Contents Disappointed Utopia Miscellany

A subaltern seminar on the university

I originally knew the subaltern research group called UFR0 (see Chapter 6) from its seminar on “the university.” We met in autumn 2009 on Monday nights, in a group of mostly subaltern young men, largely from working-class, Maghrébin origins. Our seminar had a leader, Eric-Olivier, whose eloquence, intelligence, and capacity to improvise and free-associate gave him a genuine charismatic authority. Each week, Eric-Olivier led us through a series of Derridean verbal improvisations on the question of the university. He generally began with some textual point of departure, which he called a “roll of the dice” (as if gesturing towards avant-garde literary formalism). These included the linguistic theory of a “zero determinant”; the curious story of a 19th-century Norwegian polar explorer, F. Nandsen; the “start of a science fiction: the University-Airport and the waiting room for a flight without a destination.” Some fragments from our discussion of the University-Airport give us a sense of the style, with its dreamy free association.

An airport has no outside.
In Louvain la Neuve, a town in Belgium, it’s impossible to leave — like in an airport — the only way out is by expressway — everyone there just spends their time drinking. There’s an absence of outside.
In an airport, there are para-places. There are spaces of transit. There are non-places. Is it an absence of outside? Or a door leading elsewhere? There’s jetlag.
A university, too, has no doors, no outside…
With our imaginations, we’ll explore this university-airport. A university still to come, not the actual university. A university where we can let our imaginations run loose. Me, I stand up in the hall, I see imaginary people. Fictional people.
We could have airport-style announcements for UFR0. There’s too much luggage at UFR0. Too much baggage at the university. It’s too heavy. Too many suitcases. It holds you back but also lets you go farther. Lost luggage will be destroyed. Deleuze’s last manuscript was in a lost suitcase that got blown up in the metro.
Every department/UFR could be an airline. Offering flights. — Towards what destination? It’s a transdimensional airport — there are figures from the past, pasts to visit.
A childlike simplicity.
For many, the university is a nightmare. For us, it is a dream. A phantasm that, perhaps, starts to take place when the university’s on strike.
I dunno, there are paths. Rolls of the dice. There’s a random side. The side of connections. Everyone could write texts. We have a sort of faith in the university. It’s a deconstruction of the profession.
A prophet is someone who intervenes at a given moment, looks over a situation, leaves. But a priest: has a post, a job.
There’s so much to do, to write, we can’t stop, as long as we’re still here…

In this discourse, the university was reimagined as a scene of possibility and claustrophobia, a “waiting room for a flight without destination.” It seemed to have “no outside.” Yet it still retained metaphorical potential. The university’s excessive baggage could be destroyed or abandoned. We were not limited by the constraints of academic reason. Only by the play of imagination and the sense of an audience.

In a sense, this discourse took itself more seriously than a normal classroom conversation. Eric-Olivier always insisted that we were genuinely doing collective research through our conversations. Some of the youngest, most marginal men, such as my graffiti-artist acquaintance Etienne, seemed happy to have a degree of respect.

Later, I was struck above all by a little formula that emerged from that night’s discourse. For many, the university is a nightmare. For us, it is a dream.

As the formula points out, the disappointment, frustration and rage with the university that haunt so many critics are themselves a socially specific perspective. I have suggested elsewhere that disappointment with the university is at its peak among disappointed elites, who had been led to see the university as a scene of promises (Rose 2016a). But for those who were never supposed to feel at home in the university, those on the wrong side of class or racial lines, the “dream” of doing something with the university could itself become a form of subaltern freedom. It became a dream to play at reimagining a university that had always been a hostile space, full of nonproletarian class codes.

The debates at UFR0 seemed to feel free to their participants. The codes of academic debate were transformed into a space of subaltern charisma and improvisation. The participants often sat transfixed as Eric-Olivier spoke, or they reacted freely to his words. There was a sort of engaged listening in this seminar that I rarely saw in a philosophy classroom, where a quiet hierarchy tended to reign. Eric-Olivier was reviving a radical premise: that knowledge could take you someplace new, and not just to the inside of an existing scholarly discipline.

This, in turn, was not genuinely novel. It was but an odd realization of the ostensible premises of the Philosophy Department itself. Just as the Philosophy Department had advocated “adventures in thought” as a way of departing from traditional disciplinary codes, so too did UFR0 attempt free improvisation as a way of departing from Paris 8’s standard institutional hierarchies. It felt like freedom; it was also a form of unconscious repetition.

I would go so far as to say that it was emancipatory if you were there, in the trance of the free association. It was emancipatory if you were able to belong to the tiny in-group, to stomach the toxic gender imbalance and the deliberate indifference to academic rigor. It was emancipatory if you were able to suspend your disbelief. It was emancipatory for men.

It was also an unstable experiment. UFR0 stopped meeting later in 2010, a victim of its own drift towards insular sexist masculinism, of the changing political mood, and of its incompatibility even with Paris 8’s lax standards of academic inquiry. It became the laughingstock of the Philosophy Department, no longer taken seriously at all. I did not stay in touch with the participants. We were from such different worlds. But its participants showed me, at least, that new utopian experiments could be generated from within disappointed-utopian institutions. This is how you recognize a disappointed-utopian institution: it spawns new utopian projects on its own margins.

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