Contents Disappointed Utopia 6. Whose Utopia Is This?

Male students against hierarchy

Given the Department’s susceptibility to logics of provocation and riposte, it should not surprise us that its proclamation of intellectual liberation rapidly provoked a counter-declaration from within the department. The counter-text, also released in March 2009, was called “Conditions for the equality of egos,” though the French title, Conditions pour l’égalité des égos, was actually a pun, since “egos” (égos) and “equals” (égaux) rhyme in French. At any rate, it raised a sweeping and grandiloquent critique of the department’s emancipatory fantasies, basing its critique on the fact that the department was nonetheless structured by an obvious hierarchy between students and teachers. It was signed by two students, Peg and Max, and began with a long quote from the anarchist philosopher Max Stirner, followed by these propositions:

Conditions for the equality of egos:
Considering that this strike [of spring 2009] has called for a movement within the “university community,”
Considering that a community, especially a university community, must have an egalitarian base, that is a community of equals,
Considering that equality in principle is not enough, and that we must also posit its conditions of its realization,
Considering that the mechanisms of separation, selection and hierarchization, resulting from the university’s workings as a social institution, are constraints on the creation of this community of equals,
Considering that for the student, the daily agent of these mechanisms is, among other things, the professor,
Considering that this community is never a fact to preserve, but rather an ideal to pursue, one requiring the admission of faults within a community in order to wrest equality free,
Considering that the experience of Vincennes reminds us that the current state of relations in the university is not the only one possible, that there is neither fate nor necessity in these relations of power, and that they emerge primarily from a lack of will,
Considering finally that this is not about the conditions of an ideal university, but about the minimal basis for our pure and simple presence here as equals. These propositions may seem banal, even already applied de facto. But just as a declaration of independence must be written, these principles only exist insofar as everyone can read and invoke them as it becomes necessary.
We thus appoint ourselves as specialists on our own circumstances, those of undergraduate students [étudiantes et étudiants] in philo. Thus, each one of us, beginning with what he [il] knows, could participate in elaborating these egalitarian principles, across all levels and sites. We begin by proposing the following:
From now on, the student’s decision on his or her own course of study will be preeminent, and the professor’s task will be to accompany him or her in his or her course of research. In other words, it will be impossible for the professor to give up on, abandon or limit access to whatever the student judges pertinent to her intellectual trajectory. We are not subject to any principle of efficiency; we are engaged in research that need not be limited by arbitrary temporal or administrative frameworks.
This implies the following: No age or time limits to finish one’s studies; abolition of required courses; the chance to take courses outside the department as the student sees fit; and no mandatory attendance policies in class.
Abolition of grades. Professorial judgment will limit itself to a simple pass or fail, supplemented by constructive comments and an unlimited chance to revise one’s work until it meets the professor’s criteria. The 20-point grading scale being totally arbitrary and inevitably creating a hierarchy of students, it can only establish a relation of power with the prof and relations of competition between the students. The grade on the 20-point scale often ends up being a summary judgement on the person and her formal academic skills, particularly when it is given out without further explanation. The pass/no pass will be accompanied with comments, suggestions, and whatever can help the student in her thought processes.
Only the student can judge her belonging in a discipline or her way of practicing this discipline. It will no longer be acceptable to impose a single method or a closed definition of a monolithic means of disciplinary practice. Intellectual experimentation transcends a priori bounds.
The relation between student and professor is purely didactic and constructive. Neither arbitrary power nor hierarchy of principle should be proposed.
The professors and administrations have an ethical obligation, as bearers of legal power, to give all possible assistance to students without legal immigration papers.
There will also be a search for equality among students. No hierarchy, whether tacit, by seniority, merit, courseload, fellowship, etc.
[A series of propositions on departmental administration followed.]

Compare the department’s Declaration of University Independence with this co-authored text (call it the Counter-Declaration). The Counter-Declaration reappropriated the language of the Declaration, while mocking it, and adding in a new layer of status consciousness about the professor-student relationship. The Declaration had posited a “plurality” and an “equality” among different participants in the university community, and implicitly cast the Philosophy Department as a virtuous space. It had been short on practical details, demanding merely that the state should fund universities, that the police should stay off campus, and that education should be free.

Meanwhile, the Counter-Declaration had a vivid sense of students being dominated by professors and administrative requirements. It made drastically more concrete demands to abolish grades, attendance, time limits, course requirements, and institutional hierarchies. At the same time, the Counter-Declaration was based on the same moral values that had animated the Declaration, values like freedom, equality and emancipation. It was as if the student authors were claiming to be more true to their department’s values than the professors, and more empirical in their denunciation of existing inequality and domination.

Figure 54: An assembly of the Arts and Philosophy Division (UFR) where I saw Peg speak.
Figure 54: An assembly of the Arts and Philosophy Division (UFR) where I saw Peg speak.

No one gave these student authors much credit for what I would call their realistic observations about institutional hierarchy. Instead, they were suspected of having non-emancipatory motives of their own. Some of the authors’ friends proposed a meeting “in order to pursue, reconsider, (perhaps) radicalize, and comment on this notion of collectivity that has emerged this morning.” But three other students wrote a more skeptical email saying that they needed more time to “untangle the affects, and the individual motivations or resentments involved in the praiseworthy effort to establish a ‘community of equals.’” They accused the authors of misreading Rancière as proposing not a “encounter between a logic of policing and a logic of equality,” but an effort to “replace one police by another police.” The critique was seconded by a philosophy professor who accused Max and Peg of just wanting to become “the boss in the boss’s place.”

In the end, the Counter-Declaration was no less deeply utopian than the Declaration it critiqued. If the initial Declaration had conjured up a profoundly idealized vision of a just state, one which was manifestly impossible to realize on its own terms, then the Counter-Declaration conjured up an equally unrealizable vision of a profoundly idealized future Philosophy Department, as if it were possible to create a university department without inequality. The texts opposed each other in human terms, fueling a largely male political drama. But they shared a powerful irrealism and a set of utopian values. These “emancipatory” values again seemed not to emerge from individual consciousness, but to be borrowed by individuals from the Philosophy Department’s collective culture. It was almost as if, the less these values were ever realized in practice, the more they remained available for collective aspiration.

This cycle of critiques and counter-critiques suggests that the utopian gambit of a Declaration of Independence was itself a moment in a cycle of radical one-upmanship. There was no single utopian subject position here: there were a series of local logics that produced utopian gestures and discourses as part of an antagonistic field of subjectivities. Utopianism almost became a spectacle. In this spectacle, one tiny utopian gambit would negate the next, only to be in turn opposed by a third. The same anti-institutional gestures got repeated, replicated at new scales, translated into new contexts, redirected from one contradiction to the next. We sense here the contours of an emergent cultural system. Perhaps any specific utopian gambit was an unstable affair. But a metastability became apparent from the sheer pattern of repetition of these gambits. Maybe metastability was the only way that the Philosophy Department could make its contradictions into something durable.

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