Contents Disappointed Utopia Miscellany

Philosophers on their workspaces

Philosophers’ workspaces were most commonly at their homes, typing on a laptop on a cluttered table near their large book collections. It is interesting to briefly consider how philosophers described their workspaces.

Here is the former professor Jacques Rancière describing his daily work habits:

I prefer to write in the morning, and possibly until the middle of the afternoon. I like the daylight, a table facing the window, with a view towards the sky and the trees, if possible. There are books I’ve written large parts of outside, but that was before the computer. That said, writing is always linked to research work. At a certain point in my life I got into the habit of going to the library or to the archives every day they were open. I’d go every day, including when I didn’t really have any goal, somewhat like the filmmaker Pedro Costa says: “every day I’d go to Fontainhas with my little DV camera, like you go to your job.” Actually, at a certain point, I got the habit of going to work every day, for a long time I went daily to the library or the archives, and I continue to work every day.
[Rancière 2012:50]

This, it must be said, is more an official synthetic self-image than a concrete ethnographic description; it comes from a book of interviews with Rancière and was, presumably, crafted to appear in print. But even so, we can discern that the everyday life of philosophical labor is less a tale of permanent rupture than of routinized, corporeal self-discipline: philosophical work, for Rancière, was a sort of daily grind. Clearly, this is not a scene of normal wage slavery, since Rancière is able to regulate the aesthetics of his work environment, seemingly focusing on controlling the light, the atmosphere, the view, the outdoors. In short, all the symbols of non-work, natural beauty, and escape are folded into his work process.

In an interview, a senior professor described having a particularly tranquil work rhythm when he taught abroad (as many of these professors did).

I work here [at home in Paris] or I work at the Bibliothèque nationale [National Library]… The corpus is never complete but at the same time— [he gestured to his vast book collection].
I love working abroad too. As soon as my wife is away, I have a sort of routine: I teach for three hours, I prepare my subsequent courses, but since I’m usually redoing the courses I’ve taught in Paris, it’s already well underway. And then I can write. I really like that aspect of being in the middle of nowhere [abroad] where you’re not bothered with lots of meetings, you just teach your classes and that’s it… It takes me time to write, and I think that for people like me, we also spend a lot of time working on the profession and dealing with students.

We can contrast this love of traveling with the inverse love of staying home described by the Department’s longtime chair in the 1970s and 80s, François Châtelet.

Aside from the two long afternoons when I teach — at Vincennes, at the Sorbonne, and at the Polytechnic (when springtime comes) — I stay at home. I do my best not to go out much. The idea of traveling — especially when it’s not planned — is really unpleasant to me. Instead of “doing office hours,” I prefer to have the students see me at home. I lose lots of time on it, but I gain in peace of mind…
I spend the largest part of my time at home. In the daytime, I do my correspondence, I run through the administrative work for Vincennes, I answer the telephone — I’m not invested in this horrible torture machine, on the atrocious constant aggression that it creates — just write, for the love of God — I try to have a bit of a siesta, I see students, I work with friends, I flip through books that come out, I listen to music, I play with my kid (playing or helping with his homework), I walk in the neighborhood for the pleasure of picking up a few things for dinner.
[Châtelet and Akoun 1977]

None of these short descriptions are particularly decisive as ethnographies of the work process. But I was unable to do significant observations of philosophers working from home, and this kind of data is at least suggestive. (One can contrast these stories of men working with the exploration of a female professor’s workspace that I gave in Chapter 2.)

« Previous Section | Next Section »