Contents Disappointed Utopia 1. Radical Philosophy After 1968

Death and historicity

French philosophy had a hard time in the 1970s. University philosophy enrollments collapsed nationwide. In 1968 more than a thousand students received undergraduate philosophy degrees (the license). By 1980, the figure had fallen to 575, having peaked in 1973 at 1211. The old, vast University of Paris was divided into thirteen branch campuses; the Experimental University Center at Vincennes became the University of Paris 8 in 1971. At Paris 8, philosophy enrollments also declined steeply after the Department lost its national accreditation in 1970, although they climbed again in the second half of the decade. Philosophy’s national crisis was also exacerbated by controversial educational reforms (GREPH 1977), and university teaching jobs for philosophers declined in the latter part of the decade.

Meanwhile at Vincennes, the Philosophy Department was less an object to itself than a subject position from which to criticize other objects. The Department’s male professoriate remained nothing if not reflexive about the changing spirit of the times, as a newly anti-revolutionary philosophy began to take shape in France. The melodramatic figure of the pentinent ex-radical was exemplified by André Glucksmann, a former Maoist and former Vincennes adjunct teacher.[33] Glucksmann and other so-called “New Philosophers” did well by their anti-Marxism, in a political moment marked by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipeligo. They soon became more publicly influential than their left-wing counterparts.[34] Nevertheless, the Philosophy Department did produce an impressive series of critical books in the 1970s, such as Châtelet’s The Philosophy of the Professors (1970), Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus (1972/1983), Rancière’s Althusser’s Lesson (1974/2011), and Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition (1979/1984). And the Department stayed involved in public debates; Deleuze gave the New Philosophers a famously cranky putdown, “their thought is worthless [nulle].” He added: “They do have a certain newness about them: rather than form a school, they have introduced France to literary or philosophical marketing in France.”[35]

Deleuze, always a prominent figure, evidently did not foresee that his own aura was becoming central to the marketing of his own department. The growing need for radical marketing went along with an evolving culture of self-memorialization and self-dignification. The University of Paris 8 started getting books written about itself in the late 1970s, after the first Chirac government began threatening the university’s existence in July 1976 (Brunet et al. 1979:27). These threats culminated in the University’s forced “transfer” to Saint-Denis in 1980.

As the 1970s slipped into the 1980s, the Department increasingly made the “political and social contexts of philosophy” into an object of analysis rather than a space of engagement. The original department leadership died or retired in the 1980s, and the sixties student radicals, approaching middle age, began to replace them institutionally. In 1988, when Jacques Poulain was hired as department chair, the Department’s self-presentation became palpably more academic.

Founded in 1969 by Michel Foucault at the same time as the Experimental University Center of Vincennes … The Department of Philosophy has played an important role in intellectual life in France and abroad. François Châtelet, Gilles Deleuze and Jean François Lyotard taught there for more than fifteen years. The Department of Philosophy has concerned itself primarily with the analysis of the historical contexts and political implications of philosophies. While maintaining this interest, the department has opened itself to aesthetics and analytic philosophies, and has confirmed its interest in phenomenology. Once again accredited for its graduate programs, the department hopes to finish the accreditation process (undergraduate program) in time for the 1990–1991 academic year.[36]

Name recognition had obviously always been part of the Department’s appeal — whence the initial power of well-known figures such as Foucault and Deleuze. But by the late 1980s, with the Great Men gone, the Department opted instead to memorialize them in its own radical Pantheon. This parade of Great Men’s names — initially Foucault, Châtelet, Deleuze and Lyotard, with Badiou and Rancière added later on — soon became a permanent fixture in the Department’s public self-presentation. These names provided an immense dose of legitimacy. Foucault had left in 1970 and died in 1984; Châtelet died in 1985; and both Deleuze and Lyotard had retired in 1987. The names became available for Departmental marketing once the men — always men — had disappeared.

Figure 16: The Department’s star figures (Foucault, Deleuze and Châtelet), pictured in the 1988–89 course brochure.
Figure 16: The Department’s star figures (Foucault, Deleuze and Châtelet), pictured in the 1988–89 course brochure.

Meanwhile, traditional academic concerns came back in force in the late 1980s, as Poulain succeeded Châtelet as department chair. The lack of national accreditation posed a serious obstacle to students, whose diplomas were not nationally recognized. After fifteen years of languishing outside the French accreditation system, the Department decided to return to the fold. The Department’s mission statement began to mention traditional philosophical fields, such as aesthetics and phenomenology, alongside political commitments, and it invested even more deeply in internationalism (Chapter 3). The memory of radicalism lingered, but in an increasingly symbolic sense.

My friend Marcel said, “We’re living on myths. We’re living on figures who are no longer there. We’re living to some extent on credit.”

  1. Glucksman had actually sought to get a permanent teaching job in the Department, but withdrew his application after getting into a debate with Foucault (Soulié 2012).  ↩

  2. François Cusset notes, for instance, that Jacques Rancière’s radical history project, Revoltes Logiques, remained a tiny niche project by comparison to the Nouveaux Philosophes (Cusset 2008:311).  ↩

  3. Deleuze (2006:139, 141). The published translation renders nulle as “empty,” but I prefer “worthless.”  ↩


    Fondé en 1969 en même temps que le Centre Universitaire Expérimental de Vincennes par Michel Foucault […] Le Département de philosophie a joué un rôle important dans la vie intellectuelle en France et à l’étranger. François Châtelet, Gilles Deleuze, Jean François Lyotard, y ont enseigné pendant plus de quinze ans. Le Département de Philosophie s’est attaché prioritairement à l’analyse des contextes historiques et des implications politiques des philosophies. Tout en maintenant cet intérêt, le département s’est ouvert à l’esthétique, aux philosophies analytiques et a confirmé son intérêt pour la phénoménologie. De nouveau habilité depuis plusieurs années en troisième cycle, Maîtrise et License, le département espère achever le processus d’habilitation (Premier cycle) lors de la rentrée 1990–1991.

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