Making Reality Unacceptable

Luc Boltanski is a central figure of contemporary French sociology. Director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, his major works of scholarship include On Justification (with Laurent Thévenot, 1991), The New Spirit of Capitalism (with Eve Chiapello, 1999), and La condition foetale (2004), a study on abortion and reproduction. As a young researcher he collaborated with Pierre Bourdieu to create the journal Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales. Asked to prepare a preface for a French republication of his 1976 collaboration with Bourdieu from that journal, “La Production de l’Idéologie Dominante,” Boltanski’s reflections expanded into a superb memoir and call for a renewal of sociology, published as Rendre la Réalité Inacceptable (2008), from which this essay is drawn.

Birth of a Journal

Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales took off suddenly. In the first half of the 1970s, we weren’t very well known or well received. We didn’t stand out — we were just kids, on the loud side, like many others, very much part of our generation. The institution (that is, the university) thought otherwise. It braced itself, waiting patiently for its revenge (which would come soon enough). The boss,1 who was in his forties, was already well known, with several controversial books under his belt. And he was a graduate of the École Normale Supérieure — not insignificant in a world so attached to titles, which he himself handed out to others so sparingly. Even a Sorbonne or Collège de France professor, even a rector of the academy (all of which he was), could not not keep track. Yet despite it all we had trouble publishing our papers in the official university journals, with peer review committees — for example (and this is just one example) the Revue française de sociologie. To get in, you had to subject yourself to a long and onerous process, listening to the comments (which is to say, the reprimands) of people and colleagues who were not always worthy of your esteem. They were gatekeepers, protectors of obscure norms they considered sacred and which, in the name of science and epistemology, grew out of a morality that was essentially repressive. They put us through inquisitions, nitpicking like priests (“How many questionnaires were administered?” — academic equivalent of “How many times, my child?”). We were sick of it. Thus was born an idea to create our own journal, a space where we could do what we wanted, write as we wanted, develop the areas of study that interested us, and both describe and criticize, all while practicing, well, sociology. The question of the journal’s format was equally important. We wanted to escape from the familiar formats: to be able to publish a one-page note, as well as a contribution the size of a short book. We also wanted to get things out quickly. After researching a topic that we found had an immediate context — defined by the battles on the scientific or the political front — we didn’t want to wait months for the verdict of a committee.

We turned first to Jérôme Lindon and the Éditions de Minuit, where the boss ran a collection, Le sens commun, which particularly through its translations was beginning to alter the landscape of social science in France, notably by crossing the boundaries between sociology, anthropology, philosophy, history, and linguistics. The collection, founded in 1966, had published Theodor Adorno, Gregory Bateson, Émile Benveniste, Jean Bollack, Ernst Cassirer, Robert Castel, Richard Hoggart, Erving Goffman, Jean-Claude Pariente, Raymonde Moulin, Erwin Panofsky, and Edward Sapir (translated by my brother, the linguist Jean-Élie Boltanksi), as well as the principal texts of Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron (The Inheritors, Reproduction, et cetera). The Éditions de Minuit was, at that time, one of the main supporters that our group had outside of the École Pratique des Hautes Études (EPHE) (which would become the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales [EHESS] at the beginning of the ’70s). Minuit had also published a book on the sociology of photography, Photography: A Middle-Brow Art, directed by Bourdieu, to which several of the “youth” of the team had contributed — including myself and Jean-Claude Chamboredon, both still writing our theses (we had researched photography schools). We were very impressed by the sessions at Jérôme Lindon’s office, on the top floor of a little building on the Rue Bernard Palissy, and rather surprised that this mythical place could be so poor, dirty, ascetic, and artisanal (Lindon prepared the manuscripts himself), occupied by four or five people who did everything from accounting to packaging.

