Contents Disappointed Utopia 4. A Banlieue University

The space of the masses

Historical knowledge is often so ambiguous. The next question is always: What do we make of it in the present, how do we live with it, what do we do with it? In Part I of this book, we have seen three genealogies of historical failures in Paris 8’s Philosophy Department. We explored the decline of revolutionary hopes after 1968 (Chapter 1), the history of left patriarchy and women’s exclusion (Chapter 2), and the neocolonial bargain that offered education, but not full economic integration, to postcolonial subjects. We met some of the actors involved in these stories, and explored some of their ambivalent subject positions. But subjects never exist on their own. If we want to understand utopian practices, we also have to study their social environment.

In Part II, turning towards thicker ethnographic description, we inquire into the structural conditions of subjectivity in this site. What kinds of everyday spaces, knowledge rituals, and political practices made it possible to sustain disappointed utopianism? This chapter begins with the urban environment, asking how the Philosophy Department fit into its neighborhood, and how it fit into the banlieue’s racial economies. It takes us to the mass spaces that surrounded the Department, inspecting an activist occupation of a cafe, a loveless graffiti artist, a senior male professor crossing the corridors, and a young man facing physical disability and social abandonment. My question here is: what were the relationships of social reproduction in this milieu, and how were these reshaped through the actors’ use of campus space?

The Department did have some space of its own. It possessed an administrative office, a teachers’ lounge, a small seminar room, and a few classrooms (the windowless ones were called “closets”). One could tell plenty of stories about its classrooms — where the pedagogy was often quite traditional, “magisterial” — or about the administrative offices, where all sorts of personal and institutional problems came and went. One could tell stories about the informal life of the Department, the socializing fueled by coffee and cigarettes, the little friend circles that formed or fell apart. But I found that the most interesting encounters emerged when philosophers left their departmental venues and traversed the public spaces of the campus.

Every form of subjectivity in a French public university is rooted in mass space or in an enclave within mass space. Campus spaces were termed “public,” meaning that on paper, anyone had a right to be there.[1] This formal right was not actually unconditional. University regulations prohibited “any act liable to trouble the security and tranquility of members of the university community.”[2] In practice, security scrutiny focused on young men from the nearby banlieue. But during my fieldwork, the main entrance to campus still remained open to anyone, with no systematic barriers.[3] The campus remained a mass space.

I say mass because I think we need a stronger word than public to capture the extreme anonymity, elasticity, social diversity and anarchic potentials of the campus passageways and courtyards.[4] I might call a classroom or a library a public space, but such public spaces still have a fairly standard theatricality. They insert their users into a particular social drama; they give you a role with a label, like ”student“; they heavily regulate your behavior. By contrast, the corridors outside the classrooms felt to me more intensely liminal. They were spaces of motion and connection, although their velocities were variable and almost turbulent. You could hurry through them, or linger there, or malinger. You were rarely told what to do. You never knew quite what you might confront. “It’s a personal and constant haze [flou individuel et constant],” one student film said of these spaces. “Everything is in movement… losing yourself in this world seems the only alternative to a socialized nothingness.”[5] I would call them mass spaces because if they belonged to anyone, they belonged to the masses.

This omnipresent mass space became a frame around the theater of university life. And it too has a history and a politics. The “massification” of higher education has also been called democratization, designating the global process in the second part of the twentieth century that opened up higher education to women, to racial minorities, to colonial and postcolonial subjects, and to working-class students.[6] The postwar period saw a series of new public universities built in France. But their modernist architecture, banlieue locations, and educational structures were often depicted as degraded and alienating. “A modern economic system demands mass production of students who are not educated and have been rendered incapable of thinking,” lamented one group of far-left Situationist students in 1966, in their famous pamphlet On the Poverty of Student Life (Internationale Situationiste 2000). Their view was itself the social product of a severely anomic social experience, as Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron wrote in their famous critique of French class reproduction, The Inheritors.

