Contents Disappointed Utopia 6. Whose Utopia Is This?

A declaration of university independence

Let us now “turn to the text” — a classic philosophical gesture, obviously — and consider Pour une déclaration universelle d’indépendance et d’interdépendance des universités (For a Universal Declaration of University Independence and Interdependence). The final version was released on March 12, 2009; it had been originally just called “Declaration of university independence” (Déclaration d’indépendance des universités). We saw in Chapter 1 that French philosophy has long invoked a problematic white universalism, and in the Declaration, the universalism was right there in the title. But what did it mean?

Figure 52:  Printed version of the Universal Declaration of Independence and Interdependence of the Universities.
Figure 52: Printed version of the Universal Declaration of Independence and Interdependence of the Universities.

I have tried to improve slightly on the published English translation.

For a universal declaration of university independence and interdependence
There are no constraints more forceful than those that the human spirit, which has invented them all, exerts on itself in the form of thought. The most powerful thought is the most demanding. Truth and creation, beauty and justice, reason and unreason are but some of the names men have given to this demand. Arts and sciences, crafts and techniques: all those disciplines called to ensure thought’s disquieting existence are equally the very expression of its demand. Any power, whether political, religious, economic or otherwise, which refuses to submit to it is doomed to wither away.
Believing that the demand of thought and its conditions of use need not disappear, nor be effaced by powers that use them while pretending to serve them; and believing that universities have in this regard a responsibility towards the present, past and future peoples of the world; we, who one way or another have all participated in these universal rights and obligations of thought, have undertaken to state the commitments that this demand imposes.
Article I: Independence of thought consists in being able to experiment, subject to their own determinations, with those chains of understanding which yield knowledge and its oeuvres. The exercise of this independence thus has no bounds besides those which afford others the possibility of proving, attesting and evaluating its validity. These bounds can only be determined by a community of equals in an independent university.
Article II: All men and all women in all circumstances possess an inalienable right to verify the equality of their intelligence with that of anyone else.
Article III: Independence of thought is shared among all those who engage in research, teaching or study. It must be the same for all, regardless of their place in the university, their social or national origins, their religious and ethnic belonging, their age and their sexual identity.
Article IV: The university is made from the plurality of languages and cultures. It contributes to their continuing creativity.
Article V: The university encourages and promotes the free migration of people and of thought.
Article VI: The free circulation of thought and knowledge is based on an unconditional right of access to all the sources and means of understanding. No censor can inhibit these sources of circulation.
Article VII: Whoever engages in and contributes to research, teaching or study should be able to think critically without fear of censure, repression or inquisition.
Article VIII: The university exists outside the space controlled by the police or the force of arms. Its space exists only where it can associate freely.
Article IX: The value of a thought bound by the constraint of truth can be based solely on the protocols by which it is put to the test. Its evaluation within the university is the task of those who enact these protocols in research, teaching, and study; it is public and subject to correction.
Article X: The university is rich in spaces and experiences of emancipation. As such, it is public.
Article XI: The university’s academic policy is a function of its production of knowledge and of means of understanding. Questions of return on investment play no part in it, nor in the distribution of academic finances. The university’s autonomy must be guaranteed by the public powers.
Article XII: No person wishing to study may be forced to stop on account of the university’s financial or practical organization. No one may be obliged to mortgage their life through work or loans, or to accept unjust circumstances. On the contrary, they should receive all necessary material support.
Article XIII: Everyone who works at the university is a full member of a community that guarantees equality of respect and rights to all.
Article XIV: Among the world’s centers of teaching, research and creation, only those whose higher purpose is to enact these principles shall deserve the name “university.”
Article XV: Any society, any State, that violates these principles shall be said to have no university.
Article XVI: Any university aiming to enact these principles shall have the right to place itself under the protection of other universities and international organizations. Every university that signs this declaration thereby undertakes to give its support to those who request it, on the basis of the principles set out.

You might find this text abstract, given its emphasis on “unconditional” and “inalienable” rights, its rhetoric of universalism and free thought, and its impersonal declaratives. It was a text that tried to speak once for everyone, to apply universally, and to speak on behalf of universal values. Nevertheless, it was a deeply French, deeply philosophical text, shot through with traces of its own context of production. In fact it balanced between two ambivalences: an ambivalence about philosophy and an ambivalence about the state. Its universalism was in this context deeply compensatory. Universalism (at least, the language and aspirations of universalism) was deployed hopefully, as if it could give these philosophers a way out of the traps of their own history.

The first ambivalence is that this is a deeply philosophical text that nevertheless presented itself as a nondisciplinary document. Philosophy is a paradox in the modern French system of disciplines. Organizationally, it is merely one field among many in the modern system of academic disciplines. Yet ideologically, it has a history of claiming to represent Frenchness and universal knowledge in general, and particularly in the 19th century, it used to lay claim to a special status as “queen of the disciplines” (Fabiani 1988). The Declaration embodied the paradox of a field at once branch and root. It proposed an ambiguous, liminal relationship to universalism. It spoke of a universal “demand” that thought imposed on us, but it envisioned this requirement as a zone of intellectual heterogeneity. Thus thought was seen as emerging from a multitude of “disciplines,” “arts,” “sciences,” “techniques” and “crafts,” all of which seemed to have an equal claim to “express” thought’s ”demands.” In this, the text was true to Paris 8’s general valorization of interdisciplinary research. It never even mentioned philosophy as such.

