Lauren Berlant and the Nonbinary

“They” made my life possible

Sometime in 2019, I noticed that my former teacher, Lauren Berlant, had changed their pronoun to they. They’re gone now, and the work of mourning is ongoing. Yet it seems to me that the most optimistic thing we can do is to keep learning from their work, their thought.

This might be awkward, since our relations to our teachers are so often enigmatic and awkward. Yet they can also sometimes be transformative and life-sustaining. Once, in a rare autobiographical moment, Berlant evoked the power of teachers to hold us together when we’re not really OK:

As though they knew what it was like to be me in my family, my teachers, and the world of school and work they sustained, made my life possible. I do not know whether I expected it, or demanded it, or even whether they knew what they were doing, or whether I deserved it.[1]

I do not know whether they knew what they were doing: we can all say this of our teachers, even if they made our lives possible. I’m not sure exactly what Berlant meant by adopting they, late in life. I do know, though, that Berlant’s life was organized by a long-term disidentification with gender and femininity. As a genderqueer person, I felt a sudden kinship with their pronoun choice, an impersonal joy in finding myself together in the same gesture as my teacher. This joy does not imply any deep mutual understanding or transcendence of the structural distance that always separated us. But it might make space for thought. And what I want to suggest here is that Berlant’s embrace of they was not merely a personal identification. Rather, it is a clue to their larger theory of subjectivity in general.[2] It sheds light on their theoretical project and its grounding in life and history.

(Caveat lector: What follows is a bit long and somewhat theoretical.)

Continue reading “Lauren Berlant and the Nonbinary”

Sexist anti-feminism in the French Left, 1970

I’ve been reading lately about the French Women’s Liberation Movement, which had its first public event in 1970, at the University of Paris 8, which would become my primary French fieldsite. In its early days, the university was called the Centre Universitaire Expérimental de Vincennes (Experimental University Center at Vincennes). It was located east of Paris amidst the woods of a major city park. It was notorious for overcrowding. It was notorious for far-left activist “frenzy,” which stemmed from the political movements of 1968.

I was not surprised to find out that in the 1970s, sexism and rape culture were major problems among the male-dominated French far left. They remain issues on French campuses today.

Continue reading “Sexist anti-feminism in the French Left, 1970”

Questions about the Infinite Rounds of the Stubborn

Last week I was really delighted to get to talk about a paper I wrote, “The Infinite Rounds of the Stubborn: Reparative futures at a French political protest.” It was at Oberlin College, where my friend Les Beldo is teaching a class on Culture and Activism.

Here’s how my paper summarized itself:

When social actors find themselves at an impasse, perceiving their futures as threatened, how can they respond? If their futures can get broken or interrupted, can they subsequently be reconnected or repaired? If yes, how? Here, I consider an ethnographic case of reconnected futurity drawn from French protest politics: the 2009–2010 Ronde Infinie des Obstinés, or “Infinite Rounds of the Stubborn.” Opposing Sarkozy-era neoliberal university reforms, the Ronde sought to instrumentalize its temporal and political impasse, shifting its relation to the future out from the register of subjectivity and into the register of ritual motion. By situating the Ronde within the fabric of Parisian political space, I show how it synthesized the politics of occupation with the politics of marching, hopelessness with stubborn endurance, the negation of state temporality with the prefiguration of an alternative future. I conclude by reflecting on the place of temporal repair in relation to recent forms of prefigurative radicalism.

Continue reading “Questions about the Infinite Rounds of the Stubborn”

Women’s Liberation at the University of Chicago, 1969

Last year, I blogged about a 1970 critique of sexism at the University of Chicago. Just now, I opened up the anthology in question, Sisterhood is Powerful, and discovered another neat document: a feminist political manifesto issued on the occasion of protests against the firing of Marlene Dixon, a Marxist feminist professor.

I especially liked its capacious theory of women’s freedom.

Continue reading “Women’s Liberation at the University of Chicago, 1969”

The institutional conditions of possibility of David Harvey

In a 2015 essay by David Harvey (need I add, “the venerable Marxist geographer”?) that reflects on the relations between different radical currents in the academic field of geography, he gives an interesting comment on his own conditions of institutional survival:
Continue reading “The institutional conditions of possibility of David Harvey”

Dijon vous craignez

I’ve been working on a paper about the failure of left-wing internationalism at the “European counter-summits” (at least the two that I was able to observe in 2010 and 2011), and I’ve gotten interested in this love letter to the organizers of the 2011 Dijon counter-G8 university summit. A student left it on the ground in marker as they left the event, which was politically pretty unsuccessful, as my paper explains.
Continue reading “Dijon vous craignez”

Does academic informality matter?