In the early 1970s, Lindon was looking to create a new journal that dealt with both literary innovation and the social sciences. The boss and I attended several meetings with him and Tony Duvert, who would be more or less the editor in chief, a young writer whom Lindon seemed to hold in high esteem, but with whom the boss did not, if I recall correctly, have much in common. That became Minuit. With the boss on one side, and me on the other, we each published a paper in the first issues. The papers were rather out of our line: innovative when it came to writing and form, and trivially focused on literature. It was here that we began to experiment with the graphic and stylistic innovations that would reappear in Actes. But it didn’t entirely suit us. The journal was thin, it had a small format, and the papers had to be short. By virtue of its literary orientation, it didn’t reach the readers we wanted, and the pressure exerted on Jérôme Lindon to orient the journal in the direction of the social sciences, notably because of the inclusion of members of our group on the committee, had failed. After this first try, we let it drop, and it was left at that.

Around that time, for reasons largely unrelated to sociology that one would later know to describe as “emotional,” I took a great interest in comic books, a form that was increasing in popularity and that had been, up to that point, alien to me. Because I wanted to remain connected to my interests and feelings throughout my daily activities, I began to work on a sociology of the comic strip and the way in which this art form, which had always been linked to children’s literature, had become its own artistic and literary practice with its own masters, tendencies, schools, and internal conflicts. To this end, I accumulated documentation; that is to say, I collected fanzines sold in specialized bookstores. What we called fanzines were little comic fan journals, often published by amateurs of very little means — ramshackle, episodic bulletins. One of these fanzines seemed to me particularly accomplished. It was called Schtroupmf (a tribute to the little blue dwarves of the same name). One fine day, during a conversation with the boss on the infamous question of the journal that we lacked, I took a copy of Schtroupmf out of my bag and told him: “We’ll do this: a fanzine for sociology.” To my astonishment, I have to say, he took my proposal seriously, borrowed my copy, and the next day, the thing was done. Jean-Claude Mézières, the celebrated and very talented comic-strip illustrator (creator, with Pierre Christin, of Valérian and Laureline), was brought in right away, and told us precisely what kind of typewriter to buy to achieve the clear and elegant fonts that contributed to Schtroupmf’s charm. Rosine Christin enthusiastically accepted the editorial secretary position she was offered; she was terribly bored working at the sinister and useless documentation service of the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, where a large, lazy staff of dreamers, who never appreciated her exceptional capacities, was meant to come up with “research directories” that were, in conformity with their bureaucratic mode of production, obsolete from the moment they were published. We also recruited two Brazilian political exiles to do the same work, and the editing began. That was in the spring of 1974.

All of this magic — it really was a magic moment in which everything that seemed impossible suddenly became possible — could not have existed without Clemens Heller’s grouchy complicity. He had founded, and continued to run, the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme. He was really a funny kind of guy. Large and round, he loved to eat and knew just about everyone on several continents. An Austrian-American émigré (his father had been Freud’s editor), he had arrived in France in the 1950s with Ford Foundation money to fund the MSH and the development, with Fernand Braudel, of the sixth section of the EPHE during the ’60s. He was, with all his eccentricities — his impossible accent (which frequently made him difficult to understand, and which he used to throw off his interlocutors), his unbelievable erudition, his patchwork relationships, and the titillating mystery that surrounded his life and his activities (those who disliked him murmured that he was a CIA agent) — a crucial part of the development of the social sciences in France in the 1960s and 1970s and much of what the Americans would later come to call “French thought.” He was charming — a real charmer — and completely insufferable. In the same fifteen minutes, he could tell you that you were the future of social science and offer you the moon and the stars, then, grasped by a sudden and incomprehensible anger, tell you that you were scum, not even worthy of kneeling and begging on the carpet of his office. We got used to it.

