Voyou Désœuvré

She took off her T-shirt, then her bra, then her skirt, and as she did she pulled the most incredible faces. She twirled around in her skimpy panties for a few seconds more and then, not knowing what else to do, began getting dressed again.

— Michel Houellebecq

A poster in Sproul Plaza says: 'Make Change. Act Now. Serve!'I’m reminded of this post at Long Sunday about student disengagement from politics every day as I walk through Sproul Plaza. I’m confonted by a bewildering collection of Asian Business Associations, Pre-law Fraternities, Campus Crusades for Christ; there’s even Students for In-N-Out Burger out there every day acting as unpaid shills for a fast-food company. “Is this,” I wondered, “what Mario Savio died for?” But the more I think about it, the more I think that the politics (or lack thereof) of contemporary students is an unintended consequence of the success of the radical students of the 60s; or to be more dialectical about it, of the failures of the successes of 1968.

CR and the commenters to the post above point out the effect of economic changes on students, who have increasingly little free time, or expectation that a university education by itself will gain them any kind of financial security, and of course these effects are in part due to capital’s response to the success of late 60s challenges to Keynesian managed capitalism. And perhaps the proliferation of professionalized student organizations on Sproul Plaza is a kind of psychic counterpart to the collapse of Keynesianism.

In a totally liberal economic system certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment and misery.… Economic liberalism is an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society.

Houellebecq makes the point (which seems to elude Tony Blair, among others), that formally free choice in the market always depends on depriving some people of choice. And if (as he shows in excruciating detail in Whatever) the model of choice is being extended to every sphere of society, we are increasingly confronted with both a demand that we exercise our choice, and a lack of anything to choose. “Not knowing what else to do,” as Houellebecq puts it, perhaps it’s not too surprising that students begin to construct hierarchies to which they can comfortably subject themselves. What else are fraternities and sororities, for instance?

The comparatively constrained pre-1960s social order provided an odd sort of comfort to those seeking radical change: they new their place, both in order to rebel against it and as an ultimate guarantor if this rebellion failed. The undergraduates I see on Sproul Plaza do not have this clarity or this consolation: political engagement, choosing a side and working for a political order in which one is ultimately responsible only to oneself, no longer looks like a liberation; it looks uncomfortably close to an infinite prolongation of capitalism’s terrifying, meaningless, demand: choose!


  1. CR, 6:50 pm, March 24, 2007

    I happen to be a huge Houellebecq fan too, btw… I’ve read everything available en anglais, and some that’s not…. 

    Thanks for the gracious link… 

  2. voyou, 1:19 pm, March 25, 2007

    Actually, Whatever is the only Houellebecq I’ve read (because it was the only of his books on the shelves at the Berkeley Public Library); but it’s excellent, so I’ll see what else of his I can find.

    I thought your post (and the discussion that followed) was very interesting, in part because this past year – I TA’ed for the first time in Fall of last year – has been my first real exposure to American undergraduates. I was surprised by how incredibly insecure many of them are: reluctant to ask questions for fear of appearing stupid, considering it presumptuous to criticize the authors they’re reading because they are “only undergraduates,” looking to university to give them knowledge rather than provide a framework for their own thinking. It seems like there must be some kind of materialist, structural explanation for this.

  3. Moll, 4:38 am, March 26, 2007

    What do you mean, no student protest? I got asked by an undergrad to sign a petition to stop the genocide in Darfur recently.

    My perception of the university system here in the US, coming from the UK as well, is that it is already far more hierarchical and that the pressures are immense, but for no purpose other than maintaining the pressure and the hierarchy. Intense anxiety about grades – when we are already in a graduate program and therefore don’t need ‘good grades’ to get us up to another step, the perception that even as graduates we have nothing worth saying until we have been here 6 years, the deference to professors and older students that manifests itself in exaggerated rituals of obsequiousness. But most of all the constant back stabbing of fellow students. Faced with the terror of failing, the students are set up and encouraged to fight among themselves, constantly putting each other down, and going in for a kind of competitive self-exhaustion where only the one who has slept the least, anguished the most and had the most dramatic breakdown is considered worthy. I find it a little revolting, not to mention highly counter-productive. But when constantly scrabbling for a place in the pecking order, the students have barely enough time for a life, let alone to engage with the rest of the world. Added to this, there is a culture of cynicism, that really is just another fear of standing out from the crowd or of laying oneself too open to attacks.

    Very few of my peers even read a newspaper, or get off campus more than once a week. They wouldn’t know what to protest about, let alone have the energy – or the desire – to do anything about it. I find it a little worrying that these people are anthropologists, and therefore presumably meant to be studying human culture and relationships, and yet no so little about the world outside of the ivory tower.

  4. CR, 7:31 am, March 26, 2007

    Yes, absolutely, what both of you are saying…

    <i>It seems like there must be some kind of materialist, structural explanation for this.</i>

    That’s exactly what I’m thinking, trying to work through. I’m starting to think of everything in US culture now as an echo of an experiment in first-world ever-more-totally-free marketism. The cultural deformations that come of letting an unalloyed employment market, no safety net, run individuals’ lives. 

    It certainly runs mine… The subtext of the piece is the fact that I feel myself totally bound up in this system too…

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