Contents Disappointed Utopia 2. Left Patriarchy

Sketch of a history of gender relations

Philosophical belonging had been deeply gendered since the Philosophy Department’s birth at Vincennes. Under Foucault’s leadership in 1969–1970, the initial teaching staff included twelve men and three women.[3] All of the women were at the bottom of the institutional hierarchy.[4] Houria Sinaceur was a 28-year-old philosopher of mathematics and logic who soon left Vincennes, going on to a very successful career in the French academy. Judith Miller, the teacher who was soon fired for her radical views, was a maître assistant (senior instructor) and, coincidentally or not, the daughter of Jacques Lacan. Her colleague Jeannette Colombel was a chargée de cours (part-time instructor); she was a longtime Communist philosophy teacher who had quit the Party in 1968 to move farther to the left (Dormoy-Rajramanan 2012).

As feminist organizing intensified in the early 1970s, additional women teachers were hired — albeit into precarious part-time positions. The curriculum subsequently included sporadic courses on women’s issues. Yet the Department’s early women hires were institutionally marginalized. Their continued presence was contingent upon personal support from the male leadership. Eventually, a few women were recruited as tenured professors, but the male-dominated social dynamic of the department did not evolve radically over subsequent decades. As of this writing, the Department has never reached gender parity among teaching staff or students.

Meanwhile, the Philosophy Department doubled down on masculine academic capital, constituting the male pantheon we noted in the Introduction. This created further problems of heritage management. When I arrived in the Department in 2009, its original famous men were long gone. Their absence raised questions about patrilineal heritage. What was the Department’s identity without its former stars? “It’s suffering from a lack of great thinkers, you know?” a female student told me. “Who is there?… They haven’t replaced what they once had, historically.”

Figure 20: François Châtelet, pictured in the 1986 Philosophy Department course brochure.
Figure 20: François Châtelet, pictured in the 1986 Philosophy Department course brochure.

As the Great Men of the past disappeared, their colleagues honored them with tributes. René Schérer, a gay specialist in anarchist thought, outlived most of his generation and found himself writing many of the homages. Consider how he recalled Châtelet, the longtime department chair.

François Châtelet’s work is difficult to separate from his gestures, from his voice, from the presence that gave body and force to his thought. I am not able to avoid the moment of an evocation that is not only a pious act, a homage to his memory, but that is necessary, so much did his carnal presence embody seduction, persuasion, luminous authority and communicative certitude. His incisive, illuminating discourse, whether explanatory or polemical, and which I won’t hesitate to call sovereign, still accompanies all my memories, all my readings.
[Schérer 1989:127]

A strong theory of masculine affiliation is embedded in the very notion of homage, which does not just derive from the French word for man, homme, but also, etymologically, once designated a feudal vassal’s promise of devotion to his lord. I do not want to erase the genuine feeling of attachment that had clearly emerged among the Department’s longtime colleagues: Schérer’s sense of loss was palpable, even if it was overwrought. Nevertheless, not everyone who left this Department was mourned equally. Not everyone’s presence was felt to be carnal, not everyone’s polemics were “sovereign,” and not everyone was remembered.

Yet the Great Men were consecrated again and again and again. Classes got cancelled during my fieldwork for a Lyotard conference, and Deleuze’s lectures were painstakingly getting transcribed in a project led by Burkhalter. When Deleuze and Lyotard retired in 1988, the back cover of the Department’s course brochure had commemorated them.

“I only look at movements………………………………… Your secret: we always see it on your face and in your eye. Lose the face. Become able to love without memory, without fantasy, and without interpretation, without taking stock.”
Dialogue excerpt, Gilles DELEUZE
TWO PROFESSORS FROM THE DEPARTMENT OF PHILOSOPHY RETIRED AT THE END OF LAST YEAR: GILLES DELEUZE AND JEAN-FRANÇOIS LYOTARD. The staff and professors of the Department of Philosophy join together in commending them, in wishing them a happy and creative retirement, while guarding in our hearts the savor of their presence, the richness of their proximity and the warmth of their friendship.

A sense of warmth lingers around this text, insisting that these Great Men (who have never been anything but names to me) were people with ordinary work relationships. To be sure, “men” named a diverse space in the Department. The Department became a pioneering safe haven for gay men and gay liberation politics. Christelle Dormoy-Rajramanan comments that “the Philosophy Department would be the first [in the university] to welcome them [gay men] and to give them a place” (2004:55). Yet it rarely had the same openness towards feminist or queer women, and its “great thinkers,” gay or not, were not necessarily great feminists. Gilles Deleuze was not the only famous man who had issues with women. “Feminism was of little interest to Foucault and had little impact on him,” wrote one biographer, adding that Foucault “was not happy when he had to attend formal receptions where he had to be polite to women in long evening gowns” (Macey 2004:109). Foucault’s successor as department chair, François Châtelet, wrote in a weird third-person autobiography that “There is another Châtelet: the one who cooks even better than he writes, the one who plays a lively seducer as soon as pretty women populate his environment; the one who has loved for the first time several times…” (Châtelet and Akoun 1977). And when Jean-François Lyotard wrote on women’s struggles in the late 1970s, he felt trapped by the masculinity of his efforts to escape masculinity.

It is a philosopher who is speaking here about relations between men and women. He is trying to escape what is masculine in the very posing of such a question. However, his flight and his strategies probably remain masculine. He knows that the so-called question of a masculine/feminine opposition, and probably the opposition itself, will only disappear as he stops philosophizing: for it exists as opposition only by philosophical (and political) method, that is, by the male way of thinking. [1978:9]

The dominant genres of 1970s radicalism — radical politics and radical philosophy — thus remained masculine zones by default. No doubt, Lyotard erred in eternalizing this state of gender relations, making it out to reflect a timeless “male way of thinking.” Nevertheless, forty years later, things had not changed much. In a public statement published in Libération in October 2018, sixty women philosophers declared: “In its current state, philosophy thinks primarily ‘as a man’ while stubbornly pretending to be neutral.”[5] They offered an exhaustive list of sexist forms, including discrimination against women in hiring decisions, in-groupy spaces of male-only deliberation, men’s tendency to reject any “heterodox” research as “too political,” the erasure of women philosophers from the history of the field, and the material structures of academic work, “often irreconcilable with our material lives.” Indeed, in speaking to female philosophers, a powerful insistence on the constraints of material lives was omnipresent.

  1. “Programme du Département de Philosophie de Vincennes en 1968–1969,” in Soulié 2012:456.  ↩

  2. The French permanent academic hierarchy at that point ran from professeur (professor) to maître de conférences (roughly associate professor), maître assistant (senior instructor), and assistant (instructor), followed by the contingent chargé de cours (part-time contract instructor).  ↩

  3. “Combien de philosophEs?” Libération, 16 October 2018,  ↩

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