Heller was brought up to date on the project. He accepted, grudgingly, that we would recruit the people from the documentation center whom we had our sights on (Rosine and her colleagues and friends), or, to be more precise, he agreed to turn a blind eye to the fact that they would be doing an entirely different job than the one for which they were officially employed. He also agreed to print the journal. We had all just moved into the new MSH building on Boulevard Raspail. There was, in the basement, a little copy center with — O wonder! — a small offset press. This service was run by a bearded authoritarian whom it was a bad idea to address after three in the afternoon, as he had to wrangle with the suppliers of ink, paper, et cetera, in the café next door. It was there, in that same building, in the second basement, that the journal was printed. We were supposed to pay back the MSH for the cost of each run, but we never did. On top of my work as an author — alone or with the boss — and my editorial tasks, I had the responsibility (which I would happily have passed up) of being in contact with these two people who were essential to the survival of our enterprise: the printer in the second basement and Clemens Heller on the first floor. I thus spent a good part of my time in the elevator. My mission consisted essentially of getting yelled at while keeping up a smile. The printer would complain because the copy wasn’t ready in time or because the paste-ups would come unglued. Clemens Heller would complain because we hadn’t paid on time, because he was tired of all of these shenanigans, or, more often than not, because the complex relationship he had with the boss — a sort of querulous complicity composed of friendship, gratitude, and interest — had, for reasons I did not know, momentarily deteriorated.

Group Portrait with the Author as Paste-up Artist

It is strange, after thirty years, to open this musty old thing, with its black and blue cover, and its title, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales [Acts of Research in the Social Sciences], in an out-of-date font (typewriter letters considerably enlarged), and to remember a time when it was utterly modern, on glossy, brilliant paper still smelling of printer’s ink. Strange, too, to think that it was a university journal, the best or one of the best of its time. The text is typewritten, in columns, without right justification. Sometimes the columns run vertically, from top to bottom, sometimes horizontally, from left to right. It is peppered with photographs, with excerpts of documents, drawings, engravings, statistical tables, snatches of text written by hand, text boxes, sidebars, titles in big letters, all a little disorienting, with the intention of being just that. All this in an apparent chaos, but one whose necessity and sense impose themselves on the reader from the moment he enters the body of the text. Everything that presents itself as visual is conceptual. Conversely, the concepts — including those that can seem the most abstract, if not the most abstruse — often find in visual representations a new way to stand up and come to life. For example, in the middle of the June 1976 issue where our “Production of the Dominant Ideology” was published, there is a series of ten photographs representing terribly serious gentlemen, clad in suits, conversing, often with a glass in hand, in the anonymous, muffled interiors of debating clubs, where high-level civil servants, as well as politicians, managers, bankers, celebrated essayists, journalists, and so on, would find each other. The officials of that time were François Bloch-Lainé, Valérie Giscard d’Estaing, Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet, François Dalle, Louis Armand, Hubert Beuve-Méry, et cetera. The page is entitled “Conversation et conservation” [“Conversation and Conservatism”]. It would come across as a joke in a satirical paper like Charlie Hebdo, but it’s not a joke. It reflects a concept, even two concepts, that play a central role in the analysis: that of neutral space [lieu neutre] and that of multipositionality. Two entirely respectable concepts that have since become part of the toolkit of sociology as it is taught in schools, whose origins have been forgotten, as is common in the sciences.

These photos correspond to other representations, some of a topological character, conforming graphically with what we expect from the social sciences — like, for example, the diagram that shows in positional space the teachers at the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris; others that refer directly to the rough draft of a document, commented on inch by inch and line by line — like the photocopies of annotations made by a zealous professor in the margins of a preparatory exam for the École Nationale d’Administration, this time entitled “Neutral Spaces and Commonplaces.”

How did we do it? By hand. This was before desktop computers, whose arrival in our environment in the first half of the 1980s would change for better and for worse the conditions of work, even the conditions of our lives. Our lives would become more autonomous and rapid, but also more competitive and solitary; teamwork, with its disputes and its moments of total silliness, would break down, leading us to believe momentarily that we could do anything on our own, that we didn’t need others, that each was his own team, that each was all powerful.