Since I started teaching at Whittier, I’ve been thinking about how I like my students to address me. There’s something of a local norm of just calling everyone “Professor.” It cuts down on cognitive overhead, no doubt, to be able to address all of one’s teachers by their title; it saves on having to keep track of their names. Not to mention that my last name is hard to pronounce, so perhaps students don’t know how to say it, or don’t care to risk getting it wrong…

I’ve started to tell them they can call me “Eli,” as a sign of… a sign of what? Familiarity? Informality? Friendliness? Being easygoing? Not wanting to reinforce the old-school hierarchies? Some combination of these. But it also occurs to me that telling my students what to call me is still a way of inhabiting authority, even if I ask them to call me something less-hierarchical. So instead of requesting that they call me “Eli,” I just frame it as giving them the option of calling me by [firstname]. They can exercise it as they choose.

Continue reading “Does academic informality matter?”

Style, bad prose, and Corey Robin’s theory of public intellectuals

Ten years ago, before I started doing research in France, I wrote my MA thesis about the politics of “bad writing” in the American humanities. Empirically, my major case study was about a “Bad Writing Contest” run by the late Denis Dutton, which dedicated itself in the late 1990s to making fun of (ostensibly) bad academic prose. The winners were always left-wing critical theorists like Homi Bhabha, Judith Butler and Fredric Jameson.

I ended up concluding that the Bad Writing Contest was a scene where low-status-academics got to symbolically denounce higher-status academics, so in that sense the whole affair was basically about status dominance; but I had put the project behind me, until I was reminded of the topic by Corey Robin’s recent comments about Judith Butler as a public intellectual. I’d like to focus briefly on his main claim: that Butler’s seemingly inaccessible writing style did not prevent her work from being culturally generative and iconic. As he puts it:

It is Gender Trouble—that difficult, knotty, complicated book, with a prose style that violates all the rules of Good Public Writing—that has generated the largest public or publics of all: the queer polity we all live in today.

To be clear, Robin’s view is that Butler’s success as public intellectual was neither because nor in spite of her prose style, but rather that success was altogether orthogonal to prose style. He proposes that “it’s not the style that makes the writing (and the intellectual) public. It’s not the audience. It’s the aspiration to create an audience.”

Continue reading “Style, bad prose, and Corey Robin’s theory of public intellectuals”

Affiliation is power (without irony)

As many of my readers probably know, the big controversy in my field this year (in American cultural anthropology) has been about a proposed boycott of Israeli academic institutions, essentially as a protest of the Palestinian situation. The substantive politics have been debated for months and years, and I’m not going to get into them here. But this past couple of months, I’ve been subjected to unsolicited weekly email missives from the anti-boycott faction, and as an ethnographer of academic culture, I couldn’t help noticing the extremely standardized introductory format that they all use:

My name is ——. I am the Lucy Adams Leffingwell Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Case Western University. I am also a lifetime member of the American Anthropological Association and President-elect of the Society for Psychological Anthropology. I am writing to ask that you vote against the boycott of Israeli universities.

Continue reading “Affiliation is power (without irony)”

Scholarly meetings with a “Disclaimer and Waiver”

I’m guessing that most anthropologists don’t read the Disclaimer and Waiver to which you must consent when you register for conferences through the American Anthropological Association. It is a decidedly legalistic document, full of odd stipulations about liability, privacy, copyright, and responsibility. In principle it is an “agreement” between the user and the association, but as an exchange, it is decidedly one-sided: you the user are asked to give various things away, in return for which you get nothing in particular. And in form, it is identical to the End User License Agreements that, as we know, the vast majority of users accept without reading. It does not really seem to be written to be read; it seems to be written to be invoked in extremis in some moment of unexpected (yet planned-for) crisis.

In any event, it is a curious document. Here it is as of March 2016; I’ll highlight a few important passages.

Disclaimer and Waiver

As a condition of my participation in this meeting or event, I hereby waive any claim I may have against the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and its officers, directors, employees, or agents, or against the presenters or speakers, for reliance on any information presented and release AAA from and against any and all liability for damage or injury that may arise from my participation or attendance at the program. I further understand and agree that all property rights in the material presented, including common law copyright, are expressly reserved to the presenter or speaker or to AAA.

I acknowledge that participation in AAA events and activities brings some risk and I do hereby assume responsibility for my own well-being. If another individual participates in my place per AAA transfer policy, the new registrant agrees to this disclaimer and waiver by default of transfer.

AAA intends to take photographs and video of this event for use in AAA news and promotional material, in print, electronic and other media, including the AAA website. By participating in this event, I grant AAA the right to use any image, photograph, voice or likeness, without limitation, in its promotional materials and publicity efforts without compensation. All media become the property of AAA. Media may be displayed, distributed or used by AAA for any purpose.

