. Everything there was very quiet. (I think this part of the campus is the seminary, matter of fact.)

Admittedly, the cars and parking lots have risen up between the old buildings like a bituminous tide.

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Higher education marches against xenophobia

Last weekend there was a march in support of immigrants and against the expulsions of the Roma from France. The march was called “In the face of xenophobia and the politics of pillory: liberty, equality, fraternity,” and was a commentary on increasingly harsh French policing of immigrants this summer. My friend Moacir, who came to the march with me as an honorary participant-observer, has some interesting comments on the mechanical reproduction of its political messages, i.e. on how most people carried pre-typed, printed political signs and how this doesn’t necessarily discredit them, but rather constitutes a show of unity.

It strikes me, in hindsight, that it’s worth emphasizing that the march bore a diversity of political messages. While an anti-Sarkozy, pro-immigrant message was certainly the predominant message and the one picked up by the media, there were also, for instance, a number of people marching on behalf of higher education and research, attempting to add their own message to the mix and to show political solidarity with the larger project.

To the left was the “Recherche Publique Enseignement Supérieur” (Public Research Higher Education) balloon.

Later on, I found the banner of Sauvons l’Université (“Save the University!”). I asked someone what the political situation was in the universities this fall. “It’s the rentrée [ie, homecoming, the start of the year],” I was told, “so there is no situation yet; it remains to be created.” I rather like that tiny comment as a fragment of local political temporality.
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Geometrical space in French universities

Looking back at my photos of Toulouse 2-Le Mirail, I’m struck by a common visual trait: the sheer repetition of cartesian grids in academic space.

The very tiles on the walls are gridded.

The bars and grills of the windows recede along their grid towards an unreached vanishing point.

In a courtyard at Toulouse, the pillars run in rows. The cement beams run in columns. The bench has a predictable railing. The windows are little boxes of crosses. The grass is boxed in. The one curved cement beam in the open ceiling only serves to set off the space’s overall linearity.

The chairs and desks are in alternating rows, their regularity still evident even if we look at them from an angle.

One starts to wonder if the campus was designed to make the individual feel a sense of vertigo in the face of the endlessness of this rectangular tunnel. The plane of the ceiling, broken up into a vast set of cement indentations, mirrors that of the tiled walkway. The sides, admittedly, are less regular, but even there we see regular columns, symmetrical pathways leading off on both sides.

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La Manifestation: a fictitious political collectivity

Une manifestation is the French term for a protest march in the street. It’s a pretty standard local political ritual, mocked and memorialized by local jokes and international stereotypes alike. “Don’t bother going today if you don’t feel like it,” an  American grad student tells me one day when I feel lazy, “there will always be another one.”

The “manif,” as it’s called, strikes me as a paradoxical social form: imagined as a massively, even paradigmatically collective event, its collectivity nonetheless has a somewhat fictive quality. Most marchers stick to little groups of their friends, paying attention mainly to the people immediately around them. Phenomenologically, a manif is fractured and disorganized, with people leaving and showing up, wandering back and forth, stopping perhaps to take a leaflet or a snapshot. For a marcher, the crowd is a visual jumble of strangers’ bodies crisscrossing. As if to make sense of the constant random motion, a curiously quantitative consciousness descends at times even on the defenders of the most radical causes. The march’s success gets perceived as proportional to the apparent size of the crowd; it can become almost actuarial. People take note of who shows up and of who didn’t make it.

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Student elections in Aix-en-Provence

Last week I went to visit Aix, which might become one of my major fieldsites next year. The university building itself was falling apart; as it turns out, it was the one featured in last year’s complaint about the physical decrepitude of French universities. In spite of the physical decay, it was all lush with plant life.

Now as it happened, the week I arrived they were in the last days of campaigning for student elections to various university administrative councils, primarily the Administration Council (Conseil d’Administration, which is the major decision-making body) and University Life and Study Council (Conseil des Etudes de la Vie Universitaire, which handles pedagogical matters). Graduate students are also eligible to sit on the Scientific Council (Conseil Scientifique), which sets research policy.