The old technique was very simple and flexible. Jean-Claude Mézières taught it to us in a few hours. We had made cardboard planks twice the 21×29.7-cm format of the journal; on them were printed faint blue columns which didn’t pass through the offset. The texts were typed by the secretarial pool of the Centre de Sociologie Européenne on classic electronic machines with very high-quality type (superior to the quality of IBM machines with interchangeable type elements) and with a clear and elegant font. We only had one font in roman and italic, but there was the magical letraset: a quantity of fonts on decal paper from which we pulled letters one by one, a little like the decals of our childhood, to compose titles, headlines, keys, et cetera. And there was designer’s glue that allowed us to stick the paper in a way that was both strongly adhesive and easily detached. In short, we had these typing machines, a photocopier, some paper, some scissors, some glue, and that was it.

The work that was necessary to get the base text (articles we wrote or those that authors gave us) onto the pages of the review in its definitive form was, however, long and complex. It was editing work, and formatting, page by page — composition. The basic materials needed to create each article were always the same: a principal text, sidebars, documents, photographs, drawings, et cetera. This composition work was done collectively, during long work sessions, often at night. The core of the editing collective was made up of the boss, Rosine Christin, and me. Once we had created a draft we were basically happy with, Jean-Claude would come to add the final touches, with his inventiveness, his extreme kindness, his feel for what we were seeking to achieve without us having to be able to explain it to him ourselves (even though he’d never opened a social science text in his life), and also his realism. (I remember some of his interventions along the lines of, “Come on, Bourdieu, cut out these three lines, they don’t fit on the page.” The boss grumbled a bit at first, but then complied, cutting his work down by rewriting in a way that kept the meaning with even fewer words. The new words were often better.)

So we did it together. Rosine, who was not only professionally expert (she knew virtually all the archives, public or private, open or closed, of the Paris region, and she really knew how to track down what was interesting) but also had an extraordinary flair for investigation, that is to say, for research, brought images and documents back from her expeditions. Together we sorted though them, invented headlines, and wrote captions. As is often the case in groups, we all had a lot of nerve, and it came down to who found the most impertinent and comical caption. When dealing with our own texts, this was done without too much trouble; but when articles came from outside, generally because we had commissioned them from other authors, it was another story. These papers were, more often than not, written in the most standard fashion, as if they could have been written for any other university journal. So we fiddled with them, we cut a paragraph to use it as the lede or in a sidebar and sometimes — sacrilege! — we rewrote pieces (this was my specialty). This caused some problems with the authors, who weren’t always very understanding, and with whom we had to negotiate and debate to make them admit that what they had done, or had tried to do, was now much more evocative, much more alive, and could finally reach those hidden beings we call “readers.”

Thinking back, I think that what I enjoyed most was everything that had to do with illustrations, images, and graphics. This was the field in which we thought we were innovating and that really set us apart from university routines and contradictions. The wholly sociological and theoretical innovations had begun before the birth of the journal, but the translation of our ideas into graphics was something we had to invent on our own. Like all novelties, it was exciting, especially when it led us to explore a subject we knew little about, or to try something we didn’t know how to do. We had to learn it from scratch. It was also fun because it gave us the chance to work with new people, to speak different languages and to go to new places to find new documents and ideas. This prolonged the pleasure of sociology, which, compared to established disciplines like philosophy or literature, requires not only a lifetime among books — which is already a great fortune — but also a life outside the library and the office. One must understand what goes on in the outside world in order to adjust to a new universe less exotic than that of anthropologists (what I would have liked to have been if I hadn’t been prevented because of personal reasons — a premature fatherhood and the urgency of making a living), but nonetheless different enough, insofar as one could discover the diversity of lived experiences and thus the contingency of what, in childhood and adolescence, we could have believed to be absolute and intimidating.

Thumbing through the twelve issues published during the first two years I was involved in the journal, it’s the images that are most gripping, most incongruous, and funniest, that really hold my attention. In the first issue, for example, there are those pictures borrowed from advertising or fashion that illustrate the paper the boss had written with Yvette Delsaut (“The Designer and his Label: Contribution to a Theory of Magic”) and that announced Distinction, published four years later; or even the figures of “Superdupont” — a character invented by Gotlib — or “Blueberry,” Jean Giraud’s mythical cowboy, which decorated my paper on the comic strip (“The Constitution of the Genre of the Comic Strip”), accompanied by offset reproduction of the onomatopoeias unique to the genre: Claouk! Blourg! Pang! Splash! Omp! Houla! Aiiie!!!!! Ark! Aaah! Chouka!!, et cetera.