By registering for this event, I agree to the collection, use, and disclosure of contact and demographic information. This information includes any information that identifies me personally (e.g. name, address, email address, phone number, etc.). AAA will use this information to: (a) enable your event registration; (b) review, evaluate and administer scholarships or other AAA initiatives; (c) market AAA opportunities you may potentially be interested in; and to (d) share limited information (e.g. title, company, address and demographic information) with third parties that perform services on behalf of AAA. AAA does not distribute email address or phone numbers to third parties or partners performing services on behalf of AAA. AAA may use this information for so long as AAA remains active in conducting any of the above purposes.

Continue reading “Scholarly meetings with a “Disclaimer and Waiver””

Modernity isn’t philosophical

Here’s a tidbit from before Sarkozy was President that gives a certain sense of how his administration was likely to regard philosophy, and the humanities in general:

« Nicolas n’est pas quelqu’un qui se complaît dans l’intellect, assure le préfet Claude Guéant, directeur de cabinet place Beauvau, puis à Bercy. J’ai beaucoup côtoyé Jean-Pierre Chevènement. Il lisait de la philosophie jusqu’à 2 heures du matin, c’était toute sa vie, les idées prenant parfois le pas sur l’action. Nicolas, lui, est d’abord un homme d’action. Quand il bavarde avec Lance Armstrong ou avec un jeune de banlieue, il a vraiment le sentiment d’en tirer quelque chose. Dès qu’il monte en voiture, la radio se met en marche. Il aime les choses simples, les variétés, la télévision. En cela, il exprime une certaine modernité. Les Français ne passent pas leur temps à lire de la philosophie… »

“Nicolas isn’t someone who revels in the intellect,” asserted the prefect Claude Guéant, chief of staff at the Ministry of the Interior and then at the Ministry of Finance. “I’ve spent a lot of time with [the Socialist politician] Jean-Pierre Chevènement. He read philosophy until two in the morning, all his life, ideas sometimes took precedence over action. Nicolas, on the other hand, is primarily a man of action. When he chats with Lance Armstrong or with a kid from the slums, he really feels like he’s getting something out of it. As soon as he gets in a car, the radio’s on. He loves simple things, variety, TV. In that, he expresses a certain modernity. The French don’t spend their time reading philosophy…”

A certain modernity is the opposite of time wasted on philosophy books…

The world war of the intellect

A snippet from my dissertation chapter on the French university strike of 2009.

Nicholas Sarkozy was elected President of the Republic on May 6, 2007, and took office on May 16. He appointed Valérie Pécresse, a legislator and former UMP spokeswoman, as Minister of Research and Higher Education, and on May 18th, at a meeting of the Conseil des Ministres (Council of Ministers), officially assigned her to lead a reform of university autonomy. Such a reform had already been widely discussed during the presidential campaign, attracting support from Sarkozy, the Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal, and the centrist MoDem candidate François Bayrou. They differed, of course, on policy details. Royal emphasized a “national framework” that preserved more of a role for the French state, and for permanent institutional funding, particularly for research. Sarkozy, according to Le Monde, “wanted to go faster,” shifting research funding and universities alike towards a contract-based, short-term model. But policy differences and political tempos aside, there was a widespread public discourse on the necessity of university reform. “This [traditional university] system worked in its time, but the world has changed”: such was one fairly typical formulation that had appeared in Le Figaro earlier that year, in an op-ed by Vincent Berger, a French physicist active in university governance who later became president of the University of Paris-7 in 2009. In the face of globalized economic competition, Berger explained, “our country must maintain competitive and triumphant industries,” and he argued for closer links between research and industrial production, along with a better “equation” [adéquation] between economic demand and university supply.

The frequency of such arguments in political discourse would give the Sarkozy administration a powerful naturalizing argument for its university reforms, a chance to ally itself with the spirit of its time. Pécresse, as we will see, would frequently cast her reforms as a matter of obvious, objective necessity. But at the same time, there was a discourse of urgency and immediacy about the process. The Sarkozy administration wanted to put in place a number of major state reforms, dealing with everything from the university to labor regulations and criminal laws; and this multiplicity would be amplified by a very rapid governmental timeline.  “We’ll do all the reforms at the same time, and not one after the other,” Sarkozy remarked at the  May 18th meeting of his Conseil des Ministres. The Sarkozy government was also deeply committed to a particular fiscal policy, one typically called “austerity” by its opponents. State spending was to be cut; 50% of retiring state workers were not supposed to be replaced; and national debt was supposed to decrease. Even in such a moment, though, the university and research sector was slated for budget increases. It was said to be the government’s “primary fiscal priority.”