This was the courtyard by the main entrance. In the center of the photo you can see the little group of people handing out leaflets, in what became practically a competitive sport to reach the maximum number of potential voters.

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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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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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Is the university burning?

Last month I went to a debate organized at the Sorbonne, “Is the  university burning?” (L’Université brûle-t-elle ?) Appropriately, it ended in chaos; but  midway through, there was a bit of performance art.

Actors in masks, some with stockings over their heads, made a pretend argument for burning the university. For the foreigners in the audience, a disjointed translation of their performance was projected on a screen like so:

We want Godard, Proust, the Princess of Cleves, not commercial trash culture

Let us burn the university! No! The University is not for profit! It is there to create more freedom, more riches (that are not material), “Latin is useless and that’s why it’s beautiful!” against the death of “dead languages”, let us burn the university! In the name of all erasmus students, I would like to say I had no time to write a speech, because I work to pay my way and so we say “let us burn the university”!

[They shouted their discourse from the stage.]

Experiment time! First we will build a fire, the first spark. Take your sheet of paper, fold it over, then again, and cut it, and lick it and keep your strip of paper (etc),

[The actors circled back into the aisles of the large lecture hall with sheets of paper, with which they mimed an effort to create fire.]

It doesn’t work!!!!!

[—they said as they pretended to discover that rubbing two pieces of paper together doesn’t make a spark.]

It would be crazy; it would be like killing oneself; like putting one’s head in the freezer, like throwing oneself under a car, like…

[As if they were delighted to discover that they didn’t need to burn the university after all… but the translation trailed off and the actors came through the aisles hugging the audience. Even including the ethnographer, yours truly.]

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Philosophy classroom art

In the Philosophy Department at Paris-8, the biggest philosophy classroom is located just beside the department offices. It has a variety of curious things on its walls.

A painted character hangs from a coat rack. He appears striped. Bald. Stretched out by the neck. Striped shoulderbag too.

My friend Emmanuel proposes that we translate this as, “At Paris VIII in the philosophy department, I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by LMD.” Alternatively, “had our minds blown by LMD”… the Law LMD being one of the first university reforms of the last decade (2003). I’m not sure who’s represented by this skeletal face: the government? the philosophers? But I note the little hint of Greek architecture in the broken columns: classical Greece often seems to be iconic of philosophy in France (more, I think, than in philosophical circles I’ve come across in the U.S.).

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Empty space in Amphi Orange

Early this monday morning, I happened to be in a lecture hall at Paris-12, down in Créteil about as far as you can possibly get from my apartment and still be on the paris métro. I arrived in the room about 8:03am, an hour before anything was happening there. It was dark and empty. Amphi Orange, it was called, Amphi being short for amphithéâtre, Orange possibly being related to the desks’ hue, which reminded me of some sort of artificial american cheese product.

This post is going to be boring for people who believe that social life can only happen in a crowd. This is a post about the signs of past social action inscribed in architecture and writing.

To see your way around you had to turn on the lights. This switchpanel did the trick. Stop for a second to notice its anti-aesthetic aesthetics, its calculated practicality, the way that its intentionally secondary, instrumental functions are mirrored by the camouflaged design of its switches. Note, too, that the designer has blundered by not making provisions for labels: the users have been obliged to write on labels with black marker.

If we climb up to the back of the room, our gaze falls into the standardized pattern of lecture hall vision, angled down, aimed at the blackboards, aimed at the podiums, aimed down at a desk where, if we were students we could be taking notes. It’s empty. A few people wandered into the room while I was there only to glance at me and wander out. It’s not only events that are scheduled on university calendars; it’s also emptiness and empty space.

