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A working class philosopher

One of the philosophers I came to know best, Georges Navet, had intimidated me considerably when I first met him, as he sat at a desk facing his classroom at the start of the year. Approaching retirement, he generally appeared in an elegantly wrapped scarf and dark coat, and maintained a certain reserve of formality, which set him apart in his largely informal departmental climate.[5] If class origin is class identity, then he was a working-class philosopher.[6] Yet you could not necessarily have ever known that from looking at him. His most visible characteristic as a teacher was his remarkable historical knowledge, which always framed his comments on philosophical texts. He was always very modest about his career, and austere in his self-descriptions. Born in a proletarian family, he had done well with the French academic system: when I met him, he was a senior professor nearing retirement. He listed “emancipation” as one of his research specialties and for our second interview, he sent me an essay commenting on Marx’s relationship to an obscure French scholar, Nicolas Henri Simon Linguet. Linguet, wrote Navet, held that the class struggle was untranscendable.

Figure 59: Georges Navet in the Latin Quarter, 2012.
Figure 59: Georges Navet in the Latin Quarter, 2012.

I was curious about the meaning of Marx in this post-Marxian milieu, and I wrote to him eventually to ask how he would situate himself. Navet wrote back with a summary autobiography.

Let’s say it brutally: with all due reverence for Marx’s theoretical and critical genius, I’ve never really been able to be Marxist. Two things I believe were at play. 1) Paradoxically, the fact of being born in a workers’ milieu (in the massive proletarian banlieue of Lyon): How could one believe even for an instant in the messianic mission of the proletariat, when one has known the workers’ universe up close, from a human perspective, or a family perspective? It’s already saying too much to use the word “universe,” given how much it’s ruled by individualism, by getting out of scrapes, by the desire to escape one’s condition, and, at the same time, by a spirit that I can only call “populo”…

A whole world emerged unexpectedly from Navet’s past, and the very weight of this world ruled out any Marxist “messianism.” The populo spirit designated the vivacity of the French plebs, which was organized, I gathered, by a spirit of masculine riposte. But this world had a doxic force of its own, and Navet escaped into his books. Literature became Reason #2 why he was not Marxist:

2) The proponderance that literature has always had for me: it happens that very early (thanks to Livres de Poche) I was able to read people like Balzac, Stendhal, Hugo […] Zola too […] It’s a formidable school, I was saying, that one does not leave unscathed, above all perhaps with Stendhal, who teaches you to do the sidestep — irony or humor — that allows you at once to set aside your burdens [pesanteurs] (institutions, prejudices) and to comprehend the radical contingency (and thereby the arbitrariness and injustice) of the established order (which does not signify that this order would be easy to undermine — quite the contrary).

Philosophy had later given Navet the tools for expressing this “sidestep of irony,” but it was not the source of his initial intuition that the social world was radically contingent. In fact, the radical contingency of the academic world had been obvious in Navet’s early years as a teacher. I learned this from a radical journal, The Doctrinal of Sapience, which he published in the 1970s along with Vermeren, Douailler, and other young philosophy teachers. In the journal’s fourth issue, in 1978, Navet had proposed a remarkably anthropological theory of philosophy as a system of exchange. As a young male philosopher from a working-class family, Navet came to picture philosophy as an unstable system of exchange that traps you and permanently instrumentalizes your desires for rupture.

At first, the master and the disciple are locked in a homosocial recognition struggle:

The philosopher has a marvelousness [une superbe] that is not linked to the individual but to his quality. This marvelousness (or this theoretical narcissism), by its play of seduction, hypnosis and fascination, creates the disciple through whom it prolongs itself, builds itself up and gets off on itself. The superior couldn’t be superior without an inferior who proves his superiority by aspiring to become superior in his turn. The philosopher elicits the disciple, or rather the relationship between master and disciple, without which his prestige falls apart, along with his marvelousness. The disciple must be proud to be the disciple of such a master. Nevertheless, the relationship does not cease to be ambivalent. On one hand, the master, who stands for the Masters and for the tradition, which he interprets, is devoted to a perpetual one-upmanship which preserves his superiority (and his monopoly) on the disciple. On the other hand, in his very allegiance, the disciple desires to supplant the master, or in any case to get beyond him.
[Navet 1978:2]

The ironic tone that Navet had learned from Stendhal shone through, as he worked to denaturalize the “marvelousness” or “superb quality” of the philosophers. He invoked structuralist and psychoanalytic idioms, then still current, to make sense of what he saw as an unstable system that produced a perpetual debt cycle.

The relationship is even more trapped than one thinks, or rather, more than the disciple thinks. In the end, the master gives more than the disciple can give back… Or rather: there is an inadequation, an irreversibility, between what the master brings (an interpretation, a model, an initiation) and what the disciple gices back (an admiration, an obedience). He hampers his future and becomes the eternal debtor, not just of the master, but of philosophy. The circle of reproduction (or of succession) closes: devoid of the master, master in his turn, the disciple can only try to get himself out of debt by inscribing it in new disciples.

So there is no escape from this circle, which was radically gendered. Navet’s language and grammar was masculine, and inasmuch as the circular time of reproduction is also generically associated with women’s realms, his anxiety about reproduction was haunted by the shadow of women. Navet noted himself that the philosophical system of ambivalence was profoundly masculine. In a footnote — everything always comes out in the footnotes — he remarked that the “feudal” aspect of philosophical exchange, with its exchanges of fealty between lord and vassal, “invites us to think that the philosophical relationship is essentially masculine” (1978:3n4). He added: “Which is no doubt true. Question: What are women and what do they do in a feudal system?” In a feudal system, presumably everyone is trapped. Thus Navet noted that the very act of trying to get out of the system is still part of it.

A furtive gesture of sharing, a false dialectic between master and disciple, which prolongs itself when the philosopher is strategically at war with other philosophers and with philosophy. Let us add that the latter attitude in no way gets you out of the circle: a supreme ruse, which subordinates by the promise of an always receding liberation.

This was surely the most full-fledged theory of philosophical ambivalence that I ever encountered in France. The relationship between masters and disciples was ambivalent and “trapped”; the bitter moments of rejecting the whole philosophical enterprise were themselves part of its mode of reproduction. And by the time I met Navet, he had become the master in due course. His students (my friends Ishmael and Marcel among them) were generally so impressed by his superb qualities that they rarely dreamed of outdoing him.

Navet shows us that the local system of ambivalence was based on masculine homosociality, which organized philosophers’ investments and incited them to melodramatic rebellions. This system was premised on a basic mode of gender and class exclusion.[7] Its was not the only possible ambivalence, of course: Navet was ambivalent about his own class of origin too, crediting its pleb spirit while fully participating in its escapist impulses. But the difference, perhaps, was that you could escape the proletariat, while the philosophical petty-bourgeoisie had learned to prevent any escape. I enjoyed Navet’s masculine reflexivity, to be honest. But I was never sure where it led politically. He was one of those professors who would come to protests, but did not organize them.

  1. Informal address (tu instead of vous) had become common in the early years of Paris 8, as a means of rejecting the formality of the traditional academic establishment.  ↩

  2. I would not in fact maintain that class origin necessarily confers class identity. In studying locations in class, one has to study the whole class trajectory across the lifecourse.  ↩

  3. Navet was particularly conscious of the class dimensions of philosophical belonging. He noted that philosophical debate was reminiscent of “the quarrels over heritage, contract and descent in bourgeois law” (1978:2). And the teacher, he wrote (Navet 1977:3), was “on one hand a petty bourgeois without great power; on the other hand the holder of a function, bearer of coercive means.”  ↩

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