In this context the double issue (November 1975) devoted to the “literary tradition” was undoubtedly our most successful, with images taken from Metropolis illustrating the boss’s article on Heidegger (“The Political Ontology of Martin Heidegger” — it would later become a book published by Éditions de Minuit). We had a lot of fun creating the double-page illustrations entitled “Memories of an Ordinary Professor” for that article. We had collected different photos of Heidegger, with his family or friends, and notably one hilarious picture of the professor in Bavarian costume. We assembled these photos with silly captions (for example: “surprised during his class” or “with his clothes inside-out”), taking for a model the “family albums” that, at the time, my other brother Christian Boltanski used in his work as a visual artist. In my article on Amiel and his relationships with the women he exploited intellectually because he could not satisfy them sexually (“Power and Impotence: Intellectualism and Sexuality in Amiel’s Journal”) there was a page on which I glued photocopies of the dedications from monographs and brilliant theses (“to my wife, patient collaborator and precious advisor”; “to the abnegation with which my wife helped me decode the manuscript and copy the text,” et cetera). Jean Bollack, who published an article in the same issue and who, more generally, followed our enterprise very closely, had the good idea to entitle this page “Stelae,” which brought out the funereal nature of these dedications. But what we really nailed in this issue was, without any doubt, the images that accompanied the boss’s very polemical paper against Étienne Balibar (“Reading Marx, or a Few Critical Remarks about ‘A Few Criticisms of Reading Capital’”). Reproductions of some etchings of Marx (most often with a furious look on his face) were accompanied by speech bubbles in which were inscribed, in comic book font, extracts from The German Ideology (and a stamp representing the École Normale) in the style of the oblique images used by the Situationists. And again, Jean-Claude Mézières worked wonders. To illustrate a magnificent text by Yvette Delsaut that presented the ethnography of a problematic marriage that yoked together socially dissonant families (“The Double Marriage of Jean Célisse”), published in issue four of the second year (1976), he redrew photos taken during the wedding reception so as not to reveal the faces of the protagonists, mimicking the style found in magazines (like Radar) dedicated to building intrigue around criminal stories.

In all this, we were very lucky — like when we were looking for images to print with Louis Pinto’s article on the army (the result of his military service experience in a more or less disciplinarian regiment) and Rosine and I found photographs taken in secret by a young photographer, Pierre le Gall, during his own military service. There was a picture of a young man, newly enlisted, shaving his head; another completing chores around the toilets; mostly photos of boredom, lassitude, ennui, pints of Kronenbourg, contemplation of pornographic images, all showing exactly what the paper said — that to serve in the army is to wait, to simply wait for it to end. In this case, we took care that the author of the photos was paid properly. But most of the time, especially when the images were “borrowed” from existing publications — advertisements, magazines, et cetera — and reproduced by offset, we did not worry about asking for the rights. And we got away with it, undoubtedly because our journal, our research group, and maybe more generally, all activities that were linked to the university, were not subject to media, political, or economic examination, and somehow didn’t really count.

We considered that the misappropriation we undertook had the power to recreate the images in some ways, and therefore exempted us from any obligation when it came to “photo credits.” First of all, the journal brought in no money at all, and the considerable work (which could have been considered from a mercenary point of view as overwork) wasn’t paid. We didn’t even think about that. Secondly, doesn’t sociology itself consist of being parasitic on other people’s ordinary activities (since it is these people who are the bearers of the social competence that the sociologist describes and models) and taking samples of society for analysis, edification, and to build up a discourse? In a world that was entirely subject to mercenary logic, where all relations were contractual and where anything that lent an object value, whatever its nature, must be given a price, legally attached to a legitimate shareholder and remunerated through the medium of the market (what we’re heading toward, perhaps), sociology, which is loath to contractualize and remunerate each of its initiatives, would become simply impossible.

