Contents Disappointed Utopia 1. Radical Philosophy After 1968

Precarious teachers on strike

Increasing reflexivity was also rooted in local labor relations. Strikes were common at Vincennes. Contract workers struck over contract renewal; administrative staff struck over space allocation (Soulié 2012). In the Philosophy Department, labor consciousness intensified in the early 1970s. A harsh critique of labor came to focus on the adjunct or contingent teaching workforce. The French term for an adjunct university teacher is chargé de cours, probably best translated as “part-time contract instructor” or “adjunct instructor” in U.S. jargon. A large number of these were hired at the Vincennes Philosophy Department. According to Gilles Deleuze’s biographer François Dosse, “Since everybody had invited their friends to sign up to teach a course, the number of part-time teachers had increased to at least fifty, many of whom never bothered to turn up to teach” (2010:349).

A former Brazilian part-timer reported being told on his arrival at the Department, in the mid–1970s, that “This department, it’s a total mess, it’s in shambles.” His assessment of his fellow precarious teachers was skeptical:

“The last thing anyone asked was if they were competent.”
“They were accepted as they were.”
“Everyone was free to teach whatever he wanted, or not to teach at all…. There were big names, politicians, people who knew no philosophy [nuls en philosophie], who knew nothing period.”[27]

The Department seemed to become a space of freedom and multiculturalism — at least, for men. “There was a pleasure in coming here,” the Trotskyist Henri Weber recounted, “because there was this liberty, and this quality among the students. Above all, in reality, they were there because they wanted to learn, to comprehend, to refine, without any professional concerns.”[28] But this space of freedom had limits, at least for the teaching workforce.

In 1973, the department chair Châtelet began an initiative to cut down the number of part-time precarious staff, apparently under budgetary pressure. His eminent colleague Jean-François Lyotard (famous for The Postmodern Condition) was caught in the middle of the process, and wrote a defensive statement about it. “Rightly or wrongly,” Lyotard wrote, “the ‘criterion’ was adopted of attendance [at work] measured by public opinion. The collective of permanent professors [des titulaires] compiled a list of 22 part-time staff [to eliminate]. It raised anger and protests from some of those removed… Châtelet gave a mandate to Badiou, Linhart, Regnault and Rancière to implement the collective decision on part-timers.” Lyotard claimed that these young Maoists had played favorites along the way, creating what he called “a Jacobin-Bolshevik-style normalizing operation.”[29]

The sociologist Charles Soulié later interviewed one of the co-organizers of the protest. She retorted retrospectively to Lyotard that, whatever the motivation was, “the situation for those removed would have been the same: deprived of their jobs and of their meagre livings.” She recalled a gendered subtext to the affair. “You’ve fired all the girls!” she had protested to a chastened Châtelet. But while she recognized the force of personal connection in the Department, she insisted that the part-time staff pool was organized around a political logic.

The part-time teachers were not the professors’ personal associates. They were each supposed to represent the political stripes of activist groups linked to May 68 — former Althusserians, Maoists from the GP [Gauche Prolétarienne], Trotskyists, and “anarcho-désirants” as we ironically called them. The part-timers didn’t do much at the Department but they were supposed to work — which at the time meant political organizing — elsewhere. Their integration in the Department was based on their militant activity, supposed to be representative of the social movement, a source of experience, of knowledge…. The Philosophy Department was made to be a resonance chamber, a political forum for the major events of the time. That was the logic of hiring.[30]

Ultimately, the precarious teachers’ protests were successful — and they saved their own jobs — thanks to an intervention by the campus president, Claude Frioux. Frioux was a Communist who faced bitter opposition from the Maoists and Trotskyists in the Philosophy Department. After a number of precarious teachers invaded his office, Frioux offered them support in their protest against the Philosophy Department leadership, going so far as to withhold the pay of some tenured professors “as long as they kept insisting on firing the part-timers.” The Department abandoned its initiative, and some part-time staff were later offered permanent teaching positions.

But it is a telling commentary on labor politics at the Department that the tenured professors, and particularly the Maoist men, were miffed that they had not gotten their way. Rancière, who comes across as such a righteous radical in his books, preferred to erase the protests itself from history, stating that “There was a clash between us, the maîtres-assistants [junior professors] and the professors (Châtelet, Deleuze, Lyotard) over a shady story with the part-timers.” The protests vanished from his formulation. So did any sense of precarious workers having agency, not to mention the existence of women in the Department. Rancière added a bit vindictively that “after [the clash] we stopped caring about departmental affairs” (2012:38–39). When the university moved to Saint-Denis, he had said, “I think the people here aren’t unhappy that it’s over. After all, they got the best of leftism, it was time to break it off.”[31]

Strangely, in the aftermath of the strike, it sounds as if the Department became increasingly depoliticized. The majority of the professors got off with a minimum of governance work, while the minority who ran the Department did what they liked, in a classic mutual connivance.[32] This tradition of indifference lasted for decades, even after Châtelet’s death in 1985. In 1988, the pragmatist philosopher Jacques Poulain was hired as the new chair. He stayed in office a remarkable 22 years, until 2010. “It was by arrangement” that Poulain stayed so long, an old-timer told me, “it was convenient for everybody.” “No one wanted to do it?” I queried. “No one, right.”

  1. This and the other interview data in this section derive from Charles Soulié’s collection of unpublished interviews, which he conducted in 2014.  ↩

  2. ARTE, Vincennes, l’Université Perdue (timestamp 49:30).  ↩

  3. Lyotard, unpublished statement, Department of Philosophy, 1973.  ↩

  4. Soulié, unpublished interview, 2014.  ↩

  5. Quoted in Guy Hocquenghem, “La Chute de Paris 8,” Libération, June 6, 1980.  ↩

  6. Rancière recollected that after 1974, Châtelet “would call Deleuze and Lyotard on the telephone to ask what they thought, and then he’d call us, saying, here’s what needs doing, you agree? We agreed. In any case we couldn’t care less” (Rancière 2012:39).  ↩

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