Still, it was generally understood that university reforms, whatever their fiscal and political priority, were a fraught topic. “Even if the chosen moment seems favorable,” remarked an editorialist in Le Figaro, “Valérie Pécresse will have to show great conviction and determination to succeed in such a sensitive subject. Numerous projects, for decades, have been abandoned or emptied of their content, so tenacious are the resistances, so much are they nourished by dogmatism.” In an initial effort to prevent discord, Prime Minister Fillon initially gave assurances that the two most controversial topics, selective admissions (termed “sélection”) and tuition hikes, would not be included in the reform. In spite of this, as Pécresse began official ministerial consultations at the end of the month, however, academic unions were already voicing concerns about the temporality of haste that the government was so attached to.

Thus on May 25th Bruno Julliard, the president of UNEF (the largest student union), would “deplore the short time allowed for negotiations.” The Prime Minister, nevertheless, announced that the university reform would be taken up by Parliament that July. Soon thereafter, the Intersyndicale issued an official communiqué attacking the speed of the reform: “The chosen calendar permits neither a debate about the contents and priorities of a university reform, nor a genuine negotiation with the university community. The signatory organizations [of the intersyndicale] solemnly demand that the law not be hastily submitted during the next special session of Parliament this July.” Pécresse nevertheless continued on the official calendar, calling a meeting of the National Council of Research and Higher Education (CNESER) to review her reform proposals on June 22nd. To her surprise, perhaps, after seven hours of debate, her proposed reform was rejected by the assembled representatives of the university community.

Continue reading “The world war of the intellect”

On Korean American students in Illinois

Continuing with my sequence of book reviews, I recently sent LATISS a review of Nancy Abelmann‘s fascinating 2009 book The Intimate University. It should be coming out in the new issue of LATISS; it reads as follows:

Nancy Abelmann’s The Intimate University is at heart a study of the relationship between a university and a social group. The university is the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign; the group is that of Korean American students hailing from the Chicago area; and the relationship between them, as Abelmann effectively demonstrates, is tangled up in contradictions. Foremost among these is the matter of race; the Korean Americans she studies are caught in the bind of being an American model minority. They are not white enough to comfortably enact the American fantasy script of a universalist (but implicitly white and affluent), liberal, liberating and “fun” higher education, of a kind that would license “the luxury of ‘experience'” or a freedom from immediate vocational concerns (10-11). But they are “too white” and too affluent, from the point of view of national ideology, to comfortably identify with the nation’s oppressed racial groups. This implies a fraught relationship with other groups — one student describes her “bad impression” of “weird,” implicitly African American break dancing in one Chicago suburb (28) — but also a powerful “compunction to dissociate” from stereotypes of Koreanness, particularly with the Korean instrumentalism and “materialism” they associate with their petty-bourgeois immigrant parents (161, 7). This disidentification with their own group — or at least with its more problematic typifications — is, as Abelmann emphasizes, the product of a malicious American norm that identifies full individuality with whiteness, and ethnicity with groupness (161-2).

Continue reading “On Korean American students in Illinois”

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.)

Fetishized and degraded academic labor

The precarity of academic workers, far from being a merely local or institutional problem in academia, indicates the foundational contradiction of universities’ missions in neoliberalizing times: the university becomes an instrument for fetishizing labor, fetishizing work at the same time as it degrades and undermines labor, degrades and undermines work, making it unavailable, destroying it. It destroys precisely that which it calls for creating. Though of course some would argue that the neoliberal desire for labor is precisely for precarious, flexible labor, so in that sense the university produces that which it models.

It’s not fair to have them roll their eyes (at hippie intellectuals)

I was looking through some ancient files on my computer, and I was fascinated by a fragment of an email I’d saved from a dormitory debate back in college about a certain obscene snow sculpture that someone had built in front of our building. The building in question was called Risley Hall, a notorious den of the arts and counterculture at Cornell University. And this text strikes me as a great document of what countercultural student identities looked like in the early years of the last decade:

It’s not fair to tell someone you’re from Risley and have them roll their eyes and look at you funny. It’s not fair to be teased or have someone assume you’re a gay, pot-smoking poet with piercings and handcuffs who hates white christians and GAP clothes. It’s not fair to be asked “so how was the orgy?” every Monday morning. And it would seem at first that things like the snow cock would only perpetuate this. But I think it’s important to weigh the impacts. Someone walking by Risley, seeing the snow cock, might remark to themselves “crazy Risley,” shake their heads and keep on walking. Perhaps they’d say “it figures! Damn perverts and their orgies!” But I don’t think that it would change people’s minds if the cock hadn’t been erected in the first place. No one would have though “Gee, I used to think Risley was the weird dorm, but the absence of icy genitals makes me think I was wrong!” The fact is that our reputation is staked on a whole lot more than frozen, suggestive precipitation. It’s based on us.