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Decommunized communist colloquium

A couple of weeks ago, there was a big conference on communism at Paris-8. I went to an afternoon session that had Etienne Balibar and Alex Callinicos, curious to hear what kind of intellectual project could be made out of communism in these post-Soviet, often antisocialist, and post-20th-century days. The conference took place in a big, decrepit lecture hall in Bâtiment B. It looked like this:

A raised table, poorly lit by a fluorescent lamp shining on the whiteboard and a dim incandescent light aimed high on the wall & accomplishing nothing. Two microphones, passed back and forth between panelists. Debris of paper and waterbottles. Notebooks. Five men, one woman. Semi-formal dress: coats and jackets, Balibar in a vast yellow scarf, collars peeking out from unbuttoned shirts. Some are leaning back, the two to the left seem to be maybe whispering to each other, a couple take notes, the man at right stares out into space hands clasped as if the audience weren’t even there. (We will come back to this point.)

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The red flags of the stubborn

“We shall wish our minister an execrable new year on Sunday, January 11th,” they announced sardonically on their blog beforehand.

This is the scene. The group is La Ronde Infinie des Obstinés, the Infinite Rounds of the Stubborn, which I wrote about a little bit last summer. Now it is winter. They have been meeting again every week to make the rounds. Two hours. Six to eight. At night. On mondays, right in front of the Minister of Higher Education. It has a regularity to it. A rhythm. If you’re going to walk in circles for hours on end, you better have a high tolerance for repetition.

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Paris-8 by the light of different days


This is the university where I do my research, this year. I like this picture because it has nothing, nothing, nothing to do with the overdetermined and crass narratives that so easily predetermine one’s whole perception of this campus space. This is the tree that has grown up behind the amphitheatre with its jagged roof, the arms of the branch entirely geometrically incompatible with the sawtooth linearity of the dark building. There’s nothing here about politics, nothing here about pedagogy, this picture contains no academic knowledge, it embodies no concept unless you count the concept of mute visual juxtaposition of organic and inorganic form. There’s no knowledge in this picture, no sociality, no people, no conversation, no texts, no pedagogy, no politics, no record of human activity besides the roof built to some absent architect’s scheme. It’s autumn but you wouldn’t know that except from a couple of tiny leaves that gleam yellow in the underexposed daylight.
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Paris-Toulouse: Militant universities and the military parade on Bastille Day

toulouse political slogans 11

Knowledge is a weapon! … The union is a force!

This is the continuation of my last post about the visual culture at the University of Toulouse (Mirail). Just having seen the 14 Juillet, i.e. Bastille Day, the national holiday in celebration of the 1789 French Revolution, it’s tempting to draw some comparisons with a rather different, far more legitimate kind of political landscape: that of the enormous military parade that took place Tuesday morning on the Champs-Elysées. Yes, I went, curious to see what exactly was involved in this enormous national pageant.

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Militant student slogans and iconography in Toulouse

Last week while I was in Toulouse, I went to take a look at the local university (Mirail), to see if it turned out to be the one in the video I posted about last week. And indeed there were a large number of decrepit buildings, occasionally graced by lovely flowers. But the buildings also turned out, like Paris-8, to display an intense activist visual culture: of graffiti, of slogans, of icons, of murals, of messages that contradicted each other, of clashing color.

toulouse political slogans 1

No to the LRU! says a figure falling into a trash can. Or is it the LRU itself that’s falling into a trash can?

toulouse political slogans 2

“For a critical and popular university [fac]!” Apparently this is a traditional militant slogan at Toulouse.

“Get a new slogan please!” is the caption written below by someone who apparently disagrees or is simply bored.

[La fac, i.e. la faculté, is a now bureaucratically obsolete term that used to designate a college, a faculty, a division – as in the Faculty of Arts, the Faculty of Law, etc. It is still used in common parlance to refer to the public universities – les facultés – as opposed to other institutions of higher learning (private business schools, elite government institutes, and the like).

toulouse political slogans 2a

“For a hard and copulating university!”

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