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.

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Questions about ethnography of theory

I just came home from visiting a literary theory and cultural studies graduate seminar at Carnegie Mellon University. I went to Pittsburgh — not so far from where I live in Cleveland — to talk about my book on French Theory, but I ended up talking about my life, my experience in the academy, and my “career.”*

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Philosophers without infrastructure, Part 2

Following up on my last post (and indirectly on a couple of older posts), I came across an interesting interview extract that comments in a bit more detail on the lived experience of being a philosopher with practically no work infrastructure. Here’s a philosopher from Paris 8 commenting on his workspace:

Professor: “I don’t think I’m giving you any scoop in saying that, on the material level, the Philosophy Department is the poorest one in the country. It’s clear — it’s very clear, even. When, for instance, young colleagues were arriving after I got here — at the moment I’m thinking of Renée Duval who sent me a message asking, so, where was her office [Laughter] although she didn’t have an office. And, you know, even at Paris 7, if you want to meet, I don’t know, Frédéric Gauthier, I say Frédéric Gauthier because we know each other pretty well, so, indeed, he will make an appointment with you in his office.”

A department secretary interrupts: “Still, they don’t have their own offices, they have a shared office for teachers.”

Professor: “Non non non non non non non. Gauthier, he has an office, and there are other offices. At most, they’re two to an office. Of course! No, here, it’s on the edge.”

Secretary: “Yes, it’s on the edge.”

Professor: “Yes, here, it’s borderline scandalous. Meaning that, for example, we wouldn’t have to be meeting here [in the staff office space].”

Secretary: “Mais non, I agree with you.”

Professor: “Mais oui. And, well, there’ll be an office, we would be in the office, indeed, we could both of us shut the door. So for example, the master’s thesis exams happen here [in the staff office space].”

Me: “Really, they’re here?”

Professor: “Yes, it happens — and so people who show up, we can’t prevent them, it’s the office — where they turn in their homework, where they come for information, but, still, it’s scandalous. The first year, when I came, throughout practically the whole first year, I spent the first twenty minutes of class with the students looking for a room. It’s since been stabilized, but—“

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A classroom scene, #1

I’ve decided to start typing up some of the scenes of everyday life at Paris 8 that made it into my fieldnotes. Here’s one encounter.

It’s the 1st of December, 2009. I’m having coffee with a young man who is my classmate in a class on The Symptom (le symptôme). I think his name is K., but am not sure. He has dark, long hair, a prematurely tired face, a short body, a set of metal crutches and a handicapped leg that dangles.

He is in trouble, he says. He says he doesn’t get what is going on in any of his seven classes. He isn’t sure what he is going to do when midterms come [les partiels].

We talk about the relationship between the department’s pedagogy and its politics. It’s unclear what the relationship is, we agree. But, he adds, one little link [un petit lien] comes in the form of the relations between professors and students. Our teacher in the symptom, for instance, is a lot closer to her students than a traditional teacher would be. But nevertheless: he doesn’t know her name. He doesn’t know any of his professors’ names, he says. He’s only there for the ideas, he says.

K. would leave Paris 8 after that school year, going back to Toulouse where he was from. He had been living in Paris in a cheap apartment, but had never been happy there, hadn’t made a lot of friends, he would tell me, resignedly.

K. was himself a symptom. Of something. His alienation, we might too readily suggest, was the social and subjective product of low status, youth, lack of Parisian social networks, and non-membership in the philosophical nobility, with its characteristic forms of language. He really believed in the intrinsic value of philosophical ideas that Paris-8 offered, but by his own account, couldn’t make sense of them.

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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Visual culture and institutional difference: Paris-8 & the Sorbonne

merry crisis

A sudden piece of English text inserted in the middle of an exhibition of political photographs at my field site. Paris-8. A charming metacommentary on global reality. Merry crisis!

If you wanted to describe this image in the most basic descriptive language you could say: this is a photo of a photo of a graffiti tag set among other photos, photos of people bloody in protests, of police in riot gear lines, of people running and throwing things, of people invisible in showers of light. See that flood of white in the photo immediately beneath Merry Crisis? With the figure askew and silhouetted? I have no idea what that is. But I do comprehend that this is a collage of leftist protest culture, aestheticized in the genre of an art photo exhibition, and further recontextualized in the form of political statement attached on the outside of Paris-8’s Bâtiment B2. Paris-8 is a university with an enormous visual text taped and sprayed across its walls. Campus buildings frequently have deteriorated walls, just from the sheer number of signs (affiches) that have been put up and torn up and torn down. It’s the kind of place where images, like this one, are not only compound visual objects (referencing other visual objects and visual genres), but are units in an overwhelming student reappropriation of academic space, a culture of defacement of the corridors that someone jealous of property rights might call vandalism with a political alibi.

This defacement has limits, though, being essentially restrained to surfaces within arm’s reach of the ground. The buildings themselves tell a different story.

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Photos of a French university in the rain

I went to visit one of my possible fieldsites this summer, the University of Paris VIII Vincennes-St.-Denis, only to find it closed and locked for August vacations. I had expected it to be empty, but I didn’t realize they would lock all doors and shut all gates (aside from a maintenance guy or two wandering around). There was an odd contradiction between the leftist slogans and signs and the colorful student graffiti, and the security-laden architecture – security cameras, barbed wire and all.

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