I have to ask “what would it take to get people to change their minds?” I mean, seriously…we’d have to get rid of Rocky immediately, and the LGBTQ probably shouldn’t be as vocal. The SCA sure looks like freaks on the front lawn when they practice. Masquerave has people milling around our dorm dressed all sorts of perverted ways. And then there’s the way Risleyites dress in general… Continue reading “It’s not fair to have them roll their eyes (at hippie intellectuals)”

Between Crisis and New Public Management

A while ago I wrote a book review in LATISS of an interesting 2010 essay collection that appeared in France, Higher Education between New Public Management and Systemic Crisis (L’enseignement supérieur entre nouvelle gestion publique et crise systémique), edited by Annie Vinokur and Carole Sigman. I thought I’d post the text of my review here in case anyone’s interested in a little glimpse of some of the French critical literature on university reforms. I rather like writing book reviews, as a genre, and it’s sort of the traditional way for people finishing their dissertations to dip their toes in the publishing water, as it were.

So without any further ado…

As the neoliberal university reforms associated with the Bologna Process have come to France over the last decade, a Francophone wave of critical social research has emerged to analyse and resist them. It tends to be a hybrid genre, mixing traditional social science styles with explicit and implicit political engagements; this particular collection originates in the work of an interdisciplinary, multinational research network called FOREDUC, run by Annie Vinokur and Carole Sigman at the University of Paris-10. The general intellectual orientation here could be termed critical policy studies, with many of the authors coming from political science; the focus is less on neoliberalism as a doctrine than on New Public Management (NPM) as a mode of contract- and incentive-oriented state policy mechanisms. The volume’s underlying analytical problem is to explain how neoliberal university reforms at once converge and diverge across national contexts; as the editors put it, ‘contrasting our experiences shows that, while management principles in higher education and research strongly tend to converge, the doctrine works out differently on the ground depending on the local balance of power between the actors involved, and depending on the intensity of the stakes of international competitiveness in the education industry’ (p. 484). This general process of homogenisation and differentiation, one familiar to anthropologists of globalisation in other spheres (Mazzarella 2004: 349–352), admits of multiple theoretical explanations; and the great merit of this volume is to constitute a virtual laboratory in which the authors’ differing intellectual approaches can be compared and synthesised.

Vinokur’s article takes the most macro perspective here, working in a tradition of critical political economy that seems influenced by Marxism. She gives a historical genealogy of the contemporary ‘knowledge economy’, beginning with medieval guilds’ monopoly on their professional expertise, and proceeding to trace a series of attempts to break the autonomy of labour and appropriate workers’ ‘tacit knowledge’. Higher education today, in her view, has become a key boundary zone between the reproduction of capital and the reproduction of labour; she asserts provocatively that the function of post-war university massification has been to afford ‘not the mythical adequation of education to employment, but the production of a surplus of qualified workers on a global scale, necessary – though not sufficient – to put pressure on salaries and working conditions’ (pp. 495–496). And NPM becomes functional within this logic of capital, she argues, when firms find themselves needing a ‘strong political relay to deconstruct the social State’ (p. 497), whose twentieth-century social-welfare institutions could otherwise obstruct the push for a cheap qualified workforce, for newly commodifiable research and for new business opportunities within the higher-education sector.

Now, the difficulty with this functionalist analysis of NPM is that it tends to obscure the institutional and cultural autonomies that universities do retain in the face of economic imperatives. It would be helpful for Vinokur to elaborate how she sees the relationship between the global and the local. But the project remains, in my view, a very useful step towards a general analysis of higher education in terms of labour-capital relations. And at times her functionalism is more tempered: in an interesting historical aside, she remarks that NPM’s use of incentives was inspired by a ‘parental technology for managing recalcitrant children’, and hence has a sort of contingent historical origin. One learns from reading Vinokur’s article that while NPM is indeed functional, its (historical) origin and its (structural) function are quite separate things.

Continue reading “Between Crisis and New Public Management”

False consciousness in the humanities

The state of split consciousness in the humanities is illustrated by a semi-comedic animated video turned sensation, called “So you want to get a PhD in the Humanities.” It was released on YouTube in October 2010, and would go on to more than  740,000 views, which is quite a success for an academic milieu that only has about 1.48 million teaching staff altogether. In my own circles, the video is fairly well known, and it seems to have spread rapidly across online social networks, even spawning a number of spinoffs.

youtube college professor clip 1 youtube college professor student view

In cartoon fashion, with computer-generated, half-robotic voices, the video shows what happens when a young woman student comes to her professor’s office. She is there to ask for a letter of recommendation to graduate school in English literature, and the professor tries to talk her out of it, citing a host of practical and experiential reasons why it is “not a good idea” to go to graduate school. But the professor discovers at each turn that the student is incapable of hearing her objections. Rather than reconsidering her decision, the student takes every opportunity to voice her ardent desire for a clichéd “life of the mind.”