Sociology is indeed a lot more difficult to carry out today than it was thirty years ago, especially when it comes to fieldwork. This is particularly relevant to the sociology of labor and the economy in the larger sense; companies are increasingly closed and reticent about tolerating the presence of sociologists or outside observers in general. For the most part, the sociology of labor developed in France from the 1950s to the 1970s inside national businesses whose management was composed of former students of the grandes écoles. They had been taught to respect “culture” and to recognize the contributions of social science in its university form to the determination of the common good, and they tolerated sociology even if they did not grant it very much importance when it came to making big decisions.

Today, economic power has shifted elsewhere, and it often has an international character. Management only recognizes the value of the social sciences when they are integrated into the culture of management, which is the new common language of the globalized elites. What it all comes down to is economic or financial expertise, and whether the social sciences can serve a predetermined economic objective. In this way the large consulting firms, not to mention the IMF, the World Bank, or the WHO, whose roles have grown considerably throughout the past twenty years, have become completely closed to sociological examination. As a consequence, at least in some significant part, sociology has withdrawn into what remains observable — daily life, interactions in public spaces, and also, as we put it today, “the culture of poverty.” Those who are subject to poverty tend to confuse sociologists with social workers, combining expectation (Can talking to them not have any beneficial effects?) with rejection or disgust (We know, in the end, that it will be useless to talk to them, and that it is they, or those who send them, who will profit from our testimonies).

A Heap of Details

Seen from afar, thirty years later, the creation of Actes can seem like an inflection point in the history of the social sciences in France. A group comes together, manifests itself in a coherent manner, invents an original form, finds an audience of readers, et cetera. Seen from up close, only the details speak. As in the theater or the cinema, a unique object stands out from its environment in a heap of random, miscellaneous details. Of all the things I learned from the boss, particularly while working with him at the publication, one of the most important was a respect for detail, which stood on an equal footing with the refusal to establish a hierarchy between tasks — as if some were important and noble and others base and ignoble. With us, there was no “administration.” We were the administration, with our obsessive tendency to micromanage, to think of everything, and even to rationalize an act of whim into a reasoned intellectual choice.

The success of the publication was therefore the result of a multitude of interactions in very different registers — economic, personal, intellectual, strategic, material, et cetera — and of relationships: relationships to create, to maintain, to prevent from unraveling, and occasionally to mourn the loss of. Our interactions included very different characters, all of whom could bring something to the project — sometimes on the condition that some people would not make contact with others, precisely because they were so different, sensitive, and difficult, as are many people who choose to participate in the creation of an oeuvre, each one with his or her own writing, obsessions, loyalties, and aversions. To put together an issue was first to find compatibilities between people and things that might otherwise never occur together in nature; then, to give this mass of detail a purpose through which it could hang together, a little bit of unity, and some allure, something exciting — that is to say, something adding up to a representation of the world that a reader could discover with surprise, as though it brought him a new vision and, at the same time, made him recognize this world from the standpoint of his own experience.

To face down such details was our daily task, often through telephone conversations that lasted hours. When the boss was not in Paris, particularly during long summer visits he made to his parents in Lasseube, we wrote letters. Rereading the thirty-odd letters I received from him when he was far away (often written in response to my own letters, of which I did not keep duplicates), I cannot put my finger on anything that could entice a reader interested in grand epistemological, ethical, political, metaphysical, philosophical, or even sociological questions. Nothing but details: the choice of paper, searches for illustrations, the possibility of justifying part of a text, the headlines and sub-headlines, their length, their font, multiple proofreadings, and, notably, our respective moods. An author dead set against changes; a collaborator, vexed because we didn’t take into consideration her warnings about deadlines; a designer exasperated about having to redo everything — these meant that the entire enterprise was imperiled. Rereading these letters, I realize how demanding this teamwork really was. A theme comes up constantly: “There are so few of us.” If it is true that we were not numerous, we were enough to write, rewrite, reread, illustrate, “innovate graphically,” compose a summary that would hold up, respect the printing deadlines, revive apathetic writers, bring in proposed authors, undertake “stunts” that no other publication could pull off, and all of this in a hurry, seeking — most often without succeeding — to accumulate a reserve of ready-to-print texts that could protect us from a last-minute defection.