The unstructured chronology of university life brings students together only negatively, because their individual rhythms may have nothing in common beyond their different ways of differing from the major collective rhythms. (31).
Most students have nothing in common beyond attending the same lectures (32).
More akin to a fluid aggregate than an occupational group… (36).
It is doubtless no accident that Paris students, condemned by the present system to mere spatial coexistence, passive attendance, and solitary competition for qualifications, crushed by the experience of anonymity and the diffuse aggregation of crowds, tend to abandon realistic criticism of reality in favor of the conceptual terrorism of verbal demands which are, to a large extent, satisfied merely by being formulated (37).
(Bourdieu and Passeron 1979 [1964])

Bourdieu and Passeron saw French students as isolated, atomized, bourgeois individuals, produced by an institution that basically produced stratification and inequality, which it legitimated by transforming social capital into educational merit. Decades later, while sociologists argued that the French university was no longer dominated by the French bourgeoisie (Felouzis 2001), it remained, as François Dubet put it, “at once a mass world and an atomized world, which is not a contradiction” (1994:511).

While students were asked to find their own paths through the institution, they were also depersonalized, made into statistics, and subjected to arcane bureaucracies. Meanwhile, this emergent mass space remained classed as well as deeply gendered and racialized. If the white French bourgeois man was able to constitute himself as the universal subject of post-Revolutionary French society (Goldstein 2005), then the very meaning of massification in France was in large part that minoritized subjects — women, postcolonial subjects, proletarians — were increasingly allowed to become university students.

In short, a highly charged, historically contradictory mass space became the precondition for any kind of university subjectivity. At Paris 8, even the most well-connected insiders were constantly surrounded by flows of strangers. The pedestrian spaces of its campus oscillated between density and emptiness. At peak times, the central arteries overflowed with students in motion and the tinny cacophony of overlapping voices. But student flows always died down, leaving behind spaces of drifty near-solitude, inhabited by stragglers, daydreamers, and small groups finding space to sit. The campus was a mass space full of still or rushing bodies, of outdoor cafes in the courtyards swept over in winter by the cold and damp, of social relations that formed or sprang up almost from the void.

I remember being surprised the first time someone hailed me in the hallway. A young man, Etienne, called out my name and asked how my day was going. The hallways were spaces of possible encounters. Everyone was always walking, but we were not Walter Benjamin’s flâneurs: it was too proletarian, too degraded, too unreliable to be a good space for a “viewer who takes pleasure in abandoning himself to the artificial world of high capitalist civilization” (Lauster 2007:140). It was more like a place for the anxious inhabitants of low capitalist civilization.

This mass space was perhaps the extreme limit case of a holding environment, in a psychoanalytic sense (Slochower 1991). Far from being a maternal space of care, campus space was often cold and potentially lonely. Nevertheless, mass space held us together as subjects, and provided vital technical affordances. When we wanted to travel, this mass space let us move around. When we wanted to speak publicly, it had walls that could be written on or talked about. It held onto the public speech of graffiti and flyers as long as they lasted. It provided solitude if you sought it out, or potential to encounter strangers.

For women it readily become a space of sexual harassment. “Sexual harassment is a daily reality” — wrote SUD Etudiant, a radical student union — “a violence exercised in a situation of domination, inscribed in an oppressing and alienating sexist logic.”[7] Meanwhile there was widespread indignation about hygienic issues. “Oh, this is nasty!” a visiting African philosopher exclaimed once when he saw the state of the public toilets. Student activists sought to reclaim space for themselves, in a series of campus occupations. But the university’s mass space, which was kept alive through the unrecognized work of its cleaning and maintenance staff, outlasted all critics and all efforts at reappropriation.

  1. The University’s Internal Regulations began by stating, “The public domain of the University of Paris 8 constitutes an open space freely accessible to the public” (2007–2008, p.14).  ↩

  2. Guide de l’Etudiant 2007/2008, “Règlement sur le respect des personnes et des biens à l’Université,” Art. 4, p. 15.  ↩

  3. Identity card checks were mandatory at some more central Parisian university locations, notably at the historic Sorbonne complex, and they were intermittently implemented at Paris 8 as well.  ↩

  4. Mass urban space of this kind is both a French political project and a phenomenological precondition of current French politics: the streets of Paris may get their cultural definition partly from the political history of barricades, but the barricade is the exception  ↩

  5. Virgile Regnault, Perceptions Paris 8,  ↩

  6. For a global study of massification, see Schofer and Meyer (2005); for French details, see Le Gall and Soulié (2009).  ↩


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