Professor: So you said you want to meet with me today.
Student: Yes. I am going to grad school in English.
Professor: No. I don’t think that’s a good idea.
Student: Yes. I am going to be a college professor.
Professor: Do you see where I am teaching? We’re in the middle of Nowhere, Nebraska. Do you want to move to the middle of nowhere to teach?
Student: I got an A on my Hamlet paper. I have brilliant thoughts about the theme of death in literature.
Professor: In all of literature? What field do you intend to specialize in?
Student: All of it. I’m going to be a college professor. I’m going to write smart things about death in literature.
Professor: Do you know how many admissions committees are going to laugh at your application?

We begin with a familiar enough institutional situation. The student has a plan for her academic future, for which she needs her professor’s help. The professor dislikes the plan, and tries to switch scripts to a different, more advisory encounter, where her superior expert knowledge and her moral authority might trump her student’s wishes. The student, in turn, responds to her professor’s discouragement the only way she can. She does not dispute the facts, since she has no resources for doing so; nor does she dispute the professor’s moral authority, since the very premise of this encounter is that she admires and covets her professor’s elevated role. Instead, when the student’s affirmative “Yes” meets an immediate “No” from above, she responds by gazing steadily back at the professor and flatly contradicting her in turn, standing by her image of an academic future, reiterating her desire. Neither party wants to change her views. They are immediately at a standoff. Continue reading “False consciousness in the humanities”

La vie active and French right-wing vocationalism

The always useful website of Sauvons L’Université has just published the text of a curious proposal in the French Senate for a new law that would require all French students pursuing a traditional high school or university degree to also study for a vocational diploma. The proposal has some interesting remarks on what a university is:

Outre les qualités intellectuelles qu’elle amène à développer, l’université, par la diversité de ses étudiants et de son corps enseignant apporte des qualités humaines à celui qui y étudie. L’université est le lieu transitoire entre la vie d’un adolescent et la vie d’un homme, qui devient autonome, assume ses choix, ses études et par là même, ses résultats.

Cette formation est un des piliers qui permet à chacun de se construire.

Un deuxième pilier est cependant indispensable pour aborder efficacement le monde du travail, je veux parler de la formation professionnelle.

Beyond the intellectual qualities that it helps to develop, the university, by the diversity of its students and its teaching staff, brings human qualities to those who study there. The university is a transitory place between the life of an adolescent and the life of a man, who is becoming autonomous, accepting responsibility for his choices, his studies, and thus also for his results.

This education is one of the foundations that allow each of us to construct ourselves.

A second pillar is nevertheless indispensable for efficiently entering the work world, I mean professional training…

The proposed law would thus require that university students spend five hours weekly on getting a BEP or CAP, which are both secondary-level education certificates, on the level of American vocational-technical diplomas. Typical specializations for the BEP or CAP are things like carpentry, retail sales, automobile maintenance, graphic design, secretarial work, and restaurant work: they are degrees that, in essence, aim to produce the specialized “technicians” who make up the French working classes in an increasingly post-industrial era. Given widespread complaints about out-of-work university graduates, it isn’t surprising that this proposed law hopes to enhance job placement prospects, while also (in a charming moment of humanist pragmatism) allowing students to “balance their knowledge” between pure theory and pure technique.

Continue reading “La vie active and French right-wing vocationalism”

More and more disappointed


A poster for a film that was apparently about the exploitation of women. I saw it across the canal from our interview.

One time I was interviewing a feminist activist, a friend of mine who had been in France a few years, who originally came from Brazil. At one point, we talked about the connection between her relationship with her boyfriend and her politics. It was interesting and sad.

Un des points difficiles était le féminisme, elle dit.
– Il dit que je suis devenue obsédée par l’oppression des femmes, que je la vois partout, que je ne vois que ça, que je ne pense qu’à ça.
– C’est ridicule ça, je dis.
– Enfin, elle continue, je suis de plus en plus deçue qu’il réagit comme ça… L’oppression des femmes est partout.
– Il est militant comme toi ?
– Ben il n’est pas militant mais il est de gauche et nous sommes d’accords sur plein de questions…

Feminism had become a major issue for them, she told me.
“He says that I’ve become obsessed by the oppression of women, that I say it everywhere, that I can’t see anything else, that I don’t think about anything else.”
“That’s ridiculous!” I say.
“In the end,” she continues, “I’m more and more disappointed that that’s how he reacts… The oppression of women is everywhere.”
“Is he an activist like you?” I ask.
“Well, he’s not an activist, but he’s on the left, and we agree about a lot…”

He had gone back to Brazil before her, and she said she was going to see him, but that she wasn’t sure what would happen. I need to rediscover myself, she said, to be independent. We are absolutely dependent.