Undertaken without an editor, this social science fanzine also did not have a distributor. But we had a good network of friends, young assistants or students, in most of the French universities, who took on the job of selling the publication by hand, or dropping it off in some of the largest university bookstores. To our great surprise, the first issue, run at 2,000 copies, sold out within two weeks and its second edition, printed immediately, sold almost as well. The problem was that the proceeds did not come in, or when they did, came in slowly: bookstores, whose cash flow was often hit-or-miss, preferred to first pay back their debts to large distributors. Yet at the end of one year we had 1,400 subscribers.

Another problem was time. We had decided to publish an issue every two months, without fully understanding the enormous time commitment that this entailed. Given the format and the presentation we had chosen, each closing contained a quantity of text equal to two or three issues of an “ordinary” journal. We worked all the time. We weren’t short on articles; on the contrary, we had too many. Each member of the group was excited by the idea of having a go at this new game, and even those who were reluctant when it came to writing began to produce endless amounts of work. We sometimes had to tell them no, and this was a much bigger problem than all the others combined; up to that point, the group had functioned as a more or less militant collective, that is to say, our differences were attenuated and our symbolic remunerations almost equally distributed. But space in the journal was limited, and this created a sort of competition, since we ultimately had to choose. Thus, by its own power, the journal altered the group from the inside. Its power, which was, in the beginning, strongly integrative, little by little became a menace, demanding too much and provoking too many desires, hopes, and sometimes resentments. So, faced with the decadence of the revolution, a takeover occurred just two years in. The times had changed. But that’s another story.

Just Do It

I didn’t describe the beginnings of Actes out of nostalgia or narcissism, but to put the present to the test and unveil the arbitrariness of the constraints presented and often accepted in our time as inevitable and unstoppable. If it was possible thirty years ago, why would it not be possible, in another form, today? The world, and especially the university world, was not any less conventional then than it is now. Dissertations are pursued for years on end. Professors monopolize academic fields for a lifetime. Rectors, deans, university presidents, reactionaries, and idiots persist, as do philistine politicians, policeman ministers, the arrogant and archaic grandes écoles with their discriminatory entrance exams, and so on. We had all that, too. So what’s the difference? Perhaps one difference is in the modes of control and management. Modern management techniques had not yet reached the world of the university and culture. Power did manifest itself in authoritarian fashion, but it lacked the means to go deeper or see clearly. Everywhere there existed badly managed or forgotten corners, sleepy institutions whose resources one could appropriate, zones and margins far away from competition in which it was possible to embed oneself, to do what one wanted and sometimes to do something new. Nothing was “fair,” at least not if we take this term in its meritocratic sense; nothing was correctly evaluated. Even on the same salary, some created an oeuvre and some did nothing. With the same endowment, some research groups achieved the impossible and others purred on slowly. But this sloppiness, this administrative negligence was precisely what opened up a space where liberty and creation became possible. On the margins, the marginal were at ease. Within the institutions, even the most administratively institutional (I’m thinking, for example, of INSEE [Institut National de la Statistique et des Études Économiques]), each did what he thought was best. A little official prep work was required — math, statistics, some psychoanalysis (without being a psychoanalyst), some politics (without seeking office), some sociology (without being a sociologist), some theory, philosophy, and history (without professing any of these). And thus we could live, or at least just survive, without being really evaluated by anyone other than a class of people who were neither numerous nor visible, those whose judgment we actually cared about.

The fragmented nature of this universe presented an advantage: it was difficult to internalize norms that were constantly being transgressed. The laws of the university market certainly existed and we knew them. But we could also, albeit at a certain price, more or less ignore them. They weren’t always present in everyone’s mind, and this gave us courage. There were several markets, not one big market. And where these markets intersected, there were zones where nothing worked, where one was more or less protected on the condition of not expecting much. The institutions were full of people who shouldn’t have been there, or who had ended up there by chance: people who didn’t have fancy degrees, or who weren’t very productive or aware (of cues, of careers, of good deals), even sometimes people who were a little bizarre. Without necessarily being geniuses, they made up a world where something could happen, with new areas of interest and unexplored themes, and unexpected methods with which to approach them.