But the closet disciplinarity here was only barely hidden. It is scarcely surprising that a group of philosophers brought along their philosophical values, claims and presuppositions. By beginning with “thought,” the Declaration enshrined a key philosophical concept at the heart of its image of the university. And the subsequent image of intellectual activity — with its “protocols by which [thought] is put to the test,” “chains of understanding” which get traversed, and a commitment to staying “open to correction” — was patently based on the ideal conditions of philosophical research. This was an image of university inquiry that involved no laboratories, no archives, no experimental apparatus, no fieldwork and no professional training. It only required a Socratic commitment to public dialogue and to certain rules of intellectual method. The image of “an inalienable right to verify the equality of their intelligence with that of anyone else” came, however, not from Socrates, but from Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1991 [1986]), a deeply anti-academic book which had idealized undisciplined, proletarian intellectual inquiry.

This being said, the Philosophy Department itself was deeply un-representative of academic philosophy in France. It was institutionally heterodox and marginal, in spite of its heritage of famous figures. Its current professors’ work was often discounted or ignored by many Parisian intellectuals. This Declaration was thus a philosophical project made from the margins of the discipline. It could, in fact, be seen as an attempt to transcend the Department’s own disciplinarity marginality, as if saying: we may be marginal within our field, but we can still claim to represent national and even universal values, like thought and emancipation. I never came across a utopian Declaration of Independence written by any other French philosophy department, and the text was not necessarily well received elsewhere. Marcel told me that one philosopher at the elite Ecole Nationale Supérieure had dismissed the text as “extremely pretentious” until they heard that it had been endorsed by “big names” such as Badiou.[4]

Meanwhile the Declaration also radiated a more properly political ambivalence, which emerged from the postcolonial French left’s uneasy compromise between nationalism and internationalism. On one hand, the Declaration was a beautifully multicultural, internationalist text. It contained neither explicit Eurocentrism nor any explicit critique of Eurocentrism. Instead it valorized a horizontal image of “the plurality of languages and cultures” (Art. IV), freedoms of migration (Art. V), and open access to knowledge (VI). It even announced a utopian aspiration to form a global network of “universities and international organizations” that would offer each other mutual aid (Art. XVI). Instead of advocating overt conflict with the powers that be, the text advocated building utopian institutions in the present, announcing an ambitious vision of a university that would be autonomous from the state, “outside the space controlled by the police or the force of arms” (Art. VIII).[5] It was even signed “Initiative XCIII,” a nod to “Department 93” where the university was located, as if insisting that universal thought could emerge even from the banlieue.

But even as the Declaration pictured a world of universities outside of state power, it went on to demand a great deal from the state apparatus, in exchange for which it offered the state nothing in particular. Implicitly, it laid claim to a large share of the state budget, since it advocated that anyone wanting to be a student should be fully supported by unspecified public funds (Art. XII). It hinted at an expensive abolition of precarious university labor, arguing that all campus workers should be “full members of a community that guarantees equality of respect and rights” (Art. XIII). And the Declaration’s theory of campus finances was ultimately based on a deeply French form of statist idealization, since it presumed a centralized, powerful state apparatus that would fund academic institutions while remaining sufficiently virtuous to avoid meddling or police intervention on campus. The Declaration thus embodied a French left-utopian account of the state as guarantor of national justice. Not incidentally, it was just this sort of non-capitalist left statism that was under attack by the Sarkozy reforms.

Inasmuch as it presupposed a system of national states, the Declaration’s internationalism remained radically limited. Far from picturing a post- or transnational system of social institutions, it enshrined the nation-state as the underlying socioeconomic unit that would somehow choose to underwrite the infrastructure of a global system of emancipatory institutions. Its political horizon was arguably what we could call a utopian, purified vision of social democracy.[6] It was utopian inasmuch as its values were pure, but it had no theory of how to realize them.

Still, it was a beautiful image: a university outside the market, open to all without debt or precarity, without censorship or hierarchy, without symbolic violence. It was at once the inversion of the Sarkozy government’s own policy proposals and, in a sense, of Paris 8 as it actually existed. It was no doubt a contradictory product of post-sixties intellectual utopians trying to theorize their place within a postcolonial state apparatus, and within a discipline that had long been denounced as an organ of bourgeois ideology. Thus while the text’s universalism certainly resonated with a long heritage of Eurocentric universalisms, it was also a critique of some of these. Stéphane Douailler compared it to the 1988 Magna Charta Universitatum, a similarly universalist declaration which had been signed by a group of European university rectors in Bologna. The Magna Charta had proclaimed optimistically that “A university is the trustee of the European humanist tradition.” But the Magna Charta had failed to prevent neoliberalization, while Douailler hoped that the Philosophy Department’s declaration would mobilize a fight against it.

It had no large-scale impact, in the end. The text hung in the Department hallway among other aging posters and was taken down after a few years. I am not sure anyone ever expected much more than that. In this light, the Declaration has to be read as a discourse by Paris 8’s philosophers for themselves, an effort to compensate, at least symbolically, for their own longstanding contradictions. Its image of beautiful, polished radicality and unambivalence deployed universalist rhetoric to conceal its own localism.

  1. Badiou had taught at Paris 8 throughout most of his career, but had been elevated late in life to a position at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, thus transcending the banlieue marginality.  ↩

  2. This claim drew on a French tradition that dates back to the medieval period, according to which universities were set apart from the usual police regimes. I believe that this derived from the fact that universities were established via special arrangements with Church or King, and thus were exempt from local municipal regulation.  ↩

  3. I think here of “social democracy” in a generally Gaullist vein as designating a political system dominated by the state, which mediates powerfully between capital and society, ensuring the likely antagonistic coexistence of public (nonmarket) and private (capitalist-market) sectors. On this model, the state thus has to mediate the ensuing social tensions and contradictions, incorporating repressive forces (the police and military) as well as progressive ideals (liberty, solidarity, and so on). I would submit that, while the term “social democrat” was a dirty word on the French Left, a generally social democratic imaginary came to dominate French left-wing expectations after the 1970s.  ↩

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