We talked a while longer about activism at Paris 8, but she eventually had to hurry to get to an NPA meeting in Paris.

The mystique that enables corrupting the youth

I’m quite amazed by this excerpt from a letter of Richard Rorty’s, to one Milton Fisk, on March 20, 1971:

No, it’s the best bet available for improving society. This standard bourgeois liberal view of mine has the same cynicism of all bourgeois liberal views—it says to the people on whose necks one trods that it will be better for their children’s children if they keep on getting trodden upon while we educate the more intelligent of their children to understand how society works. But I believe it anyway. I honestly think that we—the parasitic priestly class which confers sacraments like BAs and PhDs—are the best agency for social change on the scene. I don’t trust the aroused workers and peasants to do themselves or anybody any good. To put it still more generally, I think that nothing but a revolution in this country is going to make it possible for millions of people to lead a decent life, but I still don’t want a revolution in this country—simply because I’m afraid of finding something worse when the revolution is over. So insofar as I have any thoughts on the higher learning in America they are to the effect that we pinko profs should continue swinging each successive generation a little further to the left; doing it this way requires the continuation of the same claptrap about contemplation we’ve always handed out, because without this mystique the society won’t let us get away with corrupting the youth anymore.

(Quoted in Neil Gross’s sociobiography of Rorty.)

So basically, Rorty could not, or could no longer believe in the claptrap of the beauty of liberal arts education as teaching “contemplation”, but was happy to continue its rhetoric in the service of gradualist progressive politics (“swinging each successive generation a little further to the left”). His reason for being against a “revolution” was fairly understandable, if not very noble: as a good “liberal bourgeois,” he was afraid of being worse off afterwards. Or, he suggests, of having someone else be worse off afterwards. His claims to altruism are somehow not very convincing, and one gets the sense that Rorty was animated by a curious contradiction between his own class interests and his anti-Communist leftist ideals. (Gross goes on about his parents’ politics at great length; it’s one of the best parts of that book.)

Continue reading “The mystique that enables corrupting the youth”

What do you know about faculty democracy?

A correspondent of mine at the French group Sauvons L’Université asked me what I knew about the American institution of the “Faculty Senate.” The answer, loosely speaking, is not that much. The only time this issue has really even seen the light of day, on my campus, was in 2008 when there was a controversy over the Becker (formerly Milton) Friedman Institute that provoked long debates over faculty power (or its absence). On the other hand, in an extremely well-known case at the University of Virginia this year, the faculty and many other campus constituencies protested the removal of their president (Teresa Sullivan) and ultimately managed to get her reinstated in spite of opposition from the chair of their Board of Trustees. My general suspicion would be that the collective power of the faculty is rather minimal, at most American campuses, except in certain exceptional moments of crisis.

So here’s my question for you (assuming there are still people who have this blog in their blog readers): What is your assessment of the state of faculty democracy, in your personal experience? How would you describe the balance of power in your own institutions? What cases do you think are worth talking about? And what, if anything, do you think is worth reading on the topic?

Write a word in the comments, and we’ll see what we can collectively come up with!

The moment of human resources

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, French debates over university reform have often dwelt on the question of human resources, and even on the very desirability of thinking about universities in those terms. The advocates of a more “modern,” “competitive” university — who are themselves often products of business and public administration schools — have generally tended to take such a perspective for granted. In an exemplary moment, Valérie Pécresse, in January 2009, remarked that

‎”… je sais que les ressources humaines sont le cœur de l’université. Naturellement, dans toute organisation les ressources humaines sont au cœur du système. Mais dans un monde où la production intellectuelle est tout, plus que jamais, « il n’est de richesse que d’hommes ». Ces hommes et ces femmes qui font l’université, je les écoute et je les entends.”

[“… I know that human resources are at the heart of the university. Naturally, human resources are at the heart of the system in any organization. But in a world where intellectual production is everything, more than ever, ‘the only source of wealth is men.’ These men and women who are making the university, I’m listening to them.”]

If you believe that ideology is at its most effective when it is perceived to be entirely natural and universal, then this remark was an ideological moment par excellence. For Pécresse’s assumption here is that every human organization depends on “human resources”; she makes no distinctions between organizations governed by contemporary business logic and any other kind of organization. And in invoking a 16th century proverb by Jean Bodin, she certainly suggests that the logic of human resources long predates contemporary capitalism.

