Friday, May 30, 2008

no longer adapted to its purpose

In May '68, during the student uprisings that began at Nanterre and spread (when Nanterre was closed) to the Sorbonne and thus to the streets of Paris, Charles DeGaulle, French president by then for a decade, made two speeches intended to quell the youth revolt. The first was a total flop, looked at from any party's point of view, including that of the closest Gaullist aides. The second is considered by Gaullist chroniclers, by anticommunists, by doubters of the New Left's efficacy, by nationalist centrists and conservatives, to have been a success in restoring "order."

The first speech was made on May 24. To read it today as pure text, one believes it is a conservative yet accommodating gesture, prepared for reforms:

I am going to tell you what I think of the situation. The country is in the midst of a transformation. There is fear neither of war nor of misery. When the French are no longer afraid, they challenge the authority of the State. The country is caught up in a movement that it cannot understand, that of mechanical, technological civilization. If it is young people who are expressing their disturbed reactions first, it is because the University is no longer adapted to its purpose.... There are many indications of the need for a transformation in our society and it seems clear that such a transformation must involve a more extensive participation by everybody in the running and the results of whatever activity directly concerns him.... There is also a need to alter structures.

At moments this speech seems downright progressive - reformist. Can one imagine a conservative American president - or a U.S. president of any ideological stripe - in a speech to the entire nation, speaking with such apparent directness about the "need to alter structures"?

And yet in context of the May '68 uprisings, what was just then going on in the streets of the very city where DeGaulle spoke - and every witness agrees with this - this speech seemed and felt like that of a man who'd completely lost touch with reality. Its every gesture toward concession, its 1960s rhetoric - transformation is needed, the problems are structural, people should help decide things that will affect them - struck his listeners the way a soft-spoken old segregationist might have sounded at a meeting of SNCC: untenable, ridiculous, oblivious, and thus incendiary.

There's a lot about May '68 that interests me. For the moment I'm pondering the Gaullist attempt to reckon with the idea of the university.

I've read accounts of what was done and said inside the French government and military that month, and there's a surprising lack of discussion about higher education. But de Gaulle does refer to it briefly in his May 24 speech: "If it is young people who are expressing their disturbed reactions first, it is because the University is no longer adapted to its purpose."

I don't know the original French, but let's assume this is translated well: it's a classic Gaullist sentence, complex, elegant logically, disarming, and actually (as rhetoric) democratic rather than authoritarian in style. But disarming, yes.

If the students were the leading edge in expressing what must be a nation-wide dissatisfaction with French life as it is being lived in the 1960s (there's the reference to "mechanical, technological civilization" - thus he means alienation), then...then what? What is the conclusion? What liberal shoe must drop in the sentence's grammar?

If the students are just the first to express widespread national alienation, the nascent voicings of a new French political unconscious, our free children bespeaking our suppressed adult longings, then....then the leaders and faculties of the universities aren't doing their jobs! There's something wrong with the university. It is no longer adapted to its purpose. (Its purpose being, as Clark Kerr put it rather brutally a few years earlier, to prepare young people of the nation to be effective participants in the progressive, [post]modern knowledge-oriented technical economy.)

It's almost as if the first half of the sentence implies a first-draft but finally left implicit if-then "then": if students are first to express a general feeling, then we can't locate the problem in them but must address a truly national situation. Or: if students are the first to express their alienation, then we must "alter structures" that can accommodate the problems. But these thens get lost in the president's rush to conclude what he instinctively must conclude about what education must ideally do in a democracy: keep the lesser human instincts toward radical liberty and social experiment at bay between childhood and post-adolescent work. Thus when he gets to the most conservative parts of the speech ("We must both re-establish public order and negotiate with compromising...the security of the nation") what he really means, it's obvious, is that the universities must be shut down and forced to adapt to their purposes.

Want to start your May 1968 summer reading and viewing list? Try these:

[] Rene Vienet's 1973 film, Can dialectics break bricks?
[] Guy DuBord's 1973 film The Society of the Spectacle
[] Gilbert Adair's novel The Holy Innocents
[] Alain Touraine, The May Movement: Revolt and Reform
[] (for the ears) the Rolling Stones' song "Street Fighting Man"