We had the good luck, in the field of the social sciences, to access new materials and to look at the world and our own history — borrowing some methods from the natural sciences — with the distance of the third person but without the constraints of “normal science.” Some of the most audacious innovators, who thirty years prior would have been writing novels, could use social science to confront the traumas associated with their personal identity (poor and rural origins for Bourdieu, homosexuality for Foucault, communism for Castoriadis and Lefort and so many others who were torn between the rejection of “real socialism” and loyalty to the worker’s movement, male domination for Francoise Héritier, et cetera). As though what they were working on was not a question of their individual lives, but an aspect of history and collective destiny.

Opening this old journal once again, I wonder with astonishment, who today would agree to publish an article in a place like this? Would I accept? A journal in French, without a peer review committee, composed on a typewriter, placing statistics next to little cartoons, relentlessly critical — who would want that touching their career? It would be suicide.


In those days, what would have been unthinkable ten years earlier — and, ten years later, what would once again become not only absurd, but also unacceptable — was simply the obvious. Yes, we would work almost constantly and sacrifice everything for our work, but at the same time laugh, love, destroy, create, walk, age, drink, fast, and sleep. We could believe that science invents reality and that science is political. Believe in science and not believe in science. Believe in politics and not believe in politics. Believe in ourselves and not believe in ourselves at all. We could be the most serious people in the world and make fun of virtually everything — everything that prevented us from living.

We made fun of the world because of our ironclad belief that the world could not go on as it had before. With governments, schools, factories, police forces, brothels, militaries, armies, wars, judges, colonies, executives, madness, the misery of productive work, the seriousness of upper management (they were serious spirits, devoted, well-educated, powerful, full of experience and goodwill, sometimes criminals but always from the elite), and those speeches that incessantly repeated the obvious — reality as it was, reality as it couldn’t have been otherwise. (But with some “idealism” despite it all, you know, so we “wouldn’t lose hope.”) As well as hope — the claim that the worst had passed — they also still offered us some threats, so as to maintain a certain nervousness. The worst could return, we were told, if each of us didn’t do what he was made for; if, for example, the students stopped studying, the workers stopped working, women stopped having children, judges no longer passed judgment, and criminals ceased to commit the wrongdoing that makes us truly admire the police.

We didn’t believe them anymore. We no longer believed that the “biggest moments of our lives” were any different from ordeals — the competitions, the entrance exams, the medical exams to receive certificates, military service, decorations (or no decorations), citizenship (or no citizenship), careers (or no careers), the granting of credit (or no credit), et cetera. We no longer saw the need. All of a sudden, we no longer understood why the world had to be selective, that is to say, “meritocratic” — why selections were always prejudicial toward some and favorable toward others, why this should be a sign of good taste, talent, morals, progress. We understood nothing of “reality”; we felt it lied about our world.

And that was why we practiced sociology.

— Translated by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian

  1. A friend, whom I asked to read an excerpt of this text, was surprised to see me refer to Pierre Bourdieu as “the boss.” He found the term a little crass (and “boy-scoutish,” as he put it), a little authoritarian, a little paternalistic, a little outdated. But I kept using this term because it accurately represents the nature of the relationship we established and that mixed, on my part, respect and closeness, and, on his part, authority and affection. Our age difference allowed him to address me as vous without sounding condescending, just as he voused the other young people in the group who were presently or had been his students. I felt it was more fitting than the false familiarity of tu — the term that was common at that time since it was inscribed in our closer positions in the academic hierarchy. But the distance between us, which was recognized by the vous but also somehow deconstructed, was voluntarily maintained by both of us and did not compromise the complicity that forms between people who work together every day. On the contrary, this distance was what made our complicity possible, all the while preserving real dignity and preventing it from turning into dependence. 

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