To be more concrete, this book is an ethnographic study of French radical philosophers in a postcolonial, postrevolutionary world. It is not a history of ideas or of Great Men. I will take for granted a basic familiarity with some of these figures, such as Michel Foucault or Gilles Deleuze, whose work has been widely read in English. We will talk a lot about how the shadows of Great Men can take up space. But the book shows that beyond the books and (mostly) male faces of “French Theory,” there were concrete institutions where these theories were produced. This is a book about one of those institutions, the Philosophy Department at the University of Paris 8. It is a place that is largely unknown, or else mythicized or vilified. In the Introduction, we will begin to examine the site.
But perhaps you have skeptical questions. What good is an ethnography of French radical philosophers? What could it do but glorify Parisian intellectuals who have long been overly glorified, or ratify philosophy’s imperial dreams? Before we start the book, this Preface says a word about where it comes from and why it might matter.
As a critical and not merely descriptive ethnography, this project aims to create concepts adequate to its unconventional object: an object set almost outside the legitimate bounds of “ethnography.” It seeks to make its object shake, to uncover its object’s concealed roots, and to shake us out of our present impasse. You might then ask: Just what is the impasse that characterizes our present? What are the reflexive needs of our moment? Can an ethnographic study actually satisfy any of them?
Even these questions may presuppose too much. What if we are in flux ourselves? What if reflexive scrutiny leaves us shaken or even undone? My thought is that my French ethnographic site, itself already historically fractured, can in turn become a mirror for our shattering present. I used to be an ethnographer, back when I started writing this book. Now I’m more like an ex-ethnographer: I left the academy since I started writing this book; I don’t do academia anymore. I won’t publish the book now in the normal way, because I’m too unsettled, too estranged from the academic identity I used to have.
So this is a book about being shaken, about being unsettled subjects.
I learned about being shaken while I was in France. A few weeks before I went home, one of my interlocutors, a French philosopher, accosted me and shook me gently by the throat. “Hand over your backpack,” he said. “You can’t go back to Chicago with all our secrets!” He was just teasing, of course. I did go back to Chicago. My backpack stayed in place. He let my throat go. Time resumed, and for a long time I couldn’t write about that moment. I was afraid to think about the kind of masculine sociability that uses playful violence to express love, self-consciousness, and anxious recognition. It was as if my throat had become a perversely reflexive organ. As if the throat, and only the throat, could truly be receptive to this man’s fears of becoming an object. Or rather: his fears of giving away that which constituted him as a subject: the “secrets” of the site. In cases like this, to be a subject is to be vulnerable, to be ambivalent, to risk losing one’s defining thing.
To come back to the context in which I’m writing: one of the first things one should say about vulnerability is that is extremely gendered.
In the Paris region, other sites of global theoretical production would notably include the Ecole Normale Supérieure-Ulm, where Louis Althusser and Jacques Derrida taught, and so many philosophers were trained; the Collège de France, where figures like Claude Lévi-Strauss and Michel Foucault spoke from their pedestals; and postwar Parisian institutions such as Paris X-Nanterre, the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, or since the 1980s, the Collège International de Philosophie. ↩