Contents Disappointed Utopia Miscellany

An aging professor’s narrative

At one point I interviewed one of the longest serving professors, Alain Brossat, a Trotskyist philosopher who had arrived during the early days of Vincennes as a doctoral student. He chose to recount the Department’s history to me in some detail. Brossat arranged to meet me off-campus in November 2010, at the Maison des Sciences Humaines-Paris Nord, where he had a secondary affiliation. I showed up a little early and watched him arrive precisely at 2pm, in a small car that might have been a Passat, and we climbed up into the curious premises of the MSH, with its rubberized staircase, its painted glass and metal doors, its rooftop terrace, its sense of calm. The neighborhood disappeared from sight; it was a Friday; the premises were deserted. We sat in a classroom with big windows, with a tall telecommunications tower rising up to the east. “It’s a military base,” Brossat said, and he twiddled a pen as he told his story.

The project of Paris 8, initially called an Experimental University Institute, was political from its inception, he said, and teaching at Vincennes was a “profession of faith.” For some new disciplines, like psychoanalysis, the experiment made it possible to insert themselves into the French academy; for others, like geography, it helped to politicize existing academic fields. But from the start, it was always a deeply litigious” space, an “ungovernable site,” he called it, with huge amounts of time spent in internal quarrels between far-left groups and in “psychodramas.” “You’re not nostalgic?” I eventually ventured. “No,” he said.

For some teachers, the university’s 1980 forced relocation from Vincennes to Saint-Denis was “lived as a tragedy,” and this attachment to the university’s original site was still visible thirty years later in my fieldwork. For Brossat, though, Vincennes was only ever a “provisional camp,” and never the “site of enchantment” that some made it out to be. “One cannot say that it was a marvelous heterotopia. It was much more complicated than that. It had to change to stay a university; it’s evident that a university site can’t be a site of 100% subversion and experimentation… Teaching presupposes certain conditions of stability. We were living on another planet… but there are forms of normalization that are pretty much inevitable.”

The internal problems of the original experiment were both physical and political, it seemed. The university was long run by “Stalinists,” he explained, meaning traditional members of the French Communist Party. But the Philosophy Department was composed of very few traditional Communists, and full instead of internal debates between Trotskyists and Maoists. So there were frequent clashes with the administration and with the public authorities. On a physical level, there were often no chairs in the rooms, since they had been taken for street protests — “To throw at the cops?” I asked. “No, to make into clubs [matraques].” And the university’s scarce funds meant that most of the teaching staff were precarious chargés de cours (part-time contract teachers).

The department was always a space of conflict, Brossat concluded, and it never had a common identity. In its early years, it only shared a certain number of presuppositions (des implicites), like an attack on traditional philosophy, and a teaching of revolutionary doctrine, generally Marxist. But as the department aged, this project of teaching revolutionary philosophy was gradually given up, and the department became a place where particular philosophers — especially the big names of Deleuze and Lyotard — would “elaborate their own thought.” In short, for Brossat, over time there had been a privatization or individualization of the departmental project, and an evaporation of its politics.

During the years of stigmatization in the 1970s, the department was directed by François Châtelet, a traditional historian of philosophy who “kept the department alive.” But slowly, Brossat explained, “the names associated with the department became well-known abroad,” and it became “no longer possible to see the department as a bunch of jokers [rigolos].” In this slow rise into higher status, Brossat nevertheless saw a paradox: that the department came to be treated as the inheritor of this philosophical tradition after its key figures had already departed. The department became well-known after the death of Lyotard and Deleuze; and Rancière and Badiou would retire from the department as they became increasingly successful. Moreover, Brossat added, “the best specialists in Foucault, Deleuze, etc., are not necessarily at Paris 8,” even if the department was their “objective” or institutional heir. “It’s a sort of miracle,” he concluded, “that made it possible for us to survive.”

This survival came with a price that he considered inevitable: the department had gradually become normalized. “It’s a department like any other. The quality of its teaching is variable. Its reputation doesn’t correspond to any particular excellence. And in two or three years, when all the people left from the 1960s, like me, will be gone, nothing will set it apart. We’re just at the very ending of the story. And the current crowd who run the department have only accelerated the process of normalization… What will become of it afterwards? I really don’t know.”

For that matter, he emphasized again, the department had never constituted a collectivity in the first place. “There has never been a life of the department. There are friends, groups, etc, but never a philosophy policy. It’s always been a matter of conflicts, psychodramas, cliques; some people in power, others ostracized; it’s always been empty. With a sort of latent violence. It’s never had a collective de pensée; one does absolutely what one wants. I don’t know how they manage to make a degree program out of it; we have a liberty that’s absolutely anarchic, and always an absence of internal life, of shared life; it’s the regime of cliques, of clans. This works for those who love power and those who don’t — after all, some people just don’t want to get bogged down in it. For everything that people said about the old department chair — his authoritarian side, his slightly bovine attitude — he kept things going.” As for himself, I asked? “Exercising these little powers — it’s never excited me.”

In the meantime, the department faced a surplus of internal problems. “The profs are like everyone else — conformist, conservative. Sure, they’re on the left, but what does that even mean, being on the left today? And in the department, some of the teachers are phantoms, there are bogus courses, a considerable absenteeism… it’s scandalous! They don’t do the minimum.” Brossat’s view of the larger philosophical field was equally harsh: bereft of its former mission of transmitting “Republican ideology and humanist knowledge,” philosophy logically should disappear, he argued. But for the powers that be, he suggested, it hadn’t been worth the bother of killing off, leaving French university philosophers in a state of unexpected freedom. The problem, he concluded, was that “we don’t do anything much with this autonomy.”

More than his colleagues at the time, Brossat was ready to historicize and objectify the department’s project, and he paid a particular attention to his department’s tacit accommodations to academic market norms. For it was, on his account, the very success of the department’s famous philosophical stars — like Deleuze and Lyotard — that had helped evacuate the department’s commitment to (loosely) revolutionary politics and, indirectly, contributed to a new era of individualization and name recognition. Of course, the Department had been organized by name recognition from the very beginning. Foucault was already famous when he became the first department chair. But one can imagine the force of name recognition intensifying in the void left as the post–68 conjuncture faded.

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