Before we come to the rest of the book, let me just say a few words about how I gathered the data. This project is based on a large, omnivorous ethnographic archive, assembled through full-time anthropological fieldwork in France from June 2009 to April 2011, complemented with a few short visits afterwards. I did the obvious things: I interviewed dozens of teachers, staff and students; I observed philosophy classes for several semesters; I built friendships and socialized with the locals; I attended protests and political meetings; I collected institutional documents and political tracts; I chatted on Facebook; I made audio recordings and took photographs (though seldom of people’s faces); I explored historical texts, course brochures and demographic data; and I read philosophers’ written work, though never exhaustively.
This Department, I should probably emphasize, was not primarily a band of revolutionaries on the verge of storming the National Assembly. It was a diverse group of foreigners, tenured radicals, disaffected youth, dreamers, cynics, male chauvinists, feminists, union organizers, shy kids, retiring patriarchs, survivors of the 70s, ex-schoolteachers, literati, amateur novelists, and institutional power brokers. It was never reducible to a single subject position, political stance, or sociological trajectory. This book is not a sociology of all those actors, but I have tried to give a sociological sketch of this world in an appendix. The initial point is just that it was a diverse, multiplicitous space.
In the face of that diversity, my research archive was shaped, for better or worse, by a methodological choice I made early on. Initially, I wanted to focus on the figures at the heart of the political and institutional life of the Philosophy Department, and I ended up becoming somewhat close to the white, French departmental leadership. At the time, the department was mainly led by a group of senior male professors — Patrice Vermeren, Stéphane Douailler, Georges Navet, and Eric Lecerf — who had been associated with Jacques Rancière and his radical historicism. Someone called them the “Rancière channel,” a useful label which I will retain below; it was largely through their collective work that “emancipation” remained a common theme in departmental culture. They were ambivalent, reflexive figures themselves, and they may have hoped that my work would reflect their own ambivalence back to them. Before arriving in France, I had been dismayed by a tendency in French ethnography to seek out the Others of French metropolitan society (rural villages, immigrants, the far right), and I imagined that by focusing on left-wing white academics, I could contribute to “studying up” or “studying sideways.” But I was soon reminded in France that institutionally dominant actors do not stand in isolation. Indeed, they are only comprehensible in terms of their relationships to other kinds of social subjects. Relationships organized around varying degrees of hospitality, diverse relations to otherness. Perhaps this is a book about a set of ambiguous relationships, within which, in spite of it all, a few utopian things happened.
See “Sociological sketch of the Philosophy Department.” ↩