At the same time, Pécresse’s discourse was hybrid. Even as it placed the image of human resources at the heart of the university, it allied itself with a very traditional conception of academic life: the conception where the faculty are the university, where the university is constitutively a site of the production of knowledge, of “intellectual production.” The logic is one of an extension of the traditional logic: yes, men and women make the university — as the traditional definition would have it — but what they are doing is (intellectual) production that constitutes wealth — which inserts a much more business-centered view of human activity into the traditional definition.

Pécresse generally seemed to believe in the success of her hybrid discourse. Her detractors tended not to, seeing her as an agent of naked “corporatization of higher education” (as it is called in English), and I suppose viewing her gestures towards traditional views of academia as idle rhetoric.

A campus controversy

Over in France, there’s a controversy brewing over a conference on Israel that was going to be held at Paris-8 next week. It’s been covered in a range of newspapers. The gist is that the conference, subtitled “Israel, an apartheid state?”, had been authorized to be held on campus, but when a major French Jewish organization expressed opposition, the campus administration withdrew its authorization. Here’s a quick translation of the campus president’s communique explaining his decision:

To the university community,

The University of Paris-8 was recently asked to give its authorization for a conference on its campus entitled, “From new sociological, historical and legal approaches to the call for an international boycott: Israel, an apartheid state?”, planned for this February 27-28.

Initially, the President of the University did give an authorization to the conference organizers, on the condition that a certain number of obligations be scrupulously observed. These involved, on one hand, an absolute respect for the principles of academic neutrality and secularism [laïcité], and on the other hand, the removal of the university’s logos and visuals, since the university is not the organizer of this conference.

In giving this authorization, the President was mindful—as in every case when he is asked to approve public events—at once of the rights of freedom of speech and of assembly for campus users, of the maintenance of public order on the premises, of the institution’s intellectual and scientific independence, and of the principle of neutrality in public service vis-à-vis the diversity of public opinion.

However, today it appears that respecting these conditions will not be enough to guarantee the maintenance either of public order on the premises, or of the institution’s scientific or intellectual independence, given that the pluralism of scientific approaches, the pluralism of critical and divergent analyses, must be regarded as intangible academic obligations.

Indeed, the presentation of this “conference” as “academic,” along with the repeated presence of “Paris 8” on the conference publicity, could be, in themselves, of such a nature as to create confusions that may infringe on the requirement to keep the university free of any political or ideological grasp. The reactions elicited by the conference, which have begun to compromise the university itself, reveal that confusion has set in, and that there is a real risk to the principle of neutrality of public services in research and higher education.

The theme of the conference, the nature of the planned presentations, as well as of the contributors’ titles, strongly polemical in nature, have caused strong reactions that foreshadow a serious risk of disturbances in public order, and of counter-protests that the university is obliged to prevent.

In such circumstances, the President of the University has decided to withdraw the previously given authorization.

The President’s Office has contacted the organizers to propose that on-campus space should be allocated for a day of public debates, in the framework of a diversity of views.

Concerning the organization of the conference on February 27 and 28th, it is decided that the President’s Office will offer the university’s services in locating other premises off-campus where the conference can be held.

-The university administration

This decision has prompted a fair amount of outrage from faculty (including American intellectuals like Judith Butler and Noam Chomsky), who, naturally, invoked the same principles of academic freedom (“intellectual and scientific independence”) that the campus president (Pascal Binczak) had invoked in defending his change of views. I think it’s quite interesting that the principle of academic freedom can equally be invoked to license or to deny campus space for controversial events — the proponents of an event can argue that political interference shouldn’t be allowed to censor campus events; the opponents can argue that politically charged topics are insufficiently academic to deserve campus space. At the level of principle, I think this is more of a real dilemma than most parties want to acknowledge. Not many people today want to live in a static university where ancient, let’s say Aristotelian, intellectual doctrines are the only ones allowed to be presented on campus. But most campuses these days also want to set limits on acceptable speech. And it’s not clear to me that there is a principled way to set such limits on a purely intellectual basis.

Ultimately the relevant “principle” seems most often to be “what’s currently acceptable given the social mores of the moment” or “what some plurality of current scholars think is acceptable,” but given that both of these are historically contingent and variable reference points, I’m not sure they are extremely defensible. It seems to me it would be much more honest if administrators admitted that the main principle, in moments like this one, was just to save face or to avert conflict, was in short a principle of sheer expediency. My sense is that large bureaucracies make decisions for such reasons of expediency much more than they can possibly admit in public.