Contents Disappointed Utopia 6. Whose Utopia Is This?

The logics of utopianism

It is only one last irony that one of the most utopian gestures I saw in Saint-Denis was a defense of the non-neoliberal public university. On one account, “after 1968, everyone agreed unanimously that the University was dead. Dead, yes, but like a cancer: it was spreading.”[1] Forty years later, my interlocutors wanted the opposite: for the university to keep living. But on what terms?

I suggested at the outset of this book that utopianism is not a project but a gambit: a tactical intervention against dominant futures as anything else (Rose 2016b). How does a utopian gambit work? And if local utopianism was a utopianism without a subject, how does something get pushed “outside of subjectivity”? This last chapter inspects that process — the process of making utopianism be nonsubjective — by exploring the writing of a utopian University Declaration of Independence.

The Paris 8 Philosophy Department produced the Declaration in 2009 during the French university strike of that springtime. Writing this Declaration was far from straightforward. It brought out a whole series of antagonisms and contradictions. Many of these, in turn, were symptoms of their historical moment, which was a moment of neoliberalization and frustrated resistance in the French public university system.[2] In June 2009, at the moment of my arrival, it remained unclear whether the university protest movement was bound for failure, and campus activists were full of mixed feelings.

Yet the University Declaration of Independence, published on March 12, 2009 at the height of the university movement, opened with an abstract romance of thought that went beyond ambivalence. “There are no constraints more forceful,” it began, “than those that the human spirit, which has invented all of them, exerts on itself in the form of thought.” A famous theme, this: the creator trapped by her own inventions, which take on a life, or rather a force, of their own. “The most powerful thought is the most demanding,” it continued. Thought starts to seem like its own thing, something not quite “in a subject” but potentially with a life of its own. The text then waxed poetic: “Truth and creation, beauty and justice, reason and unreason are but some of the names men have given to this demand.” So thought demands beauty of us, and not vice versa: thought demands justice, thought demands truth, thought demands all sorts of marvelous things… Thought, for these philosophers, thus got imagined as a repository of unambivalent ideals: as a container for radical affirmations. (The word men was contested, as we will see.)

In this chapter, I read this Declaration of University Independence as an emblematic case of desubjectified utopianism. The analysis begins with two major observations. First, the Declaration revealed a local practice of voicing utopianism which mandated that utopian ideals should be presented impersonally, solemnly, purely, and in carefully objectified form. The Declaration itself was written, in short, as if its radical positivity could not appear in the first person, or even via any ordinary human voice, but rather had to get filtered through something outside a subject. Thus instead of saying that We are committed to truth and justice, the Declaration states that thought demands truth and justice, as if thought acted by itself.

Second, the process by which the Declaration was produced was a utopian process without a clear social subject. The project of the Declaration was initially proposed by more marginal actors and then appropriated from them; and the official Declaration then spawned a counter-declaration from other student radicals, who denounced the utopian pretentions of their professors. The authors of this counter-declaration were denounced personally in turn. In sum, I found that the Department’s moment of seemingly unambivalent utopianism was actually a moment of social antagonism that ricocheted among differently positioned subjects.

These two points suggest that we are dealing with a utopianism that was not born out by a definite social subject, and that furthermore was artfully engineered to make unambivalent ideals seem to be anchored outside of subjectivity. Let us call desubjectification the process of putting something outside subjectivity. I presume that this process is at least conceivable. It is an anthropological commonplace that people often like their ideals to seem to come from the beyond. But while some groups would ground their ideals in heroic pasts, divine interventions, or biological essentialisms, these French philosophers anchored their alienated idealism in a romance of “thought.” If we can grant that an alienated utopianism seemed to emerge from this Declaration — alienated in the sense of misattributing the products of local praxis to something beyond — we can then ask how this was produced.

By asking how desubjectification happens, we can set aside a version of critical analysis that begins with the fact of alienated consciousness and then asks what functions it “serves.” Instead we examine the processes by which things get alienated and desubjectified in the first place.[3] Alienation itself is surely never a stable form; it turns back on itself and shifts with the circumstances. Nor is alienation quite the same thing as desubjectification, but here they are closely linked. In any event, I begin here not from a spirit of ideological critique but from the post-Hegelian thought that all social forms are forms-in-motion, and that all historical motion is in turn genred and patterned. What social form did a Declaration of Independence set in motion? When utopians alienate their ideals in an effort to attain something uncompromised, do the very forms of their utopian estrangement shift?

As always, unambivalence is not primary, but is a furtive reaction to ambivalence. In the same way, utopianism is not primary, but is a political reaction to a world of political blockage and frustration. There were numerous logics of reaction which coalesced into something like a utopianism outside subjectivity. These reactive logics were: (1) a logic of making political exceptions to political exceptions; (2) a logic of compensatory universalism; (3) a logic of policing the limits of radicalism; (4) a logic of radical one-upmanship and denunciation; and (5) a logic of narrative closure premised on masculine scorn. The logics that produced utopianism were thus not themselves utopian.

  1. Foucault 1994, Vol 2:782.  ↩

  2. For more comprehensive histories of this political moment, see particularly Beaud et al (2010), Brisset (2009), Rose (2014, 2019).  ↩

  3. There is a parallel here to Latour’s image of scientific knowledge (1987), in which natural scientific claims begin as claims and get progressively transformed into putative objectivity.  ↩

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